Stop the talk, start the walk

How do you become a better Christian? There’s a quick and easy answer: “You just have to know more; that is, get more information. More information, more power. More information, is salvation. The more you ‘know’ about something or someone, the better you’ll be able to navigate life’s journey.”

Sound familiar? This is, at least, the mantra of our culture which has been heavily influenced by western advances through the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and yes, even the Reformation from the last few centuries.

And then, Paul writes this, which serves to throw a mystic wrench into our rationalist preoccupations with ‘information’, which we so readily equate with knowledge: “… all of us possess knowledge …” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2) Hey, stop right there! — how can everyone have this knowledge? I thought knowledge was something we had to acquire by reading another book or spending more time on ‘Google’!

Paul continues: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him”. To begin with, in the biblical tradition, knowledge is NOT information and information is NOT knowledge. After all, even the man with the evil spirit ‘knew’ and recognized Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:21-28). Having the right information alone is not the answer.

How do you become a better Christian? Last week I told you about my three-week hiatus in Vancouver, which in the Jonah story was like the three days in the belly. Remember, Jonah was running away — escaping — from God’s call. It was a time of reflection, discerning and struggle as I slowly accepted my call to the pastoral vocation. I spoke about my long walks alone on the beaches as the place where I solidified my decision to return to my seminary studies.

But there was one prior event that may have broken my heart open to accept this change in direction. One Sunday in Vancouver I attended a church service. It was in a large Baptist congregation, housed in an old, cathedral-like building on a prominent downtown intersection. I went there because my friend told me the preacher was particularly good.

I don’t remember anything the preacher talked about, specifically. I only recall how I was moved to tears during the sermon. It was just like the preacher spoke to my heart about God’s love and support during a hard time in my life. Again, I remember he preached from the Gospel, so my Lutheran spidey-sense was satisfied.

But, really, it was my heart not my mind that was spoken to directly. Somehow, after that sermon, I was assured that no matter what I did, God would not forsake me. That assurance, coming from the ‘outside’ — from someone else — was what I needed to hear in order to make my decision to change directions in my life, for the better.

How do you become a better Christian? You become a better Christian by opening up your heart. You become a better Christian by being vulnerable and honest before God and others, by taking a risk exposing your inner self as you truly are. You become a better Christian by being affected by God’s love so much so that you can’t help but be changed. The cliche is true: Changed people change people. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

Jesus heals the man with the evil spirit by ordering the evil spirit to “Be silent!” Be silent with all the talk. Be silent with all the verbal expressions of truth and righteousness. Be silent with all the mental, cerebral formulations. Stop talking the talk. And start walking the walk.

In this Gospel story the emphasis is on Jesus’ action. The drama takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is like the guest preacher of the day. But the Gospel writer does not specify the content of his words. We only know that he is teaching.

This is not new. We presume he is saying all the right words, words everyone has heard before likely from the Hebrew scriptures. But this “new teaching, with authority” is tied to Jesus’ action which results in a changed, transformed person.

As post-resurrection Christians we have the benefit of hindsight. We can look back to a verse earlier in Mark’s first chapter to a description of Jesus’ first preached message. In verse 15, we get at the heart of Jesus’ teaching; Jesus proclaims the good news of God, saying: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news!”. Repent literally means, “change your mind” — I would add in the Hebrew sense; that is, a changed heart results in a changed mind (Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward”, Jossey-Bass Wiley, San Francisco, 2011, p.11)

If anything, the Gospel of Jesus drives at the heart. And the heart leads to loving, compassionate action. This action can be described as nothing more or less than a healing, transformative, life-changing energy. This is the power, the authority, of God in Christ Jesus — that God is changing us, transforming our hearts, our minds and our bodies for the better.

We all bear this capability. Being Christian is not about becoming cerebral experts on a particular subject matter that only some are able to comprehend. No. We all, each and everyone of us, have the capacity in our hearts to be changed and transformed by God’s love.

We live in a world that doesn’t believe in that kind of change. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if people (including myself!) can ever move beyond the distractions, addictions and hang-ups that impede our growth and well-being.

Maybe we don’t change for the better because we don’t want to pay the price of admission. Experiencing this positive transformation, or healing, does require the willingness to be disrupted, for a time being. That’s the catch, the price of admission: We have to understand that positive change won’t happen without a little bit of costly pain — and particularly the pain of losing something cherished.

Can you imagine sitting in the synagogue in Capernaum listening to this new Rabbi teach from the scriptures? And then, unexpectedly some guy you’ve seen from time to time at worship stands up and starts heckling the Rabbi they call Jesus from Nazareth. Jesus silences his aggression with firm yet loving words — “Be silent!” — and the man calms down and leaves the synagogue a different person! That’s a disruptive event for the congregation. But it’s also an invitation to begin a journey of healing and transformation in Christ, the Lord.

This change does not come about without enduring some disruption. Would this disruption mean risking some embarrassment? Would it mean risking your reputation? Would it mean doing something you have little previous experience or knowledge in doing? Would it be confessing you may not be ready — but will try anyway? Would it mean trusting someone, forgiving them, for once? Would it be confessing you need help, and asking someone for it?

