Christmas Day – our gift is good enough

This Christmas message begins two months ago, on Halloween night. Yes, Halloween, when the goblins, skeletons, super-heroes and pirates were out in full force trick-o’-treating. 

It was a dark night. And pouring rain. But the children were determined to fill their sacks with as much candy as possible. 

Even the parents were in on it. In Arnprior, this made the local news: One Dad had lifted the large, tented car port from its moorings. Then he found three more willing parents to help him carry it like a giant umbrella down the street, protecting the dozens of huddled, costumed children from the relentless rain. 

When there is a will there is a way. Nothing was going to stop these folks on their mission to get the children as many treats as humanly possible. Talk about commitment. Dedication. Sacrifice. Self-reliance. For a cause.

Then, I heard of one grandparent who decided to give out candy at their door the same Halloween night, but here in Ottawa. He was going to get in on the spirit of it all and dress up himself. But, this time, he was going to shock his costumed visitors.

So, imagine with me the scene: Let’s say on Halloween you are going house to house with your pillow bag already brimming full of candy, pop and chips. And as you walk up the lane to the front door of thishouse, you start noticing something a bit off: 

Bright Christmas lights are hung around the front door frame and porch, blinking in blues, reds, greens and yellows. Ok. And when the front door opens, who is standing there, but Santa Claus! And he is ringing a hand bell and calling in a booming voice: “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

The grandparent who did this (sometimes adults will dress up as Santa Claus, you know!) reported to me afterwards about one little princess who stood at the door, dripping wet from the rain, mouth gaping open, eyes popping out. And she stood there for what seemed as an eternity. You could see the wheels in her head turning, wondering what on earth to do.

Finally, she made up her mind. The little girl placed her snack-and-candy-laden sack on ground and with two hands reached deep into the pillow case, pulled out fists full of treats and handed it all over to Santa. “Merry Christmas, Santa,” she said. I think it was Santa who was momentarily caught off guard, wondering what to do.

At Christmas, there’s a lot of pressure to perform with our giving. Today, it’s almost unheard of to limit a gift to $5. Today, if you’re not spending hundreds of dollars, will it impress? Yet, many will give in impressive ways – their time, energy, passion, money, and a gift for everyone on the list. Yes, we can say that it’s indeed better to give than to receive.[1]Yes, we can perhaps even point to times when it felt good to do so. 

But what if we feel there’s no more gas in the tank? What if we feel like we have no more to give. That we can’t keep up. We may decide not to give out any gifts because of this pressure we feel to impress. The emotional and digestive roller coaster, that is often what we experience over the holidays, may leave us spent, exhausted and hating people, hating ourselves. What more, on earth, can I give to anyone, let alone God?

Long ago, followers of Christ began to commemorate the coming of Jesus at the darkest time of the year. It was probably no accident that God came into the world when everything seemed so dark, so hopeless and helpless.

In the Gospel today from John, we read: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”[2]These words of hope are central to the first chapter in John’s Gospel. It is then no accident that we today celebrate Christmas just days after the winter solstice, December 21, which in the northern hemisphere is literally the darkest time of the year. 

In John’s telling there are no angel choruses. In John’s telling there are no shepherds tending flock. In John’s telling there are no wise men travelling from afar. In John’s telling there isn’t even a baby lying in a manger with Joseph and Mary looking on. Those are the stories Matthew and Luke tell. 

In John, the message is about the meaningof God becoming human, the word made flesh. At Christmas, we’re not just talking about getting ready, waiting and getting prepared for the little baby Jesus to be born. That already happened two thousand years ago! What Christians have been doing every year since is welcoming the Christ that is forever being born in the human soul and into history of every time and place.[3]

Ancient Christians knew very well that this Jesus, his teaching, his message, his life, his spirit, his example, leads us to the way of life itself. The way of life where we take care for one another and the world, loving God and each other as children of God.

In John’s Gospel the way of life in Christ is gift. Pure gift. God is with us – Emanuel. God now lives in us, and is born in us. There’s nothing we can or can’t do that changes God’s intention to come to us in love, over and over again.

When we pray at Jesus’ coming into this world, we are admitting a truth that flies in the face of our heroic attempts at Christmas – attempts to get something more out of it for ourselves or for others, to impress others, to meet and exceed expectations, to perform well. Even when we give for the wrong reasons.

Maybe we do need, again, simply to kneel by the manger side where God is born in a baby – vulnerable, weak and helpless. Maybe we do need, again to kneel by the manger and remember that we did not choose to come into the world on our own. We did not choose our families of origin, our ethnicity, or our sexuality. While we were born with intelligence and with the capacity for learning, we did not arrive fully assembled nor did we come with instructions.

We are children of God, truly. In our honesty. In our vulnerability. In our instinct to turn to God. And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now. The only instinct we had in the beginning – like baby Jesus did – once our lungs were clear after birth, the only instinct we had was to cry out for help as loudly as we could.[4]And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now.

God receives us, as we are. At the manger side, there are no expectations, no need to put on a good impression or please anyone. We come as we are. The greatest gift we can bring to God and to life is our presence, our heart, our intention and attention.

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him – give my heart.[5]And that prayer is good enough for God. For God is with us now.

Merry Christmas!


[1]Acts 20:35

[2]John 1:5,9

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Celebrating an Eternal Advent” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation(www.cac.org, Tuesday, December 24, 2019).

[4]Br. Jim Woodrum, “Help – Brother, Give Us A Word” (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, December 4, 2019)

[5]“In the Bleak Midwinter” v.3 (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006), Hymn 294

Thanks-doing

I knew—we all knew—we had to do it. We had to go, single-file, through the turn-style and meet, individually, with the control officer. The ticket attendant would then scan the barcode on our paper copy or our smartphone before letting us in.

