Luke’s holy: resurrection account

The Gospel of Luke from the Bible is unique, as are all the four Gospels, in telling the story of the resurrection of Jesus. A few details stand out to describe Luke’s understanding of what constitutes — obviously — a holy moment.

When the women — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, among others — came to the garden to find the stone rolled away and an empty tomb, they were “perplexed” (Luke 24:4). In this moment of confusion, angelic beings in luminous clothes appear and stand before them. The women’s response? Do they fight? Do they high tail it out of there? Do they scream?

They fall to the ground, heads touching the earth. They are frightened, as any human likely would be. Yet, their response to an inexplicable, incredible, other-worldly event happening right before their eyes is to honour silence, stillness in a humble stance. It is from this moment of stillness that they then receive the good news — Jesus is alive!

Holy is not of our making. When holy happens, it is not something we manipulate, manufacture and create. Holy is something that we receive and to which we respond in humility.

The Gospeller Luke prepares the reader for this understanding of holy in the very first verse of his resurrection account (Luke 24:1). He brings notice to why the women came to the garden early in the morning, in the first place: “…they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” They came to fulfill their duty — the spices they brought were used to anoint the body in death. This was their common practice. Nothing extraordinary here. Just doing their job.

Luke implies that it is in fulfilling our regular commitments — to one another — in our daily lives which sets the stage for holy happening. We don’t need to climb mountains, or fly in space or make a million dollars in order to experience a holy moment. Just doing our job, whatever it is — faithfully — is the prelude for a holy encounter.

Something the angels say in verse 5 suggests another gift the women already have in their hearts — a holy hope. Not only are the women faithful by getting up early the day after much sorrow and grief (you’d think they deserve to sleep in!), they also — unbeknownst to them — have been harboring a secret hope. They really haven’t given up on Jesus. The angels ask, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead?”

Are the angels just being coy in making the point that Jesus is alive? Or, are they affirming what the women, almost unconsciously to that point, seek, yearn for, expect from the Lord? Don’t the women deep down hope and desire to see Jesus again? Indeed, they are seeking the living Lord. They just happen to be in a graveyard in fulfilling their duty to anoint the body, when the angels appear. The angels, in other words, are saying to them: “Go on! Don’t spend too much time here. What, or whom, you look for is not in a cemetery. What, or whom, you desire is where life is found. Go!”

I sometimes wonder whether we Christians don’t underestimate the gift of faith already burrowing deep within our hearts. What we sometimes need, do we not, are people in our lives who will affirm that faith, not criticize it, lift it out of us, not squash it down, validate it, not dismiss it, accept it, not argue against it? The question is, among others, with whom do we surround ourselves in our daily lives — folks who help bring that gift out of us? Or, not?

As post-resurrection Christians remembering these days the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, we need to remember that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the end, whether or not we have the friends and community that support us on our faithful journeys, let us not forget the Holy Spirit in our lives. Whether you know it or not, whether you feel it or not, you got it!

I remember in high school, a chemistry teacher always responded to our naysaying by reminding us: “You have the technology!” Whenever we students would express doubt about our ability to perform an experiment successfully, or complete the seemingly impossible homework assignment, he would just say: “You have the technology!” A word of encouragement, of affirmation, that we are capable to accomplish what we need to do.

Being faithful to our calling — whether we clean streets or broker billion dollar contracts — is the key to approaching holy moments. Doing our job faithfully, whatever it is.

Also, Luke implies that relationships are key. The women don’t come alone. There are two angels, not one. Pay attention to with whom we spend time — I pray each of us finds people who accept and encourage our faithful journeys. Who bring the best out of us. For the holy happens in relationships — to share those moments of awe and celebrate moments of grace.

Believe it! Because it’s true: Jesus is alive. And his spirit of faith, hope and love lives within us! And in the world around us!

Happy Easter!

Church and Money – setting a postive tone

Many church leaders will be facing their annual congregational meetings in the next month. And a lot of the conversation will likely revolve around money.

