Sunday, December 26, 2004

Off to the In-laws

See ya folks next year. I'm off to Edmonton to visit the in-laws! Have good one!

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas Sermon

It ought to shock us to be told year after year that the universe lives by the kind of love that we see in the helpless child and in the dying man on the cross. We have been shown the engine room of the universe; and it ought to worry us - us, who are so obsessed about being safe and being successful, who worry endlessly about being in control, who cannot believe that power could show itself in any other way than the ways we are used to. But this festival tells us exactly what Good Friday and Easter tell us: that God fulfils what he wants to do by emptying himself of his own life, giving away all that he is in love. The gospel reading sets this out in terms that cannot be argued with or surpassed. God is always, from all eternity, pouring out his very being in the person of the Word, the everlasting Son; and the Word, who has received everything from the gift of the Father, and who makes the world alive by giving reality to all creation, makes a gift of himself by becoming human and suffering humiliation and death for our sake. 'From his fullness we have all received'; Jesus, the word made human flesh and blood, has given us the freedom, the authority, to become God's children by our trust in him, and so to have a fuller and fuller share in God's own joy.

Read the rest here.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas Day Children's Message

It was still dark out when David woke up. Being Christmas morning he couldn’t wait to rip open his stocking to find what Santa left him. But the rule was, no opening presents, no looking inside the stocking, no peering under the tree until after church.

But David wasn’t tired. He lay in bed staring at the street light just outside of his window, wishing the numbers on his clock radio would tick by faster so he could see what he was getting for Christmas.

David couldn’t wait anymore. He slipped off his covers, put his feet down on the cold floor and crept out of his bedroom, tiptoeing over his dog Daisy so not to wake her, and slinked down the stairs stopping at each creek in the floor.

It was so dark David couldn’t see, so he walked with his hands stretched in front of face so he wouldn’t bump into anything. David found the reading lamp that was on the coffee table and turned it on. He lightly removed the stocking from the fireplace and saw that there was a note resting on top that read: “It’s too early, David. Go back to bed. Love, Mom and Dad.”

David decided that there were probably more traps hidden inside the stocking, so he figured that it was best that he obey the note. As David turned the light off his foot bumped the coffee table just hard enough to knock over the Homer Simpson Santa doll parked on top. The Homer doll began to sing [press button] which woke up Daisy who began to bark, who woke up mom and dad and David’s little sister Marsha.

All at once, lights were on all over the house and David’s mom and dad were standing in front of him. Marsha was wiping her eyes as she made her way down the stairs. Daisy sniffed the Homer’s Santa suit.

David was caught.

“We knew you couldn’t wait until after church,” dad said not knowing to laugh or yell. “But now that we’re all up I’ll start cooking breakfast.”

“But I’m tired and want to God back to bed,” David protested.

“But not tired enough to look in your stocking before it’s time,” David’s dad pointed out. “But why is it that I have to nag you to get out of bed for church each Sunday, but you’ll get up early when presents are involved?”

“Does he really want me to answer that?” David asked himself. It sounded like one of those questions that parents ask just to make you feel guilty. David remained silent. And a little annoyed.

Finally, church was over. David was the first one out of church and he waited what seemed like forever for his mom, dad, and little sister to come out.

“David, we’re just going to make a quick stop on the way home today.” Dad said getting in to the car.

“Where?” David asked.

“You’ll see,” replied his dad.

Their car pulled up at the Eldercare home. “What are we doing here” David asked.

When they arrived inside other people from church were waiting. Together there must have been 15 church folks. The group made their way to the cafeteria and began to sing.

A crowd of wheelchairs and walkers encircled around the group. At the front of the line was Mrs. Grey. She taught David’s dad Sunday school when he was David’s age. Mrs. Grey grabbed David’s hand and held it tightly with both of hers. When David looked down Mrs. Grey’s face beaming with delight. “Thank you for coming! Merry Christmas!” she kept saying over and over again.

That night, as they were getting ready to say their prayers, David said to his dad. “Boy, Mrs. Grey sure was glad we came today. She couldn’t stop smiling all the time we were singing.”

“She doesn’t have any more family left,” dad replied. “So our church is her family.”

David sat for a moment remembering the songs they sang for Mrs. Grey and all the others who didn’t have a family, thinking how the angels brought the good news in song as well. He thought that he could be in worse company.

Then they said a prayer like this as we do now: Dear God. Thank you for giving us Jesus, and thank you for opportunities to share his message of love. Amen.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Christmas Eve Children's Message

Monica loved Christmas decorations. The rule was that she couldn’t open the Christmas box until December 15th. Early that morning she sneaked into the back of the garage, pulled out the Christmas box and opened it like a precious and rare gift. She inhaled deeply. The small plastic Christmas trees gave off a unique fragrance which she smelled only at Christmas.

Monica’s mom grunted exaggeratedly as she lugged out the ladder to hang the lights. They got busy all morning, stringing lights, hanging sparking tinsel on the garland that surrounded their front window, and lining up the electric candles that welcomed people along their front walk way.

Finally, Monica and her mom stood out in front of their house admiring their creation.

“It looks wonderful,” Mom said.

“Just like it did last year,” Monica replied.

“We’re not done just yet,” Said Monica’s mom as Monica started toward the door, “We still have one more decoration to put up.”

Monica’s mom opened the trunk of the car and dragged out a large rectangle shaped box. Monica’s eyes bugged out as she ripped open the top and saw a manger scene, wrapped in plastic covering, ready to be fixed under the tinsel clothed garland that sparkled against the lights.

Together they unwrapped the wooden figures: Mary, Joseph, the Angel, and the manger where Monica was about to put the baby Jesus inside

“Not just yet,” Mom said. “The baby Jesus doesn’t come until Christmas.”

The 25th came before Monica knew it. It was colder and darker then she expected that night as she kneeled in the grass, admiring the manger scene on their front lawn. Mary and Joseph were there. A couple of sheep appeared to be waiting in eager anticipation.

“Time to go to church,” her mom shouted from the door. And together they climbed into the car and headed for church. As they drove down the street, Monica could see the lights dance off the tinsel that encircled the manger. To Monica, it looked like a halo.

When they arrived home, Monica was filled with Christmas Carols. And when they pulled up in the driveway Monica didn’t wait until the engine was shut off before she jumped out and ran across the lawn to the manger scene. She fumbled in her coat pocket for a second or two then pulled out the figure of the baby Jesus. She placed him in the manger and smiled. But after a minute her smile disappeared. She stared deeply at the baby.

“You know what really I want for Christmas this year, mom?” asked Monica.

“What’s that, sweetie?”

“I want dad to be here. And that we’d all be together again.”

“Me too, sweetie.” Mom said wiping an unexpected tear from her eye and putting her arm around Monica’s shoulder.

“But wherever he is, I hope he’s having a merry Christmas,” said Monica.

They huddled together in the frozen December grass; held each other gently, quietly remembering the promise of Monica’s favorite hymn: sleep in heavenly peace.

Then together they said a prayer as we do now:

Dear God, we thank you for giving us Jesus, and we pray for a day when he will bring all people together. Amen.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Advent and Christmas Greetings from Bishop Steve

Dear Partners in Ministry,

We are faced with the reality of a world in chaos. The war on terror dominates news and political agendas. Missile defense shields against "rogue" states and terrorist groups are being designed in both North America and Russia. The Middle East is in a high state of anxiety with the death of Yasser Arafat. The situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and other places continue to remind us how fragile the relationships between human beings can be, and how capable people are of inflicting harm on other people. Global warming looms in the background as a force the likes of which we have never had to deal, and whose consequences are as yet unknown. All of this creates a dynamic of fear which affects the whole planet.

Advent and Christmas remind us of another reality in which we live. God, the creator of all, chose to come to this tiny speck of dust in the vastness of creation to become one with the human beings God created. This coming was not in power or pomp or threat. It was in the form of a vulnerable baby, born in a stable to parents displaced by an unfeeling government in the backwater town of Bethlehem. Jesus grew up and confronted all the powers of destruction in our world, took into himself all the hate human beings could generate, and put them to death with him on the cross. This Jesus lives now among us in the people he claims for his own in baptism. This community, gathered in Christ, nourished by his own body and blood, is sent out into the midst of this world of chaos, pain, and fear, with a new word - Love. This love overcomes all fear and knits together a broken people with a mandate to heal the world. So with the angels and shepherds outside of Bethlehem, we prepare once again to sing God's song that will not fade, "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God's people on earth." Christ is born! Alleluia!

+Stephen P. Kristenson, Bishop
Synod of Alberta and the Territories

The Emergent matrix: a new kind of church?

Scott Bader-Saye has expressed my feelings toward the so-called "Emerging Church" better than I ever could, in an article in the Christian Century.

An Emergent definition of relevance, modulated by resistance, might run something like this: relevance means listening before speaking; relevance means interpreting the culture to itself by noting the ways in which certain cultural productions gesture toward a transcendent grace and beauty; relevance means being ready to give an account for the hope that we have and being in places where someone might actually ask; relevance means believing that we might learn something from those who are most unlike us; relevance means not so much translating the church’s language to the culture as translating the culture’s language back to the church; relevance means making theological sense of the depth that people discover in the oddest places of ordinary living and then using that experience to draw them to the source of that depth (Augustine seems to imply such a move in his reflections on beauty and transience in his Confessions). Relevance might simply mean wanting to understand why so many young people have said that attending U2’s Elevation Tour and hearing Bono close the show with choruses of “Hallelujah” was like being in worship (but a whole lot better).

