What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness

Parenting is one of the greatest challenges in life. And our responses to the ever-changing realities in our children’s lives are never clear cut and never universally applicable. Because each human being is unique. We are not cookie-cutter robots wired with precisely identical operating systems.

Take, for example, two realities that are most common: our children’s friends, and homework. Let’s say you have two children a couple years apart in age. Let’s also say the oldest tends to enjoy reading and doing homework but also has a couple friends they like to skate with on the nearby ice rink in the park. The younger child, on the other hand, does not like to read and cannot sit still long enough to focus on homework. They would rather spend hours at the mall wandering about and hanging out with their friends.

When both come home after school, the late afternoon and evening before them, what will the parents say and do? Whatever you do, it might not be wise to apply the same response to the question they both pose: “Can I go out with my friends tonight?” To the first, you might encourage them not to be late meeting up with their friends and remember to have fun. To the other, you might have to say, “Only after you get some of your homework done first.”

My point is, it isn’t the same answer to each person, in each situation. Different circumstances and contexts necessitate sometimes the opposite response.

I look at the three so-called temptations Jesus’ faces.[1]And I discovered how each of his responses mirrors other situations in his life, ministry, death and resurrection. And, when comparing them, an opposite response.

For example, in the first temptation about food, Jesus rejects the devil’s invitation to multiply some bread from stones. Jesus refuses in the desert to turn stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger. But before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish[2]. And he will teach his disciples to pray to God for their “daily bread”[3]. First, he doesn’t multiply bread. Then he is doing it in a major way. An opposite response in a different situation.

In the second test, Jesus refuses to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple. But at the end of his earthly ministry he endures the taunts of others[4]while trusting God’s power to the end upon the heights of a Roman cross[5]. He first refuses to fall from the highest point. Then, he makes the biggest fall, so to speak. The opposite answer in a different situation.

Finally, He turns down the devil’s offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world. But later, he instead offers the kingdom of the heavens to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness. He goes from denying lordship over all, to offering all the kingdoms to all who follow him. Again, the opposite answer in a different situation.

Jesus has been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tested[6]by the devil. The test is not that food, power and leadership are inherently wrong, but rather that they can be used for the wrong ends, or at the wrong time.

The tests play again in the life and ministry of God’s beloved son. The answers are different on different occasions. The wilderness tests are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they are tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes throughout his earthly ministry.

Is there a common link underlying the various responses? I believe Jesus is exercising how to trust God’s presence and love, and for the sake of others. Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. He is getting ready for what comes next to practise again choices that are based on trusting in God’s loving presence for all.

What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness. Because we know at the start that Jesus will endure the testing, it is therefore more a story for our own instruction. It is the very place where our vulnerability, whatever it is and different it will be from one person to the other, is exposed. And we must face it. And deal with it. We are called to embrace our own vulnerability as the very place where Christ meets us, and where we learn how to trust God’s presence and love.

The wilderness is the testing ground where we exercise choices, and make decisions. We practice, because when we leave the desert we will be better aware of how to meet the next challenge. In each occasion and circumstance, the decision might be different, even opposite, from the response we gave last time.

The exercise grounds will never yield perfect results nor perfect answers from us each time. This is not a perfectionist’s journey. Parenting is never a perfect exercise. No one gets perfect marks as a parent. For each it is the trial-and-error, two-steps-forward-one-step-backward kind of journey. However, “The steps you take don’t need to be big; They just need to take you in the right direction.”[7]

When Ottawa Senators’ forward, Bobby Ryan, took to the ice last Thursday, it was his first game played since November. During that time, he was in a program dealing with his alcoholism. When he scored not one but three goals in a Senators’ victory, the crowd cheered his accomplishment not only on the ice but especially for his courage through the journey of addiction recovery. Perhaps the cheering was an acknowledgement too of our common, broken humanity. That each and every one of us has to face our own demons in the wilderness of our own vulnerability.

For when we get closer to Jesus, we will necessarily journey through the wilderness of our lives. Jesus walked that path. Christ walks that path with us.

The promise of the Matthew’s gospel is that the one who goes with us is “with us always, even to the end of the age”[8]. Jesus has already gone ahead of his followers, even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness. He meets us in the most difficult tests of our own lives. No place is so desolate, so distant, or so challenging that Jesus has not already been there. No test or temptation is so great that Jesus has not already overcome it.[9]

In the wilderness we can make small choices that point us in the right direction. The steps we take don’t need to be big, they just need to take us in the right direction. We’re likely not going to make bread out of stones nor accomplish the grandiose spectacles portrayed in Jesus by the Gospel writers.

But we can learn to develop a growing trust in God’s presence and love for others. Based on this, we begin to make choices and develop good habits in each situation we face. They say it takes 40 days to change a habit – to retrain the mental process and nervous system. Practicing anything for at least 40 days allows you the opportunity to incorporate it into your being, turn on, wake up, transform! Each day, in the right direction. One day at a time.