I hope I can help set a positive tone for these discussions to encourage my parishioners — and indeed Canadians from all Christian denominations — to be generous, as their expression of love for God, for Christ’s Church on earth, and for the world in so desperate a need these days.

Recently a Huffington Post article presented some interesting statistics. These facts may provide a helpful background for pastors, priests and church leaders as they prepare their hearts and minds for these annual meetings.

– Of the provinces and territories in Canada, Manitobans are for the 14th year in a row the most generous of all Canadians in charitable giving

– Even so, Manitoba ranked 39th out of 63 jurisdictions including all the states in the USA, provinces and territories in Canada

– Utah, which ranked 1st in generosity, made charitable donations totaling about three and a half times more than what Manitobans gave

– The extent of charitable giving by the provinces hasn’t improved as donations have plummeted since 2010, especially in Ontario

– Charles Lammam, Associate Director of the Fraser Institute said, “Had Canadians donated to registered charities at the same rate as Americans, Canada’s charities would have received an additional $9.2 billion in private support in 2010”

Given these facts, I am encouraged to reflect on something stewardship resources and voices have affirmed over time: God has already given us enough of what we need to do whatever we feel called to do, in Jesus’ name, with the Church, for the sake of God’s mission in the world today.

Free-falling into Advent

After the first snow of the winter I joked with my neighbour at the bus stop that finally the snow tires can get their first, real test. He looked at me – a younger-than-me, responsible father of two school-aged children – and said, “The real test happens when you’re sliding sideways down the road.”

He went on to say that, after putting on the snow tires, he normally finds an empty parking lot late at night to do some doughnuts and skidding tests – just to get the feel of the vehicle on the snow. In order to know at what speeds and angle his car points to keep control of the vehicle, he has to practice losing control to a degree.

And then I was reminded of those car commercials where you see a car careening around a course at high speeds, and the implicit warning comes on the screen that these exercises are done by professional drivers.

Indeed, professional drivers know how it feels to – in a sense – lose control. Good drivers have gone there. That’s how one gains confidence in one’s ability. They do that by going to the edge of their perception of being in control. That’s how you learn – with much preparation, practice, guidance, making mistakes and modelling – you go to the boundary of experience.

My palms were sweating when I watched a couple of months ago the video of Austrian Felix Baumgartner break all kinds of records jumping from the edge of space.

An extreme sportsman, he was experienced in jumping and falling. And for this world-record-breaking event he had prepared meticulously. This was not some reckless, un-thought-through, impulsive act. Despite the millions of dollars spent, the months of preparation, the state-of-the-art equipment used, and the hundreds of support staff employed …

It was still quite the risk. He still faced uncertainty as he looked out into the vastness of space from the safety of the tiny capsule some 39 kilometres above the earth’s surface. With only a parachute on his back, he stepped into ‘nothing’. My palms are sweating just imagining that.

He could have died, and almost did. After jumping from the tiny capsule, he soon went into a lateral spin. Because of the minimal oxygen in the air at that high level of the atmosphere, one small errant move falling out of the capsule determined his course. Unless he could come to control it, his lateral spin would render him unconscious. But he couldn’t know exactly how it would play out until experiencing the supersonic free-fall.

He made it, despite those first two minutes when he lost control and his life was seriously at risk.

Before he jumped, standing on the threshold of the capsule looking down, he mumbled something – I couldn’t exactly hear all of it – but something that sounded like a creed, a statement of belief that focused his vision in that moment of uncertainty; he said: “I’m coming home now.”

Writer Anne Lamott wrote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” True. The logic is pure – if we feel certain about the outcome of our actions, well, what is the need for faith? The practice of faith necessitates a degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Evident in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (chapter 5) is the confusion of the early church about the coming of Christ. Therefore the focus of salvation in this letter is not on a past and accomplished act, but a continuing and future one (Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol. 1, p.16).

This focus adds to the ambiguity of the season. Because when we commit to a forward-vision of life, we cannot know exactly how that future will play out. There is a certain degree of uncertainty with which we must learn to live, and thrive. Such is the character of this season of Advent – waiting, and watching, for the coming of Jesus into our lives. But we know neither the day nor hour (Matthew 24:36).

