In our scripture readings this week, we find much evidence of the abundant life that God has the power to enact. This message of new life has stirred in me a need to reflect upon my own life. I came to realize some of the ways in which God has granted new life for us. Certainly we could point to our children as the greatest evidence of that enduring new life, but I also came to reflect upon the ways in which God has intervened in a personal way. I came to the realization that my old self has died many times in my 36 years, and that God continues to enact new life in me, through me, and sometimes in spite of me. I am convinced that this happens to each and every one of us, within the church and without.
I was asked this past week about why I chose the path of ordained ministry. Forgive me Justus but you’ll have to sit through this story twice. It is a chapter in a story about the death of one of my old selves, a story about how new life was stirred up by the Holy Spirit. Believe me, I was the last person I thought would ever be up here… yet here I find myself. I fought against God’s call for a long time, I had my own plans, my own ideas about how I wanted my life to go. Every time that call came, I let it go to voice mail. I figured I would be a big shot somewhere, doing something great with my life. I was an arrogant man, perhaps I still am.
But God never gave up, God was patient. That still small voice, deep inside of all of us, that mysterious intuition we like to ignore or resist, continued to bubble up in my heart, mind and soul, to the point where I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I harboured so much tension inside, so much stress, it was literally painful, fighting every day to let go of who I thought I was. Then one day, I gave up… I gave up and said yes to the new life God was creating. That pain was gone. The death of my former self liberated me to pursue God’s call to be a servant of the church.
No matter how hard we resist, no matter how strong we are, we all succumb eventually to the undying flow of Divine Life. Like flowing water that erodes a stone to the point where it breaks, there were many instances which mark my path towards service in the church. But there is one drop of water that stands out, the drop that broke my resistance to God’s call, which inspired a pursuit of Jesus’ teaching and grace with all my heart.
My wife and I had travelled to Thunder Bay one Christmas to visit her family. Our first daughter Lumi was about seven months old at the time. It was an especially exciting time for Muumu and Pappa, the first time their first grandchild had come to visit. I should mention that my father-in-law Jari is a Pastor for a Finnish congregation up there. Over the years I have witnessed many acts of ministry, many drops of water on the stone of my resistance to God’s Word, Jesus’s Way. Some were small drops, some were big drop, and some were life-giving drops of inspiration.
One night when everyone was in bed, the phone rang at 3 o’clock in the morning; it was the police. They had asked Jari if he could come and translate for an elderly woman in the congregation, she couldn’t speak English and her son had just completed suicide. We all got up and milled about the house as Jari got ready to go, and as he went out to warm up the car, the rest of us began to head back to bed. Our room was in the basement, and in the darkness, my wife slipped on the bottom stair, which was shorter than the rest, and dropped the baby, letting out a blood curdling shriek as she groped for the baby in the dark. I never moved so fast in my life as I ran over to see what had happened. I can’t remember why, but I went to the Kitchen after that. From the kitchen you could see the door down a few steps, which then turn and lead into the basement. My father-in-law came back inside to see what had happened.
I’ll never forget the pained expression on his face in that moment. His daughter and grandchild were crying, his heart absolutely broken. I am certain that there was no greater desire in his heart than to comfort them, yet he knew he had to leave, to reject his own desires, to attend to his duty as the servant of the church. To be present in that woman’s greatest suffering.
In that moment, something changed deep inside of me… it took a few weeks before I had realized it. I was humbled by his selflessness. I began to see ways in which my own life had become so selfish. When you witness a person like that, dedicating their life to serving God like Jari has, a true Christian, perfectly imperfect, you cannot ignore the Holy Spirit stirring up inside of yourself. I experienced a strong sense of duty and obligation to serve the church that day, to join Jari, to help as best as I could. I saw in him an authentic expression of the living Christ in our world, it wasn’t just talk anymore. After much meditation on the matter I enrolled at the seminary, and my new life began. I have been riding a wave of life ever since I said yes to God.
You may have heard it said that they who are not busy living are busy dying. You’ve also heard it said many times that you only die once. Many clichés become clichés because they possess some truth in them, but this is one expression with which I wholeheartedly disagree. I say to you, that we are blessed with the opportunity to live as many as 365 times a year, until our last. Even then we are transformed by God and readied for new life in the spiritual realm.
Certainly some days are harder than others, it is difficult to truly live when you are in pain, or heart-broken, or depressed. Even on days when things are going well it can be difficult to really live. Every once in a while, though, we have days where we really feel alive! As if everything you have ever experienced has lead up to this moment. And sometimes, we feel most alive when we brush up against death. We might even say that Jesus is most alive when shrouded in death. When he raised up that widow’s son, Jesus taught us that even as this body becomes extinguished, there is yet new life still.
Each day, we are granted an opportunity to die to our own self-interests, our own prejudices; an opportunity to be transformed by the new life that the Gospels proclaim. And death does not just apply to people, but institutions, to congregations. This congregation has died a hundred deaths, yet lives again and again. Despite fear and uncertainty, God continues to breathe new life into St. Matthews. As we gather afterward for the Annual General Meeting, I ask you to look for ways that God is calling us to new life, to gracefully let go of that which does not serve God’s purpose.
The frailty of the human experience is such that we crave certainty, stability, that which is fixed. To be sure, the indivisible oneness of God is stable and fixed. But God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus the incarnate Word are also dynamic, meaning that change is ever present. That dynamic, life-giving element of change is what sustains our very creation and our continued existence. God’s undying new life. Like flowing water that erodes the stone, new life washes over us and transforms us. When it comes to God’s call, resistance is futile, it is best to go with the flow.