To see that we are seen

Because of the devastating flooding in the Ottawa region since Easter weekend, many conversations have turned toward the unprecedented levels of water in the Spring run-off. In 2017, we surpassed the 100-year levels. And just two short years later in 2019 we surpassed even 2017 levels. What’s going on?

When 16-year-old Greta Thunberg began demonstrating last year at the Swedish Parliament about climate change she rapidly gained worldwide attention. Among others, she inspired a whole generation of girls to be politically active.[1]

In Ottawa, the seat of the Canadian federal government, we are never short of political talk. We engage in daily debates over backyard fences, at the hockey rink and in coffee shops about the goings on in and around Parliament Hill.

We’ve heard the story before. This is not new, we say — the issues, the players, the opinions, the debates, the conflict. It’s par for the course.

Even as politics has taken a nasty turn in recent decades. It has become intensely personal. Conversations about politics now start with degrading remarks about the person and their character. Election campaigns have become platforms for disputing a candidate’s moral character. Scandals thrive on mudslinging and disparaging the ‘likeability’ factor of the major players. Never mind the views represented by these political players.

And you know we are sinking into a deeper moral hole when teenagers like Greta Thunberg are bullied by those who don’t share her political views—not with arguments about climate change but because she has autism. Neuro-typical people opposed to her politics have seized upon autistic traits Thunberg exhibits, “such as her ‘monotone voice’ and forthright manner, to liken her to a ‘cult member’ in an attempt to delegitimise her message.”[2]

Yet, we’ve heard the story before, we say. It gets replayed in different times and places by different characters and situations in history, no? Human beings will behave this way. In this day and age especially when information is shared immediately and globally.

It’s not a new story to us. We experience it on a daily basis. We can’t help ourselves. It’s either a joke. Or, we despair. And then we turn away.

For one thing, why can’t we distinguish the person from the issue? Maybe we don’t want to. Why do we so easily walk into the minefield of legitimizing the truth of something based on whether or not we like whomever represents the vision, the values, the policy, the idea? When the medium is the message?

We’ve heard this story before. It’s not new. People haven’t changed. We haven’t changed, we say.

When Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection, they don’t recognize him. Mary thinks she sees a gardener at the empty tomb.[3]The disciples at first don’t know it’s Jesus standing on the shoreline calling out to them.[4]Their vision is clouded, myopic.

We’ve heard this story before. I’m not the only one, I am sure, who has experienced not seeing someone while walking in a crowd. You know, you are in the mall going past so many people. Then I happen to be ‘looking’ at someone I know, but I don’t really see them. The only way I do is when they see me and call my name. And then I become aware that I am seen by them. That’s when it changes.

So, if that ever happens between you and me, you could always just say you thought I was my identical twin brother whom you don’t know!

The recognition happens when I see that I have been seen.[5]That’s when relationship starts. When you know you are seen by the other. When Mary, Peter, Thomas, John and all the other witnesses of the resurrection know that they are seen by the resurrected Jesus and recognized for who they are. Then they know and appreciate that they are part of the resurrection story, not distant from it but very much involved in the story we know.

The resurrection of Jesus means that not only have we heard this story before, not only armchair, arm-length critics of the story. But we are participants of it. Ourselves. We see that we have been seen.

We are Greta Thunberg. We are Doug Ford. We are Justin Trudeau. We are Jody Wilson-Raybould. We are Jane Philpott. We are all those people –whomever you first like to scrutinize, criticize, even demean and disparage. Because the person you first point a finger at is really about you, about your woundedness. When we judge another, we need to be aware that this judgement only exposes our own moral disparity. What we judge in the other reveals something in our shadow side, our weakness that we want to hide, suppress and deny for some reason. A part of ourselves that we have not been able to come to terms with and accept.

And yet, despite that dis-arming truth, the resurrected Jesus does not ignore us and walk by us in the crowd. Just as Jesus called out to Mary at the tomb and said her name, “Mary.” Just as Jesus called out to the disciples to let them know that they are seen and recognized by the loving, penetrating, all-knowing gaze of a gracious God – Jesus calls out to you and to me.

The resurrection story from the bible is not just a story we know, or think we know. The resurrection story is not really just a story about believing in the fact of the resurrection. It is believing that someone, starting with Jesus but not ending with Jesus, could be wounded and also resurrected at the same time.[6]

Resurrection is not merely about some perfected, other-worldly state that only few people achieve by their own strength or moral righteousness. That is the story the world believes. Resurrection is not some fanciful state of being, occupied only by Jesus, the Son of God. But because of Jesus’ resurrection, we all now can be seen for who we are. Like Christ we are all ‘little Christs’ (Martin Luther’s term) – wounded and resurrected at the same time. When we see that we are seen by loving eyes looking on us despite the woundedness therein. Despite the scars, the hurts, the ongoing struggles.

There is the hope.

“Put your finger here,” Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wound in his side on his resurrected body.[7]“Come and see,” Jesus invites the first disciples.[8]  “Come, and have breakfast,” Jesus invites his post-resurrected disciples for a meal he offers to them on the lakeshore. Jesus turns to us, in our ordinary, broken, common lives, and sees us. Whether or not we at first see him.

That’s the miracle of Easter — not just a resuscitated body, but that this resurrection body still bears the marks of woundedness at the same time and in the same place!

