From memory to presence

Whenever we suffer the stress of living, we naturally reach for ways of coping. Memory can be a healing salve. Not only remembering loved ones and friends from our past. But when it comes to observing traditions and special occasions — at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter for example — we bring the expectations of good times had long ago to bear on the moment.

Indeed, our memory of pleasant past experiences can even act as a narcotic for dealing with current challenges and stresses. We may make it a habit of escaping into our mind’s eye; we linger with a memory until we feel the peace.

While our memories are a key to understanding what is meaningful to us, we get stuck, however, in the rut of our problems if we try creating an exact imitation of the past. Escaping into the past isn’t always the best way for addressing present day problems. The path to healing and wholeness is not about making a simulation of past experiences.

I heard about a man who, in middle age, purchased a Harley-Davidson to try to live in the myth of the youthful, unfettered individual who is free to go anywhere at any time. He felt unsatisfied, however, after his solitary road-trips. Something was missing.

After more reflection, what he was remembering on a deeper level was the positive experience in his youth of the friends he made in a bike shop where he worked a job one summer. The meaning of memory was found in the relationships more so than the motor-cycles. He didn’t sell the Harley-Davidson. But he did inquire about local riding groups of folks his age. His interest shifted to making friends. (1)

Memories of past Christmases, Easters, friendships or treasured experiences can transform each new, present day moment. For example, a memory of a family bike ride on an Easter Monday decades ago can lead to a family train trek through the Rockies. A friendship born from intellectual and emotional stimulation long ago can lead to a rediscovery of a hobby or commitment to personal growth. What’s important is not to re-create the past, but to transform it so it’s meaningful for the present. Not simulation, but translation.

The point, is to recognize and accept the present moment as the most important time and place of our lives. Because even if we are not able to remember any good in our past, or remember anything at all for that matter, God is about the now.

In last week’s Gospel story about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42), Jesus leaps beyond all boundaries of time to announce God’s intent for humanity is taking place in the present time. Three times in the passage, the words “already” and “now” highlight the importance of now. “Open your eyes and see!” Jesus says. “The fields are shining for the harvest, the reaper can collect his wages now, the reaper can already bring in the grain of eternal life” (v.35-36). Jesus is excited at the possibilities. Why? Partly because it is all happening now! (2)

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are interested in formulations of the mind which rest on the past. The blind man provides a focus for their cerebral machinations; they want an explanation for his condition: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). A biblically sound question, since the Torah suggests that the “iniquity of the parents is visited upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-8).

Jesus avoids this kind of biblicism that seeks only to make historical, technical arguments that focus only on our righteousness or lack thereof. Jesus turns our sight away from ourselves and onto God’s work in the present. “We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day …” Jesus countered (v.4).

The purpose of our lives, including our suffering, is to point to God. If we are to remember anything from the past, it is to remember God’s mighty acts in relation to the people of God, including you and me. When the Psalmist delights in the past, his memory focuses on what God has done: “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).

God’s vision is expansive and eternal, abounding in steadfast love. Before talking about the iniquity imparted to the third and fourth generations, when the Lord spoke to Moses, he said first: “The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7) — which is a lot longer than four!

And as we know, generations ago the world was a lot different than what it is now. Recently I was watching on Netflix a show that I remember watching avidly in the 1990s. One detail caught my attention, when the characters talked to each other holding the old, large, clunky ear pieces connected by a spiral, rubber cord to a hand-dial phone. In one generation, so much has changed and people are doing things in different ways.

And yet, one thing remains: The steadfast love of God. Whatever we do in God’s mission today, and however we do it, we can be assured that God is faithful to us, that God is abounding in love for us. After all, God doesn’t look on outward appearances, our resume, our list of past sins, etc. God looks at our heart. When David was chosen to be king of Israel, God wasn’t looking for the one who appeared to have all the desirable qualities; God wasn’t looking for the tallest, the strongest, the best-looking one to be their leader. God was looking at the heart of David (1 Samuel 16).

We can be courageous, then, and bold to reach out and be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. After all, it’s not, in the end about us or our past. We find healing and wholeness for our lives by doing the will of God. It is for God’s sake that we throw ourselves fully into life, in the present moment. It is for God’s sake that we are healed and restored.

We come to the Table of Communion each week, a diverse group of people. But we come as equals on a level-playing field feeling together the weight of our past sins, yet forgiven and showered with God’s mercy and grace, as one. We are empowered through the broken body of Jesus to be his broken body for the world, today.

