On my Knees … Not

Bad knees in Jerusalem are bad news. The holy city, built on legendary hills, with a million stairs and steep slopes, is a daunting challenge for the able-bodied, let alone for anyone coming with aches and pains. But I wasn’t going to be left behind; this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. So I grit my teeth and went.

Every day we followed Jesus to original sites (as much as can be verified), up and down slopes and stairs, pondering the Scriptures, navigating rough terrain, learning from tradition and archaeology. The Gospel stories took on new life. I gained deeper understanding why, for example, Jesus performed the miracle of feeding the multitudes in two different places. The places were symbolic for his coming for the Jews and for the Gentiles. I began to see more clearly how everything he said and did was meant to fulfill the Hebrew Scriptures. Distances between places became concrete. It took two hours of travel time by bus heading north from Jerusalem to Nazareth. Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem. Imagine traveling this distance on foot as Mary and Joseph did from Nazareth, through Jerusalem, to Bethlehem.

I understand a bit more why this land is considered Holy. All land, of course, is holy as it reflects the Creator. But the Holy Land is a unique geographical convergence of three continents, each with its own civilizations and cultures. It is no surprise then that this geographical location became the birthplace of the world’s three monotheistic religions. There, in deserts and cities, in mountain ranges and fertile valleys, ancient stones tell stories, bestowing identity and purpose on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In those caves and valleys, in the wilderness and desolation, God grabbed hold of the human spirit. One God and Father of all. No wonder the Word became flesh in this cultural and spiritual epicenter.

I learnt about the relationship between Scripture, tradition and archaeology. I admit my skepticism at the onset: how can anyone establish what really happened 2000 years ago and where the exact spot is? But in this land of the Holy One, layers and layers of remains reveal worlds and societies from centuries past, explaining us to ourselves today. The older a church or site of significance, the greater its probable connection with original events. Once I understood this connection, and the rigorous archaeological research that goes into the verification process, it truly did take my breath away – oh my …

Back to the knees. Entering church after church, sanctuary after holy site, excavated caves and ruins, my body and spirit yearned to kneel in prayer and adoration. I shivered in so many places where Jesus walked and talked, where our faith tradition was born. Alas, my knees would have screamed if I had followed my spirit’s desires. I shivered not only because it was overwhelming to be in those spots, but I shivered at the sight of every steep slope, every set of stairs, every alley of uneven ground, especially the ones with no railings or other holds.

Confronted with these humbling limitations, how to respond? I could allow the knees to spoil the entire experience and be totally justified in soliciting lots of pity. I could grit my teeth even harder and pretend I was all right, in no need of support or help, only to suffer in my room at night. I could remove myself from the physical challenges, and play it safe, most likely resulting in missing most of the important sites and group experiences. I could allow my physical need to feed anger and resentment towards my body, and frustration at getting on in age (hmm … yes …). Or, I could communicate my need in the group — really?!

Slowly, frustration turned a page. Slowly, surrendering to the reality of weak knees revealed deeper invitations, unearthing a spirit-type archaeology. Noting my cautious steps, an elbow would appear, unbidden, saying: lean on me. Leaning into vulnerability and dependence with grace opened others to the call to make sure I would not cast my foot against a stone (Psalm 91).

Walking the Way of the Cross (Via Dolorosa) through the small alleys and countless steps in the Old City was especially challenging. At first I thought well, that’s what it was like for Jesus, I can suffer through this. But then a faithful strong elbow accompanied me all the way, patiently matching my pace of movement — my own Simon of Cyrene. Upon completing the Way of the Cross a big grin thanked me for the blessing experienced in the task of supporting me.

My physical need for support called forth compassion and concrete action, including in some who I knew less well or with whom differences of opinions would make a friendship a prickly undertaking. Walking arm in arm allowed for some unique grace-filled sharing first with one, then another and another. Separation lines began to blur in the common task of shouldering the burden of my bad knees. Whereas relational tension might keep us apart in other settings, my knees gave rise to communion and reconciliation, softening hearts and adorning them with a smile.

