I learned how to ‘line’ a canoe, and did it the first time in my life last month when I canoe-camped in Algonquin Park. Lining a canoe requires paying attention to opposing forces, and seeking a tension – a balance – between those forces. Because if you are lining a canoe in the first place, you are likely on a river needing to get through a set of rapids or manoeuvre through a swift.

Before lining a canoe, certain things have to be established. First you can’t line a canoe by yourself. Lining a canoe is done in tandem with someone else – your paddling partner for example. 

Second, to line a canoe successfully, you need to know the direction of the current vis-à-vis the direction you are headed. Going up the river through a set of rapids, for example, the front of the canoe – the bow – has to be angled outward from the shore while the person leading walks along the shore holding onto one end of the rope. The second person, lining the canoe from the stern – the back – holds the rope connected to the back of the canoe which is relatively closer to the shore.

The idea is that while the canoe is being lined upriver, the current pushes on the bow keeping it angled out, and therefore the canoe won’t collide with the shore. Of course, both ‘liners’ must keep this pattern more or less fixed while walking along the shore line. The exercise tests the paddlers’ ability to maintain this constant tension between opposing movements – the movement of the water going in the opposite direction than the canoe pointing upriver in the water.

Going downriver, the process is reversed. The canoe points downriver along the shoreline, but this time, the stern is angled farther out than the bow.

The Gospel reading today feels like we are stepping into a river with cross currents.[1]The chief priests and elders are flowing in one direction: they are motivated by politics, concerned about reputation, pleasing the crowd and making sure they maintain their powerbase. And Jesus is going the other way. 

At the end of a conversation with Jesus about the origins of John the Baptist’s baptism and hence the authority of Jesus, the chief priests confess, “We do not know”. It’s like Jesus was leading them into a conundrum with his question; he knew their motivation was self-preservation. It’s like he wanted to bring them to that confession, and he got their admission: “We don’t know.”

How do you respond to that first part of the Gospel – when they admit, “they don’t know”, they don’t know the answer to the question, they don’t know the proper response, they don’t know how to get out of it, they just don’t know?

I suspect in our culture, not knowing is frowned upon. We may read that as a victory for Jesus in the constant battle he wages throughout the Gospels against the religious leaders of his day. Jesus – 1; chief priests – 0. 

But maybe “we don’t know” is a place Jesus brought them to, for their own good. Maybe in all the debating, all the words, the twists and turns in the arguments he has with them, in all the cross-currents of conversations that are hard to follow, “We don’t know” is a gift in tumultuous times when we really don’t know, if we are honest.

Navigating this text is like lining a canoe – you have to hold in tension the various currents if you want to get anywhere meaningful with it. But this conflab does not occur on a river far away from civilization, removed from the centres of human interaction and public activity. It does not occur in some otherworldly, private, disconnected place of fantasy and escapism. These cross-currents happen in the temple. The Gospel story begins with the words, “When Jesus entered the temple …”

It is in the temple – the very centre of religious experience and practice – where we not only encounter the divine, but we also encounter the challenges of our faith and life. The cross-currents. Right in the middle of the messy, uncertain, disruptive realities of COVID. Right in the middle of our fears and anxieties about ‘going out’ and being with others. Right here, in the midst of the awkwardness of in-person worship with all the pandemic protocols in place.

At one point in lining the canoe, my canoe partner slipped on a stone and fell splashing in the water. Thankfully, he was ok besides being soaking wet. And he didn’t let go of his rope. We could have been in big trouble if our canoe containing all our overnight gear went sailing down river away from us!

This is a high stakes exercise of faith, whenever we enter the temple to meet with God. At any given moment we don’t know if we will slip on a stone or have some kind of mishap. We take risks to come to worship in the building these days.

Maybe Jesus is bringing us to that silent, humble confession, “We don’t know.” That kind of thing is usually said quietly, almost in a whisper. With our masks on and our voices subdued, perhaps this silence is a gift. It is where God leads us now in the conversation of faith. “We don’t know.”

