Thursday 27 December 2018

More than a day

I hope you’re having a Joyful Christmas.

You can have a merry one, too, and a happy one, but it isn’t always, and a few weeks back, I said that I would wish for everyone’s Christmas to be “joyful.” I mean that, so … Joyful Christmas to you.

And no, this isn’t a column that’s a week late. It’s still Christmas. Despite the number of memes that appeared on Boxing Day that say “ONLY 364 DAYS TIL CHRISTMAS” - often with the super excited face of Will Ferrell as Buddy, the elf - it’s still Christmas.

Technically, it’s a season. If you follow the church’s calendar, Christmas lasts - as a season - until Epiphany on January 6. That’s when we celebrate the arrival of the magi with their gifts and it’s a whole season, too. So, there’s twelve days worth of Christmas, just like in the song. So if you’re not following the church calendar, there’s still the traditional “Twelve Days of Christmas.” And don’t forget the traditions that celebrate Christmas on January 6 (Armenian Church) or 7 (Orthodox Church).

Still, some people like to get their decorations up early, do all the partying ahead of time and then take everything down and put it away on Boxing Day. That sounds like a good idea, “boxing” everything. Except that’s not the origin of Boxing Day. It dates from the 1600s in England when servants, trades people and others could expect to receive a gratuity of some kind, usually in the form of a Christmas box containing gifts, food and drink. Since they would likely have worked Christmas Day, they received it the following day. In other countries, the “box” is thought to refer to the Alms Box in churches which collected donations for the poor and sick, some of which was dispensed the day after Christmas on St. Stephen’s Day (remember “on the Feast of Stephen” in Good King Wenceslaus?). It’s a day of gratitude and thankfulness, not just for the day but the year before and the year ahead.

Remember, too, that at the heart of the story of Christmas Day (and we can debate “December 25” another time) is a birth. No matter what traditions, decorations or stories we add to it, it comes down to a story about the arrival of a little baby. So, yes, if you sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus at some point, like we did at least once at our church, that’s appropriate. Thing is, though, despite those who celebrate a “Birthday Week” or even a “Birthday Month” (yikes), we tend to celebrate the day of our birth and, sadly, not the whole year. Why wouldn’t you celebrate you every day? After all, a birth day is just the beginning of a life.

In celebrating Jesus’ birthday, I believe we need to remember that Jesus is alive in each of us the other 364 days of the year, too. All that he taught, all the care and compassion and love that he shared, all of the wonder of life that he showed, all that began in this birth. Don’t wait a whole year to celebrate it.

I know it’s easier said than done.  There’s so much happening in the world that can dissuade us, so much around us that can make it difficult to live out what Jesus taught.  But in birth is promise.  New life brings new possibilities and every day, God invites us to new life in the promise of this child born in Bethlehem.

So, maybe don’t leave your decorations up all year. But maybe have a birthday week or month to remind yourself of the life Jesus lived and the one you live every day of the year. Maybe share that with others.

As Dickens’ Scrooge said “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” Amen.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Right place, right time

Among all the beautiful decorations of Christmas time, my favourite is the creche or nativity scene.

It’s the tableau or diorama that represents the story of the birth of Jesus. It usually contains at least the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a stable or cave where animals are kept, as it says in the Gospel of Luke. Sometimes there’s animals, especially a donkey, and there may be the shepherds who hear the story of the birth and have come to see, along with a sheep or two, also from Luke. There may also be magi, at least three, holding the gifts that Matthew describes, often with camels. And there might be an angel, too. Maybe even a star above it all. I recently saw one that had an innkeeper peering around the corner to see what was happening.

Pastors are often quick to point out what I already did, which is that this scene is created by at least two different sources and we sometimes add to it from others, like when we name the magi. That’s not in the bible. It’s also unlikely that Mary and Joseph actually had a donkey, the “stable” was probably just a cave, the magi probably didn’t get there until well after that night because the star didn’t appear until the birth and there’s a host of other things one could talk about to deconstruct this treasured Christmas tradition.

But why would you? Sure, there’s different perspectives and examining the individual stories can be truly meaningful. We should do that as well. But I think we put everyone there at the manger that night for a reason, even if we don’t really realize it at first. 

It’s because it’s right and true. Everyone belongs at the manger. We do, too.

A young couple, still trying to get to know each other, find themselves far from home. It’s late, there’s nowhere to go and she’s having a baby, a baby that’s, well, hard to explain. And yet, here he is and they wonder, with joy, at this tiny little miracle.

Shepherds certainly weren’t expecting to be there. They’re the lowest of the low in their society, poorer even than Mary and Joseph, and yet, they saw angels. Angels that gave them hope for something truly amazing. And here it is, in this tiny little miracle.

