Here we (and God) go again

The horrible evil unleashed in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past weekend exposes so much that is wrong in our world. And in our relationship with those who are different from us. And in our relationship with God. When worshippers are gunned down in their house of prayer, to do anything now but grieve alongside and stand in solidarity with the sufferers exposes in us a serious God-image problem.

Our God-image problem, as Christians, starts with our understanding of God’s holy word. And specifically, our over-simplistic judgement of Jesus’ opponents. Typically, in the New Testament, these are the Pharisees. And we succumb to what I call the ‘black helmet syndrome’.

The ‘black helmet syndrome’ comes from how the bad guys are usually portrayed in popular culture—in old tv shows and movies like Star Wars. For example, the bad guys all wear the same uniform, usually the same colour, and we normally don’t see their faces because they are hidden behind some helmet or mask. They march to the same tune and move the same, predictable ways. They behave, essentially, like robots.

We know nothing of their unique personalities (unless a story evolves and develops, like Star Wars eventually does) and never gain insight into their unique personalities. They are trapped in their badness because individuals yield to the pressure to conform.

When we read the bible like that, it’s easy to lump all the Pharisees together under one over-arching label: bad guy. But that’s not the case, if we read the narrative more closely and contemplatively.

Portrayed in several Gospel stories as the antagonists, the Pharisees do scrutinize and criticize Jesus. Yes. But there are layers to that antagonism, even to the point of sympathy for Jesus. That is what first caught my attention in the Gospel text assigned for today, the Second Sunday in Lent.[1]

It was the Pharisees who warned Jesus he should get out of town because Herod wanted to kill him.[2]Jesus, after all, has become a useful target and a convenient scapegoat for the powerful elite. Let the restless crowds project their anxiety, their anger and fear onto the troublemaker Jesus rather than those holding tentatively to power.

Do you sense the growing tension? Jesus’ enemies have throughout his ministry flocked to him, hung on his every word and literally breathed down his neck. There is a power struggle strangling Jerusalem, and everyone, especially Herod Antipas, is looking over their shoulders.

The fact that Jesus had sympathizers and supporters  in the halls of power shouldn’t come to us as a surprise. After all, Joseph of Arimathea, on whose land Jesus was buried, exercised power in Jerusalem and had Pilate’s ear.[3]Joseph of Arimathea, we sense, was partial to Jesus and what he was all about. Nicodemus, who often questioned Jesus[4], in the end helped the Arimathean bury Jesus with respect and according to tradition. Who Jesus is and what he says somehow touches the hearts of those like Nicodemus.

These sympathizers, however, are caught between two worlds, two kingdoms. They have benefited from their privileged status, to be sure. They wouldn’t easily give that up, nor would they necessarily want to. And yet, this preacher from Nazareth who gives hope and the promise of God’s love to the downtrodden stirs something irresistible deep within them.

“Tell that fox, Herod …,” Jesus snipes.[5]“Tell him what’s really going to happen sooner than later. Tell him the truth about God and God’s intention.” Jesus gives a warning, and gives it to these ‘sitters-on-the-fence’ Pharisees to convey his cutting words.

At the first, we witness Jesus throwing his allies the proverbial ticking time bomb. For when they bring Jesus’ message to Herod, they would be bringing upon themselves unwelcome attention and even scrutiny. A shadow would pass over them, the seed of suspicion planted. “What were they doing so close to Jesus in the first place?” “Whose side are they really on?” And the political machine might start turning against them. The balance shifts ever so subtly, and the irreversible track to their eventual demise begins.

Indeed, Jesus’ words for these sympathizers lead them to a place of discomfort, to say the least. And Jesus knows what he is doing. These ‘good’ Pharisees must now face their own demons and answer to themselves. They must choose.

It’s as if Jesus is forcing their hands to come clean: Whose kingdom will you serve, now? Will you follow the values of Herod and the political self-serving machine of Jerusalem? Or, will you follow in the realm of God? Whose kingdom will you seek? The kingdom of hate? Or, the kingdom of love? And, are you prepared to let go of your privileged status, for my sake? And the sake of the Gospel?

We also live between two worlds. Being a follower of Christ creates tension before release and peace.

What about you? Where are you feeling the pinch in your life today? Where is your journey taking you? Where in your life is Jesus pushing you to decide in your heart whom you will follow—the voice of ambition and accumulation, the voice of privilege and protecting it at all costs, the voice of acquisition and preservation?

Or, will you follow the values represented by Jesus and the kingdom of God—the voice of compassion and forgiveness, the voice of reason and discernment, the voice of restorative justice and peace, of personal responsibility and collective wisdom?

We’ve seen this narrative repeat throughout the bible. Jesus even implies the repetitive nature of this story when in his lament, Jesus says, “How many times / How often have I desired  you….”[6]

Not only was this one of several, actual visits Jesus made to Jerusalem in Luke’s writing, the cycle has been going on since ancient times. God’s relationship with Israel reflects a similar pattern: At one point, they are not God’s people; at the next, they are God’s people, again.

The prophets preached God’s word to the people like a broken record: Judgement; Forgiveness. Destruction; Restitution. Rejection; Restoration. “How often have we been down this road before,” it’s as if Jesus were lamenting. Here we go again.

And yet, herein lies the grace, the Gospel, the good news: In confessing that we have an image problem with Jesus’ enemies—that we far too often succumb to the ‘black helmet syndrome’— we also must confess our image problem with God.

