Thursday 28 December 2017

Part of a Bigger Story

A couple of years ago, some friends gave us a beautiful snow globe for Christmas. It’s mostly silver and white with some gold trim on the manger scene in the globe. It’s a simple scene of Mary and Joseph either side of the baby Jesus, wrapped in a cloth in a manger. There’s a couple of curious sheep and three silver palm trees behind them. It's that "special moment" in time, perhaps what the shepherds saw, or the stable animals. My description doesn’t do it justice, of course. It’s beautiful and elegant and all contained within its protective glass shell.

Just the way we like our Christmases.

But that's just the "Christmas" we make.  The one we prepare and package, order and organize to conveniently - or not so conveniently - fit into our holiday schedule.  It's a special moment in time, sure, and it can make many memories, but when we put away the snow globes, the trees and the three cupboards worth of decorations - or is that just at our house? - we're putting that Christmas away, too.

Christmas, real Christmas, is bigger than that.

Argue about the origins of Christmas traditions all you like, the accuracy of the story and how we tell it, the arbitrary date, the pagan customs, the commercialism of today's festivities, but Christmas is bigger than all that, too.

Christmas, for me, is part of a bigger story, a story of life since the beginning, a life we're living now and a life ahead.  It's about how our relationship with God, and each other, was and is, and how it can be changed for the better by love.

For as much as we mark yearly commemorations of the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus, and we mark certain days as moments in the story of his life, they're all surely less important than the life itself.  Struggling as we were, since the beginning, in our relationship with God and each other, it was that life, that daily living of love, compassion and grace, that became our example for living.  In living, Jesus showed us how we can make life better.

And how we've struggled with that since.  And often failed.  But perhaps that might partly be because we mark these "moments in time" and celebrate them without truly realizing that they are "moments for time."  The love that came down at Christmas, to paraphrase Christina Rosetti's poem, didn't stay in the stable.  That love lives, and we can give it life each day, as it gives us life, every day.

One of my Christmas traditions is to watch the 1951 classic film of A Christmas Carol.  In it, there's a wonderful moment when Scrooge first meets the Ghost of Christmas Present.  The Ghost, a grand, jovial sort, tells him this: "Mortal! We Spirits of Christmas do not live only one day of our year.  We live the whole three-hundred and sixty-five.  So is it true of the Child born in Bethlehem.  He does not live in men's hearts one day of the year, but in all days of the year."

The Christmas story is big.  It's life, every day.

Thursday 21 December 2017

Christmas Stories

Each of the gospels has a story about the arrival of Jesus.

Mark doesn’t have a birth story for Jesus. The gospel that opens with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God,” dives right in with the adult John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the adult Jesus. Here he is, says John, the one I’ve told you about. And there, suddenly, is Jesus, being baptized by John, spending some time wondering in the wilderness and then beginning his ministry.

Matthew begins his story with a lengthy genealogy that establishes that Jesus is descended through Joseph, not just from the great king David, but from Abraham. The angel doesn’t appear to Mary, but to Joseph. Then, when Jesus is born, magi appear seeking the promised child that is “king of the Jews.” Jesus is, then, established as the king that was promised.

Luke tells the story of the angel visiting Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the stable, the shepherds, the angels. There are no kings of the sort Matthew’s magi expected to  find. Mary and Joseph are poor. Angels announce the birth to shepherds, the lowest of the low in social standing. Those who need the most care figure prominently in Luke.

It’s these two stories we combine into the “Christmas Story” that we tell with manger scenes, beautiful works of art and music, even pictures on cards. The almost idyllic pastoral scene of the child, “no crying he makes” the song says, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, the donkey and the other stable animals, sheep and shepherds, and magi (usually three kings) with their gifts and their camels. There may be a star overhead and perhaps an angel.

Each of the stories of Matthew and Luke deserve their own time and attention, but I also don’t disparage combining them into a single representative scene. The hope, peace, joy and, most especially, love that’s at the heart of the story are all there. Yes, please go deeper, but this is a good place to start.

That’s the thing, isn’t it. The story-telling is just the beginning. The real beauty of this tableau is in the thoughts, the questions a good story brings. The real beauty is in the wonder.

This story is full of wonder. Mostly, I think, because it’s not full of fear. Luke tells that the very first words the angel says to Mary are “don’t be afraid.” Matthew says it’s the first words of the angel to Joseph. The angel appears to the shepherds and says don’t be afraid. I imagine Joseph said it to Mary more than a few times on the road to Bethlehem. The shepherds might well have said it to Mary and Joseph when the came to see the child with this crazy story of angels singing. And exotic looking magi who travelled a great distance with precious gifts just because they saw a star? Their first words must have been “please, don’t be afraid.”

And I think they weren’t afraid. I think the characters in this story chose wonder over fear. I don’t think it was easy, but I think they did and that brought hope, it brought engagement and relationships and sharing the good news that in this child is God’s love.

This is the kind of love the adult Jesus lived and taught. That same Jesus who had to remind us so frequently, “don’t be afraid.”  See, I think that love is in all of us. Fear masks it. Fear covers it and makes it difficult for us to access it, live it and share it. But wonder opens our hearts to love. Wonder reaches out and, just like in the story, makes connections and builds relationships. That’s the way love gets out and gives life. Love is always there, waiting to be let out.

That’s where the story of Jesus’ arrival in the gospel of John is so important to me. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

This Word isn’t just about words in a story, it’s the spirit of life itself, the energy, the power of creation, the love that connects us and animates us. It can’t be overcome by the darkness of fear. And it’s here, in this child, in the Christmas Story. Wonder about that.

