Reflections

Sermons

MARCH 15, 2020 – PLANTING SEEDS

Text:  Matthew 13:31-32

This story may be apocryphal, but its message is powerful. New College at Oxford was founded in 1379. It has a great dining hall with huge oak beams, as large as two feet square, and forty-five feet long apiece. In the 1860s, the roof beams were found to be full of beetles. The massive beams would have to be replaced. But where could they find wood of those dimensions in the diminished oak forests of the nineteenth century? It turns out that when the college was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetle-infested, because oak beams always become beetle-infested in the end. This plan had been passed down from one college forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the college hall.” So, when the college council finally called in the college forester, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use. He said, “Well sirs we were wondering when you’d be asking.”

The foresters preserved the grove of oaks because they wanted to sustain the wellbeing of the building and the community of the college. They could have sold the trees in order to meet their urgent needs. Instead, they saw the needs of future generations. Learning from trees, the foresters were able to think long term.

When we are preoccupied with what seems to be urgent tasks, we may lose a bigger picture, how we are part of something more. On a personal level, I like to put myself into the larger context that have started with my great grandparents’ generation and all the way to my great grandchildren’s generation. Day by day I am living the legacy of my previous generations. Moment by moment I am also making an impact on my next generations. This sense of interconnection makes me aware of consequences of what I do today. Such awareness doesn’t necessarily make me feel stuck in the past or in the future. Instead, it makes me grateful for what I have received, and leads me into making conscious decisions.

The kingdom of heaven, Jesus proclaims, is like a mustard seed. It starts as small like a seed. He invites us to imagine what the smallest seed can do. Once it is planted in the soil, with proper care and nourishment, it can grow and grow, and it can become a tree, and the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. The point is not to make the seed grow as fast as we can – none of us can – but to trust that it’s going to grow and turn into something greater than anyone can imagine. Our task is to sow the seed of kindness and compassion day by day and moment by moment.

Trees’ sense of time is different from ours as humans. In our eyes, they grow extremely slowly. Thanks to slow growth, however, they can become strong. The woody inner cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the trees flexible and resistant to breaking in storms, and more importantly they become resilient to injuries closing up any wounds by growing bark over them. Scientists have determined that slow growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age.

Trees’ long term perspective, however, doesn’t make them slow in producing seeds. For example, the mother poplar trees each produce up to 54 million seeds every year. For until the old ones hand over the reins to the next generation, they produce more than a billion seeds. Wrapped in their fluffy packaging, these seeds strike out via airmail in search of new pastures. But even for them, based on statistics, there can be only one winner. Tree seeds are extremely vulnerable. Chances are that they are always in danger of being eaten by hungry deer or dying of thirst. Seeds may germinate and young seedlings may vegetate for a few years or a few decades, in the shadows, but sooner or later, they run out of steam and eventually return to humus. What’s so amazing about trees is that despite the very low rate of success, they never stop producing seeds, because it’s in their nature to regenerate themselves.

The following prayer is attributed to Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. He was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in a small chapel in a cancer hospital where he lived. He had always been close to his people, preached a prophetic gospel, denouncing the injustice in his country. He became the voice of the oppressed when all other channels of expression was crushed by the repression.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

________________

1 Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees (p. 33). Greystone Books. Kindle Edition.

2 Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees (pp. 29-30). Greystone Books. Kindle Edition.

 

March 8, 2020 – Falling in Love Outward

Text:  Exodus 3:1-15

The poet, Robinson Jeffers, said, it’s quite possible to fall in love outward without hating inward. His words invites us to expand our horizon beyond our limited boundaries. Falling in love with the world is not only good for the soul, but also fulfilling our calling as Christians. For, we believe in God who so loved, and is still loving the world.

One of the biggest mistakes Christianity made was to draw a distinction between what’s spiritual and what’s material. The well-known Christmas carol, Joy to the World, sums it up: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.” (I love singing good old hymns, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with the theologies behind the hymns.) It assumes that the earth is in deep trouble needing outside help. The God of transcendence comes to rescue the sinful world. The earth has a passive role to play – to receive the King as its ruler and saviour. In this theology, we don’t have to be participants in creation but to be spectators of what God does for us. Dualism begets a hierarchical structure, which accepts the power imbalance between God and the world, heaven and earth, human and nature, men and women, the rich and the poor, and the list goes on. It is here in dualism we can find a root cause of any form of oppression whether it’s sexism, racism, ableism, ageism or homophobia. In our relationship with the rest of creation, a dualistic worldview gave the church permission not to be concerned about earth, and what’s happening to it. Conventional faith has informed Christians that they are good to go as long as their personal relationship with God is safe and sound. A personalized spirituality, although it may bring comfort and peace on a personal level, can’t solve the global crisis facing all of us, economic inequality and climate crisis, both of which share the same root cause – individualism and capitalism. To put it more bluntly, any spirituality without a communal aspect can be a threat to our world because such spirituality still assumes the individual right to consume and to own anything – money, property, resources or land – without considering the creation as a whole.