We are seen, and are invited to follow Jesus. As we are. We need not be intimidated nor held back by our imperfections. Those first disciples bore the woundedness of their own lives: tax collectors (not a good job), fishers (lowest class), even political agitators like Simon the Zealot.[9]These were people on the fringes of mainstream, privileged society. Not perfect by any stretch.

The miracle of the resurrection is not saying that life in Christ is perfect, or should be, or should be for some others. The miracle of the resurrection is saying that new life can be experienced right in the middle of all the dying, suffering, and pain of our own lives. Now, because of the resurrection, we don’t have to wait for ideal circumstances before we can really live. We, too, can discover the grace, the joy and the life of God in us, and in the world around us. Now. And no matter what.

In the coming week, try turning off your cell phone for an hour each day—you determine the time. If you don’t have a cell phone, unplug your landline or turn the ringer off each day for a certain amount of time. Practice not being available to the distractions and expectations of others. Practice this uncomfortable state of not being attached to the latest gossip, the latest market fluctuation, breaking news or a friend’s reaction. Practice not responding right away to a message or text or call.

And, in that discomfort, close your eyes and breath. And remember that God sees you. And that, in the silence and uncomfortable disconnection you are fundamentally and eternally connected.

Perhaps, in that moment, you can see that you are seen by the living Lord.

 

 

[1]‘The Greta effect? Meet the schoolgirl climate warriors’,  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-48114220

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/25/greta-thunberg-autism-spectrum-critics

[3]John 20:14-15

[4]John 21:4; forming part of the assigned Gospel text for the 3rdSunday of Easter, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary

[5]Laurence Freeman, “Discipleship” (Meditatio Talk Series 2019A, Jan-Mar), Track 1

[6]Richard Rohr, “Jesus’ Resurrection”, Daily Meditation 23 April 2019, http://www.cac.org

[7]John 20:27

[8]John 1:39

[9]Acts 1:13, Luke 6:15

The loved migrant: a ‘washing feet’ analogy

The disciples need to have their feet washed.

It was not only customary in ancient times to wash the feet of guests into your home, but necessary. Calloused and muddy feet were the norm in an age of open-toed sandals and pedestrian highways. Providing this service was a kind and appreciated gesture offered to the weary pilgrim.

But no one else had volunteered to do it. The disciples had followed all the Lord’s instructions to prepare for a meal in the upper room. They had bought what they needed in preparation for the Passover. They had gathered the bread and wine. Check. Check. Check.

So, what made them miss this important act of hospitality, friendship and welcome? What blinders did they have on?

Perhaps, we can’t underestimate the state of affairs among the disciples. Recall, they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.[1]And for any one of them to volunteer to wash feet would be to lose the argument. Because only servants and slaves washed the feet of their superiors.

So Jesus got up to do it—shocking them all by his disregard for social and cultural convention.[2]

And then, as if that wasn’t shock enough to the system, Jesus looks up at the disciples, looks them square in the eyes and says:

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (v.14)

How good are we at ‘washing one another’s feet’? We’re not doing it in worship tonight on Maundy Thursday. I don’t believe we’ve ever done it here at Faith. But maybe we need the practice.

Since my father’s death earlier this year, I’ve been reviewing his life story, going over certain details. Especially in his formative days when he migrated from Poland to London, England, in the mid-1960s, I see a pattern emerge.

The small town in southern Poland where he was born and raised was and has been the largest concentration of Lutherans in a predominantly Roman Catholic nation. They called themselves the Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession. And, the church whose bishop he assisted later in London was the Lutheran church ‘in exile’ from Poland. This church was taken care of by the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

Even though commissioned to serve ELCIC congregations when he and my mother immigrated to Canada in 1967, Dad was still called upon to serve Polish-speaking Lutherans once a month in an independent Lutheran Church in Toronto during the 1980s. This congregation has since become part of the Missouri Synod.

When our long-time family friend from Toronto visited us here in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, I was reminded again of this pattern: My father had been, in the first part of his life certainly, born and bred in the culture and beliefs of the Missouri Synod/Confessional Lutheran Church, worldwide, you could say.

The question I’ve pondered is: What made him change his allegiance? Why not continue to remain serving the denomination and church culture of his childhood and youth—even in North America? Why did he change? What made the difference?

It wasn’t doctrinal, by and large. I remember several debates we had around the kitchen table over the hot button issues in the church during the past few decades. And he usually tended towards the more conservative stance. It wasn’t doctrinal. It wasn’t about beliefs and confessions of faith. It was something else.

When he was serving the Missouri Synod church in London, he met someone over lunch after worship one day. This man, William Dase, had been a pilot in the war. A Canadian flying with the British Airforce, he had made many runs over London. And, after the war, decided to make London his home.

He was also a major benefactor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. In conversation over lunch, my Dad expressed a desire to learn English, and not anywhere people knew him. Somewhere far away from any Polish-speaking Lutherans, he felt he could master the English language. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he also didn’t believe he could ever return to Poland a free person.

And so Dase posed a simple question, with significant consequence: Why not spend a study year at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Canada? Dase would sponsor my Dad’s study and booked passage for both my parents on the ocean liner, Maasdam, to set sail from Southampton to Quebec.

