Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums.  One lesson has been particularly popularized.  As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life.  Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life.  One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity.  Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness.  Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle.  As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently.  Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.

 Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition.  Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.

This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement.  They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced.  This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat.  Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31).  Herein is the definition of Solitude.  Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.

This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline.   Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives.  Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason.  Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives.  As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord.  We silence the radio. We turn off the TV.  We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.

Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum.  It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter.   Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home.  Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like.  God’s grace is sufficient for our labours.  We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment.  We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.

They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness.  Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work.  We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away.  We must step towards.  In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ.  Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention.  Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us.  Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.

So how might we experiment with solitude?  Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude.   Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet.  In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.”  This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within.  Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question.  As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within.  Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.

Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time.  Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors.  We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there.  It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day.  Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline).  Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives.  With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt.  For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.

The Language is Important: Michael Coren and the Problem of Pastoral Insensitivity

This is my response to The Reverend Michael Coren’s CBC opinion piece regarding Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), posted on February 4,2020. (You can find his article here). Let me be clear about what this response is and is not.  This is not a position paper wherein I pose a counterargument to Coren’s support of MAID.  My intent is not to convince anyone of a certain ethical stance regarding this complex issue.  Coren’s support of MAID will go unchallenged. I do, however, wish to highlight how Coren discusses MAID, and suggest why, I believe, Coren’s piece is unhelpful and harmful.

Before I jump in, let me first tell you who is writing. I am someone who was born with a rare congenital heart condition.  I had open heart surgery when I was 6 months old, and while I have largely lived my life without complication, at 41 years of age, my heart has begun to decline in function.  Every passing year brings more reduced functionality. To put it bluntly, my heart is failing. Due to the rarity of my condition, my cardiologist cannot tell me how my condition will progress or what awaits me in the future.  All of this is to say I am not someone unconcerned with how this conversation is occurring.  Furthermore, while I am not someone who would choose MAID for myself, I understand why someone would, and I recognise that, in the future, I may be in the situation where this is presented as an option to me.  Now, onto my issues with Coren’s article.

Most disturbing is Coren’s position that the alternative to assisted dying is “unassisted dying.”  Coren writes that unassisted dying amounts to “dying in pain, anguish, and often totally alone.”  This is simply not true.  For starters, I would hope that as a clergy person Coren doesn’t believe that someone is alone when they die. More to the point, however, Coren completely dismisses the valuable ministry provided by Hospices throughout the world.  It is as if he assumes that MAID is the only resource available in which one can manage how they die.  Again, this is simply not true.  Coren ignores the simple reality that every single day there are countless medical staff who lovingly and ardently attempt to make an individual’s journey toward death as easy and painless as possible. I have had the privilege of visiting many people in Hospices over the years, and I am constantly touched by the care taken to ensure that no patient feels alone or abandoned.  Furthermore, letting “death come like a thief” does not equal dying alone.  My mother died in a Hospice room after her cancer ran its course.  She was surrounded by all her children, and her husband holding her hand.  We all had a chance to say our goodbyes and to trust her into the hands of God.  To suggest that opposition to MAID amounts to willfully condemning our loved ones to a painful, lonely, and agonizing death is ludicrous, and I would add, pastorally insensitive.

This brings me to another point. Apparently, Coren doesn’t believe that other people have adequate experience with death and dying.  Coren writes: “I have to wonder, how many of these people have sat with an ailing loved one and heard them beg and plead to be permitted to go just a little early” (my emphasis).  Does Coren really believe that people are living in blissful ignorance of death and dying?  Does he really believe that anyone who opposes MAID do so because they have never experienced the death of a loved one?  Frankly, I don’t believe that Coren thinks this way.  This sentence obviously is a rhetorical device designed to bolster Coren’s own position.  It suggests that Coren alone has done the hard work of journeying with people as they die, and no one else has.  But again, this is simply not true.  Personally, I have sat with parishioners as they have relayed to me their sense of frustration that death was taking too long.  I have held the hands of the dying; I have watched life-support be removed from a comatose patient.  I have been called to the bedside as someone breathes their last.  And in each of these situations I was never alone.  I was but one of many. Every day, millions of people spend time at hospital beds and hospice wards as they surround the ill and dying. Coren doesn’t have a monopoly on these experiences, and to suggest otherwise is disrespectful.

