There’s a hole, PART 1: Meant to be

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” Genesis 2:15-17).

“There is a hole inside you. It’s been there a long time. Longer than you even knew. But chances are great these days this hole reappears on almost a daily basis, reminding you that something is missing in your life.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really, to say that there is lots that’s wrong with the world. We don’t have to look far and wide to notice the brokenness in our lives, the violence in creation and in relationships of all kinds.

Christians have pointed to the creation stories in Genesis — in the Bible — to locate the beginnings of all that has gone wrong in this world. “The Fall” we have called it.

But all the doctrine-making explanations do not take away the problem.

All that’s not right, all this reminds each of us that something is missing in our lives. Like a hole right at the bottom of your heart.

One of the first camp songs I learned was one that’s called: “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea.” Right off the bat, that image suggests permanence, because a hole at the bottom of the sea has likely been there a very long time.

But the song goes on in repetitive fashion: “There’s a log in the hole … there’s a log … there’s a bump … there’s a frog … there’s a wart … there’s a fly … there’s a flea — all in the hole in the bottom of the sea.”

So even though that hole is an integral and permanent part of the landscape, it’s fun to imagine that hole filled! From a young age we learn that having a hole is not good. It’s better to have it filled, somehow. What is the hole in the bottom of your heart? What is missing in your life?

“It may involve a relationship. It may involve a yearning for intimacy in the relationships you have. Maybe it’s an issue related to health, a problem that has become chronic. Maybe it’s a loved one who died and left a huge hole in your heart.

“Maybe the thing that’s missing has to do with being fulfilled in your life’s work, or vocation, or job. Or, maybe the hole has to do with a dream that has been just out of reach.

“If we had time and courage, we would turn to each other and share what is the hole in our lives. And we would have to listen, because all the holes are different; they’re not quite the same.

“The only thing that is the same, is that everybody is missing something.

“As Christians, we would pray about it. So we claim such verses as: ‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open unto you’ (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9). Over the years, there has been plenty asking, seeking and knocking … and still this thing that is missing persists.

“Oh, we learn eventually to cope with it. Our favourite coping mechanism is to rush back to work and get busy enough to not have to think about it. Others prefer to distract themselves through entertainment. Some of us come to church precisely in search of spiritual distraction from the hole that remains in our hearts.

“But at the end of the day, when you are too tired to remain distracted, when you are trying to get to sleep, the pain of this hole returns. Maybe the pain is so great you well up with tears, and you can’t sleep. You think about all the choices you’ve made in your life and you wish you could do it all over again.

“There is nothing that will keep us up at night like fear. We try to talk ourselves out of anxiety with rational reasons why we shouldn’t be afraid. But as soon as we figure out why what we fear wont happen, we find three more ways it will happen. If only I had ….

“Some will say that God does not desire this for us. That God doesn’t desire us to live with any holes in our lives at all. That God wants us to be complete, whole.

“I’m not sure about that, actually.

“The opening of the bible is very important for us. It gives a short glimpse into what God had in mind for us. It’s only two pages in my bible. That’s all we get, in terms of what God had in mind from the very beginning. The entire rest of the bible is … the recovery plan.

“We cherish these first two pages. They’re critical to us. In these brief glimpses into what God had in mind for us we’re told we were created by God — which means we are creatures, not the creator — we were placed into a garden. And we were told that we could freely eat of almost every fruit of this garden. (Genesis 1-3)

“Because it was given to us by God. Even in taking the fruit we are partaking in doxology — we are saying, “Thank you” to God because it was given to us. We didn’t create the fruit, God created the fruit. We receive it. We receive all of this out of the bounty of God’s goodness to us. So, it’s not just thanksgiving for the knowledge of God, it is thanksgiving for being in this spectacular garden, to being able to work in it, be stewards of it and receive its fruit.

Almost all the fruit. But there was one tree whose fruit was forbidden. Fruit that was not given to us by God. And to desire this fruit is to desire it for its own end. Not as a means for saying thanks to God because God chose not to give us this fruit.

“Do you remember where that tree was planted in the garden? Right slap dab in the middle. The exact same place it is planted in your life. Right in the middle of your life. This meant, as the narrative goes, every day Adam and Eve had to walk past this thing that they did not have. A reminder that something was missing in the garden of their lives. Just as there is in ours. That it wasn’t all for the taking. And, that they were not supposed to have it.

