Old Wineskins

The other day I fell off my bike — landing gently in soft grass, thank God. The earth’s bump hiding in the grass kissed my head, causing a bump of my own. It was a humbling reminder of a slowly aging body — less flexible with a diminishing aptitude for quick reaction and good balance. The physical changes are ever so subtle yet ever so poignant. And I began to wonder if sometimes an aging body parallels an aging mind, less flexible and struggling to integrate new realities around us.

As if the good Lord overheard my grumbling over the fall, not soon after the Gospel in my morning prayer time was Luke 5:36–39 in which Jesus tells this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins.”

Without giving in to defeatism, I began to wonder. I know plenty of inspiring and robust elders who possess an puzzling amount of physical energy, a healthy constitution, and a quick wit to boot. These old wineskins have no trouble storing , and even generating, new wine. On the other hand, I know elders who diminish sooner than their chronological age would suggest, becoming old wineskins before their time without much capacity to accommodate the new wine of change and transformation. But often such diminishment is beyond our control.

Many cultures, including our Indigenous people, convey great respect towards their elders. Drawing from a lifetime of living, learning hard lessons through trials and challenges, elders are considered a source of wisdom and advice, tradition and knowledge. In some cultures, grandparents live with their children’s families, contributing to the household as they are able. All this assumes of course that the old have lived a virtuous life that is worth emulating. This also assumes that grandparents are in reasonable health, remain of sound mind, and have learnt to love generously without being possessive or authoritarian. In other words, old wineskins need to maintain a certain “souplesse” and grace. But if the physical and mental faculties of elders no longer function in healthy ways, trouble can arise when families insist on maintaining ancient traditions of inter-generational care, however noble this may be. Then the old wineskins of tradition or rigidity can burst, causing heartache and desolation.

While all cultures include many dutiful and loving children who will do almost anything to help their parents and other seniors, growing old in western cultures sometimes does not come with this type of respect and honour, quite the contrary. An article published last year claims that people who associate old age with uselessness or senility are more likely to develop dementia than people who associate it with positive attributes, such as wisdom and respect.

So where do I find myself? The line between senility and wisdom seems thin some days. I feel like an old wineskin unable to contain new wine when I struggle to grasp new concepts and realities, the kind that the young embrace without much effort. I admire the idealism and passion of youth — hey, I was there once –, but worry about its occasional naivete and arrogance (I was there too!). I feel there’s still some good wisdom wine in my wineskin, seasoned through years of living and laughing and suffering. I crave quality time with my children and their loved ones, but cringe at the thought of permanently moving in with any of them. Sometimes I wonder whether my wisdom wine is still relevant and meaningful and wanted in a world where elders are parked in nursing homes and often dismissed, judged or belittled for their clinging to deeply cherished values and beliefs. And yet, when walking closely with others in their seasons of pain and transition, the seasoned, sacred wine of compassion, caring and understanding flows richly from my heart. So old age does not automatically equal old and cracked wineskins. There is still much wine left in my heart, seasoned in six decades of life lessons, eager to be poured out for another’s healing and consolation, guidance and admonishment.

But I’ll be honest; I worry. I worry about so much tradition, wisdom and history being ignored or outright considered useless by the new generation. The young possess an enviable zeal and passion for what is noble and right and just — I remember the season well. But sometimes the young also suffer a certain over-confidence in their own right, thus risking to dismiss the wisdom of age — been there, done that, the shoe’s on the other foot now. The world’s enthusiasm for all things new can come with a loss of honour and respect for elders, in both secular and religious spheres. God may be doing a new thing in the young (Isaiah 43:19), but to then make an absolute claim “out with the old, in with the new” is a stretch too far, me thinks.

I derive a deep sense of belonging by being part of God’s story throughout time and space. The most meaningful and life-giving story is Jesus Christ. I feel part of the universe through Christ, I look to him as a pattern for how to live each day, how to engage relationships in love and mercy, and I seek Christ in times of uncertainty and struggle. I also need the fellowship of the church, the family of faith, to help and guide me on this path of discipleship and mission.

But this kind of deep connection to faith, spirituality and community seems to become a rarity, and that concerns me. How and where will future generations anchor their existence in a source beyond themselves? For sure, new wine belongs in new wineskins, but please, beloved young ones, be gentle and slow in discarding any old wineskin. God might be doing a new thing through you, but God also graced this brave new world with elders to love, to cherish and to learn from. And who knows, some of these elders might still contain some seasoned wine of wisdom and affection you might need along the way, even from those who are not as steady on two wheels anymore as they used to be.