Many musical images have been used to describe the activity of the church. One such image is the orchestra, where Jesus — or sometimes, tragically, the pastor — is considered to be the director. And all of us play our parts to make beautiful, harmonious music together. I’ve liked this illustration, for it’s collaborative, working-together imagery. But recently another illustration has captivated my imagination as even a better one:

Last year, at the Carlington Community Chaplaincy choral festival the Bellevue Beat Drumming Group performed. Members of the group sit in a circle with their unique drums and percussion instruments on their laps or at their feet. A leader starts. But then after some time another drummer takes the lead while the others support with their quieter rhythms and beats. The presentation does not end without all members taking a turn to lead a riff or section of the music.

“Being the church is akin to playing in a jazz band in which every player in turn, including the ‘leader’, offers their own improvisation on the shared theme according to their particular ability, instrument and insight” (Dick Lewis, ed. “A different way of being church”, p.10).

“Be silent!” Jesus speaks to each of us — and to the ways which hinder us from being ourselves and using our unique gifts, from taking responsibility and doing it ourselves.
“Be silent!” to mere ideas that keep us trapped in the rat’s cage of information-getting and head-centred religion.
“Be silent!” to saying the right words without corresponding action.
“Be silent!” to negative self-talk that keeps the heart trapped with a burning self-hatred.
“Be silent!” to the negative self-talk that convinces you that you’re not good enough to do the right kinds of things and do your part for the building up of God’s kingdom.

Because, the Lord Jesus, the Holy One of God, has come into your life. And he will bring to completion the good work that he has begun in you! (Philippians 1:6). God’s love will change your heart, and you will know God, and be transformed in the light of God.

What is hope?

I remember a friend — intelligent, thoughtful, deeply spiritual — who claimed that to hope was to be delusional. Hoping, to him, was a distraction, a pointless waste of time — like fantasizing. To hope was to be ‘faking it’, to be unreal, to be in denial of the harsh realities of life.

I begged to differ with him, especially as I would at this time of year — the Advent season — which is my favourite of all liturgical themes: waiting for the Lord, hoping, anticipating the ‘almost there but not yet’. During Advent, we commit to a kind of “imperfect fulfillment” (Richard Rohr) — this keeps us open to a future created by God, rather than ourselves.

My friend may nevertheless have a point to his objection about hope, if having hope means we demand satisfaction of one another — on our own terms. If having hope means we demand that our anxiety or troubles be taken away — on our own terms. If having hope means we demand a resolution and completion of history — on our own terms.

Our Christian faith has understood the ‘coming of the Lord Jesus’ in not just one, not even just two, but at least three ways: Not only is this time of year dedicated to waiting for the time at Christmas (December 25) when we celebrate that first coming of baby Jesus born into the historical world of 1st century Palestine over two thousand years ago; not only do we, at this time of year especially, and as many of the assigned scripture readings suggest — including the Gospel for today — the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. But we also affirm in Advent our faith in the living Jesus who comes to us NOW — today, every day, whenever we celebrate the Sacrament of the Table, whenever we greet another as if we were encountering Jesus in all our expressions of love, forgiveness and service.

Hoping, in this sense, is not just about yearning for a better future whose circumstances are easier, more comfortable and without the suffering of the present. The point of faith, hope and love is not to somehow realize an absence of the difficult challenges we may currently face; it is not daydreaming or fantasizing. But it is to recognize in the present moment, and in our very selves — ‘as is’ — the grace and divine Presence.

It is to live in patience and trust without closure, without resolution — and be content, even happy, because we know the one who makes all things right, in the end.

This experience of grace often comes as a gift, when we least expect it, when we aren’t ‘trying too hard’ and when we learn to accept in ourselves and in the world — today — all the paradoxes, inconsistencies and ambiguities of modern life.

Remember, what were some of Jesus’ last words spoken from the Cross? “It is finished” (John 19:30). It is completed. It is accomplished. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection — all was accomplished that needed to be accomplished for all time — for our salvation, for our health and wholeness, for our eternal life.

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Tag! Now, you’re it!” Our task, our vision, our dreams would be better served when we approach ‘moving forward’ from an attitude of abundance and “all-is-already-completed” rather than from an attitude of scarcity and “things-should-be-better-before-anything-good-can-happen”. After all, and the truth is: the problem has already been solved.

The lesson, I believe, from the Gospel today (Mark 13:24-27) comes from an image right in the centre of the text: Focus on the fig tree. As Jesus says, and whose question is implied: What will you focus on? Will you focus on the fear, uncertainty, the pain and the suffering which is so much a part of our lives? (which presumes that we are the masters of our own destiny) Or, will you focus on the tender branch of the fig tree, watching as it puts forth, in its own time, fresh, new leaves?

When we focus on the life around us — what is positive, what is good, what is growth and transformation and the NEW thing — then we will know, says Jesus, that summer is near, that God is near — right at the gates! God is already with us! Without needing to deny nor gloss over the “momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Because the problem has already been solved.

Vivid images and visions in the bible — such as what we receive in today’s Gospel — are applied to new situations in our world today. The point is not to use these texts to predict specific events in the future. Rather, we look to see God’s mighty acts in the past as a way of understanding how we can respond to our present circumstances, dark as they may be (Lillian Daniel, “Feasting on the Word – Advent Companion”, eds. Bartlett & Taylor, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.64).

This requires from us a different kind of waiting, rather than fantasizing or daydreaming about some utopia in the future. Some waiting is passive. But there is also active waiting. “A fisherman finds it burdensome to wait for spring to arrive because it is a passive waiting. Once he is fishing, however, he does not find it a burden to wait for the trout to rise to his fly because it is an active kind of waiting, full of expectation.

