The Glory of God

Just ten days after the attacks in Boston, one of the victims gave a chilling testimony to the media about what happened in the moments after the bombs exploded.

She and others standing at the bar overlooking the street were blown off their feet and against the wall. Then, she remembered the smoke and screams which reminded her of 9-11. In an unwavering voice she spoke of how her foot suddenly felt like it was on fire, and she couldn’t put any weight on it.

Everyone started running for the back door of the bar. She called out for someone to help her, because she couldn’t move. She recalled how frightened she felt because no one seemed to be listening to her pleas for help. And then, everything went dark.

Reflecting on the trauma we watched on TV last week, my wife and I have talked about what we might have done if we found ourselves on that sidewalk in Boston watching the race when the bombs went off. Had we not been physically damaged by the shrapnel what would we have done? Started running away, focused on escaping the mayhem? Would we have been primarily motivated by self-preservation?

Or, would we have looked around us? Would we pay attention to where the greatest need was, and offer help? Would we have run against the crowd?

I must confess, I didn’t imagine I would be so altruistic and ready to help. I must confess, I would likely be one of those people running headlong to that back door focused on nothing else but getting out.

And for us Christians who have received Christ’s commandment “that we love one another,” we may be embarrassed, as I have been, at how poorly we put this command into practice.

In the Gospel passage today (John 13:31-35), we hear Jesus’ commandment to love. And what I find remarkable is that Jesus gives this commandment precisely at a time when everything but love was swirling about him. It was the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus was a marked man. A target was on his back. And while Jesus was eating the Passover Meal with his disciples, Judas had just slipped out from the group to carry out his dastardly deed to betray Jesus.

And right after Jesus speaks the commandment to love, Peter falsely predicted that he would always be faithful and committed to Jesus – we know later that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.

So Jesus command to love is spoken right in the very midst of betrayal and violence. Not an easy situation in which to be preaching or practising love.

But it is precisely at these times when it matters the most. Jesus calls us to do this not in some abstract, ideal, fantasy world when it’s easy to love, but rather in the real world of violence and broken-ness. And that’s not easy.

This is one reason why we need to gather for worship from week to week –

We need to hear over and over again God’s good news in the midst of all around us that is un-loving.

We need to hear once more the story of the resurrection, the affirmation that life and God’s love is more powerful than death and sin.

We need to hear once more God’s undying love for us all, so that we can be strengthened to practice love toward others, when it counts the most.

I find it significant that we read the word “glory” some five times in this short Gospel text. Odd – even counter-intuitive – you would think, that “glory” is associated with the pretext of Jesus’ suffering and death. Perhaps this emphasis on the glory of God is to underscore that love is not just some Valentine’s Day, romantic, warm fuzzy feeling shared between people in a comfortable, safe place.

Love, on the other hand, is in the Christian faith, self-giving. It is something realized, and practiced, for others – especially when the going gets tough.

As difficult as it is, coming to that place of self-giving love often, in the testimony of people’s lives, happens right in the valley of the shadow of death: amidst loss, stress, disappointment, suffering and pain. The transformation people experience towards a renewed sense of God’s love in Christ Jesus occurs usually at their lowest point in life.

For a long time, the accumulation of personal wealth was the single most important goal for Millard Fuller. During the 1960s, making a pile of money was his singular goal from which he never wavered. Amassing a personal fortune, Fuller was the ultimate “success” story.

But he paid a high price for this. Fuller admitted later how it affected his personal integrity, his health, and his marriage. When his wife Linda left him and informed him that his Lincoln, the large house, the cottage on the lake, two speed boats and a maid did not make up for his absence from his family, he realized what he had sacrificed for money.

It was at that moment when a transformation occurred in his life – when he began focussing less on himself and more on others, more on living out God’s great love for himself, and for others.

In 1976, Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity, one of the most transforming forces around the world today, drawing on local volunteers to build houses for those who have need.

From someone who was once only focussed on himself, Fuller was transformed to someone focussed on others, living out Jesus’ commandment to love one another. “I love God and I love people,” Fuller says now, “this is the focus of my life, and that is why I am doing it.”

