Sunset twin

A reflection catches my eye.
Only through the lens of self awareness do I see what a horizon line differentiates and clarifies:
that both/and form the whole.
I am complete in the tension between opposing forces of good and bad within.
Not by extreme exclusion of one part of me
nor in pretentious loyalty to the good nor abject attachment to the bad.
But by embracing all that is me.
Both sides of the same coin.
Light in the shadow.
Setting and rising.

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Failure = Success

When we think of David, we think: shepherd, poet, giant-killer, king, and ancestor of Jesus – in short, one of the greatest characters in the Bible.

But alongside that list stands another: betrayer, liar, adulterer, and murderer. The Bible makes no effort to hide David’s failures. The first text from the Scriptures today (2 Samuel 11) highlights one of David’s greatest sins: his adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.

And this sin doesn’t stand alone in his life. In order to have Bathsheba, David not only breaks the sixth commandment, but the fifth one as well – he arranges for Uriah’s murder. One thing leads to the next.

Like David, we are sinners and we live in the web of sin. Our sins are not isolated, autonomous items, knick-knacks lined up on the shelf; and when we want, we can simply remove one without really having an effect on anything else. When we say we are sinful, we confess the pervasive depth and breadth of sin in our lives. The doctrine of original sin implies that brokenness and imperfection seep into and is woven into the very fabric of all creation. You can’t escape it.

Which may lead us to despair over our seeming palliative moral situation as human beings. We are bound to fail. What hope is there?

One of the outstanding effects of our cynicism and despair is our loss of resiliency. We give up all too easily. This trait becomes a hallmark of a people who are fearful and shameful of failure, of making mistakes. We may try something new, take a bit of risk, and if it doesn’t work the first time – we say, “That isn’t for me” and walk away.

Loss of resiliency comes from our fear of failure. The phrase “airbrushed out” is used to describe photos where a model’s imperfections have been removed, or where their attributes have been enhanced. But airbrushing, as Michael Harvey points out (Unlocking the Growth, p.118) also happens in church circles.

Doesn’t the church have a tendency today to airbrush out any imperfections? I doubt if church authorities today would commission the writing of David’s Psalms. There is too much honesty there: “Why have you forsaken me?” “Why have you let my enemies surround me?”

But what if we chose to look at our failures and imperfections as an aid to hearing God’s voice, to the transformation of not only ourselves but of the world around us?

Norman Vincent Peale used to say: “When God wants to send you a gift He wraps it up in a problem. The bigger the gift that God wants to send you, the bigger the problem He wraps it in.” Problems are a sign of life and activity. But we get concerned with the wrapping rather than the gift, don’t we?

The wise would say: There is no failure in falling down; the failure is only in not getting back up again. So don’t waste a good failure, because imperfect practice makes perfect, and failure precedes success. David, while he sinned greatly, he moved on from his mistakes: confessed his imperfections and accepted the suffering they brought.

Thomas Edison said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Often one of the best ways to hear God’s voice is in the midst of failure, if only we stop berating ourselves to listen for it.

How do we do this?

First: Practice persistence. If I came home from a long trip late some stormy night to a fridge that was empty of the one thing I desperately wanted to eat, what would I do?

I could just go to bed and forget about it. Give up.

Or, I could put on my boots and raincoat and walk down to the corner store. But alas, they’re sold out of what I want; I could just go home and forget about it. Give up.

Or, I could drive farther across town to a late night drugstore. But alas, they don’t carry the thing I want; I could just go home and forget about it. Give up.

Or, I could drive to a specialty food store where I am sure they would carry my product. But alas, when I arrive there I discover they have closed for the day; I could just go home and forget about it. Give up.

Or, I could drive downtown to an all-night super-big grocery store where I finally find that one, precious item.

Persistence. Learning to unlock failure as a necessary way to grow is a bit like playing a video game. There is always another level, another lock to break down and then yet another level to reach. And if you don’t take down the locks one by one, well, you never reach the top.

Christ Jesus saw the rich young ruler walk away, saw many disciples turn back after a particularly hard teaching, saw Judas betray him, and the other eleven disciples temporarily desert him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus himself had to face disappointment and ultimate failure – from a human perspective – in his defeat on the Cross.

Yet Jesus remained true to his divine call. Jesus stayed on the path set before him. No failure too deep nor cross too heavy would stop him. Praise be to our Lord, who showed us the way!

In the striving and persistence, there is yet another very important distinction to make: between doing the right thing, and the results. The results of our best-laid plans and intentions are in God’s hands. When we fret and fume and obsess about the results, we are often disappointed and we lose resiliency and give up, afraid to try anything, take any risk.

