Christmas Day – our gift is good enough

This Christmas message begins two months ago, on Halloween night. Yes, Halloween, when the goblins, skeletons, super-heroes and pirates were out in full force trick-o’-treating. 

It was a dark night. And pouring rain. But the children were determined to fill their sacks with as much candy as possible. 

Even the parents were in on it. In Arnprior, this made the local news: One Dad had lifted the large, tented car port from its moorings. Then he found three more willing parents to help him carry it like a giant umbrella down the street, protecting the dozens of huddled, costumed children from the relentless rain. 

When there is a will there is a way. Nothing was going to stop these folks on their mission to get the children as many treats as humanly possible. Talk about commitment. Dedication. Sacrifice. Self-reliance. For a cause.

Then, I heard of one grandparent who decided to give out candy at their door the same Halloween night, but here in Ottawa. He was going to get in on the spirit of it all and dress up himself. But, this time, he was going to shock his costumed visitors.

So, imagine with me the scene: Let’s say on Halloween you are going house to house with your pillow bag already brimming full of candy, pop and chips. And as you walk up the lane to the front door of thishouse, you start noticing something a bit off: 

Bright Christmas lights are hung around the front door frame and porch, blinking in blues, reds, greens and yellows. Ok. And when the front door opens, who is standing there, but Santa Claus! And he is ringing a hand bell and calling in a booming voice: “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

The grandparent who did this (sometimes adults will dress up as Santa Claus, you know!) reported to me afterwards about one little princess who stood at the door, dripping wet from the rain, mouth gaping open, eyes popping out. And she stood there for what seemed as an eternity. You could see the wheels in her head turning, wondering what on earth to do.

Finally, she made up her mind. The little girl placed her snack-and-candy-laden sack on ground and with two hands reached deep into the pillow case, pulled out fists full of treats and handed it all over to Santa. “Merry Christmas, Santa,” she said. I think it was Santa who was momentarily caught off guard, wondering what to do.

At Christmas, there’s a lot of pressure to perform with our giving. Today, it’s almost unheard of to limit a gift to $5. Today, if you’re not spending hundreds of dollars, will it impress? Yet, many will give in impressive ways – their time, energy, passion, money, and a gift for everyone on the list. Yes, we can say that it’s indeed better to give than to receive.[1]Yes, we can perhaps even point to times when it felt good to do so. 

But what if we feel there’s no more gas in the tank? What if we feel like we have no more to give. That we can’t keep up. We may decide not to give out any gifts because of this pressure we feel to impress. The emotional and digestive roller coaster, that is often what we experience over the holidays, may leave us spent, exhausted and hating people, hating ourselves. What more, on earth, can I give to anyone, let alone God?

Long ago, followers of Christ began to commemorate the coming of Jesus at the darkest time of the year. It was probably no accident that God came into the world when everything seemed so dark, so hopeless and helpless.

In the Gospel today from John, we read: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”[2]These words of hope are central to the first chapter in John’s Gospel. It is then no accident that we today celebrate Christmas just days after the winter solstice, December 21, which in the northern hemisphere is literally the darkest time of the year. 

In John’s telling there are no angel choruses. In John’s telling there are no shepherds tending flock. In John’s telling there are no wise men travelling from afar. In John’s telling there isn’t even a baby lying in a manger with Joseph and Mary looking on. Those are the stories Matthew and Luke tell. 

In John, the message is about the meaningof God becoming human, the word made flesh. At Christmas, we’re not just talking about getting ready, waiting and getting prepared for the little baby Jesus to be born. That already happened two thousand years ago! What Christians have been doing every year since is welcoming the Christ that is forever being born in the human soul and into history of every time and place.[3]

Ancient Christians knew very well that this Jesus, his teaching, his message, his life, his spirit, his example, leads us to the way of life itself. The way of life where we take care for one another and the world, loving God and each other as children of God.

In John’s Gospel the way of life in Christ is gift. Pure gift. God is with us – Emanuel. God now lives in us, and is born in us. There’s nothing we can or can’t do that changes God’s intention to come to us in love, over and over again.

