A Prodigal Culture

The other day my morning prayer included, once again, the story in Luke’s Gospel on the Prodigal Son/Father (Luke 15:11-32). Aware that the sacred Scriptures are “living and active” I saw connections I had not seen before in quite the same way. The reason lie in the fact that just prior to my Scriptural pondering I had read two articles I was still in the process of digesting. One was an unsettling analysis entitled Breaking Faith, the other a cute yet poignant piece on the importance of belonging to a church when one claims to be a Christian. Mixing the messages of these articles with Luke 15:11-32 almost lead to a sleepless night; connections and new insights flew back and forth in my mind like neurons firing at full force.

Breaking Faith suggests the audacious claim that the growth in secularism away from religious adherence could well be contributing to dangerously high levels of isolation, social fragmentation and animosity in American society. Without denying that past, and in places still present, Christian practices have a mixed legacy that include rigidity and legalism as well as virtues and heroic witness, Paul Beinart speculates whether the lack of the social glue of religious belonging and of aspiring to higher values beyond oneself, could well be responsible for fostering silos of like-minded tribal-style subgroups that find themselves pitted one against the other:

Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

Enter the have-to-go-to-church piece: Christianity is a team sport, Paul Prather points out, where we learn to grow and serve after the example of Jesus our Saviour for the greater good of both ourselves and of our neighbours. Yes, we experience great frustration and irritation in church, alongside joy and compassion; yes, we shed tears of sorrow and anger in church but also tears of joy, of comfort and of mercy. All these experiences in community, the good and the bad ones, can grow us into noble and courageous human beings, grounded in a reality greater than ourselves with a vision fed by God’s own promise of salvation in Jesus. Once we disconnect from such a great Source of life we can find ourselves in a social and spiritual vacuum, adrift in an ocean of meaninglessness and purposelessness. Our young people in particular are manifesting this lost-ness as they are often without access to an alternative school for learning these important lessons in the process of becoming fully human. Thus adrift or trapped in a social and spiritual bubble of their own making, we can fall into more primal and irreconcilable ways (Beinart, Breaking Faith).

Against this backdrop I came to Luke 15. The son had the audacity to ask for his share of the inheritance, basically wishing his father dead. In shock I then realized: and the father GAVE IT TO HIM! He gave the son what he asked for, probably knowing full well this would not end well for the immature, arrogant boy. Why did the father grant this rude wish? He could have spared the boy and himself a lot of grief. But no, God allows whatever we come demanding as our right, however erroneous, ignorant and misleading.

And so, I was lead to consider whether the current unraveling of the social and religious fabric is God’s allowing because we as a society have asked for this as if it is our birthright to do so. While religion is so easily blamed for breeding bigotry in judgmental humans, Beinart’s article ventures to wonder whether the current exodus from organized religion is throwing the baby out with the bathwater:
How might religious nonattendance lead to intolerance? Although American churches are heavily segregated, it’s possible that the modest level of integration they provide promotes cross-racial bonds. In their book, “Religion and Politics in the United States,” Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown reference a different theory: that the most-committed members of a church are more likely than those who are casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.

In a subsequent critical assessment of the new movement Black Lives Matter and contrasting it with the Civil Rights’ Movement of the 1960’s, Beinart quotes Barbara Reynolds, a civil rights activist and former journalist: “Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as (Martin Luther) King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement.

The recipe for a sleepless night was complete when I realized that God is a fool for letting us stray to the brink of self-annihilation. It is as if our culture is acting uncannily like the arrogant younger son claiming his share of his father’s inheritance. And God allows us, knowing better than we do that this gamble will likely not end well. We as a western civilization are unraveling, because we believe our own illusion that we know better than our ancestors who “needed” church.

I weep at this thought. Not because I want everyone to join my church club, and not because I see the Christian community as the perfect family – far from it. I weep because I see the effects of the social and spiritual fragmentation, esp. in our young people, so many of whom are searching for an anchor of belonging and love and family. Against our better judgment, God allows and gives in to our demands to do it “our way” at enormous human cost.