Because God is not some cosmic police officer ready to pounce on us should we be caught speeding. God is not some old man sitting on a throne pointing a finger of judgement and accusation. God is not about retributive, punitive justice. A tit-for-tat God who stokes the fire of revenge and escalating violence. God is not an exclusive God for only the rich, the famous, the perfect.

We learn three things that I can tell about God’s love from this passage. First, God’s love is true. God loves us, not to control us, but to free us. God’s love gives us the freedom to choose our way. God’s love allows us to figure it out for ourselves. God’s love lets us own it for ourselves, so our action is authentic and true. And then God’s grace follows.

We are not robots, mindlessly marching to some pre-determined rhythm of God’s master plan. We are not mindless creatures who can’t make own decisions. We are not co-dependent in some unhealthy, enmeshed relationship with a controlling God. As God’s love increases, so does our freedom. Union is not a breakdown of personal initiative and unique expression. Rather, God’s love is about ‘letting go’. This is true sacrifice.

Second, and consequently, God lets us fail if fail we will. If there is anything we learn about God’s love from Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem is that  Jesus’ sadness is the sadness of God. God grieves with us when we live the unfortunate consequences of our poor decisions. God understands and is ever near, especially when we fall to the bottom of our lives. That’s what they say about tears—they bear witness to how deep one’s love is for the other.

Finally, God never gives up on us. God is faithful. God will keep giving us second chances to grow and deepen our relationship with God, with one another, with ourselves and with this world we inhabit. God will always be there to give us those opportunities to make it better, to choose better. God will never abandon us on this journey.

As we follow Jesus on his path with ours this Lenten season, may we hold on, if anything, to this wonderful promise of God’s never-ending love for all people.

 

[1]Luke 13:31-35; the Gospel reading according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Luke 13:31

[3]John 19:38-42

[4]John 3 & 7

[5]Luke 13:32

[6]Luke 13:34

funeral sermon – living with a Gospel bias

The last church activity in which Tony participated was the weekly bible study group. At that time I was asking the group to choose next week’s text for study. And the selection was one from either the Old Testament or the Psalms or from Paul’s letters in the New Testament or from a Gospel reading in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John—the first four books of the New Testament.

Tony always, always, always voted for the Gospel reading. The Gospel describes the story of Jesus—his life, death and resurrection. You could say Tony had a bias towards the Gospel. And especially the Gospel of John, for some reason.

The word, Gospel, means: Good News. Good news. Not bad news. Not about how we always fall short. Not about human folly. Not readings about our sinfulness, about what we should do to make it better. But about the grace of God. God’s forgiveness, mercy, love.

The example in today’s Gospel is typical: Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.[1]The Gospel, to recognize it, is always about what God does, as a gift to us. So, here’s the thing about the good news of God:

It’s about receiving more than it is about achieving. The grace of God must be received, not achieved. Normally at a funeral service we talk about what our loved one has achieved in life, as if somehow the more one has achieved the better.

And without second glance, Tony, on that measure, has achieved so much: publishing books in his retirement, building half a dozen houses, acquiring degrees in mathematics and engineering, qualifying himself in brick-laying and construction, even playing soccer into his 80thyear. He achieved a lot, if that’s how you want to look at it.

And certainly in our culture, it seems that’s what it’s all about.

But what a tribute to one who has learned to see, that in all that life has given him—good and bad—all that he received in life, there is grace. A gift of God’s love. To appreciate life as gift. This is right brain stuff. This is entering into the mystery that is God and life.

When he was young, he contracted Diphtheria which kept him isolated for some time, sequestered with the nuns in their abbey. Late in his life, Tony was able to confess that even having a disease was a gift, since it kept him from entering the war, a war that claimed the lives of his two brothers.

These traumatic events of life could have left him bitter. But, despite it all, he remained his true self—kind, loving and gracious.

The author bio on the back cover of both books he published in his retirement says the following about Tony: “Tony was always very interested in literature, history, religion, and cosmology.”

At the end of Act One in his book entitled About God, the World and People, the scene is set at an evening dinner party. Around the table sit different characters – a priest and a scientist among others. After covering such cerebral topics as ‘what is dark matter’, the origin of the universe and various forms of energy, the priest, Father Stengel, concludes with what I suspect is the author’s personal belief:

Father Stengel says, “I personally have no problem with what our diligent scientists discover. I clearly see in the development of our universe the guiding and loving spirit of our Father in heaven.”[2]

While working with numbers all his life and valuing their clarity and succinctness, Tony was also able to say, “They’re just numbers”, in light of God’s truth.

From the perspective of faith, analytics and left-brain thinking can obviously help with some things in life. But when it comes to the great mysteries of life, when we encounter great suffering or great love, when we experience death, or yearn for God, we need to access another ‘operating system’.

You can’t explain these realities adequately using the scientific method alone. It’s remarkable, for the mathematician and engineer that Tony was—that he was able to appreciate, discern and plumb those more intuitive and subtler depths of knowing as well.

It doesn’t make sense how grief works, really. I’ve told this to many grieving families over the years after a loved one died: That in a grieving process, it’s not just the pain of loss of that particular person that comes to the surface at that time. The death of a loved one triggers all the emotional baggage—if you will—of all previous losses you have experienced as well, all those unresolved issues in a family, everything. It can be quite overwhelming. I’ve recently experienced this truth myself. It’s not rational. But it’s very real.

And in those moments that can’t be explained, in the end, the only course of action is love. It’s the only way that does make sense in the turmoil of loss and pain. I think Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Tony’s teammates on the soccer team were well represented at the funeral home last evening. One of his teammates told me that Tony was the reason they kept playing together. He said that during a game teammates and the competition sometimes came to blows, emotionally if not physically. But Tony was always there trying to mend ways, trying to keep the group together, inspiring them to play on. Tony knew that. Gospel bias towards love.

