Christmas Day – our gift is good enough

This Christmas message begins two months ago, on Halloween night. Yes, Halloween, when the goblins, skeletons, super-heroes and pirates were out in full force trick-o’-treating. 

It was a dark night. And pouring rain. But the children were determined to fill their sacks with as much candy as possible. 

Even the parents were in on it. In Arnprior, this made the local news: One Dad had lifted the large, tented car port from its moorings. Then he found three more willing parents to help him carry it like a giant umbrella down the street, protecting the dozens of huddled, costumed children from the relentless rain. 

When there is a will there is a way. Nothing was going to stop these folks on their mission to get the children as many treats as humanly possible. Talk about commitment. Dedication. Sacrifice. Self-reliance. For a cause.

Then, I heard of one grandparent who decided to give out candy at their door the same Halloween night, but here in Ottawa. He was going to get in on the spirit of it all and dress up himself. But, this time, he was going to shock his costumed visitors.

So, imagine with me the scene: Let’s say on Halloween you are going house to house with your pillow bag already brimming full of candy, pop and chips. And as you walk up the lane to the front door of thishouse, you start noticing something a bit off: 

Bright Christmas lights are hung around the front door frame and porch, blinking in blues, reds, greens and yellows. Ok. And when the front door opens, who is standing there, but Santa Claus! And he is ringing a hand bell and calling in a booming voice: “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

The grandparent who did this (sometimes adults will dress up as Santa Claus, you know!) reported to me afterwards about one little princess who stood at the door, dripping wet from the rain, mouth gaping open, eyes popping out. And she stood there for what seemed as an eternity. You could see the wheels in her head turning, wondering what on earth to do.

Finally, she made up her mind. The little girl placed her snack-and-candy-laden sack on ground and with two hands reached deep into the pillow case, pulled out fists full of treats and handed it all over to Santa. “Merry Christmas, Santa,” she said. I think it was Santa who was momentarily caught off guard, wondering what to do.

At Christmas, there’s a lot of pressure to perform with our giving. Today, it’s almost unheard of to limit a gift to $5. Today, if you’re not spending hundreds of dollars, will it impress? Yet, many will give in impressive ways – their time, energy, passion, money, and a gift for everyone on the list. Yes, we can say that it’s indeed better to give than to receive.[1]Yes, we can perhaps even point to times when it felt good to do so. 

But what if we feel there’s no more gas in the tank? What if we feel like we have no more to give. That we can’t keep up. We may decide not to give out any gifts because of this pressure we feel to impress. The emotional and digestive roller coaster, that is often what we experience over the holidays, may leave us spent, exhausted and hating people, hating ourselves. What more, on earth, can I give to anyone, let alone God?

Long ago, followers of Christ began to commemorate the coming of Jesus at the darkest time of the year. It was probably no accident that God came into the world when everything seemed so dark, so hopeless and helpless.

In the Gospel today from John, we read: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”[2]These words of hope are central to the first chapter in John’s Gospel. It is then no accident that we today celebrate Christmas just days after the winter solstice, December 21, which in the northern hemisphere is literally the darkest time of the year. 

In John’s telling there are no angel choruses. In John’s telling there are no shepherds tending flock. In John’s telling there are no wise men travelling from afar. In John’s telling there isn’t even a baby lying in a manger with Joseph and Mary looking on. Those are the stories Matthew and Luke tell. 

In John, the message is about the meaningof God becoming human, the word made flesh. At Christmas, we’re not just talking about getting ready, waiting and getting prepared for the little baby Jesus to be born. That already happened two thousand years ago! What Christians have been doing every year since is welcoming the Christ that is forever being born in the human soul and into history of every time and place.[3]

Ancient Christians knew very well that this Jesus, his teaching, his message, his life, his spirit, his example, leads us to the way of life itself. The way of life where we take care for one another and the world, loving God and each other as children of God.

In John’s Gospel the way of life in Christ is gift. Pure gift. God is with us – Emanuel. God now lives in us, and is born in us. There’s nothing we can or can’t do that changes God’s intention to come to us in love, over and over again.

When we pray at Jesus’ coming into this world, we are admitting a truth that flies in the face of our heroic attempts at Christmas – attempts to get something more out of it for ourselves or for others, to impress others, to meet and exceed expectations, to perform well. Even when we give for the wrong reasons.

Maybe we do need, again, simply to kneel by the manger side where God is born in a baby – vulnerable, weak and helpless. Maybe we do need, again to kneel by the manger and remember that we did not choose to come into the world on our own. We did not choose our families of origin, our ethnicity, or our sexuality. While we were born with intelligence and with the capacity for learning, we did not arrive fully assembled nor did we come with instructions.

We are children of God, truly. In our honesty. In our vulnerability. In our instinct to turn to God. And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now. The only instinct we had in the beginning – like baby Jesus did – once our lungs were clear after birth, the only instinct we had was to cry out for help as loudly as we could.[4]And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now.

God receives us, as we are. At the manger side, there are no expectations, no need to put on a good impression or please anyone. We come as we are. The greatest gift we can bring to God and to life is our presence, our heart, our intention and attention.

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him – give my heart.[5]And that prayer is good enough for God. For God is with us now.

Merry Christmas!


[1]Acts 20:35

[2]John 1:5,9

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Celebrating an Eternal Advent” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation(www.cac.org, Tuesday, December 24, 2019).

[4]Br. Jim Woodrum, “Help – Brother, Give Us A Word” (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, December 4, 2019)

[5]“In the Bleak Midwinter” v.3 (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006), Hymn 294

Super-hero busted

With Marvel and DC the biggest box office attractions in recent years, the popular culture exposes our desires and fantasies. These super-heroes are really just projections of our own wants and longings. We put ourselves in these roles, vicariously living out the super-hero life.

