Thursday, 25 May 2023

Can You Feel The Spirit?

Do you feel like you could use a little extra spirit right now? A little energy, some creativity or imagination, maybe some patience, but certainly some inspiration? Have I got a deal for you.

Pentecost is an important day in the church. It sounds like it ought to be expensive, with a name like that, but it’s actually all about something that’s priceless. And free.

The name on the day simply means fifty. For Christians, it’s fifty days after Easter, but for the Jewish characters in the story of the day, it’s the festival of Shavuot, a harvest festival that occurs fifty days after the first day of Passover. After Jesus leaves the disciples for the last time (the Ascension story), he tells them to go to Jerusalem, which is where they find themselves on the day of Pentecost.

As the story goes, they experienced a rushing wind and then tongues of flame appear over their heads and they were “filled with the Holy Spirit.” They find they can now speak in the languages of the various diverse nationalities of the people around them, sharing the story of Jesus, his life and teachings, the good news of God’s love and grace. It’s the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that they will be “baptized” with the Spirit and be empowered to show the world all that they learned from him. 

This is why we often call Pentecost the birthday of the church, because it’s the beginning of the spread of the message. Whether a literal language experience or a metaphor, the disciples were able to communicate in a way that made people feel “at home” with the message and relate to it.

That, in itself, is a pretty powerful story. But I feel we tend to tell it like the Spirit was was something that happened to them, that the spirit is in the wind and fire. I wonder about that. I wonder also how others “caught the Spirit” after that initial dramatic moment. Did they catch it from the disciples or did the disciples have to hand it over in some way? Was there more wind and fire?

Let me just gently “what if” this for a moment.

What if the Spirit was already in them, just as it’s already in us. What if the mighty rushing wind is the breath of fresh air, the surge of hope that cleans out all of the crap in our lives that gets in the way of us realizing that and knowing the Spirit that’s in our hearts and minds and hands. What if the tongues of flame were like the light bulb that goes on over our heads when we realize something in a cartoon, the moment of enlightenment or realization that the Spirit is in us and enlivening us. We’re suddenly - and sometimes not-so-suddenly - aware.

What if the message was so readily shared with others because what they connected with was the passion and authenticity of the disciples truth-telling. What if, in this moment, the words didn’t get in the way of the message. Remember that wind that blew? Maybe it blew away the need for my thoughts or my words or my way and  left only the way. What if the awareness of the spirit in each other allowed for language to be just a means for what is true to be heard, for it to be a means to “home,” a means to reach out, one heart to another, and what if hearts were listened to.

Where does the wind need to blow in your life? What would light your spirit “on?” Listen to your heart. It’s free.

Thursday, 18 May 2023

Remind Me Again

We’re coming to the end of the season of Easter this week. So, “what’s next?” you might ask. Well, we have a calendar that says some of the most important days in the church year are ahead: Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity. (“What’s that?” might be your next question.) There’s a few other things the church added to be more relevant and contemporary. You probably have a few plans of your own and, if we consider what’s going on in the world as well, then that “what’s next?” could be starting to sound a little bit frustrated or fearful.

I imagine that’s where Jesus’ closest followers found themselves as he leaves them for the last time. The very last time.

There’s a story in the Bible that, after the resurrection, the now very much alive Jesus didn’t die again, but was simply carried up into heaven on a cloud, returning to God. He ascended into heaven (hence, The Ascension). The language of “ascension” is used in a few places, but the story itself appears only at the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. These are thought to be by the same author and seen as the story of Jesus (the gospel) and the story of what his followers did after he left (Acts), spreading the word and beginning to build the church. The ascension story is the bridge.

You might imagine the ascension as something suitably epic: a great cloud (remember the cloud was Bible-speak for the presence of God) lifts him up (remember in those days there was a very hierarchical understanding of the cosmos and heaven was definitely up), there may have been thunder or trumpets or something spectacular and showy. But I don’t think that’s the point.

As that final scene unfolds, I imagine Jesus telling them, once again, that it’s up to them now. He’s shown them everything they need to know, he’s promised them the power of the Spirit to help them and he tells them it’s time for them to go and be witnesses to their own communities and to the world. He’s passing them the baton - the spirit baton, if you like - and it’s up to them now. And then he heads off. 

Or he tries to. It seems like the disciples still don’t get it. So, you’re the messiah, they say, right? When will you be restoring the kingdom of Israel then, like we think the messiah’s supposed to?

