In the open light of day

In a scripture assigned for this Sunday from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, Paul instructs Christians to ‘keep awake!’[1]

Stay awake! Every new day we need to awake from sleep. We need to wake up. Martin Luther suggested we splash water on our face every morning not just to clean ourselves but to remind ourselves in so doing that we are baptized. We need to remember God’s promises to us. 

What does this mean? Well, it means we don’t just wash ourselves once in our lives. Conversion is not a one-off. Moreover, as “children of the light”[2], it’s not that we are the awakened ones while everyone with whom we disagree are all in the dark. 

As in our daily ablutions, we need continuous repentance, transformation and renewal. As Christians, we constantly stand in need of reawakening from the sleep of our darker side – our wounds, our faults, our sins, our brokenness and however that is expressed. This word is meant for us, not for our enemies.

The command in 1stThessalonians to ‘keep awake’ is directed at Christians, echoing from the Garden of Gethsemane where the disciples slept instead of watching and waiting with Christ. In short, we are called to appeal to the higher self – the best – within us in the decisions we make and how we relate to those around us. We are called to live in the light.

But how can we do that, especially when times are tough, as they are now in the throes of a world-wide pandemic? When the fissures in our lives seem bigger and our problems are magnified?

The early Christians grappled with their expectations of Jesus’ immanent return. They were convinced that Christ’s return corresponded with the end of history. Therefore, these writings emerged out of anticipating the end of time. That’s the context: expecting that the world was going to end soon and very soon in a flaming ball. How could those early Christians deal and cope with the anxiety and fear of ‘the end’?

Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians a few short decades after that first Easter morning. And as the early writings of the New Testament show, the way these Christians made sense of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection was an image of light. 

In his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus, for example, the only way Paul could describe the risen Christ was “a light from heaven” that flashed around him, and from which the voice of Jesus spoke.[3]Beforeencountering the light of Christ, Saul was breathing threats and killing Christians. Afterseeing the light, Saul became Paul and the most influential apostle for Christ, for all time.

For the early Christians, before literal, bodily descriptions of Jesus’ resurrection took hold in their imaginations, their experienceof the living Lord played a larger role. Their experience was more a vision and inner connection to light. They were indeed, “children of the light”. On this basis, then, they could follow in the way of Christ and not fear the tumult and suffering of the end.

Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych, is a lawyer who climbs the social and economic ladders of success. He prides himself on being cheerful, capable and dutiful.

One day, he has an accident hanging curtains and hurts himself while falling awkwardly. Over time, the pain grows worse and although he is only forty-five years old, it becomes apparent that he is dying from his wound. The end is nigh.

As he lies in bed at home, he realizes how unhappy he has become. His professional success now feels trivial, and his family life and social interests seem fake. Ivan notices also that his wife loathes him, and both his daughter and son are distant. He becomes resentful, and on his deathbed the thought occurs to him, “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done?”

Suddenly, Ivan feels a strong jolt in the chest and side, pushing him into the presence of a bright light. In this light, his bitterness toward his family falls away, and he is filled with compassion. With a sigh and a burst of joy, Ivan stretches out and dies.[4]

It is God who awakens in us this light. “Whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him,” Paul promises.[5]In the end, the point isn’t whether we are asleep or awake, or who’s in and who’s out. Because we all struggle in the tension between darkness and light. And because God’s ultimate aim is for all of us to live and die in the light. 

And we have something to do about that, this side of eternity. In order to live in the light, God gives us the gifts of faith, hope and love. The community of faith is awakened by using these gifts in the world. These gifts are powers that allow us to move from a self-centred, private existence out into the open. 

In the open light of day, we accept responsibility to do our part for the good. In the light of day, we don’t hide. In the light of day, we accept the responsibility for exposing and unmasking the powers of darkness – all the lies and false ways in which we live – starting with ourselves. In the light of day, we act boldly in faith, hope and love.


[1]1 Thessalonians 5:6, Epistle reading for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Revised Common Lectionary)

[2]1 Thessalonians 5:5; Paul’s term for those who follow Christ

[3]Acts 9:3-4

[4]As described by Ken Shigematsu in Survival Guide for the Soul: How to Flourish Spiritually in a. World that Pressures Us to Achieve (Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), p.178-179; Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (Waking Lion Press, 2006).

[5]1 Thessalonians 5:10

God is free, and so are we

In this part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus spoke to his disciples near the end of his life. And so, his preaching here considers the end of things and how to live with the end in mind.

This story about bridesmaids waiting for the bridal couple to arrive to the wedding reception party can lead us down tricky paths if were not careful.

For one thing, it’s not about remaining in a constant state of vigilance. Because those five who had enough oil for their lamps had just enough for themselves. They hadn’t stockpiled oil enough to cover more than one night. Even these ‘prepared’ ones didn’t take into account all the contingencies. What if the bride groom wasn’t going to make it till the next day? What if the guests got their days mixed up? 

Clearly, in the story, the bridegroom is delayed. But for how long? No one knows. The Gospel’s point, in the end, is that “you know neither the day nor the hour.”[1] God is free.

At the same time, the story here revolves around how we live in a time of unknowing. There’s something to be said about looking ahead and getting ourselves ready to the best of our ability for an unknown future. 

It’s not uncommon to have heard this assessment about resilient individuals and resilient communities during the pandemic:

Those individuals who had already been practising healthy lifestyles before the lockdown earlier this year – such as regular exercise, diet, personal hobbies, prayer practices – were better poised to endure the limitations on social gatherings and sheltering in place. In contrast to those who were ‘forced’ into doing some of these things after the restrictions were imposed.

