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

Prayer as Listening – Advent sermon series 2

Last week we met the hermit crab who needs to find a larger shell to grow into. We considered prayer as personal growth. That when we come to various crossroads on the journey of life and faith, we can either give up on a life of prayer or we find another form of prayer.

Today, we consider how important our community is to that journey. Indeed, our relationships are critical and vital to our health and well-being. In truth we cannot do without a community of faith if we want to continue maturing in faith.

After last week’s first in the sermon series on prayer, I was made aware of howthese hermit crabs will find their new, larger shell. Apparently, they find a spot on the beach and line up, together, in a little community of crabs. When a new member of that community finds them on the beach, that new crab drops its old shell at the front of the line. Shell-less, it then goes to the back of the line to wait its turn in finding a larger shell.

The crab at the top of the line – who has waited the longest – has first dibs at the new shell freshly deposited. If it fits, great! Off it goes to resume its life, wherever. If it doesn’t fit, it will keep its place at the front of the line until a shell is left there that fits. The second in line will then try it on. And, in this way, the line moves forward over time until each crab in the community has found a new, larger shell for its growth.

According to this pattern, no crab is left on its own to find its new shell. In this little community no crab is left by itself on the journey of searching, seeking and finding. The hermit crab’s growth is supported by a community of crabs on the journey they share, even as each crab occupies its unique place in line. No two crabs are the same, after all.

Often we think that what glues us together in community is talking, saying words. When we feel we must assert ourselves aggressively. We impose our opinion about who we are about and what we believe about things. We think we are doing the right thing by initiating our opinion. “Speak up!” is the mantra that captures what we believe binds us in community.

Here, we must confess that at the root of this strategy is a fear that if we don’t first assert ourselves in a dog-eat-dog world, somehow we are betraying our own beliefs. We are afraid that if we listen first, we’re not advocating for own ideas and why those ideas matter; we are afraid we’re giving up on our convictions.[1]

“Samar Minallah Khan, the feminist Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker, was enraged. Local tribal leaders were trading little girls as compensation for their male family members’ crimes.

“These leaders, responsible for settling legal disputes in their villages, act as local judges. A long-standing practice was to address major crimes by ‘compensating’ a harmed family with a daughter of the family doing the harm. The guilty father or uncle was then considered ‘free’ and the village was told this issue was ‘resolved.’ Samar thought this tradition, called swara, was horrendous: It forever changed a young girl’s life, through no fault of her own.

“But although Samar was angry, she realized she’d never get to the outcome she wanted if she led with that anger. So, she tried something else. First, she listened more than she talked. She listened to the religious (male) leaders explain the use of swara and its benefits interpreted by the Prophet Mohammad. She listened to the fathers and uncles who allowed their crimes to be expiated this way. And, by listening, Samar learned so much that it enabled her to bridge a seemingly unbridgeable chasm of difference.

“Samar had first assumed that the fathers whose crimes were being forgiven this way were happy to let their daughters suffer for their crimes. But when she listened to them, she heard that they were not. They wanted another way.

“She [also] heard from local leaders that they placed an extremely high value on tradition. She heard from religious Muslim legal scholars that swara was a form of ‘vicarious liability’, which is not allowed in Islam. And finally, she heard that in earlier times, disputes were also resolved by sending a girl to an enemy’s family, but she didn’t stay there permanently; instead, she would be given gifts and then sent back to her parents’ home. All of this, she taped.

“She convened local communities to watch these videos and talk with one another about the tradition and its implications. One by one, local tribal leaders changed what they considered true justice. They decided that swara could be replaced by monetary compensation. Samar created change not by selling her idea, but creating a way for everyone to arrive at a new idea, together. What Samar did was to ask people to share their perspective, without trying to convince them of hers.”[2]

This process took time and a whole lot of patience. If we do this thing together, as Saint Paul advocates in his letter to the Romans, we need to be like those hermit crabs lined up together on the beach waiting for and taking turns in finding our next, larger shell.

The values of sharing, of collaborating, of operating in harmony with others – these are at the root of Saint Paul’s description of a community of faith, in Christ: May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.[3]

The search for God—this is our prayer life—begins with accepting our humanity. After all it was in the stable of Bethlehem, the stable of humanity that God has come in search of us. I like this translation of verse seven in chapter fifteen of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Accept one another, therefore, as Christ has accepted you.”[4] We accept another by learning first to listen.

