Super-hero busted

With Marvel and DC the biggest box office attractions in recent years, the popular culture exposes our desires and fantasies. These super-heroes are really just projections of our own wants and longings. We put ourselves in these roles, vicariously living out the super-hero life.

What from the super-hero culture inform and influence our real lives, you ask? What does it mean to be a hero, living day-to-day?

Last week, we concluded our Lent book study about our medical culture. When the stakes are high and decisions have to be made about treatment of serious illness, what do we want? How do we respond? In the book aptly entitled, “Being Mortal”, author Atul Gawande writes:

“The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”[1]

Being heroic means doing more, not less. More power. More strength. Super-human capacity. Fighting evil means counter punch for punch—just harder, faster. Solving problems means finding more resources, generating more capacity to meet the demands. Doing things better. This is the culture of heroism in our day. We want to be heroes.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is our biblical hero. We like him. We get him. He always wanted to be Jesus’ hero, protecting him from the suffering of which he spoke, jumping into the water not once but twice to be the first of the disciples to get to Jesus.[2]Jesus, at one point, even had to say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” when Peter said he would not allow the suffering and death of Jesus.[3]

Even in the Passion narrative Peter is still delusional, believing he will follow Jesus, heroically, to the end. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”[4]Peter is the consummate hero.

The part from the Passion narrative where he then ‘denies the Lord three times when the rooster crows’ is a turning point for him.[5]And for us.

In the Passion of our Lord, the Cross is the central image and destination. And against the Cross our truth is exposed, and we are caught in the headlights. Our true motivations are squared against the values of the kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his last days and trial.

Normally, I have understood Peter’s denial of Jesus merely as self-preservation. He doesn’t want to expose his vulnerability in that situation. He doesn’t want to be considered a threat, and be arrested himself. He wants to conserve and protect himself. And so he is caught off-guard, and quickly denies his involvement with Jesus.

But what if we saw Peter’s words of denial more as a confession rather than self-seeking, self-preservation? Peter confesses, at the end of the road, that he does not ‘know’ the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Peter confesses that he is not a true disciple of Jesus.

Even at this end, nevertheless, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself. “Today, you will deny me”. Hours later, Peter stares into the flames of the firepit in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and warms his hands by the fire. Finally, Peter comes to himself in all honesty and vulnerability. “No, I don’t know him. No, I don’t know this Jesus. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He is finally telling the truth, in his ‘denial’. Facing this truth is hard, and that is why he goes out and weeps bitterly at the end. Peter’s ideal image of himself—a heroic disciple of the Lord, a super-hero Jesus freak—has come crashing down. He is not the hero he thought he was. He does not have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus to the cross.

When, in the solitude of our confession, we confront ourselves in all honesty—we find ourselves at ground zero, that turning point, that event-horizon towards transformation and healing. Because further down that path of hero worship we cannot go. And, we wonder, seriously question whether we have what it takes to let go, and follow Jesus to the cross of our lives.

It is unknown territory, on the bottom. We do not know it well, if at all. We shy away from it, understandably. We are uncomfortable, here. “In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.”[6]

Peter in the high priest’s courtyard finds his bottom in honest confession, not unlike the Prodigal Son wallowing in the mud of the pig pen when he has his moment of reckoning.

It takes courage to come close to Jesus near the Cross. It takes courage to let go of our heroism and our compulsion to do more, to do better. It takes courage to let go being incessantly active and working harder as a way of avoiding ‘plumbing the depths of our soul’.

Are you willing to give up being a hero for Jesus? Are you still a disciple when Jesus leads you this close to the cross?[7]

Perhaps another story from the Passion narratives of the Gospels usually assigned for Holy Week can be helpful. It’s the Gospel text from last week, actually, when Mary lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet.

How does Mary respond to the reality of human limitation and vulnerability? How does she respond to the ‘ground zero’ reality surrounding her and Jesus? Remember, Mary knows what is going on with Jesus. Anointing was reserved for coronations and burials. Jesus qualifies for both. And his end was nigh. How does she deal with that?

In Luke’s version of the anointing story, Jesus tells Mary: “Your sins are forgiven.”[8]Why were her sins forgiven after anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume?

Not only because of her great sorrow, nor because she remembered all her sins, nor even because of any contrition she might have felt for her human weakness. Why then?

Because she loved, and loved much.[9]So, instead of sorrowing over her sinfulness, she gave abundantly and without reservation of her affection and love for Jesus.

