Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,I shall fear no evil,For Thou art with me …(Psalm 23:4)
For my camping trip last week, I packed my go-to spork (fork on the one end, spoon on the other). I like this item for its efficiency in packing on a canoe-camping adventure into the back-country of Algonquin Park.
But on the first night, and after the first meal as I was cleaning the dishes by the campfire, my plastic spork exploded into several pieces. It was done. And then I wondered how I would eat my food for the rest of the trip without any cutlery.
Fortunately I was not alone. John was with us and he is an outdoor survivalist. Bush-crafting is John’s passion. He eyed a deadfall cedar tree lying on the ground at the edge of our campsite, and said, “That wood is perfect for carving … “ John took out his knife and before our next meal the following day, he had carved a spoon for me.
I thought of Albert as I enjoyed the gift of John’s handiwork. Your Dad was known for his ‘MacGyvering’ skills. My experience of grace in the bush brought Albert to mind, and made him present to me in that moment last week.
A lot in our world sends us the message that nothing we do matters. Especially the small things that don’t get noticed in the world. That deadfall cedar trunk lying on the sidelines of a campsite in Algonquin Park – does it matter? The little things we craft from nothing – does it matter? Gathering outside today in the middle of summer’s heat three months after Albert’s death – does it matter? The words we say and the seemingly simple things we do – does it matter? The names we bring to mind and pronounce of loved ones gone – does it make any difference? Does it matter? Any of it?
Grief will sometimes take us there, into the shadows of our hearts. At the same time, that’s where God goes. I sure felt the love, care and support of my friend John when he took his skill and his time to work for me – to help me. This little, cedar spoon might not amount to much ‘in the real world’. But this little spoon brought to my mind and heart the awareness of God’s presence, God’s love through the caring act of a friend.
It matters. Yes. All of it matters. And as we bring to mind our memories of Albert Frederich Reiche, as we speak out loud his name, he comes to life in our hearts today. All the MacGyvering, all the little things—these serve as reminders that God is real, and God is with us.
In the time to come, I ask you to pay attention to the little things. Every little thing around you, every one you meet, every thing you do—therein lies the pathway to experience the presence of your beloved Albert and the God in whom he rests, eternally.
My brother and I paddled across several small lakes on our journey down towards the Barron River Canyon this last week. We had to portage several times to get from one lake to the next. Each time we put in, we surveyed the far shore of the lake we had just entered to determine our direction forward.
When we started paddling across the long Highfalls Lake, we knew from the map that at the far end we should find a narrowing of the lake into a river which would take us to the next portage. Yet for most of the paddle up the lake, I couldn’t see any exit. All I could see was a typical rocky and forested shoreline barring any water-way forward.
Were we in the wrong lake? Did we make a wrong turn somewhere? Did we just spend the last hour hiking a brutal portage just to have to turn around and go back? Despair started to settle in.
Yet as we finally neared the far shore, the closer in we paddled, gradually the unique contours of the shoreline revealed itself. And, sure enough, angling off to the side, a narrow river opened to us the way forward.
John the Baptist is known for his radical way of introducing people to faith. Standing in the Jordan River he baptizes with water people yearning for new life. Then, John the Baptist introduces people to Jesus, who will baptize not only with water but with the Spirit of the living God.
The Gospel text for today describes the grusume circumstances of John’s death. Yet a closer reading suggests that this story really points a clear finger at Jesus. For one thing, this story begins with a debate about who Jesus is: Is he Elijah, or a prophet, or John the Baptist raised from the dead?
In Mark’s Gospel, the answer to this question is not revealed until the crucifixion. Here, a Roman soldier watching Jesus die on the cross recognizes Jesus for who he is: “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”
God’s revelation in the Gospel centres on the cross. The cross represents the place, the moment, where God is most profoundly revealed for who God is in Christ Jesus. In the moment of Jesus’ greatest vulnerability is the place where we witness God’s truth, God’s message and God’s love.
When death confronts us—whether our own or the dying and death of a loved one—we are at our most vulnerable. And the Gospel of Jesus announces that especially when we are most vulnerable God is most present, and most clearly revealed to us.
Vulnerability requires us to approach a distant shoreline. Vulnerability, as difficult a way it is, calls us to approach another person with love and tenderness, mercy and curiousity. It doesn’t happen quickly. As in the canoe paddling across the lake to the distant shoreline, the vision of the other happens slowly, gradually, and after some hard paddling.
