Lego truth

Playing with Lego was both fun and scary. As a kid, the first thing I did after opening the box was dumping all the pieces on the floor in front of me.

The reason I wanted to play with the Lego blocks was the picture on the front of the box—a Star Wars fighter, a fire hall, a dune buggy or helicopter. My motivation, initially, was to reproduce the image on the box that first captured my imagination, an image which appealed to me in some way.

In order to accomplish this task, what did I need?

After dumping all the pieces on the floor, I held the empty box in one hand and I stuck my free arm into the box searching for the multi-folded instruction manual.

This booklet was my lifeline. Or, so I felt, at the time. Before doing anything I would read and re-read the step-by-step instructions carefully, making sure I had all the pieces. I would even, after having read through the entire manual, organize the pieces on the floor into piles according to colour, and function. That way, I could accomplish my work in as efficient a manner as possible.

Once the project was done, I dissembled it and put the pieces back in the box. Some favourite models were re-constructed over and over again, over time. Depending on how complex the model was, I even learned to remember how to connect certain parts of the model without needing the instructions.

And, as it likely goes with all Lego, eventually over time pieces from various projects get dumped and mixed together in one big box.

I said, playing with Lego was also scary. If the instruction booklet went missing or was accidently thrown out or misplaced and I wanted to re-construct the original model, it rarely became exactly the way it was first designed: The fire hall became a garage. The dune buggy became a go-cart. The Star Wars fighter became a shuttle.

Scary, because starting from scratch without the instructions, I had to be somewhat creative. A risky venture, to say the least. What would I end up with? Would I like it? Would it work? How many times would I have to start over?

The central image in the Gospel reading today from Mark 13 is the temple in Jerusalem. It was a magnificent structure by first century standards. Finished by Herod a couple centuries before Jesus, the temple had signified the center of religious life in the region for a long time.

While the central image is the temple, perhaps the most captivating words are from Jesus who promises that not one stone will be left, one on the other.[1]In other words, this glorious building will be utterly destroyed. Understandably, not only are the temple authorities shocked, dismayed and offended by Jesus’ words, his very own disciples are alarmed. “Tell us, when will this happen? What will be the signs?” they drill Jesus with anxious questions.

Understandably, the vision of the temple’s complete demise causes anxiety and fear. After all, what will their faith look like? Where can they go to pray? What is their identity in faith, without the temple being there as it has been for the last couple hundred years–an anchor, a certainty, a visible, concrete reminder of their faith? Is it all for naught? Is it all lost, forever?

Scary. It’s like looking at a pile of Lego blocks on the floor wondering—what are these pieces supposed to do? What am I to do with them? The temptation to give up and do something else is huge.

In life, it sometimes feels like the instruction manual has gone missing. In life, it sometimes feels like what had worked in the past just doesn’t, cannot, work anymore. Like those tried-and-true patterns and go-to’s just don’t do the trick anymore quite like it used to. And that can be scary.

What are the ‘instruction manuals’ in our own lives that have given us our sense of security and certainty–a way of thinking that has informed our opinions; a mindset that we have never questioned? Or, have we looked at the bible like a legal text, a how-to playbook that you never question, or you dare not question? Is it a place, a building, a person?

What are those instruction manuals that seem to be slipping away into a pile of dis-ordered, chaotic pieces  in front of us?

Both in our personal lives, but also in the church, the prospect today of staring into the abyss of uncertainty and fear is very real. And here, we confront the important distinction between reality and truth.

On the one hand, there is the reality: In our personal lives, the reality usually presents itself as a problem—regarding health, relationships, work, politics—wherever a problem or challenge emerges.

In the church, the reality is becoming clearer: the dwindling numbers, the absence of youth and children in church life, the lack of financial resources, budget numbers spending more time in the red than in the black. These are the presenting realities about which everyone who cares has an opinion.

But, what is the truth underlying the reality? What are the issues underneath, that keep us stuck from embracing the presence of God still active in the world around us and in our lives—despite the problems? What truths do we need to unearth about ourselves, our feelings, our thinking, our behavior?

One truth we discovered in an asset-mapping exercise is we have so many resources we haven’t seen or thought about. We have so many resources we haven’t considered or recognized. What is the underlying asset buried in the problem? Do we see it? Do we want to?

What keeps us stuck, in moving forward with the gifts and talents and passions and capacity to do good? What keeps us from being creative with the ‘pieces’ of all that is possible right before our eyes?

When I took my First Aid Course a couple of years ago, an important part of the training was an initial conversation about our attitudes giving help to someone suffering an emergency — the broken leg, the heart attack. You could say, the reality was the presenting emergency. But the question posed for discussion got closer to the truth of why we are doing what we are doing. The question was:

What inhibits you, or what causes you to hesitate, in helping someone who is in obvious physical distress and need? In other words, what would keep you from engaging the situation before you?

The responses were common and what you might expect, ranging from: picking up germs, worried you will make matters worse, worried about legal implications should giving First Aid fail, or disrupting your busy day’s schedule. All of these inhibitions and issues are reasons not to give First Aid.

Fortunately, the training spends time dealing with each individual concern. Once these concerns are addressed, we are free to engage the situation in a helpful, responsible manner. We will still likely struggle with ourselves and our concerns, yet be assured that over time and with a lot of work all will be well.

During the first centuries when the stories we read in the New Testament took shape in the imagination of early Christians, it was a transition time for religious Jews. Following the destruction of the temple during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the local synagogue became the gathering place. No longer did a temple provide the central focal point. Now the local synagogue became central to the identity of many Jewish people.

This transition lasted centuries. It didn’t happen overnight. Enduring change takes time and a whole lot of patient, committed endurance.

Whether it be personal matters that present a challenging reality for us, or whether it is in the church—the question we need to ask ourselves is: Without that proverbial set of instructions, what can we build? What can we build together using the pieces that we have? The possibilities are truly endless.