The global crisis demands a new theology based on communal spirituality. We all belong to the earth which is the body of God. It supports, delights, nurtures and sustains us. Redefining our place in the grand scheme of things is like playing a jigsaw puzzle. When thousands of pieces remain as individuals we have no clue. But once we see how each piece is related to other pieces, we can begin to see a bigger picture, and we can put them back in place. Each piece has its own meaning and beauty in relation to the whole. No one can thrive alone. Spirituality is not about a one-on-one relationship with God, but about growing in relationship with others, including God and the natural world. Climate change proves that individualism is harmful, and that independence is a lie. We have learned that interdependence is much closer to our nature, and that interconnectedness – seeing oneness in all things – is our ultimate goal.

Stan McKay, Cree elder and former moderator explains a cycle of human life with a medicine wheel. From the time we were born and throughout the early childhood, we learned to depend on others completely. In this period, no one could survive by themselves. Gradually, we learned to say no, and we started to learn to be independent throughout our youth and young adult years. We then enter into a time when we learn to be interdependent. We live by giving and receiving. Eventually, we find ourselves in relation to everything else, and we learn the interconnectedness of everything.

Such awareness doesn’t come to us overnight nor does it come to us naturally with aging. I believe, however, anyone can achieve this stage of life with love as defined by Iris Murdoch, the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Such love is born out of I-Thou relationship. Nothing or no one exists as an object. Instead, all are welcomed, celebrated and affirmed as they tell of God. In this encounter, we stay open to the mystery with endless possibilities for transformation. That is, even the bunnies I see in my backyard and the stray cat in my neighbourhood tells me something of God.

For Moses, it is the burning bush that is telling him of God’s glory. The bush is not a commodity. It manifests God. I am particularly interested in how they meet. It’s like two lovers finally find their partners. The bush start sending a sign of love by burning but not being consumed. Moses doesn’t miss the sign. He stops what he is doing, tending the sheep, and comes close to the bush to pay attention. The bush depends on Moses’ curiosity in order to communicate. Moses depends on the mystic beauty of the bush in order to change his life. He has come to realize where he truly belongs – it’s not the geographical location but his relationship with God and creation. Moses experiences conversion from isolation to community, from confusion to clarity, from indifference to compassion. This encounter enables Moses to find a path to interconnectedness. That’s why the place he is standing is holy ground. The Bible doesn’t give us details as to how this encounter made an impact on Moses throughout his life journey. But I like to imagine that Moses treasured his experience of the burning bush so much so that even facing his mortality he remembered how his journey was unfolding from the mountain of God. Though Moses was never able to enter the land God promised to give his people as he was only able to see it from a distance, his legacy has continued to live on.

The life of Moses reminds me of a nurse log I saw when I was on the West Coast. Nurse logs are lying-down trees that having lived several hundred years as standing trees and are now into a second career as homes for other trees. The body of the nurse log provides a warm, nutrient-rich birthplace for young saplings of all sorts to grow. It is not just seeds from the nurse tree that grow on it, but anything and everything. All are welcome! The nurse log can live another several hundred years as the giver of new life from its body. A new tree stretches its roots around the nurse log and still retains this odd position after the nurse log disappears. With the hole between its roots, it is a visible sign of the invisible tree that nurtured it. What is living and what is dead? Life and death are intertwined.

The way of a nurse log was the way Moses lived his life, and has continued to live even after death through the next generations. That is the way of Jesus and of the life he calls us to live. We are called to live like a forest. No one can ultimately own anything. We are to live off one another, and to support and care for each other. Turns out, falling in love outward is our highest calling.

__________________

1 “RJ to Frederic I. Carpenter” from The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers: Volume One, 1890-1930.

2 Sallie McFague, “Eath Economy: A Spirituality of Limits”, 2010 Reflections, A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School.

 

February 16, 2020 – Life Commandments

Text:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20;  Matthew 5:21-37

Have you ever wondered why you keep repeating certain phrases whether they are your own mottos or someone else’s? Even if you don’t express them verbally, they can still drive your behaviour. They are called life commandments. John Savage, a United Methodist Minister and author of Listening and Caring Skills defines Life commandments as deep inner belief systems that act as the integral guidance gyros of your mind. A life commandment is possible because the human mind is capable of believing anything! That’s very scary yet hopeful at the same time. Our life commandments work as long as we believe them. However, they are not our ultimate commandments. We can break them. Sometimes we must break them, however difficult it may be to do so, and make new commandments.

In my 20s and early 30s, I had this thought that there was no one in the world I could trust, and that I was all alone in the world. The real problem was that I believed it. So I did my best to be independent, and I barely listened to anyone’s advice. I tried to be the director of my life, making my own path and future without getting any help from others. Later I learned that the life commandment I had was my coping mechanism for rejection I experienced in my infancy.

When my mother was pregnant with me, she already had two young children, 4 and 6 year old. She was raising them while my father was away from home. He put his business over his family, leaving all the responsibilities, including looking after his parents and siblings, to his wife. My mother was under extreme stress, worried about adding more burden to her already full and impossible task. One day, my mother decided to abort her baby, and her mother-in-law agreed to go along with her. On the night before they were going to the hospital, my mother went to the church to pray at 10 pm. It was her regular daily prayer time alone in the sanctuary. For some reason, she couldn’t pray. It was as if somebody was interrupting and stopping her. And she heard the voice of the Spirit saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ She realized that the Holy Spirit invited her to reconsider her decision. So, she decided to deliver me.