May these forty days of Lent empower, encourage and deepen us in God’s presence and love.

[1]Matthew 4:1-11

[2]Matthew 14:17-21; 15:33-38

[3]Matthew 6:11

[4]Matthew 27:38-44

[5]Matthew 27:46

[6]The underlying Greek word has traditionally been translated into ‘temptation’. But this word means as much a test as a temptation.

[7]In Marvel’s Agents of Shield, season 5, said by the character Simmons.

[8]Matthew 28:20

[9]Thank you to Audrey West for her commentary on this text from February 10, 2008 at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=37

Lead me by the waters – a funeral sermon

Today we gather to remember and give thanks for the life of a dear wife, mother, grandmother, friend and beloved member of the community of faith. The energy that she gave was palpable.

Indeed, it seems, Jenny was always on the move. Born in South London, England, she met Mike playing cards at a Bridge party during their university days. Jenny and Mike married in 1967, and finally immigrated to Canada in 1969.

Lead me by the waters, the Psalmist prays. Jenny was drawn to the water. And Canada has lots of water. 

Her first impression of Canada was Niagara Falls. She loved Niagara Falls. When Juliet and family later made their home in Niagara Falls, all the better! Jenny took advantage of family visits there to visit the Falls whenever possible. In the last part of her life, she loved going on cruises. Of course, in a boat, you are constantly surrounded by water. She loved the water.

Perhaps there is a part of us that can appreciate this love. Of course, today, waterfront living is highly valued. That wasn’t always the case, in the post-industrial age. Yet, for whatever reasons, we, as a people, have become drawn to the water. 

Maybe because, by ‘still waters’, motion is just waiting to happen. When water stays still for too long it becomes stagnant. There’s a difference between stagnant and still. The Psalmist prays to be led by still waters, not stagnant waters. When waters are still, watch out! Movement is about to happen.

The winds will whip up and cause ripples or waves piling the water up against one shoreline. The earth’s gravity will cause water molecules to flow downhill. The moon as well high- and low-pressure systems will cause a change in the height of the water surface. In the high Arctic and Antarctic regions when seawater freezes, the freshwater forms ice, leaving behind cold, saltier water which is denser than the surrounding water and sinks. This saltier water flows along the ocean floor towards the equator and creates the deep ocean currents.

Whatever the case may be with still waters, something will change soon. There is flow. The water is going somewhere whether or not we can easily perceive it at first. Lead me by the waters.

Whenever Jenny was in the company of others, you knew there was motion in the air. Movement. People who love to organize give that energy, for better or for worse! Jenny loved to organize and lead. Few may know she was the first chairperson of the Ottawa-Carleton Soccer League. Here at the church she was active on the worship and music committee, the council and women’s groups. Lead me by the waters. There is movement underfoot!

Water can change direction when it is going somewhere – when it encounters a rock, tree-fall, a windstorm, or sand banks shifting on the ocean floor or river bed. These days, people change jobs on an average of two to three years. That wasn’t always the case. In her generation, she was on the leading edge of this cultural shift. She was trained as a teacher. But then changed direction, to become an accountant. Jenny’s family was very proud of her accomplishing her CA degree for Carleton University.

Water is like the wind. Born, baptized and confirmed Anglican, then Lutheran, she brought Spirit into her life of Faith. Not something reserved Anglicans and Lutherans are particularly known for, she nevertheless sought out places to express and experience the Spirit of God. Jenny was active in the local Cursillo movement, a movement of prayer, spirit, heartfelt expressions of God’s love for her.

And, even as her mind began to fail in the last years, she still loved to attend Tuesday bible study at Good Shepherd Anglican-Lutheran Church in Barrhaven and regularly participate in the Communion services here at Faith.

Today is Jenny’s birthday. Birthdays are truly celebrations of life. On her birthday today we give thanks for the gift of her life. Funerals services in the Christian faith will announce the Easter hope of resurrection and new life in Christ even as we are now in the season of Lent, a season reminding us of our mortality and human frailty.

For Jenny, today is a day of resurrection. We can, and indeed we will, sing a hearty “Alleluia!”. Today we celebrate a life that continued to be reborn in the waters of her baptism. Through the ebbs and flows and changes of her life, God led her to this day when she finally and fully experiences the vast, boundless, ocean of God’s never-ending love.

Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Amen!

The dust of life

I remember when confetti was no longer allowed during weddings. The church cleaners would otherwise be logging in long hours trying to vacuum those little pieces of coloured paper out from the carpets in the sanctuary.

