Grace first

Over the past six weeks I’ve transited through nine different airports on two different continents. One of the expectations of travellers is that when you are in an airport waiting for your flight, you can access free Wi-Fi.

But, more often than not, it isn’t really free. When your device locates the airport network, and before you can access the internet, you are directed to a page that requires you to give your email. And, be careful to click that box that says you do not wish to receive promotional material.

Even if you are not an airplane traveller, this marketing strategy infests so many of our common life activities. I had my car at the service department this summer a couple of times, and each time I received a ticket to enter into a draw: first prize, a new car! But first I have to go to a website to register the number on my ticket. And, of course, give my email. And, remember to check that box declining promotional material!

In any case, companies are finding ways of expanding their reach into our lives and pocket books. Restaurants, as well, if you want to use their ‘free’ Wi-Fi. What may on the surface appear ‘free’ is merely a way to hook you in. This culture of doing business so infects our way of thinking.

The internet access is merely a modern day example. And yet, it is built on the way human beings have always tended to relate with one another at a more base level. A way of life and inter-relating that screams loudly: “Nothing in life is free!”

What is alarming, from a Christian point of view, is that we seem to be ok with that, and go about living in this tit-for-tat culture we have largely created.

Yet, I continue believing that it is in giving grace that describes best our journey as (Lutheran) Christians. I place ‘Lutheran’ in parenthesis because I believe all Christians today need to put grace first and foremost in our practice of faith and life.

Stories are a great way of conveying the deepest truths. This story is about a rooster in a chicken farm. And I heard it told at the National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, in Regina, last month, by the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge. Here is my adaptation:

Every morning when it was still dark the rooster went out to crow. He did so with amazing commitment, crowing from the depth of his heart and making use of all available resources and art. Actually, he was convinced that it was because of his crowing that the sun rose every morning. When he had finished his daily job and went back to the farm he used to look around with a sense of paternalistic pride at the hens. “There you go, darlings, I’ve made the sun rise for you”, he even said once. “I am the chosen one.”

One morning the sunrise was really wonderful. The rooster got so enthusiastic that he couldn’t stop crowing. The sun had long risen, but he continued crowing, just wanting to make the whole scenery even more perfect.

When he went back to the chicken farm he noticed that he had crowed too long. His throat was aching. Laryngitis. He was only able to produce a weak croaking noise. The rooster panicked. “What will happen tomorrow, if I can’t crow anymore? What will happen to the chicken farm and to all these chickens and hens, which depend so much on my power to make the sun rise…?” He went to sleep very early, just hoping that next morning he would be in good health again.

But he was not! The pain had worsened overnight, and he could not even croak but make only a ridiculously weak squeak. Yet, he went out, like every morning, just pushed by the awareness of his plight and the panic that otherwise the sun wouldn’t rise, and they would all perish. He tried his best, he tried hard… yet there was nothing resembling real crowing coming out of his throat.

Great was his surprise when he suddenly realized that the sun seemed to be rising anyway! Slowly but surely it came up behind the hills, like every morning. Actually, it was again one of those wonderful mornings. But this time, it came without his doing! He turned slowly and looked back to the chicken farm. He couldn’t believe what he saw there: the chickens and hens had come out like every morning as well!

Terribly depressed he went back to the chicken farm. What could be his place there? Didn’t he lose his role and reason to be? And why should he go out the next morning, if the sun rose anyway, without his help? Oh, and he felt so embarrassed and ashamed. He didn’t even dare to look into the hens’ eyes.

“Hey, don’t worry”, said one of the hens. “You can continue crowing”, she said. “Just go out tomorrow as usual. But don’t crow in order to make the sun rise. Just crow because the sun rises!”

This story explains how we understand grace. Grace is like the rising sun. It is there, just because God wants grace to be there. As nobody can prevent the sun from rising, nobody can stop God from being gracious either. That was – in a nutshell – what Jesus revealed about God. That is in all its powerful simplicity the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Good works are an expression of faith, to be sure. Yet, good works are a response to God’s grace. This is how we understand the relationship between justification by grace and sanctification of our lives. Sanctification arises from hearts overflowing with joy and love because of God’s wonderful gifts. It is out of the gift of freedom, which God has acquired for us that we respond with good works.

God’s relationship to us is not conditional on anything we say or do. We don’t first become Christian in order to go to church. We come to church in order to become Christian—over time, even a life time! God doesn’t love us because we are ‘good’. God loves us because God is good. Do you hear the difference between those statements? I hope you do. A subtle difference, maybe yes. But huge implications for how we live our lives. It doesn’t hinge on us.

Because of the culture in the world that operates NOT according to grace, it is a huge challenge for Christians to live out of grace-first principles—such as forgiveness, mercy, and showing compassion unconditionally. It is a huge challenge for us not to put conditions on others before we deem them worthy. It is a huge challenge not to place any expectations on others and ourselves before we can justify helping them or loving them.