I don’t think Jesus is frustrated that they still need direction. I think he knows that we’ll always need reminding. We’ll always need reminding that the spirit is in us and that we can be all that Jesus showed us we can be if we’d just stop looking outside ourselves and instead look in our hearts and live good into the world.

Still not done, the story gives us one more reminder. Two figures like angels appear as the disciples stare up at the sky after Jesus departure, lost in wonder or worship. “Why are you standing around staring,” they say, “get on with it.” And they do and the spirit is with them and it’s not organized, structured and ritualized, but chaotic, personal and real. Isn’t that just like the spirit?

Thursday, 11 May 2023

A Spirit in Need

I’d like you to just pause for a moment and wonder about something.

Spirit. I think there’s a part of our individual being that’s spirit. Name it something else, if you wish, but there’s a part of our wholeness of being that isn’t physical or mental and I’m going to call it spirit. I can tell you where I think it comes from before this life and where it goes after, but that’s my own belief and right now I’m just interested in what we’re doing with it here.

I’ve said this before, I know, but I’m trying to remove any sense of religion from it for a moment. Yes, I know I used the word “spirit,” but I’m confident that’s not exclusively a religious word anymore. There was certainly a time when we thought the two were interchangeable, but we’ve grown from that and I think we can make a distinction: spirit is the life force or energy that’s in living things, it powers living things and connects them; religion is an outside structure, created by human beings, with rituals, language and places that we hope helps us engage our spiritual nature, connect it to the wholeness of our being and informs how we might use it in the world.

As all religious institutions in Canada are experiencing a steep decline in participation, it might be worth stepping back from our religious traditions and structures for a minute - as hard as that may be - and wonder about what our spirits need. Because our spirits are in real need.

Sure, many churches are trying to be more contemporary, more relevant. But I wonder if we’re still locked into denominations and structures that enshrine religion over spirit. Maybe what’s needed is a whole new mindset, one that tries to let go of being inside the house of religion and instead looks at spirit with the freedom of those outside the system. 

I hear that in the apostle Paul’s speech to community leaders in Athens. There’s a story in the Bible, in the Acts of the Apostles (a continuation of Luke’s gospel that records the earliest days of the followers of Jesus after he leaves). Paul sees all the temples and shrines to the Greek gods. The Greeks had pretty much a god for everything and, just in case they missed one, they even had a temple for “an unknown” god. You don’t want to be missing one, even by accident.

When Paul speaks, he doesn’t begin with chastising them for their beliefs, he begins with acknowledging them. “I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way,” he says. At least, it depends on the translation: some say “religious.” And I think Paul meant religious, because he goes on to tell them about the one God who has been from the beginning - not many gods for many things, but one God for all things - and he tells them that God doesn’t live in shrines or temples. He tells them that God isn’t served by ritual and human constructs. He tells them that in God “we live and move and have our being.” Our very being is in God. That’s the spirit.

It’s hard to let go. Harder still to find a new way. We might, as Paul also says, need to fumble about a bit looking for God. We might even find God. The spirit is always willing.

Wednesday, 3 May 2023

The Way That I go

I believe. That’s a good place to start. I believe lots of things, but just at the moment, I want to say I believe that the Bible is about the Word (the "logos," in Greek, that wisdom, creativity and truth that was with God from the beginning), as told and written by people, inspired by the Spirit, and with the perspective of their own context.

That's my perspective, unique to me. Even if it has a label (the ubiquitous “christian,” though I’m not always happy with that) or others think that, too, it's still unique to me because I'm unique, as each of us is. I hope that perspective means that I come with an openness and receptivity to how the Word might speak to me. I hope and trust that I am always seeking what is true in the story because what is true is right, filled with love and grace, compassion and respect, for all creation. I hope, too, that's what I reflect in how I live, as best I can, acknowledging, like all of us, some very real moments of failure. That, I think, is my relationship with the Bible.

As an aside, I note that my relationship with the Bible includes a great deal of hope as well as perspective.

Coming to what is true is sometimes comforting, sometimes challenging, sometimes both, juxtaposed in a single story.  In John's gospel, when Jesus shares some final words with the disciples before his arrest, I think he senses their anxiety, their fear of Jesus leaving them. So he begins with words of comfort: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" (John 14:1-2) Comforting words to remind the disciples, and us, that we shouldn't be afraid, there's a place for us with God, in this life and whatever else there is. There are many places, even, because God's love and grace is for all. All.

