Funeral sermon for an African-Canadian: Room for all

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:1-3,27 NRSV)

The more I reflect on the gospel text you chose for reading this day, I have to conclude that Jesus has always been preparing room for your beloved, throughout his life.

The first room was in Ghana, his birthplace. Shortly after he was baptized in a Presbyterian church, and later attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church there. You were married in 1971. Over the next several years you had four children and started to build your family life. A room you called home.

A political coup in Ghana in the 1980s created conflict between the nation’s lawyers and the self-acclaimed government. Lawyers defended the rule of law which threatened the legitimacy of the coup d’état. God was preparing another room for him and the family.

Fearing for his safety he fled to Nigeria where he stayed for five years while the rest of the family stayed in Ghana. You came to Canada in 1988 for six months, as participant of an exchange program between Carleton University and Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration where you were a lecturer. Your husband visited you in Ottawa and decided to put in an application as a refugee in order to unite the family. It took five years, but in 1993, after 10 years of separation the family was finally together in Canada.

You received help from this congregation as they settled into their new life in Canada. People in this congregation, and other friends, gave you furniture and other means for getting used to living through cold, Canadian winters. Here was yet another room, on earth, that the Lord had prepared.

I recall some of this family history to underscore, broadly put, the importance of community in a Christian’s life. The story of immigration and supporting refugees escaping untold threat and terrors in their homelands is not unique to Theo and his family.

Standing on the side of refugees and migrants and immigrants—this is a central part of our identity not only as Canadians but as Christians and Lutherans. Our values are thus defined because we are a nation of immigrants, to be sure. And in God’s love for all humanity, we continue to this day to do what we can to support those newly arriving in Canada.

God sets the bar and calls us to follow—there’s room for everyone!

Through the turmoil and disruption of those decades late last century, your beloved had to believe, and nurture his faith. He had to trust that good would eventually prevail. He had to lean on God to get him through those lonely days separated by a vast geography from his loved ones. He had to depend on others—his own resources, the gifts and good-will of friends, and upon the grace and presence of God in his heart.

In the last six years that I have personally known him, especially as his cognitive and physical abilities declined, there was one thing that did not change each time I visited him: His face brightened, and his eyes looked like they were going to pop when I opened the bible and prayer book. He was fully attentive as I read familiar prayers and scriptures.

And for all that cannot be known and cannot be said about the mystery of the sacrament, he craved the sharing of the bread and cup in the Holy Communion. With few words spoken, he grasped for and received a tangible sign of the true presence of the living Lord Jesus.

Enough cannot be said about his expression of faith, especially the last years of his life. As he declined, he had to stop attending all the activities in which he loved to participate.

Except bible study. To the end, he would faithfully attend the regular bible study at the nursing home. If when I dropped by he was not in his room and I would ask a PSW or nurse where he might be, the answer was unanimous and consistent every time: In the chapel. Everyone knew that about him. And, more often than not he was there with his bible and prayer books open on his tray.

Even in this latter time of his life, his faith was expressed in community. It was room shared by all. And it was and is in a faith community where God prepares the soul for our final home in union with God. Just like when others supported him get to and settle in Canada as a refugee, decades ago—his faith was again validated by the loving presence of care-workers, church volunteers and staff in the nursing home. In faith, we are not an island unto ourselves. His life and faith demonstrated this in so many ways.

Jesus has indeed prepared an eternal dwelling place for your loved one. Today, he rejoices in the full presence of God where he now sees face-to-face. I believe his death on Thanksgiving is significant. It is a heavenly signal to us about what we need to do during times of loss and grief. At a time in Canada when we pause to give thanks for all the good in our lives, we therefore give God thanks and celebrate the gift of your beloved—a dear husband, father, brother and friend.

Thank you, God, for giving him to us and to the world, to know and to love. Amen.

Canada is a neighbour

Happy Canada Day!

On this July 1stit is good to reflect on what makes Canada great. Let’s be positive! What is it about our society that stands out in a positive way – amid all that is not so good?

I would like to say that we are a country that aspires to a healthy neighbourliness. Being a good neighbour – whether striving for better relations with Indigenous people, whether relating to newcomers to Canada today, whether reaching out in kind to those who are different from me who live across the street – is our national identity.

Asserting this quality for Canadians, I believe, is not new. Being a good neighbour is not a recent trend in progressive society. Hearing preachers spout the virtues of neighbourliness reflects a deep seeded consciousness influenced by popular culture already in the last century.

