Sackcloth and Ashes

So I’m told that I’m very fortunate to go on a two-week pilgrimage to Jerusalem with my bishop and about 17 clergy colleagues. I have never been to the Holy Land. I wasn’t particularly keen to sign up; I’ve become a really content homebody. Even though I am deeply committed to my Christian faith and my priestly ministry, going to the Holy Land was really not on my bucket list (there’s in fact very little on that list). But the offer was too good to pass up, so here I am on the eve of our departure.

In order to increase my appreciation for this unique opportunity I decided to read two books: Jesus — A Pilgrimage by James Martin SJ and Jerusalem — One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong. Martin’s book is an eloquent account of his pilgrimage to the Holy Sites in Israel, woven together with the relevant Scripture passages, mostly from the New Testament, and vignettes from his own spiritual journey. It is the type of book that makes me long for a similar experience, showing me how to experience this upcoming trip as a real retreat that could feed my soul long after returning home. Martin spoke my language and appealed to my spirit. My heart was engaged and my mind told my body in no uncertain terms to get in shape to walk the cobble-stone streets of the Holy City and the dusty roads of the ancient country-side.

After reading Martin’s idyllic prose, Karen Armstrong’s book delivered a serious jolt. Now Armstrong is no debutante when it comes to religious history; in fact, this outstanding scholar is widely respected and in great demand across the world. Delving into her book Jerusalem opened up the centuries-old history of the sacred land and its Holy City, causing spiritual and emotional heart tremors. I am wondering now if Jerusalem is the one tortured city in the world that has seen the most blood spilled on its ancient stones, the most destruction and reconstruction of its temples, churches, homes, synagogues and mosques, and the worst persecutions by adherents of the three monotheistic religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In her now famously meticulous, subversively dispassionate yet passionate style, Armstrong lets the historical facts speak for themselves. Beginning with King David in 1000 BCE, the three religions of a loving and compassionate God which lay claim to Jerusalem certainly knew fleeting times of truly reflecting that divine love, mercy and respect with each other. However, more often than not their adherents slaughtered with glee all who stood in the way of claiming the Holy City for themselves (maybe with the exception of the first groups of Muslims who arrived there in 637 CE, showing much greater respect and restraint). The command to love one’s neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to love one’s enemy, all of that conveniently went out the window when it came to imposing one’s exclusive religious practice on Jerusalem.

Time and again the Jews ousted the original inhabitants — still today. In turn we Christians persecuted the Jews, then the Muslims, then the Jews again, through social and legal oppression. When that failed, we killed them by the hundreds of thousands in the name of the Prince of Peace: the blood ran knee-deep through the streets, writes Armstrong. Knee-deep, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ summons about loving our enemies and showing mercy to offenders: If respect for the sacred rights of their predecessors is a test of integrity of any monotheistic conqueror of Jerusalem, the Crusaders must come at the bottom of anybody’s list. (page 275) The more subtly Armstrong inserted the tried and true dictum that tests the authenticity of all religious paths, the more it pierced my heart: its capacity for respect and peace, justice and compassion.  Sad to say that in Jerusalem, we have failed the test, countless times — miserably.

We did all that in order to safeguard the Holy City for our own devotional practices. Armstrong notes that this was a most peculiar development. The Christians of the first three centuries focused on worshiping God “in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:24) manifested primarily in their ethical and relational righteousness instead of through devotional practices in a particular geographical location. But ever since the “miraculous” discovery of the Tomb of Christ (around 325 CE), where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands, Christians began to develop their own sacred geography. Yet, by the late 1800’s, writes Armstrong, many Europeans had become repelled by the Holy Sepulchre Church, finding this musty building filled with angry, rebarbative monks and clerics impossible to associate with the limpid mysteries of their faith. (p. 365)

I read on in shock. This book too gripped my heart, albeit in a radically different way. Despair, shame, and embarrassment pushed the peaceful longing for an enjoyable and inspiring pilgrimage out the door. In Armstrong’s graphic historic account, something very insidious emerged with embarrassing clarity:

By the 1800’s, The city of peace was seething with frustration and resentment, and the old ideal of integration seemed a vanished dream. (p. 347) Almost every new development in Jerusalem seemed doomed to increase the sectarianism and (religious) rivalry that now seemed endemic. (p. 351)

When a religion makes exclusive truth claims (Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life), it can easily breed suspicion, contempt and hatred towards those with different beliefs and devotional practices. According to Armstrong’s historical accounts, Christians fought a “holy war” against Judaism because it had rejected Jesus. Antisemitism and pogroms had their genesis in these ancient competitions over Jerusalem with devastating effects to this day. This is a dark legacy  to own and confess, along with all the other times in history when we have blatantly destroyed peoples and cultures in the name of Jesus (e.g. residential school policies in Canada).