Also, those communities, organizations, businesses, charities and churches who were already ‘pro-active’ in best practices and ahead of the curve in terms of financial and technological innovations were better positioned to weather the storm and not only survive but thrive. In contrast to those organizations who had to do a whole lot of catching up to implement technology, websites and procedures in the midst of the crisis.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for folks who are grieving is never make a major decision about changing something significant in your like – like selling property or moving – when the pain of grief is still raw. Making changes to your normal way of doing things in the midst of a crisis is never nearly as effective as continuing best practices and healthy disciplines that you already were doing to some extent before the crisis. 

They say how you die reflects the way you lived; that is to say, the attitudes under the surface that have always been there but never maybe addressed, or the values on which we have oriented ourselves in all our activity – these are exposed and emerge at the end. Unresolved issues will catch up to you. So, it’s best to start putting into practice now life practices that you know are healthy and good but for whatever reason may be tempting to leave until later. Because, “you know neither the day nor the hour.”

It is how we live in uncertainty, that is the point of the Gospel. The story Jesus tells suggests it is wise to bear down and do what we can to meet the day given to us with the best of our consciences and abilities. But it is here where our Lutheran instincts kick in, and we may object: We are not saved by our good works; we cannot earn God’s favour by working harder. And I agree.

Because God doesn’t need the product of our labour. We delude ourselves in believing that God needs the results of our hard work. But God doesn’t. What God does care about deeply, I believe, is what we do with the freedom we have. God is free, yes. But so are we. 

And so, our focus then becomes not whether what we accomplish is worthy or perfect; rather, we pay more attention to our intentions, and how we live, in truth, and do the work we do.

Otherwise, we do nothing. The striving after perfection often keeps us paralyzed from the good. No matter what we do we can never completely solve the problems in the world and in our lives. In all our preparations, there is always a space left incomplete, imperfect. And this gap is what God alone can fill. And will, one day.

The bridegroom’s delay doesn’t mean he will not come. The bridegroom’s freedom also means the party will not really start until he arrives. The Gospel asks us to live in hope for what has been promised and what will be but is not yet. 

While it is wise to fill our lamps with good things, these good things are for use this side of eternity. There is, after all, enough light for everyone at the banquet. So, for now, let us do good. Let us work with the uncertain future in mind using the good tools of knowledge, faith and love.[2]

And let God be concerned about the rest.


[1] Matthew 25:1-13

[2] Mark Douglas “Matthew 25:1-13” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011)  p.284-288.

The playful, hidden God

Truly, you are a God who hides” -Isaiah 45:15

Last week I told the story of the seeker of Christ who discovered that she didn’t have to travel to some remote, far-away place to meet Jesus. Because she encountered Christ on her very doorstep. Much closer than she ever expected.

In the poetry of Isaiah, the salvation of the exiled and captive Israel in far-away Babylon would come in the person of King Cyrus of Persia. Salvation came disguised in a foreign king. “Truly,” Isaiah prays, “you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”[1]

Indeed, we Christians believe in the God who hides: Deus absconditus (the hidden God). God is disguised in a tiny baby, hiding in a manger. God’s majesty and glory is veiled upon a cross. Salvation indeed comes to us disguised, coming from the least expected places. We may not see it right away.

Why is God like this? Why does God make it so difficult for us to see God? Is God trying to be funny? Why this subterfuge? Some of us who may take ourselves a bit too seriously at times may recoil at the notion of a playful God, seeing this disguising God more as twisted manipulation and a waste of valuable energy.

In my first parish I received some good counsel from my colleague Ted about encouraging youth who were scheduled to acolyte on Sunday mornings. In that parish, being an acolyte entailed quite an elaborate ritual – putting on an alb (a white gown), bowing in front of the altar at the start of the service, and using a long, tapered stick to light first the Epistle candle (the candle on the altar farthest from the pulpit) and then the Gospel candle (the one closest to the pulpit) – and doing all this without tripping on the hem of the gown when going up the steps and starting the church on fire!

There was some stress involved in this performance. And more and more youth were being emboldened to object to such ‘chancel prancing’ nonsense. “Why do this weird, awkward, strange thing?” they asked. “After all, the point of lighting candles hundreds of years ago was so worship leaders could see and read the texts. Today, we can simply throw a light switch.”

Ted listened patiently to all their valid points. He did, nevertheless, suggest something important. “When you are an acolyte and do it this way,” he said, “it is awkward and strange, for sure. But let it remind you, whenever you do it, that following God often feels awkward and strange. Like a weird kind of playfulness. You experience something that is at the same time uncomfortable and playful.” 

I haven’t forgotten that advice. It helps me make sense out of difficult situations in life, even about what we are doing for worship during this pandemic. We do things that make us uncomfortable, like wearing masks; sitting, standing and walking physically apart; not singing, hugging nor drinking coffee together. And still, we are drawn to experience something of the divine. 

There’s something to this playful nonsense that still brings us close to God. It’s like love. Expressing love can sometimes appear nonsensical. People will do crazy things for love. There’s this playful riskiness associated with love.

God is love, and maybe that is why God appears at first hidden to us. Maybe, it has something to do with being vulnerable. Maybe, God plays this way “so that we might irresistibly be drawn to a grace far closer than we ever imagined” …. [Because] at those moments when we are most fraught with vulnerability, we may also find ourselves most open to unexpected grace.[2]

Martin Luther wrote in Table Talksof his experience as a young student in Magdeburg, singing in the streets with a friend, hoping for small gifts of money or food. A huge man suddenly came running out from a nearby house, waving sausages in the air and yelling at them in noisy jest, “What are you boys up to with such a racket?”

The man grinned as he spoke, yet the boys weren’t sure how to respond. They wanted the sausages, but in fearful confusion they bolted and ran. Luther asked if that wasn’t typical of our response to God and God’s grace. Like the man frantically waving sausages, God holds out Jesus Christ to us, not seeking to frighten but to draw us to himself.

