Faith in the dark

Sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther claimed we are “justified by faith”. That means, we are in a right relationship with God because of the gift of faith in us.

Anyone and everyone, therefore, can live in faith. And there is nothing anyone of us can do to earn good favor with God.

Faith, to Luther, was to trust in God and God’s promises, despite your circumstance or any evidence to the contrary. What validates faith in you is not your external situation or material well-being, but God’s purposes, intentions, and promises for your life and the life of others.

Nevertheless, faith is not something you have. It is still something you do, but not to save ourselves. How do we deal with this paradox?

A brother once asked an older monk in a desert community, “Which is holier, someone who leads a solitary life for six days a week, giving himself much pain; or, another who simply takes care of the sick?”

The old man smiled and replied, “Even if the one who withdraws for six days were to hang himself up by his nostrils, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.”[1]

Self-denial and isolation never substitute for an active faith born out of love for our neighbour.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Jesus answers the trick question posed to him by the Pharisees, “And give to God what belongs to God.”[2] The giving-to-God part, we get. But giving to Caesar?

Giving to Caesar ties us to this earth – to its politics, to its confusion, despair and hardship. Giving to Caesar, after all, was not popular among the Jews resisting Roman occupation in 2nd century Palestine. Giving to Caesar was fraught with political controversy – as it is today in the parlance of paying taxes. Giving to Caesar is not something we would normally associate with being faithful, being Christian.

But it is. Why? It certainly is not a perfect activity free from blemish and beyond reproach. But we do it anyway.

It is not a perfect thing to do faith. But when has it ever been? We give, in faith. We act, in faith. We love, in faith. Even though our response in faith is never perfect.

In faith, we always walk in the darkness. We see, using Paul’s language, “a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Medieval Spanish theologian, John of the Cross, called it “luminous darkness”. Because the darkness is also part of God’s creation. We need darkness in order to see the light.

Classical literature and art suggests the spiritual significance of darkness in one’s journey of life and faith. Parsifal’s quest for the Holy Grail begins by entering the forest at “the darkest place.” Dante begins his paradise journey “alone in a dark wood,” and it continues through purgatory and hell. Darkness is often the language of faithful, committed, spiritual people, a language and reality that cannot really be separated from light.[3]

Even in the beginning, as recorded in Genesis, the Bible brings the two together. In the first verses of Genesis, God names every day of creation “good”.[4] Except the first two days – the days when darkness is separated from light and when heaven is separated from earth. Darkness and light must not be separated. The real world, as Jesus teaches, is always a field of weeds and wheat and we can never presume to eliminate the weeds.[5] Light and dark belong together. You can’t have one without the other, to do faith.

In the Hebrew reading for today, the prophet Isaiah renders God’s words: “I create darkness”. God says that God will “give you the treasures of darkness … hidden in secret places.”[6]

This is the way of living without all the answers, living with ambiguity, living without denying or pretending away or even avoiding the contradictions of your life.

This is the way through the desert.

When King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon around 539 B.C.E. he let the exiled Israelites living there go back home to re-build Jerusalem. After living by the rivers of Babylon for decades, the people of Israel had a decision to make in response to their newfound freedom: Would they stay? Some did. But many – a remnant, we call them – decided to make the long trek through the desert back home.

What is more, King Cyrus of Persia did not even know God.[7] And yet, he was chosen by God to fulfill God’s purposes. God would even “go ahead”[8] of Cyrus to clear the way for God’s mission.

The way through the desert is not the way of certainty, security and safety, to be sure. The way through the desert is not an easy way. But the dark way, often in biblical times encountered in the harsh climate of the desert, is the way home. It is the way of healing, transformation and the new, good thing God is doing for us and in us and the world.

The Israelites could not avoid the desert even though they were freed from exile. They had to trust not only the dark way, they had to trust the foreigner and pagan King Cyrus to believe what he was doing for them, to believe he was in truth an instrument of God.

Talk about contradiction and ambiguity in faith! Would we, today, confer such a trust in someone outside the traditional community of faith? Would we, for example, take to heart Gord Downie’s medium of pop rock to advocate for better relationships with Indigenous People? Would we trust the revelation of God’s purposes in people of other religions, newcomers to Canada who bring with them different cultures from ours? Could these people and others also be instruments of God and God’s purposes, for us today?

The Israelites were faced with such a conundrum. And we know what they decided to do. They had to walk home in the desert, in the darkness, and trust that even through Cyrus, God’s unknowing servant, the mighty God of Israel was moving behind the scenes of everything that was transpiring.[9]

The way to healing and resolution of whatever troubles you today is a desert way of darkness. Yet, as someone once said, “In every cross we bear, therein lies a great treasure.”

A group of white settlers learned the hard way in the fall of 1849 as they set out from the Utah Territory toward gold fields in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Taking a shortcut recommended to them by the leader of a passing pack train, they headed into a 140-mile long stretch of desert waste known to us today as Death Valley. It was a tragic mistake.

Twenty-seven wagons started into that long desert valley east of the Sierra Nevada. Only one of them came out. A survivor of that misguided party spoke of the dreadful sameness of the terrain, the awfulness of the Panamint Mountains, remembering only hunger and thirst and an awful silence.