It was Saint Paul who wrote: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Our job is to do what we need to do – let God worry about the results.

Our gut response to failure is often: just follow/enforce the law. (As if doing that will make all things right again). The purpose of the law, in Lutheran theology, however, is to drive us to our knees at the throne of grace. The purpose of the law, which stands out in Martin Luther’s theology, is to make us realize that we cannot accomplish by our own strength and effort the perfection of the law. This confession and realization draws us to Christ and his work.

Failures are like leftovers. Leftovers are food that may even be discarded. Leftovers are food that was not initially desired nor needed by those for whom it was prepared. Leftovers have a second-rate, imperfect quality about them. In the Scriptures, sometimes leftovers are like the crumbs spilled on the floor for the dogs to eat (Matthew 15:27) In Matthew’s version of the feeding miracle, the ‘leftovers’ are identified as “broken pieces” (Matthew 14:20).

Whatever you take the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes to mean, one thing the text from John 6 makes explicit: Jesus causes everyone’s hunger to be satisfied and twelve baskets of leftovers are collected. Why emphasize these leftovers? A great miracle has just occurred, the only one told by all four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and our attention is drawn to leftovers? Kind of odd, no?

Perhaps the Gospel writer indicates by this the character of the new community of believers where “leftovers” – both food and people – are neither insignificant nor abandoned. Who are the ‘leftover’ people in our society? Those at the margins? Anyone who is not afraid to show and be honest about their imperfections, their failures?

When we accept the “leftovers” in our own lives – whatever failures and imperfections – we are in the best position to accept Jesus.

During the storm on the sea when they notice Jesus walking on the water, the disciples take Jesus in – receive him – into the boat. The Gospeler John often uses the verb “to receive” (lambanein) in terms of believing that Jesus is the Son of God (see 1:12-13;3:27-36;5:43;7:39;12:48;13:20,etc.). For John, such trust and reception on the dark and wind-tossed seas of their failures is followed immediately by calm and joy. Jesus distributes the food to all; Jesus is the source of peace.

You see, the thing about David, is that he trusted and believed in God as one who would forgive him, who would satisfy the hunger of his heart, who was the source of all things good. I believe it is because of this trust that God referred to David as one “after his own heart” (Acts 13:22).

We know how leftovers can sometimes taste the best; our failures can be the key to our growth, to positive action. God speaks through our failure. Accepting this, confessing it, and then doing what we are able, in trust and openness of heart, receiving Jesus as the one who accomplishes the good deeds in us and through us – this is the character of faith.

Cathedral Thinking

Some time has passed, and the people prosper in Jerusalem. There is, in a manner of speaking, a housing boom. Thinking of the fine new buildings that are beginning to go up in his fortress city, King David realizes how different they are from the simple tent in which the Ark — the Holy of Holies — is still enshrined.

Surely the time is nigh to build a house fitting for the glory of the God of Israel. And so David makes plans to build a beautiful, large temple. The prophet, Nathan, even encourages David to do what he has ‘in mind’ (2 Samuel 7:3). Nathan affirms David in having a vision. It’s a good and important thing to do. After all, a people without a vision, perish. Right?

Well, for reasons not clear nor explained in black-and-white, Nathan suddenly changes his advice. David is told that he will not live to see the temple built. But rather David’s son will. The glorious vision will not be his to see through. Something is missing?

At the Synod Assembly of our church a couple of weeks ago, the Principal Dean of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, David Pfrimmer, shared with all delegates the vision of the seminary. He began his report by saying that when he was interviewed for the job some years ago, the committee had asked him: “Why would you want to be Dean of WLS?” And he responded that he didn’t want to be Dean of the Seminary; what he wanted was to help position the seminary so that it would be a viable, growing, institution of learning for the 21st century.

I’ve taken his statement as instructive for leadership in the church today; that is, to take the long view and ask the questions that will get at what it is we are really about as a congregation, to develop a vision that hopes and reaches toward future realities that we face.

Let me illustrate. David Pfrimmer put on the screen some architectural depictions of two new buildings that will soon comprise the seminary campus, and which will cost some $50 million to build. But he framed the vision not around the buildings themselves, but about why they were building them. This is critical.

For example, one of those buildings will be a large, multi-purpose chapel; why? The seminary expects to be the only post-secondary learning institution in Canada that will provide a program in Sacred Music; therefore, a building to meet that vision. Also, a special dormitory/residential building will house graduate students; but their design and features will meet particular needs of a growing characteristic among graduate students on university campuses today — older, single students from abroad who need facilities that provide more than just a bed, a desk, and a shared washroom/kitchen. They need a design that creates and fosters community; therefore, a building to meet that vision.

