The change within

When seventeen-year-old Hannah said she was drug free, her parents were skeptical. Having participated in a rehab program and given all the support she could expect from friends and family, Hannah was able to declare that she was finding success in weaning herself off a destructive opioid dependence.

But her father was not convinced. When pressed, he simply confessed, “I don’t believe people can change. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict.”

Though fictional, Hannah and her parents’ situation poses a common predicament for many today. Not just of the real struggle with addiction. But also the struggle with belief: Do we change? And if so, how? And maybe more to the point: Do we recognize the change that happens in our lives? Do we want to?

There’s the story of the Zen Monk who was visiting Time’s Square in New York. And he wanted to buy a hotdog. The vendor asked him, “What would you like on your hotdog?”

The monk replied with a smile, “Make me one with everything.” So the vendor made the hotdog with ketchup, onions and lettuce and mustard and all these other nice things. And he gave it to the monk, and the monk gave the vendor a twenty-dollar bill.

And the vendor didn’t give him anything back. So the monk said, “What about my change?” And the vendor said, “The change is all within.”[1]

An underlying belief in Christianity is that people do change. The resurrection of Christ presents the ultimate pattern for life. We die. We live. We grow. We evolve. We are given new beginnings, to live again. Death. Resurrection. Life is dynamic, not static.

On this Transfiguration of our Lord Sunday, we encounter people who change. First and foremost, Jesus. He is bathed in uncreated light and to the onlookers his face radiates a changed appearance. His countenance is transformed before their very eyes. Here the gospel writers want to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, his unique revelation as God’s own. The witnesses to this holy and amazing encounter receive the most wonderful gift of experiencing God’s greatness in Christ.[2]

At the same time, the transfigured Lord encounters us. In the scriptures for this Sunday we witness change in the characters of the bible, specifically Moses, Elijah and Paul.[3]They, and others in the bible, are not static beings, one-dimensional characters. We witness in them, rather, incredible change over the course of their lives and throughout history.

In other words, Jesus is not the only one who shows a divine-like appearance. Throughout scripture, there are others who experience within themselves a transfiguration.

Jesus is the first and foremost. But God’s divinity, though fully expressed in Jesus, is not confined to Jesus. God’s true presence is not limited to Jesus for Jesus’ sake alone. God’s fullness in all of creation is not locked in one specific time of history, two thousand years ago.

Martin Luther called it, the great, wonderful, holy “exchange”[4]. On the cross God experienced the fullness of our human sin in all its humiliating nakedness and vulnerability in order that all for whom Christ loved and died may eventually experience and grow into the fullness of divine life and union with God. This divine-human holy exchange is exemplified and mediated through Jesus.

We may balk at the notion that in our very lives, in each one of us, God is present in the living consciousness of Jesus. How can we be that good, eh? We are so used to imagining a separation there—that God is ‘out there’ reserved exclusively to doctrinal debate alone or in some other person upon whom we project all our hopes and dreams. But within me? In my heart? So that I can live differently, better, a changed person?

St. Paul, elsewhere in his first century writings expresses this truth from the start: In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “God revealed his Son in me”[5]. On the road to Damascus the living, post-resurrected Christ encountered Paul. Over one hundred times in all of his New Testament writings he writes this phrase: en Christo meaning ‘in Christ’. And to the Colossians, he confesses: “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.”[6]

The vendor’s response to the monk carries metaphoric weight. The change is within. A holy encounter with Jesus first changes us within. The change for the better can happen because God is in us. God works on our hearts. God is relentless. Sometimes it hurts. God is the refiner’s fire, creating and re-creating us from the inside-out.

So that, eventually, the light of Christ’s love may shine forth from our lives, and our union with God will be complete, in this world and the next.

Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Laurence Freeman, “Change is part of the Journey, like it or not”; talk 1 in Mount Oliveto Retreat, Maggiore Siena, Italy, June 18-25, 2016: Change (wccm.org, audio resources, album)

[2]Luke 9:28-43

[3]Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

[4]“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

–Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.

[5]Chapter one, verse sixteen, as translated by the NIV and JB.

[6]Chapter three, verse 11. In the NRSV, the Greek is translated, “He is all and in all.”

Behold, your servant!

A few weeks before Christmas, little Benjamin was thinking about what he really wanted for Christmas. This year, it was a Star Wars Lego set. All his friends had this, and he really wanted one.

And Benjamin wanted to write a letter to Jesus for this gift. His mother said he should really be writing a letter to Santa, but no, Benjamin was serious. Better Jesus; he thought, better chance he’d get this gift by communicating directly to Jesus instead of Santa.

So, Benjamin starts writing: “Dear Jesus, I’ve been a very good kid, and …”

He stops. No, Jesus won’t believe that.

He crumples up the paper, throws it away, and starts again: “Dear Jesus, most of the time, I’ve been a good kid…” He stops again. No, Jesus isn’t going to buy this.