Confronting our truth, as scary as that is, is not license to wallow in passive, self-preoccupation. Rather, this degree of self-honesty and confession leads to extravagant acts of mercy and love towards another. At ground zero, we realize that our lives are not ours, but God’s. At ground zero, we realize that we live for something and someone much greater than our individual problems and shortcomings.

The description of what God does, relating to the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9 is important:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word …

The Lord God has opened my ear …

The Lord God helps me …

The Lord God helps me.[10]

When truth-telling can lead to acts of profound love for the sake of ‘the weary’, the Lord God helps us.

When our actions, tarnished even by our humanity, focus on love for the vulnerable and weak, the Lord God helps us.

When our limitations are offered to God in acts of love for others, the Lord God helps us.

And we are still the Lord’s disciples. Even Peter, beyond his moment not of denial, but acceptance. Jesus pronounced him ‘the rock’ upon which God builds the church.

And, we know what lies beyond this momentary tribulation. We have Jesus to thank for that. This is the promise of our journeys, rough though they may be.

And, through it all, we are still the Lord’s disciples.

 

[1]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End(Toronto: Penguin, 2017), p.220

[2]Matthew 14:28-31; John 21:7-19

[3]Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33

[4]Luke 22:33

[5]Luke 22:24-34,54-62; John 18:15-27

[6]Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” 8 April 2019

 

[7]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life  (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009),  p.79.

[8]Luke 7:44-48

[9]The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Ira Progoff (Delta Books: 1957), 100-102.

[10]Isaiah 50:4-9 NRSV, reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Passion Sunday.

Laetere!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The apple of the eye

Guard me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 17:8)

Last week’s children’s chat got me thinking even more. I told the story of ‘that mom’ who carried with her everywhere the biggest purse you could imagine. Everywhere she went her two young children trundled behind. And everywhere her kids went, so did she.

Mom was prepared for every contingency. When one of the kids fell in the school yard and scraped his knee, out came the bandaids. When the other ripped her shirt sleeve on the sharp edge of the door at school, out came the needle, thread and scissor set. And even though they left in the morning without a cloud in the sky, if by the end of the day rain showers dumped a deluge, out came the rain poncho. She carried everything you ever needed in that purse.

Or so we thought. I asked the kids what else she should have in her purse. “Some snacks, in case they became hungry.” “A flashlight in case the lights went out wherever they were.” etc. etc. So, she didn’t have everything you could imagine they would need. As prepared as she was, Mom wasn’t prepared for everything. She would also have to go by faith.

“Faith in what?” In Advent, the church has traditionally prepared for Jesus’ coming — in the four weeks leading to Christmas. Our faith, it would seem, leaned heavily on our ability, or lack thereof, to be prepared. Have we done everything we could to be purged of our sin? To be purified? Have we repented enough? Done enough penance? Confessed all our sins? And changed our ways? 

Have we done everything we can to be prepared for Christmas? Bought all the presents? Sent out all the cards? Cleaned and decorated the house? Finalized the invitations, menus and schedules?

Are we ever prepared enough? I’ve talked to more and more people over the years saying they are simply not doing everything any more. It’s too much. And they’re not going to worry about if things aren’t just perfect, anymore. I think they’re onto something. Because the truth is, faith-in-us is only (a small) part of the equation.

Would Jesus still come at Christmas even if we were not totally prepared? Of course. Therefore, a significant part of the Advent message is to emphasize that not only do we do what we can ‘to prepare’, we must also receive everything that we experience in life — the good and the bad — as God’s way of preparing us for the coming of the Lord. In the end, the Lord’s coming is not dependent on how well we prepare. Because Jesus is coming anyway, ready or not!

When we appreciate that everything that happens in our lives is God’s way of preparing us, could we not approach life’s circumstances with a heart of faith and trust rather than resentment and despair? When we appreciate the trials and tribulations of life as the way God is, in the words of the prophet Malachi, “refining” and “purifying” (3:1-4) our lives, would we not then have peace?

How can we ‘see’ the Lord’s hand in all the circumstances of life? I think ‘seeing’ is the key. And I’m not speaking merely of the physical ability of seeing. It’s more of a deepened awareness and perception of reality.

