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.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

NY Times: Personal and Political, Bush's Faith Blurs Lines

On Sundays when President Bush goes to church in Washington, he chooses the 8 a.m. service at St. John's Episcopal Church Lafayette Square. A short stroll from the White House, St. John's has been the parish for many presidents, but it is still a surprising choice for Mr. Bush.

A president who has been typecast as the champion of Christian conservatives, who has proposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, finds fellowship in a church where the priest and many congregants openly support the blessing of same-sex unions.

Read the rest here. Fascinating. If I were a evangelical Bush supporter I'd feel like a chump.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Real Live Preacher Makes the [Christian] Big Time

Today's Christianity Today profiles Gordon Atkinson, better known as the Real Live Preacher. If you haven't read his stuff, check it out. Thought provoking, gritty, sometimes profane, but thoroughly faithful. Also, read the interview.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Armageddon-Minded

The Armageddon-Minded
-- Martin E. Marty from Sightings.

"At Christian Rally for Israel, Robertson Pitches 'Messiah'," banners the Jewish weekly newspaper Forward (October 8). At a Succoth rally designed to show evangelical support of Israel, the televangelist "Pat Robertson opened his mouth and uncorked a can of theological worms guaranteed to make many Israelis and American Jews squirm." Judy Lash Balint heard him report that Jews he meets in many nations "cry out for their messiah," and then shout "Yes, Jesus, you are our messiah."

Does Robertson speak thus when he meets with Knesset members and Cabinet ministers? "No, I don't tell that to Israeli politicians," he replied. In his speech, Robertson recalled that on his first flight to Israel in 1968, "the Lord spoke to me and said ... you don't make mistakes in Israel." He also said he sees the rise of Islam "as Satan's plan to prevent the return of Jesus Christ the Lord." His speech "appeared to lend ammunition to critics who argue that Christian conservative support for Israel is motivated by a belief that the ingathering of Jews to the Holy Land will bring about Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus."

Is any of this news? One wonders how Israelis and Jews in America can close their eyes and ears to many evangelical prophesies that have Jews all being converted or slaughtered when Jesus comes again. But many do.

I read of this "upsetting" event on a plane taking me to Brandeis University in Boston, where a different Judaism, untied to the Armageddon-minded, was being celebrated. Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis professor and author of American Judaism: A History (which everyone who is interested in the subject should read), joined with Steven Bayme and the American Jewish Committee to commemorate 350 years of American Jewish life. They arranged a program that related the American Jewish experience to American society, religion, culture, and immigration.

As I prepared to take part, I read some statistics: in any 650 days sub-Saharan Africa numbers more new Christians (due to population growth and conversion) than there are Jews in America after 350 years. There are also more Southern Baptists than Jews in the United States. It is no wonder that so many Jews who celebrate their remarkable history "squirm" over the political turn recently taken, thanks to the one-kind-of-evangelical alliance with one-kind-of-Jews-accepting-evangelical-terms-and-support.

Yuri Shtern, co-chair of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus and the right-wing National Union Party, who has shared a stage with Robertson, said he was "very upset" with the evangelist's speech. "I had hoped a leader of his standing accepted the continuing existence of the Jewish people as part of God's plan."

The Jews at the Brandeis gathering, and at others like it in this 350th year, have reason to be nervous about Jewish alliances with Robertson's millions. Perhaps those millions should receive some of the attention now focused critically on Presbyterian and "mainline Protestant" actions.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 21 - Year C

In today’s gospel we are introduced to two very different people praying two very different prayers. The story begins, “Two people went down to pray.” One is a Pharisee – a good, bible-believing, church going, moral person. The other is a tax collector – a hated collaborator with the repressive Romans, who stole money from poor widows and grew fat off the pain of his fellow Jews. Other than the Romans themselves, no one was more hated than the tax collectors who did the Romans’ dirty work, and skimmed some off the top for themselves.