Before my parents landed in Waterloo, the Dean of the Seminary at the time, Professor Dr. Hauser, had already arranged an apartment in student housing and a job in the cafeteria kitchen for my mother which paid $75 a month. This was just enough to cover the rent for the apartment.

After completing his master’s degree at Waterloo, my Dad was appointed to serve a small rural parish north of Stratford, Ontario. He needed a car. So, Assistant to the Bishop, Dr. Berner, of the Eastern Canada Synod, went with my Dad to the bank to arrange a loan to buy a VW Beetle. Dr. Berner used his standing with the bank as collateral for the loan.

However, after the year was up, my parents’ temporary student and visitor VISAs were expiring. And so, the Dean of the Seminary, Dr. Hauser, promptly took my parents to the immigration office in Kitchener to vouch for an upgrade to landed immigrant status— ‘my parents would make excellent citizens in Canada’, he told the immigration officer without hesitation. They received their immigrant status on the spot.

When my brother and I came along a couple of years later—twin boys—thus creating an instant family that doubled in size literally overnight, my parents experienced a sudden strain on the household budget.

The bishop of the Eastern Canada Synod, then Bishop Lotz, immediately arranged for a changed call to the three-point parish in Maynooth, Raglan and Denbigh—because these parishes were able to offer a higher wage.

That was then, this is now. I understand. Nevertheless, I am impressed in reviewing this history how church people who were in a position to do so could make such a positive difference in the lives of those in need. No just once. But consistently. Over time. And in response to various needs.

I can say with certainty that it was the love shown in practical, simple, ordinary ways to my parents when they immigrated and settled into Canada, that made all the difference.

The disciples needed their feet washed, after all. Despite all their debating and power struggles and determining who was right and who was wrong. Jesus showed his disciples, and shows us, that to help another is to put oneself on the same level as the other. Not to ‘lord it over’ in a condescending manner, but to recognize the common humanity we all share.

Jesus shows us what it means to fulfill the ‘new commandment’ of love.[3]If the world will know that ‘you are my disciples’, it has nothing to do with agreeing on doctrine, creedal statements, confessions of faith. In fact, arguing about these things, as the disciples tended to do, hinder this expression of true discipleship.

In the Gospel of John, the disciples do not and cannot understand the significance of Jesus’ actions until after Easter.[4]Even then, their faith still falters.[5]In John, “the disciples’ divine election and sustenance do not depend on how much they understand. Their faith is perfected, not in knowledge, but in how much they love their fellow lambs (21:15-19; cf. 1 Cor 13:12-13).”[6]

Jesus tells his disciples after washing their feet, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”[7]

It’s about loving action, not knowledge/understanding.

St John of the Cross wrote: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” I concur. When all is said and done, at the end of the road, we will be asked: “How have you loved your neighbor?” not “Did you believe the right things?”

Just like washing one’s feet is messy, and uncomfortable, so at first it may feel out-of-sorts to be so vulnerable to one another. There are boundary issues when it comes to feet, to be sure.

We are not used to small and ordinary acts of self-giving for another. We need to practice. In an age when congregations and denominations are significantly divided over doctrinal, social, and other issues, and sometimes have difficulty even gathering at the same table for a meal with one another—what do we need? What do we really need?

More debate? More information? More knowledge? More convincing arguments? Really?

The disciples just needed their feet washed.

 

 

[1]Luke 22:24-27

[2]Jim Green Somerville in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.276

[3]John 13:1-17,31-35, the Gospel text for Maundy Thursday, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]2:22; 7:39; 12:16; 14:26

[5]20:19-29; 21:20-23

[6]C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word., ibid., p.279

[7]John 13:17, emphasis mine.

The change within

When seventeen-year-old Hannah said she was drug free, her parents were skeptical. Having participated in a rehab program and given all the support she could expect from friends and family, Hannah was able to declare that she was finding success in weaning herself off a destructive opioid dependence.

But her father was not convinced. When pressed, he simply confessed, “I don’t believe people can change. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict.”

Though fictional, Hannah and her parents’ situation poses a common predicament for many today. Not just of the real struggle with addiction. But also the struggle with belief: Do we change? And if so, how? And maybe more to the point: Do we recognize the change that happens in our lives? Do we want to?

There’s the story of the Zen Monk who was visiting Time’s Square in New York. And he wanted to buy a hotdog. The vendor asked him, “What would you like on your hotdog?”

The monk replied with a smile, “Make me one with everything.” So the vendor made the hotdog with ketchup, onions and lettuce and mustard and all these other nice things. And he gave it to the monk, and the monk gave the vendor a twenty-dollar bill.

And the vendor didn’t give him anything back. So the monk said, “What about my change?” And the vendor said, “The change is all within.”[1]

An underlying belief in Christianity is that people do change. The resurrection of Christ presents the ultimate pattern for life. We die. We live. We grow. We evolve. We are given new beginnings, to live again. Death. Resurrection. Life is dynamic, not static.

On this Transfiguration of our Lord Sunday, we encounter people who change. First and foremost, Jesus. He is bathed in uncreated light and to the onlookers his face radiates a changed appearance. His countenance is transformed before their very eyes. Here the gospel writers want to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, his unique revelation as God’s own. The witnesses to this holy and amazing encounter receive the most wonderful gift of experiencing God’s greatness in Christ.[2]

At the same time, the transfigured Lord encounters us. In the scriptures for this Sunday we witness change in the characters of the bible, specifically Moses, Elijah and Paul.[3]They, and others in the bible, are not static beings, one-dimensional characters. We witness in them, rather, incredible change over the course of their lives and throughout history.

