Perseverance – the Beatitudes in a word

Downstairs in the church kitchen just above the sink, hangs this sign with the words: “Blessed are they who clean up.” An encouragement this is, no doubt, to wash up dirty dishes with soap and place in the cupboards when finished.

But are these words more than encouragement?

Indeed, the Beatitudes which form the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel[1]are often treated as commandments. We read them as rules for living. And rules demonstrate a reality that we have not yet achieved, a desired reality that is beyond our present circumstances. And a reality that we must work towards by following the rules.

Dirty dishes left in the sink is not the desired reality. A clean kitchen is. So, get to work!

Last week, after Jesus called his first disciples, he went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.[2]In these Beatitudes, now, we encounter precisely what constitutes the kingdom of heaven on earth. And it isn’t about following rules.  

For one thing, the bible isn’t a rule book with lists of commandments and directives for living. Its original writers were not products of our 21st century bias towards a rational logic based on a cause-effect, either-or, legalism. For the most part they didn’t write in order to tell people what to do, but rather to describe the kind of relationship we might have with the God of truth and love.

Besides the laws we read, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, we have to acknowledge the Bible contains other forms of writing: For example, there is rich narrative. There are stories and parables. There is history and sermon. In the bible’s pages we also read beautiful, image-rich poetry and incredible visions of the future.

The Beatitudes fall under the latter categories of the poetic variety. These are not expressed as rules; rather, as a vision of God’s faithfulness to the people of God. They describe what faithfulness between God and human looks like.

In order to understand what these Beatitudes mean, I suggest we consider other images—of the poetic variety—that could convey the meaning of the Beatitudes. In this way, we remain true to the original spirit and style of Jesus’ preaching in the introduction to his lengthy sermon on the mount.

Thomas Merton, born 104 years ago yesterday, and whom many consider the father of contemplative Christianity in the modern era, wrote: “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Like Merton, let’s use the metaphor of a tree to describe something that is true about our walk with God.

Twentieth Century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, in his Meditations on the Heart, describes his journey to the tree line near the arctic circle. There he makes a startling discovery about the trees:

“It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. 

“Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down. As a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were  branches.

“For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon! 

“It is as if the tree had said, ‘I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.’”[3]

Thurman’s description captures for me the essence, the feel, of what Jesus’ beatitudes represent. And, one very strong feel about these Beatitudes is the quality of perseverance that marks our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us.

Our life with God is anything but passive. To stay the course with God requires perseverance, dedication and faithfulness. It is not to give up when the going gets tough. It is not to throw in the towel when the stress of living bears down.

“Blessed are you when people revile you…” Walking the path of Christ will invite scorn and judgement from a culture disinclined to Christ-like living. Yet, we are called to persevere on this simple but difficult path.

Whenever I watch footage of hurricanes slamming Caribbean island coast-lines, I am amazed at the resiliency of those palm trees on the beach. Storm surges wash away and erode shorelines. Untrammelled winds assail and play havoc with anything not bolted down and boarded up. Destruction follows the wake of these tempests.

And yet, the palm tree remains. How? Its capacity to be flexible, to bend, even so the branches on its crown may touch the ground. The strongest of these palms, the ones that have encountered and survived many storms over decades, have learned this art of living well: not to be so rigid so as to snap when the storms first hit; not to be so unyielding when the environment changes. To be able to move when necessary. And, therefore, to live.

Why the Beatitudes present such a challenge for us, is because they suggest a different kind of ‘knowing’ when it comes to God and our relationship with Jesus. In truth, we cannot know God. Ever. No matter how hard we try. Regardless of the number of books we’ve read, the number of bible verses we’ve memorized, the arguments we’ve won, even the number of times we’ve ‘gone to church’. While we walk this earthly path, we can only learn how to love God and one another in Christ. 

To know God this way has already given us all that we need for this path: not rules for living but gifts for the journey. Despite all the suffering, pain and challenge we encounter on the path, the grace of God provides a rich blessedness filled with gladness and joy for all we need.


[1]Matthew 5:1-12

[2]Matthew 4:23

[3]Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 123-124.

Conversations – Children’s Ministry

In recent years and with increasing awareness, it’s evident that a fresh, creative approach to children’s ministry is needed. We stand, really, at a crossroads with how we do this work. An opportunity stands before us. And an important question is: Will we embrace it?

What is this opportunity, you ask?

As part of the process of growing our ministry at Faith, the leadership of the church — comprising of members of the council as well as members at large of the congregation — we felt one important step in discernment was to bring the questions to the whole assembly on a Sunday morning.