So, it’s not talking that binds us into community. It’s not needing to force our way in, somehow. In truth, when you think about your closest relationships, what binds you together—what functions as the cartilage—is the confidence and trust that the other truly listens to you. And therefore accepts you. Not, “Speak up!” but rather, “Listen up!” needs to be our mantra. Prayer is not primarily talking but listening.

I read that a true friend is someone who knows everything about you and still accepts you. Isn’t that our spiritual longing, our motivation to pray and connect with God? Isn’t that the dream we share? That one day each of us meets a person with whom we can really talk, who understands us and the words we say—who can listen and even hear what is left unsaid, and then really accepts us. God is the fulfillment of this dream.[5]And so, in prayer as in all our relationships, we listen to God whom we love as God listens to us.

In making room for another in the act of listening receptively, the irony – when we first listen well—is we find that we ourselves have found a place to be heard. Deeply heard, understood, and accepted. By others in community and by God who stands beside us in line and waits for us to find that larger shell.

 

[1]Nilofer Merchant, Mindful Listening: Emotional Intelligence Series (Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2019), p.75.

[2]Ibid., p.69-71.

[3]Romans 15:5-6

[4]Patrick J. Howell in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.38.

[5]Ibid., p.38-40.

God in the lowlands

These last moments of Jesus’ life stand in stark contrast to what is valued in the world.

I find it ironic that we read today a text that is normally read on Good Friday – the day Christians worldwide pause to recall and remember the brutal death of Jesus on the cross. It is the day Christians confront the God who is deeply humiliated, a man who suffers injustice to the extent of his gruesome and painful suffering and torturous, drawn-out dying.

It’s ironic because a text that is normally read on Good Friday comes just days before what North Americans call Black Friday. Despite the various reasons why that day has come to be called Black Friday – it is commonly known to be the day the malls and commercial districts are crowded, busy and congested bustling with deal seekers and shoppers. It is the day the consumer in us is stoked. Big time.

Indeed, these last moments of Jesus’ earthly, humanity all seem to be in vivid contrast to what is valued as great in our world – this world presented to us in colourful, catalogue-thick inserts and pop-up internet ads promoting incredible sales and savings.

It is not poor, but a world of glamour and glitz.

It is not selfless, but a me-first world of acquisition and accumulation.

It is not vulnerable and generous, but a miserly, defensive and self-preservationist world.

Today is also what the church calls, “Christ the King”, on the last Sunday in the church year. At the end of time, we assert in faith that Jesus is King and his reign lasts forever. But, what kind of king are we talking about here? Certainly not a kind of king the world knows.

In response to Pilate’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?”[1], Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world is proved in what this ruler wants to happen and makes happen that other powerful rulers are not willing or able to do.

Let’s face it: Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. Many of us are more comfortable not knowing what happened to the thief who scoffed at Jesus than knowing that an undeserving thief was let into paradise.

Would we not rather have had Jesus say that  God loves the people we like that God does not love the people we do not like? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the crackheads, the homeless, the refugee and Muslim immigrant? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the addicts, the adulterers, the thieves, the gays, the prostitutes, the rebellious and the disgruntled? Would we not prefer it if paradise were exclusively for the nice people, the clean people, the polite people, the well-behaved people, the right people?

How different is Jesus? There was a very strange novel published in England in the late 19th century called Flatlands. It is a story about a world that is flat, everything is two-dimensional. The chief character in the novel is Mr. Square, who is, of course, only in two dimensions.

One day, Mr. Square is visited by a Mr. Sphere who is, of necessity, in three dimensions. Square regards Sphere quite apprehensively. Sphere speaks to Square about a world of three dimensions, a world that is not flat. But Square is unconvinced. Living in a two-dimensional world, it is impossible for him to imagine another dimension. Eventually, Sphere is persecuted and driven out by the outraged flatlanders.

I propose to you that that is how different Jesus is from us. We are flatlanders. We live in a world of two dimensions, unable to grasp the possibility of a reality beyond that which we have experienced. We have been unable to believe, for instance, that love and forgiveness is a better response to evil than brute force. God’s power of love is three-dimensional to our two-dimensional thinking.

Notice with the second thief hanging beside Jesus on his cross, the thief does not ask to be saved, to be rescued. He only asks once, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Perhaps his plea is meant to echo these words from the Psalm: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”[2]– which is to say: Do not remember me according to my faults, but remember me according to your goodness.

We have faith not because we are weak but because God is strong and God is love. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. Our salvation is dependent on a loving, grace-filled God.

