"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for August 2014

“Betsy’s Pain-Blanched Face”

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That line (from the book The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Book) describes an encounter she had with one of the former guards from Ravensbruck after World War II. I’ve preached on that powerful message of God’s grace empowering forgiveness even in seemingly impossible situations.

The phrase keeps coming back to me in relation to my own struggles with chronic pain. Most of the time, my back and left leg pain (and neurological symptoms like burning and numbness) are a dull roar that I can blank out, much like a worker in a noisy office can tune out the background noise and so focus on their work. One of the skills that helps me to do that is my military training, and in particular the four years I spent in the military college system. That program teaches you how to distil tasks down to the bare minimum, how to squeeze every second of work out of each minute, and that you’re always able to do more than you think you can. I learned so clearly that every time I thought I had reached my absolute limit, there was still more that I could do. That’s really to primary focus of all training of soldiers – and the focus that allows some soldiers to do what most people would consider amazing heroic acts.

But, from time to time the pain moves beyond a dull roar, and I have little choice but to fall back on prescription pain killers and to spend some time flat on my back. Today was such a day. Even my cat, who seeks out any warm lap possible, has to be pushed off to one side as I can’t tolerate her feather-like 10 pound weight on my left leg.

That’s when the phrase ‘pain-blanched face’ becomes really personal…usually helped along by co-workers who say, ‘gee you look really pale today – how are you feeling?’ I’m never sure how to answer that, as I can’t think of any context in which to place constant, severe pain (on those bad days) that is understandable for someone on the outside. I’ve never had cancer, but my mom and I found many points of common discussion as she wrestled with chronic pain from her cancer surgery (and put me in the somewhat weird position of making medication suggestions to her for her GP based on my own reading on pain control).

It is challenging to be part of the ‘hidden disabled’, with no apparent outward sign of what’s going on inside.  In a recent visit with a friend I had not seen in decades, as we were catching up, she asked me three times – so you have pain all the time?  And then shook her head, as she could not understand how someone could live like that, a question I sometimes ask myself.

Part of the blessing of my day job is the chance to hear the stories of people who are (often) in a far worse situation than I am – it’s a good reminder to not become so inward focused that I forget that suffering is a part of the human condition.  What distingushes us is not whether or not we suffer, but rather the timing and degree of the suffering we bear.  As ISIS rampages through the Middle East, this too is a reminder that things are not as bad as my humanity sometimes wants to make them out.  At least I can go home and lie flat on my back with good medication.

One of the things that has helped me through the last two seasons of intractable serious pain is the music of The Mountain Goats. This was a band my daughter introduced me to, and has quickly become my favourite music. John Darnielle, the Mountain Goat’s lead man, plays very stripped-down music (his first albums were recorded on a portable stereo system).  Darnielle’s lyrics are some of the most profound I’ve ever heard. Each time I think I have a grasp on what he is meaning I realize there is another layer of metaphor playing out. He is particularly fond of using biblical (and Old Testament) images as a foil against the story of his life. This narrative approach is very powerful, and shows a degree of understanding of suffering that I’ve not often run across in theologians, and even less so in musicians.

These examples are only off the album, Life of the World to Come, where every song is named after a bible verse. The Mountain Goat’s music is shot through with theology and biblical imagery, so this one album is by no means the full scope of their use of theology.

A prime example is the song, Philippians 3:20-21, which refers to the bible verse, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (NRSV) The verses tell the story of Jesus’ task to open the way of death, by walking a path that no one could every walk again (where I am going you may not follow):

the path to the awful room
that no one will sleep in again
was lit for one man only
gone where none can follow him

try to look down
the way he’d gone
back of a closet
whose steps go on and on and on

nice people said he was with god then
safe in his arms

Darnielle mentioned in an interview (on pitchfork) that the chorus in this song had to do with the trite Christian response to suffering and death, that ‘he was with God now’ and how limited an answer that was to the question of why the person had to suffer and die. This reflects a type of realism that makes me think of Eugene Peterson’s spiritual theology – that theology that meets people within their ‘gritty’ lives and helps them live in a troubled and suffering world. Not the theology that spouts the easy nonsense of, ‘he is with God now’.

