Pastor’s Annual Report 2018

From this morning’s Annual General Meeting at Faith Lutheran Church in Ottawa, here is my report about the past year:

The council had a significant turnover of membership in 2018. On the one hand, the pastoral care ministry was strengthened. An intentional and regular congregational visitation schedule was initiated by council member Rochelle Piske. Resources were expended for lay training and producing visitation cards.

To this end, the council with Bishop Michael Pryse’s appointment acclaimed Pastor Diane Raddatz as Faith’s Honorary Assistant Pastor. This action was taken to broaden and acknowledge the quality of pastoral ministry provided by ordained persons associated with Faith church, as well as honoring Pastor Raddatz’s presence and history with our congregation.

At the same time, the leadership of the congregation was challenged to strengthen a vision for ministry that was focused outwards, to the communities which the church serves. A more public understanding of Christian ministry’s destination was articulated, repeated and reinforced. Even social events, such as the youth ‘Eating Around the World’ and ’Brass & Bratwurst’, benefitted from the Ottawa Ministry Area of ELCIC congregations as the basis of support and participation.

Moreover, Faith Lutheran Church convened leadership events for the Ottawa Ministry Area, such as the ‘Apple Tree’ workshop. The council spent time in training and visioning conversations. A ‘future directions’ initiative in council builds on the need, moving forward, not merely to ‘do church better’ but to ‘do church differently.’

The result of these conversations is leaving more and more church members with a broader understanding of the church today. For example, while deficit management can be a helpful short-term ‘fix’ to budgetary stresses, this micro-management perspective will not solve the long-term sustainability challenge that the church faces in our day and age.

As long as I have been ordained (over two decades), there have been very few years where deficit anxiety hasn’t been broiling under the surface of annual general meeting conversations. I believe deep down we know that merely narrowing annual deficits by reducing expenses is not a sustainable strategy that is going to resolve the church’s institutional problems.

Another approach is necessary. The solution lies, I believe, in reinvigorating the ‘why’ of church. Envisioning and acting on the mission of Christ, and seeking to participate in God’s activity in the world around us are steps in the right direction. But this means, too, that the church’s institutional structure must change in order to align with that purpose.

And that is precisely where conversations must focus, on ideas such as: repurposing church property, building bridges, cooperating and collaborating with other congregations, taking on some risk for the sake of local mission projects with other effective partners and community groups. I have explored such strategies in previous annual general meeting pastor’s reports.

At the beginning of the Advent season, Bishop Pryse was our guest in worship who preached and brought greetings on behalf of the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) of which we are a member congregation. At an ‘open mic with Bishop Mike’ session the evening before, he challenged the church to view collaboration with other congregations not as a threat but a gift. I hope to have Bishop Pryse make an annual ‘visit’ to our congregation.

Bishop Pryse was re-elected bishop for a six-year term at the Eastern Synod Assembly last June in Toronto. Council member Julia Wirth and I were Faith representatives who were both elected at that Synod Assembly to attend the National Convention of the ELCIC in Regina SK in July 2019 as Eastern Synod delegates.

Towards the end of the year, the council worked on moving forward with updating the congregational constitution and Call documents to align with recent Eastern Synod proposals. The chief benefit for congregations in adopting this updated version lies in making it much easier for congregations to make changes to their constitution by moving relevant items into the bylaws. Such adjustments are advisable since the local congregation will then be able to make changes with relative ease, thus making its constitution more of a living document reflecting more accurately the current truth of the congregation.

Thank you for your partnership in ministry. Specifically I want to thank council chair Jann Thulien for her prayer-filled support of the pastor’s office, and for each member of council and staff for their willingness to envision and act on new things.

Advent 2018 marked the beginning of the Gospel of Luke’s prominence in the Sunday readings for the coming year, according to the Revised Common Lectionary. Luke is also the author of the book of Acts. In Luke’s writings from both books, there is the emphasis of the community of faith taking care of the needs of the community, while at the same time reaching out and building bridges with others who are different from us and who present diverse needs.

May God, whose mission we serve in our day and age, give us all courage to act boldly, trusting always in the grace and mercy of God.

Pastor Martin Malina

Alone no more

Mary and Joseph mess up. Their only child, and they lose him. (read Luke 2:41-52) Aren’t parents supposed to know where their kids are, at all times?

