God’s fiery love

Fire’s Transformation (photo by Martin Malina August 2020, Sandbanks Ontario)
audio for ‘God’s fiery love’ by Martin Malina

In the story Jesus tells about building barns and storing riches in heaven[1] the message he gives goes against the grain of our impulse.

Because it’s in our nature to accumulate, to make good, to build bigger and better, to go further and farther, and to make progress. Why wouldn’t we do all those smart things for our lives, if we can and have the resources to do so? Why would we want to go backward when we can go forward? Why would we want to subtract when we can add?

For sure, embracing the good in life is a huge part of being human and of God. Attaching ourselves to what is wholesome, productive and enriching is an important part of our maturity and growth, even in faith.

But it’s the other part that we’re not so practiced in. The subtraction part. And I believe that’s what Jesus is getting at here. He isn’t denying the good in what we can build and produce. But as people of faith we need also to learn how to let go. How to give up without giving up.[2]

In the parable that Jesus tells, the man who stored up riches did so for himself. That was the problem. He needed to learn how to give what he had stored for himself to others.

In 21st century Canada, we have a lot to learn. When well over half of all food produced and consumed in our economy is wasted and thrown out[3], when the self-storage industry has experienced “meteoric growth” in recent times[4], we are a culture that hoards for ourselves things that can be shared. 

We have a tough time letting go, and embracing our fear of going without.

In his book, Young Men and Fire[5], Norman Maclean begins his story on one summer afternoon in 1949 when fifteen young men—smokejumpers for the U.S. Forest Service—were about to leap out of a C-47 flying over the Rocky Mountains of western Montana. They were between seventeen and twenty-three years old, crack firefighters knowing exactly what they were doing.

“It looked like a regular ground fire from the sky. They’d get to it fast, dig a fire line around it, and be out by ten the next morning. That was their usual pattern in working fires. 

“But something unexpected happened that day after they got on the ground. The wind changed direction and the fire went up into the crown of the trees. A crown fire moves much faster, roaring through timber, beginning to sound like a railroad train, becoming a monster as fires in the mountains sometimes do …

“On that day in August, the firefighters suddenly saw something like that roaring toward them as they raced up the ridge toward safety. It was almost a hundred degrees that day already, the hottest on record. They were running up a seventy-six-degree slope over thick dry grass, very slippery. They got within two hundred yards of the ridge, but the fire was only fifty yards behind them and coming fast.

“That’s when Wagner Dodge, the foreman of the crew, did something unheard of. Running out in front of his men, he took a match and lit a fire in the dry grass in front of him. As this new fire quickly burned up the slope, he yelled at the others to jump into its burning ashes with him.

“They thought he was crazy, maybe trying to commit suicide. So they raced on up toward the ridge as he lay down in the hot ashes, covering his face with a wet handkerchief.

“The fire caught thirteen of the others; they died on that August day. Dodge survived, however, as the main fire swept around his burned-out-circle. He was left breathing what little air there still was close to the ground. Who would have thought of escaping a monster by burning a hole in the fire and lying down in it?

“Our natural inclination—whether in wilderness or in daily life—is to flee from the fire, to avoid the painful experiences that come in our lives. Yet God’s way isn’t around the wilderness, but through it. Not in escaping the fire, but in lying down in it.”[6] Not in hoarding or keeping for ourselves, but first giving it away, taking a risk, and letting go.

It may feel counterintuitive to acknowledge our limits and yield to what might at first sound crazy. Why would I give up such-and-such? Why should I let go of my claim to be right all the time? Why should I sell? Why should I give away something without expectation of anything in return? Why should I leave behind something or someone that is near and dear to my heart? Doing that would cause pain and suffering, wouldn’t it?

I believe Jesus wants better for us. But we must be willing to endure the growing pains. We must be willing to practise letting go. And embracing the truth which isn’t always easy to take.

I am struck by the number of times “under the sun” is mentioned in the reading from Ecclesiastes. I counted five times in ten short verses. Maybe this phrase jumps out at me because we find ourselves today in the middle of the exceptional summertime heat across the northern hemisphere of this planet. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?7] Good question. But where is the wisdom in that?