Because this is the new thing that God is building and creating in our lives. And it is good.

 

[1] Mark 13:1-8

Geometric power: The circle church

The architecture of church buildings, despite Christianity’s institutional decline in the Western world today, continues to draw our attention. For the most part, these are beautiful buildings, appealing to the eye whose symbols etched in paint, glass and images conveyed through colour and the play of light and shadow serve as magnets to the curious and searching among us all.

In one reading assigned for this Sunday from the prophet Amos, God’s judgement on Israel is measured by a plumb line.[1]Construction workers measured the stone blocks to make sure they were squared so the walls of the temple could be built straight up. It was used to make sure the construction of buildings was done properly. The plumb line image conveys the proverbial ‘standard’ to determine how righteous God’s people are. Needless to say, Israel fails miserably, time and time again.

It seems, for folks in the bible, there is always good and bad in the mix. God’s people will never, no matter how hard they try, be pure and perfect in their doing and being. From ancient days to this day, people of faith always miss the mark. Just read Paul.[2]Our vision is often clouded, and we cannot help but make mistakes on the journey.

The stories from the bible assigned for this day reveal characters mired in the shackles of their humanity, good and bad. David rejoices in bringing the ark of the covenant into the holy place of the temple in Jerusalem while others look on with hatred, despising him.[3]Of course, King David was no angel himself, committing murder and adultery while he was king.[4]

Herod Antipas, in the Gospel reading, respected the rogue John the Baptist and liked to hear him speak yet condemned him to a gruesome death in order to protect his own reputation.[5]Wherever you read in the bible, you cannot avoid the sinfulness of even the so-called heroes of the faith.

What we build to the glory of God, the fruits of our labours and expressions of our faith, will also reflect this good/bad reality. The Dean of the now re-named Martin Luther University College [formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary], Rev. Dr. Mark Harris, once told me, when he visited me at my former parish at Zion Lutheran Church in Pembroke, that no matter all the changes that happen in the church today — good and bad — architecture always wins out.

What does the architecture of a place of prayer, therefore, communicate? What truths do they reveal about what we value, what is important to the church? How does the architecture ‘win out’?

Recently, I’ve visited other congregations that are housed in beautiful, old church buildings. The first is Merrickville United Church where last month I did a pulpit exchange, you might remember. The second was two months ago when I visited Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington D.C., which hosted some seminars at the Festival of Homiletics.

What is similar about the floors in these churches, keeping in mind [hint!] our discussion of the plumb line? What would Amos say about their construction using his plumb line?

Why did the original construction include a sloped floor? Perhaps its architects wanted to create an easier sight-line for the person in the pew to see clearly the primary furniture of worship located in the chancel — the font, altar and pulpit. The font, where the first sacrament of baptism — of entering the family of God; the altar, where the sacrament of the meal invites us regularly for nourishment on the journey of faith; the pulpit from where we hear God’s word in scripture and voice.

That’s the good from the construction, that we are drawn and can see clearly what is central to our faith: Word and Sacrament. That we can come easily; we don’t have to work hard to earn our way to God. I don’t know how many times in worships services and lectures during my time in and visits to these spaces, we had to stop whatever was going on to wait for a rolling water bottle to make its easy yet loud, clattering roll down to the front.

So, the good: We can pool down into the arms of God’s grace. We are drawn to the love of God’s welcome and forgiveness. And we really don’t need to work hard to be there. We just need to ride the current flowing to God. It is gift. It is grace. It is free. Neither ought we place any barriers to God’s grace being accessible to all, to come forward. To let all, including ourselves, come to God. Amen? All are welcome!

You may have noticed, however, that King David brings the ark of the covenant “up” into the city. Indeed, this is the geography and architecture of the city of David built upon a hill.[6]And the holy of holies is not down below in the valley, but up high by the altar.

The people have to exert some physical energy to get to the place of God’s presence. Even David, in all his rejoicing in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, “danced before the Lord with all his might.”[7]He was working hard! He was putting his all – heart, soul and body – into the effort.

At the unplanned end to my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage last year, I sat in the large nave of the cathedral in Bilbao, Spain, reflecting on the disappointing turn of events. It is a spectacular fifteenth century build.

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As I looked around me in the silent, cavernous space, for a split second I experienced vertigo, not unlike you would in the old slanted room in the Ottawa Science Centre. Something was off.

Then I realized, I’d never before been in a church building whose floor was not sloped downward toward the altar, but upward!

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And what goes up must come down. The floor was slanting outward and downward toward the front doors and down into the city!

The story of David’s extravagant, energy-filled entrance up into the holy city didn’t finish at the holy of holies. Going up was completed by turning around at the apex to come back down. The story ends by David distributing food and gifts to not only his family and friends in the city, but “the whole multitude of Israel.”[8]Everyone is fed!

Worship and centering in God is followed by a necessary, gracious giving and going out into the world. I quote again the prophet Amos, where we started: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[9]

We don’t have slanted floors here. It’s more or less flat. Amos with his plumb line might be satisfied with the level of the floors. But what else could the architecture of our place of worship tell us about ourselves, our identity and God’s call for us?

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Could it be, sitting in room that is basically round that the obvious measure and geometric symbol is not the straight line, but the circle? And now, with larger windows surrounding us, windows which let more light in, also improve our imagination and connection with the world out there? Could it be, given the architecture of our faith here at Faith, we are now called not only to be drawn into the centre, the hub, of the circle who is Christ, but also be sent out in the centrifugal force of God’s Spirit?

In the last pages of the bible, the Book of Revelation, we read a vision of God’s magnificent future:

God’s future comes as an experience of God’s love, “flowing like a river from God’s throne, nourishing trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.”[10]This vision “pictures a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift. Our faith is not a privatized expression of belief which keeps faith in Jesus contained in an individualized bubble and protects us from the world.

