Lead by example

In the latest Marvel Comics movie “The Avengers” Captain America fights with a team of super heroes the likes of Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, Hawk Eye and Iron Man to ward off an alien invasion of earth.

In the midst of the street fighting against the evil spawn Captain America lands on top off a group of NYPD officers desperately trying but failing to keep the order. Captain America, true to his military training and confident in his leadership skills, starts automatically barking out orders — form a perimeter there, secure this street, get eyes on the roof over there, etc. The captain of the squad says, “Why should I listen to you?”

Suddenly a dozen alien warriors descend upon Captain America with savage attack. Before the eyes of the police officers, Captain America uses his super-human shield to deftly resist, defend and totally obliterate the aliens.

Immediately the captain of the NYPD squad turns to his men and basically repeats word for word the strategy earlier called out by the super hero.

This short scene from the film reminds me of an aspect of effective leadership: Our words mean nothing unless they are backed by our own willingness to put our selves on the line. Authority resides in the leader’s genuine, authentic behavior. People will listen when we lead by example.

If we preach social justice, we better be pounding the pavement ourselves. If we preach prayer and a balanced work life routine, are we doing those things? If we tell people to invite a friend to church, we better be inviting at least ten ourselves.

When the leader’s life reflects this kind of integrity, you can’t argue with that. People will follow.

Prayer is a subversive public act

When I compare popular notions of prayer today with the original purpose and description of prayer in the Christian tradition, I see a great divide. Popular understandings of prayer suggest it is private, that it is done as a means to cure a disease, and that its public face is often divisive.

Let me clarify some of the basic biblical understandings of prayer. I base my commentary on the letter of James (5:13-16) in the Bible, since it is one of the texts which will be read in many mainline churches this Sunday.

I find that the biblical witness debunks prayer as a private act, prayer for the sole purpose of curing medical diseases, and prayer as a divisive tool in a multiple-voice culture. Practiced as fundamentally a public act whose unifying purpose is wholeness and restored relationships, prayer as such counters popular notions and is therefore a subversive practice.

First, prayer is fundamentally public. Time in prayer is not “my time”. Prayer is not exercised in some other-worldly state that separates one from social reality and relationships. Prayer is not, according to some spiritual mythology, done in some sequestered, secluded and isolationist context. Prayer is not withdrawal from reality in order to satisfy some escapist, narcissistic compulsions so evident in the pathology of our contemporary culture.

In James’ commentary, vivid images of prayer involving the “laying on of hands” and the “anointing of oil” makes  prayer a visceral act that invades the space of individuals, one to another. Prayer is inherently relational. It gets down and dirty in the bodily reality of our lives, one with another. It is about touch. Prayer is “our time”, and for the sake of the “other”.

Another scripture that will be read alongside James this Sunday is from the Gospel of Mark (9:38-39). Powerful, effective deeds are done “in the name of Jesus”. When we call on the name of the Lord, we are entering a power and reality that is beyond us. Everything we do as Christians is for and about the “other”. Prayer leads us beyond exclusive concern about our own individual lives; it draws us out of ourselves and into the needs and realities facing other people.

We can pray by ourselves, to be sure. But the power of prayer, which is clearly evident in the casting out of demons from the Gospel, is seen most clearly when it is communally, not privately, done, when it is done in the name of Another besides ourselves, when it is done together.

Which leads to the second aspect of prayer, addressing our understanding of healing. And here we have to be honest about our modern approach to illness and its cure. I don’t, for a moment, doubt God’s ability to cure our diseases, especially when offered in a prayer of faith. God is able in God’s freedom to cure anyone. And we’ve all heard, I suspect, of such miraculous healings. Certainly, the Scriptures reveal such astounding events.

And yet, the biblical witness shies away from making this God’s central way of healing. For one thing, after many of such cures that Jesus performs he often instructs those whom he cures to be silent and not tell anyone. And, while affirming that the “weary will be restored” (James 5:15), the kind of healing God is about does not emerge from a modern, Western, understanding of illness and healing. The kind of healing James is talking about is substantially more than merely prescribing antibiotics or applying scientific medical knowledge to a ‘problem’.

The restoration of which James speaks assumes a relationship between sin and sickness. It is a redemption that only God can accomplish incorporating all that we are. This holistic approach to healing involves our social illnesses as much as our internal chemical imbalances; it has as much to do with our spiritual and psychological health as it has our physiological and corporeal brokenness.

