God bless y’all!

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name ….

Our road trips to Florida always took us through the state of Georgia, where we would often stop to buy pecans and admire the sub-tropical foliage.

But what I remember most from those roadside stops was the way the local people always sent us on our way: “Y’all come back again!”

Whether it was the southern accent or the welcoming attitude behind the greetings, the message was directed not to any one individual – but to our whole family: “Y’all!”

In the most recognized prayer in all of Christianity – the Lord’s Prayer – and in many of Saint Paul’s letters in the New Testament, the grammar is clear: no singular first or second person pronouns in sight.

The instruction is directed not to me, nor you, nor any singular person. Ours is not an individualistic faith. Rather, the good news of Jesus Christ is directed towards a community: “Y’all!”

Christians believe in a personal faith. However, that personal faith is received within the context of a community of faith. When we pray, “Our Father in Heaven”, we are confessing that Jesus is not my exclusive, private God, but a God who embraces all people with His love and grace.

The Gospel is for “y’all”!

Happy New Year!

Our Lord Jesus, make us whole in your inclusive love for all. Amen.

A funeral at Christmas

To be grieving at this time of year brings a bag of mixed feelings, to say the least.

While everyone else is celebrating and enjoying the festivities of the season, you are also working through the loss of a dear [mother, wife, grandmother, sister, great-grandmother, aunt] and friend. Well-meaning friends may try to cheer you up because they do not want you to be a damper on the holiday spirit.

You may not know whether to stay at home and grieve, or go out to those get-togethers you’ve been invited to and try to be cheerful. Christmas is a challenging time to do the work of remembering, crying, grieving, and feeling sad.

But I would encourage you to do it anyway — to embrace the ambivalence of, on the one hand, expressing your grief when you need to; and, on the other, continuing to observe the season of holy birth. And it’s not all that inconsistent with a deeper meaning of the Christmas story:

After all, I can’t help but to think how that first Christmas must have felt for God the Father in heaven. The Gospel John tells us that in the beginning, the Word — Jesus, God’s Son — was with God. But because of the age-old, human rebellion against God, God nevertheless loved us so much God sent Jesus to be born into the world.

Think about what this cost God: That first Christmas was for God and Jesus a separation of sorts — a breaking of the intimate communion that they had shared from before the beginning of time. That’s a long time of being together! God, I am sure, can feel for the loss of someone with whom you have lived day-in and day-out for most of your life.

And worse yet, the way that God the Father and Son were going to be re-united was by Jesus’ death as a human being, on the Cross of Calvary. Christmas, thus, made Easter possible. The joy and priceless gifts of Christmas and Easter were wrought from the divine sacrifice of separation, loss and death.

In other words, birth and death are connected. In every birth, there is a death; in every death, there is a birth. So it is not inappropriate that we gather for a funeral service in the very season in which we celebrate a holy birth. It was the birth of God in our world that eventually gave the world the promise of new life and resurrection. It was the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem two thousand years ago that made it possible for us today to claim the promise of new life, eternal life, for your dearly beloved.

You spoke of your loved one as a “mother hen” of not only your immediate family, but of the neighborhood. She taught not only you but many of the kids living on this street how to swim. She demanded obedience to her rules — around the pool and around the table after school. An Opera music fan, she demonstrated motherly love by listening to Billy Idol and the Beatles only so she could relate to her teenage children. Her strong, motherly, supportive, family-oriented qualities will remain enduring memories and qualities in your own lives, even though she is now separated from you by death.

A separation in birth is similar to a separation in death. But both yield the gift of new life. I have an identical twin brother; and we have been very close all our lives long. So, this wonderful story about two twin babies, in their mother’s womb, rings true for me: Safe and secure, warm and fed, these twin babies slowly and quietly grew.

But when it came close to the time of birth, they began to fear what was about to happen. They didn’t want to leave the womb which had been their warm and comfortable home for so long, the place where they had everything they needed given to them. The prospect of leaving this warm and familiar place, and venturing into the unknown outside the womb, just terrified them.

But they also had this inkling that there must be something outside this womb, and someone, a mother, outside this womb caring for and loving them. They sometimes even heard loving voices coming from outside the womb.

And so they were ambivalent at best, fearful at worse, but couldn’t do anything about it. The time came for them to be born, and they just had to do it.

They cried as they were born into the new air and light. They coughed out fluid and gasped the dry air. And when they were sure they were born, they opened their eyes — seeing life after birth for the very first time.

What they saw, were the beautiful eyes of their mother, lovingly gazing upon them, as they were cradled in her arms. They knew they were home.

