Of trees and radical love – a wedding sermon

From 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13 by Saint Paul:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

From “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”by Louis de Bernières:

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is.

Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any fool can do.

Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those that truly love, have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.

We are here today because you, Ryan and Kristina, have invited us to be with you in this very special moment in your lives. I count myself among those who feel very much honoured to witness to the celebration of your love for each other, and the blessing of God upon your marriage.

Indeed, I suspect we are doing this because you want your relationship — which began years ago — to endure long after this day. You want your relationship of marriage to be strong and long-lasting. You want your marriage to be rooted, and grounded, in the love you share, and the love given to you.

We want to mark this beautiful moment in time because we know the challenges that will come to your marriage. The storms of life will come: Disappointments. Failures. Illness. Circumstances of life often beyond our control cause us anxiety, fear and suffering. And, deep down, we know that only love – truelove – will help you persevere through those storms.  

True love is radical. The word radical actually means the “root” of something, the “source” of whatever it is you are describing. How is this radical love shown in our lives? The reading from “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” captures this sense of rooted love by comparing love to trees. What is it about trees that have survived countless wind storms through the years?

For one thing, healthy trees have an innate ability to bend, to yield, in adversity and in the storm. Some of the oldest trees, the Redwoods in California, I am told, intertwine their roots together; and elsewhere, even the tops of the trees offer mutual support through their branches being inter-connected. 

True strength of character, in a relationship, comes not in remaining rigid and unmoving and stuck-in-a-rut. Otherwise, you’ll break. True strength of being is not about flexing power and muscle and bull-dozing through your point-of-view in an unyielding fashion. True love does not, in Saint Paul’s words, “insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). 

The trees that survive the storms and endure over time are trees that are practiced in the art of give-and-take, flexibility and mutuality. They are used to bending, from time to time. And they realize they need each other. They need to meet the challenges of life together, not alone. 

Yet another characteristic of trees can teach us about love: Trees already have everything they need in the tiny seed that starts it all. The largest, tallest and oldest trees on earth started out as small seeds. And these seeds contain everything they are and will ever need. 

Often in marriage it’s easier to focus on the negative, especially when stress-levels rise, and those storms come. But that is a choice. Let’s not forget the positives. And they are many: you already have everything you need at the start of your married life in order to make this work. You already have everything you need, not only to survive, but thrive! Nurture those positive qualities you see in each other – you know what they are. Acknowledge the good in each other. Why? Because we already have “the technology” in us. As much as we are limited, broken people, we are also wired for goodness. Right from the start.

Finally, to love, is to be still. On occasion I have walked early in the morning through a forest. At dawn, a forest is normally quiet, and still. We behold the true beauty of the tree and forest in the stillness of the moment. In truth, we can admire the wonder and beauty of the trees only when they are still. 

In a storm of activity and distraction we aren’t normally admiring something or someone. Sometimes in our hectic, high-octane, busy lives, we distract ourselves to oblivion. We are moving constantly, rushing here and there, getting this and that, that we can forget to breath. We forget to be with ourselves and each other. To be still before the Lord (Psalm 46:10). 

In my marriage many of the precious, loving moments I spend with Jessica are those times in the canoe, paddling silently. Or, sitting quietly beside each other watching a sunset, or reading quietly together. To love, is to be still. Nurture the quiet, still, small voices in each other. 

Trees that grow out of their roots, ultimately reach to the sky. People committed to each other in marriage grow out of this radical love, the love God, the glue in your marriage. Married couples ultimately reflect the love of God to the world. Like the tops of the trees reaching to the sky for light and life, our lives reflect and receive and yearn for God. As you grow in love and light, may your marriage reach for the sky.

Home is where you’re wanted

It’s Canada Day. It’s a day we celebrate our identity as Canadians and our beautiful home, in Canada.

They say the best part of travelling abroad is coming home. The first time that hit home for me was when in my late teens I visited southern Poland where my parents were born.

I recall being driven about the countryside there. And though there are gorgeous landscapes in the valleys and hills surrounding the Tatra mountains in the south, there were [and are, still] many coal mines in operation. We had a tour of one of these mines—its stark and dirty images still occupy my mind. There wasn’t a day being in Poland that I didn’t smell the pollution in the air.