“Keep in mind, this is God’s idea of paradise. This is not a result of the ‘Fall’. This is the garden God created for you and called “good”. God said, “It’s all for you except for this one thing right in the middle that you’re never going to have.” Now, this drives us nuts. Just like it did Adam and Eve. We think about this thing we don’t have every day. This hole that just keeps returning. We obsess over it. We want it. Other people have. Why can’t I?

“There can be 999 spectacular trees in our garden. But where do we pitch our tent? Right underneath this one thing we don’t have. We obsess over it. We yearn for it. We think about it constantly. Let the rest of the garden go to weed, but what am I going to do about this one thing I don’t have?

“As the narrative goes, it is in reaching further than we were meant to reach that we then lose the garden. On the way out, we discover that it actually was a pretty good garden. Only now it is paradise lost.

“There is nothing and no one that can do as much damage to your life as you can yourself. When we reach for more than we were created to have.”

The real miracle, however, is that despite all the pain and suffering and confusion, there is good in the world.

Now, hear this: there is good in our lives. There is good within us. There is good within you. And good that can come out of you in word and deed.

But that good only happens, that good is there only when we trust God. When we put our trust in that which is beyond us — in the power, grace and strength that is God and God’s alone. God created everything.

When we put our trust in God …

Not in our abilities to do the good because there is always something missing in our lives.

We put our trust in God. For we can also claim these verses from the bible, the words of Jesus who said, “Pick up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus, the God we follow, never promised to plug up that hole in our hearts.

We do have a choice. We can choose gratitude over despair. We can be thankful despite all that is wrong in the world. Despite all that is wrong in our lives. We may have pitched our tent underneath that one tree. But we can also build an altar there, an altar of thanksgiving right beside that hole in the bottom of our heart.

“Because the garden, you know, it’s pretty good. It’s not perfect. Something is missing. But we can choose gratitude, because it’s pretty good.”

Thank you, to Craig Barnes whose sermon is given, in quotations, from the Festival of Homiletics in Denver Colorado (Minneapolis: Luther Seminary Peach Media CD, 2015)

Advent 4 – children’s sermon

We’re almost there! Less than a week until Christmas! Are you excited?

I brought in this candle to show you, because it is special. At Christmas in worship we light lots of candles to show that Jesus is the light of the world. And comes to shine God’s light in our dark world.

Can someone light the candle? What does it smell like?

That’s right! A tree! Actually, a balsam fir, it says on the jar.

For some people, they wait until Christmas Eve to cut down a tree and bring it into their home. Then they put real candles on it, light it the first time late Christmas Eve and sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” while standing around the tree.

Smelling this candle reminds us of all sorts of things …. Memories of last Christmas …. Smelling this candle reminds us of so much more than we can see right now. This candle’s smell is bigger than the odour itself; it reminds us of something much larger than the candle itself.

Every thing we do in worship — light candles, say prayers, eat the holy meal, sing and listen together — reminds us and points to something bigger, something larger than ourselves.

Smelling this candle reminds me that very soon a real Christmas tree will be soon giving that wonderful scent of balsam needles in this very space. We can look forward to that! And being joyful about Jesus being born at Christmas! And coming again!

The trouble tree

I borrow much of the first part of this sermon from Nancy Lynne Westfield’s thoughtful reflection — please refer to note (1) below …

Thomas Dorsey, born in 1889 in rural Georgia, was a prolific songwriter and an excellent gospel and blues musician. While a young man, Dorsey moved to Chicago and found work as a piano player in the churches as well as in clubs and playing in theatres. Struggling to support his family, Dorsey divided his time between playing in the clubs and playing in the church. After some time of turbulence, Dorsey devoted his artistry exclusively to the church.

In August of 1932, Dorsey left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to be the feature soloist at a large revival meeting in St Louis. After the first night of the revival, Dorsey received a telegram that simply said, “Your wife just died.” Dorsey raced home and learned that his wife had given birth to a son before dying in childbirth.

The next day his son died as well. Dorsey buried his wife and son in the same caske. He then withdrew in sorrow and agony from his family and friends. He refused to compose or play any music for quite some time.

While still in the midst of despair, Dorsey said that as he sat in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed through him. He heard a melody in his head that he had never heard before and began to play it on the piano. That night, Dorsey recorded this testimony while in the midst of suffering:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;

Through the storm, through the night,

Lead me on to the light;

Take my hand, precious Lord,

Lead me home.

