Sackcloth and Ashes

So I’m told that I’m very fortunate to go on a two-week pilgrimage to Jerusalem with my bishop and about 17 clergy colleagues. I have never been to the Holy Land. I wasn’t particularly keen to sign up; I’ve become a really content homebody. Even though I am deeply committed to my Christian faith and my priestly ministry, going to the Holy Land was really not on my bucket list (there’s in fact very little on that list). But the offer was too good to pass up, so here I am on the eve of our departure.

In order to increase my appreciation for this unique opportunity I decided to read two books: Jesus — A Pilgrimage by James Martin SJ and Jerusalem — One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong. Martin’s book is an eloquent account of his pilgrimage to the Holy Sites in Israel, woven together with the relevant Scripture passages, mostly from the New Testament, and vignettes from his own spiritual journey. It is the type of book that makes me long for a similar experience, showing me how to experience this upcoming trip as a real retreat that could feed my soul long after returning home. Martin spoke my language and appealed to my spirit. My heart was engaged and my mind told my body in no uncertain terms to get in shape to walk the cobble-stone streets of the Holy City and the dusty roads of the ancient country-side.

After reading Martin’s idyllic prose, Karen Armstrong’s book delivered a serious jolt. Now Armstrong is no debutante when it comes to religious history; in fact, this outstanding scholar is widely respected and in great demand across the world. Delving into her book Jerusalem opened up the centuries-old history of the sacred land and its Holy City, causing spiritual and emotional heart tremors. I am wondering now if Jerusalem is the one tortured city in the world that has seen the most blood spilled on its ancient stones, the most destruction and reconstruction of its temples, churches, homes, synagogues and mosques, and the worst persecutions by adherents of the three monotheistic religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In her now famously meticulous, subversively dispassionate yet passionate style, Armstrong lets the historical facts speak for themselves. Beginning with King David in 1000 BCE, the three religions of a loving and compassionate God which lay claim to Jerusalem certainly knew fleeting times of truly reflecting that divine love, mercy and respect with each other. However, more often than not their adherents slaughtered with glee all who stood in the way of claiming the Holy City for themselves (maybe with the exception of the first groups of Muslims who arrived there in 637 CE, showing much greater respect and restraint). The command to love one’s neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to love one’s enemy, all of that conveniently went out the window when it came to imposing one’s exclusive religious practice on Jerusalem.

Time and again the Jews ousted the original inhabitants — still today. In turn we Christians persecuted the Jews, then the Muslims, then the Jews again, through social and legal oppression. When that failed, we killed them by the hundreds of thousands in the name of the Prince of Peace: the blood ran knee-deep through the streets, writes Armstrong. Knee-deep, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ summons about loving our enemies and showing mercy to offenders: If respect for the sacred rights of their predecessors is a test of integrity of any monotheistic conqueror of Jerusalem, the Crusaders must come at the bottom of anybody’s list. (page 275) The more subtly Armstrong inserted the tried and true dictum that tests the authenticity of all religious paths, the more it pierced my heart: its capacity for respect and peace, justice and compassion.  Sad to say that in Jerusalem, we have failed the test, countless times — miserably.

We did all that in order to safeguard the Holy City for our own devotional practices. Armstrong notes that this was a most peculiar development. The Christians of the first three centuries focused on worshiping God “in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:24) manifested primarily in their ethical and relational righteousness instead of through devotional practices in a particular geographical location. But ever since the “miraculous” discovery of the Tomb of Christ (around 325 CE), where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands, Christians began to develop their own sacred geography. Yet, by the late 1800’s, writes Armstrong, many Europeans had become repelled by the Holy Sepulchre Church, finding this musty building filled with angry, rebarbative monks and clerics impossible to associate with the limpid mysteries of their faith. (p. 365)

I read on in shock. This book too gripped my heart, albeit in a radically different way. Despair, shame, and embarrassment pushed the peaceful longing for an enjoyable and inspiring pilgrimage out the door. In Armstrong’s graphic historic account, something very insidious emerged with embarrassing clarity:

By the 1800’s, The city of peace was seething with frustration and resentment, and the old ideal of integration seemed a vanished dream. (p. 347) Almost every new development in Jerusalem seemed doomed to increase the sectarianism and (religious) rivalry that now seemed endemic. (p. 351)

When a religion makes exclusive truth claims (Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life), it can easily breed suspicion, contempt and hatred towards those with different beliefs and devotional practices. According to Armstrong’s historical accounts, Christians fought a “holy war” against Judaism because it had rejected Jesus. Antisemitism and pogroms had their genesis in these ancient competitions over Jerusalem with devastating effects to this day. This is a dark legacy  to own and confess, along with all the other times in history when we have blatantly destroyed peoples and cultures in the name of Jesus (e.g. residential school policies in Canada).

I was now feeling that the only posture to don upon my arrival in the Holy City would need to be one of atonement and repentance, humility and silence. I get it now. I get the ancient practice of donning sackcloth and ashes. I also get the disdain with which countless people turn away from organized religion; we haven’t exactly showcased our best selves, either in the past or even today, and done our founder Jesus, the Prince of Peace, proper homage. I feel the need to live the upcoming pilgrimage as an intense and extended Ash Wednesday.