There isn’t likely a better way introducing this conversation to the congregation than by having a baptism.

First, scheduling this baptism had been a bit of journey itself. Originally we were aiming for a July date. But in the last ten days, the opportunity in the family’s lives to be together this weekend came up. And so, here we are, on the Sunday we had planned for the better part of a month to bring the children’s ministry issue up for conversation. It’s a wonderful convergence that happened beyond anyone’s planning.

Then, there is the meaning of the baptism itself. What does this occasion mean to you — as parents, sponsors, cousins and church community of Elise? It can mean belonging. It can mean togetherness in faith. It can mean life. New life. New beginnings. It can mean the start of a life-long journey of continual growth, learning and expanding the soul in God’s love.

I hope you can with me begin to see some connecting points with the question I asked at the top — about the opportunity we have at this moment in the history of Faith to embrace something new, something fresh in our growth as a community of faith. Let me further prime the pump!

In the relatively short Gospel of Mark, the phrase, “Kingdom of God’, is mentioned at least fourteen times. Clearly, Jesus’ message and ministry on earth is about communicating in word and deed what this reign of God means — to the original listeners in their world, and to us in our day and age.

We come up against some challenges in reading the Gospel for today (Mark 4:26-34). That is, challenges to our way of thinking. Jesus, quite clearly in the story of the growing seed, makes it a point to emphasize the farmer has very little to do with making the seed grow. He “would sleep … and the seed would sprout and grow … [and] he does not know how. The earth produces of itself …” (v.27-28). This is how the kingdom of God operates.

As products of the Enlightenment and Scientific Eras where we demand proof, evidence and rational methods prior to justifying any kind of belief and action — this imagery and story-telling which by the way is how Jesus communicated probably drives us nuts.

But a baby cannot speak for herself what she believes. A baby cannot stand up and confess by memory the Apostles’ Creed (I’m not sure most of us who have likely said a few times in the course of our lives can!). A baby cannot make rational choices nor communicate them effectively. We can’t prove that she can demonstrate in a any clear, indisputable way that she has faith. That she deserves the gift.

A baby is dependent, vulnerable, and relies on others to make this baptism happen. It is truly a community event, not an individualistic enterprise. It does ‘take a village’ in the kingdom of God.

Could that be a sign that the kingdom of God is here? When those values and qualities described in the above couple of paragraphs characterize a situation or a decision? (Yes!) (And Yes!)

A friend who lives in Cantley near the Gatineau Park north of Ottawa told me that his municipality recently replaced aged and diseased trees along the roadway in front of his house. After cutting down several trees, the municipality gave him a few oak tree seedlings to plant in their place.

What surprised him the most after receiving these tiny seedlings, was the actual size of the whole tree that he held in his hand. The part above the ground that would remain visible was only a mere few inches. But the part that would be buried under the ground, the part that wasn’t seen, was the root system. Especially the tap root — the main one — was at least double the length of what was seen above ground.

Now we are also getting at the nature and definition of faith, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” writes Saint Paul (2 Corinthians 5:7). Often, the truth of the matter lies beyond what is visible, what we can calculate, measure and determine rationally.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a job to do. We will water and nurture growth. We will make the space available, and put whatever resources we have to helping the growth along.

The stories Jesus told ask us not to close our imagination and creative juices, ever. Because there is a dynamic, vital power at work beyond our comprehension and grasp, always. Indeed, our imagination must be stirred by these stories as we seek to connect our individual and historical stories within the larger story of God’s movement in our lives and in the life of the world. (See Nibs Stroupe in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Vol 3, Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009, p.143)

This moment in the life of Faith Lutheran Church is ours to embrace and be bold in the creative process. It’s our job to do this. It’s not outlined in a neat and tidy manual. The answers are not clear-cut. And that’s ok.

Remember, “Jesus and the Gospel writers were not lacking in verbal skills. Had they wished to define the Kingdom of God in specific terms, they were capable of doing so. They chose not to. What the Kingdom of God is to be, has been left to us. It has been left to us to envision, to dream, to imagine and to build.” (Br. Mark Brown, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother Give us a Word” 12 June 2018).

Children’s Ministry by, with and for the church — as with infant baptism — is about small things. At least, about the beginning of a journey that starts out small. Yet, these stories of Jesus describing the kingdom of God are about small things, like seeds, that eventually yield great outcomes.

Out of the most insignificant beginnings, “God creates a mighty wind that will blow throughout the entire world. In these stories, Jesus invites seekers in every age and every place to consider joining in this kind of life-long journey” whose ending is anything but small. (Nibs Stroupe, ibid. p.145). Let it be so! Amen.

