Laetere!

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24)

Lent is a journey through the desert. It is dry. And there’s little for comfort. Let alone luxury. It is a time of self-reflection, of letting go, of pacing ourselves through disciplines that humble us and peel back the layers of our habits and beliefs.

The famine provides a turning point in the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). His wasteful, dissolute, squandering of money — his lifestyle — is brought to an end by a famine, probably caused by drought.

Up to this point the Prodigal continued down the course of his delusion, believing he could be happy by pursuing this lifestyle, even when he runs out of money. His mistaken and self-indulgent strategy for fulfillment is derailed and heightened by the onset of famine.

After the famine grips the land and its people, he has to work among the pigs. He might have had to do this anyway. But because of the famine, nobody can even spare change to throw at his feet when he begs. This famine-ridden reality leads him to a place of brutal honesty. And he falls on his knees in confession.

This is not the only time a famine in the land affects the course of the history of the relationship between God and God’s people. The famine illustrates a pervasive motif in the bible: The famine acts as a significant motivator for people to move in their lives, physically and in their hearts as well (1).

Famine is the reason that Abraham and Sarah leave Ur for Canaan. Once they are there, famine is also the reason they leave again for Egypt (Genesis 12). Famine appears twenty times just in Genesis (eg, Genesis 26). The story of Joseph and Jacob revolve around the reality of the famine.

Famines represent those times in life when forces beyond our control dictate the course of our lives. Famines remind us that we are not the masters of our own destiny. Famines expose the truth of our own poverty. Famines make us honest for our own need. Famines cause us to reach out for help, and let go of our pretence of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

Famines will lead us to confession – honesty about what we need, what we lack, what limits us. Famines will move us to depend on something/someone beyond our capabilities and industry. Famines will bring us to our knees at the throne of God’s grace (Hebrews 4:16).

Maybe that’s why famines happened a lot in scripture.

The famine, otherwise not usually considered an important part of the parable of the Prodigal Son, serves to underscore the central message of Scripture: It’s not about us, it’s about God. We can act irresponsibly like the Prodigal, or we can follow all the rules of life and be good citizens and good people like the resentful elder son — this has no bearing on the freedom of God to dispense grace as God will.

It almost doesn’t feel fair, what happens. We can sympathize with the elder son, I suspect. Yet, whenever we feel the pangs of ‘It’s not fair’ — how much of that objection, when we are honest, is based on the presumption of our own righteousness, our own ability, our own deserving, our own industry to earn our rightful place?

There’s this delightful short book by Francois Lelord, which was translated into English and adapted for the big screen starring Simon Pegg, called “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” Simon Pegg’s character, Hector, goes on a journey around the world to observe what makes people happy. As he travels to distant places and meets different people, he writes down in his little notebook a short list of what makes people happy.

His very first observation — the first lesson he learns about what makes people happy — is: “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness” (2). Is that not what the elder son does — compare his righteousness to the wayward squandering of his younger brother? He is justifying himself, based on the less-than-stellar behaviour of another.

“Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.” This is Gospel truth, in fact. Remember the other parable Jesus tells of the workers in the vineyard? The ones who work the shortest amount of time earn the same wage as the ones who worked from early morning (Matthew 20:1-16). The ones who worked all day grumble that they made the same wage as those who only worked a short time, even though the early workers had already agreed on the rate they would receive.

Another characteristic of people who are not grateful for what they have, and who continually make comparisons: Resentful people do not feel like a party. People who are continually comparing themselves to others who have more, keep themselves from enjoying life and having fun from time to time. People who are judging others and pointing fingers, will not easily relax and accept the good in them and others.

The Father begs the resentful elder son to join the party he has thrown for the Prodigal. What the Father reminds the elder son are words from God to us and the church today: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In other words, rather than incessantly compare our lot with others, focus on the gifts, the resources, the passions, the energy, the interests we have already been given to you. And we have been given much, indeed!

We have musical gifts in this congregation, and talented singers and instrumentalists. We have people passionate about social justice, and caring for the poor nearby. We are well-read, educated and earnest in our pursuit of truth. We are warm-hearted and dedicated to one another.

Moreover, we have an abundance of material resources. Yes, we do! A building assessment was done last year. And the replacement cost of this small building alone was valued at $1 million. With the property around the building, the value is much higher.

We have been given so much in this community alone. Imagine the potential human and material resource we have here for the purpose of God’s mission in the world today!

Accept with thanksgiving what we have been given. And, when it comes to what others have received, rejoice in God’s generosity and grace towards them. After all, God is free to do what God will.

And we are free, to do what we must do. Whether we make mistakes, or do good. Whether we are led astray for a time in our lives, or we keep the faith through thick and thin — God says, “You count! You are beloved! I am with you always. I will go the distance for you. I will wait for you — no matter what you have done, good or bad. You count!” So much so, it’s worth throwing a party — an extravagant party.

There is cause to celebrate. And be happy! For God is good, and God’s love endures forever.


(1) Lutherans Connect, Lenten devotional, Day 6 — found at lc2016lentdevotional.blogspot.ca
(2)Francois Lelord, “Hector and the Search for Happiness”, Penguin Books, Toronto, 2010, p.19

The happiness trap

In our traditional celebration of Thanksgiving this weekend (in Canada), you may be wondering how to feel thankful when things aren’t going well. When unpaid bills start piling up, when a health diagnosis pulls the rug from under your feet, you are in an accident, or a relationship sours, freezes and breaks off. How can I be thankful?

Not dissimilar from the social expectations of Christmastime, the season of Thanksgiving can bring stress to even those of us whose lives are going reasonably well. Because we presume, do we not, that to be thankful we need to be happy? And to be happy, we need to be living ‘the good life’ when all works out the way I want it. And when it doesn’t….

For example, “if I don’t get that job promotion, I’ll be depressed”; or, “if the house does not sell for the price I want, I won’t be happy”; or, “if I don’t get away to that sun destination this winter I’ll be in the dumps”. We find ourselves in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction.