Death changes some things. Death is final, in a way. And it hurts. Yes. But human death doesn’t mean the relationship is ended. Death merely changed the nature of our relationship with Tony.

Now, Tony is no longer physically present with us. But he lives on—in our hearts, in our minds, in our spirit, in our conscience, in our actions. He is still with us, albeit in a different way. Tony’s death leaves us a gift, an invitation to make what was important to him, important to us. Life as gift, a grace to do unto others as you would have done unto yourself. Gospel bias towards love.

“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”[3]Let what we do for others, be love.

 

[1]John 13:12-15,34-35

[2]Tony Bickle, About God, the World and People (Xlibris Corporation, 2008) p.48

[3]Most likely from Albert Pike, 19thcentury American attorney, soldier, writer, and Freemason. Sometimes this quote is attributed to 20thcentury American writer and biographer, Albert Paine.

 

The great un-doing

This past week I heard from someone how they overcame their addiction to smoking. A middle-aged man, he said he had been a smoker for many years until he started feeling the ill-effects of the habit. He had tried many gimmicks and treatments to quit, to no avail.

It wasn’t until he let go of his need to control the outcome of his efforts, that he succeeded. In other words, when he was able to tell himself: “I can’t do this on my own,” he finally found the capacity within himself to quit. He was able to stop smoking only when he accepted his own limitations, when he released the false notion that he was the master of his own destiny. Even to do something healthy, good.

He didn’t need to accomplish this on his own. What he wanted (to quit smoking), he needed to let go of. What he sought, he needed to release control over.

Whatever you want, you first need to let go of. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Usually when you want something, you go for it. And you don’t let up until you have it, eh?

So, what’s going on here?

What did the rich young man in the Gospel story want (Mark 10:17-31)? He wanted to prove that he was a righteous, good man. He wanted to show Jesus and others that he had fulfilled all the rules of his religion and therefore he was worth his religious beans. And who could compare?

The rich man approached Jesus thinking he had it in the bag. His question—”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)—sounds disingenuous, inauthentic. In a manipulative, self-congratulatory way, he thus approached Jesus, even kneeling before him.

He had self-righteously fooled himself into believing he already knew the answer. The gospel writer doesn’t even assign the rich man a name, underscoring the fake, artificial nature of the man’s attitude.

But Jesus cuts through the crap, skims the fat off the top, and goes to the jugular! Indeed, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus sees through the rich man’s pretense, and uncovers the real, authentic person beneath the surface. There he finds an enslaved heart, and brings to light the truth:

In order for the man to be liberated and set free, he has to surrender what owns him, what captivates and grips his soul: For him — it’s material possessions. For someone else, it might be different. But he has to learn, if he wants to grow, to let go and not hold on to those things that keep him stuck in false beliefs about himself, God, and the world around him.

What he wasn’t expecting, was an answer from Jesus that undid him. The one thing that he wanted to get—an unscrupulous, beyond reproach reputation as a religious superman—he would now have to let go of. He would have to let go of everything that made him, that put him in a position of power and wealth in his community and that gave him the grounds to boast.

He would now have to sell his reputation, literally, and become poor. And what do the poor have to show for their religious prowess? Wasn’t (and isn’t) being impoverished a sign of God’s dis-favour?[1]

All the texts assigned for today reflect the nature of relationship with God. Relationship with God is at the root of our spirituality, our church lives, our purpose in life and the meaning of our lives. Relationship. Relationship. Relationship.

And what the lectionary offerings are inviting us to consider today, is the nature of our relationship with God. They ask us to be honest, first, about who this God is we are supposed to relate to.

Let’s say, we want God. Well, detach from what we want. That is the key. Let go of our false conceptions about God. For example, an underlying assumption we will make about God is a transactional, mechanized God. Such assumptions were criticized by reformers like Martin Luther in the 16thcentury but also those before him like Meister Eckhart in the 14thcentury. This image they condemned, was God the “reward machine”.[2]It goes something like this:

God is the great rewarder-in-the-sky. And, if you put enough quarters in the slot, God will send down the candy-bar. In Martin Luther’s world, the criticism focused on the sale of indulgences—the more money you paid to the church, the more spiritual benefits you accrued.

These false beliefs about God then generated attitudes and actions that placed the onus all on us and our capacities and resources as individuals. That it was up to us to garner favour with God and so we would earn, and deserve, our salvation and even prosperity on earth.

I believe this is what is behind the rich, young man’s presumption and approach to Jesus. Certainly, he of all people deserves God’s favour.

And Jesus’ response is, essentially: If that’s what you want, you need to let go of it. And, it’s going to hurt before it gets better again.

Whether it’s a bad habit or false understanding of God or anything else that puts you in the driver’s seat of your life, God is looking you in the eye and challenges you to let go of that pretense. Whatever it is you want, first let go of it, and feel the pain of it. Detach yourself from your attachments if you truly want to be healed. It ain’t easy.

And the image is apt: Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is meant to communicate impossibility. And we say that in our own way every day. “Bah, I can’t change; people can’t change.” “We don’t change.” “People stay the same.” And so, we continue to get mired in unhealthy and self-destructive life-journeys. Transformation is inconceivable, we believe.

Maybe, before anything, our image of God needs transformation. If God is not a reward machine high in the sky, who and what is God all about?

It’s hard to believe with all the rain we’ve had in the past month that earlier this summer the lawns were brown, and the ground was bone dry. We’ve seen a lot of rain, lately. I’ve noticed local creeks are flowing again, and the grass on our yard is thicker and a dark, rich green.

