Stone-picking and Pineapple Love

A Labour of Love (photo of our pineapple plant by Martin Malina 8 Feb 2023)

6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field …”[1]

Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. So let me begin by talking about what Jessica loves. I believe she loves me, yes. But she also loves pineapples.

Yes, pineapples. Almost ten years ago, for a classroom experiment (but also because she loves pineapples), Jessica cut off the head of a pineapple—the part with the green stalk coming out from the top. For a week or so she left the top part sitting in a bowl of water until some tiny roots emerged. Then she planted it in a pot of earth. And left it.

At the start of the pandemic almost three years ago, she brought the plant home from the classroom. I was shocked to see that a woody stem had grown about two feet tall. But it needed to be supported by a stick to which it was tied. Otherwise, it would fall over. On top of the stem was a tuft of green leaves. And there were some leaves grouped together at the bottom near the earth. Kind of ugly.

Over the summer months we kept it inside, watered it and cared for it the best way we could. But nothing happened. It didn’t die. But it also did absolutely nothing. It didn’t grow more leaves or taller. 

So, without doing any research whatsoever I acted on my green thumb intuition. Big risk! I pruned it. I cut it off down to that bottom growth. And then continued watering it, keeping it by a sunny window and watching it grow over the past few years.

Then, I did the research, a little bit anyway. I learned that pineapples don’t actually grow on trees. They’re grown from the center of a leafy plant. The conditions for growing pineapples must be ‘just right’. Growing pineapples is a complex process and therefore most of it is done by hand. It is labour intensive, since there needs to be a high percentage of sunny days with temperatures between 18 and 35 degrees Celsius. If it’s too cool the taste will be sour. If it’s too hot, they’ll be extra sweet. They grow best in sandy, loamy soil. 

And those conditions are not perfectly met in our home. It’s now been at least a decade since Jessica started her experiment. And, while there is sign of life and growth in this journey, we still haven’t harvested our first pineapple from this plant.

Saint Paul writes in today’s Epistle reading that “God gives the growth”, and uses an organic, natural analogy to make the point that spiritual maturity and growth in Christ take time. Just like it takes a long time to grow anything—a tree, a plant—so, too, growing in faith is a process. It requires the long view.

Even if all the rules are followed, growing ‘by the law’ does not guarantee fulfillment in faith. Loving something cannot be done ‘by the book’, because it will be by nature an imperfect effort. In fact, I don’t believe we will ever harvest a single pineapple from our plant. But we continue labouring anyway, and we stick to it because love comes from the heart. And, you never know …

Paul concludes his sermon by telling the church in Corinth that “you are God’s field.” In the bible, we are called many things: sheep, Christ’s body, children of God. But here we find an interesting analogy: God’s field. We are the ground in which God’s plants are watered and nourished, and out of which grow the fruit of God’s purpose.

We are the field. In my first parish which was in the middle of southern Ontario farmland near Stratford, Jessica and I once visited friends on their farm in the Springtime. On a relatively dry day, we spent an afternoon walking on the fields which would be planted soon with soybean seeds. 

We picked stones. The frost of the winter brought to the surface rocks and stones. Farmers will sometimes go through their fields in Spring and remove the stones which they then pile along fence lines and corners of their properties.

Stone-picking is an arduous and painstaking task. You basically wander across the expanse of the field picking up the rocks into pails which when filled you need to dump along the side of fence. And go back and fill another pail. Talk about commitment to your land! It’s a work of love.

This is God’s work. God wanders through the wasteland of our lives, painstakingly picking up the rocks, pulling them from our “hearts of stone”. We are the field. God is the stone-picker. God is faithful, combing through the nether regions of our lives, working the field, year after year. Year after year.

It’s a process. Growth takes time, maybe even a lifetime. But God’s love and faithfulness never fail. God never fails at doing His part: forgiving us when we make mistakes—when we judge others, when we fail in our relationships, when we can’t love for whatever reasons.

God continues His work, turning the soil of our lives, showing mercy, being faithful, envisioning, and growing us to, the life we can have and will one day have, bearing abundant fruit.

[1] 1 Corinthians 3:6-9

Agitated faith

audio for sermon ‘Agitated faith’ by Martin Malina
Impact (photo by Martin Malina at Cape Disappointment WA, August 2022)

At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity my mind turns again to that word, ‘religion’. You might say that is the reason you are reading this blog. You want some ‘religion’. The root meaning of the word, religion, is to reconnect, re-align, hold together again. Like a ligament, religion connects all the pieces. 