“Rather, we are on a spiritual journey in which we remain connected to the centre of the presence of God but whose love yearns to save and transform the world. We are called to be ‘in Christ’, which means we share – always imperfectly, and always in community with others – the call to be the embodiment of God’s love in the world.”[11]

In loving others by including them in the circle, we discover how much we are loved by God. We are the circle church. A porous, ever-expanding circle.

 

[1]Amos 7:7-9

[2]Romans 3:23; Romans 7:15-21

[3]2 Samuel 6:16

[4]2 Samuel 11

[5]Mark 6:14-29

[6]2 Samuel 6:12b

[7]2 Samuel 6:14

[8]2 Samuel 6:18-19

[9]Amos 5:24

[10]Revelation 22:1-2

[11]Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, Friday, July 13, 2018 (www.cac.org)

Conversations – Children’s Ministry

In recent years and with increasing awareness, it’s evident that a fresh, creative approach to children’s ministry is needed. We stand, really, at a crossroads with how we do this work. An opportunity stands before us. And an important question is: Will we embrace it?

What is this opportunity, you ask?

As part of the process of growing our ministry at Faith, the leadership of the church — comprising of members of the council as well as members at large of the congregation — we felt one important step in discernment was to bring the questions to the whole assembly on a Sunday morning.

There isn’t likely a better way introducing this conversation to the congregation than by having a baptism.

First, scheduling this baptism had been a bit of journey itself. Originally we were aiming for a July date. But in the last ten days, the opportunity in the family’s lives to be together this weekend came up. And so, here we are, on the Sunday we had planned for the better part of a month to bring the children’s ministry issue up for conversation. It’s a wonderful convergence that happened beyond anyone’s planning.

Then, there is the meaning of the baptism itself. What does this occasion mean to you — as parents, sponsors, cousins and church community of Elise? It can mean belonging. It can mean togetherness in faith. It can mean life. New life. New beginnings. It can mean the start of a life-long journey of continual growth, learning and expanding the soul in God’s love.

I hope you can with me begin to see some connecting points with the question I asked at the top — about the opportunity we have at this moment in the history of Faith to embrace something new, something fresh in our growth as a community of faith. Let me further prime the pump!

In the relatively short Gospel of Mark, the phrase, “Kingdom of God’, is mentioned at least fourteen times. Clearly, Jesus’ message and ministry on earth is about communicating in word and deed what this reign of God means — to the original listeners in their world, and to us in our day and age.

We come up against some challenges in reading the Gospel for today (Mark 4:26-34). That is, challenges to our way of thinking. Jesus, quite clearly in the story of the growing seed, makes it a point to emphasize the farmer has very little to do with making the seed grow. He “would sleep … and the seed would sprout and grow … [and] he does not know how. The earth produces of itself …” (v.27-28). This is how the kingdom of God operates.

As products of the Enlightenment and Scientific Eras where we demand proof, evidence and rational methods prior to justifying any kind of belief and action — this imagery and story-telling which by the way is how Jesus communicated probably drives us nuts.

But a baby cannot speak for herself what she believes. A baby cannot stand up and confess by memory the Apostles’ Creed (I’m not sure most of us who have likely said a few times in the course of our lives can!). A baby cannot make rational choices nor communicate them effectively. We can’t prove that she can demonstrate in a any clear, indisputable way that she has faith. That she deserves the gift.

A baby is dependent, vulnerable, and relies on others to make this baptism happen. It is truly a community event, not an individualistic enterprise. It does ‘take a village’ in the kingdom of God.

Could that be a sign that the kingdom of God is here? When those values and qualities described in the above couple of paragraphs characterize a situation or a decision? (Yes!) (And Yes!)

A friend who lives in Cantley near the Gatineau Park north of Ottawa told me that his municipality recently replaced aged and diseased trees along the roadway in front of his house. After cutting down several trees, the municipality gave him a few oak tree seedlings to plant in their place.

What surprised him the most after receiving these tiny seedlings, was the actual size of the whole tree that he held in his hand. The part above the ground that would remain visible was only a mere few inches. But the part that would be buried under the ground, the part that wasn’t seen, was the root system. Especially the tap root — the main one — was at least double the length of what was seen above ground.

Now we are also getting at the nature and definition of faith, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” writes Saint Paul (2 Corinthians 5:7). Often, the truth of the matter lies beyond what is visible, what we can calculate, measure and determine rationally.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a job to do. We will water and nurture growth. We will make the space available, and put whatever resources we have to helping the growth along.

The stories Jesus told ask us not to close our imagination and creative juices, ever. Because there is a dynamic, vital power at work beyond our comprehension and grasp, always. Indeed, our imagination must be stirred by these stories as we seek to connect our individual and historical stories within the larger story of God’s movement in our lives and in the life of the world. (See Nibs Stroupe in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Vol 3, Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009, p.143)

This moment in the life of Faith Lutheran Church is ours to embrace and be bold in the creative process. It’s our job to do this. It’s not outlined in a neat and tidy manual. The answers are not clear-cut. And that’s ok.

Remember, “Jesus and the Gospel writers were not lacking in verbal skills. Had they wished to define the Kingdom of God in specific terms, they were capable of doing so. They chose not to. What the Kingdom of God is to be, has been left to us. It has been left to us to envision, to dream, to imagine and to build.” (Br. Mark Brown, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother Give us a Word” 12 June 2018).

Children’s Ministry by, with and for the church — as with infant baptism — is about small things. At least, about the beginning of a journey that starts out small. Yet, these stories of Jesus describing the kingdom of God are about small things, like seeds, that eventually yield great outcomes.

Out of the most insignificant beginnings, “God creates a mighty wind that will blow throughout the entire world. In these stories, Jesus invites seekers in every age and every place to consider joining in this kind of life-long journey” whose ending is anything but small. (Nibs Stroupe, ibid. p.145). Let it be so! Amen.

