Christmas Eve – the greatest gift for getting it wrong

For over five centuries, Lutherans have asserted and proclaimed: grace is a gift. Meal time, especially during the holidays, is a great opportunity to experience grace.

Many of us will get together with friends, family, and coworkers for Christmas meals and potlucks. We sit at the same table and eat food that is shared among everyone at table. 

Where’s the grace? (besides the pre-meal prayer)

The grace in that experience, is being together. How often does that happen in today’s world? When family members are separated by vast distances unlike in any other time in human history. When coworkers can suspend their usual activities and work routines to just sit down and eat a meal together. When effort is made to make and/or bring food for all.

The grace is sharing food together despite the conflicts, the dislikes, the divisions and lines drawn between those around the table on account of political opinion, social standing, personality, past hurts.

The grace is found in those moments when, unexpectedly and surprisingly, a kind word is said between combatants, a genuine smile of thanksgiving is offered when ‘gifts’ are exchanged, or tears of forgiveness given and received are expressed.

On the surface, these moments may not change a whole lot, at least not immediately. But repeated often enough – Christmas comes every year – the seed sown deeply in the heart will one day sprout. ‘Mary treasured all these things and pondered them deeply in her heart’,[1]the scripture says. Sometimes, in the face of grace, all we can do is find a moment to appreciate and digest this gift. And let it grow in us. We are, each of us, the innkeeper who will decide whether or not to let Jesus in.

Celtic Thunder, the Irish, male group sings a powerful version of Silent Night that tells the story of Christmas at the Western Front in 1915. German and British soldiers stopped their fighting for a few moments Christmas Eve when one of the German soldiers – a lad of 21 years of age – started singing Silent Night.

Before long, combatants from both sides that had been avowed to killing each other were walking across no-man’s land. For a few moments they left their weapons behind, hugged each other and gave each other gifts of cigarettes and pots of wine.

But alas, the moment of grace passed. And before long they were shooting at each other again. And the 21-year-old soldier who had started the singing, did not make it to the morning.

Grace was given to those boys amidst the battle. In the singing of Silent Night, in the exchange of gifts, in the hugs and laughter, grace was still given.

Grace is a gift not for getting it right, but for getting it wrong.[2]And we human beings, throughout history, can get it awfully wrong. But this does not stop God.

God came into the world not at an ideal time when everyone was getting along. Herod was a paranoid despot about to wreak havoc in the land. In short, there was unrest in Palestine. Beneath the surface of all that might have appeared genteel in the little town of Bethlehem that holy night was broiling a call to arms by discontented zealots against Roman occupation. The military conflict would finally erupt some seventy years after Jesus’ birth with the destruction of Jerusalem.

God chose a particularly dark and disruptive time and place in history to enter in, as a vulnerable little baby boy born to a teenager in a barn for animals. Not a strategy for success, you might think, eh? On earth, nothing was going right.

But the grace of God knows no bounds. The grace of God enters into the thick of it. Not when everyone is getting along. But especially when everyone is getting it wrong.

The message of Christmas, in the end, is one of hope. Because no matter how bad or sad things get, it won’t stop God from prying into our consciences from time to time to tell us that God is never too far away. No matter how bad it gets, God is always with us. Emanuel. God with us.

Once we can accept that God is in all situations – not just the warm fuzzy moments decorated with visions from Hallmark – then everything becomes an occasion where some good can happen. God can and will use even bad situations for good.[3]This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”[4]

Our task this Christmas – however you are observing it – is to look for and find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. Because the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, however small or short-lived. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and never will overcome it.”[5]

Amen.


[1]Luke 2:19

[2]Richard Rohr, “Accountability Is Sustainability” Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org) Friday, December 13, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Like Knows Like” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, Monday, December 23, 2019).

[4]Psalm 118:24

[5]John 1:5,9

Give God a chance

A year ago last summer we bought a potted Hibiscus plant already in full, glorious bloom. The local nursery encouraged us to plant it right away and let it take root in our garden. When winter came, we snipped the stem down to a few inches above the ground.

Last Spring, the sprig showed no signs of life. At all. And it was late June already when I was tempted to pull up the seemingly lifeless root ball from the garden to make room for something else. Visiting the same nursery at the time I complained to them about the Hibiscus plant they sold to us, that obviously did not winter-well. To say the least.

