Thursday 31 December 2020

Where to now?

What we often refer to as “The Christmas Story” is a combination of stories from different sources. You probably already new that. Some are biblical, some are tradition. The naming of the magi, for instance, is a tradition. The story from Matthew’s gospel doesn’t name them, but over the centuries we’ve come to know them as Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. There are other names, too, depending on the tradition. The bible doesn’t specifically say there was only three, either, we assume that from the three gifts. There are many stories that explore the idea that there might have been more.

We don’t know how many shepherds showed up, either. Even our view of the stable, full of traditional and not-so-traditional animals is more about tradition than the story itself. And then there’s that little boy with the drum.

I don’t think any of that’s a bad thing if the tradition is meaningful and gives us more experience of the story. It can draw us in and invite an insight into how the story is relevant to our life and faith.

That’s the great thing about the manger scene or creche that many people and churches have out at Christmas. It creates a little tableau that represents not just one story but many. It’s easy to just look at it and think “isn’t that a pretty pastoral scene.” Because it is. But there’s so much more to it, so much more that we could wonder about. Here’s a couple of thoughts about that.

First, try picking up each piece and wondering how they would tell the story. Mary and Joseph, of course, there’s some story in the bible, but you might wonder about how they met or what life was like for them. You might wonder how their stories might go if they were being told today. Especially in a year like this has been.

How about the shepherds? Again, we have a bit of their story, but there must be more that we could imagine. The magi, too, their story is even more sparse, less detailed. Pick up a figure and wonder where they’re from, wonder why these gifts were chosen or wonder at the faith they must have had to follow a sign that they interpreted to mean a prophecy was being fulfilled. What were they thinking?

Go ahead and try it. Pick up a figure, maybe learn a little more about them, if you can, and then wonder about how they got to be here, in this particular story. And don’t forget to wonder about where they’ll go next.

That’s the second thing. Every year, we get the box out, we unpack the figures and arrange them into the scene of that night and then, when Christmas is “done,” we pack them all up again in their box and put them back on the shelf. We put them away as if their story was over.

It’s not. They’re not just statues. They’re alive. Everyone in the story had lives that went on long after this one night. Lives that were lived one day at a time, beginning the very next day. Just like ours. Maybe they all went back to their regular jobs. But their lives were changed, just as Mary and Joseph’s lives were changed by the new life they welcomed into theirs. Love is in the world, not just this one night, in this one scene, in this one story, but everyday. You can’t keep that in a box.

Thursday 24 December 2020

Meet Me At The Manger

I’m sure it’s a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem when you’re walking. It’s only a little over 100 km, but, back in the day, there’d only be a dusty dirt road made by the caravans and soldiers who travelled the route. It sure would have felt long. Even more so, if you’re pregnant. It would be nice to think riding a donkey would help, but you’d probably be more comfortable walking. Let the donkey carry the luggage over this bumpy, uneven terrain.

Even getting this far was quite the journey. When you’re expecting to begin married life quietly, in a relatively unknown corner of Judea, and suddenly there’s an angel and things change, well, Mary would have had a lot on her mind. Joseph, too. Carpentry was a good trade, but it didn’t make a lot of money and he wasn’t expecting an instant family or the Roman census that demanded they travel. It wasn’t good timing.

Then there was the whole child of God thing. That’s a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations, a lot of - well, who knows what? Who knows where that’s going? But let’s get to Bethlehem and find somewhere to have the baby. We just need to get to Bethlehem.

For shepherds, minding their flocks outside of town, the geographical distance to find the baby wasn’t that far to travel. But the social one was. Shepherds were the lowest of the low in society back then, but that night, they felt like royalty. Angels told them the best news and sent them to find Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. No one would believe we were worthy, they might have thought, we just need to get to Bethlehem.

But if you’re looking for a long, complicated journey, the magi certainly fit the bill. From far to the east, magi followed a sign, a star, they believed would lead them to the Promised One, a new king that would change everything. Sure, as wise astronomers, they knew what they were doing, tracking the star and figuring out a route, and maybe they had camels and were reasonably well off. But they still had distance and Herod to contend with. I don’t imagine the current king was comfortable with their arrival looking for the new one. And I doubt a child of poor parents in a tiny town in the backend of the Roman empire was what they were expecting to find. I’m sure they were glad to reach their destination, to finally get to Bethlehem.