“At the pool of his favourite trout stream his waiting is filled with accomplishing all the many things he must do, all injected with an active sense of anticipation because he never knows when the trout may appear” (Martin Copenhaver, ibid., p.70-71). His focus is on each task he must do presently in the boat, in order to best position himself whenever the fish may bite.

Hope is for now. Right now. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. The promise of God that undergirds this hope is not that all the problems will go away, down the line. Nor complaining about something that happened in the past, as if doing that would somehow distract us from taking responsibility for the present circumstances of our lives. This is the false hope of which, I believe, my friend spoke.

The promise of God to come again, and again, and again, is that we will grow to discover Jesus even though things may be going to hell all around us, even though we will suffer and die. The promise of God’s grace in Jesus coming into our hearts is that we will be able to recognize the Christ child in all of life’s troubling moments.

So, stop, and take a good look around you. Jesus is being born in your heart and in the world any time, soon.

This is true hope.

In the Other

When we moved into our new house last Spring, there were no trees in our backyard. And so I went to a local nursery and bought a beautiful looking Norway Spruce tree, about four feet high, which I planted at the fence line. And I remember choosing this particular tree because it looked healthy; its deep and thick, verdant green branches were bursting with fresh, full buds, all over.

I watered it all summer long and fed it with fertilizer. In the winter I covered it with a folding board to protect it from the harsh winds and biting temperatures — which we had! I was going to make sure this tree would prosper!

So, tell me what you would do if you saw what I saw this Spring once all the snow melted: What would you do? (scroll down to see photo).

I must confess that my first instinct was to rip it out and start over. Find another tree. I thought, at first, that this tree was surely dead. There was no life in it anymore. Hopeless cause. Forget it.

But, for some reason or other I just let it be. I left it alone for awhile. And about a month ago, I noticed something remarkable. Do you see it? There are indeed signs of life showing: the green buds atop, and amidst the what looks otherwise like dead wood.

And I thought of my tree when reading the Gospel text for today (Matthew 10:24-39). Jesus seems intent on reminding his disciples of their worth, their value (“You are of more value than many sparrows” v.31) — despite everything that seems to the contrary. Remember, these disciples are not getting it; they misunderstand Jesus left, right and centre! They are imperfect, some would say — hopeless causes! Why would God even bother with those stupid disciples from Galilee? Riff-raff. Blue collar. Uneducated … the list goes on!

There is the story of a certain monastery — a monastic community which had fallen upon hard times. Only five monks remained in the motherhouse and all of them over the age of 70. Clearly, it was a dying order.

In the woods surrounding the monastery was a little hut, where a wise bishop lived. One day, the abbot thought it would be a good idea to visit this bishop, and ask him for any advice he might be able to offer, in order to save the monastery.

And so the abbot went and explained the problem to the bishop. The bishop commiserated with him: “I know how it is,” he said. “The spirit has gone out of the people. No one knows the joy and love of God anymore.” And so the old bishop and the abbot wept together. They read parts of the Bible, and quietly spoke of deep things together.

The time came for the abbot to leave. They embraced each other, and as they parted the abbot said, “It’s been wonderful that we should meet after all these years. But I must ask: Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me to save my dying order?”

The bishop looked straight into the eyes of the abbot and said, “The only thing I can tell you is this: One of you at the monastery is the Messiah.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery, he told his monks: “The bishop couldn’t really help me. We only read some Scripture and wept together. But he said some cryptic thing as I was leaving — he said that one of us is the Messiah. I really don’t know what he meant by that.”

In the weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered the bishop’s statement, and wondered among themselves if there could possibly be anything of significance to the bishop’s words. The Messiah? One of us? But which one? The conversations went something like this:

“Do you suppose he means the abbot? Surely if he means anyone, it is Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

“On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Without a doubt, Brother Thomas is a holy man.

“But certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred can get really crotchety at times. But you know, come to think of it, even though he can be a thorn in people’s sides … when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right about anything. Often very right. Maybe the bishop means Brother Eldred.

“But surely not Brother Philip. Philip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, he has got a real gift of somehow always being there when you really need him. He just, like magic, appears by your side. Maybe Philip is the one ……”

And so, as they contemplated this matter together, the old monks began to pay greater attention to one another. They regarded each other with fresh eyes. They began to treat one another with respect, love and extra care. They related to one another keeping in the back of their minds always, that just maybe one of them might be the Messiah. Or, perhaps that each monk himself might be the one.

A beautiful forest surrounded the monastery, and people still occasionally came to visit the monastery — to picnic on its lawn, to wander along some of its paths, and even now and then to go into its dilapidated yet charming chapel, to pray.

And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of respect and grace that now began to surround the five old monks …

And radiate out from them.

There was something strangely attractive and compelling about the atmosphere about the community. Hardly knowing why, these visitors began to return to the monastery to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of these visitors started to talk more and more with the old monks, and ask them questions: “Why are you here?” “What are you all about?” “Who are you?” etc. etc.

After awhile, one asked if he could join them. Then another. And yet another. And within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order focused not on its own self nor plight — but in others with whom they came into contact in their daily routines about the community.

This story touches on the practice of being church. Community in Christ is not about navel-gazing and conformity. It’s not about seeking a gathering of the “like-minded”. Belonging in the family of God is not about being the same, or tying to be the same, with everyone else in the community.

