Thanks-doing

I knew—we all knew—we had to do it. We had to go, single-file, through the turn-style and meet, individually, with the control officer. The ticket attendant would then scan the barcode on our paper copy or our smartphone before letting us in.

It started out a large crowd—a mass of people walking together across the cordoned-off streets, parking lots and plazas like a tsunami racing towards the stadium. But then it eventually, ultimately, bottle-necked to one person at a time through the gate.

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It was my first time at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan. At game time it is probably the largest gathering of Canadians I will ever see together in one place—some thirty-thousand mostly screaming Rough Rider fans cheering their beloved football team. In all, watching that game in the stands was for me an exercise in social conformity, or fighting against it.

However, each football fan, regardless of our stripe, had to pass one-at-a-time through the entrance gate. In places where lots of people normally gather, whether it be the security line at the airport or the gate into a sporting event, each of us has to make a reckoning, an accounting.

And it can cause some anxiety, some fear. It does for me. Even though this fear is largely irrational. After all, I have my ticket. I purchased it. I have every right to be there.

And yet, that moment of passing through the gate has a kind of self-consciousness attributed to it. The spotlight now falls on me, not us as a whole. I have to put myself on the line. I can’t be anonymous any longer, melting into the perceived security of the crowd. I have to stand out, be vulnerable, if but for a moment.

Thanksgiving is about doing. It’s already a word constructed for doing something. It is ‘giving’ something, an action word: Thanks-giving. That is why we practice today. We bring food to the altar—our gifts—that will then be given to a world in need.

But doing something in our practice of faith is risky. We put ourselves on the line. We have to make a move. Declare ourselves. Make an account for ourselves. Thanksgiving has to mean something personal to each of us, individually and perhaps differently.

My mother tells the story of her home church in Poland when she was a child. Every Sunday morning during the gathering of the gifts, everyone would line up and go single-file to the altar to deposit their offering. In front of everyone to see!

For fifteen chapters in Deuteronomy (11-26), Moses gives the Lord’s instruction to the people of Israel upon arriving in the Promised Land. In the Hebrew text assigned for Thanksgiving this year, we read the first section of the concluding, last chapter (26:1-11), in this long oration.

In looking at the translated words into English we can’t see the distinction between singular and plural. In other words we can’t tell whether Moses calls the people into faithful commitment together or individually. But in the Hebrew language you would notice the distinction. So, while the early chapters in Moses’ speech are predominantly addressed to the community—as the verbs are in the plural—in chapter 26 the writer has noticeably shifted to singular verbs and personal pronouns.

In our pilgrimage of faith, there are times we have to walk by ourselves. When we can’t hide behind options any longer. When we can’t melt into the crowd. And simply observe. When we can’t be an anonymous fan any longer. When we can’t find excuses nor justifications for not doing anything about something we know needs some doing. When we can’t just be spectators any longer.

We have to go through the gate ourselves. Individually. We have to participate, and get into the arena of life and make some moves, some waves.

It’s scary to do so. To take a risk. We may not have done this kind of thing before. Because we know that in doing something for our faith, anything, we will likely make a mistake or two. It may not be pretty. In fact it may be downright messy for a while. We may at times fail, as in trying different things, things we’ve never done before—Christians have never done before—in mission with others.

The ticket we hold in our hands represents our efforts, our attempts at giving something of what we have—to show the attendant at the gate. At Thanksgiving, not every one of us may feel thankful, especially if you are going through some grief. So then, let your tears be the ‘ticket’ you bring. The ticket an also represent your financial gift, or your volunteer hours, or your gift of expertise knowledge or skills that you offer. Wherever you are at, whatever you have, you bring to the altar and lay it down.

Maybe the irrational fear we have (all fear is irrational) suggests that the ticket is not good enough, that somehow it will not register, that we will be turned away and denied the experience of what we have come to celebrate.

The ticket we bring may be for the cheapest seats high up in the nosebleeds. However we may have acquired our ticket, or whatever its value, we may suffer the anxiety of thinking it is all up to us. That our entrance fee is based on “I deserve it,” or, “I earned it”, or “I accomplished this.”

The risk of doing something brings both the pinch of vulnerability and the fulfilment of the promise. The pinch of vulnerability because in exposing our hearts we realize it’s not all perfect with us. In truth, we must acknowledge we do not do it on our own. We are limited. We are also weak. And, for a moment, this awareness—this confession—hurts.

But the ticket was already purchased. Weeks ago. Months ago. The moment we cross by the gate is after-the-fact. Our participation in the party is already guaranteed. And nothing can change that. The justification for our being there had been already long ago determined. The moment we must make an accounting of ourselves, the moment of fear and uncertainty, is also the moment we celebrate something already accomplished.

