Thursday 15 December 2016

Children of God

As we make our way round the Advent wreath, we come to the fourth candle: love.

I thought I had something pretty profound to say about love needing to be all consuming, in the sense that life needs to be full of love in order to be fully lived.  Much like the very principle of a candle where the flame is light, heat and energy for the world around it through the fuel which is the candle’s wax.  And I’m sure there’s something in that.

But then I got this message from Brook’s mom about something she’d written.  It went like this: “I know it's beautiful around the world.  I love the beauty in the world.  I love to see the world.  I love to go places.  I love the warm fires the hot chocolate.  I love the love in the world.  That is my favourite of all!”  Brook’s 6 years old.  The spelling’s a little more creative in the original.

I love what she wrote.

I love that there’s probably lots of parents who could say that their little child wrote or said something similar.  I hear about the conversations they have with their little ones and I hope you do, too.  We all need to, especially at Christmas.  Because it is that simple.

We’ll hear the stories of Jesus teaching us about love, the healing, the miracles, the parables, the grace, the living of a life full of love that leads to that one simple command to love as Jesus showed us.  All the complexities of a life will be lived out in a far too short lifetime on the way to the cross.  And we’ll examine it in detail and ponder it and think about it, as we should.  There is much to learn.

But perhaps, when we light the candle for love, we might think less about all there is to learn and more about the simplicity of a child-like love, one that’s open, innocent, unconditional, honest, fearless and true.  It’s easy to dismiss that with “children don’t know any better, they’ll learn from experience.”  But what if it were the opposite?  What if, when it comes to love - and hope, peace and joy, for that matter - what if they do know better because they have no inclination not to?

Remember that story of the very grown up Jesus telling the disciples that we need to be like children in order to come to the kingdom of heaven?  (Matthew 18:3 and 19:14.)  Child-like, not childish.  That can be a battle if you’ve got a lifetime of experience that encourages you to be fearful and protect yourself.  No wonder the disciples found it hard.  Of course, if we lived a lifetime into that childlike openness and loved others fearlessly, they might live that way, too, and others who experience their love would, too, and so on, and the world could be changed.

I know, maybe that’s a little simplistic.  Like a child, even.

Christmas is all about a child, though, and we take this time in Advent to prepare ourselves to come to this child, to come to the manger and marvel at the story and wonder at how God comes to us in the simplest way.

And that’s just it.  Maybe Jesus’ words are the wisdom of experience.  In this story of a child born in a stable is God loving us, loving like a child, fully, completely, unconditionally, all encompassing and all embracing.  God knows it's beautiful around the world.  God loves the beauty in the world.  God loves to see the world.  God loves to go places.  God loves the warm fires and the hot chocolate.  God loves the love in the world.  And I bet that’s God’s favourite part of all.

Thursday 8 December 2016

Joy to the world

The third candle on the Advent wreath is joy.  It’s often a pink candle, which is a nice tradition, though I can’t help wondering why we wouldn’t then let the other candles have there own colour rather than a seasonal colour with one anomaly.  What colour would you make hope?  Or peace or love?  It kind of makes joy stand out a bit, though, and I think I’m okay with that.

I know I’ve said previously that these Advent themes may well be all words that mean something different in the context of Jesus than when we might use them on a day to day basis, but I wonder if joy isn’t so much different as more.  And I don’t think it’s just semantics.  We might say happy or blissful, jovial or cheery, gleeful, merry, jubilant, the list is long for ways to describe how we’re feeling in a moment or about something.  But, to me, joy is the all-encompassing way to describe all those things at once, all those things in the context of something bigger than a moment, bigger than a feeling or a sense.

I think that’s because joy isn’t just about emotion or behaviour, it’s about spirit.  Sure, it’s all part of it, the warm fuzzies, the laughter, a smile, being “merry and bright” and all, but it’s more than that.  True joy, that's something that goes to the very core of who we are, the very deepest corner of our hearts, the very darkest place, and brings light.

I believe that true joy is found in the moment in which we find God present in our lives in a way which brings wholeness to our spirit.  There may be happiness and cheerfulness, there may be a smile or a belly laugh, but there may also be pain relieved, a moment of support that turns uncertainty to confidence, an awareness that our struggles are shared, that we are safe and secure and that we are not alone.  There will be comfort and contentment, a sense of rightness and a sense of certainty that life is good, in the true sense of the word.

There’s God’s presence, again, just like the wreath itself, connecting hope and peace and joy and love.  And just like those other “lights,” joy can’t remain just within us, but demands to be lived out.

I’m privileged to play the piano for Bashaw Community Theatre and they just did a show in our church.  Sister Act is lively and entertaining and the full house at each performance really enjoyed the shows.  And they were good shows (they’re always good shows).  I think people in the audience left each show with some joy.  Sure, the shows were good - as one of the characters might say, they looked good, they moved good, they sounded good.  But there was more.  There was spirit and warmth and connection that people on stage shared that was shared with the audience.  That brought them joy.