And over the side of the manger, they’re staring across at magi, wise foreigners from a distant land who have rich and expensive gifts. Their sign was a star and they weren’t even sure this was what they were looking for until they saw this tiny little miracle.

And don’t forget the animals. We put everything from sheep to pigs, chickens to camels in this stable, mostly, in fact, animals that wouldn’t even have been there. But we do, and they fit. This was their place, after all, and now there’s all these darn people in it. And this tiny little miracle.

Some people have even made their manger scene reflect changing times, different cultures and contemporary issues.

I can’t imagine that any of this was what anyone would have expected. And yet, here they all are, right where they belong. Poor and rich, the struggling and the seeking, the fearful and the certain, representing the ordinary, everyday uniqueness of all of us, here in one place together.

However you assemble your scene or tell the story, this is one moment in which we all belong there, sharing in this tiny little miracle.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Where's your Joy?

This year, I plan on wishing everyone a "Very Joyful Christmas."

I'm planning on it.  I'll probably forget every now and then and go with the old standard "Merry Christmas."  Some people like a good "Happy Christmas."  Or the new (relatively) "Happy Holidays," to be more inclusive.  Or even a "Season's Greetings."  I never really cared for that one: it seems a little impersonal and overly generic.  Which "season" and which "greeting" did you have in mind?  I think you should be able to be specific. And it could be winter or Advent or Christmas or Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa,  Pancha Ganapati or others.

No, I'm going with "Joyful Christmas."  Here's why.

Not everyone is merry or happy.  For some, merriment is overwhelmed by grief, loneliness, pain, poverty, illness, unemployment or simply stress. 

But true joy - that's something different.  I believe everyone, somewhere deep in our hearts, everyone may find joy.  Sure, it can be happiness and merriment and all smiles and laughter.  It can be, but it is 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, there may also be comfort and peace, a sense of rightness and a sense of certainty, but, most of all, of love.

Someone said that the real joy of Christmas isn't in the presents under the tree, but in the presence of God in our lives.  At Christmas, that becomes real in the baby born in Bethlehem.  Jesus came into the world so that we would rekindle our relationship with God, so that we might see the light of joy in the darkness.  "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us," writes the author of the Gospel of John, the "light of the world" became real.  Christina Rossetti wrote “Love came down at Christmas” with that same message. In living the Way of Jesus, we bring that presence to our everyday lives.

Still, joy is often not the first thing we feel.  The way to joy can take us through pain and grief, struggle and disappointment.  I know that it is easy to say and harder to live, but at the heart - the heart - of any feeling of loss is the remembering of that which has been lost.  The physical experience may be past, but we re-member and it grows in our living on.  In our disappointments, is it possible that we might find some joy in having done our best, or learned how to do our best from it?  Is it possible for us to look past the disappointment of an unsuitable gift and look more closely at the giver?  Can we find more in the relationship we have with that person, than the pair of bright orange socks they gave us for Christmas?

This is the story. God gave a baby, 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, far from home.  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 simply this: the joy of a moment of new life.  In that new life is the promise of the future. For all of us.

May this Christmas bring you joy.

Friday 7 December 2018

Try saying that three times

I’m very grateful that there are people willing to get up in front of a room full of other people and help lead by reading something. Especially when that something is scripture. Even if you invite people to read from the translation or version that they’re most comfortable with, sooner or later it’s going to happen: you’re going to get names. Those old, oddly spelled, awkward to pronounce names from a very different time and place that leave people speechless.  There’s the classic “begats” - “so-and-so begat so-and-so who begat …” and so on. Or simply “so-and-so, son of so-and-so.” Those are important to establish lineage, which is often very important in the Bible. But another key purpose is to establish context.

This is a good time of year for that. We’re headed to Christmas and timelines are important, especially when we usually talk about John the Baptist on the second Sunday of Advent. He was the announcer of Jesus, the one who would proclaim his coming - as an adult. But we’re hearing his story - and his call to prepare - weeks before the birth of Jesus. John has a great birth story, too, by the way, very similar to Jesus’.  You can find it in Luke 1.

But we also hear about John, the adult, calling us to prepare. So here’s his introduction: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (Luke 3:1-2).

Okay, some of those aren't bad as biblical names go, but still. It would have been easier to just say “here’s John.” It's an important piece of the story, though, because it dates the events.  It's kind of like saying "in the sixty-sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth II, when Justin was Prime Minister, and Rachel was premier of Alberta, and John ruled in BC and Scott in Saskatchewan, during the papacy of Francis.”  Right, 2018, more or less.

Luke uses this same technique in another story we’ll hear soon. The story of the birth of Jesus begins "in those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Luke 2: 1-2).

