God loves us uniquely, not exclusively

Some things Jesus says offend our most sacred held values.

In today’s Gospel Jesus basically turns against family. As one who drove 6000 kilometers this summer in a car with my family and then spent four intense but good days with extended family in Poland, I recoil at these words of Jesus. If we take Jesus’ demand literally, he is telling us outright to ‘hate’ our father, mother, wife and children and give up all our possessions.[1]How’s that for ‘family values’?

We cannot ignore this statement of Jesus, as much as we may want to. When we see the other places Jesus comments on family we begin to notice a theme emerge. Jesus redefines ‘family’ who shares not bloodlines but a common awareness of following Jesus and God’s mission.[2]

How do we pick up our cross and be faithful in following Jesus? How do we deal with this word ‘hate’ which brings up un-gospel-like connotations of division, conflict, anger and even violence?

In a historical fiction by Ken Follet entitled A Column of Fire he describes the early, raw conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Set in 1558, just some forty years after Martin Luther inaugurated the Reformation, Follet portrays through his characters the mindset of religious combatants in England and France.

In small towns where this religious war was waged in families and churches, to be caught with prohibited books from the ‘other side’ meant certain and immediate death. Underground Protestants were indiscriminately persecuted with the full force of the law when outed in Catholic regions. And vice versa. I had forgotten to appreciate the depth of the hatred that existed between coreligionists in the decades following the spread of Protestantism in Europe.

Early in the book we are introduced to Rollo. Rollo hates Protestants who are inflicting his English town. He bemoans the subversive, rule-breaking Protestants who are trying to alter Christian doctrines that had been taught in the old town cathedral unchanged for centuries. “The truth was for eternity,”[3]he pronounces. This truth is like the huge foundation stones of cathedral building which cannot be moved.

Of course, from today’s vantage point five hundred years later, we lay aside these trifling objections. Over the last fifty years especially culminating in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justificationin 1999, Catholics and Protestants together testify to the salvation that is bestowed only in Christ and by grace alone. In that almost incredible agreement, the objections and cause of divisions of the sixteenth century between the Roman Catholic church and reformers were officially removed.

Rollo’s problem was that he equated his interpretation of the truth with the truth itself. He believed his ‘take’ on the truth was the only take to make. And everyone else who didn’t conform to his take was excluded. In other words, his worldview was exclusive. Love of God, grace of God—these were exclusive gifts of God to a select few who conformed.

And damned be the rest.

Today, while the historical differences between Catholics and Protestants melt in the context of a changing cultural reality in the Western world, these troubling tendencies towards conformity, like-mindedness and exclusiveness nevertheless still persist in both Catholic and Lutheran circles worldwide and denominationally.

Think of the eye-glasses we wear. Some, to shield against the sun. Some glasses for short-sightedness, some for far-sightedness. Some glasses are bi-focal. Others are progressive lens. Important questions to ask in any study of scripture or tradition are: What lens do you use—your lens of experience, upbringing, learning, personality, opinion, background—what lens of interpretation do you bring to a reading of holy scripture?

What do you normally see in scripture? What do you first notice? The law? The gospel? Do you regard the bible as a legal book, or a historical book primarily? Or, do you look for promise, hope, forgiveness? Do you presume a punishing God who looks for mistakes and the follies of humanity? Or, do you see a loving God? Why? What are you afraid of? What are you looking for?

These are not easy questions to pose to oneself. But following Jesus is not blind. Obedience in the vision of Jesus is not like flotsam, driftwood, floating hither and yon.

Discipleship is a call to a commitment with focus and intention. Following Jesus calls each of us to a thought-probing, deliberative process in which we grow our ability and confidence to ask of ourselves the tough questions about life and living not only about God but especially of ourselves.

These types of questions are important to get some handle on before you can claim any part of the truth. In short, an honest self-awareness is necessary for healthy relating—whether relating to scripture or to someone else.

In families, relationships and organizations that are healthy, vital and growing, what do you see? I see people who are respected for their unique contribution to the whole. I see people who may be very different from each other and still value their own contribution because they know they are valued by others. Not because they conform. Not because they wear identical eye-glasses of interpretation. Not because someone else tells them what to do. Not because they ‘tow the party line.’ Not because they are like-minded in all things religious.

I know it’s not time to think of snow, yet. But I came across this past week an image of the snowflake. Of all the billions of people on this planet, no two are exactly alike. Even, as I am, an identical twin—I am not exactly like my brother. Of all the snowflakes that fall from the sky, no two are exactly alike.  Not one is a duplicate. Each is unique.

I don’t take the word ‘hate’ in the Gospel reading to mean we have license from God now to say and do violence to those we love most. That would constitute a false interpretation of scripture.