Children’s Ministry Review – Faith Lutheran Church

The Church Council has considered the reality that dedicating resources to maintain the current Sunday School program is no longer feasible nor sustainable.

Over the last several years there has been a noticeable trend in decreasing Sunday morning attendance that does not justify nor attract volunteers to lead a ministry for children in that traditional model.

Here follow some observations about the learning process for younger generation Christians today, that learning is more:

1. Intergenerational – it happens when young and older Christians mix to share their faith and work together in service-projects and initiatives in the community

2. In-the-home – it happens effectively in the church only when there is, however small, some faith-based discipline, activity or conversation in the household/home of that child/youth

3. Spanning-a-whole-life – it happens effectively in the church when a whole-life approach is adopted for Christian learning. Milestones such as Confirmation are markers along journey of faith that continues into adulthood and beyond

4. Worship-integration – Each worship service, rich in ritual, liturgy, symbol, art and sacrament are valuable occasions and opportunities for ongoing Christian learning

5. Inter-denominational – Because of the growing reality of multi-faith marriages, families are more open to seeking children’s ministries from other churches and faith groups, not just their own parish where they hold membership

These observations reflect the changing realities, socially, and for the church as we respond in ministry. Our response needs to respect and adjust to these changing realities.

These challenges may be summarized by the following questions for the church to consider:

1. At this time, does Faith Lutheran consider itself a children’s Christian education center, as a reflection of our unique character and mission? If not, what about the couples and families who do come with their children to worship? To which congregations can we refer them /partner with for a viable children’s learning ministry?

2. If we do, what is the focus, scope and intent of the program?

3. Who is the intended ‘audience’? Only those who have been baptized here in the last few years (e.g., cradle roll)? Or, is there a more public ‘interface’, providing a service to the wider community?

4. What resources (skills, passionate volunteer leaders, property space, budget lines) do we have already, and are we willing to make available for this purpose?

5. In what specific way(s) can you support a children’s ministry led by Faith Lutheran Church at this time in your life? Please check all that apply:

_____ organize and lead a traditional cradle-roll for all that have recently been baptized at Faith;

_____ organize and lead children’s programming on a Sunday morning;

_____ organize and lead children’s programming on a weekday afternoon/evening;

_____ pray regularly for the children and youth who attend Faith;

_____ increase your financial donations to the church in order to support a viable program; ministry starting in the Fall.

Please make time this week to reflect on these questions. Submit any written notes you provide, into the offering plate on Sunday, June 17, 2018, email your comments about Children’s Ministry to pastormartin@faithottawa.ca, or submit to the church office by June 29.

We will make time in the service on the 17th to honour and celebrate the Sunday School ministry in our history at Faith, recall favourite memories together about Sunday School at Faith, and address some of the questions above. Thank you for your time and input.

Re-purpose the building: a sermon for Transfiguration

In the Gospel stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it is the disciples’ response to Jesus’ glory that captures my attention and imagination.

In response to seeing the incredible transformation of their friend and master before them, Peter says he wants to build three “dwelling places”, or “tents” from the Greek. The Gospel of Mark suggests that Peter wants to build these shelters because they are “terrified”.[1]

It is a natural reaction when we are afraid for us to go to that which gives us security. For Peter, that means building a house. Or two. Or three. He must have been really scared. Not just a tent for Jesus, but also for Moses and Elijah who have mystically and supernaturally appeared alongside Jesus.

This is a glorious moment. Jesus’ divinity bursts upon their vision. And, we humans naturally want to contain this mountaintop experience. Put God, literally, in the proverbial box. Saint Augustine said in the fourth century, “If you can comprehend it, it is not God.”

The Gospel of Matthew goes further when he writes that it was “while Peter was speaking”[2] this, that a voice from heaven spoke: “This [Jesus] is my beloved Son.” The narrative feels like God interrupted Peter, cut him off.

It’s as if God is saying: “Don’t.” Don’t try to own such divine moments of God’s self-revelation. Don’t try to manage your spirituality. Don’t try to control the experience of gift, of unconditional love. We may want to build something and thus put God in a box. But we can’t. Because, really, there is no box.

In our religiosity, we may instinctively try to capture any glorious, God moments we experience in life. By repeating the experience, invoking certain feelings and the mood. We build buildings and keep them the same.

As with the disciples of old, we would rather escape the humdrum, ordinary realities of living in the valley of our daily, imperfect lives, and just stay on the mountaintop, containing God while we are at it. We don’t want it to change. We don’t want to change. We, like the disciples of old, just want to remain in this state of euphoric ‘mountaintop’ feelings and stay put, there.

Today marks the one-year anniversary that we have worshipped in this transfigured space. A year ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, we returned from an extended absence during which we worshipped every Sunday for eighteen straight weeks with our neighbours at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Coming back to this renewed space was a joy and a blessing. We were back in our own tent, so to speak.

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I say, ‘tent’, intentionally. Because the contractors who modernized this building emphasized the strap-over accenting on the exterior – to make it look like when you put a large fly over your tent. In fact, those of us on the ‘liturgical arts’ committee who consulted with the contract designer heard him say on occasion early on in the project, that the idea behind the contrasting colour choices was to make it look like a tent.

Which was by design. And very appropriate for the church, as a symbol. Not only was the natural element emphasized in the tent-like strappings on the outside, the blue colour on our ceiling inside was meant to image the night sky – looking up, in faith.

Indeed, the structure of our church, and its recent ‘transformation’, is not new. It is to emphasize an original idea when it was first built over fifty years ago: as a temporary house worship space. The tent image for our structure underscores an enduring truth about the church: The church is a movement. It is always on the move. It doesn’t stay put in one place for long.

A church ever changing, a church adapting its form yet reflecting its original mission.

The Jeróminos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal, is a UNESCO world heritage site. When my wife and I toured the massive complex last summer, including the impressive cloister and the ‘chapel’ – which views more like a colossal cathedral in typical European grandeur, I understood why. These photos don’t do it justice.