“Don’t pull it up, yet!” they entreated me. “Wait a little longer, for it has been a late Spring. Give it a chance.”

At first, I didn’t believe them. But I left the dead thing alone trying not to think about my disappointment too much. Was I in for a surprise! In early July a tiny, green shoot pushed up the earth around the base. But then, not just one, but two, three and four shoots of new life erupted out of the ground. Seven weeks later, we were enjoying a multitude of magnificent blooms. The plant had more than doubled its growth from last year!

How critical it was for me to heed the gardener at the nursery when she told me “Don’t pull it up!” and “Wait a little longer” and “Give it a chance!”

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”[1]

In Jesus’ story, the theme is ‘not giving up.’ Not giving up is what it looks like to pray always. Elsewhere in the bible, Paul, the writer to the early church, instructed the faithful “pray without ceasing”[2]. It’s about being persistent in waiting, in not reacting, in staying the course when it starts feeling like it’s no use any longer to keep going.

“If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”[3]

The prophet was waiting for a vision from God, a word that would give new life to those who were discouraged, defeated and ready to give up on God, on themselves and on the world.

For what do you wait? After what justice do you persist? What is it you seek after that seems elusive, just beyond your grasp? Whatever that is, the scriptures describe an inner quality of the heart that will not give up, that will wait for it, that is patient and true in enduring and persisting.

That sees the present moment as holding value in and of itself.

The goal, the destination, the vision – this may seem to tarry. Perhaps in those impatient moments it’s important again to look around at what is happening. Infant baptism, for one thing, is a visible sign of this challenge and truth.

For an infant does not express knowledge of God in the way we adults do. An infant cannot give us a rational accounting of their faith. They cannot, surely, deserve blessing by pointing to a long list of their good deeds and giving an impassioned testimony.

It confounds us sophisticated grown-ups crazy, as we are influenced so much by a success-mindset culture of instant gratification. The world we live in has little patience for this kind of long-view approach. We’d sooner just give up on someone or something for which we hope. When it seems we are in futility grasping at something not yet.

Here, we are asked to commit to quite the opposite. Infant baptism invites us all to dedicate ourselves to long journey. We are challenged to persist in our waiting for it, not to give up, to have faith and stay the course.

And, in the meantime, walk with the baptized as he grows over time into the person God has created him to be. The flowering will happen, yet quite beyond our claim to control it. The green shoots poking out of the ground are occasion to rejoice. Here is evidence enough for now, for this moment. Those tiny shoots hold the fullness of the gift of faith and life in him.

Dear family and friends of the baptized, and Faith community, I hope you stick with it. This journey of faith, together. Trust in the vision, the promise. And celebrate the wondrous gift of this moment.

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[1]Luke 18:1-8

[2]1 Thessalonians 5:17

[3]Habakkuk 2:3, the first reading from a couple of weeks ago, Pentecost 17C (RCL)

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.

Here we (and God) go again

The horrible evil unleashed in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past weekend exposes so much that is wrong in our world. And in our relationship with those who are different from us. And in our relationship with God. When worshippers are gunned down in their house of prayer, to do anything now but grieve alongside and stand in solidarity with the sufferers exposes in us a serious God-image problem.

Our God-image problem, as Christians, starts with our understanding of God’s holy word. And specifically, our over-simplistic judgement of Jesus’ opponents. Typically, in the New Testament, these are the Pharisees. And we succumb to what I call the ‘black helmet syndrome’.

The ‘black helmet syndrome’ comes from how the bad guys are usually portrayed in popular culture—in old tv shows and movies like Star Wars. For example, the bad guys all wear the same uniform, usually the same colour, and we normally don’t see their faces because they are hidden behind some helmet or mask. They march to the same tune and move the same, predictable ways. They behave, essentially, like robots.

We know nothing of their unique personalities (unless a story evolves and develops, like Star Wars eventually does) and never gain insight into their unique personalities. They are trapped in their badness because individuals yield to the pressure to conform.

When we read the bible like that, it’s easy to lump all the Pharisees together under one over-arching label: bad guy. But that’s not the case, if we read the narrative more closely and contemplatively.

Portrayed in several Gospel stories as the antagonists, the Pharisees do scrutinize and criticize Jesus. Yes. But there are layers to that antagonism, even to the point of sympathy for Jesus. That is what first caught my attention in the Gospel text assigned for today, the Second Sunday in Lent.[1]

It was the Pharisees who warned Jesus he should get out of town because Herod wanted to kill him.[2]Jesus, after all, has become a useful target and a convenient scapegoat for the powerful elite. Let the restless crowds project their anxiety, their anger and fear onto the troublemaker Jesus rather than those holding tentatively to power.

