Mistaken identity

This morning I preach at Merrickville (Ontario) United Church, as part of a pulpit exchange. Today Merrickville United Church celebrates its annual Anniversary Sunday.

Thank you for welcoming me to speak at your anniversary Sunday celebration. Anniversaries are about celebrating who we are. These are occasions for affirming our identity. So, let me introduce myself to you so that you may have some idea and experience of who I am.

Questions of identity are important to me. I have an identical twin brother who is also a Lutheran pastor. What is more, my brother and I are twin sons of parents who are both also (retired) Lutheran pastors in the same Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Challenges around mistaken identity have followed me all my life! Which Malina are we talking about?! That is why who I am and how different I am from my rather homogenous nuclear family is an important part of my personal journey.

Another level of mistaken identity in my life revolves around the church to which I belong. Your pastor told you, I suspect, that you were going to have a preacher from the “Evangelical Lutheran Church” visit you today. I wonder how many of you thought you would be getting a shellacking from a hard-core conservative, fundamentalist preacher. The word that likely derailed you was ‘evangelical’.

Over a month ago after Billy Graham Sr. died, the local Ottawa CBC morning radio host called me to say they wanted to have an ‘evangelical’ represent the views of Billy Graham in a live discussion panel the next day. The reason she called me was that the name of the parish I am pastor of is called “Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church.” She assumed that the same word meant the same thing. I had to steer her in another direction.

Because for Lutherans, we use the word evangelical from its German roots, ‘evangelische’. The meaning here, is ‘Good News!’. Unfortunately, in North America the word evangelical has been coopted by conservative fundamentalism. You can breathe more easily now!

Indeed, it is the focus of the word Good News (Gospel) that can summarize the purpose of Lutheran preaching, in a nutshell. We are all about proclaiming what is good news to the world today. Lutherans traditionally use the concept of ‘law’ as a counterpoint to understand better where we fall short, and why we yearn and seek God’s grace, forgiveness and love.

In the Gospel reading for today, from Mark, Jesus breaks the law in order to eat (Mark 2:23-3:6). He and his disciples are poor wanderers. They pick grain from the field on the sabbath. Two things Jesus says in this text worth noting: First, “the sabbath was made for humankind” — and not the other way around. In other words, the sabbath law and all law serves us. “Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the sabbath?” Jesus asks. He says that even the law is subject to God’s grace and the common good.

We do our thing as Christians not primarily to serve the tradition and keep all the laws and conform to precepts and rules. No. We do our thing as Christians primarily to follow in the way of Christ which is a way of love, grace, and doing the right thing — despite what the law says.

I love the name of your church: United. And I love that you are undergoing a renovation of your gathering space in your building here. It may be disruptive and stressful — all meaningful transformation is. But it tells me a lot about who you are. Let me attempt an affirmation of sorts.

You are a church ‘on the move’. You are transforming your space in order to make it a more inclusive, accessible building. Moreover, you are making this transformation and renewal to make it a more flexible, multi-purpose space. So different groups, musical, theatrical, social, community groups can use it. You are creating a welcoming and affirming space. This is wonderful! By increasing the possibility of diverse interaction you are, paradoxically, building unity among people!

German reformed theologian Juergen Moltmann wrote that “Christian fellowship — which means liberating fellowship — no longer means just sitting down beside the people I agree with. It means sitting beside the people I don’t agree with — and staying there.” (@moltmannjuergen)

As the inclusive, expansive vision of God’s unity shines before us, we become not a community of like-minded, conformists. Rather, precisely in celebrating and affirming our diversity, we deepen our unity. That is what the church on the move is all about!

Early twentieth century French philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, expressed how people grow in unity by becoming more ourselves. By embracing our uniqueness as individuals and communities, by differentiating, we discover our unity. Contrary to what may be our initial impulse — that unity is experienced only if we become what someone else wants us to be, or others become like us — the opposite is true. Not by becoming the same — that is not loving — but in the freedom of our being different, we find unity in love.

The word religion from Latin, ‘religio’, literally means, re-binding together. “Bind us together, Lord,” is a favourite song in the Lutheran church. Unity is found by recognizing our differences, appreciating them, and choosing to love anyway, which is the form of love most often used in the New Testament (agape).

The church moving forward is the beacon of Christ’s light. “Let light shine out of darkness” (2 Corinthians 4:6), Paul writes in the Epistle reading for today (Pentecost 2B, RCL). The church is not the brake lights on a car, but the headlights. Shining a vision forward, an ever-expanding, inclusive, affirming vision for all people. Because light pays little heed to the lines we draw in the sand. Divine light and love recognize in each person and each relationship a unique reflection of Creator God.

In Christ, then, there is no need for mistaken identity no matter how similar or how different we may be.

Fresh air

I am glad to be back to breathe the air in the Ottawa Valley. That is why I live here, truth be told. Even before the plane landed at Ottawa airport last evening, I could feel it in the air.

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There’s nothing in the world like catching the sweet breeze blowing down over James Bay, through the budding pine and spruce trees of the Laurentian’s and over the pristine waters of the Ottawa River.

Not only was the hotel room where my brother and I stayed sealed off to the outside, the air in Washington DC was heavy, stale and full of particle contaminants that caused us some coughing, wheezing and rubbing our itching eyes. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to know the Potomac River basin is ….well, not the Ottawa River and Valley.

Ottawa and Washington DC are both the capital cities of their respective nations. Each reflects by its monuments, memorials and geography the character of the nation it represents. One of the purposes of nationalism, like the rivers that surround the two capital cities, is to separate one from the other. Indeed, the work of creating divisions continues in earnest to this day.

In fact, walls are being built not only in the United States, but all over the world as the USA Today front page reported a couple of days ago.[1]Protectionism and isolationism fueled by fear are on the rise.

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So, the voices of a different vision need to be heard, once again.

One of the most recently constructed memorials in Washington is on the shores of the Potomac River — the Martin Luther King Memorial.

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“No one is free,” said Martin Luther King, “until we are all free.” In other words:

What I want for myself can’t happen, until it can be so for everyone. If there is anyone who suffers in whatever way,

If there is anyone who is not free, in whatever way,

If there are people who are bound, captive to whatever vice, to whatever imprisonment of the soul or in prison because something they have done…

I am going to be healed of whatever ails me, only when I seek the healing of the other, the freeing of the other, the liberation of the other. The church holds up a different vision from that of the divisive, individualistic and exclusive nature of white nationalism in the world today.

You can see, I hope, why the consciousness of the church not only at Faith Lutheran, not only in Ottawa, or in the Eastern Synod or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, but in the United States of America and worldwide is moving to see not a division between things, not building walls between two perceived opposites, but building unity between them.

Not a division between politics and pastoral care,

Not a division between care for the soul and social justice,

Not a division between reaching out and reaching in,

Not a division between speaking out against injustice of whatever kind and speaking to the choir,

Not a division between contemplation and action.

Not an either-or, but a both-and.

Last week when Ken stood here and told you about the different ways we can support the financial health of the congregation, he introduced his well-delivered announcement by saying — “you’ve heard we in the church were never to talk about money, politics and sex (well, he didn’t actually say the last word, but I know you all were thinking it!).

