Monday, February 12, 2018

What's Even More Miraculous than Jesus' Miracles?

            The second most common reason that Canadians lie awake at night, at least according to an Abacus poll from last year, is Health Care.

            Fully fourteen percent of Canadians (compared to over 50% in the United States) sometimes lie awake worrying about health care: whether they will get it, whether it will be high quality, whether they will be able to get a doctor, whether they have to wait too long, and whether or not they will be able to afford the meds that are prescribed. 

            I’ll get back to that fourteen percent in a minute. But first, I want to put it in the context of a story found in the Bible. In Mark 8, Jesus heals a blind man in Bethsaida. People had brought him to Jesus and asked Jesus to touch him. That’s it. They thought that would be enough.

            But it isn’t. Jesus has to spit into his hands, and rub the saliva in the man’s eyes. Then, when Jesus asks him if he can see, the blind man doesn’t say, “Yes, thank you Lord!” No, he says, “well, sort of. A little bit.” So, Jesus tries again. He lays hands on him—whether with or without more spit isn’t clear. Then Jesus stares at him. And finally, the man can see again.

            It is all a bit strange. Jesus seems to fumble this miracle. Instead of a fancy deke at the end of a breakaway, Jesus has to bang at the puck a few times in front of the net to make it go in. It isn’t very pretty. Bible scholars scratch their heads and wonder what this story might mean, why it is told this way.

            Mostly, they think the story of the blind man is actually a parable that Mark has made up for Jesus to act out. The blind man, in this reading, is really a stand-in for the disciples. You see, like the blind man, the disciples can’t see Jesus for who he really is; or they can only make out Jesus vaguely, as if he were a tree rather than a person. Both the story before this healing, and the story after, focus on the stubborn blindness of the disciples when it came to seeing who Jesus is.

            So, before the healing of the blind man, Jesus is upset because in spite of the fact—according to the story Mark tells—in spite of the fact that he has miraculously fed 4,000, and then 5,000 people on a single sack lunch, the disciples are worried about food. They don’t get it. So, Jesus asks them: “Do you have eyes and fail to see?”

            And then, after this miracle, Jesus asks the disciples who he thinks he is. Their answers are ridiculous. John the Baptist. Elijah. Maybe a prophet. Maybe someone else. All the answers are wrong! Even after being reminded of the miraculous feedings, and even after the healing of the blind man, the disciples don’t see Jesus for who he is, and what he has done. And the rest of the chapter, which we didn’t read, is more of the same. Peter finally says, “well, you might be the Messiah.” But when Jesus says he is going to be a suffering Messiah, Peter says, “no way!” And Jesus, disgusted, says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”

            The disciples live with Jesus, listen to Jesus, watch Jesus, but they don’t see who he really is, and they don’t see the bigger picture. They want a wonder working magician Jesus. But the real Jesus turns out to be a savior by example, who demonstrates in his life and in his death that people are worth dying for. It is one of the hardest Biblical lessons, one that we, like the disciples don’t much like. But there it is. Do you see it?

            But now I want to get back to the whole “lying awake about health care” thing. Like the disciples, one of the issues we sometimes struggle with is a failure to see the miracles all around us. We are, are usually surprised when things don’t work out as quickly or as easily as we would like them to. So perhaps some context will help.

            In the New Testament, Jesus does about forty miracles, including about 30 or 35 healings, depending on how you count them up. And then, depending on whether we are a United Church person or a Fundamentalist Baptist or maybe a Roman Catholic, we sometimes sit back in our arm chairs and argue about whether or not these miracles really happened. That’s okay, as far as it goes.

            But forget those forty miracles for a minute. What I’d like to ask, this morning, is this. What about the millions, perhaps billions of healing miracles in Canada and around the world that we take for granted every day? Do we stop, often enough, to admire what is happening all around us?

