The case of the missing pulpit

As we worship this morning, the sanctuary at Faith Lutheran Church building is gutted — empty, a shell. Not only is the cork on the walls now removed and the old carpet disposed. The light fixtures, most of the furniture, liturgical items and holy hardware is stowed away for the time being to be recovered, restored and positioned again in their proper place once the renovations are completed.

I know some of you who have been at the site in the last day or so helping to get it ready for the workers, have been asking the question: “Where is the pulpit?” I can see the title of the next best-selling mystery novel: “The Case of the Missing Pulpit.” Where is it?

What a mystery! Well, this is what happened …

Last Sunday afternoon as I was helping members of our altar care committee removing certain items, we ran into a little problem. Our pulpit is mobile; it sits on wheels. So, depending on the needs of the day, we move it around. 

Well, we moved it alright — all the way to the door of the sacristy where we were hoping to store it. Without doing serious alterations (and damage!) to the door frame, there was no way that pulpit would get through. And the cloakroom, where we normally store the pulpit at Christmas, was going to be filled with stacks of chairs. Where on an already compact floor space would we store a rather heavy and cumbersome piece of teak-wood furniture?

It was the spur of the moment when I offered to put the pulpit in my car. I had the back seats down anyway at the time, and the rear hatch opened just wide enough to allow the pulpit to slide in fairly easily. And I drove away with church’s pulpit in the back seat of my car! Truth be told!

During the 45 minute drive home to Arnprior, my mind raced: What would I say to someone who would behold this mystery! I was also wondering where on earth I would put it. I had no clue. There was room in our garage, but most of that space was already tagged for bikes, tires, canoes and garden implements for the winter season.

My wife and I sat in the living room that evening scratching our chins and trying to come up with solutions. But to no avail. I guess I would drive around with a pulpit in the back seat of my car for three months! A mobile preacher who comes with his own pulpit! What a deal!

Barbecuing on the back deck that evening, I looked above the tree line and my eyes rested on the steeple of a church, just around the corner from our place. After making a phone call, and depending on the good will of their pastor and the muscle of a couple of their men from that community — and our pulpit now has a resting place. 

So, if anyone asks: Our pulpit is in the safe-keeping in the building of the good people of St John Lutheran Church in Arnprior. Let it be heard! “The case of the missing pulpit” … mystery solved!

I’m usually the kind of person who wants to have a plan, to know how things ought to go and what the end result should be, before doing anything. This is also usually a good thing. Driving away with the pulpit without any clue as to where it should go, was a little unnerving for me. It was, nevertheless, a good exercise for letting go and trusting that a solution would present itself. And it did, in a most gracious, natural and expedient way.

Some of you know that I am planning to go on a sabbatical next year. The theme of my sabbatical is ‘pilgrimage’. And part of the experience is to walk an ancient path, some eight hundred kilometres long, on the north coast of Spain on the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I’ve read that a majority of people who start the pilgrimage — hundreds of thousands every year — don’t finish it. Many pilgrims give up, some even just 25 kilometres into it. 

What many successful pilgrims learn is that all that is required is to remain committed to the journey itself. What is needed, is to unlearn deep-seeded attitudes about what justifies us, as human beings. To persevere in that un-learning process over six-weeks, even against all the challenges of the trail. To learn that all that is required is simply to put the next foot forward. To not give up, to not lose heart. And to pray always.

To dial it down to accepting that it’s all about taking the next step faithfully — nothing more, nothing less. Although simple, it is not easy for most of us to comprehend let alone do: Just walk. Eight hundred kilometres. Because it’s not about our ability and resourcefulness in the end. It’s not about rushing to the next distraction, checking off the next thing on our list in a busy, hectic lifestyle. It’s about something much bigger than us and our ‘stuff.’ A pilgrimage can teach us that.

That was the message from last week’s Gospel from Luke 18:1-8, to pray always. The most important thing is to remain focused on staying the course, to do the prayer. The solution — the answer, the benefit — will present itself as long as we remain committed to the journey, the adventure. 

Last week, we learned to persevere in prayer. This week in the story that follows we learn how to pray. And I want to reflect David Lose’s perspective here (1), to watch for the trap that Luke sets for us readers. Remember, the Gospel of Luke is full of reversals — the song of Mary, the beatitudes in the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ conversation with the thief hanging beside him on a cross, etc. Luke, it seems, delights in setting up his readers with presumed expectations, and then pulling the rug from under our feet.

It’s too easy merely to paint the bad guy as the Pharisee. Because don’t forget, the Pharisee is law abiding, has fulfilled all the demands of his religion, lives a pure and righteous life. Isn’t this what faithful living looks like? After all, we shall know others by their fruits, no? The Pharisee does a lot of things right. Except for one thing:

The Pharisee, while living the right life, has forgotten the source of his life and all the good in it. Otherwise, he would not despise another whom God loves. He falsely believes it’s all about him and his efforts alone. He falsely believes others who are not like him, need to be, in order for them to be good people.

And, it’s too easy to side with the ‘humble’ tax collector. Let’s not let him off the hook too easily. The tax collector only recognizes that all he is about is depending on the mercy and forgiveness of God. That’s in good contrast to the Pharisee, yes. And that’s the challenging starting place, to be sure.

But nowhere do we see a sign of his repenting. Does he desire to have his life turned around? He may very well be as self-engrossed as the Pharisee. Just the other side of the same coin. The tax collector strikes me as one who might remain stuck in cycles of self-pity, negative self-talk and depression. 

He might be one who goes back every Sunday to remind himself how bad he really is. A false humility, we may call it, where it feels good, actually, to put yourself down before others. “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t have a strong faith.” “I can’t do this or that.” 
Will he not hear that God’s forgiveness can lift him out of what may appear a chronic negativity? Will he not hear that he is not all of the time all worms and dirt and badness within? Will he not hear that God has given him a great gift within himself, in himself?

No matter with whom we relate, or cheer for, in this text — the Pharisee or the tax collector — we run into a wall with both of them. And I believe this wall is meant to test to what degree we focus too much on ourselves in the practice of our faith and in our prayer, and not on God.

The trap is to call us out whenever what we do or what we decide as communities of faith is more about our own stuff, than about the bigger picture, the holy and wonderful mystery that is God.

At least one item from our worship practice is not in storage, but stands in this place alongside yours — the Paschal Candle. It is called, ‘paschal’, because it describes the ‘mystery’ of Jesus life, death, resurrection and ascension. We call it, ‘the Paschal Mystery’. 