I know there were times when it was hard work, times when people came to rehearsal with their own issues and problems and tough days, times when they weren’t sure they could sing or dance or (most especially) do it on stage in front of people.  But I also know there was a space created where people felt safe, supported and loved, with friends that cared, where their company was enjoyed, playing and working together, and where they belonged.  There were friends and families, sisters and brothers, young and old, experienced performers and first timers.  There was people from this town and other communities, there was three generations of one family, an engaged couple, a very pregnant nun and buddies from school.  What there was, was a family, very much the kind of family that our churches and communities should be: loving, hopeful and filled with joy.  That’s life giving.

And that’s just the point of joy.  Not every moment of Christmas will be merry.  For some, it will be hard to find any moment that’s merry.  But there may be joy.  The way to joy can take us through pain and grief, struggle and disappointment, even loneliness.   But in sharing those with each other, in caring for each other, in loving each other, our spirits are made more whole and given life.  Maybe joy does deserve a candle of a different colour.

There was a child, born to a poor couple who probably feared the questions people would ask about his parentage as much as they feared being able to afford to feed him.  The baby was born with little help in a dirty stable.  Angels didn't tell the wealthy or the wise first, they told poor, struggling shepherds that nobody really appreciated or respected.  The magi who came with gold, frankincense and myrrh had to work hard to follow the star and when they found the baby, they barely escaped with their lives.  Lots of children didn't, thanks to Herod's fear.

There's lots in the Christmas story that's about struggle and pain and fear.  But at it's heart is a new life.  Joy to the world, love is come.

Thursday 1 December 2016

Towards a real world Peaceable Kingdom

The second candle we’ll light on the Advent wreath is for peace.

Like hope, the first candle, we could say that this is another term that means something different in the context of Jesus than how we might use it “in the real world.”  (There’s a reason for those quotation marks, and I’ll come back to that.)

The peace of Jesus is something different, alright.  In the Gospel of John, we even hear Jesus say “peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27).  Truly.  This peace isn’t just about an absence of conflict, chaos or trouble, it’s about the presence of God.  It’s the next link on the Advent wreath: when we live into the hope of God’s presence in our lives, we can also find the peace of God within us, that peace which is then lived out in the love that Jesus teaches us to share.

Jesus didn’t offer the disciples just a sense of inner peace, but the realization that inner peace lived out creates peace - and shares peace - with the world around us.  Loving our neighbour as ourselves and loving the world around us as Jesus teaches us to love, brings the prospect of peace without as well as within. 

Let’s go back to Isaiah for a minute.  I’ve mentioned before, I think, how much the followers of Jesus love Isaiah.  Isaiah’s the most frequently quoted Hebrew scripture prophet in Christian scripture and for good reason: Isaiah’s hope-filled prophecies of a messiah are heard as being fulfilled in Jesus.  Isaiah 11:1-10, for example, describes the shoot that will come from the root of Jesse - that the messiah will be from the house of David - and how “the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.”  He will have all the traditional God-given attributes of a great king, but also “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”  I don’t hear an army in that or force, in fact, for me, the breath that can “kill the wicked” conjures up the image of the breath of the spirit, of Jesus sharing peace and the spirit with the disciples.

And that’s the thing about “the peaceable kingdom” that Isaiah then describes as the result of the messiah’s reign.  “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.”  This isn’t a negotiated truce or an enforced cessation of violence, this is predators and prey living together and children, innocent and unknowing, kept safe from harm.  This is a fundamental shift in the relationships of all living things: “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” 
Edward Hicks: Peaceable Kingdom (1826)
This messiah will lead the world to be so fully aware of God that we will return to that Eden-like paradise of all things being in right relationship with each other, that we will know we are all children of God, that love and grace will rule all hearts and lives and that we won’t hurt each other.

Wait, though.  That’s certainly not our world, is it?  So does that mean Jesus failed or that Jesus isn’t the messiah?  Or does it mean that Jesus, alive in us, calls us to live into that peace and strive for that world in this life, even as we know we’ll return to God?

Hence my quotations, “in the real world.”  The peace of God isn’t a concept to talk about for an hour in musty old churches or even in hip cool churches, it has real world application.  It did with John the Baptist, too, remember?  He called people to repent because the kingdom of heaven was near.  To repent means to turn, literally, away from sin, to make a fundamental change to a new way of living, of living into a relationship right with God and with each other.

If we want to make peace happen, it starts within us and is lived out with others.  It starts with the light of hope to guide us and the presence of God’s peace on the journey.  Jesus teaches us to do, to love and care and build our own peaceable kingdom.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Living in the Light of Hope

Do you have an Advent wreath at home?  Most churches have an Advent wreath and light a candle each week for the four Sundays leading to Christmas.  A fifth candle, a white one in the middle, is for Christ.  Those Sunday candles could be blue or purple, and each week has a theme: Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.  The candle for the Sunday of Joy could be pink (it’s more festive).

Hope, Peace, Joy, Love.   Pretty important themes, not only in the Christmas story, but in the life of Jesus.  And in our lives, too.  In fact, the Advent wreath should remind us all year long of how those things are uniquely and intimately connected.  So let’s wonder about them, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and each week I’ve got a few thoughts I’d like to share about each one.