The origin of the phrase “apple of the eye” refers to the reflection of oneself that can be seen in another’s pupil. To hold someone as the ‘apple of the eye’, means that they are close enough to the beholder that they could see their own reflection in the beholder’s pupil. As a metaphor for God’s love, this phrase builds on the idea of humankind having been built in God’s image. We are close enough to God that we can see our own reflection in Him, and He in us. (1)

So, the purpose of ‘preparation’ and ‘purification’ goes beyond merely removing the impurities. Apparently, a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when you can observe your own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. (2)

If that is the case, the prophet Malachi implies that God’s image in us is restored precisely through the challenges and difficulties of life. Not apart from them. This is the peace we find. The prophet’s message is that we are deemed good and righteous when once again God’s image is reflected in our lives. 

The end point is not the pain or discomfort. We often get stuck there, and give up. The point is God being made manifest in who we are and what we do with our lives. And this takes time. And lots of work. And the gift of faith, to see God always close by. And trust, that whenever I take one step toward God, God takes ten steps toward me.

Questions of purpose, therefore, are important to ask in this season. For many good reasons. Especially when what occupies us in the ‘shopping season’ often distracts us from what is most important in our lives. The prophet is annoyed by the peoples’ wayward practices. How can God’s image be reflected in a selfish, me-first, immediate-gratification motivated people?

Who are we? And who are we called to be? John the Baptist’s cries in the wilderness echo the ancient prophets’ messaging (Luke 3). Stop distracting yourself to death! Return to the source and the ground of your being! Reclaim your true self, your original reflection of God’s goodness in creation.

In a year-end letter from the treasurer of the Eastern Synod to all congregational pastors and treasurers, Keith Myra offers some helpful, universal suggestions around financial issues facing churches today. One of his reminders states: Remember, “The church is not a club — membership does NOT have its privileges.” 

Here, he suggests that especially during this time of year our redemption does not lie in: “What can I get out of life, the church, my family, the economy.” Our redemption does not lie in: “What is in it for me?” And, “It’s up to me!” Rather, the church has always proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, which is about: “What can I first give to others?” “How does my life reflect God’s image to the world?” “What does the life of Jesus call forth from me?”

We are chosen and loved, yes. Even so, in the end God choosing us is not for privilege, but for a purpose. Belonging to God introduces a great purpose and an important mission.
There is a reason for which we are being purified! And it points beyond the warm fuzzies of this holiday season. It points to actions in the world by Christians that communicate God’s love for all — especially to those without hope, without home, without peace. Then, every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill be made low … the rough ways made smotth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:5-6)

Poet Christina Rossetti writes this prayer:
Lord, purge our eyes to see /Within the seed a tree, /Within the glowing egg a bird, /Within the shroud a butterfly, /Till, taught by such we see /Beyond all creatures, Thee /And hearken to Thy tender word /And hear its “Fear not: it is I” (3)

Amen.

(1) Lutherans Connect, “The Trees of Jesse: Day 3” lcadventdevotional2015blogspot.ca
(2) in David L. Bartlett, Barabara Brown Taylor & Kimberly Bracken Long eds. “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.32

(3) Christina Rossetti, from “Judge not according to the appearance”  

Wise speech is a prayer

My parents, now retired pastors, have been ordained many years in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Polish Lutheran Church. My mother told me that not once in her long years of work did she choose to preach on the second lesson for this Sunday in Ordinary Time — the 18th Sunday after Pentecost — James 5:13-20. 

So, curious, I went back in my online archive of sermons to see if had. And to my surprise, I discovered that I now have preached two sermons in a row based on this text. The last time in the lectionary these texts appeared was three years ago in September 2012; and here we are three years later focusing on it again!

Why so? I asked myself. Many possible reasons likely. Not to mention the lectionary group here at Faith chose to reflect on James — yet again! Could it be, underlying this desire to look at James is the church’s need today for some practical advice about how to live the Christian life? Could it be, that the church today needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world?

When we think of all that we say, all the airtime we populate with our words, how much of it would we consider ‘wise’? It is important to ask this, since one of the major concerns in the Book of James is our speech (Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4, eds. Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, WJK Press, 2009, p.112). And, it’s not so much what we say but how we say it — in the context of the relationships involved. This, indeed, requires great wisdom. So, I ask again, how much of what we say would we consider wise?

My guess is, not much. When we think of all that we say that is hypocrisy — that doesn’t really coincide with the choices we make, the lifestyles we lead. When we think of all that we say that only ends up hurting others …

When wise speech happens, it is truly a holy event. This is speech that communicates truth and honesty. This is speech that reveals vulnerability, expresses compassion, tenderness and authenticity. This is speech that is wise. And wise speech is then a prayer in God, with God, to God.

