Our Mustard Seed Identity

The play that ended with glory started with a mistake. 

The Finnish player won the face-off. But as the puck drifted behind the Finn, Canadian Nick Paul reached ahead, grabbed the puck and skated full-speed-ahead towards the Finnish goal tender. Paul scored in overtime and won the world championship in ice hockey for Canada last week in Riga, Latvia.

Two weeks earlier, it hadn’t looked so good. The Canadian team had lost their first three games against opponents they were expected to beat. And everyone was, frankly, embarassed for the Canadians and counting them out of the playoff round. An unheard of national travesty!

I was even chirpped by my German cousins after Canada’a loss to Germany in the early going. I didn’t know what to say! But there was a turning point, or turning points. And what started out as a losing cause, a sure demise and failing effort resulted in an unprecedented and surprising path to victory.

Way more important than the result itself was the way in which this group achieved the gold medal. Never before was the journey itself the key, rather than the destination. Without the various elements that came to play in this group’s evolution throughout the tournament, they never would have made it to the podium, let alone the playoffs.

After those first losses and barely scoring any goals, the easy and surely understandable way would have been to stop believing. The natural instinct would have been to stop hoping and give up on the dream. The knee jerk would have been to start blaming someone, mistrusting each other on the ice and stop listening to their coaching staff. The easy way after their losses would have been to just go through the motions, and look forward to getting back on the plane to Canada sooner than later.

It is understandable in a worldwide pandemic that has lasted into its second year, that we slip into despair or deny the truth. Denying the truth goes hand-in-hand with despairing.

Selling a house in Ottawa these days ought to be very rewarding, even houses that have structural problems. Because the market is hot and a seller’s dream, one might be tempted to forgoe the inspection which might expose problems you might want to pretend were never there. And still sell your house at a premium, and get away with it.

When you see a crack, what’s your first instinct? Push the pieces back together and patch it over. Eventually a contractor comes with the bad news: there is deep damage here, and if you don’t address it, before long the whole stucture will be fundamentally compromised. You sigh and negotiate. 

We have a surprising capacity to delude ourselves about how broken the structure is. “With enough duct tape and rope, I will get back to normal.”[1]

For people of faith, as well. In the midst of dislocation and destabalization that the pandemic has inflicted on us, we may very well be tempted to re-stabalize. After all, institutions are durable partly because they obey the law of inertia. It’s in our institutional DNA, especially the church.

And you’ve heard the sentiments: “Let’s return to the building”, “Let’s get back to normal.” It’s a knee jerk reaction to the stress of the unraveling, breaking and the cracking open we have experienced during the pandemic.

Another course of action on this journey is to acknowlege the cracking, the failure and the losses as the bearer of truth for us. It’s not all perfect. Never was. There are cracks in the foundation. Always were.

And that’s ok, because a people humbled by disruption and decline may be a less arrogant and less presumptuous people down the road. We may have fewer illusions about our own power and centrality in our society. We may become more curious, honest and authentic human beings. We may have to work harder at our disciplines. We may finally embrace our mustard seed identity. And finally admit how much we need the true power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.[2]

Team Canada would never have found the way to claw out of the basement without embracing and owning their initial losses. They would never have found the way by denying their problems and pretending they deserved the championship before playing anymore games. They would never have found the way without learning to play with each other and knowing each other’s strengths and limitations in the midst of those early struggles.

Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, wrote, “Believe that farthest shore, is reachable from here.”[3] It’s one thing to believe in that farthest shore. We say it all the time in our creeds and doctrines – to believe in heaven and life after death in Christ, that one day we will be there. Amen.

It’s quite another to believe that farthest shore is reachable from here, from right now in this time and place. From where you are, that farthest shore may appear very far away indeed and unreachable. It may barely be visible on the horizon of your sight line. A vast ocean and seemingly impassable obstacles may stand in the way. And yet, as one used to say, “It’s heaven all the way to heaven …”[4]

So, believe in that mustard seed of unnoticeable worth. Believe that the beginning of something great begins in honest embrace of who you are, including and especially your failure and brokenness. Know God from your own ordinary even painful experiences of life. And trust these experiences as God-noteworthy and pregnant with possibility and unmeasureable joy. And see in others, equally challenged, as co-pilgrims on the path forward. 

So, the puck drops. Here we go!

[1] Stephanie Spellers, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community (Church Publishing, 2021), p.22-23

[2] See Richard Rohr, “Letting Go of What Used to Be” An Evolving Faith (Daily Meditations: CAC Publications, 3 June 2021) www.cac.org

[3] Cited in Laurence Freeman, “The Supreme Source of Wisdom” in Sources of Wisdom (Singapore: Meditatio; World Community for Christian Meditation, 2021), p.24-25

[4] Attributed to Catherine of Siena

The accented word

Immigrants to Canada, my parents were always conscious of their accents. They spoke publically always conscious and often exceedingly self-critical of how they sounded to others. 

My parents were aware that those who did not share their mother tongue would have to work harder at understanding what they had to say. I suspect my parents noticed in me and my brother—born and schooled in Canada—who did not speak with a Polish accent a great advantage and privilege.

