I made this 4-minute film when asked to illustrate the Gospel lesson “The Good Samaritan” at the 2018 Eastern Synod Assembly. Here it is….
Look at this photo of the “Finnish pastors” at this year’s Suomi Conference in Sudbury. Seventeen smiling faces. Seventeen clergy who, for the most part, like each other, share jokes, help each other out, support each other, and share an eagerness to be the best leaders they can be, in a renewed, vital Finnish-Canadian church.
But as they say, a picture tells a thousand words. And this picture, taken in the closing minutes of the Suomi Conference 2018, says a lot about what the Canadian Finnish church is, and might become.
17-6= 11 17-3=14 14-3=11 14-7=7 17-4=13
To start with, six out of the seventeen “Finnish” pastors in this picture aren’t Finnish at all! Six are actually English-speaking pastors from Canada. Only one of the six “anglos” – Stanley Johnston – is fluent in spoken Finnish. The rest of us practice our pronunciation with varying degrees of success!
Three of the seventeen “Finnish” pastors who DO speak Finn were either born in Canada or the United States. Or moved here at a very early age. That means that nine out of the seventeen people in the photo are probably more culturally North American than European. That’s major. The Lutheran church in North America is not a state church. Lutherans have always been a minority here. When you’re a minority, living with small budgets, and relying heavily on volunteers, you tend to think and act differently (as North Americans do, in any case).
Three of the seventeen pastors are actually visitors from Finland. Olli Valtonen is founder of the Tuomasmessu (The Thomas Mass), an international movement, and a book author. Leila Valtonen is a book author as well, a group psychotherapist and an expert in the Enneagram personality test. Mauri Vihko is the new Kirkon ulkosuomalaistyön johtaja, administrator of Finnish churches abroad. He says that the Finnish church is also shrinking, along with its budget. Since 90% of the Suomi Conference budget comes from Finland, that’s a concern! Mauri assures us that there is no immediate danger. But changes are ahead…. Mauri is very interested in how to reach out to Finns who are “global migrants”, travelling out of Finland for jobs, adventure, or relationships. This is EXACTLY the kind of Finn we’re seeing more and more of, in Montreal.
Fully half of the fourteen Canadian pastors in this photo are either retired, or within a few years of retirement. Nothing wrong with grey hair, but there’s a lot of it in this photo! Three of the seventeen serve part-time, mostly because the parishes have become so small they don’t need a full-time pastor. Only four of the seventeen are women. But notice – they are among the youngest in an otherwise aging group. The face of the Finnish presence, and the face of clergy, in Canada, is changing.
This photo says it all! (photo courtesy of Ismo Makkonen; missing from photo: Pat Dorland)
All Saints’ is about a community bigger and better, more surprising, more joyful and more inclusive than we could possibly imagine. It’s about lighting a candle for someone who has died, and honouring the fact that there are lines that connect us with them that go on despite death, lines we can hardly guess at, but that our Creator knows intimately. Why? Because they were woven with gracious intent into our very fabric of being.
When I read Enn Raudsepp’s book Vändra, it was eye opening. The novel makes it very clear that Estonians have rarely been able to live on their own land. In the Middle Ages, German landowners came and took over everything, making the Estonians serfs and peasants. Then the Soviets came, again and again. Today is “Red Army Sunday”. If anyone knows about strangers taking over land, it should be Estonians. They know, as do the First Nations here in Canada, what it is to have foreigners pushing you out. Estonians know what an injustice that is. Estonians should, then, also know that the right thing, the loving and just thing, is to name that injustice for what it is, even here and now in Canada. So you, mortal, says Ezekial, you I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you should give a warning. I guess we who are Christians are not quite over the “should” stage. We should identify injustice, not just at the end of the Second World War, but also now. We SHOULD develop solidarity and empathy for people who are not like us. In that way, the reign of justice, of our God, begins already, in a very small way, here and now.
