Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Truly spectacular!

Read Hebrews 12:18-24

We love spectacle. Bright lights, vibrant sounds, strong emotions, velocity, action. I remember my first visit to a carnival: the speed of the rides, the noise and rush of the music, the voices calling out for our attention, the bitter-sweet taste of the candied apples. And I remember seeing Niagara Falls for the first time: the overwhelming flow of water cascading over the cliffs, the deafening roar of the water as it plummeted down to what seemed a huge cauldron of swirling whitecaps and mist. Yes, we love spectacle.

And we seek it out. We want our parties to be bold, brash and boisterous. We want our movies to be loud and lively. We want our cars to shine, our gardens to glisten, our clothes to flash. Our civilization seems to be built on spectacle. We seem to come alive when our senses our overwhelmed, overcharged and bedazzled.

Yet, the most important things in life seem to be the quietest and humblest of all. We can be touched — more deeply than we care to admit — by a sleeping baby, by a starry night, by a quiet lake. In the simplicity of a touch, the depth of love can be shared. A simple rose can best express sympathy in face of tragedy. A song by a campfire can make us touch eternity.

Spectacle pulls us away from ourselves. It seems as if the sounds and sights and tastes and sensations, as they rush in on us, need to make space for themselves within us... and they do this by shoving and casting aside the core of who we are. We are not only invaded by the spectacle, we lose ourselves in it. We cease to be. Only the spectacle remains.

Perhaps this is why we love spectacle so much: we are not aware of the awesome mystery that abides within our very selves. We do not mind losing the core of who we are, for we do not know the value of that core, what the ancients called the “soul.”

Yet, is it not from the soul that love arises, that thought is shaped, that imagination takes flight? And is it not in the soul that we encounter, not only ourselves, but the God who shaped us and gave us life?

In today’s lesson, the author of the letter to the Hebrews recognizes that, in coming to know God in Jesus Christ, there is not much that is spectacular. No fiery mountain or violent storm or vibrant music, no voice to make us shudder and tremble. There is only the silence of the Cross on a lonely hill on a Friday afternoon. There is only the quietness of an empty tomb. There is only the fleeting breeze of the Spirit’s presence.

And yet, as we learn to tear ourselves from our need of the spectacular and come to accept the mystery of our souls, we move towards a reality even more awesome than anything we could ever imagine: millions of angels in celebration, an immense crowd of witnesses, the souls of all the just. We move towards the God who gave us life, and the Christ who led us into that life. And what is most astounding, we find our very selves.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Training dogs or raising children?

Read Hebrews 12:5-13

I once watched a man as he trained his dogs. He would reward them when they did well and punish them when they did not. This seemed to work well with his dogs. I suppose it works well with most animals. It probably works to a certain extent even with children. But can it lead boys and girls to maturity and autonomy, to true loving relationships with their parents? Such children might be well-behaved, just like well-trained dogs. But will they discover insight and learn wisdom?

Too many people believe that God is some sort of animal trainer, rewarding good actions and punishing evil ones. Too many people believe that the bad things that happen to them are sent by God either as a punishment or as a warning. Certainly, this is the way many of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures seemed to think. But after the Holocaust of the Second World War in which six million of God’s chosen people were put to death simply because of one man’s hatred, can we still see God this way? What could God have been punishing them for? What warning could God have been giving that needed six million deaths? Many people became atheists when they learned of this horror. They were probably right to stop believing in such a God.

Such a sadistic God is not the God of Jesus Christ. Jesus never spoke of God as a trainer, but as a father. A true parent wants more than well-behaved children. A true parent wants children who have insight and wisdom. A true parent goes beyond punishment and reward, striving instead to teach and to encourage.

One can read today’s lesson from the perspective of God as a trainer who “corrects” his wayward children by playing on their fears. From such a perspective, one can see poverty as God’s chastisement, or hurricanes as God’s warning, or AIDS as God’s condemnation.

Or one can read today’s lesson from the perspective of God as a parent who “corrects” his wayward children by taking them aside and speaking to their hearts, enlightening them with his Word, giving them a Spirit of strength so that they can find peace and justice.

Only this second perspective can explain how this passage can end with such words of encouragement: “Give strength to faltering hands; Straighten the path so that the lame will not stumble.” These words speak of a loving, encouraging God. This is a God whose “lessons” we will seek, for we know that, in them, we will find insight and wisdom.

These words also invite us to deal with one another in the same way: not with rewards and punishment, but with support, faithfulness and patience. Perhaps this is the way we also need to deal with our children.