So why can we hope in this goodness when we look around us at all the evil? Because Mr. Sphere did come among all of us Squares and we did persecute him and drive him out.

But he wouldn’t and couldn’t stay away. No, his three-dimensional existence couldn’t be flattened out by us. He is alive! And he comes to us again today in this meal we are about to share.

Again, it’s so hard for us to understand because he is like three-dimensions to our two. But he comes again with a word of love and forgiveness that promises the power that will finally take care of all that’s troubling in this world. It won’t be easy. He predicted that, too. But it is the only way. He comes to us again today to lead the way. “I have seen the future,” he says to us. “The future is not some cold grave, some hard, lifeless tomb. The future is the glorious triumph of God’s love.”

This man whom we follow is the king not of the flatlands, but in the lowlands. Spheres always roll to the bottom of things. Christ is king in the lowlands because God does not want us to die and suffer in that dark and sad region. Maybe you are today in a sort of darkness. The darkness of grief, loss, physical pain or emotional pain.

But the Holy One is with you today and for you today in that darkness. And, therefore, you will be with him today, and forevermore, in paradise. Thank God! Amen.[3]

[1]John 18:36

[2]Psalm 25:7

[3]Thank you to the writers for ‘Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) Luke 23:33-43’ in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.332-337 for many of the words and ideas expressed here.

“¡Presente!”

Each of the four blessings is matched with a corresponding ‘woe’[1] First, Jesus says that blessed are they who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now and whom people hate. But, unlike Matthew’s version of the beatitudes[2], Luke doesn’t stop there. Luke doesn’t let us off easily.

Lest we become too enamoured with spiritualizing virtues or escape into some pie-in-the-sky notion of faith, Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon only sets us up for being gobsmacked upside the head. In a stunning reversal to each blessing Jesus brings a ‘woe’—to those who are rich, who are full, who laugh now and about whom people speak well.

But wait—a secure financial future, a full stomach, a light heart, and a good reputation – aren’t these all values we want and seek? Aren’t these the things around which we structure our lives to obtain? Don’t these describe to a ‘t’ our five-year, ten-year and twenty-five-year goals?

A surface reading of this scripture can leave us picking sides. Am I on the ‘blessing’ side or the ‘woe’ side of the equation. Either / Or. Will we dare go deeper?

And, at the deeper currents of our awareness — when we are honest with ourselves — don’t we already know? Don’t we already know the truth of it—that, at best, wealth, a full stomach, a light heart and a good reputation are mixed blessings? They come at a great cost to health and relational well-being. They are temporary, fleeting. They can come and they can go.

Contrary to popular belief, rather than being evidence of God’s favour, prosperity can actually endanger our relationship with God, as was the case with the rich fool and Zacchaeus—both characters unique to Luke’s Gospel.[3]

What is common to both characters? Both came to Jesus rich men with full stomachs and their reputations intact. When they came to Jesus, both the rich fool and Zacchaeus were perfectly able to take care of themselves, to say the least.

The common trait they share as prosperous men of first century Palestine, is their self-sufficiency. This state is what separates them from God. And has them trapped. they are self-sufficient.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, we read that those who lay up treasures for themselves are not—and cannot be—rich toward God[4]because when we can take perfectly good care of ourselves, it is altogether too easy for us not to trust God. So, what jeopardizes the wealthy Christian’s relationship with God is the subtle temptation to think that we can go it alone and take care of ourselves.[5]

This underlying belief applies not only to our personal lives—and what we decide to do with our wealth, our investments, our properties our material blessing— but, also to the way we do church.

Will we be a community that lives only unto ourselves, or for the sake of others? Meeting the challenges of church today, how do we move forward? What decisions will we make with the resources we have? Will we abide by the code of self-sufficiency and go it alone? Or, will we seek out effective partners, neighbours and others on the journey of faith? Will we say God is only here inside thesewalls alone? Or, will we seek God’s work out there in the world?

What with all the competing values and programs for success beating down the doors of our hearts and minds, to follow the Christ of the cross is not easy. It’s not a technique or strategy that we can simply employ. In light of the beatitudes from Luke, the way of Christ cannot be an add-on. It cannot work that way, as another activity to add to the schedule of our already busy lives.

It comes to us as a complete package. It’s a call to transformation – a whole-life make-over. I understand the hesitation. Because life in the fast lane has its perks. Maybe we don’t want to give them up. Not easily, anyway. Seeking after self-sufficiency is too much of a lucrative deal for our egos.