How that memory shapes us today may be different from decades ago. But memory continues to form us, and reform us. In our lives, the Gospel is translated for the world today.


(1) Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren in “Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, why it mattes, how to become one” (Baker Books, Michigan, 2009), chapters 2-3
(2) Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent” (Franciscan Media, Ohio, 2011), p.60-61

Making a way where there is no way

Year after year I ponder how “Remembrance Day” carries with it so much staying power — especially for older generations of people. While on the surface our observances acknowledge the sacrifice made by many young service men and women in the wars of the last century, a deeper vein is struck.

It is important ‘to remember’, because so many lives were lost in war. Death separates loved ones. Death means, for many, that relationships are severed and hopes are dashed. Similar to attending funerals of loved ones, Remembrance Day observances expose one of our deepest, human fears — being abandoned by our loved ones. Being abandoned by our loved ones is a horror too deep to even want to go there.

In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church, he addressed a pastoral need. The early Christians living in those immediate decades after Jesus ascended to heaven believed that Christ was coming back in their lifetime. They believed his second coming was immanent. They looked forward to it.

The problem was, when their friends and family members began to die, they wondered if their loved ones would share in the glory of the resurrected Jesus at his second coming. Paul assures the church that not only are the dead included in resurrection at the end time, but that they will be “first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) to join Christ at his return.

This passage forms a reading for one of the last Sundays before Advent. The season of Advent is about the ‘coming of Jesus’. We normally attribute this season to anticipating the coming of baby Jesus to Bethlehem — the incarnation of God — and we recall this history with much joyous tradition and emphasis.

But the ‘coming of Jesus’ theme is more than just the Christmas story. The Advent of Christ is attributed as well to the “Second Coming” when Jesus will come in at the ‘eschaton’ — the end time. We read in the Nicene Creed: “And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

Finally, the ‘coming of Jesus’ is meant to pique our attention to the ways in which the Holy Spirit comes to us daily, in the ordinary people and happenings of life, as well as in Word and Sacrament; in other words, the coming of Jesus is not only an event of history nor of future expectation, but something that happens now — all the time, in every moment. Especially at times of grief and loss when we fear abandonment, the assurance of a coming divine presence — or anyone’s presence for that matter — can bring comfort and hope into the moment.

How, then, do we experience a re-connection with those we love, especially because for whatever reason, we have been divided from them? There are many reasons why loved ones may be separated from each other, besides death: the friction of personality, vast geographical distance, emotional wounds, hurtful memories of a ‘water-under-the-bridge’ variety. Many reasons exist for why that division remains. And even though we may desire a better relationship with a loved one, we time and time again come up against those blocks. So, how do we even begin to make things better — amidst the grief, when facing hard times, when you can really use a friend to lean on?

An answer from the tradition of our Christian faith is, I’m afraid, not an easy one. First, in the words of Jesus from the Gospel for today: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13), there is this element of not being in total control of the outcome. And this is disruptive, especially for those of us who feel they need to be in some semblance of control over not only our relationships, but our lives in general. We can try. But the trying ought not be motivated by the result we envision.

Moreover, there are these dramatic and vivid images in Paul’s description of Jesus’ coming (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17) that are, frankly, unbelievable and unrealistic: being drawn into the sky, trumpets sounding, the archangel calling, clouds whipping across the panorama — seems more like some filmmaker’s fantasy than anything that is real. The coming of Jesus into our lives is thus underscored with disruption, incredibleness and an unravelling of what we believe is possible.

Then again, this is a prevalent theme in the Scriptures. Two things: First, in our hope to re-establish relationships marred by whatever divides those relationships, can we be open to going to where it feels uncomfortable, unravelling of us, vulnerable — and being lovingly honest about it? If Jesus will bring his healing power to the relationship, the “refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2-3) will sting and singe, momentarily. The new thing that Jesus comes to establish in your life, in our lives, does bring judgement of sorts to what has been. We really cannot move forward unless we can lovingly and honourably discharge the past, and confess our own failing.

And it’s not just about healing the other’s issues — like pointing the finger at what you perceive to be ‘their’ problem. More importantly it is addressing your own issues that have contributed to the problem. And this is never easy. To even bother going there. Some would say impossible: to go inside yourself and let go of past hurts, to forgive others, to live in grace not anger and resentment. Impossible, you say?