The Pharisee probably watched from his usual seat up front as the tax collector wandered through the front door. All eyes were squinted on him as he struggled to make himself invisible. He probably snuck in late hoping to find a seat at the back, so not to be noticed. But just like good Lutherans, the seats at the back of this house of worship were already filled by the time the service started. So, the tax collector slinked down near the front, under the hard stare of the faithful.

The synagogue leaders began to pray.

Above the chorus the Pharisee lifted his voice to God, “God I thank you that I’m not like these other people: thieves, criminals, adulterers, or even like that tax collector.” And all eye lids opened and the tax collector could feel the weight of their condemning gaze bearing down on him. He knew this prayer was directed to him as much as to God. “I fast twice a week;” The Pharisee continued, “ I give a tenth of my income. I am faithful.” Heads nodded in agreement. Yes, the Pharisee was faithful, every one knew it.

Then the tax collector, tears of fear trickling down his cheeks, and with joints cracking and muscles tensing up, knelt down on the floor, he whispered, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

What do you think happened next? Did the place erupt with boos and hisses because this sinner spoke such utter blaspheme? Who is this tax collector to believe that God hears his prayers? Who is this sinner to believe that God cares for him? Everyone knew the Pharisee was right. The Pharisee was diligent. He was committed. He was faithful He was righteous. He did obey the law better than anyone else. And everyone knew it. That’s what makes Jesus’ comparison so devastating to those who heard him.

But maybe more importantly, I think everyone has a prayed a prayer like the Pharisee, at least I know that I have. Mine goes something like this:

“I give you thanks, O God, that I’m not like these cold hearted politicians, who limit peoples’ freedom and call it security, or these sleazy TV evangelists who exploit your name in the pursuit of unfettered personal wealth, or these cigar chomping corporate execs who plunder your good creation leaving it desolate for future generations, who keep their feet firmly planted on the throats of developing countries. I put cloth diapers on my kids, I recycle, I eat organic vegetables. I am faithful.”

I can really whip myself into a righteous lather, when I want to.

So what’s your prayer? Who are you glad you’re better than? And what does that look like in your life?

Alexa McDonough, MP for Halifax once confided to me that some of the most hate-filled letters and abusive phone calls that she receives as a politician come from Christians pitching bible verses at her. This saddened me, but didn’t surprise me. We Christians can get really bent out shape when we put our minds to it. But I read an article recently that reported that when asked what a Christian is, most people outside the church believe a Christian is someone who is opposed to abortion and gay rights. What I find astounding about that is that there is nothing about Jesus, love of neighbour, or even going to church. So despite our best efforts, they don’t know we are Christians by our love, but by our opposition to various causes. It’s not the hand reaching out in love that people see. They see the fist raised in anger.

Of course, it would be easy to blame the media who are more interested in the lunatic fringe than reporting the good things that churches do. Or we could ask ourselves why those outside the church don’t hear from us the good news of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation. They only hear angry shouts of protest.

Maybe it’s because being righteous is easy. Being loving is hard.

When I was in seminary I helped organize a group called the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty or OCAP. We were an ad-hoc group of students, homeless people, university professors, and “middle class do-gooders.” Our mandate was to help raise public awareness of how certain government policy decisions were hurting low income people and forcing more families onto the streets. The more radical members of the group were known to protest in front of government offices and banks. And one of these folks, took it upon himself to organize a protest in front of the church where a major political leader was attending the funeral of his mother. Most of the group had no idea they were planning this until we saw them on the news sporting signs with the name OCAP, yelling at the mourners as they left the church.

Afterwards, I asked the group if such a display of hardhearted and callous disregard for a family in pain would advance our cause. Many of them didn’t care. The cause was just, they said. The ends justify the means. As a follower of Jesus, I wondered if such lack of caring revealed a self-righteousness that broke the heart of God. It wasn’t long after that, I left the group because I knew that I was in danger of becoming just like them.

Because it’s easy to be righteous. It’s hard to be loving.

