Annual Pastor’s Report 2017

Anniversary Year

2017 marked a significant year in the life of the Lutheran church, from the global expression of the church all the way to the local.

Some 74 million Lutherans associated with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) commemorated the 500th anniversary of Reformation with the theme, and theological claim: “Liberated by God’s Grace: salvation, human beings, creation – not for sale!”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) presented several Reformation goals based on the number 500. Congregations in the ELCIC were challenged to commit to 500 refugee sponsorships, fund 500 scholarships for students in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Jordan and the Holy Land, plant 500,000 trees, and raise $500,000 for the LWF endowment fund.

In the Ottawa Ministry Area, a five-week study in the Fall included lay and ordained members from both Lutheran and Roman Catholic congregations to reflect together on the theme and resource, “From Conflict to Communion”. The documents were developed by the ELCIC and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) for local groups across the country to acknowledge the significant strides to greater visible unity between Lutherans and Catholics over the last fifty years.

Thus, the Reformation was not merely ‘celebrated’ as a competitive – even combative – victory over the other but rather ‘commemorated’ as a movement whose trajectory invites greater understanding of a complex history. In this mutual sharing and conversation, deeper ties and unity is realized.

In this spirit of growing ecumenism as an appropriate expression of Reformation, two significant worship experiences happened in the Fall of 2017. The first was held at St Peter’s Lutheran Church and Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Ottawa.

This service, on Reformation Sunday, October 29, welcomed over 600 Lutherans and visitors from Ottawa congregations who by closing their individual congregation’s doors that Sunday morning opened doors of greater unity and relationship-building. It was a festive worship led by Eastern Synod Bishop Michael Pryse and National ELCIC Bishop Susan Johnson. The service was organized by lay and ordained leaders of the Ottawa Lutherans organization, and by many of our members from Faith.

The second service occurred on the last liturgical weekend of the church calendar in 2017 – at Notre Dame Cathedral. Ottawa Roman Catholic Archbishop Terrence Prendergast and Lutheran Bishop Michael Pryse led a Service of the Word to an assembly of Lutherans, Catholics and visitors – again to enact a Reformation 500 principle of first focusing on all that unites us rather than emphasizing our differences.

At Faith, this Lutheran Anniversary year also capped an extensive modernization of our worship space and narthex. At the beginning of 2017 we were still worshipping at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church while renovations were being completed at 43 Meadowlands Drive.

During our absence from Faith building, we were able to continue worshipping at the same time on Sunday morning with our neighbouring Anglican sisters and brothers, seamlessly, because of the Full Communion relationship the ELCIC shares with the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC).

Finally, on a personal note, 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament (June 6, 1997). And therefore, it was significant that in my 20th year of ordination, I took a three-month sabbatical leave for renewal and rest. My wife, Jessica, and I celebrated in 2017 our 20th wedding anniversary as well.

In conclusion, anniversaries are opportunities to not only look back, but look to the future with hope. In all the planning and events surrounding the 500th anniversary of Reformation, I heard often the sentiment that we do this for the sake of the next 500 years. I’ve quoted before the Eastern Synod motto for its 150th celebration in 2011: “Remembering for the future.” Indeed, life must be lived forward even as we look to the past.

“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Saint Paul, Romans 5:5)

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

From Loss to Life

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little … and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

 -Paul, to the Philippians 4:11-13

One of the basic truisms of pilgrimage walking is that first-timers usually pack more than they need for the journey. The general rule is ten percent of your body weight. For most people, that means no more than fifteen to twenty pounds in your backpack.

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I read in one of the Camino de Santiago guidebooks, in preparation for my walk last summer, that for most first-time pilgrims five pounds in their pack is unnecessary; these items amount to five pounds of fear: that extra sweatshirt, pajama onesie, that tub of moisturizing cream or the proverbial electric hairdryer. It is not long on the journey before at least five pounds are left behind or mailed home.

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If we use the pilgrimage as a metaphor for life, then the pilgrim on the journey of life, to be true to the journey, needs to learn how to let go.