What a life-giving story for me! I thank God that my mom changed her mind. Actually my mother told me the story last week. In preparation for my reflection, I wanted to find out what exactly happened regarding my birth and infancy. Through all those years I knew a much simpler story that my father wanted me while my mother didn’t. I grew up with confusion that how come I was raised by a parent who didn’t want me, while the other parent, who wanted me, actually left me before I was born. Some life commandments must be checked out.

Another life commandment began when I was in grade 1. The academic year in South Korea begins in March. Those who were born in January or February can start going to school one year earlier than those who were born between March and December in the same year. Born in February, I was one of the younger ones in my class. My mother worried about me. She wasn’t sure if I was ready or if I was smart enough to catch up. One day, after school, I was walking down the street along with my grade 1 teacher and my classmates. My mother was also walking alongside the teacher. They were talking about me! I was able to overhear her concern asking the teacher, “Do you think he will catch up with his peers? Or should I have him drop out so he can start school next year?” The teacher assured my worried mother that I would be okay, but she wasn’t convinced. Pointing at my shoes, she said, “Look at how he put on his shoes! They are on the wrong feet!” I was embarrassed. The real problem was that I believed that I wasn’t smart enough. I believed the commandment for the next 20 years until I was finally able to find my voice and academic achievement in the seminary.

Some life commandments are harder to break especially when our shame is involved, and we try to mask or numb our painful feelings. Fritz Kunkel, one of the earliest psychiatrists, believed that we, as adults, carry on our backs a shell like that of a turtle. That shell is made up of lies that we still believe are truths, and the function of adult life is to rid ourselves of that shell, so that we come to the end of life knowing only the truth for us.

When we hear people say ‘I can’t sing’, ‘I can’t dance’, ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I am not good at this and that’ we can feel not only the pain they carry, but also the truth they haven’t expressed yet. Everyone has their own life commandments. They make us unique. No one else believes what you believe. The question is how we can help each other to rework or disobey our life commandments so we can live our lives as God intends us to live?

Jesus knew our need to break the old and to live the new. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In today’s gospel reading, three times we hear him say “you have heard that it was said, but I say to you…” He invites us to reorient our lives by giving up what is no longer true to us, and to embrace what gives us life.

A few Sundays ago, I was inspired by a fresh perspective when a congregant told me after church “You’ve got a life-giving congregation.” Her point was that most of the people in the congregation come on Sunday without any agendas. They have time to listen, and they know how to care for anyone who walks into the building. And that is a gift we can offer to the wider community. I was thinking, ‘what a great way to live and share the good news we have been given!’ That can be a new life commandment for our church. This new life commandment of ours requires no sacrifice. Instead, we can taste and participate in the life abundant Jesus promises to give us all. It works as long as we believe it.

February 10, 2020 – Why not Become Light

Text:  Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20


A story from the Desert Fathers. Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence. And according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts. Now what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, “Why not become fire?”

I like this story from the Desert Fathers. I can identify with Abba Lot. Deep in my heart I carry a sense of burden that I am not doing enough. I find myself asking, am I doing enough to love my family? Am I doing enough to minister to the congregation? Am I doing enough to care for my community and the environment? Even the idea of self-care can become a thing. I ask myself, do I love myself enough?

This kind of thinking can also lead into a more insecure question. Am I enough? Am I good enough? I remember one colleague in ministry, whose sigh of relief found an echo in a room filled with ministers attending a retreat. It was during a workshop about how to renew ministry, the presenter said to us, “The decline of the church attendance is not your fault!” My colleague who always looked confident stood up saying “I need to hear that kind of affirmation not just once but every so often.” Her statement made me aware of the burden she was carrying: the burden of guilt and inadequacy.

Perhaps, Abba Lot had a similar burden in his spiritual life. He kept the rule, fast, prayer and meditation as best as he could, and yet he still felt not enough. Abba Joseph’s response – “Why not become fire?” – pointed out what it was that Abba Lot was missing. It was not that he didn’t do enough but that he distanced himself from his spiritual practice. As long as he remained in dualistic way of thinking between what’s spiritual and what’s mundane, he would continue to suffer from the inadequacy. Abba Lot could break through the gap by becoming what he was longing for. Or better yet, he just needed to realize that there was nothing he could achieve that he didn’t already have.

Jesus is an expert in non-dualistic thinking. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” He didn’t mean us to work toward something that we’re not already. He wants us to embrace our core identity, and do everything as who we are as the salt and the light. So, whether we pray, sing, worship, work, rest, eat, sleep, play, exercise we do it inside out.

It is still possible to live a divided life by forgetting who we are. As Jesus warns us, sometimes we do lose our saltiness, and hide our light, and we become timid and fearful. Sometimes church is like that. The church without saltiness or light. Nothing is more frightening than that.

I often hear people lament the loss of younger people in the church. I totally get that. We all want to pass on what we’ve been given to the next generation. We must, however, focus on how to live the gospel of Jesus Christ as a church, not how to be an attractive church. We can become more interested in people from all walks of life and engage them, not necessarily become an interesting church. For, people will notice when we live out our calling as authentically as possible. I also hear people express their concerns about how the church is losing its passion for social justice. We are the church that once dreamed and practiced “Thy will be done one earth as it is in heaven” with the social gospel movement. I wonder if the real issue is not so much losing the passion for justice as the separation of justice and spirituality as if they are different. We have suffered the consequence of the separation. Now is the time for the church to integrate the two – spirituality and justice. For, worshipping God and working for justice are one.

