Presence

Some of you are aware that I served a congregation in the eastern part of Toronto and worked primarily with the church’s outreach programs. The signature ministry then was the Out of the Cold Program, our church hosted all of the homeless persons in the east end of the city every Friday night. My role was to recruit volunteers to cook and serve the meal that night, to be present overnight as the women and men slept on the gym floor and to be available for pastoral care from 5 pm when guests started arriving until 11 pm when most of the guests were sound asleep. Fridays were a long, often sad and heartbreaking and yet strangely satisfying. I had spent a considerable portion of the week recruiting volunteers from the local church, other local churches and the broader community. Watching the volunteers, the guests and the security women and men hired by the city (all of whom were formerly street people themselves) forming a weekly community was the focal point of my week, everything I did led up to these moments.

Kim, Lucy and I lived about a 45 minute walk away, due east from the church I would walk from the Chester subway station to the Woodbine station, where we lived. I walked home at 11 pm every Friday night along the Danforth. Kim was worried, a strange new city, a big city, late at night, her husband all alone. But I knew I was safe. My practice then, and now, was to walk briskly in the cold air talking to Jesus. All of the work through the week, all that I struggled with and was challenged by, the conversations that night, what I have learned and what brought me sadness and joy, I shared with my companion Jesus. And I shared this loudly. No one came anywhere near me.

It was a practice that carried over from my childhood and youth. Every walk to school, every walk to a sports game, to a friend’s home, to an event, to watch a movie or when I was umpiring on the Commons, I would walk and talk with Jesus, out loud, sharing anything and everything. I would talk, loudly, and knew Jesus was listening and then I would hear the quiet voice of Jesus, that certain and resolute wisdom that I could either accept or reject but not ignore. Jesus never promised to take away the struggle, the challenge, only to share a pathway forward and to be with me. The wisdom was not a magic potion to make all of the heartache end, rather it was a humble, courageous and just way to do the right thing, for me, for the other, for others. But to get this wisdom I needed to walk and talk, with Jesus.

Later, I learned what I used to think all of us knew, that the just often suffered, that the unjust often did not suffer. Getting older, learning and absorbing what was going on around me I knew Jesus was not connected to Santa-God. You know, the belief in a God whom sits you on “His” knee as He asks whether you’ve been naughty or nice and then either rewards you or gives you coal in your stocking. Santa-God died in my imagination a long time ago. For a spell there was little room for Jesus to walk beside me, I was intent on figuring it all out on my own. I succumbed to the temptation to believe it was all on me, no God, no Jesus, no Spirit, just me and my wits.

But in time I came to see and hear Jesus as “me and my shadow” again and thus came this discernment process, this walk with Jesus, where I would share my heart and let Jesus share his wisdom. And I still do.

The temptation every Lent, every day, is not so much the small stuff we fuss over, do we shade the truth, do we take only what is due, do we work hard and play by the rules, but the bigger questions we try to ignore or pretend don’t exist; why do I live as I do when so many others have so little, why do I do so little with so much, and what exactly am I making of my life? And as I navigate these waters I am tempted to do it alone, to believe that while there is a pious God who sits in the clouds, a stained glass Jesus who looks like me but in purer form, a Holy Spirit that sanctions what the church likes, not what the Gospels preaches, when it comes to discernment and action, I am alone.

Lutheran scholar Karoline Lewis writes, “It seems that no resistance of temptation is successful without the presence of God. And therein lies our promise. Not necessarily that we have the power to defend and deflect temptation. Not that we are capable of taking on temptation in the wilderness, or at least, I know I am not. Not so much that baptism or ritual or piety is our guarantee that will shore up the walls to keep out that which seeks to threaten our belief, our trust, our relationship with God…We are not asked to do this out on our own, which can be one major misinterpretation of giving up things for Lent. God tears away our every attempt to say, While I appreciate your help, God, I’ve got this. I can figure it out. We don’t want help. We don’t want to ask for help. Help is a sign of insecurity, exposes weakness, but more so, when it comes to issues of faith we are tempted to believe that God is absent. God has given up. Withdrawn. Why? Well, you name it. A whole host of reasons. Need any prompts here? Our parishioners sure don’t. They are fully aware that they are not worthy of God’s love which we tend to perpetuate during Lent. They are fully aware, as are we if we are honest, of those excruciating times when God is silent.”

The point of contact is not necessarily that Jesus was tempted yet without sin. That’s not helpful. I can’t be Jesus. No, way, no how. But, I can look at Jesus’ temptation, whatever it is, whatever it turns out to be, and say, God was there. God is present. In other words, what if we focus less on listing all that tempts us, less on some pep talk that we can deny all those so-called things that seek to get us to craft our golden calves, less on giving up the so-called temptations of our lives, and focus on true denial of that which tempts us the most. That we are alone.

You may remember this story from Luke’s Gospel.                                                          He will show you a spacious second-story room, swept and ready. Prepare the meal there. When it was time, Jesus sat down, all the apostles with him, and said, You’ve no idea how much I have looked forward to eating this meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the kingdom of God. Taking the cup, he blessed it, then said, Take this and pass it among you. As for me, I’ll not drink wine again until the kingdom of God arrives. Taking bread, he blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body, given for you. Eat it in my memory. He did the same with the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant.

In other words Jesus told his followers that when they needed him, really wanted his presence, when they were desperate for a conversation with Jesus who saves, all they needed to do was sit down, share a meal and “remember him”.

One night at the Out of the Cold in Toronto I was feeling alone, I had a big decision to make and felt I did not know what to do, where to turn. I was used to organizing the meal for these 75 guests, making sure all of the volunteers were ready, that the food was ready, that the guests had everything they needed, including mats, blankets and pillows to sleep on when the meal was over. I remember one of the volunteers from the community, a Jewish man who told me he was the son of John Wayne of Wayne and Shuster, telling me I needed to sit down and share in the meal. I was uncomfortable, I had never sat down to eat with the guests, that wasn’t right, the food and the hospitality was for them, I had my own home, my own table, my own food. But this community volunteer saw something inside me he knew needed healing, needed connection, needed wisdom. And so he asked me to be seated. And I did.

As I sat and ate, passed the bread, the meat, the pitcher of water, I felt a presence. Jesus was there. This challenge I was facing, feeling alone, things began to clarify, I sensed Jesus was present. And there at the table the wisdom I was searching for came. I knew the answer. It would not be easy but the path was now opening and I could see my way out. I was not alone.

My friends Jesus is present. Jesus is here. Jesus walks beside us, Jesus sits at the table beside us, and Jesus and his wisdom are present in those hard wilderness places. Lent is about temptation, the temptation to imagine you are alone. Listen, share and be filled. Amen.

