Thanks-doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Another. For us.

Thanks be to God!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Into the deep end

I’d like you to meet Harry Truman, at the end of his life.

This is not Harry Truman the 33rdpresident of the USA. This is Harry Truman, the eighty-three-year-old who, in March 1980, refused to budge from his home at the foot of Mount Saint Helens near Olympia, Washington State, where the volcano began to steam and rumble.

A former World War 1 pilot and Prohibition-era bootlegger, he’d owned his lodge on Spirit Lake for more than half a century. Five years earlier, he’d been widowed. So now it was just him and his sixteen cats on his fifty-four acres of property beneath the mountain.

Three years earlier, he’d fallen off the lodge roof shoveling snow and broken his leg. The doctor told him he was “a damn fool” to be working up there at his age.

“Damn it!” Truman shot back. “I’m eighty years old and at eighty, I have the right to make up my mind and do what I want to do.”

An eruption threatened, so the authorities told everyone living in the vicinity to clear out. But Truman wasn’t going anywhere. For more than two months, the volcano smoldered. Authorities extended the evacuation zone to ten miles around the mountain. Truman stubbornly remained.

He didn’t believe the scientists, with their uncertain and sometimes conflicting reports. He worried his lodge would be looted and vandalized, as another lodge on Spirit Lake was. And regardless, this home was his life.

“If this place is gonna go, I want to go with it,” he said. “’Cause if I lost it, it would kill me in a week anyway.” He attracted reporters with his straight-talking, curmudgeonly way, holding forth with a green John Deere cap on his head and a tall glass of bourbon and Coke in his hand. The local police thought about arresting him for his own good but decided not to, given his age and the bad publicity they’d have to endure. They offered to bring him out every chance they got.

He steadfastly refused. He told a friend, “If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a damn good life. I’ve done everything I could do, and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do.”

The blast came at 8:40am on May 18, 1980, with the force of an atomic bomb. The entire lake disappeared under the massive lava flow, burying Truman and his cats and his home with it.

In the aftermath, he became an icon – the old man who had stayed in his house, taken his chances, and lived life on his own terms. The people of a nearby town constructed a memorial to him at the town’s entrance that still stands to this day, and there was a TV movie made based on the story.[1]

Opinions may be divided as to whether he did the right thing, by staying and dying so violently. Some herald his gritty resolve. Others shake their heads considering the effect of his decision on his loved ones, and the public resources expended on his behalf to inform and keep the community safe about the impending danger.

What would you have done?

4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.[2]

This poetry from the prophet reads, generally, in a comforting, encouraging and promising tone. However, the second half of verse 4 feels out of place. God “will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” and then God “will come and save you.”

It sounds like salvation will come only after an horrible, terrifying experience. Perhaps, Harry Truman’s salvation came on the heels of being drowned in the burning lava flow.

This interpretation can lead, however, to dangerous conclusions. Such as the only way to something good is create and go through untold suffering: Such as the ends justify the means; That it is ok to do something hurtful, cruel, and violent if the result of that violence is pleasing; That salvation can only come through terrible suffering.

We know life happens. We don’t need to search out and fabricate all the pain that is a natural part of life. We don’t need to choose suffering. Great suffering comes in different forms quite apart from any conscious decision to bring it on.

The better question is not whether or not we must suffer, but how do we respond and live in the midst of our suffering. That is the question of faith.

No doubt, Harry Truman had experienced some significant losses in the years leading to the eruption of Mount Saint Helens. No doubt at age eighty-three, his physical capacities were failing. He had lost his spouse. He had broken his leg. He was coming up against his very sure limitations. And, likely, grieving in his own way the passing of his event-filled and active life.

One can only have compassion on him.

The words of Isaiah are spoken to “those who are of a fearful heart.”[3]Ultimately, the war of all that divides and challenges us is waged on the battlefield of our own hearts. Any external fight on our hands is really a fight happening in our own hearts. Do you fight against a circumstance beyond your control? Are you so terrified that you can’t even speak of it?

