Thursday, 1 October 2015

Joy of The Lord Strength: a Short Funeral Homily with Reference to Neh 8.91-12, Ecc 3.1-8 and John 14.1-6—for Betty Atkinson

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven,” (Ecc 3.1) just as we heard in the reading from Ecclesiastes 3 and Jesus was, is and always will be in every one them—for Betty Atkinson, and Barry, right from the beginning, and in every one of yours and mine, too, whether we recognize it, or not. I suspect Betty and Barry experienced the full list of times, seasons and activities we heard in the rest of that reading—from the time when they born to when they were primary school sweethearts (probably wouldn’t be allowed now) to the times and seasons and activities of marriage, children being born, and all the planting, uprooting, dancing, scattering, gathering, keeping, and embracing that raising a family involves. Jesus was there as they boated on the Great Lakes, just as truly as he was with the disciples on the Sea of Galilee, and as their lives were ignited during a clandestine Alpha course in Rhiyad, Saudi Arabia, moved to Forestburg, Alberta and finally St Barnabas, Medicine Hat.
I’m glad their times, seasons and activities brought them here. I know you are, too. I loved visiting and hearing the stories of their Alpha days over at Bonnie’s Branch. They always seemed to be laughing together, even when they were telling me about the painful things they were going through with Betty’s health. I have such fond memories of watching them help each other get their robe and mic on when they were Lay Assistants on Sunday mornings. Always together. Until now. And it sucks.
And yet. And yet. That piece we heard in the first reading from Nehemiah contained Betty’s favourite verse: “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8.10) And I wonder if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ wants us to hear his voice in it today especially. “‘This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” (Neh 8.9) They were just back a long exile in Babylon, you see. An exile ten years shorter than Betty’s life. Seventy years. A long time. They were weeping for joy and for all they’d lost. We weep, too, for Betty, and what we’ve lost in her death, but there’s joy, too. Joy for a good life full of love and a good marriage and good memories and children, grandchildren and a great grandbaby. O yes, there were hard things, too: pain and separation, chronic pain in her back, and a mind starting to play tricks on her and she knew it. But if there was ever a woman over whom the Lord had joy, it is Betty Atkinson. So this day is indeed sacred as we honour her and worship the One who created her.
The title they put in the Bible for the reading we heard from John’s gospel is “Jesus Comforts His Disciples.” Why did he feel he needed to comfort them? Because he knew what was coming and that they would soon be grieving over his death. Jesus, who has a hand in Betty’s and Barry’s lives, and in all of ours, too, knows about and experienced times like this. His words are intended for our comfort, too.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” (John 14.1) he says.
“You can say that all you want,” you or I might reply, “but my heart IS troubled. I miss Betty. She’s left a hole in my life. I’m glad she is no longer in pain, but I miss her and I wish she didn’t have to go just yet.”
So, “trust in God,” Jesus says, “Trust also in me.”
“Trust in what? What are you offering?”
“A room in my Father’s house, prepared and ready for you where I am.”
“Fair enough. That sounds pretty good but, Lord,” we might say, like Thomas, “we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way? Besides, it seems we have to die to get there. What sort of comfort is that?”
I think Betty Atkinson had an insight into what Jesus meant. As I mentioned, her favourite Bible verse was “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8.10) Note whose joy is our strength. Not Betty’s (although she did possess a full portion of Fruit of the Holy Spirit joy [Gal 5.22] pressed down and running over) Not mine. Not yours. It’s the joy of the Lord, no matter how you and I feel. Joy-of-the-LORD strength gives the eyes of our hearts the ability to see through pain and grief to
things like the “greater things,” Jesus promised Nathaneal in John’s gospel with “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man,” (John 1.50-51). It was joy-of-the-LORD strength in Acts chapter 7 that empowered Stephen and filled him with the Holy Spirit so he could see the glory of God, and Jesus standing at he right hand (Acts 7.55) as he was being stoned to death. Joy-of-the-LORD strength brings comfort when times are tough and when things don’t make sense. Joy-of-the-LORD strength empowers us to trust that when Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6) is not only the best way through times like this, but is also a truth that is completely trustworthy, and promises a life which is not only abundant, but everlasting.
With the joy of the Lord as her strength, Betty Atkinson followed the way Jesus provided; believed, taught and lived by the truth he is; and lives the life he was, is now and ever shall be. With the joy of the Lord as our strength, we can do the same.