I do take this to mean we cannot, dare not, make any claim on another’s life. We do not own another person. We do not claim ownership and control them emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually. We are not responsible for another person.

Our growth with those we love means we release our claim over their lives, if we’ve ever had one or thought we had. I believe that is what Jesus is getting at here. Parents, even, are advised to remember that their role in raising children is to prepare those children for the world, and then release them to the world. In any relationship, blood-lined or missional—we do not control, own, or claim anything over another person.

And this is not easy with regards to letting go of our emotional attachments. But not claiming anything over another doesn’t mean we cut ourselves off from them, cutting all ties and never seeing them again. Releasing our emotional grip on another doesn’t mean we do not love them anymore. Letting go our claim over their lives doesn’t mean we do not care for them anymore. It just means we are not ultimately in charge of their lives. God is.

This can be a freeing prospect.

In reflecting on the cost of discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The call to discipleship is a gift of grace.”[4]It’s a call to freedom and transformation which is what Jesus nurtures in us: to grow, to move, to change for the better as persons created in the image of God.

And, what is more, when all those unique snowflakes fall to the ground what accumulates is a blanket of snow—that has its recuperative and restorative purpose upon the earth. Unique, yet each contributes to the whole.

God doesn’t love us exclusively. As if we ought to be better than ‘them’. God loves uniquely. Being faithful is not about comparison, competition, being better than someone else. God loves us uniquely not exclusively. That means, our take on the truth is partial. Someone else’s take on the truth is also partial. Each of us in God’s family brings something unique to the whole of the truth.

To follow Jesus is to practice the letting go of the ego’s compulsions, and embrace God’s unconditional love and grace for you. So, following Jesus is not about being perfect, or copying someone else’s ‘saintliness’. It is, quite simply, being authentically you and affirming the stranger, in God’s love for all.

 

[1]Luke 14:25-33

[2]See Luke 12:51-53, 14:12, 18:29-30

[3]Ken Follet, A Column of Fire (New York: Viking Books/Penguin Random House, 2017) p.76.

[4]Cited by Emilie M. Townes in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.48.

Mistaken identity

This morning I preach at Merrickville (Ontario) United Church, as part of a pulpit exchange. Today Merrickville United Church celebrates its annual Anniversary Sunday.

Thank you for welcoming me to speak at your anniversary Sunday celebration. Anniversaries are about celebrating who we are. These are occasions for affirming our identity. So, let me introduce myself to you so that you may have some idea and experience of who I am.

Questions of identity are important to me. I have an identical twin brother who is also a Lutheran pastor. What is more, my brother and I are twin sons of parents who are both also (retired) Lutheran pastors in the same Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Challenges around mistaken identity have followed me all my life! Which Malina are we talking about?! That is why who I am and how different I am from my rather homogenous nuclear family is an important part of my personal journey.

Another level of mistaken identity in my life revolves around the church to which I belong. Your pastor told you, I suspect, that you were going to have a preacher from the “Evangelical Lutheran Church” visit you today. I wonder how many of you thought you would be getting a shellacking from a hard-core conservative, fundamentalist preacher. The word that likely derailed you was ‘evangelical’.

Over a month ago after Billy Graham Sr. died, the local Ottawa CBC morning radio host called me to say they wanted to have an ‘evangelical’ represent the views of Billy Graham in a live discussion panel the next day. The reason she called me was that the name of the parish I am pastor of is called “Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church.” She assumed that the same word meant the same thing. I had to steer her in another direction.

Because for Lutherans, we use the word evangelical from its German roots, ‘evangelische’. The meaning here, is ‘Good News!’. Unfortunately, in North America the word evangelical has been coopted by conservative fundamentalism. You can breathe more easily now!

Indeed, it is the focus of the word Good News (Gospel) that can summarize the purpose of Lutheran preaching, in a nutshell. We are all about proclaiming what is good news to the world today. Lutherans traditionally use the concept of ‘law’ as a counterpoint to understand better where we fall short, and why we yearn and seek God’s grace, forgiveness and love.

In the Gospel reading for today, from Mark, Jesus breaks the law in order to eat (Mark 2:23-3:6). He and his disciples are poor wanderers. They pick grain from the field on the sabbath. Two things Jesus says in this text worth noting: First, “the sabbath was made for humankind” — and not the other way around. In other words, the sabbath law and all law serves us. “Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the sabbath?” Jesus asks. He says that even the law is subject to God’s grace and the common good.

We do our thing as Christians not primarily to serve the tradition and keep all the laws and conform to precepts and rules. No. We do our thing as Christians primarily to follow in the way of Christ which is a way of love, grace, and doing the right thing — despite what the law says.

I love the name of your church: United. And I love that you are undergoing a renovation of your gathering space in your building here. It may be disruptive and stressful — all meaningful transformation is. But it tells me a lot about who you are. Let me attempt an affirmation of sorts.

