Faith alone not our faith alone

“Increase our faith,” we pray.

Isn’t that what we want? More faith to get us through the tough times. More faith to make us better people. More faith to tolerate things in life that set us off course. More faith to believe in things that are not easy to believe in. More. If only we had more.

In the BBC television series called “Broken” actor Sean Bean plays the role of Michael, a parish priest in a small, industrial town. In one of the episodes he answers a question from someone in the youth group curious as to why he chose the priesthood.

He tells the story of when he was eighteen years old he went one day with a crowd of people to visit a falconer on the side of a hill. To see such a large bird with a with a vast wingspan take flight was a treat for the villagers, many of whom had never before seen a falcon. The falconer took time describing the bird to the villagers and even had some of them feed it.

Then they all watched captivated by the sight of the majestic bird lifting off from the falconer’s outstretched arm. Michael saw the bird circle once overhead before heading out into the vast sky overlooking the valley below. The falcon became smaller and smaller—a small dot over the horizon—until it finally disappeared from view.

The afternoon wore on. People looked at the falconer and each other, wondering what to do. But the falconer did not move from his place on the side of the hill. The hours turned and the sun was setting in the western sky. What had started as a large crowd dissipated until there was only the falconer and Michael standing alone there. Michael wondered why the people had left.

He sympathized, for sure. Perhaps, as he was feeling, there was no point in hanging around anymore. The falcon was gone. How would it know to return to this very spot after ranging across a sky which was so vast and covered the whole world? Why would the falcon even care to return? It was now free to roam wherever it wanted to go. What more could it want?

To Michael’s surprise, but not it seemed to the falconer’s, as the darkness descended on the hillside he heard a flutter and rush of wings. The falcon had returned and now sat perched contentedly on the falconer’s arm. Michael could see the white of the falconer’s teeth showing from behind a smile that stretched from cheek to cheek. Michael laughed with delight.

Here was faith. And it was the falconer’s witness of faith that inspired Michael on his life journey. That the falconer had waited on that hillside for what seemed like forever. To stay there, when everyone else had gone home, even if it meant waiting alone. To have no guarantee that the falcon would return. To not have control over how long and when. And if. But only do what he was called to do: Let the falcon go. Let that bird with whom he had a relationship, to be sure, go.

“Increase our faith.”

Maybe it’s not our faith that is at stake here. These texts assigned for today can easily lead us into yet another guilt trip or glory trip—as if that’s what faith is all about! We are either not worthy enough, not good enough. Or, look – I’ve moved mountains! If only we had more, even more, faith!

“Increase our faith.”

The faith talked about in these passages are Christian, but perhaps not in the sense of the faith of the Christians. Because dwelling exclusively on our faith alone often gets us spiraling into dark holes of depression and feelings of unworthiness, defeat and failure. We hit walls of misunderstanding when we separate our faith from the faith of Christ, the One we trust. Here the central understanding is not our faith but faith in Christ, a faith that mirrors the faith of Christ.

It is like eighteen-year-old Michael watching the faith of the falconer.  What Michael ends up doing with his life is secondary. What is at stake, what is the most important thing in Michael’s experience on the side of that mountain one long afternoon, is not his own faith but someone else’s.

Timothy is charged to ‘rekindle’ the mustard seed of faith that is within him. The mustard seed is tiny, almost undetectable to the naked eye. We don’t often recognize the gift that is already there.[1]

Perhaps we too need to wait on the side of that hill, and not just give up and go home.

Timothy is encouraged that there is something good within him working long before he even became aware of it. He has to be reminded that “grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began”. And that we are called to good things, “not according to our works but according to [Christ’s] own purpose and grace.”[2]

In prayer, in our relationships and interactions, the search-light of consciousness turns off ourselves and onto the living Christ. When the attention turns away from our stuff—good and bad—and onto Jesus, I believe we may feel a needed lift. Our heart alights. The pressure for performance relaxes. The guilt dissipates. And we can start by simply being in awe about the One whose purposes and faithfulness and love reach far beyond our own self-preoccupations, weaknesses and accomplishments.

What transformed eighteen-year-old Michael was not an argument about faith, not a debate which he won or lost and convinced him either way what to do with his life. What transformed Michael was an encounter with someone who showed him the way, who practiced faith. Our call is not to win all the arguments but to forgive as we have been forgiven and to love as we have been loved.

We are called to get in touch with the Giver of the gift of faith. We are called to give thanks for the One who beckons for us to stay on the journey, calling us not worthless, but friends along the way.

Let our prayer of praise therefore shout from the rooftops: “Great is Thy Faithfulness!”[3]Amen.

 

[1]Luke 17:5-10

[2]2 Timothy 1:1-14

[3]Hymn 733, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

Grace first

Over the past six weeks I’ve transited through nine different airports on two different continents. One of the expectations of travellers is that when you are in an airport waiting for your flight, you can access free Wi-Fi.

But, more often than not, it isn’t really free. When your device locates the airport network, and before you can access the internet, you are directed to a page that requires you to give your email. And, be careful to click that box that says you do not wish to receive promotional material.

Even if you are not an airplane traveller, this marketing strategy infests so many of our common life activities. I had my car at the service department this summer a couple of times, and each time I received a ticket to enter into a draw: first prize, a new car! But first I have to go to a website to register the number on my ticket. And, of course, give my email. And, remember to check that box declining promotional material!