When congregations allow for vulnerability of its members, God is present. When congregations allow for “our full selves to show up”, Christ is with us. In short, it is in God’s vulnerability where we learn how to be with one another and how to treat one another in Christ Jesus. And that’s why we have congregations; that’s why people will gather in Christ’s name. Not to show off, but just to show up as we truly are.
Paul writes in the New Testament, “By grace you have been saved”. That’s one of the earliest insights in the Christian tradition: it’s not by what you do that you earn God’s love. Not because you appear attractive and have purged out all the sin in your life does God accept you. But as you are. Not by performing impressive feats nor by being considered good, not by your works. But by gift, that you have been saved.
That means you belong. God has taken you in. God embraces you as you are—shadow and light, everything. God embraces it all, by grace. And it has already happened. For you, and for everyone.
Dare to approach closely the other shore. Resist the temptation to stay at a distance. Resist the temptation to draw conclusions about others too quickly. Resist the temptation to believe you know everything about them without taking the time and energy to get to know them, shadow and light. Because from a distance your vision may be impaired.
Yet when you do come closer you will discover the way forward. Closer in, not only will you notice the crags, the cracks as well as the beauty in the unique features of the other person’s life, you will find the water-way into channels that lead to deeper connection and a deeper love.
Tomato plants require abundant water. Before the recent rains, I was out pretty much every evening watering our one tomatoe plant in a small raised bed. It concerned me, in the heat and dryness of the past couple of months, when I missed a day or two in a row. I was worried that I wasn’t doing my part to ensure a healthy yield at the end of the summer.
When we received the deluge of much needed rain in the last week, I could see the plant fill out immediately and expand even out over the edge of the box. How much it needed the rain! How much it depended on it, to grow.
I realized, in that mundane example, how interdependent life is on this earth. That it truly takes all parts, all members of creation, to participate in the maintenance and growth of life. I did my small part when it wasn’t raining. And when the time was right, beyond my doing, the much-needed rainfall did its part.
These days, we face a new beginning. We are like Moses and the people of Israel on the mountain looking into the Promised Land. We are like Moses and the people of Israel looking into the Promised Land, and considering how best to cross the Jordan and live in this new land. This new land, I call the post-pandemic church. We are now in liminal, inbetween space, one foot in the near past, and one foot begging to take the next step.
It’s a good time to recall and recover the basic question of who we are, as the people of God. “Why congregations?” The first point is that congregations create a place for deep social bonding. Perhaps the key word in this phrase is ‘deep’. Or, ‘deeper’ than what we might initially think.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus is rejected by his home town. His response to this rejection redefines what relationships look like in the reign of God on earth. And, it goes deeper than what we might initially think.
For one thing, it is often a social bonding born out of conflict and difference—as Jesus himself experienced. “And they took offence at him.” Whether with his family members or hometown neighbours who only knew him as a carpenter’s son, Jesus recognized our knee-jerk capacity to exploit our differences and assume that what makes us different from one another is somehow bad and unacceptable. And must be rejected outright.
The deeper bonding is not about overlooking or denying our differences. It is about respecting those differences while acknowledging our deeper, common humanity underneath the surface of human interaction.
The deeper social bonding that congregations, churches, and communities of faith offer and from whom each of us will benefit is a bonding that goes beyond traditional family definitions, social club constructs, meetings of the ‘like-minded’. These may serve an ego-purpose of feeling good.
But the reign of God is much more than feeling good, or everyone conforming to some arbitrary standard of behaviour. It is recognizing how interdependent we are on this planet Earth.
I like illustrating truth from stories on the big screen or in books. I know not everyone here is a sci-fi movie buff, so please bear with me as I give you an example from what is now an old movie. Do you remember back in 1997 a movie called “Contact”?
In an interview with astronomer, Dr. Jill Tarter, she was asked about her work searching for life on other planets. Jill was the inspiration for the main character, Dr. Ellie Arroway, in that movie, staring Jody Foster.
During the interview, Dr. Tarter often referred to ourselves as “earthlings”. While this term is not one we normally use to describe our common humanity, she suggests that understanding ourselves as earthlings might just save the world.
She says, that calling ourselves “earthlings” is like “holding up a mirror to every individual on this planet and saying, ‘See, all of you? You’re all the same, when compared to something out there that had evolved independently.’”
This broad perspective helps us notice our differences “over which we’re so willing to shed blood, when, indeed, we are all human. We are all earthlings.” And if you see yourself as an earthling before you see yourself as American, Canadian, Indigenous, Asian, rich, poor, privileged, Muslim, Christian, gay, straight, etc., perhaps we can have a more fruitful conversation and deepen the social bonds in the community of faith.