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In 1833, over three hundred years after the site and property was inaugurated as a religious Order of Saint Jerome, a state edict transferred the property and all its assets to Real Casa Pia de Lisboa, a philanthropic institution that took in, raised and educated orphan children.

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It was hard for me to imagine that a three-hundred-year-old religious institution of this magnitude would relinquish its assets. And doing this, located on prime waterfront in Portugal’s growing commercial city during the sea-faring Age of Discovery.

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Without delving into the complex history and context of the Secularization Act of 1833, the fact remains: During a robust period of historical expansion, the church made a big change. I would argue, however, the church did not lose. Sure, it no longer could boast financial ownership of the property. But, by handing over its assets and combining them with the resources of the state, it bolstered its core purpose in mission – the care of vulnerable children. The space and property, as of 1833 moving forward, would now serve the needs of needy children.

Jesus says: “Unless you change and become like children …”[3] Without doubt, the religious of 1833 Lisbon were being true to the mission of Jesus.

In our lifetimes, we are witnessing here in North America – indeed in Ottawa – many growing examples of a church re-purposing its properties to build senior’s complexes and other social enterprise. We may believe this is a sign of the times – a negative, unfortunate, disappointing, mournful reality of the church. But, in truth, in many cases, such a re-purposing of a building is consistent with the Christian mission – to care for the weak, the vulnerable and needy in our society.

I can remember driving through rural country in south-western Ontario, and more in Saskatchewan, where you would see, stuck in the middle of a wheat field, a run-down, dilapidated old church building no longer in use, just left abandoned. It is sad to see this. It’s easy to jump to the negative conclusion that the church is dying by simply looking at its physical assets. When it’s not tied to a living purpose, the building will surely die.

But two hundred years after the so-called secularization of the Jeróminos Monastery’s assets, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site every year continue to pour in and be inspired by the legacy of that bold, courageous move of those 19th century Christians in Lisbon. Good for them.

Re-purposing church property is not just a recent, contemporary phenomenon borne out of the institution’s modern demise. Re-purposing assets is not a sign of Christian defeat in a secular society. First of all, it has evidently been done throughout history when the need and opportunity arose.

Moreover, changing a physical structure doesn’t mean Christians are being decimated by an oppressively secular, contemporary, multi-cultural, diverse society in Canada. The physical transfiguration of Christian property may in truth be a positive sign of healthy, missional spirit, consistent with our Christian identity. A sign that the church and its original purpose in their properties will endure for centuries longer.

The disciples of Jesus accompany him to and from the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah appear with the transfigured Jesus, linking the present moment with the great tradition spanning all times and places. The community, the people, the saints on earth and the saints of heaven, accompany us on this journey.

The journey is a movement, not to remain stuck – even in moments of glory and victory. Rather, we are called to embrace the hardship as well, the challenges, the disappointments and opportunities of the daily grind of living, down in the valley of our lives. Ours is not a denial religion. Ours is not an escapist religion, one that ignores the plight of those who suffer, avoiding the normal difficulties of life, pretending that somehow we can with God only experience the highs without the lows. That is false religion.

Jesus interrupts our striving and tells us, “Don’t”. Don’t build those false expectations of a prosperity gospel. Don’t pretend you can stay on the mountaintop with Jesus forever while you live on earth. Because, Jesus, the divine Son of God, also embraced his humanity, and leads us down into the very human valley of life on earth.

Positive change and transfiguration in this light don’t come by way of escaping the world. The cathedrals of our hearts are meant to house people – all people, in their needs and for the sake of the other.

We are not alone, in this enterprise. As Jesus accompanied the first disciples up and down the mountain, God goes with us, up and down. Jesus leads the way. And, we walk shoulder to shoulder with our co-pilgrims who go with us.

[1] Mark 9:6, NRSV

[2] Matthew 17:5, NRSV

[3] Matthew 18:1-5

Lifting up

Imagine the path slick with rainfall and mud. I took this photo at the end of a beautiful, clear day, on the Camino de Santiago (del Norte). But just as often as there were dry, sunny days on the way, I encountered trails that were treacherous in rain.

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It was at the end of my longest hiking day in northern Spain that I met with such a descent – almost a full kilometre straight down on uneven cobblestone into the coastal town of Deba. The rain had started moments before. And I had just walked thirty-three kilometres in the hilly Basque country, all the way from Orio, near Zarautz.

I was exhausted. My mind was obsessed with getting to the pilgrims’ hostel as soon as possible. I was ready to collapse in a heap on my bed. Negotiating a tricky, slippery path was the last thing on my mind.

I had read and heard from fellow pilgrims these horror stories of unsuspecting pilgrims breaking their ankles on these kinds of descents. It was all too easy to cut short a pilgrimage after such an unfortunate accident. The practiced and seasoned hikers would know that one had to be very mindful of each step made. Even when they were tired. Even when being mindful of placing one foot in front of the other was the last thing they wanted to do.

On the last couple of Sundays we’ve encountered stories from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ healing ministry.[1] Indeed, during Ordinary (“green”) time in the church – both during the relatively shorter season after Epiphany in January and early February, and during the longer summer months in the season after Pentecost – the Gospel focus is the ministry of Jesus which includes healing.

In Lutheran circles we tend to look only at his proclamation; that is, we focus on what he said and taught the disciples about the kingdom of God. From this, we emphasize that Christian ministry is primarily about the proclamation of the good news. Mission, then, becomes more about ‘telling’ others about God, thus spreading the Word.

We miss an essential aspect of work-in-the-name-of-Christ with this limited vision of mission. Because, as elsewhere in the Gospels, we find that healing has equal prominence in Jesus’ ministry. Not only do we read about the miracles of Jesus curing disease, but more an inner healing for people battling their demons, so to speak. Healing has just as much to do about a renewed mind, a refreshed heart, a changed spirit. A reconstituted identity.