In other words, Jesus is not the only one who shows a divine-like appearance. Throughout scripture, there are others who experience within themselves a transfiguration.

Jesus is the first and foremost. But God’s divinity, though fully expressed in Jesus, is not confined to Jesus. God’s true presence is not limited to Jesus for Jesus’ sake alone. God’s fullness in all of creation is not locked in one specific time of history, two thousand years ago.

Martin Luther called it, the great, wonderful, holy “exchange”[4]. On the cross God experienced the fullness of our human sin in all its humiliating nakedness and vulnerability in order that all for whom Christ loved and died may eventually experience and grow into the fullness of divine life and union with God. This divine-human holy exchange is exemplified and mediated through Jesus.

We may balk at the notion that in our very lives, in each one of us, God is present in the living consciousness of Jesus. How can we be that good, eh? We are so used to imagining a separation there—that God is ‘out there’ reserved exclusively to doctrinal debate alone or in some other person upon whom we project all our hopes and dreams. But within me? In my heart? So that I can live differently, better, a changed person?

St. Paul, elsewhere in his first century writings expresses this truth from the start: In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “God revealed his Son in me”[5]. On the road to Damascus the living, post-resurrected Christ encountered Paul. Over one hundred times in all of his New Testament writings he writes this phrase: en Christo meaning ‘in Christ’. And to the Colossians, he confesses: “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.”[6]

The vendor’s response to the monk carries metaphoric weight. The change is within. A holy encounter with Jesus first changes us within. The change for the better can happen because God is in us. God works on our hearts. God is relentless. Sometimes it hurts. God is the refiner’s fire, creating and re-creating us from the inside-out.

So that, eventually, the light of Christ’s love may shine forth from our lives, and our union with God will be complete, in this world and the next.

Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Laurence Freeman, “Change is part of the Journey, like it or not”; talk 1 in Mount Oliveto Retreat, Maggiore Siena, Italy, June 18-25, 2016: Change (wccm.org, audio resources, album)

[2]Luke 9:28-43

[3]Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

[4]“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

–Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.

[5]Chapter one, verse sixteen, as translated by the NIV and JB.

[6]Chapter three, verse 11. In the NRSV, the Greek is translated, “He is all and in all.”

Even among the lost

I hear Simon’s despair, tainted with frustration and even anger, when he reacts to Jesus’ instruction to put the nets in deep water to catch the fish in Lake Galilee.[1]

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” He’s trying to make a point that there is no use to doing what Jesus asks of them. After all, they did all they could do. They employed all their resources, knowledge and effort into catching fish that night. But to no avail. Understandably frustrated, Simon scoffs at the futility of doing what Jesus asks. As if he knows better. There is not point to it all.

This is not the first time we hear Jesus say or do something that mystifies us. Earlier in this season after Epiphany, we witnessed Jesus being baptized. Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River often confounds our sensibility. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? Aren’t we the ones that need to be baptized? Not God!

So often we find salvation in what we do, and the meaning we attribute to what we do. In the church, we often do exactly what the crowds at the Jordan did: We come to worship, pray the printed confessions of sin, receive Communion and hope that these liturgical acts will wash away our sins. And make life right.

Then, we also have other programs for self-improvement, such as trying a new diet, cutting down on drinking and smoking, or finding someone who will love us just right. But these things are all futile for making real change in our lives, for making our lives right.

But Jesus walks into our lives just as he waded into the Jordan to be baptized by John. If Jesus was to walk into our lives today, he could just as well arrive at our job interviews, wedding receptions, or retirement parties. He could just as well stand in the long lines with us at the Tim Horton’s or sports venues. Jesus could just as well join us in all our driving around town to this and that – and the next futile thing we are trying to do in order to make life right.

Yes, I could feel the futility behind Simon’s statement—but we fished all night and caught nothing. Would Jesus step even into that despair?

When work seems futile. When other people frustrate us. When life seems pointless. When what we do appears to have little purpose, meaning or utility. When we fail. When despair sinks in.

Or, not far removed in the face of uncertainty, we clamber and clamor for the next shiny, new thing. We distract ourselves. We fall into mindless routine or stimulating addiction, to occupy our minds or numb them. And escape reality. Even just below the surface of seeming industry, there broils a fearsome anxiety.

Yes, I hear Simon’s despair. But I also see Jesus, right there.

What is Jesus up to here? Getting baptized. Going fishing with his friends. Going to weddings. Hanging out in the streets. What is Jesus up to here, living the life we all live?

For some reason, Jesus is taking on our lost condition. Jesus participates in our lives, doing what we do, engaging our routines, our work, our lifestyles. And, as we become more aware of Jesus closeness to us in our successes and our failures, we discover the Gospel truth: that salvation comes not because of our activity, our brains, our efforts. Salvation comes through a loving Savior who finds us and takes on our lost condition.

So maybe our job is not to explain the mystery, but simply to obey the seemingly pointless, futile instruction from Jesus. And act on it, as Simon did. “Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.”[2]

Visit the sick. Befriend the poor, the outcast, the refugee. Accompany the vulnerable, the weak, the dying.