This kind of relevance will also include the recognition that the church becomes relevant precisely by offering something that the culture does not. In a loud and frenzied world, that may mean creating a space where people can bask in silence and rest in liturgical rhythms. In a world of superficial entertainment, it may mean throwing parties that nurture deep and authentic community. In these ways relevance and resistance begin to look more like dance partners and less like competing suitors for the church’s soul.

Perhaps “relevant-resistant” is another way of naming the “incarnational” church. To incarnate the reign of God means to take on local flesh, to speak the vernacular, to dive deep into the cultural particularities of a time and place. But as Jesus shows, to embody God’s word in a time and place is both to participate in the world of the fallen and to offer an alternative to that world. The emerging church, to be anything other than a hip blip on the radar of American religion, will need to live the tension of “relevant-resistant” no less than it lives the tension of “ancient-future.”

Read the whole thing here.

The emerging church movement has some real creativity and passion. But I wonder how different it is in strategy/ideology than the MegaChurch models of the 70's and 80's. Both the mega and emerging confess to be speaking the language of the culture rather than the church. Fair enough. But as the author above points out, at what point do we cease to be an alternative way of being in the world because we've cozied up to comfortably to the prevailing culture? What gospel can we then proclaim?

O Radiant Dawn

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina
sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light,
and sun of justice,
come, and shine on those ,
seated in darkness,
and in the shadow of death.


Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Christmas Eve Sermon

With many thanks to Pastor Edward F. Markquart of Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle.
Text: Luke 2:1-20

Tonight, as we assemble on Christmas Eve, people are being drawn to houses of worship throughout the whole world. Softly and gently, they come. It is as if the sanctuaries are like gigantic magnets, stretching their magnetic powers into all the world. People from all corners are being drawn to churches tonight. Silhouettes steal across the streets of Khartoum. Shadows toddle by streetlights in Hong Kong. Believers kneel in the tents and bunkers of Baghdad. In Norway and Nigeria, in Bolivia and Bangladesh, people are gathering.

And we too are drawn to the splendor of this story. We too have come to the sanctuary as millions of others are coming this night. We too come to see the candles gently push away the darkness. We too come to listen to the calm and hushed silence. We come to bathe ourselves in the familiar. Familiar songs. Familiar carols. Familiar stories. We too have joined that magnetic processional of Christians everywhere this Christmas night.

But, why have you come tonight? What drew you here?
Maybe you’ve come because it is a dark world in your life; you feel the darkness around you and within you and can’t escape it on your own. Perhaps you feel that you are really drawn to the darkness rather than the light, and you need to hear God’s promises all over again.

Maybe this past year you have felt the prolonged darkness of death, the loss of a parent, child, spouse, dearest friend. Against that deep shadow, you hope to catch a glimmer of God’s holy light.
Maybe you have come being dragged by the ear, because grandma really wants the whole family together. But really, you’d rather be home, watching TV or playing video games, sipping eggnog, warming your feet by the fire. But for the sake of family unity, you come. You’ve lost whatever faith that you might have had once. Part of you wishes God could be alive to you once again, part of you feels this whole God thing is lost on you.

Some of you have come because you are afraid. Deep down inside, you are afraid that you are going to die this year. You sense it, you know it. You have talked quietly with your doctor. This may be your last Christmas with your loved ones, and you want to make this Christmas special without drawing too much attention to yourself. You come because to go from this life to eternity, you can’t make happen yourself. You need a saviour to save you from death by sharing promises of resurrection, promises that begin with the baby in the manger. There is no need to be afraid, “for to you is born this night a saviour.”

Why are you drawn here this evening? Perhaps you have had a rotten time in your marriage this past year. It has been awful at your house and you are here because you want a new beginning. You want to have God help you with the new beginning of love; and if God is the source of all love and source of all newness, you want to have God help you to begin to love again. You want to turn over a new leaf with your partner, God has to be a crucial part of it, and so you are here.

I’ve asked myself why I’m here. Beyond the obvious you’d fire me if I didn’t show up, I’d say part of it is I love the message of Christmas. I want to hear the Bible passages from the book of Isaiah, the vision of turning swords into plowshares, tanks into trowels, bombs into blessings. I come tonight because I want to be a person of peace, to solve problems with love and healing and justice rather than war and conflict. The Christmas Eve service reminds me of my hunger for peace.

And I’m here tonight because I love Christmas music. I was once a musician so it is through music that God’s touches me most deeply. I come for my soul and spirit to be renewed and it is often through music that my heart is gently moved.

But, if I am honest, I also need Christmas Eve because I am afraid. Part of me is afraid that the message of Christmas and the message of Easter and the message of Pentecost and all the other Sundays is a lie, and that I am part of a big lie and maybe so are you. Maybe we are people fooling ourselves with human-made traditions. I am afraid that there is nothing beyond the grave but death. So I come to Christmas Eve for the same reason I come each Sunday. I come because here in worship my heart is opened to the promise that God IS Immanuel, God with us. And in God’s great mystery, I can believe.

For me, for you, for why ever we’ve come here tonight, God’s message is the same, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 1to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Amen.

Rescuing C 'n E Christians

It has become a minor sport for clergy and some church folks, to whine about “C ‘n E” Christians ("Christmas and Easter", for you uninitiated). I remember a few years ago the pastor at my home church, on Christmas Eve preached to folks who only show up on large festival holidays. He didn't offer a gospel message, but snapped “Where are you the other Sundays of the year!?” with venom dripping from his lips.

Awkward silence. It was a small miracle that no one got up and left.

I guess some folks assume that people come to church on Christmas out of nostalgia, or because they’ve been dragged by the ear by their grandma who wants the whole family together, or because they want a little religion to spice up their holiday celebrations.

And all this may be true. But I wonder if it is an oversimplification born out of pastoral frustration than out of a true concern for the integrity of the gospel. I wonder if many of the people who come to our churches on Christmas Eve come with a genuine hunger for God. Some say they’d rather be home, watching TV or playing video games, sipping eggnog, warming their feet by the fire because they’ve lost whatever faith that they might have had once. Many wish God could be alive to them once again. And, in the back of their minds, they’re hoping to be confounded with the undying message of the Invisible God who was born among us as a child.

This is my assumption as I prepare for Christmas worship. That people are coming seeking the child in the manger, anxiously waiting to hear the promises of heralded by the angels: , “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Monday, December 20, 2004

Still Working Towards Peace on Earth

News Release

Winnipeg, December 20, 2004 (ELCIC)-- This week Christians
around the world
ready themselves to hear the Christmas story and to sing
once again the
song of the angels, "Peace on earth. Good will to all". But
all these years
after the birth of our Christ, our earth is not peaceful.
It is, therefore,
worth celebrating a story like the one that follows
(Information from the
Lutheran World Federation).

Palestinian Lutheran Bishop Dr Munib A. Younan received
the 2004 Bethany
Award from the Bethany Foundation in Oslo, Norway for his
leadership in
working for peace, justice and reconciliation through
dialogue between
Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East. The head
of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (ELCJ) was equally
recognized for his
continuous witness of Arab Palestinian Christianity in the
Holy Land.

The foundation, begun by the Methodist Church in 1897 also
honored Younan
for his service with the Augusta Victoria Hospital, an
institution run by
the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Department for World
Service program in
Jerusalem. Younan has served as ELCJ bishop since 1998. He
is LWF
Vice-President for the Asian region, and a member of the
LWF Executive

Accepting the award in October, Younan thanked the Bethany
Foundation on
behalf of Palestinian Christians, and paid tribute to his
friends and
colleagues in Norway for their partnership and support.
"This makes our
Palestinian church a church of martyria, serving suffering
people with the
love of God, even as it is suffering itself," he said.

The ELCJ has 3,000 members in congregations in Israel, Jordan and Palestine.
It joined the Lutheran World Federation in 1974. (ELCJ News)

The ELCJ is one of eight partners churches of the ELCIC.
More information click here.

Thomas Merton on Christmas

"The mystery of Christmas therefore lays upon us all a debt and an obligation to the whole created universe. We who have seen the light of Christ are obliged, by the greatness of the grace that has been given us, to make known the presence of the Saviour to the ends of the earth. This we will do not only by preaching the glad tidings of His coming, but above all by revealing Him in our lives. Christ is born to us today, in order that he may appear to the whole world through us. This one day is the day of His birth, but every day of our mortal lives must be His manifestation, His divine Epiphany, in the world which He has created and redeemed.”

From Thomas Merton’s Seasons of Celebration, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY, 1965, p 112.)

Friday, December 17, 2004

Sermon: Advent 4 - Year A

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

I played Joseph in the church Christmas pageant when I was a boy. Being about 8 or 9 years old I thought I had really hit the big time. The older kids always played Joseph. I was usually shepherd, or even at one time a sheep; “baaing” away from the back of the crowd, nestled uncomfortably between the rear end of the donkey and the angel robes that stunk like mothballs. But as I was immersed into my new role, I was surprised to notice how limited my part was. As Joseph, husband of Mary, guardian of Jesus, my job was to walk with Mary to the manger then to stand there. I didn’t even have to look holy because no one was looking at me. The real action was taking place at the manger. Or on the hillside where shepherds cowered in fear and angels sang glorious songs of praise. Or the roadway where the three wise men carried richly symbolic gifts for the Christ Child. Me? I was a lump. Bland scenery strategically placed to fill in the gaps, with nothing else to do but to be a statue. No lines to read. No songs to sing. Nothing. It was the best job I ever had.

But I wonder if that’s what we do with Joseph, relegate him to the margins because we don’t know really what else to do. Joseph is part of the story. But not hugely. Peripheral, he just goes about his work unnoticed until we need something from him.