Lastly, let me touch on how Coren ends his opinion piece.  Coren, who has not spoken of matters of faith at all during his post, concludes this way: “Pray God – and I use the name of the deity purposefully – we will all come to our senses.”  Obviously Coren is suggesting that God agrees with him, that he somehow has an inside track on God’s view on life and death.  Without typing the words, Coren essentially concludes his opinion piece with “thus saith the Lord.”  It is always dangerous for a clergy person to suggest that he or she has an inside track on how God views matters of morality and ethics. “Who can discern the mind of the Lord?” the scriptures say (Romans 11:34).  Don’t get me wrong, we can have our positions.  We can even believe that our position is a faithful response to God and the scriptures.  But we cannot suggest that disagreeing with my position is akin to disagreeing with God. This does not convey respect to others, or to the God we serve in humility.  By using the name of God “purposefully” here, Coren is labelling those who disagree with him as godless fools.  As a clergy person tasked to help others seek and serve Christ in all persons, this is uncalled for. At best the statement is misguided, at worst it is manipulative clericalism.

The very manner in which Coren speaks of MAID is detrimental to any discussion of the complexity of this matter. Coren caricatures those who disagree with him in the most ungraceful, unchristian, and insensitive of ways. The language he uses does not convey the spirit of humility, respect, grace, or love that we as Christians (or as clergy) are to evidence in the world.  In the future, may we all do better in listening to others and respecting the various complexities of our life together.



Spirit-Filled decision-making: the way of discernment for individuals, councils, and communities.

Life can be messy.  The path ahead is not always clear.  In such moments, we can be left with the daunting task of having to decide what course of action to engage in, which path to follow.  Sometimes it’s a decision between A and B.  Sometimes it’s a decision to act or not act.  Sometimes there are multiple variables to consider.   These decisions can weigh upon us.    What is the best way to make these decisions? How much emphasis do we place on our ‘gut feeling’ as opposed to a more rationalist and intellectual approach?  Where does the wisdom of those who have gone before us come in to play?

On top of all of this, Christians add another layer to their decision making.  We are not simply concerned with discerning what is ‘best’, or deciding what we believe to be the correct solution; we are concerned with hearing the voice of God.  In addition to all the structural considerations to how we make a decision, there is the spiritual matter of how we hear God’s voice.  What does God say about the matter at hand?  What is the difference between God’s voice and my own?  How can I know the difference?

How do we make decisions in a spirit-filled way?  How do we value our own intellect and feelings, yet recognise that ultimately we are concerned with God’s intellect and God’s feelings?  Are there things we can do, questions we can ask, that may aid us in recognising the Spirit’s promptings in our decision-making?

Sadly, the art of discernment, or spirit-filled decision making, is not something that we speak about in church circles very often.  We drift into a functionalism that treats God’s will as that which best fits into Roberts Rules of order.  God’s will is simply the will of the majority.  It’s fast, its logical, its uncomplicated. But does God always bless the loudest voices?  How does this fit into the scriptural dynamic of God choosing the weak and foolish to shame the wise?  Similarly, discipleship lessons rarely speak about discernment.  The Christian life is too often focused strictly on doctrinal matters, and not the messy reality of living out faith doctrines in the intricacy of life.

In a world that is so complicated, and changes without notice, the task of discerning God’s voice in our decisions is more pressing than ever.  Thus, I offer five considerations by which we can prayerfully approach the decisions we make.  I write ‘prayerfully approach’, because I don’t want to suggest that quickly answering these five questions will mean we have made our decision prayerfully, or have rightly discerned God’s voice.  Discernment takes time.  We hold matters in prayer.  We search the scriptures.  We talk to mentors, advisors, and spiritual friends.    It takes a humble willingness to hold a matter before the Lord, and to wrestle with the ‘unknowing’ for a period of time as we engage in discernment.  The larger the decision is, the more time in prayer we should take.

