The Healing Power of Laughter
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Last week, I wrote about my personal journey into and through depression. I discovered a powerful piece of music by Minneapolis composer Jake Runestad called “Please Stay”, an anthem of hope for people who struggle with this insidious disease.
In this time of pandemic, many people are struggling with the debilitating effects of depression. It’s a touch time as we face physical distancing, lack of touch, and when many of the things we had taken for granted have been taken away from us. What makes it even tougher is that we just don’t know when it will come to an end.
Mental health issues are real, and we need to pay attention. This week, I want to write about something that helped me deal with my depression.
As I began to heal with the incredible help of psych nurses and counsellors, I discovered that among other things, I had forgotten how to laugh. Literally. It’s hard to imagine, but I no longer knew how to laugh. For people who know me well, that comes as a shock, because these days I laugh a lot.
One of the contributing factors to my depression was that life had become intolerably heavy. Life was a burden, and I had lost any sense of joy in my life.
Part of my healing then was to learn how to laugh again. Consequently, laughter has become an important sign of health for me—good physical health, good emotional health, and good spiritual health. When you laugh, you are saying that you look at reality as life–giving and nourishing. Granted, there are moments of pain and grief. There always will be. But laughing is a choice which says that despite the sorrow that comes our way, life is filled with wonder and beauty and grace.
Even in the midst of COVID–19, I am grateful for opportunities to laugh. It’s not that I’m making light of this distressing time. Rather, I am finding moments of joy and lightness in the midst of the sorrow and heaviness. I am choosing to seek joy. There is still so much goodness in the world. In fact, this pandemic is bringing out some of the goodness in our neighbours and in ourselves as we reach out to help one another, and if that’s not a cause for joy, I don’t know what is.
A friend of mine reminded me of Norman Cousins, the American journalist who was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. It’s a very painful condition which immobilized him, and at its worst made him nearly incapable of moving his jaw. Since he was a journalist, Cousins began to research why his body was reacting the way it was. He detailed his journey in his novel, “Anatomy of an Illness”.
As a result of his research, he prescribed himself two courses of action. The first was to take dangerously high levels of Vitamin C to repair his immune system. The second was to combat the unbearable pain, he prescribed “Marx Brothers movies, Candid Camera, and readings in American humour. He quickly discovered that only ten minutes of induced hearty laughter would produce about two hours of painless sleep.”
He called it “laughter therapy”, and after several years, he experienced little pain in day–to–day living and lived to the ripe old age of 75.
As poet e.e. cummings said, “The most wasted of days is one without laughter.” I am firmly convinced that laughter is a hallmark of a truly healthy and well–adjusted life. I’ve learned it in my own life. I’ve learned it from people like Norman Cousins. Laughter truly is the best medicine, and it’s especially invaluable in a time like the one in which we are living.
One of my favourite images is called “Laughing Jesus”, drawn by Willis Wheatley in 1973 for the United Church of Canada. Most images of Jesus tend to show him with a serious look, or a look of compassion. But this image was one of the very first in the whole history of Christian art to show Jesus laughing. Jesus is not just snickering politely. It’s a full–throated belly laugh. Jesus throws his head back and let’s ‘er rip.
Now, the Bible never explicitly says that Jesus laughed. It does say that Jesus wept—and we seem to want to hold on so tightly to that image. We describe Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, or in other ways which perpetuate the notion of a serious, humourless, pious Jesus.
But you can hardly imagine that Jesus never laughed. He went to weddings and ended up making more wine when it ran out; he told stories; he played with children; people were attracted to him. You’ve got to think he wasn’t really a gloomy Gus.
His parables also show us a man with a wicked sense of humour. Ever hear the one about a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle? In fact, some people thought he was having too much fun and called him a drunkard and a glutton. Does this sound like someone who wasn’t enjoying life? “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh,” he says in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes.
I hold on to this image. I laugh regularly, for there is deep joy in all of life.
As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Never forget that the devil fell by force of gravity. They who have the faith have the fun.”
Please Stay: A Plea for Healing
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
I have two introductions to this column, and I’m going to use them both.
The first has to do with my journey into and through depression. I’ve written about it before. Over 20 years ago, I made a suicide plan. Thankfully, someone found me before I could carry through with it. I had come to believe that I was worthless, that the world would be better off without me. It took a lot of hard and patient work for me to deal with some of the issues underlying that depression.
Mostly, these days, I’m okay again, although there have been days during this pandemic when it’s been more challenging. But even though my depression comes back to haunt me from time to time, it’s not nearly as severe as it was back then. I’ve learned some strategies to cope with it.
