Hallowe’en/All Saints Sunday at Harrow United Church

Audio recording of the Oct 31 Learning Time at Harrow United Church
YouTube Video of the worship service

One of my favourite authors is a man who died in 2008, but who continues to have an influence in my life, and in the lives of people around the world. His name is John O’Donohue. He was a poet, and a mystic deeply rooted in Celtic culture and spirituality. He often spoke about the thin places between our earthly lives and the life beyond.

The ancient Celts believed that certain places, and certain times of year were like that. The change of seasons, passage through a cave, or a doorway. The top of a hill, where rising warm air hits the cold, and mist, or fog may result. The place where a stream or river enters a lake. Energetic places where transformation happens, where things are changed from condition to another.

We can hear this as a spooky idea, that the spirits or souls of those who have died can cross that thin veil, and come back, if only as sound, or feeling, or in a dream, or in a certain smell. That’s the stuff of campfire tales and horror movies. It’s also the stuff of quiet conversations that usually begin with- something happened the other night, that I don’t know what to make of…

These persistent stories remind us that we don’t know everything, and that our lives are surrounded by mystery. The Lazarus story from John’s Gospel is like that. Mysterious.

When I was growing up, the emphasis at Hallowe’en was always on the dressing up in costumes, and collecting candy. We didn’t really dwell on the spooky bits- the tombstones, graves, skeletons, and ghosts.

In some cultures, particularly in Mexico, families gather in cemeteries, and celebrate the day of the dead. They may have a meal at the grave of loved ones, and take time to remember them, pray for them, talk with them, and give thanks for them.

That may seem a little spooky for us, but one positive effect is that children in those families literally grow up around death. It is not hidden from them, and the fact of human mortality is embraced, normalized. I think that can be a good thing.

When I was growing up, children were often kept home when there was a funeral in the family. I encountered that in my earlier years as a pastor. Families would often say they didn’t want the children to be frightened by what they would see at a funeral home. I think there was truth to that, but that folks were also projecting upon their children, their own anxieties about death.

Death is something we still seem to find difficult to talk about in our society. The culture around is sometimes described as death-denying, and age-defying. Whole industries make billions of dollars helping us look young, as if there is something wrong, unnatural about aging.

About twenty years ago I was in a class at the Queens School of Theology, and the teacher made a statement that has stuck with me, which usually means I am still trying to understand it, and sort out how it is true in my own life.

She said that for many people, the dread and fear they feel when they think about dying, is not totally about being afraid of death. She believes that some of it is actually fear of dying without having truly lived, or having discovered the part of themselves they were meant to contribute to the world.

Have you seen the movie Soul? If you haven’t, I recommend it, if only for the music. Jon Batiste, one of my favourite jazz musicians won an Oscar for his work on the soundtrack.

clip from “Soul”

In the movie, there is a place beyond the earth, where souls come from, and where they go back to, when their earthly life is complete. It is a good place, and the beings in charge want each soul to discover their spark, their passion, the thing they will bring to their earthly life that will make a difference.

Our hope, as people of faith, is that each soul, that has its origin with God, returns to God. In the movie, those souls that have returned to the place beyond Earth are recruited to help nurture the souls who are just starting out, to help them discover their spark.

It’s a lovely idea, that beyond this life we would have opportunity to use what we have learned, to help others.

Most of us, I hope, can think of people they have known who have nurtured them, encouraged them, helped them be better at being themselves.

Every person we’ve ever known adds something to our lives, for good or for bad.

When we hear the word saint we may think of certain special people that through history have been recognized as especially holy.

Earlier in the fall I talked about Saint Francis. People who knew him felt better for being around him. His presence was a blessing, and he inspired others to be better versions of themselves.

That’s not a bad measure of success in this life. A different way to counting our blessings:

How have we been blessed, by the presence of people who helped us to be better humans?

How have we been a blessing to others, by helping them find their own spark, their way to be faithful, loving, helpful to others?

One of the lessons I think we are meant to learn in this life is about paying it forward.

As we grow and mature through the stages of life that we are invited to take the opportunities that come up, to nurture the spark of life in others.

One of the best things about a faith community is that those of us who are in the later stages of our earthly journey can now use our experience, gifts, talents, wisdom, to help others.

The word for this is generativity. It’s related to the word for generation. Those of us who live into this generative stage of life, have a lot to share with the generations who are younger than us- and when they get older, and wiser, they in turn will have much to pass on to those who come after them.

On All Saints Day we take time to remember those we’ve known, and loved, and whose earthly journey is complete, but who have made a difference in our lives. We hope that when the time comes, those who follow us, will remember us.

Jon Batiste, C.S. Lewis, and Love


american-singer-jon-batiste-with-his-keyboard-1530092302Jon Batiste is a musician from Kenner, Lousiana. (You drive by it on the way from Louis Armstrong Airport, if you are headed into New Orleans.) He grew up in a musical family, and also seems to be a deeply spiritual person. It comes through in his music, and even in the name of his band, which is Stay Human- he named it that to remind himself and his bandmates that human interaction during a live musical performance can uplift humanity in the midst of the “plug in/tune out” nature of modern society. He believes in using music to connect people, bring them together. He often organizes free street performances that he calls “love riots”.