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Of Velcro Curlers and Other Treasures

So there’s this table with household items for the taking, discards that have seen better days. But my two granddaughters disagree; they see a treasure trove. The girls insist on bringing home a curling iron with a broken plug-in, an ugly candlestick, a roll of tensor bandage, a well-worn snowman stuffy in Christmas decor, and a massive container of velcro curlers. I’m rolling my eyes — really, girls? Their ear-to-ear grins keep my mouth shut, lest I deflate their victorious spirits as they bring home the spoil.

I have a category for such things — junk. I also know exactly what each item is supposed to be used for. And I honestly did not think that my 8 1/2 and 7 year old granddaughters would know what to do with most of their treasures, let alone need them. Well, I was wrong.

On the drive home my assumptions were, well, thrown out the window with the kind of light-hearted ridicule only granddaughters can get away with. In the rear view mirror I saw the tensor bandage being strung from the car’s ceiling, held in place by — what else? — a curler! Then curlers were hurled onto it, sticking to the bandage, causing giggles and bursts of excitement. Look, Oma, we’re playing a game! Who would have thought velcro curlers and tensor bandage could generate so much fun and joy?

Clearly, young minds display a limitless curiosity, not to mention boundless energy to explore and invent, to engage and to create. My old adult-mind thinks it knows everything — well, on some days anyways. But my two girls refuse to think in boxes and rigid categories. Instead, they give their imagination free reign to discover new purposes for grown-ups’ discards in startlingly fun ways.

As the days rolled on, their energy-level sharply contrasting with mine, and their physical flexibility stretching my rickety, aching bones beyond their limits, the girls’ ability to see beyond the surface of things was ever so evident, to the point of creating their own humour. “It’s complicated to say complicated!” said the younger one in frustration. She stopped, realized what she just said, and the two burst out laughing, repeating the phrase over and over sprinkled with contagious giggles. Strangers and dogs drew their heartstrings, turning them into friends and objects of affection. Even the bumble bees who have made their home under our front step were greeted with vintage Franciscan-style affection and respect. The girls saw toys and friends and games where grown-ups see annoying bugs and caterpillars, dead sticks and branches, leaves and rocks, unapproachable strangers and dogs, useless string and ugly candlesticks, spoons and tensor bandage and, well, velcro curlers. Wow, to go through life like that all the time …

The world is a magnificent place, with places to explore and people to meet and things to discover, only limited by our own imagination. Who would want to curtail or even destroy such childlike trust, unbridled joy and freedom of spirit? Sadly, too many harmful events are suffered by too many children, equally deserving of the boundless trust and enthusiasm my dear girls exuded. No wonder Jesus favoured children and condemned those who harmed them: He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. … If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones (…), it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:2, 6) Childlike trust and wonder make it obvious that the kingdom of heaven is indeed a present reality, here and now. Because the kingdom of heaven is a quality of seeing and loving and engaging and cherishing and playing.

How do we as grown-ups foster an ongoing, childlike openness of vision and a vibrant imagination? Why do so many of us lose that capacity along the way? Not only children suffer harmful effects of the sins of others inflicted upon them; too many adults go through life never tasting fullness and wholeness, never trusting and loving, never coming to full bloom. Too many adults live under the burden of sins, their own or those of others — betrayal, abuse, abandonment, neglect, violence, discrimination, oppression, exploitation, persecution. There are kids, too young for the task, who are forced to look after parents, robbed of a carefree childhood. Other kids see and hear and feel things no child ever should, scarring their fragile spirits with a pain they don’t understand. Still others are on the run, with or without parents, dreaming–longing–deserving the safety and love my granddaughters take for granted. Such children have trouble seeing the fun and games in an ugly candlestick, tensor bandages and velcro curlers. I have come that you may have life, says Jesus, and have it in abundance. (John 10:10). When you’re 8 1/2 and 7 years old, and have been blessed with a safe home and a loving family, Jesus’ words are a no-brainer. But when the bruises of living cause permanent, gaping holes in our spirit, and build concrete walls of protection around our heart, Jesus’ words sound ludicrous and unattainable.