            Here is what I mean—just a brief little story. When William was about three years old, and Irene and I were both graduate students, we visited some friends for an evening of Risk—a board game. The tea pot was on the floor, beside a couch, on a hot air register. Meanwhile, William, was climbing the couch like a monkey, wrapped in three layers of pajamas because it was cold.

            The next thing you know, William falls off the couch, onto the tea pot, and is badly burned, to the third degree, around his shoulder and under his arm. We couldn’t help him at first, because we had to take the PJs off, and that took a while, and it was excruciatingly painful for William and we rushed him to the hospital which was a few blocks away. It was awful.

            What happened next is interesting. Though there were ointments and meds, tears and bandages, hand wringing and regrets for weeks after, the one thing we never worried about was whether or not William would live. Of course, he would live. We never doubted it.

            But here is the thing. One hundred years ago, in the 1920s, simple burns like William’s were the third leading cause of accidental death in the USA, and so probably in Canada too. Just 100 years ago, in the 1920s.

            But there is more. One hundred years ago the number one cause of all deaths in the was diarrhea, followed by TB and pneumonia. Do you know anyone who has died of diarrhea?

            There is more. Two hundred years ago, nearly 50% of children worldwide died by the age of five from diseases and accidents. By one hundred years ago, mostly due to the discovery of germs and the need for cleanliness, that had dropped to 33% of children who died, worldwide, from diseases and accidents before the age of five. Today—including the whole world, not just the developed West, that number is less than 5%. Do you see this miracle of bread and loaves, of the blind seeing? Do you understand its import and significance? Have you, unlike the disciples, stopped to think what it means?

            Of course, we lie awake with our personal worries about medical care—most of us, in fact, lie awake with such worries well into our eighties or nineties, and almost unheard-of age to live to 100 years ago—but an age we all reasonably hope for now. Our mortality, our aches and pains, our worries about health and health care shouldn’t be minimized or dismissed.

            But what also ought to keep us awake at night is the real miracle of what we do have. Amazing, incredible, nearly unimaginable—at least 100 years ago—health care.

            Our health care system—like Jesus’ bumbling cure of a man’s blindness, in our text—is not perfect. Our system is not always speedy, especially when it comes to elective care. Yes, meds are expensive, and achingly out of reach for too many Canadians. And naturally, we can always count on the newspapers to focus on a few medical cases that went wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, rather than the millions of people who are patched up, healed, or sent on their way better every year.

            But no one today is dying of polio, or small pox, or typhoid, or diarrhea. Heart attacks are not a death sentence. Cancer, a disease of old age, mostly, is being beaten back, bit by bit. Most infections do not kill. We think of kidney transplants—even heart transplants—as almost routine.

            It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. It’s a health care system that isn’t perfect—just as none of us is perfect. But still, wow. Look around. This is a good time to be alive. We don’t have merely 40 or 45 miracles; modern medicine has given us billions.

            It’s a beautiful, reassuring thing. Thank God.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Exciting Program Manager Position in Toronto!

   Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC), a congregation in the United Church of Canada, will launch a weekly music, lecture, and catered-meal program in September 2019 that will focus on a generous spirituality for Toronto and community building. We are searching for a person to plan and administer this project, as well as help LPCC plan our current annual events, full-time, beginning this Spring.

LPCC: United, Unlimited, Unorthodox
   Candidates from all faith backgrounds are invited to apply. Candidates must be respectful of the spiritual aims of the church. A competitive salary will be commensurate with education and experience. LPCC is a LGBTQ-affirming congregation and equal opportunity employer.

