God-talk

Last week in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Ottawa RedBlacks receiver Diontae Spencer set a CFL record in a game against the Hamilton Ticats for most overall yardage gained — just under 500 — in one game. His incredible feat was truly remarkable in a game where his team didn’t score any points in the first quarter.

When asked afterwards about his record-setting accomplishment, Spencer mentioned God several times. He emphasized that the praise was ultimately for God. He couldn’t have succeeded along with his team in that game without God. God was the reason and source of his victory.

Such a witness gets a lot of mileage, especially on national TV covering a professional sports league in Canada. It is true: the public, general impression of Christians is their often-exuberant witness to an all-powerful, almighty God who authors and reflects anything and everything that is glorious, successful, impressive and spectacular. This is the dominant belief and main flavour of the kind of God-talk in the public arena when it comes to Christian witness.

Years ago, a parishioner in a former parish declined my invitation to her to give a testimony of faith during a mid-week Lenten program. I knew she was struggling with some personal challenges at the time. When I asked her why she said no, especially as I recognized in her the strong gift of faith, she said she wanted to wait until things were going better in her life before sharing her faith.

While I understood her reasoning, and was mindful of the delicate situation in her life, I wondered to myself if her attitude didn’t reflect a more general disposition among Christians today. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could talk about how good your life was. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could point to external circumstances that were favourable, impressive, even enviable.

After all, how could you get up in front of people and talk about God when all was not well in your life? How could you talk about God if you had nothing impressive to show for it? More to the point, would you be giving faithful testimony to God if everything in your life was broken, damaged, failed?

Is God only mentioned when humans achieve something great? Is God only a God who wins contests on the football field and battlefield of life? Can God be talked about only among folks who have succeeded and are healthy and rich? Only when things are going super well?

Or, could God also be present and real to us when we fail, when we are down, when we lose our earthly battles? It seems to me Christians call themselves Christian because we follow the way of Christ. And so, don’t we believe in the God of the Cross? God, by all human standards, failed — being branded public enemy number one and condemned to death. Jesus’ broken body is the iconic symbol for Christians. It is precisely in the suffering of life where God finds us.

On this All Saints Sunday, we understandably focus on what human beings have accomplished: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. Blessed are those who demonstrate the qualities we read in the Beatitudes[1] — the Gospel text for this festival in the church calendar.

“Blessed” is not the word we might associate with being poor, persecuted peacemakers especially if we use the often-translated English word, “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[2] also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in providing the first beatitude, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[3] I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state.

Should we take these beatitudes as moral rules for living, as with the Law, we can never fulfill it perfectly. And therefore, we can easily despair and give up. Being on the way, however, gives the long view and big picture. It implies the need for trusting that we are headed in the right direction even if the present circumstances in our lives suggest otherwise.

What is more, as much as we want to make the Beatitudes into the Ten (or rather, Nine) Commandments of the New Testament, this speech from Jesus — given at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel — is not primarily about ‘rules for moral behaviour’ as it is facts about God. These Beatitudes really and fundamentally describe God.

Matthew’s narrative builds towards this awareness, if you can appreciate the classic reversal that Matthew sets up in the first five chapters of his Gospel:

In the first chapter, Matthew’ genealogy firmly plants Jesus “the Messiah” in the lineage of the great Israelite King David. In the second chapter, exotic magi from the East come to pay homage to the newborn king. In the third chapter, King Herod takes seriously this threat to his power and tries to eliminate a contestant to his throne by killing innocent, Hebrew two-year-old boys in Bethlehem. Then, John the Baptist comes on the scene, announcing that he was making way for one who was greater than he. Finally, Matthew has Jesus ascend a mountain where he, like his predecessor Moses, would dispense the Word of God and give his inaugural address.[4]

You can see the build-up, I hope, of an expectation that Jesus would come to bring justice to the wicked and set things right. He, the Messiah, would turn back Roman oppression and occupation of Palestine. But, these words from Jesus’ mouth announcing who is “blessed” pull the rug from under our expectations of who God is. “The one who was supposed to lead revolutionary armies or bring down heavenly fire shows up in Galilee building hospitals and telling people not to hit back.”[5]

Can you imagine the surprise and shock among his disciples! Even the imprisoned John the Baptist does a double-take on his faith and later questions Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we keep looking?”[6] It is no wonder, then, that Peter later rebukes Jesus when he talks of his impending death: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”[7]

These beatitudes must have seriously disappointed his listeners and most ardent followers who had such ‘high’ expectations of their would-be Messiah King. How could they now continue following this man?

