Pray, in Christ

In 1970, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich expressed his support for artistic freedom and human rights in a letter to Pravda, the state-run newspaper of the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviets sharply curtailed his ability to travel. After Rostropovich and his wife decided not to return to the Soviet Union when travelling abroad in 1975, the Soviets stripped him and his wife of citizenship.

The political conflict in which the Rostropovich’s were embroiled reflected the larger geo-political strife of the Cold War from the last century.

When Rostropovich later played a Dvorak cello concerto in Chicago, the audience was treated to a brilliant performance. As the last note faded, the audience sat mesmerized. Rostropovich then did an extraordinary thing: he stood up and kissed his cello. The audience erupted. Then he hugged and kissed the surprised conductor. Then he hugged and kissed the entire cello section before moving on to the violins. He hugged and kissed most of the orchestra.[1]

With deeply felt gratitude, especially when circumstances are not ideal. When a home country—betrays, rejects. When suffering the consequences of some internal battle. When divided, separated from our home on earth and true home within. And still feeling grateful and expressing a profound thanksgiving. Does this not describe the experience of prayer?

I must admit upon reading the scripture from 1 Timothy I did not at first catch that this text is fundamentally about prayer. This text from Paul’s letter to Timothy announces the theme of prayer in the first verse: “First of all, then,” writes Paul, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone …”[2]

What follows in seven verses reads like a creedal statement of belief. This is what initially distracted me. But without the basic context of prayer undergirding that confession we can easily miss the deeper meaning by getting derailed by arguments about universalism and atonement theories.[3]

Starting with prayer gives us a practical, experiential basis for engaging questions of faith. Because it is in our personal communion with God that sets those questions in better, more productive, perspective.

Basically, religion is about realigning, reconnecting with God—that’s the meaning of the word, religion. Prayer is the means, the way, by which we connect with God. Our journeys of faith begin in the practice of prayer. And that is what we do every week in worship on Sunday. Everything that happens in the liturgy—in the order of worship—is prayer and flows from prayer.

At the Regina convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) this past summer, national bishop, Susan Johnson articulated a four-year vision for “Living our Faith”. She writes that “God is calling us into a deeper relationship …” and invites the church to focus, each of those four years, on one aspect of our spiritual journey. The first is prayer.[4]

Everything else (scripture, worship, love) flows from the beginning point of prayer. Why? Living our faith starts with communion in God, relationship with Jesus, personal connection with the living Lord.

While in worship we find many forms of prayer—different ways to pray (confession, petition, song, silence, sacrament, community, etc.)—there is only one prayer. And it is the prayer of Jesus. At its core, prayer for Christians is, as Paul often describes it, ‘in Christ Jesus.’ Paul uses the phrase, ‘in Christ’ dozens of times in his letters to the early Church. In Ephesians alone Paul uses ‘in Christ’ some twenty-seven times.

Christians believe in the living Lord. Jesus is not dead. Yes, he died on the cross over two thousand years ago. But since then, Christ is alive. And still is! We assert this every Easter season: Christ is risen! And Jesus’ communion with his ‘Abba’ (Father) through the Holy Spirit continues to this day, to this very moment.

When we pray we join in Christ’s ongoing prayer, in our hearts, like deciding to step into a river that continually flows towards the ocean. That river flows through our hearts. That is where the consciousness of Jesus resides through the Holy Spirit. In prayer, we incorporate with, enfold in, the prayer of Jesus with the Creator.

In our verbal prayers we will often conclude our words with, ‘in Jesus’ name.’ We pray ‘in the name of Jesus’. We pray, ‘in Christ’. This is the fundamental understanding of Christ as intercessor, as ‘mediator’ for us and for all people – as Paul writes here to Timothy. “Prayer is not an act resulting from our own autonomous will,”[5]but an act resulting from the good will of Jesus—a prayer that is ongoing regardless of what we do.

That is also why, prayer is not about us. Prayer doesn’t turn us back onto ourselves. Christian prayer may start by consciously locating our attention within our minds, our words and hearts and bodies. But ultimately, prayer leads us beyond ourselves. To others.

When Paul writes to Timothy that prayers “should be made for everyone” because God “desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth”, the emphasis is so made because of the real conflicts in the lives of those early Christians. The Christian community of Timothy’s time was persecuted for proclaiming Christ; they were not an accepted part of the social fabric in Gentile or Jewish community.[6]

I opened with a real story of conflict in the context of the Cold War. We can only understand our lives of faith in the context of our real lives which daily encounter some conflict—whether within ourselves, with our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our neighbours, our hockey coaches, our teachers, our community leaders, our politicians, and whomever we label ‘our enemies’.

