“Essential Essence”

October 18th

A project I am undertaking has had some real ups and downs. Made up of a number of subassemblies, it’s been hit and miss as to which components have succeeded and which have failed. The successes have been a source of joy. One spectacular failure was the source of a Children’s Story I shared with my congregation. What’s important about the failure isn’t the mess I created; rather, the important thing is that I just started over, reusing parts that were salvageable and recycling those that were not. It was a good metaphor for how God never gives up on us even when we mess up, hence great material for a children’s story, complete with the failed subassembly as a visual aid. 
After sharing the story of my failure, one gentleman came up to me following worship and remarked how my reusing the good bits of my disastrous project was like the Biblical image of clay in God’s hands. He was absolutely correct; when we mess up, God refashions us as a potter refashions a failed pot of clay. I was thankful for my friend’s insight and understanding, especially as he is a fellow creator who knows the joy of success and the frustration of failure.
As I pondered our conversation I thought more and more about the clay. It is a powerful image. God takes us when we mess up, mushes us up into an unformed ball of clay and then reshapes us into something better. Notice, however, that the clay itself remains unchanged. While its form undergoes a transformation, its essential essence does not. It retains the same texture, keeps its colour and holds onto its density and flexibility.
Clay, of course, is clay. The potter alone determines its final shape and function. There may be various types of clay suiting different needs and requirements but for the most part, one lump of clay is much like another. Humans, however, are unique creations. Each of us is a very different lump of clay, differing vastly from one another. As we grow and mature we develop our individual God-given gifts and talents as we realize God’s purpose for us.
When we mess up or follow the wrong path, God doesn’t change our essential essence. Our unique abilities and interests remain; God helps us to refine and grow them to their highest possible level. Should we really mess up and miss out on our true calling and gifts, God redirects us onto our right path. Again, our essential essence is not changed; God just makes sure that we know ourselves more fully and truly so that we can be all that God means us to be.
Each of us is uniquely and wonderfully blessed by our Creator. Our individual gifts and talents reflect a particular aspect of God’s heavenly image. They are our essential essence, the means by which we express God’s love and contribute to serving our fellow humans, and indeed all creation, in our own way. Sometimes we mess up or miss out. When we do, God reshapes us and sets us back on the right path but the essence of who we are and what we are called to do does not change. God simply ensures that we use our blessings in a way that will be a blessing to our fellow blessed and beloved children of God.

“Enemies”

October 11th

A certain world leader who is disliked by many people recently was stricken with the COVID-19 virus. Other world leaders quickly offered their words of sympathy and of support. Despite the fact that many of these Presidents, Prime-minsters and Monarchs may not be this person’s friend or even had extremely warm national relationships, they were willing to offer their stricken colleague encouraging words and basic human kindness.
Those sentiments were not universal. Because this particular world leader is know for not always being entirely truthful, many people claim that he is lying about being sick. A good number of folks went even further, claiming that he feigned being sick in order to gain sympathy votes or for other political gain.
Some of his enemies even when so far as to wish him a slow painful recovery, while still others prayed for no recovery whatsoever, and that he simply die as a result of the Corona virus.
I’m not a big fan of this person. I find him petty, childish, hateful and generally rude and unkind to anyone that cannot advance his political agenda. At the same time, I believe that he is genuinely ill and that he is not pretending. I also hope that he recovers fully and that the process of recovery is quick  and as comfortable as possible. I might not like him, but I certainly don’t wish him any ill. While I hope that he does not remain in office much longer, and that he receives the due punishment he deserves for the harm and division he has caused, I hope that he survives. And, as I mentioned before, I believe that he is indeed ill and that this is not a ruse of any kind on his part.
I am distressed and disappointed in the people that I thought were friends I could trust claiming that his world leader is faking his disease. I am truly stricken to the core by their belief that it is simply a ruse designed to gain sympathy and possible political advantage. Christ taught us to love our enemies. I am very much saddened by the fact that these Christ-following people have so readily forgotten that teaching.
I know that many people would call me foolish or naive for believing a man with a proven reputation for lying. I may well be completely wrong, but as a follower of Jesus I would rather err on the side of love and have sympathy and compassion for this person rather than assume he is lying. I simply can’t accept that even he would stoop so low and even if he has, then I must take even more pity on him. For someone to lie about being sick points to an illness far deeper than the Corona virus. Whatever the truth may be, I prefer to believe that this person is genuinely physically ill, and will pray for his recovery and that he returns to full health and wholeness very soon.
As Jesus said, what good is it if you only love your friends?