And then a couple weeks before that, Mark stood here and told you about his upcoming trip to Ecuador to build homes in a community destroyed by an earthquake some years ago. And in his well-worded speech he said (I paraphrase): “In this mission trip the group he was going with was not doing mere charity, dollars sent to a far-off location, but directly helping them on the ground and making a real difference in the lives of those who suffer.” Check it out. He said it. I believe he has it all on a piece of paper.

I alone am not telling you all this. Your own members are. Your own church family is slowly but surely breaking down the walls that have divided, distanced and incubated our conversations in the church.

Limited our conversation. Limited our imagination. Limited the ways of God. NOT talking about these things, well, how has that worked out for the church in recent times?

NOT talking about the things that really matter in our daily life, NOT being open and honest, sharing the deepest secrets and burdens of our lives, NOT feeling safe in a community of faith to be who we humanly are, warts and all, imperfect, suffering, in need of God’s love. NOT being like that — how has that worked for the church? How has that worked for you?

It is not easy in the church (although everyone else in our real lives are talking about them!) to talk about money, politics and sex. It is not easy to talk about the real things that matter in this life. And so, the church for many decades has avoided having these conversations. Why? Because we were afraid? Because talking about sex, politics and money would put a mirror in front of us, exposing areas of our life that needed even a bit of God’s light shining upon it?

It’s not easy to talk about these things. I know. I feel it too. But I always thought that that’s what faith was supposed to be about — to confess, be honest, be real, and just do the work of God. How can we do the work of God when we can’t even be honest, and real, and confess ourselves to one another?

We can echo the prophet Isaiah’s complaint to the Lord: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips …”[2]

But he doesn’t stop there. His confession is not just about himself. Faithfulness is not merely individualistic. We don’t come to church to make an individual contract with the Lord.

Isaiah continues in his confession: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Faithfulness drives towards the communal, the community, the well-being of the world. “No one is free, until we are all free.” Not just me, but we!

When we don’t include, welcome and affirm people who are different from us, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we refuse to include conversations about sexuality, money and political action, we are a people of unclean lips.

When we remain quiet in the face of injustice, we are a people of unclean lips.

In other words, this confession of Isaiah implies that he feels he should just ‘shut up and sit down.’ Not say anything. Because he is bad. And Israel is bad.

Maybe you feel this too. Not unlike Isaiah when confronted with a vision of God, you feel, deep down, the church is bad, and has nothing worthwhile to say in the public sphere. Millennials believe that. Just ask your children or your friend’s children. In the past, we church-going Canadians have conveniently said, “That sort of stuff is the government’s job.” We effectively, therefore, excuse ourselves from any social action in the name of Jesus. And continue the dividing.

Martin Luther King also said that in the church it’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem (pointing to heaven, the afterlife), yes, but one day we also have to talk about the New York or the new Ottawa, the new community in the here and now.

What did Isaiah see in his vision?

Two details in this vision I want to focus on:

First, “the house was filled with smoke.”[3]

Here’s Isaiah who sees God in all God’s glory. How can I understand this vision by analyzing: Why the six wings folded over on various parts of the seraphim? What’s with that?

But the smoke fills the space. Usually, the image of smoke — like the cloud — in the bible is codeword for, “Can’t get this.” I can’t explain what’s going on in the presence of God. I can’t bring all the statistics, analysis, data and information the world can offer, to explain this rationally. But that’s ok. Because that’s not the point.

In 2018, in the wake of the internet revolution, did you know that more than 7 billion humans use the internet; and, that’s 7 and a half percent more, over 2016. Google now processes more than 40 thousand searches EVERY second. And remember, that’s only Google. Include all the other search engines out there, worldwide there are 5 billion searches EVERY day.[4]

We don’t need any more information! The church’s solutions are not found in accruing more data to solve our problems!

Because things happen in life that we can’t understand. The truth about God cannot be conveyed in data streams and pie charts and three point sermons.

Smoke in the house. Mystery. Might it be, that Isaiah and the bible is trying to say: We don’t need to understand everything. We don’t need to know how it makes sense for people of different races, colour, ethnic background, different social economic status, expressing a different sexuality, different ages, different abilities can form one, unified community. We don’t need to know how that can be.

Today is Trinity Sunday. I am not going to stand here and try to explain to you how three different persons can constitute one God. Because I don’t know. All I know is that those different persons are in a unified relationship. Relationship.

The third person, especially, confounds our Lutheran sensibilities. We’ve figured God the Creator. We’ve figured out God the Son, well, as much as we can. But the Holy Spirit throws a wrench into any rationalizations. A mystery, to be sure!

How does it all fit together? How can we analyze this even more? Shouldn’t we first have a detailed plan? Shouldn’t we try to draw a diagram?

We don’t need to know! All we have are the visions. The dreams. The imagination that describes in poetry and colourful words flashes and fragments of God’s kingdom and truth. We don’t need to know. We don’t need to reconcile all the contradictions. We don’t need to make sense of it. We don’t need to provide all the answers. We don’t need to put God in a box, nor explain God to anyone. God doesn’t need that from us.

Why?

Because even though Isaiah is a man of unclean lips (God doesn’t deny it!), even though God’s people have unclean lips, even though we are imperfect individuals in an imperfect church, that isn’t going to stop God. In Section Five of a recent Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis called “Reclaiming Jesus” church leaders from across the United States wrote: “We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not.”[5]

The realm of politics is imperfect. Who would think? Yet, our imperfection is the very reason politics happens. It is not something to avoid, it is something to embrace.

What does God do? Despite Isaiah’s complaints and resistance (just like all the rest of the people in the bible!) …

Despite us!

God reaches down from God’s throne and touches Isaiah’s lips with God’s holiness. God doesn’t steer uncomfortably away from the place of Isaiah’s greatest embarrassment, sin, weakness, brokenness, uncleanliness. God doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable places of our lives. God doesn’t even say anything to that uncleanliness.

God touches it. In the place of our greatest fear, shame, guilt, when we present ourselves in God’s almighty, mysterious presence, honestly and openly — not denying nor avoiding — we place ourselves in a position to be touched by God in the very place of our greatest weakness, to be healed, to be transformed, to be made new.

Even in the vision, the temple and the seraphim cannot contain the ‘bigness of God’. “The train of God’s robe filled the temple.”[6]The image is not meant to convey facts, figures, numbers, measurements, information.. Only our post-enlightenment, rational minds want to go there. But we can’t explain the vision of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t sit comfortably in our rationally justified common-sense policies.

God’s presence enfolds and goes to the edges and bunches up in the corner feeling like it needs to be stretched even beyond the walls of temple.

Whom shall I send? God asks.

Isaiah, transformed by God’s touch, can then say, “Here I am, send me.”[7]

Will we?

The Holy Spirit blows where it will. The wind does not stop at the border. The wind does not end at any walls we build to divide. The Holy Spirit brings fresh air into the stagnant, recycled, stuffy air of our temples. The Holy Spirit blows, fresh air at last, sending us into the world with God’s love, grace and power to change.

I don’t know how the fresh air of the Ottawa Valley is cleaner and sweeter than the air I breathed south of the border, really. But I don’t need to know how. I just know.

And give thanks.

[1]USA Today, May 24, 2018

[2]Isaiah 6:5

[3]Isaiah 6:4

[4]Bernard Marr, Forbes.com, May 21, 2018

[5]ReclaimingJesus.org

[6]Isaiah 6:1

[7]Isaiah 6:8

Repeat performances

Once again during the Christmas season, I experienced this strange cultural phenomenon:

How many decades has it been that every December, movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Elf”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “The Bishop’s Wife” get replayed and replayed over and over again, year after year? And only at this time of year? You can probably add several more of your favourites to this list.

