The virus of perfectionism & the healing acme of God’s love

I remember at the conclusion of my qualifying exam as a seminarian seeking a call to serve as a pastor of a church, the lead examiner made only one suggestion.

Sitting before the bishop and an examining committee for over an hour –  hearing me answer questions about church doctrine, dealing with conflict, upholding the Gospel in a pluralistic society, defining God’s mission, etc. – I remember being taken aback with their summarizing statements at the end of it all:

They said, essentially: “From the sounds of it, Martin, you will have to work on one thing. And this may cause you problems down the road if you don’t navigate this issue well. So this is what you will have to practice, right from the start …

“The first time you lead worship one Sunday morning as a pastor of that congregation, when you notice the paraments on the altar are crooked, or not hanging in a symmetrically-perfect fashion, resist at all costs the urge to correct it.”

Here I was all concerned about issues of theological integrity, confessional adherence, denominational survival and biblical interpretation of controversial proportions – and what the leadership of the church was most concerned about was not what I believed so much, but how I, a future pastor, would exercise my leadership among the people of God.

At first, I was convinced they were missing the point. But the more I reflected on this and the more mileage I clocked over the years in pastoral leadership, I came to appreciate very much their advice. Perfectionism is like a virus, and can lead to many bad things not only in leadership but in the practice of faith:

Perfectionism is why I give up too quickly on many a handy-man project at home whenever it doesn’t work out the way I expect it to. Applied to a life of faith, perfectionism, I have discovered, leads only to discouragement, depression and a low self-esteem. Perfectionism, closely related to the need to please others, places undue pressure and unhealthy stress on our lives. Perfectionism makes religion out of following a bunch of rules. Perfectionism keeps us stuck in negative, self-depreciating cycles of thinking.

Have you, too, caught the perfectionism bug? Laurence Freeman, recipient of the Order of Canada a couple of years ago, said that his greatest success in life was to learn that his failures were more important than his successes (audio, “The Virus of Perfectionism”, http://www.meditatio.ca). I am certain his comments reflect the testimonies of many successful business people and those who are at the top of their fields who confess that the most important ingredient in achieving success is the long list of the failures that preceded it.

And then we confront a text like we read today (Matthew 5:48) when Jesus says: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What are we to make of that? Does God want us to be perfect, and avoid all possibility of failure, at all costs?

I think we have to be very careful in our understanding of this word, as we practice our faith, day to day. As I have struggled with perfectionism I have come to appreciate the flip-side of this coin:

It is born deep within the human soul to want things to be right, proper, good. We are, after all, created in God’s image. And part of this reflection manifested in each other is to seek God’s glory – which is beautiful, holy, perfect, right – full of dignity and yes, perfection.

So, we ought not repress nor deny this natural yearning within our very being. But what is the difference between acknowledging and celebrating this longing deep within us, and falling into the trap of perfectionism?

“Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I suspect we get hung up on the first part of that sentence all too often; but maybe it would do us well to start with the second half of that sentence.

How is God ‘perfect’? We know from the Gospel that should we want to understand God the Father, we need first to look at Jesus (John 14:7). So, what kind of perfectionism – if we can call it that – did Jesus demonstrate?

When folks ask me: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” I approach the question of the atonement in this way: Is there a better way for God to demonstrate God’s absolute and steadfast love for us than by laying down his life for us (John 10:11) – by letting go and giving up that which is most precious to us all? If anything, Jesus’ death proves to us God’s unyielding, uncompromising and unconditional love for each one of us, in a way to which we could humanly relate.

And second, is there a better way for God to demonstrate absolute power over death and Satan for all time, than by God becoming completely vulnerable through Jesus to the consequences of that evil on earth – which was the unjust condemning of an innocent person to death?

Yes, Jesus could have walked away from Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus could have called down the forces of heaven to save him from the Cross and pound the devil to pulp before our very eyes. That might be a more satisfying approach. But that would have been playing the earthly game; that would have been playing by the rules of the forces of evil: force for force, might for might. Who comes out on top?

But Jesus chose to pull the rug out from under Satan’s legs. Jesus chose to limit his divine self (Philippians 2:5-11) in human form, and to suffer and die as a human completely vulnerable to an unjust evil. If anything, Jesus’ resurrection proves to us God’s absolute power for all time over death and the devil.

My favourite part of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, is the last ten seconds of what feels like a very long movie: When Satan realizes, in agony, for the first time how he has been defeated. Now, that’s a perfect ending to a really graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death.

That’s why Jesus died on the cross. To show us how perfect God is, in God’s love for us. We can’t do it perfectly; we will always miss the mark to some extent. But God is “perfect” love (1 John 4).

God’s love (hesed in Hebrew) is steadfast and unbounding, even to the point of complete vulnerability, letting go – for our sake and for all people. Jesus showed us the way of everlasting life for every human being of every time and every place. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

The way of Jesus is the way to wholeness, completeness, in God’s eternal love, regardless of any and all human divisions within us and out there.

It’s not an easy way, to follow this perfect love. This way of Jesus doesn’t follow earthly rules of power plays, obsessive self-preservation and competitive perfectionism. Saint Paul prayed that God take away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Presumably Paul asked for this so that he could be better at his job preaching the Gospel of Jesus. But God’s answer would nip Paul’s perfectionism in the bud. God’s answer was, ‘no.’

In fact, Paul’s weakness would be a far more effective way of showing God’s power. What would appear as ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world, would in truth be an effective witness to God’s power and God’s love, through Paul’s weakness.

