Thursday 18 December 2014

Come to the Manger

We had a Christmas Pageant.  It was Great.

We have one every year.  Some years it's a rehearsed, scripted play with sets and costumes and some years it's more informal, more a series of tableaus with narration.  The kind with kids in bathrobes with towels on their heads and angels wearing bedsheets that may be white or might have a lovely floral pattern.  You know what I mean.

This year, we called it The World's Greatest Christmas Pageant - and it was.  It was "the world's greatest" because everyone could be in it, and you being in it made it great.  The point was for everyone to be "in" the story.  You could be whomever you want to be and you could bring your own costume or wear some of the things we had available.

To be honest, I was hoping for a Ninja Turtle or a dinosaur or Batman, just to shake things up a bit.  There were a couple of John Deere flavoured outfits and a superman t-shirt, though.  And a very dapper looking Jesus.

Being who you wanted to be in the story, I said, was an opportunity to wonder a little about how we, ourselves come to the manger.  Do we run headlong to the manger or do we sometimes hold back, reluctant to come?  Are we shy or are there things between us and Jesus?  Do we dress ourselves up?  Do we dress Jesus up?

Yes we do, of course.  We have traditions and decorations and rituals.  We have ways that we interpret things and ideas about how they should look and sound and feel.  The more important question is, do they bring us closer to Jesus or just add another layer of stuff that keeps us at a comfortable distance?

Well, I don't have an answer for you.  Only you do.  If you're wondering about "meaning" at Christmas time, you might want to take a moment to wonder about the heart of this story we tell in so many ways: that God - the creator of things, the life of things, or by whatever means or name you know God - became the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable of us in order to be with us and have the opportunity to know us and be known to us as one of us.

Our pageant had many angels (perhaps not a host, but many), many shepherds, quite a few magi (more than three), a couple of Marys and Josephs, an Elizabeth and a Zechariah, sheep (live - in costume, that is - and stuffed), a kitten instead of a donkey (the Marys walked, obviously), a lion, a couple of stuffed cows and two Jesuses, one real.

At the end of our pageant, when everyone returned to their seats, the baby Jesus "lay asleep on the hay."  Well, it was cloth, actually.  And he wasn't wrapped in swaddling clothes, he was well dressed in a fancy vest and pants.  And the stable was a nice warm church and the light wasn't a star, it was a soft floodlight.

But I wasn't thinking about those things.  What I thought was that his sister had been baby Jesus in the pageant a few years ago and his dad had been the grownup Jesus a few years before that.  What I thought was, I know you.

I know you.  I wonder if that isn't where the story wants to take us, that we might come to know God better, not to fear, but to love; not to possess, but to share; not to hurt with, but to care for.  That would be a good Christmas.

Friday 12 December 2014

Expectation and Wonder

We have a Christmas Pageant in church on the third Sunday of Advent.  Or a play or some dramatic way of telling the Christmas story.  It will hopefully involve children and often might be very well organized, prepared and rehearsed.  Other times it might be intentionally not any of those things and a little chaotic.  But hopefully still with children.

The fourth Sunday of Advent we have Stories and Music for Christmas, favourite carols and stories about Christmas.  Not necessarily the Christmas story itself, but stories that help to reveal what "The Story" is all about.

Yes, by the way, I acknowledge it's still Advent.  I grew up in a tradition that emphasized the importance of Advent and held off the rush to Christmas stuff until it's time and there are moments when I remember how important that is - to take the time, I mean.  But our stories are told to be heard and to be understood and, hopefully, to speak to us in a way that brings meaning to our lives.

That's the thing about "traditions."  I'm sure I'm not the first person to point out that a "tradition" isn't something that you do every year or over and over again just because "we've always done it that way," because it's easier to just re-do it the same way or because "people expect it."  Frankly, that's just doing something that way because "you've always done it that way."  It's not a tradition.

Something becomes a tradition because it continues to have something to say, it continues to be meaningful, it still communicates a message.