I was now feeling that the only posture to don upon my arrival in the Holy City would need to be one of atonement and repentance, humility and silence. I get it now. I get the ancient practice of donning sackcloth and ashes. I also get the disdain with which countless people turn away from organized religion; we haven’t exactly showcased our best selves, either in the past or even today, and done our founder Jesus, the Prince of Peace, proper homage. I feel the need to live the upcoming pilgrimage as an intense and extended Ash Wednesday.

As I pack my bags, preparing to board the flight to Tel Aviv, these unsettling thoughts and feelings mix with the genuine spiritual longing to grow more deeply my bond with God through Jesus, my Lord and Saviour. This is not the type of preparation I expected — blame it on the Holy Spirit? What will the result be? Stay tuned …

Lord, have mercy on us all. Help us to bring peace to all your holy people in the Holy City of Jerusalem … forgive us and heal us. AMEN

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Daily Halos

Homily, Christmas Eve

Our secular culture seems to have decided that religion is not good for us. Religion is unhealthy, old-fashioned and certainly hostile to the human body. Religion is considered the enemy of fun and freedom and fulfillment. If you are among those who think that religion is something best to avoid, then tonight’s news is for you.

Because tonight’s news is pretty darn radical and pretty darn awesome. Believe it or not, but Christianity is based on the goodness of the flesh/our body. We haven’t always communicated that very convincingly, but it’s true. Think about it, if human flesh was good enough for Jesus, why should we reject it? To be human is to be flesh. To be holy is to glory in it.

The very scandal of Christianity lies in the fact that we see God/divinity in … humanity. Every major religion acknowledges the role of the Creator in the development of life, of course. But the Creator in life? Part of it? Identified with it?! Only … Christianity … makes the crazy claim that the Creator … has taken on … the flesh and blood of creation in order to connect us to the divine in ourselves.

In that forlorn stable in Bethlehem, God became helpless and vulnerable, and adorable and lovable in … greeting us in a small baby. A baby makes heads turn and hearts soften – that’s our God. The good news of the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, gives all human beings dignity and inherent beauty, capable of holiness in and through our bodies and in and through the ordinariness of life.

And so tonight, on this Holy Night, I’d like to illustrate this claim through the words of a dear friend. Not because I couldn’t come up with my own thoughts, but because Leah is a young mom expecting her next child. Leah’s words paint a vivid picture of what the beauty of God/Christmas looks like, feels like, tastes like in our own lives – the sacred of God in the small and ordinariness of human flesh. Leah’s words reveal the possibility of … halos … in our everyday existence:

Preparing a place is one of my favourite things.
We love having the guest room full,
the bed made and food planned,
the anticipation of time spent with people we love.
Preparing makes space, in our home and inside of us,
for those who are coming.
And this year, for the second time,
we are pregnant at Christmas.
It’s a beautiful connection
to the ancient Story of God coming as an infant.

I have a rounded belly growing full of mischief.
I feel exposed and empty as I prepare for this Christmas.
The year has been one from hell:
We have crawled through a miscarriage,
a season of unemployment,
and the cavernous murder of my own twin sister,
my own flesh and blood.
The planting work of living, of daily meals and tidying,
of tucking in and washing hands was laboured and late.
We showed up and watered and fed
with all the strength we had and it was not much.
The fall harvest was spotty at best.
There was more grace than we put in, and that was a miracle.
The stubble that is our family
lies poking through the snow; we survived, barely.

We have had so little to give;
Now I see that nothing … has given us … everything.
All the years spent preparing for guests
actually taught us how to let people into our lives.
This year, so many friends and strangers
have walked into our mess with food and cleaning supplies,
with hands for folding laundry,
with a willingness to be with us in tears and big emotions.
The bathrooms have not been as clean as I would like them.
The kitchen counters are littered with paper and toys.
The drawers and closets are getting out of hand.
Yet people who love us, our people, came anyway.

Jesus is coming, again, to our messy world.
He chooses us over and over again.
And He’s the kind of guest that comes regardless of the mess.
If we are willing, Jesus will stay all year.
He doesn’t care about unpacked boxes,
the mess in the junk drawer,
or the toothpaste clumps in the sink.
Actually, Jesus finds treasures
in the very mess I am trying to hide.
Jesus pulls joy out of my sadness,
finds space and meaning and possibility in my emptiness.