I was reminded this week when I read that waterdrops in the atmosphere are created when water vapour condenses. That part I knew. But what popped out at me was the following sentence: water vapour condenses on tiny particles of dust. At the very centre of every raindrop is a particle.[3]

Our relationship with God is not between entities, to begin with. We don’t relate to being, a God among various God-beings out there in a religious marketplace.

We relate to God as the ground of our very being. Our connection to God already exists. Before we do, say, or think anything. Whether we know it or not. God is already connected to us, in our innermost being.

Saint Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16); and, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love (Eph 3:16-17).

We don’t add God to our lives, like filling a shopping cart in the grocery store. We don’t need to relate to a transactional God-the-rewarder-in-the-sky with our consumer mindset. The Reformation should have put that mechanistic view of our relationship with the Lord to rest. We still need the Reformation!

We don’t add God to our lives. We add our lives to God. Who is already there, at the very centre of our lives.

Imagine rain, falling. The raindrops have a way to go before reaching the ground. It may feel like a free-fall. Unnerving, dis-orienting, it is to let go of our deepest attachments. We experience like Jesus did a painful, momentary ‘forsaken-ness’ (Psalm 22:1). I wonder if the rich, young man had the courage to sell all he had to give it to the poor.

I would love to meet him, especially if had gone through with it. I have many questions to ask him. I suspect, however, that if he did it, if he did what Jesus called him to do — that in the letting go he opened his heart, confronted his greatest fear and experienced a free fall … right into the love of God at the very centre of his life. What a joyous surprise, to find the presence that will always be there, and has always been there!

It may seem impossible to do—this letting go—but in Christ all things are possible. And we discover in the journey: there really isn’t anything to lose that is of any enduring, lasting value.

[1]Today’s so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ implies that when you have it right with God, you will be blessed with material riches; the converse is true, too: according to the prosperity gospel, when you sin, God will withdraw blessing and you will be impoverished.

[2]Bernard McGinn, Praying with the Masters Today, Volume 2 (Meditatio Talks Series CD B, Track 5), 2018.

[3]Richard Rohr, “The God Particle” Daily Meditation 10 Oct 2018 (cac.org /Center for Action and Contemplation)

Doers of positive change

If you’ve followed the Ottawa Senators’ Hockey Club over the last year you will have endured a roller coaster ride. From the high, you will have tasted the sweet drippings of a near-berth in the Stanley Cup Championship Series sixteenth months ago …

To the low, feeling the despairing collapse of the team, not just to being out of the playoffs but crashing all the way to second last place in the NHL standings by the end of this past season.

What happened?

In the last several months, the nightmare season was enflamed by revelations of all the off-ice drama that was happening:

  • Allegations of sexual abuse by then assistant manager Randy Lee;
  • The politicking of owner Eugene Melnick to shame/scare the fan base that he was either going to move the team away from Ottawa, and/or that the downtown arena project may not happen motivating concerned fans to initiate an #MelnykOut ad campaign across the city;
  • Star player Erik Karlsson’s wife applying for a peace bond (restraining order) against the girlfriend of another star player, Mike Hoffman, who allegedly used social media and other means to send discriminatory, abusive messages to the Karlssons even during the loss of their unborn son in March;
  • And the continuing speculation around and probable trade of Erik Karlsson in the final season of his current contract.

General Manager Pierre Dorion was right when he told the media last Spring that his locker room was “broken.” Inter-personal relationships, team chemistry – the essential ingredients in a winning team – were damaged maybe even beyond repair.

While ‘on paper’ the team had skilled players and was comprised of the same core from the year previous when they had that successful run to the Conference Final, something significant had changed for the worse. And this subtle yet very real aspect of failed team-work was at the root cause of the team’s on-ice collapse last season. It wasn’t that they weren’t good players; it was their unhealthy, damaging ways of relating with each other that was the problem.

Funny we are talking here in the church about a hockey team that many of us follow in Ottawa. And yet, we can, I think, attend in a similar way to most areas of our social, political, religious, family and personal lives. Are their areas in your work, your volunteer efforts in the church and in the community, in your personal health, in any aspect of your quality of life let’s say, that are lagging, that yearn for renewal, new life, positive change?

For some time, Ottawa Senator players have been saying that there needs to be a culture change in the locker room and among team relationships. Goaltender Craig Anderson said this week he is looking forward to the changed culture in the coming season but he is “too old for all the drama.”

Teammate and hometown defenseman Mark Borowiecki who is considered a leader in the group called out his goalie and others on the team by suggesting they need to do more than just say they need a culture change. Each player and the players themselves as a team, has to do the work of changing the culture. It wasn’t going to happen by itself. No divine intervention. No single-player trade, no matter how newsworthy, was going to change their culture. They, the players, had to take on the responsibility to work at it.

Be doers of the word. A theme in the scriptures assigned for this day. In the Book of James we get the message that while words are important, actions reveal the truth, authentic self and purpose of what we’re about (1:22) more than anything else. What we do with ourselves, with each other – our actions – are the best teacher and communicator of what is most important to our common life, our team, you could say – whether that team is the church, the family, a marriage, a community group, a political movement, or a sports team.

And this action is not only about our performance on the ice, so to speak. This work of doing is not merely about the mission, out there. It is not about whether we succeed or fail on the mission field in getting the job done – the work of ministry in the world. Perhaps our failure at getting that job done out there may at least in part relate to our failure to do anything on the inside of our personal and corporate lives. And lacking the awareness and the belief of positive change within.

