A larger life

Two neighbours that attended the same local church looked at each other over their shared, backyard fence. Respecting the two-metre physical distance rule, they waved to each other. And then one spoke up.

“So, what did you give up for Lent this year?”

The answer was tinged with desperation: “Everything!”

This morning I want to speak to those who are self-isolating at home but who otherwise are feeling ok. By this point may be going a bit stir-crazy. I want to speak to those who are feeling a growing anxiety for our world, our communities and who worry increasingly for loved ones on the front lines, stuck in countries far away and for the poor, homeless and vulnerable in this pandemic. I want to speak to those who need to remind ourselves why it is important to be restricting our social practice.

In doing so, it indeed feels like we’ve given up everything. Not just chocolates. Not just those symbolic gestures of religious observance. It feels like Lent this year is truly a journey – and an extra-long one – of exposing all our dearest attachments, our dependencies, our entrenched patterns of behaviour. It’s hard to give all that up.

Someone on my social media posted an old wisdom saying: “When you silence all the busyness and noise around you, then in that silence the noise within will rise …” When our external world shuts down so much as it has during this lockdown, we must face our own selves like never before. We are forced to confront and reassess our most dearly and tightly held social behaviours.

Including how we do church. It seems increasingly so, that the Lenten journey this year is going to last long past the calendar date for Easter. We won’t be seeing each other face-to-face for a while. The end of the crisis will come, but we first have to get there. 

Another post I’ve shared on my social media this week is a good one: “Churches are not being closed. Buildings are being closed. You are the church. You are to remain open.” How do we do that? How do we remain open?

We record these short worship services in the sanctuary and wear familiar attire with all the usual trappings. We do this for comfort in the midst of trying times. The comfort of familiarity. We also do this to stimulate the imagination and encourage hope. Imagine the day, and it will come, when we can gather again together in places of worship! I hope that vision encourages us and lifts our spirits.

At the same time and in the midst of this extended Lenten journey, we can’t escape to la-la land, to some disembodied realm of our imagination alone. We can’t pretend that life can only happen when there is no more coronavirus. We can’t delude ourselves into the desperation of believing that we can have life only when there is a vaccine for COVID-19. Life doesn’t happen only once all this is over.

We need to exercise our faith where and when we are. Even in the midst of crisis. We need to discover the life of God—not now in some sanctuary or regular place of worship, but wherever we are: At home, in the grocery story, outside on our walks, helping with food delivery to those most vulnerable; Practising safe, social distancing; Yes, even by facing and acknowledging the anxious, fearful demons within our own hearts.

The point of the raising of Lazarus gospel story is to tell us something true about God. The raising of Lazarus probes the point of Jesus’ resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life …” Jesus says.[1]

The meaning of the Lenten journey is more than just ‘God for us’. The cross of Jesus is profoundly a sign that “God is with us.” God is in our suffering, alongside us in this difficult journey of fear and anxiety. After all, God in Christ promised to come to make home with us, and dwell with us.[2]

So when, as the old wisdom saying concludes, when we confront the noise within: “… Hold your heart in love. As a mother holds a crying child. Until your heart curls up in the silent love of God.” The pain is one we all share. And so, too, must be our response—a shared response out of love for the neighbour.

In showing compassion and love to our neighbours, we are church. In recognizing the gift of our life despite all of the challenges face, we are church. In recognizing others’ sacrifice for the good of those affected, we are church. In doing our part to create new connections, new ways of being together, new ways to care for others, we are church. 

And we continue to be church in the larger life of God in Christ. 

[1]John 11:25-26

[2]John 14:23; Revelation 21:3

Global solidarity in a global pandemic

The gift of physical sight is a two-edged sword: We can see many things at once in our field of vision. But we can also be very easily distracted by what we see in front of us. It’s hard to focus.

When we use only our ears, however, our hearing brings us more quickly into focus – on what is important and what needs to be done. When we listen, we have to right away clear out all the other noise and chatter into a singularity of mind.

Yes, the blind beggar in the Gospel story receives his sight[1]. That is the obvious miracle. But just as great a ‘miracle’ is that the blind man first had to hear Jesus. He had to focus on Jesus’ voice that told him what to do. 

He had to listen to Jesus’ instruction to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash. The Pool of Siloam – a relatively recent archeological find in Jerusalem – was located in a public space. It was not someone’s private swimming pool. It didn’t belong for the exclusive use of a wealthy and privileged individual. 