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When I began I thought I had it down to the bare minimum. Nevertheless, I was still anxious. Those first few days I worried about where I was going to sleep that night. Not knowing how far I would walk, and not wanting to put the stress of expectation by booking ahead, I had to go with the flow and improvise in the moment. Even though I found a place every night, I was still preoccupied, distracted and fretting. Perhaps I had put too much faith in what I carried.

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Before I knew it, I lost some of my belongings those first days on the path. The first night I left behind my head lamp. The second or third night – I don’t know which – I lost my very expensive self-inflating bed roll for underneath my sleeping bag.

If the story ended there, you might say I was in an unwanted, growing state of crisis. If the story ended there you might say my pilgrimage was headed towards disaster, defeat, loss and failure. If the story ended there, you might say that everything was falling apart in my journey, collapsing into the rubble heap of destruction.

But the story didn’t end there. And it doesn’t end there.

The truth is, as Richard Rohr explains it best, that “through loss, through crisis, through stress, limitation, we move to a better place in our lives.

“Physicists today would say that loss is not real. There is only transformation. The metaphor of the liquid world is that this element simply moves from liquid to solid to vapor and back again.

“It looks like a death, a loss, in each case. But, in fact, it’s a becoming. Now we recognize that Jesus was saying this all along. In Christianity, it was called the ‘Paschal Mystery’. It was a phrase used by Saint Augustine that in fact dying leads to resurrection. Jesus became the icon, the living image, of that mystery – that his crucified body transformed into the risen Christ. That they are both the same person.

“Creativity, newness of life, has a cost. And the cost is what always looks like death. But really isn’t. The cost is loss. Which is perceived as an enemy, or affliction, which always looks like what we don’t want. Somehow to embrace loss, spiritually speaking, is to achieve eternity. Death allows us to be united with what is real. But, of course, it only looks like death from our side. Apparently from the other side – we call it heaven, or eternal life – is in fact the really real.

“The really real is already beginning now. And that’s what we need to trust. That’s what we need to allow. Fourteenth century Italian theologian Catherine of Siena once said: ‘It’s heaven all the way to heaven; and, it’s hell all the way to hell.’ And the way to heaven begins in this world, all the way to heaven.

“To avoid all loss, to avoid all letting go, is to avoid transformation into union with God. If you spend your entire life avoiding ‘dying’, Jesus would say you never get there. It’s hell all the way to hell.

“‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.’[i] We now know that this phrase was used in the initiation rites of Asia Minor. Perhaps one of Jesus’ most enigmatic lines is: ‘You must lose your life in order to find your life; you must lose your life in order to gain your life.’[ii] And if you don’t let it go, you will never find it.”[iii]

This is what Paul is talking about when he says he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him. That is, he can also ‘let go’. Not only does he know what it is to have plenty. He can also lose.

Philippians 4:13 is a popular well-loved verse in the New Testament: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It is often used to bolster self-confidence in accomplishing heroic goals and aspirations. It is often quoted on posters, billboards and bumper stickers to indicate a glory, success and prosperity gospel message of human achievement more reflective of current self-help pop psychology. It is also used to undergird impressive mission goals in the church.

Moreover, the first nine verses of this chapter – the famous “Rejoice always!” text – are read on their own, as unfortunately prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary, without including verses 10-13 for context. And the context is Paul’s suffering and need and persecution.

He is rejoicing and expressing his confidence in living precisely because he has travelled through the valley of the shadow of death. Precisely because he has learned to let go. You can’t have resurrection without death. You can’t experience the joy of transformation without first feeling the pain of loss. You can’t do mission unless you have let go, done without, lost — in some fundamental, real way.

Later this month on Reformation Sunday when all ELCIC Lutherans in Ottawa will gather to worship together, we will sing together Martin Luther’s well-known hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Frederick Hedge’s English translation is closer to the original German when in the last verse we sing: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.”[iv]

Here, we get a peek into an under-emphasized aspect of Luther’s theology which included the practice of letting go. Not only is salvation realized at the moment of our mortal death, it is something that begins in the midst of living. That is, during our life we the practice the art of dying – of letting go, of losing – as an essential experience in the way of salvation, of transformation.