It was in the 1950s when children fell in love with the Friendly Giant on TV in Canada. Some of you might recall watching actor Bob Homme on CBC TV from 1958 until 1985 being friendly to his puppet animal friends.

Then there was Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood which first aired in 1968. Although an American show, did you know that Fred Rogers spent several years in Toronto in the early 1960s working with Ernie Coombs – Mr. Dressup – airing a prototype show called the same Misterogers?

Over his career, Fred Rogers was intentional about being more and more inclusive. He brought, for example, an African American person onto the show yet didn’t draw undue attention to it. This was a subtle yet poignant statement about neighbourliness when American white culture was anything but, towards people of colour.

To assert that these cultural icons were birthed in Canada would not be an overstatement. To be Canadian is to be a good neighbour. It is in our DNA. It is our calling, our witness to a world that wants to be anything but, especially these days.

Yet, it seems every generation of Canadians needs to learn anew how to be a good neighbour. We need to be continually reminded and encouraged to practice being a good neighbour because we tend to be a fearful lot. And fear keeps us from this holy calling.

Having faith doesn’t mean the absence of fear. Having faith means stepping into the fearful place. Having faith means action. It means “leaning into” the situation as we are.[1]

Our lay delegate from Faith Lutheran Church to the Eastern Synod Assembly in Toronto last week, admits being fearful taking the train for the first time. Julia is a seasoned, experienced OC-Transpo bus rider here in Ottawa. Despite the similarities in travel experience between the train and bus, she confesses taking the train across the province for the first time was an anxious affair.

What is more, we missed each other on the train ride to Toronto. Even though we were on the same train, we boarded at different locations – Julia, downtown; and me, at Fallowfield Station in Barrhaven. In fact, as it turns out, we were on the same car – but I never once caught sight of her.

Until on the last leg of the journey, when we were on the Union-Pearson Express train. My phone dinged. Julia texted me to confirm whether I knew where to catch the hotel shuttle to the convention centre where the Assembly was to take place.

Despite her fear of riding the train for the first time, and alone, Julia reached out to me. She was being a good neighbour by making sure I was ok. Her reaching out to me was helpful since, truth be told, I was not sure about where to catch the airport shuttle bus.

“Who is my neighbour?” Jesus asks before telling the story of the Good Samaritan.[2]“Liberated by God’s Grace … to be neighbour” was the theme of the Eastern Synod Assembly. Through thoughtful, provocative and compelling bible studies, song, and interactions with various peoples, the Assembly reflected and re-committed to become even better neighbours, as a church.

Interesting, in keeping all this in mind, that we encounter the nameless woman in the Gospel reading for today.[3]She approaches Jesus in the crowd, hidden, secretly. No wonder. She is powerless and outlawed in public spaces on account of her bleeding.

The main point of the story is not that she is miraculously healed. She could have remained hidden, quietly disappearing into the crowed after she is healed. That is the way she would have wanted it, likely.

The point is that Jesus calls her into a deeper relationship. She must come out of her private suffering. She must confront her fear, and make a deeper connection with herself, with others, and with Jesus.

“Who touched my clothes?” Jesus says out loud even though he knows the woman has already been healed when he felt the power drain out of him.[4]He, too, could have enabled the woman’s secretive behaviour, letting her go and moving on. He could have protected her in her fearful existence after she is cured.

Instead, Jesus calls for her to step up and be known. Demonstrating incredible courage, the woman responds to Jesus’ call and approaches him “in fear and trembling, fell down before him and told him the whole truth.”[5]

Jesus seeks out a relationship with her. It is of God to do this. God continues to call us into ever deeper relationship – with ourselves, with others and with God. The point of the Gospel is that we affirm our connectedness with others in healthy and compassionate co-existence. This is the path to truth.

Jesus’ ‘touch’ can heal us and the world. The touch of God’s grace can give us peace. We are shaped and made human in relationship with others. All our relationships – in church, in friendships, in marriage – are not just something extra added on to life for distraction and entertainment as if we would be complete human beings in individual isolation.[6]Relationships are not some added feature to our lives in order to get something, a means to some autonomous end.

Relationships are the fabric of life. Relationship – touch, if you will – makes us human and whole. Being neighbourly can heal us, make us better people. “Perfect love casts out fear,”[7]our scriptures say. Love can only be expressed in relationship.

The reason Julia was not afraid of riding the bus in Ottawa, was because she was practiced at it. She had done it many times. Even though the train is not that much different, she had never before taken the train. The difference is, some intentional, risk-taking exercise.

