From Loss to Life

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little … and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

 -Paul, to the Philippians 4:11-13

One of the basic truisms of pilgrimage walking is that first-timers usually pack more than they need for the journey. The general rule is ten percent of your body weight. For most people, that means no more than fifteen to twenty pounds in your backpack.

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I read in one of the Camino de Santiago guidebooks, in preparation for my walk last summer, that for most first-time pilgrims five pounds in their pack is unnecessary; these items amount to five pounds of fear: that extra sweatshirt, pajama onesie, that tub of moisturizing cream or the proverbial electric hairdryer. It is not long on the journey before at least five pounds are left behind or mailed home.

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If we use the pilgrimage as a metaphor for life, then the pilgrim on the journey of life, to be true to the journey, needs to learn how to let go.

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When I began I thought I had it down to the bare minimum. Nevertheless, I was still anxious. Those first few days I worried about where I was going to sleep that night. Not knowing how far I would walk, and not wanting to put the stress of expectation by booking ahead, I had to go with the flow and improvise in the moment. Even though I found a place every night, I was still preoccupied, distracted and fretting. Perhaps I had put too much faith in what I carried.

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Before I knew it, I lost some of my belongings those first days on the path. The first night I left behind my head lamp. The second or third night – I don’t know which – I lost my very expensive self-inflating bed roll for underneath my sleeping bag.

If the story ended there, you might say I was in an unwanted, growing state of crisis. If the story ended there you might say my pilgrimage was headed towards disaster, defeat, loss and failure. If the story ended there, you might say that everything was falling apart in my journey, collapsing into the rubble heap of destruction.

But the story didn’t end there. And it doesn’t end there.

The truth is, as Richard Rohr explains it best, that “through loss, through crisis, through stress, limitation, we move to a better place in our lives.

“Physicists today would say that loss is not real. There is only transformation. The metaphor of the liquid world is that this element simply moves from liquid to solid to vapor and back again.

“It looks like a death, a loss, in each case. But, in fact, it’s a becoming. Now we recognize that Jesus was saying this all along. In Christianity, it was called the ‘Paschal Mystery’. It was a phrase used by Saint Augustine that in fact dying leads to resurrection. Jesus became the icon, the living image, of that mystery – that his crucified body transformed into the risen Christ. That they are both the same person.

“Creativity, newness of life, has a cost. And the cost is what always looks like death. But really isn’t. The cost is loss. Which is perceived as an enemy, or affliction, which always looks like what we don’t want. Somehow to embrace loss, spiritually speaking, is to achieve eternity. Death allows us to be united with what is real. But, of course, it only looks like death from our side. Apparently from the other side – we call it heaven, or eternal life – is in fact the really real.

“The really real is already beginning now. And that’s what we need to trust. That’s what we need to allow. Fourteenth century Italian theologian Catherine of Siena once said: ‘It’s heaven all the way to heaven; and, it’s hell all the way to hell.’ And the way to heaven begins in this world, all the way to heaven.

“To avoid all loss, to avoid all letting go, is to avoid transformation into union with God. If you spend your entire life avoiding ‘dying’, Jesus would say you never get there. It’s hell all the way to hell.

“‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.’[i] We now know that this phrase was used in the initiation rites of Asia Minor. Perhaps one of Jesus’ most enigmatic lines is: ‘You must lose your life in order to find your life; you must lose your life in order to gain your life.’[ii] And if you don’t let it go, you will never find it.”[iii]

This is what Paul is talking about when he says he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him. That is, he can also ‘let go’. Not only does he know what it is to have plenty. He can also lose.

Philippians 4:13 is a popular well-loved verse in the New Testament: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It is often used to bolster self-confidence in accomplishing heroic goals and aspirations. It is often quoted on posters, billboards and bumper stickers to indicate a glory, success and prosperity gospel message of human achievement more reflective of current self-help pop psychology. It is also used to undergird impressive mission goals in the church.

Moreover, the first nine verses of this chapter – the famous “Rejoice always!” text – are read on their own, as unfortunately prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary, without including verses 10-13 for context. And the context is Paul’s suffering and need and persecution.

