Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Violent Death Hits Home

On Thursday December 1st a young man was shot in New Orleans. Normally I would only take brief note of such a news story - but this time it was different. I knew this man, not personally, but I was sitting in the stands at Mosaic Stadium when Joe McKnight's play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders made me notice this mid-season addition to the team. I remember thinking that there was some hope for the future at the running back spot because of Joe's ability to hit the holes in the line and with a burst of speed gain a first down or more.

Now a burst of gunfire has ended his life, at only 28 years of age - the same age as my eldest son. All because of a road rage incident if the news reports are accurate. Rage and violence, too often the solution used to right a supposed wrong. What kind of traffic offense was so terrible that it warranted such a response? My head can't even begin to make sense of this. I find myself shaken deeply - the same age as my son, violently torn from his family and friends. It's a nightmare.

I am saddened, not only because Joe McKnight's death has hurt a team, has left a hole in a family, has brought unexpected grief into the lives of many - I am saddened that we are living in a world in which such a tragic event can even take place. The tension in the United States has only gotten worse in recent months, and when something is wound up so tight, when it lets go damage is inevitable. I have no idea if this specific event is related to the increasing fear and polarization happening in the United States, but I'm not sure how else to make any sense of this, how such a thing could happen.

Violence as a solution is all around us - in television, movies and books; in the encouragement of competition rather than cooperation; in playground intimidation and courtroom litigation (not all violence is of the physical sort). Violence as a solution is also inside us - in the primal response to hurt as we've been hurt; in the quest to dominate and get our own way; in what I would simply call our 'sinful nature'. At its least destructive feelings are hurt, at its worst someone lays bleeding to death on a city street.

There is another way to live, a path set forth 2000 years ago, when another innocent young man was subjected to undeserved violence and death. In the face of aggression and anger he refused to use force and violence in return - instead forgiveness and mercy were offered. The only power Jesus used on others was the power of love. May the tragedy of Joe McKnight's shooting compel us to seek the path of peace and justice with greater energy and intention. May we seek to love our neighbours, all our neighbours, with the same love that Christ showed us. It is not enough to feel sad about such an unnecessary death - it is time to repent, to change the way we think and act, and to walk in the light of the Prince of Peace.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

We Are the Lord's

This past week we celebrated All Saints Sunday at Christ Lutheran where I am a pastor. When looking for a hymn to go with the theme I was preaching on I came across a hymn with suitable words in the Lutheran Book of Worship (the old green hymnal as many know it). The text was very fitting, but I didn't like the melody very much, so I decided to look for another melody to use with this hymn. The only hymn tune I found that matched the meter of the words really well was the much loved How Great Thou Art.  The only problem is that How Great Thou Art has a refrain and the hymn We Are the Lord's did not. So rather than throw this idea out I decided to write a refrain to go with the verses to this hymn. This adapted hymn was very well received on Sunday, and people have asked me for the words - so here they are.

Words by Karl J.P. Spitta, translated by Charles T.Astley
Words for the added Refrain by Dennis D. Hendricksen
Sung to the tune "How Great Thou Art"

1.  We are the Lord's. His all-sufficient merit,
     Sealed on the cross, to us this grace accords.
     We are the Lord's and all things shall inherit;
     Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain:
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     By grace we're saints forevermore.
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     Alleluia! Alleluia!

2.   We are the Lord's. Then let us gladly tender
     Our souls to him in deeds, not empty words.
     Let heart and tongue and life combine to render
     No doutful witness that we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain

3.   We are the Lord's. No darkness brooding o'er us
     Can make us tremble while this start affords
     A steady light along the path before us –
     Faith's full assurance that we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain

4.   We are the Lord's. No evil can befall us
     In the dread hour of life's fast loos'ning cords;
     No pangs of death shall even then appal us.
     Death shall be vanquished, for we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain:
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     By grace we're saints forevermore.
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     Alleluia! Alleluia!

Monday, August 1, 2016

A World That Isn't

We are creating a false existence, everyday on social media I see examples of it. A world that isn't real. Hyperbole has become our proffered reality. It was once said "You can believe what you see" but this is no longer the case. As a photographer for many decades I have tried to capture on film, and more recently in bytes, what caught my eye in the world around me. Landscape photography was my preferred format, and I would share my best images with others, in print or in slide shows. Freeman Patterson, a mentor in this field, once said that if he had 2 or 3 images in a roll of 36 pictures that he considered great images he was satisfied that he had done well. That meant waiting for the right lighting, being in the right location, and having the settings on the camera perfect for the image one was trying to capture. I'm talking about those eye-popping pictures that seem to jump off the page or screen - the rare images that captured the beauty of nature in a way that did justice to the scene as experienced by the photographer.