No wonder many young people today are cynical about the message that comes from ‘The Church’. “Your mercy is great,” we Sunday Christians pray to God. “But,” they ask, “Is it, really? What’s the catch? What do you want from me?” This cynicism is rampant. We have been infused with, and grown into, a transactional culture: I do something for you (in order that) you do something for me; I do something for God (in order that) God does something for me.

In this world, so anti-grace, we are called to become more fluent in the language and lifestyle of grace-first. We are challenged to give grace, first. Grace first, not judgement. Grace first, not fear. Grace first, not condemnation:

In our relationships with family members whose behaviour or lifestyle we may not be inclined to approve. In our relationships with others outside our circles who represent politics and opinions we are not inclined towards. In our relationships with those marginalized and the poor, Indigenous people and their plight. In our relationship with the land, water and air. Even, in our relationship with God and religion. Maybe most importantly.

The Gospel stories abound with examples of the way Jesus embodies this grace-first approach of God. In the story today (Luke 13:10-17), it’s not about deserving God’s grace first. It’s not about the woman earning Jesus’ favour first, before she is healed. We really know nothing about her — whether she deserves Jesus’ attention. But, you see, that’s not the point. It’s not even about following the rules of religion, which the Pharisees defend at all costs.

Jesus simply ‘sees’ her, and heals her. Jesus exposes the sin of a culture that places rules before grace, a culture which values conformity over the truth of what the sabbath represents: A holy day when the best of what God offers to us is actually demonstrated and given. No matter the rules. Grace first.

Images of water permeate the scriptures. These verses from Isaiah about water stand out. Water, like the sun, is like grace. Water gives sustenance: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

A last-minute addition to the itinerary of my family’s western Canada road trip this summer was a visit to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia. There, visitors can sink into a natural hot water soaking pool, then slip into a cool water pool. This is hydrotherapy, like the Scandinavian tradition of hot and cold water-immersion cycles. People come here for healing.

We know the stats: 71% of the earth’s surface covered by water. The human body is composed of over 60% water. Water provides a place for renewal, reconnection and rejuvenation. Water is essential for life. We all need it to live.

It is there before we do anything. Whether or not we choose to step into the healing waters of God’s presence and love and mercy—it’s still there for us. Ever present, despite us. The prophet Isaiah in the same text expresses this truth: “You shall cry for help, and God will say: ‘Here I am’” (v.9). I hear in these words the sense that God is saying, “If you want help, I am here. I’ve always been here right beside you! Hello!”

Christians of old have written about life as a journey of becoming more aware of how we block the flow of God’s love and grace. Blockages, such as fear, greed, selfishness. And then, doing what we can to ‘unblock’ and ‘allow’ divine love to flow more freely through us. Of letting go and allowing the current of divine energy, creativity and love to carry us downstream through life.

Whether or not we respond to the sunrise, as the rooster had to learn, whether or not we choose to participate in the action of God’s grace, the ever-flowing stream of God’s love is already there. It has been flowing from the beginning of time, continues to be the most powerful force in the universe, and is an ever-present reality in the world today.

Whether we know it or not, we’re continually immersed and surrounded by Divine Love, by Sacred, Holy Presence. This is our ultimate confidence and security. “Here I am,” God says to us. “Come to me. I am always by your side to show you mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

And that is why we pray and affirm repeatedly this summer in the petitionary prayers: “Your mercy is great!”

Because it is.

Summertime home

It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:32; Mark 4:32; Luke 13:19).

Jesus tells a story, paints a mental picture, that reveals God’s imagination. First, it is something that is almost missed, that goes unnoticed, appears inconsequential, the smallest of all the seeds.

It is this thing we almost dismiss that grows into the complete opposite: the most important thing in our lives! It is great, central, the top priority for all, the greatest of shrubs.

Finally, this incredible dynamic of truth—what is the smallest becomes the greatest—has a purpose, a mission: to provide shelter and home.

These are summertime images and stories from the Gospel that can spark our imagination, too. Those ordinary, seemingly unimportant aspects of our life—daily routines, budgets, mundane decisions, recreation, preoccupations, feelings, thoughts—these become the crucibles within which God decides to inhabit and transform for a great and significant purpose.

As we notice the joy of God’s creation this summer, experience in fair weather its comfort and in storms its distress, what is God nudging in us? How is God using what is the smallest in us and our world to work for the benefit of all?

May our lives become the garden of God’s transformative love—to feed and house the world. And to display God’s beauty and goodness for all! Happy Canada Day!

Have a great summer!

The way the story is told

Look at the man whose community has judged as possessing a legion of demons. He has been pigeon-holed. Ostracized. Bullied. Looked down upon. Pitied. The man whom they looked upon, and said to themselves, ‘Thank God it’s not so bad with me.’ This is the kind of person who, it has been argued, we need. If only to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

Schadenfreude is the term we use to depict and distinguish those ‘less fortunate’ than us to justify our complaints and our more privileged status. So, we need ‘them’. And we need ‘us’. We need the distinction. To envision the opposite, to imagine some kind of union, to unearth the unholy distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’—well, that may be far too threatening to our fragile egos.

