Even among the lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

[1]Luke 5:4-5

[2]Luke 5:5

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

Behold, I prepare the way!

“Behold, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me … “ (Malachi 3:1).

It was the day after my birthday at the end of October, that the tree arrived. Much earlier than I expected all the way from Idaho. But I wanted to make sure this artificial tree, which was billed as the most realistic Balsam Fir on the market, would get all the way to Canada during a postal strike in time to decorate. The end of October was much too early for me, but at least you might say I was preparing well. Or, so I thought.

Meaning, I was getting things done early. I was on top of all the planning and busy preparations. In so doing, I was convincing myself that I was doing the preparation that Advent calls for.

Well, it’s the 2nd Sunday in Advent and the tree is still not decorated. In fact half of it does not light up. For all of November and almost half of December, I have sat in my chair in our living room, looking at an empty tree waiting for the replacement part to arrive. According to tracking, it’s supposed to arrive tomorrow. Pray for me.

It hasn’t been easy sitting there throughout this time looking at a tree that was supposed to be perfect but wasn’t. It was broken. It hasn’t been easy looking every day at that tree that was supposed to be decorated and functioning perfectly already but wasn’t. It hasn’t been easy talking on the phone umpteen times with the company about what was wrong with the wiring. It hasn’t been easy waiting for things to happen that should already have. It hasn’t been easy looking at what has become a symbol not of my good intentions, my industrious, conscientious hard work paid off; but, instead, a symbol of imperfection, failure and frustration.

One of the messages of Advent is that we must prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts and in this world. How, then, are we to prepare for the Lord’s coming? How are we to prepare, if not just upping our efforts at getting stuff done—the more efficient the better, the faster the better?

In several scriptures assigned for Advent, we encounter a unique word: “Behold!” Today, the command is to behold, my messenger comes to prepare the way. I prefer this old English translation in the King James Version which preserves an important nuance of this biblical command to behold. This is very similar to the behold from last week, from the prophet Jeremiah, commanding us to behold that the days are coming when God will fulfill God’s promises. (1) In other words, God is about to do something.

At least in today’s reading from the Hebrew scripture, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) opens with the more common, “See!” But we can work with that! In fact, that is not bad. When Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father”, Jesus responds, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” (2) Throughout the Gospels, the message is that in Jesus, we see God.

But, really see. That’s why ‘behold’ is better. Not just ‘look at.’ Not just a sidelong glance. Not just looking at someone askance, in passing. Not just the surface of how he looks. But to perceive Jesus, to look into the heart of the Lord. To ‘behold’ God. To be in and contemplate the presence of the One who comes to us. The One we cannot fully understand.

God is about to do something. When? Where? How? So, behold God—the One we cannot fully understand who comes nevertheless. Behold the mystery.

The story shared with me was of a lonely widower who was told by his friends that he ought to get a dog. So he goes to a pet shop to see what’s available.

“Have you ever owned a dog before?” the saleswoman asks.

“No.”

“Are you prepared to take it out for a walk two or three times a day?”

“I hadn’t really thought of that. I just wanted a little companionship.”

“That companionship requires something from you, no?” the saleswoman mused out loud.

“Listen,” she broke the awkward silence between them, “if you really want companionship, I’ll show you a talking centipede for about the same price.”

“You must be joking.”

“No, I’m serious, and what’s more, this little guy can even sing.” She leads the customer to a miniature house, and in front of it, in a barely visible lawn chair, is the centipede. Turning to the tiny creature, she says, “Would you say something for this man so he’ll know you can talk?”

“Okay,” says the centipede in a very soft voice. “What would you like me to say?”

“That’s fine,” says the saleswoman. “And can you show him your singing voice?”

“Of course,” says the centipede, who breaks into a barely audible rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”

The man can’t believe it. He buys the centipede and the tiny house and brings them home.

Later that day, he calls out, “I’m going for a coffee and I’d love to introduce you to my friends at Tim Hortons. Would you like to come along?”

The centipede does not answer. He repeats the questions, and again there’s no answer.

He decides to ask one more time. He goes right up to the little house and says in a loud voice, “For the last time, I’m going out for a coffee. Would you like to come along?”

“I heard you the first time,” quietly says the centipede. “I’m just putting on my boots.”

Beholding God requires something of us. It calls us to get in sync with where God likely is and how God tends to work. We are called to interface with the presence of God. Admittedly, this is challenging for us because, as one Japanese theologian remarked, God, like the centipede, is going three miles an hour. (3)  How fast are we going?

