Driving into the sunrise: an ISS with a view

Following Canadian Astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield’s twitter feed (@Cmdr_Hadfield), I along with over a quarter million other people are fed with a steady diet of inspiring photography from space.

And these photos, nothing short of amazing, are shots of cities and notable geography on our planet. Maybe it’s the perspective, and the real time nature of the photography.

These weren’t photos taken by a satellite a year ago or more you can find on Google Earth. Chris Hadfield takes these photos, and then moments later posts them on the internet: So, I’ve seen the bush fires in Australia as well as the flooding there as it recently happened.

His perspective from 400 kilometres up flying at 8 km/ second challenges my opinion on the way things are on the ground. For example, I may feel completely inundated and overwhelmed by the depth of winter in which we find ourselves now, in the southern parts of Canada. From my perspective six feet off the ground, the snow banks are high; flurries stream in daily from the heavens; the white stuff piles up and covers so much of my world.

And yet, I get a different feel when I view Chris Hadfield’s photos from space. When he’s posted live photos of Ottawa, Montreal, even Edmonton in January of 2013 — you can tell it’s winter from up there, to be sure.

But the photo isn’t completely white, as I would imagine with all this snow. Depending on the Canadian city, white may not even be the half of it. There are dark patches all over the place — sections of lakes and rivers not frozen, glades of forests, exposed rocks — that have thrown off the blanket of snow.

I watched the interview between Commander Hadfield and CBC’s Peter Mansbridge on TV last week. And I discovered Chris Hadfield to be quite philosophical and eloquent about his incredible experience. A veritable Renaissance Man, he is.

I must confess I have caught the bug of inspiration that he is sharing openly with the whole world. He says that his experience has taught him to think more globally and wonder about his place on the planet in relation to other places. When people respond to his twitter feed about the photos he posts, Hadfield is inspired by comments that suggest these places mean something more for people, places that were up until now for many just words on a page, found in an atlas. Therefore, what motivates him in his work is that because of what he does people’s vision of the world is slightly expanded.

Mansbridge asked whether what Hadfield is experiencing, given his awe-inspiring perspective of earth, can be described religious or spiritual. In response, Hadfield spoke of the night in which they were flying eastward over Canada in the dark, north of the Great Lakes towards the Maritimes. He was just able to see the lights of Quebec City and then over the Gaspe, and finally screaming at high speeds towards Newfoundland and Labrador. And just as St Johns came into view, the sun burst over the horizon.

Not just the sudden brightness, explosion of colours or heat of the sun, but the profound beauty of it, he said, brings tears to his eyes. He went on to say that “driving into the sunrise” — which happens 16 times a day for him — is a powerful experience because it is “a magnificent way to understand our planet, and to see our country as one place.”

Valentine’s Day is just over a week from now. And the red hearts, balloons and chocolates in the stores remind us of that great theme in life — love. Saint Paul’s famous speech about the greatest gift (1 Corinthians 13) echoes in our minds as we yearn for the warm fuzzies and relational peace amongst ourselves.

This kind of perspective seems almost out of reach on account of the enduring divisions, both within ourselves, and in the world. We may even have considered “love” as something reserved only for our dreams and fantasies, something expressed only in the fictional world of princesses and princes and childhood aspirations.

When Mansbridge asked Hadfield about the response he got from people after posting photos of Syria where there is much trouble and conflict, he responded: “Trouble and conflict is a basic component of the human experience, unfortunately.” He admitted that it’s not going to get solved by space travel.

But he went on to say that he thinks that if people in conflict could see the world from his visual perspective — “to be able to cross Africa in the time it takes to finish this sentence, to be able to see the whole world repeatedly over and over as one succinct, distinct place where we all live — that view would do a lot of people a lot of good.”

He also said that the ISS is visible from the earth. “If you get up early in the morning, or just before you go to bed, and we happen to be flying overhead, we are still in the light while it’s getting dark on the surface of the earth. There’s a visible example of something going on that is truly international, that is cooperative, that is leading edge that is right there overhead — the brightest star in the sky going around and around the world reminding people of what we can do when we do things right and when we do things together. And hopefully that combination will help to influence at least some people: the combination of understanding how we truly all exist together on a planet and the understanding of what we can do when we work together.”

You know what happens after Jesus announces to the people what his purpose in life is, after reading the holy scripture to the people in the Nazarene synagogue (Luke 4: 21-30). You know the response. It is violent. They want to throw their home boy off a cliff!

We may forget that when the church in Corinth first heard Paul’s words about love, those words didn’t spark the warm fuzzies in them. Paul was addressing a church in conflict, with people’s selfish, compulsive egos getting the better of them. Everything Paul says love is not, they are. Everything that Paul says love is, they are not. They reacted. They must have been angry at Paul for his challenge, his offense, his prophetic, cutting-edge preaching.

