The Trouble with Normal

Suddenly, this Bruce Cockburn song from the early 1980s seems horribly relevant again.


Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs — “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the third world trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local third world’s kept on reservations you don’t see
“It’ll all go back to normal if we put our nation first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When the ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and the landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Written by Bruce Cockburn • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Carlin America Inc

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

(Reblogged, slightly adapted,  from 2013.)

No – not what you’re thinking. Not Christmas: Advent. It starts today, November 27th (the fourth Sunday before Christmas), and lasts until Christmas Eve.

Ever since my children were little I’ve loved the season of Advent with a passion. Advent tells us that there’s a better future ahead; it reminds us of the Old Testament promises of the coming of the Messiah, and the New Testament hope that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom of justice and peace will never end. The Advent hymns and scriptures (mainly from the Old Testament prophets) reinforce these themes for us.

The oldest ‘layer’ of Advent, in my experience, is the traditional hymns. I was brought up in a churchgoing family and sang as a chorister when I was a boy, so these hymns are indelibly fixed in my memory. ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’, ‘On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry’, ‘Hark the Glad Sound – the Saviour Comes’ – these are just some of the best known examples of hymns that celebrate the Advent message. I love the music of Christmas, too, but I really don’t like it when stores start playing it right after Remembrance Day (all in an effort to enhance Christmas sales, of course). I don’t want to get to Christmas too soon; I want to wait, and savour the sense of anticipation that Advent gives. Singing the Advent hymns helps me to do that.

Speaking of waiting, when my kids were very little (back in our Arborfield days), Marci and I found a book about family Advent customs called ‘Celebrate While We Wait’, by the Schroeder family. It was this book that first introduced us to the Advent wreath; the wreath had never been a part of my childhood Advent experience, and until I read about it in the Schroeders’ book, I had never heard of it either. But we quickly made it a part of our family Advent practice.

I made our first wreath from a piece of circular styrofoam, but later I made a more permanent base from the top of an old wooden stool into which I drilled five holes for the candles. The candles are traditionally purple (some people now use blue, but I myself prefer the traditional colours), perhaps with one pink one, and a white one in the centre for Christmas. Marci and I still light our wreath at suppertime every evening, and after supper we use a book of Advent devotions to help us meditate on the themes of the season and to lead us into prayer together. There is a wealth of resources available for this; simply googling ‘Advent devotions’ brings up 304,000 hits in a quarter of a second, and searching for ‘Advent devotional’ on produced 570 results! We sometimes add our own prayers, and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer together.

Advent, of course, is about God’s kingdom of justice and peace breaking in to transform the world, and so Advent is a good time to think about what we’re doing to forward the work of God’s kingdom. What am I doing at this (often rather selfish) time of year to care for the poor and needy and to transform the structures of our society so that our world becomes a more just and peaceful place? A few weeks ago, in our church (St. Margaret’s, Edmonton), we were visited by representatives of a couple of Edmonton outreach agencies. Listening to them speak about the work their organisations do reminded me again that there are things that each of us can do to help translate the Advent hope into reality in the world for which Jesus gave his life. What might God be calling me to do this Advent, in a practical way, to live out the message of his Kingdom? (Here’s a good perspective on this.)

Christmas celebrates the central mystery of the Christian faith – God coming to live among us as one of us in the person of Jesus. Advent helps me enter more meaningfully into that celebration. It reminds me that as the light of the candles shines in the darkness, so the words of the prophets shine in the darkness of despair and hopelessness and point us to a time when we will study war no more, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Let me close with my favourite Advent prayer, composed by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer and used in Anglican churches worldwide, with little variations, down to the present day:

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ
came to us in great humility,
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-three years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.


The Suffering King (a sermon on Luke 23:32-43)

I don’t know how many of you have seen the old 1990s movie The American President, with Michael Douglas and Anette Bening. In one scene from the movie, Douglas’ character, President Andy Shepherd, has to respond to a terrorist attack on American troops by retaliating against a Libyan command building. He’s obviously uncomfortable with this action, and one of his aides reassures him that this will be very good for him because he’ll be seen to be ‘acting presidentially’. Shepherd then comments on the tragedy of the fact that ordering a strike that will kill innocent janitors and deprive their families of husbands and fathers is seen as ‘acting presidentially’.

