Thursday 31 December 2015

Thurman says it better

Well, that's Christmas.

I'm pretty sure I say that every year, as many do, but I hope you understand that I say it in jest.  The day we anoint as Christmas may have passed, but Christmas isn't over.  It's just begun.

Pretty sure I say that every year, too, probably in some long-winded, explanatory way.  But not this year.  I want to talk about beginnings for a moment, not endings, so here's some words from the great Howard Thurman that I'm pretty sure covers the "Christmas is over" thing.  If they seem familiar, they're the basis for Jim Strathdee's hymn "I am the light of the world."  It first appeared in Thurman's 'The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations' in 1885.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken, 
To feed the hungry, 
To release the prisoner, 
To rebuild the nations, 
To bring peace among people, 
To make music in the heart.

That's the thing about Christmas, it's just a beginning.  It seems like the culmination of weeks of preparation - and celebration - and now it's done, but it's not.  It's a birth.

"In the beginning."  The same words open both the book of Genesis and the Gospel of John, each a story of creation and light coming into the darkness.  We draw our Christmas Story, the birth narrative, from the gospels of Luke and Matthew, but John has a birth story to tell, too.  A story of God becoming flesh and of love being birthed into the world, of light coming that cannot be overcome by darkness (John 1:1-20).

There is life ahead for this love birthed into the world, just as there is for Jesus.  Just as there is for us.  Here we are at the beginning of a new year, witnesses, like John, to the love, the light and the life that is at the heart of the Christmas story.  

Well, that's Christmas.  Now, let's get living.

Thursday 24 December 2015

There needs to be an Innkeeper

We tell a story at Christmas.  The story we tell is full of angels and shepherds.  There's a man and his very pregnant wife who rides on a donkey all the way to tiny Bethlehem.  There's a manger full of hay and assorted animals standing around.  There's a baby born in the night and three kings who followed a great star to find this baby.  Oh, and there's an innkeeper who turns Mary and Joseph away because there's no room, only to then have a change of heart and offer them a stable out back.

Except there isn't.  An innkeeper, I mean.  There just isn't.

It's the Christmas Story we tell by putting together the accounts of Luke and Matthew.  Then we throw in some creative interpretation and maybe even add a detail or two that's not actually in Luke and Matthew and we get the picture perfect scene that makes a Christmas Creche (or nativity set), a beautiful card and a beautiful story.

I don't want to belabour the point that it's the story we tell, not the story that's in the Bible.  I think there are valid reasons to tell the story the way we do, just as there are valid reasons to examine more closely what the Bible really says.

Maybe the most important reason for the story we tell might be this: surrounded by the world of today, we need to hear a pastoral story of hope and peace.  Perhaps then, we might step out of our crazy, hectic, stressful, hurting and broken world and spend a moment at the manger with a quiet, smiling baby who represents the coming of God's love into the world.  After all, the world around the manger that night wasn't really so different.  It was hurting and broken, too.  And that story we tell is about God doing something different from the world we know.

There's a wonderful Christmas prayer from the Iona Community in Scotland that says "you crept in beside us.  And no one knew.  Only the few who dared to believe that God might do something different.  Will you do the same this Christmas, Jesus?"

That's why we need to imagine the peaceful fields of sheep, even with an angel host above it.  Or a cozy stable with a nice warm and comfy manger full of hay.  Or the glow of candlelight while we sing "Silent Night" before going out into stillness of a moonlit Christmas Eve.  God's love doesn't explode on the world, it creeps in.  The moment at the manger is just the beginning.

Oh, and about that innkeeper.  There's no innkeeper in Luke.  It just says that "there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7).  But, just imagine, whether it was a busy and crowded town or a single overwhelmed innkeeper, it helps us to put a face on that.  Because that face could be ours.

Mary and Joseph were guided by angels, messengers from God, who told them what to do and to not be afraid to do it.  Same with the shepherds.  The magi (the three kings) followed the star, a celestial guide of a prophecy.  But the innkeeper and the people in Bethlehem that night, they didn't know who was coming or what was happening.  All the innkeeper had to do was answer the door and decide whether to let them in.  And a manger was enough.

Find a quiet moment to wonder about the Christmas story and the child in the manger.  Will you make room?  Not just on Christmas Eve, but each day ahead, will you make room for God's love?

Friday 11 December 2015

Finding Joy

Shrek's been in the house the last few weeks.  Our church in Bashaw has hosted nine performances (and all the costumes, sets and rehearsals) of Shrek: The Musical.  And it was awesome.  "Really, really," as Donkey says.

