The angel

I know an angel.

She’s the deli counter server who smiles when taking my order.

He’s the fourteen-year-old who dreams of winning $10 million to give to Parkinson’s research because his grandpa suffers from the disease.

They’re in the bus shelter laughing and giving hi-fives and kisses to friends who do not share the same skin colour, age, language and physical ability.

She’s the one who comes in the nursing home room to encourage with a soft and happy voice.

She challenges world leaders to pay attention to and do something about the climate crisis.

I know an angel.

Today, and every year on September 29, the church recognizes the annual festival, “Michael and all Angels”. In the bible, we acknowledge the popular ones: Gabriel, who brought news to Mary of God’s intention to give her Jesus. And, Michael the great protector whom we read about in Daniel and Revelation.

Herein lies one of those very grey areas for Lutherans who have, in our recent history, become increasingly nervous about the angels. Why is that?

In the Confirmation class which started this past week, we closed our time together by praying Martin Luther’s evening blessing: “I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.”[1][emphasis mine]

By the way he prayed, we can tell Martin Luther believed in angels. On the other hand, Luther didn’t care too much for those parts of the bible that suggested allegory—those so-called apocalyptic descriptions that described futuristic, other-worldly, colourful, image-rich portrayals of angels, arch-angels, cherubim and seraphim, of sword-wielding horseman, dragons and giant wheels in the sky. Luther consequently relegated these scriptures to a lower priority for the biblically literate.

“Angels cannot be our intermediaries between us and God,” we reformers insist. “There is only one mediator and that is Christ,” we claim. Christ alone, we’ve made things simple. Concrete. More about this in a minute …

And yet, at the same time, we cannot deny the reality and the truth, that just beyond the thin curtain of our awareness and perception there lies a dimension of reality in which we, too, participate—for good and for evil. Our highly trained, rational minds—thanks to the Reformation and Enlightenment eras of the last few centuries—have made us suspicious and skeptical of making such risky forays into those ambiguous, beyond-rational notions. We just don’t know what to do with that part. We just don’t know …

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a beautiful story about an experience he had following his mother’s death: “The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, ‘A serious misfortune in my life has arrived.’ I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother.

‘But one night in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut of my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her, and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk with her as if she had never died.

‘When I woke up it was about two in the morning, and I felt very strongly that I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.”[2]

Perhaps you, too, can point to these subtle yet profound moments—especially following a loss or some great suffering or deepest love—when the cloud breaks, the sun streams through, a bird calls, an image flashes across your vision, a dream’s effect captivates you, a momentary feeling of peace and well-being engulfs you, a stranger impresses you in some unexpected, surprising way.

This is real. People talk to me about these experiences all the time. We can’t put our finger on it. We can’t rationalize our way through it. Well, we try, by talking about neural impulses and undigested fats in our bellies. But here we go again, dealing with our discomfort by reaching for yet another rational explanation. But can we explain away these experiences? Should we?

It’s easy to place religion into the esoteric realms of doctrinal outer-space. That’s our head space whose thoughts, theories and machinations serve to disconnect us from what is, right in front of us. And, sadly this state has almost exclusively defined the Reformation since the days of Martin Luther.

What about our bodies? What about our feelings? What about the natural occurrences in our daily lives? Are these not the purview of God as well?

Martin Luther insisted on the real, the tangible, as a valid and powerful expression of the divine. A faith that is characterized by the incarnation—Word becoming flesh—is a faith that cannot deny what we see, hear, taste and feel. When God became human in Jesus. When the Holy Spirit indwells in our hearts, our bodies. When we eat the body of Christ in the sacrament. God makes our reality God’s domain. Angels among us. The spiritual becomes tangible. Matter is, and has always been, the hiding place for God.

One of the clever jingles of the TSN1200 radio station in Ottawa is their oft-repeated phrase introducing whatever sport they broadcast: “The Sens play here” (NHL hockey); “The NFL plays here (football)”; “The RedBlacks play here”(CFL football); “The Fury play here” (soccer); “The 67s play here” (junior hockey).

That needs to be the church’s motto: “God plays here.” In real, tangible, visible, ways. “God plays here” among mortals, among real people in real situations. “God plays here” along with the angels and archangels.