He is rejoicing and expressing his confidence in living precisely because he has travelled through the valley of the shadow of death. Precisely because he has learned to let go. You can’t have resurrection without death. You can’t experience the joy of transformation without first feeling the pain of loss. You can’t do mission unless you have let go, done without, lost — in some fundamental, real way.

Later this month on Reformation Sunday when all ELCIC Lutherans in Ottawa will gather to worship together, we will sing together Martin Luther’s well-known hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Frederick Hedge’s English translation is closer to the original German when in the last verse we sing: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.”[iv]

Here, we get a peek into an under-emphasized aspect of Luther’s theology which included the practice of letting go. Not only is salvation realized at the moment of our mortal death, it is something that begins in the midst of living. That is, during our life we the practice the art of dying – of letting go, of losing – as an essential experience in the way of salvation, of transformation.

When I realized I had lost my head lamp and bed roll several days later, a couple of things were happening within me:

First, it took a while for me to notice these losses. I didn’t notice my loss right away perhaps because I really didn’t need those things. Second, and maybe more significantly, I was less stressed the farther I journeyed along the Camino. I was relaxing more into the pilgrimage, even without what I had deemed essential kit when I began.

Some Christians in the West today make the mistake, I believe, of confusing loss of privilege with persecution. Wealthy, financially advantaged Christians say they are being persecuted by a politically correct movement to recognize other religions and different people in a growing multi-cultural and pluralistic society, something Luther could never have envisioned in his day.[v]

We are not being persecuted. Rather, we are being confronted with the prospect of losing our privileged place in society, a status that we have admittedly enjoyed for centuries in our country. What the real issue is, is whether we will resist and avoid this loss, or whether we will accept it.

What is ending in your life? What are you facing that deep down you know is a loss? What are the failures and defeats and suffering in your life? Where is there suffering in the lives of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, the poor?

Pay attention, and wake up. These may, in truth, be invitations. Invitations to enter the gate of loss and letting go. Invitations to let go and trust that through dying, it is heaven all the way to heaven.

 

[i] John 12:24

[ii] Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John 12:25

[iii] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010), Session Three.

[iv] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 2006), Hymn 505

[v] The Rev. Dr. Gordon Jensen, “Luther’s Legacy” in Canada Lutheran (Volume 32, Number 6, September 2017), p.10-14

Martin Luther visit


Guten Tag. Allo. Ich heiss Martin. My name is Martin. Liebe Gott! I can speak English! Something incredible happened to me on my way to this time and place. And I cannot explain it! So, “Here I stand.” With you. In this place. Today.
You know, truth be told, I don’t know what to make of this “Lutheran Church”.

Yes, it’s been a long time — 500 years — since I hung the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church. So much in the world has changed. Travel, electricity, automation, information systems. And yes, I did write a lot with my hand. I suppose I would do things differently today, as well. Who knows?

But I noticed that some of my words have taken on an iconic status in your discourse through the centuries. And so, I’ll start there and tell you what I observe about your “Lutheran” church today — I feel awkward even saying that word: “Lutheran”! Who the hell do you think I am? “It’s true, we are all beggars!” Even me!

So, let me set the record straight. First off, I never intended there to be a separate church, divided from the Catholic church. Oh yes, a toilet-flushing theology underpinned some religious practices at the time, beliefs that needed reformation. I was excommunicated. And that meant death. But the Lord had a purpose for me still to fulfill, and I was spared. Thanks to Frederick, who let me live in his Wartburg castle for a time being.

Obviously, I still have a purpose or else I wouldn’t be standing here today. I am amazed to see how many different churches exist — and some even taking on my name! In a letter I once sent to my colleague Philip Melanchthon, you know, I encouraged him to “sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” He must have taken my words seriously — the “sin boldly” part, anyway — since he pushed my reforms to brink of dividing the “one, holy, catholic church.” Dumbkopf!

