Forgiven the Inexcusable

Imagine that today’s Scripture readings were proclaimed on the Sunday of our recent Anglican General Synod:
Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five? …. Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ And God answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ So suppose …. only twenty are found there ... Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose only ten are found there …’ (Genesis 18:20—32)

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened … (Luke 11:1—13)

In light of the intense emotional roller-coaster that was the recent Anglican General Synod, these examples and instructions about prayer sound like …. what? Foolish and unrealistic, as many went away with broken hearts and conflicting feelings. Some felt betrayed by God and by fellow Anglicans, as they asked and did not receive, searched and did not find, knocked and the door remained closed.

Whether on a grand scale such as General Synod or in the privacy of our own lives, when things don’t go our way, we feel betrayed and let down, discouraged and in doubt. We can easily feel that God is not listening, that other people are preventing God to answer our prayers. When we feel deeply about something, we crave and need not only God’s own blessing; we crave acceptance, recognition and respect from our communities of faith, from our church. The question is: how do we know we are praying for the right thing? And why does God not answer prayer, or so it seems? It is said that God always answers prayer – always. The answer can be yes – no – maybe – wait – or … something different, something we would never think of on our own.

No doubt, Abraham was scandalized by the sins of Sodom. Abraham could have, in great righteousness, prayed the whole city to hell. But … he didn’t. Abraham did something much more scandalous: from a deep well of compassion for the people, Abraham pleaded … with God … to spare the city, despite its transgressions. So God, what if there are only 40 good people in it? What if there are only 30, or 20, or only 10? Imagine that… bargaining with none other than the Almighty! I wonder if Abraham already had a premonition of God’s saving work in Jesus and what C.S. Lewis would say millennia later: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in one another because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.”

The present pain in the Anglican LGBTQ+ community over feeling rejected by our church is enormous. On the evening of the vote on the Marriage Canon, when the results showed that the motion to redefine marriage had failed, the air was sucked out of the room, and quickly filled with weeping and wailing, esp. of the young delegates present.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

That night, our young people were crying, and many along with them across the country. While that same Synod made great strides in reconciliation with our Indigenous sisters and brothers, through a formal request for forgiveness for the spiritual abuse inflicted in the name of God, another group experienced deep spiritual harm. While that same Synod made great strides in ecumenical and interfaith relations, dialogue and alliances, another group felt cast out into the cold, bereft, robbed, of all that their hearts yearned for.

Teach us to pray, O Lord, into the tears and agony of this moment … What can we do? How do we pray into this painful space and into the many painful spaces of our lives and of our world? And how can we remain open to divine answers, answers that we could never think of on our own? God always reserves the right to provide answers that we cannot possibly ask for or imagine. Many times in my own life, I have stood at crossroads, wondering which way God wanted me to go. Some of those crossroads were pretty painful, caused by major melt-downs and crises. Times of betrayal, hurt and rejection are painful; they feel like God is hanging us out to dry…

But our God is a God of life and love. Our God is a resurrection God. First, by becoming one with us in Christ Jesus, taking on the human condition, becoming part of creation itself, God says in a loud voice: all that I create is good and destined for goodness and love. Yes, free will, that greatest of gifts from our loving God, did come with the rather distasteful side-effect of sin. But in Jesus, God showed us by example how to live in grace and how to stare down our own sinful patterns of behaviours, motives and actions. In Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, God has declared once and for all: there is nothing that I cannot redeem, save and transform. In Jesus, even death was killed by love eternal.

In one of my own melt-down moments, caused by a brutal and abrupt termination of a pastoral position, a dear friend and mentor gently said: “I know your pain is real and raw, and it deserves to be honoured and respected. But I just want you to know that, once you are ready, our Saviour is eagerly waiting to teach you many things through this pain.” And indeed, our Saviour did, once my heart was ready and open …

So I got thinking: what can our Saviour possibly teach us in this moment of pain in our church? What does our Saviour teach us in all seasons of pain – in our church, in our lives, in our world? Is rejection and abandonment by God the only way to interpret seemingly unanswered prayers? Sometimes the no is indeed from God, because God has something else in mind. Other times the no is caused by our blindness and obstinacy. Still other times, what looks like a no in fact conceals another way, a way that is hard to notice if we are fixated on only one desired outcome. In the midst of our melt-downs how can God open up another, deeper answer, an answer we cannot possibly dream up ourselves, an answer lived out in the witness of our Lord Jesus?