Preparing readies my heart to be broken open by love.
Jesus came to an unwed, teenage mother
and a foster father who risked faith.
He came in a stable and their little family
became refugees in Egypt to flee a massacre of infant boys.
Jesus wept for my little Claire (lost in miscarriage),
held us in job loss, wailed with me at the murder of my twin sister,
and now sends us every gift in death and grief,
in our next-awaited baby.
Jesus is not a stranger to our raw and exposed wounds.
From the moment of his birth,
Jesus knows emptiness too well
and loves us in the emptiness we feel.
He comes to us again as we are.

Preparing my heart and my home
requires a recognition of what I can do
without becoming resentful,
or burdened by my own unrealistic expectations,
and distracted by the unnecessary.
The straw and the snow and the sky
are a stark and simple beauty.
I am learning to prepare with some more slow,
some more gentle, some more kind.
Preparing from emptiness feels shaky and weak.
I only ever have myself to give anyway.
When I am empty there is more space for the ones coming.
Christmas is about the simplest things:
God in this time and this place;
generosity and hospitality,
hope in struggle,
light in overwhelming darkness.

***
So far Leah’s musings. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “Earth is crammed with heaven.” Gerald Manley Hopkins said the same: The world is charged with the grandeur of God. The human body was good enough for God in the baby Jesus. Our bodies, and our daily lives, however messy and painful, are “crammed with heaven” – all the time. The halos, the kind we can see around planets and constellations through a telescope, exist around each one of us. The halos, imprints of God’s loving kisses, are everywhere. As Leah’s musings show, we just need eyes to see and a heart to love. God is our glory. God is our power. God shows up in our emptiness and fills it with love, joy and beauty through the babe born in  Bethlehem. That is the Good News we celebrate tonight. May we all be blessed with a beautiful and grace-filled Christmas. Amen.

  • Leah’s original blog can be found here. 

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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:

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The Way, the Truth and the Life

Homily, Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture
.” (John 10:9)
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me
.” (John 14:6)

How have we heard these words throughout the history of the church? As exclusive, as restrictive, as judging who’s in and who’s out; as superior …

What if … this is not about which religions are acceptable and which are not? What if this is not about who is right or wrong? What if this is not about who is “saved” and who is “not saved”? What if this is instead about being a certain person, about becoming a human being fully alive, about following in Jesus’s footsteps, literally?

Many conceive of truth as an objective, unchanging reality, and that the only truthful way is to believe in Jesus. But Jesus presents truth as an identity, as something relational and dynamic. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the expression “I AM” eight times.

That’s very significant – in the Hebrew Scriptures, when Moses asks God for his name, God answers, “I am who I am.” So Jesus says, “I am …” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am … the Vine, the light of the world, the |Good Shepherd. Jesus didn’t say I possess the truth. He didn’t say I have truth and others do not. he didn’t say that he is leading the way. He said I AM … is the way, the truth and the life.

He ties truth to BE-ing (I am statements in John’s Gospel) and the “way,” points to a journey. He ties it to “life,” which is relational and full of potential, much of it sadly unrealized for the majority of people. Jesus ties the Truth to himself—as a living, breathing expression of God in the flesh, as a human being fully alive in God. Living is profoundly relational and constantly “on the move.”

Our Trinitarian God is profoundly relational, a community of LOVE & Mercy & Grace. Look at me, Jesus says, and you will see God. To know Jesus is to know God (“the Father”): But Jesus is also saying here: Look at me and you will see who you … are called to become as well.

We trip easily over the phrase, “no one comes to the Father but by me.” It’s a bold, challenging statement, and it sounds exclusive. In the history of the church, these words have indeed been interpreted in exclusive ways, served to keep people out of God’s kingdom. But let’s recall the original context of the words.

When Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” “The way” refers to the way of LOVE. And because the world rejects this generous loving, the way, far from an ego trip, is the way … of the cross. God is Love, and Jesus embodied that love in his very BE-ing. Those who are self-absorbed, who insist that they alone possess truth perceive all the love-giving and mercy-giving ways of Jesus as a threat. Worldy powers always see connections of love as a threat. Worldly powers understand that when people begin to see each other as sisters and brothers, instead of as enemies or adversaries, the powers of division and animosity are diminished.