Which, it seems, has happened here in Ottawa as well. I take it that Lutherans from my Heimat, Germany, arrived quite late in Ottawa — later than in other parts of Turtle Island — is that not what the first nations of this land call it, this Canada?

I have secret to tell you — the Germans have long since stopped getting off the boats and settling this land in large waves of immigration. You are all settlers! And, the first Lutheran Church was St Paul’s Lutheran Church near the University of Ottawa, established in 1874. For the most part of your history since then there have been some 15 Lutheran congregations, no?, divided basically into three different Synods — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Lutheran Church Canada-Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

“What does this mean?”. You who have endured Confirmation classes decades ago, yes I’m speaking to you now: When you memorized parts of my Small Catechism, you will remember I sectioned parts of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, for example, I offered my interpretation of those sections preceded by the question: “What does this mean?”

I did that on purpose. Don’t you know that asking the question itself reflects an important stance towards learning? “What does this mean” is a question that first seeks to understand. It doesn’t presume you already have the answer.

I certainly didn’t at first. I struggled mightily with my own stuff, and spent a whole lot of time on that blessed toilet seat! I had doubt and prayed: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

The purpose of your Lutheran Council, for example, which functioned between 1968 and 1992 (I learned in your history books), was “to foster greater understanding between Lutherans in Ottawa” (1) — this amid conflicts over biblical interpretation, Communion practice and ordination of women to suggest a few enduring divisions. Good for the Lutheran Council! They were onto something, there, you know!

Learn from the first nations of this land. Among the diversity of Indigenous Peoples of Canada comes the wise advice: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. First, however, to understand the other. Not to persuade, to defend, to self-justify, to impose one’s opinion. Which appears to be the dominant characteristic of relationships in the church and the public today. You believe you first have to defend yourselves.

“What does this mean?” can be a call sign for you “Lutherans” today, indeed for all of mature faith, on how to learn, how to grow, how to move forward to embrace God’s future. You do so first by seeking to understand the other. Ask questions. Try to feel into from where the other is coming in their approach. Listen for smidgens of truth, of potential points of agreement, of overlap between what you hear and where your own heart resonates.

There’s another phrase some have said I wrote. But I didn’t. One of your modern theologians, Karl Barth, actually wrote it, based on something Saint Augustine of blessed memory wrote: “Semper Reformanda” — Always reforming. It’s still good and wise counsel! The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche Deutschland) has as the theme logo for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation: “500 Years of Reformation”, suggesting that these past 500 years represent a continually reforming church. I like that. Sehr gut!

I know you like “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, ok? But I wrote that hymn in order to bring the popular music of my day into the church. I confess I spent much time in bars during my travels across Germany enjoying the local ales. And I sung along to the bar tunes, and wondered: “Wouldn’t this sound great in church!” And so, I took some of those tunes and transformed them into hymnody.

Why are you still singing “A Mighty Fortress” to celebrate the Reformation? The very idea of 21st century “Lutherans” celebrating the Reformation by clinging to the events of the 16th century doesn’t make sense, if you believe you are truly Semper Reformanda. I travelled all this way through space and time; I want to hear some of your new songs! 

We should be singing this century’s music rather than smugly resting on the laurels of the past, you would say. You should be plotting where the reformation goes from here. Perhaps in this the 21st century, when so many of your traditions have seen the institution fall into the malaise of irrelevancy, you need to echo the cry: “Semper Reformanda” — “Always Reforming”. Indeed, the church in every age stands in need of reformation (2).

In my Disputation in Heidelberg, a year before I hung those famous Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Church, I stated that, “The Law says ‘do this’ and it’s never done; Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.”

The quality and practice of faith today is on trial. What do you believe about God, and your life with God, others and this world? Reformation starts with those questions.

I’m glad to see you still say, at least, that we are justified by grace through faith.

And when I read the Jeremiah (31:31-34) text for today, I must confess we are often our own worst enemy. When we try so hard and work so hard but underneath all that work is a niggling belief that it’s all up to us. We are most ready to hear those words of grace, forgiveness and mercy, I will confess, when our own efforts are exhausted. When we are weary of our inner turmoil we are ready to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And believe. And trust.