The question behind our Gospel for today is not about ‘acting like a president’ but ‘acting like a king’. How does a king act? In this Gospel reading Jesus is referred to four times in kingly language – and we need to remember that the words ‘King’, ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ all mean essentially the same thing. Three of these references have a question mark beside them; the speaker is questioning whether Jesus is in fact a king after all. In verse 35 the leaders scoff and say “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one”. In verse 37 the Roman soldiers mock Jesus: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself”. And in verse 39 one of the criminals crucified with Jesus joins in: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us”. But in the fourth reference to Jesus as King the penitent criminal expresses his faith in Jesus’ kingship: “Jesus, remember me when” -not ‘if’ – “you come into your kingdom” (v.42).

How can a man hanging on a cross be God’s Messiah, the chosen king of God’s people Israel? After all, the generally accepted model for the Messiah was King David, the great warrior king from a thousand years before the time of Christ, the one who defeated the Philistines and established Israel as a great power. During the reign of David Israel finally got some respect from her neighbours! David was ruthless toward his enemies; we’re told that on one occasion he lined up the Moabite men and put to death every third one of them, just to put the fear of Israel into them. On the ‘David’ model, the king’s victories over his enemies are signs that God is with him, but only a false Messiah would be executed by his enemies!

But there was another voice in the scriptures of Israel, and the leaders allude to it in today’s reading when they speak about ‘the Messiah of God, his chosen one’. This is a reference to Isaiah chapter 42: ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’ (v.1). This is the first of four ‘Servant Songs’, in Isaiah in which we read about a mysterious figure who not only acts as God’s messenger to the nations but also willingly goes through suffering and offers his life on their behalf. In chapter 50 the Servant says ‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting’ (v.6). And in a famous verse from chapter 53 Isaiah says of the Servant, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (v.5).

This is the model that Jesus accepted for his ministry. He is the King who willingly goes through suffering, rather than inflicting it on God’s enemies, and he gives his life on behalf of his people. This has major implications for followers of Jesus. Not only does the King suffer for us; he also offers us a pattern of faithfulness in suffering.

The King suffers for us. The New Testament teaches us that through the Cross of Jesus we are reconciled to God, and the various writers come up with several different ways to help us understand this. They see Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, just like the Old Testament sacrifices in which the animals were seen as taking the place of the guilty one and dying on his or her behalf. Again, they see his death as a ransom price paid to set the slaves free. These are just two of the many pictures of Jesus’ death in the New Testament.

Luke, the author of today’s Gospel passage, offers us no theory of how the Cross ‘saves’ us; instead, he shows its power by pointing to the things Jesus does while he is hanging there. Firstly, Jesus offers forgiveness from the Cross. In verse 34 he prays for his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”. What’s the big picture that Luke wants us to see here? It’s the picture of how our Creator comes and lives among us in Jesus, but we turn against him and nail him to a Cross. This is a picture of our human rebellion against God. But what is God’s response to our rebellion? Instead of taking out his vengeance and wrath on us, he responds with mercy and forgiveness. In effect, he says to us ‘You can kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you’.

Secondly, Jesus promises paradise from the Cross. The dying criminal says to him “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, and Jesus replies “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v.43). Of course, all humans are searching for paradise. Singer-songwriters sing about how they’ve found it in the arms of the person they love; politicians promise it to us if we only vote for them. But Jesus guarantees it to the dying criminal as he hangs on the Cross; in the original language he says ‘Amen I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’. When Jesus says ‘Amen I tell you’, it is the most solemn promise he can make.

So these two pictures – Jesus offering forgiveness and promising paradise – tell us that blessedness, reconciliation with God, the life that God planned for us – these things come to us, not through the King’s strength and power, but through his weakness and death. Somehow the second criminal was able to see this. Like him, we’re invited to come and experience the power of the Cross for ourselves.

