Turning …

Good Friday, April 14, 2017
Joint Lutheran-Catholic-Anglican Service

A few weeks ago I participated in a retreat with Steve Bell as presenter. He’s a successful JUNO-Award winning Christian musician from Winnipeg. It was a special treat to ponder Steve’s thoughtful reflections interspersed with beautiful songs on the guitar. Among the Lenten themes Steve explored with us were the words Passion and Compassion.

Steve shared how he had sat with his ailing mother when she was no longer able to communicate all that much. He shared with us how terribly uncomfortable that had been. So used to do-ing stuff, all Steve could do … was to … sit with her. Steve sat with his mother – awkward, restless and unsure of himself.

As Steve sat with mom feeling so darn useless and awkward, he remembered how, as a young boy, he sometimes had noticed all the veins showing clearly on the back of his mom’s hand. He remembered how he used to kind’a play … with those veins when he was little.

And so, now some 50 years later, sitting restlessly with his mom, holding her hand, he noticed once again her veins. And just like a long time ago, he began to play with them again. Steve discovered that just sitting with mom and holding her hand was in fact … enough. Sitting with her was more than enough, it was rich and full … meaning-full.

Because every time their eyes met, Mom smiled at her son. Steve learnt an important lesson: simply sitting … with mom … and loving her through her hand became the expression of compassion for Steve, until Jesus took his mother’s hand to lead her to the place of LOVE prepared for her in eternity. Steve thus learnt about the passive action of compassion.

It is clear that Jesus had a passion for Compassion. Throughout the three short years of his ministry, Jesus plowed through life bringing healing and mercy, bringing grace and justice, through actions and words coming straight from God himself. Jesus can easily be called an activist: he tirelessly drew crowds and taught them, he had a nose for those who were hurting and lost, he fearlessly jumped over and broke barriers and walls, social barriers, cultural walls and religious boundaries, much to the dismay of the learned and the well-off.

He instructed his disciples and the  crowds, blessed the children, and had sharp words for those who felt religiously superior to everyone else. Jesus’ passion for compassion stirred one whirlwind after another.

It all came to a climax that morning when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowd went wild: Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

And then … came … the turning … The crowd turned, and Jesus turned … Jesus’ passion for compassion turned into passive … passion … Events turn to the worst, and Jesus simply lets it all happen to him. Gone is his passionate outreach and touch, gone is his passionate embracing of the lost and needy, gone is his fiery speech. Jesus the activist turns into a passive victim … or so it seems …

Our faith teaches us that Jesus went before us in all things. Because of Jesus, no one need suffer alone ever again. Jesus knows our human condition – intimately. Jesus ran the gamut of emotions and experiences. Jesus knew all about relationships and betrayals, about loving devotion and brutal abandonment, about boundless joy and scornful hate.

Finally “going before us in all things” required one more surrender; the hardest, most painful moment, the event we recall today – on this Friday which we call Good. In order for Jesus to enter fully into solidarity with our human condition, our suffering and death, he turned … and let it all be done unto him … – the worst betrayal, the worst crime, the worst death.

Good Friday is ironically named, really. It really is a terrible and disorienting day. The worst human treachery and the worst affront are on full and embarrassing display today, seemingly swallowing whole our hopes for a brighter tomorrow.  Of all days in church, today we re-visit in a very graphic way the reality of our losses, the pain of our deepest disappointments and the harsh truth of our sinful complicity in snuffing out all that is holy and healthy and beautiful, in ourselves, in others, in God’s world.

On this day Christ absorbed all the world’s sorrow and sin, and bore them to the grave. Today is about death. Dead death. We feel death in our bones. We feel death breathing down our neck. No matter how lavishly we live in order to mask and perfume the stench of death, we know deep down that death is inescapable. We fear that it could be the last word on our lives.

On this day, this Good Friday, we need to feel the real agonizing and desperate loss that precedes resurrection. If nothing else, we prayerfully and compassionately commiserate in solidarity, after Jesus’ example, with those who have no such hope. It is all intended to be mighty uncomfortable, and it’s all intended to make us brutally honest – with ourselves, with one another, with God.