It started out a large crowd—a mass of people walking together across the cordoned-off streets, parking lots and plazas like a tsunami racing towards the stadium. But then it eventually, ultimately, bottle-necked to one person at a time through the gate.

IMG_8943

It was my first time at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan. At game time it is probably the largest gathering of Canadians I will ever see together in one place—some thirty-thousand mostly screaming Rough Rider fans cheering their beloved football team. In all, watching that game in the stands was for me an exercise in social conformity, or fighting against it.

However, each football fan, regardless of our stripe, had to pass one-at-a-time through the entrance gate. In places where lots of people normally gather, whether it be the security line at the airport or the gate into a sporting event, each of us has to make a reckoning, an accounting.

And it can cause some anxiety, some fear. It does for me. Even though this fear is largely irrational. After all, I have my ticket. I purchased it. I have every right to be there.

And yet, that moment of passing through the gate has a kind of self-consciousness attributed to it. The spotlight now falls on me, not us as a whole. I have to put myself on the line. I can’t be anonymous any longer, melting into the perceived security of the crowd. I have to stand out, be vulnerable, if but for a moment.

Thanksgiving is about doing. It’s already a word constructed for doing something. It is ‘giving’ something, an action word: Thanks-giving. That is why we practice today. We bring food to the altar—our gifts—that will then be given to a world in need.

But doing something in our practice of faith is risky. We put ourselves on the line. We have to make a move. Declare ourselves. Make an account for ourselves. Thanksgiving has to mean something personal to each of us, individually and perhaps differently.

My mother tells the story of her home church in Poland when she was a child. Every Sunday morning during the gathering of the gifts, everyone would line up and go single-file to the altar to deposit their offering. In front of everyone to see!

For fifteen chapters in Deuteronomy (11-26), Moses gives the Lord’s instruction to the people of Israel upon arriving in the Promised Land. In the Hebrew text assigned for Thanksgiving this year, we read the first section of the concluding, last chapter (26:1-11), in this long oration.

In looking at the translated words into English we can’t see the distinction between singular and plural. In other words we can’t tell whether Moses calls the people into faithful commitment together or individually. But in the Hebrew language you would notice the distinction. So, while the early chapters in Moses’ speech are predominantly addressed to the community—as the verbs are in the plural—in chapter 26 the writer has noticeably shifted to singular verbs and personal pronouns.

In our pilgrimage of faith, there are times we have to walk by ourselves. When we can’t hide behind options any longer. When we can’t melt into the crowd. And simply observe. When we can’t be an anonymous fan any longer. When we can’t find excuses nor justifications for not doing anything about something we know needs some doing. When we can’t just be spectators any longer.

We have to go through the gate ourselves. Individually. We have to participate, and get into the arena of life and make some moves, some waves.

It’s scary to do so. To take a risk. We may not have done this kind of thing before. Because we know that in doing something for our faith, anything, we will likely make a mistake or two. It may not be pretty. In fact it may be downright messy for a while. We may at times fail, as in trying different things, things we’ve never done before—Christians have never done before—in mission with others.

The ticket we hold in our hands represents our efforts, our attempts at giving something of what we have—to show the attendant at the gate. At Thanksgiving, not every one of us may feel thankful, especially if you are going through some grief. So then, let your tears be the ‘ticket’ you bring. The ticket an also represent your financial gift, or your volunteer hours, or your gift of expertise knowledge or skills that you offer. Wherever you are at, whatever you have, you bring to the altar and lay it down.

Maybe the irrational fear we have (all fear is irrational) suggests that the ticket is not good enough, that somehow it will not register, that we will be turned away and denied the experience of what we have come to celebrate.

The ticket we bring may be for the cheapest seats high up in the nosebleeds. However we may have acquired our ticket, or whatever its value, we may suffer the anxiety of thinking it is all up to us. That our entrance fee is based on “I deserve it,” or, “I earned it”, or “I accomplished this.”

The risk of doing something brings both the pinch of vulnerability and the fulfilment of the promise. The pinch of vulnerability because in exposing our hearts we realize it’s not all perfect with us. In truth, we must acknowledge we do not do it on our own. We are limited. We are also weak. And, for a moment, this awareness—this confession—hurts.

But the ticket was already purchased. Weeks ago. Months ago. The moment we cross by the gate is after-the-fact. Our participation in the party is already guaranteed. And nothing can change that. The justification for our being there had been already long ago determined. The moment we must make an accounting of ourselves, the moment of fear and uncertainty, is also the moment we celebrate something already accomplished.

By Another. For us.

Thanks be to God!

Happy Thanksgiving!

IMG_8946

There’s a hole, PART 2: For a purpose

I am a hole in a flute / that the Christ’s breath moves through – / listen to this /music.            -Hafiz

If you comprehend it, it is not God. -St. Augustine

Unlike the pounding of the surf a stone’s toss away, the ponding on the nearby creek made the surface of its water look pristine. A narrow creek made its lazy, winding way down the escarpment from Highway 21 and aimed to run into Lake Huron after finally crossing the stretch of sand on the beach at Point Clarke.

One of our favourite pastimes on those lazy summer days was to play around the area where the creek and lake met. As children, my brother and I would build castles, dig trenches and re-direct the flow of the creek’s water.

For a real challenge, we would try to dam up the creek’s flow, which took some planning, and extra material like drift wood and larger stones to block any outflow attempts. Once we contained it, the creek turned slowly into a large pond, comfortably remaining – for the time being – behind its fortress sand walls.