God does not want us to be perfect. Because God does not want us to give up. God does not want us to give up on the journey of faith, no matter how difficult or how unpopular it may become at times. God just wants us to be faithful – to stay on the path, to doing what we can – not out of perfectionistic motivations but out of the heart of God’s love and power working through our imperfection.

And I think God wants us to be vulnerable to one another; that we are not afraid of showing and confessing our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our failures to one another. In the church, we don’t have to wear masks of perfectionism. We are, after all, broken people. That is the truth. But Jesus’ body, too, was broken, for the love of the world. And what is the church, but the Body of Christ?

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can find wholeness, healing, on our journey that begins now on earth and finds completion, perfection, in the world to come.

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can share the truth of God’s love to all people, effectively, genuinely and authentically.

Thank you, Jesus, for accepting us in your perfect love. Amen.

On the path of hardship tempered with grace

I suspect that some of you really like John the Baptist, while others would feel intimidated and back off from his forceful energy. Similar to the way two very different recruits into the Canadian Armed Forces reacted during the first days of regular duty.

A friend from Petawawa who is a sergeant and has put many years in the Forces told me last week how very differently some personalities react to his dissing of discipline. When boots aren’t polished, collars not ironed, and back-packs not kitted properly, he would lean in on the rookies and set them straight.

The one young recruit began to well up in tears when my friend started criticizing him for not being prepared. The other, being disciplined for the same problem, smiled, and was energized by the confrontation: “Wow, this is just like the movies, when the sergeant major yells at the recruits, spitting inches from the other’s face, turning the air blue!” Just loving it! The first recruit didn’t last long in the army. The other, was spurred on and challenged through his mistakes, to have a successful career.

John the Baptist is the ultimate reality check for Christianity. In the best of the prophetic tradition, he epitomizes the no-nonsense, truth-telling, going-for-the-jugular style not often associated with a more sanitized approach to religion.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Is this how you feel about belonging to the church today? Many stand in the line of John the Baptist tradition. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon — influential theologians of the last century wrote: “There is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry” (p.45 Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 1). What do you think about that? Would you like that?

John the Baptist’s hard words to the religious leaders of the day call them to repentance. Judgment underscores the tenor of this text assigned for Advent. And that’s why some of us would rather read scriptures and sing songs about sheep softly grazing in fields during these weeks leading to Christmas. Because you may know people in your life who have been hurt by the judgment of others — many of those doing the judging from the church. Even as we in the church have been warned NOT to judge others (Romans 14).

God calls ALL of us to fall on our knees, confess and repent — especially those of in the church.

The original Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means — “moving beyond the mind.” We need to have a change of mind as much as a change of our heart. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” argues Saint Paul (Romans 12:2). He goes on to say that this change of our mind would happen, “so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable …” Our changed minds, our renewed way of thinking about things, will then affect how we behave.

“Moving beyond the mind” means that we need, at first, to have our fundamental assumptions questioned. Fundamental assumptions about God and the ways of God in the world. Is it true that we don’t have to do anything more in the church because we were baptized and confirmed here and our grandparents and great-grandparents were Lutheran? Is it true that God hates us and is only out there to catch us breaking a rule in order to punish us?

John the Baptist might have a field day in the Christian church today. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that only makes sense when embraced in the desert, in the wilderness of our lives. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we have learned to weep at our faults and let go. John the Baptist is here to remind and recall us to a faith that makes sense only when we are called out of our complacency, selfishness, and self-righteousness to a greater cause, a greater good.

Barbara Marshall wrote this prayer poem cited in an Advent devotional for the season (Lutherans Connect); in it she describes the times of her life when she was truly invigorated, motivated and inspired in faith:

“… It was never the turbulent waters that raged and tore through my life that left me floundering, helpless adrift in the surging tide. But rather the lulling beauty and lure of familiar shores that fashioned my days with indifferent thought and compelled me to stay where I was. So, Father, give me a yearning for the valleys shadowed and steep, for deserts that breathe their fire and dust, for waves that crash at my feet. And surely then I’ll accomplish much …when inspiration is fueled on the path of hardship tempered with grace.”

So you can see why I suggest that nostalgia may be a great enemy of Christianity. For it keeps us stuck in apathy and inaction. But, ironically, looking to the past is an essential ingredient in faithful living. John the Baptist himself quotes directly from Isaiah when preaching his sermon: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight …” (40:3). In writing about John the Baptist, the Gospel writer Matthew uses descriptive words right out of the Hebrew Scriptures originally describing the prophet Elijah who was “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). John the Baptist may breathe fire into a soppy nostalgic faith — but he certainly doesn’t dismiss the past.

Remembering the past is important. But there’s a difference between nostalgia and remembering. Biblical commentator David Bartlett writes that “nostalgia is memory filtered through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory filtered through appropriate gratitude” (p.48, Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol 1). In Advent we re-member, we reconnect. The word “religion” literally means to re-unite, re-align, ourselves out of isolation and into a holy union. In Advent when we remember, we embrace the good God has been and done for us in our past. In Advent we remember, together, as a family, as a church, as a community — what God has done for us in Jesus. We do this remembering at the Table — we remember that in the night in which he was betrayed …. We do this remembering singing out loud together our seasonal songs so precious to us.

We pray. We sing. We remember. Doing this, NOT to a disproportionate emotional longing for a time gone by. No. But rather, to embrace an occasion for re-affirming the good God has done for you in the history of your life, and to affirm our on-going hope and belief that God does care about us and our behavior this season, and beyond.

This Advent, know that we are cherished by God not only for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do. This is good news, because if God does not care about what I do, I may begin to question whether God actually cares about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into the family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.