Let’s begin, though, by acknowledging that what these words mean in the context of Jesus may not be what we think they mean in day to day use.  Take hope, for example.  We can hope that our team wins the game or that this year’s Christmas party will be as good as last year.  We hope that it doesn’t snow, if you’re driving somewhere, or that it does, if you’re a skier or snowmobiler.  We hope the plane’s on time or the food’s good or our health’s good.  Regardless of the scale, from the insignificant to the deeply meaningful, this is about desire.  It’s wishful thinking, speculation about a desired outcome, the probability of which might range from long-shot to possibility.  At best, we use the word “hope” to mean optimism, confidence in the possibility that’s ahead.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Acknowledging possibility and living into opportunity is a good thing.  

But that’s not the hope of Jesus.  This hope isn’t about optimism, but certainty, not wishful thinking but knowing.  God is with us.  God loves us and God’s love and grace is for all, truly, unconditionally, for all, and so we come from God and return to God.  Call God God, love, spirit, higher power, network of life, the oneness in which we all have our being, whatever you will, God is with us.  In that sure and certain hope, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Maybe it’s like that candle we light.  The flame itself is a beautiful thing, but more importantly, in its light, we see.  The world is illuminated and we see the possibilities, opportunities and desires in which we live.  Hope lights the path that allows us to see where we’re going, but we’re the ones who need to choose the direction, take the step and do the travelling.  Hope connects us to the world in a real way, not in wishes, hopes and dreams, but in the true and very real living out of them.

It may feel, sometimes, like the darkness is overwhelming the light, and seeing our way forward is a challenge.  That’s when it’s important to remember that hope is only the first candle, linked to the others and to Jesus and that hope is more than a solitary light.  That light is in all of us and even in the shortest, darkest days of winter, it will shine again tomorrow.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Turning of the Year

Every year, I try to remind people that the first Sunday of Advent isn’t just the beginning of the “season of preparation” for Christmas, it’s the beginning of the church year.  That means that the New Year doesn’t begin with a bang, but with a time of reflection, preparing for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

That can be a challenge for many, especially when Advent is so full of Christmas already.  Maybe Advent needs its own moment of preparation.

Just like the secular calendar’s New Year’s Day has its New Year’s Eve, so does the church calendar.  Or it would, if the Sunday before Advent wasn’t already designated as something else.

Most everybody who uses the Revised Common Lectionary (the list of weekly scripture readings shared by most mainline christian denominations) marks that last Sunday before Advent as Reign of Christ Sunday, or Feast of Christ the King.  It’s a relatively new idea.  Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925 and it moved to its current date in 1969.  The Pope was concerned with the rise in secularism and wanted to emphasize the idea that Christ should “reign in our minds … reign in our wills … reign in our hearts … reign in our bodies.”  It didn’t hurt that it also emphasized the importance of the church at a time that its influence was waning.  It also came at a time when the Pope and Italy were working out the details that led to the Lateran Treaty establishing the Vatican City as a state.  It’s fascinating stuff, but I don’t mean this to be a history lesson, so please Google “The Roman Question.”  It really is interesting.

In spite of the language of kingship - and the context of that historical stuff - it’s a pretty solid idea: an opportunity to draw attention to how Christ should rule our lives.  Assuming, of course, that you unpack “rule” in a way that is understandable and meaningful.  For most people, the historical role of kings and queens isn’t really positive, unless it’s in a Disney movie (and that’s no guarantee, either). 

But lets look at “rule” and “reign” a little differently.  We talk constantly about the presence of God in our lives.  As followers of Jesus, we strive to live as Jesus teaches, don’t we?  Before you answer, think about that for a moment: do we strive to “live” as Jesus teaches?  That’s not about behaviour, it’s about how we live.  That means, as Pius XI suggested, in our minds, our wills, our hearts, our bodies.

I was a choir boy in an Anglican cathedral choir when I was a kid, and I’m pretty sure the first latin words I learned (and still remember) were “ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.”  The first line of an ancient hymn, it means “where charity and love are, God is there.”  To me, that’s the reign of Christ or the rule of Jesus, that God is present in our lives through the love we live.  It isn’t about control or command or the trappings of royalty, it’s about welcoming and engaging the presence of Christ in how we live.

So maybe that’s a good thought for New Year’s Eve, too.  Do a “year in review” and take a moment before Advent begins to reflect on the past year.  Where did you see love rule in your life?  Where was there charity?  Or compassion, healing, hope or peace?  Where was there joy?  Where was there Christ?

Thursday 10 November 2016

God of the Living

I would usually write about the lectionary readings for the Sunday coming up, but I went off lectionary for our final service in Mirror last week.  So this week’s post reflects the passages from Luke for last week and this week.  Besides ... it seems appropriate.

“He is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38).

It’s usually about this time of year that I get two or three letters telling me that the end of the world is imminent and I’m going to burn in the very fires of hell.

I should clarify that a bit: the letters - they’re often pamphlets really - aren’t addressed to me personally, although the “you” they address feels pretty personal.  They also tell me that my safety during the coming armageddon and protection from the subsequent judgement can be easily assured by me supporting their very important ministry with a donation.