Where the song becomes particularly meaningful for me comes in the following verses:

well the path to the palace of wisdom
that the mystics walked
is lined with neuroleptics
and electric shock

hope daily for healing
try not to go insane
dance in a circle with bells on
try to make it rain

The mystical way of life is often only open to those who have access to an alternate form of existence…one that involves being set apart from the world. One set apart by a chronic health condition often seems to be in the mode of hoping for healing…while praying equally that the condition does not drive them off the edge. The best we can come up with is the human solution of either chemistry (drugs) or new-age (dancing in circles with bells on).

Just being able to listen to the song during my drive to work, or while I’m at my desk, is a comfort. While it doesn’t relieve the pain, knowing that someone understands where I so often find myself is a great relief in of itself.

Now, I am well aware that there is also a degree of satire in Mountain Goat’s music, and also a powerful critique. As ‘the nice people say he was with God now’, the not-so-nice people (that is most of us) scream out in grief, ‘why?’ Nevertheless, the acknowledgement that life is much more depth than is often acknowledged by the banal platitudes often offered by Christian churches is so refreshing.  Darnielle says this clearly in that pitchfork interview.  He has just said the song is about a particular person who he would not identify (so the interviewer asks if it’s about Michael Jackson):

No. [laughs] No, I would have to have been pretty fast to have written a Michael Jackson song, gotten into the studio, gotten it mastered into the sequence and ready for the album. The song is about the conflict between what people say happens after we die and the sort of lives we live. It’s kind of an angry-at-God sort of song. Because you hear of people who suffered their entire life that, once they die, now their won’t have bad days, because they’re with God. People say that.

And you think, well, maybe God could have been more merciful and let them off the hook earlier. Brought them into this place of no suffering and eternal bliss and presence of the most high a lot earlier and saved this person a lot of unnecessary pain, instead of having them suffer their entire lives. And in the case of people who are so damaged they wind up taking their own lives, well, you’d think an all-powerful God could have prevented that. It’s in the nature of being all-powerful, right? I had a specific person in mind. The song is about the sorts of hard questions that come up when somebody kills himself.

In Isaiah 45:23, “I solemnly make this oath–what I say is true and reliable: ‘Surely every knee will bow to me, every tongue will solemnly affirm.'” a similar thought comes through the lyrics:

If my prayer be not humble make it so
In these last hours if the Spirit waits in check help me let it go
And should my suffering double let me never love you less
Let every knee be bent, and every tongue confess

And I won’t get better, but someday I’ll be free
‘Cause I am not this body that imprisons me

I read the magazines somebody brought
Hold them to my failing eyes until my hands get hot
And when the nurse comes in to change my sheets and clothes
The pain begins to travel, dancing as it goes

And I won’t get better, but someday I’ll be free
‘Cause I am not this body that imprisons me

If my prayer goes unanswered that’s alright
If my path fills with darkness and there is no sign of light
Let me praise You for the good times, let me hold Your banner high
Until the hills are flattened and the rivers all run dry

And I won’t get better, but someday I’ll be free
‘Cause I am not this body that imprisons me

The acknowledgement that for some health conditions there is no ‘getting better’, but either a long enduring journey, or a slow slide into death. The refrain in the song is a powerful reminder that the present suffering does not have the last word – that my reality is more than the present physical pain. The song also reflects the suffering Christian’s frequent prayer – I know my prayers and offerings are inadequate, but the constant request is for God to please perfect the best I can offer.

The song also reflects the reality of some of the comfort that is offered – magazines people bring, that I can’t read because the pain dims my eyes.

I have the intent of setting out some reflections on a number of Mountain Goats songs that engage biblical imagery, but that will have to wait for a better day.