“One December afternoon … a group of parents stood in the lobby of a nursery school waiting to claim their children after the last pre-Christmas class session. As the youngsters ran from their lockers, each one carried in his hands the ‘surprise’, the brightly wrapped package on which he had been working diligently for weeks. One small boy, trying to run, put on his coat, and wave to his parents, all at the same time, slipped and fell. The ‘surprise’ flew from his grasp, landed on the floor and broke with an obvious ceramic crash. The child … began to cry inconsolably. His father, trying to minimize the incident and comfort the boy, patted his head and murmured, ‘Now, that’s all right, son. It doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter at all.’ But the child’s mother, somewhat wiser in such situations, swept the boy into her arms and said, ‘Oh, but it does matter. It matters a great deal.’ And she wept with her son.”

It does matter to God. God is that mother who embraces us when we weep after making a big mistake and mess up. God doesn’t punish us, but rather holds us, and cries with us.

Perhaps the church can give up on judgment, but we cannot give up on responsibility. We can continue remembering and being faithful to our calling in Christ, especially in the desert, because we know God does care for each of us.

So, let’s sing on and re-member!

Your Word is true, on letting go

When I spent a year in Germany during my seminary days, I struggled in the first half of that year with feelings of being lost, without guidance, and without my usual supports in place. I was lonely: For the first time in my life, I wasn’t able to rely on my parents, and I didn’t have my twin brother close by to share a life experience. I felt depressed, rudderless, cut off, a ship floating aimlessly in the stormy ocean.

I was reminded of this turbulent time in my life after reading the Gospel text (Luke 21:5-19) for today. Jesus points to those external ‘structures’ in the lives of his disciples, structures that they have come to depend on for guidance, for a sense of purpose and identity – and tells them basically that they will crumble, that they will have to learn to do without the usual dependencies, that they will have to ‘lose’ these. They will be no more.

First, it’s the massive and impressive temple that Herod was building, adorned with decorations; the temple presented a glorious architectural masterpiece to the world. At the end of the text, Jesus mentions family – even those closest to us will be cut off from the path we are on. There is a profound losing that imbues this scripture today, not unlike what the Israelites had to experience when they were exiled from their land, their homes, their precious Jerusalem temple, some five hundred years before Christ. It is a pattern that is repeating again.

The first part in the path of faith – of true spirituality – is one of letting go, of releasing, of surrendering. If anyone has experienced even a margin of what that means, it’s never easy. It’s hard, especially when for most of your life you’ve placed so much energy and invested your emotions and stability in a building, a place, a person, a family – and then you have lose it.

Luke wrote this story in the Gospel some forty years after the life of Jesus. Remember, all of what we read in the Bible was for the longest time first shared by word of mouth – stories told to the community and from generation to generation. In the latter half of the first century A.D. these told stories about Jesus began to be written down in the form we see them today.

It’s important for me to mention this because Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed actually happened. In about 70 A.D. the Roman armies laid siege to Jerusalem to try to subdue the radical Jewish insurrection who were rebelling against Roman occupation of their land. The victorious Romans eventually toppled the impressive stone walls of the temple, leaving only what we see today – the famous western wall, or the “Wailing Wall”.

All this is to say, that Luke wrote these words of Jesus at a time when the rebellion was reaching its peak: “… the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” These written words carried extra emotional weight, it would seem to me, to those who first received them in the late first century. Because it was actually happening.

Early Christians were encouraged to trust Jesus, because what Jesus says is true! What Jesus promises will come to pass. This truth is consistent with the tradition of earlier scriptures, first echoed in the poetry emerging from the exile – “The grass withers, the flower fades – but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Though the path is full of suffering, one thing remains: the presence and purpose of God. This may give us a clue as to the meaning of Jesus’ closing words in the text: “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Some translations have it, “by your patience”.

Since I opened with a personal story from my seminary days, I’ll bring here another story I heard from a seminary class studying ‘the end times’. For you to get this story, I need to remind you of how a liturgical church, such as ours, organizes our reading of the Bible. We follow a lectionary, which means that there are assigned readings not only for every Sunday of the year but for every day, even. You can find these assigned readings at the front of our worship books. The point is, after a three year cycle of following this ‘lectionary’, we will have basically read through the whole Bible.

So, these seminary students were engaged in a discussion of what Bible text they would choose if they had reason to believe that this was the Final Day. Some suggested John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Others suggested Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want, even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil …” Still others suggested the very last verses of the Bible from Revelation 22:20-21 – “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus (Maranatha). The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the Saints. Amen!’”

But, the winning suggestion was – “I would preach on whatever Bible lesson was appointed as the Gospel for the day.”

A homeowner hired a gardener to plant a certain kind of tree. “But that kind of tree takes many years to mature,” the gardener protested. “Then get started with the planting,” the homeowner replied. “You do not have a moment to lose.”

If the first difficult part of the path of faith is surrendering, letting go, not identifying any longer with those structures on which we have come to depend heavily, the second part is the motivation to endure in the regular, daily task. It is full of promise, and new life.

Because those endings and beginnings in Christ are not our doing. We do not control our destiny, contrary to what so much of our culture preaches. We are called only to be faithful in our daily service, doing that which is set before us this day. We don’t know exactly how things will turn out. But we can take the risk and take the first step because we have the true promise of God:

Being aware of God’s faithfulness to us, being assured in the Word that what Jesus promises is true, we can be buoyed by a vibrant hope on the stormy ocean of life. We live every day as if it were the last, doing all that we can, doing the right thing, in the moment. And we cling to the assurance that God will not only do the rest, but much, much more!

