Thursday 29 February 2024

Sometimes the Way is Messy

Jesus gets angry. You may already know the story I’m going to refer to, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s not an isolated incident. There are a few stories where it’s abundantly clear that Jesus can be irritated, frustrated, even out right angry. Jesus also cries, forgets, learns and gets tired. There doesn’t seem to be any biblical account of Jesus laughing, but there are certainly moments of humour in some of the parables and I feel pretty confident that someone as passionately human as Jesus would have covered all the emotions.

I think we do tend to play that down, though, and it’s unfortunate because connecting with Jesus’ humanity is an important part of understanding how Jesus shows us the way to the divine spirit that is in our own humanity. The way to God isn’t out there somewhere, it’s in here, in each heart and soul, in the wholeness of each person.

Let’s get back to angry Jesus. The story I’m referring to has historically been called “Jesus Cleanses the Temple.” Jesus goes into the Temple at Passover, sees the animals being sold for sacrifice and the moneychangers working overtime (it’s a busy festival) and he gets angry. He overturns their table and chases people and animals out.

The story appears in all four gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke place the story in the last week of Jesus’ life, just days before the crucifixion. In their story, Jesus angrily denounces the profiteering behaviour of the sellers and tells them they’ve made the Temple “a den of thieves.” So Jesus is angry, not because of the selling, but of the cheating, unjust behaviour of the sellers, it seems. After all, pilgrims to the Temple need all those things: various animals were required for sacrifice and you couldn’t take the everyday Roman coins into the Holiest of Holies, they had to be changed into Jewish shekels. There were rules around the rituals to be performed when meeting God and even in the era of the Second Temple, this was still where God lived. For Jesus, the unjust behaviour was an affront to God. You can also see how annoying this would be to the Temple authorities and how it played into the end of Jesus’ life.

The author of John, though, tells the story differently. Even while the basic features are the same, I think they had a different reason for telling the story. In John, this happens near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, right after the miracle of changing water into wine at the Cana wedding. He says nothing about the behaviour of the sellers and money changers, but focuses on the things, the animals and money, saying they’ve made God’s house a “marketplace.” He upsets things and chases the animals out and, when the people ask for a sign of his authority to behave this way, he simply says “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John says they don’t understand that he means himself, the temple of his body, but later, after his death, the disciples remembered.

In this telling of the story, I think Jesus, right from the start, saw all those things people needed for ritual as just that, things. And things can get in the way between us and God. An open, honest and true heart’s all that’s needed to meet God. And that’s why Jesus talks about “the temple” of his body. That’s where God lives, not in a temple of stone, but in the bodies of all living things. That temple has physical shape, spirit and intellect, all of which we use to live the wholeness of God into the world. There’s more to it than just the stuff that can get in the way, there’s the stuff we need in order to care for the temple and build our relationship with God.


So what does that for you? How are you caring for your temple? What helps you be whole? What brings you closer to God in you? 

Thursday 22 February 2024

Something To Get Behind

I don’t think Jesus was really one for name calling, but sometimes he just has to call people out for their behaviour.

“Get behind me, satan!” Jesus says to Peter. (Mark 8:33) Seems like a bit of a slap in the face, especially for one of his key followers, but Jesus had good reason. He’d been talking about what’s ahead for him: the suffering, the rejection and death and the resurrection after three days, basically predicting the future. In Peter’s defence, it was pretty dark stuff. So Peter tells Jesus to stop talking like that. “You’ll scare people off,” I imaging him saying, and it’s demoralizing for the disciples who’ve already given up their lives to follow him. Nobody wants to follow someone to death, especially someone who teaches love, grace and kindness. If that’s what you get for living that way, well, you can see how Peter might think Jesus could spin it a little more positively. Besides, that isn’t the way Peter hopes the messiah is headed.

But calling Peter the devil, that seems a little harsh. Maybe it is. And maybe he didn’t. 