It is no wonder Bishop Susan Johnson and the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) has identified being a “healthy church” as one of the four vision priorities, moving forward in community. Being a healthy church means, to “develop and promote a culture of mutual trust and accountability.”[1]

That is, we relate with one another and the world around us in ways that reflect genuine listening, respect, humility and patience. In short, we offer safe spaces for personal interaction and growth. We can’t achieve the other vision priorities of the church, such as compassionate justice, spirited discipleship or effective partnerships, unless we are first a healthy group of people relating to one another.

And no one will make this culture change in our relational lives unless we are doers of the word, unless we take action that promotes growth, faith and positive change in our common lives.

In the mid-point of Mark’s short Gospel, Jesus spends a lot of time around the Sea of Galilee. When I visited Israel during my seminary years, our bus ride was only a couple of hours from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee. In Jesus’ day, it meant walking at least six days. Word of Jesus had certainly spread, and his actions of healing and eating with sinners and picking grain on the Sabbath made the Pharisees – the keepers of the Law – extremely nervous. So much so, that the powers that be from Jerusalem invested the better part of a month checking up on Jesus’ ministry (7:1).

It is sometimes amazing the lengths people will go in order to keep things the way they have always been. A radio sports commentator mentioned after the Anderson and Borowiecki interviews that Mark Borowiecki was right: talk of culture change has been swirling around the same group of players for most of last season with little, actual change in their performance. It seems we haven’t really been taught how to work at bringing positive change, starting with us.

Change is frightening, to be sure. Institutions often seek to preserve the status quo. That was true in Jesus’ day. And it is true in congregations as much as in team locker rooms these days. Yet change, as we must surely know living in this time and place in history, is the norm, not an exception.

I was pleased to hear Pastor Mei Sum Lai, leading her last worship service at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Orleans[2]last Sunday, thank the congregation for allowing change to happen during her tenure there. I then reflected on all the changes that have happened here at Faith[3]in the last six years or so:

  • The bold decision to bring significant upgrades and modernization to the building and sanctuary;
  • The gutsy decision to worshipping for four months with our local Anglican parish while the sanctuary was off-limits in its renovation;
  • The move to weekly Communion;
  • The involvement of lay readers and worship assistants;
  • The completion of the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Women as a formal entity
  • The introduction of Christian Meditation as a weekly prayer group;
  • The evolution of bible study to a prayerful encounter with the Word;
  • The ongoing evolution of meals at the church in all its fits and starts – to name a few changes.

These changes, good or bad in your view, are nevertheless good practice for us. Making these changes are good exercise for us, for the positive changes that God is bringing about in our world and church. Because we won’t do it perfectly. We will make mistakes. We will even fail at times. But avoiding failure is not the point of Christian identity and mission. The point is, we are following Christ – or trying to – on a rocky and uncertain road in the post-modern world. Trying amidst the noise and chaos to discern and listen to Jesus’ voice.

What is at stake, is what we believe. What do we believe about change? I think this makes a huge difference in how that rocky road will go for us.

Despite the negative scrutiny and criticism heaped upon Jesus by the Pharisees, what does Jesus do in response? Does he cave into the pressure to play by the religious rules of the day? Does he try to please the authorities and adhere to the tradition for tradition’s sake? Does he shift into self-preservation mode and quietly step into the shadows as not to garner any more attention? What does he do?

Jesus keeps on healing. If you read on in chapter 7, he goes on from Lake Galilee southward on the road into the non-religious Gentile region first to heal the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman[4], and then he opens the ears of the deaf man in the Decapolis.[5]

In fact, I don’t know of anyone in the New Testament who doesn’t change after encountering Jesus, whether by a healing or in a shift of attitude and approach to life. The most dramatic example, probably, is Saul of Tarsus who on the road to Damascus encounters the living Lord and experiences a profound conversion.[6]

When you meet Jesus, your life changes for the better not because you don’t do anything about it. But because you’ve placed yourself, for better or worse, in a position to receive the grace, healing and change of God. Historian Diana Butler Bass writes, “For all the complexity of primitive Christianity, a startling idea runs through early records of faith: Christianity seems to have succeeded because it transformed the lives of people in a chaotic world.”[7]During this time, Christianity was primarily about how to live a better, more faithful life, here and now within the kingdom of God.

Team play is as much an inner game as it is an outer game. And the inner game takes work, not just words. This inner work is not easy to do.

Perhaps you might have a hard time believing positive change is possible in your own life. If so, is it because we refuse to see the positive changes happening in those around us – in the life of the church, in our own families and friendship groups? Because when we refuse to accept that others have changed, we strike the death knoll and close the doors of our own hearts to see the change there.

So perhaps a first step would be to regard others, especially those closest to us, as on a journey that is changing and growing them in ways beyond our control. And then wait for Jesus’ call on your own life to follow him, to encounter him, to meet him on the road of life. In most of the people who meet Jesus, they present their own need. They approach Jesus in their vulnerability. Where they are hurting.

Because whatever the case may be with your own heart, whether or not you believe change in your own life and in the life of others around you is possible, God waits for you. God is patient, ready and willing to heal. God believes in you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]http://www.elcic.ca

[2]http://www.rlchurch.ca

[3]http://www.faithottawa.ca

[4]Mark 7:24-30

[5]Mark 7:31-37

[6]Acts 9:1-31

[7]Diana Butler Bass, “A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story” (HarperOne, 2009), p.26.

Pizza, sushi, pigs-in-a-blanket: It all matters

It’s an odd beginning.[1] You’d wonder why, if Matthew and Luke – and to some extent even John – begin with stories of Jesus’ birth, Mark starts his Gospel rather abruptly. And by reference to the Hebrew prophets of old.