And, it is not only spoken to the ceiling. Because prayer is fundamentally a public act, not a private affair. One of the unfortunate victims of the Reformation period  — which launched the Enlightenment and Industrial and Scientific Revolutions of the modern era — was that Confession was relegated to a lower place in the value systems of religion. As a result of these modernizing developments which heightened the importance of the individual in religion, prayer was reduced and confined to words spoken to the air in our private lives.

In contrast, Confession is about speaking honestly the truth of our lives to another and with another. Confession is wise speech which brings healing and wholeness, when another ‘in the flesh’ can hear the truth and respond with guidance and in love, mercy and forgiveness.

And what we do every time we gather to worship, is pray. We pray in all the parts of the liturgy. Whether we are celebrating the sacrament of the table, whether we are listening to the sermon, whether we are singing a hymn or ‘saying’ a prayer — we are praying! Including the Confession of sins, and the pronouncement of forgiveness.

It is true — the church needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world. I emphasize in today’s world because sometimes I don’t think we realize how decidedly unChristian this culture of ours is. And I don’t just mean the fact that we live in a multicultural, ethnically and religiously diverse society. But also, even in the institutional church, in our own lives, our lifestyles, our common sense assumptions about how to live our lives and the values we espouse: our attitudes towards competition, financial security, self-defence, self-righteousness, financial-material selfish gain, etc.

Perhaps it is time for the Reformation church (including Lutherans) to let go of the split we have created between grace and ‘works righteousness’. It is not all ‘cheap’ grace on the one hand; nor is it all work, on the other. In truth, it is a lot of work and practice to remain fully open to underserved and unmerited grace (Philippians 2:12-13). Because we will rush, if unawares, to make it all about our hard work. Just work harder!

At the same time, as Cynthia Bourgeault writes (in The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, Jossey Bass Publishing, 2003, p.10), “those willing to bear the wounds of intimacy, the knowledge of that underlying coherence – in which all things hold together – is possible.” To let go of the compulsions that keep us captive and stuck in patterns of life that are ungracious, untrue, unhealthy. To commit to the work and sacrifice of being true to self, true to neighbour and true to God. To practice confession and honesty with another. To accept the forgiveness, mercy and love of God and to receive it fully and know peace.

Could it be deep down we know it but are afraid to address and embrace it: the values of God in Christ Jesus are meaningful — they make for great, wordy and pious statements in church groups — yet clash with what we do and what we actually say to one another?

The Furious 7 movie which was Paul Walker’s last before he died shortly after filming the movie, ironically, in a car crash, highlighted for me this hypocrisy. In the extended version which I assume was edited after his death, there is a beautiful scene on the beach where Paul Walker’s character and family are gathered. His friends watch on as he plays with his young child and pregnant wife at the water’s edge. One of them remarks how what is truly important in life is not the thrill-seeking, high-octane, ego-satisfying selfish pursuits, but his relational world of love and family which endures forever. In contrast to the explosive, sensational content of the film up to that point, this affirmation of family living in love is rich in meaning and truth.

I commented in my slightly cynical mood after the movie that I didn’t think the Fast & the Furious franchise would have grossed the hundreds of millions it did if it made movies solely about family and love. It seems we want to acknowledge what is true and right, but only after we first can serve our own fixations and compulsions ‘for the thrill’.

Another TV example: Did you notice how the Amazing Race Canada presented the final words of the father and daughter from Africa — newly arrived immigrants, when they were eliminated before the final round? They were the victims of unfair play in that second-to-last leg of the race; other teams cheated on them by stealing their taxi not once but twice, if I remember correctly. 

And then, as the host John invited them for some closing remarks on the elimination mat, all of them spoke beautiful tear-wrenching words about the fair, generous nature of Canadians. It seems only the losers have something meaningful to say. Only when we suffer loss do we discover the truth of our lives. Now, we are getting uncomfortably closer to the whole point of our Christian faith and what it means to follow Jesus.

As I wrote three years ago, in James’ concluding chapter we encounter vivid images of prayer involving the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. Prayer is a public act that invades the space of individuals and pulls us to be in the space of one another. Prayer is inherently relational. It gets down and dirty in the bodily reality of our lives, one with another. It is about touch and sensation as much as about the mere words we speak. Prayer is not my time, it is our time for the sake of the other.