Therefore the message of the Gospel can really be a downer! After all, how can we ever live faithfully when immersed in our world and its values?

But, perhaps, the message of All Saints provides an antidote to the despair and the grief. And give us hope for the journey. After all, the Gospel is not just about how to get into heaven after you die, but actually more about how to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth before you die. Not just the saints of heaven. But the saints on earth.

I want to close with a brief reflection on the meaning of a couple of words. First, ‘blessing’. “Blessed” is sometimes translated as “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[6]which incidentally is also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in offering the beatitudes, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor, when you hunger, when you weep, when you let go, when you don’t hold it all to yourself.” I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state. It acknowledges a journey of becoming. And any path of growth and transformation will include honest struggling and striving and letting go.

It is human to struggle with these things. On one hand, we do need to learn early in life how to take care of ourselves. Learning vital skills around self-care are important. Along the journey of maturity and growth, however, we must also learn how to balance this skill towards attention to others.

The second word is ‘presence’. This word doesn’t appear in the biblical texts for today, but it is implied in our ritual of All Saints. In Spanish, you hear the word said aloud: “¡Presente!”—which literally means “here” or “present”. There is a long tradition in Latin American movements for justice of invoking the memory of those who have lost their lives in the struggle.

At political gatherings their names were read out loud, one after another, not unlike we read the names of the saints earlier. After each name the crowd says together: “¡Presente!” as if to say: “You are not gone, you are here with us. You are not forgotten, and we continue the struggle in your name.”

It is human to struggle in the mission of God on earth. But we are not alone. Not only are the saints of heaven among us in spirit and in love, God is with us each step of the way. On the journey of life …

“Blessed are you who are poor – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who hunger – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who weep – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who are despised – because you are not alone!”

“¡Presente!” “¡Presente!” “¡Presente!”

 

[1]Luke 6:20-31

[2]Matthew 5:1-12

[3]Luke 12:16-21; 19:1-10; E. Elizabeth Johnson in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.239-241.

[4]Luke 12:21

[5]E. Elizabeth Johnson, ibid., p.241

[6]Psalm 1:1

Thanks-doing

I knew—we all knew—we had to do it. We had to go, single-file, through the turn-style and meet, individually, with the control officer. The ticket attendant would then scan the barcode on our paper copy or our smartphone before letting us in.

It started out a large crowd—a mass of people walking together across the cordoned-off streets, parking lots and plazas like a tsunami racing towards the stadium. But then it eventually, ultimately, bottle-necked to one person at a time through the gate.

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It was my first time at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan. At game time it is probably the largest gathering of Canadians I will ever see together in one place—some thirty-thousand mostly screaming Rough Rider fans cheering their beloved football team. In all, watching that game in the stands was for me an exercise in social conformity, or fighting against it.

However, each football fan, regardless of our stripe, had to pass one-at-a-time through the entrance gate. In places where lots of people normally gather, whether it be the security line at the airport or the gate into a sporting event, each of us has to make a reckoning, an accounting.

And it can cause some anxiety, some fear. It does for me. Even though this fear is largely irrational. After all, I have my ticket. I purchased it. I have every right to be there.

And yet, that moment of passing through the gate has a kind of self-consciousness attributed to it. The spotlight now falls on me, not us as a whole. I have to put myself on the line. I can’t be anonymous any longer, melting into the perceived security of the crowd. I have to stand out, be vulnerable, if but for a moment.

Thanksgiving is about doing. It’s already a word constructed for doing something. It is ‘giving’ something, an action word: Thanks-giving. That is why we practice today. We bring food to the altar—our gifts—that will then be given to a world in need.

But doing something in our practice of faith is risky. We put ourselves on the line. We have to make a move. Declare ourselves. Make an account for ourselves. Thanksgiving has to mean something personal to each of us, individually and perhaps differently.

My mother tells the story of her home church in Poland when she was a child. Every Sunday morning during the gathering of the gifts, everyone would line up and go single-file to the altar to deposit their offering. In front of everyone to see!

For fifteen chapters in Deuteronomy (11-26), Moses gives the Lord’s instruction to the people of Israel upon arriving in the Promised Land. In the Hebrew text assigned for Thanksgiving this year, we read the first section of the concluding, last chapter (26:1-11), in this long oration.