I’ve already talked about how in God’s creation, it is meant to be that each of us has a hole in our heart (see “There’s a hole, PART 1: Meant to be”). Moreover, it is God’s good intention that this hole is there for a purpose.

Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian church a confession that in all his accomplishments for the expansion of the Gospel across the Mediterranean, he was given a thorn in his side.[1]The proverbial ‘hole’. It is not important, although many have tried, to figure out what this thorn actually was.

We don’t know. Maybe that’s the point. It’s not important that we know, only that this thorn was given him in order to keep him humble. The text says that the thorn was given Paul to keep him from being ‘elated’ – to keep his ego in check, perhaps because he tended toward being too full of himself, over confident in his own ability.

How does the ego get the better of yourself? What is your compulsion? What drives you to achieve some illusion of perfection in your life? So, you don’t need to trust what is beyond your life, what is ineffable, what cannot be fully understood that is the Great Mystery (a.k.a. God)?

Let me show you an example of compulsion to achieve that which is beyond our capacity: On my fishing trip with colleagues last May to Algonquin Park, we tried everything to beat the ice on the lake. Despite the predominance of the ice-covered lake, we tried desperately to fight the odds against us catching some fish even to the point of risking our safety to break up the ice ourselves in our canoes.

Screen Shot 2018-07-07 at 2.29.00 PM

Yup, that’s me. And, yup, you guessed it: We caught no fish. The irony is that on the last day of our camp out, the wind and the sun did its job. When we woke that last day, we looked over a lake completely free of the ice.

IMG_6940.JPG

Was God sending us a message? Weren’t we the butt end of some divine humour?

The hole in our heart has a divine purpose: To keep us from being too sure of ourselves, over-confident in our ability and our capacity to have it all figured out. If we didn’t have this hole, might we put all our trust in our own autonomy, our independence, to lead our life without any need at all to trust anyone else let alone God.

Beyond Paul in the New Testament, the stories in the bible are about God lessening, even stopping, the compulsive drive of main characters, so the wind of God’s Spirit could draw them more gently and more effectively (Gideon and Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures are good examples).[2]

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus instructs his disciples in going into the world to do God’s mission, “to take nothing for their journey … no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.”[3]

God’s consolation is simple yet profound: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” God tells Paul.[4]The making perfect here is not about getting rid of that vulnerability. Rather, whatever weakness we bear stays with us in order for us to complete our purpose as human beings. We are made complete in God’s love because of our hole, thorn, weakness – not without it.

In one of Martin Luther’s famous works entitled, “The Bondage of the Will”, he emphatically declared that we, as humans, can never work out our own salvation for ourselves. We will continually fail, even when, or especially when, we believe we are doing good in the world.

While some might find this realization depressing – and it would be helpful to know why that is, for yourself – perhaps the “bondage of the will” can be freeing. Because we don’t need to be driven to inaction because we are afraid of making a mistake. We don’t need to get stuck in the mud under the fear of imperfection. As Christians, we can be free to do good work in the world, imperfectly, knowing that what we do is for the benefit of others and not for ourselves.[5]

Author Brian McLaren in his recent book: “The Great Spiritual Migration”, describes this time in history as a transition in the church from “organized religion” to “organizing religion.”[6]

A Church in the flow of God’s Spirit pertains not only to wind and water over the earth, but also to spiritual movement. To purpose and mission. To going where we need to go as a people. To re-focus again on loving God, self and others as the primal energy of the church. To bring to life once again the old verse: “They will know we are Christians by our love …” … and not by our buildings, property, and concern for security, certainty and self-preservation.

Can we let go of these things for the sake of God’s mission, for the sake of the Gospel of life and love in Christ? As the prophet Amos so well put it, using the water imagery: “Let justice role down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream … “[7]

By the time we had finally engineered the dam on the tiny creek aiming towards Lake Huron, the sun was setting and we had to go home. Inevitably, the next morning one of three things would have happened in our absence:

Either the creek would have found the weak spot in the sandy fortress wall we built, and escape through a tiny crack; or, increasing wind conditions over Lake Huron overnight would have created larger waves whose surf reached and destroyed the walls of our dam; or, someone would have been walking along the beach and, for the fun of it, just poked a tiny hole to watch as a slow trickle quickly turned into a strong, flowing stream.

In each case, a small hole was required in order for the creek to fulfill its mission and reach its destination – despite all the efforts of playful human beings to keep it contained.

After all, nothing was going to stop the flow. God’s Spirit and purpose will flow on because and through the holes in our lives.

[1]2 Corinthians 12:7-10

[2]Richard Rohr, “Dancing Standing Still; Healing the World from a Place of Prayer” (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2014), p.18.

[3]Mark 6:8-9

[4]2 Corinthians 12:9

[5]Ross Murray, Senior Director, GLAAD Media Institute, LinkedIn July 2018.

[6]Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian” (Massachusetts: Convergent Books, 2017)

[7]Amos 5:24

The human face of a vulnerable God

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote a play entitled: ‘The Living Dead”. The climactic scene is set in the attic of a house in France during World War II, where a half dozen captured members of the Resistance are being kept. The prisoners anxiously await the morning, when they will be executed.

An unexpected thing happens, however. The attic door opens, and the Nazi soldiers throw in the leader of the Resistance. The Nazis don’t know who he is. As far as they are concerned, they simply caught a man out after curfew.

The prisoners’ anxiety turns to courage. They tell their leader, “Don’t worry. We will hold our tongues.” The leader responds, “I thank you, for myself, for the Resistance, for France. Your courage and your sacrifice will not be forgotten.”

