Trinity-style Loving

Every year the Church gives us Trinity Sunday right after Pentecost, and we’re supposed to say something intelligible about this serious theological construct we call God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We have made things complicated over the centuries. The Trinity has filled countless books, all theological and theoretical explanations – well, most anyways. We generally think of the Trinity as a “name” for God: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. Now that’s certainly correct, but there’s more than merely a name here. Maybe the Trinity is also about how these three aspects of God relate to one another in unconditional and ever-flowing LOVE. Taken together, the Trinity is about relationship. Our God is a relational God. Relating in love, the three-in-one, reveals what God does. God is love, we hear that so many times in Scripture. And for Love to love there needs to be another to love: God so loved the world …

We’re very good at defining God and giving intellectual assent to a God of love. We’re less good, though, at loving like God. And yet, Jesus showed us that we have the capacity to love like God. What would happen if we took seriously the relational character of the Trinity? If Trinity Sunday is merely an intellectual yes to a theological construct defined long ago, a construct that we mindlessly recite in the Creed every Sunday, then it’s not worth the ink in the volumes of books.

But what if Trinity-style loving guides how we live? What if Trinity-style loving makes demands on us that are uncomfortable and challenging at times? What if the Trinity is the primary pattern for being church? And who is the church – we are, together! The church is fundamentally about relationship. Long before the church is an organization, a structure o pr a building the church is about a way of relating, a way of being in the world, patterned on God’s Trinitarian dynamic of loving in and through Father-Son-Holy Spirit.

A Trinitarian way of living and loving embraces the world wholeheartedly. We cannot be church in isolation from the world.
We cannot be church without relating in love to others.
Autonomy and individualism are good goals of development,
except when taken to the extreme, leading to cutting others off and out. Trinity-style loving excludes autonomy, isolation and self-sufficiency. Instead, Trinity-style living and loving always takes into account the effects of decisions on others, and those effects could mean life or death.

Trinity-style living and loving is at the heart of a life of discipleship in Christ. Trinity-style loving means not using Jesus’ words “I am the Way-Truth-Life” to exclude, but instead apply these words to include in our circle of love. Trinity-style living makes our faith very personal, yes, but never private, as if confined to some lofty ideas about heaven. When Jesus claimed to BE the Way-Truth-Life, he referred to a way of BEING in the world that is driven and guided by LOVE – God’s love. However, these words Way-Truth-Life have fueled suspicion and prejudice towards those embracing other paths. But I don’t think Jesus ever meant these words to shut others out, but to bring others in through loving.

So this coming week here in our own community, we have an opportunity to practice this Trinity-style loving, to bring others into our heart and into our orbit of love, to put our faith, our discipleship in Christ, in action. Many of us harbour suspicion and misunderstanding about our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Why can’t they seem to get their lives straightened out? Why can’t they get over it? I hear this often. Yeah, why can’t they? If that question lives in your heart, if you’ve ever spoken that question to another person, then the Blanket Exercise is for you. Because if Trinity-style loving is what God asks of us, if Trinity-style loving is what Jesus showed us how to do, then that type of all-inclusive loving becomes the litmus test for what faith looks like in the world. No textbook in the world has the same effect as real people committing to real God-like loving. And that loving involves being open to learning and understanding how and why others suffer and why they can’t seem to get their life together.

I have personally participated in the Blanket exercise several times. It is a unique and powerful experience of discovery, after which one can never go back to the old preconceived ideas. We cannot successfully address the current challenges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada without understanding how those challenges arose. Truth comes before reconciliation is possible. If Indigenous peoples need to face up to their part in making farms and rural living unsafe, us offspring of the original settlers must own up to the fact that we have not held up our side of the Treaties our ancestors signed.