Friday 15 December 2017

Wool & Straw

Occasionally, I like to write a story or a play. This is the short story version of the play the children presented in Bashaw last week. It's inspired by an old celtic tale of two brothers who didn't get along and the village priest who enlightens them. The characters and the setting are a little different here.

Long, long ago, there was a tiny little town called Bethlehem. It was kind of in the middle of nowhere in a country called Judea, a not very popular place way and gone in the backend of an empire controlled by powerful corporations and mighty conglomerates who were only interested in what they could get out of you, like oil or cheap manufacturing, and then there were the taxes, oh the taxes. But that’s for another time.

In those days, Bethlehem was so small it only had one stable, a tiny little place, full of all kinds of animals. There were cows, chickens, pigs, dogs, cats, mice, even a rabbit or two, a wise old donkey who rarely left his stall … and sheep.

Oh, the sheep. They pretty much ran the show in those days. They weren’t really mean or bossy or anything like that, it was just that … well, there were the sheep of the hills and the sheep of the valley and they never did see eye to eye.

All the other animals got along just fine. They shared their stalls and their straw and whenever they went in or out of the stable, they would politely let their friends go first. Not the sheep, though. Sometimes they wouldn’t even use the same door! And whoever happened to come in first would take the best stalls and the best straw and just sit there and stare as the others came in, chewing their straw. Chewing and staring … staring and chewing …

You can imagine that the other animals were not too fond of this arrangement. “I wish they were more friendly,” said one of the dogs. “Why can’t they get along like we do,” said one of the chickens. “I wish they’d share their food,” said one of the pigs. “Mooove them somewhere else,” said the cows. “Something’s coming,” said the donkey.

Some of the animals had their own ideas of what to do about the sheep. “Build them their own stables,” said one of the dogs. “Make them take turns,” said one of the chickens (who secretly wanted their own pecking order). “Make them share their food,” said one of the pigs. “Mooove us somewhere else,” said the cows (who sincerely hoped they were ‘herd’). “Something’s coming,” said the donkey.

The sheep didn’t like any of these ideas. “We want to stay in this stable.  It’s ours,” said the sheep of the hills. “No, it’s ours,” said the sheep of the valley, “and, sure, we could take turns - as long as we go first.” “No, we’re first,” said the sheep of the hills. “And don’t even think about sharing our food.” “Maybe you should move on. That wouldn’t be so baaaad,” said the sheep of the valley. “Something’s coming,” said the donkey.

“What?” said all the sheep together (which really surprised them, since they’d never done anything together).

Now the donkey, whose name was Ezekiel, was an old donkey who’d traveled to many places, and all the other animals knew he was very wise. If anyone could do something about the sheep of the hills and the sheep of the valley, it was Ezekiel. “What do you mean, Ezekial?” said one of the pigs.

“I’ve heard a voice,” he said, “like an angel speaking far away. Something special is coming.  We must be ready. This silly business between the sheep of the hills and the sheep of the valley must stop.”

At that, there was much baaa-ing and snorting from the sheep. They weren’t sure, but they thought some work was coming their way. But Ezekiel had an idea.

“I will be going on a trip,” he said. “While I am gone, I challenge the sheep of the hills to gather their wool and the sheep of the valley to gather their straw, each bringing as much as they can here to the stable. When we meet together on the evening of my return, whoever fills the most space in the stable shall be the winner and be the boss of the stable.”

Well, the sheep of the hills were pretty excited. Their wool was the finest and fluffiest anywhere. And the sheep of the valley knew exactly where the best straw was stored, and lots of it. “What will you bring, Ezekiel?” asked one of the cows, who was secretly concerned that the sheep of the valley might make a mooooove on her hay.

“We shall see,” he replied. And with that, Ezekiel left the stable and walked off down the road out of town.

Now, it wasn’t long before things started to get a little crowded in the stable. There was straw and wool everywhere! There wasn’t much room for the animals, the sheep of the hills and the sheep of the valley still didn’t get along and Ezekiel was nowhere to be seen.

Finally, it was the day that Ezekiel was to return. The sheep of the hills and the sheep of the valley stayed out as late as they could, looking for the very last bit of wool and straw. It was starting to get quite dark when they headed back to the stable and they were almost there when they heard a noise. It was quiet and gentle at first, but soon it was all they could hear and they stopped and looked in amazement: there were angels, singing, in the sky!

And then, just like that, they were gone.

The sheep of the hills hurried down and the sheep of the valley ran quickly up and, as they came to the stable, they were surprised to find Ezekiel standing at the door with the other animals.

“What’s happening?” asked the sheep.

“Ezekiel was right,” said the rabbit, “something special is happening and it’s happening right here! A baby is being born in our stable.”

“Big deal,” said the sheep of the hills. “Yeah,” said the sheep of the valley, “we want to see who won!”

But when the sheep and the other animals followed Ezekiel into the stable, no one noticed the wool piled high towards the roof or the bales of hay stacked against the wall. All eyes were fixed on the baby, sleeping quietly in his mother’s arms.

“Look what Ezekiel brought,” said one of the pigs. And they all watched as the mother gently put him down in the rough wooden manger. And the baby stretched and yawned and began to cry and his crying filled the whole stable.

The sheep of the hills looked at the sheep of the valley.

“I think he’s uncomfortable,” said one. “The wood is very hard,” said another. Then one of the sheep took some wool and another brought some straw and they put them together in the manger under the baby. And the baby smiled and stopped crying. And his mother rocked the manger gently back and forth.