Is the reason why we may have trouble conforming our lives to the way described in the beatitudes is that we really don’t believe in these words as giving an accurate and trustworthy understanding of God? This is, after all, Jesus, who we know was persecuted and reviled as the prophets were before him.[8]

Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed in human flesh, born a vulnerable baby to a teenage couple? Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed dying a grotesque and brutal death on a cross showing the world a bruised, beaten, broken and bloody body?

If we did, perhaps we would hear more from the losers in our society. Perhaps TSN would hear the faithful witness of locker room players talking of a God who knows how it is to lose a big game and still keep faith. Perhaps we would hear more from street people, addicts and the impoverished, vulnerable people talk of their simple yet honest faith in a God who walks with them. Perhaps we would hear more from children declare their love of a playful God who carries our burdens for us, freeing us to be who and how we are without judgement and punishment.

Perhaps we would listen more to the murmurs of our own hearts whisper the love of God for us especially when we suffer the turmoil of life. Then, I gather, the world will open its eyes to the God of grace and love.

Because they will see people who live in hope. They will see people who know they have found the right road where they find God most present in helping people who suffer loss and pain, a road on which Jesus has walked himself, a road upon which God will always first find us.

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

[3] Earl F. Palmer in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.238

[4] Allen Hilton in ibid., p.239

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12

Throwing snowballs to get the message across!

We threw snowballs in worship last Sunday. 

Well, they weren’t exactly real snowballs. It’s Ottawa, after all, in December — and there’s still no snow on the ground! Just paper crumpled up into a ball. We’re warming up for the winter still-to-come. 

At the beginning of worship the children threw about a dozen of these ‘snowballs’ into the congregation. And those who caught them were instructed, during the time leading up to the children’s chat later in the service, to get pen to paper.

The Gospel texts these Sundays in Advent focus on John the Baptist (Luke 3). John’s job was to get the message across that the Messiah was coming. In truth, that is generally the job of the prophet: to tell the people what they need to hear in order to prepare for what God is about to do.

In our day and age people everywhere are preoccupied with their smart-phones and social media — to ‘message’ their friends. Messaging is now cornerstone of our culture. What we message — for better or for worse —  is vital to maintaining our relationships. 

So, we were going to practice what we ‘message’ to one another in the church, and to the world. Those who caught the paper snowballs wrote a short message that the children would later hear read out loud. What message would children hear, this Advent as we prepare for the coming of the Lord?

Here is what members of the church wrote on their snowballs:

1. Wishing you peace, hope and love at Christmas

2. Remember Christmas is not about presents but about spending time with those who love us

3. God loves us so much that he sent us Jesus

4. Show your friends love like you show your family because they love you too

5. Stop! Look! Listen! Feel the love!

6. Share with your friends

7. Every day say thank you for something that you are really thankful for. Especially for the little things that made you smile

8. Jesus is coming and is in your heart

9. God gave his only Son for you!

10. Rejoice, for Jesus is coming 🙂

Of course, at the end of children’s chat, those who wrote these messages delighted in throwing the snowballs back at the children. “If you’re going to give it, you also have to take it,” we said.
True prophets in this crowd!

Dream-state

“Who are you?” the scrutinizing Levites ask John the Baptist (John 1:19-28). “Who is this man?” Because if John the Baptist is indeed preparing the way for the Messiah, he must be — according to tradition — the prophet Elijah.

There seems to be confusion in the ranks about his identity. If he is who he claims to be, then either their beliefs need to be changed, or else John the Baptist is a liar. ‘Who he is’, is a question of great importance.

I admire John the Baptist’s self-confidence. He does not seem to care who they think he is, much less their confusion. Note his rather curt responses to their questions: “I am not the Messiah”, “I am not”, “No” — He is not inclined to make kind, polite conversation. Neither does he care to make things better for them by clarifying.

And when he does say anything positive about his identity — he uses esoteric images from the ancient scripts: He is “a voice crying out in the wilderness”, meant to “make straight the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40). This is not a clear, rational response to their very pointed questions that demand a ‘straight’ answer. What is apparent and important to John the Baptist, is that he knows who he is.

Who are you? Who are we? A glaring symptom of our confusion today, our disconnection from who we are, and our supreme fear and lack of confidence in our own identity — as people of God, as individuals and members of the Body of Christ — is the heaping layers of distraction with which we surround ourselves. Especially at this time of year!