In short, both the Gospel story and this famous, idyllic passage about love from Paul tells us that Christianity even with its emphasis on love and grace doesn’t mean it’s all nice and easy and comforting.

Love is not just a feeling. It is action. It is risk-taking. It is going beyond our comfort zones in the same sense that Chris Hadfield risks all to propel his body to the edge of space in a tin can. Love ain’t easy. But the benefit, the outcome, is wonderful, inspiring.

Love exercised with determination, and motivated out of a sense of the greater, common good, for the sake of others; Love demonstrated in acts of courage and principled clarity — this is who we are. This is the Gospel character.

How does Jesus escape almost certain death by the mob who wants to kill him? Right at the end of the Gospel passage, we read that he merely “passes right through them”. Biblical scholars suggest this rather cryptic climax to the story points to the resurrection of Jesus.

As Hadfiled admitted, space travel will not solve the human experience of being in conflict and trouble. But the visual reminders will inspire Canadians, indeed all earthlings, to something better, something cutting edge, something more, something possible that we can do together. Just as small acts of true, meaningful, self-giving acts of love between individuals, families, communities, countries, will not solve all human conflict for all time. But they will stand as constant reminders of what God has called us, ultimately into: new life, resurrection, new beginnings.

We are, after all, all driving into the sunrise.

Holy Place: A Lenten Exercise

A hymn we often sing during Lent and Holy Week, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, leads us into an appreciation of physical space.

The title of the hymn suggests that we view Jesus from a certain standpoint, a particular perspective — at the foot of the Cross. It is from this spot on the earth that we look up to Jesus and see what he is doing for us. From this inner stance, we express our faith in the Holy One who died on that Cross to fulfill his Call of Love for us and for the whole world.

The Gospel message of Jesus finds its grounding, its rooting, in the Cross. Of course, we know the end of the story. But even the message of new life, of resurrection, fresh starts, new beginnings emerges from that original place – beneath the Cross of Jesus.

An awareness of where we are, brings us into the holy. The Lenten season is about recognizing a holy place where God meets us and we meet God.

In developing a theme of “A Holy Place”, I invite you to reflect on one space and place in your life you have considered “holy”. Describe it: What surrounded you? Was there anyone with you? What were you doing – being still, physically, or active? What did you sense in this place – smells, sounds, tastes, visions? What happened in the time you were in this place? How did you feel?

And then, consider what about this “holy place” reflects the character of God? Is it quiet or noisy? Funny or serious? Solemn or filled with laughter? Is it in some way gentle and sweet, powerful and overwhelming, or busy and active? Did the holy place come to you quite unexpectedly, like a surprise, or by accident? Or was it the result of an intentional discipline and preparation on your part? What is it about God that this holy place teaches you?

Finally, consider a biblical text, scriptural quote or story from the bible that enhances, converges with and affirms your experience of God in this holy place. Conclude with a short prayer.

Thank God, during Lent, for that holy place.

Once you’ve thought about it, would you, sometimes during the Lenten season, tell someone about your holy place?

Mixed up Christians?

A popular term I’ve heard recently in business circles, as well as in various political attempts to solve conflicts dealing with teacher contracts and Aboriginal-First Nations disputes is: “results-based management.”

A simple Google search will reveal what results-based management principles and strategies are all about. As I understand it, it is a performance driven approach to leadership, bottom-line economics, and mediation. It seems to me, such an approach pre-judges the outcome of an encounter between people who differ in some respect. Its success relies heavily on the exercise of power and who has more of it.

I wonder, though, how results-based management styles square with principles drawn from the more organic approach described in Paul’s illustration of a community of faith being like a human body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). I doubt the interaction of body parts will display health and vigor if one part lords it over another. I wonder if results-based management allows for the possibility of an outcome that neither party pre-meditated and pre-determined prior to their interaction.

The focus of prayer during this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is India. And at last year’s Luther Hostel in Waterloo I learned about some very critical aspects of India’s geography. One of those geographic wonders is the Sundarbans delta in India and Bangladesh.

The Sundarbans delta comprises of a giant estuary. Estuaries are borderlands that are continuously interlaced by the rivers on one side and lashed by the ocean on the other. The Sundarbans is the largest river delta in the world and is bordered by the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world. It is marked by the coming together of the River Ganges and the Indian Ocean.

This estuary receives two environments that do not blend together easily. Variations in temperature, salinity, and murkiness create downright havoc in the delta. Instability is characteristic of this delta.

But this variability also proves its greatest strength.