Recently the church celebrated the festival of Pentecost. The central narrative about Pentecost is the multiplicity of languages expressing the good news of God’s Spirit given to the disciples of Jesus. In the Ottawa Ministry Area recorded worship service for Pentecost Sunday the scripture from the book of Acts in the bible was read in half a dozen different languages to illustrate this point.

Our prayers for Pentecost are about the grains of wheat scattered upon the hills, that they be gathered together to become one bread. This is not a prayer for uniformity. Rather, we affirm that we are united in the Spirit, in celebration of our different accents, our uniqueness and our differences.

Because we miss something fundamental in the experience of a faith community when everyone speaks the same accent let alone language. We are missing something in the church today when those who belong must ‘sound’ the same as those who are privileged and born into this culture.

The energy of Pentecost seeks in every generation and in every place to answer the question: Whose accent are we missing in the plethora of voices, in the orchestra of God’s creation? Whose voice is not easily heard by us?

The truth is, we need to work, and sometimes work hard, at understanding each other. The truth is that the practice of faith is ultimately an expression of love for those whose accents we don’t easily understand.

The truth is, none of us speaks God’s mother tongue—which was neither English nor German! The church, from the beginning has never spoken God’s word un-accented. From the beginning, people of faith have always had to interpret, translate and speak God’s foreign tongue to us. Our words about God have always been accented by our createdness, our humaness. We offer only our humanly-interpreted words about God. Each of us speaks with our own accents.

And often words can be misinterpreted, misunderstood. In the Gospel reading from Mark today, those who witness the events around Jesus’ home and family conclude that Jesus “is out of his mind”[1]. Out of his mind, for expanding the circle of familial love to include Gentiles, Jews, the working poor, the disabled, the sick, women, tax collectors and sexual outcasts.[2] The accusation leveled against Jesus comes from a place of denial and rejection of something that the second century people of Capernaum needed to hear.

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus concludes.[3]

Perhaps we, too, at this point in history in this nation—Canada—Christians need to hear, just listen and not speak. Now, at this time, just listen to the voices that are missing — the voices of grieving Indigenous families crying out in pain. And if we are to say anything at all, only to mourn alongside those whose children’s and grandchildren’s remains were discovered beside a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, recently. 215 children. Only mourn, and listen. As if it were the remains of our own children and grandchildren discovered in the playground beside their own school.

Our task as followers of Christ in the Spirit of God is to constantly learn new langauges. By that I don’t mean we rush out and take courses in how to speak French or Spanish or Cantonese. What I mean by learning new languages is to nurture a respect in our hearts and minds for the various accents that we hear in our communities, accents which have always been there, and accents with which we might not be too familiar, that are foreign to us.

And by listening to one another in this accented and diverse community we bring a sense of curiosity, wonder and interest. By doing so, “our inner nature is being renewed day by day,” as Saint Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthian church.[4]

The multiplicity of books and forms of speech in the bible itself testifies that divine speech must come through human tongues, must come through our unique voices and accents, to be heard. In this way, the accented word can be experienced as a word of welcome, and a word of grace, for all.

[1] Mark 3:21

[2] Wendy Farley, “Mark 3:20-35” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 3 (Kenutcky: WJK Press, 2009), p.118

[3] Mark 3:35

[4] 2 Corinthians 4:16

Hummingbird heaven

Read John 3:1-17

The way Nicodemus approaches Jesus—his words and actions—reveals Nicodemus’ frame of mind. First, he asks rhetorical questions. What are rhetorical questions? They are questions with an obvious answer. “How can someone be born again?” Nicodemus asks Jesus. Here is a question that has an obvious answer in its literal meaning: No, one cannot enter a second time into the mother’s womb.[1]

He’s not finished. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit is like the wind that blows where it chooses and “you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” Nicodemus asks another rhetorical question: “How can these things be?”

Rhetorical questions reveal more about the one asking the question. When we ask rhetorical questions we are not so much expecting a direct answer. We are not curious and seeking understanding with an open mind as much as we are offering our question for effect. With these kinds of questions we are normally getting ready to have a debate, to have a fight. A member of the ruling council, Nicodemus the Pharisee may very well have been used to using this style of combative discourse. 

Then, there is his behaviour. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Maybe he is trying to hide from being spotted with the agitater, Jesus of Nazareth. As I mentioned, Nicodemus was a religious leader. As such, he belonged to the privileged establishment in Jerusalem. Was he worried about his reputation, being accused of cohorting with society’s riff-raff? 

Or maybe, being someone who achieved material successes in life, he reacts against the notion of not being in control of his destiny. Jesus says, after all, that God’s Spirit is beyond our capacity to direct and control.

Whatever the case may be, Nicodemus’ words and actions reflect his fear. He has a lot to lose in his encounter with Jesus. He resists. He defends. And he pretends that he is right and that everything is alright, living life out of fear.

The words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans paint another picture. “We are led by the Spirit of God and [therefore] are children of God,” Paul writes. “For we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear …”[2]

Ever chase seagulls on the beach? Or run after sandpipers across grassy dunes and windswept plains? We perceive birds to react in this skittish, fearful way. Normally, they bolt as soon as we make a noise or come too close. Their behaviour is fearful and filled with foreboding and anxiety. These are primal instincts to which they are slaves. 

In the Zoom service last week, Beth shared a remarkable moment of grace she experienced while watering her flower garden recently planted. Something was blocking the end of the garden hose, so the stream came out a slow, gentle arc splashing into the ground a few feet in front of her.

