28 October 2011

Voice Recognition

Voice Recognition
John 20: 1-18

Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs, Ph.D.

A Service of Witness to the Resurrection for Mary Lawrence Forkel (1921-2011)
Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, MD

27th October 2011

            Many here this evening will recognize the sermon title.  It’s the title of the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday this year, based on this reading from John.  Many know the setting well.  Mary is left all alone outside the empty tomb on Easter morning.  John and Peter have left her there.  It’s a poignant scene.  She’s crying outside the tomb, missing the one whom she loved, missing probably the only one who ever truly loved her. Alone, she looks into the tomb and discovers two messengers of Yahweh dressed in white, sitting apart, one where Jesus’ head had been, the other sits where Jesus’ feet had been.  And in between the two of them, nothing, an absence there means a presence some place else.  “Woman, why are you weeping?”  “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Then she turns around and sees someone standing there who asks the same question, “Dear woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” Assuming this man to be the gardener, she enquires after his body.  “Please [kind] sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  As if she could carry that dead weight by herself.  But then everything changes when the gardener says her name,  “Mary!”

            Back in April, on Maundy Thursday, I went to see Mary – our Mary.  By that time, under hospice care, her sight was gone.  It was difficult for her to swallow and eat and talk.  Her cheeks, she told me, felt like stone. She showed me her talking wristwatch that someone in the congregation bought her.  She could just push a button and hear a voice tell her the time.  It worked great.  That week Mary told me about the new phone that Charles had bought for her.  It took about three hours to set up, she said.  It allowed her to make outgoing calls all by herself.  She could just pick up the receiver, say a name, a digital voice would repeat back what it heard and then dial it.  It worked remarkably well.  She showed me.  Mary reached for the phone, picked up the receiver and said, “Ken Kovacs,” and soon it was dialing my number.  But it wasn’t perfect.  With her speech being what it was the phone had difficulty recognizing certain sounds.  When Mary said “Steve Russell,” the phone said back, “Judy Kloetzel,” and then began to dial Judy.  She showed me.  She said, “Steve Russell,” and I heard the phone say back, “Judy Kloetzel,” and then it began to ring.  We hung up.  A few minutes later the phone rang.  It was Judy Kloetzel, calling from about 6500 feet up in the mountains of California wondering if everything was okay and I said, yes.  I put the phone back and then sat down on the sofa, on Mary’s right side.  I put my left arm around her, held her hand, and talked into her left ear so she could hear me.  After a moment of quiet, shifting topics, Mary slap my knee and said, “So, Ken, what’s your sermon title for Easter?” I said, “Voice Recognition.”  And then we both laughed out loud, long and hard.

            It’s a poignant expression, isn’t it, of the power of the name:  to be able to say the name of another clearly and to clearly hear the speaking of one’s name.  We know what it feels like to hear our name said by someone who knows us and loves us.  It goes right to the depths of our being, into our souls.  It doesn’t sound the same coming from anyone else.  It’s a powerful and blessed thing indeed, long after the death of someone dear, to be able to her their voice in your inner-ear still invoking your name.  Perhaps the power comes with knowing that behind the voice saying your name is one who truly loves you.  In John’s gospel it must not be overlooked that it was only upon the hearing of her name – Mary! – said by the one who loved her, did she respond and “see” with the turn of recognition;  it’s as if her ears searched and found Jesus before her eyes did, searching for what they could not immediately see.  It was the voice she knew as one who loved her.  That’s what she needed in order to recognize resurrection in her midst.

            I’ve been thinking a lot this week about that visit with our Mary, of the relationship between listening to another and the experience of being heard, of the power of the human voice to heal and transform.  Talking with Dorothy over last couple of days, reflecting upon Mary’s life, we both agree that one of Mary’s many gifts was her ability to listen. Mary was a marvelous conversationalist.  She loved to talk and it was a joy to talk with her.  But what made it so special was that she was a marvelous listener.  When you sat and talked with Mary, she really listened to you and you felt like you were being heard.  So let us pause for just a moment, embrace the silence, and listen for her voice. What do you hear her saying to you? {Silence.}

            Mary listened carefully and she remembered what you said, days, weeks, even years later.  She had an amazing memory.  Always deflecting attention away from herself, she always wanted to know how I was doing.  And it was a real question, she genuinely cared and listened for the response.  There was something about the way she said your name, that in the name we were “known” or “seen.”  You knew that when she said your name, when she spoke to you, you recognized that when she said your name she was saying it in love.