Those who grieved the passing of the confetti era have a point. Because confetti symbolizes something more than just a mess. When it is a mess with intention, it is a celebration of life.[1]

We may not at first associate the ordinary, simple, mundane aspects of life as worthy of notice. Perhaps it is more a question of focus. Like with confetti – do we see the unbound joy of love in throwing bits of paper over the bride and groom; or, do we see in the confetti an egregious mess waiting to be cleaned up?

On Ash Wednesday, we have to deal with a bit of mess when getting some ash on our foreheads. Of course, this symbol draws our attention to our own mortality. Dust we are and to dust we shall return. We turn our attention thereby to the frailty and finitude of life. And this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. Because death is the one inevitable of life.

But we must learn how to live with it. How can we think about death when may not know how to live?

In the same chapter from which we read the Ash Wednesday Gospel, Matthew records what Jesus says in the face of the mess of life and an uncertain future.  He draws our attention to common, ordinary things. He turns our gaze towards flowers and fowl. Consider the lilies, they don’t sew or spin but are clothed magnificently. Consider the birds, they don’t plant or harvest, but are fed and cared for.[2]

We might add: consider the confetti at a party. Or, consider the ash placed on your forehead. Frivolous, we might think. Unnecessary. We can do without. 

And yet, we know that the measure of our days is rarely determined in the mind-boggling adventures some are fortunate enough to embark on. Rather, when we remember the lives of those we love it is often the small, simple ways they went about the world that live on in our memories.

The focus our God calls us to is life. The purpose of Lent is life, and our journey towards life abundant which will necessarily involve some loss, some pain. But then, what is the focus? What will our God have us see?

Mangrove trees are normally fresh-water plants, I read. But they are now found living in a tidal river flowing into the Coral Sea in North Queensland in Australia, a body of water which is salt water. How have they survived? How have they lived?

“In the service of survival, they have developed an elaborate root system that filters out much of the salt contained in the river water before it can kill the tree. When excessive salt still threatened the life of these trees, they somehow devised a means to guide the salt to particular leaves, which then turned orange and fell off the branches. These came to be called the ‘sacrificial leaves.’ They died that the tree might live.”[3]

Jesus announced his purpose and mission on earth when he told his disciples that he came so that we might “have life, and have it abundantly.”[4]A momentary affliction of loss has not the final word. “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”[5]

The message of Ash Wednesday is inherently a positive message of hope, a call to persevere, and a challenge to risk losing in the sure promise of finding something better on the other side. We cannot bypass the way of the cross. But we go on this journey now assured that life, and life abundant, for us await. That is the focus and the aim. It is about life.

In the small, ordinary, sometimes frivolous acts, in the common, daily experiences of living. “How do we live?” ought to be the focus question during Lent.

Be intentional and pay attention enough to ask the cashier how they are doing, when the lines in the grocery store are long.

To relish in deep breaths when the air is finally warm enough outside it no longer freezes our lungs on the way in.

To say ‘yes’ to more snuggles and one more hug when our children request them.

To say ‘yes’ to resting and taking space when our bodies tell us that’s what we need.

In full view of death, we walk a path on which we show up to life. Trusting that the small things matter, or at least that their frivolity is not completely in vain. And we shall live, living in ways that will attract life and give life to the world.

[1]Thank you to Megan Westra for her thoughtful and moving blog for Ash Wedesday (“Confetti Wednesday” at https://mailchi.mp/d6a0d42b1af8/confetti-wednesday?e=8e6a7196da)

[2]Matthew 6:25-34

[3]John Shelby Spong, Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018), p.87

[4]John 10:10

[5]1 Corinthians 15:54-55

Pastor’s Annual Report for 2019

What is our narrative at Faith Lutheran Church in 2019?

The word, ‘narrative’, means story. In this Annual Report, which catalogues and describes events and figures from 2019, you will find our narrative, our story.

But let me encourage you to read everything between the covers of this Annual Report. In other words, you can’t just read a part of it or only one or two of the documents you find in the table of contents. That is, if you want to get the whole story.

It’s like eating your favorite hamburger. The overall taste is what makes it such a great hamburger compared to others. You won’t get it by only eating the tomato, the relish, the mustard, the bun or even just the meat – and leaving the rest out. It’s all about sinking your teeth into the whole of it that you can say: “This is the best burger ever!”

The whole story includes the numbers and the words. The whole story includes the pictures as well as the tables of data. The whole story includes even items that you would not normally ‘eat’ on their own. Eating curry paste by itself can be a harrowing experience. But mixed in just right with other ingredients, it can make a meal a wonderful thing.

So, I encourage you, in these pages to digest its entire contents, ponder the ‘big picture’ and take it in as a whole. Then, you might get a taste of the narrative that is Faith Lutheran Church in 2019, and beyond.

The narrative of loss

2019 for me was marked by personal loss, especially at the death of my father and former pastor of Faith, Jan Malina. I experienced much love and support from parishioners and friends in the community. It is one thing, over twenty-two years of ordained ministry, to offer others support when they lose a loved one; it is quite another to be on the receiving end of the care and grace given by others when I couldn’t function in that helping role. Thank you. 