The way the story is told is not to focus on the man’s illness. Though, that’s what we like to talk about: the frothing at the mouth, the rattling of the chains which bound him, the pigs rushing dramatically to their watery deaths. The way the story is told, however, is not to fixate on whatever ails him, his sin, his problem. We say this is a healing story. But who else besides the man is invited to be healed?

Important though it is not to overlook the man’s problem, the way this story is told leads us to the climax of the telling—the last few sentences that describe the reaction of the man’s community, there across the Lake in Gentile territory.

When, at first, he is healed, and is shown to the people, how do they respond? You would think they would rejoice. You would think they would praise God. You would think they would marvel at the goodness, the promise, the hope, the delight of God in bringing transformation and healing to this man who once was lost in sickness and despair but now is saved. In Greek, the word for salvation is the same word for healing. This man we look upon, alongside the Gerasene community, is now restored, healed and given a new beginning in life. A second chance.

You would think those who witness this would rejoice in the promise and anticipation that this healing and transformation be offered to each of them also. Amen?!

The way the story is told, however, emphasizes the point not once at the end of the story, but twice: They were afraid, seized with a great fear.[1]They didn’t like what Jesus was doing. They had become too comfortable in their opinions, their prejudices, their categories, their pigeon-holing this man. And they didn’t like what Jesus was doing to upturn and completely reverse their world-view. They even had the gall to tell Jesus to leave. No more of this. Do you blame the healed man for wanting to get out of there, too, with Jesus?

This story shines an uncomfortable light not on the Gerasene Demoniac. The title of this story should rather be the community’s demoniac. The community’s sin. Their prejudice. And their incapacity to repent—to change their minds about the people they have normally pigeon-holed into convenient places of malice and schadenfreude, them and us.

The Gospel story opens with Jesus taking his disciples to the ‘opposite side’ of Galilee. To be faithful to Jesus, to follow Jesus, they have to leave their zones of comfort and familiarity to go to the Gerasene territory across the lake.  Every city, every community, every country, every culture, every church, has an ‘opposite side.’ And it’s to that ‘opposite side’ that we—Lutheran Christians in Canada today—are called to go.

The way the story is told, is that Jesus’ presence and power disrupts the social order of the way things are. Because, for one thing, to the people whose living depends on the pigs, their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds are understandably afraid.

From this standpoint, the way the story is told, the coming of the gospel of Jesus brings upheaval and sets in motion forces that will disrupt even economic and social arrangements. In other words, the good news will not seem good to everyone at first. Maybe, to us.

Especially to those who are comfortable, privileged and set in our ways. Indeed, for the community in Gerasene and for us, we might prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We might take a false sense of security from the dysfunction, the prejudice, the self-righteousness we have learned to tolerate in ourselves, cope and live with, ignore and sluff off. And we might therefore fear what change—even change for health—may bring.

We fear freedom from what binds us:

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves we are not good enough, that we can’t do it, that we don’t deserve the immeasurable love which God has for us.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—telling ourselves and each other that the poor, the newcomer to Canada, the Indigenous people of this land, our home on native land—deserve their plight as if we don’t have any responsibility to care for them. To tell ourselves we need not seek understanding from another’s point of view.

Locked and bound in some prison of our doing—maintaining beliefs, even religious ones, that serve only to belittle others from a different social, religious background than ours, others whose gender orientation is not ours, others who are impoverished financially. Maybe Paul’s words must ring true again today to our hearts that are divided and distressed over these issues: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[2]

What is the ‘opposite side’ of the lake, for you? Is it a troubled personal relationship? Is it a long-held assumption or belief? Is it something you’ve wondered about doing but had up until now been too afraid to try? Perhaps in this season after Pentecost, the Spirit of God is calling us to consider going there.

To discover anew that whether we succeed or fail, whether we accomplish our goals or not, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s forever.[3]Healing and salvation will come to us, regardless of our pedigree. For, again in the words of Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”[4]The gospel doesn’t begin with us. It’s always about what God is doing in us.

As Richard Rohr writes, “It’s not what you do that makes you holy, it’s what you allow to be done to you that makes you holy.” (in today’s ‘daily meditation’, http://www.cac.org)

Grace does that. One doesn’t first become Christian, then go to church; One goes to church to become a Christian—and it will take a life time, and beyond. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. As fourteenth-century Saint Catherine of Siena once said: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, for Jesus is the way.”

Jesus invites us to join him on his journey to the opposite side. To grow and change. To reach further, deeper, into health and wholeness. To open ourselves to the unity we share with all people in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And that story will have a good ending.

 

[1]Luke 8:35,37, NRSV

[2]Galatians 3:28

[3]Romans 14:8

[4]Galatians 2:19-20

The fig tree calls out

Hear today some wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet, if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. 

“Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. This is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

When 21-year-old Sharif Said was gunned down near the Trainyards in Ottawa four years ago, his uncle spoke to the media on behalf of the family.[1]What surprised me in his testimony was how he defended not only his nephew, around whom rumours swirled that he was involved in a gang.

