Freedom

Picture this: you’ve been kept prisoner in a country far away; your children have been taken away from you; you’ve been enslaved and bullied and oppressed. But now you’re free! You’re on your way to your own country. And what do you get? Ten commandments! … Okay … So you’re free at last, and then someone comes up with: thou shalt not this and thou shalt not that. You were so not in the mood for that!
But seriously, just exactly how did you imagine your freedom? Freedom as such is nothing, it’s an empty shell. Freedom without a plan, without a purpose is like a dog let loose in a butcher shop. Maybe the only advantage of being enslaved could be this: that you don’t have to think about these matters yourself. The prison guard tells you what you can’t and can do. The dictator tells you what to think and to believe.
But when you’re free you have to figure that out for yourself. And it is not only your right but also your duty to organize your life. It’s your obligation, your own responsibility to determine your own values and goals in a way that it somehow all makes sense. Because otherwise there will be little meaning or fulfillment in the end. You will end up like that dog in the butcher shop, nauseated and pretty wasted. Freedom without structure or decent plan ends up in chaos.
The people that just got liberated and is now on the way home, however, is not in the mood at all for such planning and organizing. They just want to resume their life the way it was before they went to the land of Egypt.
But wait a sec, was that life really so great to begin with? Oh yes, some truly wonderful things happened, but there were also things one can hardly be proud of: one brother killing the other; the hubris of building that tower of Babel; Sodom en Gomorrah; Jacob with his whole schemes of betrayal; and then Jacob’s sons who sell off their youngest brother and then tell their father his beloved son is dead.
It’s a long, long list of lies and betrayal and envy and theft and shame… and that’s the life they want to go back to? I can’t with all my wits comprehend that God would have freed them from slavery for that!
When Moses receives the ten commandments on the mountain, it’s not just something that happens out of the blue. It’s the conclusion of a long and serious debate between Moses and God. Because they both worry about that people down in the valley. Both God and Moses know that this regained freedom needs to be structured, this people’s future needs to be planned and their society-to-be needs to be organized.
You don’t like being slandered or lied to? So then agree that no one will slander, lie or give false evidence. You don’t want other people stealing you’re partner away from you, or your child or animal or property? Then don’t steal yourself, respect other peoples family, respect their loved ones and their belongings.
Don’t work all the time. Take a break; take time to breathe and to rest, to enjoy and to celebrate, and grant your employees, your cattle and your land the time to rest and to recuperate. Let there be respect and trust and dignity between parents and children, only that will keep them together as a loving family for a lifetime.
That’s what these ten golden rules are meant for, not to confine us but to help us build a life that is truly worth living and to build up a world we might well call a land of milk and honey.

