The truth will make you free

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32)

This text citing Jesus from the Gospel of John is the chosen text for Reformation Sunday. I wonder why? Is it because in every age the church needs to re-discover the truth for itself?

When you think about it, isn’t this the question that seems to surface time and time again for Christians living in the world today? It does for me: When tragedy strikes. When controversy splinters groups. When conflict erupts. What is true? Who is right? Who speaks the truth?

After watching the presidential debates on TV last week, one of the US networks had a segment where a reporter examined a few of the statements made by the candidates. By appealing to the facts and the official record we could judge whether or not the statements were true. Kind of like a truth-meter. The result wasn’t always clear-cut, either-or – for both candidates.

Pilate’s question to Jesus (“What is truth?” John 18:38) right before Jesus’ death is actually answered by Jesus here: “The truth will make you free.” Okay, so we have a connection between truth and freedom. It’s a good start.

This is the texture and character of what God’s truth is all about; that is, it leads to freedom, to expansion, to a kind of un-shackling, un-binding, un-raveling, un-caging of our lives. This is how we will recognize it – that’s the litmus test: whether it frees us, or not.

In the last couple of weeks you may have noticed the new paint on the walls in the narthex and adjacent rooms upstairs. Repainting the walls is a cleansing act of sorts – a confession, you might say. Because we now look rather critically at what was on the floors – the furniture, and what hung the walls – the plaques and pictures. We revisit the very assumptions of why those things were put there in the first place. In this evaluative process we ask: Why?

Painting the walls was sacramental in that it was an outward act that points to an inward reality. What about taking a look at our inner lives, asking ‘why?’, and begin renovating that space? What about confessing the truth of who we are? What is hanging on the walls of our hearts? And why is it there? Does it need to be? Is it counter-productive? Does it say something about our lives that is not really true?

At the spiritual retreat I attended last weekend the participants were asked the question: “Describe how you know something to be true.” The question was intentionally left to be wide open, and in our small groups we were encouraged not to be judgmental in what others said and with what came to our own lips in the moment. So, how do you know something to be true?

It wasn’t an easy question to answer, truth be told, especially among strangers. My small group comprised of three people. And you might have guessed it: three different kinds of answers.

The first person said she knows something to be true because she trusts her gut instinct; for example, she just knows in her gut that someone her teenage daughter hangs out with is not a good friend for her. Her gut tells her this is true – and often it turns out to be true!

The other person said she relies on what other people around her say and do. She trusts her friends and family, what they teach her, tell her and by the example of their lives – this is how she knows and discovers the truth. Not so much her gut, but in her relationships.

I was the third person. The first thing that came to my mind was: I trust ideas and from where they come – the scriptures, the doctrines, the books I read, the traditions, the work of the mind. This is how I know the truth.

I realized after our discussion that it boiled down to what you trust – your instinct, your heart, your mind.

Was someone wrong? Was someone right? The experience of the exercise to listen and then to share honestly taught me that in various ways we were all right. Each of us shared an important perspective on discovering the truth.

If it wasn’t for Martin Luther responding in the moment to his conscience and gut: “Here I stand!” before those who accused him of heresy – I wonder if he and we would have ever received the truth of God’s grace in the way Luther eventually articulated it.

If it wasn’t for Martin Luther’s loving, caring and trusting relationship with Johann von Staupitz, his superior and mentor in the Augustinian monastery, he would not have made a critical step in his journey to discover the truth of justification by grace alone. In Luther’s own words: “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.”

If it wasn’t for Martin Luther’s dedication to the written word in translating the New Testament from the Latin to the language of the people, German, during his exile in the Wartburg castle, if not for his scholarship and knowledge of the scriptures, he most certainly would not have been in a position to stand with credibility and conviction.

On the other hand,

If it were only his instinct that he trusted, he could have barked up the wrong theological tree altogether, without recourse to the people in his life and the traditions of his church, good and bad.

If it were only his relationships that he trusted, he could have easily lost himself, his integrity, his own conscience by trying to please everyone and respond to their demands and expectations, becoming in essence a chameleon.

If it were only his appeal to right ideas manifested in the laws, the scriptures, the words on a page and other such abstract authorities, he would have missed the gift of Jesus to the world, a gift – like peace – which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). In other words, what is true is more than merely the understandings of our minds and intellectual intelligence.

Martin Luther’s conscience, his trusted relationships and his mind – all three – were part of the journey of discovering truth. I think we can say that in many ways his influence in the church expanded and freed many to embrace the truth about God.