Maybe I chose to preach on James 5 two times in a row because the Gospel associated with this text is about Jesus instructing us to cut out our eyes or chop off our hands if they caused us to sin (Mark 9:38-50). And I just didn’t want to go there! These are difficult words to ponder. Jesus concludes by using the image of salt to define the Christian life: something with an edge, that adds flavour. God forbid you lose your edge, your flavour! Jesus counsels us to have saltiness in our lives as a way to “be at peace with one another” (v.50).

Perhaps the way of Jesus will be tough and difficult building bridges of reconciliation. And yet, his last word to us today is a blessing of peace. The Book of James began with an address to those who are “dispersed” (1:1). James continues his letter to address the divisive consequences of an “unbridled tongue” (3:6ff) and considers the reasons for the “conflicts and disputes” among the people of God (3:4). James’ letter acknowledges the inherent splintering of our lives.

His letter in chapter 5, however, ends rather abruptly. Perhaps to indicate that there is no easy answer to the disconnections of our lives. Perhaps also to remind us that though wise speech is indeed a gift from God in the world so full of sin and death, we will still pray. And through prayer that is public, we will continue to engage the world in hope for a time when what has splintered can be reunited.

It’s ok to fall (2): God is in control

Falling is a bad word if you are over the age of 70, because it can precipitate our dying. So our knee jerk is to take control! We are told not to fall. We avoid slippery, icy parking lots. We rig our homes to prevent falling — getting rid of area rugs, installing grip handles in the washrooms, renovating away any unnecessary steps. Ageing bears with it the mantra: “It’s NOT okay to fall!”

But we will at some point, anyway, whether we like to or not. And when we do, we pray for healing and mending of broken bones and tendons. We may come on our knees in submission and confession, asking God for help.

The story of the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14) is normally read during the preceding season of Epiphany, when Ash Wednesday starts later in the calendar year. Because Lent starts earlier this year, it’s not in the lectionary. But this story is an excellent one upon which to reflect at the beginning Lent.

First, it is one of the most well-read stories of healing from the Hebrew Scriptures. And healing is a theme in these weeks leading up to Easter, when we take notice of our sin, weakness and brokenness, and pray for our restoration in Christ.

The journey of Lent is one where we follow Jesus on his journey to the Cross. And by recalling this holy story of Christ’s passion, suffering and death “for us”, we are invited to reflect on our life’s journey of suffering reflected in the hope of faith.

The story of our healing will thus follow the path that Jesus trod. It is our task, therefore, to pay attention to the nature of this path, and not to waver despite the temptations of the world around us to venture in another direction.

Because of the Cross of Jesus, I claim the theme of my sermons this Lent — “It’s okay to fall.” Why? Because God is in control. And this is one of those counter-cultural messages because our world tells us to take control so that we will not fall —

Tighten your grip. Strengthen your resolve. Become the master of your destiny. Show you are strong, even when you are not. All the politicians know this — never apologize or concede to your opponent, never give them the upper hand. In a national election year, we will notice this often, I am sure. The political leaders must show strength, power, control and righteousness.

The Gospel of Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to show weakness and vulnerability. For me to stand here and say, it’s okay to be vulnerable, show weakness; it’s okay to be honest about our stumbling in life; It’s vital for our soul to apologize when we have fallen and to seek forgiveness from the other —

This is revolutionary — totally counter-cultural! Totally going against the grain of our lives! How can we be okay with our ‘falling’? How can we even risk that?

When we camped a couple summers ago at Sandbanks Provincial Park on Lake Ontario, it was windy for the first couple of days. And the kite-flying enthusiasts were out on the beach in full force. Fortunately, we too had packed a kite.

And so there I was, with all the rigging, trying to keep the kite afloat high above us. I thought I had the knack of controlling the strings and handles — even controlling by my direction the flight, height and movement of the kite up or down, regardless of what the wind did — or so I thought.

Because ever so often, a micro-burst of air would come upon us unexpectedly — and only the most skilled (and lucky!) of us kite-fliers was able to anticipate and compensate for the burst of air that brought most of our kites diving into the sand. No matter what I did, the control was ultimately in the wind.

General Naaman was a command and control guy. He was the successful leader of the army of Syria (or Aram). He was used to issuing orders and getting results. People admired him for his strength, his resolve, his prowess on the battle field. He commanded the respect of not only his king but the kings of his enemies. He would be the poster boy for our culture when we imagine ‘strong leadership’.