At the centre of that odd, out-of-place verse is a word I do not like much: “vengeance” (in Hebrew, naqam), because I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news.

And then I came across what Biblical scholar Hendrik Peels showed about this word, naqam, in the Bible. This word refers to a retribution by a legitimate authority. And especially in this text from Isaiah, the emphasis is a retribution that brings liberation to those who are oppressed, and freedom from a situation or need. Its meaning is closer to a restoration rather than to vengeance of any kind.[4]

We tend, naturally, first to react to our fears by targeting some outside source. We blame others, when all along we hold the source of our trouble in our own hearts by refusing to examine our attachments and address our own sense of loss and fear.

It’s not easy to learn how best to let go at the endings of our lives. Most of us, unfortunately, confront these deeper questions and challenges at the end of our lives when we face a critical crisis: our health fails and all that we have been attached to in life we lose, suddenly.

We can do ourselves a favour. But it takes exercise, and some pain during the course of our lives when we are not yet at this life-ending crisis time. Learning to die before we die is the point. When we meet with common challenges of life – a physical move, a changed relationship, a job loss, a surgery, a life-changing experience, daily challenges – we can practice how to die to what has been (in the past) and welcome the feeling of terror about the unknown future. We learn how to surrender to what cannot be controlled; or, find the courage to throw off the weight of internalized oppression. This is all serious heavy-lifting.[5]

Following Jesus provides a way through, so we don’t get stuck in despair or denial. The wisdom of the inspired Word of God has something to say about this journey of heavy-lifting:

It is to turn to our neighbor and help them on their journey. It is seeing with the mind’s eye and the heart’s passion that we share a common humanity with those who suffer, who are oppressed, who are vulnerable and needy. To look, and go, beyond ourselves. And not give up.

“Compassionate Justice” is therefore one of the four vision priorities of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).[6]Of course, making statements and standing up in the public sphere for the sake of the poor, the newcomer, the homeless, creation, the marginalized and weak can get us into trouble. Of course, we can spare ourselves a lot of trouble by shutting our eyes to the suffering.

But our closed eyes will also shut out God. The Word is spoken, indeed, to “those with fearful hearts”. To those who need to listen. And do something.

I’ve never met Harry Truman. I didn’t know him, personally. I didn’t know his family, his community, or his religious background.

But I wonder – what would have been in the last years of his life especially if someone he respected and trusted leant him an ear more than once-in-a-while.

What would it have been, if a friend offered to shovel the snow from the roof of his lodge.

What would it have been like, if family or friends showed him unconditional, loving attention despite his bravado and curmudgeonly behaviour.

I wonder if his ending could have somehow been less violent, less tragic.

Our hearts may be fearful. And yet hearts also race in expectation of something good. Something better. Hearts race in hope.

And hope never fails.

God of compassion and justice, bring justice to those who hunger for bread. And give a hunger for justice to those who have bread. Amen.

 

[1]Atul Gwande, “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (Anchor Canada, 2017), p.66-67.

[2]Isaiah 35:4-7a, Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 16B

[3]Isaiah 35:4

[4]Hendrik G. L. Peels, The Meaning of the Root NQM and the Function of the NQM-Texts in the Context of Divine Revelation in the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 265-66.

[5]Brie Stoner, A Reflection: Into the Deep End in The Mendicant Volume 8 Number 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation, Summer 2018).

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

A wintery spirit

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The winter of 2018 has been record-setting, so far. And we are barely one week into the new year! Did you know it was Ottawa’s coldest New Year’s Day since records began in 1873? At 8am on January 1st, the mercury dipped to a frigid minus 30.2 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit); New Year’s Day also marked Ottawa’s sixth consecutive day with temperatures below -17 degrees Celsius (1 Fahrenheit), which made it the longest run in exactly one hundred years.[1]

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A full onslaught of winter can help us appreciate the meaning of Christianity. Though much of the bible’s stories and lessons were wrought out of the harsh desert climate surrounding the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, the winter realities we face in Canada are not that much different. I suggest, then, let’s take desert and winter as synonymous – meaning, essentially, the same things.

