Breaking the Catch-22

The concept of “Catch-22” came alive following the Second World War, particularly in the classic American novel of the same title by Joseph Heller. I suspect, if you need a reference point in the popular culture of the day, this book, I think, lay the groundwork for the successful TV sit-com “M.A.S.H.”

“Catch-22”, like “M.A.S.H.”, reads like a parody on war. Being serious in some ways but at the same time using humour, Heller un-masks the pretence of war, exposing the often absurd logic of warfare.

For example, he describes the irrational rut in which pilots got themselves trapped — a classic ‘catch-22’. The rule was that you had to be deemed ‘crazy’ in order to be grounded from flying combat missions, which obviously posed a real and immediate danger to one’s safety.

The ‘catch’ was, as soon as you, as the pilot, asked to be grounded because you believed you were crazy, you proved by doing this that you were indeed not crazy but of sound, rational mind. And therefore, because you were of sound mind to ask to be grounded from flying into extreme danger, you were ordered to return to flying those combat missions. Catch-22.

Catch-22 describes much of how we do things, but becomes particularly alarming and anxiety-provoking when we realize how we are stuck. When, all of a sudden, we see it for what it is — that what we have been doing for such a long time just isn’t doing any good any more. But, for whatever reason, we feel we need to continue doing it. Indeed, by continuing patterns that no longer are healthy, productive and good, we sow the seeds of our eventual self-destruction. This can be a habit or some compulsive, reactive even addictive behaviour.

But it can also relate to the way organizations function, like the church: We continue to do things today, that may have made a whole lot sense fifty years ago; but no longer serve the purpose for which that action originally was created.

For example, when we assume all our activity in the church is aimed at getting people into our pews; when, all along the purpose of the church from the beginning has been to get those of us in the pews out there in the world where God is. Instead of shifting our attention and action in a different direction, we continue to fret about “what we’ve always done” for ourselves in the church to save face and stay proud. And how is that working for us?

Or, on an individual basis, we continue to be trapped in our addiction because it makes us feel good. When someone suggests we ought stop doing it, we find all manner of reasons to justify continuing to do it. And how is that working for us?

At this point of recognizing our ‘catch-22’ and feel the onrush of anxiety, we have a choice: We can fall back into default-mode. And, I believe, for most of us, that means diving straight on into what some call: ‘action-itis’. That is, the solution to anxiety and fear is get lost in more doing, more talking, more of the same action. “Just do it!” the famous catch-phrase. But is that not merely intensifying the catch-22?

Peter is one of the most sympathetic characters in the New Testament — one of Jesus’ disciples — who embodies this compulsion to act. And act, often without thinking, without contemplation. It’s the unreflected need to ‘just do it’ — anything, in order to avoid the real work.

When Jesus poses a difficult question about death and suffering, he is first to jump up and clear the air, set things right, show that he’s got it all together. “I will not deny you, Lord!” “You will not die!” (Matthew 16:21-23; 26:35). His action and words are often premature, as he thinks he understands what it means to follow Jesus. And then the cock crows, and Peter is humbled to the point of tears when he realizes how he had indeed denied the Lord for the sake of his own self-preservation in the night of Jesus’ arrest. He comes face-to-face with his own failure (Matthew 26:75).

At the conference I attended on the west coast this summer I met many people from around the world. Many of them no longer associate with the church. Perhaps you know someone in your own families who no longer see the point of being part of the church. But they admitted to me they were — being at the mid-point of their lives — searching now for something more meaningful. But wondering how to leave their current troublesome circumstances of life, in order to move forward. They seemed to be stuck in a bit of a catch-22.

For example, I met a 44-year-old mechanical engineer who owns a successful, Italian aerospace company inherited to him from his father who founded it; and, a ‘successful’ 50-year-old Toronto Bay-Street corporate consultant. Because of various, recent life events both were realizing they needed something more in life; all the toiling and achieving and working hard and managing life’s course — all these things were not bringing a deeper satisfaction about life, anymore.

It’s as if both these folks, in the words of the keynote speaker, Richard Rohr, ‘climbed to the top of the ladder of life and suddenly realized they had been climbing the wrong wall’. A catch-22.

It’s a scary place to be, when suddenly we see how stuck we are. We will probably despair at the futility of all the work we’ve done to create the structures of our lives — whether our business, in our families, and even the church. It’s not to say it’s all bad, what we’ve done, to create the patterns of our lives. They served, at one point, an important purpose, to be sure.

But there comes a point, dear friends, where another path needs to be taken. Something deep within us, if we pay attention to it, nudges us forward out of the boat. But we also know that whatever the new thing is, won’t come easily.

In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). We all will die. We all will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of this difficult change in our lives, individually and as a church.

