Celebrate and Mourn

Yes, this is “the” Big Weekend — Reformation weekend. I remember Reformation Sunday 1999 well. It was the first time I found myself, a Roman Catholic then, preaching in a Lutheran pulpit at the invitation of the local pastor. It was a momentous day in Augsburg, Germany, where representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The core argument from the 16th century, that lead to Martin Luther’s excommunication, was finally laid to rest. Since that momentous event other church bodies have signed on this Declaration, including the World Methodist Conference, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Anglican Communion. The gaps that have separated the followers of Jesus Christ — the Prince of Peace, the great Reconciler — are closing and healing. Across most of the Christian world a collective sigh of relief and gratitude can be heard —  reconciliation at last.

I have lived the painful divisions in the Body of Christ quite personally for the past 27 years and continue to do so.  As a good Catholic girl I studied at a Lutheran seminary, and discovered to my great surprise that Lutherans and other Christians can indeed be authentic living witnesses to Christ Jesus. Now, twenty-seven years later, I am an Anglican deacon, soon to be priest, and live the deep pain of a closed Roman Catholic communion table, where ecclesial divisions apparently trump the marital communion I live with my own RC spouse on a daily basis.

So when I read about Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Vincent Nichols embracing in tears at communion time, I wept my tears with them. This line in particular hit home: Entirely against the teaching of Jesus Christ, Christians learnt to hate and kill each other, even more than they had done in the past. And Pope Francis said today: “For so long we regarded one another from afar, all too humanly, harbouring suspicion, dwelling on differences and errors, and with hearts intent on recrimination for past wrongs.”  How did it come to this?

If nothing else, I hope with all my heart that we have learnt some hard lessons in humility, restraint and remorse towards one another. In this anniversary year, none other than Pope Francis is illustrating with bold gestures and words that the Christian family has indeed buried its hatchets and is ushering in a new era of healing divisions. This 80-year old pontiff is living up to his title — building bridges wherever there is an openness of heart, risking new initiatives of reconciliation and dialogue. In today’s meeting with the leadership of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland Pope Francis noted that “Christians of different denominations are living today as true brothers, no longer as adversaries.”

In my own little community on the Canadian prairies, we are slowly following suit. Anglicans, Lutherans and Catholics are gathering on a regular basis now to engage in common prayer and to learn about one another’s faith traditions, assisted by ecumenical documents produced by national and international dialogue groups. With internet access these great ecumenical documents are only one click away. What is harder is to find enough good church folk willing to risk the learning and growing with their sisters and brothers in another church. But in our small prairie town we are making progress. While our Lutheran-Catholic Lenten study this past spring lacked some important conversation partners, this fall’s Anglican-Catholic-Lutheran study is seeing a great three-way denominational mix at the weekly sessions. The discoveries and learning are creating surprise and enthusiasm, yet generating tears of both celebration and mourning. We have so much in common yet, like estranged siblings, we have lost out on so much in these five centuries apart.

In our zeal to confess Christ Jesus as Lord, we still fail miserably to live up to this claim. Let us heed our sorrowful history of internal conflict and strife as a shameful betrayal of the very unity for which our Lord Jesus prayed so fervently when the cross loomed. While old barriers are indeed dissolving, new ones are waiting to take their place. As my little ecumenical study group on the prairies is learning, some church traditions continue to resist relinquishing their own security of being right in order to further the unity for which Christ died. Others look upon smaller traditions are somehow less than, thus ignoring Paul’s summons in 1 Corinthians 12 to regard those members of the body that we think less honourable (to) clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members with greater respect. Time will tell whether we have learnt the lessons both from history and from our Lord Jesus himself.

That Reformation Sunday in 1999, preaching with joy on the Joint Declaration as the fruit of fraternal dialogue, an older woman greeted me after the service. She grabbed both my hands while tears streamed down her face. “I’ve prayed for this all my life,” she managed to say with great emotion. “When I married my Lutheran husband 42 years ago, the Catholic priest told me not to bother coming back to church.” Her words hit me in the stomach. “And when I saw you up there,” she continued, “I knew this was God’s doing.”