Here comes the second introduction. Many of you will know that I’m a huge fan of choral music. I conducted Sun Valley Song, a very good community choir, for over 10 years. I love choral music, and I am always on the search for new choral composers. I believe that musicians and artists of all kinds (painters, movie makers, sculptors, authors, and others) help us see something that otherwise we might miss. They help us get in touch with something deep within the human experience.
A few weeks ago, I searched youtube for some choral music while I was working on something else. I came across Jake Runestad, a 33–year–old composer from Minnesota. I had heard a few of his pieces before and enjoyed them.
The first song was a piece called “Please Stay”. I thought it would be a love song, and my mind went on autopilot as I returned to writing something for my work. I suddenly found myself bawling out loud. I quit writing and listened more intently to the piece of music which was playing. I had heard something which resonated in my unconscious. The choir was singing these words: “Hope is real. Help is real. You are breath. You are life. You are beauty. You are light. Your story is not over. You are not a burden to anyone.”
I let my emotions wash over me as I sat back and listened. I started to research this piece and discovered that Runestad wrote this song as an anthem of hope to help destigmatize mental illness, and to challenge all of us to support those who battling depression and thoughts of suicide.
What made this performance particularly poignant is that while they were preparing this anthem of hope, the Capitol University Chapel Choir (Columbus, Ohio) lost two members to suicide.
The piece begins with an agonizing outburst: “No! Don’t go! Don’t go!” The choir sings more and more quietly, “Don’t go.” From that point on, much of the piece features the choir singing softly, “Please stay. Just stay.” in beautiful and quiet harmonies. Over and above the choir, several members step forward to speak words which are taken from tweets which have been posted to #IKeptLiving, a platform for individuals to share why they chose life.
“My happiness is no longer in the hands of someone else.”
“I realized that what other people say about me reflects who they are, not who I am.”
“Suicide does not get rid of your pain, it passes it on to other people.”
“it is okay to be a work–in–progress.”
“Sharing your feelings doesn’t make you weak.”
“Some days are still such a struggle.”
“All I can think about is Nathan. I wish he kept living.”
“I decided to ask for help instead of going through it alone.”
“It was hard as hell, but I kept living.”
“One person took the time to listen and understand. Sometimes that’s all it takes.”
Underneath it all, the choir contains to sing a single word: “Stay.”
It’s a powerful piece of music. It’s an anthem of hope. Thousands, millions, of people struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide, and we must do all we can to say to them, “Please stay. You are infinitely precious in the sight of us all. You are infinitely valuable, and to lose you would be more than many could bear.”
It is particularly pertinent for this time in which we are living. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that my emotions are nearer the surface during this time. I have a friend whose mother died in upstate New York a few weeks ago, and I have wept over the phone with him. Other moments cause me to tear up.
It’s a little uncomfortable … but at the same time, I can’t help but think that if this pandemic makes us all a little bit more tender towards each other and ourselves, it would be a good thing. If this puts us in touch with our emotional side, it would be a good thing. If this causes us to reach out to each other and say “Please stay …” it would be a very good thing. We need all the healing we can get.
Being and Doing
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
I noted the idea for this column about three months ago, just before COVID–19 changed all our lives. What sparked the idea was a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: “We have a tendency to think in terms of doing and not in terms of being. We think that when we are not doing anything, we are wasting our time. But that is not true. Our time is first of all for us to be.”
These days, as we are living with the pandemic, as we self–isolate, as we stay home so that we can take care of ourselves and our neighbours, we are being given an opportunity to practice what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master who has become a global spiritual leader. He was the one from whom I learned about the concept of “mindfulness”, a spiritual practice in which we learn to be fully present to each moment. Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of where we are and what we are doing and to be grateful for each moment, and not become overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “With the energy of mindfulness, any action in our daily life—including walking, eating, brushing our teeth, or doing the dishes—can become joyful, relaxed, and meaningful.” We pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, and environment without judging them as to whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.”
And now, as we live in this new reality, we can also learn in a new way that our essence as human beings is to be. It’s such a foreign concept for us to think in terms of being rather than doing.
We are so accustomed to thinking about ourselves and others in terms of what we do, of what we produce, of what we achieve and accomplish. One of the first questions I hear when I meet someone new is, “So what do you do?” I also ask that question early in a conversation with a new acquaintance.
But it’s not quite as strange an idea these days as it would have been three months ago. This pandemic is a time when we can learn many new things. We have had to do things we never thought we would before. And one of the things we have had to learn … is to be. Simply to be.
We can’t go out and “do” as we are accustomed to it. We are being urged to go out only when necessary. Health authorities tell us to keep our distance from one another. Work from home if you can. Go out to shop only when you need to. Appointments they have been cancelled—I can’t get my hair cut, and I’m beginning to look a little shaggy. I can’t visit my chiropractor. I can’t go to the hospital to visit and give pastoral care for those who are now so alone.
