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The apple of the eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

Back to the Future: Borderland spirituality

2015 is the year of “Back to the Future”, did you know? When Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, travelled ‘Back to the Future’ in the 1980’s pop culture film, the year they went to, in the future, was 2015.

As a kid I enjoyed the movie, partly because the year 2015, at the time, seemed some unrealistic, arbitrary and irrelevant point in the future; the number only represented some distant benchmark unconnected to my present reality.

Today, 2015 no longer means some far-off, futuristic fantasy. It is reality, now. And if I watch ‘Back to the Future’ today, the movie represents more of an historical curiosity — I’m only looking ‘back’.

In faith, it’s like we simultaneously look back, forward, and both from the grounding of the present moment. Balancing all three is good theology. For its sesquicentennial anniversary, the Eastern Synod (ELCIC) employed the motto: “Remembering for the Future”. Celebrating an important event in the present day by integrating past with the future is important. And a good way to interpret the Bible.

But it an also cause dismay if we only insist on a certain, chronological ordering of events in an absolute kind of way. For example, at Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel for today (Mark 1:4-11) there is the matter of the Holy Spirit, which descends in the form of a dove upon Jesus (v. 8, 10). John the Baptist preaches that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

But Jesus never performs one baptism in his ministry that we know of. And, according to the time-line of the Gospels, the Holy Spirit doesn’t descend on the church until after Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:19-23) and at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) — these Holy Spirit events do not occur during Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching and praying on earth. Curious, since many understand Jesus’ baptism as his ordination or commissioning to his call as the beloved Son of God. How do we make sense of this?

To understand many of the stories we read, like the Gospel for today, we would do well, I believe, to employ a ‘Back to the Future’ hermeneutic. This way of interpreting does not deny the truth of all of the events outlined above. For one, it reveals something about how the bible was put together:

The actual writing of the New Testament was done decades after these events took place. Therefore, we say, that we, today, are ‘post-resurrection’ Christians. We can best understand what happens at Jesus baptism from the perspective of the future. Because when these stories were written down for the first time, and from today’s perspective — the Holy Spirit has already come. Jesus is alive. Even as we recall, as a matter of history, what happened in the moments of Jesus’ life on earth some two thousand years ago.

And it’s not just a pointing forward that we need to keep in mind. It is a reverence and respect for the past.

If you look at the geography of the Baptism of our Lord, we can conclude at least a couple of things: First, it takes place in the wilderness, the desert. That is through which the river Jordan runs, basically north to south separating lands that are for the most part destitute, rugged, dangerous even.

Second, that river forms a boundary between two worlds — on the east and south, the world of the ancient Israelites tracking through the desert for decades on their way to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, which is on the other side.

John the Baptist comes to this border land, which is significant in the history of the prophets. In fact, John the Baptist stands in line with the prophets of old. His speeches are associated with Isaiah (Mark 1:1-8); he is also mistaken for Elijah because of what he wears (2 Kings 1:8) and because he foretells of the coming Messiah (John 1:21). John’s presence and ministry at the Jordan River in the wilderness brings the past (an identification with history and the prophets) together with the future (Jesus Christ, and the coming Holy Spirit) together into the present moment.

How can we keep ourselves from getting lost and totally confused in the plot line of “Back to the Future?” We remain grounded in the present moment. We look to our immediate surroundings. Like the beasts of the field, we scuff the earth with our heal, and snort and spit, before we look up.

And this is the beauty and wisdom of these Scriptures: their insistent if not peculiar emphasis on details. Yes, God acts in creation. Yes, God redeems sinners. Yes, God has a plan for salvation.

But this ‘spiritual’ talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.

Keeping grounded in the present awareness of life, ‘as is’, helps us track the sometimes confusing plot-line of ‘Back to the Future’. Because it is there that Jesus stands — on the borderland, at the edge of the Kingdom of God. Jesus stands there, and invites us to live into the now-and-not-yet reality of it (Ted Smith, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.239).

The Gospel of John identifies Jesus as a ‘lamb’. T.S. Elliot describes Jesus as a ‘tiger’. In C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ books, Jesus is personified in Aslan, the ‘lion’. Nancy Rockwell, in her post, “Tracks” (blog: The Bite in the Apple) suggests the ‘camel’, for Jesus who identified with lepers and prostitutes, difficult people, estranged members of right society, people who are spat upon. All these images for Jesus throughout history reveal unique elements about his truth.

But, standing in the desert beside John the Baptist, Jesus identifies with the lowly who are on a journey of transformation. Jesus invites the lowly in us to go on a journey that does not reject the past, and tradition, and history but doesn’t allow us to remain stuck there. Because this journey through borderland brings us eventually into a land flowing with milk and honey — a land of healing, restoration and justice for all who seek these gifts of the Holy Spirit.

This means that we cannot use our tainted and troubled past as an excuse for not doing the right thing, now. At the same time, we cannot wait until an ideal future when circumstances are perfect to do the right thing, now.

Back to the Future brings the present moment into sharp focus. A good theology will always ask, “What is going on right now in my life and world?” “Who do I meet today?” And act, now, accordingly. A spirituality of the borderland will always draw my attention to the divine importance of the present moment which is supported by history, and hope-filled for the future.

How to know peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace be with you.

Read it again: We are the messengers

A message to children on the 2nd Sunday of Advent  —

Read Luke 3:1-2 out loud to the children:

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene,2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

What did that mean – all those names of people you know little if anything about?

Let me read these verses again, with some changes, and see if the meaning of the word might make better sense for us today:

“In the 2nd year of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s majority government, when Dalton McGuinty was still premier of Ontario, and Jim Watson was mayor of Ottawa, and the Rev. Susan Johnson was the national bishop of our ELCIC, and the Rev. Michael Pryse was the bishop of the Eastern Synod, the word of God came to us – right here at Faith. And we will leave here and go into our schools, and homes, to our work and sports teams, over mountains and along highways to share the good news of Jesus Christ. As it is written in the Bible …”

What difference did that reading make? Maybe it brought the bible a little closer to home.

John the Baptist was called to be a messenger of God – to prepare the way of the Lord Jesus who was coming. Two thousand years ago, he was the first one.

Today, we are the messengers, along with our parents and friends and fellow believers. We can share the good news and invite others to celebrate with us.

How can we get ready for Jesus’ coming?

1gift4good.

One small deed/act/gift to another person …. Ideas?

–        Drop a loonie in a Salvation Army kettle in the mall

–        Parents – become an organ donor by signing the back of your drivers’ license

–        Pray for someone in particular

–        Light candles on the advent wreath

–        Learn a new song

–        Read the bible out loud for someone

–        Make a Christmas decoration to give to someone in the nursing home or to an elderly friend or relative

– Invite someone to church for Christmas

–        Parents – let someone else have that parking spot near the mall, or let someone in front of you in a long line up

Prayer: Dear Jesus, thank you for coming to us this Christmas. Prepare our hearts to receive you, by doing and giving, one small gift for good. Amen.