Doers of positive change

If you’ve followed the Ottawa Senators’ Hockey Club over the last year you will have endured a roller coaster ride. From the high, you will have tasted the sweet drippings of a near-berth in the Stanley Cup Championship Series sixteenth months ago …

To the low, feeling the despairing collapse of the team, not just to being out of the playoffs but crashing all the way to second last place in the NHL standings by the end of this past season.

What happened?

In the last several months, the nightmare season was enflamed by revelations of all the off-ice drama that was happening:

  • Allegations of sexual abuse by then assistant manager Randy Lee;
  • The politicking of owner Eugene Melnick to shame/scare the fan base that he was either going to move the team away from Ottawa, and/or that the downtown arena project may not happen motivating concerned fans to initiate an #MelnykOut ad campaign across the city;
  • Star player Erik Karlsson’s wife applying for a peace bond (restraining order) against the girlfriend of another star player, Mike Hoffman, who allegedly used social media and other means to send discriminatory, abusive messages to the Karlssons even during the loss of their unborn son in March;
  • And the continuing speculation around and probable trade of Erik Karlsson in the final season of his current contract.

General Manager Pierre Dorion was right when he told the media last Spring that his locker room was “broken.” Inter-personal relationships, team chemistry – the essential ingredients in a winning team – were damaged maybe even beyond repair.

While ‘on paper’ the team had skilled players and was comprised of the same core from the year previous when they had that successful run to the Conference Final, something significant had changed for the worse. And this subtle yet very real aspect of failed team-work was at the root cause of the team’s on-ice collapse last season. It wasn’t that they weren’t good players; it was their unhealthy, damaging ways of relating with each other that was the problem.

Funny we are talking here in the church about a hockey team that many of us follow in Ottawa. And yet, we can, I think, attend in a similar way to most areas of our social, political, religious, family and personal lives. Are their areas in your work, your volunteer efforts in the church and in the community, in your personal health, in any aspect of your quality of life let’s say, that are lagging, that yearn for renewal, new life, positive change?

For some time, Ottawa Senator players have been saying that there needs to be a culture change in the locker room and among team relationships. Goaltender Craig Anderson said this week he is looking forward to the changed culture in the coming season but he is “too old for all the drama.”

Teammate and hometown defenseman Mark Borowiecki who is considered a leader in the group called out his goalie and others on the team by suggesting they need to do more than just say they need a culture change. Each player and the players themselves as a team, has to do the work of changing the culture. It wasn’t going to happen by itself. No divine intervention. No single-player trade, no matter how newsworthy, was going to change their culture. They, the players, had to take on the responsibility to work at it.

Be doers of the word. A theme in the scriptures assigned for this day. In the Book of James we get the message that while words are important, actions reveal the truth, authentic self and purpose of what we’re about (1:22) more than anything else. What we do with ourselves, with each other – our actions – are the best teacher and communicator of what is most important to our common life, our team, you could say – whether that team is the church, the family, a marriage, a community group, a political movement, or a sports team.

And this action is not only about our performance on the ice, so to speak. This work of doing is not merely about the mission, out there. It is not about whether we succeed or fail on the mission field in getting the job done – the work of ministry in the world. Perhaps our failure at getting that job done out there may at least in part relate to our failure to do anything on the inside of our personal and corporate lives. And lacking the awareness and the belief of positive change within.

It is no wonder Bishop Susan Johnson and the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) has identified being a “healthy church” as one of the four vision priorities, moving forward in community. Being a healthy church means, to “develop and promote a culture of mutual trust and accountability.”[1]

That is, we relate with one another and the world around us in ways that reflect genuine listening, respect, humility and patience. In short, we offer safe spaces for personal interaction and growth. We can’t achieve the other vision priorities of the church, such as compassionate justice, spirited discipleship or effective partnerships, unless we are first a healthy group of people relating to one another.

And no one will make this culture change in our relational lives unless we are doers of the word, unless we take action that promotes growth, faith and positive change in our common lives.

In the mid-point of Mark’s short Gospel, Jesus spends a lot of time around the Sea of Galilee. When I visited Israel during my seminary years, our bus ride was only a couple of hours from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee. In Jesus’ day, it meant walking at least six days. Word of Jesus had certainly spread, and his actions of healing and eating with sinners and picking grain on the Sabbath made the Pharisees – the keepers of the Law – extremely nervous. So much so, that the powers that be from Jerusalem invested the better part of a month checking up on Jesus’ ministry (7:1).

