Healing with others

In worship, we pray regularly for problems in the world. We do this partly because we are not disconnected from the consequence of conflict in far-off places. Neither are we, in large part, innocent from the causes of these conflicts.

The growing conflict in the Ukraine affects the whole world. This problem is not isolated in its implications for the well-being of people everywhere. For example, a couple of days ago, the markets in Europe and North America tumbled. Especially in Moscow – where the rubble sank to its lowest value in decades and their stock market lost 11%, or some 60 billion dollars, of value in one day. Russia holds the highest reserve of natural gas in the world.

We might very well feel the effects of this crisis in our global economy. The markets dipped because of the fear that shipping of natural resources from Russia through the Black Sea will be disrupted. Hence, the price of oil goes up.

I mention the economic problems not to neglect the more important issues surrounding violence, loss of life, and respect for nationhood that is being stripped from the people of Ukraine at this time. But, only to underscore the truth of our inter-connected, inter-related and interdependent reality – both for good, and for bad.

Both the texts from Isaiah (58:1-12) and Matthew (6:1-6,16-21) that we read this evening on Ash Wednesday call our attention and some criticism to practicing our faith apart from a social awareness. It’s not so much to condemn fasting per se, for example, but what is motivating that fast.

After all, Moses fasted for 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27-28); Elijah fasted for 40 days and nights on that same mountain in response to the call of God (1 Kings 19:7-12); And Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before being tested by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). During his earthly ministry, Jesus often went off to be by himself to pray (e.g. Luke 6:12).

But the difference is whether that fast or prayer is motivated ultimately by self-interest; or, an interest to help others. Isaiah (58:3-7) is quiet clear to focus the attention of the Israelites on acts of social care. Isaiah is among those prophets who say that the Lord does not want our ritual sacrifices (Micah 6:6-8), but the sacrifice of our hearts (Psalm 51:16-17) for the sake of others. Matthew reiterates the pious, self-centred worship when he records Jesus’ indictment: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

Over these forty days and forty nights that we call Lent, our mid-week worship will focus on the healing ministry of our church, according to the liturgy in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Book (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006, p.276).

The discipline of healing is an important theme in the Christian life; and we will be fortunate to hear the testimonies of several people from the church who will share their experience of healing; we will also practice the laying on of hands and anointing with oil that grounds our practice in tangible ways. We come to this discipline freely, unforced, and open to the promise of God (e.g. Isaiah 58:8-12).

But lest we, too, fall in the trap of making healing something that is the sole purview of our individual, abstract, isolated, disconnected-from-the-real-world selves, I encourage us to reflect on the way we do this work for one another, and its effect on the world around us.

Yuriy Derkach is the chaplain at Algonquin College. He is a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Community here in Ottawa. We met last week to get caught up, reflect on the situation in his homeland. And, pray together.

He told me of an Orthodox discipline that some practice every year on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, around the giving and receiving of forgiveness. In addition to recognizing the personal aspect of forgiveness between people that know each other, they also ‘ritualize’ the inter-connected effect of forgiveness on the community.

So, a few of them go into the downtown core of Ottawa, walk the streets, and meet total strangers. There, on the street corner, and quite genuinely, they ask the homeless for forgiveness, recognizing their own complicity in creating the problem of poverty in the world today. After receiving a word of forgiveness, they also offer forgiveness.

Yuriy believes this practice has a domino or butterfly affect. We may not go into downtown Ottawa and meet total strangers with words of forgiveness. But reflect, for a moment, on the power of forgiveness: When you throw a pebble into a still pond of water and see the ripples expanding outward, so, too, when you give and receive forgiveness the stratosphere is affected. Similar to the proverb you may have heard that when a butterfly bats its wings in Japan, a tornado is spawned in the American mid-west. When we pronounce words of promise, forgiveness and affirmation – as we do intentionally to one another in the liturgy for healing – we affect the atmosphere and ‘climate’ of the community around us.

It goes both ways: When we carry around anger and express hatred to those we meet during the day, it may very well have a net negative, global consequence. But imagine, should words of affirmation, healing, and love come from our hearts to those we meet and relate to on the streets of our daily lives, and in the church – what affect that may have in the world? Not fear. But hope.

