The musical performance

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his followers.[1]

What does it mean, ‘to be a witness’ to all that happened around Jesus over two thousand years ago? How can we be a witness to these things with which we haven’t had a direct experience, when we haven’t seen with our own eyes and met with our own bodies the living, Lord Jesus?

The weather this weekend is a joke. There’s no other way of putting it, to my mind. It is the season of baseball not snowball! But sometimes when things don’t go our way, humour can be a good antidote. So, here is a music joke.

Last week I gave an example of a double bass player to illustrate how we need to go from the head to the heart. But we don’t always trust that movement from head to heart because it feels like we are losing control.

Imagine a picture of several double bass players standing at the back of an orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The bass players are swaying to the majestic sounds and rhythms; their bodies are into it. It is nearing the end of the epic masterpiece, and the caption at the bottom of the comic strip says:

“It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the bassists are loaded.” Hmmm. Maybe too much heart?

How do we live a life of faith that is heart-centred? At same time, how do we deal with our performance anxiety, worried about how people will perceive us when we do our thing, as Christians? We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform to perfection and make a good impression. Unfortunately, this kind of self-talk keeps us from being the best we can be. That’s why, unfortunately, too many musicians have too much to drink prior to a performance.

We need not be too hard on ourselves. Easily 50% of the population make decisions based on fear.[2]The annual “Back to Church” movement creator, Michael Harvey, claims that there is only one socially-accepted sin in the church today: fear.[3]

Yet, none of the Gospel accounts of the risen Jesus condemn the fear. It is to be expected. Jesus meets the disciples, and meets us, where we are even in our uncertainty. Jesus’ initial purpose, after all, is to bring peace. “Peace be with you,” are Jesus’ first words to his disciples after the resurrection.[4]

But Jesus calls us, as he called his disciples, to move beyond our fear, move beyond the fearfully locked doors of our hearts.

The ultimate purpose of the Gospel is not just to allay the fears of Jesus’ followers. It is not to convince us of the miracle of God. In other words, ultimately, who and what we’re about leads us beyond ourselves. The point of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not the miracle per se, but that it becomes the engine of the proclamation of Jesus Christ to all nations.

Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist noted recently that, “Jesus’ resurrection was indeed a miracle; however, Jesus’ resurrection needs to be more than a miracle. It needs to be normal, everyday, how we live and breathe: with resurrection power.”[5]

God’s grace finds expression in flesh and blood – in our bodies. First, as we experience it coming through the Eucharist, the presence of God is made manifest in humanity. And today, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that means, in us and all our brokenness and despite our imperfections.

How can we say this? Because in Jesus’ resurrected body, his scars were still visible. His humanity was still intact – in some mysterious way, in an mysteriously enhanced body to be sure. But the fact that Jesus bodily resurrection is so defended and argued by Paul and Luke and other early Apostles suggests, does it not, the crucial importance of the earthly, human manifestation, and receptivity, of God’s grace and presence.[6]

This is the power of the resurrection. That in the midst of our fear, Jesus comes to stand among us. In the midst of all that is wrong, broken, suffering in our lives, Jesus comes into the locked doors of our hearts and bodies. And then, calls us out.

How do we ‘proclaim’ Christ to all the nations? Again, nothing spectacular, here. Through our ordinary, simple selves, reaching out.

Leonard Bernstein, 20thcentury musician and famous conductor of renowned orchestras around the world – the Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic – once said: “The only way I have of knowing I’ve done a really remarkable performance is when I lose my ego completely and become the composer. I have the feeling that I’m creating the piece, writing the piece on stage … making it up as I go, along with those hundred people [in the orchestra] who are also making it up with me.”[7]

Working together, like in an orchestra, we are playing the music of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and in the world. Even though the music was first created a long time ago, we are making it alive and real for us and for the world, today.

We do so, using the gifts and grace and resources given to us from the Composer of the whole experience. We do so, through our own bodies, minds and spirits. At the same time, we let go of our ego, because it is not about us; it is about something much bigger than all of us.

Order of Canada recipient for his work in fostering Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue, Father Laurence Freeman said: “…grace works on nature. The grace of God that enters into human existence doesn’t come from out of space; it comes through nature. That’s why it is very dubious to talk about supernatural things. We are always interested in the supernatural, but what’s much more real and interesting is the real meaning of the natural. It is through nature, through the natural, through our own nature, our own psychology, our own physiology, our mind and body – through our human nature – that grace touches, emerges and transforms us …”[8]

So, it is our ordinary selves through which the grace and purpose of God works. What does this mean? First, it means we have to believe in ourselves. We have to trust that God has given us what we need to do God’s work, to be God’s instruments and vehicles through which God accomplishes God’s purposes.

Then, we need to perform the music, so to speak. And, it doesn’t need to be perfect, complicated or anything spectacular. Just simple, ordinary. We have to start somewhere.