You are a church ‘on the move’. You are transforming your space in order to make it a more inclusive, accessible building. Moreover, you are making this transformation and renewal to make it a more flexible, multi-purpose space. So different groups, musical, theatrical, social, community groups can use it. You are creating a welcoming and affirming space. This is wonderful! By increasing the possibility of diverse interaction you are, paradoxically, building unity among people!

German reformed theologian Juergen Moltmann wrote that “Christian fellowship — which means liberating fellowship — no longer means just sitting down beside the people I agree with. It means sitting beside the people I don’t agree with — and staying there.” (@moltmannjuergen)

As the inclusive, expansive vision of God’s unity shines before us, we become not a community of like-minded, conformists. Rather, precisely in celebrating and affirming our diversity, we deepen our unity. That is what the church on the move is all about!

Early twentieth century French philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, expressed how people grow in unity by becoming more ourselves. By embracing our uniqueness as individuals and communities, by differentiating, we discover our unity. Contrary to what may be our initial impulse — that unity is experienced only if we become what someone else wants us to be, or others become like us — the opposite is true. Not by becoming the same — that is not loving — but in the freedom of our being different, we find unity in love.

The word religion from Latin, ‘religio’, literally means, re-binding together. “Bind us together, Lord,” is a favourite song in the Lutheran church. Unity is found by recognizing our differences, appreciating them, and choosing to love anyway, which is the form of love most often used in the New Testament (agape).

The church moving forward is the beacon of Christ’s light. “Let light shine out of darkness” (2 Corinthians 4:6), Paul writes in the Epistle reading for today (Pentecost 2B, RCL). The church is not the brake lights on a car, but the headlights. Shining a vision forward, an ever-expanding, inclusive, affirming vision for all people. Because light pays little heed to the lines we draw in the sand. Divine light and love recognize in each person and each relationship a unique reflection of Creator God.

In Christ, then, there is no need for mistaken identity no matter how similar or how different we may be.

God-talk

Last week in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Ottawa RedBlacks receiver Diontae Spencer set a CFL record in a game against the Hamilton Ticats for most overall yardage gained — just under 500 — in one game. His incredible feat was truly remarkable in a game where his team didn’t score any points in the first quarter.

When asked afterwards about his record-setting accomplishment, Spencer mentioned God several times. He emphasized that the praise was ultimately for God. He couldn’t have succeeded along with his team in that game without God. God was the reason and source of his victory.

Such a witness gets a lot of mileage, especially on national TV covering a professional sports league in Canada. It is true: the public, general impression of Christians is their often-exuberant witness to an all-powerful, almighty God who authors and reflects anything and everything that is glorious, successful, impressive and spectacular. This is the dominant belief and main flavour of the kind of God-talk in the public arena when it comes to Christian witness.

Years ago, a parishioner in a former parish declined my invitation to her to give a testimony of faith during a mid-week Lenten program. I knew she was struggling with some personal challenges at the time. When I asked her why she said no, especially as I recognized in her the strong gift of faith, she said she wanted to wait until things were going better in her life before sharing her faith.

While I understood her reasoning, and was mindful of the delicate situation in her life, I wondered to myself if her attitude didn’t reflect a more general disposition among Christians today. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could talk about how good your life was. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could point to external circumstances that were favourable, impressive, even enviable.

After all, how could you get up in front of people and talk about God when all was not well in your life? How could you talk about God if you had nothing impressive to show for it? More to the point, would you be giving faithful testimony to God if everything in your life was broken, damaged, failed?

Is God only mentioned when humans achieve something great? Is God only a God who wins contests on the football field and battlefield of life? Can God be talked about only among folks who have succeeded and are healthy and rich? Only when things are going super well?

Or, could God also be present and real to us when we fail, when we are down, when we lose our earthly battles? It seems to me Christians call themselves Christian because we follow the way of Christ. And so, don’t we believe in the God of the Cross? God, by all human standards, failed — being branded public enemy number one and condemned to death. Jesus’ broken body is the iconic symbol for Christians. It is precisely in the suffering of life where God finds us.

On this All Saints Sunday, we understandably focus on what human beings have accomplished: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. Blessed are those who demonstrate the qualities we read in the Beatitudes[1] — the Gospel text for this festival in the church calendar.

“Blessed” is not the word we might associate with being poor, persecuted peacemakers especially if we use the often-translated English word, “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[2] also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in providing the first beatitude, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[3] I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state.

Should we take these beatitudes as moral rules for living, as with the Law, we can never fulfill it perfectly. And therefore, we can easily despair and give up. Being on the way, however, gives the long view and big picture. It implies the need for trusting that we are headed in the right direction even if the present circumstances in our lives suggest otherwise.