Little did I know that my words and presence unleashed God’s healing waters in this woman’s spirit. Words preached that Reformation Sunday by a Roman Catholic woman in a Lutheran pulpit stitched her shattered heart together again. I have carried her, and many others since, with me in my heart and prayers. And so this weekend I both celebrate the remarkable reconciliation we have achieved in the past fifty years as well as shed tears of lament  for the unity which still eludes our reach.

Logo in top image: from Lutheran Church Canada

Update Reformation Day Oct. 31 — Joint Statement from the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

Prairie Encounters

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Eucharisteo – Give Thanks

What to say in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Las Vegas? What to say to the friend who is worrying himself sick about the relatives devastated by the hurricanes in the Carribean? What to say to the woman whose husband got killed in a roadside bombing? What to say to the friend whose twin sister got murdered by her common-law partner? To the father whose daughter succumbed to fentanyl? What to say to the boy featured on the news: no family, missing a leg, begging on the streets? To the neighbour who got laid off way too soon? Oh yeah, Canada is having its Thanksgiving weekend so let’s be thankful…

In the face of so much pain and death and suffering, saying thank you is not only getting harder; for many, it becomes downright impossible. How to give thanks when so many hearts scream in pain?

Yet, giving thanks we do, every year at this time in Canada. We give thanks even in the face of great pain. Sometimes we hurt so much that we need another’s help to give thanks; then so be it. But give thanks we must. Why is it so important to live with a grateful heart, no matter how difficult that can be under certain circumstances? Why is giving thanks such a deep and lasting tradition?

God is bringing you into a good land, says the writer of Deuteronomy (8:7-18). God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, says Paul to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 9:6-15), and to us. If this sounds insulting to those who are hurting today, don’t dismiss these words too quickly. Giving thanks gives life, even in times of trouble. We don’t have to wait until everything is rosy to give thanks.

At the end of the Second World War, when Europe was a wasteland from the war, a young man called Albert Camus returned from France to his native Algeria. Camus wrote, “In the light cast by the flames of destruction, the world has suddenly shown its wrinkles and afflictions, old and new. It had suddenly grown old, and we had too.” Camus was spiritually and morally exhausted, and he returned to his village by the Mediterranean – Tipasa, which was as beautiful as it was poor. Camus wrote again, “Poverty taught me that all was not well under the sun, but the sun taught me that poverty was not everything.” (Return to Tipasa, Camus) In the daily miracle of creation, Camus found new energy. “It was as if the morning stood still, as if the sun had stopped for an immeasurable moment. In this light and silence, years of night and fury slowly melted away.” And so Camus could begin again, and continue as one of Europe’s most beloved writers.

Even in the greatest despair, every day can spring forth as God’s great gift. Life is gift, breath and sight are gift, food and love are gift. Salvation in Jesus is pure gift from a generous God who loves us without fail.

I’ve been re-reading a book that affected me deeply when I first turned its pages – 1,000 gifts by Ann Voskamp. Weighed down by the excruciating pain of childhood tragedy, Ann begins to muse how to live in gratitude. She combs the Scriptures and stumbles on a word that we are all so familiar with – Eucharist.

Ann discovers that the Greek word eucharisteo means ‘giving thanks.’ Jesus took the bread, the wine, and “gave thanks” – eucharisteo. Slowly, Ann begins to grasp that giving thanks for everything brings joy. And joy is what her heart yearns to have more of, a lot more of. As long as thanks is possible, the miracle of joy can happen, Ann learns. All this is encapsulated in that lovely word eucharisteo – Eucharist. So Ann set out to accept a friend’s dare: to list 1,000 gifts to give thanks for, and thus make giving thanks a way of life. This book is the fruit of that commitment, a commitment that changed her heart and brought her closer to God through Jesus, who himself lived eucharisteo to the full.

In the person of Jesus, we see and touch one who lived in gratitude and generosity and … joy. Jesus knew that he had been born of God, that he was a child of God – as each of us is a son and daughter of God. But more than any of us, Jesus lived this knowledge in a profound and radical way. He understood his origins: he was with God always and everywhere. And that being-with-God always and everywhere was his particular form of power and source of love.