Now, of course, this stuff happens all the time to the best of us—in large crowds, at amusement parks, sports stadiums, Disney World, the mall. Unintentionally we make mistakes. Each of us can likely relate to a time when we got lost and felt abandoned by our parents, and how that felt. Or, how as parents we lost track of our child. And how that felt. The fright. The embarrassment. The shame.

Maybe it’s a comfort to know that even Mary and Joseph parents of the Christ child didn’t get the parenting thing right, on occasion. Today, we would communicate that in social media as #parentingfail.

I’m reminded of the popular Christmas movie, Home Alone, when a family plans a European vacation for Christmas. The relatives all arrive for the big event. But in all the commotion the youngest son feels slighted. Expressing his frustration inappropriately, he is punished and sent to a room in the attic.

There, in a fit of anger, he wishes that his family would go away so he could be all alone. The next morning, in their rush to get ready and leave for the airport, the family overlooks the little boy in the attic. They get to the airport and board the plane, all the while believing he is with them. The boy gets his wish when the next morning he finds himself home alone.

The twelve-year-old boy Jesus experienced the feeling of abandonment by his parents. Perhaps this was a foretaste of the abandonment of the cross he would experience at the end of his life. It appears Jesus knew already from a young age what it felt like to be a human being. It appears he learned to accept the follies and misgivings of the human condition. For, he experienced it himself. At the end of the story, he felt the joy of being found and of not being alone anymore.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the temple was a sign of God’s eternal presence. And so we have a clue as to why this story from Luke is read on the First Sunday of Christmas. Because, without the temple, how else would this story fit? After all, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. And this story is about Jesus on the verge of adulthood, his ‘coming of age’ story from the bible.

Jesus was found in the temple, engaged with the learned in conversation about God. In his childhood experience of abandonment—in the midst of it—he was still in God’s presence. He was found in God’s presence.

Christmas is about the promise of God to be with us. It is about the grace and gift of God-with-Us, Immanuel. Immanuel is the name given to Jesus by the angel in the Christmas story. It is a name to give us hope.

God is with us, even in the darkness of grief. God is with us, even when we feel abandoned. God is with us, even when we are lost and forsaken. God is with us, even when we are confused and don’t know what to do. God is with us, in all our losses, pain and especially in our suffering. That is why this story, I believe, is included in the Christmas repertoire year after year: To remind us of this holy promise of hope at the darkest time of year: God is with us.

It feels like once we celebrate those first few days of Christmas, time seems to thrust forward in leaps and bounds. At one moment, we are cooing with the barn animals at the baby in the manger and singing hallelujahs with the angel chorus over the fields of Bethlehem.

And the next, we actually fast forward over a decade in the story of Jesus to this temple scene when he is almost a teenager. The Christmas message catapults us from the past, into the present and towards the future in a kaleidoscope of events that unite in the meaning of God-with-us.

A gift-giving tradition in our family is the exchange of books. I just finished reading a fiction which told its story by shifting forward and backward in time. In reading through the book from beginning to end, there were times when it felt a bit dis-jointed, where I asked myself especially early on: What does this detail or this person have anything to do with the story? Why is the author spending so much time and several pages describing this particular scene or detail? How does it all fit together?

This technique, of course, kept me hooked. I was committed to the journey. I had to trust that in the perplexing ‘set-up’ the author was providing, there would eventually be a satisfying ‘pay-off’. And I wanted to know, and feel, the resolution to the mystifying issues, sub-plot lines and character developments. I had to trust and hope that the longer I stayed with it, at some point, there would be some satisfaction to the bemusing chronology of the storytelling.

People will often say, there is a reason for everything. Even when bad things happen, they will say there was a divine purpose. I would sooner say, in everything that happens—good and bad—God is present, and there is reason to hope. Because we don’t know the mind of God.

As soon as we say ‘everything has a reason’ we presume our suffering is a consequence of our not knowing. But knowing ‘why’ is not our business. We cannot comprehend the fullness of the divine mystery and purpose. We can’t really pronounce on what God is up to in the evolution of reality and history. We can only make the next step. Our task is to become aware of God’s presence in all our circumstances.

In hope.