Sometimes I read them just to see what new and novel ways indicate that the end is near: the writer had a vision of a great beast devouring the earth; nature is fighting back and trying to destroy us; terrorists could get their hands on advanced weapons of mass destruction; the various conflicts around the world are getting progressively out of hand; the right is killing the country, or the left, take your pick; the Oilers are winning, for real this time.  All signs of the impending end of the world.

Okay, I’m making light of something that’s pretty serious.  In fact, some of those scenarios are very current and very real.  But are they signs of “the end?”  Or are they being used to make you afraid so you’ll believe in something?  Fear is a pretty powerful motivator.

Jesus talks about there being an “end time,” as do prophets in the Bible, and there’s the whole book of Revelation.  But Jesus also has a warning, that we should be wary of false prophets and those that would use fear to control and hurt the world.  Jesus has another message, too.

Don’t panic.

Really.  Don’t panic.  Don’t be afraid, first of all, because God is with us in this life and in the next: the end of this life is the beginning of a new life with God.  Secondly, God calls us to living in this life, to love boldly, to engage this life with all the enthusiasm, creativity and wisdom we possess - to use our capacity to make change happen.  Fear is death, not life.  Love is life.  Fear doesn’t empower us to learn and grow and change.  Love does that.  Fear holds us back from living boldly into the next moment.    Love moves us to embrace the world and step fearlessly forward.  And Jesus reminds us that our God “is God not of the dead, but of the living,” in living out this life and living into the next.

I suspect that the reason we see more of this kind of “literature” at this time of year, and hear bible stories about it, is because we’re coming to some endings.  The church calendar begins with Advent, so the end of the church year is this coming week.  The calendar year ends soon, too.  Oh, and it’s often election time.  How’d that go recently?

But those endings are also beginnings of something new, aren’t they?  They’re signs that something is coming, Christmas for one thing.  That, too, is a beginning.  The birth of Jesus shouldn’t be something that we acknowledge every year just because it’s marked on the calendar from last year.  We celebrate it because it reminds us of new life, shows us the wonder of our selves and our relationships with each other and God, and inspires us to live better in those relationships.

Even when it seems like the new beginning brings an even greater struggle, a setback or a defeat, Jesus reminds us that God goes with us and love is still the heart of life.  Choose to love.  With all due respect to George R.R. Martin, it’s not winter that’s coming, it’s summer.

And by the way, what made me think of this wasn’t elections or conflicts or change and upheaval, it was that I didn’t get any of those “letters” this year.  Not one.  Maybe that’s a good sign.

So don’t panic, Jesus says.  Stuff happens and, with God, we’ll live into those challenges as they come.  I certainly don’t want to be worried that the Oilers have started winning again.  For now.

Thursday 3 November 2016

A New Thing Ahead

On Sunday, November 6, 2016, the congregation of Mirror United Church will hold their last service after 112 years of serving the communities of Lamerton and Mirror.  It’s not a new or unique story: like many rural churches, the congregation has become small and tired and not financially able to sustain its ministry.  That’s happening a lot, and not just with small rural churches.

It’s a sad day and we grieve the loss of a unique church family, a place of worship and a building that was once at the heart of the community for many people.  There will be memories to share and stories to tell.  The life of the congregation comes to an end much like the life of an old, close friend.  There is a long life to celebrate, but it seems like the best years are past and it’s time for this life to be done.

After the few remaining members made the decision to disband, we sat and talked about what will happen next and what might be in the closing service.  One of them pushed a bible across the table to me, open to Isaiah, and pointed to these verses: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

These were prophetic words of hope for the Hebrew people.  Conquered by the Assyrians and many exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon, this is the part of Isaiah that foretells that things are about to change for them: a messiah will come and Jerusalem will be renewed.  For the Hebrews, that was Darius and the Persians who defeated the Assyrians and liberated the Hebrews (kind of) and restored Jerusalem (mostly).   It’s also the part of Isaiah that Christians hear and love the most as foretelling the coming of Jesus.  It’s the most quoted part of Hebrew scripture in the gospels, not just for its prophecy, but for its message of hope in making a new world.

But I don’t think that the writer means for God to say forget the past entirely.  I think it means let go.  Let go of the past, don’t cling to it.  Let the past do what the past should do: inform your present and move you forward.  Let the past inspire your vision, not cloud it.  How else will you perceive the new thing that’s happening?

I think there’s different contexts for that letting go.  It’s not just about the hardship, struggle or conflict.  Every life has its share of that.  It’s also about letting go of the things we celebrate, in a way.  What we bring forward from all our experiences is what we’ve learned that can inform the new present, otherwise we’re simply repeating things, both destructively and because “we’ve always done it that way” (a classic church dilemma).  Both bind us to the past.  While we may find comfort and safety there, our ability to envision the future and see possibility and potential in it comes with holding the past where it belongs: in the past.

