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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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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