Later this week, members of Faith council will be volunteering for a couple of hours at the Mission downtown for homeless, impoverished men. We will get a tour of the facility and help give out some ice cream to those who are there. Practice, to move beyond fear to faithfulness, isolation into community, to where our neighbours are.

We need to practice being a good neighbour – to those who are vulnerable, to those who are powerless, to those who are stigmatized, to the homeless, the LGBTQIA+ community, to refugees and migrants. We have to lean in to the places of fear in our lives and to take some risks vis-à-vis people who are different from us. In doing so, we realize we are not alone, and we have meaning and purpose in our lives for the common good.

Canadians and Christians share something in common, to be sure. We are called to reach out. And be a good neighbour to the world. We are not left alone stuck in our fear. Because God continues to call us into the deeper waters of grace and love. God will never abandon us, despite our fear.

Let us approach boldly the seat of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[1]Brother Luke Ditewig, “Brother, Give Us A Word” for June 28, 2018 (Society of Saint John the Evangelist) friends@ssje.org

[2]Luke 10:25-37

[3]Mark 5:21-43

[4]v.30

[5]v.33

[6]Michael L. Lindvall in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 3 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.192.

[7]1 John 4:18

Discerning Mission today

I’m offering the following reflection to members of our congregational council prior to a conversation we hope to have around discerning a mission focus at Faith Lutheran. I invite your responses, too!

A missional theology for the 21st century

I emphasize the 21st century, because since the 15th century most mission work done by Christians was heavily influenced by what is called the “Doctrine of Discovery”. Please listen to/watch the audio/video at this link https://youtu.be/Ygk3X5Xjjh4 as background material to the question of mission in the 21st century. While Bishop MacDonald reflects its historical effect upon the Indigenous people of Canada, this paper will clarify underlying assumptions of a mission strategy that breaks with the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

Moreover, it is important for ELCIC Lutheran congregations to be aware that a few years ago in national convention, the church formally repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery” (Visit http://www.elcic.ca/Documents/documents/DoctrineofDiscoveryMotionFINAL.pdf).

I will presume that bearing witness to the Gospel of Christ does not mean we treat people as objects against whom we must compete for doctrinal supremacy. People are not objects with whom we must compete for the truth. Mission is not a game. Mission is not a war. People are not a means to an abstract end, pawns manipulated on the chessboard of religious winners and losers.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” assumed that what we had (the truth, the right way of thinking, the right doctrine of God, etc.) we had to communicate, usually violently, to the other who was infinitely inferior in their thinking and worldview. In other words, our mission practice was usually characterized as an imposition, a forced laying-on of what we believe upon the passive or resistant recipient. The harder we tried, the better. Success was measured by victory on the battlefield, literally and figuratively, and number of souls converted to Christ.

The “Doctrine of Discovery”, moreover, paid little attention to the truth that God has been revealed in all of creation – including those with whom we relate in any missional work (see “incarnational” below).

In the emerging understanding of mission today, the following characteristics stand in contrast to the assumptions of the “Doctrine of Discovery”. As such, the culture of doing mission is undergoing a radical transformation. The diversity and multi-cultural social environment in Canadian society, especially in large urban centres such as Ottawa, make our context particularly attractive to practise and exercise these principles of, and attitudes towards, mission:

1. Respectful

When people who differ from each other in significant worldviews, a respectful encounter is characterized by the willingness to listen first. When all parties in the encounter demonstrate curiosity and a desire to seek deeper understanding from the other, the mission encounter can be deemed a respectful one. An initial question asked by the Christian seeker who is curious about the other, is: “What can you teach me?” / “What can I learn from this encounter?” As such, the Christian also shows genuine humility.

2. Incarnational

God is revealed in all of creation. God’s manifestation is revealed in different ways among different people. Such an outlook is more Hebrew than Platonic. Plato described aspects of reality as an imperfect, refracted reflection. In contrast, the Hebrew notion of physicality, and the Christian belief that the humanity was God’s very embodiment, suggests the revelation of God is encountered more ‘in the flesh’ rather than in abstract ideas. This incarnational mode of mission leads to at least two important implications:

First, mission is God’s work and activity before it is ours. In other words, God is already active ‘in the world’ before we decide to do anything about it. Discerning a mission focus is then about acknowledging an opportunity and then choosing to participate in what God is already doing. Second, mission work therefore addresses real life, practical needs of all creation (see ‘restorative’ below). If a missional initiative is more about spreading the right ideas about God than focused ‘on the ground’ and the particular needs of a particular people in a particular context, than that initiative lacks an incarnational understanding of God’s work.

