True worship: more than me

I have always received the words of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 58 as promise and hope for me — especially in challenging times of transition, disappointment and failure. That, despite all the difficulties I may face, God’s promise is true: The Lord will satisfy my needs in parched places and I shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail … I’ve received this text personally, a prayer recognizing growth in me.

And yet, understanding a little bit the context of the prophet’s words, I must confess it isn’t just about me. Even though the people of Israel were entering yet another disruptive time of transition — journeying back to Jerusalem following their turbulent Babylonian exile — the prophet’s words pull them beyond self-preservation.

You’d think amidst the turmoil of life they would be encouraged to circle the wagons, to take care of themselves, to look out for their own self-interests and take care of their own first. But the Hebrew Scriptures reveal a constant social ethic: to take care of the widow, the refugee and the hungry — time and time again.

An important dimension of faith calls us beyond individualism to extend our vision beyond the needs of the self. From ancient times, people of faith were called to “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.”[2]A living, growing faith happens when ‘spiritual’ things have something to say about and do for the betterment of others, especially the disadvantaged, the poor, the refugee, the homeless and the hungry.

Every Sunday we pray for a country or group of nations somewhere in the world. Specifically, we pray for Christians living in those nations. We join on the same day with a world community committed to praying for the same countries.[1]It’s like we are all holding hands, linking arms, to form a giant circle of prayer holding a specific group of Christians and peoples from a particular part of the globe.

In doing so, we hopefully grow in awareness and knowledge of the situation facing Christians in especially unstable regions. In recent years, the Ottawa Lutheran Refugee Sponsorship Committee has supported the refugee claims of some people from Eritrea. 

In Eritrea today, the two state churches are Lutheran and Orthodox. On the surface, you might say, that’s not bad. Christianity has an established presence there. The state tolerates people gathering in churches to worship. 

But, I learned, you are not allowed to own a bible or be seen reading it in Eritrea. And the only way the worship service can happen is if the sermon is vetted and deemed permissible for preaching. The state determines what is said. Quality control. Why?  So that nothing will be said that could be construed as criticism of the political status quo and those in power. Is this freedom? Or, persecution?

There is something fundamental to the Christian faith that will at times engage politics, criticize and speak out against injustice. Regardless of which country, which party in power, and wherever in the world. And when you disallow such free, political discourse, even from the pulpit but more importantly in the practice and demonstration of faith by Christians in their daily lives, then you are missing something critical about being a follower of Christ Jesus.

Wading into the social and political discourse causes friction among people with differing opinions. Normally we have operated according to the dictum: church and politics don’t mix. While maintaining thus a semblance of harmony, we have not learned how to have a political conversation. We have not been able to talk about political injustice and how to relate with the poor. We have lost the ability to act together in mission.

How will we begin?

Paul in his letter to the Corinthians expresses the importance of a humble stance when demonstrating our faith in concrete behavior, and in our relationships with one another and the world. In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, 

“I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. … Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age … But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages …”[3]

This humble stance distinguishes us from the usual style of political discourse where there needs to be winners and losers, someone’s always right and someone is always wrong, where the louder ones get heard, where ego-tripping and glory-seeking normally define the behavior.

Humility is not often associated with seeking justice, even by passionate, justice-seeking Christians. But the wisdom which God decreed from before the ages suggests a humble stance. How can we nurture this stance in our lives? Maybe start with humility.

Last week, I told you about what Howard Thurman discovered at the tree line high up in the arctic. It seems suitable today to continue using imagery of cold, snow and winter. We can relate! Beyond the tree line, it was mostly just barren, snow- and ice-covered fields. But he also, at first, identified shrubs. These were low-lying, earth-hugging, scrappy-looking tuffs of green dotting the landscape ahead.

But upon closer inspection, Thurman noticed that the needles on these shrubs were similar to the needles on the trees behind him on the tree line. Pursuing a hunch growing within him, he begins wiping the fluffy snow on the ground in front of the shrub where he discovers roots. 

But they are not roots. They are branches leading all the way back to the tree line! The branches of the trees have found a way to live beyond the tree line. They have grown by extending their ‘branches’ along the ground erupting periodically on the barren landscape appearing, at first glance, as shrubs.

The point is, Thurman had to re-think his first impression. He had to change his mind about what appeared very clear to him, at first. He had to admit that his first thought was not his best thought. 

This is a little example of what is meant by the biblical term ‘repentance’, or metanoia in its original Greek. It means, change of mind. Change our thinking about something we first thought was true. 

Our first thought is not always our best thought. Our compulsive, reactive impulse do not yield the best from us. Our initial instinct might not always be the full truth of it. If Christians are to be political in word and deed, better to start with a humble heart. 

