“¡Presente!”

Each of the four blessings is matched with a corresponding ‘woe’[1] First, Jesus says that blessed are they who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now and whom people hate. But, unlike Matthew’s version of the beatitudes[2], Luke doesn’t stop there. Luke doesn’t let us off easily.

Lest we become too enamoured with spiritualizing virtues or escape into some pie-in-the-sky notion of faith, Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon only sets us up for being gobsmacked upside the head. In a stunning reversal to each blessing Jesus brings a ‘woe’—to those who are rich, who are full, who laugh now and about whom people speak well.

But wait—a secure financial future, a full stomach, a light heart, and a good reputation – aren’t these all values we want and seek? Aren’t these the things around which we structure our lives to obtain? Don’t these describe to a ‘t’ our five-year, ten-year and twenty-five-year goals?

A surface reading of this scripture can leave us picking sides. Am I on the ‘blessing’ side or the ‘woe’ side of the equation. Either / Or. Will we dare go deeper?

And, at the deeper currents of our awareness — when we are honest with ourselves — don’t we already know? Don’t we already know the truth of it—that, at best, wealth, a full stomach, a light heart and a good reputation are mixed blessings? They come at a great cost to health and relational well-being. They are temporary, fleeting. They can come and they can go.

Contrary to popular belief, rather than being evidence of God’s favour, prosperity can actually endanger our relationship with God, as was the case with the rich fool and Zacchaeus—both characters unique to Luke’s Gospel.[3]

What is common to both characters? Both came to Jesus rich men with full stomachs and their reputations intact. When they came to Jesus, both the rich fool and Zacchaeus were perfectly able to take care of themselves, to say the least.

The common trait they share as prosperous men of first century Palestine, is their self-sufficiency. This state is what separates them from God. And has them trapped. they are self-sufficient.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, we read that those who lay up treasures for themselves are not—and cannot be—rich toward God[4]because when we can take perfectly good care of ourselves, it is altogether too easy for us not to trust God. So, what jeopardizes the wealthy Christian’s relationship with God is the subtle temptation to think that we can go it alone and take care of ourselves.[5]

This underlying belief applies not only to our personal lives—and what we decide to do with our wealth, our investments, our properties our material blessing— but, also to the way we do church.

Will we be a community that lives only unto ourselves, or for the sake of others? Meeting the challenges of church today, how do we move forward? What decisions will we make with the resources we have? Will we abide by the code of self-sufficiency and go it alone? Or, will we seek out effective partners, neighbours and others on the journey of faith? Will we say God is only here inside thesewalls alone? Or, will we seek God’s work out there in the world?

What with all the competing values and programs for success beating down the doors of our hearts and minds, to follow the Christ of the cross is not easy. It’s not a technique or strategy that we can simply employ. In light of the beatitudes from Luke, the way of Christ cannot be an add-on. It cannot work that way, as another activity to add to the schedule of our already busy lives.

It comes to us as a complete package. It’s a call to transformation – a whole-life make-over. I understand the hesitation. Because life in the fast lane has its perks. Maybe we don’t want to give them up. Not easily, anyway. Seeking after self-sufficiency is too much of a lucrative deal for our egos.

Therefore the message of the Gospel can really be a downer! After all, how can we ever live faithfully when immersed in our world and its values?

But, perhaps, the message of All Saints provides an antidote to the despair and the grief. And give us hope for the journey. After all, the Gospel is not just about how to get into heaven after you die, but actually more about how to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth before you die. Not just the saints of heaven. But the saints on earth.

I want to close with a brief reflection on the meaning of a couple of words. First, ‘blessing’. “Blessed” is sometimes translated as “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[6]which incidentally is also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in offering the beatitudes, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor, when you hunger, when you weep, when you let go, when you don’t hold it all to yourself.” I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state. It acknowledges a journey of becoming. And any path of growth and transformation will include honest struggling and striving and letting go.

It is human to struggle with these things. On one hand, we do need to learn early in life how to take care of ourselves. Learning vital skills around self-care are important. Along the journey of maturity and growth, however, we must also learn how to balance this skill towards attention to others.