You could say the purpose of religion is to unite all the parts. What has been separated, is brought back together again. To do religion is to work towards mending what is been torn apart.

We pray regularly for Christian unity, and for religious unity in families, among loved ones, in communities and churches. Our Lutheran[1] church supports ecumenical initiatives. Especially locally as Faith Lutheran Church we have realized this effort in our relationship with Julian of Norwich Anglican Church and City View United Church in Ottawa, sharing worship services in the past few years.

So why do we do that? Why do we actively pursue visible, religious unity? In his sermon on the mount, Jesus says that “Blessed are the peacemakers.”[2] God’s favour rests on those who work towards building relationships of trust, love, and compassion. 

But we know the divisions persist. History shows Christians have not often represented well the meaning of religion. Our egos get in the way. Defensive, reactive postures result in sometimes violent conflict. It is not a history of which we are proud:

The antisemitism in Martin Luther’s thought and writing, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust; going back further—the European Catholic-Protestant wars, the witch-hunts, the Crusades of earlier centuries – all justified by Christians.

Even today, considering the troubled history between Canadian settlers and the Indigenous, any good-intentioned efforts towards reconciliation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are met with all kinds of resistance. Any call for Christian Unity, therefore, often drowns unfortunately in the sound of crickets. We, at best, hear this call with slightly jaded, skeptical and cynical hearts.

I remember in public school, vividly, a science experiment that left an impression on me. We mixed sodium bicarbonate with vinegar. Of course, the resulting agitation created a volcano of fizz. Later in my university days while enjoying some pretzels and beer with friends I learned that adding salt—lots of it—into beer encouraged carbon dioxide bubbles to cluster together and foam up. And I basically redid that third-grade science-project. 

But the erupting volcano eventually loses its fizz and settles down. The chemical reaction has run its course. In nature the elements that connect may initially become agitated in order to be true to their separate identities. But the reaction doesn’t last. And something new comes out of it.

Perhaps, our expectations and understanding of the word “Peace”—the peace of God—needs re-evaluation.

Because “God’s love is not just about playing nice and his peace is not without tensions. The Hebrew word, shalom, or ‘peace’, is not the absence of tension…”[3] Shalom introduces the need for a right relationship to be established between different parts. And that process, like a chemical reaction, often begins in an agitated state, to say the least.

M. Scott Peck used the term “pseudo-unity” or “pseudo-community” to describe a group of people who want to be loving but withhold some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict.[4] In a pseudo-community, members’ differences and grievances are minimized, even unacknowledged. On the surface they may appear to be functioning smoothly, but it is shallow. There is no real love and no real justice. Because avoidance of conflict is not a recipe for creating a healthy community in the long run.

During the season after Epiphany, Christians are called to look for signs like the Magi searched the skies of their world for a sign to lead them to the Messiah. What are the signs of God’s presence that can help point us in a direction of greater unity among different people? 

In 1989, Spanish born Jesuit priest, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría was assassinated in El Salvador. A martyr of the Christian faith, he preached that the sign to guide us is “the one … present in every age, in whose light all the others must be discarded and interpreted. That sign is always the historically crucified people.”[5]

The sign is the Cross of Jesus. 

As much as Martin Luther had some harmful things to say, he also had much to say that was good. According to Luther, God was, and is, being revealed to us in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world.

The Cross was theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul before him. Paul, of course, is the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and author of some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles whose central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[6]

In other words, we can know God when we first identify with our own suffering and weakness and when we own up to our fault in the matter. When we embrace our vulnerability and mortality as humans, we are ushered into the divine presence made known to us in Jesus Christ.

Moreover, when we perceive the suffering in the world, when we go to places of human tragedy, pain and dying, we again are ushered into the divine presence and enabled through ‘Grace Alone’[7]. The grace comes in the trust we have in God who “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,”[8] and whose gift of peace “surpasses all understanding.”[9]

Peace from the bible is not warm fuzzies. Peace from the bible is more like salt-and-vinegar fizzies. Peace means right relationships. And striving for right relationships will cause tension. But the result of any chemical reaction is a changed reality. Growth brings change.

That is why, in my experience, Christian unity is best expressed when we get together to work in mission for justice. When we engage together in refugee sponsorship. When we work together to bring food we have prepared for those who have very little. When we pool our resources to provide affordable and safe housing for the homeless. When we invite neighbours to care for our garden so the food it produces can be shared in the Carlington Community. This list goes on. 