But there’s more for us yet in this Gospel. We’ve discovered that the King suffers for us, but it’s also true that in this passage the King gives us a pattern of suffering. In the writings of Luke – that is, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts – Jesus is seen as the model Christian, the one whose example we are to follow. What model does Jesus give us here of how we advance the cause of God’s kingdom? It’s a model of responding to hatred, not with violence and anger, but with love and forgiveness. When Jesus does this, his suffering is not pointless but very fruitful; it results in salvation for the whole world!

In Luke’s second book, Acts, a man called Stephen follows this pattern. His story is told for us in Acts chapters six, seven and eight. He has a powerful ministry as a preacher and eventually is arrested by the Jewish ruling council. At his trial his words make the leaders so angry that they eventually mob Stephen, take him out of the city and stone him to death. As Stephen is dying he prays for his murderers, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”, and then he dies.

But Stephen’s death is not a waste. Two things happen as a result. First of all, that day a great persecution breaks out against the Church, and many Christians are forced to leave Jerusalem. But this is not a disaster, because Luke tells us ‘Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word’ (Acts 8:4). The Jewish ruling council wanted to stamp out the movement, but what they actually did was to take a dandelion and blow on it, scattering seeds everywhere. But even more significantly, Luke gives us the little detail that when Stephen was stoned ‘the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’. This is our first introduction to the man who became the great apostle Paul. Why does Luke mention him here? Surely because he wants us to see that Stephen’s death was significant in the journey that eventually led Saul to become a Christian himself.

In Acts 14:22 this same Paul, now a Christian, tells his new converts a basic truth about the Christian life: ‘it is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God’. So you see – in Luke’s vision of Christianity suffering is an inevitable part of Christian discipleship and Christian mission, and it is also enormously fruitful.

The Church has often forgotten the example of Jesus and Stephen. In its history the Church has often punished heretics and those of other faiths, and these actions have caused untold harm to the cause of the Gospel.

But this is not the whole story. Let me give you a fairly recent account of a group of Christian missionaries who understood the way of Jesus. In the early 1950s, five missionaries living in Ecuador sensed the call of God to proclaim the Gospel to the Auca people. The Auca were totally isolated and were feared by all of the neighbouring tribes; there were many stories of the savagery with which they had killed people who tried to enter their territory. Nonetheless, these five friends decided that the time had come to attempt to spread the Gospel among them. One of the five, Nate Saint, was a pilot, and he began flying over the Auca villages in his little mission plane, dropping gifts and sending messages. The five also encountered a young Auca woman who had left her tribe and through her they learned a few words of the Auca language.

Eventually, in late 1955, the five missionaries decided that the time had come to attempt physical contact. Nate had found a sandbar on the Cururay River, close to one of the Auca villages, which seemed suitable as a landing site. On January 6th 1956 they did one more flight over the village, shouting to the people to come and meet them on the Cururay, and then landed on that sandbar and set up camp. The next day three Aucas came to meet them and visited with them for several hours. All seemed to be going well, but on Sunday January 8th radio contact with the five missionaries was lost. Their wives and children waited anxiously, but eventually it became clear that the Aucas had killed them all.

However, this is not the end of the story. There isn’t time to tell the full tale of three family members of the five dead missionaries – Rachel Saint, Betty Elliot and her young, suddenly fatherless daughter Valerie – who, with the help of the young Auca woman Dayuma, continued the efforts to reach these people with the Gospel. Instead of leaving in anger, they continued to exercise the love of Christ in forgiving those who had murdered their loved ones. And their mission was successful; through their witness many Aucas eventually accepted the Gospel.

Let’s sum up what Luke’s story of the Cross is saying to us today on Reign of Christ Sunday:

First, let’s remember that Jesus our King provides for the needs of his people through his death. All of our deadliest enemies – our guilt, our fear, our slavery to sin, even death itself, ‘the final enemy’ – all of them are utterly defeated at the Cross. And we are given the opportunity to imitate the penitent criminal. Like him, we are invited to recognize our own guilt. Like him, we’re invited to recognize that it was not for any crimes he had committed that Jesus was dying, but rather that he was dying for us. Like him, we’re invited to cast ourselves on the mercy and grace of Jesus, in the assurance that our prayer will be heard, just as his prayer was heard.