            And we all know the depth of her love.  It seemed to know no limits.  The generosity of her heart overflowed into all of our lives and we were all recipients of it, either directly or indirectly.  She gave selflessly.  It was difficult for her to be on the receiving end of such a similar kind of love.  She was always seemed more concerned about everyone else than herself.  But that’s who she was – and, I’m convinced, she was this way, not because she had to be this way, not because it was expected of her, not because she was somehow exceptional at exercising this particular virtue, but because she knew throughout her life the power and presence of a similar kind of generous heart, a love that knows no limits, a love that is forever reaching out toward some object or person, a kind of love she not only believed in but experienced in her trust and faith in Christ.  Mary said she was not afraid to die, but she didn’t want to say good-bye to the people she loved and cared about.   She loved life to the fullest.  It was difficult for her to let go, she held on longer than anyone expected.  But isn’t this what love does?  It seeks out, it connects, it holds on, it never wants to let go – not unlike the way God who loves all of us, seeking us out, who wants to connect, reaching out, holding on to us and holding us up, with a love that never lets us go.

            That’s why she cared deeply about the ministry of this church.  She was a raised, as she told me, “a good Methodist” – now tell me something, since we have so many Methodists here tonight, why do people often describe someone as being a “good Methodist,” – “Oh, he’s a good Methodist” – I never hear people say, “Oh, she was a good Presbyterian.”  Maybe someone can explain this to me. That aside, Mary came to love this congregation in 1946 and over the years loved Catonsville United Methodist Church too.  We would be here all night listing all that Mary did in this church. 

            I will be forever grateful for her love and support of my ministry here.  She was on the search committee that called me, as well as for the two previous ministers of this church. 

            Mary was an amazing evangelist of this church.  I cannot tell you how many times I heard her welcome a visitor to worship or, out beyond the church with Mary, perhaps at Charlestown, she would introduce me to a friend, say I was the pastor, and then invited that person to come to worship one day or attend a class or a concert.  She was always reaching out and inviting people into the community.  She called out the best in all of us in the church, she was ever-hopeful and confident, and believed God was trustworthy.  Many of us here will never forget the moving speech she made in April, 2008, just as we were about to take out a sizeable mortgage and begin renovations on this building.  She said, “Do it.”  We were all nervous about what the outcome of the vote would be.  Once she spoke, many of us knew what the outcome would be, and it passed by a large margin.   We did it and are doing it, as she knew God would be faithful.  We could do whatever we set our minds and hearts to because she believed in a faithful God.  She said to me, “It’s been a tremendous journey, Ken,” reflecting on all the kindness, the fun, the giving to and serving the Lord, of serving the church.

            How blessed you are Charles and Sue for having a mother such as Mary; Barbara and Ray, for such a wonderful mother-in-law.  How blessed you are, Fred, for sharing a life with someone like Mary.  How blessed you are Michelle and Diana for having a grandmother like Mary.  Thank you for sharing her with us.  For we have been and are and will be blessed for having known and loved by her.