Firstly, where am I in this matter?  Seeking God’s voice in decision making is not a convenient way to avoid our own thoughts, or the need to investigate the matter thoroughly.  The appeal to God’s voice is not an argument for ignorance.  The first step is being true with ourselves.  What do we think and feel about the matter at hand?

This is more than just figuring out the result I would like to see. The recognition of what we think and feel about the matter also calls us to uncover why this might be the case.   What about ourselves do we bring into this decision?  Ultimately, we are asking ourselves “If it were up to us, what decision would I make?”  This may seem like we are rushing to the end of the matter, but we aren’t.   We simply cannot lay our will before God, asking for God’s direction and guidance, if we are unaware of what our own will is.  Probing the depths of the self may provide important revelations into what insights we bring to the matter, or what biases colour our perceptions.

Secondly, where does God lead me to comfort in this decision?  St. Ignatius talked about ‘consolations’ in the art of discernment – the feeling of assurance of God’s presence and plan.  As we seek God’s voice regarding any matter, we seek to find that place where God provides comfort and assurance.  Is there a sense of peace about a particular decision?  Do we feel settled in a course of action?

Intuition is key here.  God gave us our emotions to help us feel our way through life.  There may be times, where like Christ, we are moved in our inward being toward a certain action.  Such feelings of peace and contentment over a matter is not intellectually based.  We may not even know from where it comes from, or even how to describe our ‘gut-feeling.’ Sometimes our feeling of comfort is just that. . . a gut-feeling, a response of faith that causes us to discern a way forward.   Just because we may not be able to write such a feeling out in a three-point argument doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention to feelings God may be prompting in us.

Thirdly, where does God lead me into discomfort?  The flip side of consolations are desolations.  These are the feelings that we, somehow, are drifting from God’s plan and presence.  Just as in our comforts, we may not even know why we feel our discomforts.  We may simply be responding to a feeling deep down in our souls.  Yet if we are trying to make a decision from the stand-point of faith, and if we actually believe that God will lead us and guide us, then such a feeling should be acknowledged and listened to.

Discomforts may not point to a complete denial of a certain outcome.  Feeling uncomfortable about a decision doesn’t necessarily suggest that God is against a certain decision.  Rather, Discomforts may signify that there is something in the matter that still needs to be addressed.  A discomfort can be about how a decision is being made, and not about the result.  Discomforts may also speak to the effects, the motives, or even the timing of a decision.  Therefore, taking the time to pray about the matter at hand is important.

Fourthly, what action(s) does God wish to bring about in this decision?  Decisions are never mere intellectual exercises. Decisions effect life.  As such, making a decision from a spiritual standpoint has implications on how we live faithfully.  It calls us to embody the kingdom of God in a certain way.  At times, these actions may be easy to discern, at other times, the actions resulting from our decision may be less clear.

When the actions God wishes to bring out from a decision are relatively unclear we have yet another discernment to undergo.  It may be good to go back to look at comforts/discomforts.  Is not knowing an action actually a form of discomfort?  If we don’t know a precise action, yet feel comforted about a decision, does this mean we called to make a decision in faith, trusting that the actions will be revealed in due time?  Teasing this out in our lives is never a simply matter.  This matter must be held in prayer.  Deciding not to move ahead with a decision at this point, because the actions are unclear, is not a failure in discernment.  We act on God’s time-frame, and we trust that God will lead us appropriately.

Fifthly, what are the implications of this decision?  Decisions always reach beyond ourselves.  We must consider the wider scope of our lives, and the people with whom we live and work.  Sometimes our decisions hold ramifications beyond our own thoughts on a matter, or how we ourselves treat a certain subject.  What does the decision mean for how we relate to those around us?  What message do we embody as we live out the decision?