It seems to be the week for connecting with our Indigenous siblings. Today, in a few hours to be exact, Rance Cardinal is arriving in Humboldt. An Indigenous young man from northern Ontario whose life was falling apart – yes, he struggled to keep his life together – has found the light of healing and reconciliation, arising from, of all things, the Broncos tragedy. In a few hours he will have completed a walk of 1200 km to heal and unite and reconcile and renew the face of this hurting world through his little, simple contribution of … walking. Rance’s meagre offering of three loaves and two fish have multiplied a thousand-fold. Countless people across the globe have been following him (13,000+ on FB alone), and now feel inspired, encouraged and healed by his  witness.  Reconciliation-in-Motion, they dubbed him. A young aboriginal man, an unlikely person, showing the world, showing us all, what Trinity-style living and loving can do for the healing of all – no exception.

As Rance arrives in Humboldt in a few hours, I am convinced that his heart is dressed in God’s own finest Trinity-style wear. His is a true contemporary Pentecost story. What’s more, Rance has been helping countless others to don the same holy attire. His own broken heart and the broken Broncos hearts are being healed and restored and renewed for the sake of this world so loved by God, a God of LOVE we proclaim as Father-Son-Holy Spirit. Rance set the bar high; can we follow suit? AMEN

Homily preached on Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

* Update June 1, 2018. Upon his arrival in Humboldt Rance received an emotional and unforgettable welcome. He spent three days in our community, speaking at schools, playing ball hockey in the arena with the kids, visiting the players still in a Saskatoon hospital, visiting the crash site and paying his respects, being featured on our local radio station. He showed humility and determination, generosity of heart, courage and simplicity. His healing journey touched many not only in Humboldt, but around the world. Rance and his support team returned to Sioux Lookout, ON, by car. We will never forget him. More on Rance in my next blog posting.

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

Advertisements

Temple Talk

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the cleansing of the Temple shortly before our Lord’s Passion, leading to the impression that Jesus’ temper tantrum in the Temple provoked his immediate arrest. John’s Gospel (John 2:13-22) presents the same story at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. John’s Gospel is filled with signs and wonders, filled with puzzling/metaphorical language. This makes us curious: who is this Jesus? And what is his  mission?

It was the Passover. From the time of Moses, Jews from far and wide come to Jerusalem still today to recall the deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt and to bring their offerings to God in thanksgiving. The Temple was the meeting place between the God of Israel and God’s people.

However, the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and to this day has never been rebuilt. All that remains is the Temple Mount/ Platform and the Western Wall. This Western/Wailing Wall continues to be a holy site for our Jewish sisters and brothers. Thousands continue to pray there every day from all corners of the world.

Jesus too had made his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. And there in the outer courts of the Temple amidst the crowds, the wheeling and dealing, and the noise of bleating animals being sold for sacrifice, Jesus took offence. Fashioned a whip of cords he blew his top: “Get out! Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” When the religious leaders questioned his violent actions, Jesus replied with fury in his eyes: “I dare you: destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19).

Did Jesus predict the fall of the physical Temple, a disaster that took place in 70 AD? Not exactly. Jesus was challenging the authorities – and us – to replace Temple worship with believing in him. Jesus was telling them that he is the new Temple – that he would die and be resurrected in three days. Jesus himself becomes the new “holy place.” “The Word became flesh, and lived among us,” John writes. In the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s dwelling place is no longer in bricks and mortar, but with human beings, as a human being.

Only after that first Easter, only after Jesus was raised from the dead the disciples remembered, understood and believed what Jesus said in the heat of this confrontation in the Temple. Now as today’s followers of Jesus, we worship God in spirit and in truth through his Son our Lord who is God’s Temple, built with living stones beyond destruction. Thus holy living is far more important than securing a holy physical site.

However, I discovered that we are not scot-free in this matter.  Before leaving for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I read Karen Armstrong’s book Jerusalem – One City, Three Faiths. It is a sobering account. I learnt that throughout its existence of several millennia Jerusalem, of all cities in the world, 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, most notably inflicted by members of the three monotheistic religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most of this bloodshed and destruction was done for one major reason: conquest and possession of holy sites.

