Even among the lost

I hear Simon’s despair, tainted with frustration and even anger, when he reacts to Jesus’ instruction to put the nets in deep water to catch the fish in Lake Galilee.[1]

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” He’s trying to make a point that there is no use to doing what Jesus asks of them. After all, they did all they could do. They employed all their resources, knowledge and effort into catching fish that night. But to no avail. Understandably frustrated, Simon scoffs at the futility of doing what Jesus asks. As if he knows better. There is not point to it all.

This is not the first time we hear Jesus say or do something that mystifies us. Earlier in this season after Epiphany, we witnessed Jesus being baptized. Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River often confounds our sensibility. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? Aren’t we the ones that need to be baptized? Not God!

So often we find salvation in what we do, and the meaning we attribute to what we do. In the church, we often do exactly what the crowds at the Jordan did: We come to worship, pray the printed confessions of sin, receive Communion and hope that these liturgical acts will wash away our sins. And make life right.

Then, we also have other programs for self-improvement, such as trying a new diet, cutting down on drinking and smoking, or finding someone who will love us just right. But these things are all futile for making real change in our lives, for making our lives right.

But Jesus walks into our lives just as he waded into the Jordan to be baptized by John. If Jesus was to walk into our lives today, he could just as well arrive at our job interviews, wedding receptions, or retirement parties. He could just as well stand in the long lines with us at the Tim Horton’s or sports venues. Jesus could just as well join us in all our driving around town to this and that – and the next futile thing we are trying to do in order to make life right.

Yes, I could feel the futility behind Simon’s statement—but we fished all night and caught nothing. Would Jesus step even into that despair?

When work seems futile. When other people frustrate us. When life seems pointless. When what we do appears to have little purpose, meaning or utility. When we fail. When despair sinks in.

Or, not far removed in the face of uncertainty, we clamber and clamor for the next shiny, new thing. We distract ourselves. We fall into mindless routine or stimulating addiction, to occupy our minds or numb them. And escape reality. Even just below the surface of seeming industry, there broils a fearsome anxiety.

Yes, I hear Simon’s despair. But I also see Jesus, right there.

What is Jesus up to here? Getting baptized. Going fishing with his friends. Going to weddings. Hanging out in the streets. What is Jesus up to here, living the life we all live?

For some reason, Jesus is taking on our lost condition. Jesus participates in our lives, doing what we do, engaging our routines, our work, our lifestyles. And, as we become more aware of Jesus closeness to us in our successes and our failures, we discover the Gospel truth: that salvation comes not because of our activity, our brains, our efforts. Salvation comes through a loving Savior who finds us and takes on our lost condition.

So maybe our job is not to explain the mystery, but simply to obey the seemingly pointless, futile instruction from Jesus. And act on it, as Simon did. “Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.”[2]

Visit the sick. Befriend the poor, the outcast, the refugee. Accompany the vulnerable, the weak, the dying.

After selling their large house where they called home for decades, Jack and Betty moved to a smaller two-bedroom apartment in town. Once settled in, they invited Craig, a church friend, to dinner in their new home. Craig was happy to oblige.

After all, on Sunday mornings they would sit together in worship. They didn’t say a lot. Betty might say something odd, but her countenance was so bright. Jack seemed always bothered by something, like he was scowling. But the couple was always together. And they liked each other.

Craig tells the story of his experience visiting Jack and Betty. He writes,

“Once I arrived at their apartment on the appointed evening, it didn’t take me long to realize that Betty had Alzheimer’s disease. It now seemed so obvious that I felt foolish for missing it earlier. Jack never let her out of his sight. It was then that I realized that he hadn’t been scowling for the last couple of years. He was just worried.

“Before I even had my coat off, Betty took me by the hand and led me to the painting above the sofa that depicted their stately old home. She became a bit more lucid as the stories of the old place tumbled out of her soul. I felt her squeeze my hand as she talked … [as if she were trying to say], ‘There is more to me than you see now.’ … Jack stood behind us and allowed his worry to ease a bit with a tender smile.

“Dinner was interesting. Betty couldn’t be allowed near the stove, and Jack wasn’t about to learn to cook. So he had asked their housekeeper to make them an extra-large omelet before she left that afternoon. When we were ready to eat, Jack put the egg dish in the microwave, then cut it into thirds and served it on Betty’s best china. For desert he brought out Klondike bars that we ate using the good silverware, which wasn’t easy. Several times during the meal, Betty got up and wandered around the apartment a bit. I was impressed by Jack’s ability to maintain our conversation, which was always of secondary importance to him, while always watching his wife.

“Throughout the evening I kept thinking that I needed to say something useful. After all … [isn’t that what we’re supposed to do with others?] But how profound could I be with Betty, whose mind was too clouded for conversation? What would I even say to Jack…? I could try, ‘Keep up the good work’ or ‘This must be really hard,’ but that would be so inane.