In any case, companies are finding ways of expanding their reach into our lives and pocket books. Restaurants, as well, if you want to use their ‘free’ Wi-Fi. What may on the surface appear ‘free’ is merely a way to hook you in. This culture of doing business so infects our way of thinking.

The internet access is merely a modern day example. And yet, it is built on the way human beings have always tended to relate with one another at a more base level. A way of life and inter-relating that screams loudly: “Nothing in life is free!”

What is alarming, from a Christian point of view, is that we seem to be ok with that, and go about living in this tit-for-tat culture we have largely created.

Yet, I continue believing that it is in giving grace that describes best our journey as (Lutheran) Christians. I place ‘Lutheran’ in parenthesis because I believe all Christians today need to put grace first and foremost in our practice of faith and life.

Stories are a great way of conveying the deepest truths. This story is about a rooster in a chicken farm. And I heard it told at the National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, in Regina, last month, by the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge. Here is my adaptation:

Every morning when it was still dark the rooster went out to crow. He did so with amazing commitment, crowing from the depth of his heart and making use of all available resources and art. Actually, he was convinced that it was because of his crowing that the sun rose every morning. When he had finished his daily job and went back to the farm he used to look around with a sense of paternalistic pride at the hens. “There you go, darlings, I’ve made the sun rise for you”, he even said once. “I am the chosen one.”

One morning the sunrise was really wonderful. The rooster got so enthusiastic that he couldn’t stop crowing. The sun had long risen, but he continued crowing, just wanting to make the whole scenery even more perfect.

When he went back to the chicken farm he noticed that he had crowed too long. His throat was aching. Laryngitis. He was only able to produce a weak croaking noise. The rooster panicked. “What will happen tomorrow, if I can’t crow anymore? What will happen to the chicken farm and to all these chickens and hens, which depend so much on my power to make the sun rise…?” He went to sleep very early, just hoping that next morning he would be in good health again.

But he was not! The pain had worsened overnight, and he could not even croak but make only a ridiculously weak squeak. Yet, he went out, like every morning, just pushed by the awareness of his plight and the panic that otherwise the sun wouldn’t rise, and they would all perish. He tried his best, he tried hard… yet there was nothing resembling real crowing coming out of his throat.

Great was his surprise when he suddenly realized that the sun seemed to be rising anyway! Slowly but surely it came up behind the hills, like every morning. Actually, it was again one of those wonderful mornings. But this time, it came without his doing! He turned slowly and looked back to the chicken farm. He couldn’t believe what he saw there: the chickens and hens had come out like every morning as well!

Terribly depressed he went back to the chicken farm. What could be his place there? Didn’t he lose his role and reason to be? And why should he go out the next morning, if the sun rose anyway, without his help? Oh, and he felt so embarrassed and ashamed. He didn’t even dare to look into the hens’ eyes.

“Hey, don’t worry”, said one of the hens. “You can continue crowing”, she said. “Just go out tomorrow as usual. But don’t crow in order to make the sun rise. Just crow because the sun rises!”

This story explains how we understand grace. Grace is like the rising sun. It is there, just because God wants grace to be there. As nobody can prevent the sun from rising, nobody can stop God from being gracious either. That was – in a nutshell – what Jesus revealed about God. That is in all its powerful simplicity the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Good works are an expression of faith, to be sure. Yet, good works are a response to God’s grace. This is how we understand the relationship between justification by grace and sanctification of our lives. Sanctification arises from hearts overflowing with joy and love because of God’s wonderful gifts. It is out of the gift of freedom, which God has acquired for us that we respond with good works.

God’s relationship to us is not conditional on anything we say or do. We don’t first become Christian in order to go to church. We come to church in order to become Christian—over time, even a life time! God doesn’t love us because we are ‘good’. God loves us because God is good. Do you hear the difference between those statements? I hope you do. A subtle difference, maybe yes. But huge implications for how we live our lives. It doesn’t hinge on us.

Because of the culture in the world that operates NOT according to grace, it is a huge challenge for Christians to live out of grace-first principles—such as forgiveness, mercy, and showing compassion unconditionally. It is a huge challenge for us not to put conditions on others before we deem them worthy. It is a huge challenge not to place any expectations on others and ourselves before we can justify helping them or loving them.

No wonder many young people today are cynical about the message that comes from ‘The Church’. “Your mercy is great,” we Sunday Christians pray to God. “But,” they ask, “Is it, really? What’s the catch? What do you want from me?” This cynicism is rampant. We have been infused with, and grown into, a transactional culture: I do something for you (in order that) you do something for me; I do something for God (in order that) God does something for me.

In this world, so anti-grace, we are called to become more fluent in the language and lifestyle of grace-first. We are challenged to give grace, first. Grace first, not judgement. Grace first, not fear. Grace first, not condemnation:

In our relationships with family members whose behaviour or lifestyle we may not be inclined to approve. In our relationships with others outside our circles who represent politics and opinions we are not inclined towards. In our relationships with those marginalized and the poor, Indigenous people and their plight. In our relationship with the land, water and air. Even, in our relationship with God and religion. Maybe most importantly.

The Gospel stories abound with examples of the way Jesus embodies this grace-first approach of God. In the story today (Luke 13:10-17), it’s not about deserving God’s grace first. It’s not about the woman earning Jesus’ favour first, before she is healed. We really know nothing about her — whether she deserves Jesus’ attention. But, you see, that’s not the point. It’s not even about following the rules of religion, which the Pharisees defend at all costs.