The refining fire of growth and change is not waiting for us to feel good about it. This Advent, we are simply called to behold the mystery of God’s ways and respond from the heart to the truth of how God is revealed to us. And trust, that in God’s time and ways, all that’s good will come to pass in our lives and in this world.

It might be counterintuitive but a better way to prepare during this season might very well be to slow down and be silent more. To listen for what God is already whispering into your own soul. And to see what God is already doing all around you.

I’m not saying that preparing is not a good thing to do. But, inevitably, times come in life when no amount of preparation can prepare you for what you must endure. So, you wait.

And, in the waiting, you may find some time to acknowledge what is missing in your soul—“your longing desires, your deepest needs, the questions where you don’t, yet, have answers.” (4)

And, then, pray in the awareness that God knows. And, in the end, it is not my or your preparation that is the most important during this time of Advent, but God’s. God is already preparing your soul for its healing and wholeness once again.

“Behold! I am about to do a new thing,” God says. “Do you not see it?” (5)

  1. Jeremiah 33:14-16
  2. John 14:8-9
  3. Kosuke Koyama, “Three Mile An Hour God” (SCM Press, 2015)
  4. Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Longing – Brother, Give Us A Word” (3 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org
  5. Isaiah 43:19

Postscript: On December 13, the part finally arrived! And, it seems to work. Well worth the wait!

The hide-and-seek God

There is enough in the world today and in our own lives to seriously doubt the presence of a God, let alone a God who cares about what happens on earth.

“Where is God?” is a question that is emerging in our understanding of God in the modern era. It is a question, Diana Butler Bass asserts, that is growing in sad frequency in recent years:

“’Where is God?’” she writes, “arose from the rubble of the World Trade Center; from the inundated villages of tsunami-ravaged Thailand and Indonesia; from New Orleans, as the levees breaking swept all that was familiar out to sea; from African hamlets where the dead mount from Ebola; from the hidden, abused, and lost victims of human trafficking and slavery; from killing fields in any number of nations where war seems endless; and from native peoples watching their homelands sink into the earth or ocean due to melting tundra or rising seas.

“‘Where is God?’ has echoed from every corner of the planet in recent years… ‘Where is God’ is one of the most consequential questions of our times.”[1]

“The Jewish tradition tells a story of a rabbi whose young son once came running to him, crying inconsolably. Between huge sobs, he managed to say, ‘Father, I’ve been playing hide-and-seek with the other children. It came my turn to hide, but after I found a good place, I sat there in the woods for hours waiting for the others to find me. No one ever yelled into the woods to tell me to come out. They just left me there alone.’

“His father put his arms around the child and held him close, rocking him back and forth. ‘Ah, my son,’ he said, ‘that’s how it is with God, too. God is always hiding, hoping that people will come to look for him. But no one wants to play. He’s always left alone, wanting to be found, hoping someone will come. But crying because no one seeks him out.’”[2]

The very first words of God recorded in the Bible to human beings are: “Where are you?”[3] Adam and Eve seem to be looking for God in the wrong places in the Garden of Eden. I hear a tone of exasperated grief in God’s call to Adam and Eve: “Where are you?”

Why does God appear to disappear from our vision, when the going gets tough? Theologians have described God through the centuries as a God who hides.[4] Why is God a hidden God? Not to mention, a God who cries because no one is out looking for this God?

Such a vulnerable vision of God disturbs us to the core. We would rather have a powerful, mighty, superman vision of God. We want a God who will win on the battlefield, stand victorious over all enemies of the faith, triumph over all our adversaries, and solve all our problems in life. Indeed, when we meet with suffering, disappointment and despair in life – as we most surely do and will – our prayer to God resonates with Isaiah’s:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”[5]

And so, when the Israelites return from exile in Babylon in 586 B.C.E. to a ravaged and desolate Jerusalem, they are at a loss. Ruins and devastation lie where once a mighty temple stood.

Isaiah reflects the mood of the people in his lament to God, a prayer that echoes on our lips today: Why, O God, are you now not visibly nor powerfully present as you once were long ago? Why, O God, do you refuse to act powerfully and dramatically to rescue us from our distress? How can we reconcile the ancient, miraculous stories of your powerful presence with our current experience of your absence?