Baptist preacher Tony Campolo tells a story about how he got turned around on how he dealt with a controversial issue: “I had a friend who was a pastor at a church up in Brooklyn.” Campolo says, “It was one of those inner-city churches that was dying. It was down to a very small number. Pastor Jim survived there by doing funerals that nobody else would do. One Tuesday morning the undertaker called Jim to tell him that a man had died and that nobody wanted to do the funeral because the man had died of AIDS.
I asked, “Did you take it.”
He said, “Sure.”
I asked, “What was it like?”
He said, “When we got there, there was about 30 or 40 gay and lesbian men and women. They were sitting there with their heads down. And as I preached, as I spoke, they never once looked up at me. Their heads were down and they were staring at the floor.

“When the service was over we got into the automobiles that followed the hearse out to the cemetery. I stood on one edge of the grave, read some scripture and said some prayers. And on the other side of the grave were these gay men. They stood there like statues. Not a nerve, not a sinew seemed to move. They were riveted in place, their eyes had a glassy appearance, and they seemed to be staring off into space. When I finished and said the closing prayer no one moved. It was an awkward moment so I asked if there was anything more I could do. One of the men said “yes. They always read the 23rd psalm at these things and you didn’t do that. Would you read the 23rd psalm for us?” And he did.

Then another man said, there’s a passage in the 3rd chapter of John where Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit,” and he read the “Spirit blows where it wills and you cannot tell from where it comes or to where it goes.”

Then a third man said, “My favorite passage is at the end of the 8th chapter of Romans,” And Jim read to these men, “Neither height nor depth, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, neither life nor death, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.”

Campolo then says, “When I heard Jim tell this story, I hurt inside because I realized that these men at the funeral had an understanding of scripture, but they would never set foot inside of a church.” They won’t step foot in a church because they know they are not welcome. Like the tax collector, eyes will bear down, squinted, wondering who let them in.

You have to remember that both Campolo and his friend Pastor Jim are Baptist preachers. They are not some feel good, anything goes, wishy-washy liberals. Both of them have an uncompromisingly conservative view of the so-called “gay lifestyle.” But I think the lesson they learned is a good one. We can be right when we point to bible passages that talk about homosexual activity, but does that advance the cause of the gospel? According to the letter of the law we will be righteous. But being righteous is easy. Being loving is hard.

But Jesus doesn’t want righteousness from us, because Jesus knows that being righteous isn’t what being his follower is all about. Following Jesus isn’t about rules. Life is not a final exam. Jesus wants us to love. And that love comes from knowing that we all are sinners; that the tax collector could be speaking for any of us. But the good news is this: there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less. We come to God just as we are, broken, sinful, hurting, to receive the healing and the salvation that comes from the hands of a loving God. As Christians, we take our cue from Jesus, who instead of reaching out with a fist to condemn the sin of the world, stretched out his hands in love and died for the sins of the world, so that on the third day he would rise again to bring new life to all people. May this be so among us. Amen.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

NT Wright on the Windsor Report

NT Wright shares his thoughts about the Windsor Report in an interview with Christianity Today. In the church community there seems a consensus that Wright is one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our time. Thorough, scholarly, and relevant. Check it out.

To contrast, here's more from Jack Spong, and his own unique brand of liberal fundamentalism.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Nicholas Kristof has a harrowing article in today's NY Times of the atrocities in Sudan. As I read it, I think of the world wide church fighting over homosexuality and the Windsor Report, while an entire nation is killing one another. Breaks my heart and burns my blood.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Windsor Report

The Windsor Report has been released and it has enough in it to infuriate both liberals and conservatives. The report very Anglican, by which I mean it takes the middle way, leaving radicals on both sides smoldering on the sidelines. The report calls for the Episcopal Church USA to apologize for consecrating a gay bishop as well as the Diocese of New Westminster for creating a rite for same-sex blessings. I don’t envy the debate that’s going to ensue. Especially since I know that such a fight will be coming to my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