The fact that the original hearers of the message of Paul were caught in this indecisive understanding of Jesus renders, in Paul’s words, something “lacking” (3:10) in their faith. Maybe they, too, sought a certainty of belief, demanded an unambiguous statement of religious doctrine about when and how exactly Christ would return. As a result, the community there struggled with conflict as different voices offered their own interpretation of how things should be.

But because something is imperfect about someone’s faith does not qualify them for ‘checking out’ from the enormous task at hand. Realizing the perfect scenario for religious life is not a prerequisite for living faithfully. Paul still encouraged the Thessalonians in faith, hope and love.

Just because you don’t think you are good enough for God and God’s church, or have a perfect understanding of the bible, just because you can’t recite scriptures from memory, just because the church is not unified around so many things – does not warrant pressing the pause button until things are perfect again, until you have it right, until all your problems are resolved. Living faithfully is not about standing in the shadows and not doing anything.

How can we make the best of an imperfect, broken situation, a ‘faith lacking’? How do we engage in living faithfully knowing that things in our own life and the life of the church are imperfect and incomplete?

This earliest writing of St Paul that we have in the bible was originally addressed to a group of labourers. Physical labourers. Paul’s message must have resonated among those labouring classes since Paul himself was a tentmaker.

The best way to wait for salvation, for the coming Christ, is to work at something simply, intentionally, faithfully and with discipline.

And so, Paul provides a way forward for a people waiting for the coming of Jesus. As we wait and live in the “already but not yet” in-between time of the ages, as we live in the imperfect times of our lives, we push on. We keep at it. We don’t give up. We remain faithful as best as we can. We do the work.

And the nature of the work is not sensational and complicated and extraordinary. The work is ordinary. The work is doing the little things, faithfully and intentionally.

What is this character of this work, precisely?

“… may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all people, as we do to you” (1 Thessalonians 3:12)

The way to restore and complete the faith of Christians is in community. And not just any community – like a club, sporting venture, or social organization – but a community defined by people caring for other people, in the love of Christ Jesus. This is a community of faith that demonstrates mutual interdependence: Where one is weak, another is strong; where friends build each other up, helping one another, working together not apart.

And this kind of work requires preparation, attention, discipline, and commitment.

Paul calls the physical labourers to whom he writes to widen that circle of the faithful. This instruction is not only focused on that particular church in Thessalonica, but even beyond that for all people.

In this inspiring and vital letter Paul expounds the virtues of thanksgiving, boldness, joy and hope … despite evidence in the circumstances of life to the contrary, despite their faith continuing to “lack” in some way, despite living in the in-between time of waiting for the end time.

In truth, what the bible is clear in communicating through the prophets of old, the exemplars of faith, and disciples and apostles of Jesus is that complacency, withdrawal, cowardice, passivity, and despair are not useful nor helpful strategies for coping and growing and living through the present day, no matter what the circumstances of life.

Can we ‘free-fall’ for Christ? Can we do the work of love, be bold in whatever area of our lives needing the grace and healing power of God? Can we step out in faith – not without preparation, not recklessly – but firm in our faith that even though there is ambiguity and uncertainty and sometimes the fright of ‘nothing to hold on to’… ?

God is there. And God’s love knows no bounds. Even in space. Even in the vastness and emptiness of existence. In the poverty yet enormity of the moment when we feel like our life is on the line, the love of God and the love for which we work will surprise us with joy and eternal hope. That is the promise for which we live. And for which we love, and are loved. Forever.

What is truth? Part 3: In the doing

Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). He answers his own question moments earlier by pointing to the power of action; Pilate asks Jesus, “What have you done?” (John 18:35).

If Pilate wondered what the truth about Jesus was, he nailed it — perhaps instinctively — by laying this abstract question about truth firmly in the realm of behavior and action.

“They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love” goes the popular song. They will know who we are by what we do. The truth will be told more as a reflection of what is done than by what is believed or thought of.