After the final show, one of the audience came up to me and said "are you the pastor of this church?"  I said yes and he said "well that was just wonderful.  I think it's great that you allow this here."

Not the first time I've heard that comment and I'm still so surprised to hear it that I don't really know what to say.  I said "thanks."

The thought never crosses my mind that we "allow it."  I think we treasure it.

I should mention, if I haven't before, that Bashaw Community Theatre stages its performances in the church itself, not in the hall.  The swamp and castle for Shrek cover the cross (and most of the front of the church).  Just as the sets did for all the previous plays.  So I can see why some people might think that there's an issue of appropriateness.

Not to mention content, right?  Shrek's full of ogres and fairytale characters and, well, there's that burp and fart competition that Shrek and Fiona have.  Oh, and Pinocchio says "crap" and Little Red Riding Hood says the swamp "smells like butt."  But I'm pretty sure I've talked about this kind of thing before.  This isn't our first play with farting.  Or fairytale characters, or fighting, running, yelling or anything else that people might think is inappropriate to a sacred space.  Don't even start me on the symbols of ancient Egyptian religions in Aida or the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors.

Yes, I can see why there may be some questions and we've had them, too.  There has even been times that we changed a thing or two.  What's always been important to us, I hope, has been that we are true to our understanding of what makes a space sacred.

And that has been on my mind this week, because the third Sunday of Advent is joy and I think that is a big part of it. 

It would be easy to point to the enjoyment of everyone in the audience, it's really good entertainment.  How do you value the smiling and wondering faces of children and adults enthralled with Shrek, Donkey and Fiona only a few steps away from them or the fun the cast and crew have in putting it all together?  There's a lot of happiness to go around.

But, more than that, there's a deeper and more profound joy. A place is not made sacred because we say so or because we put a label on it, it's made sacred by the spirit of those who gather there to create a community in which everyone's gifts are acknowledged, encouraged and embraced.  It's made sacred by the sharing of struggle and success, the moments of achievement and fulfillment, the lifting of spirits, the warmth of relationships and yes, even the happiness.  When people feel welcome, appreciated and safe, then amazing things happen.

You might enjoy a great show, you might feel touched by the ideas and themes or even the performance itself.  One person at Shrek said that it's so great to see something that's so much fun for kids, but has such a great message about how we judge others and about knowing who we really are.  But there's more: there's a sense of family.  For cast and crew, it comes from all those hours together, from all the hard work, the learning and growing and, most importantly, the relationships we build.  That's the deeper joy of knowing a place where you belong because you're you.  That's a place where love is shared.

We call it community theatre, but I'd hope that might be how we'd talk about church, too.  And, yes, I know that not all churches are like that, nor are all groups that call themselves "a community."  I also know that the ideal that we call a "family" can struggle as well.

But, listen, here is good news: the joy of Christmas is that very thing.  It isn't about the stuff that will make us happy for a moment, but the moment that will stick with your heart through happiness and grief, struggle and success, comfort and conflict.  In that moment will be love, shared.

That's what makes the family or community.  Or church.  That's what brings true joy, that love is present and we belong in it.

In the darkest moment, light came. 
In the meanest moment, love came. 
In the quietest moment, the Word was spoken into life.
And in the loneliest moment, we found belonging.

Thursday 3 December 2015

Turn to Peace and Goodwill

A good opening line's important.  This week, mine was going to be "is it just me, or is everyone a little edgy lately?"

That could be a good opening line, but it's not right now.  Right now, it's trite, foolish and dismissive.  Because the answer's "yes."

And it's not hard to see why.  Look what's happening in the world: another mass shooting, terrorism, violence, climate change, the economy, unemployment, poverty, hunger.  Perhaps, though, it's not because any of that's new, but because it's not.  And it's become significantly closer and more personal.  We're getting "wore down," as my wife would say, and we're showing it.

We're becoming overwhelmed with fear, hurt and anger.  And we're expressing it.  Look beyond the usual generalizations we make about media and government, and look at what people are saying and how they're saying it.  Look at social media and the day to day conversations we're having in coffee shops and meetings, even street corners.

Facebook's always been a place where people will post - and believe - pretty much anything, but lately grumpy cat's been replaced with vitriolic and often personal attacks, not always based on substantiated fact.  "Trash" or "smack" talk isn't just isolated to intimidating opponents in a competitive sport, it's made it's way into everyday use.  And we're responding.