All of a sudden she noticed a hummingbird approach the fountain of water at its crest. And then the bird started drinking from the stream of water coming out of the hose. The hummingbird didn’t just take a nip and skitter away. It stayed there for several incredible moments, satiating itself and filling its tiny body. 

What is more, next time Beth looked, it had sat itself down on the low retaining wall bordering the garden in front of her, bathing in the water dribbling from the hose. It dipped its little head and lifted its tiny wings to wash underneath and then shook the droplets of water off.

Beth marvelled with wonder. And she confessed that in that simple moment doing simple things she had but one purpose: In the moment of the bird’s greatest vulnerability, to offer a safe space for this bird, normally skittish and reacting to fear. Here, in that holy moment and in that space, human and bird were nourished and restored. 

In my life God creates this safe, trusting space where I can be nourished and where I can be restored, renewed, and given confidence to grow and engage the world, anew. Fear can ultimately serve a higher purpose of pushing me to try new things, things I need to do.

In God’s presence, however, I no longer need to speak and act out of fear and judgement. In God’s presence, I need no longer defend myself against another with self-righteous, rhetorical questions. 

In the presence of God I need only trust. In trust, I am honest and vulnerable with whom I am. And I know that in God’s presence, in all areas of my life and in every decision I make, I am offered countless moments filled with grace.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Thank you, Beth MacGillivray, for the hummingbird photos at your feeder.

[1] John 3:1-17, the Gospel for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary, May 30, 2021

[2] Romans 8:14-15

Living witness

How do our lives reflect God? How do we give witness to God? How do our lives show that we are “sanctified in the truth”, as Jesus prayed for us?[1]

On my phone I have at least three different map apps. When I am in a place for the first time – a new city, a new trail – and trying to get from point A to point B I make sure to consult all three different digital maps in my hand. I take these maps to be fairly reliable because all three use location services to show me where I am in relation to the map that I’m looking at. 

However, not only are there slight discrepancies between the maps themselves. More troubling is a frequent inconsistency between the displayed configuration of streets, trails, roadways on the map, and the actual reality in front of me. There isn’t a roadway where the map says there is, for example. There are discrepancies all over the place, literally. And if I depend only on the maps to guide my way, I will often spend a lot of time on a street corner trying to make sense of it all before going anywhere.

Jesus, in his final prayer for his disciples, acknowledged the discrepencies we experience living in this world. He prayed that, like him, his disciples “do not belong to this world”.[2] I take this to mean that often our world will challenge a life of faith. The pandemic is such an experience. When the way we have practiced our faith is no longer possible and we have to find other ways, we can feel lost and disoriented. And our impulse is to consult our ‘maps’. And even escape into the ‘map world’.

When Adam Shoalts made his famous canoe trek across the Canadian Arctic a few years ago, he memorized his route, based on the maps he studied beforehand. Blessed with a photographic memory and spatial cognition, he could visualize in his mind all the lakes, rivers, bays and portage routes even before he entered each stage of his planned route. And with success. Shoalts rarely got lost.

He memorized the way primarily to save time, despite having these maps on hand. If he had taken the time needed to consult his maps and satellite tracking each time he entered every lake, river or portage route on the four thousand kilometre journey, he could have jeopardized getting to his destination in time before winter.[3]

When we experience significant challenges in our lives in this world, it’s important not to stick our heads in the sand. It’s important that we don’t stick our heads in the pages of books alone to escape our experience of reality now. We can’t afford to lose time doing that. I think our faith is less than it can be when we see the movement of our finger on a map as making the journey itself.[4]

We may not have memorized all the pages of the bible. We may feel, consequently, not strong enough in our faith to make the journey. But the pages of the bible are not where we live our faith. Our witness is strongest when we do not hide our vulnerability but takes risks in faith. Our testimony is strongest when we are authentic, when we are honest with who and where we are – lost, making mistakes, or still finding our way. 

The good news is that God’s greatness speaks in word and deed, through imperfect individuals and efforts.

Jesus Christ, the Gospel shows, lived our human weakness. Jesus shows the “greater witness”[5] in the lowliness and humiliation of the cross.[6] Jesus lived and died our human weakness. And from the reality of our very humanity he prayed for us.

What does this mean? It means our lives participate in the truth of Jesus’ life today, and for all time and in every place. We make God “a liar”[7] – in the words of the scripture writer—when we don’t believe in God’s very life in and through us, when we don’t believe that Jesus Christ lives and breathes through and in our very own experiences, our very own human lives.

In a few weeks we will have the confirmation of three young people who will affirm their baptism and their trust in God for life. The service will not look like any other confirmation service of the past. Believe me.

But confirmation services are not just about repeating back the ‘beliefs’ of the church. Confirmation services are not just about packing the church building to spectate young people confess some doctrine in robotic fashion. 

Rather, to affirm one’s faith is to bring something of your own heart into it. It is to express, in some simple, unique way, the connection you and your life are making with God in this time and place. And whenever that happens in the experience of living, it is the work of the Spirit of the living God, bringing it all together into the shared humanity—and therefore, unity—we have in Christ Jesus.

[1] John 17:19

[2] John 17:14

[3] Adam Shoalts, Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic (Allen Lane, 2019).