To be honest, I’ve heard no compelling arguments against same-sex blessings. (I know such a perspective will get me into trouble with some folks in my congregation, but I’d rather be honest about my position rather than have people muse about where I stand) The most often heard argument runs thus: “The bible says it’s a sin.” That’s true. But the bible also says that divorce and remarriage is a sin except in the case of adultery. But most churches accept divorced and remarried people into communion, even as pastors. And no one is threatening to leave the church over such blatant disregard to biblical authority. Or we just have to look at our pension plan and notice right away that by it’s very nature, we are breaking Levitical usury laws. So where’s the outrage? Where are the calls to repentance?

So the argument can’t be “the bible says it’s a sin.” I need a more compelling argument than that before I start putting limits to peoples' freedom in Christ.

But moreover, I think God has bigger fish to fry than worrying about how two adults love and care for each other. So do I.

For a persuasive call to a middle way, here’s a great Martin Marty article.

Monday, October 18, 2004

snow! Snow! SNOW!

Wow! I've never seen anything like it! Snow in mid-October! Not just a dusting. Cars are in ditches, snow shovels have been excavated, and toques donned. It's awesome! What a fantastic birthday present! But this being southern Alberta, the snow could be all gone by tomorrow morning.

One the negative side, the poor roads and cold weather might keep people home from voting in today's municipal election, making voter turn out even more dismal than in other years.

On a completely different note: here's a great article by Jeffery John. Check it out. Thanks to the Grace Pages for pulling it from Maggi Dawn.

Speaking of Jeffery John, here's more on the Anglican troubles.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Yet another year has past...

Today I turn 35, but I don’t have the same existential angst that I usually have on my birthday. I wonder if that means I’m maturing, accepting my fate, or becoming apathetic towards it. I dunno…

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 20 - Year C

Prayer is problem for many people today. And perhaps rightly so. People ask some good questions. As Willimon asks, Does God answer prayer? Am I really talking to God or am I only talking to myself? If I pray to God for healing and I am healed, does that mean that God wouldn’t have healed me if I had not prayed? Or what about when I pray for healing or for guidance, or for a job, and an answer is not forthcoming, what does that say about my prayer? Or God?

The problem, says preacher Tom Long, is not only that we are uncertain about prayer, but we have the good sense to know that, when we pray, we are really putting our faith on the line. Is there a God or not? If there is a God, does God listen? Is there a God who hears and responds to us? When you get right down to it, these are terribly frightening questions. No wonder many people prefer to not even try to pray, rather than risk it. (Willimon, Pulpit Digest)

But Jesus says that we should “pray always and not lose heart.” I think it sounds easier than it is.

Tom Long says that the problem beneath all our problems is with prayer is the very problem that Jesus is addressing here. We simply lose heart.

Maybe we lose heart because we’ve all had the experience of pleading to God for ourselves or someone else and hearing nothing back but a cold stony silence. Maybe you’ve prayed for world peace and then another car bomb explodes in Jerusalem, killing 5 small children. Maybe you’ve held the hand of someone dying of cancer, pouring out your heart to God for healing, but a week later you’re sitting across the table from a funeral director. Maybe you’ve been praying earnestly for a job, anything to pay the bills, but after six months you find yourself waiting in line to pick up your first welfare cheques.

And Jesus says to “pray always and do not lose heart.” That’s easier said than done.

Just ask Baptist preacher Gordon Atkinson, known on the Internet as “Real Live Preacher.” Even though he grew up in a strong Christian household, he was fed to the teeth of “feel good faith” of the Christians that surrounded him,and he fell out of a relationship with sunny, smiling Christianity that offers easy answers to hard questions because he has a lot of them. He faced head on the emptiness and silence that so often follows prayer, because he realized that sooner or later, you have to stop dodging the doubt that parades itself as false piety.

“You see, people facing death don’t give a [rip] about your interpretation of II Timothy.” Atkinson says about when he was a student chaplain at hospital, “Some take the “bloodied, but unbowed” road, but most dying people want to pray with the chaplain. And they don’t want weak-ass prayers either. They don’t want you to pray that God’s will be done.