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Forty

Forty is a number, but not just any number. For forty weeks a baby grows in the nourishing and sheltering safety of its mother’s womb before it can breathe and eat and cry and poop all by itself and exist outside her mother’s body. Okay, she still needs her Mam for quite some time. But tiny though and pretty helpless for the time being, it’s all there: the eyes and the ears, the ten little fingers and the ten tiny toes. From now on she is unmistakably a human being of her own.
Forty is not just any number. It’s a number that has to do with evolving, becoming, maturing. Forty is a number of growth.
For forty days and nights a man goes into the desert to confront devils and demons and to come to a clear understanding of his own life and of the meaning of his incarnation in that particular person at that specific moment in the history of this earth. And of course it wasn’t a double mission: discovering the meaning of life and fighting devils and demons. The devils and the demons – often portrayed as one figure that goes by the name of Satan – were there to distract this man from is original purpose. In fact, while meditating the meaning of his life, these devils and demons were nothing more than reflections of his own thoughts and considerations if he were to choose to act from the ego. The devils and demons were actually all the options and opportunities most people in their ego-state are very susceptible to. You know, things like power, success, fame, money, wealth. Clearly the man, we know by the name of Jesus, is not easily fooled and quite aware of the mission he has chosen to fulfill in this life. And does he grow during those forty days and nights in the desert? Definitely.
Once a whole people went through the desert. Not for forty days but for forty years. Did they fight demons and devils? You bet they did. They were tempted time after time to forsake the God that had liberated them from slavery, and at some point they almost did. Their hardship was as common as it is for any people nowadays that is going through a desert. Stuck between slavery and freedom, between courage and cowardice with hunger and thirst, sickness, insecurity and despair.
And yet, they grew! Kept together by this common vision of a land of milk and honey and guided by some strong and wise men and women, they became one people with one God. Not overnight, but gradually.
Like in Dutch, the English language should find another word for Lent. Not to replace it, but to complement it and to release it from its old-fashioned and narrow meaning as a time of fasting and penance. The way Christians, especially Catholics, have understood and practised it for ages and is now, for various and understandable reasons, not so appealing anymore. And yet, the world today, people today could benefit greatly from such a period of meditation and reflection. Of course you can skip the wine and the sugar and the fags if you think it will do you good. But what is really called for in our noisy, busy lives in our rushing, complex society is time. Not necessarily forty days, but at least TIME.
Time to slow down, to hear yourself breathe, to feel your own heartbeat. Time to check the crossroads and ask yourself: am I still on track, am I still heading for what really matters in my life, the goals I set, the choices I made? Do they still make sense, these goals and choices, or should they be altered altogether? Time to look within and reconsider your life. Am I still growing, or have I somehow come to a standstill? Am I living the life I believe I should be living; am I becoming the human being I am meant to be?

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The thin veil

It’s not good for man to be alone, God said when SHe saw Adam in that beautiful, brand new garden. There should be a companion, a partner for him to share his life with. And thus happened. Ever since we see people seeking other people to bond with and forming all kinds of relationships. People join convents, communes, communities to meet and connect with kindred spirits. For it is in those relationships that we thrive best. In that connectedness we find friendship, understanding, support, care, love.
That’s why we connect and bond. Relationships make us more US. Relationships make us strong and beautiful, happy and confident. And therein lies it’s greatest weakness. We lose a lot when this relationship comes to an end. We only feel half the person we were before; we feel amputated and lost and more alone than we’ve ever felt before in our lives.
At one point or another, we all suffer such a loss. Some even more than once in their lifetime. Apart from the how and when, our condition at such a moment is pretty much the same. We stare into the abyss of our grief and all we see in this – apparently – bottomless pit is utter darkness. We wonder if and how we will ever get over this heartache. Will there ever be joy again; will I ever see light again? Where has my loved one gone?
Throughout the bible we read stories of such pain and despair and agony, and we hear these questions asked by all kinds of people. And staring in our abyss of grief, numb, paralysed almost, we are not able to see the other stories and hear the answers of other people; the words of comfort and hope and light they speak.
First the prophets and later Jesus himself, tell us time and again that all that is precious to God will never ever perish. It cannot. For that is not how it’s meant to be. That is not how God made things. That is not how God made us. Especially in the gospel of John we hear time after time how God and Jesus are connected and that the essence of this connection is love, and that furthermore we are incorporated in this love, from time began to the end of eternity.
We are all connected in this strong bond of love, whatever our material shape or condition is, wherever we find ourselves in this vast universe. And that is the point we easily miss, when staring in our abyss. We focus too much on the physical aspects of life and death. Which is of course totally understandable because we live in a material world. For the time being we exist in matter, in a physical body.
But the pitfall is that we believe that the moment the physical body is gone, the whole person is gone. Which is not true and cannot even be possible as I stated earlier. What made our loved one so dear and precious to us in life, is exactly the same that makes him or her precious and dear to God, and that does not die with the physical body, because that is simply not how we are made or meant to be. That most beautiful and most precious part of us is divine and eternal by nature. It comes from God and it returns to God to be forever in this limitless realm of light, this all-embracing bond of love.
When it comes to it, death is best compared with a thin veil. Some are on this side, and some are on the other side. And due to an awkward situation of unequal timeliness, some pass to the other side of that veil, while others still have to wait a little longer before it’s their turn. Yes, we are separated, but only for a while, and surely we’re not so far apart as we often fear.