Healing is emphasized in the Gospel story today. Not just through words. But changed lives. Jesus came not only so that we might ‘believe’ with our minds in the good news, but that we might be healed in our earthen bodies and spirits.

How does this happen? What does Jesus do? From the text given to us today, Jesus’ took the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law, and “lifted her up.”[2] Jesus touches the person, physically. Taking someone by their hand is a sign of accompaniment. God is not remote from our human struggles. God is with us, Emanuel, in the person of Jesus. God takes our hand, and then lifts us up.

Faith can be described as movement. Last week we looked at the movement of ‘leaning into’ what we are afraid of, as a step in the direction of our healing – and finding Jesus is there. This week, the focus on the movement of ‘lifting up’, being ‘lifted up’, by God. As Jesus took the woman by the hand and lifted her up to be healed.

The Psalmist knew intimately this uplifting aspect of faith. “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[3] Many of the Psalm writer’s verses are called “psalms of ascent” because they were sung on the way ‘up’ to Jerusalem. The ancient pilgrim faithful needed to ‘look up’ as they made their way up the mount to the gates of the holy city. You know the hymn: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”

Faith is a ‘look beyond and upwards’ movement. In other words, the life of faith is not characterized by remaining stuck in the valley of our own suffering and misery. A faithful life, of course, does not deny our suffering nor is it pretending or distracting ourselves away from accepting its harsh reality.

Despite life’s imperfections, and struggles, however, to be faithful is to remain focused on others, on the promise of God, and on the hope we have. God takes our hand and is with us, and God sees it all. As Paul wrote, “we only see dimly now”.[4] Because we cannot understand all of life’s complexities, we need to trust in life, trust in good, trust in God’s time, in God’s way, that “all things work together for good for those who love and trust in God.”[5]

We are not just lifted up for our sake alone. We are called to lift others up, especially the downtrodden. Ours is the calling to lift others up – physically, emotionally, spiritually and materially.

We all know people who are ‘the lifters’. In their presence you feel lighter, lifted up. Whether it be their life story, their non-judgemental presence, their desire to show mercy and compassion, their interest in listening to you – they are an inspiration to us. They inspire us by their discipline, their focus in life.

The Gospel message is: We don’t need to be continually burdened by our suffering and narrow focus. We can be lifted up and transformed to be a reflection of God’s light to the world. In being truly ourselves, we can be ‘lifters’ too.

Remember: Resurrection is the end game of our faith. I mean not only of Jesus’ resurrection over two thousand years ago. I mean not only of our resurrection after we die our physical, earthly death. Because of Jesus’ healing ministry, we know that God also wants us to experience ‘resurrections’ in our own lives – on our earthly pilgrimage of living.

We can change, yes. It won’t be easy. It will take work. It will challenge us. We will need to move outside of our comfort zones. We will need to endure our momentary afflictions. On this journey of transformation, it will get harder before it gets easier. The truth will set us free, but it will first make us miserable. This is Christian truth. There is a cost. It is first the Cross of Christ; it is then the empty tomb of Easter.

There’s a woman from Tennessee whose name is Margaret Stevenson. She was in her nineties when I first read about her passion for hiking. You see, Margaret Stevenson used to hike ten or fifteen miles every day. She was a legend in the Smoky Mountains. She knew every trail and every plant and tree by its Latin and colloquial name.

Bill was much younger than Margaret when he hiked with her one day up Mt. LeConte. Now, Mt. LeConte is the third highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park peaking at just over 6500 feet.

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Bill’s first trip up Mt. LeConte was Margaret’s seventy-fifth. When she finally stopped hiking she had climbed Mt. LeConte more than 700 times. Her husband rarely went, even before he got cancer.

When Bill and Margaret set out, they came upon what Margaret described as the most unrelenting two-mile ridge in the whole area – two miles up with no break. And this after a hard six miles on a very hot day.

Bill liked to hike in spurts, so he said, “See you later, Margaret,” and took off in his usual fashion and got way ahead of her. At some point, he found himself lying flat on his back in half delirium. A blurred Margaret passed him by at her steady pace. Bill can still hear the click-click of her cane and with no pity at all in her voice, she said, “One more mile to go, Bill. I’ll see you at the top!” And so, she did, arriving well ahead of Bill without stopping once.

Not long after that, Margaret’s husband finally died of cancer. But because of her daily walk with God, their last few hours were spent not in sadness or remorse, but in joy and celebration. For when Margaret says, “I’ll see you at the top!” she means it. For her face is fixed on Christ. Her step is steady and sure. And she knows the meaning of Isaiah’s words:

Even youth’s will faint and be weary,

And the young will fall exhausted;

But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings as eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.[6]

[1] Mark 1:21-28, Mark 1:29-39

[2] Mark 1:31

[3] Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[5] Romans 8:28

[6] William J. Carl III in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.318-319.

Leaning in

The man with the unclean spirit is ordered by Jesus to “Be silent!”[1] After Jesus speaks to him, the unclean spirit obeys, and leaves the man. The man is thus transformed, healed, made whole in this dramatic Gospel encounter with Jesus.

We need to note, before going on, that Jesus speaks in the synagogue in Capernaum. He is at the beginning of his ministry. And what better place to start his preaching than on home turf, on familiar ground, in the rural community with people he likely knows, and who know him?

If you’ve ever lived in the country, or farther up the Ottawa Valley, you know that in small towns, people know each other. And when it comes to annual fairs, big events or musical shows, everyone attends. So, when in the lake side village, a home-boy comes to preach in the local synagogue, well, who wouldn’t show up? The synagogue is crammed full. Standing room only.

The point here is that the evil spirit resides and comes out within this rather homogenous community. The evil is not out there, somewhere – in Jerusalem the big city, or out there across the lake among the heathen Gentiles, or expressed within other groups with different belief systems and faiths. The evil is right there in the middle of the common, familiar, comforts of home.