3. Relational

Based on the Trinitarian appreciation of God (The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit – One God in Three Persons), any missional work in God’s name will be relational. In other words, mission is a communal, corporate act instead of an individual, solitary, autonomous effort in and by the church. As such, a missional approach will hold that when one member of a community suffers, then the whole community suffers (1 Corinthians 12:26. Though Paul refers here to the church and therefore this verse has important implications for the pastoral care of and among Christians themselves, we can also suggest that the general principle applies to broader circles of community, including in the public sphere). We are all interdependent beings, as much as we like to emphasize the rugged individualism and self-reliance in North American culture. Despite these strong notions that continue to influence us, we do need each other. More than one famous person has said that a society is judged by how it treats its weakest, most vulnerable members (often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, but was also allegedly expressed by American novelist Pearl Buck and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (1965-1969)).

4. Mutual

Flowing from relational and respectful understandings of mission work, a healthy encounter is usually mutual. A basic definition of mutuality is: “What I want from you, I will first give to you.” If I want respect, I first need to give it. If I want your trust, I need to trust you. If I want you to listen to me, I first need to listen to you. Mutuality is thus a rendition of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. That is, love the other because that is what you seek from them. A primary and fundamental question in a mission encounter is: “How can I best love you?” This brings an interesting implication of mission work: Our (deeper) needs will be met when we meet the needs of others.

5. Collaborative/cooperative

These are mission initiatives that reflect in their organization an effort and desire to be cooperative and collaborate with others. Such efforts presume not a competitive model in the marketplace of charities. Rather, these organizations envision working with different levels of government and the non-for-profit sector to achieve the highest quality of service and maximize resources for a common, shared goal.

6. Restorative

To be ‘restorative’ in doing God’s mission, is to incorporate an incarnational theology with relational, respectful and mutual modes of mission. That is, we look to where God is, in the world around us, and go there. We observe and ascertain the physical needs of the most vulnerable in our society, and we seek to meet those needs – in order to make things right or at least better. This restorative approach also presumes we address some systemic injustices in our society. Mission is not merely ‘charity’ work (which tends to be individualistic and maintain unjust structures). Rather, we gain awareness of the reality facing the vulnerable, we engage in advocacy on their behalf, and/or we engage in action to help a group, directly.

7. Authentic

A Christian mission theology for the 21st century is rooted in an identity that is clear and strong. In this emerging missional style, a confidence and joy in Christian identity is maintained and grows. We are not ‘blending’ nor ‘losing’ our faith in first listening to the other, seeking understanding of the other or loving the other first. In learning more about another’s faith, religion, or worldview, we do not lose what is most important to us. In truth, the opportunity is there to become stronger in our faith by learning more about someone who is different from us/me.

Maintaining faith-integrity is integral to this emerging missional culture. Being authentic and true to one’s belief, maintaining healthy boundaries of respect, and giving others freedom to choose – these all speak to an authenticity that is attractive in and of itself in a missional encounter. As the Twelve Step founder, Bill Wilson, laid out the policy of “attraction not promotion” (Cited in Susan Cheever, “AA and Anonymity – What Would Bill W. Do?” The Fix: Addiction and Recovery, Straight Up, 06/07/2011) , we do not force, we attract.

This might mean agreeing to disagree on some things while still respecting the other. Being authentic implies, also, that Christians in a diverse, multi-cultural world, must keep learning about their own faith, and acquire new skills in relating to each other and the world around us (e.g. active listening, assertiveness). We cannot assume anymore that everyone ‘out there’ knows what we mean when we present crosses, sing hymns, or use familiar (to us) words and symbols. We need to know what these mean to us before sharing our faith. We need to learn how to listen, and to ask for what we need and want from the other. Changed lives will attract others to inquire about the faith, not beating others over the head with a bible nor by the force of persuasion and argument.

8. Local

Finally, the emerging theology of mission in the 21st century is increasingly local in scope. In 2014, Synod Conferences in our church were restructured into smaller units, or local Ministry Areas (e.g. the Ottawa/St Lawrence Conference evolved transitioned into four separate areas: Ottawa Ministry Area /Montreal Ministry Area /Seaway Ministry Area /Upper Ottawa Valley Ministry Area). As a result, the focus of congregational and regional activity bears more on the local geographical context of the church. That is, individual congregations are now encouraged to relate more within the immediate geographic surroundings in mission work with other local congregations, as opposed to the vast area represented by the predecessor Conference structure.