That’s just it, though. Bethlehem isn’t the destination. It’s not the end of the journey, it’s the beginning. Not just for Jesus, but for all of us.

It was the beginning of a new family. Perhaps Mary and Joseph were anxious about what might be ahead for their new son. But I hope they also knew the joy of a newborn and were filled with hope for the future.

For the shepherds, they might have felt the beginning of a new sense of wonder and well being. They were chosen to be the first to hear the news. At the very least, they would have been filled with hope for the future.

And the magi went home having found what they sought. They didn’t just escape Herod, they stepped boldly into the hope of a promise fulfilled.

Come to the manger this Christmas. Perhaps you’ll find not the end of a journey, but the beginning of one.

Thursday 17 December 2020

The Story Will Be Told

We have a Christmas play in our church service this Sunday. Lots of churches do a Christmas play. Usually on the third or fourth Sunday of Advent, but sometimes, really daring churches will do it on Christmas Eve.

It’s a great idea, the Christmas play. It can be anything from a traditional dramatization of the Christmas story to something a little more exotic that explores a Christmas theme or one of the many social justice issues that are in the story (yes, they’re there) or examine questions of faith. It might be put on by kids or by adults for the kids or by everyone for everyone. It might have a script or follow the biblical narrative or be made up on the spot. It could be rehearsed and practiced for a few weeks or, well, not. There’s lots to be said for the spontaneity of an “on the spot” Christmas play.

We’ve done lots of those things over the past years. We’ve had a traditional “here’s the bible story” play, we’ve had plays about being stars and angels and giving gifts and finding the stable and, as I recall, one involved an altercation between ninja sheep and desert pirates. One year, we even handed costumes to people as they came in and literally everyone was in the play that day.

I think the whole point of doing it is to bring life to the story, to refresh a story that can become just a little too familiar and maybe offer a different perspective. The story is full of drama, why not dramatize that? Besides, what a great opportunity to bring people together, create community and find a way for an ancient story to still be so relevant to our lives today.

Hmm. Well that’s going to be tricky this year, isn’t it? Especially since we, like many churches, have decided to not have in-person services until next year. Even if we were, under the current restrictions, we still couldn’t bring people together and there’d still be no costumes. And who wants a play in which everyone would wear a mask?

Well, as it happens … did I mention we have a Christmas play in our church service this Sunday?

Thing is, Christmas will happen and the story will be told. It might be accompanied by the story of this Christmas. In fact, the story of this Christmas might well be how we found new ways to make an old story new again, to find new traditions, new ways - simpler ways, perhaps - to share the love which is at the heart of the Christmas story. It might be about how we overcame physical separation to realize just how deeply in our hearts love lives. It might be an opportunity to see just how much stuff we pile around ourselves that gets in the way of how we really feel, what we really hope for, and how we really love. However Christmas comes this year, it will come and the love that breaks into the world with Jesus’ birth will still find its way to us.

Oh, our Christmas play this year? It’s a video. It includes short video clips from some people in our congregations. It includes an odd assortment of animals, a donkey and a very pregnant couple and, yes, there are a lot of masks. There’s a pandemic on, you know.

Thursday 10 December 2020

There is Joy in You

I think this might be the year I don’t say “Merry Christmas.”

No, I’m not replacing it with “bah, humbug.” Nor do I think the “War on Christmas” is a real thing. It’s not. And I’m not looking to be politically correct, either, whatever that really means. Sure, I think we could be more inclusive and throw in a “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” every now and then. It also wouldn’t hurt to actually get to know people well enough to know whether to wish them well on whatever religious festival or celebration that has meaning for them, as well as our own.

Thing is, it’s not the Christmas part. It’s the Merry.

It depends on how you interpret it, of course, and we all will. The word’s been around a long time, but I think that, with Christmas, we’ve generally understood it to mean happy or glad. At least, I think that’s how we’ve seen it since 1843 when Charles Dickens pretty much rejuvenated, if not re-invented, Christmas with the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Not everyone is merry at Christmas, especially this year. There’s so much that can overwhelm our merry-making: grief, loneliness, pain, poverty, illness, unemployment, stress. There’s so much.

No, I think I’ll try and wish people a joyful Christmas.

Because joy’s something different. Sure, it can have merriment and happiness and smiles and laughter. But it’s more than that. True joy is something that goes to the very core of who we are. It reaches into the deepest corners of our hearts, into the shadowy places, and brings light.