What is more, as much as we want to make the Beatitudes into the Ten (or rather, Nine) Commandments of the New Testament, this speech from Jesus — given at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel — is not primarily about ‘rules for moral behaviour’ as it is facts about God. These Beatitudes really and fundamentally describe God.

Matthew’s narrative builds towards this awareness, if you can appreciate the classic reversal that Matthew sets up in the first five chapters of his Gospel:

In the first chapter, Matthew’ genealogy firmly plants Jesus “the Messiah” in the lineage of the great Israelite King David. In the second chapter, exotic magi from the East come to pay homage to the newborn king. In the third chapter, King Herod takes seriously this threat to his power and tries to eliminate a contestant to his throne by killing innocent, Hebrew two-year-old boys in Bethlehem. Then, John the Baptist comes on the scene, announcing that he was making way for one who was greater than he. Finally, Matthew has Jesus ascend a mountain where he, like his predecessor Moses, would dispense the Word of God and give his inaugural address.[4]

You can see the build-up, I hope, of an expectation that Jesus would come to bring justice to the wicked and set things right. He, the Messiah, would turn back Roman oppression and occupation of Palestine. But, these words from Jesus’ mouth announcing who is “blessed” pull the rug from under our expectations of who God is. “The one who was supposed to lead revolutionary armies or bring down heavenly fire shows up in Galilee building hospitals and telling people not to hit back.”[5]

Can you imagine the surprise and shock among his disciples! Even the imprisoned John the Baptist does a double-take on his faith and later questions Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we keep looking?”[6] It is no wonder, then, that Peter later rebukes Jesus when he talks of his impending death: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”[7]

These beatitudes must have seriously disappointed his listeners and most ardent followers who had such ‘high’ expectations of their would-be Messiah King. How could they now continue following this man?

Is the reason why we may have trouble conforming our lives to the way described in the beatitudes is that we really don’t believe in these words as giving an accurate and trustworthy understanding of God? This is, after all, Jesus, who we know was persecuted and reviled as the prophets were before him.[8]

Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed in human flesh, born a vulnerable baby to a teenage couple? Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed dying a grotesque and brutal death on a cross showing the world a bruised, beaten, broken and bloody body?

If we did, perhaps we would hear more from the losers in our society. Perhaps TSN would hear the faithful witness of locker room players talking of a God who knows how it is to lose a big game and still keep faith. Perhaps we would hear more from street people, addicts and the impoverished, vulnerable people talk of their simple yet honest faith in a God who walks with them. Perhaps we would hear more from children declare their love of a playful God who carries our burdens for us, freeing us to be who and how we are without judgement and punishment.

Perhaps we would listen more to the murmurs of our own hearts whisper the love of God for us especially when we suffer the turmoil of life. Then, I gather, the world will open its eyes to the God of grace and love.

Because they will see people who live in hope. They will see people who know they have found the right road where they find God most present in helping people who suffer loss and pain, a road on which Jesus has walked himself, a road upon which God will always first find us.

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

[3] Earl F. Palmer in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.238

[4] Allen Hilton in ibid., p.239

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12

Love: The Body speaks

I jumped out of bed Labour Day Monday ready for action: I had my traditional ‘to do’ list around the house, tasks reserved only for that most auspicious of holidays: Labour Day. Neatly positioned at the beginning of a new school year, Labour Day promises the beginning of a new season of programs, commitments, work, setting goals, ideals and visions of our aspiring.

I only did certain jobs on this day of the year. You know, like Spring cleaning, these were things that needed to be done once in a while, but aren’t really activities that are particularly pleasurable, to say the least. So, I put it off to Labour Day. I need that annual calendar day to help me stay disciplined. And that is good.

One of those jobs was cleaning the HRV – the Heat Recovery Ventilator. This is the contraption attached to the furnace that recycles the air in your house. On the sticker inside the ventilator, it suggests that the filter should be cleaned once every three months. Yeah, right. Who has time for that?

So, on Labour Day every year, I dutifully remove the heavy box containing the filter, and hose it down. I wash the spongy fabric and hang to dry. I meticulously wipe out the interior of the ventilator with a damp cloth. I vacuum out all the cobwebs, dead wasps, flies and dust mites. I use pipe cleaners to clean the plastic, transparent drain tubes. And when everything is done I put it all back together. Usually it takes me a couple of hours. And then it’s on to the next item on my Labour Day ‘to do’ list. You get the idea.

I knew I had a full day’s agenda of those odds and sods sort of jobs.  Jess and I had just pulled the stove away from the wall to clean the floor underneath (yuck!) when all-of-a-sudden the doorbell rang.

