Invasion of abundant grace

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a playoff team. They have been for a while now. In fact, they’ve occupied the third seed in the Atlantic Division for months. And, lately, regardless of how many games they’d lose or win, it wouldn’t change their place in the standings for the playoffs, which begin this coming week.

The Leafs’ success has a lot to do with the stellar play of their number one goaltender, Frederik Andersen. At least how he played early in the season when he was sporting an impressive .923 goals against average (that’s very good). He was, some argue, the main reason the Leafs were able to climb in the standings and secure their playoff destiny. That is, until recently.

As some of you may know, he’s been kind of faltering a bit in the last month — letting in just a little too many goals, and losing just a bit too many games. As of last week, the Leafs had lost five of their last seven games—two of them here in Ottawa against the Sens. His lackluster performance has been enough to cause some to wonder whether Freddy will be able to hold up during the playoffs, especially against their arch rivals in the first round: the Boston Bruins.

An article in the Toronto Star recently caught my eye about this funk Andersen is in, and what he’s doing about it.[1]

Anderson speaks of dealing with all the downward-spiraling statistics — an embarrasing .890 goals against average (that’s bad) — all the anxiety-producing pressures to perform and succeed and chalk up more wins than losses — all the negative, worrisome scenarios that might play out for his whole team if he doesn’t stop more shots on net. Dashed playoff hopes. Disappointed fans. Negative publicity in the media. Downward career trajectories. Worry. Worry. Worry.

Indeed having success doesn’t mean being in a good head space. True, when the stakes are high, when it’s all on the line, when the vice grips of life’s important events tighten—it’s very difficult, maybe feels like it’s impossible, to keep calm, walk lightly, and breathe deeply through it all.

That’s the measure, that’s the key. Not when there’s nothing on the line. When you have little or no investment in the outcome. When it doesn’t matter and you don’t really care.

Rather, when what you are passionate about, what you care about, what you believe in, your most sacred values—when those things are on the line, when the stakes are high, how do you respond?

In the Lent book study, “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande[2], we have been exploring many questions about the last chapter of one’s life. We’ve been talking about how to navigate the medical culture and what we want when time is short. You could say, the end of life conversations and thoughts are the ultimate ‘high stakes’ decisions:

How do you want the last ten years of your life to look like? What do you want for yourself? What trade-offs are you willing to make in order to achieve your final wishes? Whom do you need to include in conveying those decisions? Are those closest to you aware of your thoughts? Why or why not?

Most of us avoid having these conversations. We dread not only those situations but those conversations. We don’t want to think too far ahead. We don’t want to think about next year. ‘It’s too depressing’ we say. ‘I just want to think about next week, or just tomorrow, or just today.’

As Atul Gawande writes in his book, “It’s the route people the world over take, and that is understandable. But,” he continues, “it tends to backfire. Eventually, the crisis [you] dreaded arrives.”[3]And then what?

When the stakes are high, what does Mary do? Oh, and if you think the stakes aren’t high, let’s take another look: Why does Mary spill on Jesus’ feet a year’s worth of wages in perfume made from pure nard?[4]There are two uses in ancient Israel for pouring expensive oil on someone: First, in a coronation of a king; and, second, for the burial of that person.[5]

This was a costly oil with a sweet smell, imported from northern India. Scholars estimate that the “pound” referred to was nearly 12 ounces, or 324 grams. Many typical flasks of anointing oil would contain only a single ounce. So, Mary has a lot of this stuff, and pours it all out on Jesus’ feet!

“Money going down the drain!” eh?

Yet, Mary was anoints Jesus, the true King, and Jesus who will soon die. This extravagant act of love and adoration conveys Jesus’ purpose, publicly for all to see and read for all time to come. While everyone else around Jesus does not want to talk about it even though they might feel it, Mary does everything but avoid, deny and shove under the carpet what is obvious. What needed to be done.

It’s not a measly drop, offered in secret. It’s a whole flask, and the aroma fills the entire house!

Jesus and to an extent Mary know what is going to soon happen. The writing is on the wall, certainly since Jesus recently raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. From that point on, the religious leaders began plotting Jesus’ death.[6]The way to the cross is becoming clearer and clearer. There is no turning back. There is no avoiding this outcome if Jesus chooses to continue in his mission and divine purpose.