Isaiah gives us a clear path as to how to solve our dilemma. “I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the LORD. Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly. Free those who are abused! Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those in need; don’t turn away your relatives. Then your light will shine like the dawning sun, and you will quickly be healed.”

I can’t find a more clear answer than what we’ve just heard. We come to worship God not because we want to feel good, but because we are called to celebrate God’s presence in the midst of brokenness and suffering in the world. We are also called to do the will of God right where we are as we worship the God of justice and compassion. We must reclaim the saltiness and light, the prophetic voice in each of us. When we live inside out, we can be assured that we are doing enough, and we are enough.

I’d like to end my reflection with a story from Sufism:

Past the seeker as he prayed came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them he cried, “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?” God said, “I did do something. I made you.”

FEBRUARY 2, 2020 – WE CAN’T NOT TELL OUR STORY

Text: Matthew 5:1-12

You can’t not tell your story. That has been one of the most important learning in my clinical pastoral education training. Everyone has a story. That’s a fact. And everyone wants to be heard. If we believe that, and if we take time to listen to each other’s story, we can bring about a meaningful change to our lives and our communities. It’s not that some people have stories while others don’t.

It’s that some stories are more evident than other stories. It is true that some people are more vocal than others, but even those of us, who are reserved, can speak the loudest with body language. The question is how we can listen those stories that are not obvious.

Every Tuesday I go to visit patients in the hospital as a part of my training. Almost all patients are polite and appreciative of the visit, but not all of them are open. Some of them are very clear that they don’t want a visit, and I usually respect that. By setting a clear boundary, patients can feel empowered. Often spiritual care is the only service they are entitled to say no, and still feel okay. There are times, however, I can sense that they are still spiritually hungry even if they say no. They say one thing, but usually mean another, and it’s my job to figure out what it is that they are looking for.

I encountered a self-proclaimed atheist who said to me, “I am the most serious atheist you can get.” We ended up spending the next 40 minutes talking about his life, community and family including his daughter who was baptized. On another occasion, I was told that I was welcome to stay only for 10 minutes and after that I could leave her room with a prayer. We ended up spending more than 1 hour together with her daughter who was present in the room. It was one of the most meaningful and spiritual conversations I’ve ever had.
You can’t not tell your story. If we are willing to listen to not only spoken words, but behind or beyond the spoken words, we can still communicate in a deep way. For, heart speaks to heart, spirit speaks to spirit and deep speaks to deep.

Sometimes we tell our story by telling someone else’s story. Someone I knew came to see me one day. Entering my office, she began to tell me a news she recently heard. It was a story of how a terrible incident turned into a story of forgiveness and redemption. A police officer in the US killed a man, who was mistaken as a suspect. The family of the deceased offered forgiveness to the officer. While listening to her story, I was wondering what’s going on with her. Later I became convinced that she was actually telling me her story by sharing someone else’s story; she believed in a miracle of forgiveness and redemption despite the challenge and hardship she was going through.

Stories are often told on an unconscious level. We don’t always know why we tell stories. So, pay attention to what you say or hear. You will get to know more about yourself and those you care about by hearing stories. Look around you and see if you know anyone’s story, who is here. Can you hear above and beyond what you can hear? Can you enter into a heart to heart communication with those around you? What kind of story do you find yourself telling others about our church? If God tells the world about Fort Garry United Church with a story, what kind of story would that be? Or if God sings a song to the world about us, what kind of song or hymn would that be?

On the surface level, we are definitely an aging congregation. Our volunteers are getting tired and irreplaceable. The demographic gap between Sunday morning and the rest of the week is significant. On a deeper level, however, we are more than a grandma’s or grandpa’s church. You have demonstrated God’s unconditional love by welcoming, caring, embracing and nurturing without limits. You have proven to be generous in sharing with life-long commitment and dedication. You are the most musical congregation I know. Passion for spirituality and concern for justice have always been at the heart of the life of the congregation. What comes with aging is wisdom and a wealth of experience that the younger generation desperately needs. We have learned that we can’t care for one another and ourselves without caring for where we belong. Caring for all creation is our ultimate vocation. Still, we are more than all of the above. None of us can tell our story to the fullest. However imperfect our story may be, it can be complete, whole and full in the light of God’s story.

That is what happens in the Sermon on the Mount. Most of those who have followed Jesus all the way from their hometowns to the mountain are sick with various diseases and pains. They are marginalized and outcasts. They know the pain of loneliness and rejection. They probably have lots of stories to tell: how they are poor in spirit, how they mourn, how they are meek, and how they hunger and thirst for righteousness. Yet, none of their stories are complete until they are told as part of God’s story. What they are lacking because of their social locations opens them up to the new spiritual realm. They can reclaim their identity not by what they do but by whose they are. And based on that, they can strive to make right relationships with everyone and everything.
We can’t not tell our story however imperfect it may be. The question is how Jesus would complete our story. Blessed are we, as we all take part in God’s life-giving and never ending love story.