What from the super-hero culture inform and influence our real lives, you ask? What does it mean to be a hero, living day-to-day?

Last week, we concluded our Lent book study about our medical culture. When the stakes are high and decisions have to be made about treatment of serious illness, what do we want? How do we respond? In the book aptly entitled, “Being Mortal”, author Atul Gawande writes:

“The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”[1]

Being heroic means doing more, not less. More power. More strength. Super-human capacity. Fighting evil means counter punch for punch—just harder, faster. Solving problems means finding more resources, generating more capacity to meet the demands. Doing things better. This is the culture of heroism in our day. We want to be heroes.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is our biblical hero. We like him. We get him. He always wanted to be Jesus’ hero, protecting him from the suffering of which he spoke, jumping into the water not once but twice to be the first of the disciples to get to Jesus.[2]Jesus, at one point, even had to say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” when Peter said he would not allow the suffering and death of Jesus.[3]

Even in the Passion narrative Peter is still delusional, believing he will follow Jesus, heroically, to the end. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”[4]Peter is the consummate hero.

The part from the Passion narrative where he then ‘denies the Lord three times when the rooster crows’ is a turning point for him.[5]And for us.

In the Passion of our Lord, the Cross is the central image and destination. And against the Cross our truth is exposed, and we are caught in the headlights. Our true motivations are squared against the values of the kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his last days and trial.

Normally, I have understood Peter’s denial of Jesus merely as self-preservation. He doesn’t want to expose his vulnerability in that situation. He doesn’t want to be considered a threat, and be arrested himself. He wants to conserve and protect himself. And so he is caught off-guard, and quickly denies his involvement with Jesus.

But what if we saw Peter’s words of denial more as a confession rather than self-seeking, self-preservation? Peter confesses, at the end of the road, that he does not ‘know’ the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Peter confesses that he is not a true disciple of Jesus.

Even at this end, nevertheless, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself. “Today, you will deny me”. Hours later, Peter stares into the flames of the firepit in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and warms his hands by the fire. Finally, Peter comes to himself in all honesty and vulnerability. “No, I don’t know him. No, I don’t know this Jesus. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He is finally telling the truth, in his ‘denial’. Facing this truth is hard, and that is why he goes out and weeps bitterly at the end. Peter’s ideal image of himself—a heroic disciple of the Lord, a super-hero Jesus freak—has come crashing down. He is not the hero he thought he was. He does not have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus to the cross.

When, in the solitude of our confession, we confront ourselves in all honesty—we find ourselves at ground zero, that turning point, that event-horizon towards transformation and healing. Because further down that path of hero worship we cannot go. And, we wonder, seriously question whether we have what it takes to let go, and follow Jesus to the cross of our lives.

It is unknown territory, on the bottom. We do not know it well, if at all. We shy away from it, understandably. We are uncomfortable, here. “In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.”[6]

Peter in the high priest’s courtyard finds his bottom in honest confession, not unlike the Prodigal Son wallowing in the mud of the pig pen when he has his moment of reckoning.

It takes courage to come close to Jesus near the Cross. It takes courage to let go of our heroism and our compulsion to do more, to do better. It takes courage to let go being incessantly active and working harder as a way of avoiding ‘plumbing the depths of our soul’.

Are you willing to give up being a hero for Jesus? Are you still a disciple when Jesus leads you this close to the cross?[7]

Perhaps another story from the Passion narratives of the Gospels usually assigned for Holy Week can be helpful. It’s the Gospel text from last week, actually, when Mary lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet.

How does Mary respond to the reality of human limitation and vulnerability? How does she respond to the ‘ground zero’ reality surrounding her and Jesus? Remember, Mary knows what is going on with Jesus. Anointing was reserved for coronations and burials. Jesus qualifies for both. And his end was nigh. How does she deal with that?

In Luke’s version of the anointing story, Jesus tells Mary: “Your sins are forgiven.”[8]Why were her sins forgiven after anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume?

Not only because of her great sorrow, nor because she remembered all her sins, nor even because of any contrition she might have felt for her human weakness. Why then?

Because she loved, and loved much.[9]So, instead of sorrowing over her sinfulness, she gave abundantly and without reservation of her affection and love for Jesus.

Confronting our truth, as scary as that is, is not license to wallow in passive, self-preoccupation. Rather, this degree of self-honesty and confession leads to extravagant acts of mercy and love towards another. At ground zero, we realize that our lives are not ours, but God’s. At ground zero, we realize that we live for something and someone much greater than our individual problems and shortcomings.

The description of what God does, relating to the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9 is important:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word …

The Lord God has opened my ear …

The Lord God helps me …

The Lord God helps me.[10]

When truth-telling can lead to acts of profound love for the sake of ‘the weary’, the Lord God helps us.

When our actions, tarnished even by our humanity, focus on love for the vulnerable and weak, the Lord God helps us.

When our limitations are offered to God in acts of love for others, the Lord God helps us.

And we are still the Lord’s disciples. Even Peter, beyond his moment not of denial, but acceptance. Jesus pronounced him ‘the rock’ upon which God builds the church.

And, we know what lies beyond this momentary tribulation. We have Jesus to thank for that. This is the promise of our journeys, rough though they may be.

And, through it all, we are still the Lord’s disciples.

 

[1]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End(Toronto: Penguin, 2017), p.220

[2]Matthew 14:28-31; John 21:7-19

[3]Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33

[4]Luke 22:33

[5]Luke 22:24-34,54-62; John 18:15-27

[6]Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” 8 April 2019

 

[7]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life  (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009),  p.79.

[8]Luke 7:44-48

[9]The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Ira Progoff (Delta Books: 1957), 100-102.

[10]Isaiah 50:4-9 NRSV, reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Passion Sunday.