That is why I was a tad apprehensive last month when we received tickets to attend the National Art Centre (NAC) Theatre production of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol.” I know the story. I’ve read it several times. I’ve watched television renditions of the story over the years. What could the NAC Theatre do to bring it to life, once again, for me? Same old, same old, right?

On the other hand, I believe there is a good reason why we turn to these stories every year. There’s a reason for our culture’s yearning for their repeat-performances. A higher reason, I might add. Perhaps there’s something in those stories that we need to take to heart, and make positive changes to our lives. Perhaps, we need to see the story-telling as more than a mere syrupy, sentimental “Isn’t that nice” tradition.

So, I was surprised and intrigued by what the NAC Theatre troop did with the story. It was introduced by two actors who came on stage — one was blind and one was deaf. In the introduction they invited the audience to participate in a simple activity with our hands, both to show that the two actors needed each other in accomplishing their jobs; and, what is more, near the end of the story everyone in the audience was needed to give the sign with their hands in order to encourage Scrooge finally to embrace a more compassionate approach to life.

Without taking anything away from the traditional story-line plot, the meaning of Dickens’ famous “A Christmas Carol” was conveyed to me in a fresh way.

We encounter in young Samuel and the elder Eli one such repeat performance story in today’s text from the Hebrew scripture.(1) It is a story many of us know — of the boy Samuel in the temple who is called upon by God. It gets told many times in the life of the church over and over again — every three years at least. It is true: it is a nice, little story, isn’t it?

At first, Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice, believing instead that it is his old mentor, the priest Eli, who is calling him. Finally, with Eli’s help, Samuel responds to God’s call by saying, “Here I am. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”(2)

Well, as I said, many of us are familiar with these very words. We even like to sing a popular hymn (3) reflecting the words of one responding positively to God’s call — a call that changes the life of the recipient. How does this familiar story speak to our lives today? How is it more than just ‘a nice, little story’ from the Bible? How can this story change our lives?

In this story, an old man and a young man collaborated to hear God’s vision for a new Israel. For God was about to do a new thing: Soon to emerge in the life of God’s people was a new lineage of kings, beginning with the inauguration of King Saul.(4) What was passing, was the rule of Judges along with the sinful house of Eli. What was emerging was the likes of King Saul, King David, King Solomon, and so forth.

In God’s message to Samuel, God condemns Eli’s lack of restraining his sons’ immorality. Eli’s sin was his aversion to do something even though he recognized what was happening. Even though Eli knew the ongoing problems in his household, Eli turned a blind eye and ignored it all.

He did not act. And no matter what Eli would do now to try to redeem himself by making various sacrifices to the Lord, God was intent to establish a new order of leadership over God’s people starting with the demise of Eli’s household.

Doing nothing was the problem. For us, today, doing nothing about a problem we know exists is the problem. How do we begin to move out of the prison of this self-inflicted inertia?

We need to recognize that growth and healing is a process. The birth of the new thing God was doing began as a cooperative affair. It took the attentiveness of the young Samuel’s ears and the wisdom of the old priest’s heart and mind to bring about God’s purpose. It took both the authority of the failing, feeble priest and the obedience of his youthful protégé to bring about God’s purpose. In other words, it takes a community to bear such a task.(5)

Responding to God’s actions and call in the world and in our lives today is not a solo effort. Religion is not a solitary practice. Indeed, it takes a village. It takes the various gifts of people in our lives. What one has and the other does not, what the other is good at that the first is not — it takes everyone’s attentiveness and participation.

How do we live into this collaborative way, especially challenged by our society’s emphasis on individualism, privacy and self-reliance? We are, indeed, up against a culture that is at odds with the Christian vision. How do we live the way of God’s reign? Where we value mutuality, diversity, common purpose in the mission of God for the good of all people?

In contrast to the way in which God spoke to the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah and the later prophets of Israel, God does something unique with Samuel. You will notice that God does not enjoin Samuel to deliver God’s message to Eli. God does not charge Samuel to tell Eli what God is telling Samuel with words like: “Thus says the Lord, tell the people Israel”, etc., etc. No.

Rather, God wants simply to confide in Samuel. Basically, God expects Samuel, first, to listen. Just listen. It seems, Samuel first needs to learn how to do this. And it will take some time and some practice, evidently.

Can we have the courage, and the patience, to learn how first to listen to God and the other — without jumping in too soon with the energy of our own bravado, our own opinion, our own self-justifications, our own visions of what must be? The simple act of listening, can change our lives. Because listening first means we believe that the other has something of value to offer that we don’t have.

God works at a slower pace, it seems, compared to the hypersonic rhythms of life in 2018. Not only does God give Samuel and Eli one chance to figure it out, but two and even three opportunities to get on the same wavelength as God.

The story-telling is both appealing and intentionally slow early on. Dialogue is repeated. The action of Samuel getting up from sleep and going to Eli are repeated. We have to slow down with the narration and feel the build-up to the great reveal of God’s message.

Even though both Samuel and Eli are slow in finally getting it, even though they are encumbered by sleep, drowsiness, denial and avoidance, even though their response to God is compromised by vision and hearing impairment, by youthful pretence and the attrition of old age …. God still finds them. God still speaks. God still acts in the way God will act.

Despite human arrogance and self-delusion, despite all our toiling and pride, despite all our ego compulsions, God keeps at it to tell us, guide us, and instruct us.

We may not like the answer. We may not like what God has to say. We may be challenged to the core of our being by what God is telling us. Regardless of our hesitation, denial or self-delusion, God finds a way. God doesn’t give up on us. God gives us people, and stories, and experiences — even the same ones, over and over again — to help us finally get it.

God doesn’t give us just one chance. God is not just a God of second chances, as we often say. God gives us many chances, as many we need. May we, like Eli, finally come to accept what God has to say to us, with his words: “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”(6)

 

(1) 1 Samuel 3:1-20, the first reading for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Ordinary time, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary.

(2) 1 Samuel 3:4-10.

(3) “Here I am, Lord”, Hymn #574, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2006); also, for the Christmas cycle, this hymn is also appropriate in singing Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s visit to her, announcing Mary’s role in the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:38).

(4) 1 Samuel 8-10.

(5) Richard Boyce in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.245-247.

(6) 1 Samuel 3:18

Pizza, sushi, pigs-in-a-blanket: It all matters

It’s an odd beginning.[1] You’d wonder why, if Matthew and Luke – and to some extent even John – begin with stories of Jesus’ birth, Mark starts his Gospel rather abruptly. And by reference to the Hebrew prophets of old.

During this Advent season as we prepare for and wait for God’s coming at Christmas, the Gospel text for today feels out of place. It shakes us out of our sentimental leanings and Hallmark expectations of pleasant Christmassy stories.

One of my favourite children’s exercises is finding the pattern in a row of numbers, words, pictures – and identifying which part doesn’t fit. Preparing a way in the dusty heat of the Judean desert by referring to Isaiah is a no-brainer for finding what doesn’t fit if we would line up and compare the first chapters of each of the four Gospels.