Welcome the moments of silence. Step into the cross-current, risking it all, but knowing too that in the silence, “we don’t know” is not a fateful but faithful confession. 

Not knowing all the answers may be a necessary part of our journey. Confessing, “we don’t know” reveals a vulnerability that is an important part of being healthy and whole. So when our voices are silent and we don’t sing the hymns out loud and say the responses out loud, maybe in so doing we practice love for others by making a whole lot of room for God to say something to us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1]Matthew 21:23-32 for Pentecost 17A, Revised Common Lectionary

The curve that keeps spiking!

Starting last March, churches were asked to do the seemingly impossible: gather without gathering. This has taken place across the synod, nation and globe in a variety of formats – live-streamed, recorded, or the sharing of written materials – involving a diversity of content. Some congregations have used Service of the Word, while some have had virtual communion. But all have had to be exceedingly inventive as we gather for worship. 

People, however, pine to worship face to face in their buildings. This moment is now upon us.

We may imagine that our experience of worship in the Amber Stage will be more real than our online worship. But worship upon return in person will still be drastically different from what it was pre-Covid. 

Some will find the experience of communion in one kind (bread alone) to be disorienting. Is this really communion? In responding to that question, it is important to revisit what Lutherans believe about communion.

First, Communion is a gift and the content of that gift is the presence of Jesus who unites the divine self with us in a tangible, fulsome, and empowering way. However, Lutherans do not understand communion to be necessary for salvation. God in Christ also meets us in the sermon, in baptism, and in the mutual care we offer one another. Communion is, however, empowering, and might be likened to a hug from God, for which many of us ache.

Further, communion is a coming together of a community. When I draw near to God, and you draw near to God, we draw near to one another. Many of us have sorely missed this aspect of communion and look forward to that intimacy of face to face worship.

Communion, in sum, is God’s “Yes!” to us. It has been described as a visible word. The gospel word of unconditional love in the sermon is now seen and smelt, tasted and felt in the meal. 

But we might ask, is this “Yes!” compromised when we only taste one element? When our gathering is distanced? When the hug feels more like a handshake? Will this really be communion?

In answering this question, it is important to look at our past experiences of communion with an honest gaze and ask: Has communion always felt like a gift? Have we always found joy in our sibling at the table? Have we always walked away from the communion rail feeling that we have heard God’s “Yes!” and the power of the Holy Spirit surging through us? Of course, the answer to these questions is “no.” Not always.

Communion is about relationship and relationships are messy, fractured, and uneven. This is the nature of life.

Our experiences of Communion upon returning in-person to the church building will be broken, as have been our experiences of virtual worship, as has been our experiences of pre-Covid 19 communion. In the end, what makes communion fulsome is not our experience of communion alone, but God’s promise that this meal is “for you.” God promises the divine presence in Jesus and with him the presence of our siblings in Christ – those alive and those beyond life in eternal life. This promise is the power of the “Yes!” And Martin Luther was insistent that God’s gospel work regularly is done in fractured and broken experiences. This is the surprise of the gospel. 

What might this mean for a return to Amber Stage worship? 

We need to be prepared to be surprised. The Gospel story for today[1]surprises and may even distress us. The end of the story does not fit our sense, our experience, of fairness and the way ‘things should be’: people who worked the shortest time earned as much as those who worked the longest. We object. That’s not fair. It’s not the way it should be.

Indeed, things are different, awkward, imperfect – even as we gather again in our house of prayer today. It’s not the way it should be, we feel. But difference is not bad. God has written difference into the architecture of creation. God will sometimes throw us a curve ball, not what we expected. Question is, will we catch it?

Of course, we will lament what we miss but we will also need to dream, imagining how we can make the most of new realities. Such dreaming is only possible when we allow ourselves to fail, knowing that as we explore this strange new world with our hearts open to God and one another, such failure will not be fateful, but rather, faithful to God’s “Yes!”[2]

The Gospel readings for the last two Sundays from Matthew describe the economy of God’s grace.[3]When it comes to forgiving others using immeasurable criteria, or when it comes to the generosity of God – God’s ways go beyond the world’s measure of who deserves what and earning good favour and blessing. God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness don’t play by the world’s rules of tit-for-tat. Admittedly, the learning curve of living and dreaming according to God’s “Yes!” is steep and always feels like it’s spiking! 

