Prayer: “Help”

When I heard this prayer I thought it related well and in a humorous way to how well we follow the ‘rules’ of our faith:

“Dear Lord, I am happy to report, so far this day has gone well: I haven’t coveted anyone their belongings; I haven’t harboured ill-will to my neighbours; I haven’t spoken hateful words or done anything out of spite to harm anyone; I want to help out in the church food-bank this week; I’m even praying to you now! I am thankful that this day has been going so well, Lord. But I think I’m going to need some help, once I get out of bed. Amen.”

Indeed, how well do we follow the commandments of God? The very act of getting out of bed almost guarantees we will make mistakes no matter our good intentions. It is our common humanity.

One of the functions of the Law, from a Lutheran point of view, is to make us realize that we totally depend on the grace of God. Let’s be honest. We need help, and we can’t do it on our own. No matter how hard we try, we will always miss the mark and mess up in some way. If there is anything good that comes out of our work, it is a gift and a grace.

This morning’s Gospel (John 13:31-35) was also read at the Maundy Thursday liturgy last month. Maundy means the commandment to love. It is fair to say that these words of Jesus capture the essence of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: In all we are called to be and do, is to personify love.

In this love, we see the glory of God. Glory. A statement attributed to Saint Ireneus of the early church comes to mind: “The glory of God is a human fully realized”. 

I take that to mean that God’s glory is not something other-worldly so much as something discovered in the ordinary, real, weak, broken life of a person who is able to receive with open heart the gifts of another, the gifts of grace and love. That is the glory of God. So intertwined with Jesus’ suffering as a human on the night of his betrayal (v.31-32), when Jesus needed to depend on his Father.

Faith is not just about believing and thinking doctrines and dogma, it’s more than that; it’s not just about believing, it’s about behaving. We have to pay attention to the behaving part. We must remember something I have heard our bishops say for many years now: Those who claim the greatest truth must demonstrate the greatest love.

Peter Steinke, who has given much thought, books and workshops about healthy churches and leadership today, told the true story of mega-church pastor whose congregation in the southern U.S. was doing really well. By all counts, Pastor Chase was enjoying unprecedented success in his vocation. 

And yet, he had confessed to Steinke, he was suffering from a malaise of the spirit. You could call it, a crisis of faith. Chase was losing a sense of personal direction in his work. 

Hearing about his struggle, a brother-in-law who was a member of a Franciscan order invited Chase to visit him in Italy. And so, Chase took his leave and spent that time resting, reading and visiting his extended family. 

Nearing the end of his time away, the brother-in-law invited him to come for a day to the AIDS hospice which the Franciscans managed and served the several men who were terminally ill. After working in the kitchen a couple of hours, a care-giver invited Chase upstairs to help with one of the residents. The man he looked upon was emaciated. His skin looked like it would fall off the bone. He couldn’t have been more than 90 pounds.

The care-giver greeted the man with a kiss on the forehead, and then looked at Chase: “Could you please lift him into the bath for me?” Chase carried the man and laid him into the bath water. The care-giver then asked, “Would you please wash him?” At first hesitant, Chase understood that this man needed a thorough wash. And so he did.

When they were finished and walking down the stairs the care-giver thanked Chase for his help. She indicated they were short-staffed that day and Chase had provided a real service to the hospice. “I can tell you have a Christian background,” she said. Chase responded: “It is I who need to thank you, Sister, because today I became a Christian.” (1)

“They will know we are Christians by our love,” goes the song. We have a choice to make. We need to be intentional as Christians. We cannot afford not to be, in this day and age. We can choose whether or not to love. 

We can’t save ourselves, or do anything to garner points for heaven, for we will always fall short no matter how heroic, self-giving or impressive our good deeds of faith appear. This is not about doing these things in order to make ourselves right with God. It is not about not doing anything at all. It is, however, about choosing actions that demonstrate care, compassion and love for the sake of others, and so, for God. 

It won’t ever be perfect. But that’s not the point. It is about behaviour that flows genuinely from a heart of love. And understands that all is a gift: The gift of faith, the gift of each other, the gift of community, the gift of Jesus Christ who is alive and lives in the Body of Christ, the church, and in the world he so loves.

(1) – adpated from a video entitled, “To Make a Difference”, presented in an upcoming workshop called “Apple Tree” by the Eastern Synod-ELCIC. Apple Tree is a workshop to help stimulate conversations about purpose and mission

God is always up to something

“… you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” Romans 13:11-12

When the first spell of wintery weather hit last week, I instinctively plugged in the new lawn ornament we purchased for display during the holiday season. Normally, we wait until later in December to light it all up. But with the advent of the storm, and the dissipating daylight by mid-afternoon, I felt I needed a boost of light to distract me from the dark thoughts of coming winter.