I think it’s easy to assume Jesus was annoyed with Peter and that he’s telling Peter to get out of the way, that he’s just as threatening to Jesus’ ministry as the devil. But we assume that tone. Satan is an ancient Hebrew term that can mean a legal adversary, a questioner or accuser. In this sense, it’s not inherently evil, nor is it destructive. So, first of all, maybe Jesus wasn’t doing anything more than pointing out that Peter was questioning what he was doing.

But even if he was suggesting Peter was doing more than that, what if we didn’t read this as Jesus telling him to get out of the way, but rather to get onside. Get behind me and back me up, Jesus could be saying, bring your questions, bring your criticism, even, but bring it to my mission and follow me. Because he has more to say about following him.

What if we heard Jesus then tell Peter (the tester) to start thinking differently. Open your mind to what’s really true, Peter, what’s really important in life and stop thinking the way human beings usually do. Think beyond your personal comfort, think beyond the stuff, the power and the certainty that comes with control of things. Open your mind and your heart to what life really is about. Otherwise, you won’t understand this next bit: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

Let go of the stuff we associate with this life, the things like wealth and power, and pick up kindness, compassion and love. Those are the things that are life-giving. The Jesus I know would never invite anyone to suffering, brokenness and death. He acknowledges the struggles of life and sees so much of it in his ministry, but his response is always love and life. That’s what he wants Peter to get behind.

If you want to follow me, take up your cross, he says, and follow me (Mark 8:34). I don’t think he means the instrument of pain and death, but the individual challenges each of us may face in living the life of Jesus in the world. Love, compassion and grace aren’t always easy, whether it’s loving others, loving ourselves or even loving God. But the world is changed when we do and I, for one, could really get behind that.

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Where To Begin

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, was on Valentine’s Day this year. That happened three times in the last century and it’ll happen three times in this one (2018, 2024 and 2029) and then we’re good until the next century. It happens because Valentine’s Day is a fixed date and Ash Wednesday isn’t. The forty days of Lent are tied to the date of Easter which is the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. It’s complicated.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who’s confounded by the two traditions happening at once. I would say, though, that it’s a pretty good reminder of life being more than scheduling and more than rituals.

I wonder also - and I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before and will again in ’29 - what Jesus would say if he were here. A conversation with Jesus might be helpful right now.

I think he’d find it funny that we have one day to celebrate love and forty to wonder about our sinful selves with prayer, fasting and almsgiving (the hallmarks of Lent). But wait, we might say, Valentine’s Day isn’t about your kind of love, Jesus. I think he’d find that even funnier because I think Jesus is about the wholeness of love as much as he’s about the wholeness of our being. Love is love, Jesus might say, and it’s for every day. And when you’re wondering about yourself and your relationship with God and the world around you, there isn’t a better place to begin than with the fullness of being love. What, Jesus might say, do you think I was doing in the wilderness?

Hmm. Well, here we are at Lent, the forty days before Easter set aside by the church to mirror the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness (a story told in each of the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke). It’s traditionally been a time of repentance and preparation for Easter, kind of like Advent is for Christmas. Lent has always been a solemn time of self-reflection, prayer and contemplation observed with fasting and penance. Some people still give things up for lent, a symbolic denial of things that tempt us.

Ash Wednesday begins that time with the ceremonial marking of a cross on the forehead, a cross made with oil and ash from the burning of palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. It’s accompanied by the reminder that we are from dust and will return to dust (Genesis 3:19) and the admonition to repent. We enter the season of Lent, then, suitably prepared: we acknowledge that we are mortal and sinful.

Okay, says Jesus, I see what you did there, but hang on a minute. That’s not how I went into the wilderness, is it?

In each of the gospels, the wilderness is preceded by an account of Jesus’ baptism by John. Mark says that there was a “Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:10-12).

So first of all, Jesus goes into the wilderness knowing that he is loved by God and that God’s happy that he is who he is. Second, it’s that same Spirit that comes to him at baptism that sends him into the wilderness - drives him there, Mark writes. Jesus doesn’t go out there alone. Whether you believe the point of the story is for Jesus to confront the devil or, like me, you think this is really a story about Jesus wondering and learning about himself, he doesn’t go there alone. He goes loved by God and inspired by the Spirit.

