Of marking a birthday

I see not a step before me as I tread on another year.

But I’ve left the past in God’s keeping —

the future in His mercy shall clear;

and what looks dark in the distance may brighten as I draw near.

This poem by American writer of religious poetry, Mary Gardiner Brainard, occupies my reflection these days as I celebrate important birthdays both with families and parishioners. What I appreciate in these words is the acknowledgment of uncertainty about a ‘dark’ future. Even people of faith (can you believe it!) feel the anxiety of impending suffering and death. Especially as we age, in the latter years.

And yet, there is the hope of light beyond the dark. In southern Ontario we have recently experienced severe thunderstorms — even as I write these words! You know when a storm comes by looking at the sky and noticing the dark grey menace approach. It’s hard to believe in that moment of recognition that the sun is still shining somewhere above all that.

But what a relief and joy it is, after the storm passes, to glimpse the rays of light bursting through!

Marking a birthday is not just about a mindless party and excuse to indulge in our addictive behavior. But rather, birthdays are an opportunity to affirm faith in the future (despite the storms and uncertainties of life) and faith in the God who makes that glorious future possible.

And, to celebrate all these things with others.

The cost of invitation? Still, love.

A preacher I heard once illustrated the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) by giving his farming community the analogy of tilling straight rows in a field. When Jesus says, you can’t plow a field by looking backwards, the challenge is put to keep looking forward. Good advice, especially if you are interested in making your rows straight.

But, you can’t be looking just in front of your feet, the preacher went on to say. You look at a tree or fence post at the opposite end of the field you are tilling, and aim for that. The trick is, you have to keep your eyes set on that tree in the distance — without wavering — while you make your way across. This is the best way of making sure your lines are straight. A good illustration for living the Christian life, right?

But, I’ve wondered, what happens if the fog rolls in or the heat of the late day causes the horizon to shimmer? What happens when the goal in the distance is blurred by climatic circumstances you have no control over? What to do when you can’t see or experience the ‘goal’ even though you know what that goal is supposed to be?

I’m no farmer. But I remember in my first parish in southern Ontario, I was immersed in the farming culture of working the land. Most of the farmers in the region between London and Stratford worked on large swaths of land.

The farmers in the area also worked hard to introduce me, a city-boy at heart, to their pastoral lifestyle. And they were very patient and loving about it. Once I was invited to sit for hours in an air-conditioned, hi-tech cabin of a gigantic tractor as we traversed the rolling fields tilling the land.

One aspect of following Jesus that jumps out in the Gospel text (Luke 9:51-62) is the cost of being a disciple. It’s hard, because attachments to material security are jeopardized in the mission of Jesus — “Foxes have holes and birds have nests” but Jesus has no place to call home. Jesus implies that those who would risk following him must expect and count on losing something of value to them. Are they up for it?

Last week when Michael Harvey spoke to a large group of Lutherans and Anglican in Ottawa, he put it out there that he didn’t know how Canadians — who are so concerned about offending everyone and apologize for everything — would deal with the challenge to invite people to church. He said that we’re so worried that we might lose a friend, our reputation, or upset someone.

Consequently, we lock ourselves into un-healthy and un-Gospel patterns of uninviting. And he challenged us to consider not so much our IQ (a quotient signifying intelligence) but our NQ (our ability to deal with rejection when people respond, ‘no’, to our invitation).

He also reminded us that the challenge is to invite — and not worry or be concerned about whether or not people respond positively to our invitation. That’s God’s bit, he said. It’s not about us — whether people come to Christ or the church or ‘arrive’ at their spiritual awakening. Our job is simply to invite and remember we are part of God’s larger plan that we can’t fully see right now.

The disciples want to bring the fire of God down upon the Samaritans who rejected them. Recalling the prophet Elijah’s act of vengeance when he called upon fire from the heavens to usurp his enemies (1 Kings 18:36-40) and eventually destroy them, the disciples of Jesus feel justified in their request. Good on them, right?

But Jesus turns the impulse on its head. God’s thoughts are not human thoughts; God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). This Lukan Gospel reminds us again, and again: The way for Christians to deal with detractors is not revenge and violence, but a ‘letting go’ kind of love. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says (Luke 6:27-35). This is what we’re about, as followers of Jesus. In case anyone was wondering.

Moreover, the table-turning, rug-pulling response of Jesus gives us a clue to the character of God, and God’s kingdom.