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American Lutheran theologian, Martin Marty, describes the importance of what he calls a “wintery spirituality”, defined by the shrill cry of absence, frost, and death. In contrast to a summer spirituality, winter is more given to being emptied than being filled. Winter is harsh and lean in imagery, beggarly in its gifts of grace and love.[2]

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Of course, Jesus goes into the Judean wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan River. And right after his baptism, he spends forty days and nights in the desert.[3] The desert is not a comfortable place to be. For one thing, it makes scarce and even denies the basic need for our survival – water. A desert is an arid region where annual rainfall remains miniscule. Some deserts average only one centimetre a year, with parts of the Sahara not receiving a drop of rain for more than twenty years.[4]

The word and image of water appears in each of the Hebrew readings assigned for this festival day in the church calendar, and is tied to baptism in the readings from the New Testament.[5] More to the point, water is given out of the chaotic void in the creation story, and in the arid wilderness as a gift and a grace. Water is thus a sign of God’s love amid the harsh winter or desert realities of our lives.

The prophets of old affirm that it is precisely in the desert where God expresses God’s love to the people. The grace of God cannot be received outside of winter. “Thus says the Lord: The people who found grace in the wilderness … I have loved you with an everlasting love …. I remember your love, how you followed me in the wilderness.”[6]

How, then, can we appreciate and even thrive, living out of this truth? How can we follow Jesus in his way? After all, the Baptism of our Lord is about Jesus beginning the journey to fulfill his God-given purpose in life. How he does it is of particular importance to us, if we are interested in following Jesus in our life-style.

Listen to a story first told by a nineteenth-century teacher, Awad Afifi the Tunisian, who drew his wisdom from the wide expanse of the North African desert:

A gentle rain fell on a high mountain in a distant land. The rain was at first hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets of water rolled over rocks and down gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. After all, water never has time to practice falling.

Soon, it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together into the beginnings of a stream. The brook made its way down the mountainside, through small stands of cypress trees and fields of lavender, and down cascading falls. It moved without effort, splashing over stones – learning that the stream interrupted by rocks is the one that sings most nobly. Finally, having left its heights in the distant mountain, the stream made its way to the edge of a great desert. Sand and rock stretched beyond seeing.

Having crossed every other barrier in its way, the stream fully expected to cross this as well. But as fast as its waves splashed into the desert, that fast did they disappear into the sand. Before long, the stream heard a voice whispering, as if coming from the desert itself, saying, “The wind crosses the desert, so can the stream.”

“Yes, but the wind can fly!” cried out the stream, still dashing itself into the desert sand.

“You’ll never get across that way,” the desert whispered. “You have to let the wind carry you.”

“But, how?” shouted the stream.

“You have to let the wind absorb you.”

The stream could not accept this, however. It didn’t want to lose its identity or abandon its own individuality. After all, if it gave itself to the winds, could it ever be sure of becoming a stream again?

The desert replied that the stream could continue its flowing, perhaps one day even producing a swamp there at the desert’s edge. But it would never cross the desert so long as it remained a stream.

The stream was silent for a long time, listening to distant echoes of memory, knowing parts of itself having been held before in the arms of the wind. From that long-forgotten place, it gradually recalled how water conquers only by yielding, by turning to steam in a natural cycle. From the depths of that silence, slowly the stream raised its vapours to the welcoming arms of the wind and was borne upward, carried easily on great white clouds over the wide desert waste.

Approaching distant mountains on the desert’s far side, the stream then began once again to fall as a light rain. At first it was hushed and quiet, trickling down granite slopes. Gradually it increased in strength, as rivulets rolled over the rocks and down the gnarled, twisted trees that grew there. The rain fell, as water must, without calculation. And soon it was pouring, as swift currents of dark water flowed together – yet again – into the headwaters of a new stream. [7]

Jesus instructs his followers to become the people they are called to be.[8] God is aware that our lives are like a journey through the desert. Or, as Canadians, we can say that our faith journey is not dissimilar from living through an Ottawa record-setting winter.