            There are two conversations I want to share in closing.  This has been with me for months now.  As we know, Mary loved good music, choral music, and organ music.  We know of her love of Mendelssohn and Bach and many other pieces, but her favorite composer was Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  I asked her one-day, “Why Brahms, Mary?”  She thought about it for a moment and said he’s “the best.”  She thought longer and said, “It’s beyond words, really.”  Michelle was there for that conversation.  Michelle played a recording of Charles playing a part from the First Piano Concerto in D minor, (Op. 15, 1858), the solo piano lines in the adagio–sublime.  Mary said there was a richness and texture to Brahms’ music.  “His melodies are just so beautiful,” she said, “They’re just right.  Whole.  Complete.  It’s all there.”  She mentioned two songs in particular that loved, Nänie (Op. 82, 1881) – meaning a funeral song – a poem by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), and Schlicksaslied (Op. 54, 186-1871), “The Song of Destiny,” a setting of Friederich Hölderlein’s (1770-1843) poem that has only two verses, the first describes the bliss of the gods and the second the sufferings of mankind "plunging blindly into the abyss."   Now “abyss” doesn’t sound like Mary, but it speaks of something she did feel, deeply, about Brahms and why “it’s all there” because the “all there” includes depth.  “It has depth,” she said, “It just goes deeper and deeper without ever dissolving.”  Brahms had a difficult life.  He was known for being a very generous soul, but also melancholic.  He wrote from a very deep place, he was someone who knew pain and loss and disappointment, not unlike Mary who witnessed the depth of human suffering as a nurse. In many ways we are the music we listen to.  It resonates “out there” because it first strikes something “in here,” in the heart. When I left Charlestown that afternoon I turned on the radio and Brahms was playing.

            On another occasion, before I left for Africa, I was there for a visit. I was in my usual spot on the sofa, on her right, with my left arm around her.  We started talking and in a lull in our conversation I could hear some music playing on the radio.  I, too, like Brahms and recognized the piece as Brahms. I asked if I could turn up the radio; I told Mary it was Brahms.  It was the Piano Quintet (Op. 34, 1864).  And so we listened together for about 10-15 minutes. I wasn’t sure if Mary was listening or asleep.  But there was one point in the piece, a point of exquisite beauty when we both sort of hummed or groaned – I’m not sure what it was – from some place deep.  We both responded together; it spoke to both of us.  She was listening.  When I left that day, I got into the car, and Brahms was again on the radio, another chamber piece.  Even after I sent out the email on Monday this week, sharing word of Mary’s death and the funeral arrangements, I switched on my online radio station and, you guessed it, Brahms, playing. Mary listened deeply to music; maybe because she was a good listener, maybe listening to music made her a better listener.

            This evening we can easily imagine Mary singing in the heavenly chorus, keeping the music library in order, and requesting plenty of Brahms and Mendelssohn and Bach.  But more than anything, I imagine Mary, with that voice singing God’s praise, delighting in all that beauty, and that fine-tuned listening ear of hers, responding with joy to the voice of the One who loved her from always, who claimed her as one of his own, and now calls her into the abundance of his life – Mary! Mary!  Not surprisingly, hearing features prominently in John’s gospel.  “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).  “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice…” (John 5:28).  Jesus the good shepherd says, he “goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice….  My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:4, 17).  It’s the voice of love that calls out all our names; it’s the voice of love that called Mary home.  She recognized his voice and he certainly recognized hers. 

            To God the Creator, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, be glory both in the church and in the world, now and forever more. Amen.

25 October 2011

Remaing Open

Exodus 3: 1-15

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 23rd October 2011

There are moments in our lives when we know everything is about to change; a moment that demarcates the leaving behind of former times, former ways, and embracing something new, a moment of before and after. Moments when you realize that from hereafter everything will be different. There are moments of extraordinary insight and revelation that transform us.  The biblical witness is unabashedly clear that such moments do occur, often.  The Church’s witness has always been that such moments can occur, do occur to us, occur all around us.  Although in our skeptical day perhaps the Church’s witness is somewhat ambiguous on this point. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we’re declining in the West.  Have we lost confidence that an encounter with the Holy is possible any more?  Are we even open to the prospect that an encounter with the Holy is possible?

            To be honest, it’s easy to simply go about our lives believing that we really don’t need an encounter with the Holy.  Sure, we can believe in God, think of God “up there” or somewhere, ordering our days, keeping watch, but then just go on about our lives without really giving thought to something larger than ourselves. We can just go about our business, following our career paths, raising our children, pursuing happiness, our American pastime. We can invoke God now and again, go to worship now and again, but then carry on as if God wasn’t really involved in our lives or really cares.