I’m ashamed to say that we Christians are not exempt. We have done our share in securing our own version of a physical temple – holy sites to honour our Lord. Now, don’t get me wrong. It was truly an intense and inspiring spiritual experience to find ourselves so close to original sites where our Lord walked and talked and taught, where our Lord Jesus was born, suffered and died, and rose again. It was truly inspiring to smell and taste, to feel and literally touch the origins of our faith. Going on this type of pilgrimage has value and meaning. The experience truly has the power to grow our faith and discipleship in new ways. But holy sites are not to be ends in themselves; they are intended as means to God, means to deepen our heart’s desire for and fidelity to our Lord. We visit these sites as pilgrims seeking to deepen our faith, not as religious tourists snapping pictures to brag about back home.

It is important to go the Holy Land in faith. It is equally important to go in the awareness that we have secured holy sites through war and bloodshed – often. Confronting that stark reality in Armstrong’s book instilled a good dose of humility and repentance before I boarded the plane to Tel Aviv …

The command to love our neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to even love our enemy, all of that  conveniently goes out the window every time we become fixated on anything but Jesus himself, whether it’s securing a holy site or securing the rightness of our own belief system, or considering ourselves superior to another in whatever way.

The people in that Temple courtyard who witnessed Jesus having his temper tantrum insisted on wanting a sign. What sign can you give us, Jesus? Show us a sign. … Do we look for signs? Does our faith rely on signs and physical/tangible stuff? Does our faith rely on a specific place or style of worship, a specific church structure or a specific physical place? Or does our faith rely on Jesus alone? Are we prone to making an idol of worshiping in a certain manner or in a particular church? Sadly, there is plenty of evidence throughout history that we have been just as guilty of this as those skeptics in the Temple who were shocked and annoyed at Jesus’ blow-up. Indeed, we are still not scot-free in this matter.

One person who successfully avoided the idolatry of buildings and structures was Rev. Billy Graham who died recently at the age of 99. Billy Graham, a Baptist pastor from humble rural beginnings , believed with all his heart that the gospel was the touchstone of Christian unity and the most effective outreach to the lost. In city after city, long before ecumenism was a household word, Graham worked closely with a broad coalition of churches, pastors, bishops and lay leaders. He never founded his own church, but he worked with any willing Christian believer, leader and church to proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus. The source of his strength was not a boastful self-confidence, or an ego-flattering following of his own, but rather a posture of humility, confession and prayer with a generous heart for Jesus. With Jesus as the main focus, Graham’s crusades* touched millions and became more than a flash in the pan. By keeping Jesus the focus of his heart and his ministry, Graham succeeded in being, like St. Paul, all things to all people.

Indeed, Jesus is the new Temple. As it was for the first disciples, as it was for Billy Graham, the Temple is now the symbol for the risen Christ. Our faith must rest in Jesus himself, so we too can learn to transcend any institution, any church, any one congregation, any ecclesial structure. Worthy of our trust and faith, Jesus grows us into a fullness of being that glorifies God. Temples and church buildings/structures at best are meant to help us increase that trust and faith. But Temples and church buildings/structures come and go. It is Jesus and his community of disciples who are the living Temple, ongoing witnesses to God’s Good News in a changing world and a changing church. If today’s skeptics demand a sign from us, can we echo Jesus in saying: destroy this church building, and we will rise up as a community of Jesus in three days. For as Paul’s letter to the Corinthians states (1 Cor. 1:18-25), Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God.

May we live as people who rely entirely on Jesus to inspire and guide our moral integrity and our relationships. May his word – the Good News of God’s mercy and grace – keep us alive. May His love keep us bound in communion with one another and may his merciful power protect us from idolatry of physical places and human structures. For He is our Temple. Amen.

* Ironic term in this context, for the Crusades were some of the bloodiest conquests of the Holy City.

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

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

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

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. 

    Prairie Encounters
    Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

Eucharisteo – Give Thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

 

 

 

 

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

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”

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

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”