The loved migrant: a ‘washing feet’ analogy

The disciples need to have their feet washed.

It was not only customary in ancient times to wash the feet of guests into your home, but necessary. Calloused and muddy feet were the norm in an age of open-toed sandals and pedestrian highways. Providing this service was a kind and appreciated gesture offered to the weary pilgrim.

But no one else had volunteered to do it. The disciples had followed all the Lord’s instructions to prepare for a meal in the upper room. They had bought what they needed in preparation for the Passover. They had gathered the bread and wine. Check. Check. Check.

So, what made them miss this important act of hospitality, friendship and welcome? What blinders did they have on?

Perhaps, we can’t underestimate the state of affairs among the disciples. Recall, they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.[1]And for any one of them to volunteer to wash feet would be to lose the argument. Because only servants and slaves washed the feet of their superiors.

So Jesus got up to do it—shocking them all by his disregard for social and cultural convention.[2]

And then, as if that wasn’t shock enough to the system, Jesus looks up at the disciples, looks them square in the eyes and says:

“If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (v.14)

How good are we at ‘washing one another’s feet’? We’re not doing it in worship tonight on Maundy Thursday. I don’t believe we’ve ever done it here at Faith. But maybe we need the practice.

Since my father’s death earlier this year, I’ve been reviewing his life story, going over certain details. Especially in his formative days when he migrated from Poland to London, England, in the mid-1960s, I see a pattern emerge.

The small town in southern Poland where he was born and raised was and has been the largest concentration of Lutherans in a predominantly Roman Catholic nation. They called themselves the Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession. And, the church whose bishop he assisted later in London was the Lutheran church ‘in exile’ from Poland. This church was taken care of by the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

Even though commissioned to serve ELCIC congregations when he and my mother immigrated to Canada in 1967, Dad was still called upon to serve Polish-speaking Lutherans once a month in an independent Lutheran Church in Toronto during the 1980s. This congregation has since become part of the Missouri Synod.

When our long-time family friend from Toronto visited us here in Ottawa a couple weeks ago, I was reminded again of this pattern: My father had been, in the first part of his life certainly, born and bred in the culture and beliefs of the Missouri Synod/Confessional Lutheran Church, worldwide, you could say.

The question I’ve pondered is: What made him change his allegiance? Why not continue to remain serving the denomination and church culture of his childhood and youth—even in North America? Why did he change? What made the difference?

It wasn’t doctrinal, by and large. I remember several debates we had around the kitchen table over the hot button issues in the church during the past few decades. And he usually tended towards the more conservative stance. It wasn’t doctrinal. It wasn’t about beliefs and confessions of faith. It was something else.

When he was serving the Missouri Synod church in London, he met someone over lunch after worship one day. This man, William Dase, had been a pilot in the war. A Canadian flying with the British Airforce, he had made many runs over London. And, after the war, decided to make London his home.

He was also a major benefactor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. In conversation over lunch, my Dad expressed a desire to learn English, and not anywhere people knew him. Somewhere far away from any Polish-speaking Lutherans, he felt he could master the English language. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he also didn’t believe he could ever return to Poland a free person.

And so Dase posed a simple question, with significant consequence: Why not spend a study year at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Canada? Dase would sponsor my Dad’s study and booked passage for both my parents on the ocean liner, Maasdam, to set sail from Southampton to Quebec.

Before my parents landed in Waterloo, the Dean of the Seminary at the time, Professor Dr. Hauser, had already arranged an apartment in student housing and a job in the cafeteria kitchen for my mother which paid $75 a month. This was just enough to cover the rent for the apartment.

After completing his master’s degree at Waterloo, my Dad was appointed to serve a small rural parish north of Stratford, Ontario. He needed a car. So, Assistant to the Bishop, Dr. Berner, of the Eastern Canada Synod, went with my Dad to the bank to arrange a loan to buy a VW Beetle. Dr. Berner used his standing with the bank as collateral for the loan.