In the last few months of my year abroad in Germany, I finally found my stride. Maybe it was because I knew ‘the end’ was coming; my time in Germany was coming to an end, and soon and very soon I would be returning home. Being aware of and confident in my returning home coming closer with each passing day, I was able to enjoy and fully enter each moment: I travelled with my friends, visited my families in Poland and Germany, breathed the air deeply, and went about finishing the tasks set before me.

In engaging my life fully, doing what I was called to do there – even though it wasn’t always easy – I now remember that time as one of those crucial, pivotal and cherished learning moments of my life. For, a true letting go yielded a wondrous new beginning.

Playing in Marriage

Philippians 4:4-9 / Isaiah 43:1-5a, 18-19

Whether it is soccer, or ballroom dancing, or dragon boating, or whitewater rafting –  is your marriage characterized with ‘play’?

I would say, this is a good thing. For each of you. And for the health of your marriage.

Given the way the institution of marriage has suffered some in recent decades, for me to stand here today to suggest we need to be more playful in our marriages may seem, at first, counterintuitive.

After all, this is serious business. Relationships are not something to be taken lightly. Marriage, in some religious traditions, is a sacrament. It is holy, godly, and to be held in the highest esteem.

We may be driven to feel guilty, then, when nothing short of perfection describes any partnership – especially one tagged by ‘marriage’.

Is it any doubt, then, why marriage is not looked upon anymore with the beauty and joy it deserves — for those who consider following its adventurous path?

So, it lands on us who are married, and getting married, to bear witness to its joy. And you have already done that for us.

But sometimes playing can be dangerous. Especially for those of us passing middle age. My sister-in-law warned me last year not to play soccer. Why? She claimed that she didn’t know anyone in their forties who played soccer who hadn’t seriously hurt themselves – a sprained knee, twisted ankle, even worse – broken bones. And, come to think of it, she’s right. Yup, she scared me out of it.

I suppose that’s one way of responding to any opportunity. We may dwell on the risks, fearing the rough and tumble realities associated with anything potentially good in life. And avoid it, pretending we can somehow go through life unscathed.

But is that even possible? And, will that way of responding to life bring joy and a deep, meaningful satisfaction to our lives?

I read recently about mountain goats who bound playfully along rock faces thousands of feet high. It is very clear that they, especially the younger ones, are playing. But the truth is, sometimes they fall. Mama mountain goat must be saying: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

You’d think that over time, these mountain goats would learn their lesson and stop dancing on cliff edges centimeters from their doom. Stop it, already! But they don’t. It is in their nature to play.

Scientists have speculated and studied this paradoxical characteristic of animals. And they have concluded that even though playing is potentially dangerous, it is still necessary. It is necessary because, for one thing, playing is practice for skills needed in the future (Stuart Brown, Play, 2009). An attitude of playfulness is necessary not only for our survival, but our health, our creativity, and building up a resiliency for later in life when challenges and difficulties escalate.

A healthy marriage is not supposed to be always sugar-sweet. There are times when difficulties, challenges and disappointments will arise in the relationship. Playing is dangerous, sometimes. But it also provides a way for learning how to deal with what may come down the road.

The most beneficial play, they say, is playing with another. It is with another person that we discover our true self. It is caring for another, seeing to their needs, forgiving another and being forgiven in which find our stride, personally and spiritually.

God knew this about us. That is why we are created the way we are: To be together; to cry together; to laugh together; to play together. It won’t always be easy; sometimes we get hurt. But that’s reality. And it’s worth the effort!

I suspect you two have already experienced how that feels, because you play together. And you give space for each other to enjoy each other’s company and explore further goals and aspirations.

May God bless you this day, and in the time to come. Play on!

Mistakes transformed not avoided

“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel …” (Jeremiah 18: 6)

Entering the lab, I was panting even though I had not climbed steps or walked very far. I used the usual tactics to calm down — deep breathing, focusing my mind on something else, concentrating on an image of peace, paying attention to the gentleman sitting beside me in the waiting room.

It wasn’t working.

When my number was called out, I stood on wobbly legs and approached the chair, the arm band, making the fist …. the foot-long syringe.

Yup. I suffer from what they call ‘white-coat syndrome’. That’s the polite way of putting it. Neurotic and spineless is another. I would rather avoid any situation that involves needles or other instruments of bodily invasion being employed on me.

No matter how hard I try to control — okay, suppress — those feelings of fear, no matter how much praying, contemplating and meditating I do ….

Friends and family might press me on this: “What is the worst case scenario? What is the absolute worst thing that would happen in those institutionally-sterile situations about which I am always anxious (besides dying!)?”

Well, that I would pass out, lose control, collapse in a heap upon the cold laminate flooring of the windowless, basement lab. That I would make a fool of myself in front of others. Ah — being vulnerable to others I hardly know. Showing the very less-than-perfect side of me. Revealing that I am not always the ‘finished’ and ‘polished’ Martin. That I, too, may join the human race and literally fall and stumble.

Figuratively, as well.

We are told, as God spoke through Jeremiah to the people of Israel, that the faithful life is not about mistakes avoided, but mistakes transformed.

In some sense, the warning we get from the prophets of the Old Testament is to avoid messing up. Otherwise God will punish us.

But then, I wonder, why God would have us hear a story about a potter forming a spoiled piece of clay if the message of the bible was simply to get rid of (read, ‘deny’ or ‘avoid’) our mistakes? There’s more to the life of faith then avoiding sin out of fear of punishment.

Because the truth is, we are not Jesus, nor God for that matter. The truth is, we continue to sin even though we are saved by the cross of Jesus. So, what’s the point of a saved, redeemed life? I wonder if what God is doing here is giving Jeremiah a way to understand the paradox of life in relationship with God. God is preparing Jeremiah for what Judah and Israel were heading into … exile, loss, banishment …. and then salvation. This pattern of death and resurrection is already imprinted on the life of God’s people.