But remember it’s not about our experience alone. It is about something bigger that is happening in the world, something larger-than-each-of-us that is based on God’s promises for you, for me and for all people.

May the promise of this grace, made real in the bread for you this day, encourage you and empower you.

[1]Matthew 20:1-16

[2]To this point, adapted from “Reflection” in Worship Resources for the Resumption of In-Person Worship (Eastern Synod ELCIC,, 2020)

[3]Matthew 18:25-31 (Pentecost 15A, RCL) and Matthew 20:1-16 (Pentecost 16A, RCL)

Half-way to somewhere

What first stands out for me this time I read the passage about unforgiving servant is the hypocrisy of the servant who was first shown mercy by the king who forgives the entire debt.[1]

It’s easy for us who read or listen to this story to condemn that servant for not forgiving-it-forward and showing mercy in turn. I think that’s what the Gospel writer wanted us to see in the way the story is told.

And isn’t that one of the major criticisms by those who are disaffected, disenchanted by the church today: that church people are hypocritical – saying one thing but behaving in completely the opposite way. In the case of the Gospel – being shown mercy but dissing out judgement and condemnation. It is clear by the end of the Gospel that the king – God – is also not pleased with this hypocrisy.

At some level, it’s hard not to live that way. We can probably all confess that at times in our own lives we have said one thing – announced some ideal – but behaved inconsistently with that principle. It’s part of our human nature. We pronounce we are welcoming but say disparaging things under our breath about those who differ from us or who don’t follow the rules or who break the law or who act in some way we disapprove; we say we must protect the environment and live simply but produce waste and live beyond our means; we confess to follow Jesus but act in ways that are completely counter to his way of peace and forgiveness.

Next week we begin a new step towards being together, in-person, for worship. One of the ways we will be together is by wearing our masks during the short worship service. I, for one, will find this practice vexing though ironic and hopefully for us all a learning experience if anything.

Diana Butler Bass describes some of this background of mask-wearing in a recent article: She ties our concept of mask-wearing to ancient Greece, where masks were used in theater. They were a way to place actors into a space that mediated between reality and story, allowing actors to disappear into the role they were playing and become who they were not, creating an alternative reality for the audience.

A mask became the person we show to the world, regardless of who we really are under the mask. Greek theater gave Western culture another term to describe this disconnection between the actor and the mask—a word that meant “play-acting” or … literally “to judge from under a mask,” a word we know in English as “hypocrite.”

Western people mask what they want to hide, and masking has a long association in European societies with naughtiness, lying, criminality, and sin. Masks provide distance between our inner selves and outward actions. 

Masks are wrapped up in Christian notions of sin, selfhood, and salvation. The Biblical narrative lurks in our memories—after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they covered themselves and hid. The first act after sinning was putting on a mask. And so the story of our hypocrisy begins.

Human beings are well-practiced in masking our sin so as not to be known. In the Bible this is a necessary first step towards salvation; acknowledging our common humanity, our brokenness and woundedness. We confess our sin. We are half-way on the journey. And we keep going.

In doing so we pivot towards God’s vision for ourselves and the future in God’s reign. We change. In the Hebrew scripture, Jacob and Moses both saw God “face to face”; and then we read about a hope that the New Testament claims on behalf of all who follow Jesus when St. Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” It is not unreasonable to argue that the Biblical story is one of masking and unmasking, until God is finally and fully seen in each human face. Salvation means everything will be one day uncovered.[2]

Wearing masks is a loving act, first, because we all wear masks. None of us is exempt from the burden and brokenness of sin. None of us sits in a position to judge and condemn others. When we all wear masks it is an outward confession that each of us finds ourselves on the same level playing field. Each of us lives from God’s grace, forgiveness and mercy. 