It was a place everyone could access, a place people went in that part of the city for fresh drinking water, a place also recognized for ritual bathing. The Pool of Siloam was designed for everyone to use, including the blind beggars of the city.

For his healing, the blind man had to go outside the sphere of his own private world. He had to go beyond himself, so to speak, into a public place.

Besides the obvious physical threat, the greatest danger during this global pandemic is to become completely turned in on oneself. Perhaps you, too, in your social isolation practices have started to feel a bit of ‘cabin fever’ by now. It’s been a few days. The initial novelty is starting to wear off. Our restlessness is fed by fear and despair. How long will this last? We may feel within our hearts a growing and relentless sense of foreboding. And this will undo us if not checked. 

The solution to this inner dis-ease is not to violate the protocols of social distancing and the instructions of the authorities. But it is to find ways, creative ways, to focus on another, and their needs.

I was moved by the heartfelt image from Italy, of an eighty-year-old woman on her birthday standing in her tiny apartment kitchen. Her window was wide open. Tears were streaming down her face as she listened to her neighbours sing to her in unison, “Happy Birthday”. The chorus of voices echoed in the narrow open spaces between the multileveled rowhouse neighborhood. 

As always but even more today, people are still starving. Not just starving for food and for certain paper products. But starving for love, starving to belong, starving for shelter, starving for justice.

May God grant us the courage to focus mind and heart, and first listen. Listen to and focus on the voice calling us to let ourselves be loved. Listen to and focus on the voice calling us to go beyond ourselves to the other, in loving deeds.

Indeed, we are experiencing a global solidarity in the midst of this public health crisis. Even in the suffering of this experience, may God grant us courage to find new ways of affirming our solidarity in the life, the love and being of Christ.

[1]John 9:1-11

Keeping watch on our moral compass in a pandemic

Our very human responses are varied and exposed in this public health crisis. Whatever the case may be, we must also be vigilant about the moral disease exposed in a pandemic.

In our normally extraverted and active society we are now becoming practiced in what it looks and what it feels like to be ‘distant’ from each other. Not just at sports stadiums and convention venues, but religious gatherings as well. 

In our social distancing exercise we are properly encouraged to inform ourselves of the risks and take the necessary precautions. Yes. We are encouraged to heed the health and official authorities. Yes. Best practices in worship and community life together are emphasized. Yes. We show thereby our responsibility to the sanctity of life, not just our own. 

But for the sake of the most vulnerable.

For the time being we will refrain from physically sharing the Peace. We will leave the offering plate on the table into which we offer our gifts. We will cough into our sleeves. We will encourage donating online if you choose to self-isolate; and, we will explore using the internet more for helping people of Faith to connect. We will encourage vigorous hand-washing practices and dis-infect surfaces and door handles in our public spaces.

But there is something more going on beneath the surface of our vigilance.

When social distancing becomes a virtue. And dread overwhelms the normal, healthy bonds of human affection. 

“In his book on the 1665 London epidemic, A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe reports, ‘This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others. … The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.’

“Fear drives people in these moments, but so does shame, caused by the brutal things that have to be done to slow the spread of the disease. In all pandemics people are forced to make the decisions that doctors in Italy are now forced to make — withholding care from some of those who are suffering and leaving them to their fate.

“In 17th-century Venice, health workers searched the city, identified plague victims and shipped them off to isolated ‘hospitals,’ where two-thirds of them died. In many cities over the centuries, municipal authorities locked whole families in their homes, sealed the premises and blocked any delivery of provisions or medical care.”

While some disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes can bring people together, history shows that pandemics can tear people apart.

“The Spanish flu pandemic that battered America in 1918 produced similar reactions. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, reports that as conditions worsened, health workers in city after city pleaded for volunteers to care for the sick. Few stepped forward.

“In Philadelphia, the head of emergency aid pleaded for help in taking care of sick children. Nobody answered. The organization’s director turned scornful: ‘… There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back.’

“This explains one of the puzzling features of the 1918 pandemic. When it was over, people didn’t talk about it. There were very few books or plays written about it. Roughly 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the flu, compared with 53,000 in battle in World War I, and yet it left almost no conscious cultural mark.

“Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed. In her 1976 dissertation, ‘A Cruel Wind,’ Dorothy Ann Pettit argues that the 1918 flu pandemic contributed to a kind of spiritual [apathy] afterward. People emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued. The flu, Pettit writes, had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.

“There is one exception to this sad litany: health care workers. In every pandemic there are doctors and nurses who respond with unbelievable heroism and compassion. That’s happening today.

“[At] … EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland, Washington State … the staff [is] showing the kind of effective compassion that has been evident in all pandemics down the centuries. ‘We have not had issues with staff not wanting to come in,’ an Evergreen executive said. ‘We’ve had staff calling and say, ‘If you need me, I’m available.’

“Maybe this time we’ll learn from their example. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to take steps to fight the moral disease that accompanies the physical one.

“Frank Snowden, the Yale historian who wrote Epidemics and Society, argues that pandemics hold up a mirror to society and force us to ask basic questions: … Where is God in all this? What’s our responsibility to one another?”[1]

History also shows that pandemics tend to hit the poor hardest and enflame social divisions. Today, we cannot forget those who are most vulnerable: the elderly, for one, who must stay in these days. A simple note phone call or email to ask if they need any groceries or medication pick-up. These calls will remind them they are not alone through this crisis. That there are those who care. And are willing to help.

In our efforts to maintain concrete connections, even in this time of social distancing, we continue to build the community of love that is the Body of Christ.

Even in crisis, we are not meant to be alone. In crisis, we are not meant to retreat into self-preoccupation. This pandemic cannot kill compassion, too. Even if only where two or three are gathered, virtually or face-to-face, we resist allowing our fear to overwhelm us. We trust in “God with us” and in the revelation of God in Christ who speaks often in the Gospels the words of promise: “Do not be afraid.” We are called always but especially at this time, to reassure others in the same promise.

In this time of social distancing, I pray in the love of Christ Jesus who overcame the boundaries of fear and social stigma. The Samaritan woman at the well was not so much in need of a physical healing as she was an emotional, social healing.[2]Our faith in Christ acknowledges those areas in our individual and public lives where we need emotional and moral healing as much as physical.

By temporarily limiting our gatherings, we are being responsible in not contributing to the problem – the transmission of disease. But at this time especially let’s be just as vigilant in not abdicating our moral call to be responsible for others’ care.

I pray in the love of Christ who reached out to touch and heal the blind man, the leper, the diseased, and who placed himself, even to death on a cross, all in the public sphere. I pray in the love of Christ whose life and love extends to our times and public places, into our hearts and into our very own relationships and communities. 

At the end of the pandemic which will surely come, my hope is that as human beings will have overcome the physical danger, Christians will also have stayed true to our moral compass.

The Peace of Christ be with you all.

[1]David Brooks, “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too.” New York Times, March 12, 2020.

[2]John 4:5-30

Blinded by the light

It was no coincidence that I was humming the refrain of Bruce Springsteen’s song when I left my eye appointment. I was literally “blinded by the light”. 

The drops I had received dilated my pupils so much so that I couldn’t keep my eyes open in the bright outdoors. Even on a cloudy day the white snow cover amplified the light so that my treated eyes just could not cope. 

Though the doctor promised that within a couple of hours normality would return to my stressed eyes, for the time being I had to wear dark shades to keep the light out.

In this case, darkness was a friend. I welcomed and sought out dark places.

Nicodemus came to Jesus when it was dark.[1]For whatever reason, he needed to find Jesus at night. He knew he couldn’t do this in the bright of day. He knew he couldn’t take the scrutiny and public exposure that confronting Jesus with personal questions, would entail. Darkness surrounded an intimate conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. It is obvious Nicodemus pursues, under the cover of night, some deep-seeded yearning to learn more about this man, Jesus.

Nicodemus and Jesus talk about new birth and being lifted up to renewed life. Ironically a new vision for life, light and blessing is being born in Nicodemus at night. In the bible, Nicodemus isn’t the only one who likes the dark.

In the first reading today, God blesses Abraham.[3]The word ‘bless’ appears five times in four short verses. Clearly, this passage is about what blessing means. It is through the descendants of Abraham, whose lineage then goes through Jesus, that God’s blessing for the life of all is achieved.

And here we must deal with one of the great paradoxes of the faith.