That's why I love Christmas Pageants, especially ones with children.  It's a real tradition.  The story itself has meaning, but put it in the hands of children and it can take you places.  Tell the story live, when anything can happen, and something will happen.

I'm writing this before this year's pageant, so I'm not really sure how it's going to go.  The plan is for everyone - that's everyone - to come in costume or find one, or even a hat, amongst the ones we'll have available and put yourself in the scene that the narrator will be describing.  You could be "on stage" or in your seat, a key character, a shepherd, an angel, a stable animal or even a curious onlooker.  But you're in it.  That's the point.  If you were in the story, how would you come to the manger?

Now make the story part of your life and wonder about this: how do you - the true you, the you God knows - how do you come to the manger?  What does this mean to you?

I don't know how it's going to go.  I'm pretty sure it'll be an adventure, though.  But I've mentioned two words that I know will be key, because I think they're key to how we come to Christmas: expectation and wonder.

Jesus is expected.  Sure, but when?  How?  Despite the constant reminders of Advent that we be prepared precisely because we don't know when or how, we have expectations about that, don't we?  We also have expectations that need to be met about how this Christmas will look, what will happen, who's coming for dinner, what we're having, what gifts we might receive.  But the Christmas story is full of the unexpected.  Mary didn't expect what happened, Joseph sure didn't, the shepherds were surprised, Herod was nervous and you can bet the magi wondered what kind of king was the son of poor people.  The only constant in the story seems to be the words "don't be afraid."

And that's where the wonder comes in.  Don't be afraid of the unexpected in the Christmas story.  Wonder at how an angel might bring a message from God.  Wonder at how that message might be for those who, on the surface, seem the least deserving.  Wonder at how the creator of all things might choose to come to us as a weak, fragile, needy baby.  Wonder at how that was revealed to those wise enough to see.  Wonder at what this birth might mean to you.

Saturday 6 December 2014

And so it begins .... again

There's so much in the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Advent and I seem to keep coming back to the very first verse, the opening verse of the Gospel of Mark: "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."  Actually, I'm not even getting past the first two words.

"The beginning."

Mark then introduces us to John the Baptist who introduces us to Jesus - the very adult Jesus - who is the one for whom we must "prepare the way."  There's no birth of Jesus story, Mark cuts right to the chase: here's "the good news" (that's literally what "gospel" means, by the way), here's Jesus.

But three weeks before Christmas, shouldn't we be preparing for the birth story?  We're hearing this in Advent because Advent isn't a chronological season.  It's about preparing for the Jesus who has come, is coming now and will come again.  That's why we can hear about what will happen when Jesus returns (last weeks' gospel), how Jesus ministry is introduced by John, and how Jesus comes to us again this Christmas.  And how the angel Gabriel visits Mary … on the Sunday before Christmas.  It doesn't need to be in real time because it's part of a story whose meaning is timeless.

But back to "the beginning."  There's something else in that.  It's not just about being the beginning of a text that ends (rather abruptly) sixteen chapters later with a rather open-ended ending.  There's no "The End."  It's about the beginning of something that is still going, still growing, still preparing a highway for God (Mark 1:3).

It reminds me that we are constantly at the beginning, the beginning of something new.  This isn't the same Advent as before, or the same Christmas or the same December.  Sure, there may be things that feel or look similar, but they're not the same.  Every moment has the potential for a new beginning.

Now lets add the rest of the sentence: "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ."  Let's add John's call to be ready, to make the pathway ready for Jesus to come, to repent and turn to follow that path with Jesus.  Every step becomes a new beginning.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

It's always Advent

Every Advent, I remember a sign I used to see as a child.  We lived in the east end of Toronto and every time we went downtown, we'd pass over the Don River near the lakeshore and this sign would appear over the edge of the rail, proclaiming in bold red letters "Christ is coming!  Call Jim" and there was a phone number underneath.

It was actually on the roof of an evangelical church.  I never called the number myself, though I heard if you did, there was a recorded message about going to Jim's church.  Hearing that was a little disappointing: I just assumed that Jim knew when Jesus was coming.