Do you sense the growing tension? Jesus’ enemies have throughout his ministry flocked to him, hung on his every word and literally breathed down his neck. There is a power struggle strangling Jerusalem, and everyone, especially Herod Antipas, is looking over their shoulders.

The fact that Jesus had sympathizers and supporters  in the halls of power shouldn’t come to us as a surprise. After all, Joseph of Arimathea, on whose land Jesus was buried, exercised power in Jerusalem and had Pilate’s ear.[3]Joseph of Arimathea, we sense, was partial to Jesus and what he was all about. Nicodemus, who often questioned Jesus[4], in the end helped the Arimathean bury Jesus with respect and according to tradition. Who Jesus is and what he says somehow touches the hearts of those like Nicodemus.

These sympathizers, however, are caught between two worlds, two kingdoms. They have benefited from their privileged status, to be sure. They wouldn’t easily give that up, nor would they necessarily want to. And yet, this preacher from Nazareth who gives hope and the promise of God’s love to the downtrodden stirs something irresistible deep within them.

“Tell that fox, Herod …,” Jesus snipes.[5]“Tell him what’s really going to happen sooner than later. Tell him the truth about God and God’s intention.” Jesus gives a warning, and gives it to these ‘sitters-on-the-fence’ Pharisees to convey his cutting words.

At the first, we witness Jesus throwing his allies the proverbial ticking time bomb. For when they bring Jesus’ message to Herod, they would be bringing upon themselves unwelcome attention and even scrutiny. A shadow would pass over them, the seed of suspicion planted. “What were they doing so close to Jesus in the first place?” “Whose side are they really on?” And the political machine might start turning against them. The balance shifts ever so subtly, and the irreversible track to their eventual demise begins.

Indeed, Jesus’ words for these sympathizers lead them to a place of discomfort, to say the least. And Jesus knows what he is doing. These ‘good’ Pharisees must now face their own demons and answer to themselves. They must choose.

It’s as if Jesus is forcing their hands to come clean: Whose kingdom will you serve, now? Will you follow the values of Herod and the political self-serving machine of Jerusalem? Or, will you follow in the realm of God? Whose kingdom will you seek? The kingdom of hate? Or, the kingdom of love? And, are you prepared to let go of your privileged status, for my sake? And the sake of the Gospel?

We also live between two worlds. Being a follower of Christ creates tension before release and peace.

What about you? Where are you feeling the pinch in your life today? Where is your journey taking you? Where in your life is Jesus pushing you to decide in your heart whom you will follow—the voice of ambition and accumulation, the voice of privilege and protecting it at all costs, the voice of acquisition and preservation?

Or, will you follow the values represented by Jesus and the kingdom of God—the voice of compassion and forgiveness, the voice of reason and discernment, the voice of restorative justice and peace, of personal responsibility and collective wisdom?

We’ve seen this narrative repeat throughout the bible. Jesus even implies the repetitive nature of this story when in his lament, Jesus says, “How many times / How often have I desired  you….”[6]

Not only was this one of several, actual visits Jesus made to Jerusalem in Luke’s writing, the cycle has been going on since ancient times. God’s relationship with Israel reflects a similar pattern: At one point, they are not God’s people; at the next, they are God’s people, again.

The prophets preached God’s word to the people like a broken record: Judgement; Forgiveness. Destruction; Restitution. Rejection; Restoration. “How often have we been down this road before,” it’s as if Jesus were lamenting. Here we go again.

And yet, herein lies the grace, the Gospel, the good news: In confessing that we have an image problem with Jesus’ enemies—that we far too often succumb to the ‘black helmet syndrome’— we also must confess our image problem with God.

Because God is not some cosmic police officer ready to pounce on us should we be caught speeding. God is not some old man sitting on a throne pointing a finger of judgement and accusation. God is not about retributive, punitive justice. A tit-for-tat God who stokes the fire of revenge and escalating violence. God is not an exclusive God for only the rich, the famous, the perfect.

We learn three things that I can tell about God’s love from this passage. First, God’s love is true. God loves us, not to control us, but to free us. God’s love gives us the freedom to choose our way. God’s love allows us to figure it out for ourselves. God’s love lets us own it for ourselves, so our action is authentic and true. And then God’s grace follows.

