Monday, October 18, 2021

My Interview With Inside Your Head Podcast on Grief and Loss

In my yesterday (Oct 17) I referenced an interview I did with an English-based podcast,  Inside Your Head, that's dedicated to mental health.    The host, Henry Hyde, is mostly interested in psychology and secular definitions of what constitutes positive mental wellbeing, but he was interested in my story of how faith and religion helped my late wife Kay and I get through the difficult two years of her experience of cancer and my own experience of grief and loss.  

The interview also talks about my own work as a military chaplain, which Henry was interested in hearing about.  

Here's the link for those who are interested.

M+


Saturday, October 16, 2021

No Sympathy From The Whirlwind: A Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost


A Sermon for Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 17 October, 2021.   Readings for this Sunday, Proper 29 (B):   Job 38:1-7 (34-41); Ps 104:1-9,25,37b; Heb 5.1-10; Mk 10:35-45



Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (Job 38.3).

 

There’s a saying that one hears in the military if you complain about hardship or difficult circumstances.   “Suck it up”, the person is told, often by a sergeant with a distinctly unsympathetic manner.    It often fell to me as a padre to meet with young, bewildered soldiers, to try and help them deal with a system that wasn’t very interested in their complaints and just wanted them to put up with it.   “But it’s not fair, padre, it makes no sense”, they’d say.

Ever since October started, my preaching has been avoiding our Old Testament readings from the Book of Job, rather in the way that one avoids the gaze of a dangerous or odd-looking person on the subway, hoping that they’ll leave you alone if you don’t make eye contact.  Job is one of those books that most of us know by reputation as the book about suffering with no satisfying answers.   Since no preacher has (or should have) a pat answer for suffering, we tend to ignore Job, so (deep breath), here goes.

In today’s reading, Job gets his moment to try and argue his harsh treatment with God, and is told, like my soldiers often were, to suck it up”, or to use the ancient Hebrew phrase, “Gird up your loins like a man”.   “Did you make the world,” God asks Job?  “Do you have the wisdom to explain how the world works?  Are you in charge?   No?  I didn’t think so.”   After another two chapters of this browbeating line of questioning, poor Job backs down.  “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42.3).    We might thus be forgiven for thinking that the message of the Book of Job is to be quiet and let God be in charge.

Unfortunately, that’s not a helpful answer to anyone who is suffering and who feels that they are entitled to complain.  It’s also ignores other passages in scripture that encourage us to bring our complains before God.  “Consider my groaning”, says the psalmist.  “Give attention to the sound of my cry” (Psalm 5.1.2).    Poor Job didn’t give in to the bad advice of his wife – “Curse God and die” (Job 2.9)  but he does feel that he’s entitled to plead his case before God.   Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as alluded to in our second reading from Hebrews, “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5.7).  Of course, Jesus does not get the answer he hopes for, but he gets the one he knows that must obey, which is why the author of Hebrews praises Jesus’ “obedience” and “reverent submission”.  But the whole point of Hebrews is that Jesus is sympathetic to our plight and to our cries because he’s shared them with us.

Since I’ve been with you as your interim priest, I’ve seen some of you struggle with your own hardships, adversities, and receive difficult diagnoses.   In such times, I think that those of us who belong to communities of faith feel that we have to put on brave faces around our friends and peers, when like Job we want to scream at God on the inside.   And we certainly want to get more from God than “suck it up”, but more often than not, we receive silence.

Recently I did an interview with a mental health podcast on my experience of grief duringthe long two years that my wife Kay suffered with ovarian cancer before herdeath.    I was very mindful that while the host was curious about how my faith helped me get through this, he himself was what he called a “spiritual atheist” and he was not interested in some pat, dogmatic answer that I might try to offer up. 