When we pray at Jesus’ coming into this world, we are admitting a truth that flies in the face of our heroic attempts at Christmas – attempts to get something more out of it for ourselves or for others, to impress others, to meet and exceed expectations, to perform well. Even when we give for the wrong reasons.

Maybe we do need, again, simply to kneel by the manger side where God is born in a baby – vulnerable, weak and helpless. Maybe we do need, again to kneel by the manger and remember that we did not choose to come into the world on our own. We did not choose our families of origin, our ethnicity, or our sexuality. While we were born with intelligence and with the capacity for learning, we did not arrive fully assembled nor did we come with instructions.

We are children of God, truly. In our honesty. In our vulnerability. In our instinct to turn to God. And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now. The only instinct we had in the beginning – like baby Jesus did – once our lungs were clear after birth, the only instinct we had was to cry out for help as loudly as we could.[4]And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now.

God receives us, as we are. At the manger side, there are no expectations, no need to put on a good impression or please anyone. We come as we are. The greatest gift we can bring to God and to life is our presence, our heart, our intention and attention.

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him – give my heart.[5]And that prayer is good enough for God. For God is with us now.

Merry Christmas!


[1]Acts 20:35

[2]John 1:5,9

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Celebrating an Eternal Advent” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation(www.cac.org, Tuesday, December 24, 2019).

[4]Br. Jim Woodrum, “Help – Brother, Give Us A Word” (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, December 4, 2019)

[5]“In the Bleak Midwinter” v.3 (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006), Hymn 294

Humility

The gospel story for today is about humility. And exercising humility means letting go of our privilege in this time and place.

Privilege is a state of mind we presume to have, vis-à-vis others. The source of our privilege may come from the country in which we happen to be born, when in history we were born, to whom we were born. Privilege comes from being offspring and inheritors of settlers in this land who made an empire and found great financial wealth here. The list can go on.

In the economy of God’s grace, however, all that doesn’t matter. Gone is the pecking order. We all stand on the same level playing field. In the story where he advises his followers to take the last seat at a large table of a prominent Pharisee (Luke 14:1,7-14), Jesus denounces our egoistic striving to be first in line. As if the good that we experience in life depends on us, and is all up to us.

Which leads us back to humility. An image I hold of this humble stance in life is a prayerful pose: bowed slightly, hands open both receiving and giving.

Since the truth of the Gospel is so often expressed in parables — stories — here follows a story about the most privileged trees on the slopes of the Canadian Rocky and Coastal Mountains.

At least twice during our road trip through western Canada we came across swaths of mountainsides devasted either by the mountain pine beetle or forest fires. Even the most prevalent of trees in these areas – the western red cedar or lodgepole pine—were not immune from the infestation.

 

We learned, in the case of the pine beetle, that it takes about ten years for the cycle of renewal. Right now, in the early stages, all we saw from the vantage of trams high in the air were carpets of brown trees—the green of life and growth stripped, absent. Like matchsticks in the dirt, their needles deadened, lifeless. Didn’t look so good.

Our guides assured that this cycle was necessary for the forest to renew itself. The problem with the way the pine forest was establishing itself over decades was the growth was becoming too dense and thick, thereby choking out other life. Once the dead trees fall over from the pine beetle infestation, space is made for sunlight and rain to penetrate the forest floor once again, thereby inciting new growth.

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From the barren, lifeless landscape come first the purple, mountain mallow which blooms close to the ground. Then, notably, aspen grows and finally again pioneer species such as the lodgepole pine—the provincial tree of Alberta.

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These trees, some of them privileged, native species of the region, bow to the larger movements and cycles of life. They are part of something bigger than themselves that is happening in the eco-system. Needs larger than their own are being addressed. Each of those trees bow to a greater scheme. They, if they had consciences, realize their lives are given and meant for a greater good.

So, for us, imagine a humility that is not false but true. Not a humility that in a backhanded way seeks attention or self-aggrandizement. But a humility that honestly reveres the greater good in which we participate and which we serve.