Except for one thing. He suffered from a skin disease. It was his ‘thorn in the side’, as Saint Paul described one thing that brought him to his knees (2 Corinthians 12:6-10). General Naaman was hurting. And he tried everything to find healing. He used the resources of his country, accessed the healers, magicians of his nation and the powerful ones, all in order to rid him of his ailment.

Isn’t it true — relief from suffering becomes our sole desire, our fixation? When it comes to dealing with our suffering, control is exactly what we want. Like Naaman, we would like to control when and how this relief will come, expending all the resources at our disposal. And it wasn’t working. Nothing was. His command and control approach failed.

When we are really hurting, we will listen to anyone with a good suggestion, even those at the bottom of the food chain. In Naaman’s life, it’s the servant girl of his wife who first suggests the prophet Elisha, and the low rung servants who convince Naaman to listen to the prophet’s simplistic remedy to wash seven times in the Jordan River.

In his suffering and journey towards healing, Naaman is humbled. He concedes control to a process that is not normative for him. His world of protocols, kings, wealth, and well-known rivers is turned upside down. He has no option left at the end, in his journey, but to let go, and let God work through the prophets and the servants, and the dirty Jordan River.

We witness here, in the story of Naaman, falling can be redemptive. How letting go of control in those areas where we really do not have any control over anyway, is critical. How listening to the voice of God in unexpected places, and being obedient to that call even if it means doing something outside of the norm.

It’s okay to fall, because God is in control. This is the point of the passage, which shows us how in the end our ‘getting up’ is not because we know the best ‘rivers of healing’, have all sorts of money to buy it, or have connections with the people in power. We ‘get up’ not because we have engineered it somehow, not because we have employed our resources and worked hard to convince ourselves that we are the reasons the kite can fly.

We ‘get up’ solely and only because of God’s initiative to love us. We get up only because God, not us, is in control.

It’s okay to fall, and be humbled in our suffering. It’s okay to fall and admit our need. It’s okay to expose our vulnerability, our anger and doubt, and confess our sin. Because, in the end, the healing comes by the grace of God.

When Saint Paul prayed to be healed from his ‘thorn’, God assured him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Naaman was not the only one in the history of faith in God that needed to hear and heed the words of the Psalmist (147:10-11):

“God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those …
who hope in his steadfast love.”

How to know peace

How can we know peace? Not only are we anxious and stressed to get everything done this holiday season, our hearts may also be heavy with grief with loss, and aware of the tragic violence facing so many people in other parts of the world today … Then what of ‘peace?’

Cardinal Thomas Collins was the guest speaker at an event I attended on behalf of Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod, ELCIC) earlier this week on Parliament Hill. He spoke to a room full of parliamentarians and multi-faith religious leaders on the theme of “Faith in a Time of Crisis”.

In his opening remarks he admitted this theme could be interpreted in a few ways: He said, the most obvious, was to look at the places of violence and conflict in the world, images that are splashed all over the media almost on a daily basis.

Then, “Faith in a Time of Crisis” might also be applied to our Canadian context, where changing economic realities and public violence hit close to home, as it did in downtown Ottawa a few weeks ago in the shootings and deaths on Parliament Hill.

But, Cardinal Collins settled on the crises we face ourselves, personally, in our own lives: crises of losses, frail health, broken relationships and despair. He looked straight into the eyes of our Members of Parliament and government leaders, and with a twinkle in his eye spoke about the virtue of humility.

I couldn’t help but think about the examples of humility in the Scriptures, especially in the New Testament. Unlike the self-righteous Pharisee praying in the temple, the tax collector beats his breast and prays, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”; apparently, the person who exercises humility is the person of God (Luke 18:9-14).

In the Gospel text for today, John the Baptist confesses, “I am not worthy even to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals” (Mark 1:1-8). John the Baptist points to the coming Saviour, Jesus Christ. He knew that he would ‘decrease’ so that Christ would ‘increase’ (John 3:30). We might not think of John the Baptist as particularly humble, what with his rough-and-tumble persona.

But he was merely the messenger, preparing the way of Jesus. Jesus would be ‘the way, the truth, the light’, not John the Baptist. He understood, as we all are well to do, that God is God, and we are not. Even though we are valuable members, each and every one of us, of the Body of Christ, we are still just a part of the larger, “Big Picture”, as Richard Rohr calls the kingdom of God.