To thrive in this life is to see that this journey of becoming is not static. We are not called by Jesus to become mere swamp lands at the edge of the desert. Rather, the journey calls us to be vulnerable, to recognize what we may initially want to resist in us – like the stream that first struggled against yielding to the wind.

Our journey through life are journeys of vulnerability. Of taking little. Of trusting God. Of appreciating the value of small things. Of letting go into the Spirit wind of God. Then, we can, with the Psalmist see that, even in the wilderness, the Lord fulfills God’s promises and does indeed give strength to us and bless us with peace.[9]

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[1] Ottawa weather records, Twitter @YOW_Weather

[2] cited in Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.37

[3] Mark 1:12-13

[4] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.38

[5] The Baptism of our Lord, Revised Common Lectionary Year B: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

[6] Jeremiah 31:3; 2:2

[7] as written by Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.20-21

[8] read the entire section from Matthew 10:5-42

[9] Psalm 29:11, NRSV

Reforming Remembrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspectives have changed. And continue to change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the Africans didn’t move.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Amos 5:18-24

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

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

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

[8] Amos 5:24

God-talk

Last week in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Ottawa RedBlacks receiver Diontae Spencer set a CFL record in a game against the Hamilton Ticats for most overall yardage gained — just under 500 — in one game. His incredible feat was truly remarkable in a game where his team didn’t score any points in the first quarter.

When asked afterwards about his record-setting accomplishment, Spencer mentioned God several times. He emphasized that the praise was ultimately for God. He couldn’t have succeeded along with his team in that game without God. God was the reason and source of his victory.

Such a witness gets a lot of mileage, especially on national TV covering a professional sports league in Canada. It is true: the public, general impression of Christians is their often-exuberant witness to an all-powerful, almighty God who authors and reflects anything and everything that is glorious, successful, impressive and spectacular. This is the dominant belief and main flavour of the kind of God-talk in the public arena when it comes to Christian witness.

Years ago, a parishioner in a former parish declined my invitation to her to give a testimony of faith during a mid-week Lenten program. I knew she was struggling with some personal challenges at the time. When I asked her why she said no, especially as I recognized in her the strong gift of faith, she said she wanted to wait until things were going better in her life before sharing her faith.

While I understood her reasoning, and was mindful of the delicate situation in her life, I wondered to myself if her attitude didn’t reflect a more general disposition among Christians today. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could talk about how good your life was. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could point to external circumstances that were favourable, impressive, even enviable.

After all, how could you get up in front of people and talk about God when all was not well in your life? How could you talk about God if you had nothing impressive to show for it? More to the point, would you be giving faithful testimony to God if everything in your life was broken, damaged, failed?

Is God only mentioned when humans achieve something great? Is God only a God who wins contests on the football field and battlefield of life? Can God be talked about only among folks who have succeeded and are healthy and rich? Only when things are going super well?

Or, could God also be present and real to us when we fail, when we are down, when we lose our earthly battles? It seems to me Christians call themselves Christian because we follow the way of Christ. And so, don’t we believe in the God of the Cross? God, by all human standards, failed — being branded public enemy number one and condemned to death. Jesus’ broken body is the iconic symbol for Christians. It is precisely in the suffering of life where God finds us.

On this All Saints Sunday, we understandably focus on what human beings have accomplished: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. Blessed are those who demonstrate the qualities we read in the Beatitudes[1] — the Gospel text for this festival in the church calendar.

“Blessed” is not the word we might associate with being poor, persecuted peacemakers especially if we use the often-translated English word, “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[2] also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in providing the first beatitude, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[3] I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state.

Should we take these beatitudes as moral rules for living, as with the Law, we can never fulfill it perfectly. And therefore, we can easily despair and give up. Being on the way, however, gives the long view and big picture. It implies the need for trusting that we are headed in the right direction even if the present circumstances in our lives suggest otherwise.