January 19, 2020 – Come and See

Text:  John 1:29-42

Although I like to take a picture, sometimes I let go of my desire of capturing the moment. Instead, I let myself be captured by the moment. I’ve learned that those are two different things – capturing the moment and being captured by the moment – and I have learned to appreciate the latter. I am not the kind of person who can easily be satisfied. I hunger for something more or better. While focusing on what I am lacking or what can be improved, I miss the opportunity of what the present moment communicates to me. The question is what prevents me from living in the present moment. What makes me incapable of enjoying the gift of each moment? Am I failing to live in the here and now because I tend to think about the past or the future? Or is it because I am not able to be fully present in the here and now that I regret my past or worry about my future? It’s like a chicken and egg dilemma that gets my mind whirring. A more fruitful approach is to practice mindfulness so I can be present, and participate in life more fully and meaningfully. The promise of Jesus – I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly – can be fulfilled only if we know how to live in the present moment.

Come and see. Jesus knows the gift of the present moment. John the Baptist has been talking about the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. “I myself have seen and I have testified that this is the Son of God” says John. So, when Jesus actually shows up, John’s disciples become curious, and they start following him. Jesus turns and sees them following, and asks, “What are you looking for?” They say to him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Come and see” is the answer, which is not directly addressing to their question. Rather, that is an invitation to be in relationship with him. Not because of what so and so said about him, but because they each can testify with their first hand experiences.

Come and see. The door is open, and the Holy One is accessible by everyone equally. Once we choose to go and see, we can no longer pretend to be bystanders or spectators. We become participants in God’s ongoing creation. Once we are in it, we are less likely to blame or regret, and give up hope too quickly. For, we know we are a part of everything, and that if we are the problem of the world we can be the answer as well. Our sense of belonging brings us joy as well as pain. Whenever there is suffering, we suffer together. But suffering doesn’t make us stop creating, because the Spirit is always making all things new through us.

Recent tragedies – the bushfire in Australia and the Ukrainian airline crash – remind us how human beings continue to fail by separating ourselves from each other and from the rest of creation. However, we can also see how much we are capable of healing one another and the whole creation by bringing ourselves together. What the world needs right now is not more information or quick fixes but an ability to relate to one another across the globe and to abide together in the same household, we call earth as one family.

Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University talks about how we can find healing in communal grief across the country. The little shoe, which was found at the scene of the airplane crash, reminds him of one-year old Kurdia, whose parents Evin and Hiva took her halfway across the world, from Canada to Iran, to celebrate a wedding. Persian weddings, they jokingly say, need a football stadium to accommodate the guests. He imagines how many adoring grandparents and elders, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends must have smothered little Kurdia with affectionate kisses, seeing her for the first time, not knowing that it would also be the last. Quoting the mystic Rumi, “Death is our wedding with eternity,” Akhavan says, just as weddings are a communal experience that teach us what it means to belong, so too communal grief and mourning shows us the astonishing light of the human spirit; the inextricable ties that bind us together.
It is not a coincidence that the same words Jesus uses in calling the disciples are also used to call Jesus in the midst of communal grief. When Jesus arrives at the house of Mary and Martha, their brother, Lazarus has already been dead. Mary and Martha express their sadness and regret, saying “If only you had been here earlier, our brother would not have died.” Not just the family, but the whole community are mourning and weeping. Jesus asks the grieving people, “Where have you laid him?” They say to him, “Lord, come and see.” And the Bible says, “Jesus begins to weep.”

Come and see. This is a mutual invitation. Our Christ calls us to follow by letting go of whatever prevents us from living fully in the present, and by embracing a new gift each moment brings us. We call the Christ to come and join us in every broken place in our lives and in our world, only to find out that our Christ is already there weeping with us. It is here in communal grief that we can find each other and ourselves again, and find our belonging beyond the bond of blood and soil.

“Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes,” Rumi wrote, “because for those who love with their heart and soul, there is no separation.”

January 12, 2020 – Love without a Reason

Text:  Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

Last week in my Clinical Pastoral Education class, my classmates and I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbour, a documentary film about Fred Rogers. The film was so heart-warming that I couldn’t watch it without tears. Though I’ve never seen the popular TV series, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, let alone meeting him in person, it was as if I had known him for a long time, or more precisely he had known me ever since my childhood. Like any great teachers have done for me, I felt understood, respected, and loved by Mr. Rogers.

His message, ‘you are loved as you are’ is so simple yet powerful enough to change anyone’s life. That’s the message I have tried to convey in my reflections. That’s the message I hear pretty much every time I worship in other congregations. The difference Mr. Rogers made was that he actually embodied the message. To me, that is more powerful than what he said or did. Most people are capable of saying all the nice things they can think of, but not many can actually live their message. That’s why we praise and show our respect to those who have lived undivided lives – their words and actions are one in their lives.

The life of Mr. Rogers challenges me to go deeper uncovering my truth – why sometimes I have a hard time believing what I say, and to be honest about my questions, doubts, fears, and struggles. At every baptism I deliver the message of God’s grace, acceptance and love. Sometimes I write a personal letter to the child who is being baptized based on how I believe God would see the child. I admit that often times I say the words I long to hear.

My CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) training has also challenged me to face what I want to avoid whether it’s my pain, a sense of guilt or shame. I am coming to realize that nothing and no one can prevent me from experiencing the grace of God as much as I can. Often times, it’s me who can’t accept the love or forgivingness given to me for free.

As I have been reflecting on why it is hard to accept such gifts, one insight came to mind. I am afraid of losing myself by truly loving, because to love is to give myself fully to the point of losing myself. That’s why Jesus said, ‘you can’t follow me, unless you deny yourself.’ That makes me wonder if I have ever totally loved anyone or anything. Of course, I always say I love my family, my friends and my community, but the love I give can often be conditional, based on a give and take relationship that I benefit from. The hard truth I have to face and wrestle with is that I only love certain parts of the person but not the person as a whole. I love nature for the comfort it gives me.

