Manna from Heaven – Sermon on Exodus 16

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If I were to ask you what the top five best moments of your life were, I am willing to guess that the main ones that come to mind would have less to do with material possessions and more to do with people, places, experiences, and memory making.

We live in a society that always seeks the biggest, best, fastest, and newest, and yet, many studies have shown that when someone actually gets the object that they think they want, they often are only satisfied with it for a short amount of time before they think about the next thing.  Take phones for example.  Someone might want to save up for the newest IPhone only to receive it and it become outdated within a few months.  Suddenly the new phone seems to have much better technology, is much easier to use, and has additional features which we suddenly feel we cannot live without.  

It has often surprised me, in fact, that the countries which are the richest economically have the highest rates of stress, anxiety, and depression compared to poor countries.  There are some people who struggle with mental illness due to chemical imbalances within their brain which cannot be helped, but can be managed effectively with the right treatments, yet, there are many others who struggle with discontentment simply because they have too many options and opportunities than they could possibly ever desire.  Perhaps hard to imagine for some, but there are actually Millennials (people in their 20s and 30s) who have gone into debt trying to keep up appearances on social media by going on trips or wearing clothes they cannot afford and in recent year a new phrase has been created called FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  It seems that while social media has many benefits, one draw back is that people spend money to impress people they don’t even know or even like.  On my own Facebook page I have over 1300 friends and yet there have been times when I have felt lonely.  There are many other Millenials who feel the same way, they have many followers but when it really comes down to facing a tough day, they hardly know who to call to cheer them up.  In many ways, online friendships have replaced real ones, status updates have replaced authenticity, and fear of missing out has replaced being truly grateful and savouring the present moment.

Today’s Scripture passage deals with a chronic case of despair syndrome.  In Exodus 14, God miraculously brings the Israelite’s out of Egypt, saving them from their slave masters and drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea. How is it then, that the Israelite’s forget God’s provision so quickly – that they swing from celebrating with song and dance in chapter 15, only to complain and accuse Moses in chapter 16 of bringing them out in the wilderness to die?  It seems that even though the Israelite’s are no longer physically enslaved, they are still enslaved by their old mindset of want and their old beliefs that they won’t get what they need.

During the Israelite’s complaints, they revert back to the classic “good old days” mentality.  They remember Egypt as being much better than it actually was.  Looking back, they forget that they were slaves and being treated mercilessly.  They forget that they feared for their lives, weren’t able to practice their customs and traditions, and were overworked, instead, they see it as the better option.  They ask Moses why he has brought them into the wilderness to die, suggesting that it would have been better to have stayed and died in Egypt.  They list off cucumbers, melons, leeks, onion, and garlic showcasing that the land was lush and vibrant and provided for them compared to the desert they are now in, and they question Moses’s competence as a leader to give them what they think they need.  In this moment of anger, they forget the miracles God gifted them with in the desert: guiding them by a pillar of cloud and fire, sweetening the bitter waters, and providing an oasis of  springs and palm trees in the middle of the desert.

At first glance, it is easy to judge the Israelite’s for their childish behaviour, and yet, it is so easy to fall into this trap ourselves.  Sometimes it is easier to stay in the proverbial pit that we know so well rather than risk going into an unknown fire.  Sometimes we may complain about our job, and yet we might not know how to make it better or we might fear what it would look like to stand up for ourselves or even walk away entirely.  

To a lesser degree I faced something similar when I eventually left an organization I had worked for for over 7 years.  During the first lockdown I felt that God was stirring my heart to go back into ministry and pursue ordination (something that had been on my mind for several years and which I had trained for in seminary).  I began to feel these stirrings but at first I was too afraid to make the leap.  Eventually I decided to begin meeting regularly with a spiritual director.  In our first session together, the spiritual director told me that sometimes people stay in the same job because they are used to it, familiar with it, and know what is expected of them but that God wanted to use me for something far greater if I trusted Him.  I put in my resignation the next day and began my journey with the United Church which I am currently on.  Just like the Israelite’s there are days when it hasn’t been easy.  There are days when I look back remembering all the wonderful things about my old job, about living in Scotland, and about all the wonderful people I met.  Sometimes in the midst of academic assignments, job searching, and trying to find my bearings, I compare my present reality and think about the “good ole days,” but when I re-centre my thoughts on my calling and vocation, I am filled with gratitude and remember that I am on the right path.

In my reading of this Scripture I saw two ways to look at this story and I want to present both of them to you now.

The first way is to think about how the Israelite’s always wanted more and truly seemed to suffer from selective memory.  They would ask God for something they needed, God would provide, they would be content, but then they would worry and fret about what was coming next.  We often see this in society as well.  How many times have we heard a child say that they will be happy and never ask for anything ever again if their parents or grandparents simply get them that one new toy or take them to Disney World?  Well the parents save up for the skateboard and when the kid bounds down the stairs on their birthday and unwraps their gift they stare in amazement, express thankfulness and whiz down the street, only  to see a TV advertisement or something in the store and ask their parents for that the next day.  

Unfortunately, most adults don’t outgrow that phase either.  How many times have we heard someone say: I’ll be happy when I get a job, I’ll be happy when I get a raise, I’ll be happy when I get a promotion, and I’ll be happy when I finally retire.  There is always something more to be striving for.  

I’m sure many of us have also met someone who keeps hoping to win the lottery.  Sometimes people will say if they won the lottery they would truly be happy because they would be able to pay off all their debts and start with a clean slate, and yet, studies have consistently shown that many lottery winners actually end off worse than they did before they won.  Many winners become depressed, lose all their earnings within a few short months or years, and sometimes even get divorced as a result.  In other words, getting the biggest, brightest, and best does not always make us as happy as we thought it might.

The second way to look at this text is to remember how difficult it is to receive.  It is important here to remember that these were not just a few rogue individuals who complained to Moses and Aaron but the entire assembly.  A nation about as big as Chicago or Toronto, and a whole generation who had grown up under the oppression of slavery.  It was difficult for them to imagine that God would graciously provide for them without them having to do anything on their part except receive what was given.  Receiving the manna had nothing to do with their individual or collective skill, cleverness, strength, or industriousness, rather it had to do with them graciously accepting.

In my own life I have travelled to many poor countries and it has been humbling to receive from the people there.  At first, I almost didn’t want to accept food and hospitality from them because I knew that when they were offering me something it meant they were having to do without, and yet, to say no to what they wanted to give me was to insult them and to deeply hurt and offend.  Therefore, even though everything inside me was saying I should be the one to provide for them, I knew that I just needed to be a guest and let them be the Host.  

There are many opportunities in our lives when we are guests.  Sometimes literally, but many other times metaphorically.  There are times when people give us a genuine compliment and we might blush and be quick to backpedal and tell them that they are just flattering us.  There are times when we actually need the help of another but we might be too shy or embarrassed to request it thinking we wouldn’t want to trouble them even though we know we’d do the same for them in a heartbeat without having to be asked twice.  There’s a great line in one of my favourite hymns “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant” that says “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant too.” Or, if church music isn’t really your jam you may know this line better “Lean on me, when you’re not strong, for I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.  Lean on me, for it won’t be long, ‘till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

In this coming week we will face many opportunities and some obstacles.  I’m sure there will be moments when we will feel utterly amazed and grateful, but there might also be times when we feel helpless, anxious, and afraid.  It was like that with the Israelite’s.  I learned a few years back that anger is a secondary emotion and one of its prime causes is fear.  The Israelite’s were likely afraid because they didn’t know what was coming next and perhaps even felt out of control with all the uncertainty.  When we feel out of control and anxious this week, we can rely on the Hand of God, the fellowship of our church and the support of our closest friends and family.  May we go into this new week believing and daring to dream the impossible, journeying in gratitude, and receiving the love of others just as we extend grace and compassion to them.  Let it be so. Amen.

Life for the Withering Soul (Sermon on Psalm 14)

It goes without saying that the pandemic has affected all of us in many ways: Physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, and even spiritually.  These past 17 months have been filled with mounting anxiety and dread and even as restrictions have lessened and some normality has resumed, it is still difficult to function as we did before when we know that the threat has not totally been eradicated.  We may feel a mixture of both excitement and apprehension, elation and uncertainty, as what was once normal begins to feel more foreign to some of us.