One of our members asked recently a neighbor to describe what happens on and around our property on an average day in the Spring, Summer and Fall. And the neighbor reported that between 2:30 and 3:30pm every week day, about 30 kids on average, children of all ages, walk across our property from the bus stops along Meadowlands to their homes in the City View neighborhood. Thirty.

With presence of mind, our member asked the neighbor: What do they do when they walk across? Is there anything in particular that stands out in their behavior?

The neighbor said many of them like our benches outside the front doors. They like to sit and visit. They like to rest for a few minutes before continuing on their walk home.

When the member and I reflected on this, we realized there aren’t many, if any at all, public places in the neighborhood where people can sit awhile. Not only do we fill a need providing a place to sit, we encourage community-building, relationship-building right outside the doors to the church. How appropriate!

And for so many young people who are turned off the church, or at least afraid to enter into a church building these days, providing benches for children and young people to sit and visit sends a positive if subtle message about our identity and purpose as a church. It also sends a subtle yet real message of welcome.

This example is simple, ordinary, unspectacular. Yet, it is a first step in the right direction. As a community. Not as individuals doing our own thing. But, together, as a church, an orchestra playing together.

And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about? We can only do what we are able to do, together. And then, when we take the first step, we watch as the Spirit of God can surprise and delight in us. All because we began by simply using what God has given us. Giving from ourselves, for the sake of others, for something larger than all of us.

That is, being faithful witnesses to these things.

[1]Luke 24:48, NRSV.

[2]Richard Rohr & Andreas Ebert, “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective” (Crossroad, 2001).

[3]Michael Harvey, “Unlocking the Growth: You’ll Be Amazed at your Church’s Potential” (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2012), p.52.

[4]Luke 24:36; John 20:19-21, NRSV.

[5]Brother Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” on April 10, 2018.

[6]Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is a testimony both to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and to our bodies being the imperfect vessels for the transmission of God’s grace and wisdom.

[7]Cited in Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The Classic Guide to Reaching a New Level of Musical Performance” (New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1986), p.95.

[8]Laurence Freeman, OSB, “Finding Oneself 2” transcript (Singapore: Medio Media, 2017), p.29.

The return journey of Transfiguration

When I first watched Danny Macaskill’s video, “The Ridge”, I assumed the incredible journey on his mountain bike would culminate at the pinnacle. When he lifts his bicycle over his head through the streaming rays of glorious sunshine on top of the Scottish highland, I anticipated the credits to role. His journey done. The glory achieved. Mission accomplished.

But we were only half done! After relishing the moment, he puts his wheels on the uneven, rocky, dangerous path and accelerates downward on the return journey — jumping across gaping crevices, twisting across boulder tops and flipping over barbed wire fences. The pilgrimage began at the water’s edge below. And there, it will end.

The journey of Transfiguration, described by Luke in the lectionary for today, does not end on the mountaintop (Luke 9:28-43). After the majesty, mystery and glory of the spectacular vision on the top of the mountain, Jesus and the disciples “come down from the mountain” (v.37) into an anxious scene where Jesus heals a man shrieking, convulsing and foaming at the mouth in the grips of demon possession. Not exactly a moment of pristine glory. 

Though the story ends well for all concerned, the Gospel writer reminds us that the journey of change and transformation and healing must include a descent, a going down, a letting go, a releasing. You may call it a reality check in life, or in the case of the video, literally — the rubber hitting the road.

These mountaintop experiences of our lives, according to the Gospel, find meaning and validity in the valleys of our lives. Jesus’ majesty is legitimized in his mission to the people living in the valley. These mountaintop experiences are mere stopping points on the journey, not the destination. While we live on earth, the journey must embrace both mountain and valley, must recognize the meaning and value in both. Our spiritual charade is exposed if we pretend faith is validated only in those ecstatic mountaintop moments.

In your life, which mountains have you ascended? These can be times when you experience joy, love, peace and hope; they can be times when you experience a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

And into which valleys did you descend? These can be times when you experience failure, setback, disappointment, loss; they can be times when you felt profound fear, shame, anger, guilt and anxiety. 

Joyce Rupp reflects on legends common to many lands “about a person who has an enticing dream of where treasure is located. Of course, the valuable cache in the dream hides far beyond where the person lives. If the dreamer does not leave home to seek the treasure, the dream is repeated until the person finally sets out for the extensive journey. In each legend, the seeker travels long, arduous years, filled with both dangerous and enthralling adventure, never being sure if that which is sought will be found.

“The story ends with the traveler coming to the place where the treasure is supposedly hidden. Instead of finding it there, the seeker meets a stranger at that site who tells about a dream he or she had in which the long-sought treasure is located back at the place where the dreamer originally started out. Of course, the person who has been seeking all those years now hurries as quickly as possible to get home. Arriving back at the place of the dream, sure enough, there is the treasure. What the person sought on the arduous journey had been there all along.

“This legend teaches that life’s journey, with its flow of ups and downs, has to be made. Although it leads full circle back to the home of one’s own heart, the journey itself contains the necessary teachings for growth and change.” (1)

When we return to the starting point of our own existence, we will find our true nature. Again, the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is helpful. Because the message from the biblical record is that Jesus’ true essence was revealed on the mountaintop. He is the divine Son of God.