[4] The metaphor of the map I adapt from Han F. De Wit, The Great Within: The Transformative Power and Psychology of the Spiritual Path (Boulder: Shambala Press, 2019), p.146,191.

[5] 1 John 5:9

[6] Willie James Jennings, “Theological Perspective 1 John 5:9-13” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008)    p.538-542.

[7] 1 John 5:10

Grounding love

It goes without saying that we have come to depend heavily on our smartphones and social media connections. Especially when physical connections are limited in pandemic public health guidelines, much of our socializing happens on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube and the like. As a result, our social media behaviour—good and bad—has been amplified in a year of coping with more alone-time and cocooning in our homes.

In the comic strip, “Agnus Day”, two sheep friends stand side-by-side. The first reflects on Jesus’ commandment to love in the way Jesus loves—laying down one’s life for the other. “I don’t think I can love like this,” she says. Her friend replies, “It’s hard work but your calling is to love like Jesus loved.”

Reflecting some more, the first sheep says, “What if I just ‘liked’ Thumbs up sign outline the way Jesus loves?”[1]

I don’t think I’m alone by confessing how good it feels when whatever I post receives many ‘likes’. Even church attendance has recently been tracked simply by the number of hits or visits our YouTube services get. Relationships in our virtual world can operate on the thin surface of this kind of interaction.

And then the irony of it: Research in recent years has suggested a direct correlation between social media use and feelings of social isolation.[2]How can we be loving in this digitized environment? How can we love others in the way of Jesus?

The pandemic is causing us to re-evaluate and re-imagine what the love of Christ looks like. COVID has shocked us into considering anew what love (‘agape’ in Greek) means in our day.

In the life of Christ which Christians celebrate during this Easter season, we renew our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others and with creation. What is at stake, it seems to me, is the quality of those fundamental relationships. What we renew is the way in which our relationships transpire and grow in the love of God.

And it takes a little bit more than clicking on the ‘like’ button.

Last week Jessica and I were walking through the Grove in Arnprior. And we found a rare woodland flower amidst the stand of old growth Alders, Pines and Hemlock trees. Red trilliums are hard to find and spot. They take a long time in the ground—five to seven years—to germinate before producing the rich, dark-red flower.

To grow red trilliums requires a multi-year commitment before the fruits of creation’s labour are realized and enjoyed by others.

I thought about how these flowers can serve as a reminder of how God’s love in Christ grows in us and in the world. The trilliums need the warmth and light of early Spring to trigger a verdant flowering. They do best when the ground in which they are planted can receive direct sunlight before their competitors can take hold. 

Their growth is dependent on many factors. Their flowering is truly a gift. A miracle, you could say.

On Mother’s Day we give thanks and pray for all who offer mothering love. Our prayer aspires to a kind of love that extends beyond her own needs alone for the sake of another—even one who is not yet born! Of course, this love is not gender exclusive. And this kind of love does not render the giver a doormat whose own needs are shucked. 

Rather, love happens when our goals will aim beyond our own lifetime. Loving, in Christ, is a long-term commitment that reaches past our own self-interests and pre-occupations. Unlike social media which can keep us locked in self-centred narcissism, the love of Jesus expands beyond the preoccupations of any one individual of any one time. This love is a gifting for all people of every time and every place to behold.

And when we feel overwhelmed and incapable of this kind of loving, as poor Agnus the sheep confessed, let’s remember we are not Christian because of anything we do, but because of what Jesus did and who God is. “You did not choose me,” Jesus says, “I chose you …”[3]

The love that grows from our heart is a gift from God. In the final say, we are not Christians because of our words or deeds, our actions or inactions. We are Christians because in our baptism, God said that we are. Our delight is to live into that calling to love others—devotedly, humbly and as we are.[4]

[1]www.agnusday.org (John 15:9-17)


[3]John 15:16

[4]Sarah Ciavarri, Finding Our Way to the Truth (Minneapolis: Fotress Press, 2020), p.112-113

Sacred time is now

What’s going to happen after the pandemic? This question comes to mind these days. What’s going to happen when public health guidelines eventually relax and we can meet face-to-face again? How will things feel and look like in our gatherings?

Jesus often uses images from nature to articulate truth about God and our world. In today’s Gospel, it’s the image of a vine.[1]In that imagery we have a description of what is– which is comforting:

Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. This is a wonderful image of how we are in Christ, that Christ is in us. This natural-world metaphor of a vine suggests that we grow from Christ, our source, in an organic, gracious sort of way. Feels good.

But not everything in this image is easy and comfortable. We also hear echos of what may sound threatening.

There are moments, yes even seasons of time where we feel dislocated, disrupted and even disposed of. We feel like we are being pruned, ripped off and maybe even thrown away—thrown into the fire and burned. 

Isn’t COVID one of those times? Just like Jesus says, when we feel like we bear no more fruit in our lives, or the world bears no more fruit, the doom-and-gloom messages threaten to overwhelm and overtake us in grief and despair.

What’s going to happen after the pandemic? Truth is, no one knows what the future holds. No one ever did. The only thing we know is what we’ve been through in the past fourteen months, and how we continue to struggle with COVID’s effects on our collective life today.

