Covenant: a relationship of truthfulness and fidelity

In order to learn the faith, many Christians of the first centuries traveled into the desert of North Africa to the monasteries where the solitary monks lived and worked. There, a kind of contract was made between disciple and teacher.

On the disciple’s side, he or she promised to be completely open with the master — trusting to tell the truth about everything going on in her or his life. This wouldn’t always be easy — to make oneself vulnerable, to lay one’s emotional life down on the line, and to confess those secrets harbored deep in the recesses of the heart.

On the other side, the teacher promised to be faithful to the disciple and never abandon them in their journey of learning, discernment and maturity — through all the struggles that journey would bring. There was nothing the student could say about themselves or what they were thinking that would shaken or jeopardize the steadfast faithfulness of the teacher.

This contract between disciple and teacher was one of truthfulness and fidelity. From the early days of Christianity, learning the faith thus represented came to express the relationship Christians have with Jesus. Jesus is our Teacher, our Master, the Lord of all.

Discipleship means to follow Jesus. For us to follow in the Way of Jesus, are we not called upon to be completely truthful and honest to God about who we are? Personal, spiritual growth is enhanced when we are honest and vulnerable with each other and with Jesus in prayer.

Since the Scriptures were written down, the concept of Covenant has been used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. This ancient, early Christian understanding from the Desert Fathers and Mothers can help us grasp how we relate to God.

A conviction of God’s everlasting, unwavering faithfulness to us opens the door of our hearts to be completely truthful about not only the good and righteous parts of our lives but especially the dark parts we normally wish to hide from others.

Thank you to Laurence Freeman for giving this example about the contract between disciple and teacher in his taped dialogue with the Dalai Lama in January 2013

Together, now!

When we feel, however, that in our lives we are neither on a vacation nor able to fulfill our vocation, what then?

Perhaps we are at a loss for words. Perhaps we are so dis-spirited and dejected that we feel hopeless and without purpose and meaning. Perhaps our spirit can do nothing other than cry to God for help: ‘Abba! Father!’

Saint Paul had something to say about that: When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spiritbearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God … (Romans 8:16)

The very fact that we turn our selves to face God, the very fact that we think about God – good or bad thoughts! – the very fact that we lift our hearts to God even in pain and suffering, is God’s Spirit touching ours. We are indeed ‘children of God’ before we do anything remarkable, life-changing or effective. We are already given our inheritance before we can earn it or prove somehow we are worthy of it, before we are rid of all that ails us.

One salient fact in the Pentecost story from the Bible stands out – right at the beginning: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place …(Acts 2:1)

Normally when we read or hear this text, we hurriedly breeze through this first verse to get to the sensational parts of the wind blowing through the place and the tongues of fire appearing on the disciples’ heads. We so readily go to what stimulates and excites us, don’t we?

Yet there is a gentle, subtle truth here, which also reveals the Holy Spirit’s action in our lives: We cannot do it alone.

Sometimes we seek renewal in nature, in solitude, by ourselves, secluded, isolated – in nature, on a vacation. And we feel God’s presence. We say, “the spirit of God is here.” Maybe so.

But Lutherans and Christians in general, I believe, would affirm that the Holy Spirit’s power is not primarily individualistic. The Holy Spirit, based on the biblical witness on the Day of Pentecost, comes to those gathered ‘together in one place.’

The only way we can truly and effectively live out our vocation, is to be with others, engage the world around us, and do it together.

Apart from the ever-expanding community of faith, the Christian Gospel cannot be effectively witnessed and proclaimed. Apart from the community of faith, you and I may do good works and be good citizens. Apart from the community of faith, we may find comfort and solace in distractions and the seductions of our materialistic culture.

But, if you want to see true, spiritual power and healing in your life and those around you – let’s do it together, and watch God’s Spirit change the world!

Even on a vacation, let’s live out our vocation – together!

Marriage is a dance

Dear couple,

You took ballroom dancing a while ago. And quite a few times this experience came up in our conversations.

So much in the image of dancing relates to the couple relationship in marriage. If you can hold the image, for a moment, of a couple engaged in a dance, let me reflect on what this experience can teach us about a healthy marriage.

Marriage is a dance. Usually someone takes the lead, and the other follows. But, depending on the music, the roles might reverse. Sometimes in marriage when circumstances change, health challenges mount, or when certain stresses pile up, the one who usually follows might need to take the lead for a while; whether it’s taking care of the other, or simply giving a little bit more time and love. Other times, the roles might need to reverse, again.

The first message here is to remain flexible in your roles and learn to give and receive when called upon. Rigidity and inflexibility are not signs of a healthy marriage; being flexible and fluid with roles and responsibilities, are.

Secondly, in a dance, couples sometimes dance together and sometimes apart. Kahlil Gibran (“On Marriage”) wrote about the blessing we find in the spaces between us. Honouring our differences and the important function of our individuality in a relationship is just as important as the togetherness part.

In truth, respecting boundaries may even be more important because in doing so we recognize our unique gifts and contribution to the relationship. Instead of pretending we have to be the same and merge our concept of self – blend it – with the other until we lose a sense of unique self, we learn to complement one another in mutual love.

Indeed, there is a time in the dance where we need to ‘let go’ of holding the other’s hand and dance separately: Pursuing our unique hobbies and interests, spending some time with our own friends, asserting one’s own opinion vis-à-vis the other – these are examples of a healthy individuality within a committed couple relationship, a vital characteristic of the ensemble.

Mutual and reciprocal love also means that when a mistake is made, or a mis-step as in a dance, both individuals in the partnership have to face the problem. Both are affected. When one of you messes up, both of you are thrown off course. And in that moment of confession and realization of the problem, you are left facing each other. And what will you do in that moment?

When you’ve described this situation to me, I was glad to hear that in the dance you tried to regroup, and get back into sync with each other and the music. And carried on. Because mistakes will be made, to be sure. In marriage, when one partner slips, we often think: “Well, that’s HIS problem.” Or, “that’s HER problem.” “They need to fix it;” “They need to get help.” “It’s not my problem.”

Actually, it is. The mutual nature of a healthy relationship means that just as much as it takes two to tango into a problem, it will take two to tango to resolve the problem and manage it. Any problem or conflict in a relationship carries with it mutual responsibility – causing it and resolving it. Accepting this truth will go a long way to getting a couple back into the dance.

For example, whether or not you directly exhibit symptoms of a problem that affect the relationship, you ask yourself: How did I contribute to causing this? What is my culpability? Was there something I was doing, or not doing, to allow this problem to grow? And, what is my role in solving the problem? What can I do to improve and help the situation?

In order to get back on track, both sides of the question need to be addressed by each partner.

Finally, the broad context of a dance is a party, right? Let’s not forget this: At a party, you dance. It is a joyous event, something to be celebrated. Like marriage, and this wedding day, you are surrounded by a community. Marriage is a public act, supported by others around you. Your friends, your family and your church gather to celebrate and give thanks for your decision to be married.

And, what is more, we’re having a ball! It is a party. Take the time to look around you today at the faces of those who have come to support you and pray for you. These are the people who have walked with you and promise to continue walking – and dancing on the dance floor – with you on the journey of life. Marriage calls us, in the end, not to retreat and isolate ourselves from, but to engage with our community and our world in meaningful and productive ways. Marriage is a reflection – a witness – to God’s purposes in the world.

The music is the source of our dancing and our partying. The music is the reason for our joy in marriage. The music is like God’s presence. It is always there for us. God’s love, God’s peace, God’s Word – are available to us. God’s grace is the beat – the rhythm – that gives life to our movement with one another.

And for this, we are eternally thankful!

Dance on!

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.