These days there are amazing pictures posted on social media all the time, everyday astounding images fill our feeds - but they're a lie. Almost every image that you see has been enhanced in one way or another. The built in cameras that come with smart phones means one never has to be without a camera - but the apps that capture the images on our phones also enhance them, deepening the colour and contrast, because the app writers know what kind of images appeal to us, lots of colour and strong patterns. The picture above is an example of that - I took this with my iPhone from on top of a building in downtown Regina. The storm cloud was truly big and beautiful, and worthy of a picture. The image is close to what it looked like in real life, but the colours are a bit more intense and the contrast more striking than what my eye perceived. But it makes for a great image.

This is mild to what I see people do with digital enhancements, using programs like Adobe Photoshop to make the image more appealing. The law of diminishing effect is at work here, in order to make one's picture stand out from the others the temptation is to use more colour saturation, or higher contrast. Soon those images seem plain in comparison, so even more manipulation of the original image is rendered. The images no longer represent reality, but instead a hyper-reality that doesn't exist... but it sure gets a lot of like on one's Facebook page! Will we get to the point where we give up looking for beauty in the real world, and simply respond to endless false images on computer screens? Does that matter?

Perhaps not so much with pictures of nature, but it certainly matters with politics and people. We now live in a time when reality is manipulated to suit the individual. If something seems right due to one's biases, then it becomes truth - facts no longer matter. What feels right must be right, and we gather around ourselves those whose feelings are similar to ours - this is particularly easy with the algorithms of social media programming. We are fed what we like, and soon this becomes our reality. But the reality is false, and we are being manipulated. For example, our social media feeds are filled with stories that provoke fear, and paint the world as a place saturated with violence and danger. However if one looks at statistical information the truth is we are living in a time when crime rates are significantly lower than in previous decades (there are of course anomalies, but generally speaking this is true from a purely statistical analysis). But like enhanced photos, we are drawn to the exaggerated information that calls out to us from our screens. It's time to resist.

The best way to resist is to explore the world, the real world. Go outdoors, go to new places, meet new people, sit quietly in the midst of nature, look and listen carefully. Discover the world that is, as it really is. Consider this a spiritual pilgrimage, a search for truth, a worthy vocation. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Jesus' Lightsaber

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on the first Sunday in Lent this year. It is based on Luke 4:1-13 and Romans 10:8b-13.

Jesus – full of the Holy Spirit – is led into the wilderness. Jesus is leading a new exodus – and thus it is only fitting that it begins in the wilderness. The Hebrews were led out of slavery into the wilderness – their path to freedom – but they lose their way (spiritually speaking). They are tempted and tried in the wilderness – and they turn away from God. Jesus is tempted and tried in the wilderness but he doesn’t turn away from God’s path. He resists the lure of self-centered use of his power for material needs and gain. He resists the use of his authority without sacrifice. He resists taking the easy way out.

Jesus fights off the temptations of the evil one with his weapon. It is a weapon that can be both used for defense and attack, a weapon that functions as a shield as well for offense, a weapon that shines light on the situation. When I thought of these things I of course thought of a Lightsaber.

In Star Wars Episode IV – the movie that introduced the lightsaber to the world (when I was still a teenager!) Luke Skywalker in introduced to this weapon of the Jedi. He first learns its defensive capabilities, practicing warding off attacks from a training droid aboard the Millennium Falcon. Later he learns of its awful power when Darth Vader uses it to strike down Obi Wan Kenobi.

A Lightsaber can be used to deflect attacks from an enemy, or to strike at that enemy, to drive the enemy back. So what weapon does Jesus in his struggle against the devil in the wilderness that has such power and versatility? What is it that I consider like a Lightsaber?

Jesus' Lightsaber is Scripture – Jesus uses scripture to fend off the temptations of the devil. For every temptation attack Jesus counters with a scripture passage – and that is enough to force the devil to try a different approach.

What gives scripture such power? Why is it a force to be reckoned with? I would suggest this power comes from the covenantal relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Scripture derives its power from its ability to remember the relationship between God and God’s people. The power of scripture is not in the words but rather in the relationship the words point to.