The second word is ‘presence’. This word doesn’t appear in the biblical texts for today, but it is implied in our ritual of All Saints. In Spanish, you hear the word said aloud: “¡Presente!”—which literally means “here” or “present”. There is a long tradition in Latin American movements for justice of invoking the memory of those who have lost their lives in the struggle.

At political gatherings their names were read out loud, one after another, not unlike we read the names of the saints earlier. After each name the crowd says together: “¡Presente!” as if to say: “You are not gone, you are here with us. You are not forgotten, and we continue the struggle in your name.”

It is human to struggle in the mission of God on earth. But we are not alone. Not only are the saints of heaven among us in spirit and in love, God is with us each step of the way. On the journey of life …

“Blessed are you who are poor – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who hunger – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who weep – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who are despised – because you are not alone!”

“¡Presente!” “¡Presente!” “¡Presente!”

 

[1]Luke 6:20-31

[2]Matthew 5:1-12

[3]Luke 12:16-21; 19:1-10; E. Elizabeth Johnson in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.239-241.

[4]Luke 12:21

[5]E. Elizabeth Johnson, ibid., p.241

[6]Psalm 1:1

Summertime home

It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:32; Mark 4:32; Luke 13:19).

Jesus tells a story, paints a mental picture, that reveals God’s imagination. First, it is something that is almost missed, that goes unnoticed, appears inconsequential, the smallest of all the seeds.

It is this thing we almost dismiss that grows into the complete opposite: the most important thing in our lives! It is great, central, the top priority for all, the greatest of shrubs.

Finally, this incredible dynamic of truth—what is the smallest becomes the greatest—has a purpose, a mission: to provide shelter and home.

These are summertime images and stories from the Gospel that can spark our imagination, too. Those ordinary, seemingly unimportant aspects of our life—daily routines, budgets, mundane decisions, recreation, preoccupations, feelings, thoughts—these become the crucibles within which God decides to inhabit and transform for a great and significant purpose.

As we notice the joy of God’s creation this summer, experience in fair weather its comfort and in storms its distress, what is God nudging in us? How is God using what is the smallest in us and our world to work for the benefit of all?

May our lives become the garden of God’s transformative love—to feed and house the world. And to display God’s beauty and goodness for all! Happy Canada Day!

Have a great summer!

Discerning Mission today

I’m offering the following reflection to members of our congregational council prior to a conversation we hope to have around discerning a mission focus at Faith Lutheran. I invite your responses, too!

A missional theology for the 21st century

I emphasize the 21st century, because since the 15th century most mission work done by Christians was heavily influenced by what is called the “Doctrine of Discovery”. Please listen to/watch the audio/video at this link https://youtu.be/Ygk3X5Xjjh4 as background material to the question of mission in the 21st century. While Bishop MacDonald reflects its historical effect upon the Indigenous people of Canada, this paper will clarify underlying assumptions of a mission strategy that breaks with the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

Moreover, it is important for ELCIC Lutheran congregations to be aware that a few years ago in national convention, the church formally repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery” (Visit http://www.elcic.ca/Documents/documents/DoctrineofDiscoveryMotionFINAL.pdf).

I will presume that bearing witness to the Gospel of Christ does not mean we treat people as objects against whom we must compete for doctrinal supremacy. People are not objects with whom we must compete for the truth. Mission is not a game. Mission is not a war. People are not a means to an abstract end, pawns manipulated on the chessboard of religious winners and losers.

The “Doctrine of Discovery” assumed that what we had (the truth, the right way of thinking, the right doctrine of God, etc.) we had to communicate, usually violently, to the other who was infinitely inferior in their thinking and worldview. In other words, our mission practice was usually characterized as an imposition, a forced laying-on of what we believe upon the passive or resistant recipient. The harder we tried, the better. Success was measured by victory on the battlefield, literally and figuratively, and number of souls converted to Christ.

