Memory and Promise

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The annual meeting today reminds us that the clocks turn regardless of all that has happened in the past year. We do certain things at the same time every year. Anniversaries are like that. Every year, we will celebrate birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and occasions that call us to pause, and remember.

Remember, what happened a year ago. Two years ago. Ten years ago. Anniversaries signify, in the passage of time, the truth that our lives and the world has changed and will continue to do so. 

The prophet Jeremiah is born right into the middle of major changes in the lives of the ancient Israelites. Throughout Jeremiah’s life, much of the Middle East was at war. The situation in which Jeremiah spoke God’s messages was one of disaster and uncertainty. Those were not happy times. Observing anniversaries at that time would have been difficult events.

The passage from Jeremiah given to us this fifth Sunday in Lent in 2021 is nevertheless a word of hope. How so? What distinguishes, in our time, a posture of faith? What distinguishes, in our time, a people of faith? Because everyone will confess the many ways the pandemic has challenged our ways of life in the past year. But what sets the person of faith apart?

Two qualities of the spirit emerge from Jeremiah’s words: Memory and Promise. First, Jeremiah appeals to the people, to remember. Remember what God did to save God’s people: How God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. How it was to try following the letter of God’s law in the wilderness and entering the Promised Land. How God led the people “by the hand” through challenging times in the past.

Some say that having faith is like looking in the rear view mirror when driving. People of faith today will pause to remember the gifts of the past. People of faith are grounded in the memory of good and bad times. They will hold and honour what has happened, and where they have been.

They understand that they are not just individuals living an episodic, disconnected experience today; rather people of faith are part of something larger. They are connected to a long lineage and history that continues to bear fruit, and bring value and meaning to their existence today. Even in the tough times. Memory.

The prophet also gives his words in the future tense. God will accomplish good things some day. “I will make a new covenant …”; “I will write my law on their hearts; “I will be their God …”; “I will forgive their sins …” 

The people of God trust the promises of God. Our faith looks up to Thee. We turn towards a future we cannot yet grasp. It’s just beyond our reach, on the horizon of our vision. Despite the difficulties we face, we continue to strive in the direction of the promise. We live and lean into the good that surely awaits.

The promise is true. People of faith know this. Not with their heads. Not with the calculating mind. But with their hearts. And hearts know love. The promise of God is given out of love, with love and for love. That’s why we can believe in the promise.

We hold our memories, in loving regard. We look to the future of God’s promise knowing that God looks past our failure, our sin, our fear and anxiety. God looks upon our hearts of love.

And because our memories and promises are held in hearts of love, we can live this moment. Because our past and our future have love as their genesis and final goal, we can rest inbetween memory and promise. We can be present and stay in touch with our actual situation and ourselves now, just as things are, and just as we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.

When Sabbath never ends

19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.[1]

When Jesus was visiting the temple in Jerusalem shortly before he died, he said the most curious thing. His listeners, of course, took his words literally, which was a problem. Because it took forty-six years to build that temple and it still wasn’t completely done. But Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They couldn’t believe him.

The disciples believed him only after he died and was raised to new life. They had to experience for themselves the loss and grief of their Lord’s death. They had to experience for themselves the joy of the resurrection. 

Neither literalism nor metaphor could ultimately help his disciples believe what he was talking about. Only experiencing—being there—in the moment of his dying on the cross and three days later rising to new life could they finally come to believe in Jesus.

It’s easier to deny and avoid the hard learning that comes from living and accepting the life we live, in this moment. It’s easier to say, “we just need to get through to the end of this pandemic, get our vaccines and get back to normal,” before we can be whole again, be true to ourselves and live life. As if what we experience now is too difficult a task, too confusing a time, too frustrating to accept as the moment to live and experience the grace of God. As if it doesn’t have anything of value to teach us, to show us.

A reading assigned for this Third Sunday in Lent comes from the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments.[2] Maybe because it is the third Sunday in the Lenten season, I zeroed in on the third commandment about observing the Sabbath. But I really don’t know why this one especially jumped out at me. Maybe because it feels like COVID time has imposed sabbath for many of us. 

We have been forced—more difficult for some to accept than others—to stay at home, shelter in place, restrict gathering in places of social meeting. It has been more time alone, more time to reflect, more time to rest. We have had to experience what it means to pause the normally hectic pace of life.