Yet, the Transfiguration of our Lord didn’t negate his humanity. From that point forward, he would still go down into the valley, heal the sick, preach good news to the poor and die a human man on the Cross of Calvary. The Transfiguration only uncovered his true nature in that moment of time.

In the same way, we are transformed and changed — yes. But our Christian growth does not dismiss, discard, and deny all that we are and have been — good and bad. As Martin Luther argued, we are simultaneously saints and sinners. Our transformation is not a movement from sinner to saint, as if we can only be Christian if we don’t sin anymore, as if no more sin infects our lives, as if we can somehow abolish altogether our sinful baggage on the journey. The greatest saints on earth still sinned to their dying day.

Rather, our transformation reveals to us and those around us who we truly are, in Christ Jesus: We are beloved children of God. In this life, we will always be saints and sinner. Yet, we will know and experience more and more the transforming power of God’s love for us, in us, and through us. This is our true nature. And our greatest treasure. Thanks be to God!

Where in your life do you see the love of Jesus, working in and through you despite the sin in your life?



(1) Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door – A Journey to the True Self” Sorin Books, Notre Dame Indiana, 2009, digital copy in Week 2, p.8

An Advent-Christmas funeral sermon

In some churches, the manger scenes during the Advent season are left intentionally incomplete: For example, as in our creche, the manger is empty; during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the figurine of baby Jesus is not there. Until December 25th.

In one congregation that worships in a large, cathedral-type building, the magi start their journey at the beginning of Advent somewhere in the narthex (the entrance). Each successive Sunday in Advent, the magi move closer to the manger scene which is set up at the front near the altar.

And, each Sunday, the children of the congregation are charged with a treasure-hunt search for where the figurines of the magi have been placed that week — whether on a decorated window sill, or beside a poinsettia plant, or on the steps to the chancel, etc.

Not only do these traditions emphasize the important Advent themes of waiting and watching with expectation for the coming Christmas joy, we are reminded at this time of year that we are, all of us, indeed, on a journey towards the manger, towards a new encounter with Jesus.

I believe Grant’s love of hiking revealed his ability to see the Big Picture. You see, when you go on a hike, following a trail that spans hundreds of kilometres as Grant has done on occasion, you are not just meandering aimlessly. Oh, yes, the trail can take many twists, turns, ups and downs.

But part of the joy of long-distance hiking is understanding in your imagination where you are headed, where you began, and the relationship between the two. No matter where you are along that journey, you can see the Big Picture.

One of my favourite visual effects of modern cinema does this well: From the perspective of the TV/movie camera, a scene of someone or something that happens on the ground in one moment of time is suddenly zoomed out; we move backwards up into the sky — still focused on the ground, but quickly disappears through the clouds and then into outer space. And we can see the planet earth and the solar system. And we can understand how that particular event or person on earth relates to the cosmos!

To have this Big Picture vision is to see our present reality, on the ground, from the perspective of not only history (where you’ve been) but also from the perspective of the future (where you’re going). Grant was a Big Picture kind of guy. He enjoyed the long-distance hike.

The ancient caravan routes through the Holy Land, Judean desert I think informed the prophetic writings, many of which we read in the Bible. These caravan routes were the life-line of the economy, and framed the boundaries of social order.

When you followed a caravan route you were walking a path trodden by generations of people who came before you, and a path that was followed by many once you were gone. This is the experience of people who journey, in every time and place.

I like our Bishop’s repeated advice to pastors whenever we gather for clergy and leadership retreats: “Remember, we are one and all merely ‘interim’ pastors”. Even pastors who are tenured and may remain years, even decades, in one parish are still, only, ‘interim’. They are interim because there were pastors who preceded them in the congregations’s history, and hopefully there will be more pastors coming once they are gone.

The point is not a focus on the pastor so much as seeing that pastor in the context of the larger history and journey of a congregation. It’s to regard an individual from the perspective of the Big Picture.

I can see why Richard Rohr uses the term, Big Picture, to understand the Kingdom of God. Because even though we are in constant transition on the caravan route, both the memory of the past and the promise of the future impinge on the present moment. In the Big Picture, the twin pulls of historical and future vision reveal a “vibrant now” in which God’s kingdom is complete and dwelling among us (Gail Ricciuti, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.94).

Being in the present moment, while informed by the past and motivated by the future promise, requires that you keep both feet on the ground. Hiking is an activity that requires the hiker not merely to keep moving, but to keep focused on the ground, one step at a time. It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one: a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

As such, the journey of faith is grounded in the moment. It is earthy, real. Your boots, feet and legs get dirty, scratched, bitten, sunburned. The Big Picture ultimately, for it to be effective, is anchored in the present, gritty, sometimes ugly circumstance of life.

Even when we experience death, loss, suffering and pain; this is part of the route when we have to go through the wilderness, the desert, and navigate the ‘dark night of the soul’ (St John of the Cross).

