The great un-doing

This past week I heard from someone how they overcame their addiction to smoking. A middle-aged man, he said he had been a smoker for many years until he started feeling the ill-effects of the habit. He had tried many gimmicks and treatments to quit, to no avail.

It wasn’t until he let go of his need to control the outcome of his efforts, that he succeeded. In other words, when he was able to tell himself: “I can’t do this on my own,” he finally found the capacity within himself to quit. He was able to stop smoking only when he accepted his own limitations, when he released the false notion that he was the master of his own destiny. Even to do something healthy, good.

He didn’t need to accomplish this on his own. What he wanted (to quit smoking), he needed to let go of. What he sought, he needed to release control over.

Whatever you want, you first need to let go of. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Usually when you want something, you go for it. And you don’t let up until you have it, eh?

So, what’s going on here?

What did the rich young man in the Gospel story want (Mark 10:17-31)? He wanted to prove that he was a righteous, good man. He wanted to show Jesus and others that he had fulfilled all the rules of his religion and therefore he was worth his religious beans. And who could compare?

The rich man approached Jesus thinking he had it in the bag. His question—”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)—sounds disingenuous, inauthentic. In a manipulative, self-congratulatory way, he thus approached Jesus, even kneeling before him.

He had self-righteously fooled himself into believing he already knew the answer. The gospel writer doesn’t even assign the rich man a name, underscoring the fake, artificial nature of the man’s attitude.

But Jesus cuts through the crap, skims the fat off the top, and goes to the jugular! Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus sees through the rich man’s pretense, and uncovers the real, authentic person beneath the surface. There he finds an enslaved heart, and brings to light the truth:

In order for the man to be liberated and set free, he has to surrender what owns him, what captivates and grips his soul: For him — it’s material possessions. For someone else, it might be different. But he has to learn, if he wants to grow, to let go and not hold on to those things that keep him stuck in false beliefs about himself, God, and the world around him.

What he wasn’t expecting, was an answer from Jesus that undid him. The one thing that he wanted to get—an unscrupulous, beyond reproach reputation as a religious superman—he would now have to let go of. He would have to let go of everything that made him, that put him in a position of power and wealth in his community and that gave him the grounds to boast.

He would now have to sell his reputation, literally, and become poor. And what do the poor have to show for their religious prowess? Wasn’t (and isn’t) being impoverished a sign of God’s dis-favour?[1]

All the texts assigned for today reflect the nature of relationship with God. Relationship with God is at the root of our spirituality, our church lives, our purpose in life and the meaning of our lives. Relationship. Relationship. Relationship.

And what the lectionary offerings are inviting us to consider today, is the nature of our relationship with God. They ask us to be honest, first, about who this God is we are supposed to relate to.

Let’s say, we want God. Well, detach from what we want. That is the key. Let go of our false conceptions about God. For example, an underlying assumption we will make about God is a transactional, mechanized God. Such assumptions were criticized by reformers like Martin Luther in the 16thcentury but also those before him like Meister Eckhart in the 14thcentury. This image they condemned, was God the “reward machine”.[2]It goes something like this:

God is the great rewarder-in-the-sky. And, if you put enough quarters in the slot, God will send down the candy-bar. In Martin Luther’s world, the criticism focused on the sale of indulgences—the more money you paid to the church, the more spiritual benefits you accrued.

These false beliefs about God then generated attitudes and actions that placed the onus all on us and our capacities and resources as individuals. That it was up to us to garner favour with God and so we would earn, and deserve, our salvation and even prosperity on earth.

I believe this is what is behind the rich, young man’s presumption and approach to Jesus. Certainly, he of all people deserves God’s favour.

And Jesus’ response is, essentially: If that’s what you want, you need to let go of it. And, it’s going to hurt before it gets better again.

Whether it’s a bad habit or false understanding of God or anything else that puts you in the driver’s seat of your life, God is looking you in the eye and challenges you to let go of that pretense. Whatever it is you want, first let go of it, and feel the pain of it. Detach yourself from your attachments if you truly want to be healed. It ain’t easy.

And the image is apt: Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is meant to communicate impossibility. And we say that in our own way every day. “Bah, I can’t change; people can’t change.” “We don’t change.” “People stay the same.” And so, we continue to get mired in unhealthy and self-destructive life-journeys. Transformation is inconceivable, we believe.

Maybe, before anything, our image of God needs transformation. If God is not a reward machine high in the sky, who and what is God all about?