It is worth it, even though the stakes are high.

How do we find the courage to rise above our tendency to avoid and deny reality when the stakes are high? Can it have something to do with our purpose and mission? When you know what it is you are all about in life? Maybe, then, good things can happen.

In his book, Gawande mentions an experiment which compared two nursing homes. After the study, in one the number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half, psychotropic drugs for agitation decreased, total drug costs fells to just 38% of the comparison facility; and deaths fell by 15 %.[7]

What made the difference? In the test facility, residents began to “wake up and come to life” when animals and birds were brought into their environment. Not just one or two creatures. But a whole bunch of them. They experienced a “glorious chaos” at the beginning of the experiment.

Because no one knew what they were doing, everyone—staff and residents included—had to drop their guard and pitch in, to help. Residents forgot themselves and were immersed in an environment that gave them purpose and meaning. In the process they started having a little bit of fun. There was lots of laughter and frivolity reported in response to the invasion of all the animals and birds.[8]

This is just one small example of how connecting to a meaning and purpose in life, however trivial, and at whatever stage of life—can do miracles.

For goalie Frederik Andersen, it means no longer obsessing about the data and numbers, good and bad. He has to trust his teammates and play as part of a team rather than an individual obsessed with personal stats. He has to free himself from micro-managing his technique because he realizes his primary challenge is not his ability or capacity to do great things in the net, but the mental, emotional and yes, spiritual, part of his game.

In short, he simply needs to find joy in playing again. That’s spiritual!

As the playoffs begin, Fredrik Andersen is on a journey to reconnect with the purpose of what he was about on the ice. He is looking to discover ‘fun’ in his game, and enjoy every minute he has the privilege of playing it at that level.

We, too, are on a journey in Lent. Mary’s action in the Gospel reminds us that on this journey, there are times God calls us simply to be extravagant in our giving born of devotion and thanksgiving to God. Mary’s action reminds us that sometimes God calls us to breathe deeply and savor life’s good things.

As we ourselves work on the important question of the church’s mission and ministry, and how that again can take expression in the here and now, let’s remember in the midst of all that, to take the time, to give ourselves the permission, to lavish upon God our love, our attention, to rest in God’s presence.

And, in that holy act of devotion and love, be renewed for life and joy.

 

[1]
https://www.thestar.com/sports/leafs/opinion/2019/03/28/the-joy-of-hockey-could-save-andersen-and-the-leafs-season.html

[2]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and what matters in the End (Anchor Canada: Penguin Books, 2014/2017).

[3]Ibid., p.57

[4]John 12:1-8, Gospel text for the Fifth Sunday in Lent according to the Revised Common Lectionary, RCL, Year C

[5]Lindsey Trozzo comments on the Gospel reading (John 12:1-8) at http://www.workingpreacher.org

[6]John 11:45-53

[7]Gawande, ibid., p.123.

[8]Ibid., p.120-121.

Doers of positive change

If you’ve followed the Ottawa Senators’ Hockey Club over the last year you will have endured a roller coaster ride. From the high, you will have tasted the sweet drippings of a near-berth in the Stanley Cup Championship Series sixteenth months ago …

To the low, feeling the despairing collapse of the team, not just to being out of the playoffs but crashing all the way to second last place in the NHL standings by the end of this past season.

What happened?

In the last several months, the nightmare season was enflamed by revelations of all the off-ice drama that was happening:

  • Allegations of sexual abuse by then assistant manager Randy Lee;
  • The politicking of owner Eugene Melnick to shame/scare the fan base that he was either going to move the team away from Ottawa, and/or that the downtown arena project may not happen motivating concerned fans to initiate an #MelnykOut ad campaign across the city;
  • Star player Erik Karlsson’s wife applying for a peace bond (restraining order) against the girlfriend of another star player, Mike Hoffman, who allegedly used social media and other means to send discriminatory, abusive messages to the Karlssons even during the loss of their unborn son in March;
  • And the continuing speculation around and probable trade of Erik Karlsson in the final season of his current contract.

General Manager Pierre Dorion was right when he told the media last Spring that his locker room was “broken.” Inter-personal relationships, team chemistry – the essential ingredients in a winning team – were damaged maybe even beyond repair.