Job Duties and Responsibilities:

  • Provide planning and marketing support for all church programs.
  • First, to work with a mostly-volunteer Launch Team to plan a weekly Sunday-Evening Meal/Music/Lecture/Breakout program.
  • Help locate and enroll speakers and musicians for this program.
  • Actively manage allocated budget.
  • Second, to work with staff and volunteers to design, organize, market and run other annual events, including: Art Show, Christmas Market, Homecoming.
  • Provide both print and social media marketing direction and hands-on support for all events, maintaining our social-media presence on multiple platforms.
  • Onsite lead for all events. Responsible for managing set up, catering, AV, and signage.
  • Maintain program playbooks to streamline future planning.
  • Plan programming with the help of a team-based software suite.
  • Events require frequent weekend work.
Knowledge, Experience and Skills: 

  • A strong background in the spiritual and cultural dimensions of Canadian life.
  • Experience negotiating with high-level speakers from education, entertainment or industry.
  • Certificate in Event Planning or equivalent education or experience.
  • Deep familiarity with Office-like software suites.
  • Excellent writing and interpersonal communication skill.
  • Familiarity with SEO, webpage design and construction.
  • Demonstrated experience building, tracking and reporting on a social media following on key platforms for a non-profit organization or business entity, ideally including experience with Hoot Suite or similar software.
  • A multi-tasker able to adapt to changing priorities and duties.
  • Team player who can work with and take directions from a volunteer organizing committee.
  • Self-starter who can take initiative when required.
  • Desirable: Strong public and motivational speaking ability.

Please send applications to by March 30. We will review applications as they arrive.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Is Christianity One Long Nag?

            This past Thursday, at 4 a.m., I awoke with a start. I don’t know why, but it surprised me. I can count the number of times I have not slept through the night on the fingers of one hand.

            But there I was. Awake. So, I made myself a glass of warm milk. I drank it. I lay down on the couch. And soon enough, I was asleep again. Simple.

            The next morning, I drove Irene to the airport. On the way, she asked me why I thought I woke up in the middle of the night. I said, “I’m not sure. Maybe I’m worried: about finding people for the Art Show, about launching the Strategic Plan, and about this coming week’s annual staff-planning meeting.” And, as I said this, I also grumbled about the traffic, because it was very slow at the 401/409 interchange. “Darn it,” I said, “Darn it.” And that’s putting it lightly.

            So, Irene said, “Don’t be so uptight. Relax. Just relax.” I mentioned that I had a sermon to write, too, so I had a double right to be irritated by how traffic was eating into my day. “Darn,” I said, again. “Darn.”

            “Stop it.” Said Irene. “I mean it. Don’t be so uptight. You’ll sleep better.”

            Irene was nagging me. So, I was irritated. I said, “Irene, how about a bit of empathy, please? Dear? I mean, you can’t turn irritation off and on just like that. I need time, sympathy, empathy to get over it. So, stop nagging me!”

            And, like the angel she is, she did. She stopped nagging me.

            But oh, how I hate being nagged. We all hate being nagged. Which is why, when later in the day, while reading the Sermon on the Mount, I felt like pulling my hair out. It just never stops.

·      Blessed are the meek. (That is, maybe, be a pushover.)
·      Blessed are the pure in heart. (Be a saint.)
·      Blessed are those who mourn. (Make sadness a habit.)  
·      Be light.
·      Be salt.
·      Don’t be angry. (Well, that is impossible.)
·      Don’t look at another person lustfully.
·      Turn the other cheek.
·      Do not worry.
·      Give the coat off of your back.
·      Pray. Forgive. Seek first the kingdom.
·      Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.

           The Sermon on the Mount just never seems to stop. Nag, nag, nag. Divine nagging. 

           Oh, and I know that there are ways to read the Sermon that try to reframe it as encouragement, or a response of gratitude, or as aspirational rather than law, or as counter-cultural and subversive, or as comfort—at least when it comes to worry. But, let’s face it. It sounds like nagging. Add to the Sermon on the Mount every other New Testament suggestion about best behavior and it is easy to be overwhelmed. Theologians can talk all they want about how Protestants are not into works righteousness (good), but the truth is we are into works nagging. On and on.