Like the sheep of the hills and the sheep of the valley, we sometimes forget what’s really important, and instead we let little things come between us and others, between us and the rest of the world.  Christmas reminds us that God’s love for all came to us in a baby born in a stable.

Thursday 7 December 2017

What are you saying?

When I was a kid, I sang in the choir of the Anglican cathedral in downtown Toronto. On Friday nights and Sunday mornings, my dad used to drive my brother and I from where we lived in the far east end to the cathedral. To get there from the east you had to cross the Don River near the lakeshore and as you came over the rise of the overpass, this sign would appear just above the guardrail. It said “Christ is coming! Call Jim” and a phone number.

All my childhood I always wondered about that sign. It was a landmark for many years, perched on top of a large old evangelical pentecostal church on the west side of the river. I wondered if Jim knew something the rest of us didn’t, like when or where Christ was coming. At some point, it occurred to me that maybe Jim didn’t know and that’s why he had the sign. Maybe it was kind of a “call me if you see him” kind of thing.

Turns out Jim just wanted you to come to his church so he could tell you how to be ready for when Christ gets here. He was pretty good at that, too. Apparently the sign was still there long after Jim had retired and was spending the winters in Florida. I guess you just got his voicemail then.

But maybe, if you went to Jim’s church - I confess I never did - Jim just told you to repent and be ready. Like John the Baptist did.

John’s not really part of the Christmas story.  Although, the gospel of Luke says that John’s mom, Elizabeth, was a cousin of Mary - Luke suggests Jesus and John are related! - and Luke tells the story of John’s conception (it involves an angel, too) and of Mary visiting Elizabeth to share her own news. So John’s only about six months older than Jesus. On the other hand, Luke’s the only gospel that tells this, so maybe it’s just a good story.

Anyway, here we are for two Sundays in Advent, hearing about the fully grown John, how he’s the fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah, how he comes to proclaim the arrival of Jesus and how we should repent, be baptized and be ready (Mark 1). He’s not really just The Baptizer, he’s The Announcer. Christ is coming! Call John.

Thing is, Advent’s not at all about the chronological telling of the Christmas story. If it were, it would have to start nine months before Christmas. Or even six month’s before that if you want to include John’s story.

No, Advent’s about preparing for Jesus’s birth and the beginning of what Mark calls “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s why we hear John calling us to repentance now, to literally turn away from sin, and be ready for Jesus. 

John didn’t have a sign, but he did have lots of personality and he got lots of attention. At least, I think we see him that way.  All Mark says is that he came out of the wilderness, wore clothes made of camel hair and ate locusts and honey. Further stories maybe lead us to believe he was pretty direct and spoke his mind with not much subtlety.

I’ve often wondered if a more contemporary John might be like one of those street corner preachers, yelling at the world as it goes by, shouting at us to “Repent, the end is near!” Have you ever stopped to listen to one of them? Maybe it’s John. It could be. Or maybe it’s Jesus. Quick, call Jim.

The thing is, all that brings a question to my mind: how are we announcing that Christ is coming? (Or - if you been following me the last few weeks - that Christ is here already?) Do we have a sign like Jim? Or shout to the world like John? Or do we live like Jesus and speak with our actions, not just our words?

Thursday 30 November 2017

There is hope

Haven’t we had enough, already?

I know, I could be talking about so many things. But I just did a four part series with the theme “winter is coming” mostly to cover a section of the Gospel of Matthew that talks about the end times and the Second Coming (Matthew 24-25). So we’ve been talking about “The End” for awhile, about how we should be prepared and on watch for it.  It was the last few weeks of the church year and here we are at Advent, the official beginning of a new church year and you’d think we could hear a bright and cheerful story about the celebration of Jesus’ birth that’s happening in four weeks now. Couldn’t we?

But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory …. But about that day or hour no one knows … Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:24-26, 32, 33)

Yeah.  That’s one of the scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent.  New year, same story. Suffering, darkness, destruction.  The end is near. Probably. We don’t know when, so we should definitely be alert.  And beware.

“Beware?”  Well, I suppose so.  That’s sure how we tend to hear these apocalyptic stories. We fear the end times, not just for all the horrifying destruction, suffering and death, but for the judgement. We fear the judgement most of all. It’s no wonder that, when we hear these stories and we’re suitably afraid and vulnerable, we’re willing to listen to someone who says they can save us. Someone who has all the answers to defend us against evil. Or, what they say is evil. We just have to do what they say. And probably send them some money. Or vote for them again.

So that’s not Jesus. We have to realize that.  Jesus never offered all the answers.  Jesus offered compassion, love and grace.  And if you think that’s just more of the warm fuzzies, it’s not.  It’s hard work.  Nothing is harder than overcoming fear.  That’s why Jesus offers hope.

Not wishful thinking, expectation or optimism.  The hope of Jesus is certainty, the certainty that God is with us through all things, however you may know God.  The certainty that in these end times, there is a  new beginning, just as winter becomes spring and night becomes day.  The certainty that life is meant to be lived with joy and engagement, not frozen in fear.  Hope is life-giving.

I wonder if Jesus really said “beware.”  Or, maybe, whatever ordinary human being who wrote this down, wrote what they thought they heard. Because I don’t think Jesus would have meant “beware,” with all that fearsome, be-on-guard baggage we give it.  Not the Jesus who so frequently said “don’t be afraid.” Be aware, sure, but better still, be open. There is hope.

