What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness

Parenting is one of the greatest challenges in life. And our responses to the ever-changing realities in our children’s lives are never clear cut and never universally applicable. Because each human being is unique. We are not cookie-cutter robots wired with precisely identical operating systems.

Take, for example, two realities that are most common: our children’s friends, and homework. Let’s say you have two children a couple years apart in age. Let’s also say the oldest tends to enjoy reading and doing homework but also has a couple friends they like to skate with on the nearby ice rink in the park. The younger child, on the other hand, does not like to read and cannot sit still long enough to focus on homework. They would rather spend hours at the mall wandering about and hanging out with their friends.

When both come home after school, the late afternoon and evening before them, what will the parents say and do? Whatever you do, it might not be wise to apply the same response to the question they both pose: “Can I go out with my friends tonight?” To the first, you might encourage them not to be late meeting up with their friends and remember to have fun. To the other, you might have to say, “Only after you get some of your homework done first.”

My point is, it isn’t the same answer to each person, in each situation. Different circumstances and contexts necessitate sometimes the opposite response.

I look at the three so-called temptations Jesus’ faces.[1]And I discovered how each of his responses mirrors other situations in his life, ministry, death and resurrection. And, when comparing them, an opposite response.

For example, in the first temptation about food, Jesus rejects the devil’s invitation to multiply some bread from stones. Jesus refuses in the desert to turn stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger. But before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish[2]. And he will teach his disciples to pray to God for their “daily bread”[3]. First, he doesn’t multiply bread. Then he is doing it in a major way. An opposite response in a different situation.

In the second test, Jesus refuses to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple. But at the end of his earthly ministry he endures the taunts of others[4]while trusting God’s power to the end upon the heights of a Roman cross[5]. He first refuses to fall from the highest point. Then, he makes the biggest fall, so to speak. The opposite answer in a different situation.

Finally, He turns down the devil’s offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world. But later, he instead offers the kingdom of the heavens to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness. He goes from denying lordship over all, to offering all the kingdoms to all who follow him. Again, the opposite answer in a different situation.

Jesus has been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tested[6]by the devil. The test is not that food, power and leadership are inherently wrong, but rather that they can be used for the wrong ends, or at the wrong time.

The tests play again in the life and ministry of God’s beloved son. The answers are different on different occasions. The wilderness tests are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they are tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes throughout his earthly ministry.

Is there a common link underlying the various responses? I believe Jesus is exercising how to trust God’s presence and love, and for the sake of others. Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. He is getting ready for what comes next to practise again choices that are based on trusting in God’s loving presence for all.

What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness. Because we know at the start that Jesus will endure the testing, it is therefore more a story for our own instruction. It is the very place where our vulnerability, whatever it is and different it will be from one person to the other, is exposed. And we must face it. And deal with it. We are called to embrace our own vulnerability as the very place where Christ meets us, and where we learn how to trust God’s presence and love.

The wilderness is the testing ground where we exercise choices, and make decisions. We practice, because when we leave the desert we will be better aware of how to meet the next challenge. In each occasion and circumstance, the decision might be different, even opposite, from the response we gave last time.

The exercise grounds will never yield perfect results nor perfect answers from us each time. This is not a perfectionist’s journey. Parenting is never a perfect exercise. No one gets perfect marks as a parent. For each it is the trial-and-error, two-steps-forward-one-step-backward kind of journey. However, “The steps you take don’t need to be big; They just need to take you in the right direction.”[7]

When Ottawa Senators’ forward, Bobby Ryan, took to the ice last Thursday, it was his first game played since November. During that time, he was in a program dealing with his alcoholism. When he scored not one but three goals in a Senators’ victory, the crowd cheered his accomplishment not only on the ice but especially for his courage through the journey of addiction recovery. Perhaps the cheering was an acknowledgement too of our common, broken humanity. That each and every one of us has to face our own demons in the wilderness of our own vulnerability.

For when we get closer to Jesus, we will necessarily journey through the wilderness of our lives. Jesus walked that path. Christ walks that path with us.