You see, it’s not building a structure based on assumptions from the past; it is building structures that meets future needs and emerging realities. 

Maybe the Lord had more work to do with David before the temple was ready to be built. Maybe the people still had something to learn about God’s purposes.

The 12th century began a wave of cathedral building throughout Europe. Magnificent large cathedrals were built. These mammoth building projects, without the benefit of modern construction equipment, were a tremendous feat. Cathedral vaults reached heights of 80 to 160 feet. The spires and towers could be twice that height.

Not only did it require vast amounts of material resources; it was a task that would take many years to complete. The average cathedral took 80 years to complete and some took over 200 years of continuous labor. The current St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome required 150 years of work to complete by 1656. More so – the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, with its two great bell towers, each bursting more than 500 feet skyward, required 350 years of work spanning six centuries.

It involved a generational effort. The generation that began the cathedral would not live to see it through to completion. The first generation passed on their building skills and in many instances their tools, to the next generation, which did the same to the third generation, so that there was an unbroken continuity in the construction. The first generation hired the architect, who not only designed the building, but also supervised its initial stages of construction.

How did they do it? How could they generate such enthusiasm and commitment and sacrifice, all for the sake of others who would come after them?

After all, the vision of that first generation would only come into reality long after they were gone. They labored in faith, believing that the “seed” they were sowing would ultimately grow to maturity. They passed on the responsibility of the vision to the next generation. They built into their children a reverence for the task, and a sense of meaning and purpose. They imparted to the younger generation a vision that would govern their lives.

Cathedral thinking is about us getting excited about something now that goes beyond our own personal opinions, desires, and preferences. Cathedral thinking is about setting the stage now for what others besides ourselves may enjoy and benefit from. For the sake of something larger than each of us.

Buildings are only shells. What constitutes the inside neds be established and strong before any shell becomes worthwhile. What’s the pointof having a shell if there’s nothing vital on the inside — a purpose, a vision that drives us?

As a church, as a congregation, we do not exist simply to die; rather we exist to live for a very long time. This is the attitude of hope, not defeat; of vision, not tunnel-vision; of embracing fundamentals not debating secondary issues.

Jesus described his own body as the temple (John 2:19-24)). In our liturgies we pray for the “mystical union” we share with all believers in the Body of Christ. We celebrate that truth in the Holy Communion where we affirm our belonging to the Body of Christ, the church. We also pray that in the eating of the bread in this Holy Meal that, as we go from this place today, we may become “bread for the hungry” in the world. As such, our bodies — our very lives — become “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19).

The church is first and foremost people, in relationships characterized by the compassion of Christ. Jesus sets the tone for our ministry and vision-making; he is the perfecter of our faith. The Gospel stories suggest that Jesus’ initial motivation, attitude and stance toward others he meets was often, and simply, compassion. From the reading today: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd …” (Mark 6:34)

How does the church practice compassion?

As we worked side-by-side in the lunch club three days this past week in downtown Ottawa (St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Somerset St. West), we met and got to know a few regulars who depend on this vital ministry for their daily nutrition: a young, pregnant, 19-year old woman about whom the staff worry whenever she doesn’t show because of her ocassional plight into addiction; the well-dressed middle-aged man who arrives for the first time at the door to the soup kitchen, and who tells the staff with tears in his eyes that he doesn’t want to be there but that he just lost his job; the volunteer staff person, 85 years old, who celebrates while we’re there, her 21st anniversary of daily coming to help out in that soup kitchen.

These are but a small sampling of people with whom we related and what the confirmation youth from Good Shepherd Barrhaven and Faith Lutheran experienced as the church in mission. I knew what it meant to belong to a church without walls, without borders, in the people-ministry in which we were engaged. The church is people in compassionate mission for others.

We can be assured that the Lord Jesus meets us first with compassion. Not punishment. Not judgment. Not criticism. You’ll notice Jesus is seldom upset with sinners; if anything he is more often upset with those who don’t think they are sinners. Jesus primary stance towards those who are honest with others, is grace and compassion.

And then, Jesus invites us to follow in his way. Our relationship with the Lord then defines our relationship with others. The way God is with us, is the way we are called to be with others.

The big question is: Will we?  Should we have the courage to be, then cathedrals of all kinds will be built the world over for centuries to come. Solo Deo Gloria. Amen.