Two months later, as the only surviving wagon topped the westernmost crest of the distant mountains, one of the settlers looked back on the place that had nearly claimed them all, and said: “Goodbye, Death Valley.” That’s how the site received its name.

But there’s another name the Spanish used to describe this God-forsaken land. They referred to it as ‘la Palma de la Mano de Dios’, the very palm of God’s hand.[10]

Could it be that even in the midst of the most dangerous climate and terrain on earth, where it’s 134 degrees (57 degrees Celsius) in the shade exposed to winds in excess of one hundred miles (160 kilometers) an hour, wanderers have found God? It is God, actually, who finds us, in the darkest most arid times and places of our own lives.

It is during these times and places where people become accustomed to risk, vulnerability and brokenness that they build an unshakable trust in the other? It is during these dark times and places where you confront your inevitable loss of control and the specter of your own eventual demise head on. It is in these moments where we have to wait for God, ask God for help, and learn to trust God over and above anything we may be able to accomplish by the might of our own hand.

In the dark, desert journeys of our lives especially, we remain inscribed in palms of God’s hands.[11] La Palma de la Mano de Dios. You may not understand all the contradictions and ambiguities of your life, right now. You may not be able to figure out all the inconsistencies and paradoxes of life. You may not be able to resolve the problems of your life or in the world.

But, believe this: There is Someone who does. As you wander in the darkness of faith, never forget that God is bringing to resolution and completion all the confusion and contradiction of your life and the life of the world.

And, it is all good.

 

[1] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (.202

[2] Matthew 22:21

[3] Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2016), p.39.

[4] Genesis 1:3-8

[5] Matthew 13:24-30

[6] Isaiah 45:3,7

[7] Isaiah 45:4-5

[8] Isaiah 45:2

[9] Carolyn J. Sharp in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.175

[10] Belden C. Lane, ibid., p.231-232.

[11] Isaiah 49:16

Funeral sermon – Thanksgiving

Isaiah 25:6-10 —

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. 

And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all 

faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, 

for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day,

   Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.

   This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain. 

It is not insignificant, I believe, that Peter died on Thanksgiving. It’s a paradox of the utmost to grapple with this most grievous reality — on a day when we are supposed to be thankful for all good things, someone beloved is taken away from us. The pain of loss digs sharply into our hearts to have to face death when this loss occurs on Thanksgiving weekend, of all times.

How can we be thankful in such circumstances? Is this possible?

We say that a funeral service is about a “celebration of life”. When we name it such, we choose to focus on life. Then, perhaps we can begin to approach the notion of giving thanks even amidst the turmoil of grief.

Because “death does not end our relationship with those who have died. Relationships at their deepest level are not of the body, but of the spirit. And in that sense, they are never over. The crux of a relationship lies not in its form, but in its content.” (1) Living into heaven, but starting on earth.

It is our work on earth, especially now that Peter has died, to tap the gift of faith in us and deepen our understanding of the eternal nature of relationships, and the eternal nature of love. This understanding, I believe, can bring peace to even a tormented heart.

We need to use our imaginations, and examine our beliefs honestly. The gift of faith grants those who wish to exercise it a rich imagination that is filled with God’s good promises, and the blessing of love lived out.

The image the prophet Isaiah paints is rich indeed! A feast on the mountain where there is more than enough good food and wine for all people! What a beautiful image of heaven, a promise to those who can imagine such a thing. And to all people, not just to those whose faith seems impressive on the outside, not just to those who appear spiritual. But to all.

Since Peter, I hear, was quite a cook, he would appreciate the attention to detail required to put on such a scrumptious and generous gift of food for all. I can imagine him today, one of the cooks in God’s kitchen!

Thanksgiving, as I’ve said before, is not a feeling that presumes all is well all of the time. In truth, thanksgiving is an action that stems from a belief in the never-ending power and unconditional nature of God’s love, forgiveness and presence — especially in the darkest and most trying of times.

“Faith, hope and love remain. And the greatest of these is love,” writes Saint Paul to the Corinthian Church. “Your anger, O God, lasts for but a moment; your love and mercy endureth forever,” sings the Psalmist. Again, Saint Paul to the Romans: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord — not even death, nor principalities, nor things to come.”

These promises of God’s enduring love can be an anchor for you in a tumultuous, stormy sea of life. Such visions of God’s generosity are like salve to the troubled soul.

As you grieve the death of a dear husband, son, brother, brother-in-law and friend, I pray your thanksgiving for his life leaves a legacy of God’s love amongst yourselves, and in the world, for the days ahead.

Peace be with you,

Amen.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment” (HarperOne, New York, 2016), p.123-127

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!

Ho! Have a drink!

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters …” (Isaiah 55:1)

Around Jericho, in the Judean wilderness, it was hot and dry. Not the humidity we are used to in the Great Lakes area of North America. So, the heat wasn’t so bad actually.

And because I wasn’t sweating, I didn’t feel thirsty. And yet, as I disembarked from the air conditioned tour bus into 43 degrees celsius heat, our tour guide insisted we take periodic sips from our water bottles as we wandered on desert paths.