It’s hard to believe with all the rain we’ve had in the past month that earlier this summer the lawns were brown, and the ground was bone dry. We’ve seen a lot of rain, lately. I’ve noticed local creeks are flowing again, and the grass on our yard is thicker and a dark, rich green.

I was reminded this week when I read that waterdrops in the atmosphere are created when water vapour condenses. That part I knew. But what popped out at me was the following sentence: water vapour condenses on tiny particles of dust. At the very centre of every raindrop is a particle.[3]

Our relationship with God is not between entities, to begin with. We don’t relate to being, a God among various God-beings out there in a religious marketplace.

We relate to God as the ground of our very being. Our connection to God already exists. Before we do, say, or think anything. Whether we know it or not. God is already connected to us, in our innermost being.

Saint Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16); and, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3:16-17).

We don’t add God to our lives, like filling a shopping cart in the grocery store. We don’t need to relate to a transactional God-the-rewarder-in-the-sky with our consumer mindset. The Reformation should have put that mechanistic view of our relationship with the Lord to rest. We still need the Reformation!

We don’t add God to our lives. We add our lives to God. Who is already there, at the very centre of our lives.

Imagine rain, falling. The raindrops have a way to go before reaching the ground. It may feel like a free-fall. Unnerving, dis-orienting, it is to let go of our deepest attachments. We experience like Jesus did a painful, momentary ‘forsaken-ness’ (Psalm 22:1). I wonder if the rich, young man had the courage to sell all he had to give it to the poor.

I would love to meet him, especially if had gone through with it. I have many questions to ask him. I suspect, however, that if he did it, if he did what Jesus called him to do — that in the letting go he opened his heart, confronted his greatest fear and experienced a free fall … right into the love of God at the very centre of his life. What a joyous surprise, to find the presence that will always be there, and has always been there!

It may seem impossible to do—this letting go—but in Christ all things are possible. And we discover in the journey: there really isn’t anything to lose that is of any enduring, lasting value.

[1]Today’s so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ implies that when you have it right with God, you will be blessed with material riches; the converse is true, too: according to the prosperity gospel, when you sin, God will withdraw blessing and you will be impoverished.

[2]Bernard McGinn, Praying with the Masters Today, Volume 2 (Meditatio Talks Series CD B, Track 5), 2018.

[3]Richard Rohr, “The God Particle” Daily Meditation 10 Oct 2018 (cac.org /Center for Action and Contemplation)

A New Way to Pray: Tracking the Trajectory of the Reformation

What follows are the lecture notes for Week Three in the course I am giving at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (www.osts.ca) this Fall. Reformation Sunday is on the last Sunday in October, October 28, 2018. It is a time for Lutherans and all Christians to reflect on the legacy of Reformation, commemorate its contributions, and to pray for unity among all who try to follow in the Way of Christ Jesus today.

Lucas Cranach was a Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving. He was a friend of Martin Luther and his wife Katharine von Bora. In one of his paintings (1547) focusing on the Cross of Christ, Cranach depicts Martin Luther preaching to the congregation. I remember this particular painting vividly as it hung above the bookshelf in my house growing up.

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It shows Martin Luther standing in a pulpit perched high on the wall of the chancel at the front of the medieval church. One of Martin Luther’s hands rests on the bible. And he points with his other hand to a cross with Jesus hanging bloodied bruised planted in the floor space between Luther and the crowd gathered in the church. Jesus hanging on the cross forms the center of this work of art.

Today this painting comprises one of the plates surrounding the altar in the Wittenberg church where Luther preached. As such, we often recognize and associate this painting with the ‘Reformation altar’.

Its prominence in Lutheran history suggests how poignantly this painting describes Luther’s theological bias: The Cross stands at the center. And Christ crucified informs everything in the church and even our reading of the bible.

Before we can embrace deeper understanding of Martin Luther’s theological claim that we find salvation by God’s grace—which finds us— through faith, we must first encounter the centrality of the Cross in Luther’s thinking and prayer.

In the seminary that I attended[1], we used the term, “Theology of the Cross”. Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. A theology of the cross is a way of understanding and imagining God. Fundamentally, in addressing God, we need to ask the questions: What is my image of God? Where is God primarily revealed? How is God best known?

Luther provided an answer: God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world. It is no wonder, then, that the longest sections in each of the four Gospels in the New Testament are dedicated to the various passion narratives[2]of Jesus.

