The wrong sign

When a road sign indicates something that you don’t expect is the case, it makes me wonder who is behind the seeming prank. What are they up to? What’s their point?

A couple of summers ago when we drove to Florida, a road sign caught my attention. It was hot when we passed through South Carolina and Georgia on the I-95 where many bridges line the route over various waterways and rivers. I can still remember the heat radiating off the hard-top on the interstate.

So you can understand why I did a double-take coming on to several of these bridges seeing a road sign that depicted a thermometer whose temperature hovered around freezing; above the thermometer was shown a car sliding out of control: “Bridge freezes first,” the sign warned.

Are you kidding me? Seriously? On the one hand, the image is true; as a Canadian surviving and driving on our highways during a rather hard winter, I know that when the temperature is below freezing, the highway can be very slippery. But in the southern U.S.? Perhaps last month that was the case there. But I have to confess a deep reservation that they would experience this danger on a regular basis even at this time of year. In fact, we could use some more of that signage up here in Canada.

One of my favourite Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann, once joked in lecture that a metaphor, or a sign, is only good to a certain point. When you make an argument that is supported well by a metaphor, we say it’s a good metaphor. But when the limits of the metaphor become apparent, the one making the point uses the excuse, “Well, it’s just a metaphor.”

I wonder if that’s not the case with some of the metaphors, or images, we read in the bible. Let’s look at the image that describes Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29-42) in our Gospel text today. There is something about that metaphor, that sign, that rings very true. But there is also something about that sign that just doesn’t make sense.

For example: A lamb in the temple rituals of the ancient Israelites was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people. But if Jesus is now that lamb, why does a wrathful God have to be satisfied by the death of someone, let alone His only begotten son?

After all, God is Almighty. God can do anything. God is fundamentally loving and forgiving (1 John 4:7-21). If God needed to be satisfied by the death of Jesus to atone for our sins, why couldn’t God have simply exercised what Jesus instructed his disciples to forgive “70×7” (Matthew 18:22)? Why couldn’t God forgive, as many times as is necessary (i.e. infinitely), every person on earth in every place and time?

I read this week (pastordawn.wordpress.com) that the actual phrase, “Lamb of God” comes from the Jewish religious rites of Yom Kipper. It was during this festival celebrating the Day of Atonement that two unblemished lambs were brought to the temple to bear the sins of the people. But one was then set free into the wilderness.

The ritual around the Day of Atonement had at its central aim, to be united with God, to be reconciled with God. People were aware of and acknowledged their sin. That is what sin is – when we ‘miss the mark’ in faith. This confession was understood as a way towards that ultimate goal of reconciliation with God, a reconciliation that begins in our life on earth.

What happened to Jesus was an injustice. Jesus dying on the cross was a bad thing. He died wrongfully. Just like so many people today suffer injustice on a large scale – dying in wars, brutalized unjustly. God the Father was first to shed a tear when Jesus died; God is first to shed a tear when one of his followers – that’s us – suffers.

But as is often the case, God makes something out of nothing good. The willingness on the part of Jesus to give his whole self unto a wrongful death carries an important message to us. This is the good news, the Gospel: Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to live life fully in our humanity. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to respond positively to Jesus’ invitation – as he made to Andrew and Simon – to “come and see” what God is all about, to embrace our walk on earth with others in faith. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission even to embrace our own earthly death.

Because this life on earth matters. We are on the path to reconciliation with God that begins in this time and place. We are together on this faith journey to be united with God. Our lives are being transformed in the waters of baptism and in daily walk in faith. This is good news. As I said, one of the first disciples of Jesus identified in this text is Simon; already, early on in his discipleship, Jesus invites him into the transformed life, symbolized by changing his name from Simon to Cephas – the Rock, Peter.

As the liturgy of Holy Communion articulates it well: Jesus, “who on the Cross, opened to us the way of everlasting life” that is to say, to become fully united with God; to respond to that earthly journey towards union with God, a union that will one day be complete, beyond death.