When I realized I had lost my head lamp and bed roll several days later, a couple of things were happening within me:

First, it took a while for me to notice these losses. I didn’t notice my loss right away perhaps because I really didn’t need those things. Second, and maybe more significantly, I was less stressed the farther I journeyed along the Camino. I was relaxing more into the pilgrimage, even without what I had deemed essential kit when I began.

Some Christians in the West today make the mistake, I believe, of confusing loss of privilege with persecution. Wealthy, financially advantaged Christians say they are being persecuted by a politically correct movement to recognize other religions and different people in a growing multi-cultural and pluralistic society, something Luther could never have envisioned in his day.[v]

We are not being persecuted. Rather, we are being confronted with the prospect of losing our privileged place in society, a status that we have admittedly enjoyed for centuries in our country. What the real issue is, is whether we will resist and avoid this loss, or whether we will accept it.

What is ending in your life? What are you facing that deep down you know is a loss? What are the failures and defeats and suffering in your life? Where is there suffering in the lives of the vulnerable, the underprivileged, the poor?

Pay attention, and wake up. These may, in truth, be invitations. Invitations to enter the gate of loss and letting go. Invitations to let go and trust that through dying, it is heaven all the way to heaven.

 

[i] John 12:24

[ii] Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John 12:25

[iii] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010), Session Three.

[iv] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 2006), Hymn 505

[v] The Rev. Dr. Gordon Jensen, “Luther’s Legacy” in Canada Lutheran (Volume 32, Number 6, September 2017), p.10-14

Thanksgiving builds commUNItY

Sometimes what I see in nature represents how I feel. For example: “The dark, thunder clouds looked angry,” we say. Or, “The deer leapt with joy across the meadow.”

Nature has a way of evoking feelings within us. When I stopped in this cove on Cape Disappointment, I couldn’t help but feel praise for the creator God, and thankful for the beauty of life.

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This particular photo conveys to me first a state of peace. After all, not far from this lone pine the swirling waters, changing tides and ravaging winds off the Cape constantly threaten to uproot the tree. And yet, the tree lives on looking very peaceful.

But more than that, thankful. The tree shoots to the sky, to the life-giving sun. It’s not just hugging the rock in defensive self-protection. It offers its praise to the Creator by aiming and growing upward, giving a faithful witness to all that will see this tree.

For me, a life lived grounded and united in peace, praise and thanksgiving to God, is indeed a life lived in the gracious community of God.

During this month when we reflect on the legacy of the 16th century Reformation and celebrate together the 500th year of Reformation, we cannot avoid nor deny the sad reality of conflict and division. It seems you cannot fully appreciate the nature of things, including the church, unless you acknowledge the role of conflict among people of all times and places.

This is why it is noteworthy that Luke in the Gospel text assigned for Thanksgiving Day tells this story, which is not found anywhere else in the New Testament.[1] What is unique about this healing story is the response of thanksgiving by a Samaritan. Jesus sets this “foreigner” apart from the others who were also healed.[2]

The Samaritan was the only one who “turned back” to give thanks to Jesus.[3] So, there is much more going on here than a physical, medical cure of a disease.

Since ancient times, a political and religious rift was growing between Israel and Samaria. Samaria became “foreign” after breaking off from the Davidic monarchy and the establishment of Samaria as the capital of the northern kingdom.[4] Then, after the Babylonian exile, tensions mounted between the people of Samaria and the Jews who returned to rebuild Jerusalem.[5]

Luke includes this story in his Gospel to emphasize the importance of looking to the positive witness of the outsider. In other words, the normal divisions separating us in our religious and cultural identities matter little in the larger scheme of things. Especially when it comes to the expression of faith.

Those who are different are often the very people we need to look to for a positive example of faithful living.

This summer a friend of mine visited the German town of Dinkelsbühl in Bavaria. During the Reformation Era in the 16th and 17th centuries, this town was the first of only a small number at the time who identified as bi-confessional; that is, roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholic and Protestant citizens were allowed to live and practice their faith, with equal rights for both sides.

After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, a few years after Martin Luther’s death, land in Germany was divided into Protestant or Catholic regions. The religious adherence of a population in any region was determined by the religion of the ruling prince in that area.