We are not talking here about a mystery like ‘the case of the missing pulpit’, where it is simply a question of information about something that is already known, just not to everyone. “Mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand”; A mystery, in the holy sense, is as Richard Rohr puts it: something you can “endlessly understand” (2). We never ‘arrive’ at a complete knowing, this side of eternity, of what God is all about. We never completely ‘get it’. We are always growing, changing, discovering, adventuring.

It is natural to seek signs. The Pharisees and disciples demanded Jesus: Give us a sign! And the only ‘sign’ that Jesus was willing to give them, was the “sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29). Many of us know that story from the Old Testament, where Jonah fights against God’s will, refuses to follow where God calls, doesn’t want to do it! 

Only by spending time in the belly of a whale for a few days, where he can do nothing, does Jonah become aware and accept that it’s not about him, or his mission, but about God’s purpose, God’s call, God’s mission. Doing God’s mission will call us beyond our own agendas, preferences, and even personalities. Not that those things are bad. But this is about something a lot bigger than our resumes, list of accomplishments, or even our baggage and painful histories.

We are on a journey moving forward, a pilgrimage, to discover what God is about in this holy space and in the world around us, now. We already received signs of God grace — your authentic and heartfelt welcome and accommodating us, for starters. This beautiful space and hospitality we can share. This is God’s good work among us and through you. Thank you!

We might not know what this will look like at the end of the journey together as Faith Lutheran Church worships alongside Julian of Norwich Anglican Church over the next few months. “I’ve got this pulpit in the back seat of my car, and I have no idea where it’s going!”
We might not know where this adventure leads.

But we don’t go alone. We travel this uncertain road together, side by side. We may suffer through some moments together as we figure things out, as we feel our way into this journey, as we learn and perhaps go through some growing pains together on these first few steps.

But let us be encouraged by the Paschal Mystery, which points to the way of Christ, the self-emptying and giving that leads to a marvellous and wonderful resurrection from all that is passing away, transforming us into the new thing that God is doing. The light of Christ shines ever and ever, even in the darkness and through our most challenging journeys. 

Thanks be to God! Amen.


(1) David Lose, “The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the Reformation”; Monday, October 21, 2013; http://www.workingpreacher.org 

(2) Richard Rohr, “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” (Whitaker House Publishing, Pennsylvania, 2016)

Gospel, Italian style

On the Sunday before I left for a family vacation to Italy, you encouraged me to — “know your history”. I think that message came to me mostly during the children’s chat when we talked about the Canadian flag on my backpack, and why Canadians had been so well appreciated and admired in western Europe, especially, over the past several decades.

The conversations then, as well as following the service over coffee, reinforced to me the value you place upon ‘history’ in general. 

Well, Italy is not exactly the hotbed of Reformation, Protestant Christian history as such. At the same time, the buildings there stand clearly as testimony to the dedication of Christians in certain times and places in history.

It was the first day we walked in the older section of Naples — a sprawling metropolis at the base of Mount Vesuvius on the Mediterranean coast — when I began to feel this history pressing in the air all around me.

I say sprawling because Naples is today the most densely populated urban centre in all of Europe; some 8,500 people inhabiting one square kilometre in a metropolis of nearly four million people — making it the third largest city in Italy, and the ninth most populous urban area in the entire European Union.


The noise was overwhelming: the hustle and bustle of pedestrians, car horns beeping, motorcycles and mopeds buzzing, shouting street vendors, impassioned conversations, two-toned emergency sirens, barking street dogs, screeching tires.

In conrast, the neo-Gothic styled ‘duomo’ in Naples offered a welcome break to this outside clamour. 

The expansive interior spaces of this main cathedral embraced silence and only hushed speech. You could occasionally hear the squeak of rubber-soled shoes and someone dropping a book on the stone and marbled flooring as people sat and wandered solemnly throughout the holy spaces.

Perhaps the most significant feature of this cathedral is the baptistery, which is the oldest baptistery in the world, built in the fifth century, C.E. It is remarkable to connect with such an ancient symbol in a material form. 

When the baptized emerged from the water, looking upward at the ceiling, they would be encouraged in their faith; the first images they saw after being baptized were scenes from the Gospel expressed in Byzantine, mosaic art: Jesus saving Peter from drowning, the women at the empty tomb, the miracles of the multiplied fish, an image of Saint Paul, the Apostle, etc.

Seeing with my own eyes and touching with my own hands this font that was built by human hands only a few hundred years after Jesus, affirmed my conviction in the longevity and validity of the sacrament which has endured as profoundly meaningful for Christians throughout the millennia. 

I felt that faith is not just about the good old days when I was young, but the good old days when the Christian faith was younger. We are part of something much larger than our immediate reality. And, when we connect with that broader history, we realize it wasn’t always peaches ‘n cream and rose-coloured a history.

If you are movie watcher, you might recognize another cathedral we visited — the Duomo in the Umbrian, medieval town of Orvieto. 


This cathedral was featured in the opening scenes of Under the Tuscan Sun. This cathedral’s highlight is the Chapel of San Brizio, featuring Luca Signorelli’s brilliantly lit frescoes of the Day of Judgment and Life after Death. 

Although the frescoes refer to themes of resurrection and salvation, they do so through images not from the bible (that is, stories from the Gospels or Old Testament) but from the turbulent political and religious atmosphere of Italy in the late 1400s. Signorelli told the story of faith through his contemporary human events, rather than the traditional symbols (such as Jesus, God, the Trinity, the Apostles, disciples and other biblical characters) that we see in most other places.

Those frescos in the Orvieto cathedral chapel were snapshots of an historical era particular to a specific time and geo-political reality (i.e. 15th century Italy). And the impression of faith put ‘on it.’ Historical to us. Yet current to those who built that Cathedral in the Midlle Ages.

Faith is more than merely appealing to our past. Coming to worship today is not just about being reminded of something or someone from a long time ago. What we do here today is not just an exercise in recalling historical facts. As if decisions we make today are really not about faith. When we talk about our building renovations, worship practice and art, musical choices, communion, budgets, outreach initiatives  — these issues are very mcuh about the Christian faith ‘in the real world’, so to speak. All of these real things do reveal what we believe in, our values, what is important to us, who we are. How do these ‘mundane’ decisions reflect the Christian Gospel, faith, kindgom values in this time and place?

Lutherans make a similar mistake, I believe, when we define ‘Lutheranism’ as a belief/doctrinal system that is limited to the words and conceptual formulations of sixteenth century Germans. When we say that to be Lutheran is merely to ‘turn the clock back’ to 1537 when the Book of Concord was finally assembled including Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, the Augsburg Confession, and the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.