 He starts again: “Dear Jesus, I’ve thought about being good…” He thinks a bit, then decides he didn’t like that one either. Benjamin throws on his jacket and heads outside, frustrated and upset.

He walks to the church around the corner. In front of it is set up a large manger scene. And he has a brilliant idea: He grabs the wooden figurine of Mary in his arms and rushes home with it!

He wraps the sculpture in blankets and stuffs it under his bed, then heads over to his desk and starts writing a new letter: “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again, send me that Lego set! Your friend, Benjamin.”

At least Benjamin was honest. Before God in all our vulnerability, as the light of God’s gaze rests on us, we may feel inadequate and not good enough. We, then, will stay stuck in negative self-talk and complacent in-action. “How could God use me?” “Not only a sinner but quite unexceptional. Doesn’t God see all the dirt in my life, all the dark corners that even I don’t want to look at?” “Not me!”

“Behold, your servant.”[1]Mary’s first words after hearing the angel’s call for her to bear God’s Son. The New Revised Standard Version replaced the older English “Behold” with the phrase, “Here I am”. Of course, “Here I am”, based on Mary’s initial response to the angel as a precursor to her Song of Praise[2], is now a popular song in our worship book. “Here I Am, Lord.[3]

Interesting that Mary begins her prayerful response to God simply by acknowledging God’s astonishing choice of her: a common, teenager with no pedigree, status or exceptionality to her name. “Behold, your servant.” Yes, God sees her. God favors her. God beholds whom God created, in Mary.

“Behold, your servant” is a statement of profound love. Mary’s very being is seen by God. The light of God’s love shines upon her common, fragile, vulnerable nature. Yes. But the dirt doesn’t matter to God. She is deemed a worthy recipient of God’s good intent and purpose.

As God first beholds Mary, we see in her what is true about God’s relationship to us. As God be-holds, Mary holds the Christ child within her. As God be-holds us with unconditional acceptance and love for who we are, so we hold the presence of the living Lord within us. Not only are we called to receive Jesus, we are called to conceive Jesus in our lives.

A truly remarkable message at Christmas, every year! We become Christ-bearers, to give birth to Jesus’ life and love for this world through how God has uniquely created each one of us–through our words, eyes, hands and heart.[4] We need to be reminded of this truth often.

A pre-Reformation era tradition in Germany has recently gained more popularity: It is a ritual that has been practiced mostly in small towns, villages, and rural areas. What happens before Christmas is that each family brings a small statue of Mary to a neighbouring family, where that statue remains in a central location in the household until Christmas day.[5]

This ritual reminds everyone who participates a few important truths: First, your neighbour gives you a statue; you don’t get one for yourself. This part of the ritual is meant to convey that before we say or do anything in response to God, we must acknowledge, as Mary did, that God’s gift first comes to us. Jesus himself later told his disciples a lesson in love: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”[6]

And secondly, perhaps more importantly, the statue is a visual reminder that each of us is Mary, preparing a place in our own hearts for the presence of Jesus in the Holy Spirit.

You see, when Mary was pregnant with Jesus in that small place within her where the light of the world was gestating and growing – there was a pure heart. Yes, Mary was sinful as any human being. But within her, too, was a holy place where sin had no power, where she reflected the image of God.

Is that not so, with us, too? Each one of us holds the capacity, within ourselves, to carry the presence of the living God in Jesus. What difference would that conviction make in, not only appreciating the place in our own lives where God’s Spirit indwells, but in others?

The statue of Mary in these households reminds families, that despite all the conflict, stress, misunderstandings and sin so obvious in every kind of family, especially at this time of year, we can also look for a place of peace, stillness, and true joy amongst and within our very selves.

We are, at Christmas, reminded by this holy birth and through those familiar biblical characters like Mary, that we can see one another now with what Saint Paul calls the strength of our inner nature, or being.[7]

We can regard one another, though we are different and unique, with a knowledge and belief that each of us holds a space and a place within that is being renewed, transformed and united in God.

Someone once said that to be of help to anyone, you must first be able to see the good, however small, in that person.[8]  Then, and only then, can you be effective and genuine in your caregiving. Can we see, first, the good in others? Can we practice doing so this Christmas?

We can be strengthened in this course, nourished at the Table and emboldened in faith to know that God, before anything, “beholds” us in God’s loving gaze, just as we are. God sees the preciousness in each of our lives before dealing with the dirt, and loves us anyway.

So rather than right away assume the worst in us and others, and then like little Benjamin act out on that vision; rather than initially write off others who annoy us because they are different—those strangers and people we don’t understand and maybe even fear …

Perhaps we need Mary to remind us again of her response to God’s beholding of each of us. Perhaps we need to appreciate anew the gift in others that may not on the surface of things be always apparent.