But take a magnifying glass to him and we get bigger picture. His fiancé gets pregnant and he’s not the father. So instead of exacting revenge on this helpless young woman by crushing her under the full weight of the law, he was going to cut off the engagement quietly so she wouldn’t be punished. At least not by any legal means; she still had to deal with the baby. But then the angel in his dream tells him that the baby is God’s child, so Joseph just shrugs his shoulders and marries the girl.

It could be easy to ignore Joseph because he is so quiet. He just calmly goes about his business. He doesn’t have very much to say. We can’t help but listen to loud mouthed prophets spitting truth at us. And we’re drawn to crowds of angels singing noisily in the sky.

But it is the Josephs who keep the machinery of the salvation story well oiled. Folks like Joseph don’t know the difference between doing God’s will and just plain old doing what needs to be done.

Internet sage Real Live Preacher says,

“Turns out Christianity is an Eastern religion. The earliest Christians were Hebrews. Semites. People of the East. They did not know how to separate mind from body. They were holistic before holistic was cool.

“In our world we have separated mind from body to our great loss,” he goes on to say. “Here a man may betray his wife and neglect his children, but say he loves them ‘down inside’.

“Bullshit. There is no ‘down inside.’ Love is something you do, not something you feel.

“Likewise, we think having faith means being convinced God exists in the same way we are convinced a chair exists. People who cannot be completely convinced of God’s existence think faith is impossible for them.

“Not so. People who doubt can have great faith because faith is something you do, not something you think. In fact, the greater your doubt, the more heroic your faith.” (RLP, the Preacher's Own Story)

Joseph knew this instinctively. Sure he had his questions. Anyone would have. Was that really an angel in his dreams or was it just the bad batch of wine before crawling into bed? Did his wife really get pregnant by God or is that just a story she made up to get herself out of trouble? So, yeah, he had questions. Good questions. But they didn’t bog him down from doing what needed to be done.

So not only did Joseph have a role to play, he played it very well. The NT takes pains to show us that he didn’t take the first bus out of town when Mary told him he was pregnant and that he obviously was not the father. And he didn’t drop everything and disappear when the angel came to see him. He married Mary. He got her to Bethlehem. He found lodgings for his family. He took his place at her side and dealt with whatever came their way. He listened carefully around him to the danger to his wife and newly born and adopted son, and rustled them out of Bethlehem to the safety to Egypt. (adapted from Peter Gomes, Sermon)

Because for Joseph, faith is not something you think. Faith is something you do.

On other words, at the heart of the story is a good and just man who wakes up one day to find his life ruined: a baby that’s not his, his trust betrayed, his name devastated, his future destroyed. It’s about a righteous man who looks at the mess that is his life, a mess he had absolutely nothing to do with creating and believes that somehow God is present in it. With every reason to walk away, Joseph stays put. He makes the mess is own and the mess becomes the place where the Messiah is born. (adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, Believing the Impossible)

Because for Joseph, faith is not something you think. Faith is something you do.

But isn’t that the way God seems to work; behind the scenes where there’s no TV camera in sight? I’m thinking of people who run the cans over to the food bank when the bin gets full. Or the quick phone-call to the widower who just lost his wife, simply to see if he needs groceries, because they both know the only food he can make is cereal and toast. Or I’m thinking of the couple who find the time to drop off a pick-up truck at a man’s house who’s stuck in the hospital, and check back with him to see if he needed anything to make his stay more bearable. To the casual observer, these are not heroic acts. But to the divine observer, no greater heroism exists.

Because to these people, faith is not something you think. Faith is something you do.

Faith is making other peoples’ mess our own, and finding God hidden in it. Because these people know that God is found frolicking in the clutter, buried in our dirt, and wrestling with us in the mud because that’s where God needs to be: embroiled in the waste of our lives and mixed up in the chaos of the world.

These people, people like Joseph and people like you and me, insist on trusting that “God is still being born in the mess, among those who still believe what angels tell them in their dreams.” (BBT, ibid)

Or to say it another way: faith is not something you think. Faith is something you do.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Buy Nothing Christmas? How 'bout Buy Nothing Year!?

Some guy in Nova Scotia (my old stomping ground) is half way through not spending a penny for a year.Check it out.

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, have mercy on us

Recent Child poverty stats in Canada. Shameful.

Christmas Greetings from ELCIC Nat'l Bishop Ray Schultz


Kelly Fryer wrote in
Reclaiming the
"L" Word that a core principle of Lutheran theology is the
statement: God
always comes down.

Whatever we may think of humanity, God created us out of
unconditional love
and continues to live with us out of that attitude. This is
not some syrupy
sentiment; God, by character, is love. To desire communion
with us is part
of God's very nature.

God wants and chooses to live with us, in our world of time
and space, amid
our sin and error, accepting the necessity of our deaths
and adapting to
our changing moods. This is such an essential attitude on
God's part, that
God deems it worth dying for and did so. When one considers
the risks
involved in first-century pregnancies, the very act of
choosing to start
from the womb and live outward from there was an incredible
act of

The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is not the beginning of the
Exodus is-but it is the beginning of the core event for us.
Everything else
in the scriptures is seen in a new way because of this.
Every person is
seen as a new person because of this.

"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom God favors!"

May the gracious love of God, revealed in Bethlehem and
expressed most
deeply on the cross, encourage you, fill you with joy, and
call you forward
into the future with Christ.

Raymond L. Schultz, National Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Lego Brand Church

And people thought I had too much time on my hands.

Also, Real Live Preacher has a chapter from his book in the SoMA Review website. Great stuff, as usual. I especially appreciate his rough honesty and earthy wisdom. Don't forget to check out other articles on the SoMA site. Some really good thinking happening there.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Rowan Williams' Christmas Message

A wonderful Christmas message from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Human beings are wrapped up in themselves. Because of that great primitive betrayal that we call the Fall of humanity, we are all afraid of God and the world and our real selves in some degree. We can't cope with the light. As John's gospel says, those who don't want to respond to God fear and run away from the light. But God acts to heal us, to bring us out of our isolation...[Jesus] does what we do; he is born, he grows up, he lives for many years a life that is ordinary and prosaic like ours - he works, he eats, he sleeps. Here is ultimate love, complete holiness, made real in a back street in a small town. And when he begins to do new and shocking things, to proclaim the Kingdom, to heal, to forgive, to die and rise again - well, we shouldn't panic and run away because we have learned that we can trust him. We know he speaks our language, he has responded to our actions and our words, he has echoed to us what we are like.

Christ does not save the world just by his death on the cross; we respond to that death because we know that here is love in human flesh, here is the creator's power and life in a shape like ours. As we read the gospels, we should think of God watching us moment by moment, mirroring back to us our human actions - our fears and our joys and our struggles - until he can at last reach out in the great gestures of the healing ministry and the cross. And at last we let ourselves be touched and changed.

Read the whole message here.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Real Problem With Christmas

David Suzuki on the real problem of Christmas. Great article. Thought provoking.

On a different note, Warren Kinsella has written a piece for the National Post on former PM Jean Chretien. Here's a taste:

It is not "anti-American" to assert Canada sovereignty, and Jean Chrétien also understood this truism better than most (as did his friend Bill Clinton, and as does George W. Bush, with whom Mr. Chrétien enjoyed a long, friendly discussion during the recent Presidential visit). His decision to refuse to participate in the war in Iraq – again, over the objections of many powerful forces within the country and within his own Liberal cabinet – is rightly seen as profoundly courageous, and a decision that preserved Canadian lives and enhanced our reputation in the international community. Similarly, Mr. Chrétien’s success at negotiating delicate trade issues – particularly the Free Trade Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement – demonstrated that he was correct when he declared in 1991 that globalization was something to be embraced, and not feared.

Read the rest here.

Living in Southern Alberta I know I take my life into my hands when I say this: I like Chretien. He got things done. He stood up to right wing bullies like Stockwell Day. Yes, he could have done more for health care, education, and the environment. But he governed from the centre, holding social compassion in one hand and fiscal retraint in the other. A true liberal.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Gower Street Interviews NT Wright

Part One and Part Two. A great read from one of the best New Testament scholars living today. Well worth the time.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Waiting for God

A wonderful article by the late sage Henri Nouwen on the discipline of waiting. Thanks to the Onehouse Blog for directing me to this. It makes me think of how so often we jump right into Christmas on December 1 (or November 1st if you work at the mall). Christmas carols, Christmas parties, Santa hats, all come out as we celebrate the "Christmas season" forgetting (or ignoring) that Christmas begins on December 24.

I'm not just being a grinch (or Scrooge, for you Christmas line jumpers). But when we leap too quickly into the "joy of the season" we rob ourselves of the hunger that comes with waiting. We begin re-telling our salvation story at Advent because we being with a yearning for the Saviour. It's not that we pretend Jesus hasn't come, but Advent reminds us that the world still needs Jesus and his promises of new life and new creation. We enter into the world's pain as well as our own more deeply by hearing the promises of the Saviour, not just their fulfilment. But we also need to remember, Jesus has come, and we still await his return where he will make all things new, and "he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more." That is what we hunger for and for which we will continue to hunger as long we see God's vision of a New Creation unfulfilled among us.

May our hunger be insatiable as we wait with hopeful anticipation for the coming Saviour.

Good News for Bald Men

Levititcus 13:40 "If anyone loses the hair from his head, he is bald but he is clean"

Monday, December 06, 2004

Montreal Massacre Remembered

"It must be admitted therefore that if the gospel of peace is no longer convincing on the lips of Christians, it may well be because they have ceased to give a living example of peace, unity and love. True, we have to understand that the Church was never intended to be absolutely perfect on earth, and she is a Church of sinners, laden with imperfection. Christian peace and Christian charity are based indeed on this need to ‘bear one another’s burdens,’ to accept the infirmities that plague one’s own life and the lives of others. Our unity is a struggle with disunity and our peace exists in the midst of conflict."