Therefore, the Cross is theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul (the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles) who central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[3]

The Theology of the Cross is contrasted to a Theology of Glory. Especially today among spiritually materialistic cultures in the West, what has been coined ‘a prosperity gospel’ has grown in popularity. This theology of glory presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary.

A prosperity gospel fueled by unbridled optimism avoids places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It compromises and even derides a common humanity and the losses we all endure.

Prayer, as I have said, is the act of letting go. If prayer begins with God, and our address of God, we must presume before all else who this God is, and how this God is revealed—in scripture, in tradition and in our own experience.

One of the first creeds that circulated among the earliest Christians is from a hymn imbedded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-11. The poetry first describes the descent of God. This is the primary movement of God, and of faith: downward. The Almighty chose to enter the lower and lowest regions of human birth, life and death. Only after this primary downward movement can the rising out of the depths happen.

Theologians over the centuries have used the term kenosis, from this text in Philippians, to capture the primary movement of faith. It starts with Christ’s self-emptying and letting go of God’s pure, divine nature. In God’s humility, Jesus compromised a perfect divinity in order to take on the fullness of a human existence.

Our God is a God who lets go, releases, self-empties what has become part of the God-self. This calls for a descent of the soul which in the words of St John of the Cross entails, indeed, a ‘dark night’ of the soul. Prayer is not easy, in so much as it may very well be simple.

Prayer, in the words of Laurence Freeman, “… always involves us in the paradoxes of growth, the cycle of losing so that we can find and then of having to let go of what we have found.”[4]

Prayer is a continual process of detaching and dislodging from places of comfort, stability and strength. Prayer is a deconstructive process. It is disruptive. In prayer we begin first to detach our self from all that we are attached to, all that has defined our identity and lives, all our constructs—mental and material—that constitute the construction and containment of our ego. All of this, in prayer, is placed on the precipice of loss.

All is not lost, however. Because in action and contemplation prayer’s aim and understanding is the prayer of God and for the sake of the God of the Cross. “Prayer calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery … by detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God.”[5]In letting go, we discover our true self in God which includes and transcends all that we have been and are becoming.

By kenosis we resolve the Lutheran paradox. Some complain that the grace of God is cheap, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer last century who sacrificed his life for a greater cause of justice in the Nazi regime. He wrote a book entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship”. Bonhoeffer argued that the theology of the cross ought not lead the Christian to rest on their laurels and not do anything. Just because we are saved by grace and since Christ lost everything for everyone once and for all doesn’t mean there isn’t a point doing anything. There is a cost of discipleship.

In prayer, we move into response because prayer is not for our sake. When we pray, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Praying is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water. The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is union with God.

It is in Christ’s name we pray, and for the sake of our God who chose to be revealed in the humility and defeat of the Cross, in the most desperate human condition possible: death. We step maybe timidly yet faithfully into the water, fast flowing towards the great hope of new love and life in God. 

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. When you pray, after considering your image of God, what is God doing? What is God’s purpose—a purpose that is consistent with that image of God? Construct your prayer by strengthening the connection between image and function. If God is revealed in human suffering, where does that suffering lead? If God is compassionate, why? If God is patient, for what purpose? If God forgives and heals, to what end? Practice making this relationship between image and function as clear as possible before you make any petition to God. And write down some examples of the connection you make between image and function of God, to share with others next time (See copies of “Prayers of the Day” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship for good examples of how short prayers can be constructed).
  2. What is one non-negotiable spiritual practice and/or belief you would hold onto, if everything else had to be take away? (Ask yourself this, after visiting a place of worship other than your own)
  3. If time was short, what is most important to you in the end? Have you had this crucial conversation with those closest to you? If not, why not?

[1]Martin Luther University College (formerly, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary)

[2]The last several chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe in detail the last days of Jesus leading to his arrest, torture and death on the cross. These passion narratives form nearly half the total lengths of the Gospels.

[3]1 Corinthians 1-2

[4]Laurence Freeman, Christian Meditation Newsletter, June 2005.

[5]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 17 August 2018

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

Take a knee

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On the Camino de Santiago, you had to take care to follow the signs. Yellow arrows were common and well-known markers to all pilgrims along the path.

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It was easy to get lost, especially in the big cities, if you missed one of these markers. But also at critical junctions in the forests, the fields or roadways where if you were not paying attention, you could lose hours on the journey and have to double back.