We are caught in the happiness trap. The striving for which basically guarantees us discontentment and frustration. 

Now, if all we want is to be happy, we won’t grow because we will only attend to those things that we already appreciate and understand. If all we want is to be happy, we assume that we are already where we are supposed to be. If all we want is to be happy, we will stay stuck; we have left no room for growth and development that only comes from some intentional work that might in fact be meant to change us for the better.

If we only pursue happiness, we are constraining the movement of the Spirit of God. That Spirit may want to call us to, and discipline us for, some greater purpose. That greater purpose will not be achieved by just wanting to be happy all the time.

In contrast, I suggest a healthier, more realistic approach: to work toward faithfulness rather than happiness. (Gil Rendle, “The Illusion of Congregational Happiness” Congregational Resource Guide, http://www.congregationalresources.org, 2010, p.4)

Writer Lisa Bendall (lisabendall.com) uncovered a recent Florida State University study which advised not to confuse a happy life with a meaningful one. That is, “happiness is lower in people who have more stress and anxiety, but meaning is higher in these same people.” Which suggests something important about a healthy degree of anxiety and stress in one’s life. Through the lens of Christianity, we can say that ‘picking up our cross’ and following Jesus may not yield a happy lifestyle all the time. But it will result in transformative change in our life that will make a positive difference in the world. Bottom line: It won’t be easy.

The narrow search for happiness focuses only on making things easy. And that is why pursuing mere happiness is a sure-fire way of living a self-centred, narcissistic and meaningless life bereft of making a difference in the world for the better. Show me otherwise in the lives of people who have made an incredible contribution to their communities, nations, society and the world. Were they always happy? Did being unhappy at times deter them from pursuing their values and rich meaning for their life?

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) suggests the same. Jesus is not promising us a distress-free lifestyle. Pursue the higher ideals. Take the high road. Don’t give up. If I only wanted to be happy, I’m not sure I’d want to follow Jesus on this earthly journey which must surely go through the Cross. Staying true to oneself, to others and to God means a bumpy ride from time to time.

Here are some tips for this life that is given to us — not just for the placid, calm waters of life. Our baptism means that from time to time the water will get rough. And we need to know how to navigate those waters and stay afloat!

Shortly after Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod – ELCIC) was elected some fifteen years ago, he made a trip up to the Ottawa Valley, and went white-water rafting on the Ottawa River. Here is what he learned, eight rules; and applied it to life, faith and church:

1. Don’t be surprised if the boat doesn’t go where you want it to go.

2. Rest in the calm places. There will be more white water soon.

3. Never stop paddling. Even when it seems hopeless.

4. If you get into trouble… DON’T panic.

5. If you go under, let go of everything. Eventually you will come back up.
6. Someone needs to call out the orders. It works better that way.
7. White water is what you came for. Enjoy it.

8. Everyone paddles furiously to get somewhere, but ultimately it’s the current that takes you downstream.

Ultimately, trusting in the grace of God will get us there. Which means, does it not, that even if we are limited in whatever way, even when life is not perfect and things don’t work out for us, we can still fulfill our purpose and find meaning in our faith? Keep paddling! Do what you can, because we really don’t have anything to lose.

Last week when I attended the meeting of Deans in our Synod, Bishop Pryse shared in his closing comments a word of inspiration from Thomas Merton — a quote he has displayed in his office:

You may have to face the fact that your work will apparently be worthless and achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate, not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

And this, I believe, brings something more than mere happiness: enduring contentment, meaning and peace in one’s heart.

May your Thanksgiving celebrations encourage you in the value and meaning of the gift of  your life.

Planting chestnut seeds

“Once upon a time a king was strolling through the forest and he saw an old man, a poor man, bent over a furrow. He walked up to him and saw that he was planting seeds for chestnut trees. He asked the old man why he was doing it and the old man replied, ‘I love the taste of chestnuts.’

“The king responded, ‘Old man, stop punishing your back bent over a hole in the ground. Do you really not know that by the time even one of these trees has grown tall enough to bear nuts, you may not be around to gather them?’

“And the old man answered, “Your Majesty, if my ancestors had thought the way you do, I would never have tasted chestnuts.'” (Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy, Orion Books, Great Britain, 2007, p.164-165)

Questions for reflection:

1. Who are your ancestors — in work and family, community and nation, church and neighborhood — who planted the seeds of privilege and success you can enjoy today? Name them. Thank them.

2. a) What have your predecessors done to make life a blessing for you today? Financially? Socially? Vocationally? Be specific.

    b) How did they themselves benefit from their sacrifice of resources, time and energy?

3. To what extent do you live your life today for the benefit of future generations, and not primarily your own? What areas of your life reflect this future-orientation of your work, time, and leisure activities?

4. Why do you think it may be a challenge to consider how you live now as extending beyond the scope of your own personal interests? What are the obstacles to living life ‘for the sake of others’?

5. What is one thing you can do today that represents:

a) a thanksgiving for the sacrifice of previous generations? and/or

b) a prayer, a gift to others or a specific action whose purpose is primarily for the benefit of future generations and not your own?

New Year’s Goals

It seems to me that so much “success” in our lives is based on setting goals. We set goals in our business ventures; we set goals for our personal self-care — exercise, diet and relationships; we set goals for acquiring the toys and things we want in life. Setting goals motivates us to act!

A person who does not have any goals, we believe, is a person without backbone, floating untethered through life, unprincipled, and usually lazy and poor. A person without any goals, we believe, is rudderless and not making the most of what life can offer. A person without any goals, we believe, are the very people who end up in therapy, counselling, or on the street. They just need to get their life back on track by setting some goals, we believe.