I like the story of two young boys playing church. One of them was explaining to the other what all the parts of the liturgy were about.

“So, do you know what the pastor does at the end of the service when he does this?” And he made the sign of the cross.

“Yeah, sure,” the other boy chimed in, “it means some go this way out and the others go that way out!”

The boy was right. The cross sends us out and scatters us out into the world with Christ’s command to love, where we would least expect to do so. The really important thing for any church is not how many people the church can seat, but how many it sends out to love in real, practical ways. A self-giving love, in moments of human hardship, is the glory of God.

The victim of the Boston attacks who recently spoke to the media was told some days after her foot was amputated how she was rescued from the mayhem of that smoke-filled bar. She was told of how a couple of people risked their own lives to drag her to safety. Those two people resisted the temptation to run en masse with everyone else. They had the presence of mind to look around to see if anyone needed help. Amidst the chaos, they were able to express the love that Jesus was talking about, whether they knew it or not.

Glory be to God!

Who’s giving church a 2nd chance?

In the Gospel of John, especially in the latter chapters, we can see how clearly the point is made that it is the very work of God and the Holy Spirit – the Advocate – to engender love and trust in the community of faith. Jesus prays that his disciples might be one – united (John 17). The story of the “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:19-31) is placed in contrast to this general theme of the Spirit’s work to create trust, unity and love among believers.

When I read again the assigned Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter about the “Doubting Thomas”, I wonder: Why wasn’t Thomas with the group of disciples when Jesus first appeared to them? You would think he could find comfort and strength in numbers; you would think he could find needed support and solace from his group of co-religionists – so to speak – especially after the death and burial of Jesus, after their hopes were dashed, and they were afraid for their lives.

Why wasn’t Thomas with them? Did he finally just throw in the towel with disgust over something someone said to him? Was there a “personality conflict” brewing? Was he offended by what someone did? Was Thomas harboring resentment and bitterness over something that happened in the group? And was just looking for the first excuse to jump ship? Whatever the case may be, he had already removed himself from the community of faith before Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time.

Then, when his cohorts share the news of Jesus’ resurrection with him, Thomas rejects their witness. He doesn’t believe them. Thomas rebuffs the very friends with whom he had shared a couple of wonderful, wild, inspiring years with Jesus. Is this his way of getting back at them?

It is important to note here that Thomas not only expresses disbelief in the claim or proposed idea of Jesus’ resurrection; he also rejects his community’s witness to that claim. That is important to distinguish. We’re not just talking about doctrine per se here – you know, whether you believe the resurrection or not as Thomas did and did not. We are also and just as importantly talking about believing in the words and witness of those making that claim.

Unfortunately, by his rejection of the witness of his faith community, Thomas undermines the community Jesus prayed for and tries to build. But I don’t want to join the ranks of Christians over the centuries who have interpreted Thomas exclusively in a bad light.

Because he went back. And he was blown away to see Jesus again. What do you think Thomas learned from his encounter with the risen Christ? From that point on, did Thomas start trusting the words and witness of his friends? I hope so. I hope his encounter with Jesus changed him so that he could come to trust again.

Thomas gave his community of faith a second chance. Can we? Can we give one another a chance? Can we give the Church a chance? After all, that is what Easter is about: a new beginning, a fresh start, a new chance at life in the Body of Christ – the Church.

We can take a helpful cue from this story. Perhaps we need to carefully consider how Thomas can reflect current realities and challenges in the Church.

What do you think about the radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief projected against the Church today – admittedly some for very good reason. And yet, I wonder if such detraction is not a general sign of the times. Don’t we live in a distrusting, suspicious society, to begin with? Aren’t we told, even by our fathers and mothers growing up, “not to trust anyone” as if this is a value – a life-skill – for successful living? How grievous.