From Peace in the Post-Christian Era, edited with an Introduction by Patricia A. Burton, Foreword by Jim Forest (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2004), P 129

Today is the 15th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. I remember the day vividly. I was studying music at Humber College and came home late and the terrible news was all over the TV. I felt sick inside as they read the names and ages of the women who were not much older than I was.

For many, it was easy to dismiss this tragedy as the evil actions of one deranged man. In fact, I remember many Christians at Intervarsity Christian Fellowship on the campus of Wilfrid Laurier University tell me that they saw no reason to remember this "one isolated event." And when I was in seminary some of my clasmates complained that were spending too much time reflecting on the violence of December 6 which got in the way of the festival of St. Nicholas (interesting perspective, coming from Lutherans). To me this sounded like mysogony veiled in religious garments. This is a terrible witness to the world. Just like Thomas Merton warned us in the quote above. I think this sort of religious game playing is what the prophet Amos condemned:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies, says the Lord. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

I wonder if this is all by way of relieving ourselves of any culpability in the violence of the world. Yes, one man alone walked into Montreal's l'École Polytechnique and shot 14 women simply because they were woman. But human beings do not act in isolation. We are conditioned by that which is around us. I don't mean to say that we are all evil Marc Lapines, but I wonder if many of us share the same violent impulses, but simply do not act upon them. And that violence reveals itself in other ways.

I have two young girls at home (10 months and 3 years), and I have to admit, since their births the issue of violence against women have been pressing on my mind. Would they be honoured for their gifts or would they fall into a prescribed gender roles? Would they be free to choose any vocation to which they are called or would they be limited because they are female? If they found themselves in abusive relationships, would they have the strength and courage to escape?

So today, I see an appropriate way of remembering these woman is to commit one's self to peace and reconciliation - doing the kingdom's work, knowing there will be victories and defeats along the way, learning forgiveness for our enemies and love for those who hurt us. But also, remembering that Jesus has already defeated the forces of sin and death and put us on the path that leads to new and everlasting life.

Child of glory, Child of Mary,
born in the stable, King of all,
you came to our wasteland, in our place suffered.
By choosing to be born as a child
you teach us to reverance every human life.
May we never despise, degrade, or destroy it.
Rather, help us sustain and preserve it. Amen

(A Holy Island Prayer Book, p. 53)

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Sermon: Advent 2 - Year A

Text: Matthew 3:1-12

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” roars John the Baptist, his camel hair shirt being battered by the wind and his beard dusty from a lifetime spent spitting out sand in the desert. But he speaks from a place outside of his body with an authority that isn’t his. His breath is aflame with words that burn. “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

People had to travel pretty far to hear these words. The Jordan River wasn’t exactly on a main street with good traffic flow. I guess John missed the book that detailed the best strategy for amassing a crowd. Near a McDonalds, on a corner, and there must be a stop sign in front. Not that John needed a plan. The people kept coming. Their ears were hungry for a true word from God. Not the faith of the temple, that came filtered through the official Roman creed of fidelity to Caesar to first. No, they were looking for red meat; something with substance. People put up with the blisters and stubbed their feet on the rocks because they craved access to God to receive the freedom they craved. And John didn’t disappoint.

He even looked the part. His clothes ragged and his voice hoarse. He ate what he could find out there in the desert and a not drop of wine ever touched his lips. Only water for this prophet. His words were so rough and so true that they cut deep wounds in people’s self-delusions. He spoke truth to power. Clearly, John had no loyalty to anyone other that God and had no other trade other than proclaiming God’s message. John lived the freedom the people craved.

And the people came. Crowds flocked to hear this strange little man shouting hard words of repentance. People who had been kicked out of the temple for failing. Failing at religion. Failing in their job. Failing at life. A lot of these folks weren’t part of what you would call the comfortable middle-class. And to be honest. If you saw one of them walking toward you downtown you’d probably cross the street and walk on the other side.

A week ago one of these introduced himself to us when an intoxicated Aboriginal man banged on the church’s front door during our Saturday morning Stephen Ministry training class. He asked when church service started. I told him it was tomorrow at 8:45 and 11:00 and that he was welcome to come to join in. Then he just stood and stared at me. After a minute or two he asked for something to eat. So I gave him three apples, the only food I had in the fridge. Then he sat down on a chair in our “Welcome Area.”

A woman from the Stephen Ministry class sat down with him to talk. We resumed our class in a nearby room. Suddenly we heard the man yell “Somebody help me!” and myself and a man from the class ran out to the hallway. The woman who was sitting with him was pale.

She whispered to me “He said he is suicidal and asked me for a gun.”

Not knowing exactly what to do I called 911 and explained the situation. They asked if he was drunk and if he was native. I said “yes” on both counts. They said they would send a police car around.

10 minutes later an officer arrived. He obviously knew the man.

“Hi Ron, are you causing trouble around here?” asked the officer.

I said to him, “No, he’s not. We called because he said he was suicidal.”

“When Ron gets drunk he says lots of things he doesn't mean.” The cop replied, dismissing my concern. “Sorry pastor,” the officer continued, “I’ve got no compassion for these people.”

Then the officer parked Ron in the back seat of his cruiser and took him away.

We said a prayer for Ron and the class resumed.

But the class was wondering if we did the right thing by calling the police. My training had taught me that once the person says he or she is suicidal then all pastoral bets are off and I have to notify authorities. But folks raised good questions. Did we “care” for Ron as Jesus would have? Was calling the police the best way to handle the situation? Was it at coincidence that he showed up when we were learning how to be Christian caregiver? Was he an angel who had visited us unawares, as the bible said might happen? What else could we have done? After all, we’re not miracle workers. One visit with us is not going to change this man’s life. No matter how earnest and well-intentioned we are.

I really appreciated the questions the class asked because they recognized that this person was one who is traditionally shut out of respectable religion and was hungering for more than what we gave him. We gave him food. But I wondered if he hungered for the bread of life. Let face it, our churches aren’t populated with aboriginal people, especially ones with substance abuse problems. But I wonder if these were the types that flocked to hear John. I wondered if these were the ones who entered the waters of the Jordan river, the river of freedom, and emerged on the other side a new person. “Ron” was clearly hurting for more than food. He wanted someone to talk to.

Good Shepherd is a remarkably caring community. I've been taught how to be a better disciple by the witness of many people in this congregation. But I'm always wondering were we can grow. And I wonder if the fellow who visited us last Saturday taught us where we can reach deeper in our caring. The discomfort this person brought to us is a holy discomfort. Like John the Baptist, he challenged us to make our embrace reach wider. I know that we want to do more, we want to be more loving, we want to show the world God’s love. We certainly do not want to see hurting people led away from our church in the back seats of police cars. We want to do more. We know we can do more.

For us, when we hear John’s message, I don’t think the judgment we fear is the fires of hell, but the fires of our own consciences.

American preacher Barbara Brown Taylor concedes that “one of the most frightening things about John’s vision of judgment is that unquenchable fire of his. It is not possible to live in the Bible belt without a vivid image of Hell, much more vivid than the clean streets of heaven. But if you read the Bible very much, you have to wonder about that fire. Throughout Holy Scripture, fire is the reliable sign of the presence of God. God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush; a pillar of fire guides the people of Israel through the wilderness after their escape from Egypt; when Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments from God, it looks to those down below as if the mountain itself is being devoured by fire.

“I do not mean to minimize the danger” she continues. This is not a safe fire; it can still burn and kill. But it is God’s own fire, the fire of God’s presence, fire that wants to speak to us, guide us, instruct us, save us. It is the fire of a potter who wants to make useful vessels out of damp clay. It is fire of the jeweler who wants to refine pure gold from rough ore. It does not have to be the fire of destruction, in other words. It may also be the fire of transformation, a fire that lights us up and changes us, melting us down and reforming us more nearly into the image of God. It is the fire that with which Jesus himself baptizes us, inviting us into a bright, hot relationship with him. Even when the fire seems bent on consuming us, like Meshach , Shadrach, and Abednego, in the fiery furnace we find that we have company, and that even in the hottest regions of our own personal hells we do not sweat.” (BBT, Changed in to Fire)

So the fires that meet us, like small bonfires that keep us warm but alert, or the infernos that threaten to overwhelm us, leaving us scarred and often unrecognizable, are the fires that transform us into what God wants us to be. But also, it is important to remember that we do not start the fire. God strikes the match sticks and hauls out the can of gasoline. Our salvation does not depend on our own goodness but on God’s goodness. I wonder if John’s message would have been a little softer, a touch gentler if he knew that the Messiah, Jesus was much more willing to forgive than to destroy.

But yes, John the Baptist was right. Jesus is our judge. But as one writer puts it, “the chambers from which he presides is the chambers of his compassionate heart.” All he needs is a handful of dust willing to be transformed, willing to be caught on fire, for heaven’s sake,” (BBT, ibid) because he knows that fear and discomfort is the furnace in which faith is forged. In fact, as one preacher says it, “the greater the fear, the more heroic the faith.”

It is my prayer, that in this Advent season, God will disquiet us enough, make us uncomfortable enough, that our embrace will widen, our love for the world will deepen, and our fear will enlarge our vision of your kingdom in our lives and in the world. Maybe for us, repentance means looking to a broader vision of what God wants for us in ministry, keeping us hungering for more of the kingdom alive in our midst. Amen.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

"Religion" not "spirituality"

CBC's Tapesty is airing an intervew with Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau who say their writing is for people made anxious by churches, embarrassed to be caught in the spirituality section of the bookstore, people who are hostile, yet drawn to talk of God.