In seeking what is true I think we might also hear inclusivity in words that follow a few verses later, words that have so often been used to exclude. Jesus tells them the way to this place of comfort: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Perhaps there was a time when we could hear this with the chest-thumping, finger-pointing exclusivity of "the only way."  Certainly it would have been helpful for the disciples and the earliest christians to hear strong words of reinforcement when things were hard. But in our vast, complex, multicultural world, I wonder if this is a moment to wonder at the life, not the label.

I believe the "me" Jesus describes is "the way, and the truth, and the life." Not the other way around. It's why the earliest followers of Jesus referred to themselves as The People of the Way. It's The Way that's most important. They lived the life Jesus taught in living his life: The Way is true and life-giving. The Way is inclusive. The Way is open to all. 

This is why I believe that we all come to God by our own path, our own spiritual or faith tradition. I love Jesus and my way is with Jesus, but even among the followers of Jesus, we learn about The Way in a variety of ways, from different denominations and different traditions. The Way is love, by whatever name it’s known.

Thursday, 27 April 2023

Let's take a minute, breathe, and think about it

Things would be so much simpler if there were only one way, wouldn’t they? One way to do things, one way to be, one way to think, one way to believe. We’d always agree and get along much better because we’d all be going the same way.

My way, of course.

Ah, there’s the problem. We need it to be our way. The world needs to change for me. Unfortunately, our individuality allows for the possibility of unity in our diversity - a struggle, to be sure, but always a possibility - but not uniformity. That would require us to be all the same, with no distinctiveness.

That’s not to say that we don’t try to achieve some level of uniformity, usually with painful and disastrous results, invariably with oppression and injustice and the attempted eradication of difference. It would be so much easier to make a better world if I just had power over everyone else to make them more, well, me. Wouldn’t it?

We’re not always like that, of course. Sometimes we can see the value of the hard way, the challenge of being open to others, to sharing ourselves with them and welcoming them to share themselves with us. We share stories and we learn. We find a way to build community, where we meet the challenge of finding a way to build each other up, together.

I think that’s what Jesus is all about. I think the life of Jesus teaches that there is a one-ness in us. It’s the one-ness of each of us being good, of each of us being created of the divine spirit and of the earth, of each of us being connected and each of us being all part of one great, well, one-ness. But what makes that one-ness great and powerful and alive is the uniqueness each brings to it. We’re a universe of diversity.

I think the life of Jesus is about showing us how to live together into that one-ness by being the best of who we are.

But here’s a thing: I also think Jesus never meant for us to think that he, the being named Jesus, was the only way. I don’t think Jesus ever meant for us to worship him as we would God. I don’t think Jesus meant for us to think that we, the followers of Jesus, have the one and only exclusive route to God.

The author of the Gospel of John tells that Jesus repeatedly describes himself with “I am” sayings. Most agree there’s seven of them: I am the Bread of Life; the Light of the World; the Gate of the sheepfold; the Good Shepherd; the Resurrection and the Life; the Way, the Truth and the Life; the true Vine. I don’t doubt that the author of John was trying to shore up support for the fledgling community of the followers of Jesus by putting the emphasis on the “I” part of the equation, meaning specifically me, Jesus. But I don’t think that’s how Jesus would speak to the world, especially a world as divisive as the one we live in.

When Jesus says “I,” I think he means his being, all that he is and all that he’s shown us. Not the label “Jesus,” but the love, grace, compassion, openness and vulnerability which “I” have shown you. It’s about the essence of who and what Jesus is, not the name or the structure or, especially, the religion. That’s how we can all be Jesus, too, even if the name’s different, the religion’s different, the culture’s different, the person is different.

I’m not insisting you agree and do and think that. I’m just asking you to think about it.

Thursday, 20 April 2023

Every Step of the Way

Life is a journey. Yes, that’s a grand cliché. But it’s still true and it’s one of the most endearing and enduring ways that we describe how we live.

Life is a journey. Or, if you’re Tom Cochrane, life is a highway (legendary song, by the way). We might be on the right track, we might have taken a wrong turn, lost our way or strayed from the path, but we journey on. One of my favourite quotes about our life journey is these words by Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road — only waves upon the sea.” Every step is new, fresh and different and there’s no going back.

