Lego truth

Playing with Lego was both fun and scary. As a kid, the first thing I did after opening the box was dumping all the pieces on the floor in front of me.

The reason I wanted to play with the Lego blocks was the picture on the front of the box—a Star Wars fighter, a fire hall, a dune buggy or helicopter. My motivation, initially, was to reproduce the image on the box that first captured my imagination, an image which appealed to me in some way.

In order to accomplish this task, what did I need?

After dumping all the pieces on the floor, I held the empty box in one hand and I stuck my free arm into the box searching for the multi-folded instruction manual.

This booklet was my lifeline. Or, so I felt, at the time. Before doing anything I would read and re-read the step-by-step instructions carefully, making sure I had all the pieces. I would even, after having read through the entire manual, organize the pieces on the floor into piles according to colour, and function. That way, I could accomplish my work in as efficient a manner as possible.

Once the project was done, I dissembled it and put the pieces back in the box. Some favourite models were re-constructed over and over again, over time. Depending on how complex the model was, I even learned to remember how to connect certain parts of the model without needing the instructions.

And, as it likely goes with all Lego, eventually over time pieces from various projects get dumped and mixed together in one big box.

I said, playing with Lego was also scary. If the instruction booklet went missing or was accidently thrown out or misplaced and I wanted to re-construct the original model, it rarely became exactly the way it was first designed: The fire hall became a garage. The dune buggy became a go-cart. The Star Wars fighter became a shuttle.

Scary, because starting from scratch without the instructions, I had to be somewhat creative. A risky venture, to say the least. What would I end up with? Would I like it? Would it work? How many times would I have to start over?

The central image in the Gospel reading today from Mark 13 is the temple in Jerusalem. It was a magnificent structure by first century standards. Finished by Herod a couple centuries before Jesus, the temple had signified the center of religious life in the region for a long time.

While the central image is the temple, perhaps the most captivating words are from Jesus who promises that not one stone will be left, one on the other.[1]In other words, this glorious building will be utterly destroyed. Understandably, not only are the temple authorities shocked, dismayed and offended by Jesus’ words, his very own disciples are alarmed. “Tell us, when will this happen? What will be the signs?” they drill Jesus with anxious questions.

Understandably, the vision of the temple’s complete demise causes anxiety and fear. After all, what will their faith look like? Where can they go to pray? What is their identity in faith, without the temple being there as it has been for the last couple hundred years–an anchor, a certainty, a visible, concrete reminder of their faith? Is it all for naught? Is it all lost, forever?

Scary. It’s like looking at a pile of Lego blocks on the floor wondering—what are these pieces supposed to do? What am I to do with them? The temptation to give up and do something else is huge.

In life, it sometimes feels like the instruction manual has gone missing. In life, it sometimes feels like what had worked in the past just doesn’t, cannot, work anymore. Like those tried-and-true patterns and go-to’s just don’t do the trick anymore quite like it used to. And that can be scary.

What are the ‘instruction manuals’ in our own lives that have given us our sense of security and certainty–a way of thinking that has informed our opinions; a mindset that we have never questioned? Or, have we looked at the bible like a legal text, a how-to playbook that you never question, or you dare not question? Is it a place, a building, a person?

What are those instruction manuals that seem to be slipping away into a pile of dis-ordered, chaotic pieces  in front of us?

Both in our personal lives, but also in the church, the prospect today of staring into the abyss of uncertainty and fear is very real. And here, we confront the important distinction between reality and truth.

On the one hand, there is the reality: In our personal lives, the reality usually presents itself as a problem—regarding health, relationships, work, politics—wherever a problem or challenge emerges.

In the church, the reality is becoming clearer: the dwindling numbers, the absence of youth and children in church life, the lack of financial resources, budget numbers spending more time in the red than in the black. These are the presenting realities about which everyone who cares has an opinion.

But, what is the truth underlying the reality? What are the issues underneath, that keep us stuck from embracing the presence of God still active in the world around us and in our lives—despite the problems? What truths do we need to unearth about ourselves, our feelings, our thinking, our behavior?

One truth we discovered in an asset-mapping exercise is we have so many resources we haven’t seen or thought about. We have so many resources we haven’t considered or recognized. What is the underlying asset buried in the problem? Do we see it? Do we want to?

What keeps us stuck, in moving forward with the gifts and talents and passions and capacity to do good? What keeps us from being creative with the ‘pieces’ of all that is possible right before our eyes?