Jesus is the Saviour who first says “follow me,” burns with zeal for God, in passion and compassion, then … dies … looking like the ultimate loser. But he didn’t die a victim, he died a victor. For to keep extending love, God’s love and mercy, to your murderers as they are killing you is not for sissies. Carrying pain and insults willingly has nothing to do with being a doormat! Bearing such pain with integrity and strength is only possible when we are secure in knowing who and whose … we are: God’s beloved son and daughter, in whom God is well pleased.

In Jesus, God effectively neutralized the power of evil in the world by saying: “I’m willing to suffer. I will bear the problem myself.” This is a brand-new answer, much like  defusing a bomb. Now the answer no longer contributes to the problem anymore. In the cross, God says: “I will bear the problem myself. I take upon myself the sin of the world. There is NOTHING that I cannot transform. Try me.”

And so in his death, Jesus killed death itself by absorbing and neutralizing the very darkness of death that ambushes us all. From that “Good” Friday on no one, no one, needs to suffer and die alone ever again. Jesus has been there done that, and he awaits us in our darkest hour to hold our hand in order to lead us in our painful passion with God`s compassion through our darkness into a new light.

The first century folks, who experienced this event in real time, didn’t have the luxury of knowing where this brutal execution would be leading. Neither do so many who suffer and cry out today have any idea that their suffering could lead to new life. After the example of our Lord, who died in solidarity with all humanity, this holy day of Christ’s death compels us to come alongside all our desperate sisters and brothers in need, both far and near, who cannot possibly imagine a resurrection, neither in this life or the next. We pray today for those who cannot pray for themselves. And it is a day for fearless moral inventory, acknowledging truthfully our complicity in causing one another’s grief and sorrow, hurt and destruction.

Jesus, the passionate compassion of God, is summoning us today to join him in the turning … Just as Steve held his mother’s hand as she turned towards God, so Jesus holds our hand as we turn … turn away from indifference and toward solidarity and community, turn away from sin, destruction and death, towards God our Creator and Redeemer; turn away from all bondage in our hearts and towards the cross where Love conquered death forever.

No suffering will ever need to be suffered alone anymore. Our Lord has indeed gone before us in all things; that commitment cost him his life – for us. We claim our salvation in him. Oh come, let us adore. AMEN

Prairie Encounters

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Writing about writing

I wrote a lot in my younger and teenage years – essays, journal entries and poetry – quietly harbouring the dream of becoming a writer. In our parish youth group I’d write reflections which would be shared in place of the homily in our monthly youth Masses.  I even wrote a romance novel, sneakily turning my own real experiences into fiction! After publishing installments in the high school paper, which received surprising reviews, I even sent the manuscript to a publisher who wrote back politely that I had potential and wished me luck.

writing-with-penLife took me on other waves of adventure for quite a few years, and for a long time the only writing I did was in my journal, until even that halted when, for several years, three adorable children demanded time, attention and energy every minute of every day.  Besides, I had by now changed languages, no small occurrence when one’s mode of creative expression is the written word. In fact, it was because of this that my writing dreams withered away. After all, how could I possibly write creatively, competently and engagingly in a language other than my mother-tongue?

Thus the desire & creative call to write almost went to sleep; almost, as I had resumed journaling (in English) once my youngest turned one year old (now 28). However, journaling is a most private affair, not intended for public consumption. One day I found myself a student, writing essays and exams, eventually leading to theological papers and sermons – in English of course. Never having taken a university-level English class, I wrote off ever writing well (interesting pun 🙂 ) until feedback from professors, friends and fellow-students claimed otherwise. I was quick to brush aside such compliments, claiming that these couldn’t be right as English is not my first language. Until a friend got tired of the glib ways I disregarded the power and quality of my own written creations: “It’s exactly because English is not your first language that you are much more conscious about using the language well.”

