Annual Pastor’s Report 2017

Anniversary Year

2017 marked a significant year in the life of the Lutheran church, from the global expression of the church all the way to the local.

Some 74 million Lutherans associated with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) commemorated the 500th anniversary of Reformation with the theme, and theological claim: “Liberated by God’s Grace: salvation, human beings, creation – not for sale!”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) presented several Reformation goals based on the number 500. Congregations in the ELCIC were challenged to commit to 500 refugee sponsorships, fund 500 scholarships for students in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Jordan and the Holy Land, plant 500,000 trees, and raise $500,000 for the LWF endowment fund.

In the Ottawa Ministry Area, a five-week study in the Fall included lay and ordained members from both Lutheran and Roman Catholic congregations to reflect together on the theme and resource, “From Conflict to Communion”. The documents were developed by the ELCIC and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) for local groups across the country to acknowledge the significant strides to greater visible unity between Lutherans and Catholics over the last fifty years.

Thus, the Reformation was not merely ‘celebrated’ as a competitive – even combative – victory over the other but rather ‘commemorated’ as a movement whose trajectory invites greater understanding of a complex history. In this mutual sharing and conversation, deeper ties and unity is realized.

In this spirit of growing ecumenism as an appropriate expression of Reformation, two significant worship experiences happened in the Fall of 2017. The first was held at St Peter’s Lutheran Church and Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Ottawa.

This service, on Reformation Sunday, October 29, welcomed over 600 Lutherans and visitors from Ottawa congregations who by closing their individual congregation’s doors that Sunday morning opened doors of greater unity and relationship-building. It was a festive worship led by Eastern Synod Bishop Michael Pryse and National ELCIC Bishop Susan Johnson. The service was organized by lay and ordained leaders of the Ottawa Lutherans organization, and by many of our members from Faith.

The second service occurred on the last liturgical weekend of the church calendar in 2017 – at Notre Dame Cathedral. Ottawa Roman Catholic Archbishop Terrence Prendergast and Lutheran Bishop Michael Pryse led a Service of the Word to an assembly of Lutherans, Catholics and visitors – again to enact a Reformation 500 principle of first focusing on all that unites us rather than emphasizing our differences.

At Faith, this Lutheran Anniversary year also capped an extensive modernization of our worship space and narthex. At the beginning of 2017 we were still worshipping at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church while renovations were being completed at 43 Meadowlands Drive.

During our absence from Faith building, we were able to continue worshipping at the same time on Sunday morning with our neighbouring Anglican sisters and brothers, seamlessly, because of the Full Communion relationship the ELCIC shares with the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC).

Finally, on a personal note, 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament (June 6, 1997). And therefore, it was significant that in my 20th year of ordination, I took a three-month sabbatical leave for renewal and rest. My wife, Jessica, and I celebrated in 2017 our 20th wedding anniversary as well.

In conclusion, anniversaries are opportunities to not only look back, but look to the future with hope. In all the planning and events surrounding the 500th anniversary of Reformation, I heard often the sentiment that we do this for the sake of the next 500 years. I’ve quoted before the Eastern Synod motto for its 150th celebration in 2011: “Remembering for the future.” Indeed, life must be lived forward even as we look to the past.

“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Saint Paul, Romans 5:5)

Turning into the wind

We were just down the street from Pearson International Airport in Toronto. Late in the evening after the first day’s sessions at the Synod Assembly last week, I walked along Dixon Road which goes right to the airport. 

At one point on a bridge you can stand directly underneath the path and roar of landing planes. You look west in the direction of the landing, and you see the long runway lighted brilliantly for the descending jets touching down. You look in the opposite direction towards the east, and you can see a long line of planes taking their turn in the landing rotation, the dots of their lights extending in a straight line far into the distant sky.

It was a windy day, the gusts reaching over 50 km/h from the south. What impressed me was how each plane’s nose was turned slightly to the left, towards the south, as they made their final approach. The planes were coming in on a straight line, yes, but turned towards the wind in order to keep their landing true. At the last second before touching down, the jet would straighten out.

Wind, like currents in the water, is a significant if not main factor in affecting the flight or sail of the airborne or water craft. In order to land safely and soundly, the planes had to face the challenging issue head on. In the words of Paul in his letter to the Galatians, the problem must be “detected” (Galatians 6:1) and exposed. 

You will get nowhere in a plane or boat unless you ‘dance with the devil’ so to speak. Unless you look your problem square on, face it and name it, and change your position accordingly. If the landing planes insisted on keeping their plane aligned straight on their approach, they would not have made their landing on the runway, but somewhere to the north of it!

Our guest at the Synod Assembly, Bishop Munib Younan (president of the Lutheran World Federation) spoke of Lutheranism. He warned us, that in these Reformation Anniversary years, we do not celebrate ourselves. We do not pretend that God couldn’t have done anything good without us. We are not the perfect church, but always reforming.

Being Lutheran, he said, is a call to humility, not a spirit of triumphalism. We dare not make an idol out of Martin Luther or his legacy in us.