When I took my First Aid Course a couple of years ago, an important part of the training was an initial conversation about our attitudes giving help to someone suffering an emergency — the broken leg, the heart attack. You could say, the reality was the presenting emergency. But the question posed for discussion got closer to the truth of why we are doing what we are doing. The question was:

What inhibits you, or what causes you to hesitate, in helping someone who is in obvious physical distress and need? In other words, what would keep you from engaging the situation before you?

The responses were common and what you might expect, ranging from: picking up germs, worried you will make matters worse, worried about legal implications should giving First Aid fail, or disrupting your busy day’s schedule. All of these inhibitions and issues are reasons not to give First Aid.

Fortunately, the training spends time dealing with each individual concern. Once these concerns are addressed, we are free to engage the situation in a helpful, responsible manner. We will still likely struggle with ourselves and our concerns, yet be assured that over time and with a lot of work all will be well.

During the first centuries when the stories we read in the New Testament took shape in the imagination of early Christians, it was a transition time for religious Jews. Following the destruction of the temple during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the local synagogue became the gathering place. No longer did a temple provide the central focal point. Now the local synagogue became central to the identity of many Jewish people.

This transition lasted centuries. It didn’t happen overnight. Enduring change takes time and a whole lot of patient, committed endurance.

Whether it be personal matters that present a challenging reality for us, or whether it is in the church—the question we need to ask ourselves is: Without that proverbial set of instructions, what can we build? What can we build together using the pieces that we have? The possibilities are truly endless.

Because this is the new thing that God is building and creating in our lives. And it is good.

 

[1] Mark 13:1-8

Remembrance Day Centennial

One of the reasons I wear my poppy year after year leading up to Remembrance Day, is to remind myself that freedom has a cost.

And that cost is not just ‘a drop in the bucket,’ spare change for which I reach into my deep pockets that doesn’t really make any difference in my life to do without. So, I throw them at some otherwise good cause. And feel smug.

In the Greek language in which the Gospel text from Mark[1]is originally written, we read that what the widow cast in the temple treasury was her bios. Her bios — meaning, literally, her very life. This text “invites us to imagine not two copper coins going into the treasury, but the very body and soul of the widow; her bios falling into the treasury.”[2]Freedom is not cheap. Freedom demands a whole lot of giving. Whatever good we see at the end of it all calls forth our very life.

Then, the punch to the gut. If we read on into the next chapter of Mark, Jesus says that this temple in Jerusalem—to and for which all those people were making donations—will soon be destroyed.[3]Throughout the Gospels, we know the temple and its culture was corrupt. Jesus had criticized, even became angry against, what was going on inside. In a fit of rage he had upturned the money changers’ tables in the temple. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” He cried, outraged.[4] Such behaviour from Jesus incited a condemning response from temple authorities, precipitating plans to have him silenced. The conflict between Jesus and the temple was well documented. And soon, Jesus would have the last word, promising that this building will be “thrown down.”

And Jesus is not just talking spiritually, here, referring merely to his body. His word was actually fulfilled: During the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Roman armies destroyed the temple.

The juxtaposition of these texts is not without purpose, its meaning dare not be ignored. The structure of the narrative strongly suggests that the widow gives all she has to an institution that is going to be utterly destroyed.

According to Jesus, the widow gave more of her life than the rich people because she gave “out of her poverty”.[5]I think this is the key to understanding what Jesus is really getting at by drawing our attention to the widow’s gift.

She gave out of her poverty. I suspect we associate the freedom won on the battlefields with freedom to seek after material prosperity and amass financial wealth. In other words, we attribute freedom with permission in this land to become rich if we can.

The freedom of which the bible speaks, however, is not a freedom to invest, but to divest; where power and privilege divests itself in weakness which the world considers “foolish”. Remember Paul’s words from Corinthians: God made foolish the wisdom of the world.[6]

The widow gives her all, her bios, not for the temple treasury, not for the sake of the institution, not to build and maintain the stones, the bricks, the mortar, the properties, the buildings, the skyscrapers and the material wealth of church and society. Not for building an empire under the guise of ‘freedom.’ The giving of the faithful is not for these things.

Rather, the widow gives her all, her bios, for her neighbour. For the sake of relationship—relationship with the poverty within her own soul, relationship with the poverty in her neighbours, and relationship with the poverty of God: Christ crucified.

The placement of these stories in the Gospel narrative is significant, because even this story—often interpreted solely about stewardship and ironically giving money to upkeep an institution that is dying or will die—ultimately points to Jesus Christ, on the cross.

The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for that which is going down. The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for that which is imperfect and corrupt. The widow, like Jesus, gives her life for what we might regard as foolish, unproductive and a waste, to that which is undeserving.

She gives her life for us, trusting in a resurrection that will rise out of the ashes of her divestment, out of her poverty.

