thinking theology

Archive for February, 2014

A Great Thanksgiving, Lent

God our Creator, we offer our thanks as we greet each other around this table. We remember that you blessed human life with the Divine Presence in many traditions and with many names. But always it is in the ordinary signs of life that your Sacred Presence is revealed. In stinging sandstorms and in Arctic blizzards, your people have sought you, only to lose sight of you again. You call us in famine and in feast to recognize your abiding love that wills abundant life for all. And this time of pausing, teach us to choose the pathway of your Beloved and grant us what we need to follow him.

At the time of Passover, your Beloved Jesus became the Christ in the world. We remember the gift of that life when we learned the power of naming and challenging the power of healing and solidarity. Jesus showed us how to see our community as one family, the lifeblood.

One night in Bethany, Jesus sat down with his family and friends. A woman prophet anointed him with oil to recognize the unique gift of his life.

All: We remember this woman, the first witness to resurrection within this life.

Before his trial, while everyone was eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it. Then, looking at his people, he said for them to receive the sign of the bread. Looking at them all, he said, “This, my body.”

All: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body.

Then Jesus took a cup of wine, and after giving thanks, he gave it to them and all of them drank from the one cup, like one family, one blood. And he said to them, “This my blood of the new understanding, which is offered for many.”

All: You are the vine; we are the branches. May your joy abide in us so that we may be one family, offered for love of the world and chosen to bear the fruit of justice and peace-making.

And Jesus prayed to God, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes, I bless myself, so that they too may be truly blessed. I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will  believe in me through their words, that they all may be one.”(John 17:18-20)

All: May we all be one in purpose and many in inspiration. May we all be one in compassion, although diverse in understanding.

 

Prayers for Lent

God of the wilderness, God of the journey, grant us the will to hear your Holy Wisdom. Walk amongst us in this community. May your Presence stir us to vision and action, that we may extend your Christ wherever there is need for hope and healing.

Loving and faithful God, receive our prayers and the deep sighs of the Spirit within us. Heal us, free us, empower us that we may be your people of promise, now in this time of our lives.

Merciful and just God, our iniquities have risen higher than we can stand and our guilt has filled the community. To a long pattern of sin in history, we too have succumbed. Yet, O Holy One, you always open a space for us that leads to the gateway of life. You have not forsaken us, but offer us your love and mercy. Show us how to mend what we have broken, restore what we have taken, repay what is not ours. And then you will show us the path of life where there is sorrow no more.

Mother of all, judge of your people, we come before you in sorrow and shame for our actions as your people. In the cause of justice, we have been silent, but we have acted to protect ourselves and secure our own ground. In the work of compassion, we have grown cold but we have demanded fulfillment of our own needs. On this day, may we begin again to serve you with integrity and to be the healing body of your Beloved in the world. Forgive us and help us to forgive ourselves. Heal us and help us to heal each other. Teach us so that we might learn from each other. Holy One, reconcile us to you that we may believe in the possibility of peace.

Storm Maker, Tide Bearer, you sweep open the dusty corners of the soul, shaking away the skeletons of our yesterdays. Blow through us with the Spirit of transformation, granting to your daughters speech with wisdom, and to your sons, wisdom with speech. May your compassionate love be revealed whenever two or three are gathered in your name.

Author of new creation, thanks be to you for the windows of possibility, for sunlight on rain-spattered stones, for the green of spring at the edge of winter, for a child’s twinkle in an old person’s eye, for all the signs of resurrection in this life. For all lifts my heart and turns me back to you.

 

The Work of Reconciliation

A Service for Ash Wednesday

Leader: May the Spirit of Peace come amongst you.
Response: And also with you.

Collect: Creator God, you love the creatures you have made, you bring healing and forgiveness to your people. Create in us new and hopeful hearts. As we acknowledge the brokenness of our world, may we be empowered to initiate repentance and renewal, beginning with ourselves and our communities. We ask this in the name of the Beloved.

Psalm: (using the theme of 103)

Bless the Holy One, O my soul.
Let all that is in me open to the touch
of Love, that makes us whole

Bless the Holy One, O my soul.
And remember that in holiness and goodness,
all has been made.

From the cradle that rocks us,
to the earth that receives us,
we are clothed in mercy and loving kindness.

The Holy One yearns to satisfy us with good things
and to revive the faint of heart and body,
through the agency of our compassion.

The Holy One sees the oppressed and the needy,
and judges those who turn their face from their cry,
calling to all to walk in the way of justice and peace.

Again and again, the Holy One calls to us,
offering hope and possibility
for the rebirth of compassion and reconciliation.

Our lives are like a summer day.
The season turns and it is lost in frost and memory.
And yet, in each life, the seed of transformation is planted.

Made of the dust of stars, we have been endowed
with imagination and possibility.
The horizon is only a step in eternity.

Bless the Holy One, O my soul.
With all the creatures and the earth,
We offer our lives for new vision and transformation.

Invitation
In Lent, we mark the journey to resurrection with the sign of ashes, a sign of penitence and change. Like the phoenix, it is from death of the old life and its limited perspectives, that we are born into the gift of Pentecost.

Anointing with ashes
Merciful God, from the roots of the earth and the dust of stars, you have created us. May these ashes be for us a sign of transformation, of forgiveness, and blessing.

(People may either come forward to be anointed with ashes, or they may stand in a circle, anointing each other)

The words for marking with ashes:
Remember that you are a part of this holy earth. Remember that in God we are one, in blessing and in brokenness.

or

Remember that you are part of the darkness of this holy earth, and called to rise in the Light.

Readings:
Isaiah 61: 1-4
Philippians 4:4-9
Mark 9: 33-37

Reflection: What is the spirit calling for the church to undertake? What must we let die? What do we hope will be reborn?

Closing prayer. Lord’s Prayer.

Words of Dismissal: The mark of ashes must sink beneath our skin, invisible to others, but a fiery brand on our hearts. We go on to other work in the name of the God of Peace, the Source of Love, and the power of Community. Amen.

Ash Wednesday: The Garden

Although the precise origins of Ash Wednesday are unknown, the symbol of ashes has a long human history. Ashes have been an outward, visible sign of grief and/or penitence. Ashes are also sown in the ground to hallow and to fertilize. As well, one of the signs of hope has been the phoenix rising from the ashes of its worn out, broken self. To mark the beginning of Lent as a sign of transformation, let us begin by reclaiming ourselves from destructive choices, by walking the path of transformation, and by preparing ourselves for a renewed sense of the life of God within and around us.

Gardens are ancient symbols both of God’s creation and of the place where the Divine and the mortal meet. For this liturgy, a garden — perhaps planted with spring flowers — needs to be prepared to be placed in the centre of the gathering. It might be interesting to plant a food garden too that could regularly be harvested throughout Lent. If it is to continue to Easter, it will require some “minders” to maintain and expand it.

Music: perhaps Enya, “Memory of Trees” or Daniel Langlois, “The Maker”

Collect: God of Eden and of each new garden, we come before you and each other to acknowledge our brokenness and our need for change. Free us and open us to life in abundance, so that we may walk with courage and hope. We ask this in the name of the Vine, and the Gardener, and the Hope of the Dawn. Amen

Reading 1: Luke 13:10-17

People may be invited to sprinkle some ash into the garden, to symbolize how letting go of the old blesses new life. Alternatively, the leaders could do this.

The following reflections could be in the form of an address, small group discussion, or silence. If silence, please allow for a time after for people to debrief if they wish.

Reflection: What bends us so that we cannot see clearly, limiting our perspective, and isolating us? What change are we seeking? What will it require of us?

Reading 2: Romans 9:21-26

Again, either by participants or by leaders, some water may be sprinkled on the garden to nourish the soil, as the soul is nourished by the faith.

Reflection: What encourage us to stand? What supports us? What would it be like for people to see each other as Jesus saw us, children of one family?

Music: possible Libana, “Be Like a Bird”

Prayers

Leader: Searching for justice yet
Bent by unbending ways,
We call to you, our Source of liberation.
Support us,encourage us so
That we may stand,
Raise ourselves to a life of courage.
May we find your affirmation
in the nurture of creation springing
Into bloom, to gladden and to strengthen.

R: Holy One, in your love, inspire and empower us.

L: Holy Presence in suffering, be our consolation and our challenge. Pour your grace into our hearts so that we, the broken, may rise to strengthen others, and bring peace to our world.

R: Holy One, in your love, inspire and empower us.

L: Spirit of inspiration, blow across deserts, mountains, oceans, plains, and valleys. Teach us to walk new paths daily, greeting transformation as the gateway, opening into life.

R: Holy One, in your love, inspire and empower us.

L: Source of all life, open your power to love and to change, to share and to trust, to us in our relationships. May we live life in abundance and boldness, liberating others as you are liberating us. Holy Friend and Companion, meet us in every garden, protect us in every crossroad.

R: Holy One, in your love, inspire and empower us.

The service may end with the Lord’s Prayer, with a collect, or music.

Images of Easter

The image of rising is powerful and pervasive in Christian literature and music. The refrain, “He is not here; he has risen,” echoes in our celebrations. Later Paul will write to the Thessalonians, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.”

The idea of being weightless, free as birds, resonates with our ideas of resurrection. As a child, I often dreamed of flying and was quite convinced that this was a waking possibility. To add to my mother’s concerns, I would work diligently to achieve this goal by leaping off swings, monkey bars, slopes and embankments. My father, who had been a bomber pilot, tried to explain to me certain aerodynamic principles, to no avail. When the harsh reality that I had no wings was presented to me, I replied that they would grow out as I exercised and at the right time would appear. And so I continued to leap and flap and fall to the ground, but occasionally I did feel airborne.

This is not my dream only. We have imagined all kinds of machines to lift us into the skies. But we know that these conveyances need certain kinds of care. In the north we know that we must scrape the wings free of ice if we are to rise. In preparing for Easter, I think we get a lot of ice on our spirit wings. Sometimes we mistake the study of the faith for the experience of resurrection. If we read the various encounters people have with the risen Christ, we will noticed that they are less concerned about the mechanics or even the philosophy of the experience. It is the experience itself that is wonder- and joy-filled. It is the exhilaration of realized hope. It is what flight without ice makes possible.

I never did manage to fly on my own, except for a few little chicken hops. Have you noticed that in scripture, we are encouraged to think of eagles’ wings on which we are lifted effortlessly. When we let go of what Thomas Merton calls our awful solemnity, then we are freed to imagine with the freedom of children. With the imagination, we are invited to climb onto the hope that Jesus gave us, a hope that in joy and peace humanity can be free, can soar. We need to think historically, analytically, philosophically, but not when it is the time to fly. The purity of that experience silences all our limited intellectual striving for the moment.

Another clarifying point for us is that resurrection is not an event so much as a process, an unfolding experience in which we become more secure riding the wings of the spirit. We grow in confidence that this delight comes unearned, unbidden; it is just there for us so that we will remember to look up, to see the vast sky above us, the enormity of possibility so far beyond our comprehension. Fortunately, spirit flight is more about courage and trust, than knowledge or skill. We are being raised, lifted beyond the limits of our own horizon, to peek into the heart of The Divine, who holds us and carries us in love. Happy and Blessed Resurrection! After the struggle, after the doubts and fear that things will never be all right, comes the promise. And we will hear the music and we will feel the wind on our cheeks and one more time we will rise in freedom and joy!