“After dinner, we left the old dining-room table and made our way back to the living room sofa, where I sat next to Betty. Jack took the chair across from us. I began to talk, trying to speak of …[relevant] things, but I wasn’t doing well. [As a Christian friend, from church] I knew that I was called there to be a blessing to them and … to witness to Christ’s presence among them. But how? I felt like a pilot circling above the clouds, looking for an opening to land. Soon Betty got up and wandered off again.

“When she returned, she stood behind the chair where Jack was seated and put her trembling hand on his shoulder. And as only old lovers know how to do, he reached up to take her hand as if it were the first and millionth time he had done it. I stopped talking as they both smiled at me.

“Well, there it was – the blessed presence of Christ. Then I knew that I wasn’t there to say a thing. My calling was to behold and be amazed. It was as if their mutual smile said, ‘Don’t you dare pity us. We are blessed.’ Beneath the gentle act of holding a trembling hand lies the mystery of … [love].

“In the end, this is as good as the calling to love can be. …There is just the holding of hands …”[3]

There is neither brow-wrinkled explanation nor fear-induced despair.

There is just the smile of God in the face of another.

 

 

[1]Luke 5:4-5

[2]Luke 5:5

[3]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) p.97,103-105

What is Jesus doing?

I have a small humidifier for my guitar. I combine special crystals with distilled water in a small tube that I insert between the strings. This helps prevent the hardwood casing of the guitar from cracking and splitting. I need to keep filling the small tube with water at least once a week during the dry months of winter to preserve the wood.

At this time of year in Canada, especially under the influence of a continental climate, the air is dry. Very. But we don’t even notice or think about it. The only way I know it’s really dry when it’s so cold is my skin is itchy and my hands get cracked and rough. Also, a device at home tells me the humidity levels are quite low around 20-30%. Not only does our skin pay the price in dry conditions, our organs internally need hydration. So, we have to drink more water.

It’s hard to imagine, but we can actually be dehydrated in the winter. And these conditions are not overtly noticeable, really. Unless we pay attention to our skin or check the humidistat, it’s not apparent.

When we consider faith, or spirituality, we enter into a level of awareness similar to our awareness of water around us, or lack thereof. It’s not immediately nor easily perceptible where the water is or goes.

When we approach a problem or a challenge in life with the good intention of bringing our faith to bear on it, we must first uncover our way of thinking about it. Because how we think about it influences the choices we make.

Here are a couple ways of thinking that we are usually not aware of, in the choices and decisions we make. These are ways of thinking that the Gospel for today exposes.[1]

First, underneath all our words and actions often lurks the virus of dualism. ‘Dual’ means, two: Either/Or, This or That; This belongs and That doesn’t belong. This mental strategy exists just below the level of consciousness, and is ingrained in our western thinking especially since the Enlightenment and Reformation. This way of thinking has dominated our approach to faith, even though it was not the way of thinking of those who first scribed the biblical stories.

For example, John the Baptist in the Gospel story today says that he baptizes with water but the one coming after him will baptize with Spirit and fire.[2]We may comprehend this dualistically, suggesting that Jesus was not going to use water in his baptismal ministry. We then interpret this is as: In Christian baptism, water is irrelevant, unnecessary. After all, if Jesus, Son of God, won’t baptize with water, why should we? … and so on and so on.

You see how dualism creeps into our encounter with Scripture? It doesn’t help, then, that nowhere in the New Testament do we see Jesus performing anybaptisms, let alone with water, Spirit or fire.

When we get up in-the-head with these Gospel texts, we easily can get ourselves into a twisted, confused state. We start fighting amongst ourselves over right-thinking, doctrine and the efficacy of baptism. The church divides and we see in the history, especially after the Reformation, a proliferation of denominations. And how well has dividing-over-doctrine worked for us?

But, what if the solution lies in another way of thinking? It’s interesting that in our thinking that can go astray in this Gospel text, we do get some helpful cues to help us out of the quagmire of dualism:

“Repent!” is John the Baptist’s primary message which we see clearly in the other Gospels,[3]and earlier in the Gospel of Luke.[4]The Greek word, metanoia, translated as “repent”, literally means ‘to change your mind’. Then Saint Paul comes along and instructs, “Be transformed by a renewal of your mind.”[5]So, repentance does not start by changing bad habits, or feeling guilty for bad behaviour. Repentance is not fundamentally moralistic.

First, repentance means changing our way of thinking about a problem. Repentance means looking at a challenge in a completely different way from the way you’ve always thought about it. The message of repentance is about nurturing a healthy self-critique about your thought-process, and changing it. Once the mind is changed, hopefully the heart will soon follow.

So, from this text, what if it’s not either/or but both/and? What if water, fire and Spirit were all important aspects of our experience and expression of baptism in Christ? And nothing was being excluded from the mix?

Because from the story of creation in the book of Genesis, the Spirit hovers over the water and God speaks to create. So, in Baptism the ‘word’ and ‘water’ are vehicles of God to create something new in you.[6]

We don’t often think about our need for water, especially in a country like Canada where fresh drinking water abounds. After all, over 60% of our bodies are made up of water and most of this planet is covered by water. How can we take it for granted? How can we not see it?

