Lift, and open the gates!

I reacted with sadness and sympathy looking at the photo of my friend’s dog whose entire face, chest and front legs were pierced with dozens — maybe even hundreds — of the sharp quills of a porcupine.
The photo was taken of the dog in the back of the car on the way to the vet, and she seemed stable enough — like the look of someone who knows they’ve been stung and know they just need to hold it together for a bit longer.

I felt sorry for that dog because it was simply being true to its nature — maybe motivated by a natural impulse to be friendly and play with another creature. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always yield the desired results in relationships. Often, expressions of love and care are misunderstood. And the response can sting — just like this poor dog! I wonder if this dog will ever approach another porcupine again with such exuberance. 

On All Saints Sunday, Christians remember not only those who have gone before us who now taste and see the glory of God in eternity. We also reflect on the “communion of saints” on earth. And, like we did last Sunday during the celebration of the Reformation, we ask the good question: Who are we? Who are the saints? What qualifies a Christian for sainthood, beginning in this life?

Psalm 24 may suggest that no one living can belong to this glorious, virtuous group of people. Only those with clean hands and pure hearts who do not swear deceitfully (v.4) can qualify. A sharp tone of exclusivity rings throughout our tradition. Since I am not good enough, and will never be good enough, I have nothing good to offer. And so I will grovel in the dirt, turned in on myself and my sins.

Such negativity dominates our way of life. We don’t see abundance, we see scarcity. We don’t see forgiveness of sins as much as we love to talk about and dwell on our sinfulness. We don’t see the good, we see the bad. It’s a dangerous world out there, after all, and so we need to build closed, protective fortresses around us. And therefore, we get stuck in a self-centred, self-inhibiting style of life. Who am I to be able to offer anything of value? Let alone be counted among the saints?!

The bible’s poetry, today from the Psalms, offers insight into this problem. The Scriptures reveal a way of emphasizing what is important. Really important. We see this method most in the Hebrew scriptures — the Old Testament Psalms and prophets: Repetition.

Repetition of words and phrases underscores a sense of urgency or jubilation. In the Psalm for today — 24 — certain phrases are repeated. The context is a massive procession coming up the road to Jerusalem; God is returning to the temple being restored in the city of God. 

And as the people ascend to the walls, the cry goes out not once (v.7-10), but several times: “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” (x2) The general image of ‘lifting up’, in fact appears almost half a dozen times in this short Psalm. What emphasis is being sought by the Psalmist, here?

The insistence of lifting up the gates mounts beyond the request to raise the gate just high enough, or the doors just wide enough, for the King of glory to enter and then to be slammed shut in the face of the others in the procession. Rather, the intent is for the gates to be raised so high above the walls that they will never need to be shut again. The intent is for the doors to be flung off their hinges, in order that the seekers and followers of the Lamb may follow him, redeemed and welcomed, into the courts of God. (1)

“The barriers to paradise, like the stone rolled away from the empty tomb in the garden, have been pushed aside to give us unfettered access to behold the smiling face of a gracious and accepting God, whose mercy, rather than our own merits, enables us to pass through the open door.”

We need to remember and appreciate who our King of glory is: A man, named Jesus, who encountered in his short life on earth all that we must endure and suffer. Our God is a God who became one of us in order to fully appreciate our own station in life. God understands our human weaknesses, suffers and endures with us on the road up to Jerusalem, and longs to welcome us into the divine presence. 

Ours is a God who bears the scars and wounds of crucifixion, even in his resurrected form. God is one who identifies with us seekers and wanderers who bear the scars of life, the woundedness of sin — and yet who long for something more: a deeper communion with God and the saintly procession going to Jerusalem together.

If we want to know God, we must know and accept ourselves; if we want to accept ourselves, we must know and accept God. Who are we? Well, perhaps we first need to ask: Who is God? Clean hands, a pure heart, a humble spirit, integrity and honesty — these are infinitely more difficult and subtle a list of characteristics suggested by this Psalm than the mandates against theft and adultery and the taking of another life (as in the Ten Commandments).

The qualifiers for sainthood are not a cut and dry check list easily accomplished like completing a shopping list. Rather, the qualifiers for sainthood are worked out in a life-long journey and sometimes seesaw struggle with the One who despite bearing the scars of suffering is the only One with clean hands and a pure heart.

Who are we? Well, then, Who is God? In Jesus, God is the One who welcomes us all into the holy city, whose cry goes out to lift up those gates — I mean, really lift up those gates — forever — in order to let in that whole procession of rag-tag, diverse, wounded, broken followers!