It is in the context of conflict and yes even strife where the instruction to pray bears down upon people of faith. “Love your enemies,” Jesus instructed more than once I am sure.[7] “Pray for those who persecute you,” he said.

We follow a God who is not immune from controversy and confrontation. Remember his earthly destination was death by a state-sponsored, capital punishment on the cross. This God we follow stretches us beyond our comfort zones and calls us to love in surprising situations. This God calls conservative evangelicals to pray for their liberal sisters and brothers, and vice versa. Trudeau Liberals are called to pray for Scheer Conservatives, and vice versa!

Maintaining healthy boundaries are important. And, some hurts go so deep that so much work and time are required in the process of healing. Without minimizing nor denying the harsh consequences of divisions …

“When you’re able to open your heart to your ‘enemy,’ allow God’s love to flow through you to them. Picture their face and send them warmth and tenderness. If this is a struggle, begin by focusing on someone that is easy for you to love, for whom you feel natural affection. Then broaden that circle of compassion to friends, acquaintances, and strangers.  [Because] no one is outside the embrace of God’s loving presence!”[8]

 

 

[1]William P. “Matt” Matthews in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.89; www.britannica.com

[2]1 Timothy 2:1

[3]For example, God ‘desires everyone to be saved’ (verse 4); and, ‘Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom’ (verse 6).

[4]www.elcic.ca

[5]Stephane Mar Smith in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.88.

[6]Jane Anne Ferguson in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.86.

[7]Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27

[8]Richard Rohr, “Following Jesus” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, January 26, 2019).

Kitchen vision

During Mika’s confirmation last weekend, I was grateful to reconnect with folks from her past and present, and hopefully future. At Mika’s confirmation party on the Saturday, we had just over thirty people in our house. It was raining, so all of them were, physically, in our house. It was crowded. Loud. Noisy.

You know I am an introvert. And they say that if you want to starve an introvert to death, put a stranger right in the middle of their kitchen. Far from being strangers, these were all friends and family. And yet, to have someone ‘in your space’ who is not normally there, was challenging for me. Add to that stress, organizing food for all these people and making sure everyone had somewhere to sit …

I remember first meeting Mika’s godparents in rural southern Ontario in my first parish. In century old houses, the kitchen can be the largest room. The kitchen is also where most people enter the house—not the front entrance facing the road. But ‘out back’ where friends, family and neighbours know to go in, right into the kitchen.

The kitchen in our first home there even had an Elmira wood stove in it. It was flanked by arm chairs and a small settee right beside the long counter and ample room for the kitchen table. Lots of people could fit in there!

Times have changed, indeed. Today, in average-sized homes there isn’t a whole lot of room to manoeuvre about. And for introverts such as myself, when I’m cooking or washing up the dishes, it’s a real struggle for me to share the space. I have to work at that.

I suspect I am not alone on this! We guard our spaces, covet our ground. We justify our beliefs and behaviour by appealing to social norms: Of course, everyone feels this way! Right? Let’s just say, having so many people crammed into ‘my space’ was a growth opportunity for me!

Jesus’ last prayer before his death and resurrection was for the disciples to be “one”—one in each other, one in Christ, one in God—bound together in the love of God.[1]The vision of God is an ever-expanding community brought together in love. The vision of God is that everyone can come to the table, everyone who is thirty, hungry, yearning for deeper connection with God and the world. The vision of God is that the dividing lines be erased—the lines that divide, exclude, deny, keep away.

The problem is, Jesus’ prayer and vision has come on hard times. We cannot deny it: the church has been fractured and divided more than anything—especially after the Reformation which brought some good things nonetheless. History in the last five hundred years has taught us, if nothing else, that fighting about who believes the right things about God can keep faithful people entangled with words about God rather than walking in the ways of God.

When followers of Christ draw lines in the sand, exclude and divide, when we quarrel and argue about dogmas and creeds and doctrines, the world will not witness the peace and love of God in us. So, the challenge of living faithfully is not only a call to private goodness or a superficial ‘everyone likes each other’.

It is a call to let our lives invite others to follow Jesus. Our lives ought not solely be preoccupied with right or wrong, guilty or not, in or out but whether or not our actions and behaviour contribute to the good of the world. Whether or not our actions contribute to a loving witness of what God’s vision is all about.

And we discover this path by experiencing the living presence of God in our lives. Not just talking about faith, but living it. And so, we are called to grow. And even when good growth happens, there will be growing pains as we stretch and flex our spiritual muscles.