Water, in its various states—frozen, liquid, gas—is integral to all of creation. It is pervasive. We cannot get away from it, or remove ourselves somehow from its all-encompassing reality. We cannot divide it out, easily. It cannot exist, apart from anything else in the natural world. Water connects all things. And we can only participate in its existence within and all around us. We belong to it; it belongs to us.

Often when the Baptism of our Lord comes up in the church calendar, we immediately think this story must primarily be about our baptism. Here is another way of thinking that we don’t usually uncover: a lifestyle that places the ultimate onus on us, individually.

So, this story gives us license, we presume, to make it all about us: our faith, our work, our sin, our need to somehow earn God’s favour by seeking out baptism or proving the worthiness of our faith. The upshot of this story of Jesus’ baptism must, therefore, mean we need to imitate Jesus as best as we can.

But what about asking another question? Instead of the popular question, “What would Jesus do?”, what about asking, “What is Jesus doing?”[7]

The first question—What would Jesus do?— assumes that the Savior is on the sidelines of our lives and that the burden of life and work is on our shoulders. When we seek to imitate Jesus’ life, we presume the Savior is not really saving but is setting impossibly high standards that we attempt to imitate by doing what we assume he would do if he were in our situation.

But to be clear, we do not imitate the Savior’s life; we participate in it. In first century context, this Gospel story has less to do with the nature of Jesus and more with his purpose.[8]

“What is Jesus doing?” is built on the conviction that he is alive, reigning, and at work in our lives. In other words, he is in our situation. And that changes everything, first about our thinking then also our mission. Instead of believing that the work of Christ is done-and-over and that now it is our turn to try to imitate his life and work, we take on the identity of being witnesses who watch and testify to his continued work of salvation that is unfolding before our eyes.

Obviously, Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, cross, and resurrection make up the decisive turning point in the great drama of salvation. But the Kingdom is still coming. And it doesn’t come through ourefforts at doing Christ’s work. It comes through the ongoing ministry of the ascended and reigning Son of God, who completes his own work through the Holy Spirit so that we may participate in what Jesus is doing.[9]

Not, what would Jesus do. Rather, what is Jesus doing.

So, Baptism gives us a physical assurance that our final destiny is no longer determined by the brokenness of our world and lives and twisted ways of thinking. Baptism gives us a physical assurance that our final destiny is the realm of God already breaking in all around us. Baptism is an invisible mark initiating us into a community that anticipates the fullness of God’s kingdom.[10]Baptism calls us to pay attention to what Jesus is doing all around us, like water.

God’s voice from heaven identifies Jesus as God’s son, in whom God is well pleased. The Baptism of our Lord is not what we are about, but about what God is up to in Jesus. If anything, this text calls us to choose how we will align ourselves with the purposes of God in Christ, in the world around us today.

To that end, when we love others, when we have mercy on others, when we show compassion, and affirm all people and creation—these are worthy strategies to align ourselves with what God is doing to make everything belong.

May the grace of God, like water, wash us and surround us in hope and in thanksgiving for all that belongs to God.

 

[1]Luke 3:15-17,21-22; Baptism of our Lord, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary

[2]Luke 3:16

[3]For example, see Matthew 3:1-2 and Mark 1:4

[4]Luke 3:8

[5]Romans 12:2

[6]Donald W. Johnson, Praying the Catechism  (Augsburg Fortress, 2008)

[7]M.Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), p.59.

[8]Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 3:15-17,21-22” in workpreacher.org for January 13, 2019

[9]Barnes,ibid.

[10]Ibid.

Geometric power: The circle church

The architecture of church buildings, despite Christianity’s institutional decline in the Western world today, continues to draw our attention. For the most part, these are beautiful buildings, appealing to the eye whose symbols etched in paint, glass and images conveyed through colour and the play of light and shadow serve as magnets to the curious and searching among us all.

In one reading assigned for this Sunday from the prophet Amos, God’s judgement on Israel is measured by a plumb line.[1]Construction workers measured the stone blocks to make sure they were squared so the walls of the temple could be built straight up. It was used to make sure the construction of buildings was done properly. The plumb line image conveys the proverbial ‘standard’ to determine how righteous God’s people are. Needless to say, Israel fails miserably, time and time again.

It seems, for folks in the bible, there is always good and bad in the mix. God’s people will never, no matter how hard they try, be pure and perfect in their doing and being. From ancient days to this day, people of faith always miss the mark. Just read Paul.[2]Our vision is often clouded, and we cannot help but make mistakes on the journey.

The stories from the bible assigned for this day reveal characters mired in the shackles of their humanity, good and bad. David rejoices in bringing the ark of the covenant into the holy place of the temple in Jerusalem while others look on with hatred, despising him.[3]Of course, King David was no angel himself, committing murder and adultery while he was king.[4]

Herod Antipas, in the Gospel reading, respected the rogue John the Baptist and liked to hear him speak yet condemned him to a gruesome death in order to protect his own reputation.[5]Wherever you read in the bible, you cannot avoid the sinfulness of even the so-called heroes of the faith.