To show love is to accept our own contribution to a problem. To show love is to accept our own complicity. To show love is not about getting even but about getting it well. To show love is to seek a solution for all rather than seek punishment and blame someone else.

Forgiveness is not a transaction. The disciples seek a way to measure, count and calculate this aspect of love and mercy. Jesus’ answer, in effect, says, ‘you have to forgive always’. You can’t measure this. It’s like when St Paul says to ‘pray without ceasing’. How is that possible? It isn’t, if you are after measuring, counting and calculating aspects of faith – like forgiveness or prayer. Our faith is not transactional, it seeks transformation. Forgiveness, as an expression of love, is more about a style, a tone, of life heading towards something bigger rather than something you can control, keep straight, formulate and equate on a ledger. It is about an approach and an attitude. A posture.

On the journey, it feels more like we are always only half-way there. But we keep going, head held high.

This past week Jessica and I accomplished a milestone on our virtual Camino walk. On June 1stthis year we decided to walk the 835 kilometres of the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo in northern Spain. Obviously we weren’t actually going to walk there, but rather walk the distances in segments across eastern Ontario. Each time we walked we checked the distance from one way-point in Spain to the next small village or town – and then translated that distance on the ground in this area.

Since June 1st we’ve averaged 5-6 kilometres each of the 75 days we walked. And this week, we reached the half-way point. Only 416 kilometres to go! Because we don’t have a schedule, and we don’t know how far we will go or when we will finish so much of our endeavour is clouded in uncertainty. We are committed to walking this together, but because of our busy Fall schedules with work and family, we are not even certain we will finish before the snow flies.

But I felt that it was important to pause and celebrate if for a moment that we had walked half-way. We have gotten somewhere even though our ultimate goal still feels out of reach. Better to celebrate going half-way somewhere than not having walked anywhere. We move forward, now. That’s all.

I suspect our eventual success, if we will enjoy that down the road, will come not because we were convinced of our own superior moral, physical and willful efforts. Not because we felt we were somehow deserving of glory and better than others. But that we made, by the gifts of time and health, imperfect small steps towards the goal.

What Jesus describes in these Gospel stories over the past few weeks, is the nature of love in community. Forgiveness comes out of a love that is accepting of one another including our masks of sin and our need for God’s first, underlying and steadfast love and forgiveness of us all. Living out of that primary grace, we make imperfect sometimes tentative steps forward towards God’s vision for all people. The road forward isn’t perfect. But we trust that no matter what – even if it’s only half-way to somewhere – God’s love and grace will never abandon us.

[1]Matthew 18:21-35; Gospel reading for Pentecost 15A, Revised Common Lectionary

[2]Diana Butler Bass, “Pieces of Cloth” in Spirituality and Healthy; Soul-Body Connection (www.spiritualityhealth.comSeptember 1, 2020).

Repeating rhythms of God’s love

As I stood on the shoreline deep in the wilderness of Algonquin Park looking down the Petawawa River towards my destination, I knew well what simple act, repeated over and over again, would get me where I was going.

Many have described the simple but not easy acts of paddling a canoe or jogging or walking as a meditation. From one perspective, it is not a complicated thing to do – repeating a motion that our bodies are capable of and typically designed to do.

However, in all the mental compulsions and distractions precipitated by our tech-dependant, noisy and supersonic lifestyles, we often forget and take for granted these simple acts that can truthfully take us very far.

The Gospel story today records words of Jesus describing how people, in relationships of love, seek reconciliation.[1]The unfolding of the way people can move through disagreement and conflict feels repetitive. First, if there is a disagreement or hurt, you are honest and confront the person with whom you differ. If that doesn’t work, you return to the issue to deal with it: You take it to a couple of others. Then, if that doesn’t work, you return to the issue to deal with it again: You go to the church with it. 

There is a process, a step-by-step means, of achieving the goal. It is not a one-off solution. And if trying once doesn’t work, you don’t just give up altogether on the path. No silver bullet to solve all the problems. That strategy, in truth, is hardly ever real and effective anyway.