I learned, sometimes the hard way, to pay attention to what others might consider obvious. Some markers are easy to notice.

Some are sort of easy to notice:

But often it was a challenge to find that yellow marker:

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The signs — like the sacraments of baptism and holy communion — are reminders of what kind of journey we are on. These signs are embedded in the journey itself, on earth. These holy signs don’t stay in some other-worldly realm; they are very much a part of this world: Baptism uses common water; Communion uses bread and wine – basic, earthly elements which remind us of what God is all about on earth.

The signs are part of our daily, ordinary lives. The signs are already there, along the way, before we even commit to the journey. We only need to open the eyes of our heart and mind, and pay attention. Because the signs are too easy to miss. And when we do miss them, we get lost and go down other paths, paths that lead to division in the Body of Christ, the church.

I remember when our then 12-year-old son started playing football I first learned what it meant to ‘take a knee’. According to the tradition, if a player on the field was injured everyone ‘took a knee’. And it didn’t matter which team the injured player was from; that is, all the players from both teams knelt down and waited there until the injured player either walked off the field on their own strength, or was carted off on a stretcher.

Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick have both attracted world-wide media attention for ‘taking a knee’ in the last couple of years, although for very different reasons. Both have made a public display of their faith. Both are prayerful, and devout. One grew up the son of Baptist missionaries to the Philippines. The other was baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and attended a Baptist church during college.[1]

Tim Tebow, however, is a darling of the church while Colin Kaepernick has been reviled. Their differences reveal much more about the brand of Christianity preferred by many in the church today. Tebow is known for his signature move – dropping to one knee on the field, his head bowed in prayer, his arm resting on his bent knee. He’s clean cut, polite, gentle, respectful.

Colin Kaepernick, starting last year already, refused to stand to attention during the playing of the American national anthem. Originally, he did so in support of Black Lives Matter and to protest police violence against black people. Kaepernick was voted most disliked player in the National Football League (NFL). People posted videos of them burning his jerseys. He was called “an embarrassment” and “a traitor”. Of course, with recent events in the NFL, his witness gains momentum nonetheless.

Two players, two brands of Christianity:

Tim Tebow represents personal piety, gentleness, emphasis on moral issues. Colin Kaepernick represents social justice, community development and racial reconciliation. One version of Christianity is kneeling in private prayer. The other is kneeling in public protest. One is concerned with private sins like abortion. The other is concerned with public sins like racial discrimination. One preaches a gospel of personal salvation. The other preaches a gospel of social transformation. One is reading Paul’s letters. The other is reading the Minor Prophets.

Are these versions of Christianity mutually exclusive? Much of Christian history, especially since the Reformation, would suggest, ‘yes’, even among Lutherans. The proliferation of Christianity into some thirty thousand different denominations by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 would suggest, ‘yes.’ The divisions within Christianity is leaving the church all the poorer, with each side needing to be enriched by the biblical vision of the other.

Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann expresses it well: He writes that Christianity should be “awed to heaven, rooted in earth.” We should, as he says, be able to “join the angels in praise, and keep our feet in time and place.”[2]

Christianity, sadly, remains on its knees because of our divisions, when all along the vision of the Gospel, expressed best by Paul himself, is that “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth”[3]. How do Christians today, regardless of background and orientation, contribute to this vision in ways that actually make a difference on earth?

In the second reading for today, we learn about the essential character of the biblical God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, all of God’s acts, blessings, and delights in creating are for the sake of others. This is typical of God, “who is intimately concerned with justice, peace, and the flourishing of all creatures.” This is typical of God, “who is ‘on high’ but never remote, who is ‘over all’ but faithfully and dramatically invested in life on earth.”[4]

God does not embrace hierarchy. Nor does God rest in privileged autonomy, according to some deist idea of a distant and uncaring God. God is love. And the New Testament witness continues this description of a God who cares intimately about our humanity, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God is Immanuel, God-with-us and for us.

In setting up this wonderful hymn that Paul includes in his letter to the Philippian church, Christians are called to exemplify a humble regard for others, seeing them as “better than yourselves”; we are not to primarily serve our own interests, but the interests of those who are different.[5]

These may be an impossible task for us in our self-centred, me-first culture. Nevertheless, we are encouraged, as Paul encouraged the early church in Philippi, to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”[6]. Why even bother?