What we build to the glory of God, the fruits of our labours and expressions of our faith, will also reflect this good/bad reality. The Dean of the now re-named Martin Luther University College [formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary], Rev. Dr. Mark Harris, once told me, when he visited me at my former parish at Zion Lutheran Church in Pembroke, that no matter all the changes that happen in the church today — good and bad — architecture always wins out.

What does the architecture of a place of prayer, therefore, communicate? What truths do they reveal about what we value, what is important to the church? How does the architecture ‘win out’?

Recently, I’ve visited other congregations that are housed in beautiful, old church buildings. The first is Merrickville United Church where last month I did a pulpit exchange, you might remember. The second was two months ago when I visited Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington D.C., which hosted some seminars at the Festival of Homiletics.

What is similar about the floors in these churches, keeping in mind [hint!] our discussion of the plumb line? What would Amos say about their construction using his plumb line?

Why did the original construction include a sloped floor? Perhaps its architects wanted to create an easier sight-line for the person in the pew to see clearly the primary furniture of worship located in the chancel — the font, altar and pulpit. The font, where the first sacrament of baptism — of entering the family of God; the altar, where the sacrament of the meal invites us regularly for nourishment on the journey of faith; the pulpit from where we hear God’s word in scripture and voice.

That’s the good from the construction, that we are drawn and can see clearly what is central to our faith: Word and Sacrament. That we can come easily; we don’t have to work hard to earn our way to God. I don’t know how many times in worships services and lectures during my time in and visits to these spaces, we had to stop whatever was going on to wait for a rolling water bottle to make its easy yet loud, clattering roll down to the front.

So, the good: We can pool down into the arms of God’s grace. We are drawn to the love of God’s welcome and forgiveness. And we really don’t need to work hard to be there. We just need to ride the current flowing to God. It is gift. It is grace. It is free. Neither ought we place any barriers to God’s grace being accessible to all, to come forward. To let all, including ourselves, come to God. Amen? All are welcome!

You may have noticed, however, that King David brings the ark of the covenant “up” into the city. Indeed, this is the geography and architecture of the city of David built upon a hill.[6]And the holy of holies is not down below in the valley, but up high by the altar.

The people have to exert some physical energy to get to the place of God’s presence. Even David, in all his rejoicing in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[7]He was working hard! He was putting his all – heart, soul and body – into the effort.

At the unplanned end to my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage last year, I sat in the large nave of the cathedral in Bilbao, Spain, reflecting on the disappointing turn of events. It is a spectacular fifteenth century build.

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As I looked around me in the silent, cavernous space, for a split second I experienced vertigo, not unlike you would in the old slanted room in the Ottawa Science Centre. Something was off.

Then I realized, I’d never before been in a church building whose floor was not sloped downward toward the altar, but upward!

IMG_5355.jpg

And what goes up must come down. The floor was slanting outward and downward toward the front doors and down into the city!

The story of David’s extravagant, energy-filled entrance up into the holy city didn’t finish at the holy of holies. Going up was completed by turning around at the apex to come back down. The story ends by David distributing food and gifts to not only his family and friends in the city, but “the whole multitude of Israel.”[8]Everyone is fed!

Worship and centering in God is followed by a necessary, gracious giving and going out into the world. I quote again the prophet Amos, where we started: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[9]

We don’t have slanted floors here. It’s more or less flat. Amos with his plumb line might be satisfied with the level of the floors. But what else could the architecture of our place of worship tell us about ourselves, our identity and God’s call for us?

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Could it be, sitting in room that is basically round that the obvious measure and geometric symbol is not the straight line, but the circle? And now, with larger windows surrounding us, windows which let more light in, also improve our imagination and connection with the world out there? Could it be, given the architecture of our faith here at Faith, we are now called not only to be drawn into the centre, the hub, of the circle who is Christ, but also be sent out in the centrifugal force of God’s Spirit?

In the last pages of the bible, the Book of Revelation, we read a vision of God’s magnificent future:

God’s future comes as an experience of God’s love, “flowing like a river from God’s throne, nourishing trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.”[10]This vision “pictures a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift. Our faith is not a privatized expression of belief which keeps faith in Jesus contained in an individualized bubble and protects us from the world.

“Rather, we are on a spiritual journey in which we remain connected to the centre of the presence of God but whose love yearns to save and transform the world. We are called to be ‘in Christ’, which means we share – always imperfectly, and always in community with others – the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world.”[11]

In loving others by including them in the circle, we discover how much we are loved by God. We are the circle church. A porous, ever-expanding circle.