Being a hope-filled and faithful Christian is not about avoiding mistakes we will make, but about seeing those mistakes transformed into God’s purposes. In this pattern of death and resurrection we fall and we rise. We don’t just fall, and stay there, as people of Faith. We rise, too. How so?

First, it’s about a changed and changing life.

Clay in a potter’s hand is not static. It is continually being formed in rhythmic motion. Faithful living is movement, growth, transformation. It is marked by a yearning for deeper communion with God and with others in love, compassion and grace.

Second, it’s about owning your mistakes, not denying them or pretending them away in fits of self-rejection, despair, even self-hatred. The vessel which the potter used in Jeremiah’s experience started as a “spoiled” piece of clay. The beauty into which it became started out “a mistake”.

We don’t often think of the places of pain, imperfection and failure as the fodder for our salvation, do we? But it’s true.

We give God glory when we offer our whole selves to God, not the perfection of it. In all our vulnerability and weakness, God is glorified. When we have the courage to expose our weakness and confess honestly within the Body of Christ – the church – then the Spirit of God draws us to God’s purposes, God’s mission, for others most effectively.

As Christ’s body was broken in love for us — what we give thanks for in the Holy Communion — so the Spirit of Jesus shines through us as we offer our brokenness to “go in peace to serve the Lord” in the world.

Again, counter-intuitive. I think we’ve gotten so used to the un-Christian idea that the only thing worthy of giving to God and showing to the world is what we pretend to be our ‘perfect’ selves — untainted, unblemished being and acting of moral purity. Only when we’ve finally gotten rid of our sin. Only when we can prove our worthiness, achieve some moral standard, then God is glorified. Then we can belong in the church.

But this is not biblical. Stories from the bible of men (especially) with tragic flaws — despairing, backtracking, blind spots, denials, and betrayals fill the Scriptures; As Richard Rohr writes, “they are the norm” (p.360, On the Threshold of Transformation). Think about Adam, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Moses, David, Solomon, Peter and Paul, etc., etc. And yet these overtly flawed people were used by God to convey the truth.

Truth-telling is indeed the purview of the prophet. As unpopular a role it is. I’ve heard of many churches named “Christ the King” but tell me if you’ve heard of a “Christ the Prophet” church, even though Jesus never rejected or denied, and even claimed as his dishonored position (Mark 6:4). The New Testament twice lists ‘prophet’ as the second most important role for building up the church (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28) (p.328, Rohr). A prophet tells the truth.

The Gospel text for today (Luke 14:25-33) truly takes a punch at what many Christians in North America identify with ‘family values’. A prophetic word, perhaps.

Jesus is not calling us to reject relationships characterized by compassion and grace, especially within families. But Jesus adds an essential and often sorely-missed ingredient into the mix of what we could describe as ‘Christian values’ in relationship: courage.

Courage reflects truth-telling in relationships. The root of the word, courage, is the Latin word for ‘heart’; courage originally meant: “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart” (Brene Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p.12).

To tell one’s heart is an act of vulnerability, isn’t it? And when we make ourselves vulnerable in telling the truth, especially to those we love, we need to be prepared to reveal not only our good points, but even our flaws.

“To take up one’s cross” as Jesus instructs in this Gospel text, is to courageously embrace one’s vulnerability, and give it to God. “Spirituality in the best sense,” writes Richard Rohr, “is about what you do with your pain” (@RichardRohrOFM). Will you hide it from others, pretend that you are okay when you are not? I can’t imagine healing can happen when you close yourself off to others.

Healing doesn’t happen if we try to avoid those sources of fear, imperfection, vulnerability and shame in our lives. Only by leaning into those feelings of fear and anxiety, by courageously going to those places of brokenness with love, compassion and honesty will we begin to experience the dew drops of transformation in our lives.

Just as fear can be a contagion, a virus spread from one to another, so is courage and compassion. More so.

Even the resurrected Jesus — the victorious one — he showed the scars from his wounds he bore. Jesus didn’t hide them from his disciples. The resurrection of the crucified Jesus was God’s promise to humanity that the final word on all human ‘crucifixions’ — the crosses we bear — will also be resurrection.

I think the nurse sensed my anxiety in the basement lab, as she held my hand drawing blood from my arm. There really was no hiding my elevated everything. But there was something about the way she spoke to me and respected me that, in the end, got me through it with flying colours.

I couldn’t do it on my own, wrapped up in my own anxiety. But being in the presence of a compassionate, gracious person, however, made all the difference.

Amazing grace. Thanks be to God.

 

Impossible demands Incredible love

Mark Wahlberg is known for his acting prowess in films like “The Perfect Storm”, “Italian Job”, “The Fighter” and will star in next year’s “Transformers” sequel. He recently gave an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan about the transformation in his life – from being a brawler and coke addict as a teenager to being a faithful Christian who now starts each day going into a church to pray.

Piers asks Mark Wahlberg, “What do you pray for?” He basically answers by saying he wants to be the best person he can be – responsible, a good neighbor, father, son, and servant to God.

On one level, I appreciate very much when popular, culture icons like Mark Wahlberg give public testimony to the Christian faith. His example gives a positive impression to the power of prayer, especially among younger people. “What do you pray for?” seems to strike a chord, since it is fashionable for skeptics who question God’s loving existence to point to unanswered prayer. Have they considered the very goal of prayer?