The week of my granddaughters’ visit saw our house turn into a war zone, with household items baptized into prized toys and games, and harmless garden bugs scurrying into hiding places. It saw quiet evenings turn into an exciting, sometime quarrelsome, competition over who’s first falling asleep — me every time, while Grandpa policed them until 11pm most nights. These little monkeys saw me drive a round-trip of 500km to take them half-way home where they fell into Dad’s loving arms with glee, not to forget their teacup Yorkie who came along to greet them.

The giggles, the twinkling eyes, the infectious curiosity and imagination have left the house; everything’s back into its place or cupboard, category and box. My body is in recovery mode, sleeping non-stop for nearly ten hours on the first night after their departure. My days are slowly resuming a regular routine, and I am returning to work. But the joyful witness of these amazing little people lingers in my heart and in the rooms of our home, their giggles still sounding off its walls.

The well-worn snowman stuffy stayed at our house, waiting for the girls’ return at Christmastime. Oh, the ugly candlestick? We adorned it with a candle, lit it in the dark at bedtime while saying thank you to God for the blessings of the day, including for the times we argued and managed to make up with one another. Their young eyes glowing in candlelight sang more hymns of praise than any words could capture.

Drawing from that twinkling glow in those young eyes, my heart prays for all, young and old, who deserve love and mercy, for all who are weighed down by pain and distress, for all whose life history has slammed shut doors of freedom and happiness, for all who long for the unbridled joy and freedom of spirit which my dear granddaughters live with such abandon and unselfconsciousness.

And the curling iron? Well, let’s put it this way. Certain things are simply much less versatile than bugs and caterpillars, tensor bandages and velcro curlers, better kept in their particular category of use. With all due respect to my lovely girls’ innovative ability to re-purpose junk, the curling iron with the broken plug-in magically disappeared, never to be found again.

Marika (left) and Kiana (right) in front of Oma’s church

Transubstantiation Revisited

An article in a well-reputed Catholic publication caught my eye recently. It reported from an extensive survey among Roman Catholics that a significant majority no longer believe the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, i.e. that the bread and wine in the Eucharist actually undergo a permanent change into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The same article quoted Bishop Robert Barron, who has posted a video-response to these survey results.

Pity, really. As an Anglican, I say pity, really. As a woman priest, I say pity, really. For many reasons, I say pity, really. From the very beginning of our formal ecumenical dialogue, Anglicans and Catholics have shared a significant agreement on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forming deep connective tissue between our two traditions. On the other hand, this increasing variance in belief among Roman Catholics on the Eucharist is not unknown to Anglicans. The Anglican large-tent ethos means that there exists the entire spectrum of Eucharistic understandings, from mere symbol to literal notions of the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine. To Roman Catholics this is most disconcerting, to Anglicans this is a fact of life. “Feed on Him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving,” says the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Some people argue we should do away with the term transubstantiation, as its original and precise meaning in philosophy is so little understood today. But instead of discarding it, can we expand its meaning? Is it possible to rescue the term and infuse it with fresh insight, so that it comes alive anew for today’s faithful?

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to ordinary food and drink — bread and wine — being transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. If we are willing to play with expanding the term, what about this: women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time our bodies grow another human being. The new life generated by the marital union is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.

In her yes, Mary became the first person to offer to the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus, our Messiah and Lord. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, every woman knows something about the mystery of transforming ordinary food and drink into new life – a profound Eucharistic transformation, culminating in the great Eucharistic Sacrament of the Incarnation of God’s own Son Jesus. Have we really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological transubstantiation called pregnancy?

God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food, ordinary events, and ordinary situations into the radiance of the risen Christ present and active in the world. Without negating the reality of sin, our bodies are created to be living sacraments; both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through word and deed, just as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. We make God in Christ present every day when we make giving ourselves to another a gift of love, mercy and beauty. Long before any of us end up in a marriage bed, and those who never do this in a marriage bed, we gift the world with our very selves in the quality of our love, our compassion, our forgiveness.