 One day, I met up with some friends and one of them asked this profound question:  “What would it be like to live our lives with no restrictions?”  Just think about that for a minute.  All of us are restricted in various ways.  We might be restricted because of our age, gender, ethnicity, skin colour,citizenship, financial position or our disability, but what would it truly be like to live without having to worry about anything?  To live a life free of economic hardship, racism, stress, worry, anxiety or depression?  Put another way: What would it be like if the world were truly perfect?

In today’s reading of Psalm 14, we see the exact opposite of that ideal world.  Instead of a Utopian paradise the Psalmist writes of a dystopian reality similar to the books I loved growing up: 1984, Brave New World, and the Giver.  

Instead of writing about a world where no one goes hungry, all are treated fairly, and all have equal opportunities, the Psalmist asks the same questions many of us might have posed at some point in our own lives.  Questions like: Why do the wicked prosper while the righteous go unnoticed? Why do some live in luxury while others live in poverty?  Why are some human beings cruel and exploit others instead of empowering them in love?  And why do some people seem to only care about themselves as they trample those they consider “less than” them?  Put simply, these sentiments can all be summed up in one age old question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Over the last 3 months I have been living in Saskatchewan and working at an inner-city hospital doing my first chaplaincy training course also called a “Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Unit.”  Working in such a poverty stricken environment has truly made me more aware of the evils of systemic oppression, racism, and colonization.  The Psalmist uses the word “sin” which is not really an in vogue phrase these days, but the word literally means to “miss the mark.”  When unmarked graves have been discovered, we as a Canadian society missed the mark.  When children go to bed hungry, we as a society are missing the mark.  When Indigenous children were placed in white environments with the sole objective to eradicate their culture, language, and ethnic heritage our society missed the mark.  And when elementary and high schools failed to teach the truth about the residential schools sheltering students from the actual horrors of Canadian history, and didn’t even bother to mention the term “60s Scoop” white Canada missed the mark once again.  

Throughout these last 3 months, I have interacted with many Indigenous patients and this has been humbling especially because it was over this summer that the mass graves were discovered.  These discoveries were nauseating and made many of us feel physically sick, and as a chaplaincy student and ministry student on the path to ordination, I felt like my gut had been punched recognizing that these atrocities were done in the name of the church and in the name of Christianity.  A religion whose primary values were founded on peace, love, and social justice had ironically been responsible for death, destruction, and demolition.  

The Scriptures tell us that when one member suffers we all suffer.  To use an analogy, it’s like when you break a bone.  I broke part of my lower back a few years ago, and despite the fact that I was still in my mid-to-late 20s, I have much more empathy now for anyone living with back pain.  I simply missed a step on the stairs and slid the rest of the way down.  I was fine the day it happened, but the next day I could barely stand let alone walk.  In reality, it was only one section of my body that was affected, but it made me feel dizzy, my ears started ringing, and I thought I might throw up because I was in so much pain.  I went to the doctor who told me that there was nothing she could do and that it must heal on its own.  She also told me that I would suffer from back pain the rest of my life as a result.  I was only in my 20s, but I had to limp off the bus.  I had to sit in the front section, got dirty looks from some elderly people who thought I was just some inconsiderate kid, but later looks of pity when they noticed the searing pain as I hobbled off the bus.  When one member suffers we all suffer.  When one member experiences brokenness, we all feel the pain.  And when one member will continue to live with the effects long after the fact, we all surround that person and take responsibility.

The effects of the residential schools and the discovery of the graves were very damaging to the patients I did see, and yet, many of them had quite an unexpected response.  Some of them were angry, to be sure, but many of them still had an unshakable faith.  Several of them still identified as Christian.  One of the best moments was in speaking to an Indigenous man who said “I want you to know that I am not against Christ.  Believing in Christ is a good thing.  Being a Christian is a good thing.  It was not the church that did this to us, it was bad people who were part of the church.”  I have heard similar sentiments voiced from my Indigenous siblings as they offer direct and indirect forgiveness.  That truly has been the most humbling experience of all.

Perhaps we have never experienced an atrocity to the same scope as the residential schools, but all of us have experienced a tragedy or a trauma in our lives and perhaps when we faced such a difficulty we might have asked “is there a God and if there is why is he allowing this to happen to me?” or looking back on the experience we might ask “where was God when….”

I have had these moments myself and part of my faith journey has been learning that doubt does not have to be a negative thing and in fact can actually prove to be a very healthy aspect of growing up spiritually.  So, I found the beginning of the Psalm to be quite harsh.  The Psalmist writes “the fool says in his heart ‘there is no God’ they are all corrupt, their deeds are vile, and there is no one who does good.’”  I thought this was harsh because as a student chaplain I encountered many atheists and agnostics at the hospital who were kind, loving, and generous people.  They might not have had a religious label, but I soon discovered they were spiritual nonetheless.  I found this statement quite judgmental, until I did a bit more digging.  I then learned that the term fool in Hebrew literally means “withering soul.”  That helped to put it into more perspective for me.  

This pandemic and all the news headlines that have come with it have caused many of our souls to wither.  Living in this broken world and the things we and our loved ones have gone through likely have caused our souls to wither at times.  Having to live through grief, loss, pain, and disappointment can often lead to what St. John of the Cross terms a “dark night of the soul” similar to how the trees and plants wilt and wither when winter arrives.  This is so much a part of life in fact that the Psalmist doesn’t just share these sentiments once but writes the same Psalm again almost word for word just a few chapters later in Psalm 53.

 When it’s hot and sunny outside we can often forget that this weather won’t last forever and soon there will be ice and snow on the ground once again.  In our lives we experience all the seasons – the anticipation of spring, the joy of summer, the beauty of fall, and the stillness of winter.  And yet, even in the winter, there is still hope and promise of the spring because we live our lives in cycles rather than in a linear progression.  Even in the most painful moments of our lives, we can see growth and peace if we open our hearts to the possibility.  Borrowing a line from  Dr. Maurice “life can emanate and feel like a seedling and plant buried deep within the pavement and cement.  Do no despair – like the plant, there is a life source, light, energy, and growth that can and will break through the impossible and burst into light, beauty, gentleness, and strength.” (Out of the Shadows – Volume 2)

What are the signs of life you see springing up around you today?  What are the ways that you see God moving and working even in the midst of trials, uncertainties, doubts and fears?

I see signs of life even in the inner city of Saskatoon through a local church that has opened an ice cream stand employing street youth to have a summer job.  I see life in my friend Dr. Maurice who empowers Indigenous and Metis sibling through her advocacy and education work and through the power of a story that is rarely told.  I believe there is life when churches practice an enduring and inclusive love opening their doors to others whom society has rejected and those who cannot find a place anywhere else.  I believe that life is strongest when those who have faced immense difficulties in their lives transform their experiences by showing others who suffer that there is a way out.  I find Christ’s love in the creative, in the writers, the poets, the artists, and the musicians, and I find radical hospitality in anyone who finds a withered soul and pours water and sunshine on them to help them grow even more beautiful and radiant.

Yes, on this earth we will face many moments when our soul feels withered, but we will also experience God looking down on us with love.  We will experience vibrant dreams and spiritual insights, and we will discover God seeking after us just as we seek after Him.  May it be so.  Amen.

The Meaning of Love

In my application for my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) I wrote “I am interested in CPE because I, too, want to explore the depths of despair and the heights of love.”

Here are my reflections (in poetry form) as I write from the airport on my way home:

Love is patient, love is kind,

Love understands that people need time.

Love is holding the hand of a person in palliative care,

Love is present when no one else is there.

Love is kind, but it still challenges,

Calls out life-limiting theology and indifference while acknowledging the way it damages,

Love is patient, it does not judge,

It understands that people need unconditional acceptance.

It does not have an agenda to convert,

It’s sole objective is to be near a soul in hurt.

Love doesn’t envy, it doesn’t boast,

Love believes the best not the worst.

It doesn’t brag out of pride,

Rather it is humble, teachable, real and alive.

True love is vulnerable, soul searching and transformative,

It takes a withered soul and provides vibrancy and insight.

Love isn’t self-seeking, but it is self-caring.

Love understands that the wounded healer first needs healing.

Love recognizes its limits and shortcomings,

It gracefully requests and accepts help as needed.