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On gifts and talents

Theo Loevendie is a Dutch composer who made quite a career. His works are played in concert-halls all over the world. He really had to fight for his success, because he didn’t come from a musical family and apart from the total lack of support, his step-father had the nasty habit of mocking him whenever and wherever he could. Yet, his family didn’t deny him the right to make music altogether, they just thought it was a load of nonsense. Thanks to his enthusiasm and his, shall we say sturdy character, Theo finally made his way in the musical world.
He had more luck than many others. I used to know a boy who did really well at school. And I mean: really well. This kid was so smart! Several teachers tried to convince his parents to send him to college, and after that maybe university. But no, the parents – the father actually – didn’t agree, and for the most sickening, depressing reason one can imagine. ‘As soon as I was old enough to work,’ the father said ‘I must have been thirteen or fourteen, my father took me from school and made me work in the factory. Just like he did with my brothers and sisters. We got along in life pretty well without diploma’s and all that fancy rubbish. And what was good enough for me is good enough for my children.’ End of story.
I have no idea what happened to this kid later on in his life, because we moved to another town shortly after. But I often think of him. Not so much as the individual he was, but as a kind of token figure, a victim almost of a demeaning and depressing way of life. Seeing such a lack of interest, ambition, curiosity, creativity, vigor in a person is sad enough as it is. But constraining and confining your children to such an extent that they cannot become what they might have been and could have been, that really breaks my heart. What a loss of talent! And most of the time out of shear envy of fear, that your child might outgrow you and do better in life; that your child might be extraordinary whereas ordinary is the norm..
It is sad when it comes to the normal – artistic, musical, academic – talents people have. It is even worse when it comes to the special gifts that are innate in us and which are divine by origin. Those special talents we see in healers and prophets and saints. Too often these talents are ridiculed or demonized, or, at best, not recognized. Just look how, throughout history, prophets and healers and saints were treated. Even in Math. 13, 55 the people of Nazareth can’t quite conceal their annoyance when Jesus teaches in the temple: isn’t he the carpenters son? In other words: who does he think he is?
What is it with people, that we are so anxious to meet God, so eager to find traces of the Divine in our everyday life, and yet, when God or the Divine does show up, we somehow won’t see it. The Divine does show itself in the ordinary gifts of ordinary people: in love and friendship, in shared sorrow and shared joy, in forgiveness and comfort and care and all these simple, ordinary things that make our lives less ordinary and special and worth living. But we won’t see it as long as we expect the Divine to appear in the unusual shapes and places and at the weirdest occasions.
If only we would recognize these talents, these beautiful divine gifts in others and in ourselves. If only we were willing to open up and let them grow and glow and work miracles in this world.

