Repeat performances

Once again during the Christmas season, I experienced this strange cultural phenomenon:

How many decades has it been that every December, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Elf”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “The Bishop’s Wife” get replayed and replayed over and over again, year after year? And only at this time of year? You can probably add several more of your favourites to this list.

That is why I was a tad apprehensive last month when we received tickets to attend the National Art Centre (NAC) Theatre production of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” I know the story. I’ve read it several times. I’ve watched television renditions of the story over the years. What could the NAC Theatre do to bring it to life, once again, for me? Same old, same old, right?

On the other hand, I believe there is a good reason why we turn to these stories every year. There’s a reason for our culture’s yearning for their repeat-performances. A higher reason, I might add. Perhaps there’s something in those stories that we need to take to heart, and make positive changes to our lives. Perhaps, we need to see the story-telling as more than a mere syrupy, sentimental “Isn’t that nice” tradition.

So, I was surprised and intrigued by what the NAC Theatre troop did with the story. It was introduced by two actors who came on stage — one was blind and one was deaf. In the introduction they invited the audience to participate in a simple activity with our hands, both to show that the two actors needed each other in accomplishing their jobs; and, what is more, near the end of the story everyone in the audience was needed to give the sign with their hands in order to encourage Scrooge finally to embrace a more compassionate approach to life.

Without taking anything away from the traditional story-line plot, the meaning of Dickens’ famous “A Christmas Carol” was conveyed to me in a fresh way.

We encounter in young Samuel and the elder Eli one such repeat performance story in today’s text from the Hebrew scripture.(1) It is a story many of us know — of the boy Samuel in the temple who is called upon by God. It gets told many times in the life of the church over and over again — every three years at least. It is true: it is a nice, little story, isn’t it?

At first, Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice, believing instead that it is his old mentor, the priest Eli, who is calling him. Finally, with Eli’s help, Samuel responds to God’s call by saying, “Here I am. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”(2)

Well, as I said, many of us are familiar with these very words. We even like to sing a popular hymn (3) reflecting the words of one responding positively to God’s call — a call that changes the life of the recipient. How does this familiar story speak to our lives today? How is it more than just ‘a nice, little story’ from the Bible? How can this story change our lives?

In this story, an old man and a young man collaborated to hear God’s vision for a new Israel. For God was about to do a new thing: Soon to emerge in the life of God’s people was a new lineage of kings, beginning with the inauguration of King Saul.(4) What was passing, was the rule of Judges along with the sinful house of Eli. What was emerging was the likes of King Saul, King David, King Solomon, and so forth.

In God’s message to Samuel, God condemns Eli’s lack of restraining his sons’ immorality. Eli’s sin was his aversion to do something even though he recognized what was happening. Even though Eli knew the ongoing problems in his household, Eli turned a blind eye and ignored it all.

He did not act. And no matter what Eli would do now to try to redeem himself by making various sacrifices to the Lord, God was intent to establish a new order of leadership over God’s people starting with the demise of Eli’s household.

Doing nothing was the problem. For us, today, doing nothing about a problem we know exists is the problem. How do we begin to move out of the prison of this self-inflicted inertia?

We need to recognize that growth and healing is a process. The birth of the new thing God was doing began as a cooperative affair. It took the attentiveness of the young Samuel’s ears and the wisdom of the old priest’s heart and mind to bring about God’s purpose. It took both the authority of the failing, feeble priest and the obedience of his youthful protégé to bring about God’s purpose. In other words, it takes a community to bear such a task.(5)

Responding to God’s actions and call in the world and in our lives today is not a solo effort. Religion is not a solitary practice. Indeed, it takes a village. It takes the various gifts of people in our lives. What one has and the other does not, what the other is good at that the first is not — it takes everyone’s attentiveness and participation.

How do we live into this collaborative way, especially challenged by our society’s emphasis on individualism, privacy and self-reliance? We are, indeed, up against a culture that is at odds with the Christian vision. How do we live the way of God’s reign? Where we value mutuality, diversity, common purpose in the mission of God for the good of all people?

In contrast to the way in which God spoke to the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah and the later prophets of Israel, God does something unique with Samuel. You will notice that God does not enjoin Samuel to deliver God’s message to Eli. God does not charge Samuel to tell Eli what God is telling Samuel with words like: “Thus says the Lord, tell the people Israel”, etc., etc. No.

Rather, God wants simply to confide in Samuel. Basically, God expects Samuel, first, to listen. Just listen. It seems, Samuel first needs to learn how to do this. And it will take some time and some practice, evidently.