During this Advent season as we prepare for and wait for God’s coming at Christmas, the Gospel text for today feels out of place. It shakes us out of our sentimental leanings and Hallmark expectations of pleasant Christmassy stories.

One of my favourite children’s exercises is finding the pattern in a row of numbers, words, pictures – and identifying which part doesn’t fit. Preparing a way in the dusty heat of the Judean desert by referring to Isaiah is a no-brainer for finding what doesn’t fit if we would line up and compare the first chapters of each of the four Gospels.

Compared to wordy John, for example, Mark is the master of brevity. The earliest of all four Gospels in the New Testament, Mark tells the story of Jesus by getting to the point. He appeals to our contemporary need to summarize concisely. Mark is short – only 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24 and John’s 21. In our digital video age where sound and video bytes must capture our attention in less than 15 second ads, Mark is the go-to Gospel. If you’ve got the time.

He opens by simply getting to the point: Jesus is the Son of God. And it’s good news. Amen. We’d go hear his sermons.

Unlike Matthew, Mark leaves out the juicy, vitriolic speech John the Baptist gives slicing up the Pharisees calling them a brood of vipers.[2] Instead, in a few short verses, Mark simply tells his audience that John the Baptist comes to herald Jesus’ coming. That’s John the Baptist’s only role: To announce and prepare the way of the Lord. Period. Next question.

Our three confirmands this year and their families have decided to meet in each other’s home once a month. Taking turns to host, each decides then what we will eat for supper. The first month it was pizza, perhaps no surprise there. The second month was sushi. And the third month we met this Fall, it was crescent pigs in a blanket. Pizza, sushi and pigs in a blanket.

Same group of kids and parents. Different culinary expressions. And I wondered how well this group found unity despite our differences. The detailed differences mark important aspects of our identity and perspectives on life. And yet, there we were, eating together and talking about God.

Which is why we must stop, pause and ponder Mark’s inclusion of certain details. If Mark wants to be brief and just tell the basic point, then why does he include what John the Baptist is wearing and what his diet is? There must be something very important about locusts, wild honey and camel’s hair.

I find a few good reasons for including only those details. First, Mark makes the connection between John the Baptist and prophets of old. We see, through these details that John the Baptist stands in line with Isaiah by citing his work.[3] John the Baptist is also mistaken for Elijah because of their similar attire,[4] and because he, like it is recorded in the other Gospels, foretells of the coming Messiah.[5]

Mark wants to be brief, but he also wants to add just enough detail to make those connections. Not only is this good writing, he conveys that it all matters. Not just the principles, the higher meanings, the abstract thoughts, the arguments, the beliefs. Material matters too. The locusts and wild honey that he eats, the camel hair that he wears – these all mediate God’s intent and message.

We can learn from Mark that “spiritual talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.”[6]

Because there is “nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”[7], then everything can mediate that love. There is nothing in all of creation that cannot communicate God’s goodness. All perspectives, all things, everyone – it all matters!

Those that created this library that we call “the Bible” in the fourth century could have tried to summarize the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – into one definitive, authoritative account. No variations. No differences. No discrepancies.

No need to ask questions like: Was it the feeding of the 5000 or 4000? Were there two or was there just one angel in the empty tomb to speak to the disciples? Why does the Gospel of John contain stories not recorded in Matthew and Luke? One compilation would be enough, one that gets right the chronology of all the events, teaching and parables of Jesus. It would have made life easier!

But the wisdom of our forebears in the faith would keep the variations intact. Four similar yet different accounts were included in the New Testament. The diverse expressions and witnesses of Jesus Christ and his birth, life, teaching, healing, death, resurrection and ascension emerge as a critical element of faith.

In reflecting on the unitive diversity of Christian faith in the Bible, Richard Rohr wrote earlier this week in his daily meditation: “Scripture gathers together cumulative visions of the divine.”[8] Diversity is essential to who we are. It all matters.

It all matters because there is something good in everything. Everything in creation is just that: Created by God. And if everything was and is created by God, then despite the consequences of human misdeeds and the stain of sin in creation, despite all the religious and political differences in the world, there is still something redeemable and inherently good in this brokenness of creation. Including in us. This is the hope of Christian faith.

The Christmas season is a time when traditional gatherings occur in families, communities, friendship groups, and workplace teams. It would be too easy, and lazy on our part, to be dismissive and rush to make judgements of family members and co-workers with whom we differ. Some hesitate and complain about attending these gatherings because we can’t stand “grumpy uncle Stan” or “flakey aunty Molly”.

But even “grumpy uncle Stan” and “flakey aunty Molly” are beloved of God. There is something good about them. Will we take the time and effort to help make a safe place for them to express their true selves created in the image of God?

Richard Rohr has made many enemies in the Christian church for his provocative and progressive views. He has been a voice crying out in the wilderness for several decades now. And over all this time, he maintains that in conversation with those who differ from him, he follows a simple rule:

There is always at least ten percent of what he hears in their point of view that he can agree with. And it’s from that common ten percent that he begins his response to them.[9]

That calls for some work. And persistence. Because building relationships with those from whom we differ is not accomplished in one meeting, overnight, or after one phone conversation. It’s not easy work. It can take a life time.

It’s easier to give up and walk away. It’s easier to justify some narrative that paints them as evil or not worth spending any time with. The sad consequence of following this easy way we see in the world today.