Jesus healed the sick. Jesus spent time with the outcasts. Jesus crossed the boundaries of social norms to speak with women and touch lepers. Jesus broke laws which were stupid. Jesus spoke of God’s truth and love.

Truth is something we do. While intellectual truth can be stimulating, it does not fulfill all of our needs. God calls us beyond mere understanding and words and translate those thoughts into concrete action in the world. Meaningful engagement with the world is a prescription for truth-discovery.

What action stands foremost in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate? And how does this action reflect the truth about God? In this scene between Pilate and Jesus, Jesus invites Pilate to belong by listening to Jesus’ voice (John 18:37). We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? — Listening to Jesus’ voice …

Read John 10:1-16. There, Jesus describes himself as the loving shepherd who takes care of his sheep. He calls them by name, and they know his voice. Jesus is the good shepherd who wants his followers to have life, and have it abundantly.

Even to Pilate, Jesus gives himself to be his good shepherd. Even to the man who has power to condemn him to death. Even to those who hate and kill and are so lost in sin, Jesus offers himself in love, grace, mercy and forgiveness.

This is always Jesus’ invitation to us, and to all people. Jesus invites us to belong to his community. Jesus invites us to the truth which we will know in his love, compassion and grace.

We will know that truth in the loving actions of those around us, belonging in community. And we will receive that truth when we come home to ourselves and face the truth about our lives. And we are called to live as active witnesses to the action of God in the world.

What do you see God doing in the world around you and in the lives of people you encounter today? And what does this action reveal about God’s truth?

What is truth? Part 2: Belonging to community

I remember when I was ten years old I wanted to run away from home. My brother and I fought with my Mom over watching a TV show. Our disagreement led to this radical solution.

My brother and I packed our little red wagon with pillows, blankets, some twinkies, and a bottle of milk. I informed my Mom, and we were on our way.

We pulled our wagon down the sidewalk in silence. When we reached the first cross street a block away from home, we stopped. Without saying a word, both of us turned around and headed back with heads hung low.

In discovering the truth, not only must you come home to yourself and articulate your own desires, motivations and unique identity, you need to land in a community. This is the important second movement in answering: “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

At some point in the process of discovering the truth, we need to acknowledge the communal nature of truth-telling. It’s one thing to say discovering the truth is a personal journey; but it’s also a path that takes you beyond pure individualism. In other words, you can’t celebrate the truth of anything by yourself. In community we are greater than the sum of our individual parts. The truth can only be ascertained and arrived-at in the midst of others.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus relates the truth with “belonging” (18:37) — belonging to a community. Whether that community is a family, a church, a nation, God, our belonging is often tested. When things don’t go our way. When we don’t get want we want in that community. When others disappoint us. When there is disagreement. When we suffer. There are a host of circumstances that may lead us to question our belonging.

And when that happens, what do we do? Do we leave? Do we, as I tried to do with my red wagon and twin brother in tow, run away? Do we isolate ourselves behind fortress walls of fear and intransigence? What do we do when our belonging is severely tested?

Jesus hints that the kingdom of which he speaks transcends the self. When Jesus says that he was born for the purpose of testifying to the reign of God (John 18:37), Jesus is pointing to that which is larger than any individual, including himself.

We don’t exist unto ourselves. The sun doesn’t orbit around our individual planet; rather, we orbit around the sun! Our lives are meant for more than mere self-indulgence, self-acquisition, self-amelioration, self-justification.

When we discover the truth together, we’re not denying our individual, unique perspectives. We are not hiding our true colours from one another. We are simply affirming that if we are to find the truth, we will only do so together.

Belonging is not so much about individual decisions as it is about collective participation in community. That is why we make major decisions as the church, or as a nation, or even in families together. We share our differing thoughts and opinions with the awareness of our belonging to one another and to God, whether or not that unity is challenged or visibly shaken.

The movement towards community in discerning the truth calls for humility and attentiveness to those around us.

Where do you belong? Give God thanks for your belonging.