With beads of sweat trickling from my forehead stinking of sweat in dirty clothes, I looked up with ‘surprise’ at who was smiling and waving through the front door pane: my parents-in-law! They were inviting us out for lunch at the local truck stop.

With herculean effort to switch gears and rush into ‘receive-and-respond-to-guest’ mode, I quietly complained to Jess in the bathroom as we quickly washed up that I didn’t appreciate this interruption to the day’s agenda of hard work. Likely all the work wouldn’t get done. And how long were they going to stay at our place after lunch? Throughout the lunch hour I fought the impulse to be resentful and angry at this unplanned, unwelcomed intrusion to the important Labour Day work.

Nevertheless, have to say I enjoyed lunch out. It was a treat. And the conversation helped take my mind off other pressing matters. After only about an hour, we came home, and my parents were off to complete errands. I was surprised by how just one hour of gift, of grace, of unscheduled act of love actually gave me the energy to finish all my Labour Day tasks in a shorter amount of time than I had originally anticipated.

Love has a way of doing that. Love does not steer clear of the structures, agendas, immediacies of our lives. Love does not exist on some surreal, other-worldly plane, dis-associated from ordinary life. Love is not a fantasy trip. Love operates right in the middle of the messy, honest reality of our lives.

We call it other things, which leave us empty:

Whenever we project our wants onto something or someone we don’t have. We delude ourselves in believing we will experience love when we yield to this mirage of desire. This is the ego’s impulse. But if we are honest, getting what we want only sets the ground for wanting more and more. This strategy for life is a prescription for perpetual unhappiness bereft of true joy, because pursuing this frantic desiring is predicated on the assumption that it is never good enough. We are always wanting what we don’t have. Wanting and desiring do not fulfill love.

Neither does the law. We skim the surface of love when we try to please God by merely following the rigor of the law. This is the ego’s attempt to prove one’s self-worth by measuring it up against some ideal. But if we are honest, this effort at loving God and others is really self-centred and only exposes our failure to live up to that ideal. This strategy for life can lead to a stifling legalism, judgmental attitudes towards others and self-hate. Our success at following all the rules is not love. Paying attention to another person is. “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” Paul writes.[1]

Love is free. It is not bound by our ability to control outcomes. Love happens when we are not in charge. Love is a gift, given and received freely. There is no guarantee, from our human perspective, that all our good efforts and good works will make things right. Author and teacher Belden Lane writes: “We love and are loved by God in the act of relinquishing every guarantee of love.”[2] In truth, when we stop our striving if only for a moment, when we release our need to be in control, then we are in the position to experience God’s grace and love. Through others. In ourselves. And from the least expected of places and people. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis expressed, we are surprised by joy.[3]

The ego doesn’t like this because the ego wants to get in the way.  But, love is expressed to another without preconceived expectations of what the other person needs. Love is expressed without giving what we imagine to be best in the situation for them. True love is not striving for what particular results we want to engineer in a relationship. True love, as Belden Lane describes so well, is “a love finally purged of the ego’s calculating desires, a love without strings.”[4] We simply be with the other, and listen to them. And go from there.

Love starts here. It is hard work to love. It is a labour of love – for self, others, creation and God. And it is a work in progress – a journey – that can last a life-time and beyond.

Paul continues in the Epistle text for today, that we are to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”[5] Here, it is helpful to substitute the word, ‘ego’ for flesh. Christianity is an incarnational religion. God is, for Christians, a human being in Christ. The divine entered humanity. God knows the human body intimately. We do our faith a dis-service when we neglect, shame or deny our physical bodies as well as the human dignity of others. Our flesh is not bad. Your physical body is, according to Paul, “a temple of the Holy Spirit.”[6]

We exercise the love of God by paying attention and listening to our own bodies and paying attention and listening to the suffering of humanity all around us. “The glory of God,” Saint Irenaeus said in the 2nd century, “is the human being fully alive.” We celebrate human beauty and strength, yes, but also not ignore its pains.

I sat alone in the Bilbao hotel room looking at my body. On the surface, everything looked fine. Even great. In eight days I had walked one hundred and thirty kilometres through the Basque hills along the coast of the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain. I had even lost several pounds and buffed up a bit.

My feet were fine. So many pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago develop serious problems with blisters and tendonitis. Not I. Now, I did give regular attention to my feet: I made periodic breaks during my hiking, taking my shoes and socks off and gently, lovingly, applying moisturizing cream around my toes, under the ball of my foot and around the heels. They say foot care is paramount to the successful completion of any Camino pilgrimage. I was the poster boy for that piece of advice.

Yet, these superficial indicators did not reveal the truth of the matter. You see, even before I had left Canada to fly to Barcelona, I was coughing.

