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.

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.

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.

Who’s counting?

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.

The Gospel story today (Matthew 25:14-30) is a good example of a parable that challenges a materialistic way of thinking, a mentality that has contributed to a problem we face today. It also introduces — if we pay attention to it — the Gospel way of thinking. And I believe, the Gospel way of thinking not only judges the ways of old, it paves the way for entering God’s future.

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00 AM for an early morning business flight.

Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00 AM.” He left it where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00 AM and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed.

The paper said, “It is 5:00 AM. Wake up.”

On several levels this story exposes the kind of way we operate when facing difficulties: It’s a tit-for-tat world we live in. There have to be winners and losers. It’s really the only game we know well. When someone, or some group, or some other religion or denomination poses a threat, we respond in kind. Because someone must win and someone must lose. During the Cold War Era, we called it ‘mutually-assured-destruction’; or, as the acronym accurately suggests, when we give ourselves into this compulsive way of behaving, we are indeed MAD.

On the surface this parable looks like it contains a good stewardship message. And, admittedly, there is this theme of valuing personal industry and action as part of what it means to follow Jesus. By comparing what the three servants do — one turns five talents into ten and the other turns two into four by bold, risky investment; but the third doesn’t do anything with his talent — we may be left merely with the notion that the solution is by just upping the ante of all our spiritual work. Just do more. Work harder, and spin those wheels faster.

All of this to get more of what we think we want; that is, more of the same thing we’ve always known. I like to joke that when someone in the church suggests we do something today the same way the church did it 50 years ago — whether it is about a strategy for getting more people in the pews, some outreach program all intended to bring people in — it’s like advising someone who has car trouble they should really trade it in for horse and buggy. It just won’t work today! The church today really needs to do something altogether different from the ways of thinking fifty years ago.

I wonder what would have happened if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus didn’t tell the story this way, but I cannot imagine the master would have been harsh towards them; he might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. (John M. Buchanan, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJKP 2011, p.310). The point is not about achieving a desired result, and being congratulated for your success, materially. This is not management by objective. This is not ‘the ends justify the means.’

This is about living — living in a way that demonstrates a willingness to take risks not knowing how it will all turn out. The Gospel way is not win-lose, it is both-and. Because in being faithful, we may try things, and sometimes fail in the world’s eyes. But emphasizing risk-management may sometimes impede our action to do the right thing when we have to do it, despite the sordid circumstances of life. We can’t wait until everything is hunky-dory before we take action; otherwise we never will. The reason the third slave received judgement was because he wanted to play it safe, be cautious and prudent; he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lose anything; low risk, no risk.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility. Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, took his own responsibility seriously, so much so that he joined the Resistance and helped plan an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. His sense of responsibility cost him his life. (ibid., p.311-312)

We, as Christians, are not called to be ‘counters and measurers’. God knows, if we do anything well in times of institutional crisis and constriction, we count and we measure — we do this very well. But in all our counting and measuring and bottom line conversations, are we not being judged? We just need to look around and count the heads in our churches today, for that answer.

When we arranged for this pulpit swap, the purpose around doing so was to provide an opportunity to share about how we reach out. In the congregation I serve, in the last couple of years, we have done “Back to Church Sunday”. Practically, this event boils down to each member of the worshipping community being challenged to ask a friend, “Would you like to come to church with me?” And it’s not as easy as it may seem on the surface.

Success in the program is not based on how many first-time visitors walk through the door on B2CS. Success is not measured by the number of people who agree to come. No-one may show up on that Sunday. But the event could still be considered a success IF … If at least one member — one of you — actually asked someone, actually invited someone, to come. Because the result is not something we have control over. How a person responds is not in our control — it is the job of the Holy Spirit to move in the heart of the person.

Yes, we have some work to do in the process — developing a friendship with that person, praying for that person — these are things we can do to prepare ourselves for asking that question to them. And had we done all those things, culminating in actually asking that question — then we are successful.