Knowing who we are, appreciating fully the grace and acceptance of us by a God who knows us, what do we have to lose? We can offer what little and what much we have to help others. We can use the gifts we have been given for the sake of the other, and with others, on this journey. We don’t have to be afraid. We can take the risk to reach out — not worried about the results but only convinced of the value of what we do.

Whether we have been stung by the quills of disappointment; whether we have been hurt by the failures of our lives; whether we have been weighted down by the pressures of performance in work and play; whether we endure the pain of physical, mental, emotional illness; whether we grieve through the losses of life — we are still on the way! And will always be!

The highlight for me during the clerics cycling challenge (clericchallenge.com) was the finish line, when we all crossed together. This experience symbolized for me what the culture of Christian community ought to feel like and be like.

   
 We are part of a holy procession led by the King of Glory whose destination is sure. We have nothing to lose. If God’s grace is extended even to the generation of seekers (v.6), then we have nothing to lose. If what we are about is not a competition, then we have nothing to lose. If we don’t need to find fault in the other to prove our own self-worth, then we have nothing to lose. If it’s not about one-up-man-ship, then we can go for broke and not worry about it. If we don’t need to question who our Saviour is — who already accomplished for us our salvation — we don’t need to doubt our final destination. Then, why not share now what we have with others on this road?

All the saints on earth, despite the scars of life we bear, have gifts to share with other seekers on that journey. What gifts and blessings of God reflect in your life? In discerning this, remember: It’s not up to you alone! We don’t need to be perfect. We gain the gates not by our own merit or even hard work. Ours is the victory only because of the One for whose reason the gates are lifted in the first place.

Thanks be to God!
(1) — Michael Morgan in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. of “Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4” Fortress Press, 2009, p.228

Prayer for Reformation Sunday

We give you thanks, loving God, for  your unconditional love and grace to us and all people. Help us be moved to your heart, Christ Jesus, as our motivation, our desire, our passion for the decisions we make in our congregations. By your Holy Spirit, keep us steadfast in your Word, and continue to bless us in mission for and with others, so all may have dignity and all may live in hope. Amen

Reformation Themes 2017

The Day of Reformation (October 31) for Protestants, and especially Lutherans, calls us back to basic questions about who we are, as people of faith. Celebrating this day gives us the opportunity to ask again, “Who are we in the variety of religious expression on a diverse, social landscape?” And what do we have to offer?

For Protestants, the word itself may give us a clue. Protestants have often identified themselves as protesting against something. Many of us know the history: In 1517 Martin Luther nailed those 95 arguments on the doors of the Wittenberg Church. “Theses”, we’ve called them, were statements against certain religious practices and beliefs in the 16 century church. “Here I stand” has become a popular Martin Luther quote as he stood his ground and accounted for his beliefs before the Pope and Emperor at the famous meeting in Worms, Germany, shortly thereafter.
Many of us remember the Lutheran legacy as substantially a theological assertion: that you cannot ‘buy’ your way into heaven (by purchasing indulgences); rather, we are justified by grace through faith. Faith and salvation are fundamentally gifts from God.
And this is why the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) — a worldwide communion of 144 national churches — has come up with the theme of “Liberated by God’s Grace” for the 500th anniversary in 2017, commemorating Luther’s first protestant act in Wittenberg. Its sub-themes resonate with the indulgence debate: “Salvation not for sale; Humans not for sale; Creation not for sale.” 
In the pronouncement of these themes Lutherans worldwide and in Canada are claiming that we are not only celebrating something that happened in history. We are also asserting that we are a continually reforming church; that century-old themes can be relevant even today.
“Salvation – not for sale; Humans – not for sale; Creation – not for sale”. When something is not for sale, it is not on the market. We can not procure it by our means — any material means for that matter. When something is not for sale, it is a gift. We cannot possess it, in the same way we can never really possess God, salvation, anyone else, nor can we possess the earth.
The world today wants us to think and believe we can. We therefore delude ourselves into thinking and believing that we can buy salvation, that by our own hands, efforts and hard work we can earn God’s favour, God’s forgiveness. Do we go to church because we feel we need to manage our spirituality more as an insurance policy against hell, even though we are not sure about living out the mission of Jesus today? But God’s love in Jesus is unconditional. It is free. We have nothing to lose in positively living out our faith. Really! “Salvation — not for sale!”
Second, humans: It’s incredible that in the 21st century, there is still slavery practiced in the world; according to a 2013 study, there are still some 30 million slaves in the world today. Even in Canada, young people are gone missing and forced into the sex trade. Many Aboriginal women have disappeared, some murdered and some no doubt exploited in some despicable way. But, we claim: “Humans — not for sale!” What are we doing about this?
Finally, creation: As I said, our culture wants us to believe we can buy it. In fact, a recent survey measuring happiness revealed that our happiness is often dependent on ‘owning’ property. While the exchange of goods is in many ways an important building block of our economy, how differently would we look on our lives if creation (the environment, the land, the water and the resources therein) was not only something we must buy, possess and exploit for profit — but simply given as a gift from God that we share with all people? “Creation — not for sale!” Is finding meaning and purpose in life not the real sources of happiness? (“Money Really Can Buy Happiness, Study Shows”, thecanadianencylopedia.ca, 2013)
The confirmation class last week planted a tree in our church yard. Not only did we do this to respond to one of the Reformation challenges of our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) to plant 500,000 trees by 2017, we performed a loving and caring act towards God’s beautiful creation which we share with all living creatures.
  