It’s like we are walking around in a dream-state. Our dreaming disconnects us from who we truly are, and what is really important. On the first Sunday in Advent, we heard Jesus’ instruction to “Keep awake!” (Mark 13:37). On this third Sunday in Advent we sing the hymn: “Awake! Awake, and Greet the new Morn” (EvLW 242). It seems a prevalent theme in our Advent liturgy is to “wake up!”

Listen to the way Richard Rohr describes our way of life:

“It’s safe to say that there is confusion about what is needed for life and what is really important for life …. We have created a pseudo-happiness, largely based in having instead of being. We are so overstimulated that the ordinary no longer delights in us. [In our culture] … middle-class people have more comforts and securities than did kings and queens in the times when royalty flourished. We have become human doings more than human beings. And the word ‘rest’ as Jesus uses it [‘Come to me … to find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28)] is largely foreign to us.”

What the Gospel says, is that simplicity “is the only place that happiness is ever to be found … Such a message is about as traditional, old-fashioned and conservative a gospel as we can possible preach, and it will always be true” (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas; Daily Meditations for Advent”, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati Ohio, 2008, p.27-28).

How do we wake up from this false, dream-state of distraction and over-stimulation? How do we wake up to our true selves? And how can we embrace a more simpler life of ‘being’?

These are the real questions I believe we need to be asking during Advent, and as we approach the Christmas season.

It’s not easy. It might take some discipline. Because we may be “Like people who have lived by the train tracks for years, we no longer hear the sound of the train. After years in church, we get used to the noise of Advent, to the message of the coming Christ, so much so that we no longer notice it. Or if we do, it has ceased to jolt us awake and has become instead a low, dull rumble …

Like the house hunter who noticed the train tracks on moving day, but later sleeps through the whistles and the engines that rush by, we can miss the thing in the season of Advent that might have been the most obvious and important at one time …” — the presence and love of Jesus coming into our lives again. (Lillian Daniel, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.66).

And this is God’s dream, coming to us. As Christians, we carry the mantle of God’s dreamers. This is our heritage — the dreams of the prophets and those who spoke God’s restorative vision to a people in exile, a people depressed, discouraged, downcast. And, who were given a vision — a dream — of a straight path through the wilderness of their lives.

To this day and age. If God could inspire Jacob in the desert with a dream of a ladder reaching down from heaven (Genesis 28:10-17), God can dream in us. If God could give guidance to Joseph wondering what to do with Mary (Matthew 1:18-25), then God can dream in us.

Twenty-five centuries after the psalmist expressed the words: “We were like those who dream…” (Psalm 126:1), Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream”. And with those words ignited a vision in the 20th century for justice towards an uncertain future. A generation later, (the first African-American) President Barak Obama, tantalized a nation, and the world, with his eloquent words of hope. Today, Malala Yousafzai inspires us to support education for women, in a dark and conflict-ridden world.

God’s dreams of a just and peaceful kingdom are born in the visions of the people of God, and in the heart of each child of God. In the end, it is not ‘my’ dream, maybe not even ‘our’ dream alone; it starts with God’s dream — when the wolf shall live with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6;65:25), and swords will be beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).

The problem with dreaming is not the dream itself, necessarily, but whose dream it is. The problem with walking in a dream-state at this time of year, distracted by all the ueber- stimulation of our culture, is when it is our dream — my dream, alone, when I got caught up in my stuff so much that I don’t see the other; when I don’t see the other as God would.

Who are we? We are who we are meant to be when we bear witness in our very lives to the vision and dream of God. We are who we are created to be, when we let the light of God’s love that burns in our hearts, radiate out to a world shrouded in cold darkness.

And then, paraphrasing the famous words of Elliot Wolfson, God’s dream “dreams the dreamer as much as the dreamer dreams the dream.”

May God’s dream, dream in us.

In the Other

When we moved into our new house last Spring, there were no trees in our backyard. And so I went to a local nursery and bought a beautiful looking Norway Spruce tree, about four feet high, which I planted at the fence line. And I remember choosing this particular tree because it looked healthy; its deep and thick, verdant green branches were bursting with fresh, full buds, all over.

I watered it all summer long and fed it with fertilizer. In the winter I covered it with a folding board to protect it from the harsh winds and biting temperatures — which we had! I was going to make sure this tree would prosper!

So, tell me what you would do if you saw what I saw this Spring once all the snow melted: What would you do? (scroll down to see photo).

I must confess that my first instinct was to rip it out and start over. Find another tree. I thought, at first, that this tree was surely dead. There was no life in it anymore. Hopeless cause. Forget it.

But, for some reason or other I just let it be. I left it alone for awhile. And about a month ago, I noticed something remarkable. Do you see it? There are indeed signs of life showing: the green buds atop, and amidst the what looks otherwise like dead wood.