And Isaiah offers something else.  Right before these verses, he reminds the people that their God that promises them “a new thing” is the God of Exodus, the God who freed the people from bondage once before (Isaiah 16-17).  Let go of that past, says God, I’m doing a new thing.  And then, in the verses following, the new world of that new thing: a way through the wilderness, rivers in the desert, wild animals will be grateful and refreshment for God’s people (Isaiah 43:19-21).

Words of promise and hope.  Let go the past to be the past and step boldly into the future knowing that God goes with you to make a new thing.

We will celebrate with gratitude and appreciation the work of the Mirror congregation over many years.  The members that now move on to another congregation take their wisdom, experience, hopes and dreams there, looking forward to the new thing that is happening in their lives, knowing that God is with them.  The Mirror community, too, can look forward to a new thing happening with the legacy which is the church building.  We all can look forward to the newness of our lives with God.  Do you perceive it?

Thursday 27 October 2016

Everyday Saints, Everyday Angels, Everyday You

I doubt it would surprise anyone to know that I once dressed as a devil for Halloween.  I was three or four years old, I think, and there’s photographic evidence of me walking down the street in my little red costume, swinging my tail.  One of my brothers was a bat that year and the other was a clown.  It was the sixties.

Things have changed a bit.  There may be a few devils this year, but I doubt they’ll look like my amazing made-by-my-mom costume.  There probably won’t be as many bats as Batmans and, hopefully, you won’t see many of the current style of scary clown, though I see the demand for Donald Trump costumes is “yuge,” and that ought to be enough to scare anybody.  Among my grandkids, for example, is Spiderman, Cookie Monster, somebody named Skye and, my personal favourite, a garbage can.  Elliott’s pretty clever: I assume that he’s anticipating where some of his candy might end up.

There might well be some zombies and demons, some arch villains and some Marvel and DC heroes, some fire fighters, paramedics, police and soldiers in camouflage, there might even be a nun or two.  Villains and heroes, good and bad, funny and fearful.  Whoever or whatever, we want our costume to be recognizable, but not necessarily as us.

That’s in the pagan origins of Halloween.  It’s tied to the old celtic festival of Samhain - and various other ancient pagan festivals - when people believed that the boundary between this and the “otherworld” was thin.  Spirits, harmless and harmful, were able to pass through, and families honoured their ancestors and warded off past enemies and evil spirits.  That’s the origin of wearing masks and costumes, to hide one’s identity from the harmful spirits.

But it’s also All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Hallows Day or, as we know it now, All Saints Day.  That’s the day the church celebrates “saints,” those people that have been historically held up as examples of living well as a follower of Jesus, of living as Jesus taught us to live.

It would be great to see some saints out at Halloween.  Might remind us to look for them the other 364 days of the year.

In the spirit (pun intended) and fun of All Hallow’s Eve, don’t lose sight of the day after.  More importantly, don’t let your sight rest solely on the historic saints of the past.  Look around you.  I bet you know a few saints.  Real, living, breathing saints.  Of course you do.  Saints don’t have to be long dead, dusty statues in an old church to have meaning in our lives.  Saints live everyday the love and grace that Jesus lived.

That might be a firefighter, a nurse, a doctor, a police officer, a veteran, a teacher, a social worker or any number of obvious examples that might impact our lives in a big way.  But don’t miss the ordinary, everyday saints, too.  How about those people who volunteer to deliver Meals on Wheels or support our kids with afterschool programs or coach sports or direct theatre or volunteer at the Thrift Shop or give to the Food Bank or donate winter coats and other clothing to BDSS?

And then there’s a saint in the moment, isn’t there?  How about that person who drops by for coffee just when you need it?  Or the person who shovelled your walk or took care of your kids or helped walk your dog or get your groceries when you couldn’t?  
The list is endless.  And maybe there doesn’t need to be a list, maybe there just needs to be our awareness and our recognition of when we’re meeting a saint, not just to offer our thanks, but to be inspired to offer that same “saintliness” to others.

Or maybe there does need to be a list.  Bashaw United Church calls it Angels Among Us, a challenge to the community to recognize at least 100 random “acts of angels” in 40 days, beginning November 1.  You can “report an angel sighting” through Facebook and Instagram or using cards available at the church and around town.  We post those on stakes on the front lawn of the church.  Last year there were over 100 angels.  The goal is to make us more aware of the kindness, care and love that ordinary people show ordinary people everyday and to inspire even more.  Be a part of it, here or wherever you live.

Angels Among Us can easily be saints.  It can easily be you.  Everyday.

Thursday 20 October 2016

It's not about who's the bad guy

Godspell is one of my favourite shows.  I know I’ve said it before and it’s not just because there’s been two great runs of it in Bashaw.  I love the story, of course, and the songs, but I love most that the story’s told with spirit, enthusiasm, humour and joy.  I wish that were how we always told the story of Jesus, with drama and flare.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a couple of issues with the story telling, though, and that’s why I mention it this week.