Being in a church is about meeting others who are not like me. Being part of the church is about discovering God in difference, in others who are different from me and my ilk. Often that comes about by first noticing what you might not choose to be like, yet seeking to understand from where the other is coming, and appreciating their gifts.

And perhaps this story might give us a clue as how to appreciate the disruptive words of Jesus in our Gospel text — about loving God before loving our family. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about forming exclusive communities or clubs of like-minded people.

Rather, the Gospel is continually calling us to go out into the world in order to discover what God is already up to in other people who are not ‘part of our family’. Our worth and our value has a purpose — “to proclaim [the Gospel of Jesus] from the housetops” (v.27). As we have heard from many church leaders in recent years — “the church exists primarily — it’s primary focus — for those who are not members of it.”

This challenges each one of us, first to see the Christ in one another, and also see Christ in the stranger. And remembering that if God doesn’t give up on us who are far from perfect — if God sees the value and worth in us even when we might only see the blemishes — so God asks us to value an outsider as potentially being visited upon by Jesus himself.

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Politics and church unity

At one point during this provincial election campaign, I believe I saw some lawn signs for local candidates stuck in the ground in front of the church. And I must confess, at first, it didn’t sit right with me!

Indeed, should religion and politics mix? If someone asks you, “Should Christians be involved in politics?” “Should politics be preached from the pulpit?” What would you say?

I guess I’m the product of an age when it was taught that religion and politics don’t mix. My reaction, I guess, is based in the constitutional value of separating church and state; that is, the leader of the church should not simultaneously be the leader of government, right?

But does that mean Christians shouldn’t be involved at all in politics? The reason I question this is because God is interested in every detail of our lives. God is interested in what happens not only in church on Sunday morning but what happens in our lives from Monday through Saturday as well.

But not only is God interested in all aspects of our lives — including our political activity on an individual basis — God comes to us in community. You will notice in the readings over the next few weeks as we celebrate the Day of Pentecost and coming of the Holy Spirit that only when the disciples are together does the Holy Spirit descend upon them.

My neighbour told me this week that he found refuge in the words of a tour guide in a cathedral in Italy he recently visited. When his tour group asked the guide whether he was Protestant or Catholic, the guide said, “It doesn’t matter whether I am Protestant or Catholic; that’s just politics!” He practically spat out that word: politics!

It seems there is a growing appreciation that what is most important is not the label we wear — whether Protestant or Catholic — but what is the meaning of it all, and the unity we already share in Jesus Christ. And that is good!

At the same time, there is still something there that begs us to respect boundaries, respect our differences and not just white-wash them away. On the one hand, is respecting our differences; on the other hand, acknowledging – yes, even — celebrating our unity. The two tensions must be held.

I was always taught in school that there are no bad questions, only bad answers. I suppose this was told to young people especially to encourage us to be inquisitive and explore the meaning of things. What better way than to ask questions.

It would be a mistake for teachers to reprove anyone for asking a bad question; this would be seen as shutting someone down and discouraging them from thinking for or being themselves. Moreover, especially for grown-ups, we would take it as a criticism of our intelligence. And, normally we do not take too well to criticism, do we? Especially in front of others.

In the first chapter of Acts which describes the Ascension of Jesus, Jesus and the two heavenly beings appear to commit a pastoral care faux-pas, precisely when you would think the disciples needed some comfort and encouragement in anticipation of Jesus’ departure from them.

If we examine the dialogue in this biblical text (v. 6-14), we will see that first Jesus, then the two angels, reprove the disciples. First, Jesus reprimands the disciples for asking the wrong kind of question. It is not for them to know these things — referring to the timing and events surrounding the wished-for defeat of Roman occupation of the Holy Lands. This is the liberated kingdom which was anticipated by the coming of a Messiah.

Indeed, from our vantage point, this was a terrible question. It reveals a continued misunderstanding of the whole purpose of Jesus coming to the world in the first place. It wasn’t to be a political-military leader. And these disciples, after spending three years with Jesus, still don’t get it!

We may agree with Jesus’ reproof. But imagine being one of those disciples at the receiving end of their Lord’s censure. How would you feel getting criticized in front of your peers and colleagues — again?

And then, after Jesus ascends and disappears in the clouds, two angels appear standing beside the disciples as they are gazing into the heavens. The disciples of Jesus are on the cusp of a great mission and work; they will be the hands and feet of Jesus to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8); they will be witnesses to the message of Jesus Christ. And what are the first words from the mouths of these angels? Another reproof: Why are you looking upwards? Stop day-dreaming! That’s not where it’s at! Get going. Do your job!

You know, I wonder if it were us 21st century Christians standing there on the mountain, how well we would take to being – pretty much – constantly barraged and berated with critical words from Jesus and the like. I don’t think we would take much of it, quite frankly. When the work of the church gets a little heated and stressful often one of our first reactions is to throw up our arms in frustration and say, “I don’t need this!”, “church politics!” and walk away.

How did those first disciples stick to it? How did they restrain themselves from fighting back: “You can’t talk like that to me!” Why didn’t we see more disciples quit following Jesus. Because — and I don’t mean any disrespect to our Lord, but — Jesus didn’t seem to be practising good leadership skills here by being critical of their questions. Or, perhaps, there is such a thing as a bad question….