“Struggling”

October 4th

I’m struggling with what to say today. I have prayed and pondered, read some inspirational material and done my daily Bible study. I’ve distracted myself so that I could shake the cobwebs out, then hunkered down hoping to have the right words to share. I’ve even gone so far as to write down a brilliant title that expressed a good idea, but the idea doesn’t seem quite right for today.
Nothing seems to be coming easily. Nothing seems to be coming with great struggle. So rather than a neatly and tidily prepared set of “Thoughts” I offer today the reality of the in-between. The process rather than the finished product. The struggle rather than the victory.
As I write, two images come to mind: Jesus leaving the crowds to pray by Himself, and Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, wrestling with God in prayer. Both those scenarios reveal Jesus working through His faith; He goes away to pray alone, separated from his disciples, just Him and God. We don’t know what He prayed on those occasions; only in the garden do we hear what happened, and it was not what we expected. There Jesus struggled with His fate. There we realize His full humanity, a condition that belied His Godly perfection and revealed how He too could suffer and doubt.
“Not my will, but yours.” He concludes.
And so I share my own struggling thoughts, uncertain what to say but saying something anyway, understanding that what I am doing is not my will, but God’s. I might not know quite what that will is today, but even in my doubt I trust that Jesus is worth following, and that somehow, God’s desire for me will be accomplished even when I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to think.
Perhaps out of all this rambling I can offer this one clear thought: sometimes it’s the struggle and not the victory that matters. In the struggle we reveal that we’re trying, that something is worth working or even fighting for, that in our weakness we still have power, and that in our doubt there remains the possibility of an answer. Or it’s maybe that the very fact we are willing to struggle means we have hope. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Jesus always came back from His prayers. Jesus left His Gethsemane struggle and went to Skull Hill. His struggle was not the final answer, but it was a vital part of making His choice to follow God’s will.
Don’t be afraid if there are no immediate answers. Don’t be afraid of the nagging questions or troubling doubts. They are not the final expression of God’s will; they are just part of the process, part of the reality of being human. If nothing else, our willingness to struggle marks that we still have hope. We might not know what God’s will is. We might be uncertain we can carry it through. We might not even like what God’s will seems to be for us, but if we aren’t willing to struggle with the choice, we will never get to the place where we can say with confidence: “Your will, not mine, God.”

“Imbalance”

September 27th

On a properly socially-distanced Pastoral visit I was invited to stand in the middle of my parishioner’s apartment. From that vantage point I was perfectly placed to see each of the four rooms that made up her home. It was moment of perfect balance, but in that moment of balance, I was nowhere. I could see into each room, but I was not in any of them.
Balance is a curious thing. It is something, yet it is nothing. Writing this on the Vernal equinox, the sun will be seen for just as long as it will be hidden. What is the true meaning of that temporary temporal balance? We may mark it as a curiosity, but in truth, the balance between day and night has little import.
Balance is a fragile thing. The slightest force can tip over a dancer delicately balanced on one toe. While she seems stable and secure in her footing, every muscle in her body is hard at work responding to, and working against, the slightest air current or other factor that might cause her to become unbalanced. Balance is a difficult thing to maintain.
We seek to remain neutral on a subject. Balanced. Level headed. We don’t want to cause waves or upset the delicate equilibrium between ourselves and someone who is different from us. Or maybe we’re comfortable where we are, even though we know that our comfort comes at the cost of being better than we can be. Only when we lose our balance can we move forward. A Ballerina standing statically might be beautiful for a moment, but it is when she moves with determined grace that the true beauty of her dance is revealed.
As people of faith we often seek to balance our religion with every other aspect of our lives. We want the best of what God has to offer along with the best that society offers. But when we try to balance our lives that way we forget or ignore the reality of the Christ who threw Himself into life fully as God’s Son. Jesus didn’t live with one foot in Heaven and the other on Earth; he immersed Himself in this life as the full expression of God’s love, wisdom and power. He did not balance His Spiritual and Physical nature; He drew them together and lived as His full Son-of-God self.
It’s hard for us humans to be the full Spiritual beings we are meant to be, but having been created in God’s image, it is something we are invited to strive for. We can’t simply balance our earthly lives with our Spiritual ones. We are called to shape and inform every aspect of our existence so that it reflects our own bit of God’s image. We are called to love and serve others as Christ did. We are called to care for creation and our neighbour as God does for us.
And if we tip over in the process, God’s forgiveness restores us and offers us another chance.
Balance is good. But it is in the imbalance, in the motion, that we truly live as we are meant to do.