Invasion of abundant grace

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a playoff team. They have been for a while now. In fact, they’ve occupied the third seed in the Atlantic Division for months. And, lately, regardless of how many games they’d lose or win, it wouldn’t change their place in the standings for the playoffs, which begin this coming week.

The Leafs’ success has a lot to do with the stellar play of their number one goaltender, Frederik Andersen. At least how he played early in the season when he was sporting an impressive .923 goals against average (that’s very good). He was, some argue, the main reason the Leafs were able to climb in the standings and secure their playoff destiny. That is, until recently.

As some of you may know, he’s been kind of faltering a bit in the last month — letting in just a little too many goals, and losing just a bit too many games. As of last week, the Leafs had lost five of their last seven games—two of them here in Ottawa against the Sens. His lackluster performance has been enough to cause some to wonder whether Freddy will be able to hold up during the playoffs, especially against their arch rivals in the first round: the Boston Bruins.

An article in the Toronto Star recently caught my eye about this funk Andersen is in, and what he’s doing about it.[1]

Anderson speaks of dealing with all the downward-spiraling statistics — an embarrasing .890 goals against average (that’s bad) — all the anxiety-producing pressures to perform and succeed and chalk up more wins than losses — all the negative, worrisome scenarios that might play out for his whole team if he doesn’t stop more shots on net. Dashed playoff hopes. Disappointed fans. Negative publicity in the media. Downward career trajectories. Worry. Worry. Worry.

Indeed having success doesn’t mean being in a good head space. True, when the stakes are high, when it’s all on the line, when the vice grips of life’s important events tighten—it’s very difficult, maybe feels like it’s impossible, to keep calm, walk lightly, and breathe deeply through it all.

That’s the measure, that’s the key. Not when there’s nothing on the line. When you have little or no investment in the outcome. When it doesn’t matter and you don’t really care.

Rather, when what you are passionate about, what you care about, what you believe in, your most sacred values—when those things are on the line, when the stakes are high, how do you respond?

In the Lent book study, “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande[2], we have been exploring many questions about the last chapter of one’s life. We’ve been talking about how to navigate the medical culture and what we want when time is short. You could say, the end of life conversations and thoughts are the ultimate ‘high stakes’ decisions:

How do you want the last ten years of your life to look like? What do you want for yourself? What trade-offs are you willing to make in order to achieve your final wishes? Whom do you need to include in conveying those decisions? Are those closest to you aware of your thoughts? Why or why not?

Most of us avoid having these conversations. We dread not only those situations but those conversations. We don’t want to think too far ahead. We don’t want to think about next year. ‘It’s too depressing’ we say. ‘I just want to think about next week, or just tomorrow, or just today.’

As Atul Gawande writes in his book, “It’s the route people the world over take, and that is understandable. But,” he continues, “it tends to backfire. Eventually, the crisis [you] dreaded arrives.”[3]And then what?

When the stakes are high, what does Mary do? Oh, and if you think the stakes aren’t high, let’s take another look: Why does Mary spill on Jesus’ feet a year’s worth of wages in perfume made from pure nard?[4]There are two uses in ancient Israel for pouring expensive oil on someone: First, in a coronation of a king; and, second, for the burial of that person.[5]

This was a costly oil with a sweet smell, imported from northern India. Scholars estimate that the “pound” referred to was nearly 12 ounces, or 324 grams. Many typical flasks of anointing oil would contain only a single ounce. So, Mary has a lot of this stuff, and pours it all out on Jesus’ feet!

“Money going down the drain!” eh?

Yet, Mary was anoints Jesus, the true King, and Jesus who will soon die. This extravagant act of love and adoration conveys Jesus’ purpose, publicly for all to see and read for all time to come. While everyone else around Jesus does not want to talk about it even though they might feel it, Mary does everything but avoid, deny and shove under the carpet what is obvious. What needed to be done.

It’s not a measly drop, offered in secret. It’s a whole flask, and the aroma fills the entire house!

Jesus and to an extent Mary know what is going to soon happen. The writing is on the wall, certainly since Jesus recently raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. From that point on, the religious leaders began plotting Jesus’ death.[6]The way to the cross is becoming clearer and clearer. There is no turning back. There is no avoiding this outcome if Jesus chooses to continue in his mission and divine purpose.

It is worth it, even though the stakes are high.

How do we find the courage to rise above our tendency to avoid and deny reality when the stakes are high? Can it have something to do with our purpose and mission? When you know what it is you are all about in life? Maybe, then, good things can happen.

In his book, Gawande mentions an experiment which compared two nursing homes. After the study, in one the number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half, psychotropic drugs for agitation decreased, total drug costs fells to just 38% of the comparison facility; and deaths fell by 15 %.[7]

What made the difference? In the test facility, residents began to “wake up and come to life” when animals and birds were brought into their environment. Not just one or two creatures. But a whole bunch of them. They experienced a “glorious chaos” at the beginning of the experiment.

Because no one knew what they were doing, everyone—staff and residents included—had to drop their guard and pitch in, to help. Residents forgot themselves and were immersed in an environment that gave them purpose and meaning. In the process they started having a little bit of fun. There was lots of laughter and frivolity reported in response to the invasion of all the animals and birds.[8]

This is just one small example of how connecting to a meaning and purpose in life, however trivial, and at whatever stage of life—can do miracles.

For goalie Frederik Andersen, it means no longer obsessing about the data and numbers, good and bad. He has to trust his teammates and play as part of a team rather than an individual obsessed with personal stats. He has to free himself from micro-managing his technique because he realizes his primary challenge is not his ability or capacity to do great things in the net, but the mental, emotional and yes, spiritual, part of his game.

In short, he simply needs to find joy in playing again. That’s spiritual!

As the playoffs begin, Fredrik Andersen is on a journey to reconnect with the purpose of what he was about on the ice. He is looking to discover ‘fun’ in his game, and enjoy every minute he has the privilege of playing it at that level.