Under God’s reign, even when we don’t get it right, we need not fear the fury of God. God’s response to our misdeeds and disobedience is not punishment and vengeance. God will not send down fire to incinerate us and our evil ways.

God will heal us by the ‘no strings attached’ method of love. Not forced upon us nor coerced out of us by obligation, guilt, slick marketing or manipulation, Jesus’ approach is nevertheless uncompromising. Jesus ‘sets his face to Jerusalem’ amidst the conflicts of his earthly journey.

In Jerusalem awaits the Cross — the place of his self-giving, costly love for us. We need not fear God. Only an opportunity missed for extending the message and gift of hope and the experience of unconditional love. Do we bind ourselves in our sin? Do we lock ourselves into patterns of self(ish)-preservation? Or, do we freely give of ourselves in acts of hospitality and generosity towards others?

Even though southern Alberta suffered greatly in the wake of the floods there, what has astounded so many is the generosity of people there and across Canada to help. So many invitations to find shelter in other people’s homes not affected by the flood rendered some of the temporary shelters irrelevant. In the time of crisis, people just helped where they could. The gifts of hospitality were given by invitation to those who had no place to lay their heads.

What we do in worship is a sign and symbol of what we do in the world. For example, in the Christian ritual and sacrament of Holy Communion, the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar by the people gathered. Later, the consecrated food comes back from the altar to be served to those who first brought it forward.

Whenever we are willing to give and hand over for the sake of others, is returned to us as the gift of Jesus Christ in us. I am sure that many affected by the floods in Alberta experienced the loving presence of Jesus through the invitation of others in their act of generosity.

In the early grades especially, when my kids brought their scribbles and drawings from school, they showed and offered us parents their artwork. We put their work on the fridge door for all to see. I noticed how much pride they had, brimming with satisfaction and delight.

The gift (not perfect), when given, is returned, hundredfold; when we exercise some courage and risk-taking to share the gift of Christ with others (not alone), we will be blessed to receive Christ’s loving, forgiving, gracious presence in us — and people will notice.

I don’t know what motivated my farmer friend in southern Ontario to invite me to ride with him in his tractor. It can be a lonely job, farming, all by yourself on acres and acres of fields. He was proud to tell me the tricks of his trade, tilling the earth row upon row. It was a gracious exchange, a friendly encounter and ultimately affirming for both of us. Out of that invitation and experience together, I believe, we both were encouraged on the ways of our unique and separate lives.

Whatever challenges we face or losses we endure on the field of life and on our journeys towards the goal, when we take those risks and do it together, I believe we will experience the affirmation of our journey and be blessed by the steadfast, uncompromising love of God in Christ Jesus.

When we are healed – window panes

People who have it all together — what does that look like? What do you see in someone who, apparently, is healthy and in the prime of their life? Nothing major is wrong. Everything seems perfect and proper and good. What do we expect to see?

I don’t think I’m the only one who as witnessed this social phenomenon of being completely surprised about people you’ve known, when their lives fall apart. These can be your neighbours, regular acquaintances at church or the soccer field, they can be family members. The shock comes when everything seemed normal, even perfect, on the surface; But then the floor falls beneath them, and suddenly they are mired in terrible circumstances. How could that happen to THEM? And we shake our heads in disbelief. And lick our wounds. And covet a life we don’t have.

We live in a culture that tends to place a heavy onus on ‘image’ and ‘making good impressions’ and ‘conformity’, according to a perceived criteria of good living — a house in the ‘burbs, two cars, a nice little family, great jobs, perfect health, financial security, etc.

But who are we, really? And do we recognize our authentic, true selves? Do we have the courage to be who we are, even if it bucks the norm? And how do we discover that ‘true self” without getting totally self-absorbed and self-centered?

The Garasene man filled with a host of demons didn’t know who he was. The word, ‘Legion’, in the Gospel text from Luke 8:26-39 suggests a multiplicity of forces pulling him away — distracting him — from his true self. This is evil. He is literally beside himself.

And people knew that, and chose to collude in separating him from the community, to live in the tombs. They saw in him the broken, dirty window pane. And what the city folk people wanted was the stained glass window (see post, “Window panes”).

This was the famous Decapolis region on the other side of Lake Galilee. Among the Gentiles, the culture here was attractive and industry was prospering. This region of a secular society looked very good, on the outside. People aspired to its economy and riches.