How does Peter bear his suffering, in this Gospel text? How does Peter get to that point of ‘being saved’? When he sees the waves surrounding him, when he recognizes that his compulsion to do it by himself has gotten him into trouble — yet again!, when he is honest about his need for help, and calls out … Jesus saves him.

The text says, “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened …” (Matthew 14:30). Often, in the scriptures, the wind is associated with the third person of the Holy Trinity — the Spirit of God. And one of the functions of the Holy Spirit, doctrinally, is to call forth the Truth (John 16:13; see also Luther’s explanation of the 3rd Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the “Small Catechism” where he says that the Holy Spirit leads to the “true faith”).

We can say that when Peter recognized the truth about himself, the truth of his deception of relying solely on his own initiative to accomplish God’s mission, he finally and literally came to his senses and confessed his need for God. You will notice that at first, “the wind was against them [the disciples]” (Matthew 14:24) when they first encountered the storm.

The path towards this personal acknowledgement — in the church we call it ‘confession of sin’ — is often a path that is honest with another person about our fears and our anxieties. It is a path that we may otherwise wish to avoid or blame someone else for. It is a path that makes us vulnerable to others because we are truthful about what really motivates us. It is a path that unmasks us, for who we truly are.

In one of Richard Rohr’s keynote addresses he said that “honesty leads to humility”. You can’t be humble unless you are first absolutely and completely honest. You can’t be humble and still pretend to be in charge and know all the answers. In one frightening, ‘letting-go’ moment on the Sea of Galilee, Peter was honest about himself, and humbled to the core when he cried out, “Lord, [YOU] save me!” Because I, honestly, can’t on my own.

But there is a good and wonderful news in this Gospel text; and here it is: There is a great love, and a better world waiting for us on the other side of our fear. This love does not deny who we are — including all our foibles and compulsions. But it is no accident that the single-most message repeated throughout the bible is: Do not fear/ Be not afraid. We can either shy away from what we need to do, or we can constructively engage our fears, focusing on the promise, and trusting in the bigger truth that is God’s presence and God’s grace.

Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived. Weeks passed and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy: “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?” Together the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life, they sang for joy! “How great our mother’s love is, that she shares her own life with us!” As the weeks stretched into months, the twins noticed how much each was changing.

“What does this mean?” one asked.
“It means our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other.
“But I don’t want to go,” said one. “I want to stay here always.”
“We have no choice,” said the other. “But maybe there is life after birth.”
“But how can that be?” responded one. “We will shed our life cord and how can life be possible without it? Besides, we have see evidence that others were here before us, and none of them has returned to tell us there is life after birth. No, this is the end. Maybe there is no mother after all.”
“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”
“Have you seen our mother?” said one. “Maybe she only lives in our minds. Maybe we made her up because the idea made us feel good.”
So the last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear. Finally, the moment of birth arrived. When the twins had passed from their world, they opened their eyes and cried for joy — for what they saw exceeded their fondest dreams. That is brith … and that is death (cited from Kim Nataraja, “Dancing with your Shadow”, Medio-Media 2010, p.163-164).

We are a people on a journey. We are a church on a journey. And on a journey, there is no such thing as the ‘status quo’. Things are changing all the time. In truth, and especially when everything seems so uncertain, and fearful, we are in a great and holy time of transition.

But we need not hold back and be dumbstruck like a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car. We can act boldly in faith. Why? Because in the storms and transitions of life, Jesus is there, calling us out of our ‘boats’ of despair and ‘catch-22’ patterns of self-destruction.

And when the storm strikes and we are so distracted by our own agendas and compulsions we fail to fully recognize what has been true all along: The Spirit of God and the presence of Jesus is still active all around us and in the world. And, what is more, Jesus will save us, too!

Cross directions

In response to the changing realities of the church, the Eastern Synod this year is making a significant change to the way it organizes itself for ministry and mission

No longer will there be Conferences — like the Ottawa / St Lawrence Conference to which we belong. This Spring the Conference structure gives way to smaller units called ‘Ministry Areas’. This transition will likely be the focus of church-wide meetings over the next couple of months. We will be a part of about 8 or so congregations forming the ‘Ottawa Ministry Area’ whose local leadership will be appointed by the Bishop.

How will this new structure operate? Certain technical aspects of how elections to Synod and national conventions will work, for example, are part of these constitutional changes that will be considered. But how will it work in the sense of achieving the mission of the church?

Lately, again, I sat around a table of pastors and lay leaders of Montreal Ministry Area congregations who, literally, are up against a wall — for their shrinking resources and inability to afford ministry the way they used to. They know they have to work closer together, and share resources such as church buildings and pastors. And they have come up with some small, concrete plans for the near future: They are planning some combined worship events and more focused leadership meetings. But how will this new cooperation function and look like? That’s still up in the air.