God hides, so to speak, in order to deconstruct a distorted set of beliefs about who God is. When God enters our humanity as a vulnerable, dependent baby born to teenage parents in a backwater town served by the likes of the low-class shepherds, God declares who God is. The hiddenness of God is not a cloak of humility temporarily covering an awesome powerful glory – a kind of Clark Kent/Superman act.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed more than his wit last month on Parliament Hill when he unbuttoned his shirt in front of reporters exposing his Halloween costume underneath. He suggested a powerful image reflective of our belief and image of God.

So God hides to reveal the true, divine character. God is determined to relate to the world not as a superhero through domination and force. Instead, God is determined, even in our experience of God’s hiddenness, to demonstrate God’s way of non-coercive love and suffering service.

Listen to this rendition of hide-and-seek told reflectively by Belden Lane:

“When my daughter was very young, one of her favorite tricks in playing hide-and-seek was to pretend that she had run away to hide, and then to come sneaking back beside me while I was still counting – my eyes shut tight. She breathed as silently as she could, standing inches away, hoping I couldn’t hear. Then she’d take the greatest delight in reaching out to touch home base as soon as I opened my eyes and began to search for someone who’d never even left.

“She was cheating, of course, and though I don’t know why, I always let her get away with it. Was it because I longed so much for those few moments when we stood close together, pretending not to hear or be heard, caught up in a game that for an instant dissolved the distance between parent and child, that set us free to touch and seek and find each other? It was a simple, almost negligible act of grace, my not letting on that I knew she was there. Yet I suspect that in that one act my child may have mirrored God for me better than in any other way I’ve known.

Still to this day, it seems, God is for me a seven-year-old daughter, slipping back across the grass, holding her breath in check, wanting once again to surprise me with a presence closer than I ever expected. “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself,” the prophet Isaiah declared.[6] A playfulness as well as a dark mystery lies richly intertwined in that grand and complex truth.[7]

“Where is God?” Maybe God is right beside us. And if we can’t see, feel, or hear God’s presence, may this Advent Season of preparation and waiting and watching be dedicated to keep looking for God in our lives, who may very well be standing inches away.

“Keep calm, and keep looking” should be on a t-shirt worn by Christians in Advent. Because hidden amidst the décor, bustle and busyness of this season, you will find Jesus. This season of preparation is best served by slowing down, breathing and paying attention. Do you see? Do you perceive God?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes of waiting one night for a late flight to depart from a remote landing field in the Sahara desert. Feeling vaguely uneasy as he walked out into the desert air, he heard dragonflies striking their wings against an oil lamp nearby.

Back home in France, the flight of moths around a candle flame at night would have been perfectly common. No big deal. But in the desert the sudden presence of insects meant something entirely different. Swept hundreds of miles from their inland oases, the presence of dragonflies were clear signs of impending danger: A savage sandstorm was on its way, sweeping every living things before it.

Saint-Exupery was grateful for the warning that had come. But he was moved even more by the powerful experience of having been attentive: “What filled me with a barbaric joy was that I had understood a murmured monosyllabic of this secret language, had sniffed the air and known what was coming … it was that I had been able to read the anger of the desert in the beating of a dragonfly.”[8]

“Keep awake!” are Jesus’ words to his disciples, and the call sign for Advent. Keep calm and pay attention. Keep looking for the God who may not be hidden in our expectations of grandeur and spectacle. But in the beating of a bird’s wings.

God’s refusal to replicate a mighty Red Sea –dividing deliverance when Isaiah laments centuries later does not mean God has abandoned Israel, nor us. God’s mode of action looks more like that of an artist or parent than that of the superhero. Both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah use the image of God as the potter and we the clay.[9]

God, hidden in human form, comes not to inaugurate an apocalyptic cleansing of spectacular proportions. But God comes to reveal the power of the powerless in Jesus of the manger and Jesus on the cross. In so doing, Christ reveals the will of God, who is eternally and patiently molding and shaping the clay of creation into the New Jerusalem.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution” (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2017), p.7-8

[2] Belden C. Lane – “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.180 – cites Jerome R. Mintz in “Legends of Hassidim (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p.344

[3] Genesis 3:9

[4] Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer both describe God as ‘hidden’. See Scott Bader-Saye in “Feasting on the Word”, ibid., p.2-6; and, “Luther’s Works” edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964) Volume 4: Lectures on Genesis, chaps 21-25, p.115-122

[5] Isaiah 64:1-2

[6] Isaiah 45:15, KJV

[7] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.181

[8] Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2000), p.52-53; cited in Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.190

[9] Isaiah 64:8; Jeremiah 18

It’s ok to fall (5): God knows everything about us anyway

I don’t like being in the spotlight. Literally, too. I don’t mind being the centre of attention from time to time. But I must confess a high degree of self-consciousness, especially when I am supposed to be the sage on the stage.

