True worship: more than me

I have always received the words of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 58 as promise and hope for me — especially in challenging times of transition, disappointment and failure. That, despite all the difficulties I may face, God’s promise is true: The Lord will satisfy my needs in parched places and I shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail … I’ve received this text personally, a prayer recognizing growth in me.

And yet, understanding a little bit the context of the prophet’s words, I must confess it isn’t just about me. Even though the people of Israel were entering yet another disruptive time of transition — journeying back to Jerusalem following their turbulent Babylonian exile — the prophet’s words pull them beyond self-preservation.

You’d think amidst the turmoil of life they would be encouraged to circle the wagons, to take care of themselves, to look out for their own self-interests and take care of their own first. But the Hebrew Scriptures reveal a constant social ethic: to take care of the widow, the refugee and the hungry — time and time again.

An important dimension of faith calls us beyond individualism to extend our vision beyond the needs of the self. From ancient times, people of faith were called to “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.”[2]A living, growing faith happens when ‘spiritual’ things have something to say about and do for the betterment of others, especially the disadvantaged, the poor, the refugee, the homeless and the hungry.

Every Sunday we pray for a country or group of nations somewhere in the world. Specifically, we pray for Christians living in those nations. We join on the same day with a world community committed to praying for the same countries.[1]It’s like we are all holding hands, linking arms, to form a giant circle of prayer holding a specific group of Christians and peoples from a particular part of the globe.

In doing so, we hopefully grow in awareness and knowledge of the situation facing Christians in especially unstable regions. In recent years, the Ottawa Lutheran Refugee Sponsorship Committee has supported the refugee claims of some people from Eritrea. 

In Eritrea today, the two state churches are Lutheran and Orthodox. On the surface, you might say, that’s not bad. Christianity has an established presence there. The state tolerates people gathering in churches to worship. 

But, I learned, you are not allowed to own a bible or be seen reading it in Eritrea. And the only way the worship service can happen is if the sermon is vetted and deemed permissible for preaching. The state determines what is said. Quality control. Why?  So that nothing will be said that could be construed as criticism of the political status quo and those in power. Is this freedom? Or, persecution?

There is something fundamental to the Christian faith that will at times engage politics, criticize and speak out against injustice. Regardless of which country, which party in power, and wherever in the world. And when you disallow such free, political discourse, even from the pulpit but more importantly in the practice and demonstration of faith by Christians in their daily lives, then you are missing something critical about being a follower of Christ Jesus.

Wading into the social and political discourse causes friction among people with differing opinions. Normally we have operated according to the dictum: church and politics don’t mix. While maintaining thus a semblance of harmony, we have not learned how to have a political conversation. We have not been able to talk about political injustice and how to relate with the poor. We have lost the ability to act together in mission.

How will we begin?

Paul in his letter to the Corinthians expresses the importance of a humble stance when demonstrating our faith in concrete behavior, and in our relationships with one another and the world. In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, 

“I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. … Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age … But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages …”[3]

This humble stance distinguishes us from the usual style of political discourse where there needs to be winners and losers, someone’s always right and someone is always wrong, where the louder ones get heard, where ego-tripping and glory-seeking normally define the behavior.

Humility is not often associated with seeking justice, even by passionate, justice-seeking Christians. But the wisdom which God decreed from before the ages suggests a humble stance. How can we nurture this stance in our lives? Maybe start with humility.

Last week, I told you about what Howard Thurman discovered at the tree line high up in the arctic. It seems suitable today to continue using imagery of cold, snow and winter. We can relate! Beyond the tree line, it was mostly just barren, snow- and ice-covered fields. But he also, at first, identified shrubs. These were low-lying, earth-hugging, scrappy-looking tuffs of green dotting the landscape ahead.

But upon closer inspection, Thurman noticed that the needles on these shrubs were similar to the needles on the trees behind him on the tree line. Pursuing a hunch growing within him, he begins wiping the fluffy snow on the ground in front of the shrub where he discovers roots. 