The promise of the Matthew’s gospel is that the one who goes with us is “with us always, even to the end of the age”[8]. Jesus has already gone ahead of his followers, even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness. He meets us in the most difficult tests of our own lives. No place is so desolate, so distant, or so challenging that Jesus has not already been there. No test or temptation is so great that Jesus has not already overcome it.[9]

In the wilderness we can make small choices that point us in the right direction. The steps we take don’t need to be big, they just need to take us in the right direction. We’re likely not going to make bread out of stones nor accomplish the grandiose spectacles portrayed in Jesus by the Gospel writers.

But we can learn to develop a growing trust in God’s presence and love for others. Based on this, we begin to make choices and develop good habits in each situation we face. They say it takes 40 days to change a habit – to retrain the mental process and nervous system. Practicing anything for at least 40 days allows you the opportunity to incorporate it into your being, turn on, wake up, transform! Each day, in the right direction. One day at a time.

May these forty days of Lent empower, encourage and deepen us in God’s presence and love.


[1]Matthew 4:1-11

[2]Matthew 14:17-21; 15:33-38

[3]Matthew 6:11

[4]Matthew 27:38-44

[5]Matthew 27:46

[6]The underlying Greek word has traditionally been translated into ‘temptation’. But this word means as much a test as a temptation.

[7]In Marvel’s Agents of Shield, season 5, said by the character Simmons.

[8]Matthew 28:20

[9]Thank you to Audrey West for her commentary on this text from February 10, 2008 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=37

God loves us uniquely, not exclusively

Some things Jesus says offend our most sacred held values.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And damned be the rest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This can be a freeing prospect.

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

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

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

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

 

[1]Luke 14:25-33

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

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

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

Alone no more

Mary and Joseph mess up. Their only child, and they lose him. (read Luke 2:41-52) Aren’t parents supposed to know where their kids are, at all times?

Now, of course, this stuff happens all the time to the best of us—in large crowds, at amusement parks, sports stadiums, Disney World, the mall. Unintentionally we make mistakes. Each of us can likely relate to a time when we got lost and felt abandoned by our parents, and how that felt. Or, how as parents we lost track of our child. And how that felt. The fright. The embarrassment. The shame.

Maybe it’s a comfort to know that even Mary and Joseph parents of the Christ child didn’t get the parenting thing right, on occasion. Today, we would communicate that in social media as #parentingfail.

I’m reminded of the popular Christmas movie, Home Alone, when a family plans a European vacation for Christmas. The relatives all arrive for the big event. But in all the commotion the youngest son feels slighted. Expressing his frustration inappropriately, he is punished and sent to a room in the attic.

There, in a fit of anger, he wishes that his family would go away so he could be all alone. The next morning, in their rush to get ready and leave for the airport, the family overlooks the little boy in the attic. They get to the airport and board the plane, all the while believing he is with them. The boy gets his wish when the next morning he finds himself home alone.

The twelve-year-old boy Jesus experienced the feeling of abandonment by his parents. Perhaps this was a foretaste of the abandonment of the cross he would experience at the end of his life. It appears Jesus knew already from a young age what it felt like to be a human being. It appears he learned to accept the follies and misgivings of the human condition. For, he experienced it himself. At the end of the story, he felt the joy of being found and of not being alone anymore.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the temple was a sign of God’s eternal presence. And so we have a clue as to why this story from Luke is read on the First Sunday of Christmas. Because, without the temple, how else would this story fit? After all, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. And this story is about Jesus on the verge of adulthood, his ‘coming of age’ story from the bible.

Jesus was found in the temple, engaged with the learned in conversation about God. In his childhood experience of abandonment—in the midst of it—he was still in God’s presence. He was found in God’s presence.

Christmas is about the promise of God to be with us. It is about the grace and gift of God-with-Us, Immanuel. Immanuel is the name given to Jesus by the angel in the Christmas story. It is a name to give us hope.

God is with us, even in the darkness of grief. God is with us, even when we feel abandoned. God is with us, even when we are lost and forsaken. God is with us, even when we are confused and don’t know what to do. God is with us, in all our losses, pain and especially in our suffering. That is why this story, I believe, is included in the Christmas repertoire year after year: To remind us of this holy promise of hope at the darkest time of year: God is with us.