He’s become quite famous, largely because of his role as the music director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. A few years ago, my son and I got to meet him, and his whole band, after a concert. He was quite kind to my son, who at the time was learning to play the melodica, which Jon Batiste also plays. I think it comes through in the video, that Jon Batiste loves what he does, and that he’s pouring love out. His song “Let God Lead” is a great rendering of 1st Corinthians 13.

We begin to succeed
when the cares of our lives
begin and end
with the hurt of others

We begin to breathe
when the wounds of others
become relieved
with the love of others

 He who looks around and finds who’s in need
has made the best investment as a human being

 He who looks around to find who’s in need
has made the best investment in his legacy

 I say that love will never force,
love will never quit,
love ain’t never lose
love ain’t never miss

 Of all things lasting there remains only three
what money can’t buy only these will succeed
faith hope and love,

but the greatest of these
is love

 so here is a formula for a real hard situation,
just let God and let love
lead the way

Let love lead
Let God lead

Can love strut (no way)
can love destroy (no way
can love belittle (no way no)
can love pose
can love be proud
can love rejoice with a mother’s pride
love stands up when other’s won’t
love prevails without want
love puts up with anything
God is love and love is God

Let God Lead video

Love is a word we hear a lot, maybe a little more than usual around Valentine’s Day. I think it’s an important word, that deserves some caring attention.

Christians get a lot of ideas about how to love, from the New Testament. The New Testament we read is a translation, based on earlier texts, the oldest of which were written in an ancient form of Greek called Koine’.

The first translations were from Koine’ into Latin, which became the official language of the Roman Catholic church. Much later on, the Bible began to be translated into languages spoke by ordinary people.

The first English translations appeared early in the 17th century. Translation is far from an exact science. Anyone who speaks more than one language can tell you that it can be challenging to find a word in one language, that is close enough, to the word or idea you were thinking, in another language.

The translators struggled, and did the best they could, and sometimes took shortcuts, and over-simplified things, in their efforts to create a clear, readable English version.

The original versions of the New Testament used at least 4 different words, that were all translated to the English word “Love”.

C.S. Lewis, was a British writer well known for the Chronicles of Narnia. He was a respected academic and lecturer at Oxford and Cambridge, and good friends with JRR Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings.

the four loves bookIn the late 1950’s Lewis wrote a series of lectures for the BBC called The Four Loves. They were popular in Great Britain, but thought of as too risque’ for the United States, because in them he dared to discuss human sexuality.

The four words that were all translated into English as the word “love”, are: Storge, Phileo, Eros, and Agape.

Storge, or Affection, is the most simple of the loves. We can have affection for a thing, or enjoy a particular flavor of ice cream, or get engrossed in a tv show, or take up collecting a certain thing. This kind of love might be the starting place for the other kids of love. At its best, this kind of love awakens us to what we like, what we appreciate in the world, and in people. Taken to an extreme- the love of things for their own sake can be an unhealthy replacement for the deeper kinds of love, and result in hoarding, or obsessive collecting.

Phileo, or friendship is what it sounds like, the love of affiliation. Friendship may arise if we spend time with someone with whom we share similar interests or concerns, passions, or commitments. Friendship can grow into genuine appreciation for, and concern about another person, but it has its roots in what we have in common.

Eros is the kind of love some Americans did not want C.S. Lewis to talk about on the radio. It is love with the added energy of sexual attraction. The positive expression of this is the desire to bring joy and happiness to another person. Erotic attraction can be the gateway that leads to a real partnership between people. The immature expression of this kind of love can result in objectification, in which possessing the person feels like the goal. This unhealthy kind of erotic attraction often has little to do with the actual person, but only an illusion of them, or what fantasy they seem to fulfill.

Agape is considered by Lewis, and many others, to be the highest, most unselfish of the loves. In the King James Version of the passage from 1st Corinthians 13, where we read “Faith, Hope, and Love, and the greatest of these is love”, the text uses the word Charity. Faith, Hope and Charity. Charity in the old-fashioned sense is about giving without expecting reward- not even a tax receipt.

C.S. Lewis thought that of the 4 loves, Agape was the one that went most against human nature. Where Affection, Friendship and Erotic Love all contain a component of there being something in it for me, Agape love is totally about giving. It gives all, and expects nothing, asks for nothing in return.

This is the kind of love considered to be the most like the way God loves us- without condition, and with total generosity. This is a love that risks everything, and does not count the costs. It is also, paradoxically, what makes us the best we can be. It is not about how we feel, but about the kind of person we choose to be. C.S. Lewis said it like this:

The rule for all of us is perfectly simple.  Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did.  As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets.  When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love them.  If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking them more.  If you do them a good turn, you will find yourself disliking them less.

Jon Batiste sang it this way:

He who looks around and finds who’s in need
has made the best investment as a human being

 He who looks around to find who’s in need
has made the best investment in his legacy.