How I evaluate each day

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RULES FOR DOING GOOD by John Welsey

“Do all the good you can, In all the ways you can,

 To all the people you can, In every place you can,

 At all the times you can, As long as ever you can.”

Dear God, It's seems too simple, John Wesley's Rule of Life. Just do good, all the time, in all ways, in all places, to everyone for as long as possible. But I realize that sometimes in the seemingly simple there is deep complexity. I must look deeply within myself to be conscious and intentional about my thoughts and actions to see where I am on track and where I am not. Dear God, I'm off track more than I'm on and I am in such need of Your help. I want to do the good You have called me to do. Having Wesley's words as a kind of mantra will help to guide me but at the end of every day, I need to return to You in my prayer. Please breathe the good of Jesus into my soul as the fuel to fire my life in Christ. Give me the courage and fortitude to spread the Good News through good actions throughout all the days of my life, for as long as I ever can. Amen. 

John Wesley [1703-1791], born in Epworth, England, was an Anglican cleric and with his brother Charles, also Anglican, and Charles Whitefield, a Calvinist, are credited with starting an evangelical movement known as Methodism and strongly influenced the Holiness and Pentecostal movements. He argued against Calvinism, especially pre-destination, and remained committed to the Anglican Church and its sacramental theology. He effectively trained and used non-ordained itinerant preachers to develop small Christian discipleship groups with religious instruction to effect social reforms particularly in prison reform and abolitionism. By the end of his life he was known as "the best loved man in England."

Praying like Woodpeckers

This sermon on Prayer was written by the Rev’d M. Ashely Grant of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut.

On the sixth and final morning of my recent trek in Maine, I sat beside Pierce Pond as the sun rose and painted the sky and mountains a thousand shades of dawn. Used to the quiet, I puzzled over this knocking that came from some mysterious patch of pines. Then, silence. Then, more rapping. Not echoing. Responding in Morse Code fashion. Woodpeckers. Spotted woodpeckers, all through the woods, hidden from view, knocked to their own rhythms. The mist rolled over the pond and the chorus of tapping and pounding brought to mind the prayerful knocking that Jesus talked about. There I was, overhearing a mysterious conversation among a dozen woodpeckers, some faint and distant, others near and strong.

Could this be God’s ideal congregation: all of us knocking away, entering into conversation with God, entering into prayer? That seems to be Jesus’ hope, here in Luke’s Gospel.

The scripture is clear that we should pray. The Psalmists say give thanks and ask for God’s help. In Matthew, we learn not to put on airs when we pray. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing and that it doesn’t always involve words.

But, prayer is like a foreign language for some of us. Some believe our prayers lack that holy essence, the right words that please God. Some of us are turned off by the whole idea that God will actually listen. Some get caught up in the whirlpool of global social disorder and violence, and if this is God’s will, then “I’ll have none of it—No thank you.” Others just don’t know where or how to start.

Why?

Because prayer has an air of mystery about it. Prayer connects the created with the Creator, which makes it transcendent communication. It calls for spiritual attentiveness to the relationship where one member, namely God, knows more than the other member, namely, you or me. One member sees the cosmic whole and the other sees a thin slice of life. Factor in the situations we would pray about, our hopes and disappointments, our feelings of inadequacy in encountering the divine, our tendencies toward immediate satisfaction, our obscured understanding of want versus need, and our short attention spans, and the mystery of prayer becomes more evident, more daunting. How on earth ought we pray, under the shadow of all this unknown, this confusion, this mystery?

In this passage from Luke, Jesus unpacks the mystery in a beautiful and pastoral way for his disciples who want a beginning place, a jumping off point. (I am actually surprised by his straightforwardness.) First, he tells them what to pray; then, in a parable, he teaches them about persistence, about how to pray: that glorious asking, searching, and knocking; and finally, Jesus lets his disciples in on the nature of God, assuring them of God’s fidelity to all God’s children.

Jesus is deep in prayer when his disciple notices him. As soon as he finishes, settling back to earth, the disciple approaches him with a request, “Teach us to pray.” Ahh, we have to learn to pray, like we learn music, hatred, math, or prejudice. When Jesus prays, his disciples see that they are missing something in their own lives. They want to communicate with God, if not the way Jesus is able to, at least like John’s disciples, who were known for their pious fasting and prayer while Jesus’ followers were known for their feasting at banquets and drinking. They have a lot to learn.

We know the prayer Jesus taught them, by heart and habit. It is a corporate prayer, arising from Jewish Tradition, which has been used in Christian worship since believers started gathering. In praying this prayer together, something powerful happens through voicing our praise and needs in unison. The prayer sets us on common ground. If we were to walk into another congregation this Sunday, we would hear only slight differences in what others pray. Our Catholic brothers and sisters would stick close to the scripture. Most Protestants would add this power-filled, God is sovereign ending—“for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever.” As diverse as Christian interpretation has become, this prayer remains one of our few universal, identifying marks.

So, Jesus teaches them (and us) to call on God, who is Holy. In a spiritual sense, we take our shoes off when we recognize God’s holiness, as Moses did before the burning bush. Then, Jesus says we ought to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and for God’s will to be done. Right off the bat, the prayer orients us toward God, toward the restoration of all that is broken, toward new creation in God’s coming kingdom…God’s will covers the rest: that we will be satisfied each day with what we need; that we will forgive others and accept God’s forgiveness; that we would avoid temptations and evil that harm us. The prayer focuses on God’s holy will, satisfying our need and anticipating the future.

C.S. Lewis describes (in Christian Reflections) two patterns of prayer from the Bible. The first is rooted in the Lord’s prayer, particularly sensitive to “Thy will be done.” Everything we pray runs through that filter, that God’s will and wisdom take precedence. God’s will—a touchy subject for us who are waiting on God to make change in our lives and bring about peace for all, waiting for God to respond in a godly way to our prayers. Jesus is saying, Don’t give up! Know that God’s will continues to be revealed. Know that God’s will includes journeying with us, come what may. At Gethsemane, Jesus prays for the cup to pass from him, but submits, “nevertheless, not my will but thine.” With that, Lewis says, “We are directed by both our Lord’s command (to pray) and (his) example.”

The second pattern centers on uncompromising faith that moves mountains, praying and believing that the particular things we ask for will come about because God promised. Lewis concludes that until God gives him the faith for such prayer, he must pray by the earlier pattern, contingent on God’s will and God’s discretion. He leaves room for uncertainty and doubt, for the presence of self to know that he doesn’t always know what is best or what he needs or what he should do, which is where most of us are in our own prayer lives. The question that he ends with and that we must continue to ask, is “How am I to pray this very night?” Or this morning? Even, now?

