Alone No More

Fourteen of us women gathered for our monthly lunch, each of us active in (or retired from) professional church ministry, some ordained, some religious sisters and others in a lay-capacity; Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Community of Christ, Pentecostal/Evangelical, United, Lutheran. Some of our sharing centered around human pain and suffering far and near; the tsunami of refugees flooding Europe and now arriving steadily on Canadian soil, the couple with two young children killed in a tragic car accident in Saskatoon earlier this week, our First Nations missing and murdered sisters, beloved friends–family–co-workers facing sudden death and illness. How do we, ministers of the Gospel of Jesus, respond to such a perfect storm of human pain, a lot of it unsolicited, unnecessary and almost always undeserved?

Our conversation reminded me of the destruction brought on by tsunamis. In the two tsunamis the world has witnessed in this century (2004 & 2011)  contact with water ended life abruptly, within minutes, for multitudes of good, innocent people while leaving millions without the basic necessities of life. The elements of nature – water, fire, air – have a power beyond our understanding and beyond our control. Worse than this is happening in Syria at the moment, where calculated evil by human design is using food, water and medicine as weapons of war, systematically starving ordinary beautiful women, men and children.

Today, Sunday January 10 2016, the Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus. Does this event have any message for the millions of desperate people in every corner of our broken world? Jesus comes to John to be baptized in death-dealing waters. But why? Why does Jesus need to immerse himself in these waters if he is the Holy One, the one without sin, the Son of God?

John the Baptist knew of death and destruction, knew of sin and decay that is as real as the current moaning and groaning breaking the sound barrier all around the globe. Everywhere good people are perishing because of war and violence, illness and sudden death, natural disasters or starvation. Sin and decay are real, says John, and he called out for people to repent, and to “die to sin” in the waters of the Jordan, and be baptized.

For just as water can destroy, so water also gives life. Water is what the survivors of the tsunamis needed most and right away. And from all over the world water purification systems were flown in at amazing speed. Just as water kills, water also saves. Clean, safe drinking water means LIFE! Clean, safe drinking water and shelter, food and medicine is what refugees need right now. Clean and safe support and comfort is what loved ones need to dry tear-stained faces and mend broken hearts.

And just as we can kill others in so many subtle and blatant ways, we can rise to the radiance of compassion and mercy. Baptism holds in tension both the destructive and the life-giving qualities of the human spirit, of human existence. Baptism enacts ritually a dying to the destructive forces of life (within and without), so as to rise from the waters a new creation. Every time we baptize a new member of God’s family, every time we bless ourselves with holy water, we recall both these destructive and life-giving powers of life symbolized in water.

At the start of his public ministry, Jesus insists on being immersed in waters that can destroy and re-create, waters filthy with decay and capable of cleansing, waters that hold the key to salvation. The Jordan River was not exactly filled with clean, calm and warm water like the fonts in our churches. People and animals “lived” in the river; the forces of nature controlled the river, and both food and poison swirled between its banks.

It is this identification which reveals the central message of incarnation and redemption. Jesus entered into complete solidarity with all women and men everywhere and in every time. Jesus’ baptism reinforces the incarnation – God entering into radical solidarity with all humanity, indeed with all creation.

In the waters of the Jordan Jesus takes upon himself sin and destruction, grief and suffering, even though he himself was without sin, was the Holy One. The “one more powerful” assumes the position of weakness. It is precisely in this radical act of solidarity that Jesus is the Beloved of God. And it is from this baptism that he is sent, to love and forgive and heal — a way of life that lead right onto the cross where he experienced the pain of utter abandonment. The powerful message in Jesus’ witness is that, from then on, no one ever has to bear pain alone and abandoned, for Jesus has been there, done that, and he will hold us close.

In much the same way, we are sent forth from our baptism – to continue, to complete, to bring about that which Jesus inaugurated and revealed as God’s way, God’s truth and God’s life: God’s reign of peace and justice, mercy and love for all – no exception.

The great opera composer Giacomo Puccini, while composing Turandot, was told in 1922 that he had terminal cancer. Rather than quit his beloved project, however, he told his friends “I am going to work on my masterwork as hard as I can and as long as I can. If I don’t make it, the finishing will be up to you.”

Puccini died in 1924, and the opera premiered in Milan, Italy, under the direction of one of the composer’s best students, Arturo Toscanini. The performance continued up to the point at which Puccini’s work had abruptly ended. Toscanini paused, turned to the audience with tears in his eyes and said: ‘This is where the master left off ….’ Then Toscanini turned back to the orchestra, picked up the baton and shouted over his shoulder to the audience, ‘And this is where his friends begin.’ And the orchestra completed a remarkable performance.

And this is where our lunch conversation ended up: we all face our share of suffering in life. Worse than the suffering itself, however, is to feel abandoned and alone in bearing it. Like Puccini’s friends, we are called to carry on where Jesus left off. Allowing Jesus to mold our very identity and purpose, our task is to pull one another from destructive waters – of sin and death – into life-giving waters by our compassionate and merciful presence in one another’s pain –avoiding fear, resisting indifference, staying clear of pat answers or saccharine pity. Through simple and great acts of mercy and communion we bring, in time, God’s peace and justice to all people everywhere. Knowing that we are not alone to face the world’s demons, big and small, feeds hope and courage and resiliency. Whether in Europe, South East Asia, in the Middle East or right in our own cities and towns, we have Good News to share: to demonstrate with our own lives that contact with God’s waters of life does not destroy, but gives life.