Can we have the courage, and the patience, to learn how first to listen to God and the other — without jumping in too soon with the energy of our own bravado, our own opinion, our own self-justifications, our own visions of what must be? The simple act of listening, can change our lives. Because listening first means we believe that the other has something of value to offer that we don’t have.

God works at a slower pace, it seems, compared to the hypersonic rhythms of life in 2018. Not only does God give Samuel and Eli one chance to figure it out, but two and even three opportunities to get on the same wavelength as God.

The story-telling is both appealing and intentionally slow early on. Dialogue is repeated. The action of Samuel getting up from sleep and going to Eli are repeated. We have to slow down with the narration and feel the build-up to the great reveal of God’s message.

Even though both Samuel and Eli are slow in finally getting it, even though they are encumbered by sleep, drowsiness, denial and avoidance, even though their response to God is compromised by vision and hearing impairment, by youthful pretence and the attrition of old age …. God still finds them. God still speaks. God still acts in the way God will act.

Despite human arrogance and self-delusion, despite all our toiling and pride, despite all our ego compulsions, God keeps at it to tell us, guide us, and instruct us.

We may not like the answer. We may not like what God has to say. We may be challenged to the core of our being by what God is telling us. Regardless of our hesitation, denial or self-delusion, God finds a way. God doesn’t give up on us. God gives us people, and stories, and experiences — even the same ones, over and over again — to help us finally get it.

God doesn’t give us just one chance. God is not just a God of second chances, as we often say. God gives us many chances, as many we need. May we, like Eli, finally come to accept what God has to say to us, with his words: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”(6)

 

(1) 1 Samuel 3:1-20, the first reading for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Ordinary time, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary.

(2) 1 Samuel 3:4-10.

(3) “Here I am, Lord”, Hymn #574, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006); also, for the Christmas cycle, this hymn is also appropriate in singing Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s visit to her, announcing Mary’s role in the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:38).

(4) 1 Samuel 8-10.

(5) Richard Boyce in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.245-247.

(6) 1 Samuel 3:18

Better together

The story is told of a wide-eyed enthusiast who visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta. Over the last century, Mother Theresa has been admired by Christians worldwide for her dedicated, self-giving work for the poorest of the poor in India.

The young man approached Mother Theresa and said, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what you do.”

Mother Theresa, not missing a beat, replied, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to do what I do either. I do this because I was made to do it.”

When we speak about the Holy Spirit in this season after Pentecost, we speak about the breath of God breathing in us. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma, which means “breath.” 

Breathing is one of those automatic, biological responses that we don’t even have to think about. It is natural and does not really take any effort at all. We are seldom aware of our breathing. And yet, it is vital to our health. Breathing is critical to our very life and purpose.

You could say, we are made to breath.

And yet, though breathing is integral to our life we may forget the gift that is in us: The gift of the Holy Spirit. We forget that living in the Spirit is as natural as breathing.

The Spirit of God is like our breath. “God’s spirit is more intimate to us that we are to ourselves,” writes Henri Nouwen. “We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a spiritual life. It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy.” (1) 

Breathing is so essential for life that we only think about it when something is wrong with it. When disease, shock or accident leaves us without breath. When breathing becomes laboured. When oxygen levels are critically low in our bodies. When something we have taken for granted for so long no longer works, then what?

The way to arrive and remain in the Holy Spirit of God is both very simple and very hard: We have to remain in love. Breathing the Spirit of God’s love nips negativity, hatred and violence in the bud. It begins by retraining our initial thoughts.

We can’t risk walking around with a negative, or resentful, or gossipy, or critical mind. Because if we let the mind operate in a paranoid, angry, and resentful way, we aren’t going to breathe the Spirit of God. We won’t be breathing. We can’t be God’s usable instrument. 

That’s why Jesus commanded us to to love. It’s that crucial for life. Like breathing. That love can begin in the mind. As Eleanor Roosevelt apparently said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” (2)     

In Jewish tradition only the consonants for Yahweh were printed in the Hebrew text – YHWH. As such, this most holy name for God was unspeakable. Interestingly, even the Hebrew consonants used in YHWH do not allow you to close your lips when you try to speak them.

We cannot confine God in one place as much as we cannot contain breath. We cannot point to one specific place and say, “God is there!”, turn around, point in the opposite direction and say, “And God isn’t there!” We can’t dare try to close our lips over breathing and pretend we have God all figured out! Identifying with God since ancient times was simply the intake and exhalation of breath. The great “I AM” was the breath itself.