However, after the year was up, my parents’ temporary student and visitor VISAs were expiring. And so, the Dean of the Seminary, Dr. Hauser, promptly took my parents to the immigration office in Kitchener to vouch for an upgrade to landed immigrant status— ‘my parents would make excellent citizens in Canada’, he told the immigration officer without hesitation. They received their immigrant status on the spot.

When my brother and I came along a couple of years later—twin boys—thus creating an instant family that doubled in size literally overnight, my parents experienced a sudden strain on the household budget.

The bishop of the Eastern Canada Synod, then Bishop Lotz, immediately arranged for a changed call to the three-point parish in Maynooth, Raglan and Denbigh—because these parishes were able to offer a higher wage.

That was then, this is now. I understand. Nevertheless, I am impressed in reviewing this history how church people who were in a position to do so could make such a positive difference in the lives of those in need. No just once. But consistently. Over time. And in response to various needs.

I can say with certainty that it was the love shown in practical, simple, ordinary ways to my parents when they immigrated and settled into Canada, that made all the difference.

The disciples needed their feet washed, after all. Despite all their debating and power struggles and determining who was right and who was wrong. Jesus showed his disciples, and shows us, that to help another is to put oneself on the same level as the other. Not to ‘lord it over’ in a condescending manner, but to recognize the common humanity we all share.

Jesus shows us what it means to fulfill the ‘new commandment’ of love.[3]If the world will know that ‘you are my disciples’, it has nothing to do with agreeing on doctrine, creedal statements, confessions of faith. In fact, arguing about these things, as the disciples tended to do, hinder this expression of true discipleship.

In the Gospel of John, the disciples do not and cannot understand the significance of Jesus’ actions until after Easter.[4]Even then, their faith still falters.[5]In John, “the disciples’ divine election and sustenance do not depend on how much they understand. Their faith is perfected, not in knowledge, but in how much they love their fellow lambs (21:15-19; cf. 1 Cor 13:12-13).”[6]

Jesus tells his disciples after washing their feet, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”[7]

It’s about loving action, not knowledge/understanding.

St John of the Cross wrote: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” I concur. When all is said and done, at the end of the road, we will be asked: “How have you loved your neighbor?” not “Did you believe the right things?”

Just like washing one’s feet is messy, and uncomfortable, so at first it may feel out-of-sorts to be so vulnerable to one another. There are boundary issues when it comes to feet, to be sure.

We are not used to small and ordinary acts of self-giving for another. We need to practice. In an age when congregations and denominations are significantly divided over doctrinal, social, and other issues, and sometimes have difficulty even gathering at the same table for a meal with one another—what do we need? What do we really need?

More debate? More information? More knowledge? More convincing arguments? Really?

The disciples just needed their feet washed.

 

 

[1]Luke 22:24-27

[2]Jim Green Somerville in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.276

[3]John 13:1-17,31-35, the Gospel text for Maundy Thursday, according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]2:22; 7:39; 12:16; 14:26

[5]20:19-29; 21:20-23

[6]C. Clifton Black, Feasting on the Word., ibid., p.279

[7]John 13:17, emphasis mine.

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.

Blessed, to trust

Jesus’ words to Thomas are meant for us. Yes, they were first said to Thomas over two thousand years ago in the upper room in Jerusalem days after Jesus’ resurrection. Yes, they were intended to increase his faith in light of his doubting and fear. Yes, the early church and disciples heard these words for them, too.

When Thomas confesses his faith in the risen Lord, Jesus says: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”[1]They are for us.

Let’s slow down and savour these words. Let’s look at three sections of this short sentence.

First, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

When do we not see? What are the times in life when God is unrecognizable?

In the face of great suffering or great love,

in the presence of death and dying,

and facing the difficult questions of living such as: Why do children suffer disease, poverty, persecution? Why do people who don’t deserve it, suffer? When the usual, easy answers don’t fit.

When we stand in the presence of a great mystery.

When everything points to everything except what is good.

When all words and ideologies fail.

Then, “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

What are the qualities of these people who have ‘not seen’? These are people …

Who sometimes doubt.