While ‘on paper’ the team had skilled players and was comprised of the same core from the year previous when they had that successful run to the Conference Final, something significant had changed for the worse. And this subtle yet very real aspect of failed team-work was at the root cause of the team’s on-ice collapse last season. It wasn’t that they weren’t good players; it was their unhealthy, damaging ways of relating with each other that was the problem.

Funny we are talking here in the church about a hockey team that many of us follow in Ottawa. And yet, we can, I think, attend in a similar way to most areas of our social, political, religious, family and personal lives. Are their areas in your work, your volunteer efforts in the church and in the community, in your personal health, in any aspect of your quality of life let’s say, that are lagging, that yearn for renewal, new life, positive change?

For some time, Ottawa Senator players have been saying that there needs to be a culture change in the locker room and among team relationships. Goaltender Craig Anderson said this week he is looking forward to the changed culture in the coming season but he is “too old for all the drama.”

Teammate and hometown defenseman Mark Borowiecki who is considered a leader in the group called out his goalie and others on the team by suggesting they need to do more than just say they need a culture change. Each player and the players themselves as a team, has to do the work of changing the culture. It wasn’t going to happen by itself. No divine intervention. No single-player trade, no matter how newsworthy, was going to change their culture. They, the players, had to take on the responsibility to work at it.

Be doers of the word. A theme in the scriptures assigned for this day. In the Book of James we get the message that while words are important, actions reveal the truth, authentic self and purpose of what we’re about (1:22) more than anything else. What we do with ourselves, with each other – our actions – are the best teacher and communicator of what is most important to our common life, our team, you could say – whether that team is the church, the family, a marriage, a community group, a political movement, or a sports team.

And this action is not only about our performance on the ice, so to speak. This work of doing is not merely about the mission, out there. It is not about whether we succeed or fail on the mission field in getting the job done – the work of ministry in the world. Perhaps our failure at getting that job done out there may at least in part relate to our failure to do anything on the inside of our personal and corporate lives. And lacking the awareness and the belief of positive change within.

It is no wonder Bishop Susan Johnson and the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) has identified being a “healthy church” as one of the four vision priorities, moving forward in community. Being a healthy church means, to “develop and promote a culture of mutual trust and accountability.”[1]

That is, we relate with one another and the world around us in ways that reflect genuine listening, respect, humility and patience. In short, we offer safe spaces for personal interaction and growth. We can’t achieve the other vision priorities of the church, such as compassionate justice, spirited discipleship or effective partnerships, unless we are first a healthy group of people relating to one another.

And no one will make this culture change in our relational lives unless we are doers of the word, unless we take action that promotes growth, faith and positive change in our common lives.

In the mid-point of Mark’s short Gospel, Jesus spends a lot of time around the Sea of Galilee. When I visited Israel during my seminary years, our bus ride was only a couple of hours from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee. In Jesus’ day, it meant walking at least six days. Word of Jesus had certainly spread, and his actions of healing and eating with sinners and picking grain on the Sabbath made the Pharisees – the keepers of the Law – extremely nervous. So much so, that the powers that be from Jerusalem invested the better part of a month checking up on Jesus’ ministry (7:1).

It is sometimes amazing the lengths people will go in order to keep things the way they have always been. A radio sports commentator mentioned after the Anderson and Borowiecki interviews that Mark Borowiecki was right: talk of culture change has been swirling around the same group of players for most of last season with little, actual change in their performance. It seems we haven’t really been taught how to work at bringing positive change, starting with us.

Change is frightening, to be sure. Institutions often seek to preserve the status quo. That was true in Jesus’ day. And it is true in congregations as much as in team locker rooms these days. Yet change, as we must surely know living in this time and place in history, is the norm, not an exception.

I was pleased to hear Pastor Mei Sum Lai, leading her last worship service at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Orleans[2]last Sunday, thank the congregation for allowing change to happen during her tenure there. I then reflected on all the changes that have happened here at Faith[3]in the last six years or so:

  • The bold decision to bring significant upgrades and modernization to the building and sanctuary;
  • The gutsy decision to worshipping for four months with our local Anglican parish while the sanctuary was off-limits in its renovation;
  • The move to weekly Communion;
  • The involvement of lay readers and worship assistants;
  • The completion of the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Women as a formal entity
  • The introduction of Christian Meditation as a weekly prayer group;
  • The evolution of bible study to a prayerful encounter with the Word;
  • The ongoing evolution of meals at the church in all its fits and starts – to name a few changes.