We, too, are on a journey in Lent. Mary’s action in the Gospel reminds us that on this journey, there are times God calls us simply to be extravagant in our giving born of devotion and thanksgiving to God. Mary’s action reminds us that sometimes God calls us to breathe deeply and savor life’s good things.

As we ourselves work on the important question of the church’s mission and ministry, and how that again can take expression in the here and now, let’s remember in the midst of all that, to take the time, to give ourselves the permission, to lavish upon God our love, our attention, to rest in God’s presence.

And, in that holy act of devotion and love, be renewed for life and joy.

 

[1]
https://www.thestar.com/sports/leafs/opinion/2019/03/28/the-joy-of-hockey-could-save-andersen-and-the-leafs-season.html

[2]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and what matters in the End (Anchor Canada: Penguin Books, 2014/2017).

[3]Ibid., p.57

[4]John 12:1-8, Gospel text for the Fifth Sunday in Lent according to the Revised Common Lectionary, RCL, Year C

[5]Lindsey Trozzo comments on the Gospel reading (John 12:1-8) at http://www.workingpreacher.org

[6]John 11:45-53

[7]Gawande, ibid., p.123.

[8]Ibid., p.120-121.

Value-added, Christians in the world

Love is not a gooey, “Come, kiss my boo-boo because I hurt myself.”

Love is not a warm-fuzzy blanket to wrap yourself when you’re feeling blue.

Love is not Valentine’s Day chocolates wrapped up in a big red bow.

That is, not love according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Love can be many things. In our world, love has masqueraded in many forms. Do we even have the energy to reflect, talk and most importantly act in the love-sense of the Gospel?

The text from 1stJohn begins with an address to the “beloved”.[1]This is a better English translation than others that start with “Dear friends.” The word in the original Greek is agape. As the first readers and listeners to this word were, so we are addressed, the “beloved.”

This word appears several times in this text. Can you count them all?

And none of them mean what the world, and our compulsive, fearful selves might first imagine.

Agapeis a self-giving love. It is a love that reaches out for the good of the other, despite what the giver wants to do. “Not my will but thy will be done,” Jesus prays to his Father in heaven moments before he is arrested.[2]

I continue to be perplexed by Mother Theresa’s confession on her way to India as a young girl. From the start, when God’s call to go there was beginning to grow within her, I wonder if she really wanted to go.[3]If it were up to what she wanted alone, I don’t believe she would have sacrificed her whole life to the cause of the poor. And yet, we know of her incredible contribution to help the vulnerable and homeless on the streets of Calcutta over the decades that she lived there, served there, loved there.

And what a paradox it was. She discovered, in the giving, that she was being most fulfilled. It wasn’t a sacrifice in the sense of self-denial, self-hatred even, or repression. She was one of the most human of souls on this earth, say those who met her. She discovered that her greatest needs were met, in her self-giving.

In the Star Wars spin off TV series, “The Clone Wars”, a story is told of how Jedi younglings are trained in the Force in a ritual called “The Gathering”. In order to become full Jedi, they must build their own light sabers. Their light sabers are unique to the individual. Each one is built around a crystal which they have to retrieve on an inhospitable, cold planet.

A group of younglings is dispatched into an ice cave to harvest their crystal. In order to succeed, they must meet and overcome their deepest individual fear and greatest weakness: Fear of heights. Fear of monsters. Impatience. Being left behind. Their crystal becomes available to them once they endure this personal challenge, each to their own.

What is more, the clock is ticking. They must find their crystal and exit the cave in a few short hours before the entrance to it freezes over. Otherwise, they would have to wait a couple of weeks trapped inside without help until the next rotation of the sun would allow the ice entrance to melt open again.

It begins as an individual challenge. But it can only succeed as a group effort. Before sending the younglings into the cave, Jedi master Yoda gives them their final instructions: “Trust yourself and trust each other you must.”

For some, this is the biggest problem. Most of the younglings run into the cave and work together in smaller groups, at least in pairs. One helps the other, and vice versa.

But for Pedro, the young upstart, know-it-all youngling boy, he rushes in at breakneck speed and abandons the group immediately. He forges ahead giving the others the impression, again, that he doesn’t need anyone’s help.

Before you know it, he finds his crystal. Or so he thinks. He is the first one back outside the cave. But when Yoda inspects the crystal, it melts in his hand. It wasn’t a crystal he found on the tip of the cave’s stalactite, just some frozen water.

Pedro needs to go back in and do it all over again. But now, time is against him.
While he runs back through the main entrance of the cave, others are returning from their search. He is worried and anxious now that he won’t have enough time.

Feverishly sprinting down tunnels and turning corners Pedro doesn’t know what to do. Until he comes across one of his class mates, Ketuni, trapped behind a glass-like ice wall.

Ketuni had been rushing herself to get to the entrance after finding her crystal. She had followed what she thought was a short-cut from one of the larger caverns. Just as she was coming up the narrow passage leading to the main tunnel near the exit, she realized she was trapped. There was no way she had enough physical strength herself to break the translucent, ice wall. Neither did she have enough time to find another way around.

Ketuni is just about to give up, getting used to the idea of spending days alone in the cave when she notices Pedro rush by. Ketuni calls, “Help! Get me out! Help!”. Pedro faces her through the glass wall. “But I haven’t yet found my crystal. I can’t help you. I have to get going.” And so, preoccupied with his own agenda and needs, he darts off.

But seconds later, perhaps with a change of heart remembering Yoda’s initial instructions to work together, Pedro comes back to the trapped Ketuni. Still without a crystal himself, Pedro takes a sharp rock and breaks a hole through the glass wall big enough to let her out. “Thank you! I’ll help you find yours, now quick!” Ketuni says.