The sign was there year round.  For years it was a landmark.  I hope Jim got lots of calls because he's right, Christ is coming.  And not just metaphorically because December 25th is, too.

The earliest followers of Jesus believed he would return, that they would "see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory" (Mark 13:26).  All that cool apocalyptic stuff was going to happen when Jesus returned and his return was imminent.  As in "in my lifetime" kind of imminent.  After all, Jesus said he would come again.

But that's not what happened and many started to believe that maybe they hadn't clearly understood what he meant (how often does that happen?).  And they came to believe that "about that day or hour no one knows … beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come," as Mark's Jesus says (Mark 13:32), not just for your lifetime, but ever.

So Advent is a time of preparation and expectation for the commemoration of the first Christmas and the anticipation of the second coming.  Seems like Advent should be more than four weeks.  If Jesus may appear at anytime, we're really an Advent people all year.

Well, yes, I think we are.  The season of Advent is an opportune time to focus that sense of expectation with the celebration of Christmas.  Advent also begins the church year, so there's the added sense of new beginnings and new life.  But really the end of the world could come at anytime, right?

Whoa.  There's our little problem with this whole impending apocalypse, second coming thing.  Our focus always seems to be on the dark side of the apocalyptic part, the end of the world, the battle with evil, horsemen, scrolls, destruction and death, the end of all these things we live with that are so important to us.  It makes for great television and movies, no matter how wildly interpretive and inaccurate, it sells books and puts fear into people.  But I don't believe that Jesus was ever about the end of things, he was about beginning things.  New life.  New relationships.  Resurrection.  And no matter how hard anyone tries to suggest that there is any doubt about the outcome of the apocalypse stories, there isn't.

New worlds are born when others end.  The new world promised by Jesus is nothing less than the kingdom of God.

Perhaps another little problem is scale.  Our days are filled with moments in which God tries to break into our lives, moments when we might see Jesus standing with us or helping us up when we fall or leading us when we get lost.  Again from part of Mark's gospel called the "little apocalypse" (Mark 13), Jesus says “from the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates."  Are we seeing the right signs?  Or are we trying so hard to look for something grand and epic, a moment worthy of the 3D Imax screen, that we miss those little moments that are so important, those little moments of new life and new beginnings.  So small they might fit in a manger.

Perhaps we are an Advent people all year long.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Coming to Judgement

These last few weeks of the church year before Advent begins have brought us three great stories from Matthew's gospel.  Before we begin the time of preparation for the coming of Jesus we celebrate at Christmas, these stories direct our attention to the return of "The Son of Man" and what will happen.  Yes, it's time to talk about judgement.

First, we heard the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13).  Awaiting the arrival of the bride groom, five bridesmaids had enough oil for their lamps and five did not.  When the groom arrives in the dead of night, those who were not prepared with enough oil had to go and find some and were shut out of the wedding feast.  "Be prepared," it says, or else.

That "or else" was the part that I said bothered me.  I suggested, instead, that the preparedness we needed was in being open to receiving Jesus in our hearts, not just at the end, but in every little moment that Jesus tries to break into our lives every day.  That may be with lamps lit and the door open or it may be sitting in the dark waiting for the coming of the light, I said.

That's followed by the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).  A rich man, going on a journey, entrusts his fortune to three servants.  To the first, he gives five talents (in the first century, a "talent" was a very large amount of money), the second gets three and the third, only a single talent.  When he returns, each of the first two has doubled the amount they were given (presumably through wise use and investment).  But the third, fearful of what the master would do if he lost it, simply buried it in the ground for safe keeping.  He returned a single talent.  The master rewarded the first two and the third was cast "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 25:30).

This parable, I suggested speaks in a variety of ways, but chiefly we've tended to use it as a stewardship story.  Whatever kind of talent it is (money or skills), we should invest it wisely in building up the kingdom of God here on earth.  Another interpretation flips that and suggests that the third servant is Jesus, the one who stands up to the expectations and actions of an unjust society and loses his life for it.  Either way, I think, whether you engage your talents to build up or to challenge, you do so with an element of risk and risk is required for living.  The key thing is what Jesus so frequently reminds us: don't be afraid.  Don't be afraid because God is always with us.  Knowing the presence of God overcomes our fear and strengthens us to do what is right.