Suddenly, one of the prisoners says, “Oh, shut up. Nothing you have to say could possible mean anything to us. I am not blaming you … the fact is that you are a living man and I am a dead woman after tomorrow morning. The living and the dead have nothing to say to each other …and that fact puts an impenetrable barrier between us.”[1]

The Leader of the Resistance is an example of who God is NOT. Until Jesus, there indeed stood an impenetrable barrier between the divine and the rest of us. This is precisely why God became human. If God couldn’t bridge that divine-human divide, how could we love God? How could God love us?

When we look at the world today, we may just the same want to get angry at our human leaders if they lack authenticity. Scenes of African poverty, the chaos of Middle Eastern refugee camps, the evil of human trafficking, the growing divide between rich and poor, the scandals and fake posturing in politics – these all make us angry.

Indeed, in life we sometimes feel like shouting at God: “Shut up!” And working through that anger is good, I believe, because we will realize that many of our gods are not God: The god of domination. The god of violence. The god of consumerism. The gods of competition and combat. The gods of politics and superiority. Which lead us in the opposite direction when it comes to the God of the cross, and God’s relationship with us and the world.

We arrive soon at the climax of Jesus’ earthly, very human story. And this man who reflects the face of God says something very different from the gods of this world.

German Reformed theologian, Juergen Moltmann, tweeted this week: “We discover his glory in his humbleness, his greatness in his poverty, his power in his self-surrender, from the wretched manger in Bethlehem to the desolate cross on Golgotha.”[2]

In today’s Gospel reading[3], Jesus says, “…My soul is troubled.” Jesus can say this. He is fully human and authentically relatable to us, as a human being. “Jesus had the full spectrum of emotion and experience. He was sad and had compassion for those who suffered. He wept with a broken heart including upon the death of his friend Lazarus. He got mad at injustice and hypocrisy (“you brood of vipers!”) and got frustrated at his disciples who were continually arguing and not getting his point. Jesus changed his way of thinking as with the surprising confrontation with a Syrophoenician woman. Jesus learned and developed. Jesus was human!”[4]

God does not bypass the humanity and death we too must endure. God is now capable, because God became fully human, of removing the inseparable barriers between God and the world. Our Leader is one of us!

“…My soul is troubled,” says Jesus. Thank God for these words! These are the kind of things Jesus said that reveals the truth of the Christian God. Jesus says this in response to the inquiry of Gentiles during the Passover Festival in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus dies on the cross. Everything has been accomplished in his ministry and mission, even now to all the nations represented by the seeking Greeks.

Nothing is left now for Jesus to do other than his final surrender to death. Jesus is now ready to succumb to the evil gods of the world which will condemn and crucify the upstart prophet from Galilee.

When Pilate, the regional governor of Palestine, later confronts Jesus during his trial, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, his followers would be fighting to protect, defend and save Jesus.[5] Obviously, the method of God is not violence however justified. The way of God, is vulnerability and surrender. Not combat, not force-on-force, not physical strength, not invincibility nor violent justice.

Yes, we hear the human Jesus in that honest, vulnerable statement: “My soul is troubled.” In these words, Jesus crosses the divide between divine and human. He identifies with all our troubled souls however afflicted. He knows what is coming.

In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. We don’t and we can’t fall in love with abstractions. So, God became a person “that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands”.[6] The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) said the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other.”[7]

This is why to this day Christians have sought God among the faces of the poor, the destitute, the refugee, the homeless – and have tried to do their part in alleviating the plight of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Because that is where God is discovered.

“Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like an I-Thou encounter can. We are mirrored into life, not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the beloved self-image we can’t give to ourselves. Love is the gaze that does us in! How blessed are those who get it early and receive it deeply.”[8]

The prophet Jeremiah says it best: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”[9]

The good news is that the vulnerable God we worship and follow suffers with us. This vulnerable God in Christ Jesus lived in poverty and died in shame and torment. This God embraced our humanity. And has earned the right to ask us to hold on a little longer until morning comes … until resurrection.[10]

[1] Cited by Michael Battle in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.141-142.

[2] @moltmannjuergen, March 15, 2018

[3] John 12:20-33, Lent 5B.

[4] Brother Luke Ditewig, “Brother Give us a Word”, daily meditations from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), 20 January 2018.

[5] John 18:36

[6] 1 John 1:1

[7] Cited in Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditations”, 15 January 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeremiah 31:33-34

[10] Michael Battle, ibid., p.144.

Cornered?

Have you ever wondered why this building was designed to be more-or-less round? Well, don’t you know, “The devil can’t corner you in here!” we say.

Like in the boxing ring, the combatants in the corner are at either end of the victory-defeat spectrum: In the corner they either have the upper hand, literally. Or, they are on the verge of collapsing in a heap.

Being in the corner is an undesired position. Cornering someone is to put them at a disadvantage. The one being cornered is vulnerable. Being cornered is to admit there are no options left.

We also use the phrase to mock contractors and builders worried only about the bottom line when they ‘cut corners’. Cutting corners may serve the bottom line, but in the long run cutting corners is a prescription for guaranteed repair and reconstruction work sooner than later.

At the same time, the latest fashion in contemporary urban design values right angles and sharp lines. The new buildings are rather square and boxy, aren’t they? Meaning, lots of straight lines. But a straight line can’t go on forever. Therefore, lots of corners.

People in many non-Western cultures don’t build as many corners as we do. The Zulus in southern Africa, for example, live in a less-carpentered world. They live in a history and culture where straight lines and right angles are scarce, if not entirely absent. (1)

What would it be like to live in a non-linear world? Where our material culture presents more rounded, softer, curved constructions such as our building!