Yet, we are afraid. We can’t imagine such forgiveness. We run the other way, certain that God is angry with us, tragically misinterpreting God’s play. We can be like Teresa of Avila who talked back to God when she came on hard times; she prayed: “God, if this is how you treat your friends, I know why you have so many enemies!”[3]

Nonetheless, the goal of this prayer – this relating with God – is intimacy, vulnerability. It is risky to play this way; and yet this path leads us into a deeper relationship with God who is always very close to us.

I love that story of a father playing hide-and-seek with his young daughter. The father knows that his daughter is stretching the rules when she pretends that she has run away to hide. But, he lets her do it. When the father closes his eyes and counts loudly and slowly to ten, the daughter makes noise running away but then comes sneaking back to stand right beside her father, centimeters away, hoping the father can’t hear. 

As soon as he opens his eyes, she takes the greatest delight in reaching out to touch home base. She is cheating of course, but the father lets her get away with it. Why? 

In his words, “I longed so much for those few moments when we stood close together, pretending not to hear or be heard, caught up in a game that for an instant dissolved the distance between parent and child, that set us free to touch and seek and find each other … It was a simple, almost negligible act of grace, my not letting on that I knew she was there. Yet I suspect that in that one act my child may have mirrored God for me better than in any other way I have known … God is for me a seven-year-old daughter, slipping back across the grass, holding her breath in check, wanting once again to surprise me with a presence closer than I ever expected.”[4]

In the craziness of these times, when it is far from easy to feel, let alone see, God’s presence, may we be surprised by God’s grace. God is closer to us than we ever thought.


[1]Isaiah 45:1-15; First reading for Pentecost 20A, RCL

[2]Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (Oxford University Press, 1988), p.180, 182.

[3]Lane, ibid., p.182-183.

[4]Lane, ibid.,p.181.

When God’s love keeps distance

14Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
15behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted. (Psalm 80)

Despite the fervent prayer and hopeful faith demonstrated in this psalm, God did not answer the Psalmist’s prayer. God did not restore the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel to their glory.

In a plea for help, this psalm[1]tells the story of a vine (Israel) whom God saved from Egypt and placed it in the land of promise (the vineyard). Yet, the vineyard has come on hard times, being raided and devasted by thieves.

Scholars generally think that Psalm 80 was written during the Assyrian attacks on the northern kingdom of Israel.[2]Aware of this history, we may find the psalm disturbing, to say the least. Because Assyria took them captive around 722 BCE and sent them into various parts of the Assyrian Kingdom. The hope of the psalmist remained devastatingly unfulfilled.

Why did God not act to save Israel at the time? How could God be so un-caring to ignore the pleas of the people? 

Jesus tells a different story, which can also leave us scratching our heads about God’s apparent lack of concern. In the Gospel from Matthew today[3], Jesus tells the story about a landowner of a vineyard whose son is murdered by the tenants of the vineyard. 

Are our prayers of hope for restoration misguided? We come up with all kinds of explanations, for sure. From the perspective of history, and some distance, we may say that eventually the promises are fulfilled and the people are saved. However, in the lives of those directly affected by the Assyrian conquest and immediate aftermath such statements of belief provide little traction. “Just hang in there for 700 years; then, everything will be ok.”

But the nature of God’s love is such that God maintains sufficient distance to free us to determine our own response, whether that response yields fruitfulness or mistakes. The vineyard of God’s reign is about relationships that are non-possessive; that is, we care for one another while leaving each other free – thus mirroring the nature of God’s love. Caring, but not possessing. 

We may think of this kind of detachment as a lack of warmth and caring. Yet at certain times of our lives – especially through some suffering and loss, when changing circumstances lead to job or relationship loss, ill health or a major transition in life – God’s loving distance recognizes and allows that going through grief /loss /suffering is more necessary than going around it.

We never want to be in this in-between state: leaving what was and not sure about was is becoming. In this space we undergo a unique kind of waiting before the new thing is entered. Some have suggested it will take the rest of our lives to recognize what is truly happening to our world and our lives at this time of the COVID 19 pandemic. We are thrown unwittingly into a place that we would rather not go. 

Now we have no choice but to surrender and learn whatever good lessons are to be learned. On this journey in the in-between time and space, we must not force ourselves through until we learn what it has to teach us. We have to watch our tendency to be attached to outcome, not open to outcome.[4]

I agree with those who say that nothing less than a pandemic could begin to re-educate a cold, divided world. We needed a new ‘doorway’ and we are being pushed through it.[5]

Having faith means trusting God by accepting the new reality we are encountering at this time. Having faith means appealing to God’s help even and especially when God seems absent. It is in the messy moment of suffering and love, where God will make sense to us, somehow, and through which we will grow in God’s love for all.

How do we start? We begin by recognizing the importance of other abilities and capacities we have to access reality and truth. Our mind and its capacity for rational, analytical thought is not enough to appreciate and comprehend the fullness of what God is doing in present circumstances. Sometimes we need to rely on other faculties that allow us to receive the truth and grace of God.  

My mom told me the story she heard about a deaf man who attended worship services every week. He came late, usually as the first hymn was concluding. But he stayed to the very end of each service. His eyes were glued to the activity around font, pulpit and altar, week after week.

After several weeks of noticing the deaf man in attendance, someone in the congregation who knew sign language stopped him at the door as they were leaving. “Why do you come to worship when you can’t hear any words that are being said?” she asked, genuinely curious.

Without hesitation, the deaf man responded: “I come to see the sign of the final blessing, to watch the pastor make the sign of the cross, and to feel the positive energy coming from that sign into my heart. That’s all. That’s what I need now.”

What are the signs of God’s goodness and love, small though they may be, in your life? May the risen Christ live through our wounded lives to bring into the world the new, good thing God is doing.