This calls, admittedly, for a radical shift in our mentality and in our approach. It necessitates, I believe, some uncomfortable letting go of the way we have seen ourselves. But in the unravelling, discomfort and vulnerable places we put ourselves in living the Gospel way, we can be encouraged.

For one thing, in reading this Gospel text, have you ever noticed how trusting the master is with his resources. God, like the master, has faith in us. God gives according to our abilities — not more, not less. God puts no condition on what we do with this bounty. Even the one talent was worth — in those days — 15 years of wages. Converted to today’s average salaries, that would be around a million dollar value! But who’s counting?

The point is, God entrusts us with an abundance of wealth, gifts and resources. God is so generous to us. Do you see the good in your life? I hope you do, because this ‘seeing’ calls us to respond in kind. God believes in us, and will ever be faithful by God’s gift of abundant grace. Just maybe, then, we can trust God when we live boldly using those gifts in the world for good, and as we step out into the unknown, as we move out of our comfort zones to do great things that God can accomplish in us.

Iceberg lessons

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She said she had driven all the way from Seattle. But it would be another four hour drive from where we were staying to the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. And she wondered whether it was worth it.

Her husband had planted the seed of doubt when she talked to him on the phone earlier that day. “All that way to stand on a mound of dirt, shiver in the brisk air, and look out onto a freezing patch of ice bobbing in the cold water?”

We were told that the last time Newfoundland had seen so many icebergs float into its myriad of bays and inlets was in 1912 — the year the Titanic sank after hitting one of these mammoth patches of ice.

Our itinerary on the Rock didn’t include a visit to Twillingsgate where over fifty icebergs, other tourists told us, crowded the bay there in early summer this year. But we were fairly positive, given the ideal conditions, that we might see some icebergs in the north near St Anthony and L’Anse aux Meadows, where we were headed anyway.

So despite the lack of enthusiasm from our travelling friend from Seattle, we set off up the highway. Four hours later we were rewarded with some incredible views of one of natures most extraordinary displays of beauty, power, size and transformation.

I suppose we could have chosen not to go — like the tourist from Seattle. Some folks, it seems, will not even want to consider the possibility of being transformed. But had we believed her justification for not going, we would have missed this golden opportunity for being enriched, yes, changed by seeing something new, something beautiful, in God’s creation.

Saint Paul uses this term only a couple of times in his letters to the early church. “Be transformed”, he urges the church (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 12:2). How are we transformed in Christ Jesus?

Seeing the icebergs taught me some Godly lessons about the journey of our lives, the journey of our transformation. So, what is the transformation that an iceberg undergoes?

First, it’s important to understand how the iceberg gets from point A to point B. The icebergs make their long journey following the North Atlantic Drift circulating the Baffin Basin from Greenland across to Baffin Island, down along the coast of Labrador and finally to Newfoundland. The icebergs we saw this summer were over a year in coming.

So, the first lesson of the iceberg is that whatever the transformation is, the change takes place over a long time. Enduring change in Christ is usually not sudden or immediate. The change addresses the deepest parts of our lives, even those parts wracked by sin — where our anger, our fear, our anxiety reside.

But because of its long-term nature, it’s easy to drop off and abandon the journey. We may feel it’s too hard and pointless a commitment since we see so little change in the short term. We can be discouraged, distracted, dismayed. We may choose, based on what we see in others around us, not to even bother. A.k.a. Seattle tourist.

But while inevitable that the ice will melt eventually and ‘die’ in whatever bay or cove it grounds upon, its purpose will be fulfilled in a unique way. The transformation is part of the bigger plan. In the end, it’s not about our choices; it’s not about us; as individuals we are not at the centre of our lives. It’s about God’s purpose, fulfilled in a unique and beautiful way through our individual selves. Each iceberg completes the journey in a way like no other, presenting unique shapes and sizes, landing on unique shorelines or melting out in the warmer currents of the open water.