Children’s Ministry Review – Faith Lutheran Church

The Church Council has considered the reality that dedicating resources to maintain the current Sunday School program is no longer feasible nor sustainable.

Over the last several years there has been a noticeable trend in decreasing Sunday morning attendance that does not justify nor attract volunteers to lead a ministry for children in that traditional model.

Here follow some observations about the learning process for younger generation Christians today, that learning is more:

1. Intergenerational – it happens when young and older Christians mix to share their faith and work together in service-projects and initiatives in the community

2. In-the-home – it happens effectively in the church only when there is, however small, some faith-based discipline, activity or conversation in the household/home of that child/youth

3. Spanning-a-whole-life – it happens effectively in the church when a whole-life approach is adopted for Christian learning. Milestones such as Confirmation are markers along journey of faith that continues into adulthood and beyond

4. Worship-integration – Each worship service, rich in ritual, liturgy, symbol, art and sacrament are valuable occasions and opportunities for ongoing Christian learning

5. Inter-denominational – Because of the growing reality of multi-faith marriages, families are more open to seeking children’s ministries from other churches and faith groups, not just their own parish where they hold membership

These observations reflect the changing realities, socially, and for the church as we respond in ministry. Our response needs to respect and adjust to these changing realities.

These challenges may be summarized by the following questions for the church to consider:

1. At this time, does Faith Lutheran consider itself a children’s Christian education center, as a reflection of our unique character and mission? If not, what about the couples and families who do come with their children to worship? To which congregations can we refer them /partner with for a viable children’s learning ministry?

2. If we do, what is the focus, scope and intent of the program?

3. Who is the intended ‘audience’? Only those who have been baptized here in the last few years (e.g., cradle roll)? Or, is there a more public ‘interface’, providing a service to the wider community?

4. What resources (skills, passionate volunteer leaders, property space, budget lines) do we have already, and are we willing to make available for this purpose?

5. In what specific way(s) can you support a children’s ministry led by Faith Lutheran Church at this time in your life? Please check all that apply:

_____ organize and lead a traditional cradle-roll for all that have recently been baptized at Faith;

_____ organize and lead children’s programming on a Sunday morning;

_____ organize and lead children’s programming on a weekday afternoon/evening;

_____ pray regularly for the children and youth who attend Faith;

_____ increase your financial donations to the church in order to support a viable program; ministry starting in the Fall.

Please make time this week to reflect on these questions. Submit any written notes you provide, into the offering plate on Sunday, June 17, 2018, email your comments about Children’s Ministry to pastormartin@faithottawa.ca, or submit to the church office by June 29.

We will make time in the service on the 17th to honour and celebrate the Sunday School ministry in our history at Faith, recall favourite memories together about Sunday School at Faith, and address some of the questions above. Thank you for your time and input.

The outing begins within us

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand … No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered … Whoever does the will of God is [my family]” – Mark 3:24,27,35 

I wonder, in an action-oriented culture, whether we have considered the curious notion of where the kingdom of God – the reign of God – resides. In the the Gospel of Luke (17:21), Jesus says that “The kingdom of God is within you.” The great reformer, Martin Luther, preferred this rendering to the sometimes translated, “among” you. In his famous German translation he writes: “Das Reich Gottes ist inwendig in euch.”

Our house-dividedness and our divisions are not only externally out there in the big, bad world; they embody an internal reality, among and within us, that we often fail to acknowledge.

I think it was Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny, in one of her recent novels described the internal conflict between two wolves: On the one hand, there is the wolf that lives on fear, anxiety and negativity; the other wolf warring for supremacy inside of us lives on joy, optimism and hope. The main characters in the newly-released home video entitled “Tomorrowland” starring George Clooney use this image of two parts of ourselves in conflict: the wolf of fear versus the wolf of hope. Which one wins? Which one will be victorious?

The answer: The one you feed.

We don’t often recognize the darkness within each one of us. We are all divided – in our nation, in our city, our communities, our churches and in our own lives. Whether we are ‘saved’ or not. Whether we are believers or not. Whether we belong to the right church, or not. Whether we have the right interpretation and doctrine, or not. Whether we speak the right language, or not.

It is curious how Jesus rebuffs the religious leaders’ serious accusation that Jesus had the devil inside him. In denouncing their claim by a logical argument – how can the devil purge the devil? – he acknowledges Satan’s existence and influence. Jesus doesn’t deny the power of evil.