We had a family gathering that afternoon. And as family members gazed  out the picture window at the front of our house onto the lawn now covered by a couple inches of snow, they laughed. I didn’t anticipate that this six-foot tall Christmas tree would blink in sequences and bright colours enough to light up the whole yard. “Looks like the Vegas strip now on Ida Street,” I joked, thinking of all the shopping still on my ‘to do’ list and all the things that needed to be done. I felt the shroud of stress envelope my being.

That’s why Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, may be one of the most difficult seasons for Christians to observe. Most attempts in our culture to cover the darkness, literally and figuratively, only ramp up the anxiety, the fear and even the feelings of isolation that the festive season brings.

And yet, annual celebrations like Christmas are meant to transform our lives for the better. The message of God’s incarnation (Jesus, the Son of God, being born into human flesh) is transformative since now, in faith, we know God has entered our reality and changed forever the fabric of creation.

But how can the stress and incessant activity of the season contribute positively to our well-being, healing and growth? I don’t think it can, unless we give ourselves permission to hold off from fully embracing the joy of Christmas. Holding off may seem counterproductive and counterintuitive. Yet, the wisdom of the ages suggests that in order to see the new thing, we must first be willing to let go of what is not helpful. In other words, there’s some work we first have to do.

The prophet Isaiah announced the new thing which ushered Israel’s return to their homeland around Jerusalem. In order to start on that path, however, they would have to release their attachments to Babylon. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

The Israelites, apparently, had a ‘vision’ problem. They, as the way opened for them to return home, could not visualize such a Godly freedom and transformation of their lives for the good; they could not see God at work making a way out of their problem for them.

This pattern of being blinded to God’s work has repeated throughout the sacred stories of scripture: The same we read when the Israelites, centuries before, escaped bondage in Egypt, but spent decades wandering in the desert to find their “promised land”. Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to the Bishop, quoted on twitter this week the words of Peter Steinke who wrote: “It took one year to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but forty years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. We like familiar patterns” (@RiittaHepomaki).

Perhaps we, too, are like those ancient Israelites. We get stuck in familiar patterns. We limit ourselves, therefore, from seeing what God is up to.

So, we have to practice letting go. This is what liturgical season like Advent, and practices of prayer like Christian Meditation offer to us: Opportunities to contemplate, reflect and surrender those habits of the ego that merely gloss over the darkness of our lives.

How do we let go of fear, isolation, cynicism and defensiveness? How can we lay aside those things that do not, in the end, satisfy? How can we put on that which is good and wholesome?

Well, we first have to embrace the darkness, not circumvent it. God will make a way through the desert, not around it. We need to acknowledge the fear, the defensiveness, the isolation and the cynicism which normally hides the true light from shining. Like a piece of clothing, in order to take it off, we first must get a good grip on it. We need to ‘own’ it in order to cast it away.

This is why Advent is the time for confession, silence, stillness, penitence, waiting and preparation. These weeks leading up to Christmas give us an opportunity to prepare our hearts for the true joy, the true light that always comes into the world — not to get distracted by the glitz and hustle that, in the end, only keep us stuck in those familiar patterns of blindness to the truth.

When we pause to take stock, and honestly confess the truth that we are afraid, that we are defensive, that we are cynical, that we are isolated, etc. — the true light and joy comes not because of anything we can muster up, fabricate, manipulate or engineer. True happiness does not come in me plugging in that blinking Christmas tree on the front lawn — as much as I thought instinctively it might.

True joy comes when we wait for it. In the slowing down, pausing, and calm presence of ourselves, we can see better the gift that comes to us in the moment. Saint Paul seems pretty adamant  in his letter to the Romans to stress that it is “NOW”, in this moment that our salvation has come. It is in the ordinary, commonplace, unspectacular activities of our daily lives that matters most to Christ’s coming to us. Do we not see it?

The story is told of a wise Rabbi who had many students come to him for advice. Once, a younger student came to the Rabbi and asked, “How can we tell when the dawn has arrived? How can we tell the difference between night and day?” It was a good question, the Rabbi acknowledged, since early in the morning the change is not easily perceptible: One moment it is night, the next it is already day — but when is the exact moment when it changes over?

“You know the night is gone, and the day has arrived,” the Rabbi responded, “when the faces of those around you in the dark are no longer mere shadows that all look the same, but when you can finally recognize who that person actually is, standing in front of you, when the light allows it.”

The Light of Christ is coming. God is always up to something good, even in the darkness. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when the stress amps up for the season. Even when we have difficulty letting go of familiar patterns. God is up to something, always.

So, in the meantime as we struggle to let go, let us learn to wait in the darkness, standing together. And then rejoice, when the light does come to illuminate our way and the gift of those near to us. In Christ.