One of the passages from the bible that has also challenged me from the lips of Jesus, is when he said: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). Yuriy gave me a wonderful interpretation of that passage. Using the analogy of running the race, which St. Paul uses (1 Cor 9:24), he said if those at the front hold hands with those at the back; and those at the back hold hands with those at the front; then, everyone can cross the finish line together. Then, indeed, the first are the last, and the last are the first.

Healing is not done alone. Whatever that healing is, it doesn’t happen in an earthly vacuum, by ourselves and in our heads alone. Very likely, there are always people around, people who care, people who reach out to touch another with loving intent.

We are as much a part of what is happening across this world, for good and for bad. We are, each and every one of us, in need of forgiveness and healing for what we have done, known and unknown, to cause hurt in another. And we are, each and every one of us, capable of affecting the world positively in small acts of kindness with God’s love.

Let it be so, this Lent.

And though we may at times stumble and fail, we will not give up. Because God’s word is true: Our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly; the glory of the Lord shall be our rearguard; we will call, and the Lord will answer; God will satisfy the needs of the afflicted; our light shall rise in the darkness; the Lord will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places and make our bones strong; we shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail; our ancient ruins will be rebuilt; we shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:8-12).

Let it be so, this Lent.

Saintly connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

Doing God Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

Get lost!

It’s not every day you hear a bishop tell you to ‘Get lost!’

So, we paid attention. Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Shori of the Episcopal Church in the United States quoted in her address to the Joint Assembly a retired New York bishop dismissing the people at the end of Holy Communion; instead of saying, ‘Go in peace and serve the Lord!’ he said: “Get up! Get out! Get lost!”

Get up. Get out. Get lost. … Excuse me?

Instinctively the Gospel story (Luke 10:25-37) asks us to relate to the Samaritan in each of us – the part of us that wants to care for another, to show mercy.

But we seek clarification, more specific instruction. On whom should we focus our caring? We may echo the lawyer’s question: Who is, then my neighbor?

Get up and get out, yes. But on condition: To show mercy to my loved ones. To those I choose to help, on my terms, according to my schedule and beliefs, to those who are like-minded and belong to my church?

But then aren’t we really behaving like the priest and the Levite in the story? For all we can tell, they could have been on their way to performing some great act of kindness to family members, to members of their religious community. They may have been called to a pastoral emergency. They may have just received word that a loved one was taken ill, or dying.

Whatever the case, the priest and the Levite were walking down that road between Jerusalem and Jericho – a dangerous road by all accounts – with purpose and intent. Whether they were motivated by self-preservation or a private, personal mission – they missed something.

It’s not just about showing mercy, but about showing mercy in a particular way and circumstance that pulls us beyond our selfish preoccupations.

At the Joint Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada, both churches confessed that the church is facing challenging times in fulfilling its mission. How can the church not only survive, but thrive, moving forward into a very complex future and social reality?

A theologian from South India teaching now in the United States, Rev. Dr. Christopher Duraisingh, challenged the Joint Assembly to consider a reversal of thinking. He said that normally we think first of the church; that is, taking care of the church – its institution, its maintenance, its membership. And we believe that if we take care first of the church – then we will discover our mission; that is, what it is we are supposed to do.

But, Duraisingh said, it’s got to be the other way around: First, we do mission. And when we take the risk to engage God’s mission in the world, then we will find the church. Very challenging and prophetic words, I find. First, we look to what God is doing and calling us to do out there – and do it. And when we do, we will discover not only the church, but a reinvigorated, revitalized and renewed church.

Part of the difficulty of appreciating this notion of the church (i.e. being first concerned about mission to the world) is that we miss the emphasis in the Bible on social justice. You see, many of the first hearers of these stories that were later written down, were persecuted people themselves – the poor, the marginalized, the persecuted, the enslaved. They could relate in a way privileged societies couldn’t.

That’s why it’s so important for us who seek renewal, both in our personal lives but also in the church, to focus our attention ‘out there’. And befriend those who are poor. They may have something to teach us.