If we are not a people of hope, we are not human—just animals scavenging for survival and reacting to impulse. If we are not a people of hope, we are not the people of God who are called to see beyond the circumstances of the desert and darkness of this world with all its suffering.

In hope, time is really irrelevant. In hope, the past and future collapse into the present moment. That’s where we live, anyway. This time of year is not well-behaved, neat, and orderly. To be faithful in this time-tumbling season is to stick with it despite the disorderliness of our past, present and future, and not just give up.

We can appreciate the good in the past and can anticipate the good that is promised in the future. We can hope that no matter what lies before us or what happened behind us, there is good that still awaits. There is good that is here.

God is here. God is present. God is involved, now. That’s the meaning of Christmas—God is now with us, Immanuel. For now, and forevermore, God sheds tears and rejoices alongside us. God walks with us on this journey and will never abandon us in God’s love.

Hope is what keeps time. Hope is what connects the past and the future into the marvel of the moment. A moment in time infused with grace.

Where does hope reside in your life? In what activity? In which thoughts? What feelings are associated with hope, for you? How do your thoughts, your actions and your feelings reflect hope today?

May you be open to the blessing of God’s presence, in the New Year.

Reforming Remembrance

In the last couple weeks, we have worn our poppies and have been challenged to remember.

There is little to question about what actually happened in the First, Great War, the Korean War, The Second World War and all the military conflicts in the last century including Afghanistan. We have the numbers, the maps, the results, the casualties. We honour the soldiers and veterans who made sacrifices in service to their country. We recall the horrors of war and pledge to be agents for peace in the world.

Remembering is important to do. How we remember and what we remember is another question worth pondering.

In recent years whenever my twin brother and I have gotten together we are intentional to remember times especially with my Father, growing up, travelling, spending ordinary days doing ordinary things. As with any life, there are lots of stories to remember.

And what is almost always the case, is that David remembers one aspect of the same event that I don’t; and, I remember a completely different part of that event – which David doesn’t. For example, David remembers the imaginative story Dad told us when we were about ten years old about Mr. Black fighting Mr. White. While he remembers more the content of the story, I remember that when Dad told us that story we were sitting on the back porch after having gone for a bike ride together.

We spend these times reminiscing by ‘filling in’ each other’s gaps in memory. Same event. Just different things remembered. And different things forgotten or overlooked.

In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches have attempted a different tact from the way we have ‘celebrated’ Reformation anniversaries in the past. Listen to what the Lutheran World Federation scholars and Roman Catholic leadership wrote together recently about the task of how we remember the Reformation events of the sixteenth century:

“What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change. Remembrance makes the past present. While the past itself is unalterable, the presence of the past in the present is alterable. In view of 2017 [the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation] the point is not to tell a different history, but to tell that history differently.”[1]

That same history, you will know, was used for centuries to incite conflict and division between our churches. Reformation was traditionally a time to celebrate how good we are and how bad they are. Today, in a changed context reflecting globalization, ecumenism and a pile of new research and study about Martin Luther, his times and his theology — these have yielded fresh approaches that emphasize unity rather than division.

Perspectives have changed. And continue to change.

This year in Canada we are also celebrating our 150 years of history with more of a critical eye. We acknowledge publicly, perhaps in a new way, the fact that Canada was already occupied by people long before the first Europeans settled here. This understanding may be challenging for us settlers because for so long we have reaped the vast material benefits of settling and working here.

Part of my sabbatical journey took me to Lisbon, Portugal. On the far westernmost coast of continental Europe, Lisbon was a natural launching point for the various expeditions and voyages made by Europeans during the “Age of Discovery”.

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On Lisbon’s extensive waterfront at least a couple of impressive monuments stand in celebration of the achievements of European explorers and aviators. There is the looming Monument of Discovery which depicts the personalities of various explorers making their way across the ocean.

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And there is an airplane monument commemorating the historic first south Atlantic crossing in 1922 flown by Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral.