These changes, good or bad in your view, are nevertheless good practice for us. Making these changes are good exercise for us, for the positive changes that God is bringing about in our world and church. Because we won’t do it perfectly. We will make mistakes. We will even fail at times. But avoiding failure is not the point of Christian identity and mission. The point is, we are following Christ – or trying to – on a rocky and uncertain road in the post-modern world. Trying amidst the noise and chaos to discern and listen to Jesus’ voice.

What is at stake, is what we believe. What do we believe about change? I think this makes a huge difference in how that rocky road will go for us.

Despite the negative scrutiny and criticism heaped upon Jesus by the Pharisees, what does Jesus do in response? Does he cave into the pressure to play by the religious rules of the day? Does he try to please the authorities and adhere to the tradition for tradition’s sake? Does he shift into self-preservation mode and quietly step into the shadows as not to garner any more attention? What does he do?

Jesus keeps on healing. If you read on in chapter 7, he goes on from Lake Galilee southward on the road into the non-religious Gentile region first to heal the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman[4], and then he opens the ears of the deaf man in the Decapolis.[5]

In fact, I don’t know of anyone in the New Testament who doesn’t change after encountering Jesus, whether by a healing or in a shift of attitude and approach to life. The most dramatic example, probably, is Saul of Tarsus who on the road to Damascus encounters the living Lord and experiences a profound conversion.[6]

When you meet Jesus, your life changes for the better not because you don’t do anything about it. But because you’ve placed yourself, for better or worse, in a position to receive the grace, healing and change of God. Historian Diana Butler Bass writes, “For all the complexity of primitive Christianity, a startling idea runs through early records of faith: Christianity seems to have succeeded because it transformed the lives of people in a chaotic world.”[7]During this time, Christianity was primarily about how to live a better, more faithful life, here and now within the kingdom of God.

Team play is as much an inner game as it is an outer game. And the inner game takes work, not just words. This inner work is not easy to do.

Perhaps you might have a hard time believing positive change is possible in your own life. If so, is it because we refuse to see the positive changes happening in those around us – in the life of the church, in our own families and friendship groups? Because when we refuse to accept that others have changed, we strike the death knoll and close the doors of our own hearts to see the change there.

So perhaps a first step would be to regard others, especially those closest to us, as on a journey that is changing and growing them in ways beyond our control. And then wait for Jesus’ call on your own life to follow him, to encounter him, to meet him on the road of life. In most of the people who meet Jesus, they present their own need. They approach Jesus in their vulnerability. Where they are hurting.

Because whatever the case may be with your own heart, whether or not you believe change in your own life and in the life of others around you is possible, God waits for you. God is patient, ready and willing to heal. God believes in you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]http://www.elcic.ca

[2]http://www.rlchurch.ca

[3]http://www.faithottawa.ca

[4]Mark 7:24-30

[5]Mark 7:31-37

[6]Acts 9:1-31

[7]Diana Butler Bass, “A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story” (HarperOne, 2009), p.26.

Slo-mo prayer

Everyone’s happy for the extra time off in March. For those in school, children and teachers can enjoy some leisure and vacation time. Then, at the end of the month, comes the extra long, four-day weekend at a time when Spring and warmer weather brightens our days.

Indeed, the holy days are upon us. But it’s not really just party time. It looks like that on the surface or at the start: The singing of hosannas, palm branches waving, praising the coming of the Messiah into Jerusalem riding a … wait. A pony? Is this a joke?

Palm Sunday starts the final leg, so to speak, on our Lenten journey. And what seems on the surface like the start of a holiday (that is, to relax and enjoy some well-earned leisure and play) is in truth an invitation to go deeper and reflect not only on the good life, but to go underneath and look at our suffering and pain. In Christian language, we call it the crosses we bear.

It is time now to look at the big picture of our life without ignoring the present sometimes difficult reality. How can we do that?

This Holy Week we are invited to slow down. And take a deep breath. And be honest, with ourselves and the truth of our lives. Not to grovel in a depressive, morbid mire of self-hate. But to lift to the light everything that has been hidden, kept secret, denied, overlooked, suppressed in the shadows and dark recesses of our hearts. In the end, it can be cause of a deeper joy and freedom; at first, though, it can be distressing and anxious-filled.