            This is how I image Moses managing Jethro’s flock.  By this point Moses has already led a full life.  Here he’s kind of hiding away from all that took place in Egypt.  The former Egyptian prince is now a shepherd, living out in the country, leading a quiet of life of anonymity, attending to work and family. He sets out for the wilderness with the sheep to Horeb, the mountain of God.  It was there, minding his own business, going about his life when Yahweh’s messenger appears to him in a flame of fire from inside a bush.  The bush, as we know was burning yet not consumed. That should have been the first tip-off that something odd was up, something out of the ordinary.  Could he believe his eyes?  Would he?

            Push the “Pause” button here.  You probably have an image of all of this playing out in your head.  Maybe you’re watching this scene unfold in a movie, maybe “The Ten Commandments.”  Push pause.  Stop and consider.  So much hinges on what Moses will do in that moment. We know what he does, but put yourself in his position for moment.  Imagine yourself up there on Mt. Horeb with the sheep, probably tired, hungry, cold, bored, in the deafening silence, maybe scared, perhaps slowly losing your grip on reality with no one to talk to except the sheep–maybe the sheep start to answer you back.  Then you see it– a bush containing a flame, a large flame, large enough to consume the bush, and yet the bush isn’t burning. That would be unsettling. Any sense of normalcy starts to breakdown.  You’re pushed to the edge.  You have several options here.  First, you can ignore it altogether.  You could just look the other way.  Or, two, you can acknowledge that, yes, something bizarre is happening there, but then choose to deny it, mind your own business, willfully ignore it, and walk away from it in the opposite direction.  Or, you could decide to be brave, embrace the mystery, turn toward it, satisfy your curiosity.

            Now hit the “Play” button.  We know that’s exactly what Moses did.  Curious about this strange sight Moses “turned aside”–with no sense of what he’s about to get himself mixed up in, he moves toward the bush. With this turn, in the split second of this decision, nothing will be the same again for him.  That’s the moment that marks before and after in his life, the end of his former life and the beginning of a new life, for what he was about to experience and the call he’s about to receive will transform his life and the life of the world for centuries to come.  Once he turns there’s no turning back, no reversal.  It all hinges on that moment when Moses “turned aside.”  Because, the text says, when Yahweh, watching what Moses will do – off the wings, as if Yahweh isn’t sure what will happen next – once Yahweh sees Moses turning toward the bush, then God calls out to him,  “Moses, Moses!”  Moses answers, “Here I am.”  God replies to Moses, “Come no closer here. Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground.”  And God said, “I am the God of your father, the God Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid face, for he was afraid to look upon the holiness of God.

            The epiphany, the burning bush, yields what scholars call a theophany, an appearance of God, an encounter with the Holy that will forever change our awareness of God and shape the patterns of history.  Yahweh commissions Moses to go back to the place of death, to Egypt; Yahweh calls him to face his past in order to liberate the Israelites – and in the process liberate himself.  This is what God loves to do. The way out, the exodus, is always through, through the pain, through the past, through suffering and death, and not by avoiding the pain and the past, suffering and death.  Full of doubt and excuses Moses resists.  He doesn’t even know much about this God; Moses wants to know by what authority he will go back to Egypt.  That’s when we’re given the name, given a glimpse into the very being of God, a name that itself is connected with Being – “I AM.”   In Hebrew: “’Ehyeh-‘Asher-‘Ehyeh.”  I-Am-Who-I-Am, or, in other words, I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be.