We may do well to notice that, using Lutheran language, the “Law” here has not the last word. Recall that the ‘Law’ is anything that reminds us of our failing, of our weakness, of our sin and inability to do that which only God can do. In contrast, the “Gospel” is the good news of promise; it focuses on the action of God.

In this case, the ‘Law’ can be these words of criticism, from the lips of Jesus and the angels. But there is more, here.

We will notice what follows both these statements of reproof are also words of promise. In the first dialogue, immediately following the reprimand is Jesus promises the disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. After the second question when the angels criticize the disciples for looking up into the heavens, comes the promise that Jesus will return one day.

Words of promise and hope, comfort and empowerment. And maybe, just maybe, because of this good news of hope, the disciples didn’t abandon their community, they stuck to it, they believed the promise, they expected great things from God.

But they were able to see that the power given would only be realized in the community, not apart from it. They had to get over themselves; they had to get past their own, individual, pride, and embrace the bigger picture of God’s vision. They had to understand that being in community didn’t mean, on the one hand a bland, idealistic masking of all differences between them; and, on the other hand, quitting the community whenever anyone didn’t get their way.

When the disciples returned to Jerusalem, they waited in the upper room, together. And while they waited for the day of Pentecost to come, they prayed together. In prayer, then, they experienced a real connection with the living Lord. They remained united, in the prayer of Jesus now re-united with his Father. And what a great reunion that must have been: Imagine, since the birth of Jesus, God the Father had been separated from his Son. And now, at the ascension of Jesus, Father and Son are reunited once again.

This is the foundation of prayer — this unity between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The disciples praying together in the upper room must have sensed this real connection with God by waiting for God’s action, and paying attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, together. They must have finally realized tat their discipleship wasn’t about themselves, individually; it was about something much greater than them.

They had a real sense of the community, that they were part of the body of Christ. The meaning of religion is to be in communion and in unity with God. As followers of Christ, this unity is realized in the Body of Christ, the church on earth. Christian unity is a profound witness to the power of God in the world today. Especially today, when sadly structural fragmentation and division describes the church more than anything else.

The Holy Spirit still blows today among people of Faith. The church continues to be re-formed and renewed. It is a work that is experienced corporately, not individually. Author of the book, “Introducing the Missional Church” (Baker Books, Michigan, 2009), Alan Roxburgh, writes: “We are being formed as the people of God, not simply individuals using God for some process of self-development in the midst of trying times” (p.158).

We are changed into God’s people, together. That doesn’t mean we are conformed into like-minded robots marching to the same tune. That also doesn’t mean we splinter into another church whenever there is a disagreement. It means we celebrate our unity within the diversity of the church.

I think if the church would have political lawn signs in front of it, there should be a lawn sign from every political party campaigning in this election. Because that would say some very important things about the identity of the church: First, we take seriously our calling, as Christians, to be concerned and involved in the well-being of the wider community; that is to say, we are interested in what goes on in the world, and therefore we vote and are politically active. We are interested because God is interested in every aspect of our lives, not just what happens here on Sunday mornings.

Second, the church is much more than political divisions, because sitting in this room are people representing the vast array of political orientations anyway. We are not here because we share the same political mind-set but because what unities us is greater than what divides us.

And finally, what holds us together is not that we agree on everything, but that God loves us all despite our differences. This is the basis of our unity in Christ, a unity for which Christ prayed (John 17:11):

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. Amen.

Hope in the scars

For people who are approaching retirement, or anyone else who benefits from higher interest rates, these last seven years or so has been brutal. Even in the slow recovery since 2008, the Governor of the Bank of Canada has maintained the prime lending rate at historically low levels. In a recent interview with a small business owner who has been trying to retire for several years now, cynicism was beginning to creep into his voice.

Because he told a CBC reporter that while for the last couple of years those in power have been hinting at interest rates going up, they have remained level — and could even still go down further. When asked if he believed the promise of an interest rate hike, which would better his investments for retirement, he said: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Indeed, we use this popular cliche often, especially about someone who does not have a good track record: A neighbour who constantly behaves in ways contrary to his stated good intentions — “I’ll believe it when I see it”; a teenage son or daughter who says they will complete their chores at home before going out — “I’ll believe it when I see it”; a politician who promises local infrastructure investment — “I’ll believe it when I see it”.

It seems apparent that cynicism fits like a comfortable old slipper or jacket. We go there naturally. Even though expressing it really doesn’t help the situation, and keeps us stuck in negativity and despair. Hope appears a distant relative when cynicism lives next door.

The cynic depends entirely on proof. If anyone or anything does not prove the point in question, I will not believe it to be so — especially if the proposition is positive.

So, I think we can very easily relate to the disciples of Jesus. Thomas the twin, the ‘doubting’ Thomas (John 20:19-31), is likely for us folk living in the first decades of the 21st century the most relatable character in the New Testament.

Perhaps we can relate to the men who came to the tomb after Mary’s announcement that the tomb was empty (John 20:1-18). It seems they didn’t hear the message of the angel that the risen Christ was to meet them in Galilee, and NOT at the tomb (Matthew 28:1-10). Maybe they didn’t listen because they were fixated on finding ‘proof’ of Mary’s claim: Her words “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

Of course, they were disappointed. The ones who come to the tomb for answers don’t see Jesus there; they don’t get any proof in the empty tomb. They just find more fuel for the flames of cynicism and despair.