Compared to wordy John, for example, Mark is the master of brevity. The earliest of all four Gospels in the New Testament, Mark tells the story of Jesus by getting to the point. He appeals to our contemporary need to summarize concisely. Mark is short – only 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24 and John’s 21. In our digital video age where sound and video bytes must capture our attention in less than 15 second ads, Mark is the go-to Gospel. If you’ve got the time.

He opens by simply getting to the point: Jesus is the Son of God. And it’s good news. Amen. We’d go hear his sermons.

Unlike Matthew, Mark leaves out the juicy, vitriolic speech John the Baptist gives slicing up the Pharisees calling them a brood of vipers.[2] Instead, in a few short verses, Mark simply tells his audience that John the Baptist comes to herald Jesus’ coming. That’s John the Baptist’s only role: To announce and prepare the way of the Lord. Period. Next question.

Our three confirmands this year and their families have decided to meet in each other’s home once a month. Taking turns to host, each decides then what we will eat for supper. The first month it was pizza, perhaps no surprise there. The second month was sushi. And the third month we met this Fall, it was crescent pigs in a blanket. Pizza, sushi and pigs in a blanket.

Same group of kids and parents. Different culinary expressions. And I wondered how well this group found unity despite our differences. The detailed differences mark important aspects of our identity and perspectives on life. And yet, there we were, eating together and talking about God.

Which is why we must stop, pause and ponder Mark’s inclusion of certain details. If Mark wants to be brief and just tell the basic point, then why does he include what John the Baptist is wearing and what his diet is? There must be something very important about locusts, wild honey and camel’s hair.

I find a few good reasons for including only those details. First, Mark makes the connection between John the Baptist and prophets of old. We see, through these details that John the Baptist stands in line with Isaiah by citing his work.[3] John the Baptist is also mistaken for Elijah because of their similar attire,[4] and because he, like it is recorded in the other Gospels, foretells of the coming Messiah.[5]

Mark wants to be brief, but he also wants to add just enough detail to make those connections. Not only is this good writing, he conveys that it all matters. Not just the principles, the higher meanings, the abstract thoughts, the arguments, the beliefs. Material matters too. The locusts and wild honey that he eats, the camel hair that he wears – these all mediate God’s intent and message.

We can learn from Mark that “spiritual talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.”[6]

Because there is “nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”[7], then everything can mediate that love. There is nothing in all of creation that cannot communicate God’s goodness. All perspectives, all things, everyone – it all matters!

Those that created this library that we call “the Bible” in the fourth century could have tried to summarize the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – into one definitive, authoritative account. No variations. No differences. No discrepancies.

No need to ask questions like: Was it the feeding of the 5000 or 4000? Were there two or was there just one angel in the empty tomb to speak to the disciples? Why does the Gospel of John contain stories not recorded in Matthew and Luke? One compilation would be enough, one that gets right the chronology of all the events, teaching and parables of Jesus. It would have made life easier!

But the wisdom of our forebears in the faith would keep the variations intact. Four similar yet different accounts were included in the New Testament. The diverse expressions and witnesses of Jesus Christ and his birth, life, teaching, healing, death, resurrection and ascension emerge as a critical element of faith.

In reflecting on the unitive diversity of Christian faith in the Bible, Richard Rohr wrote earlier this week in his daily meditation: “Scripture gathers together cumulative visions of the divine.”[8] Diversity is essential to who we are. It all matters.

It all matters because there is something good in everything. Everything in creation is just that: Created by God. And if everything was and is created by God, then despite the consequences of human misdeeds and the stain of sin in creation, despite all the religious and political differences in the world, there is still something redeemable and inherently good in this brokenness of creation. Including in us. This is the hope of Christian faith.

The Christmas season is a time when traditional gatherings occur in families, communities, friendship groups, and workplace teams. It would be too easy, and lazy on our part, to be dismissive and rush to make judgements of family members and co-workers with whom we differ. Some hesitate and complain about attending these gatherings because we can’t stand “grumpy uncle Stan” or “flakey aunty Molly”.

But even “grumpy uncle Stan” and “flakey aunty Molly” are beloved of God. There is something good about them. Will we take the time and effort to help make a safe place for them to express their true selves created in the image of God?

Richard Rohr has made many enemies in the Christian church for his provocative and progressive views. He has been a voice crying out in the wilderness for several decades now. And over all this time, he maintains that in conversation with those who differ from him, he follows a simple rule:

There is always at least ten percent of what he hears in their point of view that he can agree with. And it’s from that common ten percent that he begins his response to them.[9]

That calls for some work. And persistence. Because building relationships with those from whom we differ is not accomplished in one meeting, overnight, or after one phone conversation. It’s not easy work. It can take a life time.

It’s easier to give up and walk away. It’s easier to justify some narrative that paints them as evil or not worth spending any time with. The sad consequence of following this easy way we see in the world today.

We pray for peace on earth this Christmas season, as with the angels of old. The way of peace is to have hope. To have hope is to live into that which God calls us into being. And that hope requires us to take the narrow path.[10] To have hope is to work hard at practicing good listening skills. Hope requires us to work hard at not speaking first, but first asking questions and hearing the other. That hope requires us to work hard at listening with the aim of seeking understanding, to try to see things from the perspective of the other.

This doesn’t mean we will agree with the other. This doesn’t mean we will lose our integrity or that which defines us as Christians and as individuals. But it does lead us to a way of being with the other that honours them and respects them as beloved creatures of God.

We will continue eating together as a confirmation class into the new year. I look forward to the different culinary tastes that await. And what is better, I know the young women in the confirmation class are looking forward to this as well.

Hope.

[1] The Gospel for Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8

[2] Matthew 3:7

[3] Isaiah 40:3

[4] 2 Kings 1:8

[5] John 1:21-23

[6] I wrote in my post from January 2015, “Borderland Spirituality”

[7] Romans 8:38-39

[8] December 4, 2017

[9] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010).

[10] Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:24

Martin Luther & Julian of Norwich

An imaginary meeting between Martin Luther (16th century reformer) and Julian of Norwich (14th century mystic) in celebration of the four-month time of worshipping together in the same space with Faith Lutheran Church Ottawa and Julian of Norwich Anglican Church Ottawa, a time which now comes to an end. Thank you to the Rev. Mary Ellen Berry, Anglican Diocese of Ottawa and incumbent of Julian of Norwich, for co-writing and presenting this dialogue with me, on our last Sunday together February 19, 2017



NARRATOR: I came early this morning to set up, and no one was here. I was tired so I sat down on the chancel steps, and fell asleep. And I had the strangest dream: Julian of Norwich had a conversation with Martin Luther …..

ANGEL: (singing, from the balcony) “I want Jesus to walk with me, I want Jesus to walk with me, all along my pilgrim journey, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” (ELW #325)

LUTHER: (appearing from behind the pulpit, holding a large Bible, opened, in one hand, his feather ink pen in the other) “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect!” (Matthew 5:48, Gospel for Epiphany 7A) What does this mean?

JULIAN: (appearing in her cell, sitting on a stool, leaning upon the reading desk) What does this mean to you?

LUTHER: Who are you?

JULIAN: Julian of Norwich.

LUTHER: Are you one of those uber-enthusiasts, I call Schwaermer in my native German tongue? Julian of Norwich, that’s hardly the way to relate to the Lord.

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: How did you learn that you couldn’t be perfect as God is perfect, by your efforts alone? What did you do?

