Month: October 2014

Why We Shouldn’t Sing O Canada in Church

This last week we’ve witnessed the terrible tragedy of two Canadian soldiers murdered, not off in Afghanistan or Iraq somewhere, but right here, at home. The first killing was a half-hour’s drive away, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. An unsuspecting middle-aged soldier was hit by a driver who came out of nowhere, for no reason. The second murder was just down the highway in Ottawa. That second soldier was a nice young man in the prime of his life, who was guarding – if you can call it that – the war memorial at the Parliament buildings. He must have thought his tourist duty was the best job ever. He wasn’t guarding so much as posing. That was his contribution to the war – he spent his days dressed in a kilt, probably picked for that duty because he was good-looking, mugging for shots with tourists from all over the world.

And yet he was shot, at point blank, for no reason other than wearing the uniform of the Canadian military.

Four men dead, two of them soldiers. Whether the killers were actually militant Islamists as they pretended to be, or mentally-ill home-grown Canadians who wanted to pretend they were terrorists, the fact remains. It was the war in Iraq and Syria, that somehow, in some convoluted way, led to these killings.

And even though our news media, to their credit, generally haven’t gone all crazy like the American networks about this, even though we’ve tried to be balanced and not assume that there’s a terrorist horde around every corner in Ottawa or Montreal, that maybe these killers were crackpots, still, it was war that gave the killers the delusions they needed to act out and murder these poor men.

Come with me now, says Psalm 46, and regard the works of the LORD.

            The Bible talks about war. We forget that. It talks a LOT about war, a whole lot more than it talks about a lot of other things. Come regard war with me, it says. Note what desolations God has brought upon the earth – behold the God who makes war, not to continue, but to cease. Behold the God who breaks the bow, who shatters the spear, and who burns the shields with fire.

All, apparently, so that we human beings can just keep doing what WE do best: building MORE bows, and forging more spears, and hammering out more shields – or their modern equivalents. So we can kill each other some more.

The official response to the killings this past week is already in motion. Ottawa is locked down. The Parliament buildings, where people like you and me could just wander before, will never be so open again. There will be more and more, and more surveillance, and we will have asked for it, all in the name of security. We will, voluntarily, become more and more the kind of police state that we have fought against in the past. All to try and stop this kind of crazy extremist from striking again.

It’s clear there’s something terribly wrong with the system. But not just the system, there’s something wrong with the human race. It’s something inside of us. Otherwise it just doesn’t add up.

Today I saw a Christian priest smile at a young Muslim couple, the mother in a head-scarf, the father carrying a baby, as they followed their toddler down a hallway at the university. Not long after that a Jewish man walked by, with his prayer shawl fringe hanging under his coat. Everybody looked so happy and untroubled. You could hardly find a more sincere picture of inter-religious peace. On the metro I saw a young Afro-Canadian man, dressed in black with tattoos, wearing headphones and looking tough, get up from his seat and offer it with a smile to an older white woman. Inter-racial peace, looking easy. I was at a conference where Roman Catholics and Protestants and Buddhists and Muslims all sat together and chatted about what their faith means to them.

And yet this is the same world where there are beheadings, and tortures, and mass graves, and drones and kidnappings and burnings and more horror than we can even imagine.

So which is it? And which are WE? Are we human beings capable of – and ready for – peace with each other, and acts of toleration and respect and love? Can we for once in history live out the Psalm when it talks about breaking the weapons of war? Or what IS it in us human beings that creates those two killers, capable of going to a place like Saint-Jean or Parliament Hill, and taking an innocent life for no other reason than the uniform, so clearly NOT thinking about the children and spouses and loved ones left behind, about the devastation and hurt?

Very truly I tell you, says Jesus, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. There is a terrible slavery to evil in our world, an intentional and evil blindness that not only allows, but actually encourages murder, and rape, and torture. I find it almost impossible to understand, but clearly it is there. And yes, it IS usually on the other side of the world from our nice suburbs and houses and universities and parliament buildings. But not always. That evil is close at hand, and not always foreign.

So notice what the Psalm says. How does war cease? Be still, it says, and know that I am God.