As I pack my bags, preparing to board the flight to Tel Aviv, these unsettling thoughts and feelings mix with the genuine spiritual longing to grow more deeply my bond with God through Jesus, my Lord and Saviour. This is not the type of preparation I expected — blame it on the Holy Spirit? What will the result be? Stay tuned …

Lord, have mercy on us all. Help us to bring peace to all your holy people in the Holy City of Jerusalem … forgive us and heal us. AMEN

Prairie Encounters

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The Best of Times

I was talking to a friend the other day. She had a year from hell in which good health utterly left her, leaving her scrambling how to function with even the simplest daily tasks of self-care and work.  Come to think of it, several of my friends had a year from hell, along with multitudes in many parts of the world.

And me? I almost feel guilty and embarrassed to say this, but 2017 was truly a year from heaven. So much so, that I can’t think of a single wish for 2018. Nothing on my bucket list, nothing left to aspire to except to live in daily gratitude and joy for the gifts and blessings received in 2017.

How can both these things co-exist – heaven for some, hell for so many, too many, others?

The daily newscast is a stark reminder of our messed up world. This past year saw more innocent civilians killed, friends in palliative care facing death, political leaders sacrificing their own people to safeguard personal power, break-in at a friend’s house, increased global nuclear threats, a friend struggling mightily with his son’s transgender orientation, an alarming opiod crisis claiming way too many lives, efforts of reconciliation with First Nations people thwarted and derailed, massive forest fires in BC and California, millions displaced in war-torn countries. The past twelve months saw an eroding of our collective sense of truth in ways unimaginable only some years ago. Again this past year, families in our own communities were ripped apart by hatred, abuse and violence, poverty and unemployment, and by family strife and disputes.

Yes – the world, and our lives, are packed with thorns, rocky and dry places, weeds, poison, scorching-killing heat, drowning flood-waters, and famished birds of prey …

But that’s not all … In this same messed up world this past year babies were born and children played. Neighbours reached out with heroic deeds to those whose properties were damaged by floods, tornadoes, and fires. Fidelity and honour, truthfulness and integrity showed up in unexpected places. Crime rates and child hunger slowly decreased in some regions, thanks to concerted efforts to give kids basic ingredients of life – love and food, hope and support. Caring families laughed and enjoyed each other. Mountain streams and lush gardens, rolling hills and oases in burning desert sands captivated our hearts and moved our spirits to new heights – what incredible beauty creation offers us … This past year joy and love found rich, fertile soil in ordinary lives, reaping an abundant harvest of grace, mercy and compassion, of peace and justice … thirty-fold, sixty-fold, even a hundredfold …

We live in several worlds at one and the same time – real worlds, good and bad worlds, some filled with wonder, some filled with dread. Blessing and curse, good and evil, have always woven themselves into every corner of our existence. Charles Dickens said it well when he wrote:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way.
~ Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

St. Paul, in his skilled way with words, said it well when he called the one a world of death/flesh and the other the world of life.
What accounts for the difference between these two worlds?
Spirit… The Spirit of God, the human spirit. A spirit that transcends and permeates all things with good. A human spirit that chooses life even in the face of death. Paul calls it “being in the flesh” and “being in the spirit.” (Galatians 5:16-17)

These two worlds – the flesh and the spirit – are constantly intertwined, much like weeds and wheat, like vegetables and thistles, like flowers, dandelions and portulaca. Why are these worlds so intricately woven together? Because in this mixed up world we’re not only sowing “wild oats” – in our gardens, in our lives. What’s more – a Divine Sower goes out to sow along with us … every day.

But let’s face it, a lot of the good seed, God’s seed, gets wasted. I mean, living our faith, reaching out in love, without knowing where it lands or whether it will even sprout can feel pretty discouraging. We try to give our kids the very best of our love, only to see them reject or squander it. We know what it is like to try and try to care in painful situations and to try to make a difference but not get anywhere, or not be noticed, or not succeed, or (perhaps worst of all) not even be appreciated. We know what it is like to reach out a loving hand only to pull back a bloody stump because our hand got bitten in anger or revenge.

Jesus tells the parable of the sower going out to seed (Matthew 13:1-9), focusing on the conditions in which the seeds germinate (or not) and grow (or not). I’ve learnt a lot about that by living with my beloved Jim, the seedman, for the past 38 years. I’ve learnt that a lot depends on external circumstances. The same conditions are necessary in human life; we sow love and trust and forgiveness, but if external and internal conditions are not healthy, those seeds will have real difficulty germinating, let alone coming to full bloom.

The human heart, without exception, is full with thorns and thistles, with rocks and infertile soil, with desert drought and with “birds of prey.” While Jesus’ advice would not put him in the good books of my gardener-husband – suggesting that we allow the weeds to grow along with the wheat in Matthew 13:24-30 – it’s good advice when it comes to the human heart. Because both good and bad growth occur simultaneously, and sometimes we can only do the sorting at the end of our lives.

And so as we begin this new year 2018, I realize there is something on my bucket list. I want to keep spreading seeds of faith, hope and love in our messed up world. Recklessly, and lavishly, without counting the cost. I want to keep spreading the joy and peace of Christ’s redeeming presence, to draw God’s circle wider and wider, spilling over into a world that desperately needs reconciliation and justice, healing and love. Let us help each other to create the conditions necessary for God’s seed to sprout and thrive, so that more of our sisters and brothers can choose life and blessing over death and curse (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Finally, let’s face it: one of these days it will be my turn to have a year from hell. When that time comes, and it will, I pray that I may find the courage and trust to mine the curses for the blessings they conceal, just as my friend is doing right now.

A very BLESSED NEW YEAR to all.

Prairie Encounters

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