The point is, however we change, we are still ourselves. In the transformation we undergo we don’t lose the best parts of ourselves. An iceberg still contains it’s basic elements of H2O. Just because the iceberg eventually dissolves it doesn’t lose the essence of its being. The iceberg’s transformation continues to incorporate its basic composition right to the end.

But — and here’s the rub — the change towards the good doesn’t occur without significant disruption.

One morning we walked down to the local coffee shop right on the rocky shoreline of Hay Cove, near L’Anse Aux Meadows, when we heard a booming ‘crack!’ Our heads turned immediately to the source of the thunderous clap: The iceberg nearest the shore had cracked in half. It had calved — shed part of its bulk and then slowly rolled over. We saw exposed to the air an icy wall that hadn’t likely seen the light of day for thousands if not millions of years. Remember over 80% of an iceberg lies underneath the surface of the water.

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The resurrection happens only because of the cross. There is no easy, short cut on the journey to being transformed in Christ, who modelled for us the pattern — the way — of dying and rising to new life. But this often difficult disruption seeks only to maintain balance and equilibrium; it is a redeemed disruption, so to speak. The iceberg in the water needed to shed part of its bulk so it could find a floating balance once again.

In the Gospel text for today (Matthew 16:13-20), Peter is redeemed. Jesus gives Peter the power and the grace to lead and be the ‘Rock’ upon which the church will be built. What an affirmation of Peter!

And yet, let us not forget the way Jesus had been with Peter over the years. This is the Peter who will deny knowing The Lord during his hour of greatest need (Matthew 26). This is the Peter who pretends to know all the answers when most often he gets it so wrong (Matthew 16).

Not only does Jesus show enduring faith in him, he lets Peter be Peter. Yes, at one point, Jesus even rebukes Peter (Matthew 16:23). But Jesus nevertheless lets him make his mistakes and do what he feels he needs to do, even though Jesus knows that Peter’s compulsion will more often than not get him into trouble.

Remember, it was Peter’s idea to come out of the boat and walk on the stormy water to Jesus (Matthew 14:28). He wanted to do it; this getting out of the boat and walking on the water was not Jesus’ idea. But Jesus let him do it anyway, even though it would get Peter into trouble. In other words, Jesus shows his love to Peter by accepting all of him — including his faults. This is the nature of God’s love — to love us ‘while we are yet sinners’ (Romans 5:8).

There is nothing symmetrically perfect with icebergs, as much as there is nothing morally perfect with anyone of us — despite the fact that we call ourselves Christians and say we follow Christ in the world today. We will, with time, break and crack. Bishop Michael Pryse attended the Canadian Lutheran-Anglican Youth Gathering in British Columbia last weekend, and he quoted the main speaker who said, “The church is like a glow-stick; it can’t shine until you break it!”

There is something true about this: That we can only fulfill our destiny — like icebergs do — when we accept the fact that we are broken, and will break, along the journey of life. When we come to terms with our brokenness, when we bear our suffering as our own, then the beauty of our lives can shine forth.

Denying our faults, pretending they are not there, or hiding them only leads to expecting those around us not to make any mistakes either. Well, that only leads to even more deception and lies. “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought,” Paul reminds us (Romans 12:3), appealing to a sense accepting and understanding our limitations.

Jesus saw the truth about Peter; that despite his brokenness, his pride and compulsion, the church needed someone like him. Jesus sees the truth about us, and values us, despite our faults.

We have to take the good with the bad, in ourselves and in each other. Then, in the honesty of the relationships in this place, the transformation of which Paul speaks takes place. In the sometimes cold and stormy waters of the baptism in which we began our journey, we continue in faith on the currents of God’s love. We can fulfill our mission only because of the faith God has in us.

Are we ‘divergent’?