Secondly, as followers of Jesus, let’s remember how his kingdom advances. It doesn’t go forward with glory and trumpets. It doesn’t advance by enforcing Christian morality by government legislation. It doesn’t go forward by our building the biggest and most impressive church in the city with the latest sound system and the flashiest advertising.

No, the most powerful way for us to help in the advancement of God’s kingdom is to do as Jesus did, as Stephen did, and as the five missionaries to the Auca and their families did – to respond to hatred with love and forgiveness. This may seem like foolishness to us, but Paul said ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (1 Corinthians 1:25). Let me remind you of some more words of Paul:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14, 17-19a, 21).

As we think on these things today – on what Jesus has done for us through his Cross, and on what his example tells us about how we can best work for the spread of his kingdom – I think the best way for us to conclude is simply to sing along with the dying criminal ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’.

What I Will Remember on Remembrance Day

386302_10150434245270400_1399354246_nRemembrance Day is often promoted these days as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who served our country in time of war.

In fact, the original Armistice Day, after World War One (the ‘Great War’ which was also called, optimistically, ‘the War to end all wars’), had a wider focus; it was a thanksgiving that the guns had fallen silent after four years of butchery and carnage on a scale the world had never seen before, and a silent remembrance of all who had lost their lives, military or civilian. It was also a day to pray fervently for peace and to commit oneself to a simple message: ‘Never Again!’

So on Remembrance Day this year there will be many things I will remember.

First and foremost, of course, I will remember family members who were impacted by the ravages of war.

I will remember my grandfather, George Edgar Chesterton (1895-1963), who served with the Leicestershire Tigers from 1914-18. He was eventually captured and spent eighteen months as a P.O.W. before returning home after the armistice.

I will remember my Dad’s uncle, Charles Hodkinson (1912-1941), shot down and killed in a bomber over the Netherlands in 1941.

I will remember my great grand uncle, Horace Arthur Thornton (1896-1917), killed in action in France July 27th 1917.

I will remember Brian Edgar Fogerty (1924-1941), related to me through my grandfather’s sister, who served in the merchant navy during WW2 and died at sea Feb. 22nd 1941; he was just 17.

I will remember Brian’s uncles, Harold Edgar Fogerty (1892-1919) and Edward Ernest Vernon Fogerty (1901-1920), both of whom served in the Great War. They died of illnesses after the war ended, but are remembered on the war memorial in Cheltenham because it is felt that war injuries contributed to their deaths.

I will remember the many other relatives who served in the military in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, many of whom would never speak of their experiences when they returned, and lived with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

I will also remember the brave men and women who served in the enemy armies, many of whom were conscripted and had no choice unless they were willing to be shot. I will remember the people who died because of the bombs my Dad’s uncle Charles dropped. I will remember the U-Boat men who fired the torpedoes that killed Brian Fogerty; the U-Boat arm had the highest casualty incidence of any unit of the German military in WW2, and I expect that most of them died in terror as they heard the explosions of depth charges getting closer and closer; no doubt those who were religious prayed that God would save them, just as my relatives prayed to be saved.

I will remember the civilians whose lives were lost in carpet bombing: in the Blitz in London and other cities in Britain, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will remember the residents of the towns and cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, whose homes became battlegrounds and who lost everything they had, including (in millions of cases) their lives. I will remember the millions of children who became orphans, many of whom were institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

I will remember the ridiculous sibling rivalry between King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which was a primary cause of the arms race between their two countries in the lead up to World War I, and thus arguably contributed to the outbreak of the war. Britain and Germany had no history of aggression, but the Kaiser wanted battleships like his cousin King Edward, and the only excuse he could offer was to create the illusion that Britain was a threat to him. On such stupidity hung the lives of millions of young men.

I will remember the millions of people in eastern Europe who were condemned to forty years of communist tyranny because Britain and the U.S.A. needed the support of Russia to win the Second World War. Our victory was thus won on the backs of the freedom of millions; who were the ‘winners’ here?