Because by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, in God, or anything good!

Do the work of God, yes. But allow God, in the end, to reap God’s own harvest. Believe in that which cannot be seen, towards that which can be seen (Hebrews 11:1). It won’t be our accomplishment when it finally happens. Because all is grace. All is love.

“This is most certainly true.”

I’ll tell you what else is true. There are some new words circulating among Lutherans in Ottawa these days. I’ve heard them. Who are you? You are “many communities and one church”. And you are “better together.” The fragmentation of the church which has been the unfortunate legacy of the Reformation needs reformation.

How can you see it? This is a matter of faith and belief? Do you believe that though you are many communities you are still one church? Do you believe you are better together?

This is not a figment of someone’s imagination that has mere mythic, allegorical status, invisible and irrelevant.

After all, when in the last year you gathered together at a Peace pole and prayer garden; when you gathered together to recall the history of the relationship between Indigenous and setter peoples in the blanket exercise; when you gathered together on Ash Wednesday and during Advent to worship; when you support a city-wide youth group by gathering together to have fun at summer fest; and when you serve together to do refugee sponsorship — it is real. It is tangible. It is visible.

And it is happening in a Lutheran community near you!

This is most certainly true!

(1) Barton Beglo & Jo Nordley Beglo, eds., “By Faith; Lutherans in Ottawa and the Valleys” (Ottawa: St Peter’s Press, 1995), p.66

(2) Dawn Hutchings, pastordawn.com “Enough with ‘A Might Fortress’ Already! Sing a New Song”

‘One little word’

“Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods …. Now … choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:2,15)

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places … ” (Ephesians 6:10-12)

My mother told me the story of a dramatic stand made by Christians against Hitler on Easter Sunday 1942 in Norway: The Nazis had insisted that every Lutheran congregation praise God for Hitler’s rule over the Norwegians. The Lutheran Church considered this blasphemy, and refused. Every Norwegian Church closed that Easter Sunday morning. And instead they agreed to worship in the afternoon.

Later that day in one of the villages the people assembled in the market place. And because they were scared, they began singing what Lutherans have sung for over 400 years when they were afraid: “A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing …”

And they slowly began to walk to the steps of the village church — only to find the doors locked and guarded by a company of SS soldiers with submachine guns trained at them. When the Christians arrived at the front steps, having finished the first verse of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, an SS officer grabbed a woman holding a baby in her arms and said: “One more verse and she gets it first”, pointing the weapon at her head.

In the tense silence, the people, not knowing what to do, looked down at their feet.

And then, a single, soft, quivering voice began … 

“Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage … his might is doomed to fail. God’s judgement must prevail. One little word subdues him.”

It was the voice of the woman holding the baby. “One little word subdues him.” The soldiers were the ones in a moment of indecision who looked down at their boots. And then quietly they shuffled out of sight to let the worshippers enter the church.

One little word subdues him. Not a loud trumpet call. Not an explosion of spectacular proportions. Not an air strike obliterating the enemy. Not a bravado that denies human frailty and vulnerability. Not eloquent oration. Not a motivational speech rallying the crowd into a frenzy. One little word subdues him.

The themes of ‘standing up against evil’ and ‘taking a stand’ pervade the scriptures assigned for this Sunday. We must choose our god. We must stand up. Especially in the context of a multi-faith community. But how do we do this when all we want to do is stare down at our feet, immobilized with fear?

Because we are surrounded by diverse peoples. And that isn’t going to change. At least we can relate to the Ephesians. The Christians in Ephesus were probably taken to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian; Ephesus in the first century was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic centre of goddess Artemis. (Haruko Nawata  Ward, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 3 Fortress Press, 2009, p.376). Christians were challenged to be confident in their faith amidst challenging times. Change some of the names, and it feels a bit like Canada in the 21st century!

And as simple as we sometimes may want to reduce the question of evil, the scriptures present a more subtle and systemic view of evil. In other words, evil is not just a little red man with a pitch fork sitting on your shoulder tempting you to do something bad. Evil is also, and more significantly, about forces beyond the immediately ‘individual’, into the realms of politics, world history, economics. 