“One Job”

September 20th

I recently donated blood. Canadian Blood Services makes an easy job of it. They are well organized and follow a regular schedule so that arranging for a donation and actually making it are as pain-free as possible.
Their organization is both impressive and vital as their donation centres change from day to day so that they can reach more people. The one I attend regularly is in Midland, about a 25 minute drive from where I live and it’s always held in the local sports complex.
The COVID-inspired need for social distancing and extra cleanliness has not hampered the Canadian Blood Services efforts. It has changed how they do things a bit, but the changes are nothing new in Ontario: mandatory masks, keeping apart two metres, a limited number of people in the space and all the other things that must be done. The only major change in the way CBS does things has been the addition of a dedicated cleaning person. Their one and only job is to clean the chairs and the surfaces we donors may have touched.
When I was there, the gentleman charged with the task was always busy. A steady flow of donors moving from station to station provided more than enough work for him, While we didn’t have a chance to talk to him, his efforts were much appreciated, both for what they accomplished, and for the quick and efficient way he did his job. He may not have been a part of the actual blood donation process, but he was still very much part of the team that made donating blood possible in these COVID-19 days.
It’s notable that the team actually collecting blood were multitasking; they would switch jobs, going from interviewing donors to taking their blood. In between donations they were responsible for cleaning each station, the one area the designated cleaner didn’t enter. In short, they did a few different jobs while the designated cleaner had only task to perform.
The blood donor clinics models life in that respect. There are some folks who do a multitude of different things in their course of life. There are others who only ever do just one. It might seem odd, or even unfair, but it’s reality, and there’s nothing wrong with it. God gave us different skill-sets and interests. None is superior to the other; each is a blessing we are invited to use to the best of our abilities. In turn, just as our gifts bless us, our use of them is a blessing to others, whether we are called to multitask or simply to do one job.
However God has blessed you, whatever unique gift or gifts you have been blessed with, is your way of blessing God and serving those around you. And our biggest job, the one that we all share, albeit in different ways, is to bless God by using our gifts joyfully and generously.

“The Right Words”

September 13th

A strange thing happened to a Priest serving in Chicago. It was discovered that when he was Baptized, an incorrect word had been used. The Priest presiding over the procedure said “We Baptize you” rather than “I Baptize you”. The fallout from that single syllable slip was staggering. In an instant, the Baptism was nullified. Since the Baptism was nullified, he was not member of the Roman Catholic Church. Since he was not a member of the Roman Catholic Church, he could not be a Priest. Since he was not a Priest, none of the Baptisms, or any thing he had done were legitimate. Since nothing he had done was legitimate, the souls, as well as legal and religious effects of all his actions were rendered null and void. What’s worse, all of the folks he had Baptized were now doomed to Hell.
True story. The Roman Catholic leaders and thinkers overseeing this unfortunate Priest’s ministry all believed that because the ritual had not been performed exactly as it was written, he was not actually Baptized, with all the resultant consequences. There was no grace, no mercy, no allowing for a mistake. The Priest had not been baptized, therefore nothing he had done counted, since he couldn’t be a Priest without being properly Baptized.
Thankfully, the leaders quickly performed the Baptism once again, perfectly correctly, then made him a member of the church, then re-ordained the unfortunate man as a fully fledged Priest, thus legitimizing everything he had done when we was not, according to Roman Catholic law, a real Priest.
Crazy, isn’t it? And yet it’s a true story. An unfortunate story. A story of pettiness, unkindness, small mindedness and an adherence to human rather than Godly standards. Rather than simply accept the first Priest’s mistake and carry on, the affected Priest was put through a legalistic Hell that caused him great pain, shame and embarrassment. Truly, there was nothing Christlike in the leadership that oversaw one of their own.
However…
…a strange thing happens in the Bible, our one source for Godly behaviour. In the Bible stories are told in different ways. There are two different versions of the creation of Human beings. The books of Kings and the Chronicles tell the story of Israel in slightly different ways. The four Gospels have slightly different retellings of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection, not to mention that each has miracles and other events in His life the others don’t mention.
Strange as it may seem, the words within the Bible tell the story…
…but they are not the story itself. The story that matters is that of the Living Word, the Word made flesh, Jesus. How we tell that story doesn’t depend on the right words or rituals spoken perfectly. We tell Jesus’ story by how we follow Him, how we use our gifts, and how we love others as He loved us. What we say matters since the spoken word does have its own power, but what matters more is how our lives speak to Jesus, the Word made flesh.