“Hell no. People want you to get down and dirty with them. They want you to call down angels and the powers of the Almighty. THEY ARE DYING and the whole world should stop.

“I threw myself into it. I prayed holding hands and cradling heads. I prayed with children and old men. I prayed with a man who lost his tongue to cancer. I lent him mine. I prayed my [butt] off. I had 50 variations of every prayer you could imagine, one hell of a repertoire.

“I started noticing something. When the doctors said someone was going to die, they did. When they said 10% chance of survival, about 9 out of 10 died. The odds ran pretty much as predicted by the doctors. I mean, is this praying doing ANYTHING?

“I’m sophisticated enough to understand the value of human contact, but prayer is supposed to affect the outcome, right?

“Then I met Jenny

“30 something. Cute. New mother with two little kids. Breast cancer. Found it too late. Spread all over. Absolutely going to die.

“Jenny had only one request. “I know I’m going to die, chaplain. I need time to finish this. It's for my kids. Pray with me that God will give me the strength to finish it.”

“She showed me the needlepoint pillow she was making for her children. It was an “alphabet blocks and apples” kind of thing. She knew she would not be there for them. Would not drop them off at kindergarten, would not see baseball games, would not help her daughter pick out her first bra. No weddings, no grandkids. Nothing.

“She had this fantasy that her children would cherish this thing - sleep with it, snuggle it. Someday it might be lovingly put on display at her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps there would be a moment of silence. Some part of her would be there.

“I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed…this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.

“A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.

“As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.

“Ping. The hammer fell and [my faith] came tumbling after.” [link]

When I hear Atkinson’s story, I think maybe it’s no wonder that we lose heart. We lose heart because prayer doesn’t always seem to work. We can’t call down the power of the Almighty as if it were our own personal power supply. Despite our best efforts, despite our most earnest prayer, a job still just around the corner; world peace is still just a dream; and people we love still die too early.

And Jesus says to “pray always and do not lose heart.” Pray always? At what point Jesus, do we stop? At what point do we stop believing? At what point do we throw up our hands and ask what’s the point?

I’m sure that’s a question that’s run through your head at times, because it certainly has run through mine. At what point do we stop praying? When should stop expecting an answer from God?

But Jesus says, “Pray always and do not lose heart.” Jesus, I know you mean well, but sometime this is just too hard.

But maybe Jesus is saying that to lose heart is to lose hope. To lose heart is to give away all your hope to the suffering and pain of the world. It’s admitting defeat. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather the world not have that kind of power over me.

Maybe persistence teaches us patience. But, of course us learning patience isn’t much help to Uncle Jack hooked up to tubes and wires. I don’t know why God seems to answer some prayers and not others. But often I wonder if prayer begins were human effort finds its limits. We may pray for peace but maybe God responds by asking us what we are doing to heal the world, in his name. We may pray for healing, but maybe God grieves with us because God sees that death is part of life in a fallen world, but also God sees that the joy of loving relationships is a glimpse of what the kingdom of God looks like.

So we keep praying, we keep pestering God, perhaps even shaking our fist at the Almighty. But we don’t shake a fist at what we don’t believe exists. So maybe that’s the beginning of prayer: the desperate torrent of hope that someone, somewhere is listening.

But I’ve been reminded recently that Jesus prayed for a miracle on the night before he died. “For you [O God] all things are possible,” prayed so hard that it is said that beads of sweat dropped from his forehead. “Remove this cup from me.” Only when he opened his eyes the cup was still there. Did he lack faith? I don’t think so. The miracle was that he drank the cup of suffering, believing in the power of God even more. It’s always a miracle, isn’t it, when we understand that God is God and we are not? (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Problem With Miracles)

So maybe people keep praying because their hope is stronger than their pain, and their expectations are greater than their frustration. I’ve been amazed by people praying until the bitter end, on their knees until their joints hurt and muscles cramp, who will not stop or move until they’ve heard from God; people who storm the silence of heaven with shouts of praise and cries of anger, who won’t calm down even after they’ve confronted the hard reality of pain and suffering because they know there is a resurrection day and they want to see it NOW. So maybe faith is heart felt desperation, not a sunny, smiling confidence.