More than against “flesh and blood” evil is also about certain patterns of thinking. Our attitudes and underlying beliefs and assumptions about people of other faiths and values.

Standing up against evil and taking a stand is just is as much to do with changing the way we think about ‘them’. Standing up against evil is about repudiating ways of thinking and unspoken assumptions that have only served to hurt and damage other people. Sometimes the way we think — the common sense assumptions of our culture — are downright evil and wrong. Let me give you an example:

This past summer at the national convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), the church voted to repudiate the “doctrine of discovery”. This doctrine is different from our normal understanding of a statement of faith. But it was a belief that resulted in untold damage to the aboriginal populations of North America. It was the reason aboriginal children were taken from their homes, families and communities to suffer — many of them — in the so-called Indian Residential Schools in the last century.

The doctrine of discovery was the underpinning belief that resulted in the first explorers labelling Aboriginal people as “beasts of the field and forest”, and prompted governments to justify “killing the Indian in the child.” The doctrine of discovery made the residential schools places where native children were not permitted to speak their own language, practice their own religion, nor attend with their own siblings or have any contact with their parents while they were at school. How evil is that!?

So what is this doctrine of discovery that the ELCIC repudiated? Basically, it was a system of belief based in the discovery of North America, as if nothing of inherent value existed here before ‘we’ arrived. When the explorers landed on the shores of Iceland and then Turtle Island (i.e. North America), the land appeared to be unoccupied in the ways of western Europe. The explorers therefore believed it was theirs to acquire and own. When the explorers encountered native bands, there was this immediate disconnected with their values and culture and relationship with the land, understandably. Still, the settlers felt superior in their relationship to the native culture, believing — “What we have is better for you.” And moving from that doctrine into practices and policies of assimilation and subjugation like the residential schools.

I can anticipate your objection: But what to make of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 — when Jesus instructs his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”? Isn’t this what we have been supposed to do? – make others, force others to be like us? Aren’t we supposed to impose our values on the world, using any means at our disposal? Another English translation of the word, disciples, changes the tone significantly. When we read, “Go therefore and make learners of all nations”, we can see our task as learning. Disciples are essentially ‘learners’. Learning involves challenging current patterns of thinking, and going out into the world to share our faith. (Kristin Johnston Largen, Interreligious Learning &  Teaching, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2014, p.109)

When I visited Jerusalem years ago, I was surrounded by at least three different world religions day in and day out. Muslim minarets blared out regular calls to prayer; orthodox Jews bowed at the wailing wall. And I, with a small group of Christians found a little apartment in the old city to gather around bible, cup and bread, to pray  and sing together. Few other times in my life have I ever felt as confident and grateful for my Christian faith than in a context  where other faiths and cultures came and tried to live together, even clashed.

Sharing our faith is not about one-up-man-ship. Sharing our faith is not a competition. It is simply being confident to talk to others when appropriate about what is most important to you. And, giving the other the freedom to do likewise. I think we still need to work on that in the church because I think we still believe it’s about a competition. That we have to fight, even, if necessary, to defend God — or our ideas of God. Be the winner, not the loser, in a winner-takes-all kind of world. It was in Jerusalem when I first realized that if there was any evil in the world, it started in me and my selfish, materialistic, self-acquiring vision for life.

Paul’s armour-of-God metaphor, like all metaphors, has limits and can even be problematic. Such a text has been interpreted throughout two thousand years of church and world history often as justification for violence against others. It is challenging maybe even impossible for us today to engage this text without the lens of history and the development of society and human culture through the ages — particularly with respect to warfare.

And that is why, as Lutherans especially are taught to do, I would not want to interpret this text without placing it beside another text from Paul’s letters, in this case, to ‘let scripture interpret scripture’. Listen now to another clothing analogy, where Paul speaks of what we ‘put on’ in Christ:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful …. And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-15,17)

Indeed, in this light, the belt of truth is the Gospel. The helmut of salvation is God’s eternal promise of love for us. The breast-plate of righteousness is a heart of compassion. The boots are actions that bring peace and goodwill to the world. The shield of faith is trusting in God’s grace. The sword of the Spirit is proclaiming the word of forgiveness, mercy and love.