In the Mediterranean culture out of which Jesus and the biblical witness came, healing of broken and ailing bodies is not so much about fighting invading microbes, but of restoring community and social relationships so that people could live the good life intended by God. (John Pilch, “Healing in the New Testament”, Fortress Press, 2000).

This means that should one seek healing today, especially within the church, the way of healing must include awareness of and action toward restoring broken relationships — the relationship between the individual and her/himself, the relationship between the individual and others, the relationship between the individual and the earth, and the relationship between the individual and God — to name but a few of some basic relationships.

When appreciated in the context of the whole web of life on earth, prayer is a powerful and effective force in realizing the healing of our lives, diverse as we are. Prayer is mindful action toward bringing together that which has been divided.

Therefore, prayer functions as a unifying force. Often in our society prayer is used as a weapon to take a stand over against other Christians, a secular culture, or another religion. The fights over public school prayers, for example, give prayer a bad name. For one thing, it betrays a misunderstanding of the diverse yet unifying truth about our connection with God and others.

Prayer is not divisive, though it is diverse in form. There are various, legitimate forms of prayer: We offer verbal petitions in our devotions, in liturgical orders of worship, the Eucharist — these are some traditional forms. But meditation, walking prayers, art, music and even social action can also be a prayer. Any activity, for that matter, entered mindful of God’s abiding presence (i.e. done “in the name of Jesus”) are also forms of prayer often overlooked and undervalued.

The Book of James begins with an address to those who are “dispersed” (1:1). James continues his letter to address the divisive consequences of an “unbridled tongue” (3:6ff) and considers the reasons for the “conflicts and disputes” among the people (4). James’ letter is about divisiveness, disconnection and the splintering of our lives.

It is very suiting, and I believe not without purpose and inspired intention, that James ends his letter in chapter 5 with an appeal to prayer. And not only because prayer is the one activity among diverse Christians that we share. But in recognizing the diversity of form prayer takes, we can affirm the unity we share in Christ Jesus, in our prayerful living.

Thus, a book that begins with division ends with blessings promised those who restore another “wandering” sinner within the community of faith (5:20). Some remark that this is a rather abrupt ending to the letter. But with good purpose.

Because the abrupt ending can remind us that though the world today is still full of sin and death and those who wander, Christians, through prayer, continue “to engage the world in hope for a time when what has splintered can be reunited.” (p.114, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 4)

Listen to your children praying

Some of you have heard my incessant grumbling over the last couple of weeks that, “I need to get my hair cut.” You have given me good advice about the various places in town where I could receive a decent haircut. Even though three weeks ago I could have had it done, I’ve put it off. And off. And off.

And I wonder how commonly and naturally this condition plagues us, in general, on many levels: A project at home we know is good and important but we’re distracted and too busy with our regular routines to get it done; When we put off reaching out to so-and-so but never get around to it; When we put off sending that “thank you” card or making that phone call; When we put off engaging a new and healthy discipline — prayer, exercise, a regular visit to volunteer at the local shelter or food bank; etc. Whatever it is, procrastinating seems to be a universal problem.

What is the result? Well, I’ve found one of my initial emotional reactions is guilt. I beat myself up over the delay. And should I recommit myself to the task, often fear is the motivation. Because I remind myself of the consequences — and I don’t want to go there.

Just consider for a moment the weighty topic of the end times or the final judgment. There’s nothing like striking fear in our hearts to push us to try harder, right? Indeed, this is the final characteristic of the cycle: First guilt, with underlying fear, motivating us to try even harder.

But where does that leave us? Back at the beginning, because do we ever get done all that we want to get done? Do we ever achieve the goals of the perfect kind of world we are trying so hard to create for ourselves and for others? Someone once admonished me for my over-zealousness: “Remember, Martin, your inbox will still be full on the day you die.” Is just “try harder” the solution?

What to do, then, when we find ourselves mired in the mud, stuck in the rut, of despair and disillusionment?

I heard the story this week of an Anglican priest’s young child who declared that he didn’t want anymore to be a sheep in the church’s Christmas pageant. Even though the Sunday School teacher had slotted him to be a sheep, he protested.

“Why don’t you want to be a sheep, little darling?” the teacher asked. “The shepherd will take care of the sheep, and we are all like sheep.”

“I want to be a shepherd,” declared the young boy. Adamant.

“Why is that?”

“Because the shepherds were the only ones who heard the angels sing.”