Jesus simply ‘sees’ her, and heals her. Jesus exposes the sin of a culture that places rules before grace, a culture which values conformity over the truth of what the sabbath represents: A holy day when the best of what God offers to us is actually demonstrated and given. No matter the rules. Grace first.

Images of water permeate the scriptures. These verses from Isaiah about water stand out. Water, like the sun, is like grace. Water gives sustenance: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11).

A last-minute addition to the itinerary of my family’s western Canada road trip this summer was a visit to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia. There, visitors can sink into a natural hot water soaking pool, then slip into a cool water pool. This is hydrotherapy, like the Scandinavian tradition of hot and cold water-immersion cycles. People come here for healing.

We know the stats: 71% of the earth’s surface covered by water. The human body is composed of over 60% water. Water provides a place for renewal, reconnection and rejuvenation. Water is essential for life. We all need it to live.

It is there before we do anything. Whether or not we choose to step into the healing waters of God’s presence and love and mercy—it’s still there for us. Ever present, despite us. The prophet Isaiah in the same text expresses this truth: “You shall cry for help, and God will say: ‘Here I am’” (v.9). I hear in these words the sense that God is saying, “If you want help, I am here. I’ve always been here right beside you! Hello!”

Christians of old have written about life as a journey of becoming more aware of how we block the flow of God’s love and grace. Blockages, such as fear, greed, selfishness. And then, doing what we can to ‘unblock’ and ‘allow’ divine love to flow more freely through us. Of letting go and allowing the current of divine energy, creativity and love to carry us downstream through life.

Whether or not we respond to the sunrise, as the rooster had to learn, whether or not we choose to participate in the action of God’s grace, the ever-flowing stream of God’s love is already there. It has been flowing from the beginning of time, continues to be the most powerful force in the universe, and is an ever-present reality in the world today.

Whether we know it or not, we’re continually immersed and surrounded by Divine Love, by Sacred, Holy Presence. This is our ultimate confidence and security. “Here I am,” God says to us. “Come to me. I am always by your side to show you mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

And that is why we pray and affirm repeatedly this summer in the petitionary prayers: “Your mercy is great!”

Because it is.

The raising of Love

If I told you that during this past week I bumped into a bunch of little, green aliens that landed in my backyard in their saucer-shaped UFO, I doubt you would believe me.[1]  I also doubt anyone would believe it if you or I brought someone back from death to life.

Yet, that is what the story from Acts implies. Following the resurrection of Jesus, Peter raises from actual death the woman named Tabitha. It isn’t Jesus that is now raising dead people. It isn’t Jesus alone performing such miracles. These are common men and women, like you and me.

How can we accept the miracle of resurrection? How can we believe that ordinary human beings can experience such an incredible degree of change within themselves and others? Death to life is probably the most radical change we can imagine. And yet, this is the very proposition of the resurrection.

On the one hand, we know that nothing is the same forever. So says modern science: ninety-eight percent of our bodies’ atoms are replaced every year; Geologists can prove with good evidence that no landscape is permanent. And, apparently so do people of faith: In the introduction to a mainline liturgy for a funeral service it says: “Life is not ended but merely changed.”[2]

In the short term any change can look and feel like a death. Perhaps that is why we tend to be change-averse. What we really are is death-averse, even though dying must precede any kind of resurrection and new life. The challenge of the Easter message for us is to accept our part in the very natural yet incredible change that is happening in our lives.

Perhaps that is the miracle: to believe change to this degree is possible. And happening, already. So, we affirm the Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

How do we live Christ’s resurrection in our lives?

First of all, I believe we must confess the limits of words alone to describe the meaning of resurrection. We need to go beyond words to describe the truth surrounding the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. Apparently, it was too great a mystery for artists in the first centuries as well.

Until the 6thcentury, the moment of Jesus’ resurrection was deemed unpaintable or uncarvable.[3] Trying to capture, as we would today with a camera, how Jesus appeared and what resurrection looked like is a task too difficult to pin down in a one-time, concrete way. Understanding ‘resurrection’ is not easy but easily can bewilder us as it did those early Christians.

Eventually, certain symbols emerged as telltale signs identifying the Christ-like way and understanding. We know, for example, that before the cross became the central symbol for empire Christians, the fish identified followers of the Way[4] especially during times of persecution. These symbols helped non-literate early century people identify with the profound and ineffable meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

Another symbol that circulated among early Christians was the gazelle. Yes, the gazelle. The symbol of the gazelle became the all-inclusive mark of Christ-like love.

Where the early Christians struggled, for example, with how, or whether, to welcome Jewish people into the Way, the gazelle incorporated and communicated the love of God to do so. Should they include the circumcised? Or not? Could you be ritually impure, and still belong? The image of the gazelle communicated the emphatic ‘yes’ to the questions that Paul would later put in words.

The image of the gazelle pre-dates Christianity. In Jewish art the gazelle was used as a symbol for YAHWEH/God. Even more specifically, the gazelle was used to illustrate the life-giving character of YAHWEH. Why is this important for our discussion of the text from Acts?

Well, the author of this raising-to-life scripture story from Acts introduces the woman named Tabitha in both the Aramaic and Greek languages. That, in and of itself, is significant, in casting the message of the life-giving God to include more than just one group in early-century Palestine. At the same time, the bilingual reference may very well be a writing technique to draw our attention into the meaning of this woman’s name.