But then he defended those arrested for his nephew’s murder. He said that they were also victims. Khalid Mohammad and Abdulaziz Abdullah, both in their twenties and arrested for Said’s murder, were victims themselves of a “senseless violence”, the uncle said. As a result they could not value life as “precious”.

A subtle twist in the tone of the message changes the direction of the conversation about these things. Making sense of any criminal act, to begin with, can leave us confused and hopeless. And we desperately seek to be on the right side of ‘right and wrong’. We do that most effectively by assigning blame.

Then, you throw into the mix a statement coming from ‘the victim’ that offers sympathy to the perpetrators, a word that levels the moral playing field, we don’t know what to do with that.

Are we all, each and every one of us, part of a culture that creates these problems? Do we all participate on both sides—all sides—of the moral equation? Isn’t that too confusing and wishy-washy? Forgiveness, and mercy, wreak havoc on any common-sense pursuit for laying blame. An act of kindness and forbearance in the midst of senseless tragedy takes the wind out of retribution.

Admittedly, we may feel more at home with the way the ancient prophets used the image of a barren fig tree.[2]One way we tend to lean is towards despair. The prophet Micah feels lonely and depressed in the face of scarcity and evil:

‘Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered,      after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; there is no first-ripe fig for which I hunger.’

Or, we lean towards vengeance. You can hear it in Isaiah’s tone when he speaks of his ‘beloved’ vineyard. Despite all his hard work to create conditions for abundant growth it yielded only wild, undesirable, grapes:

‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down …’

Indeed aren’t these the usual go-to’s when bad things happen to good people—we either slip into despair or shake our fists in anger against someone or something we blame?

When an Ethiopian airliner filled with people crashes and all are killed including eighteen Canadians onboard. When Galileans are slaughtered in cold blood by the hand of Pilate and the Tower of Siloam falls and kills innocent pilgrims at the pool of healing.[3]When randomly, bad things happen, and we can’t really make sense of it. Well, we try.

Do you despair? Or do you get angry and try to find who or what to blame? The people in the Gospel text today tried to get Jesus in on their blame-game and despair-mongering ways.

And Jesus comes back to the ancient, scriptural image of the fig tree again. When he first mentions the fig tree, the crowd must have gotten really excited. Because they knew where this story was going, knowing their prophets Micah and Isaiah: Despair. Vengeance. The lead-up sounds good.

But Jesus pulls the rug out from underneath their expectations. The twist Jesus offers to the familiar image of the barren fig tree is his emphasis on forbearance and mercy. Staving off a swift impulse to cut the tree down after three years of neglect and barrenness, the vineyard’s stewards will give the fig tree yet another year’s chance to bear fruit. The fig tree is given yet another second chance. The hope is that the fig tree will be rehabilitated.

It is important to note, moreover, that in the parable it is the gardener who allows for the possibility of fruitfulness. Not the fig tree. It can’t do anything, by itself. It is stuck in a cycle of barrenness (aka poverty, violence). First, the gardener has to plead his case, be the tree’s advocate, to the owner of the field. Then, the gardener has to do the work. By constant care, digging around the roots and applying manure, the gardener employs all the gifts and resources at their disposal to allow for a positive outcome.[4]

The fig tree calls to us. Who or what does the fig tree represent in our lives? Now, parables are not meant to be taken literally, so we can rule out any divine gardening tips here. This parable won’t appear in a google search for ‘how to grow a fig tree’.

Who is the barren fig tree in your life?

When and where do you sense in your life or another’s, a feeling of being at wit’s end? When all resources have been explored and used up. When a group of people or individual cannot to do it on their own any longer. When someone is stuck in cycles of behaviour that they cannot see the way out, by themselves. When a call for help is evident by a lack of fruitfulness in their lives.

You will notice that this parable comes to a rather abrupt end. The narrative is not neatly tied up into a certain, ‘happy’ ending. We just don’t know whether the fig tree will produce after all this advocacy and gardening work is done. You could say, it’s up to us to write the ending to this story. Will it be judgement? Or, salvation?

Every time we worship together, though, we pray not ‘mykingdom come’, not ‘our kingdom come’, but ‘Thy kingdom come’. Jesus tells a parable about a gardener determined to tend a fruitless fig tree because he is open to a future possibility that he does not control.

Our task, as American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry says it best, “is to labor, without having all the answers, to acknowledge the deep mystery of it all. The task of the disciple is to witness and then wait, to take our best step and leave the rest to God. We labor now for a future we are not meant to control.”[5]

When forgiveness and mercy dictate public discourse in the media and in response to horrific, tragic and painful events around the world and in our lives, we may not be able to explain it easily. But maybe that’s not our job.

Maybe our job is to seek understanding in the other, and thereby show our love. Maybe our job in the church and as Christians is to speak and work for God’s values for the sake of others amidst pain and suffering.

And in hope and trust, let God write the end of the story.