The Sundarbans serve as the home for a large variety of animals, among them some endangered species. It’s home to the largest population of Royal Bengal tigers in India and also some of the world’s largest crocodiles, which can get to be over twenty feet long and big enough to hold two grown men. Within the forest bordering the estuary live some fifty species of mammals, about 320 species of inland and migratory birds, about fifty species of reptiles, eight species of amphibians, and about 400 species of fish. They are the breeding grounds for several species of fish and serve as nurseries.

The productivity of an estuary is estimated to be eight times that of agricultural land because of the rich organic material that the river brings in due to the give-and-take in the mixing of river and ocean.

It is no wonder that the word “Sundarbans” means “beautiful jungle” in Bengalese; the paradox of it all: How can a jungle be beautiful? And yet, it is.

Estuaries, in general, are “the schools where lessons of life are taught, where one’s eyes are opened to the reality of the world. They are margins where there is an unveiling, where revelation takes place.” (Mary Joy Philip)

This is a natural example of the mixing of two very different components resulting in a hybrid environment — a new reality. And this new reality can produce so much good for the world.

The positive consequence of mixing two distinct entities is not dilution or dissolving of those entities. For some species that cannot adapt to that changing environment it means total extinction. But for those that can adapt, the result is a transformation which is vital, giving rise to an entirely new, vigorous reality for both.

I think it is possible for distinct beings — whether those beings are groups in society at odds with one another, members of a family, business team, religious or political community in conflict, or a society struggling with its open diversity — to engage one another productively.

But in this coming together, no one can pre-meditate, and manage towards a result that either party wants. The effect and consequence of coming together in mutual respect and as equal creatures, we cannot forsee. But we are in this thing together. And it is only together, not apart, where the solution lies.

Mix it up together, we must.

Proclamation and action

Be the change you want to see. I’ve heard this advice often over the past year. I know I’ve mused about this before. But watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama at the beginning of his second term leads me again to express this desperate need for leaders — for me — to be today: words are not enough.

The president’s effective leadership will be debated for centuries to come, to be sure. But one thing stands out: He will be known for his oration. He can speak. President Obama is a model for any preacher or public speaker. His ability to use words and articulate vision, and bring it from the heart is amazing. His speech writers need to be credited as well!

At the same time, he probably knows that the rubber will hit the road when executive action follows from his words. Proclamation finds its validity in the being and doing of leadership. And then the sparks will fly.

So, who one is and what one does, as a leader, will impress upon the public as much as gifted oration will ever.

Be the change you want to see. Don’t do as I say, do as I do.

I couldn’t help make the connection with the Gospel text (Luke 4:16-22) appointed for the coming Sunday — when Jesus stands up in the synagogue to read from the scroll, the scripture appointed for him to read, from the prophet Isaiah (61). Jesus announces his purpose, his divine mission in the world. Notice the verbs:

“… to proclaim …” appears twice in that short quote from Isaiah. Jesus is called by the Spirit to proclaim release to the captives and the year of the Lord’s favour. Proclamation is part and parcel of, even foundational to, the Chrisitan ministry.

I was raised by two pastors from the Lutheran tradition who taught me that the pastor’s fundamental role was to engage in “proclamation”, in the art of preaching. Homiletics professors in seminary reinforced that mission of the ordained clergy. I’ve always found comfort in that. But why?

Not that comfort is altogether a bad thing. But when the comfort means that I conveniently avoid the other part of the equation, or shy away from it, am I being faithful to that Christian ministry?

Today I notice in younger generations who do not find their heart in the church, they see Christians who talk the talk but don’t walk the talk. I don’t believe they want someone talking to them about what it means to be Christian; they want someone to show them what it means to be Christian. They would, I imagine, be more impressed by Christians and their leaders who behave and act consistently with the proclamation.

For those concerned about effective evangelism, I suspect a church that is led by example more than anything will impress those not normally associated with the church. More so than words, acting in the mission of Jesus towards the poor, the captives, with forgiveness and grace will attract and draw others into that Christian mission and identity.

Not only is Jesus called into a mission of proclamation, the other verbs in that text from Isaiah which he quotes in the Nazarene synagogue at the beginning of his ministry are telling: “…to bring good news…” and “…to let…” These are action words.

What does it mean to bring good news to the poor, and to let the oppressed go free? These compelling verbs bring to life many possibilities in fulfilling, in deed, the proclamation of Jesus Christ in his day, and in our lives together today.

The integrity of Christian Unity

Nearly two hundred Roman Catholics, Anglicans and United Church members packed the church in east-end Ottawa. It was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And these people gathered on a frigid Sunday afternoon in January to celebrate Christian unity.