It is the great mystery we enter into when we follow Jesus. Someone said, “life is a mystery to embrace, not a problem to be solved.” God is always beyond us but totally around us, within us and outside of us. And we all share in that same air and that same breath. It is the first thing we did coming out of our mother’s womb, and there will come that moment when we will do it for the last time.

But in between, we continue to take in the breath of God and exhale the breath of God – the totally accessible One, the totally given One, who like breath just waits to be received. Waits to be engaged. In bold acts fuelled by love for the other.

The late Swedish Lutheran bishop, New Testament scholar, and pioneer in Lutheran-Jewish relations, Krister Stendahl, gave helpful advice in this regard. How is it we can love others who are so different from us, so unlike us? Because it is easy to ignore, write off, dismiss and be critical of them.

To Christians living in a diverse and multi-religious environment, Stendahl encourages us to cultivate an attitude of ‘holy envy’ (3) towards the other. That is, we first recognize the gifts, the positives, that the other offers by their life. Rather than thinking first we need to persuade them that ‘they are wrong’, we first seek understanding based on admiring a gift they have. What does the other offer that I/We do not have? Because others have gifts I/We do not have. So, what is it the other has, that is good?

In such a way we begin to see the image of God reflected in creation — in others who are different. We begin to practice seeing Christ in the other. We begin to see the unity we share in the purpose of God, the mission of God. It takes us working together, each with their gifts, to make it happen.

This mysterious God we worship chooses to self-reveal as the Trinity — three persons in one. In other words, this one God we worship is a holy relationship. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit must function together by nature.

So, too, we must learn, practice, be intentional, about being in relationship with one another: working together, breathing in together and breathing out together the love and purpose of God on earth.

Once there was a Washer-man (a man who washes others’ clothes for hire) who was raising two donkeys. One he called Donkey-A and the other Donkey-B.

Donkey-A felt he was more energetic and could do better than the other donkey. He always tried to get the Washer-man’s attention by taking more of the load and walking as fast as he could in front of him.

Donkey-B was just a normal donkey. He tried as hard as he could, but he couldn’t carry as much as Donkey-A or impress the Washer-man by walking in front of him.

One day Donkey-B was crying and asking Donkey-A to help. He said, “Dear friend, it is only the two of us. Why do we compete against each other? If we worked together we could carry an equal load at a normal speed.”

Donkey-A became even more competitive after that. The next day he boasted to the Washer-man that he could carry more and run faster than Donkey-B, and he did.

Under the pressure Donkey-B collapsed in great fatigue and quietly passed away. As a result of the collapse, Donkey-A felt like he was on top of the world, having proved his superior skills and abilities. 

But now he also had to carry Donkey-B’s load.

For a short time Donkey-A was able to carry both loads, but he eventually became fatigued and weak. Finally the day came when the Washer-man was tired of this fatigued and no good donkey. He put him to pasture, and went searching for some other pack donkeys to get his work done.

The moral of this story is, you can’t do it alone. If we are made to breathe the Spirit of the triune God, we are by nature ‘relational’. It is important to learn how to work well together.

Worrying more about individual performance, taking all the credit and trying to do more than you are capable of doing eventually comes back and bites us one way or another. Christians, at their best, are team players.

Donkey B may not have been the strongest nor the fastest, but he was consistent. Everyone brings something valuable to the table. And so do you. Just because you may be different from others, doesn’t qualify you or them to be in competition nor be shunned.

Stronger together. Better together. This is what we were made for.


(1) Henri Nouwen, “Bread for the Journey; A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith”, HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, May 18

(2) cited in “Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation” Centre for Action and Contemplation, May 19

(3) cited in Kristin Johnston Largen, “Interreligious Learning and Teaching: A Christian Rationale for a Transformative Praxis” Fortress Press, 2014,page 4

A ‘fussy’ Christmas?

I was stunned, as I am sure many were, to see photos last week of snow-covered Bethlehem. They say it was, for that Mediterranean region, the first such weather event in over a century.

And over the past century, biblical scholars have criticized Hallmark and other popular artists for depicting these snow covered fields around Bethlehem with sheep softly grazing; ‘they are not being historically or factually accurate’ we critically-minded people complained.

We were critical of such romanticized attempts to depict a ‘perfect’ Christmas from the Canadian perspective. Isn’t it true, though? In the weeks before Christmas, don’t we invest a great deal of time and energy trying to achieve that picture-perfect Christmas? How can you have Christmas without snow, after all?

