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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A Missional Leader

“What a leader must grasp is that awareness is about beginning where people are, not where we want them to be or where they ought to be in terms of some program or plan. Awareness requires the willingness to suspend our answers and plans to focus on creating the kinds of safe spaces where people are able to give voice to their experience of disorientation.”

(Alan J. Roxburgh & M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, why it matters, how to become one, Baker Books, Michigan, 2009, p.142)

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.

On the way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on in!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The healing power of memory

In suffering the pain of grief, memory can be a healing salve. Not only remembering stories of loved ones lost and recalling them at family gatherings. But when it comes to observing traditions and special occasions, such as Christmas or Easter. How do you navigate through a holiday without that special person? What do you do?

The first step is to recall in your mind’s eye the past; linger with these memories until you can feel the quiet, reassuring love and pleasure of those moments. Stay with each memory long enough to understand what about it is meaningful for you.

Then, let your memories guide you in making plans — let’s say, for this coming Easter holiday. The point is not to make an exact re-creation of the past. This is not about making a simulation of past experiences.

I heard about a man who, in middle age, purchased a Harley-Davidson to try to live in the myth of the youthful, unfettered individual who is free to go anywhere at any time. He felt unsatisfied, however, after his solitary road-trips. Something was missing.

After more reflection, what he was remembering on a deeper level was the positive experience in his youth of the friends he made in a bike shop where he worked a job one summer. The meaning of memory was found in the relationships more so than the motor-cycles. He didn’t sell the Harley-Davidson. But he did inquire about local riding groups of folks his age. His interest shifted to making friends.

Memories of past Christmases or Easters can transform each new celebration. For example, a memory of a family bike ride on an Easter Monday decades ago can lead to a family train trek through the Rockies. What’s important is not to re-create the past, but to transform it so it’s meaningful for the present. Not simulation, but translation.

During Lent we reflect on the question of healing, on our faith journeys. What I am discovering is as we hear the various stories of healing from members of our community, a wonderful theology of healing is emerging. And one important aspect of healing, is to consider the power of memory. Because of one, small experience of God’s grace in our past — should we be able to recall such an experience — can emerge strength and encouragement and guidance for dealing with a current challenge, suffering or crossroad in our lives.

But even if we are not able to remember any good in our past, the faith that gives us power today is not about our glory, but about God’s. In the Gospel for today, Jesus heals a man, blind from birth (John 9:1-41). Those who witness this healing miracle want an explanation for his condition: Is it his fault that he was blind, or his parents’ sin that caused him this disability. A biblically sound question, since the Torah suggests that the “iniquity of the parents is visited upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-8).

Jesus avoids this kind of biblicism that seeks only to make technical arguments that focus only on our righteousness or lack thereof. Jesus turns our sites away from ourselves and onto God: The purpose of our lives, including our suffering, is to point to God, and God’s work. If we are to remember anything, it is to remember God’s mighty acts in relation to the people of God, including you and me. When the Psalmist delights in the past, his memory focuses on what God has done: “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).

God’s vision is expansive and eternal, abounding in steadfast love. I wonder why the disciples weren’t that interested in the first part of that text from Exodus. Before talking about the iniquity imparted to the third and fourth generations, when the Lord spoke to Moses, he said first: “The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” — which is a lot longer than four!

And as we know, generations ago the world was a lot different than what it is now. I was watching on Netflix a show that I remember watching avidly in the 1990s. One detail caught my attention, when the characters were talking to each other holding the old, large, clunky ear pieces connected by a spiral, rubber cord to a hand-dial phone. In one generation, so much has changed and people are doing things in different ways.

And yet, one thing remains: The steadfast love of God. Whatever we do in God’s mission, and however we do it, we can be assured that God is faithful to us, that God has unbounding love for us. After all, God doesn’t look on outward appearances; God looks at our heart. When David was chosen to be king of Israel, God wasn’t looking for the one who appeared to have all the desirable qualities; God wasn’t looking for the tallest, the strongest, the best-looking one to be their leader. God was looking at the heart of David (1 Samuel 16).

We can be courageous, then, and bold to reach out and be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. After all, it’s not, in the end about us. We find healing and wholeness for our lives in order to do, and by doing, the will of God. It is for His sake that we throw ourselves fully into life. It is for His sake that we are healed and restored.

The man who bought the Harley-Davidson was initially motivated by an individualistic worldview, that so often seeps into the life of the church. How often does our experience of worship, even, trend into being merely a disembedded, fragmented, personal experience in a crowd of strangers. As if worship was meant only for what you (individually) can get out of it for your own personal self-help agenda. No wonder many of us sometimes get frustrated with worship experience.

That is why a regular, weekly celebration of the Eucharist — the Holy Communion — is so vital to our life together. In this sacrament, we are re-membered as the Body of Christ. We remember what Jesus did and what God has done throughout salvation history; we recall these mighty acts of God, but not solely as a piece of history, a memorial. But as it impacts our lives today, in mission for others.

We come to the table, a diverse group of people. But we come as equals on a level-playing field deserving as one punishment for our sin but forgiven and showered with God’s mercy and grace — as one, by the self-less act of Jesus. We are empowered, through the broken body of Jesus, to be his broken body for the world, today. How that memory shapes us today may be different from decades ago. But memory continues to form us, and reform us. In our lives, the Gospel is translated for the world today.

Be thou, our vision, O God.

Thank you to Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren in “Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, why it mattes, how to become one”, chapters 2-3

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.