I believe that true joy is found in the moment in which we find God, however we know God (love, energy, connection and more) is present in our lives in a way that brings wholeness to our spirit. Yes, there may be happiness, there may also be a sense of rightness, connectedness, wellness. But there is also healing in brokenness, comfort in grief, hope in uncertainty and, deep within us, the knowing that we are loved just as we are and we are not alone.

The story of Christmas should focus us on that very thing. It’s not the trappings of celebration that we pile on it. It’s the idea that, in this child in a manger, love is in the world. The Gospel of Matthew says this child is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” The writer of the Gospel of John describes it as “the Word made flesh” in whom “was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That child will grow up to show us how “the light of the world” is in us, too.

The story of Christmas plays out in a world full of struggle, danger and fear. There are the poor and the weak, there are the powerful and the seemingly rich, kings and shepherds and angels. But there is joy. Love is here.

Thursday 3 December 2020

Everyone has a place in The Story

In the weeks of Advent, leading up to Christmas, we meet some of the characters of the Christmas Story. The angel Gabriel (who really should have appeared nine months ago), Mary, Joseph, we’ll meet other angels, shepherds, an innkeeper, maybe even the magi (they seem to arrive earlier every year) and, of course, John the Baptist.

John the Baptist?

Yes, John the Baptist. He usually appears on the second Sunday of Advent. He became known for the baptizing thing, but he was meant to be a messenger, “the” messenger, a voice from the wilderness crying “prepare the way of the Lord.”

Well, of course, that makes sense. Announcing Jesus’ arrival. So he was also at the manger then? Well, no.

When Mary put Jesus to bed in the manger, John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were likely changing his diaper and putting him to bed in his own crib. According to Luke, John and Jesus were cousins and born only months apart. John was older, but not by much.

The John we meet in Advent is an adult. He’s been living in the wilderness, “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). He calls people to repent (loudly and not always nicely), his signature move is baptism and he tells everyone that someone much greater is coming. “I have baptized you with water,” he says, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John the Evangelist, who wrote the gospel, even tells a story of him pointing out Jesus to a couple of his own disciples, saying “there’s the guy I’m talking about.”

Well that seems a little out of sync, at least chronologically. Why do we need the adult John to tell us who the adult Jesus is right before he’s born? Here’s a few thoughts on why you should listen to John.

I don’t know that the adult John knew he was doing that. I think he was calling people to repent and be baptized because someone was coming, he doesn’t seem to know who or when. As far as he was concerned, he might well have been announcing a birth. John was probably ready to meet Jesus anytime.

Christmas doesn’t just mark an event of the past by celebrating it in the present. It reminds us also that Jesus promised to return. And, just as importantly, that we might be prepared to meet Jesus anytime. What if Jesus never really left? What if Jesus is alive in each of us and we might meet Jesus anytime, anywhere?

Maybe that’s the most important thing about John. He reminds us to be prepared to meet Jesus, in child and in adult, in story and in person, in friend and in stranger, in this moment and in tomorrow. Be prepared to meet Jesus anytime, anywhere. Because you will.

And just like Jesus, be prepared for the figures that point you towards him, that help and guide you on your way, to not necessarily look like you think they should. The Christmas Story is full of angels. What if they didn’t look like our traditional vision of an angel, with white robe, wings and halo? What if they all looked like John the Baptist? Or someone we might call “less desirable?” What if they looked like you and me? Are you prepared for that?

Thursday 26 November 2020

“I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes” (from the 1993 classic "The Sign" by Ace of Base)

In the weeks leading up to Advent, many churches will be hearing stories from the gospels about “the end times.” Not from the Book of Revelation, but from the gospels. This is Jesus talking about the end of things and, more importantly, that he’ll return. That’s why we’re hearing these stories. Jesus promised to return. So the season of Advent isn’t just the season of expectation leading to the day we recognize Jesus’ arrival in the distant past, but his coming this year and his expected return in the future.

We might also want to consider that he never left and that the point of Jesus is to show us the Jesus in each of us, that we may “see Jesus” always in ourselves and each other. Jesus is here everyday, not just Christmas Day. Something, I think, worth pondering.

But let’s talk about these stories of the end times and Jesus’ return as he describes it for his first century audience in the gospels. There’s destruction and death, wars and famine and earthquakes, great “distress” and “tribulation” and false prophets and people claiming to be the messiah.