And we’re spending more time alone, or with one or two people with whom we share a home. And we are learning simply to be.
It’s been difficult for many of us. There’s no denying that. We are so used to going out and doing, so that we can produce something or consume something. We used to go out for retail therapy when we were stressed, and that’s just another way of doing something rather than dealing with the reality we were living with.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Doing things has accomplished a great deal throughout history. We have learned new science. We have discovered new lands and more efficient ways of life. We have improved the quality of life for many people in the so–called developed world.
But doing has also led to problems. We have befouled the air with our smokestacks and factories. We have dirtied streams and rivers with our effluent. We have made the land unfit for growing crops as we paved it over for highways to get us somewhere else more quickly. And, at a much more personal level, we have ended up living lives which have been so busy that we were tired all the time, and we didn’t have the energy to be or the time to sit and think and just breathe.
And now we have more time than we are used to having. It’s been hard for some of us. We see some of the frustrations as people begin to protest in angry rallies and vent their frustrations at not being able to go out. They are complaining that “their freedoms have been taken away.”
Governments also are talking about how we need to get businesses going once again, so that the economy can recover and our lives can go back to “normal” … whatever that might mean.
But I want to plead in this column that we take this opportunity so that we might learn once again to just be.
Thich Nhat Hanh continues that quotation at the beginning of this column by asking, “To be what?”
He answers, “To be alive, to be peaceful, to be joyful, to be loving. And that is what the world needs most.”
They are poignant words for this time. Nhat Hanh wrote them many years ago, but they are so appropriate for this strange new land in which we find ourselves. As a meme on Facebook puts it, “Not everything is cancelled … sunshine, spring, love, relationships, reading, naps, devotion, music, dancing, imagination, kindness, conversations, hope … none of these are cancelled.”
We nurture those qualities as we take advantage of this opportunity to learn to be.
And then, when the pandemic has run its course, I pray that we continue to treasure what we are learning, and we work towards a new normal.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
It’s hard to imagine that the first Earth Day was held 50 years ago, on April 22, 1970. It’s the 50th anniversary of a day which was established to increase our awareness of the world’s environmental problems, and to encourage a global concern about the effects of climate change.
Earth Day was the brainchild of US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, a staunch environmentalist. He hoped to provide a way for grassroots environmental movements to be unified in their activities, and to increase ecological awareness among the general public. “The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy,” Senator Nelson said, “and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”
To that end, it was successful. Care for the earth is definitely on the political agenda. There were some notable early results to promote protection for the environment: the Environmental Protection Agency was established in July of that year. It also led to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
The sad reality is that there has been a backlash against climate change in the last few years. The Trump administration has worked hard to destroy the work achieved in recent years. They deny the truth of scientific research, and are more concerned with the economy than with the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency has been gutted, and regulations and laws protecting the environment have been rolled back. One critic has said clearly that the effect of Trump’s policies is that industries are being given an “open license to pollute, plain and simple.”
The record in Canada is somewhat better, but we are not doing enough. Canada signed on to the Paris climate change agreement in 2016. The current government says that climate change is a top priority. But at the same time, since much of our economy is based on resource extraction, the net effect is that governments find it necessary to compromise on actions to combat climate change.
A few years ago, I wrote that Earth Day is “an opportunity for us to reflect on how we affect the planet in our everyday choices. Human beings are becoming a burden for creation. We have spoiled the air, the water, the land — all in the name of progress.
“Let’s take advantage of this time then to slow down a bit and reflect honestly on the chaos of our busy lives. We can join in common cause to care for this planet which came to us as a gift and which we have treated as a commodity to be bought and sold and bartered for our own purposes.”
And then the coronavirus pandemic hit worldwide. Suddenly, we had no choice but to slow down. As a result, factories have stopped producing, there are fewer cars on the road, cruise ships have been docked, and the economy, while still important, has taken second place to healing the people.
The remarkable gift of this pandemic is that skies are clearing up, notably over China, India and California. Remarkable images from space satellites show significant clearance in the atmosphere. Fish and swans are swimming in the cleaner waters of the canals of Venice. Dolphins are dancing in empty cruise ports. Pollution is easing. Mother Earth is breathing a long sigh of relief.
About 800 years ago, St. Francis of Assisi told us that we are kin with the earth. He had a remarkable ability to hear the whole world sing a song of praise to the Creator. His famous Canticle of the Creatures includes the words, “All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother
Sun … Sister Moon and Stars … Brothers Wind and Air … Sister Water … Brother Fire … Sister Earth … Sister Death. All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made. Happy those who endure in peace.”
We are related to each other. We are part of an interconnected web of creation, in which Mother Earth nurtures all creatures who walk on “this fragile earth, our island home” (words from one of the prayers in our Anglican liturgy). We are finding out just how fragile life is, and we are called to live together in peace.