The sun is a gigantic ball of flame. It is fire. The sun represents the Pentecost message of the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples and people gathered in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost as “tongues of fire”[8]. And it’s not just a feel-good, warm-fuzzy experience. It burns. It heals. It transforms. As every one of those first disciples later discovered.

I want to conclude with a couple of scriptures, first from Isaiah, who wrote these words of promise, protection, and hope: “I have called you by name, you are mine,” God told the prophet. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned; and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God.”[9]

The fire will not consume us, but it will transform us. As the deadwood itself is transformed into the beauty of the flame. And this is the fire of God’s love, God’s passion for us. God loved us in the past. God will love us into an unknown, uncertain future.

In the Epistle reading appointed for this Sunday from Colossians, Paul writes about who we are becoming in Christ. As we face the fires of our lives and are transformed in God’s fire of love our new self … is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all![10]

Despite all our efforts for good or evil, regardless of whether we like it or not, we are being renewed into God’s image. It’s already happening! Even and especially through the difficult times of loss. Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is ‘in all’ working the fiery passion of God’s uniting and eternal love for us.

[1] Luke 12:13-21

[2] Jim Green, Giving Up Without Giving Up: Meditation and Depressions (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019)

[3] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/food-waste-report-second-harvest-1.4981728;

[4] https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/canada-storage-business-booms-1.4579205https://rejournals.com/self-storage-is-on-a-growth-kick-and-its-not-slowing-down/;

[5] Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)

[6] Belden C. Lane, in Chapter 6 “Wildfire”, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

[7] Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

[8] Acts 2:1-13

[9] Isaiah 43:1-3

[10] Colossians 3:10-11

Prayer’s blessing

All is good’ on the Ottawa River at Arnprior (photo by Martin Malina, July 2022)
audio for ‘Prayer’s Blessing’ by Martin Malina

Nina is 100 years old. She lives in the same building where my mother resides. And my Mom told me recently about how two women in their senior years of different backgrounds who never met each other until this year, came to be friends.

The daughter-in-law of Nina had approached my Mom with a request. She said that Nina wanted to talk to someone “about Jesus”. 

So my Mom found Nina one day, sat down beside her, and introduced herself. Nina nodded and affirmed their unity in Christ. “Lutherans and Mennonites, we’re in the same boat.”

“Would you like me to read something from the bible?”

“Oh yes!” exclaimed Nina, “Psalm 23 is my favourite.”

After reading the Shepherd’s Psalm, these two women of faith sang “Now Thank We All Our God” in German, prayed and concluded their time together with the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer. A common prayer that spanned centuries, cultures and the globe, brought them together in faith.

“How then should we pray?” the disciples asked Jesus two thousand years ago.[1] And Jesus taught them these well-known words that have united Christians from diverse backgrounds ever since.

It is true, whenever I provide bed-side, graveside, and wedding services today for people I have never met, there is no other spoken prayer in existence that unites us more than the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father …” Even those who have not been at Sunday worship for years can still recite those words by heart.

Simply saying those words that Jesus’ taught, simply saying them outloud with others, is an act of faith and an act of worship that unites us in Christ.

But the basic form of the Lord’s Prayer is not by itself in this Gospel text about prayer. What immediately follows are examples Jesus gives of particular situations that illustrate the nature of prayer which is not confined exclusively to a formula of set words. Prayer isn’t just the Lord’s Prayer, as important as it is. Prayer isn’t just some automatic ritual we robotically mouth. Nor is prayer just saying the right words.

The examples of the friend asking for bread in the middle of the night, of children asking for a fish or an egg—these reflect the context of prayer: that it is always practised in relationship, friendship, love; that it is a matter of the heart and our interior state; and, it is practised in faith, trust, persistence and action.

“Prayer,” writes Richard Rohr, “is being loved at a deep, sweet level.” [2] People who pray always say, “Someone is for me more than I am for myself.” Prayer is grounded in this deep intimacy with God. And this blessing of prayer is available to all people regardless of our unique backgrounds in faith. How so?

In this text from the Gospel of Luke, we encounter the first time that Luke promises the Holy Spirit to all people.[3] Remember Luke is the author of the Pentecost story from Acts chapter 2 that we read every year on Pentecost Sunday—when the Holy Spirit was given to everyone in dramatic fashion. But here in this text early in Luke, it’s the first time we get this notion that the Holy Spirit is promised to all. To those who ask for it, God will give this good gift. 