The word “diabolical” comes from two Greek words meaning “to throw apart.” If something or someone is diabolical, that someone or something is dividing and separating that which could be united and at peace. The evil one tears the fabric of life apart. In contrast, the Spirit of God seeks to make one out of two; the Spirit comes to mend, soften and heal.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” cries the Baptist. How does Jesus ‘take away’ the sin of the world? The Son of God accomplishes this through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the M.O. of Jesus. Jesus gives his life for us, on the Cross. His sacrifice is an act of forgiveness. And, as such, unyielding love.

Richard Rohr points out that about two-thirds of Jesus’ teachings are about forgiveness; about a third of all the parables of Jesus, directly and indirectly, have to do with forgiveness (p.133-134, Everything Belongs). The growth and positive change that we experience in our lives because of following Jesus come about not because of a fear of punishment from a wrathful, legalistically-bound God who demands sacrifice in order to be satisfied. The growth and positive change in our lives happens through tears of confession and assurances of forgiveness more so than through threats and punishments.

That’s the powerful and most important meaning of the images of Lamb and Cross that we associate with Jesus: Forgiveness is God’s entry into powerlessness, humility. When we encounter the living Jesus in our own lives, we find someone not against us, but someone who is definitely for us!

The goal of faith is not separation, but union – union with God. We may call it getting to heaven, or being saved – however we describe it. But, ultimately discipleship is about bringing together, rather than dividing. True religion is about union. To live in conscious union, relationship, with God is what it means to “be saved”. To be restored, united, in Christ today is to be restored, united within the living Body of Christ, which is the Church. We are the hands and feet and eyes of Christ in the world today.

To exercise a ministry of reconciliation can only be done with great humility and grace. This was the dominant posture of Jesus’ work on earth: that he submitted himself to be baptized by John, that he knelt to wash the feet of his disciples, that he willingly made himself vulnerable in every human way possible, even unto death on a cross (Philippians 2).

Going into the World Junior Hockey Tournament or the Olympics, Canada is always one of the strong favourites. And given the high expectations, and with the entire nation looking on – there is, to say the least, a lot of pressure on the Canadians to win it all. I heard on the news that during the preliminary round of the World Juniors in 2010 in Buffalo, rather than making the mistake of being over-confident and arrogant, the coach then, Dave Cameron, taught his players to be humble in the face of all the attention and competition. Be humble. Interesting – especially in the highly competitive dog-eat-dog culture, we have the Canadian coach teaching his players the value and wisdom of humility.

In the church, and in the faithful living-out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, it’s not some winning and some losing. It’s about doing both, winning and losing – doing both not apart and divided and competitive – but doing both together with grace and humility.

In humility, we can forgive and let go. In humility, we can see the other’s point of view. In humility we can see others as they are, created and loved in God’s image. In humility we can grow in faith in the ministry of reconciliation.

Let us pray that in all that we are and do, we seek to mend, to heal, and to unite that which has been divided in and among, and around us.

The visible signs of unity in the church can be today the most significant. Let’s watch for these signs.

Mixed up Christians?

A popular term I’ve heard recently in business circles, as well as in various political attempts to solve conflicts dealing with teacher contracts and Aboriginal-First Nations disputes is: “results-based management.”

A simple Google search will reveal what results-based management principles and strategies are all about. As I understand it, it is a performance driven approach to leadership, bottom-line economics, and mediation. It seems to me, such an approach pre-judges the outcome of an encounter between people who differ in some respect. Its success relies heavily on the exercise of power and who has more of it.

I wonder, though, how results-based management styles square with principles drawn from the more organic approach described in Paul’s illustration of a community of faith being like a human body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). I doubt the interaction of body parts will display health and vigor if one part lords it over another. I wonder if results-based management allows for the possibility of an outcome that neither party pre-meditated and pre-determined prior to their interaction.

The focus of prayer during this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is India. And at last year’s Luther Hostel in Waterloo I learned about some very critical aspects of India’s geography. One of those geographic wonders is the Sundarbans delta in India and Bangladesh.

The Sundarbans delta comprises of a giant estuary. Estuaries are borderlands that are continuously interlaced by the rivers on one side and lashed by the ocean on the other. The Sundarbans is the largest river delta in the world and is bordered by the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world. It is marked by the coming together of the River Ganges and the Indian Ocean.