I will remember the lies that have been told to justify war, from the lie that Polish soldiers had invaded Germany and killed men at a border post in 1939 (told by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland) to the lie that Iran had weapons of mass destruction. I will also remember the appalling arrogance of western nations who assume that we have the right to impose our ideas of government on people who obviously do not want them.

I will remember how the words of my Lord Jesus Christ, ”greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, have been taken out of the context in which he spoke them – in which he was about to lay down his life without resisting, loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him – and have been used to honour and glorify the deaths of those who were killed while they were fighting and killing others.

I will remember all of this on Remembrance Day. I will pray that this madness will end, that human beings may find better ways to resolve their conflicts than sending young men out to butcher each other, and that those who profit from war will have their eyes opened to their own wickedness, and repent. And I will pray that the Christian Church throughout the world may be alive to the call it has received from its master, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

And, as always, I will find Wilfred Owen’s immortal poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to be a penetrating aid to true remembrance of what war is all about:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, 1917

This is a repost from 2013, 2014, and 2015. Again, I thought of writing something new, but decided that this really says what I want to say today.

God’s Masterpiece (a sermon for All Saints’ on Ephesians 2:8-10)

Today in the Christian year we’re celebrating All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day is actually on November 1st, but recently the custom has grown of celebrating it on the first Sunday after November 1st. And since baptism is part of the process of becoming a saint, it’s particularly appropriate that we celebrate baptisms on this feast day.

I have to start by saying that I’ve always been unhappy with the use of the word ‘saint’ to mean a particularly good Christian, one whose way of life is superior to the ordinary, run of the mill believers like you or me. This understanding of ‘saint’ is completely foreign to the Bible. In the New Testament, you don’t become a saint by being recognised by the Church as being a cut above the rest in terms of your goodness or holiness or love. No: you become a saint by putting your faith in Jesus and being baptized. The word ‘saint’ in the New Testament doesn’t describe a special kind of Christian – rather, it describes any member of God’s people. The letters of Paul are regularly addressed to ‘the saints of God in such and such a town’ – meaning not the especially holy minority, but all of them. If you are a Christian, then in New Testament language you are a saint. And if we understand the word in this older, more biblical way, then the Feast of All Saints becomes your feast – the feast that celebrates the untold millions of ordinary baptized Christians who have put their faith in Jesus and followed him.

As we think about what it means to be a saint today I want to direct your attention to three verses from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in chapter 2:8-10; you can find them on page 192 of the New Testament section, near the back of our pew bibles:

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life’.

I want to look at this passage with you under three headings: ‘Grace’, ‘Masterpiece’, and ‘Way of Life’.

First, grace. We start with grace, because that’s where the whole New Testament starts. As most of you have heard many times over, grace is a Bible word that means ‘love that you don’t have to earn’. Jesus and his apostles taught us that God is a God of grace, which means that God loves us with an unconditional and indestructible love. God doesn’t love us because we are especially deserving specimens of humanity. God doesn’t love us because we’ve tried our best to obey the Ten Commandments. God loves us because it’s God’s nature to love. Even if you are an enemy of God, you’re not exempt from God’s love. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that God sends his sun and rain on good and bad alike; that’s why we Christians are commanded to love our enemies, because God also loves his enemies and reaches out to bless those who hate him.

Philip Yancey is one Christian writer who has returned over and over again to the theme of grace and has written eloquently about it. One of his best books is called What’s So Amazing About Grace? I heard Philip speak about this just before the book was published; he said that he had originally wanted to call the book What’s So Amazing About Grace and Why Don’t Christians Get It? but his publisher wouldn’t let him do that! But I think it would have made an excellent title, because many Christians really don’t ‘get’ grace. We seem to think that we have to earn God’s love by being good, and if we succeed in this, we are then allowed to sit in judgement on other Christians who haven’t succeeded in reaching our high standards of goodness.

Jesus once told a parable about this; we heard it a couple of weeks ago in our regular Sunday lectionary. He told about two men who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee went right up to the front of the Temple and prayed out loud, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there. After all, I fast twice a week and give you a tenth of all my income’. But the tax collector didn’t dare come to the front of the temple; he stood at the back, crying out over and over again, ‘God, be merciful to me, because I’m a sinner’. In summing up the story, Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went home in the right with God and not the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted”.