It is into the darkness of this mood that Jesus appears to his disciples. And when Jesus comes to them, what he does first is show them his scars. Thomas doesn’t need need to believe in propositions of glory based on proof; he needs to hear Jesus say, “Touch my wounds — see here the evidence of the lowest point of my human life, the time in my life when I was defeated and overcome and when I had been beaten down and I was myself questioning, ‘why would God forsake me’.” (Rev. Pam Driesell, http://www.day1.org “Beyond Bunnies and Jelly Beans)

This is what his wounds point to — not his triumph but his tragedy, not his victory but a time when he was vilified, a time of pain and struggle.

And this perspective turns the tables on ‘proof’. Seeking proof in the religious life is a hand-tool of ‘religion’, not of faith in a God who decided to die on a cross in order to release God’s greatest power of love for all people.

Imagine for a moment how else this story could have gone. Jesus could have said, “Look, friends, it is I — completely healed. Nothing the Romans and religious leaders did to me has any lasting effect. I am perfect again.”

Instead, Jesus said, “Hey, I am scarred and wounded. But these wounds will not keep the power and life of God from flowing through me to you! And guess what! Just as God has sent me into the world, so I send you, not to cover up your scars, not to deny your wounds, but to show people that the same power that raised me from the dead is alive in you.”

Easter is not a promise that your retirement fund and your investments will be like “it used to be” in the ’80s and ’90s when 20% was expected. Easter is not a promise that the church will be like “it used to be” in the ’60s and ’70s when everyone went to church. Easter is not a promise that your family will be like “it used to be” when the children were young and the world was so sweet and innocent. Easter is not a promise that you will be cured from all your disease and that your pulse will continue beating on this earth forever.

Easter IS a promise that the power that gave you that pulse will never abandon you. Easter IS a promise that the power that raised Jesus from the dead can raise you from despair and cynicism. Easter IS a promise that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is still at work in the world doing a new thing in you, and in the church, and in the world. Easter IS the promise that nothing in your past, present or future has the ultimate power to define you.

Because you are defined by the light, the life and the love of God that flows through you and that flows through all creation, making all things new!

We don’t find Jesus in the ‘tomb’ of proof, because proof won’t satisfy our longing for life anyway. You don’t prove love, you embrace it. You don’t prove power, you experience it. You don’t prove life, you live it. You don’t prove new life, you receive it — and share it with the world.

The divinity of our risen Lord is linked, as it was during his life and ministry on earth, with his willingness to empty himself with his radical humility (Philippians 2:5-11), and with his ready willingness to identify with “the least of these” (Matt 25:40,45). When he reveals – not hides – his scars as the risen Lord, God continues to confound the wisdom of the world by the ‘foolishness’ of the Cross (1 Cor 1:25-28). To this day.

In her short story entitled, “Revelation”, Flannery O’Conner describes a vision of souls climbing upward into the starry field, and shouting “hallelujah!” Wonder turns to shock as she discovers that all the people she had considered inferior to herself — those wounded, scarred and beaten up by life — are leading the procession. And that reputable people like her are pulling up the rear.

Perhaps Thomas’ confession of tears is a coming-to-terms with that Christ-like identity and mission. Perhaps when Thomas finally believes and on his knees worships the risen Lord, he understands that he is now called by name to join the triumphant procession to honour the crucified and risen Christ. Thomas is, as we are all, invited to join Jesus on a heaven-bound journey that requires the humility to join the back of the line, to be vulnerable with our wounds, and to give up our conceited, self-centred, and cynical ways.

Let us pray: Life-giving God, may the power that raised Jesus from the dead fill us anew this Easter season, that we might boldly embody your love in all the world that you so love. Amen.

The virus of perfectionism & the healing acme of God’s love

I remember at the conclusion of my qualifying exam as a seminarian seeking a call to serve as a pastor of a church, the lead examiner made only one suggestion.

Sitting before the bishop and an examining committee for over an hour –  hearing me answer questions about church doctrine, dealing with conflict, upholding the Gospel in a pluralistic society, defining God’s mission, etc. – I remember being taken aback with their summarizing statements at the end of it all:

They said, essentially: “From the sounds of it, Martin, you will have to work on one thing. And this may cause you problems down the road if you don’t navigate this issue well. So this is what you will have to practice, right from the start …

“The first time you lead worship one Sunday morning as a pastor of that congregation, when you notice the paraments on the altar are crooked, or not hanging in a symmetrically-perfect fashion, resist at all costs the urge to correct it.”

Here I was all concerned about issues of theological integrity, confessional adherence, denominational survival and biblical interpretation of controversial proportions – and what the leadership of the church was most concerned about was not what I believed so much, but how I, a future pastor, would exercise my leadership among the people of God.

At first, I was convinced they were missing the point. But the more I reflected on this and the more mileage I clocked over the years in pastoral leadership, I came to appreciate very much their advice. Perfectionism is like a virus, and can lead to many bad things not only in leadership but in the practice of faith:

Perfectionism is why I give up too quickly on many a handy-man project at home whenever it doesn’t work out the way I expect it to. Applied to a life of faith, perfectionism, I have discovered, leads only to discouragement, depression and a low self-esteem. Perfectionism, closely related to the need to please others, places undue pressure and unhealthy stress on our lives. Perfectionism makes religion out of following a bunch of rules. Perfectionism keeps us stuck in negative, self-depreciating cycles of thinking.