Usually sabbath observance, as with all the ten commandments, is what we chose to do if we are wise. But this sabbath has not only been imposed on us, it may also be the longest sabbath ever. What do we do when sabbath never ends?

It may be scandalous for me to say I’m grateful for this last year. 

Yes, I know we still live under the threat of catching the virus or spreading it to vulnerable loved ones. Yes, many have gotten really sick and some have died. Yes, the anxiety levels are high all around, and so much in our work-a-day world remains uncertain. We still live, in many ways, on the precipice. 

And when under threat, our knee-jerk is to get busy, go somewhere, see someone, do something. Anything. But “Be still and know that I am Lord”[3]? Don’t do anything productive? Just, be? Like I said, scandalous. 

So, why am I grateful? 

Last week our sixteen-year-old daughter Mika wasn’t sure what to do one evening. So, she said, out of the blue, “I’m going to make peanut butter cookies.” Eyebrows cocked all around. Silence fell like a huge question mark upon the scene. She hadn’t made cookies in months. In fact it had been a long time since she last baked anything let alone the king of all cookies – the peanut butter cookie.

“Ok! Go for it!” We encouraged her.

These cookies turned out to be the BEST peanut butter cookies EVER. The right balance between firm and soft. The flavour not too strong but peanut buttery enough.  And they were big! For Jessica and me, a bit of a temptation knowing that scoffing down a couple of these would ruin the day’s calorie count and throw off any weight loss plan.

Building on that positive experience, Mika announced a couple of days later that she was going to bake biscuits – a whole tray of them. Only four of us live in our house. What do you do with twenty biscuits? And they, too, turned out scrumptious. Nothing like the taste of some margarine dripping from hot biscuits fresh out of the oven.

Now, I know it’s pure conjecture, but I wonder if Mika would have been so affirmed in her gift of baking if not for this imposed sabbath time. In the past we all told her that she had some gifts for baking. But she either didn’t have time nor the space to develop and experience some sustained success with baking, with all the other things competing for her attention pre-COVID. 

They say that sabbath time is creative time. In order to learn and experience something new, we need to create some space and time for it to be birthed and nurtured. In that sabbath time a great gift of God, a grace, waits to be discovered anew.

For you, sabbath may reflect a different context and yield different fruit. But why is this pandemic and its restrictions taking so long? I don’t know for sure. But could God want each of us to learn something valuable during this time? I mean, really learn it. Have we not yet fully recognized and appreciated that which is ours to learn? There may be a gift waiting for us to accept, and practice. And God wants us to experience it for ourselves.

Because when this is over in the next year, we will no doubt be tantalized, stimulated, tempted and distracted again with all those compulsive activities and intrepid pace that drove our lives pre-COVID. But will we want or need to engage life in the same way again? Without  giving up on what is essential and most important in our lives, which must include social interaction of course, do we need that level of go-go intensity that overlooks our limitations and need for periodic sabbath rests?

God is in this moment. God’s light shines for us in all that is dark in our lives. We don’t have to wait until ‘later’ to discover or experience the fullness of God’s grace. Because Jesus is right in front of us now, trying to get our attention.

[1] John 2:19-22, NRSV; the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)

[2] Exodus 20:1-17

[3] Psalm 46:10


Many of us grew up with the story of the Three Little Pigs who came across an untimely end when they encountered the Big Bad Wolf. The story was told from the perspective of, and with sympathy for, the pigs.

The original story portrays the wolf huffing and puffing and blowing down the straw and stick-made houses of the first two little pigs. The wolf was bad, and we didn’t like him by the end of the story. He deserved his comeuppance: In the original tale, the wolf dies trying to break into the third pig’s brick house.

But the story told from the perspective of the wolf, a retelling by children’s author Jon Scieszka[1], shows an entirely different reason for the wolf’s aggressive actions. The wolf was making a cake for his granny. And he ran out of sugar. So, he decided to go and ask his neighbours for a little bit of sugar, just like anyone might do in a friendly neighbourhood, right?

Problem is, Mr. Wolf had a bad cold. And he was sneezing all the time. And basically, that’s what leads to the straw and stick homes being blown down. He eats the dead pigs not to be wasteful of good food and it is in his nature to eat, after all.