The first disciples needed a way to begin their conversation with God, a way to meet God in any situation, at any time, in need or in joy. Jesus gave them that.

Beyond the words, Jesus taught his disciples how to pray. To understand his parable, think back to a time before 24 hour per day conveniences. A surprise guest arrives, but your cupboards lay empty. Wanting to be hospitable, you figure your best bet is your friend who lives down the street. The clock just struck mid-night, but you go over anyway and rap lightly on the door, avoiding the doorbell…No Answer…You press your finger into the doorbell, feeling like a telemarketer who calls precisely at dinnertime. You know your friend is home, his car sits in the driveway…Again you press…A light flicks on inside. Footsteps. “What do you want?” says the voice from behind the door. “Its too late. Go home.”

“I need something,” you say.

“Not now.”

 “Please. A guest arrived, and I have to offer her something.” Argh. Grumble. Grumble. From inside.

Jesus says that because of the person’s persistence, not because of their friendship, the man will get what he asks. Frederick Buechner claims that “the most important thing Jesus says about prayer is that we should keep at it.”

Persistence takes a certain mix of risk and clarity of desire. On my 3rd night on the trail last week, a man in his mid fifties rolled into the shelter at about 7pm. He stood quietly at his trim pack, pulling out his sleeping pad and bag. My friends and I watched him as we interrogated a young fellow who had been hiking for two weeks. I noticed the quiet hiker pull out a big slice of pizza wadded up in waxed paper. Smiling, he nodded, “I passed the 2000 mile mark today.” Wow! He proceeded to munch madly on a box of Hostess donuts and a package of Keebler Elf cookies, washing it down with orange juice, calorie hungry. “What has your hike been like?” we asked. “Something always hurts,” he chuckled. “I actually didn’t think I could make it, but I have wanted to hike the trail since I was 17, so I just started.” His celebration soon dissipated, and his thoughts turned to the next day. Five months of persistence and 2000 miles worth of daily decisions to “press on” have taken him from Georgia to Maine, and will carry him to the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, perhaps today or tomorrow. He was gone before we got up the next morning.

Persistence, day in, day out.

Annie Dillard reflects on an odd circumstance of persistence on the little island where she lived. She writes that a youngish man “lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk.” Absurd, was my first inclination. He keeps it on a shelf, covered by a swatch of leather, which he removes for their lessons. “No one knows what goes on at these sessions,” writes Dillard. “I assume that like any other meaningful effort, the ritual involves sacrifice, the suppression of self-consciousness, and a certain precise tilt of the will, so that the will becomes transparent and hollow, a channel for the work.” Not so absurd, anymore.

Persistence like this cuts grand canyons; builds towering stalagmites; chips away at oppressive institutions; fosters deep, trusting relationships; bores holes into mighty tree trunks. Jesus gives us permission to strive after God’s own heart in this way, to bend the ear of God with our prayers. And Jesus assures: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Here is the blessed assurance that we need through Jesus’ demystifying insight into the nature of God: God hears and acts on our prayers because God is committed to us, choosing to come near.

The ancient Greek Philosopher, Aristotle believed God to be detached from the world, solely transcendent, the “unmoved mover,” who created then stepped back to let creation happen, like a clock maker who sets the gears in motion and lets time tick, tick, tick. This is not the nature of the God whom Jesus calls, Abba, “Father.” That name carries a strong sense of trust. Fidelity. A loving parent does not give her child stones when he asks for cereal. Be assured, if you can give good gifts, how much more will God give! God responds, sometimes not in accord with our timing or want, but according to our need. Jesus teaches the disciples that God is approachable, generous, and loving.

And this is the God who invites us to pray. All through the Gospels, the disciples see Jesus praying, retreating to the mountains or to the recesses of a garden, to be alone with God. He prays in their presence for God to heal; he gives thanks to God; he prays for God to bless the bread they eat; he prays that God will send the Holy Spirit! He lets them see his struggle to understand God’s will, and then tilts his own will, so that God might work through him. We come to know this God as a parent and sustainer--as our God--by following Christ’s example.

If the prayer you pray today marks the beginning and end of your conversation with God for the week, then, my friends, you are experiencing what C.S. Lewis would call an “impoverished prayer life.” The way we grow to understand God’s will and our own need is through prayer; which is not limited to words or Sunday worship rituals. It is the “day in and day out” conversation, which brings us into a closer relationship with God. I am interested in how each of us can use the Lord’s prayer as the beginning of our conversation with God. Let this be our challenge. This week, PRAY. When you’re joyful, give thanks. When you need guidance: ask. When you hurt; seek God’s comfort. When the door is closed; keep knocking, and knocking. It will be like God having a conversation with woodpeckers.

What does love look like?

What does love look like? How do you know when you see it, feel it, touch it, taste it, experience it?

Two quick responses. A friend of mine once commented on the challenges both liberal and conservative minded people face when living out a commitment to love. “When it comes to conservatives they like to love those who are familiar to them in familiar ways. And when it comes to liberals they like to spend all their time writing perfect invitations to guests they likely will never want to meet.”

The other reflection comes from a former assistant who lived at a local L’Arche home. Nathan told a faith community I was part of, “The words my community long to hear are not I love you but rather you belong. Why? Because the members of L’Arche have heard people say I love you all their lives but then either treat them with pity or not show up at all. When they hear some say and live You belong they know it by the spirit behind the words and presence of the people saying them.”

Throughout my life I have witnessed people who use the word love as a tool to pull and tug others into a set of behaviours that appear to be love to them. If love is to love one’s own then the practice of love is to love one’s kin, to reinforce the familiar and honour the connected. While not overtly distancing one’s self from others the reality of spending all of one’s time with those we know leaves little love left over for the other. Moreover the other is suspect, s/he cannot be sure the other is worthy of our affection. Best keep one’s best for one’s own.

And I have also witnessed persons who spend so much time being inclusive and using the most careful language that little attention is given to the act of hospitality, the greeting, the recognition, the sharing of stories, the breaking of bread together, the companionship of presence. These folks will scold the poor fool who gets the invitation wrong but excuse too easily the host who leaves before the guests arrive.

Love is not a task. Love is not a deed. And love is not words. And I am increasingly of the view that love is not always a feeling (heresy!). For me love is a connection, it is being part of something, it is valuing and being valued, it is an experience of organic creativity, of wonder in the other and discovering gifts inside that reveal gifts outside and vice versa. I experience love when there is interest and space and celebration of the other. Deeds are good, as long as they are not tied to reward, for then the deed is but another word for reciprocity (Jesus was not a fan of that!). Inclusive welcomes are great, as long as the words are not self-righteous self-congratulation but rather making sure everyone is in the room so I can meet everyone.

As the Pretenders once sang, “When love walks in the room, everybody stand up…” That’s my kind of love.

