To hell and back

highway hearse 2014

I went to visit a parishioner in the hospital once and was completely thrown by what I discovered when I walked into her room.

Maybe I hadn’t been paying enough attention. Someone had told me what this woman was in for, I remember that. But I’m afraid it had gone straight in one ear and out the other. So when I walked into the hospital room, I was surprised to discover there was no bed. Instead there was this thing in the centre of a large space. It looked like some kind of miniature circus ride. Or a space-ship pod, or a climbing frame or something.

Hello? I said, tentatively. I stopped in the doorway. Was I in the right place? Then from the middle of the tubing and bars I heard the small voice of my parishioner: “hello….I’m down here.” I peered closer. Near the floor. And there she was, strapped right into the middle of that contraption. Hanging upside down.

I walked up to it. There was a bed there, all right. I could see it at this point. But it was an upside down bed. There was also a chair beside it. When I sat in the chair I couldn’t see the woman at all. It’s called a Stryker frame, she informed me dryly, while I sat down, got up again, and then kind of wandered in a circle around her, looking for some way I could actually make eye contact. Are you having trouble, pastor?

Obviously, it should have been me asking HER this question. But there we were. I have a spinal cord injury, she told me, while I dithered and fidgeted. I’m going to be in this thing a month, at least. My poor husband’s stuck at home working his job and taking care of three kids. We’ll be lucky if we’re still together by the time I’m out of this thing. You can stop shuffling around like that. She sounded annoyed. I’m not going anywhere.

I stopped shuffling around.

Are you okay? She asked.

I’m okay, I answered her.

Well, I’m not, she said. Welcome to my own personal hell.

Now when all the people were baptized, it says, and when Jesus likewise had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

So pleased, apparently, that God would lead this Beloved Jesus, also, to his own personal hell, tortured and dying, on a cross. Someone once said: beware of being one of God’s favourites. It gets you into trouble every time.

And when you think about it, isn’t that true? Martin Luther would’ve been burned at the stake if they could’ve gotten hold of him. Or Martin Luther King, shattered with a bullet for speaking up for justice. Or Thomas a Becket, run through with a sword right there, on the steps of his altar. Or Saint Paul, persecuted and ridiculed and shipwrecked and murdered. Or any of a thousand Syrian Christians right now, in a country that was one of the first blessed with the Gospel, fleeing desperately to save their lives.

With you I am well pleased. That’s what the voice said to Jesus when he was baptized.

It’s an odd sort of pleasure.

In trying to understand the mystery of why Jesus was baptized at all, I think about the woman in the hospital, who told me she was in her own personal hell. Or the comment I saw on Facebook yesterday, congratulating another woman on her first cancer-free diagnosis. After five years of hell, said the Facebook post, finally free!

Yes, I think. I understand hell, when you put it like that. Probably all of us do. Certainly any of us over – I don’t know – 40 years of age. You don’t make it that far without a few cuts and bruises: cancer, divorce, separation, child problems, parent problems, dreams lost, dreams found. Who knows? Life, we eventually realize, isn’t what we do when we’re not suffering. Life eventually becomes, more than we might think, the ways in which we DEAL with suffering. Live through it. Rise, not above it, exactly, but with it. Sometimes, even, because of it.

So maybe the baptism of Jesus makes sense if we think of baptism, not as something that leads away from suffering, but something that leads straight through it. And then, if that’s it, the fact that Jesus was baptized means that he was willing to take on, willingly, the kind of voyage into hell that the woman in the Stryker frame was talking about, or that the Facebook post person was just getting over. The human condition.

I felt like such a fool for the first few minutes I was visiting that woman in the Stryker frame. I just stood there, towering over her while she complained bitterly and then cried about what she was going through. I felt completely out of place, awkward and embarrassed. It took me forever to realize the simplest thing: that I didn’t need to be standing at all. Eventually, when the nurse came in, she found me where – if I’d been sensitive enough to realize it – I could have been from the beginning: on my back, on the floor, parallel to the bed, looking up at this parishioner. Sharing her perspective.