And now, in Matthew 25:31-46, it's the final judgement.  When it happens, it'll be like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats.  The sheep are the ones who saw that "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me" (Matt. 25:35-36).  When the sheep ask when they did this - because they didn't know - the answer is "just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40).  The goats are the ones who didn't do it.  They didn't know that they weren't doing it, mind you, because they didn't know that caring for "the least of these" was caring for Jesus.  They goats get eternal punishment, the sheep get eternal life.

So let me tell you three things I believe about this judgement thing.  The first two are related and are pretty practical, the third connects this "Last Judgement" story to the two before it.

First, you don't get to judge.  I'm not talking about those moments when you judge that this burger is the best you've ever tasted, this is the best movie you've ever seen, that colour's not good on that person or your hockey team didn't play well.  I mean the Big Judgement that happens at the end.  The judgement in this story.

You don't get to judge.  Neither does your neighbour, your friend or enemy, this country or that country, this religion or that religion, governments, bishops or popes.  Because God judges.  Only God.

Second, that's great news.  Because God is God of grace and love and compassion and forgiveness.  God is not a practical shepherd or a tyrannical rich master or even a bridegroom with no regard for those who are waiting.  God is God.

Third, I believe these stories are connected.  Notice that neither the sheep or the goats knew the connection between "the Son of Man" and "the least of these?"  I think the action of the sheep came from the heart.  They shared themselves and their gifts with others because they were moved to do so by the spirit within them.  And they were moved to do so because they were prepared to receive the love of God when they experienced it, prepared to receive it and to live it out.

That's how this string of stories are related.  Whether you believe in that Final Judgement or simply that God welcomes all of us (all of us!) home with open arms - that's a discussion for another time, perhaps - we are not just good acts, nor are we judged to be good by those acts.  Our actions come from our hearts and when those hearts know the presence of God and the love of Jesus, the Spirit moves us to acts of love and compassion and grace.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

An Acceptable Risk

I have a little anxiety, sometimes, about understanding parables in the gospels.  Interpreting them isn't always obvious - obviously - and the subtleties and nuances of the stories often allow for a variety of ways in which they can speak to us.  Our own personal context is a factor, too.

But that's all good because, ultimately, how The Word speaks to us will be true if we listen for what is true.

That's all by way of saying that sometimes I think we have to allow for the presence of variety, even if we are hearing only one voice today.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) has many voices.  It's the story of a man, going on a journey, who entrusts his wealth to three servants, each, it says, according to their ability.  So he gives them "talents," a measured weight of gold or silver: to the first he gives five talents, the second gets two and the third, one.  When he returns, the first two have used their talents to double the amount they were given and are congratulated by the man.  The third, however, was afraid of what the man would do if he lost it, so he buried it in a field.  He returned only the single talent he was given.  The man was angry at the third servant and, after rewarding the first two, cast the third one out "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Yikes.

Churches have often used this parable as a stewardship story: we have talents - both money and, literally, talents - that we should invest in the work of the church.  Why, yes you do and you should.  But others might flip things and suggest that the third servant is Jesus, the one who stands up to the expectations of a greedy, wealth dominated society and looses his life.  Fair enough.  And there's more, so much more in this parable.  Read it and see how it speaks to you.

Today, the voice I'm hearing is the one that says "don't be afraid."

At the heart of this parable I find risk.  And I'm reminded of how frequently Jesus said "don't be afraid."  Whether you engage your talents to build up or to challenge, you do so with an element of risk and risk is required for living.

Look at the behaviours in the story for a moment.  In the first interpretation, the third servant is afraid of the master and his fear paralyzes him.  The others have no fear and are willing to take risks and, as a result, gain.  In the second, one might consider that the third servant names the wrong behaviour of the master, that's emulated by the other servants, and is punished.  The other servants, however, may not simply be copying the master, they may only be doing what was expected of them, fearful of doing anything different.