By Another. For us.

Thanks be to God!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Blueberries where the forest was

A congregational treasurer once asked God how long a million years was to Him. God replied, “A million years to me is just like a single second in your time.”  

Then the treasurer asked God what a million dollars was to Him. God replied, “A million dollars to me is just like a single penny to you.” Congregational finances being what they were, the treasurer got her courage up and asked: “God, could I have one of your pennies?”  

God smiled and replied, “Certainly, just a second.”

I think it’s more often the case in our spiritual journeys that we do not simply get what we ask for, or want. The faith life just doesn’t work like that. Even though in popular religion we often joke about it.

When people banter with me about having a special connection to God when we want better weather, I like to remind them that I’m in sales, not management. Indeed, in the popular mindset we live with this idea that somehow we ought to manage what really is the purview, the domain, of God.

And in tough times we struggle with it. Why doesn’t God do what WE think is the solution to our problem: Cure our illness, give us money to make ends meet, solve our problems, etc.? Of course we hear stories that are exceptions to this. But even then, the answers to the prayer request don’t come in precisely the way we expected they would.

It reminds me of a Valentine’s day card that I’ve seen. On the outside of the card is the catchy phrase “You’re the answer to all of my prayers.” On the inside of the card are the words “You’re not what I prayed for, but you’re the answer to all of my prayers. You’re what I got!” 

It is true: everything we have in life is ‘what we got’ whether we like it, want it, or not. We run into spiritual and emotional trouble whenever we feel like we must control the outcome of all that we do and are. How much do we miss what’s there because we are expecting to see what’s not there? What we don’t have? What we’ve lost? What isn’t any longer?

At the ‘generous giving’ practicum I attended this past week in Orillia with other clergy from the Eastern Synod, several speakers spoke to us about the nature of giving. The general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson, told of the time when he and his wife hiked a challenging trail in Lake Superior National Park last summer.

Coming over a rise they descended into a valley devastated by a forest fire a couple years back. The contrast from the lush pine and spruce forest they had just left was stark. Now, they walked gingerly among the burnt out stumps in a moonscape land. The birdsong had disappeared into an eerie silence. The rustle of underbrush caused by scampering chipmunks yielded to wind gusts sweeping across the vast, exposed earth.

Where were the tall trees? Would they ever return? How long would it take? Michael and his wife began to despair as they hurried to leave the depressing scene and return into the cover of mature forest once again.

Then by their feet a blueberry caught their eye. As they lifted their vision, they saw not just one blueberry but a bush, and not just one blueberry bush but actually the whole place was teeming with blueberry bushes surrounding the base of the tree stumps and fallen timber.

They stopped to consider the gift of abundance that lay at their feet in the blueberries: the sweet taste, the healthy nutrition, the food for many creatures of land and air. And then the possibilities of scrumptious blueberry pies and jams. All of a sudden their mood shifted, and they began to see and talk not about what was missing anymore. But the new thing that was appearing out of the ruins of fire and loss.

Indeed, especially on Thanksgiving weekend, it can be hard to feel thankful, especially when we focus either in the direction of deficit and scarcity, or in the delusion that we are the reason of all that we have. When we lean either way we may have trouble understanding what it means to live by Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice always, again I will say rejoice!” (4:4). 

How can we rejoice always, when we focus on scarcity on the one hand, or pretend it’s all up to us on the other? Either way, we remain depressed or stressed to the hilt and cannot, in the words of the Deuteronomist, “celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (26:11).

The Lord instructs the people, when they enter the Promised Land, to bring their basket of offerings to the priest at the altar. The giving doesn’t stop there, however. They need to be reminded again and again that it was God who listened to their prayer and brought them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). In the Gospel for Thanksgiving Day, we read Jesus’ words reminding his listeners again, that it is his “Father in heaven” who is the source of the bread we need (John 6:33).

Perhaps the secret to thanksgiving is in seeing what is actually there, what God has actually given, and not fixate on what is “missing” all the time? Perhaps Thanksgiving is not only about giving, but also about receiving. What if the secret to thanksgiving is noticing the blueberries where a forest should of /could of/ would of been, if not for the fire?

It is our nature to give and to receive with joy. As Christians we have a choice. It is a matter of belief, and intention. We can submit to our ego cravings to keep ‘what we got’ for ourselves, pretending we are the source of all the good in our lives. Or, we can give ‘what we got’ for the benefit of the world which God so loved (John 3:16). And rejoice!