In the Gospel of John, one of the first words recorded out of the mouth of Jesus when he meets up with a couple of his disciples are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). Apparently Jesus, too, recognizes the significance of, first off, identifying what it is we want, or expect, from God.

We may feel like the early disciples of Jesus did, then, when they asked Jesus: “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus responds by instructing them to say what has become known as the “Our Father” or “The Lord’s Prayer” – the paramount prayer of Christianity.

So, what does Jesus tell us to ask for? In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4), the first thing we ask for is “Thy Kingdom Come”. Perhaps this can give us a clue to the aim and nature of our Christian prayer.

In the interview, Mark Wahlberg says that he would rather give favours than receive favours. It is natural, is it not, to want to believe that our redemption and transformation will happen as a result of our good efforts? Even prayer becomes about telling God what we want and desire, about actualizing our dreams for a better world and life by our energy and efforts and eloquence.

There is much in this Gospel text to suggest that our growth and maturity rests with our initiative: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (v.9-10). We resonate with those words, don’t we? They roll off our tongues easily enough! And we tell ourselves to buck up!

Yet, how many times have we given up on prayer because what we asked for so diligently hasn’t come to pass? We may have prayed and prayed and prayed for release from some kind of bondage or for someone else’s well being. And whatever it is continues to burden our lives. The issue remains unresolved.

This conundrum might be best described with forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God for forgiveness. But this forgiveness, it seems, is conditional upon our ability to forgive ‘everyone’ indebted to us! “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

That’s a tall order! Yikes! Have I forgiven – truly forgiven – others who have hurt me? And not only the one person that first comes to mind – but everyone who has ever hurt me? If not, will God forgive me?

Right after the Lord’s Prayer Jesus tells a rather weird story about going to a friend in the middle of the night to ask for three loaves of bread. Notwithstanding the awkward position in which you would be putting your friend in the middle of the night, why on earth wouldn’t you have something as basic as bread in your house at any given time?

Why would you be all out of bread in the first place? In a culture devoid of corner stores and open-all-night Seven-Elevens, you would think folks in Jesus’ day would plan ahead and have food stored up. Obviously a subtext of Jesus’ story here is the irresponsibility, laziness, short-sightedness, and sinfulness causing you to go to your friend in the first place.

How many times have I withheld grace or forgiveness from someone because I have felt they haven’t done their part enough to deserve my help?

On one hand I admire the person going shamelessly and boldly to the friend. It takes guts to interrupt someone, especially at night. Perhaps we can learn from this the trust and confidence you have in your friend to help you. Similar to the trust and confidence we are called upon to place in God.

Elsewhere in the New Testament the writer John expresses it this way: “I write the truth to you because you already know the truth” (1 John 2:21). We receive these words of Scripture and the word of God in Jesus Christ not because we don’t know it or don’t have it. We receive the words telling the truth of Jesus today because the truth and presence of Jesus already resides within us – at that deep level, in our hearts. The bible’s message is given to us to remind us, to help us re-member, what is already living within us.

And so with confidence, boldness, and shamelessness, we approach the “throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:13) with our pleas for help – even when those requests are misguided, selfish and born from our own weaknesses.

And this is the point, I believe, of the Gospel. Ultimately it is not about our efforts to make something of prayer and our relationship with God. Rather, it is about a God who will help us, no matter what. Jesus reminds us that God is always willing to offer us the help we need in order to live out the truth of Christ within us for the sake of the world which God so loved (John 3:16). Such is the incredible love of God even in the face of impossible demands.

While God receives all our prayers, however tainted with our ego compulsions, fears and neediness, the power of prayer resides in ‘thy kingdom come’ – which some ancient transcripts translated as “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” Such a rendition is worth considering, because it is consistent with the last verse (13) of the text: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I wonder about the positive changes we desire for our lives. I wonder about how we shall pray for the good things we seek for ourselves, those we love, the church, and the world around us. What do you pray for? – the Holy Spirit? – the deep yearning for an experience of God’s love and grace and forgiveness? – that our lives be transformed according to love of God for us and for the world?

Will we pray for, and in, God’s will?

When we pray, “Thy kingdom come” are we willing to let ‘my kingdom’ go? (Richard Rohr).

What do you expect from God?

Good things! Good things, for the sake and love of the world, in Christ Jesus.

Window panes

A retired pastor gave a group I was with last week some sage advice from a professor telling seminary graduates how to be ‘out there’ in parish land. Afterward I thought this may be helpful food-for-thought not only for public church leaders, but for anyone on the path to wholeness and health in their lives.

He said, “Be like a window. But not just any window; there are three basic windows you can be like.

“First, you can be like a stained glass window. People can first notice your beauty. What people see is the intricacy, the colour, the ‘picture’ you show — and the glass is perfectly constructed, wonderfully arranged; folks admire and gaze upon your image for hours at a time.

“Or, you can be like a cracked, dirty window pane. What people see and what you show are your wounds, your brokenness, your pain. When people see you they want either to ignore you and pretend you are not there. Or they might instinctively want to ‘fix’ you.

“Finally, you can be a clear window — transparent. You have nothing, really, to hide. You are who you are. In all your humanity you are not ashamed to reflect the truth in you that is Christ Jesus. The divine presence who created you to be who you are shines through you and illumines the world.”

What kind of ‘window’ describes you in your life now?

Thank you to Rev Orlan Lapp who is currently serving St Johns Lutheran Church, Germanicus in the Upper Ottawa Valley, Ontario, for this illuminating illustration.

Dare to be you

In my life as an identical twin, unrealistic expectations of my twin-hood abounded. On the one hand, people presumed my brother and I are identical — I mean perfectly duplicate copies of each other. On the other hand, people loved to compare and contrast, presuming — as I always have — that there are inherent differences.