It’s common today, even in our urban lifestyles, to carry a water bottle around with you. And discipline yourself to be finished by a certain time of the day in order to insure the intended amount of consumption. We are told that just because we don’t feel thirsty doesn’t mean our bodies don’t need the regular hydration. We have to drink water even though we don’t feel like it.

And we need people in our lives to remind us to do so.

Many years ago pastors tended to just drop by and visit parishioners, unannounced. Today, folks prefer more ‘to make an appointment’. Maybe because we are busier. Or, think we need to be.

I like the joke of the pastor who visited on the fly. She would just randomly choose a member on a visiting day and drop by. After the pastor rung the door bell a couple of times, a young mother holding an infant in her arms opened the door and stood in the foyer surprised and suddenly self-conscious because of the unannounced visitor standing there.

“Hello, I am making pastoral visits today and thought to stop by and see how you are doing,” the pastor introduced herself.  After sitting down in the living room strewn with unfolded laundry and empty sippy-cups, the pastor asked the mother if she could see her bible, because she wanted to read a favourite bible verse as they prayed together.

The mother, eager to impress, called her 9-year-old child to her side. “Go, and get Mommy’s favourite book!” The obedient child ran off and returned shortly, proudly handing over to her the Sears Christmas Catalogue.

At a visit, regardless of the circumstances of the visit, hosts will still offer the visitor a drink of coffee, tea, wine, beer, juice, or plain water. Depending on how much time the visitor has for the visit, the visitor will either decline or agree. Perhaps your day is so busy that you are running from appointment to appointment and not willing or feeling able to sit for a while, and receive the gift.

That is when we need the prophets of our lives to lean over the coffee table and say, “Hey, you will have a drink! Don’t argue!” The personal encounter is more important than schedules, expectations and perceived busyness. The gift is being offered. Accept it! Now is the time to stop, and drink from the source of what is most important in life. And get over yourself!

And that might not be what you think, know or expect to give you what you need. In other words, you might not feel like the truth. But you still need it. So, drink!

And trust that what may not always ‘feel’ like what you want to do has nevertheless something of value, something worth paying attention to, something worth pursuing. God is mystery. God and God’s ways are ultimately not something we can intellectual comprehend, fully. Faith is not merely thinking about Jesus or the commandments. Faith is not a function of a mental construct alone.

In living out our faith, the prophet Isaiah points to the pitfall of our thinking, our thoughts: “Let the unrighteous forsake their thoughts” he says (v.7). “For my thoughts are not your thoughts …” (v.8-9). When we think too much about anything, we will get lost. A bishop once said, “My mind and thinking is like a bad neighbourhood; the more time I spend in it, the more I get into trouble.”

In the best-selling story of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, someone affirms with these words Harold’s extraordinary adventure that was inspiring many: “Maybe that’s what the world needs: Less of what makes sense, and more faith!”

Faith is a knowing that does not know. Faith is a knowing that knows we will never have all the answers about God and God’s ways intellectualized, rationalized and scripted into neat, logical arguments or plans. Faith, according to Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Faith is a knowing that descends into, and is directed by, the heart – the soul.

We are blessed here to carry the name “Faith Lutheran Church” to identify our community. It is therefore incumbent on us us to live according to faith and trust in God who is the source of our life and all things good.

Last Sunday, I was invited to a young adult forum at Notre Dame Roman Catholic Basilica on Sussex Drive in downtown Ottawa. The young people there were interested in the relationship between Lutherans and Catholics. One of the questions that arose in our discussion was: Can Lutherans and Catholics share in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion/Eucharist? In other words, can we drink from the same Cup of Life as a sign of our unity in the Body of Christ?

I referred to a Youtube video of Pope Francis recently visiting a Lutheran church in Rome. He was asked there whether Lutherans and Catholics can share the same cup at the altar. He responded that he didn’t want to say anything more than this: “Life is bigger than intellectual discourse and doctrine” (I paraphrase). Life is bigger than our doctrines, our feeble attempts to make sense of, and draw exclusive lines around, a mystery that is Christ present with us. Life is bigger than the lines we draw between us, in the desert sands. 

When all along, what we truly need is to drink together from the fountain of Life. Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks from the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Come, everyone who thirsts. French thinker, Gustave Thibon, once wrote: “L’ame … se nourrit de sa faim”, meaning: the soul feeds from its hunger. Whenever we are thirsty — long for something more than what the world offers — this is a sure sign we are on the right path. General feelings of unrest and angst are catalysts for transformation and positive change in our lives. Whatever makes us uneasy at first, may in truth be a key towards the path to your eventual growth in faith and life.

So, come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters of Life. Drink! And you will be satisfied.

Remember, life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.

An impossible call

After months of deadly fighting, the four tribes on post-apocalyptic, war-ravaged earth have achieved a tenuous peace treaty. The band of new comers barely catches their breath before they receive a signal for help. The distress call comes from somewhere in the borderlands, forbidden zones marking the territories occupied by the combative tribes. 