After selling their large house where they called home for decades, Jack and Betty moved to a smaller two-bedroom apartment in town. Once settled in, they invited Craig, a church friend, to dinner in their new home. Craig was happy to oblige.

After all, on Sunday mornings they would sit together in worship. They didn’t say a lot. Betty might say something odd, but her countenance was so bright. Jack seemed always bothered by something, like he was scowling. But the couple was always together. And they liked each other.

Craig tells the story of his experience visiting Jack and Betty. He writes,

“Once I arrived at their apartment on the appointed evening, it didn’t take me long to realize that Betty had Alzheimer’s disease. It now seemed so obvious that I felt foolish for missing it earlier. Jack never let her out of his sight. It was then that I realized that he hadn’t been scowling for the last couple of years. He was just worried.

“Before I even had my coat off, Betty took me by the hand and led me to the painting above the sofa that depicted their stately old home. She became a bit more lucid as the stories of the old place tumbled out of her soul. I felt her squeeze my hand as she talked … [as if she were trying to say], ‘There is more to me than you see now.’ … Jack stood behind us and allowed his worry to ease a bit with a tender smile.

“Dinner was interesting. Betty couldn’t be allowed near the stove, and Jack wasn’t about to learn to cook. So he had asked their housekeeper to make them an extra-large omelet before she left that afternoon. When we were ready to eat, Jack put the egg dish in the microwave, then cut it into thirds and served it on Betty’s best china. For desert he brought out Klondike bars that we ate using the good silverware, which wasn’t easy. Several times during the meal, Betty got up and wandered around the apartment a bit. I was impressed by Jack’s ability to maintain our conversation, which was always of secondary importance to him, while always watching his wife.

“Throughout the evening I kept thinking that I needed to say something useful. After all … [isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with others?] But how profound could I be with Betty, whose mind was too clouded for conversation? What would I even say to Jack…? I could try, ‘Keep up the good work’ or ‘This must be really hard,’ but that would be so inane.

“After dinner, we left the old dining-room table and made our way back to the living room sofa, where I sat next to Betty. Jack took the chair across from us. I began to talk, trying to speak of …[relevant] things, but I wasn’t doing well. [As a Christian friend, from church] I knew that I was called there to be a blessing to them and … to witness to Christ’s presence among them. But how? I felt like a pilot circling above the clouds, looking for an opening to land. Soon Betty got up and wandered off again.

“When she returned, she stood behind the chair where Jack was seated and put her trembling hand on his shoulder. And as only old lovers know how to do, he reached up to take her hand as if it were the first and millionth time he had done it. I stopped talking as they both smiled at me.

“Well, there it was – the blessed presence of Christ. Then I knew that I wasn’t there to say a thing. My calling was to behold and be amazed. It was as if their mutual smile said, ‘Don’t you dare pity us. We are blessed.’ Beneath the gentle act of holding a trembling hand lies the mystery of … [love].

“In the end, this is as good as the calling to love can be. …There is just the holding of hands …”[3]

There is neither brow-wrinkled explanation nor fear-induced despair.

There is just the smile of God in the face of another.

 

 

[1]Luke 5:4-5

[2]Luke 5:5

[3]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) p.97,103-105

Lego truth

Playing with Lego was both fun and scary. As a kid, the first thing I did after opening the box was dumping all the pieces on the floor in front of me.

The reason I wanted to play with the Lego blocks was the picture on the front of the box—a Star Wars fighter, a fire hall, a dune buggy or helicopter. My motivation, initially, was to reproduce the image on the box that first captured my imagination, an image which appealed to me in some way.

In order to accomplish this task, what did I need?

After dumping all the pieces on the floor, I held the empty box in one hand and I stuck my free arm into the box searching for the multi-folded instruction manual.

This booklet was my lifeline. Or, so I felt, at the time. Before doing anything I would read and re-read the step-by-step instructions carefully, making sure I had all the pieces. I would even, after having read through the entire manual, organize the pieces on the floor into piles according to colour, and function. That way, I could accomplish my work in as efficient a manner as possible.

Once the project was done, I dissembled it and put the pieces back in the box. Some favourite models were re-constructed over and over again, over time. Depending on how complex the model was, I even learned to remember how to connect certain parts of the model without needing the instructions.

And, as it likely goes with all Lego, eventually over time pieces from various projects get dumped and mixed together in one big box.

I said, playing with Lego was also scary. If the instruction booklet went missing or was accidently thrown out or misplaced and I wanted to re-construct the original model, it rarely became exactly the way it was first designed: The fire hall became a garage. The dune buggy became a go-cart. The Star Wars fighter became a shuttle.

Scary, because starting from scratch without the instructions, I had to be somewhat creative. A risky venture, to say the least. What would I end up with? Would I like it? Would it work? How many times would I have to start over?

The central image in the Gospel reading today from Mark 13 is the temple in Jerusalem. It was a magnificent structure by first century standards. Finished by Herod a couple centuries before Jesus, the temple had signified the center of religious life in the region for a long time.