Except, as a means of dating things, it's complicated because these rulers and important people and big events don't always line up exactly. Lots of debate about that.

But is that Luke's only point, I wonder? And why are we hearing the story of John the Baptist - as an adult - during Advent?  Born a few months before Jesus, he was a cousin who's role was to proclaim Jesus' coming - not his birth, but his coming as "Lord" and saviour.  This story is thirty years after their births.  So why hear it now?

Of course, the "prepare the way of the Lord" is good advice anytime.  But I think this one sentence reminds us of something else, equally important.  It's not about when, it's about who.

Tiberius was the Roman Emperor, Pilate was a governor, Herod, Philip and Lysanius were kings (more or less, “tetrarchs,” technically), Annas and Caiaphas were high priests.  These were important, wealthy, powerful people. John was the son of an ordinary, everyday priest in the temple.

Augustus was an emperor, Quirinius a governor. Jesus was the just the son of a carpenter.

John and Jesus were nobodies. They had no status or station, no money, no armies, no power at all. But, "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" and the angel announced to shepherds that the Messiah is a "child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." Not what anyone expected.

Maybe this is to remind us to expect less and be open to more at Christmas time.  God doesn't speak to us through the bright lights, shimmering trees and miles of tinsel, but through one solitary star in the night sky.

Thursday 29 November 2018

The Days Are Surely Coming

The new church year begins this week. Not with a festival, cards, a big party or a special dinner. There’s not much decoration that’s for new year’s day, maybe even just a single candle on a wreath. A wreath with four other candles on it, and this first one isn’t even the most important. It’s the first one on a journey somewhere else. Lighting one each week, by the time we get to the candle that matters most, this first one might be just a stub. And yet, a blazing light, a star even, metaphorically speaking, because that candle represents hope.

Christmas is coming and the church year begins with Advent, a time of anticipation and preparation for Christmas. Four weeks with the themes hope, peace, joy and love.

I know what you’re thinking. You started preparing for Christmas with some shopping back on Black Friday or Cyber Monday. And there’s so many business Christmas parties, you might have had your’s back in November. You might even have put your tree and decorations up a respectful amount of time after November 11 and started your Christmas baking. Maybe you’re holding off on the Christmas cards until the last moment. Yes, that’s all preparation, that’s all anticipating The Big Day. It is.

You might also be preparing yourself for a time of year that’s difficult. Grief and loss are so sharply felt in those moments that others find happy, when we can’t find the sense of celebration that’s happening all around us. That, too, is anticipation and requires some preparation.

That’s right where the church year begins, with anticipation and preparation for what’s ahead. I think that’s why the first candle is hope. Whether you’re wrapped up in all that busy-ness or holding on to grief in the midst of all the chaos, hope reminds us, deep in our hearts, that there is something special ahead: calm at the end of the busy-ness, a light lifting of the grief, new life, the possibility and potential of a new beginning.

That’s the thing about hope. It’s not about when things - busy or hard or both - will be over, it’s about what will begin. Hope carries us through to that new beginning. Whenever, however, whatever it may be. Hope isn’t quantified by time or expectation. Hope is about the arrival of peace, inner joy and love and the wholeness that comes with them.

The prophet Jeremiah knew about hope. He lived in very dark times for the people of Israel. Conquered, occupied and exiled, the Temple destroyed, the people had good reason to feel hopeless. But Jeremiah told them that “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made” (Jer. 33:14). That promise is about new life coming from the line of David, of the restoration of justice, righteousness and safety for the people. That hope references a promise made in the past, acknowledges the present struggle and offers hope that it will be fulfilled. Those days are coming, it’s certain.

In our own time, we might well feel like we need to hear those words, too. And in Jesus, Christians see the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. Jesus is born from the line of David, so he is the new branch Jeremiah refers to. But I wonder if we aren’t limiting Jeremiah’s brave and inspiring words of hope with that “fulfillment.”

Each year, we commemorate the coming of Jesus in the distant past, while affirming his presence in our lives today and calling people to live into the way of Jesus in the days ahead. That’s hope.

Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled with every act of kindness we share, every time we stand up for what’s right, every time we choose to love, care and support our neighbour, every moment of forgiveness, every selfless act of service. To me that’s being Jesus, over and over again. To me, that’s the new life, the affirmation of that hope, the sharing of that hope, reminding others that it’s present in them, too. It’s present in all of us. We’re all a part of fulfilling that hope.

Thursday 22 November 2018

I like that phat Jesus

Is that still a cool word to use, “phat?” It means excellent, cool, awesome. It’s african-american slang that comes out of the beginnings of hip hop music in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Like, “a phat beat” means a really cool tune.