The earth’s inhabitants avoid these areas altogether now, anxious that any movements within the borderlands may be construed as aggressive. Those venturing into the forbidden land may be seen as provoking another war.

The distress signal calls the young troop into action. As they prepare to leave the relative safety of their compound, the elder statesman turns to the leader of the rescue mission and says, “We’ve lost people and shed blood to make peace. Don’t mess this up.”

Of course, such dialogue functions as foreshadowing — meaning, yeah, they’ll likely do just that: mess it up. Such a story line, or a variation thereof, sounds like many in popular fiction and TV today.(1)

When the stakes are high and there is so much to lose, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). This is no walk-in-the-park calling. The appointment from God is not a nice, extra little job to do as a hobby. This is not a proposition for an easy, comfortable life-style. This is not an extra-curricular weekend, work-life balance proposal.

The stakes are high. Your life is on the line. Everything you have and know is placed at great risk. You are more likely to fail. You can really mess this up. Not only for yourself, but for a whole lot of people.

Can we really be hard on Jeremiah (oh, and Moses, Sarah, David, Isaiah, Mary, Zechariah, Timothy and others in the Bible) who first questions the call from God? Doubt the veracity of the claim. Question the wisdom of such a move. Balk at the incredulous proposition of this word. Jeremiah understandably doubts his ability, and knee-jerks into finding excuses: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (v.6). 

It is the natural, human response. God, though, does not give up on us.

A caution: This is not a word just for the professional religious. Another excuse today would be for the people of God to dismiss this text as irrelevant, pertaining only to those discerning a call to full-time ministry and ordination. There is here a word to all who face seemingly insurmountable odds:

A call to attend with care, compassion and dedication one who is dying. A call not to give up, but persevere in a course of action. A call to leave an unhealthy relationship behind in order to embrace an uncertain, unclear future. A call to stop doing something without being certain about what will replace it. A call to change one’s mind and adopt a different approach, perspective and opinion on a long-held belief. A call to do something or go somewhere that you had never thought possible in your life.

Now, we are all saying, “Oh, Lord, I can’t do that. Impossible!”

“Do not be afraid … for I am with you to deliver you” (v.8).

When against all the odds we are faced with an incredible task, our relationship with God is brought into sharp focus. What we really believe about God rises to the surface. Our faith is exposed. What do we see there? 

I wonder whether in anxious moments of life we expect God to do something for us — intervene with thunder and lightning to show the way unambiguously in a booming Charlton Heston voice from above; or, more to the point, do the thing that needs to be done while I stand on the sidelines, spectating.

I wonder whether in the anxious moments of life what we really need to ask is not what can God do for us but who can God be for us? (2) When we are down-and-out, will God be our comfort? When we face a decision, will God be “the source of our courage, the keeper of our troubles, the teacher of our prayer, the guide of our pathway, the nurturer of our virtue, the companion of our soul”? 

The being God, rather than the do-ing God, keeps the boundaries clear as to who needs to do what job, and whose job it is anyway to work as prophet “over nations and over kingdoms” (v.10). The being God won’t give in to our responsibility-shirking tendency to pass the buck on the job we are called to do. When we actually risk doing it, nevertheless, God will be there for us. God will not forsake us. No matter whether we fail or succeed.

There is a wonderful grace that comes with the promise of God, as it did to Jeremiah, to be with him through it all. Yet, this grace comes not in words alone. This grace is not reserved nor exclusively confined to the realm of the abstract — a dis-embodied, disconnected cerebral, mental event. This grace is not the purview solely of an internal process.

God’s grace is embodied. It comes to us in the real world. “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth …” (v.9a). Touched. The image is rather odd, yet similar to the burning coal that touches the mouth of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his call (Isaiah 6:6-7). 

God validates, confirms, and communicates the call through the concrete, material aspects of our lives. Some may call it a ‘sign’. I prefer seeing it in terms of what you need in order to do the job. God supplies us, gives us the resources and personal support we need, to get the job done.

When we confront and respond to an impossible call, God will have already given us the gift we need to do it. We may not see it, acknowledge it or make sense of it right away. Yet, God equips those whom God calls to do what seems impossible. A poster used to hang in my home office: God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called. We are qualified to do what we must.

What has God already given to you, in order to do the impossible thing standing between you and God’s beautiful vision for your life, and the life of the world?

(1) – such as “The 100” CW TV, season 3 episode 1, based on the books by Kass Morgan

(2) – Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door” Green Press Initiative, 2008 digital version, Week 2 – Knocking on the Door, p.18-19

Advent 4 Eucharistic Prayer

We praise you gracious God

That since the beginning your Word created all.

You spoke to your people through the prophets.
You prepared us for your coming in the One

Jesus, who came to feed the hungry, 

who promised to come to us in your Spirit, 

and who promised at the end of time to come again.

We praise you, loving God, that you come to us now

In the Spirit of your Son

In the bread and the wine.
For, in the night before your death
You ate with your friends;

You took bread, gave thanks, broke it,

And gave it to them, saying,

“Take and eat. This is my body given for you.