It is like someone has quietly deposited a million dollars in your checking account. Imagine that! And now it is secretly yours. Yet you always know it was a gift. It is yours to use and enjoy and expand. But you cannot say you earned it or you deserved it. Everybody thinks it is your money and may or may not admire you for it; it doesn’t matter. You know better and cannot take the credit. You just live in gratitude and confidence. And you try to let the flow continue through you. You know that love can be repaid by love alone.[i]

You can say as followers of  Christ we need to get over ourselves at some point on this path. Now, getting over ourselves doesn’t mean doing harm or denying our humanity of which our ego striving is very much a part. It does mean we learn to hold all of who we are—including the not-so-good-parts—in the light of the bigger picture of God’s initial and primary grace and gifting to us. We are part of something much larger than we think.

In the economy of God’s grace, how then do we live? How does this awareness translate into real life?

We live our days, each moment, drawing from another source. God is primary; we are derivative. God is the source of all energy, power, wisdom and wealth. [ii]

We see ourselves an instrument of the gift we have.

We don’t, therefore, need to promote ourselves.

We don’t need to take first nor final responsibility for our goodness, our gift whatever it is.

We meet other people where they are at, not where we are at.

And when we experience setback in life, we need not worry too much about our failures. In truth, it is often in the very experience of failure, limitation and loss where we find the seeds of new life.

Indeed, our life is not our own. Yet at some deep level we know that it has been given to us as a sacred trust.

Our best is not our own; it is borrowed.

We know Someone takes us seriously; we feel deeply respected and grateful.

We can bow, in gratitude and respect, with hands open, to the gift.

 

 

[i]Richard Rohr, Adam’s Return; The Five Promises of Male Initiation (New York: The Crossword Publishing Company, 2016),  p.157-158.

[ii] Michael Dowd, “The Nested Body” in The Mendicant Volume 9 Number 3 (Centre for Action and Contemplation: Summer 2019), p.3.

Surrender, to be free indeed: a sermon for Reformation Sunday

I am grateful that by some coincidence the choir sang today a piece whose title was, “I surrender to Jesus”. And, indeed, the thread that runs through the whole song is the act of of surrendering. This theme might, on the surface, appear incongruent and disconnected with Reformation Sunday.

As a child, I remember Reformation Sundays in the Lutheran Church were indeed ‘celebrations.’ As if we were remembering and celebrating a victory on the battlefield of religious truth. Against our opponents in the religious marketplace.

When we retold the stories of Martin Luther who five hundred years ago stood up to communicate his theological emphasis — that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to scripture alone — the upshot was that those who didn’t believe this were lost, even despised. Worthy of our judgement. Illumination translated into pressure to conform, need to compete and become embroiled in violent conflict.

Indeed the history of the Reformation in the decades and centuries following Martin Luther’s assertions reflects violence. Wars, based more on political and economical divisions, were fought in the name of Protestant or Catholic truth. Blood was shed. Common folk lost their livelihoods even their lives in the upheavals of the so-called religious wars across Europe. Marching into battle to defend truth became the vision and basis for ‘celebrating’ the Reformation.

Martin Luther’s unfortunate anti-semitism whose words the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada repudiated became grounds for hatred against Jewish people to this day, such as in Pittsburgh yesterday. Indeed hatred and violence are as much a legacy of the Reformation as anything else.

Surrendering is indeed counterpoint to the flavour of victory. The cross always stands in contrast to the wiles of glory-seeking fanatics. It is not an easy path: Waving a white flag in the wind may feel like we are ‘giving up’ on who we are, or not caring anymore, or losing our identity. And, here, it doesn’t matter whether we surrender spiritually to Jesus or surrender to anyone on earth. It is the act of surrender that offends our sense of being. And scares us.

That is why, perhaps, we react to this notion that surrender is a good thing. And so, we keep fighting, defending, being all self-righteous. And violent against others, in word and deed. When all along, the truth of it and the real problem is: We find it difficult to admit that in some things we were, and are, wrong.

Martin Luther didn’t want to create a new church. If he knew today that his actions resulted not only in the proliferation of some 30,000 Christian denominations and a plethora of Protestant churches across the globe, but that there was even a church named after him—he would be rolling around in his grave. And yet we trust that despite Luther’s good intentions to merely reform the Roman Catholic Church of which he wanted to remain a member, what has happened is part of something much larger than Luther himself.