In Greek and Jewish culture, everything is in the name. So, let’s go with it. Back to Tabitha. Dorcas, in Greek, literally means ‘gazelle’. Now, bear with me, ‘gazelle’ is a word that literally comes from an older Arabic word for LOVE. We sometimes call this splendid creature an antelope.

I know that we don’t often encounter gazelles in Canada. But they are very common in the Middle East especially the variety that has become known as the Dorcas antelope, which literally means the “love love”. This is why in a culture where the majority could not read, images of the gazelle were used to represent the details of the faith and life-giving character of YAHWEH who is LOVE.

The woman—Tabitha/Dorcas—symbolizes something far greater than we can even begin to imagine at first. For she bears the name of YAHWEH who is LOVE. This story carries us beyond the physical resuscitation of the body of a first century woman. This story carries us beyond the mechanics of a resurrection ‘miracle.’

Clearly, the author here has set his listeners up for a story that expresses more than words can tell. Should we pay attention to it. And go there.

This is the story of the raising of love in the lives of those who follow Christ. This, alone, is a miracle when it happens. The life and love of Christ being raised in us and in the world around us! Can we see it? Can we perceive it? Can we hear the voice of Christ whispering in our hearts to ‘love love’?

Last year at this time when I spent a week in Algonquin Park, I didn’t meet any aliens. But I do recall talking to you about the ice on the lake. In the span of the few days I was there, the lake went from being ice-covered, to completely ice-free. It was incredible to witness such a significant change in the life of the lake, in such a short time frame. In fact, it came as a surprise.

You might call it, the resurrection of the lake. A couple warmer days strung together and a day of rain and wind, and … voilà! When I hiked out of the bush on the last day I could not detect one chunk of ice. If it weren’t for the budding leaves on trees around the lake and the still-cool temperatures you would think we were in the middle of summer the way the lake looked.

How different it was on the first day of that week! A sheet of white ice had locked the waters in its icy grip. It looked like that that ice wasn’t going anywhere for a long time! To suggest the ice would be completely gone in a few days — I wouldn’t believe it. The radical change was imperceptible. Or, was it?

I sat on the banks of the lake shore on the second day, surveying the field of drifting snow and glimmering ice stretching across the entire surface of the lake. It was quiet, except for the occasional chirping of a bird and the sound of the wind through the pines above. But when everything was still, I heard it.

First, it was subtle, barely detectible. A cracking, a knocking, a whining and groaning. Things were shifting below the surface. The ice was beginning to break up!

Although I couldn’t notice it with my eyes, I could hear it. Just. The change was happening. But only by hearing it, being open to it, paying attention to it. And giving myself a chance, in the first place, to be present to it.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me.”[5] It’s not easy nor always quick to recognize God’s call amid the cacophony of sounds and distractions in our world. It’s not easy to discern the will of God in a complex society with moral questions and conundrums that can leave us spinning with confusion and mental paralysis . The noise can be enough to burn us out and leave us despairing.

The noise of delusion, false aspiration, needless worry; the allure of addiction, distraction and material comfort. It’s hard to hear that “still, small voice” of God’s resurrection change in the world and in our life. To recognize it, we must practice and learn how to pay attention, again, to the melting of the ice in God’s love.

Maybe, now that Christ is alive, it’s about a power that permeates all things. Maybe that power is a love that includes Jesus as much as it includes Peter, Tabitha, you and me. Maybe resurrection is about experiencing God’s love in all my relationships.

What a wonder to behold! What a love to live into!

No wonder so many are seeking solace in the practice of meditation—a safe place being in silence and stillness to practice paying attention, and listening to the voice of Jesus. Christians have meditated together since the early church in the form of the “Jesus Prayer”, for example. I encourage you to try it if you haven’t already.[6]

We all need starting points. The melting ice on the lake needed to start melting and breaking apart. Prayer in this way is a good starting point from which to live into the resurrection we share with all people and all of creation in the risen Christ Jesus. This prayer involves me in the life of Christ in the world that God so loved. I don’t have to worry whether or not I have the power to do these things—it is the life of Christ who works these miracles in me and in the world!

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Please read the comprehensive and insightful sermon by the Rev. Dawn Hutchings, The Raising of LOVE: the ‘more-than-literal’ meaning of the Raising of Tabitha – a sermon on Acts 9:36-41 (www.pastordawn.wordpress.com). I gratefully draw on her alien illustration, her research on the meaning of Tabitha’s name, and the reference to the dorcas antelope/gazelle. Thank you, Dawn, for your words.

[2]Richard Rohr, Raised from the Dead; Jesus’ Resurrection(Daily Meditation, www.cac.org), April 24, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, From Darkness to Light; Jesus’ Resurrection(Daily Meditation, www.cac.org), April 25, 2019

[4]Acts 18:26; 19:9; 24:14

[5]John 10:27

[6]Faith has a weekly Christian Meditation group, which meets at 5pm on Wednesdays. See www.faithottawa.ca/calendarfor details.

With us, snowed-in

I wasn’t able to remove the Christmas manger scene from our front yard in time, before the snowstorms left everything buried. As we’ve approached Lent, the joke in our household is that Jesus, like us, is snowed-in.

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It likely won’t be until late April now when I will be able to remove the tableau from the frozen earth and its snowy cover. When will Jesus be set free from the tomblike confines of winter’s grip?

When exactly, no one knows. Meteorologists are calling for a cooler-than-normal late April /early May. It might be a while.