Because God is already at work in us.[7] God is already at work in the world, as difficult as it can be to spot those signs of God’s grace, God’s justice, God’s good work. As Martin Luther insisted, matters of salvation revolved around God’s actions, not human activities. Justification — being placed into a right relationship with God — is totally God’s activity. After all, as Paul wrote earlier in his letter to the Philippians, we need to believe – despite what appears to be everything to the contrary – in the promise and the vision that God “who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.”[8]

God’s grace precedes all. Just like the signs on the journey before us and around us. Even though we may miss them from time to time doesn’t mean they aren’t there, waiting for us to notice. God’s grace continues to guide us and point in the right direction.

We therefore have nothing to lose, to take a knee for the sake of those who do not have a voice. To take a knee for the sake of others who are silenced by discrimination and abuse. To take a knee for all God’s creatures who long for a better day.

We pray for and support agency to help the refugees today escaping violence and oppression in Myanmar. We pray for and support agency to help victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. We, so, ‘take a knee’, in the spirit and mind of Jesus Christ who took a knee for us all.

[1] I thank Michael Frost, “Colin Caepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A Tale of two Christians on their knees” (The Washington Post, September 27, 2017) for much of the content I use in this section of my sermon

[2] cited in Michael Frost, ibid.

[3] Philippians 2:10, NRSV

[4] William Greenway in David L. Bartlett & Barabara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.112.

[5] Philippians 2:3-4

[6] 2:12

[7] 2:13

[8] 1:6

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.

Martin Luther & Julian of Norwich

An imaginary meeting between Martin Luther (16th century reformer) and Julian of Norwich (14th century mystic) in celebration of the four-month time of worshipping together in the same space with Faith Lutheran Church Ottawa and Julian of Norwich Anglican Church Ottawa, a time which now comes to an end. Thank you to the Rev. Mary Ellen Berry, Anglican Diocese of Ottawa and incumbent of Julian of Norwich, for co-writing and presenting this dialogue with me, on our last Sunday together February 19, 2017



NARRATOR: I came early this morning to set up, and no one was here. I was tired so I sat down on the chancel steps, and fell asleep. And I had the strangest dream: Julian of Norwich had a conversation with Martin Luther …..

ANGEL: (singing, from the balcony) “I want Jesus to walk with me, I want Jesus to walk with me, all along my pilgrim journey, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” (ELW #325)

LUTHER: (appearing from behind the pulpit, holding a large Bible, opened, in one hand, his feather ink pen in the other) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect!” (Matthew 5:48, Gospel for Epiphany 7A) What does this mean?

JULIAN: (appearing in her cell, sitting on a stool, leaning upon the reading desk) What does this mean to you?

LUTHER: Who are you?

JULIAN: Julian of Norwich.

LUTHER: Are you one of those uber-enthusiasts, I call Schwaermer in my native German tongue? Julian of Norwich, that’s hardly the way to relate to the Lord.

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: How did you learn that you couldn’t be perfect as God is perfect, by your efforts alone? What did you do?

LUTHER: At first, I rubbed the tips of my fingers raw washing the floors in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. That didn’t help my conscience. So, in 1510 I decided to go off to Rome. I crawled devoutly up the stairs of the Scala Santa, as millions of other pilgrims did.

JULIAN: Life, itself, Martin offers its own penance: disappointments, failures, sickness, betrayals. Life, if we but allow it, purges us of all the things for which our habits and affections grasp. Why on earth did you do all those things?

LUTHER: I laboured and sacrificed so much in order to purge myself of sin. It was up to me, I believed, to make myself right before God. It all depended on how hard I worked and the more penitential I became. I tried to impress God. I once believed my good works were the gateway to my salvation; only then, could I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.

JULIAN: What happened to change your understanding?

LUTHER: It was on the Scala Santa in Rome as I made my wearisome, guilt-ridden way up those holy stairs, I heard God’s voice saying to me: ‘The just shall live by faith, not by doing penance.’ It was like scales fell from my eyes. I stood up, walked back down, and stalked out to ignite the Reformation!

JULIAN: You heard God’s voice speak to you! How do you know that it was God who spoke? Was it the only time you heard the voice of God speak to you? It seems quite an experience, no? Did you not criticize the ‘Schwaermer’ — as you call them — those ‘fanatics’ who relied on experience alone to express their Spirit-filled faith?