The cost for freedom does not happen when we go to church. We don’t do good by coming to church. The service women and men who risked it all, and as such modelled for us a self-giving that is truly remarkable, didn’t do it in church. But, rather, on the battlefield of life. We do good by going out from the doors of the church into the world, for the sake of the Gospel. And for the love of the God, in Christ, who gave all, for us—corrupted, broken, sinful, weak, sometimes useless people. Can we do in like for others, out there?

This year, 2018, is significant for the Canadian Armed Forces for several reasons, including the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. And, as such, the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day on November 11th observed every year since.

According to Veterans’ Affairs Canada, since Confederation in 1867, approximately 2.3 million Canadians have served in uniform, and more than 118,000 have given their lives.

As people of faith, not only do we this day thank our brave men and women who have served Canada at home and abroad, we also express our thanks to and support efforts to walk with and help our veterans after they complete their service.

We may not be aware of the plight of many veterans, trying to live, trying to survive, in this very city of Ottawa. In the attached video link, see and hear what Multifaith Housing Initiative Ottawa is doing to provide affordable and safe housing for dozens of homeless veterans. The new project, planned for the grounds on the old Rockcliffe Airforce Base, is called, “Veteran’s House.” The desire, here, is to serve those who have served us.

The task is ours to practise the gift first given to us in Christ, the gift of grace and mercy that is the way of freedom.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=H4DFg9_hhig&feature=share

 

[1]Mark 12:38-44

[2]Professor Allen Jorgenson, Martin Luther University College in Waterloo, writes in his bible study on this text given at the 2018 Eastern Synod Assembly, Mississauga.

[3]Mark 13:1-2

[4]John 2:16

[5]Mark 12:44

[6]1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Pilgrims rising

Don was a husband and father who one day was commuting home after work in a bad thunder storm, when the car he was driving was struck by lightning. Don was okay, and he managed to get home. Sitting down with his teenaged children, he relayed to them his harrowing experience.

Expecting at least a small degree of sympathy from them, Don was perplexed when his eldest interrupted: “Quick, let’s go buy a lottery ticket because they say the chances of being struck by lightning are like the chances of winning the lottery.”

The disconnect we feel in how Jesus’ disciples often responded to him is not dissimilar. He tells them he must die a horrible death. And they respond by demanding seats of power, authority and glory beside Jesus. His disciples continually seem out of sync with their leader’s meaning.

The Gospel for today[1]must be read in the larger context of Mark’s writing here. In Mark, we see that this is the third time Jesus announces his death, the third time the disciples respond in perplexing ways, and the third time Jesus responds to them by giving them a commentary on true discipleship.[2]

By looking at the what comes immediately before this text, we also discover that the disciples who followed Jesus were afraid.[3]It’s fair to presume, then, their desire and request to secure positions of glory once Jesus took his rightful throne on earth and/or in heaven was born out of fear.

The connection between fear and striving for security is common in all of us, to this day.

We are afraid. We fear the changing realities which make new demands on our time, energy and resources in the church. We fear the outcome of our health concerns. We fear the effects of an uncertain future, in our nation, our world and in our personal lives. In the fear of the unknown, it is a natural knee-jerk to secure anything down. Do something, anything, to give yourself the illusion of control. An insurance policy.

Let’s give the disciples the benefit of the doubt, to suggest perhaps they were aware that Jesus’ path was going to lead to his arrest, torture and death. And they knew that likely they, too, would be caught in the crossfire. They were probably aware that Jesus was causing an uncomfortable stir among the powers that be, religiously and politically, in Jerusalem. They saw the writing-on-the-wall.

And in the midst of this fear, the Sons of Zebedee tried to insure some benefit for all the sacrifices they were already making and would likely continue to make. Perhaps if they didn’t understand something, it was they couldn’t yet grasp the depths of the sacrifices they would make as a community of faith.

What Jesus stands for is a different way altogether from the way of the world. The disciples are caught up in the power plays of the world. They have in mind a hierarchy, a pecking order, of who’s on top. There is this Machiavellian feel to the debate amongst themselves, as if relationships of power must only be a win/lose scenario, a zero-sum game where in order to get ahead some people have to be left behind.

The way of Jesus, in contrast, is the way of the Cross. Jesus exposes the false way of the world by surrendering to it and dying by it. The way of the cross exposes our folly and calls us to a deeper more inclusive way.

Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. He called it, “A theology of the cross.” It is a way of understanding and imagining God. That is, God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to reveal—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world.

Luther thus criticized a “theology of glory” which presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary. This theology dominates not only in our society, but sadly also in the church.