It’s easy to slip into that frame of mind that believes we are God, and that it’s up to us. It’s easy to identify with the unholy trinity of “me, myself and I.” We might sooner go to confession and, instead of saying, “Father I have sinned …”, say, “Father, my neighbour has sinned; and, let me tell you all about that!” The words, ‘pride’ and ‘sin’ both share the same middle letter … ‘I’!

Unbounded self-assuredness is not the way of the Gospel. The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist preaching repentance. Indeed, “scripture proclaims hope for troubled souls and judgement for the self-assured. Against our human tendency to read the Bible in self-justifying ways, confirming our prejudices and excusing our resentments, we must learn to read self-critically, allowing Scripture to correct us. As the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth says, ‘only when the Bible grasps at us’ does it become for us the Word of God” (David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word – Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.160).

It’s much harder, to see yourself as the problem. Cardinal Collins used the image of going in for an oil change, to describe his own need, regularly, to confess his own sins, to be grounded again in the truthful reality of his life. Some of us, he feared, unfortunately take better care of our cars with regular maintenance than we do with our own souls.

Humility means to be grounded, to be in touch with your humanity (‘humus’ — Latin for the earth, ground). Humility is to recognize your own complicity in a problem or challenge we face, AND taking responsibility for your own behaviours. Humility also reflects the desire to be changed, and to change yourself. The famous poet, Rumi, once wrote: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Do you want to change yourself?

Now, you also probably know this: whenever you embark on a journey of transformation, you will encounter resistance to this change — both from external sources and from within yourself. Listen to how a congregation undergoing intentional change identified very honestly in their reporting what they anticipated to be different states of resistance; they wrote:

“If we are going to try to make some changes – guaranteed – there will be resistance! (If there is no resistance, that shows that nothing is changing.) We will encounter (at least) four waves of resistance: 1. against the very need to consider change 2. against no matter what changes or types of changes 3. against specific changes 4. against personal changes and transitions, without which there is no way changes in the congregation, as a whole, can happen.” This shows great insight, and wisdom! Even in a climate where a collective change must occur, they recognize that the body can’t change unless its individual parts do.

Now, you may be starting to wonder what the desire for peace has to do with change. In fact, you may see change as the grounds for anything but peace. Well, the two are related, in the act of confession.

In the Lutheran Church, Confession has not been practiced as a formal sacrament; traditionally, the only two sacraments that have been practised as such are Baptism and Holy Communion – although to varying degrees among different Lutheran expressions, confession, too, has been practiced sacramentally.

Whatever the case may be, there is agreement that Martin Luther did place immense importance on the practice of confession. In our current worship books, there are orders for individual and corporate confession. I encourage you to look into these prayers, especially at this time of year. The point is, when you practice humility in the act of confession, the heart is naturally opened up to change for the better, and find peace.

Admittedly this path to peace, is a way through the desert. We enter one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian faith: that it is through the suffering that comes to us all in various ways that we can experience the grace, the mercy, and the profound love of God that changes us, transforms us, into a new creation. John the Baptist preached “in the wilderness”; Isaiah (40) proclaimed words of comfort to a people moving “in the wilderness”.

But, if you want to see the stars, you have to go out into the wilderness — where it is ‘dark’, where it is quiet, where silence and stillness of the night characterizes reality much more than the usual distractions, stimulations and the incessant rushing-about that describes our lives more today, and in this season.

If the Christian faith has anything of enduring value to offer our retail-crazed, commercialized, high-octane holiday season — it is the gift of “Silent Night, Holy Night”. Because the light of the world is coming. As John the Baptist pointed to the brightest star that was coming into the world, we can do well to pay attention the ways in which Christ comes to us.

In our humility, in our acknowledgement for the need for forgiveness and grace, we learn to depend on God and one another for signs of God’s coming to us, again, and again.

Peace be with you.

God is always up to something

“… you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” Romans 13:11-12

When the first spell of wintery weather hit last week, I instinctively plugged in the new lawn ornament we purchased for display during the holiday season. Normally, we wait until later in December to light it all up. But with the advent of the storm, and the dissipating daylight by mid-afternoon, I felt I needed a boost of light to distract me from the dark thoughts of coming winter.

We had a family gathering that afternoon. And as family members gazed  out the picture window at the front of our house onto the lawn now covered by a couple inches of snow, they laughed. I didn’t anticipate that this six-foot tall Christmas tree would blink in sequences and bright colours enough to light up the whole yard. “Looks like the Vegas strip now on Ida Street,” I joked, thinking of all the shopping still on my ‘to do’ list and all the things that needed to be done. I felt the shroud of stress envelope my being.