There are some traditions of this time of year that stand out for me. Making New Year’s resolutions is one of them. And I like to ponder what this means, because I need to get back on track with so many things — year after year! And since I do a lot of driving, I like what blogger Jeff Boss has to say about New Year’s resolutions:

“New Year’s resolutions are like traffic. As the driver, your focus is intent while trying to ‘get there;’ you see others pass you by; you get held up at a red light that slows down progress. Distractions such as the radio, crazy drivers, cellphones, preclude you from focusing on the one thing you should: the road ahead. In other words, New Year’s resolutions come and go, ebb and flow, only to be revisited the following year …

“It has been said that the only certainty in life is uncertainty; change is the one ‘thing’ we can all count on to always be there—and that guy Murphy always seems to be leading the charge.” (Jeff Boss, contributor, “4 Simple Goal-Setting Ideas for 2015”, Forbes http://buff.ly/1A6rx47)

As important as goal-setting is, we also have somehow to account for the unexpected, on-the-ground realities that come our way on the journey towards that goal.

What will we do when we encounter those who ‘pass us by’ on the road? What will we do when we have to ‘stop at a red light’? And, what will we do when we are distracted from our goals?

First, what do you do when you see others pass you by on the road of life and faith? Our culture is based on the value of competition — whether we’re talking about sibling rivalry, sports or our economy. Competition can be a motivator.

But it can also deflate one’s spirit, creativity and passion. Because competition can discourage you from focusing on the grace in your unique life, the gifts of your own life, family, job, and the blessing you are to others. You are beloved by God, created in the image of the Divine, endowed with a special gift to share with the world.

And it doesn’t matter that someone is passing you on the road; it doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It only matters what you are doing. How has our cultural obsession with competition and comparison stifled your growth and held you back?

Second, what do you do when you get held up at a red light that slows down progress? The red lights in our lives are usually those unfortunate events that are unexpected, stressful and require the loving support of others. No amount of goal setting can turn this around: a family member suddenly turns ill, you receive a discouraging diagnosis, a friend dies, tragedy strikes, the bottom falls out on your personal life, you lose your job. If you’ve set some lofty goals before any of this happens, you’re into a major reset on life. After all, “Life happens,” they say.

Finally, what do you do when you are distracted by the radio, crazy drivers, or your cellphone? These are issues we probably have the most control over, whether we like it or not, whether we take responsibility for them or not.

Most of the ‘distractions’ of life are self-imposed. We do it unto ourselves — lifestyle choices that are really counter-productive, habits that immediately gratify but are ultimately self-destructive. We enter here the realm of addictive behaviours that can de-rail any idealistic goals for self-improvement. So, they say, instead of watching that show, go for a walk; instead of staying up late on social media or surfing the net, get some sleep; instead of indulging in that second helping, pack away leftovers for lunch the next day.

This inner struggle can drive us over the curb and into the ditch! The passers-by, the red lights and the distractions on the road of life throughout the year often cause us to abandon those goals altogether.

I wonder what some of those first desert wanderers did to cope with the reality of the terrain over which they travelled. I wonder how the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) following a star in the sky, coped with seeing others pass them by on the caravan routes whenever the star appeared to stop in the sky? I wonder how the Magi, following that star over what must have been a long period of time, dealt with the red lights of set backs that surely must have occurred on the trail? I wonder how the Magi kept their spirits up when the desert creatures, sand storms and bandits threatened their safety and resolve on the journey? I wonder what would have happened if they said, “Let’s just give this until January 11th, or December 21, or December 31 at midnight — and if that star hasn’t brought us to the Christ-child by then, let’s go home!”?

Perhaps the wisdom of the ancient story of the Epiphany has something to say to us about how we traverse the terrain of our lives today. As we set goals and resolve to do certain things in 2015, perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to how we travel over the long haul of our lives, and not just fixate on the specific goals themselves.

Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just at Christmas and Easter — to worship, pray and give thanks? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just when times are good, but especially when they are bad — to reflect on the Word and the meaning of our faith in Jesus? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — regardless of our ‘goals’ — to remember the One who walks with us, who is always by our side, who is ever faithful to us and steadfast in love for the whole world?

And thank God, that we always have a second chance to press the ‘reset button’ on our lives, reflect again, and start anew! Year after year! It is a miracle and grace that we even consider a fresh brand of New Year’s resolutions every January 1st. Despite the failures, we still go back to the drawing board every New Year.

In 2015, perhaps our goals need to be a little more open-ended and less prescriptive. The magi had a goal, to be sure: to follow the star to where the newborn king was born. But that goal could lead them anywhere! They didn’t presume it had to be Jerusalem. They didn’t presume it had to be in a palace. They didn’t presume it had to be in their own home country.

When the goals are set with this kind of openness, Murphy may still lead the charge, uncertainty can still be the only certain thing, and change be the only constant on the journey of life. But we still trust that God’s promises are true and that eventually our yearning and longings are resolved somewhere in God’s unconditional, and never-ending love.

Happy New Year!

Frozen yet melting in Good

The Gospel text for Thanksgiving Day (Luke 17:11-19) is the familiar one about only one healed leper out of ten that went back to give thanks to Jesus. And so, we may be challenged to think about all the things that may keep us from giving thanks, or being thankful.

But this story from the Gospel of Luke implies being thankful WHEN SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS. As if that’s more of a challenge. Which kind of turns the tables on us, does it not? We normally think that ungratefulness is a symptom of an unlucky life, a life that suffers, a life that is disadvantaged in whatever way. How can I be thankful, after all, when bad things happen? Or conversely, believing that it is only easy to be thankful when good things happen.

But reality is: it is just as hard, if not more, to be truly thankful when good things happen, as this text suggests. It is directed to those of us who are advantaged in so many ways, but still find it difficult to be thankful.

So what are some Thanksgiving ‘misfires’? What are some of the ways we mis the mark in being truly thankful especially when things go well for us?

It was the Fall time of the year, and a farmer was on the land finishing up a poor harvest. The season had been tough, with all the rain and very few heat days.