What Jesus Meant - week three of nine

Last night our Faith Study looked at the words, “Blessed are those who mourn” as we dig deeper into the Beatitudes. Author Erik Kolbell talks a lot about the context of the Beatitudes, “Jesus had no visible means of income and did not know from night to night where he would lay his head to sleep. In response to their following him, he offered his disciples little in the way of security but much in the way of risk.” Kolbell tells his reader that “our lives are lived in a series of lives and deaths, comings and goings, gains and losses…Experience will be gained, and innocence lost. S/he will for a time be convinced – as most people are – of her/his own invincibility. The one day someone young will die, and s/he won’t believe in that anymore.” The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that nothing lasts forever. “Our salvation lies not in denying the inevitability of loss but in learning how to fold it into our lives, learning how to mourn, and, perhaps more importantly, how to use mourning.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says that the opposite of life is not death but indifference.” Life is affirmed in grief because grieve means something has stirred our passions. Indifference is tragic because it risks nothing. “Finally, mourning is theological. God’s covenant with Jacob didn’t insulate Jacob from the loss of his youngest son to slavery, nor David his son to war, nor Mary her son to execution. Faith doesn’t preclude loss but neither does loss preclude faith.”

Many find in death the opening of a cause, an opening, an injustice, a need for healing, that those who mourn can dedicate themselves to mending.

Theologian Paul Tillich said shortly before his death, “I do not fear death, only dying alone; a death of no consequence.” A death that means something is one that brings life to another, comforts another with the salve of its own wounds, as Jesus’ wounded side did for doubting Thomas. If mourning is Good Friday from God’s point of view, comfort is Good Friday from Christ’s.

“We may or may not have taken the world by storm, but each in his or her own way has weathered her or his share of storms, and I really think that deepened and strengthened our love for one another.” Small wonder that the word comfort is derived from the Latin fortiere, “to fortify”.

We ended on one of my all-time favorite quotes, “In the depths of my despair when people came to visit, I appreciated the ones with the good casseroles far more than the ones with the bad theologies.”

Magic Penny

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Magic Penny

Notes: words and music by Malvina Reynolds; 1955, this song was written while Malvina's daughter was at a junior high school dance, so around 1949.

Love is something if you give it away,

 Give it away, give it away.

 Love is something if you give it away,

 You end up having more.

 

It's just like a magic penny,

 Hold it tight and you won't have any.

 Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many

 They'll roll all over the floor.

 

For love is something if you give it away,

 Give it away, give it away.

 Love is something if you give it away,

 You end up having more.

 

Money's dandy and we like to use it,1

 But love is better if you don't refuse it.

 It's a treasure and you'll never lose it

 Unless you lock up your door.

 

For love is something if you give it away,

 Give it away, give it away.

 Love is something if you give it away,

 You end up having more.

 

So let's go dancing till the break of day,

 And if there's a piper, we can pay.

 For love is something if you give it away,

 You end up having more.

 

For love is something if you give it away,

 Give it away, give it away.

 Love is something if you give it away,

 You end up having more.

Uncertainty

Last week I had coffee/lunch with a friend who is the father of an adult living with mental illness. The illness is very serious and there are times when his son leaves town and makes decisions that are very problematic. When my friend does not know where his son is he worries. Things are better now, his son is on medication that seems to be working, and his son is in school and living on his own. But none of this takes away the uncertainty of worry and concern.

At one point over lunch my friend looked at me and said, “Uncertainty is something we must all learn to live with.” I think this is true. I like to be in control of my world, part of the reason for my OCD tendencies, my clothing stored in colour coordinated ways, my books assorted likewise, and my surroundings organized for easy access. But even I know this is a delusion of mine, thinking I am in control, the truth is none of us are in control. I know that tomorrow can bring changes I do not expect or want and I will need to deal with these. Our culture, that privileges agency and positive thinking has concluded that the way forward is resiliency. Who can be against being resilient, have the capacity to deal with life’s ups and downs is an asset and focusing on how we cope with change is always a good idea.

But I think there is something for us to learn that is threatening to the spirit of our age, namely that there are things we simply cannot control. As an existential reality uncertainty was likely the way of the world for most of world history but in these times we have come to think otherwise. I think about the famous expression of Hobbes, “Life is nasty, brutish and short.” Now we think that like is beautiful, fulfilling and long.” That is until it isn’t. Finding out your adult son has a lifetime of mental illness to navigate, that you have a troubling diagnosis, that the job, relationship, or institution that has been your north star is now gone can shake you to the core. And there it is, uncertainty.

Some theists respond to this crisis of faith by doubling down on certainty. Worried about tomorrow? It’s all predestined, God has a plan, don’t worry, believe in the plan, and rewards will come your way. In days gone by this mantra placed its promise in the afterlife, now God’s rich blessing can and will happen in this life too, sooner than later. Buddhists speak about living in the moment, removing the anxiety of past and future and taking from the now all that is being offered.

But does any of this really take away the sting of uncertainty and anxiety? Maybe. But as a minister I constantly meet people who previously placed all their eggs in the predestined basket only to discover that the bad news kept coming. Their conclusion? They must be doing something wrong, believing something wrong, they were either being punished or being taught something hard for an even better outcome.

I have come to believe that human life is fragile, broken and uncertain. My response cannot be to imagine a world where I live forever in constant happiness and ease. Instead I pray for understanding, purpose and renewal. It may not be that my God removes pain from my life but I do experience deep joy when I live as though I am part of a universe with connections to everything, everyone. There is a mystery to that revelation and I cannot say I always know how to express how I feel and think about this reality. But I do know that when I live as though Jesus is my North Star, that the Spirit is an energy that reveal where the Truth is and isn’t, that God is a Creator that creates with love and intention, I feel at one and at peace. That space is not one where uncertainty goes away, it is one where I can live with uncertainty and live well.

Habits of the Heart

As I inch closer to retirement I am keeping only a small fraction of the books I formerly owned. One of those special books I keep on my shelf is Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart. The title is from Alexis de Tocqueville who, writing about us in Democracy in America from 1835 to 1839, discovered “Habits of the Heart”--he named family life, religious convictions and participation in local politics--as helping to form the unique American character. They were habits that would help sustain free institutions, De Tocqueville said. But he also suggested that individualism, a word he was one of the earliest to use and long since a catchword for the American character, could prove dangerous, setting citizens apart from one another, making positive collective action difficult if not impossible, and therefore threatening those same free institutions. In “the churches and synagogues,” the Bellah group wrote, “there are still operating among us…traditions that tell us about the nature of the world, about the nature of society, and about who we are as a people.” The sense of commitment embedded in various spiritual and theological traditions is crucial, Bellah argued, to the maintenance of a healthy civil society.