The whole "religion" vs "spirituality" thing has me confused. I know that many folks like "spirituality" because it implies freedom from the rigid structures found in traditional faith.

But I wonder if such freedom comes with too high a price. For me, being part of a historic faith rejoices in the continuity of a message that has been passed down through the ages. I feel clothed in history, surrounded by saints, and affirmed by time.

I find that many people who find "spirituality" outside of a historic faith find themselves looking in the mirror calling the reflection "God."

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Who is John Stott?

This was sent to me from a rabbi in Halifax. Great article on John Stott (rector of All Souls, Langham Place) from the NY Times.

Tim Russert is a great journalist, but he made a mistake last weekend. He included Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton in a discussion on religion and public life.

Inviting these two bozos onto "Meet the Press" to discuss that issue is like inviting Britney Spears and Larry Flynt to discuss D. H. Lawrence. Naturally, they got into a demeaning food fight that would have lowered the intellectual discourse of your average nursery school.

Read the rest of the article here.

I like John Stott. He represents the best of evangelicalism. His theology emerges from a deep love of God revealed in Jesus Christ and not from a preconceived political agenda. While I wouldn't agree with him on many issues, he is always thoughtful and seeks the compassionate heart of God in dealing with the harder issues. A true Christian leader.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Angels Unawares?

We had two visitors to Good Shepherd this past weekend. And both of them challenged our sense how caring we are.

The first was an intoxicated Aboriginal man. He banged on the church’s front door during our Saturday morning Stephen Ministry training class. He asked when church service started. I told him it was tomorrow at 8:45 and 11:00 and that he was welcome to come to join in. Then he just stood and stared at me. After a minute or two he asked for something to eat. So I gave him three apples, the only food I had in the fridge. Then he sat down on a chair in our “Welcome Area.”

A woman from the Stephen Ministry class sat down with him to talk. We resumed our class in a nearby room. Suddenly we heard the man yell “Somebody help me!” and myself and a man from the class ran out to the hallway. The woman who was sitting with him was pale.

She whispered to me “He said he is suicidal and asked me for a gun.”

Not knowing exactly what to do I called 911 and explained the situation. They asked if he was drunk and if he was native. I said “yes” on both counts. They said they would send a police car around.

10 minutes later a cop arrives. He obviously knew the man.

“Hi Ron, are you causing trouble around here.”

I said to the cop, “No, we called because he said he was suicidal.”

“When Ron gets drunk he says lots of things he doesn't.” The cop replied, dismissing my concern. “Sorry pastor,” the cop continued, “I’ve got no compassion for these people.”

Then the cop parked Ron in the police car and took him away.

We said a prayer for Ron and the class resumed.

But the class was wondering if we did the right thing by calling the cops. My training had taught me that once the person says he/she is suicidal then all pastoral bets are off and I have to notify authorities. But the class raised good questions. Did we “care” for Ron as Jesus would have? Was calling the police, who are known for their racism toward aboriginal people, the best way to handle the situation? Was it at coincidence that he showed up when we were learning how to be Christian caregiver? Was he an angel who had visited us unawares, as the bible said might happen?

The next day, another young man came to our door. He came to Alberta from Newfoundland because he was told he had a job here. But when he arrived, the job evaporated. Then, he learned that both his parents were killed by a drunk driver back home on the Rock. He felt an inner compulsion to come to a Lutheran church.

A group of people sat with him and prayed with him. We invited him downstairs for coffee and cookies. One gentleman offered to buy him a plane ticket home, but the fellow initially declined. But later, after church, said that he, perhaps had refused the kind offer too soon. But by then, the man from the church had gone home. We gave him a ride to the bus station where he was going to by a ticket to Medicine Hat and hitch a ride with one of the truckers at the truck stop.

We’ve been asking ourselves if we failed these two men.

It feels as if our ministry is taking a turn and we are going down a road that we didn’t expect. As we think about our new building and what we want to use it for, how do we remain faithful to our calling as a community of disciples of Jesus Christ, the poor man from Nazareth? How do we reach out to most hurting around us from our comfortable perch in the suburbs among the big box stores and half-million dollar houses? Are we merely baptizing people’s affluence or are we offering an alternative vision for the world? God’s vision – the vision of the kingdom of God, where all are welcome, renewed, healed, cleansed, and sent.

Good Shepherd is a remarkably caring community. I've been taught how to be a disciple by the witness of many people in this congregation. But I'm always wondering were we can grow. And those areas walked through our doors last weekend. The discomfort many people feel is a holy discomfort. We want to do more, we want to be more loving, we certainly do not want to see hurting people lead away from our church in the back seats of police cars, or do we want to see grieving people hitching rides from strangers to make it home to bury their parents. We want to do more. We know we can do more.

Maybe this discomfort shows that we are growing more fully into our mission statement that begins “Rooted in the gospel, our caring community…”

Monday, November 29, 2004

Rowan Williams' Pastoral Letter

As we move towards the Advent season once again, I write with love and concern for the well-being of our Communion and the future of our common discipleship. In II.Tim.4.8, the apostle speaks of the Lord’s promise ‘to all those who wait with love for him to appear’ - or, in the older translation, ‘all them also that love his appearing’. The Church is - in human terms - the assembly of those who ‘love his appearing’. We are drawn together by love and gratitude for what we see in Christ’s first appearing - his birth in humility, his ministry, his saving death and glorious resurrection - and by loving hope for his coming again. We look forward, praying (in the words of one of the most profound of the Christmas collects) ‘that we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our judge.’

Read the rest here.

A good message for us Lutherans to hear as well.

From our Baptist friends, Tony Campolo and Gary Bauer say they know the difference between George W Bush and Jesus Christ. Thanks to Jesus Politics for this.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Christian-Republican alliance: Faustian bargain?

While conservative Christians are protesting the new Kinsey movie, the first ammendment center suggests why such tactics are inappropriate.

If it is true that North America has become a "secular" culture, would it neccessarily follow that Christians need to wage war against it? Is that what Jesus told his disciples to do?

Klein wins (surprise!)

PC 61
Lib 17

Boy! My numbers came mighty close yesterday.

With only 46.8 percent of the vote, an issue-less campaign, the loss of some prominent Tories, NDP Leader Brian Mason was right when he said that Klein has no mandate to ram through privatized health care.

But it still astounds me that folks vote for the PC's despite the contempt they've shown towards the voters by not bothering to cobble together a platform. Specifically, saying that they won't unveil their health care plan until after the election. Or, one could say that Klein has a mandate to govern on the platform he ran on and the issues he presented as his priorities.

But if Klein himself was what the PC government had going for them heading into this election, then what might happen in 4 years after Ralph retires? We might have (shockers!) a Liberal government in Alberta. Kevin Taft certainly has the ideas, vision, and ability to pull off a victory when Klein gets out of the way. The Liberals doubled their seats with no money and against a very popular premier. Imagine what could happen with a fully stocked war chest against some nutty cabinet minister who's taken over Klein's job.

Alberta politics just got interesting.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Like the Proverbial Pooch

This weekend was hell. A nasty stomach virus made its way through our household, sending both kids to the emergency.

Today is Election Day in Alberta. Or should I say Coronation Day. The media’s input has been less than riviting. Most headlines say something like: “It’s voting day in Alberta, but Klein is expected to win a majority.” In other words, don’t bother voting, it’s already a foregone conclusion. Stay home and keep warm and sedate yourself with a cold beer and Monday Night Football.

But it despite the PC’s hold on the province, neither the Calgary Herald nor the Edmonton Journal have endorsed Klein, but neither have they come out and endorsed one of the opposition parties, effectively sanctioning the status quo. As one who has lived here for only a year, I get the province's cultural conservatism (but am not part of it), but these conservatives do not represent the best of conservatism. They thrive on Fed-baiting, hurting the marginalized, and represent big money. The best of conservatism focuses on civic responsibility, rewards achievement, is fiscally responsible and community minded. These conservatives speak only one language: money.

Having said that, here is my prediction

PC 61
Lib 16
Alliance 2

Friday, November 19, 2004

December's Pastoral Letter

Too late have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new,
too late have I loved you!
You were within me but I was outside myself, and I sought You there!
In my weakness I ran after the beauty of the things you have made.
You were with me, and I was not with You.
The things You have kept me from .
You were with me, and I was not with You.
The things You have kept me from You –
the things which would have no being unless they existed in You!

You have called, You have cried out, and You have pierced my deafness.
You have radiated forth, and have shined out brightly,
and you have dispelled my blindness.
You have set forth Your fragrance, and I have breathed it in,
And I have longed for You.
I have tasted You, and I hunger and thirst for You.
You have touched me, and I ardently desire Your peace.

St. Augustine of Hippo, 354-430

As I write this I can’t believe that I’ve been here for a year already. When I left Halifax, it was a beautiful autumn day. When I stepped off the plane in Calgary, I was met by snow and ice. But after listening to news reports, it looks like fortunes have been reversed, as Nova Scotia is digging out of a foot or two of snow and waiting for their lights to come back on, we are enjoying warm, October-like weather.

But weather is not the only reason I’m glad to be here. I am enjoying ministry here immensely. Mostly because I am surrounded by a people whose faithfulness to this ministry leaves me inspired and humbled. What drives me so intensely in ministry is being caught up in the vision that God has for our community. But that vision doesn’t happen in a vacuum. God’s visions come from a community grounded in worship and prayer.

Worship and prayer remind us who we are and whose we are. I liked that quote from St. Augustine because it reminds us that our true stance is toward God in prayer, hungering and thirsting for the presence of God in our lives and the world, but also being aware enough to know that we miss signs of God that exist all around us.