Perhaps we can think of individuals who project a radical suspicion, distrust, and disbelief about the world, the church, the government. Perhaps we think of individuals who will not trust others in the church, the disparager, the cynic, the one who refuses to believe. Perhaps we can think of those who look for any excuse to leave the Church and point accusatory fingers at believers who are as sinful and in need of God’s grace as the next person. Perhaps we can think of those who react to the slightest offense. We are Thomas, to be sure, each and every one of us.

Can we learn to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another, and our witness to God’s work in our lives and the world?

I paid particular attention a few years’ back listening and watching Justin Trudeau give the eulogy at his father’s funeral service. His father, the former Prime Minister of Canada, was a controversial figure in Canadian political history who had many enemies. And Justin remembered an incident when he was a very young boy, when his father taught him a very valuable lesson in how to relate to those with whom you differ: He said:

“As on previous visits this particular occasion included a lunch at the parliamentary restaurant which always seemed to be terribly important and full of serious people that I didn’t recognize.

“But …. I recognized one whom I knew to be one of my father’s chief rivals.

“Thinking of pleasing my father, I told a joke about him — a generic, silly little grade school thing.

“My father looked at me sternly …and said: `Justin, Never attack the individual. We can be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence.’

“Saying that, he stood up and took me by the hand and brought me over to introduce me to this man. He was a nice man who was eating there with his daughter ….

“He spoke to me in a friendly manner for a bit and it was at that point that I understood that having opinions that are different from those of another does not preclude one being deserving of respect as an individual.”

I have considered these words in light of Jesus’ prayer that his disciples be one. To experience this unity, do we not, as I said, have to believe not simply in the goodness of the Lord, but in the goodness of one another? Because we are part of the body of the living Lord. The presence of God’s Spirit in Christ lives in us. What would it be like in the Church if every time we met we would try to see Christ in each other’s faces and lives. What difference could that make?

You might notice that in most of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, he is revealed among believers gathered together – rarely alone. The revelation of the living God in Jesus Christ is received in the community of faith, not apart from it.

When Thomas gives his disciple friends another chance, when he finds it in his heart finally to re-enter the community, to begin relating again with them, to face the music, to engage the sometimes messy and challenging relational realities there, to deal with his disappointments and frustrations of the community, and to come out of his isolation, that is when the risen Jesus breaks into their midst and is revealed in all truth and love to the doubting Thomas. The invitation is always open for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation within the Body of Christ.

God will not stop breaking into our midst – amid our fears and doubts and conflicts. The living Lord Jesus will continue to surprise us by his presence among us. He will be revealed in all truth, grace and love, and bring us peace – this is the promise of the Gospel today.

I believe God must be so happy when members of Christ’s Church on earth are reconciled to one another after being divided and conflicted. I believe God, our heavenly parent, must rejoice when brothers and sisters in Christ work towards greater unity amongst themselves.

After all, we are the children of God. God loves us. And God, our heavenly Father, wants us to live in unity, mutual respect and harmony.

Luke’s holy: resurrection account

The Gospel of Luke from the Bible is unique, as are all the four Gospels, in telling the story of the resurrection of Jesus. A few details stand out to describe Luke’s understanding of what constitutes — obviously — a holy moment.

When the women — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, among others — came to the garden to find the stone rolled away and an empty tomb, they were “perplexed” (Luke 24:4). In this moment of confusion, angelic beings in luminous clothes appear and stand before them. The women’s response? Do they fight? Do they high tail it out of there? Do they scream?

They fall to the ground, heads touching the earth. They are frightened, as any human likely would be. Yet, their response to an inexplicable, incredible, other-worldly event happening right before their eyes is to honour silence, stillness in a humble stance. It is from this moment of stillness that they then receive the good news — Jesus is alive!

Holy is not of our making. When holy happens, it is not something we manipulate, manufacture and create. Holy is something that we receive and to which we respond in humility.

The Gospeller Luke prepares the reader for this understanding of holy in the very first verse of his resurrection account (Luke 24:1). He brings notice to why the women came to the garden early in the morning, in the first place: “…they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” They came to fulfill their duty — the spices they brought were used to anoint the body in death. This was their common practice. Nothing extraordinary here. Just doing their job.