We may not be able to figure it out completely. We may not know the mind and ways of God fully. We may not know this spiritual realm that interplays with our own. We may not even be able to rationalize it in the usual ways. And yet, we trust.

In the last line of the Evening Blessing from the Small Catechism, Martin Luther, after praying for the holy angel to be with him, he gives the following instruction:

“Then you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” And falling asleep quickly and cheerfully can only happen when, despite our inability to have all the solutions and figure out all our problems, we can feel that it will be well with my soul.

God will make God’s ways and purposes knowable to us, in the regular grind, routines and ordinary circumstances of our lives.

May you know some angels, too.

Trust.

 

[1]Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.1162.

[2]Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life (Riverhead Books: 2002), p.5.

Kitchen vision

During Mika’s confirmation last weekend, I was grateful to reconnect with folks from her past and present, and hopefully future. At Mika’s confirmation party on the Saturday, we had just over thirty people in our house. It was raining, so all of them were, physically, in our house. It was crowded. Loud. Noisy.

You know I am an introvert. And they say that if you want to starve an introvert to death, put a stranger right in the middle of their kitchen. Far from being strangers, these were all friends and family. And yet, to have someone ‘in your space’ who is not normally there, was challenging for me. Add to that stress, organizing food for all these people and making sure everyone had somewhere to sit …

I remember first meeting Mika’s godparents in rural southern Ontario in my first parish. In century old houses, the kitchen can be the largest room. The kitchen is also where most people enter the house—not the front entrance facing the road. But ‘out back’ where friends, family and neighbours know to go in, right into the kitchen.

The kitchen in our first home there even had an Elmira wood stove in it. It was flanked by arm chairs and a small settee right beside the long counter and ample room for the kitchen table. Lots of people could fit in there!

Times have changed, indeed. Today, in average-sized homes there isn’t a whole lot of room to manoeuvre about. And for introverts such as myself, when I’m cooking or washing up the dishes, it’s a real struggle for me to share the space. I have to work at that.

I suspect I am not alone on this! We guard our spaces, covet our ground. We justify our beliefs and behaviour by appealing to social norms: Of course, everyone feels this way! Right? Let’s just say, having so many people crammed into ‘my space’ was a growth opportunity for me!

Jesus’ last prayer before his death and resurrection was for the disciples to be “one”—one in each other, one in Christ, one in God—bound together in the love of God.[1]The vision of God is an ever-expanding community brought together in love. The vision of God is that everyone can come to the table, everyone who is thirty, hungry, yearning for deeper connection with God and the world. The vision of God is that the dividing lines be erased—the lines that divide, exclude, deny, keep away.

The problem is, Jesus’ prayer and vision has come on hard times. We cannot deny it: the church has been fractured and divided more than anything—especially after the Reformation which brought some good things nonetheless. History in the last five hundred years has taught us, if nothing else, that fighting about who believes the right things about God can keep faithful people entangled with words about God rather than walking in the ways of God.

When followers of Christ draw lines in the sand, exclude and divide, when we quarrel and argue about dogmas and creeds and doctrines, the world will not witness the peace and love of God in us. So, the challenge of living faithfully is not only a call to private goodness or a superficial ‘everyone likes each other’.

It is a call to let our lives invite others to follow Jesus. Our lives ought not solely be preoccupied with right or wrong, guilty or not, in or out but whether or not our actions and behaviour contribute to the good of the world. Whether or not our actions contribute to a loving witness of what God’s vision is all about.

And we discover this path by experiencing the living presence of God in our lives. Not just talking about faith, but living it. And so, we are called to grow. And even when good growth happens, there will be growing pains as we stretch and flex our spiritual muscles.

There are two things ‘growing pains’ are not: First, when we are invited to do something differently, it is not an indictment against your history. It is not saying what happened in the past was all wrong. It is not dismissing the way you did things were bad.

When we are invited to do something new, something differently, let me suggest it is a challenge. A challenge to grow. Growth means change. When a plant or flower grows from its place in the ground, it changes. It’s ok to change our minds, as we grow. We are adults. We gain new life experiences. We learn new things, consider fresh perspectives. We have to integrate those experiences as we try new things.

Second, this discomfort is also not persecution. Please don’t confuse growing pains with ‘being persecuted’. We often hear that. When Christians, especially, are not interested in growth, some will conveniently use that interpretation: ‘We are being persecuted’.