This estuary receives two environments that do not blend together easily. Variations in temperature, salinity, and murkiness create downright havoc in the delta. Instability is characteristic of this delta.

But this variability also proves its greatest strength.

The Sundarbans serve as the home for a large variety of animals, among them some endangered species. It’s home to the largest population of Royal Bengal tigers in India and also some of the world’s largest crocodiles, which can get to be over twenty feet long and big enough to hold two grown men. Within the forest bordering the estuary live some fifty species of mammals, about 320 species of inland and migratory birds, about fifty species of reptiles, eight species of amphibians, and about 400 species of fish. They are the breeding grounds for several species of fish and serve as nurseries.

The productivity of an estuary is estimated to be eight times that of agricultural land because of the rich organic material that the river brings in due to the give-and-take in the mixing of river and ocean.

It is no wonder that the word “Sundarbans” means “beautiful jungle” in Bengalese; the paradox of it all: How can a jungle be beautiful? And yet, it is.

Estuaries, in general, are “the schools where lessons of life are taught, where one’s eyes are opened to the reality of the world. They are margins where there is an unveiling, where revelation takes place.” (Mary Joy Philip)

This is a natural example of the mixing of two very different components resulting in a hybrid environment — a new reality. And this new reality can produce so much good for the world.

The positive consequence of mixing two distinct entities is not dilution or dissolving of those entities. For some species that cannot adapt to that changing environment it means total extinction. But for those that can adapt, the result is a transformation which is vital, giving rise to an entirely new, vigorous reality for both.

I think it is possible for distinct beings — whether those beings are groups in society at odds with one another, members of a family, business team, religious or political community in conflict, or a society struggling with its open diversity — to engage one another productively.

But in this coming together, no one can pre-meditate, and manage towards a result that either party wants. The effect and consequence of coming together in mutual respect and as equal creatures, we cannot forsee. But we are in this thing together. And it is only together, not apart, where the solution lies.

Mix it up together, we must.

The integrity of Christian Unity

Nearly two hundred Roman Catholics, Anglicans and United Church members packed the church in east-end Ottawa. It was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And these people gathered on a frigid Sunday afternoon in January to celebrate Christian unity.

My heart was warmed, since normally what the world sees and focuses upon is the doctrinal infighting and squabbling among Christians from different denominations. But today those differences were placed in the perspective of the underlying basis of our unity of purpose and mission in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen!

Since I was leading part of the prayers and my name and position printed in the order of service I was regarded the token Lutheran in the crowd. Following the service most of the assembly gathered in the parish hall for a festive reception. The energy level was high. People were happy to be together. Small talk and jovial conversation prevailed.

And then, wham!

Who I presumed was a member of the French-Roman-Catholic church approached me with a smile yet determined gate. With coffee in his steady hand, he said in French he wanted to ask me an important question that would demand my full attention. He instructed me to give him three honest and concise reasons why I was NOT Roman Catholic.

My eyes momentarily darted to the heavens for inspiration. Uhhhhh. Okay. Here it goes. From the heart. Concise. I spoke, in English:

1. I was raised in a Lutheran family — born, baptized, confirmed. My upbringing and much of my socialization during my formative years was within the Lutheran church context. That has to be the first, honest answer to his question;

Then I went on the offensive …. 🙂

2. I like the core Lutheran theological orientation originally posited by Martin Luther in the 16th century that we are saved by grace through faith. We are justified by grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone. And not by anything we must do to gain favor with God and with one another. This general approach towards all things church is my theological home, my lens through which I interpret, and my joy in believing and behaving. There isn’t, quite honestly and respectfully, another denomination whose theological emphasis rings quite as true to me as this core Lutheran position. Although I recognize places in other denominations where grace is believed and practiced as such, I choose the Lutheran theological message.

… And then I pushed further ….