But here’s the thing.  I don’t think that any of us, in moments of profound fear, discomfort, or grief, want or need profound theology.  Like Job, we may cry “why?” or just “are you there, God”.    During the interview, I confessed that I had no grand or easy theology to carry me through the worst days of caring for Kay in her indignity and pain, knowing that I would lose her.   All I had to go on, I told the host, was the knowledge that if Jesus himself knew the worst moments of human existence, if he himself had cried out to a God who he felt had forsaken me, then Jesus understood and deeply cared for what Kay and I were going through.    Sometimes this line of thought is called the theology of the cross, but it can be simplified in the idea that we can, mysteriously, know Jesus the most in moments of suffering because it is then that he is closest to us.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the cocksure brothers, James and John, that they have no idea what they’re asking for when they want to “sit, at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mk 10.36).   We know better because we’ve heard Jesus say why he’s going to Jerusalem, to die, and we recognize the imagery of the one on the right and on the left as a foreshadowing of the two condemned men hanging on either side of Jesus (Mk 15.27).   We recognize here, on these three crosses, a powerful symbol of God’s solidarity with suffering humanity and a profound symbol of how Jesus will “serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10.45).  The two suffering bandits hanging beside Jesus may thus be seen as all of sinful humanity, which Jesus came to serve, forgive, and rescue. 

As I told the host of the podcast during my interview, some of the best theological advice I’ve received is to resist the temptation to try and explain all evil and suffering.   There is even a certain comfort in knowing that not everything can be explained in human comprehension, which does, in a way, bring us back to Job, only with this difference.  “Suck it up” is the theology of the whirlwind.   The theology of the cross, the voice of the gospel, replies to our cries and laments with  “Yes, I know it sucks, but I’m with you, and I will make all things new”. 


Saturday, October 9, 2021

The Possessions Pivot: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday


The Possessions Pivot:  A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday


Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, October 10, Thanksgiving Sunday and the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost.  

Readings for Proper 28B:  Job 23:1-9,16-17; Ps. 22.1-15; Heb 4.12-16; Mark 10:17-31

 




When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.  Mark 10.22




Today’s gospel comes to us as a rude shock, especially if we were looking forward to Thanksgiving Sunday as a time to be grateful for the abundance we enjoy, only to hear Jesus say “It’s nice that you have good things, now give them all to the poor and follow me”.   Probably not the message we were expecting to hear today, so we could probably be forgiven for trying to use the traditional trick of assuming that Jesus isn’t really speaking to us.  I think there’s a tendency, certainly one I’ll confess to, to assume that when Jesus has pointed things to say in the gospels, he’s not really speaking to us.   Surely Jesus is speaking to someone who really needs to hear the unvarnished truth – tax collectors, or pharisees, yes, but not me, not us, not us Anglicans.

As comfortable as that side-step might be when convenient, I think today’s gospel reading from Mark is a bullet that we simply can’t dodge.   First, there’s the anonymity of the man who comes to Jesus.  Just like us, really, for didn’t we all come here today to meet Jesus and hear what he has to say?  Furthermore, he’s someone who wants to please God, lead a good life, and be rewarded in heaven.   Again, just like us, because it would be odd if you came to church regularly but didn’t want to lead a good life and didn’t want to.  So this well-intentioned man serves as a kind of mirror in which we glimpse our own faces, however uncomfortable that might be.

To make the rich man even more generic, even more mirror-like, unlike in St. Luke’s version of this story he is not described as being a ruler.   Thus we can’t say “well, this guy’s in a higher tax bracket than me, so it doesn’t apply” because in looking at him, Jesus seems to know the man’s one flaw, that his attachment to his “many possessions” (Mk 10.22) will hold him back.  Sound uncomfortably familiar?  Don’t we have “many possessions”?  

Most of us have boxes, bins, garages and storage units full of possessions.  Many of us are sitting in real estate that’s insanely valued in an insane market, not to mention wealth portfolios and pensions.  Even those of us without these things, those on fixed incomes, are wealthier and more privileged than most people on this planet, and certainly we’re wealthier than most people who have ever lived.  As the biblical scholar Matt Skinner notes, there is no getting out of this gospel lesson, no escape route, not even wishful claims that there was a gate in Jerusalem called The Needle that camels could squish through if they dropped some of their load.  So, no, there’s no way we can pretend that Jesus’ words don’t apply to us.

“You lack one thing.”   This “one thing” that Jesus focuses on is pulls this man out of the comfortable sphere of his own personal piety and into the wider sphere of society and community that Jesus later describes in the gospel reading as “the kingdom of God”.   The kingdom of God us social.   To want to enter the kingdom of God, we must be willing to enter a community of transformed and transforming people, knowing that the entrance will cost and will change us.