What really pleases God, it turns out, is solidarity. That’s what the baptism of Jesus is probably really about. For Jesus emptied himself, Paul writes, taking on the form of a slave, and in that form – on the floor, lying beside our human suffering, he became obedient, in love, to the human condition, even death on a cross. Only then was he raised. Like Jesus, it will be for us only when, trusting in the compassion and community we see in the cross, and finally beginning to understand this strange way of being God’s favourites, that we too, through death, in solidarity with the one who went first, will know what it means to rise again.

Which Star We Follow

De L'eglise after snowstorm

It’s January third. And I think it’s safe to say that this year, there’s not a lot of optimism. New Year’s Eve I was at a small dinner party. One of the people there had prepared some lovely cards with questions on them that went around the table and we all had to answer. When the questions were about last year, each of us shared warm memories. It was great. Lots of laughter. But then came the question: “what significant happenings do you expect on the world stage in 2016?” And all of a sudden, you could feel the chill. Each of us had wonderful recollections of the year past. But most of us were quite apprehensive about the year coming. War, violence, financial crisis, disease, climate change, breakdown. One after another we laid out forecasts of doom. That’s what we saw in the stars.

When the Magi heard the king, it says, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star they’d seen at its rising.

Apparently, not all stars say the same thing. At our dinner party, we saw bad things. Trouble, and difficulty, and pain, and disaster, despite our fairly rosy personal stories. But according to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi also followed a star, right to the Messiah.

So which is it? Will our coming year be guided by a star of great difficulty, or a star leading to Bethlehem? Which ways are we being led?

Epiphany is such an important moment that every year it surprises me we don’t make more of it. It’s huge. If it wasn’t for Epiphany, there’d be no Christian faith, as we know it. Without the kind of trip commemorated today, those of us from European ancestry, at least, might still be worshipping the god of some oak tree or other in the vast, dark, northern forests.

To put it another way: Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew and died a Jew. That is fact. Insofar as anyone in his day believed he was a Messiah, it was a Jewish Messiah. “Born to set his people free” as the old hymn says, emphasis on HIS people. That we who are non-Jews got in on the Jesus thing is actually kind of surprising. If wasn’t God’s plan – which of course, Christians believe it WAS – then it’s one of the greatest ironies of history (as Nietsche believed!). Christianity is what happens when Israel’s Messiah comes and everyone believes it BUT Israel.

We Christians are not the originators of the Christmas story. And we’re not even its first and most important recipients. Yet, according to Matthew, we were at least invited to the party. How do we know this? Because of Epiphany. Because of the Magi, the first non-Jewish worshippers, following the star to find the baby, born in Bethlehem.

So the very first image we get of our own spiritual ancestors is that they were pilgrims (which is, of course, great for me to be able to say!). They were outsiders, and foreigners, and seekers. They were also a little bit lost.

I started out asking which star you thought this year might be hanging in our skies: a star of difficulty and danger, or a star leading to the love and transformation of the Christ child. The irony is: they are probably both the same star. And isn’t that a pretty good description, maybe, of who WE should be, following it? Pilgrims, outsiders, foreigners, and seekers – despite often being a little bit lost.

A Destination Worth Our Trip

highway hearse 2014

Years ago now, I read a lovely short story. I don’t remember the author or the title. But I remember it was about a quite elderly, widowed man who had finally decided the time had come to move into a nursing home. He moves in, and downsizes. One of the things he is about to lose is his car. He has decided to give his beloved old Cadillac to his granddaughter since he won’t need it anymore and doesn’t feel he’s as safe a driver as he used to be. The nursing home, this man, and his children all agree: giving up the car is the best thing to do.