I prefer a view that is reflected in the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland’s (EKD) logo for 2017, “Celebrating 500 years of Reformation”. Five hundred years of Reformation. In other words, Reformation started happening — in our tradition — with Martin Luther, yes. 

But, Reformation continued through the 500 years following, and continues to this day and beyond. We are always reforming the forms and means by which we express our evangelical, Gospel-centred faith. Always finding new and creative ways to tell the story of God.

What can we say, then, about Christian history? If we can apply a macro view over the ages, we can say that the history of the Christian faith is about a God who loves us. Christian history is about a God whose compassion never fails, who “will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9) — even though the people of God continue to keep “sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (v.2).

The history of the Christian faith is about our lives being “hidden with Christ in God”, being “revealed with Christ in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4), dying daily to ways of sin and being renewed daily in Christ who “is all and in all!” — even though we are imperfect and sin as long as we hold breath. Christ is all and in all — despite us!

The history of the Christian faith is about how each moment of history — including this one right now — reflected Jesus’ love in the fifth century, the fourteenth century, the 21st century in Palestine, Egypt, Italy, Canada, etc. God for all times and places!

We validate the Christian faith by our lives today, now. This is where the rubber hits the road. This in-the-moment approach fuelled the generosity of medieval Catholicism represented in the magnificent building projects for worship as much as it did the passion and commitment of European Christians during the Reformation era.

We do not leave the practice of faith for some distant, utopic and dreamy future. Neither do we rest on the laurels of the tremendous sacrifices made by our forebears in Canada. 

Now is the time. Now is the time to live out of the conviction of God’s grace and love, despite the many and various ways Christians have messed up in history, and continue to do so today. Now is the time to live out of the faith that is full of hope, that despite our waywardness and unfaithfulness, God is faithful. Now is the time to claim God loves us, not because we are good, but because God is good. God is so good!

You know Jesus’ familiar exhortation, most often translated as “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Christians have often interpreted this word ‘perfection’ as being made whole. 

A much better translation might be: “be merciful.” Because this verse comes right at the end of a passage calling Christians to “love your enemies” (v. 43-48). Only God is perfect. But we can participate in God’s perfect mercy, God’s all-inclusive and impartial love.

Echoing Saint Paul’s words from the Epistle today (Colossians 3:11 — “Christ is all and in all”) St. Bonaventure later said, “Christ is the one whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” [1] 

Christ’s mercy is everywhere evident in history. This is the Wholeness, the forgiveness, the grace, that holds you forever and everywhere. You can’t figure this Wholeness out rationally, nor can you control it. All you can do is fall into this Wholeness that holds you when you stop excluding, even the dark parts of yourself. [2] And that, my friends, is the Gospel — good news — for all times and places.

Thanks be to God!

1- Alan of Lille, ‘Regulae Theologicae’, Reg. 7 as quoted by Bonaventure, translated by Ewert Cousins, “The Soul’s Journey into God”, Classics of Western Spirituality (Paulist Press: 1978), p.100

2- Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation on the Spirituality of Imperfection” Week 2 – Perfection of Wholeness, Thursday, July 28, 2016

Bread for all

After the old doctor died, his sons emptied the house in order to sell it. In the living room on the shelf above the fireplace they found a box with a slice of bread in it.

It was dried up hard and obviously had sat in the box a long time.

“He really kept every thing!” said one of the sons amazed. The doctor’s assistant who worked for the doctor for many years stood beside the sons silently. And then said: “Let me tell you the story of the slice of bread:

“You know that after the war your dad became very ill. He was weak, and near death. A friend, who had visited him told him, ‘If you don’t eat enough to regain your strength, it looks very bad for you.’ But where was one to get enough to eat? Everyone was starving. Many simply cooked potato peels and considered it a rich soup.

“The friend returned after some hours and brought some bread. Where he found it, he didn’t say. Surely he must have paid a fortune for it.

“But your dad did not eat it,” continued the assistant. “Your dad told me to take it to the neighbour; their daughter had been ill for a long time too. ‘I am an old man already who does not need the bread as much!’ your Dad said. ‘Take it to the neighbours!’

“As it later turned out, the neighbours did not eat it either, but passed it on to a family of refugees with three little children that lived in a small shack in the backyard of the neighbours’ house. They were overjoyed for they had not seen bread for more than three months. 

“But as they were about to eat, they remembered that the doctor, who had helped their children at no charge when they had been struck by a dangerous fever, was ill and weak and really needed something that would make him stronger.

“So when the bread came back after a day,” said the assistant, “we recognized it at once. Your dad was in tears, as they found out about the wandering piece of bread and where it had been.

Your Dad had said, “as long as there is love between us – I am not afraid about anything, not even dying”. So he divided it evenly and sent me out again. His share he kept; he put it in this box to always remember what had happened.”

The three children took the old bread, broke in in three pieces and decided to keep it in order to remember the story, to tell it to the next generation, and to teach them about the power of love and the wonder of sharing.

Something like this can only happen when there is a communal consciousness — more than one person that participates in a community of love and trust. That all will have enough. That all will benefit. That the needs of the whole outweigh the needs of the one.

This is the Gospel call. The kingdom call. Not for individual enlightenment or edification. Not for our sake alone. Dear Confirmands, your baptism as a baby was not valid on account of your own individual strength or decision. It was the community — your parents, sponsors and everyone in the church long ago — whose faith surrounded you at your baptism. Even your confirmation is not done for your own sake — but for the sake of others around you.

And that’s why you participate in leading and assisting in your own confirmation service: To practice this truth, that affirming your baptism is a call to deeper commitment in the life of the church. You may doubt the strength of your faith. That’s ok. In fact, I would be worried if you didn’t. God can work with just a tiny bit.

I must admit when we planted that tiny four-inch tall spruce on church grounds last Fall, I didn’t have a lot of hope that it would survive the winter. This was our first tree planted in response to the Reformation challenge for our national church to plant 500,000 trees by the end of 2017 — the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was a small tree. A humble start. Could it live, and even bear fruit? I had my doubts.

For one thing it was exposed, and not easily visible, to the many pedestrians that use this property to cross through and the many children who play in this space. For another thing, since receiving the sapling, I had not seen signs of new life on it. So I wasn’t sure it there was anything new to come out of it.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. Throughout the coming months, our neighbours put a tall chicken-wire type fence around it and staked it. We watered it. People walked around it. God took care of it over the cold winter. And voila, look at the new shoots of life sprouting now! There is hope.


It does take a community committed to sharing, committed to kingdom values, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today is just as much about celebrating the church of all times and places as it is about our part in the kingdom of God on earth. We are not loners on this path. We don’t walk by ourselves. It’s not all up to us, individually. 