And it’s not too long into our future in Ottawa when more and more of our congregations here will be pressed into a greater need to look at different models for ministry. How will that work? What will be the end result?

In reviewing the results of the pastoral care survey that was circulated over the last month here, one of your top choices for workshops was to get more information and help around making a housing change — downsizing — when physical limitations increase with age. You instinctively know that this is the direction, eventually, that many of us eventually take. But, for you who haven’t yet made that big change, how will that look? Where will you go? You may not know precisely how that will pan out, especially when spouses and their health are in the equation as well. You just know that a change will need to be made at some point.

Palm Sunday is just that day in the church calendar where the need to know the end result is tempered by the realization of what it will take to get there. On Palm Sunday, we focus on the direction more than the goal itself.

And this may be why Palm Sunday and especially Holy Week worship is not a very popular draw for Christians in our day. Because we are saving all our church energy for Easter, right?

Our culture, and the dominant belief system of the secular world today, is mesmerized by goals, and goal-setting. I was sitting around a table with Lutherans from the Missouri Synod, ELCIC and CALC. We are planning together a musical event to celebrate the Reformation, later this year. It was at our last meeting when someone said: “What is our goal? I need to know what the goal is for this cooperative effort.”

Management by results seems to be these days the methodology of choice, evidenced by how our politicians govern to how churches run their activities. While I believe time is never wasted in clarifying purpose, we may need to practice exercising a bit of humility when it comes to anticipating certain results.

A man and a woman were married for many years. Whenever there was a confrontation, yelling could be heard deep into the night. The old man would shout, “When I die, I will dig my way up and out of the grave and come back and haunt you for the rest of your life!”

Neighbours feared him. The old man liked the fact that he was feared. Then, one evening, he died when he was 98. After the burial, her neighbours, concerned for her safety, asked: “Aren’t you afraid that he may indeed be able to dig his way out of the grave and haunt you for the rest of your life?”

The wife said, “Let him dig. I had him buried upside down … and I know he won’t ask for directions.”

Perhaps it is time for Christians to ask more questions about the direction of our faith. We know the ultimate end, as Christians. We know that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We know what our destination is. It is the direction that causes us trouble no matter how often we affirm in our creeds and sing from our hearts about heavenly glory.

Palm Sunday, as it ushers in Holy Week and the Passion of our Lord, may be a good time to reflect on the way, the direction, that Jesus calls us in our lives on earth. While Jesus may very well have know for certain the end result of his passion and suffering, Holy Week emphasizes the direction — the humility, the emptying, the letting go, and the loss — that the Cross of Christ stands for.

The children’s video we viewed this morning ended significantly: the path Jesus saw from his vantage point atop the donkey amid the Hosanna-cheering crowds was leading Jesus not to the glory of resurrection, but to the condemnation of the religious leaders and Roman authorities awaiting him.

It’s the direction we are asked to consider during Holy Week, not the goal.

What does this approach ask of us?

In a recent, popular, healthy-living book by Maria Brilaki called “Surprisingly Unstuck”, she makes the argument to focus on a lifestyle change as opposed to fixating on results. Rather than motivate or will yourself towards a goal — for example, lose five pounds in a week — instead practice making small choices: Eat an apple for a snack instead of a chocolate bar; walk up the flight of stairs instead of taking the elevator; refrain from that second helping at dinner, etc. Greater success comes to those who focus on small, healthy habits in the moments of daily living rather than forcing or willing some grandiose change based on a perceived goal.

Making small steps in the direction and according to the values of one’s faith, is better than expecting that by our strength alone we can engineer our salvation and the salvation of the world.

In the lectionary study this past week, we reflected upon the second reading for today from Philippians. One of the very good questions arising from our conversation was: How do we become humble, like our Lord? It’s hard to imagine what a humble life might look like in the manner of Jesus. Because, after all, none of us is Jesus. So, what does it mean to be Christ-like, or “little Christs”, as Martin Luther put it?

Saint Paul described the character of a humble lifestyle in the context of this reading from the second chapter of Philippians: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (v.3-4); “…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v.13).

The result of this life-style may look very different, person from person. Mother Theresa in the 20th century exercised genuine humility differently from the martyrs of the early church or from millionaires today who sell off their riches in order to serve the poor in developing countries, or from a teenager who volunteers tirelessly in a nursing home, or asking a neighbour her viewpoint on something you hold near and dear to your heart, even if that opinion is different than yours.

While the result of our work may not be clear, from our vantage point now, we have enough to go on in the direction of our faith. Call it instinct. Call it conviction. Call it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is God’s work enabling us in the direction of our faith.