            And actually, one of the biggest challenges I face, as a preacher, is avoiding this sort of nagging in the pulpit. I mean, who wants to come to church to be nagged every week? Here’s ten rules for a happy marriage, five guidelines for being a Christ-like man, and three rules for raising children. Seek social justice. Crush racism. Reconcile with First Nations peoples. Embrace the LGBT cause. Ask your friends to church. Greet visitors. Give money. Volunteer time. Pray! Repent! Relax! But whatever you do, be good, do it right, do it now!

            Is this what church is all about? Nag, nag, holy nag? It doesn’t make for much fun on Sunday. What’s the solution? Is there an antidote for dealing with all that holy nagging?

            Well, in the hope of offering some constructive thoughts about dealing with nagging, I have come up with ten ideas. Maybe one will speak to you.

            1. Celebrate. Instead of feeling bad every time you do not respond to an otherwise justified nag, celebrate your successes. Did you shovel snow for your neighbour? Hold your tongue with a naughty child? Sign up for a monthly cash donation to the Food Bank? Well, celebrate! Have a cigar or a cup of licorice tea. Unless we learn to associate doing good with celebration, it will always feel like a chore.
            2. Grace. We’re Christians. We claim to live by grace, which means when we have nothing to celebrate, we count on the divine to forgive us as we forgive others, even when we don’t deserve it, and may have asked for a nag. So relax, and live in that grace.
            3. Exercise. I walk the dog for an hour every day. It isn’t always fun, but it does keep my blood pressure down and my muscles mostly spry. We can exercise our spirits too, by making a habit of doing daily good, instead of merely doing occasional random acts of kindness. The more we exercise our good, the more likely our good will be strong, and the less likely we’ll need to be nagged.
            4. Adventure. Remember, life should be an adventure. So, do good for the thrill of it—for the hope you give people you will meet along the way, for the healing and happiness you will see in them, for the political and business cultures you can change, for the surprises that will overtake you when you when others notice your good. Doing good should be an adventure, a refusal to sit on your laurels and an insistence on making someone’s day, instead. You see, no one on an adventure needs to be nagged to press on to the goal.
            5. Community. Be part of one. When your energy for good flags, in communities there is always someone to pick up the slack. When you fail, there is always someone to embrace you anyway. Communities live in grace together and get it done together, so that it doesn’t all depend on you.
            6. Compromise. The evil at the root of nearly all nagging is the presumption that everyone else has to do it your way; or, that you have to do it the way everyone else does it. Nagging is absolute, for all time, legalistic, black and white with respect to what is good, and as dangerous as the hard edge of a granite counter top is for little kids.  I say, “Forget all that.” Offer and accept compromises. Meet people half-way. Compromise isn’t failure—it is a way of moving ahead at a different speed.
            7. Be Picky. My wife, Irene, learned early on in her career that if she offered every kind of counselling, her potential clients would view her as a jack-of-all-trades who was an expert at none. And potential clients wouldn’t pick up the phone to check her out. So, Irene became picky. She focused on couples’ therapy, and nothing else. She became an expert. Her focused advertising brought in lots of leads, and her business flourished. When it comes to her counselling, or any other good, people are less likely to nag experts. So, do good, but be picky about the good you focus on. That’s okay.
            8. Love Yourself. We’re supposed to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. So, doing good for our neighbours requires that we exercise supreme kindness towards ourselves, first; that we love ourselves. Generous self-love is an antidote for the feelings of low self-esteem and defeat that constant nagging invite.
            9. Fertilize. In ancient Israel, salt was a fertilizer for that region’s alkaline soils—as it still is in that part of the world today. To be the salt of the world is to help people grow, to help them become fully human. Grow people by blessing them, fertilizing them, with thanks and congratulations.
            Nagging, by way of contrast, is a poison that brings people down while rarely convincing them that they do need to change their ways. So, whether you are the boss at work, a mom or dad, a teacher or a card player—grow the people you’re with. Build them up. Don’t nag.

            That’s it. Just nine random thoughts, after all. Maybe someone else can come up with a tenth!