It’s amazing to see the fans of “We the North” cheer on the Toronto Raptors as they advance through the NBA playoffs this post-season. They are true fans who gather in “Jurassic Park” outside the ACC in downtown Toronto, even during away-games in the pouring rain. You might say, they are ‘fan-atics’ of their team. 

Yes, fans can be fanatics — exuberant, dedicated, passionate, sometimes even over-the-top. Imagine the fans in heaven — the faithful gathered as the grand host of heaven, cheering you on this day. These may be your loved ones, long gone now, or recently died. These may be the saints throughout the ages. These may be other Christians not here today yet praying for you nonetheless. These are your fans of faith. Fans. Fanatics. Fantastic!

You are not alone, making this decision today. Pentecost, and Confirmation Sunday, is also about trusting in God’s initiative, God’s work, God’s love and mercy. Through the Holy Spirit God comes to us in so many ways we sometimes don’t even recognize. 

In a few minutes, God comes to us in bread. This bread, the body of Jesus, is broken bread. It is broken from the One, so that all may eat. There is always enough for all, for the sake of our broken lives in this broken world that God so loves.

Prayer for Reformation Sunday

We give you thanks, loving God, for  your unconditional love and grace to us and all people. Help us be moved to your heart, Christ Jesus, as our motivation, our desire, our passion for the decisions we make in our congregations. By your Holy Spirit, keep us steadfast in your Word, and continue to bless us in mission for and with others, so all may have dignity and all may live in hope. Amen

(Hoping for) A happy ending: Why not?

“God will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)

When the prophet Isaiah promises salvation to the people, people who are “weak, feeble and fearful” (Is 35:3-4) what does he mean? What does he mean when he says: “God will save you”? Does he mean, the promise of heaven? Does he mean, remission of sins?

In the news this week we have seen images of desperate people risking their lives to escape the dire situation in Syria. Refugees are literally dying for the sake of finding a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people dispersed from their homes. He spoke to a people who were displaced for political reasons. Emerging empires, such as Assyria, Babylon and then the Greeks, swept through the region in the centuries before Christ leaving those without power or privilege to fend for themselves in foreign lands. Sound familiar?

The Bible gives us Christians a broader perspective on ‘Salvation’. Because when we look carefully at texts such as Isaiah 35, salvation is not about heaven and remission of sins. The people who are exiled, lost and experiencing the worst circumstances of life, will be saved from those circumstances. In real time, earth-bound, flesh and blood realities.

From the perspective of Jesus Christ, of course, we can express, in all truth, the promise of heaven and remission of sins. For sure. And yet we cannot, if we engage the bible honestly, limit the concept of salvation to these albeit abstract notions of faith. Salvation in Christ has just as much to do with our lives on earth, and the lives of others, “in the flesh”.

We may despair, watching the news. What can anyone do to make the situation right for the millions of refugees now flooding Europe? How can there be a happy ending, in this mess? We can be paralyzed in our fear, and look away, despondent.

And yet we have this fantastic story of restoration. We know how the story ends for the remnant of Judah in Babylonian exile. We know that their earthly suffering ends happily. On earth. They eventually return to Jerusalem and restore their fortunes. We can get giddy with faith at this happy ending. Surely, this is the promised outcome for all who suffer in any way!

Listen to how Professor of Old Testament, Patricia Tull, writing in workingpreacher.org, expresses the puzzling truth of this story:

“Events as deeply woven into our history as Jerusalem’s restoration take on for us an air of inevitability. Yet they cannot be taken for granted. Other nations destroyed by great empires — including Aram, Moab, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel — failed to reestablish when their crises passed. We have Judah’s story only because it transcended destruction. Every time our scriptural reading brings us to Jerusalem’s phoenix-like restoration 2500 years ago is a moment to stop for gratitude and wonder. As Isaiah 34 and 35 vividly show, reversal of fortune isn’t guaranteed. But it is possible. Judah’s success story sets a precedent for hope, showing that happy endings have occurred and can occur.”

The first prime-minister of the modern state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, said, “Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.” To be hopeless, however grave the circumstance, is unrealistic. It works both ways: To believe that there is a happily-ever-after for each and every person in every situation imaginable is unrealistic; we know that’s not the way life works. At the same time, to dismiss altogether the possibility of happy endings and miraculous turn of events is unrealistic as well. For God, all things are possible.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Some people see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ Others see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’

As Christians, as people of faith, aren’t we a people of a ‘Why not?’ -capability?

Why not be grateful at the start and end of each day — grateful for all things that have gone well in life?

Why not focus on the blessings and abundance rather than the scarcity?

Why not celebrate the victories of God that you see in the world in the lives of others even if those victories don’t benefit you personally?

Why not rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep?

Why not sing a song of gladness when the underdog takes it all?

Why not see the face of Jesus in the stranger, the immigrant, the Muslim neighbour, the un-churched youth and mid-lifers?

Why not envision a future for your life and the life of the church that is better than what it is now? Why not? Why not? And then, see where that leads …

We are not in the business of faith for what we make of it or get out of it. We are in the business of faith for what God has done, and continues to do all around us, and even despite us.

We can be strong and do not need to fear because God keeps promises. God keeps God’s word. As Isaiah foretold, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped … the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6). 

In the Gospel today we read about Jesus doing precisely this: Jesus brings miraculous healing to the lives of those distraught and torn apart by illness and disease (Mark 7:24-37). Jesus is the glory of God shining through the brokenness of our lives. Jesus is the majesty of God embracing the sweat and tears of our lives. Jesus is the active presence of God working in us and through our poverty and pain, amidst the blood and grit and earthy, daily activity of our lives.

The story of the Quilt Holes inspired me recently at a funeral I attended. The preacher told the story of one who faced God at the last judgement, as spoken through the first person: “I knelt before God, as did everyone else. Our lives lay before us like the squares of a quilt in many piles. An angel sat in front of each of us sewing our quilt squares together into a tapestry that is our life.

“But as my angel took each piece of cloth off the pile, I noticed how ragged and empty each of my squares was: They were filled with giant holes. Each square was labeled with a part of my life that had been difficult, the challenges and temptations I had faced in every day life. I saw hardships that I endured, which were the largest holes of all.

“I glanced around me. Nobody else had such squares. They just had a tiny hole here and there. Their tapestries were filled with rich colour and the bright hues of worldly fortune. I gazed upon my own life and was disheartened.

“Finally the time came when each life was to be displayed, held up to the light, the scrutiny of truth. My gaze dropped to the ground in shame. There had been many trials of illness. I had to start over many times. I often struggled with the temptation to give up. I spent many nights in tears and on my knees in desperate prayer, asking for help and guidance that took a long time coming.