Reflections for A Holy Week

Palm Sunday

The tradition(s) of Palm Sunday are undergoing a transitional period. From Jesus’ “triumphal” entry to Jerusalem, the focus is moving to the narration of the passion, and indeed the day has come to be called “The Sunday of the Passion”. It is difficult to say which has been more problematic for the church, the idea of Jesus’ triumph or the factuality of the story. If we release ourselves from the need for a “proof” of the factuality, we can immerse ourselves in this very compelling narrative about what leadership and authority mean in the “kingdom” of this anointed one. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg invite us to see the entry to Jerusalem in counterpoint to the triumphal processions of the Caesars, with their explicit symbols of domination and oppression; the stark simplicity and vulnerability of Jesus delineating the comparison.

The celebration before the betrayal. is another theme that demands our attention. Yet another is the anticipation of the death with the uncomprehending, or perhaps fearfully aware, crowds in mindless pursuit of their hero. However, it is neither a triumphal story of a dying and rising god, nor a preliminary narrative by which to blame the crowds for unjust judgement. When we listen to the text, we hear a story of very humble leadership, of Jesus being lifted onto an ass. Not a horse. Not a Cadillac. He rides into the least prosperous part of Jerusalem, the part ignored by Roman patrols. He is greeted by the unemployed, by women and children, by the city’s poor. And they call out to him, “Hosanna, Save us, save us!” They will not be heard by the Sanhedrin, by the Roman sympathizers or by the Roman authorities themselves. They are nameless and voiceless in the place of decision and power.

As Dorothy Söelle observes, in an immediate concrete sense, Jesus cannot save them; he cannot even save himself without a wrench to his integrity, to the meaning of his life.

not without you

He needs you
That’s all there is to it
Without you he’s left hanging
Goes up in Dachau’s smoke
Is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up
without you

Help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal

Instead, he positions himself within their pain and misery. He cannot change anything except how they see themselves. He sees them as lovable, precious, children of the Holy One, worthy of better lives. He shows them that it is not through force or oppression, but through the power of unassailable, humble integrity and passion that the world is saved

We read this story, recognizing that it is a waste of time unless we remember that it is we who are his body in the world now. It is our ears that must hear the cry of the poor, the cry of our earth, “Save us, save us.” We too must travel in humility and not resting upon seats of power, nor positions of authority. Our place is humble, our goals limited, our guarantee of success poor (Soelle). The only thing we can do in this world is to listen, to be willing to participate in the pain of it all, to weep with those who weep, to uncover our own vulnerability, our brokenness, our doubts and dreams. This ride to Easter carries with it, danger. We will discover what lies beneath our masks. We will discover that our solutions are useless. We will discover also that we are not alone, but at the heart of God who loves the humble heart and blesses it with strength to complete the journey.

Palm Sunday Crosses

On this day, we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, an entry that the gospels directly link to his arrest and execution. What the gospels quote the crowd as saying is “Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the lord!”

“Hoshana” (הושענא) is a Hebrew word meaning please save or save now. It is most commonly associated with a cycle of prayer during the Feast of Tabernacles.Who was in the crowd and why did they shout what they did? According to Crossan and Borg in “The Last Week”, it was a political demonstration to counter another procession at the other end of the city. That procession showed Pilate leading the military, political, religious and economic power of Rome in relationship with the temple hierarchy. What did Jesus’ procession look like? It was a procession with and for the poor of Jerusalem, bringing the message of the rural poor over against the wealth of the city.

Because they were poor, the people had to cut down the palms growing at the sides of the road and they waved the only flags they had – their clothes. So this was not a triumphal entry into Jerusalem so much as a confrontation between the urgency of the poor and the indifference and scorn of the powerful. We would do well to remember this when we wave our palms, that we wave them not in triumph but in confrontation with the powers and principalities and in solidarity with the poor. The song by  Tchad, “Like a Waving Flag” comes to mind here. We wave palms not because we are strong but because we cannot let the poor stand alone; because we are all the poor in one way or another. I have heard it said that in Canada, a wealthy nation, most of us are only three pay cheques away from being homeless. We are all potentially the poor; we are all disabled; we all lead lives of contingency, in terms of economics, mental and physical health, safety.

Moreover, we cannot really understand this story without reference to the scene at the cross in Mark.  Near Jesus would have been the soldiers to make sure no one could rescue him. The witnesses would have been various officials. This was a very public way of ensuring that everyone saw what would happen to rebels and those who opposed Rome or spoke against the emperor and his system of oppression.

Those officials and witnesses in the court said, “Crucify him.” Out in the streets it was not the poor who cried out for Jesus’ blood; from the streets they shouted save us. The rich and the powerful called out in scorn and derision. In the world of the powerful, one’s ability to look after “Number 1” is what invokes respect, not “bleeding hearts”, not acts of compassion and solidarity. By the standards of worldly success, Jesus could not have been much of a saviour, much of a king, if the emperor could kill him. Who would care about his work amongst the poor once he was shamefully killed and buried?

And standing far off, away where the soldiers would probably have chased them, stood the women and the poor, still calling for his life not his death.

Enduring memory conveys from generation to generation, in song and story, the ideas that we believe must never be forgotten. It is really the only reason for institutionalized religion, to be the keepers of the precious stories and rituals that connect us to a great teacher; and that is why we remember that horrific day when Jesus was called. We bring in to the present the horror and injustice of the past so that we will be motivated to act, either with the oppressors or with the poor. Holy Week offers us choices about how we remember and how that affects every aspect of our lives. Let us take our palm crosses home, not to remind ourselves of victory, but to remind ourselves that the kingdom is still breaking in amongst us and requires our commitment, our passion, and our humility.

Maundy Thursday

On this night we move from the crowds of Palm Sunday to the intimacy of family and friends. On this night we remember the actions Jesus left for us as not only as a memorial, but also as a practice. One story we tell is of the woman who anointed Jesus, who understood the nobility and power of sacrifice that is chosen but not sought, that is offered but with sorrow and doubt. The woman “sees” Jesus and the inevitability of his choices in a way that is too frightening for many. The enormous cost of love in action still troubles us and we would like to think that we can fix things without being willing to sacrifice ourselves. It is not the frivolity of her act that alarms the others, but the way it makes them look mean and cheap.

Another story that we read tells of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an action performed to their great discomfort and embarrassment. It continues to provoke discomfort in modern re-enactments, partly because it is culturally disconnected and partly because we still have to learn about mutual service. Henri Nouwen writes about how loving action necessarily leads to repentance. Nobody likes to receive a gift unless they have a means of reciprocating. Nobody wants to be healed by someone who has no idea of what it feels like to be wounded. We cannot earn grace; we can only receive it. We can, however, share the experience of being healed, the experience of being surprised by love, the discovery of our worth, when we thought we had wandered too far. Before we perform service in the world, service untainted by our own egos’ agendas, we have to say, “wash me of my delusions; wash away my fear of being known for who I am.”

The third story is the supper of community in which Jesus binds his family and friends to him and to his mission. He tells them that just like bread, many grains have to be gathered together to make a changing, flexible, nutritious community – food for the world. Like wine, grapes are crushed together, their skins broken so that juice can be released. Jesus says that these humble foods are like his life, differences held together, lives broken open and changed. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving. And thanksgiving it is, for others to share the journey, for stories of bread that keep us going from generation to generation, for sacrifice so that all may have hope and all may taste being loved just as they are. Every time we remember Jesus in this way we give thanks that he is present with us, absorbing our pain into his suffering, blessing our joy with his vision for us. And as this has been done for us, so we must do it for others.

Finally, we remember the story of the garden in which the disciples, sleepy from food and wine, miss the point and miss the moment. Jesus alone in the garden struggles as every human must with the need for survival balanced against witness to the power of love. Jesus’ death would not be a sacrifice otherwise. What else can we really offer except our own lives?

So now we come to the point of the liturgy. How much of our lives have we given until now? How much will we offer up tomorrow? Whose needs will prevail? What are we willing to lose? What do we hope to gain? The musician Dido sings, “no love without freedom, no freedom without love.” To be free in the way Jesus was free means also to embrace his love and let it transform our lives.

Good Friday

The story of Good Friday can be understood as the story of two competing drives in human nature. These drives are expressed by the need to dominate/be dominated and the need to liberate/be liberated. The trial and crucifixion of Jesus differs only in his refusal to participate in this dichotomy The power of Jesus’ love has left a mark on human history that no domestication by institutions can ever fully erase. The cry from the cross continues to reverberate throughout the corridors of power, no matter how much insulation is employed to drown it out. And that cry is mirrored in every faith group, every humanist group, every atheist group.

On Palm Sunday we remember how the forces of domination began to swarm around Jesus, trying to drown out the cries of the poor, even the very stones in the earth: Save us, save us. We “hear” Holy Week, how Jesus’ friends could not hold the course, how impatient they became, how easily they turned to the brokers of power, or were intimidated by them.

On Good Friday, we remember the answer. The answer is found in the refusal to retaliate, and the refusal to submit. It is the hard and long road. Resolution does not come quickly or efficiently. It costs. It requires sacrifice, holy work. It requires everything we have because it is not only about acting with compassion but not acting with violence of any sort.

There really is only one question on Good Friday. Do we hear the cries or do we turn up the music and anesthetize ourselves with work or facts, with drugs or excuses, with privilege or position. We are not deaf because we are wicked. We are deaf because we are afraid of the bullies who try to tell us how to live, how to lie to ourselves. We are afraid that the cross is stronger than our faith. We have forgotten what freedom looks like and we think the price is too high.

But what will our fear cost us and our children? Do we want a culture where people are cocooned, which is a way of being imprisoned? To be free is to be aware of how we have been co-opted and to seek ways of liberation for everyone. The revolution that we need is of the human heart. We need to re-learn compassion as a life skill that is as important as career training. We need to learn resistance to complicity with the lies of domination.

Liberation from fear allows us a freedom to experience how precious we are to the Holy One who did not count Jesus’ death on the cross as a failure. Rather Jesus’ death led his disciples up to this present day to have a vision of the peaceful kingdom, a dream of realized life, the truth that we are all part of the transformational process of matter and spirit. Liberation from fear teaches us how to embrace the deep laughter of the one who is making all things new and leading us more fully into awareness of the light within and around us.

Holy Saturday

In the dark a candle is lit and a voice rises in the night calling us from death to life. Jesus says that our God is the god of the living so – leave death for the dead. On this night we affirm that death is a means of passage, but life is the nature of existence.

Death is the absence of transformation, a mausoleum of the imagination. It is through our imaginations that scientific discoveries are achieved, facts become mutable, a life of spirit is possible. Our response to our paschal celebrations is to throw off the imental shackles that tell us we are separate, finite, limited. We are invited to understand our minds as fuelled by endless possibility for change, growth, renewable life.