Maybe it’s because we just finished a group study at the church on Revelation or maybe it’s because of the days we’re living, but I feel like there should be some plagues in there, maybe fires, hurricanes and murder hornets and civil strife, too. 2020 has sure been the year for that.

That’s another good reason to hear these stories. I don’t think the point of them is to scare people, though they’ve certainly been used that way. It’s that these are the signs, Jesus says, of what is to come next: “at that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). So, Jesus says through all this, keep watch, be discerning, be prepared, keep awake.

The last few weeks, I’ve been talking about what Jesus meant by all that, emphasizing that he doesn’t mean just sitting around waiting, but rather living, with love, compassion, justice and grace, just as he showed us we could. So, maybe we could have a break now that Advent’s here. Well. No.

But there is something more. Each of Mark, Matthew and Luke, in the middle of all this distressing stuff, have Jesus use the fig tree as an example of how we should see what’s happening. When you see buds on the fig tree, he says, you know that summer is near. It’s a sign. Read the signs and you’ll see that the time is near.

Yes, of course. When we see buds in the spring, we know that summer’s coming (eventually), though you might not pinpoint the exact day. But it’s not just the new season that’s coming, it’s the new life. And. It’s the fruit.

That’s just it. Even now, we might look and see signs that the world is changing, but are we seeing the signs of death and destruction or the signs of new life? It’s the buds that bring the flowers that bear the fruit in the new season. Isn’t it the acts of love, kindness and caring that will bear the fruit of the future? Where do you see the promise of new life where you’re at?

Thursday 19 November 2020

It's about life, not afterlife

I try to be consistent. As much as one can be in such a diverse and complicated world. But I try to be consistent, especially in what I share about what I believe Jesus is about.

Jesus is about life. Yes, Jesus provides comfort about where we’re going next, but the life of Jesus isn’t about what it takes to get to the kingdom of God, it’s about what it takes to bring it here. That’s a life lived in love with the world. That’s a life lived like Jesus.

But I’m not Jesus, you might say. No, in the sense that you’re not me and I’m not you, but yes you are, in the sense that we are both divine (created in the image of God) and human (created of the earth), just like Jesus. I think that’s the main point of Jesus, that his life shows us that’s what we are and how to live it out.

But what about evil and the devil and hell and all that stuff? Sure, we find ways to try and understand what isn’t love or grace or heaven, because we have experiences and make choices that aren’t and we live in a world where, while we’d really like it to be simple and just what we want, it’s not and it’s full of other people and other things. And we can see those as “other” or we can see them as relationships we just haven’t explored yet, or lived yet. We can see them as an obstacle to overcome or part of the journey that is a full life. And, oh, that’s a struggle. Believe me, I know that’s a struggle. 

But what about judgement? Even Jesus talks about how, at the end of days, we’ll all be judged and some will go to the happy place and others to fiery furnace. Ok, but let me say three things about that. One is that, though we seem to like to do it and do it a lot, Jesus - and scripture as a whole - constantly reminds us that the ultimate judge is God, not you and me. The second is that God begins with grace and offers forgiveness. I do believe that we come from God and we return to God. And, I understand hell as meaning how sin distances us from God. In other words, we may be very far from God in this life, but we still return to God.

Third, let’s talk about sheep and goats for a minute. Despite number one above, we still see the need for judgement and yes, Jesus talks about it. But perhaps we hear that with ears listening for where we might be going next rather than consequences in this life. Take, for example, the story Jesus tells about how judgement will be like a shepherd separating the sheep and the goats (Matt.25:31-46). Already you might be thinking you want to be a sheep. You do, because the sheep feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and the imprisoned and therefore “come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The goats don’t and are consigned to the eternal fire. So, do like the sheep and you’ll get to the happy place. Right?

Ok. Except. Neither the sheep or the goats in the story are aware that what they’re doing or not doing is for Jesus. The sheep aren’t doing it to earn anything, they’re just being themselves. It’s already in them - and maybe it’s in the goats, too. We’re all God’s creation. The difference is the sheep engaged the world, saw the need, and shared in it. That’s what Jesus is all about. Love, grace and compassion aren’t behaviours you use to get points to go to the happy place. They’re who you are. Look in you, look around you, and bring life to this world by living them.

Thursday 12 November 2020

And Now This

I know I say it a lot, but I just don’t think Jesus is an either/or kind of guy. I think Jesus is an and/with person.