The ancient stones tell stories, bestow an identity and explain us to ourselves today. Living this truth in my knees became the window of learning to be vulnerable, to lean into trust and to grow the grace to accept help. Then God indeed produces miracles in the hearts of us all.

Prairie Encounters

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In the Wilderness

Many people have been asking what it was like to be in Israel/Palestine for two weeks, and what my most memorable experience was. While both parts of this question are hard to answer in a few words, this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 1:12-15) brings one memorable moment to mind, and that was the day our group went into the wilderness. The wilderness in this land does not mean lots of foliage growing wild. No, the wilderness in the Holy Land is the barren desert – and what a desert it is! Huge sand mountains as far as the eye could see. Not a speck of green, no drop of water, no sign of life. Just the dry sand, the scorching sun, and the wild beasts who somehow manage to survive in the arid conditions.

The three monotheistic religions which arise from Abraham – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – attribute great spiritual importance  to places of nature and wilderness. Wild and naked places allow us to perceive God and for God to penetrate our spirit.  All three religions consider the wilderness a place where we are stripped down to our naked humanity, a place where God awaits us.

This encounter is not easy or cozy. For the ancient Israelites, the desert/wilderness was a place of repentance inviting renewal. When the Israelites left Egypt, they wandered in hostile territory for a long time before reaching a promised land. Abraham casts the slave woman, Hagar, into the wilderness. God saved her in that wasteland, renewing her spirit and giving her a vision of a great nation. For Muslims, creation is a gift from God and a sign of God’s grace. Similar to Judaic and Christian traditions, in Islam, nature reflects the dominion of God, beyond human control. Similarly, in the New Testament, the Gospels tell of John the Baptist proclaiming God in the wilderness, foretelling the Christ who is to come, and calling for, again, repentance. Jesus had his own time in the wilderness being tested and honed for his mission.

In each of the three monotheistic faiths which sprung from the Middle Eastern deserts, believers throughout time have set themselves apart in monastic communities, often seeking out the wild places in self-imposed exile to allow the voice of God to be heard and understood more clearly. Indeed, we spotted St. George’s Orthodox Monastery, hewn – perched – precariously on the rolling sand dunes. It truly looks like a sand castle. 

There is such a thing as geographical theology, our instructors Richard and Nedal told us. That is, an understanding of God that arises from our experience of the land. In fact, 90% of the entire Bible originated in the desert, in the scarcity of life. The concept of one God arose from the desert, from the hardship and loneliness that confronts us there.

Why the wilderness? Could it be that those naked places of life literally strip us of all supports, all false gods, and all illusions of comfort and control? Could it be that it is only when bare naked, that our spirit cracks open to the God of life in Jesus?  

The wilderness to which the Gospels refer is generally believed to be the rocky, arid and uninhabited area between Jerusalem and Jericho. And yes, that is exactly where our group went. We spent a good chunk of time just being silent, taking in the threatening isolation and deprivation of that arid land, pondering what it was like for Jesus to be tempted in that very wilderness. But when peering into the sandhills long enough, here and there the eye spots tiny specks of green. Oh my, there is life somewhere. God is the green, indicating living water somewhere in this ocean of barrenness.

Now Israel/Palestine is a narrow strip of land, with the wilderness/ desert area located more inland. On the coast life is marked by urban hustle and bustle, abundant agriculture on fertile outstretched fields, along with busy ports and a flourishing tourist business. The coast is the land of plenty while the desert is the land of nothingness. Generally, throughout the history of Israel/Palestine it is on the coast that temptations, false gods, and illusions have easily swayed the human heart into allegiance. Who needs a God of hardship when life is dandy?

Temptations arise more readily from a land of plenty: seducing temptations for power and relevance, for prestige and for control. Each of them disguises as a god, vying for our allegiance. But each one is a false, shallow god. Once we give ourselves to their demand for worship and loyalty, justice and peace, compassion and reconciliation get severely compromised and can even go out the window. Why? Are such virtues simply incompatible with the quest for power and relevance, for prestige and pleasure?

