Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas 1B

I rang the doorbell and a young woman answered.

“Hello I’m Pastor Kevin,” I said.

She let me in and we sat down on the couch. The baby was asleep in the crib by the window.

“So, why a baptism?” I asked.

“Well, I think it’s important to have God in my child’s life,” she said.

“What’s the baby’s name?” I asked looking over to the crib.

She muttered something I didn’t recognize.

“That’s an interesting name. Is there story behind that name? Is it a family name?” I asked because I hadn’t heard that name before.

“No, it’s not a family name,” she answered.

“Do you know what it means?” I asked.

“No, it doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just a word I made up. I just like the way it sounds.”

I have to admit, and maybe I’m being a little judgmental,  but was I taken a bit off guard, because I’ve always heard people offer fuller, more thoughtful, explanations on why they chose a name that will be with their child their whole lives - and beyond, other than a made-up sound that was easy on the ears. 

It wasn’t always this way, and she is an extreme case. Most people know what their names mean, or why they were given their name by their parents. I thought this was a missed opportunity for this mom and her child.

What does your name mean? Most of us have names that mean something. Perhaps they reflect the hopes and dreams that parents have for their children. Or they’re carrying a family tradition. Or they name them after a celebrity or important public figure.

Bible names all mean something. In fact, if you don’t know the meaning of the many of the names you could miss the point of the story. And my former spouse and I took that into consideration when we named our children.

Our oldest daughter is named “Sophia” because means “wisdom” (but she likes “Sophie”). Her mom and I chose that name to honour Lady Wisdom found in the book of Proverbs. Sophia in Proverbs is a feminine expression of God, and her mom and I wanted to recognize aspects of the divine that are sometimes overlooked. However, we didn’t do our homework. It wasn’t as unique a name as we figured it would be. We had no idea that there would be so many Sophias in her school. And Sophie was not at all impressed when I baptized another “Sophia.”

Sophia’s sister is named “Naomi” to remember the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi and the message of faith and commitment that it inspires. It’s a powerful story of integrity and sacrifice for others. We gave her the name “Naomi” because her mother and I hoped that our child would embody those virtues as she grew.

When my parents named me, I know they struggled for days to find just the right word to describe who they saw when they peered into my future. They wanted to place upon me the mantle of my destiny, hoping that I would be a force for good in the world, that I would lead others into a new tomorrow. And so they reached out to the heavens, grabbed with two hands and pulled down the name “Kevin” which means...”handsome.” Or more accurately, “handsome birth.”

And every time I look in the mirror I’m absolutely shocked by how prophetic my parents were!

Mary and Joseph did what they were told and named their son, “Jesus” which they knew meant “God rescues” or “God saves.” They were glad to give him this name because they had laid all their hope on him, as one who would save God’s people from their sins, and rescue them from the hands of their enemies.

And so, as required by law, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to Jerusalem to offer the usual sacrifice as a thanksgiving to God.

And they meet Simeon, the old man who’d been around the temple forever, whose eyes may have given out, but he could see well enough to recognize God’s promises being fulfilled in this infant.

And Anna then wants to hold the baby, because she wants to feel in her arms the very power of God.

Both of them may have had more years behind them than in front of them, but they could see God’s bright future being born among them. They could see that everything old was passing away. And that God was doing something new.

It was like there was a flip of the calendar in this baby, and a new age had begun. And they were glad that they could see it before they closed their earthly eyes, and entered their own futures.

And this week, at this flip of the calendar we also can look to the future that God has given us in Jesus. While self-reflection is a yearly exercise for me, this new year seems different than most.

This is the first new years where it actually feels like a NEW year. It could be because I’m in a very different place physically, emotionally, and spiritually than I’ve been in a while. 

Being in this new environment, and carving out a new life, has forced me to think about what I REALLY want from my days, how I spend my 24 hours that add up to a lifetime. What I REALLY want my time on earth to be about. How I think God REALLY wants me to use my gifts. 

On a practical level, I figure that if I’m going to be away from my daughters’ day-to-day lives then I want this time to mean something. I want it to count. I want 2015 to be worthy of my - and their - physical absence.

So, this flip of the calendar is an important opportunity for me.

What about you? How do you meet 2015? What’s important to you?

Is it just another year, just like the last one, where you go about your day-to-day activities, not really challenging, but not inspiring either.

Or do you see 2015 as a time pregnant with possibility, and you feel that anything is possible, and you just can’t wait to get in the game, grab the ball, and run to the end zone?