LUTHER: At first, I rubbed the tips of my fingers raw washing the floors in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. That didn’t help my conscience. So, in 1510 I decided to go off to Rome. I crawled devoutly up the stairs of the Scala Santa, as millions of other pilgrims did.

JULIAN: Life, itself, Martin offers its own penance: disappointments, failures, sickness, betrayals. Life, if we but allow it, purges us of all the things for which our habits and affections grasp. Why on earth did you do all those things?

LUTHER: I laboured and sacrificed so much in order to purge myself of sin. It was up to me, I believed, to make myself right before God. It all depended on how hard I worked and the more penitential I became. I tried to impress God. I once believed my good works were the gateway to my salvation; only then, could I be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.

JULIAN: What happened to change your understanding?

LUTHER: It was on the Scala Santa in Rome as I made my wearisome, guilt-ridden way up those holy stairs, I heard God’s voice saying to me: ‘The just shall live by faith, not by doing penance.’ It was like scales fell from my eyes. I stood up, walked back down, and stalked out to ignite the Reformation!

JULIAN: You heard God’s voice speak to you! How do you know that it was God who spoke? Was it the only time you heard the voice of God speak to you? It seems quite an experience, no? Did you not criticize the ‘Schwaermer’ — as you call them — those ‘fanatics’ who relied on experience alone to express their Spirit-filled faith?

LUTHER: Well, yes .. and no, not just experience alone. I was suffering severe cramps in my room one evening, reading through Paul’s letter to the Romans, when I came across the verse from chapter 3: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, we are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through Jesus Christ” (v.23-24). This word of God is external, and comes to us quite apart from any experience we might have.

JULIAN: But you are not denying that God comes to us and speaks to us through our experiences?

LUTHER: Only when mediated through the Word.

JULIAN: I see, “Only when mediated by the Word.” And what, for you Martin, is the “Word’?

LUTHER: The spoken word, preached and proclaimed. The words in the bible. And, most importantly, the living Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: But the spoken word and the living word touch our souls, not just the ears and mind, do they not? Is not the word something that needs to come into us, personally, experientially?

LUTHER: You are good at asking questions, fair Julian of Norwich. Perhaps you can tell me why it is you sit in your cell, asking questions of the faithful and listening to their stories?

JULIAN: It is in this way that I do my small part in the work of our Lord Jesus. I care for their souls, I tend to their hearts, so the real teacher, our Lord Jesus, can enter. My fondest hope, Martin, is “that when I am no longer in this world my dear ones will soon forget me so that I shall not hinder them, and they will behold Jesus who is teacher of all.”

LUTHER: In German, this pastoral care ministry is the work of the Seelsorger. But you also have written so much — the first book written by a woman in the English language. I wonder what greater impact your writing would have had, if you had Gutenberg’s printing press at your disposal, like I did.

JULIAN: You, too, my dear Martin, have written so much — more than me I should say! You translated the Latin bible into your beloved German.

LUTHER: Your Divine Revelations speak boldly of God’s love and trust.

JULIAN: You once wrote: “Sin boldly”. Do you regret anything you’ve written?

LUTHER: Well, yes. I did write unlovingly about the Jewish people. I have contributed, by my words, unfortunately, to the cause of anti-semitism. I am grateful that the Canadian Lutheran Church in the last century, among others worldwide, have rescinded this hateful language from my legacy. What advice do you have?

JULIAN: All wrath – all that is contrary to peace and love – is in us, not in God, Martin. So, yes you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But you are forgiven, Martin. Grace alone. Is that not what you preached?

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

LUTHER: Your written work is impressive. Do you, Julian regret anything you’ve written?

JULIAN: Well, Martin, I don’t know that ‘regret’ is quite the proper word, but it will do until I can think of a better one. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” are words that were given to me by our Lord, Jesus that I wrote in my Divine Revelations. They are beautiful words and they are most surely true, Martin. I do not regret hearing and writing these words; but I do regret – hmmm, still not the right word – how they are often taken.

LUTHER: What do you mean by “how they are often taken”?

JULIAN: What I mean, Martin, is that I fear these words have been misconstrued. When our Lord Jesus spoke them to me, I, too, was at first appalled and answered, “Good Lord, how can all be well when great harm has come to your creatures through sin.” – don’t forget, Martin, that I lived during times of war, plague, poverty, and famine. Through the grace of God, I came to understand our Lord Jesus’ words more fully.

LUTHER: Really, how so, Julian? Because being perfect, then, is not about a life free from all that ails us, and continues to do so all our lives long, no?

JULIAN: Yes. “All shall be well” is not a promise that God will relieve us of our sin and pain in this life. It is an invitation to trust God, to cultivate new habits of trust in God, and to at least be open to God’s healing love. “Just as by God’s courtesy he forgets our sin from the time we repent, just so does he wish us to forget our sins and all our depression and all our doubtful fears.”Does this speak to you, Martin? Or does it sound like the rantings of a 14th century mystic – a fourteenth century Schwaermer?

LUTHER: Well, you are two hundred years older than I am!

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

JULIAN: ‘Perfection’ then is experienced when we bask in the light of God’s love in, through, for and with us. Loving yourself, and loving others, loving all of creation, despite our suffering. This is the beginning and end of all prayer. How do you pray?

LUTHER: I spend nearly half the day in prayer, each and every day.

JULIAN: Being in the presence of God, whether you use words or not, unites us in Jesus.

LUTHER: I’ve always said: the fewer the words, the better the prayer!

JULIAN: The presence of Jesus, God’s love as a mother’s love, is all gift.

LUTHER: Despite our differences, then, prayer unites us all in this grace of God.

JULIAN & LUTHER: Thanks be to God! (Julian and Luther walk to the centre and embrace, then each walk separately out one of the side doors beside the altar)

ANGEL: (singing) “I want Jesus to walk with me; I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

NARRATOR: (wakes up, shakes his head, stands up and faces the congregation) The words of the Prayers of Intercession are posted on the screen. The Lutherans will with one voice say together their parts; and alternate with the Anglicans who will say their parts. Let us pray in the unity of Christ!

Annual Pastor’s Report

Effective Partnerships

The most significant event in the life of Faith Lutheran Church in 2016, was the decision to complete an extensive renovation of our worship space and narthex hallway. To complete this major modernization project, we partnered with the capable and esteemed contracting company from Stittsville, “Amsted”.

This decision precipitated what may in the long run prove to be just as significant, if not more so: The decision to join with the local Anglican parish on Sunday mornings during the time of the renovation (which lasted into 2017).

Even should nothing enduring come of the relationship between Faith Lutheran Church and Julian of Norwich Anglican Church, the mere exercise of gathering as a hybrid congregation for the last ten consecutive Sundays in 2016 plus two Christmas Eve services caught the attention of the Christian community in Ottawa and across our Eastern Synod.

Meeting to worship with local Anglicans affirmed both the existing Full Communion relationship between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC), an agreement existing since 2001. As such, given the other options during our vacancy from 43 Meadowlands Drive West, meeting with an Anglican congregation was attractive, since doing so facilitated many logistics of worship between our similar liturgies, as well as kept a certain momentum alive for meeting at all, during the renovation/vacancy period.

On Lutheran liturgy Sundays (every other Sunday) at Julian of Norwich, we expressed our unique identity within the union of two distinct congregations. For example, each congregation has different histories, as well as contrasting governance structures (i.e. Anglicans are governed episcopally, while Lutherans are governed in a congregational structure).