Curiously, Jesus faced these temptations in the desert/ wilderness. Each one presented its attractive features at a time when he was famished and his spirit was weak, a time when he was most vulnerable and prone to cave in. Jesus stared each one down, claiming his total dependence on and allegiance to the one God: the God who can be found in emptiness and pain, the God who comes to us in the wilderness/desert of life, the God who can be trusted in life and in death, the speck of green amidst the barrenness.

Gazing into the threatening emptiness and stunning beauty of the desert, the deafening silence and imposing isolation entered me… Reflecting on Scripture in that desolate place, a new insight dawned: Our entire western culture is a land of plenty …

Is it any wonder that our churches are emptying out …? False gods abound in every land of plenty, and we sell our souls to them without much thought, risking to sacrifice in the process substantial commitments to compassion and reconciliation, to justice and peace. But could it also be that our churches are diminishing because religion, with its institutionalized mazes and structures, has made encountering this desert-God way too complicated?

Life is hard in the desert, just as life was hard on the Canadian prairies. Yet, God can be encountered in that harshness and aridness, much like the trickle of water deep beneath the surface, allowing the fragile greening of life in the midst of … nothing. It is that realization which is at the very heart of our faith.

So I just stood there on the cliff, the ocean of sand stretched out as far as my eye could see. Slowly the desert entered me, teaching its wisdom as it once taught Jesus. In this threatening arid land that my eyes and spirit beheld Jesus rejected a life of plenty, rejected a life packed with shallow promises and false pleasures. In this rejection Jesus gained solid ground under his soul-feet, tapping the trickle of water in this overwhelming wasteland: unwavering trust in the one true God of mercy and compassion. This solid soul-ground helped Jesus to stay close to God right into his dying on the cross.

If we can resist the false gods in the desert of life, if we can turn to God in our weakest moments, find the one true God in our most painful wilderness, the land of plenty will lose its power to buy our allegiance and demand our uncritical worship. What’s more, nothing will frighten us anymore, not even our dying. Contrary to fearing the desert/wilderness, Jesus models how to find the life-giving God-trickle in desert spaces, in ways that can deepen and green … our faith. This is how the kingdom of God arrives in our lives.

Wherever the river goes, every living creature will live
… everything will live where the river goes.

(Ezekiel 47:9)

* To learn more about the programs offered through St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem, click here.

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Matters of the Heart

ASH WEDNESDAY, February 14th, 2018
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6

I awoke one morning on February 14 from a dream. In the dream Jim was going to give me a pearl necklace for Valentine Day. I told Jim about the dream and asked, “What do you think this means?”  Jim replied, “You will know tonight.” Then he left the house. That night he gave me a small package. With great anticipation I unwrapped it, to find a book … entitled … The Meaning of Dreams. *

Roses are red, ashes are grey.
I’m giving up chocolate.
It’s better that way. *

Yes, Lent begins this year on Valentine Day. What a wonderfully absurd combination, don’t you think? We launch a season of renunciation and prayer on a day which celebrates passion, romantic love and sensual pleasure. Ironic, cause for ridicule and laughter? As in, look at those silly Christians – ashes instead of chocolate (or pearl necklaces!)!

Maybe, and maybe not … Is there really a collision of opposites on this day? What in fact is renunciation and losing ourselves about if not … love? What is self-denial, sacrifice and death really about if not … love? Not the fuzzy type of romantic love but the harsh, stubborn, persistent love that life presses from us in daily trials and challenges?

Love in action is a harsh and fearful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take too long and doesn’t hurt too much.

But love in action, sacrificial love … is indeed a different ball game. Every time I gave birth to one of our children, I was overwhelmed with love, even the romantic type of being a mom. And that’s good, that’s important. But after the first five minutes of fuzzy lovin’ feelings, it became clear that loving children pushes us into sacrificial loving. My own needs – for sleep, for leisure time, for reading, for thinking – were shoved to the sidelines while the new little one made demands 24/7. Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, we often love our kids more than we love ourselves in ways we did not know possible.

