Blueberries where the forest was

A congregational treasurer once asked God how long a million years was to Him. God replied, “A million years to me is just like a single second in your time.”  

Then the treasurer asked God what a million dollars was to Him. God replied, “A million dollars to me is just like a single penny to you.” Congregational finances being what they were, the treasurer got her courage up and asked: “God, could I have one of your pennies?”  

God smiled and replied, “Certainly, just a second.”

I think it’s more often the case in our spiritual journeys that we do not simply get what we ask for, or want. The faith life just doesn’t work like that. Even though in popular religion we often joke about it.

When people banter with me about having a special connection to God when we want better weather, I like to remind them that I’m in sales, not management. Indeed, in the popular mindset we live with this idea that somehow we ought to manage what really is the purview, the domain, of God.

And in tough times we struggle with it. Why doesn’t God do what WE think is the solution to our problem: Cure our illness, give us money to make ends meet, solve our problems, etc.? Of course we hear stories that are exceptions to this. But even then, the answers to the prayer request don’t come in precisely the way we expected they would.

It reminds me of a Valentine’s day card that I’ve seen. On the outside of the card is the catchy phrase “You’re the answer to all of my prayers.” On the inside of the card are the words “You’re not what I prayed for, but you’re the answer to all of my prayers. You’re what I got!” 

It is true: everything we have in life is ‘what we got’ whether we like it, want it, or not. We run into spiritual and emotional trouble whenever we feel like we must control the outcome of all that we do and are. How much do we miss what’s there because we are expecting to see what’s not there? What we don’t have? What we’ve lost? What isn’t any longer?

At the ‘generous giving’ practicum I attended this past week in Orillia with other clergy from the Eastern Synod, several speakers spoke to us about the nature of giving. The general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson, told of the time when he and his wife hiked a challenging trail in Lake Superior National Park last summer.

Coming over a rise they descended into a valley devastated by a forest fire a couple years back. The contrast from the lush pine and spruce forest they had just left was stark. Now, they walked gingerly among the burnt out stumps in a moonscape land. The birdsong had disappeared into an eerie silence. The rustle of underbrush caused by scampering chipmunks yielded to wind gusts sweeping across the vast, exposed earth.

Where were the tall trees? Would they ever return? How long would it take? Michael and his wife began to despair as they hurried to leave the depressing scene and return into the cover of mature forest once again.

Then by their feet a blueberry caught their eye. As they lifted their vision, they saw not just one blueberry but a bush, and not just one blueberry bush but actually the whole place was teeming with blueberry bushes surrounding the base of the tree stumps and fallen timber.

They stopped to consider the gift of abundance that lay at their feet in the blueberries: the sweet taste, the healthy nutrition, the food for many creatures of land and air. And then the possibilities of scrumptious blueberry pies and jams. All of a sudden their mood shifted, and they began to see and talk not about what was missing anymore. But the new thing that was appearing out of the ruins of fire and loss.

Indeed, especially on Thanksgiving weekend, it can be hard to feel thankful, especially when we focus either in the direction of deficit and scarcity, or in the delusion that we are the reason of all that we have. When we lean either way we may have trouble understanding what it means to live by Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice always, again I will say rejoice!” (4:4). 

How can we rejoice always, when we focus on scarcity on the one hand, or pretend it’s all up to us on the other? Either way, we remain depressed or stressed to the hilt and cannot, in the words of the Deuteronomist, “celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (26:11).

The Lord instructs the people, when they enter the Promised Land, to bring their basket of offerings to the priest at the altar. The giving doesn’t stop there, however. They need to be reminded again and again that it was God who listened to their prayer and brought them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). In the Gospel for Thanksgiving Day, we read Jesus’ words reminding his listeners again, that it is his “Father in heaven” who is the source of the bread we need (John 6:33).

Perhaps the secret to thanksgiving is in seeing what is actually there, what God has actually given, and not fixate on what is “missing” all the time? Perhaps Thanksgiving is not only about giving, but also about receiving. What if the secret to thanksgiving is noticing the blueberries where a forest should of /could of/ would of been, if not for the fire?

It is our nature to give and to receive with joy. As Christians we have a choice. It is a matter of belief, and intention. We can submit to our ego cravings to keep ‘what we got’ for ourselves, pretending we are the source of all the good in our lives. Or, we can give ‘what we got’ for the benefit of the world which God so loved (John 3:16). And rejoice!

Thanksgiving is not a feeling. It is an action. It is intention, and practice, and discipline. Why do people give, today? There are some cultural changes we need to recognize. If you are of a certain age, born before the latter part of the last century, you likely give because of duty, responsibility and commitment. That’s not the case in recent decades, if you haven’t already noticed, among younger people. Only 29% of Canadian donors in 2013 reported donating to fulfill religious obligations. (1)

The reality, today, is that younger generations will give of their time, talent and treasures when they feel compassion in the community and hope towards their giving. They need to be inspired, not guilted. In other words, people today give when they believe in the mission of whatever group or activity — including the church’s work and programs — if they are inspired and compelled by a belief that their engagement with the church will make a positive difference in the world.