We give thanks for the body of Jesus that reminds us that we, with all the created order, are precious and unique expressions of the divine. In our relationships, we remember that Jesus taught us that the linking of vulnerability leads to resilience and power not over, but with.

With our souls, we engage in the awareness that we know so much less than the wealth of our experience can name. The life of the spirit is always beckoning us on, to new knowledge, to a deeper sense of connection.

One day, we will heal the planet.
One day we will be at peace.
One day we will know the joy of abiding
within the goodness and love of the divine.
One day, we will look at each other,
recognizing the Divine Self that we each contain now and forever.

In Repentance, Compassion

 you create me and so i live
an oak of consciousness
you uncreate me and so i live
a ray of light
you create me

Repentance is the cry of the Hebrew prophets, of John the Baptist and, to a lesser degree, of Jesus. In Hebrew the two common words for the verb to repent either mean to go back, to turn from one position to another (shuwb), or to feel remorse, to sigh (nacham). In Greek, the word used is (metanoia), to turn around and move in a different direction. What has part of our story is that we carry an ancestral pseudo-memory about repentance that suggests guilt and shame. This tradition has its origins in the orthodox interpretations of the story of the garden of Eden. As it has been formed in us, it is the story of disobedience and indelible error, redeemable only through human blood, the sacrifice that we have come to associate with the death of Christ. We have a sense that some extraordinary penance is necessary if we are to avoid punishment for trespasses that are either intentional or inadvertent. For us to become more fully the people of Christ in this time, we must examine what we have meant by repentance and what we could mean. We need to move to a crreative understanding rather than the isolating idea of shame that has dominated much of our thinking about matters spiritual and ethical.

This sense of shame is closely allied to grief because it has been how we have often made sense of our pain, our sense of being exiles from the love of God. Indeed, the external expressions of penitence look much like those of grief (Psalm 38:1-2,49-10,13-14,17-18):

O God, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath.
For your arrows have sunk into me,
and your hand has come down on me.

For my iniquities have gone over my head;
they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.

O God, all my longing is known to you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.

My heart throbs, my strength fails me;
as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.

But I am like the deaf, I do not hear;
like the mute, who cannot speak.

Truly, I am like one who does not hear,
and in whose mouth is no retort.

For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
I confess my iniquity;
I am sorry for my sin.

The emphasis in this psalm, as in many other styles of penitence, is on the humiliation of the penitent and on the graciousness of God to forgive. All misfortune is understood to be the result of sin, or at the very least, inattention to the demands of the faith.

One of the most painful experiences I have had in hospital chaplaincy was helping people whose loved ones, babies in particular, have died. The pain was not in the death, although that was deeply sad; the pain arose from people’s sense of having been at fault somehow and that this was the consequence. One young couple asked me if their baby’s death was due to their common-law relationship; another couple confessed that they had not been in church in so long and this was perhaps a message. Our “folk” wisdom about misfortune is that it is a direct consequence of actions that displease the God of rewards and punishments. This idea still has such currency that innocent suffering cannot be easily explained and the prosperity of the rich sinner is to be seen as an injustice on the part of God. The story of Dives and Lazarus in heaven is how we make sense of the good fortune of the selfish or wicked: they will get punished in the end!

This is not new thinking, but it becomes less and less helpful as we explored in “In Suffering, Wholeness”. Actually, repentance as a punitive humiliation for wickedness in “thought, word and deed” is so unpleasant that mostly we avoid it or think of it as unhealthy morbidity. Much of the self-mockery of those who do feel shame has to do with a sense both of our own unworthiness and an idea that the punishment far exceeds the average crime of simply being born in a human body. One of the most poorly attended rites of the church is the Good Friday service in which we remember the courage and love of Jesus or his atonement to God for the sins of humanity. Some of our discomfort has to do with powerlessness in the face of an accusation that is larger than a single human life. Most of it has to do with feeling blamed for the need to propitiate an angry and demanding God who has yet to forgive humanity for being who we are made to be. This si the God who therefore requires the blood sacrifice of Jesus, something for which we continue to be responsible, even when we attempt to slough off some of the guilt onto others –Romas, Jews– to ease the spiritual pressure. Good Friday is often experienced as lose-lose: we cannot be saved without Jesus’ death and we are to blame for his death.

We need to separate repentance and suffering and disentangle our ideas of reward and punishment. Hair shirts, wailing, and torn scalps notwithstanding, repentance is not so much about guilt as about awareness and empathy. In other words, repentance arises from identification with the suffering of another or from an insight into the consequences of our behaviour in the life or lives of other(s). The change in the equation is that there is no triangulation; God does not intervene to mete out consequences. The situations and their resolution, or their tragedy, lie in human hands. God does not wave the wand of punishment or of prosperity. The world and its peoples are our responsibility. Jesus dies because he is fully human, because people of integrity in situations of oppression live dangerously. Jesus dies not so much for us as with us in our struggle to be free and aware. Jesus suffers in  solidarity with humanity not simply because of humanity. Suffering is either an experience in which we express solidarity, like Jesus,  or one which we exacerbate by our actions or by our indifference.

But what about our couples with the babies? They need to know that the connection between their children’s deaths and the Holy One exists only in God’s compassionate love, which permits death when suffering is too extreme. They need to know that their actions have not brought about their children’s deaths, that God wanted these babies to live and prosper as much as they did. They need to hear that God is their consolation and comfort, not the One who takes away, but the One who receives, not the One who punishes, but the One who forgives.

If suffering belongs not so much to events as to our response to and definition of certain experiences, then why be concerned with the suffering of another.? Why not leave them to their misery and deal with our own, the “look after number one” ethic? Inevitably, suffering will become a shared experience; it is part of the price of consciousness. And if we hide from our complicity with those who have caused the suffering, it will be delivered to our door in a package that cannot be refuted. Jesus promises that those who are persecutors will be known by their deeds. “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. (Matthew 10:26-27)

This is wonderful news for those whose oppression has been hidden, and also good news for those who need to be redeemed from their selfish, evil ways (whether they like it or not). This is the message of the historical punishment of sin, “unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate me”; the vulnerable will be avenged, perhaps not individually, but collectively there will be an accounting. Until they are, the sin will continue to haunt and blemish for succeeding generations. We are all both victim and perpetrator, caught up in the systemic nature of evil, that which denies life and growth. Sin is a condition in which we find ourselves on the side of the oppressor, on the side of power rather than healing. Sin means holding the gun, withholding the food, causing the pain.

Suffering is a consequence of sin; repentance is the corrective measure that will redeem the sinner, that will return the sinner to the side of the suffering where there is also a growing holiness and wholeness. This message then of repentance comes to us as good news, that where we have erred, we will be corrected and where we have been sinned against, we will ultimately be vindicated. All things return to the primary value which is goodness; evil is transitory and cannot withstand the urge to be reborn into wholeness. This is the judgement and the deliverance of the societies and cultures of all times.

At an individual level, we are invited to a different perception of reality. When we see another suffering, we are able to connect to our own sense of alienation, the isolating quality of our own pain. As we move through our suffering, we come to recognize the ways in which we are part of the whole unfolding, or labour of creation,

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies”. (Romans 8:19-23)

Both the healing of suffering and the momentum to pass through this tunnel of pain require a recognition of the way in which suffering has brought us back into community, the way in which alienation itself has been the vehicle to return us to our sense of belonging. But there is one difference: we will never again see others as intact, invulnerable, but we will see all of creation, and particularly other humans as contingent, friable, delicate yet ultimately resilient and filled with potential.

When we see ourselves as participants in the health and healing of the world, so we see ourselves as part of the problem as well. To accept repentance as good news means to acknowledge our own pain, isolation and helplessness in the face of the enormous complexity of the systems we have created. We come to understand that in this web of life, we are all caught in the moment before the apple, the moment of choosing the apple, and then experiencing the consequences of this awareness.

As Susan Griffin remarks in The Eros of Everyday Life,

“Yet the communion is here. Even as I touch my hand to my face I can feel it. That radiant love that is an undeniable part of the body. What June Jordan calls an “intelligent love.” Seeking to see, to know, to take in all that is, as it is. To meet all that exists. It is by such a sacrament that wounds will heal us. Any healing will require us to witness all our histories where they converge, the history of empires and emancipations, of slave ships as well as underground railroads; it requires us to listen back into the muted cries of the beaten, the burned, forgotten and also to hear the ring of speech among us, meeting the miracle of that. And if we weep in the apprehension, let us take the capacity to weep and marvel as proof of a wisdom in the stuff of our existence, at one with the redwood forests…as it is with the watery cells of our own bodies, or the star, just bursting into a distant brightness. Our sorrow and joy belong to this history, have evolved from the cooling planet of earth…. The tears and laughter with which we meet this moment are as much a part of intelligence as any reason and can move us deeper to the core of things.”

And thus we are called to repentance, to turn to a new way of seeing the world, another chance for ourselves, a new set of responsibilities. Mother Teresa used to say that she loved the poor and could take on even the most extreme physical challenges because she could see Christ in the face of the suffering. But maybe we need to see our own face in the face of suffering. Maybe we need to recognize the genuine pain that we would avoid at all costs in our own lives and the hurts that we all carry, whether lightly or as burdens. To have this interior knowledge of pain is to offer healing when we spot it in others. Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “Perhaps a feature of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, or was erased, so that God may be all of us. Who knows but that tonight we may see it in the labyrinth of dreams, and tomorrow not know what we saw.” (Paradiso XXXI,108, Dreamtigers)

We choose to walk back into sharing pain because we would never have another walk the path of suffering alone. Jesus discovers in the garden that despite the fear and grief that makes his friends unreliable, he must walk into his commitment to healing by risking his own body, his own security.  Moreover, as we become seasoned veterans of our repentance, at acknowledging both our own sin and the pain that we carry, it becomes easier to reach out to others, and easier to accept the healing of our own souls.

There is a rather funny healing story in the gospel of John (chapter 9) , in which Jesus cures the sight of a young man who has been blind since birth. Despite the fact that this man’s whole life has been changed and he evidently can see, others will not believe this has happened or they suggest that it is impossible because of sin, or because of the man’s ancestral sin and so on. None of these questions has any real validity, as any one who was familiar with the breadth of Torah would probably have known. What is true is that when blindness changes to sight, when isolation resolves into belonging, nothing is ever the same again. This young man is not a miracle but a threat because he can see and in seeing, he can move from his own blindness to affecting the blindness of others.

The world can be changed and is changed all the time by people who turn from blindness to sight, from apathy to action, from indifference to faith. Quite correctly, the powers and principalities of the world fear this healing because it suggests that poverty, war, oppression, and all other political and culturally imposed pain can be eradicated, healed, if you will, by clear vision. You cannot lie to a person who can see you clearly; you cannot deceive the person who has been given wise eyes. A nation of mostly wise eyes would choose differently, would have different expectations of its officials. And then powers and principalities would have to manage and facilitate generosity and sharing, rather than our minds and our information. I am speaking of how we become unwitting cogs in a self-perpetuating political machinery that cannot succeed because it does not recognize suffering and repentance as political acts, as carrying great harm and the potential for ultimate good in their processes. Unfortunately, profit making has been confused with government and the manipulation of citizens with humble service. As long as we allow ourselves to be cocooned from repentance, we will not be healed; we will not learn compassion. We will be like those who “indeed look, but not perceive, and may listen, but not understand….” (Mark 4:12)

The whole question of compassion and forgiveness is fraught with difficulty, but I would suggest that it is impossible to forgive until we recognize our own need for forgiveness. Until we each recognize our own potential to cause great harm, we cannot forgive that potential or actuality in others and so we cannot heal it. We cannot feel compassion until we have experienced in ourselves the need for forgiveness.