Isaiah reminds us that when we lead with love and grace on behalf of the poor, then light shall rise in the darkness, then our light shall break forth like the dawn. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer. The Lord will satisfy our needs in parched places and we shall be alike a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail …Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.[4]

I am grateful that we live in a country where our Christian worship and prayer is truly public in nature. All are welcome. We gather where people of faith can speak and act humbly in the public square, where faith and action are allowed and where we can exercise our faith in freedom. Where following Jesus affects our lives not just on Sunday but every day of the week. And grow into the fullness of God’s purposes for us, individually and as a church.


[1]https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/prayer-cycle

[2]Isaiah 58:7

[3]1 Corinthians 2:1-3, 6-7

[4]Isaiah 58:10-12

Perseverance – the Beatitudes in a word

Downstairs in the church kitchen just above the sink, hangs this sign with the words: “Blessed are they who clean up.” An encouragement this is, no doubt, to wash up dirty dishes with soap and place in the cupboards when finished.

But are these words more than encouragement?

Indeed, the Beatitudes which form the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel[1]are often treated as commandments. We read them as rules for living. And rules demonstrate a reality that we have not yet achieved, a desired reality that is beyond our present circumstances. And a reality that we must work towards by following the rules.

Dirty dishes left in the sink is not the desired reality. A clean kitchen is. So, get to work!

Last week, after Jesus called his first disciples, he went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.[2]In these Beatitudes, now, we encounter precisely what constitutes the kingdom of heaven on earth. And it isn’t about following rules.  

For one thing, the bible isn’t a rule book with lists of commandments and directives for living. Its original writers were not products of our 21st century bias towards a rational logic based on a cause-effect, either-or, legalism. For the most part they didn’t write in order to tell people what to do, but rather to describe the kind of relationship we might have with the God of truth and love.

Besides the laws we read, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, we have to acknowledge the Bible contains other forms of writing: For example, there is rich narrative. There are stories and parables. There is history and sermon. In the bible’s pages we also read beautiful, image-rich poetry and incredible visions of the future.

The Beatitudes fall under the latter categories of the poetic variety. These are not expressed as rules; rather, as a vision of God’s faithfulness to the people of God. They describe what faithfulness between God and human looks like.

In order to understand what these Beatitudes mean, I suggest we consider other images—of the poetic variety—that could convey the meaning of the Beatitudes. In this way, we remain true to the original spirit and style of Jesus’ preaching in the introduction to his lengthy sermon on the mount.

Thomas Merton, born 104 years ago yesterday, and whom many consider the father of contemplative Christianity in the modern era, wrote: “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Like Merton, let’s use the metaphor of a tree to describe something that is true about our walk with God.

Twentieth Century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, in his Meditations on the Heart, describes his journey to the tree line near the arctic circle. There he makes a startling discovery about the trees:

“It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. 

“Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down. As a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were  branches.

“For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon! 

“It is as if the tree had said, ‘I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.’”[3]

Thurman’s description captures for me the essence, the feel, of what Jesus’ beatitudes represent. And, one very strong feel about these Beatitudes is the quality of perseverance that marks our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us.

Our life with God is anything but passive. To stay the course with God requires perseverance, dedication and faithfulness. It is not to give up when the going gets tough. It is not to throw in the towel when the stress of living bears down.

“Blessed are you when people revile you…” Walking the path of Christ will invite scorn and judgement from a culture disinclined to Christ-like living. Yet, we are called to persevere on this simple but difficult path.

Whenever I watch footage of hurricanes slamming Caribbean island coast-lines, I am amazed at the resiliency of those palm trees on the beach. Storm surges wash away and erode shorelines. Untrammelled winds assail and play havoc with anything not bolted down and boarded up. Destruction follows the wake of these tempests.

And yet, the palm tree remains. How? Its capacity to be flexible, to bend, even so the branches on its crown may touch the ground. The strongest of these palms, the ones that have encountered and survived many storms over decades, have learned this art of living well: not to be so rigid so as to snap when the storms first hit; not to be so unyielding when the environment changes. To be able to move when necessary. And, therefore, to live.

Why the Beatitudes present such a challenge for us, is because they suggest a different kind of ‘knowing’ when it comes to God and our relationship with Jesus. In truth, we cannot know God. Ever. No matter how hard we try. Regardless of the number of books we’ve read, the number of bible verses we’ve memorized, the arguments we’ve won, even the number of times we’ve ‘gone to church’. While we walk this earthly path, we can only learn how to love God and one another in Christ. 

To know God this way has already given us all that we need for this path: not rules for living but gifts for the journey. Despite all the suffering, pain and challenge we encounter on the path, the grace of God provides a rich blessedness filled with gladness and joy for all we need.


[1]Matthew 5:1-12

[2]Matthew 4:23

[3]Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 123-124.