While the central image is the temple, perhaps the most captivating words are from Jesus who promises that not one stone will be left, one on the other.[1]In other words, this glorious building will be utterly destroyed. Understandably, not only are the temple authorities shocked, dismayed and offended by Jesus’ words, his very own disciples are alarmed. “Tell us, when will this happen? What will be the signs?” they drill Jesus with anxious questions.

Understandably, the vision of the temple’s complete demise causes anxiety and fear. After all, what will their faith look like? Where can they go to pray? What is their identity in faith, without the temple being there as it has been for the last couple hundred years–an anchor, a certainty, a visible, concrete reminder of their faith? Is it all for naught? Is it all lost, forever?

Scary. It’s like looking at a pile of Lego blocks on the floor wondering—what are these pieces supposed to do? What am I to do with them? The temptation to give up and do something else is huge.

In life, it sometimes feels like the instruction manual has gone missing. In life, it sometimes feels like what had worked in the past just doesn’t, cannot, work anymore. Like those tried-and-true patterns and go-to’s just don’t do the trick anymore quite like it used to. And that can be scary.

What are the ‘instruction manuals’ in our own lives that have given us our sense of security and certainty–a way of thinking that has informed our opinions; a mindset that we have never questioned? Or, have we looked at the bible like a legal text, a how-to playbook that you never question, or you dare not question? Is it a place, a building, a person?

What are those instruction manuals that seem to be slipping away into a pile of dis-ordered, chaotic pieces  in front of us?

Both in our personal lives, but also in the church, the prospect today of staring into the abyss of uncertainty and fear is very real. And here, we confront the important distinction between reality and truth.

On the one hand, there is the reality: In our personal lives, the reality usually presents itself as a problem—regarding health, relationships, work, politics—wherever a problem or challenge emerges.

In the church, the reality is becoming clearer: the dwindling numbers, the absence of youth and children in church life, the lack of financial resources, budget numbers spending more time in the red than in the black. These are the presenting realities about which everyone who cares has an opinion.

But, what is the truth underlying the reality? What are the issues underneath, that keep us stuck from embracing the presence of God still active in the world around us and in our lives—despite the problems? What truths do we need to unearth about ourselves, our feelings, our thinking, our behavior?

One truth we discovered in an asset-mapping exercise is we have so many resources we haven’t seen or thought about. We have so many resources we haven’t considered or recognized. What is the underlying asset buried in the problem? Do we see it? Do we want to?

What keeps us stuck, in moving forward with the gifts and talents and passions and capacity to do good? What keeps us from being creative with the ‘pieces’ of all that is possible right before our eyes?

When I took my First Aid Course a couple of years ago, an important part of the training was an initial conversation about our attitudes giving help to someone suffering an emergency — the broken leg, the heart attack. You could say, the reality was the presenting emergency. But the question posed for discussion got closer to the truth of why we are doing what we are doing. The question was:

What inhibits you, or what causes you to hesitate, in helping someone who is in obvious physical distress and need? In other words, what would keep you from engaging the situation before you?

The responses were common and what you might expect, ranging from: picking up germs, worried you will make matters worse, worried about legal implications should giving First Aid fail, or disrupting your busy day’s schedule. All of these inhibitions and issues are reasons not to give First Aid.

Fortunately, the training spends time dealing with each individual concern. Once these concerns are addressed, we are free to engage the situation in a helpful, responsible manner. We will still likely struggle with ourselves and our concerns, yet be assured that over time and with a lot of work all will be well.

During the first centuries when the stories we read in the New Testament took shape in the imagination of early Christians, it was a transition time for religious Jews. Following the destruction of the temple during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the local synagogue became the gathering place. No longer did a temple provide the central focal point. Now the local synagogue became central to the identity of many Jewish people.

This transition lasted centuries. It didn’t happen overnight. Enduring change takes time and a whole lot of patient, committed endurance.

Whether it be personal matters that present a challenging reality for us, or whether it is in the church—the question we need to ask ourselves is: Without that proverbial set of instructions, what can we build? What can we build together using the pieces that we have? The possibilities are truly endless.

Because this is the new thing that God is building and creating in our lives. And it is good.

 

[1] Mark 13:1-8

There’s a hole, PART 2: For a purpose

I am a hole in a flute / that the Christ’s breath moves through – / listen to this /music.            -Hafiz

If you comprehend it, it is not God. -St. Augustine

Unlike the pounding of the surf a stone’s toss away, the ponding on the nearby creek made the surface of its water look pristine. A narrow creek made its lazy, winding way down the escarpment from Highway 21 and aimed to run into Lake Huron after finally crossing the stretch of sand on the beach at Point Clarke.

One of our favourite pastimes on those lazy summer days was to play around the area where the creek and lake met. As children, my brother and I would build castles, dig trenches and re-direct the flow of the creek’s water.

For a real challenge, we would try to dam up the creek’s flow, which took some planning, and extra material like drift wood and larger stones to block any outflow attempts. Once we contained it, the creek turned slowly into a large pond, comfortably remaining – for the time being – behind its fortress sand walls.

I’ve already talked about how in God’s creation, it is meant to be that each of us has a hole in our heart (see “There’s a hole, PART 1: Meant to be”). Moreover, it is God’s good intention that this hole is there for a purpose.

Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian church a confession that in all his accomplishments for the expansion of the Gospel across the Mediterranean, he was given a thorn in his side.[1]The proverbial ‘hole’. It is not important, although many have tried, to figure out what this thorn actually was.