It’s when we think that WE are gods, ourselves, that WE have the power of life and death, that we make decisions about other creatures – human AND animal – that are based, not on respect or empathy, but on cruelty and ignorance. Gods don’t need empathy. Human beings do. Our first task is to remember who we are. And who we are NOT.

Evil, according to the Psalm, comes from pride and from a lack of connection. What STOPS evil is the realization, and the training, if we’re talking about raising children, that we are LIMITED. What’s important is to realize that we don’t, and can’t know everything. That maybe any decision we make might be wrong. Call it humility. Be still and know that I am God. You are not. YOU do not have the power of life and death. I do, says the God of Israel.

Jeremiah puts it another way. This is the covenant I will make after those days, says the LORD. I will write my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

This is actually what the Reformation was about too.

No human being can decide, said Luther. Not the Pope, not the Bishops. Not the Princes. But we can know this. We can know, and feel, and remind ourselves and others that we are loved just as we are. We are not gods, with the right to decide. We are limited human beings. Our job is to spread and celebrate life, not take it.

You and I can’t stop what’s going on in the Middle East, even when it comes home in such a terrible and costly way. But what we CAN do is to take every single chance we can to fight idolatry. We can make peace at home, and pray God that it spreads. We can refuse to judge, refuse to objectify, refuse easy answers and quick solutions.

There was the cavalcade of vehicles today, carrying the remains of Nathan Cirillo back home to Hamilton for burial. Some of the pastors of our church wondered whether it was appropriate to sing O Canada in service. Not that anyone asked me, but my answer would be no. We can sing O Canada elsewhere. Here, in our places of worship, our job is sing of a land bigger than any nation. And to pray. To pray for Corporal Cirillo’s poor bereaved family. To pray for humility. To pray for peace. And to pray that the words of scripture might come true, and the blindness of evil might give way to the light of love, so that the God of Jacob might truly remain our stronghold, the surest defense.

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The Jesus Wallet

Jesus wallet

When I got home from the airport Thursday evening, waiting for me in the pile of mail, mostly flyers, that had accumulated while I was gone was a small parcel. The parcel was from Virginia. When I picked it up and turned it over, I saw the return address of my friend and fellow Lutheran pastor, Lyndon Sayers. The parcel had a little customs stamp on it saying what was inside. But I didn’t look at that. Instead, I did what any kid with a present would do! I ripped open the envelope and reached inside. And what I pulled out was this:

A wallet.

Now. There are lots of things I can imagine getting from Lyndon and his family. But not that.

Why would Lyndon send me a wallet, I wondered? It was red leather, one of those kinds of wallets I remember from growing up out west. A cowboy-wallet, with stiff, thick leather outers, an soft brown inner liner that smelled of fresh cowhide, and plastic threading winding around the outside. A BIG wallet. The kind you can imagine going with a cowboy hat and 100 dollar US bills. Nice, but not exactly my style.

I turned the wallet around so I could really see it, and that’s when I got the second surprise of the day.

There was the face of Jesus, carved into the leather by one of those leather-working tools and signed “Gene”. On the other side were some intricate flower patterns, and in the middle of them these words, taken from Isaiah 53: “For he was acquainted with grief”.

A Jesus wallet. A real Jesus wallet! Just for me.

When the religious leaders at the Temple in Jerusalem tried to trap Jesus, they did it by asking if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. They thought they had him with that, since whatever Jesus said, he would have been either against the Emperor or against his own faith. But he answered like this: Why are you putting me to the test? Show me the coin used for the tax. And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them: Whose head is this, and whose title? And they answered: the emperor’s.

I LOVE my new wallet. Lyndon knows I’m from the west, since he grew up in exactly the same small prairie town I did. And he knows I like kitsch. But as soon as you put Jesus’ face on a wallet, it seems to me that you’re entering some unusual – and potentially challenging -territory.