Thanksgiving is not a feeling. It is an action. It is intention, and practice, and discipline. Why do people give, today? There are some cultural changes we need to recognize. If you are of a certain age, born before the latter part of the last century, you likely give because of duty, responsibility and commitment. That’s not the case in recent decades, if you haven’t already noticed, among younger people. Only 29% of Canadian donors in 2013 reported donating to fulfill religious obligations. (1)

The reality, today, is that younger generations will give of their time, talent and treasures when they feel compassion in the community and hope towards their giving. They need to be inspired, not guilted. In other words, people today give when they believe in the mission of whatever group or activity — including the church’s work and programs — if they are inspired and compelled by a belief that their engagement with the church will make a positive difference in the world.

Statistics Canada reports that the vast majority of Canadian donors today (91%) said that the reason they donate is that they feel compassion towards people in need (2013 General Social Survey released in Dec 2015); other reasons for donating often cited include the idea of a helping cause in which they personally believe (88%) and wanting to make a contribution to their community (82%).

There is much for us to be thankful. Giving levels in Canada between 1984 and 2010 have steadily grown, contrary to what you might think; charitable giving peaked in 2010 (the last year this was tracked) with a gross amount of $15 billion. In other words, over the last couple decades people are giving more, not less. And what is good news for us in the church, is that 60% of this $15 billion was faith-based.

This community of faith has given generously to the refugee sponsorship, to Lutherlyn Camp and Conference Centre, to our youth initiatives. This community of faith has given of its time, talents and treasures for the last quarter century to the Carlington Community Chaplaincy. This community of faith has always been generous, giving at least 10 percent to the work of the wider church in benevolence offerings. And, I’ve just scratched the surface.

You people are very generous in your giving. And this culture of generosity, of compassion and commitment, is the heart of what we are all about as Christians, as followers of Jesus who gave his all, for us.

And so, on this Thanksgiving Sunday in Canada, on behalf of all the people in Ottawa, in Canada and in the world who have benefited in small and big ways over the years from your generous giving — I want to say a heartfelt “Thank you!”

Let’s pray together “The Prayer of Thanksgiving” written by Walter Rauschhenbusch:

For the wide sky and the blessed sun,

For the salt sea and the running water,

For the everlasting hills

And never-resting winds,

For trees and the common grass underfoot.

We thank you for our senses

By which we hear the songs of birds,

And see the splendor of the summer fields,

And taste of the autumn fruits,

And rejoice in the feel of the snow,

And smell the breath of the spring.

Grant us a heart wide open

To all this beauty;

And save our souls from being so blind

That we pass unseeing

When even the common thornbush

Is aflame with your glory,

O God our creator,

For ever and ever.

Amen.
(1) Kerilyn Voigt, “Generosity – What Moves Us to Give?” Canada Lutheran Vol 31 No 5 July/August 2015, p.10-14; also, from the Eastern Synod ‘Generous Giving Practicum’ October 2016

There’s no place on earth

People of faith, since the beginning, have been on the move. Even when they settled down for a while, they created ways of practising the journey — of moving from Point A to Point B.

Rome, central to the story and expansion of early Christianity, is full of famous steps. The most famous of these are the 135 Spanish steps which visitors traverse daily en masse.

Millions of Christians have walked the Camino el Santiago which spans almost 800 kms from the foothills of the Pyrenees in France all the way to Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain.

The trails to the castle at Lindisfarne in the United Kingdom attract Christians worldwide every Holy Week to walk nearly 200 kilometres.

People of faith have valued movement as integral to their spiritual growth. Because we are not the same at the end of a journey than we were when we started. This innate desire to be better, to change, to grow and mature — is part and parcel of the life of faith.

The culture of Journeying, so important to the Lenten season we now begin, has its roots in the original pilgrimages to Holy Lands. For centuries, Christians sought a deeper connection with Jesus who walked and lived and died in and around Jerusalem and the Judean wilderness. 

When the Crusades prevented pilgrims from traveling to the Holy Lands, Christians ‘back home’ developed prayer walks in Labyrinths — the most famous and oldest in the Chartres Cathedral in France — which symbolized the long journey to meet Jesus.

Indeed, settlers to this country moved here, many of them to exercise and practice their faith in freedom. Mobility, migration, pilgrimage — this is our story, as people of faith.

How we journey is the question. The journey is not only physical, it also describes our understanding of the way things work.

Over the last month, the Ottawa Senators (NHL hockey team) were looking to score more goals. They had lost more games than won. Their star players were not producing. 