The point of the story is not that the Pharisee was bad and the tax collector was good. Actually, the Pharisee was probably a very good man, and the tax collector was probably a thief and a rogue. But the Pharisee was full of himself, whereas the tax collector was honest about his sins and asked God for forgiveness. And God did forgive him, and welcomed him, because God is a God of grace.

Paul says, ‘By grace you have been saved through faith’. ‘Faith’ doesn’t mean ‘right belief’; it means ‘trust’. When I am saved by grace through faith, it means that I accept the fact that my troubles are too big for me to deal with all by myself, so I take the hand of Christ and cast myself on his strength and love to bring me through. My sins are too big for me to overcome all by myself. My fears are too overwhelming. My hurts go too deep. So in faith I come to Christ and say, “Lord, this is too big for me, so I’m going to put my hand in yours and trust that you will guide me into the right pathways and give me the strength to do what you want me to do”.

That’s what Maria, Dustin and Monika, and Nick and Christine are doing this morning, on behalf of their children Ethan, Lincoln, and Liam. Ethan, Lincoln, and Liam aren’t old enough yet to be able to consciously put their faith in Christ, so their parents do it for them. As the children grow, the parents teach them by word and example about the wonderful grace of God and about how we respond to it by putting our trust in him. In a nutshell, that’s what baptismal promises are all about.

So we start with grace. Grace means that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing we can do can change that. All we can do is believe it, and put our trust in Christ in response.

The second word is ‘Masterpiece’. Now you might wonder where I got that word from, because it doesn’t appear in the the translation of our text in the pew bibles. But take a look at verse 10: ‘For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life’. ‘For we are what he has made us’ is actually a pretty lame translation of the original. The Greek word is ‘poema’, from which we get the word ‘poem’. Older translations say, ‘For we are his workmanship’; other versions have ‘handiwork’, but ‘poema’ is often used in Greek for a great masterpiece created by a wonderful artist. That’s what you are: God is the great artist, and you are his masterpiece.

Paul isn’t talking here about God’s work of creating us in the first place. It’s absolutely true, of course, that God has created each one of us in his image, and that this image is good. Yes, we are his masterpiece in the sense of being created by him, but what Paul is talking about in this passage is the new creation in Jesus. The Bible talks about us having an old sinful nature that is going to pass away one day, but the Holy Spirit is also creating in us a new nature, patterned after the character of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul means when he says ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works’. Faith and baptism were the beginning for us of this new nature.

Some of you here came to faith in Jesus later in life, after you had worked quite hard at creating highly effective forms of misery for yourselves! This is the position John Newton was in when he wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’: ‘Amazing grace – how sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me’. John Newton used that word ‘wretch’ purposely; he had been a slave trader, and in many other ways he knew he had rebelled against God and put himself at the centre of his own life. And even today, most of us have times when we feel really wretched, don’t we? We not only fall short of God’s standards; we fall short of our own, too. We try so hard, but we fail over and over again. We long for a power greater than ourselves to remake us so that we can be the people we long to be.

That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing in you. He’s creating a masterpiece in Christ Jesus: he’s forming a new person, with Jesus as the template. And when God looks at you and me, he doesn’t see all the failures and the disappointments; he sees the masterpiece, and he is pleased with it. Or, to put it another way, in our baptism God says that we are his saints, and when he looks at us, that’s exactly what he sees.

There’s a lovely example of this in the gospel of John. One of the first disciples of Jesus was a man called Andrew, and the first thing he did was to find his brother Simon and bring him to meet Jesus. Now we actually know quite a bit about Simon: he was the sort of guy who makes promises and then finds he can’t keep them, or starts speaking before his brain is in gear – enthusiastic, but not very reliable. But that’s not what Jesus saw when Simon came to him. Here’s what he said: “You are Simon son of John, but I’m going to give you a new name: Peter, which means ‘the rock’”. I’m sure Simon knew that he wasn’t actually very rock-like, but Jesus didn’t see the failures and disappointments, you see: he saw the masterpiece that he was going to create in Simon Peter.