As a final, late edit, I loved this comment (from the same pitchfork interview) about the relationship between music and faith (JD says religion, but I think he means that word in the cultural sense and is really talking about faith).  One of the reasons I love music, listening and making it, is because it brings such a direct connection with faith.  I wonder how his atheist fans respond to this comment:

Which is the other thing. If you’re into music, you’re into religion, somehow or another. Religion, that’s the bloodline of music. The whole reason, I’m pretty sure, we have music on notation is to preserve chant– to transcribe what was going on, which we’re singing in order to describe the experience the divine. So there is that connection, which is part of the big appeal, to me, of churches– that there’s always something musical going on in there. That is making what to me is a pretty obvious connection between whatever we want to call divine and music, which seems permanently and inextricably bound.


Written by sameo416

August 25, 2014 at 8:00 pm

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Water Walking

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August 10, 2014, Matthew 14:22-33, Romans 10:5-15 (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28)

We’ll look today at this very well-known encounter between Jesus and the disciples – the walking upon the water in the storm. In the flow of this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we’ve just heard of the murder of John the Baptist at the hand of Herod. The encounter immediately before the storm is the miraculous feeding of the 5,000.

Let’s start by looking at each section of the account. We’re in a miracle-rich section of the Gospels. Jesus sends the disciples away in a boat, apparently to catch up with them later. As he often did, Jesus was taking some time to pray in solitude. The disciples are moving across the water in the boat, the text tells us the boat was a long way from land – the Greek here says ‘many stadia’ where a stadia was a unit of measure of about 600 feet or 185 metres. The parallel account in John’s Gospel tells us that the boat had been rowed about 3 or 4 miles across the lake – note the word rowed. As we’re told in Matthew’s account, the wind was against them. It’s likely they weren’t under sail for this journey, since sails don’t really work well when you’re trying to travel the same direction the wind is blowing from. There is no mention here about fear of the storm, for remember there were a number of professional sailors in this group, who would be well aware of how to handle a boat in the rough water and wind.

In the fourth watch of the night – this would be between 3 and 6 am, so the rowing has been going on all night. You would be correct to assume they would be exhausted, both because of lack of sleep and because of the physical effort of rowing. The disciples now spot someone, or something walking toward them across the water. This is something that cannot happen – and rather than assuming that it is Jesus coming to their aid in a time of need, the disciples assume that what they see is a ghost which leaves them terrified. Now sailors, if you know any serious sailors, can be a superstitious lot. Each year when we would put our boat into Lake Winnipeg for the sailing season, we would place a silver dollar underneath the base of the mast before raising it. The silver was intended to bring good fortune in sailing, and more practically to provide a good path into the water should the mast be struck with lightning. There were beliefs at the time of Jesus that the souls of those who drowned at sea did not enter the realm of the dead, but rather would wander the surface of the water. The disciples, still very much in their place of not fully understanding what was going on, react with terror.

It is interesting at this point to ponder what the disciples understood was going on – we’re just leaving the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 which ends with no affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. Indeed, in Matthew’s account all that we’re told is that people were satisfied – that is, had their hunger dealt with. In John’s account, we hear a declaration that Jesus was ‘the Prophet’ (likely Elijah) come back into the world. What we do not hear in any account is an affirmation of divinity. There is a sense that, for the disciples, another teaching moment was going to be required. Here it is – with this mysterious figure approaching across the wind-swept waters.

There’s also a sense of immediacy in this account. It begins with Jesus ordering the disciples, ‘immediately’ to get into the boat and leave. Once the disciples see Jesus and react with terror, Jesus again, ‘immediately’ says, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Just as immediately Peter challenges the claim, “If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus merely replies, ‘come’, and now Peter too is walking on the water. When Peter ‘sees’ the wind, that is, is reminded about the stormy conditions around them he begins to fear and cries out one of the shortest but most effective prayers we see in the Bible, “Lord, save me!” Peter has learned who it is he should cry out to. Jesus takes a hold of Peter, and the two of them get into the boat. Without a word from Jesus, the storm ceases.