Who are not certain.

Who don’t have all the facts.

Who can’t provide an easy explanation.

Who don’t have proof.

Who have done without.

Who have to trust someone else, and ask for help.

Who have to trust …

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Finally, what does it mean to believe? To believe and to trust, are very similar. The two words appear on the faith cube. You might wonder why the authors of this toy decided to keep the two words separate even though they might, to our minds, mean essentially the same thing.

IMG_6887

And yet, it is worthy to ponder the subtle distinction between the two. Martin Luther understood faith as meaning the addition of the two concepts: Belief + Trust, not as opposing realities but complementing in distinct ways.

Belief is a function mainly of the mind. When we discuss doctrines, creeds. When we debate interpretations of scriptures and statements of faith. To believe is to access the cognitive capacity of our brains. It is, in the lingo of psycho-babble, the left brain analytical side that relishes in rational thought. To believe, in short, is to think through it.

Trust, on the other hand (or, on the other side of the brain), is more intuitive. Trust does not require a full explanation. Trust does not need all the facts and arguments in favor or against. Trust is a function mainly of the heart. Trust lowers the center of intelligence down from the brain to the heart.

Trust is relational. Trust understands our need for the other, to be open to the other, to take risks for and with the other. Trust calls us out of ourselves, to get out of the isolation of all our mental activity – to reach out to the other.

“Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

Jesus affirms for Thomas and the disciples that to follow in the Way of Christ, especially to generations and people like us thousands of years after the fact, that we need to trust others, and trust ourselves. To believe in Jesus, is to believe the witness of generations of Christians before us, to trust their witness, and to walk in the way precisely when easy explanations and scientific proof fall short.

We don’t ‘trust blindly’. That is often the criticism of trust, when it feels like we would be making an irrational decision not based in fact or evidence.

But we are trusting the most capable and the truest part of ourselves when we let go of our cognitive compulsions and let go into the love that sustains the heart.

The opposite of love is not hate. It is fear. “Perfect love casts out fear,” we read from the author of the second reading today[2]. We need to confess that it is fear that keeps us stuck in our heads, and keeps us stuck on the ground. Major decisions in our lives, decisions that changed the course of our lives, decisions that were important to us – were they born out of fear or love? Were they more a movement of the heart or head? Or some combination of both?

A music analogy …

I have been learning a new musical instrument these last couple of years. Classical guitar. Which is different, a little bit, from the acoustic guitar that you often see in churches today, and listen to in popular music.

In comparison, the classical guitar uses nylon strings, which tend to produce a softer, delicate, more harp-like sound. The fingerboard is wider on the classical guitar, and the body – the bell – of the instrument is smaller. When you hold the classical guitar, the curve of the body, which is more pronounced, sits on your left knee (if you are right-handed). And rather than strum chords, you pluck separate notes on the classical guitar. It’s a beautiful-sounding instrument.

But as with learning to play any instrument, and staying with it, there is a progression that needs to happen from the head to the heart. Listen to what Barry Green, renowned double bass player, writes about when teaching another musician how to play vibrato on their instrument. Vibrato is rolling your finger back and forth over your string when playing a note.

“On my Pacific tour,” he writes, “I coached Edith, a bass player from the New Zealand Symphony. She had tried to use her vibrato in a number of different places in a slow, expressive sonata by Vivaldi and couldn’t decide where it ‘worked’ best. None of her experiments quite had the right feel to them.

“I wanted Edith to discover the best places for vibrato by herself, so I asked her to play the piece without making any effort to put in a vibrato. I asked her to imagine that her fingers, not her brain, would tell her what to do, and suggested that she only use vibrato when her fingers ‘screamed at her’ to do so.  Since she would not have decided in advance which notes needed the vibrato, I was confident that her hands would be free to supply it unconsciously.