Your beloved has come home, and is seeing the loving eyes of God gazing upon her this day. And we all, whether on earth, or in heaven, are held in the safe and secure arms of God who loves us for eternity.

No one has seen God

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:16-18)

When Seth first started playing soccer, he followed the ball very well. He was even, right from the start, able to anticipate where the ball was going and position himself accordingly.

But he didn’t want to touch the ball. He let someone else do that.

As most 5-year-olds do when they begin playing the sport, all the players tend to surround the ball en mass and follow the ball around on the field like a flock of birds until someone kicks it in any direction, and the flock moves there.

But Seth always remained on the outside of that group. He kept his feet moving to be sure — circling the ball, dancing around it, following it carefully — but never actually touching it.

Eventually, as Seth continued to grow and play soccer season after season, he also grew to love the sport. Over time he learned to be a little bit more assertive with the ball and approach it confidently. He’s evolved into a very good soccer player.

Eventually, he just wanted the ball. Despite the risk. Despite the struggle that would ensue with a competitor. Above all, every good player wants the ball — that goes without saying.

And yet I wonder about how we approach our God. Do we play it too safe? Do we acknowledge our innate desire for God? And if not, why not? Is it because we cannot see God? What are we waiting for?

Admittedly, it is easier to stay on the outside, and just watch. We’ll let others do it for us. Maybe they’ve done a better job figuring out God.

Yet, scripture is clear that no one has seen God. On Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments, even Moses had to turn away in the presence of God (Exodus 33:20-23). No one has all the answers about God. No one has God figured out. As much as we may want there to be, there are no easy answers to life’s tough questions.

Even though we have the Law, it is not enough. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

The only thing anyone of us can do is to approach the heart of God, to come near. John’s Gospel suggests that the only way we can know God is in relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ reflects the heart of God. Being close to Jesus, then, we are close to God.

The young boy-child Jesus instinctively knew that to know his heavenly Father he had to be close to Him. And the one place in ancient Israel known to contain the holy presence of God – the temple in Jerusalem. One of the first things Jesus does as a growing individual is to desire his Father’s house, the temple.

“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

The best anyone of us can do is come close. Because what is most important in life cannot be measured, quantified, analyzed. God cannot be rationalized away by doctrinal statements, creeds and stated opinion.

God can only be experienced. The boy Jesus had to experience his Father’s house. Be there. Even if it meant disobeying his parents and breaking the law.

Being bold in coming close to Jesus means being bold in approaching our lives. Not being reckless nor irresponsible. But being bold – reaching out to strangers, taking risks of faith, addressing the issues of your life with honesty and truth and action, not giving up.

And when we are close to Jesus – as in the Holy Communion, or in the fellowship of the church, in loving service of the world – we experience and therefore know the heart of God.

And what does a heart signify? A heart signifies the essence of a person, the centre of a person’s very identity. A heart signifies love, compassion.

So while there aren’t any easy answers to the mysteries of life and death – answers for which we strive to seek rational, quantifiable and analytical certainty, often to our folly – one thing is sure: God’s love. God’s compassion for all of creation. Our salvation is found in Jesus whose way is love: This is central. This is vital to who we are.

When we take the risk to ‘touch the ball’ so to speak, when we approach the throne of grace boldly, when we take a risk to reach out in love to another, we can be confident to know that we are approaching the heart of God.

The only thing we can do is come near, come close to God. And the only way we can do that on earth, is to do it together, as a team.

Out of the depths

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The longest night. The fiercest storm. The threat to comfort. And down with the flu.

I am pulled out out of the routine distractions and busy-ness of living and left silent, still, listening to the howling wind outside and creaking timbers in the house….

And then emerges a new kind of vision, a clarifying purpose for what is truly important in life — community, mutual support, friendship, family, faith. The corner is turned.

Out of the depths comes new found hope. Joy. A way forward. Renewed.

Christmas – to earth below

In humor columns, parenting blogs and popular print media, much has been made of the adventure – often toil – of getting your children to sleep at night.

For parents this can be the epitome of frustration as children are often reluctant and sometimes fearful about the prospect of falling asleep.

Perhaps no harder a task than the night before Christmas.

I can imagine Martin Luther’s wife, Katherine von Bora, giving bedtime duty to Martin on Christmas Eve in 1535. What should he do to get the children settled down and to sleep?

Well, why not sing a familiar tune – one they would likely have heard around town – to words that tell the Christmas story? And he wouldn’t just sing it once through. After all, it takes time to get the rowdy’s settled down.

For the longest time I had wondered why Luther had to write not three or four verses – the usual for a hymn, right? – but fourteen! Well, now it makes sense to me.