Especially in the life of faith, which we have often described as a journey, the way is marked by a commitment to return again and again to some kind of action – whether we are talking about conflict management in the church, personal spiritual growth, or a prognosis for healing and getting better. There is no quick fix. Never was. It will take time – a life time – of going back to it, over and over again.

I observe that people who have some kind of spiritual discipline to which they return with intention and humility are people whose faith and prayer is mature, people of faith whom I admire, respect and from whom I wish to learn more.

Repeating similar, if not the same, prayers every day; a mantra to which you return regularly.

Volunteering every week at the local foodbank.

Keeping in touch, caringly and regularly, with those who differ from you.

Writing cards of thanksgiving and best wishes to those who experience some kind of suffering or joy.

Making regular phone calls conveying care and love especially during turbulent times.

Going to church and/or watching recorded worship services every Sunday.

These disciplines of prayer, worship and service are not one-off, once-in-a-lifetime, experiments which you are ready to drop ‘if it doesn’t work out’ for you.

What often shapes the practice of faith on our earthly journey is repetition –  a commitment and dedication to repeat some action over and over again in order to reinforce something desired, something mutually beneficial, something good and building up for ourselves, for others, for creation, and for God. We repeat an activity that aligns our mind, heart and spirit in God’s love.

In the movie, 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore’s character gets in a car accident and suffers brain trauma. The injury causes a rare amnesia that resets her memory every time she goes to sleep at night. 

Her boyfriend, played by Adam Sandler, takes her on fifty “first dates”, trying to convince her over time that they belong to each other and to help her remember that they’re in love. Individually, the dates, no matter how outrageous and amazingly planned, don’t succeed. So he produces a video to remind her of their story – and as she watches the video over and over every morning, she slowly remembers that she is loved by Sandler and loves him in return.

Like Barrymore’s character, I believe we easily forget that we are deeply loved by God. Especially when we meet with adversity and suffering in life, when our lives are turned upside down. God will not stop trying over and over again – repeating – ways and means to communicate to us divine love and unconditional acceptance.

As this happens, like Barrymore’s character, we are reminded of the one to whom we belong and by whom we are loved. And as we live in the fullness of God’s love for us, we are made new.

We may have had a powerful conversion experience in the past. We may long for the good times in the church years ago. We may have once long ago experienced something wondrous and beautiful. And these memories can serve as fuel for our faith today.

But because we can forget that God still is active in the world today, and because we can suffer from a spiritual amnesia especially when a pandemic strikes changing so much in our lives all at once, we need to awaken to God’s love everyday and be born again and again. As we open ourselves to God’s presence through our disciplines, by our regular, repeated practices, the love of Christ is birthed and rebirthed in us.[2]

Over the next few weeks we will be learning new practices in how we are together, in person, as the church. We’ve had a summer of wearing masks out in public and keeping physical distance when around others not in your cohort. So we know a little bit already about what this may look like.

Whenever we begin to learn new ways of being and interacting it will feel awkward and strange. Please remember that a healthy faith practice bears repeating. It may not feel very satisfying at first. It may feel uncomfortable.

But, the bible bears witness to this if anything, no one in the bible came to be enlivened, transformed and made new in Christ or with God outside a place of discomfort and disruption. Authentic faith emerges from the dust heap of real struggle and perseverance. 

This is a time of great opportunity to grow and deepen our walk, or paddle, of faith. We stand at the shoreline of a journey, looking out over the water. Getting across will depend in small part on some repetitive action, some capacity, that we all share and must do over and over again. Pray. Act. Serve. Pray. Act. Serve. 

Let’s not forget, though, that getting across, if it will happen, will depend in great part on the waters of God’s love holding us all and taking us on the current of grace homeward. Thanks be to God!


[1]Matthew 18:15-20

[2]The 50 First Datesillustration and following, cited and adapted from Ken Shigematsu, Survival Guide for the Soul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), p.56-58.