We are all divided. The power of sin extends into the ways we have organized our lives, our prejudices, our racism, our bigotry, our ‘common sense’ ways of looking at the world and people, our economy. We are divided. Our identity is fractured. We will say one thing about God’s love, and behave the opposite way when it comes down to it.

It can be very easy to detect which wolf we end up feeding, most of the time.

Thankfully, there is this levelling affect that Jesus has in his words from the Gospel today. This is not an exclusive venture we are on, as followers of Jesus. In verse 28 a more accurate translation of the word “people” evokes a universal meaning, such as “all children of humanity” – everyone will be forgiven their sins! This is good news! This is the hope. Because, even though we live in imperfect, flawed and divided communities – there is still the good, therein.

But how can the two wolves get along inside of us? How can the warring internal battles, in the end, be resolved?

“Das Reich Gottes ist inwendig in EUCH”. That last word, “you”, is not singular. In German, it is the plural form. Of course, in the original Greek, Jesus addressed his disciples. But in English we don’t have this distinction in the second-person between individual or plural; so we easily and naturally assume, I think, the individual. But this is a mistake.

In this Gospel text, the one verse that I think get’s us distracted more than any other is the ‘one sin against the Holy Spirit that is unforgivable’ (v.29). And immediately we, individually, start getting upset and fearful and very nervous: What if I have sinned against the Holy Spirit? Will I go to hell? People on their death beds will often become anxious about their faith, whether they, individually, have done enough to ‘earn’ salvation on their own, by themselves. This fear goes deep.

But the weight of glory and the burden of sin is carried by the whole, mystical body of Christ. I don’t have to be privately perfect in order to go to heaven, because the perfection is in the whole body of Christ. We are merely members of it: some of you are a foot, some of you are an eye, some of you are an ear – today, I am the mouth! “I” am not the whole body; you (singular) are not the whole body.

You, individually, don’t have to take the burden of universal sin upon yourself, in which you are complicit, I agree. And so am I. But neither can you, individually, take on the weight of glory upon yourself. If you are good – and obviously you are by coming to church today and sticking with us the whole hour long – your goodness is not your own: It’s your Mom in you; it’s your Dad in you; it’s your grandfather and your grandmother in you; it’s your neighbour in you; it’s your pastor that pastored you years ago in you; it’s your friends in you. They are your goodness.

This rampant individualism that is the unfortunate consequence of the Reformation has probably undone Christianity more than anything else, to keep us – ‘tie us up’ – from understanding the communal aspect of God’s kingdom and the church. This is the level from which Jesus, Paul and Martin Luther for that matter proclaimed it. (Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, The Rohr Institute, Disc 4, New Mexico, 2012).

So, despite the tug of war inside of inside of us, obey the good. Whatever is strong and good in us together, let that lead. Whatever good nudges us at the core of our being – forgiveness, compassion, grace, good intention – let’s not ‘tie that strength up within us.’ Let’s not hesitate. Let’s not rationalize it to death. Let’s not succumb to the temptation of paralysis-by-analysis. Let it out. Let that goodness lead us. Because each of us has this shared, good strength within – even people against whom we hold prejudice and discriminate.

Decorated Canadian Olympian and mental health advocate, Clara Hughes, said at the Closing Ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa this past week that “The only way you can be good and strong and fast is if you want it for everyone.”

Jesus said, “Only those who do the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v.35). We say the words every week in our prayers – praying for peace among waring religious groups in far away places. We pray for peace in Syria and Iraq where ISIL continues its reign of terror against religious minorities. We pray for reconciliation between Aboriginal and Settler peoples – that is, immigrants like us.

Why don’t we also consider living that prayer out, in our own backyard? Why don’t we also consider actually doing something in the name of Jesus to the purpose of peace and reconciliation between different religious and ethnic groups in our own city? To be a faithful witness of what peace can look like, to the world?

To feed the wolf of hope.

An Advent-Christmas funeral sermon

In some churches, the manger scenes during the Advent season are left intentionally incomplete: For example, as in our creche, the manger is empty; during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the figurine of baby Jesus is not there. Until December 25th.

In one congregation that worships in a large, cathedral-type building, the magi start their journey at the beginning of Advent somewhere in the narthex (the entrance). Each successive Sunday in Advent, the magi move closer to the manger scene which is set up at the front near the altar.

And, each Sunday, the children of the congregation are charged with a treasure-hunt search for where the figurines of the magi have been placed that week — whether on a decorated window sill, or beside a poinsettia plant, or on the steps to the chancel, etc.

Not only do these traditions emphasize the important Advent themes of waiting and watching with expectation for the coming Christmas joy, we are reminded at this time of year that we are, all of us, indeed, on a journey towards the manger, towards a new encounter with Jesus.