Nothing like a sweet lullaby – fourteen verses long! – to put anyone to sleep, let alone children. And not just at bedtime.

Indeed, falling asleep can be the most difficult thing, and not only for children, in a dark time of year when anxiety levels run high.

Because falling asleep requires trust. You know, to fall asleep one needs to let go into a belief in the sweet goodness of life. You can’t fall asleep whilst fretting about this or that. When the gift of sleep finally comes, there’s a peace that descends on the heart and mind.

How difficult that can be, these days especially, in the heightened fervor over doomsday predictions and mass shootings that have left the soul of our collective identity tarnished if not shattered.

And we ask, how can God preside over this mayhem and downright evil in the world?

Martin Luther’s hymn, From Heaven Above describes a God who does not remain distant nor disconnected from earthly realities. It describes a God who descends and enters our humanity. And not just into the places of power, privilege and prestige — into the glorious aspects of life. But especially God descends into the earth below.

From heaven above, God comes, to earth below. Into the dark tragedies. Into the fearful realities of life.

When the Word – that is, the full capacity of God’s being – entered human flesh, God was saying something about how God would relate forever more with us.

A great and wonderful and joyful promise was issued from God in the incarnation of God in Jesus: that new life is ours. That out of the deepest, darkest tragedies, from the pit of despair, through the vice grip of fear, out of the fires of anger and from the shame of sin – there is hope.

This is good news: On Christmas Day God proclaims a new beginning for us and for the world. We are offered the power of God to make things right, to reach beyond self-preoccupations to a larger reality governed by God and empowered by God’s love.

This is good news, even though the reality of evil still persists. Perhaps the form and length of Martin Luther’s hymn can suggest one more thing:

There aren’t any easy answers to the difficult questions of life and sometimes senseless, tragic death. Just as there aren’t any simple answers to explain the depth and mystery of the incarnation of God in the baby Jesus, so too we cannot explain away the tragedies of life with simple statements.

Even fourteen verses cannot say it all! Martin Luther tried! Perhaps motivated by a desire to get his kids to sleep, Luther could never describe God as a monster who is out to punish us.

God comes to us a baby from whom and for whom nothing but love, gentleness and compassion entered the darkest night.

Toward Discovering the True Self

The true self, as Thomas Merton described, is like a deer. It doesn’t really want to be seen, noticed. It is somewhat elusive. We cannot easily identify and claim it as we would a car, computer or fashion. In other words, it cannot be objectified.

The message of the Gospel of Jesus, according to Luke, is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. When Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue proclaiming the good news, he confesses his purpose: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

So, where is this kingdom?

English translations will render the original Greek concerning where the kingdom of God resides, in 17:21, “among you” or “within you”. Jesus says about the kingdom — you cannot say to it, “It is over there, or over here.” The kingdom of heaven, our true identity — who we are — is only discovered deep within us.

When I catch myself concentrating on something, am I really concentrating? When I say I am humble, am I exercising humility? Saint Benedict said that when a monk knows he is praying, he isn’t really praying.

Self-consiousness is the bain of the contemplative life. Self-consciousness is a sure sign that we are not being our true selves in whatever we are and do: when we worry how we appear before others; when we try to please others; when we speak and are thinking not feeling into the moment; when we show off who we think we are to others – we are likely further away from our true selves, our place in the kingdom of God.

Personal liberation cannot even be the goal of the true self. Being free cannot stand as the ultimate end-game in our devotion and spiritual practice. If you engage in Christian Meditation, for example, because you want to experience personal freedom in who you are, be careful. Because Christian Meditation is not a self-help program whose ultimate goal is the self, self-fulfilment, self-realization, self-glorification.

The goal of Christian Meditation is counter-intuitive and paradoxical: Poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus opens his sermon on the beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel (5:3), echoing Luke’s version in 6:20. And here’s the trick: If poverty is the goal, then the liberation of our true selves is often a consequential benefit. We need to work towards poverty of self; then the paradox: We will discover our true selves when we lose our self-conceived, self-created identity.

Imagine the shape and form of a typical hour glass. What is important here is not the function of the time piece; that is, merely keeping time as the grains of sand funnel through the narrow centre and spill out into the bottom of the glass in chronological time. What is important to hold as a guiding image of the hour glass are both the direction and the form in describing the process of Christian Meditation.

The direction is downward, signifying the call to go deeper into prayer, deeper – initially – into the self (in the top half of the glass) toward the centre (the focal, still point) and finally farther downward into the broad space beyond the centre. The form leads us – beginning with gathering all that we are: our personal, unique, individual expressions of character and activity, passions and occupations, needs and strengths, our ego compulsions, our fear, our anxiety, our shame and guilt, our anger; in other words, what is visible and easily apparent in our identities, on the surface, so to speak.