And all this happened before Jesus begins his ministry. I think Jesus went out there to wonder about himself, his relationship with God and with other people, to wonder about the world and what was happening. To reflect without any distractions and contemplate things with an open mind. Of course, with that freedom and openness to wonder came temptation, it always does.  But with the Spirit, Jesus faced it and overcame it.

Then, Jesus embarks on his ministry. He lives his true self - the divine spirit and the earthly being. He lives love.

Valentine’s Day, a day of love, on Ash Wednesday? Seems like a good coincidence to me. If you’re going to take some time this lent for self-examination and prayer, begin with loving yourself and knowing that you, like all God’s children, are loved by God just for who you are. Remember that you come from the dust of the earth and will return there, but remember that life is for living. And remember that both the divine spirit and the dust of creation that is in you connects you in a profound and intimate relationship with all things.

Now. Where shall we go next?

Thursday 8 February 2024

When It Feels Like Everything Everywhere All At Once

You know that feeling like you’re right in the middle of something? Pretty sure you do.

Could be the middle of anything, from life to a time to a task, a game, a book or a show, a walk or a ride. If there’s a beginning and an end, there must be a middle, right? Sometimes it can feel good to be in the middle of something, sometimes not so much. We might even prefer the beginning or end of something, feeling the excitement of just getting started or the satisfaction - or relief - of concluding. Sometimes, being “in the middle of something” isn’t even the literal middle, so much as an expression we use to describe just being involved. We’re engaged, we’re doing. Sometimes, being in the middle is about being in between things. It’s a middle ground, a transitional space. Sometimes it’s all of these things, like the movie title “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” That’s what the world feels like today, globally, nationally, in our communities and neighbourhoods, in our homes. We’re just in the middle of it all.

We’re experiencing a little of that with church these days (minus the threat to the multiverse and the unravelling of reality, I hope). We’ve come to the end of Epiphany, the period after Christmas whose theme is light, enlightenment and the revealing of Jesus in the world. We’re about to the embark on the journey of Lent, a time traditionally observed as being for self-reflection, wondering about our relationship with God and preparing for the most important “light” of the year, Easter, and the resurrection story. We’ve been using that season of light to explore some of the key pieces of our faith tradition: the Bible, images of God, Jesus, the Trinity and inclusivity. It’s certainly been enlightening, though, again, it feels like we’re just in the middle of it and now, it’s time for Lent.

But wait. In the middle, between Epiphany and Lent comes a particularly enlightening story. Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9). Jesus takes three of the disciples and goes up a mountain where he is transfigured - he shines with a bright inner light. Eugene Peterson translates Mark’s account like this: “His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. His clothes shimmered, glistening white, whiter than any bleach could make them.” Moses and Elijah appear and talk to Jesus. The disciples want to mark the occasion by building three memorials, but Jesus says no, and then the voice of God is heard in a cloud saying “this is my beloved son, listen to him.” Then they’re alone again and Jesus asks them to not tell anyone about it until after his resurrection. 

Confused and fearful disciples, epic special effects, callbacks to an earlier story (Jesus’ baptism) and Hebrew traditions, wisdom and the prophets, and there’s Jesus, in the middle of it all, just being the most Jesus. And while we sandwich this story in the middle between Epiphany and Lent, the author of Mark puts it right in the middle of Jesus’ life story. Jesus has been baptized, he goes into the wilderness, then into his ministry, healing, teaching and preaching, rising in fame. He’s at the top of his game. And then this story. And then, down the mountain and on to Jerusalem, challenged by the authorities and eventually killed, and then the biggest light of all coming from the empty tomb.

Standing in the middle, looking back at where he’s come from and forward to what’s ahead, standing with his own followers and visions of Moses and Elijah, and the presence of God, in the middle of all that, what does Jesus do? He shines.

In the middle of it all, Jesus shines with the light of his true self, the light of the divine spirit and his earthly being. I believe that’s part of what Jesus is about: to show us that we too, have that divine spirit, “the image of God,” and earthly being in each of us. He shows us that we can live true to it and love true to it, and shine with the true light of it. Whatever is happening in our lives, wherever we are, on the mountain top or in the valley of shadow or anywhere in the middle of things, the light is in each of us. Shine.