Until I got off the homebound plane at Mirabel in the Laurentian hills between Ottawa and Montreal (when it was still an international airport during the 1980s.) Walking on the tarmac from the plane to the terminal, I felt the cool breeze coming down over the hills from the north, and breathed deeply the pristine air. And I recall being so thankful for living in a country where I could breathe that clean, natural air.

To this day when someone asks me why I love living in Canada, my immediate, visceral response is: “The air. I can breathe.”

We can all, I suppose, point to aspects of living in Canada for which we are grateful. Whatever we call home is so important to our sense of self. Indeed, our identity is formed out of however we define home. It’s usually some combination of family, relationships, personal history and place.

Often I hear the definition of home as ‘where you come from’. Where I come from includes relationships, family history, where my forbears settled and worked the land. This tie, this bond, can be very strong.

It’s ironic, maybe even disturbing, that we confront a gospel reading for this Sunday that challenges— to the core— our comfortable ideas of home. To those who first want to attend to family, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Then, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[1]In another Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”[2]

He even warns those who want to follow him that they will have to do without. That the spiritual journey involves the way of material simplicity and letting go. It involves a poverty of sorts. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was a transient. As a baby—Emanuel, Son of God—he was a refugee.

But while he didn’t boast of a physical home on earth, he certainly had what it took to be at home in himself and with God. He was grounded within himself, quite distinct from any external, material ties to land and hearth. Jesus turns to his disciples and beckons, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

A Jesus-identity stands in sharp contrast to everything we want to focus on in our celebration of Canada Day—material prosperity, security, affluence and strong, traditional bonds of family.

Jesus’ lifestyle describes what ancient and contemporary wisdom teachers have called a spirituality of subtraction.[3]This way is counterintuitive. Our human nature gravitates towards a spirituality of addition. That is, we normally say the solution to all problems is to do more, to add on, to do better, to achieve greater heights, to impress, to work harder, etc. Add. Accumulate. Get bigger, faster, better. More, more, more.

However, Jesus tells us that the less we do and the less that we desperately try to be someone, the closer we come to this kingdom of God. This state of being is where there is no longer any need to struggle to protect ourselves and to survive. “It’s the way of subtraction, where less is not just more, but everything.”[4]

Canada Day, while not a festival in the church calendar, gives us nonetheless opportunity to be thankful and celebrate God’s good gifts in all that we have and are. It is also an opportunity to  reflect on our identity and our home as Christians:

Where do we land, at the end of the day? If we are the ones on the positive side of history, what is the state of our own inner life, distinct from the externals and the material wealth? What are our go-to beliefs and unacknowledged assumptions? Who are we, really, when all else is stripped away? And who are we becoming? What do we need to let go of? What do we need to embrace, anew?

The way of subtraction is a way of recognizing, acknowledging, even embracing what the normal ebb and flow of life brings to us all. Not just yahooing when good things happen. But also not turning a blind eye, ignoring or denying the suffering, the losses, the fear and the anxieties that serve a very important purpose in life: Because they point to the way of our healing and transformation.

We can start, on Canada Day, by acknowledging that not everyone is happy today. Not everybody would have reason to celebrate Canada Day. And who are these people? Do we see them? Do we care?

When by some injustice some people are excluded. When some people feel judged or discriminated against by the majority. When history exposes problems with the way we settled this land, the way we did things in the past. When our people used unjust means to achieve goals that breached ethical lines.

On a personal level, we pay attention to those difficult transitions in life, those that cause great stress. When who we thought we were, when our long-held identity, when the home of our conditioned self doesn’t work or make sense anymore:

For example, when divorce or separation breaks down our idea of being someone who is happily married …

When growing up means no longer being a dependent son or daughter but someone who is a responsible, self-actualized and an independent adult…

When ageing means we can no longer derive purpose from our physical abilities; that is, how we see ourselves can no longer depend on being able to dothings …

For men especially, when we are not the breadwinners of the household, or don’t have grandchildren to brag about, or can’t point to a list of worldly accomplishments …

When having children is not a possibility, despite the dreams of youth …

When we no longer can have or do what we want …

In all these cases, and there are more, when who we are—who we thought we were—no longer works. Then, who are we?