“The Best Stuff”

September 6th

“New stuff is the best stuff” the ad proclaims proudly. Really? Is new stuff really the best stuff? My favourite word processing program was rewritten and made “new” and the the supposedly improved version is nowhere near as good as the old one was. That’s one reason new stuff isn’t always the best stuff. Sure, quite often new things are better than what preceded them. I am forever thankful that wringer washers are a thing of an increasingly forgotten past and that new ones are truly better in every way. New stuff can indeed be the best.
But what struck me about the ad was not the veracity of its claim. What struck me was the use of the idea as a marketing tool, pushing a wasteful and thoughtless agenda that is very much against my core principles.
First off, do we always have to have more stuff? Does buying a few new things, even if they are better, make our lives truly better? I don’t think so. More is not better, by any means, and new, even if it is an improvement on the old, does not justify buying more stuff.
The other thing is that most of us already have more than enough material things. My dresser is packed with clothes, so much so that the drawers don’t close easily. I also have a closet and an armoire that are quite full. Do I need more stuff to stuff them even more fully? While Lois, my wife, would suggest that quite a few things could well disappear without being missed, they wouldn’t have to be replaced. More stuff, even new stuff, isn’t always better. Sometimes making do with what we have is the best thing of all.
The final thing that bugs me about this ad is that it is from a company that professes it’s a good brand that wants to be environmentally friendly and socially responsible. Is it environmentally friendly to invite customers to be wasteful and to buy things just because they are shiny and new? And is it socially responsible to imply that a better life can be had by buying new, better, stuff? On both counts my answer is a big fat “No!” My stuff might make life a little more comfortable and easier, but it certainly does not make my life better in any way.
Jesus once tried to teach a rich young person that it wasn’t what he owned that mattered, but his attitude towards life. The young man blew it and chose his stuff over the best life possible following and serving Jesus. New or old, good our bad, it’s not our stuff that determines our joy or fulfilment. It’s how we love our neighbour, welcome the stranger and glorify our Creator that really matters. What’s more, when we look to serving and honouring God we get new stuff every day! Every day is filled with new opportunities to do good and to celebrate life and it’s free! No purchase necessary! All you have to do is enjoy the blessings God offers you when you follow Jesus faithfully and lovingly.

“Wee Seeds”

July 26th

I’ve noticed an interesting thing when I wash my hair. After rinsing as thoroughly as I can, if I take just a small drop of shampoo, I can get a really good, very bubbly, second wash. I guess that even with the best efforts at a thorough rinse, there is enough shampoo residue left to generate another good washing. All it takes is a wee seed to get the bubbles forming.
Wee seeds are like that. They make stuff happen, whether it’s summoning up another good batch of bubbles or giving rise to a fresh crop of tomatoes.
Wee seeds don’t have to be physical. Sometimes they are a word or and idea.  They have the ability to generate spirited debates, create new thoughts and even change hearts. It might be a word in passing, or spoken in excited haste. It might be one that means little to us but triggers something big in another person.
Sometimes it’s not even a word, but an action or an emotion. Any small act of kindness might generate personal growth that leads a softer, more loving heart or more positive view of people. A tiny, harsh or aggressive act may be the seed of resentment or a closing off of the heart.
Small things can have big results, personally or to others. As followers of Jesus, that’s a wonderful gift. Few of us are comfortable with big, extravagant actions. We’re not good with fancy words or powerful speeches. The power of wee seeds empowers us to do great things with very little. We might not have the wealth to end poverty, but our small contribution to a benevolent organization helps it to grow and thrive. We may not have the wise words to answer a friend’s deepest questions, but our wee words of support and care can help them work out a satisfying solution. We might not be able to perform miracles, but a wee, kind, gesture goes a long way to soothing a suffering soul.
The tiniest seed can have a mighty effect. What wee seed can you plant today?