Thursday 23 November 2017

Winter is coming, Part 4

It’s been a few weeks now, leading up to the beginning of Advent, the short season of preparation for Christmas. I’ve been running with the theme of Winter Is Coming to talk about a conversation Jesus has with the disciples about “the end times,” the idea that Jesus will return, the world will end and all will be judged.  Matthew’s gospel records this conversation as a series of stories Jesus tells as a way to encourage - others might say “warn,” but I’m going with “encourage” - the people to be ready, to be prepared for what’s happening and what will happen, for the kingdom of God to come.

Hmm. Warn or encourage? I think that perspective is a key part of how we’ve traditionally understood the stories Jesus tells here and I’ve tried to reframe them a little. So I suggest that maybe Jesus was already here, now, in each of us and we should be more prepared to see that and embrace it than to fear the difficult world into which Jesus comes and be lost to it. I suggest that maybe the world needs to see more of us living like Jesus and that might be the very thing to change it, rather than see the fear, the hate and the darkness as the precursor to change.

And then.  Jesus comes to this story about judgement, when the king will come and separate the people “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” To the sheep, he says “you fed me when I was hungry, gave me water when I was thirsty, welcomed me when I was a stranger, gave me clothes when I had none, took care of me when I was sick and visited me when I was in prison.” The sheep wonder when they did that for the king and the king says “when you did it for the least of my family, you did it for me.” 

Likewise, the king say to the goats that they didn’t do those things and the goats, also not able to recognize the king, defend themselves by saying they didn’t see the king needed those things. But they didn’t do it for those in need, so they didn’t do it for the king.

So, this must mean we should be a sheep.

Well, of course, be a sheep.  But look more closely. The story isn’t just sheep good, goats bad.  Neither of them recognizes that the king is the people and the people are the king.  Jesus is present in all of us and neither recognized that Jesus was right there in their brothers and sisters who were in need. Jesus was there, in plain sight, and neither saw that.

But the sheep didn’t need to see Jesus to be Jesus.  They didn’t just sit around waiting for something grand to happen, they went about the business of living as Jesus taught them, sharing kindness, care, justice and love.  The goats may well have been the holiest goats around, but they were too busy doing nothing, they didn’t have time for living.  The sheep may not have seen Jesus in each moment, but they were certainly ready to. Life is about engagement, about living into the relationships that are possible with all around us.

The sheep and the goats aren’t all that different.  This story could have been told with deer and moose, cats and dogs, Oilers fans and Flames fans. We’re not all that different, either: we are all children of God.  Perhaps the real judgement to focus on here is how much time we spend judging others, rather than helping them, or how we value what’s important to us over what’s important to others.

Winter isn’t coming any more, it’s here, so live into it.  Embrace the world around you as Jesus would.  You might even see Jesus around you.  You might need to look in a mirror.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Winter is coming, Part 3

There will be a Part 4.  I just want to be up front about that.

Jesus told a lot stories.  It was his primary teaching tool, after all, and we tell the stories of Jesus the same way. However we might interpret them - yes, we do interpret them - we should be looking for the truth that’s at the heart of them.

That’s a tricky business, sometimes, and never more so than when what we think the story’s about collides with what we know, in our hearts, about Jesus.  Like right now, here in Part 3 of 4, because there’s a stretch of stories in Matthew’s gospel that we’ve traditionally looked at a certain way.  They’re all related to Jesus’ conversation with the disciples about “the end times,” when there will be all that cataclysmic destruction and Jesus will return and everyone will be judged.

Last week, I suggested that a story about bridesmaids being prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom may very well be about warning us to be ready (Jesus saying something like “be ready” was kind of a give away).  Half were prepared, half were not, and only the former were allowed into the wedding.  But I also suggested that Jesus might not have meant in the distant future.  What if he meant tomorrow?  What if he meant that he was here all along in each and everyone of us, and seeing the kingdom of heaven in the midst of our world today was a simple as seeing Jesus in your neighbour or in an act of kindness or compassion?  What if “keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” meant now?  What if the “second coming” wasn’t a single being, but in all beings?

Now, hold that thought because the next story that Jesus tells is about a very rich man who goes on a trip.  To care for his wealth, he divides it among three servants, according to their ability, and leaves.  The first two servants used what they were given and doubled it, the third, who began with the least, buried it in the ground and did nothing with it.  When the man returned, he rewarded the first two (“well done, good and trustworthy servant”) and punished the third.

We’ve traditionally interpreted this story with Jesus being “the man” and we are the servants - as we wait for Jesus’ return, we should use what we’ve been given to increase the kingdom.  Yes, good point.  We’ve also often used this parable as a stewardship story: we have talents - both money and, literally, talents - that we should invest in the work of the church.  Why, yes you do and you should.  Those interpretations are just fine.

But, again, what if this story isn’t about waiting, but about now?  What if the story Jesus is telling is a description of where our world is at right now and a reminder to look for Jesus, now, not just in the future?

Here’s some things in this story that lead me to wonder about that.  The man is a very rich man indeed.  A talent is a measurement of silver or gold by weight some historians say is equivalent to 6,000 denarii or 20-30 years worth of daily wages for a labourer in the first century.  So the man isn’t just rich, he’s very rich.  He has servants (slaves in most translations).  And we learn a little bit about his character and how he may have acquired that wealth when the third servant says he was afraid because “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”

That’s not sounding much like Jesus to me.  That sounds more like the rich people that Jesus regularly called out.  That sounds more like someone who might finish off that third servant with a pointing finger and a “you’re fired.”  This story sounds more to me like Jesus is describing the very world we live in, one in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

It says in the story that each received an amount equal to their ability.  So maybe the third servant just wasn’t very good at the business skills so prized by the master.  Maybe he was, indeed, afraid of the price he’d pay for just holding on to it, but he tried to do the right thing anyway.  Now that sounds like Jesus.