Perhaps God is coming to us again this Christmas, in the guise of a stranger yet one who is truly a lover – one who comes because “God so loved the world”.[9]

Indeed, love is coming. Alleluia! Thanks be to God! Amen!

 

[1]Luke 1:38

[2]The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55

[3]“Here I Am Lord”, Daniel L. Schutte (Fortress Press: Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006), #574.

[4] Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Brother-Give Us A Word” (22 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org

[5]For more information about the tradition of ‘carrying Mary’ at Christmas, please read Anselm Gruen, “Weihnachten — Einen neuen Anfang” (Verlag Herder Freiburg, 1999), p.39-41

[6]John 15:12-17

[7]2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Ephesians 3:16-19

[8] Yuval Lapide: “Bis du nicht das Gute in einem Menschen siehst, bist du unfähig, ihm zu helfen.“

[9] John 3:16

The musical performance

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his followers.[1]

What does it mean, ‘to be a witness’ to all that happened around Jesus over two thousand years ago? How can we be a witness to these things with which we haven’t had a direct experience, when we haven’t seen with our own eyes and met with our own bodies the living, Lord Jesus?

The weather this weekend is a joke. There’s no other way of putting it, to my mind. It is the season of baseball not snowball! But sometimes when things don’t go our way, humour can be a good antidote. So, here is a music joke.

Last week I gave an example of a double bass player to illustrate how we need to go from the head to the heart. But we don’t always trust that movement from head to heart because it feels like we are losing control.

Imagine a picture of several double bass players standing at the back of an orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The bass players are swaying to the majestic sounds and rhythms; their bodies are into it. It is nearing the end of the epic masterpiece, and the caption at the bottom of the comic strip says:

“It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the bassists are loaded.” Hmmm. Maybe too much heart?

How do we live a life of faith that is heart-centred? At same time, how do we deal with our performance anxiety, worried about how people will perceive us when we do our thing, as Christians? We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform to perfection and make a good impression. Unfortunately, this kind of self-talk keeps us from being the best we can be. That’s why, unfortunately, too many musicians have too much to drink prior to a performance.

We need not be too hard on ourselves. Easily 50% of the population make decisions based on fear.[2]The annual “Back to Church” movement creator, Michael Harvey, claims that there is only one socially-accepted sin in the church today: fear.[3]

Yet, none of the Gospel accounts of the risen Jesus condemn the fear. It is to be expected. Jesus meets the disciples, and meets us, where we are even in our uncertainty. Jesus’ initial purpose, after all, is to bring peace. “Peace be with you,” are Jesus’ first words to his disciples after the resurrection.[4]

But Jesus calls us, as he called his disciples, to move beyond our fear, move beyond the fearfully locked doors of our hearts.

The ultimate purpose of the Gospel is not just to allay the fears of Jesus’ followers. It is not to convince us of the miracle of God. In other words, ultimately, who and what we’re about leads us beyond ourselves. The point of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not the miracle per se, but that it becomes the engine of the proclamation of Jesus Christ to all nations.

Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist noted recently that, “Jesus’ resurrection was indeed a miracle; however, Jesus’ resurrection needs to be more than a miracle. It needs to be normal, everyday, how we live and breathe: with resurrection power.”[5]

God’s grace finds expression in flesh and blood – in our bodies. First, as we experience it coming through the Eucharist, the presence of God is made manifest in humanity. And today, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that means, in us and all our brokenness and despite our imperfections.

How can we say this? Because in Jesus’ resurrected body, his scars were still visible. His humanity was still intact – in some mysterious way, in an mysteriously enhanced body to be sure. But the fact that Jesus bodily resurrection is so defended and argued by Paul and Luke and other early Apostles suggests, does it not, the crucial importance of the earthly, human manifestation, and receptivity, of God’s grace and presence.[6]

This is the power of the resurrection. That in the midst of our fear, Jesus comes to stand among us. In the midst of all that is wrong, broken, suffering in our lives, Jesus comes into the locked doors of our hearts and bodies. And then, calls us out.

How do we ‘proclaim’ Christ to all the nations? Again, nothing spectacular, here. Through our ordinary, simple selves, reaching out.

Leonard Bernstein, 20thcentury musician and famous conductor of renowned orchestras around the world – the Berlin Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic – once said: “The only way I have of knowing I’ve done a really remarkable performance is when I lose my ego completely and become the composer. I have the feeling that I’m creating the piece, writing the piece on stage … making it up as I go, along with those hundred people [in the orchestra] who are also making it up with me.”[7]

Working together, like in an orchestra, we are playing the music of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and in the world. Even though the music was first created a long time ago, we are making it alive and real for us and for the world, today.

We do so, using the gifts and grace and resources given to us from the Composer of the whole experience. We do so, through our own bodies, minds and spirits. At the same time, we let go of our ego, because it is not about us; it is about something much bigger than all of us.

