When God uses a Pastor with Advanced Parkinsons to get you back to work

fullsizerender-9Two weeks ago, while on leave from work, I dropped in on a former mentor – Pastor Mike Reitsma. I was out for a walk in my old neighborhood and ended up walking by the long term care institution where Mike now lived (with his advanced Parkinsons).

“I should visit.”

Looking into his darkened room I couldn’t tell if he was there. All I saw were some rumpled blankets on his bed… until I realized they were him.

“He’s asleep. I’ll come back later.”

But then a staff member came into the room and woke him up, telling him he had a guest.

“Well, well, well…” Mike said, regaining consciousness. He had a huge smile on his face and immediately knew who I was. More than that, for our entire visit, he knew who he was; as a pastor, leader, visionary and mentor. Which was encouraging given what I’d heard about the ongoing ravages of Parkinsons on his life. There are good days and bad.

But on this day, he was good! For 45 minutes he mentored me, corrected me, joked around with me, shared his frustrations with me, pondered the future of the church with me, and prayed for me. Our time together was such a gift (for both of us). I could tell that Mike needed to lead and care for someone, and I needed to be led and cared for. It was beautiful.

Yes there were times when the Parkinsons derailed the conversation, but even then there was beauty. At one down point Mike tried to open a devotional he’d been reading, wanting to point me to a lesson he’d learned. I could tell that his focus was lost as he could barely page through the book (his hands were shaking badly). Eventually he just randomly ended up on a page and pointed and slowly said, “This is what keeps me going.” At that moment I don’t think he had any idea what he was pointing to;

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:12-13

I read the passage back to him. Even though Mike had just told me that he can’t do “anything” any more, he could, and was doing something…. something that was so timely and important for both of us.

After telling him about my stress leave, he then turned to me and leaned in. I could feel the strength of his love. Then he said, “You can take a break… that’s okay. But you can’t stop. You can’t do nothing. You need to keep going. You need to do something!”

Coming from a friend who wants nothing more than to do something himself, and can’t; his words were cutting. In his weakness Mike reminded me that I still have strength in me, and passion, and capacity and ability, and I need to steward these gifts well. God isn’t done with his call on my life (even as he’s not done with Mike’s).

 

How Would Jesus Respond to Trump?

president-elect

Seems to me (as someone who is very politically left of Donald Trump, and can’t believe what’s happened) that the only way forward in this very fractured time is for the offended part of me to respond in a selfless, humble, loving, peace-making, forgiving, and very counter-intuitive way. Sure I can be afraid, judge, double down, condemn, blame, ridicule, and strike back, or I can take a different path and take these very unsettling words of Jesus to heart;

Do unto Donald Trump as you would have him do unto you (Matthew 7:12)

Love Donald Trump as you love yourself (Matthew 19:19)

If you hold anything against Donald Trump, forgive him (Mark 11:25)

Forgive him up to 77 times if necessary (Matthew 18:21)

Because if you forgive Donald Trump, God will forgive you (Matthew 6:14-15)

Bless Donald Trump if he has cursed you (Luke 6:28)

Pray for Donald Trump if he has mistreated you (Luke 6:28)

Love Donald Trump and do good to him (Luke 6:35)

Don’t condemn Donald Trump or you will be condemned (Luke 6:37)

Only if you’re perfect, throw the first stone at Donald Trump (John 8:7)

I know this sounds incredibly naïve, but I really do believe that the only cure for fear is love (1 John 4:18). When I love, respect and honor the ‘other’ in this kind of insanely gracious way, I create the best (and perhaps only) circumstance possible for that love to take root and grow.

“The practice of love is the most powerful antidote to the politics of domination” Bell Hooks, American Feminist and Social Activist

When the Blue Jays’ Kelly Gruber schools you on pride…

blue-jays-jumbotron

I should have seen it coming… starting a year ago, when I first preached on the Blue Jays, and those CTV and CBC news crews came to church and filmed the sermon and did stories that ended up gaining media traction here in Canada, and then a month ago, when Rogers Communications discovered those stories and asked me to do an interview for a big marketing campaign they were rolling out, and then two weeks ago, when, after we did that interview, they gave me two all-expense paid trips to Toronto to see a game in the President’s Suite (with all the fixings), and then at that game when I was told that an excerpt from the interview would play on the Jumbotron mid-second inning (like my head isn’t already big enough?).

I should have seen it coming.

And it came right after that second inning cranial stretch, as I walked over to legendary Jays’ third baseman Kelly Gruber for a selfie. They say that pride hides in a blind spot, and that you never see the fall until it comes.

So there I am shaking Kelly’s hand and pulling out my phone. When I asked if it would be okay to take a selfie, he said ‘No!’… and then he kind of chided me (and all those fans who are so selfie-oriented) for always wanting to see our faces on our screens. Before he could finish what he was saying I stepped back (my pride flaring) and thought, ‘Nice guy… who needs a picture with him?’.  Then I said, “Hey Kelly… don’t worry about it!” (with exactly the kind of tone you’d imagine me using), and began to walk away.

Then Kelly grabbed me by the arm and said, “No, no, no, no, no…  you don’t get to do that… now you’re reacting out of your pride!”  Then he went on to finish what he was saying, telling me how his whole life is filled with people who want to take selfies, and how he doesn’t want to be looking at his own face, and hearing his own voice, all the time, and how he prefers to pass the phone to a bystander to take the photo to avoid all of that unnecessary self-focus.

I can’t tell you how humbling that moment was.

Here you have a bonafide legend of the game schooling you on pride. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever learn. There I was, two minutes earlier, phone in hand, ready to capture a picture or my mug on the Jumbotron.

Kelly was so very gracious as we spoke at length later that evening, talking about our insecurities and our fears of performing before others. I suppose this battle with pride is a part of every human journey.