It feels like once we celebrate those first few days of Christmas, time seems to thrust forward in leaps and bounds. At one moment, we are cooing with the barn animals at the baby in the manger and singing hallelujahs with the angel chorus over the fields of Bethlehem.

And the next, we actually fast forward over a decade in the story of Jesus to this temple scene when he is almost a teenager. The Christmas message catapults us from the past, into the present and towards the future in a kaleidoscope of events that unite in the meaning of God-with-us.

A gift-giving tradition in our family is the exchange of books. I just finished reading a fiction which told its story by shifting forward and backward in time. In reading through the book from beginning to end, there were times when it felt a bit dis-jointed, where I asked myself especially early on: What does this detail or this person have anything to do with the story? Why is the author spending so much time and several pages describing this particular scene or detail? How does it all fit together?

This technique, of course, kept me hooked. I was committed to the journey. I had to trust that in the perplexing ‘set-up’ the author was providing, there would eventually be a satisfying ‘pay-off’. And I wanted to know, and feel, the resolution to the mystifying issues, sub-plot lines and character developments. I had to trust and hope that the longer I stayed with it, at some point, there would be some satisfaction to the bemusing chronology of the storytelling.

People will often say, there is a reason for everything. Even when bad things happen, they will say there was a divine purpose. I would sooner say, in everything that happens—good and bad—God is present, and there is reason to hope. Because we don’t know the mind of God.

As soon as we say ‘everything has a reason’ we presume our suffering is a consequence of our not knowing. But knowing ‘why’ is not our business. We cannot comprehend the fullness of the divine mystery and purpose. We can’t really pronounce on what God is up to in the evolution of reality and history. We can only make the next step. Our task is to become aware of God’s presence in all our circumstances.

In hope.

If we are not a people of hope, we are not human—just animals scavenging for survival and reacting to impulse. If we are not a people of hope, we are not the people of God who are called to see beyond the circumstances of the desert and darkness of this world with all its suffering.

In hope, time is really irrelevant. In hope, the past and future collapse into the present moment. That’s where we live, anyway. This time of year is not well-behaved, neat, and orderly. To be faithful in this time-tumbling season is to stick with it despite the disorderliness of our past, present and future, and not just give up.

We can appreciate the good in the past and can anticipate the good that is promised in the future. We can hope that no matter what lies before us or what happened behind us, there is good that still awaits. There is good that is here.

God is here. God is present. God is involved, now. That’s the meaning of Christmas—God is now with us, Immanuel. For now, and forevermore, God sheds tears and rejoices alongside us. God walks with us on this journey and will never abandon us in God’s love.

Hope is what keeps time. Hope is what connects the past and the future into the marvel of the moment. A moment in time infused with grace.

Where does hope reside in your life? In what activity? In which thoughts? What feelings are associated with hope, for you? How do your thoughts, your actions and your feelings reflect hope today?

May you be open to the blessing of God’s presence, in the New Year.

No life insurance

It’s like the spirited game parents play with their young children.

I remember years ago when the kids were still in diapers tossing our little ones up into the air, and then catching them on their way down. What makes this game so delightful is to watch the expression on the face of the child. If you slow-motioned the activity and zoomed in on the facial reactions of the child at each stage of the ‘throw and catch’ game, you would see a contrast of emotions:

From the catch to the upward toss, a smile and squeal of joy; from the falling motion to moment of catch, a growing sense of alarm as the eyes widen in concern and fear begins to creep into the picture. But, then, again the catch. And the grin returns. And the game resumes.

Can you imagine being the widow in the Gospel story (Luke 7:11-17) who has just lost her only son? Having lost her husband is one thing. You think it cannot get any worse. Yet, as is often the case in life, it does. Now her son. She feels the sharp edge of grief once again. Perhaps more deeply for the child she gave birth to, and raised with all her mother’s love.

Not only a personal grief, but the prospect of living in extreme need. Being a widow in 1st century Palestine was usually a ticket to poverty and low social status. A woman’s economic worth was almost always tied up in the men of her household — her husband or eldest son. This was much more than personal, emotional grief. This was a complete life-style change, from top to bottom, in a heart beat.