In the revised story, the third pig inside the brick house insults the wolf’s granny. And the wolf doesn’t stand for any disrespect for his elder. So the wolf wants to give the pig a piece of his mind. But things don’t turn out so well for the wolf, as we know. We may still not side with Mr. Wolf completely, yet the revised version gives us a more sympathetic understanding for the wolf’s actions.

Taking an old story that everyone knows and re-telling it from a different perspective can lead to new insights and a deeper understanding of the truth. 

In the Gospel story for today[2], the narrative Peter believes is the one the world talks about. Jesus announces first that he will suffer and die. And the world’s narrative about suffering and death is that these things are to be denied and avoided at all costs. We deny suffering because it leads to meaningless despair, anguish, sorrow and a helpless, endless demise into nothingness. That’s the world’s perspective.

Peter, at first, only sees it from the world’s perspective. No wonder he “rebukes” Jesus. The notion that the Messiah should suffer and die – who would stand for that?!

The world cannot initially grasp this notion of faith amidst the suffering, the hope born out of death to new life. We kind of easily, even unwittingly, remain stuck in the negativity of it all. And that can only lead to despair. And keep us stuck there.

I think Lent is about critically looking at the narratives we believe – believe about ourselves, God, and others. Seeing it from a different perspective might help dislodge some of our unhelpful assumptions. So, Lent is first about grieving the past. It is about, first, the suffering and death parts of what Jesus said. We cannot deny nor avoid it. So we must confront our pain, losses and suffering. We must feel it and grieve it.

This year, we are accustomed very much so to the feeling of Lent. After all, the entire year has felt like Lent, so today is just another blurs-day, another “ashy day.”[3]

In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “The point is that for more than a year now, that’s pretty much all I’ve done — reflect, pray, and read, mostly alone, all the while worried that I might die, someone I love might die, or I’d unwittingly contribute (by my own carelessness) to someone else dying. Every time I put on a mask, I think of death and dying.”[4]

In a year where over twenty thousand Canadians have died from COVID and millions of people around the world, the Lenten discipline of contemplating mortality seems like one more painful day. Every single day, these days it seems, is an exercise in mortality, as we see our dusty illusions of existence coming at us like a wicked lake-effect blizzard.

But Jesus also then says that, after the suffering and death, he will rise again to new life. That promise undergirds all our suffering and dying. Jesus introduces a different perspective, a new narrative for life: Death has not the final word. We can endure what we must endure because of the promise of transformation, renewal and new life, in Christ Jesus.

A couple who postponed indefinitely their wedding date from last summer because of the social restrictions reflected on how they felt about the uncertainty of it all. Before COVID they knew their love was going to be publicly professed in a wedding on a specific date. Today, they still don’t have a wedding date despite their ongoing commitment to set one when the time is right.

What remains constant nevertheless is their love for each other. The groom said that there is a certain degree of growing anticipation and joy with each passing day, not knowing when that date will be, yet confident only that it will happen someday.

Perhaps there is a hope we can feel with that couple. Grounded in a steadfast love that pre-exists any crisis we face, can we live each day in the hope that one day we will come out of the pandemic intact? New life emerges from the dust heap of Lent. We continue on in this hope, this blessed promise.

And that’s a perspective worth believing in.

[1] Jon Scieszka, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (Toronto: Penguin/Scholastic, 1991)

[2] For the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B – Mark 8:31-38

[3] Diana Butler Bass, “Just Another Ashy Day” in The Cottage (, 17 Feb 2021).

[4] Ibid.


Adam Shoalts was hungry. For four months in the summer of 2017 during his four-thousand-kilometre adventure alone across Canada’s Arctic, he admitted that he was constantly hungry.[1]

Even though he was able to consume over three thousand calories a day mainly by eating energy bars and freeze-dried meals on the fly, his extreme physical labour meant he was still losing weight and craving even more food. 

He had to learn to live with it.

Feverishly paddling his canoe sometimes seventy kilometres a day across Great Bear Lake, poling his canoe against the strong currents on the great Mackenzie or Coppermine Rivers in the far north, hauling his canoe over giant rapids, or carrying all his gear through muddy swamps for up to forty-kilometre portages burned every calorie and more that his body stored. 