We are not robots, mindlessly marching to some pre-determined rhythm of God’s master plan. We are not mindless creatures who can’t make own decisions. We are not co-dependent in some unhealthy, enmeshed relationship with a controlling God. As God’s love increases, so does our freedom. Union is not a breakdown of personal initiative and unique expression. Rather, God’s love is about ‘letting go’. This is true sacrifice.

Second, and consequently, God lets us fail if fail we will. If there is anything we learn about God’s love from Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem is that  Jesus’ sadness is the sadness of God. God grieves with us when we live the unfortunate consequences of our poor decisions. God understands and is ever near, especially when we fall to the bottom of our lives. That’s what they say about tears—they bear witness to how deep one’s love is for the other.

Finally, God never gives up on us. God is faithful. God will keep giving us second chances to grow and deepen our relationship with God, with one another, with ourselves and with this world we inhabit. God will always be there to give us those opportunities to make it better, to choose better. God will never abandon us on this journey.

As we follow Jesus on his path with ours this Lenten season, may we hold on, if anything, to this wonderful promise of God’s never-ending love for all people.

 

[1]Luke 13:31-35; the Gospel reading according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Luke 13:31

[3]John 19:38-42

[4]John 3 & 7

[5]Luke 13:32

[6]Luke 13:34

funeral sermon in Advent: Faith in the Night

From the Gospel of John, the first chapter (v.5.9):

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … The true light, which enlightens everyone, is coming into the world.”

These days, we walk in darkness.

December 6thwas the first day the sun set the earliest it will all year long—at 4:19pm. And that will be the case for another week before the days start getting longer again. Your beloved died at, literally, the darkest time of year.

And, so it is with your grief at this sudden loss. It is a dark time, indeed, that you journey these last days of a significant year in the life of your family.

At the end of the year. At the end of a life shared together. It is dark. And it is in the darkness that we must remain, for some time.

We may feel like love is lost at times like this. In the intensity of grief, the finality of death hits like sprinting into a brick wall. The familiar bonds are severed completely. And the prospect of a radically changed life, now, chill the heart with fear and uncertainty.

Where, O Love, is Thy soothing presence? Where, O Love, is Thy warming touch? Where, O Love, is Thy reassuring voice?

For Christians, this loss is symbolized by the cross. And in the cross we see a cruciform shape to reality: Loss precedes renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every change in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form’.[1]

At your loved one’s bedside on December 6, you described to me the image of wings of protection and love that your beloved offered in prayer and in spirt for his children and grandchildren. The image of wings of love surrounding his family is a tender one.

In the bible wings describe the loving and protective stance of God towards us. “I gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (2 Esdras 1:30). The Psalmist prays: “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7).

May the image of holding a bird demonstrate the kind of love we need now to express in this time of loss. They say that to hold a bird, you can’t hold it too tightly. When the chickadees fly into the palm of my hand when I feed them nuts and sunflower seeds, I cannot, dare not, clasp my hand into a fist.

I must keep my hands open. They say that to show true love you must be willing to let the object of your love go. They say that to love, one must let go. One cannot control true love, hold on to it tightly. To be sure, there are times in life when love calls for a tighter grip, especially when giving direct care to one in need, or guiding and parenting children. In these situations, yes, a firmer hold in love may be necessary.

But at other times, especially when dark times of the year come around which they do for all of us, love demands a different approach. People wonder, understandably so, why if God is Almighty and Benevolent, why God allows those dark times to even happen at all.

If God truly loves us, God will offer love freely and not demand it be returned. If God truly loves us, God will give us freedom. God will let us go. Not abandon us, because God is everywhere. But give us the freedom to love and to let go.

And, you know also the saying: What you let go in love, like giving a tiny bird freedom to fly away from your hand, will return to you in love. Perhaps not in exactly the way you expected. Perhaps not according to your timing. Yet, this is the nature of God’s grace and love: In letting go, we discover and experience the surprise of love’s return in some form, some day.

What else can be said about December 6th, besides the day your beloved died? December 6th, of course, is Saint Nicolas Day. If anything can be said about Saint Nicolas is that he was generous. Generous to the poor, to those in need. Your beloved was generous to you with his love. The gift of generosity is given on the day your beloved died.