Person. I know, here I am again treating Jesus like, well, one of us. Like a friend or a neighbour, even, rather than with the reverence due Christ, the “Word made flesh.” But imagine, just for a minute, that I’m not making Jesus less divine but rather pointing out the divinity in the human characteristic I just mentioned.

Our freedom to choose often leads us to see things in opposition rather than in harmony, as set against one another rather than in cooperation, exclusive rather than inclusive. Either/or versus and/with. Just look at the world. See how much of life seems to be a contest of this side versus that side to see who will have the power to get their way. But we’re all children of God - of God and of creation. We’re connected to the earth and each other. Our very being is literally an “and/with.”

That’s big. Huge even. Especially right now, when we find ourselves struggling to stay connected in a pandemic that keeps us apart. Or in a world of politics that keeps us apart. Or finances. Or cultures. The list is long.

And here’s Jesus, showing us how to live out the human and divine in each of us. Showing us how we can love, have empathy and compassion, live each day offering grace and understanding, engage the world and build relationships and create community. Along with his example, Jesus offers some teaching, words of comfort and encouragement, and a lot of stories.

Especially with the stories, it can be easy to say it means this or that. We can debate and argue about historical context and definitive interpretations and insist that we have the “correct” understanding. But maybe the story has more than one meaning. Maybe different interpretations aren’t about the right one, but the harmony of many speaking together to different times and different people. If the understanding leads to wisdom and love, if it creates and inspires one to live well, maybe we should rethink our sense of correctness.

Here’s an example. Jesus tells a story about a man who has to leave town, so he entrusts his servants with the care of his finances. To one he gives five talents (that’s a huge amount of money, not a skill), another three, another one, “each according to their ability.” While he’s gone, the first two invest theirs and make more, while the third hides his single talent. When he returns, the man congratulates and rewards the first two. Hearing the third explain that he was afraid because the man was a harsh and unscrupulous businessman and that’s why he hid the talent and is returning only that one, he throws him out with nothing.

Jesus tells this story in the context of talking about being prepared for the end times. So is this a reminder that, while awaiting his return, being prepared means building upon what God has given us (financially and otherwise)? It makes for a good stewardship story. It could be a reminder to not be afraid to use what we have, to invest and expand it. Perhaps the ending doesn’t sound quite like the Jesus we know, so we might consider that, while the third servant is cast out, it’s those very people - the outcast, the marginalized and the broken - to whom Jesus comes. Perhaps it’s part of the journey. What about the third servant’s fear? Can we empathize with that? Maybe Jesus isn’t the rich man at all, maybe he’s the third servant and it’s not about fearing the rich man but challenging his methods. Perhaps it’s not just about investing in the future, but living well in the moment. Perhaps it’s a reminder of the inequities of our world we live in and that they must be changed.

Perhaps it’s not one single thing, but how they all interact - it’s not just one thread, but the fabric it weaves. As we engage different perspectives, we might see they’re not exclusive: they can work together to teach us on our own journeys. 

Thursday 5 November 2020

Waiting and Ready

We do a lot of waiting. Just generally, in life we do a lot of waiting. But lately, it’s been particularly tough waiting. As the pandemic drags on, we’re waiting, not even for it to end anymore, but for the next announcement of case numbers, the next change in guidelines, the next closure or the next much needed support program. We’re waiting for test results - of all kinds - waiting for programs to come back, waiting for jobs. We’re waiting for election results. We’re waiting for peace. We’re waiting for news, good and bad.

We’re waiting for Jesus.

And that’s not your general waiting. We might be waiting for Jesus because Christmas is coming. We might be waiting for Jesus because, just like the earliest followers of Jesus, we heard him say he’d be back and when he did it’d be the end times and judgement and death and destruction and only the righteous (like us, we hope) will be saved. We might be waiting for the next moment we see Jesus alive and at work in the world, in each other and in ourselves. We might be waiting for Jesus because we just really feel the need for Jesus right now (please read previous sentence again - and again).

In Matthew, when Jesus talked about  “coming back” in the days just before he was arrested, he talked to the disciples about waiting and being prepared for his return. He told this story. He said there were ten bridesmaids, waiting for the groom to come to the wedding banquet. Five were wise because they brought additional oil for their lamps, while five were foolish because they only had what was in their lamps. The groom is delayed and everyone goes to sleep, only to be awakened at midnight with the warning that the groom was coming. The foolish were out of oil and asked the wise to give them some. The wise said no because there wasn’t enough for everyone and sent the other five off to find more. While they’re gone, the groom arrives, the party starts and when the others return, they find themselves locked out. The groom says they don’t even know them. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

So. Be prepared. That’s how we’ve interpreted this story. The wise are prepared and are the ones who get to the party with Jesus, the bridegroom.