One of the most difficult challenges for each human being is to see in oneself the monsters that we project onto others. We must each ask ourselves in what circumstances we might become the molester, the murderer, the liar, the drug dealer, the terrorist. It is not sufficient to say, “Never me!” In our world, these are categories and labels rather than people. And it is no longer true, if it ever was, that people are innocent until found guilty. The second a person is arrested for a crime, we are ready with our noose and our judgement and often feel cheated if somehow the person is found innocent. We in fact incite victims to this sense of righteous vengeance although we know that this sometimes will be more painful to heal than the actual violation that was experienced. This rage allows us to hide ourselves, our complicity, our fear about the monster within.

This painful and systemic lust for retribution has distance and alienation at its heart. We treat despair and pain as disease rather than as a way of experiencing the world at a particular moment in time. There is nothing inherently evil in pain or despair; they can be passages to a new way of seeing the world, of receiving healing. That will not happen, not until a person looks deep within to learn to love their inner monsters, or their potential. It is only compassion that tames the beast, only love that turns a sword into a tool. To have peace in ourselves is to accept the monsters within and to love them until they are responsive and beautiful. This is the ministry of Jesus, to love even the monsters, to defend the vulnerable, to tell the truth, to show us ourselves and show us how we are loved because of and despite ourselves. Through Jesus, we are able to understand God as a good and loving parent who weeps over some of the paths we take, but who cannot resist our appeal. We are connected to our Maker with the umbilical cord of light and spirit and passion. From Jeremiah 31:18-20, we read:

Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading:
“You disciplined me, and I took the discipline;
I was like a calf untrained.
Bring me back, let me come back,
for you are my God.
For after I had turned away I repented;
and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was dismayed
because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”
Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
says the Holy One.

Repentance begins by wondering at how our actions affect others. This does not mean a kind of gentle dishonesty, but rather an engaged honesty, “my small truth” spoken with compassion. In repentance there are no big truths, only the little truths that we glean for ourselves as we walk the path. Repentance is recognition of both our power and the limitations of our wisdom. Remorse is always accompanied by humility as we see the effect of what we have done compared to the satisfaction of the action we have undertaken. In a novel I was reading, a young thief steals a rich girl’s jewellery — that is his occupation — but as he leaves the room, he notices that her nakedness is partly revealed. He finds this both disturbing and compelling as he escapes. What he learns from this experience is how in stealing, he is robbing people not just of their possessions but of their sense of privacy and security. “Crokus shared something of… sardonic reserve for the pretence [of the wealthy]. Adding fuel to this fire was a healthy dose of youthful resentment towards anything that smacked of authority…yet he’d never before understood the most subtle and hurtful insult his thefts delivered — the invasion and violation of privacy…. Eventually, Crokus grasped that the vision had everything to do with —everything. He’d come into her room, a place where …innocence didn’t just mean a flower not yet plucked. Her sanctuary…. In his mind the once-stalwart walls of outrage were crumbling.” (Erikson, p.234)

What he has taken is so much more than the value of the merchandise he has stolen — and he repents. Nobody could steal or harm another if we knew that we would feel the wound in our own experience. Nobody could resist repenting if we began to experience life through the eyes of another, particularly one who has less because of our more, or who hurts because of what we have said — no matter how righteous we may feel about it and no more how right we might genuinely be. Engagement with another is not a question of rightness, but of understanding. When Jesus meets the woman at the well (John 4), he teases her about her marital situation, but is still engaged, not judging, but caring.

Repentance is the corrective then for that which causes suffering and is the sign that compassion has come to make a home in a person or in a group of persons. Repentance will not stop natural disaster, or grief or illness, but it will affect the way in which we experience these losses and pains. We will cease to see ourselves as separate and begin to see ourselves as part of the whole, affecting and being affected as life twists and turns through the eternal moment. We come to experience both humility in the face of our self-absorption and awe at the power of the individual to effect change through the slightest action. Dr. T. Crowley of the University of Guelph sees in the study of history the power of the individual to affect the course of events. No one is insignificant, although our role may never be known, our participation hidden in history, but we each carry a piece of that history. What is also true is that each of us is the product of genetic variables, the time and conditions of our birth, and the influences and experience that surround us. We cannot separate ourselves from the flow; we can only decide how we live in the stream of God’s life as we witness it opening in this world.

Repentance is the sign that a person is forgiving and has begun to forgive themselves for having the knowledge of good and evil, but lacks the maturity and wisdom to see in a larger perspective. To turn from one way of being to another is a reflection of the deeper and inner change that marks the way to seeing the self as an active and responsible participant in the universe. Perhaps, the greatest barrier to true repentance and compassion is this curious combination of feeling powerless along with our sense of isolation, our sense of ourselves as individuals capable of acting without reference to others, capable of living separately and independently. There is no such thing as a self-made person; there is no one who survives one day of life without the assistance of others, whether or not those others are recognized or known.

“We are not alone,” the United Church Creed says, but the truth is that we cannot be alone: that would be a different reality and not the one in which we exist. Why defend our isolation from the healing of community? To be alone suggests control over our lives, allows us to deny dissolution while pretending that we are the deities of our own lives. Even so the DNA that is in us is shared by everything else that lives, trees, other creatures and so on. Humanity is neither so different nor so separate from the rest of creation that we can sever our ties to the world, no matter how much we may abuse it and hold it hostage to our greed and fear.

For this reason, we cannot forgive others until we experience the depth of healing that is forgiveness of self. Forgiveness of self is the path to solidarity with others. In this experience, we see ourselves as unfinished, needy, dependent on the affirmation of others and of the Divine, as children only beginning to take our first steps toward responsibility and active participation in the unfolding of the universe. The most humbling reality is that the Divine has chosen humanity despite our slow maturation to be these participants, perhaps to be the creatures who bring all other creatures into the awareness of love and mercy.

In his new book, Spirit Matters (Hampton Roads, 2000), Michael Lerner says, “… we can understand ourselves as one of the billion ways that Spirit has chosen to pour its love into existence. We are at once a manifestation of all the love of the universe, and an opportunity for the universe through us to manifest greater loving, cooperation, and harmony.… While we are here on earth, we have an incredible opportunity—to recognize and rejoice in the Unity of All being, to stand in awe and wonder at the glory of all that is, and to bring forward as much consciousness, love, solidarity, creativity, sensitivity, and goodness as we can possibly manifest. Developing and refining this kind of consciousness is a central element of what it means to develop an inner life.” (Tikkun, Vol.15, No.3 p. 34)

In accepting this role, we come to see that what is eternal is goodness and growth and what is temporary is pain and loss and evil. If evil is ultimately the loser, then where should we place our energies? If pain is for the moment, but as Paul trusts, will be swallowed up in glory and joy, then we can say with him, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). If loss, has to do with how we view time rather than how we view relationship, then our grief as it heals can be resolved into thankfulness for what we have had rather than greed for what we think we deserved. Repentance (turning) from our anger and bitterness and regret to the healing embrace of Christ’s love places us within a universe of becoming, within a cosmos of healing change, within the promise of Julian of Norwich’ s vision:

“All this trusting in the real comfort is meant to be taken generally…. It is God’s will. This word, ‘You will not be overcome’ was said very distinctly and firmly to give us comfort for whatever troubles may come. He did not say, ‘You will never have a rough passage, you will never be over-strained, you will never feel uncomfortable’, but he did say, ‘You will never be overcome.” God wants us to pay attention to these words, so as to trust him always…. For he loves us, and delights in us; so he wills that we should love and delight in him in return, and trust him with all our strength. So all will be well.” (185)

We have spoken frequently of healing as one of the signs of goodness, but what do we mean by healing? Healing is the result of true repentance. Healing comes as we accept the joys and challenges of the experiences as we choose them and as they come to us unbidden. Most of the popular understanding of healing has to do with cures which may or may not be good in themselves. The difference between healing and a cure is that healing covers a wider expanse of the human soul whereas a cure affects only a localized problem.

There are several fallacies with the whole idea of a cure. The first is an unrealistic expectation that we are “owed” a long, problem-free life. The second is that for good people, all problems have directly applicable, effective solutions. The third is that problems are errors in the universe, or mistakes. The fourth is that these mistakes are either God’s errors, or God’s judgement, or our error, but someone is definitely to blame. Julian of Norwich notes the first fallacy about having a comfortable life. Indeed, most people who commit themselves to the spiritual life find that honesty, compassion, and vulnerability are antidotes to any blind comfort, even if their personal lives should escape the usual experiences of conflict and pain. Good people can be hurt, killed, oppressed, become ill, experience loss and betrayal. There is no seal that prevents good people from the pain of being alive in a world where all life is in flux and change. These expectations of spiritual vaccination are human constructions that serve either social controls or assuage the fear of being really alive and really engaged.

If we want to fix the blame on God rather than ourselves, for a world which may not meet our expectations as a species, then we have to see ourselves as robotic rather than free; we are simply part of  a dream that God had once and now is analyzing. In this scenario, everything that happens has a preexisting meaning and purpose which presupposes a kind of sadistic and arbitrary judgement by God on an unsuspecting world. This idea of divinity has more to do with the Greek pantheon of anthropomorphic gods than the engaged, yet mysterious Creator “who is becoming” of Moses and of Jesus. There is no room for randomness in the configuration of reality that says it is all planned out. In a configuration in which healing, rather than punishment is the dynamic, there is room for the randomness of life. There is opportunity to give meaning to our pain and loss so that we may live with new strength and purpose. In the first case, we are victims of a providence that does not consult us and in the second case, we are allies with an unfolding hope of radiant life. In a universe of potential, rather than a detailed plan, there is also, tragically, room for us to be enemies and attempt to sabotage rather than promote life and healing.

The difference between healing and a cure is that for a cure we are dependent upon the skill of others or the capriciousness of “God’s” will. In healing, we turn to find the Divine growing within us despite our illness or pain and we turn to others in our life to restore relationship, to experience the possibility of new beginnings, to comfort and be comforted, to make connections that cannot be destroyed by our physical circumstances.

Healing can come only to the person who opens themselves to all the possibilities and finds this path within and outside their own consciousness. Others may or may not find cures, but they will not be healed of the deep wound that is our sense of isolation and loneliness in the face of an external, hostile at worst, indifferent at best, universe. True healing is always characterized by a sense of peace, good humour, trust and thankfulness for what has been given. A person must come to see themselves as part of the fabric of a beautiful and unfolding creation; they must learn to see themselves as loveable and ultimately beloved, they must be curious about the greater mystery that is at the heart of the universe. As Christians, we come to know that God is expressed through revelation in the Anointed One, the Christ.