My heart was warmed, since normally what the world sees and focuses upon is the doctrinal infighting and squabbling among Christians from different denominations. But today those differences were placed in the perspective of the underlying basis of our unity of purpose and mission in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen!

Since I was leading part of the prayers and my name and position printed in the order of service I was regarded the token Lutheran in the crowd. Following the service most of the assembly gathered in the parish hall for a festive reception. The energy level was high. People were happy to be together. Small talk and jovial conversation prevailed.

And then, wham!

Who I presumed was a member of the French-Roman-Catholic church approached me with a smile yet determined gate. With coffee in his steady hand, he said in French he wanted to ask me an important question that would demand my full attention. He instructed me to give him three honest and concise reasons why I was NOT Roman Catholic.

My eyes momentarily darted to the heavens for inspiration. Uhhhhh. Okay. Here it goes. From the heart. Concise. I spoke, in English:

1. I was raised in a Lutheran family — born, baptized, confirmed. My upbringing and much of my socialization during my formative years was within the Lutheran church context. That has to be the first, honest answer to his question;

Then I went on the offensive …. 🙂

2. I like the core Lutheran theological orientation originally posited by Martin Luther in the 16th century that we are saved by grace through faith. We are justified by grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone. And not by anything we must do to gain favor with God and with one another. This general approach towards all things church is my theological home, my lens through which I interpret, and my joy in believing and behaving. There isn’t, quite honestly and respectfully, another denomination whose theological emphasis rings quite as true to me as this core Lutheran position. Although I recognize places in other denominations where grace is believed and practiced as such, I choose the Lutheran theological message.

… And then I pushed further ….

3. Lutherans, I said, have taken the middle road in liturgical expression, worship style, even theological nuancing — usually somewhere in between the evangelical conservative, charismatic forms on the one side, and the more contemplative, formal Roman Catholics on the other. The rigidity around those divisions, born in the Reformation era, are dissipating over time, thankfully. And yet, I continue encountering faithful Lutherans — even young ones — who identify neither with extreme, cut-and-dry positions denouncing all ritual and mystery, but who will also not forfeit a reliance on scripture and reason altogether — for example, in celebrating the Sacraments. In other words, Lutherans have normally sought a balanced approach. This, I find, is healthy and good. Very Canadian, I might add.

When I finished, silence ensued in the space between us. Then, came the broad smile. He offered his hand and with a firm shake (which felt a lot like a German hand-shake!) he said: “Very well answered. Thank you. Can we talk more about this later?”

I bit my tongue to ask him why he was not Lutheran. Although I realize that in the give-and-take of inter-denominational dialogue the timing of these questions are critical to keeping the door open to continue the conversation. I look forward to that.

Often I hear from church folk that what they fear from Christian unity is a watering down of our own identity. What some people fear in engaging other Christians and spending more time with them is dissolution of what is important to us. What some fear is a loss of integrity.

I believe it’s the opposite. We don’t lose our integrity. We find it.

In encountering other Christians who are different from us we have the opportunity to distinguish — for ourselves, maybe more importantly — what defines us.

Have we forgotten? Have we become so used to, familiar and comfortable with what we do that we’ve beocme stuck in a rut and take it for granted? Have we forgotten what to say when someone asks us, precisely, about our faith?

The church finds itself at a crossroads today. And one of the ways the church will find its way is not to shy away from opportunities to be with other Christians who are different from us. Unfortunately one reaction to the uncertainty in the world today is to barracade ourselves within a fortress mentality — not seeing beyond the comfort of our church walls and practices. This is a tragic trajectory. Let us not follow the path to cocoon in comfort.

But in celebrating our unity, yes it is a challenge. We are drawn out of ourselves for a moment. And this may make us squirm for a while. But should we stay with it, we will find ourselves within that larger Christian family. And find opporunity to share with others from where we’ve come and what’s important to us. In the end we discover and experience our unity — inner and outer — in our diversity.

Be your colour, show your colour, together

This ‘childrens chat’ can be used in worship during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Invite children to sit on the floor near the altar with you, the leader. Ask each child reach into a shoe box held above their heads to retrieve one coloured pencil. Include a variety of pencils in the box of various sizes, shapes and colours. Provide one large, blank sheet of paper on the floor in the middle of the group of children. Once each child has chosen a pencil ….

Each of you has chosen a pencil crayon from my box. Are you happy with the colour you got?

Why, or why not?

Okay, but can you still draw something with it?

I think so, since I made sure all the markers, crayons and pencils were sharpened and in good working condition before worship today.

Alright, what I would like you to do is think of something you can draw together as a group, given whatever colours you have. How can you do this?