“No, No, you go. There isn’t enough time. Please, get yourself out!” Pedro cries. Reluctantly, yet realizing the truth of what he says, Ketuni runs to the exit. At that moment Pedro notices a crystal glimmering in the broken ice from the hole he made to help Ketuni escape. In his willing sacrifice for her sake, he finds what he is looking for himself. By the end of the story, of course, Pedro makes it out just in the nick of time.

One of the lessons learned from the story is the mutual blessing that comes from paying attention to the needs of the other as the way of discovering your own gift. Our little friend needed to learn the value of trust in working together.

Love, no matter how you define it, is relational. A healthy encounter is usually mutual. A basic definition of mutuality is: “What I want from you, I will first give to you.” If I want respect, I first need to give it. If I want your trust, I need to trust you. If I want you to listen to me, I first need to listen to you.

Mutuality is thus a rendition of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.[4]That is, love the other because that is what you seek from them. A primary and fundamental question in any loving relationship is: “How can I best love you?” This brings an interesting implication of living out our faith, in the world: Our deeper needs will be met when we meet the needs of others.

Giving and receiving. Like a vine that is connected to the source. Any part of that vine (the stem, the leaf, the sprig, the sprout) is at any given time both the receiver of nutrients and the giver. It is a conduit. There is constant motion. Stasis does not compute in this picture, this dynamic. Any part of that vine must know what it is like to be both receiver and giver, giver and receiver.

If you can’t trust another to give you help when you need it,

If you can’t receive the love of another, no strings attached,

Then, how can you give it?

Both receiving and giving. Mutuality is thus a hallmark of the agapelove strewn throughout the stories in the Bible.

And flowing in the life of the church today.

We are the beloved. And we are a conduit of that love to the world. Christians are called the world over to ‘add value’ to society. And that value and worth resides in each human being. William Sloan Coffin, in his reflection of love some decades ago, wrote, “God’s love does not seek out value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved. Because we are loved, we have value.”[5]

God does not love us after we prove somehow that we deserve it. God does not love us after we already prove our worth or value. God’s love in the world creates value in each of us and in those we meet whenever we share God’s love.

Whenever we receive love and give love, love is truly the energy that keeps the world going ‘round.

 

[1]1 John 4:7-21, NRSV

[2]Luke 22:42

[3]Greg Pennoyer, ed., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Chalice Press, 2015), p.114-115.

[4]Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31

[5]William Sloan Coffin, “The Courage of Love,” (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p.11

Blueberries where the forest was

A congregational treasurer once asked God how long a million years was to Him. God replied, “A million years to me is just like a single second in your time.”  

Then the treasurer asked God what a million dollars was to Him. God replied, “A million dollars to me is just like a single penny to you.” Congregational finances being what they were, the treasurer got her courage up and asked: “God, could I have one of your pennies?”  

God smiled and replied, “Certainly, just a second.”

I think it’s more often the case in our spiritual journeys that we do not simply get what we ask for, or want. The faith life just doesn’t work like that. Even though in popular religion we often joke about it.

When people banter with me about having a special connection to God when we want better weather, I like to remind them that I’m in sales, not management. Indeed, in the popular mindset we live with this idea that somehow we ought to manage what really is the purview, the domain, of God.

And in tough times we struggle with it. Why doesn’t God do what WE think is the solution to our problem: Cure our illness, give us money to make ends meet, solve our problems, etc.? Of course we hear stories that are exceptions to this. But even then, the answers to the prayer request don’t come in precisely the way we expected they would.

It reminds me of a Valentine’s day card that I’ve seen. On the outside of the card is the catchy phrase “You’re the answer to all of my prayers.” On the inside of the card are the words “You’re not what I prayed for, but you’re the answer to all of my prayers. You’re what I got!” 

It is true: everything we have in life is ‘what we got’ whether we like it, want it, or not. We run into spiritual and emotional trouble whenever we feel like we must control the outcome of all that we do and are. How much do we miss what’s there because we are expecting to see what’s not there? What we don’t have? What we’ve lost? What isn’t any longer?

At the ‘generous giving’ practicum I attended this past week in Orillia with other clergy from the Eastern Synod, several speakers spoke to us about the nature of giving. The general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson, told of the time when he and his wife hiked a challenging trail in Lake Superior National Park last summer.

Coming over a rise they descended into a valley devastated by a forest fire a couple years back. The contrast from the lush pine and spruce forest they had just left was stark. Now, they walked gingerly among the burnt out stumps in a moonscape land. The birdsong had disappeared into an eerie silence. The rustle of underbrush caused by scampering chipmunks yielded to wind gusts sweeping across the vast, exposed earth.

Where were the tall trees? Would they ever return? How long would it take? Michael and his wife began to despair as they hurried to leave the depressing scene and return into the cover of mature forest once again.

Then by their feet a blueberry caught their eye. As they lifted their vision, they saw not just one blueberry but a bush, and not just one blueberry bush but actually the whole place was teeming with blueberry bushes surrounding the base of the tree stumps and fallen timber.

They stopped to consider the gift of abundance that lay at their feet in the blueberries: the sweet taste, the healthy nutrition, the food for many creatures of land and air. And then the possibilities of scrumptious blueberry pies and jams. All of a sudden their mood shifted, and they began to see and talk not about what was missing anymore. But the new thing that was appearing out of the ruins of fire and loss.

Indeed, especially on Thanksgiving weekend, it can be hard to feel thankful, especially when we focus either in the direction of deficit and scarcity, or in the delusion that we are the reason of all that we have. When we lean either way we may have trouble understanding what it means to live by Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice always, again I will say rejoice!” (4:4). 

How can we rejoice always, when we focus on scarcity on the one hand, or pretend it’s all up to us on the other? Either way, we remain depressed or stressed to the hilt and cannot, in the words of the Deuteronomist, “celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (26:11).