And he wondered, “What crop should I plant in this field next year?” The question was a sort of prayer, because he was a bit discouraged and down on his profession. He looked up into the sky …

Suddenly the farmer sees “PC” written as clear as day in the clouds. Certain this was an answer to his prayer, he believed God was calling him to “preach Christ”. So he did, and gave it all he had.

But it didn’t work out for him. Some time later, the farmer went back to the field and asked God, why being a preacher didn’t work out for him so well. He waited a few minutes in the silence with only the wind whistling through the tall pine trees lining his land. And then he heard God’s voice: “I did give you an answer to your prayer …. PC meant ‘plant corn’.”

One Thanksgiving ‘misfire’ is rushing to conclusions based on our exclusive perspective. As if it were the only way. As if there were no other options. We put ourselves in the driver’s seat of this faith journey we are on, as if we are in control of our destiny, as if we have all the answers, as if we are right, and everyone else is wrong. Lack of humility is one consequence of this arrogance with which we live our lives.

I like the story of the woman who was looking forward to the snack of cookies she had in her purse when she sat down on a park bench beside a man dressed in a business suit, clean shaven.

She had always enjoyed the view into the parkland from this bench. Her eyes lingered on the fog resting on the colours on the trees in the valley below. She and the well-dressed stranger sat in silent awe beholding the beauty before them.

When she finally looked down to retrieve the cookies in her purse, she noticed the bag of cookies already opened on the bench between them, and the stranger sitting beside her was helping himself!

“Who does he think he is?” she thought to herself. “The impertinence of some people!”

She was trying to calm herself down and enjoy the beautiful Fall day when she noticed out of the corner of her eye, the man pushed the now half-emptied bad of cookies towards her.

“What nerve!” she thought to herself. She quickly retrieved the last three cookies from the bag before getting up and stomping away. She hadn’t even said, “Have a good day!” or “Goodbye” to the man; she had just shoved the emptied bag back towards him. Jerk!

When she arrived home later that day and emptied her purse, wasn’t she surprised, and humbled, to find her bag of cookies unopened!

Are we quick to judge because we are not open to receiving anything good from someone else? Do we believe, when we are honest, that only we can give anything good to others? Do we presume that it’s up to us alone to make things better, and therefore we block any expectation of a solution coming from outside our preconceived and prejudiced notions?

Only one healed leper came back to give thanks. He understood that engaging a life of Thanksgiving first meant opening his heart to receiving grace from an unexpected source. His thanksgiving to Jesus began when he remembered who had healed him — not from the established norms, and religious leaders of the day. He had curtailed his impulse to get busy with his life, and simply recalled and acknowledged this undeserved, gracious gift.

In light of all our misfires — arrogance, condescension, judgement, prejudice — it’s a wonder there still is any good in the world. We are, after all, broken people caught up in our own compulsive behaviour.

In some churches, this Gospel for Thanksgiving is from Matthew 7:7-12 is read:

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

How can we receive the good from God? This may be a very difficult challenge for us. To receive what is placed before us. That’s all. Especially for those of us who tend to understand Thanksgiving only as something we do for others. That’s certainly part of it.

But Thanksgiving starts by acknowledging that we are already recipients of a great grace, love and abundance. And so is everyone else.

When you think about it, it’s not the problem of evil that should have us shaking our heads, it’s the problem of good! There is much good in the world DESPITE all the ways we human beings manage to mess it up. That’s the miracle!

We are the richest Christians in the history of Christianity. And I mean, materially. There has never been a time in our history when Christians were so wealthy — had as much money, security, property, resources and material blessing — as we do today in North America.

With all the problems facing the church today, and all the challenges set before people of faith, perhaps the first thing to do and be intentional about, is NOT to jump into any presumption or initial impulse.

But simply to stop, and remember. What is God already up to in the world around you? What are the good things in the world, happening among people? Are you listening for this, watching for the presence of the living God in unexpected places?

I think Thanksgiving begins with a monumental shift in attitude.
It’s about changing our perspective — or be willing to see things differently. With a view to abundance, not scarcity — we can be thankful. With a view to see the good and not only the bad — we can be thankful. With a view to receiving the grace that is there for us already in the people we meet and the work before us — we can be thankful.

Thanks be to God!

Gospel morality

It was a cold afternoon in March. The windchill made it feel like -20’C. And I was worried. You see, I like to keep my feet warm. I dislike the feeling of cold feet. And too late I remembered that one of the realities of visiting a Mosque was taking off your shoes.

I would be in the Ottawa Mosque for several hours. And all I had donned on my feet last Sunday morning was a thin pair of black dress socks for morning worship. I tried to rationalize my way into a comfortable scenario: The annual meeting of the Multi-Faith Housing Initiative would likely be held in the basement of the Mosque — so perhaps the tradition of removing footware in a place of worship would not apply downstairs.

But sure enough as soon as I entered the building, the first thing to greet me was racks upon racks of shelving for shoes. No one was to pass that point — going upstairs or down — without taking off their shoes. As the doors came closed, a blast of chilling wind brushed against my pant leg, giving a frigid foretaste of what I was in for this afternoon.

Wearing my black suit with clerical collar and large pectoral cross hanging from my neck I made my way downstairs. Suddenly two young children dashed beside me on their way into the carpeted meeting room. They stopped, turned around and smiled largely.

Obviously familiar with their worship space surroundings, they proceeded to give me a brief, welcoming introduction to their home: Here are the washrooms; There is the kitchen; Those are the chairs for the meeting. I started to relax. And after a couple of hours, my feet were still warm on the deeply cushioned carpet. 

When we read these very long stories from the Gospel of John, it may be worthwhile to consider some details about the literary context. That is to say, let’s receive this text looking at the whole, larger perspective. For example, in the story of the healing of the blind man (John 9:1-41), only the first seven verses describe the actual healing miracle. The remaining thirty-four verses describe the debate that surrounded this man’s healing.