Love has mentors and friends on its journey,

Love recognizes the places its own soul is weary.

Love is not easily angered, keeps no records of wrongs,

Yet love forgives and also calls for accountability,

Love jumps the hurdle of trauma,

While also calling for justice and action.

Love doesn’t deny what’s right in the name of peacekeeping,

Rather love works towards peace by restoration.

Love doesn’t rejoice in evil, but in the truth.

Love looks for the good in humanity and creation.

Love understands that wounds bleed.

Love knows when to do First Aid and when to walk away.

Love is always available for a second chance.

But love also has boundaries and knows how to protect its own heart.

Love always protects,

It seeks to empower the weakest.

It seeks to strengthen the timid.

It walks between when there is danger.

It will give its own life for another.

Love always trusts,

It believes in hope,

Even when days are gloomy, it speaks comfort.

It delights in simple things,

It is grateful.

It perseveres even when life is challenging.

Love perseveres because it sees the bigger picture and it values the part it plays.

Love never fails, it is dependable, reliable, and committed.

Love is always present and around us.

Love stands the test of time.

Sermon: The Places Where Jesus Shows Up Luke 24:36-48

This sermon was first preached on April 18th, 2021 at Harrow United Church. I apologize for not uploading it directly afterwards, but this is around the time when life was very busy because I moved out west. Hope you still enjoy it:

I’d like to start today by asking a personal question: “When was the last time you saw Jesus?”

When I was in university, I used to lead a weekly women’s prayer group and every week I would start off with the same two questions: “How have you seen God this week?” and “How have you seen God today?”

At first, this question might come across as perplexing.  After all, I am fairly sure that none of us have actually physically seen or interacted with God, yet, many of us have experienced God through people, life circumstances, and events.  

The story that we read today illustrates this very concept and is particularly applicable in our current reality of living in the midst of a global pandemic and yet another lockdown since the news was first released in March 2020.

Many of us might have experienced the same emotions the disciples felt in this passage when the news was released two weeks ago.  In particular, I found myself reflecting on the very nuances of how this lockdown was released at Easter time. It reminded me how just like the disciples had hoped that Jesus would be the one to save them from oppression and liberate them from Roman opposition, many of us placed hope in the vaccine as a way to curb the spread of the virus.  Most of us likely hoped for a family Easter dinner, visiting loved ones, and possibly a summer holiday.  Then Good Friday came and we felt all our hopes disappear, realizing that those things are not in our immediate future.

In our passage today, we meet the disciples in a locked room.  This sense of being locked in is something we all can relate to now having lived through quarantines and stay at home orders.  The Bible says the disciples stayed indoors due to fear or the Jewish authorities.  All of us have likely known this type of fear at some point in our lives.  For some of us, the raging virus causes us fear both for our own physical heath and safety and for the well-being of others in our midst.  Others of us may have faced this fear awaiting a medical diagnosis, being required to complete a task which caused us massive amount of anxiety, having to sit an important university entrance exam, or facing an important job interview.

It is natural to feel afraid when we are placed outside our comfort zone, but how we react to that fear is of far greater importance.  When confronted with fear we have a few options: we can ignore the fear altogether and not take the healthy risks we need to move forward in life, we can forget everything and run away from it perhaps to new towns, new jobs, or new relationships, or we can face it and move on with our lives.  In this passage, the disciples chose the first option.  They were locked in their homes and that fear kept them from interacting with the population.  Instead of reaching out and connecting, they chose to isolate themselves.  With the restrictions in place today, it can be very difficult not to completely isolate, and yet there are safe ways to still maintain contact with those we love even if only through Zoom.  Studies have shown that complete isolation and cut off have negative effects on physical and mental health because humans are social creatures, and yet, there is a way to still let others know we love and care about them while adhering to safe measures.  

Please don’t misunderstand me.  There is a place for healthy fear.  Healthy fear is what causes us to look both ways when crossing a street, to fasten our seat belt when driving a car, and to ensure we eat healthy and exercise.  But there is an unhealthy fear that can drive us to become anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed by prohibiting us from doing things necessary for our development.  I am not speaking about medical anxiety here, I am talking about the all consuming fear of failure and approval that sometimes plague us all.

While the disciples were hiding away in their homes because of this fear, Jesus came into their midst offering a word of peace.  This is the second encounter in a short time span when Jesus shows up unexpectedly.  Just a few verses before, Jesus met the disciples as they were walking on the Road to Emmaus (a town whose literal name translates “Warm Spring.”)  As the disciples were walking, Jesus practiced good pastoral care through active listening and asking clarifying questions.  The disciples were perplexed at his calm approach and asked him “are you the only one in Israel who doesn’t know these things?”

Jesus’s death had made front page news.  The whole town knew about this hot topic.  It would sort of be like if someone approached us today and asked “hey why is everyone wearing masks?”  We would likely be tempted to look at them as if they had three eyes and ask “are you the only one who hasn’t heard of COVID?”  Yet instead of revealing himself, Jesus asked a further question “What things?” and this question gave the disciples permission to share their doubts, fears, and disappointments that he one they thought would save them from Roman rule was not really who he said he was.  It wasn’t until the disciples invited Jesus to share a meal with them that their eyes were opened and they recognized him.  I have always loved their response as Jesus miraculously disappears “were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Now Jesus has appeared again but this time to a different group of disciples.  Standing in their midst, Jesus takes a more streamlined approach and doesn’t waste any time introducing himself.  The disciples are absolutely terrified thinking they have seen a ghost.  After all, they know Jesus just died and they didn’t think he had risen again.  For those of us who grew up Christian, it can be easy to jump past these passages.  After all, we know that in the end of the day good triumphs over evil and the hero wins.  But the disciples didn’t have that information readily at their disposal.  So, looking at this story through the disciple’s eyes, we can understand why they were terrified.  Dead things are supposed to stay dead.  Unless you’re Christ.

Rather than condemning the disciples’ lack of faith, Jesus acknowledges their doubts and invites them to touch his hands and side where the wound marks from the crucifixion would have been.  In our lives, sometimes Christ shows up the best when we enter into his suffering and he enters into ours.  It is very common that when we or a loved one hit rock bottom we genuinely call out to be saved.  It often happens that in a moment of great fear, we acknowledge the need to depend on someone stronger than ourselves.  It is often in intense moments of pain that we can feel overwhelmed by Christ’s love.

The Bible is clear that the Christian life is filled with both moments of intense joy and times of consuming sorrow and despair.  A quick glance at any Bible commentary or a quick Google search will point to suffering through opposition, persecution, testing, and temptations.  Yet, even despite these hard truths, we are given many other verses of encouragement pointing to God’s faithfulness and helping us stand firm even when evil threatens to engulf us.  The Bible says that God comforts us, and most importantly, that although in this world we will face various trials, we can take heart because God has overcome and is stronger than anything we encounter this side of eternity.

After Jesus fully reveals who he is leaving no further doubt in the disciples’ minds, he does something else peculiar.  He asks for something to eat.  Just like in the Emmaus story, Jesus dispels doubt through sharing a meal.  Table fellowship seems to have been  one of the methods Jesus often used for informal teaching and transformative encounters.  Many of us can relate.  How many of us have shared a meal with a complete stranger and after a few hours considered them a new friend?  How many of us have moved to a new town or a new church and been invited over after a service and made to feel welcomed?  Perhaps some of us might even have shared a meal with someone who didn’t speak our language, but even despite a relatively silent dinner we left with our bellies and our hearts full.  There is just something so inspiring about sharing a basic necessity of life with one another.  Yet, it isn’t just in the mere fact that food is placed on the table, bur rather the hospitality and care the host usually extends: menu planning, using the best china, tastefully decorating the table, making the food visually appealing, buying flowers, cleaning the house, clearing away the dishes and so on.

For the last 7 years when I was part of an international Christian community called L’Arche I saw firsthand how important sharing in a fellowship meal is.  It was around the dinner table that I built relationships with adults who have disabilities.  In the careful feeding of someone who could not lift a spoon for themselves a real trust and bond was formed.  Being an international community, we shared plates from around the world which helped us make a cultural connection.  In L’Arche it wasn’t so much about whether someone was the best cook or not, but rather it was about the effort it took, and the extended time of talking, laughing and praying together.  Table fellowship is something that is slowly being lost in our consumeristic culture especially with late working hours.  Takeouts have become more common than before, and watching Netflix or texting at the dinner table has become the norm. And yet, there is something incredibly special about giving each other undivided attention when we are breaking the bread together.