The truth is, when we take the risk to do what we are called to do, we fall into a larger reality, a larger good, that is beyond our control. Do we do good, or even pray, in order to control the outcome? Do we do good, and pray, so that what we want to happen will turn out? And if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with the prayer, or God? Is the religious life about an escape plan from this world into heaven? Because following Jesus is not management-by-objective. We don’t pray and do good to get an insurance policy for heaven.

Rather, we do what we must do because we are stepping into the flow of a greater good in which we participate. We move into active response to God’s love and grace because whatever we do is not for our sake alone. When we do good and pray, for example, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Following Jesus is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water.

The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. It enlivens us with refreshment and purpose. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is the ocean of complete, loving union with God.

We can also learn from the example of Jesus. In the Gospel text for Reformation Day (John 8:31-36) , those who oppose Jesus try to draw him into an argument. Jesus suggests they are not free. They are slaves to sin. His opponents reply by saying they are descendants of Abraham and therefore have never been slaves to anyone.

They are blind to their own inner captivity. They can’t see how enslaved they actually are. Indeed they are not free to grow, in Christ. Because they are right. And everyone else is wrong. They are their own worst enemy.

When Jesus hangs on the cross, and prays to God, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” (Luke 23:46) he expresses a profound and deep surrender, a letting go, into the immeasurable vastness that is God. From his moment of ‘forsakenness’ (Mark 15:34) that we all must one day experience we learn that faith is not about belief at all. It is about trust and love.

This is a surrendering that does not compromise in any way who we are. Letting go is not ‘giving up’, as if we don’t care anymore about whatever it is we’ve been so inclined to manage and control.

Surrendering to God is releasing our managerial faculties. It is like forgiveness, when we let go of the resentment that keeps us trapped in wanting revenge and retribution. Surrendering to God is an expression of complete trust in that which is wonderfully greater than anything we can imagine let alone accomplish on our own.

Over twenty years ago, Carl Sagan’s book, Contact, was made into a movie. This is basically a story of aliens who send the makings of an interstellar vehicle to earth. Engineers and scientists figure out how to complete this egg-shaped pod that would transport one person through gateways and wormholes to other worlds in the universe.

It is during the inaugural flight that the character played by Jodie Foster discovers a solution to a serious problem. She discovers that what humans think is a sensible, reasonable thing to do actually is the problem.

You see, in this orb that would be Jodie Foster’s mode of travel, there was at first no chair, or anything to keep her in place. And how could someone travel at untold speeds to unimaginable, unknown places without some way to secure her body? Otherwise she could seriously hurt herself tumbling about inside.

So the engineers and scientists construct an elaborate chair which they fasten to the inside of the capsule.

As expected, during the initial flight, Jodie Foster’s character experiences an excruciating degree of turbulence and vibration, to the point where she might expire from the stress of it.

At the height of the extreme shaking, a pendant that had been around her neck comes loose. And floats in front of her eyes. Surprisingly it isn’t subjected to the violent turbulence. It isn’t moving at all. Just floating, suspended in space. It is still. Peaceful.

An idea comes to her in a flash. Without hesitating she unbuckles her chest strap, and releases her body from the chair. From that moment on, her body is finally free from being confined to the chair. She could then fully appreciate, enjoy and embrace the wonder of her interstellar experience.

She understands now that the aliens knew what they were doing in sending a chair-less vessel to earth. They had indeed done their homework before coming to make contact with humans. In unbinding herself, she discovers she can trust them, the experience, and the greater good of what was happening to her.

Had she fixated on remaining bound in the chair, she would not have been able to discover the wonders of the universe to its fullest. Worse, she could have died.

She had to let go. She had to surrender any notion of security to survive. She had to take the risk to unbind herself. She had to trust, and have faith, that in the letting go, she would find peace. And be free.

We don’t have to be right. Only faithful. That when we surrender to Jesus we express in our praying and in our work a trust that we, and the whole universe, are held in the loving embrace of God.