We pray for peace on earth this Christmas season, as with the angels of old. The way of peace is to have hope. To have hope is to live into that which God calls us into being. And that hope requires us to take the narrow path.[10] To have hope is to work hard at practicing good listening skills. Hope requires us to work hard at not speaking first, but first asking questions and hearing the other. That hope requires us to work hard at listening with the aim of seeking understanding, to try to see things from the perspective of the other.

This doesn’t mean we will agree with the other. This doesn’t mean we will lose our integrity or that which defines us as Christians and as individuals. But it does lead us to a way of being with the other that honours them and respects them as beloved creatures of God.

We will continue eating together as a confirmation class into the new year. I look forward to the different culinary tastes that await. And what is better, I know the young women in the confirmation class are looking forward to this as well.

Hope.

[1] The Gospel for Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8

[2] Matthew 3:7

[3] Isaiah 40:3

[4] 2 Kings 1:8

[5] John 1:21-23

[6] I wrote in my post from January 2015, “Borderland Spirituality”

[7] Romans 8:38-39

[8] December 4, 2017

[9] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010).

[10] Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:24

The outing begins within us

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand … No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered … Whoever does the will of God is [my family]” – Mark 3:24,27,35 

I wonder, in an action-oriented culture, whether we have considered the curious notion of where the kingdom of God – the reign of God – resides. In the the Gospel of Luke (17:21), Jesus says that “The kingdom of God is within you.” The great reformer, Martin Luther, preferred this rendering to the sometimes translated, “among” you. In his famous German translation he writes: “Das Reich Gottes ist inwendig in euch.”

Our house-dividedness and our divisions are not only externally out there in the big, bad world; they embody an internal reality, among and within us, that we often fail to acknowledge.

I think it was Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny, in one of her recent novels described the internal conflict between two wolves: On the one hand, there is the wolf that lives on fear, anxiety and negativity; the other wolf warring for supremacy inside of us lives on joy, optimism and hope. The main characters in the newly-released home video entitled “Tomorrowland” starring George Clooney use this image of two parts of ourselves in conflict: the wolf of fear versus the wolf of hope. Which one wins? Which one will be victorious?

The answer: The one you feed.

We don’t often recognize the darkness within each one of us. We are all divided – in our nation, in our city, our communities, our churches and in our own lives. Whether we are ‘saved’ or not. Whether we are believers or not. Whether we belong to the right church, or not. Whether we have the right interpretation and doctrine, or not. Whether we speak the right language, or not.

It is curious how Jesus rebuffs the religious leaders’ serious accusation that Jesus had the devil inside him. In denouncing their claim by a logical argument – how can the devil purge the devil? – he acknowledges Satan’s existence and influence. Jesus doesn’t deny the power of evil.

We are all divided. The power of sin extends into the ways we have organized our lives, our prejudices, our racism, our bigotry, our ‘common sense’ ways of looking at the world and people, our economy. We are divided. Our identity is fractured. We will say one thing about God’s love, and behave the opposite way when it comes down to it.

It can be very easy to detect which wolf we end up feeding, most of the time.

Thankfully, there is this levelling affect that Jesus has in his words from the Gospel today. This is not an exclusive venture we are on, as followers of Jesus. In verse 28 a more accurate translation of the word “people” evokes a universal meaning, such as “all children of humanity” – everyone will be forgiven their sins! This is good news! This is the hope. Because, even though we live in imperfect, flawed and divided communities – there is still the good, therein.

But how can the two wolves get along inside of us? How can the warring internal battles, in the end, be resolved?

“Das Reich Gottes ist inwendig in EUCH”. That last word, “you”, is not singular. In German, it is the plural form. Of course, in the original Greek, Jesus addressed his disciples. But in English we don’t have this distinction in the second-person between individual or plural; so we easily and naturally assume, I think, the individual. But this is a mistake.

In this Gospel text, the one verse that I think get’s us distracted more than any other is the ‘one sin against the Holy Spirit that is unforgivable’ (v.29). And immediately we, individually, start getting upset and fearful and very nervous: What if I have sinned against the Holy Spirit? Will I go to hell? People on their death beds will often become anxious about their faith, whether they, individually, have done enough to ‘earn’ salvation on their own, by themselves. This fear goes deep.

But the weight of glory and the burden of sin is carried by the whole, mystical body of Christ. I don’t have to be privately perfect in order to go to heaven, because the perfection is in the whole body of Christ. We are merely members of it: some of you are a foot, some of you are an eye, some of you are an ear – today, I am the mouth! “I” am not the whole body; you (singular) are not the whole body.

You, individually, don’t have to take the burden of universal sin upon yourself, in which you are complicit, I agree. And so am I. But neither can you, individually, take on the weight of glory upon yourself. If you are good – and obviously you are by coming to church today and sticking with us the whole hour long – your goodness is not your own: It’s your Mom in you; it’s your Dad in you; it’s your grandfather and your grandmother in you; it’s your neighbour in you; it’s your pastor that pastored you years ago in you; it’s your friends in you. They are your goodness.

This rampant individualism that is the unfortunate consequence of the Reformation has probably undone Christianity more than anything else, to keep us – ‘tie us up’ – from understanding the communal aspect of God’s kingdom and the church. This is the level from which Jesus, Paul and Martin Luther for that matter proclaimed it. (Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, The Rohr Institute, Disc 4, New Mexico, 2012).

So, despite the tug of war inside of inside of us, obey the good. Whatever is strong and good in us together, let that lead. Whatever good nudges us at the core of our being – forgiveness, compassion, grace, good intention – let’s not ‘tie that strength up within us.’ Let’s not hesitate. Let’s not rationalize it to death. Let’s not succumb to the temptation of paralysis-by-analysis. Let it out. Let that goodness lead us. Because each of us has this shared, good strength within – even people against whom we hold prejudice and discriminate.