In looking at the translated words into English we can’t see the distinction between singular and plural. In other words we can’t tell whether Moses calls the people into faithful commitment together or individually. But in the Hebrew language you would notice the distinction. So, while the early chapters in Moses’ speech are predominantly addressed to the community—as the verbs are in the plural—in chapter 26 the writer has noticeably shifted to singular verbs and personal pronouns.

In our pilgrimage of faith, there are times we have to walk by ourselves. When we can’t hide behind options any longer. When we can’t melt into the crowd. And simply observe. When we can’t be an anonymous fan any longer. When we can’t find excuses nor justifications for not doing anything about something we know needs some doing. When we can’t just be spectators any longer.

We have to go through the gate ourselves. Individually. We have to participate, and get into the arena of life and make some moves, some waves.

It’s scary to do so. To take a risk. We may not have done this kind of thing before. Because we know that in doing something for our faith, anything, we will likely make a mistake or two. It may not be pretty. In fact it may be downright messy for a while. We may at times fail, as in trying different things, things we’ve never done before—Christians have never done before—in mission with others.

The ticket we hold in our hands represents our efforts, our attempts at giving something of what we have—to show the attendant at the gate. At Thanksgiving, not every one of us may feel thankful, especially if you are going through some grief. So then, let your tears be the ‘ticket’ you bring. The ticket an also represent your financial gift, or your volunteer hours, or your gift of expertise knowledge or skills that you offer. Wherever you are at, whatever you have, you bring to the altar and lay it down.

Maybe the irrational fear we have (all fear is irrational) suggests that the ticket is not good enough, that somehow it will not register, that we will be turned away and denied the experience of what we have come to celebrate.

The ticket we bring may be for the cheapest seats high up in the nosebleeds. However we may have acquired our ticket, or whatever its value, we may suffer the anxiety of thinking it is all up to us. That our entrance fee is based on “I deserve it,” or, “I earned it”, or “I accomplished this.”

The risk of doing something brings both the pinch of vulnerability and the fulfilment of the promise. The pinch of vulnerability because in exposing our hearts we realize it’s not all perfect with us. In truth, we must acknowledge we do not do it on our own. We are limited. We are also weak. And, for a moment, this awareness—this confession—hurts.

But the ticket was already purchased. Weeks ago. Months ago. The moment we cross by the gate is after-the-fact. Our participation in the party is already guaranteed. And nothing can change that. The justification for our being there had been already long ago determined. The moment we must make an accounting of ourselves, the moment of fear and uncertainty, is also the moment we celebrate something already accomplished.

By Another. For us.

Thanks be to God!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Grace first

Over the past six weeks I’ve transited through nine different airports on two different continents. One of the expectations of travellers is that when you are in an airport waiting for your flight, you can access free Wi-Fi.

But, more often than not, it isn’t really free. When your device locates the airport network, and before you can access the internet, you are directed to a page that requires you to give your email. And, be careful to click that box that says you do not wish to receive promotional material.

Even if you are not an airplane traveller, this marketing strategy infests so many of our common life activities. I had my car at the service department this summer a couple of times, and each time I received a ticket to enter into a draw: first prize, a new car! But first I have to go to a website to register the number on my ticket. And, of course, give my email. And, remember to check that box declining promotional material!

In any case, companies are finding ways of expanding their reach into our lives and pocket books. Restaurants, as well, if you want to use their ‘free’ Wi-Fi. What may on the surface appear ‘free’ is merely a way to hook you in. This culture of doing business so infects our way of thinking.

The internet access is merely a modern day example. And yet, it is built on the way human beings have always tended to relate with one another at a more base level. A way of life and inter-relating that screams loudly: “Nothing in life is free!”

What is alarming, from a Christian point of view, is that we seem to be ok with that, and go about living in this tit-for-tat culture we have largely created.

Yet, I continue believing that it is in giving grace that describes best our journey as (Lutheran) Christians. I place ‘Lutheran’ in parenthesis because I believe all Christians today need to put grace first and foremost in our practice of faith and life.

Stories are a great way of conveying the deepest truths. This story is about a rooster in a chicken farm. And I heard it told at the National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, in Regina, last month, by the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge. Here is my adaptation:

Every morning when it was still dark the rooster went out to crow. He did so with amazing commitment, crowing from the depth of his heart and making use of all available resources and art. Actually, he was convinced that it was because of his crowing that the sun rose every morning. When he had finished his daily job and went back to the farm he used to look around with a sense of paternalistic pride at the hens. “There you go, darlings, I’ve made the sun rise for you”, he even said once. “I am the chosen one.”