What did Jesus do with that awareness? Easy: instead of boasting or having it inflate his ego, Jesus freely and simply gave … himself … away … in eucharisteo – thanksgiving. In loaves and fishes, he taught that whatever we give away multiplies, ignites, feeds and sustains. One good word spoken into tragedy, Jesus showed time and again, grows into a symphony of love and truth. One small hope whispered in the terror of the night can grow into a great tree sheltering hurting hearts and producing fresh blossoms of new life. Jesus spoke of lilies and good fruit and birds in the air, all are blessed because they simply are. Jesus set the supper table with his body and blood and secured in this lavish gift eternal life for us all. Life doesn’t get more radical in gratitude than in Jesus.

The Jewish people have a wonderful prayer of gratitude which they sing at Passover. In the song they recount the events through which God liberated them from Egypt and led them to the promised land. The refrain of this song can be translated as it would have been enough and it goes like this:

“If you had only led us to the edge of the Red Sea
but not taken us through the waters,
it would have been enough.
If you had only taken us through the Red Sea
but not led us through the desert,
|it would have been enough.
If you had only led us through the desert
but not taken us to Mount Sinai,
it would have been enough.

What would our song sound like?
If I had only been born but not have parents,
it would have been enough.
If I had only seen one snowfall
but had never seen the pink sky on a prairie night,
it would have been enough.
If I had only known love for a short while,
but not had my beloved children,
it would have been enough.
If only I had beloved children,
but not had good health,
it would have been enough.

Try this some time – it’s a good exercise. To live with “enough” is to live in the great economy of God’s grace – eucharisteo, and the miracle of joy will surely follow. It means not to take the earth for granted, not to take our own life for granted, not to take loved ones for granted. To live with “enough” means that we have plenty to give away every day: joy, comfort, laughter, tears, forgiveness and compassion, hope and gratitude. When all is said and done, these … are the only commodities that have eternal value.

The day after the Las Vegas massacre, my son David posted the following on Facebook: The world is not a tragic and terrifying place. Tragic events do happen and there are terrifying places, but THE WORLD is not a tragic or terrifying place. I live my life,  knowing and working and understanding that others live in a world that is far from my own reality. For many, what took place last night in Las Vegas – the senseless murder of innocent people – is common place. It is an everyday fear. If/when my time comes, where I am face to face with an unthinkable tragic event that I do not understand, I plan to treat it as a sobering reminder that not everyone lives the life of comfort that my family and I are afforded. For some, daily fear for ones life isn’t a choice, but an everyday reality. Until then – taking nothing for granted – I will greet each day, thankful for the world I live in and thankful for the worlds I am able to help shape… the worlds of my family, friends, work colleagues, clients, neighbours and every single person I am privileged to interact with. And I will remember that tragic events do happen and will happen and yes, there are terrifying places out there, but the world as a whole, is not a tragic or terrifying place. Stay safe. Be thankful. Life is beautiful.  

As David articulates so well in his words, to live in gratitude is a choice, a hard choice some days. But thanksgiving makes the miracle of joy possible. And that is enough. It is enough that there are always more new beginnings, more new life, than the sum of our sorrows.

Ever since I first read Ann’s book 1,000 Gifts I’ve given numerous copies away as gifts. Reading Ann’s book for the second time, I realized it’s time to begin my own list of 1,000 gifts … a good sleep, a glorious fall day, a phone call from our daughter, sitting with a friend in distress, new hymns to sing, vine-ripened tomatoes, the end of the gravel detour … (I keep hoping) etc. Ann’s witness is teaching me to give thanks in every time and place. In turn we can help each other to give thanks and praise to the God who has saved us in Jesus the Christ the One who lived Eucharisteo – thanksgiving – to the full, even in death itself.

Oh, and my friend whose twin sister was murdered by her common-law partner? Here’s her Thanksgiving entry: Leah Perrault. Read her achingly piercing pieces (listed in the right column of her site) in which she struggles with her profound loss:

Prairie Encounters

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