The Jesus story, for us, begins in winter around the winter solstice on Christmas Day. We begin again our Lenten pilgrimage in the throes of winter, when snow and ice cover everything. When will the sky brighten and warmer temperatures heat the ground again? When does the journey end?

The poet, Mary Oliver, who died in January of this year, wrote primarily about winter. In several pieces she twins snow with wisdom, the capacity to live with questions in silence, surrendering to its beauty. “I love this world,” she wrote, “but not for its answers.”[1]

I’ve considered Christianity to be a winter faith. We, as people of faith, live with many questions that are largely unanswerable. Why do we still live in a world beset by injustice, intolerance, hatred—despite all good effort in the name of Jesus to the contrary? Why death and disease? When will we find the answers to our deepest questions? Why? Why? Why? Winter is a time for questions.

And so, we continue to search, wander, and wonder with Jesus snowed-in, by our side.

But, is Jesus in over his head?

The temptation of Jesus—as this story is famously called—happens near the beginning of his divine calling and ministry.[2]He goes into the wilderness, the desert, for forty days. He goes into a place of harsh simplicity, stripped of all creaturely comforts, to serve a holy purpose.

We wonder, will he survive the challenge?

Given his life purpose on earth, he meets with what could be his greatest vulnerability—the seduction of power and its forceful implications. The man who is the Son of God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Almighty and Everlasting, the man whom people would look to for guidance and leadership, the man who many would lift onto a pedestal—would Jesus succumb to everyone’s expectation?

Would Jesus yield to the temptation that he, the Messiah, will now lead the revolt to free the suppressed and oppressed Judeans out from Roman occupation? Would he be the political rallying point around which the crowds would mobilize and generate an effective, political movement?

And, in fact, the evil one touches on this potential weakness. Notice in different ways each of the three temptations seduce Jesus to grab hold of power that would make him this kind of King: One who satisfies his every appetite and hunger using whatever means at his disposal; one who creates God in one’s own image by forcing God’s hands, one who offers blind obedience to those still ‘above’ them while climbing the ladder of ‘success’.

But that’s not what Jesus was going to be about. We know that. In order to embrace his true identity, what happens?

Jesus is first led by the Spirit into this vulnerable place, not away from it. He was to first meet this human, shadow side.

The point of Lenten discipline, whatever it may be for you, is to be led into that shadow place in our own lives that we, on our own, don’t want and even can’t go. The Spirit leads us to face that which we normally distract ourselves from, where we normally deny, avoid. What is that vulnerability for you?

What does the light and Spirit reveal in the dark corners of your life? Is it a fear? Is it a conversation you know needs to happen? Is it confronting a situation you have been trying to avoid? Is it coming to terms with what is really going on deep down in your heart?

How does Jesus respond to his temptation? How does he return to his identity in God?

The scriptural quotations he cites are signs of his true identity—his ‘touchstone’, if you will. The scriptures point to his true self. By citing the scripture, he reminds himself, he aligns himself, he allies himself, with what grounds him in who he is. By citing scripture he relies not on his own humanity and resources of his own making, but rather on God.

This text provides rich support for our own journeys of Lent. As we wander into the wilderness of our lives and continue to trudge through the snow wary of still slipping on the ice, as we wonder with our questions, we meet our own shadow sides. And are called to stay rooted in who and whose we are.

And what is your touchstone for remembering your identity in Christ? Is it scripture? Is it the bread and cup of the sacrament? Is it a song? Is it an act of repeated service for another? Is it a prayer?

In her poems about winter Madeleine L’Engle writes a word of hope for the journey:

“Snow does not obscure the shape of things. It outlines them, like an icy highlighter, revealing the deep structure of the world. We walk through the woods, seeing differently, and, when we glimpse the hidden structure, we ask questions even as we experience its stark beauty.”[3]

Writer-theologian, Diana Butler Bass takes it further: “Strangely I have found in my own life that it is only through a wintery spirituality that I am able to affirm summer and sunshine. A friend wrote me recently, ‘Winter reveals structure’. Only as the structure is firmly there are we able to dress it with the lovely trappings of spring, budding leaves, rosy blossoms. Winter is the quiet, fallow time when earth prepares for the rebirth of spring.”

The word, Lent, means ‘springtime’. While the Lenten journey begins in the frozen winter, we can say in faith that the purpose of the journey is to bring us to Spring. Because by the end of the Lenten season, the snow will be gone revealing the soft, verdant earth underneath where new life is just budding to sprout.

In the end, the disciplines of Lent, the questions we now pose and with which we struggle on the journey, these are gifts from God. They point us to God’s presence in our lives and in our world. In the end, that is what faithful observance of Lent is—“a grace-filled return to the Lord our God.”[4]

Who begins with us, snowed-in and under.

 

[1]Cited in Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage: A Winter Faith (January 18, 2019)

[2]Luke 4:1-13

[3]Madeleine L’Engle cited in Diana Butler Bass, ibid.

[4]Kimberly M. Van Driel, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.25.

Surrender, to be free indeed: a sermon for Reformation Sunday

I am grateful that by some coincidence the choir sang today a piece whose title was, “I surrender to Jesus”. And, indeed, the thread that runs through the whole song is the act of of surrendering. This theme might, on the surface, appear incongruent and disconnected with Reformation Sunday.

As a child, I remember Reformation Sundays in the Lutheran Church were indeed ‘celebrations.’ As if we were remembering and celebrating a victory on the battlefield of religious truth. Against our opponents in the religious marketplace.