From the scrap heap of metal, we find two pieces. These pieces are ready to be disposed of. The bare bones. The raw material. Broken pieces. These pieces represent our broken, common humanity.

We can do something with these pieces, to be sure. These scraps of metal can be used to brace structures of our own doing—reinforce supporting walls, strengthen sides in a piece of furniture, cover holes and be painted over in appealing colours.

But when these scraps are left alone, God makes something out of nothing. From the ‘scrap’ consciousness. You see, it is no good when these pieces are already made into something by our own hands. But in our dissembled lives, when either the world only sees just scraps and/or we only see the broken dissembled pieces of our lives.

It is only when we let go and let be ‘just as we are’ that God does something with us through the cross. We then become part of the greater flow of love running forever towards God.

The human face of a vulnerable God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] @moltmannjuergen, March 15, 2018

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

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

[5] John 18:36

[6] 1 John 1:1

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeremiah 31:33-34

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

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).

It’s ok to fall (2): God is in control

Falling is a bad word if you are over the age of 70, because it can precipitate our dying. So our knee jerk is to take control! We are told not to fall. We avoid slippery, icy parking lots. We rig our homes to prevent falling — getting rid of area rugs, installing grip handles in the washrooms, renovating away any unnecessary steps. Ageing bears with it the mantra: “It’s NOT okay to fall!”

But we will at some point, anyway, whether we like to or not. And when we do, we pray for healing and mending of broken bones and tendons. We may come on our knees in submission and confession, asking God for help.

The story of the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-14) is normally read during the preceding season of Epiphany, when Ash Wednesday starts later in the calendar year. Because Lent starts earlier this year, it’s not in the lectionary. But this story is an excellent one upon which to reflect at the beginning Lent.

First, it is one of the most well-read stories of healing from the Hebrew Scriptures. And healing is a theme in these weeks leading up to Easter, when we take notice of our sin, weakness and brokenness, and pray for our restoration in Christ.

The journey of Lent is one where we follow Jesus on his journey to the Cross. And by recalling this holy story of Christ’s passion, suffering and death “for us”, we are invited to reflect on our life’s journey of suffering reflected in the hope of faith.

The story of our healing will thus follow the path that Jesus trod. It is our task, therefore, to pay attention to the nature of this path, and not to waver despite the temptations of the world around us to venture in another direction.

Because of the Cross of Jesus, I claim the theme of my sermons this Lent — “It’s okay to fall.” Why? Because God is in control. And this is one of those counter-cultural messages because our world tells us to take control so that we will not fall —

Tighten your grip. Strengthen your resolve. Become the master of your destiny. Show you are strong, even when you are not. All the politicians know this — never apologize or concede to your opponent, never give them the upper hand. In a national election year, we will notice this often, I am sure. The political leaders must show strength, power, control and righteousness.

The Gospel of Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to show weakness and vulnerability. For me to stand here and say, it’s okay to be vulnerable, show weakness; it’s okay to be honest about our stumbling in life; It’s vital for our soul to apologize when we have fallen and to seek forgiveness from the other —

This is revolutionary — totally counter-cultural! Totally going against the grain of our lives! How can we be okay with our ‘falling’? How can we even risk that?

When we camped a couple summers ago at Sandbanks Provincial Park on Lake Ontario, it was windy for the first couple of days. And the kite-flying enthusiasts were out on the beach in full force. Fortunately, we too had packed a kite.

And so there I was, with all the rigging, trying to keep the kite afloat high above us. I thought I had the knack of controlling the strings and handles — even controlling by my direction the flight, height and movement of the kite up or down, regardless of what the wind did — or so I thought.

Because ever so often, a micro-burst of air would come upon us unexpectedly — and only the most skilled (and lucky!) of us kite-fliers was able to anticipate and compensate for the burst of air that brought most of our kites diving into the sand. No matter what I did, the control was ultimately in the wind.

General Naaman was a command and control guy. He was the successful leader of the army of Syria (or Aram). He was used to issuing orders and getting results. People admired him for his strength, his resolve, his prowess on the battle field. He commanded the respect of not only his king but the kings of his enemies. He would be the poster boy for our culture when we imagine ‘strong leadership’.