Luke implies that it is in fulfilling our regular commitments — to one another — in our daily lives which sets the stage for holy happening. We don’t need to climb mountains, or fly in space or make a million dollars in order to experience a holy moment. Just doing our job, whatever it is — faithfully — is the prelude for a holy encounter.

Something the angels say in verse 5 suggests another gift the women already have in their hearts — a holy hope. Not only are the women faithful by getting up early the day after much sorrow and grief (you’d think they deserve to sleep in!), they also — unbeknownst to them — have been harboring a secret hope. They really haven’t given up on Jesus. The angels ask, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead?”

Are the angels just being coy in making the point that Jesus is alive? Or, are they affirming what the women, almost unconsciously to that point, seek, yearn for, expect from the Lord? Don’t the women deep down hope and desire to see Jesus again? Indeed, they are seeking the living Lord. They just happen to be in a graveyard in fulfilling their duty to anoint the body, when the angels appear. The angels, in other words, are saying to them: “Go on! Don’t spend too much time here. What, or whom, you look for is not in a cemetery. What, or whom, you desire is where life is found. Go!”

I sometimes wonder whether we Christians don’t underestimate the gift of faith already burrowing deep within our hearts. What we sometimes need, do we not, are people in our lives who will affirm that faith, not criticize it, lift it out of us, not squash it down, validate it, not dismiss it, accept it, not argue against it? The question is, among others, with whom do we surround ourselves in our daily lives — folks who help bring that gift out of us? Or, not?

As post-resurrection Christians remembering these days the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, we need to remember that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the end, whether or not we have the friends and community that support us on our faithful journeys, let us not forget the Holy Spirit in our lives. Whether you know it or not, whether you feel it or not, you got it!

I remember in high school, a chemistry teacher always responded to our naysaying by reminding us: “You have the technology!” Whenever we students would express doubt about our ability to perform an experiment successfully, or complete the seemingly impossible homework assignment, he would just say: “You have the technology!” A word of encouragement, of affirmation, that we are capable to accomplish what we need to do.

Being faithful to our calling — whether we clean streets or broker billion dollar contracts — is the key to approaching holy moments. Doing our job faithfully, whatever it is.

Also, Luke implies that relationships are key. The women don’t come alone. There are two angels, not one. Pay attention to with whom we spend time — I pray each of us finds people who accept and encourage our faithful journeys. Who bring the best out of us. For the holy happens in relationships — to share those moments of awe and celebrate moments of grace.

Believe it! Because it’s true: Jesus is alive. And his spirit of faith, hope and love lives within us! And in the world around us!

Happy Easter!

God bless y’all!

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name ….

Our road trips to Florida always took us through the state of Georgia, where we would often stop to buy pecans and admire the sub-tropical foliage.

But what I remember most from those roadside stops was the way the local people always sent us on our way: “Y’all come back again!”

Whether it was the southern accent or the welcoming attitude behind the greetings, the message was directed not to any one individual – but to our whole family: “Y’all!”

In the most recognized prayer in all of Christianity – the Lord’s Prayer – and in many of Saint Paul’s letters in the New Testament, the grammar is clear: no singular first or second person pronouns in sight.

The instruction is directed not to me, nor you, nor any singular person. Ours is not an individualistic faith. Rather, the good news of Jesus Christ is directed towards a community: “Y’all!”

Christians believe in a personal faith. However, that personal faith is received within the context of a community of faith. When we pray, “Our Father in Heaven”, we are confessing that Jesus is not my exclusive, private God, but a God who embraces all people with His love and grace.

The Gospel is for “y’all”!

Happy New Year!

Our Lord Jesus, make us whole in your inclusive love for all. Amen.

No one has seen God

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:16-18)

When Seth first started playing soccer, he followed the ball very well. He was even, right from the start, able to anticipate where the ball was going and position himself accordingly.

But he didn’t want to touch the ball. He let someone else do that.