The Lord instructs the people, when they enter the Promised Land, to bring their basket of offerings to the priest at the altar. The giving doesn’t stop there, however. They need to be reminded again and again that it was God who listened to their prayer and brought them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). In the Gospel for Thanksgiving Day, we read Jesus’ words reminding his listeners again, that it is his “Father in heaven” who is the source of the bread we need (John 6:33).

Perhaps the secret to thanksgiving is in seeing what is actually there, what God has actually given, and not fixate on what is “missing” all the time? Perhaps Thanksgiving is not only about giving, but also about receiving. What if the secret to thanksgiving is noticing the blueberries where a forest should of /could of/ would of been, if not for the fire?

It is our nature to give and to receive with joy. As Christians we have a choice. It is a matter of belief, and intention. We can submit to our ego cravings to keep ‘what we got’ for ourselves, pretending we are the source of all the good in our lives. Or, we can give ‘what we got’ for the benefit of the world which God so loved (John 3:16). And rejoice!

Thanksgiving is not a feeling. It is an action. It is intention, and practice, and discipline. Why do people give, today? There are some cultural changes we need to recognize. If you are of a certain age, born before the latter part of the last century, you likely give because of duty, responsibility and commitment. That’s not the case in recent decades, if you haven’t already noticed, among younger people. Only 29% of Canadian donors in 2013 reported donating to fulfill religious obligations. (1)

The reality, today, is that younger generations will give of their time, talent and treasures when they feel compassion in the community and hope towards their giving. They need to be inspired, not guilted. In other words, people today give when they believe in the mission of whatever group or activity — including the church’s work and programs — if they are inspired and compelled by a belief that their engagement with the church will make a positive difference in the world.

Statistics Canada reports that the vast majority of Canadian donors today (91%) said that the reason they donate is that they feel compassion towards people in need (2013 General Social Survey released in Dec 2015); other reasons for donating often cited include the idea of a helping cause in which they personally believe (88%) and wanting to make a contribution to their community (82%).

There is much for us to be thankful. Giving levels in Canada between 1984 and 2010 have steadily grown, contrary to what you might think; charitable giving peaked in 2010 (the last year this was tracked) with a gross amount of $15 billion. In other words, over the last couple decades people are giving more, not less. And what is good news for us in the church, is that 60% of this $15 billion was faith-based.

This community of faith has given generously to the refugee sponsorship, to Lutherlyn Camp and Conference Centre, to our youth initiatives. This community of faith has given of its time, talents and treasures for the last quarter century to the Carlington Community Chaplaincy. This community of faith has always been generous, giving at least 10 percent to the work of the wider church in benevolence offerings. And, I’ve just scratched the surface.

You people are very generous in your giving. And this culture of generosity, of compassion and commitment, is the heart of what we are all about as Christians, as followers of Jesus who gave his all, for us.

And so, on this Thanksgiving Sunday in Canada, on behalf of all the people in Ottawa, in Canada and in the world who have benefited in small and big ways over the years from your generous giving — I want to say a heartfelt “Thank you!”

Let’s pray together “The Prayer of Thanksgiving” written by Walter Rauschhenbusch:

For the wide sky and the blessed sun,

For the salt sea and the running water,

For the everlasting hills

And never-resting winds,

For trees and the common grass underfoot.

We thank you for our senses

By which we hear the songs of birds,

And see the splendor of the summer fields,

And taste of the autumn fruits,

And rejoice in the feel of the snow,

And smell the breath of the spring.

Grant us a heart wide open

To all this beauty;

And save our souls from being so blind

That we pass unseeing

When even the common thornbush

Is aflame with your glory,

O God our creator,

For ever and ever.

Amen.
(1) Kerilyn Voigt, “Generosity – What Moves Us to Give?” Canada Lutheran Vol 31 No 5 July/August 2015, p.10-14; also, from the Eastern Synod ‘Generous Giving Practicum’ October 2016

The apple of the eye

Guard me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 17:8)

Last week’s children’s chat got me thinking even more. I told the story of ‘that mom’ who carried with her everywhere the biggest purse you could imagine. Everywhere she went her two young children trundled behind. And everywhere her kids went, so did she.

Mom was prepared for every contingency. When one of the kids fell in the school yard and scraped his knee, out came the bandaids. When the other ripped her shirt sleeve on the sharp edge of the door at school, out came the needle, thread and scissor set. And even though they left in the morning without a cloud in the sky, if by the end of the day rain showers dumped a deluge, out came the rain poncho. She carried everything you ever needed in that purse.

Or so we thought. I asked the kids what else she should have in her purse. “Some snacks, in case they became hungry.” “A flashlight in case the lights went out wherever they were.” etc. etc. So, she didn’t have everything you could imagine they would need. As prepared as she was, Mom wasn’t prepared for everything. She would also have to go by faith.

“Faith in what?” In Advent, the church has traditionally prepared for Jesus’ coming — in the four weeks leading to Christmas. Our faith, it would seem, leaned heavily on our ability, or lack thereof, to be prepared. Have we done everything we could to be purged of our sin? To be purified? Have we repented enough? Done enough penance? Confessed all our sins? And changed our ways? 

Have we done everything we can to be prepared for Christmas? Bought all the presents? Sent out all the cards? Cleaned and decorated the house? Finalized the invitations, menus and schedules?

Are we ever prepared enough? I’ve talked to more and more people over the years saying they are simply not doing everything any more. It’s too much. And they’re not going to worry about if things aren’t just perfect, anymore. I think they’re onto something. Because the truth is, faith-in-us is only (a small) part of the equation.