Jesus does something else special.  After he has eaten in front of the disciples and shown that he has a physical body which requires nourishment, he launches into a basic Bible study outlining who he is, why he had to die, and why he has been raised back to life.

I used to teach Sunday school and I loved hearing how the children had seen God.  As we get older, it becomes easier to give expected answers like “through Scripture” or “through going to church.”  These answers are correct and there is nothing wrong with them.  But I love the way children answer.  For them Jesus’s love is not just found in Sunday school, but also in hugs and kisses, bunny rabbits, and sharing snacks.

Today Christ is revealing his love to us every day if only we open our eyes and become aware of it.  It is true that sometimes we feel those “aha” moments when we open the Bible up and our eyes alight on a passage that seems to be just for us, or when we hear a hymn that has special meaning.  Sometimes we may hear a sermon that leaves us convicted as if the sermon was addressed just to us.  But we also see Christ in more daily occurrences.

In preparing for my sermon, I asked some friends on my Facebook about ways they have seen Christ and ways they have been Christ to others.  I received some pretty interesting and helpful responses and I wanted to share a few with you today.  We see Christ when we have a hard day at work and we jump into our car and our favourite song is playing on the radio.  We see Christ when we receive a text or phone call from a friend we haven’t spoken to in ages.  We see Christ when someone says thank you, sends us a bouquet of flowers, or lets us go ahead of them in line.  I personally see Christ a lot in the United Church groups I am a part of where I feel loved and accepted for who I am, and free to be my most vulnerable and authentic self as I share both my joy and my pain.

In answer to this question, I received two special stories from United Church friends I wanted to share today.  The first one is a pastor in the Prairies who created a “kindness garden.”  Instead of planting flowers, she delicately painted and arranged rocks in a beautiful formation with the instructions to “take one, share one, make one, or leave one.”  Each rock had an encouraging word on it such as “beautiful” “beloved” “shine” “wonder” “life” “joy” and “breathe”.  Just a few days after the garden was created, my friend received a knock at the door.  A young man in his twenties had come to thank her for the garden and said he had thought about just walking by but he felt in his spirit he needed to express his gratitude.  After introducing themselves, this pastor learned that this young man was from Iraq and had only been in Canada for four years.  Her simple idea had infused the man with gratitude.  

The second is from one of my friends still in her twenties who was suddenly diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease a few years ago.  Her friends and family asked her what they could do to help cheer her up and she suggested that they all send her socks – her goal was 365 pairs (one for every day of the year).  The project grew and blossomed and today has become a social enterprise called The Sock Project where socks are shipped out to a number of individuals facing severe health challenges, mental health struggles, or even just having a bad hair day.  I love this story because it illustrates how from our own moments of pain and weakness, God’s love can shine forth and we can be “Jesus with skin on” to others.

Before I end my sermon today, I would like to set out two challenges for the week ahead.  The first one is to recognize when Jesus is present with you this week.  This could be through the kind words or actions of another, or even though an internal sense of peace, serenity and acceptance.  My friend calls these God moments “sparks.”  Perhaps note them down in your journal or your phone.  By being mindful of these divine experiences, we may find ourselves finding mundane and muddled moments to be meaningful and profound.

The second challenge is to think about how we can be Jesus to another person this week.  Think about who you know in your own network who might be struggling.  Perhaps consider someone who is stuck at home alone or an elderly person who does not have access to a computer.  It might take some practice, but if we treat every person we meet this week as “Jesus in disguise” we might find our attitudes and approaches drastically change.  Again, it might help to make a mental or physical note of how these experiences made us feel and review them at the end of the week.

No matter what you choose to do, I believe that these two exercises will be a blessing to us.  Jesus came at a time of uncertainty and fear, he came into our midst and brought us peace.  He revealed himself and showed us who he really was, and he didn’t leave us wanting, but left us filled with hope.  Today may we experience his presence right here and right now and thank him for fully showing up. Amen.

My Life As A Bee

This summer, I joined the writing group at St. Paul’s Hospital. The group is made up of a number of staff who enjoy various forms of writing styles. Since I usually tend to write non-fiction and nerdy theological tomes, I decided to do “lighter” writing and came up with this fun story about my life as a bee. I hope you enjoy it and see the humour and playfulness in it:

Hello, excuse me.  I don’t think we’ve ever formally met.  My name is Bertha Bee and I was born in Wisconsin but have since made my way into Saskatoon.  I know this sounds ambitious, but we bees are actually very strong when it comes to flying.  I took the journey in chunks.  A little bit every day as the wind blew me closer and closer to my destination.  I eventually landed here after 61 days of gruelling flight, and made myself a little home near a treehouse I found in a little boy’s backyard.  At first the boy’s father was very upset.  He was trying to hit my little hive with a huge stick so that I would leave.  Eventually, though, he realized I was not there to hurt anyone.  I am not like my first cousin the wasp who is just there to be a nuisance.  The boy’s mother urged her husband to stop striking me because she said I would be there to tend and care for the flowers.  The boy’s family actually does have quite the nice garden.  They have petunias, orchids, lilies, and lilacs, but my favourite is the rose.  They also have some peonies, but the ants always seem to be drawn to those, and I am not really friends with ants especially after a bad experience I had just a few years back.  Ever since then, the family has left me alone, and I am happy with that because I am rather introverted.  

When I first arrived in Saskatoon, I took some time to get my bearings.  I discovered all the best paths and walkways, and I learned the places to avoid because the people and animals weren’t very friendly.  Like I said, I’m an introvert, happy in my own company, but it didn’t take long before the boy bees in the town started trying to get my attention.  I had only been here about  a week when I met a bee I hope will be my life mate.  His name is Bernie.  He’s a bit older than me, but age is just a number, right?  Bernie sadly became a widower not too long ago when his wife hit a car’s windshield as it sped down the highway.  Poor Bernie never got a chance to say goodbye.  He still misses his wife a lot and they had some larvae so Bernie has always been sad that his little ones will grow up without a mom.  Despite all that, he is truly a gentleman.  He opens and closes the hive door when I come in and when I leave, and after a long day of work, he always let me put my feet up and relax, and so after just a few minutes of knowing each other we moved in together.  I know this all might sound rather fast, but we bees don’t like to waste much time.  Our lives are short enough as they are, and so when the opportunity comes up, we always take it.  It has been difficult becoming a mother right away without any preparation but I do love it.  I love looking after my step children: Bonnie, Brenda, Beatrice, and Benjamin and I treat them like my own.  Bernie calls me his little Queen because he says I am a natural at mothering.  Bernie keeps pestering me about having some children of our own, but I have no interest in that.  I have never wanted to lay eggs, I’m just not maternal in that way, but I am happy to care for the little ones that are already here.  I find they grow up so fast and soon they will be flying out of the hive in no time.

When I left Wisconsin, I left behind my family.  Sadly both my parents had already passed away.  Like I said, we bees don’t get to live very long.  I have a sister, Brianna, who is still alive and raising a family with her husband Bob, and I have a brother Bert who passed away just last summer in a tragic accident.  What happened was that Bert was minding his own business flying through a couple’s backyard one hot summer in July.  Bert didn’t mean any harm, but he was hungry, and sometimes Bert thinks with his stomach.  When he noticed there was a BBQ happening he decided to have a taste.  Unfortunately, the family was not very happy with that and started trying to swat Bert.  Bert would never harm anyone and he got very scared so he landed on the little boy’s lawn chair, but the boy began screaming and that made Bert very angry.  Bert was MAD because he thought “I know I am unwanted here, but there’s no reason people can’t just see me out politely.”  Bert has always had trouble being accepted.  He was born orange instead of the usual yellow and that meant kids made fun of him growing up.  He was called all sorts of names that he didn’t like and he hardly had any friends. It was truly sad because Bert actually has lots of good characteristics.  He is witty and has a good sense of humour.  He is also very kind hearted.  Unfortunately, the scars we develop as children rarely leave us and stay with us on into adulthood.  So when Bert saw this scene playing out he overreacted.  His emotions got the better of him and because he was angry, he decided to sting the little boy and then he fell over dead.