What that child exposed was truth and wisdom that I hope the Sunday School teacher heard. The shepherds were indeed the only ones who heard the angels sing. And they were the first evangelists in Christianity — those lowly shepherds. They got it right.

Do we hear the angels sing? Do we listen to our children? Do we pay attention to the lowly in our society? Maybe we should. They often get it right.

In ancient times — out of which the bible was written, and famous passages of Jesus welcoming the children into his arms were told — adults considered children no more than chattel. They were economic units, bred and raised and tolerated only so they could become useful when they grew up.

Stoic philosophers, who influenced the thinking of many in Jesus’ day, taught that in children under seven years of age, reason was not active. So, you could treat them like young animals to be trained, rather than like human beings to be guided in a learning process.

Consequently, adults would not listen to or learn from children. Animal trainers do not look for significant insights from those they train. They give commands, observe behaviour, and hand out rewards or punishment (see pages 21ff in Catherine Stonehouse & Scottie May, “Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey”, Baker Academic, Michigan, 2010).

Notice in the Gospel reading today how even from the original Greek ‘the child’ is translated into an inhumane “it”, not once but twice in verse 36 (Mark 9): “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms…” In the ancient world you gained social capital as you got older. Kids weren’t even cute; they were a drain on the family budget.

Jesus begins his ministry by declaring that the Reign of Christ has come (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17). And then he astonishes everyone when he says that to enter God’s kingdom we need to become as children.

Talk about turning the tables on society and cultural norms! Suddenly the poor and weak and the vulnerable have something to say. And the rich and powerful need to listen to the poor! To the children! Because children are not marginal members of the kingdom of God, just tagging along with their parents, waiting to grow up and become real members. No, children are models in the kingdom of God, showing adults how to enter.

In a famous hymn we sing, “Lord, listen to your children praying.” Perhaps the Lord will listen when we — the privileged and mighty, by the world’s standards — start listening to the children ourselves.

I also heard this week about the plight of child labourers. We pride ourselves, you know, in saying that our modern society has advanced and evolved to the point where we don’t treat our children like animals anymore. Look again.

You know all those balls we buy in our stores — footballs, soccer balls? Well the majority of those balls today are still stitched by young children in developing countries. They get paid only 33 cents a day in Pakistan, for example, and work twelve hours a day there. They are forced into this labour by parents who so desperately need the money.

But as a result, they don’t go to school to learn how to read and write. And because their bodies are developing so rapidly at that young age, many of their hands become crippled from the repetative stitching by the time they are in their late teens. Consequently they are unable to secure gainful employment when they are older on account of their mal-formed hands and lack of education. So, they resort to prostitution, drugs and social violence.

Is there work to be done here? Darn right! When we talk about the evils of this world — what about the children and their plight caused by powerful global, economic and social systems that enable this injustice? What are we going to do about that?

And yet, after we express our moral indignation, is this another ‘good deed’ we’ll put on the shelf of good intention? About which we end up procrastinating, feeling guilty, and finding refuge in getting ourselves busy because we are scared about judgment?

Not that doing little things won’t help. Not that becoming socially active for some worthy cause won’t do some good. It will.

But do the children have anything to teach us? How do we prepare for the work that will bear fruit, in the end?

I began this sermon by describing a negative cycle with which we are familiar, even and perhaps especially, in North American Christianity. We read passages from the Bible like we sung today — Psalm 1 — and instinctively we zero in on the images of destruction of the unrighteous. With fear and trepidation we secretly hope we are not one of “those” people (you can fill in the blanks from the news this past week); and then we berate ourselves with guilt into “trying harder”.

And often we spin our wheels in anxious activity, ending in disillusionment and despair.

There is another way — a biblical way, by the way.

In the lectionary study this past week we talked about the image of the tree planted by streams of water bearing fruit in its season. But the tree didn’t choose to be by the river. The tree didn’t pick itself up, carry itself to where a river was flowing and plant its roots by it.

This image is not prescriptive, it’s descriptive. It describes the life of those who are, before they do anything, aware of where their true life is sourced, despite their circumstance. And, moreover, aware of the seasonal aspect of their activity. It’s not always, round the clock, 24-7, about doing good and being busy. There are some seasons of life during which dormancy, quiet, stillness, are not only a good idea and desirable. But necessary.

My mother told me a theological and living truth this week when we were discussing judgment day and the end times: For those who live in Christ, judgment day will be a wonderful experience. Judgment day will not be scary and frightening for those who are in Christ. She cited that well-known saying from Martin Luther: “If I knew judgment day was coming tomorrow, I’d go out today to plant an apple tree.”