[1]Psalm 80:7-15, Pentecost 18A (RCL)

[2]Stephanie Mar Smith in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.128

[3]Matthew 21:36-45, Pentecost 18A (Revised Common Lectionary)

[4]Alan D. Wolfelt, “Walking in the Wilderness Together” in Frontline (Summer 2020).

[5]Richard Rohr, “A Liminal Time” in The Mendicant Vol 10, No 2 (New Mexico: Center for Action & Contemplation, Spring/Summer 2020)

Cross-currents

I learned how to ‘line’ a canoe, and did it the first time in my life last month when I canoe-camped in Algonquin Park. Lining a canoe requires paying attention to opposing forces, and seeking a tension – a balance – between those forces. Because if you are lining a canoe in the first place, you are likely on a river needing to get through a set of rapids or manoeuvre through a swift.

Before lining a canoe, certain things have to be established. First you can’t line a canoe by yourself. Lining a canoe is done in tandem with someone else – your paddling partner for example. 

Second, to line a canoe successfully, you need to know the direction of the current vis-à-vis the direction you are headed. Going up the river through a set of rapids, for example, the front of the canoe – the bow – has to be angled outward from the shore while the person leading walks along the shore holding onto one end of the rope. The second person, lining the canoe from the stern – the back – holds the rope connected to the back of the canoe which is relatively closer to the shore.

The idea is that while the canoe is being lined upriver, the current pushes on the bow keeping it angled out, and therefore the canoe won’t collide with the shore. Of course, both ‘liners’ must keep this pattern more or less fixed while walking along the shore line. The exercise tests the paddlers’ ability to maintain this constant tension between opposing movements – the movement of the water going in the opposite direction than the canoe pointing upriver in the water.

Going downriver, the process is reversed. The canoe points downriver along the shoreline, but this time, the stern is angled farther out than the bow.

The Gospel reading today feels like we are stepping into a river with cross currents.[1]The chief priests and elders are flowing in one direction: they are motivated by politics, concerned about reputation, pleasing the crowd and making sure they maintain their powerbase. And Jesus is going the other way. 

At the end of a conversation with Jesus about the origins of John the Baptist’s baptism and hence the authority of Jesus, the chief priests confess, “We do not know”. It’s like Jesus was leading them into a conundrum with his question; he knew their motivation was self-preservation. It’s like he wanted to bring them to that confession, and he got their admission: “We don’t know.”

How do you respond to that first part of the Gospel – when they admit, “they don’t know”, they don’t know the answer to the question, they don’t know the proper response, they don’t know how to get out of it, they just don’t know?

I suspect in our culture, not knowing is frowned upon. We may read that as a victory for Jesus in the constant battle he wages throughout the Gospels against the religious leaders of his day. Jesus – 1; chief priests – 0. 

But maybe “we don’t know” is a place Jesus brought them to, for their own good. Maybe in all the debating, all the words, the twists and turns in the arguments he has with them, in all the cross-currents of conversations that are hard to follow, “We don’t know” is a gift in tumultuous times when we really don’t know, if we are honest.

Navigating this text is like lining a canoe – you have to hold in tension the various currents if you want to get anywhere meaningful with it. But this conflab does not occur on a river far away from civilization, removed from the centres of human interaction and public activity. It does not occur in some otherworldly, private, disconnected place of fantasy and escapism. These cross-currents happen in the temple. The Gospel story begins with the words, “When Jesus entered the temple …”

It is in the temple – the very centre of religious experience and practice – where we not only encounter the divine, but we also encounter the challenges of our faith and life. The cross-currents. Right in the middle of the messy, uncertain, disruptive realities of COVID. Right in the middle of our fears and anxieties about ‘going out’ and being with others. Right here, in the midst of the awkwardness of in-person worship with all the pandemic protocols in place.

At one point in lining the canoe, my canoe partner slipped on a stone and fell splashing in the water. Thankfully, he was ok besides being soaking wet. And he didn’t let go of his rope. We could have been in big trouble if our canoe containing all our overnight gear went sailing down river away from us!

This is a high stakes exercise of faith, whenever we enter the temple to meet with God. At any given moment we don’t know if we will slip on a stone or have some kind of mishap. We take risks to come to worship in the building these days.

Maybe Jesus is bringing us to that silent, humble confession, “We don’t know.” That kind of thing is usually said quietly, almost in a whisper. With our masks on and our voices subdued, perhaps this silence is a gift. It is where God leads us now in the conversation of faith. “We don’t know.”

Welcome the moments of silence. Step into the cross-current, risking it all, but knowing too that in the silence, “we don’t know” is not a fateful but faithful confession. 

Not knowing all the answers may be a necessary part of our journey. Confessing, “we don’t know” reveals a vulnerability that is an important part of being healthy and whole. So when our voices are silent and we don’t sing the hymns out loud and say the responses out loud, maybe in so doing we practice love for others by making a whole lot of room for God to say something to us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1]Matthew 21:23-32 for Pentecost 17A, Revised Common Lectionary

The curve that keeps spiking!

Starting last March, churches were asked to do the seemingly impossible: gather without gathering. This has taken place across the synod, nation and globe in a variety of formats – live-streamed, recorded, or the sharing of written materials – involving a diversity of content. Some congregations have used Service of the Word, while some have had virtual communion. But all have had to be exceedingly inventive as we gather for worship. 

People, however, pine to worship face to face in their buildings. This moment is now upon us.

We may imagine that our experience of worship in the Amber Stage will be more real than our online worship. But worship upon return in person will still be drastically different from what it was pre-Covid. 

Some will find the experience of communion in one kind (bread alone) to be disorienting. Is this really communion? In responding to that question, it is important to revisit what Lutherans believe about communion.

First, Communion is a gift and the content of that gift is the presence of Jesus who unites the divine self with us in a tangible, fulsome, and empowering way. However, Lutherans do not understand communion to be necessary for salvation. God in Christ also meets us in the sermon, in baptism, and in the mutual care we offer one another. Communion is, however, empowering, and might be likened to a hug from God, for which many of us ache.