LUTHER: Well, yes .. and no, not just experience alone. I was suffering severe cramps in my room one evening, reading through Paul’s letter to the Romans, when I came across the verse from chapter 3: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, we are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through Jesus Christ” (v.23-24). This word of God is external, and comes to us quite apart from any experience we might have.

JULIAN: But you are not denying that God comes to us and speaks to us through our experiences?

LUTHER: Only when mediated through the Word.

JULIAN: I see, “Only when mediated by the Word.” And what, for you Martin, is the “Word’?

LUTHER: The spoken word, preached and proclaimed. The words in the bible. And, most importantly, the living Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: But the spoken word and the living word touch our souls, not just the ears and mind, do they not? Is not the word something that needs to come into us, personally, experientially?

LUTHER: You are good at asking questions, fair Julian of Norwich. Perhaps you can tell me why it is you sit in your cell, asking questions of the faithful and listening to their stories?

JULIAN: It is in this way that I do my small part in the work of our Lord Jesus. I care for their souls, I tend to their hearts, so the real teacher, our Lord Jesus, can enter. My fondest hope, Martin, is “that when I am no longer in this world my dear ones will soon forget me so that I shall not hinder them, and they will behold Jesus who is teacher of all.”

LUTHER: In German, this pastoral care ministry is the work of the Seelsorger. But you also have written so much — the first book written by a woman in the English language. I wonder what greater impact your writing would have had, if you had Gutenberg’s printing press at your disposal, like I did.

JULIAN: You, too, my dear Martin, have written so much — more than me I should say! You translated the Latin bible into your beloved German.

LUTHER: Your Divine Revelations speak boldly of God’s love and trust.

JULIAN: You once wrote: “Sin boldly”. Do you regret anything you’ve written?

LUTHER: Well, yes. I did write unlovingly about the Jewish people. I have contributed, by my words, unfortunately, to the cause of anti-semitism. I am grateful that the Canadian Lutheran Church in the last century, among others worldwide, have rescinded this hateful language from my legacy. What advice do you have?

JULIAN: All wrath – all that is contrary to peace and love – is in us, not in God, Martin. So, yes you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But you are forgiven, Martin. Grace alone. Is that not what you preached?

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

LUTHER: Your written work is impressive. Do you, Julian regret anything you’ve written?

JULIAN: Well, Martin, I don’t know that ‘regret’ is quite the proper word, but it will do until I can think of a better one. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” are words that were given to me by our Lord, Jesus that I wrote in my Divine Revelations. They are beautiful words and they are most surely true, Martin. I do not regret hearing and writing these words; but I do regret – hmmm, still not the right word – how they are often taken.

LUTHER: What do you mean by “how they are often taken”?

JULIAN: What I mean, Martin, is that I fear these words have been misconstrued. When our Lord Jesus spoke them to me, I, too, was at first appalled and answered, “Good Lord, how can all be well when great harm has come to your creatures through sin.” – don’t forget, Martin, that I lived during times of war, plague, poverty, and famine. Through the grace of God, I came to understand our Lord Jesus’ words more fully.

LUTHER: Really, how so, Julian? Because being perfect, then, is not about a life free from all that ails us, and continues to do so all our lives long, no?

JULIAN: Yes. “All shall be well” is not a promise that God will relieve us of our sin and pain in this life. It is an invitation to trust God, to cultivate new habits of trust in God, and to at least be open to God’s healing love. “Just as by God’s courtesy he forgets our sin from the time we repent, just so does he wish us to forget our sins and all our depression and all our doubtful fears.”Does this speak to you, Martin? Or does it sound like the rantings of a 14th century mystic – a fourteenth century Schwaermer?

LUTHER: Well, you are two hundred years older than I am!

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: ‘Perfection’ then is experienced when we bask in the light of God’s love in, through, for and with us. Loving yourself, and loving others, loving all of creation, despite our suffering. This is the beginning and end of all prayer. How do you pray?

LUTHER: I spend nearly half the day in prayer, each and every day.

JULIAN: Being in the presence of God, whether you use words or not, unites us in Jesus.

LUTHER: I’ve always said: the fewer the words, the better the prayer!

JULIAN: The presence of Jesus, God’s love as a mother’s love, is all gift.

LUTHER: Despite our differences, then, prayer unites us all in this grace of God.