The “Doctrine of Discovery”, moreover, paid little attention to the truth that God has been revealed in all of creation – including those with whom we relate in any missional work (see “incarnational” below).

In the emerging understanding of mission today, the following characteristics stand in contrast to the assumptions of the “Doctrine of Discovery”. As such, the culture of doing mission is undergoing a radical transformation. The diversity and multi-cultural social environment in Canadian society, especially in large urban centres such as Ottawa, make our context particularly attractive to practise and exercise these principles of, and attitudes towards, mission:

1. Respectful

When people who differ from each other in significant worldviews, a respectful encounter is characterized by the willingness to listen first. When all parties in the encounter demonstrate curiosity and a desire to seek deeper understanding from the other, the mission encounter can be deemed a respectful one. An initial question asked by the Christian seeker who is curious about the other, is: “What can you teach me?” / “What can I learn from this encounter?” As such, the Christian also shows genuine humility.

2. Incarnational

God is revealed in all of creation. God’s manifestation is revealed in different ways among different people. Such an outlook is more Hebrew than Platonic. Plato described aspects of reality as an imperfect, refracted reflection. In contrast, the Hebrew notion of physicality, and the Christian belief that the humanity was God’s very embodiment, suggests the revelation of God is encountered more ‘in the flesh’ rather than in abstract ideas. This incarnational mode of mission leads to at least two important implications:

First, mission is God’s work and activity before it is ours. In other words, God is already active ‘in the world’ before we decide to do anything about it. Discerning a mission focus is then about acknowledging an opportunity and then choosing to participate in what God is already doing. Second, mission work therefore addresses real life, practical needs of all creation (see ‘restorative’ below). If a missional initiative is more about spreading the right ideas about God than focused ‘on the ground’ and the particular needs of a particular people in a particular context, than that initiative lacks an incarnational understanding of God’s work.

3. Relational

Based on the Trinitarian appreciation of God (The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit – One God in Three Persons), any missional work in God’s name will be relational. In other words, mission is a communal, corporate act instead of an individual, solitary, autonomous effort in and by the church. As such, a missional approach will hold that when one member of a community suffers, then the whole community suffers (1 Corinthians 12:26. Though Paul refers here to the church and therefore this verse has important implications for the pastoral care of and among Christians themselves, we can also suggest that the general principle applies to broader circles of community, including in the public sphere). We are all interdependent beings, as much as we like to emphasize the rugged individualism and self-reliance in North American culture. Despite these strong notions that continue to influence us, we do need each other. More than one famous person has said that a society is judged by how it treats its weakest, most vulnerable members (often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, but was also allegedly expressed by American novelist Pearl Buck and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (1965-1969)).

4. Mutual

Flowing from relational and respectful understandings of mission work, a healthy encounter is usually mutual. A basic definition of mutuality is: “What I want from you, I will first give to you.” If I want respect, I first need to give it. If I want your trust, I need to trust you. If I want you to listen to me, I first need to listen to you. Mutuality is thus a rendition of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. That is, love the other because that is what you seek from them. A primary and fundamental question in a mission encounter is: “How can I best love you?” This brings an interesting implication of mission work: Our (deeper) needs will be met when we meet the needs of others.

5. Collaborative/cooperative

These are mission initiatives that reflect in their organization an effort and desire to be cooperative and collaborate with others. Such efforts presume not a competitive model in the marketplace of charities. Rather, these organizations envision working with different levels of government and the non-for-profit sector to achieve the highest quality of service and maximize resources for a common, shared goal.

6. Restorative

To be ‘restorative’ in doing God’s mission, is to incorporate an incarnational theology with relational, respectful and mutual modes of mission. That is, we look to where God is, in the world around us, and go there. We observe and ascertain the physical needs of the most vulnerable in our society, and we seek to meet those needs – in order to make things right or at least better. This restorative approach also presumes we address some systemic injustices in our society. Mission is not merely ‘charity’ work (which tends to be individualistic and maintain unjust structures). Rather, we gain awareness of the reality facing the vulnerable, we engage in advocacy on their behalf, and/or we engage in action to help a group, directly.