Would Jesus still come at Christmas even if we were not totally prepared? Of course. Therefore, a significant part of the Advent message is to emphasize that not only do we do what we can ‘to prepare’, we must also receive everything that we experience in life — the good and the bad — as God’s way of preparing us for the coming of the Lord. In the end, the Lord’s coming is not dependent on how well we prepare. Because Jesus is coming anyway, ready or not!

When we appreciate that everything that happens in our lives is God’s way of preparing us, could we not approach life’s circumstances with a heart of faith and trust rather than resentment and despair? When we appreciate the trials and tribulations of life as the way God is, in the words of the prophet Malachi, “refining” and “purifying” (3:1-4) our lives, would we not then have peace?

How can we ‘see’ the Lord’s hand in all the circumstances of life? I think ‘seeing’ is the key. And I’m not speaking merely of the physical ability of seeing. It’s more of a deepened awareness and perception of reality.

The origin of the phrase “apple of the eye” refers to the reflection of oneself that can be seen in another’s pupil. To hold someone as the ‘apple of the eye’, means that they are close enough to the beholder that they could see their own reflection in the beholder’s pupil. As a metaphor for God’s love, this phrase builds on the idea of humankind having been built in God’s image. We are close enough to God that we can see our own reflection in Him, and He in us. (1)

So, the purpose of ‘preparation’ and ‘purification’ goes beyond merely removing the impurities. Apparently, a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when you can observe your own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. (2)

If that is the case, the prophet Malachi implies that God’s image in us is restored precisely through the challenges and difficulties of life. Not apart from them. This is the peace we find. The prophet’s message is that we are deemed good and righteous when once again God’s image is reflected in our lives. 

The end point is not the pain or discomfort. We often get stuck there, and give up. The point is God being made manifest in who we are and what we do with our lives. And this takes time. And lots of work. And the gift of faith, to see God always close by. And trust, that whenever I take one step toward God, God takes ten steps toward me.

Questions of purpose, therefore, are important to ask in this season. For many good reasons. Especially when what occupies us in the ‘shopping season’ often distracts us from what is most important in our lives. The prophet is annoyed by the peoples’ wayward practices. How can God’s image be reflected in a selfish, me-first, immediate-gratification motivated people?

Who are we? And who are we called to be? John the Baptist’s cries in the wilderness echo the ancient prophets’ messaging (Luke 3). Stop distracting yourself to death! Return to the source and the ground of your being! Reclaim your true self, your original reflection of God’s goodness in creation.

In a year-end letter from the treasurer of the Eastern Synod to all congregational pastors and treasurers, Keith Myra offers some helpful, universal suggestions around financial issues facing churches today. One of his reminders states: Remember, “The church is not a club — membership does NOT have its privileges.” 

Here, he suggests that especially during this time of year our redemption does not lie in: “What can I get out of life, the church, my family, the economy.” Our redemption does not lie in: “What is in it for me?” And, “It’s up to me!” Rather, the church has always proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, which is about: “What can I first give to others?” “How does my life reflect God’s image to the world?” “What does the life of Jesus call forth from me?”

We are chosen and loved, yes. Even so, in the end God choosing us is not for privilege, but for a purpose. Belonging to God introduces a great purpose and an important mission.
There is a reason for which we are being purified! And it points beyond the warm fuzzies of this holiday season. It points to actions in the world by Christians that communicate God’s love for all — especially to those without hope, without home, without peace. Then, every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill be made low … the rough ways made smotth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:5-6)

Poet Christina Rossetti writes this prayer:
Lord, purge our eyes to see /Within the seed a tree, /Within the glowing egg a bird, /Within the shroud a butterfly, /Till, taught by such we see /Beyond all creatures, Thee /And hearken to Thy tender word /And hear its “Fear not: it is I” (3)

Amen.

(1) Lutherans Connect, “The Trees of Jesse: Day 3” lcadventdevotional2015blogspot.ca
(2) in David L. Bartlett, Barabara Brown Taylor & Kimberly Bracken Long eds. “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.32

(3) Christina Rossetti, from “Judge not according to the appearance”  