Statistics Canada reports that the vast majority of Canadian donors today (91%) said that the reason they donate is that they feel compassion towards people in need (2013 General Social Survey released in Dec 2015); other reasons for donating often cited include the idea of a helping cause in which they personally believe (88%) and wanting to make a contribution to their community (82%).

There is much for us to be thankful. Giving levels in Canada between 1984 and 2010 have steadily grown, contrary to what you might think; charitable giving peaked in 2010 (the last year this was tracked) with a gross amount of $15 billion. In other words, over the last couple decades people are giving more, not less. And what is good news for us in the church, is that 60% of this $15 billion was faith-based.

This community of faith has given generously to the refugee sponsorship, to Lutherlyn Camp and Conference Centre, to our youth initiatives. This community of faith has given of its time, talents and treasures for the last quarter century to the Carlington Community Chaplaincy. This community of faith has always been generous, giving at least 10 percent to the work of the wider church in benevolence offerings. And, I’ve just scratched the surface.

You people are very generous in your giving. And this culture of generosity, of compassion and commitment, is the heart of what we are all about as Christians, as followers of Jesus who gave his all, for us.

And so, on this Thanksgiving Sunday in Canada, on behalf of all the people in Ottawa, in Canada and in the world who have benefited in small and big ways over the years from your generous giving — I want to say a heartfelt “Thank you!”

Let’s pray together “The Prayer of Thanksgiving” written by Walter Rauschhenbusch:

For the wide sky and the blessed sun,

For the salt sea and the running water,

For the everlasting hills

And never-resting winds,

For trees and the common grass underfoot.

We thank you for our senses

By which we hear the songs of birds,

And see the splendor of the summer fields,

And taste of the autumn fruits,

And rejoice in the feel of the snow,

And smell the breath of the spring.

Grant us a heart wide open

To all this beauty;

And save our souls from being so blind

That we pass unseeing

When even the common thornbush

Is aflame with your glory,

O God our creator,

For ever and ever.

Amen.
(1) Kerilyn Voigt, “Generosity – What Moves Us to Give?” Canada Lutheran Vol 31 No 5 July/August 2015, p.10-14; also, from the Eastern Synod ‘Generous Giving Practicum’ October 2016

Relationships over Resources

A member of this congregation sent me an email including a list of short phrases called paraprosdokians.

A paraprosdokian, according to my online dictionary, is a derivative of a Greek word which means, ‘beyond expectation’. It is a wordplay, a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence is unexpected. Here’s a smattering:

 · A neighbour knocked on my door and asked for a small donation towards the local swimming pool, so I gave him a glass of water.

 · Take my advice — I’m not using it.

 · Ever stop to think, and forget to start again?

 · He who laughs last, thinks slowest.

 · I was going to give him a nasty look, but he already had one.

 · Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

 · I was going to wear my camouflage shirt today, but I couldn’t find it.

 · If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.

 · No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.

 · Money is the root of all … wealth.

Indeed, the Gospel today (Luke 16:1-13) has at least one major, unexpected twist. And unlike most of these paraprosdokians, this twist is not humorous. 

A manager has been wasteful of his boss’ riches, and consequently will lose his job. So, the manager figures on a scheme to look out for his own interests in his impending unemployment. The ‘dishonest manager’ — as some bibles entitle this parable — puts himself first at the seeming expense of his boss: he will go to his boss’ debtors and demand only half of what they owe. He shrewdly seeks to curry favour with them, and anticipates to be in their good books, once he is unemployed.

Smart move, you might say, eh? But what will Jesus say? Especially keeping in mind that this passage comes to us on the heels of the ‘golden’ chapter of the bible, Luke 15. Therein we read the familiar and heart-warming stories of the lost being found, of celebration and belonging, of unimaginable grace and mercy shown to the poor, the wayward, those who are not easily counted in the economy of the day. 

In Luke 15, we get the strong impression that the values of God’s kingdom — mercy, inclusion of others, unconditional love — stand in sharp contrast to the values of the world — competition, self-centredness, individualism. And, now, in Luke 16, the set up leads me to anticipate Jesus will come down hard on the ‘dishonest’ manager. I expect Jesus to say how unjust, unethical, and selfish the manager was. Don’t be as self-centred as he is!

In verse eight, the rug is pulled out from underneath me: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” What ?!! Commended?

And yet, I should expect that the bible does that to us from time to time. The bible does not present a tightly knit, unequivocally clear and coherent storyline. You can justify anything from the bible, if you want — even murder. But that is not what we are about, when we approach the bible. 

After all, there is an important reason why the New Testament includes four, different, renditions of the life and times of Jesus. If uniformity was the goal in the inspiration behind putting together the bible, then we would have only had one Gospel, not four. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — the first four books of the New Testament — basically follow a similar plot line about Jesus’ birth, baptism, calling, choosing disciples, healing, teaching, passion, death and resurrection stories.