We ramp up our expectations. Just like they do with movie trailers. Months before its theatre and weeks before its home release, we watch these 60 second teasers, which are designed to wet our appetite and raise our expectations to the awesomeness of the next super-hero, blockbuster flick.

Should we be surprised, then, when we are disappointed? Our expectations have been managed. Marketing gurus have effectively created an appetite, a need. The result: sadness. Many at Christmas feel an emptiness that their lives and families prevent them from having the sort of Christmas they believe they should have. If I don’t get that perfect gift, I’ll be depressed. Right?

Have we ever questioned why we have these expectations in the first place? From where have they come? Who is telling me, ‘It ought to be this way’?

If anything can capture and convey the true meaning of Christmas, a story will do just that. Listen, then, to the story of the ‘fussy angel’:

“When Jesus was born as a tiny baby, God wanted Him to have a special angel to guard Him. But it wasn’t St. Michael the great warrior archangel he chose; nor the mighty archangels Raphael and Gabriel.

No, it was the smallest angel in Heaven that caught God’s eye. ‘This one will do well,’ the Father said. Which proves that God works in strange and mysterious ways.

“But on that Christmas Eve when Christ was born, the little angel was not happy with what he found. ‘This will never do,’ he said, looking around the cold and drafty stable. ‘Get those smelly beasts away from my Master,’ he ordered, tugging on the donkey’s tail. ‘Who knows what diseases they carry and they’re breathing in his face!’ ‘Hush, little one,’ Joseph said. ‘Their breath is warm. They comfort him.’

“There was a cobweb on the manger. Mice peeped out from under the straw and, perched on a beam above where the baby lay, an old crow gazed downward. The little angel grabbed a straw broom and began some furious sweeping. ‘The King of Kings and they dump him in a barn full of animals,’ he muttered. ‘It’s terrible.’ He waved the broom at the crow but the bird ignored him.

“….At midnight the door of the stable burst open and a group of excited shepherds tumbled in. The shepherds fell on their knees, their leathery faces pointed in the direction of the manger. ‘Where’d you lot come from? You’re tracking snow inside. Keep the noise down. Can’t you see he’s sleeping?’ the angel warned.

“A young shepherd took a woolly lamb and laid it at the foot of the manger. ‘What good is a lamb? A sheepskin blanket would have been a better idea,’ said the angel. ‘Can you imagine how prickly it feels to sleep on a bed of hay?’ But Mary smiled at the shepherd boy and bent to pat the lamb.

“In the early hours of the morning they heard a camel snort and into the stable proceeded three wise men. They were richly dressed. Mary held the baby on her knee and as the kings approached, they laid at her feet gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“’That’s very pretty and quite useless,’ the angel observed. ‘If you were truly wise you would have known that what we need is hot water and towels; goat’s milk and bread; twenty diapers and some soap to wash them with.’ The kings turned their proud faces on the angel and were about to reply when the baby gurgled with delight and waved a royal fist in the air. Tempers cooled and everyone smiled … even the angel.

“Outside over the fields and houses of Bethlehem, angel choirs were singing in joyful chorus – ‘Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.’ The angel stepped outside. ‘The night’s not silent but it’s definitely bright,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen so many stars. What was God thinking of? How can anyone sleep with all that light? We need curtains to shut it out.’

 “He found some sack cloth and pieces of straw and blocked the holes in the roof and walls of the stable. ‘Blow out your lanterns,’ he ordered the shepherds. ‘The baby needs some sleep.’ But even with holes blocked and lanterns dimmed, the stable was bathed in a golden glow. From the center of the manger a light shone that penetrated the darkness and it seemed this light would never be extinguished.

“By now the angel choirs were piling up ‘Glorias’ which shook the heavens with their strength and timbre. The angel strode outside again: ‘No, no, no! Brother [and sister] angels, have pity on him. He’s human now and needs to sleep. Turn the volume down!’

“But the heavenly choirs could not be silenced. Crescendo after crescendo rang out with such power and majesty that the people came out of their houses and gazed fearfully at the skies, wondering what was happening.

“Sure enough, inside the stable the baby had wakened and was back on his mother’s knee. The angel hung his head in shame. ‘It’s a mess,’ he groaned. ‘My poor master! What can I do?’

“Mary reached her hand toward the angel. ‘Come and see,’ she said. She drew back her veil and the angel looked at his tiny charge. And as he looked, his frustration melted. ‘Why everything is perfect,’ he thought. ‘It’s just the way He wants it to be. Smelly animals, prickly straw, silly gifts and loud music. The snow and the thin, sack blankets. It’s human and it pleases Him.’