Listen to the words of the biblical writer, Paul: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:1-2).

We don’t need to try hard to become like children. Because what’s one characteristic of children? — They don’t try to be anything or anyone other then themselves.

Our good deeds and good intentions will bear fruit in due season when we approach the end with joy not driven compulsion, with ease not by trying harder, with hope not guilt, with trust not fear, with gratitude not demands.

Amber (age eleven) explained: “God is my special person because I can talk to him anywhere. I can just speak to him in my mind … in the middle of class … on a race … sitting right here, just thinking, ’cause he can read my mind … So I don’t actually have to say a prayer out loud … sit down, close my eyes, and fold my hands. I can pray right now as I’m talking, and that’s one way he’s my special person.”

Although in her school public prayer was not allowed, Amber discovered that no one could deprive her of talking to her special person.

Lord, listen to your children praying. Lord let us listen to your children praying.


The Value of Loss

The story is told of a highly competitive and much scrutinized race for the position of arch-bishop over a prosperous diocese. Several bishops were vetted and interviewed by senior officials and religious leaders.

Everyone knew the stakes. This position was both a great responsibility and a great honour. People would look up to the new arch-bishop and follow his lead. Many privileges would come by the successful candidate. People would listen to what he said.

It all boiled down to the last interview. Two finalists met individually with the senior official who would make the final recommendation and appointment. The first candidate responded to a question by saying that the very best part of himself aspired to this position and therefore he would do a great job.

Later, the second candidate responded to the same question by saying that the best part of himself didn’t want the esteemed position; rather, the worst part of himself coveted it.

Guess who got the job?

In the logic of the world, success is defined by having more — that the only way to find security and happiness is through possessions and power. In the logic of the world it is only by satisfying all our wants that we can be content. It is an energy of acquirement based on the notion of absolute scarcity.

Therefore, we live according the winner-takes-all idea where we compete not only for goods, material things and political power, but also for meaning and love and relationship. Winning and losing takes on a whole new dimension when we figure into it our religious values.

What does it mean to follow Jesus, take up your cross, and lose your life for the sake of God and God’s mission? If we are going to take the words of Jesus seriously, well, what’s your life going to look like?

Should you pursue a job promotion, or be content with where you are? What about expensive theatre or ice-level tickets at Scotiabank Place or the Air Canada Centre? If you buy a pair of those, is that gross self-indulgence? Or, if your house is full of all sorts of material possessions, what will happen to your soul the next time you pass over a person in need?

We can worry about gas prices and argue over who holds the TV remote control. We can get all fussy over keeping neighbourhood kids and their skateboards off the church parking lot, even if we don’t give a whip about the inner or outer states of their lives. But for the life of us, we struggle to keep focus during even the briefest of prayers.

What does it mean to follow Jesus in your life?

When we boil it down to making good choices, are we not still operating in the logic of this world, which suggests that “it’s all up to us” and “what you make of it”? Are we still not acting on the presumption of acquirement (of good, righteous living)? Are we still not presuming that by our own strength we can make it right? Do our ego compulsions make any room at all for God?

We can sympathize with Peter’s objections when he confronts Jesus against the notion of a Messiah who must suffer and die (Mark 8:27-38). We can understand Peter’s confusion and rebuke — because like most of us he, too, must confess his entrapment to the popular notions of power, possession and security in the world.

Have you heard the joke of two people who died around the same time — a Lutheran pastor and a New York City taxi driver? Both approached the gates of heaven and were met by Saint Peter. Immediately the angelic hosts — singing a joyous chorus — surrounded the taxi driver, embraced him and ushered him with pomp through the gates and into the glories of heaven.

The pastor was left at the gates while Saint Peter had to check the heavenly files. It was some hours before the pastor finally asked, “Why did the taxi driver get to go through so quickly and I — a servant of the Lord — must wait in line so long to enter?”

“Well, you see,” replied Saint Peter, “When you preached the people in the church fell asleep; when the taxi driver drove, the people in his car prayed earnestly!”

Anne Lammott just published a book entitled: “Help. Thanks. Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” That title suggests that real, authentic, heart-centred prayer is simple. Martin Luther said about prayer that fewer words make a better prayer. In the Psalm for today (116) we encounter a phrase often mentioned in scripture: “I call on the name of the Lord”.