This leads me to wonder about what the Gospel writer, John, really wanted to emphasize. Perhaps the point of the Gospel is not so much on the miraculous and spectacular — which our culture of instant gratification would jump on. Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning here which can be easily overlooked by our obsessions with judgment, fear and need to explain everything.

First, as far as we are concerned, our connection and deepening relationship to God — which is a process of healing in and of itself — is a process. We see this progress in how the blind man grows step-by-step in his relationship to Jesus.

First, early on in the story, he addresses him, “the man called Jesus” (v.11). Then, he calls him, “a prophet” (v.17). And then, “a man of God” (v.33). Finally, at the end, the man healed by Jesus says to him, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him (v.38). If anything, this Gospel story is not about explaining sin as much as it is about growing into a personal confession of God, in Jesus Christ. And this confession is not an immediate, conversion experience; it takes time. Our reconciliation with Jesus is a journey.

But, paradoxically, this journey is Christ-led; it is not our doing. We will notice that Jesus refuses to play the Pharisees’ game. The Pharisees are focused maintaining control over the religious enterprise — where they are the keepers of the law, the righteous. They maintain control by focusing on others’ sin, by issuing blame and judgment. And making it all about human works.

The Pharisees, and Jesus’ disciples who first ask the question, relate the man’s physical blindness to his sins, thus justifying his condition. The sins we commit are here understood as being the bad things we can somehow will ourselves to stop doing if we had a choice. This religious viewpoint basically implies that the quality of our faith depends fundamentally on our willpower.

Jesus has nothing to do with this. You can see why he was such a threat to the Pharisees. Because faith is not about us, in the end. It’s about God. I think that’s the meaning of Jesus’ statement that the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v.3). Our connection to God is primarily the result of God’s works, not ours. The purpose of our connection to God is to point to God, not ourselves.

The morality of the Gospel is fundamentally a question of how God relates to us, and how we are called to relate to one another. Gospel morality is not about whether or not we sin — because we do anyway no matter how hard we try not to. After all, the man didn’t choose to be blind; he couldn’t even take any personal responsibility for this condition.

Gospel morality is a question of how we respond to life’s challenges and events. Imagine dancing with a partner called, “Life Happens”: Do we ‘lead’ (like the disciple often did, and the Pharisees always did) with fear and/or judgment? Or, do we ‘lead’ with grace and thanksgiving?

How does God lead? The Gospel shows God’s favor towards us. The Gospel shows that “we did not choose Jesus; Jesus first chose us” (John 15:16). Jesus did not come “to condemn the world” but in order to save the world (John 3:17). Jesus, as God the Father, does not look on outward appearances (i.e. our frailty, our weakness, our sin), but on our heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God loved us, Saint Paul articulates, “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:6-8). God leads with grace, forgiveness, and love — despite all to the contrary in our lives.

The reality of our lives — and the truth of our lives — is not defined by what’s on the surface but by the constant presence, power and grace of God.

If there is a morality we speak of as Christians, it is a morality that trusts God above all when we lead with grace and thanksgiving. That is not to say there is no room for addressing cause for fear. But it is to claim that we will lead with grace.

Multi-Faith Housing Initiative is run by a diverse group of very capable, talented individuals from various faith communities. The executive committee led most of the meeting last Sunday — as you can imagine — typically clarifying detailed accounting, audit and administrative material. Women and men wore their business suits and looked officious, efficient and professional. Except for one thing.

What struck me as I watched them with their power-points, laptops and effective communication styles was they were all, to a person, in their stocking feet. That fact alone added a humbling effect to the gathering. It reminded me that despite all our differences — not denying them, but despite those differences — we were all standing on the same ground.

When Moses stood in the presence of God in the burning bush, God told him to take off his shoes, for he was standing on ‘holy ground’ (Exodus 3:5). Indeed we were all of us standing on holy ground united in our common purpose, humble before one another and God.

I was again reminded that although it may be easy to lead with judgment and fear in our diverse communities when uncertainty feels threatening, it is still better to lead with grace and thanksgiving — modelled to me by those young Muslim children who knew I wasn’t ‘one of them’ — but who nevertheless welcomed me with open arms.

“And whatever you do, in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

Thanksgiving: an act of graceful resistance

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”—John 6:35

When Jessica and I were married some sixteen years ago, we received as a wedding present – a bread-maker. For sixteen years it served us well. Jessica has enjoyed baking bread with it.

And then, just last week, it died. It made a very loud and scary noise … and refused to work. What to do? Despite our best intentions, we could only think of throwing it out.

I understand there are e-waste organizations out there now that will collect electrical appliances for a proper recycling. Apparently these outfits will disassemble the appliance and dispose or recycle each separate part appropriately and carefully.

So as not to waste any piece. To gather the fragments, that nothing may be lost.

At the heart of John’s story of the feeding of the multitude, which is the context of our Gospel reading for Thanksgiving Day (John 6) is Jesus’ thanksgiving over the loaves. After the crowd had been fed, John adds a word not found in the other gospels: Jesus says to the disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost” (verse 12).

In God’s kingdom, the fragments are precious. Broken life is precious. Jesus declares this a little further on in the chapter: “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (verse 39).  We give thanks that the broken life in us is cared for and mended, redeemed by the one who is bread of life for us.

Jesus’ birth took place in Bethlehem, in the town whose name means “house of bread.” And he was laid in a manger, a feeding place. Right from the beginning, Jesus came as bread. God knew how hungry the world was. And continues tobe.

It is a dark and hostile world, where only the winners are recognized. It is a dark and hostile world, where the survival of the fittest is the mantra for ‘success’. It is a dark and hostile world, where those who do not measure up are easily forgotten. In this dark and hostile world, it is easy to get lost, overlooked, misunderstood and dismissed as irrelevant. In this dark and hostile world, there is no room for everyone, where some are expendable.