Besides the cough, I was feeling fine when I headed out of Irun at the start of the Camino del Norte, near the French-Spanish border. But eight days later, a few kilometres outside of Guernica, my right knee blew out. And, in that moment, I realized that I was in trouble. The systematic repetition of hefting my 200-pound body weight and additional 20 pound pack, leading with my right knee finally screamed protest. At first, my pilgrim friends suggested what I was thinking: A few rest days in Bilbao would renew me enough to continue my pilgrimage across northern Spain.

But after three days of rest in Bilbao, I was feeling worse. Not only did I continue to cough, all my muscles were aching not just my knee. I didn’t even feel like travelling to visit with my extended family in Germany.

My body hath spoken. And I was going to listen to it. When I saw my doctor in Ottawa a few days later, she ordered an x-ray and ultrasound which confirmed the diagnosis of pneumonia. I had, literally, ‘walking’ pneumonia on the Camino. All the medical staff, my family and friends complemented me in being able to ‘listen to my body’. And even though I didn’t realize and know how sick I really was at the time, I didn’t push it for the sake of some higher, abstract goals or principles. I came home to heal. My body was telling me something I needed listening to: Stop. Stop the frantic desiring. Stop the restless striving. Just stop. And be still, for a while.

They say the body never lies. We can deceive ourselves in our heads, play all kinds of mind games with ourselves, providing ceaseless self-justifications and employing conniving self-defense mechanisms that would confound any therapist. But what the body presents – the physical manifestation of who we are – is the truth indicator. What the body proclaims is truer than what anyone says.

Any journey towards health and love begins by paying attention to what your body is saying. And go from there. We may slow down. We may pray. We may embark on a journey to search out meaning in our lives, to explore the multi-layered regions of our hearts and souls. We may seek medical help, and rely on the gifts of medical science. We may even make major changes in our lives. In other words, we learn the truth about ourselves. Beginning with what the body says.

Someone asked me what I learned about myself during the sabbatical. You could say, I had the chance to just be myself. I experienced my humanity without the usual trappings of roles, titles and responsibilities. I met with and explored myself as a human being. I am human. Not just a talking head. I don’t just live out of my head. I live out of my body, too.

And, to be honest, I didn’t always like everything I saw, there, in my human nature. Yet, I will confess that in that mess of my humanity I re-discovered Jesus. It wasn’t so much in the usual places but in those other pilgrims I met, the help I received along the way, and in my own, ordinary self – stripped away from all the usual distractions, comforts and busy-ness of life – that grounded me in a love that endures.

Out of this awareness has grown a deep thankfulness for all the gifts of life. Gifts over which I don’t have ultimate control in having received: The gift of physical health and ability; The gift of this sabbatical – about which I express heartfelt thanks to the congregation; The gift of colleagues who take up the torch so to speak — thank you to Pastors Diane and Ted and musician, David: The gift of capable lay leaders who show remarkable abilities administratively and creatively when given a chance – Beth, Julia and Megan, especially; The gift of lay preachers who in their diverse expression reflect something beautiful about God and God’s ways – Jessica, Beth, Christa and Jann; The gift of a spouse and children who model the love of God by ‘letting me go’ for a while.

In Christianity, the word, ‘body’, takes on a broader meaning: The Body of Christ is the church, the community, the network of relationships. I am ever so grateful and encouraged. I learned another thing out of this sabbatical experience: There is love in the Body of Christ, to be sure.

 

[1] Romans 13:10

[2] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality”, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, p.201.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “Surprised By Joy”, New York: Harper Collins, 1966

[4] Belden C. Lane, ibid.

[5] Romans 13:14

[6] 1 Corinthians 6:19

Grace precedes

Everyone was excited, but not sure what it was all about. In the centre of the room was a big box of balloons that had not been blown up yet.

The team leader asked each person to pick a balloon, blow it up and write their name on it. About 30 team members were able to get their name on a balloon without it popping. Those 30 were asked to leave their balloons and exit the room. They were told they had qualified for the second round.

Five minutes later the leader brought the team back into the room and announced that their next challenge was to find the balloon they had left behind with their name on it, among the hundreds of other balloons scattered in the large cafeteria. She warned them however to be very careful and not to pop any of the balloons. If they did, they would be disqualified.

While being very careful, but also trying to go as quickly as they could, each team member looked for the balloon with their name. After 15 minutes not one single person was able to find their balloon. 

They were not able to do it, because they were stuck looking only after their own interests as individuals. They couldn’t think collectively. They presumed they needed to do it all on their own, according to their interpretation of the rules of ‘the game’.

To me, the first two rounds of this game can be seen as a snap shot of the values of our culture and society. After all, there are ‘rules’ in our society. There are accepted ways of behaviour. There are the social norms and laws that bring at least a sense of order to our lives. One such norm, is the belief that we have to make it all on our own in this world.