Further, communion is a coming together of a community. When I draw near to God, and you draw near to God, we draw near to one another. Many of us have sorely missed this aspect of communion and look forward to that intimacy of face to face worship.

Communion, in sum, is God’s “Yes!” to us. It has been described as a visible word. The gospel word of unconditional love in the sermon is now seen and smelt, tasted and felt in the meal. 

But we might ask, is this “Yes!” compromised when we only taste one element? When our gathering is distanced? When the hug feels more like a handshake? Will this really be communion?

In answering this question, it is important to look at our past experiences of communion with an honest gaze and ask: Has communion always felt like a gift? Have we always found joy in our sibling at the table? Have we always walked away from the communion rail feeling that we have heard God’s “Yes!” and the power of the Holy Spirit surging through us? Of course, the answer to these questions is “no.” Not always.

Communion is about relationship and relationships are messy, fractured, and uneven. This is the nature of life.

Our experiences of Communion upon returning in-person to the church building will be broken, as have been our experiences of virtual worship, as has been our experiences of pre-Covid 19 communion. In the end, what makes communion fulsome is not our experience of communion alone, but God’s promise that this meal is “for you.” God promises the divine presence in Jesus and with him the presence of our siblings in Christ – those alive and those beyond life in eternal life. This promise is the power of the “Yes!” And Martin Luther was insistent that God’s gospel work regularly is done in fractured and broken experiences. This is the surprise of the gospel. 

What might this mean for a return to Amber Stage worship? 

We need to be prepared to be surprised. The Gospel story for today[1]surprises and may even distress us. The end of the story does not fit our sense, our experience, of fairness and the way ‘things should be’: people who worked the shortest time earned as much as those who worked the longest. We object. That’s not fair. It’s not the way it should be.

Indeed, things are different, awkward, imperfect – even as we gather again in our house of prayer today. It’s not the way it should be, we feel. But difference is not bad. God has written difference into the architecture of creation. God will sometimes throw us a curve ball, not what we expected. Question is, will we catch it?

Of course, we will lament what we miss but we will also need to dream, imagining how we can make the most of new realities. Such dreaming is only possible when we allow ourselves to fail, knowing that as we explore this strange new world with our hearts open to God and one another, such failure will not be fateful, but rather, faithful to God’s “Yes!”[2]

The Gospel readings for the last two Sundays from Matthew describe the economy of God’s grace.[3]When it comes to forgiving others using immeasurable criteria, or when it comes to the generosity of God – God’s ways go beyond the world’s measure of who deserves what and earning good favour and blessing. God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness don’t play by the world’s rules of tit-for-tat. Admittedly, the learning curve of living and dreaming according to God’s “Yes!” is steep and always feels like it’s spiking! 

But remember it’s not about our experience alone. It is about something bigger that is happening in the world, something larger-than-each-of-us that is based on God’s promises for you, for me and for all people.

May the promise of this grace, made real in the bread for you this day, encourage you and empower you.


[1]Matthew 20:1-16

[2]To this point, adapted from “Reflection” in Worship Resources for the Resumption of In-Person Worship (Eastern Synod ELCIC, www.easternsynod.org, 2020)

[3]Matthew 18:25-31 (Pentecost 15A, RCL) and Matthew 20:1-16 (Pentecost 16A, RCL)

Half-way to somewhere

What first stands out for me this time I read the passage about unforgiving servant is the hypocrisy of the servant who was first shown mercy by the king who forgives the entire debt.[1]

It’s easy for us who read or listen to this story to condemn that servant for not forgiving-it-forward and showing mercy in turn. I think that’s what the Gospel writer wanted us to see in the way the story is told.

And isn’t that one of the major criticisms by those who are disaffected, disenchanted by the church today: that church people are hypocritical – saying one thing but behaving in completely the opposite way. In the case of the Gospel – being shown mercy but dissing out judgement and condemnation. It is clear by the end of the Gospel that the king – God – is also not pleased with this hypocrisy.

At some level, it’s hard not to live that way. We can probably all confess that at times in our own lives we have said one thing – announced some ideal – but behaved inconsistently with that principle. It’s part of our human nature. We pronounce we are welcoming but say disparaging things under our breath about those who differ from us or who don’t follow the rules or who break the law or who act in some way we disapprove; we say we must protect the environment and live simply but produce waste and live beyond our means; we confess to follow Jesus but act in ways that are completely counter to his way of peace and forgiveness.

Next week we begin a new step towards being together, in-person, for worship. One of the ways we will be together is by wearing our masks during the short worship service. I, for one, will find this practice vexing though ironic and hopefully for us all a learning experience if anything.

Diana Butler Bass describes some of this background of mask-wearing in a recent article: She ties our concept of mask-wearing to ancient Greece, where masks were used in theater. They were a way to place actors into a space that mediated between reality and story, allowing actors to disappear into the role they were playing and become who they were not, creating an alternative reality for the audience.

A mask became the person we show to the world, regardless of who we really are under the mask. Greek theater gave Western culture another term to describe this disconnection between the actor and the mask—a word that meant “play-acting” or … literally “to judge from under a mask,” a word we know in English as “hypocrite.”

Western people mask what they want to hide, and masking has a long association in European societies with naughtiness, lying, criminality, and sin. Masks provide distance between our inner selves and outward actions. 

Masks are wrapped up in Christian notions of sin, selfhood, and salvation. The Biblical narrative lurks in our memories—after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they covered themselves and hid. The first act after sinning was putting on a mask. And so the story of our hypocrisy begins.

Human beings are well-practiced in masking our sin so as not to be known. In the Bible this is a necessary first step towards salvation; acknowledging our common humanity, our brokenness and woundedness. We confess our sin. We are half-way on the journey. And we keep going.