The man with the evil spirit is a person like us. We know him. He is our neighbour. He, or she, is our friend, co-worker. She is the person who comes to church and sits beside us, Sunday after Sunday. The person with the evil spirit is not a stranger to us. That person is us. Each of us.

The Gospel of Mark – indeed the entire New Testament – is a primarily message to and for the church. Not to Islam. Not to Wicca. Not to some Voodoo occult. Not to the so-called Axis of Evil. The finger of judgement is pointed directly at us, at our sin, our evil, the brokenness within us.

When we deny. When we exclude. When we overstep our bounds. When we self-justify. And if you think you don’t have any of these and other problems – to quote what my Dad used to say and preach – you do have a problem!

It’s to this community, in awareness of the sin in our hearts, individually and collectively, that Jesus’ first words, spoken with authority, are: “Be silent!”

How do we change by being silent? I thought we were supposed to do something about our sin! Being silent sounds too much like being passive, lazy, self-indulgent and unproductive. How is it that we are changed when we are quiet?

The silence of which I speak, is first not the silence of denial. It is not a silence that happens when we remain quiet in the face of a great injustice. When a problem is not named, silence enables the problem to continue unattested. When there is something wrong, but no one dares to name the elephant in the room. This is not the silence of which I speak.

Neither is it the silence of combative conflict between people. When someone gives the other ‘the silent treatment’, silence serves as a weapon between people who need help to speak to one another about things that need saying in a safe way. This, too, is not the silence of which I speak.

Jesus is not scolding the man with the unclean spirit when he says, “Be silent!” He is not like the frustrated parent who has reached the boiling point with a disobedient child and just wants them to just shut up and go to their room.

When Jesus says, “Be silent!” he is inviting the disturbed and ill man to open his heart to being changed. Jesus first words are an invitation to be healed. And the first step in that direction is to put to rest, for the moment, the rampant flailing of a seemingly unstoppable ego.

This is a scary thing to do. How can we let go of our reactions, compulsions, need to be right? How can we be so vulnerable and leave ourselves wide open? How can we take this risk, let alone be healed by doing so?

One of my greatest fears as a child was to play on the round-a-bout. At the centre of the playground at kindergarten, stood the scary carousel-like structure. The round-a-bout used rotary motion, spinning around in a circle either clockwise or counter-clockwise. It was painted red.

A bunch of us kids would start by grabbing the four railings which fanned out from the centre like spokes on a wheel. We then started running, really fast, around and around pushing the carousel to dizzying speeds. And then at the moment when we couldn’t run any faster, we threw ourselves onto the spinning platform.

My instinct, at first, was to hang on for dear life at the edge of the round-a-bout as it spun ridiculously fast. It seemed to me the closer I could be to the edge, the more control I had over when I wanted to get off. Doing this, however, I didn’t step off when I wanted. I flew off when I couldn’t hold on any more. So much for control. When all I wanted when I played on the round-a-bout was an evacuation plan.

In order to best stay on the round-a-bout, and not fall off, I had to lean in towards the centre. I had to do the counter-intuitive thing. I had to grab hold of the centre wheel – the hub, the heart of this fearful reality. This way, not only did I last longer, I actually had some fun.

We overcome the evil within not by denying it. Not by turning away from it. Because denying and turning away already exposes another negative disposition. Actual repentance is served best by turning toward that which frightens us. Transformation is realized by moving to our fear not away from it.

And surprise, we are not alone there. We find our strength and our victory in turning toward and leaning into … a very loving, very much present Christ. Jesus is even there, yes.

Like a pine tree on the Canadian Shield rocky coast of Georgian Bay leans into the gale force winds to survive and thrive in that environment, so, too, we turn towards that which assails us in life. As you know, I love the White Pine – native to this part of the world. And one of my favourite Group of Seven pieces of art is A.J. Casson’s “White Pine”.

This painting, in particular, depicts the rugged, often inhospitable places where the white pine flourishes. Spreading its roots just beneath the surface of the ground, the white pine can find foothold in rocky, sandy earth. What is more, along waterlines, the pine will grow sometimes leaning, like the Tower of Pisa, into the gale force winds, not away from them. By doing so, even with its shallow root system, it will not fall. At least, not for a long time.

Naturally, we resist this counter-intuition. Many say that when they meditate, the first half of the period of meditation is hell. When the flood gates are opened. That is when all the thoughts, distractions, and emotions scream to the surface. That is when we fight our greatest battle in prayer. Not against the thoughts and feelings themselves, but against the experience of being still and silent. Because all that has been hidden and suppressed in the dark recesses of our lives finally can come to the surface and is exposed even burned in the Son-light.

It is too easy to give into the ego at this point, which wants to have control, which drives compulsively towards having more, making more, producing more, taking more, defending more. Un-relentless is the ego, driving impulses we struggle with in those first minutes of quiet, still, sitting and praying. It is too easy to give up on the experience and declare, “This is not for me.” And return to the hurly-burly of life in the fast lane.

Should we, however, lean into the internal fray – not suppressing the maelstrom of thoughts, not doing violence against our ego – when we just let the thoughts and feelings come at us and go through us, we will find the rock of our salvation who will hold us up even if we are leaning a bit.

Our lives thus become a prayer of healing when, before all else, we heed Jesus’ call: “Be silent!”, when we seek to quiet our busy thoughts. Saint Isaak of Syria wrote of a way of becoming silent and experiencing our hearts as the temple of the Holy Spirit[2], the holy still centre, and the hub of our lives:

“Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you,” he wrote, “and you will see the things that are in heaven – for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul.  Dive into yourself, into your soul, and there you will find the ladder by which to ascend”, and by which God descends into our lives.[3]

Just the turning, the leaning in, is everything on the journey to transformation. “Be still before the Lord,” the Psalmist sings.[4] “In quietness and in trust shall be your strength,” the Prophet advises.[5] “Be silent!” Jesus invites.