One thing the natural world from which Jesus took many of his stories can teach us is how to appreciate the natural rhythms of time passing through the seasons. In marking time through this pandemic, we experience what has changed and what we’ve lost. The extraordinary changes have come alongside all the ‘normal’ griefs and losses of life. It’s just that these natural pains and struggles are felt more intensely in COVID times.

There is also such a thing as sacred time. Sacred time operates similarly to nature’s timing which grounds us, literally, in the present moment. In this sacred perspective, “there is no past, present or future. God holds time without reference to what has been and what will be.”[2]When we put our hands in the soil, there is only that moment that matters. The implication of seeing time in this sacred way is that the most fruitful course to engage the difficult questions of our time, is to focus on now.

Both the good and the bad. Now. Where is God speaking to us, now? Not for some distant future. Not from some pre-COVID past reality. But now, amdistall that has changed and continues to change around us, what is God up to?

How can we come to appreciate the grace in the present moment? Well, the way we pray and the way we read the bible is the way we live our life. So, wherever in the Gospels we encounter vivid imagery of end times or firey  descriptions similar to what we read in today’s Gospel, let me ecourage you to examine your response. 

For example, when we read about wars, earthquakes and famines in the New Testament, what do you first feel? I suspect most of us regard this message as a threat. True, anything that upsets our normalcy may be a threat to our egos. But in the Big Picture, it really isn’t. 

Hidden often in this imagery is the assertion that those times are just the beginning. In Matthew 24:8 it says, “All this is only the beginning of the birth pangs.” Perhaps the best way to understand this time is that “we are nearing the end of the beginning.”[3]

In other words, this language in the bible is for the sake of birth not death. 

In Luke 21, Jesus says right in the middle of a catastrophic description: “Your endurance will win you your souls.” When we acknowledge and feel the pain of our dislocation and disruption from the pandemic, it is for the sake of renewal, not punishment. We know what it feels like when things fall apart around us and in us. But what if it’s for a good purpose? When Jesus says, “Stay awake”, what he means is: “Learn the lesson that this time has to teach you.”[4]

The point of these scriptures that feel threatening is not to strike fear in us as much as rearrange our imagination for the new, good thing God is doing right now. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not a threat. It’s an invitation to depth. It may be what it takes to wake us up to the real, to the lasting, to what matters.

Our best response, I believe, is to see with the mind’s eye, the heart’s eye, reality-as-it-is. What if we dove into this sacred time positively, preemptively, praying, “Come, what is; teach me your good lessons”?  What if we said yes to “What is” rather than getting trapped in the negative past year, or escaping into a fanciful future?

Abide in Christ. The life Jesus gives is the life we draw from now. Saying yes to “What is” brings us into that divine space where God finds us, and renews us.

[1]John 15:1-8

[2]Diana Butler Bass, “Religion after Pandemic” in The Cottage (blog accessed on 26 April 2021)


[4]Richard Rohr, “This Is an Apocalypse” in Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, accessed 26 April 2021)

Friends in Christ

After the resurrection of Jesus not only are we confirmed siblings of Jesus—we learned last week—but Jesus redefines what it means to be a friend in Christ.

Good, healthy religion helps us recognize and recover God’s image[1]in everything. It is to mirror things correctly, deeply, and fully until all things know who they truly are.[2]Whenever I hold up a mirror to myself there’s no hiding the image of myself that I see. The mirror conveys truth, whether it makes me feel good or not.

Christ the Shepherd Sunday—normally recognized on the Fourth Sunday of Easter every year—is about our image of Jesus, indeed our image of God. What is our image of God? How do we envision, imagine, God, in Christ Jesus?

One way we understand our image of God is to hold up a mirror to ourselves, and the church. Not that we are God. But we reflect God’s image, as the creation story from Genesis declares. We might not be altogether and always pleased by what we see.

Well, what image does the Gospel reveal about the ‘Good Shepherd’? Let’s start there. The first thing I’d point out is what the image of ‘Good Shepherd’ doesn’t suggest.

Often we fall into the trap of romanticizing our friendships in the church or as Christians. The Good Shepherd image can indeed lead us astray when it blurs the boundaries in caring relationships. That is, we strive to be ‘nice’ at the expense of being truthful. When caring means avoiding difficult yet necessary conversations. When caring means overstepping emotional boundaries and forgetting how responsibility is shared in a healthy relationship. When caring means side-stepping a challenge because we are pre-occupied by pleasing others at all cost.

Unfortuanately the ‘Good Shepherd’ image of God can keep the church stuck in this romanticized picture of Christian relationships.

And who are these sheep? “I just wanna be a sheep Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba” we like to sing with the children. The image of sheep, on the surface, suggests that the sheep are all alike. That the church ought to be populated with like-minded individuals who all conform to the same beliefs and behaviour. To be part of the sheep pen, you all need to be the same.

Yet, the truth is far from this idealistic, romanticized view. The truth is that no individual creature on this earth – whether animal, plant, human, geological – is perfectly identical to another. Each of the sheep under the care of the shepherd has unique attributes unlike any other.

What is more, from the stories of the Gospels about sheep and Jesus the Shepherd, we see that Jesus will go after the one sheep who does not conform.[3]We have called this story, “The Lost Sheep”. But I would see this story as part of the larger Gospel theme pointing to the resurrected Christ who honours and celebrates the wonderful differences in our humanity. It’s our uniqueness that reflects a healthy religion and community, not the pressure to conform. In recognizing our diversity, then, we can truly celebrate our unity in Christ.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.”[4]The Good Shepherd is all about including others who for whatever reason are different.