But it's not just talk.  It's confrontation and fight.

Remember the movie The Untouchables, way back in 1987?  Jim Malone is talking to Eliot Ness about Al Capone - in a church, no less - and he says, "you wanna know how to get Capone?  They pull a knife, you pull a gun.  He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.  That's the Chicago way!  And that's how you fight Capone.  Now do you want to do that?  Are you ready to do that?"

No.  Say "no."   The right answer is "no."  That wasn't Ness's answer, but, to be fair, in the end they got Capone on tax evasion.

Still, it's tended to be our answer for a very long time.  So let's just pause and take a moment to remind ourselves that we have a choice.  That choice should be informed by love, not hate and by hope, not fear.  Those are the things that bring peace and goodwill, things that should be on our mind at this time of year.

As part of our Advent, preparing the way for Jesus, we meet John the Baptizer, too.  The gospel of Luke describes him with the words of the prophet Isaiah, as a lone voice, "crying in the wilderness" that people should prepare with repentance.  Please don't be taken aback by that word.  We've loaded it up with guilt and sin, required certain behaviour from it and made forgiveness conditional on it, but that's not what it's about. And God's forgiveness isn't conditional, anyway.  But to repent simply means to turn away from behaviour that's hurtful and destructive and turn to what is true.  John called people to turn towards the love that was coming their way in Jesus.

As we turn towards Christmas, take a moment and make a choice.  In the face of all that overwhelms us, choose to hope.  Choose to bring peace.  Choose to love.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Something's Coming

Winter is coming.

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you might hear that statement a little differently than if you were a snowmobile enthusiast.  In GoT, winters can last years and be unduly harsh, not to mention all sorts of nastiness that comes from north of the wall.  Snowmobilers can’t wait for that first snowfall, just enough to make it worthwhile taking it for a spin.

I guess.

The first one’s made up and you might not have any idea what it’s about.  Or even care.  But, to be honest, I’ve never been on a snowmobile, so I don’t really know what that’s like.  (Please don’t offer to take me for a ride.)

It rather depends on your perspective.

Advent is here, and that means that something’s coming.  Literally.  Advent means “coming” in Latin.  These four weeks remind us to prepare, to get ready, because something’s coming.  What that is, exactly, depends on your perspective.

This could be the liturgical season of Advent, or, as some may know it, Shopping Season, the Season of Stress, the Party Season, Cold for the Holidays, "Oh My, Is It December Already?,” "Is It Christmas Yet?,” and even, yes, my personal favourite, “winter is coming” (you have to hear it in John Snow’s voice).

That last one's a little tricky, too, because, well, you know … for some people, even saying the "C" word is wrong.  It's religious and we can't have that in our secular society.  Say Happy Holidays or Season's Greetings, even Compliments of the Season (what does that mean, anyway?), but don't say Merry Christmas.  Oh dear, I just did.

Maybe "The War on Christmas" is more of an American thing, but we get caught up in it, trying so hard to be politically correct, I suppose.  Some celebrate other faith festivals at this time of year and some celebrate a good time and perhaps they'd rather not hear about Christmas or see the symbols or hear the songs.  So maybe Happy Holidays is good.  Well, if you get holidays now.  Or Seasons Greetings.  That's good because there are a variety of seasons, right?

Jews celebrate Hanukkah this month.  Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day in December.  Then there's the Winter Solstice (Modraniht if you're a traditional Saxon), Saturnalia, Pancha Ganapti. Christmas, Yule and Kwanzaa.  And it's winter, just plain old winter.  So maybe a generic greeting is good.

Or, maybe we could use what's appropriate and respect our uniqueness.

I think we could spend a lot of time worrying about keeping the "Christ" in Christmas in word and song and symbol.  But isn't it more important to keep the "Christ" in Christmas in deed?

Near the beginning of Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge tells his nephew that he should "keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.''  "Keep it!'' repeated Scrooge's nephew.  "But you don't keep it.''


Keeping the "Christ" in Christmas isn't really about words and symbols, it's about how we live.  It's about recognizing that, as Christina Rossetti wrote, "Love came down at Christmas," the same love Jesus preached and taught and - most importantly - lived.  When we live that love each day, not just on Christmas Day, we truly keep the "Christ" in Christmas.

Oh, Advent.  You probably thought I got off on a bit of a tangent there.  Not really.