As most 5-year-olds do when they begin playing the sport, all the players tend to surround the ball en mass and follow the ball around on the field like a flock of birds until someone kicks it in any direction, and the flock moves there.

But Seth always remained on the outside of that group. He kept his feet moving to be sure — circling the ball, dancing around it, following it carefully — but never actually touching it.

Eventually, as Seth continued to grow and play soccer season after season, he also grew to love the sport. Over time he learned to be a little bit more assertive with the ball and approach it confidently. He’s evolved into a very good soccer player.

Eventually, he just wanted the ball. Despite the risk. Despite the struggle that would ensue with a competitor. Above all, every good player wants the ball — that goes without saying.

And yet I wonder about how we approach our God. Do we play it too safe? Do we acknowledge our innate desire for God? And if not, why not? Is it because we cannot see God? What are we waiting for?

Admittedly, it is easier to stay on the outside, and just watch. We’ll let others do it for us. Maybe they’ve done a better job figuring out God.

Yet, scripture is clear that no one has seen God. On Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments, even Moses had to turn away in the presence of God (Exodus 33:20-23). No one has all the answers about God. No one has God figured out. As much as we may want there to be, there are no easy answers to life’s tough questions.

Even though we have the Law, it is not enough. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

The only thing anyone of us can do is to approach the heart of God, to come near. John’s Gospel suggests that the only way we can know God is in relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ reflects the heart of God. Being close to Jesus, then, we are close to God.

The young boy-child Jesus instinctively knew that to know his heavenly Father he had to be close to Him. And the one place in ancient Israel known to contain the holy presence of God – the temple in Jerusalem. One of the first things Jesus does as a growing individual is to desire his Father’s house, the temple.

“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

The best anyone of us can do is come close. Because what is most important in life cannot be measured, quantified, analyzed. God cannot be rationalized away by doctrinal statements, creeds and stated opinion.

God can only be experienced. The boy Jesus had to experience his Father’s house. Be there. Even if it meant disobeying his parents and breaking the law.

Being bold in coming close to Jesus means being bold in approaching our lives. Not being reckless nor irresponsible. But being bold – reaching out to strangers, taking risks of faith, addressing the issues of your life with honesty and truth and action, not giving up.

And when we are close to Jesus – as in the Holy Communion, or in the fellowship of the church, in loving service of the world – we experience and therefore know the heart of God.

And what does a heart signify? A heart signifies the essence of a person, the centre of a person’s very identity. A heart signifies love, compassion.

So while there aren’t any easy answers to the mysteries of life and death – answers for which we strive to seek rational, quantifiable and analytical certainty, often to our folly – one thing is sure: God’s love. God’s compassion for all of creation. Our salvation is found in Jesus whose way is love: This is central. This is vital to who we are.

When we take the risk to ‘touch the ball’ so to speak, when we approach the throne of grace boldly, when we take a risk to reach out in love to another, we can be confident to know that we are approaching the heart of God.

The only thing we can do is come near, come close to God. And the only way we can do that on earth, is to do it together, as a team.

The B2CS New Year’s resolutions

B2CS stands for “Back to Church Sunday”. Michael Harvey from the United Kingdom wrote a book entitled “Unlocking the Growth” which outlines this movement happening across the globe in the last decade, predominantly in mainline Christian denominations. He’s also produced a couple DVD seminars and makes resources available every year to help kick-start this initiative in your church. The vision is simple: double a congregation on one day, when each member invites one person: “Would you come to church with me?”

Recently, upon conclusion of a small leaders group which I facilitated preparing for B2CS 2013, I asked participants to make some new year’s resolutions: What is one thing about this challenge you would like to try in 2013 in your congregation?

I like relating B2CS with New Years because B2C is not just about a one-off event for just one day in the year — it’s a process. It is like fertilizing, tilling and working the ground in preparation for the growth to happen. For example, B2CS emphasizes the vital importance of the gift of friendship. And friendship is something organic; it takes time and effort to foster a good friendship. It is then in the context of a friendship wherein the question can naturally be asked: “Would you come to church with me?”