The ‘identical twin’ designation is nevertheless a misnomer. Being an identical twin doesn’t mean I am a copy-cutter, mirror-image of my twin brother David. We are actually different!

And yet, my twin identity has contributed — I think — to some attitudes with which I’ve lived most of my life, attitudes that may not have been entirely helpful to my growth and maturity and development, spiritual and otherwise.

Particularly, I remember how important it was for me to recognize my own path, my own unique identity — apart from David’s. Until I was able to claim a unique place within the fabric of my family, my community of friends and church I often felt compelled to incessantly compare myself to David, which was exhausting and emotionally draining.

Until I could say to myself that “I am who I am” on my own two feet, I would too easily slip into negativity and self-rejection. Either because I was not good enough compared to David, or I had to be someone that I wasn’t, or better than I was. Or, relish in the victory that I beat out David in some way — for the moment, anyway!

From this kind of thinking emerges a work ethic, which is not unlike what many of us have likely heard or told ourselves growing up: “Try harder!” “You’re no good the way you are; you have to try to be something and someone that you aren’t now.” The striving and activity characterizing religion today has as its starting point: self-negation, self-rejection. “I’m no good the way I am; I have to get better.” Or, “we’re not good the way we are; we have to get better.”

In and of itself, this motivation is not bad. A yearning for completion, for healing and growth, for communion with God and one another is good and healthy. Denying our brokenness and sin is dangerous and ultimately destructive.

But when this desire becomes ego-centric in expressions of false humility or justifications for staying stuck — mired in a pious negativity (“I/we can’t do that; I’m/we’re no good” — we can so easily miss recognizing the whole point of our journeys of faith (“Yes I/we can, because of God’s grace and love!”).

Christians believe we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27); we all have the imprint of God on our lives. But everyone doesn’t manifest the same divine qualities. Even identical twins!

Each of us reflects a unique aspect of God’s character. And this truth results in different gifts, different energies. Different ways of dealing with a similar situation, even. All good. All part of the beautiful diversity of creation.

Sometimes I wonder whether we haven’t confused the voice of brokenness and sin in each of us with our diversity. That just because you do something differently from me, just because you react in a different way to a situation we both face, just because you are different from me — that somehow either I have the right way and you have the wrong way, either you are sinful and I am righteous or vice versa, or we’re better than them.

What if by digging a bit deeper we recognize a shared truth about ourselves and our Lord? What if by inquiring a bit further we discover that it’s not that we’re better than them, but that they have simply gone about it in a different way — a way with which we’re merely unfamiliar. What if it’s not either/or? What if it’s both/and? And this awareness starts, I believe, not by insisting on conformity in the church, but by acknowledging, recognizing and celebrating our diversity.

Our diversity and variety make us whole and complete, as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). All parts are needed for the health of the Body, as Paul famously writes in his letter to the Corinthian Church. We can’t all be eyes, or we wouldn’t have a body. We can’t all be legs; that would look like a very funny body! We can’t all be hair, or we would be Tribbles on an old Star Trek episode — the Trouble with Tribbles! We are not like-minded people even though we belong to the same church — but we never were!

And that’s good! The way it ought to be!

During our weekly lectionary study, some of you noticed that John seemed particularly interested in mentioning that the disciples caught precisely 153 fish after following the instruction from Jesus to throw the net on the right side of the boat (John 21:1-19). Why mention an exact number: 153? Why not simply write: “They caught a whole mother-lode of fish!”?

Initially I just thought John throws a number out there simply to indicate that the disciples counted all the fish that would potentially be sold on the market, as professional fishers would do. This is not some made-up story, after all. This post-resurrection account is grounded in the economic reality of the day. These fishermen have to make a living off the fish they catch, right?

An early thinker, writer and leader in the church, Jerome, wrote in the fifth century that at the time it was assumed that there was a grand total of 153 species of fish. He went on to interpret that the 153 was a reference to the “completeness” of the church, which embraces all people (p.11, Richard Rohr, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective). Suffice it to say, the citing of a number here is not arbitrary, but has a symbolic value and is therefore intentionally written such.

In the Gospel story, we witness two very different responses to Jesus in Peter and John: Peter, consistent with his impulsive character, jumps in the water and swims to Jesus. He’s all about action.

John, on the other hand, is the first to recognize that it is the Lord (v.7). His gift is recognition. What gift is this, you might ask? A very important one, evidently: It wasn’t just Mary who couldn’t at first recognize the risen Lord standing right in front of her in the garden the morning of the resurrection (20:11-18). In the locked, upper room the text suggests the frightened disciples don’t immediately recognize it is Jesus who comes and says, “Peace be with you”; it isn’t until they see his wounds that they can confess who he is (20:19-29). In Luke’s account of the post-resurrection appearances, the twins walked about ten kilometers from Jerusalem to Emmaus talking to a stranger they didn’t recognize was Jesus himself! (Luke 24:13-35). Being able to recognize the living Jesus in our midst, in the course of our daily lives — this is a gift. And John has it.

Peter is about action. John is about understanding. John doesn’t jump in the water and swim to shore. Peter doesn’t reflect, contemplate and perceive. Each does their part. Both have their unique gifts to bring to the disciples’ collective experience of the risen Lord. One without the other is inadequate. One is not better than the other. Both are equally valuable, even though they represent such diverse expressions of faith.