One little word subdues him. An act of humility, not military aggression nor forceful imposition.

One little word subdues him. A word of forgiveness rather than condemnation, racism and judgement.

One little word subdues him. Something unexpected, surprising and even looked down upon by the world’s winners — that changes history. One little word — not born of competition, comparison and control, but born of surrender, release and trust. One little word, “I love you”, changes everything.

One little word is Jesus. God becomes human. A baby. A prophet. A teacher. A lamb taken to slaughter. One little word is greater than anything the world lives by. One little word whispered in a storm. One little word sung softly into the barrel of a machine gun. One little word nudging gently our hearts, saying to you: I love you. I forgive you. You are free. You will forever more be a child of God.

Now, tell the nations of the world the same. And act like you believe it. Because it’s true. Thanks be to God.

Diversity in unity: A Reformation sermon

Of all that can be said about the tragic events of October 22, 2014 at the War Memorial and Parliament Hill, one thing we can agree on: something changed. In the aftermath of the shootings, we are still figuring out exactly what.

The day started for me with great anticipation that evening of the ‘battle of Ontario’ between the Senators and Maple Leafs at the Canadian Tire Centre. The day certainly didn’t end that way.

As I drove past the quieted Canadian Tire Centre with its vast, empty parking lots on my home late that tragic day, I marvelled how a single act of cowardly violence could alter the psyche of a city: The anticipation of a sell-out, jam-packed arena was suddenly silenced. Instead, I along with the rest of the city was eager to get home to be with family and loved ones after a day of anxious and often chaotic lock-downs in schools and downtown buildings.

Images of armed officers and special police units swarming familiar and beloved symbols of national remembrance, barricaded Members of Parliament, horrific visions of a slumped body at the foot of the war memorial ricocheted in my mind. Sounds of gun shots from security personnel in the Hall of Honour in Centre Block echoed in my head.

And then, words from the Prime Minster and other party leaders assuring Canadians that this attack was aimed at undermining our values. It seems times of collective crisis, such as this one, burn through all our usual distractions and reveals what is truly important to us. Indeed, now is the time to affirm, and attempt to clarify, what is the nature of our identity and community.

Earlier in the day I went to the Ottawa Civic Hospital where the victims of the violence were taken. The place was streaming with extra security personnel at the entrances and in front of the emergency department. What struck me was the way in which the medical staff went about their usual business of caring for the patients in the hospital. Obviously aware of the ongoing, ‘dynamic’ operation downtown and the possibility of many more injured to arrive any time, they nevertheless kept to their scheduled procedures with smiles and loving attentiveness to others. Their jobs, however routine, became infused and enlivened with caring compassion, in the moment.

On the eve of the shootings, Bishop Munib Younan — president of the Lutheran World Federation and Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Lands — spoke in downtown Ottawa to a diverse group of Lutheran leaders and laity about peace. He described an image often portrayed in the media of young people in his part of the world throwing stones at their enemies. Bishop Younan prays for a day when those stones could be used to build bridges of peace.

How appropriate. He was, after all, speaking to Canadians whose international reputation is one of peace-keeping and building, respecting the humanity dignity of all people.

In all the media reporting on Wednesday, I heard an American security official comment on what he saw to be a typical Canadian response: He observed how RCMP officers and Ottawa Police communicated with the public on the streets of downtown Ottawa in the hours following the shooting; they would often say ‘please’ move to the other side of the street. Politeness and consideration continued to be hallmarks of our public interaction, even in the midst of a crisis.

Some say now we should no longer be so ‘laid back’ as Canadians. We should be tougher, more aggressive. On Reformation Sunday today we sing with pride Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. Let us, dear friends, not become the fortress where we exclude others who are different from us. Let us, dear friends, not become a fortress where violence escalates and hatred is encouraged — which is precisely what the haters want. Now is the time to affirm what has always characterized us for the good.