I also like linking B2CS with New Years because both events signal a new start in the life of a congregation. Introducing the congregation to the challenge of invitation creates a cultural shift that can be seismic in proportion.

Invitation is a call to claim a new identity among members from being spectators each Sunday to being hosts. Therefore, B2CS can shape and refresh a collective understanding of what church, what evangelism, what faith and what following Jesus really means in today’s world.

New Year’s resolutions are about doing the little yet consequential things, mindful that every thing we do and every word we say can affect our lives in a positive way.

Resolutions are about creating a habit in behavior. Do something 21 times, I once heard, before it becomes a habit: Practicing the question — “Would you come to church with me?”; Repeating the skills — praying and taking responsibility for each, precious visitor that walks through the threshold of the church building; Trying something new a few times — like spending more time with newcomers rather than regulars, during a congregational event.

Here are the New Year’s resolutions of the local, Ottawa group preparing for B2CS 2013:

1. Intentionally pray for whom God is preparing for me to invite;

2. Work towards creating more small groups within my congregation;

3. Reach out in love to those on the fringe of my congregation — the ‘inactives’;

4. Publish a Lenten devotional of collected ‘stories of invitation’ from the membership, for circulation in my congregation;

5. Try not to sit in the same place every Sunday for worship;

6. Make people feel special, compliment them, appreciate them.

Excellent! Thank you! May God bless our B2C work in 2013! And, oh yes, Happy New Year!

What is truth? Part 2: Belonging to community

I remember when I was ten years old I wanted to run away from home. My brother and I fought with my Mom over watching a TV show. Our disagreement led to this radical solution.

My brother and I packed our little red wagon with pillows, blankets, some twinkies, and a bottle of milk. I informed my Mom, and we were on our way.

We pulled our wagon down the sidewalk in silence. When we reached the first cross street a block away from home, we stopped. Without saying a word, both of us turned around and headed back with heads hung low.

In discovering the truth, not only must you come home to yourself and articulate your own desires, motivations and unique identity, you need to land in a community. This is the important second movement in answering: “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

At some point in the process of discovering the truth, we need to acknowledge the communal nature of truth-telling. It’s one thing to say discovering the truth is a personal journey; but it’s also a path that takes you beyond pure individualism. In other words, you can’t celebrate the truth of anything by yourself. In community we are greater than the sum of our individual parts. The truth can only be ascertained and arrived-at in the midst of others.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus relates the truth with “belonging” (18:37) — belonging to a community. Whether that community is a family, a church, a nation, God, our belonging is often tested. When things don’t go our way. When we don’t get want we want in that community. When others disappoint us. When there is disagreement. When we suffer. There are a host of circumstances that may lead us to question our belonging.

And when that happens, what do we do? Do we leave? Do we, as I tried to do with my red wagon and twin brother in tow, run away? Do we isolate ourselves behind fortress walls of fear and intransigence? What do we do when our belonging is severely tested?

Jesus hints that the kingdom of which he speaks transcends the self. When Jesus says that he was born for the purpose of testifying to the reign of God (John 18:37), Jesus is pointing to that which is larger than any individual, including himself.

We don’t exist unto ourselves. The sun doesn’t orbit around our individual planet; rather, we orbit around the sun! Our lives are meant for more than mere self-indulgence, self-acquisition, self-amelioration, self-justification.

When we discover the truth together, we’re not denying our individual, unique perspectives. We are not hiding our true colours from one another. We are simply affirming that if we are to find the truth, we will only do so together.

Belonging is not so much about individual decisions as it is about collective participation in community. That is why we make major decisions as the church, or as a nation, or even in families together. We share our differing thoughts and opinions with the awareness of our belonging to one another and to God, whether or not that unity is challenged or visibly shaken.

The movement towards community in discerning the truth calls for humility and attentiveness to those around us.

Where do you belong? Give God thanks for your belonging.

Bridging the gap

Mark 10:35-45

Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink…” (Mark 10:39)

When we first stepped on the bridge spanning the wide, flowing river, our ten year old son stopped short. It was windy. He said he was afraid the strong winds could blow him off. He refused to walk over.