Monday, August 12, 2013

From the indicative flows the imperative

Read Colossians 3:1-11

Studying grammar in elementary school, I learned the difference between the indicative and the imperative moods. The first, as its name suggests, "indicates" the way things are. It is used to describe, to announce, to tell: “You sing. She spoke. He will run away.” The second is used to direct, to order, to compel: “Sing! Speak! Flee!”

Paul’s letters are usually divided into two parts. In the first, Paul teaches, proclaims, explains. This is the indicative mood of Paul’s writing. The second part of his letters gives way to the imperative mood: he commands, ordains, directs. It is important for the readers of Paul’s letters to always remember when they are reading the second part of his letters that they grow out of the first part. His commands and directions are always the consequence of the Good News he has proclaimed in the first part. 

All too often, Christians rush to the second part of the letters. They tend to focus on the does and don’ts of the Christian life. All too often, non-Christians only see in Christianity this list of what to them seem stifling rules and regulations. Yet the heart of the Christian life lies in the Good News to be found in the first part of Paul’s letters. And without this Good News, the moral life to which Christians are called is but an empty shell, at times even a straight-jacket. 

In the first part of his letter to the Colossians, Paul has been teaching his readers that Christ has conquered every power and that they share in that victory. Now, in the second part, he tells them how to live in that victory and freedom. He shows his readers how to grow in the power of Christ and how to tap into that power in order to be freed from all slavery. When we remember the first part of the letter, the second part becomes a joyful invitation to live fully, deeply and freely! 

One note: Paul here contrasts “the things of heaven” with “the things of earth.” We tend to think that Paul is calling us away from “secular” reality to focus on the “sacred.” Such an interpretation does not correspond to Paul's way of thinking. This "secular-sacred" split does not come from him, but from us. And this split tends to devalue the reality of our daily lives, our work and our play, as if only "churchy" things have true value. Yet there is a way of working and playing that make both beautiful, meaningful and sacred. Our daily interactions with others can be full of God’s presence. Of course, they can also lead us away from God: it’s all in the way we approach reality. 

When Paul invites us to “put to death whatever is earthly,” he is not asking us to refrain from earning a living or enjoying the good things of creation or loving others. He is asking us to do this in a way that opens up our daily reality to the power of Christ’s Spirit: this is “setting our minds on things that are above.” Discovering the secret to doing this allows Christ to be “all in all!”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Life: a cruise or a crossing?

Read Hebrews 11:1-19

We do not know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, nor where the people to whom this letter is addressed actually lived. What is clear is that these people had a deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and were probably members of Jewish communities who came to recognize Jesus as Son of God. We also know that they were being persecuted.

This is the context out of which is born one of the more beautiful passages of Scripture. The eleventh chapter of the letter to the Hebrews presents a reflection on the nature of faith, giving us a definition which has withstood the test of time: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

The text goes on to illustrate this definition by presenting various individuals from the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) who were known for the depth of their faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Moses and others.

As we read the letter, we realize that the people to whom it was originally written were suffering persecution because of their attachment to Jesus-Christ. The author of the letter goes to great pains to encourage them in perseverance and faithfulness. Reflecting on the example of their ancestors reminds them that they are not alone, that they are not the first to have endured hardships, that they stand in the line of men and women who held on to the truth without wavering.

Many of us count among our ancestors men and women who left their native land to emigrate to a world unknown to them. Leaving all possessions, crossing oceans for an unknown shore, starting over in a land where everything needed to be done, they certainly showed themselves to be possessed of that “assurance of things hoped for,” of that “conviction of things not seen” which Scripture calls faith.

Today, many of us enjoy holidays on cruise ships that go around in a circle, stopping here and there to satisfy our curiosity for things new and unusual. We complain quickly if the service is inadequate, if the food is not to our liking, if the weather does not cooperate. How different is this from the crossing our ancestors made, often in terrible conditions, yet with hope in their hearts. Do we live our lives as if we were on a cruise, simply for the enjoyment of it, quick to curse the difficulties of the day? Or do we understand ourselves to be on a journey, a crossing towards our ultimate home?

Our ancestors' journey towards a new land can be for us a symbol of life itself. For we all journey towards a promised land that has been gained for us through Jesus the Christ. Faith allows us to endure all manner of struggle and trial, for we know that, in the end, all things work out for the good of those who love God. May the faith that emboldened the readers of the letter to the Hebrews shine forth in our own lives still today.