I suspect many of you share my knee-jerk away from standing on a stage by myself feeling the heat of the light on my face, not being able to see anyone in the auditorium, and just knowing in the back of my brain that every little wrinkle, every little blemish, every little imperfection is exposed — fully. Are your hands sweating? Mine are, just thinking about it.

And that is why the Psalm for Lent — and often read on Ash Wednesday — is Psalm 51. “Create a clean heart in me O God and create a right spirit within me” (v.10) — we sing in our weekly offertory.  Before this petition, there is a quiet yet poignant confession, in verse 4: “Against you, you alone [O God], have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”

This, at first, may sound threatening and alarming. Yikes! God almighty has been offended by my sin! I. Am. Doomed! And there’s no hiding from God. Wow! We’re in for it, aren’t we? Never mind the friends, co-workers, family, spouse, people around me that I  have offended and hurt. They may not always easily forgive — but they’re not God! After all, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand!?” (Psalm 103:3)

Perhaps that is why we read in the Gospel for today (John 2:13-22) about Jesus snapping his whip and overturning tables in a righteous anger and prophetic impulse. This image of Jesus may leave us feeling a bit queasy. We may not like this image of Jesus. We may feel threatened by it. Uncomfortable, at very least. 

Why is Jesus angry? Jesus is angry for the injustice of the temple moneychangers taking up valuable room where the Gentiles are allowed to come and pray to God. And he is losing it, in the temple of all places! Entering the temple, Jesus discovers how deceiving appearances can be. While the place appears to fulfill its function, closer inspection reveals that the temple has forgotten its purpose.

I read this story at our mid-week bible study a couple of weeks ago, when we discussed the text of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It is a re-telling of Dostoyevsky’s classic poem about the conversation between the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus:

“During the 16th century in Spain, at the very height of the Inquisition, Christ appeared unannounced in the streets of the city of Seville. As he went about caring for and healing the poor, the sick and the lame, the people began to recognize him and flock to him. An old Cardinal also recognized him …. and had him arrested!

That night in prison, Jesus had a visitor. The Grand Inquisitor entered his darkened cell and reprimanded Christ for appearing again and getting in the way of the Church’s work. ‘You are offered three tools to bring in your kingdom and rule the world. You were told to change stones into bread. Imagine the possibilities … bread for the hungry … people would have followed someone who fed them. But you refused! It was suggested that you throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple and let God’s angels sweep you up before you came to harm. People would have been amazed. Everyone would have followed you. But you refused! And you were offered authority and power over all the kingdoms of the world. But you refused! In all this you wanted people to follow you out of love or not at all. And look where it got you.

‘Well, we have corrected your mistakes and we’re doing well. We cannot let you hinder what we are trying to do. And so, tomorrow, you will die.’

Jesus said nothing in reply. Rather, he looked into the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor for a long time and then walked over and kissed him. Oh how that kiss burned. The Grand Inquisitor stepped aside and let Christ escape into the night, saying to his back as he left, ‘Do not come back again.'”

We may squirm in our seats, now. 

This Gospel, I believe, pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. What kinds of ways of doing things have gotten us stuck in a rut — in our individual lives, and in the life of the church? It’s an important question to ask. Just because Jesus is ‘our’ saviour, doesn’t means “he is perpetually well-pleased with us knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even, on occasion, against us.” (Paul C. Shupe, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 2 David Bartlett/Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.96)

Well, there’s one thing we do I don’t believe Jesus could get upset about — at least, one activity of the church, one way of doing things. Know what that is? The potluck meal, of course! Everyone likes a potluck! Right?

You come, bringing your own dish to add to the table. But you come, also willing to try a little bit of everything, right? That’s what makes it fun! Doing this, doesn’t mean you will necessarily like each and every dish. Tasting a bit of other people’s gifts doesn’t mean you will run home and try to make what everybody else made. And, you certainly wouldn’t be rude to the people who brought dishes you weren’t too crazy about. At the potluck we practice being generous, adventurous, compromising, and kind to the other.

The potluck is an important symbol in the history and practice of being the church; I would say a guiding image on congregational life and how to work together. Because in the potluck experience, we practice being ‘other-centred’ rather than ‘self-centred’.

This practise reflects the ‘outward’ movement of church-orientation. It may start with a potlluck. It ought to end serving those who are hungry. The ancient word for church in Greek, ‘ekklesia’, literally means: ‘a people called out’. Called out to see what God is doing ‘out there’ in the world. Called out to act.

