Thursday, October 21, 2010

The humble path

Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “I am certain that there will be three surprises in heaven. First of all, I will see some people there whom I never expected to see. Second, there will be a number whom I expect to be there who will not be there. And, even relying on His mercy, the biggest surprise of all may be that I will be there.” I find that as our generation ages, we start to concern ourselves with things beyond this life. I have people ask me what I think will happen after death. I have people ask me how long I think this world will last. I have people ask me what I think the lives of our children and grandchildren will be like. And I have people ask me if there will be a church in the future.

Yes, I believe that there will be life after the life after death. That is to say that I believe that there will be a resurrection and that following the resurrection the will be judgment. And after the judgment, there will be a new life in the new heaven and the new earth. I believe that this is made possible by the life of Jesus Christ who came down to us, bled, suffered and died for us, and now lives to sustain us into the new life. Like Bishop Sheen I will be surprised at not only who is there in the new heaven and the new earth but I will be more surprised at who is not. And I will be most surprised, that through the tender mercy of God, I might find myself there too. But how do I get there? Will I get there by being a good parish priest and pastor? Will being a good husband and father make possible for me to enjoy the new life? I believe that the new life is offered to me through Christ because of what Christ has done for me. It is not about who I am, what I have done or if I am worthy. All that God asks of me is that I live into all that he offers. So how does one do that?

At the risk of making a “to-do” list or worse a “ta-da” list (you know… the kind of list that allows you to try wowing someone by telling them how great you are list), the path seems to begin with not just being a religious person. It seems to begin with being a humble person. Is it possible that the truly religious person is a humble person? There is no doubt that a humble person is thankful to God because they acknowledge before God who they really are: a mortified sinner and a beloved child. The humble person will acknowledge freely that they have received the grace and mercy of God when they could have been overwhelmed by whatever circumstances they found themselves in.  In short, the person who wants to live with God will aim at living towards God every single day.

The clarion call of the gospel is not to be religious by yourself. We are called by God through the Gospel into the community of the Son to live out all of life in the midst of that community so that we might learn the humility that will be needed in the new life of the new creation. If we aren’t willing to live such a life out now, to learn the humbleness we need before God now, why would we be satisfied to do it later? Does this not tell us something about what God expects of us and about our own nature as human beings? Like the Pharisee, we cannot depend on being religious or spiritual and think that this makes God happy. And at the same time, we need to do more that simply stand back, thump our chests and cry out mea culpa, mea culpa (my fault, my fault). This is as true for us as community as it is for us as individuals.

We need to consider that God does not just judge the clothes, the lips or even the words of our prayers. God looks past all that and judges the heart. The Pharisee in the parable is absolutely right: he is not like other men. He is not only religious; he is in his own way, righteous. And yet it is the tax collector that goes way having found mercy and forgiveness. And if this has meant anything to him there is going to have to be room for change. Does this mean that he will go out and admit to everything he has done? We are not told that he did. But perhaps the life of this particular tax collector has been changed so that he will begin to change his ways and thus transform the lives of those around him. Perhaps in time he will make restitution to those he has harmed. Maybe he will work to make things better for those around him. Perhaps he will be more honest in what he does in the name of Rome. Only time will tell. What is certain is that the heart that is open to God at least has the possibility of new life in the new earth while the heart that is full of pride for itself only needs the sound of its own voice.

Perhaps this is a moment when we can stop and consider how we pray and what we pray as individuals and as a parish. How do we build ourselves up in prayer and how do we plead for mercy both for others and for ourselves. Then let us take the opportunity to go and find out what this means: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”  If we can seek mercy and grace of God with some humbleness and humility, then new creation, new life and the life of the Church will be in better focus for all of us. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Life in the home office

Ah, life in the home office. Or at least that is how I think of the Parable of the Talents from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25.14-30). The Boss is going away on a long trip to other places where he is needed and there is a need to keep things up here in the home office. So what will the troops be doing while the Boss is away? Well, in a real sense, it depends on who it is that we are talking about.  The Boss calls a staff meeting and has his people join him. To one, he gives the responsibility of five bags of gold. To another employee, the chief gives three bags of gold. To a third person, the Boss gives a single bag of gold. He encouraged them to work hard and to do well with what they were entrusted and then the Boss left on his trip.