Now, in this miracle rich section of the Gospel, we see finally the recognition of who it is the disciples are travelling with. Those in the boat worship Jesus, and say, “Truly you are the Son of God.” That phrase might sound familiar as we hear the identical words uttered by a centurion at the foot of the cross of Christ as Matthew’s account draws to a close.

Now, what can we draw out of this encounter? First, we see in the story a confirmation of Christ’s identity. The image of walking on water is one that in the Hebrew mind was a role reserved for God alone (Job 9:8, Psalm 77:19). It also draws to my mind the hovering of the spirit over the primal chaos in Genesis. This storm at sea forms another type of chaos, one where the human element becomes quickly endangered, and God’s hand is required to calm the storm. We also see his kingship defined in the reaction of the disciples once they witness all of this, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” That last statement in particular will be heard again in two chapters (Matthew 16:16) on Peter’s lips when Jesus asks him directly who he says Jesus is. Peter answers that later question with, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

As our final step through this passage, we now ask the question – what is the Scripture saying to us here today? Let’s talk about boats first.

If you’ve been to a number of different church buildings, you’ll know that some have quite deliberately exposed ceiling beams, often ones that are curved. Even if we don’t have that type of structure – which is deliberately done to look like the inside of a boat’s hull, the name we give the main part of the worship space tells us something about the church. We call this area…the nave, a word drawn from Medieval Latin navis, the word for ship. This imagery, of the church being like a ship, has been around since the earliest days of Christianity. This is not surprising, for the region of Christ’s ministry would have been as comfortable with water-based metaphor as they were with agriculture-based stories. Through the Gospels it is often boats that bring Jesus to new areas to preach and to heal and to cast out demons. It was boats and ships that brought the apostles around that part of the world in the early days of the church. Today, the church, is still the vessel which brings the gospel into the midst of people.

This church is also the place that we come regularly to share in the community of believers, it is often our place of refuge when the storms of this world crash across our bows and leave us terrified. So regardless of what you hear on the news – rockets in Gaza, Russians massing on the border with Ukraine, ISIS under the banner of fundamentalist Islam spreading hatred and death across Iraq – you can return here every week to seek a place of peace and calm. The church forms our safe ship in the midst of our stormy lives. Likewise, if you’re experiencing that chaos in your personal life, this ship is a place to return for healing and calm.

When I talk about church in this manner, I want to be clear that I’m really not talking about the building, or the particular parish we happen to attend, or even the denomination we choose as our home. I’m speaking about something that is beyond the physical into the spiritual and mystical. So while the bread and wine will become, for us, on the altar the body and blood of Christ, so too this physical ship we call a church is an outward physical sign of a deep but somewhat hidden spiritual reality. This is the communion of saints, past present and future, of which we’re a part by our belonging within the Body of Christ. So this ship I speak of is, as we would say in the Book of Common Prayer service, “ALMIGHTY and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee that thou dost graciously feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; assuring us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are living members of his mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom.” The blessed company of all faithful people, which makes us living members of His mystical body.

This is a great comfort in times of uncertainty and loss – the times when, like Peter we feel like we are beginning to sink beneath the waves of the storm. To know that there is for us this refuge where we may rest and recuperate. This community, this mystical body, grounds us and connects us in ways we can barely imagine.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this about Peter, he “had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith…[that] the road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. … Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” Peter steps forth from the boat in obedience, and learns a valuable lesson about faith. He can’t do it without Jesus. Part of God’s plan for all of us is that we too will learn that lesson – so I want to give you one tool of prayer to use in your own walk of obedience.

You may know someone who is a true saint when it comes to prayer – the one that comes to mind for me is a member of St John’s who has gone to his glory, Ralph Morris. Ralph was a bridge engineer, and as a fellow engineer and a lover of bridges, we had many talks about the many rail bridges across western Canada. He was the clearest image of a living saint, although he would deny it, and of a life that was steeped in prayer. His life was an example to me of what the call of a Christian looks like when lived out in faith and prayer was one of the constants in Ralph’s life.