So we’ve seen first that God reaches out to us in his grace, his unconditional love, and we respond with faith and trust in Jesus. Secondly, God then sets this process in motion in our lives: the creation of a masterpiece, a new person, patterned after the character of his Son Jesus Christ. And what does this look like? Look again at verse 10: ‘For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life’.

At the beginning Paul told us that we are not saved because of good works: in other words, we don’t have to earn God’s love by doing good things. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris often taunt Christians with this: ‘You Christians think that the only legitimate reason for being good is because you’re scared of going to hell’. Not at all; God doesn’t rescue me because I’m good but because he is good. And so I’m free to learn a new way of life based on doing good – not out of fear of hell, but out of gratitude for all that God has done for me, and because I trust that this new way of life he’s teaching me really is the best way.

What is this new way of life? What are these good works? Of course, there are many passages in the New Testament that describe them. One of the most famous of those passages contains the two great commandments that Jesus gave us: to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. And of course, Jesus spelled this out for us in more detail in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters five, six, and seven.

Paul spent a lot of time teaching his converts how to follow Jesus in their daily lives. Here’s one of my favourite passages of his, taken from his letter to the Romans:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21).

That’s as good a description of how to live as a follower of Jesus as any I’ve heard. It might seem a tall order, but of course we need to remind ourselves that this is going to be a lifelong journey for us. We are called ‘saints’, but we are also called ‘disciples’, a word that means ‘apprentices’. We have been apprenticed to Jesus and we are in the process of learning a new way of life from him. None of us has arrived at that destination yet; we’re all on the journey. Today God is setting our baptismal candidates on that path; all of us Christians are on that journey of faith with them.

Let’s go round this one last time. Our Christian life starts with grace: God reaching out to us in love, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. We respond to that love in faith, and God begins the process of recreation – making a new ‘me’, a ‘masterpiece’, patterned after the character of his Son Jesus Christ. And this leads to a new way of life as I put the example and teaching of Jesus into practice in all I do and say.

That’s the journey our baptismal candidates are starting today. That’s what it means to be a saint. May God guide and strengthen us all in that journey.

In Love and Marriage, Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect

I was struck by this article in Psychology Today. It seems maybe traditional-type folks weren’t so very wrong after all.

In most areas of life, having more experience is good. Want to be great in your chosen field? Sustained experience is essential. Want to be great at a sport? There’s no substitute for practice. And anyone who runs a business can tell you that their best employees are those who have been on the job long enough to have learned how to handle the normal well and the unexpected with wisdom.

While more experience is often beneficial in life, the story looks different when it comes to some types of experience before marriage. In our Before “I Do” report, we surveyed a national longitudinal sample of young adults about their love lives prior to marriage to examine factors associated with future marital quality. We found that having more sexual and cohabiting partners before marriage is associated with lower relationship quality once married. In particular, having only ever lived with or had sex with one’s spouse was associated with higher marital quality. Our findings are consistent with other studies showing that cohabiting with more partners before marriage is associated with greater likelihood of divorce[i] and that a higher number of sexual partners before marriage is associated with lower marital quality and greater likelihood of divorce.[ii]

Read the whole thing here. It’s well worth it.

Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network: Remembrance Day activities 2016.

Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network is a community of Edmonton Christians who believe that war and violence are incompatible with the teaching of Jesus. Each year we gather on the evening of Remembrance Day to bear witness to our belief in the nonviolent teachings of Jesus.
We have two events. The first is a prayer service at McDougall United Church (10025-101 Street) at 6.00 p.m. This service is explicitly Christian, but all, Christian or not, are welcome to participate. Our theme this year is ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18).
The second event is a prayer walk for peace that begins at City Hall at 7.00 p.m. and ends at the war memorial about an hour later. This event is interfaith; there are four prayer stations led by four different faith communities.
If you share our convictions about war and violence, or if you’re looking for an alternative to the mainstream celebration of Remembrance Day, an alternative that honours ALL the victims of war and focusses on prayer for peace, you would be more than welcome to come and join us.