And he had to keep moving. Most of the Far North is encased in ice and snow for nine months of the year. He had only a narrow window of time in which to make this impossible trek. Once he had to pass on fishing for seventy-pound lake trout off the north shore of Great Bear Lake in order to keep his torrid, exhausting pace to make it across in time.

But it was even before his journey began where he shows his discipline to learn to live with and accept his hunger. Friends were driving him and his gear up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon towards Fort McPherson. They stopped at an old inn on the gravel roadway near the Arctic Circle. The hosts offered to cook up anything on the menu. His friends ordered the chili. They encouraged Shoalts to eat the chili as well, since in the next four months his staple would consist of a more meagre fare.

Instead, Shoalts calmly chose one oatmeal cookie, without thinking more of it. He knew that should he pig-out on his last meal he would not wisely manage his stomach for success, for the long grind ahead.

While reading again the traditional Gospel story for this First Sunday in Lent – Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – I paused at the part where the devil tempts Jesus to eat.[2]“He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” So, this was quite a temptation Jesus overcame when he denied the devil’s baiting.

In order to walk in the way of Jesus, it’s also traditional in Lent to give something up – a favourite food or other unhealthy habits. Why do we do this? One reason, is we want positive change in our lives. Eating less chocolate, watching less TV or abstaining from meat will make us better, healthier people, we believe. Transformation is another word for it. 

Transformation in the way of Christ often comes from first letting go of something. The changes we yearn for – the new thing which we envision and to which we aspire – can’t happen without first loosening our controls, certitudes and compulsions.[3]And living with the pangs of hunger for a while.

Our ego will resist. Because on the surface we don’t want to go without. We don’t want to be uncertain about the outcome of our labour. We don’t want to confront our cravings, and ‘feel’ hungry. We compulsively want more and more, instant gratification. 

It almost feels scandalous to say – especially to privileged people that we are – that God created us to know hunger, to know this yearning for food, material and spiritual. What is the good about feeling this hunger?

Being hungry exposes what we really believe, deep down, what we really think. This awareness can lead to a re-consideration and revision of long held assumptions. Going without also forces us into a deeper listening to what is going on around us. As we suffer the pangs of any kind of hunger, our egos have less energy to get in the way, and we listen more, we receive more and we accept more. We learn what it’s like to let go. 

That’s why fasting has been a common tradition in Lent. It is at this point in the experience of the journey where the seed of transformation is born and out of which true growth emerges.

The kind of Lenten discipline that attracts my attention are those commitments that connect doing without with giving more. So, for example, when people eat less and the difference from what they would normally have consumed they donate or give in some way to others in need. The inner discipline of letting go is inextricably linked to an outer discipline of blessing the world.

There are almost a billion people on this planet who go to bed hungry every night. There are around thirty thousand Canadians who don’t have their own ‘home’ and sleep on the street. During this COVID winter we are advised to ‘stay home’; but, indeed, what if you don’t have a home? Jesus identifies with those who go hungry. God knows how it feels, in our humanity, to be hungry, to have no home and be without.

In the end, the story about Jesus’ temptation in the desert is a story about God’s intention to be human and identify fully with our humanity. God will go the distance, will experience what it’s like to do without, will feel the pangs of hunger – a hunger for us, a hunger for relationship, a hunger to be in communion with everyone and everything. 

God will identify not just with the part of ourselves that we wish everyone will see, but also with that part of us that hungers, that is lacking in us. God’s vision of love is set on the hungering stomach and the hungering soul. That’s where God goes, into the desert wildernesses of our lives. Will we?

I haven’t yet finished reading the book about Adam Shoalts’ incredible journey. But I assume he survived and reached his end goal on the shores of Hudson Bay, since he lived to write about it. And I suspect he is all the better a person for reaching his goal, and grateful, for having paid the price of being hungry for a while.

God bless you on your journey of Lent.

[1]Adam Shoalts, Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic (Toronto: Penguin, 2020).

[2]Mark 1:13; though Matthew and Luke provide more detailed descriptions of the Temptation of Jesus. See Luke 4:2 and Matthew 4:2. 

[3]Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media), p.84.