That’s why Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, may be one of the most difficult seasons for Christians to observe. Most attempts in our culture to cover the darkness, literally and figuratively, only ramp up the anxiety, the fear and even the feelings of isolation that the festive season brings.

And yet, annual celebrations like Christmas are meant to transform our lives for the better. The message of God’s incarnation (Jesus, the Son of God, being born into human flesh) is transformative since now, in faith, we know God has entered our reality and changed forever the fabric of creation.

But how can the stress and incessant activity of the season contribute positively to our well-being, healing and growth? I don’t think it can, unless we give ourselves permission to hold off from fully embracing the joy of Christmas. Holding off may seem counterproductive and counterintuitive. Yet, the wisdom of the ages suggests that in order to see the new thing, we must first be willing to let go of what is not helpful. In other words, there’s some work we first have to do.

The prophet Isaiah announced the new thing which ushered Israel’s return to their homeland around Jerusalem. In order to start on that path, however, they would have to release their attachments to Babylon. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

The Israelites, apparently, had a ‘vision’ problem. They, as the way opened for them to return home, could not visualize such a Godly freedom and transformation of their lives for the good; they could not see God at work making a way out of their problem for them.

This pattern of being blinded to God’s work has repeated throughout the sacred stories of scripture: The same we read when the Israelites, centuries before, escaped bondage in Egypt, but spent decades wandering in the desert to find their “promised land”. Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to the Bishop, quoted on twitter this week the words of Peter Steinke who wrote: “It took one year to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but forty years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. We like familiar patterns” (@RiittaHepomaki).

Perhaps we, too, are like those ancient Israelites. We get stuck in familiar patterns. We limit ourselves, therefore, from seeing what God is up to.

So, we have to practice letting go. This is what liturgical season like Advent, and practices of prayer like Christian Meditation offer to us: Opportunities to contemplate, reflect and surrender those habits of the ego that merely gloss over the darkness of our lives.

How do we let go of fear, isolation, cynicism and defensiveness? How can we lay aside those things that do not, in the end, satisfy? How can we put on that which is good and wholesome?

Well, we first have to embrace the darkness, not circumvent it. God will make a way through the desert, not around it. We need to acknowledge the fear, the defensiveness, the isolation and the cynicism which normally hides the true light from shining. Like a piece of clothing, in order to take it off, we first must get a good grip on it. We need to ‘own’ it in order to cast it away.

This is why Advent is the time for confession, silence, stillness, penitence, waiting and preparation. These weeks leading up to Christmas give us an opportunity to prepare our hearts for the true joy, the true light that always comes into the world — not to get distracted by the glitz and hustle that, in the end, only keep us stuck in those familiar patterns of blindness to the truth.

When we pause to take stock, and honestly confess the truth that we are afraid, that we are defensive, that we are cynical, that we are isolated, etc. — the true light and joy comes not because of anything we can muster up, fabricate, manipulate or engineer. True happiness does not come in me plugging in that blinking Christmas tree on the front lawn — as much as I thought instinctively it might.

True joy comes when we wait for it. In the slowing down, pausing, and calm presence of ourselves, we can see better the gift that comes to us in the moment. Saint Paul seems pretty adamant  in his letter to the Romans to stress that it is “NOW”, in this moment that our salvation has come. It is in the ordinary, commonplace, unspectacular activities of our daily lives that matters most to Christ’s coming to us. Do we not see it?

The story is told of a wise Rabbi who had many students come to him for advice. Once, a younger student came to the Rabbi and asked, “How can we tell when the dawn has arrived? How can we tell the difference between night and day?” It was a good question, the Rabbi acknowledged, since early in the morning the change is not easily perceptible: One moment it is night, the next it is already day — but when is the exact moment when it changes over?

“You know the night is gone, and the day has arrived,” the Rabbi responded, “when the faces of those around you in the dark are no longer mere shadows that all look the same, but when you can finally recognize who that person actually is, standing in front of you, when the light allows it.”

The Light of Christ is coming. God is always up to something good, even in the darkness. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when the stress amps up for the season. Even when we have difficulty letting go of familiar patterns. God is up to something, always.

So, in the meantime as we struggle to let go, let us learn to wait in the darkness, standing together. And then rejoice, when the light does come to illuminate our way and the gift of those near to us. In Christ.