Not denying the good work of national and global missions, Lutherans in Canada are encouraged to focus on more local, immediate needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

An implication of a local emphasis in mission is, we are poised to engage people more, thus fulfilling the relational, respectful, mutual modes described above (rather than merely putting a cheque in the mail to some distant, detached-from-our-reality effort – as worthy and good as it may be). A local mission, then, becomes more present to us and our ordinary, daily lives.

9. Compelling

A purposeful and authentic mission commitment will emerge from who we are as a congregation. I paraphrase Frederick Buechner’s words to say, we must go to where “our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need”. What will generate a collective commitment and enthusiasm for a project will depend on the degree to which the creative juices in our community flow in this discernment. We can think outside the box. We can risk failure. We can try again, and not give up. It’ll work when the imagination of the congregation is stirred and captivated. Is the initiative meaningful to a growing number of people associated with the church? Younger generations want to make a meaningful difference for the better, in the world, through their activity in the church.

Conclusion

In discerning a mission focus for our congregation, I would consider these principles as guideposts for the degree of our participation. For example, to what degree does such-and-such initiative reflect respectful, incarnational, relational, mutual, collaborative, restorative, authentic, local and compelling principles of engagement?

Respectfully offered, and for the purpose of ongoing discussion,

Pastor Martin Malina
April 2018

An installation sermon for a twin pastor

I wrestled this week with whether I should have my hair cut. Normally I wear my hair much shorter, especially during the winter months when ‘hat head’ poses fashion challenges. The reason I didn’t was I looked forward to playing up the twin thing once again; I know that my twin brother usually wears his hair much longer than I do.

And I’ve eagerly anticipated standing before you today, and asking: Are you sure you have the right twin as your new pastor? How do you know that your pastor is actually David, and not Martin? How do you know which one you are installing? After all, you’ve only had your new pastor a couple of months — do you really know him that well already?


Just one word of advice: If you believe you see Pastor David in Conestoga Mall or walking in Stanley Park in Kitchener or skiing at Chicopee, please, please don’t right away presume it’s Pastor David you are meeting.

One of my all-time favourite, yet awkward, twin-pastor experiences, almost always goes like this: I’m in town (Kitchener-Waterloo) either visiting David, Patricia, Sarah & Susie, or at some Synod meeting and going out by myself to the mall or restaurant when — it never fails — someone I do not know or maybe even know a little bit comes up to me and launches into quite a personal conversation; the person before me reveals information of a confidential nature.

I am caught in a conundrum: Do I carry on listening empathetically, nodding my head with pastoral attention and care? How soon do I break in with the news: “Ahh, excuse me, I am Martin, Pastor David’s twin brother; did you think I was Pastor David?”

At which point, the person’s jaw usually drops, the blush factor intensifies, and eyes pop. “Noooo! Really!?!”
“Yes. Really!”
“Pastor David, you are pulling my leg!”
Then, I have my passport and other photo ID handy, just to prove my identity.

Most non-identical-twins in leadership, I have come to covet, have lived relatively scrutiny-free of their public persona without ever having to ‘prove’ who they are. And here’s a twin secret: Both David and I know who we are. And we believe that there are differences between us; I don’t confuse my own identity with David’s. In fact, it has often surprised us why people can’t notice the distinct differences between us.

But we Malinas won’t make it simple. Add to that, we both end up being pastors in the same church. So not only do we look alike, we wear the same clothes on the job.

In the walls of the church, we may know who we are all about. We have our own social fortresses to hide behind; we gather with our own kind, in familiar places and spaces. We have our own rules and norms of behaviour in our brand of a more progressive, Lutheran church. Yes, we may know who we are.

But does the world know who we are? And perhaps this is the challenge for the church today.

Installations of pastors, or as the Anglicans call them, ‘Inductions’, are tricky events for us. Yes, we celebrate a new relationship between pastor and people, here at Christ Lutheran Church in Waterloo. That celebration tends to focus on the pastor; and, I’ve played into that in the first part of my sermon today!

I suspect that the traditional culture of the church has tended towards seeing ‘ministry’ as the sole purview of the pastor — and that Installation services tended to be viewed somewhat like launching pad for the pastor’s dazzling display of skill, leadership prowess and charisma.

In contrast, the relationship between pastor and people, which an Installation service signifies, is really about acknowledging the true meaning of the word, ‘liturgy’ — the work of the people. The pastor doesn’t ‘own’ the ministry of the church; it belongs to the people to which the pastor joins in supporting and enlivening it with his or her particular gifts, interests and passions.