What is more, as much as we want to make the Beatitudes into the Ten (or rather, Nine) Commandments of the New Testament, this speech from Jesus — given at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel — is not primarily about ‘rules for moral behaviour’ as it is facts about God. These Beatitudes really and fundamentally describe God.

Matthew’s narrative builds towards this awareness, if you can appreciate the classic reversal that Matthew sets up in the first five chapters of his Gospel:

In the first chapter, Matthew’ genealogy firmly plants Jesus “the Messiah” in the lineage of the great Israelite King David. In the second chapter, exotic magi from the East come to pay homage to the newborn king. In the third chapter, King Herod takes seriously this threat to his power and tries to eliminate a contestant to his throne by killing innocent, Hebrew two-year-old boys in Bethlehem. Then, John the Baptist comes on the scene, announcing that he was making way for one who was greater than he. Finally, Matthew has Jesus ascend a mountain where he, like his predecessor Moses, would dispense the Word of God and give his inaugural address.[4]

You can see the build-up, I hope, of an expectation that Jesus would come to bring justice to the wicked and set things right. He, the Messiah, would turn back Roman oppression and occupation of Palestine. But, these words from Jesus’ mouth announcing who is “blessed” pull the rug from under our expectations of who God is. “The one who was supposed to lead revolutionary armies or bring down heavenly fire shows up in Galilee building hospitals and telling people not to hit back.”[5]

Can you imagine the surprise and shock among his disciples! Even the imprisoned John the Baptist does a double-take on his faith and later questions Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we keep looking?”[6] It is no wonder, then, that Peter later rebukes Jesus when he talks of his impending death: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”[7]

These beatitudes must have seriously disappointed his listeners and most ardent followers who had such ‘high’ expectations of their would-be Messiah King. How could they now continue following this man?

Is the reason why we may have trouble conforming our lives to the way described in the beatitudes is that we really don’t believe in these words as giving an accurate and trustworthy understanding of God? This is, after all, Jesus, who we know was persecuted and reviled as the prophets were before him.[8]

Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed in human flesh, born a vulnerable baby to a teenage couple? Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed dying a grotesque and brutal death on a cross showing the world a bruised, beaten, broken and bloody body?

If we did, perhaps we would hear more from the losers in our society. Perhaps TSN would hear the faithful witness of locker room players talking of a God who knows how it is to lose a big game and still keep faith. Perhaps we would hear more from street people, addicts and the impoverished, vulnerable people talk of their simple yet honest faith in a God who walks with them. Perhaps we would hear more from children declare their love of a playful God who carries our burdens for us, freeing us to be who and how we are without judgement and punishment.

Perhaps we would listen more to the murmurs of our own hearts whisper the love of God for us especially when we suffer the turmoil of life. Then, I gather, the world will open its eyes to the God of grace and love.

Because they will see people who live in hope. They will see people who know they have found the right road where they find God most present in helping people who suffer loss and pain, a road on which Jesus has walked himself, a road upon which God will always first find us.

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

[3] Earl F. Palmer in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.238

[4] Allen Hilton in ibid., p.239

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12

Lift, and open the gates!

I reacted with sadness and sympathy looking at the photo of my friend’s dog whose entire face, chest and front legs were pierced with dozens — maybe even hundreds — of the sharp quills of a porcupine.
The photo was taken of the dog in the back of the car on the way to the vet, and she seemed stable enough — like the look of someone who knows they’ve been stung and know they just need to hold it together for a bit longer.

I felt sorry for that dog because it was simply being true to its nature — maybe motivated by a natural impulse to be friendly and play with another creature. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always yield the desired results in relationships. Often, expressions of love and care are misunderstood. And the response can sting — just like this poor dog! I wonder if this dog will ever approach another porcupine again with such exuberance. 

On All Saints Sunday, Christians remember not only those who have gone before us who now taste and see the glory of God in eternity. We also reflect on the “communion of saints” on earth. And, like we did last Sunday during the celebration of the Reformation, we ask the good question: Who are we? Who are the saints? What qualifies a Christian for sainthood, beginning in this life?

