Pentecost: A tangled mess

The tangled mess that is this long, electric cord takes me time whenever I cut the grass. I stand there pulling the ends through loops and ties, slowly unravelling the serpent-like wire until it stretches straight. Each time I cut the grass. Sometimes I am impatient and frustrated. But I do it time and time again. How can I resolve this problem of a tangled cord?
Sometimes our lives may feel tangled. In truth, our youth and those teenage years often may feel quite tangled, as you sort out sometimes messy contradictions and conflicts in your life — figuring out your sexuality, clarifying your vocation, discerning what you want to do “when you grow up”, finding your place in this world, and navigating the often bumpy road of relationships and friendships.
Dear confirmands, you are entering a most complicated, challenging and exciting period of your life. And through it all, your life may sometimes feel, frankly, a tangled mess. How to even begin un-tangling it?
Today, the colours in the church are passionate, powerful, fiery red, because it is Pentecost Sunday — the birthday of the church. It is the day we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, in dramatic fashion I might add: Tongues of fire alighting upon peoples’ heads, and a sound like the “rush of a violent wind” crashing around them (Acts 2:2-3). Then, when the disciples address the diverse crowd in their native languages, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel describing what is happening in these “last days” — when God will show “signs on the earth below: blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (v.19-20). Indeed, we are seeing red!
Living amidst all this drama could feel kinda tangled, messy, chaotic. But, I thought being a Christian was supposed to be all neat and tidy, ordered and predictable, comfortable and nice. The coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives suggests something altogether different! Birthdays are supposed to recall who we are, our identity. How do we even begin un-tangling meaning and purpose of our existence as a church, from this crazy picture?
I purposely did not iron my red chasuble for today’s service to remind myself that following Jesus sometimes feels ‘dis-ordered’. And, I purposely left alone two small holes in this old, Pentecost garment to remind myself of something Saint Paul gets at in the second reading for Pentecost Sunday: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”; and, that the whole creation, including you and me “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:22-27). 
What I often ‘see’ in my life are a lot of holes — many weaknesses. What I often see in other peoples’ lives are their weaknesses. What I often see is me trying so hard to keep my life untangled, compared to others. What I see is all my toiling and fretting and striving to make things right and straight. But, hope that is seen is not hope. If I pretend how good everything is — or ought to be — all of the time, that’s not hope. That’s just me toiling in vain pretending I will be saved by my own efforts.
You might have heard illustrations of some old cathedrals in Europe especially built with holes in the ceiling. They were built purposely so, in order to provide an ‘imperfect’ entry point for the Spirit of God to descend into the lives of the Body of Christ on earth — the church. The entry point of the Spirit of God is precisely through the imperfections, the tangled messes, of our lives — not through our vainglorious, self-righteous, pull-myself-up-by-the-bootstraps efforts. Remember, the Spirit of God helps us in our weaknesses. At ground zero. When on our knees we fall and confess, “I need help and I cannot do it on my own.”
We don’t find God by doing it right. God finds us by our doing it wrong. That’s not to say we ought to go out and try to sin. It is to say that when we find ourselves — as we all will — in moments of our greatest weakness, that’s when Grace happens, when we provide entry points through the ‘holes’ of our ego, our bravado, our pretences of ‘being right when everyone else is wrong’.
You would think that after fifteen years of home ownership and being the person who cuts the lawn in our household; and after ten years of cutting the lawn with an electric, corded, lawn-mower, I would have already figured this out and just purchased one of those roller-thingies for the cord. The strange thing is, I haven’t and after I am finished cutting, I still just crumple the cord and throw it into the garage on top of the mower.
Maybe that says something about the reality and truth of our lives. No matter how much we may grow, and mature — I would hope — over life, we are still stuck in some ways, and will still get into messes from time to time. Youth is just the beginning!
The scriptures for Pentecost are very clear that the disciples of Jesus did not ‘invoke’ the Spirit or earn God’s coming by saying and doing the right things. The Spirit came to them, freely, surprisingly and despite their weaknesses. And what is more, Saint Paul further specifies how that Spirit comes — when we do not know how to pray as we ought (v.26). Not a very impressive picture of humanity. And yet, God still has faith in us, and comes to us!
On the cross, as Jesus hung dying, he said, “It is accomplished” (John 19:30). The victory is won. In Jesus’ human suffering and death, he says this. Not on Easter Sunday, when we celebrate his resurrection. But the victory is won in the moment of God’s fullest identification with human humility, shame, vulnerability, weaknesses — at the moment of what signifies and is in reality our greatest defeat: death. There, “It is accomplished.”
Jesus, God, identifies with us in our tangled messes. In some ways — although this may not be comforting — being a teenager is the best time of our lives to know God, precisely because it is a time in our lives when we have permission to be most honest about the struggles of our identity and purpose in life. 
Even when you feel most distant from God. Even when you feel your faith is not ‘all there’, and you wonder if you have any faith in God at all. Even when you make a mistake, which you will. Being confirmed today is not a perfect ‘affirmation’ of baptism and faith you are making. And it never will!
These are the ‘holes’ so important that we acknowledge — not deny! — and we see as the entry points of the Spirit of the living God into our hearts. It is exactly at those moments of greatest vulnerability and honest weakness that Jesus walks closest to us: That was the purpose of the Cross, the accomplishment of the Cross. That in human suffering and entanglement, God’s grace and power abound. It is God who saves us. Not our work at being ‘good’ or ‘perfect’.
Traditionally during the liturgy of Pentecost, and specifically right after the reading of the Holy Gospel, the “Paschal” light is extinguished. You will recall that this candle was first lighted at the Great Vigil of Easter fifty days ago. And for each of the subsequent Sundays of Easter it has remained lighted — a sign of Christ’s living, resurrected and eternal presence.
Now it is extinguished. Would anyone suggest, why? Isn’t Jesus still alive? Where is he now? With the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church, and with Jesus ascended into heaven, the presence of God and Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit alights in our own hearts. Through the ‘holes’ of our ego, in the imperfection of our lives, the flame of God’s Spirit washes over us in patience and in gentleness. The Spirit purifies and clarifies our hearts upon which God’s stamp still rests from our baptism. The Spirit encourages and reminds us of who we are and whose we are, forever, and no matter what.