Peacemaking finds success in mission and justice work. Religious unity is realized in these efforts, reflecting the God of the cross, in Jesus and his love.

Some Christians worry that they’re getting their theology wrong if they engage with others who are different from them. I’m old enough now, to say, first, that it is impossible to know the mind of God. We will always have holes in our theology, no matter your background or denomination or history. But God will have mercy and forgiveness when we get it wrong.

What concerns us in this world of religion is if we get the whole showing compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love -thing wrong. Thankfully God never gives up on us. The experiment will happen again, and again. May we be true to our identities and bold in relating to others with open hearts, minds and loving spirits. And may we grow through the initial agitation that sometimes will happen, to see through it and into the kingdom of God.

God is faithful and God brings us together in bonds of love that can never be broken. Thanks be to God.

[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC)

[2] Matthew 5:9

[3] Adam Bucko, Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation (New York: Orbis Boos, 2022), p.121-122.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cited in Bucko, ibid., p.123.

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

[7] One of the call-signs of the Reformation, and Luther’s theology, based on Saint Paul.

[8] Ephesians 3:20

[9] Philippians 4:7

In light of eternity

Both moon and sun in sight” (photo by M Malina July 2018 Long Beach WA)
audio for sermon “In light of eternity” by Martin Malina

During the pandemic I found myself waiting for the right time. The right time, for everything: I waited for the right time to make easy decisions about whether to wear a mask, whether to go to that concert, large indoor public setting, or sports event. I waited for the right time for experiencing life as ‘back to normal.’

It’s natural to want that, especially after any disruptive, traumatic experience. I was reading the firsthand account from Adam Bucko in New York city who lived through the trauma and aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. He writes in his recent book:

“The horror and devastation are still very present with me, even now. I also remember that in the days following the tragedy, here in New York, glimmers of hope and resilience began to emerge. People spontaneously began gathering in public places, like Union Square in Manhattan, to commence impromptu public grieving ceremonies … 

“All of a sudden there seemed to be enough money to care for the poor. If you looked unwell, strangers would come up to you on the NYC subway and make sure that you were all right. Grief softened our hearts, and pain made us aware of other people’s suffering. There was a certain holiness in the air during those days. We were seeing with new eyes and hearing with new ears.

“But then, about two weeks after the tragedy, we were told that everything needed to go back to normal. Memorials were cleared out of public spaces. Public prayers were discouraged. To be normal, we were told, was to go shopping because that was good for our country. To be normal, we were told, was to cease congregating in public places. We were told to go back to normal and that we did.”[1]

Over twenty years later and at the tail end of another traumatic, public event of this century, there are voices calling us to go back to normal. Big business, of course, wants us to believe that everything is back to normal. Watching the ads on TV or blockbuster movies filmed in the last couple of years you’d think there never was a pandemic. Even some churches operate as if the pandemic didn’t happen.

And, maybe, deep down inside of us all, including me, I want to believe it is back to normal and the time is right for responding to life and to God the way it used to be.

But the scriptures appointed for this season after Epiphany suggest that it is never a good time to respond in faith. There is no normal. No ‘right’ time from our perspective.

In the Gospel text for today[2] Jesus calls the disciples to follow him. What is he calling them to do? To follow God’s call through the Holy Spirit. And this is a Holy Spirit who is described in scripture as blowing where it chooses, and no one knows where it’s coming from or where it’s going to.[3]

Jesus is calling them to make a course-change in their lives which will significantly impact their personal and community relationships, to say the least, leaving behind family even.

Finally, Jesus is calling them to do something good for others in the mission of God. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

One of the beliefs that gets in the way of following Jesus is that we do so on our own — by our own strength, using our own resources, depending on our individual minds alone. 

We are conditioned to believe in ourselves, conditioned by our culture, our upbringing, our schooling. Yes, we have to trust, believe in and love ourselves. God speaks and moves through us. But not alone! Love your neighbour is mentioned in the bible more often than love of self.

One of the mistakes I made in planning my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago when I took a sabbatical six years ago was that I intended on travelling by myself. If I ever walk on that path again, I know now I need to do it with others alongside. Because we are not soloists in God’s choir.  We are not independent operators doing our own thing. We are not private contractors on this journey of faith. 