“Unfriended”

July 19th

I happen to like Anchovies, whether in their original, fresh-from-ocean-form or when they are salted and packed in oil. It is not a position held by many. In fact, most of my friends and family are not fans of what I think of as a great treat. We remain connected and close, however, despite our different opinions. It is a matter of taste (and texture, for some) so I have no problem agreeing to disagree. As long as you let me have my anchovies and I agree not to force them on you, we can get along just fine.
Agreeing to disagree is not always that simple. It’s a matter of both style and substance. For instance, if you were to make gagging noises or leave the room because my Pizza had anchovies on it, we would have a problem. We would have an even bigger problem if you mocked me for my flavour preference or tried to deny me access to the treat I enjoy. Agreeing to disagree comes in various (pun intended) flavours, not all of which are just or acceptable.
I have unfriended various people, both in the Facebook sense and in real life because of we can’t really agree to disagree, and not over Anchovies. When the discussion centres around broad justice issues or personal beliefs it is hard, if not well nigh impossible, to turn a blind eye, which is a big part of agreeing to disagree. You might not like Anchovies, but you don’t make a big fuss about it when I enjoy one or two. My pleasure does not detract from yours, so you just ignore what I’m eating, and I don’t make a big fuss about my enjoyment versus your lack of enjoyment.
Not all issues are like that. If I were to believe that slavery was right you would have every right to call me to account or to unfriend me. When someone is clearly professing or doing something that is hurtful, hateful, ignorant or just plain wrong, there is little room to agree to disagree or to turn a blind eye. Or, if I were to become abusive about my love of Anchovies and call you a name or insult your taste or intelligence, there is no reason for you to stick around. Agreeing to disagree should not be a source of pride or pain.
Some folks argue that it’s not worth losing (or dumping) friends simply because you can’t see eye-to-eye. That’s very true when it comes to my love for Anchovies. But when someone bashes the LGBTQi community, or mocks a disabled person, or takes advantage of a neighbour or does anything that hurts, diminishes or asserts privilege over another human being, chances are that I will unfriend them. I will first try to help them see the pain or suffering they are causing but if they continue their harmful ways or direct their unacceptable behaviour towards me, you can be sure that I will part ways with them.
A friend is a special gift from God. You might not always see eye-to-eye with them about what to put on a Pizza, but you can accept their eccentric tastes and still be friends. Those are the people we should treasure and hold dear and who will never give us cause to unfriend them.

“No Pain, No Gain”

July 12th

“No Pain, No Gain” is the mantra frequently heard during physiotherapy or exercise class. It’s not a call for great physical suffering, but a recognition that building muscle mass or endurance is demanding. The body is pushed to its limits, and just a little beyond, causing shortness of breath or sore muscles or both. The pain is not anexperience of suffering caused unduly. It is a reaction to stress imposed carefully and willingly
Learning is not necessarily painful, but there is stress and discomfort involved. I  learned math by memorizing the “Times Tables” along with repeated, and increasingly complicated, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division exercises. They were time consuming and a bit frustrating but it was the price to be paid for learning and mastering new things. “No Pain, No Gain” certainly applies to learning.
Growing and maturing from childhood also features the “No Pain, No Gain” theory. It is through the experience of loss, or struggling with change or learning to get along with others that we develop wisdom, understanding and strength. Tears, anger, exuberant joy, complete confusion or other emotions are not only a healthy way to express ourselves, reflection on their cause and effects help us learn how to manage them so that they become a healthy part of our existence rather than something that drags us down or causes us to react inappropriately. “No Pain, No Gain” is part of growing up.
The “No Pain, No Gain” concept even applies in a healthy faith life. The Bible and the life of Christ are not simple, straightforward, things. There are complex ideas and difficult events. Dealing with the violence of the Hebrew Kings, or the complexity of Mosaic law is challenging to say the least. Getting a grasp of the Christ who is not always gentle, meek and mild should cause us to pause and reflect in order to fully grasp who He is and how best to follow Him. The letters that follow the Gospels are equally challenging, as they not only guide us how to live, but also express concepts that don’t always apply to our modern context. “No Pain, No Gain” is true for learning about and understanding, who and what we are as God’s children through Christ.
Following Jesus is also a “No Pain, No Gain” experience because His calls for mercy, love and justice are so often unheard and unheeded. Seeing the poor made even poorer by our economic system, hearing the cries from the Black Lives Matter or Me Too movements, seeing the world’s beauty ravaged by human greed and ignorance is painful and heartbreaking. Yet out of that heartbreak we should find the courage to change unjust systems and start living as part of Earth’s great ecosystem rather than its masters. For followers of Jesus, “No Pain, No Gain” is a part of life…
…doubly so.
To follow Jesus means loving others even when we think they don’t deserve. It’s giving up our treasures, time and talent when they become our idols. It’s letting God’s will overrule ours when our talk is bigger than our actions.
“No Pain, No Gain”. It’s a challenging idea indeed. However, if we are to be the best God made us to be, it is one we must not only accept, but embrace.