A moment ago, I called it a “remarkable gift of this pandemic”. Most of us are feeling limited in this time. We are getting increasingly frustrated with the restrictions which we have to face, but we do it because we know that this is the safest way in which to care for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that we are also caring for Mother Earth.
I believe it is a helpful thing for us to think of this as a gift. Not everything that is happening in the world is negative. There are some wonderful gifts being given to us. Never again will we take some of the ordinary things of life for granted. We are learning the value of such simple things as a hug, a cup of coffee with a friend, a party, times to relax with families and friends in the park, and so on.
Earth care is one of the gifts of this pandemic.
I can only hope that we are learning something about walking more gently on Mother Earth which will guide us as we move into a new future, whatever the shape of that future.
Faith — A Muted Celebration
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
During April this year, four of the world’s major religions celebrate important festivals. It’s a remarkable coming together of these different faiths in a time when celebration is muted.
Christians, of course, are celebrating Easter. Jews celebrate Passover from April 8–16. Muslims celebrate Ramadan during the month from April 23 to May 23. And Sikhs are celebrating Baisakhi (or Vaisakhi) on April 13.
For each of these religions, these festivals are foundational to our stories.
Passover celebrates the deliverance of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt over three millennia ago. This eight–day festival celebrates freedom and liberation by telling the story which forms the identity of the Jewish people. But it’s not just an historical observance. Rather, it becomes contemporary in each generation as faithful Jews commemorate God’s continuing activity in the life of the people.
In the same way, Christians celebrate Easter as our foundational story of life. Like Passover, it’s not just an historical remembrance of something that happened long ago. Rather, we praise God who continues to be active in the life of God’s people, bringing life out of death so that we might shine with God’s light in the darkness.
Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims. They believe that it was during Ramadan that God revealed the opening verses of the Quran to the prophet Mohammed. It’s a time of spiritual discipline, a time to contemplate one’s relationship with God, a time of extra prayer and increased generosity in almsgiving.
Sikhs celebrate Baisakhi, which commemorates the inauguration of the Khalsa. The word “khalsa” itself means “pure”, and is used for Sikhs who have been inaugurated or baptised . Baisakhi is also a harvest festival and has come to mark the beginning of the new year.
All four festivals are celebratory … but in this time of COVID 19, it will be a muted celebration.
I will speak out of my own tradition. It is a difficult time for people of faith, as it is for the world. We long to be in community as we celebrate, but this pandemic has taken us way out of our comfort zones. We feel the loss keenly. Even so, we are trying to find new ways to be in community as we reach out in different ways. But honestly, texting and emailing and phoning just can’t replace hugs.
Nevertheless, it is true that while our religions buildings—churches and synagogues and mosques and temples—are closed, the community of the faithful is not closed. We remain open as we reach out to our friends and families and neighbours in all kinds of new and innovative ways. Many faith groups are worshipping online, through youtube or facebook or zoom. Others worship by using rituals at home. We are trying to stay in touch through all the different ways we can.
While we are trying to maintain physical distance, we are also trying to maintain social connection.
We are all celebrating differently this year. Christians celebrate the empty tomb this year in empty buildings.
I’ve been thinking that Easter 2020 is so very much like that first Easter. In a Facebook meme, Casey Kerins wrote, “Maybe, for once, we celebrate Easter differently. Maybe, we celebrate the resurrection just as the disciples did: alone, in the silence, hoping the faith outweighs the fear.”
The stories of that first Easter in the gospels are rooted in fear, confusion, doubt, and anxiety. Each of the gospels tells the story of women coming to the tomb, expecting to find the dead body of their friend Jesus. They come with spices to prepare the body for burial. They come to say goodbye.
In each of the gospels, the good news of resurrection and life is a story that is literally unbelievable. They were afraid. They were confused. They didn’t know what was happening. It’s so eerily similar to our situation in this pandemic.
My favourite among the four is Mark’s way of ending the story. When the women peer into the empty tomb, a young man in a white robe greets them and says, “Don’t be afraid. He is not here. He has been raised. Now go, tell his disciples …” But they don’t tell anyone. Mark ends this way, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
A couple of later scribes thought that ending was too abrupt, and they added two other endings in which the women do tell the disciples (they are called “the shorter ending” and “the longer ending” of Mark in your Bibles after Mark 16:8).
But most scholars believe that Mark intended to end his gospel with the silence of the women. Why? Because Mark wants us to know that it’s up to all of us to tell and live out the good news. We continue the story of the gospel as we live it out, as we become witnesses to the new life of God. In every act of kindness and generosity and compassion, we complete the story. As we isolate to keep ourselves ad others safe, we live in love. As we reach out to help others, we live in hope. As we complete the gospel, we cling to God’s grace and become grace–full.