But the very idea of the "talents" inspires me to want to go so much deeper than just behaviour.  To the average person hearing Jesus speak, even a single talent was a lifetime's worth of work.  So maybe we're talking about something of more value than money or things.

Our behaviours will sometimes fail us, risks will not always be successful, but God will always be with us.  That belief is sustaining, life giving, risk following and fear defeating.  Jesus so frequently reminds us to not be afraid because it is the presence of fear that puts us in the "outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

This isn't about behaviour, it's about something deeper.  It's about our relationship with God and how we take Jesus' teaching to heart.  True transformation doesn't come from changed behaviour, it comes from going into the depths of ourselves and finding God there, present in our lives.  And with God's presence, we are not afraid to live out what Jesus teaches us, from heart into action, fearlessly risking new life.

Friday 7 November 2014

Surprised? Or saw it coming?

The church year is winding down and there's only a few weeks left before Advent, the time of preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.  But the "preparations" begin before Advent: as the year comes to an end, the stories we hear in church are all about being prepared for what's ahead.

This week, Matthew's gospel brings us the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matt. 25:1-13).  Half have brought enough oil for their lamps, half did not.  When it's time for the groom to arrive, at midnight, half need to go to find oil - the foolish, of course - while the wise welcome the groom and head into the wedding feast.  The foolish, coming back later, are locked out.

Sure, it's pretty dated (we could spend some time on first century Hebrew wedding customs, if you like) and there are some curious quirks to explore, but I think we can all agree it's about being prepared.  Or else.

Now, to me, that's the tricky part, that's the part I have trouble with: be prepared or else you're locked out and you don't get in.  Seems pretty unreasonable.  After all, if God's love is for all, especially the most needy, it seems pretty unfair to lock them out of the party just because they weren't ready.  And besides, the command at the end of the story is "keep awake" and it's everyone who seems to fall asleep waiting, foolish and wise alike.

I imagine this story a little like that joke about Peter at the Pearly Gates, letting in just the "right people."  Gabriel comes by because he's concerned that there seems to be more people in heaven than Peter's letting in.  He goes to investigate and comes back to tell Peter "it's okay, it's Jesus - he's pulling people in over the wall."  The door may be locked, but somewhere, somehow, Jesus is helping people get in anyway.

It's just that the journey's different.

It doesn't mean that we should't try to be prepared.  But every journey's different and how we prepare and what we need is different for each of us, isn't it?  And even with all the preparation in the world, sometimes we fail.  And when we fall down, the first hand that reaches out to us to help us up: it's Jesus.

Perhaps that's the real preparedness that we need.  That we are open and ready to welcome Jesus, whoever and however we are, whenever we encounter Jesus.  That may be with lamps lit and the door open or it may be sitting in the dark waiting for the coming of the light.

I'm mindful, too, this week, that it may not be just preparing for the next Christmas or the return of Jesus, the Second Coming as promised in the Bible, the Big One.  But all the little ones, those moments when Jesus breaks into our lives unexpectedly, suddenly reminding us of what's truly important on our journey.  Sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes in the middle of day, and all the hours in between.  Are you ready?

Friday 24 October 2014

Are we there yet?

Still feeling like Moses this week.  I think there's lots of people who are.

Last week, I suggested that we all have that moment, like Moses, when we just really want to see God (Exodus 33:12-23).  Face-to-face.  And we can't.  But we can see where God has been, in creation, in our friends and family, in our experiences, in our lives.  I suggested, in part, that God's "presence" that goes with the Israelites into the Promised Land is what we might recognize as God, present all along as the spirit, the energy, the source, the power, the life - whatever you wish to call it - that is in, and connects, all creation.  It breaks down the barriers we build between us, shares our grief as readily as our joy, and binds us to each other and to all of creation.

