In the soil again

Putting my hands in the soil is one of Spring’s delights. As the seasons turn again, I’m spending more time in the yard outside and working in the flower garden. The perennials are showing their impressive resiliency, especially after a hard winter. But there are empty patches where the earth is low and the mulch is thin. Time to turn the earth over again and plant some flowers to fill the spaces with annuals.

Every year, it seems, the flower bed needs just a little bit more earth, more fertilizer, more mulch. You can’t leave a garden alone for years and expect it to give itself the needed nutrients that the winter snow and rain leached away. It’s an annual work, a regular commitment of time and resources.

The annual work in the garden makes me think of our growth in the Spirit. Garden work suggests that life requires regular attention. Its discipline mirrors the rhythm of commitment and re-dedication of a spiritual practice. We pray, we read, we serve, we worship in the name of the Lord—not as a one-time/one-off event.

On Sunday, May 26, we celebrate the affirmation of baptism of two, young women in our congregation. Confirmation, however, is not a graduation that communicates ‘we are done’. In the time leading up to the Confirmation—the classes, the meetings, the events, the learning—those on the journey do not learn everything they need to know forever.

Rather, the Confirmation is like a mile-marker on a long journey requiring ‘annual’ attention and care. Learning about God and becoming a faithful disciple is a life-long dedication. Growing like this also means that your garden (your life) may look very different after a few years on the journey than it did when you started (on your Confirmation). That is, your ideas may change over time. Your relationship with God and your understanding of God and the world will develop and evolve—and hopefully expand. You can’t stop attending this garden at your Confirmation, pretending that you don’t need to do anything more, and expect it to do well.

Two years ago, I completed a St. John Ambulance First Aid course in preparation for my Camino pilgrimage. It’s amazing how much one forgets—especially as I haven’t needed to use those skills I first learned two years ago. This Spring, I need to attend, again, to this garden.

What garden work beckons you this season? Is it attending public worship in your house of prayer? Is it some form of community service, or of contemplative prayer? Whatever commitment you seek, it is to deepen, enrich, enliven and renew your connection to the divine presence. This is part of what it means to be human, be alive, and be loving.

I encourage you to pursue a practice, and I look forward to getting our hands ‘in the soil’ again!

A New Way to Pray: Tracking the Trajectory of the Reformation

What follows are the lecture notes for Week Three in the course I am giving at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (www.osts.ca) this Fall. Reformation Sunday is on the last Sunday in October, October 28, 2018. It is a time for Lutherans and all Christians to reflect on the legacy of Reformation, commemorate its contributions, and to pray for unity among all who try to follow in the Way of Christ Jesus today.

Lucas Cranach was a Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving. He was a friend of Martin Luther and his wife Katharine von Bora. In one of his paintings (1547) focusing on the Cross of Christ, Cranach depicts Martin Luther preaching to the congregation. I remember this particular painting vividly as it hung above the bookshelf in my house growing up.

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It shows Martin Luther standing in a pulpit perched high on the wall of the chancel at the front of the medieval church. One of Martin Luther’s hands rests on the bible. And he points with his other hand to a cross with Jesus hanging bloodied bruised planted in the floor space between Luther and the crowd gathered in the church. Jesus hanging on the cross forms the center of this work of art.

Today this painting comprises one of the plates surrounding the altar in the Wittenberg church where Luther preached. As such, we often recognize and associate this painting with the ‘Reformation altar’.

Its prominence in Lutheran history suggests how poignantly this painting describes Luther’s theological bias: The Cross stands at the center. And Christ crucified informs everything in the church and even our reading of the bible.

Before we can embrace deeper understanding of Martin Luther’s theological claim that we find salvation by God’s grace—which finds us— through faith, we must first encounter the centrality of the Cross in Luther’s thinking and prayer.

In the seminary that I attended[1], we used the term, “Theology of the Cross”. Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. A theology of the cross is a way of understanding and imagining God. Fundamentally, in addressing God, we need to ask the questions: What is my image of God? Where is God primarily revealed? How is God best known?

Luther provided an answer: God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world. It is no wonder, then, that the longest sections in each of the four Gospels in the New Testament are dedicated to the various passion narratives[2]of Jesus.

Therefore, the Cross is theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul (the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles) who central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[3]

The Theology of the Cross is contrasted to a Theology of Glory. Especially today among spiritually materialistic cultures in the West, what has been coined ‘a prosperity gospel’ has grown in popularity. This theology of glory presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary.

A prosperity gospel fueled by unbridled optimism avoids places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It compromises and even derides a common humanity and the losses we all endure.

Prayer, as I have said, is the act of letting go. If prayer begins with God, and our address of God, we must presume before all else who this God is, and how this God is revealed—in scripture, in tradition and in our own experience.