“Her performance improved immediately: Both her sound and her vibrato were smoother and richer.”[3]

Obviously to gain this level of playing, Edith had to practice and practice and practice. She had to become technically proficient in playing the bass. But to begin to enjoy playing and hearing the sounds you are creating on your instrument, to discover the resiliency of performing and the joy of making music, the usual questions provided by the mind must be eclipsed by the heart.

In other words, the mind will give instructions, constantly critique, and fan the flames of fear and self-consciousness – all of which undermine the making of a beautiful sound. We need the mind’s work, to an extent. But we also need to be able to let go of what the mental activity can get rather compulsive about. We need to grow up, as people of faith.

Albert Einstein, the most eminent scientist of the twentieth century, you would think would defend the prominence of the mind over the heart, the rational over the intuitive. So, this quote from him might surprise you; he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Take his phrase, ‘intuitive mind’ to mean the ‘intelligence of the heart’.

Intuition relies on the capacity of trusting: Trusting the love, this capacity and capability within you, trusting the other who is willing to help, assuming the good intentions of others rather than immediately judging them – these are the attributes of one who has maturing faith. Especially, faith in God.

“Blessed are they who have not seen, yet have come to believe.”

 

[1]John 20:29

[2]1 John 4:18

[3]Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The classical guide to reaching a new level of musical performance,” (New York: Doubleday & Company /Pan Books, 1986), p.113.

The human face of a vulnerable God

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote a play entitled: ‘The Living Dead”. The climactic scene is set in the attic of a house in France during World War II, where a half dozen captured members of the Resistance are being kept. The prisoners anxiously await the morning, when they will be executed.

An unexpected thing happens, however. The attic door opens, and the Nazi soldiers throw in the leader of the Resistance. The Nazis don’t know who he is. As far as they are concerned, they simply caught a man out after curfew.

The prisoners’ anxiety turns to courage. They tell their leader, “Don’t worry. We will hold our tongues.” The leader responds, “I thank you, for myself, for the Resistance, for France. Your courage and your sacrifice will not be forgotten.”

Suddenly, one of the prisoners says, “Oh, shut up. Nothing you have to say could possible mean anything to us. I am not blaming you … the fact is that you are a living man and I am a dead woman after tomorrow morning. The living and the dead have nothing to say to each other …and that fact puts an impenetrable barrier between us.”[1]

The Leader of the Resistance is an example of who God is NOT. Until Jesus, there indeed stood an impenetrable barrier between the divine and the rest of us. This is precisely why God became human. If God couldn’t bridge that divine-human divide, how could we love God? How could God love us?

When we look at the world today, we may just the same want to get angry at our human leaders if they lack authenticity. Scenes of African poverty, the chaos of Middle Eastern refugee camps, the evil of human trafficking, the growing divide between rich and poor, the scandals and fake posturing in politics – these all make us angry.

Indeed, in life we sometimes feel like shouting at God: “Shut up!” And working through that anger is good, I believe, because we will realize that many of our gods are not God: The god of domination. The god of violence. The god of consumerism. The gods of competition and combat. The gods of politics and superiority. Which lead us in the opposite direction when it comes to the God of the cross, and God’s relationship with us and the world.

We arrive soon at the climax of Jesus’ earthly, very human story. And this man who reflects the face of God says something very different from the gods of this world.

German Reformed theologian, Juergen Moltmann, tweeted this week: “We discover his glory in his humbleness, his greatness in his poverty, his power in his self-surrender, from the wretched manger in Bethlehem to the desolate cross on Golgotha.”[2]

In today’s Gospel reading[3], Jesus says, “…My soul is troubled.” Jesus can say this. He is fully human and authentically relatable to us, as a human being. “Jesus had the full spectrum of emotion and experience. He was sad and had compassion for those who suffered. He wept with a broken heart including upon the death of his friend Lazarus. He got mad at injustice and hypocrisy (“you brood of vipers!”) and got frustrated at his disciples who were continually arguing and not getting his point. Jesus changed his way of thinking as with the surprising confrontation with a Syrophoenician woman. Jesus learned and developed. Jesus was human!”[4]

God does not bypass the humanity and death we too must endure. God is now capable, because God became fully human, of removing the inseparable barriers between God and the world. Our Leader is one of us!