JULIAN & LUTHER: Thanks be to God! (Julian and Luther walk to the centre and embrace, then each walk separately out one of the side doors beside the altar)

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

NARRATOR: (wakes up, shakes his head, stands up and faces the congregation) The words of the Prayers of Intercession are posted on the screen. The Lutherans will with one voice say together their parts; and alternate with the Anglicans who will say their parts. Let us pray in the unity of Christ!

Martin Luther visit


Guten Tag. Allo. Ich heiss Martin. My name is Martin. Liebe Gott! I can speak English! Something incredible happened to me on my way to this time and place. And I cannot explain it! So, “Here I stand.” With you. In this place. Today.
You know, truth be told, I don’t know what to make of this “Lutheran Church”.

Yes, it’s been a long time — 500 years — since I hung the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church. So much in the world has changed. Travel, electricity, automation, information systems. And yes, I did write a lot with my hand. I suppose I would do things differently today, as well. Who knows?

But I noticed that some of my words have taken on an iconic status in your discourse through the centuries. And so, I’ll start there and tell you what I observe about your “Lutheran” church today — I feel awkward even saying that word: “Lutheran”! Who the hell do you think I am? “It’s true, we are all beggars!” Even me!

So, let me set the record straight. First off, I never intended there to be a separate church, divided from the Catholic church. Oh yes, a toilet-flushing theology underpinned some religious practices at the time, beliefs that needed reformation. I was excommunicated. And that meant death. But the Lord had a purpose for me still to fulfill, and I was spared. Thanks to Frederick, who let me live in his Wartburg castle for a time being.

Obviously, I still have a purpose or else I wouldn’t be standing here today. I am amazed to see how many different churches exist — and some even taking on my name! In a letter I once sent to my colleague Philip Melanchthon, you know, I encouraged him to “sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” He must have taken my words seriously — the “sin boldly” part, anyway — since he pushed my reforms to brink of dividing the “one, holy, catholic church.” Dumbkopf!

Which, it seems, has happened here in Ottawa as well. I take it that Lutherans from my Heimat, Germany, arrived quite late in Ottawa — later than in other parts of Turtle Island — is that not what the first nations of this land call it, this Canada?

I have secret to tell you — the Germans have long since stopped getting off the boats and settling this land in large waves of immigration. You are all settlers! And, the first Lutheran Church was St Paul’s Lutheran Church near the University of Ottawa, established in 1874. For the most part of your history since then there have been some 15 Lutheran congregations, no?, divided basically into three different Synods — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the Lutheran Church Canada-Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

“What does this mean?”. You who have endured Confirmation classes decades ago, yes I’m speaking to you now: When you memorized parts of my Small Catechism, you will remember I sectioned parts of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, for example, I offered my interpretation of those sections preceded by the question: “What does this mean?”

I did that on purpose. Don’t you know that asking the question itself reflects an important stance towards learning? “What does this mean” is a question that first seeks to understand. It doesn’t presume you already have the answer.

I certainly didn’t at first. I struggled mightily with my own stuff, and spent a whole lot of time on that blessed toilet seat! I had doubt and prayed: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

The purpose of your Lutheran Council, for example, which functioned between 1968 and 1992 (I learned in your history books), was “to foster greater understanding between Lutherans in Ottawa” (1) — this amid conflicts over biblical interpretation, Communion practice and ordination of women to suggest a few enduring divisions. Good for the Lutheran Council! They were onto something, there, you know!

Learn from the first nations of this land. Among the diversity of Indigenous Peoples of Canada comes the wise advice: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. First, however, to understand the other. Not to persuade, to defend, to self-justify, to impose one’s opinion. Which appears to be the dominant characteristic of relationships in the church and the public today. You believe you first have to defend yourselves.

“What does this mean?” can be a call sign for you “Lutherans” today, indeed for all of mature faith, on how to learn, how to grow, how to move forward to embrace God’s future. You do so first by seeking to understand the other. Ask questions. Try to feel into from where the other is coming in their approach. Listen for smidgens of truth, of potential points of agreement, of overlap between what you hear and where your own heart resonates.

There’s another phrase some have said I wrote. But I didn’t. One of your modern theologians, Karl Barth, actually wrote it, based on something Saint Augustine of blessed memory wrote: “Semper Reformanda” — Always reforming. It’s still good and wise counsel! The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche Deutschland) has as the theme logo for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation: “500 Years of Reformation”, suggesting that these past 500 years represent a continually reforming church. I like that. Sehr gut!