I don’t expect people will stop praying, and praying boldly. At least I hope not because the world needs all the prayers it can get. Every time you hear about prayer being answered, remember that you are getting a preview of the kingdom. There is no simply formula for success, no one way to pray for instant answers. So we keep praying, we keep pestering God, then, with God’s help, we won’t lose heart, and we will become what we pray for: a people of peace, a people of healing, a people of new life.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Friday, October 15, 2004

American Troops Refuse Suicide Mission

Troops arrested for refusing "suicide mission."

Timely Quote by Thomas Merton

"Those who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. They will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centered ambitions, their delusions about ends and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action to which people are driven by their own Faustian misunderstandings and misapprehensions. We have more power at our disposal today than we have ever had, and yet we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and of love than we have ever been."

From Seeds selected and edited by Robert Inchausti (Boston, MA, Shambhala Publications, Inc, 2002, pages 131).

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Life may begin at conception but it does not end at birth.

For a "consistent ethic of life" (to use Cardinal Bernadine's wonderful phrase)take a look at this excellent article from Pax Christi. They are asking the same questions I have been: why is abortion the only pro-life issue?

Sources of Media Distortion in Coverage of Political News

From Paul Wells' blog via Jordan Cooper. It's an excerpt from Stephane Dion's speech at the 50th birthday of the Political Science Department, Laval University. Worth reading.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Evangelical Professors Oppose Bush "Theology"

A group of Fuller Theological Seminary professors, saying they are responding to a "grave moral crisis' in America, are signing a statement opposing President Bush's alleged convergence of God, church and nation and what they call his "theology of war." For the actual text, read it here.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Invisibly, do the right thing.

From onehouse who pulled it from Bruderhof's Daily Dig by Danusha Veronica Goska:

I go to a food bank every two weeks to get my food. I have no car. Every week, I get a ride home from other food bank patrons. These folks don't pause for a second to sigh, "Oh, problems are so big, I'm so powerless. Will it really help anything if I give you this ride?" They don't look around to make sure someone is watching. They just, invisibly, do the right thing.

Sometimes we convince ourselves that the "unnoticed" gestures of "insignificant" people mean nothing. It's not enough to recycle our soda cans; we must Stop Global Warming Now. Since we can't Stop Global Warming Now, we may as well not recycle our soda cans. It's not enough to be our best selves; we have to be Gandhi. And yet when we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years doing tiny, decent things before history propelled them to center stage.

Moments, as if animate, use the prepared to tilt empires. Ironically, saints we worship today, heroes we admire, were often ridiculed, tortured, or ignored in their own lifetimes. St. John of the Cross gave the world the spiritual classic The Dark Night of the Soul. It was inspired by his own experience of being imprisoned by the members of his own religious order. Before Solidarity, Lech Walesa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped bring down communism, was a non-entity, a blue-collar worker in an oft-ridiculed Eastern European backwater. He was always active; one moment changed this man's otherwise small-time, invisible activism into the kind of wedge that can topple a giant.

Friday, October 08, 2004

They pulled it from the fire!

It was a close call, but it looks like the Liberals will govern for at least another week as they face a confidence vote on October 18. This session of Parliament will be interesting as the Bloc and Conservatives try to diminish federal power by pushing their own regional agendas.

On the American front, American Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke sparked a national debate earlier this year by announcing he would deny Holy Communion to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Now, he says there is no justification for voters to back a candidate supporting abortion rights. But does he have the same standards for those candidates who backed the war and support capital punishment? Why is abortion the only pro-life issue?

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Shortest Parliament Ever?