“…My soul is troubled,” says Jesus. Thank God for these words! These are the kind of things Jesus said that reveals the truth of the Christian God. Jesus says this in response to the inquiry of Gentiles during the Passover Festival in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus dies on the cross. Everything has been accomplished in his ministry and mission, even now to all the nations represented by the seeking Greeks.

Nothing is left now for Jesus to do other than his final surrender to death. Jesus is now ready to succumb to the evil gods of the world which will condemn and crucify the upstart prophet from Galilee.

When Pilate, the regional governor of Palestine, later confronts Jesus during his trial, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, his followers would be fighting to protect, defend and save Jesus.[5] Obviously, the method of God is not violence however justified. The way of God, is vulnerability and surrender. Not combat, not force-on-force, not physical strength, not invincibility nor violent justice.

Yes, we hear the human Jesus in that honest, vulnerable statement: “My soul is troubled.” In these words, Jesus crosses the divide between divine and human. He identifies with all our troubled souls however afflicted. He knows what is coming.

In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. We don’t and we can’t fall in love with abstractions. So, God became a person “that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands”.[6] The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) said the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other.”[7]

This is why to this day Christians have sought God among the faces of the poor, the destitute, the refugee, the homeless – and have tried to do their part in alleviating the plight of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Because that is where God is discovered.

“Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like an I-Thou encounter can. We are mirrored into life, not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the beloved self-image we can’t give to ourselves. Love is the gaze that does us in! How blessed are those who get it early and receive it deeply.”[8]

The prophet Jeremiah says it best: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”[9]

The good news is that the vulnerable God we worship and follow suffers with us. This vulnerable God in Christ Jesus lived in poverty and died in shame and torment. This God embraced our humanity. And has earned the right to ask us to hold on a little longer until morning comes … until resurrection.[10]

[1] Cited by Michael Battle in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.141-142.

[2] @moltmannjuergen, March 15, 2018

[3] John 12:20-33, Lent 5B.

[4] Brother Luke Ditewig, “Brother Give us a Word”, daily meditations from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), 20 January 2018.

[5] John 18:36

[6] 1 John 1:1

[7] Cited in Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditations”, 15 January 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeremiah 31:33-34

[10] Michael Battle, ibid., p.144.

Ordinary faithfulness

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:25-26, NRSV)

One reason the Stars Wars saga in the movies and on television has endured successfully over the years is because the themes in the story-telling resonate with ordinary life.

For example, the epic struggle between the dark side and the good side of the Force gets played out in entertaining fashion between the Sith lords and the Jedi masters. This war of fiction nevertheless resembles so much of how we perceive the struggles in our own lives, how we do battle with bad in our hearts and the evil in the world around us. It just goes on and on, already for some forty years, and never seems to end!

In the spin off TV series, “Star Wars: 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 sabres. Their light sabres 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, 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. The clock is ticking.

Individual challenges. But 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 Petro, 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. And, so 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.

Petro 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 already returning from their search. He is worried and anxious now that he won’t have enough time.

Feverishly sprinting down tunnels and turning corners Petro doesn’t know what to do. Until he comes across one of his class mates, Ketuni, trapped behind a glass 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 where her return passage was blocked. Just as she had recognized the main tunnel near the exit, she realized she was trapped. There was no way she had enough physical strength herself to break the glass 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 Petro rush by. Ketuni calls, “Help! Get me out! Help!”. Petro 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, Petro comes back to the trapped Ketuni. Still without a crystal himself, Petro 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!” Petro cries. Reluctantly, yet realizing the truth of what he says, Ketuni runs to the exit. At that moment Petro notices a crystal glimmering in the ice of the wall he just broke down to help his friend. In his willing sacrifice for her sake, he finds what he is looking for himself. By the end of the story, of course, Petro makes it out just in the nick of time.

One of the lessons learned from the story is the mutual blessing that comes from serving first the needs of the other as the way of finding your own true needs met. Our little friend needed to learn the value of trust in working together.