Or are you anxious about 2015, not knowing what’s around the corner, since 2014 has provided unexpected challenges, especially given the price of oil and the damage it threatens to do to our economy?

Or did you face personal challenges in 2014, and are hoping that 2015 might be a year of healing, and maybe, of reinvention?

Or are you hopeful that this will finally be the year when you get your life together? When the challenges of the past are left behind and a new you will emerge.

Or are you all of the above? A muddle of mixed motivations? A patchwork quilt of expectations?

What about for us here at First Lutheran Church? What do you hope for our congregation in 2015? What are your dreams and ambitions for our family of faith? What would you like to see happen here at church?

A growth in membership?

Fresh programming to meet new spiritual needs?

A deeper sense of connection to one another?

Stronger outreach?

Longer sermons?

All of the above? None of the above?

In my job as interim pastor, I have the luxury of both immersing myself in the life of the congregation, and standing back to observe from a distance. And what I’ve seen so far is that this congregation is still in a period of transition. You’re looking for stability in order to try to figure out the future that God has prepared for you, because the ground under your feet has been shaky over the past while.

But also, thankfully, I don’t sense any real anxiety about the future either. I don’t feel as if there is an urgency born from fear, among the congregation or leadership, as you transition.

What I do sense is that the church, you and I together, are willing to take a step back and let things unfold a bit, to let our life speak, to hear the message that God is saying through the opportunities that present themselves to us instead of trying to move too quickly in one direction or another.

As Simeon and Anna knew, the kingdom of God is still in its infancy, it’s just been named “Jesus.” It’s still learning about its future, even though it is the fulfillment of that future.

And we’re still learning too. Even though First Lutheran has been around longer than many Lutheran churches in Alberta, we’re still beginning new each day, as God’s kingdom is being born again, and again, and again, and again within and among us.

One of the gifts that First Lutheran has been given is a forward looking perspective. Not all churches can look ahead as well as this congregation. First isn’t afraid to try new things. To think differently. To explore territory unsullied by human cynicism. 

So far I haven’t heard the dreaded phrase “We haven’t done it that way before” and I hope I never hear that phrase here, because it’s a phrase that shuts down innovation before it can begin.

For me, such openness to new ideas in this congregation means I can flex my creative muscles, to see just what I’m capable of as a church leader. 

And for us, it means that we can explore fresh ways to advance our mission, to grow and become strong, filled with wisdom; with the favour of God upon us. And that’s exciting!

After all, our name is “First Lutheran” and we have been challenged to live up to that name. With our name comes a responsibility. The First to test new ideas.The First to take holy risks. The First to step out in faith to show others that God is faithful even when we break out of beloved conventions and long-held traditions. God is doing a new thing in Lutheranism, and we have been saddled with the responsibility to be “First” among that new thing.

Simeon and Anna waited their whole lives to see the kingdom of God in their midst. We don’t have to wait that long. The kingdom of God is already within and among us. 

And the kingdom - the Spirit of God in Jesus is present within you, guiding you, speaking to you through your life, and leading you in the words of others.

No matter where you are in your life. No matter the challenges or opportunities, dreams or disappointments, troubles or delights, problems or possibilities, we trust in a God who was born in the middle of all of this bewildering and beloved mess, a God who has blessed you in your confusion and your hopes, so that you can rise to meet God’s future with open hands.

What Simeon saw in the baby, God also sees in you. What Anna held in her arms God also bestows on you, because you have been joined to Jesus. You are Christ’s living body. You have God’s promises knitted to your very being.

Your own eyes have seen the salvation that God has prepared for you and for everyone. You are a light to every nation. You are a candle in the dark. You are God’s answer to prayer. You are the first ray of sun appearing after a long, cold, sleepless night.

As we enter 2015, enter knowing that you are God’s beating heart, enter knowing that you are growing, enter knowing that you have become strong; enter knowing that you have been filled with wisdom, because God has found favour with you. 

And when we flip the calendar at this time next year to 2016, we will look back with amazement at what God has done.

May this be so among us. Amen!

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent 4B Series: "From Humbug to Hallelujah!"

How do you want to be remembered?

I’m going to tell you what you already know. You WILL die one day. There’s no escaping that fact. One day you WILL be put into the ground and dirt WILL be thrown on your face. There WILL be a day when tomorrow won’t come.

And when they put you in the grave, what will people then say about you? How will those you love describe your life? What words will the community use to describe your contribution? What will the obituary in the paper include? What stories will be told?

