Better is not what you think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are people being helped?”

“Is good coming out of all your efforts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s counting?

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.

The Gospel story today (Matthew 25:14-30) is a good example of a parable that challenges a materialistic way of thinking, a mentality that has contributed to a problem we face today. It also introduces — if we pay attention to it — the Gospel way of thinking. And I believe, the Gospel way of thinking not only judges the ways of old, it paves the way for entering God’s future.

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00 AM for an early morning business flight.

Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00 AM.” He left it where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00 AM and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed.

The paper said, “It is 5:00 AM. Wake up.”

On several levels this story exposes the kind of way we operate when facing difficulties: It’s a tit-for-tat world we live in. There have to be winners and losers. It’s really the only game we know well. When someone, or some group, or some other religion or denomination poses a threat, we respond in kind. Because someone must win and someone must lose. During the Cold War Era, we called it ‘mutually-assured-destruction’; or, as the acronym accurately suggests, when we give ourselves into this compulsive way of behaving, we are indeed MAD.

On the surface this parable looks like it contains a good stewardship message. And, admittedly, there is this theme of valuing personal industry and action as part of what it means to follow Jesus. By comparing what the three servants do — one turns five talents into ten and the other turns two into four by bold, risky investment; but the third doesn’t do anything with his talent — we may be left merely with the notion that the solution is by just upping the ante of all our spiritual work. Just do more. Work harder, and spin those wheels faster.

All of this to get more of what we think we want; that is, more of the same thing we’ve always known. I like to joke that when someone in the church suggests we do something today the same way the church did it 50 years ago — whether it is about a strategy for getting more people in the pews, some outreach program all intended to bring people in — it’s like advising someone who has car trouble they should really trade it in for horse and buggy. It just won’t work today! The church today really needs to do something altogether different from the ways of thinking fifty years ago.

I wonder what would have happened if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus didn’t tell the story this way, but I cannot imagine the master would have been harsh towards them; he might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. (John M. Buchanan, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJKP 2011, p.310). The point is not about achieving a desired result, and being congratulated for your success, materially. This is not management by objective. This is not ‘the ends justify the means.’

This is about living — living in a way that demonstrates a willingness to take risks not knowing how it will all turn out. The Gospel way is not win-lose, it is both-and. Because in being faithful, we may try things, and sometimes fail in the world’s eyes. But emphasizing risk-management may sometimes impede our action to do the right thing when we have to do it, despite the sordid circumstances of life. We can’t wait until everything is hunky-dory before we take action; otherwise we never will. The reason the third slave received judgement was because he wanted to play it safe, be cautious and prudent; he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lose anything; low risk, no risk.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility. Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, took his own responsibility seriously, so much so that he joined the Resistance and helped plan an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. His sense of responsibility cost him his life. (ibid., p.311-312)

We, as Christians, are not called to be ‘counters and measurers’. God knows, if we do anything well in times of institutional crisis and constriction, we count and we measure — we do this very well. But in all our counting and measuring and bottom line conversations, are we not being judged? We just need to look around and count the heads in our churches today, for that answer.

When we arranged for this pulpit swap, the purpose around doing so was to provide an opportunity to share about how we reach out. In the congregation I serve, in the last couple of years, we have done “Back to Church Sunday”. Practically, this event boils down to each member of the worshipping community being challenged to ask a friend, “Would you like to come to church with me?” And it’s not as easy as it may seem on the surface.

Success in the program is not based on how many first-time visitors walk through the door on B2CS. Success is not measured by the number of people who agree to come. No-one may show up on that Sunday. But the event could still be considered a success IF … If at least one member — one of you — actually asked someone, actually invited someone, to come. Because the result is not something we have control over. How a person responds is not in our control — it is the job of the Holy Spirit to move in the heart of the person.

Yes, we have some work to do in the process — developing a friendship with that person, praying for that person — these are things we can do to prepare ourselves for asking that question to them. And had we done all those things, culminating in actually asking that question — then we are successful.

This calls, admittedly, for a radical shift in our mentality and in our approach. It necessitates, I believe, some uncomfortable letting go of the way we have seen ourselves. But in the unravelling, discomfort and vulnerable places we put ourselves in living the Gospel way, we can be encouraged.

For one thing, in reading this Gospel text, have you ever noticed how trusting the master is with his resources. God, like the master, has faith in us. God gives according to our abilities — not more, not less. God puts no condition on what we do with this bounty. Even the one talent was worth — in those days — 15 years of wages. Converted to today’s average salaries, that would be around a million dollar value! But who’s counting?

The point is, God entrusts us with an abundance of wealth, gifts and resources. God is so generous to us. Do you see the good in your life? I hope you do, because this ‘seeing’ calls us to respond in kind. God believes in us, and will ever be faithful by God’s gift of abundant grace. Just maybe, then, we can trust God when we live boldly using those gifts in the world for good, and as we step out into the unknown, as we move out of our comfort zones to do great things that God can accomplish in us.