Yeesh, trying to explain the meaning of cool slang terms starts to sound really ridiculous. But there it is. I’m not making it up. Google it or check the Oxford Dictionary. Yes, it made the Oxford Dictionary.

So, I think Jesus is most definitely phat. Really, because I believe that Jesus is excellent, cool and awesome. I also think he was pretty hip for his day and his ability to connect with people was, in part, due to his openness to communicating in a way they’d understand. He could be the light of the world to those who felt in the dark. He could be bread to the hungry and water for the thirsty. He told stories that used contemporary images and metaphors that people would understand in their own context. Farmers heard about sowers and vineyards, people who fished heard about, well, fish.

That’s also why you will probably not ever hear me say that Jesus is phat. It’s just not my language or my image. And that’s the point. We need to image Jesus, describe Jesus and tell Jesus’ stories with language, images, metaphors that we understand. That’s what Jesus did. 

It’s important, of course - and I’m grateful - that we have so much scholarship and study that illuminates the meaning of the things Jesus did and said in the first century. In Roman occupied Judea. With a variety of very different kinds of people. But, rather than simply explaining things, couldn’t we use that scholarship to create images and metaphors for our own time? Jesus built relationships with people where they were, how they where. Wouldn’t we deepen our relationship with Jesus if we owned the images, metaphors and language of the stories?

Take this Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year before Advent begins. In many denominations, it’s referred to as Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. The theme reflects the idea that it’s Jesus that should rule our lives, not the secular world. The world would be a very different place if it were Jesus’ kingdom.

Even as I write that, I think that needs way more explanation. To Jesus, that meant serving others, loving and caring and empowering people. It was never about power over others, never about how we might understand that image of a king. That’s presuming you have an image of a king in mind beyond fairy tales, knights and the historical royalty the world has experienced. There’s few places where there’s a king or queen that rules. You’re more likely to find countries with dictators, but then, that might be a similar image. My last name is King and I can’t really relate to this image of Jesus. It needs unpacking and explaining.

When you imagine Jesus, what do you see? There’s no physical description in the bible and yet, in the west, we’ve tended - until recently - to portray Jesus as a pale, white european male with brown or blond hair and blue eyes. Not at all what a first century Judean Jew would look like, but, yes, what we would look like. The dominant part of society, that is. And there’s the problem.

I think we do need to image Jesus in a way that’s meaningful to us. But we can’t insist that’s the only image and we can’t say that’s the only way to embody Jesus. I believe I’ve seen Jesus, and been inspired by Jesus, in a host of people in my life. Colour, gender, shape, style shouldn’t matter except in how it helps you relate to what’s in the heart. And hearing other people’s ways of imagining Jesus may even open a door and bring us closer.

So you’ll probably never hear me talk about phat Jesus. Although, I might say it and mean something else. I do have an idea that Jesus shared a lot of his teaching and built a lot of relationships over food. I know he walked a lot, but I also wonder if he might have been a little more husky than slim. I like food and I don’t walk enough. Wonder if Jesus looked like me?

Thursday 15 November 2018

Still Standing

Jesus and his followers were leaving the Temple, when one of his disciples makes a seemingly innocuous comment. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” (Mark 13:1)

And they would’ve been right. Back in the day, the Temple was impressive. And it darn well should have been. After all, it was the house of God. So you’d expect that Jesus might say something like, “why, yes it is. The fine craftsmanship and sheer grandeur of the place is worthy of the glory of God’s presence.”

But he doesn’t. Instead he says that all these buildings will come down. There’ll also be wars and famine and earthquakes and this is just “the beginning of the birth pangs.” A lengthy apocalyptic passage follows reminding the disciples to keep watch, be ready and not be deceived by others claiming to be Jesus.

So, just a regular day, then.

Feels like it, sometimes, doesn’t it? That’s when it’s best to remember that what we so often fearfully refer to as “The End Times” are, in fact, “the beginning of the birth pangs.” The new heaven comes from the end of the old sinful ways. And that, we should engage with hope.

But let’s go back to the disciple and their admiration for the buildings for a minute. I think the context of this comment can give us something to think about. 

They’re leaving the Temple after a lengthy stretch of Jesus’s authority and teaching being questioned by the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders. These Temple authorities tested him and asked him questions hoping to embarrass him. At the end of all that, Jesus challenges us to be discerning about leaders who like to dress the part and be respected, but don’t “walk the talk.” He then observes a poor widow who gives all that she has to the Temple and commends her generosity and, I think, her belief in what she’s giving her money to. She trusts that she’ll be taken care of, as she should be, by the Temple - the extension of God’s love and grace. And now, here we are at the magnificence of the building.