But, and this is the second point from the testimony of scripture: God does come to make a way where there didn’t seem to be a way through: After all, God turns a rock into a pool of water (Psalm 114:8) and makes a path through the wilderness where none exists (Isaiah 43:19). Christ comes to disrupt the current, messy, state of affairs, yes.

But, to work a total transformation of our lives for the better. This turbulent coming creates a way to reconciliation, resurrection, a new life. As one theologian wrote: The kingdom of God “breaks into, disturbs, disorders, and troubles the waters of our fallen reality” (Jennifer McBride, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p.282).

God comes, in Christ, to make a way where there is no way. In the fallen reality of death, abandonment, and separation — God comes to reunite and reconcile in acts of forgiveness, generosity and mercy.

In the fallen reality of dying church institutions and perceived dwindling of resources — God comes, in Christ to stir things up and create new ways of being the church in today’s world.

In the fallen reality of clashing religions and cultures where extremism threatens to escalate violent acts — God comes, in Christ to disarm and disable ideologies of hatred and make swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4).

And so we can have hope in the new thing that God promises. This hope is not in what is possible, but precisely in what seems impossible to us. What we can never on our own merit or strength, God will. Get ready! God is on the move!

The healing power of memory

In suffering the pain of grief, memory can be a healing salve. Not only remembering stories of loved ones lost and recalling them at family gatherings. But when it comes to observing traditions and special occasions, such as Christmas or Easter. How do you navigate through a holiday without that special person? What do you do?

The first step is to recall in your mind’s eye the past; linger with these memories until you can feel the quiet, reassuring love and pleasure of those moments. Stay with each memory long enough to understand what about it is meaningful for you.

Then, let your memories guide you in making plans — let’s say, for this coming Easter holiday. The point is not to make an exact re-creation of the past. This is not about making a simulation of past experiences.

I heard about a man who, in middle age, purchased a Harley-Davidson to try to live in the myth of the youthful, unfettered individual who is free to go anywhere at any time. He felt unsatisfied, however, after his solitary road-trips. Something was missing.

After more reflection, what he was remembering on a deeper level was the positive experience in his youth of the friends he made in a bike shop where he worked a job one summer. The meaning of memory was found in the relationships more so than the motor-cycles. He didn’t sell the Harley-Davidson. But he did inquire about local riding groups of folks his age. His interest shifted to making friends.

Memories of past Christmases or Easters can transform each new celebration. For example, a memory of a family bike ride on an Easter Monday decades ago can lead to a family train trek through the Rockies. What’s important is not to re-create the past, but to transform it so it’s meaningful for the present. Not simulation, but translation.

During Lent we reflect on the question of healing, on our faith journeys. What I am discovering is as we hear the various stories of healing from members of our community, a wonderful theology of healing is emerging. And one important aspect of healing, is to consider the power of memory. Because of one, small experience of God’s grace in our past — should we be able to recall such an experience — can emerge strength and encouragement and guidance for dealing with a current challenge, suffering or crossroad in our lives.

But even if we are not able to remember any good in our past, the faith that gives us power today is not about our glory, but about God’s. In the Gospel for today, Jesus heals a man, blind from birth (John 9:1-41). Those who witness this healing miracle want an explanation for his condition: Is it his fault that he was blind, or his parents’ sin that caused him this disability. A biblically sound question, since the Torah suggests that the “iniquity of the parents is visited upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-8).

Jesus avoids this kind of biblicism that seeks only to make technical arguments that focus only on our righteousness or lack thereof. Jesus turns our sites away from ourselves and onto God: The purpose of our lives, including our suffering, is to point to God, and God’s work. If we are to remember anything, it is to remember God’s mighty acts in relation to the people of God, including you and me. When the Psalmist delights in the past, his memory focuses on what God has done: “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).

God’s vision is expansive and eternal, abounding in steadfast love. I wonder why the disciples weren’t that interested in the first part of that text from Exodus. Before talking about the iniquity imparted to the third and fourth generations, when the Lord spoke to Moses, he said first: “The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” — which is a lot longer than four!

And as we know, generations ago the world was a lot different than what it is now. I was watching on Netflix a show that I remember watching avidly in the 1990s. One detail caught my attention, when the characters were talking to each other holding the old, large, clunky ear pieces connected by a spiral, rubber cord to a hand-dial phone. In one generation, so much has changed and people are doing things in different ways.