In Luke 18:9-14, we hear Jesus telling the story of the pharisee and the tax collector who are at the temple praying.  The pharisee stands at the front by himself and prays that he’s thankful “that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  The tax collector stands at a distance and won’t even look up.  He beats his chest, a sign of penance, and says only “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  With these two contrasting examples, Jesus tells them that it’s the tax collector who goes home “justified,” or right, with God: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The story has a pretty simple point which Jesus states clearly at the end.  And the fact that Luke precedes the parable with an explanation of why Jesus was telling it, should make it even more clear: “he also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

But just because the concept is simple, doesn’t mean we don’t fall into the trap of making it simplistic.  Life’s way more complicated than that.

And this is where I have an issue with Godspell.  When this story appears in the play, it’s told by one of the cast like a real evangelist to a tent meeting.  The pharisee’s introduced and the rest of the cast boos with “general derision.”  Then the tax collector’s introduced and the cast responds with a fond and sympathetic “ahhh.”  So before anyone’s said anything, we’ve established that the pharisee is the bad guy and we like the tax collector.  Except he isn’t and we shouldn’t.

Despite our learned response that pharisees are evil, ungodly enemies of Jesus, that’s a gross simplification of a group of people who were often the most well respected holy men in the community, the guardians of the law, the keepers of the temple.  That’s probably how most of the people hearing this story for the first time in the first century would have known them.  And there’s no indication in the story that the pharisee is praying anything that’s not true.  He probably really is thankful not to be one of those “bad” people, he does tithe and follow the letter of the ritual law.

Not tax collectors, though.  They were mostly reviled and hated, known more for working with the occupying Romans and rich upper class to bleed the poor.  They were often dishonest and corrupt.  That’s how most of the people Jesus talked to, especially the poor, would have known them.  If anyone should be booed when they appear in public, it would be the tax collector.

And yet.  To be truly humble is to speak from the heart and recognize who we are, beyond, or perhaps in spite of, our behaviour.  When we come to God in prayer, we cannot make our relationship with God right unless we speak from the heart with honesty and sincerity.  It’s the source of right relationships with each other and the world around us, too.

And it’s not comparative, either.  I wonder how often we hear this story and think, well of course one wants to be like the tax collector.  Thank goodness I’m not like that pharisee.  But wait a minute.  Isn’t that just what the pharisee said?  It isn’t about what he is or isn’t, or how he behaves or doesn’t.  It’s about who we are and how we are, living sincerely and honestly the love that’s in our heart.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Pray and Do and Pray and Do

Jesus once told a parable about an unjust judge and a persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8).  The widow, says Jesus, was seeking justice but the judge wouldn’t give it.  So she kept at him, constantly returning to plead her case until he finally gives in, perhaps because he was tired of hearing her or maybe she was just taking too much of his time or she was making him look bad.  For whatever reason, justice comes from her persistence, not the judge’s sense of justice.

It’s like that when you pray, says Jesus.  Don’t ever give up on your prayers because God hears them: if even an unjust judge will give justice because of persistence, imagine how a loving God will respond to your prayers.

God hears our prayers and answers them.

There’s more.  Not a “but.”  More.

God’s response to our prayers may not be exactly what we expected and it may not be readily apparent, perhaps, but it will always be just.  “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you,” says Jesus, “he will quickly grant justice to them” (Luke 18:7-8).  I think this story’s about a widow (very much a marginalized member of society in those days) seeking justice for precisely that reason.  We don’t need the details of her story, only that she seeks justice.  And she receives it.

Remember, too, that the widow’s persistence is more than words.  She actively pursues the judge, in person, returning constantly and with consistently the same message: give me justice.  When we pray for justice, do we offer only words and thoughts, or can we offer more?  And what might that “more” look like?

I’d like to answer those questions with “yes, we can” and “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and I’ll do what I can.”  Our prayers may be different, as our actions may be, because our contexts are different.  But can we pray for the hungry without offering food?  Or the thirsty, without offering water?  Can we pray for the homeless without offering shelter?  Can we pray for those who haven’t coats for the winter, without offering them clothing?  Or the sick and the shut-in, without offering care and comfort?

A family in our community lost so much in a fire recently.  People have offered prayers and contributed to a fund to help support them, the hockey team gave over their fundraising bottle drive to support them and the Fire Department’s town-wide collection for the Food Bank added an opportunity to support them.

Our community isn’t large, and the Food Bank is busier than ever before.  We offer prayers for the hungry and we collect donations of goods for the Food Bank, at the church, with drives and directly to the Food Bank itself.  But not just that, because a local farmer generously donates a cow.  You and I can help by donating the money to pay for its processing.

It’s turning to winter and getting cold.  We pray for those in need of shelter and clothing and local groups collect coats, hats and mitts to distribute to those in need of them for the winter.

Those are just a few inspiring examples of people and money at work.  And that’s just locally.  There’s so much more.  Oh God, there’s so much more.

I think this parable is about the importance of “more.”  More prayer, more action.  More justice.  More hope that our prayers aren’t just empty words casting our cares and concerns on God, but actively working with God and with each other to bring our prayers life, together.  

Thursday 6 October 2016

Living Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving this week.  At least, in Canada.  And I mean the holiday named Thanksgiving, of course, not actual thanksgiving, itself.  That should happen every day.  I think it’s the point of a “holy-day,” to commemorate something we should be living out the other 364.