For example, a decision to move to closer to family may bring the need to reconcile a previously strained relationship.  A decision to take a new job may mean we step away from a ministry we love. Thinking more broadly, others may become upset, resentful, even hurt about decisions we make – as good or positive as we may feel the decision is.  The prayerful consideration of implications helps us recognise that the way of Jesus is not necessarily the path of ease and tranquility.  Christ calls us to bear the cross, to walk through the dark valleys, and to ‘scorn the shame for the sake of the hope set before us.’  Ultimately what we seek is not a decision based on blind faith.  We open our eyes to the real-life ramifications of following the way of Jesus.

None of these considerations outweigh the other.  While it may be useful to go through them in order, in many ways, each consideration flows in and out of the other.  Considering the implications of a decision will naturally inform our feelings of comfort and discomfort.   The reality of comfort and discomfort with further influence the actions we are willing or not willing to take.  It is for this reason that the basis of spiritual decision making is humility and prayer.

If life for the individual can be messy, then life for a community of faith can be messier still. It is not just one person who makes a decision.  The community, gathered together in faith, is tasked with living out the mission of God.  This is a task that all people (we hope) take seriously.  Yet we cannot ignore the fact that member in the community may disagree – sometimes vehemently.  Two individuals, going through the five considerations about the same subject, may come out with two opposite decisions.  How does this occur?  Is this as simple as saying the other side just didn’t hear the voice of God?

Community discernment is not opposed to individual spirit-filled decision making, or the five considerations mentioned above.  The community is made up of individuals, and therefore it is important that all individuals in the community engage in the considerations.  Just as we cannot appeal to ‘the will of God’ as an excuse for ignorance, neither can we abdicate individual responsibility to the mere will of the majority.  A community only functions when each person values their role as a member of the community.   Given the task of decision making then, a community is a body of people who passionately embody a willingness to seek God’s voice together.

This sense of togetherness brings forward some key matters to consider as we engage in communal discernment.  In community, not only are we seeking the will of God corporately, we are also concerned with embodying the love of Christ to each other.  In community, a decision should never be reduced to ‘this side versus that side.’  While individuals or groups may differ in opinion, there should be an acknowledgement that all are united in seeking God’s will for the community.  This means that we live, pray, and make our decisions, in a spirit of peace, humility, and love.

As a community, there are a few additional considerations that will help us embody this spirit of love and humility.  Again, all of this presupposes that we spend time in corporate in prayer, bible study, and fellowship.

Firstly, we seek indifference.  Indifference doesn’t mean that we do not care about the result of a decision, or that we don’t have an outcome we want to see.  Remember, the first consideration is ‘where am I in this decision?’  Each individual voice, individual perspective, and individual sense of comfort/discomfort is to be valued an honored.  Yet as a member of community, we cannot decide that our comfort/discomforts are normative for the entire body.  In humility, we recognise that others in the community may have the opposite thoughts and feelings than we do – and those are just as valuable, Godly, and honorable as our own.

Given the fact that a community may not think or feel the same way about any decision, indifference calls the community to seek the will of God.  It takes bold humility to lay down our personal agendas.  Laying down our agenda is not the same as denying our voice.  However, in community we never seek our own will.  When members of a community walk into the task of decision making with a personal agenda, no matter how noble and right that may be, we move away from place of seeking God.  We must constantly echo Christ’s words of ‘not my will but yours be done.’  Indifference means that, ultimately, our first concern is that God’s will is known and followed.

Secondly, we own results.  We can never deny that we have passions, desires, and dreams.  When approaching decisions, in even the most spirit-filled way, we must recognise that there may be certain results that we want to see take place.   Indifference is not about negating the individual will, it is about laying it down willfully and humbly, so that we can take up the will of God.   In similar fashion, seeking God’s will as a community does not deny the individual desires and will of individual members.  This does not, however, give us licence to disregard the discerned decision of the community, simply because the result went against what we would have decided had we been in charge.

When individuals choose to act in contravention of that which the community has discerned through prayer, discussion, and finally vote, it severs the very fabric of community.  In such an action, the individual choosing to disregard the decision steps outside the community, rendering judgement upon it.  By such action, he or she declares the message “I am only a community member insofar as the community agrees with me.”  To be clear; this does not mean that one must agree with, or even like, the decision that had been rendered by the community; Individuals may grieve over decisions made.  However, the messiness of community is also one of its strengths – not everyone agrees with each other.