Psalm 24 may suggest that no one living can belong to this glorious, virtuous group of people. Only those with clean hands and pure hearts who do not swear deceitfully (v.4) can qualify. A sharp tone of exclusivity rings throughout our tradition. Since I am not good enough, and will never be good enough, I have nothing good to offer. And so I will grovel in the dirt, turned in on myself and my sins.

Such negativity dominates our way of life. We don’t see abundance, we see scarcity. We don’t see forgiveness of sins as much as we love to talk about and dwell on our sinfulness. We don’t see the good, we see the bad. It’s a dangerous world out there, after all, and so we need to build closed, protective fortresses around us. And therefore, we get stuck in a self-centred, self-inhibiting style of life. Who am I to be able to offer anything of value? Let alone be counted among the saints?!

The bible’s poetry, today from the Psalms, offers insight into this problem. The Scriptures reveal a way of emphasizing what is important. Really important. We see this method most in the Hebrew scriptures — the Old Testament Psalms and prophets: Repetition.

Repetition of words and phrases underscores a sense of urgency or jubilation. In the Psalm for today — 24 — certain phrases are repeated. The context is a massive procession coming up the road to Jerusalem; God is returning to the temple being restored in the city of God. 

And as the people ascend to the walls, the cry goes out not once (v.7-10), but several times: “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” (x2) The general image of ‘lifting up’, in fact appears almost half a dozen times in this short Psalm. What emphasis is being sought by the Psalmist, here?

The insistence of lifting up the gates mounts beyond the request to raise the gate just high enough, or the doors just wide enough, for the King of glory to enter and then to be slammed shut in the face of the others in the procession. Rather, the intent is for the gates to be raised so high above the walls that they will never need to be shut again. The intent is for the doors to be flung off their hinges, in order that the seekers and followers of the Lamb may follow him, redeemed and welcomed, into the courts of God. (1)

“The barriers to paradise, like the stone rolled away from the empty tomb in the garden, have been pushed aside to give us unfettered access to behold the smiling face of a gracious and accepting God, whose mercy, rather than our own merits, enables us to pass through the open door.”

We need to remember and appreciate who our King of glory is: A man, named Jesus, who encountered in his short life on earth all that we must endure and suffer. Our God is a God who became one of us in order to fully appreciate our own station in life. God understands our human weaknesses, suffers and endures with us on the road up to Jerusalem, and longs to welcome us into the divine presence. 

Ours is a God who bears the scars and wounds of crucifixion, even in his resurrected form. God is one who identifies with us seekers and wanderers who bear the scars of life, the woundedness of sin — and yet who long for something more: a deeper communion with God and the saintly procession going to Jerusalem together.

If we want to know God, we must know and accept ourselves; if we want to accept ourselves, we must know and accept God. Who are we? Well, perhaps we first need to ask: Who is God? Clean hands, a pure heart, a humble spirit, integrity and honesty — these are infinitely more difficult and subtle a list of characteristics suggested by this Psalm than the mandates against theft and adultery and the taking of another life (as in the Ten Commandments).

The qualifiers for sainthood are not a cut and dry check list easily accomplished like completing a shopping list. Rather, the qualifiers for sainthood are worked out in a life-long journey and sometimes seesaw struggle with the One who despite bearing the scars of suffering is the only One with clean hands and a pure heart.

Who are we? Well, then, Who is God? In Jesus, God is the One who welcomes us all into the holy city, whose cry goes out to lift up those gates — I mean, really lift up those gates — forever — in order to let in that whole procession of rag-tag, diverse, wounded, broken followers!

Knowing who we are, appreciating fully the grace and acceptance of us by a God who knows us, what do we have to lose? We can offer what little and what much we have to help others. We can use the gifts we have been given for the sake of the other, and with others, on this journey. We don’t have to be afraid. We can take the risk to reach out — not worried about the results but only convinced of the value of what we do.

Whether we have been stung by the quills of disappointment; whether we have been hurt by the failures of our lives; whether we have been weighted down by the pressures of performance in work and play; whether we endure the pain of physical, mental, emotional illness; whether we grieve through the losses of life — we are still on the way! And will always be!