Or maybe it was just an ordinary person trying to be more like Jesus.  Maybe Jesus is waiting outside, waiting to greet this “worthless slave” with kindness and compassion.  Maybe he might even say “well done, good and trustworthy servant … come and join the flock.”  That’s for Part 4.

Thursday 9 November 2017

Winter is coming, Part 2

Like I said last time, winter is coming. Yes, I see the weather, but it’s still coming. Again, like I said before, wait for January and February and you’ll think this wasn’t really winter yet. More importantly, I think I also suggested that winter can be a metaphor, not just a seasonal change in climate.

Still, it’s begun and my question is: are your ready?

I had a light-hearted story about not having my snow tires on until this week as a way of approaching that question, but that seems excessively trivial now. Since I think the question is really “ready for what?” let’s go hard at it.

On Sunday, November 5, in the afternoon, I ran into someone who wondered if it was safe to go to church anymore. I hadn’t seen the news yet and I was tempted to answer with something humorous, but it was a mother with small children and she didn’t seem to be joking. I didn’t know that, that morning, someone walked into a church in Sutherland Springs,Texas, and opened fire with an assault rifle, killing twenty-six and wounding another twenty, including children.  The church was a busy part of the community, a community a little smaller than the town I live in.

How do you “be ready” for that?

Whether you believe what I believe or think or do what I do, put that aside for a moment. When the place that ought to most exemplify the love and light of God is enveloped in darkness and hate, how do you “be ready” for that?  Can you be ready for that?

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a story about ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom who is delayed. They all fall asleep and when the bridegroom finally comes, they go to meet him in the dark.  But only five of the bridesmaids have brought enough extra oil for their lamps, the other five have to go find some and when they return, it’s too late. The door’s shut and locked and they’re left out.  Be ready, Jesus says.

The story is part of a conversation with the disciples about the second coming, the end of days when Jesus will return, the world will end and we’ll all be judged. 

I have so many questions about this story. Like, why is the bridegroom “delayed?” Why didn’t those who had enough share with those who didn’t, trusting in God, like Jesus would have? Why were the others excluded from the wedding (it’s not like there’s no precedent for being late)? Where’s the forgiveness?  Where’s the love?

Another time for those, maybe, or you might like to ponder them yourself. Or maybe they’re just not as important as the essential point we’ve always thought Jesus was trying to make: be ready, I’ll be back. Yes, Jesus said it before Schwarzenegger.

But, look, what if Jesus didn’t mean he was coming back in the traditional blaze of glory with the sound of trumpets and the heavenly host sometime in the distant future after more bad stuff happens.  What if Jesus meant I’ll be back tomorrow? In your neighbour who shovelled the snow on your sidewalk. Or a stranger who played cards with someone who’s lonely. Or an elderly person who volunteered to read to small children. Or a young person who ran an errand for a busy friend. Or someone who brought food to a hungry person. Maybe a grateful citizen who brought coffee to the RCMP or firefighters or EMS. Anybody who took the time to sit with someone who’s grieving. Or struggling or angry or hurt. Or someone who was there when you needed someone to just be there.

What if, in all the darkness that seems to envelope the world in these days, we were able to see the little lights that aren’t the lamps of those who were waiting, but the light of Jesus, breaking through in every moment of kindness, grace and love?

And what if those lights inspired others? What if we all acted like Jesus was here, now, in the midst of all this brokenness and pain? Isn’t this a moment for convergence, not division?

If you believe we should live the example of Jesus, then do it. If you believe Jesus is coming back and there will be a day of judgement, then maybe it’s time to see that it may be now and, well, be ready by doing something about it.  If you believe that God or some “higher power” is with us, do something about it. If you don’t believe any of that, and there is only “us,” well then, do something about that.

The point is, don’t just be sitting there waiting. Life is happening every day. Don’t be afraid of the darkness - you have light.

Thursday 2 November 2017

Winter is coming, Part 1

Winter is coming.

Seems kind of redundant to say that now.  There’s snow on the ground, it’s cold and winter appears to be already here.  But wait for January and February, that’s when it’s really winter.  Although, it was pretty mild a few years ago. ‘Course, then there was the winter o’58.  That was a winter.

I’m getting a little off track, but isn’t that how conversations about the weather go? Start a conversation about winter and, before you know it, everybody’s comparing how cold it was that one year or how deep the snow was or this blizzard or that blizzard.  But it always melts, it always warms up, the sun always shines brighter, the days get longer and the spring comes in a few months.

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, the books or the television program,  then “Winter is coming” is something a little more.  In fictional Westeros, a winter can last for years (so does summer) and the ancient winter called The Long Night lasted for a generation and brought all sorts of nasty things from the north, including the White Walkers and the wights.  “Winter is coming” is the warning the characters in that story use to remind people of the danger that’s ahead because all that’s coming back.  They need to be ready and they need to be ready to work together.

That’s a key part of where the story is now.  In the midst of all the fighting over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne, they now have this new enemy they need to fight together and getting them to fight together is a challenge.  Especially in a world that seems so relentlessly full of brutality, misery and hurt.

Just to be clear, I was still talking about Game of Thrones.