Love – that mysterious force, that connective tissue that fosters mutual responsibility and affection between the most unlikely people – can be stronger than any human-made division and strife. That … is what constitutes the way, the truth and the life. The way that Jesus walked, the truth he embodied, the love that he lived is often more than we can grasp and embrace; that is why too often to live the Jesus-way leads to a cross.

Christ dies, again and again, nailed to a cross, every time we his followers fail to live God’s inclusive way of loving, forgiving and welcoming. It makes the usual use of the “I am the way” passage so ironic. To quote this line in triumphalist, exclusive tones, is to miss the point entirely. We Christians have mistakenly used this passage as proof that we are right and others are wrong. We attempt to conquer others rather than submit ourselves to a path of radical love and mercy that may lead to our crucifixion.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life” calls for mutuality. It calls us to care for one another. It demands that we acknowledge that salvation lies in continuing to make the Word flesh in our own flesh. It means honouring the physical, economic, social, and spiritual needs of all people.

Once again I turn to Pope Francis to show us what this Way-Truth-Life business looks like in concrete form. In September 2013, in the first year of his papacy, Pope Francis published a long letter in La RepubliccaLa Republicca is a major Italian secular newspaper, with a professed atheist editor at the helm. The atheist editor had written to Francis and was not shy with his questions, such as: will God forgive someone who doesn’t believe in God?? In his letter, Pope Francis called for an urgent dialogue between the church and nonbelievers and called such a dialogue an “intimate and indispensable expression” of Christian love.“Since it is born of love,” he wrote, “faith is not unbending, but grows in respectful coexistence with others… Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all. I would not speak, not even for a believer, of ‘absolute’ truth, in the sense of absolute as  disconnected, lacking any relationship,” the Pope explained. “Truth, according to Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ … Truth is given to us always and only as a path and a life.”  Truth equals love and requires humility and openness. Therefore truth is a relationship.

“This does not mean that truth is variable and subjective – on the contrary,” he wrote.“But it means that truth is given to us always and only as a path and a life… In other words, truth being after all one and the same as love, requires humility and openness in order to be sought, welcomed and expressed.” Asked whether the Church condemns those who lack and do not seek religious faith, Francis replied that the “mercy of God is unlimited if directed to someone with a sincere and contrite heart”. “The question for someone who does not believe in God lies in obeying one’s own conscience,” he wrote. “Sin exists, even for one who does not have faith, when one goes against conscience. To listen to and obey it means, in fact, to choose between what one perceives as good or as bad. And on this choice is staked the good or evil of our action.

Far from dividing the world into the saved and unsaved, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” testifies that we are all God’s children. It calls us to spiritual respect and nurture of one another in openness to the Spirit. Truth in God sets us free for holy, wholesome and healthy relationships – with God, ourselves, others and creation in ways intended by divine design. Truth sets us free, not just from wrong facts, but from wrong BE-ING. Truth will set us free to walk with God and with all people – but not simply because we possess right facts about God and Jesus. No. We will be free because our knowledge of God in Jesus, and consequently, our relationship with God in Jesus, will be according to the Person who IS the Truth, Jesus; a human being fully alive in God’s image and likeness.

So how do we follow Jesus today? The same way the disciples did long ago. They heard the words of Jesus and believed them. Sure enough, they struggled to grasp this Jesus Way, as Thomas and Philip’s questions to Jesus illustrate so well, so don’t feel bad if you have trouble to understand also. But ask questions, be open and ready to learn and grow. And once the disciples “got it,” they took Jesus’ example as the pattern for their own lives, every day and everywhere. They formed a counter-cultural community of love and mercy, where they confessed their sins, forgave one another, and proclaimed Jesus as their Lord and God. In Jesus they had seen living proof that radical and inclusive love and mercy have the power to break the bonds of strife and conflict, of sin and death. Jesus didn’t just die for our sins; he also showed us the way to live free from the chains of sin and evil.

In today’s excerpt from Peter’s letter we are reminded that “we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:2–10)

As followers of Christ, as God’s own holy people, we are to live in certain ways, renouncing the world’s conniving ways of dividing us one from the other. Instead we are called to relate to all people in certain ways that characterize new life in Christ, precisely because Christ’s death and resurrection has transformed us from the inside out. AMEN

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Turning …

Good Friday, April 14, 2017
Joint Lutheran-Catholic-Anglican Service

A few weeks ago I participated in a retreat with Steve Bell as presenter. He’s a successful JUNO-Award winning Christian musician from Winnipeg. It was a special treat to ponder Steve’s thoughtful reflections interspersed with beautiful songs on the guitar. Among the Lenten themes Steve explored with us were the words Passion and Compassion.