Let’s pray: Lord Jesus, you claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. If what you claim is true, please guide me, teach me,  and open to me the reality of who you are. Give me an understanding that is coherent, convincing, and leads to the life that you promise. And may your joy be my strength.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A Surprise Worship Encounter at St Nicholas Naval Cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55.4-5)
I think I had an experience of that on Saturday, August 22nd, in St Petersburg, Russia, of all places. Our Intourist guide, Tatyana, had started our day with a visit to the Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas. Our driver, Yuri, parked the car and we did the usual neck-craning, open-mouthed walk to the door while looking up at the gold-leafed spires gleaming in the Russian morning sun.

As we walked through the doors we were enveloped by the most beautiful music. The Divine Liturgy was being sung. What sounded to me like a sixty voice choir turned out to be a quartet in street clothes off to the side and around a corner. Every now and then the young conductor would move to the centre and conduct them and a woman came and went adding and removing sheets of music. They were an informal looking, but certainly not sounding, counterpoint to the liturgical choreography being performed in the sanctuary.

The priest and what I assume were deacons moved gracefully in and out of the sanctuary with and without thuribles. Blue incense floated through the gold-leafed Royal Gates. There were few worshippers—mostly women with their heads covered by scarves who would cross themselves reverently and bow every now and then. They came and went, bowing under the rope barrier that separated them from us tourists. The icon shops behind me did their business and tourists wandered about.

As has happened for thousands of years, the very God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ was being worshipped in the Power of the Holy Spirit right in front of me. It was ancient, primeval, holy, and I couldn’t understand a word. Tears sprang to my eyes. I realize now that what was happening was my spirit was responding to the very presence of Jesus in that worship. It seemed very right in its "otherness" and sense of mystery.

Wikipedia says this about the orthodox Divine Liturgy:
In Eastern traditions, those of the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the Divine Liturgy is seen as transcending time, and the world. All believers are believed to be united in worship in the Kingdom of God along with departed Saints and the celestial Angels. To this end, everything in the Liturgy is seen as symbolic, yet also not just merely symbolic, but making the unseen reality manifest. According to Eastern tradition and belief, the Liturgy's roots go back to Jewish worship and the adaptation of Jewish worship by Early Christians. 
Time was transcended and the ancient Jewish Jerusalem temple did come to my mind as I witnessed that worship in St Petersburg.

In its day Temple worship had nothing to do with the people’s preferences and tastes, other than a few allowances to do with poverty and transporting animals over long distances. God was to be worshipped exactly how and where he decreed and that was it. David acknowledged that when he left the Ark with Obed-edom the Gittite because “the LORD our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule” (1 Chr 15.13). I am not a scholar or a liturgical theologian, but I had a sense of a something temple-like going in St Nicholas—an ancient spiritual engine running there as people came and went, most of them oblivious to what was happening.

Contemporary liturgical revision has carried us a long way from that I believe I witnessed in St Petersburg. I wonder if it’s been in the wrong direction. So much of today’s worship is about what makes us feel good, or is couched in language that addresses some socio-political issue rather than simply and unconditionally giving glory to Almighty God himself. I wonder if, like Uzzah, we’ve put our hands out to take hold of the Ark of our worship (2 Sam 6.6) because we think it too out of step with our reasonable, postmodern tastes and sensibilities. Will the consequences of our equally well meaning intervention be as costly for us as they were for Uzzah?

Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, the Divine Liturgy continues to be sung just as it has through all the vagaries of history including schism in the church and communist oppression and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ continues to be worshipped in some style.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Good Fruit: Healthy Living in the Spirit (Part 3)

The following appears in the Fall 2015 issue of Anglicans for Renewal magazine. 

ARM’s purpose is to help us all experience and enjoy more of the refreshing presence of God, the Holy Spirit, in our lives, our relationships and our church. With God’s presence come the gifts of the Spirit. When we walk by the Spirit and his gifts, we become the branches (John 15.1-8) upon which the fruit of the Spirit grows. As always, Jesus is our vine and model. Jesus perfectly reveals kindness, and all the other Fruits of the Spirit, in action. He is always perfectly loving, joyous, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled (Gal 5.22).

This is the third in a series of reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit.