When I hiked part of the Bruce Trail near Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula years ago, I remember first following the trail from the parking lot to a cliff- edge standing over a hundred feet above the crashing surf of Georgian Bay. It was a beautiful vista overlooking the bay, the sky, the water birds. The memory is vibrant: breathing in the marine smells, feeling the warm, morning sun. I relished the moment, standing still, taking it all in.

I didn’t want to turn my back on it, and continue on the hike. I wanted the moment to last forever. I felt that should I continue on the trail, I would never experience such a blissful moment again. It wasn’t easy to rip myself away. However, in the course of the day, there were many more such views I enjoyed along the trail.

The poet T.S. Elliott wrote: “The end is where we start from … or say that the end precedes the beginning” (ibid.). Grant met his ‘end’, we say, in dying. But that ending was just the start of something new. Our faith in God, the promise of salvation, Jesus’ resurrection, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit — we are, each and everyone of us, including Grant — well equipped for the journey of life and death.

Because even though we might need to keep putting one foot forward and turn our back on the old, there is in each turn only something new waiting for us — a new perspective, something beautiful, something beyond our wildest dreams.

When we finish our walk on earth, the journey to Jesus merely takes on a whole new dimension. This Christmas, like the Magi who finally arrive at their destination to encounter the Christ child, Grant arrives home — his home with the Creator God and his Saviour Jesus. Now, he can experience life and union with God in a whole new, and deeper way.

One thing remains. The caravan is a journey undertaken with others, together. No one would even consider travelling the caravan routes through the desert alone. Jesus travelled with Grant throughout his life on earth, just as Jesus embraces Grant this day, with all the hosts of heaven.

Psalm 139:7-10
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

Dream-state

“Who are you?” the scrutinizing Levites ask John the Baptist (John 1:19-28). “Who is this man?” Because if John the Baptist is indeed preparing the way for the Messiah, he must be — according to tradition — the prophet Elijah.

There seems to be confusion in the ranks about his identity. If he is who he claims to be, then either their beliefs need to be changed, or else John the Baptist is a liar. ‘Who he is’, is a question of great importance.

I admire John the Baptist’s self-confidence. He does not seem to care who they think he is, much less their confusion. Note his rather curt responses to their questions: “I am not the Messiah”, “I am not”, “No” — He is not inclined to make kind, polite conversation. Neither does he care to make things better for them by clarifying.

And when he does say anything positive about his identity — he uses esoteric images from the ancient scripts: He is “a voice crying out in the wilderness”, meant to “make straight the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40). This is not a clear, rational response to their very pointed questions that demand a ‘straight’ answer. What is apparent and important to John the Baptist, is that he knows who he is.

Who are you? Who are we? A glaring symptom of our confusion today, our disconnection from who we are, and our supreme fear and lack of confidence in our own identity — as people of God, as individuals and members of the Body of Christ — is the heaping layers of distraction with which we surround ourselves. Especially at this time of year!

It’s like we are walking around in a dream-state. Our dreaming disconnects us from who we truly are, and what is really important. On the first Sunday in Advent, we heard Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” (Mark 13:37). On this third Sunday in Advent we sing the hymn: “Awake! Awake, and Greet the new Morn” (EvLW 242). It seems a prevalent theme in our Advent liturgy is to “wake up!”

Listen to the way Richard Rohr describes our way of life:

“It’s safe to say that there is confusion about what is needed for life and what is really important for life …. We have created a pseudo-happiness, largely based in having instead of being. We are so overstimulated that the ordinary no longer delights in us. [In our culture] … middle-class people have more comforts and securities than did kings and queens in the times when royalty flourished. We have become human doings more than human beings. And the word ‘rest’ as Jesus uses it [‘Come to me … to find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28)] is largely foreign to us.”

What the Gospel says, is that simplicity “is the only place that happiness is ever to be found … Such a message is about as traditional, old-fashioned and conservative a gospel as we can possible preach, and it will always be true” (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas; Daily Meditations for Advent”, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati Ohio, 2008, p.27-28).

How do we wake up from this false, dream-state of distraction and over-stimulation? How do we wake up to our true selves? And how can we embrace a more simpler life of ‘being’?

These are the real questions I believe we need to be asking during Advent, and as we approach the Christmas season.

It’s not easy. It might take some discipline. Because we may be “Like people who have lived by the train tracks for years, we no longer hear the sound of the train. After years in church, we get used to the noise of Advent, to the message of the coming Christ, so much so that we no longer notice it. Or if we do, it has ceased to jolt us awake and has become instead a low, dull rumble …

Like the house hunter who noticed the train tracks on moving day, but later sleeps through the whistles and the engines that rush by, we can miss the thing in the season of Advent that might have been the most obvious and important at one time …” — the presence and love of Jesus coming into our lives again. (Lillian Daniel, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.66).

And this is God’s dream, coming to us. As Christians, we carry the mantle of God’s dreamers. This is our heritage — the dreams of the prophets and those who spoke God’s restorative vision to a people in exile, a people depressed, discouraged, downcast. And, who were given a vision — a dream — of a straight path through the wilderness of their lives.