Why is the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, such an important gift—the most important for which to ask God?

Because the message of Christianity is that God is with us in Jesus. And we humans are inseparable from God. The Holy Spirit intimately unites us with God, and with each other, in communion. Prayer, then, is the primary way we connect with God, and where we find unity with one another in Christ. 

I began with a story about my Mom making friends with someone who was 100 years old. Well, I asked her recently about something I needed help with—recalling another relationship several years ago now. When another woman of this congregation was a young girl who came to church with her brother and parents.

My Dad was the pastor here at the time. And he made it part of his ministry to be well stocked with Werther’s candy in his office. And every Sunday that this young girl came to church with her brother, the two of them would stand at the door of my Dad’s office waiting for a gift they knew they would get.

And my Dad would faithfully deposit one or two little candies in each of these children’s outstretched hands. 

Almost twenty years later this girl is now grown up. And Julia is in church today with her fiancé. And wouldn’t you know—I don’t have just a couple little candies to give you today. I have a whole bag!

[And there’s more to come!]

[1] Luke 11:1-13

[2] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003), p.131,134,135.

[3] Matthew L. Skinner, “Luke 11:1-13 Exegetical Perspective” in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Vol 3 (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.291.

A better way

A better way (photo by Martin Malina 2019)
audio for ‘A better way’ by Martin Malina

In my first parish at St Peter’s Lutheran Church near Stratford, Ontario, the building’s steeple has two large bells in it. One bell is named Mary and the second bell is named Martha. Can you guess which is the bigger of the two?

By design, the makers of those bells wanted to reflect Jesus’ saying in today’s gospel reading, that “Mary chose the better way”[1]. Therefore she deserves the more prominent, bigger place in our buildings and our lives.

Countless debates have raged among Christians contrasting Martha and Mary. Which activity or posture in faith is the better way? Unfortunately the action-oriented folks are often offended by this text!

We are divided over this story because we get stuck in the either-or. Either it is being busy with all the good things that Martha does to welcome Jesus into her home. Martha does no wrong! Or, we must be sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, hanging on his every word. Mary does no wrong! So, who is right? And who is wrong? And round and round we go.

The part in this gospel that gets us out of this rut, I find, are the words that precede “Mary has chosen the better part”, when Jesus says: “There is need of only one thing.” Because now it’s not about doing or not doing. It’s not about what it is we do but rather the the how and the why. This gospel story, in the end, is more about examining our approach to the various occupations and activities in which we engage as people of faith. 

First the ‘how’. Let’s get over the false dichotomy. Both Mary and Martha are active in this story. This gospel is about doing the right thing at the right time. This gospel falls in the season after Pentecost when the main theme is how to live in the Spirit of God, how to be in the world and engage our lives with meaning and action. Being active in our faith, somehow.

Francis of Assisi from the twelfth century instructed the friars under his charge that “you only know as much as you do.”[2]

Francis didn’t bother questioning church doctrines and dogmas. He just tried to live the way that Jesus lived. Jesus was someone actually to imitate and not just to worship. Francis wanted to be a gospel practitioner. As the popular paraphrase of a line from Francis’s Rule goes, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”[3]

Notice in the telling of this story Mary doesn’t say a word. Rather, she showed by her actions—she moved her body, sat on the floor and most importantly engaged in the challenging work of listening. Listening to God. Mary is active in her listening.

Not only then ‘how’ we are active, but we must continually assess the ‘why’ of our busy-ness.

During the pandemic I became a big fan of the home office. Not only did I become more efficient and productive using the hours of the day for connecting with people, albeit online, I enjoyed being at home and not having to spend hours in traffic. 

And while, for example, the inperson benefits of meeting others at conventions I missed, the recent national convention of the ELCIC was held over two days online. The work was done, decisions made, prayers offered, and some interactive exercises online made the experience efficient and reasonably satisfying for me. No prolonged hours spent in airport concourses, flying halfway across the country and draining the church budget of thousands of dollars for room and board.

However, there is one drawback of working from home. It’s called the trap of multitasking. From the home office it is a short walk to the kitchen, into the living room with big windows looking onto our bird feeders and flower garden, and then to the laundry room. 