Advent is traditionally observed as the time of preparation for Christmas, a time of waiting and expectation, a time of hope.  But the "Christmas" that we prepare for isn't just a commemoration of the past event.  Jesus did come, Jesus lived and died and lived again,  and continues to live on in us.  Jesus also invites us to live as he taught, loving each other in this and every moment.  Jesus also invites us to look forward with hope to his coming to us again, whether that’s in some later apocalyptic moment or in those little moments each day when we see Jesus alive in others around us.  So Advent is, in a sense, a time to prepare to celebrate what has been, engage what is and hope for what is to come.  That's a lot of preparation to be observed.

So maybe it's time to do less observing and more experiencing.  Advent is the time to "let every heart prepare him room," as Isaac Watts wrote in "Joy to the World."  In the life lived after that first Christmas, Jesus taught us how to prepare to receive him again.  And again.  And again.  That'll put the "Christ" in Christmas.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Location, location, location

Perhaps now is a good time to talk about borders.

We use borders to define us.  Despite our constant crossing of them, over reaching them and claiming land beyond them, the borders of our nations define the area in which a certain authority, society and culture has rule.  Our understanding of our place is determined by them.  In Canada, “this land is your land, this land is my land,” but only from Bonavista to Vancouver Island.

And that vast geographic territory has such a diversity within it.  The cultural mosaic, a term first used in the 1920’s to describe the influence of so many eastern Europeans and Scandinavians on the prairie landscape, still describes the vast array of cultures and traditions that have found a home here.  Multiculturalism is a part of the Canadian identity - within our borders.

Even in The Lion King.  Remember that moment when Mufasa is showing young Simba the kingdom and they look out at the vast expanse of the land?  Mufasa says that “everything the light touches is our kingdom.”  And Simba asks “what about that shadowy place?”  “That is beyond our borders,” replies Mufasa, “you must never go there, Simba.”

Even “everything the light touches” has a border.  Darkness.

The thing about that, though, is that we see a border - our border - as describing the edge of what’s within it.  Our kingdom is defined by what it contains.

This week is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ.  It’s the last Sunday of the church calendar, as Advent marks the beginning of the year, and an opportunity to consider the image of Jesus as King, an evocative and powerful image, but a confusing and confounding one for many.  What kind of king is Jesus, if the term “king” still has any meaning for us? What, or where, is the kingdom of Jesus?  How does Jesus rule in the world?

The gospel story is from John 18, after Jesus is arrested and taken by the temple authorities to Pilate, the Roman governor.  They want Pilate, the representative of the power that governs them to deal with Jesus, who, they say, claims to be king of the Jews.  Imagine the scene: Jesus, with only the clothes on his back, no money, no army, none of the trappings of what we might recognize as  power, stands before Pilate, in the heavily fortified praetorium, his soldiers nearby, surrounded by all the wealth and power of the mighty Roman empire.  And Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king.  My kingdom is not from this world, Jesus says.  When pressed by Pilate, Jesus says “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).

Who really has the power here?

Pilate brings all the physical might of Rome, who’s borders reach almost to the edge of the known world.  But empires fall and borders change and the world grows.  Even with all that power, Pilate seems to wonder at what’s really happening here.

The kingdom Jesus speaks of us has no borders and cannot be contained.  It springs from the smallest geography of all, the heart, to encompass the vastness of life.  If Jesus rules in your heart, geographic borders will not stop you from embracing your neighbour, offering aid and care to those in need.  If Jesus rules in your heart, love and compassion will stand up to hate and fear, wherever it is found.  If Jesus rules in your heart, justice and respect for all, no matter how different, will be the goal of all law and governance.   If Jesus rules in your heart, equality and understanding , grace and, above all, love will be the way we live with each other.

Those aren’t just poetic words, they’re real, practical and doable.  We bring the kingdom of God by living out what’s in our hearts, not by closing our minds, sealing our borders and separating ourselves from the world.  In the world where Jesus rules in our hearts, the light does shine everywhere, even into the shadowy places.

Thursday 5 November 2015

Sacrifice into Living

I wonder, sometimes, if we really understand what sacrifice means anymore.

This year, on the Sunday before Remembrance Day, the gospel reading we’ll hear is the story of the widow who gives her last two coins to the treasury at the temple.  Jesus observes this and points out to the disciples that, while the rich give only a portion of the abundance of their wealth, this widow (the poorest of the poor) gave everything she had.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).

I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard this passage preached as a stewardship lesson.  Many a financial campaign has tugged at the generosity of givers with the example of the widow who gave all that she had.

But I can’t.  I think this is so not about stewardship.  It’s about sacrifice.