Christ himself was no stranger to rejection, scorn and judgment. And yet, Jesus refused to let that rejection define him or define his acting and speaking in this world. Deeply anchored in his God-given identity of love, he carried the tension … He carried the tension of rejection and misunderstanding and scorn without letting it define or destroy him or fill him with rage (except for a temper tantrum in the Temple). Jesus took within himself the anger and hatred and injustice and bitterness, and gave back … graciousness, blessing, mercy and love. Like a water purifier, Jesus carried the tension and injustice … holding the dirty, murky water of our sin, letting it pass through him on the cross, and returned the pure and safe, healing and cleansing water of God’s mercy …

Whew … Impossible? Yep. Impossible on our own? Yep. That is why now, more than ever, we need one another. Our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers need us. They need our unconditional love and mercy to lean on, so that their spirits can grow strong and resilient, so that they do not let rejection have the last word. For it is in community that we grow strong in our identity as God’s beloved son and daughter. It is in community that we confess sins and receive God’s healing. It is in community that we grow into God’s answers to life’s dilemmas. It is in community that God feeds our bodies and spirits with Christ’s own Body and Blood in the Eucharist. It is in community that our spirit can grow in safety and beauty. It is in community that we can say to one another: let my faith and love carry you for a while as you weep and heal. It is in community that we plead with God, like Abraham, will you not save us, O God, even if only a few of us are righteous in your sight?

Listen to Paul’s words from his letter to the Colossians: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving…”Because, “When you were dead in sin, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross… “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in one another because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.” In Christ, God has indeed … forgiven … the inexcusable … in us all.

This extravagant grace from a foolishly generous God eventually broke through at General Synod through the Indigenous presence. For many years now our church has been profoundly blessed by the faithful leadership of Indigenous elders who have tenaciously continued to walk with us, despite the historic spiritual and cultural harm we have caused them. While struggling to overcome their own inter-generational trauma Indigenous Christians have been diligent in pursuing reconciliation with the colonial church, even though the spiritual oppression inflicted upon them does not make us deserving of such a gracious pursuit. Why are they so persistent? Because of Christ…

Because despite all the harm we have inflicted, they have grasped the heart of Jesus, a heart that reconciles and heals. Our Indigenous sisters and brothers could have, in great righteousness, prayed the whole church to hell. But they didn’t … instead they are in the business of forgiving the inexcusable in us all, because like Abraham, they have found a handful of righteous ones among us and are pleading on our behalf. And through that extravagant act of pursuing reconciliation, our Indigenous sisters and brothers are revealing the face of our merciful God. Despite the condemning headlines in the secular media about the intolerance and exclusion of the Anglican Church, the healing features of God’s mercy and grace entered the real and broken hearts of those gathered in the Synod hall …

All throughout Scripture God’s primary concern is clear: God is in the business of saving us from ourselves, time and time again and again, especially when we have reached the dead-end of our tricks and tactics, and are face to face with our own brokenness and mess. God is still in the business of pulling blessings from curses, love from hate, peace from violence, life from death. And God will do this again, can do this again, with our consent, and with our willingness to surrender.

And so yes, Lord, … teach us to pray, show us a way forward, a way that we cannot possibly ask for or imagine. Teach us to forgive … teach us to carry one another in love.

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will our heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

Homily preached on July 28, 2019
Genesis 18:20—32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6—15, Luke 11:1—13

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Climbing Down

I spent a few days on retreat, preparing myself spiritually for our Anglican General Synod which is taking place in Vancouver July 10-16. No, I am not a delegate and I won’t be on the ground. But I am deeply engaged in the Anglican Church and will follow as much of the proceedings via live-stream as I can make time for.

This year’s Synod has some big ticket-items on the agenda:
* Making concrete decisions towards greater self-determination for Indigenous Anglicans within the Anglican Church of Canada;
* Second vote on the motion to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples:
* Electing a new Primate for our National Church.