The movement is centrifugal. It certainly isn’t ‘convenient’. Sometimes we need to be ‘thrown out’ of our self-centred preoccupations with maintaining the institution of the church and the comfort of our lives, and out into the world where God is doing something. Where there are people in need.

The cleansing of the temple — though hard it feels sometimes to be judged, to be convicted of our sin, to be honest about our true motivations — this scene ends with the sinners being thrown ‘out’. Out, into the world, in order to get a fix on what God is doing. Out in the world, in order to find God, again. Out in the world, to get back on track with what Christian faith is really all about.

The story of the cleansing of the temple as John tells it points toward replacing the material ‘bricks-and-mortar’ temple with the temple of Jesus’ body. This is a theme that is picked up later again in the fourth chapter, when he tells the woman at the well that she will no longer worship God in any particular, physical location (John 4:20-23) but in “spirit and truth.” John is painting, here, a narrative foreshadowing Christ’s death and resurrection, and its embodiment in the Holy Communion which we celebrate every week.

Maybe it’s better that it is only against God that we have sinned. Because only God can fully restore us, heal us and love us despite knowing all the dirt in our lives. I think we know that human beings don’t have a good track record of forgiveness of others. Only God, in Christ, will continually offer to us his mercy and forgiveness, knowing full well how off-the-mark we are. And, for us to know that we can always return to the Lord our God, return to the table of the Lord time and time again — in all honesty, truth and humility, to a God who will not spurn us for our faithlessness and weaknesses.

We can fall on our knees, because nothing is hidden from God, and everything we need, God gives us — and then some. Thanks be to God!

Back to the Future: Borderland spirituality

2015 is the year of “Back to the Future”, did you know? When Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, travelled ‘Back to the Future’ in the 1980’s pop culture film, the year they went to, in the future, was 2015.

As a kid I enjoyed the movie, partly because the year 2015, at the time, seemed some unrealistic, arbitrary and irrelevant point in the future; the number only represented some distant benchmark unconnected to my present reality.

Today, 2015 no longer means some far-off, futuristic fantasy. It is reality, now. And if I watch ‘Back to the Future’ today, the movie represents more of an historical curiosity — I’m only looking ‘back’.

In faith, it’s like we simultaneously look back, forward, and both from the grounding of the present moment. Balancing all three is good theology. For its sesquicentennial anniversary, the Eastern Synod (ELCIC) employed the motto: “Remembering for the Future”. Celebrating an important event in the present day by integrating past with the future is important. And a good way to interpret the Bible.

But it an also cause dismay if we only insist on a certain, chronological ordering of events in an absolute kind of way. For example, at Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel for today (Mark 1:4-11) there is the matter of the Holy Spirit, which descends in the form of a dove upon Jesus (v. 8, 10). John the Baptist preaches that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

But Jesus never performs one baptism in his ministry that we know of. And, according to the time-line of the Gospels, the Holy Spirit doesn’t descend on the church until after Jesus’ resurrection (John 20:19-23) and at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) — these Holy Spirit events do not occur during Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching and praying on earth. Curious, since many understand Jesus’ baptism as his ordination or commissioning to his call as the beloved Son of God. How do we make sense of this?

To understand many of the stories we read, like the Gospel for today, we would do well, I believe, to employ a ‘Back to the Future’ hermeneutic. This way of interpreting does not deny the truth of all of the events outlined above. For one, it reveals something about how the bible was put together:

The actual writing of the New Testament was done decades after these events took place. Therefore, we say, that we, today, are ‘post-resurrection’ Christians. We can best understand what happens at Jesus baptism from the perspective of the future. Because when these stories were written down for the first time, and from today’s perspective — the Holy Spirit has already come. Jesus is alive. Even as we recall, as a matter of history, what happened in the moments of Jesus’ life on earth some two thousand years ago.

And it’s not just a pointing forward that we need to keep in mind. It is a reverence and respect for the past.

If you look at the geography of the Baptism of our Lord, we can conclude at least a couple of things: First, it takes place in the wilderness, the desert. That is through which the river Jordan runs, basically north to south separating lands that are for the most part destitute, rugged, dangerous even.

Second, that river forms a boundary between two worlds — on the east and south, the world of the ancient Israelites tracking through the desert for decades on their way to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, which is on the other side.