Order of Canada recipient for his work in fostering Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue, Father Laurence Freeman said: “…grace works on nature. The grace of God that enters into human existence doesn’t come from out of space; it comes through nature. That’s why it is very dubious to talk about supernatural things. We are always interested in the supernatural, but what’s much more real and interesting is the real meaning of the natural. It is through nature, through the natural, through our own nature, our own psychology, our own physiology, our mind and body – through our human nature – that grace touches, emerges and transforms us …”[8]

So, it is our ordinary selves through which the grace and purpose of God works. What does this mean? First, it means we have to believe in ourselves. We have to trust that God has given us what we need to do God’s work, to be God’s instruments and vehicles through which God accomplishes God’s purposes.

Then, we need to perform the music, so to speak. And, it doesn’t need to be perfect, complicated or anything spectacular. Just simple, ordinary. We have to start somewhere.

One of our members asked recently a neighbor to describe what happens on and around our property on an average day in the Spring, Summer and Fall. And the neighbor reported that between 2:30 and 3:30pm every week day, about 30 kids on average, children of all ages, walk across our property from the bus stops along Meadowlands to their homes in the City View neighborhood. Thirty.

With presence of mind, our member asked the neighbor: What do they do when they walk across? Is there anything in particular that stands out in their behavior?

The neighbor said many of them like our benches outside the front doors. They like to sit and visit. They like to rest for a few minutes before continuing on their walk home.

When the member and I reflected on this, we realized there aren’t many, if any at all, public places in the neighborhood where people can sit awhile. Not only do we fill a need providing a place to sit, we encourage community-building, relationship-building right outside the doors to the church. How appropriate!

And for so many young people who are turned off the church, or at least afraid to enter into a church building these days, providing benches for children and young people to sit and visit sends a positive if subtle message about our identity and purpose as a church. It also sends a subtle yet real message of welcome.

This example is simple, ordinary, unspectacular. Yet, it is a first step in the right direction. As a community. Not as individuals doing our own thing. But, together, as a church, an orchestra playing together.

And isn’t that what the walk of faith is all about? We can only do what we are able to do, together. And then, when we take the first step, we watch as the Spirit of God can surprise and delight in us. All because we began by simply using what God has given us. Giving from ourselves, for the sake of others, for something larger than all of us.

That is, being faithful witnesses to these things.

[1]Luke 24:48, NRSV.

[2]Richard Rohr & Andreas Ebert, “The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective” (Crossroad, 2001).

[3]Michael Harvey, “Unlocking the Growth: You’ll Be Amazed at your Church’s Potential” (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2012), p.52.

[4]Luke 24:36; John 20:19-21, NRSV.

[5]Brother Curtis Almquist, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” on April 10, 2018.

[6]Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is a testimony both to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, and to our bodies being the imperfect vessels for the transmission of God’s grace and wisdom.

[7]Cited in Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Music: The Classic Guide to Reaching a New Level of Musical Performance” (New York: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1986), p.95.

[8]Laurence Freeman, OSB, “Finding Oneself 2” transcript (Singapore: Medio Media, 2017), p.29.

Easter: what is life-giving

When Sherlock Holmes and John Watson go tent camping for the first time, the two detectives unexpectedly encounter a ‘mystery.’

They hike deep into the woods all day until they find the ideal place to pitch their tent. They start a roaring campfire, roast marshmallows, tell favorite stories, sing some tunes and as the last embers flicker in the fire pit they pack it in for the night.

In the wee hours before dawn, Watson wakes the snoring Sherlock. “Look, Holmes, look at the billions of stars in the sky! What a glorious sight! Praise to the Creator!” Watson’s eyes remain transfixed on the expanse above them. “What would you say about this wonder, my friend?”

“I would like to know,” Sherlock mumbles, looking around their campsite, “who stole our tent.”

Were Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson victims of a prank, an April Fool’s Day practical joke?

Nevertheless, consistent with their personalities, each chose to notice a different aspect of their reality: Watson immediately taken in by the glorious night sky – probably something both sleuths weren’t accustomed to seeing in their busy, urban lives.

Sherlock, on the other hand, ever the deducing genius, notices what is amiss, and automatically goes into ‘fix it’ mode, seeking solutions to the trickiest, mind-stumping riddles of life.

In their shared situation one beholds life, joy and beauty; the other, the problem, and its attendant logical, calculated explanation. One looks up, the other, down.

What do you notice? And dwell on? Are you looking up? Or, still down?

The joyous, life-giving message of Easter does not deny nor avoid the harsh realities of living. The Christian’s journey on the road of life does not float over the potholes, ignore the accidents, nor glibly get a free pass over the traffic jams.

Yet, Easter declares something greater than all the suffering, pain and death has happened, and continues to happen every moment we dare to notice.