One of the first creeds that circulated among the earliest Christians is from a hymn imbedded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-11. The poetry first describes the descent of God. This is the primary movement of God, and of faith: downward. The Almighty chose to enter the lower and lowest regions of human birth, life and death. Only after this primary downward movement can the rising out of the depths happen.

Theologians over the centuries have used the term kenosis, from this text in Philippians, to capture the primary movement of faith. It starts with Christ’s self-emptying and letting go of God’s pure, divine nature. In God’s humility, Jesus compromised a perfect divinity in order to take on the fullness of a human existence.

Our God is a God who lets go, releases, self-empties what has become part of the God-self. This calls for a descent of the soul which in the words of St John of the Cross entails, indeed, a ‘dark night’ of the soul. Prayer is not easy, in so much as it may very well be simple.

Prayer, in the words of Laurence Freeman, “… always involves us in the paradoxes of growth, the cycle of losing so that we can find and then of having to let go of what we have found.”[4]

Prayer is a continual process of detaching and dislodging from places of comfort, stability and strength. Prayer is a deconstructive process. It is disruptive. In prayer we begin first to detach our self from all that we are attached to, all that has defined our identity and lives, all our constructs—mental and material—that constitute the construction and containment of our ego. All of this, in prayer, is placed on the precipice of loss.

All is not lost, however. Because in action and contemplation prayer’s aim and understanding is the prayer of God and for the sake of the God of the Cross. “Prayer calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery … by detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God.”[5]In letting go, we discover our true self in God which includes and transcends all that we have been and are becoming.

By kenosis we resolve the Lutheran paradox. Some complain that the grace of God is cheap, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer last century who sacrificed his life for a greater cause of justice in the Nazi regime. He wrote a book entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship”. Bonhoeffer argued that the theology of the cross ought not lead the Christian to rest on their laurels and not do anything. Just because we are saved by grace and since Christ lost everything for everyone once and for all doesn’t mean there isn’t a point doing anything. There is a cost of discipleship.

In prayer, we move into response because prayer is not for our sake. When we pray, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Praying is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water. The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is union with God.

It is in Christ’s name we pray, and for the sake of our God who chose to be revealed in the humility and defeat of the Cross, in the most desperate human condition possible: death. We step maybe timidly yet faithfully into the water, fast flowing towards the great hope of new love and life in God. 

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. When you pray, after considering your image of God, what is God doing? What is God’s purpose—a purpose that is consistent with that image of God? Construct your prayer by strengthening the connection between image and function. If God is revealed in human suffering, where does that suffering lead? If God is compassionate, why? If God is patient, for what purpose? If God forgives and heals, to what end? Practice making this relationship between image and function as clear as possible before you make any petition to God. And write down some examples of the connection you make between image and function of God, to share with others next time (See copies of “Prayers of the Day” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship for good examples of how short prayers can be constructed).
  2. What is one non-negotiable spiritual practice and/or belief you would hold onto, if everything else had to be take away? (Ask yourself this, after visiting a place of worship other than your own)
  3. If time was short, what is most important to you in the end? Have you had this crucial conversation with those closest to you? If not, why not?

[1]Martin Luther University College (formerly, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary)

[2]The last several chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe in detail the last days of Jesus leading to his arrest, torture and death on the cross. These passion narratives form nearly half the total lengths of the Gospels.

[3]1 Corinthians 1-2

[4]Laurence Freeman, Christian Meditation Newsletter, June 2005.

[5]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 17 August 2018

Saintly connections

Celebrating my birthday last weekend with my twin brother accentuated the fact that we rarely see each other, let alone on our common birthday. He and his family live in Kitchener; he’s a pastor, and so, too, works on weekends and holidays. If we see each other twice a year – and usually in the summer – we’re doing very well.

I’m probably not alone having this sentiment, since in this mobile day and age, many people experience the geographic fracturing of family ties. Even in good relationships, physical distance becomes an obstacle to regular contact.

Until Scrabble. Yes, I’m talking about the internet and all the benefits of online gaming. Growing up, we used to play Scrabble on a board with real letter blocks. And playing board games was one way we enjoyed each other.

Now, we can still play Scrabble in a virtual world on our mobile phones wherever we are! And even though we are separated by six hundred kilometers. What I find particularly enjoyable is the fact that my phone notifies me whenever he makes a move. In real time. Wherever he is.

That little, red marker appearing on my phone’s screen reminds me that David is there, making a move. Even though I can’t see him, or talk to him face-to-face, we are connected in that moment. And that connection is real. It’s in the heart. And every time I make another move and tap on ‘send’ I know he is receiving it immediately and reacting either with a disapproving grunt or a fist-pump ‘yessss!’