For me, one of the greatest challenges in preaching is finding hints of God’s presence in peoples’ lives and our community. Too often, I look for the big moves of God. The child healed of cancer. The marriage pulled from the brink of divorce. The radically transformed “sinner” into a card-carrying member of the church.

But God doesn’t always work that way. God, most often works within the smallest, almost imperceptible areas of life: the child giving a spontaneous hug to the older woman who just lost her husband. A bag of groceries dropped on the door step of the young family struggling to pay the bills. A brief prayer in the hallway between friends. Nothing earth shattering. But wholly life-giving.

It is my prayer that we will breathe deeply the fragrance of God and taste profoundly God’s grace in our lives, and that we will sing the song of our salvation to each other and to a world that so desperately needs to listen to God’s lyric of new life.

Grace and peace to you,


Monday, November 15, 2004

Jesus Sells

Jeremy Lott, offers a stinging critique of the Christian culture industry. Excellent stuff from an insider.

On a different note, Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, calls upon Europeans to stop blaming the Americans and confront the horrors and injustices of industrial globalization. It looks like the American Experiment may be about to emigrate...back to Europe. Thought provoking!

Saturday, November 13, 2004

To join the union or not to join the union, that is not the question

By my friend Kevin Little. Published in today's National Post.


I read with interest the debate over whether United Church
clergy should join the
Canadian Auto Workers union. I can't say I was surprised,
as a United Church minister I
have heard my colleagues expressing deep frustration over
how they have been treated for
years. My concern is not whether United Church clergy are
unionized or are represented
by the likes of Mr. Hargrove. My concern is whether my
church has a sense of purpose and
a confidence in its mission.

When a parishoner or someone off the street comes to my
office complaining of anxiety
and lack of fulfillment my first questions to her/him are
not about working conditions
and their level of salary. Frankly I know Nuns and Priests
who run soup kitchens and
encounter life disasters each night that I can't ever
imagine. Their salaries can't be
much more than the manager at the Burger King down the
street. But they have purpose and
mission in their work. They know that what they do matters.

I believe that some of the anxiety, the frustration, the
anger that many clergy feel,
that many lay people feel, is a result of what William
Willimon in his study guide "The
Search for Meaning" calls meaninglessness. "Spiritual
emptiness is a precursor of
hopelessness, depression, existential sickness..."

After fifteen years of ordered ministry, serving churches
in rural, small town, suburban
and urban contexts I have discovered that the church often
fails to understand its
mission. Most evangelical churches are more clear about
their purpose. They are there to
save people from damnation, to give people the joy of
Christ in their lives. For all of
the conflict and crisis in these churches there is still a
clear vision of what the
pastor and the church is about. Who needs a union when
everyone understands the rules
and the role of the participants?

But for mainline churches and their clergy this is not so
clear. We are not
fundamentalists. Some of us clergy think our role is to be
chaplains to a social club,
some of us think we are social workers, some of us think we
are teachers, some of us
think we are revolutionaries, and some of us just don't
know. And the churches we serve
are even more conflicted. They want to grow, but why? So we
can restore the legacy of
our forebearers? So we can civilize the state? So we can
civilize the masses? So we can
be a bright beacon shining on a hill? So we can show others
the way? What?

And this lack of a clear mission has real consequences to
the covenantal relationship
between clergy and the churches we serve. When attendance
falls, when volunteers are
tired because no one will replace them, when ministers with
seven years of university
education are paid less than any and all professionals,
when churches are forced to
merge or close, there is the inevitable blame game, finger
pointing. Clergy blame
listless laypeople and laypeople blame incompetent clergy.

My point is this; dwindling numbers in the pews wouldn't
matter to anyone if the church
felt it was making a meaningful difference to the
community, to each other. Volunteers
would find the time if they truly believed in the mission
of the church. Clergy would
take jobs as nightclerks and serve the parish by day if
they believed that the mission
of the church was crucial to providing purpose to their
lives. Churches wouldn't care if
they merged, moved to the school gymnasium down the street,
or just met in people's
living rooms, IF the congregation was motivated by a common
sense of mission.

Instead churches will draw up job descriptions that make
being the new CEO of Nortel
look like a cake-walk. They are looking for a Messiah to do
it all! Clergy quickly
become disillusioned with their churches and start looking
for Chaplain positions,
staff positions at Conference or National Office or
Outreach ministries. Why? In all of
the above the purpose and mission are much more clearly

My sense is that the church is the very place in our
consumerist, individualistic, and
narcissistic culture where the search for meaning can have
real consequences. Where
Jesus can speak to us. One possible solution for the United
Church of Canada is to adopt
a model for mission along the lines of the Church of the
Saviour. There to become a
member one must complete a rigorous two-year education
program in five fields; Old
Testament, New Testament, Doctrine, Ethics, and Christian
Growth. When I was confirmed
at 13 I can't recall a thing the Minister and my class
talked about. At Church of the
Saviour new members serve an internship in one of the
mission groups, usually in a inner
city context. Community discipline includes tithing,
keeping a personal journal,
reporting weekly to the group's spiritual director,
fasting, and renewing one's covenant
annually. Tithing is almost unheard of among members of the
United Church.

Still we in the United Church have a rich history of social
activism I am very
proud of; the equality of women, medicare, refugees, gays
and lesbians, care for those
with HIV/AIDS. If every denomination had our courage in
addressing these issues the Body
of Christ would be a bolder and more dynamic force to be
reckoned with! The missing
link, it seems to me, is to connect our hungry Spirits with
the nourishing work of Jesus
in our midst. Mission cannot be an after-thought or a busy
alternative to a deeper and
more profound encounter with the Divine. It has to permeate
every aspect of the church;
our Bible studies, our prayer life, our worship

Many of our churches are figuring this out. It is slow
evolution from being a church of
privilege and status like we were in the 50's (where
cabinet ministers would routinely
appear at groundbreaking ceremonies) to churches today that
offer sanctuary to illegal
immigrants and risk serving jail time. But this painful and
yet re-energizing
transformation won't be helped or harmed by unionizing
clergy. In fact it is irrelevant,
a distraction. Pay every clergy person six figure incomes,
empower Mr. Hargrove to
negotiate our contracts, engage Mr. Greenspan to represent
us every time we are in
conflict, and it won't change a thing if we don't believe
that what we do really
matters. That it has intrinsic meaning and purpose.

Kevin Little is a United Church minister serving in Ottawa.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Friday, November 12, 2004

From The Revealer

Barry Goldwater biographer Rick Perlstein reports on some surprising numbers crunched by political scientist Phil Klinkner. Bush's support among heavy churchgoers in 2000 and 2004? Identical. Bush's support among wealthy voters? Big surge in '04. "It's the wealth, stupid," writes Perlstein.

Jeff Sharlot offers a strong rebuttal to this claim. Click here for the rest of the article.

Also, Arafat was buried today and many folks are suggesting that this is a new day for Israeli/Palastinian peace talks. But Mark Levine has concerns:

As the Bush Administration and America’s pundocracy search for a new generation of pragmatic and non-violent Palestinian leaders, they should be heartened to know that they won’t have to look very hard to find them. But that’s because so many are either in the hospital, jail or exile. And like Arafat shriveling away in his besieged Muqata’a (which will now be his tomb), the Palestinian peace movement will continue to wither as long as Israel is more comfortable confronting Hamas than Ahmed Awad.

Read the rest of the article here.

For a summary of many religous leaders' responses to Arafats death, check out this article from the Anglican Journal.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Is Ned Flanders Keeping George Bush in the White House?

How would Homer vote? Check out how folks in Springfield might cast their ballot. A week outdated, but fun nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Tuesday November 9, 2004

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 1 Chronicles 7:14

Willow Creek Community Church, just outside of Chicago is, by any standards, a massive church. They have a membership into the tens of thousands, and on any given weekend they welcome 15 000 souls through their front doors. I had the opportunity to visit Willow Creek 2 summers ago and I left with deeply mixed feelings. After making our way through parking lot number 3, we found the front doors, where upon entry, we were greeted not by a smiling usher handing us a bulletin, or a bible open to John 3:16, or even a cross on the wall – but we were greeting by the smell of hamburgers frying at one of the booths of the food court. In fact, upon entry, there was nothing telling us that this was a place where God was worshipped. Beside the food court was a lounge with comfy chairs arranged in a circle so the overflow of worshippers could watch the 5:15 Saturday evening service while enjoying a fresh cup of java while watching the service on a Big-screen TV. I couldn’t help but ask myself, How does this place represent poor man from Nazareth named Jesus?

I also marveled at how well the brilliant strategy their senior Pastor Bill Hybels worked in attracted people to church. His strategy wasn’t new. The Jesuits have been doing same thing for the last 500 hundred years. 1300 years before them, the ancient Celtic church saw massive growth in the church as the gospel rippled its way across Europe. This strategy is now called “inculturation.” Basically it means to use the trappings of the culture to preach and teach the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel isn’t shared, heard, or experienced in a vacuum. The gospel needs a vehicle, and the vehicle that Willow Creek uses is the consumer culture of the affluent suburbs of Middle America. But I have to be honest, hearing testimonies of people whose lives have been transformed by the power of gospel through the ministry of Willow Creek, people who testify of relationships healed, addictions brought under control, the lonely finding community, I have to say that God working powerfully through that ministry.

But yet, I also have to ask myself if they’re missing a second step. At what point do we use culture, and at what point do we challenge culture? If we distance ourselves too much from the culture we run the risk of becoming irrelevant, an island unto ourselves speaking a language only we can understand. But if we use too much of the culture, we risk losing our distinctiveness, our prophetic witness to the alternative way of living that Jesus call us to. But the results will be the same; we will become irrelevant.