Yet what choice does a God of love really have? What choice does God have if God bends over backwards to honour our freedom? God did not create robots, God is not interested in robots. And love is not love if forced. Love is only love when freely given and received. And so I weep and pray for all the lost children, both big and small …

Prairie Encounters

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Leave your Homeland

While the Catholic lectionary featured the Transfiguration Gospel today, other denominations heard this morning the account of Abraham’s call from Genesis and the intriguing conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The Nicodemus account belongs with the other great Gospel stories for Lent such as the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. Here is my sermon text on the two readings of today:

GENESIS 12:1-4, JOHN 3:1—17
Today’s reading from Genesis tells the story of the call of Abraham to go from his country, his kin, and the house of his father to the land that God would show him. I admit I have a special affinity with this text. This was the first Scripture reading at my wedding, a wedding that took place in the Netherlands. Marrying a Canadian farmer meant that I was leaving my country, my kin, my language, and went to the land that God showed me – the Canadian prairies! (Jim of course left the comfort of a bachelor’s life!). I was probably just as foolish as Abraham was to believe that God called me to this land. 

I’ve often wondered what Sarah thought of it all – after all, she too left behind all that was familiar to her in order to follow a husband who claimed to hear God calling him. I was too young and foolish to know the uncertainties and challenges awaiting me in a prairie farming life that was totally new. My parents did all the worrying for me at that time, probably sharing Sarah’s rolling eyes about her wandering Abraham when I followed my prairie farmer to the other side of “the pond.”

Of course there are many today who are forced to leave behind their country, their kin, and all that is familiar; not because God calls them, but because violence and war are forcing them – that is quite a different reason to pull up stakes. There is a huge difference in freely choosing to change a significant course in life and being forced to do so because of circumstances beyond our control.

Abraham’s call was unique, but there are elements in that story that apply to each of our own lives, even if we have never physically changed countries. And as I was pondering Abraham’s call alongside the story of Nicodemus in today’s Gospel, I began to see a few connections between the two. I will come back to that.

Now Nicodemus is a secret admirer of Jesus. He can’t help but be affected by Jesus’ teaching and healing. But he’s worried about showing that too publicly, so he comes to talk to Jesus at night. And then this unusual conversation happens about being “born again,” being “born of the spirit.” When Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must all be born anew, Nicodemus is confused, and he takes Jesus’ words literally – how can we get back into our mother’s womb? And so Jesus then contrasts life in the flesh with life in the SpiritBut what really is that difference?

Our Evangelical sisters and brothers have made this Scripture text the foundation for their understanding of discipleship. In Evangelical circles you only become a Christian when you have been “born again.” For them this refers to a precise moment in our life when we consciously and wholeheartedly accepted Jesus in our heart as Lord and Saviour.

But is that the only way to understand Jesus’ words to Nicodemus? When I hear the words “life in the flesh” I think of all the ways we allow ourselves to be consumed by the anxieties, challenges and uncertainties of this world. And there is plenty to be anxious about in our world: if we allow those anxieties to rule the day, we could easily find ourselves on the brink of total despair, given the suffering and crises and atrocities that take place every day, whether big and on a world-scale, or small in our own backyards.

So what if a “life in the spirit” might refer to a deeper way of “seeing” and “hearing” and “living” much in the way God/Jesus sees and hears and lives? What if life in the spirit is another term for the ability to find deeper meaning, purpose and mission in events and relationships, experiences and encounters? The ability to see God’s hand in all that happens, not in a doomsday way, but in a redeeming and meaningful way? Remember the last verse in today’s Gospel: God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

But seeing the world, ourselves, events through God’s eyes and ears and heart – as Jesus did – is not our default position. It requires giving up familiar patterns and ways and habits; it means giving up well-traveled road maps … to be free to go to the proverbial new Spirit-filled land that God will show us without knowing how and where and when. After all, the Spirit blows where it wills … said Jesus … 

And here’s a connection with Abraham. I really wonder if we as a universal church family are challenged to pull up stakes from all that has been near and dear to our Christian hearts, in order to go into the new places God will show us. In many ways there are major break-down underway in both the church and the world. Old and familiar structures are crumbling, institutions are distrusted, authority of all kinds is betrayed and questioned. The various ways we’ve organized life-reality no longer hold, no longer express meaning and value.