            We can’t underestimate the power and significance of both epiphany and theophany here.  By turning aside Moses opened himself up to the calling of God.  Moses now “understands that he…has been summoned to step out of his everyday routine and see his life as part of a larger destiny, unfolding beyond his personal purposes.”  Jewish theologian Michael Fishbane writes, “Now all is mission, consumed by the consciousness of being sent.” And sent by a God whose name is not nameable, a God who can’t be controlled or defined or managed or domesticated, I Will Be Whoever I Will Be.  God as the Wholly Other. A “no nameable name is given to this primordial divine manifestation,” Fishbane claims.  “Out of the depths the Divine breaks into human consciousness, but it cannot be fixed or formulated; it can only be attested to as a compelling presence, come to be as it will be, again and again, and changing a person’s life.” Fishbane’s comments on this text are sublime and important:  “The connection of this name with the fiery configuration that addressed Moses was momentary; but the truth he experienced went beyond this particular occurrence.  From the divine side [of this experience], God “shall be” as God shall be, we are told, and one can say nothing further about it.  Whereas from the human side, a person must simply be attentive to the vastness all around,…; and [the vastness] may be experienced with such acuity as to seem supernatural to one’s normal sensibility.”[1]

            What’s the point here?  The vastness of God is all around us. Moses’ encounter calls us to be ever attentive to the Divine voice in our lives, the vastness in which we live.  If we exist in the vastness of God, then our daily lives, too, are participating in God’s being.  “…for in every feature of the world something of the unseeable face of God may be perceived, and something of the all-unsayable name of God may be named.”[2]  To know this requires that we, like Moses, remain open.  This does not mean we have the power to control God, but in order for us to experience God’s presence, hear God’s call in our lives, we need to be open with a kind of holy curiosity.  We are asked to live with the possibility that any bush can become a burning bush summoning us forth toward a new destiny, calling us into a larger world of God’s grace.  God’s Being is “being” all the time around us.  God’s Being envelopes us, indeed our being – the very fact that we have being – is participating in God’s being and if this should stop we would stop.  We are called to be open to it, become ever more attentive to it, become aware of it, be receptive to the many epiphanies and theophanies that can and do occur around us all the time. 

            This is really what Nanette Sawyer is getting at in her discussion of hospitality that we’ve been talking about as a congregation recently.  This might sound like a weird segue, but it isn’t.   Hospitality really means being open.  It consists of three aspects, she claims, receptivity, reverence, and generosity.  When all three are at play we are being hospitable. We often associate hospitality with the way we treat a stranger or guest in our home or in church.  Sawyer shows that receptivity, reverence, generosity can also to be directed toward our neighbor, the one beside you.  And we are called to be hospitable toward ourselves.  But she makes the critically important point that hospitality really begins when we are receptive of and extend reverence and generosity toward God.[3]  When Moses turned aside he was being receptive to what God was about to show him.  He was offering a kind of hospitality toward God, as well as reverence (when he took of his shoes and covered his face), and generosity (when he responded with his life to God’s call).

            Receptivity is another way of remaining open.  And, boy, do we have struggles with this.  Last week I was on a five-day retreat in West Virginia with the Franciscan Richard Rohr.  Many times he talked about experiencing the presence of God.  While we can’t say when God is going to show up, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves for the possibility.  He said when the mind is open and the heart is open and when our bodies are open, when all three are open, we become most receptive to and open to the presence of God. Meditate on this a bit and you’ll soon discover, as I did, just how much of our minds, hearts, and bodies are not open, but blocked, shut down, closed off, fearful, hurtful, full of pain, acting and thinking with an over-protectiveness caused by fear that walls-off the world and God.  Our suspicious, skeptical, negative, critical default modes are used to protect us from being hurt further.  I wonder how much we miss of life, miss of God, because we’re not open? 

            Being open is a way of saying, “Yes.”  Being receptive is a way of saying, “Yes.”  Being closed likes to say, “No.” When Moses turned aside, he said, “Yes.” Being receptive to our neighbor, to the stranger, to ourselves, to God are all ways we say, “Yes!” Yes–I acknowledge your presence, I recognize you, I honor you, I will draw close to you.  I will risk getting to know you with a holy curiosity, even if it means that such an encounter could dismantle my worldview, question my values, unsettle my faith, and change the purpose and destiny of my life. 