Following God calls us to step out of our private cocoons and work with others who are different from us. It is hard to trust in others and in God—and not just in ourselves. It’s never a good time when it isn’t easy.

I’m using the example of the pandemic to illustrate the idea that it’s never a good time. But we can apply that idea to other areas of life: That the call — the deep, resonant, voice of God may very well come to you at a bad time in your life.

The prophet Isaiah asserts that it is on those who have walked in great darkness that the light has shined; for those who have been in anguish there will be no gloom.[4] It’s never a good time for epiphanies when they come in the midst of anguish and sorrow and letting go. But it starts there. In the grit and grind of living. And that’s where hope lies.

Like Isaiah, John the Baptist was a prophet announcing God’s reign. His area of work was confined to the Jordan River where he baptized anyone who showed up there.[5] When Jesus heard John the prophet was imprisoned, Jesus continued the work that John started, but left the Jordan area and expanded the ministry to Galilee. The missional, centrifugal force of the work of Christ was beginning its ever-expanding circle of inclusion.

The very first words of Jesus when he begins his mission are: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.”[6] Notice the sequence: Repent because the reign of God is already here. In contrast to John, Jesus announces a new strategy and ordering of things. 

First comes the presence of God. First comes the grace. First comes Jesus and his love. First comes healing, mercy, forgiveness.

The equation with Jesus has been turned on its head. The converting, the confessing, the personal growth come after love not before it. The converting comes after not before grace is first given. The Reign of God has come near.

The Reign of God puts things in perspective, a larger perspective. The Reign of God is not just about me-questions. The Reign of God has broad, societal implications. 

One translation of the Kingdom of God from the Latin, reads, “in light of eternity.”[7] To consider things in light of eternity is a great clarifier. Seeing all things in light of eternity snaps us out of our distractions, delusions and narrow thinking. The perspective in the light of eternity pulls us out of a private religion, pulls us out of our comfort zones and our relentless pursuits of self-indulgence. 

It calls us to start with love for and grace with others rather than fear and judgement. Instead of retreating into our fortresses and behind barricades of mistrust and hate, the light of eternity calls us to trust life and trust others. And the signs are there, when we begin with love.

As difficult as it was during those first days, weeks and months of the pandemic, the signs were there. As they were in those first couple of weeks after 9-11 on the streets of Manhattan. Signs of love, compassion and community. During the early stages of the pandemic, neighbours gathered outside, over backyard fences. Do you remember? Climate scientists observed that the air in places like Los Angeles became almost crystal clear like never before. Do you remember? We slowed down our hectic pace. Do you remember?

These are the stars, the signs of Epiphany, guiding us to where Christ is born anew in this world. Are we listening? Are we watching?

It’s only ever the right time in retrospect. After all is said and done. At the end of the day, we can look back and recognize the signposts. At the end of the day, we can look back and recognize God’s hand in it all. At the end, we can affirm that all along, it was the right time. 

[1] Adam Bucko, Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation (New York: Orbis Books, 2022), p.93-94.

[2] Matthew 4:12-23

[3] John 3:8

[4] Isaiah 9:1-2

[5] Matthew 3:5-7

[6] Matthew 4:17

[7] sub specie aeternitatis = in light of eternity; Richard Rohr, “Big Picture Thinkers; Prophetic Truth” Daily Meditations ( 16 January 2023).

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

Perseverance – the Beatitudes in a word

Downstairs in the church kitchen just above the sink, hangs this sign with the words: “Blessed are they who clean up.” An encouragement this is, no doubt, to wash up dirty dishes with soap and place in the cupboards when finished.

But are these words more than encouragement?

Indeed, the Beatitudes which form the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel[1]are often treated as commandments. We read them as rules for living. And rules demonstrate a reality that we have not yet achieved, a desired reality that is beyond our present circumstances. And a reality that we must work towards by following the rules.

Dirty dishes left in the sink is not the desired reality. A clean kitchen is. So, get to work!

Last week, after Jesus called his first disciples, he went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.[2]In these Beatitudes, now, we encounter precisely what constitutes the kingdom of heaven on earth. And it isn’t about following rules.  

For one thing, the bible isn’t a rule book with lists of commandments and directives for living. Its original writers were not products of our 21st century bias towards a rational logic based on a cause-effect, either-or, legalism. For the most part they didn’t write in order to tell people what to do, but rather to describe the kind of relationship we might have with the God of truth and love.