And not reject someone for being different.
Jesus responds to his rejection at Nazareth not by giving up nor conforming to the pressures of his local tribe to just ‘be like them’. Jesus responds by moving forward in God’s mission to go out into the world not depending on anything else besides the promise and vision of the all-inclusive Gospel of Christ. “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two … [and they] cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
The Gospel ends with a call for repentence – a turning around. “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.” In the Gospel repentence is not just for individuals. We are at our best, not journeying alone as autonomous individuals doing our own thing, even with the Lord. We are at our best when we are in community.
The word ‘devil’ comes from the Greek which means, ‘to divide’, bring ‘discord’ and separate. Good religion realigns us. Good religion will always bring different people to be together in one place, to be a congregation and a faith community that includes rather than excludes, widens the circle rather than shrinking it, follows Jesus into the world rather than circling the wagons.
Those tomatoes needed me as much as I needed them. Not just for me or my family and friends to enjoy eating at the end of a season. But to remind me of my place from the larger perspective, to remind me that while I may play an important part in watering them when it’s dry, ultimately I depend on and trust in God’s timing and God’s gifts; and, to remind me that if anything my job is to pay attention to just how interdependent we all are in God’s reign. And love others, for that.
The heart of Christian community is the heart of God, who is community. For Christians, God is not one person, but three. I believe that unless we live in communion with one another, our witness to a God who is first and foremost community will fall on deaf ears.
There is no more important place for you in the community of faith, no more important job for you to do in the community of faith, than starting by just being yourself, and doing what small thing you can, as part of the interdependent web of relationships to which we all belong. Just be you. Because that’s who God created you to be, out of a great and deep love. And then, turn to another, and love them for being who they are, created also in the image of God.
On this St Jean Baptiste Day—June 24—we heard about John the Baptist from the Gospel (Mark 1:1-8). He was obviously a strange man: He wore clothes with camel hair, and he baptized and preached repentance for the forgiveness of sin.
All of this he did for one reason. The reason he named: “After me comes he who is mightier than I,…I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.“
Again, that’s kind of strange. John’s purpose is to be a forerunner of Jesus Christ. He prepares people for the coming of Jesus.
Preparing, that is what we also do in confirmation classes. Over the last couple of years—indeed your whole life since you were baptized—you have been preparing yourselves for saying yes to Jesus Christ. Yes I am a Christian. Yes I will trust God and continue on the journey of learning about and figuring out for myself the meaning of God and God’s son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
When we think about it, that’s what all of us are doing every year and every time we come together as the church to pray, to worship and serve in Christ’s name.
But isn’t that a bit strange? Is it not enough to prepare just once? In a way, the confirmation service is a conclusion of sorts. But, if we are honest, we all know as Christians we are never finished learning about and growing in faith.
This is what is special about Christianity. You are never finished. You never really graduate and say, “Now I know everything.” The grace of God and the gift of faith accompany you all your life. And the good thing is that God accompanies you all your life, too. So, you are never alone.
The church is a community that is here to support your growth and learn from each other. We offer each other gifts to help us on the way. So, today, we want to give special gifts to our confirmands—we’re calling it the S.O.S. box to help you not only survive but thrive in your life of faith.
So, in your S.O.S. box, you will find:
1) First, a compass.
A compass shows the way. It points you in the right direction and reminds you that there are Christian churches all over the world where God is worshipped and served, and where you can find your spiritual home anywhere on earth. Many of our parents and grandparents came from overseas in Europe over the last few centuries. And now here, 6000km away, we celebrate a service together, in person, for the first time in 15 months. God’s word is proclaimed all over the world, and online. And you are welcome everywhere to be with your siblings in faith.
2) Then, in your S.O.S. box you will find a flashlight.
A flashlight is handy when the power goes out, or when you are out at night
But apart from nighttime or not being able to see where we are, there are other kinds of ‘darkness’ in our lives. Some people speak of death as a great abyss.
But also moments that make us afraid, situations and changes that we cannot understand, feelings that feel heavy and wrong can become weighty for us.
Despairing thoughts buzz in our head, in our heart, in our soul.
Especially in such times, Jesus wants to be light for us. His love and power wants to give us security and show us a way through the shadows. Sometimes the first step can be the help of friends, a bible verse or a song that gives courage.
The light of Jesus has conquered every confusion, every grief, every fog until now – even death!
When you trust Jesus, then every confusion, every secret and every terrible experience will eventually lose its power and terror. You will feel how his light begins to shine in you and gain strength – until you yourself begin to reflect the light of God’s love again.