“…. he was [then] struck by a surprising thought. This poor stable would one day be more famous than Buckingham Palace or the White House. In the hearts of the people everywhere the stable with its dirt floor and broken walls would be the most glorious palace of all ….” (Mary Arnold, The Fussy Angel, Ignatius Press, 1995).

Tonight, I welcome you to consider how you relate to the newborn Child of Bethlehem. Remember – God’s not looking for the perfect place to be nor the perfect person to do God’s will. God does not demand a perfect situation or people in order to fulfill God’s purpose and be present with God’s love.

Each of us is invited to come and kneel at the manger. I think Jesus and his ‘Abba’ Father in heaven would be happy – pleased – simply for us to come, to give what we are, and who we are, just as we are. What a gift – the greatest gift at Christmas, barring all expectations! – for Almighty God to receive us with such mercy, acceptance and grace. ‘Just the way we are’ is the best offering we can give to the tiny, newborn Jesus, who is our healing and our salvation. How can we resist such love?

Peace on earth, and in your heart, this Christmas.

.

Saintly connections

Celebrating my birthday last weekend with my twin brother accentuated the fact that we rarely see each other, let alone on our common birthday. He and his family live in Kitchener; he’s a pastor, and so, too, works on weekends and holidays. If we see each other twice a year – and usually in the summer – we’re doing very well.

I’m probably not alone having this sentiment, since in this mobile day and age, many people experience the geographic fracturing of family ties. Even in good relationships, physical distance becomes an obstacle to regular contact.

Until Scrabble. Yes, I’m talking about the internet and all the benefits of online gaming. Growing up, we used to play Scrabble on a board with real letter blocks. And playing board games was one way we enjoyed each other.

Now, we can still play Scrabble in a virtual world on our mobile phones wherever we are! And even though we are separated by six hundred kilometers. What I find particularly enjoyable is the fact that my phone notifies me whenever he makes a move. In real time. Wherever he is.

That little, red marker appearing on my phone’s screen reminds me that David is there, making a move. Even though I can’t see him, or talk to him face-to-face, we are connected in that moment. And that connection is real. It’s in the heart. And every time I make another move and tap on ‘send’ I know he is receiving it immediately and reacting either with a disapproving grunt or a fist-pump ‘yessss!’

That connection we have with those whom we cannot see in this moment is not something easily appreciated, understood and celebrated. I suspect that is why our contemporary culture in the West has turned the celebration of ‘all the saints in heaven and on earth’ into something scary and gory at Halloween. It’s not easy to appreciate the real yet mysterious connection we share.

It’s easier to retreat comfortably into our own individual, materialistically-driven private worlds. Indeed, one of the both good and bad results of the Reformation in the 16th century was to emphasize making faith a personal thing, which was good.

But I think we also slipped into embracing an individualistic faith that lost this strong sense of communal ties. The community of faith matters; a corporate body of faith whose head is Jesus. We’ve become fragmented as Christians; often the only response to any difficulty, it seems, was to blame the community and leave it.

There was once a brother in a monastery who had a rather turbulent temperament; he often became angry. So he said to himself, “I will go and live on my own. If I have nothing to do with anyone else, I will live in peace and my passions will be soothed.” Off he went to live in solitude in a cave. One day when he had filled his jug with water, he put it on the ground and it tipped over. So he picked it up and filled it again – and again it tipped over. He filled it a third time, put it down, and over it went again. He was furious: he grabbed the jug and smashed it. And then came to his senses and realized that he had been tricked by the devil. He said, “Since I have been defeated, even in solitude, I’d better go back to the monastery. Conflict is to be met everywhere, but so is patience and so is the help of God.” So he got up and went back where he came from. (p.69, Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

Though you may have found some ‘distance’ with the church over the years, though you may harbor some real ‘disconnects’ with the life of faith, though you may feel distant from God and the saints of heaven – be encouraged, today. Be encouraged to know that the connection you have with your loved ones now in heaven is real. Be encouraged to know that the loving and forgiving connection you have with God in Christ Jesus is real – this is what the Holy Communion communicates to us week after week.

And be challenged to know that the saints on earth may very well be those who do not appear to us at first sight ‘saintly’ – a distant relative, a homeless person, the poor, the rejected, the marginalized, biker gangs, First Nations, immigrants, youth ….. There is a deeper connection we share in our communities, a connection that calls forth from us loving attention and action.