When the Boss returned to the home office, he called another staff meeting and brought together his staff to see how things had gone in his absence. The first worker came and brought came and presented 10 bags of gold. The original five bags of gold where turned over along with five more that had been earned. The Boss was very please and invited the worker to come along to the great return party that he was throwing. The second member of staff came along and with his three bags gave back three more bags of gold. The Boss was very please indeed to see the bags of gold that had been earned while he had been away. This second worker was also invited to come and join the party to celebrate the Boss’s return.

Then came the employee who had the one bag of gold. He had been afraid to use it, to do anything with it and so he kept it safely hidden and tucked away and put that single bag of gold back in front of the Boss. The Boss rose in a great rage and said to this employee, “You wicked and lazy worker. You knew did you that I was a hard person to work for? You knew did you that I expected more of you that simply to hide my money away? Even if you had put it in the bank it would have gained a little interest! Get out of my sight. You are fired!” And with the press of the button in came two burly men who took the lazy worker and flung him out in the street and into the night. The unemployed worker found and lamp post sat down beneath it and began to cry his eyes out.     

Now let us remember that Jesus told this parable to show what is going to happen to the person who tries to live his or her life in a sort of religious paralysis. Jesus chided those who wanted to bury what God had given them so that when the time came, they could hand it back to God in the pristine condition in which they received it, leaving it unused.  We need to in the Church stop and realize that we too can be guilty of such a thing. We think that our non participation in the life of the Church is okay and acceptable. Or we look at someone else and think I can participate because I am not like him or her. I could do such a thing so I won’t do anything. I am not good enough. I am not smart enough. I am not bold enough. We look for an easy way out and a reason not to act putting ourselves and thus the Church into a kind of spiritual paralysis.

This parable pointes out at least two important things to the Church. First it reminds us that all of us have gifts and talents that we can offer. And we are also reminded of where these gifts have come from – God almighty. God has gifted all of us that we might work together for the building up of the Church and to enable the coming of his kingdom here on earth. When some of the members of the Church don’t offer what they have to give or absent themselves from participating in the work and from the fellowship, it diminishes the work and life of the Church.

Second, the Church needs to remember that it is trusted by God to come and to fulfill the calling to which it is being drawn. Isn’t that amazing? We often think that we have to learn to trust God and we do. If we go even deeper than that, we are trusted by God to move, live and to be his people, his Church in the world. God trusts us. Such trust should engender the courage to act and to use what we have been given, so that we can extend the kingdom of God in this place. Not everyone is gifted with the same amounts or types of gifts, talents and abilities. Where we are equal is in the effort we can put forth in using those gifts that we have been given and use what we have to the advantage of God and of others. If we are afraid of being judged, does it not make more sense to work and to live faithfully, even if it means making mistakes and taking the risk that we might lose it all? Isn’t that the mistake the fired employee made? Moreover, isn’t true that the reward of ask well done is another task to do? This is not the time for the Church to rest and relax – this is the time to serve! The one who is punished is the one who refuses to serve. If you refuse to do it you cannot lose it. You will not risk it. You will not do anything with it. And everything that God gives is meant to be used to benefit others and to build up the kingdom. Whatever you have, whatever it is that you possess, be prepared and willing to offer it.

Or maybe you will end up like a young man who was courting a young lady. As they stood in front her parents’ front door and under the light of the door way the young man asked if he could kiss the woman. She beamed brightly and batted her eyes at her young beau. Uncertain of what to do exactly, the young man cautiously asked again if he could kiss her. And a second time, she smiled, hoping that he would lean forward. But he didn’t. And when he asked the third time because he had not sensed a response if he could kiss her,  she responded, “ I don’t know. Are you paralyzed?”

That’s life in the home office!     

Monday, October 18, 2010

Where prayer is focused, power falls

I was once taught that where prayer is focused, power falls. I believe that! I wish I could recount the number of times that I have seen prayers answered both in my life in the lives of people around me. Sometimes it is a little prayer that gets uttered in total desperation that eventually turns out to be a much bigger thing later on. And sometimes we think the world is about to cave in and then discover it was not as bad as we thought it was at first.