3) Third, in your S.O.S. box you will find a key.
Doors usually lock something. The apartment door protects us from burglars, the fire door prevents fire from spreading, the washroom door ensures privacy, soundproof doors dampen loud noises from the other side …
Locked doors all serve their purpose precisely when they are closed. But you can use the key to unlock them when you want to cross the threshold of a door.
There is a Bible verse in which Jesus compares himself to a door, he says:
I am the door; if anyone enters by me, they will be saved, and will go in and out, and find pasture. (John 10,9)
Jesus says he is the door! But he is not a closed door. On the contrary, this door is always open, for all who want to come to God. Through him one can come to the good pasture, that is, to the glory of our loving God.
And we have the key—our relationship with God. In the word of God we can make our way through the door. Here we learn the love that Jesus has for us. Through the stories of the bible we also learn to live our lives out of this love. We learn to love ourselves and to accept Jesus as our best friend, forever! And then this door is open to us—wide open!
In some countries, this key is suppressed by law. But by God’s grace everyone in Canada is free to have this key and use it.
Remember, though, this key is of no use if it is just lying uselessly on the shelf. Only when we have it with us and use it, it can be helpful for us on our journey of faith.
4) We also give you this small tree as a reminder of our growth in faith. This little tree will need a lot of help to grow into its mature fullness. It will need sunshine, water, and likely soon a bigger pot and fresh soil. And, time.
Like for you, and for us all, our growth in faith will take time, a lifetime. Also, we can’t grow without help. Throughout our lives, we, too, will need the regular nourishment of the holy meal, friendship in faith, support in difficult times and gifts of God in all creation. We can’t force the tree to grow. But we can nurture it. And see what happens!
Take care of the tree. And watch it grow.
5) The last item in your S.O.S. kit, mentioned already, is the Bible.
Of all the other items in your kit, this is the very important. Here we´ll find all the stories of God and his people. Here we can hear God’s promises to us!
Here we read about times of joy and also about times of sorrow. Here we can find our way forward when we have questions about faith. The Bible is the best-selling book in history! Lots of people have read it. For 2000 years it exists in this printed form. Amazing! There is always more to discover, and be surprised about, when we journey with our survival kit.
But we don’t go alone, and we are prepared for whatever comes. That is why we baptize and confirm in Christian churches. That is why we lay hands over your head and bless you.
We baptize not only with water, but with the Holy Spirit.
And your confirmation verses will remind you that throughout your life and through the Holy Spirit, God gives you Jesus (John 3:16) every day in your heart; therefore, we can be courageous because God goes with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:9); and, that no matter happens, nothing will separate you from God’s love (Romans 8:28) for you. Amazing promises!
This sermon was written by and in collaboration with the Rev. Judith Kierschke from Martin Luther Church in Ottawa
On this National Indigenous People’s Day, I’m standing on the ancestral and un-ceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe People, on the banks of the Ottawa River.
When Indigenous communities across Canada are suffering the pain of grief and loss after the discovery of 215 bodies of children buried beside a residential school in BC earlier this year, what are we to say and do? For all that has been said and done—and most of our words and deeds have not been loving—now is the time for us to stop talking, and listen.
Listen to the voices that have not been heard. Listen to the stories that have been muted. Listen to cries of the grieving and mourning people. Listen to the first peoples on this land we now occupy. Now is the time for our words to cease, and our ears to do the working.
The practice of meditation re-aligns the landscape of our inner lives. Specifically, the prayer of the heart over time begins to change how we speak and how we act, when we engage the world around us. The discipline of prayer is like learning a new language for our lives.
Learning a new language requires those involved in the conversation to slow down, to speak clearly, to choose your words carefully. And, more often in the conversation, to listen.
A small way we can align our heart with our words and actions is indeed to slow down. It’s ok to allow space amidst our speech. By speaking slowly and creating spaces of silence between our words we open up room for the heart—the heart of love—to come out. When we stop our talking, or at least slow down our speech, we give permission for others to find their own words. And I can’t think of a better way, these days, to love others who are grieving.
I want to thank the meditation group leaders across Canada who gathered with me in a Zoom room in the late Spring to listen to each other. In Zoom rooms we can’t all be talking all of the time. For these online meetings to work well, everyone needs to do more listening than anything else. Especially in large groups, as this one was (over fifty attended)! Thank you for practising healthy relationships by hearing each other and allowing for that holy space to grow, inbetween the words.