Besides the number of funerals experienced in our community in 2019, the year also saw another kind of loss. After nearly a decade of serving as primary musician at Faith, David Santry took leave of us to pursue music ministry in another congregation. We say goodbye to him with sad hearts for we miss his energy, skill and dedication to our community.

The narrative of gain

Highlights in worship over the past year, for me, include the Good Friday worship service done in conjunction with Cityview United Church – whose liturgy included a physical moving about our sanctuary and ended in the sanctuary at Cityview; and, whose theme focused on the Stations of the Cross vis-à-vis the environment and the world’s sin today. We continued to build our relationships with other local congregations such as Julian of Norwich Anglican evidenced by another strong turn-out at our annual joint Christmas morning worship service.

As well, a baptismal service in October stands out for me, when we joined hands in a circle around the sanctuary passing a ribbon and singing “Bind us together, Lord, bind us together in love.” Music continues to be a strong element defining our identity and passion in the congregation. 

What worship experiences stand out for you, in the past year?

A narrative of gain was also evidenced by welcoming new members, a trend which continues into the new year. As well, for the first time in at least three years, the budget of 2019 posted a healthy surplus.

A financial narrative

A narrative approach tends to combine what is sometimes deconstructed. For example, we normally separate the finances from everything else. We keep the numbers to the end of the report. And sometimes these are not even included, due to timing challenges, until the last minute, and on separate photocopied documents handed out at the annual meeting. I don’t offer this as judgement but merely as exposing our bias towards keeping certain items separate.

Normally we have kept a separate record of ‘outside charity’ donations, and outside the budget. Our missional activity, recorded in this way, tells the story of members’ activity apart from the operational and functional work of the church.

Yet, from a narrative approach, if members of Faith value these outside charities, I have to ask, then why is this activity not included in the budget? Why do these efforts of the Faith community not belong in the big picture of how we spend our financial resources? Separating these individual interests are from the budget proper, suggests the only thing we are committed to do together, is take care of ourselves — our own internal needs in maintenance, building and salaries. I know that is not who aspire to be. Because there is over $21,000 in 2019 that individual members donated to outside charities and missions that is not accounted for in the budget.

Our purpose, narratively speaking, is not to direct traffic for these other charities. It doesn’t make sense to involve Faith merely as an administrative intermediary for other charities that issue income tax receipts themselves. What resources we do have need to be channelled towards mission initiatives which we commit to, together. These mission initiatives can be what we have historically supported and have formed our identity as a congregation in West Ottawa and a member of the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

And these ministries and mission initiatives, in this view, need to be integrated into our narrative, including the financial structure of our mission and work. Let me mention just a few that might be incorporated into our budget (and not left outside of it), such as Lutherlyn Camp & Conference Centre, Algonquin Campus Ministry, the Ottawa Lutheran Refugee Sponsorship Committee, and the Ottawa Mission. You will notice that Carlington Chaplaincy has historically remained within our budget, and has been the only exception. 

What would you add to this ‘mission’ list? What are mission initiatives that our communitycan rally around, ministries in the community and in the world that reflect who we are and where we have come from (i.e. our narrative)?

Presenting a narrative tends to integrate all these elements into a wholistic approach. Some written reports about programs and ministries, you will notice, include financial costs involved in exercising that particular ministry. I hope you can see the integration of costs as exercising quality programming. In other words, there tends to be correlation between level of financing and quality of ministry. This applies as much to Christian Education and Pastoral Care programming as it does to paying the organist.

Bringing it all together

The entire Scriptures reflect the grand narrative of God’s relationship with God’s people – from the creation of the world to the story of God’s people under kings and prophets, to the story of Christ with us and for us, in the early church all the way to a vision of God’s kingdom and God’s future which is good.

May how we ‘do church’ in the coming decade celebrate the narrative of who we are, in this time and place in history. Even when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of budgets, updating constitutions and submitting these reports every year. We need to present who we are to the world in a compelling and accurate way that tells our story, and makes the case why they would want to support us with their presence, commitment and dedication. 

Stories come to an end but – from a faith perspective – do they really? A narrative is not something that ever ends. It remains open for interpretation. Throughout this introduction to your 2019 Annual Report, I have left you with a couple questions, to fill in the blanks. Because you, the reader, are an important part of the ongoing narrative. We write our story together, not apart. 

What will you say about our narrative?

Respectfully submitted,

Pr Martin

Jesus face -book

With the explosion of social media over the last fifteen years more and more middle-aged people have been using Facebook. It’s an understatement to say we have all been on a steep learning curve to figure it out, especially in establishing healthy boundaries and being careful about what we reveal and what we interpret about others via social media. 