The path of Jesus shows us the way through it all. Where Jesus goes and how he does it offers us a way to forgiveness, release and true happiness. But first we must bear our cross. As we slow down, we pray.

Pray. As Jesus, on the night of his arrest, commanded his sleepy disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane not once but twice: “Get up and pray, that you may not come into the time of trail” (Luke 22:40,46). Jesus not only shows us what to pray, but also how to pray.

I follow the Ottawa Senators NHL team on Instagram. And before every game they post a short video montage, lasting no more than 15 seconds or so, of the players getting ready for the big game.

What’s attractive about the video to me, is to see how they splice together several brief clips of various moves the players make on and off the ice: back-slapping a team mate, practising a slap shot, the goalie making a glove save, skating towards the puck, a pre-game ritual.

But what keeps my attention is where the editors choose to speed up and slow down a few of the segments. Strategically done in an appealing way, the montage goes back and forth between periodic slow-motion action clips and real-time moves.

The whole presentation is enhanced because the real time rapid action shots are interspersed with slow motion shots. In fact, because they slow down some of the action, I can appreciate and enjoy a particular move even more — for all the skill and intention it entails.

In other words, it’s not boring. Slowing down, from time to time, actually gives energy. Slowing down, from time to time, gives clarity, focus and meaning to the activity and the whole picture. Slowing down, from time to time, allows me to get a good look at what is actually happening in all that I do.

And that’s what we do when we pray as Jesus did. Throughout his life of ministry, Jesus moved around a lot in the region of Galilee — healing people and teaching them about God. He covered great distances by foot. He didn’t even have a home base. 

But as was his custom, even before suffering betrayal, arrest and branded a criminal to die a horrific death on the cross, Jesus slowed things down. He went to quiet places on a hillside, by himself usually, to pray.

The feeling I have every Palm Sunday is like I’m seeing a video montage of Jesus’ life, ministry, and Passion. Just short segments highlighted with the larger flow of the story. Certain shots are in real time, sometimes even sped up because we also see the cross on Palm Sunday. But then there are the segments that slow right down.

Jesus was already practised in the art of slowing down to pray, so that from the cross came two prayers that can not be rushed, denied, suppressed, hidden: There’s a prayer for forgiveness (“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” – Luke 23:34) and a prayer of relinquishment/release (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” – Luke 23:46). (1)

Whom was Jesus forgiving? The disciples who deserted him, the Roman soldiers who killed him, the ruling religious elite who condemned him to death, yes. Was he forgiving us all forever, for all our sins? This is the Gospel.

Did they “know what they were doing”? Only in part. None of us knows the full extent of our sinning or the full harm we do. God’s forgiveness covers all.

In his prayer of relinquishment, Jesus offers to his Father – Abba – what he has been offering all along: his life into the hands of God who is ever faithful. Jesus quotes Psalm 31, an evening prayer which may very well have been the bedtime prayer for Hebrew children and their parents. It is the prayer of “letting go”.

And Jesus asks his disciples to do the same. So, we can say, especially bearing our own crosses: “O God, take my sticky fingers off the controls, and place my life and life of my loved ones in better hands than mine. In your hands.”

It’s in our nature not to want to slow down. It’s in our nature to go-go-go. Slowing down, being silent and still, forgiving and letting go, is especially difficult in our day and age when we are so used to being stimulated by rapid-fire activity, lots of noise, and when we have total control.

The irony is that our lives of activity and go-go-go will have even more effect should we also intersperse that activity with regular times of slowing down to pray as Jesus did.

It has always been a tradition for Christians to pray silently, to just be, in the presence of God. We pray without having to do a whole lot. And this reminds us that God is already with us, Jesus already loves us and is already doing stuff in the world — even before we do anything. The practice of prayer has given Christians through the centuries great energy and peace for life, even more so had they not made the time for prayer.

If someone would do a video montage of your life to date — reviewing all the things you have done, places you’ve visited, people you’ve been with — would it also include shots of you being silent, still, praying by yourself and with others?

I think that would make a really cool video!