We tell ourselves that competition and individualism are healthy and good, especially in the youth of our lives.

I grew up competing with my twin brother, David. Throughout our lives whether we were playing games, musical instruments and sports, doing our homework, achieving success at school, writing exams, making life choices — underlying our relationship was this competition. Always comparing and contrasting. While motivating and stimulating, ultimately it has become not always helpful, even a burden — as a foundation for our relationship.

When considering the doctrine of grace, based in the biblical witness of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we often skim over and even neglect the original social context of Paul’s writing. We get excited debating the doctrine of Justification by Grace posited here — especially as Lutherans. Yet to do so without first examining what was going on in the early Christian community, we can miss its original meaning:

At the time of writing Galatians (2:15-21), Paul and Peter were in a bit of a conflict. They represented two, competing views of how the mission of Jesus should be carried out.

For Peter, the disciple chosen by Jesus to be “the rock” upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18), he was influenced by some Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem who insisted that true converts to Christianity should first follow all the rules of the Jewish tradition — since the first disciples and Jesus himself were Jews.

When Paul and Peter met in a town called Antioch in those early decades of the first century, they confronted each other on this point. Because, for Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was on the line. He argued that Gentiles, who weren’t Jews, didn’t have first to be Jewish before becoming a follower of Jesus. If Christianity followed Peter’s bent, Gentiles could barely attain the status of second class citizens.

Later, Paul won the argument. Paul was a multi-culturalist far ahead of his time. Paul saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the long arc of God’s love and God’s inclusion, an arc bent toward making Gentiles full members of the family without preconditions. (1) Inclusion. Unconditional love. These words are signposts for the theology of grace, in Paul’s view, reflecting the way Jesus related to others.

If we begin with faith and grace, we can inhabit our traditions and rules more lightly. But it starts with God’s grace, for all people.

When I was in Clinical Pastoral Training at the Ottawa Hospital as part of my preparation for ordained ministry back in my seminary days, I was reminded of the truth of Christ’s presence and grace, which precedes mine.

I was advised, before entering the room of a patient, to stop for a moment. And bring to mind and heart this truth: Jesus is already in the room before I enter it. Jesus is already there, waiting for me. I do not bring Jesus with my charisma, eloquent words, magnetic personality, comforting presence. All these things may help, and may be true to some extent! 

But I don’t create Jesus. Jesus creates me. The patient I visit, along with me, are already in the presence of Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes in his letter (2:20). Grace precedes everything I am and do.

When Jesus accepts the woman’s extravagant and outrageous offering of foot-washing with the gifts she has been given (her hair, her love, her touch, her tears), he is being inclusive and loving unconditionally. 

Jesus is not making the woman first follow a bunch of religious rules or follow accepted social norms before letting her come near and even touch him. (Luke 7:36 -8:3) Jesus is not requiring her to provide a government-issued I.D., proof of baptism certificate or a list of all the good deeds she accomplished and the churches she has attended.

The only requirement Jesus seems to accept is that she is honest, vulnerable and open about her sinfulness. Because only honest sinners can appreciate the gift of grace, it seems. The one who is forgiven the greater debt, shows the greater love (Luke 7:47).

What will we do when we see a homeless person, notice the addict, rub shoulders against a divorced person, or sense the struggling and pain in another? Will we ignore the other, suggesting “it’s none of my business”? (that statment reflects a major social norm in today’s society, you know!). 

Or, will we approach the person, confident that Jesus is already there? Will we approach the person, take a risk, and ask a question motivated by love and trust in God? Will we approach the person, aware and honest of our own sinfulness? Aware of the forgiveness we have been given?

We are not alone. We all stand on the same, level playing field in God’s kingdom. That is why we have the church. That is why we gather each week to feed at the Lord’s Table of grace and Divine Presence. We are not alone. We have each other, in the Body of Christ.

After the team who couldn’t find their balloons in the cafeteria was told that the second round of the game was over, they moved on to the third and final round:

In this last round the leader told the team members to find any balloon in the room with a name on it and give it to the person whose name was on it. Within a couple of minutes every member of the team had their balloon with their own name on it.

The team leader made the following point: “We are much more effective when we are willing to share with each other. And we are better problem solvers when we work together, helping each other.” We are able to do what we are called to do in Christ, when we work together for the sake of each other, in God’s mission on earth.

Because Jesus’ love, grace and presence await us in the room, at the table, in the world, beckoning us to come.
Amen.

(1) – Gregory H. Ledbetter, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010, p.137

Prayer: “Help”

When I heard this prayer I thought it related well and in a humorous way to how well we follow the ‘rules’ of our faith:

“Dear Lord, I am happy to report, so far this day has gone well: I haven’t coveted anyone their belongings; I haven’t harboured ill-will to my neighbours; I haven’t spoken hateful words or done anything out of spite to harm anyone; I want to help out in the church food-bank this week; I’m even praying to you now! I am thankful that this day has been going so well, Lord. But I think I’m going to need some help, once I get out of bed. Amen.”