But there is a danger with scripture for can also be misused. Like any powerful tool it can be used for good of for ill. In the Star Wars saga we learn that both the good side (the Jedi) and the dark side (the Sith) use Lightsabers. Notice too, in the story of Jesus in the wilderness the devil also quotes scripture – the tempter attempts to use God’s word against God’s Son.

This should be a warning to us that not everyone who quotes scripture is in line with God’s will. There are many who quote the Bible to justify their judgmental attitudes, their hatred of others, their selfish and lavish lifestyles, and so forth. The Bible in untrained hands can be destructive and damaging.

So too does the Bible require great skill and training to use properly. Thus the importance of hearing scripture expounded on in sermons and explored in Bible study. I believe the best way to learn the proper use of scripture is in a faith community – such as a Bible Study group.  Group discussion allows the Spirit of God to reveal through conversation and reflection a fuller meaning of these ancient words.

 The Apostle Paul encourages Christians to take hold of this weapon. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul encourages his readers to put on the whole armour of God, which includes “the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.” (Ephesians 6:10-18) The scriptures are like a light that brings insight into the darkness and confusion of our lives. The scriptures can deepen our relationship with God, and it is that relationship that will keep us from giving in to temptation.

God equipped the Apostle Paul to bring the Gospel into a hostile world. Paul knew well how to wield the power of the Lightsaber called Scripture. In his letter to the Romans Paul quotes scripture to give encouragement and guidance to the Christians in Rome. These same scripture quotations I leave with you, as a weapon against despair and fear, against temptation and struggles.

Let the light of these ancient words blaze into your world today, sustaining you in the days and weeks to come:
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.”
“All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame.”
“All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

3 Reflections on Epiphany - Reflection #3 – Gifts Suggestions

The three gifts the magi bring to Bethlehem are often considered as symbolic indicators of Christ’s nature. Origen, the 3rd century theologian, gave us a concise example of this way of understanding the gifts when he wrote “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” This was the interpretation I grew up with, and one that still resonates with me today. However I would like to suggest another way of interpreting the significance of these three gifts.

I would like to propose that the three gifts given by the magi to the Christ child can also represent a proper response for all of us who seek to honor and worship the Saviour. The gifts of the magi can help us understand what gifts we can offer to Jesus, in the here and now.

Gold – it seems to me the giving of gold by the magi suggests that we give to Christ from our resources, through our offerings of time, talents and treasures to the work of the church and beyond. Giving of our gold (money) is really a way of sharing our time and talents. Money is both a measure of the time we have worked at something and an indication of the value of our skills and abilities. When we give from our resources to others, especially to those less fortunate than ourselves, we are giving them to Christ. As the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40 NIV)

Frankincense – as incense was used in Biblical times in religious ceremonies I would suggest that the giving of frankincense by the magi would indicate that it is appropriate that we give to Christ our worship, our prayers. We offer our petitions to the Lord because not only is Jesus worthy of receiving our prayers, but also because as the Son of God Jesus is able to receive our prayers and respond. The gift of frankincense indicates that the one born in Bethlehem is also the one we can turn to in prayer, in worship. With the psalmist we say “May my prayer be like incense in your presence.” (Psalm 141:2 NJB)

Myrrh – I would suggest that this final gift tells us that it is appropriate to give to Christ the gift of our serving, specifically serving as agents of healing and reconciliation in the world. Myrrh had a number of uses including as a medicinal agent in healing balm. We are called to make the world a sweet smelling place, not through dousing everything with perfume, but by spreading the healing and pleasant aroma of love – not a romantic love, but the self-giving love of God, shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Loving service inspired by Christ, the caring serving of others to honour Christ, this brings light into a dark world, brings healing into a broken world, and as the gift of myrrh suggests, brings a sweet aroma into a world made putrid with hatred, vengeance and exclusion. “Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.” (Ephesians 5:2 CEB)

Perhaps these Epiphany thoughts of mine can best be summed up with the words of the closing verse of the carol written by the English poet Christina Rossetti - "In the Bleak Midwinter
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him – give my heart.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

3 Reflections on Epiphany - Reflection #2 – Journeying Together

There is some significance in the number of magi who came to Judea. I am not talking about the number three, that number is never specifically mentioned in Matthew's account – tradition simply assumes this because of the three gifts. The group of magi could have been larger, for example the Syriac church tradition has twelve magi making the journey to Bethlehem. The important thing for the point I would like to make is that there were simply more than one. We know this for sure because the Greek word (magi) is a plural form, hence the English translation “wise men”.