Herbert O’Driscoll “The Word Among Us” Year B Volume 3, p.56-57

End of day, hope of new

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Okay, it goes without saying — I love sunsets.

This one was taken at Andrew Haydon Park in Ottawa one day last week.

And here’s the question for contemplation: What ‘sacred cow’ in your own life (a belief, point of view, opinion, stance, habit, spiritual practice) needs to shift, or even go down with the setting sun?

Because we know that the only way we get to see the sun of the new, coming day happens when the sun of the old disappears from our view.

I’ve found Isaiah 43:18-19 a particularly challenging and comforting text on which to reflect while watching the setting sun.

Prayer sustains acts of love

It wasn’t until the tables were cleared that I noticed the large labyrinth painted on the floor.

For three hours the basement of St Luke’s Anglican Church located in the middle of Chinatown in downtown Ottawa was bustling with activity.

The daily soup kitchen and drop-in centre was the venue for three Anglican/Lutheran youth preparing for their Confirmation in the Christian faith. They serve their neighbor who is for whatever reason destitute.

And yet for several hours each weekday the large church basement becomes a safe place for companionship, laughter and support. We are learning the importance of relationship-building in the way of Christ. For “God so loved the world that he sent his Son Jesus…”(John 3:16).

I also was affirmed in my faith when the labyrinth was revealed to me on the floor. Because the Christian tradition of prayer undergirded, literally, all the outward acts of love, service and relationship-building going on above it.

I explained to the youth this ancient Christian form of walking prayer centering on Jesus — a path that one undertakes in faith, and which leads to loving union with God. One need only stay on the path and move forward.

We return to St Luke’s twice more this week. Only next time I will remember that in the faces of the people I serve is Christ himself.

Together we journey in the way of Christ. Though often fraught with danger, fear and want, the journey undertaken in the prayer of Jesus is one where the love and grace of God is experienced along the way.

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How is God Faithful? – in Covenant

We are a Covenant people! — So announced the theme of the biennial Eastern Synod Assembly last week in Waterloo. What does it mean to be in a Covenant relationship with God? Certainly this word is not in common usage today. Perhaps ‘promise’ comes close.

Yet Covenant conveys more. First and foremost, to be in a Covenant relationship with God is to trust that God worries about the results. God brings it home. God’s action is the punctuation mark at the end of all our sentences. God finishes.

And we do not. That’s important.

Nevertheless, to assert God’s side of the bargain, what is presumed is our action as well. There’s no point in having punctuation marks at the end of sentences that aren’t written. And so to be in a Covenant relationship with God is to take the risk of faith, not knowing what the consequences may be. Without this element of faith we bring judgement upon ourselves in living and believing in “cheap grace.”

Indeed what we often need to start with — and that is why we being most acts of worship with confession — is seeking forgiveness for blocking God and locking ourselves in false ways of being church. How do we block God and lock ourselves in patterns of unfaithfulness? A worthy question worth exploring: How do we block God and lock ourselves in ways that keep us stuck?

Have you considered that being Christian is not just about going to church on Sunday? Have you considered that being Christian has just as much to do with what we do in our free time? — being Christian has just as much to do with Monday to Saturday as it does with Sunday? — being Christian has just as much to do with what we spend our money on? — being Christian has just as much to do with how we vote? — being Christian has just as much to do with how we relate with our spouse, our children, our extended family, our neighbours, our community? — being Christian has just as much to do with our behaviour as it does with the words we speak? “Preach the Gospel; use words, if necessary,” instructed Saint Francis.

Many of us, myself included, grew up in the church with the idea that faith was a private affair; and, therefore there were three topics good, pious Christians would never discuss openly, especially in the church. You know those three topics, right? — sex, religion, politics.

In looking recently over our annual Canada Revenue Agency charitable report that all churches are bound by law to complete and submit annually, I was surprised to find a question among a hundred other questions: The question was: “Did the charity carry on any political activities during the fiscal period?” The little note above the question clarified that churches indeed can be involved in politics, as long as that political activity is non-partisan and limited in extent.

I was also struck by the meaning of the Old Testament story optioned for this Sunday, from the book and prophet, Samuel. In this story, the Holy Ark of the Covenant — there’s that word again! — is brought triumphantly into Jerusalem. We read about that procession of King David dancing as the Ark is brought into Jerusalem and placed at the center of that great city. It is an image of uninhibited, unabashed glory, of joy and celebration (2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19).