            Will we risk the possibility of being changed?  Will we take the risk and be receptive to God’s voice?  Will we be open, can we remain open long enough to receive a summons, hear a message, receive a word, an insight, a calling that just might possibly change our lives?  Are we willing to be transformed?

            Perhaps we can risk being open to God, can say “Yes” to God’s presence in our lives when we remember that God has already received us, God has already opened God’s life to every single one of us, that God has already said to every one of us, “Yes!”, particularly through God’s great “Yes” in Jesus Christ.  As Paul said, “…in [Christ] it is always ‘Yes.’  For in Christ every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’  For this reason it is through him that we can say ‘Amen,’”–which can be translated, “Yes”–“to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:19b-20).

[1] Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement:  A Jewish Theology (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2008), 53-54.
[2] Fishbane, 54.
[3] Nanette Sawyer, Hospitality–The Sacred Art:  Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2007).

Image:  Byzantine mosaic, St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai (Egypt).

03 October 2011

Losses and Gains

Philippians 3:4b-14

World Communion Sunday/ 2 October 2011

Paul is perfectly candid in his letter to the Philippians.  He’s tired, frustrated with their hubris, with their arrogance, in their over-confidence in the things of this world and short on trust in the things that last, in their reluctance to change.  The editors of the NRSV helpfully entitled this section “Breaking with the Past.”  This, Paul tells us, is what occurs when Christ calls us. This, Paul insists, is what happens when God’s extends a call in our lives. This, Paul implores, is what has already occurred in him and everyone who finds oneself “in Christ.”  A break is made with “the flesh.”  A change occurs.

            First, we need to keep in mind that when Paul refers to “flesh” he does not mean our physical bodies.  “Flesh” is Paul’s term for that which is human, as opposed to that which is of God.  It refers to things of this world, to be worldly, to be shaped and influenced and defined by the things of this world, the prevailing values and attitudes of the world, of the culture, to be over-identified with these structures and systems. That’s the flesh.  It’s the flesh that is opposed to God’s will, it resists the movement of the Spirit, it laughs at Jesus Christ, hinders the coming of God’s Reign.  That’s the flesh.  And before Jesus knocked him off his high-horse while traveling on the Damascus Road, Paul was up to his ears in flesh.

            If the flesh really, ultimately mattered, then he would have every reason to boast with confidence in it.  Before meeting Christ, he defined his world and himself by circumstances of his birth and upbringing.  After all, Paul was a Jew above all Jews – circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people Israel – by birth, born into the prestigious tribe of Benjamin. “A Hebrew born of Hebrews.”  He was a follower of the Law, a Pharisee, with power and influence, with “zeal” he persecuted the church, and as to living up to the standards of the law:  blameless.

            These are the things he valued, cherished, placed stock in.  These were the assets of his life.  All of these things defined Paul’s identity.  These were the values that shaped his world, influenced his decisions.  We’re not all that different from Paul – just think of the way you define yourself, think of your values, the things and people you cherish, place stock in.  Think of your assets.  Think of all the things that we use to define who we are:  our place of birth, family, heritage, church membership, being a Presbyterian, status, influence, education, experience, our credentials, our degrees, our resources.   Paul had a lot of assets; he had every reason to boast, to have confidence in himself because of these.  Paul also came to say that all of this is “flesh,” worldly, human, earthly values, attitudes, the way of culture. And he probably wouldn’t have considered all of this “of the flesh” but for the encounter with someone who questioned his life and put everything in his life in a different perspective.

            Paul writes, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faith of Christ,….”

            When one is in Christ our relationship to the world, “to the flesh,” changes, our orientation toward the world changes, our values change, our identities change. That’s what Paul knew and he was eager to share what took place in his life.  He considered all the gains he made in his life; in the estimation of most people, he did all the right things, achieved much, had power and influence.  His mother must have been very proud indeed.  But then all heaven broke lose and the bottom fell out from under his feet and everything gave way.  When he faced Jesus Christ – when he encountered God’s grace in the face of Christ bestowing a righteousness apart from the law – everything changed.  He discovered that the very things he considered assets might actually be liabilities.  Indeed, because of his knowledge of God in Christ, because he came to know the surpassing value of knowing Christ, he was willing to lose everything, to reject those gains, in order to gain Christ.  Because of his knowledge of Christ, the grip all these things had on his life was loosened and he was set free. The gain far outweighs everything else.  Indeed, Paul says “I regard them as rubbish” – skybala – which does not mean rubbish, by the way, that’s the Bible being presentable, but stronger.  In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates the word as “dog dung.”  You can come up with your own translation of the word.