John the Baptist comes to this border land, which is significant in the history of the prophets. In fact, John the Baptist stands in line with the prophets of old. His speeches are associated with Isaiah (Mark 1:1-8); he is also mistaken for Elijah because of what he wears (2 Kings 1:8) and because he foretells of the coming Messiah (John 1:21). John’s presence and ministry at the Jordan River in the wilderness brings the past (an identification with history and the prophets) together with the future (Jesus Christ, and the coming Holy Spirit) together into the present moment.

How can we keep ourselves from getting lost and totally confused in the plot line of “Back to the Future?” We remain grounded in the present moment. We look to our immediate surroundings. Like the beasts of the field, we scuff the earth with our heal, and snort and spit, before we look up.

And this is the beauty and wisdom of these Scriptures: their insistent if not peculiar emphasis on details. Yes, God acts in creation. Yes, God redeems sinners. Yes, God has a plan for salvation.

But this ‘spiritual’ talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.

Keeping grounded in the present awareness of life, ‘as is’, helps us track the sometimes confusing plot-line of ‘Back to the Future’. Because it is there that Jesus stands — on the borderland, at the edge of the Kingdom of God. Jesus stands there, and invites us to live into the now-and-not-yet reality of it (Ted Smith, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.239).

The Gospel of John identifies Jesus as a ‘lamb’. T.S. Elliot describes Jesus as a ‘tiger’. In C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ books, Jesus is personified in Aslan, the ‘lion’. Nancy Rockwell, in her post, “Tracks” (blog: The Bite in the Apple) suggests the ‘camel’, for Jesus who identified with lepers and prostitutes, difficult people, estranged members of right society, people who are spat upon. All these images for Jesus throughout history reveal unique elements about his truth.

But, standing in the desert beside John the Baptist, Jesus identifies with the lowly who are on a journey of transformation. Jesus invites the lowly in us to go on a journey that does not reject the past, and tradition, and history but doesn’t allow us to remain stuck there. Because this journey through borderland brings us eventually into a land flowing with milk and honey — a land of healing, restoration and justice for all who seek these gifts of the Holy Spirit.

This means that we cannot use our tainted and troubled past as an excuse for not doing the right thing, now. At the same time, we cannot wait until an ideal future when circumstances are perfect to do the right thing, now.

Back to the Future brings the present moment into sharp focus. A good theology will always ask, “What is going on right now in my life and world?” “Who do I meet today?” And act, now, accordingly. A spirituality of the borderland will always draw my attention to the divine importance of the present moment which is supported by history, and hope-filled for the future.

New Year’s Goals

It seems to me that so much “success” in our lives is based on setting goals. We set goals in our business ventures; we set goals for our personal self-care — exercise, diet and relationships; we set goals for acquiring the toys and things we want in life. Setting goals motivates us to act!

A person who does not have any goals, we believe, is a person without backbone, floating untethered through life, unprincipled, and usually lazy and poor. A person without any goals, we believe, is rudderless and not making the most of what life can offer. A person without any goals, we believe, are the very people who end up in therapy, counselling, or on the street. They just need to get their life back on track by setting some goals, we believe.

There are some traditions of this time of year that stand out for me. Making New Year’s resolutions is one of them. And I like to ponder what this means, because I need to get back on track with so many things — year after year! And since I do a lot of driving, I like what blogger Jeff Boss has to say about New Year’s resolutions:

“New Year’s resolutions are like traffic. As the driver, your focus is intent while trying to ‘get there;’ you see others pass you by; you get held up at a red light that slows down progress. Distractions such as the radio, crazy drivers, cellphones, preclude you from focusing on the one thing you should: the road ahead. In other words, New Year’s resolutions come and go, ebb and flow, only to be revisited the following year …

“It has been said that the only certainty in life is uncertainty; change is the one ‘thing’ we can all count on to always be there—and that guy Murphy always seems to be leading the charge.” (Jeff Boss, contributor, “4 Simple Goal-Setting Ideas for 2015”, Forbes http://buff.ly/1A6rx47)

As important as goal-setting is, we also have somehow to account for the unexpected, on-the-ground realities that come our way on the journey towards that goal.

What will we do when we encounter those who ‘pass us by’ on the road? What will we do when we have to ‘stop at a red light’? And, what will we do when we are distracted from our goals?

First, what do you do when you see others pass you by on the road of life and faith? Our culture is based on the value of competition — whether we’re talking about sibling rivalry, sports or our economy. Competition can be a motivator.