We can take that meaning plainly to say, simply the name of the Lord: Jesus. In ancient tradition this was the Prayer of the Heart: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — and this was the simple prayer repeated over and over again during a short period of silence and stillness in the midst of any circumstance of life.

So, what does prayer have to do with “losing our life”? For one thing, prayer forces us to experience the living Christ, not just talk about Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I have found in my own life that sometimes I am more comfortable talking about Jesus. But caring about Jesus with the insight of my mind or through the books on my shelf is not the same as giving over the full allegiance of my life and simply being in Christ.

It’s a little bit like the difference between talking about a loved one and actually picking up the phone or looking them straight in the eye and telling a person you really love them.

When Jesus asked his disciples that day, “Who do people say that I am?” they had no trouble answering that question. As many prominent names as they could pull out of their Bible or from their community, they offered up. It was a nice objective question to which they could give nice objective answers.

When Jesus changed one word, however, it became a bit more difficult: “Who do YOU say that I am?” Suddenly their confidence and investment in him, and all that he was, was being tested. This was a much more difficult question to answer, because they had to answer it with their lives and not just with their brains.

The minute we hear this question posed to us, we do have a choice. We can either hold back and talk about this Christ figure whose sayings and deeds are written down in a precious ancient book. Or, we can decide to open up to the fullness of our lives by using the language of love.

Have we at times noticed, for example, that when we give a gift to another we recognize how much we receive in return? (recent studies indicate that the only way money truly makes us happy is when we give it away) Or, have you discovered on occasion that only by loving another do you feel yourself to be loved? Have you ever gone without, in order that someone could have more — and then felt intensely richer as a result? Or, that there’s no better way to find a friend than first to be a friend, and that unexpected rewards come through sacrifice?

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose life and it will be saved. Submit to death – the death of ambitions and secret wishes. Keep nothing back. Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for Christ and you will find him.”

In the world’s logic, we don’t want to lose because losing leaves us alone, forsaken, abandoned. In the recent ‘Dr. Seuss and the Lorax’ movie, the main character, the Once-ler, achieves great success selling his Thneebs by cutting down all the trees. But his greed and ambition to acquire more without recognizing any limits — leads to failure. And in the movie you see how when his kingdom comes crumbling down, everyone abandons him: His forest friends and the Lorax — because they no longer have a place to live without the trees, his family because he disappointed them. Losing meant abandonment.

But in the losing we experience the grace of God. It is in the loss where and when we find Christ. Jesus experienced the ultimate loss and then exposed the false logic of the world on the Cross and out of the empty tomb.

Therefore we are not alone when we lose. Because Someone who loves us will find us. And give us another chance, a new beginning, and a new life.

Healing (Mark 7-8)

What do the Gospel texts from Mark 7 & 8 teach about healing?

Comparing the texts reveals similarities and significant differences:

Both texts involve healing of men. In both, Jesus employs touching their ears/tongue/eyes with his hands covered with his saliva. In Jesus’ action, he definitely gets his hands dirty. And, both texts conclude with Jesus’ ordering the healed not to tell anyone about what happened.

The most significant difference is, whereas the healing in Mark 7 is immediate the healing in Mark 8 occurs in stages. After the first stage of touching, Jesus asks, “How’s it going?” And the man replies that although he can see, his sight is still blurry — the people look like trees walking around. And so Jesus does it again … finally getting it right? Good question.

Was Jesus not firing on all cylinders in this healing? Did Jesus need to attempt it the second time to get it right? I don’t think so.

I think Jesus was demonstrating a truth about healing: it’s more often than not a process that takes time and is not just about once and for all eliminating the problem.

What is healing? It’s more an approach to living with the problem rather than denying it or fighting against it.

Healing is not about Jesus coming to us in order to rid our lives on earth from any suffering whatsoever. Otherwise he wouldn’t be ordering everyone he healed to be quiet about it. Otherwise he would have cured everyone’s diseases while on earth.

Jesus was more about opening the way for all people to be made whole through the Cross and the empty tomb. Jesus still carried his wounds in his side, hands and feet — even in his resurrected body! This is important!

We are made whole when our wounds no longer define us, defeat us and cause us to harm ourselves and another. We experience healing when our wounds help us to stay humble, patient, honest and more open to trust. “Ephathah” — the beautiful word spoken by Jesus means: “Be opened!” Healing is an openness of heart, regardless of our circumstance of suffering.

And finally, our wounds — when undergoing healing in Christ — develop in us a compassion toward the weaknesses, woundedness and sufferings of others.