To this day and age. If God could inspire Jacob in the desert with a dream of a ladder reaching down from heaven (Genesis 28:10-17), God can dream in us. If God could give guidance to Joseph wondering what to do with Mary (Matthew 1:18-25), then God can dream in us.

Twenty-five centuries after the psalmist expressed the words: “We were like those who dream…” (Psalm 126:1), Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream”. And with those words ignited a vision in the 20th century for justice towards an uncertain future. A generation later, (the first African-American) President Barak Obama, tantalized a nation, and the world, with his eloquent words of hope. Today, Malala Yousafzai inspires us to support education for women, in a dark and conflict-ridden world.

God’s dreams of a just and peaceful kingdom are born in the visions of the people of God, and in the heart of each child of God. In the end, it is not ‘my’ dream, maybe not even ‘our’ dream alone; it starts with God’s dream — when the wolf shall live with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6;65:25), and swords will be beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).

The problem with dreaming is not the dream itself, necessarily, but whose dream it is. The problem with walking in a dream-state at this time of year, distracted by all the ueber- stimulation of our culture, is when it is our dream — my dream, alone, when I got caught up in my stuff so much that I don’t see the other; when I don’t see the other as God would.

Who are we? We are who we are meant to be when we bear witness in our very lives to the vision and dream of God. We are who we are created to be, when we let the light of God’s love that burns in our hearts, radiate out to a world shrouded in cold darkness.

And then, paraphrasing the famous words of Elliot Wolfson, God’s dream “dreams the dreamer as much as the dreamer dreams the dream.”

May God’s dream, dream in us.

Frozen yet melting in Good

The Gospel text for Thanksgiving Day (Luke 17:11-19) is the familiar one about only one healed leper out of ten that went back to give thanks to Jesus. And so, we may be challenged to think about all the things that may keep us from giving thanks, or being thankful.

But this story from the Gospel of Luke implies being thankful WHEN SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS. As if that’s more of a challenge. Which kind of turns the tables on us, does it not? We normally think that ungratefulness is a symptom of an unlucky life, a life that suffers, a life that is disadvantaged in whatever way. How can I be thankful, after all, when bad things happen? Or conversely, believing that it is only easy to be thankful when good things happen.

But reality is: it is just as hard, if not more, to be truly thankful when good things happen, as this text suggests. It is directed to those of us who are advantaged in so many ways, but still find it difficult to be thankful.

So what are some Thanksgiving ‘misfires’? What are some of the ways we mis the mark in being truly thankful especially when things go well for us?

It was the Fall time of the year, and a farmer was on the land finishing up a poor harvest. The season had been tough, with all the rain and very few heat days.

And he wondered, “What crop should I plant in this field next year?” The question was a sort of prayer, because he was a bit discouraged and down on his profession. He looked up into the sky …

Suddenly the farmer sees “PC” written as clear as day in the clouds. Certain this was an answer to his prayer, he believed God was calling him to “preach Christ”. So he did, and gave it all he had.

But it didn’t work out for him. Some time later, the farmer went back to the field and asked God, why being a preacher didn’t work out for him so well. He waited a few minutes in the silence with only the wind whistling through the tall pine trees lining his land. And then he heard God’s voice: “I did give you an answer to your prayer …. PC meant ‘plant corn’.”

One Thanksgiving ‘misfire’ is rushing to conclusions based on our exclusive perspective. As if it were the only way. As if there were no other options. We put ourselves in the driver’s seat of this faith journey we are on, as if we are in control of our destiny, as if we have all the answers, as if we are right, and everyone else is wrong. Lack of humility is one consequence of this arrogance with which we live our lives.

I like the story of the woman who was looking forward to the snack of cookies she had in her purse when she sat down on a park bench beside a man dressed in a business suit, clean shaven.

She had always enjoyed the view into the parkland from this bench. Her eyes lingered on the fog resting on the colours on the trees in the valley below. She and the well-dressed stranger sat in silent awe beholding the beauty before them.

When she finally looked down to retrieve the cookies in her purse, she noticed the bag of cookies already opened on the bench between them, and the stranger sitting beside her was helping himself!

“Who does he think he is?” she thought to herself. “The impertinence of some people!”

She was trying to calm herself down and enjoy the beautiful Fall day when she noticed out of the corner of her eye, the man pushed the now half-emptied bad of cookies towards her.

“What nerve!” she thought to herself. She quickly retrieved the last three cookies from the bag before getting up and stomping away. She hadn’t even said, “Have a good day!” or “Goodbye” to the man; she had just shoved the emptied bag back towards him. Jerk!

When she arrived home later that day and emptied her purse, wasn’t she surprised, and humbled, to find her bag of cookies unopened!

Are we quick to judge because we are not open to receiving anything good from someone else? Do we believe, when we are honest, that only we can give anything good to others? Do we presume that it’s up to us alone to make things better, and therefore we block any expectation of a solution coming from outside our preconceived and prejudiced notions?