And now, I had to face the truth: My life was what it was, and I had to accept it for what it was. I rose and slowly lifted the combined squares of my life to the light.

An awe-filled gasp filled the air. I gazed around at the others who stared at me with wide eyes. Then, I looked upon the tapestry before me: Light flooded the many holes, creating an image, the face of Christ. Then Jesus stood before me, with warmth and love in his eyes. He said, “Each point of my light shone through the holes, the rips and ragged, empty squares of your life. When you were down and out, and honest and still trusting, my light continued shining through you.”

At the end of it all, we may be threadbare and worn. It may look like a failure, a sad ending. And yet, Christ in us is the end of the story, not us.

Why not, then, just be the Body of Christ in the world today? Why not be, together, the hands and feet of Jesus? Holes and all? What do we have to lose? Why not be the answer we are waiting and hoping for — for others who have no hope, for the refugees of the world? 

I recently read the story of a woman who had walked seven hundred miles as a refugee to escape a violent war. She was finally able to cross a national boundary out of the war zone. She walked all that way and brought with her an eight-year-old girl, who walked beside her. For seven hundred miles, the child held her hand tightly. When they reached safety, the girl loosened her grip, and the woman looked at her hand: It was raw and bloody with an open wound, because the little girl had held tightly in her fearfulness. This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. (Walter Brueggemann, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”, WJK Kentucky, 2014, p.88-89)

God’s hands do not let go of us, even though we may fear, even though we may be scared to take the risk and do the right things. This is the promise that God will never break.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) was onto something when in convention this past summer we adopted the Reformation challenges — one of which is to sponsor, by 2017 (the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses, or arguments, on the doors of the Wittenberg Church in Germany thereby launching the Reformation), 500 refugees coming to Canada.

We are the people we are waiting and hoping for. We have a responsibility, in faith, to be grace, forgiveness, mercy and compassion to those who are unloveable, undesirable, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the refugee, the marginalized. Can you imagine what a show of grace might do in the lives of those to whom the unexpected is given?

Why not?

‘One little word’

“Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods …. Now … choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:2,15)

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places … ” (Ephesians 6:10-12)

My mother told me the story of a dramatic stand made by Christians against Hitler on Easter Sunday 1942 in Norway: The Nazis had insisted that every Lutheran congregation praise God for Hitler’s rule over the Norwegians. The Lutheran Church considered this blasphemy, and refused. Every Norwegian Church closed that Easter Sunday morning. And instead they agreed to worship in the afternoon.

Later that day in one of the villages the people assembled in the market place. And because they were scared, they began singing what Lutherans have sung for over 400 years when they were afraid: “A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing …”

And they slowly began to walk to the steps of the village church — only to find the doors locked and guarded by a company of SS soldiers with submachine guns trained at them. When the Christians arrived at the front steps, having finished the first verse of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, an SS officer grabbed a woman holding a baby in her arms and said: “One more verse and she gets it first”, pointing the weapon at her head.

In the tense silence, the people, not knowing what to do, looked down at their feet.

And then, a single, soft, quivering voice began … 

“Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage … his might is doomed to fail. God’s judgement must prevail. One little word subdues him.”

It was the voice of the woman holding the baby. “One little word subdues him.” The soldiers were the ones in a moment of indecision who looked down at their boots. And then quietly they shuffled out of sight to let the worshippers enter the church.

One little word subdues him. Not a loud trumpet call. Not an explosion of spectacular proportions. Not an air strike obliterating the enemy. Not a bravado that denies human frailty and vulnerability. Not eloquent oration. Not a motivational speech rallying the crowd into a frenzy. One little word subdues him.

The themes of ‘standing up against evil’ and ‘taking a stand’ pervade the scriptures assigned for this Sunday. We must choose our god. We must stand up. Especially in the context of a multi-faith community. But how do we do this when all we want to do is stare down at our feet, immobilized with fear?

Because we are surrounded by diverse peoples. And that isn’t going to change. At least we can relate to the Ephesians. The Christians in Ephesus were probably taken to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian; Ephesus in the first century was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic centre of goddess Artemis. (Haruko Nawata  Ward, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 3 Fortress Press, 2009, p.376). Christians were challenged to be confident in their faith amidst challenging times. Change some of the names, and it feels a bit like Canada in the 21st century!

And as simple as we sometimes may want to reduce the question of evil, the scriptures present a more subtle and systemic view of evil. In other words, evil is not just a little red man with a pitch fork sitting on your shoulder tempting you to do something bad. Evil is also, and more significantly, about forces beyond the immediately ‘individual’, into the realms of politics, world history, economics. 

More than against “flesh and blood” evil is also about certain patterns of thinking. Our attitudes and underlying beliefs and assumptions about people of other faiths and values.

Standing up against evil and taking a stand is just is as much to do with changing the way we think about ‘them’. Standing up against evil is about repudiating ways of thinking and unspoken assumptions that have only served to hurt and damage other people. Sometimes the way we think — the common sense assumptions of our culture — are downright evil and wrong. Let me give you an example:

This past summer at the national convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), the church voted to repudiate the “doctrine of discovery”. This doctrine is different from our normal understanding of a statement of faith. But it was a belief that resulted in untold damage to the aboriginal populations of North America. It was the reason aboriginal children were taken from their homes, families and communities to suffer — many of them — in the so-called Indian Residential Schools in the last century.

The doctrine of discovery was the underpinning belief that resulted in the first explorers labelling Aboriginal people as “beasts of the field and forest”, and prompted governments to justify “killing the Indian in the child.” The doctrine of discovery made the residential schools places where native children were not permitted to speak their own language, practice their own religion, nor attend with their own siblings or have any contact with their parents while they were at school. How evil is that!?

So what is this doctrine of discovery that the ELCIC repudiated? Basically, it was a system of belief based in the discovery of North America, as if nothing of inherent value existed here before ‘we’ arrived. When the explorers landed on the shores of Iceland and then Turtle Island (i.e. North America), the land appeared to be unoccupied in the ways of western Europe. The explorers therefore believed it was theirs to acquire and own. When the explorers encountered native bands, there was this immediate disconnected with their values and culture and relationship with the land, understandably. Still, the settlers felt superior in their relationship to the native culture, believing — “What we have is better for you.” And moving from that doctrine into practices and policies of assimilation and subjugation like the residential schools.