I know you like “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, ok? But I wrote that hymn in order to bring the popular music of my day into the church. I confess I spent much time in bars during my travels across Germany enjoying the local ales. And I sung along to the bar tunes, and wondered: “Wouldn’t this sound great in church!” And so, I took some of those tunes and transformed them into hymnody.

Why are you still singing “A Mighty Fortress” to celebrate the Reformation? The very idea of 21st century “Lutherans” celebrating the Reformation by clinging to the events of the 16th century doesn’t make sense, if you believe you are truly Semper Reformanda. I travelled all this way through space and time; I want to hear some of your new songs! 

We should be singing this century’s music rather than smugly resting on the laurels of the past, you would say. You should be plotting where the reformation goes from here. Perhaps in this the 21st century, when so many of your traditions have seen the institution fall into the malaise of irrelevancy, you need to echo the cry: “Semper Reformanda” — “Always Reforming”. Indeed, the church in every age stands in need of reformation (2).

In my Disputation in Heidelberg, a year before I hung those famous Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Church, I stated that, “The Law says ‘do this’ and it’s never done; Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.”

The quality and practice of faith today is on trial. What do you believe about God, and your life with God, others and this world? Reformation starts with those questions.

I’m glad to see you still say, at least, that we are justified by grace through faith.

And when I read the Jeremiah (31:31-34) text for today, I must confess we are often our own worst enemy. When we try so hard and work so hard but underneath all that work is a niggling belief that it’s all up to us. We are most ready to hear those words of grace, forgiveness and mercy, I will confess, when our own efforts are exhausted. When we are weary of our inner turmoil we are ready to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And believe. And trust.

Because by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, in God, or anything good!

Do the work of God, yes. But allow God, in the end, to reap God’s own harvest. Believe in that which cannot be seen, towards that which can be seen (Hebrews 11:1). It won’t be our accomplishment when it finally happens. Because all is grace. All is love.

“This is most certainly true.”

I’ll tell you what else is true. There are some new words circulating among Lutherans in Ottawa these days. I’ve heard them. Who are you? You are “many communities and one church”. And you are “better together.” The fragmentation of the church which has been the unfortunate legacy of the Reformation needs reformation.

How can you see it? This is a matter of faith and belief? Do you believe that though you are many communities you are still one church? Do you believe you are better together?

This is not a figment of someone’s imagination that has mere mythic, allegorical status, invisible and irrelevant.

After all, when in the last year you gathered together at a Peace pole and prayer garden; when you gathered together to recall the history of the relationship between Indigenous and setter peoples in the blanket exercise; when you gathered together on Ash Wednesday and during Advent to worship; when you support a city-wide youth group by gathering together to have fun at summer fest; and when you serve together to do refugee sponsorship — it is real. It is tangible. It is visible.

And it is happening in a Lutheran community near you!

This is most certainly true!

(1) Barton Beglo & Jo Nordley Beglo, eds., “By Faith; Lutherans in Ottawa and the Valleys” (Ottawa: St Peter’s Press, 1995), p.66

(2) Dawn Hutchings, pastordawn.com “Enough with ‘A Might Fortress’ Already! Sing a New Song”

Martin Luther quotes

Please review these famous Martin Luther quotes before reading the posted sermon (“Martin Luther visit”)

1. I cannot nor will not retract anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, may God help me. Amen.

– with these words spoken to authorities at the Diet of Worms (April 15, 1521), Luther drew a line in the sand and started an age of Reformation for Christian church

2. It is true; we are all beggars

– Martin Luther’s last written words before he died (February 16, 1546)

3. Be a sinner and sin boldly; believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly

– in a letter to Philip Melanchthon (August 1, 1521)

4. What does this mean?

– repeatedly, prior to each explanation, in Luther’s ‘Small Catechism

5. Semper Reformanda

– the cry of the reformers in the 16th century, whose idea originated in the writings of Saint Augustine, and whose words are attributed to Karl Barth in 1947

6. The Law says, “do this”, and it is never done; Grace says, “believe in this”, and it is already done

– in Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518)

7. By my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ

– explanation of the 3rd Article of the Creed, in Luther’s ‘Small Catechism’ (1529)

8. This is most certainly true

– repeatedly following each explanation, in Luther’s ‘Small Catechism’ (1529)
(Most of these quotes are from “The Lutheran Handbook”, Augsburg Fortress, 2005, p.55-57)