The highlight for me during the clerics cycling challenge (clericchallenge.com) was the finish line, when we all crossed together. This experience symbolized for me what the culture of Christian community ought to feel like and be like.

   
 We are part of a holy procession led by the King of Glory whose destination is sure. We have nothing to lose. If God’s grace is extended even to the generation of seekers (v.6), then we have nothing to lose. If what we are about is not a competition, then we have nothing to lose. If we don’t need to find fault in the other to prove our own self-worth, then we have nothing to lose. If it’s not about one-up-man-ship, then we can go for broke and not worry about it. If we don’t need to question who our Saviour is — who already accomplished for us our salvation — we don’t need to doubt our final destination. Then, why not share now what we have with others on this road?

All the saints on earth, despite the scars of life we bear, have gifts to share with other seekers on that journey. What gifts and blessings of God reflect in your life? In discerning this, remember: It’s not up to you alone! We don’t need to be perfect. We gain the gates not by our own merit or even hard work. Ours is the victory only because of the One for whose reason the gates are lifted in the first place.

Thanks be to God!
(1) — Michael Morgan in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. of “Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4” Fortress Press, 2009, p.228

It’s ok to fall (4): It’s the only way

It’s only the second Sunday in Lent. Time seems to drag during this long, hard season. At least Advent — a similar season of preparation, repentance, and waiting — is only four weeks long; things seem to go faster in December.

The pace for Lent is perfect for Sarai and Abram. They are old — in their nineties, now in the twilight of their lives (Genesis 17). They are, likely, slower in moving about and more reflective than the young. They are, likely, more contemplative and more aware of the mistakes they have made and the wounds they have caused — all of which is appropriate for the Lenten journey (Craig Kocher, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Vol 2, Westminster/John Knox Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.50). I agree — although it’s hard to admit — sometimes we need a slower pace, and a place to listen and pray carefully, to confess our sin, as we turn toward God.

I tried something for the first time this past week which goes against the grain of my personality. When I go for my 45 minute walks, my route takes me along streets, roadways and eventually into a beautiful multi-acred forest called ‘the Grove’ whose trails lead to the Ottawa River. 

But I always carry my smart-phone with me. I have justified doing so for safety reasons. My hyper-vigilant personality loves this — no matter where I am on this planet I am only a text or phone call away! If there is a crisis or emergency, I can respond with efficiency and lightning speed to get help.

As I pondered leaving my phone at home, before going for my walk, I reflected on how dependent I have become on this device. Addicted, perhaps? I wondered what I would have done before the smart-phone era — not long ago, but long enough! If there was an emergency, I would have sought a neighbour’s help by knocking on their door; I would have paid more attention to my surroundings and where I might find help. I would have prepared better for my walk. I would have rested more in the moment, trusting more in the interrelated fabric of life around me.

So, here’s the good news. (But the structure of this sermon goes like this: There’s good news, then bad news, then really good news. Stay with me!) First good news, from this experience: I felt liberated. Leaving my phone behind wasn’t really that hard to do — and yet, it was a small step in a healthy direction, a simple sacrifice for evaluating my life-style and making concrete changes for the good. I will now practice more often ‘leaving my phone behind’, for its obvious benefits.

These are the ‘small’ steps we can make during Lent. Others give up chocolate, sweets, meat. Others still will ‘add’ something to their lifestyle — exercise, working out, volunteering more, coming to church more often, giving more money for some overseas mission, spending more time in prayer — all these good disciplines that are popular for Christians in Lent. And these are good!

During Lent, however, we are called also to contemplate the journey of Jesus to the cross — and the implications of that kind of sacrifice on our own lives. And so — and here’s the rub, the ‘bad’ news: Giving up chocolate or the cell phone is not ultimately what the Lenten journey is about. Jesus’ death on the cross was not making a ‘convenient’ sacrifice. Jesus’ death on the cross was not a little discipline that pinched but really didn’t change anything significant when Easter morning came around.