When it comes down to it, and we are honest, we must confess that it is often very difficult to be loving. It is challenging, even though we say we believe in a God who loves us unconditionally, loves the world unconditionally, loves creation unconditionally. 

So, how can we learn to love better?

How to love a porcupine

The following story was shared at a Faith Lutheran Women’s meeting recently, and I am relating it to the themes generated by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and adopted in convention by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) this past summer, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017: “Liberated by God’s Grace: Salvation-not for sale; Humans-not for sale; Creation-not for sale!”

I was walking through the woods one day, happy to be outside in the wild. I was thinking about Jesus’ command to love our neighbour (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). How is this possible? How could I love people who are not like me, who are different than me, whose beliefs are ‘a stranger’ to me.

When I rounded a bend in the path through the forest, I suddenly came across a porcupine trundling across the way in front of me. Its prickling spine and shell were covered with a dense coat of sharp quills pointing outward towards me. I stopped short and wondered what to do.
I think the porcupine, startled by my sudden appearance in its world, did as well.

In the silence that separated me and the porcupine on that path, I grinned at the thought that God must also love the porcupine. As ugly and as funny a creature it is, the porcupine too is created and therefore beloved by God. But how could I love that porcupine?

The porcupine is a rodent that can be hunted in Ontario, open year round and no limit by the law. Moreover, the porcupine’s meat is apparently safe to eat — a low risk, uncontaminated option in the protein department. Help yourself!

Perhaps to love a porcupine could mean different things. Sometimes if I assume loving a porcupine could only mean one course of action, I may be pricked by the needles!

If you were in that forest, confronted by that porcupine, what would you do? Or not do? 
In whatever you do, are you aware of why the porcupine might be afraid of you? The porcupine, like many creatures in the wild, is not for sale; that is, you aren’t there to buy or sell the things you see in the forest. So, why are you in that forest in the first place? What are you doing there? What are some words you could use to describe your relationship with everything else that makes the forest their home — including the trees, the water, the birds, and creatures that inhabit the place? (For example, are you their ‘owner’, or do you ‘share’ the gifts of creation with other creatures? What do you make of the fact that you are stronger and smarter — probably, and hopefully! — than most other creatures? What do you make of this gift you have?)

How is the forest, the path, and the porcupine analogous to human community and how we relate in our society to one another? How can we love the stranger who is also our neighbour? And just because we may not understand fully other creatures — including other people who are different — how can we show love to them (For example, by listening to them? By being curious to learn more about them? By helping them with something they need in our shared humanity? etc.)

You shall see the light

Jesus commanded that we shall love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40). This commandment motivates me to participate this afternoon in the clerics’ cycling challenge (www.clericchallenge.com), initiated by Imam Mohamad Jebara.

  
Practically, then, what Jesus’ commandment means is that if you love someone, you want to know something about her or him. You want to know who she is, what he values, and how they orient their life. If you love someone, you take the time to talk to him, get to know her, and in so doing, you share yourself as well. 

  
Love shows itself in attention to another, in accepting another on their own terms — yes, and in a willingness to learn something new, to think about things in a new way, and to grow together in friendship and harmony. 

  
When I say Christians are called to love their Jewish or Muslim neighbours, for example, I mean we are called to develop relationships of mutual affection, understanding, and appreciation (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Interreligious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.59). Then, we love our neighbour as ourselves, thus fulfilling Jesus’ commandment.