Thursday 1 February 2024

Look At This

I’m just going to talk about my wife for a minute. Like most people out being Jesus in the world, she won’t be too thrilled with that, but frankly, I think when you see Jesus in the world, you should point and say “look! Jesus.”

Lori has a lot of gifts, and I couldn’t cover them all, but I want to talk about one of the places where she uses them: amateur theatre. I’m saying “amateur” because I first got to know Lori through community theatre, but this is going to be about school kids.

Part of Lori’s job as Wellness Worker in our little community is that she spends most of the year in the school. In addition to the wellness of the students and staff, she leads the theatre program for both junior and senior high students. With a K-12 school population of about 250, the pool of kids is relatively small and it’s a class, so, basically, if you’re in the class, you’re in the show. You might audition for a particular part you’d like, but just being there puts you on stage or in the tech booth. Lori works with a teacher, but there’s no choreographer, vocal coach, set designer or  builders, costumer or live band. There’s some parent help, but the kids also do some of that work. I’ll come back to that.

At junior high age, a few of the kids might have some theatre experience, or have sung in a choir or maybe been in a church Christmas play, but most will be acting on stage for the first time. And singing and dancing and doing choreography because Lori picks musicals. Not only because they involve more kids, but because they involve more skills.

The junior high kids just did Frozen (the junior version - it’s about an hour and ten minutes instead of two hours). Certainly one of the most familiar shows of the last ten years, with songs you just can’t get out of your head, it’s also one of those Disney shows that has to look and sound like the real thing. It did. And it was really good. And when you take into account everything you just read, it was amazing and, best of all, full of joy. But the three performances after weeks of learning and rehearsals isn’t why I’m talking about it.

Lori has a gift for seeing the potential in people. She then works with that potential to encourage it, support it and draw it out. She has a vision of where things are going, but gets there with the gifts of each individual living into their potential. She does that by creating a safe, encouraging place where kids feel they can be vulnerable and try new things without fear of embarrassment or that they’ll be made fun of or criticized. They’re honoured and respected for who they are. There’s compassion and empathy. There’s care and support. They learn to work collaboratively because there is a willingness to learn and grow. They build community. Kids can feel like they belong, not just because they’re fitting in, but because their gifts are contributing to building that very community. And as each of them discover those gifts, learn how to use them and to share them, they grow in confidence as people and how they express themselves. That isn’t found in the performances, but in the weeks getting there and in the weeks after, as they learn how to share those gifts beyond that one experience. It can be life changing. It’s not perfect, but we’re not either.

So, “look! Jesus.” But also, Look! What a great model of community! The kind of community Jesus had in mind. Jesus didn’t seek out conformity or control but diversity and inclusion, because that’s what creates an engaging, caring, growing community. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it because we are worthy of it. Just ask Lori. 

Thursday 25 January 2024

Life, the Truth, and the Way to God

The story of the Last Supper is a bit different in the gospel of John than in the other gospels. Jesus gathers the disciples for the Passover meal. He washes their feet as if he were a servant, an example for them of service, he outs Judas as his betrayer and he warns Peter that he will betray him. Then he makes a big long speech we’ve come to call the Farewell Discourse because that’s just what it is: the kind of speech you make when you’re leaving. And he is.

Jesus sees the concern, the anxiety, the nervousness of the disciples. They know something’s up, but they’re not sure what. So Jesus begins, “do not let your hearts be troubled,” a variation of his favourite thing to say: don’t be afraid.

Then he says, look, there’s a place for everyone with God, like a big house where everyone has their own room but we’re all living together like a family. That’s what I’ve been trying to show you, not just in the next life, but in this one, too. I’ve been showing you the way back to God and now, you know the way.

Thomas (who will later become famous for his questions) says to Jesus, “but we don’t know the way. How could we? It’s not like you’ve given us directions.” There’s a general murmur of agreement from the other disciples. Jesus sighs, shakes his head and then rests his forehead in the palm of one hand for a minute. Another big sigh.