But they are not roots. They are branches leading all the way back to the tree line! The branches of the trees have found a way to live beyond the tree line. They have grown by extending their ‘branches’ along the ground erupting periodically on the barren landscape appearing, at first glance, as shrubs.

The point is, Thurman had to re-think his first impression. He had to change his mind about what appeared very clear to him, at first. He had to admit that his first thought was not his best thought. 

This is a little example of what is meant by the biblical term ‘repentance’, or metanoia in its original Greek. It means, change of mind. Change our thinking about something we first thought was true. 

Our first thought is not always our best thought. Our compulsive, reactive impulse do not yield the best from us. Our initial instinct might not always be the full truth of it. If Christians are to be political in word and deed, better to start with a humble heart. 

Isaiah reminds us that when we lead with love and grace on behalf of the poor, then light shall rise in the darkness, then our light shall break forth like the dawn. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer. The Lord will satisfy our needs in parched places and we shall be alike a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail …Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.[4]

I am grateful that we live in a country where our Christian worship and prayer is truly public in nature. All are welcome. We gather where people of faith can speak and act humbly in the public square, where faith and action are allowed and where we can exercise our faith in freedom. Where following Jesus affects our lives not just on Sunday but every day of the week. And grow into the fullness of God’s purposes for us, individually and as a church.


[1]https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/prayer-cycle

[2]Isaiah 58:7

[3]1 Corinthians 2:1-3, 6-7

[4]Isaiah 58:10-12

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.

Ordinary Time

We understandably seek an extraordinary experience of the divine. The stories we like to tell each other over coffee, for example, are those strange, inexplicable even miraculous moments of life. It’s as if we can know God only through these extreme, irregular events: How by some fluke we avoided an accident waiting to happen, or how we were so fortunate to win a prize, or how we happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness something incredible. 

These expectations of experiencing something spectacular of the divine translate into our religious observance. We will come to church at Christmas and Easter – when all the stops are pulled to put on a good show – in order to fulfill our longing for God, for something better than the norm, something more entertaining and stimulating. Aren’t epiphanies supposed to catch our attention after all?

It is so tempting to set religion apart from the ordinary, making of it a sort of “fairyland amusement park.” This leads to an ancient heresy of the church – the split between God and human, the ordinary and the holy, the sacred and profane.[1]And when this split entrenches in our minds, how is it, we wonder, that we would deserve such a God? A God who is made known only to an elite few who will have these extraordinary, divine epiphanies more than we ever can.

But today we find ourselves in ‘ordinary’ time of the church year. According to the church calendar, these times are marked by the colour green. The largest chunk of ordinary time follows the numerous Sundays after Pentecost, running through the whole summer and into late Fall.

But, ordinary time also has a place early in the year, a shorter chunk of time between Christmas and Easter. Combined with the season after Pentecost, ‘ordinary’ time makes up mostof our time – thirty-three or thirty-four weeks of every year.[2]It is not, therefore, the time during which the church is engaged in preparations for, or celebrations of, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is the time during which we are called, like Simon and Andrew in the Gospel for today, to follow Jesus. Not because of the star that announced his birth. Neither because of the excitement conjured by the promise of a trip to Jerusalem. But simply because Jesus said, “Follow me.”[3]

It’s ironic that in church history and doctrine we have minimized Jesus’ life and ministry in comparison to his birth and death. Some of the ancient creeds jump directly from Jesus’ birth to his death. But the reason for which Jesus lived on earth cannot be minimized. “Though it is not untrue to say that Jesus came to earth to die, it is more true to the Gospels to say that he came first to live.”[4]

In fact, Jesus’ death is truly significant only in connection with that which he lived for and proclaimed – God’s kingdom. We pray every week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth. While we go about living, here.

In these weeks between Christmas and Easter we are reminded that, for all their wonders, neither of these great celebrations is sufficient to sustain us in the hard work of following Jesus in our ordinary lives. How can we do that?