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph…” (Genesis 45:1-3a)

The Joseph story in Genesis paints an incredible picture of personal endurance through hardship, a journey which resolves into a final and satisfying conclusion. It is story-telling at its greatest. Those words of Joseph near the end of the book of Genesis, “I am Joseph”, mark a cathartic climax to his tumultuous life in Egypt. We can feel Joseph’s relief when he reveals his true identity to his brothers who had to this point no clue that he was indeed their long lost brother whom they had betrayed. These words signify the forgiveness and reconciliation that Joseph then expresses with his brothers and father, indeed with his extended Hebrew family and identity.

You see, since the time when his mischievous, jealous and evil-doing brothers sold Joseph into Egyptian slavery, Joseph was essentially a stranger in a foreign land: a Hebrew man of God living in the polytheistic religious culture in Egypt. What is remarkable, is that Joseph is able to use his gifts and street-wise talents to climb the ladder of success in this foreign culture, to the point of being appointed Pharaoh’s right-hand man during one of the greatest crisis facing the region at the time — a seven-year famine.

The main character, Tris, in the popular series of books by Veronica Roth entitled “Divergent”, struggles with her identity. It is no doubt to my mind why these books and movie are popular among young adults seeking to establish ‘who they are’ in this world. In this distopic vision of earth in the future, humanity is divided into five factions; each faction has a particular function in society: to advance knowledge, defence, care-giving, truth-telling and working the land. The goal of this culture is to keep people in only one of those factions throughout their lives. Of course, reality is not so cut-and-dried.

Young people are tested for their aptitude and then they need to make a choice, which faction they will join. Once that choice is made, they cannot change. Tris discovers she doesn’t fit the mold; she is ‘divergent’, meaning she has an aptitude — the gifts — to belong to more than one faction successfully. She becomes a threat to the leadership of the society who wants to stamp out all divergents and keep things in the society simple, clear-cut and easily controlled. Similar to Joseph, this, too, is the journey to discover and embrace one’s true identity.

But I believe it is a journey not just for young adults, but for all of us. Even in the church, as we week-by-week come here to re-connect with our religious identity. In next week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus himself asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” The question of identity is crucial in our understanding not only of God but of ourselves in Christ Jesus, the Body of Christ. Who are we, as Christians and as Lutherans, in the world today some two thousand years after Jesus walked on this earth? And what is our purpose, our mission?

A while ago some of you expressed interest in exploring more our Lutheran history and identity — and how we communicate that identity in our Canadian context. I found a good summary of this from a retired professor from Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, who a few years ago gave a talk at Luther Hostel about Lutherans in Canada (“We’re from Away: The Lutheran Experience in Canada”, Robert Kelly, Luther Hostel 2011, pages 4-7).

Professor Robert Kelly asserts that Lutherans came here as immigrants who did not speak English. We came to Canada, essentially, as “Foreign Protestants”. This reality posed some challenges and reveals potential strengths in our identity.

Perhaps the most serious issue we face because of our history, Kelly writes, is how it has impacted our sense of mission. Most of our Lutheran churches began as groupings of people who shared an ethnicity and a language. Because our roots were in Germany and the Nordic countries our understanding of mission centred on making contact with immigrants from the old country who were already Lutheran. The British Government helped us with that in the 19th century by settling people of the same ethnicity and religion near each other. Our mission goal, then, was to get them into our congregations and keep them in the fold before some other group got them. Our mission was to make sure those who came as Lutherans remained Lutherans. We weren’t so interested in finding people who did not share our language and ethnicity. We were most certainly NOT a “church in mission for others.” Our mission was to care for ourselves and people like us.

Nevertheless, the fact that our ancestors came here as “foreign Protestants” who did not speak English is a strength we can build on. Kelly writes that “in a country that is defined by the diversity of its immigrants, we were one of the original groups that was neither French nor English. We have in our history an understanding of what it is like to come here and be perceived as different. In our historical experience is the possibility that we could relate to the present experience of immigrants from all over the world.”