Yes, leaders must be given permission to lead. Yes, you have elected Pastor David to be your leader. Yes, good leaders need to give themselves permission to lead. And yes, good leaders also need good followers. So, role clarity is vital. Setting and maintaining personal and professional boundaries are important.

It is also important to live collectively in this work. In the words of Martin Luther, we all comprise the ‘priesthood of all believers’ in the exercise of our vocations as Christians, ordained or not.

It’s not just about the pastor. It’s not just about the people. It’s not about pastor or people. It’s about pastor and people. We are not lone-rangers; we are not entrepreneurs or independent consultants in the business of selling faith to the world.

Because it’s about doing it together somehow. Praying together. Being responsible together. Not spectating the practice of faith, but participating in it. Figuring it out in the doing it — in the mystery, ambiguity and paradox that are central to the character of our faith.

I appreciate the Gospel text offered in this service today (Mark 4:3-9). I am drawn towards conversations about this text that focus on the identity of the sower, in Jesus’ parable. Who is the sower? Is it Jesus? Or, does this role fall exclusively on the ordained, set-apart, folks of our church — the pastor? Or, someone else? You, perhaps? We know only of the work the sower does.

I’ve also been looking at the Gospel text for this Second Sunday after the Epiphany (A), where Jesus calls his first disciples (John 1:29-42). There are two people accompanying John the Baptist when he identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God”. Only Andrew is named. But the other one remains anonymous to us (v.40).

Perhaps both Jesus, who does not name the sower in his parable, and the writer of John’s Gospel who does not identify the second disciple, do so intentionally. Perhaps the anonymity we encounter in these stories is meant to engage us, the reader / the listener, in order to invite each of us / all of us into those roles — as follower of Jesus and sower of the Word.

Pastor David told me the little, liturgical scare you had here prior to the first Christmas services: Of course, it is appropriate not to have the baby Jesus in the manger during Advent and the weeks leading up to Christmas; after all, Jesus has not yet been born.

But it was just before the Christmas Eve service, I believe it was, when Pastor David expressed some anxiety about the missing infant. Where is Jesus? We’ll have to put him in the nativity sooner than later. Or, have we lost Jesus? Has Jesus already left the building? How can you celebrate the Word made flesh with no baby Jesus in the creche? This was not looking good.

Much to Pastor David’s delight, and surprise — I might add, not only did one baby Jesus appear in the little manger on Christmas morning, but two, identical baby Jesuses!!!!


I’m not going to suggest that Jesus had an identical twin brother, otherwise Dan Brown might have another best-selling fiction on the shelves in no time.

Nevertheless, the image is significant. Because, Christianity starts not with a one-person-show but a three-person Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit). Christianity is inherently relational, and so is the work of God.

Following Jesus and sowing the Word is not exclusively the work of the Pastor. Can we envision this work collectively? Not just for one individual to do or be responsible for, but as the Body of Christ in the world today. Perhaps we can get at the identity of the sower or the disciple by observing and starting with what the sower and the disciple do. And how it is done:

When the work of compassion and justice expands beyond the walls of this space, we plant seeds. When the work of loving and forgiving involves the young and the mature doing it together, we plant seeds. When the risky following leads us out there and no one doing it stands alone, we plant seeds. When the work of the church is done together, as diverse and multi-faceted our individual identities in the Body of Christ are, we plant seeds.

And then the world will know who we are.

Driving into the sunrise: an ISS with a view

Following Canadian Astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield’s twitter feed (@Cmdr_Hadfield), I along with over a quarter million other people are fed with a steady diet of inspiring photography from space.

And these photos, nothing short of amazing, are shots of cities and notable geography on our planet. Maybe it’s the perspective, and the real time nature of the photography.

These weren’t photos taken by a satellite a year ago or more you can find on Google Earth. Chris Hadfield takes these photos, and then moments later posts them on the internet: So, I’ve seen the bush fires in Australia as well as the flooding there as it recently happened.

His perspective from 400 kilometres up flying at 8 km/ second challenges my opinion on the way things are on the ground. For example, I may feel completely inundated and overwhelmed by the depth of winter in which we find ourselves now, in the southern parts of Canada. From my perspective six feet off the ground, the snow banks are high; flurries stream in daily from the heavens; the white stuff piles up and covers so much of my world.

And yet, I get a different feel when I view Chris Hadfield’s photos from space. When he’s posted live photos of Ottawa, Montreal, even Edmonton in January of 2013 — you can tell it’s winter from up there, to be sure.