I remember getting the call from my sister, Brianna.  I could hardly believe it when I picked up the phone.  “Bert dead?  Are you sure?”  I asked in disbelief.  “Sure” Brianna said sullen.  I demanded to go over right away to see where the scene had happened, but by that point the family had packed up their Barbeque and had gone inside.  I saw my brother lying there in the grass.  I thought for a moment that I saw his wings twitching, but they were lying still.  I cried and sobbed.  Suddenly my world had lost its colour and turned an awful shade of grey.  I made Bert a coffin out of leaves and buried him in the ground.  I shed a few tears and then flew off.  After that, I vowed that no matter what happened I would never sting even if my life depended on it.

I did feel badly leaving Brianna to come to Saskatoon, but I needed a change of scenery after that happened because Bert was my best friend.  Throughout my life he was always the one I knew would be there for me.  With Bert’s death, life ceased making sense.  I still call Brianna almost every day and I know she also has her husband, Bob, looking after her so I feel a little less guilty about it now.  Sometimes I feel a bit torn doing my own thing when my family needs me, but I have a new family now and I need to blaze my own path.  I wish I could say more, but I hear Bernie calling me to go back supper.  I’m going to make some Bannock dipped in honey.  I hope you’ll stay, we’d welcome the company.

Guided Meditation

Below is the very first guided meditation I ever wrote and led which I presented to my Clinical Pastoral Education class.  I hope it will provide nourishment for your soul:

Please take a moment to feel comfortable in your chair.  Feel the ground beneath your feet, feel supported by the back of your chair, notice what is happening within your body.  What emotions are arising?  What thoughts are coming to the front?  What distractions are present?  Thank them and send them on their way.  

What are the noises on the outside?  Cars going by?  Birds chirping?  People talking?  The hubbub of life?  What are the noises on the inside?  Incessant chattering?  Persistent thoughts that just won’t go away?  Cares, concerns, anxiety?  A raging to-do list?  Mental notes of things you don’t want to forget?  This is a safe space.  Rest comfortably knowing that for the next few minutes you can put these worries to the side, and return to them later if you need to.  

It is natural for the mind to wander, but please try to stay present and in the moment.  Ask yourself: what do I need today?  What do I need to let go of?  What do I need to keep?  What do I need to leave behind?  What do I need to pick up?  And if you are ready, please take a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth visualizing a colour you associate with happiness as you breathe in and a colour you associate with negativity as you breathe out.  Your whole body being filled with gold dust.

Before us, we see a pile of stones.  These represent the things which are currently weighing us down.  If we just pick up one rock, it feels heavy.  If we continue to pick up rocks it soon becomes impossible for us to move.  What is weighing you down today?  Guilt?  Secrets?  Shame?  Anger? Grief?  Greed? Depression?  Addiction?  Rage? Pride? Doubt? Illness? Anxiety? Insecurity? Fear? Envy? The past? Something else? Take a moment to acknowledge your emotions.  How do you feel physically?  How do you feel mentally? Spiritually? Take a deep breath out releasing the negative emotion as if it is a balloon.  Thank it for the lesson it has come to teach you and send it on its way.

Now turn your attention to the feathers.  The feathers represent what we need for today to help lighten our backpack.  What do you need in this moment?  Love? Support? Encouragement? Honesty? Vulnerability? Self-belief? Self-Compassion?  Courage? Tenacity? Passion? Sometime else? Take a moment to acknowledge this presence.  How does it make you feel? Physically? Mentally? Emotionally? Spiritually? Take a deep breath in, welcoming and consuming the positive energy and cuddling it as if it were a young child or your favourite teddy bear.  Invite it to stay with you as you begin this day, knowing you can return to it at any  time.

I now invite you into this prayer: God of lightness and wonder, God of belief, and God who welcomes doubt, thank you for your presence in this place.  Source of hope and life, comforting presence in distress and pain, thank you for walking with us on this jagged path and journeying with us when the rocks avalanche and we lose our footing.  We pray that we might be attentive to ourselves and to one another today and we offer you our whole selves and all our being – body, mind intellect, emotions, spirits, voices, and the unexplored crevasses of our souls.  We thank you for giving us the courage and strength to be in this place today.  In the Name of the Trinity. Amen.

A Collection of CPE Reflections

This summer I had the incredible privilege of being part of the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Unit out of St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. For those who are unfamiliar with CPE, this is the training required to become a certified spiritual care provider (chaplain) within Canada and the United States.

Throughout the course, my peers and I have had opportunities to share daily reflections with our class. Today, I led my final reflection and my supervisor suggested I share my writing more widely. It was then that I discovered that I had not blogged for a very long time, and so, thought I would share some of these writings with you. Whether or not you ever find yourself in a CPE placement, I believe that this body of work can give some insight into the personal formative growth which takes place during this process. I also hope that if you are a ministering person, you may be able to adapt or resonate with these writings in different ways which will edify your church or ministry. Please enjoy what I have written below:

Seeing Past the Brokenness 

We are all broken people.  We have all faced trauma, misunderstanding, and hurt.  There are people whom we cannot forgive, there are people who cannot forgive us.  CPE has been a time of self-reflection and growing self-awareness.  Perhaps this has been distressing at times.  It is not easy to name our brokenness.  It is not always easy to put words to and articulate feelings we’d rather not have.  It takes immense strength to allow others into our story.  It takes courage to be vulnerable and it takes courage to minister to others despite our own doubts, fears of inadequacy, and triggering moments.  My spiritual director referred to this process as the darkness a caterpillar goes through to transform into a butterfly.  

In CPE we listen to the stories of others, even as we are becoming more aware of our own stories.  There may be parts of our story we have never shared, parts we rarely share, parts we’d rather not share, and parts too painful to share.  Of course, there are also the parts we love to share, the parts we want to share, and the parts we hope others will remember when we share.  We are all complex people, living in diverse tensions with the desire to be fully known, fully loved, and fully respected. 

When we feel insecure it can be tempting to compare our brokenness to another’s.  Either considering ourselves above or beneath them.  It can be hard to welcome our woundedness instead of to dismiss it.  To sit with and acknowledge discomfort rather than to rush in and attempt to fix it.  Jeremiah 6:14 says “you can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there.” 

The Catholic writer Henri Nouwen wrote about being a Wounded Healer.  In his words he stated, “Nobody escapes being wounded.  We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually.  The main question is not ‘how can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘how can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’  When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” 

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous also speaks about how the worst moments of our lives can transform the lives of others.  It reads “showing others who suffer how we were given help is the very thing that makes life so worthwhile for us now.  Cling to the thought that in God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have – the key to life and happiness for others.  With it you can avert death and misery for them.”  However there is one caveat “obviously you can’t transmit something you haven’t got.  See to it that your own house is in order and that great events will come to pass for you and countless others.”  The suggestions the authors give for ensuring our “own house is in order” include: prayer and asking God to direct us to those we can help, meditation, surrender, admitting our shortcomings, lessening past baggage, and being willing to give freely of our time with no strings attached.  In the context of our work, I would sum it up in the words “self care” which can look different for every person.  We cannot be at our best for another when we ourselves are running on empty and have nothing left to give.  Thus it becomes important to find time to refuel and recharge through silence, solitude, debriefing, nature, journalling, or whatever else is life-giving for us.  

May God gift us with grace and compassion as we become wounded healers one to another. Amen. (The actual class reflection ended in a prayer however I did not include it here due to Copyright laws since I took it from another source).


The Garden of Our Souls

During the last several weeks, we have all been on a unique journey.  Sometimes the journey has been long and weary and at other times unexpected bursts of colour flash across our eyes.  All of us have been like young tender shoots growing in fertile soil.  Sometimes there has been a lot of churning and pruning, but we have never lain dormant.

We have all been planted here in this season and at this time.  God has brought us together from different cities, provinces, and even countries for a purpose and while it could have been any group doing CPE this summer, it has been our group.  And while we could be working anywhere, God has specifically planted us at our unique placements because of a specific reason perhaps known to us or perhaps known only to God.

Yet this location is conducive to our growth, and a place where we are being tended, nourished and protected.  Oftentimes this has been a painful process which requires patience.  Yet, as our petals unfurl (sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly) we can take joy in the wonder of delight rather than interfering with the process.