And yet, one thing remains: The steadfast love of God. Whatever we do in God’s mission, and however we do it, we can be assured that God is faithful to us, that God has unbounding love for us. After all, God doesn’t look on outward appearances; God looks at our heart. When David was chosen to be king of Israel, God wasn’t looking for the one who appeared to have all the desirable qualities; God wasn’t looking for the tallest, the strongest, the best-looking one to be their leader. God was looking at the heart of David (1 Samuel 16).

We can be courageous, then, and bold to reach out and be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. After all, it’s not, in the end about us. We find healing and wholeness for our lives in order to do, and by doing, the will of God. It is for His sake that we throw ourselves fully into life. It is for His sake that we are healed and restored.

The man who bought the Harley-Davidson was initially motivated by an individualistic worldview, that so often seeps into the life of the church. How often does our experience of worship, even, trend into being merely a disembedded, fragmented, personal experience in a crowd of strangers. As if worship was meant only for what you (individually) can get out of it for your own personal self-help agenda. No wonder many of us sometimes get frustrated with worship experience.

That is why a regular, weekly celebration of the Eucharist — the Holy Communion — is so vital to our life together. In this sacrament, we are re-membered as the Body of Christ. We remember what Jesus did and what God has done throughout salvation history; we recall these mighty acts of God, but not solely as a piece of history, a memorial. But as it impacts our lives today, in mission for others.

We come to the table, a diverse group of people. But we come as equals on a level-playing field deserving as one punishment for our sin but forgiven and showered with God’s mercy and grace — as one, by the self-less act of Jesus. We are empowered, through the broken body of Jesus, to be his broken body for the world, today. How that memory shapes us today may be different from decades ago. But memory continues to form us, and reform us. In our lives, the Gospel is translated for the world today.

Be thou, our vision, O God.

Thank you to Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren in “Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, why it mattes, how to become one”, chapters 2-3

On the path of hardship tempered with grace

I suspect that some of you really like John the Baptist, while others would feel intimidated and back off from his forceful energy. Similar to the way two very different recruits into the Canadian Armed Forces reacted during the first days of regular duty.

A friend from Petawawa who is a sergeant and has put many years in the Forces told me last week how very differently some personalities react to his dissing of discipline. When boots aren’t polished, collars not ironed, and back-packs not kitted properly, he would lean in on the rookies and set them straight.

The one young recruit began to well up in tears when my friend started criticizing him for not being prepared. The other, being disciplined for the same problem, smiled, and was energized by the confrontation: “Wow, this is just like the movies, when the sergeant major yells at the recruits, spitting inches from the other’s face, turning the air blue!” Just loving it! The first recruit didn’t last long in the army. The other, was spurred on and challenged through his mistakes, to have a successful career.

John the Baptist is the ultimate reality check for Christianity. In the best of the prophetic tradition, he epitomizes the no-nonsense, truth-telling, going-for-the-jugular style not often associated with a more sanitized approach to religion.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Is this how you feel about belonging to the church today? Many stand in the line of John the Baptist tradition. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon — influential theologians of the last century wrote: “There is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry” (p.45 Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 1). What do you think about that? Would you like that?

John the Baptist’s hard words to the religious leaders of the day call them to repentance. Judgment underscores the tenor of this text assigned for Advent. And that’s why some of us would rather read scriptures and sing songs about sheep softly grazing in fields during these weeks leading to Christmas. Because you may know people in your life who have been hurt by the judgment of others — many of those doing the judging from the church. Even as we in the church have been warned NOT to judge others (Romans 14).

God calls ALL of us to fall on our knees, confess and repent — especially those of in the church.

The original Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means — “moving beyond the mind.” We need to have a change of mind as much as a change of our heart. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” argues Saint Paul (Romans 12:2). He goes on to say that this change of our mind would happen, “so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable …” Our changed minds, our renewed way of thinking about things, will then affect how we behave.

“Moving beyond the mind” means that we need, at first, to have our fundamental assumptions questioned. Fundamental assumptions about God and the ways of God in the world. Is it true that we don’t have to do anything more in the church because we were baptized and confirmed here and our grandparents and great-grandparents were Lutheran? Is it true that God hates us and is only out there to catch us breaking a rule in order to punish us?