But what is that, as Lutherans? Martin Luther affirmed that we are saved ‘by grace through faith’. What is a good metaphor for grace? Where does it come from, and where does it go?

Grace pools like water at the bottom of things. Water flows naturally into the lowest recesses of a land’s topography. Vast rivers seek their way downward towards the ocean. The grace of God is like water, whose primary direction is downward.

The cross of Christ is a symbol that God is discovered precisely where it hurts the most, where we feel the most vulnerable and shamed and exposed. This was central in the thinking and theology of Martin Luther — the Cross: God is found where we least expect it, when we least expect it. This is relevant especially to Canadians and Ottawans in particular, in light of what has just happened.

Could we respond not just with pronouncements of who we should be more like, but with a sober affirmation of who we are? Could we respond with a commitment to paying attention to what is reality for most of humanity around the globe, and not just for the rich and famous, privileged and elite? Could we respond by embracing again a faith that proclaims resurrection and new life through the ‘momentary’ suffering that comes to us all?

Martin Luther experienced the devil, at which he threw ink wells and much profanity, while alone in his study at Wartburg and during an immense personal struggle and angst. The Germans have a good word for it — ‘anfechtung’ — which describes an internal battle. The devil is not personified in any particular religious group or ethnic profile, but comes to us all in our own personal struggle with hatred, blaming, and self-righteousness. In Ephesians 6 Paul writes that our struggle is not against enemies of ‘blood and flesh’ but against ‘cosmic powers and spiritual forces’ to which we are, each and everyone of us, vulnerable. Therefore, in the words from 1 Peter 5:6-11 …

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever.

A mighty fortress IS our God. God will shelter us under the wings of God’s care and protection. No matter where we go — in the public spaces or by ourselves, alone. God will never leave us nor forsake us.

This stuff of earth matters

Popular Canadian author, Louise Penny, in her most recent book, “The Beautiful Mystery”, writes about monks living in a monastery hidden deep in the wilderness of northern Quebec. Their holy order is characterized by a vow of silence. But not when it comes to singing:

Unique to this group of two-dozen cloistered monks is Gregorian chant. Apart from constant silence, they chant their daily, round-the-clock prayers.

A rift develops in this monastic order called “Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Loups” (St Gilbert among the wolves). The conflict between those supporting the Abbot (the leader) and those supporting the Prior (choir director) deepens until one morning the Prior is found murdered in the Abbot’s secret garden. Now, this religious order ‘among the wolves’ suggests that one of monks themselves is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Some years ago, their murdered Prior had led the group in recording a CD of their most enchanted singing. The recording sold millions, and had provided enough funds to restore part of the monastery building. But apparently more had to be done.

When famed chief inspector Armand Gamache and his sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir visit the monastery to solve the murder mystery, they hear from one of the monks the crisis facing this ancient monastery built hundreds of years ago: the foundation is cracking, to the extent that if nothing is done soon the beautiful stone building will collapse.

They also learn that the Prior had recently tried to convince the Abbot to agree to making another recording of their popular, sought-after, Gregorian chant. Doing so could raise enough funds to meet the needs of their aging building. But that would also mean suspending their vow of silence and commitment to remain detached from the world.

The Abbot refused the Prior’s plan. He believed that God wanted them to remain true to their holy calling to observe the vow of silence. By growing their own food and doing their own repairs they would thus fulfill their mission and identity as self-sufficient Gilbertines. All they had to do, according to the Abbot, was to pray that God would provide their every need, and continue as had monks throughout their history to do what they had to do without outside contact or help.

Those monks in support of the now dead Prior argue that God indeed had provided them an answer to their prayers. Using their gift of chanting, God was giving them a way through their predicament. God was giving them the financial help, through the sale of a CD recording, to do just that: solve their need.

I haven’t finished reading this story, so I can’t tell you who dun-it! But what strikes me is that their conflict is very similar to an age-old Christian tension between flesh and spirit.