(1) – H. Stephen Shoemaker in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” Year C, Volume 2, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2009, p.183

Because you are a sky full of stars

I love the NHL TV ad where they show just the first seconds of an on-ice interview moments after a team has won the coveted prize — the holy grail of hockey — the Stanley Cup. After over 20-some games played, four consecutive series won, the campaign is finally over in victory, the question: “How does this feel?”

And so the ad runs through several players over the years, responding to this same question. It’s the consistent response that makes the point. None of them have words to describe the feeling. Uhh. Ummm. (sigh). (sob). Whew! (shake head). etc. is all they can manage. Words simply cannot describe the majesty and awe and joy of the moment.

Such is the attitude surrounding the Psalm appointed for this Trinity Sunday on which we also celebrate an Affirmation of Baptism (Confirmation).

Early 20th century American scientist, Dr. Carver, was asked by some writer late in his life what he thought was the most indispensable thing for science in the modern age. Carver replied, “The capacity for awe.” And mere words fall far short of capturing an awe-filled moment.

When the Psalmist asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4), this is not intended to be so much an intellectual question. This is not so much a matter of curiosity, that is being expressed. It is not so much a problematic question.

Rather it is a question of mystery and marvel. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them . . .?” A question of mystery is not satisfied with logical tidiness. This question eludes our intellectual grasp because the enormity of moment grasps us.

Psalm 8 is not a scientific response to the wonder of creation, and the wonder of human life. It is a hymn — an evening hymn — a vesper song. It is an expression of faith — an act of worship — a moment of praise. It takes place in the temple, not the laboratory. It springs from the heart rather than the mind. It is wonderment, not wondering. It is awe, not assessment. It is exaltation not experimentation. It is affirmation not analysis. It is celebration, not curiosity. (Carl Schultz, Houghton College, “What Are Human Beings?”, campus.houghton.edu)

But not just at the best of times. It is when we get that phone call in the middle of the night, when tragedy strikes, when we hear for the first time “bad news”, and when things suddenly go from bad to worse. There’s a similar dynamic at play within our hearts; it’s as if we are standing before a mystery that we simply cannot ‘manage’ scientifically. When words fail us, and we feel we cannot do anything.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” O God? This prayer can also be a prayer that puts us in our place, literally and figuratively. We are but a speck of dust in the magnitude of all that is. Who are we? A speck of dust? We can feel like that sometimes, too.

But here’s the catch. There’s a fellow in the Old Testament that I think you may of heard of. His name is Job. He was a man of God. But he lost everything. His family dies. He suffers pain and disease. His friends ridicule him. He loses his house and property.

And when he complains to God, he cites this very Psalm. In the 7th chapter of Job, he quotes the exact words from Psalm 8 as he shakes his fist at God: “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them … (v.17)”. And then, “Will you not look away from me for a while, leave me alone…?” (v.19).

Here’s the point of this Psalm quote in Job: God pays attention to us. In those glorious moments of life, but especially also when we are at our lowest. God pays attention to us specks of carbon in the universe. Let your soul rest in this awareness — of a God who will not leave us alone, even when we are completely defeated.

My favourite summer past-time is watching sunsets over the ocean or Great Lake. When I sit or stand still on the beach at the water’s edge observing this large burning orb dip into the fluid horizon — if you had a camera on me, you would say I am gawking at the sunset. I’m not saying anything. My eyes are wide open.

I encourage you this summer if you experience an awe-filled moment — on the farm, in the forest, on the beach or mountainside, even at home — pay attention to the glory of God before you. Pause, just for a minute. Because in that very moment, God is gawking at you.

It is because God pays attention to us, that we find, as Job eventually did, the strength to move on. It is because God pays attention to us when we are joy-filled as well as down-and-out, that we find, eventually, the strength to carry on. It is because God considers each one of us a beautiful and precious creation — because God is gawking at each of us — that our hearts are filled and we can live life fully.

During this Confirmation year, we made a few road trips: to visit Lutherlyn Camp and Conference Centre in the Fall, and other Lutheran, Anglican and even Jewish congregations in Ottawa. Olivia would usually drive in my car. And something we always did while we travelled was listen to music.

Indeed music — as the Doghouse Band from Pembroke today reminds us so wonderfully — music is an expression that defies analysis because music goes straight to the soul, to the heart. Martin Luther said that when you sing, you pray twice. J.S. Bach came to be known as the Fifth Evangelist (after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) precisely because his music expressed the Gospel even better than words on a page.