We are all different types of flowers.  Perhaps we are a tiger lily or an orchid, a rose or a daisy.  Each one requires something different to grow, but each one is beautiful, fragrant, and brings satisfaction.  Each unique flower adds to the mystery of our special garden and has its own unique function.  We give thanks to our Good Gardener for planting us and helping us to grow and bring light and love to all.  

The Ocean of CPE

By: Deborah-Ruth Ferber

The following is a reflection I wrote for my class 2 weeks before the unit ended which my supervisor-educator encouraged me to share widely:

It’s hard to believe that 10 weeks ago we all arrived at St. Paul’s (an inner-city hospital in the heart of Saskatoon).  Some of us took a car and arrived in 15 minutes, some of us drove for a few hours, and some of us flew in from different provinces.  Many of us left behind familiar surroundings (physically, mentally, and spiritually) and embraced the unknown and the terrifying.  When we first got to class we eagerly greeted one another, making small talk and getting acquainted.  The extroverts eager to make new friends, and perhaps the more shy and quiet gently treading to see if the water was safe enough to leave the shore for.  At some point all of us decided to jump in.

At times, we did a magnificent butterfly stroke, sometimes we did a doggy paddle, and occasionally we relied on someone else throwing us the life ring because we felt like we were drowning.  We always resurfaced, taking a breath of air (and sometimes a gulp of water along with it), and we headed back into the ocean.  At times we strapped on an oxygen tank as we plumbed the depths of the ocean’s bottom seeing fish and plant life we have never seen before.  At times we simply had to use a snorkel to stay on the surface, and sometimes a shark or jellyfish would come and we would feel frightened, and other times we laughed as we pointed to the clown fish.  Sometimes the sea was smooth and calm, other times it was stormy and we wondered if we should bail and head to shore.  But we all stayed, we all saw the magnificent whales, dolphins, and seahorses, and we all became stronger and more confident swimmers.  

The patients we supported also put a great deal of trust in us.  They trusted us to swim beside them when we could barely float.  They trusted us to throw a life jacket to them when they felt like they were drowning. At times they mistook us for a life guard, all the while we ourselves were barely able to do a front crawl.  And so, the patients became our teachers, their voice that of a swimming instructor, not so much because they taught us how to swim, but rather because they told us what they needed to stay afloat.

Now after 10 weeks we are not certified lifeguards, but we know enough not to drown and we have learned how to call out if we feel like we are drowning.  And this has been growth for us all.  We might not all aspire to be fish or dolphins, but we can all aspire to swim alongside another as they question whether they are a starfish, a lantern fish, or a seahorse.  The ocean is certainly vast and big enough for us all and we add to the biodiversity and colour of the deep.  

Prayer: Eternal One,
You meet us on the shore and walk with us on the sand until we are brave enough to enter the water.
You join us while we play with sand castles on the beach,
All the while showing us that there is something more.
You give us strength to swim when our being feels depleted.
You help us surface when the ocean depths engulf us.
You bring us to safety when we are drowning.
You don’t abandon us on a solo life raft,

But rather you invite us into your boat as you row alongside us.
The sea and this world are filled with predators,
There are sharks who threaten to devour us and rays which threaten to sting us,
And yet, you are our protector.
When the storm rises and we fear shipwreck,
You walk towards us on the waves,
Graciously bringing us to a new day.
And as we see dawn appearing on the horizon,
We thank you for your faithfulness through our dark night.
Everlasting hope, in the same way as you have been our captain, may you grace us to be lifeguards for one another.
Lighthouses on the rocky shore,
Guiding your pilgrims home.

The Song of Salvation

In  the beginning there was God,
And God who is sometimes Father, sometimes Mother,
And is always healer, restorer, and transformer,
Who is equal parts unknowable deity, personable sibling, and intimate presence created.
The way the world was created is less important than the fact that it was.
The Eternal One formed humans and hummingbirds, mountains and music, anteaters and art, dogs and dancing, insects and intimacy, leopards and love, brains and bodies,
And the Everlasting One saw that it was good.  
It was good not because of how people and animals proved themselves,
But because in their very nature and at their very core,
Everyone was made worthy of admiration.
The Holy Being made humankind to love and to be loved, to tend and to be tended to, to form friendships and romantic partnerships, and to be cocreators with the All Creating one in the great mystery of birth and renewal.
Humanity was not designed to live alone, to be isolated, to live in a two dimentional existence, and to be self-sufficient,
Rather humanity was meant to live at peace with ALL of creation (with the grasslands and prairies, the vast expanse of nothingness and the busy city intersections), and to be interwoven in the great web of life.  
And God delighted in this union of being, of knowing, and of growing together.
Until humankind decided they did not have enough.  Individual and corporate greed took over as the man and woman lusted after more than just one  another.
Ungrateful and unhappy, Adam and Eve were inconsolable.  Their bellies ached, their minds clamoured, but above all their spirits and their souls were empty.  
They looked for ways to fill this God shaped void.
They filled their lives with distractions and entertainment,
But this only lasted so long until things became more grave and blame set in.

And this blame has been the root cause of oppression today.  
When people are unhappy and not at peace with themselves they find it easy to accuse the other.
This blame ripped God’s heart in half.  God longed for men and women to see each other as equal, but it was impossible for the man and his wife to do so at the time,
And so they left all that was good and the perfect utopia God had designed just for them and set off to blaze their own path.

Yet the path they chose led them down a slippery road of disease, distress, and depression.
Sin entered the world and with it selfishness, sloth, and soul sickness,
Instead of the serenity, solace, and salvation God wanted to give the world’s people.
God was not done with the world, though, and God had not given up on the people even when it looked that way.
Instead God was working behind the scenes,
Working to bring healing through counsellors, doctors, mentors, nurses, and in miraculous ways,
Working to bring justice through judges, lawyers, magistrates, and through the Divine Inspired Word,
Working to bring mercy through teachers, advocates, and through the Holy Spirit.
And grace triumphed over evil.  Good defeated bad, and the ultimate victory was won.
God’s tender embrace exemplified in compassionate care of all of creation,
God’s delight shown through singing and sharing, through food and feasting,
God’s beloved sensitivity unleashed through comforting those who mourn and are in grief.
God kept a document of how this was accomplished, and it has been handed down today through the Bible.
In the Bible we learn God’s character.  We come to know an unknowable being.  We come to see an invisible entitity.
We may never see God face to face, but we see God daily through the way  the cattails dance on the pond, the way the fish jump out of the water at sunset, and the way the heron majestically swoops down to catch its prey,
And we see God when someone is rescued from addiction, when someone does a small act of kindness that impacts anothers life, and when someone speaks in encouragement and love.

None of us are perfect, and God doesn’t expect perfection, but God does expect us all to sing a hymn of holiness and a rapsody of righteousness until the day we pass.
Thousands of years into God’s document, the Great Friend sent a baby to this world,
A small, helpless bundle crying out in the night for his mother,
And the baby’s name was Jesus.
Jesus grew to be a man who taught his people the ways of God.
Jesus preached a Gospel of peace, of love, and of forgiveness.
Jesus challenged and overturned the hierarchy of his day,
And he tirelessly worked for good even when he was mocked, ridiculed and scorned.
Ultimately, Jesus’s radical ideas got him killed when he was barely in his thirties.
The world turned dark, and all seemed lost, all hope defated like a balloon with a hole poked through,
And yet, once again, God had a plan.
And so Jesus was miraculously raised back to life, death trampled by love.
And Jesus left this world to go back to heaven so that we will see him there when we die,
But until then, Jesus still walks with us.
Jesus walks with us when we struggle and are tempted, and when we rejoice and are glad.
Jesus who was fully human is well acquainted with the diverse human emotions,
And he uses them alongside our intuition, other people, life circumstances and events to get our attention.
Jesus also left us a special gift when he ascended to heaven, and he called this gift “the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is our guide, and our GPS.
The Holy Spirit is the one who speaks to God on our behalf when we lack the words,
And the Holy Spirit has given each one of us certain gifts and graces to be used to benefit the world.
Some are given the gift of prophetic insight which challenges and opposes ungodly and harmful ideas,
Some are given the gifts of learning languages and of speaking in special tongues,
Some are given the gift of visioning and believing the impossible even when others disagree,
And some are given the gift of faith that all will be well even when the world looks like its crumbling.
God has given each human being a special purpose and plan which only they can accomplish,
And with each unique calling there is a certain responsibility attached.
Some are tasked to lead a school and others a church,
Some are expected to raise children, and others to care for the elderly,
Some are expected to write, to draw, to paint, or to garden,
All are called to love, to respect, to appreciate, and to admire.
And once again, God saw these special gifts and called them “good.  Very good.”
In this world, God has not erased all the pain and problems we face.
Until Christ comes back to restore the world, to rebuild, and make things right again,
There will be moments of heartache, of disappointments, of longings, and disillusionment,
But God has also promised that in the end of the day, goodness and light will always win.
God created a special insititution to help this light shine into our hearts and it was called the Church.
All who believe in God and are open to the divine plan are invited to take part.
All are members of the church even if they have different ideas or beliefs,
This is because God created diversity as a way of furthering divine direction rather than as a distraction.
Culture, and cusine, fashion and faith, telescopes and theology, all used for the exact same purpose:
Glorifying and enjoying God forever.
Doctrines shift and change as time moves forward,
Dialogues help us to awaken to new ways of being and understanding our faith,
Faith is never stagnant, it is constantly evolving,
And yet, Christ stays the same.  
The same God who first started documenting thousands of years ago, is the same God who still documents today and gracefully allows us to be part of the grand story.
One day there will be an end to all things, but that day is not yet.
One day there will be a moment when everything makes sense, but it hasn’t happened yet.
One day we will throw aside everything that gets in our way and run rushing into our Great Friend’s Arms,