 

[1]cbc.ca, posted May 7, 2015

[2]Micah 7:1; Isaiah 5:1-7

[3]Luke 13:1-9, Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[4]Daniel G. Deffenbaugh in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.96.

[5]Michael B. Curry in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.95-97.

There’s a hole, PART 2: For a purpose

I am a hole in a flute / that the Christ’s breath moves through – / listen to this /music.            -Hafiz

If you comprehend it, it is not God. -St. Augustine

Unlike the pounding of the surf a stone’s toss away, the ponding on the nearby creek made the surface of its water look pristine. A narrow creek made its lazy, winding way down the escarpment from Highway 21 and aimed to run into Lake Huron after finally crossing the stretch of sand on the beach at Point Clarke.

One of our favourite pastimes on those lazy summer days was to play around the area where the creek and lake met. As children, my brother and I would build castles, dig trenches and re-direct the flow of the creek’s water.

For a real challenge, we would try to dam up the creek’s flow, which took some planning, and extra material like drift wood and larger stones to block any outflow attempts. Once we contained it, the creek turned slowly into a large pond, comfortably remaining – for the time being – behind its fortress sand walls.

I’ve already talked about how in God’s creation, it is meant to be that each of us has a hole in our heart (see “There’s a hole, PART 1: Meant to be”). Moreover, it is God’s good intention that this hole is there for a purpose.

Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian church a confession that in all his accomplishments for the expansion of the Gospel across the Mediterranean, he was given a thorn in his side.[1]The proverbial ‘hole’. It is not important, although many have tried, to figure out what this thorn actually was.

We don’t know. Maybe that’s the point. It’s not important that we know, only that this thorn was given him in order to keep him humble. The text says that the thorn was given Paul to keep him from being ‘elated’ – to keep his ego in check, perhaps because he tended toward being too full of himself, over confident in his own ability.

How does the ego get the better of yourself? What is your compulsion? What drives you to achieve some illusion of perfection in your life? So, you don’t need to trust what is beyond your life, what is ineffable, what cannot be fully understood that is the Great Mystery (a.k.a. God)?

Let me show you an example of compulsion to achieve that which is beyond our capacity: On my fishing trip with colleagues last May to Algonquin Park, we tried everything to beat the ice on the lake. Despite the predominance of the ice-covered lake, we tried desperately to fight the odds against us catching some fish even to the point of risking our safety to break up the ice ourselves in our canoes.

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Yup, that’s me. And, yup, you guessed it: We caught no fish. The irony is that on the last day of our camp out, the wind and the sun did its job. When we woke that last day, we looked over a lake completely free of the ice.

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Was God sending us a message? Weren’t we the butt end of some divine humour?

The hole in our heart has a divine purpose: To keep us from being too sure of ourselves, over-confident in our ability and our capacity to have it all figured out. If we didn’t have this hole, might we put all our trust in our own autonomy, our independence, to lead our life without any need at all to trust anyone else let alone God.

Beyond Paul in the New Testament, the stories in the bible are about God lessening, even stopping, the compulsive drive of main characters, so the wind of God’s Spirit could draw them more gently and more effectively (Gideon and Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures are good examples).[2]

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus instructs his disciples in going into the world to do God’s mission, “to take nothing for their journey … no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”[3]

God’s consolation is simple yet profound: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” God tells Paul.[4]The making perfect here is not about getting rid of that vulnerability. Rather, whatever weakness we bear stays with us in order for us to complete our purpose as human beings. We are made complete in God’s love because of our hole, thorn, weakness – not without it.

In one of Martin Luther’s famous works entitled, “The Bondage of the Will”, he emphatically declared that we, as humans, can never work out our own salvation for ourselves. We will continually fail, even when, or especially when, we believe we are doing good in the world.

While some might find this realization depressing – and it would be helpful to know why that is, for yourself – perhaps the “bondage of the will” can be freeing. Because we don’t need to be driven to inaction because we are afraid of making a mistake. We don’t need to get stuck in the mud under the fear of imperfection. As Christians, we can be free to do good work in the world, imperfectly, knowing that what we do is for the benefit of others and not for ourselves.[5]

Author Brian McLaren in his recent book: “The Great Spiritual Migration”, describes this time in history as a transition in the church from “organized religion” to “organizing religion.”[6]

A Church in the flow of God’s Spirit pertains not only to wind and water over the earth, but also to spiritual movement. To purpose and mission. To going where we need to go as a people. To re-focus again on loving God, self and others as the primal energy of the church. To bring to life once again the old verse: “They will know we are Christians by our love …” … and not by our buildings, property, and concern for security, certainty and self-preservation.

Can we let go of these things for the sake of God’s mission, for the sake of the Gospel of life and love in Christ? As the prophet Amos so well put it, using the water imagery: “Let justice role down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream … “[7]

By the time we had finally engineered the dam on the tiny creek aiming towards Lake Huron, the sun was setting and we had to go home. Inevitably, the next morning one of three things would have happened in our absence:

Either the creek would have found the weak spot in the sandy fortress wall we built, and escape through a tiny crack; or, increasing wind conditions over Lake Huron overnight would have created larger waves whose surf reached and destroyed the walls of our dam; or, someone would have been walking along the beach and, for the fun of it, just poked a tiny hole to watch as a slow trickle quickly turned into a strong, flowing stream.