3. Lutherans, I said, have taken the middle road in liturgical expression, worship style, even theological nuancing — usually somewhere in between the evangelical conservative, charismatic forms on the one side, and the more contemplative, formal Roman Catholics on the other. The rigidity around those divisions, born in the Reformation era, are dissipating over time, thankfully. And yet, I continue encountering faithful Lutherans — even young ones — who identify neither with extreme, cut-and-dry positions denouncing all ritual and mystery, but who will also not forfeit a reliance on scripture and reason altogether — for example, in celebrating the Sacraments. In other words, Lutherans have normally sought a balanced approach. This, I find, is healthy and good. Very Canadian, I might add.

When I finished, silence ensued in the space between us. Then, came the broad smile. He offered his hand and with a firm shake (which felt a lot like a German hand-shake!) he said: “Very well answered. Thank you. Can we talk more about this later?”

I bit my tongue to ask him why he was not Lutheran. Although I realize that in the give-and-take of inter-denominational dialogue the timing of these questions are critical to keeping the door open to continue the conversation. I look forward to that.

Often I hear from church folk that what they fear from Christian unity is a watering down of our own identity. What some people fear in engaging other Christians and spending more time with them is dissolution of what is important to us. What some fear is a loss of integrity.

I believe it’s the opposite. We don’t lose our integrity. We find it.

In encountering other Christians who are different from us we have the opportunity to distinguish — for ourselves, maybe more importantly — what defines us.

Have we forgotten? Have we become so used to, familiar and comfortable with what we do that we’ve beocme stuck in a rut and take it for granted? Have we forgotten what to say when someone asks us, precisely, about our faith?

The church finds itself at a crossroads today. And one of the ways the church will find its way is not to shy away from opportunities to be with other Christians who are different from us. Unfortunately one reaction to the uncertainty in the world today is to barracade ourselves within a fortress mentality — not seeing beyond the comfort of our church walls and practices. This is a tragic trajectory. Let us not follow the path to cocoon in comfort.

But in celebrating our unity, yes it is a challenge. We are drawn out of ourselves for a moment. And this may make us squirm for a while. But should we stay with it, we will find ourselves within that larger Christian family. And find opporunity to share with others from where we’ve come and what’s important to us. In the end we discover and experience our unity — inner and outer — in our diversity.

Be your colour, show your colour, together

This ‘childrens chat’ can be used in worship during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Invite children to sit on the floor near the altar with you, the leader. Ask each child reach into a shoe box held above their heads to retrieve one coloured pencil. Include a variety of pencils in the box of various sizes, shapes and colours. Provide one large, blank sheet of paper on the floor in the middle of the group of children. Once each child has chosen a pencil ….

Each of you has chosen a pencil crayon from my box. Are you happy with the colour you got?

Why, or why not?

Okay, but can you still draw something with it?

I think so, since I made sure all the markers, crayons and pencils were sharpened and in good working condition before worship today.

Alright, what I would like you to do is think of something you can draw together as a group, given whatever colours you have. How can you do this?

Well, first you might want to ask your neighbour what colour they have. Then, when you know all the colours in play, you can make up a picture that can include all the colours. The picture can be whatever you want it to be, so long as you get each and every colour you have in your group on the paper as part of that picture.

Any ideas? …

As you are colouring your picture together, I want to remind you that God gave each of us a colour in our lives. This colour is like something very special that each of you has — a talent, a treasure, an ability, something you can like about yourself. This is a very special gift that God gave you and no one else. Do you know what your colour is? — your talent, treasure, ability?
If not, that’s okay. Sometimes it can take a long time before you find that out.

This gift is not something we chose to have, just like you couldn’t choose your favourite colour or pencil from the box. All we have to do is reach into our lives, like you reached into the box, to discover what that colour is. When we’ve done that, God wants us to use it!

Part of being the church together is to know your special talent or gift. But also to discover what other peoples’ talents are. And when you know what everyone has, just imagine the neat things you can do as a group.

That’s what being the church is all about. Jesus wants us to work together, using our talents, to paint a beautiful picture — like you are doing now — using all the gifts of everyone in the church. Not just one person’s talent. But everyone’s, together!

Then we can show the bright and beautiful colours of God’s love to the whole world.

Good job!

Let’s pray: Thank you God for creating me. Thank you for giving me a special gift. Help me to know that gift, and learn the gifts of others. Then, bless us with your love, so together with other people, we can use our gifts to show your love to the world. Amen.

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7)