After meeting Jesus, however, things change so rapidly. From a season of mourning and grief, to the astonishment and wonder of joy: Her son is no longer dead, but alive! No longer is she alone, vulnerable, a burden on society, worthless in the economy and social structures of the day. Now, she has her son back. She has family. And that means the world to her!

Although something has changed. This new thing is also scary. All who witnessed the miracle were filled with fear (v.16). What does this second chance at life mean? Things will be different now. No longer like the good old days.

The rapid and extreme change of emotions could make her feel like a yo-yo. Maybe life sometimes feels like that for you. From moments of exquisite satisfaction, pleasure and joy, to the dark caverns of grief, depression, loss, suffering, fear and pain. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. 

In my first parish, which was in rural southern Ontario, burials were conducted (except during winter months) immediately following the funeral service in the cemetery right beside the church building. The recessional with casket proceeded to the grave side where the words of committal, prayers and scripture readings were offered. 

But then, the family stood by as the grave-diggers and funeral attendants lowered the casket, suspended up until that point on winches and ropes, down into the hole. In some cases, I had to assist by moving the casket into place as it slowly lowered. Once resting on the ground inside the hole, a family member used a spade to throw the first shovel-full of earth onto the casket — a symbol of the family participating in burying their loved one.

Today, especially in urban centres where funeral services are highly managed by market-driven professionals, most often the family leaves the grave-side before the casket is lowered and actually buried. I wonder about how the smallest of acts reflects our attitudes towards death and loss. 

Perhaps we can’t ‘go there’ emotionally so soon after losing a loved one and have to insulate ourselves in order to cope. The funeral rite therefore serves more as an anesthetic against the harsh reality of death and loss. I wonder: Does the experience and ritual of funerals only end up buffering the hard, emotional impact of loss?

Perhaps we are not used to ‘losing’, letting go, failing, surrendering, being powerless, vulnerable, at ground zero. We have little in life to practice this letting go before the final experience of losing a loved one. And perhaps healthy religion, as Richard Rohr claims, is about showing us what to do with our pain.

Is this too difficult an expectation of our faith? Because in making religion only about ‘feel good’ ‘warm fuzzies’ we might maintain our denial of life’s realities and only distract ourselves from truth. And that’s not what Christian faith is about — distracting us and keeping us from the rhythms of life, death, life, death, life.

Because in avoiding death, we also ironically, avoid life. And Jesus is about life. When we say this Gospel story is first and foremost about a miracle, we may be missing the point. It’s understandable that we do, because it is sensational. It captivates our imagination.

Focusing only on the miracle may just play into our fear and avoidance of death. As if to say Jesus performing this miracle was done for the boy’s sake. The enemy, death, was conquered! Therefore we can go on denying death. As if the boy will never eventually die an earthly death. As if to say Jesus performed this miracle solely to convince us to ‘believe’ in him — because no one else could do so (even though there were magicians/soothsayers and other miracle workers who performed incredible acts in Jesus’ day).

But the miracle, per se, is not the point of the story. Jesus raised the son from death not merely to show his divine power but to express his love and concern for the widow. He had compassion on her (v.13). And he couldn’t stand the thought that she would have to go it alone in a culture that marginalized the widow. Jesus brought the son back to restore a relationship, for living in the world.

God tosses us into the air. God throws us into the thick of life with all its challenges, disappointments, failures, weaknesses, joys, hurts, loves, pleasures and pain, satisfactions and accomplishments. God throws us into the air to experience fully this life we have been given. Life, death, life, death, life, death …

Then, to our happy amazement, God catches us again at just the right moment. God cares about what happens to us in our lives. God is interested in every minute detail and event in our lives — even those things we would rather cover up and hide in the darkest recesses of our hearts. God’s light exposes those secrets, even. We may feel vulnerable, challenged, unsettled for a time. And we may even wonder if we won’t just crash and burn on our way down.

Have faith in the One who’s tossing you. Because it’s part of life, for one thing. But most importantly, because God loves you and will quite unexpectedly be the One to catch you, at just the right moment.