Except for Dinkelsbühl. The Peace of Westphalia a century later enshrined the bi-confessional identity of this town by establishing a joint Catholic-Protestant government and administrative system, and ensured a precise and equal distribution between Catholic and Protestant civic officials.

When you consider the animosity, violence and warfare characteristic of those centuries between Catholics and Protestants, never-mind the twentieth century history in Ireland and the unfortunately enduring oppositional attitudes between Protestants and Catholics today – this is truly remarkable.

Bucking the dominant culture of dualistic either/or, right/wrong, in/out, black/white thinking, the leaders and citizens of Dinkelsbühl chose to follow a different path. We don’t need to point to present day efforts of ecumenism and unity building. Right in the middle of the conflict of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries there were already efforts then to see a different way:

To see the good in the other. To search out and focus on common understandings first. To seek mutual understanding. Amidst everything around conspiring against such counter-cultural vision.

The point of decision for the Samaritan leper came when he realized he was healed, on the path as they went.[6] It’s important to picture this in your mind. Jesus didn’t snap his fingers and, voila! Yes, the lepers brought their belief in Jesus to the encounter, asking him for healing. Jesus then told them to go to the priest for certification of their healing.

It was on the way – after they had committed to doing something, even before any proof of their healing was given, amidst their still debilitating illness – they went. In doing something, on the way, they were healed. Healing is a process.

It was on this journey when the healed Samaritan had to make a decision.  He could have followed the other nine who were clearly pursuing their self-interest. Against the conforming pressures of the majority, he turned back to follow his heart, full of thanksgiving. We may wonder whether he was also motivated by avoiding potential ridicule and discrimination as a Samaritan appearing before Jewish authority in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the Samaritan made thanksgiving a priority. It is to him that Jesus ascribes the affirmation: “Your faith has made you well”; or, as other translations have it: “Your faith has saved you.”[7]

Faith without gratitude is no faith at all. There is something life-giving about thanksgiving. Grateful people are more hopeful. Indeed, there is evidence now of a correlation between gratitude and the immune system. People who are grateful have a health edge. For example, an attitude of gratitude, reduces stress. So, your mother was right when she made you call your grandmother and thank her for the birthday card.[8]

A true expression of faith is complete when it includes thanksgiving. Coming to worship on Sundays is not validated because “you get something out of it.” Attending worship is not about the self-centered search for “what is in it for me?” Worship is not “me-first” exercise. Let’s be clear.

Rather, coming to worship is about offering thanksgiving, first and foremost. Sunday worship is an opportunity to give thanks to the God who gives all, for all. It is no wonder that the Holy Communion is traditionally called “The Holy Eucharist”, translated from the Greek as “The Great Thanksgiving”. We come to the table to offer our gifts of thanksgiving to God. Every week.

Thanksgiving changes the character of a community and its work. Stewardship is transformed from fundraising to the glad gratitude of joyful givers. The mission of the church changes from ethical duty to the work of grateful hands and hearts. Prayer includes not only our intercessions and supplications, but also our thanksgiving and praise of God’s good gifts to us at the Table.[9]  Thanksgiving builds bridges among people who are different.

We come to Communion to offer thanks to God not because we are good, but because God is good. And we see God reflected in all of creation, in all people, in the good they are.

We pray the legacy of the next 500 years of Reformation reflects the growth of unity among a people that are grateful for the good gifts God brings to us all.

Amen.

 

[1] Oliver Larry Yarbrough 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.169

[2] Luke 17:17-19

[3] Luke 17:15

[4] 1 Kings 12, 16

[5] Nehemiah 4, Yarbrough ibid., p.167

[6] Luke 17:14-15

[7] Luke 17:19, Yarbrough, ibid., p.169

[8] John M. Buchanan, ibid., p.169

[9] Kimberley Bracken Long, ibid., p.168

Buen Camino!

When in Sunday School decades ago we played the roles of well-known bible characters, I remember the only thing worse than being a “Judas” was to be a “doubting Thomas”.

We wanted to be Abraham, Moses, Kind David, Samson, Queen Esther, Rachel, Ruth, The Magi, Peter, Paul, John. We wanted to be Joseph or Mary, or even Jesus himself!