So often we seem to live in a “bigger is better” world. Size matters, in structure and quantity. But what about quality and commitment? What about joy? Is the important thing the structure itself or what it stands for? That’s a question churches are continually asking, as are many other organizations where the people are the most important ingredient. Or they should be. The size and beauty of the Temple honour God, but what about the actions of the Temple, what about its care of the poor widow? Isn’t God honoured by love, grace and compassion being lived out?

What’s more is the question of which is the more durable, the building or what it stands for. The Temple will be undone by time, if not force, but God, loving and life-giving, grows and changes and lives. Always. We can see that in history, we can see that in the world around us and even in our own bodies. Structures, whether physical buildings, institutions, religions, hierarchies or societies can be broken down and pass away. But love, joy, hope, peace, grace, compassion - these are the things that carry on because they are endless, boundless and timeless.  Like God, they can’t be worn out.

Thursday 8 November 2018

Promise, Gratitude and Trust

The Gospel of Mark tells a story about Jesus and the disciples sitting by the Temple treasury one day, watching people bringing their donations. They watched some “rich people” donate large amounts, says Mark, although one has to wonder what or how one would qualify as “rich” in a country occupied by the Romans. Then, a poor widow arrives and puts in a couple of small coins, all that she has, and walks away. Jesus tells the disciples that she has given more than even the richest person because they had so much and gave only a piece of it, but she gave everything she had.

Foolish woman.

Okay, Jesus didn’t say that. That was me being cynical. But you can’t tell me that it hasn’t occurred to anyone to wonder about this woman’s motivation. She gave away all that she had. Now what? Let’s be discerning for a minute.

For so long, we’ve heard this story used in church fundraising. This poor widow is truly generous and gives with a sense of abundance in her heart. Yes, absolutely, she is an example of generosity to be emulated. Where does she give “all that she has?” To the Temple, the very people who should be most involved in the care of the widow, the poor, the sick, the needy.

We don’t hear any more about this widow than Jesus commenting on her example, but I’m sure we can safely assume that she was suitably thanked for her generosity and further, lived happily ever after in the care and safekeeping of the Temple authorities.

Or can we?

Jesus’ relationship with the Temple authorities - the pharisees, scribes and sadduccees - is well known. They didn’t like Jesus’ teaching and felt threatened by it. But Jesus was also very critical of their behaviour, mostly that they didn’t live the law and the faith that they proclaimed. Right before this story, Mark tells of Jesus warning people about “the scribes” who like to dress up, expect to be respected and to be honoured, but their heart is not in it. Beware those who do it for show, Jesus says.

But the widow doesn’t. Or she sees something different. Either way, I don’t think the point here is just her generosity. I think it’s about believing in where she offered her generosity. Right or wrong, she has faith in the Temple and believes that is where she should put all she has. Is she right to do so? We don’t find out for sure, but perhaps that’s the point - to ask the questions and be discerning.

Maybe that shouldn’t just apply to the Temple. Governments, businesses, charities all ask for our trust that they deliver what they say.

So there’s two sides to this. The first is that we be discerning about what we believe in, that we what we support with our finances, resources, even lives, should truly honour what we intend. And that, of course, should reflect our love, grace and compassion as children of God.

The other is that we honour what is given, first with thanks, but also with the gratitude of being true to what is promised for it. In other words, we be worthy of the gifts given to us.

As I write that, I find I’m struggling with the language because I’m not thinking of it in the context of the church or temple, but Remembrance Day. So many have given so much. Have we honoured that gift of sacrifice by living out its promise? Have we taken care of those who gave, their families and their communities? And when we ask those questions, let’s not ask them one day, but every day.

Thursday 1 November 2018

The devil didn't make me do it

Ben Wilson and I record a podcast each week. It’s a twenty-five minute (more or less) discussion over coffee about faith, God, church, the world, usually connected to whatever the theme or scripture reading is in our church that week. It’s not meant to be an academic endeavour, a lecture or anything definitive about a particular topic. Like any good discussion, we hope it opens some doors and gets everyone - us included - thinking more. You can find it on or iTunes (as Six Ways From Sunday).

So, the commercial aside, I mention it because this past week it seemed appropriate that we talk about Halloween and All Saints Day and, as one might expect because it’s just a conversation over coffee, we got a little sidetracked. We started out well. We were trading stories about Halloween when we were kids and Ben had a costume story, so I had a costume story. For the record, his was about a cute bunny costume. Mine was about being a little devil. I think I was three, maybe four years old. I had a whole red suit, horns and tail, you know the traditional thing. There’s a picture of me walking down the street swinging my tail.

The point is, somewhere in that conversation I commented on the irony (or appropriateness, depending on your view) of me being a little devil. Especially since there isn’t one. And, as I tried to go on to something else, Ben said something like “hang on. What? Go back. Are you saying there’s no devil?” 