Have you, too, caught the perfectionism bug? Laurence Freeman, recipient of the Order of Canada a couple of years ago, said that his greatest success in life was to learn that his failures were more important than his successes (audio, “The Virus of Perfectionism”, http://www.meditatio.ca). I am certain his comments reflect the testimonies of many successful business people and those who are at the top of their fields who confess that the most important ingredient in achieving success is the long list of the failures that preceded it.

And then we confront a text like we read today (Matthew 5:48) when Jesus says: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What are we to make of that? Does God want us to be perfect, and avoid all possibility of failure, at all costs?

I think we have to be very careful in our understanding of this word, as we practice our faith, day to day. As I have struggled with perfectionism I have come to appreciate the flip-side of this coin:

It is born deep within the human soul to want things to be right, proper, good. We are, after all, created in God’s image. And part of this reflection manifested in each other is to seek God’s glory – which is beautiful, holy, perfect, right – full of dignity and yes, perfection.

So, we ought not repress nor deny this natural yearning within our very being. But what is the difference between acknowledging and celebrating this longing deep within us, and falling into the trap of perfectionism?

“Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I suspect we get hung up on the first part of that sentence all too often; but maybe it would do us well to start with the second half of that sentence.

How is God ‘perfect’? We know from the Gospel that should we want to understand God the Father, we need first to look at Jesus (John 14:7). So, what kind of perfectionism – if we can call it that – did Jesus demonstrate?

When folks ask me: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” I approach the question of the atonement in this way: Is there a better way for God to demonstrate God’s absolute and steadfast love for us than by laying down his life for us (John 10:11) – by letting go and giving up that which is most precious to us all? If anything, Jesus’ death proves to us God’s unyielding, uncompromising and unconditional love for each one of us, in a way to which we could humanly relate.

And second, is there a better way for God to demonstrate absolute power over death and Satan for all time, than by God becoming completely vulnerable through Jesus to the consequences of that evil on earth – which was the unjust condemning of an innocent person to death?

Yes, Jesus could have walked away from Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus could have called down the forces of heaven to save him from the Cross and pound the devil to pulp before our very eyes. That might be a more satisfying approach. But that would have been playing the earthly game; that would have been playing by the rules of the forces of evil: force for force, might for might. Who comes out on top?

But Jesus chose to pull the rug out from under Satan’s legs. Jesus chose to limit his divine self (Philippians 2:5-11) in human form, and to suffer and die as a human completely vulnerable to an unjust evil. If anything, Jesus’ resurrection proves to us God’s absolute power for all time over death and the devil.

My favourite part of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, is the last ten seconds of what feels like a very long movie: When Satan realizes, in agony, for the first time how he has been defeated. Now, that’s a perfect ending to a really graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death.

That’s why Jesus died on the cross. To show us how perfect God is, in God’s love for us. We can’t do it perfectly; we will always miss the mark to some extent. But God is “perfect” love (1 John 4).

God’s love (hesed in Hebrew) is steadfast and unbounding, even to the point of complete vulnerability, letting go – for our sake and for all people. Jesus showed us the way of everlasting life for every human being of every time and every place. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

The way of Jesus is the way to wholeness, completeness, in God’s eternal love, regardless of any and all human divisions within us and out there.

It’s not an easy way, to follow this perfect love. This way of Jesus doesn’t follow earthly rules of power plays, obsessive self-preservation and competitive perfectionism. Saint Paul prayed that God take away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Presumably Paul asked for this so that he could be better at his job preaching the Gospel of Jesus. But God’s answer would nip Paul’s perfectionism in the bud. God’s answer was, ‘no.’

In fact, Paul’s weakness would be a far more effective way of showing God’s power. What would appear as ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world, would in truth be an effective witness to God’s power and God’s love, through Paul’s weakness.

God does not want us to be perfect. Because God does not want us to give up. God does not want us to give up on the journey of faith, no matter how difficult or how unpopular it may become at times. God just wants us to be faithful – to stay on the path, to doing what we can – not out of perfectionistic motivations but out of the heart of God’s love and power working through our imperfection.

And I think God wants us to be vulnerable to one another; that we are not afraid of showing and confessing our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our failures to one another. In the church, we don’t have to wear masks of perfectionism. We are, after all, broken people. That is the truth. But Jesus’ body, too, was broken, for the love of the world. And what is the church, but the Body of Christ?

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can find wholeness, healing, on our journey that begins now on earth and finds completion, perfection, in the world to come.

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can share the truth of God’s love to all people, effectively, genuinely and authentically.

Thank you, Jesus, for accepting us in your perfect love. Amen.

Because it all matters to God

Last weekend, my family visited the Biodome in Montreal. Situated right beside the Olympic Stadium, it used to house the cycling competitions during the 1976 Summer Olympics. But in recent years it was converted into four distinct and self-contained eco-systems from diverse regions in North and South America.

My favourite was the eco-system from South America, for its lush, tropical environment: humid, warm, pungent air; broad leaf palm trees; and, a host of diverse animals – crocodiles, capybaras and scarlet ibis birds.

Our nine-year-old daughter’s favourite animal is the turtle. She spent a lot of time gazing down onto the mossy ground of the rainforest where the yellow-spotted turtle made its home.

When the guide asked us if we had any questions, my daughter wondered where the baby turtles were. The guide said that it was getting more and more difficult for them to obtain babies since they were very vulnerable in that stage of life; indeed it seems that natural selection is making the turtle an extinct species.