Star Wars, like many popular stories, are grandiose in order to get our attention and entertain us. Yet, the spiritual life, our pilgrimage of faith on earth, is anything but grandiose. Neither, by the way, is it entertainment. Because of the influence of our hyper-stimulated culture, we may be tempted to believe our faith, if it has any value, has to show itself in spectacular fashion.

We may be tempted to believe that if we have any faith at all, it has to be mass media worthy, go viral on the internet and make millions: a grand spectacle of sacrifice, of laying down one’s life, of doing what no one else could do. These extraordinary spectacles, unfortunately, can serve to keep us stuck in the rut of unbelief. “Well, we can’t do that,” we convince ourselves. And we give up. And don’t do anything for the sake of the common good.

But true faithfulness begins with the first, small, ordinary step. It begins with something we can do.

Twentieth-century Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt defined prayer, simply yet profoundly, as: “a long, loving look at the real.”[1] Long, because it is unhurried and quiet. Loving, because our connection with God, however we do it, is done in the context of love. Prayer is a look, because we do it being aware; we pay attention, simply. We don’t analyze, define or describe; we simply observe and acknowledge. Finally, prayer is real because it focuses on our daily life and what is ordinary.

So, what do we do to follow Jesus? How do we ‘lose’ our life? How can we find what we are looking for by looking to the needs of others? How can we move beyond being solely interested in our own individualistic well-being to those outside our families, friends, and immediate community?[2]

Reflecting on Burghardt’s definition of prayer, we can ‘look’ at what we already have. This requires us to slow down and pay attention, and quieting our compulsive, driven nature. Breathe. Because God is out there. God is present, even here. Even there.

One of our members asked recently a neighbor to describe what happens on and around our property on an average day. This, by the way, is prayer that is ‘real’ by focusing on what is ordinary. And the neighbor reported that between 2:30 and 3:30 every week day, about 30 kids on average, children of all ages, walk across our property from the bus stops along Meadowlands to their homes in the City View neighborhood. Thirty.

With presence of mind, our member asked the neighbor: What do they do when they walk across? Is there anything in particular that stands out in their behavior?

The neighbor said many of them like our benches outside the front doors. They like to sit and visit. They like to rest for a few minutes before continuing on their walk home.

When the member and I reflected on this, we realized there aren’t many, if any at all, public places in the neighborhood where people can sit awhile. Not only do we fill a need providing a place to sit, we encourage community-building, relationship-building right outside the doors to the church. How appropriate!

And for so many young people who are turned off the church, or at least afraid to enter into a church building these days, providing benches for young people to sit and visit sends a positive if subtle message about our identity and purpose as a church. It also sends a subtle yet real message of welcome.

This example is simple, ordinary, unspectacular. Yet, it is a first step in the right direction. As a community. Not as individuals doing our own thing. But, together, as a church.

And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about? We can only do what we are able to do, together. And then, when we take the first step, we watch as the Spirit of God can surprise us and meet our own needs. All because we began by simply responding to the needs of others. Giving from ourselves, for the sake of others. That is, following Jesus.

We become “children of the light”[3], the Light who shines through us.

[1] Cited in James Martin, SJ, “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), p.114.

[2] James Martin, SJ, ibid., p.183-184

[3] John 12:36

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

Better is not what you think

What happens when doors close and we don’t see other doors open? Life is full of closed doors: unemployment, failure to graduate, illness, tragedy, lost friendships, divorce — the list goes on. What happens when you are stuck in the middle of that transition and can’t see a way through? For whatever reason, doors close. The fact we sometimes don’t know why may make it harder to take.

Paul wanted and “attempted” to go to Asia. The lectionary doesn’t include the verses (6-9) immediately prior to the first text today (Acts 16:9-15). For some inexplicable reason, the Holy Spirit “did not allow” Paul and his cohort to travel there. A door is closed. 

But you’ve heard the cliche: When God closes a door, another one opens. Which is, presumably, a better deal.