In addressing this question let’s be aware again not to be always so taken by the WOW factor —the exceptional even unbelievable nature of the disciples’ response:

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”[5]

Again, we may tend to focus only on the extraordinary act of obedience on the part of the disciples. All we see and read here is this immediate response by Simon and Andrew to follow Jesus. They don’t think about it, they don’t talk to anyone before agreeing. They just drop everything and go. Wow!

But what has been going on leading up to this moment, this encounter between Jesus and the disciples he calls? You get the feeling that there has been something brewing beneath the surface, even of their consciousness, which then presents in this radical behaviour. What has been going on in their lives preceding this moment? And, over the long haul of their ordinary living?

Saint Augustine from the fourth century opens the first book of his Confessionswith the prayer and statement that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”[6]It might very well be that even those four fishers had restless hearts – so restless that when they heard Jesus’ call to them, they could do nothing else but leave everything behind and follow. 

Perhaps they were simply responding to what had already been imprinted on their souls from birth—the knowledge of the voice of God—so that when they heard the voice, all they could do was obey. Their hearts were already prepared over time, to respond to that moment of invitation.

Our hearts have been prepared through every experience of our lives, prepared to hear God’s voice when it happens. Our lives, every ordinary moment, is holy ground in which God is working in us to be prepared for when that moment of realization comes.

We may be our greatest enemy in recognizing the work of God in our ordinary routines, as we go about our lives—washing dishes, or walking to the office, or talking on the phone. We can give up the search for extraordinary experiences to validate our relationship with God and service in Jesus’ name. It is obvious. It is right here. In our ordinary lives. Salvation happens in everyday, ordinary experience.[7]

An old man was making rope. Someone came to him and asked him, “What is it necessary to be saved?” Without looking up from his work, he replied, “You are looking at it.”[8]

An episode on one of the nature documentary channels was about the elephant seals of Argentina. The show focused on a mother and her seal pup, who had just been born. Soon after birthing her baby, the mother, now famished, abandoned the pup on the shore so she could go feed in the rich waters off the coast. 

After feeding, she returned to a different part of the beach and began to call for her baby. Other mothers had done the same, and all had returned at a similar time. It was hard to believe they would find each other. 

The camera then followed the mother as she called to her pup and listened for the response. Following each other’s voices and scents, soon the mother and her pup were reunited. The host of the show explained that, from the moment of birth, the sound and scent of the pup are imprinted in the mother’s memory; and, the sound and scent of the mother are imprinted in the pup’s memory.[9]

That’s how it is between God and each of us. We are imprinted with a memory, a longing for God. And God is imprinted with a memory, a longing for us. And even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other.

No bright stars. No earthquakes. Just a voice that strikes our ear amid the ordinariness of our lives and announces that God has found us and God is among us.


[1]Gregory Mayers, Listen to the Desert; Secrets of Spiritual Maturity from the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Chicago: ACTA Publications, 1996), p.105

[2]David Toole in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.284-286

[3]Matthew 4:19

[4]Troy A. Miller in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., ibid., p.287

[5]Matthew 4:20

[6]Cited in Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.286

[7]Gregory Mayers, ibid., p.105

[8]Ibid., p.97

[9]Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.284-286

To the coastlands

In the second of four, so-called ‘servant poems’ in this section of Isaiah,[1]we encounter a person who is called from before his birth for God’s purposes. But the servant is “deeply despised” and “abhorred by the nations” for something he had done that caused the people to heap judgement and even violence against him.

Whatever this servant had been doing was frustrating even for the servant. He complains that his work had been a complete waste of time, that he had “labored in vain.” Can you relate?

Have you “labored in vain”? Do you feel as if all the work you’ve put into something was in vain, wasn’t worth it, or it felt like it was all for naught and didn’t make any difference? Have you once felt the shame of futility, frustration and failure?

Mahatma Gandhi, during his student life, suffered from frequent panic attacks. He had a particularly agonizing experience during a speech he was asked to give to a vegetarian community in London. After reading one line from the message he had prepared, he could no longer speak and asked someone else to read the rest of the speech for him.