In one of his Lenten sermons a few years ago Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, urged all of us to offer our bodies and blood as a daily Eucharistic sacrifice and gift to the world, thereby transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary presence and action of God:
Let us try to imagine what would happen if the laity, at the moment of the consecration, said silently: ‘Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. A mother of a family thus celebrates Mass, then she goes home and begins her day made up of a thousand little things. But what she does is not nothing: It is Eucharist together with Jesus! A [religious] sister also says in her heart at the moment of consecration: ‘Take, eat …’; then she goes to her daily work: children, the sick, the elderly. The Eucharist ‘invades’ their day which becomes … Eucharist. (Zenit, March 12, 2010)

Every time we drink the cup of blessing that we bless, we share in the Blood of Christ, thus committing ourselves to be poured out in love for others. Every time we eat the Body of Christ, we are called to offer our own bodies in sacrificial love for the healing of the world. Daily gifts of self redeem relationships – with one another, as well as with creation and with God, whether in the marriage bed, in school or the workplace, at the recycling depot, in the dance recital or the communion procession. Our body is an integral expression of our personhood, thus affirming creation as male and female in the divine image as “very good.”

In the Eucharistic Prayer the priest prays,
by your Holy Spirit graciously make holy these gifts . . .
that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son . . .
But that’s not all:  “grant that we, who are nourished
by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit,
may become one body, one spirit in Christ.

Here are the words that signify the double transubstantiation. This transformation into oneness, into communion, is a thread that runs through the whole Eucharistic liturgy. We, being made one, pray the Lord’s Prayer, to “Our Father.” We share the sign of peace, and pray “grant (the church) peace and unity.” We approach the communion table together, joining our voices in song to express our spiritual union, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the community character of receiving the Eucharist as one unified body.

All of this – the praying and singing, the sharing and processing – has but one major goal: This motley crew of saints and sinners is being transformed into the Body of Christ – transubstantiation. The Body of Christ receives the Body of Christ in order to be the Body of Christ in the world. We … are changed … This is the ultimate purpose of Eucharist: to change us! We say Amen to the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ, and to our own reality as Body of Christ. We say Amen to letting go of anything that would keep us from being the Body of Christ in our world.

Pope Francis echoed St. Augustine when he stated: 
Christ gives himself to us both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him. This means to allow oneself to be changed as we receive. Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist. You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!

Really? Do we really … become … what we receive? As a people of the breaking of bread, we are a people of eternal life – life in its fullness. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, challenges self-examination, as Paul urges. How do we express such an abundant gift of life day to day as we live in hope and joy as well as in difficulties and pain? In spite of the daily challenges and trials, we learn to draw hope, joy and courage by living the Eucharist in daily service to those most in need among us. It is in daily service and gift of ourselves that we can stand shoulder to shoulder in a Eucharistic gesture of compassion, solidarity and justice.

Who among you is in need, asks Christ through the Lord’s Supper. Examine yourselves, and only then eat and drink, says Paul. How beautiful indeed and how powerful if this was really happening! Do most Catholics and most Christians take the discipleship challenge of the Eucharistic table into daily life, literally? Do most Catholics allow transubstantiation to occur in their own bodies–minds–spirits as a result of their eating and drinking at Holy Communion? Could a lack of taking seriously the obligation in discipleship that partaking in Holy Communion places upon us contribute to the erosion of belief also? It is curious that the comments following Bishop Barron’s video-response almost all blame the loss of reverence and solemnity in the liturgy itself. Hardly any pick up on Bishop Barron’s last words: “You take away the central teachings of our church at the doctrinal level, and trust me, you will take away our commitment to the poor. It belongs together as a whole.”

In response to Bishop Barron, and with all due respect, Christ is so much bigger than our human limitations in believing. While Bishop Barron makes a good point, I pray that he might find some consolation in the fact that other Christian traditions draw on a wide range of inspirations to sustain their commitment to the poor, including Scripture itself, the witness of Jesus, the cloud of witnesses (of which he mentions some significant ones), prayer and worship. While good catechesis and expanding our understanding of transubstantiation would greatly help, we can sustain one another in many different ways so as to keep our Christian discipleship fresh and faithful, accountable and open to continued perfecting. Let that ecumenical support become ever more real among us.

  • Part of this reflection comes from a retreat I will be leading on the Eucharist at Queen’s House in Saskatoon on September 20-21, 2019, entitled: Become what you Eat … Really? For more information, click here.
  • For more Roman Catholic responses on Transubstantiation from RC theologians (and one Anglican), click here, here and here.

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

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)


Fighting Demons

In the past few weeks, we’ve been kind’a in a party bubble in our church. We celebrated a baptism, three confirmations and the blessing of a lovely renovated hall with Bishop Chris. That’s quite the list of events, events that brought us much life and joy. And that’s good, that’s all really good. We need happy times – they help us store up energy and courage for the tough times.