Brian McLaren, Christian writer, theologian and pastor, shares a story about making true friendships in Christ – not a utilitarian friendship (what’s in it for me?) nor the religious version of ‘network marketing’ (how can I peddle my wares?). He writes about making a genuine friendship, friendship that translates love for neighbours into knowing, appreciating, being curious about, liking and enjoying another person in all their uniqueness. One of the most dramatic of these friendships began in the aftermath of 9/11/2001:

“Like a lot of churches,” Mclaren writes, “our little congregation held a prayer service. While praying, I felt a voice speaking, as it were, in my chest: Your Muslim neighbours are in danger of reprisals. You must try to protect them.The next morning, I wrote and made copies of a letter extending, belatedly, friendship toward Muslim communities in my area, and offering solidarity and help if simmering anti-Muslim sentiments should be translated into action. I drove to the three mosques nearby—I had never visited them before—and tried to deliver my letter in person. . . .

“[At the third mosque,] I clumsily introduced myself [to the imam] as the pastor from down the street . . . I then handed him my letter, which he opened and read as I stood there awkwardly. I remember the imam, a man short in stature, slowly looking down at the letter in the bright September sun, then up into my face, then down, then up, and each time he looked up, his eyes were more moist. 

“Suddenly, he threw his arms around me—a perfect stranger. . . . I still remember the feeling of his head pressed against my chest, squeezing me as if I were his long-lost brother. . . . My host welcomed me not with hostility or even suspicion, but with the open heart of a friend. And so that day a friendship began between an Evangelical pastor named Brian and a Muslim imam we’ll call Ahmad. . . .”[5]

Our enemies and friends, where do they exist? The fact and truth that Ahmad—or anyone— is a friend to one person and an enemy to another should make us think. Where is the enemy? Where is the friend? In our own lives—what’s inside of us—has more to do with the answer to those questions. And maybe it takes a lifetime of struggling with that question to come finally to the throne of grace, where the Good Shepherd welcomes and affirms not only you and your kind, but all who have been shown the love of God in Christ Jesus.

On earth, our task is to reach out in loving friendship. This year, again, Multfaith Housing Initiative in Ottawa is holding its annual Tulipathon walk.[6]As a patron of MHI, I have participated in this annaul event which raises needed funds to provide safe, affordable housing for newcomers to Canada, the vulnerable and homeless. I invite you to support me and Jessica walk three kilometres on May 30 as we walk as Christians in loving solidaridity with all people of faith.

[1]Genesis 1:27

[2]Richard Rohr, “God Is Not Only ‘Over There’”, Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, 18 April 2021).

[3]Matthew 18:10-14

[4]John 10:11,16-18

[5]Cited in Richard Rohr, “Making New Friends”, ibid., 15 April 2021.


One flesh

We did a poll in our confirmation class last week over Zoom. From a multiple choice list, the confirmands were asked to identify what made them happy during this pandemic. Several of them, about half of the class, chose being with family or a close friend.

Family indeed has becoming forefront in our experience of life during this difficult time for us all. Some of us live alone and our yearning for connection with loved ones may be acute. Some have experienced this time of isolation with family as stressful. Others have deepened their relationships with family members making good use of video and phone calls, or just spending more time with a spouse, child, or parent.

Before Jesus death and resurrection, the Gospels make reference to Jesus’ family. In addition to his parents, Mary and Joseph, Jesus had brothers and sisters.[1]

But, interesting, afterhis resurrection the Gospels of Matthew and John record Jesus’ special instructions to the women at the empty tomb. He tells them to go tell his ‘adelphoi’[2]to meet him in Galilee.[3]Here, Jesus directs this word reserved normally for members of a household family, now to include his disciples, his friends, his followers.

After the resurrection a new relationship of intimacy with Jesus has been made possible. After his resurrection, Jesus expands the circle of whom he considers his ‘adelphoi’ – his siblings, his family – to include those not just connected by blood but by faith. Because of the resurrection, you and I are not just his followers, or even his friends. More than that, we are all now Christ’s siblings. We’re of one flesh! And that is quite stunning news.[4]

In the Spirit, Jesus has a deep and intimate connection with us. We’re not just soldiers with marching orders to follow someone far ahead of us. We’re not just cogs in a wheelhouse of incessant activity called the church’s mission. We’re not just detached parts of some mechanism running on its own power far removed from us. No, we are of one flesh with Christ. Christ in us. Christ through us. The power of the resurrection lies within us and all the faithful. And that is, indeed, quite stunningly good news!

In the Gospel for today,[5]Jesus shows his disciples that faith in Christ is an embodied faith. Having a personal relationship with God now is not disconnected from human flesh. Jesus says, “A ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then, in front of them he eats some fish.

A meal, shared together with his siblings constitutes the faith. The embodied presence of God in Christ, in us, is the power of the resurrection that expands outward “from Jerusalem” to include the whole world and all people. And that is why eating the Holy Meal, the Holy Communion, is so integral to our life together as Christians. For every time we celebrate this Holy Meal we participate, our very bodies, in the very life of the living Lord Jesus. The body – the Life – of Christ, given to you!