By trusting only one facet over the other leads us to live life as if we were pushing a plane down the runway. We want to be free. We want the truth of flight. But we’re not getting into the plane and trust all of what the journey means.

It’s hard work. It isn’t easy – both to be honest about yourself, and to accept the other whose answer might be a little different.

It was for Martin Luther. For someone who was so convinced that the truth was found only in serving penance for his sins and slaving away to earn favor with God; for someone who felt deeply remorseful for his sins but who believed the only way to get it right with God was to work even harder at doing good works ….

The truth indeed set him free. For what was his eureka moment in that monastery in Germany? That it is grace that puts him right with God. Not anything that his ego could produce – his energy, his work, his endurance, his good intentions. But a free gift of God’s love, mercy, forgiveness – the doing of God in Jesus un-did the requirement for Luther to earn God’s grace.

So this grace as gift is the truth that sets us free. But it is a freedom FOR something, not FROM something. This is key. Freedom that is grounded in God’s grace is not a freedom from restraints and limits so that we could do anything we want to do. (see Richard Rohr, “On the Threshold of Transformation”, p.123). Here we go pushing that plane again. It is not Jesus’ understanding of freedom.

Instead, what Jesus embodies is a freedom FOR the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is a highly moral approach to freedom. This movement gets us flying. Gets us free. When we have nothing to lose except our egos. We seek justice, we are gracious and understanding, we are compassionate and work on behalf, not of ourselves and our own myopic realities, but of others in need. Why? Because it is the right thing to do. Because we are free to do this! Someone once said: There is no truth without compassion, and no compassion without truth.

I suspect when the world sees us engaged in this kind of approach, they will see Jesus and therefore see God. They will see the truth, they will bear witness to it in our behavior, our decisions and our actions.

What is truth? Each of us needs to personally struggle with that question – as Luther mightily did, as anyone who has grown in their personhood.

The truth is – the Son still shines above the clouds. Discovering this truth is like taking off on a stormy day: We may know theoretically that the sun is still shining. But to experience the Son personally we need to fly through the turbulence of the clouds before we break through and reach the heights where the sky is blue and the sun’s rays warm our bodies, our hearts and our minds.

A seminary prof once told my class that the song should really read: “Jesus loves me this I know for my mother tells me so” – pointing to the truth that for many of us, before we could read any words on a page we were in relationships with loved ones who showed us God’s love and talked to us about it.

The prof got it partially right. For over the span of a lifetime, I believe that Jesus loves me this I know, for my gut, my Mom/Dad/loved ones, and the Bible tells me so.

That is how I know.

Amazing grace funeral

Amazing Grace. We say this, sing this, today – and express it on many different levels – Amazing Grace.

But how can God’s grace be amazing, when doing what we do today reminds us again of the hurt and pain of losing Grace a couple of months ago? How can God’s grace be amazing when it sometimes feels like it means nothing, that God is distant, disconnected and uninterested in our plight here on earth – especially when we suffer?

Amazing Grace. And yet, when we remember Grace, in a sense she was amazing because she brought to you and to all those people she met in her life, the blessing of her commitment, her creativity, her dedication, her humour, etc., etc. Yes, Amazing Grace! Thanks be to God!

The funeral of Lincoln Alexander was set for October 26. He was the first black Canadian Member of Parliament and former lieutenant-governor of Ontario.

Last weekend I watched the morning news on TV announcing details of his funeral. And then the news switched to the faces of some of his family, friends and politicians who shared some generous words about their loved one.

She gave the profound image of his hands. After all he was a big, tall man. How this person was related to Lincoln Alexander I did not catch. But what she was going to miss most, she said, were those hands of his holding her, and providing comfort and support to her in times of need.

And then, in the midst of her speech, the news clip ended abruptly, moving onto the next news item, something to do with the presidential debates south of the border. In the style of throwing out fast-paced, short sound-bite news segments, the TV news report gave me the impression that she had in fact more to say. It left me wondering, and wanting for, how she finished her comments.

Your beloved Grace is no longer with you. The death of a loved one can sometimes feel like an abrupt ending. No matter how old or how young we are at the end, it may feel like there was still more to say, still more to do – things that we will never now know, experience or witness on earth. And that hurts.

I’ll never know for sure what Lincoln Alexander’s loved one said to end that media scrum which never got to air. And I’ll never know in precise detail, this side of heaven, what exactly lies for me and for you and for Grace beyond the gate of death.