So, if down-sizing is inevitable, what to do? If we can’t see exactly how it’ll turn out in the end, perhaps we can practice now little habits of letting go — whether in the way we pray, or giving away treasured possessions little by little.

If we can’t see now how the church will be organized in twenty years, but instinctively know significant things will have to change, perhaps now we can do little things to share ministry with other congregations, build friendships with those from other congregations, organize events with other churches and share space.

That path set before us, as it most definitely was for Jesus over two thousand years ago, may be difficult, challenging and uncomfortable. But perhaps by focusing on the little ways we can share the love of Jesus with each other and the world around us — we will, in the end, experience God’s work and power in our lives.

Let it so be. In Jesus’ name.

The healing power of memory

In suffering the pain of grief, memory can be a healing salve. Not only remembering stories of loved ones lost and recalling them at family gatherings. But when it comes to observing traditions and special occasions, such as Christmas or Easter. How do you navigate through a holiday without that special person? What do you do?

The first step is to recall in your mind’s eye the past; linger with these memories until you can feel the quiet, reassuring love and pleasure of those moments. Stay with each memory long enough to understand what about it is meaningful for you.

Then, let your memories guide you in making plans — let’s say, for this coming Easter holiday. The point is not to make an exact re-creation of the past. This is not about making a simulation of past experiences.

I heard about a man who, in middle age, purchased a Harley-Davidson to try to live in the myth of the youthful, unfettered individual who is free to go anywhere at any time. He felt unsatisfied, however, after his solitary road-trips. Something was missing.

After more reflection, what he was remembering on a deeper level was the positive experience in his youth of the friends he made in a bike shop where he worked a job one summer. The meaning of memory was found in the relationships more so than the motor-cycles. He didn’t sell the Harley-Davidson. But he did inquire about local riding groups of folks his age. His interest shifted to making friends.

Memories of past Christmases or Easters can transform each new celebration. For example, a memory of a family bike ride on an Easter Monday decades ago can lead to a family train trek through the Rockies. What’s important is not to re-create the past, but to transform it so it’s meaningful for the present. Not simulation, but translation.

During Lent we reflect on the question of healing, on our faith journeys. What I am discovering is as we hear the various stories of healing from members of our community, a wonderful theology of healing is emerging. And one important aspect of healing, is to consider the power of memory. Because of one, small experience of God’s grace in our past — should we be able to recall such an experience — can emerge strength and encouragement and guidance for dealing with a current challenge, suffering or crossroad in our lives.

But even if we are not able to remember any good in our past, the faith that gives us power today is not about our glory, but about God’s. In the Gospel for today, Jesus heals a man, blind from birth (John 9:1-41). Those who witness this healing miracle want an explanation for his condition: Is it his fault that he was blind, or his parents’ sin that caused him this disability. A biblically sound question, since the Torah suggests that the “iniquity of the parents is visited upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-8).

Jesus avoids this kind of biblicism that seeks only to make technical arguments that focus only on our righteousness or lack thereof. Jesus turns our sites away from ourselves and onto God: The purpose of our lives, including our suffering, is to point to God, and God’s work. If we are to remember anything, it is to remember God’s mighty acts in relation to the people of God, including you and me. When the Psalmist delights in the past, his memory focuses on what God has done: “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).

God’s vision is expansive and eternal, abounding in steadfast love. I wonder why the disciples weren’t that interested in the first part of that text from Exodus. Before talking about the iniquity imparted to the third and fourth generations, when the Lord spoke to Moses, he said first: “The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” — which is a lot longer than four!

And as we know, generations ago the world was a lot different than what it is now. I was watching on Netflix a show that I remember watching avidly in the 1990s. One detail caught my attention, when the characters were talking to each other holding the old, large, clunky ear pieces connected by a spiral, rubber cord to a hand-dial phone. In one generation, so much has changed and people are doing things in different ways.

And yet, one thing remains: The steadfast love of God. Whatever we do in God’s mission, and however we do it, we can be assured that God is faithful to us, that God has unbounding love for us. After all, God doesn’t look on outward appearances; God looks at our heart. When David was chosen to be king of Israel, God wasn’t looking for the one who appeared to have all the desirable qualities; God wasn’t looking for the tallest, the strongest, the best-looking one to be their leader. God was looking at the heart of David (1 Samuel 16).

We can be courageous, then, and bold to reach out and be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. After all, it’s not, in the end about us. We find healing and wholeness for our lives in order to do, and by doing, the will of God. It is for His sake that we throw ourselves fully into life. It is for His sake that we are healed and restored.