But what does that mean? How should we be prepared? What’s the oil in our lamps today? And how might that help us when we’re waiting for all those other things?

What if this wasn’t a story about being prepared in the future, but rather about what is right now. We admire those who have much over those with little. And when those with little are in need, we don’t always share equitably. No, maybe there’s not enough oil for everyone, but if we shared, we’d share the time in the darkness as well as the light. We send people away and find a reason to exclude them. Worst of all, the groom - who could easily be us - seems to be apathetic to the situation (which they caused by being late) and okay with excluding people. What if this isn’t the example of how to be prepared, but the opposite?

Maybe the “how to be prepared” isn’t a couple of paragraphs near the end, but the entirety of the life lived before it. Maybe the best way to “keep awake” and “be prepared” is to share equitably, support each other, include everyone, build relationships, be empathetic and compassionate. And maybe even be on time. Or at least true to the good that is in us.

Don’t just sit around waiting. Be Jesus. Live.

Thursday 29 October 2020

For all the Saints

November 1 is All Saints Day in many churches. Unfortunately, you might miss it because it’s overshadowed by its much more popular and entertaining neighbour Hallowe’en. Ironic really, because Hallowe’en literally means All Hallows Eve or “the day before All Saints Day.”

I don’t begrudge Hallowe’en its popularity, though. It’s fun, engaging and an opportunity to dress up and pretend to be someone or something you’re not. And, while I know things can get out of hand (especially with the “trick” part of “trick or treat”) and we can be a little superstitious, I just don’t think there’s really anything in the evil or satanic stories we tell around it. Sure, some of its history is pagan traditions and the notion that this is a time when the veil between this world and the next is thin, but that’s all tied to our connection to the earth, seasons changing, fertility and life and death. We’re part of the earth and divine, after all.

Of course, throw in a full moon this year (a Blue Moon, the second full moon this month) and that can get people going, especially with the year we’ve had so far. But then, the clocks go back an hour, too, so maybe it’s just a reset.

Let’s go back to that “pretend to be someone you’re not” idea though, because I think that’s something to think about the next day, All Saints Day. While I think we’ve always had the best of intentions when it comes to saints, I wonder if we haven’t made them something so special and unique that they’re unreachable, untouchable and certainly something unattainable. We want them to inspire us and be an example for us, but it seems, instead, that we’ve put them up on a pedestal, cast them in stone or stained glass, named churches after them and put them out of reach. We make them something we’re not and will never be. Just like Jesus, they’re out of our league.

But they’re not. They’re you and me. I think they’re just flawed and broken human beings who discovered they were perfect just as they are and, in discovering that, found their connection to both the divine spirit and the earth that’s in them. They found good. They found grace, kindness, compassion and love and - and here’s the important part - lived it. That’s what makes them an example, not an idol.

Mark Isleifson reminded me about this the other day. Another one of our local acting legends, Mark was in the Bashaw Community Theatre production of ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ a few years ago and he played St. Aphrodisius, a real first century saint. In the story, he’s long dead, of course, but immortalized in a stained glass window in the great cathedral. As the hunchback Quasimodo is trying to figure out a clue to where he’d find his beloved Esmerelda, St. Aphrodisius comes alive, steps out of his stained glass window and sings to Quasimodo, telling his story and inspiring him to figure out what the clue means. The great saint steps down from where we put him away and engages the lowly Quasimodo. Good, kindly hearts make a connection.

That’s what saints do. They make a connection that inspires good. Don’t have to be on a pedestal or a throne, a mountain top or a seat of power. They could be someone you think you should avoid or someone you might not even notice. They could be you.

Thursday 22 October 2020

Please think about this

Sure, it would be nice if Jesus made more clear and concise theological statements. I guess. Although, I suspect we’d probably just argue more about what they mean. There are so many “authoritative interpretations” announced as “the right one” that it’s hard to know what to think sometimes.

So you probably should. Think about it. Really think about it.

That said, there’s lots to think about and lots of information and interpretations to consider. There’s also lots of people who are happy to tell you “the facts” and separate “the facts” from “the myths” (which are apparently bad) and, with the right delivery, their words carry a lot of weight.