But I do know this: It’s not over. The meaning and value of our lives do not evaporate into nothingness even though our bodies die. Even though the ‘channel is switched’ so to speak.

Because the story, the Word, continues, even though I am not there! Even though I can’t see it all the time, I am held in the loving arms of my Creator forever. That story never ends.

Beyond death, I will continue to be embraced by the hands that fashioned me even before I was born (Psalm 139:13-18). Even more so – that my God will take me home and return me into the arms of Jesus (John 14:1-6). I will be joined forever in the household of heaven with all the saints, and shine in the pure joy and brilliance of all that is of God. This is Grace’s story now.

In the meantime, we on earth are not separated from those who have died. There are characteristics, personality-traits, memories of Grace all of which you now hold dearly in your heart. And which in some tangible, mysterious way, manifest themselves in our lives. I encourage you to look for those “Grace” moments. You may have already experienced some of these moments of recognition — being aware of a holy connection with the mystery of Grace’s spiritual presence.

The grace of God is truly amazing. It’s a wonderful play on words, isn’t it? We are talking about the grace of God and we are talking about Grace who was amazing. Amazing Grace.

Thank you God, for Grace. Thank you God for your grace. Hold us all in your Amazing Grace. Amen.

Bridging the gap

Mark 10:35-45

Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink…” (Mark 10:39)

When we first stepped on the bridge spanning the wide, flowing river, our ten year old son stopped short. It was windy. He said he was afraid the strong winds could blow him off. He refused to walk over.

A few weeks later when we were giving a walking tour of our new home-town to visiting friends, the path took us over the bridge. Engrossed in showing all the sites to his friends, our son made it three-quarters of the way across before he realized what he was doing. I could see by his wide-eyed expression that he had, for the most part, forgotten his fear. He was focused on his friends rather than himself.

I often miss the extraordinary promise implied in Jesus’ words to his self-absorbed disciples. They had been walking to Jerusalem listening to Jesus speak about his suffering and death. Understandably, those who followed Jesus were afraid (Mark 10:10). Were James’ questions about finding a seat in heaven next to Jesus simply an attempt to find security amidst the ominous implications of Jesus’ words?

Fear of the world often drives us, above all, to find security. We are afraid of terrorism, so we start preemptive wars. We are afraid of failing, so we act to secure our reputation rather than take bold and necessary steps forward. We are afraid of what we don’t understand in others who are different from us, so we cocoon behind fortress walls with like-minded people rather than build bridges of cooperation and compassion.

When Jesus says, “the cup that I drink you will drink…” he is making his disciples a promise – a promise that one day they, too, will no longer be driven by fear; that one day they will act boldly, motivated not so much by self-preservation but by the Gospel.

This, too, is a promise made to me and to you. It’s not an easy way. But when our focus resolves itself on others, we no longer act according to our fears but according to the way of Christ Jesus.


How do you let go?

How long shall we cling?

I am reminded of winter these days as temperatures are falling, and so are the leaves. Well, most of them anyway.

It was wintertime last year while walking when I stopped in my tracks. I heard something I had not heard in months. And it sounded out of place amidst the quiet wintry solitude of frozen rivers, snow-laden trees and crunching snow under foot.

I heard leaves rustling in the winter wind. I looked up into the branches of a giant oak tree most of whose brown, dried leaves did not fall to the ground in October.

These leaves were still hanging on despite the fact they were basically dead. And despite the sub-zero temperatures and the wind-chill factor. They sure were clinging! Talk about stubborn! They had refused to surrender to the natural change of seasons.

I sometimes worry that by moving forward in my life with big, life-changing decisions, I will lose something important to me. And so I hang on to the present circumstance like a crutch. Better the devil you know, right?

The rich man thought he had it in the bag by “following all the rules” of his religion (Mark 10:20). His question — “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) — was rhetorical. In a manipulative, self-congratulatory way, he approached Jesus — even kneeling before him. He had self-righteously fooled himself into believing he already knew the answer. The gospel writer doesn’t even assign the rich man a name, underscoring the fake, surface nature of the man’s presence.

But Jesus cuts through the crap, skims the fat off the top, and goes to the jugular! Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus sees through the rich man’s pretense, and uncovers the real, authentic person beneath the surface. There he finds an enslaved heart, and brings to light the truth:

In order for the man to be liberated and set free, he has to surrender what owns him, what captivates and grips his soul: For him — it’s material possessions. For someone else, it might be different. But he has to learn, if he wants to grow, to let go and not hold on to those things that keep him stuck.