 

[1]Amos 7:7-9

[2]Romans 3:23; Romans 7:15-21

[3]2 Samuel 6:16

[4]2 Samuel 11

[5]Mark 6:14-29

[6]2 Samuel 6:12b

[7]2 Samuel 6:14

[8]2 Samuel 6:18-19

[9]Amos 5:24

[10]Revelation 22:1-2

[11]Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Friday, July 13, 2018 (www.cac.org)

Pizza, sushi, pigs-in-a-blanket: It all matters

It’s an odd beginning.[1] You’d wonder why, if Matthew and Luke – and to some extent even John – begin with stories of Jesus’ birth, Mark starts his Gospel rather abruptly. And by reference to the Hebrew prophets of old.

During this Advent season as we prepare for and wait for God’s coming at Christmas, the Gospel text for today feels out of place. It shakes us out of our sentimental leanings and Hallmark expectations of pleasant Christmassy stories.

One of my favourite children’s exercises is finding the pattern in a row of numbers, words, pictures – and identifying which part doesn’t fit. Preparing a way in the dusty heat of the Judean desert by referring to Isaiah is a no-brainer for finding what doesn’t fit if we would line up and compare the first chapters of each of the four Gospels.

Compared to wordy John, for example, Mark is the master of brevity. The earliest of all four Gospels in the New Testament, Mark tells the story of Jesus by getting to the point. He appeals to our contemporary need to summarize concisely. Mark is short – only 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24 and John’s 21. In our digital video age where sound and video bytes must capture our attention in less than 15 second ads, Mark is the go-to Gospel. If you’ve got the time.

He opens by simply getting to the point: Jesus is the Son of God. And it’s good news. Amen. We’d go hear his sermons.

Unlike Matthew, Mark leaves out the juicy, vitriolic speech John the Baptist gives slicing up the Pharisees calling them a brood of vipers.[2] Instead, in a few short verses, Mark simply tells his audience that John the Baptist comes to herald Jesus’ coming. That’s John the Baptist’s only role: To announce and prepare the way of the Lord. Period. Next question.

Our three confirmands this year and their families have decided to meet in each other’s home once a month. Taking turns to host, each decides then what we will eat for supper. The first month it was pizza, perhaps no surprise there. The second month was sushi. And the third month we met this Fall, it was crescent pigs in a blanket. Pizza, sushi and pigs in a blanket.

Same group of kids and parents. Different culinary expressions. And I wondered how well this group found unity despite our differences. The detailed differences mark important aspects of our identity and perspectives on life. And yet, there we were, eating together and talking about God.

Which is why we must stop, pause and ponder Mark’s inclusion of certain details. If Mark wants to be brief and just tell the basic point, then why does he include what John the Baptist is wearing and what his diet is? There must be something very important about locusts, wild honey and camel’s hair.

I find a few good reasons for including only those details. First, Mark makes the connection between John the Baptist and prophets of old. We see, through these details that John the Baptist stands in line with Isaiah by citing his work.[3] John the Baptist is also mistaken for Elijah because of their similar attire,[4] and because he, like it is recorded in the other Gospels, foretells of the coming Messiah.[5]

Mark wants to be brief, but he also wants to add just enough detail to make those connections. Not only is this good writing, he conveys that it all matters. Not just the principles, the higher meanings, the abstract thoughts, the arguments, the beliefs. Material matters too. The locusts and wild honey that he eats, the camel hair that he wears – these all mediate God’s intent and message.

We can learn from Mark that “spiritual talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.”[6]

Because there is “nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”[7], then everything can mediate that love. There is nothing in all of creation that cannot communicate God’s goodness. All perspectives, all things, everyone – it all matters!

Those that created this library that we call “the Bible” in the fourth century could have tried to summarize the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – into one definitive, authoritative account. No variations. No differences. No discrepancies.

No need to ask questions like: Was it the feeding of the 5000 or 4000? Were there two or was there just one angel in the empty tomb to speak to the disciples? Why does the Gospel of John contain stories not recorded in Matthew and Luke? One compilation would be enough, one that gets right the chronology of all the events, teaching and parables of Jesus. It would have made life easier!

But the wisdom of our forebears in the faith would keep the variations intact. Four similar yet different accounts were included in the New Testament. The diverse expressions and witnesses of Jesus Christ and his birth, life, teaching, healing, death, resurrection and ascension emerge as a critical element of faith.

In reflecting on the unitive diversity of Christian faith in the Bible, Richard Rohr wrote earlier this week in his daily meditation: “Scripture gathers together cumulative visions of the divine.”[8] Diversity is essential to who we are. It all matters.

It all matters because there is something good in everything. Everything in creation is just that: Created by God. And if everything was and is created by God, then despite the consequences of human misdeeds and the stain of sin in creation, despite all the religious and political differences in the world, there is still something redeemable and inherently good in this brokenness of creation. Including in us. This is the hope of Christian faith.

The Christmas season is a time when traditional gatherings occur in families, communities, friendship groups, and workplace teams. It would be too easy, and lazy on our part, to be dismissive and rush to make judgements of family members and co-workers with whom we differ. Some hesitate and complain about attending these gatherings because we can’t stand “grumpy uncle Stan” or “flakey aunty Molly”.

But even “grumpy uncle Stan” and “flakey aunty Molly” are beloved of God. There is something good about them. Will we take the time and effort to help make a safe place for them to express their true selves created in the image of God?