The day before he is supposed to hand over the Cadillac, the man takes the keys, and walks out from his little room to the parking lot to see it one last time. He thinks about the car….how he’d been to Florida with that car, how that car had taken them on family vacations and in recent years, how it had been his constant ally as he drove to more and more funerals – and he opens the door and gets behind the wheel one last time. Then, in a surprise even to himself, he puts the keys into the ignition, starts it up, and drives away from the nursing home.

As the story progresses, you don’t really know why he’s doing this, or what’s going to happen. At the home, it takes a while for them to discover he’s gone. But once they do, they think he’s skipped town, or maybe showing dementia, and there’s a panic over what might have happened. His children don’t know what to do, and wonder if he’s changed his mind about staying at the home.

Meanwhile, the man drives west. He listens to the radio awhile, rolls down the window, notices the prairie grass, smiles at the sunshine and the big, big sky. The miles tick away as he rolls westward.

At the nursing home they hesitate and hesitate, waiting to see if the man will be back for dinner. When that doesn’t happen finally they all the police. The family are in a state. Everybody is consulting with everybody about the state of emergency. Is the old man suicidal? Is he lost? What’s happened?

The man stops at a truck-stop diner where he has a wonderful warm conversation with a little child and a good heart-to-heart with a waitress. But soon he’s right back behind the wheel. He’s intent on driving. He stops at a roadside hotel for a few hours of sleep. But then, with the sun, he’s awake and back driving. Prairie towns and cities fly by as he keeps the big Caddie’s nose pointed west.

At the time of King Herod the Great, it says, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, having traveled a great distance to see him.

So what happened, exactly, that made the Magi travel so long, and such a distance, to follow that star?

They weren’t running away from anything, the Magi. They were traveling TOWARD something special.

It seems a bit trite to say that life is a journey, but it is. It’s a journey we start on before we can remember, before we even realize fully, that we’re traveling. Sometimes the journey is exciting, and often it’s just a day-by-day slog. We walk through green valleys, and sometimes across high mountains that are difficult but rewarding. And there are, inevitably, in every life, hard, difficult and painful paths, paths we’d rather not go down, but have to. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow…., like it says.

Sometimes it takes faith to keep going in life, and it would take faith, in the ancient world, to travel across the East as the Magi are supposed to have done. I’ve been watching a Netflix TV series called Marco Polo. It’s not starting off all that well – the plot is hard to follow, the Chinese and Mongolians all speak English, and there’s lot of violence that has nothing to do with the plot. Apparently, according to the reviews, the story line gets better.

The basics of the show are really good, however. How can it not be? It’s about Marco Polo – the great adventurer. The vistas and costumes and settings are magnificent. And historically, Marco Polo brought back to the west tales of a wonderful, exotic, foreign, and strange and terrible and beautiful world. One of the things that caught me about the show was that in it, Polo looks to the stars called the “Three Sisters” and tells himself that that will always be the way home.

Epiphany means, “the light shines” – in our case, and in the case of the Magi, the light of the Christmas star. It too was a guiding star. The Messiah star is a light that’s supposed to guide us, to cheer us on when all else fails. When we don’t know what else to expect, there will always be that star, that one point of faith we can hang on to. In other words, like the Magi, our journeys do not have to be random, and our way does not have to be without hope.

We don’t know for sure, but the Gospel of Matthew was probably written by a Jewish-Christian to a small and struggling group of other Jewish-Christians. It’s natural they’d be wondering about enlightenment. Why did THEY, this small group, follow Jesus as Messiah when the vast majority of Jews didn’t? Why did they believe what others rejected? Probably, the way they worked out their loneliness and disappointment was by deciding that they happened to be the only ones who had seen the star, metaphorically speaking, and knew what it meant.

These days, when organized faith is less and less fashionable in our society, we’re again in a bit of a position like that. How can it be that we see this star, when everyone else dismisses it so easily? Why are we traveling in this particular direction, when other paths seem so much more common?