We ‘get up’ from our complacency and denial and avoidance of the issues facing our lives. We begin to see fresh possibilities and dream big dreams of God’s kingdom on earth.

Then, we ‘get out’ of the comfortable pew. We courageously and boldly step out of our comfort zones to go places we never thought possible to care for those who interrupt our self-preoccupied lives.

And, then, we ‘get lost’. Get lost?

In order to show mercy, we must also be willing and open to receive mercy. And that mercy, according to this most famous story of the New Testament, comes from a most unexpected person. The part of us that is the man coming down from Jerusalem – likely a Jew, then – who is attacked by robbers, stripped bear and vulnerable, and left to die by the side of the road …

From where does mercy come to him? Jews and Samaritans hated each other, embroiled in a doctrinal conflict over where to worship God; Jews upheld the Jerusalem temple, while Samaritans did not.

Mercy comes from an enemy. Mercy and grace come from the least likely person we would imagine to help us. That is why this story is so radical, so cutting edge, so uncomfortable. This is not just about being nice to people. This story is about challenging each one of us in our presuppositions about who is in and who is not.

Grace and mercy is offered to us even when we have the courage to see God’s presence in the least expected places in our lives.

So, let’s “Get lost!” Get lost to our self-centered, self-righteous selves. Let’s “Get lost!” to the pretense that we are always right. Let’s let go to let God show us what God is up to and the grace and mercy God wants to show us from people we would least expect it to come from.

Get up! Get out! Get lost!

Amen.

The cost of invitation? Still, love.

A preacher I heard once illustrated the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) by giving his farming community the analogy of tilling straight rows in a field. When Jesus says, you can’t plow a field by looking backwards, the challenge is put to keep looking forward. Good advice, especially if you are interested in making your rows straight.

But, you can’t be looking just in front of your feet, the preacher went on to say. You look at a tree or fence post at the opposite end of the field you are tilling, and aim for that. The trick is, you have to keep your eyes set on that tree in the distance — without wavering — while you make your way across. This is the best way of making sure your lines are straight. A good illustration for living the Christian life, right?

But, I’ve wondered, what happens if the fog rolls in or the heat of the late day causes the horizon to shimmer? What happens when the goal in the distance is blurred by climatic circumstances you have no control over? What to do when you can’t see or experience the ‘goal’ even though you know what that goal is supposed to be?

I’m no farmer. But I remember in my first parish in southern Ontario, I was immersed in the farming culture of working the land. Most of the farmers in the region between London and Stratford worked on large swaths of land.

The farmers in the area also worked hard to introduce me, a city-boy at heart, to their pastoral lifestyle. And they were very patient and loving about it. Once I was invited to sit for hours in an air-conditioned, hi-tech cabin of a gigantic tractor as we traversed the rolling fields tilling the land.

One aspect of following Jesus that jumps out in the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) is the cost of being a disciple. It’s hard, because attachments to material security are jeopardized in the mission of Jesus — “Foxes have holes and birds have nests” but Jesus has no place to call home. Jesus implies that those who would risk following him must expect and count on losing something of value to them. Are they up for it?

Last week when Michael Harvey spoke to a large group of Lutherans and Anglican in Ottawa, he put it out there that he didn’t know how Canadians — who are so concerned about offending everyone and apologize for everything — would deal with the challenge to invite people to church. He said that we’re so worried that we might lose a friend, our reputation, or upset someone.

Consequently, we lock ourselves into un-healthy and un-Gospel patterns of uninviting. And he challenged us to consider not so much our IQ (a quotient signifying intelligence) but our NQ (our ability to deal with rejection when people respond, ‘no’, to our invitation).

He also reminded us that the challenge is to invite — and not worry or be concerned about whether or not people respond positively to our invitation. That’s God’s bit, he said. It’s not about us — whether people come to Christ or the church or ‘arrive’ at their spiritual awakening. Our job is simply to invite and remember we are part of God’s larger plan that we can’t fully see right now.