Richard Rohr has made many enemies in the Christian church for his provocative and progressive views. He has been a voice crying out in the wilderness for several decades now. And over all this time, he maintains that in conversation with those who differ from him, he follows a simple rule:

There is always at least ten percent of what he hears in their point of view that he can agree with. And it’s from that common ten percent that he begins his response to them.[9]

That calls for some work. And persistence. Because building relationships with those from whom we differ is not accomplished in one meeting, overnight, or after one phone conversation. It’s not easy work. It can take a life time.

It’s easier to give up and walk away. It’s easier to justify some narrative that paints them as evil or not worth spending any time with. The sad consequence of following this easy way we see in the world today.

We pray for peace on earth this Christmas season, as with the angels of old. The way of peace is to have hope. To have hope is to live into that which God calls us into being. And that hope requires us to take the narrow path.[10] To have hope is to work hard at practicing good listening skills. Hope requires us to work hard at not speaking first, but first asking questions and hearing the other. That hope requires us to work hard at listening with the aim of seeking understanding, to try to see things from the perspective of the other.

This doesn’t mean we will agree with the other. This doesn’t mean we will lose our integrity or that which defines us as Christians and as individuals. But it does lead us to a way of being with the other that honours them and respects them as beloved creatures of God.

We will continue eating together as a confirmation class into the new year. I look forward to the different culinary tastes that await. And what is better, I know the young women in the confirmation class are looking forward to this as well.

Hope.

[1] The Gospel for Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8

[2] Matthew 3:7

[3] Isaiah 40:3

[4] 2 Kings 1:8

[5] John 1:21-23

[6] I wrote in my post from January 2015, “Borderland Spirituality”

[7] Romans 8:38-39

[8] December 4, 2017

[9] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010).

[10] Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:24

Checking our Image of God

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George”? (1)

Listen to this description of what happens when a family makes a visit to Uncle George who lives in, and never really leaves, his formidable mansion.

At the end of the brief visit in which the children describe Uncle George as bearded, gruff and threatening, he leans closely, and says in a severe tone of voice, “Now listen, dear. I want to see you here once a week. And if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.”

He then leads the family down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as they descend, and they begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one.

“Now look in there, dear,” he says. They see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or act in a way he approved. “And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go,” says Uncle George.

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George?” Sound familiar?

From the bible readings assigned for this season after Epiphany, we are asked to consider again who is this God we are called to follow. Of course, no one image of God is complete. Our perspective is limited, no matter how well we know the bible or how many degrees we may have behind our name. And God is greater and bigger than anything anyone can imagine or say.

Nevertheless, it is fruitful to examine what we think about God. Our image of God influences our own behaviour and what we do “in the name of God”, who is revealed in history, in our experience and in the Scriptures as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Eventually, our actions mirror the God to whom we pray, to whom we relate, whom we imagine. (2)

I would like to highlight briefly three aspects of the character of God, in Jesus, that we can see in the story of Epiphany for today — the baptism of our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17).

First, Jesus moves. He does not sit still for too long. Jesus is baptized ‘on the side of the road’ so to speak. He is baptized nowhere special, not in some officially consecrated, designated holy place — but in the wilderness where John preaches ‘on the edge’ of civilization where crowds have to follow to be there.

In fact, the Jordan River is some 35 kilometres from Jerusalem. For people who walked, this would likely mean at least a two-day journey from the city. So, most of the people who witnessed this divine event and encounter between Jesus and John on the banks of the Jordan River had to travel to get there. Even the high priests and Pharisees, those in power and who held influence in the religious establishment of Jerusalem had to get there.

Who is God? God is more a verb than a noun; God is not static; God is always on the move; we can in this story of Jesus’ baptism appreciate the moving parts of faith. It is important to note to where God goes, and is revealed.

Mobility is a kingdom value. Going some place else away from what is familiar and comfortable is part of exercising a healthy faith. Conversely, staying in one place too long is not healthy for the soul.

Second, in this mobility God relates to us in vulnerability. In worship and praise of God we are accustomed to calling God Almighty. But, at the same time, if we are ‘getting’ Jesus, we ought to be calling God Al-vulnerable.

Jesus relates to us. The divine becomes one of us in moments of vulnerability, especially. The primary symbol of Christianity, the Cross, points to the ultimate, earthly destination of Jesus, and reveals our most vulnerable God. The Cross is a sign that says: God understands us even in death and dying.

What is unique about Matthew’s version of the baptism of our Lord is that it is meant for public witness. Unlike the other Gospel accounts who make this event more of an inward, spiritual experience of Jesus, Matthew portrays the baptism of Jesus as an external event, available to all present.

Also, Jesus submits to baptism not because he needs his sins washed away. Through this act, Jesus was indicating his willingness to yield his life, to surrender his life, in obedience to his Father. Jesus requests baptism by John so that he could completely identify with those he came to save.