In doing so we pivot towards God’s vision for ourselves and the future in God’s reign. We change. In the Hebrew scripture, Jacob and Moses both saw God “face to face”; and then we read about a hope that the New Testament claims on behalf of all who follow Jesus when St. Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” It is not unreasonable to argue that the Biblical story is one of masking and unmasking, until God is finally and fully seen in each human face. Salvation means everything will be one day uncovered.[2]

Wearing masks is a loving act, first, because we all wear masks. None of us is exempt from the burden and brokenness of sin. None of us sits in a position to judge and condemn others. When we all wear masks it is an outward confession that each of us finds ourselves on the same level playing field. Each of us lives from God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy. 

To show love is to accept our own contribution to a problem. To show love is to accept our own complicity. To show love is not about getting even but about getting it well. To show love is to seek a solution for all rather than seek punishment and blame someone else.

Forgiveness is not a transaction. The disciples seek a way to measure, count and calculate this aspect of love and mercy. Jesus’ answer, in effect, says, ‘you have to forgive always’. You can’t measure this. It’s like when St Paul says to ‘pray without ceasing’. How is that possible? It isn’t, if you are after measuring, counting and calculating aspects of faith – like forgiveness or prayer. Our faith is not transactional, it seeks transformation. Forgiveness, as an expression of love, is more about a style, a tone, of life heading towards something bigger rather than something you can control, keep straight, formulate and equate on a ledger. It is about an approach and an attitude. A posture.

On the journey, it feels more like we are always only half-way there. But we keep going, head held high.

This past week Jessica and I accomplished a milestone on our virtual Camino walk. On June 1stthis year we decided to walk the 835 kilometres of the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo in northern Spain. Obviously we weren’t actually going to walk there, but rather walk the distances in segments across eastern Ontario. Each time we walked we checked the distance from one way-point in Spain to the next small village or town – and then translated that distance on the ground in this area.

Since June 1st we’ve averaged 5-6 kilometres each of the 75 days we walked. And this week, we reached the half-way point. Only 416 kilometres to go! Because we don’t have a schedule, and we don’t know how far we will go or when we will finish so much of our endeavour is clouded in uncertainty. We are committed to walking this together, but because of our busy Fall schedules with work and family, we are not even certain we will finish before the snow flies.

But I felt that it was important to pause and celebrate if for a moment that we had walked half-way. We have gotten somewhere even though our ultimate goal still feels out of reach. Better to celebrate going half-way somewhere than not having walked anywhere. We move forward, now. That’s all.

I suspect our eventual success, if we will enjoy that down the road, will come not because we were convinced of our own superior moral, physical and willful efforts. Not because we felt we were somehow deserving of glory and better than others. But that we made, by the gifts of time and health, imperfect small steps towards the goal.

What Jesus describes in these Gospel stories over the past few weeks, is the nature of love in community. Forgiveness comes out of a love that is accepting of one another including our masks of sin and our need for God’s first, underlying and steadfast love and forgiveness of us all. Living out of that primary grace, we make imperfect sometimes tentative steps forward towards God’s vision for all people. The road forward isn’t perfect. But we trust that no matter what – even if it’s only half-way to somewhere – God’s love and grace will never abandon us.


[1]Matthew 18:21-35; Gospel reading for Pentecost 15A, Revised Common Lectionary

[2]Diana Butler Bass, “Pieces of Cloth” in Spirituality and Healthy; Soul-Body Connection (www.spiritualityhealth.comSeptember 1, 2020).

Repeating rhythms of God’s love

As I stood on the shoreline deep in the wilderness of Algonquin Park looking down the Petawawa River towards my destination, I knew well what simple act, repeated over and over again, would get me where I was going.

Many have described the simple but not easy acts of paddling a canoe or jogging or walking as a meditation. From one perspective, it is not a complicated thing to do – repeating a motion that our bodies are capable of and typically designed to do.

However, in all the mental compulsions and distractions precipitated by our tech-dependant, noisy and supersonic lifestyles, we often forget and take for granted these simple acts that can truthfully take us very far.

The Gospel story today records words of Jesus describing how people, in relationships of love, seek reconciliation.[1]The unfolding of the way people can move through disagreement and conflict feels repetitive. First, if there is a disagreement or hurt, you are honest and confront the person with whom you differ. If that doesn’t work, you return to the issue to deal with it: You take it to a couple of others. Then, if that doesn’t work, you return to the issue to deal with it again: You go to the church with it. 

There is a process, a step-by-step means, of achieving the goal. It is not a one-off solution. And if trying once doesn’t work, you don’t just give up altogether on the path. No silver bullet to solve all the problems. That strategy, in truth, is hardly ever real and effective anyway.

Especially in the life of faith, which we have often described as a journey, the way is marked by a commitment to return again and again to some kind of action – whether we are talking about conflict management in the church, personal spiritual growth, or a prognosis for healing and getting better. There is no quick fix. Never was. It will take time – a life time – of going back to it, over and over again.

I observe that people who have some kind of spiritual discipline to which they return with intention and humility are people whose faith and prayer is mature, people of faith whom I admire, respect and from whom I wish to learn more.

Repeating similar, if not the same, prayers every day; a mantra to which you return regularly.

Volunteering every week at the local foodbank.

Keeping in touch, caringly and regularly, with those who differ from you.

Writing cards of thanksgiving and best wishes to those who experience some kind of suffering or joy.

Making regular phone calls conveying care and love especially during turbulent times.

Going to church and/or watching recorded worship services every Sunday.

These disciplines of prayer, worship and service are not one-off, once-in-a-lifetime, experiments which you are ready to drop ‘if it doesn’t work out’ for you.

What often shapes the practice of faith on our earthly journey is repetition –  a commitment and dedication to repeat some action over and over again in order to reinforce something desired, something mutually beneficial, something good and building up for ourselves, for others, for creation, and for God. We repeat an activity that aligns our mind, heart and spirit in God’s love.