The man who bought the Harley-Davidson was initially motivated by an individualistic worldview, that so often seeps into the life of the church. How often does our experience of worship, even, trend into being merely a disembedded, fragmented, personal experience in a crowd of strangers. As if worship was meant only for what you (individually) can get out of it for your own personal self-help agenda. No wonder many of us sometimes get frustrated with worship experience.

That is why a regular, weekly celebration of the Eucharist — the Holy Communion — is so vital to our life together. In this sacrament, we are re-membered as the Body of Christ. We remember what Jesus did and what God has done throughout salvation history; we recall these mighty acts of God, but not solely as a piece of history, a memorial. But as it impacts our lives today, in mission for others.

We come to the table, a diverse group of people. But we come as equals on a level-playing field deserving as one punishment for our sin but forgiven and showered with God’s mercy and grace — as one, by the self-less act of Jesus. We are empowered, through the broken body of Jesus, to be his broken body for the world, today. How that memory shapes us today may be different from decades ago. But memory continues to form us, and reform us. In our lives, the Gospel is translated for the world today.

Be thou, our vision, O God.

Thank you to Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren in “Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, why it mattes, how to become one”, chapters 2-3

The virus of perfectionism & the healing acme of God’s love

I remember at the conclusion of my qualifying exam as a seminarian seeking a call to serve as a pastor of a church, the lead examiner made only one suggestion.

Sitting before the bishop and an examining committee for over an hour –  hearing me answer questions about church doctrine, dealing with conflict, upholding the Gospel in a pluralistic society, defining God’s mission, etc. – I remember being taken aback with their summarizing statements at the end of it all:

They said, essentially: “From the sounds of it, Martin, you will have to work on one thing. And this may cause you problems down the road if you don’t navigate this issue well. So this is what you will have to practice, right from the start …

“The first time you lead worship one Sunday morning as a pastor of that congregation, when you notice the paraments on the altar are crooked, or not hanging in a symmetrically-perfect fashion, resist at all costs the urge to correct it.”

Here I was all concerned about issues of theological integrity, confessional adherence, denominational survival and biblical interpretation of controversial proportions – and what the leadership of the church was most concerned about was not what I believed so much, but how I, a future pastor, would exercise my leadership among the people of God.

At first, I was convinced they were missing the point. But the more I reflected on this and the more mileage I clocked over the years in pastoral leadership, I came to appreciate very much their advice. Perfectionism is like a virus, and can lead to many bad things not only in leadership but in the practice of faith:

Perfectionism is why I give up too quickly on many a handy-man project at home whenever it doesn’t work out the way I expect it to. Applied to a life of faith, perfectionism, I have discovered, leads only to discouragement, depression and a low self-esteem. Perfectionism, closely related to the need to please others, places undue pressure and unhealthy stress on our lives. Perfectionism makes religion out of following a bunch of rules. Perfectionism keeps us stuck in negative, self-depreciating cycles of thinking.

Have you, too, caught the perfectionism bug? Laurence Freeman, recipient of the Order of Canada a couple of years ago, said that his greatest success in life was to learn that his failures were more important than his successes (audio, “The Virus of Perfectionism”, http://www.meditatio.ca). I am certain his comments reflect the testimonies of many successful business people and those who are at the top of their fields who confess that the most important ingredient in achieving success is the long list of the failures that preceded it.

And then we confront a text like we read today (Matthew 5:48) when Jesus says: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What are we to make of that? Does God want us to be perfect, and avoid all possibility of failure, at all costs?

I think we have to be very careful in our understanding of this word, as we practice our faith, day to day. As I have struggled with perfectionism I have come to appreciate the flip-side of this coin:

It is born deep within the human soul to want things to be right, proper, good. We are, after all, created in God’s image. And part of this reflection manifested in each other is to seek God’s glory – which is beautiful, holy, perfect, right – full of dignity and yes, perfection.

So, we ought not repress nor deny this natural yearning within our very being. But what is the difference between acknowledging and celebrating this longing deep within us, and falling into the trap of perfectionism?

“Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I suspect we get hung up on the first part of that sentence all too often; but maybe it would do us well to start with the second half of that sentence.

How is God ‘perfect’? We know from the Gospel that should we want to understand God the Father, we need first to look at Jesus (John 14:7). So, what kind of perfectionism – if we can call it that – did Jesus demonstrate?

When folks ask me: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” I approach the question of the atonement in this way: Is there a better way for God to demonstrate God’s absolute and steadfast love for us than by laying down his life for us (John 10:11) – by letting go and giving up that which is most precious to us all? If anything, Jesus’ death proves to us God’s unyielding, uncompromising and unconditional love for each one of us, in a way to which we could humanly relate.