We are challenged to chart a new course, to risk a new journey, like Abraham, without knowing where and how. While it’s easy to see the break-down in these developments, it’s much harder to see that at the same time there is a breakthrough that is occurring. To notice the breakthrough requires seeing ‘in the spirit.’ Breaking through the crumbling chaos is emerging a deeper universal yearning for equality and communion, for collaboration and unity, for wholeness and mutuality, for intuitive knowing and love. 

There is no doubt that this shift is painful, but it can also be good news! It can hide promises of a hopeful future for our Church and our world, provided we as a family of faith can lean into the winds of change, much like Abraham and Sarah were asked to do.

As a natural part of evolutionary change, the massive changes sweeping through all levels of collective living and knowing right now in no way negates or undervalues what went before. Nor is there reason to fear the massive movements of change swirling around us. Everything is in flux, but we need not fear. We only need to recognize the movement, step into the flow, and be carried by it. Indeed, all creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth. The Spirit of God still hovers over the chaos and blows where it wills. 

And we as a human species are challenged to show our resilience, just like prairie grass that can go a long time without water. The roots of prairie grass are extraordinarily deep. Prairie grass actually enriches the land. It produced the fertile soil of the Great Plains. Its deep roots aerate the soil and decompose into rich, productive earth. And so this Lent we can ask ourselves: how deep are my roots sunk into Jesus?

Ironically, a healthy prairie needs a regular burning. It needs the heat of the fire and the clearing away of the grass itself to bring the nutrients from the deep roots to the surface, supporting new growth. There are trees whose seeds cannot germinate without a forest fire. The intense heat cracks open the seed to allow it to grow. Perhaps with us, too, there are deep parts of ourselves activated only when more shallow layers are stripped away by the fires of diminishment and failure. We are pruned and purified in the dark and painful nights of life, when we find ourselves crawling to Jesus in prayer. Much like the burning of the prairie draws energy from the roots upward and outward, prayer can draw up from within us deeper trust, inner freedom and fruitful action. Prayer can be the seedbed of a new future. Through it, God shapes and strengthens us for what is needed now.

So when we consider the current decline through eyes that see “in the spirit” rather than “in the flesh” maybe our churches are experiencing a prairie grass fire, in order to burn away the excess baggage of history and the counter-witness of our divisions, both of which have obscured the life-giving and liberating Gospel message of Jesus. To look upon our current reality with the imagination of a poet, an artist or a mystic illustrates what Jesus means with the need to be born of the spirit.

When we can “see” in the notion of a prairie grass fire a metaphor for the current social, religious and cultural break-downs and then recognize the breakthrough that could well be happening at the same time, then we are living and seeing “in the spirit.” Living “in the spirit” helps us when someone claims, I do not believe in God,” and we can calmly reply, That’s okay, God still believes in you.”

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

This declaration – that the Spirit blows where it will – can give us tremendous trust and freedom when we feel at a loss about how to respond to the challenges and opportunities of our age. Abraham and Sarah experienced the Spirit leading them without knowing where and how and when. In this Lenten season we need to be here for one another to trust that God’s spirit is still hovering over chaos and will lead us to the land that is prepared for us. AMEN

Prairie Encounters

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A New Season

I owe you, my faithful readers, an update. No, I have not been “hiding” behind the past four postings on the Theology of the Body and Ordination. I felt it was important that these installments were posted in sequence to improve flow and accessibility for reading. But while these postings appeared, some significant changes took place in my own life and ministry, changes I am happy to share with you now.

If there is one thing I have learnt, and keep learning, on this life and faith journey it is the absolute importance of good discernment grounded in deep prayerful listening in community. When the Anglican family of faith opened its doors to me a couple of years ago, it wasn’t just a triumphant grand entry. These things rarely are; to expect otherwise is a recipe for disappointment and frustration. The Anglican steps in the preparation process towards ordination challenged my capacity for both spiritual and ecclesial obedience in a spirit of surrender in freedom. I faced the need to stare down in my spirit impatience and entitlement, distrust, doubt and fear. These five amigos vied for a place in the driver’s seat of my denominational and vocational decisions. Each of them came with solid Scriptural backing, much like the devil did when tempting Jesus in the desert. It took courage to unmask their counter-witness; it took trust to turn away from their alluring yet shallow promises. It takes ongoing perseverance to wait in joyful hope.