When all along this discomfort is more likely about giving up privilege. It is giving up some of our privilege. Being comfortable at all costs—even the cost of avoiding difficult, vulnerable conversations, even at the cost of staying comfortable—is the very definition of privilege.

Growth will make us feel uncomfortable. But following Jesus is not about our degree of comfort. There is always a cost.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian in the last century, spent the last year of his life in a Nazi prison. And he was executed by the Nazis just before the end of the Second World War.

But in those last days of his life he reflected deeply on the meaning of Christianity in the world and Christian discipleship. One of his great books was called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” And in it he warns us in the modern world to beware of what he called ‘cheap grace’. He wrote that cheap grace was the mortal enemy of our church. What we need in the church today is a costly grace, a grace that costs us something.

What is ‘cheap grace’? It is the kind of grace we give ourselves. It is the kind we get when we use the church to satisfy ourselves. It is grace without really following, without really being a disciple. It is the kind of grace reflected by the Christian who says, “I like to stay as I am.” “I’m ok” “Leave me alone.” “Don’t ask me to grow.” “I am happy where I am.”

To grow. To go deeper. To expand. To overcome the divisions that separate, isolate, exclude—within ourselves, with others and the world around us. The twelve apostles each gave their lives for their discipleship. Theirs was indeed a costly discipleship.[2]

The cross stands at the centre of this process of growth and change. We are called, and we are challenged to grow. And to grow means to give things up: attitudes, attachments, ways of seeing things, our resources, whatever keeps us the same. This is the way of the cross.

“Lay down your life if you want to find it,” Jesus said. “Leave yourself behind if you want to find your true self.”[3]

John’s visionary writing in the Book of Revelation concludes the bible. It ends with a prayer that the grace of the Lord Jesus be with “all”.[4]The original Greek does not add the words “the saints” which some English translations do. Indeed, the grace, love and mercy of God is meant for all people. Everyone.

The Spirit of God says, “Come!” to everyone:

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift …[5]

Divisions do not matter when people come to the table of good food aplenty. When people come forward to receive the gifts of God, differences do not really matter, do they? The bible’s climax is a marvelous image of countless people of all nationalities, ages, languages, sexes, classes—you name it!—drawing out water that is freely given as a gift to all.[6]

Differences do not matter in this climactic vision. What was of importance is the coming to the sacred waters, to the table. We come, to wash ourselves of prejudice and fear. We come to be challenged to grow. We come to receive grace. For everyone. Everyone is allowed in the kitchen. It’s not just mine, ours.

Come to the Table. It is for everyone.

 

[1]John 17:20-26; the Gospel for the 7thSunday of Easter, Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

[2]Laurence Freeman, “Christian Life in the Light of Christian Meditation: Discipleship” (Meditatio Talks Series 2019 A Jan-Mar), Discipleship 3, wccm.org/resources/audio/albums.

[3]Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; John 12:25

[4]Revelation 22:21

[5]Revelation 22:17

[6]Paul ‘Skip’ Johnson in Feasting in the Word Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.534-538.

We the Saints

Death will be no more … for the first things have passed away… ‘See, I am making all things new.’ (Revelation 21:1-6a)

Who are the saints? And, who cares?

I recall an image of running the Boston marathon described by a church leader in the context of social justice. She said that congregations and persons of faith are like marathon runners. When tens of thousands of runners line up at the start of the race, only the best runners are at the front of the pack. And when the starter’s pistol signals to begin running, it takes hours by the time everyone crosses the starting line.

The implication, I believe, is that some persons or congregations are better at this job of being the church. They belong at the front. The implication, I believe, is that there is a small group of super-stars that must lead the pack and give witness to the rest of the runners ‘how it’s done’, spurring the rest of us to be better than we are. The implication, is that not everyone is as valuable as those at the front, leading the way. The implication is that there are, to be sure, the saints; and, then, there are the SAINTS. A hierarchy.

I wondered about this. And, on one level, she is correct: The kingdom of the world needs, or wants, superstars. To survive according to the world’s rules, we want to find motivation to be better. The NBA wants the Stephen Currys and Lebron James’. The NHL wants the Conner McDavids’, Austin Matthews’ and Sidney Crosbys’. Business wants the Elon Musks, Oprah Winfreys and Bill Gates’ of the world—for better or for worse. Politics wants the Doug Fords, the Kathleen Wynnes, the Andrew Scheers and the Justin Trudeaus—for better of for worse. They set the bar—high or low, depending on your perspective.