It is not in hanging on, but in letting go when faith makes sense. Faith, for Martin Luther, was more an attitude of trust and self-abandonment. He wrote, “Faith does not require information, knowledge and certainty, but a free surrender and a joyful bet on God’s unfelt, untried, and unknown goodness.”

This may seem impossible, even undesirable. We don’t want to let go of those things that have defined us for so long. Whether we are talking about buildings, or investments, or our image, our special collections of treasurers we keep in our homes — how can we do this?

Those leaves that were clinging on to the oak tree through the winter would eventually have to let go. Why? Because the new buds in Spring will push them off, whether or not they like it!

Will we wait until forces beyond our control compel us to let go? When a crisis happens? When we no longer have any choice but to yield to the inevitable?

But have we heard the promise of God, here? Because we’re not letting go of whatever we need to let go of into nothing. Our choice to release our grip isn’t a release into emptiness. In our letting go we are making a certain bet on God’s goodness.

There is comfort and hope here: For, in God’s economy nothing is lost. In some mysterious way, even though I feel like I have lost something dear when I let go, I can trust that someday God will use what I have lost and reconcile it to my life again.

The rich man went away grieving. I hope the story didn’t end there. I hope that after the rich man had some time to think about it, he would have returned to Jesus. That’s all.

That’s all we need to do: Turn to Jesus with an open and honest heart. Why wouldn’t we? You see, when Jesus told him to sell all, the scripture inserts the phrase that “Jesus loved him” (v21). Jesus loves us, first and foremost — and it’s not a fake love, it’s real! 

How is this possible, when obviously this man is missing the mark? How can Jesus love such a sinner?

Yet, when we turn our hearts to Christ, we discover that God accomplishes what we cannot, and what often comes as a surprise to us. I like the Scots Confession (1560) written shortly after Martin Luther’s death (1546): It says, “… God accepts our imperfect obedience as if it were perfect, and covers our works, which are defiled with many stains, with the righteousness of his Son.”

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

God will complete the “good work” begun in each of us (Philippians 1:6) — that nothing good in our lives will ever be wasted, but will further the reign of Christ on earth. This means that those who do not have what I have will benefit from my “letting go”. And in so doing, I, too, will receive abundance from others — whatever I need.

All things are possible with God, even sticking a camel through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25). We can’t conceive of God’s wonders. But it’s not about us. It’s about what God can do.

And God can do anything. Even bring justice and peace where it doesn’t exist now. Even feed the hungry, raise up the poor, humble the proud and mighty. Even overcome the greatest challenges we face.

So, I can be bold and let go even when it’s not easy — but important and necessary. And then watch and wait for the new thing that will sprout in Spring.


On whom have I given up?

“First of all, I urge that thanksgivings should be made for everyone (I Timothy 2:1)

Let’s face it. Even the most mature, enlightened and experienced of us need to confess: There are those we have given up on.

Mitt Romney may have given up on half the population in the United States. Unwise to admit, politically.

And yet haven’t we all, personally? That is, given up on those who annoy us to no end. On those who are different from us. On those whom we know we can’t change for the better. On those who appear to threaten our sense of security and stability. On those who are very near and dear to us who have fallen away from the faith. On those we pretend to have some measure of control or influence over, but who have rebelled against our wishes and desires. On the infirm, the elderly locked away in their homes or on the ward. Those in prison, incarcerated for committing some crime. On our political leaders. Have we given up on them?

Have you given up on that dream, a hope for your life? Have we given up on ourselves, tragically, when all options seem closed to us?

There’s a kind of resignation that comes with giving up. After having argued, reasoned, persuaded and tried oh so long and hard. After having endured tension and animosity for a long time. After trying so hard and so long.

Finally, enough is enough. We find ourselves at the end of our rope. I give up on them! I don’t want anything to do with them anymore. I don’t want to dream anymore!

Talking about politicians, I think it was Bill Clinton who said, “You become old when memories of the past outweigh your dreams for the future.” Have you given up?

And we turn to the scriptures to justify our resignation, where Jesus counseled his disciples in a specific situation to “shake the dust off your feet” (Mark 6:11); Jesus, who gave us words we use to rationalize not caring for the poor (Mark 14:7). We turn to Paul, who in another situation encouraged his followers not to associate with the ‘immoral’ (1 Corinthians 5:11).