The pop group, Coldplay, just last month came out with their latest album. One song in particular has been getting a lot of airtime on radio. Now, they’re a secular band, but these lyrics are deeply theological, if you pay attention to them. They are a prayer, to God:

“‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /I’m gonna give you my heart
‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /’Cause you light up the path …

‘Cause in a sky, ’cause in a sky full of stars /I think I saw You

‘Cause you’re a sky, ’cause you’re a sky full of stars /I wanna die in your arms
‘Cause you get lighter the more it gets dark /I’m gonna give you my heart….”

It’s ’cause who God is and what God does, that we have any hope and any strength in all of creation to be all that we were made to be. It’s ’cause who God is that we can give Him our heart.

God gawks at us. God pays attention to us. And because of that, we can move on, no matter what.

Who needs a deadline?

Whether it was averting a fiscal cliff south of the border, or imposing a contract in a labor dispute between Ontario teachers and government at the first of the New Year, or wondering if the Mayans were right about the winter solstice on December 21st, or salvaging an NHL season by first determining a drop-dead date in mid-January …

It seems that things only get done in our world if we have a deadline. Without one, could we make progress and agree on anything? I know some people, myself included, sometimes need a deadline to finish what we need to finish.

What does a deadline achieve? For one, it puts pressure on the situation to force a resolution. Without the weight of pressure and threat of complete breakdown of stability, some would argue that nothing would ever get accomplished.

On the other hand, especially when people are in conflict, some say that pressure of the deadline needs to be endured — getting over the hump, so to speak — in order for cooler heads to prevail and a more relaxed atmosphere in which to make the right decisions. Even if it means a complete breakdown of the system for a time being.

I’ve felt, over the last year has hung the shroud of the proverbial ‘deadline’. Will it come, or will it go? And what will it be like after?

Having a deadline means there must be, at the end of it, a winner and a loser. Deadlines amid conflict mean people will fight so that they will not end up the loser. Dead-line conveys precisely how the word is constructed: There’s a death, and lines are drawn.

Lines that communicate exclusion; that is, not everyone belongs in the winner’s circle, not everyone gets the glory. It presumes a Machiavellian world view where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

And I wonder how many people are really satisfied at the end of such a process. Even the so-called winners. A pretty negative world-view, I would say.

There’s very little about this culture of the deadline that squares with the Christmas and Epiphany stories from the Bible.

After all, those magi weren’t on a deadline, where they? Think about it — they wandered far from home across a desert following a star. 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 stopped by then, let’s go home!”?

What motivated those travelers from the East?

Hope. Expectation. Anticipation. An openness without deadline, destination or schedule in mind. Why?

Because they knew that at the end of it there was going to be nothing but a victory for them. In meeting the Messiah, there was no way in heaven or on earth they or anyone else would lose.

Epiphany means that, even as a child, Jesus is for all people, not just the chosen few. Jesus is for the outsiders. Jesus comes to earth in order to draw people together — magi from the East, Syrians from the north, Egyptians from the south, Romans from the West. All compass points are covered by God’s loving welcome.

Throughout the Old Testament God uses foreigners, outsiders, and women — who are often the least expected and sometimes most unsavory characters to fulfill God’s will: Cyrus of Persia to free the Babylonian captives (Isaiah 45); Queen Esther, a woman, to save God’s people; Naaman the Syrian, favored by God, and his servant girl (2 Kings 5) — are just a few outstanding examples.

Jesus Christ is the very love of God incarnate. And that divine, creative love of God cannot be confined to ethnic or national identity. That love cannot be restricted to only one gender, or any group divided by ‘lines’ of a dispute. That love cannot be claimed only by the powerful, privileged or wealthy.

What the Epiphany stories illustrate is the expansive scope of God’s love. All people are invited and all are included to worship God, to kneel before Christ and to dine at the heavenly banquet.

God doesn’t need a deadline. The Psalmist today expresses this truth: “In his time, may the righteous flourish” (72:7). God’s time expands beyond our limited notions of time. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

All that is to say, is that God will take all the time necessary to reach all of humanity. So that by the consummation of time, his love will embrace and imbue all of creation. That is the positive vision for the church: The light of Christ that has come into the world will shine for all to see and reflect.

Thanks be to God!