My 1st youth group: A critical invitation

Our ‘Back to Church 2013’ preparatory group got to work right away. Each of us were assigned homework to complete before our next meeting a week later.

In 250 words we were to journal an answer to the following question: Describe a time when you responded positively to an invitation from the church. So, here is mine ….

I could remember when as a thirteen year old I was very much aware the church had a youth group. But I was the pastor’s kid and, well, I was in worship every week. I had the impression that church leaders sort of expected me to go or at least not give the excuse that “I didn’t know”. I suppose that throughout my childhood and youth my relationship with the church was wrapped up in the enigma of assumptions and presumptions. And it may very well still be!

Frankly, I didn’t know what to do about the start of another year of youth group, meeting every Tuesday night at the church. I remember feeling a little anxious, socially. My father, the pastor, quietly indicated to me that youth group might be a good idea.

But I wasn’t in a space to act on his recommendation alone, although people presumed it would be the most natural line of communication. Their presumption may have given them permission not to bother taking any responsibility in the matter. (Perhaps I’m presuming now, too!)

I observe to this day parents who are down on themselves on account of what they see as their failure not to get their teenage (and older) kids to church. This, even though they would be the first to admit that parents aren’t always the best people positioned for the critical invite.

Everything changed for me after the youth group leader came up to me one Sunday after worship, and asked: “Would you like to come to youth group on Tuesday evening? I think you might enjoy it.” It was an awkward moment for both of us — for him because I could tell he was a bit nervous; for me, because I wasn’t honestly sure whether I wanted to go and what I should say in response.

In the end, I went. Maybe because I knew some of the youth that were going — and I thought they were pretty cool. But mostly because that core group demonstrated through its various activities and adventures together a really strong connection with each other and their faith in God.

Because that individual (not a family member, not a pastor) asked me, despite my status as the infamous PK (i.e. Pastor’s Kid) who should know all things church, my spiritual journey took the course it did — eventually landing me at the seminary, and working as an ordained pastor for over 15 years now.

If that particiular invitation wasn’t made at that critical time, who knows where I would have gone and done with my life? Let me just say how grateful I am for TS — his quiet courage, his guts, his boldness despite his nervousness. Thank you.

I know as parent today that I have a great responsibility in the spiritual development of my own children. I take that seriously. However, I know from my own experience that it’s not just the parents who will determine the outcome of their children’s faith journeys. Others are just as important, even more so, in offering that critical invitation.

Okay, that was more than 250 words!

Bridging the gap

Mark 10:35-45

Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink…” (Mark 10:39)

When we first stepped on the bridge spanning the wide, flowing river, our ten year old son stopped short. It was windy. He said he was afraid the strong winds could blow him off. He refused to walk over.

A few weeks later when we were giving a walking tour of our new home-town to visiting friends, the path took us over the bridge. Engrossed in showing all the sites to his friends, our son made it three-quarters of the way across before he realized what he was doing. I could see by his wide-eyed expression that he had, for the most part, forgotten his fear. He was focused on his friends rather than himself.

I often miss the extraordinary promise implied in Jesus’ words to his self-absorbed disciples. They had been walking to Jerusalem listening to Jesus speak about his suffering and death. Understandably, those who followed Jesus were afraid (Mark 10:10). Were James’ questions about finding a seat in heaven next to Jesus simply an attempt to find security amidst the ominous implications of Jesus’ words?

Fear of the world often drives us, above all, to find security. We are afraid of terrorism, so we start preemptive wars. We are afraid of failing, so we act to secure our reputation rather than take bold and necessary steps forward. We are afraid of what we don’t understand in others who are different from us, so we cocoon behind fortress walls with like-minded people rather than build bridges of cooperation and compassion.

When Jesus says, “the cup that I drink you will drink…” he is making his disciples a promise – a promise that one day they, too, will no longer be driven by fear; that one day they will act boldly, motivated not so much by self-preservation but by the Gospel.

This, too, is a promise made to me and to you. It’s not an easy way. But when our focus resolves itself on others, we no longer act according to our fears but according to the way of Christ Jesus.