Now, the wandering Israelites have come to the Promised Land.  And Moses, standing on the mountain, is shown the new land by God, the land he will not be able to enter.  Moses' time is done and, though "his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated" (Ex. 34:7), he dies and it's Joshua that leads the Israelites on.

Moses got to see the promise, the land even, the land "flowing with milk and honey," but not experience it.  And this is my Moses Moment this week.

I think what he saw in this moment was promise.  Promise not yet fulfilled.  How things went forward from here (Moses returns to God and the Israelites move forward into the land) is something else.  I wonder if many people aren't still seeking "the promised land" in their lives.

Martin Luther King spoke for a generation and a people when he spoke like Moses.  The thought, if not the exact words, has been expressed by many famous, visionary, prophetic people.  But I don't think you have to be great to have an "I've seen the promised land" moment.

This past week I was feeling like Moses.  October 26 is Peace Sunday on our church calendar.  I don't know where to begin with what's been happening in the world this week.  Ottawa.  Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.  Iraq and pretty much anywhere in the Middles East.  Ukraine.  Africa.  Korea.  There's more.  Peace seems like a far off land.  A Promised Land.

And we've seen it.  A moment here and there, fleeting, to be sure, but we've seen it.  We may even have experienced it.  Not because there's been no war or conflict.  Peace isn't about the absence of anything, peace is about presence: the presence of love.

When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus said love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself.  That fundamental relationship of love brings peace.  We've seen it.  When we show love instead of hate, love instead of fear, love instead of selfishness.  When we do justice, offer grace, show compassion, we are living love.  These are steps to the promised land of peace.

Sometimes it feels like we're taking two steps back for every step forward.  Like Moses, it often feels like we've seen it, but we just can't reach it.  But the journey is our life and living our lives to the fullest means living into love.  And, challenging as that is, we go on that journey with the presence of God.

Friday 17 October 2014

Where God's been all along

I'm feeling a little like Moses right now.  I think there's lots of people who are.

We all have moments in our lives when we'd really, really like to see God just do something.  Or, if not do something, at least show up in person and answer some questions.  And that's not new.  It seems like it has always been like that.

Moses had a moment like that.  After the burning bush and the plagues and leading the Israelites out of Egypt, he'd brought the Ten Commandments down from Sinai only to find the Israelites had got tired of waiting and had made their own new god, a golden calf.  So he broke the stone tablets and destroyed the idol and he sorted out the Israelites and headed back up the mountain to see God.  And here's the moment.

Moses has to persuade God not to destroy the Israelites completely, but God's fed up and says that he'll send an angel ahead of them into the promised land.  God won't accompany them.  But Moses is maybe a little fed up, too.  He says to God that, after all that God's done for God's people, all that everyone's seen because this is God's chosen people, the people whom God favours, then God should really be going with them.  And God says "my presence will go with you" (Ex. 33:14).

Still not enough for Moses.  He wants to see God, to see his "glory," in person.  God replies that no one can experience God in person and live.  But Moses has a relationship with God: God "knows" Moses.  So God puts Moses in the cleft of the rock, God covers him with God's hand and, after God has passed by, Moses can see God's back.

That seems to have been enough for Moses.  At first, I wondered if that would be enough for me, but I think I came to the conclusion that it wasn't about knowing what he was seeing so much as what it meant.  I'll explain.

This is a rich story, full of much meaning.  But right now, I'm holding it like this.  There are many in our community who are grieving.  An unexpected and tragic loss, illness that has taken or will take a loved one, a broken relationship - with respect, there isn't really any way to justly describe their pain in words.  They are surrounded by loving, compassionate people who want to help and would do anything for them, if there was anything they could do.  There often isn't, so we hope our presence, our thoughts and our prayers are enough.  But we wonder, as those who grieve do, where God is.

Why, as Moses wonders, doesn't God just show up and do something?

There's a variety of stock traditional answers to that question, and I know they may be comforting.  But are they enough?  I've been wondering lately at how amazing it is that we seem to be wired to question, but not to understand.  This is why Moses' story is becoming so valuable to me.  Moses has a relationship with God and that relationship allows Moses to see something.  And when he does, he comes to recognize and understand that what he's seen is really the most important thing: where God has been.