When we retold the stories of Martin Luther who five hundred years ago stood up to communicate his theological emphasis — that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to scripture alone — the upshot was that those who didn’t believe this were lost, even despised. Worthy of our judgement. Illumination translated into pressure to conform, need to compete and become embroiled in violent conflict.

Indeed the history of the Reformation in the decades and centuries following Martin Luther’s assertions reflects violence. Wars, based more on political and economical divisions, were fought in the name of Protestant or Catholic truth. Blood was shed. Common folk lost their livelihoods even their lives in the upheavals of the so-called religious wars across Europe. Marching into battle to defend truth became the vision and basis for ‘celebrating’ the Reformation.

Martin Luther’s unfortunate anti-semitism whose words the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada repudiated became grounds for hatred against Jewish people to this day, such as in Pittsburgh yesterday. Indeed hatred and violence are as much a legacy of the Reformation as anything else.

Surrendering is indeed counterpoint to the flavour of victory. The cross always stands in contrast to the wiles of glory-seeking fanatics. It is not an easy path: Waving a white flag in the wind may feel like we are ‘giving up’ on who we are, or not caring anymore, or losing our identity. And, here, it doesn’t matter whether we surrender spiritually to Jesus or surrender to anyone on earth. It is the act of surrender that offends our sense of being. And scares us.

That is why, perhaps, we react to this notion that surrender is a good thing. And so, we keep fighting, defending, being all self-righteous. And violent against others, in word and deed. When all along, the truth of it and the real problem is: We find it difficult to admit that in some things we were, and are, wrong.

Martin Luther didn’t want to create a new church. If he knew today that his actions resulted not only in the proliferation of some 30,000 Christian denominations and a plethora of Protestant churches across the globe, but that there was even a church named after him—he would be rolling around in his grave. And yet we trust that despite Luther’s good intentions to merely reform the Roman Catholic Church of which he wanted to remain a member, what has happened is part of something much larger than Luther himself.

The truth is, when we take the risk to do what we are called to do, we fall into a larger reality, a larger good, that is beyond our control. Do we do good, or even pray, in order to control the outcome? Do we do good, and pray, so that what we want to happen will turn out? And if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with the prayer, or God? Is the religious life about an escape plan from this world into heaven? Because following Jesus is not management-by-objective. We don’t pray and do good to get an insurance policy for heaven.

Rather, we do what we must do because we are stepping into the flow of a greater good in which we participate. We move into active response to God’s love and grace because whatever we do is not for our sake alone. When we do good and pray, for example, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Following Jesus is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water.

The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. It enlivens us with refreshment and purpose. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is the ocean of complete, loving union with God.

We can also learn from the example of Jesus. In the Gospel text for Reformation Day (John 8:31-36) , those who oppose Jesus try to draw him into an argument. Jesus suggests they are not free. They are slaves to sin. His opponents reply by saying they are descendants of Abraham and therefore have never been slaves to anyone.

They are blind to their own inner captivity. They can’t see how enslaved they actually are. Indeed they are not free to grow, in Christ. Because they are right. And everyone else is wrong. They are their own worst enemy.

When Jesus hangs on the cross, and prays to God, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” (Luke 23:46) he expresses a profound and deep surrender, a letting go, into the immeasurable vastness that is God. From his moment of ‘forsakenness’ (Mark 15:34) that we all must one day experience we learn that faith is not about belief at all. It is about trust and love.

This is a surrendering that does not compromise in any way who we are. Letting go is not ‘giving up’, as if we don’t care anymore about whatever it is we’ve been so inclined to manage and control.

Surrendering to God is releasing our managerial faculties. It is like forgiveness, when we let go of the resentment that keeps us trapped in wanting revenge and retribution. Surrendering to God is an expression of complete trust in that which is wonderfully greater than anything we can imagine let alone accomplish on our own.

Over twenty years ago, Carl Sagan’s book, Contact, was made into a movie. This is basically a story of aliens who send the makings of an interstellar vehicle to earth. Engineers and scientists figure out how to complete this egg-shaped pod that would transport one person through gateways and wormholes to other worlds in the universe.

It is during the inaugural flight that the character played by Jodie Foster discovers a solution to a serious problem. She discovers that what humans think is a sensible, reasonable thing to do actually is the problem.

You see, in this orb that would be Jodie Foster’s mode of travel, there was at first no chair, or anything to keep her in place. And how could someone travel at untold speeds to unimaginable, unknown places without some way to secure her body? Otherwise she could seriously hurt herself tumbling about inside.

So the engineers and scientists construct an elaborate chair which they fasten to the inside of the capsule.

As expected, during the initial flight, Jodie Foster’s character experiences an excruciating degree of turbulence and vibration, to the point where she might expire from the stress of it.

At the height of the extreme shaking, a pendant that had been around her neck comes loose. And floats in front of her eyes. Surprisingly it isn’t subjected to the violent turbulence. It isn’t moving at all. Just floating, suspended in space. It is still. Peaceful.

An idea comes to her in a flash. Without hesitating she unbuckles her chest strap, and releases her body from the chair. From that moment on, her body is finally free from being confined to the chair. She could then fully appreciate, enjoy and embrace the wonder of her interstellar experience.

She understands now that the aliens knew what they were doing in sending a chair-less vessel to earth. They had indeed done their homework before coming to make contact with humans. In unbinding herself, she discovers she can trust them, the experience, and the greater good of what was happening to her.