In the movie, 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore’s character gets in a car accident and suffers brain trauma. The injury causes a rare amnesia that resets her memory every time she goes to sleep at night. 

Her boyfriend, played by Adam Sandler, takes her on fifty “first dates”, trying to convince her over time that they belong to each other and to help her remember that they’re in love. Individually, the dates, no matter how outrageous and amazingly planned, don’t succeed. So he produces a video to remind her of their story – and as she watches the video over and over every morning, she slowly remembers that she is loved by Sandler and loves him in return.

Like Barrymore’s character, I believe we easily forget that we are deeply loved by God. Especially when we meet with adversity and suffering in life, when our lives are turned upside down. God will not stop trying over and over again – repeating – ways and means to communicate to us divine love and unconditional acceptance.

As this happens, like Barrymore’s character, we are reminded of the one to whom we belong and by whom we are loved. And as we live in the fullness of God’s love for us, we are made new.

We may have had a powerful conversion experience in the past. We may long for the good times in the church years ago. We may have once long ago experienced something wondrous and beautiful. And these memories can serve as fuel for our faith today.

But because we can forget that God still is active in the world today, and because we can suffer from a spiritual amnesia especially when a pandemic strikes changing so much in our lives all at once, we need to awaken to God’s love everyday and be born again and again. As we open ourselves to God’s presence through our disciplines, by our regular, repeated practices, the love of Christ is birthed and rebirthed in us.[2]

Over the next few weeks we will be learning new practices in how we are together, in person, as the church. We’ve had a summer of wearing masks out in public and keeping physical distance when around others not in your cohort. So we know a little bit already about what this may look like.

Whenever we begin to learn new ways of being and interacting it will feel awkward and strange. Please remember that a healthy faith practice bears repeating. It may not feel very satisfying at first. It may feel uncomfortable.

But, the bible bears witness to this if anything, no one in the bible came to be enlivened, transformed and made new in Christ or with God outside a place of discomfort and disruption. Authentic faith emerges from the dust heap of real struggle and perseverance. 

This is a time of great opportunity to grow and deepen our walk, or paddle, of faith. We stand at the shoreline of a journey, looking out over the water. Getting across will depend in small part on some repetitive action, some capacity, that we all share and must do over and over again. Pray. Act. Serve. Pray. Act. Serve. 

Let’s not forget, though, that getting across, if it will happen, will depend in great part on the waters of God’s love holding us all and taking us on the current of grace homeward. Thanks be to God!

Amen.


[1]Matthew 18:15-20

[2]The 50 First Datesillustration and following, cited and adapted from Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), p.56-58.

Letting the weeds be

In this pandemic, many of us are nostalgic for the old normal. We want to get back to our favorite coffee shop, our favorite restaurant, our church service. In short, we want it to be the way it was.

And of course, there’s nothing wrong with so many of those desires for the old normal. But I’d like to make a proposal. If we are wise in this time, we will not go back unthinkingly to the old normal. 

For those of us whose physical health was not severely affected by the virus, we have the luxury to reflect. Reflect on what the pandemic is teaching us. In this time of slow down we can use the time wisely to take another look at the way things were. And are.

Right now, our lives are probably bounded in ways we have never known before. But could these apparent confinements, these ‘bounds’ which at first feel so frustrating and can make us unhappy, could they in fact be gateways into larger life, a new way of seeing the same things? 

The French writer Marcel Proust wrote, with great insight, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”[1]

I know the force of nostalgia is strong. It’s easy to see what is happening in your faith right now and dismiss it. We would rather appeal to former days as the gold standard when physical distancing and mask-wearing were non-factors in our lives together. But what is happening right now in your faith life, however confining and disruptive the experience may feel, is real. 

Perhaps fresh perspectives have emerged in your reflections and you are not yet sure what to make of it. Perhaps God is calling you into a deeper journey of prayer and action. Perhaps you have re-evaluated your position within the church. Maybe a new direction lies before you.

Is that a weed growing? Or the real deal? Perhaps it is too soon to tell the difference. But whatever you do, it would be a mistake to rip it out now or dismiss it out of hand. Now, you need to let it be, and grow with it.

As we experience discomfort of this time, let’s begin to dream of a new normal, a new normal that addresses these emerging issues and possibilities. If we’re wise, we won’t go back; we’ll go forward.[2]

During the early days of the pandemic lockdown when snow still covered the ground outside, my family started from seed growing vegetables and flowers indoors. 

Two months later we planted the tiny seedlings outside. Since then, they have grown. And we have given thanks for these plants’ and flowers’ resiliency and verdant growth. 

But they have started sharing the earth with other uninvited guests. The weeds began to compete with the tomatoes, cucumbers and nasturtiums. And so, the overwhelming challenge begins for the avid gardener. Days can be spent in the yard or garden doing nothing else then pulling the weeds. It’s amazing how most of the gardener’s time in the late Spring and early Summer can be spent doing only one thing: pulling weeds. 

Indeed, isn’t this how we often approach our lives? Our natural, even compulsive tendency is to pull out, or try to, all the things we perceive are wrong in our life and in the world. Whenever we start to diet or exercise, whenever we take on some just cause or new discipline we will normally run up against distractions, obstacles and challenges. 

And our knee-jerk reaction is to obliterate, purge, remove, expunge, cast off whatever is in our way, whatever blocks our good intentions. If only we can get rid of the impurity in the world and in our lives! If only we can purge our lives of the sin and the bad … then, and only then can we move forward. And, we end up doing violence.