But the photo isn’t completely white, as I would imagine with all this snow. Depending on the Canadian city, white may not even be the half of it. There are dark patches all over the place — sections of lakes and rivers not frozen, glades of forests, exposed rocks — that have thrown off the blanket of snow.

I watched the interview between Commander Hadfield and CBC’s Peter Mansbridge on TV last week. And I discovered Chris Hadfield to be quite philosophical and eloquent about his incredible experience. A veritable Renaissance Man, he is.

I must confess I have caught the bug of inspiration that he is sharing openly with the whole world. He says that his experience has taught him to think more globally and wonder about his place on the planet in relation to other places. When people respond to his twitter feed about the photos he posts, Hadfield is inspired by comments that suggest these places mean something more for people, places that were up until now for many just words on a page, found in an atlas. Therefore, what motivates him in his work is that because of what he does people’s vision of the world is slightly expanded.

Mansbridge asked whether what Hadfield is experiencing, given his awe-inspiring perspective of earth, can be described religious or spiritual. In response, Hadfield spoke of the night in which they were flying eastward over Canada in the dark, north of the Great Lakes towards the Maritimes. He was just able to see the lights of Quebec City and then over the Gaspe, and finally screaming at high speeds towards Newfoundland and Labrador. And just as St Johns came into view, the sun burst over the horizon.

Not just the sudden brightness, explosion of colours or heat of the sun, but the profound beauty of it, he said, brings tears to his eyes. He went on to say that “driving into the sunrise” — which happens 16 times a day for him — is a powerful experience because it is “a magnificent way to understand our planet, and to see our country as one place.”

Valentine’s Day is just over a week from now. And the red hearts, balloons and chocolates in the stores remind us of that great theme in life — love. Saint Paul’s famous speech about the greatest gift (1 Corinthians 13) echoes in our minds as we yearn for the warm fuzzies and relational peace amongst ourselves.

This kind of perspective seems almost out of reach on account of the enduring divisions, both within ourselves, and in the world. We may even have considered “love” as something reserved only for our dreams and fantasies, something expressed only in the fictional world of princesses and princes and childhood aspirations.

When Mansbridge asked Hadfield about the response he got from people after posting photos of Syria where there is much trouble and conflict, he responded: “Trouble and conflict is a basic component of the human experience, unfortunately.” He admitted that it’s not going to get solved by space travel.

But he went on to say that he thinks that if people in conflict could see the world from his visual perspective — “to be able to cross Africa in the time it takes to finish this sentence, to be able to see the whole world repeatedly over and over as one succinct, distinct place where we all live — that view would do a lot of people a lot of good.”

He also said that the ISS is visible from the earth. “If you get up early in the morning, or just before you go to bed, and we happen to be flying overhead, we are still in the light while it’s getting dark on the surface of the earth. There’s a visible example of something going on that is truly international, that is cooperative, that is leading edge that is right there overhead — the brightest star in the sky going around and around the world reminding people of what we can do when we do things right and when we do things together. And hopefully that combination will help to influence at least some people: the combination of understanding how we truly all exist together on a planet and the understanding of what we can do when we work together.”

You know what happens after Jesus announces to the people what his purpose in life is, after reading the holy scripture to the people in the Nazarene synagogue (Luke 4: 21-30). You know the response. It is violent. They want to throw their home boy off a cliff!

We may forget that when the church in Corinth first heard Paul’s words about love, those words didn’t spark the warm fuzzies in them. Paul was addressing a church in conflict, with people’s selfish, compulsive egos getting the better of them. Everything Paul says love is not, they are. Everything that Paul says love is, they are not. They reacted. They must have been angry at Paul for his challenge, his offense, his prophetic, cutting-edge preaching.

In short, both the Gospel story and this famous, idyllic passage about love from Paul tells us that Christianity even with its emphasis on love and grace doesn’t mean it’s all nice and easy and comforting.

Love is not just a feeling. It is action. It is risk-taking. It is going beyond our comfort zones in the same sense that Chris Hadfield risks all to propel his body to the edge of space in a tin can. Love ain’t easy. But the benefit, the outcome, is wonderful, inspiring.

Love exercised with determination, and motivated out of a sense of the greater, common good, for the sake of others; Love demonstrated in acts of courage and principled clarity — this is who we are. This is the Gospel character.

How does Jesus escape almost certain death by the mob who wants to kill him? Right at the end of the Gospel passage, we read that he merely “passes right through them”. Biblical scholars suggest this rather cryptic climax to the story points to the resurrection of Jesus.