Well, yes. I did say that. Please hear me out.

I believe God is and always has been. I believe that because I believe that God is love, the energy of life, the power of creation, the web of life that connects all of creation, a higher power, the Great Spirit  - all of those things, and I call that God. You might call it one of those other things, but I call it God. So God is the Always, the good, the creative, the life. In the beginning, God created and because God created, there is something of God in all things. In the story of creation, human beings are the only thing in that story to be created by God in the image of God, but from the already created. I believe that we’re inherently good, then. Our life experience and, more importantly, our choices sometimes distance us from God. That’s sin, the actions that distance us from God. That’s how I believe the creation story, so I believe that we come from God and we return to God. (Jesus, by the way, teaches us how to live the love which is already in us and brings us back into a closer relationship with God.)

So here’s the thing. I think the opposite of good isn’t evil. The opposite of good is the absence of good. We start with good, we have from the beginning. When someone told that creation story in Genesis for the first time, I don’t think they ended each day with “it was good” because it was an issue of product quality or an assessment of artistic merit. It was good. We are created in the image of God which is inherently good. So, again, from the beginning there is good.

But we have freewill and choose how to fill that void. If we come to it thinking that we’re inherently good, that we’re created in the image of God, full of love and grace and, yes, good, then we’re likely to bring good to it. If we think we’re inherently sinful, prone to sin, and something less than the image of God, then what will we bring? I think this is where evil can enter the picture, not as the opposite of good but rather as a consequence of its absence.

It’s so much easier to say “the devil made me do it” or to suggest that evil can be personified, like a vice or virtue, when we make choices that lead away from good. God needs to have an adversary, right? No, I don’t believe so. We think in opposites, in comparison, in beginnings and endings. But let go of that for a moment and wonder about God - that love, creativity and life giving essence - that is always creating, always growing, always expanding, always bringing good. Wouldn’t the world be a different place if we didn’t give evil so much credit. It’s good that’s at the heart of all things.

Thursday 25 October 2018

I see

The gospel of Mark tells the story of Bartimaeus, a blind man healed by Jesus (Mark 10:46-52).  The gospels of Matthew and Luke tell a similar story of Jesus healing the blind and the stories have several characteristics in common: the location outside of Jericho, the blind calling out to Jesus and being hushed by the crowd, Jesus being addressed as the "Son of David," and the healed then following Jesus.

But Mark's story is somehow just a little bit more personal.  I think it's because it's the only time, in any healing story, that the person is actually named.  There are certainly lots of scholars who have good theories about that, even about the significance of the name.  But for me, even just knowing his name gives us more of a connection.

That's also, I think, why we're so quick to identify ourselves with Bartimaeus in the story.  We, too, are blind in many ways and our sight is restored by faith in Jesus.  Faith heals.

Or maybe we're in the crowd, hustling by that blind beggar on the corner, wishing he would be quiet because we want Jesus' undivided attention.  After all, he's just another street person and we're so much more deserving of Jesus' time.

That's not quite so comfortable is it?  But how often do we find ourselves, without thinking, in too much of a hurry or involved in our own stuff, passing by someone or something that needs us?  Sometimes we do notice, but we just don't have the time or the inclination to get involved, even when they call out to us in some way.  I know that I've often found myself regretting, later, that I didn't stop to talk with someone when I should have, just because, in the moment, I was in too much of a hurry.

Thank goodness there's Jesus to show us the way.

Which brings me to who I want to be in this story.  I want to be Jesus.

Imagine how different this story would be if Jesus, responding to the man calling out to him, had said "yeah, sorry, I just don't have time for you.  I have to preach in the next town and I'm late."  Or "would you stop bothering me, I have more important things to do.  Someone else can help you."  Or even "you know, there's government assistance available to you.  Get off the street and stop bothering people."

Well, you can't really imagine it, can you?  Because that wouldn't be Jesus.

Jesus makes time.  Jesus cares.  Jesus helps.  Jesus brings healing and comfort. Jesus loves everyone, especially those pushed to the margins of society.  Most importantly, Jesus doesn't ever see things as "someone else's problem."

The poor, the sick, the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the lonely - the list may seem endless at times.  The are so many hurts in the world, so many people in need of healing.  Even the world itself needs healing.  But as far as Jesus is concerned, one thing any of those things will never be is "someone else's problem."

We are called to be like Jesus.  Not just for the care of others, but for the care of ourselves as well.  Jesus knows, as we must, that our own sense of wholeness and healing is connected to how we bring healing and wholeness to others.

Maybe the whole world at once is too much.  But we can start with that person on the corner.  We can be Jesus, too.

Thursday 18 October 2018

Where would you like to be?