It now looks like this discernment gamble is paying off. The developments of the past months were unanticipated, and thus can only be attributed to God’s own providence and blessing of this remarkable vocational journey. As of January 2017, I have been entrusted with the pastoral leadership of two small congregations in a rural community not far from home. What is more, all of my previous denominational and ecumenical ministry, as well as my vocational experience, are culminating in this new pastoral assignment, all of it. Why do I make this claim?

First, the two congregations belong to two different traditions – one Anglican and the other Lutheran (made possible through the Full Communion Covenant between the ACC and the ELCIC). Therefore two bishops had to approve my appointment. My Lutheran seminary training and my long association with all things Lutheran now stands me in good stead. As I quip to my Lutheran friends and colleagues, I may be Anglican now but you Lutherans got under my skin back in those seminary days and you clearly never left 🙂

Second, my continued grounding in Roman Catholic spirituality and theological knowledge is proving to be a rich asset. This Lent I am participating in ecumenical conversations in our little prairie town between Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics through the parish study Together in Christ. I find myself answering questions from all sides with a deep affection and respect for each of the three traditions.

Third, I sense a deep convergence towards Christian unity in my own spirit, thanks to the blending of the various traditions in both ministry, spirituality and ecumenical collaboration among the denominations in the community where I serve. I am increasingly relating and ministering from the perspective of the Lund PrincipleI am acutely aware that the positive disposition with which I engaged my denominational transfer is now creating the inner freedom to engage in joy and affection with the local Roman Catholic parish priest and parishioners. Had my denominational move been motivated by negative reasons and unresolved frustrations, I likely would have been greatly hampered in the current building of new friendships with Roman Catholics.

This ecumenical convergence in my own spirit is circling back to growing my Anglican identity. For Anglicanism at its best in today’s Christian family is to be ecumenical in vision, in spirituality, in practical partnering, in common prayer and witness. The Anglican tradition is animated by a deep desire to embrace the best in both Catholicism and Protestantism, humbly acknowledging its own need for the other expressions of Christian discipleship.

Finally, I am experiencing the truth of what Frederick Buechner said long ago (and his words have become a classic saying): The place God calls you is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. For so many years I have sensed a deep call to parish-based pastoral leadership ministry. Already some 15 years ago I wrote in my journal: if only I could pastor a little parish in the country somewhere I’d be perfectly happy. Now it’s one thing to “dream” about something as if this is a true calling. It’s quite another to experience it in real time. But I am in real time now and I am pastoring in a small prairie town. And yes, I’m over the moon (the honeymoon!) with this new assignment; some of it will wear off over time I’m sure. But that is okay. The current synergy and the joyful energy welling up inside me, as if an artesian well has been unplugged, is unmistaken. There is something so right about where I am, and the people of God in both parishes have welcomed me so warmly. Preparing weekly sermons and preaching has never been easier; I am no longer the guest preacher who gets parachuted into a congregation, preaches without any bonds to the people, and then leaves again. Now I can build thought patterns with the Scriptures over the course of several Sundays, and to my great surprise some people are taking note and responding.

I experience spiritual and ministerial “highs” as I try out new pastoral initiatives, as I bring communion to shut-ins, as I lead worship in both the church and the long-term care facility, as I engage with the local refugee committee (small town–big project, refugee family arrived last November) and the Ministerial Association, and get to know parishioners. I pinch myself periodically; is this really happening?

I have worked in “church-land” long enough to know that it will not always be this way. I will hit new lows and collect new bruises on my heart. The artesian well will eventually run dry, the excitement of new beginnings will wear off. The hard balls of living will knock me over again – they always do. The cross always looms over the resurrection light, but its darkness does not overcome it. For now, in this little window of joy and excitement, this feels a bit like storing up blessings as preparation for the lean times which inevitably follow. The very fact of making the journey itself is truly the destination. And all this even before ordination – Deo Gratias 🙂

Prairie Encounters

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