7. Authentic

A Christian mission theology for the 21st century is rooted in an identity that is clear and strong. In this emerging missional style, a confidence and joy in Christian identity is maintained and grows. We are not ‘blending’ nor ‘losing’ our faith in first listening to the other, seeking understanding of the other or loving the other first. In learning more about another’s faith, religion, or worldview, we do not lose what is most important to us. In truth, the opportunity is there to become stronger in our faith by learning more about someone who is different from us/me.

Maintaining faith-integrity is integral to this emerging missional culture. Being authentic and true to one’s belief, maintaining healthy boundaries of respect, and giving others freedom to choose – these all speak to an authenticity that is attractive in and of itself in a missional encounter. As the Twelve Step founder, Bill Wilson, laid out the policy of “attraction not promotion” (Cited in Susan Cheever, “AA and Anonymity – What Would Bill W. Do?” The Fix: Addiction and Recovery, Straight Up, 06/07/2011) , we do not force, we attract.

This might mean agreeing to disagree on some things while still respecting the other. Being authentic implies, also, that Christians in a diverse, multi-cultural world, must keep learning about their own faith, and acquire new skills in relating to each other and the world around us (e.g. active listening, assertiveness). We cannot assume anymore that everyone ‘out there’ knows what we mean when we present crosses, sing hymns, or use familiar (to us) words and symbols. We need to know what these mean to us before sharing our faith. We need to learn how to listen, and to ask for what we need and want from the other. Changed lives will attract others to inquire about the faith, not beating others over the head with a bible nor by the force of persuasion and argument.

8. Local

Finally, the emerging theology of mission in the 21st century is increasingly local in scope. In 2014, Synod Conferences in our church were restructured into smaller units, or local Ministry Areas (e.g. the Ottawa/St Lawrence Conference evolved transitioned into four separate areas: Ottawa Ministry Area /Montreal Ministry Area /Seaway Ministry Area /Upper Ottawa Valley Ministry Area). As a result, the focus of congregational and regional activity bears more on the local geographical context of the church. That is, individual congregations are now encouraged to relate more within the immediate geographic surroundings in mission work with other local congregations, as opposed to the vast area represented by the predecessor Conference structure.

Not denying the good work of national and global missions, Lutherans in Canada are encouraged to focus on more local, immediate needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

An implication of a local emphasis in mission is, we are poised to engage people more, thus fulfilling the relational, respectful, mutual modes described above (rather than merely putting a cheque in the mail to some distant, detached-from-our-reality effort – as worthy and good as it may be). A local mission, then, becomes more present to us and our ordinary, daily lives.

9. Compelling

A purposeful and authentic mission commitment will emerge from who we are as a congregation. I paraphrase Frederick Buechner’s words to say, we must go to where “our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need”. What will generate a collective commitment and enthusiasm for a project will depend on the degree to which the creative juices in our community flow in this discernment. We can think outside the box. We can risk failure. We can try again, and not give up. It’ll work when the imagination of the congregation is stirred and captivated. Is the initiative meaningful to a growing number of people associated with the church? Younger generations want to make a meaningful difference for the better, in the world, through their activity in the church.

Conclusion

In discerning a mission focus for our congregation, I would consider these principles as guideposts for the degree of our participation. For example, to what degree does such-and-such initiative reflect respectful, incarnational, relational, mutual, collaborative, restorative, authentic, local and compelling principles of engagement?

Respectfully offered, and for the purpose of ongoing discussion,

Pastor Martin Malina
April 2018

Grace precedes

Everyone was excited, but not sure what it was all about. In the centre of the room was a big box of balloons that had not been blown up yet.

The team leader asked each person to pick a balloon, blow it up and write their name on it. About 30 team members were able to get their name on a balloon without it popping. Those 30 were asked to leave their balloons and exit the room. They were told they had qualified for the second round.

Five minutes later the leader brought the team back into the room and announced that their next challenge was to find the balloon they had left behind with their name on it, among the hundreds of other balloons scattered in the large cafeteria. She warned them however to be very careful and not to pop any of the balloons. If they did, they would be disqualified.