Besides the laws we read, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, we have to acknowledge the Bible contains other forms of writing: For example, there is rich narrative. There are stories and parables. There is history and sermon. In the bible’s pages we also read beautiful, image-rich poetry and incredible visions of the future.

The Beatitudes fall under the latter categories of the poetic variety. These are not expressed as rules; rather, as a vision of God’s faithfulness to the people of God. They describe what faithfulness between God and human looks like.

In order to understand what these Beatitudes mean, I suggest we consider other images—of the poetic variety—that could convey the meaning of the Beatitudes. In this way, we remain true to the original spirit and style of Jesus’ preaching in the introduction to his lengthy sermon on the mount.

Thomas Merton, born 104 years ago yesterday, and whom many consider the father of contemplative Christianity in the modern era, wrote: “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Like Merton, let’s use the metaphor of a tree to describe something that is true about our walk with God.

Twentieth Century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, in his Meditations on the Heart, describes his journey to the tree line near the arctic circle. There he makes a startling discovery about the trees:

“It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. 

“Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down. As a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were  branches.

“For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon! 

“It is as if the tree had said, ‘I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.’”[3]

Thurman’s description captures for me the essence, the feel, of what Jesus’ beatitudes represent. And, one very strong feel about these Beatitudes is the quality of perseverance that marks our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us.

Our life with God is anything but passive. To stay the course with God requires perseverance, dedication and faithfulness. It is not to give up when the going gets tough. It is not to throw in the towel when the stress of living bears down.

“Blessed are you when people revile you…” Walking the path of Christ will invite scorn and judgement from a culture disinclined to Christ-like living. Yet, we are called to persevere on this simple but difficult path.

Whenever I watch footage of hurricanes slamming Caribbean island coast-lines, I am amazed at the resiliency of those palm trees on the beach. Storm surges wash away and erode shorelines. Untrammelled winds assail and play havoc with anything not bolted down and boarded up. Destruction follows the wake of these tempests.

And yet, the palm tree remains. How? Its capacity to be flexible, to bend, even so the branches on its crown may touch the ground. The strongest of these palms, the ones that have encountered and survived many storms over decades, have learned this art of living well: not to be so rigid so as to snap when the storms first hit; not to be so unyielding when the environment changes. To be able to move when necessary. And, therefore, to live.

Why the Beatitudes present such a challenge for us, is because they suggest a different kind of ‘knowing’ when it comes to God and our relationship with Jesus. In truth, we cannot know God. Ever. No matter how hard we try. Regardless of the number of books we’ve read, the number of bible verses we’ve memorized, the arguments we’ve won, even the number of times we’ve ‘gone to church’. While we walk this earthly path, we can only learn how to love God and one another in Christ. 

To know God this way has already given us all that we need for this path: not rules for living but gifts for the journey. Despite all the suffering, pain and challenge we encounter on the path, the grace of God provides a rich blessedness filled with gladness and joy for all we need.

[1]Matthew 5:1-12

[2]Matthew 4:23

[3]Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 123-124.

Ordinary Time

We understandably seek an extraordinary experience of the divine. The stories we like to tell each other over coffee, for example, are those strange, inexplicable even miraculous moments of life. It’s as if we can know God only through these extreme, irregular events: How by some fluke we avoided an accident waiting to happen, or how we were so fortunate to win a prize, or how we happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness something incredible. 

These expectations of experiencing something spectacular of the divine translate into our religious observance. We will come to church at Christmas and Easter – when all the stops are pulled to put on a good show – in order to fulfill our longing for God, for something better than the norm, something more entertaining and stimulating. Aren’t epiphanies supposed to catch our attention after all?

It is so tempting to set religion apart from the ordinary, making of it a sort of “fairyland amusement park.” This leads to an ancient heresy of the church – the split between God and human, the ordinary and the holy, the sacred and profane.[1]And when this split entrenches in our minds, how is it, we wonder, that we would deserve such a God? A God who is made known only to an elite few who will have these extraordinary, divine epiphanies more than we ever can.

But today we find ourselves in ‘ordinary’ time of the church year. According to the church calendar, these times are marked by the colour green. The largest chunk of ordinary time follows the numerous Sundays after Pentecost, running through the whole summer and into late Fall.