In our opening Litany of Remembering for All Saints Sunday, we read together that “the links of life are broken [with those who have died] but the links of love and longing cannot break.” How true!

When my brother and I played Scrabble on a board, we often argued about whether or not a word was legitimate. Often these kinds of disagreements distracted us and left us feeling frustrated, tricked and unsure.

Thankfully, playing the virtual, online game now means we don’t have these distractions anymore because the computer determines whether or not a word is real. Fortunately, even though we cannot see each other face to face, at least we can now focus on the essence of the game – strategically placing letters to maximize points and using as many of our letters as possible. This is the fun part of Scrabble.

Biblical scholars and theologians claim that the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically these Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-31), reveals the essence of Jesus’ teaching. I suspect we can all think of everything else in the church that can so easily distract us, and about which we argue. Not that those other things aren’t important. 

But placed in a proper perspective, they need not cause the acrimony nor dissension often associated with attending church. Because when we, especially as Lutherans, focus on the grace and love of God and the teachings of Jesus who says, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” we may truly experience grace and enjoy belonging to the sainthood on earth.

And relish in the promise of our ultimate link with God and the saints of heaven, a connection of love that will never break.

Thanks be to God!

Playing in Marriage

Philippians 4:4-9 / Isaiah 43:1-5a, 18-19

Whether it is soccer, or ballroom dancing, or dragon boating, or whitewater rafting –  is your marriage characterized with ‘play’?

I would say, this is a good thing. For each of you. And for the health of your marriage.

Given the way the institution of marriage has suffered some in recent decades, for me to stand here today to suggest we need to be more playful in our marriages may seem, at first, counterintuitive.

After all, this is serious business. Relationships are not something to be taken lightly. Marriage, in some religious traditions, is a sacrament. It is holy, godly, and to be held in the highest esteem.

We may be driven to feel guilty, then, when nothing short of perfection describes any partnership – especially one tagged by ‘marriage’.

Is it any doubt, then, why marriage is not looked upon anymore with the beauty and joy it deserves — for those who consider following its adventurous path?

So, it lands on us who are married, and getting married, to bear witness to its joy. And you have already done that for us.

But sometimes playing can be dangerous. Especially for those of us passing middle age. My sister-in-law warned me last year not to play soccer. Why? She claimed that she didn’t know anyone in their forties who played soccer who hadn’t seriously hurt themselves – a sprained knee, twisted ankle, even worse – broken bones. And, come to think of it, she’s right. Yup, she scared me out of it.

I suppose that’s one way of responding to any opportunity. We may dwell on the risks, fearing the rough and tumble realities associated with anything potentially good in life. And avoid it, pretending we can somehow go through life unscathed.

But is that even possible? And, will that way of responding to life bring joy and a deep, meaningful satisfaction to our lives?

I read recently about mountain goats who bound playfully along rock faces thousands of feet high. It is very clear that they, especially the younger ones, are playing. But the truth is, sometimes they fall. Mama mountain goat must be saying: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

You’d think that over time, these mountain goats would learn their lesson and stop dancing on cliff edges centimeters from their doom. Stop it, already! But they don’t. It is in their nature to play.

Scientists have speculated and studied this paradoxical characteristic of animals. And they have concluded that even though playing is potentially dangerous, it is still necessary. It is necessary because, for one thing, playing is practice for skills needed in the future (Stuart Brown, Play, 2009). An attitude of playfulness is necessary not only for our survival, but our health, our creativity, and building up a resiliency for later in life when challenges and difficulties escalate.

A healthy marriage is not supposed to be always sugar-sweet. There are times when difficulties, challenges and disappointments will arise in the relationship. Playing is dangerous, sometimes. But it also provides a way for learning how to deal with what may come down the road.

The most beneficial play, they say, is playing with another. It is with another person that we discover our true self. It is caring for another, seeing to their needs, forgiving another and being forgiven in which find our stride, personally and spiritually.

God knew this about us. That is why we are created the way we are: To be together; to cry together; to laugh together; to play together. It won’t always be easy; sometimes we get hurt. But that’s reality. And it’s worth the effort!

I suspect you two have already experienced how that feels, because you play together. And you give space for each other to enjoy each other’s company and explore further goals and aspirations.

May God bless you this day, and in the time to come. Play on!

Mistakes transformed not avoided

“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel …” (Jeremiah 18: 6)

Entering the lab, I was panting even though I had not climbed steps or walked very far. I used the usual tactics to calm down — deep breathing, focusing my mind on something else, concentrating on an image of peace, paying attention to the gentleman sitting beside me in the waiting room.