A theology of glory reflects an unbridled, Pollyanna optimism that avoids and resists places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It despises our common humanity and the losses we all endure.

The way of Jesus is for all people, not just for those who make it to the top. The way of Jesus is for all people, because we all have our crosses to bear. We can share in our common suffering. And grow together. It is therefore in community, the Body of Christ, the body ‘broken for all’ we say in the Communion, where Christ is revealed and where our true purpose is born.

#OttawaRising is the hashtag used, announced and displayed on Ottawa Senators Hockey club promotional material. The vision is of the team rising out of the ashes of disappointment from last season. That was the season from hell, when they finished second-to-last place in the league standings, suffered through a broken, conflicted locker room and as a result had to trade away star players.

But it is only standing in the ashes that you can claim the vision of ‘rising’ again. The Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals wouldn’t declare resurrection as their identity, this season. It only makes sense to proclaim the resurrection in the midst of the defeat of the cross.

The Gospel abounds with a promise. The disciples may not hear it as such. But Jesus has great compassion on them. He does not rebuke them for being out of sync with him. He affirms that they will indeed drink the cup that he must drink and be baptized with the baptism that he must endure.

Jesus will continue to offer this promise and hope to us, that we will not always need to act and respond out of our fear. That what we do as a community does not need to be knee-jerk platitudes that only keep us stuck in cycles of fear, self-preservation and defensiveness. Jesus will continue to call us into deeper expressions of serving others and of paying attention to the needs of others not just our own.

If there was anything the disciples should have known with any amount of certainty, is that Jesus’ promise is secure and very sure. Because by being in last place, and losing it all, those first disciples would one day rise.

And so will we.

[1]Mark 10:35-45

[2]C. Clifton Black in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common LectionaryYear B Volume 4 (Louisville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.189.

[3]Mark 10:32

Doers of positive change

If you’ve followed the Ottawa Senators’ Hockey Club over the last year you will have endured a roller coaster ride. From the high, you will have tasted the sweet drippings of a near-berth in the Stanley Cup Championship Series sixteenth months ago …

To the low, feeling the despairing collapse of the team, not just to being out of the playoffs but crashing all the way to second last place in the NHL standings by the end of this past season.

What happened?

In the last several months, the nightmare season was enflamed by revelations of all the off-ice drama that was happening:

  • Allegations of sexual abuse by then assistant manager Randy Lee;
  • The politicking of owner Eugene Melnick to shame/scare the fan base that he was either going to move the team away from Ottawa, and/or that the downtown arena project may not happen motivating concerned fans to initiate an #MelnykOut ad campaign across the city;
  • Star player Erik Karlsson’s wife applying for a peace bond (restraining order) against the girlfriend of another star player, Mike Hoffman, who allegedly used social media and other means to send discriminatory, abusive messages to the Karlssons even during the loss of their unborn son in March;
  • And the continuing speculation around and probable trade of Erik Karlsson in the final season of his current contract.

General Manager Pierre Dorion was right when he told the media last Spring that his locker room was “broken.” Inter-personal relationships, team chemistry – the essential ingredients in a winning team – were damaged maybe even beyond repair.

While ‘on paper’ the team had skilled players and was comprised of the same core from the year previous when they had that successful run to the Conference Final, something significant had changed for the worse. And this subtle yet very real aspect of failed team-work was at the root cause of the team’s on-ice collapse last season. It wasn’t that they weren’t good players; it was their unhealthy, damaging ways of relating with each other that was the problem.

Funny we are talking here in the church about a hockey team that many of us follow in Ottawa. And yet, we can, I think, attend in a similar way to most areas of our social, political, religious, family and personal lives. Are their areas in your work, your volunteer efforts in the church and in the community, in your personal health, in any aspect of your quality of life let’s say, that are lagging, that yearn for renewal, new life, positive change?

For some time, Ottawa Senator players have been saying that there needs to be a culture change in the locker room and among team relationships. Goaltender Craig Anderson said this week he is looking forward to the changed culture in the coming season but he is “too old for all the drama.”

Teammate and hometown defenseman Mark Borowiecki who is considered a leader in the group called out his goalie and others on the team by suggesting they need to do more than just say they need a culture change. Each player and the players themselves as a team, has to do the work of changing the culture. It wasn’t going to happen by itself. No divine intervention. No single-player trade, no matter how newsworthy, was going to change their culture. They, the players, had to take on the responsibility to work at it.

Be doers of the word. A theme in the scriptures assigned for this day. In the Book of James we get the message that while words are important, actions reveal the truth, authentic self and purpose of what we’re about (1:22) more than anything else. What we do with ourselves, with each other – our actions – are the best teacher and communicator of what is most important to our common life, our team, you could say – whether that team is the church, the family, a marriage, a community group, a political movement, or a sports team.