But while Willow Creek is an extreme model, I wonder if we Lutherans can fall into the same traps set for us by the world that surrounds us. What makes us different from the rest of the world? Are we a “counter-culture” that lives in sharp distinction to the rest of the world as many of the theologians suggest, or is our faith merely a “spare tire religion” where we pull it out when the wheels of life go flat? How do we live our faith that speaks to the good news we have received in Jesus Christ? Is our common witness to the life-altering, world-changing power of God evident in how we live our lives as a community? Do we use the resources that God has so graciously give us on ourselves or do we share abundantly with a world outside our doors who is starving for grace?

These are questions the prophets ask the people of God all throughout the bible. Whether its Amos and Hosea in the north or Isaiah and Jeremiah in the south; whether the times are prosperous or perilous, the message remains the same: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.”

In other words God is saying, “Always keep me in your sight. Remember who you are; a people chosen to be a light to all the world.”

I know for me, sometimes I let my dreaming, my ambition, my hunger for influence and status in the world distract me from where God wants me to be. I often get caught up in how my life will impact the world I forget how God’s world will impact my life. I like this text because it haunts me. When I mark an achievement in my life, this text reminds me of how fleeting worldly success is. When I hear the siren call to worldly power and status, this text calls me to greater humility. When I am tempted to wonder if the grass is somehow greener in another pasture, this text calls me to stronger commitment among the people I am called to serve.

But perhaps mostly, this text calls me to my knees to kneel in repentance, prayer, and to seek after the one who named me and claimed for his own. I think this is God’s message for us as people of God, God is asking us, Why do you spend your lives chasing after shadows that flicker and die, when what I’m offering lasts forever? I don’t need your riches. Instead of a big cheque, bring me your tears, bring me your diseases, bring me your broken heart. Instead of fancy buildings all I need from you is that which the world asks that you hide: your sickness, your sorrow, your loneliness.

This is kind of offering that God wants; for us to bring our brokenness and pain and to lay it at the foot of the cross to be crucified with Jesus, so we can rise with him in the freedom that belongs to the children of God. Jesus is offering us the love that sweeps us into eternity: unlimited life, love-filled life; joy-filled life; deathless life!

Monday, November 08, 2004

More Monday Musings

How different are Christians from the rest of the world?

This is a question that has been plaguing me lately. I sometimes look out into my congregation and, on the one hand, feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the compassion, care, and kindness that they have shown me and each give to each other. But I also wonder if this is all there is; a group of nice, middle class, Christians who attend church, give of their time and money to support the work of the church.

Then I wander into the local Christian bookstore and I am floored by how similar it is to a secular bookstore. Many of the books are different than at Chapters, but some of the themes are the same: Self-esteem. Financial management. Leadership. Self-help. The Christian musicians on the big posters at the back are of the beautiful people sort, and much of the music is below mediocre.

To me, much of North American Christianity has become a white-picket fenced, 2 car garage, 2.6 children religion that asks very little from us. The Christian sub-culture seems to exist for its own sake rather than for the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God.

Did Jesus die for this…?

Before the hypocrisy police come and take me away, I must confess that. my library is not completely pure. I have a few John Maxwell books on leadership and team building sandwiched between my Alban Institute stack and my systems theory stuff. I have a couple of business books to help me with my management skills. I even have The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People nestled between Motivating Employees and 100 Ways to Promote Yourself. Three books that came highly recommended by a church bureaucrat in Chicago.

Even reading these books, learning the latest leadership tactics of the CEO of Coca-cola, I felt that I might be barking up the wrong tree. These folks were talking about effective organizational management, visionary leadership, and winning strategies for institutional success. The backs of the book jackets all had 50-something men in $1000 suits. The question that kept haunting me was: “Would Jesus, the poor man from Nazareth recognize himself among these strategies? Or are these just religious recipes to make us feel good about our affluence?”

In other words, does Jesus ask us to build an effective organization? Is that what discipleship is all about?

I know that the church is not “pure” and will never be on this side of the parousia. No church has been without its temptations to worldly success and power, and all the trappings that go with it. My church is looking at a new building, but I sometimes wonder if a new building will simply stroke our consumerist impulses as we design, plan, and decorate. Will the simple act of building a new facility contradict the counter-cultural message of the gospel that we proclaim as salvation?

Just some random thoughts on my way out the door.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

More on Unionizing the United Church

Incredible. I wholly support the work of unions in the secular world. But the church is, somehow, different. As people of God, we have the mechanisms to resolve our conflicts without the need for third party intervention.

The United Church's response can be found here.

No sermon today. The youth took over the service so I was relieved of that particular duty. And they did a fantastic job!

Friday, November 05, 2004

Union[ize] With God?

Check this out. Some United Church of Canada clergy want to unionize, citing “psychological and physical abuse, bad working conditions, sweatshop wages and a corporate church that responds to their problems inadequately.”

I’m sorry, but this is just too weird. The pastor/parish relationship is not like that of an employer/employee. Sure, there’s problems in many churches, but is unionizing the best way to handle them?

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Bishops Hanson and Griswold Respond to Tueday's Election

The Griswold article comes courtesy of Fr. Jake. Read the full text here.

Having come through one of the most vitriolic and divisive election campaigns any of us has ever experienced, we now look ahead to the next four years and the continuing leadership of President Bush. For many of our fellow citizens this is a cause for rejoicing. For others it is an occasion for despair. Given the polarizing rhetoric that has been employed throughout the campaign, it may be very difficult to find our way forward. Therefore, what is needed now on all sides is a genuine effort to move beyond entrenched positions and to seek common ground. What is needed now is a unifying vision, clearly articulated, of our great nation as a servant of all the world's peoples in their yearning after justice and peace.

Our President has consistently named his religious faith as the guiding force of his decisions, and our nation proclaims in the "Pledge of Allegiance" that we are one nation "under God." Such obedience to God obliges us to look always to the well-being of a world broken and bleeding, which God loves so much that he came among us in the person of Jesus to reconcile to himself and to save. Such obedience obliges us to ground our national policies in much more than self-interest and self-protection.

Let us pray that in the difficult and challenging days ahead we together, regardless of our several points of view, along with our President, may be faithful to what the Lord requires. And, as the prophet Micah tells us, what the Lord requires is "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA pretty much says the same thing.

As a religious leader and a citizen with great regard for this country, I acknowledge as well the many voices that remind us of the significance of this election, not only for this country but for people throughout the world. We have heard the challenge -- and the plea -- that the economic, political and military power of the United States be exercised in ways that serve justice, peace and care for the environment. The American electorate has spoken in this election about its deep concern for personal moral values and faith. It is my hope that we will not separate personal morality from public responsibility for the complex moral issues of hunger and poverty, HIV/AIDS, environmental degradation, civil war and social inequities. May our faith not isolate us in fear but give us courage to work with others to find a just and lasting peace.

As Lutherans we affirm that good government is a gift from God when that authority and responsibility is exercised in the service of the common good. I will cooperate with this administration in working toward a unity in this country that is enriched by our diversity. I will also pray for President Bush and Vice President Cheney and their families as they continue to carry out the privilege and responsibility of leadership.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Bush Victory

Bush: 274
Kerry: 252

No one could accuse Kerry of not running a good campaign. Sure he made some small mistakes, but he was impeccable in the debates, picked a dynamic running mate to off set his perceived lack of personality, and stuck to his message. Kerry's only real mistake was being a Democrat running against a neo-conservative Republican. That’s how he went from war hero to war criminal in the space of four months.

A Republican White House. A Republican Senate. A Republican Congress. A Republican dominated Supreme Court. The checks and balances that provide a safeguard against tyranny and corruption have been compromised if not devastated.

The only hope there is for an effective opposition is for moderate Republicans for wage war within the GOP for a more balanced policy formation.

But we’ll see.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The American Voter is Engaged

Long line ups at polls. 73 per cent turn out expected in Ohio. 84 per cent in Washington. Extreme emotions on both sides. The American Voter is engaged. A charitable person might say that this is great for democracy. An uncharitable person might say that this is a product of a deeply polarized America. No matter who wins, the conflict may intensify.

Al Franken calls today a "hallowed day" - Election Day. A day when we not only celebrate, but also participate in the "majesty of democracy." Being a Canadian, I don't think that Americans have a corner on freedom and democracy. But for better or for worse, their self-described witness to the values of citizen participation in its own governance can be a model for the world. But for democracy to work, we need an educated, informed, enagaged, electorate and an honest, open, civil, and fair process.

Time will tell if the Americans will live up to the standard they have set for themselves.

So today I pray for my American sisters and brothers, for peace and justice to prevail, and for the power of democracy to shine through their process.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Musings for a Monday Morning

Tomorrow is the big day. Warren Kinsella has dire predictions of a Bush victory, and he just may be right. But time will tell, and the wisdom of the American voter will prevail. Now there’s a thought!

On a different note: here’s an article from Finland on how the C of F lost 70 000 member in the years 2002-2003. Yikes! That’s a big loss. Even for Lutherans. “But don’t despair!” The Lutheran World Federation would tell us, “There are 66 million Lutherans around the world.” So on the surface it looks like we are a formidable group. But check under the hood and we find that many of the numbers come from European state churches where attendance and church involvement hover in the single digits.

Also, my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, reports something like 150 000 Lutherans from sea to sea to sea (but Reg Bibby in his book Restless Churches reports that 600 000 Canadians think they’re Lutherans). But when I look at the stats for our churches, a typical entry is: Baptized membership 800, Confirmed membership, 550, average weekly attendance: 80. So where are the other 720 missing Lutherans? Do they count toward the 66 million that the LWF claims?