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Inconvenient truths

Somewhere in the late nineties, when I had just begun my work as a pastor in a nursing home, someone ask me this: do you have to do other things as well, like typing… or cleaning? Uhh, no, of course not, I replied. I am the pastor, not the cleaning lady or the secretary. I have my own work to do. The person I was talking to, took a long, deep breath before she dared to ask her last and final question: but surely, you can’t talk about God all day… can you?
I can’t remember exactly what my answer was at the time, but it was something like: of course one can talk about God all day, why not? There are lots of people in this world who talk about sports or music or cars all day. Or money! Bankers, stockbrokers, exchange agents talk about money all the time, and not just them. Talking about money – and all the stuff that comes with it like possessions, gains and losses, interest rates, loans, taxes – has become a very normal thing to do for many people these days.
We live in a materialistic world to such an extend, that no one even wonders anymore. And I am pretty sure that the lady who ask me the question, never even considered asking a banker: but surely you can’t talk about money all day, can you? Of course she wouldn’t. That’s how normal it has become.
Now how did that come about? When did talking about God, as compared to non-spiritual, materialistic items, become a problem? Why are people annoyed and irritated when it comes to talking about God and all those things we somehow think of as related to God. Things like peace, justice, charity, forgiveness, spiritual growth, fulfilment, joy, love.
I am not completely sure, but I am pretty sure that the people who talk about God, the preachers and pastors, the caretakers and the peacemakers are vastly outnumbered by those who fill their lives with money, wealth, possession and spend most of their time talking about it. And yet, the money-people are annoyed, irritated. Why? What angers them?
What feels to them as a threat is the fact that the people who talk about God, see, hear and experience what is wrong and dirty and rotten in this world. And more so – and that’s where the inconvenience comes in – they criticize and condemn these wrongs, like the prophets did in earlier days. They condemn the materialism, the selfishness, the greed, the abuse, the neglect, the hunger for power.
Admitting that lots of things in this world are not quite okay and will have to change is something most people will easily do. But when it comes to the point that YOU have somehow contributed to this mess and that YOU have to change your way of life to make this world a better – safer, cleaner, happier – place… well, that is a message many people rather don’t listen to.
Because first, and we all know that, people don’t like changes; and second, and we know that too, changes never come singular. They always come manyfold. So, suppose you agree with one little change, it will soon be another one and another one. And before you know it, your whole life is turned upside down.
Well. That’s why inconvenient truths are inconvenient and why many people don’t like to talk about God all day.

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Let us pray

Do you remember where and when you learnt to pray? And who taught you? I guess most of you don’t. I don’t. I think we learnt it the same way we learn most of the usual, daily stuff when we’re todlers. You just sit there at the table, every morning, every evening, listening to the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary’s for some, and after a while you find yourself softly whispering the words, the sentences you’ve come to know as familiar to the daily routine of your household.
And even before the words, you learn to fold your tiny hands, just the way you see your brothers and sisters, your mom and dad do every day. I found out later that in many families they hold hands while praying, which is a fine thing to do of course, but for me, being a catholic girl in a catholic area, folding the hands was the right thing to do.
I can’t, however, bring back this childhood memory without remembering the little incident in first grade. I must have been six at the time, and my teacher made serious remarks about the way I was folding my hand. She said I was doing it wrong and it really took me years to figure out how in heavens name you can fold your hands the wrong way. Later I found out my right thumb should have been on top…. and it wasn’t, because I’m left-handed, which was, needless to say, a bit of a problem back in those days, and a huge problem to her in particular.
Like all bigotry this incident made me sad and angry more than once. As if the sincerity of your faith and your prayer depends on the way you hold your hands! Where, in fact, it depends for a larger part on the culture you’re brought up in. As a student I’ve encountered quite a range of non-christian religions, and indeed, a great deal of a religion’s specifics are defined by environment they are rooted in.
Desert people often pray standing with hands and head up. Why? Because the help they seek most probably won’t come from the earth, from the barren emptiness that surrounds them. They raise their eyes, as we read more than once in the bible, expecting their help and salvation will come from the heavenly realms.
How different was the posture while praying among the Northern Europeans. They often pray kneeling down, head bowed and the hands folded on the chest, because that is the right way to adress the chieftains and other persons of power. Through feudal times and the enormous influence of Chalemagne on European christianity this posture became the most common way for white christians to pray.
But as I said, it really is a matter of culture. And you will probably agree with me, that much more than posture, it is, or should be, the attitude that counts when it comes to praying.
When it comes to that, I surely do remember who taught me to pray. It was my mother, who wisely never forced me to kneel and pray beside my bed, but tucked me in with the assurance that I could always pray, whenever I wanted and do so in the way I saw fit. Again and again she told me that Jesus was my friend and always would be, and that no matter what had happened or in whatever trouble I would be, I could always turn to him and he would be there for me. He would listen to me without judgement, he would comfort me, forgive me and somehow direct me to the right answer or solution.
I think that’s what praying is about: stay in touch, keep the communication with God going, how difficult or even impossible it may seem at some point in your life. Keep the communication going, because SHe is always there for us, no matter what. We may always turn to God and pray, and find that Her mercy is endless, His forgiveness limitless. All our agony, our songs of praise, our halleluia’s, our cries of pain, our weeping, our muttering, our shameful stammering, SHe will always, always listen to us.