One of their younger players, Curtis Lazar, decided to give $50 to a homeless person after dining out one evening. The next night, he scored two goals in a routing of the Toronto Maple Leafs — the Senators won that game 6-1. The following game, the Senators won again, 5-1, against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In an interview afterwards, Lazar confessed that perhaps there was “karma” working here. Meaning, because he had done a good deed, there was a ‘return’ on his righteous investment and he was rewarded with those goals and wins.

I like Lazar and I appreciate his hockey skills and character. At the same time, he reflects a dominant way of thinking. It is really what some have a called a mechanical type of spirituality, with inputs (from us) and outputs (from God). The sequence goes something like:

1. We sin

2. We are punished

3. We confess our sins

4. We change our lives, and do something good

5. Then, we receive forgiveness and grace

Such is the description of a journey towards goodness that hinges entirely on us, and our doing, our initiative. This spiritual journey then cycles back to the beginning and round and round it goes. Essentially, we force God’s hand. Karma is not a belief alien even to Christians, it seems!

The problem with karma is that because it ultimately relies on our good works, we will never achieve the goal. After winning two lop-sided games, the Senators have now lost three in a row. Where does that leave Lazar? Does he have to give $100 next time to poor people he meets?

In recalling the great acts of God in bringing the Israelites to the Promised Land, Moses confesses it is God’s mighty arm that started the ball rolling towards freedom; verses 8-9 of Deuteronomy 26:

8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, Jesus walks with us in a completely opposite direction from karma. His is not the spirituality of addition, but of subtraction. He goes into the desert.

Try to imagine Jesus’ first moments, entering into the wilderness he would occupy for forty days: The sound of any footsteps is absorbed by sand and rock, lost in the wind or in silence. It is in this barren place that Jesus chooses to retreat, far from what he knows.

Christ chose to retrace the path of his ancestors — in the desert: Abraham. Moses. Ruth. Some of them were responding to God’s call. Some were fleeing persecution. Some were simply looking for a place to call home.

There may very well be value, to our growth as Christians, in embarking on spiritual journeys and earth-bound pilgrimages with some expectations at the destination in mind.

At the same time, we can be assured that Jesus not only waits for us at the ‘end of the line’. Jesus is right there with us, each step of the way. His journey into the desert of testing and suffering shows that there is no place of suffering, pain and loss on earth, to which Jesus is unaccustomed. No place of want that Jesus doesn’t know, intimately. This is more the point.

I like one of the sayings, attributed to Albert Camus, on a Valentine’s Day card I saw: It’s a message of love from one to another: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow; don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me, and be my friend.”

The message of Christianity is that God is not out there, or back there. God is ‘in our skin’, with us. And goes where we go in our journeys of faith and life, through the good and the bad. Jesus is not only the God of our eternal salvation, Jesus is our friend for life, and no matter what.

Jesus resides in the deepest places of our heart and activates our truest most authentic selves no matter where we are at.

Long before Jesus came, the Psalmist knew this gracious truth in his heart: There is no place on earth where God’s presence of grace, love and mercy cannot reach. In Psalm 139 —

7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 

Contrary to karma, this journey of faith begins with God’s grace and forgiveness, as it always does. It is in the desert of our lives where we experience this grace because life happens regardless of how hard we try. And because we are already forgiven, already blessed, we can live confident, transformed lives, even in the desert of our lives. As we live out of our freedom in Christ, we can then confess, “Jesus is Lord!”

As God is with us in our deepest darkness and light, we look to those on the move today. Refugees. Migrants. More than the places of the journey, it is the people we must engage. 

While the desert wilderness was a time of solitary retreat for Jesus, migrants and refugees live in communities: their solace is in the comfort of companionship and common history and identity with those whom they live alongside. In the Lenten days to come, in our own solitary places, let us pray for those for whom solitude is a luxury. And welcome them into our hearts and minds. (1)

(1) Lutherans Connect, “Welcoming the Stranger” blogpost Lenten devotions, Day 1 (lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca)