Well, first you might want to ask your neighbour what colour they have. Then, when you know all the colours in play, you can make up a picture that can include all the colours. The picture can be whatever you want it to be, so long as you get each and every colour you have in your group on the paper as part of that picture.

Any ideas? …

As you are colouring your picture together, I want to remind you that God gave each of us a colour in our lives. This colour is like something very special that each of you has — a talent, a treasure, an ability, something you can like about yourself. This is a very special gift that God gave you and no one else. Do you know what your colour is? — your talent, treasure, ability?
If not, that’s okay. Sometimes it can take a long time before you find that out.

This gift is not something we chose to have, just like you couldn’t choose your favourite colour or pencil from the box. All we have to do is reach into our lives, like you reached into the box, to discover what that colour is. When we’ve done that, God wants us to use it!

Part of being the church together is to know your special talent or gift. But also to discover what other peoples’ talents are. And when you know what everyone has, just imagine the neat things you can do as a group.

That’s what being the church is all about. Jesus wants us to work together, using our talents, to paint a beautiful picture — like you are doing now — using all the gifts of everyone in the church. Not just one person’s talent. But everyone’s, together!

Then we can show the bright and beautiful colours of God’s love to the whole world.

Good job!

Let’s pray: Thank you God for creating me. Thank you for giving me a special gift. Help me to know that gift, and learn the gifts of others. Then, bless us with your love, so together with other people, we can use our gifts to show your love to the world. Amen.

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7)

This stuff of earth matters

Popular Canadian author, Louise Penny, in her most recent book, “The Beautiful Mystery”, writes about monks living in a monastery hidden deep in the wilderness of northern Quebec. Their holy order is characterized by a vow of silence. But not when it comes to singing:

Unique to this group of two-dozen cloistered monks is Gregorian chant. Apart from constant silence, they chant their daily, round-the-clock prayers.

A rift develops in this monastic order called “Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Loups” (St Gilbert among the wolves). The conflict between those supporting the Abbot (the leader) and those supporting the Prior (choir director) deepens until one morning the Prior is found murdered in the Abbot’s secret garden. Now, this religious order ‘among the wolves’ suggests that one of monks themselves is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Some years ago, their murdered Prior had led the group in recording a CD of their most enchanted singing. The recording sold millions, and had provided enough funds to restore part of the monastery building. But apparently more had to be done.

When famed chief inspector Armand Gamache and his sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir visit the monastery to solve the murder mystery, they hear from one of the monks the crisis facing this ancient monastery built hundreds of years ago: the foundation is cracking, to the extent that if nothing is done soon the beautiful stone building will collapse.

They also learn that the Prior had recently tried to convince the Abbot to agree to making another recording of their popular, sought-after, Gregorian chant. Doing so could raise enough funds to meet the needs of their aging building. But that would also mean suspending their vow of silence and commitment to remain detached from the world.

The Abbot refused the Prior’s plan. He believed that God wanted them to remain true to their holy calling to observe the vow of silence. By growing their own food and doing their own repairs they would thus fulfill their mission and identity as self-sufficient Gilbertines. All they had to do, according to the Abbot, was to pray that God would provide their every need, and continue as had monks throughout their history to do what they had to do without outside contact or help.

Those monks in support of the now dead Prior argue that God indeed had provided them an answer to their prayers. Using their gift of chanting, God was giving them a way through their predicament. God was giving them the financial help, through the sale of a CD recording, to do just that: solve their need.

I haven’t finished reading this story, so I can’t tell you who dun-it! But what strikes me is that their conflict is very similar to an age-old Christian tension between flesh and spirit.

The story of Jesus turning water into wine in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11) during a week-long wedding celebration suggests not either/or but both/and. Both the spiritual realm and the earthly are important. The church, nevertheless, has placed greater emphasis on ‘spiritual’ matters, often downplaying the stuff of earth.

Yet, if I remember anything from my biblical study in seminary — now, many years ago — it is this: The theology of the Gospel of John, where we find this miracle story, is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). And this theology is very much an ‘earthy’ one; that is, concepts like ‘salvation’ and ‘eternity’ are grounded in real life.

Salvation for the Jewish people was in fact experienced in the exodus from Egypt (i.e. being liberated from slavery) and in the return from exile (i.e. coming home to rebuild Jerusalem after years of captivity in far away Babylon). While throughout the Bible these places like Zion and Babylon, for example, take on symbolic weight in the poetry — especially in the Psalms and Revelation — any ‘spiritualizing’ of these places and events cannot be removed from their actual existence in world geography and history. Salvation is grounded in life on earth. It is the starting point.