Indeed, how well do we follow the commandments of God? The very act of getting out of bed almost guarantees we will make mistakes no matter our good intentions. It is our common humanity.

One of the functions of the Law, from a Lutheran point of view, is to make us realize that we totally depend on the grace of God. Let’s be honest. We need help, and we can’t do it on our own. No matter how hard we try, we will always miss the mark and mess up in some way. If there is anything good that comes out of our work, it is a gift and a grace.

This morning’s Gospel (John 13:31-35) was also read at the Maundy Thursday liturgy last month. Maundy means the commandment to love. It is fair to say that these words of Jesus capture the essence of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: In all we are called to be and do, is to personify love.

In this love, we see the glory of God. Glory. A statement attributed to Saint Ireneus of the early church comes to mind: “The glory of God is a human fully realized”. 

I take that to mean that God’s glory is not something other-worldly so much as something discovered in the ordinary, real, weak, broken life of a person who is able to receive with open heart the gifts of another, the gifts of grace and love. That is the glory of God. So intertwined with Jesus’ suffering as a human on the night of his betrayal (v.31-32), when Jesus needed to depend on his Father.

Faith is not just about believing and thinking doctrines and dogma, it’s more than that; it’s not just about believing, it’s about behaving. We have to pay attention to the behaving part. We must remember something I have heard our bishops say for many years now: Those who claim the greatest truth must demonstrate the greatest love.

Peter Steinke, who has given much thought, books and workshops about healthy churches and leadership today, told the true story of mega-church pastor whose congregation in the southern U.S. was doing really well. By all counts, Pastor Chase was enjoying unprecedented success in his vocation. 

And yet, he had confessed to Steinke, he was suffering from a malaise of the spirit. You could call it, a crisis of faith. Chase was losing a sense of personal direction in his work. 

Hearing about his struggle, a brother-in-law who was a member of a Franciscan order invited Chase to visit him in Italy. And so, Chase took his leave and spent that time resting, reading and visiting his extended family. 

Nearing the end of his time away, the brother-in-law invited him to come for a day to the AIDS hospice which the Franciscans managed and served the several men who were terminally ill. After working in the kitchen a couple of hours, a care-giver invited Chase upstairs to help with one of the residents. The man he looked upon was emaciated. His skin looked like it would fall off the bone. He couldn’t have been more than 90 pounds.

The care-giver greeted the man with a kiss on the forehead, and then looked at Chase: “Could you please lift him into the bath for me?” Chase carried the man and laid him into the bath water. The care-giver then asked, “Would you please wash him?” At first hesitant, Chase understood that this man needed a thorough wash. And so he did.

When they were finished and walking down the stairs the care-giver thanked Chase for his help. She indicated they were short-staffed that day and Chase had provided a real service to the hospice. “I can tell you have a Christian background,” she said. Chase responded: “It is I who need to thank you, Sister, because today I became a Christian.” (1)

“They will know we are Christians by our love,” goes the song. We have a choice to make. We need to be intentional as Christians. We cannot afford not to be, in this day and age. We can choose whether or not to love. 

We can’t save ourselves, or do anything to garner points for heaven, for we will always fall short no matter how heroic, self-giving or impressive our good deeds of faith appear. This is not about doing these things in order to make ourselves right with God. It is not about not doing anything at all. It is, however, about choosing actions that demonstrate care, compassion and love for the sake of others, and so, for God. 

It won’t ever be perfect. But that’s not the point. It is about behaviour that flows genuinely from a heart of love. And understands that all is a gift: The gift of faith, the gift of each other, the gift of community, the gift of Jesus Christ who is alive and lives in the Body of Christ, the church, and in the world he so loves.

(1) – adpated from a video entitled, “To Make a Difference”, presented in an upcoming workshop called “Apple Tree” by the Eastern Synod-ELCIC. Apple Tree is a workshop to help stimulate conversations about purpose and mission

Community of the broken and blessed

This Sunday I will use the words of David Lose, in his fine reflection on the Gospel assigned for this 19th Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 10:2-16).

He suggests that Jesus’ difficult words here are not so much addressed to individuals as they are to a community that is broken and blessed. These words are not about divorce per se but about the law and under what circumstances it was applied.

Finally, these Gospel words are not so much about matters of the law, but about relationships of mutual dependence and health. He welcomes children, thereby painting a vivid picture of this kindgom community. This is a community comprising of relationships whose purpose is to be honest about our vulnerability, and whose mission is to protect the vulnerable.

Please visit his blog for the full text: In the Meantime