Lessons from The Shack

So, if we take today’s Gospel conversation with Jesus and fast-forward it to the tragic events of our day, it might sounds a bit like this: so Jesus, tell us … did those who got killed in the mosques in New Zealand … sin more than us? And what about all those who were on that plane in Ethiopia? Oh, and the countless victims of mass flooding in Africa and the US? Were they … worse sinners … than us? Absolutely not!, replies Jesus, but unless you repent … What does he mean?

We spend so much time and energy on buying our way into freedom and happiness, exhaustingly so. But Isaiah portrays God as One who calls us to free drinks: Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come! Isaiah speaks of the things no money can buy. The free life-giving water is God’s everlasting love and mercy  for saint and sinner alike, no matter who—when—where—how. Because all God cares about is our freedom, remember? We heard about that a few Sundays ago also.

God cared about the freedom of his people Israel, who lived in exile in the time of Isaiah. God cares so much about our freedom that God slipped … into … human skin … and gave us Jesus Christ as our redeemer and pattern for our living. God cares so much about our freedom that in Christ he decided that we are … to die for. Unacknowledged and unconfessed sin, failings and weakness can keep us in bondage or in an exile of our own making. God knows that we can only flourish and come to full bloom in the freedom of his love and mercy. God reminds us in Isaiah’s words that my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my way. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Whew, what a relief that is! This is a good thing. The fact that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are deeper than ours, is a really, really good thing. It’s a very good thing that our God is bigger and deeper and more mysterious than our little minds can comprehend.

Several years ago I participated in a lively book club discussion on W. Paul Young’s book The Shack. This engaging novel turned into a successful movie, and touched millions of lives both in and outside the church. The story weaves fascinating aspects of God right into the arduous healing process of its main character, Mack. Several of these divine aspects are highlighted in today’s Scripture readings. Comparing The Shack with the Scriptures may seem far-fetched and a bit daring perhaps. But I’m always up for a challenge, so let’s see what we get and have some fun with this. Spoiler-alert here … just a little …

So in The Shack, when Mack asks why God keeps on loving a screw-up like himself, Papa/God replies with dry humour: “Because my love is a lot bigger than your stupidity.” God hears every cry for help, from the victims of hate crimes to the silent screams in our bedrooms, from the agony in war zones and flood plains, to the tears of despair in affluent suburbs, from the shreds in a plane accident to the screaming in a mosque: “I hear your cry,” says God, “and I want to come and deliver you.”

God’s deliverance comes in the form of an invitation, come, all you who thirst, drink the water of love and mercy. Loving, forgiving, setting free – all are of the essence in God. Because ultimately God is … a verb, not a noun; Mack in The Shack discovers this. The ever-moving circle of love in God the Father—Son—Spirit is a hard one for Mack to get his head around. The Trinity spirals love and mercy ’round and ’round while beckoning us to enter that never-ending holy circle. But just like the Israelites in exile, to whom Isaiah’s words were addressed, Mack … has a hard time getting this – as do we most of the time.

If our hearts remain under a cloud, that is unclean and closed, broken and fickle, even though we are all baptized, even though we all eat the same spiritual food and even though we all drink the same spiritual drink, we will likely not … taste … salvation. That’s another way of saying: unless you repent, you will all perish. Paul reminds us in his words to the Corinthians: Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. But if you think you’re standing, watch out that you do not fall.

In the same  way, spending energy on trying to figure out why we “deserve” suffering and death, is a futile exercise: Do we think that because refugees suffer so much more than others that they are worse sinners than all others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those 50 Muslims killed in the mosques in New Zealand do we think that they were worse offenders than all the others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. And the countless victims of mass floodings in Africa and the US, was it their time to go, or were they worse people than us? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Unless we repent, we will all die in chains of unconfessed sin. Jesus rebukes any effort to lay blame for suffering. Jesus rebukes any effort to compare and feel superior to others. If we don’t redirect this energy toward examining our own hearts and surrendering to God in repentance, we too will perish without tasting God.

As “Papa” tells Mack, “People cling to their independence (and pain). They hoard and hold their sickness with a firm grip. They find their identity and worth in their brokenness and guard it with every ounce of strength they have. No wonder grace has such little attraction. You all lock the door of your hearts … from the inside.” Mack is convinced in the depths of his being that he is responsible for his daughter’s death. When this conviction is reinforced by deep hurts that go way back to Mack’s childhood, and then get laced with generous doses of guilt, shame and rage, Mack has mixed a lethal cocktail for ultimate alienation from God.

If we really have the power to bring about our own destruction, and that of others, then Jesus has nothing to say. If we are really responsible for misfortunes and calamities that befall us, like the Israelites blaming themselves for living like slaves in Egypt, then God does not need to bother, does not need to meet us in the Shack, does not need to offer living water free of charge, or needs not send his own Son to open the way to redemption and mercy.