So go and be thankful, every day.  That could be the message of many a Thanksgiving sermon.  We might ask people what they’re thankful for or who they’re thankful for, maybe even in a creative and interactive way (yes, we’ll be doing that) and remind them to give thanks, to each other, to farmers for the harvest and workers for all they create, to friends and family and, of course, the Creator.  And not just this holiday weekend, but everyday.

You can’t command people to be thankful, though, or even to express their thanks.  Sure, from a young age we teach that one should say “thank you” when we are given something.  It’s a sign of politeness and respect to do so.  But just saying it doesn’t make you thankful.  Haven’t you ever said thank you when you weren’t really feeling thankful?

Our sense of gratitude is so easily impacted by expectation and entitlement.  It wasn’t what was expected or we expected better or we deserve it because it’s our right or it’s your job to provide that to me anyway.  And then there’s the things that we’re definitely not thankful for, like hate, war, violence, sickness, famine - that’s a long list, too.

But doesn’t that make it even more important that we be thankful for life?

Let go of the expectations and entitlement for a minute, please, and recognize the gifts that we are truly thankful for, the gifts that are deeper than those that we can be distracted from.  We know them, we do, because they feed us and they are life giving and life changing.  They may be large or small.  It may take a moment to discern them, to move aside all the other “stuff” that can get in the way, but choose to make that moment.  And not just one day, but everyday.

When I was little, we always said grace before meals.  This grace: “For what we are about to receive, may we be truly thankful.  Amen.”  I’m pretty sure that there were some meals I wasn’t too thrilled with.  I may not have eaten all my vegetables and sometimes there may have been beets, even.  But I remember “truly thankful.”  I may not always have seen it at the time, but I know it meant more than what was on the plate.  It meant that I was fed and cared for, had a place to be and people who cared for me and loved me.  It meant there was something greater.

I wonder if that grace isn’t for more than meals.  Maybe it’s for each new day, each new experience, each new moment that feeds our lives.

The gospel story for Thanksgiving this year is Jesus telling his followers that he’s “the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  (John 6:25-35)  I’m truly thankful for that, not perfectly, but truly.  And because Jesus feeds us, we should feed others.  Not perfectly, perhaps, but truly.  That’s living thanksgiving.  Truly.

Thursday 29 September 2016

Faith Full

I got stuck on the first verse of the gospel story this week.  Luke 17:5.  “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” 

That’s a pretty hefty request and I’m sure that we can all appreciate where the apostles are coming from.  Jesus asks a lot of them.  Their lives certainly have changed, following Jesus around, relying mostly on the hospitality of others, and they’re constantly being challenged by Jesus to learn new things and a new way of living.   And the way the gospels tell it, they aren’t always the fastest learners, they sometimes fail miserably and, even when they do “get it,” their doubt and fear can still get the better of them.

You have to wonder if they ever felt like they weren’t meeting Jesus’ expectations.  They were chosen, they were called to follow Jesus and learn to be like Jesus and share that teaching with others.  If they were supposed to be like Jesus, I wonder how often they thought they were succeeding.  I wonder if they ever felt like it was just too hard and they should give up and go back to the simple life of fishing or collecting taxes or any of the other ordinary, everyday jobs they’d left behind.  After all, they were just ordinary, everyday folks.  A little extra faith would sure help.

It can seem like Jesus asks a lot of us, too, us ordinary, everyday folks.  I wonder how often we’ve thought it’s just just too hard, what Jesus asks of us.   Or that it’s just somehow beyond our ability.  Or that it sounds like a great idea and wouldn’t it be great if we could, but, you know, realistically, it’s just not going to happen that way so why even try.  Sigh.

That sounds like Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh’s favourite pessimistic donkey.  Maybe he could use a little more faith, too.

Except that won’t do it.

First of all, let’s be clear that it’s never about meeting expectations with Jesus.  Jesus isn’t about expectations or passing a test or meeting a set achievement standard.  Jesus is about how we live and how we love, with sincerity, truth and wholeness.

And that’s important to remember because Jesus’ response to the apostles’ request for more faith is to say you don’t need more.  You can’t need more, even, because all that you need is already within you.  It isn’t about quantifying your faith.  There is no more or less.  It’s about how much you use it.

Faith, someone once said, is a muscle.  All you need is there, but it must be exercised and worked.  That’s how it will grow, not in quantity, but deeper, more fit and healthy and capable.  Exercise it.

What’s more, says Jesus, is that faith doesn’t require heavy lifting.  It’s not great acts and grand gestures that exercise our faith the most, but the ordinary, everyday little things that express our faith.  Small acts of kindness and caring, moments of love and engagement, reaching out to others, these are what we build our life around.  Faith, like life, is lived.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Just a scratch behind the ear

We have a new puppy in our lives.  He’s a merle coloured chihuahua named Yoda.  We named him that in the hopes that he would be a small wise man with big ears.  You know, just like Yoda.