One morning the sunrise was really wonderful. The rooster got so enthusiastic that he couldn’t stop crowing. The sun had long risen, but he continued crowing, just wanting to make the whole scenery even more perfect.

When he went back to the chicken farm he noticed that he had crowed too long. His throat was aching. Laryngitis. He was only able to produce a weak croaking noise. The rooster panicked. “What will happen tomorrow, if I can’t crow anymore? What will happen to the chicken farm and to all these chickens and hens, which depend so much on my power to make the sun rise…?” He went to sleep very early, just hoping that next morning he would be in good health again.

But he was not! The pain had worsened overnight, and he could not even croak but make only a ridiculously weak squeak. Yet, he went out, like every morning, just pushed by the awareness of his plight and the panic that otherwise the sun wouldn’t rise, and they would all perish. He tried his best, he tried hard… yet there was nothing resembling real crowing coming out of his throat.

Great was his surprise when he suddenly realized that the sun seemed to be rising anyway! Slowly but surely it came up behind the hills, like every morning. Actually, it was again one of those wonderful mornings. But this time, it came without his doing! He turned slowly and looked back to the chicken farm. He couldn’t believe what he saw there: the chickens and hens had come out like every morning as well!

Terribly depressed he went back to the chicken farm. What could be his place there? Didn’t he lose his role and reason to be? And why should he go out the next morning, if the sun rose anyway, without his help? Oh, and he felt so embarrassed and ashamed. He didn’t even dare to look into the hens’ eyes.

“Hey, don’t worry”, said one of the hens. “You can continue crowing”, she said. “Just go out tomorrow as usual. But don’t crow in order to make the sun rise. Just crow because the sun rises!”

This story explains how we understand grace. Grace is like the rising sun. It is there, just because God wants grace to be there. As nobody can prevent the sun from rising, nobody can stop God from being gracious either. That was – in a nutshell – what Jesus revealed about God. That is in all its powerful simplicity the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Good works are an expression of faith, to be sure. Yet, good works are a response to God’s grace. This is how we understand the relationship between justification by grace and sanctification of our lives. Sanctification arises from hearts overflowing with joy and love because of God’s wonderful gifts. It is out of the gift of freedom, which God has acquired for us that we respond with good works.

God’s relationship to us is not conditional on anything we say or do. We don’t first become Christian in order to go to church. We come to church in order to become Christian—over time, even a life time! God doesn’t love us because we are ‘good’. God loves us because God is good. Do you hear the difference between those statements? I hope you do. A subtle difference, maybe yes. But huge implications for how we live our lives. It doesn’t hinge on us.

Because of the culture in the world that operates NOT according to grace, it is a huge challenge for Christians to live out of grace-first principles—such as forgiveness, mercy, and showing compassion unconditionally. It is a huge challenge for us not to put conditions on others before we deem them worthy. It is a huge challenge not to place any expectations on others and ourselves before we can justify helping them or loving them.

No wonder many young people today are cynical about the message that comes from ‘The Church’. “Your mercy is great,” we Sunday Christians pray to God. “But,” they ask, “Is it, really? What’s the catch? What do you want from me?” This cynicism is rampant. We have been infused with, and grown into, a transactional culture: I do something for you (in order that) you do something for me; I do something for God (in order that) God does something for me.

In this world, so anti-grace, we are called to become more fluent in the language and lifestyle of grace-first. We are challenged to give grace, first. Grace first, not judgement. Grace first, not fear. Grace first, not condemnation:

In our relationships with family members whose behaviour or lifestyle we may not be inclined to approve. In our relationships with others outside our circles who represent politics and opinions we are not inclined towards. In our relationships with those marginalized and the poor, Indigenous people and their plight. In our relationship with the land, water and air. Even, in our relationship with God and religion. Maybe most importantly.

The Gospel stories abound with examples of the way Jesus embodies this grace-first approach of God. In the story today (Luke 13:10-17), it’s not about deserving God’s grace first. It’s not about the woman earning Jesus’ favour first, before she is healed. We really know nothing about her — whether she deserves Jesus’ attention. But, you see, that’s not the point. It’s not even about following the rules of religion, which the Pharisees defend at all costs.

Jesus simply ‘sees’ her, and heals her. Jesus exposes the sin of a culture that places rules before grace, a culture which values conformity over the truth of what the sabbath represents: A holy day when the best of what God offers to us is actually demonstrated and given. No matter the rules. Grace first.