And this action is not only about our performance on the ice, so to speak. This work of doing is not merely about the mission, out there. It is not about whether we succeed or fail on the mission field in getting the job done – the work of ministry in the world. Perhaps our failure at getting that job done out there may at least in part relate to our failure to do anything on the inside of our personal and corporate lives. And lacking the awareness and the belief of positive change within.

It is no wonder Bishop Susan Johnson and the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) has identified being a “healthy church” as one of the four vision priorities, moving forward in community. Being a healthy church means, to “develop and promote a culture of mutual trust and accountability.”[1]

That is, we relate with one another and the world around us in ways that reflect genuine listening, respect, humility and patience. In short, we offer safe spaces for personal interaction and growth. We can’t achieve the other vision priorities of the church, such as compassionate justice, spirited discipleship or effective partnerships, unless we are first a healthy group of people relating to one another.

And no one will make this culture change in our relational lives unless we are doers of the word, unless we take action that promotes growth, faith and positive change in our common lives.

In the mid-point of Mark’s short Gospel, Jesus spends a lot of time around the Sea of Galilee. When I visited Israel during my seminary years, our bus ride was only a couple of hours from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee. In Jesus’ day, it meant walking at least six days. Word of Jesus had certainly spread, and his actions of healing and eating with sinners and picking grain on the Sabbath made the Pharisees – the keepers of the Law – extremely nervous. So much so, that the powers that be from Jerusalem invested the better part of a month checking up on Jesus’ ministry (7:1).

It is sometimes amazing the lengths people will go in order to keep things the way they have always been. A radio sports commentator mentioned after the Anderson and Borowiecki interviews that Mark Borowiecki was right: talk of culture change has been swirling around the same group of players for most of last season with little, actual change in their performance. It seems we haven’t really been taught how to work at bringing positive change, starting with us.

Change is frightening, to be sure. Institutions often seek to preserve the status quo. That was true in Jesus’ day. And it is true in congregations as much as in team locker rooms these days. Yet change, as we must surely know living in this time and place in history, is the norm, not an exception.

I was pleased to hear Pastor Mei Sum Lai, leading her last worship service at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Orleans[2]last Sunday, thank the congregation for allowing change to happen during her tenure there. I then reflected on all the changes that have happened here at Faith[3]in the last six years or so:

  • The bold decision to bring significant upgrades and modernization to the building and sanctuary;
  • The gutsy decision to worshipping for four months with our local Anglican parish while the sanctuary was off-limits in its renovation;
  • The move to weekly Communion;
  • The involvement of lay readers and worship assistants;
  • The completion of the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Women as a formal entity
  • The introduction of Christian Meditation as a weekly prayer group;
  • The evolution of bible study to a prayerful encounter with the Word;
  • The ongoing evolution of meals at the church in all its fits and starts – to name a few changes.

These changes, good or bad in your view, are nevertheless good practice for us. Making these changes are good exercise for us, for the positive changes that God is bringing about in our world and church. Because we won’t do it perfectly. We will make mistakes. We will even fail at times. But avoiding failure is not the point of Christian identity and mission. The point is, we are following Christ – or trying to – on a rocky and uncertain road in the post-modern world. Trying amidst the noise and chaos to discern and listen to Jesus’ voice.

What is at stake, is what we believe. What do we believe about change? I think this makes a huge difference in how that rocky road will go for us.

Despite the negative scrutiny and criticism heaped upon Jesus by the Pharisees, what does Jesus do in response? Does he cave into the pressure to play by the religious rules of the day? Does he try to please the authorities and adhere to the tradition for tradition’s sake? Does he shift into self-preservation mode and quietly step into the shadows as not to garner any more attention? What does he do?

Jesus keeps on healing. If you read on in chapter 7, he goes on from Lake Galilee southward on the road into the non-religious Gentile region first to heal the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman[4], and then he opens the ears of the deaf man in the Decapolis.[5]

In fact, I don’t know of anyone in the New Testament who doesn’t change after encountering Jesus, whether by a healing or in a shift of attitude and approach to life. The most dramatic example, probably, is Saul of Tarsus who on the road to Damascus encounters the living Lord and experiences a profound conversion.[6]

When you meet Jesus, your life changes for the better not because you don’t do anything about it. But because you’ve placed yourself, for better or worse, in a position to receive the grace, healing and change of God. Historian Diana Butler Bass writes, “For all the complexity of primitive Christianity, a startling idea runs through early records of faith: Christianity seems to have succeeded because it transformed the lives of people in a chaotic world.”[7]During this time, Christianity was primarily about how to live a better, more faithful life, here and now within the kingdom of God.