God "knows" Moses.  I believe that God "knows" you and me and all people because I believe that we all come from God and we all return to God.  I don't doubt that.  But do we each know God as Moses did?  More importantly, even when we do, how often does our grief or our fear or misunderstanding blind that knowing?  Perhaps then, we may not see God in this moment, but only in reflecting on the moment past.

Perhaps that's when we may recognize that God has been present all along as the spirit, the energy, the source, the power, the life - whatever you wish to call it - that is in, and connects, all creation.  It breaks down the barriers we build between us, shares our grief as readily as our joy, and binds us to each other and to all of creation.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Thanks Giving Thanks

A wise man said, "I think God made it like this.  We were supposed to all have something.  This land isn't mine, it's His.  I just use it for awhile.  And then somebody else will use it.  And that's the way it should be."

Sounds almost biblical, doesn't it?  Or at least like it's from a famous deeply spiritual thinker.  And it is.  Well, maybe not the "famous" part - unless you're from Bashaw or Mirror, Alberta.  It's from Ted Buelow.  He's a farmer.

I'm quoting Ted from a video about his farming family produced by FarmOn.  But it might as easily have come from Deuteronomy, or any number of other places in the Bible that remind us that we are stewards of the land, not owners; that the land doesn't belong to us, we belong to the land.

I think that when Ted says he'll just "use it for awhile," he means something more than how we so often mean "use."  He means more of a relationship.  He means he puts in hard work, the land does too, and we all benefit.  I think he means that we're all meant to work with creation, not over it or against it, and that makes us all - the land included - better.  And when our time is done, we leave it for others, hopefully leaving it better for the relationship it had with us.

I'm not a farmer, but even I know that it doesn't always seem like nature's particularly cooperative.  Neither are we.  But that's sometimes how relationships are.  There's more than one party.  They need work and constant attention.  They need understanding and love and grace and compassion.

So I'm thankful, not just on Thanksgiving but all year long, that farmers feed me.  But I'm also thankful for what farmers like Ted can teach us: imagine what the world would be like if we applied that stewardship thinking to all of creation, especially each other.  It would be life-giving as well as life-living.  "I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil." Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.

Friday 3 October 2014

Oh yes thou shalt!

How well do you know the Ten Commandments?

I mean the actual Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 of the Bible, of course, not the classic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film that made Charleton Heston a star.  Worth watching, though, if you have three hours and thirty-nine minutes to spare.  Of which about ten minutes is actually the story of Moses receiving the Commandments and how he then "shares" them with the Israelites.

Hmm.  That's interesting.  The movie's called The Ten Commandments and yet so little of it is actually about the Ten Commandments themselves.  Even less about what they actually say.  It seems to be more about the life being lived before them, and around them.

It might seem like I digress, but I don't think I do.  That's still, I think, the big problem we have with the Ten Commandments: my original question, how well do you know them?

Maybe you memorized them in Sunday School, like I did back in the day.  Maybe you can recite them from memory.  And please don't stop me on the street and test me - I have a feeling that I might not do very well.

But just because I can't recite them exactly doesn't mean that I don't know them.   Maybe that's why the movie's only peripherally about them.  The movie's about the bigger story of which they're a part.

I think the Ten Commandments are less about rules and laws, less about "don't" than they are about how we should live right.  I know, all those "Thou shalt not"s are pretty powerful.  But that's a problem right there: if these commandments are really about how we should live together, maybe we should see them less as what we shouldn't do and more as what we should.

I know human beings wrote them down, and I believe they intended to make them clearly understood, but I'm just wondering why God would want to address how we live together by telling us what shouldn't be and what not to do.  If God thought we needed a little help, a few guidelines, a little direction to steer a fractured and broken community in the direction of living together and living well as God intended, then I'm having a little trouble thinking that God would frame that as what you shouldn't do - or else you'll be punished.

As a society, most of our laws and rules tend to be designed to tell you what you can't do or what you have to do because otherwise something bad will happen.  And if you don’t follow the law … there’s punishment.