In the dark and hostile place where we live, a loving God offered the bread of life. It is a great wonder that we are offered such bread. When we seek to follow him, we discover that our following takes us into every broken place where people are hungry for bread, for peace, for freedom, for affirmation, for acceptance, for spirit. Our giving of thanks is lived out when, with those early disciples, we gather up the fragments of life and offer the living bread that is in us.

The poetry of Wendell Berry, an American farmer-poet, shows a beautiful understanding that this offering stands at the heart of faithful living. In a three-line poem entitled February 2, 1968, he wrote this:

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,

war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,

I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.

I think only a profoundly grateful person can face the darkness this way. What hope is there of life rising in such conditions? Many would say, “Wait for more suitable weather, wait for a favourable season, wait until the conditions are perfect when all is well … then we can be thankful, then we can share with the world…”

But one who trusts God to make whole what is broken approaches all life in gratitude, and offers back an open heart and open hands. Thanksgiving is an act of graceful resistance that allows us to admit to the fragility of life, but also realizes that every fragment is of infinite worth. Jesus speaks to us again: “Gather up what is left, that nothing may be lost.”  

This Thanksgiving, remember that in Christ you are living bread. Remember, too, the fragments. Love finds a way on the rocky hillsides of our lives, gathers us in and holds us forever in God’s hands. As a favourite hymn puts it: “For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us, most of all, that love has found us, thanks be to God” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #679 “For the Fruit of All Creation, verse 3).

Thank you to Gordon Light, writing many of these words in the Anglican Journal, “Gather up what is left, that nothing may be lost” (the full text can be read at m.anglicanjournal.com/articles/-gather-up-what-is-left-that-nothing-may-be-lost)

Death & Thanksgiving

I read of a pastor who got a phone call from a woman who told him that “there had been a death.” She went on to say that her dog, Pepper, had accidentally gotten out of the fenced-in back yard and had been killed by a car.

Her children were very upset. She was upset for them, because they were foster care children, and losing a dog brought up all those feelings of abandonment that these children had already known all too often.

A day later at the pet cemetery, when all the prayers were said, the mom gave each child a rose. One by one they walked up to the edge of the grave and put a rose on top of the blanket wrapped around Pepper’s body.

When it came for little Jack’s turn, Jack placed the rose on Pepper and then looked up into the sky, and with tears streaming down his sad face, he cried out, “Thank you, God, for giving us Pepper as long as you did!”

“Thank you, God, for giving us Pepper as long as you did!” Pure gratitude. Pure thanksgiving.

It is Thanksgiving weekend, and the death of your beloved father, grandfather, great grandfather and friend may make you feel not very thankful at all this year.

In fact, the loss of someone we’ve loved leaves us feeling angry, hurt, profoundly at a loss. Considering the loss of your father is the third death of a close loved one this year, you have every right to put ‘thanksgiving’ on hold.

But, I suspect, little Jack grieving the death of his dog, Pepper, hints at something truthful. For we who knew and loved …. can also, I believe, express a feeling deep down in our hearts: “Thank you, God, for giving us Grampa, Dad, as long as you did!”

Thank you, God, for his life. Thank you God for his love. His humour. His good-natured love for friends and community. Thank you God, for his commitment to not only surviving but seeing the good in an otherwise difficult year o fhis life. We thank you, God, for giving us …. for as long as you did.

Like in the scripture from that obscure prophet in the Old Testament – Habakkuk: That though everything that could possibly go wrong HAS gone wrong, though the fig tree has not blossomed, even though the olive tree never developed, even though the flock and the herd have suffered and met tragedy …. YET I will rejoice. YET, I will rejoice.

Why? Even though everything has gone against us, our loved one has died, and we can never be the same without him, even though the worst has happened … we will give thanks. We will exult in the God of our salvation. Because God, the Lord, is our strength.

I appreciate very much what is written on the bottom of the obituary for your Dad. I don’t know where this quote comes from, but it is profound: “A dad is someone who wants to catch you before you fall but instead picks you up, brushes you off, and lets you try again.”

Perceptive. Loving. Truthful. You see, a full life is not about avoiding mishaps and mistakes. If our Dad always protected us from getting hurt (which is what dads want to do, nonetheless), we would never learn how to live. A good life is not descriptive of somehow being able to deny and hide yourself from risk, from failure and from disappointment. The greatest successes come from the greatest failures. Wise people know this.

I believe your loving father knew this. If that statement you chose even comes close to describing him – then indeed he was wise: He knew, even for himself, life was more than the down times. Each of us has to learn how get up after we fall.

This description of a “Dad” is godly. I’m sure God WANTS to catch us each time we fall. I don’t believe God WANTS bad things to happen to us.

But God is sure there to shed a tear when you do fall. God is sure there to pick you up, brush you off, and let you try again at life.

It’s about what you do after you fall. It’s how you navigate and live through (not deny) this grief during this most difficult year.

And, you have each other. You can help each other get back up. You don’t have your father to help ‘pick you up’ this time. But now you have each other, to help you through this time.

This is a most profound expression of God’s grace. In the love of God we find strength to carry on. In the compassion shared amongst yourselves you will find courage to face tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And so, we can say: In God we are able to give thanks. Today we are here to say to God, “The Lord is our strength, yet we will rejoice; thank you, God, for giving us Dad for as long as you did!”

The Life of Christ and the Death of a Loved One, p.101-102

Doing God Thanks

The birds can teach us a thing or two about life. Especially those ground feeders. Have you noticed chickadees and sparrows feed? As soon as they peck downward to capture the seeds with their beaks, they immediately throw their necks upward.

Quite possibly to aid in consumption, the birds’ movement during feeding suggests to me, symbolically at least, an attitude of gratitude while receiving what is good, what is needed, for life. The bird looks to heaven in between each peck to thank the Creator for the gift of food.