We don’t know. Maybe that’s the point. It’s not important that we know, only that this thorn was given him in order to keep him humble. The text says that the thorn was given Paul to keep him from being ‘elated’ – to keep his ego in check, perhaps because he tended toward being too full of himself, over confident in his own ability.

How does the ego get the better of yourself? What is your compulsion? What drives you to achieve some illusion of perfection in your life? So, you don’t need to trust what is beyond your life, what is ineffable, what cannot be fully understood that is the Great Mystery (a.k.a. God)?

Let me show you an example of compulsion to achieve that which is beyond our capacity: On my fishing trip with colleagues last May to Algonquin Park, we tried everything to beat the ice on the lake. Despite the predominance of the ice-covered lake, we tried desperately to fight the odds against us catching some fish even to the point of risking our safety to break up the ice ourselves in our canoes.

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Yup, that’s me. And, yup, you guessed it: We caught no fish. The irony is that on the last day of our camp out, the wind and the sun did its job. When we woke that last day, we looked over a lake completely free of the ice.

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Was God sending us a message? Weren’t we the butt end of some divine humour?

The hole in our heart has a divine purpose: To keep us from being too sure of ourselves, over-confident in our ability and our capacity to have it all figured out. If we didn’t have this hole, might we put all our trust in our own autonomy, our independence, to lead our life without any need at all to trust anyone else let alone God.

Beyond Paul in the New Testament, the stories in the bible are about God lessening, even stopping, the compulsive drive of main characters, so the wind of God’s Spirit could draw them more gently and more effectively (Gideon and Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures are good examples).[2]

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus instructs his disciples in going into the world to do God’s mission, “to take nothing for their journey … no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”[3]

God’s consolation is simple yet profound: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” God tells Paul.[4]The making perfect here is not about getting rid of that vulnerability. Rather, whatever weakness we bear stays with us in order for us to complete our purpose as human beings. We are made complete in God’s love because of our hole, thorn, weakness – not without it.

In one of Martin Luther’s famous works entitled, “The Bondage of the Will”, he emphatically declared that we, as humans, can never work out our own salvation for ourselves. We will continually fail, even when, or especially when, we believe we are doing good in the world.

While some might find this realization depressing – and it would be helpful to know why that is, for yourself – perhaps the “bondage of the will” can be freeing. Because we don’t need to be driven to inaction because we are afraid of making a mistake. We don’t need to get stuck in the mud under the fear of imperfection. As Christians, we can be free to do good work in the world, imperfectly, knowing that what we do is for the benefit of others and not for ourselves.[5]

Author Brian McLaren in his recent book: “The Great Spiritual Migration”, describes this time in history as a transition in the church from “organized religion” to “organizing religion.”[6]

A Church in the flow of God’s Spirit pertains not only to wind and water over the earth, but also to spiritual movement. To purpose and mission. To going where we need to go as a people. To re-focus again on loving God, self and others as the primal energy of the church. To bring to life once again the old verse: “They will know we are Christians by our love …” … and not by our buildings, property, and concern for security, certainty and self-preservation.

Can we let go of these things for the sake of God’s mission, for the sake of the Gospel of life and love in Christ? As the prophet Amos so well put it, using the water imagery: “Let justice role down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream … “[7]

By the time we had finally engineered the dam on the tiny creek aiming towards Lake Huron, the sun was setting and we had to go home. Inevitably, the next morning one of three things would have happened in our absence:

Either the creek would have found the weak spot in the sandy fortress wall we built, and escape through a tiny crack; or, increasing wind conditions over Lake Huron overnight would have created larger waves whose surf reached and destroyed the walls of our dam; or, someone would have been walking along the beach and, for the fun of it, just poked a tiny hole to watch as a slow trickle quickly turned into a strong, flowing stream.

In each case, a small hole was required in order for the creek to fulfill its mission and reach its destination – despite all the efforts of playful human beings to keep it contained.

After all, nothing was going to stop the flow. God’s Spirit and purpose will flow on because and through the holes in our lives.

[1]2 Corinthians 12:7-10

[2]Richard Rohr, “Dancing Standing Still; Healing the World from a Place of Prayer” (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2014), p.18.

[3]Mark 6:8-9

[4]2 Corinthians 12:9

[5]Ross Murray, Senior Director, GLAAD Media Institute, LinkedIn July 2018.

[6]Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian” (Massachusetts: Convergent Books, 2017)

[7]Amos 5:24

Ascension action

As you saw last Sunday, I had my canoe strapped atop my car. I was eager to put paddle in water and explore the waterways around Papineau Lake near the northern border of Algonquin Park, just south of Mattawa.

From Highway 17 at Mattawa, we turned south on a dirt road. The land there still thawing from winter’s grip, the snow-melting runoff left deep potholes and troughs across the narrow roadway. For about fifteen kilometres we traversed the rough and bumpy access road, thankful for the four-wheel drive.

Finally arriving at the end of the road at the shores of Papineau Lake, we still had to portage our gear about half a kilometer through the thick bush to the cabin. I thought to put the canoe in at the water in order to paddle my gear along the shore line and save the heavy climb carrying everything on my back along the trail.

But when I looked out over the lake, this is what I saw all over its surface: Ice.