The confirmands have some homework to do for our next class: They have to consider something that represents hope, love, life in their lives now, and ‘place’ it in the empty egg. After all, the Easter egg symbolizes new life.

In the Zoom poll, there were listed other things that bring joy to us, even in COVID-time: In addition to family and friends, the good weather that beckons us outdoors, a new hobby, pets and learning new skills, to name a few more. 

Especially these days, you might have to work a bit harder to uncover that awareness of new life, because the egg shell can be discouraging. The egg shell looks lifeless from the outside. Like a stone, the shell is cool to the touch and feels hard.

New life is, at first, hidden and buried, like Christ in the tomb. Yet behind the shell a small gift of life is just waiting to come out, to be seen, to grow, to be lifted up and celebrated. How is the presence of the living Lord manifested in yourlife?

After the polling, the confirmands practiced writing prayers in the class last week. Let me close with the words of a couple of young women in the family of God who offered these words of prayer:

The first writes:

Dear God,

I have been anxious lately about school and everything that is happening in the world right now. It seems as if nothing is going right. But thank you for giving me hope and a reason to smile everyday by seeing by best friend at school and being around loving and caring family. Thank you for all the good things that have come with the bad things. Amen.

And another:

Dear God, 

This year hasn’t been the best year there have been ups and downs but I am so grateful to still have a roof over my head, food to eat and everything I have. Please just watch out for and take care of the people that have been struggling and that have lost their jobs.  


[1]Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55-56

[2]in Greek, translated most often into English as ‘brothers’ but meaning siblings of a household family; see Bronwyn Lea, “Scripture Says, ‘Sisters, I’m Talking to All Y’all’” in Christianity Today (April 9, 2019).

[3]Matthew 28:10; John 20:17

[4]Br. Geoffrey Tristram, “Intimacy” Brother, Give Us A Word (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, www.ssje.org, April 8, 2021)

[5]Luke 24:36-48

Crossing the Easter threshold

On Easter morning, we cross a threshold. We move from the shadowed regions of the Lenten fast into the brightness of dawn’s new light. Easter morning is the threshold between death and life. Jesus Christ crossed this mysterious threshold from the cross to the empty tomb, thus showing us “the way to eternal life”: Where God takes the worst thing in the world – the killing of an innocent human being, and God! – and changes it into the best thing – the redemption of the world![1]

The bible details this larger theme of moving, crossing over, into this new territory. In truth you could say this movement from death to life is the central theme of the bible if not the Christian faith: Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, the Israelites passed out of Egypt and on through the parting of the Red Sea to the Promised Land, and the final invitation in Revelation is for all to enter a new Jerusalem where death and mourning shall be no more. Death and Resurrection recur, epitomized in the Gospels by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Resurrection happens, eventually, and everywhere!

This threshold upon which we stand, and move through, today is a movement that is not easy. The original ending of the Gospel of Mark suggests that the threshold from death to new life is fraught with fear. The last words in that resurrection story, indeed that Gospel, are: “So they [the disciples] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”[2]. Crossing the Easter threshold is painful. 

Images associated with Easter – such as the narrow gate, a birth canal, or a butterfly formed in the tight space of a chrysalis – convey the truth that moving through the thresholds of our lives brings disruption, discomfort and the pain of growth to new life. The road is indeed hard that leads to life, as Jesus said.[3] This is a road that he needed to travel to show us “the way to eternal life.”

Theologian Joyce Rupp describes what happens in us when, like the disciples, we stand on the threshold between death and new life, when we ponder the incredible impact of the resurrection on our lives. She writes:

“A threshold contains the power of transformation. In this place of uncertainty and decision making, we are forced to slow down and take stock of what’s happening. This is where we yield to the necessary gestation that grows us into greater freedom.” [4] During this time we let go of old ways we used to rely on to give us our sense of security. Here, all our energy must be given to the process that readies us for this next tentative step. 

It is no wonder that the cross still remains a central image for Christians even today. Christ is risen, and remains risen, even after two thousand years, even after two thousand years of recalling every year his suffering and death. Christ is alive. Yet the cross reminds us that integral to this coming-to-life is painful growth. We, too, need to travel down that road, each of us, in our own way.

How do we do that? Those who cross the threshold do so from a life that focuses on ‘cleaning up’ to one that embraces ‘waking up’.[5] Cleaning up has all sorts of spiritual meanings, mostly associated with seeing the sin of our lives in this broken, COVID-ridden world. It can be a helpful focus for Lent.

On the other hand, ‘waking up’ is definitely an Easter theme. Waking up to seeing the sunrise, the butterfly and the baby born – a new life. Waking up to the trust and the hope that the stars do shine, even above the clouds and in the deep nights of our grief, pain and suffering. Waking up to the God who gives us, shows us, the “way to eternal life” in Christ Jesus.

The ‘cleaning up’ function continues even in the ‘waking’ moments of our lives. It’s a matter of attention now to that which gives us hope, which points us towards the North Star and grounds us in love and life. The most difficult questions can thus be navigated in this hope and trust that carries us over the threshold and into “the way of eternal life”.