In each case, a small hole was required in order for the creek to fulfill its mission and reach its destination – despite all the efforts of playful human beings to keep it contained.

After all, nothing was going to stop the flow. God’s Spirit and purpose will flow on because and through the holes in our lives.

[1]2 Corinthians 12:7-10

[2]Richard Rohr, “Dancing Standing Still; Healing the World from a Place of Prayer” (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2014), p.18.

[3]Mark 6:8-9

[4]2 Corinthians 12:9

[5]Ross Murray, Senior Director, GLAAD Media Institute, LinkedIn July 2018.

[6]Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian” (Massachusetts: Convergent Books, 2017)

[7]Amos 5:24

Driving me crazy

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There are times in life that come our way to remind us that something is ending. And even though at some deeper level we know it to be true, we hesitate to face that ending, whatever it is — the end of an era, the end of the life of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the end of a career, the end of youthful health and energy, etc.

How do we face these movements in life?

In planning our family vacation to Italy a couple summers ago, we decided to rent a car. Our host family lived in Naples. So, right off the plane, we jumped in our small Fiat, yours truly engaged the manual shift, and we immersed ourselves in the mayhem of driving in Naples.

What added to the heightened anxiety of driving in the sprawling metropolis, was that I had to follow our friends from downtown to the suburbs – no short jaunt ‘round the corner.

Not only did I have to deal with the speedy and crazy driving conditions, I had to slice through the haze of jetlag in my mind, and pay attention. I had to keep up to our host family already long acclimatized to the riotous driving culture there.

What is more, shortly after recovering from the stress and thrill of that first-day drive from the airport, the next day, in our separate cars we took to the winding and narrow road along the Amalfi Coast. To get there, we had to cross Naples first. Been there done that. No small feat.

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Then, once on the rocky Amalfi coastline, my face was practically pasted on the front windshield. I had to make constant reflexive maneuvers rounding blind, hairpin bends. At relatively high speeds I squeezed our little Fiat between oncoming Vespa scooters, ginormous tour buses and sleek, racing, tinted-windowed Audi sedans. All the while wiping the spittle from the glass in front of my mouth emitting profanity after profanity.

 

Caution thrown to the wind, I threw myself into it without thinking too much. Reactive, assertive and confident driving skills required! Since I didn’t exactly know the route we would take, I had to focus on what was directly in front of me. I had to pay attention and respond not only to the immediate conditions I found myself in. I also had to keep an eye on the dark blue Hyundai some car lengths in front, leading the way.

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Following someone in another car, requires certain skills best developed in the context of faith. Let me explain.

First, you have to trust. You must trust that the One you are following knows what they are doing and where they are going. You have to believe that following them faithfully will take you to where you want to go. At some gut level, you have to relinquish your claim to knowing better. And trust the other. And believe that they believe in you and your skill, too.

Second, you have to pay attention. You have to stay aware of your surroundings, even though the distractions and obstacles are frightening. As with driving in general, you can’t be looking inside the car or admiring the scenery to the side or behind you. Rather, you have to remain focused on the road ahead. Better yet, for as smooth a ride as possible, you have to envision yourself already being a certain distance down the road.

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Third, you need to act on in-the-moment decisions. Following another car is a whole different way of driving then when you are on your own. On your own, you can stop whenever you want, you can go however fast or slow you want to go, and you are not accountable in any way to another vehicle on the road.

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All that changes as soon as you say, “I will follow you.” If you don’t want to get lost, you have to keep up. You have to do it. You have to match the velocity of the lead car, whether they speed up or slow down. You have to drive in a way that will keep you within eyesight of the lead, which will affect how you negotiate traffic signals, lane changes, roundabouts, traffic jams, and toll gates.

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Finally, in order to follow another successfully, you have to take the primary focus off yourself. And fix it on whom you are following. There is no time to dwell on your past mistakes – the guy you cut off coming onto the expressway, your cursing a fellow driver weaving across multi lanes going 130 kilometres an hour, or the slight yet growing pressure you feel on your bladder from all the espresso you drank earlier in the day.

There is no time for self-indulgence of this kind. There is no time for regret, guilt or self-absorbed mental gymnastics. There is no time to stop to lick the wounds of obsessive introspection.

Because your energy is required now for the task at hand: trust, focus, action.

Jesus describes at least two opposing lifestyles in the Gospel reading for today.[1] The sheep are on Christ’s right hand – they are the good guys. The goats are on Jesus’ left hand – they are the bad guys. I suspect we can relate to being both a goat and a sheep at different times and conditions of our lives.

Either way, both groups are surprised to hear Jesus’ answer to their question: “When did we see you …?”[2] Both groups failed to see Jesus in the faces of the stranger, sick, hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned.