But for today, we celebrate, and we hold fast, and we give thanks for what we have seen and known.
Because just for today, we remember that God is all we need,
And that because God is love, love is God,
And just for today, that is enough.

The Power of Showing Up (Sermon From Sunday, December 27, 2020)

If you were to give 2020 a name, what would it be?

For the first time in years, I finally had New Year’s Eve off work in 2019.  I excitedly joined my friends in the city centre of Inverness for a night of live music, hot chocolate and food. Crowding around the laptop, we all watched the Time’s Square ball drop, loudly chanting 5, 4,3, 2, 1,HAPPY NEW YEAR!  Clinking our glasses and banging pots and pans. I am sure many of you engaged in similar festivities.
New Year’s Eve has always ranked as one of the top three nights of my year along with Christmas and my birthday.  There’s just something so exhilarating about the start of something new. A blank 365 pages, knowing despite all the troubles and turmoils of the previous year, we are given a fresh start.  It is always a day of reflection and anticipation, yet 2020 held my intrigue even more. Back in 2000 (when I was still in elementary school), my cousin and I excitedly crafted a time capsule with the solemn instructions “don’t open until 2020 or else!”  We had no way of knowing then the box would still remain unopened due to laws preventing us from meeting up. 

 A few other plans I had for 2020 included: hiking the French Alps, touring several Scottish Islands, and getting married. Here are a few words I didn’t expect to associate with this year: disappointment, disillusionment, break-up,death, quarantine,virus, and lockdown. Yet, now approaching the 9th month of the pandemic, knowing that 75% of the year has already been spent under various restrictions, we have all had to come to terms with the fact that COVID is here to stay.  

The first weeks of Jesus’s life were shockingly similar. True, there was no global illness floating around and the World Health Organization wasn’t telling people to stay home, but all was not calm and bright that first Christmas.  Today’s Christmas cards are filled with beautiful scenery and picturesque landscapes.  The bright Christmas lights attract our attention, and the engagement of our five senses makes Christmas a whole body experience.  Yet, in Bible times, there were hurdles and political tumult.  Jesus was born into an environment of genocide and political instability.  King Herod demanded all baby boys under age 2 to be murdered, and the Jewish temple had been destroyed. The first temple (built by King Solomon in the Old Testament) had been razed to the ground and the exiles scattered abroad.  It wasn’t a time of Christmas carols, it was a time when life stopped being safe.
Many of us have experienced similar sentiments this year.  Many of the freedoms we once enjoyed, the opportunities we once had to travel freely, to socialize, and even to go to church have been depleted by the virus.  Public health and safety being paramount, yet, at the same time, realizing that home is not a safe place for so many.  Domestic abuse, marital tension, and division running rampant in our society and world.  It seems that many of the old cornerstones of our lives like church and school have become the unsafest places of all (according to the global health authorities), and for many of us, this might have been our first Christmas not being able to meet inside a church building.  Something many of us probably thought we would never experience in our lifetimes. 

To the world, this might look like the destruction of the church.  And it is, if we consider church only a building and nothing more.  Yet, the truth is that the church has never been stronger and its mission more vital.  It may not look the same or even function the same, but the all-encompassing role of the church as providing for the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, and proclaiming liberation has magnified.  In the midst not only of a global pandemic, but racial injustice, indigenous oppression and political uncertainty, the church is reaching out and being a bright light to all those walking in the shadow of 2020.

In today’s Bible passage, we are introduced to four main characters who display the ways we can greet 2021. Firstly, we have Jesus.  In Jewish law, baby boys were circumcised at 8 days old.  Being devout Jews, Jesus’s parents brought him to the temple to carry this out.  As a baby, Jesus’s only role was showing up and passively receiving God’s blessings.  Similar to our baptism today when we experience the love of God and the church, knowing that we are called and claimed, not through any merit of our own, but only through the divine inclusion of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.

Secondly, we meet Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph.  Despite the Christmas Narrative where Mary and Joseph are main characters, they actually play a rather small role in this scene.  Yet, although small their role is profound. In this passage, Jesus’s parents actively offer their son to God in confidence. The Greek word used for the presentation is “obligation.”  Today, it is not so popular to tell Christians they are obligated to do anything.  After all, none of us are obligated to read the Bible, pray, or even go to church, yet many of us choose to do these things out of our love and devotion for Christ.  Yet, just like Mary and Joseph, we are obligated to offer ourselves in service to God.  Sharing God’s message of love, hope, and joy through our acts of social justice are not activities we can simply take or leave, but are meaningful encounters all God’s people are invited to partake and delight in for the benefit of our world and God’s reign.  

Thirdly, we meet the Prophet Simeon.  The Bible describes Simeon as an elderly gentleman who patiently waited to see the Baby Jesus.  Scripture says he longed for Israel to be comforted after all the tragedies the country had faced, and he was given the incredible promise that he would not die until he had seen Christ.  It is often said that while none of us choose when we will die, some are able to hang on until a loved one arrives, or even to wait another day or week for an important event like a birthday or anniversary to pass.  It was the same with Simeon.  He was determined and stubborn, not willing to depart until God’s promise had been granted.  Taking the infant Jesus into his arms he proclaimed, “this is it!  Your servant can now depart in peace.”  Some of us might have uttered similar sentiments.  After a lovely day out or a wonderful accomplishment  we might say ‘now I can die a happy man” or “a happy woman.”  But in Simeon’s case, this was not a flippant phrase, but an honest confession. Simeon was well into the sunset years of his life, a miracle had just happened, and Simeon knew what was coming next and was totally at peace with it.  

Simeon also said something very strange to Mary.  Instead of congratulating her on the birth of the one who would bring peace and salvation to Israel, he emphatically stated, “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken again, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
What a strange thing to say to a new mother!! Many of us here have held newborn babies.  When we meet a newborn we might say something like “he has his mother’s eyes’ or “she has her dad’s nose” or even “look how much hair he has” or “look how big she is!” Those of you who have children may be able to share some stories of when your kids have wounded you or pierced your own soul with worry, regret, or concern, but we can all imagine how it would feel if we showed a friend our brand new baby and the first thing they said was “your son or daughter is going to bring heartache and pain into your life.”  Yet, Simeon’s comment was not a criticism of Mary’s parenting or even a warning of teenage rebellion, but rather a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and the purpose of His life to be the Saviour of Humankind.

Lastly, we meet the prophetess Anna.  The Bible says she had only been married for 7 years, before being windowed for 77 years.  She would have been a widow in her early twenties, lacking the financial stability and economic security her husband would have provided. Back then, women had the opportunity of marrying one of her husband’s other relatives, but the text seems to indicate this was either not an option for her or that she did not want this.  Instead, she chose to faithfully give herself to God in the midst of hardship, dedicating her life to service in the temple.  When Anna was given lemons, she made lemonade, and her heart was full of gratitude towards the child as she fixed her eyes on the redemption and restoration of Israel.