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On forgiveness

Luke 17,1-6

I don’t know if you noticed, but I suppose you have: the TV-screen is no longer the domain of actors, musicians, politicians and newsreporters. More and more we see ordinary people showing us an act of some sort, or, and that’s even more common nowadays, a glimpse of their own ordinary life. We call it reality TV.
And most of the time it isn’t just a glimpse, is it? They show us a lot, and on a lot of different topics. Houses are being built or renovated; babies are born, wedding dresses bought, army buddies reunited, doggies trained… well, the list is endless.
And then there are the programs where people make up again. You know, there’s been some sort of quarrel or misunderstanding between relatives or friends. They fell out, haven’t seen or even talked to one another for quite some time, and now, with the help of this counselor – pastor – talkshow host, differences are set straight, problems talked over, apologies made and after a tearful reconciliation all is well again… at least, that’s what we’re told to believe. And boy, do we want to believe, because we all know deep in our hearts that forgiving isn’t easy at all.
No wonder Jezus talks about forgiveness in the gospel more than once. And no wonder the disciples in this particular story ask for more faith as soon as Jezus is finished talking. They understand that forgiving and asking to be forgiven yourself indeed isn’t easy.
The fact that something has to be forgiven in the first place, makes us feel uncomfortable: something has gone wrong, faults were made, someone fell short. Maybe you, more likely the other guy. Most likely both of you, of course.
And that bothers us. Somehow we always want things to be perfect and flawless, but the truth is, they hardly ever are. We have a hard time admitting our own faults, and when it comes to somebody else’s faults, we find them very hard to accept.
Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just shrug our shoulders, walk away and never look back again? It would save us a whole lot of trouble. It would save us the embarrassment of having to come to terms with somebody else’s shortcomings. And it would surely save us the humiliation of having to ask for forgiveness ourselves.
But what would become of the world if we would all turn our back on one another and never even bothered to get together again and make amends? The world would be a cold place, crowded with lonely, angry people.
And guess what! That’s not what this world was created for. Jezus didn’t come to save seven billion selfish, solipsistic individuals. That’s not how it’s meant to be.
When Jezus speaks of the reconciliation of mankind, he means the whole of humanity, united, a true community. And how on earth, could that be possible if we ourselves would not be willing to forgive, to reconcile, to set things straight and make that community whole again?