He’s not, of course.  Not yet, anyway.  Right now he’s a five month old puppy, so a whole lot of training has been happening at our house.  And here’s a few things he’s taught us: if you put it near me, I will chew it; I like to eat anything that’s on the ground - anything - but I’ll be a little fussy about when, or if, I’ll eat what’s in my bowl; the living room rug is a good place to do my business; I have no intention of doing as you say and, by the way - catch me; you better keep your eyes on the ground, cause I go where I want; I love my mommy and will cuddle and sleep in her lap, but that guy’s only good for being a bigger chew toy.

We’re learning, but I’m pretty sure he thinks we could do better.

Of course, I think he could do better.  He can be uncooperative, frustrating, time consuming, needy and annoying.  And super cute.  And friendly and fun and loving.  And did I mention super cute?  One minute he’ll be a rotten little so-and-so and the next minute he’ll be licking your hand and curl up next to you the couch.

He’s like a three year old boy.  Or a thirty year old.  Or a fifty year old.

Yeah, that’s where I’m going with this.  If you have a pet or a farm animal, you likely know that you can’t just expect them to be and do exactly what you want all the time.  Sooner or later there are moments when those creatures can behave in a way that's more than a little trying.  Then, a short while later, you'll be giving them an affectionate little scratch behind the ear and a smile like everything's fine and all is forgiven.

Wouldn't it be great if we could learn to give that much grace to people?  Wouldn't it be great if, the next time you saw someone on the street that you didn't like much or that you'd been having a disagreement with, wouldn't it be great if you just walked up to them and gave them a little scratch behind the ear.  Metaphorically, of course.

I know, you want to say "but it's not that simple for us.  We're much more complicated and sophisticated than animals."  Sure we are.  Mostly.  But why can't we be that simple - not simplistic - just simple?  Why can’t we be that childlike - not childish - about it?  That's the kind of simple grace God has for us.  And the kind of grace God would like us to have for each other, for all creatures and for the earth itself.

For the past few years, we’ve celebrated the last Sunday of September with a Blessing of the Animals at the Ag Grounds.  We’ve had many dogs and cats, kittens and puppies, a goat, a bearded dragon, chickens and bunnies.  We’d love to have horses, sheep, cattle and pretty much anyone.  Yoda will be there for the first time, sharing in the blessing that we are all a part of.

God's blessing rests on all creation.  Sharing that sense of blessing with each other, the other creatures who share this earth, and the earth itself, connects us.  “The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth.  All things are connected like the blood that unites us all.  We do not weave this web of life.  We are merely a strand of it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves."  (Attributed to Chief Seattle, 1854.)

Thursday 15 September 2016

There is a balm in Gilead

“Is there no balm in Gilead?” asks the prophet Jeremiah towards the end of the 7th century BCE (Jeremiah 8:22).  In the midst of political and religious strife, conflict and degradation of society, he sees the Hebrew people have turned away from God and he proclaims the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the nation.  He hurts for the people, as does God, and laments their circumstances.

Jeremiah offers this metaphor: is there no balm in Gilead?  Gilead is a hilly part of the country, east of the Jordan, famous for a soothing ointment made from the sap of balsam trees.  So, he says, is there no soothing ointment that will fix this problem and make everything better?  And the answer is no.  No there isn’t, there’s only weeping day and night, lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and the death of the people that is to come.  And it does.  Babylon conquers Judah, Jerusalem is broken and the Temple destroyed.

For Jeremiah, there is no balm for that.  It needs more, and that’s Jeremiah’s concern.  It needs more than a superficial repair or a moment of comfort, it needs time to hurt and mourn, time to lament.  It needs time to journey through the hurt and then it needs something deeper, something transformative, something heartfelt: a turning back to God.  Not just in the temple or in the behaviour of priests, politicians or even ordinary people, but a deep, heartfelt and dramatic change in how the people live.

Later, much later, Jeremiah will offer words of hope that a new day is coming, but this moment calls the people to live the hurt and work together with God to transform it.

African-american slaves saw the balm a little differently.  They didn’t sing a question, they made a statement: “There is a balm in Gilead/ to make the wounded whole./ There is a balm in Gilead/ to cure the sin-sick soul.”  Their reference point is Jeremiah, but the answer is yes, yes there is something that cures the ills of this life: “The Holy Spirit revives my soul again” says one common verse and  “You can tell the love of Jesus” says another.  This is no salve for irritated skin, this is something deeper, something to be found in the hearts of everyone.  Something Jeremiah might understand to be more like the covenant God offers much later through the prophet:  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).

This is the new covenant that Jesus offers.  There is a balm.  It’s God’s love and grace, shared by all.  And it offers no quick fix.  There’s no spiritual “take a pill and be fine tomorrow.”  It’s a journey that Jesus walks with us, through the hurt, the grief, the challenges, the successes, the joy and the laughter.  It’s the journey to wholeness and we’re invited to walk it together with Jesus.

That isn’t as simple as we can make it sound.  It wasn’t for the Hebrews many centuries ago, it wasn’t for African-americans two centuries ago and it isn’t for many, many, many people in the world today.  Together, we can make the way better.