Salvation, then, is not just after we die. Salvation is not merely a discussion about heaven. Salvation has just as much to do with our earthly condition and circumstance. And the Gospel message of Jesus — the good news of our faith — addresses just as much and as importantly what is going on between people and their reality on earth, as we pray every week: “Thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.”

The expression of our faith, then, is reflected in what we do with what we have. These things matter: bricks and mortar, soup and sandwiches, money and politics. These are not outside the scope of our concern. Nor God’s.

Martin Luther, when he wrote hymns such as ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ and ‘From Heaven Above’, he used popular bar tunes to develop the music in these, what we now consider, “sacred” hymns.

From a sacramental perspective, he emphasized that Christians ought to celebrate the Holy Communion as often as they assemble. Why? His passion about the Holy Communion — the bread and the wine — mediating the grace of God was unparalleled among the 16th century reformers.

Of course, God is not bound by any particular way of dispensing grace and forgiveness. But Christians have throughout the ages understood the special, intimate, albeit mysterious way in which the presence and love of the living Jesus is mediated through the sharing of a meal. How more common a human activity than eating!

The ordinary world matters. Material reality is spiritual. It is the starting point for people longing for an authentic experience of the divine.

And yet, to be sure, while the ground on which we stand and the flesh and bones of life are the initial places of engagement with God, that encounter then draws us beyond what is measurable, quantifiable and bound by our reality. We don’t remain stuck in tasting, feeling, touching, seeing. The Christian Gospel points us beyond ourselves to God’s reality which is not bound by human limitation.

While our earthly reality is valuable as a meeting point, a starting point, we begin a journey that continues eventually beyond this life. The wedding at Cana was Jesus’ first miracle. The time had come for Jesus to begin his journey to Jerusalem, death on a Cross, and the empty tomb of Easter. Our vision is not turned inward, ultimately. It is directed onward, outward and upward.

And yet, on this earthly journey, we return to that starting point, over and over again. Back to the table, to be renewed and fed. That is where Jesus waits for us. And spurs us on.

So do not lose heart. Jesus cares. And gives more than we could ask, saving the best wine for last. God cares about every part of our lives, even those Monday through Saturday realities that we might normally exclude from considering “holy”. And God is poised to engage and intersect our lives precisely in those moments of greatest material need as well as joyous celebration.

If anything, reading this familiar miracle story of Jesus gives me comfort and assurance that Jesus will exercise care and compassion to me not just when I’m engaging those more serious acts of piety in worship and formal prayer. But Jesus will provide grace, resources and ‘signs’ especially in the ordinary, commonplace aspects of living life on earth and in community.

And what is more, when those ordinary, material, needs of life are dedicated in service of God and for the love of the world — then I can be confident in faith. I am confident that Jesus will demonstrate the glory of God. God will provide around those very mundane, secular and at-first-glance unholy, irreverent and even jovial circumstances of life.

Open the eyes of our heart, Lord, to see your glory in laughter, in joy and in ordinary living with others. May this awareness lead us to offer your joy and love in providing real, material support in your mission to those in need. Amen.

Paying faith forward

David Wilkerson is known most for writing the story, The Cross and the Switchblade. At a meeting I attended recently, a church leader read for our opening devotions the true story about David Wilkerson when he was involved in an outreach ministry in New York in the 1960s:

When a mortgage payment came due on a youth center in Brooklyn, David needed fifteen thousand dollars. The ministry’s bank account only held fourteen. Fourteen dollars, that is.

The “impossible” mortgage payment was due August 28. As the date drew near, Wilkerson expected God to do something huge and wonderful to save the center. But nothing happened.

The deadline arrived, and they still lacked the money. The bankers were ready to foreclose on the Teen Challenge operation. Wilkerson worried that he had run out of miracles.

But he pushed on, nevertheless. He asked his lawyer to seek an extension from the bank. Which was granted; the new date was September 10th. But that date was final. The lawyer asked David about his plan to raise the money. “I’m going to pray about it,” Wilkerson responded.

Then he decided to call together the staff and all the young people in the center – former drug addicts and gang members – and he told them that the center … had been saved.

Cheering rocked the place. “Let’s go to the chapel and thank God!” he urged. They did, praising the Lord for the money. Someone finally asked him where the money had come from.

Wilkerson shook his head. “Oh, it hasn’t come in yet, but by September 10th it will come. I just thought we ought to thank God ahead of time.” (William Petersen, 100 Amazing Answers to Prayer, Baker Publishing 2009, p.181-184).

To make a long story short – the ministry center did receive enough money to cover the mortgage payment by the due date, in dramatic fashion nonetheless.

But what strikes me in this story was not so much that the exact amount needed was actually delivered at the 11th hour, so to speak, as an answer to prayer. Because rarely does effective prayer result in exactly what we wish for. In prayer, we do not manipulate God.