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. And then, opening their treasure chests, it says, the Magi offered the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

It’s nice to look at Wise Men in our creches. But the Gospel doesn’t even tell us if there really were three, or whether their names were Caspar and Melchior and Balthazar. So more important is to consider what the Magi DID: they were willing to go on a difficult journey to discover truth. They were pilgrims. And they left gifts.

For me, the most important verse in the whole Epiphany story is the last verse. After everything that they did, Matthew says, the Magi did one last thing: they went home by another way. My understanding of a true Epiphany is that even after a small one, you can never go home by the same way. Once our God reveals something to us about love or grace, about justice or the truth or perhaps about ourselves, there’s no going back. We will always be changed.

In the story of the man and his Cadillac, it tells how he finally reached Calgary. You think maybe he’s going to stop there but he doesn’t. He keeps going, straight through the city, driving west, always west.

Now, you all know what’s west of Calgary……

Right. The Rocky Mountains. And there’s where the story ends.

It says that the man drives his Cadillac into the foothills, and right up to a viewpoint lookout on the side of the highway. And there he parks, gets out of his car with the cool high altitude air in his lungs, leans back against the hood, and looks up at the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The ancient granite walls rising majestically from the foothills. Only for a few minutes.

Then finally, he calls his children, who are worried sick. “I just needed to see the mountains with my own eyes,” he tells them. “One last time.” And then he gets in the Cadillac, turns it around, and heads home. “Now I am ready,” he says.

You and I are on a journey. Many journeys, of course, some we hardly even recognize we are traveling. But the question we need to ask ourselves is: “Is the epiphany we have felt, the spiritual vision we have witnessed, going to sustain us?”

May we too, like that elderly man, and like the Magi, be given guidance for the easy and the not-so-easy roads ahead. May we find joy in our destinations. And by this world and the miracle, the Word and the Spirit, may we also be granted a vision – the equivalent of the mountains, or of the Magi’s star – to guide us through all our coming years.

Seeing Again for the First Time

Italian appies

My Christmas day dinner this year was perhaps the worst I’ve ever made. I like to insist that actually, I’m a pretty good cook. But Christmas dinner wouldn’t have convinced you. I ran out of tin foil and the turkey was dry to the point of parts of it being inedible. Definitely no gravy. The mashed potatoes would have been good – if they hadn’t been cold as ice by the time we sat to eat. And the green beans. Well, I was lucky I didn’t start the house on fire.

It all started out well enough. I’d prepped the meal by putting out the steaming pots for the vegetables and chopping and washing the beans for the meal earlier in the day. So when the time came, because I was distracted by phone calls, and in a bit of a press between one child arriving and another who had to leave for work, I was happy that everything was already ready to go. In between checking potatoes I just took the beans, put them in the steamer pot, and turned on the burner. It seemed that ten minutes should be about right.

However, when the turkey came out of the oven, the beans weren’t even close to done. In fact, strangely, they still looked hard. Hmmm. A watched pot never boils, I guess. Anyway there was the turkey to cut, the potatoes and rutabagas to mash, the lack of gravy to explain, and more phone calls coming in from far away family. I guess it’s just taking a long time for the water to get going, I thought, and went on to something else.

Finally, with dinner almost ready and on the table, I glanced over one last time. Still no steam. What is the matter with those beans?

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying: ‘where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising.’

Epiphany has SO many messages for us that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the fact that, like the Magi, God brings strangers into our lives. That’s a good learning all by itself, and one we’ll come back to. Who were the strangers that God brought into your life this past year, and what unusual and meaningful gifts did they leave you?

Epiphany is also about the importance of giving, and maybe even more, of receiving, gifts. It teaches us a new relation with others, instead of just feeling we have to earn or bill or always be on a tally sheet somehow, plus or minus. Then, also, Epiphany is about the ways in which our lives really are a pilgrimage, because what the Magi were doing was definitely that. Like the Magi, our pilgrimage extends out to the worldwide family of our Creator, including people who at first seem different to us, or strange, or even dangerous. All of these are important parts of today.