Images of water permeate the scriptures. These verses from Isaiah about water stand out. Water, like the sun, is like grace. Water gives sustenance: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

A last-minute addition to the itinerary of my family’s western Canada road trip this summer was a visit to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia. There, visitors can sink into a natural hot water soaking pool, then slip into a cool water pool. This is hydrotherapy, like the Scandinavian tradition of hot and cold water-immersion cycles. People come here for healing.

We know the stats: 71% of the earth’s surface covered by water. The human body is composed of over 60% water. Water provides a place for renewal, reconnection and rejuvenation. Water is essential for life. We all need it to live.

It is there before we do anything. Whether or not we choose to step into the healing waters of God’s presence and love and mercy—it’s still there for us. Ever present, despite us. The prophet Isaiah in the same text expresses this truth: “You shall cry for help, and God will say: ‘Here I am’” (v.9). I hear in these words the sense that God is saying, “If you want help, I am here. I’ve always been here right beside you! Hello!”

Christians of old have written about life as a journey of becoming more aware of how we block the flow of God’s love and grace. Blockages, such as fear, greed, selfishness. And then, doing what we can to ‘unblock’ and ‘allow’ divine love to flow more freely through us. Of letting go and allowing the current of divine energy, creativity and love to carry us downstream through life.

Whether or not we respond to the sunrise, as the rooster had to learn, whether or not we choose to participate in the action of God’s grace, the ever-flowing stream of God’s love is already there. It has been flowing from the beginning of time, continues to be the most powerful force in the universe, and is an ever-present reality in the world today.

Whether we know it or not, we’re continually immersed and surrounded by Divine Love, by Sacred, Holy Presence. This is our ultimate confidence and security. “Here I am,” God says to us. “Come to me. I am always by your side to show you mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

And that is why we pray and affirm repeatedly this summer in the petitionary prayers: “Your mercy is great!”

Because it is.

Home is where you’re wanted

It’s Canada Day. It’s a day we celebrate our identity as Canadians and our beautiful home, in Canada.

They say the best part of travelling abroad is coming home. The first time that hit home for me was when in my late teens I visited southern Poland where my parents were born.

I recall being driven about the countryside there. And though there are gorgeous landscapes in the valleys and hills surrounding the Tatra mountains in the south, there were [and are, still] many coal mines in operation. We had a tour of one of these mines—its stark and dirty images still occupy my mind. There wasn’t a day being in Poland that I didn’t smell the pollution in the air.

Until I got off the homebound plane at Mirabel in the Laurentian hills between Ottawa and Montreal (when it was still an international airport during the 1980s.) Walking on the tarmac from the plane to the terminal, I felt the cool breeze coming down over the hills from the north, and breathed deeply the pristine air. And I recall being so thankful for living in a country where I could breathe that clean, natural air.

To this day when someone asks me why I love living in Canada, my immediate, visceral response is: “The air. I can breathe.”

We can all, I suppose, point to aspects of living in Canada for which we are grateful. Whatever we call home is so important to our sense of self. Indeed, our identity is formed out of however we define home. It’s usually some combination of family, relationships, personal history and place.

Often I hear the definition of home as ‘where you come from’. Where I come from includes relationships, family history, where my forbears settled and worked the land. This tie, this bond, can be very strong.

It’s ironic, maybe even disturbing, that we confront a gospel reading for this Sunday that challenges— to the core— our comfortable ideas of home. To those who first want to attend to family, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Then, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[1]In another Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”[2]

He even warns those who want to follow him that they will have to do without. That the spiritual journey involves the way of material simplicity and letting go. It involves a poverty of sorts. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was a transient. As a baby—Emanuel, Son of God—he was a refugee.

But while he didn’t boast of a physical home on earth, he certainly had what it took to be at home in himself and with God. He was grounded within himself, quite distinct from any external, material ties to land and hearth. Jesus turns to his disciples and beckons, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

A Jesus-identity stands in sharp contrast to everything we want to focus on in our celebration of Canada Day—material prosperity, security, affluence and strong, traditional bonds of family.

Jesus’ lifestyle describes what ancient and contemporary wisdom teachers have called a spirituality of subtraction.[3]This way is counterintuitive. Our human nature gravitates towards a spirituality of addition. That is, we normally say the solution to all problems is to do more, to add on, to do better, to achieve greater heights, to impress, to work harder, etc. Add. Accumulate. Get bigger, faster, better. More, more, more.