Testimony is usually reserved for the stories that declare how God brought the faithful out of slavery into freedom, how God made a way when there was no way; how God acted to save a distressed people. We are accustomed, I think, to hearing a testimony from someone whose ‘bad times are over now’.

The peculiar words of Jesus in the Gospel text today (Luke 21:9-36), however, tell us that when we experience destruction, betrayal, and loss, we are to see these times as opportunities to testify (v.13). What kind of testimony does one give in the face of great suffering and great hatred? Not after it’s passed, but in the midst of it?

The opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the daring to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering. Great suffering changes some people and defeats others. What distinguishes a Christian from others is not the difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances we must all face in this life. It is the nature of how we respond to that suffering. For those who endure with hope and not despair — their very souls are gained.

Suffering provides an opportunity for those who have been changed to tell of their hope. Howard Thurman, brilliant African American theologian, has seen suffering change people. He writes, “Into their faces come a subtle radiance and a settled serenity; into their relationships a vital generosity that opens the sealed down doors of the heart in all who are encountered along the way.” (1)

The tragic events in Thomas Dorsey’s life put him down, for sure. But not out. How one responds to adversity is what marks a person’s character and resilience. I read recently that employers today are not interested in whether or not a candidate has experienced failure in a particular line of work. But how that candidate responded to that failure. (2)

Hope is not born out of some escape or distraction into flights of fancy. Hope is not something we feel after good things happen in life or after we get more and more stuff. Rather, hope is expressed amidst personal loss and failure and suffering. In Jesus’ vision of the ‘end time’ in Luke, dramatic and tragic events in life are simply a required stage-setting for the great drama of speaking God’s truth.

How do we “speak” God’s truth? How do express that hope and faith? “Testifying” is not only a verbal act. Bearing witness and testifying to hope and truth is also something we do. When Martin Luther was confronted with the prospect of the final judgement and the end of time, how did he respond? With an action — that he would still go out and plant a tree. In our hope-filled actions, we live into the reality of God’s kingdom, which God promises.

In the 21st chapter, Luke makes clear that war is not the way the world will end. Fear and uncertainty are not the end either. The world will not end with truth’s impersonators. Yes, peace will be disrupted and we will feel like our security has been shaken. But these ‘signs’ are not the end. (3) These are just means to an end, so to speak.

What is at the ‘end’ is our testimony, our witness in the world, our lives of action in faith, hope and love in relationships with others. Our testimony will come out of turbulence, destruction and suffering. God’s kingdom is born from the testimony of the faithful. What we do and what we say out there in our daily lives matter. Especially in the midst of difficult times.

I received an email this week about our need for trees. Yes, trees. You may receive this as a plug for one of the 2017/500th anniversary Reformation challenges to plant 500,000 trees. This story does, nevertheless, point to the desperate need, I think we all share, for doing things for the sake of faith, hope and love into a better future in the Kingdom of God:

A plumber was helping restore an old farmhouse for a friend. He had just finished a rough first day on the job: a flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric drill quit and his ancient one tonne truck refused to start.

While his friend drove him home, he sat in stony silence. On arriving, the plumber invited his friend in to meet his family. As they walked toward the front door, the plumber paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands.

 When opening the door he underwent an amazing transformation. His face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.

 Afterward he walked his friend to the car. They passed the tree and the friend’s curiosity got the better of him. And so he asked the plumber about what he had seen him do earlier.

 ‘Oh, that’s my trouble tree,’ he replied ‘I know I can’t help having troubles on the job. But one thing’s for sure: those troubles don’t belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them up on the tree every night when I come home and ask God to take care of them. Then in the morning I pick them up again.

‘Funny thing is,’ he smiled,’ when I come out in the morning to pick ’em up, there aren’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.’

It starts in our lives and in our closest relationships — with ourselves, with God, and with others. Hope then moves outwards in acts of creativity, acts of kindness, generosity and forgiveness. May this Advent season lead us to a hope-filled celebration for all, at the coming of our Lord.

(1) in Nancy Lynne Westfield in David Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberly Bracken Long, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, 2014, p.17-19

(2)  Barbara Moses, “What Next” 2nd edition, DK Canada, 2009, p.241

(3) Patrick J. Wilson, “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion”, ibid., p.22-24