It wasn’t working.

When my number was called out, I stood on wobbly legs and approached the chair, the arm band, making the fist …. the foot-long syringe.

Yup. I suffer from what they call ‘white-coat syndrome’. That’s the polite way of putting it. Neurotic and spineless is another. I would rather avoid any situation that involves needles or other instruments of bodily invasion being employed on me.

No matter how hard I try to control — okay, suppress — those feelings of fear, no matter how much praying, contemplating and meditating I do ….

Friends and family might press me on this: “What is the worst case scenario? What is the absolute worst thing that would happen in those institutionally-sterile situations about which I am always anxious (besides dying!)?”

Well, that I would pass out, lose control, collapse in a heap upon the cold laminate flooring of the windowless, basement lab. That I would make a fool of myself in front of others. Ah — being vulnerable to others I hardly know. Showing the very less-than-perfect side of me. Revealing that I am not always the ‘finished’ and ‘polished’ Martin. That I, too, may join the human race and literally fall and stumble.

Figuratively, as well.

We are told, as God spoke through Jeremiah to the people of Israel, that the faithful life is not about mistakes avoided, but mistakes transformed.

In some sense, the warning we get from the prophets of the Old Testament is to avoid messing up. Otherwise God will punish us.

But then, I wonder, why God would have us hear a story about a potter forming a spoiled piece of clay if the message of the bible was simply to get rid of (read, ‘deny’ or ‘avoid’) our mistakes? There’s more to the life of faith then avoiding sin out of fear of punishment.

Because the truth is, we are not Jesus, nor God for that matter. The truth is, we continue to sin even though we are saved by the cross of Jesus. So, what’s the point of a saved, redeemed life? I wonder if what God is doing here is giving Jeremiah a way to understand the paradox of life in relationship with God. God is preparing Jeremiah for what Judah and Israel were heading into … exile, loss, banishment …. and then salvation. This pattern of death and resurrection is already imprinted on the life of God’s people.

Being a hope-filled and faithful Christian is not about avoiding mistakes we will make, but about seeing those mistakes transformed into God’s purposes. In this pattern of death and resurrection we fall and we rise. We don’t just fall, and stay there, as people of Faith. We rise, too. How so?

First, it’s about a changed and changing life.

Clay in a potter’s hand is not static. It is continually being formed in rhythmic motion. Faithful living is movement, growth, transformation. It is marked by a yearning for deeper communion with God and with others in love, compassion and grace.

Second, it’s about owning your mistakes, not denying them or pretending them away in fits of self-rejection, despair, even self-hatred. The vessel which the potter used in Jeremiah’s experience started as a “spoiled” piece of clay. The beauty into which it became started out “a mistake”.

We don’t often think of the places of pain, imperfection and failure as the fodder for our salvation, do we? But it’s true.

We give God glory when we offer our whole selves to God, not the perfection of it. In all our vulnerability and weakness, God is glorified. When we have the courage to expose our weakness and confess honestly within the Body of Christ – the church – then the Spirit of God draws us to God’s purposes, God’s mission, for others most effectively.

As Christ’s body was broken in love for us — what we give thanks for in the Holy Communion — so the Spirit of Jesus shines through us as we offer our brokenness to “go in peace to serve the Lord” in the world.

Again, counter-intuitive. I think we’ve gotten so used to the un-Christian idea that the only thing worthy of giving to God and showing to the world is what we pretend to be our ‘perfect’ selves — untainted, unblemished being and acting of moral purity. Only when we’ve finally gotten rid of our sin. Only when we can prove our worthiness, achieve some moral standard, then God is glorified. Then we can belong in the church.

But this is not biblical. Stories from the bible of men (especially) with tragic flaws — despairing, backtracking, blind spots, denials, and betrayals fill the Scriptures; As Richard Rohr writes, “they are the norm” (p.360, On the Threshold of Transformation). Think about Adam, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Moses, David, Solomon, Peter and Paul, etc., etc. And yet these overtly flawed people were used by God to convey the truth.

Truth-telling is indeed the purview of the prophet. As unpopular a role it is. I’ve heard of many churches named “Christ the King” but tell me if you’ve heard of a “Christ the Prophet” church, even though Jesus never rejected or denied, and even claimed as his dishonored position (Mark 6:4). The New Testament twice lists ‘prophet’ as the second most important role for building up the church (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28) (p.328, Rohr). A prophet tells the truth.