And let’s be clear, too, that sacrifice and sharing are not the same thing.  Not at all. Sharing is what the rich people in this story do, they give a portion of what they have.  In fact, sharing some of what you have is pretty good stewardship, depending, of course, on how you prioritize the “some” of what you have.  The traditional “tithe” is ten percent, of what you have or your income (net or gross, who can be sure?), but today, many people prefer to give in support of a thing (like a program or a cause) rather than simply to a church or temple treasury.

Either way, I don’t suppose for a minute that Jesus thought that the contributions of the wealthy were enough.  It’s just that that’s not the point.  This woman sacrifices.

She “put in everything she had.”  Why?  Clearly, “everything she had” wasn’t required or even expected when everyone else was only giving a part of what they had.  So why give “all?”

I wonder if she thought her all, little though it may be, would be exactly what Jesus described, a spirit-filled, hope-filled “more” that might inspire others, not just to do the same, perhaps, but to value it more greatly as the sacrifice it is.  Her two coins alone might not be able to do much, but to know them to be the sacrifice they were should surely inspire those who received them to do greater things with all that they were a part of, to build on those two coins and seize the opportunity to create a greater, more loving world.  Right?  Right?

Well, no.  There’s no indication that anyone but Jesus and the disciples witnessed it.  And certainly the temple authorities (who Jesus constantly challenges) wouldn’t care much would they?

But maybe that’s Jesus’ point.  A sacrifice this great should be honoured with love and respect, but more importantly, with living into the potential it creates, the potential to grow and build a better world.

On Remembrance Day we will honour the sacrifice of many.  Not just those who died on battlefields, but those who lost loved ones, friends and neighbours, and gave up life and living to support others in building a world.  This world.  Do we honour them in one moment on one day or in every moment of everyday that we live into the opportunity and potential they sacrificed for us to have?

See, I don’t think their sacrifice is for what was or is, but what will be, the possibility of a future that freedom, peace and love can create.  And to truly honour their sacrifice, we need to live that.

There’s a great moment, among many, in the film Saving Private Ryan.  It’s the story of a squad of soldiers sent to find the one surviving brother of four sons who went to fight in the second World War.  Near the end of the film, with most of the squad killed in their quest to bring James Ryan home, the dying captain pulls Ryan close and says “earn this.”  The scene dissolves into a much older Ryan visiting the cemetery where his saviours were buried, hoping he’d lived well enough to have earned their sacrifice.

That’s the thing about sacrifice.  It’s more than the giving of everything.  It’s the living out of the gift of what that everything provides.  Are we earning this?

Thursday 29 October 2015

I guess I'd be a hero

I was having lunch out the other day and, as I was leaving the restaurant, I saw some people I knew at a table.  It included a little girl that’s in our upcoming community theatre production of Shrek.  She said “hi” and her mom said that she’d see me tonight at rehearsal and I said “yeah, ya Little Freak.”

Okay, now hang on a minute.  Not what you think.  She’s the nicest, cutest little girl and, in the show, she plays one of the fairy tale characters that Lord Farquaad banishes from his kingdom of Duloc.  To the diminutive Farquaad, all magical fairytale creatures are “freaks,” and our show has Big Freaks and Little Freaks.

So, technically, she’s a Little Freak.  It’s a badge of honour, really.

Of course, I wondered if anyone heard me say that who didn’t know what I meant or how I knew her.  Can’t imagine they thought I was being very nice.  But I guess it depends on your perspective.


Those enjoying the traditions of Halloween will no doubt see a variety of heroes and freaks, superheroes and zombies, the more traditional ghosts and the more contemporary political and video figures.  Some people will want to be their personal heroes and some will be anything but.  That’s the tradition of Halloween: to be something other than who you are (preferably something scary…).

And the next day?  Well, it’s All Saints Day in the church and, while many churches have many different views on sainthood, it’s traditionally the day we celebrate those historical figures who are everything we aspire to be, examples of love and leadership just like Jesus.  All the good things we could be.

That’s great, it is.  But between the All Hallows Eve of being something other than who we are and all the Saints of history we could be, lets remember who we are: the saints of today.  All the good things we could be are already in each of us.  We are differently abled, gifted with unique skills and talents and love.  Finding that in ourselves and living it out - especially the love - is what makes saints.  And saints can be found in the most unusual places.  So can heroes.

In the play, Shrek’s asked who he’d rather be if he could be anyone but himself.  He’s an ogre, after all, and who’d want to be that.  So he sings a wonderful song about how “I guess I’d be a hero.”  The irony is, of course, that he chooses the very thing he truly is, a hero.  It’s not his appearance that matters, it’s his character and his heart and that’s what brings him true love in the end.