So the 66 million Lutherans declaration sounds a wee bit inflated.

But not that I’m a nut for numbers. (d minus, second time around in grade 10 Basic math). The church is not about stats, but they do tell us something about how we understand ourselves.

In my previous parish, Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I wanted to have university students play a larger role in the life of the church – including voting. So I came up with, what I thought was a brilliant idea. Students who attended Resurrection and who wanted to keep their membership at their home congregations would be given a dual membership designation. It didn’t make sense to fill out transfer forms for the 8 months of the school year just so we could take advantage of these young people’s gifts. If we wanted more young people to take leadership roles then we should be bending over backward to accommodate them. But when I ran this idea past synod office I was told that “it would screw up the stats”! I thought to myself, “The stats are already screwed up!” Moreover, the church is not about record keeping!

I still think I was right.

But this is not about silly details like how we do administration. The loss of 70 000 Lutherans in Finland or the missing 450 000 Lutherans in Canada all point to a need for a renewal in the church. We can look at this as a problem (“O sure, they come when they want a wedding, but where are they on Sundays”) or an opportunity (“Great! That’s a great place to begin our evangelistic mission!”).

Some of my colleagues start frothing when numbers are discussed. “The church is not in the numbers game!” They would say. And they’d be correct. But that doesn’t excuse the church from being the church. The “righteous remnant” theology is too often a convenient excuse for being lazy.

Why am I so hopped up on this? Maybe it’s because I see Christianity being hi-jacked by George Bush supporting Fundamentalists or theology-lite mega-churches. The world needs justification by grace alone through faith alone, not angry anti-abortion homophobes who believe that same sex marriages are more threatening than preemptive war, or feel good suburban Christianity that reduces our faith to a self-help program. This wounded world needs God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus. And that is the message that Lutherans have to offer.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Reformation Sermon

Being the only Lutheran church in Halifax, folks who weren’t up on the various denominations didn’t know what we were all about. We Lutherans weren’t a big brand name, like the RC’s, Anglicans, or United Church. Many people thought we were a cult, like JWs or Mormons, or thought that we were connected to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. At first, I was perturbed by these accusations. After all, anyone with even a passing interest in world history must have stumbled across the colossal event know as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, loved and hated, heroic and foolish, stood at the doorstep a new world, indeed, pushed the door down so that the chimes of freedom would ring throughout the whole Christian world. After Luther, the western church was split two, launching the great democratization of our faith. No longer was the individual believer beholden to the cruel teachings of the Holy Roman church, just the bible and the individual conscience was enough to discern the Word of God, Luther said. This was an event which spilled into so-called “civilized culture” until the western world was singing the liberating songs of faith, unshackled by chains of tyrannical Roman authority.

Or so the story goes. But maybe I’m a wee bit biased.

But when stopped on the street and being asked what a Lutheran is, I always reverted to some church-speak that I learned in seminary, “A Lutheran is a Christian who believes that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone, not by works of the law.” An answer which met a glassy stare. The great triumphant Reformation call of the gospel was unintelligible to modern or post-modern ears.

But where they the only ones? What about those of us inside the church. What would your answer be if asked what a Lutheran is? I often ask my confirmation class what they know about Martin Luther and the history of our church and I am often met with that same glassy stare as the person on the street.

This being Reformation Sunday, the day in the church year when traditionally, we trash the Roman Catholics for not being Lutherans. For not “getting it.” But recent events might suggest that we’ve turned a corner in Lutheran/Catholic relations. On this day in 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed a document called the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” At first glance, and with help from official church statements, one would think that the main problems which divided the churches for 500 years ago where smoothed over and that now there is no real argument between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. This is simply not the case. If you read closely, what was agreed upon was that, according to each other’s reading of the bible, one could arrive at two entirely different yet equally valid conclusions. In other words, the Roman Catholics were telling us that the Lutheran understanding of salvation, that salvation was a free gift from God, was a valid interpretation. And the Lutherans, in turn, told the Roman Catholics that their understanding of salvation as a co-operative effort between God and humans was equally valid.

Once I realized what the LWF was doing on our behalf, my protestant blood started to burn. “So, which is it, salvation as free gift or by human co-operation? You can’t have it both ways. Either salvation is free or it is not.”

It’s not that I’m so super-Protestant that I’m anti-Catholic. Many of my favorite spiritual writers are Roman Catholic: Thomas Merton, Michael Higgins, and Basil Pennington. In fact, there was a time when I worshipped in a Roman Catholic Church while I was studying music, and I even seriously considered joining a Roman Catholic religious order. But I couldn’t stop the nagging voice in the back of my mind that Martin Luther was on to something. That no matter how much effort we make to earn our way into heaven, or to gain merits (to use the theological term) ultimately, our salvation is in God’s hands. If it weren’t, then why did Jesus die?

I remember the first time I really heard and experienced the gospel and it solidified my connection to the Lutheran church. It was in seminary, oddly enough. I heard the gospel previously of course, in church, in bible study, etc, but never really experienced it. It was in church history class, of all places, and the professor, Dr. Oz Cole-Arnal was lecturing on – you guessed it – the Lutheran Reformation. The way he described Luther’s understanding the salvation: salvation was something that you couldn’t earn, you couldn’t do a thing to curry God’s favour, you couldn’t even choose salvation. Salvation was a gift, pure and simple. There was nothing we could do to make God love us more and there was nothing we could do to make God love us less. Our salvation was taken care of when Jesus stretched out his hands in suffering and death, and rose again to bring us new life. To suggest that we could co-operate in any way with our salvation was an offence, an insult to the sacrifice Jesus made for us. And in our baptism we die and rise again with Jesus, named and claimed as God’s own beloved children, clothed in the garments of salvation.

Wow. I walked out of class renewed, and committed my whole life to sharing this good news as a minister of the gospel. The piece that really got me was the “not by choice” part of it. It was a message that was so contrary to everything I’ve ever heard. Our society places a premium on personal choice and individual rights. “Free will” people call it. But Luther said that free will is an illusion. Sure, we are not robots, we make certain decisions about life; freedom about what job to take, where to go grocery shopping, or what car to drive. We make what could be called “free decisions” all the time. But this freedom, Luther says, does not extend to our salvation. As the old confession prayer says, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” In other words, we can’t make free decisions not to sin or even to choose our salvation. If we could, why don’t we? Also, if we could choose to not sin, then why did Jesus have to die when he could have given us just a really good argument so we could make proper decisions?

But this “choice” theology is rampant in the North American church. Billy Graham’s magazine is called Decision. A billboard on Highway Two reads “choose Jesus.” I remember hearing one Baptist preacher say that God’s greatest gift to humanity was free will. I remember thinking “God’s greatest gift? How about God’s greatest curse? If we are free, look what are doing with our freedom. War, greed, violence. We spend more time hurting each other than healing each other.”

“Our culture demands that we be “free” persons, but then is unable to tell us what is worth doing with our freedom. What we call “culture” is a vast supermarket of desire where we are treated as little more that self-interested consumers. I’ve got freedom of choice, but now what do I choose? We are free, but also terribly driven. The boring nine-to-five job, monthly mortgage payments, over programmed kids and dog-eat-dog competition for grades at school, before we collapse in front of TV to watch mediocre TV shows that diminish our capacity to think creatively or act lovingly as they reinforce the world’s values of self-interest – this is what we call freedom.” (paraphrase of Willimon)

So Luther, taking his cue from Paul, reminds us that “we are not under the law,” that is to say, that we as Christians have a different kind of freedom. Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde said that “being under the law…means that you are always in the position of chasing yourself, trying to fill the emptiness of your being, whether it be with pleasure, greed, sex, money, self-esteem, feeling, and sometimes even more ‘spiritual matters’ like all the talk of spirituality or ‘new-ageism – all the ‘gods’ of modern religion.” (Forde, The Irrelevance of the Modern World for Martin Luther). For Luther it was freedom from oppressive religious obligations. For us, it could be freedom from the world demands and from human judgments. But in the end, Luther would remind us, that our fundamental struggle as human beings and as Christians is the struggle against sin, death, and the devil. Three words that don’t get much play these days. Sin is often a euphemism for illicit sex. Death is either a splatter fest movie or cosmetically altered so we don’t have to confront the force of its reality. And the devil is a little red man running around with a pitch fork or a beautiful woman offering three wishes before dragging the poor soul to hell.

But for Luther, these three things were very real. Even you dismiss his experience as the superstitions of the medieval mind his essential struggle is drawn deep from the well of his own anxieties, which I think, ultimately haunt every living soul as well.

This past week I watched the movie Wit, with Emma Thompson, and it’s been haunting me ever since, infiltrating my dreams. The movie documents a 48 year old university professor’s last stages of cancer. She punctuates her experience with quotes from the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, which help provide a philosophical framework for her experience, but ultimately do not calm the anxious soul that she is surprised to have. I think this movie hit me so hard was because Emma Thompson’s performance was so real and so raw that it showed me the anxieties I have about dying, that life is so delicate that it could whither and fall at any moment. And that makes me fearful. For me ultimately, it is not consumerism or greed or any other comparatively superficial sins that terrify me. What terrifies me is the end of my existence. Maybe that’s what Luther means by sin, death, and the devil; everything that denies life and hinders new life in Jesus.

But then it is at that point, where Luther gently but defiantly whispers in my ear, “Take heart, anxious soul, you are justified by grace alone through faith alone, not by works of the law. This is not mere theological speculation or dogmatic assertion, but a living hope in the living God for our salvation. Or, as Jesus might put it, “…if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

May this be so among us. Amen.