Then, into the focal, impoverished centre point: in silence and stillness into the singular prayer of Jesus — the silent and still hub at the centre of the prayer wheel. It is here where we discover the starting and end point of all that we are in the poverty of prayer, in our own personal poverty, in stripping away all our ego compulsions and repeating, concentratively a simple word, mantra, or prayer phrase. The important spiritual practice here can be summarized in the art of “letting go”, releasing, simplifying, surrendering all that we have and are. Each time we meditate we experience this process.

The journey is toward the centre, which is not completely the self, because it leads beyond the self to engage the world in a renewed way. The aim of all prayer is the poverty of the self at the centre, where all we find is the human conciousness of Jesus praying to Abba. This is our soul, the quiet, still centre of our being, that leads us into communion with God, into our true self.

At the National Conference of the Canadian Christian Meditation Community, held in Ottawa in June 2011, Rev. Glenda Meakin was asked a question dealing with our soul. I am told she responded by saying (I am paraphrasing): “The soul is that part of me that nothing can touch. It is so of God it cannot be taken away from me. My centre. My true self is coming in touch with the way God created us. When we meditate we learn who we really are.”

Here, we participate in the kingdom of God — our true selves — and then engage the world to “…proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also.”

Christmas invitation

Charlie Brown is in a funk. He’s feeling down. And he can’t seem to understand what Christmas is all about. Especially when all his friends harp on money and getting stuff — everything Christmas is not.

Except when Lucy plays the resident psychiatrist to try and figure out what is wrong with poor Charlie. After listening to him and analyzing all his fears Lucy concludes that what Charlie needs, in order to get him out of his Christmas depression, is doing something with other people.

And she asks him. “How would you like to be the director of our Christmas play?”

And that one question — an invitation — starts Charlie on an adventure toward his healing and discovery of the real meaning of Christmas.

Invitation is one small gift that can snowball into more and more good things, when the invitation is made and accepted.

The God who created the world and came into it is a God of invitation. God invites us into an open, blessed, loving relationship. God invites us to believe and trust in Him despite the ongoing presence of evil in the world and tragedies surrounding us. God’s invitation to you and to me is an invitation into our healing and making our lives whole, like it was for Charlie Brown’s Christmas.

“Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)

In response to the angels’ proclamation announcing the Savior’s birth the shepherds didn’t spontaneously without a word get up, leave their sheep and run to Bethlehem.

Someone had to say the words: “Let’s go, eh?” In true, Canadian style.

Did someone invite you to come to church this holy night? If you came because of someone’s invitation, thank you. Thank you for responding as the shepherds of old did, as Charlie Brown did to Lucy’s invitation. Thank you for being bold and risky, and taking a chance on God.

Because in responding positively to a Christmas invitation you embark on a journey. And this journey, through ups and downs, through twists and unexpected turns, leads to an authentic experience of Jesus and healing in your life. So, may God bless you on your journey.

Now, for Charlie Brown, the journey meant he would direct a Christmas play. He’s unsure about taking on this invitation at first. It seems risky, something Charlie admits to Lucy right away he’s not experienced at doing.

But Charlie accepts, partly due to Lucy’s promise to help him.

The God of invitation does not leave us alone. Others walk with us. And friendships are made, and nurtured. That’s how we travel. Together.

Charlie discovers the true meaning of Christmas after being involved with his friends. Not in isolation but in engagement with others in community even through conflict does the journey of invitation lead. Despite the challenges, Charlie confesses hope in making the play work. And, as a sign of their belonging together in the journey, Charlie’s friends come to decorate his little tree.

The shepherds, responding first to the invitation of God through the angels, become the first messengers of the good news of Christ coming. The shepherds, who RSVPed first to join the holy adventure, in turn extended the invitation to others around them. “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child” (Luke 2:17).

Thus, the gospel message encircled more and more people. Through invitation.

Tonight, on this holy night, we worship the newborn king. We do this in prayer. In our liturgical tradition common in the Lutheran church, we begin prayer by an invitation from another : “Let us pray…”

The Way, according to Jesus, is not exclusive. It is not elitist. It is not reserved for a select few.

Rather, the invitation is made to all. It is an open invitation for all to join the journey to the manger side to worship the newborn king. One small baby, one great gift of salvation.

One small gift can make all the difference. Charlie’s little Christmas tree was transformed into a symbol of the hope and expansive joy of Christmas.

One small invitation. One great gift of love.