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Lead with love

John 21, 15-19

‘Tend my sheep, feed my lambs.’ With these words Peter is called by Jezus to lead the very tiny and very young community of followers that is just about to evolve during that strange, exciting period between Easter and Pentecost. Jezus is still among his friends and disciples, but only for such a short time, and so much still has to be arranged and organised and communicated, on all kinds of levels and on a variety of topics.
Before Peter is entrusted with the care for Jezus’ flock, questions are asked. Well… three times the same question really: Peter, do you love me? And thus this lecture mirrors the readings of some weeks earlier, the friday before Easter, Good Friday.
There were questions then, remember, in that courtyard near the palace by the fire: You’re one of them, aren’t you? Yeah, you’re from Galilee; I saw you with him, Jezus of Nazareth. And three times Peter denies: What are you talking about? I have no idea what you mean. I don’t know that man! … and then the cock crows.
It is this threefold denial Peter has to make up for now. Three chances to mend his betrayal. But more important than the atonement as such is the way it is done. We often tend to look at Peter in this story, again totally overwhelmed with grief and shame and slightly panicking as Jezus keeps repeating his question. But actually we should be focussing on Jezus instead and more so on the intention behind his threefold question. For he doesn’t put his questions in the same manner and the same vocabulary as the people in that palace coutyard did: Are you one of us? Do you belong to me, to my group?
No! Do you love me? That is what Jezus asks. That is what he wants to be sure of, because belonging in the sense of being member of a group simply isn’t good enough if one is to be entrusted with the care and guidance of this young, fragile community-in-the-making. Jezus is not interested in that kind of superficial commitment. No, the commitment has to radical, deeply rooted in the heart and the soul, not on the level of casual friendship or business agreement but on the deepest level of real love.
That’s why Jezus also does not bother about all kinds of practical qualifications: does Peter have the proper education for this job? Is he fit for this work, does he even speak foreign languages? Jezus does not ask because he does not care. He does not ask because that’s not what it’s about! He asks for the one thing that really does matter: Do you love me? Are you really committed? Do you really belong to me, heart and soul? Will you do your work lovingly, for no other reason than your love for me? Are you prepared to face danger and even death to keep my people safe, to lead this flock, to tend my sheep?
In life we are all called to commit ourselves to some sort of task, be it professional, be it personal. And yes, despite our best efforts and despite the most dashing talents and qualifications we may have acquired, we sometimes feel completely hopeless and helpless and so not up to the task. Yet we can somehow overcome this hopelessness and helplessness if we once again tune in on that deep sense of belonging, that LOVE in which we are truly one with God and each other and the whole of creation. And from that love comes all the strength and wisdom and whatever we need, to be able to do what we are asked to do… lovingly.

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On leadership

Matthew 23, 1-12

Of all the tasks and duties one can be assigned with in life, leading other people certainly isn’t the easiest one. Persons with authority might misunderstand their power as ‘power over’, and they might, just might have the crooked perception that leading other people, guiding people is best done by keeping them on a very short leash and confine them with very strict rules.
That’s how the Farizees and the elders in this gospel do it. Jezus rightly tells them that this isn’t the way to do it. That really isn’t the right way for people to deal with other people. Not even, no, especially not when they are in a position of authority, when they are in command or in charge of leading others.
But how should it be done then? Well, maybe like this: a friend of mine recently got a job as a manager in a non-profit organisation. Her team consists of some twenty people. O my gosh, I thought, when she told me. Of course I kept my big mouth shut because she was so happy and proud and enthousiastic and all. But the main reason I kept quiet was the fact that her team was also very enthousiastic and committed. With her as their manager they worked much better and with a lot more fun than with the former manager. Apparently he had been the classical bossy type whose main purpose in life seemed to be keeping everything and everyone under control.
Now that, my friend said, is so not my idea of being a manager. I’m not going to treat these people like half-trained puppies or keep them short like stubborn mules. They are well-educated grown-ups and very capable of doing a good job, for crying out loud. They don’t need me to tell them what to do or watch them over the shoulder all the time. They know very well how to do their job and besides, I have other things to do.
And that’s where she got it right altogether. People perform so much better if you support and inspire them and respect their unique talents and abbilities. Much better than by just being the typical bully, whip in hand, commanding and controlling them all the time. By the way: by working hard herself she gained a lot respect and set an example that really motivated them. And surely they were willing to go the extra mile for her.
Leading people, being a manager, works so much better this way, and not just on the workplace, between employers and employees. It works wherever people have to deal with each other and somehow have to make their way through life together. If you want to hold back people from doing evil and encourage them to do good, then by all means, set an example yourself. Be a good role-model, modest, trustworthy and sincere. There is no point in talking about ‘Kingdom come’ and things like that while sitting on your hands all the time.
If you really want to bring closer that new world Jezus is talking about, then show it with your actions, not just with your words. Show it by living these visions and values yourself, authentically and consistent, day by day. That is leadership as it’s meant to be, because it does not intimidate and frighten people, but because it truly inspires them to come along vigorously. That’s leadership as it should be: serving and caring. Not self-centered but compassionately focused on the well-being of others and of the world as a whole.

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