  
I had the pleasure of viewing some artwork this past week at the Rothwell Gallery on Montreal Road in Ottawa. The Gallery is presenting until October 24th the work of the late Leonard Gerbrandt (1942-2010) who travelled the world and created beautiful impressionistic watercolours and prints especially about the structures of various land and waterscapes. I was given a personal tour by Ute, his spouse, of the hundred pieces or so displayed in the gallery.

  
When we began the tour, she asked me to guess what colour appears and is prevalent in the vast majority of his art. With a twinkle in her eye, she confessed that this particular colour also happened to be his favourite. And so I went to work. At first, I suggested it was the earth tone greens, even maybe the rust, terracotta and orange/reds. No. No. And no.

As we reflected on one specific piece of art I marvelled how Leonard mixed the blues to distinguish sky and sea. Ute smiled, then said, it was blue indeed. I quickly travelled through the gallery looking anew at the paintings. And you know what? It was true! Now, I could see it — blue indeed found its way into almost all his paintings. Why didn’t I see that at first?

Blue, after all, is my favourite colour too (No political association, though!). And then I pondered further why I couldn’t see what had always been my favourite colour. Had I been distracted by the flashiness of other ‘colours’? Did I take ‘my colour’ for granted? What were ‘the blocks’ inside of me preventing me from seeing what was most important to me? Pride? Anger? Fear? Shame? Greed? Why couldn’t I appreciate fully the beauty that was staring me in the face, for me?

Of course, colours would not exist without the presence of light. In fact, it is how the light is represented in a work of art that brings out the textures and hues created by the paint brush. I also believe that art, like music, serves to reflect back to us an inner state — and that is why art and music can be so powerful conveyors of meaning and truth about ourselves and the world at any given moment in time.

The living Jesus is with us, and in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. The love of God propels the Spirit to move us in the the way of Jesus. And yet, we block our sight. We can’t see the light. What are those blocks that keep us from living out of our nature that is being renewed day by day? What keeps us from loving our neighbour? Is it fear of the unknown? Is it a shame that is deeply imbedded? Is it the fire of anger, the pain of regret, the poison of hatred, the paralysis of mistrust?

“Out of his anguish he shall see light” (Isaiah 53:11)

This phrase comes from a larger so-called suffering servant poem from the prophet Isaiah. Christians have read Jesus Christ into the role of the servant even though the text was originally heard among the people of Israel hundreds of years before Christ. The ‘servant’ could refer to the people as a whole suffering in Babylonian exile, or to a specific individual (i.e. Persian King Cyrus /Isaiah 45) who liberated the Israelites and led them home to Jerusalem.

This exegesis is important and we need to tread carefully in working with sacred texts that we share with our Jewish neighbours. We Christians know the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross for our liberation, indeed for the whole world. Jesus fits the suffering servant-narrative from Isaiah. Let’s work with this.

The anguish Jesus experiences in his suffering and death reflects a God who is fundamentally relational. And God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relates to us in our very own humanity. Thanks to Jesus who showed us the way not just in his divinity but especially in his very own humanity. ‘Anguish’ after all, is a human emotion grounded in love. That is, “to anguish over the loss of a loved one” (online dictionary definition).

Not only does Jesus know our suffering in a shared humanity, he feels for us because of God’s intense love for us. The author of Hebrews is therefore able to describe Jesus as the ultimate high priest, who “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to [this] weakness” (5:2). In short, Jesus helps us “see the light” because of God’s deep anguish-filled love for us. God grieves losing us to our sin, and will not stop short in going the distance — even sacrificing his own life — so that we too will see things as they truly are, in the brilliance of God.

In prayer, 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich reflected the divine stance: “I am light and grace which is all blessed love.” May our words and deeds reflect the light of Christ to our neighbours, in all grace and love.

  

The happiness trap

In our traditional celebration of Thanksgiving this weekend (in Canada), you may be wondering how to feel thankful when things aren’t going well. When unpaid bills start piling up, when a health diagnosis pulls the rug from under your feet, you are in an accident, or a relationship sours, freezes and breaks off. How can I be thankful?

Not dissimilar from the social expectations of Christmastime, the season of Thanksgiving can bring stress to even those of us whose lives are going reasonably well. Because we presume, do we not, that to be thankful we need to be happy? And to be happy, we need to be living ‘the good life’ when all works out the way I want it. And when it doesn’t….

For example, “if I don’t get that job promotion, I’ll be depressed”; or, “if the house does not sell for the price I want, I won’t be happy”; or, “if I don’t get away to that sun destination this winter I’ll be in the dumps”. We find ourselves in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction.