As alluded to in some previous blog entries, while all three subjects are significant, the middle one is likely to generate the most difficult conversations. In the three years since the last Synod it has become clear that our church is not of one mind on whether a same-sex union can be considered akin to marriage. How do we engage one another on this salient question in the Spirit of Christ? There has been plenty of preparation from the National Office, including the summons to regard one another with profound respect and an open heart.

So, you may ask, what did I do on my retreat to prepare for General Synod? I spent time in prayer and reflection with an ancient spiritual manual: the Twelve Steps in Humility formulated in the sixth century by none other than St. Benedict of Norsia, considered the father of western monasticism (his Feast Day is July 11). The idea came from Sr. Joan Chittister who has spent the last four months posting a column on each of the twelve steps. I collected all twelve, printed them, and took them with me to my retreat sanctuary where I was alone with God. The first time Joan wrote on these steps was back in 2009; already then I was intrigued by them.

Rather than get caught in polarizing positions and controversial statements on either side, I committed to growing deeper into a receptive posture for come what may. The Twelve Steps are a climbing down the ladder of pride and arrogance, defiance and judgement, and ascend the ladder of humility and generosity of heart. Not an easy trek, but as Joan writes, the only trek that leads into true freedom and honesty still today. In her usual blunt yet eloquent style, Joan shows how each of these steps speaks unashamedly into our world today, from politics to ecology and right into my own life. Their challenging power is proof of their perennial wisdom. So I listened and prayed deeply with each step — wrestling and resisting, questioning and resonating — allowing each one to grow me a bit more.

Here are some nuggets from my own journal entries:
1. Pride, says St. Benedict, is the basic human flaw; humility is its corrective. Pride dons many masks: dismissing another’s humanity, taking privilege for granted, reveling in superiority and entitlement.
2. God is our driving force; therefore desiring to do God’s will is best for all. And God’s will is for us to come to full bloom, to manifest divine glory in our very being and let that shine out into the world.
3. Submit to the authority and wisdom of others through deep listening for the love of God. I have done my fair share (and continue to do so) of this deep listening to guides and mentors who are both supportive and challenging. I have tasted the importance of this commitment.
4. When difficult things arise, endure/hang in there and do not grow weary. There are situations where the best course of action is to leave for the sake of safety, protection and well-being. But my decades of living my priestly calling within the constraints of the RC Church without growing weary has brought forth much fruit in inner freedom and endurance, fruit I continue to reap today.

5. We do not conceal sinful thoughts or actions, but confess them humbly. Julian of Norwich said, ‘God does not punish sin, sin punishes sin.’ I could not agree more. It’s mighty hard to conceal wrong-doing, and I feel so much better when I fess up. There are times, however, when it is prudent not to share thoughts and feelings openly so as not to hurt another person. Is that akin to nursing secrets than can eat away at integrity of heart?
6. Be content with the lowest and most menial treatment. This is a tough one. On the one hand, if I’m not aspiring to be promoted, I can simply enjoy the moment and do well in what is right here and now. On the other hand, if I have never tasted appreciation, good fortune, and the joy of accomplishments, this step could create an unhealthy type of humility, one that erodes self-esteem even further.
7. Not only on our lips but also in our heart, we much admit to be inferior to all. I wonder if it’s easier to desire this when safely cradled in a circle of love where I have been valued and appreciated, encouraged and inspired. But what if a person has lived deprived of all that grows this basic security? Then admitting inferiority to all can be a death-blow to one’s own humanity.
8. We do only what is endorsed by the common rule of the community. Gosh, if there was ever a million-dollar question, it is this: what needs to be let go of and what needs to be carried forward into a future of hope? I belong to the Church for it has fostered my growth as a person. I value its teachings and guidance. This Step is the most challenging in the current conversation — I struggle mightily with both hard-nosed conservatives and impatient progressives. Joan’s reflection seems too simplistic, as if it’s crystal clear what needs to be discarded and decided. What do to when boundaries, essential to some, become barriers to others?