Do this in remembrance of me.”
Again, after supper, he took the cup,

Gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying,

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,

Shed for you and for all people,

For the forgiveness of sins.

Do this for the remembrance of me.”
We praise you that you fill our lives with Peace

In the giving and the receiving

In the inviting and the responding

In the offering and the accepting
You come, Lord Jesus, as you did to Mary

into our minds, hearts and bodies

You come, Lord Jesus, as you did to Bethlehem 

into this dark world
You come, Lord Jesus, to shine your light 

Upon the joy and the sadness

Upon the love and the hate

Upon the courage and the fear

Upon the peace and the anger

You come, Lord Jesus, into our lives whether we are prepared or not

You come, Lord Jesus, whether we are ready or not

You come, Lord Jesus, into our imperfect, broken, wounded lives
You come, Lord Jesus, 

to restore what is broken, 

to reconcile the divided, 

to heal what is wounded,
To fulfill your Word, and

to give all people Peace.

Changing your mind on faith

This past week I was finishing up on my monthly calls to shut-ins and those who are not easily able to attend worship services here. And it was in a couple of conversations where I felt particularly moved. Of course, I am not mentioning any names or specific circumstances.
“Sometimes I wonder if I have enough faith,” said one.
“When is it that you feel that you might not have enough faith?” I asked, prompting further: “What kinds of things are happening when you think you might not have enough faith?””Whenever things are not going well for me. When I’m suffering, or in pain. When it hurts. When I’m afraid that the worst will happen.”
Speaking Lutheran to Lutheran, I mentioned that the 16th century reformer was an anxious person. Martin Luther was terrified, for example, of dying. “I think that’s probably very normal,” I said. “Even people we consider giants of the faith, were afraid and scared especially when they thought they were going to die.”
Our conversation continued until we concluded that to have faith was not apart from all that scares us or causes us suffering and pain. Faith happens inspite of the difficulties of life. The challenging circumstances of life don’t define and determine our faith or lack thereof; Our faith or lack thereof is expressed amidst the realities of living.
“Faith is real only when we face and embrace the suffering of our lives.”
And it is here that we encounter what Jesus is getting at in the Gospel text today: We are not harmed by what comes from outside of us — including difficult circumstances — but by what is going on inside of us: what we think and say (Mark 7, James 1).
I like the more positive way the Deuteronomist expresses the same lesson — this to the Israelites entering the Promised Land: “Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen [that is, the great acts of God to free the people from slavery in Egypt and sustain them through the desert wanderings] … nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life…” (Deuteronomy 4:9). Don’t forget! Don’t forget who and whose you are! Because what we do comes straight from what and how we think.
If we are honest, this life can take a toe-hold on our imagination — with values, goals, material aspirations and selfish projects that affect our way of thinking. I would add, cultural values that lead us to conclude that only if everything is perfect in my life — no pain, no tears, no suffering and lots and lots of money — then and only then can I have faith, believe in God and be active in my faith.
The Gospel message of Jesus Christ enduring throughout human history is all about a renewing of the mind — embracing a whole new way of thinking. Paul expresses this in one of his letters to the early church: “Be renewed in the way you think …” he counselled the Ephesians (2:23). Because often the way we think — our attitudes and opinions — are downright unhelpful and evil. “All these evil things come from within,” Jesus warns (Mark 7:23).
Sometimes we hold on to our opinions as if they were sacrosanct even though they may be unhelpful. But have we ever really examined our opinions? We often look down upon others (and ourselves), and dare I say politicians, who ‘change their mind’ about something or other. Waffling, we believe, or changing our mind about controversial subjects especially, is bad and suggests a weak personality. And yet God, even, changed his mind about bringing disaster upon the people when Moses and other prophets engaged God in passionate debate (eg. Exodus 32:14). If God is able to change directions, could we not too?
To change our way of thinking to be less self-centred and more other-centred.To change our way of thinking to find meaning more in serving others than serving self.To change our way of thinking about doing something good not out of fear or shame but more out of a heart filled with compassion.
“Once upon a time a king was strolling through the forest and he saw an old man, a poor man, bent over a furrow. He walked up to him and saw that he was planting seeds for chestnut trees. He asked the old man why he was doing it and the old man replied, ‘I love the taste of chestnuts.’
“The king responded, ‘Old man, stop punishing your back bent over a hole in the ground. Do you really not know that by the time even one of these trees has grown tall enough to bear nuts, you may not be around to gather them?’
“And the old man answered, “Your Majesty, if my ancestors had thought the way you do, I would never have tasted chestnuts.'” (Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy, Orion Books, Great Britain, 2007, p.164-165)
I had another inspiring conversation this week with someone who is caring for a loved one suffering with illness. She decided to invite some friends struggling with similar challenges over for a meal. These friends, especially, were down and depressed about their mutually-shared, tough circumstances.
And yet, over the tasty meal and dancing to music and laughter, something shifted in the climate of the meeting. The next day, the host received an email from one of the friends who visited: “Thank you for your generosity and love. I was so encouraged by the visit, that when I returned home, I changed into my gardening clothes, went outside to the front yard and trimmed the bush that had gotten way out of hand.” It was like the fearful, anxious, angst-ridden Martin Luther who said that if he knew the end of the world was going to happen tomorrow, he would still go out and plant an apple tree today. Now, that’s faith.
Here’s my confession today: Often I wonder whether it’s even possible. Whether we can change our minds towards God and God’s ways in Jesus Christ, no matter what circumstance of life in which we find ourselves. Sometimes I doubt that our minds can be renewed into the likeness of Jesus when we are sick, when we feel destitute and deprived, when things don’t go our way. When times are tough, we often knee-jerk into old, often destructive patterns of thinking. Will we, indeed, have enough faith, to see things differently and not despair?
It is here when, despite how I feel, I affirm a faith that says: No matter what you think, Martin, no matter what anyone else thinks, God will not forget you. Even if I have a lapse of memory and forget who I am and whose I am, even though our minds may go completely, this is the promise of the One who created us: “I will not forget you; I have inscribed you on the palms on my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16). Because of who God is, I can therefore act boldly on a way of thinking that is based in trust. Trust this loving God who will not let go of us. Ever. And no matter what.
Thanks be to God!