John the Baptist might have a field day in the Christian church today. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that only makes sense when embraced in the desert, in the wilderness of our lives. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we have learned to weep at our faults and let go. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we are called out of our complacency, selfishness, and self-righteousness to a greater cause, a greater good.

Barbara Marshall wrote this prayer poem cited in an Advent devotional for the season (Lutherans Connect); in it she describes the times of her life when she was truly invigorated, motivated and inspired in faith:

“… It was never the turbulent waters that raged and tore through my life that left me floundering, helpless adrift in the surging tide. But rather the lulling beauty and lure of familiar shores that fashioned my days with indifferent thought and compelled me to stay where I was. So, Father, give me a yearning for the valleys shadowed and steep, for deserts that breathe their fire and dust, for waves that crash at my feet. And surely then I’ll accomplish much …when inspiration is fueled on the path of hardship tempered with grace.”

So you can see why I suggest that nostalgia may be a great enemy of Christianity. For it keeps us stuck in apathy and inaction. But, ironically, looking to the past is an essential ingredient in faithful living. John the Baptist himself quotes directly from Isaiah when preaching his sermon: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight …” (40:3). In writing about John the Baptist, the Gospel writer Matthew uses descriptive words right out of the Hebrew Scriptures originally describing the prophet Elijah who was “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist may breathe fire into a soppy nostalgic faith — but he certainly doesn’t dismiss the past.

Remembering the past is important. But there’s a difference between nostalgia and remembering. Biblical commentator David Bartlett writes that “nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude” (p.48, Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1). In Advent we re-member, we reconnect. The word “religion” literally means to re-unite, re-align, ourselves out of isolation and into a holy union. In Advent when we remember, we embrace the good God has been and done for us in our past. In Advent we remember, together, as a family, as a church, as a community — what God has done for us in Jesus. We do this remembering at the Table — we remember that in the night in which he was betrayed …. We do this remembering singing out loud together our seasonal songs so precious to us.

We pray. We sing. We remember. Doing this, NOT to a disproportionate emotional longing for a time gone by. No. But rather, to embrace an occasion for re-affirming the good God has done for you in the history of your life, and to affirm our on-going hope and belief that God does care about us and our behavior this season, and beyond.

This Advent, know that we are cherished by God not only for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do. This is good news, because if God does not care about what I do, I may begin to question whether God actually cares about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into the family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.

“One December afternoon … a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise’, the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child … began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right, son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.’ But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.’ And she wept with her son.”

It does matter to God. God is that mother who embraces us when we weep after making a big mistake and mess up. God doesn’t punish us, but rather holds us, and cries with us.

Perhaps the church can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility. We can continue remembering and being faithful to our calling in Christ, especially in the desert, because we know God does care for each of us.

So, let’s sing on and re-member!

A Children’s Chat on Remembering

In the County of Flanders, in southern Belgium, there is a large field — a cemetery — lined row on row with white grave stones.

Do you know who is buried there? — Soldiers, mainly from the First World War a long, long time ago. It was a big war and many people died.

Inbetween all the stones grow tiny little, red flowers. They grow wild there. No one planned a garden or planted them on purpose. They just pop up freely from the ground in this large cemetery.

Do you know what these flowers are called? — Poppies!

Almost a hundred years later and thousands of kilometres away we still remember the soldiers who died during the Great War and who are buried in Flanders Field. What reminds us of their great sacrifice? — We wear poppies.

In order to help us remember something important that happened a long time ago, we sometimes need something we can see, touch and feel. We need something concrete.

And that’s what happens whenever we eat a Holy Meal during worship at church. We gather at the altar at the front to remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us by dying on the cross and rising to new life on Easter. It’s a celebration of remembering because what Jesus did was truly amazing.

We eat the bread and drink from the cup to remember Jesus. We taste and feel and digest real food. In doing something concrete, like eating and drinking, we recall that Jesus’ love for us is real, even today.

In church we don’t just remember something that happened a long time ago. We remember in order to celebrate something real that is happening right now, right in front of our eyes. Because Jesus is alive. And his love for you and me is very real — as real as we’re sitting here this morning talking and listening and singing and praying.

Thank you, Jesus, for giving me things to wear, to eat, to drink — so that I can remember important events in history. Help me to be faithful in act of remembering — so that I can live out the promise of your presence, and the reality of your love for me and my neighbour.

Amen.