But it can also deflate one’s spirit, creativity and passion. Because competition can discourage you from focusing on the grace in your unique life, the gifts of your own life, family, job, and the blessing you are to others. You are beloved by God, created in the image of the Divine, endowed with a special gift to share with the world.

And it doesn’t matter that someone is passing you on the road; it doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It only matters what you are doing. How has our cultural obsession with competition and comparison stifled your growth and held you back?

Second, what do you do when you get held up at a red light that slows down progress? The red lights in our lives are usually those unfortunate events that are unexpected, stressful and require the loving support of others. No amount of goal setting can turn this around: a family member suddenly turns ill, you receive a discouraging diagnosis, a friend dies, tragedy strikes, the bottom falls out on your personal life, you lose your job. If you’ve set some lofty goals before any of this happens, you’re into a major reset on life. After all, “Life happens,” they say.

Finally, what do you do when you are distracted by the radio, crazy drivers, or your cellphone? These are issues we probably have the most control over, whether we like it or not, whether we take responsibility for them or not.

Most of the ‘distractions’ of life are self-imposed. We do it unto ourselves — lifestyle choices that are really counter-productive, habits that immediately gratify but are ultimately self-destructive. We enter here the realm of addictive behaviours that can de-rail any idealistic goals for self-improvement. So, they say, instead of watching that show, go for a walk; instead of staying up late on social media or surfing the net, get some sleep; instead of indulging in that second helping, pack away leftovers for lunch the next day.

This inner struggle can drive us over the curb and into the ditch! The passers-by, the red lights and the distractions on the road of life throughout the year often cause us to abandon those goals altogether.

I wonder what some of those first desert wanderers did to cope with the reality of the terrain over which they travelled. I wonder how the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) following a star in the sky, coped with seeing others pass them by on the caravan routes whenever the star appeared to stop in the sky? I wonder how the Magi, following that star over what must have been a long period of time, dealt with the red lights of set backs that surely must have occurred on the trail? I wonder how the Magi kept their spirits up when the desert creatures, sand storms and bandits threatened their safety and resolve on the journey? I wonder what would have happened if they said, “Let’s just give this until January 11th, or December 21, or December 31 at midnight — and if that star hasn’t brought us to the Christ-child by then, let’s go home!”?

Perhaps the wisdom of the ancient story of the Epiphany has something to say to us about how we traverse the terrain of our lives today. As we set goals and resolve to do certain things in 2015, perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to how we travel over the long haul of our lives, and not just fixate on the specific goals themselves.

Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just at Christmas and Easter — to worship, pray and give thanks? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just when times are good, but especially when they are bad — to reflect on the Word and the meaning of our faith in Jesus? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — regardless of our ‘goals’ — to remember the One who walks with us, who is always by our side, who is ever faithful to us and steadfast in love for the whole world?

And thank God, that we always have a second chance to press the ‘reset button’ on our lives, reflect again, and start anew! Year after year! It is a miracle and grace that we even consider a fresh brand of New Year’s resolutions every January 1st. Despite the failures, we still go back to the drawing board every New Year.

In 2015, perhaps our goals need to be a little more open-ended and less prescriptive. The magi had a goal, to be sure: to follow the star to where the newborn king was born. But that goal could lead them anywhere! They didn’t presume it had to be Jerusalem. They didn’t presume it had to be in a palace. They didn’t presume it had to be in their own home country.

When the goals are set with this kind of openness, Murphy may still lead the charge, uncertainty can still be the only certain thing, and change be the only constant on the journey of life. But we still trust that God’s promises are true and that eventually our yearning and longings are resolved somewhere in God’s unconditional, and never-ending love.

Happy New Year!

An Advent-Christmas funeral sermon

In some churches, the manger scenes during the Advent season are left intentionally incomplete: For example, as in our creche, the manger is empty; during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the figurine of baby Jesus is not there. Until December 25th.

In one congregation that worships in a large, cathedral-type building, the magi start their journey at the beginning of Advent somewhere in the narthex (the entrance). Each successive Sunday in Advent, the magi move closer to the manger scene which is set up at the front near the altar.

And, each Sunday, the children of the congregation are charged with a treasure-hunt search for where the figurines of the magi have been placed that week — whether on a decorated window sill, or beside a poinsettia plant, or on the steps to the chancel, etc.

Not only do these traditions emphasize the important Advent themes of waiting and watching with expectation for the coming Christmas joy, we are reminded at this time of year that we are, all of us, indeed, on a journey towards the manger, towards a new encounter with Jesus.