As at that first Easter, so for us the heart of the gospel message is “Don’t be afraid.”
That is a good word for us in this time of pandemic. While our faith celebrations are different and muted this year, our faith remains strong and focussed on a new future.
Faith remains possible. Understanding will come. The voice of the risen Jesus calls us by name, and the God who destroyed death is ever able to turn our tears into joy. All is not lost.
It is a good word for us to hear and to trust.
A Humble King and a Suffering God
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
The church is in Holy Week this week as we mark the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. In this time, Christians make a pilgrimage on the via dolorosa, the “way of suffering”. We walk with Jesus as he journeys to the cross. The Via Dolorosa is also the name which is given to a route of pilgrimage in the old city of Jerusalem, as pilgrims trace the steps which they believe Jesus walked from Pilate’s judgment hall to Golgotha. We seek the heart of Jesus’ identity and ministry in the world.
Holy Week began on Palm Sunday. Normally, Christians around the world would hold processions on Palm Sunday, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus comes to Jerusalem not as a conquering king, but as a humble servant. He rides a donkey, not a stallion.
His followers bless him, calling out, “Hosanna!” For many Christians today, the word is a shout of praise or adoration. But in Hebrew, the root of the word means something like “save us” or “deliver us” or “help us” (Psalm 118:25).
It’s a helpful way to think of it in this time of pandemic. We cry out to God to help us. Just as Jesus rode into Jerusalem then, so Jesus rides into our lives today as a servant. He doesn’t magically wipe all pain and sorrow away. We don’t pray that God somehow ends this pandemic with a flick of the wrist. Rather, we pray for God’s love to enter our lives, to heal and strengthen us so that we are inspired to reach out in love to our neighbours. We pray for God’s courage and patience to encourage us to work together to help flatten the curve of this pandemic. We pray for God’s strength to do what we have to do to take care of each other. That, I believe, is where God is present in all this.
I saw a post on Facebook this week, which makes the same point: “I remember a story about a rabbi during a natural disaster. He was asked how he could explain such a tragic act of God. The rabbi answered that the disaster was an act of nature. The act of God occurred when people stepped up to help each other.”
That is where we find God in our lives and in our world. Jesus rides into our lives, and we cry out, “Help us, O God.”
As Holy Week progresses, conflict deepens. Jesus clears the moneychangers from the Temple. He continues to teach. He challenges the authorities more deeply. He holds up a vision of a God who cares most deeply for the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and denounces any religious establishment which seeks power and influence.
As a result, the authorities decide to get rid of this troublemaker. Jesus is betrayed, arrested, denied by Peter, put on trial with false witnesses. Finally, he is brought before the Roman governor Pilate, who hands him over to be flogged and crucified.
It is a week of pain, of humiliation, of darkness. And in the deepest darkness, Jesus dies crying out that God has also abandoned him.
Holy Week is shaped by its beginning and its end.
The week begins with a humble king. His followers bless him and seek God’s help.
In the same way, in this time of pandemic, faithful followers of Christ reach out to bless him and to seek God’s help. We pray for God’s strength and hope. We believe, as the Creed of the United Church puts it, that “we are not alone; we live in God’s world.”
The week ends with Jesus on the cross. There are many ways to think about what the cross means, but at a very basic level, it means suffering.
I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was imprisoned by the Nazis in the concentration camp at Flossenburg in 1943 because he joined the plot to assassinate Hitler. On April 8, 1945, they hanged him.
In prison, he wrote his “Letters and Papers from Prison”. One entry says that “the decisive difference between Christianity and other religions” is that our natural religiosity makes human beings “look to the power of God in the world”. We want a God who will come in power to overturn injustice and pain and set things right again.
“The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help.”
What a remarkable phrase: Only a suffering God can help.
The week that begins with a humble king ends with a suffering God. As someone once wrote, when Jesus takes up his cross, he “stands in the white–hot centre of the world’s pain”. He doesn’t merely glance in the general direction of suffering and then ease away. Rather, Jesus dwells in the pain we all suffer. He identifies wholly with those who are aching, weeping, lonely, fearful, and dying. God takes our pain into God’s very self.
Wherever there is suffering, Jesus is there. Wherever there is grief, Jesus is there. Wherever there is pain, Jesus is there. This is “the mind of Christ” as Paul writes in Philippians 2, that Jesus gave himself to dwell in the pain of the world. This is what inspires contemporary followers to live sacrificially in the time of pandemic, that we also might have “the mind of Christ”.
At the beginning of Holy Week, a humble king rides into our lives to serve, and we cry, “Save us! Deliver us!” At the end, a suffering God takes out pain into God’s heart and holds us.
In the midst of this time, we also raise our broken hosannas, waiting for the word of life which comes with Easter.