Without their fully developed shell in which the adult turtle could retreat to hide and keep safe from predators, the infant turtles are getting far too susceptible to a premature death and more difficult to protect. Who knows? Maybe the turtle with its shelled existence is going the way of the dodo bird.

The religious people in Jesus’ day felt they were up against a formidable predator in the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Gospel of Matthew was written about the time when the Roman legions were laying siege to eventually destroy the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and fetter out any Zealots who violently opposed the occupation.

With their temple under attack, the anxious people of God were asking questions of identity and purpose: Who are we and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s holy city and temple are occupied territory? What does this say about God’s relationship with us? How does God want us to respond to this dark and murky reality of life?

This is the social and political context to which Jesus spoke, on the hillside near Capernaum overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This Gospel text (Matthew 5:13-20) forms part of the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus outlined the values and purpose of the kingdom of God “that is near” (4:17).

It is a situation not completely unlike our own. When you consider the history of Christianity over the past two millennia, we find ourselves today in a similar, challenging circumstance: the institution of the church is diminished to the point of demise in many quarters. Christendom, once mighty, powerful and dominant in the western world, is relegated now in our society to the point of obscurity and irrelevance.

Many are asking those same questions: Who are we, and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s nation is “occupied” territory? How does God want us to respond to this dark and uncertain reality of life?

It is a natural instinct for many who, when under stress and pressure and the burden of fear, retreat under the shell – as a turtle does. One response to the perceived threat is to strengthen the walls between sacred and secular. Against the wiles of the crazy, dangerous world ‘out there’ we escape into our private and safe domains of home, property and religious purity. And build a fortress. But is this the right strategy? Or, does it spell, like the turtle, possible extinction?

Amidst the threats against the practice of faith in first century Palestine and twenty-first century Canada, Jesus preaches another way.

Amidst these threats, Jesus challenged Israel to be Israel, just as he challenges us to be ourselves in faith today. Jesus did not say, “You must become salt of the earth by pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Jesus did not say, “You must one day down the road when everything is perfect in the world again, or when you can somehow make yourself worthy of it, become the light.”

Jesus announced, to remind them and us: “You ARE the salt of the earth.” “You ARE the light of the world, right now, right here, in the world as it is, in your life as it is now with all its uncertainty, and in all its darkness.” We don’t have to hide nor retreat behind fortress walls. The solution is in somehow activating saltiness and brightness within us.

So, how do we do that? If there were to be only one way of doing God’s will; if there were only one way of being a Christian – then I’m not sure Jesus would talk in parables and present metaphors and images like salt and light – images open to a multitude of functions and capabilities. Jesus would just spell it out in the letter of the law.

But no. Salt and Light. It’s as if he is saying: Given all the uses of salt, and the various applications of light – how do you fit in?

When Jesus uses the image of light, he makes the point not to hide it under a bushel, but make sure everyone can see it (Matthew 5:14-16). But if others are to see the light, in what conditions do we let it shine? At the noontime of a bright, sunny day?

We will have to shine it in the darkness. After all, people don’t notice a light – whether a flashlight or candle – in the brightness of day. But at night. When all is dark. When you can’t see everything clearly. When the way is uncertain. Where shadows lengthen.

That’s where we are to go. Into places of darkness, in the world and in our own lives: Where people suffer hunger, homelessness and rejection; Where we harbor unhealthy secrets within our souls. This may not seem very religious. This activity may not be easy or make us feel good. But it is where Jesus calls us “to follow him”.

Annie Dillard writes, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” (p.43, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, New York: Harper, 1992)

Why do we go into the darkness of the world? Why should we take these risks, and expose even our own weaknesses and vulnerability?

Because this world matters to God. All of it. Not some utopic fantasy of what it could be without all the stains of human sin splattered all over the place. But this world in all its complexities, challenges, difficulties, problems.

Just like the weeds and the wheat – what did Jesus instruct his disciples in telling that parable? (Matthew 13:24-30) – To leave the wheat and weeds together, and God will take care of separating out the two when the time comes.

This world matters to God. Our human condition matters to God. Otherwise, Jesus would not have come the way he did:

  1. Jesus appeared in the dust of first century Palestine. Often throughout the Gospels, the writers take pains to indicate the time and place of the event they are recording. For example, the Gospel of Matthew opens with a detailed account, name for name, of the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1ff). The Word became flesh. God entered humanity, in a specific time and place in history. Jesus fully embodied both human and divine. The incarnation was, and is, not some abstract notion removed from life on earth. Jesus was born into this world.
  2. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple ripped in half (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38), symbolically abolishing the distinction between sacred and secular for all time. No longer would religious life be divided into neat categories that separated the faithful from real life, from engagement with the world as it is.
  3. In the ancient (Apostles’) creed of the church we say we believe in the “resurrection of the body”; by placing value on our own bodies in following Jesus we claim continuity between this world and the next. That means that laughing, grieving, crying, caring, walking, working, making love – doing all those things that are part of regular living in our own skin – these are all sacramental activities. These activities, Jesus preaches, are the building blocks of the kingdom of God.

The stuff of earth matters to God. And that’s why we reflect the light of Christ in the darkness of it.

By going the way of Jesus to reflect his light in a dark world, we discover a great grace: that we already have and are all that we need and God needs, to fulfill God’s purposes for us and for the world, in this time and in this place.