How can we continue in the love freely given and freely received in the union of marriage and family that was severely disrupted on the day your loved one died? The symbolism of the day cannot go unnoticed, unrecognized. We can continue in the legacy of your beloved is leaving to us: to pay attention to the needs of the vulnerable, the children. To be generous with the gifts God has given us to share with those in need. This is an honorable expression of our love for your loved one. This is a worthy focus of our energies as we wander in this dark time of loss and grief.

Yes, “grief and anxiety has gripped us, and we are frightened by the future. Yet, even in these times, God is there. The good news is that Jesus always comes again. Every year, despite how hard things have been, Jesus is born into our lives anew. Death is never the final word”[2]– divine love comes and gives us life. Again.

May love be our guide through these dark days, and into the bright hope of a New Year.

 

[1]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations (Center for Action and Contemplation,  www.cac.org) 7 December 2018)

[2]Lutherans Connect “Faith in the Night” DAY 7 (Lutheran Campus Ministry Toronto, 8 December 2018), lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com

No easy way up those stairs


Perhaps you know someone like Sue.

Sue had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As the disease progressed in her relatively young life, she nevertheless wanted to stay at home as long as possible. Her house, unfortunately, was not outfitted appropriately for someone in her debilitating condition.

And yet, she battled. For example, it took her twenty minutes to crawl upstairs to her bedroom. Sue called the stairs “Mount Sinai”. Because it was by struggling on those stairs, moving limb for limb through each laboured breath through gritted teeth; it was through determination for each step gained, that she learned so much (1).

The prophet Isaiah does this to us again — gives us an ideal vision of a world where no one suffers any longer, a utopia where everyone is joyful. What is perhaps even more astounding is that this vision of hope and promise is proclaimed in the midst of everything that was not:

These verses speak to Babylonian exiles (2). They are the captives of war, and as such have been wounded maimed, even intentionally blinded as was King Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:7). It is to this failed community now subjugated and marginalized in an oppressive regime far away from Jerusalem that Isaiah paints this picture of a highway leading back home through the desert (Isaiah 35:1-10).

The cynic in us alights, as it must have in many of the exiles in the sixth century B.C.E. For, when do we see the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the disabled leaping like a deer, the tongues of the speechless sing for joy? (vs.5-6). Words that Jesus later repeats almost verbatim (Matthew 11:5; Luke 4:18) surprise because he seems to validate the promise of a vision, hundreds of years after Isaiah, that has yet to be fulfilled.

The vision, the promise, operates like a bouncing ball through history. Indeed, our world to this day — two thousand years later — is still rife with human brokenness, both visible and hidden from sight. Many have given up on God precisely because they can’t see how a God of love can be represented in a world of suffering, disease, violence and disability.

What if this promise is given, is meant, for us today? Can we believe it? Yet, perhaps human beings will always struggle with the God who came, and is coming again and again, in Jesus. We have to be careful with Isaiah’s vision, for it can pander to our perfectionism, which denies the reality of a life lived in the graces of God: That what is of God is exclusively the purview of the rich and famous, successful, beautiful and handsome — only for the perfect ones.

Perfectionism pretends that we have to achieve that vision of wholeness and restoration by our own herculean efforts and responsibilities. A denial of the suffering in life leads us to attempt a path around all that is difficult, challenging and transformative.

“A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way, and the unclean shall not pass it by, but it shall be for them.” (Isaiah 35:8)

When John the Baptist shouts that the coming Jesus will make a way through the aridity and desolation of the desert (Matthew 3:3), it bears reason to pause and reflect on the place of John’s prophetic work. Not in the public square in downtown Jerusalem nor on the steps of the Temple.

He stands on the banks of the Jordan River — which separated two worlds. On the one side, the desert which represents the long journey, the pilgrimage, that the people of God made from slavery in Egypt. On the other side of the Jordan lies the Promised Land, the place of arrival, destination, highlighted by the holy city of Jerusalem.

John the Baptist stands preaching words of challenge and hope in the in-between place — the River Jordan. Baptismal in its imagery, this in-between space is the place where something happens. A change occurs in our lives. The space in-between is often a place of disruption as the mental furniture of long-held beliefs, assumptions and values are re-arranged. In this in-between place of discomfort and turbulence we experience, nevertheless, a transformation to be people ‘on the way’ to our destination with God.