A few weeks later when we were giving a walking tour of our new home-town to visiting friends, the path took us over the bridge. Engrossed in showing all the sites to his friends, our son made it three-quarters of the way across before he realized what he was doing. I could see by his wide-eyed expression that he had, for the most part, forgotten his fear. He was focused on his friends rather than himself.

I often miss the extraordinary promise implied in Jesus’ words to his self-absorbed disciples. They had been walking to Jerusalem listening to Jesus speak about his suffering and death. Understandably, those who followed Jesus were afraid (Mark 10:10). Were James’ questions about finding a seat in heaven next to Jesus simply an attempt to find security amidst the ominous implications of Jesus’ words?

Fear of the world often drives us, above all, to find security. We are afraid of terrorism, so we start preemptive wars. We are afraid of failing, so we act to secure our reputation rather than take bold and necessary steps forward. We are afraid of what we don’t understand in others who are different from us, so we cocoon behind fortress walls with like-minded people rather than build bridges of cooperation and compassion.

When Jesus says, “the cup that I drink you will drink…” he is making his disciples a promise – a promise that one day they, too, will no longer be driven by fear; that one day they will act boldly, motivated not so much by self-preservation but by the Gospel.

This, too, is a promise made to me and to you. It’s not an easy way. But when our focus resolves itself on others, we no longer act according to our fears but according to the way of Christ Jesus.

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Hosting a family reunion

It may come as a bit of a surprise for you to hear that one of the most important reasons you are here today is to be a good host.

Almost every Christian I encounter — when the conversation goes deeper — touches on concerns about the demise and downsizing of the institutional church. And everyone, it seems, has an opinion about why it is so.

Most of those opinions are rather negative; that is, pointing to something that is deemed “wrong” with the way things are going in the church today. And if only the church did things the way it used to half a century ago, or like the “other guys and gals” down the street do it — well, then, everything would be hunky-Dorry and the church will grow again.

These negative reasons usually presume what needs to change is anything and anyone besides the person giving the “negative” opinion. We may have presumed that the reason I or you are here today is to ‘get something out of’ the experience of worship; so, we are here predominantly to be spectators in the entertainment business.

“But take care and watch yourselves closely,” directs the Deuteronomist from our first lesson for today (Deuteronomy 4:9). Maturity and spiritual growth begin from a healthy self-awareness, not the blame-game to which we more naturally and easily revert.

So for me to stand here and suggest that you are not here to be entertained; and my job is not to do the entertaining, but to encourage you to be good hosts to others, may come at you sideways!

Let me give you some recent examples:

I am grateful for my aunt and uncle for giving the whole lot of us a place and space within which to meet, in Wasaga Beach last month for our family reunion. What stands out for me was their quiet, non-intrusive, relaxed manner of their hosting.

Fundamentally they were gracious, accepting. And this affected the way I felt about myself, regardless of my self-conscious preoccupations. They simply allowed the family reunion to happen. They allowed everyone who came to make of the experience what they brought to it themselves.

The hosts didn’t impose their own agenda; the structure of the day was simple and accepted by all: we gather at noon for the meal; then for those who want, can go to the beach — and several of the younger generation usually go to spend the afternoon there together; and by the late afternoon before anyone is allowed to leave Wasaga Beach we get the family photos done.

The order of service, so to speak, allows for give and take, and everyone engages it together. My aunt and uncle, whose house upon which we descend, make sure the basic things are available for the meal; but everyone brings something and they simply stay in the background helping everyone with their needs. There’s a feeling of mutuality that pervades the experience; it’s not just about the hosts and what they can do for everyone else.

Then, a week later, when Jessica and I enjoyed a couple of days at Chateau Montebello (a parting gift from Zion Pembroke), I witnessed again something good from good hosts. Even though the Chateau was brimming with families and couples and all manner of people — there was even a wedding on site during the weekend — I watched the staff, from cooks to servers, to room cleaners, to receptionists, waiters, tour guides — there were many.