So did you store up enough goodness and joy? Ready for today? Because today’s Scriptures bring tough times and tough situations. It doesn’t seem fair to be served these stories right when our spirits are light and when summer is at our doorstep. But we all know, shit happens when we least expect it. Take a deep breath, and let’s dive in, and see what the Holy Book has to say.

Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-15) is on the run – on the run from Ahab who wants to kill him, and on the run from God who wants him to keep needling Ahab with the truth. Elijah’s spirit is running out of steam, running out of courage. He’d rather die in a forgotten corner in the wilderness: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.

Talk about discouragement and feeling like an utter failure! We know the feeling; we try to do the right thing, but life throws too many curves that we can’t handle. We think we understand what God is asking of us, but our efforts don’t seem to find much favour in the world. We want to love like Jesus, serve like Jesus and forgive like Jesus, but crisis upon crisis sabotages our best efforts, depleting our hope and energy, our courage and motivation. And so exhaustion has us fall into a deep sleep …

And what does God do … when he finds us asleep into that forgotten wilderness corner of our own lives? Come on, … get up and eat … eat some love bread and drink some soul-care … Walk in the beauty of God’s creation, feel the wind and the sun (or the rain!), laugh at a good joke, create a work of art, read a good book, have coffee with a friend, sit on the beach and watch the waves, share a family meal, write a gratitude list, lay down in a field and look up at the night sky, pray for someone else, dig in the garden, hold a baby … God’s first concern is … to … nourish and strengthen us, just as Elijah experienced … God knows our need to just stop … take a deep breath … Amazing really … how replenishing … simple love-food can be for our spirit…

But what if such love-food, instead of recharging our battery, is devoured instead by … demons??? That is what we hear about in the encounter between Jesus and the demon-possessed man in the Gerasene country (Luke 8:26-39). Here is a dramatic show-down between the One who is God’s love-food for all and the greatest enemies of God, the demons who absolutely despise everything good and beautiful and holy.

Now in our sophisticated day and age, we might think it kind’a freaky to talk of demons and demon-possession. Maybe we think of it as an ancient and out-dated concept. But not so fast …

When we speak of trauma, of PTSD, of the need for deep healing, when we speak of addictions, of dysfunctional behaviours, of obsessions and destructive habits; when we speak of mental illness, paranoia, and all the negative forces preventing us from becoming who God intends us to be, aren’t we in fact naming the demons of our time? We are just as surrounded by – yes, possessed by – as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered.

There are eary similarities between the demon-possessed man Jesus encounters and the demons that possess us. The person in the Gospel was totally cut off from family and society. He didn’t live with people, but “in the tombs,” probably in caves that were used as burying places. He was also “driven by the demons into the wild.” In other words, he was a living corpse, separated from normal people and normal living. The man was naked, and so overcome by violent impulses that he could not be restrained even with chains and leg-shackles. Furthermore, the demons were harming him. In Mark’s version he was “bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:1-20). Finally, and most sadly, he was so totally possessed that even though the demons recognized Jesus as “Son of the Most High God,” the man could not free himself …

Recently I read about Victoria Morrison, a young woman from Windsor, ON, who fell prey to sexual exploitation in Winnipeg. Her case is now in court, and her 30-year old captor pleaded guilty to human trafficking, forcible confinement and obstructing justice. The man who captured her sounds “possessed:” among other things, he burned Victoria with a hot iron, shocked her with an electrical wire and locked her in a freezer. He also blindfolded her and tied her hands with bed sheets, then strung her up to the ceiling with a cord. This man’s demons not only ruled him, but deliberately set out to dominate and destroy another human being.

Other types of demons primarily rule and destroy the persons whose spirits they invade, such as the man in today’s Gospel. As we just marked National Indigenous Peoples Day in our country, my thoughts turned to the demons that have set up dominion in many Indigenous communities. The extensive historical research, the Truth & Reconciliation Report, the national inquiries such as the most recent one into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls are revealing the ugly face and death-dealing effects of these demons. The inter-generational trauma of colonization, which has inflicted cultural, social and spiritual devastation, has lead to the demons of self-destruction, personally and collectively.

Those demons have names, just like the demons in today’s Gospel: Jesus asked, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered. Indeed, the demons in the Indigenous community have names too: addictions and abuse, violence and death-dealing life-choices, mental illness, despair and depression, suicide and a never-ending cycle of sabotaging, dysfunctional behaviours.