The Gospel text for today (Luke 14:25-33) truly takes a punch at what many Christians in North America identify with ‘family values’. A prophetic word, perhaps.

Jesus is not calling us to reject relationships characterized by compassion and grace, especially within families. But Jesus adds an essential and often sorely-missed ingredient into the mix of what we could describe as ‘Christian values’ in relationship: courage.

Courage reflects truth-telling in relationships. The root of the word, courage, is the Latin word for ‘heart’; courage originally meant: “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart” (Brene Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p.12).

To tell one’s heart is an act of vulnerability, isn’t it? And when we make ourselves vulnerable in telling the truth, especially to those we love, we need to be prepared to reveal not only our good points, but even our flaws.

“To take up one’s cross” as Jesus instructs in this Gospel text, is to courageously embrace one’s vulnerability, and give it to God. “Spirituality in the best sense,” writes Richard Rohr, “is about what you do with your pain” (@RichardRohrOFM). Will you hide it from others, pretend that you are okay when you are not? I can’t imagine healing can happen when you close yourself off to others.

Healing doesn’t happen if we try to avoid those sources of fear, imperfection, vulnerability and shame in our lives. Only by leaning into those feelings of fear and anxiety, by courageously going to those places of brokenness with love, compassion and honesty will we begin to experience the dew drops of transformation in our lives.

Just as fear can be a contagion, a virus spread from one to another, so is courage and compassion. More so.

Even the resurrected Jesus — the victorious one — he showed the scars from his wounds he bore. Jesus didn’t hide them from his disciples. The resurrection of the crucified Jesus was God’s promise to humanity that the final word on all human ‘crucifixions’ — the crosses we bear — will also be resurrection.

I think the nurse sensed my anxiety in the basement lab, as she held my hand drawing blood from my arm. There really was no hiding my elevated everything. But there was something about the way she spoke to me and respected me that, in the end, got me through it with flying colours.

I couldn’t do it on my own, wrapped up in my own anxiety. But being in the presence of a compassionate, gracious person, however, made all the difference.

Amazing grace. Thanks be to God.

 

Who are you gonna call?

The induction, or installation, of a new pastor is a day to celebrate not only leadership in the church, but an occasion to review the role and function of the relationship between pastor, people and God.

Recently I was elected as “Dean” of the Ottawa/St Lawrence Conference. I have spent some time reviewing and reflecting on leadership, as a result. The jokes in comparison to ‘Dean Martin’ are interesting. I may be too young to appreciate the entertainment of ‘King Cool’ — member of the infamous ‘rat pack’. But I am old enough to remember watching the original, iconic Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd film ‘Ghostbusters’.

A nerdy tween in the early 1980s, I easily got hooked on the catchy theme song whose repetitive mantra was: “Who are you gonna call? — Ghostbusters!” The team would respond to complaints and investigate paranormal activity. Then, they would eliminate any potential threats. If ghosts appeared in someone’s house, “Who are you gonna call? — Ghostbusters!”

Every individual, every family, every community, every nation, every church — has ‘ghosts’ in the closet. And I think the ghostbuster culture has influenced the culture of church leadership today. For example, when there’s a change in pastoral leadership often people expect the new guy or gal to exterminate any proverbial ghosts in the church closet. The new pastor will swoop in, identify all the problems and miraculously make things better. “Who are you gonna call? –A new pastor!”

He or she will use the tools of their trade — their exceptional skill sets at conflict resolution, their managerial and organizational abilities around the council table, their charisma and eloquence in the pulpit, their compassion and listening skills by the hospital bed. When congregations — as they all do — bear the emotional weight of past failures, unrealized dreams or struggle with scars of past conflicts or fears about the future … “Who are you gonna call? — A new pastor!”

Here comes Pastor (fill in the blank) in his flowing robes and swagger! Glorious! “Who are you gonna call? — A new pastor!” Save us!

Well, I hate to break it to you… but I think you know: YOU, and anyone else in this room, are not gonna do it. Because alongside our unrealistic expectations and pressures we place on ourselves to be successful and perfect, is the Word of God which states in no uncertain terms that it is God who will bring to completion the good work begun in us (Philippians 1:6). Alongside our fervor and toil is the Sacrament of the Table whose host is Jesus, reminding us that this thing we do in church is not about us but about God, God’s mission and God’s work in us.

The job of pastor and people working in mutual ministry is to pay attention to what God is doing, and respond honestly and with love to God’s call. We are in this together. Who are we gonna call? Let’s call on God!