“My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap,” he recalled.[2]How can someone who is barely able to utter two sentences together in public lead an independence movement? You’d think he must have grieved his shortcomings and fear. Even doubted his ability to lead. 

What will God say to us? How will God answer our prayer born out of our frustration, feelings of futility and anxiety about the changing and scary world within and outside of us?

God’s answer surprises and is often counter-intuitive. We think, perhaps, the solution lies in scaling back, lowering expectations, isolating ourselves in cocoons of introspection and introversion. We think, perhaps, the solution lies in moving away from what causes our fears and anxieties in this changing and scary world out there.

But God’s way isn’t what we think! You thought the solution to your problems was to circle the wagons of your world, make it narrow and easily controlled. You thought the solution to your problems was to constrict your vision to stay within the walls you have constructed in your life between you, your loved ones and the changing and scary world around. To retreat into the safety of a like-minded ghetto behind fortress walls.

God’s answer is cued right at the beginning of this servant poem, in verse one: “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” The servant is not speaking to his own folk, nearby. The servant is not addressing his words to his like-minded cohort. The servant is not preaching to the choir. 

The servant may not realize it at the beginning, but buried in his first words is the seed for his own transformation, his own healing, the answer to his own problem. God only puts a punctuation mark at the end of the sentence: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v.6). Not only are his sights set on raising up the tribes of Jacob and restore Israel; his destiny lies with people from far away, at the far reaches of his vision.

After God hears the servant’s lament, “God not only renews the servant’s original calling but enlarges the scope of it, so that it encompasses not only the restoration of Israel but the salvation of every nation on earth. Rather than looking upon the servant’s failures and adjusting the call downwards to meet diminished expectations,”[3]God offers an antidote to the servant’s inner struggles.

If the servant is to be healed from his inner turmoil and outer struggles, here is the antidote: reach out to others to meet them, serve them, learn from them and live together with them. Get out of yourself and the self-preoccupation born from too much navel-gazing, and meet God out there in that changing and scary world.

Gandhi found a cause that inflamed a passion in him so great that it overrode his anxieties and fears. His desire to see a free India moved him to stand up for what he believed in. Ghandi’s life echoed the expansive vision of God to care not just for those closest to him – in his family, village, township or province. But to care for the entire country!

Maybe when we’re anxious, we would do well to set our sights on the coastlands. Maybe, when are afraid, we would do well to consider a strategy that goes in another direction than ‘the way it used to be’. Maybe, when we feel all our work has been in vain, we would do well to try to reach out rather than just reach in. Maybe, when we are frustrated, we would do well to resist the temptation to retreat into the comfort zones too quickly.

Because maybe our healing lies in this expansive vision of God. Maybe our growth lies in setting our sights on the coastlands, to meet with people from far away, to make meaningful connections with peoples from all nations.

I think what we need to remember is that what has brought us here today—in the first place—is love. What brings us to this point of confession—confessing our sins, confessing our fear, feeling all those wants and unmet needs and grievances … we can only do that because love lives in our hearts. The small, spark of love – the love of God in us – opens our hearts to be who we are, warts and all.

But God doesn’t stop there. The love that brings us to honesty also sends us out to share God’s love in the world. The love of God will not stop in us but will radiate outwards, a centrifugal force that cannot be stopped, a force that will shine to the farthest corners. God won’t lower the bar with us, but raise it.

When we find the balance, when our outward reaching stems from the depths of our hearts in Christ, when the centrifugal force of the Spirit of God’s mission in the world emerges from the deep wells of God’s love within, then …

Our work will not be in vain. God will bring to completion the good work already begun in us.


[1]Isaiah 49:1-7

[2]https://visme.co/blog/amazing-leaders-who-once-had-crippling-stage-fright-and-how-they-overcame-it/

[3]Stephanie A. Paulsell, Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.244-246