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In the decade following Coutinho’s and Cabral’s inaugural south Atlantic flight, another adventuring aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who is perhaps most well-known for writing the children’s book “The Little Prince”, reflected on what flying did to our understanding of the land upon which we live:

The airplane, he writes, “has revealed to us the true face of the earth. Through all the centuries, in truth, the roads have deceived us … They avoid barren lands, great rocks and sands, they are wedded to the needs of men and go from spring to spring …But our perspective has sharpened, and we have taken a cruel step forward. Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line. The moment we are airborne we leave behind those [winding] roads …  It is only then, from high on our rectilinear course, that we discover the essential bedrock, the stratum of stone and sand and salt…

“Thus do we now assess man on a cosmic scale, observing him through our cabin windows as if through scientific instruments. Thus we are reading our history anew.”[2]

As we retell our history, as we seek understanding of what and how it happened, do we take the winding road, or do we take to the skies?

Amos the reformer was a prophet in ancient Israel. He challenged especially the northern kingdom in the eighth century B.C.E. to accept a new way of worshipping God. No longer where they to worship at the old shrines established by earlier prophets Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha at Beer-sheba, Bethel and Gilgal. Now, they would have to learn to worship God in a central location, at the temple in Jerusalem.[3]

In order to persuade them, he railed against the rituals and heartless pomp often associated with worship in that day.[4] The Israelites’ understanding of their own history needed changing. Without denying or changing the history itself, Amos helped them grow into an appreciation of the centralized worship which was not inconsistent with the Hebrew faith, a faith that had always emphasized care for the poor, the widow, the destitute. As such, Amos was “an agent of reformation”[5].

Whether we speak of ancient Israel, or the Reformation, or the Age of Discovery, or World War Two, or present day Canada, our remembrance is being reformed.

This first week of November is Treaties Recognition Week in Ontario. Listen to what perspective is offered in the writing of our history. Again, this perspective is not untrue. It simply offers a fuller understanding of what happened when Europeans ‘discovered’ this land:

“This native land was the home of many peoples, who have lived here for centuries and millennia. There is extensive archaeological evidence to confirm this statement. North America was occupied long before European strangers from across the ocean ‘got lost’ on their way to India and ignorantly named the inhabitants ‘Indians’.

“The residents of this new land had a deep regard for the practice of hospitality. So they welcomed the strangers to come ashore and opened their lives to these ‘lost’ explorers. This invitation to step out onto the land conveyed a message that did not make sense to the newly-arrived who had their own primary interests; wealth and resources.

“These alien visitors were nominally Christian. They were supported by ‘Christian’ interests intermingled with commercial and imperial motives. The biblical foundations and the practice of hospitality had been lost or buried under the exercise of abusive power that appears to be the inevitable companion of empires seeking to expand their influence and control. Equally forgotten or ignored was the fundamental biblical concept of covenant whose goal is establishing and nurturing respectful relationships that honour the Creator.

“These European strangers had been told by their highest authorities that any people unlike themselves actually were nobodies. The Doctrine of Discovery … reminded the newly-arriving aliens that they were superior to the ‘nobodies’ greeting them in hospitality. The rest is history and now we are trying to ‘get it right’ so that we can discover what it means to live in peace and mutual respect. It is time to set aside suspicion and abuse so that we can again become hospitable to one another as well as to contemporary visitors.”[6]

This anniversary year we sing “O Canada” and this Remembrance Day we’ve worn our poppies. It is important that we remember. It is important that we commemorate our history, good and bad.

How we remember is important, too. What aspects of our remembrance we emphasize speak loudly about the kind of people we are and aspire to be.

Amos presented a pretty bleak picture of Israel’s plight in the eighth century B.C.E.  The tone of his message is harsh, doom-and-gloom. It seems the Israelites can do nothing to avoid the inevitable calamity that awaits. It’s easy to lose hope and despair in the present circumstances. It doesn’t look good, what with all that’s going on in the world today.

From the perspective of history, though, we know how the story ends for them. We know the people of God are headed to the trials of Babylonian exile a couple of centuries later. We also know that one day, they do return to Jerusalem to restore the temple worship and re-build their lives at home.

Antoine Saint-Exupéry tells the story of when he and his friends from northern Europe invited some north Africans from the Sahara to visit with them in France.[7] These Bedouin, up until this point in their lives, never left the desert; they only knew the scarcity of water that defined so much of their lives and perspective.

When they climbed in the foothills of the French Alps they came across a thunderous waterfall. The French explained to their astounded friends that this water was enhanced by the Spring run-off of melting snows high above them. After minutes of silence during which the Africans stood transfixed before the bounteous and gorged scene before them, the Europeans turned to continue on their mountain path.