But, ordinary time also has a place early in the year, a shorter chunk of time between Christmas and Easter. Combined with the season after Pentecost, ‘ordinary’ time makes up mostof our time – thirty-three or thirty-four weeks of every year.[2]It is not, therefore, the time during which the church is engaged in preparations for, or celebrations of, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is the time during which we are called, like Simon and Andrew in the Gospel for today, to follow Jesus. Not because of the star that announced his birth. Neither because of the excitement conjured by the promise of a trip to Jerusalem. But simply because Jesus said, “Follow me.”[3]

It’s ironic that in church history and doctrine we have minimized Jesus’ life and ministry in comparison to his birth and death. Some of the ancient creeds jump directly from Jesus’ birth to his death. But the reason for which Jesus lived on earth cannot be minimized. “Though it is not untrue to say that Jesus came to earth to die, it is more true to the Gospels to say that he came first to live.”[4]

In fact, Jesus’ death is truly significant only in connection with that which he lived for and proclaimed – God’s kingdom. We pray every week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth. While we go about living, here.

In these weeks between Christmas and Easter we are reminded that, for all their wonders, neither of these great celebrations is sufficient to sustain us in the hard work of following Jesus in our ordinary lives. How can we do that?

In addressing this question let’s be aware again not to be always so taken by the WOW factor —the exceptional even unbelievable nature of the disciples’ response:

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”[5]

Again, we may tend to focus only on the extraordinary act of obedience on the part of the disciples. All we see and read here is this immediate response by Simon and Andrew to follow Jesus. They don’t think about it, they don’t talk to anyone before agreeing. They just drop everything and go. Wow!

But what has been going on leading up to this moment, this encounter between Jesus and the disciples he calls? You get the feeling that there has been something brewing beneath the surface, even of their consciousness, which then presents in this radical behaviour. What has been going on in their lives preceding this moment? And, over the long haul of their ordinary living?

Saint Augustine from the fourth century opens the first book of his Confessionswith the prayer and statement that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”[6]It might very well be that even those four fishers had restless hearts – so restless that when they heard Jesus’ call to them, they could do nothing else but leave everything behind and follow. 

Perhaps they were simply responding to what had already been imprinted on their souls from birth—the knowledge of the voice of God—so that when they heard the voice, all they could do was obey. Their hearts were already prepared over time, to respond to that moment of invitation.

Our hearts have been prepared through every experience of our lives, prepared to hear God’s voice when it happens. Our lives, every ordinary moment, is holy ground in which God is working in us to be prepared for when that moment of realization comes.

We may be our greatest enemy in recognizing the work of God in our ordinary routines, as we go about our lives—washing dishes, or walking to the office, or talking on the phone. We can give up the search for extraordinary experiences to validate our relationship with God and service in Jesus’ name. It is obvious. It is right here. In our ordinary lives. Salvation happens in everyday, ordinary experience.[7]

An old man was making rope. Someone came to him and asked him, “What is it necessary to be saved?” Without looking up from his work, he replied, “You are looking at it.”[8]

An episode on one of the nature documentary channels was about the elephant seals of Argentina. The show focused on a mother and her seal pup, who had just been born. Soon after birthing her baby, the mother, now famished, abandoned the pup on the shore so she could go feed in the rich waters off the coast. 

After feeding, she returned to a different part of the beach and began to call for her baby. Other mothers had done the same, and all had returned at a similar time. It was hard to believe they would find each other. 

The camera then followed the mother as she called to her pup and listened for the response. Following each other’s voices and scents, soon the mother and her pup were reunited. The host of the show explained that, from the moment of birth, the sound and scent of the pup are imprinted in the mother’s memory; and, the sound and scent of the mother are imprinted in the pup’s memory.[9]

That’s how it is between God and each of us. We are imprinted with a memory, a longing for God. And God is imprinted with a memory, a longing for us. And even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other.

No bright stars. No earthquakes. Just a voice that strikes our ear amid the ordinariness of our lives and announces that God has found us and God is among us.

[1]Gregory Mayers, Listen to the Desert; Secrets of Spiritual Maturity from the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Chicago: ACTA Publications, 1996), p.105

[2]David Toole in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.284-286

[3]Matthew 4:19

[4]Troy A. Miller in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., ibid., p.287

[5]Matthew 4:20

[6]Cited in Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.286

[7]Gregory Mayers, ibid., p.105

[8]Ibid., p.97

[9]Rodger Y. Nishioka, Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.284-286

To the coastlands

In the second of four, so-called ‘servant poems’ in this section of Isaiah,[1]we encounter a person who is called from before his birth for God’s purposes. But the servant is “deeply despised” and “abhorred by the nations” for something he had done that caused the people to heap judgement and even violence against him.