Except for one thing. He suffered from a skin disease. It was his ‘thorn in the side’, as Saint Paul described one thing that brought him to his knees (2 Corinthians 12:6-10). General Naaman was hurting. And he tried everything to find healing. He used the resources of his country, accessed the healers, magicians of his nation and the powerful ones, all in order to rid him of his ailment.

Isn’t it true — relief from suffering becomes our sole desire, our fixation? When it comes to dealing with our suffering, control is exactly what we want. Like Naaman, we would like to control when and how this relief will come, expending all the resources at our disposal. And it wasn’t working. Nothing was. His command and control approach failed.

When we are really hurting, we will listen to anyone with a good suggestion, even those at the bottom of the food chain. In Naaman’s life, it’s the servant girl of his wife who first suggests the prophet Elisha, and the low rung servants who convince Naaman to listen to the prophet’s simplistic remedy to wash seven times in the Jordan River.

In his suffering and journey towards healing, Naaman is humbled. He concedes control to a process that is not normative for him. His world of protocols, kings, wealth, and well-known rivers is turned upside down. He has no option left at the end, in his journey, but to let go, and let God work through the prophets and the servants, and the dirty Jordan River.

We witness here, in the story of Naaman, falling can be redemptive. How letting go of control in those areas where we really do not have any control over anyway, is critical. How listening to the voice of God in unexpected places, and being obedient to that call even if it means doing something outside of the norm.

It’s okay to fall, because God is in control. This is the point of the passage, which shows us how in the end our ‘getting up’ is not because we know the best ‘rivers of healing’, have all sorts of money to buy it, or have connections with the people in power. We ‘get up’ not because we have engineered it somehow, not because we have employed our resources and worked hard to convince ourselves that we are the reasons the kite can fly.

We ‘get up’ solely and only because of God’s initiative to love us. We get up only because God, not us, is in control.

It’s okay to fall, and be humbled in our suffering. It’s okay to fall and admit our need. It’s okay to expose our vulnerability, our anger and doubt, and confess our sin. Because, in the end, the healing comes by the grace of God.

When Saint Paul prayed to be healed from his ‘thorn’, God assured him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Naaman was not the only one in the history of faith in God that needed to hear and heed the words of the Psalmist (147:10-11):

“God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those …
who hope in his steadfast love.”

How to know peace

How can we know peace? Not only are we anxious and stressed to get everything done this holiday season, our hearts may also be heavy with grief with loss, and aware of the tragic violence facing so many people in other parts of the world today … Then what of ‘peace?’

Cardinal Thomas Collins was the guest speaker at an event I attended on behalf of Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod, ELCIC) earlier this week on Parliament Hill. He spoke to a room full of parliamentarians and multi-faith religious leaders on the theme of “Faith in a Time of Crisis”.

In his opening remarks he admitted this theme could be interpreted in a few ways: He said, the most obvious, was to look at the places of violence and conflict in the world, images that are splashed all over the media almost on a daily basis.

Then, “Faith in a Time of Crisis” might also be applied to our Canadian context, where changing economic realities and public violence hit close to home, as it did in downtown Ottawa a few weeks ago in the shootings and deaths on Parliament Hill.

But, Cardinal Collins settled on the crises we face ourselves, personally, in our own lives: crises of losses, frail health, broken relationships and despair. He looked straight into the eyes of our Members of Parliament and government leaders, and with a twinkle in his eye spoke about the virtue of humility.

I couldn’t help but think about the examples of humility in the Scriptures, especially in the New Testament. Unlike the self-righteous Pharisee praying in the temple, the tax collector beats his breast and prays, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”; apparently, the person who exercises humility is the person of God (Luke 18:9-14).

In the Gospel text for today, John the Baptist confesses, “I am not worthy even to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals” (Mark 1:1-8). John the Baptist points to the coming Saviour, Jesus Christ. He knew that he would ‘decrease’ so that Christ would ‘increase’ (John 3:30). We might not think of John the Baptist as particularly humble, what with his rough-and-tumble persona.