But the Africans didn’t move.

“What are you waiting for?” Saint- Exupéry called back.

“The end. We are waiting for the water to stop running. A stream of water always runs out. We are just curious to see how long it takes.”

They would be waiting there a long time. The prophet Amos concludes his diatribe by doing what so many other prophets of Israel do: They call on the people to have faith in God’s action in the world, God’s righteousness and justice. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[8]

God’s justice never runs out. The waters of God’s grace, mercy and truth never cease flowing. Our perspectives, our experience, our opinions are limited and sometimes scarce, if we rely on these alone.

But God’s work continues to gush forth in and all around us. Let us trust and have faith in the never-ending flow of God’s love and presence in the world today. So we may grow into the fullness of God’s vision for us all.

 

[1]  “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017” (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt/Paderborn: Bonifatius, 2013), p.16

[2] Antoine Saint-Exupéry, “Wind, Sand and Stars” trans. by William Rees (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), p.33-34.

[3] Wil Gafney in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.266-270

[4] Amos 5:18-24

[5] Wil Gafney, ibid., p.268

[6] Reconciling Circle: reconcilingcircle@execulink.com, Daily Readings for Treaties Recognition Week: 5-11 November 2017, Day 1 “Have You Ever”

[7] I summarize and paraphrase his telling from “Wind, Sand and Stars”, ibid., p.54-55

[8] Amos 5:24

Today

In Andy Weir’s book and movie entitled, “The Martian”, the character played by actor Matt Damon – Mark Watney – is stranded on Mars. And he decides to survive using whatever scientific means possible and using whatever resources are at his disposal until a rescue mission is mounted. 

The book and movie differ in some ways — although the deviations in the movie aren’t as pronounced as in other script to screen adaptations. The most significant difference is, perhaps, the last scene. In the movie, the rescued and now teacher, Mark Watney, gives advice to a classroom full of students in astronaut school.

He counsels that in the face of almost certain death, the way forward is to focus all your energy on solving the next problem, and then the next, and then the next. After all, he survived almost two years alone on the red planet on account of his determination, and despite the odds to remain focused on the immediate task at hand. And not get lost in imagining future outcomes, or wallow in past mistakes.

His advice points to the importance of being present to the current moment of existence, paying attention to what is (not what might be or what was), and acting in confidence for all his efforts.

In the Gospel story, Jesus uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to announce his mission, his purpose (Luke 4:14-21). Jesus will bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners and good news to the oppressed. In summary, he declares his mission to bring compassion and healing to people. And significantly, he closes his public reading in the Nazarene synagogue in 28 C.E. by announcing that “today” this scripture has been fulfilled.

For all who wonder about who this Jesus is, this season after Epiphany ought to give us some clues. Epiphany means ‘revelation’, as Jesus is revealed to us. And, in this text his purpose is made clear. In fact, the writer Luke throughout his book de-emphasizes moral correctness, and rather underscores acts of compassion (1). The underlying question in Luke is not so much: “What does God demand?”; Rather, “Who needs attention and compassion?” This line of questioning can re-focus the purpose of any follower of Jesus.

If someone asked you today, “What is your purpose in life?”, what would you say? Could you describe your mission, specifically and in concrete terms? And, how does your life today reflect the values of your mission statement?

These questions cannot be directed solely at individuals, but the church as well. In the reading today from 1 Corinthians 12, our ministry and purpose finds purchase in the context of the collective. Saint Paul describes the church as a body with many members. The church is the Body of Christ, today. Do you know what your faith community’s mission is, to which you belong?

In coming to terms with his own ministry, Jesus had to make some decisions. He omits a phrase from the Isaiah scroll handed to him. While Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1-3 word for word, he excludes the second part of verse 2 — “… and the day of vengeance of our God.” In order to be true to his purpose, Jesus also needs to be clear about what he will not do. He needs to leave something out of his life altogether in order to remain on the path of healing and compassion. How can he reconcile divisions and heal the brokenhearted by bringing punishment and vengeance upon the people? Impossible.

In pursuing your mission, what do you need to omit? What do you need to stop doing? What are things you need to let go of, in order to make room for the new life which is calling you to grow in the Body?