The disciples want to bring the fire of God down upon the Samaritans who rejected them. Recalling the prophet Elijah’s act of vengeance when he called upon fire from the heavens to usurp his enemies (1 Kings 18:36-40) and eventually destroy them, the disciples of Jesus feel justified in their request. Good on them, right?

But Jesus turns the impulse on its head. God’s thoughts are not human thoughts; God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). This Lukan Gospel reminds us again, and again: The way for Christians to deal with detractors is not revenge and violence, but a ‘letting go’ kind of love. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says (Luke 6:27-35). This is what we’re about, as followers of Jesus. In case anyone was wondering.

Moreover, the table-turning, rug-pulling response of Jesus gives us a clue to the character of God, and God’s kingdom.

Under God’s reign, even when we don’t get it right, we need not fear the fury of God. God’s response to our misdeeds and disobedience is not punishment and vengeance. God will not send down fire to incinerate us and our evil ways.

God will heal us by the ‘no strings attached’ method of love. Not forced upon us nor coerced out of us by obligation, guilt, slick marketing or manipulation, Jesus’ approach is nevertheless uncompromising. Jesus ‘sets his face to Jerusalem’ amidst the conflicts of his earthly journey.

In Jerusalem awaits the Cross — the place of his self-giving, costly love for us. We need not fear God. Only an opportunity missed for extending the message and gift of hope and the experience of unconditional love. Do we bind ourselves in our sin? Do we lock ourselves into patterns of self(ish)-preservation? Or, do we freely give of ourselves in acts of hospitality and generosity towards others?

Even though southern Alberta suffered greatly in the wake of the floods there, what has astounded so many is the generosity of people there and across Canada to help. So many invitations to find shelter in other people’s homes not affected by the flood rendered some of the temporary shelters irrelevant. In the time of crisis, people just helped where they could. The gifts of hospitality were given by invitation to those who had no place to lay their heads.

What we do in worship is a sign and symbol of what we do in the world. For example, in the Christian ritual and sacrament of Holy Communion, the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar by the people gathered. Later, the consecrated food comes back from the altar to be served to those who first brought it forward.

Whenever we are willing to give and hand over for the sake of others, is returned to us as the gift of Jesus Christ in us. I am sure that many affected by the floods in Alberta experienced the loving presence of Jesus through the invitation of others in their act of generosity.

In the early grades especially, when my kids brought their scribbles and drawings from school, they showed and offered us parents their artwork. We put their work on the fridge door for all to see. I noticed how much pride they had, brimming with satisfaction and delight.

The gift (not perfect), when given, is returned, hundredfold; when we exercise some courage and risk-taking to share the gift of Christ with others (not alone), we will be blessed to receive Christ’s loving, forgiving, gracious presence in us — and people will notice.

I don’t know what motivated my farmer friend in southern Ontario to invite me to ride with him in his tractor. It can be a lonely job, farming, all by yourself on acres and acres of fields. He was proud to tell me the tricks of his trade, tilling the earth row upon row. It was a gracious exchange, a friendly encounter and ultimately affirming for both of us. Out of that invitation and experience together, I believe, we both were encouraged on the ways of our unique and separate lives.

Whatever challenges we face or losses we endure on the field of life and on our journeys towards the goal, when we take those risks and do it together, I believe we will experience the affirmation of our journey and be blessed by the steadfast, uncompromising love of God in Christ Jesus.

Faith = Trust

Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t believe everything people say to you, especially if they are selling you something. Don’t trust politicians. If you want it done right, do it yourself ….

Reads like a charter for good living, eh?

Advice we give our children from a young age is meant to help us become street-wise, life-smart, common sense practicing members of society. We develop our sensibilities so that we can be safe and secure, survive and even flourish in a dog-eat-dog world of violence, competition, and rabid individualistic advancement and fortitude.

When I participated in the 5K event at Ottawa’s Race Weekend which attracted over 40,000 to the nation’s capital for Canada’s largest annual marathon event, thoughts of the Boston Marathon bombings a month ago came to mind. I couldn’t help but heed Federal Minister for Public Safety Vic Toews’ recent advice, for the public to remain ‘vigilant’ in a dangerous, scary world in which we live.