And second, is there a better way for God to demonstrate absolute power over death and Satan for all time, than by God becoming completely vulnerable through Jesus to the consequences of that evil on earth – which was the unjust condemning of an innocent person to death?

Yes, Jesus could have walked away from Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus could have called down the forces of heaven to save him from the Cross and pound the devil to pulp before our very eyes. That might be a more satisfying approach. But that would have been playing the earthly game; that would have been playing by the rules of the forces of evil: force for force, might for might. Who comes out on top?

But Jesus chose to pull the rug out from under Satan’s legs. Jesus chose to limit his divine self (Philippians 2:5-11) in human form, and to suffer and die as a human completely vulnerable to an unjust evil. If anything, Jesus’ resurrection proves to us God’s absolute power for all time over death and the devil.

My favourite part of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, is the last ten seconds of what feels like a very long movie: When Satan realizes, in agony, for the first time how he has been defeated. Now, that’s a perfect ending to a really graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death.

That’s why Jesus died on the cross. To show us how perfect God is, in God’s love for us. We can’t do it perfectly; we will always miss the mark to some extent. But God is “perfect” love (1 John 4).

God’s love (hesed in Hebrew) is steadfast and unbounding, even to the point of complete vulnerability, letting go – for our sake and for all people. Jesus showed us the way of everlasting life for every human being of every time and every place. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

The way of Jesus is the way to wholeness, completeness, in God’s eternal love, regardless of any and all human divisions within us and out there.

It’s not an easy way, to follow this perfect love. This way of Jesus doesn’t follow earthly rules of power plays, obsessive self-preservation and competitive perfectionism. Saint Paul prayed that God take away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Presumably Paul asked for this so that he could be better at his job preaching the Gospel of Jesus. But God’s answer would nip Paul’s perfectionism in the bud. God’s answer was, ‘no.’

In fact, Paul’s weakness would be a far more effective way of showing God’s power. What would appear as ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world, would in truth be an effective witness to God’s power and God’s love, through Paul’s weakness.

God does not want us to be perfect. Because God does not want us to give up. God does not want us to give up on the journey of faith, no matter how difficult or how unpopular it may become at times. God just wants us to be faithful – to stay on the path, to doing what we can – not out of perfectionistic motivations but out of the heart of God’s love and power working through our imperfection.

And I think God wants us to be vulnerable to one another; that we are not afraid of showing and confessing our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our failures to one another. In the church, we don’t have to wear masks of perfectionism. We are, after all, broken people. That is the truth. But Jesus’ body, too, was broken, for the love of the world. And what is the church, but the Body of Christ?

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can find wholeness, healing, on our journey that begins now on earth and finds completion, perfection, in the world to come.

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can share the truth of God’s love to all people, effectively, genuinely and authentically.

Thank you, Jesus, for accepting us in your perfect love. Amen.

Because it all matters to God

Last weekend, my family visited the Biodome in Montreal. Situated right beside the Olympic Stadium, it used to house the cycling competitions during the 1976 Summer Olympics. But in recent years it was converted into four distinct and self-contained eco-systems from diverse regions in North and South America.

My favourite was the eco-system from South America, for its lush, tropical environment: humid, warm, pungent air; broad leaf palm trees; and, a host of diverse animals – crocodiles, capybaras and scarlet ibis birds.

Our nine-year-old daughter’s favourite animal is the turtle. She spent a lot of time gazing down onto the mossy ground of the rainforest where the yellow-spotted turtle made its home.

When the guide asked us if we had any questions, my daughter wondered where the baby turtles were. The guide said that it was getting more and more difficult for them to obtain babies since they were very vulnerable in that stage of life; indeed it seems that natural selection is making the turtle an extinct species.

Without their fully developed shell in which the adult turtle could retreat to hide and keep safe from predators, the infant turtles are getting far too susceptible to a premature death and more difficult to protect. Who knows? Maybe the turtle with its shelled existence is going the way of the dodo bird.

The religious people in Jesus’ day felt they were up against a formidable predator in the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Gospel of Matthew was written about the time when the Roman legions were laying siege to eventually destroy the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and fetter out any Zealots who violently opposed the occupation.

With their temple under attack, the anxious people of God were asking questions of identity and purpose: Who are we and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s holy city and temple are occupied territory? What does this say about God’s relationship with us? How does God want us to respond to this dark and murky reality of life?

This is the social and political context to which Jesus spoke, on the hillside near Capernaum overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This Gospel text (Matthew 5:13-20) forms part of the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus outlined the values and purpose of the kingdom of God “that is near” (4:17).

It is a situation not completely unlike our own. When you consider the history of Christianity over the past two millennia, we find ourselves today in a similar, challenging circumstance: the institution of the church is diminished to the point of demise in many quarters. Christendom, once mighty, powerful and dominant in the western world, is relegated now in our society to the point of obscurity and irrelevance.