Do we see the elephant?

You think when something happens frequently in a short period of time, perhaps I should pay attention to it? A sign? A reflection of something happening on a deeper level?
In the last couple of weeks I’ve attended a couple of administrative church meetings reviewing minutes taken at their annual meetings. One was the Christian Council of the Capital Area (CCCA) and the other was our very own monthly council meeting. And, in both cases, I sat around a large table while members studiously reviewed the draft minutes. In the silence, you could hear the crickets.
“Fine!” “Good job!” “Everything looks great!” “Thank you!” “Yup!” — the responses came rapid fire. And then — in both cases — someone caught it. “Ahh, it says at the top ‘Annual Meeting 2013’. Wrong year. Minor detail. Yet significant. It was worse at the CCCA where there were two different incorrect years on the front page highlighting different text!
I mention this not to slight our very capable secretaries, because it is the responsibility of the entire council to ensure the final copy is in order. But, I say this to emphasize how easy it is to see, but not to see. How very human it is — natural — to stare something straight in its face, and not have it register. 
In the Liquor Store the other day I was looking for Jessica’s favourite white wine from Chile. So I went to the South America section, where it always is. And I couldn’t find it! I stood there for an entire minute rubbing my chin and scanning the shelves. Finally I went to the desk somewhat frustrated. The attendant smiled and said, gently, “We have it.” I said, “No, you don’t.” He calmly led me to the exact same shelf where I stood staring at — I don’t know what. But there it was!
Psychologists might point to the need for us to be more ‘mindful’, in each and every moment of our lives. People of faith might consider how we are present to God’s presence always in our lives. There is often a disconnect, is there not, between my perception and reality? Some have called it ‘the elephant in the room’ that everyone feels is there but for whatever reason refuses to name it, address it.
The Gospel text for this last Sunday of Easter, is about Jesus’ prayer to God (John 17). It is, what liturgists call ‘intercessory prayer’ — that is the genre, or form, that this scripture takes. Prayer is the context. Jesus prays for his disciples, as they take over the mantel of responsibility for Jesus’ mission on earth, after Jesus ascends to heaven.
Since the time Jesus gave this ‘high priestly prayer’ over two thousand years ago, the church — the Body of Christ, the people of God — has continued to pray. I like that. Because no where that I can find in the Gospels does Jesus command his disciples to ‘worship’ him, to ‘praise’ him, to engage in the act of worship to which we contemporary Christians have come to narrowly define our Christian lives ‘on Sunday morning’. But Jesus does say, very often, ‘follow me’ and ‘pray’ and ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (referring to the Holy Communion), and ‘love your neighbour’.
What we are talking about here, is a lifestyle of following Jesus. And with this understanding, I believe, we can get a better handle on what Paul means when he says to “pray always” or “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This phrase makes no sense if we see prayer merely as ‘asking God for things we want’ — how is it physically possible to do this? 
Prayer is not about trying to get God to change, according to our grocery list of desires and wants. Rather, when we pray what we are doing is asking God to change us. Prayer is about allowing God to change us. Always be open in your connection with God in Christ to being changed, transformed, grown in your own life into the image of God and the person God created you to be — regardless of what or for whom we are praying.
Problem is, some of us may be thinking: why would I want to change my life? There isn’t anything that needs changing. I am happy the way things are. Why would I want that? 