And yet, there is a gift in the message of a corner. Not only can corners get us stuck. But they also are an indisputable sign that there’s always a corner to be turned. In truth, this is what we say, don’t we, when things are just starting to get better: “We’ve turned the corner on this.” When things are not yet better, we wonder: “When will I turn the corner on my illness, my fear, my problem, my troubled feelings, my strained relationships?”

Turning the corner means, nevertheless, there’s no turning back. Once you’ve crossed the line, there’s no going back to the way it used to be. That could be good. It can also be scary. Corners are necessary to find a way through a predicament, such as in a maze. Corners define clearly where one eventually needs to go, like it or not.

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is a huge corner turned in the cosmos of all that was, and is, and is to come. History is forever changed by the empty tomb. The ether of our very existence is transformed into the triumph of good that can be, for all time, for all people, and in every place. All the evil forces that led to Jesus’s crucifixion no longer need to triumph in the world today.

They say any lead in playoff hockey is a dangerous lead, as the first few games of the NHL playoffs have shown. More often than not the lead does not stand. If a team does have the lead however small, they are coached to employ the killer instinct:

Don’t let up. Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t sit back. Finish off your opponent with indiscriminating, ruthless power. Once they’re down, make sure they stay down. Hate your opponent. Don’t give them a chance to come back. Don’t be merciful, kind, generous, compassionate. Above all, don’t feel sorry for your opponent’s misgivings.

This is the philosophy of competitive play in professional sports. Why professional athletes and teams are so popular and generate billions of dollars in our economy is precisely because we humans are really good at believing this philosophy if not doing it from time to time.

Easter is God’s come-from-behind victory. The way of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is a victory against all the odds. It is, frankly, an unbelievable, unexpected move from our human perspective. Jesus’ demonstration of non-violence, of loving self-giving, and of trust in God is validated and redeemed by his resurrection. The surprising, brilliant victory of Easter morning is a poignant witness to what God is really all about.

The way of violence of our will/my will over yours, of greedy acquisition for more, of cynical mistrust of others — this is the way of the world that crashes in a heap of defeat in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Now, the way of God is before us.

Resurrection says a lot about the nature of God’s purposes. Because Jesus lives. And Jesus is Lord. We therefore gather today to affirm that God’s purposes are good. And, in the end, it is not all doom and gloom. In the end, God comes through.

One thing I like about the re-modelled communion rail around the chancel, is that we have those corners at both sides. Some have said they don’t like it at the corner, because they feel squeezed out. Well, we can help each other with that. What the corners force us to do is pay more attention to who is standing beside us; and make room for them. And that’s not a bad thing!

What these corners force us to do, is to face and look at each other when we are standing or kneeling at the altar. We are not just individuals coming to face the Lord God one-on-one in a straight line, not seeing nor even respective of who comes along beside us. Now, it’s no longer just about ‘me and sweet Jesus’.

It’s about ‘us’ and sweet Jesus. And Jesus is not always sweet. We are a community gathered around one table, a people who embody the living Body of Christ in the world today. We are also the broken body of Jesus, whose power is shown through human weakness (1 Corinthians 1:18-29). What better place than to see our sisters and brothers in Christ, eye-to-eye, and practice right here what it means to pray for others, to encourage them, to recognize our unity in the living God.

And then take in word and deed that awareness and message from this place, into the world out there: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

1 — Wayne Weiten & Doug McCann, “Psychology: Themes and Variations” 3rd Edition (Toronto: Nelson Education, 2013), p.168

Lent begins again: Why?

We begin a journey of some forty days, which mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). We continue to observe the season of Lent, year after year, as we approach the most holy of Christian days — Easter, the resurrection of our Lord.

But why do we do this? Why do we continue to do this, it seems, against the flow of society and the dominant culture today? As a child, I remember when it was more popular to ‘give up’ something for Lent; people actually did give something up, like dessert or TV. Some still do, I know.

And yet, it seems from the perspective of our economy and lifestyle today, that planning for March break, and sun-shine, escapist getaways get more attention and energy than any spiritual discipline might.

So, let’s begin our Lenten journey with a close look at why we need to go on this trip in the first place. Speaking of journeys, then, here’s a fascinating one from the history books:

“Early in the twentieth century, the English adventurer Ernest Shackleton set out to explore the Antarctic …. The land part of the expedition would start at the frigid Weddell Sea, below New Zealand …

“‘The crossing of the south polar continent will be the biggest polar journey ever attempted,’ Shackleton told a reporter for the New York Times on December 29, 1913.’

“On December 5, 1914, Shackleton and a crew of twenty-seven men set out for the Weddell Sea on the Endurance, a 350-ton ship that had been constructed with funds from private donors, the British government and the Royal Geographical Society. By then, World War 1 was raging in Europe, and money was growing more scarce. Donations from English schoolchildren paid for the dog teams.

“But the crew of the Endurance would never reach the continent of Antarctica.

“Just a few days out of South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic, the ship encountered mile after mile of pack ice, and was soon trapped as winter moved in early and with fury. Ice closed in around the ship ‘like an almond in a piece of toffee,’ a crew member wrote.

“Shackleton and his crew were stranded in the Antarctic for ten months as the Endurance drifted slowly north, until the pressure of the ice floes finally crushed the ship. On November 21, 1915, the crew watched as she sank in the frigid waters of the Weddell Sea.

“Stranded on the ice, the crew of the Endurance boarded their three lifeboats and landed on Elephant Island. There Shackleton left behind all but five of his men and embarked on a hazardous journey across 800 miles of rough seas to find help. Which, eventually, they did.