One thing that almost all western Christians would openly confess is having inadequate time for prayer – we all know we should be praying more, but seem unable to do it. So how do we adopt that life of constant prayer that Paul commands, so that we too can be a person steeped in prayer like Ralph? I’ll close by introducing you to a very ancient, and very tiny prayer – on par with Peter’s “Lord save me!” known as the Jesus prayer. This prayer comes out of the eastern monastic tradition, and is used as a short memory prayer that can be used any time in any place. Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. That’s it. In those 12 words you affirm the faith, ask for intercession in your life, and remind yourself of why you need God. Once you’ve memorized the words, you can use it anywhere – just to start out I left some business cards with the prayer at the back of the church. Take as many as you want and leave them where you’ll see them. It is a great prayer, even to say repeatedly when you’re driving or waiting for your family physician.

This prayer is frequently repeated by those who follow that discipline, and there is even a sort of a rosary, a prayer cord, that allows you to count out how many repetitions you use. I’m not suggesting that everyone should pray this prayer 100 or 1,000 times per day, but that having a short memory prayer you can use anywhere is one way of becoming that person of constant prayer. So while driving (particularly when cut off), when waiting in line, when going into a big job interview, waiting for a feared diagnosis from your physician…you can quietly pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Becoming that person of prayer is one aspect of the obedience that God calls each of us to conform to, the way of Christ. Like Peter, being a person of prayer helps us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ, even when we find ourselves in the midst of a stormy chaos.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.

Written by sameo416

August 9, 2014 at 10:40 pm

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A Scattering of Ashes

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Today we went out on Lake Winnipeg (51.095010, -96.594728) with extended family to scatter ashes from my mom, Betty and step-father, Barrie. My mom died in April 2011, Barrie this past January 2014.

It seems very unreal, that the sum total of physical presence that makes up our being, once committed to fire ends up as a few kilos of ash. It seems even more unreal that, once scattered, there is no more tangible physical presence that remains but an empty urn.

There is a danger, in dealing with the loss of a loved one, that we seek to cling too firmly to the physical trappings that remain. Sometimes it’s overt like keeping an urn of ashes; sometimes it’s less tangible in terms of hanging on to memories that are better left to pass. Jesus, when he met Mary at the tomb, warned her – do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. That caution is one for all of us in dealing with loss.

Cremation is by far the most popular committal used in Canada. It is rare to see a funeral home these days that does not have a crematorium stack on the roof. I think this is mainly because of the high cost of funerals already – cremation with an urn and no wooden coffin can cost $5,000. A traditional service with burial starts at double that amount – with a fancy casket alone approaching the total cost of a cremation service.

The problem with cremation comes in our grieving process – many of those cremations are not followed by a memorial service (of any type, church or otherwise), some have a memorial service with not even the presence of an urn. The problem is the lack of the physical, tangible presence of the deceased in the room. This was easily done when the service was a traditional funeral with a casket presence. It’s hard for those suffering the loss, because the physical presence of the casket literally screams out your grief, inescapable and unavoidable. If the service was really traditional, and the family trailed the casket into the church, the physical reality of the transition from life into death, even the physical pattern of the service mirrored the reality of life and loss.

It is too easy, without the physical presence of the deceased at a service, to escape the necessary process of grief and living into the loss. It’s not something that will ever leave you, but that process of grief will teach you how to live into the new reality of loss.

The danger is that rather than learning into the loss, without the reminder of the physical it is too easy to ignore that reality. Keeping the ashes close becomes a way of keeping the deceased alive, of hanging on to a memory that should be allowed to ascend to the Father along with the departed love one.

Although I know all this, it will a bit of a surprise today to learn that our scattering of ashes felt like a real goodbye, the ending of a process that had been incomplete in 2011 and 2014.

As a somewhat humorous footnote on this reflection, as we were preparing the ashes last night the lid on the urn of my mom’s ashes turned out to be cross threaded and seized into place. It took some judicious use of a screwdriver and needle nosed pliers to get the lid off. We struggle so hard to hold on to life!

Written by sameo416

August 2, 2014 at 7:09 pm

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