Paul strongly exhorts the Galatian church to proceed with one another in humility and gentleness, not lording it over others who are ‘sinners’. Because we ourselves are no better. We must learn to face our own demons. This is what is meant by his words: “All must test their own work … for all must carry their own loads (v.4-5).” We dare not point fingers without first acknowledging our own stuff.

This is then, how we bear one another’s burdens. Amidst the conflict wreaking havoc in the early church in Galatia, Paul encourages the people to persist in not losing heart, to have courage and not give up.

As the Gospel text for today describes (Luke 10:1-11), the work of the church doing God’s mission in the world will result in friction and struggle. You cannot follow Christ and not encounter conflict and adversity in your life. 

The famous Psalm 23 so often associated with bringing comfort and evoking peaceful, calming images includes this disturbing verse: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies” (Psalm 23:5). It feels like this verse doesn’t belong beside still waters and green pastures along paths of righteousness. But it does belong! It means that God gives us the gift of grace in the presence of all that challenges us, all our demons internal and external, everything that we may not like in our lives — not apart from it.

Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians by focusing our attention on the cross of Christ (6:12,14) — the symbol of death and suffering of a God who goes the distance to love us. This is the only reality about which to “boast”. Why?

There is a treasure in the midst of the suffering. We may not see it right away. Yet, our struggle does yield something good, something meaningful, something liberating. Yes, we are liberated by God’s grace. 

Liberated however not by ‘nicey-nicey, goody-goody’ — a phrase our Bishop Michael Pryse used at Synod to describe an approach to church life that just keeps us stuck. Liberated not pretending to live a charmed life. Not by everything working out perfectly. But liberated through what may be a terrible suffering, a loss, the very pain that would otherwise destroy a person altogether. There is a treasure therein.

That is why we boast of the cross, and nothing else. How can God be found in the painful letting go that marks the various stages of life? How can we even sense or feel God’s presence in the midst of a grief too heavy to bear? How can we move on through the turbulence of change and transformation?

In his short book, “Rules for a Knight”, actor-writer Ethan Hawke recounts the last words of instruction by a renowned knight, Thomas, to his children:

“There is a memory that won’t let me go,” Thomas begins. “Last summer all you children were playing by the ocean. We were with your mother and her sister’s family, do you remember? The weather was sublime, streaks of sun and a deep blue sky. You four and all your cousins were building castles with the warm, muddy sand. Each of you kept your castle separate, announcing, ‘This one is mine!’ ‘That’s yours!’ ‘Stay away from mine!’

“When all the castles were finished, your cousin Wallace playfully stepped on Cven’s. Lemuel, you flew into a protective rage. You were only looking out for your sister, I know. Mary-Rose, you thought Lemuel was over-reacting, and you threw him to the ground. Next, everyone was fighting, throwing sand, howling with tears, and pushing one another. Young Wally had to be taken home, sobbing in your aunt’s arms.

“When he was gone, you all went back to playing with your castles for a little while but quickly moved on to swimming. It grew cloudy, and soon it was time for us to begin the journey home. No one cared at all about their castle anymore. Idamay, you stamped on yours. Cven, you toppled yours with both hands. We all went home. And the gentle rain washed all the castles back into the surf.

“Please be kind to one another,” Thomas concludes. (1)

What are the castles in your life? Things or issues that in five to ten years won’t really matter anymore? Things for which you might lay your life down now in heated, compulsive reaction, but really won’t endure — material possessions, opinions that merely shore up a vulnerable ego, beliefs that have outlasted their use? A spirit of judgement and condescension towards people who do not experience life like you do? A reputation to defend at all costs? etc. etc. What are your castles in the sand?

“My friends,” writes Saint Paul, “if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Around the same time Philo of Alexandria wrote: “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Turning into the wind may be a basic operation for landing a plane. When I face the wind and continue paddling or cycling into it, tears will come to my uncovered eyes. There are tears that come in the face of God’s Spirit, a Spirt that will blow down castles built in the sand.

This wind also has the power, like the Spirit of God, to build endurance, strengthen my inner life and take me where I need to go. If I stay with it, often more rapidly than I would on my own!

May God’s wind blow surely and true in your life this summer. May you receive grace in turning to the wind.

(1) – Ethan Hawke, “Rules for a Knight”, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2015, p.148-149

Reformation Themes 2017

The Day of Reformation (October 31) for Protestants, and especially Lutherans, calls us back to basic questions about who we are, as people of faith. Celebrating this day gives us the opportunity to ask again, “Who are we in the variety of religious expression on a diverse, social landscape?” And what do we have to offer?