But there’s something even more basic about Epiphany, something that lies behind and beneath all these other learnings. That is, Epiphany is about a way of SEEING. It is about a way of being conscious in a world that seeks to keep us stupid and unconscious.

I know stupid is a hard word. But it’s accurate. Many forces in our world want us to be, or to become, stupid. That’s no accident.

You can’t hide a star in the heavens. And yet only the Magi came looking for Jesus. Everyone has eyes, but among the sighted, at least, not everyone sees equally. Moreover, neither do WE see, equally well, at all moments of our lives. Like with me and the beans.

Jesus is reported to have said “those who have ears, let them hear.” Maybe we can rephrase that for Epiphany: those who have eyes, let them see.

We tend to think of seeing as something we do automatically, by virtue of just being alive. What we don’t realize is that, more than we think, what we see is a matter of choice. Likewise, what we DON’T see is a matter of choice.

The truth is, for most of us, life can be threateningly dull much of the time. We get up. We shovel some food in our mouths, worry about getting fat or getting old, or getting out of shape or getting redundant at work, worry about our children or our grandchildren or our parents or our health or our career;  and then we do our job, or watch our TV, or talk on the phone or surf the internet or do whatever it is we do for most of our waking hours. And then we go to sleep again, knowing we will repeat more or less that same pattern, again and again.

That’s what life has given many of us. And to face – or maybe NOT to face – that routine, the problem is that we tend to turn off the very ability to see that might save us.

Of course there’s more than one suggested way to open our eyes. Lots of folks – especially advertisers – want us to believe that the way out of the daily grind is through desire. New clothes will change you. The more things in your closet the safer you are from loneliness, or death.

You have the power to be great, the most subtle of the advertisers even tell us, mimicking the serpent in the garden. And they’re right. But the problem is, the ways they suggest usually mean buying something, and usually make us focus on ourselves even more than we already do. If we open our eyes and only see ourselves, then it’s just a mirror game. We’ve missed a whole big wide, wonderful world, including the stars.

Not the Magi. They’re pictured as powerful figures. Rich. Kings, maybe. Wise. Respected. And yet what do they do? They travel, despite hardship. At the end of their journey they worship someone other than themselves. Theology might call that a revelation of the spirit. Others call it enlightenment.

It takes incredible discipline, and constant reminders, to pull ourselves again and again out of our ruts of not-seeing. It takes mindfulness to take the time and make the effort to open ourselves, consciously, to see the beauty of the world and wonder at it. To see the strangers and the outsiders who are always there, but rarely noticed. To see the small uncertainties in another’s hands as they fidget, or to care for the revealed fears in another person’s facial tics, or how beautiful are the details of almost every other human being, God’s gifts to us.

Which brings me back to strangers. Today is a day for remembering those who were once strangers, and came into our lives bearing gifts. It’s a day for pulling our eyes out of auto-focus and seeing the very real pleasure and pain and tragedy and beauty and joy – better than any Hollywood movie –  that are given to us in almost every moment. It’s a day for really seeing the beans.

When, at the very end of all my preparations for Christmas Dinner, I actually really looked at the beans, instead of seeing them through the fog of my schedule and my distraction and my family plans and my worries, I realized what most of you have probably known all along. There was a simple reason the beans weren’t cooking: I had forgotten to put any water in the pot!

I grabbed it and pulled it off the stove. Good thing I have good pots. Even so, the bottom was becoming more and more bronzed from the heat. It steamed and sizzled as it went into the dishwater. I cooked the beans another way.

Today may we be moved to open our eyes and see what is really in front of us. May we take our place among modern-day Magi, those who spend the time and effort to really live and not just BE, to voyage, in some way. And may we be blessed by others, strangers or not, who can take our hands, hold us carefully, and gently but firmly, help us to look up and see the promise that is there shining for us, and for all of creation.