Our anger, fear and anxiety lead us to insulate ourselves from others — creating fortresses and cocooning in places and routines that preserve our sense of self. As our world gets narrower and we dig ourselves deeper in the rut of isolation, our hearts harden and we fight harder to exclude others from our vision.

And then, surprise! We encounter the Gospel which states in no uncertain terms that in “God’s world there is no them and us. There is no them. Only us.” (@JamesMartinSJ)

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy Paul encourages Timothy to pray for all people, for God desires ALL people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:1,4). Not just our friends. Not just those who agree with us. Not just those with whom we get along and are just like us.

But those very people who annoy us. Those who are different from us. Those with whom we have little in common. Those who do not listen nor agree with us. Those who intimidate us. ALL people.

Maybe I need to keep praying for these folks, and not give up on them. Because God Almighty Maker of heaven and earth surely hasn’t. God has not given up on them.

Maybe what I need to give up, if anything, is the presumption that somehow it is I who is going to save them, change them and make them into the person I want them to be. Maybe what I need to give up is the belief that it is I who will manufacture the life I want to live.

Maybe my job is to keep hoping, keep praying, keep being the person God made me to be. Maybe my job is to persist in a gracious disposition to those I encounter in my day. Maybe my job is to take the risk to reach out in love — and leave the rest up to God. Maybe my job is to let the Christ in me see the Christ in you.

Yes, that’s my job. But it is not my job to ever, ever, give up on anyone — including myself. My dreams. And God. And the person who I can’t stand.

How can I do this, and maintain this sense of compassion for all?

Listen to this story entitled, “The Old Man and the Gulls”, written by Paul Aurandt (in ‘Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story’, quoted in ‘Heaven Bound Living’ Standard Publishing, 1989, p.79-80):

It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket.

Many years ago, in 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour which would hurl Captain Eddie into the most harrowing adventure of his life.

Somewhere over the South Pacific their plane became lost beyond the reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched the plane in the ocean…For nearly a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine by five. The biggest shark…ten feet long.

But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. Eight days out, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred. In Captain Eddie’s own words, “Cherry,” that was the B- 17 pilot, Captain William Cherry, “read the service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare, I dozed off.”

Now this is still Captain Rickenbacker talking…”Something landed on my head. I knew that it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expression on their faces. They were staring at that gull. The gull meant food…if I could catch it.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Captain Eddie caught the gull. Its flesh was eaten. Its intestines were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically hundreds of miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice. You know that Captain Eddie made it.

And now you also know…that he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset…on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast…you could see an old man walking…white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls…to thank and remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without a struggle…like manna in the wilderness.

This story is about ‘not giving up’ — on several levels. Not giving up on life — even in the midst of desperate circumstances. Not giving up on God — for before the sea gull was caught, the surviving men praised God, said their prayers and sung a hymn. Not giving up on hope, even when all seemed hopeless.

And, finally, not giving up on giving thanks. The persistence that trumps a ‘giving up on’ kind of attitude is giving thanks over the long term. Not-giving-up is born from an attitude of gratitude. Thanksgiving is grown in the heart, over the long haul. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker didn’t start living gratitude after his miraculous survival story; it was already being cultivated before it. It is about learning to see whatever good there is, even in the direst of situations — and giving thanks for any glimmer of grace therein.

I like the way Mary Jo Leddy in her book, “Radical Gratitude”, wrote about the gratitude expressed by the birds at the start of a new day; she writes:

“There is a moment each day when it is morning before it is morning. Darkness still hovers over the deep. Those who wait for the dawn can hear it even before they see it. At first there are only the slight sounds of attunement as a chorus of birds assembles: twits and trills, chirps and peeps, and even the occasional squawk. Slowly they gather into one great concerted song of supplication: Let it begin! Let us begin! May it begin again! They are of one accord. They do not take the dawn for granted. When it bursts upon them, once again, as on the first day of creation, they give thanks once again for this once only day, to begin. The birds know, as we sometimes do, that the light does not dawn because of our singing. We sing because the dawn appears as grace.”

Is there someone you’ve given up on? Is there a dream, a hope, for your life you are on the verge of ditching. Make a list. And then, sometimes this Thanksgiving weekend, go down that list slowly and give God thanks for each of the people you’ve named there. Give thanks for each of those dreams and hopes you have listed there.

And then pray that their hearts, as yours, will be opened to receive the grace, love and light of God. And God will give you your heart’s desire (Psalms 20:4 & 37:4).