Marriage: for the heavy-haul

“For if they fall, one will lift up the other” (Ecclesiastes 4:10)
On the journey of life, how well we do depends on with whom we travel. And how well we travel together. I like the name of your business — the brand of your trucking company: “JNB Heavy Haul”. You are not hauling the light stuff. You’re challenging yourself to haul the heaviest stuff that can be pulled by a tractor-trailer on the highways and byways of this continent.
On the road of life, how well we travel together depends, furthermore, on the degree of touch in the relationship. Yes, touch. In our touch-averse culture, the institution of marriage offers couples the benefit and freedom to exercise that public and private right with the fullness, health and joy with which touching another was meant to be.
The popular reading, “The Blessing of the Hands”, brings to our minds this image of holding the hand of your beloved. What is powerful about this poem is that it not only describes those delightful and joyous occasions when hands are held in the sweetness of love. It also brings to mind the larger picture of youth AND ageing, happy AND sad — and even hints at the prospect of death. This perspective includes the heavy-haul of life.
In the blissful exchange of wedding vows you make in the prime of the first half of your life, it is important to sound this deeper note. Because even in the most challenging moments of marriage, life and love, those hands that hold one another can mean everything. The sense of touch with the beloved can get us through times when disappointment, failure, loss, grief, fear and the need for forgiveness press close — as will happen in everyone’s life.
The image of holding hands in those times are equally important to bring to light. Such a bond, forged in the anvil of struggle and conflict, is nearly indestructible. When two people join their hearts, minds and bodies, a third element is brought into the relationship — you can call it ‘the relationship’. And when this happens, you feel it — and everyone else knows it and must respect it: “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). If you ever take ballroom dancing and learn the standard, international steps of, let’s say, a waltz, you soon recognize this ‘third partner’ that is the energy linking two individuals. Both partners step in time with one another and respond in kind to this field of energy between and surrounding them. Call it God.
God, who created you both, makes an eternal promise that will never be broken: “I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” (Psalm 73:23). Originally this promise was made to a people desperate in life’s challenging circumstances and struggles, travelling through the wilderness of life. This promise is made for the long-haul and the heavy-haul of life.
I recently read the story of a woman who had walked seven hundred miles as a refugee to escape a violent war. She was finally able to cross a national boundary out of the war zone. She walked all that way and brought with her an eight-year-old girl, who walked beside her. For seven hundred miles, the child held her hand tightly. When they reached safety, the girl loosened her grip, and the woman looked at her hand: It was raw and bloody with an open wound, because the little girl had held tightly in her fearfulness. This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. (Walter Brueggemann, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”, WJK Kentucky, 2014, p.88-89)
Upon arriving at their destination, can you imagine the joy, relief and gratitude expressed by both the woman and her eight-year-old travel companion? Their relationship is sealed for life, no matter what!
Earlier this year, a colleague of mine from Toronto was celebrating her 25th silver anniversary. In fact it was Valentine’s Day when she and her husband were driving by one of the biggest cemeteries in Toronto. At that moment they were discussing what they should do, to celebrate this joyous occasion. They wondered if they ought spend some money on themselves, treat themselves, to mark such an auspicious point in their lives.
At that moment they passed by the entrance-way to the sprawling cemetery grounds. And hanging over the ornate gate was a great canvass banner with the words printed in Valentine’s Day red: “One-day sale only: 10% off burial plots!”. The couple looked at each other with wide eyes. A few hours later, they drove out of the cemetery chuckling about how they had just dropped $8000 for themselves on their silver anniversary …. to buy two burial plots side by side!
This puts a different slant on those traditional wedding vows, “till death do us part!” And yet, they do so in life with confidence and faith that marital love can stand the test of time, thanks be to God, for the long-haul and the heavy-haul!

New Year’s Goals

It seems to me that so much “success” in our lives is based on setting goals. We set goals in our business ventures; we set goals for our personal self-care — exercise, diet and relationships; we set goals for acquiring the toys and things we want in life. Setting goals motivates us to act!