We may not able to be always ‘mindful’. But at least, could we not confess our sin in not hearing the voice of God calling us, not seeing and accepting the answer to prayer already right in front of our eyes?  I think it was Meister Eckhart who defined sin as simply refusing — by our actions and thoughts — to see ourselves as God sees us. What is the elephant in our room? What are we doing that is disconnected from what God is doing and what God sees in our lives?

We come to church with our pains, sufferings, hurts. But we also come to be Christ’s hands, heart and mind to those around us. We don’t come just to see ‘what’s in it for me?’ ‘What can I get out of this experience?’, like a consumer. We don’t come just to have my selfish needs, social or otherwise, met. Rather, we come to pay attention to those others who are hurting in any way.
What does God see? How are we paying attention to those in our midst with mental illness? Are we giving any time or effort of love to these people? How are we paying attention to those who come with marital or relational problems? Are we attending, with compassion, to this need at all? How are we paying attention to those who come, who are financially poor or new-comers to Canada, or students with all their complex needs? Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do when we come to church is notice the elephant poop in the corner and complain about that. Talk about the elephant in the room when all we do is talk about what colour paint we should apply to the walls of the room.
After eighteen years of pastoral ministry and leadership, one of the top-rated questions that has come my way, is: How do I know the voice of God? How do I know that it is God’s voice speaking? How is that in prayer, God communicates to us? How do we know it’s God and not just my ego?
I wonder whether it’s the elephant in the room syndrome that so much defines or characterizes church life today. Perhaps the answer is staring us in the face. And we just don’t want to see it. We don’t want to see it or confess it because we are afraid. And we are addicted. Addicted to a lifestyle that is all about consumption. Getting more. And more. And more. For me.
The Executive Director of the Mennonite Church in Canada, Rev. Dr. Willard Metzger, said during the “Justice Tour 2015” stop in Ottawa last week, that those of us who are older are addicted. And it is much harder for us in the second half of life to divest of our material addictions, compared to most young people today who will never earn the kind of pensions that, in general, retired folks today are enjoying; young people whose starting incomes will likely not increase to the same degree that was the case a generation or two ago; young people, more of whom will be working at full time jobs but barely making enough to enjoy the kinds of lifestyles most of us older people are enjoying today. Yes, we are addicted. And we don’t want to let go of this. And we don’t want to make sacrifices along these lines. Not easily, anyway.
National Bishop Susan Johnson (ELCIC) said at the same meeting that ‘the cries of the poor, this is the voice of God in our time. Are we listening?’
In v.18 of the Gospel text, Jesus’ prayed, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” While Jesus also says the disciples “do not belong to the world” (v.14), this does not mean escape from the world. While we affirm values and beliefs that do not correspond with the world’s values, we are not called to abandon the world, disengage nor hide from it, however bad it is. Because, Jesus prays that his disciples “may have Christ’s joy made complete in themselves/among themselves” (v.13). The joy that Christ gives is not found in escaping the world’s reality, but on the ground, in community engaging the world with all of its distorted powers, pressures and conflict.
God’s voice calls us into the world, not away from it. At the same time, God does answer our prayers, in a sense, because God already knows what we need (Matthew 6:7). And it’s a consistent answer, that we will read and hear about more in the coming season of Pentecost. God’s answer is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). And the Holy Spirit is all about power. So, God’s answer to all our praying, is the power of God to do what is right, even if it means a sacrifice of part, or all, of our lifestyle and our privilege. God gives power more than answers (1) to change ourselves for the better, and for the sake of the world that God so loves (John 3:16).
May we be faithful in listening to God’s voice, and responding in the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s answer to prayer. We’ve prayed, in this morning’s service. Now, we are called to follow Jesus into our lives, away from this place.
(1) read especially chapter seven in Richard Rohr’s, “Breathing Under Water”