There are two things ‘growing pains’ are not: First, when we are invited to do something differently, it is not an indictment against your history. It is not saying what happened in the past was all wrong. It is not dismissing the way you did things were bad.

When we are invited to do something new, something differently, let me suggest it is a challenge. A challenge to grow. Growth means change. When a plant or flower grows from its place in the ground, it changes. It’s ok to change our minds, as we grow. We are adults. We gain new life experiences. We learn new things, consider fresh perspectives. We have to integrate those experiences as we try new things.

Second, this discomfort is also not persecution. Please don’t confuse growing pains with ‘being persecuted’. We often hear that. When Christians, especially, are not interested in growth, some will conveniently use that interpretation: ‘We are being persecuted’.

When all along this discomfort is more likely about giving up privilege. It is giving up some of our privilege. Being comfortable at all costs—even the cost of avoiding difficult, vulnerable conversations, even at the cost of staying comfortable—is the very definition of privilege.

Growth will make us feel uncomfortable. But following Jesus is not about our degree of comfort. There is always a cost.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian in the last century, spent the last year of his life in a Nazi prison. And he was executed by the Nazis just before the end of the Second World War.

But in those last days of his life he reflected deeply on the meaning of Christianity in the world and Christian discipleship. One of his great books was called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” And in it he warns us in the modern world to beware of what he called ‘cheap grace’. He wrote that cheap grace was the mortal enemy of our church. What we need in the church today is a costly grace, a grace that costs us something.

What is ‘cheap grace’? It is the kind of grace we give ourselves. It is the kind we get when we use the church to satisfy ourselves. It is grace without really following, without really being a disciple. It is the kind of grace reflected by the Christian who says, “I like to stay as I am.” “I’m ok” “Leave me alone.” “Don’t ask me to grow.” “I am happy where I am.”

To grow. To go deeper. To expand. To overcome the divisions that separate, isolate, exclude—within ourselves, with others and the world around us. The twelve apostles each gave their lives for their discipleship. Theirs was indeed a costly discipleship.[2]

The cross stands at the centre of this process of growth and change. We are called, and we are challenged to grow. And to grow means to give things up: attitudes, attachments, ways of seeing things, our resources, whatever keeps us the same. This is the way of the cross.

“Lay down your life if you want to find it,” Jesus said. “Leave yourself behind if you want to find your true self.”[3]

John’s visionary writing in the Book of Revelation concludes the bible. It ends with a prayer that the grace of the Lord Jesus be with “all”.[4]The original Greek does not add the words “the saints” which some English translations do. Indeed, the grace, love and mercy of God is meant for all people. Everyone.

The Spirit of God says, “Come!” to everyone:

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift …[5]

Divisions do not matter when people come to the table of good food aplenty. When people come forward to receive the gifts of God, differences do not really matter, do they? The bible’s climax is a marvelous image of countless people of all nationalities, ages, languages, sexes, classes—you name it!—drawing out water that is freely given as a gift to all.[6]

Differences do not matter in this climactic vision. What was of importance is the coming to the sacred waters, to the table. We come, to wash ourselves of prejudice and fear. We come to be challenged to grow. We come to receive grace. For everyone. Everyone is allowed in the kitchen. It’s not just mine, ours.

Come to the Table. It is for everyone.

 

[1]John 17:20-26; the Gospel for the 7thSunday of Easter, Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary.

[2]Laurence Freeman, “Christian Life in the Light of Christian Meditation: Discipleship” (Meditatio Talks Series 2019 A Jan-Mar), Discipleship 3, wccm.org/resources/audio/albums.

[3]Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33; John 12:25

[4]Revelation 22:21

[5]Revelation 22:17

[6]Paul ‘Skip’ Johnson in Feasting in the Word Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.534-538.

Fresh air

I am glad to be back to breathe the air in the Ottawa Valley. That is why I live here, truth be told. Even before the plane landed at Ottawa airport last evening, I could feel it in the air.

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There’s nothing in the world like catching the sweet breeze blowing down over James Bay, through the budding pine and spruce trees of the Laurentian’s and over the pristine waters of the Ottawa River.

Not only was the hotel room where my brother and I stayed sealed off to the outside, the air in Washington DC was heavy, stale and full of particle contaminants that caused us some coughing, wheezing and rubbing our itching eyes. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to know the Potomac River basin is ….well, not the Ottawa River and Valley.

Ottawa and Washington DC are both the capital cities of their respective nations. Each reflects by its monuments, memorials and geography the character of the nation it represents. One of the purposes of nationalism, like the rivers that surround the two capital cities, is to separate one from the other. Indeed, the work of creating divisions continues in earnest to this day.