The “freaks” embrace their selves, too, and, flaws and all, learn to stand up for themselves.  Being a saint isn’t about being something you’re not, either.  It’s about being who you really are, and sharing that.  Every year on All Saints, I hope we remember that.

Friday 23 October 2015

I once was blind but now I see

Bartimaeus gets a name.

Even if you're familiar with the story of Jesus healing a blind beggar who's name is Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), that might not seem like a big deal, but I think it is.  Many bible scholars have researched it and there's some fascinating theories about his name and what it means.  They're very interesting, but I just think it's important he got a name.  Any name.

Jesus heals a lot of people and nobody gets a name except Bartimaeus.  Well, there's Lazarus, I guess, but that's more a resurrection than a healing.  And people seemed to know Lazarus.  He even gets a second mention and the people's awareness of Lazarus seems to have made the Temple authorities nervous: "so the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus" (John 12:9-11).

I wonder if that isn't why Bartimaeus gets a name.  Maybe the author of Mark thought people would recognize him, hearing this as an origin story for a figure they knew.  Maybe they knew Bartimaeus for more than this story, because of this story.

Following Mark's narrative, we've just seen three episodes in which Jesus tries to explain to the disciples what he's all about and they just don't seem to understand.  Peter earlier correctly identifies him as the messiah, but then doesn't seem to understand what that means: Jesus is not the kind of messiah they were expecting.  Or that anyone was expecting.  They just don't see what he means.

And then there's this blind beggar at Jericho.  He seems to know who Jesus is, calling out to him "Son of David," another name for the Messiah.  The son of Timaeus (that's what Bar-Timaeus means) calls to the Son of David.

How does he know who Jesus is?

Probably the same way we all know what's true: both by knowing it intuitively and by what we've experienced.  This little story begins with "they came to Jericho" and the very next thing is "as they were leaving Jericho," there's Bartimaeus.  What happened in Jericho?  Maybe Bartimaeus heard Jesus doing what Jesus does, teaching and healing, and put that together with his own sense of what was true and realized who it was.  We can all do that with what's true, can't we?  What we know and what we experience?  Maybe Bartimaeus is really good at discerning truth, but, still, I don't think it's why he gets a name.

He's persistent, too, with his calling to Jesus, even when others try to silence him.  And when he finally has Jesus' attention, he leaves behind his cloak, probably his one possession of any value, and comes to Jesus, asking only for his sight to be restored.  "Go," says Jesus, "your faith has made you well."  That is a powerful faith, but, still, I don't think that's what makes him name-worthy.

"Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way" (Mark 10:52).

Wait.  What?  Jesus told him to go, but he didn't.  Instead, he "followed him on the way."  I think people might have known Bartimaeus, not by who he had been, not by what happened here with Jesus, but what happened next: "he regained his sight and followed him on the way."  Isn't that the lesson of this story for us?  Not just that he believed, but that he followed on the way.  With his physical sight restored, he lived into the what his heart saw to be true.

The 2009 film Amazing Grace is about the campaign to end slavery in the late 18th century.  The title refers to the supportive influence of John Newton, a former slave ship captain and author of the famous hymn, on William Wilberforce, the key figure in the campaign.  In one scene, Wilberforce visits the aging Newton, now physically blind.  Newton has written down all the ships, routes and slave traders he recalls and offers it to Wilberforce as evidence to help the cause.  He quotes his hymn, "'I once was blind but now I see.'  Didn't I write that, too?"  Wilberforce replies "yes, you did."  "Well, now at last it's true," says Newton.

It became true not just in faith, but living that faith into action.  I think that's how we should know Bartimaeus.  It should be how we know each other, too.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Are you able?

Sometimes I feel sorry for the disciples, at least in their early apprentice years with Jesus.  They get pretty solid, post resurrection, but early on they seem to be pretty dense.  They play the ordinary, everyday guy-off-the-street (or boat) really well, but sometimes, when they repeatedly just don't seem to get it, I wonder if Jesus might not have assembled a better crew.

But then I remind myself that Jesus picked them for a reason.  They're just like me.  Or you.

The Gospel of Mark is particularly hard on the disciples.  There's one stretch, a cycle of three little episodes, in which Jesus tries to teach them about what it really means to be the messiah and what's ahead for Jesus (arrest, death and resurrection) and each time, they respond in a way that seems to indicate they just don't understand.  Peter, for example, correctly labels Jesus the messiah, but he tries to chastise Jesus when Jesus tries to explain what that really means.  Then the disciples argue amongst themselves who is the greatest.  And then there's James and John.