North of that great experiment in individualism we Canadians embrace a more collective understanding of society but we watch the same television, the same movies, we spend our winters in Florida and participate in a similar capitalist economy. We are not nearly as different as we like to let on. And individualism has its effects on our civil society as well and not all of is problematic. Many Canadians rely on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect them from any government or institution that would consider treating some of us differently than others, removing opportunities for those who are vulnerable to the advantage of those with privilege. My Asian daughter, thanks to the Charter, cannot be denied entrance to an institution that historically only opened its door to white Christian straight men like me.

But our ever-growing and rampant libertarianism can make it difficult to remind Canadians that we are “our sister’s and brother’s keeper.” The conversations that unsettle me begin with “we all make our own bed” and “charity begins at home” and “it’s all about opportunity, once you have had the chance to succeed my concern for you is no longer necessary.” I worry deeply about the “ties that bind” us. I worry that we are increasingly becoming focused on ourselves and losing the “Habits of the Heart” that connect us at our deepest level.

In the times of the Apostle Paul the challenges to the church were different. When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he addresses a group who feels that their rights and privileges as believers stand over and above the spiritual welfare of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Let me paint you a picture. The churches are booming, gentiles are joining in huge numbers. Some gentiles are following the example of the Jewish Christians, namely they are adhering to the law in a very intense fashion. Other gentiles have decided that God does not require them to follow the law, only Jesus. This creates challenges when new converts have different paths to the same vision. In Corinth there are some converts who believe they can do and say anything they want because Christ’s resurrection has afforded them total freedom. Meanwhile other gentiles who embrace the church are trying hard to follow the law and find their sisters and brothers who flaunt their “lawlessness” to be distractions and temptations. Think of alcoholics who now abstain from alcohol being confronted by a friend drinking in front of them. This “freedom” is abusive to the one who is trying to follow a different and harder behavior, not only is this approach insensitive, it also holds the potential of undermining best efforts and causing others to stray. Our journey of faith requires discipline, not indulgence.

Paul as a leader of churches is all about the sensitivity and consideration some churches ought to have for one another and some believers should have for one another. Paul writes pastoral letters extolling the virtues of churches and their witness and in particular will applaud a wealthy church that supports a poorer one. Similarly, Paul affirms individual Christians who show respect and consideration for those new converts who are vulnerable, easily tempted and set astray.

To achieve this witness, to be an example for others, Paul uses the example of the Greek Games, of the runner who strives to win the prize. Be like a runner who is intent on winning the prize, says Paul; run with that same intent. The point of the illustration is not so much the application of effort in the Christian life, or of competing to win the eternal crown, but rather a focused intent - a self-disciplined dedication to the cause of the gospel. A runner, training for a race, aims to win a wreath that soon falls apart, while the believer trains for an incorruptible wreath. At first glance, it seems that Paul is speaking about the prize of eternity, but he is actually referring to the work of the gospel, of the business of gathering the lost into the community that embodies the kin-dom/Kingdom of Jesus.

To return to the “Habits of the Heart” how do we in this faith community reinforce the “Ties that Bind”? One concern I hear from lay leaders and clergy alike is that coming together as a community to take on common goals is increasingly difficult in a society at large that values personal pursuits and private interests over shared values and principled compromises. Many today expect things to go their way and are less apt to go along with a majority opinion they do not share. This makes working together, in diversity of opinion and gifts, very challenging.

Practicing “Habits of the Heart” are akin to Paul’s call for the early church to be disciplined in their consideration of others. The discipline of following the path God has given you and at the same time being considerate of the one struggling beside you seems to me another form of “Habits of the Heart”. I may not be training for a race but I am training my mind and heart to follow God’s covenant and be thoughtful of my sisters and brothers in community.

I had a visit this week with one of our newest additions, Janice Olsen. She shared with me that when she attended the Salvation Army community of faith they celebrated the birthday of Jesus by taking time on the Sunday following Christmas to do something special in Jesus’ name. Janice would have a meal and give thanks for the blessings of her life. At another mealtime on the same day she would take out the ingredients for a meal and read where they came from. She would then name each country in her prayers of thanksgiving and petition. At the third and final mealtime she would take food around to various people she knew and share with them the meal and the story behind it. At the Walk and Talk last Wednesday many shared they strengthen their “Habits of the Heart” by explicitly thanking people for whatever was offered to our community that day. Betty Migel writes letters to governments that imprison persons of conscience through Amnesty International as her “Habit of the Heart”. How do you discipline yourself to be considerate of others in community by exercising “Habits of the Heart”?

It’s worth noting that this struggle will continue, there was no time when everyone did it freely nor will there be a time when it will suddenly become a reality. This takes work. We need to exercise our “Habits of the Heart” every bit as much as we exercise our bodies. Paul understood this. So must we. I so look forward to learning from you more “Habits of the Heart” here at Bethany. Together we can run this race together. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself. Amen.

Loneliness

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New York Times by ERIC KLINENBERG FEB. 9, 2018

Last month, Britain appointed its first “minister for loneliness,” who is charged with tackling what Prime Minister Theresa May called the “sad reality of modern life.”

Public-health leaders immediately praised the idea — and for good reason. In recent decades, researchers have discovered that loneliness left untreated is not just psychically painful; it also can have serious medical consequences. Rigorous epidemiological studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Vivek Murthy, the former United States surgeon general, has written that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”

But is loneliness, as many political officials and pundits are warning, a growing “health epidemic”?

I don’t believe so, nor do I believe it helps anyone to describe it that way. Social disconnection is a serious matter, yet if we whip up a panic over its prevalence and impact, we’re less likely to deal with it properly.

Anxiety about loneliness is a common feature of modern societies. Today, two major causes of loneliness seem possible. One is that societies throughout the world have embraced a culture of individualism. More people are living alone, and aging alone, than ever. Neoliberal social policies have turned workers into precarious free agents, and when jobs disappear, things fall apart fast. Labor unions, civic associations, neighborhood organizations, religious groups and other traditional sources of social solidarity are in steady decline. Increasingly, we all feel that we’re on our own.

The other possible cause is the rise of communications technology, including smartphones, social media and the internet. A decade ago, companies like Facebook, Apple and Google pledged that their products would help create meaningful relationships and communities. Instead, we’ve used the media system to deepen existing divisions, at both the individual and group levels. We may have thousands of “friends” and “followers” on Facebook and Instagram, but when it comes to human relationships, it turns out there’s no substitute for building them the old-fashioned way, in person.

In light of these two trends, it’s easy to believe we’re experiencing an “epidemic” of loneliness and isolation. Surprisingly, though, the best data do not actually show drastic spikes in either loneliness or social isolation.