But Judas the Betrayer, or Thomas the Doubter? No. Indeed Thomas has been treated quite negatively in much of Christian preaching and teaching. He is often held up as a negative role model.

Let’s take a closer look at the text about Jesus’s resurrection appearance to his disciples (John 20: 19-31). Because there is no condemnation of Thomas. Recall the disciples are hiding behind locked doors in Jerusalem fearful of the authorities. Unless Jesus’ words to Thomas are inflected in an accusing way, they do not need to be read as a condemnation: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). They simply affirm that those who believe without first-hand experience of the risen Jesus are also blessed. (1)

But can we blame Thomas? Thomas only desires his own firsthand experience of the risen Jesus. He is unwilling to accept the secondhand testimony of others. And, his desire is granted: Jesus appears to him. Prayer answered!

I wonder if Thomas today doesn’t really represent so many of us who deeply yearn and seek for a first-hand experience of God, and are simply and naturally unsatisfied with hearing it ‘second-hand’. Hearing someone else’s first-hand experience of God is inspiring and instructional to be sure. We learn about someone else’s experience of God’s presence, healing, grace and wonder — whether that person is from the bible or our grandparents or the person sitting next to us in worship. But someone else’s experience of God can never be a substitute for our own.

What we may be looking for, is to be more like Thomas: Honest in our desire for a first-hand experience of the living God. Yearning to taste and feel more of the goodness of God in our own lives and in the world. Striving ourselves to make the world a better place for everyone. We may be unsatisfied with basing our commitment to a life of faith on someone else’s testimony. We may, like many people today, be seeking our own experience of God and suffer from what I would call the ‘second-hand syndrome’. Perhaps Thomas needs to be our role-model more than anyone else in the bible today!

Of course, the benefit of the Reformation was to teach us an important distinction in all our striving: Our motivation is important to be aware of, because if we strive to do good all in order to make ourselves right before God we will most certainly miss the mark. “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” we say in our Confession. God initiates the saving relationship. God moves; we only second the motion.

And yet, our striving, our trying, our good work as response to God can help create the space and the climate in which God’s grace is made clear to us, is given to us, and in which we are most ready, then, to receive God’s forgiveness, love and mercy. Being pro-active, doing things with one another in the church, yearning and striving for God — these are antidotes to the ‘second-hand syndrome’ and a prescription for a healthy life of faith.

Last week on the first Sunday of Easter, I emphasized the words from Matthew’s account of the Resurrection of Jesus outside the empty tomb that first morning. Jesus instructs the women: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:9-10).

When resurrection happens today, as it always has beginning with that first day, there is movement forward. Not backward. As I said last week, there is no turning back once resurrection happens. The disciples are not instructed to meet Jesus in the empty tomb where the miracle happened. No. The instruction is quite clear: Get moving! Get out of here! Go to Galilee. Go to where I wait for you. In other words, don’t stay where you are! Do something!

In 2017 the Lutheran Church worldwide celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We call it Reformation 500. ‘Five hundred’ is an important number in all the dialogue surrounding this momentous occasion. The national church has even set up the Reformation Challenges for the church across Canada to meet. And each of those goals are pegged at some variant of 500:

Five hundred refugee sponsorships (which already has been exceeded), five hundred scholarships for school children in the Holy Land, five hundred thousand trees planted in Canada, and five hundred thousand dollars raised for the Lutheran World Federation endowment. You can visit elcic.ca for the most recent update on where we are at in meeting all those goals. And please consider making a personal contribution towards any one of those worthwhile causes.

I’d like to up the ante. Let me call it the ‘Reformation 800 Challenge’. Eight hundred is the new Five hundred. Not only are we celebrating 500 years of Reformation this year; we turn to the future and pray not just for 500 more years but … 800. Why not?

Let that number, eight hundred, symbolize a confidence and hope-filled trust that God has more good than we can ever imagine in store for us in the church far into the future. And this is what I propose in this year’s Reformation 800 Challenge:

Next month, I begin walking the 800 kilometres from Irun, Spain to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The route I follow skirts the northern coast of Spain from East to West. This is my Reformation 800 Challenge.