Had she fixated on remaining bound in the chair, she would not have been able to discover the wonders of the universe to its fullest. Worse, she could have died.

She had to let go. She had to surrender any notion of security to survive. She had to take the risk to unbind herself. She had to trust, and have faith, that in the letting go, she would find peace. And be free.

We don’t have to be right. Only faithful. That when we surrender to Jesus we express in our praying and in our work a trust that we, and the whole universe, are held in the loving embrace of God.

From the scrap heap of metal, we find two pieces. These pieces are ready to be disposed of. The bare bones. The raw material. Broken pieces. These pieces represent our broken, common humanity.

We can do something with these pieces, to be sure. These scraps of metal can be used to brace structures of our own doing—reinforce supporting walls, strengthen sides in a piece of furniture, cover holes and be painted over in appealing colours.

But when these scraps are left alone, God makes something out of nothing. From the ‘scrap’ consciousness. You see, it is no good when these pieces are already made into something by our own hands. But in our dissembled lives, when either the world only sees just scraps and/or we only see the broken dissembled pieces of our lives.

It is only when we let go and let be ‘just as we are’ that God does something with us through the cross. We then become part of the greater flow of love running forever towards God.

Thanksgiving not a 1-day event

Thanksgiving is not a one-day event.

Canadian Thanksgiving weekend is upon us. Even so, we know that for many of us in Ottawa feeling thankful is not easy at this time. Especially in the aftermath of the tornadoes, what about the folks in Dunrobin?

Indeed, difficult circumstances in life can challenge our attitudes and beliefs. Bad news can dampen any uplifting feelings. We may even react angrily to those who tell us to be happy and thankful.

Perhaps if we understand thanksgiving more as something we do over time rather than a one-shot deal, we can get through those tough times. Perhaps if we see thanksgiving as something that grows slowly in our hearts rather than an artificial nostalgia imposed during one Fall weekend in October, we can find a way through all the topsy-turvy feelings in our lives. True, thanksgiving is an attitude and corresponding action of ‘giving’ more than a self-serving emotional exercise.

The restoration efforts in Dunrobin, Gatineau and parts of Nepean continue. And they will, for some time to come. The needs of those rebuilding their lives didn’t stop in the week following the devastating tornadoes.

Below is a list compiled last weekend by a neighbor living in the Cityview community. Please consider the various opportunities to help those in need, locally. And, in so doing, giving thanks despite all that’s not perfect in the world.

May God grow the seed of thanksgiving in our hearts at this time of year.

What you can do:

1. Donate to the Red Cross, which is helping both Ottawa and Gatineau residents.

Ottawa: http://www.redcross.ca or by calling 1-800-418-1111.

Gatineau: http://www.gatineau.ca/croix-rouge

2. A financial donation to the Ottawa Senators’ fundraiser on GoFundMe.com. Ottawa-Gatineau supporters have donated $187,798 and the Ottawa Senators Foundation is going to match the total amount raised.

Visit their page at: https://www.gofundme.com/ottawa-senats-amp-fans-tornado-relief

3. Donate clothing, furniture or other household items to St. Vincent de Paul. To locations in Ottawa: Merivale Rd and Wellington

4. In Gatineau, donations of “clean clothing in good condition, personal hygiene products and non-perishable foods” can be dropped off at the former Sears location at the Galeries de Hull on Boul. Saint-Joseph.

5. The food banks are in need of donations. It is best to call them to find out what is needed most. Here are just a couple. There are others too in Gatineau.

The Kanata Food Cupboard – http://www.kanatafoodcupboard.ca/ – it is open for donations on Monday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and will coordinate delivery to the locations “most in need.”

The Ottawa Food Bank – http://www.ottawafoodbank.ca/ – you can hold a food drive, volunteer, and/or make a donation through their website.

6. CBC has set-up The “Ottawa-Gatineau Tornado Community Connector” Facebook group is a place for anyone to share their ideas to help people without power or looking for shelter and supplies.

A New Way to Pray: Tracking the Trajectory of the Reformation

What follows are the lecture notes for Week Three in the course I am giving at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality (www.osts.ca) this Fall. Reformation Sunday is on the last Sunday in October, October 28, 2018. It is a time for Lutherans and all Christians to reflect on the legacy of Reformation, commemorate its contributions, and to pray for unity among all who try to follow in the Way of Christ Jesus today.

Lucas Cranach was a Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving. He was a friend of Martin Luther and his wife Katharine von Bora. In one of his paintings (1547) focusing on the Cross of Christ, Cranach depicts Martin Luther preaching to the congregation. I remember this particular painting vividly as it hung above the bookshelf in my house growing up.

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It shows Martin Luther standing in a pulpit perched high on the wall of the chancel at the front of the medieval church. One of Martin Luther’s hands rests on the bible. And he points with his other hand to a cross with Jesus hanging bloodied bruised planted in the floor space between Luther and the crowd gathered in the church. Jesus hanging on the cross forms the center of this work of art.

Today this painting comprises one of the plates surrounding the altar in the Wittenberg church where Luther preached. As such, we often recognize and associate this painting with the ‘Reformation altar’.

Its prominence in Lutheran history suggests how poignantly this painting describes Luther’s theological bias: The Cross stands at the center. And Christ crucified informs everything in the church and even our reading of the bible.