Only one healed leper came back to give thanks. He understood that engaging a life of Thanksgiving first meant opening his heart to receiving grace from an unexpected source. His thanksgiving to Jesus began when he remembered who had healed him — not from the established norms, and religious leaders of the day. He had curtailed his impulse to get busy with his life, and simply recalled and acknowledged this undeserved, gracious gift.

In light of all our misfires — arrogance, condescension, judgement, prejudice — it’s a wonder there still is any good in the world. We are, after all, broken people caught up in our own compulsive behaviour.

In some churches, this Gospel for Thanksgiving is from Matthew 7:7-12 is read:

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

How can we receive the good from God? This may be a very difficult challenge for us. To receive what is placed before us. That’s all. Especially for those of us who tend to understand Thanksgiving only as something we do for others. That’s certainly part of it.

But Thanksgiving starts by acknowledging that we are already recipients of a great grace, love and abundance. And so is everyone else.

When you think about it, it’s not the problem of evil that should have us shaking our heads, it’s the problem of good! There is much good in the world DESPITE all the ways we human beings manage to mess it up. That’s the miracle!

We are the richest Christians in the history of Christianity. And I mean, materially. There has never been a time in our history when Christians were so wealthy — had as much money, security, property, resources and material blessing — as we do today in North America.

With all the problems facing the church today, and all the challenges set before people of faith, perhaps the first thing to do and be intentional about, is NOT to jump into any presumption or initial impulse.

But simply to stop, and remember. What is God already up to in the world around you? What are the good things in the world, happening among people? Are you listening for this, watching for the presence of the living God in unexpected places?

I think Thanksgiving begins with a monumental shift in attitude.
It’s about changing our perspective — or be willing to see things differently. With a view to abundance, not scarcity — we can be thankful. With a view to see the good and not only the bad — we can be thankful. With a view to receiving the grace that is there for us already in the people we meet and the work before us — we can be thankful.

Thanks be to God!

Are you an honest sinner?

A Christian leader (Laurence Freeman) commented on the 25th anniversary edition of “Rolling Stones” magazine. It contained interviews with pop music icons over that time period, starting with John Lenin all the way to Madonna.

He was wondering why young people especially were drawn to these, their idols. Of course, many pop stars are not exemplary people. They are not saints.

But they are, what he calls, ‘honest sinners’. Which reminds me of what Martin Luther said about us: That we are at the same time: Saints AND Sinners.

In the church, I think we get the ‘Saint’ part. But how do we validate the ‘Sinner’ part of ourselves?

In the Gospel text for Ordinary Time on this last Sunday in September 2014, we continue to work through the parables given by Jesus, in the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew.

In the assigned pericope, the authority of Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees (Matthew 21:23-32). In response, Jesus tells a story of a Father who asks both his sons to work in his vineyard. The first son says he wont do it, but does. The second son says he will do it but doesn’t.

What do we make of the first son who does his Father’s bidding? He does not want to obey. And he is honest about it.

The verb in the original Greek in this text (v.29) for “changed”, as in, “he changed his mind” (or as many English translations have it — “he repented”), is not the common one usually associated with the idea of a total transformation of character (as is implied in, for example, Matthew 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”).

In fact, the only other place in the Gospel of Matthew where the exact same form appears is in Matthew 27:3, when Judas experiences a regretful change of purpose that ends in despair, remorse and his demise (see Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers).

Perhaps a better translation would have it as “a caring change of heart”; or, “a change of heart burdened with care.”

This form suggests that a heart nurtured in the love of God leads to action that not only obeys the call of God, but does it willingly. Even though the first son’s mind and his words at first are contrary to the will of the Father, his follow-through redeems him in the end. An imperfect confession it is, to be sure. But, ultimately, words are not enough.

Although in the case of both sons words do not match the deeds, “the repentance of the former is preferable to the hypocrisy of the latter;” Kathryn Blanchard says it best: “True righteousness is in the doing, rather than in the confessing” (in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJK 2011, p.118).

I see a possible link here with the alternate first testament text assigned for this Sunday, from Exodus 17:1-7 (We also encounter this text on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A). The Israelites are on the journey to the promised land, and yet again (for the fourth time in the sequence of these texts from Exodus) they complain to Moses about their lack of food; and in this, case, water.

They are thirsty. They are without a basic need for human survival. We are not talking here about typical ‘first-world problems’ — complaining about the weather, or unable to sync online calendars among family members with different smart phones, or dealing with a dilemma of how to invest money in competing markets, or having to cancel a credit card that was stolen, etc. These are things we complain about, and may even pray about.

But the Israelites’ complaints to Moses are about a basic, human need that they lack. I cannot blame them for being upset! They will die without water. They are being ‘honest sinners’, aren’t they?