“What makes the story of the Endurance so remarkable, however, is not the expedition. It’s that throughout the whole ordeal no one died. There were no stories of people eating others and no mutiny [to speak of …. Some have argued that ] “This was not luck. This was because Shackleton hired good fits. He found the right men for the job ….

“Shackleton’s ad for crew members was different [from the norm]. His did not say WHAT he was looking for. His did not say: ‘Men needed for expedition. Minimum five year’s experience. Must know how to hoist mainsail. Come work for a fantastic captain.’ Rather, Shackleton was looking for those with something more. He was looking for a crew that belonged on such an expedition. His actual ad ran like this:

“‘Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.’

“The only people who applied for the job were those who read the ad and thought it sounded great. They loved insurmountable odds. The only people who applied for the job were survivors. Shackleton hired only people who believed what he believed. Their ability to survive was guaranteed.” (1)

Year after year, the Gospel text from Matthew 6 is read on Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten journey. It is a journey, a pilgrimage, you might say. For those willing to embark on the sometimes harrowing yet intentional path, Jesus points to the authentic quality and honesty of community life.

Being the church in the world is not to give a false impression, to show how exceptional we are in the religious marketplace. Being the church to the world is to be authentic and true to what we believe and who we are, whether or not we measure up to some cultural standards of behaviour.

Maybe that explains why Lent is no longer popular in our day. Society has already been for a while losing ourselves in distractions. In 1985 Neil Postman claimed that we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” (2) Over a decade earlier, Ernest Becker wrote a book I read in seminary, entitled, “The Denial of Death” (3) which is a theological reflection on how we live in ‘modern’ North America.

Indeed, we in the West continue on a course of distracting ourselves to death — with stimulating toys, technological advance and even more addictive ways to keep the truth at bay. This strategy, with often tragic consequences, only serves to drive a deeper wedge and division from our true selves.

The symbolic destination of the Lenten journey is the Cross, on Good Friday. And so, right off the start, we know this can’t be an easy journey, when we have to face and bear our own cross. But this is what life is about, is it not? Whenever hardship comes our way in whatever form it does — illness, loss, tragedy, disappointment, conflict and confrontation, failure, guilt, pain. We don’t have to seek it out; Suffering comes to us all. This is a reality we are called to accept.

We are called not to deny that our message is for people who are honest about their brokenness, who in their vulnerability do not want to pretend their weaknesses away. Our suffering can be a great teacher, an opportunity for growth and wholeness.

Suffering, in the words of Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, “belongs to an order of creation insofar as struggle … is necessary to evoke the human potential for nobility, for love, for wisdom, and for depth of authenticity of being. A pain-free life would be a life-less life.” (4)

Lent is not a path to ultimate self-annihilation. Ultimately, Lent is not a downer. Because suffering can point to a new beginning. Followers of Jesus are not a people who suffer the pains of life without faith and hope. We can face what life brings, with a conviction that together, we can do more than merely survive.

On this journey we can experience that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In accompanying each other through the difficult times, we can experience something greater than ourselves. Together we will realize more than we could ever have imagined on our own; transformation, resurection, a new beginning. Together, because God in Jesus goes with us. We are not alone on this journey.

God blesses this journey.

1 – Simon Sinek, “Start With Why” (New York: Penguin, 2009), p.90-93
2 – Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985)
3 – Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death” (New York: Free Press, 1973)
2 – Douglas John Hall, “God and Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), p.62-63

Checking our Image of God

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George”? (1)

Listen to this description of what happens when a family makes a visit to Uncle George who lives in, and never really leaves, his formidable mansion.

At the end of the brief visit in which the children describe Uncle George as bearded, gruff and threatening, he leans closely, and says in a severe tone of voice, “Now listen, dear. I want to see you here once a week. And if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.”

He then leads the family down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as they descend, and they begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one.

“Now look in there, dear,” he says. They see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or act in a way he approved. “And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go,” says Uncle George.

Do you know “Good Old Uncle George?” Sound familiar?

From the bible readings assigned for this season after Epiphany, we are asked to consider again who is this God we are called to follow. Of course, no one image of God is complete. Our perspective is limited, no matter how well we know the bible or how many degrees we may have behind our name. And God is greater and bigger than anything anyone can imagine or say.

Nevertheless, it is fruitful to examine what we think about God. Our image of God influences our own behaviour and what we do “in the name of God”, who is revealed in history, in our experience and in the Scriptures as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Eventually, our actions mirror the God to whom we pray, to whom we relate, whom we imagine. (2)

I would like to highlight briefly three aspects of the character of God, in Jesus, that we can see in the story of Epiphany for today — the baptism of our Lord (Matthew 3:13-17).

First, Jesus moves. He does not sit still for too long. Jesus is baptized ‘on the side of the road’ so to speak. He is baptized nowhere special, not in some officially consecrated, designated holy place — but in the wilderness where John preaches ‘on the edge’ of civilization where crowds have to follow to be there.

In fact, the Jordan River is some 35 kilometres from Jerusalem. For people who walked, this would likely mean at least a two-day journey from the city. So, most of the people who witnessed this divine event and encounter between Jesus and John on the banks of the Jordan River had to travel to get there. Even the high priests and Pharisees, those in power and who held influence in the religious establishment of Jerusalem had to get there.

Who is God? God is more a verb than a noun; God is not static; God is always on the move; we can in this story of Jesus’ baptism appreciate the moving parts of faith. It is important to note to where God goes, and is revealed.

Mobility is a kingdom value. Going some place else away from what is familiar and comfortable is part of exercising a healthy faith. Conversely, staying in one place too long is not healthy for the soul.