The main evidence for rising isolation comes from a widely reported sociology journal article claiming that in 2004, one in four Americans had no one in their life they felt they could confide in, compared with one in 10 during the 1980s. But that study turned out to be based on faulty data, and other research shows that the portion of Americans without a confidant is about the same as it has long been. Although one of the authors has distanced himself from the paper (saying, “I no longer think it’s reliable”), scholars, journalists and policymakers continue to cite it.

The other data on loneliness are complicated and often contradictory, in part because there are so many different ways of measuring the phenomenon. But it’s clear that the loneliness statistics cited by those who say we have an epidemic are outliers. For example, one set of statistics comes from a study that counted as lonely people who said they felt “left out” or “isolated,” or “lacked companionship” — even just “some of the time.” That’s an exceedingly low bar, and surely not one we’d want doctors or policymakers to use in their work.

One reason we need to be careful about how we measure and respond to loneliness is that, as the University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo argues, an occasional and transitory feeling of loneliness can be healthy and productive. It’s a biological signal to ourselves that we need to build stronger social bonds.

Professor Cacioppo has spent much of his career documenting the dangers of loneliness. But it’s notable that he relies on more measured statistics in his own scientific papers than the statistics described above. One of his articles, from last year, reports that around 19 percent of older Americans said they had felt lonely for much of the week before they were surveyed, and that in Britain about 6 percent of adults said they felt lonely all or most of the time. Those are worrisome numbers, but they are quite similar to the numbers reported in Britain in 1948, when about 8 percent of older adults said they often or always felt lonely, and to those in previous American studies as well.

Professor Cacioppo is one of the leading voices advocating for better treatment of loneliness. But, as he has written, “to call it an epidemic of loneliness risks having it relegated to the advice columns.”

In particular, overstating the problem can make it harder to make sure we are focusing on the people who need help the most. When Britain announced its new ministry, officials insisted that everyone, young or old, was at risk of loneliness. Yet the research tells us something more specific. In places like the United States and Britain, it’s the poor, unemployed, displaced and migrant populations that stand to suffer most from loneliness and isolation. Their lives are unstable, and so are their relationships. When they get lonely, they are the least able to get adequate social or medical support.

I don’t believe we have a loneliness epidemic. But millions of people are suffering from social disconnection. Whether or not they have a minister for loneliness, they deserve more attention and help than we’re offering today.

Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University.

Administration

Every church minister is ordained with a certain set of skills acquired through the seminary courses s/he completed and the practical education s/he experienced in a local church setting. One thing I have come to understand is the way congregations can value clergy who are good administrators. When I was in seminary and then out serving congregations as an ordained minister I would never have thoughts about administration skills as important to the effectiveness of a ministry. But a very gifted minister who cannot be efficient with her/his time, cannot complete basic tasks and fails to enter important data in church records is not a minister who will be serving her/his congregation well. And over time these churches being served will see this reality and it could become a problem down the road.

Conversely, clergy who may lack a certain sparkle or polish or genius in their skill sets but who offer strong administration skills can, over time, become much appreciated, even loved, by their churches. Administration skills are not fun or dynamic or even deeply interesting but they offer to the church a way to apply the resources available to people in a most efficient and thoughtful way. If clergy return correspondence that tells the caller or the emailer or the letter writer that they matter, specifically that they matter to the church, the minister, and in a rather existential way, God. Further, helping to run the day to day functions of the church in an efficient manner frees up time and other resources to be spent on the hands on ministry people do enjoy. An example is a church that keeps the administration of a church humming like a well-oiled machine and thus frees the clergy, support staff and lay leaders up to offer programs, support and leadership to the church in surprising and life-giving ways. I have also seen churches that do administration poorly or in a hap-hazard way, the result being a mad scramble to address every report that is overdue, every basic task that is undone, work that goes undone causing others to feel little confidence in the church as an institution. As a practical matter people do not offer their time, their talent or their treasure to any institution that appears to be in perpetual chaos.

This awareness of the importance of administration and its application to the life of an institution applies far more broadly than churches. Almost everyone in their vocation has some part of it that can be described as administration. I think all of us can “up our game” when it comes to administration requirements. I once had a colleague describe me as someone who excelled in “knuckle-head” skills. By that he meant that I am always attuned to the tasks that are on the horizon, looking ahead and planning to accomplish tasks in a way that reduced that chaotic scramble when one is trying to do things at the last minute. One observation I would make about “stress” is that often it is less about workload and more about the person in question who procrastinates on tasks and when an unexpected tasks falls from the sky it can produce deep stress as the person needs to do things s/he could/should have done weeks before and now has to deal with something s/he did not expect. There is a certain point where that surprising tasks needs to be factored in as a constant and thus the necessity to get one’s tasks done in a timely manner.

But despite my skill at “knuckle-headed” tasks I am not in any way interested in the polish or details of said tasks. A Board member I work with in the secular world once said to me, “you know how to do polish and attend to details, you just don’t value them or care about them.” This adds another layer of frustration to those who work with me because unlike co-workers who just can’t do polish and details they know I can but don’t. That can leave a bad taste. In my defense I do think I know my audience, and in the world of church the polish and detail are NOT a priority. But in other vocations I recognize that my indifference to small details and polish might be problematic.

As an example very few of my colleagues would be driven to write a daily blog, post all sermons and have bulletin drafts completed 12 days early. But it will not surprise any reader of this blog to know I write these reflections without ever proof reading or looking over the text before I press the send button. We are all differently gifted and differently challenged, are we not?

Reflective Listening

What are people looking for when they reach out to us in crisis? When I was a seminarian at a good liberal Christian institution the foundation of our pastoral education was “reflective listening.” All of us learned the techniques and the theology of giving space to the other, letting the other find the answer s/he already had deep inside. The theology behind the technique was simple, God is working inside us to bring forth Good News, we need to listen to the still small voice. The trouble arises when we are in crisis or turmoil and the noise inside and outside us is such we cannot hear that still small voice. We require good listeners, people who give us the time and the space to share our feelings and thoughts. The listener does not interrupt with their agenda or helpful hints, rather s/he only inserts her/himself to clarify something, when the person in crisis is not making sense to the other the chances are strong the person may not be making sense to themselves. It is a helpful technique to suggest to the person speaking that s/he may need to clarify what they are trying to say.

Besides clarity there is little other reason for the listener to speak. What we were taught to say, in responding to a lengthy offering by the one in crisis is, “What I hear you saying is…” Again, what this technique does is offer the speaker a chance to 1) know s/he has been heard and 2) hear what it is s/he is saying, we don’t always know what it is we are saying when our talking is rapid and emotional. More than once the person speaking would say to me after I summarized what I had been hearing, “Yes, that is exactly what I am saying!” Being heard is hugely important to everyone. Knowing the other is listening and really understanding what we are saying is a great tool for self-awareness.