What Jesus says goes against this impulse. Jesus tells a story, a story about weeds and wheat. When the weeds grow alongside the wheat, the workers immediately want to get busy pulling those weeds out from among the wheat. But the landlord calls for a reality check. And, for restraint. ‘Let the weeds and wheat grow together until the harvest.’[3]

What does it mean to trust God? What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to follow Jesus? Trusting God, having faith, being a disciple of Jesus is about acceptance, not riddance. The way forward is not marked by violence of any kind. The way of faith is not resisting what emerges in our awareness and on our path.

On the journey of faithfulness, we practice being present to it all. We give permission for the weeds of our hearts and minds to grow alongside what is good and true within us and in the world.

During this time of increased solitude, seclusion and confinement, many of us are discovering what actually matters in our lives. The simple acts of love. The basic practices of listening and paying attention to what is right in front of us.

Yet, as we discover what actually matters we still need to co-exist with all those impulses, hurts, and wounds roiling within us. They will always be there even as we will learn to live alongside this messy, less-than-ideal mixed-up-ness of our lives. On this journey of acceptance we may discover by God’s grace that the parts of ourselves that bother us will eventually loosen their grip on us in the light of God’s unconditional love shining over it all.

We let things grow as they will. And trust that, on the way forward, all will be well.


[1]Cited in Geoffrey Tristan, “You Have Enough” (www.ssje.org, July 15, 2020).

[2]Brian McLaren in Richard Rohr Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 9 July 2020).

[3]Matthew 13:24-30

And they shall grow

The prophet Isaiah writes,

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
  and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
 making it bring forth and sprout,
  giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
  it shall not return to me empty,
 but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
  and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12For you shall go out in joy,
  and be led back in peace; 
  … and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.[1]

I am standing in Gillies Grove, Arnprior, right in the middle of an old-growth stand of Hemlock and White Pine trees beside the tallest tree in the whole of the Province of Ontario – measuring 47 metres (147 feet) high and more than 100 centimetres in breadth.[2]Right here.

It’s one of my favourite places because it makes me feel what the prophet Isaiah expresses about how we grow, and that the end result of that growth is unmeasured joy.

Jesus told a story about tiny seeds growing from the ground.[3]Here, I see Jesus describes, using the image of a farmer planting seeds, our healing, our growth, and our transformation. Our hearts are home to the seed of God’s truth and love whose purpose is to grow and bear fruit. 

But, he also speaks of the conditions that can inhibit our development and growth. Not all the seeds can grow to their fullest because the condition of our hearts do not make it possible. 

As Christians, our sickness of the soul comes from a profound lack of love in our lives – love for self, love for another, love for creation and love for God. 

How does love grow from our hearts? How do we heal the wounds and put down the barriers of hate, mistrust and greed that block the flow of God’s love through us? 

In the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic crisis, Richard Rohr recently said, “Love always means going beyond yourself to otherness.”[4]

During this time of social distancing from other humans, it is still possible for some of us to go outside. In truth, for me, making a connection with the beauty of creation out of doors has kept me sane, grounded, and connected with God. I have seen more people outside sitting, walking, visiting, exercising than ever before. I  have a feeling we will all have a newfound appreciation for the outdoors when this time of “sheltering in” is over. 

Fifteenth century Swiss physician and philosopher of the German Renaissance, Paracelsus, asserted: “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.”[5]

Perhaps in a time of great rate of change, we can discover fresh ways of being in tune with ourselves, with others and with God by connecting a little with the wonder of creation.

In closing, I’d like to lead you through a short, meditation you can practice next time you are outside.

“The invitation is simple: Walk slowly [or sit still], while silently noticing what is in motion in the forest. There is always movement, even when things seem perfectly still. Strands of a web drift in the air, trees move in the breezes, birds fly by, and squirrels scramble in the branches, grasses bend, insects crawl. . . .

[Notice these subtle movements] until you become accustomed to it. 

Walking slowly [or sitting still] for more than a few minutes is, paradoxically, stressful. . . .[Normally, our minds and our bodies are going at high rates of speed, so slowing our minds down can cause us anxiety because we don’t know what we will find there. But] … because the mind and body are a single entity, slowing our body will also calm our mind. . . .

The eternal movement of the forest gives our minds something to engage with. Just as with sitting meditation the breath is always there and available for watching, in the forest there are always things in motion. Your mind will drift, and many other thoughts will arise. When they do, gently bring your attention back to noticing what’s in motion.

When you find you have automatically sped up, come to a complete halt for a moment. It’s an opportunity to fully give your attention to one thing, noticing how that thing is in motion. After a brief pause you’ll be ready to continue your slow walk.

I recommend that you walk [or sit] like this for at least 15 minutes. That’s enough time for your mind to go through several cycles of distraction and calming.”[6]

Like in the storytelling of the scriptures, being in nature is an actual experience of true presence. Some have suggested that creation was the first bible.[7]Saint Paul wrote in the opening chapter to his letter to the Romans, that “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature … have been understood and seen through the things God has made.”[8]

By ‘reading’ creation and focusing our attention in nature we can grow in appreciation of God’s truth and love. Because we experience it for ourselves. We feel it in our bodies. Creation thus offers us a wonderful expression of God’s love and truth growing in us.


[1]Isaiah 55:10-12

[2]https://www.natureconservancy.ca/en/blog/archive/look-to-the-sky-and-feel-the.html

[3]Matthew 13:1-9

[4]Richard Rohr, “Love Alone Overcomes Fear: A Message from Richard Rohr about COVID-19,” Center for Action and Contemplation (March 19, 2020), https://cac.org/love-alone-overcomes-fear-2020-03-19/

[5]Paracelsus, in Selected Writings (Princeton University Press: 1988), 50.

[6]M. Amos Clifford, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature (Conari Press: 2018), 34–35.

[7]In the lives and works of Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226); St Bonaventure (1221-1274); Sr Ilia Delio; Fr Richard Rohr (see 19 May 2020, Daily Meditation, www.cac.org). 

[8]Romans 1:20