The only difference is that the sheep already happened to be serving those in need, before they heard this news, before they had a chance to think about it too much, strategize and create impressive mission plans. That group was visiting the sick and tending to the needs of others as a matter of course, moved by a simple compassion for the needy. Doing so was part of their regular routine of life.

On the other hand, the goats apparently never thought nor believed that their very salvation depended on helping others, going to the poor, attending to the weak and vulnerable in society. Instead, they must have made life predominantly a game of ‘who can get the most stuff and be most comfortable and take care of their own first.’ Their faith must have been assigned to a God who existed only in their minds, in abstraction, a matter reserved only for intellectual discourse,polite company, and board room strategy sessions.

At this turning point in the calendar year, we shift gears and look ahead. We leave behind the relative calm and ease of the long summer season after Pentecost, and enter the fray of the holiday season. How we drive through and around the many distractions, noise, pace and twisting corners of our lives in the coming months will reveal a lot about who we follow or whether we are following anyone at all, let alone Jesus.

So, let’s not forget where Jesus goes. Let’s not forget what he was all about, whom he visited, whom he cared for and where he spent his time. This is our focus. Let’s trust that Jesus knows what he is talking about and the path he takes, even though God’s reign feels countercultural and unpopular in a season of getting more stuff and self-indulgent sentimentality.

Perhaps we will need to practice looking for Jesus on the streets, in the hospices, the safe-injection sites, the social housing units, the shelters, the refugee lines and immigrant ghettos in our city.

Let’s trust that Jesus’ way will lead to our resurrection and transformation in this life as much as in the next. Let’s pay attention to our surroundings and the various ways God encourages us on the way. Let’s not remain idle, nor get stuck in self-centred living. Let’s not coast nor ride the clutch too much. Because we’ll stall the car. And stopping is not good on the highway of life. In fact, it’s dangerous.

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Instead, let’s act faithfully in small, concrete ways that make a difference for the better in the lives of others in need.  Let’s do so assertively and confidently, knowing that we don’t travel alone; there are others in the car with us and on the highway around us. Because despite our many failings, and the mistakes we will make along the way, God continues to have faith in us.

There is too much at stake. And no time to lose. Still today, in our country – Canada – and in our nation’s capital, Ottawa, there are still over 10,000 households needing adequate, safe and affordable housing.[3] And, 15% of the population in the whole province of Ontario still lives in some kind of housing need.

Where is Jesus? The bible makes it very clear. The better question is: Will you follow?

Recently I came across this anonymous quote about the merits of volunteering in ways that can reflect the reign of Christ in our lives and in our world:

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections … [once every four years], but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.

When you volunteer for good causes you add value to the vision of God in earth. The Reign of Christ is about the kind of world God wants us to live in. Where is Jesus? Will you follow?

We end today a church season. This annual observance can remind us that endings only herald a new beginning just around the corner.

[1] Matthew 25:31-46

[2] verses 37 and 44

[3] check out http://www.multifaithhousing.ca

Faith’s fire & water

Please read Psalm 82, and Luke 12:49-56 — the appointed biblical texts for Pentecost+13, Year C (Revised Common Lectionary)

You may have heard some of the old rhymes of how outdoors’ enthusiasts and mariners have interpreted the appearance of the sky: For example,  

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” Or, “Rainbow in the morning sailors take warning; Rainbow towards night, Sailor’s delight.” How about, “If smoke goes high (from a campfire), no rain comes by; If smoke hangs low, watch out for a blow.”

Indeed we have our ways of predicting and managing our lives, based on beliefs and observations over time. We then convince ourselves of the truth of the things we repeat, like the rhymes, in our minds over and over. Even if, like the weather, we can be totally off.

If anything, our ability at self-deception is huge. For one thing, we have convinced ourselves that Jesus and Christianity is not about justice for the weak. If you don’t believe me, just examine our attitudes towards Indigenous First Nations people — how quickly we resort to condemning them as lazy drunkards, self-justifying our own greed and fearing the loss of our own power and property. Even though we are the rich and powerful, and they are the people in our communities who are the weakest, the lowly and the destitute. 

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute (Psalm 82:2-3)

When God calls us to give justice to the weak, who then are the wicked? Not the weak, the lowly and the destitute. Given the structure and spacing of these verses from Psalm 82 — the wicked are those who occupy the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum: those who are strong, who are in power, who have wealth and security.

Why is that?

Most of Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament indeed focuses on issues (and problems) of power, prestige and possession. 

And yet, how quickly and easily we avoid those and focus on issues that Jesus spent little if no time on — homosexuality and abortion, to name a couple recent hot topics in the church.

It’s not that sexuality, addictions and ‘family values’ are not important. But these do not form the core of Jesus’ teaching.

The core of Jesus’ teaching reflects in such notions as: Blessed are the poor and the peacemakers; parables about rich men, selling all, the widow’s mite, the lost sheep, rendering to Caesar, he who has no sin throw the first stone, bigger barns, eating with sinners, praying to be seen vs the humble stance — the list goes on. I remember attending a stewardship event years ago when the main speaker asserted that most of Jesus’ teaching centred, in fact, on money.