Scientists, medical professionals, and child care workers will agree today that love is such a basic human need. If a person, especially at a young age, lacks love in their life, this absence of love will even stunt their physical development. They will be underdeveloped, physically, because of love being absent. The giving and receiving of love is a fundamental, human need.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter heaven before they will. Maybe because these ‘lowest rung’ folk in the religious hierarchy of the day certainly don’t present themselves in a religiously acceptable way. There is no pretence, performance, pious evasion. There is no making appearances, no self-denial nor self-repression. There is no saying-the-right-things, no artifice, no self-consciousness to their being and behaving. They are truly ‘honest sinners’.

Both of Moses and of Jesus, the people demanded ‘signs’ of God’s presence. The Exodus text ends with those ominous and faithless words: “Is God with us, or not?” Even after the visible and tangible sign of water was given to quench their thirst, the Israelites still doubted. Even though Jesus performed miracles; even though the resurrected, bodily form of Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee following Easter morning, they did not ‘believe’ (Matthew 28:17).

The ‘signs’ are not the point of the Gospel — God’s love IS. Acts of love demonstrate our Christianity more than dogmas and creeds.

And when we participate in loving, caring action …

We are truly free. Free to be ourselves. And free to do the right thing. Perhaps whatever good things honest sinners do, they do it then from the heart. Their giving of love, however unnoticeable and seemingly irrelevant acts of love, is authentic and real — something the Pharisees so stuck in their heads and dogmas could not grasp.

You might notice that the Father — who in this parable may represent the attitude of God — does not condemn the first son for saying the wrong thing. The Father does not ‘correct’ the son’s imperfect words. The Father accepts him just as he is. And in the freedom of God’s love, the son then experiences a change of heart.

God accepts you as you are. God has faith in you. Because of God’s steadfast love and unwavering faithfulness in you, what will you do?

Breaking the Catch-22

The concept of “Catch-22” came alive following the Second World War, particularly in the classic American novel of the same title by Joseph Heller. I suspect, if you need a reference point in the popular culture of the day, this book, I think, lay the groundwork for the successful TV sit-com “M.A.S.H.”

“Catch-22”, like “M.A.S.H.”, reads like a parody on war. Being serious in some ways but at the same time using humour, Heller un-masks the pretence of war, exposing the often absurd logic of warfare.

For example, he describes the irrational rut in which pilots got themselves trapped — a classic ‘catch-22’. The rule was that you had to be deemed ‘crazy’ in order to be grounded from flying combat missions, which obviously posed a real and immediate danger to one’s safety.

The ‘catch’ was, as soon as you, as the pilot, asked to be grounded because you believed you were crazy, you proved by doing this that you were indeed not crazy but of sound, rational mind. And therefore, because you were of sound mind to ask to be grounded from flying into extreme danger, you were ordered to return to flying those combat missions. Catch-22.

Catch-22 describes much of how we do things, but becomes particularly alarming and anxiety-provoking when we realize how we are stuck. When, all of a sudden, we see it for what it is — that what we have been doing for such a long time just isn’t doing any good any more. But, for whatever reason, we feel we need to continue doing it. Indeed, by continuing patterns that no longer are healthy, productive and good, we sow the seeds of our eventual self-destruction. This can be a habit or some compulsive, reactive even addictive behaviour.

But it can also relate to the way organizations function, like the church: We continue to do things today, that may have made a whole lot sense fifty years ago; but no longer serve the purpose for which that action originally was created.

For example, when we assume all our activity in the church is aimed at getting people into our pews; when, all along the purpose of the church from the beginning has been to get those of us in the pews out there in the world where God is. Instead of shifting our attention and action in a different direction, we continue to fret about “what we’ve always done” for ourselves in the church to save face and stay proud. And how is that working for us?

Or, on an individual basis, we continue to be trapped in our addiction because it makes us feel good. When someone suggests we ought stop doing it, we find all manner of reasons to justify continuing to do it. And how is that working for us?

At this point of recognizing our ‘catch-22’ and feel the onrush of anxiety, we have a choice: We can fall back into default-mode. And, I believe, for most of us, that means diving straight on into what some call: ‘action-itis’. That is, the solution to anxiety and fear is get lost in more doing, more talking, more of the same action. “Just do it!” the famous catch-phrase. But is that not merely intensifying the catch-22?

Peter is one of the most sympathetic characters in the New Testament — one of Jesus’ disciples — who embodies this compulsion to act. And act, often without thinking, without contemplation. It’s the unreflected need to ‘just do it’ — anything, in order to avoid the real work.

When Jesus poses a difficult question about death and suffering, he is first to jump up and clear the air, set things right, show that he’s got it all together. “I will not deny you, Lord!” “You will not die!” (Matthew 16:21-23; 26:35). His action and words are often premature, as he thinks he understands what it means to follow Jesus. And then the cock crows, and Peter is humbled to the point of tears when he realizes how he had indeed denied the Lord for the sake of his own self-preservation in the night of Jesus’ arrest. He comes face-to-face with his own failure (Matthew 26:75).

At the conference I attended on the west coast this summer I met many people from around the world. Many of them no longer associate with the church. Perhaps you know someone in your own families who no longer see the point of being part of the church. But they admitted to me they were — being at the mid-point of their lives — searching now for something more meaningful. But wondering how to leave their current troublesome circumstances of life, in order to move forward. They seemed to be stuck in a bit of a catch-22.