Therefore, relationships described by mutual vulnerability is another kingdom value. Being with others in this way, in community, is vital for faith. Prolonged isolation and emotional detachment from others is not healthy for the soul.

Finally, not only is God in motion and in vulnerable relationship with us, God is reaching out to us, immanent and present to our common lives.

Jesus’ father in heaven calls to him, validates and affirms his path. Then, too, Jesus calls his disciples. Jesus does not do it alone. He includes his disciples in his travels, walks in their shoes, involves himself in the common, daily activities, gets his hands dirty — so to speak.

Jesus is the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, he fishes with his disciples, he goes to weddings and drinks wine, he hangs out with all people not just the ‘good ones’.

Jesus does not leave us alone, some distant, transcendent God who does not care about what happens on earth. Jesus will not stop reaching out to us, and will beckon us to follow where he goes. Jesus continues to engage our lives, touching our hearts, our hands and our minds, in the very course of our lives on earth. God will intervene, and pierce our perception, inviting us into a new way of being and doing.

Today, followers of Jesus can consider anew this God who is revealed to us in Jesus. Jesus is the divine-man, who walked everywhere and moved around a lot; Jesus is the God who seeks relationships and models vulnerability and self-surrender; Jesus is the God who will not leave us alone and continues to call out to us to follow in his way.

May God bless the path we journey. Amen.
(1) cited in Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn & Matthew Linn, “Good Goats: Healing our Image of God” (Paulist Press, New York, 1994), p.3
(2) ibid., p. 7ff

No easy way up those stairs


Perhaps you know someone like Sue.

Sue had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As the disease progressed in her relatively young life, she nevertheless wanted to stay at home as long as possible. Her house, unfortunately, was not outfitted appropriately for someone in her debilitating condition.

And yet, she battled. For example, it took her twenty minutes to crawl upstairs to her bedroom. Sue called the stairs “Mount Sinai”. Because it was by struggling on those stairs, moving limb for limb through each laboured breath through gritted teeth; it was through determination for each step gained, that she learned so much (1).

The prophet Isaiah does this to us again — gives us an ideal vision of a world where no one suffers any longer, a utopia where everyone is joyful. What is perhaps even more astounding is that this vision of hope and promise is proclaimed in the midst of everything that was not:

These verses speak to Babylonian exiles (2). They are the captives of war, and as such have been wounded maimed, even intentionally blinded as was King Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:7). It is to this failed community now subjugated and marginalized in an oppressive regime far away from Jerusalem that Isaiah paints this picture of a highway leading back home through the desert (Isaiah 35:1-10).

The cynic in us alights, as it must have in many of the exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. For, when do we see the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the disabled leaping like a deer, the tongues of the speechless sing for joy? (vs.5-6). Words that Jesus later repeats almost verbatim (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18) surprise because he seems to validate the promise of a vision, hundreds of years after Isaiah, that has yet to be fulfilled.

The vision, the promise, operates like a bouncing ball through history. Indeed, our world to this day — two thousand years later — is still rife with human brokenness, both visible and hidden from sight. Many have given up on God precisely because they can’t see how a God of love can be represented in a world of suffering, disease, violence and disability.

What if this promise is given, is meant, for us today? Can we believe it? Yet, perhaps human beings will always struggle with the God who came, and is coming again and again, in Jesus. We have to be careful with Isaiah’s vision, for it can pander to our perfectionism, which denies the reality of a life lived in the graces of God: That what is of God is exclusively the purview of the rich and famous, successful, beautiful and handsome — only for the perfect ones.

Perfectionism pretends that we have to achieve that vision of wholeness and restoration by our own herculean efforts and responsibilities. A denial of the suffering in life leads us to attempt a path around all that is difficult, challenging and transformative.

“A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way, and the unclean shall not pass it by, but it shall be for them.” (Isaiah 35:8)

When John the Baptist shouts that the coming Jesus will make a way through the aridity and desolation of the desert (Matthew 3:3), it bears reason to pause and reflect on the place of John’s prophetic work. Not in the public square in downtown Jerusalem nor on the steps of the Temple.

He stands on the banks of the Jordan River — which separated two worlds. On the one side, the desert which represents the long journey, the pilgrimage, that the people of God made from slavery in Egypt. On the other side of the Jordan lies the Promised Land, the place of arrival, destination, highlighted by the holy city of Jerusalem.

John the Baptist stands preaching words of challenge and hope in the in-between place — the River Jordan. Baptismal in its imagery, this in-between space is the place where something happens. A change occurs in our lives. The space in-between is often a place of disruption as the mental furniture of long-held beliefs, assumptions and values are re-arranged. In this in-between place of discomfort and turbulence we experience, nevertheless, a transformation to be people ‘on the way’ to our destination with God.

We must be willing to go there. And not deny this path through the wilderness. A holy highway does not circumvent the desert places of our lives. What ails us, what disturbs us, what challenges us — these are often valuable clues, yes even invitations, to a deeper engagement with our lives and with God. The disruption is actually God calling us into a transformative experience of life.