The story of Jesus turning water into wine in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) during a week-long wedding celebration suggests not either/or but both/and. Both the spiritual realm and the earthly are important. The church, nevertheless, has placed greater emphasis on ‘spiritual’ matters, often downplaying the stuff of earth.

Yet, if I remember anything from my biblical study in seminary — now, many years ago — it is this: The theology of the Gospel of John, where we find this miracle story, is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). And this theology is very much an ‘earthy’ one; that is, concepts like ‘salvation’ and ‘eternity’ are grounded in real life.

Salvation for the Jewish people was in fact experienced in the exodus from Egypt (i.e. being liberated from slavery) and in the return from exile (i.e. coming home to rebuild Jerusalem after years of captivity in far away Babylon). While throughout the Bible these places like Zion and Babylon, for example, take on symbolic weight in the poetry — especially in the Psalms and Revelation — any ‘spiritualizing’ of these places and events cannot be removed from their actual existence in world geography and history. Salvation is grounded in life on earth. It is the starting point.

Salvation, then, is not just after we die. Salvation is not merely a discussion about heaven. Salvation has just as much to do with our earthly condition and circumstance. And the Gospel message of Jesus — the good news of our faith — addresses just as much and as importantly what is going on between people and their reality on earth, as we pray every week: “Thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

The expression of our faith, then, is reflected in what we do with what we have. These things matter: bricks and mortar, soup and sandwiches, money and politics. These are not outside the scope of our concern. Nor God’s.

Martin Luther, when he wrote hymns such as ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ and ‘From Heaven Above’, he used popular bar tunes to develop the music in these, what we now consider, “sacred” hymns.

From a sacramental perspective, he emphasized that Christians ought to celebrate the Holy Communion as often as they assemble. Why? His passion about the Holy Communion — the bread and the wine — mediating the grace of God was unparalleled among the 16th century reformers.

Of course, God is not bound by any particular way of dispensing grace and forgiveness. But Christians have throughout the ages understood the special, intimate, albeit mysterious way in which the presence and love of the living Jesus is mediated through the sharing of a meal. How more common a human activity than eating!

The ordinary world matters. Material reality is spiritual. It is the starting point for people longing for an authentic experience of the divine.

And yet, to be sure, while the ground on which we stand and the flesh and bones of life are the initial places of engagement with God, that encounter then draws us beyond what is measurable, quantifiable and bound by our reality. We don’t remain stuck in tasting, feeling, touching, seeing. The Christian Gospel points us beyond ourselves to God’s reality which is not bound by human limitation.

While our earthly reality is valuable as a meeting point, a starting point, we begin a journey that continues eventually beyond this life. The wedding at Cana was Jesus’ first miracle. The time had come for Jesus to begin his journey to Jerusalem, death on a Cross, and the empty tomb of Easter. Our vision is not turned inward, ultimately. It is directed onward, outward and upward.

And yet, on this earthly journey, we return to that starting point, over and over again. Back to the table, to be renewed and fed. That is where Jesus waits for us. And spurs us on.

So do not lose heart. Jesus cares. And gives more than we could ask, saving the best wine for last. God cares about every part of our lives, even those Monday through Saturday realities that we might normally exclude from considering “holy”. And God is poised to engage and intersect our lives precisely in those moments of greatest material need as well as joyous celebration.

If anything, reading this familiar miracle story of Jesus gives me comfort and assurance that Jesus will exercise care and compassion to me not just when I’m engaging those more serious acts of piety in worship and formal prayer. But Jesus will provide grace, resources and ‘signs’ especially in the ordinary, commonplace aspects of living life on earth and in community.

And what is more, when those ordinary, material, needs of life are dedicated in service of God and for the love of the world — then I can be confident in faith. I am confident that Jesus will demonstrate the glory of God. God will provide around those very mundane, secular and at-first-glance unholy, irreverent and even jovial circumstances of life.

Open the eyes of our heart, Lord, to see your glory in laughter, in joy and in ordinary living with others. May this awareness lead us to offer your joy and love in providing real, material support in your mission to those in need. Amen.