9. We control our tongue and remain silent, not speaking unless necessary. I can relate to this step about remaining silent and its importance. In many ways I have become more silent in proportion to the realization how little I really do know and understand, especially about another’s life story. There is an increasing desire to make ever greater space for another and honour the other’s reality.
10. Do not be given to ready laughter, for “only fools raise their voices in laughter.” (Sirach 21:23). Excessive laughter is a sign of a weak and undisciplined character. Really now? Here I must disagree with good old St. Ben. Did he never experience the joy of a good belly-laugh? But in one way, he has a point that deserves merit. While today we consider it healthy and necessary to be able to laugh at ourselves, we should never mock another or deride another with sarcasm and laughter. Only when I can face my own shortcomings and limitations will I stop the sneering and snickering.
11. Speak gently and with laughter (not again), seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising voices. The wise are known by their few words, measured tones and gentle words. On the eve of GS2019, this step cannot be stressed enough. May the Holy Spirit work overtime and flood hearts and conversations, may mercy flow abundantly towards all …
12. Always manifest humility in our bearing no less than in our hearts, so that it is evident in all we do and say. Well, if I can absorb even a tidbit of each of the above steps, then step #12 is a given and humility becomes not second nature, but first nature. Lord, hear my prayer.

God of our ancestors, God of our future,
who was and is and is to come,
you have named us in baptism,
and called us into friendship with you and one another.
In this General Synod, give all participants grace to listen well,
to speak with respect, to deliberate with wisdom,
and to honour this gathering of your beloved Church;
through Jesus Christ, before whose name we bow
in adoration and praise, now and for ever. Amen.

Falling Silent

A regular reader of my blog commented recently that I only seem to post sermon texts these days with rare exceptions. I wasn’t sure how to interpret the comment: as a criticism, as a request for more, or simply as stating a fact. In any case, it did get me thinking: there was a season in the life of this blog that I shared thoughts on current events that moved me in one direction or another. There was a time when I engaged passionately with the news far and near: a disaster, an injustice, a scandal, a tragedy, a good news story even. I wanted to share my two-cent’s worth of thoughts and opinions. Now for the most part, I have fallen silent, unless I weave world events into my preaching.

Why the silence? Is it caused by paralysis, afraid to say anything that could offend someone somewhere? Is the silence fueled by helplessness and powerlessness, because I am at a loss as to how to keep up with a world that seems to suffer more pain than joy, and that seems to be changing faster than the speed of light?

Some negative reasons surely play. I got burnt on Facebook and my blog a few times by misperceptions and rash judgments. So I quit FB posting, except for work purposes. Social media can bring out the worst in us; it is no substitute for f2f encounters with meaning and depth. Moreover, I’m not interested in serving as an information feeder to companies tracking my “likes” and other social media behaviour so they can target advertising to my personal interests.

I do hope that my silence is grounded in something deeper. As I move through days filled with an array of encounters and situations, I learn and grow as well as lament and hurt. As a committed disciple of Jesus, I strive to make room for all whose stories and challenges find their way into my heart. It is then that I fall silent. No question, words are a gift and blessing; playing with them is still my favourite pastime. But there comes a time in life when silence has more to say …

I fall silent at the uniqueness and beauty of each child of God,
at the fact that I know so little about anything …
I fall silent at the layers and layers of meaning behind words,
at the political and ecclesial scandals and decay,
at the divine colour palette in a prairie sunset …

I fall silent as my heart stretches into compassion,
so love can get through my occasional verbal diarrhea …
I fall silent at blooming wildflowers in a ditch,
at the morning chorus of birds.
I fall silent to soak in peace and mercy,
as the surest way into a genuine embrace …
I fall silent when others have more to say than I …

I fall silent to dissolve anger at injustice and exploitation,
I fall silent to breathe calmly into chaos,
at snowflakes quietly falling, pulling me into awe …
I fall silent to gently hold another’s struggle,
as trickles of mercy crack my hardened spirit,
when another needs my ear more than I need hers …

I fall silent when it speaks louder than words,
when there’s no room for me,
to be washed in mercy,
in protest of the virtual poverty of social media …
I fall silent to be more present,
to make room for another’s holy ground,
in order to speak the right words …
I fall silent in horror of innocent killing of bodies and spirits …
I fall silent because it might just foster wise aging …

I fall silent into a loving, all-knowing, and merciful God,
in shock and despair, in gratitude and in joy,
into divine communion and holy mystery …
I fall silent to listen ….
In the loving and rejoicing,
weeping and wailing,
forgiving and strengthening,
laughing and consoling,
God … you are present in the
sound of silence, here and now:

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When I heard it, I wrapped my face in my mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave… (adapted from 1 Kings 19:11-13)