“What we’re really being invited to give up [when Jesus talks like this] is not our car, our house, our laptop and our multiple hand-held devices (although it would be healthier to have a much lighter grip on all of those things). The possessions that we are really fiercely attached to are much less tangible: our ideas about who we are, beliefs deeply hidden even—especially—from ourselves, the self-sustaining narratives that we run for reassurance over and over again.”[5]

What would it look like in our lives when our priorities would shift? When we would regard all that we have and our relationships through the prism of faith? When all the material things we possess, when our long-held, cherished assumptions, our stalwart beliefs were seen through the perspective of faith?

What if Jesus were calling us to re-align our inner compass so that Monday through Saturday had just as much to do with faith as Sunday morning did?

When I breathe in the refreshing, clean air blowing from the north, I reflect on the nature of breath. Breath is gift. I take it in. I need it for life. I delight in it.

But I also have to let it go, for life. I need to breath out. I can’t continue to inhale unless I also exhale. Give it away. Return it to the world. The gift continues to become a gift for someone else, over and over again. I don’t possess it.

As Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the 12th century, “I am a feather on the breath of God.”

I recently read a wonderful definition of home. It wasn’t so much a definition stated with absolute resolve, more a suggestion to consider. What if home was not so much ‘where we’re from’ but more ‘where we are wanted.’[6]

In God’s realm on earth and in heaven, you are wanted. God wants you. In that mutual desiring, that is where our home is. And, what is more, God wants the stranger, the outsider, too. The other. God wants all of us. The span of God’s love covers this land and the whole world. “For God so loved the world …”[7]

Home is where we are wanted. When we are in communion with God, when we affirm our connection with the living Lord, when we can live out of the power of God’s Spirit in whom we move, live, breathe and have our being.

 

 

[1]Luke 9:51-62

[2]Matthew 10:37-38

[3]Meister Eckhart, Richard Rohr, Jim Green—to name a few.

[4]Jim Green, Giving Up Without Giving Up (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), p.67.

[5]Jim Green, p.68-69.

[6]Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone (Toronto: Random House, 2009)

[7]John 3:16

Christmas funeral sermon: God-with-us love

Please read 1 Corinthians 13 (v.1-8,13); Romans 8 (v.35,37-39); Matthew 28:20

In a popular Christmas movie, Home Alone, a family plans a European vacation for Christmas. The relatives all arrive for the big event. But in all the commotion the youngest son feels slighted. Expressing his frustration inappropriately, he is punished and sent to a room in the attic.

There, in a fit of anger, he wishes that his family would go away so he could be all alone. The next morning, in their rush to get ready and leave for the airport, the family overlooks the little boy in the attic. They get to the airport and board the plane, all the while believing he is with them.

When the little boy wakes, he discovers that there is no one in the house and believes his wish has been granted. He is home alone.

And he is delighted, even delirious with joy. For the next few days, while his family tries frantically to return to him, the little boy has full run of the house. He eats all the junk food he wants, watches whatever movie he wants, sleeps wherever he wants, and doesn’t have to answer to anyone.

But then burglars try to break into the house, and he discovers that his aloneness has made him vulnerable. After the burglars have been foiled with his inventive array of booby traps, the boy realizes how lonely he is. Being alone, without his parents and the rest of his family, isn’t as wonderful as he thought it would be.[1]

I think about this funny yet poignant movie in light of what we do today. We remember and celebrate the life and love of a beloved son, father, brother, uncle, friend and colleague.

Your loved one was a funny guy. He appreciated good, practical humor. Even in his final moments, he expressed his love to you in a gently humorous way. I suspect your loved one might have praised the little boy’s ways of foiling the burglars in Home Alone.

There are, of course, various ways people show love. Gary Chapman in his bestseller, “The Five Love Languages”[2], identifies different strategies for expressing love: through acts of service, words of affirmation, physical touch, giving gifts, spending quality time.

It’s true: there isn’t exclusively and only one, valid way of expressing love between people. It’s important to know how you do it yourself, and then equally important to know what your loved one’s preferred strategy is. To that list, I would add humor. Although it is often misunderstood.

God’s way of showing love is often misunderstood. People ask: If God is all-powerful and all-benevolent, why does God allow suffering to happen? How is God being loving when tragedy strikes, and when bad things happen to good people?