But I might just as easily have not been.  While I truly believe there is so much more good, happiness and hopefulness in our world than in that fictional one, there are many who’s life experience tells them something different.  And a similarity they might recognize is what a challenge it can be to get people to work together when your winter is a lifetime of hunger, poverty, homelessness, war or oppression.

Sometimes those are global issues.  (Game of Thrones fans: I wonder which world leader is Cerci Lannister and which one’s Jon Snow…)  Sometimes it more regional or local.  But it’s always - always - everyone’s responsibility to work at it together, to offer what gifts and skills we have to help feed the hungry, bring prosperity to the poor, find a home for the homeless, bring peace where there’s conflict and freedom for the oppressed.

“Thoughts and prayers” are always helpful, but they’re not enough.  Action is needed, too, to help bring the spring.  So maybe the question really is “what can I do?” but not with any unrealistic, unreasonable expectation, but rather what gift or skill do I have that I can offer?  Some might have money, but some might simply have time or more practical skills.  In fact, when we work together, the more diverse the community, the stronger the community.

The apostle Paul knew that.  He also knew how hard it was to recognize it and embrace it.  So when he heard that a church he had planted in Corinth was struggling, he wrote to them about how we may each have our own gifts or skills or talents, but they are all from that one spirit that is in all of us.  Embracing each other’s uniqueness unites us, rejecting each other’s differences divides us. In fact, Paul wrote, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

It doesn’t matter how long the winter lasts - and, let’s face it, the weather’s gone crazy lately - we can live it together, warmed by the spirit that is in each of us to share.

Thursday 19 October 2017

It's really all about image

Do you think Donald Trump wants peace?

I know it’s hard to tell, sometimes, with all the rhetoric, the bluster, the seeming lack of awareness of consequences, the arrogance, ego and all that other stuff that makes up the Trump persona. But, deep down, do you think he really wants peace?

What about Kim Jong Un?  Or Putin?  al-Assad?  How about that neo-nazi guy who’s speaking at the University of Florida this week?

How about your next door neighbour?

While it may seem like there are people who enjoy, even thrive, on conflict of all kinds, my point is simply this: I think people do want peace, but they want it on their own terms, by their own definition, to their own benefit.  And why wouldn’t we?  We’re human beings, after all, and our tendency is to orient things to ourselves.  We need to be constantly reminding ourselves of our connectedness, our shared responsibility, our shared love.

I think Trump does want peace, as do many of the others and, I hope, your neighbour.  The thing is, I think Trump’s idea of peace is that we will all acknowledge his immense power and huge superiority, do as he commands and behave as he says we should.  If we all just did what he says and were able to meet his expectations, everything would be just fine.  You might see the flaw there.

I wonder if that isn’t a common one, though.  From personal relationships to cultural and national ones, power is what brings the ability to impose “peace” - based on the values of the one with the most power.

But is that true peace or is it simply the forced end to conflict?

Jesus had some thought about that.  I think one of those thoughts is revealed in the story of leaders of the temple trying to trap him with a question about Jews paying taxes to the Romans.  Yes, I know that sounds like a financial issue, but hear me out.  Jesus asks for a Roman coin and questions them on who’s face is on the coin.  When they answer that it’s the emperor’s, he tells them to give the emperor what is the emperor’s and give God what is God’s.  A clever answer because it avoids the obvious trap: if he says yes, he offends his Jewish followers, if he says no, he’s breaking the Roman law.

So, good for Jesus for being clever, but is that really an answer?  If God is the one true God, the creator, the giver of life and all things, then the right answer is surely that all things belong to God.  That’s what Jesus teaches, but it’s not what he says here.  So why didn’t he?

I wonder if the real meaning of this story isn’t exactly that, to point out that we think and value in a worldly way.  The answer that impressed the pharisees in the story - those that opposed Jesus - was in those terms.  The coin is important, not because of it’s monetary value, but precisely because the emperor’s image is on it.  It represents power, very earthly, very concrete power, the power of the empire that rules their land.  We might want to remind ourselves that way back in the beginning of Genesis, our creation narrative says we are created in the image of God.  Which of those images should be most important to us?

Maybe we should look at peace the same way.  We “make peace” with earthly power and priorities when we are called, in the image of God, to make peace as Jesus did, with an open heart, and open mind, a willingness to know more about each other and a willingness to build real relationships, not break them down.  Peace isn’t imposed, it’s built and it’s shared together.  That starts with each of us.  Like the classic song says: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

Thursday 12 October 2017

Are you ready to party?

$1.90 US.

That’s about $2.35-2.40 Canadian, depending on the day.

I came across this number in the news last week.  It was in a story about Madagascar and the latest outbreak of plague there.  Yes, plague.  As in The Black Death from the Middle Ages.  Turns out it’s still around.  The World Health Organization estimates there’s 1,000-2,000 cases per year around the world. 

Madagascar accounted for 82% of the deaths from plague worldwide between 2010 and 2015.  The October 5 CBC News article said that “the WHO calls the plague a disease of poverty because it thrives in places with unsanitary conditions and inadequate health care. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. UNICEF estimates around 82 per cent of the population of 25 million lives below the international poverty line, meaning they live on less than $1.90 US a day.”

$1.90 US a day.

That started me reading more about poverty and there’s a lot to read about poverty.  There’s different definitions and measures, absolute and relative poverty, debates about the impossibility of setting a single standard when economies are so diverse.  Criticism, too, of this arbitrary $1.90 US set by the World Bank.  Their figure is based on the poverty lines of the 15 poorest countries of the world and reflects the minimum income necessary to purchase essential resources (averaged over a year) for an adult in those economies.  And they’re applying it globally.  That means that they’re applying $1.90 US to countries where the economy is strong enough for it to be higher - much higher - and then compiling statistics on poverty that look better than they ought and using those as the basis for programs and aid.