Healing does not have to wait for a crisis, of course. If religion is doing its job, its task is not really about ethics because they are actually culturally and politically bound, but it is about healing. It is about helping people to open themselves in faith and trust, in hope and thanksgiving to an awareness of life that transcends the limitations of our individual knowledge and existence. It invites people into a sense of cosmic belonging that is so radical, that it changes the way we perceive everyone and everything. The cosmos that is suffused with the radiance of God and of which we are a permanent part, whether we are living or have died, suggests to us that we can never be alone and will always be participating in it at a molecular level, at a historical level, at a genetic level, at a cultural level, and if we are believers, at a spiritual level with Christ. This is healing because it brings an end to ultimate suffering which is our sense of betrayal in the face of the reality of our mortality and our sense of separation that began with our birth from our mother’s womb. This is healing of the disjuncture that allowed us to become self-aware and actors in the unfolding of this universe of which we are such a vital part.

Healing is ultimately a way of life. In the wedding ceremony we say that marriage is a way of life that none should lightly undertake and all should reverence. Perhaps more to the point would be to say that healing is a way of life that all should reverence and none should lightly undertake because it will affect not only our primary relationships but how we interact in the community and therefore in the greater Life. Perhaps that should be the citizenship oath for children in school. Instead of asking them to obey or honour the dubious merits of political rulers and systems, we might ask  children to commit themselves to a way of life that is healing of the world, respectful of others and open to personal compassion and repentance.

The benefit of the healing lifestyle is that we can say with Paul that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to this hope. For Christians that hope is bound up in our call to follow Jesus, but for others the context in which they experience the healing life may sound different. It seems to me the qualities of person as self, as member of community, as citizen of the world, look remarkably similar from one form of spirituality to another. You will note that I am not talking about ethics but about attitudes, not about morality, but about a spiritual perspective of the world and the universe that sees separation only as a stage of development rather than an end in itself, that sees human societies as all permeable and transient, that recognizes permanence only in the permutation of matter from one experience of itself to another. In “A Spirituality named Compassion”, Matthew Fox defined compassion like this: “to be compassionate is to incorporate one’s fullest energies with cosmic ones into the twin tasks of 1) relieving the pain of fellow creatures by way of justice-making, and 2) celebrating the existence, time and space that all creatures share as a gift from the only One who is fully Compassion. Compassion is our kinship with the universe and the universe’s maker…” (p.34)

To experience this compassion is to recognize the need for repentance and healing. From our awareness that our ego is not so much distinct as common to all other humans, to remember that our urge to live and thrive is like the dandelions, the squirrels, the creatures of the deep sea, we can place ourselves with the Christ at the centre of the cross, the point of connection. From and through his great compassion, we receive courage to see everything that is within us and everything that we are, alive and external to us. In this unity of consciousness, we are unafraid of our past and serene about our future. It is humility and repentance that teaches us to say yes with our hands outstretched in love and no to our warring and fearful egos. It is repentance that welcomes change as the blessing of the waters of baptism, the oil of peace and healing. It is the Holy within and beyond us that surrounds us with hope and clear vision so that we will see more clearly. The mirror will be true for us and we will be whole and we will abide in the heart of the creator forever.

In repentance, compassion.

God of thunder and God of the silent waters, open us, move us,
teach us not to fear your judgement,
but welcome the change that brings us closer to you and to each other.
Broaden our roads, help us to welcome new companions,
let us see the face of your Beloved in those we meet.
Helps us to feel your creative presence within the depths of our hearts.
Teach us not to fear the monsters, but to see the angels in the heights and in the depths.
In our living and in our dying, may your compassion be the meaning of our lives
and the nourishment we have shared with others.
Amen.

In Suffering, Wholeness

i am whole and alone
i am partial and in pain
we are, in joy and in pain
we are whole and being completed

The issue of suffering is perhaps one of the most difficult for Christianity. We say that creation is good and God is good, but so much suffering seems to be an ineluctable part of existence. We feel hard pressed to justify the presence of what appears to be evil in our world. Moreover, we are not clear about what actually constitutes suffering; we tend to describe everything from discomfort to agony as suffering. Indeed, what causes one to person to suffer grievously, may be an incidental discomfort or inconvenience to another. I want to suggest that as we come to acceptanc eof suffering s an element of the gift of awareness, we are able to transcend existential suffering as see it as material for our understanding, as part pf pur [assage and development as a species.. I will be clarifying however, the difference between existential suffering and the siffering that is the result of social evil.,

Socially, we have developed an equally distorted sense of perspective. One society is furious that there are no grocery stores in a particular part of town while another society wonders how many of their people will survive a famine. Our news delivery systems blur the distinction between misfortune and tragedy in their competition for our attention. Many of us have erred in this regard by underestimating how pain is received by another, either by overweighting or by inadvertently discounting the suffering.

All that we can say then is that suffering is how pain is understood and experienced. In the stories of the great Christian martyrs, we hear that the Romans were impressed by how bravely they died and with seemingly less distress than one would have expected. As a child, I heard these stories of martyrdom with a somewhat unsavoury fascination, much as the church has treated them in fact. We tend to dismiss the pain for the value we place on their courage and faith. Pain as the experience of others is minimized, while our own pain is perceived as definitive and unconditional.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry says, “…for the person in pain, so incontestably and unnegotiably present is it that “having pain” may come to be thought of as the most vibrant example of what it is to “have certainty”, while for the other person it is so elusive that “hearing about pain” may exist as the primary model of what it is “to have doubt”. Thus pain comes unsharably into our midst as that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed.” (p.4) In order to consider the relation of subjective pain to faith in a cosmos, founded and driven by goodness, I am going to employ the word “suffering” as a religious paradigm of pain.

As in “In Wisdom, Change”, the idea of development, of learning, inevitably leads to suffering. But what constitutes this suffering? Sometimes we say we are suffering when we have pain, but is it the pain or the consequences of the pain? Does suffering come from being hurt or being alone with the hurt? We know that touch has tremendous power to ease pain so is suffering the experience of alienation, of being left alone with whatever pain it is we are experiencing? Is suffering a sense of what it means to be totally alone in the universe, a sense of disconnection with all that is good? When people are deep in mourning, they speak about the greyness of grief, an absence of colour or music in their lives. Elaine Scarry notes that, “the unmaking of civilization inevitably requires a return to and mutilation of the domestic, the ground of all making.” (p.45) Suffering “uncreates” that which we believe to be the true nature of the universe: creativity, goodness, continuity, home.

Our suffering, then has something to do with disconnection. We know that the most devastating suffering has to do with torture and humiliation. Pain alone, while unpleasant, only constitutes “suffering” when it has a dimension of alienation. Any of us who spend any amount of time in hospitals will quickly note that those people who have a sense of support, love and sharing with others, seem to be able to deal with their pain in more creative, less alienating and alienated ways. They will say that they are having pain, perhaps, but they will rarely describe it as suffering. Those who have a sense of disconnection with others, whether or not that is observably true, will describe themselves as suffering. Those with conditions that make the certainty of communication impossible seem to be much more difficult to comfort, more difficult to reach. They seem to “suffer” more to us although their physical pain may be no greater. The development of support groups in the last few decades says something about the need for people who are suffering to find connection, to be understood, to be heard in their lament.

The story of the garden of Gethsemane is an important description of how compassion, integrity, goodness can lead to suffering. Jesus prayed to God for release from either his fear or the inevitability of his death, but God was silent . Even his companions abandoned him to sleep while he is anguished and terrified. In Luke’s account, an angel comes to strengthen him, but even that only makes him “pray more earnestly”. In the face of great suffering, there is only silence, the dark valley where the soul confronts itself in isolation.

“He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Luke 22:39-46)

In this snapshot, we see that the writers of these accounts wanted others to know that the Christ “suffered”; that is, not only was Jesus beaten and killed, but also experienced abandonment and stark fear. This feeling of abandonment rings throughout all stories of suffering. Anyone who has visited people in war-torn countries or in refugee camps has heard the haunting refrain when the victims are asked what they need. They say, “Don’t forget us; don’t abandon us in your hearts; even if you can do nothing concrete for us, do not forget us.” Some of the grief of the chronically ill and the very elderly is that they fear that they have been forgotten. In the psalms, we read about God remembering Israel “He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (Psalm 98:3) or about God seemingly to forget the people, “Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? “(Psalm 44:24)

Suffering itself has cultural and social parameters that define it from group to group. In some groups, a great deal of visible and audible grieving takes place at the time of a loved one’s death, but then people seem to return to their lives with minimal fuss. In other cultures, it is inappropriate to express grief at all with expressions of any sort other than the most restrained. This restraint is perceived to be true grief in that it is isolated and isolating. It also may be said that there is an expectation of degrees of grief for different kinds of losses. When one varies from the sociocultural norms of one’s peer group, most people perceive themselves and are perceived to be “abnormal” or inappropriate, or lacking in true feeling or culpable in some way. Indeed, a lack of grief is viewed as suspicious so that people who are delighted to be rid of an unlovable partner, parent, or sibling are perceived as somehow “wrong’. Yet, those who seem inconsolable are seen to be weak and not getting on with their lives. We are made uneasy by contact with the aching loneliness of true suffering and we want to avoid it or punish it if we cannot avoid it.

I would suggest that all suffering, whether physical, social or emotional, or their combinations, arises from a sense of being alone with the struggle. Like depression, suffering tends to be self-reinforcing. Once the cycle of suffering has begun, it is difficult to break. We become habituated to suffering and its causes, like poverty and war. Because we are inured to these conditions, we are virtually paralyzed to act, to save ourselves. When we must face our own suffering, we are often irritated by anyone who attempts to break down our isolation; we want to insist that no one has ever suffered like this before and no one can possibly understand. In social terms, we reject efforts to ameliorate situations of pain, resigning ourselves to these evils as essential conditions of life. There is no reason whatsoever why the world could not choose tomorrow to abjure war and to struggle to eliminate the worst ravages of poverty. The ghetto of our habituation has locked us into a cycle of suffering that we know will ultimately touch every nation sooner or later and destroy each meadow and city.

We also know that to allow anyone to enter the circle of our pain will immediately begin to heal the pain. Comfort can only be extended to the willing heart. And as Ecclesiastes says, there is a season for everything under the sun, including healing. But to violate the arena of suffering by entering without invitation is as unhelpful as avoiding it. That does not excuse us or allow us to avoid the site of suffering, however; it just demands respect and patience. Socially, we know that the only thing standing between us and a peaceful world where children grow up without fear or hunger is the common will to change, wisdom in other words. But this will require energy and vision; this will call us to awaken, to give up our deathly sleepiness in the face of suffering. This will force us to exchange our dependence on an intervening God for an empowering God who has given us the world.