Imagine pulling that wallet out at the bar when you’re buying a beer. And there’s the face of Jesus, right there, looking you in the eyes. Now in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that one of the things people criticise him for is being a “wine drinker and a glutton”. So maybe a beer wouldn’t be so bad. But imagine pulling out the wallet when it comes time to buy that fancy new cell phone that I KNOW I don’t really need. Or a meal downtown when I could have made a lunch. Or a four-dollar tea at Starbucks when I have a teapot in my office and Canadian Lutheran World Relief is asking for donations to help the refugees in Syria. I wonder if the Jesus wallet might just make me think twice then.

Jesus slid right out of the trap that the religious leaders were setting for him. He did it by saying that whoever’s face is on the coin is who that coin belongs to. Period. Give therefore to the Emperor those things that are the Emperor’s and to God those things that are God’s. In the ancient world, just as in ours, coins are – technically, at least – owned by the state. We just borrow what is known as legal tender.

But then what did Jesus actually mean about giving to God the things that are God’s? He could have been talking about what is holy enough for the Temple offering. Coins with a human image were considered idolatrous by the ancient Jews, who had to change them for special Temple coins that had no such image. But I think there’s a deeper meaning.

Jesus and his interrogators might have been opponents of each other, but as Jews they all believed one thing: when Israel’s God made human beings, it was in the divine image. Every human being bears the stamp of the Creator. As sure as any coin. Two thousand years later we who are Christians have inherited that belief from the Jews. We still say, at least, that we are made in God’s image. We can argue over exactly what that means – is that divine image in our capacity to imagine, to create, to love, or in something else? But somehow, in some important ways, we are, every single one of us, stamped with the divine.

In fact, a lot of books on spirituality say more or less the same thing. I was reading a Buddhist book this past week that said this:

 

“Science, in its zeal for objectivity, tells us that we are our bodies, the product of Darwinian evolution, originating in a chance combination of molecular gasses, our growth and decay dictated by genetic DNA codes. Thus death is the end. But there is something in the collective unconscious of the human species that intuitively knows that this “objective” definition does not embrace the totality of who we are…” (Levine, Who Dies? viii)

 

That book would not use the phrase, but we can: we are made in the image of God.

When faced with a dilemma, Jesus upped the ante. He’s like the businesswoman who is forced to sell her store to her opponents but then goes out and buys the whole franchise. Give the coin to the Emperor, he says. It’s only a coin. But you….YOU belong to God.

The point is: we can argue over all kinds of rules and customs. But it’s who and what we are in relation to, that’s important. When we have a baptism, and we pour the water, we say: “So-and-so, child of God, you have marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.” For us that’s yet another of the ways we are first made, and then re-made, in God’s image. And our lives can either be a fractured mirror, broken by the sadnesses and troubles and hurts we all go through, or as we grow in maturity and in thoughtfulness and in peace with our own selves and with others, we can grow more and more into the beings we were intended to be. Our reflections will tell the tale.

It’s not easy, of course. Even Moses, when he wanted to meet God, was told he could only see God “on the way by”. You cannot see my face, God answers. I will put you in a cleft in the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until my glory has passed by, and then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.

Rather than a clear-headed, divinely-ordained clarity about the meaning of life and love, most of us kind of muddle through. We live in a world that looks rather more like God’s backside than anything else. We get flashes of what we think might be the truth. But then we fall back into our routines, where life just passes and our email inboxes are so full we despair of ever answering all those messages and we have too many bills to pay and worries to worry about and occasionally real catastrophes, and most of the time we barely even feel awake.

Luther emphasized what he called the “hiddenness of God”. He called it, in Latin, Deus Absconditus. But the message of Matthew seems to be that while we struggle through the darkness, the clearest thing we can do is to seek that image of God in ourselves, and in serving others. The person sitting beside you right now – that is the image of God – for us Christians, that is what Jesus looks like. The baby brought to the font – he or she is the image of God. The foreigner, the immigrant, the differently-abled, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned. That is what God looks like, for us.

It does feel just a bit weird, having a Jesus wallet. But it’s not Jesus who had a problem with faith and money being so close together. It’s us. When we realize – really realize – and take to heart the image of God in us and in those around us, then we will see that Jesus doesn’t just show up on wallets. He’s everywhere: calling us to real life, and real service, looking for how we can lift up and honour that holy image wherever we find it.