Mark 4:35-41 is one of my favourite stories about Jesus from the Gospels. It is a parable for us, today, whenever the storms of our lives confront the presence of Jesus …
As the weather turns from mild to severe, listen to this guided meditation to help you reflect more deeply on this story, and what it means for your life. Wherever you are seated right now, I invite you to become quiet in your heart and mind. Notice your breath. Feel your body pressing down on the seat of your chair. Hear the faithful, regular beating of your heart. You may close your eyes gently …
“You are on the rough seas. Your boat is tossing and turning in the stormy waters. Think of the storms in your own life …. Then . . .
Quiet yourself in the space you inhabit right now.
Enjoy the silence.
Let go of the distractions.
Let all your thoughts, like the birds, fly away far into the sky above.
Imagine . . .
What a great time you have had.
You and your friends have been following Jesus for days now.
You are dead tired, but still content as you find a place to rest in the boat.
Look around at the friends you have made.
Look at Jesus who is sitting at the stern.
How you admire him!
Feel the slow-moving lull of the boat.
Relax as the waves gently lull the boat back and forth.
Back and forth.
Some of your friends fall asleep.
Jesus falls asleep, too.
The boat keeps moving across the lake.
You think about the day.
Your mind is just wandering.
The wind starts blowing.
You can tell it is becoming harder to row now.
The current is choppy.
The sky is now black.
Take your turn with the oars.
Work hard against the waves and wind, pushing.
Feel the storm approaching.
The waves begin to surge into the boat.
The water is coming in over the sides.
Everyone is working so hard. Where is the bailer?
Someone yells out, “Wake up Jesus.
We need his help.
You let go of your oar and scramble over the slippery deck towards Jesus.
Wake him up …
Jesus sits up and looks around.
He calls out, “Quiet” to the wind.
The wind stops.
Just like that, the waves settle down and the wind dissipates.
Jesus looks like he wants to go back to sleep.
What just happened?
Jesus looks at all of you and says,
“Why are you so terrified?
Why are you lacking in faith?”
A great awe comes over you.
“Who is this man whom even the sea obeys?”
Stay with this feeling of wonderment.
You crawl back over to where Jesus is resting.
You approach him cautiously.
And you ask him your question,
“Who are you that the sea obeys you?”
Listen to his answer.
Tell him about something in your life that is raging,
a storm in your world,
a situation that could use Jesus’ touch.
When you are finished you hear only the gentle lapping of the waves against the hull of the boat. For now, you simply rest in Jesus’ presence. Be with him.
It is time to re-enter your space.
Say good-bye for now.
Ask Jesus to lead your way into the rest of the day.
You thank him.
Come back gently.
Open your eyes.
This Guided Meditation was adapted from Patty McCulloch, Encountering Jesus: 20 Guided Meditations on His Care and Compassion (Ave Maria Press, 2001).
The play that ended with glory started with a mistake.
The Finnish player won the face-off. But as the puck drifted behind the Finn, Canadian Nick Paul reached ahead, grabbed the puck and skated full-speed-ahead towards the Finnish goal tender. Paul scored in overtime and won the world championship in ice hockey for Canada last week in Riga, Latvia.
Two weeks earlier, it hadn’t looked so good. The Canadian team had lost their first three games against opponents they were expected to beat. And everyone was, frankly, embarassed for the Canadians and counting them out of the playoff round. An unheard of national travesty!
I was even chirpped by my German cousins after Canada’a loss to Germany in the early going. I didn’t know what to say! But there was a turning point, or turning points. And what started out as a losing cause, a sure demise and failing effort resulted in an unprecedented and surprising path to victory.
Way more important than the result itself was the way in which this group achieved the gold medal. Never before was the journey itself the key, rather than the destination. Without the various elements that came to play in this group’s evolution throughout the tournament, they never would have made it to the podium, let alone the playoffs.
After those first losses and barely scoring any goals, the easy and surely understandable way would have been to stop believing. The natural instinct would have been to stop hoping and give up on the dream. The knee jerk would have been to start blaming someone, mistrusting each other on the ice and stop listening to their coaching staff. The easy way after their losses would have been to just go through the motions, and look forward to getting back on the plane to Canada sooner than later.
It is understandable in a worldwide pandemic that has lasted into its second year, that we slip into despair or deny the truth. Denying the truth goes hand-in-hand with despairing.
Selling a house in Ottawa these days ought to be very rewarding, even houses that have structural problems. Because the market is hot and a seller’s dream, one might be tempted to forgoe the inspection which might expose problems you might want to pretend were never there. And still sell your house at a premium, and get away with it.