Jesus is alive! Amidst the hardships. Despite the necessary suffering. Jesus is alive! Right in the middle of the mess. Even in our complicated, self-contradicting lives. Despite our mistakes and our failures. The life of God in Christ resides within and all around us. Martin Luther famously said, the sun shines even on all the manure piles in our lives. Sherlock Holmes AND John Watson. Both/And.

The question is, do we now, as Easter people, notice the Life? Do we see, as Watson does – the victim of obvious theft – the stars in the glorious sky? Do we pause amidst the hectic, hurly-burly of life to, actually, smell the roses and give thanks? Can we believe that the Light that has come into the world now shines in the darkness? A darkness that can never overcome the Light?(1)

Can we assert that our hurt has become home for our greatest hope?

The good news of resurrection hope is that we don’t see this alone. The life and light of Christ shines in the Body of the living Christ — the church today. We are here for each other and for the world in order to discover and celebrate the presence of God in and around us.

We are not alone in discovering the gift of Life in us. In truth, the life of Christ resides in each and every one of us, despite the imperfection of the church and this community. When one of us falls, the other lifts up. We don’t have to suffer alone in the misery of alienation, feeling useless, or being crushed by failure. As if we must carry this burden alone, and heroically solve all by ourselves.

Easter means that now, “Faith does not occur in isolation. Despite the rugged individualism of our culture, faith is not just something private between God and me. Rather, faith is, by its very definition, communal.”(2)

God gives life. That’s God’s job. Where is God’s in yours? In the world? Where do you see it? Because, it’s there!

A woman asked her local Lutheran pastor for advice. “Pastor”, she says, “I have a boy who is six months old. And I’m curious to know what he will be when he grows up.”

The Lutheran pastor says, “Place before him three things: A bottle of beer, a looney, and a Bible. If he picks the beer, he’ll be a bartender. If he picks the looney, a business man. And if he picks the Bible, a pastor.” So, the mother thanked him and went home.

The next week she returned. “Well,” said the pastor, “which one did he pick: the beer, the looney, or the Bible?”

She said, “He picked all three!”
“Ah,” said the pastor, “a Lutheran!”(3)

Of course, we can substitute any Christian, here, not just Lutherans. The point is, living in the resurrection of Jesus means our lives reflect, resonate and echo the life of the living God. We rejoice and sing Alleluias for the beauty in life, despite the difficulties, through our human desires, and amidst the realities of life.

Now, we can see the life in the world – its beauty and glory – without denying the real. Even though someone may very well have stolen our proverbial tent, this cannot stop or take away the Life that is in us and all around us. Forever.

May our lives reflect a sense of wonder, trust in one another and in ourselves, and hope for God’s glorious future. Good news, indeed!

 

1 — John 1:5

2 — Stephen R. Montgomery in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.166.

3 — Adapted from James Martin , SJ, “The Jesuit Guide To Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), p.317.

The long journey – Lent 1A

We don’t often see the humour in the creation stories around Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3). Perhaps because so many centuries of debate and dogma and doctrine-making put such a heavy burden on the sacred text.

But, if we can just lighten our approach a bit, a fresh perspective emerges. There are some funny aspects in the story of the Garden of Eden where the crafty serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, they disobey God, resulting in their rather undignified exit from Paradise.

Here’s a joke someone sent me this very week on the subject: Did you know the oldest computer can be traced back to Adam and Eve?
Surprise, surprise.
It was an Apple.
But with extremely limited memory.
Just one byte.
Then everything crashed.

That joke isn’t biblical in case you were wondering. But these story-lines are rather comedic: We have a talking snake (a la Harry Potter). If anyone is a parent or works with children, you will know that the surest way to get a child to do something, is to tell them not to do it (e.g. “You can eat anything you want from the fridge, but you dare not touch a cookie from that jar on top of the table”). It’s almost as if Adam and Eve were set up to fail. And then God warns them they will ‘die’ if they even touch the tree. They do touch the tree, but they don’t die.

Well, not for another several hundred years.

The scripture records Adam having lived a very long life (Genesis 5:5 suggests 930 years). The threat of death was therefore not a literal one tied to that one, particular transgression. In other words, there must have been a divine purpose in Adam living so long after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

We can assume, therefore, that when Adam and Eve left the Garden, they began a life of maturing and labouring under the weight of their broken humanity. The development and growth of any human being, we know, is bought by the price of pain and suffering. The wisdom writer from Ecclesiastes (1:18) expresses this truth: “For in much wisdom is vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Suffering, then, must be part of God’s good, created order. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes, “Life depends in some mysterious way on the struggle to be.” (1)

That God did not destroy them both immediately after their unfortunate decision, is an act of grace, of forgiveness. The writer of Genesis is emphasizing an important characteristic of God, here. Whether or not Adam lived, actually, 930 years is not the point; the point is it was a very, very long time. Perhaps the author is, at very least, emphatic in expressing the extent of God’s mercy: Adam and Eve have all the time in the world to practice making better decisions, and of experiencing more and more of God’s grace.