We must be willing to go there. And not deny this path through the wilderness. A holy highway does not circumvent the desert places of our lives. What ails us, what disturbs us, what challenges us — these are often valuable clues, yes even invitations, to a deeper engagement with our lives and with God. The disruption is actually God calling us into a transformative experience of life.

Do we accept this? Advent is a time to be honest. Advent is a time of reckoning. Will we stay the same, stuck in our inhibitions and motivated by fear? Or, are we willing to take the risk and go through this in-between place that does not deny our suffering and discomfort, but which actually holds redemptive power?

It is no accident that God chose to be revealed in a broken body. A bloody and pierced body hanging on a Cross. God showed us the way, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God opened to us the way of salvation.

We know God saves. The names of Isaiah, and Joshua — important in the Hebrew Scriptures — echo the same meaning of Jesus’ name: God saves. No dispute there. But what is the way, the how, of God’s saving? How does God save?

The path through the desert. Before there is a re-ordering of our lives, there must first be a dis-order or sorts. There is no direct-flight from ‘order to re-order’ as much as we might wish there were. In God’s realm, according to the way of Jesus, we must go from ‘order to dis-order before arriving at re-order’ (3).

Julian of Norwich wrote: “First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall. And both are the mercy of God” (4).

We can’t have Easter without Good Friday. Both are held in tandem. Even today in popular Christianity, people avoid worshiping on Good Friday; most experience the ‘hosananas’ of Palm Sunday only to return the following Easter Sunday to sing ‘halleluia’. No wonder we get seduced by culture’s ‘glory’ theology that pretends we can somehow deny suffering in order to validate our faith.

But without somehow acknowledging the Passion and suffering of Holy Week culminating in death on the Cross of Good Friday, we miss the point of Easter. We miss the point of Christianity:

The body of Christ is broken in love for us. God loves us not despite our brokenness as human beings but precisely because we are broken.

Lutherans talk a lot about grace, and unconditional love of God for us ‘while we were yet sinners’ (Romans 5:6-8). This is good talk. But — being a diehard, lifelong Lutheran myself and so I can say this — it is not easy living, behaving and inter-relating according to that unconditional-love-‘way’ with others. It may be a simple concept for the mind to turn over and accept, but it certainly is not easy for our egos to put into practice.

Climbing the steps of “Mount Sinai” as Sue was want to do was a feat of incredible endurance. Whether it took her twenty minutes or two hours is not the point, really. It’s the journey: Learning to love, forgive and accept our lives not because everything is ‘just right’ but precisely because God is there in the ‘not alright’ — is a discipline that may indeed take a lifetime to learn.

Enduring whatever suffering comes your way. Grieving whatever loss or mourning a loved one. Carrying on in the midst of the in-between places of our lives. Being present to all the feelings and thoughts and sensations of life — good and bad. Accepting our own imperfection and disability — and still enjoying moments of grace with one another on the way.

So as we learn on the way, may our journeys be inspired by moments when we do experience the presence of a God who understands and walks with us, when the vision appears no longer a mirage on the horizon of reality. But is truth incarnate. An inexplicable gift of joyous wonder.

When, “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).

 

(1) Charles Foster, “The Sacred Journey” (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010), p. xxiii
(2) Bruce C. Birch in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1” (WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010), p.51-55
(3) Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditation”, Tuesday, December 6, 2016 (Center for Action and Contemplation), http://www.cac.org
(4) Julian of Norwich, “Revelations of Divine Love”, 61, ed. Grace Warrack, R.Rohr paraphrase (London: Methuen & Company, 1901), p.153

One light in the dark world


The bible doesn’t always help alleviate a low grade angst growing at this time of year. Abduction-type images are splashed on the canvas of our imaginations: “one will be taken, one will be left” (Matthew 24:40-41). The notion of the Second Coming of Jesus can often arouse anxious feelings of impending doom and destruction. Certain Christian groups devise popular theologies that articulate with great detail and certainty how it’s all going to come crashing down on us some day.

And what is more, some will say the Bible contains implicit warnings (as in the Gospel for today, Matthew 24:36-44) that we can prevent it all from happening by our good works, by being ready, if only we can break the secret code, figure out the hidden message and solve the riddle — a la Dan Brown.