(In Canada, by the way, we don’t have an “official” poverty line because, like most developed nations, no one can really agree on a specific definition and terms.  There’s Low Income Measure, Low Income Cut Off and Market Based Measure for starters, though LIM is the one most used for international comparisons because it’s based on the line being 50% of the median income of the country.)

This is a huge and complex issue - and I haven’t even mentioned child poverty.  I’m not an economist, I couldn’t cover it all if I wanted to, I don’t have room here anyway, but I brought it up for a specific reason.  Please learn more about poverty, both locally and around the world, and what you can do to help.  And then please help. 

I bring it up because I want you to recognize that $1.90 US, like much of how we, in wealthier countries, handle poverty, is based on providing the bare minimum to keep someone alive.  It doesn’t give them a life.

I bring it up because being poor isn’t just a numbers game, especially when those numbers are often determined by people who’ve never experienced poverty.

I bring it up because October 16 is World Food Day and so many people are hungry. I bring it up because October 17 is the UN’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and so many people are poor. 

I bring it up because there’s this weird and quirky story that Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel about a wedding feast.  A king invites his neighbours to a wedding feast for his son.  They ignore the invitation, so he sends messengers a second time and this time they kill the messengers and outright refuse.  In response, the king sends his armies, kills them and destroys their cities.  He then sends his servants into the streets to invite anyone to come.  They do, and all is going well until the king sees someone who’s not properly dressed for a wedding.  He orders him thrown out and pronounces “many are called but few are chosen.”

Alright, that’s a little unsettling.  But it’s meant to be.  This is the third parable Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven and I think what this one might say to us is that God calls to everyone and we all answer differently.  Not everyone hears, some hear and don’t want to follow, and for those that do, the kingdom of heaven is like a great feast.

But.  This isn’t just about hearing and following, it’s about transformation, it’s about participation, it’s about being “all in.”  In the story, it’s not enough to just show up, you need to party.  Why? Because God doesn’t just want us to know the kingdom of heaven, but to take part in it; Jesus doesn’t just want us to know that we are loved, he wants us to love; the Spirit doesn’t just warm our hearts, it empowers us to action.  This is about doing what we say and acting on what we believe.

I bring it up, because we can, and should, do more than offer the bare minimum.  We can do more than a $1.90 US per day.  

Friday 6 October 2017

Thinking about being thankful

Perhaps we should be more specific.  Or absolutely not.  I’m not sure.

As a holiday, Thanksgiving is a harvest based festival celebrated in Canada, the US and some countries and territories influenced by their North American connection.  There are similar harvest based festivals in the UK, Japan and Germany.  Although, let’s face it, in Germany, Erntedankefest is probably not as well known, internationally, as Oktoberfest.

But more recently, we’ve broadened the scope of Thanksgiving to include all the things for which we’re thankful.  And I don’t argue against that, it’s just that I hope, first of all, that being thankful for harvest is at least a season (like harvest is), not just a one-day-and-we’re-done-with-it kind of event.  We should take a moment to be thankful for all the earth provides and the hard working people who bring it to our tables.  And second, that being thankful for anything else isn’t like that, either.  Just because there’s one day called Thanksgiving shouldn’t mean we’re not thankful every day, anymore than celebrating the day of our birth means we’re not happy to be alive every other day.  The best thanks is lived out, anyway, and we can do that every day.

So please take a moment or two to think about all the things you’re thankful for.  I bet there’s lots.  And you could think of more, if you tried.  The thing is, we often don’t, but we also shouldn’t have to try so hard.  Not because our lives are perfect, full and idyllic, but because we so easily let the imperfections of our lives overwhelm the good things.  And even then, we can so easily lose our sense of what we should be thankful for in comparing what we have to others.  More and better seem to be how we measure, rather than need and enough.

That’s tricky, because what we’re thankful for is closely tied to our relationships with other people and with the world around us.  It can become all too easy to say “I’ve prospered all by myself and I, alone, made everything I have.”  But that’s simply not true.  We need creation to feed our bodies and each other to feed our hearts and minds.  Creation can nourish our minds, too, and inspire us.  The point is, it’s never just “me” or “you” when it comes to thanksgiving, it’s “us.”

And that’s where I say, “thank you, God.”  Use what language you like, but thank God, that love, that spirit, that connectedness, that energy, that higher power, that thing that lives in us and binds us with each other and creation.

I think that’s what Moses was really saying to the Israelites before they crossed over from the wilderness into “the promised land.”  We’ll hear some of the book of Deuteronomy in our church on Thanksgiving, and in it, Moses tells the people there will be much to be thankful for in the new land.  But remember, first, where you came from.  There was a point to that time in the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt.  It was a time struggling and learning to be a free people, learning how to live well together, to respect each other and the world, learning what’s really important about life.  More and better stuff doesn’t make you “more,” or “better.”  Be sure to live as thankfully with each other in prosperity as in the wilderness.

And remember you didn’t get here alone, says Moses, you did it together with God.  Freed, nourished, taught wisdom, grace and love.  Not always perfect, but lives filled with things to be thankful for, in the wilderness and in the promised land.  Thank you, God.

Thursday 28 September 2017

Break out the love

Yes, there is God.