While being very careful, but also trying to go as quickly as they could, each team member looked for the balloon with their name. After 15 minutes not one single person was able to find their balloon. 

They were not able to do it, because they were stuck looking only after their own interests as individuals. They couldn’t think collectively. They presumed they needed to do it all on their own, according to their interpretation of the rules of ‘the game’.

To me, the first two rounds of this game can be seen as a snap shot of the values of our culture and society. After all, there are ‘rules’ in our society. There are accepted ways of behaviour. There are the social norms and laws that bring at least a sense of order to our lives. One such norm, is the belief that we have to make it all on our own in this world.

We tell ourselves that competition and individualism are healthy and good, especially in the youth of our lives.

I grew up competing with my twin brother, David. Throughout our lives whether we were playing games, musical instruments and sports, doing our homework, achieving success at school, writing exams, making life choices — underlying our relationship was this competition. Always comparing and contrasting. While motivating and stimulating, ultimately it has become not always helpful, even a burden — as a foundation for our relationship.

When considering the doctrine of grace, based in the biblical witness of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we often skim over and even neglect the original social context of Paul’s writing. We get excited debating the doctrine of Justification by Grace posited here — especially as Lutherans. Yet to do so without first examining what was going on in the early Christian community, we can miss its original meaning:

At the time of writing Galatians (2:15-21), Paul and Peter were in a bit of a conflict. They represented two, competing views of how the mission of Jesus should be carried out.

For Peter, the disciple chosen by Jesus to be “the rock” upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18), he was influenced by some Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem who insisted that true converts to Christianity should first follow all the rules of the Jewish tradition — since the first disciples and Jesus himself were Jews.

When Paul and Peter met in a town called Antioch in those early decades of the first century, they confronted each other on this point. Because, for Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was on the line. He argued that Gentiles, who weren’t Jews, didn’t have first to be Jewish before becoming a follower of Jesus. If Christianity followed Peter’s bent, Gentiles could barely attain the status of second class citizens.

Later, Paul won the argument. Paul was a multi-culturalist far ahead of his time. Paul saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the long arc of God’s love and God’s inclusion, an arc bent toward making Gentiles full members of the family without preconditions. (1) Inclusion. Unconditional love. These words are signposts for the theology of grace, in Paul’s view, reflecting the way Jesus related to others.

If we begin with faith and grace, we can inhabit our traditions and rules more lightly. But it starts with God’s grace, for all people.

When I was in Clinical Pastoral Training at the Ottawa Hospital as part of my preparation for ordained ministry back in my seminary days, I was reminded of the truth of Christ’s presence and grace, which precedes mine.

I was advised, before entering the room of a patient, to stop for a moment. And bring to mind and heart this truth: Jesus is already in the room before I enter it. Jesus is already there, waiting for me. I do not bring Jesus with my charisma, eloquent words, magnetic personality, comforting presence. All these things may help, and may be true to some extent! 

But I don’t create Jesus. Jesus creates me. The patient I visit, along with me, are already in the presence of Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes in his letter (2:20). Grace precedes everything I am and do.

When Jesus accepts the woman’s extravagant and outrageous offering of foot-washing with the gifts she has been given (her hair, her love, her touch, her tears), he is being inclusive and loving unconditionally. 

Jesus is not making the woman first follow a bunch of religious rules or follow accepted social norms before letting her come near and even touch him. (Luke 7:36 -8:3) Jesus is not requiring her to provide a government-issued I.D., proof of baptism certificate or a list of all the good deeds she accomplished and the churches she has attended.

The only requirement Jesus seems to accept is that she is honest, vulnerable and open about her sinfulness. Because only honest sinners can appreciate the gift of grace, it seems. The one who is forgiven the greater debt, shows the greater love (Luke 7:47).

What will we do when we see a homeless person, notice the addict, rub shoulders against a divorced person, or sense the struggling and pain in another? Will we ignore the other, suggesting “it’s none of my business”? (that statment reflects a major social norm in today’s society, you know!). 