Because the truth is, people use Facebook in various ways:

Some only post photos. And maybe only photos of grandchildren and family members at special events. Others will post photos only when on vacation or when travelling. I tend to be in the foodie group, posting mostly when visiting a restaurant with friends or family.

Then there are those who will only ‘share’ what other people post – memes or inspirational sayings, or witty quotes. And/or some will only write blog-style commentary on political issues. Others will treat Facebook like a daily diary, posting what they ate for breakfast and complain about the late-night noise their neighbors made during last night’s party.

It’s telling what your Friends on Facebook don’t post about. Few will reveal everything about their lives on social media. In fact, you are warned not to draw conclusions about your Friends’ lives based only on what they post. You see only a slice—a small part—of their lives.

When we forget this, and presume that what they post represents exclusively what is important in our Friends’ life, we get into trouble. Our relationship with them will suffer when misunderstandings result in presumptions about our Friends’ lives drawn from only one, revealed slice of the pie. We need to be careful on social media about how what we see reflects the truth of our Friend’s life.

The gospel accounts of the Transfiguration of Jesus vary. We see different slices of the same pie, different viewpoints, from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Matthew and Mark offer very similar accounts[1]. Almost word for word, these Gospel writers describe the spectacular events atop the mountain: Jesus brings his disciples. He is transfigured before them. A cloud appears over them and out of which God’s voice speaks. Peter wants to build dwellings. And at the end, Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone until he has been raised from the dead.

But while both accounts describe the transfiguration by mentioning Jesus’ clothes turning a dazzling white, Matthew alone adds a particular detail, that Jesus’ face shone like the sun. And while both accounts point to the disciples’ fear, Matthew adds comforting words from Jesus encouraging them ‘not to be afraid.’ And, while both include the disciples’ query, after they come down the mountain, concerning Elijah, only Matthew adds an interpretation linking Elijah to John the Baptist.

The Gospel of Luke emphasizes prayer as a context for what Jesus was doing during his transfiguration[2]. And while Jesus was praying Luke draws our attention, like Matthew but unlike Mark, to Jesus’ face. But unlike both Matthew and Mark, Luke does not mention at all the latter discussion about Elijah. 

And finally, the Gospel of John doesn’t even tell the transfiguration story. Some, however, will argue that John 1:14 is John’s way of including the meaning of the Transfiguration: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth.”

Each account talks about the same event in a different way. Each brings a unique aspect, perspective, on the story. Each reveals a different point of view, which is its own view from a point. 

It’s not that one is right and another is wrong. Getting distracted by this method of study is not helpful. Trying to reconcile and account for all the differences can lead us down rabbit holes not worth pursuing if it only leaves us mired in endless debate, division and mental conflagrations.

The wisdom of those who put the bible together can be appreciated here. There is diversity built right into the bible. Those who put the compilation we call the bible together—it is more a library, after all—knew that the more that can be described about Christ the better. It gives readers multiple access points to gain a deeper understanding of the mystery that is Christ. 

The way to resolving the problem with Facebook – when we think we know someone’s life only by what they post – is to get to know your Friend more. Better face to face, or some direct contact. And, more to the point, deepen your understanding of your Friend beyond what Facebook reveals, or doesn’t reveal. 

They say the truth of the matter is revealed more in what is not said than what is. It’s the pretext, or reading in between the lines. If what you see gives you only one slice of the pie, one aspect, of who that person is, then you are called to go deeper, to learn more about the other aspects of your Friend’s life: what is important to them, what they value, who they truly are.

Learning Jesus is one of the habits outlined in Michael Frost’s book, “Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People”, which we will study during the coming season of Lent. Frost suggests that we need to develop a greater understanding of Jesus. Not merely ask that arm’s length question: What Would Jesus Do? But rather, delve into what Jesus would do and who he would be here and now.[3]

We are called to know Jesus, to learn Jesus, to immerse ourselves in Christ, soaking up the Gospel and digesting its meaning. In so doing we enter into a more constant state of awakened, intimate presence. We are awake, and present, in Christ, to all that we encounter and do in our daily, common existence.

The season of Lent just around the corner, is a good time to resolve to get to know our Friend—what a Friend we have—in Jesus. In the contemplation and commitment to action that Lent calls forth from us, we journey together into these forty days, knowing if nothing else at the start, that Jesus walks with us no matter what.

[1]Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13

[2]Luke 9:28-36

[3]Michael Frost, Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016), p.73-74

Un-exceptional good

A friend gave some advice to a couple on Valentine’s Day — to do something special but without having to spend a whole lot of money.

“Just go to one of those card stores in the mall, and give each other all the time needed to peruse the hundreds of Valentine’s Day cards on the display racks. When both have found their favourite card with the perfect message to their loved one, each takes turns reading the card to the other.