And I thought of my tree when reading the Gospel text for today (Matthew 10:24-39). Jesus seems intent on reminding his disciples of their worth, their value (“You are of more value than many sparrows” v.31) — despite everything that seems to the contrary. Remember, these disciples are not getting it; they misunderstand Jesus left, right and centre! They are imperfect, some would say — hopeless causes! Why would God even bother with those stupid disciples from Galilee? Riff-raff. Blue collar. Uneducated … the list goes on!

There is the story of a certain monastery — a monastic community which had fallen upon hard times. Only five monks remained in the motherhouse and all of them over the age of 70. Clearly, it was a dying order.

In the woods surrounding the monastery was a little hut, where a wise bishop lived. One day, the abbot thought it would be a good idea to visit this bishop, and ask him for any advice he might be able to offer, in order to save the monastery.

And so the abbot went and explained the problem to the bishop. The bishop commiserated with him: “I know how it is,” he said. “The spirit has gone out of the people. No one knows the joy and love of God anymore.” And so the old bishop and the abbot wept together. They read parts of the Bible, and quietly spoke of deep things together.

The time came for the abbot to leave. They embraced each other, and as they parted the abbot said, “It’s been wonderful that we should meet after all these years. But I must ask: Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me to save my dying order?”

The bishop looked straight into the eyes of the abbot and said, “The only thing I can tell you is this: One of you at the monastery is the Messiah.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery, he told his monks: “The bishop couldn’t really help me. We only read some Scripture and wept together. But he said some cryptic thing as I was leaving — he said that one of us is the Messiah. I really don’t know what he meant by that.”

In the weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered the bishop’s statement, and wondered among themselves if there could possibly be anything of significance to the bishop’s words. The Messiah? One of us? But which one? The conversations went something like this:

“Do you suppose he means the abbot? Surely if he means anyone, it is Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

“On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Without a doubt, Brother Thomas is a holy man.

“But certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred! Eldred can get really crotchety at times. But you know, come to think of it, even though he can be a thorn in people’s sides … when you look back on it, Eldred is virtually always right about anything. Often very right. Maybe the bishop means Brother Eldred.

“But surely not Brother Philip. Philip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, he has got a real gift of somehow always being there when you really need him. He just, like magic, appears by your side. Maybe Philip is the one ……”

And so, as they contemplated this matter together, the old monks began to pay greater attention to one another. They regarded each other with fresh eyes. They began to treat one another with respect, love and extra care. They related to one another keeping in the back of their minds always, that just maybe one of them might be the Messiah. Or, perhaps that each monk himself might be the one.

A beautiful forest surrounded the monastery, and people still occasionally came to visit the monastery — to picnic on its lawn, to wander along some of its paths, and even now and then to go into its dilapidated yet charming chapel, to pray.

And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of respect and grace that now began to surround the five old monks …

And radiate out from them.

There was something strangely attractive and compelling about the atmosphere about the community. Hardly knowing why, these visitors began to return to the monastery to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of these visitors started to talk more and more with the old monks, and ask them questions: “Why are you here?” “What are you all about?” “Who are you?” etc. etc.

After awhile, one asked if he could join them. Then another. And yet another. And within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order focused not on its own self nor plight — but in others with whom they came into contact in their daily routines about the community.

This story touches on the practice of being church. Community in Christ is not about navel-gazing and conformity. It’s not about seeking a gathering of the “like-minded”. Belonging in the family of God is not about being the same, or tying to be the same, with everyone else in the community.

Being in a church is about meeting others who are not like me. Being part of the church is about discovering God in difference, in others who are different from me and my ilk. Often that comes about by first noticing what you might not choose to be like, yet seeking to understand from where the other is coming, and appreciating their gifts.

And perhaps this story might give us a clue as how to appreciate the disruptive words of Jesus in our Gospel text — about loving God before loving our family. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about forming exclusive communities or clubs of like-minded people.

Rather, the Gospel is continually calling us to go out into the world in order to discover what God is already up to in other people who are not ‘part of our family’. Our worth and our value has a purpose — “to proclaim [the Gospel of Jesus] from the housetops” (v.27). As we have heard from many church leaders in recent years — “the church exists primarily — it’s primary focus — for those who are not members of it.”

This challenges each one of us, first to see the Christ in one another, and also see Christ in the stranger. And remembering that if God doesn’t give up on us who are far from perfect — if God sees the value and worth in us even when we might only see the blemishes — so God asks us to value an outsider as potentially being visited upon by Jesus himself.

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