Second, in this mobility God relates to us in vulnerability. In worship and praise of God we are accustomed to calling God Almighty. But, at the same time, if we are ‘getting’ Jesus, we ought to be calling God Al-vulnerable.

Jesus relates to us. The divine becomes one of us in moments of vulnerability, especially. The primary symbol of Christianity, the Cross, points to the ultimate, earthly destination of Jesus, and reveals our most vulnerable God. The Cross is a sign that says: God understands us even in death and dying.

What is unique about Matthew’s version of the baptism of our Lord is that it is meant for public witness. Unlike the other Gospel accounts who make this event more of an inward, spiritual experience of Jesus, Matthew portrays the baptism of Jesus as an external event, available to all present.

Also, Jesus submits to baptism not because he needs his sins washed away. Through this act, Jesus was indicating his willingness to yield his life, to surrender his life, in obedience to his Father. Jesus requests baptism by John so that he could completely identify with those he came to save.

Therefore, relationships described by mutual vulnerability is another kingdom value. Being with others in this way, in community, is vital for faith. Prolonged isolation and emotional detachment from others is not healthy for the soul.

Finally, not only is God in motion and in vulnerable relationship with us, God is reaching out to us, immanent and present to our common lives.

Jesus’ father in heaven calls to him, validates and affirms his path. Then, too, Jesus calls his disciples. Jesus does not do it alone. He includes his disciples in his travels, walks in their shoes, involves himself in the common, daily activities, gets his hands dirty — so to speak.

Jesus is the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, he fishes with his disciples, he goes to weddings and drinks wine, he hangs out with all people not just the ‘good ones’.

Jesus does not leave us alone, some distant, transcendent God who does not care about what happens on earth. Jesus will not stop reaching out to us, and will beckon us to follow where he goes. Jesus continues to engage our lives, touching our hearts, our hands and our minds, in the very course of our lives on earth. God will intervene, and pierce our perception, inviting us into a new way of being and doing.

Today, followers of Jesus can consider anew this God who is revealed to us in Jesus. Jesus is the divine-man, who walked everywhere and moved around a lot; Jesus is the God who seeks relationships and models vulnerability and self-surrender; Jesus is the God who will not leave us alone and continues to call out to us to follow in his way.

May God bless the path we journey. Amen.
(1) cited in Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn & Matthew Linn, “Good Goats: Healing our Image of God” (Paulist Press, New York, 1994), p.3
(2) ibid., p. 7ff

Funeral sermon during Christmas

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angles, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Saint Paul, in his letter to the Romans 8:37-39)

In the Christmas children’s book by Eve Bunting, entitled, “We Were There: A Nativity Story”, she illustrates how the least expected animals very likely also attended the birth of Jesus: a snake, a frog, a scorpion, a cockroach, a bat, a spider and a rat.

It is written from the perspective of these least likely characters who shared the stable with the more popular donkeys, sheep and cows — how they travelled far and wide, like the Magi from the East; expressing their excitement and anticipation for being there, at the birth of Jesus.

Eve Bunting concludes with a note of criticism levelled against mainstream society, so to speak. She writes:

No one will look beyond the light to darkness
and the corner where we watch, unwatched.
They will not know or care.
But we were there. (1)

Indeed, we have made the story of Christ’s birth into a Hallmark scene, adding gently falling snowflakes, twinkling stars, softly rolling landscapes and passive characters staring piously into a glowing, impeccably clean, surreal-looking feeding trough.

But not just the cutest sheep, the solemn cow, the neighing donkey so familiar in the re-telling of the Christmas story through the centuries. But also the rats, spiders, scorpions, cockroaches, frogs, bats and snakes. They were there, too!

Today we remember Brian — loving father, brother, uncle and friend. He died during the twelve days of Christmas. The Christmas season invites us to reflect on the meaning of God’s approach to us all, in the context of Christ’s birth.

In imagining the traditional nativity scene, and considering who else might have been there (thank you, Eve Bunting!), I couldn’t help but bring to mind the story about Brian bringing an injured bat home in a shoebox one day, in order to nurture it back to health.

We might think it somewhat odd to do something like that. And yet, Brian was demonstrating, I would say, a Godly compassion for all God’s creation — even the least likely creatures. Something in his nature pulled him to care for these.

In her Christmas children’s story, Eve Bunting makes a deep, theological point and reflects something important about God. After all, the king of kings, the Messiah, was born not in a regal palace in the city among the righteous in the religious establishment. No, the Son of God was born in a stable for animals in a feeding trough surrounded by the lowly, the riffraff of society, you might say.

We say we worship “Almighty” God. We probably should say more often, to be truthful: “All-vulnerable” God. What Christians through the centuries have argued as one of the most important events of history when God entered our world a vulnerable, human baby that first Christmas — means that not only the ‘perfect’ ones, the popular ones, the successful ones, the ‘deserving’ and strong ones belong at Jesus’ side.

The Christmas story is really about the most common people and imperfect situation imaginable, including the lowly-status shepherds, a teenage, un-wed Mom and visitors from a far-away, foreign land. God was born as one of us in this world, among the animals and in a poor family, showing that in all of creation there is something good and worthy. Everything belongs. Everyone belongs.

There is nothing in all creation that will separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus. This is the greatest Christmas gift we are given.

Hymn: “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”

1 – Eve Bunting, “We Were There: A Nativity Story” (Clarion Books, New York, 2001)

Talking about toast

“I want butter on my toast, but not too much.””You’ve spread it on too thinly. I want a whole wad of it.”

“You’re being wasteful. You’ll use up the tub in a couple of days.”