While comparing congregations is fruitful, challenging and enjoyable, the fact that we began this relationship knowing we were returning home at some point allows us to pose critical questions of review of our ‘way of doing things’ freely, both around sacramental practice and mission.

During the Eastern Synod Assembly in June, your lay delegate (Julia Wirth) and the pastor heard again the four main, missional themes of the Eastern Synod (Effective Partnerships, Healthy Church, Spirited Discipleship, Compassionate Justice). No doubt, our congregation participated in a way no other Eastern Synod congregation has, in affirming the value of seeking “Effective Partnerships” in fulfilling God’s mission, especially during times of need and change.

Loss and Transition

A basic assumption of committing to the renovation project was that we had to take leave of our current building, and specifically our place of prayer. Doing so was an act of courage. Leaving a place that has symbolized a constant certainty in the lives of Faith members for over fifty years was not easy. Our sense of stability in faith was disrupted, as we were challenged to distinguish between the form (‘our’ building) and function (the purpose) of faith.

This leave-taking coincided with other endings. June 2016 marked the last time the Faith Lutheran Women (FLW), structured the way they had been for the last few decades, met in typical fashion (see report). For some time prior to this they had been talking about closing their account and ceasing to meet ‘as is’. In the latter part of 2016, that talk became reality.

Also, the Confirmation program that for several years had been a successful experience for leaders and participants alike, did not in the Fall of 2016 achieve the critical mass of students to warrant a class structured in the same way. As a result, no program started up at the start of the school year.

These events, I believe, constitute ground for growth and maturity of our community as we practice the spiritual gifts of detachment and trust. The prophet Isaiah spoke the word of God to the exiled people in Babylon in the 6th century B.C.:

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Before the new thing arrives, we need to stop the old thing. These endings are not failures as such; rather, they provide the space for the new thing God will have for us. What we are called to in disruptive times of loss and transition, I believe, is to be patient, have presence of mind and openness of heart, and be willing to take a risk together when something presents itself in our hearts as possibility and passion.

Poised for renewal

Moving into the new year, Faith Lutheran Church is poised to embrace a season of discernment, reflection and new beginnings.

Not only will we return to enjoy the gift of a refreshed, safe and healthy environment for meeting in our newly renovated building, we will be encouraged to reflect on what this space, created for at least another decade of ministry, worship, and mission, will be used for.

Late in 2016, the congregational council unanimously endorsed a proposal for a 3-month sabbatical for the pastor in 2017. The sabbatical covenant, based on the Eastern Synod Guidelines for Sabbatical, addresses the need for leaders to take periodic and extensive ‘pauses’ in vocational life, for renewal, reflection and discernment.

The benefits for the congregation mirror those for the pastor. From the perspective of providing some distance, a sabbatical gives freedom for everyone to step back, assess the structure of ministry and mission in the congregation, and contemplate new ways of supporting one another in our lives of faith.

For example, healthy congregations in general have several highly functioning lay leaders who engage proactively not only in managing a church, but in leading the mission of the church. The health benefits to the congregation, as for the pastor, following the sabbatical give opportunity for renewal of the mutuality of the relationship between pastor and congregation in God’s mission. The ‘reset button’ is pressed, and energy flows again.

Adaptive Change: Put away the mallets and start asking “Why?”

“There is a wonderful story of a group of American car executives who went to Japan to see a Japanese assembly line. At the end of the line, the doors were put on the hinges, the same as in America. But something was missing.

“In the United States, a line worker would take a rubber mallet and tap the edges of the door to ensure that it fit perfectly. In Japan, that job didn’t seem to exist.

“Confused, the American auto executives asked at what point they made sure the door fit perfectly. Their Japanese guide looked at them and smiled sheepishly. ‘We make sure it fits when we design it.’

“In the Japanese auto plant, they didn’t examine the problem and accumulate data to figure out the best solution — they engineered the outcome they wanted from the beginning. If they didn’t achieve their desired outcome, they understood it was because of a decision they made at the start of the process.

“At the end of the day, the doors on the American-made and Japanese-made cars appeared to fit when each rolled off the assembly line. Except the Japanese didn’t need to employ someone to hammer doors, nor did they need to buy any mallets. More importantly, the Japanese doors are likely to last longer and maybe even more structurally sound in an accident. All this for no other reason than they ensured the pieces fit from the start.

“What the American automakers did with their rubber mallets is a metaphor for how so many people and organizations lead … a series of perfectly effective short-term tactics are used until the desired outcome is achieved. But how structurally sound are those solutions?

“ … Long-term success [is] more predictable for only one. The one that understands why the doors need to fit by design and not by default.

“Going back to the original purpose, cause of belief will help … [churches] adapt. Instead of asking, “WHAT should we do …? the questions must be asked, “WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring our cause to life considering all the technologies and …[other] opportunities available today?” (1)

Being poised for renewal means we need to understand the nature of change in institutions such as the church. Some definitions, outlined in a report generated by the Eastern Synod Mission Committee late in 2016, draw the distinction between Technical Change and Adaptive Change:

Technical Change is about fixing problems while essentially keeping the system the same. In other words, where’s the mallet?
Adaptive Change, on the other hand, is about addressing fundamental changes in values that demand innovation, learning and changes to the system itself. Start with ‘Why?’ And then lead from there, by design not default.

During this coming year, which will give all of us permission to pause and reflect, please resist the temptation to rush into doing something either because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or because we are too anxious not to remain awhile in the uneasy ‘in-between’ time of loss and transition. Be patient, take deep breath, pray, and reflect on the following questions:

Our adaptive challenge questions for 2017:
1. How do we communicate? To whom is each of us accountable?
2. How well do we listen and seek to understand the other? Give concrete examples.
3. Will we create a list of those who are not in church (technical strategy); or, will we identify the needs in the community surrounding 43 Meadowlands Dr West, in Ottawa (adaptive strategy)?
4. How will prayer be our starting point?
5. What are other ways besides worship that serve as entry points for the public to engage the church? This is important.
6. How do we see worship as a launching pad, not a destination, for following Jesus? This is very important.
7. What are the gifts we have as a church? (personnel, space, talents, passions, etc.)
8. How well do you know your fellow congregants’ jobs, professions, contacts, interests, hobbies, talents, passions?
9. Why do we initiate a ministry or mission outreach activity in the first place? Who is the target group? What is the purpose of doing it? Does everyone know the purpose? Why or why not? Is there general agreement about the purpose? Why or why not?

Thank you again for the privilege of another year doing this work with you. Blessings and Grace, on our journeys moving forward,
Pastor Martin

(1) Simon Sinek, “Start With Why”, Penguin Books, New York, 2009, p.14-15, p.51

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.

Sanctuary

For a year and a half my wife and I took dance lessons. We learned Latin dances such as the Salsa, Rumba, Samba, Triple-Step, Merengue, and the Cha-Cha. 

I was motivated, at the start, by a beautiful vision in my imagination: I could see my wife and I swinging to the music, sweeping across the dance floor, effortlessly. I had a vision of us moving in complete sync with one another, twirling and swaying together in perfect rhythm and harmony. What a vision!

When I first proposed we take these lessons together, she was all game. So, every week we dutifully went to our lesson and met with our dance instructor who showed us the steps and taught us the moves. We were doing this together!