Team play is as much an inner game as it is an outer game. And the inner game takes work, not just words. This inner work is not easy to do.

Perhaps you might have a hard time believing positive change is possible in your own life. If so, is it because we refuse to see the positive changes happening in those around us – in the life of the church, in our own families and friendship groups? Because when we refuse to accept that others have changed, we strike the death knoll and close the doors of our own hearts to see the change there.

So perhaps a first step would be to regard others, especially those closest to us, as on a journey that is changing and growing them in ways beyond our control. And then wait for Jesus’ call on your own life to follow him, to encounter him, to meet him on the road of life. In most of the people who meet Jesus, they present their own need. They approach Jesus in their vulnerability. Where they are hurting.

Because whatever the case may be with your own heart, whether or not you believe change in your own life and in the life of others around you is possible, God waits for you. God is patient, ready and willing to heal. God believes in you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]http://www.elcic.ca

[2]http://www.rlchurch.ca

[3]http://www.faithottawa.ca

[4]Mark 7:24-30

[5]Mark 7:31-37

[6]Acts 9:1-31

[7]Diana Butler Bass, “A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story” (HarperOne, 2009), p.26.

There’s a wild-ness to God’s mercy

“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths …

All your paths, O Lord, are steadfast, love and faithfulness

To those who hold on to your promise …”

(Psalm 25:4,10)

When I walked fifty kilometers on the sand last summer on Long Beach Peninsula on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Washington State, I was obviously forging my own path.

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Even though the beach was not busy any time I walked it, it was also obvious to me that many had travelled this route – by foot and vehicle, since cars are allowed to drive portions on this way.

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I couldn’t trust these other paths, however, since I was by myself I had no idea how long the footprints or car tracks had been there. And with the dramatic shift of tides on the beach every twelve-or-so-hours, I could easily lose a path someone else made.

And, you might presume that my 130-kilometer hike on the Camino in Spain  a month earlier would have been harder on my feet. While I did not get one blister in Spain – no problems there whatsoever with my feet – walking on Long Beach Peninsula was brutal by comparison.

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Often, we make assumptions about our faith journeys. We presume things about following the way of Jesus that are, simply, untrue. And only experience can verify. The first myth is that this path is easy – a walk along the Rideau Canal among the tulips on a sunny, quiet Sunday in May.

I’m watching  Mark Burnett’s TV production of “The Bible” this Lent. And I was impressed by the actor playing Moses, who when he parts the Red Sea with water spraying all around in the tumult, mayhem and stress of the moment – when the Egyptian army is bearing down on the Israelites – he calls to them, “Follow Me!”

It’s like an invitation to a roller coaster ride. Or worse! A part of me wants to say, “Thank you. But, no thank you. I’ll take that walk by the canal.”

These short verses from Mark’s Gospel focus on Jesus’ personal experience of change, leading to a simple message to his listeners to follow in his way. And his way leads through disruptive changes in one’s life. True growth is a wild journey, to say the least, to follow the path of Jesus by making our own through the desert of our lives.

Jesus’ baptism by John is something which Jesus experiences by himself. Mark gives no indication whatsoever that Jesus’ baptism is some public event witnessed by many. It is intended for Jesus alone. Jesus is set apart to experience a deeply personal, largely private, and divine event in his life.

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”[1]

This personally divine experience is not a pleasant, comforting event for Jesus. The word “torn apart” in Greek is used only at one other time in Mark’s short Gospel – at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the curtain in the temple was “torn apart.”[2] When Jesus experiences the blessing and call of his life, it’s not about gentle doves cooing from heaven. God does the ripping apart in both cases.

There’s a wild-ness and a danger in God’s grace. This is a disrupting affair. This is life and death stuff. You can only wonder whether Jesus didn’t see in a moment of churning clouds his own death – the end of the journey he was about to begin.

After Jesus’ baptism, the text takes a rapid shift, as Jesus is “immediately” driven into the desert. Mark does not go into the details of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. He does not reveal what it meant for Jesus to be with the “wild beasts”. His temptations are not described in detail, only that he was tempted by Satan. And, by the end of the time in the desert, the angels waited on him.

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Mark preserves these truths about anyone’s wilderness journeys: It is wild, for sure; and, no one else can make that human journey for us.

As Jesus was privy to his own struggle with the wild beasts, so is it with our journeys in the wilderness. Whenever we go through challenging times and transitions in our lives, whenever we experience the severity of life’s choices and consequences of our misdeeds, whenever we receive the blunt end of life’s punches in the death of loved ones, in the loss of any security, the pain of ill health – these are intensely personal demons we struggle with.