Or, will we approach the person, confident that Jesus is already there? Will we approach the person, take a risk, and ask a question motivated by love and trust in God? Will we approach the person, aware and honest of our own sinfulness? Aware of the forgiveness we have been given?

We are not alone. We all stand on the same, level playing field in God’s kingdom. That is why we have the church. That is why we gather each week to feed at the Lord’s Table of grace and Divine Presence. We are not alone. We have each other, in the Body of Christ.

After the team who couldn’t find their balloons in the cafeteria was told that the second round of the game was over, they moved on to the third and final round:

In this last round the leader told the team members to find any balloon in the room with a name on it and give it to the person whose name was on it. Within a couple of minutes every member of the team had their balloon with their own name on it.

The team leader made the following point: “We are much more effective when we are willing to share with each other. And we are better problem solvers when we work together, helping each other.” We are able to do what we are called to do in Christ, when we work together for the sake of each other, in God’s mission on earth.

Because Jesus’ love, grace and presence await us in the room, at the table, in the world, beckoning us to come.
Amen.

(1) – Gregory H. Ledbetter, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010, p.137

Questioning for the truth

Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34)

Well over a hundred times in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) Jesus asks a question. Jesus, the Teacher, does not give answers as much as he asks the right question.

And the question aims to reveal the truth. Good teachers will ask questions. And those who learn, who follow, will appreciate the importance of understanding the question.

Laurence Freeman tells of a time in his youth when he struggled with math in school. Finally he and some of his friends went to a bookstore in London, England, and found a copy of the math textbook they were using in class. The teacher’s edition had all the answers in the back.

Overnight, his marks shot up. Succeeding in math was no longer a problem. But the problem was that even though he had all the right answers, he still didn’t understand the questions. He was no better off in learning anything.

As people of faith living in this time of history, are we not so preoccupied with finding the right answers? We want answers to questions about ordinary life as much as the biggies — life after death, the nature of God, the final judgement, the end times, who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. We want answers. And, we will be satisfied only with right answers.

And yet, the point of the Christian life is to understand what is behind the question. Jesus uncovers the truth by helping others understand what the questions mean. We ought to appreciate this, since Jesus often “answered” a question by asking another question, as is the case in this trail scene with Pilate.

What is Jesus getting at with Pilate? In truth, as many have indicated, this scene might better be called “Pilate on trial”. Pilate, though supposedly in control, is completely trapped in fear. Pilate’s line of questioning betrays his his true goals. And his captivity.

These days it is common to speak of defining one’s values and clarifying one’s goals in life. Othersie we drift, rudderless. Without setting goals we become guilty of living LBWA (Life By Wandering Around). Or, without taking the effort and time to articulate values and goals, we become subject to “the tyranny of the immediate” and react to events rather than doing that which is most meaningful to us. Being honest and open with our values and deepest desires is not an easy task. Yet honestly living out of our deepest held values makes us more authentic and real. (1)

Pilate’s true goals? Being honest could not be the true goal of Pilate. Rather, staying in power had to be his aim. Authenticity would have to be thrown out the window. He questioned Jesus to find a technicality on which to condemn Jesus — in order to appease the crowd and religious leaders. “So, you are a king?” is a question designed to catch Jesus in a capital offense.

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus asks. Is Pilate not bound in his effort to stay in control? Is that not Pilate’s real goal, regardless of the cost — to stay in control of his life ‘as is’? Pilate is trapped. I have the feeling Pilate has to hide his true convictions, his honest questions, and his haunting fears. Jesus sees right through the smoke and mirrors.