Remaining constantly vigilant sets the wise apart from the naive. And yet, I also can’t help but wonder about the damage we do to our lives of faith when we so readily consume the propaganda and messaging of the dominant culture of our day. I’m not saying that to be faithful is to be naive. But if we are a people of faith, then we need to re-discover a quality of faith suppressed by our culture.

Again, this time while teaching the Lutheran Course to a group of new members and other adults in our church community, I was asked: “Doesn’t faith mean ‘belief’?”

I wouldn’t doubt that belief is part of what it means to have faith — that is, to believe in a set of propositions about God: Jesus is the divine Son of God who came to save the world from the powers of the devil and sin, etc., etc.

But a quality of faith, picked up by Martin Luther and other teachers over the centuries, that is often overlooked is: trust. The expression of trust in our relationships — primarily, to trust God — demonstrates faith as much as, even more than, belief.

To trust another is a quality shown clearly by the God-fearing, Gentile centurion in the Gospel of Luke 7:1-10. It doesn’t right away jump out at me, after a first reading of this story about the healing of a slave. Underlying the interactions among the characters in this story, nevertheless, is the quality of faith. Jesus even concludes his dialogue by acclaiming the centurion’s faith (v.9).

A couple of plot points underscore the trust that is demonstrated in the story. First, never in Luke’s account does Jesus actually meet the centurion face-to-face. Moreover, never does Jesus actually touch the slave whom he heals. The principle characters in this story never meet!

Relationally, this is troubling, since I for one always value direct communication. I hesitate when ‘third parties’, middle management, or ‘a friend told me’ methods are used to get a message across. I ask myself: Why didn’t the centurion go directly to Jesus with his request? Let’s just say, I’m not very trusting of social triangles.

For starters, the centurion shows a pure, simple trust in others. He trusts the Jewish leaders to make a convincing argument to Jesus. He then trusts his good friends to advocate on his behalf. Trust imbues these relationships. The centurion’s faith is based precisely in trusting others, and not in depending solely on himself to ‘get the job done right’.

The centurion also, and significantly, trusts Jesus. But, more to the point, he trusts Jesus the person, not in any perceived magical abilities Jesus would have. In Jesus’ day, people believed direct contact with the person mediating the healing was necessary (see Luke 5:17, 6:19). There’s more here than someone seeking a magical, instantaneous snapping-of-fingers cure to a problem. This is not a mechanical spirituality being described.

What we witness is someone putting their trust in — literally — the word of Jesus. Jesus need only “speak the word” (v.7) from a distance. His power is beyond the limits of earthly perception. It is indeed super-natural, divine. The centurion trusts in what Jesus says.

This story reveals something two-handed. It’s a paradox. Very ‘Lutheran’, I might add! The centurion calls himself unworthy (v.6), even as he is hailed among the Jewish leaders as very much worthy to receive the help of Jesus (v.4). Which is it? Well, not either/or but both/and! Unworthy to earn favour with God by one’s own efforts to perfection. Unworthy to espouse individualistic self-righteousness as a deserving of God’s attention.

But very much worthy of God’s attention because another says so. Worthy because of who Jesus is. Worthy because Jesus makes it so, by God’s grace, mercy, and unconditional love.

So, in the end, Jesus trusts. Jesus trusts the Jewish leaders’ appeal. Jesus trusts the centurion’s friends’ advocacy. And, above all, Jesus trusts in the worthiness of the slave whom he hasn’t met during his visit to Capernaum by the Sea. Jesus heals someone ‘at a distance’, because the slave, too, is a beloved creation of God. Jesus has faith in the worthiness — the inherent value — of one who is, in the social structure of the day, not considered very worthy at all, someone at the lowest rung in society — a lowly slave.

The slave demonstrated faith. He or she did not recite a Creed nor prove their beliefs before getting healed. The slave was literally at the mercy of life and death. The slave, according to the New King James Version, was “ready to die” (v.2). The slave was ready to place their life in the hands of the Maker. The slave demonstrated a deep trust to let go and surrender, at the end. To the one who can let go into the arms of God who will never let us go, healing and wholeness comes.