In fact, walls are being built not only in the United States, but all over the world as the USA Today front page reported a couple of days ago.[1]Protectionism and isolationism fueled by fear are on the rise.

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So, the voices of a different vision need to be heard, once again.

One of the most recently constructed memorials in Washington is on the shores of the Potomac River — the Martin Luther King Memorial.

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“No one is free,” said Martin Luther King, “until we are all free.” In other words:

What I want for myself can’t happen, until it can be so for everyone. If there is anyone who suffers in whatever way,

If there is anyone who is not free, in whatever way,

If there are people who are bound, captive to whatever vice, to whatever imprisonment of the soul or in prison because something they have done…

I am going to be healed of whatever ails me, only when I seek the healing of the other, the freeing of the other, the liberation of the other. The church holds up a different vision from that of the divisive, individualistic and exclusive nature of white nationalism in the world today.

You can see, I hope, why the consciousness of the church not only at Faith Lutheran, not only in Ottawa, or in the Eastern Synod or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, but in the United States of America and worldwide is moving to see not a division between things, not building walls between two perceived opposites, but building unity between them.

Not a division between politics and pastoral care,

Not a division between care for the soul and social justice,

Not a division between reaching out and reaching in,

Not a division between speaking out against injustice of whatever kind and speaking to the choir,

Not a division between contemplation and action.

Not an either-or, but a both-and.

Last week when Ken stood here and told you about the different ways we can support the financial health of the congregation, he introduced his well-delivered announcement by saying — “you’ve heard we in the church were never to talk about money, politics and sex (well, he didn’t actually say the last word, but I know you all were thinking it!).

And then a couple weeks before that, Mark stood here and told you about his upcoming trip to Ecuador to build homes in a community destroyed by an earthquake some years ago. And in his well-worded speech he said (I paraphrase): “In this mission trip the group he was going with was not doing mere charity, dollars sent to a far-off location, but directly helping them on the ground and making a real difference in the lives of those who suffer.” Check it out. He said it. I believe he has it all on a piece of paper.

I alone am not telling you all this. Your own members are. Your own church family is slowly but surely breaking down the walls that have divided, distanced and incubated our conversations in the church.

Limited our conversation. Limited our imagination. Limited the ways of God. NOT talking about these things, well, how has that worked out for the church in recent times?

NOT talking about the things that really matter in our daily life, NOT being open and honest, sharing the deepest secrets and burdens of our lives, NOT feeling safe in a community of faith to be who we humanly are, warts and all, imperfect, suffering, in need of God’s love. NOT being like that — how has that worked for the church? How has that worked for you?

It is not easy in the church (although everyone else in our real lives are talking about them!) to talk about money, politics and sex. It is not easy to talk about the real things that matter in this life. And so, the church for many decades has avoided having these conversations. Why? Because we were afraid? Because talking about sex, politics and money would put a mirror in front of us, exposing areas of our life that needed even a bit of God’s light shining upon it?

It’s not easy to talk about these things. I know. I feel it too. But I always thought that that’s what faith was supposed to be about — to confess, be honest, be real, and just do the work of God. How can we do the work of God when we can’t even be honest, and real, and confess ourselves to one another?

We can echo the prophet Isaiah’s complaint to the Lord: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips …”[2]

But he doesn’t stop there. His confession is not just about himself. Faithfulness is not merely individualistic. We don’t come to church to make an individual contract with the Lord.

Isaiah continues in his confession: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Faithfulness drives towards the communal, the community, the well-being of the world. “No one is free, until we are all free.” Not just me, but we!

When we don’t include, welcome and affirm people who are different from us, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we refuse to include conversations about sexuality, money and political action, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we remain quiet in the face of injustice, we are a people of unclean lips.

In other words, this confession of Isaiah implies that he feels he should just ‘shut up and sit down.’ Not say anything. Because he is bad. And Israel is bad.

Maybe you feel this too. Not unlike Isaiah when confronted with a vision of God, you feel, deep down, the church is bad, and has nothing worthwhile to say in the public sphere. Millennials believe that. Just ask your children or your friend’s children. In the past, we church-going Canadians have conveniently said, “That sort of stuff is the government’s job.” We effectively, therefore, excuse ourselves from any social action in the name of Jesus. And continue the dividing.

Martin Luther King also said that in the church it’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem (pointing to heaven, the afterlife), yes, but one day we also have to talk about the New York or the new Ottawa, the new community in the here and now.

What did Isaiah see in his vision?