For example, I met a 44-year-old mechanical engineer who owns a successful, Italian aerospace company inherited to him from his father who founded it; and, a ‘successful’ 50-year-old Toronto Bay-Street corporate consultant. Because of various, recent life events both were realizing they needed something more in life; all the toiling and achieving and working hard and managing life’s course — all these things were not bringing a deeper satisfaction about life, anymore.

It’s as if both these folks, in the words of the keynote speaker, Richard Rohr, ‘climbed to the top of the ladder of life and suddenly realized they had been climbing the wrong wall’. A catch-22.

It’s a scary place to be, when suddenly we see how stuck we are. We will probably despair at the futility of all the work we’ve done to create the structures of our lives — whether our business, in our families, and even the church. It’s not to say it’s all bad, what we’ve done, to create the patterns of our lives. They served, at one point, an important purpose, to be sure.

But there comes a point, dear friends, where another path needs to be taken. Something deep within us, if we pay attention to it, nudges us forward out of the boat. But we also know that whatever the new thing is, won’t come easily.

In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). We all will die. We all will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of this difficult change in our lives, individually and as a church.

How does Peter bear his suffering, in this Gospel text? How does Peter get to that point of ‘being saved’? When he sees the waves surrounding him, when he recognizes that his compulsion to do it by himself has gotten him into trouble — yet again!, when he is honest about his need for help, and calls out … Jesus saves him.

The text says, “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened …” (Matthew 14:30). Often, in the scriptures, the wind is associated with the third person of the Holy Trinity — the Spirit of God. And one of the functions of the Holy Spirit, doctrinally, is to call forth the Truth (John 16:13; see also Luther’s explanation of the 3rd Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the “Small Catechism” where he says that the Holy Spirit leads to the “true faith”).

We can say that when Peter recognized the truth about himself, the truth of his deception of relying solely on his own initiative to accomplish God’s mission, he finally and literally came to his senses and confessed his need for God. You will notice that at first, “the wind was against them [the disciples]” (Matthew 14:24) when they first encountered the storm.

The path towards this personal acknowledgement — in the church we call it ‘confession of sin’ — is often a path that is honest with another person about our fears and our anxieties. It is a path that we may otherwise wish to avoid or blame someone else for. It is a path that makes us vulnerable to others because we are truthful about what really motivates us. It is a path that unmasks us, for who we truly are.

In one of Richard Rohr’s keynote addresses he said that “honesty leads to humility”. You can’t be humble unless you are first absolutely and completely honest. You can’t be humble and still pretend to be in charge and know all the answers. In one frightening, ‘letting-go’ moment on the Sea of Galilee, Peter was honest about himself, and humbled to the core when he cried out, “Lord, [YOU] save me!” Because I, honestly, can’t on my own.

But there is a good and wonderful news in this Gospel text; and here it is: There is a great love, and a better world waiting for us on the other side of our fear. This love does not deny who we are — including all our foibles and compulsions. But it is no accident that the single-most message repeated throughout the bible is: Do not fear/ Be not afraid. We can either shy away from what we need to do, or we can constructively engage our fears, focusing on the promise, and trusting in the bigger truth that is God’s presence and God’s grace.

Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived. Weeks passed and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy: “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?” Together the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life, they sang for joy! “How great our mother’s love is, that she shares her own life with us!” As the weeks stretched into months, the twins noticed how much each was changing.

“What does this mean?” one asked.
“It means our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other.
“But I don’t want to go,” said one. “I want to stay here always.”
“We have no choice,” said the other. “But maybe there is life after birth.”
“But how can that be?” responded one. “We will shed our life cord and how can life be possible without it? Besides, we have see evidence that others were here before us, and none of them has returned to tell us there is life after birth. No, this is the end. Maybe there is no mother after all.”
“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”
“Have you seen our mother?” said one. “Maybe she only lives in our minds. Maybe we made her up because the idea made us feel good.”
So the last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear. Finally, the moment of birth arrived. When the twins had passed from their world, they opened their eyes and cried for joy — for what they saw exceeded their fondest dreams. That is brith … and that is death (cited from Kim Nataraja, “Dancing with your Shadow”, Medio-Media 2010, p.163-164).

We are a people on a journey. We are a church on a journey. And on a journey, there is no such thing as the ‘status quo’. Things are changing all the time. In truth, and especially when everything seems so uncertain, and fearful, we are in a great and holy time of transition.

But we need not hold back and be dumbstruck like a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car. We can act boldly in faith. Why? Because in the storms and transitions of life, Jesus is there, calling us out of our ‘boats’ of despair and ‘catch-22’ patterns of self-destruction.

And when the storm strikes and we are so distracted by our own agendas and compulsions we fail to fully recognize what has been true all along: The Spirit of God and the presence of Jesus is still active all around us and in the world. And, what is more, Jesus will save us, too!