While I know that, as someone said, God is the fastest checkers player in the world so it’s always my move, I always seem to find myself waiting and hoping patiently (or not) for something from him; for Jesus to come again (but not too soon—there are things I’d like to experience first), for someone to be healed, for provision, for dear (or irritating) brothers and sisters in the Lord to agree with me, for all manner of things I think it would be good for the Lord to do. The waiting becomes spiritually perilous when I lose patience and sinfully rebel by thinking God is too slow or missing what I think is the point, or by taking matters into my own hands, or just ceasing to believe and worship.

John, the gospel of and Revelation writer, knew something of that. A composer friend of mine who wrote an oratorio on Revelation reckoned John must have been on LSD or something like it to generate its apocalyptic energy, imagery and visions. But it wasn’t LSD, it was the Holy Spirit John was on. He was “in the Spirit” one Lord’s day when he wrote,
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (Rev 1.9-10).
That patient endurance in the face of tribulation sounds like Spirit Fruit to me. It’s patience which isn’t easy or superficial. It comes from the real life depths of hearts and minds filled with the Holy Spirit.

James knew something of it, too. “Be patient, therefore, until the coming of the Lord,” he wrote.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James 5:7–8). 
I don’t know how it grows, I just plant my heart in the Lord and wait. Patiently. And just as the seed in the good soil in the Parable of the Sower, “are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8.15), so will I, Lord willing.

Patience shares roots with other Spirit Fruit, primarily love (1 Cor 13.4; Eph 4.2; Col 3.14) and joy (Col 1.11). Patience, along with faith, will see me counted among those who will inherit the Lord’s promises (Heb 6.12). It is patience with which I must bear with others in love (Eph 4.2; Col 3.12-13), seek for glory and honour and immortality in well-doing (Ro 2.7), face tribulation (Ro 12.12), admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted and help the weak (1 Thes 5.14). Spirit Fruit patience will do the same for you if you wait long enough.


As regards kindness, scripture is clear. We are required to love kindness and show it to one another (Mic 6.8; Zech 7.9). We are to put it on, bearing with and forgiving one another in love and in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col 3.12-17). Whoever pursues it “will find life, righteousness, and honour” (Pr 21.21). So, just as Paul exhorts you and me to “earnestly desire” the Gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 13.31; 14.1), Spirit Fruit kindness must also be worthy of earnest desire.

That kind of kindness is more than the milk of just human kindness and being nice. It’s like John 3.16 and 1 Cor 13 love which has less to do with feelings, especially warm fuzzy ones, than with self-denying acts of the will.

It’s easy to be kind to some people. To those of whom I’m fond, who suffer quietly and with no demands I can be kind in my own strength. It’s easy to be kind to small animals such as bunnies and puppies. Where I need the Spirit Fruit to kick in is with people I dislike, who are demanding or have hurt me, who, to my plank-blinkered eyes are wallowing in self-pity. That’s when, more often than I like to admit, I need the Fruit of the Spirit operating in my life as grace.

Speaker and author James Ryle defines grace as the empowering Presence of God enabling me to be who he created me to be, and to do what he has called me to do. Dallas Willard wrote that grace is what enables me to do what I can’t do on my own. God’s grace empowers me to BE kind and to DO kindly. It enables me to be kind to people towards whom I don’t feel particularly kindly. God’s grace works in me and you, through spiritual gifts we do not lack (1 Cor 1.7), which are given to each of us for the common good (1 Cor 12.7) and “to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor 12.11). As we cooperate by earnestly desiring the higher gifts (1 Cor 12.31; 14.1) and doing our best to follow the more excellent way of love (1 Cor 13), he sets the Fruit of the Spirit on us branches to grow and ripen so Jesus is glorified and the church may be built up (1 Cor 14.5 & 12).

That’s what patience and kindness and all the others are for. Thanks be to God.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Raanujärvi - Luukonniemi, Finland Noir

Just returned to Helskinki after a wonderful weekend north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland where, with Jude's sister Eleanor and her husband Dave we enjoyed a delightful Finnishing school under the most hospitable tutelage of Lasse and Marja-Leena Niemi. We experienced friendship, sauna (both smoking and non), reindeer and other Finnish culinary delights. 

Saturday, 22 August 2015

You Get the Stars Thrown In: By the Way for the Medicine Hat News

This November I get to join a very talented and lively intergenerational group of Hatters in Medicine Hat Firehall Theatre’s production of Mary Poppins. I’ve never seen a stage production of it. Like most people I saw the Julie Andrews movie aeons ago. It would be easy to think of it as a rather frothy, frivolous tale if wasn’t for the more recent 2013 movie Saving Mr Banks starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson which includes something of the story of Mary Poppins author PL Travers’ complicated and sad relationship with her own father.