The kingdom of the world wants superstars. The world wants to compete, to compare and to conflict. Even kill. Because, some are better. And some are worse. Some are more valuable, and some … not so much. Some set the bar while others don’t quite measure up. Yes, we like to say on All Saints Sunday that we are all saints. But, there are the saints; and then, there are the SAINTS.

We identify and glorify the heroes of faith, while overlooking the value in the sainthood of the less noticed, the less attractive, the less ‘gifted.’ The kingdom of the world—its culture of comparison and competition—has indeed infected our idea and practice of the Reign of God on earth.

We are all the children of God. We are a community. Some will say, a family, whose purpose and meaning we discover in our lives on earth. “Thy kingdom come on earthas it is in heaven,” we pray. On earth. First, we do need to accept that the church on earth is where it’s at for us. The vision of heaven on earth, of the new Jerusalem descends upon the earth. We don’t find who we are as followers of Christ—as Saints—apart from our community. To be a follower of Christ is to be discovered in community.

Not by ourselves. Not alone on the mountaintops, nor alone in the valleys. Not enlightened in the ivory towers of private illumination. Not sequestered in solitude in the libraries of ancient wisdom. Not by winning individual races. Not in individualistic endeavours that don’t need anyone else, or to which everyone else needs to conform by our powers of persuasion, force or pressures.

We don’t find who we are and what we are to do as followers of Christ—as the Saints on earth—apart from community. Even in the traditional format, the saints and conferred their title by the community. The process is, no doubt, elaborate and needs the validation of the Pope and subjected to all manner of procedure.

In Protestant theology, generally, our sainthood is conferred upon all the baptized. In baptism, we are united and joined into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are enjoined with the church on earth and the saints of heaven on a journey towards full and complete union with God when we will one day see face to face. In baptism and at the communion table, we are all placed on a level playing field.

As such, relationships matter. How we behave with one another on that journey, matters. What we say to one another, matters. How we communicate with one another, matters. The words we say, and the words we don’t say, to each other, matters. How we do church, today—not yesterday, not fifty years ago, not in the last century but today—matters. ‘Thy kingdom come on earth.’ Today.

The vision of God is meant for us to grow, to transform, to change into the likeness of Christ Jesus. The community on earth strives to reflect the divine, eternal vision. The community on earth, the church, grows into what we are meant to be, on earth. The community on earth includes and embraces all of creation, excluding no one and doing violence in word and deed to no one.

It is vital that when violence is done against any group, we stand up for the downtrodden. We stand beside those who are victimized because of their religion. As Lutherans, especially today, a week after the gun-shooting and murder of Jewish people while they prayed in their house of worship in Pittsburgh, we stand up against such hatred. As Lutherans, especially today, we must repudiate again Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Just because we are Lutheran doesn’t mean we regard Luther as infallible, without sin, as anything more than the term he used to describe us all: simul justus et peccator—we are simultaneously saints and sinners. So was he.

The Dean of the Ottawa Ministry Area of our Lutheran Church underscored the nature of this church on earth of which we are members. She said in her sermon on Reformation Sunday last week: “In Ottawa we are really one church but worship in different locations.” Ottawa Lutherans are one church. This is a change of thinking. We are becoming the new thing God is calling us to.

Together, as one, standing beside all the saints and sinners. Together, as one, standing alongside the downtrodden. Together, as one, standing with the victims of group-identity based violence. Standing against all forms and means of hatred towards ‘others’ who are different from us. The vision of John of Patmos is an inclusive one. The new earth and the new Jerusalem does not exclude anyone. The new community includes all.

Even you.

The one who just got some bad news. Even you.

The one whose marriage is on the rocks. Even you.

The one who lost their job. Even you.

The one whose health continues to fail. Even you.

The one whose anxiety and worry crushes any hope for the future. Even you.

The one whose sexual identity invites judgement from others. Even you.

The one who is new to Canada. Even you.

The one who failed the math test. Even you.

The one who was bullied at school. Even you.

The one who broke the law. Even you.

 

Together we will find our way. Better together.

Thanks be to God! Welcome home, saint and sinner. Welcome home. Amen!