Do you ever wonder which animals got to go where on the ark?

Maybe it’s just me. I wonder about stuff like that. The great flood story in Genesis is a great story, but it has some interesting detail and some great opportunities to wonder about things that are missing. So I wonder about those and what we might learn from them. 

It’s a little bit of midrash, the Jewish tradition of telling stories about the scriptural texts that allude to what the text is about or might explore the texts meaning from a different perspective. 

For example, in Genesis, God tells Noah how to build the ark, including that it have a roof, a door in the side and “a lower, second and third decks.” So. How’d they decide who went where? I also wonder about how they all got along while they were on the ark, but lets focus on ones thing at a time.

Traditionally, steerage is the lowest part of the ship. And the cheapest. I don’t think it’s called that anymore, but the cheapest “state rooms” on a cruise ship are still lower deck and in the interior. Not that any of Noah’s cabins had a view. 

But there’s a hierarchy. Worst cabins in the bottom, better ones in the top. So who went where. Did the lions get the penthouse because they’re king and queen of the beasts? What about tigers? Or bears, they’re pretty strong. Monkeys can climb, so maybe they should be up top, too. Dung beetles could definitely go in the basement.

If I were telling this story, I’d have the animals all talking to each other and working it out. But it wouldn’t be based on any artificial hierarchy or who was the most powerful. It would be more about where they felt they belonged, practicality and comfort, and the animals would be concerned for each other. The elephants and the hippos might say, hey we’re pretty heavy, it’d be good to have that weight in the bottom for ballast. The more nocturnal animals would probably want to be further down, too. I’d have the lions, very dignified, offering their spot to the sheep and taking a more cramped space. The quieter animals who sleep a lot would have their own section and the busy, noisy ones would be somewhere else, probably another deck, even. The birds would be everywhere, controlling the traffic and keeping things running smoothly, keeping a watchful eye out for anyone who needed help or even just a little attention. The dogs and cats would end up being with Noah and the family because that’s just where they belong. And none of the other animals would be envious at all.

I think we could learn something from a story like that. The disciples could have.

Mark tells the story of James and John asking Jesus if they could sit either side of him in his “glory.” Jesus, of course, says that’s not for him to say. The other disciples hear about this and are instantly envious. I don’t think that James and John thought that they were better than anyone else, they were just asking because they wanted to be with Jesus. But the other disciples see it differently. Maybe they already thought there was a hierarchy of who was called first. Or who did the best miracles or preached the best, who was the smartest or who had money, who knew the right people or was physically the strongest. You know, the kind of criteria we’d use today.

But Jesus has another way of looking at it. The greatest, says Jesus, are those who serve others with love, respect and equity. Jesus came to serve, he says, not to be served. Jesus is about serving the world around him.

That’s what the animals do in my little story. There’s no envy, there’s no hierarchy, there’s only love and care for each other. How else would you survive forty days at sea? Or thrive in a lifetime on earth?

Thursday 11 October 2018

Please, after you.

Back in the mid 1990’s there was a Canadian television show called Due South. I’m pretty sure that, back then, you couldn’t really call yourself Canadian unless you were acquainted with Constable Benton Fraser of The Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Of course, now that I say that, you might not ever have seen it. Don’t worry, you can get it on DVD. (You should.)

It’s the adventures of an old-school stereotype RCMP from the Yukon who ends up, as Fraser often says, in “Chicago on the trail of the killers of my father and, for reasons which don't need exploring at this juncture, I have remained, attached as liaison to the Canadian consulate.” Part comedy, part police drama, it played off the contrast between a good-hearted, honourable, by the book Mountie with unimpeachable integrity and his polar opposite, a Chicago cop.

There’s a running gag from the pilot when Fraser first arrives in the city and politely stops to hold a door open for someone. Then there’s another person. And another and another. This goes on for quite awhile, Fraser nodding politely with a friendly “after you” each time. In fact, it goes on a ridiculously long time because people keep coming and he keeps waiting, letting them go first.

Others think he’s just being silly, and so do we (the audience) until we get to know his character and realize that he’s just being true to who he is. He simply doesn’t know how to not be considerate of others. He’ll always put others first. It’s his nature.

It’s the image I always think of when I read the story of Jesus and the rich man in one of the gospels. (Mark 10:17-31 this week, but there’s a version in Matthew and Luke, too.) I don’t picture a disappointed young rich man when Jesus tells him that he must give up his wealth. I see Fraser holding the door open.

The man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to enter “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus reminds him of the commandments and he says yes, he’s kept all these since his youth. Then Jesus “looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” He sadly leaves.