After a few lessons, however, I was becoming a little bit disappointed. My vision was not panning out. We weren’t always in sync with each other. Indeed, more often than not, we were stepping on each other toes! Oh yes, we giggled about our missteps, but it seemed we were not getting anywhere.

Our instructor calmly yet persistently reminded us that we needed to practice. Before the fun would come, she said, we had to master the steps. And for me, the lead, I had to memorize the patterns and in my mind always be one step ahead, knowing where we were going with each and every move. And this took work! And persistence. And time. The fun would come later, I held on to the promise.

It wasn’t as easy as I imagined it would be, working towards that vision. In fact, it was my wife who grew into the love of the dance and often had to cajole and encourage me to keep up with the program.

The Gospel text (Luke 18:1-8) today describes a woman who is persistent in her pursuit of justice. Jesus tells this parable to illustrate what it means not to lose heart. In the story, persistence is not just about building up the courage to do something beyond one’s comfort zone just once, and then give up because it doesn’t turn out. 

How often, isn’t that how we operate when trying something new for the first time? Something doesn’t please us the way we expected or wanted the first time we try, and so we just give up on it. No, in the story, she goes back “continually”. The vision of justice never wavers in her commitment to do the hard work.

This relentless pestering is accomplished in adversity, and really against all odds. Why the woman would even consider trying, up against someone in power who has no fear of God and no respect for anyone, is remarkable. At the onset, we would say she is hardly setting herself up for success!

Setting up a contrast of visions to describe God, is what Jesus is up to in telling this story. The place where we meet God is a place of mercy, of sanctuary. People, in the course of history, could enter a church and find respite from the condemnation of the law. The police, the authorities, the powers that be, even the force of the law could not touch you in the holy space. Here, you found immediate relief and mercy, just by entering the space.

The place where we exercise our prayer is a place where we receive forgiveness, despite the imperfection and sordid realities of our lives in the world. That is why Jesus tells of a woman receiving justice, not because she goes to the temple per se, but a court of law in the secular world: Even there, you can find justice, despite the unjust and sinful people involved. God’s love is greater even then the most powerful, unjust judge.

Indeed, this is our challenge today. God is not just in one, holy place that we have cherished for the past fifty-five years. God is out there, too! In the imperfection of our Monday-to-Saturday lives. In the imperfection of our secular world. In the seat of government. In the marketplace. And, would you believe it, also in other churches. The truth of the Gospel resides in a worshipping community that is far from perfect. That, in fact, has weakness and brokenness imbedded in our very being together.

When Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), he didn’t hold back any punches, so to speak. He let God have it, and prevailed! His encounter with God, nevertheless, left him with a physical reminder of relationship with God: A bad hip. He would live the rest of his days, “limping because of his hip.” 

To be in communion with the Holy One is to bear the physical, real mark of sacrifice, of weakness, of imperfection. Followers of Christ, if you want to know them, are not perfect people. And if you meet Christians who appear to be perfect — or you want them to be — you are missing the truth of it I am certain. In fact, we would throw our lot in with the unjust judge, more than anyone else in these stories I would guess.

I read recently a story told by Marianne Williamson in her most recent book: “Tears to Triumph”. It’s “about a chimpanzee troop in which a portion of the population displayed depressed behaviour. They didn’t eat with the rest of the chimps, play with the rest of the chimps, or sleep with the rest of the chimps.

“A group of anthropologists wondered what effect the absence of these depressed chimps would have on the rest of the troop and removed them for six months. When they returned, they found that all of the other chimps, those who remained in the troop, had died! Why?

“According to one analysis, the chimps perished because the so-called depressed chimps among them had been their early warning system. The depressed chimps had been depressed for a reason; they registered that a storm was coming or snakes, or elephants, or disease. The presence of the depressed chimps had been an aid to the survival of the entire population … ” (1)

We need each other. We need our faults, you could say, just as much as we need our strengths. To remind us of what it’s all about. To point us to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. To help us remember that the church is not about our mission, but about God’s mission. To emphasize the grace of God under which all of us stand. To encourage us to work together with others that appear different from us. Going to, and persisting with, people that do things differently from us — in some ways better, in other ways not so much — is vital for the health and survival of the whole church.

So, after today we begin an adventure. Worship and faith and life-in-our-community does not stop now because this particular space becomes a construction zone for a couple months. We will continue to worship as a community, as Faith Lutheran Church. Yes we will! 

Our prayer will continue, and we will persist with others who are different from us (and I suspect we will soon discover they are not that much different from us!) at Julian of Norwich Anglican Church. Being outside our comfort zone is a critical, healthy, spiritual exercise. Should we persist together in this adventure, I believe we will grow in ways that are both vital and healthy to the future of Faith Lutheran Church; persisting together in this adventure will also deepen our walk with God.

I want to encourage you over the next two months to embrace this challenge, not shy away form it, maintain the vision, not lose heart, and pray always! Because God is already and always merciful and just.

(1) Marianne Williamson, “Tears to Triumph; The Spiritual Journey from Suffering to Enlightenment”, HarperOne, New York, 2016, p.84-85

Ho! Have a drink!

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters …” (Isaiah 55:1)

Around Jericho, in the Judean wilderness, it was hot and dry. Not the humidity we are used to in the Great Lakes area of North America. So, the heat wasn’t so bad actually.

And because I wasn’t sweating, I didn’t feel thirsty. And yet, as I disembarked from the air conditioned tour bus into 43 degrees celsius heat, our tour guide insisted we take periodic sips from our water bottles as we wandered on desert paths.

It’s common today, even in our urban lifestyles, to carry a water bottle around with you. And discipline yourself to be finished by a certain time of the day in order to insure the intended amount of consumption. We are told that just because we don’t feel thirsty doesn’t mean our bodies don’t need the regular hydration. We have to drink water even though we don’t feel like it.

And we need people in our lives to remind us to do so.

Many years ago pastors tended to just drop by and visit parishioners, unannounced. Today, folks prefer more ‘to make an appointment’. Maybe because we are busier. Or, think we need to be.

I like the joke of the pastor who visited on the fly. She would just randomly choose a member on a visiting day and drop by. After the pastor rung the door bell a couple of times, a young mother holding an infant in her arms opened the door and stood in the foyer surprised and suddenly self-conscious because of the unannounced visitor standing there.

“Hello, I am making pastoral visits today and thought to stop by and see how you are doing,” the pastor introduced herself.  After sitting down in the living room strewn with unfolded laundry and empty sippy-cups, the pastor asked the mother if she could see her bible, because she wanted to read a favourite bible verse as they prayed together.

The mother, eager to impress, called her 9-year-old child to her side. “Go, and get Mommy’s favourite book!” The obedient child ran off and returned shortly, proudly handing over to her the Sears Christmas Catalogue.

At a visit, regardless of the circumstances of the visit, hosts will still offer the visitor a drink of coffee, tea, wine, beer, juice, or plain water. Depending on how much time the visitor has for the visit, the visitor will either decline or agree. Perhaps your day is so busy that you are running from appointment to appointment and not willing or feeling able to sit for a while, and receive the gift.

That is when we need the prophets of our lives to lean over the coffee table and say, “Hey, you will have a drink! Don’t argue!” The personal encounter is more important than schedules, expectations and perceived busyness. The gift is being offered. Accept it! Now is the time to stop, and drink from the source of what is most important in life. And get over yourself!