A person who does not have any goals, we believe, is a person without backbone, floating untethered through life, unprincipled, and usually lazy and poor. A person without any goals, we believe, is rudderless and not making the most of what life can offer. A person without any goals, we believe, are the very people who end up in therapy, counselling, or on the street. They just need to get their life back on track by setting some goals, we believe.

There are some traditions of this time of year that stand out for me. Making New Year’s resolutions is one of them. And I like to ponder what this means, because I need to get back on track with so many things — year after year! And since I do a lot of driving, I like what blogger Jeff Boss has to say about New Year’s resolutions:

“New Year’s resolutions are like traffic. As the driver, your focus is intent while trying to ‘get there;’ you see others pass you by; you get held up at a red light that slows down progress. Distractions such as the radio, crazy drivers, cellphones, preclude you from focusing on the one thing you should: the road ahead. In other words, New Year’s resolutions come and go, ebb and flow, only to be revisited the following year …

“It has been said that the only certainty in life is uncertainty; change is the one ‘thing’ we can all count on to always be there—and that guy Murphy always seems to be leading the charge.” (Jeff Boss, contributor, “4 Simple Goal-Setting Ideas for 2015”, Forbes http://buff.ly/1A6rx47)

As important as goal-setting is, we also have somehow to account for the unexpected, on-the-ground realities that come our way on the journey towards that goal.

What will we do when we encounter those who ‘pass us by’ on the road? What will we do when we have to ‘stop at a red light’? And, what will we do when we are distracted from our goals?

First, what do you do when you see others pass you by on the road of life and faith? Our culture is based on the value of competition — whether we’re talking about sibling rivalry, sports or our economy. Competition can be a motivator.

But it can also deflate one’s spirit, creativity and passion. Because competition can discourage you from focusing on the grace in your unique life, the gifts of your own life, family, job, and the blessing you are to others. You are beloved by God, created in the image of the Divine, endowed with a special gift to share with the world.

And it doesn’t matter that someone is passing you on the road; it doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It only matters what you are doing. How has our cultural obsession with competition and comparison stifled your growth and held you back?

Second, what do you do when you get held up at a red light that slows down progress? The red lights in our lives are usually those unfortunate events that are unexpected, stressful and require the loving support of others. No amount of goal setting can turn this around: a family member suddenly turns ill, you receive a discouraging diagnosis, a friend dies, tragedy strikes, the bottom falls out on your personal life, you lose your job. If you’ve set some lofty goals before any of this happens, you’re into a major reset on life. After all, “Life happens,” they say.

Finally, what do you do when you are distracted by the radio, crazy drivers, or your cellphone? These are issues we probably have the most control over, whether we like it or not, whether we take responsibility for them or not.

Most of the ‘distractions’ of life are self-imposed. We do it unto ourselves — lifestyle choices that are really counter-productive, habits that immediately gratify but are ultimately self-destructive. We enter here the realm of addictive behaviours that can de-rail any idealistic goals for self-improvement. So, they say, instead of watching that show, go for a walk; instead of staying up late on social media or surfing the net, get some sleep; instead of indulging in that second helping, pack away leftovers for lunch the next day.

This inner struggle can drive us over the curb and into the ditch! The passers-by, the red lights and the distractions on the road of life throughout the year often cause us to abandon those goals altogether.

I wonder what some of those first desert wanderers did to cope with the reality of the terrain over which they travelled. I wonder how the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) following a star in the sky, coped with seeing others pass them by on the caravan routes whenever the star appeared to stop in the sky? I wonder how the Magi, following that star over what must have been a long period of time, dealt with the red lights of set backs that surely must have occurred on the trail? I wonder how the Magi kept their spirits up when the desert creatures, sand storms and bandits threatened their safety and resolve on the journey? I wonder 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 brought us to the Christ-child by then, let’s go home!”?

Perhaps the wisdom of the ancient story of the Epiphany has something to say to us about how we traverse the terrain of our lives today. As we set goals and resolve to do certain things in 2015, perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to how we travel over the long haul of our lives, and not just fixate on the specific goals themselves.

Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just at Christmas and Easter — to worship, pray and give thanks? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just when times are good, but especially when they are bad — to reflect on the Word and the meaning of our faith in Jesus? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — regardless of our ‘goals’ — to remember the One who walks with us, who is always by our side, who is ever faithful to us and steadfast in love for the whole world?

And thank God, that we always have a second chance to press the ‘reset button’ on our lives, reflect again, and start anew! Year after year! It is a miracle and grace that we even consider a fresh brand of New Year’s resolutions every January 1st. Despite the failures, we still go back to the drawing board every New Year.

In 2015, perhaps our goals need to be a little more open-ended and less prescriptive. The magi had a goal, to be sure: to follow the star to where the newborn king was born. But that goal could lead them anywhere! They didn’t presume it had to be Jerusalem. They didn’t presume it had to be in a palace. They didn’t presume it had to be in their own home country.

When the goals are set with this kind of openness, Murphy may still lead the charge, uncertainty can still be the only certain thing, and change be the only constant on the journey of life. But we still trust that God’s promises are true and that eventually our yearning and longings are resolved somewhere in God’s unconditional, and never-ending love.