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Despite the 20-degree Celsius air temperature by midweek, the persistent ice continued to lock out any hope of paddling into the lake. Until the fourth day of our camp-out, the ice prevented us from going to the deepest parts of the lake to fish for the coveted Lake Trout for dinner. We were limited to shoreline casts where a narrow band of water teased us into never-ending hope for a catch.

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After a windy and rainy day late into our stay, we awoke at long last to this glorious sight:

The ice was completely gone. Night and day. Needless to say, I was out on the water in my canoe, crisscrossing the lake and exploring new shorelines. The loons were back. The lake had awakened once more.

In these last few days, the church has recognized the Ascension of our Lord. Some forty days after Easter each year the church recalls when Jesus, after appearing to his disciples following his resurrection, ascends to heaven.[1]

Jesus, here, leaves them for good, so to speak. It is no wonder why the scripture texts in these last few weeks have gone back to parts of the farewell discourses from John’s Gospel, also appointed for reading before Christ’s death.[2]There’s a point to it.

Jesus prepares his disciples for his leave-taking, never easy – a second time, now. Both before his death, and now before his Ascension, Jesus needs to remind and console them – and us – that we are not left alone.

Despite his going away, Christ will come to them no longer in physical form but in the Holy Spirit. God is present now to us in each other– the community, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why did Jesus leave them? You might wonder: Why should Jesus have ascended to heaven and leave it all in his disciples’ hands? We don’t need to go far into Christian history to see the imperfection (to put it mildly) of Christians throughout the ages.

Jesus was alive and among them. Why couldn’t he just have stuck around – forever? Things would certainly have turned out better, no? Could you imagine how encouraging it would be for his disciples then and now to have Jesus appear from time to time albeit in his resurrected form to guide us, talk to us, lead us, comfort us, in physical form?

All the while the ice remained in the lake, we were confined to the shoreline. We could still fish, to be sure. But the real good catches were waiting for us out in the middle of the lake. For us to do so, we had to get out on the lake ourselves. The ice had to go, first.

If the Ascension didn’t happen, would the disciples ever really believe Jesus’ promise – or have to believe Jesus’ promise – that God lives in them through the Holy Spirit? Would the disciples ever do what Christ commanded them – to go “to the ends of the earth” to be Christ’s witnesses?[3]

If Jesus remained with them, wouldn’t they be tempted to look only to Jesus standing out in the middle of lake – even if there was ice covering it –  and not trust themselves enough to get ‘out there’ to do the job? Wouldn’t they become overly dependent on Jesus for everything and not embrace the gift within them?

“You are my witnesses, even to the ends of the earth,” Jesus says. We need to hear that first word in the sentence: You. Jesus speaks to each one of us here. Each one of us are Christ’s witnesses, now that Jesus is no longer present to us in bodily form.

And, that means, we have to follow through not only with words, but with deeds. When the ice melts, we are called to get ourselves out there into the middle of the lake and start fishing, with the gifts we have.

Over forty years ago, my father flew low over Algonquin Park in a single-prop plane. I was just a baby, and my mother was worried. You see, my father, the pastor of a church in Maynooth, was the passenger squeezed tightly into the small cabin of this plane. It was the pilot’s first solo flight.

The pilot was a member of his parish. Bill, we will call him. For years leading up to this event, my dad counselled Bill who struggled with many personal problems to say the least. Nothing was going right for this guy. At one point in their conversations, my dad asked Bill: “If there was anything you wanted to do, what is it you dream of doing?” Good, pastoral question, no?

Without much hesitation, Bill said he had always wanted to fly a plane. So, my dad encouraged him to get his pilot’s license. Which he did in short order. Again, good pastoral guidance. You’d think my dad’s job was done. Pastor School 101, check.

But when it came time for Bill to fly solo, he naturally asked his own wife to go with him the first time. She flatly refused, which worried my dad a bit. What was it about Bill that she couldn’t trust going into a plane with her husband flying it?

So, Bill came to my father. “Pastor,” he said, “you have been with me through it all. You said words that helped me in my despair. You listened to me when things weren’t going well. You helped me discover my passion. You encouraged me to get my pilot’s license. Now, I’d like you to go with me into the air, for my first solo flight. Would you please come?”

You could imagine why my mother was so worried. With two little baby boys to care for, she feared Bill would crash the plane and she would be left to parent us alone.

But dad went. He might have been justified in finding some excuse not to go with Bill. I think in his wisdom my dad knew, though, that his words had to be followed by actions.

I think in his wisdom, my dad knew that to be a witness to the gospel, it wasn’t merely about believing the right things and saying the right things. It had to be followed up by walking the talk. And this action involved some risk, to be sure, and a whole lot of trust.

May this Ascension Sunday remind us all that the God gives us the gifts we need to take the risk to get out there onto the lake and do the job that is ours, together in and through one another, blessed by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

[1]Luke 24: 44-53

[2]John 17:6-19 (Easter 7B), John 15:9-17 (Easter 6B), John 15:1-8 (Easter 5B) – These texts, part of the ‘farewell discourse’ of Jesus in John’s Gospel, are intended to prepare, encourage and empower his disciples prior to Jesus’ departure. The context of the farewell discourse is Holy Week, especially during the Passover Meal on the night of his betrayal and arrest.

[3]Acts 1:8