Opening Myself to God in Lent
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
The church has begun the season of Lent. It began Wednesday, which is known as Ash Wednesday. This 40–day–long season echoes one of the important symbolic numbers in the Bible. The story of the flood says that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights; Israel wandered 40 years in the wilderness before entering the promised land; Moses fasted 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; and after being baptized, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, preparing for his ministry.
There are many Biblical numbers which mean more than the literal. The most familiar example is the number 7, which symbolizes perfection or wholeness. In the same way, 40 is not a literal number, but suggests a time which is “long enough” to accomplish the purpose of that time. Forty days is long enough to accomplish the work of Lent.
But if you were to count the days on a calendar, you’d find that there are actually 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The reason is that we don’t count the Sundays during this season. From the very beginning, the church has understood that Sunday is the day of resurrection, a day of feasting and celebration, a day of being nourished with God’s goodness.
When the church first began to mark the season of Lent, the intention was that the faithful would repent and fast on the weekdays of this season. Each day, the faithful would walk with God and journey more deeply to the heart of our faith. Sundays would be a break from that daily penitence, a time to celebrate God’s goodness and rest in the warmth of God’s grace.
But that pattern has changed these days. People pay less attention to the Lent discipline in their day–to–day lives during the week. Sundays have become the focus of Lenten devotion for many people.
For most people these days, Lent has a negative meaning. If you think about Lent at all, you probably remember the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Lent has been a season of self–denial, and that’s not so popular these days. We’re not used to denying ourselves anything. That’s why credit card debt is so high in Canada. We have instant coffee and instant credit and instant everything. When we want something, we normally get it as quickly as we possibly can.
But denial is not the point of Lent. The point of Lent is transformation. When we give something up for Lent, we put away those things which distract us from our relationship with God.
If it’s only about giving something for the sake of giving it up, we miss the point. When we focus on what we’re giving up, we lose our focus on God, and narrow our gaze to the thing we are giving up. Julie Clawson writes, “I’ve discovered that for me personally, legalistic denial for the sake of denial often achieves the opposite purpose. Giving up coffee doesn’t make me a better follower of Christ, it just makes me more irritable. Giving up Facebook doesn’t help me build community in the body of Christ; it simply helps me as a detached introverted person creep further into my shell. Those disciplines don’t assist me in emptying myself in order to let God in; they simply fill me with more of me.”
She’s got it right.
I remember reading an interview with a farmer. The interviewer asked, “Why do you prune your apple trees?” His response was, “To let the light in.”
That’s a much better image for why we mark Lent. We prune and simplify our lives so that God’s light can come in. In John 15, Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” As
branches, we are pruned so that God’s energy can flow more readily into our lives and bring forth abundant fruit.
This approach suggests that our thinking about Lent has changed, along with much else in theology. Our ancestors in the faith used to think that they would give something up in this life, so that they could prepare for eternity.
But we have come to see that salvation is not about turning our backs on the beauty of this world in order to gain eternal life. Salvation is about learning to see God in the beauty of each day, in the love we give and receive in relationship, in the grace we find as we connect with one another, as we connect deeply with this world and as we connect with our best selves.
This Lent, I will open myself to the beauty of the world around me. I will seek to become more open to God’s presence in the people around me. I want to open my heart to the love that is all around me. I will try to be a presence of joy and grace and compassion in the world. I want to be an agent of God’s reconciling love in the world.
On Ash Wednesday, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Yes, we are dust. None of us are going to get out of life alive. We are mortal beings.
But just think what the Holy One can do with the dust of the earth. Soil is a place of growth, of winter rest so that it can burst out in spring splendor. It is the moist, dark soil in which seeds begin to sprout.
So I will remember that God is at work in the soil of my life, and in the soil of our lives together. And I will take time to seek all those places where God is deeply present. I will appreciate God’s grandeur, and I will believe the good news that in the dark soil of my life, God is at work.
On Good Friday again this year, Christians from different churches in Cranbrook will join together for our fifteenth Good Friday CrossWalk on April 19. We make a spiritual pilgrimage through the streets of downtown Cranbrook. This is worship in the streets! We pray for our city, its leaders and all who live here. We pray for our nation and for the world.
The CrossWalk begins at 10 am on Good Friday at the Clock Tower. From there, we will carry a large cross through the downtown core of the city and stop at several locations. At each stop, we read a passage from Scripture and we pray together.
Our prayers will embrace the city and its people, leaders and governments around the world, our legal system, our health care system, caregivers of all sorts and those who need to be surrounded with prayer and compassion and grace. We pray for the victims and perpetrators of war and hatred. We pray for all whose lives need to be held up in the light of God’s love. We end with prayers for the churches and other faith groups, all who seek to live in peace and justice in this world. We pray that we might learn to live and work together with compassion for the good of all people.