Not a passive remembrance

I catch myself whenever I pin my poppy on my lapel wondering: How is it that I am living out this symbol of remembrance? In my own life, and in the community of faith, how are we demonstrating the values of freedom and protecting the dignity of all people? For example, it is estimated that some 140 war veterans are homeless on the streets of Ottawa. Men and women who gave their lives to service of this great country are now destitute. What are we doing about that?
Because in the Gospel text today (Mark 12:38-44) Jesus condemns those whose mere formal, ritual observance characterizes their faith. When ‘saying prayers’ is the only thing we do as Christians. There may be times in our lives when that is all we can do. Yet if the practice of faith is enacted solely as a “pro forma ceremony”, it only reveals a questionable faith and a “fallow, craven piety” (1).
What problem does Jesus identify here? Well, the religious leaders “devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say their prayers” (v.40). Their heart is not in their religion, we may say. They typify the delusion of sacrifice — believing they give more than they should but less than they can. In the end, whatever they perform to impress others does not really change their lives. Their worship does not call forth from them any measure of risk and trust. It does not involve their whole being.
Are you, like me, feeling increasingly uncomfortable? As is the case with difficult Gospel texts, we may perform an impressive, interpretive slalom course around the issue. We may focus on the money, for example: “Shouldn’t the temple treasury be happy for the large amounts of money given by the rich? What is Jesus doing offending the rich? Not very smart!” 
Or, our self-justification may target the poor. We idealize the sacrifice they make. But to what extent? To justifying a social-economic system that maintains benefits to the rich and demands even greater sacrifice from the poor? But, in the end, Jesus’ words suggest that what is important here is not the amount of money, per se. Why? Yes, both the rich and the poor give varying amounts. 
But both give to the temple treasury that will soon be utterly destroyed. This gospel story in Mark is positioned right at the end of Jesus’ public ministry, and right before his temple speech and passion story — Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross. In the verses that immediately follow this text, Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple — “not one stone will be left upon the other” (13:1ff). 
When you compare the amount of pages that the passion stories in all of the gospels occupy, that material is proportionally greater than everything else in the gospels including Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry. The story of the “widow’s mite” abuts right up against the beginning of Mark’s telling of Jesus’ journey to the Cross. This literary structure must therefore influence our reading of it. 
Jesus not only condemns the heartless, faithless pretence of giving, he shows that unjust, self-serving religious enterprise won’t last. You could say anyone giving anything to the temple was ‘throwing their money away’ to a worthless cause. At best, we could say that the widow gives everything she has to an institution that does not deserve it. 
The only true mark of religion is how the institutional community engages the poor. Our Sunday morning worship services mean absolutely nothing if what we do here does not translate into practical life-giving, grace-abounding giving of who we are and what we have to the world out there.
This passage gives us the opportunity to explore what it means to put in everything we have on the line, and all that we are to live on as people of faith. The giving of ourselves will have power when we put our heart, and our full trust, in God who will not abandon us in this giving.
An apple tree never tastes its own fruit. The fruit is meant to be tasted by others. Martin Luther would plant an apple tree even if he knew the world would end tomorrow. The point is the gift of grace is meant to be given. Our responsibility is not the preoccupation with the final result. The temple was going to be destroyed anyway. But did that mean no one should bother giving to it?
It is worth it! We are that apple tree, producing fruit to be enjoyed by all. If we stop producing fruit, then we stop being who we are as Christians. It is the free act of giving where value and meaning is experienced.
The test of a Christian community is this: If we asked the poor for a letter of reference, would they give it to us? How welcome do all people feel here? Do all people, regardless of their station in life, feel safe to be themselves in this place? Someone once said that a church without the poor is a place God has obviously left.
Who is our neighbour? As we look to our neighbours who are vulnerable, marginal and even despised — the homeless, Aboriginals, the physically disabled, newcomers to Canada, refugees, seniors, Muslims, gays and lesbians, rich and poor: these are our neighbours. They live among us, beside us, even in the church. If we say we are welcoming, does our congregation have a letter of reference from these people?
We shall not despair! Regardless of how we interpret the widow’s offering, this bible story ultimately is not about how much we should give.
It’s about how much Jesus will soon give for a people who do not deserve it.
The story of the widow’s mite, in the end, points towards the greater sacrifice Jesus will make — Jesus, who will give his life and his all for us, a people not deserving of God’s grace yet recipients of it nonetheless.
Where does that leave us?
To be changed, to change. We read in the Bible about people who are changed in Jesus’ presence: Peter, John, Paul, just to name a few. On the road to Damascus, on the beaches of Lake Galilee, in the synagogue and temple — When people encountered Jesus, their lives changed. How can we presume, then, that we ought not be changed ourselves in the presence of a God who pays attention to every detail of our life.
As we shift our gaze outward and reach outward to pay attention to who is around us, we discover that Jesus is paying attention to us. As he sat in the temple, across from the treasury watching people come to make their offerings, so Jesus notices us — not in a ‘ready-to-pounce’ judging way. Jesus is not the cosmic policeman watching to catch us in the act. But only to bring loving light to the truth of our lives.
In the end, Jesus pays attention to the details of our lives and beckons us to journey with him to the Cross. Because no matter how good we are, or how bad, Jesus gives himself for us out of love and grace. Though we may be unworthy of God’s love, Jesus still makes the ultimate sacrifice. We, and everyone else, are still worth it — still worth God’s incredible sacrifice and love.
(1) Emilie M. Townes in Bartlett & Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 4” WJK Press, 2009, p.286

Church and Money – setting a postive tone

Many church leaders will be facing their annual congregational meetings in the next month. And a lot of the conversation will likely revolve around money.

I hope I can help set a positive tone for these discussions to encourage my parishioners — and indeed Canadians from all Christian denominations — to be generous, as their expression of love for God, for Christ’s Church on earth, and for the world in so desperate a need these days.

Recently a Huffington Post article presented some interesting statistics. These facts may provide a helpful background for pastors, priests and church leaders as they prepare their hearts and minds for these annual meetings.

– Of the provinces and territories in Canada, Manitobans are for the 14th year in a row the most generous of all Canadians in charitable giving

– Even so, Manitoba ranked 39th out of 63 jurisdictions including all the states in the USA, provinces and territories in Canada

– Utah, which ranked 1st in generosity, made charitable donations totaling about three and a half times more than what Manitobans gave

– The extent of charitable giving by the provinces hasn’t improved as donations have plummeted since 2010, especially in Ontario

– Charles Lammam, Associate Director of the Fraser Institute said, “Had Canadians donated to registered charities at the same rate as Americans, Canada’s charities would have received an additional $9.2 billion in private support in 2010”

Given these facts, I am encouraged to reflect on something stewardship resources and voices have affirmed over time: God has already given us enough of what we need to do whatever we feel called to do, in Jesus’ name, with the Church, for the sake of God’s mission in the world today.

1gift4good

During Advent, we prepare to receive the greatest gift of the season – the gift of Jesus. And the living Jesus guides us today to be generous to others in our gift-giving.

To celebrate our gracious giving both in small and big ways, please submit into the gift box on the altar at Faith Lutheran Church in Ottawa a small piece of paper on which you write your special “one gift” – a random act of kindness you did (e.g., gave an empty parking spot to someone else, gave a cup of coffee to a homeless person, volunteered at the food bank, helped carry parcels for someone, spend time with a loved one, gave money to support an important mission, etc.).

During the Christmas Eve and Day services, some of these “gifts for good” will be read out (anonymously) – all to signify the unconditional character of gift-giving in Jesus’ name.

It’ll be our collective present to Jesus. Thank you!