Jesus then tells the disciples how hard it well be for wealthy people to come to the kingdom. It’s hard enough as it is, but for rich people even more so. The disciples don’t know what to make of this, especially since they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus. Yes, says Jesus, yes! You’re on the right track, but “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Everyone’s going through the door before Fraser because he invites them to.

You might think this would be a handy text for a stewardship campaign. And it is. In the best sense. There was a time when it might have been used to encourage rich people to give their money to the church, but back then it just resulted in a rich church, which didn’t turn out so well for anyone. No, this is what stewardship is really supposed to be about: fully loving with all you are and all you have.

The one thing the young man lacks isn’t that he not be rich. It’s not the act of giving away all his money. It’s that he truly, from his heart, needs to live all those commandments, that he truly live into a relationship with God. That means that he would give to those in need, care for the sick and the poor, put his wealth to use in engaging the world around him in a relationship of love and grace. The same relationship we have with God. To live with integrity the love of God that’s in our hearts. With abundance.

Instead, wealth can so easily get between our hearts and our actions. Acquiring “stuff” can build a wall that keeps our hearts and our actions apart. It’s not enough to go through the motions, it must have the integrity of love to live fully, then we are living into the kingdom of God right here and right now. It’s like holding a door open.

Thursday 4 October 2018

Do all dogs go to heaven?

This was going to be a Thanksgiving kind of thing, but we just held our annual Blessing of the Animals and I really wanted to address this important question: do all dogs go to heaven. So, thankful for my wonderful little dogs, I’d like to say that the answer, I think, is yes, of course, don’t be ridiculous.

The phrase “all dogs go to heaven” comes from the 1989 animated film of that name, as far as I can find. But the question of any animals, especially pets, and not just dogs, “going to heaven” has been around a long time and not everyone has always agreed.

The Bible, say some people, tells that animals were created for human beings, seeming to suggest that their purpose is fulfilled in this life. Some people have also wondered whether animals have a “soul” in the religious sense. The bible also says that only human beings are created in the image of God, so only human beings would be eligible to go to heaven. Besides, Jesus came to save us, not animals, right?

Like I always say, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I couldn’t disagree more with all of those, but I’ve heard them and anyone is welcome to them.

Thing is, though, the last few weeks we’ve been exploring the creation story from Genesis and I can’t help but think that I’ve said some things that might have sounded very much like that last paragraph. So let me explain.

I believe that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and also of the earth (Genesis 2:7) and we are intimately linked to both. I also believe that God (or call God love, the energy or spirit of creation, the life-giving force - I think God’s all those things) is in all creation. Call that the web of life, if you like. I’ve also said that I believe that our default setting is good and that sin is the action we take the leads us away from God. I also believe that we come from God and return home to God. Some of that might sound like it leads in the direction of the human centred ideas of the earlier paragraph, so let me say: so does all creation.

I believe that when we say God is in all things, God is truly in all things. All things are connected through love is another way to say that. It’s bigger than just us.

So is God. In that sense, I can’t imagine that anything doesn’t return to God. That’s not to say that heaven is simply all this somewhere else. It’s what’s true that returns to God, that piece of God’s heart, if you like, that God puts into you and I, dogs, cats (yes, even cats), other animals, living creatures and all living things. The spiritual essence from which this creation comes.

Does that mean that our pets cross the rainbow bridge and we’ll see them again, running and playing in beautiful fields, sharing again all those perfect moments we remember sharing with them in this life? Yes. I’ll say it differently in a minute, but if it’s comforting to image it that way, why not? Sentimental isn’t a bad thing. No, it’s not.

I think we imagine heaven in a many ways according to our own experience and vision. But the thing is that I don’t know exactly what home with God looks like. I’m pretty sure it’s different from anything we could possibly imagine here. But I believe we’ll know it or, at least, its essence. We’ll know peace and contentment and the comfort of all that we’ve known that’s good and gave us life in this world. And we’ll know love.

So, yes, all dogs go to heaven.

Thursday 27 September 2018

A little scratch behind the ear

For the last few years, we’ve had a Blessing of the Animals service around the end of September, beginning of October. (October 4 is St. Francis of Assisi Day and he’s the patron saint of animals.) We welcome any animals, pets or working animals, livestock - all the beasts of the field, birds of the air and fish in the sea. And people, too.

All of the animals that have come to this service are clearly very much loved. That is probably the best example of how our relationship with creation can be what God intended. When animals are treated with dignity, respect and love, whether they are raised as pets or companions or for a specific purpose, the relationship is right. Not just for them, but for us, as well.

But you know, if you have a pet or care for animals on a farm, that there are moments when those creatures can behave in a way that's more than a little trying. Annoying sometimes. Infuriating even. 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 - or 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. It’s the grace Jesus showed everyone, every creature.

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. As Seattle suggested in 1854: "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."