The people of the Decapolis rejected Jesus and his healing gifts. They were afraid, and sent him away. They, too, didn’t know who they truly were. Because when Jesus turned the tables on their lives and restored the man they once knew as the outsider, the crazy, the broken — they were scared to see what life can be about for them, should they let Jesus shine in them.

The stained glass window is not, in the end, about the beauty of the stained glass. The broken, dirty window is not, in the end, about the distractions that lead us to sin and woundedness. There’s something more, something essentially simple. Yet, seemingly so difficult.

The healed man, at the end, was tempted once more, to be something and someone he was not. He asked Jesus if he could go with him. But Jesus sends him back, to “return home”. To be who he was created to be, among his own people and in his own community. Restored human relationships is a first sign of healing.

Our restored relationship and intimate communion with our Creator God, is our ultimate healing and wholeness. This is the place of our true selves. Jesus calls the man to “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

Are we not called, in the end, to be that clear and simple glass pane, reflecting what God has done in our lives, and for the sake of others? When the focus is neither so much on what we think is so glorious about ourselves, nor obsessively on our brokenness and wounds, but on the work and presence of God in our lives — are we not healed?

Window panes

A retired pastor gave a group I was with last week some sage advice from a professor telling seminary graduates how to be ‘out there’ in parish land. Afterward I thought this may be helpful food-for-thought not only for public church leaders, but for anyone on the path to wholeness and health in their lives.

He said, “Be like a window. But not just any window; there are three basic windows you can be like.

“First, you can be like a stained glass window. People can first notice your beauty. What people see is the intricacy, the colour, the ‘picture’ you show — and the glass is perfectly constructed, wonderfully arranged; folks admire and gaze upon your image for hours at a time.

“Or, you can be like a cracked, dirty window pane. What people see and what you show are your wounds, your brokenness, your pain. When people see you they want either to ignore you and pretend you are not there. Or they might instinctively want to ‘fix’ you.

“Finally, you can be a clear window — transparent. You have nothing, really, to hide. You are who you are. In all your humanity you are not ashamed to reflect the truth in you that is Christ Jesus. The divine presence who created you to be who you are shines through you and illumines the world.”

What kind of ‘window’ describes you in your life now?

Thank you to Rev Orlan Lapp who is currently serving St Johns Lutheran Church, Germanicus in the Upper Ottawa Valley, Ontario, for this illuminating illustration.

Who are you gonna call?

The induction, or installation, of a new pastor is a day to celebrate not only leadership in the church, but an occasion to review the role and function of the relationship between pastor, people and God.

Recently I was elected as “Dean” of the Ottawa/St Lawrence Conference. I have spent some time reviewing and reflecting on leadership, as a result. The jokes in comparison to ‘Dean Martin’ are interesting. I may be too young to appreciate the entertainment of ‘King Cool’ — member of the infamous ‘rat pack’. But I am old enough to remember watching the original, iconic Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd film ‘Ghostbusters’.

A nerdy tween in the early 1980s, I easily got hooked on the catchy theme song whose repetitive mantra was: “Who are you gonna call? — Ghostbusters!” The team would respond to complaints and investigate paranormal activity. Then, they would eliminate any potential threats. If ghosts appeared in someone’s house, “Who are you gonna call? — Ghostbusters!”

Every individual, every family, every community, every nation, every church — has ‘ghosts’ in the closet. And I think the ghostbuster culture has influenced the culture of church leadership today. For example, when there’s a change in pastoral leadership often people expect the new guy or gal to exterminate any proverbial ghosts in the church closet. The new pastor will swoop in, identify all the problems and miraculously make things better. “Who are you gonna call? –A new pastor!”

He or she will use the tools of their trade — their exceptional skill sets at conflict resolution, their managerial and organizational abilities around the council table, their charisma and eloquence in the pulpit, their compassion and listening skills by the hospital bed. When congregations — as they all do — bear the emotional weight of past failures, unrealized dreams or struggle with scars of past conflicts or fears about the future … “Who are you gonna call? — A new pastor!”

Here comes Pastor (fill in the blank) in his flowing robes and swagger! Glorious! “Who are you gonna call? — A new pastor!” Save us!

Well, I hate to break it to you… but I think you know: YOU, and anyone else in this room, are not gonna do it. Because alongside our unrealistic expectations and pressures we place on ourselves to be successful and perfect, is the Word of God which states in no uncertain terms that it is God who will bring to completion the good work begun in us (Philippians 1:6). Alongside our fervor and toil is the Sacrament of the Table whose host is Jesus, reminding us that this thing we do in church is not about us but about God, God’s mission and God’s work in us.