Will your life be a story of inspiration or a cautionary tale? Will the preacher lift you up as an example to follow or as a warning to heed?

As a pastor, I’ve presided over hundreds of funerals. And, to be honest, funerals are one of the most rewarding parts of my job. People are often surprised when I say that. But it’s true.

I find funerals rewarding because they remind me what a gift life is. Funerals are the only time when we stop and reflect on our mortality. My guess is that 99.99% of the people attending a funeral, at one point in the service, picture themselves in the casket.

I consider it an honour and a privilege to preside over burials, to facilitate sacred good-byes, to preach good news to hurting people, and to lead the congregation in prayers of thanksgiving for the person’s life. 

Who else but the preacher is allowed to be present at life’s most important moment, where a lifetime of memories and experiences are gathered together in a moment of grief and celebration. Where else, but at a funeral, does the rubber of life hit death’s road?

Funerals are a confrontation with our own finitude, where we come face to face with the fact that one day we will close our eyes and never open them again. Which is why I’m glad to preside at them. No other question is greater in peoples’ minds than the one of death. What happens after our bodies shut down? What will happen to ME when the inevitable arrives?

Those of us who call ourselves Christians trust that we will - somehow - live on after we’ve died.

Others believe that this is the only chance we get at existing, and that after our heart stops and brain functions shut down, we’re done. Finished. We’re maggot feed.

But whether you have faith that there is a life after this one, or if you believe that this life is the only one we have, death marks an end, a period after a sentence. After which people will begin to add up your life.

Funerals help us reflect on what happens after we die. And more importantly, funerals help us explore what happens BEFORE we die.

What did you do on this planet while you had the chance? What did you build? Whom did you love? Who loved you? Did you contribute something or did you simply take up space? How is this world different because you walked on it?

Those were the questions Scrooge found himself asking as the spirit of the Christmases yet to come showed him how he will be remembered after he died, if he continued on his path of cruelty and selfishness.

No good word was said about him. Servants stealing from him as he lay dead without a thought to the dignity of his body. Joyous relief at being liberated from his financial stranglehold. No one shed the smallest tear at this man’s passing.

And when Scrooge found himself face-to-face with his death, he saw his life through other people’s eyes. He saw the futility of a life ruled by the ledger. He saw the waste of relationships left to disintegrate due to his selfishness. He saw the missed opportunities to love. He saw that the way he protected his wealth only made everyone else hate him. He could see that his life was a devastating failure.

Let’s watch....


It was at that moment of rock bottom futility and failure, that his past, present, and future converged, challenging his life of frivolous wealth acquisition, that he sees clearly that his life could be so much more, and so he cries out in panic,

“Spirit! Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this [visitation]. Why show me this if I am past hope? ...Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

An “altered” life. 

In Christian term we’d call that “repentance.” “Repentance” isn’t just turning away from sin. It’s a chance to re-write the story of your life if you don’t like where the story is headed. It’s God speaking into your life when some wholesale revisions need to be made.

What is God saying to you? How is your story being written? What ending are you headed towards? What needs to be re-written? If you could write your own ending what would it be? What can we learn from your life?

The good news of Christmas is that God does change the ending. God re-writes our story. When the story we’ve written on our own takes a turn away from the ending that God wants, God takes out a pen and re-writes it. 

When the characters take over and create an ending we don’t expect, God steps in and and moves the story back to where God intends. When your story gets stuck in a humbug, God turns that humbug into a hallelujah!

When your humbugs of loss and defeat leave you flat on your back, God lifts you up with the hallelujah of healing and triumph!

When the humbugs of loneliness and grief keep you spinning in a cycle of despair, God breaks the circle of heartbreak with a hallelujah of friendship and comfort!

When the humbugs of lostness keep you disoriented, and you don’t know which way to turn and you find yourself alone in the dark, God finds you and leads you back to the hallelujah of home!

When the humbugs of fear and insecurity keep you from being your best self and living your most authentic life, God gives you an hallelujah of courage so you can face with confidence anything that life throws at you!

When the humbug of death hovers over you, and you worry about what comes next, God declares the hallelujah of resurrection!

Your story is still being written, but not just by you, but by the Author of LIfe. God’s Living Word is speaking your destiny into being, God’s Word is being made flesh in YOU and YOUR life, since you bear God’s name. 

You are God’s child! You are a follower of the King of kings! You are a citizen of heaven!  You are becoming the the person God has created you to be because God is doing a great work in you! God is telling a story of healing and redemption in YOUR life!