“If you didn’t burn the toast to a crisp all the time …”

“I don’t like my toast slightly warm.”

” … the butter would melt into the bread.”

“Toast is toast. A slice of bread is a slice of bread. There’s a difference.”

“Lighten up. Just slather it on.”

Of course, the words alone in this dialogue do not tell the whole story. There are other ways that we communicate, that animate the message. They say seventy percent of communication is non-verbal. What does the tone of our voice communicate? What are our eyes looking at when we speak? And, most significantly, what are our bodies doing? What is our body language?

I was attuned more to this truth in Italy during our family vacation. Every culture presents uniquely in the manner of body language during a conversation, to the point of caricature and over-generalization. Of course, not every English person speaks with a stiff upper lip; not every Italian gestures wildly with their hands; not every Canadian looks downward and apologizes. The exercise, nevertheless, of paying attention to a cultural tendency is helpful in bringing awareness to the way we communicate.

We played a little humorous game, somewhat irreverent, whenever we drove by or saw in a distance a couple of Italians speaking to each other — their bodies close, hands waving on either side of their partner’s ears as if guiding a plane on the tarmac to its docking at the gate, eyes piercing the other with intensity, even spittle flying from their mouths. We couldn’t hear what they were talking about. But we made up a dialogue about something the opposite in nature to their serious, even combative, style. We would try to convince ourselves that they were talking about toast.

Communication is essential to any relationship. And it’s not just the words we speak. It’s our behaviour. What we do. How we act. What our bodies are telling ourselves, and the other who is in our presence.

In other words, communication is real. It is not just reserved to the realm of ideas and theory and abstraction. Communication involves our whole lives, our whole selves. We are not by ourselves in the ideas we express and the words we use. 

When we speak about God, and our relationship with God, we dare not relegate our relationship with God to the realm of words alone — whether those words are printed on a page, or spoken during worship in a detached manner as if those words hold power on their own without context or embodiment.

Our God is real. Our God wants relationship with us. And, in the Isaiah text today, we read that invitation: “Come, let us argue it out!” says the Lord (1:18). God is having an argument with the people of Judah and Jerusalem during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.

It is not a dialogue that is calm and reserved. It is not a cool, collected, disassociated manual of instruction. It is not a legal text. It is throwing down the gauntlet! Come on! You are messing up! But I make an offer. Let’s have it out! says the Lord! You have something to say? Then say it! The Lord can take it. Let’s negotiate. Let’s hear each other out. Let’s be real.

I wonder about our image of God when we shy away from such boldness. Is it because we imagine a God who is passive? Who only does our bidding, or should? Or a God whose job it is only to direct us, judge us and basically order us around?

But what about a God who is more vulnerable than that? There is no more direct and clear message of this vulnerable God than Jesus hanging crucified and dying on the Cross. So, what about a God who seeks our attention by being vulnerable? Who wants us to engage with God in an honest, self-disclosing way? Because the message of Scripture suggests time and time again: 

Not only is God’s company available and deeply important to us, but our company might very well be important to God. Could it be that God seeks our companionship? Could it be that God desires to have us as friends, and that the God who so patiently works with us in every moment rejoices upon occasion to have our undivided attention — even when our attentions are directed to the many particular concerns of our lives? (1) 

God is, indeed, the “great companion” (2). God is present with us, interested in us, and trustworthy. God’s love is receptive and responsive. In other words, we do not pray to an impassive, unmoved mover.

God is in relationship with us. God invites us, when we have a bone to pick about life, about whatever is happening in the world, to “Come, let us argue it out.”

It’s not that God always wants a fight. I will define a “fight” in this context as a bold yet non-combative, mutually-respecting exchange of unique perspectives. What this kind of arguing or fighting reveals is passion, real feelings, and the truth about ourselves. 

And this is a sign of any healthy relationship whether we talk about relationships in marriage, or work, church, community or play. Honesty. Truth. And in the exchange of honest discourse, we bring all that we are, not just our words. Our hearts. Our minds. Our bodies. 

We may not change God’s mind about whatever. But that is not the point. God wants to hear what we have to say. God wants to feel our passion, hear our cries, sense the beating of our strained hearts. God wants to understand us. This is what Jesus was all about. 

God sent Jesus in our flesh so that God could begin to truly understand what it means to be human. And in that humanity, in seeking us, God can bring an outpouring of love, grace and mercy — time and time again.

So, any subject is on the table. Thanks be to God! Anything is on the table, in all honesty. Including talking about toast.
Amen.

1 – Nancy Campbell & Marti Steussy, “Process Theology and Contemplative Prayer: Seeking the Presence of God”, p.87

2 – Clark Williamson, “Learning How to Pray,” in Adventures of the Spirit: A Guide to Worship from the Perspective of Process Theology with Ronald Allen (Lanham: University Press of America, 1997), p.162

Coming clean

Recently a member of my parish shared with me this joke:

An elderly woman walked into the church. The friendly usher greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps.
“Where would you like to sit?” he asked politely.

“The front row, please,” she answered. 
“You really don’t want to do that,” the usher said. “The pastor is really boring.” 

“Do you happen to know who I am?” the woman inquired. 

“No,” he said. 

“I’m the pastor’s mother,” she replied indignantly. 

“Do you know who I am?” he asked. 

“No,” she said. 

“Good,” he answered.

I think we laugh because we can relate to our innate resistance to being vulnerable, to admitting fault, and being honest about who we truly are. We work so hard to deny and protect a semblance of strength and infallibility. 

This is not the community of Christ. Rather, the church is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other. It’s a community who has learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.

See “Community of the broken and blessed” below …