Countless times over the past couple of years I got up from my office chair simply to get a coffee, and ended up emptying and filling the dishwasher, opening a birdbook trying to identify a new feathered friend visiting our feeder, and starting a hot load for the laundry. Before I knew it, I had a dozen things on the go in five short minutes before running back to my office completely distracted. I had to regroup mentally when I sat back down at my desk.

We need to review the ‘why’. Because we have a choice in how we live. The reason Jesus tips his hat toward Mary’s behaviour in this story is found in his words, “Mary has chosen …”. 

Mary made a choice. She made a conscious decision. She didn’t just act compulsively. She didn’t just go-with-the-flow or do whatever felt good. She didn’t let her cultural conditioning take over to do what was expected of her. She didn’t conform to the norms of the day. Mary, in that moment, made a choice. She knew her choice to sit at Jesus’ feet meant that she wouldn’t be doing something else. She took a risk.

These days, I’m spending a lot more time asking myself the ‘why’ questions: Why am I doing such-and-such a task?—actions that I routinely and even mindlessly did before the pandemic. 

But because the rhythm of our lives was so disrupted early in the pandemic, it’s like a reset button was pressed. And now before jumping back in, we are given a healthy opportunity if we take it, to assess why we do certain things. Travelling to conventions might be a great thing and we would conclude it is definitely worth the cost.

And I believe that sort of evaluation is good. Because we may discover a truth about ourselves. Maybe we don’t really want to do some things that we always took for granted as habitual; “It’s the way we’ve always done it” could be our greatest albatross. Mary made a conscious choice to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he had to say. She did so with intention and awareness of the cost and the benefit.

Finally, in order to become more judicious in our activity, we need to slow down.

This power to act, the power to live a better way, the power to practice faith and align our actions with our beliefs is available to us today! We just need to get in sync with God’s rhythm. Just look to nature for a sense of this—sometimes fast like a windstorm, but also often very slow like a flower budding in Spring.

I have found that those who have sustained their passion and activity in faith over the long run are those who have also learned to slow down. They tend to demonstrate a presence of mind and stillness of being in all their activity. For us to tap into the energy of the Spirit, we also must be open-hearted, slow down and be willing to listen.

By the Spirit of God, Jesus Christ does the right things, good things, in us and through us. As the Body of Christ, the church, we are the hands, the feet, the eyes, the ears, the mouth of Jesus in the world. Because of Christ-in-us, we can do the right thing at the right time. We can say things and not say things. We can act when we can also be still. And through all our activity God is making the world better.

By God’s power at work in us God is able to accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine.[4]God’s power in us can do infinitely more (other English translations: ) /abundantly more /above and beyond more /super-abundantly more /exceedingly more than we can ask or even imagine! This is God’s promise to, and truth in, us. 

Let’s let both Martha and Mary teach us about the nature of our activity. Because Jesus has something very important to tell us. Let’s open our hearts to hear what is being said. Let’s open the eyes of our hearts to see what God is doing. And let’s do something about it, together.

[1] Luke 10:38-42

[2] The Assisi Compilation, [105], in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (New York: New City Press, 2000), 210.

[3] Richard Rohr, “The Joy of Not Counting—Practice of the Better” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 10 July 2022)

[4] Ephesians 3:20 NRSV

God, the good neighbour

A soccer ball from the 2002 World Cup in Japan/Korea (photo by Martin Malina)

Vincenzo Alessandro Verner Giaccone. Well, that’s a soccer name! I can just imagine him as a twenty-year-old running down the soccer pitch wearing a jersey with his name on the back; I can just hear the play-by-play commentator shouting his name when he scores: “Gia-cco-ne!”

Well, to inspire that vision, I want to give Vincenzo a gift today. 2022 is a year we should never forget, especially in your family. 2022 is the year Vincenzo was born and baptized. 2022 is also the year of the World Cup of Soccer! 

I hope this 2022 World Cup soccer ball can inspire Vincenzo to work towards becoming an exceptional footy player someday. Who knows?

What excites us is the dream that Canada can be glorious and victorious on the soccer pitch in Qatar later this year. This feeling fuels our sense of national pride. It really gets the juices flowing. Oh, how we want to win and show the world how good we really are!