 Yet, God minds the gap, so to speak. God blesses the space between us. Irish poet John O’Donohue wrote a book of blessings entitled: “To Bless the Space Between Us”.[3]The title alone captures the essence of his poetry—blessings for people at the edge of an experience or relationship where there is a space, a darkness, a longing, a want, a suffering.

If God loves us truly, God will give us the freedom to choose, and not force nor demand our love in return. In the Home Alone scenario, the boy had to experience the freedom of his ways before realizing what he truly wanted—desiring to be with his family again.

Because God loves us, God gives us the freedom, the space. God does not smother us or make us into robots. God is not a control-freak. God honors the space. God lets us figure it out. Make mistakes. Find our way. God is patient. God is free.

To be sure, in the darkness of night, in the being home alone, we struggle. In the darkness of grief and pain, sight is compromised, vision is blurred, fear and desperate feelings can suffocate. And yet, it is in the darkness of the gap between this world and the next where God is, and comes to us as God did to your loved one, in his moment of greatest need.

One of the most common words we hear each and every Christmas is: Immanuel. The word adorns Christmas cards, is sung in hymns and carols, is painted or sewn on banners. Yet the impact of this word is often lost on us. Immanuel is one of the names of God, one of the most beautiful and enlightening names of God. And it explains one of the great reasons for Christmas in the first place.

The Christ child is called, “Immanuel”, which means “God is with us.” Not just in the ‘peachy’[4]times when all is well. But especially in the night. In times like this.

Christmas celebrates the coming of God into the dark night. The angel chorus announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds brightens the night sky. The back drop of this heavenly scene is a very dark time—on every level: politically, socially, historically.

Passing through the night, it is now ‘peachy’ with your loved one, our faith will say. The promise of the dawn is there for us all. The night will not last forever. How can we move towards that new day while we still walk in the dark as yet by faith?

Because Christmas celebrations are often lonely affairs for many, many people; because even those who have many friends feel alone—especially now, we can live the promise and truth of ‘God with us, Immanuel’. We can extend the love of God-with-us by sharing our presence, our love—in whatever language of love we use—to those who may need that extra special attention: a shoulder to lean on, a listening ear, an understanding smile, an act of kindness.

Humour can only be understood in relationship: a relationship of trust, of readiness to forgive, of unconditional love. Humor opens the soul, the heart and the mind to accept reality and look at things in a fresh way.

That’s healthy. To continue to build and strengthen those relationships among family and friends even now that he is gone from us. Your loved one’s gift to us can be this posture of openness, and encouragement to express God-with-us love to others.

 

[1]As described by Dan Schaeffer in his Introduction to God With Us: Christmas Reflections from Our Daily Bread (Windsor: Our Daily Bread Ministries Canada, 2018) www.ourdailybread.ca

[2]Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2015)

[3]John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (Toronto: Doubleday, 2008)

[4]A favourite word of the deceased

Christmas – God blesses the dirt

Why do we celebrate Christmas? What is the reason we pull all the stops to mark this annual tradition in our lives?

As is the case when defining something, we can start by saying what it isn’t. So, Christmas is not about a little baby Jesus being born. That already happened two thousand years ago. The historical fact of Jesus’ birth is not why we bring so much energy, passion and personal sacrifice to making this happen today!

We do Christmas not because we are history buffs on a mission to generate public enthusiasm about a long- ago event no matter how enthusiastic we are about it. The church is not a history club. Christmas is not just about memory – because none of us were around two thousand years ago. Christmas is about reality, today.

We celebrate Christmas to welcome Jesus Christ again into the life of this world. The church is about what matters today. Because of that first Christmas, Christ is forever being born into the human heart. And, we do have to make room for this ongoing event, because right now there is no “room in the inn” for such a mystery; our lives are cluttered by distraction, compulsion, self-centeredness and selfishness. If anything, Christmastime in the public sphere exposes this narcissism of our collective soul.