So here are the aspects of suffering as I am exploring it. There is some kind of loss: physical integrity, personal control, identity, relationship. There is some kind of pain: social, emotional or physical. There is some form of isolation and alienation: imprisonment, depression, disability. Each aspect leads to suffering only when it is recognized and acknowledged as such. One of the surprising things to witness is the pain of someone else which they do not accept as suffering but as an unwelcome reality of the human condition. For example, let me tell you about two visually impaired people; one of these people finds her blindness a challenge but would not describe her life as suffering. The other projects the pain of her visual loss onto everything around her, blaming the world, other people, even institutions, for any minor setback. She tells others that they have no idea how she suffers, which is of course true.

And another example…we all know that to love another will inevitably lead to hurt and loss, regardless of the vitality of that relationship. One way or another, we all will be hurt by those we love, or we will visit hurt upon them, deliberately or inadvertently. Some of us accept this inevitable loss as the price we pay for the benefit of love, even if it seems cruel and unnecessary. Others of us will have a sense of betrayal that this cosmic reality is one in which we must participate whether we will it or not. People will say with shock that it is unfair that their loved one has died or has ceased to love them, but where love is concerned, this inevitablility also exists. On the other hand, to attempt to shield oneself by refusing love is to refuse the quality that makes life most pleasurable and satisfying. But whether or not we suffer is moot. We may hurt and we may cry out in pain but we will see ourselves as suffering only to the degree to which we are alone with our pain.

Another side of this feeling of loss is rejection, which tends to be experienced as intentional abandonment. This begins early in life for us. We are born alone, even twins who have shared a womb; at our birth, we are separated immediately from the one unknown being with whom we have shared existence. This awareness of isolation is the first out-of-the-womb experience we will know. It is so wrenching that most of the rest of our lives are spent attempting to avoid ever experiencing it again. Before we can understand, every denial, every dismissal to bed may be seen as rejection, perhaps as a memory of our birth. Later on, in adolescence usually, most of us experience the hurt of the end of first love, something diminished in its significance by calling it “puppy love”. This helps us to minimize it with hindsight, but I would suggest that it is perhaps one of the deepest relationship pains we will ever feel because, for many of us, it is the first loss that we will verbalize, the first time we will come to understand what the cost of love is. And because it is minimized, we do feel isolated. This pain is one of the most traumatic to our social selves. We learn not only the pain of rejection but that others will not respect our feelings and that we ourselves should perhaps not take them so seriously. This is particularly devastating for people who wait until later in life to form an intimate relationship. The sense of rejection then is often final in terms of their willingness to risk again.

Falling in love is learning how to give up that to which we most vigourously cling. As a spiritual discipline, it means accepting change and the death of old ideas, old experiences. Jesus tells Mary in the garden not to cling to him and is experienced after his death in new ways and through new people. The love and devotion had not died but it had to be transformed and understood in different ways. This is resurrection: that all that we have experienced so vibrantly can be experienced again, but differently. Paul writes about the kind of bodies that demonstrate how the resurrected body will differ, but all of this is metaphor for this deeper truth: to love is to release both our future expectations and our past experience to the refining power of loss so that we might have renewed life.

I suspect we minimize the sting of love because we want to pack it away rather than learn from its power and intensity. We resist learning that hurt is normal, not an unhappy accident in the otherwise serene progress of the universe, but a constant reality of creation. And to be hurt means that we will also suffer loss, isolation and fear. Risking in love, learning from rejection, discovering our own strength in the face of suffering are part of the training for life. This training is of critical importance for those of us who say we follow the way of the cross, but remain vulnerable to being irredeemably wounded by suffering.

If suffering is in fact so normal that it conditions us from our first breath, and if avoiding it is clearly impossible, how are we to deal with it? In the second creation story, this problem of isolation is addressed. God looks at the human creature who has been made and says. “It is not good that the adamah should be alone; I will make a helper to be a partner.” (Genesis 2:19) And then the partner leads the creature to bite on the fruit of consciousness and relationship is born. This is a corollary: no self-awareness, no relationship. To develop relationship, we must first have a sense of self. Indeed, the creature only has a rudimentary sense of God after the fruit. To grow up is to become self-aware; to become self-aware begins the learning about separation; to learn about separation is to learn about suffering.

Why does suffering exist? Because the route to development lies through the path of self- awareness to affiliation to disentanglement to interrelationship. We must become aware of our separate selves, then we must learn to attach ourselves to another. Then again, we must learn autonomy of thought and action. The final stage is to learn how to coexist in an interdependent and mutually beneficial mode. It is difficult to believe that if a butterfly that lives for only a day has an important place in the universe, then we who are only relatively less ephemeral, have a place also. Yet everything we do hastens or hinders the growth of love in the universe. Every action we take, every word we speak, every hidden thought contributes either to the well-being and healing of the cosmos, or it erodes the fabric of creation. Where we place our suffering, and in what service, is of cosmic importance.

Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is within. That means that what is “out there” is inside too, but we can touch most keenly that which is inside our individual lives and in our lives as associations with people. But the kingdom of God that is within is in process, unfinished, open-ended. We need not cling to the past because the Spirit is encouraging us to a wider picture in this moment. Jesus lives out this teaching by first loving and calling a familial association around himself and then by leaving it to develop its own life and form. Jesus as an historical figure and Jesus as an object of faith are still being revealed as we learn from him in each era of the church’s life. As we change, our picture of Jesus is changed also. As we develop broader understandings and sensibilities, we are less afraid of differences and endings and more curious about next steps in faith.

And why do we want to develop either as a species or as individuals anyway? What’s wrong with the lives and the boundaries we have? Nothing of course is wrong with where we are, as long as we are affluent, and living in a peaceful land, but Christianity encourages us to think about growth and development. The language we use is of growing into Christ, of becoming a transformed body like the body of Christ, of being one with the Creator the way Christ is one, of becoming complete and fulfilled as the Creator is complete and fulfilled. One of the possibly unique features of Christianity is its impulse for growth and change, for acknowledging that everything is in the process of transformation.

The pathway of human development as individuals, as cultures and as a species requires love and suffering because it is through the experience of alienation that we come to value association not only for ourselves but for each person and each society. Love and suffering must always accompany each other because each conditions the other. To remember that no beloved can be held forever is to acknowledge the fragility and precious nature of the beloved. This is anticipated suffering. To be hurt through love is to experience the power of suffering to isolate and also to bring us through to a new understanding, a new way not only of understanding ourselves, but of understanding the beloved whose relationship with us has been altered. Suffering is the way we learn to share life, the way we learn both to differentiate ourselves from others and to reattach ourselves to others through compassion and love.

Suffering is not so much a condition as an attitude or a belief about a particular kind of experience. For example, some widows may suffer because they no longer have a place in the community, others may feel as if they live only a partial existence without their partners, and others may be liberated from the social constraints of marriage. It is the set of attitudes and beliefs that affect the definition of suffering. One elderly woman I visit suffers because she feels abandoned by her husband and her circle of friends, all of whom have died, and she lacks the need or the urge to form new relationships. Another woman in almost the identical circumstance says that she is not suffering, despite terrible physical problems, because her life is so busy with writing to her family and friends and staying abreast of the world’s events so that she can pray about them. This is not a value judgement of these people but an example of the different ways we understand ourselves in the context of our relationships. Thus, not surprisingly, religious people who have developed a method of prayer and reflection rarely find themselves with an ongoing sense of abandonment or psychic suffering.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer found that his memorization of the psalms helped during his imprisonment. His love for his compatriots, for both his sinful nation and for the Jewish people who were the victims, spun him back into the hands of his oppressors who would ultimately kill him as a traitor. His suffering was not a function of a sense of abandonment, but how he felt in safety while others suffered and were killed. He could not permit them to be alone in that and so renounced his personal safety for his solidarity with integrity and for love. “ Every act of self-control of the Christian is also a service to the fellowship. On the other hand, there is no sin in thought, word, or deed, no matter how personal or secret, that does not inflict injury upon the whole fellowship. An element of sickness gets into the body; perhaps nobody knows where it comes from or in what member it has lodged, but the body is infected. This is the proper metaphor for the Christian community. We are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence. Every member serves the whole body, either in its health or to its destruction. This is no mere theory; it is a spiritual reality.” (p.100 Life Together)

When we believe that our own seemingly modest actions have significance and power in the world, we are empowered to undertake what appears to be suffering for the love of others. This kind of sacrificial love has nothing to do with masochism. It always has to do with an unswerving sense of love. When one reads about the great martyrs one comes to understand how they hope for their lives up to the end. Equally they hope to inspire or lead others at the best, and at the least they choose one pain (love) for a less satisfactory pain (alienation, non-participation). They are witnesses to an outcome that they themselves will experience only through the eyes of hope and not in their mortal lives. The pictures of the victims of war are important not for the sensationalism that attends them but for the living reminder that this could be each one of us; that no one is guaranteed exemption from this price in the world in which we live. Just recently, there was headline news about a woman who had been killed by her estranged husband despite restraining orders and reprimands. Her death was a witness to the low value we place on women’s lives, particularly married women. For some people these stories are a reminder, a wake-up call, but for those who will not face suffering, who turn to the false safety of their own lives, these witnesses are as offensive as witnesses to suffering have always been.

Suffering is the centre of the cross. It is the nexus of love and alienation, of life and death, of anomie and meaning, of abandonment and fulfillment. The centre of the cross is the point where the contradictions meet; it is the chairotic moment of insight in which the paradoxes that haunt us make sense, have meaning. At the centre of the cross, we are each and all of us the persecutor and the victim, the witness and the perpetrator, the child and the old person. At the centre of the cross, we are complete and yet we are becoming. At the centre of the cross, we observe a man who becomes  a god for us, who transcends both his life and his death to call us to a deeper understanding of the hope with which we are to live, the vision we are to hold before our eyes.

Jesus says that those who want to save their lives have to learn how to give them up. At this moment when the contradictions are resolved, we see that we have never had our lives, but by spending them, using them, we give meaning and a place for ourselves in the history of the world. We may be servants in the house of the Holy One, but without our small sacrifice, without our small lives and offerings, the whole world would be poorer, our development would be more arduous and our release would be more prolonged.  In this moment, we understand our personal deaths not as wrongs but as completions, fulfillments of the tasks we have undertaken to ease the suffering of others by our love and our vision of hope.

In speaking of death, Thomas Merton notes, “ Hence, life ‘dies’ to itself in order to give itself away, and thus affirms itself more maturely, more fruitfully, and more completely. We live in order to die to ourselves and give everything to others. Such dying is the fruit of life, the evidence of mature and productive living. It is, in fact, the end or goal of life.” (p.102 Love & Living) Merton is not suggesting a life focused on death, but on others and the spaces in their lives where suffering exists. When we are totally immersed in love of life and of living creatures, our own deaths are almost incidental beside the wonder that we feel and the compassion that moves us to action and to prayer.

To step into the place where others suffer, to open ourselves to the pain of loss and abandonment, is to accept that we all participate in the painful delivery of the created order. Each one of us a womb, each one of us the product of a womb. Each life sown in tears and in joyful release.The apocalyptic imagery that presages a new order, however one may choose to think about what that order means, suggests the pain of labour: “ When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. (Mark 13:7-8) One would be hard pressed to find a time when this description did not accurately describe reality somewhere in the world. We might want to speculate that the unfolding of life on this planet, and human civilization in particular, requires a continual birthing of consciousness and we see that reflected in the created order as well as in our societies.