“And then put the cards back on the display rack.”

An exceptional strategy of showing your love? Or, not?

The president of Princeton’s Theological Seminary was coaching pastors and congregations in how to build lasting and durable relationships.[1]In other words, he was giving advice on the art of making friendships and successful working relationships in the church, relationships that would stand the test of time.

You’d think that in order to form these relationships—at the attraction stage, the beginning especially—you would emphasize and focus on what is ‘exceptional’ in the other. You’d search out the strengths, you’d highlight the giftedness in each other, you’d try to seek to understand, if possible, how the person is exceptional in some way. These positive traits, you believe, provide the groundwork, the framework and foundation for building a strong and enduring relationship, wouldn’t you say?

They are a good cook. They are exceptional public speakers. They can fix anything. They are wonderful people-persons. They are passionate and gifted in making crafts. They are the best listeners, and most compassionate. They have the best bed-side manners. They are musically talented. They have such a quick and sharp mind. They are so physically fit like no other. Money is no limit to expressing your love … Exceptional!

And yet, despite our drive to show our exceptionalities, we eventually confront a truth that we cannot deny: No matter how hard we try to make these connections work, before long relationships will disappoint in some way. Especially if we’ve focused exclusively on how exceptional we are. And, especially in crisis when our first impulse is to show off and boast of the good. Eventually, the wounds in us will emerge. We can’t hide them forever. They will show.

This rather absurd, counter-intuitive advice that I heard from the Princeton Dean of Theology can be summarized as such: You don’t focus on what is exceptional in building relationship with the other person or people, you embrace and accept what is un-exceptional. What is not exceptional, then, forms the basis of a lasting relationship. 

Whenever we suffer in relationship, is it because we refuse to stop trying to hide our woundedness, I wonder? The crisis, does it not stem from the ways we try to mask our insecurities, our fears, our anxieties? The crisis, does it not come from our avoidance of seeing the harsh truth of ourselves and our situation? Are we so afraid of simply being who we truly are with each other that we create a problem that becomes harder to deal with the longer the pretense lasts?

We all carry wounds which go deep, and with which we have lived since our childhood. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche community, suggests these wounds are so deep we cannot fully escape them over a lifespan, try as we might.

These wounds were evident in the church Paul founded in Corinth.[2]The people of Corinth, it seems, wanted desperately to belong and to be part of a community of faith. Yet they were divided into rival groups, some belonging to Apollos and others to Paul. They must have had Protestant blood flowing through them! When you have a rivalry, you defend who has the better plan, who is stronger, who is more exceptional. In Paul’s view, this rivalry betrayed a misunderstanding of the Gospel.

So, how do we learn to walk with our wounds that go deep? And be faithful to God, to each other and to ourselves?

“Jean Vanier tells the story about a severely disabled man named Daniel, whose parents did not want him. So, he ended up in one institution after the other. Even after becoming a part of L’Arche, a community that specializes in helping people like Daniel, he would hide his anguish .. 

“As Vanier puts it, ‘He felt guilty for existing, because nobody wanted him as he was. What we must do,’ said Vanier, ‘is walk with the wound instead of fleeing from it. We cannot accept it until we discover that we are loved by God just as we are. And that the Holy Spirit, in a mysterious way, is living at the centre of the wound.’”[3]

Paul talks about the crucified Christ who identifies with us and who carries our wounds. It is in the love of God within and for us, just as we are, that we can learn not to avoid but to walk with our wounds and each other’s woundedness.

And this is how relationships endure. Not because we fixate on how exceptional we are. But rather accept how unexceptional we are. This is not only how we endure but how we grow. Because we are no longer ruled by fear of our humanity. The image Paul uses for this kind of growth is a horticultural one: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (v.6). And, then, again: “We are God’s field …” (v.9). Notice the gardening, planting, growing images here?

There is a place that ecologists identify in a field, the place in a field that is most fertile and life-giving. This area is called an “ecotone”, the special meeting ground between two different ecological communities such as, for example, a forest and a meadow, or two different types of flowers or grasses.

In other words, you have to go to the edge of some kind in order to experience the most fertile and life-giving space in your life. Ecologists go so far to describe the ecotone as the “pregnancy of edges.” It’s the place with the greatest possibility for growth.[4]

Where two different entities, two different living beings meet. Life-giving relationships of growth are not found in places where everyone’s the same, but in spaces where difference meets. Where in your faith might be the fertile place where you encounter the edge effect? Where do you go to experience God’s love amid your woundedness to give you healing and life?

Baptism is one place. Renewing our identity in Christ. Affirming our belonging to the living Jesus. Baptism is also the place where we ask who we really are. In the waters of baptism we honestly confront our limitations, and feel the discomfort of confession. We may doubt our lives are worth anything seeing our failures and expressing our woundedness. We confront here our identity crisis. We are at the edge. We may feel like drowning in the waters.