Before we can embrace deeper understanding of Martin Luther’s theological claim that we find salvation by God’s grace—which finds us— through faith, we must first encounter the centrality of the Cross in Luther’s thinking and prayer.

In the seminary that I attended[1], we used the term, “Theology of the Cross”. Martin Luther first coined the phrase in his Heidelberg Disputation written in 1518. A theology of the cross is a way of understanding and imagining God. Fundamentally, in addressing God, we need to ask the questions: What is my image of God? Where is God primarily revealed? How is God best known?

Luther provided an answer: God was, and is, being revealed to us in all truth most clearly and unequivocally in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed—and continues to—the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world. It is no wonder, then, that the longest sections in each of the four Gospels in the New Testament are dedicated to the various passion narratives[2]of Jesus.

Therefore, the Cross is theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul (the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles) who central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[3]

The Theology of the Cross is contrasted to a Theology of Glory. Especially today among spiritually materialistic cultures in the West, what has been coined ‘a prosperity gospel’ has grown in popularity. This theology of glory presumes God validates faith, and is only validated by, success, measures of progress and triumphal conquering over any weakness or adversary.

A prosperity gospel fueled by unbridled optimism avoids places of defeat, failure, vulnerability and weakness as having anything to do with divine identity or purpose. A theology of glory undermines real people and a God who is known in the darkest times and places of life. It compromises and even derides a common humanity and the losses we all endure.

Prayer, as I have said, is the act of letting go. If prayer begins with God, and our address of God, we must presume before all else who this God is, and how this God is revealed—in scripture, in tradition and in our own experience.

One of the first creeds that circulated among the earliest Christians is from a hymn imbedded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-11. The poetry first describes the descent of God. This is the primary movement of God, and of faith: downward. The Almighty chose to enter the lower and lowest regions of human birth, life and death. Only after this primary downward movement can the rising out of the depths happen.

Theologians over the centuries have used the term kenosis, from this text in Philippians, to capture the primary movement of faith. It starts with Christ’s self-emptying and letting go of God’s pure, divine nature. In God’s humility, Jesus compromised a perfect divinity in order to take on the fullness of a human existence.

Our God is a God who lets go, releases, self-empties what has become part of the God-self. This calls for a descent of the soul which in the words of St John of the Cross entails, indeed, a ‘dark night’ of the soul. Prayer is not easy, in so much as it may very well be simple.

Prayer, in the words of Laurence Freeman, “… always involves us in the paradoxes of growth, the cycle of losing so that we can find and then of having to let go of what we have found.”[4]

Prayer is a continual process of detaching and dislodging from places of comfort, stability and strength. Prayer is a deconstructive process. It is disruptive. In prayer we begin first to detach our self from all that we are attached to, all that has defined our identity and lives, all our constructs—mental and material—that constitute the construction and containment of our ego. All of this, in prayer, is placed on the precipice of loss.

All is not lost, however. Because in action and contemplation prayer’s aim and understanding is the prayer of God and for the sake of the God of the Cross. “Prayer calls the active person to a life of interiority and soul discovery … by detaching from all the fruits of action and doing everything purely for the love of God.”[5]In letting go, we discover our true self in God which includes and transcends all that we have been and are becoming.

By kenosis we resolve the Lutheran paradox. Some complain that the grace of God is cheap, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer last century who sacrificed his life for a greater cause of justice in the Nazi regime. He wrote a book entitled, “The Cost of Discipleship”. Bonhoeffer argued that the theology of the cross ought not lead the Christian to rest on their laurels and not do anything. Just because we are saved by grace and since Christ lost everything for everyone once and for all doesn’t mean there isn’t a point doing anything. There is a cost of discipleship.

In prayer, we move into response because prayer is not for our sake. When we pray, it is not my prayer or our prayer. Praying is like walking along a path on the banks of a fast-flowing river and frequently stepping into the water. The current is strong. It is moving in one direction. We immerse ourselves into presence, the presence of Christ. We fall into the river of prayer that continues, the prayer of the living, resurrected Jesus, whose destination is union with God.

It is in Christ’s name we pray, and for the sake of our God who chose to be revealed in the humility and defeat of the Cross, in the most desperate human condition possible: death. We step maybe timidly yet faithfully into the water, fast flowing towards the great hope of new love and life in God. 

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  1. When you pray, after considering your image of God, what is God doing? What is God’s purpose—a purpose that is consistent with that image of God? Construct your prayer by strengthening the connection between image and function. If God is revealed in human suffering, where does that suffering lead? If God is compassionate, why? If God is patient, for what purpose? If God forgives and heals, to what end? Practice making this relationship between image and function as clear as possible before you make any petition to God. And write down some examples of the connection you make between image and function of God, to share with others next time (See copies of “Prayers of the Day” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship for good examples of how short prayers can be constructed).
  2. What is one non-negotiable spiritual practice and/or belief you would hold onto, if everything else had to be take away? (Ask yourself this, after visiting a place of worship other than your own)
  3. If time was short, what is most important to you in the end? Have you had this crucial conversation with those closest to you? If not, why not?

[1]Martin Luther University College (formerly, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary)

[2]The last several chapters of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe in detail the last days of Jesus leading to his arrest, torture and death on the cross. These passion narratives form nearly half the total lengths of the Gospels.

[3]1 Corinthians 1-2

[4]Laurence Freeman, Christian Meditation Newsletter, June 2005.

[5]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 17 August 2018