I realized that the reason my love was conditional was because I believed that God’s love was conditional even though I was preaching otherwise. I wasn’t able to simply accept God’s unconditional love. Deep in my heart, I unconsciously believed I had to earn love by working hard. The world around me has not been a safe space so I always wanted to ensure safety before I take my next step. Because it was so painful to break or fall, I put protection before trust. To trust is to be totally dependent on the other, and to throw oneself into the hands of the unknown or the unknowable. I have a hunch that many of you share my struggles with love and trust.

That’s why we need to come together to celebrate baptism. It is here in baptism that we learn to love without reasons, and to trust without borders. When Jesus was baptized, there was a voice from heaven, that applies to all of us equally, “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Not because he has done anything grand or because he has been good or faithful, but because the quality of God’s love is unconditional, relentless, overflowing and permeating.

In baptism God reaffirms the original goodness of creation as in the beginning, “It is good. Indeed it is good.” God spoke those words out of pure joy. Notice God simply said it’s good, meaning it’s inherently good in itself. Such a message is simple yet powerful enough to change our lives and ultimately to change the world. It is so countercultural that not many people actually believe it. This idea can be a threat to the world that is supported by hierarchical structures – one is always better, higher or more powerful than others based on labels we attach.

It’s interesting that Fred Rogers was also criticized by some people because his idea was perceived as a danger to their world. People protested against the idea that everyone is special and lovable. How powerful is that! I wonder how Jesus’ baptism impacted his life. How much did he treasure his experience of being loved and accepted? The life he lived tells us that Jesus lived the message of baptism to the point that he embodied it. His words and actions were one in his life. Jesus invites us to do the same remembering our baptism. We remember how God loves us unconditionally and relentlessly with overflowing joy. This is how we learn to love without reasons and to trust without borders. That can be our most challenging task, but our most rewarding experience.

December 15, 2019 – Wild Space

Text: Matthew 3:1-6

We continue our Advent journey with space as our theme. Traditionally the church has focused on time more than on space. The liturgical calendar begins with the season of Advent, the so called, time of waiting. We are told to prepare ourselves for Christ to be born again in us and in our world. Our waiting reaches to the peak on Christmas Eve as we gather to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. The festive atmosphere gradually disappears after the highest season. There is a fundamental problem in this chronological pattern of celebration. By setting aside a special time, we tend to think that the rest of the time are just ordinary or less important. Time, then, is divided based on a hierarchical model – we put more value on a certain time. However good our intent is behind the ritual of hallowing a certain time, it is extremely hard for us to be free from the conventional way of observing time – past, present and future.

One of the well-known Christmas carols, Joy to the World sums up our dilemma with time.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room. And Heaven and nature sing. Heaven and nature sing. Heaven and Heaven, and nature sing.

There is a fundamental separation between heaven and earth, the ruler and the ruled, God as the subject and the creation as the object. The Lord brings joy to the world, which has connotation that it is incomplete, lacking and in despair until it welcomes the Saviour. The birth of Christ is the moment when the creation becomes whole. The crucial moment when the heaven and earth kiss each other becomes momentary or at most the annual event, and therefore loses the power to change us.

By focusing more on space, we can reclaim the true meaning of the incarnation. It’s not meant to be a one-time event. It’s not meant to be time bound. It means that God is forever the God with and for the flesh, the earth, the world. It proclaims that we live in God’s world. This broken world is God’s body. So we are to love God by loving the world and everything in it. We care for one another, and share what we can with those in need not because we have more and they have less but because loving our neighbours is how we love God. There is no other way. We can’t help but share when we realize that we are all interconnected. The birth of Christ reminds us that all life is sacred. The humble place where Jesus was born teaches us that every place is sacred. This profound theology opens up endless opportunities for us to celebrate God’s presence right where we are including the space unknown to us.

We can call the unknown space a wild space. It is a space that cannot be confined by the conventional way of thinking and doing. It refuses the top-down approach, the power imbalance, and any form of hegemony. We all have this space in us. Our varied life experiences, diverse identities and different perspectives, they all contribute to create this space. Our differences become a window of opportunity to see the world differently so we can live differently. For example, a loss of your loved one has brought you a lot of changes. It changed how you see the world and how you live in the world – it changed who you are. If you live with a chronic illness or if your significant other has one, it can also change how you engage the world. If you had to leave your home because it was not safe to live there or if the community you belong to has experienced a collective trauma losing one after another it can change your world upside down. We all have cracks one way or the other that make us feel like we don’t fit in anymore. The good news is that where we don’t quite fit not only gives us problems but also possibilities.

The climate crisis was caused mainly by human behaviours. It is the result of how we have been living based on a certain lifestyle – individualistic, greedy, consumeristic and market-oriented. Now that such a worldview has proven to be not only unsustainable but also evil and sinful because it causes harm to the body of God, we desperately need wild space more than ever.