The demons in the Gospel knew who Jesus was. Jesus’ energy of love and grace and mercy pierced them and there was no hiding: it scared the livin’ daylights out of them! Why? Because demons know that when love-grace-mercy appear on the scene, their days are numbered. Casting out demons with the love-food and liberating power of Jesus is now our call, our task, but how? The flow of God’s love-grace-mercy is not as strong in us as in Jesus: our sinful streaks block that flow quite effectively, unfortunately. Yet Christ still calls us on the healing path of love and mercy. Jesus calls us to the hard road of reconciliation, as the way to cast out the demons of all oppression and broken relations. Here are some words from Rev. Ginny Doctor, the Indigenous ministries coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. She published these words recently under the title: Where are all our flowers going?

Where do we go from here? How do we talk about a problem so large – a demon so strong – that it needs a thousand pages and its own acronym? MMIWG have been with us for a long time; it goes way back to first contact with settlers. And it’s here with us now. Every day on Facebook, I see postings on missing Indigenous women and girls. Each one breaks my heart, and I wonder, “Where are all our flowers going?” They are gone to death and human trafficking. How to cast out these demons of destruction?

What needs to change to protect our women and girls? For one thing, we need to cast out the demons by making a good life for them in our communities —a task that is social, economic and environmental. Maybe then, they won’t have to travel bad roads looking for something better. We must tend to the gardens in which our flowers grow, increasing self-worth in each person, and provide economic stability in our communities.

The other way is spiritual. We need to see the beauty and value in these women and girls, in their very being. This is about honouring our women and girls by reconnecting with traditional values: respect, humility, wisdom, truth, honesty, courage and most important, love.

Ginny makes an important point here: the most effective way to cast out the demons of personal and collective destruction lies in finding the beauty in one another, in honouring the image of God in one another, in fostering God’s worldview with respect, humility, truth, wisdom, honesty, courage and most important, with love and grace and mercy. And I would add to this, cast out one another’s demons by sharing and carrying one another’s pain in the same way Jesus took on the pain of our sins on the cross.

After being back home in Windsor for 10 months, Victoria has relied heavily on WE Fight to ease her back into society. The organization helps survivors of human trafficking get back on their feet with income assistance, clothing and food as well as mental-health supports.
WE Fight brings the healing power of Jesus to those possessed by the demons of human trafficking: when love-grace-mercy truly enter the person’s heart, the demons days’ are numbered, and get chased out of our spirits. Victoria Morrison asked the court not to impose a publication ban that would protect her identity. She wants the public, and those who may be suffering or have endured similar experiences, to put a human face to this horrific story. “I want people to see how normal I am. I also want people to know even if you go through something this terrible, you can get out of it,” Morrison said.

People came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind…
Luke reports that the townspeople freaked out at the man’s healing, and that they became afraid. I wonder how we react when our demon-possessed sisters and brothers, whoever they are, find Christ’s healing and peace and joy. Jealous, because we need that same healing touch and have trouble tapping into God? Judgmental, because s/he doesn’t really deserve this? Afraid and nervous, because I don’t know how to relate to you now? Skeptical, because I don’t trust the healing to be for real? Indifferent, because I’m so exhausted from fighting my own demons?

Or … relieved, eager to share in your healing? Or grateful, ready to dance with you in joy? Or encouraged, because God is real indeed and can heal me too? Or inspired, for Jesus wills all people to be set free? Yes, in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:23-29)

Exhausted and weary of fighting the demons, we (and many others) commiserate with Elijah – just kill me now, God. But God reaches out, gently and patiently, with love-food and soul-drink, through ordinary folks, ordinary events and ordinary things. Listen to Ginny’s words at the end of her article: My niece just sent me pictures of the flowers she has grown; they are beautiful, but not as beautiful as the two daughters and son she is raising. There is beauty all around us and in each one of us. Look for it, cherish it and safeguard it— before you have to ask, “Where have all the flowers gone?”

We claim the healing power of Jesus to cast out our demons – we look for it, claim it, love it, cherish it, safeguard it. That’s more than enough reason to continue our church party into the summer and into our lives, here and beyond. AMEN

Homily preached on June 23, 2019. While the Roman Catholic community celebrated Corpus Christi on this day, we confronted the demons in Luke 8: 26-39. The other Scriptures were 1 Kings 19:1—15 (exhausted Elijah), Psalm 42, and Galatians 3:23-29.