Whatever this servant had been doing was frustrating even for the servant. He complains that his work had been a complete waste of time, that he had “labored in vain.” Can you relate?

Have you “labored in vain”? Do you feel as if all the work you’ve put into something was in vain, wasn’t worth it, or it felt like it was all for naught and didn’t make any difference? Have you once felt the shame of futility, frustration and failure?

Mahatma Gandhi, during his student life, suffered from frequent panic attacks. He had a particularly agonizing experience during a speech he was asked to give to a vegetarian community in London. After reading one line from the message he had prepared, he could no longer speak and asked someone else to read the rest of the speech for him.

“My vision became blurred and I trembled, though the speech hardly covered a sheet of foolscap,” he recalled.[2]How can someone who is barely able to utter two sentences together in public lead an independence movement? You’d think he must have grieved his shortcomings and fear. Even doubted his ability to lead. 

What will God say to us? How will God answer our prayer born out of our frustration, feelings of futility and anxiety about the changing and scary world within and outside of us?

God’s answer surprises and is often counter-intuitive. We think, perhaps, the solution lies in scaling back, lowering expectations, isolating ourselves in cocoons of introspection and introversion. We think, perhaps, the solution lies in moving away from what causes our fears and anxieties in this changing and scary world out there.

But God’s way isn’t what we think! You thought the solution to your problems was to circle the wagons of your world, make it narrow and easily controlled. You thought the solution to your problems was to constrict your vision to stay within the walls you have constructed in your life between you, your loved ones and the changing and scary world around. To retreat into the safety of a like-minded ghetto behind fortress walls.

God’s answer is cued right at the beginning of this servant poem, in verse one: “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!” The servant is not speaking to his own folk, nearby. The servant is not addressing his words to his like-minded cohort. The servant is not preaching to the choir. 

The servant may not realize it at the beginning, but buried in his first words is the seed for his own transformation, his own healing, the answer to his own problem. God only puts a punctuation mark at the end of the sentence: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v.6). Not only are his sights set on raising up the tribes of Jacob and restore Israel; his destiny lies with people from far away, at the far reaches of his vision.

After God hears the servant’s lament, “God not only renews the servant’s original calling but enlarges the scope of it, so that it encompasses not only the restoration of Israel but the salvation of every nation on earth. Rather than looking upon the servant’s failures and adjusting the call downwards to meet diminished expectations,”[3]God offers an antidote to the servant’s inner struggles.

If the servant is to be healed from his inner turmoil and outer struggles, here is the antidote: reach out to others to meet them, serve them, learn from them and live together with them. Get out of yourself and the self-preoccupation born from too much navel-gazing, and meet God out there in that changing and scary world.

Gandhi found a cause that inflamed a passion in him so great that it overrode his anxieties and fears. His desire to see a free India moved him to stand up for what he believed in. Ghandi’s life echoed the expansive vision of God to care not just for those closest to him – in his family, village, township or province. But to care for the entire country!

Maybe when we’re anxious, we would do well to set our sights on the coastlands. Maybe, when are afraid, we would do well to consider a strategy that goes in another direction than ‘the way it used to be’. Maybe, when we feel all our work has been in vain, we would do well to try to reach out rather than just reach in. Maybe, when we are frustrated, we would do well to resist the temptation to retreat into the comfort zones too quickly.

Because maybe our healing lies in this expansive vision of God. Maybe our growth lies in setting our sights on the coastlands, to meet with people from far away, to make meaningful connections with peoples from all nations.

I think what we need to remember is that what has brought us here today—in the first place—is love. What brings us to this point of confession—confessing our sins, confessing our fear, feeling all those wants and unmet needs and grievances … we can only do that because love lives in our hearts. The small, spark of love – the love of God in us – opens our hearts to be who we are, warts and all.

But God doesn’t stop there. The love that brings us to honesty also sends us out to share God’s love in the world. The love of God will not stop in us but will radiate outwards, a centrifugal force that cannot be stopped, a force that will shine to the farthest corners. God won’t lower the bar with us, but raise it.

When we find the balance, when our outward reaching stems from the depths of our hearts in Christ, when the centrifugal force of the Spirit of God’s mission in the world emerges from the deep wells of God’s love within, then …

Our work will not be in vain. God will bring to completion the good work already begun in us.

[1]Isaiah 49:1-7


[3]Stephanie A. Paulsell, Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.244-246