When you see a crack, what’s your first instinct? Push the pieces back together and patch it over. Eventually a contractor comes with the bad news: there is deep damage here, and if you don’t address it, before long the whole stucture will be fundamentally compromised. You sigh and negotiate.
We have a surprising capacity to delude ourselves about how broken the structure is. “With enough duct tape and rope, I will get back to normal.”
For people of faith, as well. In the midst of dislocation and destabalization that the pandemic has inflicted on us, we may very well be tempted to re-stabalize. After all, institutions are durable partly because they obey the law of inertia. It’s in our institutional DNA, especially the church.
And you’ve heard the sentiments: “Let’s return to the building”, “Let’s get back to normal.” It’s a knee jerk reaction to the stress of the unraveling, breaking and the cracking open we have experienced during the pandemic.
Another course of action on this journey is to acknowlege the cracking, the failure and the losses as the bearer of truth for us. It’s not all perfect. Never was. There are cracks in the foundation. Always were.
And that’s ok, because a people humbled by disruption and decline may be a less arrogant and less presumptuous people down the road. We may have fewer illusions about our own power and centrality in our society. We may become more curious, honest and authentic human beings. We may have to work harder at our disciplines. We may finally embrace our mustard seed identity. And finally admit how much we need the true power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
Team Canada would never have found the way to claw out of the basement without embracing and owning their initial losses. They would never have found the way by denying their problems and pretending they deserved the championship before playing anymore games. They would never have found the way without learning to play with each other and knowing each other’s strengths and limitations in the midst of those early struggles.
Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, wrote, “Believe that farthest shore, is reachable from here.” It’s one thing to believe in that farthest shore. We say it all the time in our creeds and doctrines – to believe in heaven and life after death in Christ, that one day we will be there. Amen.
It’s quite another to believe that farthest shore is reachable from here, from right now in this time and place. From where you are, that farthest shore may appear very far away indeed and unreachable. It may barely be visible on the horizon of your sight line. A vast ocean and seemingly impassable obstacles may stand in the way. And yet,as one used to say, “It’s heaven all the way to heaven …”
So, believe in that mustard seed of unnoticeable worth. Believe that the beginning of something great begins in honest embrace of who you are, including and especially your failure and brokenness. Know God from your own ordinary even painful experiences of life. And trust these experiences as God-noteworthy and pregnant with possibility and unmeasureable joy. And see in others, equally challenged, as co-pilgrims on the path forward.
So, the puck drops. Here we go!
 Stephanie Spellers, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community (Church Publishing, 2021), p.22-23
 See Richard Rohr, “Letting Go of What Used to Be” An Evolving Faith (Daily Meditations: CAC Publications, 3 June 2021) www.cac.org
 Cited in Laurence Freeman, “The Supreme Source of Wisdom” in Sources of Wisdom (Singapore: Meditatio; World Community for Christian Meditation, 2021), p.24-25
Immigrants to Canada, my parents were always conscious of their accents. They spoke publically always conscious and often exceedingly self-critical of how they sounded to others.
My parents were aware that those who did not share their mother tongue would have to work harder at understanding what they had to say. I suspect my parents noticed in me and my brother—born and schooled in Canada—who did not speak with a Polish accent a great advantage and privilege.
Recently the church celebrated the festival of Pentecost. The central narrative about Pentecost is the multiplicity of languages expressing the good news of God’s Spirit given to the disciples of Jesus. In the Ottawa Ministry Area recorded worship service for Pentecost Sunday the scripture from the book of Acts in the bible was read in half a dozen different languages to illustrate this point.
Our prayers for Pentecost are about the grains of wheat scattered upon the hills, that they be gathered together to become one bread. This is not a prayer for uniformity. Rather, we affirm that we are united in the Spirit, in celebration of our different accents, our uniqueness and our differences.
Because we miss something fundamental in the experience of a faith community when everyone speaks the same accent let alone language. We are missing something in the church today when those who belong must ‘sound’ the same as those who are privileged and born into this culture.
The energy of Pentecost seeks in every generation and in every place to answer the question: Whose accent are we missing in the plethora of voices, in the orchestra of God’s creation? Whose voice is not easily heard by us?
The truth is, we need to work, and sometimes work hard, at understanding each other. The truth is that the practice of faith is ultimately an expression of love for those whose accents we don’t easily understand.
The truth is, none of us speaks God’s mother tongue—which was neither English nor German! The church, from the beginning has never spoken God’s word un-accented. From the beginning, people of faith have always had to interpret, translate and speak God’s foreign tongue to us. Our words about God have always been accented by our createdness, our humaness. We offer only our humanly-interpreted words about God. Each of us speaks with our own accents.