The job of pastor and people working in mutual ministry is to pay attention to what God is doing, and respond honestly and with love to God’s call. We are in this together. Who are we gonna call? Let’s call on God!

Cry baby? or Cry faithful!

To cry is to admit vulnerability. And somehow — unfortunately — has the act of weeping in our competitive, dog-eat-dog world become for many a sign of a weak, inadequate disposition to life and faith? Young boys, especially, have been taught, “Don’t cry!”, right?

In pastoral ministry, we need to be careful when people are grieving and crying for a loss not to rush to excuse their behavior — which really only betrays our discomfort. We need to be careful not to hurry the grieving to accept some ‘silver lining’ of any devastating situation. When resurrection is proclaimed prematurely, harm can be done.

Preaching on the Gospel texts during these first Sundays after Pentecost, I notice a common behavior on the part of those who receive the gifts of healing and forgiveness:

When her only son died the widow from Nain must have wept for Jesus to say, “Do not weep”; and the woman wept as she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7). The ‘sinful’ woman here, you will notice, does not ask for forgiveness. But her confessing heart says it all. No words are necessary.

Not only in these texts but throughout the Scriptures the faithful people of God cry. Crying is the body’s way of confessing the truth about ourselves and our situation. The biblical form is called, the Lament. In our lament, we openly raise our cries to God when we are sad, angry, defeated, suffering, lost. A primary example of a lamenting context was the Babylonian Exile — when in the Hebrew Scriptures we read about the people of God being ousted from their land and their temple, and taken to work and live on the banks of the Euphrates far away from home.

Jesus himself wept over Jerusalem in the days leading to his arrest and crucifixion (Luke 19:41). Jesus wept over the death of his dear friend Lazarus, to the point forming one of the shortest verses in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus cries. Would we dare rush to Jesus when he weeps and say, “Don’t cry. It’ll be alright.” It seems to me we need to let Jesus weep.

Early Christians called it the gift of tears. The wisdom of the ages points to the healing power of tears, a cleansing of the inner life. The desert monk, Abbot Pimen, said: “Weep, there is no other way to perfection” (p.59, Paul Harris, “Frequently Asked Questions about Meditation, the Path of Contemplative Prayer”).

Our faith and our traditions of prayer that validate the act of crying, weeping and lamenting offer us a path to healing, hope and wholeness. I pray for a vision of community where Christians are honest with themselves in their faith and in their pain, who seek authenticity in their relationship with God and others, who are not afraid to be themselves before God, even to be vulnerable to others in confession.

Covenant: a relationship of truthfulness and fidelity

In order to learn the faith, many Christians of the first centuries traveled into the desert of North Africa to the monasteries where the solitary monks lived and worked. There, a kind of contract was made between disciple and teacher.

On the disciple’s side, he or she promised to be completely open with the master — trusting to tell the truth about everything going on in her or his life. This wouldn’t always be easy — to make oneself vulnerable, to lay one’s emotional life down on the line, and to confess those secrets harbored deep in the recesses of the heart.

On the other side, the teacher promised to be faithful to the disciple and never abandon them in their journey of learning, discernment and maturity — through all the struggles that journey would bring. There was nothing the student could say about themselves or what they were thinking that would shaken or jeopardize the steadfast faithfulness of the teacher.

This contract between disciple and teacher was one of truthfulness and fidelity. From the early days of Christianity, learning the faith thus represented came to express the relationship Christians have with Jesus. Jesus is our Teacher, our Master, the Lord of all.

Discipleship means to follow Jesus. For us to follow in the Way of Jesus, are we not called upon to be completely truthful and honest to God about who we are? Personal, spiritual growth is enhanced when we are honest and vulnerable with each other and with Jesus in prayer.

Since the Scriptures were written down, the concept of Covenant has been used to describe the relationship between God and God’s people. This ancient, early Christian understanding from the Desert Fathers and Mothers can help us grasp how we relate to God.

A conviction of God’s everlasting, unwavering faithfulness to us opens the door of our hearts to be completely truthful about not only the good and righteous parts of our lives but especially the dark parts we normally wish to hide from others.

Thank you to Laurence Freeman for giving this example about the contract between disciple and teacher in his taped dialogue with the Dalai Lama in January 2013