But at the edge, we are also ready to take a step towards life and new growth. It is the place pregnant with the promise of healing and renewal. It may be the place of tears; it is also the place for new found joy. We come up out of the waters to breathe the air and renew our life.

In relationship building we must embrace our wounds to go into the depths of our being where Christ’s love abounds. It is the way of the cross. And then we see it all around us: in the spouse who tenderly cares for his wife in the Alzheimer’s unit of the hospital, the child playing video games on an oncology ward of the Children’s Hospital, the mother raising four kids on her own, the middle-aged addict finally reaching out for help that is willing.

God’s love abounds. New life and true relationship form and grow, forever. We come up out of the waters to breathe and renew our life.

[1]Craig Barnes preached a sermon at the Festival of Homiletics in Denver Colorado in 2015 for pastors and congregations seeking traits in each other that are unexceptional – contrary to the norm. By implication I apply his specific context to the broader dynamic of how relationships form and endure, regardless of the kind of relationship.

[2]1 Corinthians 3:1-9

[3]Cited in Roger J. Gench, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.350-352

[4]Gench, ibid., p.352-354

True worship: more than me

I have always received the words of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 58 as promise and hope for me — especially in challenging times of transition, disappointment and failure. That, despite all the difficulties I may face, God’s promise is true: The Lord will satisfy my needs in parched places and I shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail … I’ve received this text personally, a prayer recognizing growth in me.

And yet, understanding a little bit the context of the prophet’s words, I must confess it isn’t just about me. Even though the people of Israel were entering yet another disruptive time of transition — journeying back to Jerusalem following their turbulent Babylonian exile — the prophet’s words pull them beyond self-preservation.

You’d think amidst the turmoil of life they would be encouraged to circle the wagons, to take care of themselves, to look out for their own self-interests and take care of their own first. But the Hebrew Scriptures reveal a constant social ethic: to take care of the widow, the refugee and the hungry — time and time again.

An important dimension of faith calls us beyond individualism to extend our vision beyond the needs of the self. From ancient times, people of faith were called to “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.”[2]A living, growing faith happens when ‘spiritual’ things have something to say about and do for the betterment of others, especially the disadvantaged, the poor, the refugee, the homeless and the hungry.

Every Sunday we pray for a country or group of nations somewhere in the world. Specifically, we pray for Christians living in those nations. We join on the same day with a world community committed to praying for the same countries.[1]It’s like we are all holding hands, linking arms, to form a giant circle of prayer holding a specific group of Christians and peoples from a particular part of the globe.

In doing so, we hopefully grow in awareness and knowledge of the situation facing Christians in especially unstable regions. In recent years, the Ottawa Lutheran Refugee Sponsorship Committee has supported the refugee claims of some people from Eritrea. 

In Eritrea today, the two state churches are Lutheran and Orthodox. On the surface, you might say, that’s not bad. Christianity has an established presence there. The state tolerates people gathering in churches to worship. 

But, I learned, you are not allowed to own a bible or be seen reading it in Eritrea. And the only way the worship service can happen is if the sermon is vetted and deemed permissible for preaching. The state determines what is said. Quality control. Why?  So that nothing will be said that could be construed as criticism of the political status quo and those in power. Is this freedom? Or, persecution?

There is something fundamental to the Christian faith that will at times engage politics, criticize and speak out against injustice. Regardless of which country, which party in power, and wherever in the world. And when you disallow such free, political discourse, even from the pulpit but more importantly in the practice and demonstration of faith by Christians in their daily lives, then you are missing something critical about being a follower of Christ Jesus.

Wading into the social and political discourse causes friction among people with differing opinions. Normally we have operated according to the dictum: church and politics don’t mix. While maintaining thus a semblance of harmony, we have not learned how to have a political conversation. We have not been able to talk about political injustice and how to relate with the poor. We have lost the ability to act together in mission.

How will we begin?

Paul in his letter to the Corinthians expresses the importance of a humble stance when demonstrating our faith in concrete behavior, and in our relationships with one another and the world. In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, 

“I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. … Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age … But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages …”[3]

This humble stance distinguishes us from the usual style of political discourse where there needs to be winners and losers, someone’s always right and someone is always wrong, where the louder ones get heard, where ego-tripping and glory-seeking normally define the behavior.

Humility is not often associated with seeking justice, even by passionate, justice-seeking Christians. But the wisdom which God decreed from before the ages suggests a humble stance. How can we nurture this stance in our lives? Maybe start with humility.

Last week, I told you about what Howard Thurman discovered at the tree line high up in the arctic. It seems suitable today to continue using imagery of cold, snow and winter. We can relate! Beyond the tree line, it was mostly just barren, snow- and ice-covered fields. But he also, at first, identified shrubs. These were low-lying, earth-hugging, scrappy-looking tuffs of green dotting the landscape ahead.