And often words can be misinterpreted, misunderstood. In the Gospel reading from Mark today, those who witness the events around Jesus’ home and family conclude that Jesus “is out of his mind”. Out of his mind, for expanding the circle of familial love to include Gentiles, Jews, the working poor, the disabled, the sick, women, tax collectors and sexual outcasts. The accusation leveled against Jesus comes from a place of denial and rejection of something that the second century people of Capernaum needed to hear.
“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” Jesus concludes.
Perhaps we, too, at this point in history in this nation—Canada—Christians need to hear, just listen and not speak. Now, at this time, just listen to the voices that are missing — the voices of grieving Indigenous families crying out in pain. And if we are to say anything at all, only to mourn alongside those whose children’s and grandchildren’s remains were discovered beside a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, recently. 215 children. Only mourn, and listen. As if it were the remains of our own children and grandchildren discovered in the playground beside their own school.
Our task as followers of Christ in the Spirit of God is to constantly learn new langauges. By that I don’t mean we rush out and take courses in how to speak French or Spanish or Cantonese. What I mean by learning new languages is to nurture a respect in our hearts and minds for the various accents that we hear in our communities, accents which have always been there, and accents with which we might not be too familiar, that are foreign to us.
And by listening to one another in this accented and diverse community we bring a sense of curiosity, wonder and interest. By doing so, “our inner nature is being renewed day by day,” as Saint Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthian church.
The multiplicity of books and forms of speech in the bible itself testifies that divine speech must come through human tongues, must come through our unique voices and accents, to be heard. In this way, the accented word can be experienced as a word of welcome, and a word of grace, for all.
The way Nicodemus approaches Jesus—his words and actions—reveals Nicodemus’ frame of mind. First, he asks rhetorical questions. What are rhetorical questions? They are questions with an obvious answer. “How can someone be born again?” Nicodemus asks Jesus. Here is a question that has an obvious answer in its literal meaning: No, one cannot enter a second time into the mother’s womb.
He’s not finished. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit is like the wind that blows where it chooses and “you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” Nicodemus asks another rhetorical question: “How can these things be?”
Rhetorical questions reveal more about the one asking the question. When we ask rhetorical questions we are not so much expecting a direct answer. We are not curious and seeking understanding with an open mind as much as we are offering our question for effect. With these kinds of questions we are normally getting ready to have a debate, to have a fight. A member of the ruling council, Nicodemus the Pharisee may very well have been used to using this style of combative discourse.
Then, there is his behaviour. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Maybe he is trying to hide from being spotted with the agitater, Jesus of Nazareth. As I mentioned, Nicodemus was a religious leader. As such, he belonged to the privileged establishment in Jerusalem. Was he worried about his reputation, being accused of cohorting with society’s riff-raff?
Or maybe, being someone who achieved material successes in life, he reacts against the notion of not being in control of his destiny. Jesus says, after all, that God’s Spirit is beyond our capacity to direct and control.
Whatever the case may be, Nicodemus’ words and actions reflect his fear. He has a lot to lose in his encounter with Jesus. He resists. He defends. And he pretends that he is right and that everything is alright, living life out of fear.
The words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans paint another picture. “We are led by the Spirit of God and [therefore] are children of God,” Paul writes. “For we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear …”
Ever chase seagulls on the beach? Or run after sandpipers across grassy dunes and windswept plains? We perceive birds to react in this skittish, fearful way. Normally, they bolt as soon as we make a noise or come too close. Their behaviour is fearful and filled with foreboding and anxiety. These are primal instincts to which they are slaves.
In the Zoom service last week, Beth shared a remarkable moment of grace she experienced while watering her flower garden recently planted. Something was blocking the end of the garden hose, so the stream came out a slow, gentle arc splashing into the ground a few feet in front of her.
All of a sudden she noticed a hummingbird approach the fountain of water at its crest. And then the bird started drinking from the stream of water coming out of the hose. The hummingbird didn’t just take a nip and skitter away. It stayed there for several incredible moments, satiating itself and filling its tiny body.
What is more, next time Beth looked, it had sat itself down on the low retaining wall bordering the garden in front of her, bathing in the water dribbling from the hose. It dipped its little head and lifted its tiny wings to wash underneath and then shook the droplets of water off.