I can anticipate your objection: But what to make of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 — when Jesus instructs his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”? Isn’t this what we have been supposed to do? – make others, force others to be like us? Aren’t we supposed to impose our values on the world, using any means at our disposal? Another English translation of the word, disciples, changes the tone significantly. When we read, “Go therefore and make learners of all nations”, we can see our task as learning. Disciples are essentially ‘learners’. Learning involves challenging current patterns of thinking, and going out into the world to share our faith. (Kristin Johnston Largen, Interreligious Learning &  Teaching, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2014, p.109)

When I visited Jerusalem years ago, I was surrounded by at least three different world religions day in and day out. Muslim minarets blared out regular calls to prayer; orthodox Jews bowed at the wailing wall. And I, with a small group of Christians found a little apartment in the old city to gather around bible, cup and bread, to pray  and sing together. Few other times in my life have I ever felt as confident and grateful for my Christian faith than in a context  where other faiths and cultures came and tried to live together, even clashed.

Sharing our faith is not about one-up-man-ship. Sharing our faith is not a competition. It is simply being confident to talk to others when appropriate about what is most important to you. And, giving the other the freedom to do likewise. I think we still need to work on that in the church because I think we still believe it’s about a competition. That we have to fight, even, if necessary, to defend God — or our ideas of God. Be the winner, not the loser, in a winner-takes-all kind of world. It was in Jerusalem when I first realized that if there was any evil in the world, it started in me and my selfish, materialistic, self-acquiring vision for life.

Paul’s armour-of-God metaphor, like all metaphors, has limits and can even be problematic. Such a text has been interpreted throughout two thousand years of church and world history often as justification for violence against others. It is challenging maybe even impossible for us today to engage this text without the lens of history and the development of society and human culture through the ages — particularly with respect to warfare.

And that is why, as Lutherans especially are taught to do, I would not want to interpret this text without placing it beside another text from Paul’s letters, in this case, to ‘let scripture interpret scripture’. Listen now to another clothing analogy, where Paul speaks of what we ‘put on’ in Christ:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful …. And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-15,17)

Indeed, in this light, the belt of truth is the Gospel. The helmut of salvation is God’s eternal promise of love for us. The breast-plate of righteousness is a heart of compassion. The boots are actions that bring peace and goodwill to the world. The shield of faith is trusting in God’s grace. The sword of the Spirit is proclaiming the word of forgiveness, mercy and love.

One little word subdues him. An act of humility, not military aggression nor forceful imposition.

One little word subdues him. A word of forgiveness rather than condemnation, racism and judgement.

One little word subdues him. Something unexpected, surprising and even looked down upon by the world’s winners — that changes history. One little word — not born of competition, comparison and control, but born of surrender, release and trust. One little word, “I love you”, changes everything.

One little word is Jesus. God becomes human. A baby. A prophet. A teacher. A lamb taken to slaughter. One little word is greater than anything the world lives by. One little word whispered in a storm. One little word sung softly into the barrel of a machine gun. One little word nudging gently our hearts, saying to you: I love you. I forgive you. You are free. You will forever more be a child of God.

Now, tell the nations of the world the same. And act like you believe it. Because it’s true. Thanks be to God.

Diversity in unity: A Reformation sermon

Of all that can be said about the tragic events of October 22, 2014 at the War Memorial and Parliament Hill, one thing we can agree on: something changed. In the aftermath of the shootings, we are still figuring out exactly what.

The day started for me with great anticipation that evening of the ‘battle of Ontario’ between the Senators and Maple Leafs at the Canadian Tire Centre. The day certainly didn’t end that way.

As I drove past the quieted Canadian Tire Centre with its vast, empty parking lots on my home late that tragic day, I marvelled how a single act of cowardly violence could alter the psyche of a city: The anticipation of a sell-out, jam-packed arena was suddenly silenced. Instead, I along with the rest of the city was eager to get home to be with family and loved ones after a day of anxious and often chaotic lock-downs in schools and downtown buildings.

Images of armed officers and special police units swarming familiar and beloved symbols of national remembrance, barricaded Members of Parliament, horrific visions of a slumped body at the foot of the war memorial ricocheted in my mind. Sounds of gun shots from security personnel in the Hall of Honour in Centre Block echoed in my head.

And then, words from the Prime Minster and other party leaders assuring Canadians that this attack was aimed at undermining our values. It seems times of collective crisis, such as this one, burn through all our usual distractions and reveals what is truly important to us. Indeed, now is the time to affirm, and attempt to clarify, what is the nature of our identity and community.

Earlier in the day I went to the Ottawa Civic Hospital where the victims of the violence were taken. The place was streaming with extra security personnel at the entrances and in front of the emergency department. What struck me was the way in which the medical staff went about their usual business of caring for the patients in the hospital. Obviously aware of the ongoing, ‘dynamic’ operation downtown and the possibility of many more injured to arrive any time, they nevertheless kept to their scheduled procedures with smiles and loving attentiveness to others. Their jobs, however routine, became infused and enlivened with caring compassion, in the moment.

On the eve of the shootings, Bishop Munib Younan — president of the Lutheran World Federation and Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Lands — spoke in downtown Ottawa to a diverse group of Lutheran leaders and laity about peace. He described an image often portrayed in the media of young people in his part of the world throwing stones at their enemies. Bishop Younan prays for a day when those stones could be used to build bridges of peace.

How appropriate. He was, after all, speaking to Canadians whose international reputation is one of peace-keeping and building, respecting the humanity dignity of all people.

In all the media reporting on Wednesday, I heard an American security official comment on what he saw to be a typical Canadian response: He observed how RCMP officers and Ottawa Police communicated with the public on the streets of downtown Ottawa in the hours following the shooting; they would often say ‘please’ move to the other side of the street. Politeness and consideration continued to be hallmarks of our public interaction, even in the midst of a crisis.

Some say now we should no longer be so ‘laid back’ as Canadians. We should be tougher, more aggressive. On Reformation Sunday today we sing with pride Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. Let us, dear friends, not become the fortress where we exclude others who are different from us. Let us, dear friends, not become a fortress where violence escalates and hatred is encouraged — which is precisely what the haters want. Now is the time to affirm what has always characterized us for the good.

But what is that, as Lutherans? Martin Luther affirmed that we are saved ‘by grace through faith’. What is a good metaphor for grace? Where does it come from, and where does it go?

Grace pools like water at the bottom of things. Water flows naturally into the lowest recesses of a land’s topography. Vast rivers seek their way downward towards the ocean. The grace of God is like water, whose primary direction is downward.

The cross of Christ is a symbol that God is discovered precisely where it hurts the most, where we feel the most vulnerable and shamed and exposed. This was central in the thinking and theology of Martin Luther — the Cross: God is found where we least expect it, when we least expect it. This is relevant especially to Canadians and Ottawans in particular, in light of what has just happened.