That’s a whole load of negativity for a God of hope and promise.  The God who heard the cries of people in bondage and sought to free them for a better life.

Suppose we were to look at laws and rules as a means to living better.  Not so much a means of controlling society as a means to encourage living well, living whole and living with each other with respect and compassion and love.  That would be good wouldn’t it?

This week, many Christians – of all denominations – will be hearing the story in Exodus about Moses receiving the ten commandments from God on Mount Sinai.  Many will also be celebrating World Communion Sunday, a day to recognize that, in the rite of communion (or eucharist, the sacrament that is central to Christianity), Christians all over the world are part of the same tradition.  Maybe this is a great opportunity to wonder about how we might come closer together through what we do, not what we don't.  Think of the respect and appreciation for each other we might have, the love, compassion and understanding that might result if we all got to know each other a little better because we lived well together.  Not because of fear of punishment for doing wrong, but by doing right because of possibilities for a better world.

We could start by being a little proactive about some of those commandments.  Instead of not coveting or not stealing, what if we shared the world’s resources and shared what we had with our neighbour so that there was no reason to covet or steal?  What if we worked at having good relationships with those around us so that honouring others – not just parents – came first, and being deceitful or murderous was completely absent?  What if we worked at having a good relationship with God and with creation, so that we could understand that there is one God, but perhaps we might all come to God in different ways?  What if we could?

That’s a lot of questions.  But maybe the ten commandments is a good place to start that shift, from “don’t do wrong” to “do right,” from “or else there’s punishment” to “because there is a reward in living.”

I don’t think any church has answers to all the questions, but I do think it’s a faith-filled community in which to explore and to seek answers on our life’s journey.  And it should be a place where hope and optimism lead that journey.  After all, I’d rather learn how we can make a better world with God and each other, rather than just how we should not screw it up some more.

Friday 26 September 2014

All the parts

Thanks to the apostle Paul, the body is a metaphor we use frequently to describe the church.  “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ ... Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 27).  And it’s a good metaphor, mostly.  It celebrates our relationships, our interconnectedness, our need to be in community, our need to be active in being Christ-like - to be the hands and feet of Christ in doing, the eyes in seeing, the ears in listening, the mouth in proclaiming and so on.

And that's all great, as far as it goes.  We hear that as an important way to understand our community.  Any community, really.  But Paul was a practical man in his advice to the Corinthians.  So ask yourself this: which body part are you?  I’m not trying to be flippant (though there’s a tonne of jokes here ...), but which part are you?  Do you walk the walk, do you lend a hand or give your heart - or do you sit and close your eyes and cover your ears?  Maybe we’re various parts at different times.  After all, sometimes you walk, sometimes you sit, sometimes you lift and sometimes you rest.

And that's just the easy way to look at it.  We often use the expression "the hands and feet of Christ" to describe how we should act.  But we're more than hands and feet, or eyes and ears, and Paul extends the metaphor to include all the body parts, even that "those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour.  And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment" (1 Cor. 12:22-24).  I don't want to suggest that anyone's a "weaker" part or a "less honourable" one or an "unpresentable" one, or even a "presentable" one for that matter.  That's Paul's weighted language.  But we are all different and we can only be a community by recognizing that, welcoming that, honouring that, encouraging that and protecting that.  We cannot be a whole without all the parts.  And, as Paul points out, God created the body to be a whole.

Jesus welcomed all to the body because Jesus knew that the appearance of the body wasn't as important as the wholeness of the body.  And that wholeness included not just every body part, but the mind and spirit and heart also.

Just like our own body, the church will have a sense of self-esteem and its own perception of what it’s capable - and not capable - of doing.  The church community will have a sense of body image.  And a good, healthy body image in the church body isn’t just about appearance.  It’s about our acceptance of each other for who we are and understanding that we each have unique gifts that we bring to share with our community.  The sharing of those gifts is what makes the body what it is, a synergy: that “we who are many, and come from many places, are one.”