Check it out. Parliament could be over as soon as tonight. I think I'll get a six pack and watch the silliness unfold.

Former Christian Coalition Official has Decided to Vote for Kerry

Wow. This is big. Another great article provided by Jesus Politics..

Former Christian Coalition official Marshal Wittman has deep concerns about Bush's style of conservatism. Excellent stuff.

Politics on my mind

It's been awhile since I posted anything, but I've been out doing pastor stuff (i.e., visits).

In Tuesday's debate, Dick Cheney has offered a new version of the events leading up to the war in Iraq (I pulled this from The Corner).

On the Canadian front, the Conservative Party has threatened to bring down the government by supporting the Bloc ammendment. Folks have suggested that the Liberal government won't last a week before they lose a no confidence vote in the House. After that the Governor General will have to make a decision to call an election or ask Stephen Harpur to form the next government. This would lead me to ask, Who would work with the Conservatives? Certainly not the Bloc. The NDP wouldn't co-operate (plus they wouldn't have enough combined votes). Also, both the Bloc and the NDP are to the left of the Liberals, so any co-operation would be brief. If the Conservatives bring down the government for no compelling reason than political opportunism, they do so at their own peril. Voters (especially in Ontario) will punish such silliness and the Liberals will be back in with a Majority.

But I think most Canadians are more interested in the government getting on with running the country than about the politiking in Ottawa.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Another Great Article by Tom Sine

Again, thanks to Jesus Politics for this article. Tom Sine writes about what I've always suspected: American style right wing evangelicalism is unique to the US, although it has clones in other parts of the world (sadly, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is starting to sound like the 700 Club). I've always felt closer to moderate evangelicals in the UK and Australia than I have to some of my friends in the United States.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Sermon: Pentecost 18 - Year C

One of the sermons I preached that provoked people to talking with me after worship was the one where I confessed a certain amount of discomfort with the ethnic identity that characterizes many Lutheran churches. In that sermon (you may or may not remember) I said that along with the decline of the ethnicity of our congregations came a loss of identity. In a culture where lutefisk has been elevated to sacramental levels, we have a hard time adjusting to our new-found status as mainstream Canadians. The story of landing in Canada, of toiling to build a community that is greater than any one person, the faces perhaps forgotten, names remembered on plaques, but by and large theirs are no longer the stories that tell our story and from which we no longer forge our future.

And you may remember that I confessed that I often feel like an exile - rootless, homeless, with no connection to a greater historical narrative because of my background – where everything I have that uniquely identifies me (family, faith, place) has been adopted and not given to me by birth. I told you this not to burden you with my past, but because I don’t think that I’m alone in this. While the specifics may change the net results remain the same. I think we’ve become a society of exiles; nomadic wanderers seeking a place we can call home because we have been cut off from our own sense of personal or communal history.

Some therapists might tell me that my decision to enter pastoral ministry was a way of finding out who I am – a path out of my own personal exile, to give me an identity that was my own. This might be true for us as well, as we seek what it means to be the people of God in a world where God is only a rumour, a good idea, or tool to advance a political agenda. Maybe it means that God uses our own exilic past to set the agenda for our ministry.

It is no secret, indeed it has become almost a cliché to say that we live in a transient society. People have itchy feet. People go where the jobs are. This past week I was told that 40 000 new people are expected to move to Lethbridge over the next 10 years. Where are all these people coming from? What are they leaving behind in order to grasp something new?

But while we’re given tremendous opportunity to build something fresh, something that embodies our own hopes and fears, something that personify everything we love about ourselves, that something fresh doesn’t come without a cost.