I believe Grant’s love of hiking revealed his ability to see the Big Picture. You see, when you go on a hike, following a trail that spans hundreds of kilometres as Grant has done on occasion, you are not just meandering aimlessly. Oh, yes, the trail can take many twists, turns, ups and downs.

But part of the joy of long-distance hiking is understanding in your imagination where you are headed, where you began, and the relationship between the two. No matter where you are along that journey, you can see the Big Picture.

One of my favourite visual effects of modern cinema does this well: From the perspective of the TV/movie camera, a scene of someone or something that happens on the ground in one moment of time is suddenly zoomed out; we move backwards up into the sky — still focused on the ground, but quickly disappears through the clouds and then into outer space. And we can see the planet earth and the solar system. And we can understand how that particular event or person on earth relates to the cosmos!

To have this Big Picture vision is to see our present reality, on the ground, from the perspective of not only history (where you’ve been) but also from the perspective of the future (where you’re going). Grant was a Big Picture kind of guy. He enjoyed the long-distance hike.

The ancient caravan routes through the Holy Land, Judean desert I think informed the prophetic writings, many of which we read in the Bible. These caravan routes were the life-line of the economy, and framed the boundaries of social order.

When you followed a caravan route you were walking a path trodden by generations of people who came before you, and a path that was followed by many once you were gone. This is the experience of people who journey, in every time and place.

I like our Bishop’s repeated advice to pastors whenever we gather for clergy and leadership retreats: “Remember, we are one and all merely ‘interim’ pastors”. Even pastors who are tenured and may remain years, even decades, in one parish are still, only, ‘interim’. They are interim because there were pastors who preceded them in the congregations’s history, and hopefully there will be more pastors coming once they are gone.

The point is not a focus on the pastor so much as seeing that pastor in the context of the larger history and journey of a congregation. It’s to regard an individual from the perspective of the Big Picture.

I can see why Richard Rohr uses the term, Big Picture, to understand the Kingdom of God. Because even though we are in constant transition on the caravan route, both the memory of the past and the promise of the future impinge on the present moment. In the Big Picture, the twin pulls of historical and future vision reveal a “vibrant now” in which God’s kingdom is complete and dwelling among us (Gail Ricciuti, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.94).

Being in the present moment, while informed by the past and motivated by the future promise, requires that you keep both feet on the ground. Hiking is an activity that requires the hiker not merely to keep moving, but to keep focused on the ground, one step at a time. It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one: a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

As such, the journey of faith is grounded in the moment. It is earthy, real. Your boots, feet and legs get dirty, scratched, bitten, sunburned. The Big Picture ultimately, for it to be effective, is anchored in the present, gritty, sometimes ugly circumstance of life.

Even when we experience death, loss, suffering and pain; this is part of the route when we have to go through the wilderness, the desert, and navigate the ‘dark night of the soul’ (St John of the Cross).

When I hiked part of the Bruce Trail near Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula years ago, I remember first following the trail from the parking lot to a cliff- edge standing over a hundred feet above the crashing surf of Georgian Bay. It was a beautiful vista overlooking the bay, the sky, the water birds. The memory is vibrant: breathing in the marine smells, feeling the warm, morning sun. I relished the moment, standing still, taking it all in.

I didn’t want to turn my back on it, and continue on the hike. I wanted the moment to last forever. I felt that should I continue on the trail, I would never experience such a blissful moment again. It wasn’t easy to rip myself away. However, in the course of the day, there were many more such views I enjoyed along the trail.

The poet T.S. Elliott wrote: “The end is where we start from … or say that the end precedes the beginning” (ibid.). Grant met his ‘end’, we say, in dying. But that ending was just the start of something new. Our faith in God, the promise of salvation, Jesus’ resurrection, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit — we are, each and everyone of us, including Grant — well equipped for the journey of life and death.

Because even though we might need to keep putting one foot forward and turn our back on the old, there is in each turn only something new waiting for us — a new perspective, something beautiful, something beyond our wildest dreams.

When we finish our walk on earth, the journey to Jesus merely takes on a whole new dimension. This Christmas, like the Magi who finally arrive at their destination to encounter the Christ child, Grant arrives home — his home with the Creator God and his Saviour Jesus. Now, he can experience life and union with God in a whole new, and deeper way.

One thing remains. The caravan is a journey undertaken with others, together. No one would even consider travelling the caravan routes through the desert alone. Jesus travelled with Grant throughout his life on earth, just as Jesus embraces Grant this day, with all the hosts of heaven.

Psalm 139:7-10
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.