While Jesus fulfilled God’s will, and showed us the pathway to everlasting life he did not leave a finished product. Rather, he showed us the way, the truth and the life or, as some of our churches are fond of saying, opened the gates of heaven. He left us an unfinished symphony, a symphony that needs our very lives in order to be completed. Baptism officially commissions us to help complete Jesus’ masterpiece in progress called the reign of God. It’s a matter of life and death for the many who are crying out in pain, who are burdened with suffering.

The Christmas season ends today, at the banks of the Jordan River. But the Messiah remains. The adult Jesus begins his precarious journey to Jerusalem. The good news as spoken by the angels is not to be forgotten, but needs to continue in our lives. On the cross, Jesus’ mission was completed. Now it’s up to us, who are part of the world’s two billion baptized people, an entity some have called a sleeping giant. We are commissioned to bring healing and mercy, to bring God’s divine touch of love each day and everywhere. Jesus has no other plan but us.

Getting up from our lunch table, each of us returned to our respective churches and ministries, strengthened and nourished in body and spirit by one another’s clean and safe love, courage and faithfulness, equipped anew to mend our broken world.

Prairie Encounters

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Any prophets today?

Today is June 24, the day on which The Christian Church honours the Birth of John the Baptist. The assigned Scripture readings burst with promise and excitement. The words in Isaiah 49:1-6 sound like those of a town herald proclaiming a message which will change lives. Luke’s account in Acts 13:22–26 is a concise summary of God’s saving work as evidenced in both the old (King David) and the new (Jesus as announced by John). The Gospel passage from Luke  (1:57-66, 80) reports the birth of God’s herald John. St. Augustine of Hippo said: “John is born of an old woman who is barren; Christ is born of a young woman who is a virgin. John is the hinge between the old and the new. Being born of the old, he also represents the new as John is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb.” Moreover, John’s birthday is celebrated close to the summer solstice, whereas Jesus’ birth is marked at the winter solstice, key times of seasonal change: “He must increase but I must decrease.”

The psalm today is one of the most loved, most quoted and best-known, Psalm 139. Its poetic flow and its message remain forever new, still stirring the very depths of human longing. Not only is God the Master-Knitter, putting us together in our mothers’ womb, but God remains intimately engaged minute by minute in each day of our lives. There is nowhere that God is not – that truth is both unsettling and immensely reassuring.

While the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) contain quite a few birth narratives, the New Testament features only two: John the Baptist and Jesus. Their lives, their destinies, their God-given missions were so intimately intertwined, even before they were born, that Luke sandwiches the account of John’s birth in the middle of his account on Jesus’ beginnings on earth. John’s birth is cause for double joy: one, Elizabeth’s barrenness has been removed, and two, God’s mercy is manifested in the dawning of the Messiah. Luke vividly describes the circumstances of both John’s and Jesus’ conceptions; both men meet one another while still in their mothers’ wombs. Their births are well documented and in both cases the naming turns out to be a significant moment, a moment at which their missions are revealed. So new is this moment that it leaves those around them wondering what will become of them. Both “grew and became strong in spirit,” says Luke.

“Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” says the priest concluding the Eucharist. We too are sent by God with a mission, the mission of proclaiming the Gospel with our lives — only use words if we must, as St. Francis is quoted as having said. How do we do this in today’s world?

Sometimes the movie industry offers a rare witness to make God’s point. For me, the movie Simon Birch embodied some salient features of a modern-day John the Baptist. Twelve-year-old Joe has been labeled a bastard; his mother Rebecca never revealed the identity of his father. She lavishes love and attention upon both Joe and his lonely best friend, Simon Birch. Now, Simon is a pint-sized runt of a thing who believes he has been put on earth as “God’s instrument.” This firm faith in his destiny enables Simon to endure the indifference of his parents, the ridicule of adults, and the relentless teasing of other children.

Simon is a “prophet” at the church he attends, much to the dismay of Reverend Russell and a high-strung Sunday School teacher. When Simon asks Reverend Russell “Do you believe that I have a special purpose?” the Reverend replies slowly, “That is something we would all like to believe, Simon.”

Despite the Reverend’s lack of reassurance, Simon keeps insisting naively that he is certain God has a plan for him. When Joe’s mother Rebecca is killed in a freak accident, Joe begins an earnest search to discover the identity of his father. He is assisted by Simon and Ben, his mother’s boyfriend. Meanwhile Simon turns the Christmas Nativity play into a ridiculous catastrophe. Finally, a few days later, Simon has a shining heroic moment when the Sunday school bus is in a serious accident.

Throughout the story, Simon keeps insisting that “God has made me the way I am for a reason” and “God has a plan for everyone.” Throughout the entire movie others discount his belief, suggesting to Simon not to “overdo” it. But in the end Joe recognizes that the little prophet was speaking the truth. How Joe discovered that – well, you’ll have to rent the movie.

There’s a shining moment waiting in all of our lives. I pray that John the Baptist’s witness, Jesus’ gift of self on the cross and in the Eucharist, along with Simon Birch’s story, may clarify the mission and purpose for which God formed each of us in our mother’s womb.

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