My transformative learning opportunities have often taken place in a wild space. When I was walking in the park the other day, two baby foxes – one was black and the other was brown – were running into me. It was foggy and early in the morning, so I couldn’t really see them until they came really close to me. They were cute and fearless. Thankfully they ran the other way before I was found by their mom. They reminded me of my boys. It was the day when I was going to travel to attend a workshop out of town. The two young foxes gave me the assurance that everything was going to be okay with my boys. On another day, I encountered a fox. (It could be their mom) She saw me first. We were about 30 meters apart from each other, standing still and holding our breath. At first, I wasn’t sure what kind of animal was staring at me, but soon recognized the long stunning yellow tail. While I was overwhelmed by this gorgeous creature, it started barking. I was sorry for invading her territory, wild space. On another day in the bleak midwinter I was walking on the frozen river. I was amazed by so many deer congregating in their safe space – a cave-like hollow in the riverbank. It was the largest number of deer I’ve ever seen at once.

The image of wild space is fascinating. It is a place where human beings have never reached or occupied so there is no dominant culture or oppressive system created by us humans. It doesn’t need anything to become complete because it is already whole. It is a place where each creature is acknowledged as it is with its unique beauty. Here the gift of life is affirmed and differences are embraced. And there is no subject and object relation, but only I and Thou relationship. We all have a wild space within ourselves. In order to see differently and to live differently, we must let our wild space come out from its hiding place. Our wild space becomes Advent space where we can celebrate the presence of God more fully and more audaciously.

December 8, 2019 – Brave Space

Text: Luke 1: 46b-55

What was the bravest thing you’ve ever done and what was it that made you brave? Don’t think too much or too hard. Use what comes to your mind right now. If you can’t think of anything, just think about one thing you did recently that you would consider brave. I invite you to turn to your neighbour, the person sitting close to you, and share your story.

I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of brave space. It’s a relatively new concept compared to safe space, and therefore requires further experiential learning and reflections. We first have to know who defines brave space. A brave space for a teenage girl, who is trying to find her place in a not so friendly school, would be different from a brave space for you or me.

Some social justice educators introduced brave spaces as a means to encourage students to participate in challenging conversations. They found out that students didn’t engage in meaningful dialogues when they felt uncomfortable or unsafe. For example, they introduced the privilege walk, an educational tool that helped students see themselves in the bigger picture – how their social locations determined their access to power and privilege. So, they created a brave space – instead of a safe space – where students were expected to engage one another with respect despite their differences.

Brave space can also be seen as a movement outside the class room. The movement was initiated by Micky ScottBey Jones, an African American woman. She is a justice doula, healer, nonviolent direct action organizer, and a womanist contemplative activist. It is a movement from being secure to vulnerable, from armored to open, from guarded to curious. She wrote the following poem,
An Invitation to Brave Space.
Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
But it will be our brave space together,
And we will work on it side by side.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I like how she defines brave space. It’s down-to-earth yet visionary. It acknowledges our vulnerability and limits yet affirms our possibilities and the best version of ourselves – how we can create a deeper relationship, healthier community and better world together. No one is excluded or left out. Brave space requires everyone’s presence and participation.

Everyone has done something brave in their lives. The bravest thing I’ve ever done was moving to Canada. The second bravest thing I’ve done was moving to Manitoba. Sometimes not knowing helps me to be brave. But more importantly there is a sense that I don’t have a choice but to be brave. It’s like rising again by hitting the bottom. There is a common theme in doing something brave. We first experience some kind of crisis in our lives, and we face a decision to make. Sometimes the decision is made after intentional time of discernment. Sometimes the decision is made instinctively.

Sophia LeBlanc was one of the recipients of the Medal of Bravery last week – the youngest Nova Scotian to ever receive the award. On Nov. 11, 2018, 6 year old Sophia was a passenger in her mother’s car when it lost control and landed upside down, submerged in a river near Oxford. She freed her youngest sibling from the car and then climbed a steep hill to flag down help for the rest of her family who were still trapped in the car. The now 8 year old hero was reluctant to talk about the crash when she was interviewed. “I saved my family,” she said, clutching the blue box holding the medal. “It was hard to get my little sister, but I got her out. But I couldn’t get my brother out … I climbed on my mother’s back to get onto the rocks and then I climbed up.”

A single act of bravery can give life to so many. I wonder if that’s the case with Mary. The church praises Mary for her courageous act. In reality, however, Mary doesn’t have much choice. She asks the angel, ‘How can this be?’ The angel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy.” I am not sure if such an answer can satisfy Mary or confuse her even more. Mary is in danger because there is a violation of a betrothed virgin as described in Deuteronomy. What seems to be a brutal answer is actually the most realistic solution for Mary. For there is no safe space for Mary and the fatherless child. She must act bravely, and the only way for her to be brave is to trust that she and her child will be held by the power of love.

Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat is the result of creating her brave space. It is the song of liberation – personal, social, moral and economic. It praises God’s liberating actions on behalf of marginal and exploited creation. The powerful memory is evoked of God’s deliverance of Israel throughout its history. Key themes for the Gospel are introduced, especially the proclamation of the good news to the poor. Mary’s song is precious to women and other oppressed people for its vision of their freedom from systemic injustice. In the transformed social order, food is provided for the hungry. The spiritual realm is understood as embedded in socioeconomic and political reality. Focus is on the might, holiness, and mercy of God, who has promised solidarity with those who suffer and who is true to those promises. God is magnified for effecting changes – now and always.