Like Simeon and Anna, we are all waiting for something.  The reconciliation of nations and cultures, the renewal of human kindness, the restoration of justice, the rebuilding of our world in the wake of natural disasters and human catastrophes, and the reframing of society’s views and expectations towards gender violence, mental illness, addiction, and incarceration.  Waiting doesn’t have to be passive.  We can practice an active waiting, filled with anticipation, longing, trust, and faith in a brighter future.  A waiting that rests in God’s love and kindness, believing that a better day is coming, and while we wait, showing up in places where we willingly stand in the gap.

For many of us, 2020 might have truly been one of the most difficult years of our lives, but it was also a year of clarity, vision and radical transparency which opened the windows of our souls. By placing our faith and trust in God, we can believe that 2021 will bring refreshing, liberty and freedom. The present might look bleak right now, but by staying in touch with the Holy Spirit, we know that God will bring the restoration and rebuilding about while we actively participate in God’s divine plan. Amen.

Moved By Encounters (Sermon from Sunday, December 20th, 2020)

Kids’ Chronicle for Dec. 12, 2017

People often say that we fear the unknown, but I think that sometimes what we fear the most is knowing what we are meant to do, yet not feeling adequate enough to do it.  

Imagine this scene with me.  I am in Downtown Toronto after a lovely dinner out with friends when I board the subway home.  At the subway platform, I notice a group of teenage boys harassing an elderly gentleman.  “Go back to China!” They hurl along with a barrage of other racist slander.  The elderly gentleman apologizes, cowering in a corner.  The teens do not physically harm him, but their words are seared with hatred for someone different than themselves.  I stand there paralyzed by fear.  My own safety and comfort called into question.  Afraid and unable to stand against violence, oppression, and division, I leave the vulnerable man in the midst of these youth.  Insecurity welling in my soul as the subway speedily takes off.  

I would love to say this only happened once, but it didn’t.  I have witnessed similar things at other bus stops and walked away.  Despite my base level knowledge of indigenous rights, race riots, or institutional violence, I have often chosen not to become involved when the presenting issues haven’t directly affected me. 

Mary must have felt a similar inadequacy when the angel first brought her the news that she would have a child despite her virginity.  Today, it is rather common to have a child out of wedlock and  in the western world, civil partnerships or common-law relationships have become the norm and just as acceptable as marriage.  In our current climate, the institution of marriage is often regarded not as an act of ultimate love and sacrifice, but rather as simply a piece of paper or a legality.  

However, Bible times presented a much different worldview.  Getting pregnant outside of marriage was the ultimate sin.  It was an insult to her parents and her fiance.  It was a sign of disobedience, unchastity, impurity,and belligerence that often resulted in social ostracism, loss of security, stoning and even death.  So, although the angel’s greeting is good news for us today, it likely was not such good news to Mary.

Here was a young teenage girl, about to start her life and get married to Joseph the Carpenter.  Unlike today, women back then did not have careers, so marriage meant a stable livelihood, security and social status, and although these marriages were arranged rather than of love, the Bible speaks highly of Joseph’s character.  He was a God-fearing and righteous man who would take care of Mary and be gentle and tender to her youth and naivety.

We do not know much about Mary’s backstory, but we can easily imagine how thrilled her parents must have felt at the prospect of Mary’s engagement.  At this time, having children was the crux of marital life and there was no choice or debate surrounding having kids.  Therefore, her parents eagerly anticipated the birth of many grandchildren, just not particularly in this way. 

Let’s try to place ourselves in Mary’s shoes.  Mary is going about her daily activities when an angel miraculously appears and drops an earth shattering message which detonates like a bomb. Yet despite Mary’s initial fear and apprehension, the angel assures  her that God is with her.

We have all experienced bombs in our own lives.  Perhaps through a health scare, a child born with a disability, the news of infertility, or a loved one’s deteriorating physical or mental health.  It is difficult to believe God is with us in these times and hard to imagine or conceive of a God who is near to the broken hearted in the midst of tragedy. 

Yet bombs do not always have to come in such unpleasant ways.  Sometimes they come in the form of God nuding us to dream and dare to do the impossible.  A call for reaching out to the darkness in our world and building bridges in the midst of brokenness. None of us anticipated 2020 bringing a global pandemic and a never-ending list of restrictions.  None of us thought of adding the words”quarantine, isolation and lockdown” to our vocabulary.  Yet, the New Normal has caused all of us to wrestle with our faith in various ways, ultimately leading us to a place of surrender and urging us to discover creative ways of being the church.  With the government’s recent restrictions on religious settings, we have had to learn new ways of worshipping. The church’s mission of being alive and active has never been so needed.  Although I didn’t know about Zoom pre-pandemic,  today it is the most used app on my phone.  Engaging with technology, I have joined United Church events across Canada in recent months.  I have discovered that church does not simply mean watching a live Sunday recording, but also encompasses my young adults group out of McClure United in Saskatchewan, my 2 weekly coffee mornings, and the Advent race and media circle I have joined focussing on racial oppression and indigenous rights.  I have learned that God is calling each of us to stand with each other becoming a united front, rather than giving into the  culture of division and dissension so prevalent in our day. 

Perhaps like us, Mary’s encounter was one of surprise.  In June of this year, God dropped an unexpected gift into my lap which left me shaken, but later brought wonder and surprise.  You see, this is when God first called me to serve the United Church.  In the first lockdown during extended times of prayer and contemplation, God revealed to me that it was time to start searching for a permanent ministry.  At first, the idea of working towards ordination in the United Church was the farthest thing from my mind.  It was a new concept, perhaps difficult to reconcile with my past background.  Yet, God took this encounter to show me my true inner longings.  Being true to myself, I discovered some of the harms done to others through the institution of the church.  Being authentic and vulnerable, meant acknowledging my hunger and thirst for social justice and my quest to bring the church to people rather than people to the church.  God used a global pandemic to bring me to my knees in surrender and begin a beautiful and glorious partnership with a denomination I now claim as my own. 

Some of us might relate to Mary’s questions.  Mary may have been young and naive, but she knew simple biology.  She knew what was involved in having a child, and she equally knew she had not done the prerequisite for pregnancy.  Mary boldly asked the angel “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Many of us might have felt similarly when we first felt God’s call upon our lives.  We might have asked questions such as: how can this be since I didn’t graduate from university?  How can God be calling me since I struggle with mental illness?  How can God use me since I am a single mother?  Why would God want me since I have a past?  God must have chosen the wrong person because I hate public speaking.  God can’t possibly need me because (fill in the blank). 

Here’s the thing: the angel didn’t argue with Mary.  He didn’t debate with her or try to teach her something new about biology.  He acknowledged  that Mary was right, but he also gave her a brilliant promise: “The Power of the Holy Spirit will come upon you.”

In the greatest moment of our weakness, the Holy Spirit indwells within each of us.  God’s spirit permeates and touches our hearts and lives regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, past difficulties or troubling present circumstances.  The Holy Spirit has called each of us to various acts of service within the church, community and world,and has promised to equip us for these regardless of what life events we are brought. 

Finally, once the Holy Spirit was revealed to Mary, she gratefully accepted it and joyously surrendered to God’s leading.  Using wisdom well beyond her years, Mary proclaimed “I’m the Lord’s maid ready to serve!”  And it was under Mary’s affirmative response that the angel left her with the time and space to do just that. 
Who are the people we can serve this Christmas?  With the recent lockdown and restrictions we can easily turn to glumness and disillusionment.  Many of us might be lamenting this strange Christmas which feels unnatural.  Yet, without diminishing the difficulties COVID has brought to our personal lives, I would like to encourage us to bring the world a gift of light and peace. We are here to spread hope to the world. Whether it’s giving extra groceries to the food bank, surprising a neighbour with an act of love, or sharing positivity online, we are here to make a change.  We are here as God’s people, not living in the shadow of doom, but in the light of God’s presence.  As we leave from this place, let us remember that we are church wherever we go. Let us remember that we are loved, chosen, called, and God’s holy people set apart for good things.  There is only one response to this and it is the same as Mary’s: “I am God’s servant, ready to serve!”