Being “foreign Protestants” also put us a bit outside of the mainstream of society. This can be an advantage especially as the mainstream of society does not hold the values and beliefs of one of Martin Luther’s most enduring doctrines, “justification by grace through faith”.

That is, there is a tendency in the mainstream of our culture to blame the poor, the underprivileged, the minority, the unemployed or the victim for their situation. The roots of this negative attitude lie in the religious mainstream of British Protestantism: the idea that our prosperity in the world is a sign that we are the elect of God. It is this mainstream that promoted and still promotes the idea that we secure our place in the world through hard work and positive thinking. It is pretty much like the slogan at the heart of much of late Medieval theology: If you do your very best, God will not fail to reward you with grace.

Of course, Martin Luther had trouble with the basic idea that what makes us right with God is our work, our efforts to earn God’s favour. As Lutherans our history and theology has at its best opposed the mainstream approach. As Lutherans we say that our place in the world is not something we can earn, but is a gift of God’s unconditional promise in Christ. That is what the Lutheran Reformation was all about.

“Luther’s basic insight was that any scheme of salvation that is based in us and our ability to do our very best — whether that is defined as doing good works or believing the proper doctrines or hard work and positive thinking — is really no scheme of salvation at all. Rather it is a guarantee that our lives will either be wracked with anxiety or lived in the shallowness of self-righteousness. The ideology by which our society lives is precisely the ideology which Luther spent his adult life opposing” (Robert Kelly).

The Lutheran alternative in understanding the Gospel is that it is not about us and what we achieve, but about God and what God is doing. It’s about joining God’s activity wherever God is — which puts our preferences and comfortability at risk. The cross of Christ is the path of salvation, but it isn’t easy. The promise, of course, is that through the difficulties — like it was for Joseph — we do find our way.

Many Christians have stumbled at Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman in the Gospel text for today (Matthew 15:21-28). It’s hard to make sense of first Jesus’ arrogant silence to the woman’s request; and then Jesus’ downright rudeness in essentially calling the woman a ‘dog’. This language is not what we expect of Jesus, it it? To be sure, we can explain the behaviour of Jesus in a way that we can easily grasp; for example the fact that Jesus talks at all to a Canaanite woman is a radical affirmation of her personhood (Dock Hollingsworth, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 3, Bartlett/Taylor eds., John Knox Press New Westminster, 20011, p.361).

But perhaps the point of this Gospel text is simply to suggest to us the truth that Jesus and his Way does not always come through for us as we may expect. Jesus does not always conform to what we hope for. In other words, God is experienced in unexpected places and people. We cannot put God in a box.

We Lutherans have an important mission in Canada today. That mission is not, I believe, to find the lost Lutherans and bring them back to the orthodox fold. Rather, our mission — in the words of Robert Kelly — is “to be communities of people who speak the Gospel, the Good News of unconditional promise, clearly and who speak it to, for and with anyone who needs to hear it no matter where they come from or who they are.

Jesus does, in the end, grant the Canaanite woman her plea, as an example of Jesus’ radical inclusion of a Gentile. Here is another biblical appeal for the broad, unconditional reach of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Our mission is to be communities of people who have heard the Good News of God’s promise in Christ and who live in the world as if that message is true. When we do that we have fulfilled the promise of our history” and our identity. We are being true, to who we really are.

Breaking the Catch-22

The concept of “Catch-22” came alive following the Second World War, particularly in the classic American novel of the same title by Joseph Heller. I suspect, if you need a reference point in the popular culture of the day, this book, I think, lay the groundwork for the successful TV sit-com “M.A.S.H.”

“Catch-22”, like “M.A.S.H.”, reads like a parody on war. Being serious in some ways but at the same time using humour, Heller un-masks the pretence of war, exposing the often absurd logic of warfare.

For example, he describes the irrational rut in which pilots got themselves trapped — a classic ‘catch-22’. The rule was that you had to be deemed ‘crazy’ in order to be grounded from flying combat missions, which obviously posed a real and immediate danger to one’s safety.