There is a deeper issue at play, however.  When an individual, or group of individuals, choose not to bear the results of a community’s discernment, one declares that they were never an active part of discernment in the first place.  To go into any decision, having settled in one’s mind what one will do or not do given such and such an outcome, is to deny the very spirit of indifference in which one is to approach matters of discernment.  It is to make decision making a matter of pushing forward an agenda, an execution of personal will.  Thus, the community at large simply becomes something to manipulate for personal agenda.  This may sound harsh, but such a triumphing of one’s personal decision works against the humble spirit of self-giving love by which we embody community.  To truly and authentically lay down our wills before God, one must actively commit to living out the results of the decision regardless of what occurs.  Obviously, if such decisions contravene legality, or amount to personal harm or injury upon another, such decisions are to be invalidated by good conscience and moral behaviour.  However, in such extreme situations, why would one wish to remain in such a wayward community anyway?

Thirdly, we hold decisions lightly.  The quality of a community’s decision is only seen over time.  We must recognise that there have been instances in our own history, and in the history of the community to which we belong, where wrong decisions had been made.  Furthermore, the community may have made such decisions in the full belief that they were being faithful to the will of God.  Wrong decisions have been made prayerfully, based on the current understanding of scripture, and out of a humble desire to follow the way of Christ.  Yet in hindsight, after years of growth and further prayer, such decisions were clearly seen to contravene God’s desire, and were appropriately overturned.

The humility in which we approach discernment as a community means that we recognise that we have not reached such an enlightened status to render human error inconceivable.  Thus, all decisions that are made are continually held in prayer.  Reaching a decision is never the end of the matter.  Rather, even when a decision is made, we hold the matter open before God, continually seeking God’s further guidance and clarification as we move forward in the way we have discerned.  Recognising our fallibility helps us recognise that God’s will is not synonymous with human will.  The infinite God does not always follow linear pathways.  Gods ways are beyond our own.

Could there be a reason, known only by the full revelation of God, whereby the best decisions (in a human sense) are seen to be faulty? Could there be a future learning that will turn all our current understandings on it’s head?  Obviously, such questions are unanswerable.  The point is not to answer such questions, or to figure out what the ‘future learning’ might be; rather, holding open the possibility of discovering of our well-intentioned errors helps to ensure that we do not assume that God’s will is contingent upon our reasoning.  God is beyond us and beyond our councils and forums.  In the end, it is not the correctness of our decisions in which we will be judged, but by the extent in which the community passionately longed-for God’s face and guidance.  As we move forward in our decisions, we ask for God’s blessing and leading.  Yet we also maintain the attitude that seeks out forgiveness for ‘hidden faults’ and unknown sins.

Maintain Community.  Decisions can be hard. They involve one’s heart and soul.  Difficult decisions find people placing personal investment in the matter being discussed by community.  When this happens, the community does not discuss issues, or matters, or points of order; they discuss people and lives.  Individuals in the community see themselves in the discussion, and the results of the decision bear implications in personal lives and histories.  We must remember that unless the community has reached one hundred percent consensus, there will be those who find themselves grieving over the results of a decision.

This speaks to the matter of implication.  In discernment, we seek the implications as they may be played out amid the community.  It could be that the implication of any decision is that the community will become divided and hurt.  Some will rejoice in a decision, others will weep.  This does not necessarily mean that a decision should not be reached, but this is something for which every member of the community should be aware.  How much worse it is when a community is so divided that it will become wounded no matter what decision is made!

When this occurs, we must actively choose to maintain community in prayer, humility, and sacrificial love.  We must give of ourselves to one another.  Those who rejoiced in the decision must seek out those who weep and hear the cries of those feeling lost and rejected.  Each individual member of the community should grieve over the fact that others in the community feel so hurt, lost, or abandoned.  In this way, we embody the fullness of what a community life.  We offer the same radical love that Christ offered to us – a love that enters the messiest of places for the sake of fellowship and grace.