The more things change, the more they’re the same. Some of us tend to idolize Luther. But scholars point out he’s only important because he came at a kind of tipping-point. Despite the significant, obvious differences, we live in a similar time. There is again, as there was during the European Reformation, a revolution happening in social media. There is again, as there was in the 16th century, a kind of apocalyptic feeling in the air, a shock-wave of anxiety at the rapid pace of change. There are again various forms of political uprisings and revolts among the disadvantaged. Remarkably, there is a similar fear of the Muslim world’s influence on Europe, a fear stoked for political reasons by leaders in the West. There is, again, an important wing of Christianity (this time found on television and online) that offers to the gullible and the afraid, salvation in exchange for money. Cities are still the crucibles of social, economic and technological transformation. And there is again, as at the time of the Reformation, a church caught in the middle, and unsure of the way forward.
Voters these days seem more and more lazy and irrational. We are addicted to the easy sugar of slogans and of self-serving lies. Through history, to our shame, Christians have also been dangerously irrational. But always, thankfully, some of the faithful have also been NON-rational – not IRRational, – but non-rational, in a positive and difficult, discipleship, way; that is, revelatory, narrative and reaching for a dream that may never be realized, but makes life better in the meantime. Loving your neighbour, doing good for no return, giving up privilege for the sake of those who have none – these are also non-rational actions. They follow a dream of service, not selfishness. Luther wrote: ‘We are God’s work, and God’s poem. God himself is the Poet; we are the verses God creates (LW 7:366)”. When we embrace this kind of non-rational openness, we open ourselves, not to slogans and lies, but to art, visions, and transformative dreams.
Way back in 1982 John Mellencamp came out with Jack and Diane. That song ALWAYS pops into my head when I read about the disciples after the crucifixion. They were so lost. Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone. Which is to say: sometimes our dreams disappear before we do. I imagine Peter down by the water with the nets in his fingers, wondering what he’s supposed to do with his life, now that Jesus is gone. Yet the sacred word of the resurrection turned out to be that sometimes we shouldn’t try going back to normal. I miss lots of things about the ‘old days’ – my parents, my physical condition, my hair! But I don’t miss overt racism against First Nations, teachers smoking in the classroom, bullying encouraged in school, open sexism against women, gay-bashing and anti-Semitism. Some day soon, God willing, we’ll look back in equal horror at the ways the banks now make profits, the outsourcing of pollution, the obscene salaries of CEOs, and the gutting of our little towns and industries by the almighty dollar. Can we be prophets who call out injustice, hurt, and hate? The resurrected Jesus stands on the shoreline of our lives, calling to us in our little boats. Don’t go back to normal, he shouts out. That’s done. You can grieve it, if you need to, but it’s gone. Come sit, and be quiet, and have a little something to eat. And then together, let’s talk about what you’ll do next. Let’s sit and think and ponder and plan whatever resurrection is needed.
I remember the first time I drove with GPS. I heard a word I’d never heard before: Recalibrating. You’re going one way when maybe, you should have been going another. The machine doesn’t fuss, or fret, or blame you. You could go off a cliff and it would just…recalibrate. Do not be afraid, says the angel to the two Marys who had come to anoint the body. RECALIBRATE. THAT was the message to the women who came to the tomb. The path your life is about to take, the angels said, is different from the one you had planned. Something has happened. Something dangerously hopeful. Recalibrate. After Jesus dies, it says in Matthew’s Gospel that the city leaders ask for a guard for the tomb. Matthew’s the only Gospel to recount this. “We want to make sure that his disciples don’t come to steal the body,” they say, “Otherwise his disciples will claim that he’s been raised, so the last deception will be greater than the first.” That phrase has always stuck with me. How can we, who celebrate this day, answer people who believe that we ARE living a deception? How about this? What’s unrealistic is NOT Easter. What’s unrealistic is our death-denying, hiding-the-facts-from-ourselves society claiming we’re never get older, just better. Some deny resurrection. But then we swallow the big lie that there’s no death, period. What’s unrealistic is paying hundreds of dollars for creams to hide our aging, or living in a world where the contents of a dumpster are entertainment on TV. What’s unrealistic is people who call themselves Christian who celebrate the world’s biggest bomb and never think about the fact that all that shiny metal is designed to blow human bodies up. The Marys were on their way to anoint a dead body when they were surprised by life. Like my experience learning to drive with a GPS unit for the first time, our Creator sometimes knows the path better than we do. Life comes THROUGH death. Do not be afraid. Life can triumph. The way can be recalibrated. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
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Here are three examples I wrote for students. The assignment is to write a forgery, using a contemporary subject, of a fragment of a Gospel or of a scriptural apocalypse. The students are supposed to pay attention to the aims, the characteristic language, the themes and the style of the originals, and mimic those. These are my three!