This prolonged apocalypse is mirrored in the ongoing insertion of Christ into the world not so much as an event as a process, a second coming into the world. Simultaneously the world is being bent in suffering and the world is being healed and renewed. Elaine Scarry speaks of this as God being both omnipotent and vulnerable, sentient and wounded, God as both the subject and the object of human suffering. “It is not that the concept of power is eliminated; it is certainly not that the idea of suffering is eliminated; it is that the earlier relation between them is eliminated. They are no longer manifestations of each other; one person’s pain is not the sign of another person’s power. The greatness of human vulnerability is not the greatness of divine invulnerability. They are unrelated and therefore can occur together: God is both omnipotent and in pain.” (Scarry, p. 214)  On the cross, Jesus connects the holiness and power of God to the suffering of the world. To “take up our cross” as the church is stand at that centre where the only power that matters is the power of loving relation.

God is both beyond the human condition and enmeshed, not just in the human condition but incarnate in the whole created order, “groaning in labour”. And so we say that the Spirit groans with us, labours with us to deliver us. The cosmos is both the divine child and the body of the Great Mother who wills life and growth for all her children. Jesus, then, is not the incarnation but the revelation of the whole incarnation, of Spirit becoming known and revealed in matter. Jesus the person conveys the Spirit with power and new wisdom to create a new order, a new consciousness. We are invited to be born of Spirit, to experience the fire and breath of holiness flashing through our lives. It is Jesus who has taught us not to fear the power of the flame and the whirlwind but to be caught up in it, to become like him in daring and in passion.

This aspect of the incarnation, the extended passion of Christ which can be seen throughout most of the Christian writings, canonical and otherwise, is expressed in every event of his life, from his feasting at table to his sorrow over Lazarus. To be incarnate means, in a Christian context, to participate in the suffering of the world through the circumstances of one’s own life. This pushes our ideas about suffering into the realm of paradox. If everyone suffers, then suffering is both an isolating experience and the single common experience of every human brought into the world. To suffer means to feel loss and abandonment, yet in that loss and abandonment, we are most in solidarity with all that has been, that is, and that is yet to come. Indeed, in each experience of suffering, each person participates in the suffering of Christ and thereby has both the potential and the hope of resurrection, of understanding embodiment in broader and more enriching ways, and to see ourselves not just as cosmic dust, but as cosmic dust with a purpose.

For suffering to move from a regrettable error in the Divine plan, or the ongoing punishment for growing up, to a difficult but essential part of human development, we need to separate the suffering that is “natural” and the suffering that we impose in our lust for divine power. Since God is ultimately the source of life and death, the alpha and omega, we tend to feel powerful only when we have the potential to cause harm or to give life. Not surprisingly, the people who most capture our imaginations are often healers and serial killers. This is a shallow grasp of suffering, a failure to recognise ourselves not at the beginning or the ending but in the middle of the action of the cosmos. We are not powerful enough to truly create anything from nothing; nor can we utterly destroy matter, although we can bend it and reshape it. We are neither the beginning nor the ending of the story; we are caught in the midst of the story and invited to write the parts for ourselves in this cosmic drama.

In one sense, the garden gate is closed. We cannot return to a state of ignorance and unknowing without destroying ourselves as a species. One might see some of our more horrific technologies as a wish fulfillment of a return to the womb through our own annihilation. As we contaminate our water, air and land, we are gradually remaking the world in such a way that it will be unliveable. In this way, we will recreate the garden. But this time it will not be a nursery, but a tomb. What was intially the ignorance of being pre-conscious will become the ignorance of of non-being.

Every day I call on you, O God;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness? (Psalm 88:9-12)

To grow up means to accept the burden of consciousness and that inevitably will mean awareness of loss and abandonment, suffering. However, there are still choices for us to make. We can decide where we would place our energies: in the creation of suffering or in its healing; in learning through suffering or in denial; in solidarity and a sense of community of suffering or in isolation and self-absorption. Suffering is both opportunity and curse for us. We can hold it as a weapon or as a doorway to new life. We can be monsters or angels, and sometimes both at the same time. The world has been given to humans to “have dominion” in and we have choices about how we will walk through this garden of the world. Whether we destroy our garden, break our toys and kill our friends depends on how we come to understand suffering. Suffering that is neither sought nor administered but endured, experienced and used for the growth of wisdom, can be our rite of passage to a new way of being human, a way that looks like Jesus, an incarnation of God’s compassion and woundedness. As long as we confuse the suffering that gives us birth with the suffering we visit upon each other in order to feel like gods, then we will make our lives and the life of the planet a misery.

If the whole of creation is suffering birth pangs, then the whole creation is dying and being remade second by second as one star goes supernova and another galaxy is born. We do not need to fear this and when we understand that we are participants, not gods or victims of the universe, then we can greet both the pain and the healing as cosmic moments and see ourselves and any other sentient life as partners in the unfolding, in the development, in the mystery, in the revelation. Science then becomes not the laboratory of dangerous experiment, but a place of holiness and discovery of the Divine, just as Roger Bacon so once believed. Science is the revelation of Divine mystery. And we are not mad dabblers, but reverent, wisdom-seeking, compassionate explorers of existence.

Our suffering both connects us to each other and to the whole unfolding of creation, and distinguishes us one from another. Like a blizzard, we are each a snowflake, but from the scope of history a blur of precipitation. A children’s hymn that I found highly debatable as a child had the sentiment that God’s sees the little sparrow fall and has even more concern for humans. As I speculated on how many dead birds I had witnessed, I found this of dubious comfort. Perhaps the focus is skewed, however. Perhaps we want to say that God in creating us, also witnesses to our existence. As each creature comes into existence, it is both recognized as part of the fabric of the Divine and a separate being. If we say that the Divine transcends time and we are carved in the palm of that existence (Isaiah 49:14–16), then our existence is tied and bound to the Holy One.

But Zion said, “The Holy One has forsaken me,
my God has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.

Once we live, we live forever as part of God. For humans that means that our consciousness partly requires our recording of all that exists in suffering and in thanksgiving. Becoming is painful; birth is painful. Beyond the labour is joy; beyond our human emotions is only Life in all its fullness.

Merton said, “Faith gives us life in Christ…. To accept this is impossible unless one has profound hope in the incomprehensible fruitfulness that emerges from this dissolution of our ego in the ground of being and of Love. Such a hope is not the product of human reason, it is a secret gift of grace…. We accept our emptying because we realize that our very emptiness is fulfillment and plenitude. In our emptiness the one Word is clearly spoken. It says, ‘I will never let  go of you or desert you’ (Hebrews13:5), for I am your God and I am Love.” (Love & Living, p. 22)

In suffering, wholeness.

Beloved of God, you shared human life with us.
You knew laughter and tears, courage and fear.
Still our trembling souls that we may see you before us,
a light to guide our feet and a comfort on our journey.
Show us how to be companions to others
that we may be bound ever closer to you and to your Way.
Holy Jesus, child of God and of Mary,
be our friend and brother that we may walk through storms
and sunshine with your name on our lips
and your message in our actions. 

Amen.

 

The Paradox of the Eternal

i look into the face of fear and pain;
it rolls over me, a tidal wave.
washed clean by the storm,
i look over my shoulder;
the pain and fear have passed,
the sunshine is blessing me again

As I thought through what I wanted to say in this post, I became aware that each idea kept turning in on itself;  although I could examine one idea, it was attached to every other idea. Love and suffering, fear and sin, wisdom and change, healing and repentance, compassion and self knowledge, all were held together in one pattern. I would say that one pattern is composed of what we think of as the eternal mind of God, including the bits and pieces of human and other life. Early on in my thinking and praying, I became aware that I was spending time in the labyrinth of paradox, where each corridor leads both ahead and back on itself. Although we may feel like it is a maze, really we cannot ever be lost because the way out and the way in are the same, through our bodies and our experiences.

When we attempt to speculate about the eternal, or about the big picture view of life and the universe, we are arrested by the limits of our own intellect and our present store of knowledge, even though it is more than one person can assimilate. When we speak of the Divine outside strict and arbitrary limits imposed either by culture or interpretation, we must include seeming contradictions to almost everything that we can say. When we say that God is good, we also remember that for many people, the experience of suffering has been understood to be as much the will of God as their redemption. The story of Job in Hebrew scripture is a case in point.  “Then Satan answered God, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” The Holy One said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (Job 1:10-12)

Although this text suggests that God assumes that God guesses what will happen, it also suggests an element of uncertainty. When we say that God is unchangeable, we acknowledge either that prayer is completely ineffectual or that if God has a plan at all, it can be amended. If God’s plan can be amended, then we must say that the Divine mind can be changed and therefore, change is a quality of the eternal, an assumption about God that we continue to make. When we say that God is the maker of heaven and earth, we must say that the only part of the universe we know is this galaxy and the only heaven we know is the one described by sages and mystics. What we know about God is either the product of our own projections, or a response to the image of the Divine within us, or a way of describing experiences that push us beyond language.

To attempt to consider the mystery that is the Divine in any way that hopes to expand our culturally biassed pictures, we must accept paradox as a working reality of all that we know. To accept paradox as a quality of the Divine is to say that god is and is not, that everything we believe about God is and is not. One of the concerns for Christians is how this affects our christology. For some this is a threat to the idea that the historical Jesus and the experience of the Risen Christ are expressions of the Divine designed and developed to fit Christian thinking, but not necessarily universal in their application. We can say that Jesus Christ is the only revelation for the church, but can we say that God is not revealed in Buddhism, in pantheism, in Hinduism, in Sufism and so on?

An example of intentional application of paradox is to say that for those who are called, or who discover themselves as Christians, Jesus Christ is the only Way, Truth and Life. That does not mean that this can be applied to the experience of the Holy for all other people of the earth. We can say that for those who “fit” the Christian model, there is no salvation outside the acceptance of Jesus Christ, but can we say this of others who have been shaped and moulded in different structures and perspectives? Thus, we can say that Jesus is the only child of God for Christians, that Jesus is the only path to God for Christians, that in Jesus the fullness of the Divine is revealed to Christians and still allow that for other people, there are different paths, different revelations, different dreams.

We can say that whatever the nature of the Divine is, we believe that within it are held seeming contradictions of theology, of ethics, of spirituality and of lifestyle. If we say that nothing that was made was separate from the Divine and everything that has come to be is part of the Divine, then we must allow that in that fullness of being there must be contradiction and the dynamic tension of that which we perceive to be opposites. For Christians, the place of paradox is the centre of the cross, where we find the suffering Jesus and where we do not find the Risen Christ. On the cross, we place our unswerving conviction that for us, this Jesus, this Christ is the way, the truth and the life and that no one can understand Christian faith except through this mystery. What we also say is that for others, the resolution of paradox does not exist on the cross, may not even require a god, may be equally full of truth but it is not for us.