God is forgiving, even more so than we can be to ourselves. God is merciful, even more than we can be merciful to each other. God is gracious, even more than we can imagine being gracious to ourselves.

We begin today a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). In pursuit of various disciplines we observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we slowly and intentionally approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

The only way to the Empty Tomb of resurrection is through the Cross of suffering. The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not?

Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

When Adam and Eve failed God in the Garden, God gave them a chance to confess. As much as disobedience was the problem, so too was their impulse to try to ‘cover up’ their faults by blaming someone else; Adam blames Eve and then Eve blames the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13). 

Are we willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path of some kind self-discipline or challenge to change things for the better? Are we willing to take a long, hard look at our own lives? If so, Jesus’ vulnerability in the wilderness points to the authentic quality and honesty in all our relationships.

We are called to be honest about our brokenness. Being vulnerable is not a weakness, it is a strength. We do not need to pretend our weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Douglas John Hall, “is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (2)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope.

This hope ought to give us endurance for the journey ahead. There will be temptations. There will be setbacks. There will be disappointments on the journey of becoming more authentic, more vulnerable, more open, more honest.

But God will not give up on us. Every moment we have is pregnant with the grace of God, even should we like Adam and Eve not always make the best decisions and then have to live with the consequences. But there is always hope. Always another chance. Always a new beginning coming up over the horizon of our lives.

We have every moment given to us — maybe not 930 years. But our faith can assure us that God will never, ever, give up on granting us mercy and forgiveness, no matter the many bad decisions we make over the course of our lives.

Our desert, Lenten journey, may seem long and arduous. But longer, still, is the span of time it takes for God to keep faith in us.

 

1 – cited in Terence E. Fretheim, “Is Genesis 3 a Fall Story?” in Word & World (Volume 14, Number 2, Luther Seminary, St Paul Minnesota, 1994), p.147
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

Blueberries where the forest was

A congregational treasurer once asked God how long a million years was to Him. God replied, “A million years to me is just like a single second in your time.”  

Then the treasurer asked God what a million dollars was to Him. God replied, “A million dollars to me is just like a single penny to you.” Congregational finances being what they were, the treasurer got her courage up and asked: “God, could I have one of your pennies?”  

God smiled and replied, “Certainly, just a second.”

I think it’s more often the case in our spiritual journeys that we do not simply get what we ask for, or want. The faith life just doesn’t work like that. Even though in popular religion we often joke about it.

When people banter with me about having a special connection to God when we want better weather, I like to remind them that I’m in sales, not management. Indeed, in the popular mindset we live with this idea that somehow we ought to manage what really is the purview, the domain, of God.

And in tough times we struggle with it. Why doesn’t God do what WE think is the solution to our problem: Cure our illness, give us money to make ends meet, solve our problems, etc.? Of course we hear stories that are exceptions to this. But even then, the answers to the prayer request don’t come in precisely the way we expected they would.

It reminds me of a Valentine’s day card that I’ve seen. On the outside of the card is the catchy phrase “You’re the answer to all of my prayers.” On the inside of the card are the words “You’re not what I prayed for, but you’re the answer to all of my prayers. You’re what I got!” 

It is true: everything we have in life is ‘what we got’ whether we like it, want it, or not. We run into spiritual and emotional trouble whenever we feel like we must control the outcome of all that we do and are. How much do we miss what’s there because we are expecting to see what’s not there? What we don’t have? What we’ve lost? What isn’t any longer?

At the ‘generous giving’ practicum I attended this past week in Orillia with other clergy from the Eastern Synod, several speakers spoke to us about the nature of giving. The general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson, told of the time when he and his wife hiked a challenging trail in Lake Superior National Park last summer.

Coming over a rise they descended into a valley devastated by a forest fire a couple years back. The contrast from the lush pine and spruce forest they had just left was stark. Now, they walked gingerly among the burnt out stumps in a moonscape land. The birdsong had disappeared into an eerie silence. The rustle of underbrush caused by scampering chipmunks yielded to wind gusts sweeping across the vast, exposed earth.

Where were the tall trees? Would they ever return? How long would it take? Michael and his wife began to despair as they hurried to leave the depressing scene and return into the cover of mature forest once again.

Then by their feet a blueberry caught their eye. As they lifted their vision, they saw not just one blueberry but a bush, and not just one blueberry bush but actually the whole place was teeming with blueberry bushes surrounding the base of the tree stumps and fallen timber.

They stopped to consider the gift of abundance that lay at their feet in the blueberries: the sweet taste, the healthy nutrition, the food for many creatures of land and air. And then the possibilities of scrumptious blueberry pies and jams. All of a sudden their mood shifted, and they began to see and talk not about what was missing anymore. But the new thing that was appearing out of the ruins of fire and loss.