There, before Pilate, Jesus seeks to encounter the real Pilate, the one who in truth is utterly trapped in his desperate effort to stay in control. There, Jesus gives himself to be with the true person who is Pilate. There, Jesus invites Pilate to be vulnerable, transparent, to share how it is with him, to utter the truth of his own life. (2)

My uncle living in Poland tells of a time at the end of the Second World War when the Soviets established control over Eastern Europe. My uncle, a German by origin, felt trapped. Caring for his wife and two young girls in an economically depressed part of Europe, he faced a significant decision to ‘prove’ himself: He could either reject the offer to become a card-holding member of the Communist party — which would be consistent with his beliefs — but face the potentially dire consequences. Or, as it turned out to be, he ‘paid his dues’ and became officially a Communist.

I remember he spoke to me years ago about how difficult that was. On Sundays he would sneak in and out of church through a back door to avoid scrutiny by the authorities. He and his family enjoyed the security and material benefits of his decision. Yet, on a deeper level he never felt entirely at ease with his decision, living a double life.

I share this not to condemn my uncle. In the same breath I sympathize with Pilate. I would struggle with and probably make similar decisions if I were in their shoes. My point is that living the truth is not an easy, simplistic reality in our world.

In our encounter with the living Lord and King, Jesus Christ, we are invited nevertheless to strive for the truth. We are invited to be authentic, transparent, vulnerable. We are invited to share the utter truth of our lives with one another in the church — the Body of Christ. We are called to face the truth about our lives, the truth Jesus holds up before us. We must look at what is right and what is wrong in our actions and attitudes towards others and within ourselves. As Emilie Townes puts it, we must “look deeply into who we are and what we have become, to try to live into what we can and should be.” (3)

I agree with those who say that people are leaving the church today not because they reject the teaching of Jesus. They are leaving the church because of the actions of those in the church. The problem is not what we say we believe. Truth is not simply born out of an intellectual discourse and debate. The problem is the actions — or lack thereof — that are supposed to flow from what we say we believe, into every dark corner of our lives.

Is not the truth Jesus wants us to see, what we are doing with our lives? Our behaviour? What we say to others? Our decisions? Is it possible to speak of truth as something that is done, rather than something that is merely believed or thought of?

We therefore challenge ourselves to look beyond what we think, to the truth found in God, as represented by Jesus. Jesus encounters us daily to help uncover the deeper truth of our lives, and invites us to speak and act authentically out of that truth which is larger than any of us individually. Our encounter with Jesus pulls us out of our self-centredness into that expansive, eternal realm that is the kingdom of God. And we act, beginning in our lives on earth according to the values of the Reign of Christ.

“Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus to Pilate. Even to Pilate Jesus offers to be the good shepherd – the good shepherding king – who, when his sheep listen to his voice, are led into abundant life. (John 10)

God the creator is love and grace. The truth of God comes from beyond our hypocrisy and failures. The truth of God comes from outside of our sordid and mis-guided attempts to act accordingly. The truth of God comes from a divine heart that is willing to put Jesus’ life on the line, for us. Jesus giving of his whole life for our sake speaks of an ultimate action, despite ours, that is all love, forgiveness and grace.

This truth can help us sort through all that competes in life for our attention and energy. We may encounter truth as a challenge from God. But it is also a gift God gives to us through infinite love and grace.

(1) Paul R. Trimm, “Successful Self-Management; Increasing Your Personal Effectiveness” Revised Edition, Logical Operations, 2015, p.14-19

(2) Pete Peery in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 4, WJK Press, 2009, p.333-337

(3) ibid., p.336

The glory: Worth the sacrifice?

I commend to you the reflection entitled “Storied Stones” (Nov 2015) written by Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, found at workingpreacher.org. What follows here is basically her wording with some addition and adaptation —