Could we respond not just with pronouncements of who we should be more like, but with a sober affirmation of who we are? Could we respond with a commitment to paying attention to what is reality for most of humanity around the globe, and not just for the rich and famous, privileged and elite? Could we respond by embracing again a faith that proclaims resurrection and new life through the ‘momentary’ suffering that comes to us all?

Martin Luther experienced the devil, at which he threw ink wells and much profanity, while alone in his study at Wartburg and during an immense personal struggle and angst. The Germans have a good word for it — ‘anfechtung’ — which describes an internal battle. The devil is not personified in any particular religious group or ethnic profile, but comes to us all in our own personal struggle with hatred, blaming, and self-righteousness. In Ephesians 6 Paul writes that our struggle is not against enemies of ‘blood and flesh’ but against ‘cosmic powers and spiritual forces’ to which we are, each and everyone of us, vulnerable. Therefore, in the words from 1 Peter 5:6-11 …

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever.

A mighty fortress IS our God. God will shelter us under the wings of God’s care and protection. No matter where we go — in the public spaces or by ourselves, alone. God will never leave us nor forsake us.

Sailing Across

Imagine standing at the shoreline of a great ocean. Linger on the span of the horizon, the boundary between water and sky. What kind of weather day is it? Is it windy? Are the waves crashing at your feet; is the ocean choppy, cresting with millions of whitecaps as far as the eye can see?

Or, is it a calm sea today? Just a gentle, rhythmic slapping of water on sand at your feet? Is the sun shining in a brilliant blue sky? Or, is it overcast — greys washing away any colour distinctions in your line of sight?

The lectionary brings together some bible readings for this Sunday in the Easter season that make an outrageous claim: God is in us. For, in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that the Holy Spirit — the Advocate — “will be in you” (John 14:17).

Christian apologists in the last centuries have guarded against modernist, “new age” beliefs. They describe that Christians have always held the distinction between God and creation. Conservatives, especially, have been nervous whenever anyone suggests that a bit of God is in us, because that can easily slip into an unorthodox, pantheistic blending of boundaries. In other words, we humans are not God.

It is an important distinction, to be sure. It echoes Martin Luther’s emphasis during the Reformation on the supremacy of the grace of God. Similar to new-age doctrines whose ultimate meaning is found in the human self, ‘works-righteousness’ — that which Luther fought against in the sale of indulgences — implies the onus rests with us, when it comes to our salvation.

Works-righteousness means that we have to earn favour with God in order to get to heaven. It’s all up to us — what we decide, our good efforts to do the right kinds of things; the result of our works, therefore, determines the course of whether we are made right with God, or not. Luther, of course, argued against this line of thinking and acting.

So, standing at the ocean’s edge, would you venture out using a motorboat or a sail boat? Which kind of boat is a better metaphor to describe a life of faith? If our intention and hope was to land on the distant shore of complete union with God — or however you want to describe heaven — how do we get from here to there? On the one hand, will we ride the ocean of our lives using a motor boat?

A motor boat would certainly be the easiest method. We just aim in a straight line and power up. We would have control over the course; we would decide when to ease up on the throttle, for a break; we would decide when to give it gas, and race. We’d be in charge. Even against the wind and waves, whether in a stiff breeze or on a cloudless, placid sea, our direction is certain.

I suspect this is the preferred methodology, even when it comes to being the church and living our Christian lives. The onus is on us. And it’s up to us to determine the course and be in charge of our destiny.

I also suspect we would recoil against the notion that driving the motorboat is just like the kind of heresy the reformers of yesteryear and today rail against. Because ultimately our life, our death, and our salvation is not dependent on our doing, our agency, our efforts, our decisions — as good or as bad as they may be.

A sailboat, on the other hand, calls forth a different kind of skill set. It’s not that a sailor has no work to do. But this work is different: Without the benefit of an engine to drive, regardless of wind speed and direction, the sailor must be able first to pay attention to what is happening on any particular day.

Once wind speed and direction is observed, the riggings and ropes and rudder must be properly aligned in order to make any kind of headway.

At first, you may need to head in the opposite direction. Tacking into the wind is counterintuitive – sometimes you need to move away from your destination in order to move toward it.

Sometimes, tacking with the wind may mean heading right into an unattractive bank of dark, storm clouds. Sometimes relying on the wind means leaning your body in an uncomfortable position to maximize the best weight distribution. In truth, sailing is tough work.

But using this method of crossing the ocean, as inefficient as it might sometimes seem, is better suited to describe Christian discipleship. Even though doing the right thing sometimes may mean an inconvenience, even though following God’s call may be uncomfortable for us, even though being faithful may mean facing our fears and confronting head on that which we would normally avoid. Because we must depend on God. Our work is more in response to what God is already doing, and then trusting in God.

Those scriptures we hear today were given in the general context of Jesus leaving the disciples at his ascension. The Gospel is part of the “Farewell Discourse” that Jesus gives his disciples — words of encouragement and empowerment and promise. Jesus is trying to comfort his disciples who now have to continue doing Jesus’ work on earth.

But they are not alone in this work. It’s not up to them, alone. Jesus assures them they will do even “greater works” (John 14:12) than himself, but not without his presence in them through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God blows as it wills, because God is in charge. And because the presence of Christ lives IN us, the promise of God is true. We don’t have to be in control because not even death stands in the way of the promise and truth of God.

We need only pay attention to what is already happening around us, and respond accordingly. Even if at first the way appears inconvenient, counterintuitive, or cause us to be afraid. We can even sail right into the sunset of our lives, knowing that God awaits us on the distant shore.

Let us pray:

“Not as the world gives do you give,
O Lover of Souls,
For what is yours is ours also,
if we belong to you.

“Life is unending because love is undying,
and the boundaries of this life are but an horizon,
and an horizon is but the limit of our vision.

“Lift us up, strong Son of God,
that we may see further.
Strengthen our faith that we may see beyond the horizon.

“And while you prepare a place for us,
as you have promised,
prepare us also for that happy place;
that where you are we may be also,
with those we have loved, forever.

Amen.”

(Bede Jarrett in Flor McCarthy, “Funeral Liturgies” Dominican Publications, Ireland, 1987, p.181)

The truth will make you free

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32)

This text citing Jesus from the Gospel of John is the chosen text for Reformation Sunday. I wonder why? Is it because in every age the church needs to re-discover the truth for itself?

When you think about it, isn’t this the question that seems to surface time and time again for Christians living in the world today? It does for me: When tragedy strikes. When controversy splinters groups. When conflict erupts. What is true? Who is right? Who speaks the truth?