But what does this phrase mean exactly? Where prayer is focused, power falls. Well first of all we need to operate as Christian people who have their eyes wide open. We need to really see what’s going on. Oh it is easy to pray what I would call the King James type prayers; the kind that every one speaks of when things are going well and we are thankful for what we have and what we’ve got. They usually we praise God with something like “well, bless God!” Or something like we “just” praise and thank you God because … what do we pray when things are not going our way? More importantly are we going to keep praying for what is necessary and requisite for the body as well as the soul when things get rough. Are we going to pray to remain and be faithful or are we going to pray for Christ to come and bail us out of all this mess? Neither of these is wrong. We should in fact move to pray both for the strength to stand (because we would be calling on God’s strength and not our own) and for the Kingdom to come because it is the Father’s world and Christ’s kingdom that is coming to this world. It is not either – or. It both – and kind of deal.

For me, the parable of the persistent widow is about two things – what are we focused on and how ready is God to respond to our prayers. In the parable the widow wants justice and mercy for her situation. She pursues what she wants doggedly, even to the point where a judge who does not fear God and does not respect any other person, is willing to give this woman what she wants. He will give it to her just because he begins to be fearful about what others might think of him because of what she is saying to him and about him to others. He does don’t want or need a black eye on his reputation as a adjudicator or as a man. The woman’s persistence will do just that.

Are we willing to persist in prayer as this woman has pursued justice for herself? Are we willing to go after what we believe we need and keep asking and keep driving towards that goal until we have an answer? Let’s us not forget that answers to prayer are not always immediate. God will answer our prayers in his way and in his time. It’s not like a 3 minute egg or instant oatmeal. Some answers to some prayers take time to be answered and require us to persevere and pray. Not only that, prayer requires not only a response from God, it affects us. It should cause us to be opening the call to be an answer to some of the prayers that are made.       

And let’s not forget the work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of all this – that the Spirit opens windows and closes doors. We as Christian people need to be ready to climb in, not just to walk through the door. By having a heart that is open to the move of the Spirit we can be use of God to be in those places and spaces where we are needed so that we can be an answer to somebody’s prayer. And maybe its our own.

Most of all, let us remind each other of how good God is and how ready God is to answer prayer – the opposite of the unjust judge. God waits for us to pray so that he can respond and so that he can move us to be in those places and spaces he needs us to be as his Church so that we can know him and be a blessing to others who are in need. Never forget: where prayer is focused, power falls.  

Taking time to give thanks

What does it mean for us to be thankful? I have had to stop and ask myself that question. What does it mean to be thankful? And that’s when something that was taught to me many years ago came back to me: a thankful heart sings. If there isn’t some song in your heart, then you need to find out why. When you find out then it is necessary not only to deal with whatever has stopped the music, but we need to start a song again. I find most of the time, that it is fear that steals the song from a person’s heart.  The cause of the fear will differ from person to person. But fear is most often the root cause of the loss of song.

May be it will surprise you that Thanksgiving Day is very much a Newfoundland and Canadian tradition. Much is often made of how the Puritans celebrated their first thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 and how they brought that north to Halifax when the British took over Nova Scotia from the French.  The earliest account of a North American thanksgiving feast, giving thanks for safe passage across the Atlantic was held in Newfoundland by explorer Martin Frobisher in 1578. In Canada we used to celebrate Thanksgiving Day on November 6th. In 1957, Thanksgiving became a national holiday in Canada and is celebrated on the second Monday of October. Why is it important to have a day of National thanksgiving? Well in simple terms, we need to be reminded to be thankful. In a country where we have so much and have been so blessed we need to be reminded to be thankful. It is as if when we drink the water, we forget the glass. And unfortunately, there are times that we live our spiritual lives in the same manner. We forget how fortunate we are until something happens and we are jolted back to the reality that not everyone is as blessed as we are. We take the time to remind ourselves that God has given us the fruits of the earth to use and we have eaten and drank and had our fill.  And because we have been filled we want to return to the source of that blessing to be filled again and again.