In fact, that’s the first thing I noticed about my hosts — there were many workers there; almost every time I turned around, another staff member was there … to answer my question, to guide me where I wanted to go, to attend to my need. They didn’t tell me what to do; they were there to help me — and make me feel welcome, accepted. They were there to give the space for me to be who I was and wanted to do in leisure and play.

And I wonder: What if the church behaved like this to newcomers, visitors, others who may be crossing the threshold of our church for the first time? What if we, each and everyone of us, allowed our guests to find their own stride with God, to express the mission of God from the giftedness that each of us bear, in Christ Jesus?

We are hosts, all of us. And in the end, it’s not about us. It’s about God’s mission, God’s love, God’s desire for all people.

And this outward stance to others begins inside of us. As I stressed last week, what goes on on the inside of us ends up on the outside. What we believe on the inside gets expressed, eventually, in our behavior, our attitudes, our decisions and way we are with others.

Let’s for a moment consider why it is we may have a hard time conceiving ourselves as good hosts. Perhaps a better question would be, simply: what do you believe? When we are honest about what we really believe, when we confess the truth about us, then we can grow into our identity as hosts.

Michael Harvey in @UnlockingtheGrowth makes the point that Christians are supposed to “see what we believe”. This is the basis for faithful living; we are ready to receive the power of God’s presence and purpose in our lives when faith is already active.

But normally, it’s the other way around, isn’t it? We will  rather believe what we see — we say, “I’ll believe it when I see it”. But, let’s be honest — that’s not belief; that’s not faith. Belief and faith are interior qualities that precede action, attitude and behavior.

The reading from James today (James 1:17-27) points to the discrepancy between our actions and what comes out of our mouths: “If any think they are religious” but then say and act in ways that are not — then what does that reveal about what they really believe deep down? Not to mention bring condemnation upon themselves. Our faith and what precedes does not depend on our circumstances. We see and therefore act from what is beyond the apparent, the visible, the material reality in which we find ourselves.

In the Gospel for today (Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23), Jesus’ teaching validates this relationship between what goes on in the heart and what comes out in our behavior, words and actions: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”

Not only what is evil, but what is good as well; because — back to the Deuteronomist (4:6) — our obedience to God will also show “your wisdom and discernment to the peoples”. And from the Psalm: “My heart is stirring with a noble song” (45:1).

If we believe that we’re not good enough, that we have nothing valuable to share with others, that church is about me and what I want out of it — well, then, you can imagine: We wouldn’t be good hosts, would we?

But if on the inside we believe that God loves everyone, even those who are not familiar with church life; if we believe we are precious in God’s sight, that we have remarkable gifts to share with the world, that we have something valuable in faith and that each person who walks in this door is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139) — then we WILL see what we believe, won’t we? We will be very good hosts.

God creates this new family in the kingdom of God to which we belong, in which we find our homes. And God invites us all, not because of what we look like on the outside, but because of what God sees on the inside of us. God sees a beauty beyond words.

And upon this gracious conviction, we will see growth and transformation in our lives, and in the life of the church. We will see so much value in what we are all about here that we will learn to invite others to share in the experience of God.

Re-invisioning ekklesia

Parker Palmer decades ago described the true church as a

company of strangers

He announced this in a culture, to this day, that views the church more as an assembly of like-minded individuals.
In re-envisioning what it means to be the church Karen Bloomquist, keynote speaker at this year’s Luther Hostel at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, challenged leaders to embrace the inherent diversity of the church as

the gospel happening in the world

The point of departure for church leaders is not what happens in the church but what happens out there in the world God so loved. The church today is called to be there at the margins with those who are different from ‘us’. And then be transformed by those who are different from us.
The church is not a refuge from the world. We don’t retreat into the church to withdraw from the world. Conversely, the church goes out to engage the world. The original Greek term for the church, ekklesia, means

a people called out

The church’s true purpose gets lived out in the world not apart from it. When we value our differences and the diversity in the world and in the church, we become not a melting pot of sameness but a holy company of strangers.