Finding Love

When the Beatles sang, “All you need is love” back in the 1960s, this soft sentiment echoed the enthusiastic embrace by some people who wanted everyone simply to get along and overlook their differences. It was also during this turbulent time in history when others expressed a rejection of this dreamy emotion. The hard-liners suggested that we can’t solve the problems of the world without first acknowledging the base motives and evil intent of others expressing competing differences; the solution: a forceful, uncompromising response.

Depending on our personality and life experience, each one of us likely leans in one way or another. But neither vision of ‘love’ is what Jesus expresses in the Gospel for today (John 15:9-17), a text laden with talk of love.
Love, it goes without saying, is one of those words that is not easily defined. At least the biblical Greek distinguishes a few nuanced understandings of love ranging from a desiring love (eros) to a friendship love (philia) to a self-giving, outward-focused love for all people (agape). Consistently, in this Gospel text, it is the agape love that is prevalent. But Jesus weaves agape with friendship. And so Biblical scholars are correct to insist that these biblical definitions of love are not mutually-exclusive when they are used (David Cunningham, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 2, WJK Press Kentucky 2008, p.498); there is overlap in meaning. So, we are back at the beginning, confronted with a powerful word which can mean so many things.
How do we understand what Jesus was getting at? How can we grasp, and better yet, experience, for our own lives the love of which Jesus demonstrates with his words and life?
Maybe we do need to look at more than just the word. We need to look at the setting, or context, in which those words are spoken. Because the words that we hear in one time and place can have an entirely different impact on us if we hear them in another time and place:
For example, ‘I hope you are well’ may seem like nothing more than a polite greeting in a casual conversation over the phone. But the phrase has a much more focused meaning if it is spoken by a friend visiting you in the hospital. They are the exact same words, but they carry a different resonance, a different intensity and inflection.
So, meaning shifts with the setting. That is an important principle to remember in the Gospel of John, for its words are always sounding in at least two different historical contexts: First, there is the immediate story line, the unfolding narrative of Jesus Christ and his ministry as recorded on the pages of the Bible. And second, there is the community that gave birth to – that wrote down the words of – the Gospel of John and the circumstances in which that community lived some three generations after Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Consider how the exact same words of Jesus would sound in these two different contexts. If, in the face of Jesus’ impending death we read, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (15:13), then the verse leaps out to us as an interpretation of the sacrificial action Christ is about to suffer on the Cross.
But what happens if we read it in the context of the community of John at the end of the first century – when these words were first written down? During this time the community of Christians faced growing oppression from the Roman Empire and was experiencing serious conflict with the Jewish synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:2). The words seem no longer to refer only to Christ and his death, but to the sacrifice of members of the community.
I don’t believe we have to choose between one reading and the other. Instead, by identifying both readings we understand how the life of faith keeps expanding and deepening the meaning of Jesus’ words. It is a process that has kept the church vital generation after generation. And it continues in our own lives today. The Word is a living word whose meanings grow clearer as we hold the complexities of life in its light. (For this meaning-finding in context, I used Thomas Troeger’s wonderful formulation in “Feasting on the Word” ibid, p.497-501)
Love is not only a mushy, self-gratifying emotion that finds energy and drive in our dreamy states and compulsions. Love is also not merely a ‘tough’ love that is forceful, cleansing and ‘real’. Love is not only self-sacrifice. But neither is it self-denial and self-hatred. The meaning of love for each of us is more likely born in our own lives where we have to struggle and suffer through some external or internal conflict.
Another phrase from Jesus in this Gospel plants notions of love and joy firmly in the context of suffering. He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (v.11). How can Christ speak of joy when he is about to be arrested and tortured to death? But also imagine how these words would have sounded to a community of believers at the end of the first century who themselves were grappling with rejection and persecution. Finally, what about us, the heirs of Jesus Christ and his disciples: How do these words redefine the meaning of joy as we move through strenuous times?