I’ve said this before, I’m sure, because it’s what I believe.  You are welcome to your own belief and if I can help to encourage you, reassure you, engage you and help you grow in your belief or understanding of God, I would.  And if you think you don’t believe in God, I’d be happy to discuss it, because I think we’d probably still find some common ground.

That’s not to say that I don’t have questions - a lot of questions - and moments of doubt.  I’m human.  Don’t you doubt, sometimes?

It’s easy to say God is with us when things are going well, when we feel like we’re on the winning side or life is generally good.  But when they’re not, doubt creeps in.  And when things continue that way, when there seems to be no discernible response to our needs, the doubt can become full on angry denial.

Why did God let that happen?  Why didn’t God do something?

And some of those things are huge and life changing, even life ending.  Sometimes they’re just unmet wants and desires.  But each time, we want to cry out to the God somewhere out there who just isn’t here right now meeting our need.  We want to rail against the God who seems to stand back and let things happen when God could easily step in and change it, and make it better.  For us.  Why isn’t God here doing what needs to be done?  Is God among us or not?

That was the Israelites’ question.  The book of Exodus records God sending Moses to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  The Pharaoh won’t let them go, so there are nine plagues, culminating in the death of all the first born Egyptian children.  That was the price God paid to free them.  After they leave, the Egyptians chase after them, catching up to them at the Reed Sea.  The Israelites complain that they were freed only to be killed in the wilderness, but, through Moses, God parts the sea so they can pass through to the other side and then closes the waters back on the Egyptian army.  Now the are hungry, but God feeds them.  Now they are thirsty and God gives them water.  And now, angry and frustrated, the Israelites fighting with Moses and God, cry out “is God among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7)

Thank goodness they weren’t angry with you or me.  We would probably have replied with something like “what?!?!  After all I’ve done for you?” and stomped off, never willing to help them again.

But it’s God.  God’s reply to the their angry doubt isn’t anger or hurt in return, it’s water.  Generous, life-giving water.  From a rock.  That’s what happens in this moment in the story, but wonder for a minute about what’s happening in the big picture.  Hardened by years of slavery and bitterness, the people will find new life within, and between, themselves in the freedom they will learn to know in the wilderness.  This, to me, is God teaching the people that God isn’t some power “out there” that controls things, but something that’s within each of us, something we share with each other.  Like water.

God isn’t some external force that dominates or controls things.  God is in each of us, in all living things, that we share with each other.  Or we don’t - we have free will.  Much later Jesus will call us to love like this, to be life-giving and nourishing.  Like water.  The stone that needs to be cracked open isn’t God, it’s us.

Thursday 21 September 2017

Here's something to chew on

I’m eating cheezies while I write this.  The good ones.  You know, those ones made in Belleville, Ontario.  I’m pretty sure they’re good for you.  They’re crunchy and they’re orange.  I like that.

That’s important to me, because I’m a very discerning eater.  Some people might say I’m fussy or “a picky eater,” but I prefer to think discerning.  I have good reasons for the few - okay, many - things I don’t care to eat.  Like raisins, for example.  They’re just grapes that somebody belittled until they shrivelled up from a lack of self-confidence.  I also don’t like beets.  I don’t mind the greens, but beets are just like a turnip somebody beat up (yes, I went there) until it bled.  Then there’s cauliflower.  Just really pale broccoli that failed at being green.  And don’t even start me on pickling things.  We only really needed to pickle things before we had refrigeration.  We have ‘fridges now, people, you can stop pickling.  There’s more, much more, but I’ll stop there.

See, discerning.  It is just possible that my criteria for being discerning might not include things like nutrition or good health, but I am discerning.

And that’s a little bit of a problem for all of us.  Sure, some people are conscientious about being healthy and taking care of themselves.  But lots of people will eat pretty much anything.  Others are fussy and not always for good reason.  Others would be happy to subsist on a steady diet of junk food.

We don’t just do that with our bodies, either.  Take a moment and think about some of the things we put in our minds.  Or our hearts.

Some people will gobble up just about anything if they’re hungry enough.

Here comes a really big pivot, but this is where my very discerning mind is this week.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness.  Yes, that’s what brought me to this, the Exodus story.  Moses has led them out of Egypt, they’ve crossed the sea and they’re on their own in the wilderness with no one chasing them.  They are their own people, free and clear of oppression and now they’re hungry.  So they complain to Moses and God feeds them with manna from heaven.  Wait, though, there’s more than manna.  In Exodus 16, it says that there’s quail in the evening and manna - bread from heaven - in the morning.  Later, we’ll hear that they ate manna for “forty years.”  Wow.  That’s some diet.

Or maybe it isn’t.  Maybe it’s a metaphor for how God provides them with something nutritious, something that feeds their bodies, their minds and their souls: a journey together in the wilderness, a journey of discovery about how to live together, a journey of building a sense of self-worth and a sense of community.

I know it seems like the Israelites just up and ate what ever was on the ground.  And maybe they were desperate.  Starving people reach for just about anything at first.  But when the manna appears, their very first question was “what is this?”  What it was, was something new.  Something to feed and nourish them. There were many new things on this journey that fed and nourished the people.  The observance of sabbath, the Ten Commandments that are fundamental guides to how we live together, the covenant, the tabernacle and more - years of instruction, experiences, maturing and growing into a community.  Sure, later they might give into the junk food or just what they like for awhile, but there will be prophets and, much later, Jesus to help them get back to something more nutritious, more fulfilling and more wholesome.

Maybe that’s the thing about being discerning.  Look first for that which makes you healthy, well and whole.