It is born into the fabric of our nature to give thanks. On the one hand, we work and take responsibility to delve deeply into our lives and the world around us for what we and others need. At the same time we pay attention, mindful of the gift of life and what we receive out of the grace of God.

Not to do both would be unnatural, even unhealthy, for the creature. And this is the initial problem for the rich man in the Gospel text for today (Luke 12:13-21). His total lack of concern for any other person mirrors his total disregard for the source of his life and abundant material possessions.

He is pecking at his food, alright. And, making the most of that! But he is not at the same time looking upward. He is not mindfully paying attention, alert, for what is real, what is true, in that moment of living.

But what if we feel we don’t have enough or anything at all for which to look heavenward in thanksgiving?

A fear of scarcity may very well be what motivates the rich man to build bigger barns and plan for increasing profits in the first place. Planning for a rainy day is what it’s all about, isn’t it? And when that rainy day comes, you don’t want to be found wanting.

Whether it’s fear of having nothing, or destitution in the present circumstances of your life — these attitudes may keep us from looking upward in faith, in thanksgiving. Our hearts are cold stone towards others and God, and/or we believe it’s all up to us to make something happen. God has nothing to do with our material concerns, one way or another.

Have you heard the joke — “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” The rich man in the Gospel makes plans. But they don’t turn out exactly the way he had planned, did they? Earthly death is God’s final say. At some point on our journeys of life, we need to acknowledge that at the end of our days it’s not about us, but about God whose promises stand forever.

I don’t think God actually laughs at us when we tell God our best-laid plans. But perhaps we are called upon by this Gospel to turn our hearts and minds outward, and upward, with some humility.

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This is what is left of my mother’s inheritance: One, crumbling brick. When my mother grew up in pre-Second-World-War Poland, she belonged to a large and very wealthy German family in the south-west. She lived in an estate-sized home whose family owned large tracts of land and had servants waiting on them 24-hours a day.

Then, as the Soviet army pushed westward across Europe in the mid-1940s, the Soviets expropriated any properties owned by Germans. My mother’s father was taken to far eastern Ukraine where he later died, and her mother and siblings were put out on the street. For days they lived in corn fields trying to evade marauding soldiers on the hunt. Finally they were able to find shelter with a relative where they were able to live in safety until the end of the War.

Literally, in a matter of days, from riches to rags. The American Dream, in reverse.

Decades later after the iron-curtain (the physical and symbolic wall that divided East and West) fell, my mother traveled to her home town with her brother and sisters. They visited their old property where nothing besides piles of rubble from the old homestead remain.

For my mother, this brick symbolizes why not to place eternal value in material possessions. It points to the need to view life as much more than a selfish grab of as much stuff as possible.

Moreover, it represents the basis for a life of gratitude. For, if it weren’t for the experience of doing without, she may have never come to the realization of and the attention towards a life lived for the sake of others and of God.

You might recall a Hebrew story from Scripture sounding a similar theme to our Gospel for today, when Joseph in a dream is instructed to tell Pharaoh to save food in barns for seven years of plenty in order to prepare for a subsequent seven years of famine (Genesis 41:32-36). This is a wonderful scriptural precedent for gathering in a bountiful harvest and saving it for the future.

The critical difference, of course, is that in the case of Joseph, the purpose of doing so is for the benefit of many people — indeed an entire nation.

Echoes of previous stories from the Gospel of Luke resonate. In the case of Mary and Martha — where Mary has chosen the better way — the point is not that preparing food and being busy is bad. It’s just that Martha was distracted from remaining centered on the whole point of being busy: serving with prayerful attention to the divine guest.

In the same way, there is nothing wrong with acquiring material wealth. It’s more a question of what purpose it serves and to whose benefit. The answer to that question will determine the value of the entire activity.

What is the purpose of this building in which we worship today? What will its purpose be in not only seven years from now, but twenty-five and fifty?

There’s nothing wrong with food. There’s nothing wrong with money. There’s nothing wrong with buildings and properties and abundance of material wealth. It’s being very clear and motivated by the mission, the vision, the purpose that’s at stake. Form follows function, not the other way around.

Someone in the bible study group on this text summarized the message of this text for us today, as being: “Allowing what we have now to be used for God’s purposes.” It may not be much, from our perspective. But it’s what God has given us in this time and place. How are we using it for God’s purposes? And where may the Holy Spirit be leading us?

I entitled this sermon “Doing God Thanks”. I think viewing our mission in light of God’s purposes requires of us discipline around our attitude of gratitude. And it’s not just in the feeling of thankfulness, it’s in responding, in doing, in putting muscle to the task at hand. We look up, and we look out, and actually move our bodies in that direction — and then see what God has in store.

But we start with what we know we have, for which we can offer hearts of thanksgiving.

Listen to what Richard Rohr writes about on the topic of “Day-to-Day-Gratitude” (p.285, “On the Threshold of Transformation”):

Things go right more often than they go wrong. Our legs carry us where we are going, our eyes let us see the road ahead, and our ears let us hear the world around us. Our bodies, and our lives, work pretty much as they should, which is why we become so unsettled when we confront any failure or injustice. This is not so true for people born into intense poverty or social injustice, of course. And we had best never forget that.

Nevertheless, we must stop a moment and look clearly and honestly at our life thus far. For most of us, life has been pretty good.

We shouldn’t be naive about evil, but perhaps the most appropriate attitude on a day-to-day basis should be simple and overwhelming gratitude for what has been given. From that overflowing abundance will come the energy to work for those who have a life of scarcity and sadness.

From what are you grateful, in the midst of your full and complex life?

God is the source of life and all things good. God will give us what we need to work towards God’s ends, God’s kingdom on earth. May we dig deep and never forget to look up — to see how rich God is toward us.

Thanks be to God!

On whom have I given up?

“First of all, I urge that thanksgivings should be made for everyone (I Timothy 2:1)

Let’s face it. Even the most mature, enlightened and experienced of us need to confess: There are those we have given up on.