Happy New Year!

What is hope?

I remember a friend — intelligent, thoughtful, deeply spiritual — who claimed that to hope was to be delusional. Hoping, to him, was a distraction, a pointless waste of time — like fantasizing. To hope was to be ‘faking it’, to be unreal, to be in denial of the harsh realities of life.

I begged to differ with him, especially as I would at this time of year — the Advent season — which is my favourite of all liturgical themes: waiting for the Lord, hoping, anticipating the ‘almost there but not yet’. During Advent, we commit to a kind of “imperfect fulfillment” (Richard Rohr) — this keeps us open to a future created by God, rather than ourselves.

My friend may nevertheless have a point to his objection about hope, if having hope means we demand satisfaction of one another — on our own terms. If having hope means we demand that our anxiety or troubles be taken away — on our own terms. If having hope means we demand a resolution and completion of history — on our own terms.

Our Christian faith has understood the ‘coming of the Lord Jesus’ in not just one, not even just two, but at least three ways: Not only is this time of year dedicated to waiting for the time at Christmas (December 25) when we celebrate that first coming of baby Jesus born into the historical world of 1st century Palestine over two thousand years ago; not only do we, at this time of year especially, and as many of the assigned scripture readings suggest — including the Gospel for today — the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. But we also affirm in Advent our faith in the living Jesus who comes to us NOW — today, every day, whenever we celebrate the Sacrament of the Table, whenever we greet another as if we were encountering Jesus in all our expressions of love, forgiveness and service.

Hoping, in this sense, is not just about yearning for a better future whose circumstances are easier, more comfortable and without the suffering of the present. The point of faith, hope and love is not to somehow realize an absence of the difficult challenges we may currently face; it is not daydreaming or fantasizing. But it is to recognize in the present moment, and in our very selves — ‘as is’ — the grace and divine Presence.

It is to live in patience and trust without closure, without resolution — and be content, even happy, because we know the one who makes all things right, in the end.

This experience of grace often comes as a gift, when we least expect it, when we aren’t ‘trying too hard’ and when we learn to accept in ourselves and in the world — today — all the paradoxes, inconsistencies and ambiguities of modern life.

Remember, what were some of Jesus’ last words spoken from the Cross? “It is finished” (John 19:30). It is completed. It is accomplished. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection — all was accomplished that needed to be accomplished for all time — for our salvation, for our health and wholeness, for our eternal life.

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Tag! Now, you’re it!” Our task, our vision, our dreams would be better served when we approach ‘moving forward’ from an attitude of abundance and “all-is-already-completed” rather than from an attitude of scarcity and “things-should-be-better-before-anything-good-can-happen”. After all, and the truth is: the problem has already been solved.

The lesson, I believe, from the Gospel today (Mark 13:24-27) comes from an image right in the centre of the text: Focus on the fig tree. As Jesus says, and whose question is implied: What will you focus on? Will you focus on the fear, uncertainty, the pain and the suffering which is so much a part of our lives? (which presumes that we are the masters of our own destiny) Or, will you focus on the tender branch of the fig tree, watching as it puts forth, in its own time, fresh, new leaves?

When we focus on the life around us — what is positive, what is good, what is growth and transformation and the NEW thing — then we will know, says Jesus, that summer is near, that God is near — right at the gates! God is already with us! Without needing to deny nor gloss over the “momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Because the problem has already been solved.

Vivid images and visions in the bible — such as what we receive in today’s Gospel — are applied to new situations in our world today. The point is not to use these texts to predict specific events in the future. Rather, we look to see God’s mighty acts in the past as a way of understanding how we can respond to our present circumstances, dark as they may be (Lillian Daniel, “Feasting on the Word – Advent Companion”, eds. Bartlett & Taylor, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.64).

This requires from us a different kind of waiting, rather than fantasizing or daydreaming about some utopia in the future. Some waiting is passive. But there is also active waiting. “A fisherman finds it burdensome to wait for spring to arrive because it is a passive waiting. Once he is fishing, however, he does not find it a burden to wait for the trout to rise to his fly because it is an active kind of waiting, full of expectation.

“At the pool of his favourite trout stream his waiting is filled with accomplishing all the many things he must do, all injected with an active sense of anticipation because he never knows when the trout may appear” (Martin Copenhaver, ibid., p.70-71). His focus is on each task he must do presently in the boat, in order to best position himself whenever the fish may bite.

Hope is for now. Right now. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. The promise of God that undergirds this hope is not that all the problems will go away, down the line. Nor complaining about something that happened in the past, as if doing that would somehow distract us from taking responsibility for the present circumstances of our lives. This is the false hope of which, I believe, my friend spoke.

The promise of God to come again, and again, and again, is that we will grow to discover Jesus even though things may be going to hell all around us, even though we will suffer and die. The promise of God’s grace in Jesus coming into our hearts is that we will be able to recognize the Christ child in all of life’s troubling moments.

So, stop, and take a good look around you. Jesus is being born in your heart and in the world any time, soon.

This is true hope.