Many are asking those same questions: Who are we, and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s nation is “occupied” territory? How does God want us to respond to this dark and uncertain reality of life?

It is a natural instinct for many who, when under stress and pressure and the burden of fear, retreat under the shell – as a turtle does. One response to the perceived threat is to strengthen the walls between sacred and secular. Against the wiles of the crazy, dangerous world ‘out there’ we escape into our private and safe domains of home, property and religious purity. And build a fortress. But is this the right strategy? Or, does it spell, like the turtle, possible extinction?

Amidst the threats against the practice of faith in first century Palestine and twenty-first century Canada, Jesus preaches another way.

Amidst these threats, Jesus challenged Israel to be Israel, just as he challenges us to be ourselves in faith today. Jesus did not say, “You must become salt of the earth by pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Jesus did not say, “You must one day down the road when everything is perfect in the world again, or when you can somehow make yourself worthy of it, become the light.”

Jesus announced, to remind them and us: “You ARE the salt of the earth.” “You ARE the light of the world, right now, right here, in the world as it is, in your life as it is now with all its uncertainty, and in all its darkness.” We don’t have to hide nor retreat behind fortress walls. The solution is in somehow activating saltiness and brightness within us.

So, how do we do that? If there were to be only one way of doing God’s will; if there were only one way of being a Christian – then I’m not sure Jesus would talk in parables and present metaphors and images like salt and light – images open to a multitude of functions and capabilities. Jesus would just spell it out in the letter of the law.

But no. Salt and Light. It’s as if he is saying: Given all the uses of salt, and the various applications of light – how do you fit in?

When Jesus uses the image of light, he makes the point not to hide it under a bushel, but make sure everyone can see it (Matthew 5:14-16). But if others are to see the light, in what conditions do we let it shine? At the noontime of a bright, sunny day?

We will have to shine it in the darkness. After all, people don’t notice a light – whether a flashlight or candle – in the brightness of day. But at night. When all is dark. When you can’t see everything clearly. When the way is uncertain. Where shadows lengthen.

That’s where we are to go. Into places of darkness, in the world and in our own lives: Where people suffer hunger, homelessness and rejection; Where we harbor unhealthy secrets within our souls. This may not seem very religious. This activity may not be easy or make us feel good. But it is where Jesus calls us “to follow him”.

Annie Dillard writes, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” (p.43, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, New York: Harper, 1992)

Why do we go into the darkness of the world? Why should we take these risks, and expose even our own weaknesses and vulnerability?

Because this world matters to God. All of it. Not some utopic fantasy of what it could be without all the stains of human sin splattered all over the place. But this world in all its complexities, challenges, difficulties, problems.

Just like the weeds and the wheat – what did Jesus instruct his disciples in telling that parable? (Matthew 13:24-30) – To leave the wheat and weeds together, and God will take care of separating out the two when the time comes.

This world matters to God. Our human condition matters to God. Otherwise, Jesus would not have come the way he did:

  1. Jesus appeared in the dust of first century Palestine. Often throughout the Gospels, the writers take pains to indicate the time and place of the event they are recording. For example, the Gospel of Matthew opens with a detailed account, name for name, of the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1ff). The Word became flesh. God entered humanity, in a specific time and place in history. Jesus fully embodied both human and divine. The incarnation was, and is, not some abstract notion removed from life on earth. Jesus was born into this world.
  2. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple ripped in half (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38), symbolically abolishing the distinction between sacred and secular for all time. No longer would religious life be divided into neat categories that separated the faithful from real life, from engagement with the world as it is.
  3. In the ancient (Apostles’) creed of the church we say we believe in the “resurrection of the body”; by placing value on our own bodies in following Jesus we claim continuity between this world and the next. That means that laughing, grieving, crying, caring, walking, working, making love – doing all those things that are part of regular living in our own skin – these are all sacramental activities. These activities, Jesus preaches, are the building blocks of the kingdom of God.

The stuff of earth matters to God. And that’s why we reflect the light of Christ in the darkness of it.

By going the way of Jesus to reflect his light in a dark world, we discover a great grace: that we already have and are all that we need and God needs, to fulfill God’s purposes for us and for the world, in this time and in this place.

On the path of hardship tempered with grace

I suspect that some of you really like John the Baptist, while others would feel intimidated and back off from his forceful energy. Similar to the way two very different recruits into the Canadian Armed Forces reacted during the first days of regular duty.

A friend from Petawawa who is a sergeant and has put many years in the Forces told me last week how very differently some personalities react to his dissing of discipline. When boots aren’t polished, collars not ironed, and back-packs not kitted properly, he would lean in on the rookies and set them straight.