The way of Christ is never that easy. And the Gospel text will throw a wrench into any neat and tidy philosophy. In this image-rich text Jesus confronts our pretence. “You don’t know and you cannot know.” Neither did Noah when the flood came “unexpectedly.” “But about that day and hour no one knows … and they knew nothing …”

What is this ‘knowing’? If we cannot predict how it’s all going to shake down in the end – whether we are talking about world politics, climate change or our challenging personal relationships – what can we know? 

We do know certain things are best not known: How we are going to die. How the meat we are eating at the dinner table was actually produced. Many probably are better not to watch a YouTube video of the surgery they are preparing to undergo. In some facets of life, it’s simply best not to know.

And life will continue to remind us that it is futile to pretend we can: None of the pundits and polls — even early on election night in the U.S. a few weeks ago — could predict the actual result of the presidential race. 

And, in my generation it must have been the falling of the Berlin Wall which had divided Germany for over thirty years. Who could have predicted it, given the enduring and seemingly entrenched geo-political tensions of the Cold War, let alone begin in evening candlelight vigils held in German churches? A small, warm light started to melt the cold, dark and divided world.

The season of Advent fits like a glove; it gives warmth in the cold atmosphere of our lives. “Keep awake for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming … be ready, keep awake.” So we hear instruction from Jesus. Being ready and keeping awake are fundamentally about being aware. Awareness in the present moment.

What DO we know? Saint Paul, in an accompanying text for today writes: “you know now is the moment for you to wake from sleep; for salvation is nearer to us now that when we became believers … Put on the armour of light.” (Romans 13:11-14)

Putting on the armour of light is not a call to violent, combative behaviour, action which narrows the vision and snuffs out awareness. Putting on the armour of light does not constrict the soul into locked patterns of thought, but expands the scope to embrace the truth and vision of God right now.

You may have heard of the story: All along the Western Front in 1914, a few short months into a war that would eventually claim 17 million lives, a kind of miracle happened on Christmas Day – a rare moment of peace:

Trooper Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade, recalls that special night: “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing ­– two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on ‘no man’s land’.

It is estimated that over 100,000 troops from both sides honoured the Christmas Truce of 1914 that lasted some days.

Hearing the text today from the prophet Isaiah, you may have noticed some very familiar words and phrases. Because a few weeks ago, on All Saint’s Sunday, the words of Micah we heard: “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (4:3). Sound familiar?

Isaiah 2:1-5 and Micah share precisely the same words. And, in Psalm 46 — the great “Lutheran” Psalm we heard on Reformation Sunday last month, and also on Christ the King Sunday last week — the Psalmist echoes the sentiments of the major and minor prophets: “God makes wars cease to the end of the earth, he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” (v.9).

A major message throughout the Hebrew scriptures and reinforced by Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament envision wars to cease and violent divisions among people to end. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus preaches. (Mathew 5:9; Luke 6:27-31)

Knowing is not knowledge of facts and manipulation of data to suit one’s ideology. Knowing is not formulating intellectual and persuasive strategies that demonstrate airtight logic and rational impunity. Knowing is not about getting more information. This kind of knowing keeps one distracted, in the past or fretting about the future.

Knowing is more about living relationships of love, grace and peace in the present moment; this is the biblical understanding of ‘knowing’ – more a function of the heart than of thought.

Advent heralds the start of a new church year. This season calls us to watch, to wait and wake up to the reality of Christ in our lives, and Christ coming again. Like All Saints’ Sunday, in Advent the future and the past converge on the present moment. Now.

We can enter this season full of hope. Today, contrary to what the headlines imply, the earth is less violent than it was in the past. We are not living in dangerous times any more than what always has been. In fact, according to statistical trending over the past few decades, the world over is safer and more peaceful. (see Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack’s article “The World Is Not Falling Apart” (Slate: 2014), http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12 )

“Now”, Paul writes, “we are closer to salvation than before.” And, now, we are called to love others, to strive for peace and an end to all divisions — in the world, and in our lives. Even when it might appear hopeless. We are called, like the Germans and English during the Christmas Truce of 1914, to cross the dividing lines of our lives and sing together of a holy night, a silent night, a night still and always shall be bathed in the light of Christ.

Pray for peace. Commit to one small, act of kindness and generosity, especially to one with whom, for whatever reason, you have been estranged. Without any strings attached, no expectations of any kind about how the other ‘should’ respond, commit to an act of unconditional love. Because God is bringing all of history into the vision of peace and harmony reflected in the prophets’ writings. This is our hope. This is the present reality.