But my challenge is this, not everyone who comes to me in crisis only wants a listening ear. While it is true that many people offer advice not asked for, that telling the one in crisis “well that happened to me, so write this down, this is what you need to do…” there are times, rare, when a person in crisis really does want the listener to offer an opinion, suggestions, another way to think through their issues. I am grateful for the gift of training I received in seminary, that taught me to respect the answers people already have deep inside them. My assistance to them in hearing those answers with reflective listening is a wonderful way I can be of assistance to people in crisis. But I have also learned to keep an open mind about requests for specific suggestions, resources and other ways to think through challenges. It is not my default response anymore but offering the collective wisdom I have acquired these many years from persons in similar crisis is still an option.

What Jesus Meant - week two of nine

Last night our Faith Study group met for the second time, we cancelled last week because of the weather. We looked at Chapter Two of What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life by Minister and Therapist Erik Kolbell. This chapter focused on the verse “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit.” Our 90-minute sessions are divided in three; 30 minutes for me to summarize the chapter (most of the 25 people present had just received the book), then another 30 minutes for the 25 people to break into 5 groups of 5, and 30 minutes for one representative from each group to share the content of their conversation and some questions that may have arisen. When the groups meet in separate rooms they are all given a question about the chapter.

I shared with the large group that Kolbell offers a reason why Luke writes, “Blessed are the poor” and Matthew records “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Most commentators, like Kolbell, believe the difference speaks of whom these two Gospel writers have in mind. The Luke lens is one of inclusion; women, children, gentiles, the sick, and the poor, all part of Jesus’ vision for the New Kingdom of God. Matthew’s intent is slightly different, he is offering the wisdom, the sacred teachings, the gems of faith, that Jesus gave to his disciples and the crowds who followed him, all the way to the Cross. Matthew’s Gospel has a wider audience, it is intended for the poorest and wealthiest, and those in between.

For the wealthy Kolbell reveals this nugget of wisdom, “Perhaps you are feeling melancholy, thinking you are getting older and forgetful. Perhaps you worry that the flattery you receive is not sincere, that it is patronizing. Perhaps the riches you have accumulated offer diminishing happiness. For the poor Kolbell reveals this nugget of wisdom, “s/he glories at the prospect of a life lived beyond the hell of poverty and all s/he associates with it, for her/his poverty of spirit is a lack of things, but it is also the degradation and diminution of self-worth that accompanies that lack. S/he despises pity.” For both “Spiritual poverty means we stand empty before God and naked to the world with absolutely nothing to either commend or condemn me, we refuse to see ourselves as the sum total of the heft of our resumes and credentials, the breadth of our riches or the extent of our debt, the quality of our friends or the distain of our enemies.”

Henri Nouwen once said, “We cannot be liberated from something without being liberated to something else.”

And for Kolbell that “something else” we need to be liberated to is grace. “It is ultimately the unmerited love of God that defines us and gives us enduring value…To be poor in spirit is to know that we are all alive by the grace of God, that none of us has earned our way into creation.”

Finally, Kolbell ends his chapter with a story about Oseola McCarty.

Interfaith Celebration

http://thechronicleherald.ca/halifaxcitizen/1434439-halifax-is-ready-to-celebrate-world-interfaith-harmony-week

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/ummah-mosque-halifax-interfaith-harmony-week-1.4518224

How, in today’s pluralistic world, are we called to love our neighbour? The United Church, believing that God is creatively and redemptively at work in the religious life of all humanity, has long been involved in interfaith dialogue and action to build respectful mutual relationships. Several landmark resources trace a record of this ongoing journey.

Mending the World (1997) articulated the broad principles of “whole world ecumenism.” Seeking “justice for God's creatures and healing for God's creation,” the church joins “with other persons of good will in the search for justice, wholeness and love.” These principles continue to inform our interfaith work. We set out to build relationships with different faiths, listen deeply to each other, work through issues and learn from our differences, and open up to new possibilities for working together.

Bearing Faithful Witness, which looks at United Church of Canada relations to the Jewish faith, was the first in a series of church-wide interfaith studies. Engagement and study by people of the United Church was encouraged, and the statement was approved at General Council in 2003. In it, we acknowledge a history of anti-Judaism in Christian biblical interpretation, theology, and action. We affirm the significance of Judaism as at once a religion, a people, and a covenant community. Rooted in our common calling to God’s world-mending work, the statement encourages all in the church to seek opportunities to meet with Jews and to learn about modern Judaism, to continue to study significant issues, to resist antisemitism and anti-Judaism in church and society, and to create worship opportunities to highlight the Jewish–Christian relationship.

That We May Know Each Other: United Church-Muslim Relations Today was approved in 2006. This study started from the assumption that our “journey of understanding … must ultimately come from face-to-face contact, from conversation, from hospitality, and from friendship.” It encouraged “seeing Muslims as neighbours, as friends, and most of all as people whom God has called to faithfulness.” The church’s final statement acknowledges a history of hostility and misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims, and recognizes Islam as a religion of peace, mercy, justice, and compassion. It names a shared theological heritage as Abrahamic religions, but also acknowledges the particular gifts of Islam to a global tapestry of insight into God’s work in the world: the prophetic witness of Muhammad and the expression of God’s mercy, compassion, and justice in the Qur’an. We are encouraged to work with Muslims and others for peace and justice for all humanity.

Currently underway is a study on a proposed interfaith statement on the relationship between the United Church and members of the Hindu religion. Honouring the Divine in Each Other: United Church-Hindu Relations Today, available under Downloads, below, will be the basis of a statement brought to General Council for approval in July 2018. The statement expresses regret for the church’s condemnation of Hindu worship practices in our missionary history, the language of idolatry, and the church’s complicity in colonialism. It expresses respect for the richness of Hindu philosophical traditions and their variety of expressions of divinity. And it recognizes “God’s saving and liberating grace…at work in the religious life of Hinduism” and encourages opportunities for learning from each other and for “mutual transformation in faith and action.”

home

"If we truly listen to the Beatitudes, we will hear them as a call for us to recover the integrity of our own faith and its lived expression. But if we only go through the motions of our religion, while closing ourselves off from its real meaning, if we do not discover that the kingdom of heaven is our only true home, the place that defines our most essential identity, we will be lost in the wilderness of decayed traditions and vulnerable to the domination of modernity's suicidal infatuation with power, the exact opposite of the Gospel message. Our greatest contribution to the world is, with God's grace, to try to be who, as Christians, we are. That will never be easy and will probably bring upon us rejection and even persecution, but it will also make us exceeding glad"

— Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart

What does it mean to “discover that the kingdom of heaven is our only true home”? I have been thinking a lot about this, finding our home in the vision of God’s kin-dom. What exactly is our “home”? I ponder this, especially as I witness young families buying and building their dream home and older persons selling that home to move to a smaller apartment. Does the home go with them, is the home a concept, a state of mind, or a physical place we manifest in certain ways? One question I ask people as they create this home or seek continuity as they move from one place to another is “what do you require to make your home a home?” Some might answer “the people”, meaning the immediate family members. Thus it is less about space and more about the persons involved. That is likely a given but for many others the addition of certain kinds of space make a house a home.