Indeed, especially on Thanksgiving weekend, it can be hard to feel thankful, especially when we focus either in the direction of deficit and scarcity, or in the delusion that we are the reason of all that we have. When we lean either way we may have trouble understanding what it means to live by Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice always, again I will say rejoice!” (4:4). 

How can we rejoice always, when we focus on scarcity on the one hand, or pretend it’s all up to us on the other? Either way, we remain depressed or stressed to the hilt and cannot, in the words of the Deuteronomist, “celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (26:11).

The Lord instructs the people, when they enter the Promised Land, to bring their basket of offerings to the priest at the altar. The giving doesn’t stop there, however. They need to be reminded again and again that it was God who listened to their prayer and brought them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). In the Gospel for Thanksgiving Day, we read Jesus’ words reminding his listeners again, that it is his “Father in heaven” who is the source of the bread we need (John 6:33).

Perhaps the secret to thanksgiving is in seeing what is actually there, what God has actually given, and not fixate on what is “missing” all the time? Perhaps Thanksgiving is not only about giving, but also about receiving. What if the secret to thanksgiving is noticing the blueberries where a forest should of /could of/ would of been, if not for the fire?

It is our nature to give and to receive with joy. As Christians we have a choice. It is a matter of belief, and intention. We can submit to our ego cravings to keep ‘what we got’ for ourselves, pretending we are the source of all the good in our lives. Or, we can give ‘what we got’ for the benefit of the world which God so loved (John 3:16). And rejoice!

Thanksgiving is not a feeling. It is an action. It is intention, and practice, and discipline. Why do people give, today? There are some cultural changes we need to recognize. If you are of a certain age, born before the latter part of the last century, you likely give because of duty, responsibility and commitment. That’s not the case in recent decades, if you haven’t already noticed, among younger people. Only 29% of Canadian donors in 2013 reported donating to fulfill religious obligations. (1)

The reality, today, is that younger generations will give of their time, talent and treasures when they feel compassion in the community and hope towards their giving. They need to be inspired, not guilted. In other words, people today give when they believe in the mission of whatever group or activity — including the church’s work and programs — if they are inspired and compelled by a belief that their engagement with the church will make a positive difference in the world.

Statistics Canada reports that the vast majority of Canadian donors today (91%) said that the reason they donate is that they feel compassion towards people in need (2013 General Social Survey released in Dec 2015); other reasons for donating often cited include the idea of a helping cause in which they personally believe (88%) and wanting to make a contribution to their community (82%).

There is much for us to be thankful. Giving levels in Canada between 1984 and 2010 have steadily grown, contrary to what you might think; charitable giving peaked in 2010 (the last year this was tracked) with a gross amount of $15 billion. In other words, over the last couple decades people are giving more, not less. And what is good news for us in the church, is that 60% of this $15 billion was faith-based.

This community of faith has given generously to the refugee sponsorship, to Lutherlyn Camp and Conference Centre, to our youth initiatives. This community of faith has given of its time, talents and treasures for the last quarter century to the Carlington Community Chaplaincy. This community of faith has always been generous, giving at least 10 percent to the work of the wider church in benevolence offerings. And, I’ve just scratched the surface.

You people are very generous in your giving. And this culture of generosity, of compassion and commitment, is the heart of what we are all about as Christians, as followers of Jesus who gave his all, for us.

And so, on this Thanksgiving Sunday in Canada, on behalf of all the people in Ottawa, in Canada and in the world who have benefited in small and big ways over the years from your generous giving — I want to say a heartfelt “Thank you!”

Let’s pray together “The Prayer of Thanksgiving” written by Walter Rauschhenbusch:

For the wide sky and the blessed sun,

For the salt sea and the running water,

For the everlasting hills

And never-resting winds,

For trees and the common grass underfoot.

We thank you for our senses

By which we hear the songs of birds,

And see the splendor of the summer fields,

And taste of the autumn fruits,

And rejoice in the feel of the snow,

And smell the breath of the spring.

Grant us a heart wide open

To all this beauty;

And save our souls from being so blind

That we pass unseeing

When even the common thornbush

Is aflame with your glory,

O God our creator,

For ever and ever.

Amen.
(1) Kerilyn Voigt, “Generosity – What Moves Us to Give?” Canada Lutheran Vol 31 No 5 July/August 2015, p.10-14; also, from the Eastern Synod ‘Generous Giving Practicum’ October 2016

Ho! Have a drink!

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters …” (Isaiah 55:1)

Around Jericho, in the Judean wilderness, it was hot and dry. Not the humidity we are used to in the Great Lakes area of North America. So, the heat wasn’t so bad actually.