And yet, each presents variations, slightly different orders, and yes, sometimes even these unexpected twists and turns in what needs to be emphasized. There are, after all, different people listening in — the religious leaders of the day, his disciples — people like you and me who live different lives and face different challenges. Each of us needs to hear something unique to what our needs are, apart from our neighbour. And each faith community needs to hear a unique word spoken to them.

So, while the story of the dishonest manager twists and puts our expectations on their head, perhaps there is something here worth paying attention to. “You cannot serve God and wealth” concludes the passage. And yet, the manager was looking out for his own material well-being in his shrewd and commendable actions.

Well, what is the wealth that is talked about here? For what treasure do we Christians — called the “children of the light” in this text (v.8) — search? What is the golden nugget that we seek, above all else? Again, perhaps the broader context can help us, again.

As I said, the previous stories of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost sons suggest that what is valuable in the economy of God, stands in sharp contrast to what is valuable in the economy of the world. These are treasures that are worth uprooting what is hidden, putting in the light what is shrouded in darkness, lifting up what is normally considered not worth the effort, forgiving what is unforgivable.

What does the shrewd manager value, even more than making money? He values relationships. He values keeping connected with others even though he loses what the world values — jobs, financial security and material wealth:

He reduces the amount of debt owed by the amount of his commission — as some biblical commentators suggest. He reduces the amount of interest owed, according to the Torah Law in Deuteronomy 23:19-20 — as other commentators suggest. Regardless of how we interpret the manager’s actions, we can see how much the manager values being in relationship, above all else.

The wealth described here is the treasure of being inter-related in a season of loss and disruptive change. Relationships over Resources, you could say (1).

And this truth hits us unexpectedly in the telling of the Gospel. Another classic reversal. I started this sermon with a Greek word to describe a form of speech that ends unexpectedly. Of course, the New Testament was written in Greek and influenced by Greek culture.

Greek culture often reflects this image of having a feast in the midst of famine. Another contrast of expectations, when during a famine you would not expect people to throw a large feast, and celebrate. Remember, after finding the lost sheep, the lost coin and when the Prodigal returns home, there is much rejoicing. And a feast is prepared for the whole community.

This does not make sense. To have a feast in the midst of famine. And yet, this is what we are called to do. To be children of the light, in the midst of darkness. Not to be a slave to our circumstances and meagre resources, as we may see them to be. But to release them, distribute them, relinquish our seeming control over them, all for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening our relationships.

Celebrating the gift of each other and those we meet. Relationships first, then resources. The horse before the cart, not the other way around.

We may by lying in the gutter of our lives, but we keep our gazed fixed upon the stars. We may be wallowing in an ocean of despair, regret, fear or pain — but we begin with a spoonful of water. In other words, there is always hope. There is always room to grow, to change, to something — anything — in order to make things better. This is the quality of faith.

We are never lost, abandoned and left for dead in the economy of God’s grace. After all, the rich man gives his irresponsible manager a second chance. Normally when charges are brought against an employee, charges that incriminate and prove wrong-doing to the degree of ‘squandering’ the owner’s property, the person in question is fired immediately, without question.

But something odd happens here: The rich man allows his soon-to-be-fired worker to continue doing his job for a while. The rich man gives his delinquent employee some ground, some space, to do something — anything — in order to make things better. The rich man demonstrates some grace in a relationship that has gone awry. 

Not only are the relationships in life our priority over everything else including our material resources, the quality of those relationships — according to the New Testament — are defined by grace, compassion, and love. 

An unexpected twist of the stories of our lives in the world, perhaps. Yet, these are the hallmarks of the children of light following Christ in the world.

Thanks be to God!

(1) David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 4, WJK Press; Louisville Kentucky, 2010, p.92-97

Planting chestnut seeds

“Once upon a time a king was strolling through the forest and he saw an old man, a poor man, bent over a furrow. He walked up to him and saw that he was planting seeds for chestnut trees. He asked the old man why he was doing it and the old man replied, ‘I love the taste of chestnuts.’

“The king responded, ‘Old man, stop punishing your back bent over a hole in the ground. Do you really not know that by the time even one of these trees has grown tall enough to bear nuts, you may not be around to gather them?’

“And the old man answered, “Your Majesty, if my ancestors had thought the way you do, I would never have tasted chestnuts.'” (Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy, Orion Books, Great Britain, 2007, p.164-165)

Questions for reflection:

1. Who are your ancestors — in work and family, community and nation, church and neighborhood — who planted the seeds of privilege and success you can enjoy today? Name them. Thank them.

2. a) What have your predecessors done to make life a blessing for you today? Financially? Socially? Vocationally? Be specific.

    b) How did they themselves benefit from their sacrifice of resources, time and energy?

3. To what extent do you live your life today for the benefit of future generations, and not primarily your own? What areas of your life reflect this future-orientation of your work, time, and leisure activities?

4. Why do you think it may be a challenge to consider how you live now as extending beyond the scope of your own personal interests? What are the obstacles to living life ‘for the sake of others’?

5. What is one thing you can do today that represents:

a) a thanksgiving for the sacrifice of previous generations? and/or

b) a prayer, a gift to others or a specific action whose purpose is primarily for the benefit of future generations and not your own?