I believe Grant’s love of hiking revealed his ability to see the Big Picture. You see, when you go on a hike, following a trail that spans hundreds of kilometres as Grant has done on occasion, you are not just meandering aimlessly. Oh, yes, the trail can take many twists, turns, ups and downs.

But part of the joy of long-distance hiking is understanding in your imagination where you are headed, where you began, and the relationship between the two. No matter where you are along that journey, you can see the Big Picture.

One of my favourite visual effects of modern cinema does this well: From the perspective of the TV/movie camera, a scene of someone or something that happens on the ground in one moment of time is suddenly zoomed out; we move backwards up into the sky — still focused on the ground, but quickly disappears through the clouds and then into outer space. And we can see the planet earth and the solar system. And we can understand how that particular event or person on earth relates to the cosmos!

To have this Big Picture vision is to see our present reality, on the ground, from the perspective of not only history (where you’ve been) but also from the perspective of the future (where you’re going). Grant was a Big Picture kind of guy. He enjoyed the long-distance hike.

The ancient caravan routes through the Holy Land, Judean desert I think informed the prophetic writings, many of which we read in the Bible. These caravan routes were the life-line of the economy, and framed the boundaries of social order.

When you followed a caravan route you were walking a path trodden by generations of people who came before you, and a path that was followed by many once you were gone. This is the experience of people who journey, in every time and place.

I like our Bishop’s repeated advice to pastors whenever we gather for clergy and leadership retreats: “Remember, we are one and all merely ‘interim’ pastors”. Even pastors who are tenured and may remain years, even decades, in one parish are still, only, ‘interim’. They are interim because there were pastors who preceded them in the congregations’s history, and hopefully there will be more pastors coming once they are gone.

The point is not a focus on the pastor so much as seeing that pastor in the context of the larger history and journey of a congregation. It’s to regard an individual from the perspective of the Big Picture.

I can see why Richard Rohr uses the term, Big Picture, to understand the Kingdom of God. Because even though we are in constant transition on the caravan route, both the memory of the past and the promise of the future impinge on the present moment. In the Big Picture, the twin pulls of historical and future vision reveal a “vibrant now” in which God’s kingdom is complete and dwelling among us (Gail Ricciuti, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.94).

Being in the present moment, while informed by the past and motivated by the future promise, requires that you keep both feet on the ground. Hiking is an activity that requires the hiker not merely to keep moving, but to keep focused on the ground, one step at a time. It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one: a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

As such, the journey of faith is grounded in the moment. It is earthy, real. Your boots, feet and legs get dirty, scratched, bitten, sunburned. The Big Picture ultimately, for it to be effective, is anchored in the present, gritty, sometimes ugly circumstance of life.

Even when we experience death, loss, suffering and pain; this is part of the route when we have to go through the wilderness, the desert, and navigate the ‘dark night of the soul’ (St John of the Cross).

When I hiked part of the Bruce Trail near Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula years ago, I remember first following the trail from the parking lot to a cliff- edge standing over a hundred feet above the crashing surf of Georgian Bay. It was a beautiful vista overlooking the bay, the sky, the water birds. The memory is vibrant: breathing in the marine smells, feeling the warm, morning sun. I relished the moment, standing still, taking it all in.

I didn’t want to turn my back on it, and continue on the hike. I wanted the moment to last forever. I felt that should I continue on the trail, I would never experience such a blissful moment again. It wasn’t easy to rip myself away. However, in the course of the day, there were many more such views I enjoyed along the trail.

The poet T.S. Elliott wrote: “The end is where we start from … or say that the end precedes the beginning” (ibid.). Grant met his ‘end’, we say, in dying. But that ending was just the start of something new. Our faith in God, the promise of salvation, Jesus’ resurrection, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit — we are, each and everyone of us, including Grant — well equipped for the journey of life and death.

Because even though we might need to keep putting one foot forward and turn our back on the old, there is in each turn only something new waiting for us — a new perspective, something beautiful, something beyond our wildest dreams.

When we finish our walk on earth, the journey to Jesus merely takes on a whole new dimension. This Christmas, like the Magi who finally arrive at their destination to encounter the Christ child, Grant arrives home — his home with the Creator God and his Saviour Jesus. Now, he can experience life and union with God in a whole new, and deeper way.

One thing remains. The caravan is a journey undertaken with others, together. No one would even consider travelling the caravan routes through the desert alone. Jesus travelled with Grant throughout his life on earth, just as Jesus embraces Grant this day, with all the hosts of heaven.

Psalm 139:7-10
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.