Why do we do this?
We do it as a faithful witness to the grace and compassion of God. We hold up our city in prayer so that God’s love might surround and embrace us all with healing grace. We journey together, bearing witness to Jesus who comes to our world with a different vision of what a whole and healthy life looks like. God’s vision for the world is of a world bound together in grace and compassion. God has a vision of a world in which we serve each other, care for each other, pray for each other, and give ourselves away in love. God has a dream of a world where all share in the wealth of the universe, where all may live whole and healthy lives, where all people are embraced, healed, and restores. God’s vision is of a world of justice and peace.
For faithful Christians, the cross is about that alternative vision of what life could be like. Jesus didn’t die on the cross primarily so that we could get to heaven. Rather, he was executed by the state because his vision of life was so radically different that he was seen as a threat. The powers that be executed him.
Today, 2000 years later, we no longer remember those powers that be, except as actors in the story whose central character was Jesus of Nazareth. The cross, for us, shows the depth of Jesus’ passion for a world based on a radical equality among all people. We see the power of God’s love, which holds us up even in the midst of the most painful suffering.
In our CrossWalk, in our prayers, we give voice to that vision. We don’t ask God to come crashing into our world to set everything right. Rather, as we pray, we make a fresh commitment to live by the gospel values of compassion, peace, justice and wholeness. We make a public act of witness that we walk with Jesus, that we share that same vision of a life made whole and new.
Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall talks about prayer as “learning to see the world through God’s eyes.” As we pray, we learn to view the world with compassion and grace. We learn to seek justice for all people. We seek to live on this earth as responsible and faithful people who care for one another and who care for the earth as well.
CrossWalking is one way in which we renew our commitment to walk in the way of Jesus. It is a way that leads to a cross, since walking this path faithfully will bring us into conflict with the world and its values.
God invites us to be partners in what John Dominic Crossan calls “God’s great cleanup of the world”. We work in partnership with God, so that the gospel values of love and compassion and justice might triumph in our own lives and in the world.
God has a deep, abiding and profound love for the world. Our prayers for the city and all its people, for peace and justice, for hope and healing, reflects our longing to participate in God’s passionate love affair with the world.
As we journey through the city, we feel the burden of the cross we carry. At the same time, we experience the reality of its liberating power. We renew our commitment to the crucified and risen Christ as we commit ourselves to serve Cranbrook in love.
Join us on Good Friday, April 19. We begin at the Clock Tower at 10 am, and end with fellowship and refreshments at Christ Church. I invite you to journey with us. Come pray with us. Come show your love for Cranbrook. Come carry the cross with us. Come and give witness to an alternative vision of what life could be like.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Last September, Jean Vanier turned 90. Vanier is the son of a former Governor General of Canada, a Rhodes scholar, a philosopher and theologian. He is best known as the founder of the L’Arche communities in 1964. He became aware of the plight of thousands of people who were institutionalized because of developmental disabilities and decided that he would invite two men to leave their institution and live with him. That became the foundation of L’Arche, a community in which people with disabilities lived with those who cared for them.
Since then, L’Arche communities have been established in countries around the world. A governing philosophy of the communities is Vanier’s belief that people with disabilities are teachers, rather than burdens bestowed upon families.
To commemorate his 90th birthday, Vanier released a YouTube video laying out his “ten rules for life to become more human”. Notice that last phrase—“to become more human”. In this video, Vanier speaks about success, vulnerability, listening, fear and love.
- Accept the reality of your body. “For a man to become a man he has to be at ease with his body. That body is fragile, like all bodies. We are born in weakness (as a little child); we will die in weakness. And when we get to a certain age — ninety — we begin to get weaker. We forget. We become more fragile. I need more rest. I have to accept that I’m ninety. I’m not fifty, or forty, or thirty. I can’t do all I would have liked to have done.”
- Talk about your emotions and difficulties. “Men, in particular, have difficulty expressing their emotions. The biggest difficulty for men is that when they’re upset, they get angry quickly; anger very quickly becomes violence. When they don’t feel successful, men will compensate by using alcohol, or drugs, because reality is difficult. So they tuck themselves away from reality. But being human is to love, and we must learn to speak about our emotions.”
- Don’t be afraid of not being successful. “We judge quickly because the need to win is so powerful. But you have to discover you are beautiful as you are regardless of whether or not you are successful.”
- In a relationship, take the time to ask ‘How are you?’ “Love is linked to weakness. Frequently men don’t see the tyranny of normality.” Vanier goes on to ask, “Has he married his success in work, or has he married his wife? What is the most important? Is it to grow up the ladder in promotion?” Take the time to ask how others are, what they need, and try to listen.