            This is not to say that birth, wealth, family, status, education, etc. are in and of themselves “rubbish,” because they’re not. The trouble comes when we allow all of these things, these externals, to define who we are, to shape our values, and decisions.  When we are in Christ we find that our relationship to all of these things change, they are transformed, they are transvalued.[1]  They might even lose their importance or defining significance in your life.  In fact, through the relationship with Christ, through his call and claim upon our lives, we might even find ourselves giving them up or chaning our relationship or association to these externals. 

            Sometimes it requires leaving home, moving out of one’s comfort zone, traveling to a different culture for us to see all the ways we are being shaped by the culture around us. We think we’re independent thinkers, but only up to a point. We are being shaped by the world all the time. 

            What defines you?  Your place of birth, your ethnicity, your wealth, your values, your education, your faith?  How much are all of these merely accidentals, the result of being born in a particular time and place?  I thought about these things a lot when I was in the Congo recently.  Pulled out of my comfort zone (the Congo has a way of doing this), I saw myself and my world from a different angle.  I wondered, how would my life be different if I had been born in the Congo?  I see how much I define myself by the externals of my culture and less by claiming who I am in Christ – and sometimes, I confess, these two ways of being are worlds apart.  What really defines you and me?  For Paul, we know ourselves best when we are found in Christ, when in our relationship with him we come to see what matters most in the world and what doesn’t, we come to see what we are called to do and what we are called not to do, we come to see what hinders our walk with Christ and what strengthens it. 

            The upward call that Christ extends to us, as Paul knew, runs through the way of grief and loss.  This is a difficult thing to hear, I know, but it’s the truth.  For with the upward call toward the future that Christ is preparing for us comes the realization that we have to leave some things behind, we have give up, we have to set aside these things.

            Jean Vanier writes, “Grief and loss are inseparable from the call.”[2]  He should know. Vanier is founder of  L’Arche, the founder of communities around the world with and for people with severe disabilities. He gave up a career in the Navy to fulfill his call.  “If we accept the call but not the loss we will live in a contradiction,” he writes. Vanier’s way of linking call and loss is very insightful and reflects, I think, Paul’s own experience.[3]    Vanier says it so beautifully:  “When we discover and welcome God’s call, something beautiful happens in us:  we experience the love of God for us and a whole new world opens up inside us. We also realize that it is a very demanding call. We are invited to leave our former, familiar world, and let go of what we used to know and hold on to; and this implies loss.  We receive something new but at the same time we must let go of something else.”[4]

            In the Reformed tradition we believe, by virtue of our baptisms, that each of has a calling from God. To be baptized is to be called by God to be and become different people and to do something profound with our lives for the sake of the wake of the world.  “God’s call is different for each of one of us,” Vanier insists, “and yet it is the same.  “It is a call to grow in love, in wisdom and in inner freedom, and thus to bring greater love, peace and freedom into the world.”[5]  Greater love, peace, freed – into the world.  For the world, with the hope that the world itself might be transformed, that even “the flesh” might be redeemed and restored to become the bearer of God’s love and grace.

[1] The use of “transvalue” here refers to “the revaluation of all values” or “transvaluation of all values” (Umwertung aller Werte), a concept developed by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in The Antichrist (1895). It was a phrase he used against Christianity, however; he considered Christianity as the transvaluation of nature and was therefore “hostile to life.”
[2] Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 26.
[3] Vanier, 20.
[4] Vanier, 19.
[5] Vanier, 18.  For more about the L’Arche Community, see:  www.larcheusa.org.