However, Jesus tells us that the less we do and the less that we desperately try to be someone, the closer we come to this kingdom of God. This state of being is where there is no longer any need to struggle to protect ourselves and to survive. “It’s the way of subtraction, where less is not just more, but everything.”[4]

Canada Day, while not a festival in the church calendar, gives us nonetheless opportunity to be thankful and celebrate God’s good gifts in all that we have and are. It is also an opportunity to  reflect on our identity and our home as Christians:

Where do we land, at the end of the day? If we are the ones on the positive side of history, what is the state of our own inner life, distinct from the externals and the material wealth? What are our go-to beliefs and unacknowledged assumptions? Who are we, really, when all else is stripped away? And who are we becoming? What do we need to let go of? What do we need to embrace, anew?

The way of subtraction is a way of recognizing, acknowledging, even embracing what the normal ebb and flow of life brings to us all. Not just yahooing when good things happen. But also not turning a blind eye, ignoring or denying the suffering, the losses, the fear and the anxieties that serve a very important purpose in life: Because they point to the way of our healing and transformation.

We can start, on Canada Day, by acknowledging that not everyone is happy today. Not everybody would have reason to celebrate Canada Day. And who are these people? Do we see them? Do we care?

When by some injustice some people are excluded. When some people feel judged or discriminated against by the majority. When history exposes problems with the way we settled this land, the way we did things in the past. When our people used unjust means to achieve goals that breached ethical lines.

On a personal level, we pay attention to those difficult transitions in life, those that cause great stress. When who we thought we were, when our long-held identity, when the home of our conditioned self doesn’t work or make sense anymore:

For example, when divorce or separation breaks down our idea of being someone who is happily married …

When growing up means no longer being a dependent son or daughter but someone who is a responsible, self-actualized and an independent adult…

When ageing means we can no longer derive purpose from our physical abilities; that is, how we see ourselves can no longer depend on being able to dothings …

For men especially, when we are not the breadwinners of the household, or don’t have grandchildren to brag about, or can’t point to a list of worldly accomplishments …

When having children is not a possibility, despite the dreams of youth …

When we no longer can have or do what we want …

In all these cases, and there are more, when who we are—who we thought we were—no longer works. Then, who are we?

“What we’re really being invited to give up [when Jesus talks like this] is not our car, our house, our laptop and our multiple hand-held devices (although it would be healthier to have a much lighter grip on all of those things). The possessions that we are really fiercely attached to are much less tangible: our ideas about who we are, beliefs deeply hidden even—especially—from ourselves, the self-sustaining narratives that we run for reassurance over and over again.”[5]

What would it look like in our lives when our priorities would shift? When we would regard all that we have and our relationships through the prism of faith? When all the material things we possess, when our long-held, cherished assumptions, our stalwart beliefs were seen through the perspective of faith?

What if Jesus were calling us to re-align our inner compass so that Monday through Saturday had just as much to do with faith as Sunday morning did?

When I breathe in the refreshing, clean air blowing from the north, I reflect on the nature of breath. Breath is gift. I take it in. I need it for life. I delight in it.

But I also have to let it go, for life. I need to breath out. I can’t continue to inhale unless I also exhale. Give it away. Return it to the world. The gift continues to become a gift for someone else, over and over again. I don’t possess it.

As Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the 12th century, “I am a feather on the breath of God.”

I recently read a wonderful definition of home. It wasn’t so much a definition stated with absolute resolve, more a suggestion to consider. What if home was not so much ‘where we’re from’ but more ‘where we are wanted.’[6]

In God’s realm on earth and in heaven, you are wanted. God wants you. In that mutual desiring, that is where our home is. And, what is more, God wants the stranger, the outsider, too. The other. God wants all of us. The span of God’s love covers this land and the whole world. “For God so loved the world …”[7]

Home is where we are wanted. When we are in communion with God, when we affirm our connection with the living Lord, when we can live out of the power of God’s Spirit in whom we move, live, breathe and have our being.

 

 

[1]Luke 9:51-62

[2]Matthew 10:37-38

[3]Meister Eckhart, Richard Rohr, Jim Green—to name a few.

[4]Jim Green, Giving Up Without Giving Up (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), p.67.

[5]Jim Green, p.68-69.

[6]Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone (Toronto: Random House, 2009)

[7]John 3:16