The one young recruit began to well up in tears when my friend started criticizing him for not being prepared. The other, being disciplined for the same problem, smiled, and was energized by the confrontation: “Wow, this is just like the movies, when the sergeant major yells at the recruits, spitting inches from the other’s face, turning the air blue!” Just loving it! The first recruit didn’t last long in the army. The other, was spurred on and challenged through his mistakes, to have a successful career.

John the Baptist is the ultimate reality check for Christianity. In the best of the prophetic tradition, he epitomizes the no-nonsense, truth-telling, going-for-the-jugular style not often associated with a more sanitized approach to religion.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Is this how you feel about belonging to the church today? Many stand in the line of John the Baptist tradition. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon — influential theologians of the last century wrote: “There is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry” (p.45 Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 1). What do you think about that? Would you like that?

John the Baptist’s hard words to the religious leaders of the day call them to repentance. Judgment underscores the tenor of this text assigned for Advent. And that’s why some of us would rather read scriptures and sing songs about sheep softly grazing in fields during these weeks leading to Christmas. Because you may know people in your life who have been hurt by the judgment of others — many of those doing the judging from the church. Even as we in the church have been warned NOT to judge others (Romans 14).

God calls ALL of us to fall on our knees, confess and repent — especially those of in the church.

The original Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means — “moving beyond the mind.” We need to have a change of mind as much as a change of our heart. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” argues Saint Paul (Romans 12:2). He goes on to say that this change of our mind would happen, “so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable …” Our changed minds, our renewed way of thinking about things, will then affect how we behave.

“Moving beyond the mind” means that we need, at first, to have our fundamental assumptions questioned. Fundamental assumptions about God and the ways of God in the world. Is it true that we don’t have to do anything more in the church because we were baptized and confirmed here and our grandparents and great-grandparents were Lutheran? Is it true that God hates us and is only out there to catch us breaking a rule in order to punish us?

John the Baptist might have a field day in the Christian church today. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that only makes sense when embraced in the desert, in the wilderness of our lives. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we have learned to weep at our faults and let go. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we are called out of our complacency, selfishness, and self-righteousness to a greater cause, a greater good.

Barbara Marshall wrote this prayer poem cited in an Advent devotional for the season (Lutherans Connect); in it she describes the times of her life when she was truly invigorated, motivated and inspired in faith:

“… It was never the turbulent waters that raged and tore through my life that left me floundering, helpless adrift in the surging tide. But rather the lulling beauty and lure of familiar shores that fashioned my days with indifferent thought and compelled me to stay where I was. So, Father, give me a yearning for the valleys shadowed and steep, for deserts that breathe their fire and dust, for waves that crash at my feet. And surely then I’ll accomplish much …when inspiration is fueled on the path of hardship tempered with grace.”

So you can see why I suggest that nostalgia may be a great enemy of Christianity. For it keeps us stuck in apathy and inaction. But, ironically, looking to the past is an essential ingredient in faithful living. John the Baptist himself quotes directly from Isaiah when preaching his sermon: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight …” (40:3). In writing about John the Baptist, the Gospel writer Matthew uses descriptive words right out of the Hebrew Scriptures originally describing the prophet Elijah who was “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist may breathe fire into a soppy nostalgic faith — but he certainly doesn’t dismiss the past.

Remembering the past is important. But there’s a difference between nostalgia and remembering. Biblical commentator David Bartlett writes that “nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude” (p.48, Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1). In Advent we re-member, we reconnect. The word “religion” literally means to re-unite, re-align, ourselves out of isolation and into a holy union. In Advent when we remember, we embrace the good God has been and done for us in our past. In Advent we remember, together, as a family, as a church, as a community — what God has done for us in Jesus. We do this remembering at the Table — we remember that in the night in which he was betrayed …. We do this remembering singing out loud together our seasonal songs so precious to us.

We pray. We sing. We remember. Doing this, NOT to a disproportionate emotional longing for a time gone by. No. But rather, to embrace an occasion for re-affirming the good God has done for you in the history of your life, and to affirm our on-going hope and belief that God does care about us and our behavior this season, and beyond.

This Advent, know that we are cherished by God not only for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do. This is good news, because if God does not care about what I do, I may begin to question whether God actually cares about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into the family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.

“One December afternoon … a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise’, the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child … began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right, son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.’ But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.’ And she wept with her son.”

It does matter to God. God is that mother who embraces us when we weep after making a big mistake and mess up. God doesn’t punish us, but rather holds us, and cries with us.

Perhaps the church can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility. We can continue remembering and being faithful to our calling in Christ, especially in the desert, because we know God does care for each of us.

So, let’s sing on and re-member!

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!