Poor James and John.  They're the ones who ask Jesus if they could "sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (Mark 10:37).  In other words, when all the bad stuff's done and we've won, could we have a place of honour, please?  They still seem to think this is about power over others, being appropriately rewarded for their devotion and a place in the hierarchy of greatness.  They've been with Jesus for awhile now and they're on their way to Jerusalem next, you'd think they'd be catching on.  You can just imagine Jesus doing a facepalm.

Like I said, though, just like me or you.  The disciples had a few years with Jesus.  We've had a couple of thousand and we still think being a leader is about power over others, we still reward loyalty the same way and we haven't really changed our hierarchy of greatness, have we?

Here's the thing, though.  Who doesn't want to be near Jesus?  Sure, they're looking for a special place, but maybe we could cut them a little slack for wanting to be near Jesus when it gets to the good part (the "glory") after all that other hard stuff he was talking about is done.

I'd like to be near Jesus.  So here's something instructive about the story.  "But Jesus said to them, 'You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?'  They replied, 'We are able'" (Mark 10:38-39).  And yes, they are.  They are able to be like Jesus.  They're the first Jesus' apprentices after all.  But, Jesus says, he doesn't have the authority to decide about who ends up where "in glory."  Perhaps that's Jesus being like us, a reminder that it's God that decides that.

The thing is that we can be "like" Jesus.  Perhaps we won't achieve what Jesus does, but that's not the point.  Just as we're created in the image of God, says Genesis, but we are not God.  What we are is able.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Fear isn't life-giving, love is

When did we get to be so afraid?

Anxiety, worry, a lack of confidence in ourselves or the world around us, many - and real - are our fears.  It doesn't help that we're still in the longest election campaign since 1872.  If it's not the outrageous promises, it's all the things that you should be afraid of and what will happen if - insert person or party here - gets elected.  And it'll be another year of that for our friends to the south.

And it's Thanksgiving this week, the day of, well, giving thanks.  How do you do that when there's so much fear and anxiety in the world?

There's lots of people who will struggle to find something to be thankful for this weekend.  And some who won't succeed.  There's a great many people who will sit around the great Thanksgiving feast and find that things to be thankful for come more readily to mind.  When they think about them.  But they have to try.

And, sure, there may be some people who find it easy to be thankful because gratitude comes easily to them.  They aren't as anxious and fearful, but readily embrace the world as it comes, looking for the goodness they know is in all life.  I know these people exist because I live with one.  It's a gift that not many have.  Thank goodness they share it.

But Jesus knows that so many of us are afraid.  "Don't be afraid" is one of the most common themes in Jesus ministry.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has some words during the famous Sermon on the Mount for those who struggle with fear and anxiety, worry and confidence.  He says, "don't worry about your life … look at the birds of the air … consider the lilies, how they grow" (Matt. 6:25-29).  If God takes care of such as these, then God will take care of you, too.  Life is about so much more than just stuff, he says.

Great.  That's very comforting.  And we've often heard that as simply "don't worry, be happy" (thank you Bobby McFerrin) or "don't worry, God will take care of you.  You don't have to do anything."

Oh, yes, we do.  We need to choose.  All of this "don't worry" business comes after this one key statement: you can't have two masters.  You must choose which will govern your life, God or stuff (Matt. 6:24).  Wealth, riches, money, the King James bible calls it mammon, the desire for material things.

I don't think that Jesus is saying that having wealth, money or things is inherently bad.  But when we let those material things rule our lives, we value all things in that context and our lives become an endless quest to meet a need for more stuff that we can never achieve.  We begin to see life in the context of what we don't have, rather than what we do, what we want, rather than need, and what we fear losing, rather than what we're willing to share.  The fear of scarcity overwhelms the joy of abundance and we seek to acquire more and protect what we have.
But what happens when we choose God?  We choose love.  We value our selves more than our stuff, and love our neighbour as we love ourselves.  We choose compassion and care and we share that with others.  And when we all share love, we create a world in which all that we need is shared.  We feed and care for each other, we nurture confidence and we encourage and inspire creativity and, most important of all, we are not afraid to engage others in a relationship based in that love.

I know that all sounds very idyllic or utopian, a perfectness that we might think is beyond us.  But I bet Jesus would say "don't worry.  That love is already in you.  Stuff is not.  Share that love that's in you.  Don't be afraid."