We are human, after all. And we see things pretty much in their physicality, materiality. We have trouble, naturally, seeing the light shining through the ordinariness of material life. Francis of Assisi, who popularized the celebration of Christmas beginning in the 13th century, said that “every tree should be decorated with lights to show that it’s filled with light anyway.”[1]

A couple centuries later, Martin Luther dragged a pine tree into his house and placed lighted candles on its boughs. He told his children that he looked up at the starry sky whilst walking through the pine forest near their Wittenberg home. The sight was so beautiful that he wanted candles on the tree to remind them of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth. To be entwined in the stuff of earth.

Thus, we have tangible reminders in our Christmas traditions today – tangible reminders, indeed, in the sacraments but also in everything – to remind us of this incredible move of God to be distant no longer, cut off, and separated from earthly existence no more. But, from that moment onward, God would be intimately invested and incorporated, literally, into every human body, heart and mind. Indeed, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”[2]

And so, God continues to become flesh and live among us. Christmas in 2017 as it was last year and will be next year, again, is about waiting, watching for and celebrating God’s forever decision to say “yes” to the material world. To watch for how the Spirit of the living God is being manifested in our lives and in our world today. Through, in, around each of us. God said “yes” to physicality.

We need this celebration every year because we are still preparing to understand and enter this great mystery of our lives with each passing day. In this preparation, we need to celebrate not only Christmas on December 25, not only Christmas-in-July, but Christmas every day of every year!

Christmas announces that it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Why? Well, because God became human in Jesus Christ. God came to earth. I hear echoes in the creation story from Genesis; after each thing was created God said it was good.[3] The earth and the waters, the plants and vegetation, the sun and stars, sea monsters, every living creature and every winged bird, wild animals, cattle of every kind and everything that creeps upon the ground. “It was good!” Not once, but repeatedly, to emphasize the point. It is good! It is good! It is good!

Whenever we can see in the material world – humans, trees, sky, water, dirt, animals – the Spirit and presence of Christ – whenever that happens, we are celebrating Christmas. God blesses the dirt on earth, from which we all came and to which we all will return.

It is already so. And to a large extent, it is a matter of perspective. When the ordinary becomes extraordinary. When we recognize the good in that which is broken or imperfect. It is a matter of vision.

When you are invited to a family dinner gathering, the food always tastes better, doesn’t it? How is it that Grandma’s pumpkin pie – made straight from the recipe off the label on the canned pumpkin – tastes better than any other? And when you go home and use the same product and follow the same recipe, it’s not quite the same. The ordinary is made extraordinary because of a frame of mind which has somehow shifted into an attitude of thanksgiving, gratitude and appreciation in a certain context.

The ordinary is extraordinary with a change of mind, which is the true meaning of repentance[4]. When we begin to see the holy in the simple. When the basic stuff of life – including the blemishes, the brokenness, the weakness – is imbued with a vision of holiness. God blesses the dirt.

When a common teenage couple gives birth to a baby in the back shed of some inn in a non-descript rural town, surrounded by the lowly shepherds and visited by strangers from the East. God blesses the dirt.

When all of what makes us human – including our doubts, our failures, our misdeeds, our egos – is unconditionally loved and embraced and held in compassion and forgiveness. God blesses the dirt.

When our caring and loving moves beyond the self and ‘our own’ to include foreigners, animals, trees and those who go hungry this day. God blesses the dirt.

Because it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Today.

Merry Christmas!

[1] Cited in Richard Rohr, “An Advent Meditation” (Unedited transcript, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017).

[2] John 1:14

[3] Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31

[4] translated from the Greek word, metanoia, literally meaning “change of mind”, to turn around and face a new direction

Happy Birthday! (funeral sermon)

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26)

It may seem strange to say this, today: On a day we mourn at the death and loss of a loved one. A loved one, nonetheless who lived to a 103! A loved one whose 104th birthday is today! “Happy birthday Wilma!”

When we say a funeral service is a ‘celebration of life’ we affirm this with mixed feelings, to be sure.

Kind of like the other paradoxes in our lives: Because, for example, we know that we are better fulfilled in giving rather than receiving. Because, as people of faith, we know that it is in dying that we live — on many levels.

That is why a funeral service is like an Easter service when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. That is why, the day Jesus died on the cross is called “Good” Friday. Talk about paradox.

So, with confidence, we gather today to have a birthday party. Because Wilma, a person of deep faith in the living Lord, lives today in heavenly glory! 