One the one hand, the blessing of God knows no limits. The blessing upon Abraham has a limitless purpose: “that all the families on earth shall be blessed.” God’s blessing is meant for the benefit of all. God’s blessing is not confined to individual benefit alone.

God’s vision is much more expansive – like the stars in the sky. The blessing of God has a trajectory that does not stop with individual gain. God’s blessing is universal in scope. Anything less is a blessing truncated, even misguided.

This expansive, limitless, trajectory is reflected in one of the most popular scriptures from the New Testament. “For God so loved the world … in order that the world might be saved through [Jesus].”[4]Jesus gave his life and love, for the sake of everyone.

And yet, at the same time, we must acknowledge our individual limits. Whatever blessing of which each of us may be part is only as conduit for the benefit of others.

God blesses Abraham at night. In a parallel passage from Genesis God brings Abraham outside and says to him, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them … So shall your descendants be.”[5]Do you notice the subtext? It is only at night that you can see the stars. At night God gives Abraham the great covenant promise. Like with Nicodemus, it is in the darkness where the most intimate and significant conversation takes place between God and the “father of us all”[6], in Paul’s words from Romans.

The paradox of faith is that we participate in the vastness, limitless regions of God’s grace but only by respecting and acknowledging our limits.

It’s true about the soul, too: We can only bear so much light.[7]If there’s too much light coming at us, we’re blinded. Light can be as blinding as darkness. Sometimes, we need to turn off all the screens after the sun sets. Sometimes, we need to watch the darkness fall, and be present to it.

We have limits as human beings. Better learn early in life to embrace those limits of sight, limits of physicality, limits of intelligence and knowing, limits of our capability. It will help us down the road.

We cannot presume to bless others — be a conduit of God’s blessing — if we believe we can do anything and everything on our own. We make a mistake when we presume we know what others need before asking them, when we think we understand the truth about others before getting to know them. Unless we first come to terms with and respect our own limitations, we cannot bless others with words of affirmation, gifts or acts of kindness without genuine humility.[8]

On the other side of the paradox, we make a mistake when we don’t trust in the limitless vision of God’s love for everyone, when we limit God into boxes of our own creation, when we act as if God is only on our side. The irony is when we act in ways that respect our limitations, we can be empowered to do incredible things as conduits of God’s blessing for all people.

One piece of advice given to writers is that you must be master of the world you write about. When the setting and subject of the book know no bounds – if it’s a book about this, that, and everything but the kitchen sink – the weaker the writing will likely be. However, if you can contain your world, draw in the boundaries about what you write and limit its scope, the better your writing will be.

Watership Down, written by Richard Adams in 1972, was a fiction tale I read in my early teens. The book left an impression on me that I can still feel to this day. From what I remember, the entire story is written within the confines of a relatively small area of land where rabbits go about their adventures. The story’s telling occurred on this defined area of land above and below it. And yet, within the limited parameters of a unique setting, the author created a compelling masterpiece of plot, character and image.

God’s scope is universal. The trajectory of God’s love and promise knows no bounds. Yet, the way we shall enjoin the work and wonder of God’s Spirit is by seeking God in the darkness of our lives. By acknowledging our weakness. When we fumble and trip and shuffle in the dark trying to find God. When we recognize the limits of our own human being …

Then, we can do so much for good within the container of our own lives. We bloom where we are planted. We exercise the limitless love of God within the parameters of our own circle of life. We reflect the light of God especially in the dark recesses of our soul. The darkness can be a safe, nurturing space. “It’s how we began our life in our mother’s womb and it’s how we restore our life, day by day.”[2]

And we know that for God, there is no dark nor light,[9]only loving presence everywhere and always.

[1]John 3:1-17

[2]Br. Curtis Almquist, “Signs of Life: Light; Day Seven” (SSJE, Brother Give Us A Word, 7 March 2020), www.ssje.org

[3]Genesis 12:1-4a

[4]John 3:16-17

[5]Genesis 15:5

[6]Saint Paul, Romans 4:16

[7]Br. Curtis Almquist, “Signs of Life: Light; Day Four” (SSJE, Brother Give Us A Word, 4 March 2020), www.ssje.org

[8]Michael Frost, Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016), p.35-39.

[9]Psalm 139:12 – “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1]Matthew 4:1-11

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

[3]Matthew 6:11

[4]Matthew 27:38-44

[5]Matthew 27:46

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

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

[8]Matthew 28:20

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