In God’s economy, analyzing who’s the greater sinner by measuring degrees of misfortune has no meaning. That’s why Mack got caught in a net of self-delusion. In one of Mack’s many attempts to justify his position, “Papa” retorts with familiar directness: “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means that I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colours.”

And so instead, Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” Our life is like the fig tree yearning to bear fruit. But our capacity to bear God’s fruit is inhibited by unresolved pain, nursing harsh judgments (of ourselves or others), cherishing impure motives and distorted attitudes in our hearts – all forming a cloud, all wrapping chains around our spirit. Jesus pleads with his Father on our behalf: Please, let me dig around her/him, prune her/him and put manure – manure! – on him/her. Give her/him time, attention, loving care and s/he will bear fruit.

Give God a chance this Lenten season. Let God prune and heal whatever obstructs our bearing Godly fruit. Give us another day, another week, another year, God. And God relents, saying, okay then, I will. As the popular novel and movie The Shack illustrates, God will use whatever it takes to get through to us, because pain can indeed spell judgment and death, and can lead us to perish. But despair kissed by hope, sin humbly confessed, pain courageously surrendered in love, becomes fertilizer for our spirit. Mack’s journey and today’s Scriptures ring loud and clear: despite everything that might happen, our own life is still God’s favourite hangout, our own pain is still the place of God’s liberating work. That God, the Lover par excellence who doesn’t force himself upon anyone, is eagerly waiting in all the shadows of life to be invited in and to deliver us: Come and drink, it’s free; come and eat, it’s free. Our eating and drinking Christ in the Eucharist is a foretaste and sign, indeed God’s free gift of mercy, setting us free. Like the fig tree, lovingly but firmly pruned and tended by the Master Gardener, we can then bear fruit in abundance, at last … AMEN

Homily preaching on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2019
Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9 (RC Lectionary had Exodus 3:1-15)

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Appearance and Reality

In the minds of most people Lent has two meanings— a time to give up things, a summons to simplify and de-clutter in material, mental and spiritual ways; and a time to take on something, to add something, often a spiritual practice or a work of mercy (community service). Both the giving up and the taking on are intended to be means of self-examination and to drawing us closer to God. Today this Lenten trek of giving up and taking on has us join Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.

By the time we join him in this 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel Jesus has already been on his way to Jerusalem for four chapters and he will continue for another six chapters. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is long, ten chapters long. Intentionally long, literally and symbolically, for Jerusalem is the seat of Jewish power and prestige, the place still referred to today as the Holy City.

Today’s stop on this journey reveals that things are not always what they seem. Or even, things are never what they seem. There’s often a contradiction between appearance and reality, isn’t there? Each of today’s readings includes that contradiction, especially the first lesson and the Gospel.

Abraham hears God’s assurance of protection: Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. Abraham seizes this opportunity to remind God of the contradiction between appearance and reality: he and Sarah are childless. You may be our shield of protection, God, says Abraham, but we see little evidence of having any off-spring. Once again, God promises: Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be. Hearing God’s promise again, Abraham believed,
despite all the evidence to the contrary.

In today’s brief Gospel passage a similar contradiction comes through between appearance and reality. Jesus sounds both confident and grief-stricken. When he’s warned that “Herod wants to kill you,” he’s saying: ”Hey! I’m workin’ here, busy doing God’s work. Today. Tomorrow. The next day. Leave me alone.” We got a Jesus in control here.

But … it is Lent for Jesus too, and even he can’t keep the brave face and the confident tone. No sooner has he said these brave and confident words, and he veers swiftly and deeply into lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!

There’s a lot of pain in these words. That same pain return six chapters later (in Luke’s Gospel) when Jesus weeps bitterly over the city. Jesus moves swiftly from the self-assured, effective healer to the man in despair over this holy but lost city and his inability to protect it from harm.

Jerusalem, the city in the Middle East, is indeed holy. I never quite understood why and how, until my visit there last year. Until then, I thought the title Holy City was an arbitrary choice. I had naively thought that it could be any other place on earth. But I learned, and now understand, how Jerusalem acquired the status of holiness over time: one, remnants of ancient civilizations are everywhere, spanning several millennia. Two, Jerusalem is the sacred site for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each one claims origins in that place, adding to the city’s holiness by its countless temples, churches and mosques, and by its praise, worship and prayers rising in that place to the one God.