There’s a long way to go for Vincenzo to realize whatever it is he is made for. But he begins his life in faith, and the community of faith, today, as a baby, hardly able to do anything for himself. He is totally dependent on his parents and family to survive and thrive at this early stage of life.

And it is at this point in his development as a human being and a person of faith that we baptize him. Not when he is in the prime of his life. Not only if he has accumulated wealth and accolades for all the exceptional things he has accomplished thus far. Not if he can impress us. Not at the pinnacle of life, where expectations of glory abound. And pressure.

But as a baby, when all we can worry about today is making sure his diaper is changed and he is fed and praying he will sleep! His faith is being formed in the crucible of human vulnerability and weakness. 

In the famous story of the Good Samaritan[1], Jesus affirms his Jewish identity when he quotes from the Old Testament. He says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” This is the primary law, the great commandment, of the Jewish religion, called the Shema, found in the Torah—the Book of Law.[2]

Indeed, much of the Hebrew Scriptures provides a framework of the history of the Jewish people. What I find remarkable is that the Jewish people, contrary to what might be expected, chose to present their history by including stories about arrogant and evil kings and their very critical prophets. Their scriptures do not just tell their co-religionists and the world how wonderful they are but, rather, how terrible they are! 

There are no perfectly moral people in ancient Scriptures: Even Abraham rather cruelly drove his second wife into the desert with their child; Then there’s King David, the adulterer, and murderer; and,the scheming and depressed prophets. Etc. No other religion presents their history to the world—their ‘family’ narrative—by including intentionally this capacity for self-criticism.[3]

To tell a history—the story of a family, the history of a community of faith, a history of a nation such as Canada—is not to hide all the negative and only showcase the good. It is also to be honest and real about what hasn’t worked, what isn’t perfect or exceptional. To be patriotic is not to gloss over the evils and sins and shortcomings of our history. But to celebrate the good, be honest about the bad, and commit to a better path moving forward.

It is the birth of self-critical thinking, of being honest and vulnerable, that grows us in faith and makes us more authentic people. And that’s what younger people today seek in a community of faith. Not people who think they are right, do things perfectly and try to show how exceptional they are to the world, but people who are honest and authentic, and real. 

It’s quite something that the Samaritan is the hero of the story. It wasn’t a good Jewish boy. It wasn’t someone in Jesus’ clan, tribe and religion. Neither the priest nor the Levite would offer help to one of their own, lying in the ditch, beaten by robbers on the road down from Jerusalem.

The Samaritan was shunned, hated, and reviled by Judaism. Samaritans were outsiders, people to avoid. And yet, the Samaritan was the one who showed mercy. Jesus tells this story to make a point about who is our neighbour, even for our context today. And what is more, Jesus tells this story to show us something important about who God is.

God is the good neighbour. God is the Good Samaritan. For some of you, God may have been distant, someone you wanted to stay away from. Maybe even someone you disliked, questioned, turned your back on.

And for others, God may be someone who, for a period in our lives, was the outsider, someone we didn’t spend a whole lot of time with. These are times of our lives, perhaps, when we feel we have our lives in hand and are doing just fine thank-you-very-much.

Jesus tells a story about a God who won’t be put off by all our human pride and hubris. God will still show mercy especially when we are most vulnerable, weak and in need of help. God comes to Vincenzo today in his infant vulnerability. God comes to us always, even when we are down and out. God is the stranger who will stop at nothing to reach out to all of us, in love. Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, said, “The measure of love is to love without measure.” God loves without measure.

When we pray to God for mercy, we are not asking for mercy from an angry God, eager to mete out punishment. The word, ‘mercy’ in the Hebrew scriptures comes from the Hebrew word for uterus – rachmim. It’s the motherly love of a woman treasuring the child born of her own body.[4]

God comes to Vincenzo today in his infant vulnerability with this kind of love. God comes to us always, even when we are down and out, lying in the ditch. God is the stranger who will show mercy and stop at nothing to reach out to all of us, in love.

[1] Luke 10:25-37

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4-5

[3] Richard Rohr, “Holy Dissent” Judaism: Hasidic Mystics (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 1 July 2022)

[4] Belden C. Lane, Chapter Four in “Nature Teachers and the Spiritual Life” Kindle edition, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)