But he was merely the messenger, preparing the way of Jesus. Jesus would be ‘the way, the truth, the light’, not John the Baptist. He understood, as we all are well to do, that God is God, and we are not. Even though we are valuable members, each and every one of us, of the Body of Christ, we are still just a part of the larger, “Big Picture”, as Richard Rohr calls the kingdom of God.

It’s easy to slip into that frame of mind that believes we are God, and that it’s up to us. It’s easy to identify with the unholy trinity of “me, myself and I.” We might sooner go to confession and, instead of saying, “Father I have sinned …”, say, “Father, my neighbour has sinned; and, let me tell you all about that!” The words, ‘pride’ and ‘sin’ both share the same middle letter … ‘I’!

Unbounded self-assuredness is not the way of the Gospel. The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist preaching repentance. Indeed, “scripture proclaims hope for troubled souls and judgement for the self-assured. Against our human tendency to read the Bible in self-justifying ways, confirming our prejudices and excusing our resentments, we must learn to read self-critically, allowing Scripture to correct us. As the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth says, ‘only when the Bible grasps at us’ does it become for us the Word of God” (David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word – Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.160).

It’s much harder, to see yourself as the problem. Cardinal Collins used the image of going in for an oil change, to describe his own need, regularly, to confess his own sins, to be grounded again in the truthful reality of his life. Some of us, he feared, unfortunately take better care of our cars with regular maintenance than we do with our own souls.

Humility means to be grounded, to be in touch with your humanity (‘humus’ — Latin for the earth, ground). Humility is to recognize your own complicity in a problem or challenge we face, AND taking responsibility for your own behaviours. Humility also reflects the desire to be changed, and to change yourself. The famous poet, Rumi, once wrote: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Do you want to change yourself?

Now, you also probably know this: whenever you embark on a journey of transformation, you will encounter resistance to this change — both from external sources and from within yourself. Listen to how a congregation undergoing intentional change identified very honestly in their reporting what they anticipated to be different states of resistance; they wrote:

“If we are going to try to make some changes – guaranteed – there will be resistance! (If there is no resistance, that shows that nothing is changing.) We will encounter (at least) four waves of resistance: 1. against the very need to consider change 2. against no matter what changes or types of changes 3. against specific changes 4. against personal changes and transitions, without which there is no way changes in the congregation, as a whole, can happen.” This shows great insight, and wisdom! Even in a climate where a collective change must occur, they recognize that the body can’t change unless its individual parts do.

Now, you may be starting to wonder what the desire for peace has to do with change. In fact, you may see change as the grounds for anything but peace. Well, the two are related, in the act of confession.

In the Lutheran Church, Confession has not been practiced as a formal sacrament; traditionally, the only two sacraments that have been practised as such are Baptism and Holy Communion – although to varying degrees among different Lutheran expressions, confession, too, has been practiced sacramentally.

Whatever the case may be, there is agreement that Martin Luther did place immense importance on the practice of confession. In our current worship books, there are orders for individual and corporate confession. I encourage you to look into these prayers, especially at this time of year. The point is, when you practice humility in the act of confession, the heart is naturally opened up to change for the better, and find peace.

Admittedly this path to peace, is a way through the desert. We enter one of the greatest paradoxes of the Christian faith: that it is through the suffering that comes to us all in various ways that we can experience the grace, the mercy, and the profound love of God that changes us, transforms us, into a new creation. John the Baptist preached “in the wilderness”; Isaiah (40) proclaimed words of comfort to a people moving “in the wilderness”.

But, if you want to see the stars, you have to go out into the wilderness — where it is ‘dark’, where it is quiet, where silence and stillness of the night characterizes reality much more than the usual distractions, stimulations and the incessant rushing-about that describes our lives more today, and in this season.

If the Christian faith has anything of enduring value to offer our retail-crazed, commercialized, high-octane holiday season — it is the gift of “Silent Night, Holy Night”. Because the light of the world is coming. As John the Baptist pointed to the brightest star that was coming into the world, we can do well to pay attention the ways in which Christ comes to us.

In our humility, in our acknowledgement for the need for forgiveness and grace, we learn to depend on God and one another for signs of God’s coming to us, again, and again.

Peace be with you.