After the door to Asia, and Paul’s ‘wants’, closes, he then goes to Macedonia after a convincing vision and on to Philippi where he meets Lydia. The result of their encounter is that “she and her household were baptized”. Good things happen. This open door was a successful mission. Even though, originally, this mission-field was not for-seen, planned, even desired.

The church finds itself in an uncomfortable situation these days. The glory days of ethnically-defined church planting and building are long gone. We still yearn for those good-old-days, the hey day of the kind of church we still try to maintain when Lutherans from Germany were streaming off the boats, church budgets were growing and pews were filled. For the institutional reality, it feels like a door is closing. And we don’t see a clear picture of what it is changing into.

It’s not a comfortable place to be, when doors close. Where’s the open door?

Earlier this year a couple members of a Lutheran church in Southern Ontario, decided to partner with a neighbouring church to organize a refugee sponsorship initiative. They complied with all the regulations, began a fundraising appeal, and the word got out.

Before long they had attracted fourteen people from the community to work alongside them. They found unprecedented success at mobilizing resources and motivating people to help. Tens of thousands of dollars was raised in no time. An apartment was secured and furnished without problem. A Syrian family was on the way.

The Lutherans on the committee made sure their own congregation was brought up to speed with regular reports, appeals for help and updates. To their surprise, and dismay, all but a couple on that growing committee were members of their church.

The gentleman who had initiated this refugee work lamented to one of the Synod staff who was close to the community, “What’s the point of doing all this work, when the people working on the committee don’t come to church on Sundays and put offerings in the plate?”

“Are others aware you are a Christian from a local congregation?”

“Are people being helped?”

“Is good coming out of all your efforts?”

“Are you doing this from your conscience as a Christian?”

“Do you feel God is calling you to do this work?”

All these questions were answered in the affirmative. So, what’s the problem? Maybe a door is closing, and maybe another has opened? It just isn’t what we may expect or think we want. The Holy Spirit is active in the world and among people. The question is, are we willing to walk through that open door? Congratulations to that Lutheran who took the initiative to do something when there was a need.

When a door closes, it can feel like you are unprepared for whatever may be. In life transitions, especially, the in-between ‘close door / open door’ time can be unnerving. When a baby is born, for example, no manual comes out with the baby. Being a parent is feeling your way to make decisions with each passing moment. Preparation — you can throw that out the door!

Of the top three major festivals of the church year, the Day of Pentecost comes up almost unexpectedly. Did you know it’s two weeks from today? Unlike Christmas and Easter which have long weeks of preparation (Advent and Lent, respectively) leading up to these high, holy days, Pentecost does not.

We only have Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John (14:23-29) to his disciples, these days, preparing them for his departure. And giving the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Occasions like this should be sad, unnerving, disquieting, too sudden. And, on some level, it is. It cannot be denied. After all, the disciples will no longer have Jesus physically present with them any more. In a way, they are losing something precious and dear to them: their leader, their confidant, their friend. The common reaction to a loved one’s leaving is sorrow and despair. We can understand. Sympathize.

And yet, Jesus tells them to “rejoice” that Jesus is going back to the Father. Be glad, that Jesus is leaving them? It doesn’t make sense. Be glad, that you are going? – You can probably hear the disciples murmur under their breath, trying to figure it out.

In coping with his absence, Jesus nevertheless gives them something even better. The door of his physical presence is closing. But another, better door, is opening. This is unexpected, never-before-seen, and unplanned (from the disciples’ point of view):

After he leaves, Jesus’ presence will be within them: Earlier in this chapter (v.20), Jesus says: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, they will have the power and the grace to do great things in the name of Jesus. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).

In order for the new door to open, the old door must close. The only way the disciples of Jesus can receive the Holy Spirit and do and be all that they are meant to be and do, is only after Jesus leaves them and returns to his Father in heaven.

The promises of God are rich. We may not see the outcome or how it will all turn out, in the end. Yet, it is true: Once a door closes, another will open. And it will not be what we think. It will be better!