Do we accept this? Advent is a time to be honest. Advent is a time of reckoning. Will we stay the same, stuck in our inhibitions and motivated by fear? Or, are we willing to take the risk and go through this in-between place that does not deny our suffering and discomfort, but which actually holds redemptive power?

It is no accident that God chose to be revealed in a broken body. A bloody and pierced body hanging on a Cross. God showed us the way, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God opened to us the way of salvation.

We know God saves. The names of Isaiah, and Joshua — important in the Hebrew Scriptures — echo the same meaning of Jesus’ name: God saves. No dispute there. But what is the way, the how, of God’s saving? How does God save?

The path through the desert. Before there is a re-ordering of our lives, there must first be a dis-order or sorts. There is no direct-flight from ‘order to re-order’ as much as we might wish there were. In God’s realm, according to the way of Jesus, we must go from ‘order to dis-order before arriving at re-order’ (3).

Julian of Norwich wrote: “First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. And both are the mercy of God” (4).

We can’t have Easter without Good Friday. Both are held in tandem. Even today in popular Christianity, people avoid worshiping on Good Friday; most experience the ‘hosananas’ of Palm Sunday only to return the following Easter Sunday to sing ‘halleluia’. No wonder we get seduced by culture’s ‘glory’ theology that pretends we can somehow deny suffering in order to validate our faith.

But without somehow acknowledging the Passion and suffering of Holy Week culminating in death on the Cross of Good Friday, we miss the point of Easter. We miss the point of Christianity:

The body of Christ is broken in love for us. God loves us not despite our brokenness as human beings but precisely because we are broken.

Lutherans talk a lot about grace, and unconditional love of God for us ‘while we were yet sinners’ (Romans 5:6-8). This is good talk. But — being a diehard, lifelong Lutheran myself and so I can say this — it is not easy living, behaving and inter-relating according to that unconditional-love-‘way’ with others. It may be a simple concept for the mind to turn over and accept, but it certainly is not easy for our egos to put into practice.

Climbing the steps of “Mount Sinai” as Sue was want to do was a feat of incredible endurance. Whether it took her twenty minutes or two hours is not the point, really. It’s the journey: Learning to love, forgive and accept our lives not because everything is ‘just right’ but precisely because God is there in the ‘not alright’ — is a discipline that may indeed take a lifetime to learn.

Enduring whatever suffering comes your way. Grieving whatever loss or mourning a loved one. Carrying on in the midst of the in-between places of our lives. Being present to all the feelings and thoughts and sensations of life — good and bad. Accepting our own imperfection and disability — and still enjoying moments of grace with one another on the way.

So as we learn on the way, may our journeys be inspired by moments when we do experience the presence of a God who understands and walks with us, when the vision appears no longer a mirage on the horizon of reality. But is truth incarnate. An inexplicable gift of joyous wonder.

When, “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).

 

(1) Charles Foster, “The Sacred Journey” (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010), p. xxiii
(2) Bruce C. Birch in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1” (WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010), p.51-55
(3) Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation”, Tuesday, December 6, 2016 (Center for Action and Contemplation), http://www.cac.org
(4) Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love”, 61, ed. Grace Warrack, R.Rohr paraphrase (London: Methuen & Company, 1901), p.153

Throwing snowballs to get the message across!

We threw snowballs in worship last Sunday. 

Well, they weren’t exactly real snowballs. It’s Ottawa, after all, in December — and there’s still no snow on the ground! Just paper crumpled up into a ball. We’re warming up for the winter still-to-come. 

At the beginning of worship the children threw about a dozen of these ‘snowballs’ into the congregation. And those who caught them were instructed, during the time leading up to the children’s chat later in the service, to get pen to paper.

The Gospel texts these Sundays in Advent focus on John the Baptist (Luke 3). John’s job was to get the message across that the Messiah was coming. In truth, that is generally the job of the prophet: to tell the people what they need to hear in order to prepare for what God is about to do.

In our day and age people everywhere are preoccupied with their smart-phones and social media — to ‘message’ their friends. Messaging is now cornerstone of our culture. What we message — for better or for worse —  is vital to maintaining our relationships. 

So, we were going to practice what we ‘message’ to one another in the church, and to the world. Those who caught the paper snowballs wrote a short message that the children would later hear read out loud. What message would children hear, this Advent as we prepare for the coming of the Lord?

Here is what members of the church wrote on their snowballs:

1. Wishing you peace, hope and love at Christmas

2. Remember Christmas is not about presents but about spending time with those who love us

3. God loves us so much that he sent us Jesus

4. Show your friends love like you show your family because they love you too

5. Stop! Look! Listen! Feel the love!

6. Share with your friends

7. Every day say thank you for something that you are really thankful for. Especially for the little things that made you smile

8. Jesus is coming and is in your heart

9. God gave his only Son for you!

10. Rejoice, for Jesus is coming 🙂

Of course, at the end of children’s chat, those who wrote these messages delighted in throwing the snowballs back at the children. “If you’re going to give it, you also have to take it,” we said.
True prophets in this crowd!