Her words stopped me dead in my tracks. Slowly my perception changed; I began to observe my own creative writing process, strikingly resembling the biological processes of pregnancy and giving birth (the section titles in my first book). In the preaching classes I learnt the difference between writing for reading and writing for oral delivery. Learning to write and preach sermons claimed my whole being in unprecedented ways. I discovered parts of myself I had lost touch with long ago and had even forgotten they existed. The process of preparing, writing and delivering the sermon challenged me more than anything else had previously, pushing me into prayer and solitude with God in a way that nothing else did. The personal and spiritual growth, the sense of ministry and the deep love for the preaching task became new sources of life. In giving all I had to the task of preparing, writing and preaching, I found life in abundance. The creative process, however arduous and demanding, became a surprising new source of life. I started to feel in my bones the meaning of Jesus’ words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” In surrendering my whole being to the creative writing process to accomplish the task at hand, I found life in abundance. No one was more surprised than I. The call to write and to speak a holy Word was re-awakened with a radiance and beauty so glorious; I felt as if head over heels in love again yet for the first time, smitten with the gift of God’s gracious and passionate kiss on my soul …

Ever since, writing, publishing and preaching/speaking have become one of the fullest expressions of my creative self. I have learnt a tremendous amount about the four types of writing I engage in, each one with its own demands, features and rhythms: poetry and journalling (mostly private), writing for publication (books, news articles and Scripture commentaries), and writing for oral delivery (preaching and speaking at conferences and workshops). I take seriously the need for ongoing learning by reading other people’s books (which also helps to Writing2expand my vocabulary), even if I have yet to be excited about fiction, mystery novels and most poetry (I read mostly non-fiction and books of a spiritual nature). Even my favourite word games of Scrabble and Bananagrams serve a continuing learning and growing in my writing ability.

In order for the creative process to be fruitful, optimum conditions are required. But this process is seldom linear and one-dimensional. It is true that time and attention need to be carved out of one’s daily schedule. It is true that the process can be obstructed by life crises, depression and other negative emotional states. However, the reverse is also possible. In fact, engaging the writing process in hard times has often acted as a de-stressor for me, as if enjoying a refreshing, cleansing bath. I will never forget the insight which hit like a lightning bolt when asking God the agonizing question of why the impossible callings/tasks and insurmountable obstacles cause so much pain, heart-ache and flood waters of tears – in order to write about the experience. That insight forever (at least so far) unlocked the prison doors of any hardship I was to endure in life – if nothing else, I can always write about it.

Writing my first book was an almost surreal experience. With a job, three teenagers and one car there was no time, and often no energy, to sit down and put words on paper/computer which could form a coherent whole and tell a worthwhile story. And yet I had  the distinct, deeply spiritual, feeling that the book/story wrote itself, as if Someone Else wrote it and I was simply the scribe, from the very first moment I sat in front of a blank computer screen and asked “the question:” if ever I’d write a book, what would it be about and look like? Every writing minute was time pressed like juice from grapes, sometimes only a few drops at a time, and in the course of a full year, the manuscript was complete. Writing the second book was a much more arduous process, but the experience of writing the first book continues to inspire and mesmerize me. I know I will write more books in the future, but I’m also learning that when living a book, it’s not time to write the book. As with most forms of creative expression, some distance in time of real life experiences can act like the aging process by which good wine becomes vintage wine.

When I look back to discover when and where this call to write and preach/speak first germinated in my soul, a particular time and place emerges in my memory. I am 17 years old, living in my Dutch home town, and I am happily involved with the parish youth group. With this group of young committed Christians, I engaged in intense soul-searching, for the purpose of writing “sermons” and for the purpose of preaching the Good News, in all the wild ways we employed back then. The fire of the call and of the creative writing process was kindled in those years, even if the name of the call eluded me at the time. Now I give glory to God for the gift of creation going on creating in my own body, mind and soul through the written word.

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AutumnLeavesas the greening glory of summer passes
so I surrender to colourful transformation
giving birth to new and abundant fruitfulness
crisp and cooling air pushes birds
south in flying formation …
once again the cyclical dance of
life – death – life
determines the rhythm and moves my soul
growing – birthing – feeding – dying
form the reason for my being …
yet, deep within, hidden yet visible
is the pain and loss
of letting go of greening glory
and my baby, fruitfulness …
pick me, use me, change me, grow in me
divine giver of life
the aching hunger of my soul
comes to the fore as
autumn turns to winter
waiting eagerly for your holy presence
to impregnate my emptiness once again
readying me to birth new life
in the colourful dance of
the seasons …
(written when turning 40)