Changing your mind on faith

This past week I was finishing up on my monthly calls to shut-ins and those who are not easily able to attend worship services here. And it was in a couple of conversations where I felt particularly moved. Of course, I am not mentioning any names or specific circumstances.
“Sometimes I wonder if I have enough faith,” said one.
“When is it that you feel that you might not have enough faith?” I asked, prompting further: “What kinds of things are happening when you think you might not have enough faith?””Whenever things are not going well for me. When I’m suffering, or in pain. When it hurts. When I’m afraid that the worst will happen.”
Speaking Lutheran to Lutheran, I mentioned that the 16th century reformer was an anxious person. Martin Luther was terrified, for example, of dying. “I think that’s probably very normal,” I said. “Even people we consider giants of the faith, were afraid and scared especially when they thought they were going to die.”
Our conversation continued until we concluded that to have faith was not apart from all that scares us or causes us suffering and pain. Faith happens inspite of the difficulties of life. The challenging circumstances of life don’t define and determine our faith or lack thereof; Our faith or lack thereof is expressed amidst the realities of living.
“Faith is real only when we face and embrace the suffering of our lives.”
And it is here that we encounter what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel text today: We are not harmed by what comes from outside of us — including difficult circumstances — but by what is going on inside of us: what we think and say (Mark 7, James 1).
I like the more positive way the Deuteronomist expresses the same lesson — this to the Israelites entering the Promised Land: “Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen [that is, the great acts of God to free the people from slavery in Egypt and sustain them through the desert wanderings] … nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life…” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Don’t forget! Don’t forget who and whose you are! Because what we do comes straight from what and how we think.
If we are honest, this life can take a toe-hold on our imagination — with values, goals, material aspirations and selfish projects that affect our way of thinking. I would add, cultural values that lead us to conclude that only if everything is perfect in my life — no pain, no tears, no suffering and lots and lots of money — then and only then can I have faith, believe in God and be active in my faith.
The Gospel message of Jesus Christ enduring throughout human history is all about a renewing of the mind — embracing a whole new way of thinking. Paul expresses this in one of his letters to the early church: “Be renewed in the way you think …” he counselled the Ephesians (2:23). Because often the way we think — our attitudes and opinions — are downright unhelpful and evil. “All these evil things come from within,” Jesus warns (Mark 7:23).
Sometimes we hold on to our opinions as if they were sacrosanct even though they may be unhelpful. But have we ever really examined our opinions? We often look down upon others (and ourselves), and dare I say politicians, who ‘change their mind’ about something or other. Waffling, we believe, or changing our mind about controversial subjects especially, is bad and suggests a weak personality. And yet God, even, changed his mind about bringing disaster upon the people when Moses and other prophets engaged God in passionate debate (eg. Exodus 32:14). If God is able to change directions, could we not too?
To change our way of thinking to be less self-centred and more other-centred.To change our way of thinking to find meaning more in serving others than serving self.To change our way of thinking about doing something good not out of fear or shame but more out of a heart filled with compassion.
“Once upon a time a king was strolling through the forest and he saw an old man, a poor man, bent over a furrow. He walked up to him and saw that he was planting seeds for chestnut trees. He asked the old man why he was doing it and the old man replied, ‘I love the taste of chestnuts.’
“The king responded, ‘Old man, stop punishing your back bent over a hole in the ground. Do you really not know that by the time even one of these trees has grown tall enough to bear nuts, you may not be around to gather them?’
“And the old man answered, “Your Majesty, if my ancestors had thought the way you do, I would never have tasted chestnuts.'” (Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy, Orion Books, Great Britain, 2007, p.164-165)
I had another inspiring conversation this week with someone who is caring for a loved one suffering with illness. She decided to invite some friends struggling with similar challenges over for a meal. These friends, especially, were down and depressed about their mutually-shared, tough circumstances.
And yet, over the tasty meal and dancing to music and laughter, something shifted in the climate of the meeting. The next day, the host received an email from one of the friends who visited: “Thank you for your generosity and love. I was so encouraged by the visit, that when I returned home, I changed into my gardening clothes, went outside to the front yard and trimmed the bush that had gotten way out of hand.” It was like the fearful, anxious, angst-ridden Martin Luther who said that if he knew the end of the world was going to happen tomorrow, he would still go out and plant an apple tree today. Now, that’s faith.
Here’s my confession today: Often I wonder whether it’s even possible. Whether we can change our minds towards God and God’s ways in Jesus Christ, no matter what circumstance of life in which we find ourselves. Sometimes I doubt that our minds can be renewed into the likeness of Jesus when we are sick, when we feel destitute and deprived, when things don’t go our way. When times are tough, we often knee-jerk into old, often destructive patterns of thinking. Will we, indeed, have enough faith, to see things differently and not despair?
It is here when, despite how I feel, I affirm a faith that says: No matter what you think, Martin, no matter what anyone else thinks, God will not forget you. Even if I have a lapse of memory and forget who I am and whose I am, even though our minds may go completely, this is the promise of the One who created us: “I will not forget you; I have inscribed you on the palms on my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16). Because of who God is, I can therefore act boldly on a way of thinking that is based in trust. Trust this loving God who will not let go of us. Ever. And no matter what.
Thanks be to God!