In the following short video clip[6], you can get a little taste of how our confirmation class has operated over the past year, and will continue to do so in coming months. We recently asked our confirmands and youth the question – “Who is Jesus?”, which is not an easy question to answer, today. The way they answered the question and the presentation style of the video is a ‘light’ treatment because in the Easter season we can dance and laugh in the face of death, for Christ conquered the power of death. So we all can wake up and rejoice in the love and life of Christ.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

[1] Richard Rohr, “A Pattern We Can Trust” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, Sunday, April 4, 2021).

[2] Mark 16:8

[3] Matthew 7:14

[4] Joyce Rupp, “The Power of the Threshold – Week 4,  Day 1” in The Open Door (Illinois: Sorin Books, 2009)

[5] Richard Rohr, “Love is Life-Giving” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, Tuesday, March 16, 2021)

[6] Visit www.faithottawa.ca and click on “Online Services” for April 4, 2021

COVID truth and GOD’S truth

Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”[1]

The Globe and Mail recently reported that Canadians who have already received the vaccine have ambivalent feelings about it.[2] And it’s not about being anti-vaccination. It’s about realizing that individually having the vaccine does not change much in the way of social interactions. The land borders are still closed. Travel restrictions continue indefinitely. Wearing masks, limited access to public buildings, social distancing – these all continue.

We’re sad, even when we get the vaccine because the vaccine doesn’t wipe away all our losses. We still need to grieve.[3]Why? Because we realize that the vaccine isn’t a silver bullet solution to dealing with the emotional, spiritual and physical pain in our lives today. 

At the molecular level what is happening inside our body is significant when we get our vaccine, in building immunity against a deadly virus. But, outside of us, nothing really changes in the social, material world. “My frustration at this point is outweighing my happiness,” confessed someone who just got their first dose. “Because when I go outside, I’m still in a COVID world.” 

Have we fooled ourselves into fantasizing that once we get the vaccine, everything at the snap of the fingers will be like it used to be? Here we touch on a truth, dare I say, a truth that reflects the way of Christ. And perhaps a way through the grief.

During the torturous hours leading to Jesus’ death on the cross, the Passion stories from the Gospels depict Jesus appearing before various authorities who stand in judgement over him: Judas who betrays him, the soldiers who arrest, beat and mock him, Peter who denies him, Caiaphus who questions him, Pilate who cross-examines him, the crowd who condemns him. 

And in all these scenes, Jesus appears by himself. The disciples have abandoned him. It seems Jesus’ Passion revolves around just one individual.

But he is not alone. That’s the truth. Throughout his ordeal, Jesus appeals to God. The Gospel of John, especially, emphasizes how connected he is to God the Father through it all. Multiple times in the midst of his suffering, Jesus mentions the heavenly realm, and the kingdom of God to which he belongs. “Yet I am not alone,” Jesus says, “because the Father is with me.”[4]  

Even when Jesus cries, “O God why have you forsaken me?”[5] he identifies with the words of the Psalmist, words that unite him to the expansive community of faith spanning centuries. Jesus identifies with his humanity in those words of grief, through which he connects our humanity to his, and to all the saints of every time and place.

We are not Jesus. I am not saying that because Jesus, Son of God, did this we also should, easily. I am not denying our own human limitations nor uniqueness. I am saying that we are in Christ, and therefore in his consciousness we too can appreciate the pattern of our own renewal and path to new life. That is, we don’t face our crisis alone. That our salvation is tied to a larger truth beyond our own individual perception.

On Reformation Sunday we often will read the words of Jesus from John’s Gospel: If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.[6]

On Good Friday we confront the truth that we are not alone. No one is free until everyone is free. No one is safe until everyone is safe. The effects of COVID will not be subdued until eveyone is vaccinated.

The truth is, Jesus came to save all people. Not just the rich. Not just the privileged. Not just those who have political, social clout. Not only those who live in developed countries.

The truth is, Jesus came to save – using the Old Testament formula – “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” which is code for the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the weak.[7] The cross of Christ represents God’s love even for the enemy, those for whom you would not give the time of day.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…[8]

Our existence, our living and our dying, is not an episodic, indivualistic event. We are connected all to one another. The virus, if anything, is certainly teaching us this truth. The virus knows no human-made divisions. And any one individual who wishes to engage the community at any level, won’t be ‘free’ until everyone is.

Because at the end of the day expressing grief is recognized in the presence of another. The act of grieving allows us to see beyond our own, private interests. The tears of loss make room to see and strengthen the bonds of mutual love that connect us to a larger community in the reign of God. While our grief is our own, our healing comes in expressing it in the presence of another.

The cross cannot be the cross unless both directions are bound together as one. The symbol of the cross reminds us that we are not only in an up-and-down/vertical relationship (“me and Jesus”), but in a side-to-side/horizontal relationship (“me and you”). May the truth of the cross of Christ fill our hearts today.

[1] John 18:37-38

[2] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-mixed-emotions-as-canadians-receive-their-covid-19-vaccine/?utm_source=Shared+Article+Sent+to+User&utm_medium=E-mail:+Newsletters+/+E-Blasts+/+etc.&utm_campaign=Shared+Web+Article+Links

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/15/well/mind/grief-pandemic-losses.html

[4] John 16:32

[5] Psalm 22:1

[6] John 8:31

[7] Deuteronomy 24:19-21, Psalm 94:6;146:9, Jeremiah 7:6;22:3,  Zechariah 7:10

[8] John 3:16-17