And we can’t put it off or rationalize it away. There is a sense of urgency in the life of faith. Almost a dozen times in his Gospel, we find the word “today.” The writer Luke emphasizes the importance of the present time. Jesus says, “Today” the scriptures have been fulfilled (Luke 4:21). To Zacchaeus, Jesus announces that “today” salvation has come to his household (Luke 19:9). Hanging on the cross moments before he dies, Jesus turns to the criminal hanging beside him and says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Today, not yesterday. Not when I was young. Not in the heyday of church planting and growth. Not in some glorious vision of the past to which we hang on, pretending it was perfect, wishing to turn the clock back.

Today, not tomorrow. Not at some future date when things will be better. When we will have enough money. When I will have more time. When the kids are old enough. When I retire. When I die. When the church will be full again. When I/we find healing or deliverance from whatever hinders me/us from pursing my/our mission.

God gives us no other day than today to do what we must, what we need to do.

What in my life is it too soon for, too late for, just the right time for? (2)

The Holy Spirit gives us something to do for God. And God doesn’t leave us bereft of resources. The solution may very well be under our eyes, very near to us. Everyone seems to want to know these days: “How are we doing as a church?” and “How are you doing as an individual?” Perhaps the questions need to change. The real questions may be: “As a church, what are we doing for God?” and “What are you doing for God, today?”
This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! – Psalm 118:24


(1) Carol Lakey Hess in Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year C Vol 1, WJK Press Kentucky, 2009, p.286

(2) Dawna Markova, “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life” in Joyce Rupp, “Open Door: Journey to the True Self”, Kindle version, 2008, p.18 of 36 in Week 1

Planting chestnut seeds

“Once upon a time a king was strolling through the forest and he saw an old man, a poor man, bent over a furrow. He walked up to him and saw that he was planting seeds for chestnut trees. He asked the old man why he was doing it and the old man replied, ‘I love the taste of chestnuts.’

“The king responded, ‘Old man, stop punishing your back bent over a hole in the ground. Do you really not know that by the time even one of these trees has grown tall enough to bear nuts, you may not be around to gather them?’

“And the old man answered, “Your Majesty, if my ancestors had thought the way you do, I would never have tasted chestnuts.'” (Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy, Orion Books, Great Britain, 2007, p.164-165)

Questions for reflection:

1. Who are your ancestors — in work and family, community and nation, church and neighborhood — who planted the seeds of privilege and success you can enjoy today? Name them. Thank them.

2. a) What have your predecessors done to make life a blessing for you today? Financially? Socially? Vocationally? Be specific.

    b) How did they themselves benefit from their sacrifice of resources, time and energy?

3. To what extent do you live your life today for the benefit of future generations, and not primarily your own? What areas of your life reflect this future-orientation of your work, time, and leisure activities?

4. Why do you think it may be a challenge to consider how you live now as extending beyond the scope of your own personal interests? What are the obstacles to living life ‘for the sake of others’?

5. What is one thing you can do today that represents:

a) a thanksgiving for the sacrifice of previous generations? and/or

b) a prayer, a gift to others or a specific action whose purpose is primarily for the benefit of future generations and not your own?

Back to the Future: Borderland spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of marking a birthday

I see not a step before me as I tread on another year.

But I’ve left the past in God’s keeping —

the future in His mercy shall clear;

and what looks dark in the distance may brighten as I draw near.

This poem by American writer of religious poetry, Mary Gardiner Brainard, occupies my reflection these days as I celebrate important birthdays both with families and parishioners. What I appreciate in these words is the acknowledgment of uncertainty about a ‘dark’ future. Even people of faith (can you believe it!) feel the anxiety of impending suffering and death. Especially as we age, in the latter years.

And yet, there is the hope of light beyond the dark. In southern Ontario we have recently experienced severe thunderstorms — even as I write these words! You know when a storm comes by looking at the sky and noticing the dark grey menace approach. It’s hard to believe in that moment of recognition that the sun is still shining somewhere above all that.

But what a relief and joy it is, after the storm passes, to glimpse the rays of light bursting through!

Marking a birthday is not just about a mindless party and excuse to indulge in our addictive behavior. But rather, birthdays are an opportunity to affirm faith in the future (despite the storms and uncertainties of life) and faith in the God who makes that glorious future possible.

And, to celebrate all these things with others.