Also, as I’ve burrowed into the script to ready myself for rehearsals, underneath the fun and fantasy I’ve discovered a rather moving story of delivery from a repressed, joyless past, thwarted dreams and cold, calculating materialism to new life-giving relationships as Mr Banks rediscovers what really matters in life, especially Winifred, his wife, and Jane and Michael, their children.

These words from the finale capture something of Mr Banks’ transformation and resonate for me in my own life and as a follower of Jesus: “If you reach for the stars, all you get are the stars, but…If you reach for the heavens, you get the stars thrown in.”

Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College and a noted Catholic apologist and philosopher, once wrote: “In an age of hope men and women looked up at the night sky and saw “the heavens." In an age of hopelessness they call it simply “space.” What was once the heavens inhabited by God and the Angels is, for many, now simply space; full of stars, even fascinating, but an endless, lifeless vacuum. That to which humanity once looked for direction; the Magi, for instance, who followed a star to the Christ Child; is now just space.

When the heavens become simply space in those areas of our lives where we most need hope and guidance, we are the poorer for it. In Mary Poppins Mr Banks is delivered from his joyless, cold, hopeless space full of nothing but numbers when he learns to reach for a hope-filled heavens where he can learn to love his family again.

Jesus entered the world’s stage to do the same for you and me. He came to re-enchant our world and deliver us from the hopelessness, sin and death of simply space. Jesus is the way to reach for the rich, hope-filled Heavenly joys of loving relationships with God and one another—and we get the stars thrown in.

(Mary Poppins runs November 20, 21, 26, 27 and 28th at the Esplanade. Tickets are on sale now.)

Monday, 17 August 2015

Decline or Renewal in the West?

Some sobering stats including the graph above and an interesting read at the Church Growth Modelling blog here. I wonder where the Anglican Church of Canada would fall on the chart.

Interesting thoughts on the matter in a different post on the same blog where the writer wonders why the Church of England's decline is less precipitous including this:
Of the four denominations the C of E has been influenced more by Charismatic Renewal than the others, despite the “Renewal” starting with a US clergyman [10]. Additionally The C of E’s expression of charismatic renewal has also  been more evangelical, including a revival in expository preaching. Perhaps the C of E has been more open to revival than the others. (The rest here)
Something that blesses my Anglican Renewal Ministries heart and something for which to pray—that the Anglican Church of Canada would be not only influenced by Charismatic Renewal, but thoroughly refreshed and revived by it. Oh, yes!

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The Secondary Waltz

Apple Music delivered up one of my favourite Mark Knopfler tunes the other morning—Secondary Waltz. I love the line, "Waltzing with fear in our hearts," and the impending "final manoeuvres," "heads awhirl" as D-day approached when "we're going to do it with girls." Actually, I got to do my learning with girls—co-ed school, a most uncomfortable experience, especially when we just got who we got as a partner.

Every time I hear it I am transported more than fifty years back in time and half a world away to school dances at Kuranui College in Greytown, New Zealand. The legendary Sam Meads was the Headmaster. Our disgrace wasn't so much the waltz, as it was the Gay Gordons. To begin, Sam would use his best parade ground voice to get us onto the dance floor and into position in the circle—was it by form (or grade for you Canadians)?—it seems like something he would do. And there we would all stand, not necessarily with a girl with whom we really wanted to dance, or who wanted to dance with us, while Sam's voice and temperature rose and the veins stood out on his forehead. Romantic, it was not. It was more "one, two, three, two, two" we were "all a disgrace," but eventually we'd all be in place, more or less, the music would start and off we'd go around and around, from one girl to another. Some were a secret delight because I knew I'd never get to dance with her for a whole dance, having asked, so I'd revel in the brief steps and twirl before moving on to the next. 

Speaking of whole dances and the asking—"May I have the pleasure of this dance?" was the standard expression we were taught. This after that agonizingly long and exposed walk across the gym from where all the boys sat against the wall, to the opposite one where all the girls—those most mysterious and delightful creatures—sat. They were supposed never to refuse, but some did, which meant an even more agonizing return across that vast gym floor. I know there were matching agonies of being asked, and not, on the other side of the gym. Ah, adolescence. It's a wonder any of us came out of it anywhere near normal. Perhaps I didn't.