Jesus’ sacrifice goes to the jugular of our lives; it demands a costly cost; it means a radical change and giving up of something that is near and dear to us.

God calls Abram and Sarai to change their names. And it was a big deal in their day. In our times, names are often considered nothing more than labels. In our world, names are often chosen based on nostalgia, diction or popularity.

In the ancient world, however, names reflected the character and destiny of that person. To be called by your name, was a big deal. To change that identification was radical! Names were wrapped up in the core of one’s identity and purpose.

The name of God, above all, was untouchable — literally. The Jewish people withheld from spelling God’s name in scripture, from saying God’s name out-loud in worship. To call ‘on the name of the Lord’ was an act of profound devotion. To call ‘on the name of the Lord’ was a radical act of identifying with an un-nameable God.

And yet, in this text, even God is given a new name. For the first time, God is given the name “God Almighty” (Genesis 17:1). It is transliterated from the Hebrew, “El Shaddai” which might be translated, “God of the Mountains” (ibid., p.52).

So, here is my invitation to you today: Consider what profound and deep aspect of your life God is calling you to change. You may object, on the grounds of scriptural interpretation alone: “This text is not about us needing to change! God called Abram and Sarai to change their names. That was them. But not us!” 

Yes, we may think on occasions — even religious in nature — where we do still change our names — at weddings, some women will change their last names; and in Christian baptisms practised in some churches, babies take on their “Christian” name for the first time.

And yet, when we read this Old Testament text, and while we would do well to acknowledge its original context and meaning to the first people who received it, we are still asked today: What does it mean to us? How can this text become alive for us today?

And when we relate this text to the Gospel for today (Mark 8:31-38), where Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, where Jesus challenges us to ‘lose’ our lives in order to ‘gain’ life — what does that mean? It’s not just about throwing a little more cash in the offering plate, or not indulging in sweets.

What may God be calling us to change, in our own lives? What may God be calling us, whispering into our hearts, to ‘lose’? Are we prepared to fall? Big time?

Jesus shows us that it’s okay to fall, because it’s the only way to go: The Cross. If anything, don’t skip opportunities in Lent to worship — during mid-week studies, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Why? Going to the Cross, through the Cross, is the only way for us to know and experience the joy and truth of resurrection. Being uncomfortable by facing our fear, anger and shame is the only way for us to know and experience the joy of life. If you yearn for true joy, satisfaction and rebirth in your life, being uncomfortable is the only way for you to be healed, to be redeemed and forgiven, to find your way in this world.

You can’t have Easter without Good Friday. We need to be prepared to ‘lose’ ourselves — to fall — in order to ‘find’ ourselves — to get up, again. In Christ. “El Shaddai”, God of the Mountains. Mountains define valleys. You can’t have mountains without valleys. Mountains encircle valleys — valleys of despair, valleys of impatience and sorrow, valleys of Lenten confession and discipline. Wherever you have a range of mountains, you will have valleys. But whenever you find yourself in a valley, don’t give up. Don’t get stuck in the valley. Don’t get comfortable there, either. Get up and keep on, because there’s a mountain just up ahead pointing our vision to the skies. 

And here comes the really good news (after the bad news, after the first good news): Abram is ninety-nine years old when ‘the big change’ happens. Ninety-nine! It’s never too late. Never too late for God to call us to change. Never too late for God to call us into ‘losing’ something that we have for a life-time believed to be important. Never too late for God to give us the strength we need to endure and follow-through on that change. Never too late for God to bless us with a wonderful gift of the new thing God is doing for us — whatever that may be.

God will never give up on us. God will wait a life-time, and then some! God is the God of Mountains. And mountains are steadfast and true. Mountains point upwards to the vastness and infinite beauty and glory of the sky and the stars. God pointed Moses’ vision upwards to see the Big Picture of God’s promises and God’s future.

Mountains will remind us, I pray, that God’s promises are sure. God’s covenant to us cannot be broken, even as we follow Jesus down this long, slow road. But, “whose destiny is our destiny: the cross, the grave, the skies” (ibid, p.54).