Steve shared how he had sat with his ailing mother when she was no longer able to communicate all that much. He shared with us how terribly uncomfortable that had been. So used to do-ing stuff, all Steve could do … was to … sit with her. Steve sat with his mother – awkward, restless and unsure of himself.

As Steve sat with mom feeling so darn useless and awkward, he remembered how, as a young boy, he sometimes had noticed all the veins showing clearly on the back of his mom’s hand. He remembered how he used to kind’a play … with those veins when he was little.

And so, now some 50 years later, sitting restlessly with his mom, holding her hand, he noticed once again her veins. And just like a long time ago, he began to play with them again. Steve discovered that just sitting with mom and holding her hand was in fact … enough. Sitting with her was more than enough, it was rich and full … meaning-full.

Because every time their eyes met, Mom smiled at her son. Steve learnt an important lesson: simply sitting … with mom … and loving her through her hand became the expression of compassion for Steve, until Jesus took his mother’s hand to lead her to the place of LOVE prepared for her in eternity. Steve thus learnt about the passive action of compassion.

It is clear that Jesus had a passion for Compassion. Throughout the three short years of his ministry, Jesus plowed through life bringing healing and mercy, bringing grace and justice, through actions and words coming straight from God himself. Jesus can easily be called an activist: he tirelessly drew crowds and taught them, he had a nose for those who were hurting and lost, he fearlessly jumped over and broke barriers and walls, social barriers, cultural walls and religious boundaries, much to the dismay of the learned and the well-off.

He instructed his disciples and the  crowds, blessed the children, and had sharp words for those who felt religiously superior to everyone else. Jesus’ passion for compassion stirred one whirlwind after another.

It all came to a climax that morning when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowd went wild: Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

And then … came … the turning … The crowd turned, and Jesus turned … Jesus’ passion for compassion turned into passive … passion … Events turn to the worst, and Jesus simply lets it all happen to him. Gone is his passionate outreach and touch, gone is his passionate embracing of the lost and needy, gone is his fiery speech. Jesus the activist turns into a passive victim … or so it seems …

Our faith teaches us that Jesus went before us in all things. Because of Jesus, no one need suffer alone ever again. Jesus knows our human condition – intimately. Jesus ran the gamut of emotions and experiences. Jesus knew all about relationships and betrayals, about loving devotion and brutal abandonment, about boundless joy and scornful hate.

Finally “going before us in all things” required one more surrender; the hardest, most painful moment, the event we recall today – on this Friday which we call Good. In order for Jesus to enter fully into solidarity with our human condition, our suffering and death, he turned … and let it all be done unto him … – the worst betrayal, the worst crime, the worst death.

Good Friday is ironically named, really. It really is a terrible and disorienting day. The worst human treachery and the worst affront are on full and embarrassing display today, seemingly swallowing whole our hopes for a brighter tomorrow.  Of all days in church, today we re-visit in a very graphic way the reality of our losses, the pain of our deepest disappointments and the harsh truth of our sinful complicity in snuffing out all that is holy and healthy and beautiful, in ourselves, in others, in God’s world.

On this day Christ absorbed all the world’s sorrow and sin, and bore them to the grave. Today is about death. Dead death. We feel death in our bones. We feel death breathing down our neck. No matter how lavishly we live in order to mask and perfume the stench of death, we know deep down that death is inescapable. We fear that it could be the last word on our lives.

On this day, this Good Friday, we need to feel the real agonizing and desperate loss that precedes resurrection. If nothing else, we prayerfully and compassionately commiserate in solidarity, after Jesus’ example, with those who have no such hope. It is all intended to be mighty uncomfortable, and it’s all intended to make us brutally honest – with ourselves, with one another, with God.

Jesus is the Saviour who first says “follow me,” burns with zeal for God, in passion and compassion, then … dies … looking like the ultimate loser. But he didn’t die a victim, he died a victor. For to keep extending love, God’s love and mercy, to your murderers as they are killing you is not for sissies. Carrying pain and insults willingly has nothing to do with being a doormat! Bearing such pain with integrity and strength is only possible when we are secure in knowing who and whose … we are: God’s beloved son and daughter, in whom God is well pleased.

In Jesus, God effectively neutralized the power of evil in the world by saying: “I’m willing to suffer. I will bear the problem myself.” This is a brand-new answer, much like  defusing a bomb. Now the answer no longer contributes to the problem anymore. In the cross, God says: “I will bear the problem myself. I take upon myself the sin of the world. There is NOTHING that I cannot transform. Try me.”