Mitt Romney may have given up on half the population in the United States. Unwise to admit, politically.

And yet haven’t we all, personally? That is, given up on those who annoy us to no end. On those who are different from us. On those whom we know we can’t change for the better. On those who appear to threaten our sense of security and stability. On those who are very near and dear to us who have fallen away from the faith. On those we pretend to have some measure of control or influence over, but who have rebelled against our wishes and desires. On the infirm, the elderly locked away in their homes or on the ward. Those in prison, incarcerated for committing some crime. On our political leaders. Have we given up on them?

Have you given up on that dream, a hope for your life? Have we given up on ourselves, tragically, when all options seem closed to us?

There’s a kind of resignation that comes with giving up. After having argued, reasoned, persuaded and tried oh so long and hard. After having endured tension and animosity for a long time. After trying so hard and so long.

Finally, enough is enough. We find ourselves at the end of our rope. I give up on them! I don’t want anything to do with them anymore. I don’t want to dream anymore!

Talking about politicians, I think it was Bill Clinton who said, “You become old when memories of the past outweigh your dreams for the future.” Have you given up?

And we turn to the scriptures to justify our resignation, where Jesus counseled his disciples in a specific situation to “shake the dust off your feet” (Mark 6:11); Jesus, who gave us words we use to rationalize not caring for the poor (Mark 14:7). We turn to Paul, who in another situation encouraged his followers not to associate with the ‘immoral’ (1 Corinthians 5:11).

Our anger, fear and anxiety lead us to insulate ourselves from others — creating fortresses and cocooning in places and routines that preserve our sense of self. As our world gets narrower and we dig ourselves deeper in the rut of isolation, our hearts harden and we fight harder to exclude others from our vision.

And then, surprise! We encounter the Gospel which states in no uncertain terms that in “God’s world there is no them and us. There is no them. Only us.” (@JamesMartinSJ)

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy Paul encourages Timothy to pray for all people, for God desires ALL people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:1,4). Not just our friends. Not just those who agree with us. Not just those with whom we get along and are just like us.

But those very people who annoy us. Those who are different from us. Those with whom we have little in common. Those who do not listen nor agree with us. Those who intimidate us. ALL people.

Maybe I need to keep praying for these folks, and not give up on them. Because God Almighty Maker of heaven and earth surely hasn’t. God has not given up on them.

Maybe what I need to give up, if anything, is the presumption that somehow it is I who is going to save them, change them and make them into the person I want them to be. Maybe what I need to give up is the belief that it is I who will manufacture the life I want to live.

Maybe my job is to keep hoping, keep praying, keep being the person God made me to be. Maybe my job is to persist in a gracious disposition to those I encounter in my day. Maybe my job is to take the risk to reach out in love — and leave the rest up to God. Maybe my job is to let the Christ in me see the Christ in you.

Yes, that’s my job. But it is not my job to ever, ever, give up on anyone — including myself. My dreams. And God. And the person who I can’t stand.

How can I do this, and maintain this sense of compassion for all?

Listen to this story entitled, “The Old Man and the Gulls”, written by Paul Aurandt (in ‘Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story’, quoted in ‘Heaven Bound Living’ Standard Publishing, 1989, p.79-80):

It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket.

Many years ago, in 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour which would hurl Captain Eddie into the most harrowing adventure of his life.

Somewhere over the South Pacific their plane became lost beyond the reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched the plane in the ocean…For nearly a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine by five. The biggest shark…ten feet long.

But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred. In Captain Eddie’s own words, “Cherry,” that was the B- 17 pilot, Captain William Cherry, “read the service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare, I dozed off.”

Now this is still Captain Rickenbacker talking…”Something landed on my head. I knew that it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces. They were staring at that gull. The gull meant food…if I could catch it.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Captain Eddie caught the gull. Its flesh was eaten. Its intestines were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice. You know that Captain Eddie made it.

And now you also know…that he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset…on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast…you could see an old man walking…white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls…to thank and remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle…like manna in the wilderness.

This story is about ‘not giving up’ — on several levels. Not giving up on life — even in the midst of desperate circumstances. Not giving up on God — for before the sea gull was caught, the surviving men praised God, said their prayers and sung a hymn. Not giving up on hope, even when all seemed hopeless.

And, finally, not giving up on giving thanks. The persistence that trumps a ‘giving up on’ kind of attitude is giving thanks over the long term. Not-giving-up is born from an attitude of gratitude. Thanksgiving is grown in the heart, over the long haul. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker didn’t start living gratitude after his miraculous survival story; it was already being cultivated before it. It is about learning to see whatever good there is, even in the direst of situations — and giving thanks for any glimmer of grace therein.

I like the way Mary Jo Leddy in her book, “Radical Gratitude”, wrote about the gratitude expressed by the birds at the start of a new day; she writes:

“There is a moment each day when it is morning before it is morning. Darkness still hovers over the deep. Those who wait for the dawn can hear it even before they see it. At first there are only the slight sounds of attunement as a chorus of birds assembles: twits and trills, chirps and peeps, and even the occasional squawk. Slowly they gather into one great concerted song of supplication: Let it begin! Let us begin! May it begin again! They are of one accord. They do not take the dawn for granted. When it bursts upon them, once again, as on the first day of creation, they give thanks once again for this once only day, to begin. The birds know, as we sometimes do, that the light does not dawn because of our singing. We sing because the dawn appears as grace.”

Is there someone you’ve given up on? Is there a dream, a hope, for your life you are on the verge of ditching. Make a list. And then, sometimes this Thanksgiving weekend, go down that list slowly and give God thanks for each of the people you’ve named there. Give thanks for each of those dreams and hopes you have listed there.

And then pray that their hearts, as yours, will be opened to receive the grace, love and light of God. And God will give you your heart’s desire (Psalms 20:4 & 37:4).

Amen.