A “Lord of the Rings/Hobbit” themed story, based on Luke 22:24 and following (a fragment from a Gospel)
A dispute arose among the travellers to Mordor about which of them was the greatest. The elves said: “We are immortal, and surely there is no greatness more desirable than this.” The dwarves said: “We are strong, and connected to the earth. Nothing is greater than the earth and its treasures.” The men and women kept silent, for they did not know what to say – they were weaker than the dwarves and short-lived: a man’s span is four-score and ten at most. But Gandalf called them together and said to them: “The lords of the Sauron lord it over their subjects. But it is not to be so among you. And then he took Frodo, the hobbit, by hand, and led him into the middle of the circle. “Rather,” Gandalf went on, “the greatest among you must become as the smallest, and the strongest as the weakest. It is the hobbit who is the greatest, for he will save us all.”
A Justin Trudeau political story based on Revelation 10: 1-10
And I saw a mighty lord coming down from the mountains of British Columbia, his smile like sunshine and a rainbow banner over his head; his face was that of an angel, and his body that of an athlete. He held a scroll in his right hand, and an eagle-feather from the First Nations in his hair, and when I inquired of my guide what the parchment might be, the guide said to me: “It is the last will and testament of his father, the Trudeau-who-was-before.” And setting his right foot on the sea of the Juan de Fuca strait, and his left foot on the land of Departure Bay, he gave a great shout, like the call of a grizzly bear. And as he shouted a sentence in both English and French, the three main political parties shuddered, and the fourth, a green beaver, hiccupped. And at the sound, I was about to write what I had heard, but the guide said to me: “Do not write what was just uttered. Rather, seal it up, and leave it for the second term.” And then the leader, who had a maple leaf across his chest and the words “Justin” over his forehead, held out his hand with the scroll upon it. And there was, I saw, also blood upon his head, and the guide said to me “That is the blood of the battles that are to come.” And then the guide said, “take the parchment from his hand.” And I did, and it looked handsome, but burnt my skin, like fire.
A personal family story based on Matthew 5, the beatitudes
When my grandmother saw the crowds of neighbours, she went up into the kitchen, and she sat down, and her daughters came to her. And she began to speak to them, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are you if you remember what you are worth, for no man will ever give you a value you do not give yourself.
Blessed are you when you suffer, as you will, for suffering builds character, and those whom adversity does not destroy, it strengthens
Blessed are you when you earn your own money. Keep some to the side, for the rainy days will come soon and often, and the dawning ease of childhood is short-lived
Blessed are you when you take up the cause of the poor and those with illnesses of the mind; there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.
Blessed are you when you remember me, and your father, and my parents, and your father’s parents, for you will remember then that you are rooted in a name and a tradition
Blessed are you when you put your hands into the soil, for you will be connected to what we are made of, and the matter to which we all return.
You are like a windmill on the farm. If no wind blows, the windmill cannot turn, and you cannot produce energy, or draw water. So always turn your face toward the winds of the spirit, and feel them in you, and you will be happy.