And so in his death, Jesus killed death itself by absorbing and neutralizing the very darkness of death that ambushes us all. From that “Good” Friday on no one, no one, needs to suffer and die alone ever again. Jesus has been there done that, and he awaits us in our darkest hour to hold our hand in order to lead us in our painful passion with God`s compassion through our darkness into a new light.

The first century folks, who experienced this event in real time, didn’t have the luxury of knowing where this brutal execution would be leading. Neither do so many who suffer and cry out today have any idea that their suffering could lead to new life. After the example of our Lord, who died in solidarity with all humanity, this holy day of Christ’s death compels us to come alongside all our desperate sisters and brothers in need, both far and near, who cannot possibly imagine a resurrection, neither in this life or the next. We pray today for those who cannot pray for themselves. And it is a day for fearless moral inventory, acknowledging truthfully our complicity in causing one another’s grief and sorrow, hurt and destruction.

Jesus, the passionate compassion of God, is summoning us today to join him in the turning … Just as Steve held his mother’s hand as she turned towards God, so Jesus holds our hand as we turn … turn away from indifference and toward solidarity and community, turn away from sin, destruction and death, towards God our Creator and Redeemer; turn away from all bondage in our hearts and towards the cross where Love conquered death forever.

No suffering will ever need to be suffered alone anymore. Our Lord has indeed gone before us in all things; that commitment cost him his life – for us. We claim our salvation in him. Oh come, let us adore. AMEN

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A Prodigal Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TOB and Ordination II

Back in September 2015, I was one of three Canadian women presenting at the International Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia on the question:
Theology of the Body – Friend or Foe of the Ordination Question?
This is Part II of four — Part I can be found here.

Our bodies are created by God to be living sacraments, to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds. This is clearly the message JP II transmits through his Theology of the Body. While completely unintentional on the part Pope John Paul II, it is our conviction that in this firm claim by the Holy Father lay the beginning of a reversal of church teaching on the ordination of women.

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to the transformation of ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. It is fascinating to think that women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time those who are pregnant grow another human being. The new life generated by sexual intercourse is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.  When she said yes, Mary became first in offering the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, Mary, and every woman with her, can grasp a bit of 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. I wonder if we have really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological “transubstantiation” called pregnancy, whether we have personally experienced it or not.

Herein may lay a promise and potential of powerful witness through the ordination of a woman because of her gender. A woman priest, simply by being female, subverts the outdated and prejudicial associations of male-only priesthood. Women carry powerful symbolic associations with bodiliness and earthliness which are crying out to be reclaimed for the sake of the fullness of God and now also for the sake of the healing of “Our Common Home: the Earth.

After opening his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si with quotes from The Canticle of St. Francis, Pope Francis then immediately states:  This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf.Gen2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

It is a chilling exercise to substitute the word “women” wherever Pope Francis refers to the earth. Chilling indeed to apply his words to the many and varied ways women and female ways of knowing and living have been “used and abused of the goods with which God has endowed us.”

A priesthood of different genders can affirm sexual difference (in positive and negative ways): women and men are equal but not the same, much in the same way as the TOB claims. Each brings different qualities and values attributed to God, embodied and symbolized in both male and female. There are several strengths in a priesthood of both women and men:

* An increased capacity to bring to Christian life and worship all the gendered ways  of being and symbolic meanings of the divine as reflected in both male and female;

* A restoring of the fullness of the principle of sacramentality which has to include male and female embodiment;

* A fuller expression of the meaning of the Incarnation, i.e. the Word becoming flesh in Christ Jesus.

* A fuller manifestation of the very Theology of the Body as articulated by St. John Paul II, in the fact that a priesthood of both sexes is a more honest reflection of the TOB claim that both women and men are first and foremost a human body in their fullest and most fundamental sense which is then subsequently expressed in male and female.

From cover to cover, the Theology of the Body is focused on human beings, male and female, as images of God that fully share one and the same human nature as “body-persons.” John Paul’s entire treatise is devoted to showing that Trinitarian communion becomes more clearly visible when man and woman, being of the same flesh, live in communion with each other and become “one flesh:” in marriage by sharing the gift of love and the gift of life; in community by holding all things in common and live in mutual love and mercy; in celibacy by giving one’s best self spiritually “for the sake of the kingdom.”

God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food and drink, 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. Despite our glaring flaws and shortcomings, both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds, in the same way as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. According to the Theology of the Body, 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 the 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.

To be continued …

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