Happy birthday Wilma!

At birthday parties we often tell stories about the person’s life, to date. There is one story from early on in Wilma’s life that I wish to highlight: When she was five years old, the windows of the Halifax house she and her family were living in blew inward, planting shards of glass deep in the layers of the skin on her head. She and her family survived the famous Halifax explosion.

Until Wilma was well into her 40s she was pulling little pieces of glass from her skin. For a large chunk of her life, especially in her formative years, she had to live with this reminder of her near death experience at such a young age. She was, in the first part of her life, regularly made aware of the fragility of her life and the reality of her mortality. That with each step we take in life, death walks along close by. Maybe that’s why she lived so long.

We try to avoid death. We deny it at every turn. We don’t want to see it. And yet, in avoiding death we also avoid living. Living to the upmost. The key to a rich life is to be aware that our death is only one breath away. 

It is common knowledge that the most effective, greatest and skilled soldiers in history were men and women who were willing to die in giving themselves to engage each combat situation. When you accept your own death at any given moment, then you can truly live.

An incredible paradox, isn’t it? How can we live in the ambiguity, uncertainty and mystery of this reality?

Wilma, as I said, was a woman of deep and enduring faith — through it all. It’s amazing when you think about the history she lived through: the rise of the automobile; the radical advance of technology from wires to the digital age; the many wars and two world wars of the last century, the Depression and economic ups and downs, the social revolutions. Through it all, she nurtured, and was nurtured in, a life of faith in the God who died in order to live.

Perhaps a deep knowing of this leads one to bless others. Indeed, this is how I got to know Wilma in these last four years of her life. Mostly through touch. In the tradition of the church, a blessing of healing and grace was given primarily by the ‘laying of hands’. It was a challenge to communicate with her, and yet, experts affirm that 70% of communication is non-verbal.

Wilma’s image of God was of a gracious, giving, loving God. She bristled at me early in our relating when I said the version of the Lord’s Prayer that has the line: “Lead us not to temptation …” She stopped me right in the tracks of that prayer, right there: “Stop,” she said. “God does not lead us to be tempted!” she objected. So, we changed the words. And that is why you read a slight variation in that sentence in the liturgy today.

God is a God of compassion and caring. God loves. Even when we can’t. Even when our love is imperfect and fraught with our own sin and misgivings. God comes to us first with a word of compassion, healing and mercy. This is the God Wilma believed in.

Her mission in life, in the last few years, was to bless others who cared for her. I learned this when she was at Fairfield Manor in Kanata, that she would routinely bless the nurses that attended to her. 

And after our many visits there, she would lean close to me and kiss me on my forehead. She said: “That’s the kiss of Jesus, saying that he loves you. And I do too.”

I responded: “I love you too, Wilma.”

Then, ever true to her belief, Wilma said: “That makes the Holy Trinity — three loves!”

Perhaps, then, Wilma leaves us with the legacy of faith that doesn’t pretend life is meant to be perfect. Because she wasn’t. But life is meant to be lived as long as we are given breath, in order to be a blessing of love to one another, as best we can.

Because God does.

Amen.

Laetere!

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24)

Lent is a journey through the desert. It is dry. And there’s little for comfort. Let alone luxury. It is a time of self-reflection, of letting go, of pacing ourselves through disciplines that humble us and peel back the layers of our habits and beliefs.

The famine provides a turning point in the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). His wasteful, dissolute, squandering of money — his lifestyle — is brought to an end by a famine, probably caused by drought.

Up to this point the Prodigal continued down the course of his delusion, believing he could be happy by pursuing this lifestyle, even when he runs out of money. His mistaken and self-indulgent strategy for fulfillment is derailed and heightened by the onset of famine.

After the famine grips the land and its people, he has to work among the pigs. He might have had to do this anyway. But because of the famine, nobody can even spare change to throw at his feet when he begs. This famine-ridden reality leads him to a place of brutal honesty. And he falls on his knees in confession.

This is not the only time a famine in the land affects the course of the history of the relationship between God and God’s people. The famine illustrates a pervasive motif in the bible: The famine acts as a significant motivator for people to move in their lives, physically and in their hearts as well (1).

Famine is the reason that Abraham and Sarah leave Ur for Canaan. Once they are there, famine is also the reason they leave again for Egypt (Genesis 12). Famine appears twenty times just in Genesis (eg, Genesis 26). The story of Joseph and Jacob revolve around the reality of the famine.

Famines represent those times in life when forces beyond our control dictate the course of our lives. Famines remind us that we are not the masters of our own destiny. Famines expose the truth of our own poverty. Famines make us honest for our own need. Famines cause us to reach out for help, and let go of our pretence of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

Famines will lead us to confession – honesty about what we need, what we lack, what limits us. Famines will move us to depend on something/someone beyond our capabilities and industry. Famines will bring us to our knees at the throne of God’s grace (Hebrews 4:16).

Maybe that’s why famines happened a lot in scripture.

The famine, otherwise not usually considered an important part of the parable of the Prodigal Son, serves to underscore the central message of Scripture: It’s not about us, it’s about God. We can act irresponsibly like the Prodigal, or we can follow all the rules of life and be good citizens and good people like the resentful elder son — this has no bearing on the freedom of God to dispense grace as God will.

It almost doesn’t feel fair, what happens. We can sympathize with the elder son, I suspect. Yet, whenever we feel the pangs of ‘It’s not fair’ — how much of that objection, when we are honest, is based on the presumption of our own righteousness, our own ability, our own deserving, our own industry to earn our rightful place?

There’s this delightful short book by Francois Lelord, which was translated into English and adapted for the big screen starring Simon Pegg, called “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” Simon Pegg’s character, Hector, goes on a journey around the world to observe what makes people happy. As he travels to distant places and meets different people, he writes down in his little notebook a short list of what makes people happy.

His very first observation — the first lesson he learns about what makes people happy — is: “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness” (2). Is that not what the elder son does — compare his righteousness to the wayward squandering of his younger brother? He is justifying himself, based on the less-than-stellar behaviour of another.

“Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.” This is Gospel truth, in fact. Remember the other parable Jesus tells of the workers in the vineyard? The ones who work the shortest amount of time earn the same wage as the ones who worked from early morning (Matthew 20:1-16). The ones who worked all day grumble that they made the same wage as those who only worked a short time, even though the early workers had already agreed on the rate they would receive.

Another characteristic of people who are not grateful for what they have, and who continually make comparisons: Resentful people do not feel like a party. People who are continually comparing themselves to others who have more, keep themselves from enjoying life and having fun from time to time. People who are judging others and pointing fingers, will not easily relax and accept the good in them and others.

The Father begs the resentful elder son to join the party he has thrown for the Prodigal. What the Father reminds the elder son are words from God to us and the church today: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In other words, rather than incessantly compare our lot with others, focus on the gifts, the resources, the passions, the energy, the interests we have already been given to you. And we have been given much, indeed!

We have musical gifts in this congregation, and talented singers and instrumentalists. We have people passionate about social justice, and caring for the poor nearby. We are well-read, educated and earnest in our pursuit of truth. We are warm-hearted and dedicated to one another.

Moreover, we have an abundance of material resources. Yes, we do! A building assessment was done last year. And the replacement cost of this small building alone was valued at $1 million. With the property around the building, the value is much higher.

We have been given so much in this community alone. Imagine the potential human and material resource we have here for the purpose of God’s mission in the world today!

Accept with thanksgiving what we have been given. And, when it comes to what others have received, rejoice in God’s generosity and grace towards them. After all, God is free to do what God will.

And we are free, to do what we must do. Whether we make mistakes, or do good. Whether we are led astray for a time in our lives, or we keep the faith through thick and thin — God says, “You count! You are beloved! I am with you always. I will go the distance for you. I will wait for you — no matter what you have done, good or bad. You count!” So much so, it’s worth throwing a party — an extravagant party.

There is cause to celebrate. And be happy! For God is good, and God’s love endures forever.


(1) Lutherans Connect, Lenten devotional, Day 6 — found at lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca
(2)Francois Lelord, “Hector and the Search for Happiness”, Penguin Books, Toronto, 2010, p.19

The happiness trap

In our traditional celebration of Thanksgiving this weekend (in Canada), you may be wondering how to feel thankful when things aren’t going well. When unpaid bills start piling up, when a health diagnosis pulls the rug from under your feet, you are in an accident, or a relationship sours, freezes and breaks off. How can I be thankful?

Not dissimilar from the social expectations of Christmastime, the season of Thanksgiving can bring stress to even those of us whose lives are going reasonably well. Because we presume, do we not, that to be thankful we need to be happy? And to be happy, we need to be living ‘the good life’ when all works out the way I want it. And when it doesn’t….

For example, “if I don’t get that job promotion, I’ll be depressed”; or, “if the house does not sell for the price I want, I won’t be happy”; or, “if I don’t get away to that sun destination this winter I’ll be in the dumps”. We find ourselves in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction.

We are caught in the happiness trap. The striving for which basically guarantees us discontentment and frustration. 

Now, if all we want is to be happy, we won’t grow because we will only attend to those things that we already appreciate and understand. If all we want is to be happy, we assume that we are already where we are supposed to be. If all we want is to be happy, we will stay stuck; we have left no room for growth and development that only comes from some intentional work that might in fact be meant to change us for the better.

If we only pursue happiness, we are constraining the movement of the Spirit of God. That Spirit may want to call us to, and discipline us for, some greater purpose. That greater purpose will not be achieved by just wanting to be happy all the time.

In contrast, I suggest a healthier, more realistic approach: to work toward faithfulness rather than happiness. (Gil Rendle, “The Illusion of Congregational Happiness” Congregational Resource Guide, http://www.congregationalresources.org, 2010, p.4)

Writer Lisa Bendall (lisabendall.com) uncovered a recent Florida State University study which advised not to confuse a happy life with a meaningful one. That is, “happiness is lower in people who have more stress and anxiety, but meaning is higher in these same people.” Which suggests something important about a healthy degree of anxiety and stress in one’s life. Through the lens of Christianity, we can say that ‘picking up our cross’ and following Jesus may not yield a happy lifestyle all the time. But it will result in transformative change in our life that will make a positive difference in the world. Bottom line: It won’t be easy.

The narrow search for happiness focuses only on making things easy. And that is why pursuing mere happiness is a sure-fire way of living a self-centred, narcissistic and meaningless life bereft of making a difference in the world for the better. Show me otherwise in the lives of people who have made an incredible contribution to their communities, nations, society and the world. Were they always happy? Did being unhappy at times deter them from pursuing their values and rich meaning for their life?

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) suggests the same. Jesus is not promising us a distress-free lifestyle. Pursue the higher ideals. Take the high road. Don’t give up. If I only wanted to be happy, I’m not sure I’d want to follow Jesus on this earthly journey which must surely go through the Cross. Staying true to oneself, to others and to God means a bumpy ride from time to time.

Here are some tips for this life that is given to us — not just for the placid, calm waters of life. Our baptism means that from time to time the water will get rough. And we need to know how to navigate those waters and stay afloat!

Shortly after Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod – ELCIC) was elected some fifteen years ago, he made a trip up to the Ottawa Valley, and went white-water rafting on the Ottawa River. Here is what he learned, eight rules; and applied it to life, faith and church:

1. Don’t be surprised if the boat doesn’t go where you want it to go.

2. Rest in the calm places. There will be more white water soon.

3. Never stop paddling. Even when it seems hopeless.

4. If you get into trouble… DON’T panic.

5. If you go under, let go of everything. Eventually you will come back up.
6. Someone needs to call out the orders. It works better that way.
7. White water is what you came for. Enjoy it.

8. Everyone paddles furiously to get somewhere, but ultimately it’s the current that takes you downstream.

Ultimately, trusting in the grace of God will get us there. Which means, does it not, that even if we are limited in whatever way, even when life is not perfect and things don’t work out for us, we can still fulfill our purpose and find meaning in our faith? Keep paddling! Do what you can, because we really don’t have anything to lose.

Last week when I attended the meeting of Deans in our Synod, Bishop Pryse shared in his closing comments a word of inspiration from Thomas Merton — a quote he has displayed in his office:

You may have to face the fact that your work will apparently be worthless and achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate, not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

And this, I believe, brings something more than mere happiness: enduring contentment, meaning and peace in one’s heart.

May your Thanksgiving celebrations encourage you in the value and meaning of the gift of  your life.