A decision is never a victory.  In the moment of discernment, how the community responds to the decision is paramount.  Will we choose to maintain community? Will we choose to flaunt the ‘rightness’ of our decision?  Will we choose to disregard, discredit, and deny communion with those who decided ‘wrongly’?  How will we embody the love of Jesus to ‘the other’ when after a hard decision, ‘the other’ has a new face?

None of these reflections make discernment easy.  Spirit-filled decision making is an art; while there are lessons to be le learned, and a way to improve, it always be beyond our step by step processes.  In the end, discernment calls us to bend the knee before our Lord and maker.  God leads, we follow.  The path may be circuitous; we may wander in the desert for years, this way and that way and this way back again.  In discernment, however, we never search for the final resolution, only the next step.  What is more, as members of community, we recognise that we do not take these steps alone.  We journey with brothers and sisters who are as passionate, opinionated, flawed, insightful, and precious as we are.  Such a journey may, at times, get messy.  However when we give ourselves to each other, acting in a unified desire to embody Christ’s majestic kingdom, then the messiness of the community just might become beautiful.


Living the Beatitudes

Does anyone else feel that the world is spinning out of control?  The inauguration of the US president, and the opening days of his rule, has turned the world on its head – or perhaps it is better to say that what used to lie simmering beneath the surface of contemporary life has now broken into the daylight.   Even in our country here, the quaint land of Canada, we have begun to see some of this.  And so there has descended upon many of us a sense of unrest, anxiety, and fear.  What will happen in the future?  What horror will we face next?  Will this ever stop?

I find that these are days where we need to hear the Beatitudes in their truest context.  I am reminded that the Beatitudes are not simple pie-in-the-sky statements of blissful morality.  They are not naive descriptions of world-peace, or the plea for us all to ‘play-nice’.  No.  Jesus is teaching the disciples, and the crowd around him, about what it means to be an alternative community of people.  Jesus calls us to live out the kingdom of God, often in opposition to the messages and values of the world around us.  The Beatitudes, and the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount for that matter, is perhaps Jesus’ most ‘political’ of sayings.  Yet for me, the power of this lies in the fact these politically, socially charged statements are radical precisely because Jesus doesn’t issue a diatribe on politics and social ethic.  Rather, he calls people the reality of God’s presence, and the blessing of God that surrounds them.

Think about who Jesus is speaking to.  These are the down and out.  They are the people who have been waiting, longing, praying, and crying out for a touch of God’s hand in their life.  These are the people that have been on the wrong side of power.  But instead of stating how wonderful it would be if everyone would just help one another, Jesus points them to a deeper reality than the alternative-truths of the Roman Empire and the powerful elite.  Jesus reminds them, and us, that the blessing of God – the activity, favour, and power of the one who created all things – is met precisely in their questions and the fears.

Jesus calls them to better kingdom.  “Blessed are the peacemakers”, he says.  Yet peace is not found is simply becoming the biggest kid on the block.  Replacing one tyrannical ruler with another tyrannical ruler does not make for peace, it just means we are in control.  And this way of life is as much steeped in the rhetoric of power and dominance as the script that tells others to build a wall and kick out the foreigners.

Jesus calls us to stand against the ethic of power, but not in violence or usurpation.  The kingdom of Jesus not a better kingdom because it is bigger or stronger.  It is better because it is a kingdom of  self-sacrificial love.  The call to mercy is the willingness to step outside of the cycle of violence and hatred – to be the one who will extend the hand of peace and forgiveness.  Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says ‘You have heard it said ‘love your neighbour, hate your enemies – but I say ‘love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.’

Living in the Kingdom of God calls us to be a people of hope.  We believe that we can see the movement of God in this world for no other reason than Jesus has promised it to be so.  We are to have the hope that, despite the alternative-facts promoted by those in power, God actually is in control of this crazy world of ours; God will bring healing, peace, justice and righteousness to the earth.  The community of people that Jesus inaugurates on the mountain is a community of people who are so filled with hope that we they choose to their lives as if the Kingdom of God was a full reality around us.