Likewise, the first romantic feelings with our spouse are fundamental to sealing our relationship. However, when life rocks our romantic boat, a deeper loving is pressed from our marital commitment, a loving that requires sacrifice and self-denial, a loving that demands more than a pearl necklace or chocolates on Valentine Day.

All forms of love—friendship, romance, humanitarianism, the love that binds spouses, parents and children—have the capacity to draw us out of ourselves. True love frees us from the tight orbit of self-centredness. True love in its deepest sense grows our hearts ever larger, as a place where there is no longer me and you, and us and them, but only we.

But … such love is neither easy nor painless. Jesus did not lay down his life because suffering is a good thing, or because death and self-destruction are ends in themselves. No, he suffered these as consequences of his life of radical love, a love that baffles, threatens, and offends. The death of Jesus was not an isolated event. It was the culmination of an entire life of making room, welcoming the stranger, crossing boundaries, extending compassion and solidarity, and loving wholeheartedly, foolishly, dangerously.

We here in Saskatchewan, in Canada, have just been offered another painful opportunity to love in a sacrificial, Jesus-like manner, to reach beyond our own self-interest and gain to go beyond our own preconceived notions of those different from us. Regardless of our reaction to last week’s verdict in the murder trial of Colten Boushie, both the Stanley and the Boushie families deserve our compassion, our understanding and our love.

The racial divide in our province (in our country) has once again opened its gaping wound, a wound that still oozes the pain and injustice of colonization. And if we object by saying, “I didn’t do it, it doesn’t affect me,” we are fooling ourselves. There is such a thing as communal, collective behaviour. We who are baptized members of the church, of all people, should know this well and live this reality without hesitation. In the church we call this the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints. Back in the Holy Land, from which I just returned, this notion of communal memory is very alive across past-present-future in ways that we in our individualistic society have largely lost. It is urgent that we recover this communal living and acting for the sake of the future of our children’s children in this beautiful land, Turtle Island. Above all, loving as one Body which includes all nations, all peoples, and all hurting sisters and brothers, is the fullest way to give glory to our God.

Heed the words of the prophet Isaiah today. He cautions us not to serve our own interests this Lenten season:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high!
… Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Jesus calls us into the wilderness of Lent with him, the wilderness of our own imperfect humanity, the wilderness of racial tensions,the wilderness of alienation and betrayal that can damage even our most intimate relationships. Jesus calls us into places where we would rather not go. Love can hurt – often. A lot even. There are few things as risky as walking into new relational spaces of encounter and compassion. Loving comes with risks and at great cost, sometimes even opening ourselves up to misunderstanding or rejection or loss.

This kind of vulnerability can scare us to the core. But following Jesus leaves us little choice because deep down sacrificial love is the most real thing there is. It is love that transforms, heals, cleanses, restores, renews, reconciles, forgives, and binds together. Love gives meaning to that which otherwise seems meaningless. Love drags us beyond our little egos and narrow visions into becoming better versions of ourselves.

So maybe … maybe it’s not so strange and absurd that Lent begins on Valentine Day. In fact, it’s a refreshing reminder that the core of these forty days is not a gloomy spirit mired in rigid self-denial as an end in itself. But rather, the self-examination and sacrifice of the season is to be motivated by love, the divine love that drove Jesus’ entire life and mission; the universal Love of God that forms the rich soil from which our particular love sprouts and grows. Only God’s love has the capacity to transform our shriveled and hurting hearts, our broken and crying hearts, and gently bring healing and reconciliation and justice.

So here we are, setting off on this forty day journey through the wilderness of our lives. We set off individually, communally, and as a nation. We mark the start of this journey with the sign of ashes. But, maybe a really good box of chocolates is not out of place. Given the challenges of loving well, I have a hunch that we’re going to need the consolation and strength that can come from enjoying chocolate.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
AMEN

*  With special thanks to Saint Valentine’s Day by Gerry Turcotte, page 178, Living with Christ February 2018 (Novalis), and Laura Alary’s blog Chocolate and Ashes.

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