Beth marvelled with wonder. And she confessed that in that simple moment doing simple things she had but one purpose: In the moment of the bird’s greatest vulnerability, to offer a safe space for this bird, normally skittish and reacting to fear. Here, in that holy moment and in that space, human and bird were nourished and restored.
In my life God creates this safe, trusting space where I can be nourished and where I can be restored, renewed, and given confidence to grow and engage the world, anew. Fear can ultimately serve a higher purpose of pushing me to try new things, things I need to do.
In God’s presence, however, I no longer need to speak and act out of fear and judgement. In God’s presence, I need no longer defend myself against another with self-righteous, rhetorical questions.
In the presence of God I need only trust. In trust, I am honest and vulnerable with whom I am. And I know that in God’s presence, in all areas of my life and in every decision I make, I am offered countless moments filled with grace.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Thank you, Beth MacGillivray, for the hummingbird photos at your feeder.
 John 3:1-17, the Gospel for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary, May 30, 2021
How do our lives reflect God? How do we give witness to God? How do our lives show that we are “sanctified in the truth”, as Jesus prayed for us?
On my phone I have at least three different map apps. When I am in a place for the first time – a new city, a new trail – and trying to get from point A to point B I make sure to consult all three different digital maps in my hand. I take these maps to be fairly reliable because all three use location services to show me where I am in relation to the map that I’m looking at.
However, not only are there slight discrepancies between the maps themselves. More troubling is a frequent inconsistency between the displayed configuration of streets, trails, roadways on the map, and the actual reality in front of me. There isn’t a roadway where the map says there is, for example. There are discrepancies all over the place, literally. And if I depend only on the maps to guide my way, I will often spend a lot of time on a street corner trying to make sense of it all before going anywhere.
Jesus, in his final prayer for his disciples, acknowledged the discrepencies we experience living in this world. He prayed that, like him, his disciples “do not belong to this world”. I take this to mean that often our world will challenge a life of faith. The pandemic is such an experience. When the way we have practiced our faith is no longer possible and we have to find other ways, we can feel lost and disoriented. And our impulse is to consult our ‘maps’. And even escape into the ‘map world’.
When Adam Shoalts made his famous canoe trek across the Canadian Arctic a few years ago, he memorized his route, based on the maps he studied beforehand. Blessed with a photographic memory and spatial cognition, he could visualize in his mind all the lakes, rivers, bays and portage routes even before he entered each stage of his planned route. And with success. Shoalts rarely got lost.
He memorized the way primarily to save time, despite having these maps on hand. If he had taken the time needed to consult his maps and satellite tracking each time he entered every lake, river or portage route on the four thousand kilometre journey, he could have jeopardized getting to his destination in time before winter.
When we experience significant challenges in our lives in this world, it’s important not to stick our heads in the sand. It’s important that we don’t stick our heads in the pages of books alone to escape our experience of reality now. We can’t afford to lose time doing that. I think our faith is less than it can be when we see the movement of our finger on a map as making the journey itself.
We may not have memorized all the pages of the bible. We may feel, consequently, not strong enough in our faith to make the journey. But the pages of the bible are not where we live our faith. Our witness is strongest when we do not hide our vulnerability but takes risks in faith. Our testimony is strongest when we are authentic, when we are honest with who and where we are – lost, making mistakes, or still finding our way.
The good news is that God’s greatness speaks in word and deed, through imperfect individuals and efforts.
Jesus Christ, the Gospel shows, lived our human weakness. Jesus shows the “greater witness” in the lowliness and humiliation of the cross. Jesus lived and died our human weakness. And from the reality of our very humanity he prayed for us.
What does this mean? It means our lives participate in the truth of Jesus’ life today, and for all time and in every place. We make God “a liar” – in the words of the scripture writer—when we don’t believe in God’s very life in and through us, when we don’t believe that Jesus Christ lives and breathes through and in our very own experiences, our very own human lives.
In a few weeks we will have the confirmation of three young people who will affirm their baptism and their trust in God for life. The service will not look like any other confirmation service of the past. Believe me.
But confirmation services are not just about repeating back the ‘beliefs’ of the church. Confirmation services are not just about packing the church building to spectate young people confess some doctrine in robotic fashion.
Rather, to affirm one’s faith is to bring something of your own heart into it. It is to express, in some simple, unique way, the connection you and your life are making with God in this time and place. And whenever that happens in the experience of living, it is the work of the Spirit of the living God, bringing it all together into the shared humanity—and therefore, unity—we have in Christ Jesus.
 Willie James Jennings, “Theological Perspective 1 John 5:9-13” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 2 (Louisville: WJK Press, 2008) p.538-542.