In the reality TV-show, “The Amazing Race” whose 26th season finale is soon approaching, a dozen teams are racing around the world. Couples challenge each other through each leg of the race, ultimately seeking the $1 million prize at the end. 
One couple in this season – Blair and Hayley — is particularly fascinating to watch. Because they have such friction. She is a nurse, and he is a doctor. You would think they have a lot in common and therefore could get along. But they are at each other’s throats all the time. Hayley nags and complains and is downright nasty to Blair. And Blair isn’t a pushover but for the most part is patient, non-anxious and keeps it together. You would also think, because they can’t communicate very well and have such acrimony between them, they would have long ago self-imploded and have been eliminated.
But, contrary to my expectations, they have found a way to make it work. They are still in the final four teams racing for the million. And, what is more, they won a recent leg of the race!
When Phil, the host of “Amazing Race”, greeted them on the ‘mat’ he shook his head in disbelief and inquired as to how they are finding success. Both of them admitted the challenges they face and how each of them drives the other crazy. But both of them said they respect each other and this tension is somehow motivating them forward. Phil responded: “You sound like true BFFs!” – Best Friends Forever.
To be honest, I have a hard time calling this ‘love’. But there is an aspect of ‘love’ here we often forget: A community needs to learn how to love one another despite the fact we will drive ourselves crazy from time to time. The early Christians, facing oppression and persecution from outside, needed to learn how to strengthen their bonds in-house, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t disagree. That doesn’t mean, they needed to force each other to repress their differences. That doesn’t mean they all had to be like-minded and ‘the same’. That doesn’t mean it has to be roses and champagne all the time.
Similarly for us. We can express our differences, fight (fairly!), respect each other. And still love one another. Especially when we focus on the reason we are together, the prize, the goal, what in truth unites us in Christ, we will find traction on our journey. There can be a beautiful loving that can happen in a diverse, sometimes chaotic, existence called the church. We won’t be all holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ around the campfire all the time. Sometimes, our love will mean we have to make some tough choices, confront our differences and work through conflict. That’s love, too.
How do we find God’s love? Well, it’s a little bit of both/and. And sorry to say for those who want to have control – there is a little bit of letting go necessary. And, conversely, for those who tend to be passive, there is some work involved!
Photographer Ansel Adams would wait days and hours for the perfect circumstances and ideal light to take his iconic photos. He said, “Chance favours the prepared mind.” There is a method to the faithful walk. And it must go far beyond merely enforcing the will and doing it as if it all depended on our own sheer determination and timelines to make it happen. We have to remember, God is free and is not dependent on our actions. The reason Jesus says he no longer calls us slaves but friends (15:15) is this: A master was bound by convention and law to care for his slaves; but a friend’s love is freely given, and mutual. A friend will love and receive love, freely and without condition.
Could we learn to wait for and fully expect God’s grace and love to come freely as God will – in the flow of “living water”, “blowing wind”, “descending flames”, and “alighting doves” – all biblical descriptions of how God comes to us in love and truth? (see Richard Rohr, “Breathing Underwater”, Franciscan Media, Ohio 2011, chapter 6)
So, the waiting and the preparing the mind for God finding us in love, the softening of the heart, the deepening of expectation and desire, the ‘readiness’ to really let go of control, and the recognition that “I really do not want to let go” – these are all characteristics of the mature Christian. Because the actual willingness to change is the work of weeks, months, and years of “fear and trembling” (as Paul expresses in Philippians 2:12). 

Love is a process. Love is revealed in the transforming, changing person. It is found in the grit on the road of life with others. It is revealed in the commitment to stay the course, however difficult that course may be.

Grace and love will always favour the prepared mind, the heart willing to risk it all and nurturing the anticipation that there is a hopeful outcome. And, if you ask me, I believe the reason that Blair and Hayley in “The Amazing Race” are finding success? It’s because at least one of the partners at any given moment is showing a whole lot of undeserved grace and forgiveness to the other. No matter how that team finishes in the end, they will, I am sure, remember the love that in different ways each of them experienced in the other over the course of the race. Perhaps a little bit, at least, like true, best-friends-forever.