Abraham’s understanding of God was unique in his time: he was the first human to take hold of the notion there is One God. That is why Abraham, who believed despite the evidence to the contrary, is considered the father of our faith in one God. That one God made good on the promise to give Abraham many descendants in faith, as many as the stars in the heavens: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Finally, geographically, Jerusalem is located where three major continents converge: in a narrow and dense strip of land: Europe, Asia and Africa. So yes, Jerusalem is holy like no other place on earth. The collective memory of human existence is alive there. The worship and ritual life of three major religions brings a force of prayer and goodwill like nowhere else. Finally, the convergence of three major cultural and ethnic legacies contribute to the holiness of this awe-inspiring place. Never did I understand and appreciate this more than when I visited Jerusalem last year.

But Jerusalem’s holiness has also been costly. 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 and churches, synagogues and mosques. Jerusalem has been the site of the worst persecutions, most of it inflicted by members of the same three religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three of these religions value God’s commandments to love our neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to love and pray for our enemies. Yet in the course of the past 2,000 years, members of all three faiths have thrown these commands conveniently under the bus when imposing its own exclusive religious practice on Jerusalem, taking possession of holy sites at the expense of the religious freedom of others and respect for their practices. That this city of God’s dwelling place became the seat of such violent opposition to God in its treatment of others is part of the ironic tragedy of Israel’s own story, including Jesus’ story and by extension, our story.

And lest we think we were holier than the other two religions, remember that we Christians have spent most of the past 2,000 years fighting a “holy war” against Judaism because it had rejected Jesus. Antisemitism and pogroms originated in the ancient competitions over Jerusalem, with devastating effects to this day. This is a dark legacy to own up to for us, along with all the other times in history when we have blatantly destroyed peoples and cultures in the name of Jesus.

While much of this holy and torturous legacy of Jerusalem was yet to come, enough of it had already taken place for Jesus to lament: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.While Jesus as our Lord and Saviour eventually came to be seen as the New Jerusalem, nevertheless Jesus himself grasped the holy nature and destiny of the Holy City. While Herod indeed wanted to kill Jesus, Herod was not destined to be Christ’s assassin. It is because of that holy nature and destiny of the city that Jerusalem became the site of Christ’s own death and resurrection.

It’s not hard to understand Jesus’ grief, actually. All we have to do is look at our own Jerusalem, the holy places in our own lives where we meet God. Violence in places of prayer, killing people at prayer, as we witnessed again on Friday in Christchurch, NZ, is profoundly horrifying and desecrating. How do we reconcile the contradictions in the holy places: on the one hand we claim our appearance, promise and destiny in the God of Abraham, the God of love and mercy, the God of grace and of beauty; and on the other hand, we live with the human reality of sin and bloodshed and violence, literally and figuratively, much of it even inflicted in the name of God.

We know how hard it is to truly and fully surrender to God and to trust in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. Abraham felt it, Jesus felt it, and we too feel it. We know something about our resistance and willful blindness to examine our ways, to heed warnings and to curb sinful habits. We know how hard it is to trade in worldly success to live first for God alone in simplicity and gratitude. Abraham felt it, Jesus felt, we too feel it.

But in the footsteps of Abraham, our father in faith, in the footsteps of Jesus, our Saviour and Redeemer, we hold onto each other and we hold fast to Christ. We hold each other to account and we renew our trust. Not for our own sake, but for the sake of the world, a world crying out for healing and reconciliation, for justice and peace. Lofty words, reinforcing that age-old contradiction between appearance, promise and destiny on the one hand, and the reality of sin and hatred, of discrimination and of bloodshed on the other.

Jesus lamented, he sweated blood in the holy city, and yet he went about God’s business – healing the sick, casting out demons and bringing God’s mercy to those who didn’t deserve it. We too lament the state of the world, esp. in the aftermath of bloodbaths such as the one from last Friday. We too sweat blood when God asks the impossible. But, like Jesus, we too will go about God’s business, here in our little prairie town and in the larger world.

The Lenten season invites us into giving up and taking on. In this self-examination we contemplate the ministry, the teaching, and the passion of Jesus. Let us not get caught in rejecting Christ’s ministry and his summons to turn our lives around, lest we resemble the Holy City that rejected him along with the prophets. Jesus’ longing for us is for compassion and deliverance and healing. But his longing must be matched by our own longing for salvation, deliverance, and healing.

Despite the contradiction between appearance and reality, God/Jesus still believes in small efforts. God blesses small efforts and makes them bear fruit. Like our Lord and Master, despite the shadow of sin and death, despite the violence and hatred towards innocent people of God, and despite our own sin and resistance and blindness, we must go about our business to bring healing and understanding, to cast out demons of prejudice and judgment, and to work for reconciliation in our own lives and in the lives of those who need it most right now. AMEN

Homily preached on the Second Sunday of Lent March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35
(Note: The RC Lectionary featured the Gospel of the Transfiguration on this Sunday; the Anglican lectionary features that Gospel on the last Sunday before Lent)

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

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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.

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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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