Decorated Canadian Olympian and mental health advocate, Clara Hughes, said at the Closing Ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Ottawa this past week that “The only way you can be good and strong and fast is if you want it for everyone.”

Jesus said, “Only those who do the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v.35). We say the words every week in our prayers – praying for peace among waring religious groups in far away places. We pray for peace in Syria and Iraq where ISIL continues its reign of terror against religious minorities. We pray for reconciliation between Aboriginal and Settler peoples – that is, immigrants like us.

Why don’t we also consider living that prayer out, in our own backyard? Why don’t we also consider actually doing something in the name of Jesus to the purpose of peace and reconciliation between different religious and ethnic groups in our own city? To be a faithful witness of what peace can look like, to the world?

To feed the wolf of hope.

Cultivating God’s imagination in us

Cartoons today are not like the cartoons I watched on TV when I was a kid. Back then, the story lines were straight forward, and characters behaved in ways that were expected. Even though their world was animated, it was easy to relate to the real world. If you ran off a cliff, like the coyote did chasing the road runner, you would pay the price and fall to your doom. Yes, these cartoons were funny and often the characters made mistakes — and that was entertaining.

But today, when I watch the Teletoon channel, it is crazy! More often than not the characters behave in ways that are unpredictable, excessive and even absurd. When you expect a certain consequence for a behaviour, the opposite happens! And this style gets kids laughing. This medium has little if no connection to the way people normally operate in the real world. It is meant to shock, and display the impossible rather than convey the probable.

At the same time, this is precisely the style of the story presented in our Gospel text today (Matthew 18:21-35). Yes, it is! Bear with me. Jesus tells a story in response to Peter’s question about how often should he forgive someone who has done him wrong.

Reading in between the lines, it’s as if Jesus answers Peter’s question with another rhetorical question: “How could you ask such a stupid question?” So Jesus tells an extreme, over-the-top parable to startle Peter into recognizing the absurdity of his assumptions and to call him to a new way of seeing and living (Charles Campbell in “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, p.71).

Jesus’ story is really excessive, when you think about it. First, Jesus says that we should forgive always, without limit, certainly more than seven times. And yet, the king in the story (who for some interpreters is analogous to God and therefore an example to us) — how many times does he forgive his slave? Just once! The king doesn’t give his slave a second chance, doesn’t forgive him more than once, even though that’s the moral of the story, right?

Then there is the matter of the ten thousand talents that the slave owes the king. In Greek, “ten thousand” and “talents” indicate the largest possible number; the amount is so absurd that in some early Greek manuscripts of this text reduced the number (Lewis Donelson, ibid.). There is no way that any slave would ever have ten thousand talents to begin with — otherwise he would not be a slave if he did. How could a slave even get to a position of owing that incredibly huge amount of money, and then pretend that he could pay it back in his lifetime. Absurd. We really can’t take this story too literally.

The rest of the parable continues in this vein: The slave who was forgiven this unimaginable debt load refuses to forgive the comparatively minuscule debt of another slave. He acts in an extreme way, seizing the debtor by the throat (v.28).

All in all this parable reads just like a modern-day cartoon. It’s excessive; it doesn’t follow the norms of social interaction — in Jesus’ day as much as in our own. We are left shaking our heads, “Ridiculous! Impossible! How could anyone do such a thing?”

But that’s the point. What we consider here is an imagination that is beyond earthly probabilities and rationalizations. The parable turns on us, as it surely did on Peter: How often should I forgive?” As the church, we should know better. For we know how much we have already been forgiven.

What we encounter in the Gospel text today is a Godly imagination that is presented in contradistinction to the world’s. Most of our lives operate according to probabilities and possibilities, measurable criteria, tit-for-tat, and certainties. Not so in God’s kingdom of grace. Mercy, forgiveness — these are undeserved, incalculable. Yet given.

How do we forgive? Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a woman in his congregation who is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. Since her husband walked out on them, every month, she says, it is a struggle to pay bills. She says, “I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”

The Rabbi answers, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically. But you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”

Presbyterian Minister, writer and retreat leader Marjorie Thompson gives a helpful definition of what it is to forgive. She writes: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgement, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such retribution may seem …

“Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behaviour. The behaviour remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.”

You’ve maybe heard the story of one prisoner of war, after being freed, who asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?”
“I will never do that!” the second one answered.
“Then they still have you in prison, don’t they?” the first one replied. (These stories are recited in Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, ibid., p.71-72)

The ability to forgive has more to do with ourselves than it has to do with the perpetrator of our wounds. This realization makes the impossible, possible; the improbable, probable. Holding on to resentment and a desire for revenge keeps us stuck in the false belief that somehow we can change the other person.

But perhaps who needs changing is ourselves! Peter got an earful from Jesus as Jesus held up a mirror to Peter when he asked the question, “How often should I forgive?”

We are not alone on this journey. Jesus talks about forgiveness in the context of the relationship of people in the church, among his disciples as they jostle for power and deal with in-house conflicts. We are not alone in this struggle to forgive our debtors. After all, the Body of Christ, the church, has a role to recognize the sin together, demand accountability together, and exercise forgiveness together. This takes time and it isn’t easy.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them,” said Jesus just before Peter’s question (Matthew 18:20). God surprises us, yes, even sometimes shocks and startles us with undeserved love and steadfast faithfulness. This is the imagination, the hope, and the longing that motivates us to keep on.

Of God’s forgiveness, we can be sure.