- Stop looking at your phone. Be present! “In a world where we’re being more controlled by television and the internet, where we are more fascinated by technology,” he says to young people, “remember that you are people of communication.” He goes on to ask, “Are you people of presence? Are you able to listen?”
- Ask people ‘What is your story?’ Vanier emphasises the importance of relating to people and listening to them. He says, “To be human is to know how to relate. To relate is to listen: Tell me your story. Tell me where your pain is. Tell me where your heart is. What are the things you desire? To be human is to know how to listen, how to meet people, how to work with people, how to love people.” He adds, “I need to listen to you because your story is different to my story.”
- Be aware of your own story. “You are precious. You have your own ideas: political, religious, non-religious, you have your own vision of the world. Your vision for yourself.” He acknowledges that when we fear our identities, worldviews, and cherished opinions are being taken away from us we are liable to become angry. He adds, “we have to discover where our fears are because that is the fundamental problem.” He asks, “Maybe in your story there is a story about fear.”
- Stop prejudice: meet people. “This is the big thing about being human — to meet people.” We need to “meet people who are different, not just people who are like us, who are part of my culture, my world, my tribe. We can discover that the other person is beautiful.”
- Listen to your deepest desire and follow it. “We are very different from birds and dogs. Animals are very different. We human beings are not just here to eat and make babies. We are different … we are not satisfied with the finite. There is a sort of cry of the infinite within us.” He asks, “Where is your greatest desire?”
- Remember that you’ll die one day. “I’m not the one who’s the king of the world and I’m certainly not God. I’m just somebody who was born ninety years ago and will die in a few years time and then everybody will have forgotten me. This is reality. We’re all here, but we are just local people, passengers in a journey. We get into the train, we get out of the train, the train goes on.”
Words of wisdom, spoken from a life of wisdom.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Marcelo Gleiser has been awarded the Templeton Prize for 2019. He is “a leading proponent of the view that science, philosophy, and spirituality are complementary expressions of humanity’s need to embrace mystery and the unknown.” Gleiser, a native of Brazil, presently teaches physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
The Templeton Prize was established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, who founded the Templeton Growth Fund, one of the premier investment portfolios. Money magazine called him “arguably the greatest global stock picker of the century.”
Templeton had “a profound respect for learning, a belief in the centrality of spiritual life, and a higher purpose beyond profit for profit’s sake,” reflected in the Templeton Prize which is awarded “to honour a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The Prize aims to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.”
Templeton Prize winners include Desmond Tutu (2013), Jean Vanier (2015), the Dalai Lama ((2012), Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1983), and Mother Teresa (1973).
This news report caught my eye because it affirms my own belief that we can’t divide life into secular and sacred realms. Too often, people draw tight boundaries between different aspects of life which really cannot be separated.
Gleiser is a wonderful example of crossing those boundaries towards a more unified approach to life. There are many who say that faith and science are opposed to each other. Gleiser “is a prominent voice among scientists, past and present, who reject the notion that science alone can lead to ultimate truths about the nature of reality.” He believes that science, the arts, and spirituality are interlinked. Some questions cannot be answered by science alone, and other disciplines come into play.
In an interview with Scientific American, Gleiser says that we should be more humble in our approach to knowledge. “If you look carefully at the way science works, you’ll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits. And by doing that, by understanding how science advances, science really becomes a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don’t know.”
He continues by saying that “atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method.” Why? Because atheism is “a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief— ‘I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.’ Period.” Such a declaration is incompatible with the scientific method, which refuses to make declarations. It posits an hypothesis, and then seeks evidence to prove or disprove that hypothesis.
In this way, he stands opposed to people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens, who declare definitively that God is nothing more than a delusion conjured by human beings. Gleiser calls himself an agnostic, which means that he, like the rest of us, doesn’t have the final answer to the mystery of life. Atheists, on the other hand, claim that there is no mystery of life. That kind of approach is a final answer in and of itself.
Rather, as Gleiser wrote, “Scientists, in a sense, are people who keep curiosity burning, trying to find answers to some of the questions they asked as children.” Atheism shuts the door on questions about the meaning and destiny of this grand experiment of life.
One of my favourite definitions of faith is to say that “Faith is not about finding the right answers. Faith is about learning to ask the right questions!” I believe this to be true not only of Christian faith, but of faith in all its dimensions and truths.
I think this is what Gleiser gets at when he talks about keeping curiosity burning. We never have the final answer. None of us do. We can’t. But the more we keep asking questions, and the better the questions we keep asking become, the closer we will come to truth.
There is an inspiring word of wisdom found in the Hindu tradition. “Truth is one, sages call it by many names. The Real is One; it is known through many symbols.”
We call Truth by many, different names and symbols. As we gather around the same table to talk together, as we become conversation partners with one another, we may well discover more cogent answers which lead us closer to that Truth which is One.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt