funeral sermon in Advent: Faith in the Night

From the Gospel of John, the first chapter (v.5.9):

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world.”

These days, we walk in darkness.

December 6thwas the first day the sun set the earliest it will all year long—at 4:19pm. And that will be the case for another week before the days start getting longer again. Your beloved died at, literally, the darkest time of year.

And, so it is with your grief at this sudden loss. It is a dark time, indeed, that you journey these last days of a significant year in the life of your family.

At the end of the year. At the end of a life shared together. It is dark. And it is in the darkness that we must remain, for some time.

We may feel like love is lost at times like this. In the intensity of grief, the finality of death hits like sprinting into a brick wall. The familiar bonds are severed completely. And the prospect of a radically changed life, now, chill the heart with fear and uncertainty.

Where, O Love, is Thy soothing presence? Where, O Love, is Thy warming touch? Where, O Love, is Thy reassuring voice?

For Christians, this loss is symbolized by the cross. And in the cross we see a cruciform shape to reality: Loss precedes renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every change in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form’.[1]

At your loved one’s bedside on December 6, you described to me the image of wings of protection and love that your beloved offered in prayer and in spirt for his children and grandchildren. The image of wings of love surrounding his family is a tender one.

In the bible wings describe the loving and protective stance of God towards us. “I gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (2 Esdras 1:30). The Psalmist prays: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7).

May the image of holding a bird demonstrate the kind of love we need now to express in this time of loss. They say that to hold a bird, you can’t hold it too tightly. When the chickadees fly into the palm of my hand when I feed them nuts and sunflower seeds, I cannot, dare not, clasp my hand into a fist.

I must keep my hands open. They say that to show true love you must be willing to let the object of your love go. They say that to love, one must let go. One cannot control true love, hold on to it tightly. To be sure, there are times in life when love calls for a tighter grip, especially when giving direct care to one in need, or guiding and parenting children. In these situations, yes, a firmer hold in love may be necessary.

But at other times, especially when dark times of the year come around which they do for all of us, love demands a different approach. People wonder, understandably so, why if God is Almighty and Benevolent, why God allows those dark times to even happen at all.

If God truly loves us, God will offer love freely and not demand it be returned. If God truly loves us, God will give us freedom. God will let us go. Not abandon us, because God is everywhere. But give us the freedom to love and to let go.

And, you know also the saying: What you let go in love, like giving a tiny bird freedom to fly away from your hand, will return to you in love. Perhaps not in exactly the way you expected. Perhaps not according to your timing. Yet, this is the nature of God’s grace and love: In letting go, we discover and experience the surprise of love’s return in some form, some day.

What else can be said about December 6th, besides the day your beloved died? December 6th, of course, is Saint Nicolas Day. If anything can be said about Saint Nicolas is that he was generous. Generous to the poor, to those in need. Your beloved was generous to you with his love. The gift of generosity is given on the day your beloved died.

How can we continue in the love freely given and freely received in the union of marriage and family that was severely disrupted on the day your loved one died? The symbolism of the day cannot go unnoticed, unrecognized. We can continue in the legacy of your beloved is leaving to us: to pay attention to the needs of the vulnerable, the children. To be generous with the gifts God has given us to share with those in need. This is an honorable expression of our love for your loved one. This is a worthy focus of our energies as we wander in this dark time of loss and grief.

Yes, “grief and anxiety has gripped us, and we are frightened by the future. Yet, even in these times, God is there. The good news is that Jesus always comes again. Every year, despite how hard things have been, Jesus is born into our lives anew. Death is never the final word”[2]– divine love comes and gives us life. Again.

May love be our guide through these dark days, and into the bright hope of a New Year.

 

[1]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations (Center for Action and Contemplation,  www.cac.org) 7 December 2018)

[2]Lutherans Connect “Faith in the Night” DAY 7 (Lutheran Campus Ministry Toronto, 8 December 2018), lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com

One part per billion

I’m going into the Algonquin Park region this coming week. As you can see outside the church, I’ve already strapped my canoe atop the car. I’m looking forward!

And when I’m paddling, I like to follow the river or lake banks. Of course, where I’m going, there are lots of little lakes and rivers, and therefore many riverbanks and rocky shorelines I will skirt (probably still breaking the ice!).

We live in a world where borders and boundaries are important. Whether these are borders between nations, continents, cities, regions, communities, families or individuals, they mark the line between separate and distinct realities. Without honouring certain boundaries, we can fail to distinguish who we are and lose a sense of our identity and purpose.

Last summer when I travelled through Spain and Portugal, I learned that he Portuguese-Spanish border is the oldest, unchanged national border on continental Europe. This surprised me because that border did not appear natural. Not unlike the border between Canada and the United States in North America, the Spanish-Portuguese border draws a counterintuitive line across the more natural flow of the continent’s geography.

For example, to see it from space, the North American continent flows more north-south: The mountains run north-south on the western half of the continent, the prairie and plains in the centre of the continent, and the Great Lakes basin spilling into both the Mississippi and St Lawrence River valleys in the eastern portion of the continent. The geography suggests more natural north-south lines.

Spain and Portugal share what looks like a giant square mass of land peaking in the northwest on what is called the Iberian Peninsula. The Atlantic Ocean hugs the northern and western edges of this square. And the Mediterranean laps up against the eastern edge and into the southern Straits of Gibraltar separating Africa from Europe.

Despite what looks like it should be a unified whole, this large land mass is divided between two nations with Portugal carving its small section on the south-western shoreline.

When the kids were toddlers — and sometimes even to this day — they often lingered on the thresholds of doorways separating outdoors from indoors. Standing or sitting on the threshold meant that the door remained open. Of course, we parents were concerned about them jamming their thumbs and fingers and toes. So, we would yell at them: “In our out! Make up your mind!”

Borderlands, as we know from German history (the Berlin Wall) and between North and South Korea, can be dangerous places. We call the space in the border “no man’s land.” At best, these thresholds are ambivalent to us; at worst, they leave us uncomfortable, unsettled, fearful. We feel we can’t rest in these places.

I learned recently about what is called the ‘riparian zone’ which is the border between land and water. The riparian zone can be the lake or riverbank that is a marsh, or a rocky or sandy, thin strip of land, a hardwood forest or stand of pine on the edge of the river.

This ‘in-between’ place of the riparian zone fulfills three, vital, ecological functions: First, the riparian zone functions as a natural filter, cleaning ground water as it flows into the larger watershed. It also protects the surrounding soil from accelerated erosion by slowing down wash effect of the river. In the process, riparian zones actually create new soil and provides for new habitats.

A NASA scientist called the river and its marshy edges the ‘sine qua non’ of life; that is, where water and land touch, these edges are necessary for life on earth.[1]

So, we agree that boundaries are important. Borders, whether political, relational or ecological are vital.

But we also say that the grace of God knows no boundaries. We say that God’s love crosses and surpasses all boundaries. Jesus says, “Abide in my love.”[2]Paul wrote that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”[3]God’s love expands and grows and overcomes all obstacles.

How does this happen? How can we, on the one hand, honour the boundaries in our lives and, on the other hand, live into the boundary-busting, wall-breaking, division-crossing, far-reaching, limitless, boundless reality of God’s love? How can God’s love abide in us when we are separated from God and each other by sin?

We are human, after all.

Imagine you are at the ocean, and you’re standing in the ocean ankle-deep. It’s true, you are only ankle deep. But it’s also true you are in the ocean. It’s also true that if you keep going, it will get plenty deep soon enough. If not in the ocean you are standing in, certainly at the deepest point on earth — the Marianas Trench — because all oceans on earth are connected anyway.

What if the infinite depth of the ocean gives the totality of its depths to your ankle-deep degree of realization of it?[4]

During the Easter season, and because of the resurrection of Jesus, the church says God is everywhere. But then, we also say God is really in your soul. And God is really, really in the church. You have to go in the church to save your soul. And, in the church, God is really, really, really in the Holy Communion. And, then, God is really, really, really, really in heaven. And, here at Faith Lutheran in Ottawa, it’s like one part per billion!

But, Jesus is alive. Therefore, God is really, really, really, really, really, everywhere.

The truth is, when you’re connected to a little bit of it, you’re connected to the whole of it, the fullness of it.

Speaking of the Holy Communion, when we receive one grain, it belongs to the one bread; one grape, one cup. Many parts, one body. When you receive only one small part of the Communion, you receive the whole of Christ.

“Every piece of bread and sip of wine is precisely the same one: there is one bread, and that is Christ. We receive all of Christ in communion, not just a piece of him. If we break the loaf into a thousand pieces, there’s still only one Christ – and each of us receives all of him.”[5]

This logic extends on several levels. Our lives, for one, belong to God’s story. “We need to sense that all aspects of our history, of our experience, are part of the same story, even the bits that don’t make any sense or the meaningless parts …”[6]There is no part of us that does not, somehow, belong to the great story of God and God’s people. Every part of us — our history, our experiences — is valuable to God and to us, and to each other.

We are who we are. No part of us is wasted space, wasted DNA. No part of us is lost, no memory is gone. All parts of us and each one of us belong.

 

[1]Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World; A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: Harper One, 2015), p.68.

[2]John 15:9-17 speaks of the mutuality of divine love’s presence: We abide in Christ as he abides in us.

[3]Romans 8:38

[4]James Finley, Centre for Action and Contemplation, 28 April 2018 (audio, http://www.cac.org).

[5]Br. Mark Brown, Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), Brother, Give us a Word, 28 April 2018

[6]Laurence Freeman, Daily Wisdom (Word Community for Christian Meditation, Meditatio), 1 May 2018.

Value-added, Christians in the world

Love is not a gooey, “Come, kiss my boo-boo because I hurt myself.”

Love is not a warm-fuzzy blanket to wrap yourself when you’re feeling blue.

Love is not Valentine’s Day chocolates wrapped up in a big red bow.

That is, not love according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Love can be many things. In our world, love has masqueraded in many forms. Do we even have the energy to reflect, talk and most importantly act in the love-sense of the Gospel?

The text from 1stJohn begins with an address to the “beloved”.[1]This is a better English translation than others that start with “Dear friends.” The word in the original Greek is agape. As the first readers and listeners to this word were, so we are addressed, the “beloved.”

This word appears several times in this text. Can you count them all?

And none of them mean what the world, and our compulsive, fearful selves might first imagine.

Agapeis a self-giving love. It is a love that reaches out for the good of the other, despite what the giver wants to do. “Not my will but thy will be done,” Jesus prays to his Father in heaven moments before he is arrested.[2]

I continue to be perplexed by Mother Theresa’s confession on her way to India as a young girl. From the start, when God’s call to go there was beginning to grow within her, I wonder if she really wanted to go.[3]If it were up to what she wanted alone, I don’t believe she would have sacrificed her whole life to the cause of the poor. And yet, we know of her incredible contribution to help the vulnerable and homeless on the streets of Calcutta over the decades that she lived there, served there, loved there.

And what a paradox it was. She discovered, in the giving, that she was being most fulfilled. It wasn’t a sacrifice in the sense of self-denial, self-hatred even, or repression. She was one of the most human of souls on this earth, say those who met her. She discovered that her greatest needs were met, in her self-giving.

In the Star Wars spin off TV series, “The Clone Wars”, a story is told of how Jedi younglings are trained in the Force in a ritual called “The Gathering”. In order to become full Jedi, they must build their own light sabers. Their light sabers are unique to the individual. Each one is built around a crystal which they have to retrieve on an inhospitable, cold planet.

A group of younglings is dispatched into an ice cave to harvest their crystal. In order to succeed, they must meet and overcome their deepest individual fear and greatest weakness: Fear of heights. Fear of monsters. Impatience. Being left behind. Their crystal becomes available to them once they endure this personal challenge, each to their own.

What is more, the clock is ticking. They must find their crystal and exit the cave in a few short hours before the entrance to it freezes over. Otherwise, they would have to wait a couple of weeks trapped inside without help until the next rotation of the sun would allow the ice entrance to melt open again.

It begins as an individual challenge. But it can only succeed as a group effort. Before sending the younglings into the cave, Jedi master Yoda gives them their final instructions: “Trust yourself and trust each other you must.”

For some, this is the biggest problem. Most of the younglings run into the cave and work together in smaller groups, at least in pairs. One helps the other, and vice versa.

But for Pedro, the young upstart, know-it-all youngling boy, he rushes in at breakneck speed and abandons the group immediately. He forges ahead giving the others the impression, again, that he doesn’t need anyone’s help.

Before you know it, he finds his crystal. Or so he thinks. He is the first one back outside the cave. But when Yoda inspects the crystal, it melts in his hand. It wasn’t a crystal he found on the tip of the cave’s stalactite, just some frozen water.

Pedro needs to go back in and do it all over again. But now, time is against him.
While he runs back through the main entrance of the cave, others are returning from their search. He is worried and anxious now that he won’t have enough time.

Feverishly sprinting down tunnels and turning corners Pedro doesn’t know what to do. Until he comes across one of his class mates, Ketuni, trapped behind a glass-like ice wall.

Ketuni had been rushing herself to get to the entrance after finding her crystal. She had followed what she thought was a short-cut from one of the larger caverns. Just as she was coming up the narrow passage leading to the main tunnel near the exit, she realized she was trapped. There was no way she had enough physical strength herself to break the translucent, ice wall. Neither did she have enough time to find another way around.

Ketuni is just about to give up, getting used to the idea of spending days alone in the cave when she notices Pedro rush by. Ketuni calls, “Help! Get me out! Help!”. Pedro faces her through the glass wall. “But I haven’t yet found my crystal. I can’t help you. I have to get going.” And so, preoccupied with his own agenda and needs, he darts off.

But seconds later, perhaps with a change of heart remembering Yoda’s initial instructions to work together, Pedro comes back to the trapped Ketuni. Still without a crystal himself, Pedro takes a sharp rock and breaks a hole through the glass wall big enough to let her out. “Thank you! I’ll help you find yours, now quick!” Ketuni says.

“No, No, you go. There isn’t enough time. Please, get yourself out!” Pedro cries. Reluctantly, yet realizing the truth of what he says, Ketuni runs to the exit. At that moment Pedro notices a crystal glimmering in the broken ice from the hole he made to help Ketuni escape. In his willing sacrifice for her sake, he finds what he is looking for himself. By the end of the story, of course, Pedro makes it out just in the nick of time.

One of the lessons learned from the story is the mutual blessing that comes from paying attention to the needs of the other as the way of discovering your own gift. Our little friend needed to learn the value of trust in working together.

Love, no matter how you define it, is relational. 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.[4]That is, love the other because that is what you seek from them. A primary and fundamental question in any loving relationship is: “How can I best love you?” This brings an interesting implication of living out our faith, in the world: Our deeper needs will be met when we meet the needs of others.

Giving and receiving. Like a vine that is connected to the source. Any part of that vine (the stem, the leaf, the sprig, the sprout) is at any given time both the receiver of nutrients and the giver. It is a conduit. There is constant motion. Stasis does not compute in this picture, this dynamic. Any part of that vine must know what it is like to be both receiver and giver, giver and receiver.

If you can’t trust another to give you help when you need it,

If you can’t receive the love of another, no strings attached,

Then, how can you give it?

Both receiving and giving. Mutuality is thus a hallmark of the agapelove strewn throughout the stories in the Bible.

And flowing in the life of the church today.

We are the beloved. And we are a conduit of that love to the world. Christians are called the world over to ‘add value’ to society. And that value and worth resides in each human being. William Sloan Coffin, in his reflection of love some decades ago, wrote, “God’s love does not seek out value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved. Because we are loved, we have value.”[5]

God does not love us after we prove somehow that we deserve it. God does not love us after we already prove our worth or value. God’s love in the world creates value in each of us and in those we meet whenever we share God’s love.

Whenever we receive love and give love, love is truly the energy that keeps the world going ‘round.

 

[1]1 John 4:7-21, NRSV

[2]Luke 22:42

[3]Greg Pennoyer, ed., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Chalice Press, 2015), p.114-115.

[4]Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31

[5]William Sloan Coffin, “The Courage of Love,” (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p.11

Sanctuary

For a year and a half my wife and I took dance lessons. We learned Latin dances such as the Salsa, Rumba, Samba, Triple-Step, Merengue, and the Cha-Cha. 

I was motivated, at the start, by a beautiful vision in my imagination: I could see my wife and I swinging to the music, sweeping across the dance floor, effortlessly. I had a vision of us moving in complete sync with one another, twirling and swaying together in perfect rhythm and harmony. What a vision!

When I first proposed we take these lessons together, she was all game. So, every week we dutifully went to our lesson and met with our dance instructor who showed us the steps and taught us the moves. We were doing this together!

After a few lessons, however, I was becoming a little bit disappointed. My vision was not panning out. We weren’t always in sync with each other. Indeed, more often than not, we were stepping on each other toes! Oh yes, we giggled about our missteps, but it seemed we were not getting anywhere.

Our instructor calmly yet persistently reminded us that we needed to practice. Before the fun would come, she said, we had to master the steps. And for me, the lead, I had to memorize the patterns and in my mind always be one step ahead, knowing where we were going with each and every move. And this took work! And persistence. And time. The fun would come later, I held on to the promise.

It wasn’t as easy as I imagined it would be, working towards that vision. In fact, it was my wife who grew into the love of the dance and often had to cajole and encourage me to keep up with the program.

The Gospel text (Luke 18:1-8) today describes a woman who is persistent in her pursuit of justice. Jesus tells this parable to illustrate what it means not to lose heart. In the story, persistence is not just about building up the courage to do something beyond one’s comfort zone just once, and then give up because it doesn’t turn out. 

How often, isn’t that how we operate when trying something new for the first time? Something doesn’t please us the way we expected or wanted the first time we try, and so we just give up on it. No, in the story, she goes back “continually”. The vision of justice never wavers in her commitment to do the hard work.

This relentless pestering is accomplished in adversity, and really against all odds. Why the woman would even consider trying, up against someone in power who has no fear of God and no respect for anyone, is remarkable. At the onset, we would say she is hardly setting herself up for success!

Setting up a contrast of visions to describe God, is what Jesus is up to in telling this story. The place where we meet God is a place of mercy, of sanctuary. People, in the course of history, could enter a church and find respite from the condemnation of the law. The police, the authorities, the powers that be, even the force of the law could not touch you in the holy space. Here, you found immediate relief and mercy, just by entering the space.

The place where we exercise our prayer is a place where we receive forgiveness, despite the imperfection and sordid realities of our lives in the world. That is why Jesus tells of a woman receiving justice, not because she goes to the temple per se, but a court of law in the secular world: Even there, you can find justice, despite the unjust and sinful people involved. God’s love is greater even then the most powerful, unjust judge.

Indeed, this is our challenge today. God is not just in one, holy place that we have cherished for the past fifty-five years. God is out there, too! In the imperfection of our Monday-to-Saturday lives. In the imperfection of our secular world. In the seat of government. In the marketplace. And, would you believe it, also in other churches. The truth of the Gospel resides in a worshipping community that is far from perfect. That, in fact, has weakness and brokenness imbedded in our very being together.

When Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), he didn’t hold back any punches, so to speak. He let God have it, and prevailed! His encounter with God, nevertheless, left him with a physical reminder of relationship with God: A bad hip. He would live the rest of his days, “limping because of his hip.” 

To be in communion with the Holy One is to bear the physical, real mark of sacrifice, of weakness, of imperfection. Followers of Christ, if you want to know them, are not perfect people. And if you meet Christians who appear to be perfect — or you want them to be — you are missing the truth of it I am certain. In fact, we would throw our lot in with the unjust judge, more than anyone else in these stories I would guess.

I read recently a story told by Marianne Williamson in her most recent book: “Tears to Triumph”. It’s “about a chimpanzee troop in which a portion of the population displayed depressed behaviour. They didn’t eat with the rest of the chimps, play with the rest of the chimps, or sleep with the rest of the chimps.

“A group of anthropologists wondered what effect the absence of these depressed chimps would have on the rest of the troop and removed them for six months. When they returned, they found that all of the other chimps, those who remained in the troop, had died! Why?

“According to one analysis, the chimps perished because the so-called depressed chimps among them had been their early warning system. The depressed chimps had been depressed for a reason; they registered that a storm was coming or snakes, or elephants, or disease. The presence of the depressed chimps had been an aid to the survival of the entire population … ” (1)

We need each other. We need our faults, you could say, just as much as we need our strengths. To remind us of what it’s all about. To point us to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. To help us remember that the church is not about our mission, but about God’s mission. To emphasize the grace of God under which all of us stand. To encourage us to work together with others that appear different from us. Going to, and persisting with, people that do things differently from us — in some ways better, in other ways not so much — is vital for the health and survival of the whole church.

So, after today we begin an adventure. Worship and faith and life-in-our-community does not stop now because this particular space becomes a construction zone for a couple months. We will continue to worship as a community, as Faith Lutheran Church. Yes we will! 

Our prayer will continue, and we will persist with others who are different from us (and I suspect we will soon discover they are not that much different from us!) at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Being outside our comfort zone is a critical, healthy, spiritual exercise. Should we persist together in this adventure, I believe we will grow in ways that are both vital and healthy to the future of Faith Lutheran Church; persisting together in this adventure will also deepen our walk with God.

I want to encourage you over the next two months to embrace this challenge, not shy away form it, maintain the vision, not lose heart, and pray always! Because God is already and always merciful and just.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment”, HarperOne, New York, 2016, p.84-85

Slo-mo prayer

Everyone’s happy for the extra time off in March. For those in school, children and teachers can enjoy some leisure and vacation time. Then, at the end of the month, comes the extra long, four-day weekend at a time when Spring and warmer weather brightens our days.

Indeed, the holy days are upon us. But it’s not really just party time. It looks like that on the surface or at the start: The singing of hosannas, palm branches waving, praising the coming of the Messiah into Jerusalem riding a … wait. A pony? Is this a joke?

Palm Sunday starts the final leg, so to speak, on our Lenten journey. And what seems on the surface like the start of a holiday (that is, to relax and enjoy some well-earned leisure and play) is in truth an invitation to go deeper and reflect not only on the good life, but to go underneath and look at our suffering and pain. In Christian language, we call it the crosses we bear.

It is time now to look at the big picture of our life without ignoring the present sometimes difficult reality. How can we do that?

This Holy Week we are invited to slow down. And take a deep breath. And be honest, with ourselves and the truth of our lives. Not to grovel in a depressive, morbid mire of self-hate. But to lift to the light everything that has been hidden, kept secret, denied, overlooked, suppressed in the shadows and dark recesses of our hearts. In the end, it can be cause of a deeper joy and freedom; at first, though, it can be distressing and anxious-filled.

The path of Jesus shows us the way through it all. Where Jesus goes and how he does it offers us a way to forgiveness, release and true happiness. But first we must bear our cross. As we slow down, we pray.

Pray. As Jesus, on the night of his arrest, commanded his sleepy disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane not once but twice: “Get up and pray, that you may not come into the time of trail” (Luke 22:40,46). Jesus not only shows us what to pray, but also how to pray.

I follow the Ottawa Senators NHL team on Instagram. And before every game they post a short video montage, lasting no more than 15 seconds or so, of the players getting ready for the big game.

What’s attractive about the video to me, is to see how they splice together several brief clips of various moves the players make on and off the ice: back-slapping a team mate, practising a slap shot, the goalie making a glove save, skating towards the puck, a pre-game ritual.

But what keeps my attention is where the editors choose to speed up and slow down a few of the segments. Strategically done in an appealing way, the montage goes back and forth between periodic slow-motion action clips and real-time moves.

The whole presentation is enhanced because the real time rapid action shots are interspersed with slow motion shots. In fact, because they slow down some of the action, I can appreciate and enjoy a particular move even more — for all the skill and intention it entails.

In other words, it’s not boring. Slowing down, from time to time, actually gives energy. Slowing down, from time to time, gives clarity, focus and meaning to the activity and the whole picture. Slowing down, from time to time, allows me to get a good look at what is actually happening in all that I do.

And that’s what we do when we pray as Jesus did. Throughout his life of ministry, Jesus moved around a lot in the region of Galilee — healing people and teaching them about God. He covered great distances by foot. He didn’t even have a home base. 

But as was his custom, even before suffering betrayal, arrest and branded a criminal to die a horrific death on the cross, Jesus slowed things down. He went to quiet places on a hillside, by himself usually, to pray.

The feeling I have every Palm Sunday is like I’m seeing a video montage of Jesus’ life, ministry, and Passion. Just short segments highlighted with the larger flow of the story. Certain shots are in real time, sometimes even sped up because we also see the cross on Palm Sunday. But then there are the segments that slow right down.

Jesus was already practised in the art of slowing down to pray, so that from the cross came two prayers that can not be rushed, denied, suppressed, hidden: There’s a prayer for forgiveness (“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” – Luke 23:34) and a prayer of relinquishment/release (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” – Luke 23:46). (1)

Whom was Jesus forgiving? The disciples who deserted him, the Roman soldiers who killed him, the ruling religious elite who condemned him to death, yes. Was he forgiving us all forever, for all our sins? This is the Gospel.

Did they “know what they were doing”? Only in part. None of us knows the full extent of our sinning or the full harm we do. God’s forgiveness covers all.

In his prayer of relinquishment, Jesus offers to his Father – Abba – what he has been offering all along: his life into the hands of God who is ever faithful. Jesus quotes Psalm 31, an evening prayer which may very well have been the bedtime prayer for Hebrew children and their parents. It is the prayer of “letting go”.

And Jesus asks his disciples to do the same. So, we can say, especially bearing our own crosses: “O God, take my sticky fingers off the controls, and place my life and life of my loved ones in better hands than mine. In your hands.”

It’s in our nature not to want to slow down. It’s in our nature to go-go-go. Slowing down, being silent and still, forgiving and letting go, is especially difficult in our day and age when we are so used to being stimulated by rapid-fire activity, lots of noise, and when we have total control.

The irony is that our lives of activity and go-go-go will have even more effect should we also intersperse that activity with regular times of slowing down to pray as Jesus did.

It has always been a tradition for Christians to pray silently, to just be, in the presence of God. We pray without having to do a whole lot. And this reminds us that God is already with us, Jesus already loves us and is already doing stuff in the world — even before we do anything. The practice of prayer has given Christians through the centuries great energy and peace for life, even more so had they not made the time for prayer.

If someone would do a video montage of your life to date — reviewing all the things you have done, places you’ve visited, people you’ve been with — would it also include shots of you being silent, still, praying by yourself and with others?

I think that would make a really cool video!

(1) – H. Stephen Shoemaker in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” Year C, Volume 2, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2009, p.183

Grant us peace

This evening we find ourselves at the threshold of all that Christmas anticipates. Our sight is therefore narrowly focused on the immediate. After all the waiting and the long journey, Mary and Joseph have finally arrived at the place of nativity, in Bethlehem.

And, like any expectant father and mother, they find themselves embroiled in the hustle and bustle that immediately precedes birth. Christmas Eve is therefore all about a sense of ‘place’.

Everything happens here, on this holy night. We are drawn to this place in this time to remember and re-enact what happened on that very first, special holy night. At one moment in history, God entered the world on that first Christmas. In a specific time, at a specific place — the town of Bethlehem.

The children re-created the version of the Christmas story according to Luke. And they made sure we got into the roles and felt that sense of place — the innkeeper’s door, the manger scene in that town surrounded by shepherd’s fields under a starry night.

It was that small, dusty, ordinary, rather plain and dull place that was to receive the greatest gift of all time — the gift of God incarnate. Bethlehem was the scene of the glorious host of heaven entering into the world. But, “How could anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the condescending yet prevalent attitude expressed by an early disciple of Jesus (John 1:46). How could it be that Bethlehem and its ragtag cast of characters would receive this gift?

Indeed, receiving gifts is just as important as giving gifts at Christmas. I think, in our achievement, accomplishment and success -oriented culture, it is more difficult to truly open our hearts and unconditionally receive a gift of great joy. When we don’t feel like we have to somehow return the favour, or earn it by our hard work. I think for many of us busy-bodies, to stop and just be — before any active response — is tough to do.
We are so used to ‘providing for’, doing it, giving it, expending our energy, performing, succeeding; or, God-forbid failing at succeeding, accomplishing by our acts of heroism — to care for another, to make it happen for others. We are compulsive in our drive to be a champion of something or another.

You’d think we were the Messiah coming to save the world by observing some of our actions.

I heard from several of you this Advent how you haven’t this time around either decorated or baked or ‘checked off the list’ all the things you’ve normally done in years past. And this was cause for moments of anxiety: “Would Christmas be the same?” And what a gift it was to hear from you confess that, indeed, Christmas has come to you at a more meaningful level as ever before.

Could it be, because we are slowly learning, simply, to receive the gift that comes, despite us?

One of the oldest prayers and carols in the Christian tradition, originally expressed in Latin: Dona Nobis Pacem — give us peace. “Peace on earth” is the purpose of Christ-coming. The peace we seek in our lives. And for that to happen, we need first to relinquish our Messianic compulsions. We need to recognize and accept our human limitations. And that is good. Because when we can release our grip — or at least loosen it for a moment — could we, then, have peace.

O Little Town of Bethlehem signifies this gift of peace. Why? Precisely because it is un-spectacular. It is not an exceptional town in the region of Nazareth. You would not find Bethlehem listed prominently in the Frommer’s tour guide books from the 1st century. Maybe that’s why it took the Magi some time to get there. It’s like one of the ‘if you blink you’ll miss it’ crossroad hamlets that dot the rural landscape of our land.

If you drive down highway 41 south from Pembroke through Eganville towards Denbigh, you pass by one of those blue-coloured town signs with the word “Khartoum” written on it. Khartoum, Ontario — do you know it? It is actually a town — but you might count three houses driving by amidst the pine, spruce and rock-lined, winding roadway. Khartoum is like the Bethlehem of Ontario.
Perhaps because expectations are low. Why so many don’t have peace at Christmas is because expectations are so crazy and unreasonable at this time of year. Again, assuming ‘we make Christmas happen’. But this is not the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not make Christmas happen.

The Gospel — the good news — of Christmas is that the baby Jesus had to rely on this ragtag cast of characters to survive. The holy child, the divine made flesh, the almighty God — became vulnerable. God had to wait. God had to receive the gift of these imperfect characters, these unimpressive, un-extraordinary people. Jesus the baby had to receive their gifts of protection, love, care, and support. In order to be the greatest gift for us, God had to receive our imperfect gifts. God waits to receive our imperfect gifts, our offerings, our giving.

I’m learning something as I begin the second half of my life: The art of letting God come to me. It’s not dissimilar from the the concept espoused by those who coach sports, who advise: “Let the game come to you.” They make reference, of course, to players and teams on a winning streak who play loosely, who are not trying too hard, who don’t hold their sticks or bats too tightly; And, who nevertheless concentrate, who are in the flow, in the zone. Yes.

But they are not making it happen. They are not driving it too hard. Doing too much. Nor are they over-stating their presence, pushing it. Let it come to you, rather than trying to make it happen — this is the practical yet difficult challenge at Christmas.

Christian writer and teacher, Henri Nouwen, wrote: “Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid, and let God …be our companion”. Allow God — whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend — come to us. (Henri Nouwen, “Gracias!” in “Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M Nouwen”)

A birthing experience will force all closely involved into a receptive state of being — as uncomfortable as that might be for some of us control freaks. We do need to just let it happen when it will. Let the gift come to us.

The unconditional love, unconditional positive regard, the faithfulness of God in us, the trust of the baby Jesus — these truths bring us all to a level playing field. There is no them-and-us. There is no outsider in God’s realm. There is no hierarchy of social standing. There is no moral-achievement program here. There is no ladder to climb.

Rather, God climbs down the ladder to us, just as we are. Because God’s love for us is so great. That is the message of Christmas. That is the peace that we seek.

Let there be peace on earth and goodwill among all people! Merry Christmas!

Questioning for the truth

Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34)

Well over a hundred times in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) Jesus asks a question. Jesus, the Teacher, does not give answers as much as he asks the right question.

And the question aims to reveal the truth. Good teachers will ask questions. And those who learn, who follow, will appreciate the importance of understanding the question.

Laurence Freeman tells of a time in his youth when he struggled with math in school. Finally he and some of his friends went to a bookstore in London, England, and found a copy of the math textbook they were using in class. The teacher’s edition had all the answers in the back.

Overnight, his marks shot up. Succeeding in math was no longer a problem. But the problem was that even though he had all the right answers, he still didn’t understand the questions. He was no better off in learning anything.

As people of faith living in this time of history, are we not so preoccupied with finding the right answers? We want answers to questions about ordinary life as much as the biggies — life after death, the nature of God, the final judgement, the end times, who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. We want answers. And, we will be satisfied only with right answers.

And yet, the point of the Christian life is to understand what is behind the question. Jesus uncovers the truth by helping others understand what the questions mean. We ought to appreciate this, since Jesus often “answered” a question by asking another question, as is the case in this trail scene with Pilate.

What is Jesus getting at with Pilate? In truth, as many have indicated, this scene might better be called “Pilate on trial”. Pilate, though supposedly in control, is completely trapped in fear. Pilate’s line of questioning betrays his his true goals. And his captivity.

These days it is common to speak of defining one’s values and clarifying one’s goals in life. Othersie we drift, rudderless. Without setting goals we become guilty of living LBWA (Life By Wandering Around). Or, without taking the effort and time to articulate values and goals, we become subject to “the tyranny of the immediate” and react to events rather than doing that which is most meaningful to us. Being honest and open with our values and deepest desires is not an easy task. Yet honestly living out of our deepest held values makes us more authentic and real. (1)

Pilate’s true goals? Being honest could not be the true goal of Pilate. Rather, staying in power had to be his aim. Authenticity would have to be thrown out the window. He questioned Jesus to find a technicality on which to condemn Jesus — in order to appease the crowd and religious leaders. “So, you are a king?” is a question designed to catch Jesus in a capital offense.

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus asks. Is Pilate not bound in his effort to stay in control? Is that not Pilate’s real goal, regardless of the cost — to stay in control of his life ‘as is’? Pilate is trapped. I have the feeling Pilate has to hide his true convictions, his honest questions, and his haunting fears. Jesus sees right through the smoke and mirrors.

There, before Pilate, Jesus seeks to encounter the real Pilate, the one who in truth is utterly trapped in his desperate effort to stay in control. There, Jesus gives himself to be with the true person who is Pilate. There, Jesus invites Pilate to be vulnerable, transparent, to share how it is with him, to utter the truth of his own life. (2)

My uncle living in Poland tells of a time at the end of the Second World War when the Soviets established control over Eastern Europe. My uncle, a German by origin, felt trapped. Caring for his wife and two young girls in an economically depressed part of Europe, he faced a significant decision to ‘prove’ himself: He could either reject the offer to become a card-holding member of the Communist party — which would be consistent with his beliefs — but face the potentially dire consequences. Or, as it turned out to be, he ‘paid his dues’ and became officially a Communist.

I remember he spoke to me years ago about how difficult that was. On Sundays he would sneak in and out of church through a back door to avoid scrutiny by the authorities. He and his family enjoyed the security and material benefits of his decision. Yet, on a deeper level he never felt entirely at ease with his decision, living a double life.

I share this not to condemn my uncle. In the same breath I sympathize with Pilate. I would struggle with and probably make similar decisions if I were in their shoes. My point is that living the truth is not an easy, simplistic reality in our world.

In our encounter with the living Lord and King, Jesus Christ, we are invited nevertheless to strive for the truth. We are invited to be authentic, transparent, vulnerable. We are invited to share the utter truth of our lives with one another in the church — the Body of Christ. We are called to face the truth about our lives, the truth Jesus holds up before us. We must look at what is right and what is wrong in our actions and attitudes towards others and within ourselves. As Emilie Townes puts it, we must “look deeply into who we are and what we have become, to try to live into what we can and should be.” (3)

I agree with those who say that people are leaving the church today not because they reject the teaching of Jesus. They are leaving the church because of the actions of those in the church. The problem is not what we say we believe. Truth is not simply born out of an intellectual discourse and debate. The problem is the actions — or lack thereof — that are supposed to flow from what we say we believe, into every dark corner of our lives.

Is not the truth Jesus wants us to see, what we are doing with our lives? Our behaviour? What we say to others? Our decisions? Is it possible to speak of truth as something that is done, rather than something that is merely believed or thought of?

We therefore challenge ourselves to look beyond what we think, to the truth found in God, as represented by Jesus. Jesus encounters us daily to help uncover the deeper truth of our lives, and invites us to speak and act authentically out of that truth which is larger than any of us individually. Our encounter with Jesus pulls us out of our self-centredness into that expansive, eternal realm that is the kingdom of God. And we act, beginning in our lives on earth according to the values of the Reign of Christ.

“Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus to Pilate. Even to Pilate Jesus offers to be the good shepherd – the good shepherding king – who, when his sheep listen to his voice, are led into abundant life. (John 10)

God the creator is love and grace. The truth of God comes from beyond our hypocrisy and failures. The truth of God comes from outside of our sordid and mis-guided attempts to act accordingly. The truth of God comes from a divine heart that is willing to put Jesus’ life on the line, for us. Jesus giving of his whole life for our sake speaks of an ultimate action, despite ours, that is all love, forgiveness and grace.

This truth can help us sort through all that competes in life for our attention and energy. We may encounter truth as a challenge from God. But it is also a gift God gives to us through infinite love and grace.

(1) Paul R. Trimm, “Successful Self-Management; Increasing Your Personal Effectiveness” Revised Edition, Logical Operations, 2015, p.14-19

(2) Pete Peery in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 4, WJK Press, 2009, p.333-337

(3) ibid., p.336