The ‘catch’ was, as soon as you, as the pilot, asked to be grounded because you believed you were crazy, you proved by doing this that you were indeed not crazy but of sound, rational mind. And therefore, because you were of sound mind to ask to be grounded from flying into extreme danger, you were ordered to return to flying those combat missions. Catch-22.

Catch-22 describes much of how we do things, but becomes particularly alarming and anxiety-provoking when we realize how we are stuck. When, all of a sudden, we see it for what it is — that what we have been doing for such a long time just isn’t doing any good any more. But, for whatever reason, we feel we need to continue doing it. Indeed, by continuing patterns that no longer are healthy, productive and good, we sow the seeds of our eventual self-destruction. This can be a habit or some compulsive, reactive even addictive behaviour.

But it can also relate to the way organizations function, like the church: We continue to do things today, that may have made a whole lot sense fifty years ago; but no longer serve the purpose for which that action originally was created.

For example, when we assume all our activity in the church is aimed at getting people into our pews; when, all along the purpose of the church from the beginning has been to get those of us in the pews out there in the world where God is. Instead of shifting our attention and action in a different direction, we continue to fret about “what we’ve always done” for ourselves in the church to save face and stay proud. And how is that working for us?

Or, on an individual basis, we continue to be trapped in our addiction because it makes us feel good. When someone suggests we ought stop doing it, we find all manner of reasons to justify continuing to do it. And how is that working for us?

At this point of recognizing our ‘catch-22’ and feel the onrush of anxiety, we have a choice: We can fall back into default-mode. And, I believe, for most of us, that means diving straight on into what some call: ‘action-itis’. That is, the solution to anxiety and fear is get lost in more doing, more talking, more of the same action. “Just do it!” the famous catch-phrase. But is that not merely intensifying the catch-22?

Peter is one of the most sympathetic characters in the New Testament — one of Jesus’ disciples — who embodies this compulsion to act. And act, often without thinking, without contemplation. It’s the unreflected need to ‘just do it’ — anything, in order to avoid the real work.

When Jesus poses a difficult question about death and suffering, he is first to jump up and clear the air, set things right, show that he’s got it all together. “I will not deny you, Lord!” “You will not die!” (Matthew 16:21-23; 26:35). His action and words are often premature, as he thinks he understands what it means to follow Jesus. And then the cock crows, and Peter is humbled to the point of tears when he realizes how he had indeed denied the Lord for the sake of his own self-preservation in the night of Jesus’ arrest. He comes face-to-face with his own failure (Matthew 26:75).

At the conference I attended on the west coast this summer I met many people from around the world. Many of them no longer associate with the church. Perhaps you know someone in your own families who no longer see the point of being part of the church. But they admitted to me they were — being at the mid-point of their lives — searching now for something more meaningful. But wondering how to leave their current troublesome circumstances of life, in order to move forward. They seemed to be stuck in a bit of a catch-22.

For example, I met a 44-year-old mechanical engineer who owns a successful, Italian aerospace company inherited to him from his father who founded it; and, a ‘successful’ 50-year-old Toronto Bay-Street corporate consultant. Because of various, recent life events both were realizing they needed something more in life; all the toiling and achieving and working hard and managing life’s course — all these things were not bringing a deeper satisfaction about life, anymore.

It’s as if both these folks, in the words of the keynote speaker, Richard Rohr, ‘climbed to the top of the ladder of life and suddenly realized they had been climbing the wrong wall’. A catch-22.

It’s a scary place to be, when suddenly we see how stuck we are. We will probably despair at the futility of all the work we’ve done to create the structures of our lives — whether our business, in our families, and even the church. It’s not to say it’s all bad, what we’ve done, to create the patterns of our lives. They served, at one point, an important purpose, to be sure.

But there comes a point, dear friends, where another path needs to be taken. Something deep within us, if we pay attention to it, nudges us forward out of the boat. But we also know that whatever the new thing is, won’t come easily.