Better is not what you think

What happens when doors close and we don’t see other doors open? Life is full of closed doors: unemployment, failure to graduate, illness, tragedy, lost friendships, divorce — the list goes on. What happens when you are stuck in the middle of that transition and can’t see a way through? For whatever reason, doors close. The fact we sometimes don’t know why may make it harder to take.

Paul wanted and “attempted” to go to Asia. The lectionary doesn’t include the verses (6-9) immediately prior to the first text today (Acts 16:9-15). For some inexplicable reason, the Holy Spirit “did not allow” Paul and his cohort to travel there. A door is closed. 

But you’ve heard the cliche: When God closes a door, another one opens. Which is, presumably, a better deal.

After the door to Asia, and Paul’s ‘wants’, closes, he then goes to Macedonia after a convincing vision and on to Philippi where he meets Lydia. The result of their encounter is that “she and her household were baptized”. Good things happen. This open door was a successful mission. Even though, originally, this mission-field was not for-seen, planned, even desired.

The church finds itself in an uncomfortable situation these days. The glory days of ethnically-defined church planting and building are long gone. We still yearn for those good-old-days, the hey day of the kind of church we still try to maintain when Lutherans from Germany were streaming off the boats, church budgets were growing and pews were filled. For the institutional reality, it feels like a door is closing. And we don’t see a clear picture of what it is changing into.

It’s not a comfortable place to be, when doors close. Where’s the open door?

Earlier this year a couple members of a Lutheran church in Southern Ontario, decided to partner with a neighbouring church to organize a refugee sponsorship initiative. They complied with all the regulations, began a fundraising appeal, and the word got out.

Before long they had attracted fourteen people from the community to work alongside them. They found unprecedented success at mobilizing resources and motivating people to help. Tens of thousands of dollars was raised in no time. An apartment was secured and furnished without problem. A Syrian family was on the way.

The Lutherans on the committee made sure their own congregation was brought up to speed with regular reports, appeals for help and updates. To their surprise, and dismay, all but a couple on that growing committee were members of their church.

The gentleman who had initiated this refugee work lamented to one of the Synod staff who was close to the community, “What’s the point of doing all this work, when the people working on the committee don’t come to church on Sundays and put offerings in the plate?”

“Are others aware you are a Christian from a local congregation?”

“Are people being helped?”

“Is good coming out of all your efforts?”

“Are you doing this from your conscience as a Christian?”

“Do you feel God is calling you to do this work?”

All these questions were answered in the affirmative. So, what’s the problem? Maybe a door is closing, and maybe another has opened? It just isn’t what we may expect or think we want. The Holy Spirit is active in the world and among people. The question is, are we willing to walk through that open door? Congratulations to that Lutheran who took the initiative to do something when there was a need.

When a door closes, it can feel like you are unprepared for whatever may be. In life transitions, especially, the in-between ‘close door / open door’ time can be unnerving. When a baby is born, for example, no manual comes out with the baby. Being a parent is feeling your way to make decisions with each passing moment. Preparation — you can throw that out the door!

Of the top three major festivals of the church year, the Day of Pentecost comes up almost unexpectedly. Did you know it’s two weeks from today? Unlike Christmas and Easter which have long weeks of preparation (Advent and Lent, respectively) leading up to these high, holy days, Pentecost does not.

We only have Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John (14:23-29) to his disciples, these days, preparing them for his departure. And giving the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Occasions like this should be sad, unnerving, disquieting, too sudden. And, on some level, it is. It cannot be denied. After all, the disciples will no longer have Jesus physically present with them any more. In a way, they are losing something precious and dear to them: their leader, their confidant, their friend. The common reaction to a loved one’s leaving is sorrow and despair. We can understand. Sympathize.

And yet, Jesus tells them to “rejoice” that Jesus is going back to the Father. Be glad, that Jesus is leaving them? It doesn’t make sense. Be glad, that you are going? – You can probably hear the disciples murmur under their breath, trying to figure it out.

In coping with his absence, Jesus nevertheless gives them something even better. The door of his physical presence is closing. But another, better door, is opening. This is unexpected, never-before-seen, and unplanned (from the disciples’ point of view):

After he leaves, Jesus’ presence will be within them: Earlier in this chapter (v.20), Jesus says: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, they will have the power and the grace to do great things in the name of Jesus. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).