It seems like all you have to do is hold up the right book and somehow it makes what you have to say “the truth.”

I think that’s why the stories need to speak just as loudly as the statements. And they need to speak to you. Please don’t let anyone “tell you how it is” unless they begin with “here’s what I think, please think about this.” And please consider their actions, too, when, assessing what they offer.

So. Please think about this.

Each of Matthew, Mark and Luke have stories of Jesus addressing which is the greatest commandment. Matthew, in particular, places it in the context of the leaders of the Temple asking Jesus questions, hoping to trap him with an answer they can use against him. Again, they seem more concerned with his words than anything else. So, in the story, this is their final question: which is the greatest commandment in the law?

That might seem tricky, there being not just the ten we’re most familiar with, but also another more than six hundred. But Jesus answers right away: love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And love your neighbour as you love yourself.

The first would likely have satisfied them, but there’s Jesus, always with the “and.” As if there’s always more. Because there is.

We’re often quick to point out that the “love” Jesus means is the unconditional, grace-filled, compassion-filled, life-giving love of God. There’s different kinds of love, of course, and we don’t want to complicate things with physical love, emotions, kinship, family, other things. This is the divine, transcendent love of God. Which is a really convenient way of holding it at arms length and making it something impossible for us to achieve. So. Please think about this: I think Jesus means all love. It’s not something to put on a pedestal and wonder at, it’s something to hold close and share generously, be amazed it and wrestle with. Love is love. It’s heart, mind and soul.

And that’s another thing. It’s in you and around you. It’s heart, soul and mind. It begins your relationship with God, with yourself and your neighbour. I’ll just say that again, so please think about this: it begins. It begins life. It begins relationship.

That’s what makes it the real test. Questions, statements, words, they’re not as challenging as love. That’s why we didn’t get more words from God, we got Jesus. Living, breathing love from the beginning. Want to know how to do love? Be Jesus.

Thursday 15 October 2020

"Deep in our hearts, there is a common vision"*

*From the hymn by John Oldham © 1995

Jesus always has a vision. He probably has visions, too, but I mean he has a vision of what things ought to be and how we can get there. Yes, “can.” I don’t for a minute think Jesus thought we aren’t capable of the love, grace, compassion and, yes, righteousness he taught. He tried to show us that we, too, are divine and human, and he literally lived and modelled it for us in a way that demonstrated his belief in us.

So it always bothers me when people try separating things into the spiritual and earthly, as if those things aren’t - or shouldn’t be - connected. (I wanted to say it surprises me, but it doesn’t anymore.) They are. Perhaps if we leaned into that a bit more, we might find it easier to see the Jesus in each other, and all around us, and see just how life-giving it is.

Take politics, for instance. Yes, politics. (Don’t stop reading now, I’m almost there.)

By all means, separate church and state. Keep religion out of politics. And politics out of religion, I hope. If, like most, you believe that religion and politics are the very human and very fallible structures that we’ve built, please, keep them apart. If you see them as being about partisanship, power, control, management, uniformity, or even more cynical things, please: keep them apart. They’ll only hurt each other.

But if, like Jesus, you might view this differently and you might see it, instead, as the interconnectedness of God - or however you know that life-giving force of love that I’d call God - with something more akin to “ubuntu” or the people in relationship as a caring community, well, that can be a different thing. That’s the kingdom of heaven Jesus is always talking about.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all relate a story in which religious leaders tried to trap Jesus with a question about paying taxes. Should the people pay taxes to the Roman emperor, or not? If he says no, he risks being reported to the state authorities and being arrested. If he say yes, he risks alienating all the people. It’s a trick question. There’s no way Jesus can answer it that they can’t claim a victory.

Except there is: Jesus asks to see a coin and, showing the image of the emperor on it, he says “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.”

Clever Jesus, we traditionally think. But I don’t think Jesus meant to be clever, I just think he answered sincerely. They just weren’t all on the same page. And we’re not either.

I think the religious leaders saw this as an either/or option only, just as we do today. But for Jesus, God is in all things, especially us. It might have been Caesar’s image on the coin, but we are created in the image of God. And the earth. Divine and human. It’s not separate, it’s connected; it’s not an either/or, it’s and “and.”