I have not seen one but I am told that TV programs that focus on people renovating, building and decorating their homes are hugely popular. People seem obsessed with creating a space that reflects them and their personalities and values. No one seems to have paintings or photographs any more (except for photos of the couple and their children). Instead what we see are generic prints, not images, just colours meant to flatter the colour scheme of the matching furniture. The values are presented in “Live, Laugh, Love” framed prints that adorn the walls. The irony here is that after spending all of this time and money to create such a personalized expression many of these houses look identical.

What I pay close attention to are the values persons live out in community, that sense of building the kin-dom in our midst. In a real way the values we seek to embody are the true “home”, the best expression of our living space. In that sense whether we live in an apartment or large scale house we have opportunity to live out a way of seeing, hearing and acting that pushes back on systems of thought that undermine unconditional grace love, an openness to forgive one’s self and others and a disciplined love that brings peace, justice and mercy to whomever needs it. Many street persons I know carry their photo albums with them, the letters that meant so much in their pockets, the mementoes of a lifetime that instantly carry meaning in a bag. Together this is their home. In our culture more is more but when we are forced to have less it focuses our attention on what we need to remind ourselves of “home”.

What do you need to remind yourself of “home”?

A Vision that gives power to the faint

This week my mind went back several years ago when I travelled to Cape Breton to attend, and participate in, a funeral. I took a bus to get there and two things stand out as memories of the trip. 1) the duct tape that covered the bathroom door thus making detours to various gas stations a necessity and 2) the man who sat beside me for the entire seven plus hours of travel. This travelling companion was older than I, a resident of Halifax who was coming “home” to inspect the house he and his siblings had grown up in, the place he intended to move when he retired. I asked him what compelled this move, why not stay in Halifax where he had lived for 35+ years, where he had worked, where his friends lived, where his children lived. I shall not soon forget his response, “anyone can build a house, it takes love and work to build a home.” In short, this man told me his heart belonged to Cape Breton, “home” for him was this small village, a particular physical structure, the sights, smells and feelings that can only come from one very specific place.

As a typical Haligonian I quizzed this man about his hometown, this village that once had been a bustling community filled with young families and now was a fraction of its former self, a population one fifth of what it was, mainly seniors, no one currently employed. He looked me in the eye and said, “It breaks my heart to see our old ball field grown over with weeds, the fences all rusted and twisted, but in mind’s eye this is still my home, and I can still picture everything that matters to me.” His intention was clear, he would retire, sell his house and move back “home” and begin to invest in a dream that would bring back to life what he imagined life was all about. This man was divorced and under no illusions that his siblings or his adult children would follow, he knew this dream to become a reality would require a partnership with those currently in living in his hometown. He was ready for that.

Some of you may call this man daring, some may call him foolish, some may even call him a dreamer. But I found it inspiring and the conversation caused me to reflect on those things I hold dear, the kind of place I want to build, the place I want to live, that place I want to be available for others looking for what I have been looking for my entire life. A few weeks previous I referenced a Biblical concept known as “the kingdom of God” or “the kin-dom” of God. I suggested all of us dream of a family, of a place, or a community, that we can call “home”. I believe all of us are looking for “home”, that place where we belong, where we thrive and where others know us as we really are. The early church responded to that deep need by offering homes of worship, healing and intimate relationships and we know from the Book of Acts that people responded in huge numbers. That hunger has not changed and the church of today has every opportunity to help create similar spaces for those who are searching.

You are no doubt aware of the famous Biblical quote from Proverbs “without a vision the people will perish.” It has almost become a bit of a cliché. But make no mistake the truth of those words is enduring. This morning young Hillary read some other well know words from the Bible, “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” What we know about Jesus’ teaching is that he used word-pictures to create a vision inside us that might move us closer to the kingdom/kin-dom of God. Reading scripture, prayer, doing acts of mercy and justice, loving our neighbor, all of these draw us closer to the kingdom/kin-dom but never let us underestimate the power of a dream, of a vision, of a memory, that bring out the best of who God made us to be.

Isaiah 40, our text for today, comes in the wake of the Babylonian exile, perhaps around 530s BCE. It may be that different groups experienced exile differently. Some, like those who were with the former king Jehoiachin in Babylon itself, seem to have received rations from the royal court and may have eventually been treated reasonably well (2 Kings 25:27-30). Others, however, may have been located in what were essentially labor camps. Even in the best case, the homecoming and restoration in Judah would have been a very difficult matter, however. The land had been devastated and not rebuilt. Thus, although the return from exile is often imagined as joyous (e.g., Psalm 137:6), Nehemiah 11:1-2 reports that there was no crush of people begging to live in the destroyed city of Jerusalem. It was without a temple or effective walls; the comforts and protections that a city would normally have afforded in the ancient world were missing. In fact, the people had to cast lots to see who would live there, and they “blessed all those who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.” After fifty or more years in exile, most of those returning would have hardly known the place. Exile was hard, but returning was difficult, too.

What this tells me is that those exiled, separated, from their “home” found themselves in different places as they awaited their return. Further, it tells me that the return to one’s “home” is never simple, never easy and takes hard work to make the dream become a reality. Jesus said likewise, that building the kingdom/kin-dom would require a vision, focus (prayer), discipline (discipleship), community (neighbors) and hard work. That this “home” might well offer to us the inspiration to “renew our strength, that we might mount up with wings like eagles, that we might run and not be weary, that we might walk and not faint.”

This morning I want you to imagine what your “home” looks like and think on how you might live out your life, not someone else’s life, so that this “home” becomes a reality. John 14 says “In my Father’s house there are many rooms”. That reference is not to a celestial mansion in the sky for the “good people” it is rather an inspiring vision of a home where all of God’s people find their place, find their rest, find their strength. Believe me when I say this, when I wake up in the morning my strength is renewed, I mount up like eagles, I run and do not grow weary, I walk and do not grow faint because I have a vision of “home”, a place where all of God’s people belong, are affirmed and are set free to be everything God has gifted them to be. I pray you might feel likewise. I pray that when I lose that vision you might inspire me to regain it, that together we live as if this home was real, is real, now and always. Amen.

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