And the ending of that story is always the beginning of another. Another chance to start again. Another fresh start. Another entry way into a new life. Another opportunity to revive what was sleeping. The grace of an altered life.

The Christmas story isn’t just the tale of a miraculous birth of a divine king to an innocent young woman, but the Christmas story is a reminder that you have the power - God’s power - to transform your humbug story to a triumphant tale of Hallelujah! 

The Christmas story tells us that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has shared our brokenness, so that we can share God’s strength. 

The Christmas story declares that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has immersed himself into deepest human defeat, and rose victorious over the powers that would destroy us.

And you have that same power. In baptism, when you were joined to Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, God has give YOU that renewing power. YOU have the power over anything that seeks to destroy you.

You have the power to live the life that God wants for you.

You have the power to reverse any defeat.

You have the power to reach out in kindness.

You have the power to be generous with your care.

You have the power to live your best self, rising when you fall, healing when you break, transforming your wounds into wins, loving the way God loves. 

Forgiving those who hurt you. Comforting those who grieve. Converting hurts into compassion.

Using the gifts, skills, and talents that God has given you, getting your hands dirty in service to Christ’s church and for the good of others, so that you can bless the world with your unique brilliance!

You have the power to live Jesus’ risen life!

So that all the groaning humbugs of our lives and the world will be transformed into a triumphant song of Hallelujah!

May this be so among us! Amen!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Advent 2B Series: "From Humbug to Hallelujah!"

I read a lot of business books. They help me understand my job much better. They give me practical tips on how I can improve my professional life. But sometimes they slide from giving concrete professional advice into gooey self-help, feel good pseudo-psychology. 

One author said that the best way to live is to live with no regrets. On the surface that sounds great. Who wants to look back at the end of one’s life and see regret?

Of course the writer was talking about the importance of not taking life lightly. Of seizing opportunities, not letting the moments go by unappreciated and un-acted upon; to start that business, to take that trip, to learn that instrument, to talk to that beautiful woman, to apply for that job, to tell that special person how you feel. This person said that you didn’t want to be 102 lying on your deathbed and look back at a life of “What ifs”? or “Why didn’t I’s?”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s great advice. An important message. Life is to be lived, engaged, loved, grabbed with two hands, run until you’re sore.

But life does come with regret. That’s just the way life is. The question is what are you going to do with it? To have no regrets means to live a life without risk, to have no regrets means you have played it too safe, it means to not have failed. And failure teaches us about life, much more than success does.

My experience as a pastor in Tokyo, Japan was the worst professional experience of my life, and scarred me emotionally and drained me financially. (One of these days I’ll tell you that story). But the lessons I learned from that time prepared me to better serve you here today.

The breakdown of my marriage and consequent divorce nearly killed me. The worst day of my life was when I moved out of our home and saw my daughters’ noses pressed against the window watching their daddy drive away, feeling like my life just crashed in all around me, and was desperately alone. 

But in the subsequent months and years, as I began to heal from that loss, I’ve learned to appreciate the people and relationships in my life more than I ever had before. I’ve learned to love more deeply. I’ve learned what real gratitude feels like.

Our scars can keep us from experiencing true joy. They can keep us bitter. Resentful that life hasn’t turned out as planned. Memories can turn us into who we don’t want to be.

Dickens doesn’t fully say what happened to Scrooge to turn him into who he became. He hints at an abusive father, but we don’t fully see the roots of Scrooge’s bitterness. We don’t know for sure why he turned inward and pushed everyone away.

But we do get a glimpse into his past, which makes his present so much more of a mystery. Scrooge, as a younger man, danced with abandon, and loved with joyful recklessness. There’s no evidence of the man he is now. 

But somewhere, somehow, and by someone, Scrooge became embittered, his priorities shifted from love and friendship to self-centred business success, success for its own sake.

He lost the woman in his life because she grieved what he had become. His only friend was Marley, with whom he could wallow in his new found craving for cash.

When the ghost of Christmas present reminds him of who he was, Scrooge impulsively smiles with child-like innocence when sees the happy faces of his boyhood friends as memories of a free and joyful time of his life pour over him. 

But then retreats back into himself, the person he has become, when confronted by the pain of his past, estrangement from his father, and especially, of losing his beloved sister.

Let’s watch...