Now, just for a moment, reflect with me on the meaning of this: The Ark of the Covenant in ancient Israel was at the time the most powerful and central image of Israel’s faith. And Jerusalem was (like Ottawa is for Canadians) the center of political power in the nation — the capital city.

And what does David do? He brings the two together: religion AND politics. And, perhaps more significantly, he does it not begrudgingly nor fearfully, but joyously!

At the Synod Assembly last week in Waterloo, we passed several motions that you could deem “political” in nature. Let me briefly review a few of these: a motion in support of non-violent solutions in pursuing justice in the world and in situations of conflict; a motion to call upon the government to re-instate full health care coverage to refugee claimants; motions to address affordable housing, poverty, racism and environmental action. These motions can be viewed on the Synod website; hard copies are also available from your delegates.

Faith is not exclusively ‘private’. It is ‘public’. It’s not just about me and Jesus; but about me and the world that God so loved. It’s more than just me. And as soon as we translate our faith into the public realm, it gets political. We have the biblical witness to this marriage between faith and politics:

When the seven perscuted churches in west Asia on the Aegian Sea coast (in present day Turkey) of the Book of Revelation are pressed to swear allegiance to Emperor Nero they are brought before the courts; and the encouragement of scripture is heard: Do not worry about what to say when called upon to testify to your faith in Christ as Lord. “For what you are to say will be given to you; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19).

The beheading of John the Baptist, from our Gospel text for today (Mark 6:14-29), provides a gruesome image of what sometimes may happen when religion and politics meet in the same room.

And perhaps the most poignant image from the New Testament — the Cross — was a political symbol and practical means of Roman capital punishment. It’s like the electric chair or lethal injection would be for us today. For several centuries after Christ early Christians shied away from using the cross as a central symbol; you can’t find images of crosses anywhere in the archeological record of those first centuries. In fact, the fish was the first central symbol of Christianity. Did the early church find the cross too brutal — too political — an image? I wonder.

I know I need to confess my own fear of bringing my faith to bear on the public world around us. I know I need to confess my own fear of blocking what God wants to do and locking myself because of my fear of rejection, my fear of failure, my fear of sticking out my neck.

One of the speakers at last week’s Synod (I’ll want to talk more about Michael Harvey in the near future) said that fear is the socially acceptable sin of the church today. It is a sin of omission. This is the sin we need to confess. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the biblical injunction: “Do not be afraid/Do not fear/Fear not!” appears some 365 times throughout the bible. We need to hear that; I need to hear that, each day of the year.

Because on the other side of fear is the vision, the abundant life. On the other side of fear is new life. The thing we fear is actually God’s call on our lives. We need to accept and confess our fear. We need to go there.

And when we do, God finishes. God is faithful. God remains true and steadfast to the Covenant relationship. Because God loves us and wants us to love God and those around us. God wants to be in relationship with us, even though we so often miss the mark.

Listen to Paul’s words we often recite: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? [notice the political words here]. No, in all these things we are conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Jesus goes there. Jesus has crossed the boundary between private and public, religion and politics. Jesus enters all aspects of our life together. There is no place Jesus does not go. Even to those places we fear most. Jesus goes there — into our hurt, pain, suffering, persecution, illness. It is not our job to be successful; it is our job only to be faithful, and do it. We are called only to follow, to follow in the way. And then “Jesus will bring to completion the good work begun in you” (Philippians 1:6).

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunset and Sunrise of the Church

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Today I took this photo during sunset at Andrew Haydon Park, Ottawa.
I guess you can’t tell from the photo whether it’s a sunset or sunrise. Unless you know the spot personally.
A sunset and sunrise stand as good metaphors for the institutional church. For many reasons. The image is full of meaning.
I reflect on the need for the people of God to surrender and let go of the good old days; the need to open our hands and release all the sentiments associated with those glory, golden decades of the church during the 20th century. It is a dying of sorts because the new thing can’t happen until we lay all that was on altar.
That lament is what stirs in my soul as I watch yet another sunset.
But there is beauty and hope in the experience, too. Not only do I witness and surrender the passing of a wonderful day. As I walk to the parking lot in near darkness, my back to the darkening sky behind me and the ball of flaming red long gone, I know the sun will rise again in the dawning light in a few hours.
Sunset. Sunrise. The promise of the new awaits as I sneak a glance towards the eastern sky. A smile on my lips.
But first I will sleep, and let the Lord, God of heaven and earth work the miracle of new life, resurrection, while I rest in grace and in peace.

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I snapped this photo during a glorious sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in July 2011. The start of a new day, full of promise.
Behold, the light of the world has come, and darkness has not overcome it.