That connection we have with those whom we cannot see in this moment is not something easily appreciated, understood and celebrated. I suspect that is why our contemporary culture in the West has turned the celebration of ‘all the saints in heaven and on earth’ into something scary and gory at Halloween. It’s not easy to appreciate the real yet mysterious connection we share.

It’s easier to retreat comfortably into our own individual, materialistically-driven private worlds. Indeed, one of the both good and bad results of the Reformation in the 16th century was to emphasize making faith a personal thing, which was good.

But I think we also slipped into embracing an individualistic faith that lost this strong sense of communal ties. The community of faith matters; a corporate body of faith whose head is Jesus. We’ve become fragmented as Christians; often the only response to any difficulty, it seems, was to blame the community and leave it.

There was once a brother in a monastery who had a rather turbulent temperament; he often became angry. So he said to himself, “I will go and live on my own. If I have nothing to do with anyone else, I will live in peace and my passions will be soothed.” Off he went to live in solitude in a cave. One day when he had filled his jug with water, he put it on the ground and it tipped over. So he picked it up and filled it again – and again it tipped over. He filled it a third time, put it down, and over it went again. He was furious: he grabbed the jug and smashed it. And then came to his senses and realized that he had been tricked by the devil. He said, “Since I have been defeated, even in solitude, I’d better go back to the monastery. Conflict is to be met everywhere, but so is patience and so is the help of God.” So he got up and went back where he came from. (p.69, Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

Though you may have found some ‘distance’ with the church over the years, though you may harbor some real ‘disconnects’ with the life of faith, though you may feel distant from God and the saints of heaven – be encouraged, today. Be encouraged to know that the connection you have with your loved ones now in heaven is real. Be encouraged to know that the loving and forgiving connection you have with God in Christ Jesus is real – this is what the Holy Communion communicates to us week after week.

And be challenged to know that the saints on earth may very well be those who do not appear to us at first sight ‘saintly’ – a distant relative, a homeless person, the poor, the rejected, the marginalized, biker gangs, First Nations, immigrants, youth ….. There is a deeper connection we share in our communities, a connection that calls forth from us loving attention and action.

In our opening Litany of Remembering for All Saints Sunday, we read together that “the links of life are broken [with those who have died] but the links of love and longing cannot break.” How true!

When my brother and I played Scrabble on a board, we often argued about whether or not a word was legitimate. Often these kinds of disagreements distracted us and left us feeling frustrated, tricked and unsure.

Thankfully, playing the virtual, online game now means we don’t have these distractions anymore because the computer determines whether or not a word is real. Fortunately, even though we cannot see each other face to face, at least we can now focus on the essence of the game – strategically placing letters to maximize points and using as many of our letters as possible. This is the fun part of Scrabble.

Biblical scholars and theologians claim that the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically these Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-31), reveals the essence of Jesus’ teaching. I suspect we can all think of everything else in the church that can so easily distract us, and about which we argue. Not that those other things aren’t important. 

But placed in a proper perspective, they need not cause the acrimony nor dissension often associated with attending church. Because when we, especially as Lutherans, focus on the grace and love of God and the teachings of Jesus who says, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” we may truly experience grace and enjoy belonging to the sainthood on earth.

And relish in the promise of our ultimate link with God and the saints of heaven, a connection of love that will never break.

Thanks be to God!

Doing God Thanks

The birds can teach us a thing or two about life. Especially those ground feeders. Have you noticed chickadees and sparrows feed? As soon as they peck downward to capture the seeds with their beaks, they immediately throw their necks upward.

Quite possibly to aid in consumption, the birds’ movement during feeding suggests to me, symbolically at least, an attitude of gratitude while receiving what is good, what is needed, for life. The bird looks to heaven in between each peck to thank the Creator for the gift of food.

It is born into the fabric of our nature to give thanks. On the one hand, we work and take responsibility to delve deeply into our lives and the world around us for what we and others need. At the same time we pay attention, mindful of the gift of life and what we receive out of the grace of God.

Not to do both would be unnatural, even unhealthy, for the creature. And this is the initial problem for the rich man in the Gospel text for today (Luke 12:13-21). His total lack of concern for any other person mirrors his total disregard for the source of his life and abundant material possessions.

He is pecking at his food, alright. And, making the most of that! But he is not at the same time looking upward. He is not mindfully paying attention, alert, for what is real, what is true, in that moment of living.

But what if we feel we don’t have enough or anything at all for which to look heavenward in thanksgiving?

A fear of scarcity may very well be what motivates the rich man to build bigger barns and plan for increasing profits in the first place. Planning for a rainy day is what it’s all about, isn’t it? And when that rainy day comes, you don’t want to be found wanting.