For Protestants, the word itself may give us a clue. Protestants have often identified themselves as protesting against something. Many of us know the history: In 1517 Martin Luther nailed those 95 arguments on the doors of the Wittenberg Church. “Theses”, we’ve called them, were statements against certain religious practices and beliefs in the 16 century church. “Here I stand” has become a popular Martin Luther quote as he stood his ground and accounted for his beliefs before the Pope and Emperor at the famous meeting in Worms, Germany, shortly thereafter.
Many of us remember the Lutheran legacy as substantially a theological assertion: that you cannot ‘buy’ your way into heaven (by purchasing indulgences); rather, we are justified by grace through faith. Faith and salvation are fundamentally gifts from God.
And this is why the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) — a worldwide communion of 144 national churches — has come up with the theme of “Liberated by God’s Grace” for the 500th anniversary in 2017, commemorating Luther’s first protestant act in Wittenberg. Its sub-themes resonate with the indulgence debate: “Salvation not for sale; Humans not for sale; Creation not for sale.” 
In the pronouncement of these themes Lutherans worldwide and in Canada are claiming that we are not only celebrating something that happened in history. We are also asserting that we are a continually reforming church; that century-old themes can be relevant even today.
“Salvation – not for sale; Humans – not for sale; Creation – not for sale”. When something is not for sale, it is not on the market. We can not procure it by our means — any material means for that matter. When something is not for sale, it is a gift. We cannot possess it, in the same way we can never really possess God, salvation, anyone else, nor can we possess the earth.
The world today wants us to think and believe we can. We therefore delude ourselves into thinking and believing that we can buy salvation, that by our own hands, efforts and hard work we can earn God’s favour, God’s forgiveness. Do we go to church because we feel we need to manage our spirituality more as an insurance policy against hell, even though we are not sure about living out the mission of Jesus today? But God’s love in Jesus is unconditional. It is free. We have nothing to lose in positively living out our faith. Really! “Salvation — not for sale!”
Second, humans: It’s incredible that in the 21st century, there is still slavery practiced in the world; according to a 2013 study, there are still some 30 million slaves in the world today. Even in Canada, young people are gone missing and forced into the sex trade. Many Aboriginal women have disappeared, some murdered and some no doubt exploited in some despicable way. But, we claim: “Humans — not for sale!” What are we doing about this?
Finally, creation: As I said, our culture wants us to believe we can buy it. In fact, a recent survey measuring happiness revealed that our happiness is often dependent on ‘owning’ property. While the exchange of goods is in many ways an important building block of our economy, how differently would we look on our lives if creation (the environment, the land, the water and the resources therein) was not only something we must buy, possess and exploit for profit — but simply given as a gift from God that we share with all people? “Creation — not for sale!” Is finding meaning and purpose in life not the real sources of happiness? (“Money Really Can Buy Happiness, Study Shows”, thecanadianencylopedia.ca, 2013)
The confirmation class last week planted a tree in our church yard. Not only did we do this to respond to one of the Reformation challenges of our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) to plant 500,000 trees by 2017, we performed a loving and caring act towards God’s beautiful creation which we share with all living creatures.
  
When it comes down to it, and we are honest, we must confess that it is often very difficult to be loving. It is challenging, even though we say we believe in a God who loves us unconditionally, loves the world unconditionally, loves creation unconditionally. 

So, how can we learn to love better?

How to love a porcupine

The following story was shared at a Faith Lutheran Women’s meeting recently, and I am relating it to the themes generated by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and adopted in convention by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) this past summer, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017: “Liberated by God’s Grace: Salvation-not for sale; Humans-not for sale; Creation-not for sale!”

I was walking through the woods one day, happy to be outside in the wild. I was thinking about Jesus’ command to love our neighbour (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). How is this possible? How could I love people who are not like me, who are different than me, whose beliefs are ‘a stranger’ to me.

When I rounded a bend in the path through the forest, I suddenly came across a porcupine trundling across the way in front of me. Its prickling spine and shell were covered with a dense coat of sharp quills pointing outward towards me. I stopped short and wondered what to do.
I think the porcupine, startled by my sudden appearance in its world, did as well.

In the silence that separated me and the porcupine on that path, I grinned at the thought that God must also love the porcupine. As ugly and as funny a creature it is, the porcupine too is created and therefore beloved by God. But how could I love that porcupine?

The porcupine is a rodent that can be hunted in Ontario, open year round and no limit by the law. Moreover, the porcupine’s meat is apparently safe to eat — a low risk, uncontaminated option in the protein department. Help yourself!

Perhaps to love a porcupine could mean different things. Sometimes if I assume loving a porcupine could only mean one course of action, I may be pricked by the needles!

If you were in that forest, confronted by that porcupine, what would you do? Or not do? 
In whatever you do, are you aware of why the porcupine might be afraid of you? The porcupine, like many creatures in the wild, is not for sale; that is, you aren’t there to buy or sell the things you see in the forest. So, why are you in that forest in the first place? What are you doing there? What are some words you could use to describe your relationship with everything else that makes the forest their home — including the trees, the water, the birds, and creatures that inhabit the place? (For example, are you their ‘owner’, or do you ‘share’ the gifts of creation with other creatures? What do you make of the fact that you are stronger and smarter — probably, and hopefully! — than most other creatures? What do you make of this gift you have?)

How is the forest, the path, and the porcupine analogous to human community and how we relate in our society to one another? How can we love the stranger who is also our neighbour? And just because we may not understand fully other creatures — including other people who are different — how can we show love to them (For example, by listening to them? By being curious to learn more about them? By helping them with something they need in our shared humanity? etc.)