Optional Christianity

Talking to a Sunni Muslim women recently, I was curious about her practice of Ramadan.   She shared that not drinking water all day was the hardest part;  and that the fast in Calgary, is from 3:40 am to 9:40 pm.  She explained that all Muslims are expected, once they reach puberty, to participate, but there are a number of exceptions such as health and pregnancy.   I pointed out that Jesus anticipated that Christians would fast also.  She was curious whether Christian fasting included not drinking water  like Sunnis do.  Oh, I replied Christian fasting is optional, people can do whatever they want.  

This got me thinking about our Christian practices.  Jesus spoke about fasting and prayer often but he also warned against basing our religion on external exercises.  “When you fast Jesus said, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” (Matt. 6:16)  All traditional spiritual disciplines whether solitude, silence, fasting, bible reading, prayer, worship, giving and others, can become forms that are empty of spiritual reality.  Yet, without them, it is impossible to imagine a person will make much true progress in their Christian faith.  Just as Ignatius had his “Exercises” and St Benedict had his “Rules”, we need our own set of practices tailored to fit the rhythms of our life.

Imagine playing for a sports team where workouts were optional.  Or, suppose a dietician recommends a diet of chips and pop, where vegetables and fruits are non-compulsory.  Picture learning piano from a teacher who said practice is elective. Have we turned the grace of God into freedom to do what I feel like? How often do you feel like taking up your cross daily to follow Christ?

James said, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jas 2:17)  

In other words, every person whose life exemplifies what it means to be a follower of Jesus, develops a set of compulsory spiritual practices to follow.

How do you practice your Christian faith?  What “rules” do you live by to give structure to your spirituality?  Do you feel it is helpful to have patterns of daily spiritual practice?

Living Beyond the Rim

Only 5 percent of 5 million tourists that annually visit the Grand Canyon venture beyond the rim.  They do not mount a donkey or hike a trail to explore the rugged and interesting world below.  Some tourists are like drive-by-shooters; snapping shots with their camera, but not engaging in the world they are viewing through the lens.  Like these tourists, sometimes I find myself skimming through life without fully engaging in it.   Then, I’m living at the surface and avoiding the depth in my own soul and in the soul of others.  However, life is too precious to miss by passing  through it, as a casual observer.

Thoreau, in pursuit of life, built a small cabin on borrowed land near Walden pond.  He writes,

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…… Henry David Thoreau.

Moving beyond the rim requires leaving the comfort of the crowd above to face our inner fears and the vast world below.  It is the inward journey that leads to God.  Living life fully engaged we wake up, take notice, simplify and “put to rout all that is not life.”  We discover stillness and an awareness of God, who is life eternal.  We find a path that is good and a place that is restful for our souls.

 This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the cross-roads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. Jeremiah 6:16

In this pursuit we will also discover delight.  This is the ability of childlike wonder that marvels at all life’s many colors and shapes.   In this same way, we delight in the Lord who made our varied and vast world and whose character is like the world he made.

Peter in the Bible speaks of “rejoicing with joy unspeakable and full of glory!” and David says, “I would go unto God, unto God my exceeding joy!”

There is really nothing ordinary about the life of a believer in the divine, — once they have decided to go beyond the rim.

 

 

The Pilgrim’s Way: Enjoying Today

Anthony DeMello tells the story of Brother Bruno, who was trying to pray one evening when a bullfrog disturbed his prayers. No matter how hard he tried to ignore the loud frog, he found himself distracted and unable to concentrate.  Finally, in frustration he shouted at the frog to stop singing and he returned to his prayers.  But an inner voice began to surface – one that wouldn’t let him alone.  “What if God is as pleased with the croaking of that frog as God is with your prayers?  The voice kept asking, and no matter how hard he tried Bro Bruno couldn’t let go of that thought.  Finally in utter frustration, he leaned out the window again and ordered the frog to sing.  The bullfrog, along with all the other frogs in the area, began to sing at once, and the sound of their croaking filled the air, making a harmonious and melodious sound.  Brother Bruno listened to the sound with great delight and was finally able to focus on his prayers.”