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” says Jesus. That’s how you come to God, just like I showed you. You know me, so you know God, too. It’s really the only way.

It’s Philip’s turn now. Show us God, then, he says. Since you’re the only way, show us God and we won’t be so afraid.

Another big sigh from Jesus, and a two handed face palm. All this time we’ve been together, how have you not understood this? he asks. I wonder if future generations will hear my story and not get it either.

Listen, I’ve been showing you God, every step of the way. It’s not words, it’s not directions, it’s not behaviour. It’s life. It’s how you live. That’s why I say I’m the way, the truth and the life. You can be that, too, because that’s how we come to know God. It’s not just me, it’s you, too. To believe in me is to believe in God and to believe in the divine that is in each other. Looks at it from the other end: to live the life that God has given you, be true to the good that has been in you from the beginning, because that’s the way I’ve been showing you. The divine spirit is in everyone, together with their humanity. That’s the way I’ve been showing you and it’s the why I’ve been showing you. The way to God is already in you, it’s in everyone. Be true to it and you’ll know God.

Now listen, I’ve got to tell you about the Spirit, too, and I’ve a few more things to share before I go. I don’t have much time …

Maybe that’s not the version of the story you’ve heard. But, read John 14. For the life of me (no pun intended), I can’t imagine that Jesus meant that we’d only meet God in the next life, nor that he, Jesus, was the only way to God. God’s much too big and way too inclusive for that, and Jesus knew it. That’s why he was trying to show us. That’s the Way. 

Thursday 18 January 2024

More Wonder, Less Mystery

What would you say if someone asked you “how do you understand the relationship between God, Jesus and the Spirit?”

A simpler question, perhaps, than when I asked “who is God for you, personally?” It still has lots of unpacking to do, in order to be clear about the terms and context of the question, but you’re probably more likely to have a ready answer.

That may be because this relationship is a pretty fundamental piece of the christian tradition, the idea that there is one God, but the nature of that one God is three unique and distinct persons: God, Jesus and the Spirit. It has a variety of expressions, but the one most people are used to hearing, the classic one, is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There’s also Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer or Parent, Friend and Comforter or God-in-the-world, God-among-us and God-within-us or Lover, Beloved and Love Between. There are many more, all working hard to help us understand.

This is the Trinity, a term that comes from the latin meaning triad or threefold. Not be fussy about it, but just to be clear: it doesn’t simply mean three, it means three in relationship. I like to think of it as “tri-unity.” The relationship part is important and, as we often find with relationships, it can be really confounding.

The term Trinity doesn’t appear in the Bible and the relationship isn’t explicitly stated, but the understanding that there is one was obvious enough that there were questions and wondering from the beginning, and that meant that the early church felt the need to clarify it. So they did - three persons of one substance or essence - but also acknowledged that there’s a degree of mystery in it. How can three be one and one be three and the one still be one and the three still each be one? Maybe it’s less a mystery to accept and more a wonder to embrace.

There were lots of questions. There still are. Things have changed, though, and we’re not as quick to label people as heretics for wondering something different than the “official” explanation. Most of us anyway. And that’s so important because it means we can wonder and we can work at it.

I think the great thing about all this is seeing that, in all our stories, God, Jesus and the Spirit are in a relationship, a relationship so intimate that they are connected, engaged and immersed in a way that both connects them and allows for the unique expression of their selves. There is power in that, there is grace in that and most importantly, there is love in that. That we can’t explain it in a few words, a single sentence or even a paragraph doesn’t challenge its value.

Imagine if we could see our own relationships with that lens. Our relationship with God, with all of creation, our relationships with each other as members of one family of humanity. If we began with that awareness of connectedness, the awareness of that fundamental one-ness of all things, and we reached out from our place in it, rather than trying to establish our own uniqueness and then bringing others to it, maybe confrontation and conflict could be replaced with acceptance and engagement. I don’t have a certain method or technique for doing that, but, for me, I’m pretty sure it begins with knowing that God is here, Jesus shows us how and the Spirit is the inspiration to live it.