God is faithful to us, even in death. God is faithful to us, even as we may not consider ourselves worthy of God’s love. Jesus healing power is available to us, even as we may feel distant from God. So, in bold faith, let us move forward and enter the door of God’s realm of mercy. For God is faithful.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Marriage is a dance

Dear couple,

You took ballroom dancing a while ago. And quite a few times this experience came up in our conversations.

So much in the image of dancing relates to the couple relationship in marriage. If you can hold the image, for a moment, of a couple engaged in a dance, let me reflect on what this experience can teach us about a healthy marriage.

Marriage is a dance. Usually someone takes the lead, and the other follows. But, depending on the music, the roles might reverse. Sometimes in marriage when circumstances change, health challenges mount, or when certain stresses pile up, the one who usually follows might need to take the lead for a while; whether it’s taking care of the other, or simply giving a little bit more time and love. Other times, the roles might need to reverse, again.

The first message here is to remain flexible in your roles and learn to give and receive when called upon. Rigidity and inflexibility are not signs of a healthy marriage; being flexible and fluid with roles and responsibilities, are.

Secondly, in a dance, couples sometimes dance together and sometimes apart. Kahlil Gibran (“On Marriage”) wrote about the blessing we find in the spaces between us. Honouring our differences and the important function of our individuality in a relationship is just as important as the togetherness part.

In truth, respecting boundaries may even be more important because in doing so we recognize our unique gifts and contribution to the relationship. Instead of pretending we have to be the same and merge our concept of self – blend it – with the other until we lose a sense of unique self, we learn to complement one another in mutual love.

Indeed, there is a time in the dance where we need to ‘let go’ of holding the other’s hand and dance separately: Pursuing our unique hobbies and interests, spending some time with our own friends, asserting one’s own opinion vis-à-vis the other – these are examples of a healthy individuality within a committed couple relationship, a vital characteristic of the ensemble.

Mutual and reciprocal love also means that when a mistake is made, or a mis-step as in a dance, both individuals in the partnership have to face the problem. Both are affected. When one of you messes up, both of you are thrown off course. And in that moment of confession and realization of the problem, you are left facing each other. And what will you do in that moment?

When you’ve described this situation to me, I was glad to hear that in the dance you tried to regroup, and get back into sync with each other and the music. And carried on. Because mistakes will be made, to be sure. In marriage, when one partner slips, we often think: “Well, that’s HIS problem.” Or, “that’s HER problem.” “They need to fix it;” “They need to get help.” “It’s not my problem.”

Actually, it is. The mutual nature of a healthy relationship means that just as much as it takes two to tango into a problem, it will take two to tango to resolve the problem and manage it. Any problem or conflict in a relationship carries with it mutual responsibility – causing it and resolving it. Accepting this truth will go a long way to getting a couple back into the dance.

For example, whether or not you directly exhibit symptoms of a problem that affect the relationship, you ask yourself: How did I contribute to causing this? What is my culpability? Was there something I was doing, or not doing, to allow this problem to grow? And, what is my role in solving the problem? What can I do to improve and help the situation?

In order to get back on track, both sides of the question need to be addressed by each partner.

Finally, the broad context of a dance is a party, right? Let’s not forget this: At a party, you dance. It is a joyous event, something to be celebrated. Like marriage, and this wedding day, you are surrounded by a community. Marriage is a public act, supported by others around you. Your friends, your family and your church gather to celebrate and give thanks for your decision to be married.

And, what is more, we’re having a ball! It is a party. Take the time to look around you today at the faces of those who have come to support you and pray for you. These are the people who have walked with you and promise to continue walking – and dancing on the dance floor – with you on the journey of life. Marriage calls us, in the end, not to retreat and isolate ourselves from, but to engage with our community and our world in meaningful and productive ways. Marriage is a reflection – a witness – to God’s purposes in the world.

The music is the source of our dancing and our partying. The music is the reason for our joy in marriage. The music is like God’s presence. It is always there for us. God’s love, God’s peace, God’s Word – are available to us. God’s grace is the beat – the rhythm – that gives life to our movement with one another.

And for this, we are eternally thankful!

Dance on!