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No one else, really, can fully presume to understand this journey of ours. They are unique to us alone. Our temptations are unique to us as spiritual individuals on a human journey. We need, as individuals, to take ownership of our own wilderness journey.

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Some of you may have been surprised in the Ash Wednesday liturgy this year when I asked you to impose the ashes on your own forehead as I said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

For those of you who were here last Wednesday, I hope you reflected on the subtle change’s significance. If you are entering this forty-day journey, embracing the path of Jesus in some way, through the desert of your life – however you define your wilderness journey – then you need to own it yourself. No one else can do for you. At the start of this interior and life-changing journey, you will own your own ‘ash’, you will enter the desert of your own heart.

This journey is a journey of repentance. Repentance means, “a change of mind.” This is the original, basic meaning of the word – more than a renewing of the mind as Paul puts it,[3] repentance entails a radical turn around in thinking. This is largely an interior journey, in your mind and heart. “Rend not your garments,” the prophet Joel preached, “Rend your hearts.”[4] Will you go there, this Lent?

Martin Luther defined repentance as a returning to your baptismal waters. Returning to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s unconditional forgiveness and mercy upon your heart.

The Lenten journey can be taken by holding on to the promise of your baptism.  The path we make is only possible by the waters of faith. In the end, the waters of grace, of eternal presence of God, will wash away our delusions and give us sustenance for the journey. If we must forge our own path, we are not alone nonetheless. For, another has gone before us. One who loves us.

In his description of the journey of the Lenten season, American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”

He, then, outlines several questions for Christians to ponder during Lent. Among them:

  1. When you look at your face in the mirror, what do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  2. If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be – in twenty-five words or less?
  3. Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo?
  4. Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  5. If you had to bet everything you have on whether there is a God or whether there isn’t, which side would get your money and why?
  6. Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
  7. If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it?

“To hear yourself try to answer questions like these,” Buechner goes on, “is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all. But if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”[5]

[1] Mark 1:10

[2] Mark 15:38; Stanley P. Saunders in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.47.

[3] Romans 12:2

[4] Joel 2:13

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Wishful Thinking” (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Not a passive remembrance

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

Wise speech is a prayer

My parents, now retired pastors, have been ordained many years in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Polish Lutheran Church. My mother told me that not once in her long years of work did she choose to preach on the second lesson for this Sunday in Ordinary Time — the 18th Sunday after Pentecost — James 5:13-20. 

So, curious, I went back in my online archive of sermons to see if had. And to my surprise, I discovered that I now have preached two sermons in a row based on this text. The last time in the lectionary these texts appeared was three years ago in September 2012; and here we are three years later focusing on it again!

Why so? I asked myself. Many possible reasons likely. Not to mention the lectionary group here at Faith chose to reflect on James — yet again! Could it be, underlying this desire to look at James is the church’s need today for some practical advice about how to live the Christian life? Could it be, that the church today needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world?

When we think of all that we say, all the airtime we populate with our words, how much of it would we consider ‘wise’? It is important to ask this, since one of the major concerns in the Book of James is our speech (Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4, eds. Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, WJK Press, 2009, p.112). And, it’s not so much what we say but how we say it — in the context of the relationships involved. This, indeed, requires great wisdom. So, I ask again, how much of what we say would we consider wise?

My guess is, not much. When we think of all that we say that is hypocrisy — that doesn’t really coincide with the choices we make, the lifestyles we lead. When we think of all that we say that only ends up hurting others …

When wise speech happens, it is truly a holy event. This is speech that communicates truth and honesty. This is speech that reveals vulnerability, expresses compassion, tenderness and authenticity. This is speech that is wise. And wise speech is then a prayer in God, with God, to God.

And, it is not only spoken to the ceiling. Because prayer is fundamentally a public act, not a private affair. One of the unfortunate victims of the Reformation period  — which launched the Enlightenment and Industrial and Scientific Revolutions of the modern era — was that Confession was relegated to a lower place in the value systems of religion. As a result of these modernizing developments which heightened the importance of the individual in religion, prayer was reduced and confined to words spoken to the air in our private lives.

In contrast, Confession is about speaking honestly the truth of our lives to another and with another. Confession is wise speech which brings healing and wholeness, when another ‘in the flesh’ can hear the truth and respond with guidance and in love, mercy and forgiveness.

And what we do every time we gather to worship, is pray. We pray in all the parts of the liturgy. Whether we are celebrating the sacrament of the table, whether we are listening to the sermon, whether we are singing a hymn or ‘saying’ a prayer — we are praying! Including the Confession of sins, and the pronouncement of forgiveness.