I walk a pilgrimage route, one of the most ancient on the planet. This Camino (which means the “way”) has been an important spiritual discipline for almost a thousand years for millions of Christians.

A pilgrimage means that what happens on the outside of us in our physical reality mirrors the change and challenge that happens on the inside of us. In other words, outer and inner realities find some kind of resonance on a pilgrimage experience. It’s on a pilgrimage where many discover or re-discover their ‘walk’ with God in life, are renewed on their ‘path’ and/or are ‘re-directed’ to new ways of living.

I would like you to do this with me. Yes. I invite you to consider doing a Reformation 800 Challenge with me, in your own way, with your own resources and plan.

For example: In order to reach the goal of 800 kilometres in under two months I plan to walk at least 20 kilometres a day. So, while I’m gone would you consider a physical discipline whereby you, for 20 minutes a day, do something intentional for your own health and well-being: walking, cycling, lifting a small weight, stretching, doing yoga, etc.? It doesn’t have to be ‘extreme’; something simple even if you are confined to a chair or bed — for 20 minutes a day, do something that involves your body in ways you have not normally been accustomed. Be creative.

A piece of wisdom for pilgrims that has guided my preparation and planning is: Walk Your Way. Walk your own Camino. This is nobody else’s walk but yours. Do what you want and need to do, in your own way, according to your own pace.

You can interpret this challenge in many ways. For example, if you are very active and move about a lot in your daily life already, perhaps sitting still and quietly for twenty minutes a day in silent meditation and prayer is your way. Or, take twenty steps a day. Do twenty reps of a particular exercise or stretch. But whatever you do, the important thing is that you are challenged to attempt and remain faithful to a daily, body-involving discipline. Do it your own way.

Keep a journal or write your notes on a piece of paper that you stick to the fridge door. Write the date, and the accomplished task, so that over time, you can track your progress.

Your goal: 800 of something before the end of this year — whether eight hundred minutes, steps, kilometres. And here’s the good news. You already have a head start on me. I don’t begin until mid-May. You can start this afternoon, on your Reformation 800 Challenge! And, you have until the end of the year; I need to be finished my walk by early July.

After I return from my sabbatical, I would very much be interested in having a conversation with you about our experiences on our pilgrimage. They say that for pilgrims close to reaching their destination in Santiago, many confess that by the end it was no longer them walking the Camino, but the Camino was walking them. In other words, the experience of doing it created deeper trust in the way of God, of faith and peace within them. The physical reality converged with their inner life in positive ways.

As you contemplate what your discipline will be, as you think about what you will do, as you plan your own ‘pilgrimage’ — here are some questions for your own reflection and which can provide a basis for our own conversation when I return. Ask yourself:

In Preparation

What will you do to reach ‘800’ by the end of the year? In time? Kilometres? Steps? Reps? And how will you do it on a daily basis? (for example, 20 minutes/kms/reps/steps, etc. per day)

What are your intentions for this experience? What do you hope for by the end? The first recorded words of Jesus to his disciples in John’s Gospel are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). How do you know you will find it if you don’t know what you are looking for in the first place?

What do you think you will discover about yourself? Saint Augustine once said that knowing yourself is a stepping stone to knowing God.

How will you record your journey?

On the Journey

Where did God find you? What experiences along the way brought you close to God?

What was the best part of the experience so far? What has been the greatest challenge?

Who did you meet along the way? Or, describe your relationships with others during the experience.

What were you grateful for?

Nearing the end / Getting close to the goal

What does it mean ‘to arrive’?

How does it feel to be reaching a destination after great effort and clear motivation for the journey?

What sacrifices did you make in order to get this far on the journey?

How will you celebrate and honour the ending of the journey?

After the Journey

What was the most memorable part of the whole experience?

How did you deal with disappointments and/or failure during the journey?

How do you now view God?

How will you keep what you learned alive in your regular life now that the journey is over?

Has anything shifted within you as a result of the experience? If so, how would you describe this change within yourself?

How will you share your journey and what you have learned with the important people in your life?

As we soon begin our pilgrimages, may God bless us on the way. And to all we meet along the path, may we wish them, “Buen Camino!”
1 — Marcus Borg & John Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: Harper One, 2006), p.202-204.