Rather, what stands out for me in that story was that the celebration and commitment to praise God came before the money was fully realized. In other words they didn’t wait until after they raised all the money to praise and thank God: they offered their thanksgiving, truly, in faith, as an act of unconditional love for God. Their relationship with God was not contingent on things going the way they wanted – on answered prayer, as such. Their positive act of giving thanks to God was expressed like “paying it forward”; that is, paying faith forward.

Such examples of believing in the power of prayer can seem otherworldly and irrational to us. And understandably so.

In the world we normally have to earn our way to glory; we have to prove ourselves before the reward comes. And only if others prove themselves worthy in some way will we return the favor. It was only after my neighbor shoveled my half of the driveway early in the winter season before I was moved to do the same for him since. Tit for tat – even in being gracious.

This kind of ‘conditional culture’ – which operates at so many levels of our relational, economic, political, social and even religious lives – is really based on a negative, self regard. Our media’s emphasis on ‘perfection’ – you know, perfect bodies, beautiful-looking people, the most expensive cars, gadgets, and properties splashed continually on our TV screens and magazine covers – results in a lot of personal let down, if not downright self-rejection and hatred: “I’m not good enough”; “I’m ugly”; “I’m an awful person”; “I’m not worth it”; “I don’t matter to anyone.”

Have you ever listened to your own self-talk? When you are by yourself, what do you say (maybe even out loud) under your breath when something doesn’t work, or you’re stumped, or something breaks? Might be a helpful exercise. Because it would reveal a lot about how you relate to yourself. And how you relate to yourself will translate and project into your relationships with others, and God.

Even though in Luke’s Gospel, his version of Jesus’ baptism is very short (compared to Matthew, Mark, and Johns’ versions of the same story) – only 2 verses – Luke does not hold back the words God the Father has for Jesus: “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased” – echoing the words from Isaiah: “You are precious in my sight, and I love you!” Of all the details Luke could have mentioned (in comparison to the other Gospel accounts) about this story, he definitely sounds loudly this theme of God “paying it forward” to Jesus.

Maybe, from the world’s perspective, God should have waited until after Jesus defeated the devil by dying on the cross and rising from the dead … before praising him.

Maybe, from the world’s perspective, God should have waited until Jesus actually accomplished that which he had been called, baptized and ordained to do on earth … before offering him his due accolades.

Maybe, from the world’s perspective, God ought to have waited until Jesus returned to sit at the right hand of God in heavenly glory … before offering him his just deserts. After all, to receive grace and compassion and love and adoration one must first be deserving of it, right?

Not God; God doesn’t wait for anything. God speaks those gracious, affirming, empowering, unconditionally-loving words long before Jesus takes his first step towards Jerusalem and the Cross.

And that’s how God and Jesus are with us. Call it, if you will, shooting first and asking questions later; and God ‘shoots’ with grace not with bullets!

Let me quote John Leith, a Presbyterian professor and theologian, who said that every human life is rooted in the will and intention of God. I quote him: “In baptism the child’s name is called because our faith is that God thought of this child before the child was, that God gave to this child an identity, an individuality, a name, and a dignity that no one should dare abuse. Human existence has its origin not in the accidents of history and biology, but in the will and the intention of the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth” (“An Awareness of Destiny” in Pilgrimage of a Presbyterian, Louisville KY, Geneva Press, 2001, p.126-127)

The truth is, we need to hear this affirmation from one another. We need to hear it from God. And we need to speak it to ourselves. Long before we prove anything. Long before we have all the money. Long before we earn it. These are life-giving words that each person on earth should hear, unconditionally: “You are my child, whom I love and with you I am well pleased!”

When Jesus hears those words, his life changes forever. He is empowered by those words to go forth and do what he must do and be who he is called to be, for the sake of the world.

Those words will do the same for us, for our children, our neighbors, our spouses, our church members, and even, as Jesus promised, our enemies. You DO matter. You ARE worth it. You ARE beloved and beautiful. You ARE precious, and God loves you. And I pray you know that kind of unconditional love from others in your life as well.

Because the unconditional affirmation and love of God and of one another is the source of our true identity and purpose in life. And these affirmations are the most enduring joys of the abundant life Jesus wants for each one of us.

Church and Money – setting a postive tone

Many church leaders will be facing their annual congregational meetings in the next month. And a lot of the conversation will likely revolve around money.

I hope I can help set a positive tone for these discussions to encourage my parishioners — and indeed Canadians from all Christian denominations — to be generous, as their expression of love for God, for Christ’s Church on earth, and for the world in so desperate a need these days.