To extend this discussion, I would like to consider the contradictions and breadth of some of the ideas that we have already considered and place them in the frame of holy paradox that allows them and their opposites to exist together. We have said that change is the essential condition of the universe as we know it. We could say that God saw everything that was made and it was changing, just as easily as we can say that God saw everything and it was good. When death is no longer understood to be a threat but an unfolding of the power of life to transform and make new, then we no longer need an unchanging universe nor an immutable God. But is there anything that we want to continue to think about as eternally existing and as being eternally changeless?

This is a discussion of the essentials of reality. For Jews and Christians, the constant that occurs is the chesed of the Divine. This steadfast love is not so much fixed as it is encircling, spiralling back always to an original and indissoluble bond with the creation. After each disaster or break in the relationship with God, the stories and prophets tell us that God remembers the original love for us and the earth and “repents” of anger and judgement, turning to us with renewed concern and protection.

The sun shall no longer be
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give light to you by night;
but the Holy One will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down,
or your moon withdraw itself;
for the Holy One will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended.
Your people shall all be righteous;
they shall possess the land forever.
They are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands,
so that I might be glorified.
The least of them shall become a clan,
and the smallest one a mighty nation;
I am the Holy One;
in its time I will accomplish it quickly.

We understand then that nothing can separate us from the Holy Love of God which may not always be gentle or even kind by human standards, but is constant in the sense that it always returns to its point of original holiness and blessing.  This would suggest to us that the evil we intend and act out  is without much point if everything spirals back into God’s love. We might remember Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, when he learns that his “crimes” will only increase his own torment rather than bring him peace or satisfaction. For the people of Hebrew and Christian scripture, then, the eternal love of God is a relative constant —relative in that it is in orbit with human experience, constant in that it always returns to the still point of the primary impulse for creation.

The other thing we can say is that reality is about ongoing creation and revelation. This is a tough point for those who cling to a single act of creation rather than an unfolding process in which creatures and species have lifespans and ages and then disappear to give way to new forms and new species. Humans are fearful of this process and so we attempt to cling to all the stages of evolution at the same time. Hence we have the movies about time travel in the Star Trek future or the era of dinosaurs intruding on the present or the frozen human being revivified so that all ages can coexist. We do not like the idea that as a species we may also have a limited lifespan that is not simply threatened by large cosmic events, but in fact is part of our natural way of being to evolve and change. Although Paul speaks of the resurrection as being a major shift–in that we will inherit a materially different kind of body–Christians rapidly reinvented a resurrection in which we have the same bodies and behave in a very similar way, just without death this time. I am amazed at how much we cling to ideas about this life, not because it is necessarily so satisfying but because it is what we know. I want people to think about an eternity of sameness and then consider whether or not we want change to disappear from the experience of being alive.

Not only is creation changing and evolving or devolving, depending on perspective, but so is the revelation of who is in the universe and what our relationship is to the Creator. This is an equally sore point for those who would like the revelation to have been  completed during the time of the resurrection appearances of the Anointed One, completion marked by his ascension into a literal heaven. Then the church  could remain on earth as keeper of the tradition, an unchanging completely fulfilled revelation which we might struggle to understand but which is complete in itself.  I believe this is a dead end for serious thinkers who can easily spot the problems with such a tidy plot that seems in almost direct contradiction to the Pentecost experience. And yet, perhaps in one possible reality, there was a plan and we followed it. In this reality, the plot clearly was adjusted as the church became the world of empire and the world became a vehicle for a state religion. The irony of the Jewish peasant rebel serving the armies of one type of tyrant or another is either shocking or tragic.

Another way of thinking about the unfolding history of the world is to acknowledge that absolutely nothing is finished. Not only is our knowledge partial, existence itself is partial because the last chapter has yet to be written. If there is a master plan, then it is not yet fully revealed. More likely, if there is no plan, then we do not yet perceive how we are to function in developing reality and of our participation in the cosmos. We have only begun to think about what it means to be in relationship with each other. Jesus taught us that as we learned to love one another, to shelter one another, to discover the power of vulnerability, the unity in the dismemberment of the cross, then we would come to know something about the Divine.  We would begin to be in mutual relationship with the Holy One and it would be possible to see ourselves and our place in the universe more clearly. If what we are seeking is the way to God, which to say to wholeness, to holiness, through repentance and healing, then we want to touch the goodness that lies within our cells, the goodness that broods over the universe, the goodness that begins and ends everything with blessing and the power of love.

How do we define what is good then? The creation story tells us that essentially everything is good; that at the moment of beginning everything is good.  Everything comes from goodness and has goodness as its originating spark. Everything resolves in goodness and has goodness as its motivation. But when we speak ontologically, we are able to say that whatever is close to the source of being, the originating principle, is good. Not because of what it is or is not doing or what it is or is not believing, but because of its state of being alive. At heart, then, everything is good because at one moment everything was in the state of coming into existence. If most things attempt to return to their original nature, then we can say that everything is groaning to be born again, struggling to return to another state of coming into being. Everything wants to change, everything wants to be born, everything wants to be complete, everything wants to be at that original centre of existence. But we know that when we return to that river, we will not be what we were but a new creation, something different as all that we have been is blended into the new creation. Conscious and lovingly, passionately aware of being part of all that is .

If good is the ontological nature of the universe, then matter as it changes and flows into and out of different forms of itself is all becoming a new creation. The gift for humans is to be conscious, to be aware of the process of holiness birthing us, filling us, flowing through us, breaking us and remaking us. It can destroy the tyranny of our demanding egos and our defiant need to be autonomous, but it fulfills our desperate need to belong. It acknowledges the value of the forms we take as we participate with God in the unfolding of the universe. Perhaps one day, we will stand at a crest of human development and these will have been quaint ideas of a primitive time, but until then I am going to gamble on a universe that is fully inhabited by holiness, that is the child of holiness, that is the journey of holiness, that is the alpha and omega that births change and compassion.

I remain a Christian because for me the story of Jesus, his faith and teachings are the Way, the Truth and the Life. For me, Christianity is about these four noble truths. Everything begins and ends in goodness. In the growth of wisdom, everything we know is changed. Change causes us to suffer and our suffering reunites us with our sense of belonging, of wholeness. The remedy for isolation is compassion which we learn through repentance as we discover and accept ourselves as monsters and as angels.

And finally, Jesus is the one who has walked this road before, who was able to find a pathway through distraction and fear and his own suffering. Jesus was able to stand in solidarity with everyone who suffers, to sit at table with  monsters and other sinners, was able to love those whom he met. Jesus knew a loving God of goodness and mercy, a God who cared about all the little ones and not much about structures and forms and rules and labels. I do not care whether or not he walked on water or did tricks with wine. I have little interest in his parentage and whether or not it matters how much he owed to being divine and how much his DNA looked like mine. What i really care about is learning how he could love so much that people felt cared about beyond his death, beyond his humiliation. What matters to me is his strength of spirit that can reach out to me 2,000 years beyond his death to claim me, a mixture of monster and angel, for the work of love. When we speak about relationship, we re-member ourselves in the context of that relationship. When we speak about our connection to the Holy One, we re-member that we, the partial ones, are already whole and fulfilled in our beginning and in our ending and for love, we walk the pathway of possibility where anything is possible and yet all things already exist in love and goodness. We are contained within the walls of this goodness, but within these walls, within this garden that is old and new, we recreate ourselves and we learn and change and grow until this garden is full and we discover we are a star. And another star explodes into being and a new beginning is born.

Liturgy for Palm Sunday

Suggestions for presentation are summarized in Holy Week Reflections found elsewhere in this blog.

Opening Hymn: “The King of Glory Comes” (© 1966, 1982, Willard F. Jabusch. Administered by OCP Publications.)

Reflection introducing the themeWho is the King of Glory?”

Reading

Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30. It was the beginning of the week of Passover, the most sacred week of the Jewish year. In the centuries since, Christians have celebrated this day as Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. With its climax of Good Friday and Easter, it is the most sacred week of the Christian year.

One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey down the Mount of Olives cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class….

On the opposite side of the city, from the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Jesus’ procession proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilate’s proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.

(Excerpt from The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Published by HarperOne, Reprint edition (January 30, 2007; page 2).

The bagpipers, in full regalia, enter and do two turns around the space playing enthusiastically.

Palm Sunday Reading

Music: All Glory Laud and Honour,  2 verses (Hymn 181, Common Praise, Hymnal of the Anglican Church of Canada)

(Juggler — or some other busker — and children process, handing out palms as they go.)

Music: All Glory Laud and Honour,  final 3 verses

Reflection, in summary style, on the themeWho is the King of Glory?”

(At this point, there is an opportunity to invite group discussion on the differences between the two parades.)

Prayers of the People

Prayer of Confession

All: Creator God, you are the source of mercy and peace. We call ourselves your people although we often misunderstand your will for us. You set before us teachers and prophets, martyrs and models, but we choose poorly. Forgive us our admiration of power over possibility, enforcement over encouragement. We call ourselves the followers of the way. Help us to remember that your way is a cross, your throne is an open heart, and your music is the lament of angels weeping at the suffering of the earth and its creatures. Forgive us, heal us, and help us to grow in courage and compassion. In Jesus’ name we pray.

Absolution: God forgives us as a loving parent has patience with a child. May we find healing and new vision as we walk the way of the cross this week. In the name of the Trinity of Love. Amen.

Offertory Hymn

Eucharistic Prayer

Presider: May God of the Exodus journey with us.

All: We welcome the Holy One in our midst.

Presider: Let us look to the horizon of God’s love.

All: We lift our hearts in hope.

Presider: Let us give thanks for the gift of Jesus.

All: We offer our lives in faith.

Presider: Holy Mystery, you touch all people with a sense of your abiding presence. You dwell within the human heart at peace; you teach compassion by sending messengers of justice and understanding. Joining in the song of the universe we proclaim your glory:

All: Sanctus

A time to feel the Divine presence 

Presider: Gracious God, for all people you offer human examples of love and peace. We received Jesus as our teacher and friend, the one who would show us how to open our souls to you. In his great compassion, he healed the sick and saw in each person dignity and potential. For us, he became Love incarnate in human form. For us, he became your promise of life everlasting and love beyond all exhaustion or limit.When Jesus knew that his time of trial approached, he gathered his friends and family together. Anointed as sacrifice and blessing by a woman disciple, Jesus reached out to those who loved him. He took bread, gave thanks to you, broke it and gave it  to his friends, saying, “Take and eat: this is my body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” After  supper, Jesus took the cup of wine, gave you thanks, and said “Drink this all of you,” as a sign of his life, given as the  covenant of love and forgiveness for everyone. He said, “Whenever you drink it, remember me.”

A time to remember Jesus

And now we gather at this table in response to his commandment, to share the bread and cup of Christ’s undying love, and to proclaim our faith.

(Presider: Breathe your Holy Spirit, the wisdom of the universe, upon these gifts that we bring to you: this bread, this cup, ourselves, our souls and bodies, that we may be signs of your love for all the world and ministers of your transforming purpose.

Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory is yours, Creator of all, and we bless your holy name for ever.) Book of Alternate Services

All: Amen. Amen.

Closing Hymn