As Hadfiled admitted, space travel will not solve the human experience of being in conflict and trouble. But the visual reminders will inspire Canadians, indeed all earthlings, to something better, something cutting edge, something more, something possible that we can do together. Just as small acts of true, meaningful, self-giving acts of love between individuals, families, communities, countries, will not solve all human conflict for all time. But they will stand as constant reminders of what God has called us, ultimately into: new life, resurrection, new beginnings.

We are, after all, all driving into the sunrise.

The integrity of Christian Unity

Nearly two hundred Roman Catholics, Anglicans and United Church members packed the church in east-end Ottawa. It was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And these people gathered on a frigid Sunday afternoon in January to celebrate Christian unity.

My heart was warmed, since normally what the world sees and focuses upon is the doctrinal infighting and squabbling among Christians from different denominations. But today those differences were placed in the perspective of the underlying basis of our unity of purpose and mission in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen!

Since I was leading part of the prayers and my name and position printed in the order of service I was regarded the token Lutheran in the crowd. Following the service most of the assembly gathered in the parish hall for a festive reception. The energy level was high. People were happy to be together. Small talk and jovial conversation prevailed.

And then, wham!

Who I presumed was a member of the French-Roman-Catholic church approached me with a smile yet determined gate. With coffee in his steady hand, he said in French he wanted to ask me an important question that would demand my full attention. He instructed me to give him three honest and concise reasons why I was NOT Roman Catholic.

My eyes momentarily darted to the heavens for inspiration. Uhhhhh. Okay. Here it goes. From the heart. Concise. I spoke, in English:

1. I was raised in a Lutheran family — born, baptized, confirmed. My upbringing and much of my socialization during my formative years was within the Lutheran church context. That has to be the first, honest answer to his question;

Then I went on the offensive …. 🙂

2. I like the core Lutheran theological orientation originally posited by Martin Luther in the 16th century that we are saved by grace through faith. We are justified by grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone. And not by anything we must do to gain favor with God and with one another. This general approach towards all things church is my theological home, my lens through which I interpret, and my joy in believing and behaving. There isn’t, quite honestly and respectfully, another denomination whose theological emphasis rings quite as true to me as this core Lutheran position. Although I recognize places in other denominations where grace is believed and practiced as such, I choose the Lutheran theological message.

… And then I pushed further ….

3. Lutherans, I said, have taken the middle road in liturgical expression, worship style, even theological nuancing — usually somewhere in between the evangelical conservative, charismatic forms on the one side, and the more contemplative, formal Roman Catholics on the other. The rigidity around those divisions, born in the Reformation era, are dissipating over time, thankfully. And yet, I continue encountering faithful Lutherans — even young ones — who identify neither with extreme, cut-and-dry positions denouncing all ritual and mystery, but who will also not forfeit a reliance on scripture and reason altogether — for example, in celebrating the Sacraments. In other words, Lutherans have normally sought a balanced approach. This, I find, is healthy and good. Very Canadian, I might add.

When I finished, silence ensued in the space between us. Then, came the broad smile. He offered his hand and with a firm shake (which felt a lot like a German hand-shake!) he said: “Very well answered. Thank you. Can we talk more about this later?”

I bit my tongue to ask him why he was not Lutheran. Although I realize that in the give-and-take of inter-denominational dialogue the timing of these questions are critical to keeping the door open to continue the conversation. I look forward to that.

Often I hear from church folk that what they fear from Christian unity is a watering down of our own identity. What some people fear in engaging other Christians and spending more time with them is dissolution of what is important to us. What some fear is a loss of integrity.

I believe it’s the opposite. We don’t lose our integrity. We find it.

In encountering other Christians who are different from us we have the opportunity to distinguish — for ourselves, maybe more importantly — what defines us.

Have we forgotten? Have we become so used to, familiar and comfortable with what we do that we’ve beocme stuck in a rut and take it for granted? Have we forgotten what to say when someone asks us, precisely, about our faith?

The church finds itself at a crossroads today. And one of the ways the church will find its way is not to shy away from opportunities to be with other Christians who are different from us. Unfortunately one reaction to the uncertainty in the world today is to barracade ourselves within a fortress mentality — not seeing beyond the comfort of our church walls and practices. This is a tragic trajectory. Let us not follow the path to cocoon in comfort.

But in celebrating our unity, yes it is a challenge. We are drawn out of ourselves for a moment. And this may make us squirm for a while. But should we stay with it, we will find ourselves within that larger Christian family. And find opporunity to share with others from where we’ve come and what’s important to us. In the end we discover and experience our unity — inner and outer — in our diversity.