Recently a Huffington Post article presented some interesting statistics. These facts may provide a helpful background for pastors, priests and church leaders as they prepare their hearts and minds for these annual meetings.

– Of the provinces and territories in Canada, Manitobans are for the 14th year in a row the most generous of all Canadians in charitable giving

– Even so, Manitoba ranked 39th out of 63 jurisdictions including all the states in the USA, provinces and territories in Canada

– Utah, which ranked 1st in generosity, made charitable donations totaling about three and a half times more than what Manitobans gave

– The extent of charitable giving by the provinces hasn’t improved as donations have plummeted since 2010, especially in Ontario

– Charles Lammam, Associate Director of the Fraser Institute said, “Had Canadians donated to registered charities at the same rate as Americans, Canada’s charities would have received an additional $9.2 billion in private support in 2010”

Given these facts, I am encouraged to reflect on something stewardship resources and voices have affirmed over time: God has already given us enough of what we need to do whatever we feel called to do, in Jesus’ name, with the Church, for the sake of God’s mission in the world today.

Who needs a deadline?

Whether it was averting a fiscal cliff south of the border, or imposing a contract in a labor dispute between Ontario teachers and government at the first of the New Year, or wondering if the Mayans were right about the winter solstice on December 21st, or salvaging an NHL season by first determining a drop-dead date in mid-January …

It seems that things only get done in our world if we have a deadline. Without one, could we make progress and agree on anything? I know some people, myself included, sometimes need a deadline to finish what we need to finish.

What does a deadline achieve? For one, it puts pressure on the situation to force a resolution. Without the weight of pressure and threat of complete breakdown of stability, some would argue that nothing would ever get accomplished.

On the other hand, especially when people are in conflict, some say that pressure of the deadline needs to be endured — getting over the hump, so to speak — in order for cooler heads to prevail and a more relaxed atmosphere in which to make the right decisions. Even if it means a complete breakdown of the system for a time being.

I’ve felt, over the last year has hung the shroud of the proverbial ‘deadline’. Will it come, or will it go? And what will it be like after?

Having a deadline means there must be, at the end of it, a winner and a loser. Deadlines amid conflict mean people will fight so that they will not end up the loser. Dead-line conveys precisely how the word is constructed: There’s a death, and lines are drawn.

Lines that communicate exclusion; that is, not everyone belongs in the winner’s circle, not everyone gets the glory. It presumes a Machiavellian world view where one person’s gain is another person’s loss.

And I wonder how many people are really satisfied at the end of such a process. Even the so-called winners. A pretty negative world-view, I would say.

There’s very little about this culture of the deadline that squares with the Christmas and Epiphany stories from the Bible.

After all, those magi weren’t on a deadline, where they? Think about it — they wandered far from home across a desert following a star. What would have happened if they said, “Let’s just give this until January 11th, or December 21, or December 31 at midnight — and if that star hasn’t stopped by then, let’s go home!”?

What motivated those travelers from the East?

Hope. Expectation. Anticipation. An openness without deadline, destination or schedule in mind. Why?

Because they knew that at the end of it there was going to be nothing but a victory for them. In meeting the Messiah, there was no way in heaven or on earth they or anyone else would lose.

Epiphany means that, even as a child, Jesus is for all people, not just the chosen few. Jesus is for the outsiders. Jesus comes to earth in order to draw people together — magi from the East, Syrians from the north, Egyptians from the south, Romans from the West. All compass points are covered by God’s loving welcome.

Throughout the Old Testament God uses foreigners, outsiders, and women — who are often the least expected and sometimes most unsavory characters to fulfill God’s will: Cyrus of Persia to free the Babylonian captives (Isaiah 45); Queen Esther, a woman, to save God’s people; Naaman the Syrian, favored by God, and his servant girl (2 Kings 5) — are just a few outstanding examples.

Jesus Christ is the very love of God incarnate. And that divine, creative love of God cannot be confined to ethnic or national identity. That love cannot be restricted to only one gender, or any group divided by ‘lines’ of a dispute. That love cannot be claimed only by the powerful, privileged or wealthy.

What the Epiphany stories illustrate is the expansive scope of God’s love. All people are invited and all are included to worship God, to kneel before Christ and to dine at the heavenly banquet.

God doesn’t need a deadline. The Psalmist today expresses this truth: “In his time, may the righteous flourish” (72:7). God’s time expands beyond our limited notions of time. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8).

All that is to say, is that God will take all the time necessary to reach all of humanity. So that by the consummation of time, his love will embrace and imbue all of creation. That is the positive vision for the church: The light of Christ that has come into the world will shine for all to see and reflect.

Thanks be to God!