For me this moment was a perfectly timed parable of selflessness; tucked right  in the middle of one of the most heady nights of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

Preaching Zootopia

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-2-54-47-pm

This Sunday I’m preaching on Disney’s newest film Zootopia. It’s a perfect animated parable for our times (with all of the racism, xenophobia, and stereotyping that seems to be spinning out of control). Watch the film for homework if you get a chance.

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-3-32-18-pm

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-4-05-28-pmscreen-shot-2016-09-13-at-4-14-21-pm

The Complexities of Preaching the Knee

gray351On October 23 I’ll be preaching a sermon on the knee. This will be the first in a series of messages on the human body, funded by a John Templeton Fuller Seminary STEAM grant. Future topics will include the gut, tongue, heart, lungs, brain, muscular skeletal system, blood, immune system, and the hand (we’ve preached on the leg, kidney, epigenetics and neurons in years past).

As I begin to gear up for this knee sermon I am reminded of the complexities of preaching scientific texts (and why most pastors shy away from them). First, I needed to connect with an expert in the field and secure their involvement in the project very early on (an orthopedic surgeon in Banff is helping with this one). This happened four months ago. Second, I assembled the rest of the sermon research team (a kinesiology professor, an MD, a nursing instructor, two students from our congregation and a second theologian). This happened three months ago. Third, I had to do some pre-research in order to get an overall sense of the ‘text’ and gain an understanding of what the knee uniquely says about God. Just like when you preach bible texts, you need to get at what that text uniquely says in the broader context of the gospel message (or the human body in this case). I’m think I’m going to go with a ‘structural engineering’ focus in relation to the knee. Fourth, I spent three hours yesterday crafting the right set of exegetical questions for the orthopedic surgeon. Questions designed to unpack both the nature of the knee, and that of the surgeon/scientist herself. Fifth, I scheduled a road trip this morning. Hopefully half of our team will be driving to Banff in three weeks to meet with this surgeon to further exegete her answers to my questions. Sixth, in the weeks ahead I will continue to collect various bits of media for the sermon presentation (video and images). Yesterday a clinic in Montana said we’d have to get a license to use their material (so we’ll find another source). Seventh, I’ve just made contact with a bio-medical appliance engineer to see if she can connect me to someone who engineers the design of replacement knees (and perhaps artificial limbs). I want to talk to this person because I think that, more than anyone, they would really understand the complex (brilliant) structural nature of the knee (and how hard it is to replicate). Eighth, I’ll continue to watch knee videos and read knee Wikipedia pages and ask knee questions of other sources in the weeks ahead. Ninth, we’ll have our meeting in Banff and the surgeon will share what she knows about the knee and (I trust) several revelatory epiphany moments will occur (hopefully along the structural lines I’m pursuing). Tenth, during the week of the 23rd I’ll sit down with everything we’ve compiled and pull a 30 minute sermon out of it. As I’m doing that bible passages will present themselves (or find their place if they’ve already surfaced in the research process). The Spirit who authors all truth will whisper and guide. And God’s word in the knee will illumine God’s word in the bible (and vice versa). And hopefully, the speaker of both words, the one through whom all things were made, the Jesus who right now has two knees, will be glorified.

Image credit – Wikimedia

The Empathy of Christ

Head of Christ *oil on panel *25 x 21.7 cm *circa 1648

As I was listening to an illumining talk by reformed theologian Richard Mouw, I had one of those moments where I thought I knew the ‘very cool’ point he was about to make, which he then didn’t make, which then led me to think, very cool point John… you should write that down.

Mouw was talking about a woman who angrily confronted him after a sermon he’d given, telling him that he was wrong in saying that Jesus could empathize with all of our sufferings; that he knows how we feel. ‘I’ve just had a terrible week… so much pain in relation to my daughter… Jesus never had a daughter, so how can he relate?’ Mouw responded by noting that while Jesus indeed didn’t have a daughter, he did know what it was like to be abused, spit upon, taken advantage of, and betrayed.

And then Mouw didn’t say what I thought he was going to say… “But I think Jesus’ ability to empathize moves beyond these broad categories of suffering as well. Yes, he experienced pain directly, but perhaps he also experienced it empathetically; with a perfection that made the pain of others fully his. Maybe Jesus, more than any human being, because he loved more than any other human being, and because he was God-with-us, empathized so deeply, was so much for the abused parent he encountered, the blind man sitting at the side of the road, the childless mother’s emptiness, the rejected husband’s loss, the alienated, the depressed, the fearful, the widowed, the lost, the least and the last, that he really did fully experience their pain.”

We’ve all had moments where we’ve empathetically suffered with others to the point where it really did feel like we’d suffered the loss ourselves. Thinking back to the times when this has happened in me, I recall those moments feeling incredibly Christ-like. What if Jesus empathized like this all the time?  Then surely he does know more about suffering than ‘just’ those pains which he directly endured himself.

I suppose Mouw’s angry woman could respond to this by saying that Jesus didn’t meet everyone who’s ever suffered. To which I imagine Mouw then responding, “But surely Jesus has been perfectly empathizing with everyone who’s populated his creation from the beginning of time”.

image – Rembrandt, Head of Christ (partial)

 

 

Ants

IMG_0356

It should have been no surprise that I noticed so many ants on my walk this afternoon. I’d just finished reading Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell, where, several times, he goes on about the amazing nature of these incredible insects;

“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, rise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. The families of weaver ants engage in child labor, holding their larvae like shuttles to spin out the thread that sews the leaves together for their fungus gardens. They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.” (page 11/12)

For such gifted creatures they’re rather camera shy though. I like the slow motion video of the one cleaning its antennae.

IMG_0386IMG_0376IMG_0412IMG_0400