 The social values of the kingdom of God make demands on us.  As Christians and disciples, we know that charity, the care of the poor, is one of the values of this kingdom that we’re obliged to follow.   Many of Jesus’ teachings (Mt 25.31-46 is perhaps the most dramatic example) tell us that God will judge us on how we care for the least among us.   Most of us are comfortable with the idea of some tithing, of donating a modest share of our wealth, but here Jesus takes it to an extreme.  His call to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor”, seems akin to the vows of poverty required by monastic organizations.    No wonder the man is “shocked” and “grieving”.   I think that if Jesus fixed us with his gaze and told us to do the same, we too would be “shocked” and “grieving”.

I think it’s important for us to sit with this gospel reading for a while and acknowledge our own shock and grief at our inability to be generous.   There’s a word for this kind of self-examination in our Christian tradition– repentance.  Mark’s gospel practically begins with this word.  As soon as he is baptized, Jesus baldly states what he is about:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near  repent; and believe in the good news” (Mk 1.15).  Repent here is used as part of a pivot, away from the world (repent in Mark’s Greek, as is often said, means a changing of the mind) and towards the good news of the kingdom of God coming into being.   Jesus here gives the man a glimpse of what it means to accept this kingdom and the kind of transformation it offers, but the man turns away in despair, unable to make the pivot, held back by his old life.

The man isn’t alone in his depair.  Surely there’s something of despair, mixed in with petulance, in Peter’s words to Jesus, “Look, we’ve left everything to follow you”.   The disciples feel that they’ve made the necessary sacrifices, and to be fair, they have walked away from families and livelihoods to follow Jesus, and now Jesus is telling them that it’s impossible for humans to save themselves by their own pious efforts.   In one breath, Jesus seems to say “give away all you have”, and in the next, he seems to say, “it won’t be enough”.    If we were there, surely we’d be grumbling along with Peter and the disciples.

 If we’re perplexed at this point, let’s recall that this gospel story happens on a road, as Jesus is “setting out on a journey” (Mk 1.17) – the Greek text simply says Jesus is setting out on the way.  It’s not a random stroll.  We know where this road goes.   Three times in this part of Mark, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem, where he will be killed  (Mk 8.27, 9.33,10.32).  Seen in this context, Jesus’ invitation to the rich man is a variant on “If any want to become my follower, let them take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8.34).   Sell your possessions and follow me is the same call to self-sacrifice, and no wonder that the rich man remains at the side of the road, watching Jesus go where he cannot go.

Again to quote Matt Skinner, if the rich man is standing at the side of the road, he’s in good company, because that’s where we are.  As Skinner writes, “You and I are beside the way ... We watch. We evaluate. We take a few steps in the right direction every now and then. Sometimes we hide in the bushes and hope Jesus has forgotten our pledge to follow him.

We know that Jesus is going to the place where we can’t go, to be the sacrifice that we can’t be, to give what we can’t give, out of God’s love for us, the same love with which he looked at the rich man, the same way that he looks at us.  We are saved by love and grace, and for that we are ever grateful. 

At the same time, sacrifice is in our DNA as disciples and as church.   Sacrifice is part of the kingdom of God.  We know that we are called to give, to care, to help.   We know that the story of the Good Samaritan is always there to pull us back from our moments of complacent and self-congratulatory holiness.  We know that we must hold our prosperity and security less tightly if we are to reach out a hand to those around us.   Indeed, how can we help others, if our hands our firmly clutching out stuff? As Jesus promises his disciples, the way of self-sacrifice, however timidly we take it, leads to rewards and blessings.

As disciples, we never know when this sacrificial giving may be asked of us, but I think we may recognize these moments when they come, and even be grateful for them.   Near my home in Barrie, a United Church congregation was dwindling, and after years of struggle and waning energies, they agreed to close, but in a way that had a profound impact on their community.   After selling the building, they put the proceeds in a trust, and chose deserving local charities, such as a women’s shelter, to receive funds from that trust      That congregation could have gone on for a few more years, perhaps, but instead they chose the way of the cross, and as their final act, brought the kingdom of God a little nearer to those who desperately needed it.

People, like churches, may find similar opportunities as we draw near to the end. For many of us in a greying congregation there may be opportunities to plan our estates or dispose of assets in such a way that we can be less encumbered as we follow Jesus.    Wherever we are in life, all of us can take a moment to ask, how much further could we follow Jesus if we were less burdened with the things we selfishly cling to.   This Thanksgiving weekend, I pray that we may be all more thankful for our call as disciples, and less mindful of what sacrifices that call might ask of us.

 


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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