And that might not be what you think, know or expect to give you what you need. In other words, you might not feel like the truth. But you still need it. So, drink!

And trust that what may not always ‘feel’ like what you want to do has nevertheless something of value, something worth paying attention to, something worth pursuing. God is mystery. God and God’s ways are ultimately not something we can intellectual comprehend, fully. Faith is not merely thinking about Jesus or the commandments. Faith is not a function of a mental construct alone.

In living out our faith, the prophet Isaiah points to the pitfall of our thinking, our thoughts: “Let the unrighteous forsake their thoughts” he says (v.7). “For my thoughts are not your thoughts …” (v.8-9). When we think too much about anything, we will get lost. A bishop once said, “My mind and thinking is like a bad neighbourhood; the more time I spend in it, the more I get into trouble.”

In the best-selling story of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, someone affirms with these words Harold’s extraordinary adventure that was inspiring many: “Maybe that’s what the world needs: Less of what makes sense, and more faith!”

Faith is a knowing that does not know. Faith is a knowing that knows we will never have all the answers about God and God’s ways intellectualized, rationalized and scripted into neat, logical arguments or plans. Faith, according to Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Faith is a knowing that descends into, and is directed by, the heart – the soul.

We are blessed here to carry the name “Faith Lutheran Church” to identify our community. It is therefore incumbent on us us to live according to faith and trust in God who is the source of our life and all things good.

Last Sunday, I was invited to a young adult forum at Notre Dame Roman Catholic Basilica on Sussex Drive in downtown Ottawa. The young people there were interested in the relationship between Lutherans and Catholics. One of the questions that arose in our discussion was: Can Lutherans and Catholics share in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion/Eucharist? In other words, can we drink from the same Cup of Life as a sign of our unity in the Body of Christ?

I referred to a Youtube video of Pope Francis recently visiting a Lutheran church in Rome. He was asked there whether Lutherans and Catholics can share the same cup at the altar. He responded that he didn’t want to say anything more than this: “Life is bigger than intellectual discourse and doctrine” (I paraphrase). Life is bigger than our doctrines, our feeble attempts to make sense of, and draw exclusive lines around, a mystery that is Christ present with us. Life is bigger than the lines we draw between us, in the desert sands. 

When all along, what we truly need is to drink together from the fountain of Life. Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks from the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Come, everyone who thirsts. French thinker, Gustave Thibon, once wrote: “L’ame … se nourrit de sa faim”, meaning: the soul feeds from its hunger. Whenever we are thirsty — long for something more than what the world offers — this is a sure sign we are on the right path. General feelings of unrest and angst are catalysts for transformation and positive change in our lives. Whatever makes us uneasy at first, may in truth be a key towards the path to your eventual growth in faith and life.

So, come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters of Life. Drink! And you will be satisfied.

Remember, life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.

Marriage: valuing difference

I am an identical twin. Whenever people see my brother and me together, usually the first reaction is to express how similar we look and act. People, it seems, naturally start with what appears to unite us and make us ‘the same’.

When two people celebrate a marriage, again what seems to be the focus is on what they must share in common, what makes them ‘one’. In various marriage traditions the unity of the couple is, obviously, presumed. In Christianity we read the scriptures about ‘two becoming one’; leave in order to cleave (Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31).

We may therefore read into such a coming together a complete blending of the individuals, almost as if the two people in marriage must dissolve their separateness into one kind of amorphous blob. Somehow, it feels like individuality needs to be ‘erased’, we feel, in a proper marriage.

As a twin, I am continually intrigued by what challenges not only my twin relationship but other kinds of relationships as well: It is more difficult to consider our differences, what is dissimilar, between people as something to celebrate and lift up.

I am impressed by your differences that stand in sharp relief this weekend as you exchange wedding vows. Because, the very foundation of the way you are getting married is based on your differences. Not on something you share as the same.

Each of you come into the marriage union with a different and distinct set of religious beliefs. One is baptized Christian and the other is Hindu. In order to celebrate the marriage, you participated in a Hindu ceremony on Saturday, and then a Christian worship service on Sunday.

Using this experience as an important marker on your journey of life, I want to encourage you to continue celebrating the differences between you. Stand on your own two feet, albeit side by side. A healthy marriage will reflect two, distinct points of view. Don’t deny the individual journeys and identities of each person that brought you together in the first place, lest not those identities be diminished, ignored, suppressed or repressed in the course of your marriage. A healthy marriage will reflect an activity and character that results in two sets of feet moving in tension as in a dance, albeit in the same direction.

Kahlil Gibran, born in northern Lebanon, was an early twentieth century philosophical essayist, novelist, poet and artist whose 1923 book, “The Prophet”, is considered a classic in Arab literature. It is in this book that his poetry on marriage highlights the paradoxical nature of a true coming together, and a true unity of separate souls:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.

Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a …[smothering] of love;

Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.

Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,

Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.

For only the hand of Life [God] can contain your hearts.

And stand together yet not too near together:

For the pillars of the temple stand apart, 

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.[emphasis mine]

“Let their be spaces in our togetherness.”

What you are showing us is that we need not be afraid of what is different in the world today. We need not be afraid of what we don’t understand, just because it is a ‘mystery’. A mystery is not something we can’t understand; a mystery is infinitely understandable. Always unfolding. Always yielding and revealing new insights. Always inviting us to learn more, appreciate more, and love more. This is the true adventure and ongoing discovery of marriage and love.

You see, there is really only one reason, one motivation, one activity that gives charge, energy and purpose to your differentiated union. It is love. It is the passion and pure first love, born in the human heart, despite all the differences of our lives. Not denying them. Simply placing those differences in the perspective of love. The movement of love in your heart brings you into conversation and dialogue in the first place. And then, this love leads you both into deeper expressions of joy and intimacy.

Without needing to control the other, or force the other to change into our likeness. Love does not demand subservience. Love does not force another into submission. Love is not controlling of the other. Instead, love respects another who is different, seeks to understand the other. Love forgives the other and listens to them.

God is love. And that is why we are here today. As Lutheran pastor and teacher, Dr. Kristen Johnston Largen, writes, there is “inherent value in difference – even religious difference” (Interreligious Learning & Teaching, Fortress Press Minneapolis, 2014, p.79). Religious difference, in truth, is “part of God’s plan, rather than an obstacle to it.”

Love calls us out of our comfort zones, into the sometimes challenging and messy realities of being with another and participating in another’s field of life. On the one hand respecting one’s own integrity in doing so; at the same time, boldly entering another’s life. Marriage, in this way, is one of the best schools of love.

Raimon Panikkar, who was one of the most creative voices working in the area of interreligious dialogue encouraged people of different faiths to remember that “We belong together, even if our notions and codes are incompatible” (quoted in Largen, ibid., p.81). We belong together, in relationships of love. The scriptures you chose for your Christian wedding reflect this central tenet of Christianity (1 John 4:9-12, 1 Corinthians 13:4-13).

In the Christian faith, God is understood in a relationship. We call it, “The Holy Trinity” – three persons as one God. The truth of our lives is demonstrated most clearly in relation to one another. Because each of us has gifts and strengths to offer the other. In marriage, you individually have something the other needs, and the other can teach you a thing or two – I am sure! Each can learn from another, each from our own areas of strength.

For God bringing us together today.

For God bringing you both together in love.

Amidst the diversity, difference and distinctions of our common lives.
We give thanks. And praise be to God.

Amen.