It is true — the church needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world. I emphasize in today’s world because sometimes I don’t think we realize how decidedly unChristian this culture of ours is. And I don’t just mean the fact that we live in a multicultural, ethnically and religiously diverse society. But also, even in the institutional church, in our own lives, our lifestyles, our common sense assumptions about how to live our lives and the values we espouse: our attitudes towards competition, financial security, self-defence, self-righteousness, financial-material selfish gain, etc.

Perhaps it is time for the Reformation church (including Lutherans) to let go of the split we have created between grace and ‘works righteousness’. It is not all ‘cheap’ grace on the one hand; nor is it all work, on the other. In truth, it is a lot of work and practice to remain fully open to underserved and unmerited grace (Philippians 2:12-13). Because we will rush, if unawares, to make it all about our hard work. Just work harder!

At the same time, as Cynthia Bourgeault writes (in The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, Jossey Bass Publishing, 2003, p.10), “those willing to bear the wounds of intimacy, the knowledge of that underlying coherence – in which all things hold together – is possible.” To let go of the compulsions that keep us captive and stuck in patterns of life that are ungracious, untrue, unhealthy. To commit to the work and sacrifice of being true to self, true to neighbour and true to God. To practice confession and honesty with another. To accept the forgiveness, mercy and love of God and to receive it fully and know peace.

Could it be deep down we know it but are afraid to address and embrace it: the values of God in Christ Jesus are meaningful — they make for great, wordy and pious statements in church groups — yet clash with what we do and what we actually say to one another?

The Furious 7 movie which was Paul Walker’s last before he died shortly after filming the movie, ironically, in a car crash, highlighted for me this hypocrisy. In the extended version which I assume was edited after his death, there is a beautiful scene on the beach where Paul Walker’s character and family are gathered. His friends watch on as he plays with his young child and pregnant wife at the water’s edge. One of them remarks how what is truly important in life is not the thrill-seeking, high-octane, ego-satisfying selfish pursuits, but his relational world of love and family which endures forever. In contrast to the explosive, sensational content of the film up to that point, this affirmation of family living in love is rich in meaning and truth.

I commented in my slightly cynical mood after the movie that I didn’t think the Fast & the Furious franchise would have grossed the hundreds of millions it did if it made movies solely about family and love. It seems we want to acknowledge what is true and right, but only after we first can serve our own fixations and compulsions ‘for the thrill’.

Another TV example: Did you notice how the Amazing Race Canada presented the final words of the father and daughter from Africa — newly arrived immigrants, when they were eliminated before the final round? They were the victims of unfair play in that second-to-last leg of the race; other teams cheated on them by stealing their taxi not once but twice, if I remember correctly. 

And then, as the host John invited them for some closing remarks on the elimination mat, all of them spoke beautiful tear-wrenching words about the fair, generous nature of Canadians. It seems only the losers have something meaningful to say. Only when we suffer loss do we discover the truth of our lives. Now, we are getting uncomfortably closer to the whole point of our Christian faith and what it means to follow Jesus.

As I wrote three years ago, in James’ concluding chapter we encounter vivid images of prayer involving the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. Prayer is a public act that invades the space of individuals and pulls us to be in the space of one another. Prayer is inherently relational. It gets down and dirty in the bodily reality of our lives, one with another. It is about touch and sensation as much as about the mere words we speak. Prayer is not my time, it is our time for the sake of the other.

Maybe I chose to preach on James 5 two times in a row because the Gospel associated with this text is about Jesus instructing us to cut out our eyes or chop off our hands if they caused us to sin (Mark 9:38-50). And I just didn’t want to go there! These are difficult words to ponder. Jesus concludes by using the image of salt to define the Christian life: something with an edge, that adds flavour. God forbid you lose your edge, your flavour! Jesus counsels us to have saltiness in our lives as a way to “be at peace with one another” (v.50).

Perhaps the way of Jesus will be tough and difficult building bridges of reconciliation. And yet, his last word to us today is a blessing of peace. The Book of James began with an address to those who are “dispersed” (1:1). James continues his letter to address the divisive consequences of an “unbridled tongue” (3:6ff) and considers the reasons for the “conflicts and disputes” among the people of God (3:4). James’ letter acknowledges the inherent splintering of our lives.

His letter in chapter 5, however, ends rather abruptly. Perhaps to indicate that there is no easy answer to the disconnections of our lives. Perhaps also to remind us that though wise speech is indeed a gift from God in the world so full of sin and death, we will still pray. And through prayer that is public, we will continue to engage the world in hope for a time when what has splintered can be reunited.