Enjoying what is, without wishing for better things, is a practice at which I want to get better.  I’m learning that looking back and saying “If only,”  or looking forward and thinking “What if?”  only contributes to my own sense of dissatisfaction with today.  Doing this, says Craig Barnes, “assures us that our happiness lies in those places that implicitly define our present life by what is missing.” (Searching for Home)

The Israelites wandered, not unlike we do today, in a wilderness away from a sense of home.  Though God provided daily food, protection and his presence, they seemed to be afflicted with an “if only” outlook on their circumstances.

“. . .  Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”  Numbers 11:4-6

Manna, which literally means “What is it?” was God’s daily miracle of grace as he accompanied them along the journey.  Each morning as they picked up the “What is it?” a question was being formed.  Faith is seeing God as present and active in our daily lives.  Asking  “What is it, God, that you are up to now?”,  is a way to keep our hearts free of complaint.   This faith building exercise will ensure us that we see the beauty and mystery of God today and enjoy the frog song.

The Pilgrim’s Way: Clucking in Babylon

Walking in the woods one day, a man found an eagle’s egg, apparently abandoned.  He took it and placed it in the nest of one of his chickens, where it eventually hatched.  The eaglet grew up as a chicken, scratching at the ground and digging for worms and bugs.  He even learned to cluck like the other chickens.  Every once in a while, he flapped his wings and flew a few feet into the air, but he never tried to fly any higher than that.

One day, he saw a splendid bird soaring gracefully above him over the landscape.  “Who’s that?” he asked the other chickens,  Who told him it was and eagle.  “What a magnificent bird,” the eagle thought to himself, “Too bad I’m a chicken.”

It is easy to forget who we are and get stuck in our journey with God.  What does it take for us to move beyond the chicken coup and into the heights God has for us?
freshwater-amarnath-pilgrimage-horseback_49062_600x450

Speaking to his beloved people God challenged the Israelites:

Forget the former things,
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert
and streams in the wasteland. Isa 43:18,19

At this moment in their history, Israel was back in exile and living in Bablyon.  Going back to the promised land again would mean facing the ruins of the past.  This kind of soul work takes courage and is difficult.  It may seem easier just to stay put and die again outside the promised land.

Going back into the rubble created by sin is the only way to recover our real identity as a child of God.  In the movie Get Low, Felix Bus is a man who is unable to face his past guilt and so spends 30 years locked in a self imposed exile as a hermit.  The only way for him to get free was to confront his past and confess to the one person he had hurt the most, his once girl friend Mattie.

With the help of a funeral director and an old country preacher he manages to gather a crowd for an unconventional funeral party, his own. There he musters the courage to confesses his shameful past.  In the end he finds forgiveness for himself and freedom from his prison.

Holding onto the past, whether guilt, or loss, failure, or disappointment can stop us on the path to the promised land.  God’s love can set us free if we can only receive it.

Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 1  Mark 2:9

 

 

 

Fusion

Nate and JenniferI was captivated as I stood at the altar with my nephew and his new bride.   They gazed intently into each other’s eyes as though they could hear or see nothing else.  I spoke briefly about the power of oneness called fusion.

Fusion in physics is a nuclear reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei join together, or “fuse”, to form a single heavier nucleus.  Scientists are working in billion dollar labs on fusion reactors for the purpose of harnessing fusion for energy.   It is this process that powers active stars.

This powerful union between a man and woman is something universally sought and yet so rarely experienced.  It is really a picture of another even more powerful union that God desires with his bride the church.  Jesus prayer highlights this thought in John 17.

I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one–as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

We reach our highest human potential through union with our Creator in Jesus Christ.

As in marriage, this union with God is a process.  First, you have to leave, like Abraham, the home of our ancestors for a country God will show us.   Secondly, we cleave to God like Ruth to Naomi,

“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”  

Finally,  we weave, or perhaps it is God who is the weaver, making something good of the threads of our lives.  When life gets challenging we remember that God is at work making all things work together for good.  You may only see the underside of your lives being woven together, but God has a very different perspective, as this poem says.

My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colours
He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.
Not ‘til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned
He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.