What I most appreciate about Patrick Stewart’s Scrooge is that he doesn’t play it as a cartoon character, he looks deep into why Scrooge became who he was. When I see Patrick Stewart’s Scrooge, I don’t see just some cynical, embittered old man, who views the world only through dollars signs. 

When I look into this Scrooge’s eyes, I see a man who loved deeply, and lost even more deeply. In his eyes I don’t see mere bitterness or crankiness, I see suffering. I see darkness subdue a bright light.

I see a man who didn’t just lose those whom he loved, I see a man who lost himself. The memories of a joyful youth only compounded his anger as the spirit showed him descending into bitter loneliness with each mistake, and was left helpless to change it, because the past was just a memory - but a living memory that haunted him worse than any ghost ever could.

That’s why I was surprised to be rooting for this Scrooge. I think there’s something in him in all of us. He’s not evil. He’s wounded. He didn’t give away his joy. It was taken from him. His “humbug” wasn’t the grumblings of a cranky old man. But a defense against the memories that left him exiled from those around him, and blinded him to the love and care that was his to receive, if only he could recognize it.

In this Scrooge, I see tyranny born from tragedy.

That’s why I felt so sad for him. Because it didn’t have to be that way. There was love all around him. He just didn’t recognize it. Or he was too overwhelmed by the bitter losses of his past that he didn’t know how to receive it when love presented itself to him.

It’s not the spirits of Christmas past, present, or future, that turn us from living out our painful memories into a deeper understanding of love and life, but the Spirit of God who transforms our pain into passion for others. It’s the Spirit of God who opens our eyes to pain of those reflected back to us, and demands that we do something about it. It’s the Spirit of God who brings us back from exile, and leads us home, into a life of care for others and the world God made.

I have a friend back home in Ontario, who by all accounts should be like Scrooge. Burned through three marriages. Spent time in prison. His business flopped. Lost his house. Went bankrupt. And struggled to maintain a relationship with his children with whom he became estranged because of the years of drinking and self-abuse.

His poor choices were the result of a terrible upbringing. He simply didn’t know how to live properly. He wasn’t taught how to move through the world as a fully functioning member of society. So his life became a series of mistakes and losses, which in turn added up a life poorly lived.

And he could have stayed in that world of failure and loss. But the salvation story began to work on him, and his eyes opened to new possibilities, he learned that God doesn’t give up on anyone, and that the message of new life in Jesus can take the heartbreak of yesterday and use for tomorrow that is abundant with love, and now his life is just beginning as others at his age are winding things down.

Because instead of retreating into his senior years seething with resentment over a life badly lived, instead of brooding over his losses, instead seeing his life as a series of mistakes, he’s become extraordinarily kind and generous. His losses gave him insight. His scars gave him wisdom. His mistakes have given him greater understanding of others. His estrangements have given him compassion. His brokenness has given him a spirit of healing.

He has found joy in helping others. His is a life transformed by a community of faith who saw more in him than he saw in himself. His life is the kind of Christmas miracle that we don’t often read about, but a miracle nonetheless. He spends his free time serving people who need his help. Cutting veggies at the soup kitchen. Visiting fellow church members in the hospital. Serving as a Stephen Minister at his church.

When I talk with him I’m reminded that it’s the Spirit of God that declares that joy - TRUE joy - comes from connecting with others, sharing our deepest selves with those around us, as they share themselves with us. And with that sharing we become more fully alive, awake to the love and care that inspires us to be our best selves, to go into the world knowing that we can meet out challenges, that the blisters on our feet only make us run faster.

When I hear stories like his I remember that true peace comes from looking beyond yourselves, to a world that needs what you have to offer.

I remember that true hope means trusting that something good can rise out of the worst circumstances, that our hurt can mean healing for others, that the wisdom born from our losses can be offered as a gift to someone who has lost their way in the world. That the past does not have to dictate your next steps. That memories - even the memories that keep us mired in earlier defeats - are mere shadows, and that we can always start over with a flesh and blood today.

That’s what John proclaimed in the desert. That’s Jesus’ message for us.

That is the Word made flesh and living among us, the Word spoken in us and through us, the fleshly Word that speaks new life into our world and our lives, the Word that tells us that we are forgiven, the Word that proclaims our freedom, the Word that announces that God’s abundant future can be received today, the Word that speaks healing when we are wounded, the Word that declares life when we are dying.

And, by the Spirit of Christ, the Word Made Flesh, born among us, living beside us, dying with us, and rising for us, we can trust that our humbugs will explode into triumphant hallelujahs!

May this be so among us! Amen!

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