[1] Mark 1:21-28, NRSV

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:19

[3] cited in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds. “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.91.

[4] Psalm 37:7; 46

[5] Isaiah 30:15

I am loved, therefore I am

During this season of Epiphany – which means ‘revelation’ – we will again uncover the identity of God made flesh in Jesus.

How will we do that? While Epiphany is a positive celebration of the meaning of the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14), this season also introduces an identity crisis swirling around Jesus throughout the centuries. It also confers that same identity crisis upon his followers. Who is this Jesus? And who are we?

Who is Jesus? It may comfort, or disturb, us to realize that even while Jesus walked the earth over two thousand years ago, those around him didn’t always ‘see’ him for who he was. Even at spectacular events such as the transfiguration or after Jesus performed miracles of healing, some confused him for the prophet Elijah who in the tradition was promised to return (Mark 9:9-13; Matthew 11:2-15). Some mistook Jesus for a political Messiah who was expected to liberate the oppressed Jews from Roman occupation of the Holy Lands (Matthew 21:1-11). And, even when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his death and resurrection, “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). The scriptures do not hide this confusion about Jesus’ identity.

So Christians today need not be perplexed nor overly hard on themselves if they, too, struggle to understand this Jesus whom God announces at his baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Paradoxical doctrines claiming that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, are not easy for the human mind to grasp.

Which suggests to me that to understand Jesus’ identity is not so much to get vexed and lost in doctrines about Jesus. It is rather to see what he does and listen to what he says. Brother David Vryhof of the Society of the Saint John the Evangelist writes, “If you would know what God is like, discover what Jesus is like. Listen to his words, observe his actions, notice his values and priorities, see how he lives his life. And follow him.” (1)

French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes’ famous claim, “I think, therefore I am”, is not helpful here. More appropriate for the Christian today is, “I do, therefore I am”. Or, better yet, “I am loved, therefore I am.” This latter statement especially reflects the values demonstrated in Jesus’ life. I am loved, therefore I am.

Vryhof goes on to tell a story by Soren Kierkegaard: “Once upon a time, there was a powerful and wise king who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who lived in his kingdom. The king’s problem was this: how to tell her of his love?

“He called for the best and brightest of his consultants and asked their advice. He wanted to do this in the best and most proper way – and, of course, he hoped his love would be cherished by the maiden and returned. But when all of his advisors had had their say, the king was left disappointed. For every one of them had counselled him in the same way:

“‘Show up at the maiden’s house,’ they said, ‘dressed in all your royal finery. Dazzle her with the power of your presence and with your riches. Overwhelm her with expensive gifts. What girl could resist? Who would reject such an opportunity, or turn away from such an honor? Who would possibly refuse a king? And if need be,’ they added, ‘you can always command her to become your wife.’

“But the king, being wise, was unhappy with this advice. He wanted the maiden to love him for himself and not for his position and power. Love freely given must be freely returned or it isn’t really love. Certainly, the girl could be impressed, even overwhelmed. And of course she could be coerced and might even ‘learn’ to love the king eventually. But the king saw that if he followed this counsel he would never know if she really loved him for himself or simply for the comforts and privileges that queenship offered.

“So the king decided against the advice of his counsellors. He chose instead to strip himself of his glory and power. He put on the clothes of a poor peasant and walked to the maiden’s cottage to declare his love for her.” (2)

This story by Kierkegaard parallels closely the meaning of Christmas — of why Jesus came, and what kind of person Jesus is — “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). 

Who is Jesus? Jesus is God in love with us, and in us. And how do we know Jesus lives with and in our lives today? These questions lead to: Who are we?

We are who we are because of Jesus’ love for us. We are beloved, because of what God did in Jesus. Therefore, we are given the gift of God’s presence in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We have it in us. Yes, we do! And we exercise that gift in relationship with others. Who we are with, with whom we spend most of our time, where we commune with others — these are vital questions of spiritual, personal growth.

Who we are in Christ also begs the question of our nature — our growth, our changing, our transforming: Do we change? Can we change, for the better? Does being a Christian change our lives? Do you believe that?

I have over the years heard some argue that we do not change, really. We are locked in for life, the way we are, regardless of circumstance, regardless of where we are and with whom we live our lives. Nature. 

Others are more optimistic. On my good days I believe in the capacity of humans to change for the better. But this depends, I believe, on the quality of our relationships. Whether or not we change for the better depends largely with whom we spend most of our time. Nurture.

I believe most of us contain all the parts necessary for a healthy existence. Even a faithful one. At my baptism as an infant I believe God gave me the gift – the seed – of the Holy Spirit. At which times, or to which degree, that seed would mature and be expressed has depended largely on with whom I spend my time. 

Our families, our friends, our communities have a great influence over our lives. Because just by being with them, they will bring out of us the good and/or the bad. Their presence in relation to us hooks into some aspect of our life and pulls that aspect out. It is the quality of the ‘links’ between us that will determine what emerges from our souls. The old adage is true: “Show me your friends, and I’ll know who you are.”

Which also signifies the importance of hanging out with Jesus, in prayer. Jesus is integral to our relational world. Being intentional is critical here. The more you spend time with Jesus in the Body of Christ – the church, the more you spend time with Jesus in prayer and contemplation, the more you connect with Jesus in his mission to care for the poor — all of these things will over time bring out the good that is already in you.

The bottom line message of Christianity is that all creation matters because of God’s creative love in Jesus. We are created each of us from the spilling out of God’s love to the world. Therefore we are. Therefore we do.

(1) Br. David Vryhof, posted on the front page of the website of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist (www.ssje.org) on Tuesday, January 5, 2016

(2) cited by Br. David Vryhof, “God Has Spoken to Us By a Son”, posted on December 25, 2009 on the website of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist (www.ssje.org)