Can we be this community?  Can we be a community, not of critique but of compassion – and by doing so allow our compassion to provide the necessary critique to the scripts of denial in this world of ours?  Can we let the love of Jesus so fill our hearts that we turn our cheeks and go our extra miles, even to the people who use power to dominate and oppress?  This is not easy, which is probably why Jesus concludes the Beatitudes by speaking to the reality of persecution and rejection.  But we aren’t in the kingdom of God for ease, or clout, or to push through our manifest destinies.  We are in the kingdom of God because the radical love and peace of Jesus is the only thing that can stem the sin of hate and pride in us, and in each other.

This is what it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  This is what it means to be a people who are blessed by God, and who live in the loving Kingdom of Jesus.

The Divine Lover comes

When you think about the celebration of Christmas, what Bible readings do you normally think about?  Maybe your mind goes right to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, with readings detailing the birth of Jesus.   Do you see a play-by-play of Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem, the birth in a stable, and the exited entrance of the Shepherds?  Maybe you find yourself pondering the several messianic promises of the Old Testament, with words and phrases spoken from Isaiah.  Whatever specific passages or readings you think about, I am willing to bet that Song of Songs is not a biblical book that immediately comes to mind.  And yet, as we journey to Christmas, the lectionary called us to read from this book this past Wednesday.

Just think about that for a moment; in the last week of advent we read about the ardent desire of a beloved for her lover.   Reading Songs of Songs sometimes makes us blush.   Its words are beautiful and sensual, and at times, borderline racy.  It is a book which gives voice to visceral passion and erotic longing.  This is not the stuff of normal Christmas reflections.  And yet, just 4 days prior to the celebration of Christ’s birth, we read: “Listen! My Lover!  Look! Here he comes, leaping over the mountains, and   bounding over the hills.” (SofS 2:8)

What would it look if we approach Christmas like a beloved longing for his or her lover?   Love, after all, is implicit in our understanding of Christmas; yet what if this love is not one of mere sentiment or nostalgia but one of passion and intense desire?  Would this change the way we view the coming of Christ?  Can we see the divine in breaking not as a highly refined expression of sacrificial love – one so wrapped up in murky theological expressions that it loses its visceral quality – but as a lover completely consumed with passion?  Author and theologian James K.A. Smith writes:

“Instead of setting up a false dichotomy between agape and eros, we could think of agape as rightly ordered eros:” (in “You are what you love” pg. 10)

God comes, not as a theologian to bestow a message to be heard and pondered, but as a lover to be embraced.   God, who is love, becomes the incarnate expression of rightly ordered eros.  In this way, the approaching nearness of the one who is our soul’s desire quickens us.  Our hearts skip beats, our minds become singularly focused.  Anticipation fills every moment because we know that we will soon be enfolded in His sweet embrace.  And like two lovers who cannot help but be in constant touch, come Christmas morning we wrap ourselves around the one we have longed for.

Could it be that it is coming to Jesus in this way that we fully enter into the glory of the incarnation?  We call to Jesus with a longing that says there is no other place we would rather be than in His presence.  We echo the passion of Song of Songs and join with the beloved who calls out for her lover in aching desire: ‘show me your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is altogether lovely.”  (SofS 2:14)

To receive Jesus as this divine lover would mean we do not approach Jesus as a mere child; one to be held, cuddled, cared for, or managed.    Nor do we come to him as one coming to a gift; Jesus is not an item to be received – to be looked at and admired but never embraced.  For Jesus to be the lover of our sous means that he cannot be the mere content of a message, existing as nothing more than informative data to be thought about and memorized. He is our divine lover – the one for whom our hearts beat and our souls ache.  Jesus is the one whom we give our entire selves, the one whose presence is the very culmination of our deepest desire.

In a few days your lover comes.   In a few days the divine longing ceases and our desire is filled.  Come, Lord Jesus, Come.