It is sometimes amazing the lengths people will go in order to keep things the way they have always been. A radio sports commentator mentioned after the Anderson and Borowiecki interviews that Mark Borowiecki was right: talk of culture change has been swirling around the same group of players for most of last season with little, actual change in their performance. It seems we haven’t really been taught how to work at bringing positive change, starting with us.

Change is frightening, to be sure. Institutions often seek to preserve the status quo. That was true in Jesus’ day. And it is true in congregations as much as in team locker rooms these days. Yet change, as we must surely know living in this time and place in history, is the norm, not an exception.

I was pleased to hear Pastor Mei Sum Lai, leading her last worship service at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Orleans[2]last Sunday, thank the congregation for allowing change to happen during her tenure there. I then reflected on all the changes that have happened here at Faith[3]in the last six years or so:

  • The bold decision to bring significant upgrades and modernization to the building and sanctuary;
  • The gutsy decision to worshipping for four months with our local Anglican parish while the sanctuary was off-limits in its renovation;
  • The move to weekly Communion;
  • The involvement of lay readers and worship assistants;
  • The completion of the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Women as a formal entity
  • The introduction of Christian Meditation as a weekly prayer group;
  • The evolution of bible study to a prayerful encounter with the Word;
  • The ongoing evolution of meals at the church in all its fits and starts – to name a few changes.

These changes, good or bad in your view, are nevertheless good practice for us. Making these changes are good exercise for us, for the positive changes that God is bringing about in our world and church. Because we won’t do it perfectly. We will make mistakes. We will even fail at times. But avoiding failure is not the point of Christian identity and mission. The point is, we are following Christ – or trying to – on a rocky and uncertain road in the post-modern world. Trying amidst the noise and chaos to discern and listen to Jesus’ voice.

What is at stake, is what we believe. What do we believe about change? I think this makes a huge difference in how that rocky road will go for us.

Despite the negative scrutiny and criticism heaped upon Jesus by the Pharisees, what does Jesus do in response? Does he cave into the pressure to play by the religious rules of the day? Does he try to please the authorities and adhere to the tradition for tradition’s sake? Does he shift into self-preservation mode and quietly step into the shadows as not to garner any more attention? What does he do?

Jesus keeps on healing. If you read on in chapter 7, he goes on from Lake Galilee southward on the road into the non-religious Gentile region first to heal the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman[4], and then he opens the ears of the deaf man in the Decapolis.[5]

In fact, I don’t know of anyone in the New Testament who doesn’t change after encountering Jesus, whether by a healing or in a shift of attitude and approach to life. The most dramatic example, probably, is Saul of Tarsus who on the road to Damascus encounters the living Lord and experiences a profound conversion.[6]

When you meet Jesus, your life changes for the better not because you don’t do anything about it. But because you’ve placed yourself, for better or worse, in a position to receive the grace, healing and change of God. Historian Diana Butler Bass writes, “For all the complexity of primitive Christianity, a startling idea runs through early records of faith: Christianity seems to have succeeded because it transformed the lives of people in a chaotic world.”[7]During this time, Christianity was primarily about how to live a better, more faithful life, here and now within the kingdom of God.

Team play is as much an inner game as it is an outer game. And the inner game takes work, not just words. This inner work is not easy to do.

Perhaps you might have a hard time believing positive change is possible in your own life. If so, is it because we refuse to see the positive changes happening in those around us – in the life of the church, in our own families and friendship groups? Because when we refuse to accept that others have changed, we strike the death knoll and close the doors of our own hearts to see the change there.

So perhaps a first step would be to regard others, especially those closest to us, as on a journey that is changing and growing them in ways beyond our control. And then wait for Jesus’ call on your own life to follow him, to encounter him, to meet him on the road of life. In most of the people who meet Jesus, they present their own need. They approach Jesus in their vulnerability. Where they are hurting.

Because whatever the case may be with your own heart, whether or not you believe change in your own life and in the life of others around you is possible, God waits for you. God is patient, ready and willing to heal. God believes in you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]http://www.elcic.ca

[2]http://www.rlchurch.ca

[3]http://www.faithottawa.ca

[4]Mark 7:24-30

[5]Mark 7:31-37

[6]Acts 9:1-31

[7]Diana Butler Bass, “A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story” (HarperOne, 2009), p.26.

On the way

For years now, amid the changing realities facing our lives in the church, I have found comfort and hope in a prayer — popular among Lutherans — from Evening Prayer in the old, ‘green book’ (The Lutheran Book of Worship). It goes goes like this:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

It is a beloved prayer. The risen, living Jesus indeed goes with us.

But do we go “by paths as yet untrodden”? Yes, in the sense that each of us experiences the journey uniquely; and yes, we can’t know exactly how we will experience that journey. And yes, frankly, that’s how it sometimes feels — like we’re all alone on this journey.