Even if the whole Nativity story is a metaphor, one thing no one can deny is the connection Mary had with her child inside of her. Mary was deeply connected with Jesus from the time he was conceived. She would have felt his first stirring of life, his ‘quickening’ in her womb from about four months into her pregnancy. With each movement of a tiny arm, a small kicking foot– with each inch of her own and her baby’s growth, she knew she was no longer her own; she knew her life had changed irrevocably. She became aware of her inward journey: so much changing in her body, mind and spirit. She realized that the world she lived in, that the baby would arrive in, was not as safe and peaceful as her inward world, now the only choice she had was to be brave. The strong bond she had with her child made her a more courageous woman. The mother and her child created a brave space together. The space might have not been perfect. It might have not always been what they wished it would have been. But it was their brave space together, which gave life to so many including me and you.

December 1, 2019 – Safe Space

Text:  Luke 1:39-45

Advent, the four-week period leading to Christmas is my favorite season. I love the pace of the season – it invites us to slow down in our hectic schedules, and to take a deep breath in our fast paced world. I’m surprised by how fast people drive even on the icy roads! (Including me sometimes, oops!) I also like the colour of the season. I don’t mean the liturgical colour, purple or blue, however beautiful and meaningful they are. My Advent colour is the combination of various colours that I see at sunset. As the daylight gives way to darkness a magical moment is created. No one colour dominates the entire space. Instead, I see multilayered colours – pink, yellow, red, violet, lavender, white, blue and gray. Altogether they make the wonderful colour of welcoming, embracing and becoming. Soon all the different colours emerge into darkness, the colour of mystery. We find ourselves completely covered by black space, like a mother’s womb. It is a familiar space because we all came from that space. Yet, it makes us uncomfortable because we lose our power, control and ability. We must learn to trust the power greater than ourselves. We are not alone in that space. We are sustained and held by the inexhaustible wellspring like a tree whose roots reach out to the deepest part of the soil. Advent meets us where we are, and invites us to go deeper.

Traditionally the church has focused on time more than space. For example, no one knows when Jesus was born, but we tend to think of the Nativity in a chronological order – an angel visits Mary, Mary visits Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph travel to his hometown where she gives birth, followed by the visits from the Shepherds and the wise ones. This chronological way of thinking makes us believe that God’s incarnation was a one-time event not a process, and that it was what happened in the past, not what’s happening right now. I wonder if the focus was meant to be on space not time. Then the story becomes a principle, how God engages the world rather than what happened in a particular time and place. I don’t deny the power of memories or imagination that time can create – they give us meaning and purpose. Some of my vivid memories of those whose lives have touched me make me feel even closer to them than when they were around me. I also like to imagine my future. Happy and hopeful dreams give me the reason to live. There is, however, something in me that tries to prevent me from living fully in the present moment. When the present moment becomes too painful to bear I tend to get stuck in the past or wander around in the future. There is a danger of getting lost in time when we don’t pay attention to what’s going on in and around us. Spatial thinking invites us to be fully present and to be more relational with whoever we share the space with. Our space is God’s primary concern, and that’s where Advent begins. Every one of us is given space. It doesn’t matter how big or small, all of us have space at home, with the circle of friends, out in the community. The question is what we want to create with any given space.

Angel Kyodo Williams, a writer, activist and ordained Zen priest defines love as space. She said, “Love is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are.” I think her definition of love makes sense, because without spaciousness within ourselves we want others to be like us or to behave like we do even in the name of love. Good intentions are not enough. We must create space first within ourselves so those around us can find a breathing space. We can also call this a safe space. It refers to places intentionally created for people from marginalized groups – LGBTQ communities, Indigenous people, racialized folks, and people with disabilities. Many of them are still fighting for freedom, and looking for a place to belong. Their traumatic experiences with institutions, including the church, inform them, a safe space cannot be optional; it’s a must for their own sake; it can literally save their lives. Claiming to be an affirming community is one thing, and living it out is another. The inside has to match the outside. While it is important to publicly declare that we are an affirming congregation, we must continue to strive for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are. It takes our flexibility, allowance, bigness to be a more whole, just and spacious community for all of us. Many of our Indigenous brothers and sisters recognize the four colours in the new crest of the United Church, but I wonder how many of them can recognize the inside of the structure – how we are living up to the vision of living together in harmony and peace with all peoples. In order to make our space truly safe, we need both the external work and the internal work.

In the gospel according to Luke, after Mary receives a visit from an angel, she sets out on a journey to see her relative Elizabeth. Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom we often praise for her courageous yes to God, needs someone who can truly understand her situation. It takes one person, who has been through what Mary is going through in order for her to feel safe in the world. Elizabeth welcomes Mary unconditionally and wholeheartedly. The Bible doesn’t give us much detail of the visit. But one thing it doesn’t fail to tell us is that there is tremendous joy in their reunion, and that is described with a powerful image – the child in the womb leaping for joy! There is no sound we can hear, no image we can see, but only a movement we can feel within ourselves. That’s what Advent feels like – a new life within us fills the dark space leaping for joy. So we can wait expectantly. We can pay attention to whoever we share our space with. We can create a safe space for those who hunger for connections. No matter who we are, where we came from, or where we are on life journey, Advent meets us right where we are, and invites us to go deeper. Like the diverse colours of sunset, we are beautifully diverse making the wonderful colour of welcoming and embracing. In Advent we merge into darkness, the colour of the Great Mystery. There can we become a new life, like a child in the womb leaping for joy.