The church today needs a variety of gifts in order to respond fully to Christ’s presence in the world today, and in our lives. The church today — we — need to set aside our claims of priority and work together in patience, forgiveness and devotion to Jesus Christ who is alive! That goes not only for us in our congregation, but in terms of how we relate to other congregations, our Synod, our national church, other Lutheran and non-Lutheran denominations.

What are our unique gifts? What do we bring to the table? What are the gifts in those we meet who are very different from us?

Let’s dare to be who we are! Let’s embrace our individuality!

Wisps of Wisdom — on sin & forgiveness

How does our perspective on sin and forgiveness relate to the following ‘wisps of wisdom’ on the sometimes heavy topics of sin, judgment — and forgiveness?

It’s Lent, after all! Aren’t we supposed to dwell on these matters?

At a round table discussion last weekend with several senior, committed, lifelong Christians, I heard these kinds of statements:

“Confessing sin is about becoming aware again of my need for and my dependence on God.”

“God will not act toward us in judgment because of our sins so much as for all the gifts we refused from the gracious hand of God.”

“Forgiveness of sins is not a reprieve from a judge but an embrace from a lover.”

“It is not Jesus’ suffering and death that saved us but Christ’s love.”

What do you think? I, for one, am grateful and encouraged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unworthy (and worthy!)

Remember the “tech bubble” that collapsed thirteen years ago? What about the “housing bubble” of 2007 in the United States, and a second “tech bubble” some see looming now; not to mention housing prices in Canada? Is the bubble going to burst? Again?

But what about another bubble that we may be even more apprehensive to talk about – the decline of “establishment Christianity” North America? One congregation at a time, one closed school, one left-behind building, and even many mega-churches that are shattering like the walls of a bubble.

You may react – that I am being overly negative and it’s really not all that bad so long as we can continue to spin our wheels, try to turn the clock back to 1950 and do things the way they used to be done in the past.

Do we consider the institutional church in 2013 a tree that will stand forever, a house built on solid rock, the very apple of God’s eye?

Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” (Luke 13.6)

In our individual, personal lives, bubbles burst all the time. Are you one of the very people whose bubbles are now bursting? Broken relationships. Ill-health. Financial ruin. Underemployment. Shattered dreams. Tragedy.

Indeed, the human condition is broken. Ever since the Fall, sin has steeped into the very fabric of our earthly existence.

According the Lutheran belief, even our good intentions and actions are tainted and ineffectual. In our weekly liturgy, we confess “that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves” (“Evangelical Lutheran Worship”, p.95, emphasis mine). There’s nothing we – by ourselves – can do to make things better. Older liturgies are even more hard-hitting: the “Book of Common Prayer” in the Anglican Church has it: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” (p.83). I am sure Lutherans can point to old prayer and liturgy books that basically suggest we are no better than worms crawling in the mud.

Let’s be careful in how we respond to the question of sin. For one thing, in the Gospel text today (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus rejects the kind of thinking that is easy: focusing on the sins of others as explanation, justification, for the bad things that happen. In response to the Pharisees, Jesus turns the question to them. You must repent for your sins.

In the baptismal liturgy of our church, we renounce the devil and all his empty promises – three times. When we declare together that we “renounce” the devil, we are also renouncing “all the forces that defy God” and “the powers of this world that rebel against God” (EvLW, p.229).

Not only is sin active in our individual lives – but in the world around us: in economic, political, social, religious institutions. Sin is not only individual; it is corporate. Sin is something we can do together in an organization, collectively. Admittedly it’s easier to point to a random, individual act. It’s convenient and easier to explain individual behavior gone bad. It’s much more ambiguous, complex and difficult to see sin as something shared in a group.

What do we, as a church, need to confess?

Are we counting on bubbles? Are we riding on the coat tails of previous generations of the faithful? Are we trying to draw closer to God without allowing God closer to us? Do we try to save ourselves through work and possessions? Do we ration our affections, pulling back from a deeply troubled world, staying inside where it is safe, praying when we feel like it, listening as little as possible, singing our songs and not God’s songs, treasuring our kind and not God’s people? (Thank you to Tom Ehrich for this insight and these words – from his blog, “On a Journey – Meditations on God in Daily Life”, Feb 27/2013).

Amidst the doom and gloom there is hope. The passage ends with hope. In the confession there is the realization of God’s mercy. Amidst the urgency to get things done, to do the right thing, to toil in all our striving, we are invited to pause. To stop, for a moment. Why?

Because we are that fig tree. Barren. Failed. Unworthy – or so it would seem (from the world’s perspective). Jesus is the gardener, who sees in us something worthy of grace. Jesus advocates on our behalf, to give us another chance. A holy, second chance. Jesus continues to work at the root of our lives, applying grace upon grace, getting his hands dirty – for us. Jesus will not give up on us.

In this dependence on God for all good things, we have to realize one, very important truth: It is not we who accomplish our growth, our life. All we need to do, is open our hearts, the ground of our being – as roots – to receive the nourishment of God’s grace. All we need to do, is look up to the sunshine, warming our being, inviting us to reach outward.

It is Jesus’ love for us that accomplishes whatever good that may come from our efforts. It is God’s work of love that accomplished our salvation in Jesus. I heard recently a wonderful quote from a teacher of Christian prayer: that God will not judge us according to our sins and failings, but for all the gifts we refused from the gracious hand of God. Our judgment is not based on our sinning – since we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – but because we have refused, rejected and turned from the grace and love that God offers us anew, every day. Because God is giving us a second chance. What are we doing about that?

We yearn for more. Polls and studies reveal that people are hungry for God. Maybe it will take a cascade of bursting bubbles for us to see how little fruit we have yielded, how much God desires of us, and how lovingly God will work on our behalf for real life and love for all, not for bubbles.