So what does it mean when we have had our fill and we still go looking for Jesus – it means that we might just be looking for something a little deeper than another slice of bread or piece of fish – as good and as tempting as those might be. Seeking out Christ when we have had our fill means that we want to seek out the source of our blessing and to continue to be blessed; that we would continue to eat and to live.  So take an opportunity to give thanks, not only for what you have been given, but also for the fact that God desires to continue to bless you and that you have the opportunity now to go and be a blessing in Jesus’ name. 

A lesson in Christian Stewardship

If we stick to the understanding that we need to consider what the parables say about God, what does the parable of the shrewd manager tell us about God? William Barclay tells us that there are at least four lessons in this parable that we as Christian people need to learn to function in this world and prepared for the next. What are these lessons?

First we need to recognize that the children of this world are better at living in this world and this society than are the children of the light. They know how to live in it and to maximize the benefits of being here in the moment. It is what they live for. The children of the light are not as adept at looking after themselves as are the children of this age. But then the goals of the children of light are different from those of this age. Which begs a question – how are you planning? Are you planning for the next 20 years or for the next 20 light years? There is a difference in what you will be ready for depending on your plan.

Second, are you prepared to use what you have as possessions to build relationships with others, including God? There some who don’t like the clergy to talk about money and possessions from the pulpit but not to do so is to ignore a large portion of the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus. It is possible to use materials to build relationships. Just the other night my son and some friends were playing a youth group game. The group was split into two teams and each team was given a tooth pick to trade for something else that could be given and did not needed back. As a result one team traded up from a tooth pick to a large comforter from the tooth pick while the other team managed to trade up to an old love seat. It is amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it.  And that is the whole point. We need to be wise in the ways in which we act so that we can actively and intelligently extend the ministry of the Church and the reach of the kingdom.

Third, anyone that that does small things and tasks well, can be trusted to do big things well. And let’s understand that the goal here is not to find people with skills alone. The goal is to find people who can act and walk humbly and with integrity. Skills and be learned and they can be gifted from God. Yet there is a reality that the most gifted people in the world, without integrity and a bit of humility and other things that engender trust, are some of the haughtiest people the world has known. People can see and know the nature of other people. We must be careful to consider the nature of the person when dealing with them – wise to know where they are coming from and where they could be headed. And we can bring material wealth and goods to bear on situations that would help promote relationships, not only with each other but also and more importantly with God.

Fourth, we need to know where our focus is and get our heads “in the game”. We need to decide who it is that we are serving and then focus on our master to the exclusion of others. This kind of focus changes what we do from duty and transforms it into worship. What we do and what we say becomes worship because it is offered to and on behalf of who or what our focus is and what we have assigned worth to. How you give and share your time, your talents and gifts, your treasure and material possessions, your little piece of creation and your tears and compassion matter. They are all gifts from God and we need to be wise in how we use them.      

How does this relate to God and what we might learn about living a godly life? Greg Rickel tells a story about a man who collects pearls. One day he was walking on a town street and spotted in a store window the most beautiful, the grandest and largest pearl his eyes had ever seen. He knew that he had to have it. So he enters in though the store and an old man comes out from behind a curtain and the back room. The collector addresses the store keeper, “That pearl. I want it. How much is it?” the storekeeper answers, “What do you have? How much do you got? ” the collector said excitedly, “well I have three hundred dollars in my wallet!” 

“Great,” said the storekeeper, “I’ll take that. What else have you got?”

“I have my sports car outside – 1966 Corvette. A real classic.”

“Good, I’ll take that too.” said the ancient.  “What else have you got?”

“I have 30,000 dollars in investments and GICs” said the collector.

“Good, I’ll have that too. What else do you have?” by the time the deal was struck the collector had given everything away to the store owner. They man took the pearl and was about to walk out the door when the shop owner called out and said to the man, “ look I don’t need a family and a big house in St. John’s. I don’t need a fast car or investments. In fact come here I and I will give you back your three hundred dollars. I give them back to you but remember they are mine. Take them and care for my family and use my wealth and possessions wisely. Care for them for me won’t you?”

The man left the store with everything he had before he entered the store and now he had a pearl of great price. But there was a difference. None of it was his now to own. He went in with everything and come out with nothing. Everything he had was now a gift. That is how we ought to live. That is Christian stewardship.