In order for the new door to open, the old door must close. The only way the disciples of Jesus can receive the Holy Spirit and do and be all that they are meant to be and do, is only after Jesus leaves them and returns to his Father in heaven.

The promises of God are rich. We may not see the outcome or how it will all turn out, in the end. Yet, it is true: Once a door closes, another will open. And it will not be what we think. It will be better!

It’s ok to fall (3): Jesus leads us there

The beginning of a story introduces the characters, but it also sets things up for what readers can expect later in the book. The writer of a good story will craft, early on, a good ‘set up’ for the plot development. Here’s an example, and you tell me what you think will happen later in the story:

At the beginning of this story, we read about a couple of children walking home from school, as they always do, along a familiar path. However, their route goes by the town’s cemetery, a place they have never visited. It remains a mystery to them. The cemetery is guarded by spiked, iron-wrought gates and surrounded by tall, thick cedar hedges.

The children are coming of age when their curiosity is piquing, and they ask their parents if they can venture into the cemetery. But they are warned repeatedly from all quarters: “Don’t ever, ever, EVER play in the cemetery! Especially, after dark!”

Now, what do you think will happen as a result of this ‘set up’ in the story line? They’ll likely go there! — into the cemetery, at night, perhaps under scary or tension-filled circumstances. And, we want to read on to find out how, as our own imaginations grow! It’s true, when we are ordered not to do something in some unequivocal, unyielding, non-explanatory way, it’s something we will usually end up doing! The story is a snap-shot of life.

Social history bears witness to this human dynamic: In 1920, law-makers south of the border enacted the 18th Amendment which attempted to curb the evils of liquor. Laws were passed against the sale and trade of alcohol. The result? After Prohibition was finally lifted, historians showed that the consumption of alcohol by the general population actually increased during those ‘prohibitive’ years. (Strayer & Gatzke, “The Mainstream of Civilization since 1500”, Harcourt, Toronto, 1984, p.730)

“Brick-wall” parenting, as some call it, often fails. Because children don’t grow in an environment where the evils of the world can be talked about, reasoned through and struggled with in loving, patient and understanding ways. They just outright rebel.

Perhaps it was employing some reverse-psychology that spurred Martin Luther to say those infamous words: “Sin boldly … !” But I like to emphasize the latter part of that quote: “Sin boldly … and trust the Lord even more.” Luther doesn’t deny or hide away from sin. He just trumps it, with the Lord!

When I assert repeatedly the theme of this sermon series for Lent: “It’s okay to fall”, I am NOT encouraging you to sin. Because you don’t need to purposely go out and find sin and suffering. You don’t need to seek out suffering, as if it’s a choice we can make (eg. “I think I’ll go out and sin today”; or, “I don’t think I’ll sin today!”)

Sin is something that we must learn to live with. It’s a part of our lives. Sin is not something we can ‘will’ away by the force of our self-righteous toil to purge ourselves somehow. If you think yourself a good Christian, you may be good at hiding your sin. But honest, faithful, authentic Christians will struggle monumentally with their sin, and not need to put on masks of perfection when they come to church.

Life happens. Life is ‘done unto us’. Mistakes are made. I can’t explain why God created a world where suffering is so much a part of the journey of life. The better, more meaningful question, I believe, is to consider what the suffering and the sin has to teach us about ourselves in relationship to God, in the journey to redemption.

In other words, it’s okay to fall, because that is where Jesus leads us. In the Gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, after Jesus is baptized, “The Spirit of God immediately drove him into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) where he spent forty days, tempted by Satan. This part of Jesus’ life is for me the image I hold whenever I pray the traditional English translation of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation”.

Because, while Jesus does not cause my sinning, Jesus leads me into the wilderness of my life where I must confront all those temptations, the brokenness, weaknesses, despair, anger, fear, guilt — that cause my sinning. Jesus takes me there, into the barren land of my soul. He leads the way. I must follow.