And because I wasn’t sweating, I didn’t feel thirsty. And yet, as I disembarked from the air conditioned tour bus into 43 degrees celsius heat, our tour guide insisted we take periodic sips from our water bottles as we wandered on desert paths.

It’s common today, even in our urban lifestyles, to carry a water bottle around with you. And discipline yourself to be finished by a certain time of the day in order to insure the intended amount of consumption. We are told that just because we don’t feel thirsty doesn’t mean our bodies don’t need the regular hydration. We have to drink water even though we don’t feel like it.

And we need people in our lives to remind us to do so.

Many years ago pastors tended to just drop by and visit parishioners, unannounced. Today, folks prefer more ‘to make an appointment’. Maybe because we are busier. Or, think we need to be.

I like the joke of the pastor who visited on the fly. She would just randomly choose a member on a visiting day and drop by. After the pastor rung the door bell a couple of times, a young mother holding an infant in her arms opened the door and stood in the foyer surprised and suddenly self-conscious because of the unannounced visitor standing there.

“Hello, I am making pastoral visits today and thought to stop by and see how you are doing,” the pastor introduced herself.  After sitting down in the living room strewn with unfolded laundry and empty sippy-cups, the pastor asked the mother if she could see her bible, because she wanted to read a favourite bible verse as they prayed together.

The mother, eager to impress, called her 9-year-old child to her side. “Go, and get Mommy’s favourite book!” The obedient child ran off and returned shortly, proudly handing over to her the Sears Christmas Catalogue.

At a visit, regardless of the circumstances of the visit, hosts will still offer the visitor a drink of coffee, tea, wine, beer, juice, or plain water. Depending on how much time the visitor has for the visit, the visitor will either decline or agree. Perhaps your day is so busy that you are running from appointment to appointment and not willing or feeling able to sit for a while, and receive the gift.

That is when we need the prophets of our lives to lean over the coffee table and say, “Hey, you will have a drink! Don’t argue!” The personal encounter is more important than schedules, expectations and perceived busyness. The gift is being offered. Accept it! Now is the time to stop, and drink from the source of what is most important in life. And get over yourself!

And that might not be what you think, know or expect to give you what you need. In other words, you might not feel like the truth. But you still need it. So, drink!

And trust that what may not always ‘feel’ like what you want to do has nevertheless something of value, something worth paying attention to, something worth pursuing. God is mystery. God and God’s ways are ultimately not something we can intellectual comprehend, fully. Faith is not merely thinking about Jesus or the commandments. Faith is not a function of a mental construct alone.

In living out our faith, the prophet Isaiah points to the pitfall of our thinking, our thoughts: “Let the unrighteous forsake their thoughts” he says (v.7). “For my thoughts are not your thoughts …” (v.8-9). When we think too much about anything, we will get lost. A bishop once said, “My mind and thinking is like a bad neighbourhood; the more time I spend in it, the more I get into trouble.”

In the best-selling story of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, someone affirms with these words Harold’s extraordinary adventure that was inspiring many: “Maybe that’s what the world needs: Less of what makes sense, and more faith!”

Faith is a knowing that does not know. Faith is a knowing that knows we will never have all the answers about God and God’s ways intellectualized, rationalized and scripted into neat, logical arguments or plans. Faith, according to Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Faith is a knowing that descends into, and is directed by, the heart – the soul.

We are blessed here to carry the name “Faith Lutheran Church” to identify our community. It is therefore incumbent on us us to live according to faith and trust in God who is the source of our life and all things good.

Last Sunday, I was invited to a young adult forum at Notre Dame Roman Catholic Basilica on Sussex Drive in downtown Ottawa. The young people there were interested in the relationship between Lutherans and Catholics. One of the questions that arose in our discussion was: Can Lutherans and Catholics share in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion/Eucharist? In other words, can we drink from the same Cup of Life as a sign of our unity in the Body of Christ?

I referred to a Youtube video of Pope Francis recently visiting a Lutheran church in Rome. He was asked there whether Lutherans and Catholics can share the same cup at the altar. He responded that he didn’t want to say anything more than this: “Life is bigger than intellectual discourse and doctrine” (I paraphrase). Life is bigger than our doctrines, our feeble attempts to make sense of, and draw exclusive lines around, a mystery that is Christ present with us. Life is bigger than the lines we draw between us, in the desert sands. 

When all along, what we truly need is to drink together from the fountain of Life. Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks from the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Come, everyone who thirsts. French thinker, Gustave Thibon, once wrote: “L’ame … se nourrit de sa faim”, meaning: the soul feeds from its hunger. Whenever we are thirsty — long for something more than what the world offers — this is a sure sign we are on the right path. General feelings of unrest and angst are catalysts for transformation and positive change in our lives. Whatever makes us uneasy at first, may in truth be a key towards the path to your eventual growth in faith and life.

So, come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters of Life. Drink! And you will be satisfied.

Remember, life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.