I think in North America especially, the journey of life here carries with it a “frontier” mentality. We are, after all, pioneers — this is part of our history: clearing bush from the land, forging paths never trodden through the wilderness.

And more often than not we are blazing this new path on our own. It’s up to us. This vision, I believe, has captured our imagination and plays a large role in motivating our work and our identity in the church, even.

No wonder we fell so isolated and alone when things change in our lives. No wonder we are so afraid.

The first Christians in the time after Jesus rose from the dead were not called “Christian”. In fact, they were called “Followers of the Way” — the way of Jesus. It wasn’t until in Antioch years later that those who identified with the way of Jesus were labelled, “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Those first disciples — like Cleopas and his friend, that we read about in today’s Gospel (Luke 24:13-35) — were associated with a faith that was predominantly about a journey.

I like how the King James Version of this text concludes: “And they told what things were done in the way …” (v.35). The presence of Jesus is experienced together on the journey of life, following in the way of Jesus.

What if we re-claimed our original identity as “followers of the way”? What if we re-considered our image for this journey of faith we are on? What if this way was not so much about “blazing a new path, not so much a “pioneering/frontier” mentality where we create the path?

What if the journey we are on is more of a caravan route, where we follow where another has already trod?

A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St Peter meets him at the pearly gates.
St Peter says, “Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.”

“Okay,” the man said, “I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.”
“That’s wonderful,” says St Peter, “that’s worth three points!”

“Three points?” he says. “Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.”
“Terrific!” says St Peter, “that’s certainly worth a point.”

“One point?” Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.”
“Fantastic, that’s good for two more points,” he says.

“TWO POINTS!!” the man cries. “At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!”

“Come on in!”

For a caravan journey to work, it is by the grace of God. It is a pathway through the wilderness, to be sure. As one plods along its winding route, we nevertheless follow the tracks of the carts and wagons and footprints etched on the roadway and left by others who have gone before us.

Jesus beckons us forward, to follow along the path he has made. Jesus is the main focus on the caravan route.

Let’s not forgot who joins the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Let’s not forget who does most of the talking — the teaching — on the road. Let’s not forget who is the host at the evening meal, and who initiates for the disciples their recognizing the living Lord when Jesus breaks bread. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus.

There are some characteristics of this caravan journey, of note; to summarize:

First it is not a journey undertaken alone. In fact, on the caravan route it is folly to travel alone. One would do well to travel together with others for mutual support, consolation and protection along the way.

The caravan route is not a journey of isolation, but of ever-expanding community. From these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, the church moves out into the world. From the disciples’ faith emerges a mission “to all nations” (Luke 24:47). It is not a caravan that goes in circles around Jerusalem; rather, the route winds itself around the world. The Greek word for church is “ekklesia” which literally translates — “a people called OUT”. Yes, the momentum of Christianity is centrifugal — the journey is an ever-expanding mission towards the places where Jesus will be.

When asked about his success, Wayne Gretzky once said, “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.” He explains why: Imagine the fast-paced ebb and flow of the hockey game; Gretzky says, “Skating toward where the puck IS will always guarantee your arrival at a place where the puck HAS BEEN” — and that’s no good.

By following the caravan route, it is possible to discover where the risen Jesus is going in our world and not just keep going back to the empty tomb. As a popular American preacher once wrote, “Vision is not about looking in tombs for a risen Jesus. It is about listening to where he says he is going to meet us and striking out for it.”

Second, the journey’s value does not depend on our doing all the right things. For the seven mile journey to Emmaus, the disciples didn’t even know it was Jesus walking with them. Whether we know it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, even in our sadness or fear, and even when all around us everything points to the contrary of what we believe “should be”, Jesus is with us and walking with us, and talking to us. Are we listening? Are we following?

All the disciples do is practice some basic hospitality and welcome this intriguing stranger into their home. It is our job only to trust in the presence of Jesus when we gather to hear the word of God, listen to it, and break the bread at Holy Communion — and leave the rest to God.

It is our job sometimes to pay attention to however our “hearts burn”, because just maybe, it is of God.

Here is a variation of a blessing you may have heard. It is also popular among Followers of the Way today, sometimes requested at wedding ceremonies when two people embark on the journey of married life:

“The Lord go before you, to show you the way. The Lord go beside you, to hold you and protect you. The Lord go behind you, to keep you safe from all harm. The Lord go beneath you, to catch you when you fall, and show you the way up. The Lord be within you, to comfort you when you’re sad. The Lord be above you to give you grace.”