The formal ‘Invitation to the Lenten discipline’ in most liturgies begins with a call to self-examination — even before repenting, praying, fasting and works of love strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Leader’s Desk Edition, Augsburg Fortress, p.617). Self-examination is an act of profound humility and honesty. And it could very well be the most difficult task in the Lenten journey.

Here is some good news: Jesus is not afraid. Because he has already gone to the darkest place of all — the Cross, and then even descended into hell as we affirm in the Creeds. I can persevere through any turmoil life may offer, because Jesus is there, right beside me, helping me get through it.

What makes the consequences of our sin worse, I suspect, is the kind of thinking that suggests Jesus cannot be present if or whenever we go into those dark places of our lives. Our prejudice may be that Jesus cannot be there in the shameful, anger-ridden, fear-devastated places of our suffering. We thus delude ourselves into believing “I am alone” in my suffering. The Gospel, however, teaches us otherwise.

I was so inspired by the record number of folks we had out on Shrove Tuesday for our pancake party — including almost a dozen folks from the neighbourhood who had never been with us before! We danced, we sang, we ate, we enjoyed music together.

When we are in the desert of our lives confronting our sin and suffering, it is so important to know, again, who your friends are, your family, your community, your church — and simply experience their presence. And by their presence, their loving support — even in the darkest time of our lives. Just being there together, can make a huge difference.

Therefore, I can be encouraged that as Jesus was waited upon by the angels who gave him the things he needed to get through his wilderness suffering, so then Jesus will not abandon me in my desert. He’ll be right there beside me, and give me what I need (and maybe not always what I want).

It’s okay to fall, because Jesus leads me into that place that I would rather avoid. And even that place where I might be tempted to go. Because I don’t go alone. Thanks be to God.

My 1st youth group: A critical invitation

Our ‘Back to Church 2013’ preparatory group got to work right away. Each of us were assigned homework to complete before our next meeting a week later.

In 250 words we were to journal an answer to the following question: Describe a time when you responded positively to an invitation from the church. So, here is mine ….

I could remember when as a thirteen year old I was very much aware the church had a youth group. But I was the pastor’s kid and, well, I was in worship every week. I had the impression that church leaders sort of expected me to go or at least not give the excuse that “I didn’t know”. I suppose that throughout my childhood and youth my relationship with the church was wrapped up in the enigma of assumptions and presumptions. And it may very well still be!

Frankly, I didn’t know what to do about the start of another year of youth group, meeting every Tuesday night at the church. I remember feeling a little anxious, socially. My father, the pastor, quietly indicated to me that youth group might be a good idea.

But I wasn’t in a space to act on his recommendation alone, although people presumed it would be the most natural line of communication. Their presumption may have given them permission not to bother taking any responsibility in the matter. (Perhaps I’m presuming now, too!)

I observe to this day parents who are down on themselves on account of what they see as their failure not to get their teenage (and older) kids to church. This, even though they would be the first to admit that parents aren’t always the best people positioned for the critical invite.

Everything changed for me after the youth group leader came up to me one Sunday after worship, and asked: “Would you like to come to youth group on Tuesday evening? I think you might enjoy it.” It was an awkward moment for both of us — for him because I could tell he was a bit nervous; for me, because I wasn’t honestly sure whether I wanted to go and what I should say in response.

In the end, I went. Maybe because I knew some of the youth that were going — and I thought they were pretty cool. But mostly because that core group demonstrated through its various activities and adventures together a really strong connection with each other and their faith in God.

Because that individual (not a family member, not a pastor) asked me, despite my status as the infamous PK (i.e. Pastor’s Kid) who should know all things church, my spiritual journey took the course it did — eventually landing me at the seminary, and working as an ordained pastor for over 15 years now.

If that particiular invitation wasn’t made at that critical time, who knows where I would have gone and done with my life? Let me just say how grateful I am for TS — his quiet courage, his guts, his boldness despite his nervousness. Thank you.

I know as parent today that I have a great responsibility in the spiritual development of my own children. I take that seriously. However, I know from my own experience that it’s not just the parents who will determine the outcome of their children’s faith journeys. Others are just as important, even more so, in offering that critical invitation.

Okay, that was more than 250 words!