And yet, how much these days a disproportionate amount of energy in the church is spent on anything but. We want to avoid talking about money in the church, especially if it means a sacrifice on our part.

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:56).

That’s what Jesus is saying in the conclusion of the Gospel text: You have fancy ways of reading the sky but you can’t even discern the truth of your very own lives and the truth of what I’m all about!

We need to hear again the words of scripture and the Lord God:

Rise up, O God, judge the earth. For all the nations belong to you! (Psalm 82:8).

Ultimately the question is: To whom do we belong? To whom does all of creation belong? We have all sorts of acceptable answers to that: We belong to our spouses, to our families, to our parents and grandparents. We belong to the church. We belong to the nation. Sounds righteous, does it not?

And, we go on: creation belongs to us! Natural resources belong to us. In this line of thinking, belonging morphs into ownership and the commodification of basic things, like water. As long as you have enough money to buy it, you have a right to it.

Speaking of water, these last few days those of us on municipal water in Arnprior were not permitted to use water for anything. Anything — not only drinking. We couldn’t boil it, or wash in it, take a shower or bath in it, wash laundry, do the dishes, even touch it!

The house was a complete mess by the weekend. We were driving into the city to take showers and to buy lots of bottled water. I felt just a little of what it must be like for the First Nations communities in northern Ontario who on a regular basis do not have adequate access to safe, drinking water.

I read here an excerpt from the online description (www.claygathering.ca) of the National Youth Project from 2012-2016 which will culminate in PEI this week at the Canadian-Lutheran-Anglican-Youth (CLAY) gathering:

“What is water? Although this may seem like an obvious question, the answers that we provide often depend on our cultural and religious backgrounds. Traditionally, western cultures, like ours, have treated water as a common property, meaning that water is owned equally by all of us.

“In recent years, however, western cultures have shifted their understanding of water. Now, water is viewed like any other natural resource, like natural gas, oil, or gold, and unfortunately, for the right price, it can be bought and sold by individuals and corporations. But who owns it? The water from the tap, the river, the rain… who owns it?

“As you might expect, this new western understanding of water differs strongly from that of many Indigenous communities. Instead of treating water as a resource that can be bought, it is viewed it as a living being with which all creation has a relationship and a responsibility to protect. 

“For the Ojibway, water is a source of purification, and for the Iroquois, it is a gift from the stars integral to medicine, prayer, and cleansing. In many Indigenous cultures, women have a special association with water: they are the keepers of water, and it is their responsibility to lead water ceremonies which demonstrate a community’s respect for water. What we can learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters is that water is a force that sustains, and requires respect and protection.

“Although western culture may treat water as a resource that can be used and abused, as Christians we know that it is a very important component of our spiritual life. We know that in the Bible, water is recognized as divine and life-giving. In Genesis 1, we see that the shape and content of all bodies of water are creations of God. In Revelation 21, we are told that, through Jesus, we are freely given a kind of water that sustains our lives and in John 3, we learn that those who enter the Kingdom of God are those who are born of water and the Spirit. Indeed, our very baptism is validated by the Word and Water.

“These parts of Scripture and sacramental practice show examples of the importance of water to us as Christians. It reminds us that, just as our practical life depends on water, so too does our spiritual nourishment.

“Many Indigenous communities do not have access to this vital resource: even where there is access, the quality of water is poor. Understanding that water is important and is a human right, what happens if you have access to water but it isn’t clean, useable, or safe? As Christians, we recognize that water nourishes and cleanses, and now we need to care for it as much as it cares for us; we need to be good stewards of the earth.”

We don’t ‘own each other’ as property to be traded on the open market as much as we don’t own anything in creation. Creation is meant for all people to share and hold in common, for the common good.

That means, in God’s view, no one is alone, no one is left behind, and no one falls through the cracks. This is the Good News: Everyone belongs. Everything belongs. Where we are weak, we belong. When we fail, we belong. When others are weak, they belong. When others fail, they belong. To God.

This Gospel, while good, is not popular for those who have it all we need and more. For us who are fortunate — all things being equal — we have a tough pill to swallow, here.

God’s presence and God’s truth must permeate through our sinful greed, materialism, and lust for control and power. A fire it is, that God sends upon our lives, (“I came to bring fire to earth” – Luke 12:49) to burn through the false thinking, false beliefs. A baptism by fire, some call it.

Like my experience in the dunk tank last week: It’s both thrilling and scary, to let go of control, not knowing when the ball will hit the target and I go for a total immersion plunge.

This is the baptism into which we are called: A lot of turbulence and uncertainty before it gets better; humility comes after being humbled; forgiveness and mercy only after confrontation, honesty and truth; a letting go before new life, new beginnings. Pain before the gain.

A sunset and long darkness in the sky before the brilliance of the sunrise to start a new day.

This is our hope.