Wherever our journey takes us, we meet people and have experiences that help to form who we are. Good or bad, we’re constantly learning and growing with each moment. Each of our journeys is our own and wherever we are on that journey, wherever we may think we’re headed, we don’t travel alone.

We meet God - that’s the name I use - you might say the spirit of life or love or the energy of life, but however you know this force that connects us, inspires us and enlivens us (literally), it does so with every step. Say it that way and you can even call it The Force if you want to, I imagine it’s where George Lucas got the idea from anyway. And the Force is strong in many people and places and things. When we meet them in our lives we might call them teachers or mentors or experiences that transform or inspire us. Maybe we don’t even see it that way in the moment and only realize it later. We just need to look with open hearts and be ready to welcome that connection, no matter how unexpected it may be.

Each of the gospels records a story, or more than one, of the resurrected Jesus being seen. Even though John singles out Thomas as an example, none of Jesus’ closest companions recognize him at first. It’s only when he offers proof or some action that’s Jesus-like that they know who it is. This is how we’ll see Jesus alive today, by recognizing the divine spirit Jesus shows us in each and every one of us, in every living thing and throughout creation.

It can be hard for us to see sometimes, so here are these stories of Jesus’ closest companions coming to understand and “see” him. But there’s one that doesn’t feature the eleven chosen disciples or the women who were at the tomb. Not holy saints, but just two ordinary folks on a journey.

Luke tells this story of two followers of Jesus, one un-named and one whose name we only know from this single incident. They’re walking to Emmaus, a location archeologists don’t know for sure even existed. They meet Jesus on the way but don’t recognize him, even though he teaches them all about the purpose of the Messiah revealed in scripture. They don’t recognize him until he breaks bread that evening, just like Jesus, and then vanishes.

So, just to recap. Two people we don’t know were on a journey to somewhere we don’t know when they meet someone they don’t know who teaches them something that transforms their life. And then they recognize it’s Jesus.

Isn’t that the journey of every life? Image how often we encounter Jesus when we engage the journey, welcome the stranger and embrace the spirit. 

Wednesday, 12 April 2023

Meeting Jesus

From early in the morning on the first day of the week to beside the sea where the disciples were fishing, the stories of the resurrected Jesus being seen by people are full of wonder. And disbelief, fear, amazement, doubt and probably more than a little bit of confusion.

Well, of course. The story’s about someone physically rising from the dead. Today, we’d call that impossible, so imagine what it would have seemed like to people two thousand years ago. Despite the fact that he repeatedly told them it was going to happen. It would have been, well, God-like.

This is the power of God over death and life. A power beyond us, much like Jesus demonstrates in his life. Jesus is capable of things we simply aren’t because he is the child of God. That’s why we worship him and built a religion around him. 

I wonder if Jesus would really appreciate that. He seems to have been trying so hard to draw us close to him and here we are, setting him apart, making him unreachable.

Imagine if there were another way to know this story. A little less literal and one that emphasized the close, intimate relationship we can have with Jesus and, through him, with God. Imagine the story is meant to draw attention to the life of Jesus and how, in living as he did, he showed us what we could be capable of, that we are all children of God and, as the creation story tells us, made of the divine spirit and the earth, good from the beginning.

The women who found the tomb empty that morning were reminded that Jesus had told them he would live again and that they should go and tell the others that. Matthew says they turn around and there he is. Mark says he appeared to Mary and then “in another form” to others. Luke says that two of the disciples met him on the road and didn’t recognize him at first. John says Mary thought he was the gardener at first. And when he appeared to the disciples where they were hiding, they needed to see his hands and feet. The disciples who met him by the lake didn’t recognize him at first, either. John even makes a point of Thomas doubting the news, even though they all did. It seems like they all found it difficult to see Jesus alive. Maybe they just didn’t see what they expected.

Aren’t we all in that boat?

What if all they had to do to see Jesus was realize he was alive in them and in the people around them? What if the open tomb simply opened their eyes and their hearts? What if it really was the gardener, but they could suddenly see Jesus in them or in a stranger they met on the road?  What if the disciples recognizing the wounds or the action of breaking bread with them were metaphors for what wounds us, too, and what actions we might take to share, connect and heal? What if we could be open to seeing Jesus, especially when and where we least expect it, in someone from whom we might least expect it? What if we weren’t blinded by expectations and instead opened our eyes and hearts with hope? Can you imagine that?