After watching the presidential debates on TV last week, one of the US networks had a segment where a reporter examined a few of the statements made by the candidates. By appealing to the facts and the official record we could judge whether or not the statements were true. Kind of like a truth-meter. The result wasn’t always clear-cut, either-or – for both candidates.

Pilate’s question to Jesus (“What is truth?” John 18:38) right before Jesus’ death is actually answered by Jesus here: “The truth will make you free.” Okay, so we have a connection between truth and freedom. It’s a good start.

This is the texture and character of what God’s truth is all about; that is, it leads to freedom, to expansion, to a kind of un-shackling, un-binding, un-raveling, un-caging of our lives. This is how we will recognize it – that’s the litmus test: whether it frees us, or not.

In the last couple of weeks you may have noticed the new paint on the walls in the narthex and adjacent rooms upstairs. Repainting the walls is a cleansing act of sorts – a confession, you might say. Because we now look rather critically at what was on the floors – the furniture, and what hung the walls – the plaques and pictures. We revisit the very assumptions of why those things were put there in the first place. In this evaluative process we ask: Why?

Painting the walls was sacramental in that it was an outward act that points to an inward reality. What about taking a look at our inner lives, asking ‘why?’, and begin renovating that space? What about confessing the truth of who we are? What is hanging on the walls of our hearts? And why is it there? Does it need to be? Is it counter-productive? Does it say something about our lives that is not really true?

At the spiritual retreat I attended last weekend the participants were asked the question: “Describe how you know something to be true.” The question was intentionally left to be wide open, and in our small groups we were encouraged not to be judgmental in what others said and with what came to our own lips in the moment. So, how do you know something to be true?

It wasn’t an easy question to answer, truth be told, especially among strangers. My small group comprised of three people. And you might have guessed it: three different kinds of answers.

The first person said she knows something to be true because she trusts her gut instinct; for example, she just knows in her gut that someone her teenage daughter hangs out with is not a good friend for her. Her gut tells her this is true – and often it turns out to be true!

The other person said she relies on what other people around her say and do. She trusts her friends and family, what they teach her, tell her and by the example of their lives – this is how she knows and discovers the truth. Not so much her gut, but in her relationships.

I was the third person. The first thing that came to my mind was: I trust ideas and from where they come – the scriptures, the doctrines, the books I read, the traditions, the work of the mind. This is how I know the truth.

I realized after our discussion that it boiled down to what you trust – your instinct, your heart, your mind.

Was someone wrong? Was someone right? The experience of the exercise to listen and then to share honestly taught me that in various ways we were all right. Each of us shared an important perspective on discovering the truth.

If it wasn’t for Martin Luther responding in the moment to his conscience and gut: “Here I stand!” before those who accused him of heresy – I wonder if he and we would have ever received the truth of God’s grace in the way Luther eventually articulated it.

If it wasn’t for Martin Luther’s loving, caring and trusting relationship with Johann von Staupitz, his superior and mentor in the Augustinian monastery, he would not have made a critical step in his journey to discover the truth of justification by grace alone. In Luther’s own words: “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.”

If it wasn’t for Martin Luther’s dedication to the written word in translating the New Testament from the Latin to the language of the people, German, during his exile in the Wartburg castle, if not for his scholarship and knowledge of the scriptures, he most certainly would not have been in a position to stand with credibility and conviction.

On the other hand,

If it were only his instinct that he trusted, he could have barked up the wrong theological tree altogether, without recourse to the people in his life and the traditions of his church, good and bad.

If it were only his relationships that he trusted, he could have easily lost himself, his integrity, his own conscience by trying to please everyone and respond to their demands and expectations, becoming in essence a chameleon.

If it were only his appeal to right ideas manifested in the laws, the scriptures, the words on a page and other such abstract authorities, he would have missed the gift of Jesus to the world, a gift – like peace – which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). In other words, what is true is more than merely the understandings of our minds and intellectual intelligence.

Martin Luther’s conscience, his trusted relationships and his mind – all three – were part of the journey of discovering truth. I think we can say that in many ways his influence in the church expanded and freed many to embrace the truth about God.

By trusting only one facet over the other leads us to live life as if we were pushing a plane down the runway. We want to be free. We want the truth of flight. But we’re not getting into the plane and trust all of what the journey means.

It’s hard work. It isn’t easy – both to be honest about yourself, and to accept the other whose answer might be a little different.

It was for Martin Luther. For someone who was so convinced that the truth was found only in serving penance for his sins and slaving away to earn favor with God; for someone who felt deeply remorseful for his sins but who believed the only way to get it right with God was to work even harder at doing good works ….

The truth indeed set him free. For what was his eureka moment in that monastery in Germany? That it is grace that puts him right with God. Not anything that his ego could produce – his energy, his work, his endurance, his good intentions. But a free gift of God’s love, mercy, forgiveness – the doing of God in Jesus un-did the requirement for Luther to earn God’s grace.

So this grace as gift is the truth that sets us free. But it is a freedom FOR something, not FROM something. This is key. Freedom that is grounded in God’s grace is not a freedom from restraints and limits so that we could do anything we want to do. (see Richard Rohr, “On the Threshold of Transformation”, p.123). Here we go pushing that plane again. It is not Jesus’ understanding of freedom.

Instead, what Jesus embodies is a freedom FOR the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is a highly moral approach to freedom. This movement gets us flying. Gets us free. When we have nothing to lose except our egos. We seek justice, we are gracious and understanding, we are compassionate and work on behalf, not of ourselves and our own myopic realities, but of others in need. Why? Because it is the right thing to do. Because we are free to do this! Someone once said: There is no truth without compassion, and no compassion without truth.

I suspect when the world sees us engaged in this kind of approach, they will see Jesus and therefore see God. They will see the truth, they will bear witness to it in our behavior, our decisions and our actions.

What is truth? Each of us needs to personally struggle with that question – as Luther mightily did, as anyone who has grown in their personhood.

The truth is – the Son still shines above the clouds. Discovering this truth is like taking off on a stormy day: We may know theoretically that the sun is still shining. But to experience the Son personally we need to fly through the turbulence of the clouds before we break through and reach the heights where the sky is blue and the sun’s rays warm our bodies, our hearts and our minds.

A seminary prof once told my class that the song should really read: “Jesus loves me this I know for my mother tells me so” – pointing to the truth that for many of us, before we could read any words on a page we were in relationships with loved ones who showed us God’s love and talked to us about it.

The prof got it partially right. For over the span of a lifetime, I believe that Jesus loves me this I know, for my gut, my Mom/Dad/loved ones, and the Bible tells me so.

That is how I know.