Whether it’s fear of having nothing, or destitution in the present circumstances of your life — these attitudes may keep us from looking upward in faith, in thanksgiving. Our hearts are cold stone towards others and God, and/or we believe it’s all up to us to make something happen. God has nothing to do with our material concerns, one way or another.

Have you heard the joke — “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” The rich man in the Gospel makes plans. But they don’t turn out exactly the way he had planned, did they? Earthly death is God’s final say. At some point on our journeys of life, we need to acknowledge that at the end of our days it’s not about us, but about God whose promises stand forever.

I don’t think God actually laughs at us when we tell God our best-laid plans. But perhaps we are called upon by this Gospel to turn our hearts and minds outward, and upward, with some humility.

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This is what is left of my mother’s inheritance: One, crumbling brick. When my mother grew up in pre-Second-World-War Poland, she belonged to a large and very wealthy German family in the south-west. She lived in an estate-sized home whose family owned large tracts of land and had servants waiting on them 24-hours a day.

Then, as the Soviet army pushed westward across Europe in the mid-1940s, the Soviets expropriated any properties owned by Germans. My mother’s father was taken to far eastern Ukraine where he later died, and her mother and siblings were put out on the street. For days they lived in corn fields trying to evade marauding soldiers on the hunt. Finally they were able to find shelter with a relative where they were able to live in safety until the end of the War.

Literally, in a matter of days, from riches to rags. The American Dream, in reverse.

Decades later after the iron-curtain (the physical and symbolic wall that divided East and West) fell, my mother traveled to her home town with her brother and sisters. They visited their old property where nothing besides piles of rubble from the old homestead remain.

For my mother, this brick symbolizes why not to place eternal value in material possessions. It points to the need to view life as much more than a selfish grab of as much stuff as possible.

Moreover, it represents the basis for a life of gratitude. For, if it weren’t for the experience of doing without, she may have never come to the realization of and the attention towards a life lived for the sake of others and of God.

You might recall a Hebrew story from Scripture sounding a similar theme to our Gospel for today, when Joseph in a dream is instructed to tell Pharaoh to save food in barns for seven years of plenty in order to prepare for a subsequent seven years of famine (Genesis 41:32-36). This is a wonderful scriptural precedent for gathering in a bountiful harvest and saving it for the future.

The critical difference, of course, is that in the case of Joseph, the purpose of doing so is for the benefit of many people — indeed an entire nation.

Echoes of previous stories from the Gospel of Luke resonate. In the case of Mary and Martha — where Mary has chosen the better way — the point is not that preparing food and being busy is bad. It’s just that Martha was distracted from remaining centered on the whole point of being busy: serving with prayerful attention to the divine guest.

In the same way, there is nothing wrong with acquiring material wealth. It’s more a question of what purpose it serves and to whose benefit. The answer to that question will determine the value of the entire activity.

What is the purpose of this building in which we worship today? What will its purpose be in not only seven years from now, but twenty-five and fifty?

There’s nothing wrong with food. There’s nothing wrong with money. There’s nothing wrong with buildings and properties and abundance of material wealth. It’s being very clear and motivated by the mission, the vision, the purpose that’s at stake. Form follows function, not the other way around.

Someone in the bible study group on this text summarized the message of this text for us today, as being: “Allowing what we have now to be used for God’s purposes.” It may not be much, from our perspective. But it’s what God has given us in this time and place. How are we using it for God’s purposes? And where may the Holy Spirit be leading us?

I entitled this sermon “Doing God Thanks”. I think viewing our mission in light of God’s purposes requires of us discipline around our attitude of gratitude. And it’s not just in the feeling of thankfulness, it’s in responding, in doing, in putting muscle to the task at hand. We look up, and we look out, and actually move our bodies in that direction — and then see what God has in store.

But we start with what we know we have, for which we can offer hearts of thanksgiving.

Listen to what Richard Rohr writes about on the topic of “Day-to-Day-Gratitude” (p.285, “On the Threshold of Transformation”):

Things go right more often than they go wrong. Our legs carry us where we are going, our eyes let us see the road ahead, and our ears let us hear the world around us. Our bodies, and our lives, work pretty much as they should, which is why we become so unsettled when we confront any failure or injustice. This is not so true for people born into intense poverty or social injustice, of course. And we had best never forget that.

Nevertheless, we must stop a moment and look clearly and honestly at our life thus far. For most of us, life has been pretty good.

We shouldn’t be naive about evil, but perhaps the most appropriate attitude on a day-to-day basis should be simple and overwhelming gratitude for what has been given. From that overflowing abundance will come the energy to work for those who have a life of scarcity and sadness.

From what are you grateful, in the midst of your full and complex life?

God is the source of life and all things good. God will give us what we need to work towards God’s ends, God’s kingdom on earth. May we dig deep and never forget to look up — to see how rich God is toward us.

Thanks be to God!