It struck me this year that the magi were a group - a group who most likely discussed and planned together, then traveled together, and ultimately worshiped together. It is that communal aspect of the magi’s journey that I noticed in particular this year. I saw it as another example of the communal nature of the Christian faith. There is wisdom in making our journeys of faith with others. In community we can provide support and companionship for one another. In community we have access to a wider perspective and broader understanding when seeking to discern meaning. In community our joys are multiplied, and our sorrows divided. In community we experience relationship, which is central to faith. The Christian faith places relationship with God through Jesus as the foundation to everything else. The way we live our lives grows from that relationship with God to impact how we relate to others around us. The magi, by arriving as a group, suggest that this will be about ‘God and us’, not ‘me and God’.

This late 19th century painting by James Tissot, called “The Journey of the Magi” is one of my favourite because it shows the whole community that was needed for such a journey. Not only do we have the magi, but many others in the camel train. Perhaps there were cooks and labourers, soldiers for protection and herders for their knowledge of the animals. This painting depicts people with a diverse range of backgrounds all making the journey to honour the Christ child. Tissot’s painting reminds us that Jesus was born for all humanity, not just the powerful and mighty.

This insight, which grew out of my pondering the story of the magi this year, is a reminder to myself that a community of faith is important. We need to resist the lure of a culture that raises the individual above all else, a society that places personal preference as more important that what’s best for the whole. Even the wise and mighty magi knew the value of journeying together – we should not forget that lesson.

Monday, January 4, 2016

3 Reflections on Epiphany - Reflection #1 – The First Gifts

Epiphany is an ancient Christian festival day that centers on the revealing of Jesus as God incarnate. In Western Christianity the season of Epiphany begins with a commemoration of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. The visit of the Magi which is found in the Gospel of Matthew, often gets mixed in with the birth narrative found in the Gospel of Luke, but to mix the two stories together misses the unique themes and messages of each story. In this post, and the two to follow, I will reflect on some of the particular insights I gained from pondering this account of the Magi this year. I begin with the first gifts.

The first gifts given in this story were not the gifts of the Magi, but were instead gifts from God. The first gift is the gift of knowledge. It is a gift of the Creator that humans have the ability to think and wonder, to interpret and imagine, to remember and to plan. Without this gift the Magi would not have been seekers of truth, exploring the heavens and the earth for a deeper understanding of the world around them. Without this gift the magi would not have been able to read and understand the writings of others, or have the ability to plan for a difficult and lengthy journey. The magi remind us that the ability to think is a gift from God, one to be used rather than discouraged. Faith does not require us to turn off our brains, rather it should motivate us to use this gift that God has bestowed on humans to the best of our ability.

The second gift is the gift of the star. This is the gift of a pointer, a sign which helps direct the seekers. I believe God gifts us with signs, whether something in nature, or in the actions and words of others, or in the passages of sacred scripture. Signs can be highly personal, meaning something for one person, but not for others. There must have been others who saw the star of Bethlehem, but they either didn’t pay attention to it, or were unable to discern its meaning. The aurora borealis have sometimes been a sign for me in the night sky, a sign of God’s presence and an affirmation of certain directions I’ve taken in my ministry. On one level I know that the northern lights are simply the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun, but even while knowing this I still acknowledge that in some way the aurora borealis have become a sign for me. I think it is less about when the aurora are visible and more about when I notice them. The star the magi noticed had a deeper meaning for them than simply an astronomical phenomena, it was a sign to be pondered and interpreted.

The third gift is the most significant, it is the gift of the Christ child himself. God incarnate, the Word made flesh! This gift is beyond our ability to understand fully, yet it is the centerpoint of time – after this gift was given everything changed. This mystery, this wonder, this surprise, this babe born in Bethlehem remains the greatest gift given to humanity. While Mary could hold this child in her lap, no human can hold the fullness of this gift within their own understanding. In many ways we continue to unwrap this gift given two millennia ago, discovering a fuller, deeper relationship with God as we draw this gift closer to ourselves, and as we share it with others.

In each of these gifts the common denominator is that they were given first. These were not earned, they were not deserved, they were not lucky coincidence. Instead they help us understand the love of God, given as a gift always first and foremost. All we can do is receive such gifts with gratitude. That these gifts from God are first-given is grace, this is God’s way, this is good news. So how do we respond to such gifts? That question I will explore in another post.