Robert Kennedy once said,

“In far too many places – in pleasant suburbs as well as city streets – the home is a place to sleep and eat and watch television, but where it is located is not community – we live in too many places so we live no where. Long ago [philosopher] Alexis de Toqueville foresaw the fate of people without a community: “Each of them living apart is a stranger to the fate of all the rest. His children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of [humanity]; as for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but sees them not; he touches them, but feels them not…he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.” (RFK, To Seek a Newer World)

RFK and Alexis de Toqueville didn’t have to look any farther than today’s first reading to see the devastating effect of the loss of home and identity. The people of God, once mighty and feared, found themselves suddenly without a native soil. Jerusalem had been conquered, and the people sent into exile.

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people. How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal…Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”

To lose their land, to lose the holy city, was to lose everything. Their national identity fell into ruins. Their status as God’s chosen people had been called into question. God’s people had become wanderers once again, sent into the wilderness for ignoring God’s claim on their lives. Once again, they were looking for a road home.

About 2½ years ago, a young woman, new to Halifax, wandered into our church. Having just arrived in the city she didn’t know a soul, so she found her way to church, hoping the familiar hymns, well-rehearsed liturgy, and the instant family of a Lutheran church would provide her with some comfort, and help ease some of her loneliness and homesickness. As a pastor, my first inclination was to open my arms wide and say, “Welcome home!” and I know that’s what she needed to hear, as did many others who hungry for the intimacy of human contact and grounding of family. However, even in the most spiritualized sense of the word, we know that the church is not “home.” More accurately we should say that in the church you find your long lost sisters and brothers who are just as lost and homesick as you are, but we might as well be lost and homesick together.

The loss of home, of identity, of any moral or existential grounding, we are left with just a series of experiences that defy evaluation because there is nothing really to evaluate. In Douglas Coupland’s novel Girlfriend in a Coma, a young woman falls into a deep coma and wakes up 20 years later and is asked,

“What is the main thing you noticed – the major difference between the world you left and the world you woke up to?”

“A lack…a lack of convictions – of beliefs, of wisdom, or even of good old badness. No sorrows; no nothing. People…when I came back they only, well, existed. It was so sad.”

Or as preacher Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life. There is some memory of having being treated cruelly, and – a little deeper, perhaps, - the memory of having treated someone else cruelly as well. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of seeing the light and turning away from it, either because it is too beautiful to behold or because it spoils the dank but familiar darkness. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of reaching for forbidden fruit, of pushing away from loving arms, of breaking something just to prove that you can. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of doing whatever is necessary to feed and to comfort the self, because there is no one else to trust, no other purpose to serve, no other God to follow.

“For ages and ages this experience has been called sin – deadly alienation from the source of all life.”

As the people of God found out, this “deadly alienation” leads to exile.

“All sins are attempts to fill voids” wrote French philosopher Simone Weil. I think she’s right. We cannot stomach the God-shaped hole inside of us because it reminds us that we are in exile, so we try stuffing it full of all sorts of things, but it stubbornly refuses to be filled. “It rejects all substitutes. It insists on remaining bare. It is the holy of holies inside of us, which only God can fill.” (BBT)

However, when we are ready to honour the bare space instead of trying to stuff it full, then we are ready to consider what kind of life God may be calling us to. Our answers will be as varied as our sins, but they will involve more doing than talking, more renewal than remorse. Meanwhile, I do not believe that exile is the enemy we often make it out to be, although it may feel like we are being consumed by it. When we see how we have turned from God and towards whatever else soothes our anxious souls, at least for the moment, then and only then we do have what we need to begin turning back to where God wants us to be. Just as the people of God eventually found out, maybe exile is our only hope, the fire alarm that wakes us up to true resurrection and true renewal, and maybe even leads us down the path that will eventually guide us to our true home.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Last Night's Debate

Wow! Kerry mopped the floor with Bush last night. Let's hope this is the beginning of the end for the Bush regime.

Also, it looks like Tom Delay is in a bit of trouble.

Maybe the tide is turning.

On different notes, Jesus Politics has linked to my blog. Excellent blog! Check it out! Also, Tom Sine from Mustard Seed Associates has written an excellent defense for The Ooze of progressive evangelicalism over and against the radical right wing agenda of many American (and Canadian) evangelicals.