But upon closer inspection, Thurman noticed that the needles on these shrubs were similar to the needles on the trees behind him on the tree line. Pursuing a hunch growing within him, he begins wiping the fluffy snow on the ground in front of the shrub where he discovers roots. 

But they are not roots. They are branches leading all the way back to the tree line! The branches of the trees have found a way to live beyond the tree line. They have grown by extending their ‘branches’ along the ground erupting periodically on the barren landscape appearing, at first glance, as shrubs.

The point is, Thurman had to re-think his first impression. He had to change his mind about what appeared very clear to him, at first. He had to admit that his first thought was not his best thought. 

This is a little example of what is meant by the biblical term ‘repentance’, or metanoia in its original Greek. It means, change of mind. Change our thinking about something we first thought was true. 

Our first thought is not always our best thought. Our compulsive, reactive impulse do not yield the best from us. Our initial instinct might not always be the full truth of it. If Christians are to be political in word and deed, better to start with a humble heart. 

Isaiah reminds us that when we lead with love and grace on behalf of the poor, then light shall rise in the darkness, then our light shall break forth like the dawn. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer. The Lord will satisfy our needs in parched places and we shall be alike a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail …Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.[4]

I am grateful that we live in a country where our Christian worship and prayer is truly public in nature. All are welcome. We gather where people of faith can speak and act humbly in the public square, where faith and action are allowed and where we can exercise our faith in freedom. Where following Jesus affects our lives not just on Sunday but every day of the week. And grow into the fullness of God’s purposes for us, individually and as a church.


[2]Isaiah 58:7

[3]1 Corinthians 2:1-3, 6-7

[4]Isaiah 58:10-12

funeral sermon for a mother

We’ve come to this point in time to remember a young lady who was with us for what would have been 93 years in a couple of weeks. Violet – Mom, Grandma – touched the lives of her family and friends as no one else could. And for that reason, she will be remembered long after our time here.

When your mother dies, major changes happen, at first perhaps imperceptible. Like the tectonic plates shifting deep beneath the earth to forecast a major geological event on the surface, a maternal loss affects those left behind, like no other loss.

The one who birthed you, who physically released you into the world, who literally spilled blood for you, is one who has made an indelible mark on our soul. And when she no longer occupies space and time in our lives – even after nine decades—a huge shift occurs, and we feel deeply, sharply, this loss.

Others have described this special relationship with our mother that refuses to end: “She’s the beginning and she is never the end. She starts and then she endures. She is the wisest of all creatures, carries you wherever she needs to be herself – feeds, clothes and proudly places your distorted drawing of an elephant on the refrigerator door; the ‘Hall of Fame’ in every home.

“She’s your mother. No matter her achievements or accomplishments outside the home, whether in a big or small job, her dying thought will be as ‘mother’. She creates as God creates, she sustains as God sustains, and she is sometimes not at her best, as God has also shown us about Himself.”[1]

So, we’ve come to mourn our loss. While the immediate family will probably notice the loss more physically, each one of us here will also mourn in our own way. It’s okay to mourn, to be sad. We can do so with full assurance because it was Jesus who told us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”[2]

And as I pastor, I want you to know that God is not immune to our emotions. In Christ Jesus, God already knows what we, in our humanity, are feeling. Because God feels it, too. God knew the pain of death. On the cross, God knew, fully, the brokenness of our humanity.

But God also knew new life. On this day of mourning, we also affirm the resurrection. And so, it is okay—also—to celebrate the life of Violet which has no end. A life which started on earth and a life that endures through eternity.

Bishop Oscar Romero once said, “We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.”[3]

You have described a development, of sorts, in Violet’s own life on earth with us. You pointed to an aspect of her character that stands out – her giving, compassionate, caring nature. She was always ready to help.

And then, let’s say in the last twenty years or so, when she moved into the Redwoods kitty-corner from where we are today, you noticed a shift. She had started in the latter part of her life to ‘receive’.  That is, she started looking out for her own needs, too, asking – and maybe at some points even demanding – that someone help her.

And that’s not altogether bad. For it is in giving and receiving that we experience all that is good and right, in life. Especially at the end of a journey, when the gate of death looms larger on the horizon, we must be practiced in letting go. Should we experience ‘a good death’ as they say, we need to be able and willing to release our grip and fall into the loving arms of someone else. To depend on them. To trust in them. To help you.

Today, Violet rests in the bosom of her saviour. She walks with Jesus beside the still waters and along paths true and safe. And she continues to receive the constant loving attention and care of a God she followed her whole life long.

[1]Rev. Joe Jagodensky, SDS “Funeral Sermon for a Mother” (wordpress.com, January 20, 2015)

[2]Matthew 5:4

[3]Cited in Jagodensky, ibid.