Two details in this vision I want to focus on:

First, “the house was filled with smoke.”[3]

Here’s Isaiah who sees God in all God’s glory. How can I understand this vision by analyzing: Why the six wings folded over on various parts of the seraphim? What’s with that?

But the smoke fills the space. Usually, the image of smoke — like the cloud — in the bible is codeword for, “Can’t get this.” I can’t explain what’s going on in the presence of God. I can’t bring all the statistics, analysis, data and information the world can offer, to explain this rationally. But that’s ok. Because that’s not the point.

In 2018, in the wake of the internet revolution, did you know that more than 7 billion humans use the internet; and, that’s 7 and a half percent more, over 2016. Google now processes more than 40 thousand searches EVERY second. And remember, that’s only Google. Include all the other search engines out there, worldwide there are 5 billion searches EVERY day.[4]

We don’t need any more information! The church’s solutions are not found in accruing more data to solve our problems!

Because things happen in life that we can’t understand. The truth about God cannot be conveyed in data streams and pie charts and three point sermons.

Smoke in the house. Mystery. Might it be, that Isaiah and the bible is trying to say: We don’t need to understand everything. We don’t need to know how it makes sense for people of different races, colour, ethnic background, different social economic status, expressing a different sexuality, different ages, different abilities can form one, unified community. We don’t need to know how that can be.

Today is Trinity Sunday. I am not going to stand here and try to explain to you how three different persons can constitute one God. Because I don’t know. All I know is that those different persons are in a unified relationship. Relationship.

The third person, especially, confounds our Lutheran sensibilities. We’ve figured God the Creator. We’ve figured out God the Son, well, as much as we can. But the Holy Spirit throws a wrench into any rationalizations. A mystery, to be sure!

How does it all fit together? How can we analyze this even more? Shouldn’t we first have a detailed plan? Shouldn’t we try to draw a diagram?

We don’t need to know! All we have are the visions. The dreams. The imagination that describes in poetry and colourful words flashes and fragments of God’s kingdom and truth. We don’t need to know. We don’t need to reconcile all the contradictions. We don’t need to make sense of it. We don’t need to provide all the answers. We don’t need to put God in a box, nor explain God to anyone. God doesn’t need that from us.

Why?

Because even though Isaiah is a man of unclean lips (God doesn’t deny it!), even though God’s people have unclean lips, even though we are imperfect individuals in an imperfect church, that isn’t going to stop God. In Section Five of a recent Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis called “Reclaiming Jesus” church leaders from across the United States wrote: “We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not.”[5]

The realm of politics is imperfect. Who would think? Yet, our imperfection is the very reason politics happens. It is not something to avoid, it is something to embrace.

What does God do? Despite Isaiah’s complaints and resistance (just like all the rest of the people in the bible!) …

Despite us!

God reaches down from God’s throne and touches Isaiah’s lips with God’s holiness. God doesn’t steer uncomfortably away from the place of Isaiah’s greatest embarrassment, sin, weakness, brokenness, uncleanliness. God doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable places of our lives. God doesn’t even say anything to that uncleanliness.

God touches it. In the place of our greatest fear, shame, guilt, when we present ourselves in God’s almighty, mysterious presence, honestly and openly — not denying nor avoiding — we place ourselves in a position to be touched by God in the very place of our greatest weakness, to be healed, to be transformed, to be made new.

Even in the vision, the temple and the seraphim cannot contain the ‘bigness of God’. “The train of God’s robe filled the temple.”[6]The image is not meant to convey facts, figures, numbers, measurements, information.. Only our post-enlightenment, rational minds want to go there. But we can’t explain the vision of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t sit comfortably in our rationally justified common-sense policies.

God’s presence enfolds and goes to the edges and bunches up in the corner feeling like it needs to be stretched even beyond the walls of temple.

Whom shall I send? God asks.

Isaiah, transformed by God’s touch, can then say, “Here I am, send me.”[7]

Will we?

The Holy Spirit blows where it will. The wind does not stop at the border. The wind does not end at any walls we build to divide. The Holy Spirit brings fresh air into the stagnant, recycled, stuffy air of our temples. The Holy Spirit blows, fresh air at last, sending us into the world with God’s love, grace and power to change.

I don’t know how the fresh air of the Ottawa Valley is cleaner and sweeter than the air I breathed south of the border, really. But I don’t need to know how. I just know.

And give thanks.

[1]USA Today, May 24, 2018

[2]Isaiah 6:5

[3]Isaiah 6:4

[4]Bernard Marr, Forbes.com, May 21, 2018

[5]ReclaimingJesus.org

[6]Isaiah 6:1

[7]Isaiah 6:8