“What large stones and what large buildings?” If you have ever been to the Holy Land, you know just how big those stones really are. If you haven’t been, you can find online a picture of the western wall — the Wailing Wall — a remnant of Herod’s temple; these blocks of stone are far taller than most people.
Massive. Impressive. No wonder the disciples were agog and amazed. I certainly was. And suddenly, this Gospel story (Mark 13:1-8) made sense. Suddenly, I completely understood the astonishment of the disciples. The impetus for awe is typically justified — and on many levels.
“What large stones?” We love bold. We love big. We love better. That’s the human motto, in every form, it seems. The bigger, the better. The disciples are no different than we are and we are no different than the disciples back then. While we tend to trust in our two-thousand-plus-years insightfulness or insist that the disciples are less than insightful, Jesus calls out the truth of our humanity — both for his past and for present disciples: 
It is true: Like the first disciples we are attracted to splendour and grandeur. We are drawn to the biggest and the best. The most influential. The most powerful. The most anything. We love superlatives. Lest we think we are any more knowledgeable than Jesus’ first disciples, we are not. We only know different attractions, manifestations, and incarnations of magnificence, especially when it comes to what it means to be a Christian today.
Membership numbers, programs, innovation. Stewardship campaigns, “transformative” preaching, Christmas pageants. Christian education, moving worship, building projects — there is no end to what large stones we seek to erect. Our large stones are meant to draw the attention and wonder of onlookers. Our large stones are put in place to attract potential members. Our large stones are even constructed so as to secure the dedication and continued wonder of our own flock. Our faith, our religious life, our churches are not free from the want for prestige, for desire of greatness and grandness, for a yearning for a majesty beyond comparison. 
Why is that? Is it fear? Is it insecurity? Is it a belief that church is really just one big competition?
On the brink of his own arrest and death, Jesus’ lesson to his disciples — to us — is critical. As Jesus’ ministry comes to a close in Mark, it will be all too easy to fall back into a kind of mode of expectation that seeks to compare Jesus’ kingdom with those of this world. As we look toward to the end of the church year and Reign of Christ Sunday, it is easy to be convinced that bigger and better are marks of God’s church. As we get settled into Sunday morning routines, it is easy to disregard that God’s criteria for success is not bigger and better, but faithfulness. That what God cares about is not the “blank-est,” but our best — and there’s a difference between those two.
“What large stones?” is something we are quick to notice but we are not as quick to ask what stands behind the perceived greatness. There is always a backstory of which we are not privy. We cannot tell from the outside the story the lies on the inside. We cannot see in first impressions what has made possible the result or the efforts to get there. We cannot know what it took to make our amazement possible.
In part, Jesus is asking us to ask what’s been overlooked in the past for the sake of what is viewed in the present. And, usually such large stones do not come without a significant price. That those whom we prop up, admire, wish to be, or envy, have particular reasons and rationales for being what and who they are. 
How would we feel if we knew the truth about how the large stones came to be? Well, we may not like what we hear. We may start to realize that such greatness is not worth the overhead. And we may begin to understand that another’s striving for greatness has come at the expense of others, and perhaps the cost of one’s very self.
“What large stones” is a phrase never without sacrifice, either the sacrifice of others or the sacrifice of who you intended to be, wanted to be, and thought you could be. Sometimes this sacrifice is positive. But we can never think that the greatness of another is achievable on our terms. Our tendency is to see this greatness and think we could have done better, rather than inquire about how the greatness came to be. Sometimes this sacrifice is negative, because the allure of grandeur then throws all others under the proverbial bus or the grandeur itself takes over the soul.
In the end, “what larges stones” is itself a statement of faith. And it’s a statement of faith that Jesus asks us to reconsider.
What large stones in your life reveal sacrifices you have made, or are making, that are positive and/or negative? Is it time to reconsider your striving for the ‘large stones’ in your life? Is it time to reconsider your yearning and desires for grandeur and splendour and glory? is it time to reconsider the purpose of your life, and address those decisions you are making to maintain a false, unhealthy striving based on the world’s values? Is it time to meet Jesus, again, at the foot of the cross? Will you bring your concerns to God, and lay them at the altar today? And start anew?
I love the NRSV translation of the closing verse in this text: The trials Jesus describes that will characterize difficult times of transition are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” (v.8). Birth pangs. Jesus uses imagery from the natural course of life, which begins in considerable pain. Birth pangs normally announce the start of something wondrously new, unimaginably joyous and indescribably loving — the birth of a new relationship, the gift of new life.
The large stones will not last. Life, love and hope will endure forever. Have heart. Never give up.

The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.