In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). We all will die. We all will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of this difficult change in our lives, individually and as a church.

How does Peter bear his suffering, in this Gospel text? How does Peter get to that point of ‘being saved’? When he sees the waves surrounding him, when he recognizes that his compulsion to do it by himself has gotten him into trouble — yet again!, when he is honest about his need for help, and calls out … Jesus saves him.

The text says, “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened …” (Matthew 14:30). Often, in the scriptures, the wind is associated with the third person of the Holy Trinity — the Spirit of God. And one of the functions of the Holy Spirit, doctrinally, is to call forth the Truth (John 16:13; see also Luther’s explanation of the 3rd Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the “Small Catechism” where he says that the Holy Spirit leads to the “true faith”).

We can say that when Peter recognized the truth about himself, the truth of his deception of relying solely on his own initiative to accomplish God’s mission, he finally and literally came to his senses and confessed his need for God. You will notice that at first, “the wind was against them [the disciples]” (Matthew 14:24) when they first encountered the storm.

The path towards this personal acknowledgement — in the church we call it ‘confession of sin’ — is often a path that is honest with another person about our fears and our anxieties. It is a path that we may otherwise wish to avoid or blame someone else for. It is a path that makes us vulnerable to others because we are truthful about what really motivates us. It is a path that unmasks us, for who we truly are.

In one of Richard Rohr’s keynote addresses he said that “honesty leads to humility”. You can’t be humble unless you are first absolutely and completely honest. You can’t be humble and still pretend to be in charge and know all the answers. In one frightening, ‘letting-go’ moment on the Sea of Galilee, Peter was honest about himself, and humbled to the core when he cried out, “Lord, [YOU] save me!” Because I, honestly, can’t on my own.

But there is a good and wonderful news in this Gospel text; and here it is: There is a great love, and a better world waiting for us on the other side of our fear. This love does not deny who we are — including all our foibles and compulsions. But it is no accident that the single-most message repeated throughout the bible is: Do not fear/ Be not afraid. We can either shy away from what we need to do, or we can constructively engage our fears, focusing on the promise, and trusting in the bigger truth that is God’s presence and God’s grace.

Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived. Weeks passed and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy: “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?” Together the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life, they sang for joy! “How great our mother’s love is, that she shares her own life with us!” As the weeks stretched into months, the twins noticed how much each was changing.

“What does this mean?” one asked.
“It means our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other.
“But I don’t want to go,” said one. “I want to stay here always.”
“We have no choice,” said the other. “But maybe there is life after birth.”
“But how can that be?” responded one. “We will shed our life cord and how can life be possible without it? Besides, we have see evidence that others were here before us, and none of them has returned to tell us there is life after birth. No, this is the end. Maybe there is no mother after all.”
“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”
“Have you seen our mother?” said one. “Maybe she only lives in our minds. Maybe we made her up because the idea made us feel good.”
So the last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear. Finally, the moment of birth arrived. When the twins had passed from their world, they opened their eyes and cried for joy — for what they saw exceeded their fondest dreams. That is brith … and that is death (cited from Kim Nataraja, “Dancing with your Shadow”, Medio-Media 2010, p.163-164).

We are a people on a journey. We are a church on a journey. And on a journey, there is no such thing as the ‘status quo’. Things are changing all the time. In truth, and especially when everything seems so uncertain, and fearful, we are in a great and holy time of transition.

But we need not hold back and be dumbstruck like a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car. We can act boldly in faith. Why? Because in the storms and transitions of life, Jesus is there, calling us out of our ‘boats’ of despair and ‘catch-22’ patterns of self-destruction.

And when the storm strikes and we are so distracted by our own agendas and compulsions we fail to fully recognize what has been true all along: The Spirit of God and the presence of Jesus is still active all around us and in the world. And, what is more, Jesus will save us, too!