Friday 2 October 2015

What's the story?

Sometimes, when struggling with a thorny issue - like say, a scripture text about divorce in the gospel passage from Mark this week (Mark 10:2-6) - I like to sit in the church and think.  I find the atmosphere helpful: the quiet … the stained glass … the banners … the abstract painting behind the cross … the hand painted signs that say "Keep Out!" and "Beware of Ogres" …

That seems rather incongruous, I bet.  But there are days that the drama of our church services gives way to the drama of the Bashaw Community Theatre's rehearsals for Shrek, coming later this fall.  Our space is sacred both for the community that gathers and the community it makes.

That intersection of things is a powerful reminder to me of the importance of context.

I don't mean the appropriateness of things inside the building called a church.  Every community of faith can decide what's appropriate in it's space and ours has simply decided to begin with deciding that it builds community, honours the desire to welcome everyone and lives out our mission, which is "living God's love, sharing God's love."

No, I mean the relevance of the stories we tell, and the message we share, to our life experience.  Love, hope, joy, peace, wisdom - too many ideas and principles to name them all - become most meaningful and alive to us when we can see them where we are.  Comforting or challenging, doubtful or inspiring, calm or dramatic, these things all become more understandable, more tangible and more real in practice.

Jesus didn't sit in a cave somewhere and wait for people to come to him for his words.  He was out meeting people where they were and how they were, teaching with words and action.  Feed the hungry - look, I'll show you.  Care for the sick - look, I'll show you.  Welcome the poor and marginalized - look, I'll show you.  Love one another - look, I've been showing you with my life.

What's true in Jesus' life is timeless, but the stories of his living are in a certain time.  I know it's part of my job to delve into the context of the day and draw out the meaning and I love a good bible study and find the study of ancient history fascinating and, ultimately, important.  But I don't live there.  Or then.  So, sometimes, I have to wonder how Jesus might tell a story or make a point today.  Who would be the characters in the Parable of the Good Samaritan?  How, and where, might he feed a large crowd of people?  How might Jesus talk to a global audience?

Which brings me to that passage from Mark.  Pharisees come to test Jesus with a question about whether or not divorce is lawful.  It's a trick question, of course, because Moses allows for it in the law.  Jesus isn't interested in Moses' law, given because of "your hardness of heart" (Mark 10:5), but rather what God intended, which is that people be in relationship, joined by God.  He even goes on to say "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:11-12).

Ouch.  That seems pretty clear and to the point.  Bearing in mind, of course, that in the first century, it was simple: marriage had nothing to do with love or relationship, it was a contract involving the exchange of goods and divorce ensured (or manipulated, in most cases) your contractual obligations were met if you wanted out.  And also that Jesus is clear that the law only reinforces the brokenness of the people.  And, of course, that this is someone's retelling of what Jesus may have said in that moment, to those people, retold for the benefit of later readers.

Now that we've mitigated a little of the harshness, what's Jesus really talking about?  Relationship.  Just as Jesus challenges the other structures of society and reminds us of what's at the heart of the law, Jesus challenges this law, too, as leading away from what was intended by God, that we live in loving, mutually respecting and life-giving relationships.

What might Jesus say to that question today?  Maybe the same thing.  Or maybe Jesus might acknowledge this much is still true: the law is there to put a structure on something far greater, kind of like how religion is the way you structure belief, government is the way you structure care for all people and society is the way you structure the organization of your lives.  None of them are perfect.  All of them need to take into account the fundamental need for relationship and what might be right relationship, lived with love, respect and grace.  But this much we have learned, that relationships aren't a contract, they're a covenant in which something new is created, that bond between people.  He might also acknowledge that we've learned enough that we know that many relationships do well and many don't.  People grow and relationships change and it can get messy.  What's most important is our commitment to being in relationship.  And if that relationship is broken, that we commit to mutual healing, however that changes the relationship.  And we commit to loving one another, as Jesus still loves, as God loves.

This moment in Mark is followed (not at all coincidentally, I think) by Jesus telling the disciples to let the children come to him because "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15).
Maybe this means, literally, when you're a child, but I doubt it.  Maybe it means with the open, wide-eyed innocence of a child.  That would certainly bring us to embracing what Jesus was teaching.  Or you could look at the children around you today, in this time.  Children engage - they need to touch and taste and ask questions, they say "no" a lot and they don't always do what you tell them.  It can get messy.  But they look for relationship.