We are caught in the happiness trap. The striving for which basically guarantees us discontentment and frustration. 

Now, if all we want is to be happy, we won’t grow because we will only attend to those things that we already appreciate and understand. If all we want is to be happy, we assume that we are already where we are supposed to be. If all we want is to be happy, we will stay stuck; we have left no room for growth and development that only comes from some intentional work that might in fact be meant to change us for the better.

If we only pursue happiness, we are constraining the movement of the Spirit of God. That Spirit may want to call us to, and discipline us for, some greater purpose. That greater purpose will not be achieved by just wanting to be happy all the time.

In contrast, I suggest a healthier, more realistic approach: to work toward faithfulness rather than happiness. (Gil Rendle, “The Illusion of Congregational Happiness” Congregational Resource Guide, http://www.congregationalresources.org, 2010, p.4)

Writer Lisa Bendall (lisabendall.com) uncovered a recent Florida State University study which advised not to confuse a happy life with a meaningful one. That is, “happiness is lower in people who have more stress and anxiety, but meaning is higher in these same people.” Which suggests something important about a healthy degree of anxiety and stress in one’s life. Through the lens of Christianity, we can say that ‘picking up our cross’ and following Jesus may not yield a happy lifestyle all the time. But it will result in transformative change in our life that will make a positive difference in the world. Bottom line: It won’t be easy.

The narrow search for happiness focuses only on making things easy. And that is why pursuing mere happiness is a sure-fire way of living a self-centred, narcissistic and meaningless life bereft of making a difference in the world for the better. Show me otherwise in the lives of people who have made an incredible contribution to their communities, nations, society and the world. Were they always happy? Did being unhappy at times deter them from pursuing their values and rich meaning for their life?

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) suggests the same. Jesus is not promising us a distress-free lifestyle. Pursue the higher ideals. Take the high road. Don’t give up. If I only wanted to be happy, I’m not sure I’d want to follow Jesus on this earthly journey which must surely go through the Cross. Staying true to oneself, to others and to God means a bumpy ride from time to time.

Here are some tips for this life that is given to us — not just for the placid, calm waters of life. Our baptism means that from time to time the water will get rough. And we need to know how to navigate those waters and stay afloat!

Shortly after Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod – ELCIC) was elected some fifteen years ago, he made a trip up to the Ottawa Valley, and went white-water rafting on the Ottawa River. Here is what he learned, eight rules; and applied it to life, faith and church:

1. Don’t be surprised if the boat doesn’t go where you want it to go.

2. Rest in the calm places. There will be more white water soon.

3. Never stop paddling. Even when it seems hopeless.

4. If you get into trouble… DON’T panic.

5. If you go under, let go of everything. Eventually you will come back up.
6. Someone needs to call out the orders. It works better that way.
7. White water is what you came for. Enjoy it.

8. Everyone paddles furiously to get somewhere, but ultimately it’s the current that takes you downstream.

Ultimately, trusting in the grace of God will get us there. Which means, does it not, that even if we are limited in whatever way, even when life is not perfect and things don’t work out for us, we can still fulfill our purpose and find meaning in our faith? Keep paddling! Do what you can, because we really don’t have anything to lose.

Last week when I attended the meeting of Deans in our Synod, Bishop Pryse shared in his closing comments a word of inspiration from Thomas Merton — a quote he has displayed in his office:

You may have to face the fact that your work will apparently be worthless and achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate, not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

And this, I believe, brings something more than mere happiness: enduring contentment, meaning and peace in one’s heart.

May your Thanksgiving celebrations encourage you in the value and meaning of the gift of  your life.

Coming clean

Recently a member of my parish shared with me this joke:

An elderly woman walked into the church. The friendly usher greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps.
“Where would you like to sit?” he asked politely.

“The front row, please,” she answered. 
“You really don’t want to do that,” the usher said. “The pastor is really boring.” 

“Do you happen to know who I am?” the woman inquired. 

“No,” he said. 

“I’m the pastor’s mother,” she replied indignantly. 

“Do you know who I am?” he asked. 

“No,” she said. 

“Good,” he answered.

I think we laugh because we can relate to our innate resistance to being vulnerable, to admitting fault, and being honest about who we truly are. We work so hard to deny and protect a semblance of strength and infallibility. 

This is not the community of Christ. Rather, the church is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other. It’s a community who has learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.

See “Community of the broken and blessed” below …