It might seem to us that we’re far from the kingdom of heaven Jesus envisioned. But maybe that’s part of the point of Jesus and other great figures of love and grace and “godliness.” We live in the world of our making and God’s. Again, however we might know God, there is divine and “earthy” in all things. The structures we might build around our beliefs and our societies are meant to help us understand and engage those things better, to grow and give them life. Ok, so they’re not always doing that. But we could try and see them differently, maybe with Jesus eyes.

Thursday 8 October 2020

"i thank You God for most this amazing day"

It’s Thanksgiving this week, in Canada at least. But it’s harvest time on this part of the planet for lots of people and, at least where we are here, there’s cause for celebration. It’s been a good crop, pretty good weather and lots of people working to bring it in. Given the state of things in the world today, I imagine there’s lots of people having to work to find something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. No doubt, there’s more than a few heaving a big sigh and saying “thank God for the harvest.”

Now, some of those might be just an expression of relief, but, really, we should all start by thanking God for the harvest. Really, however you know God, in nature, in each other, in spirit, in passion, in creativity and in relationships, we truly need to be thankful that we are filled, surrounded and connected by life. Maybe we should start there.

I guess it depends on what end you view things from. I’m already seeing lot of messages reminding people that there’s always something to be thankful for. Even in these pandemic times, even with grief, civil unrest, racism, poverty, homelessness, war and violence and, well, and, and, and. The list is long. But still, there are little things every day for which we should be - could be - thankful. Often it’s simply a question of looking for them and acknowledging them. Do you see things to be thankful for?

Like the harvest. Even with all that other stuff, there’s a good harvest and that’s the point of the seasonal holiday, anyway, isn’t it? At least we’ve got farmers to be thankful for.

Yes. About that. No one’s more grateful for farmers than me. Obviously I like food. And I also would be a terrible farmer and appreciate the skill and dedication of so many who, thankfully, are good at it.

But they don’t do it alone, do they? They need the seed and the animals. They need the land. They need good (or, at least, cooperative) weather. They need farm equipment. They need workers, they need trucks and drivers to haul the harvest, they need places to process, workers and places that turn the raw ingredients into other things. They need time. We don’t do things alone, we need the resources of creation and the support of each other.

Maybe we should start there.

What if we began with being thankful simply for what is? What if we began with a sense of thankfulness for this creation in which we live that offers, yes, challenges, but also opportunities? What if we began with the wholeness of creation, before we broke it down or broke ourselves down? What if, like the poet E.E. Cummings, we began each waking moment with “i thank You God for most this amazing day,” recognizing that the wholeness of life is the beginning of thankfulness.

That’s why “i thank You God for most this amazing day.” God is in that wholeness of creation, from the beginning. God is all that is beautiful and all is beautiful in its beginning. God is that love that connects us, that energy that inspires us, this earth that feeds us. Lets begin in thanks.

Thursday 1 October 2020

Finding the heart of our story

Do you know The Ten Commandments?

I mean the movie. I’ll get to the actual Ten Commandments in the Bible in a  minute, but what about the classic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille film that made Charlton Heston a star? If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look as a classic epic of its day. You’ll need three hours and forty minutes, though. That’s about 22 minutes a commandment.

Except it isn’t. Moses receiving the commandments and bringing them to the people takes up less than 10 minutes. Makes you wonder why the movie's called The Ten Commandments. Maybe it should be “The Life of Moses” or “Exodus” or “the journey of people who only knew slavery gaining their freedom and then having to learn how to be a community, a people and a nation.” Yeah, I think that’s the one.

Which is also what the “Ten Commandments” are about. I’m using quotes there because we only started calling them that - commandments - in the 16th century thanks to the Geneva Bible and then the massively influential King James Version. Hebrew people knew them as the the ten words or sayings. Because that’s what they are. 

On their journey to finding themselves, growing and learning as people to be a people together, they needed more than the “wilderness experience.” They needed guidance. They needed some fundamental principles for relationships, with each other and with God, that would create and build community. They needed some building blocks for a society that would not just live, but thrive. That’s the purpose of the ten sayings. They’re not “commands” to control behaviour or laws to be taken literally, they’re a universal framework for loving ourselves and our neighbours.

They’re an essential part of the Exodus narrative, but they need that narrative context - that story of “the journey of people who only knew slavery gaining their freedom and then having to learn how to be a community, a people and a nation” - for us to understand their purpose. They need to be written on our hearts and lived out in our daily lives, not chiselled in stone like some long forgotten monument. They need to be part of our narrative.

I also think that we have a particular way of understanding laws and rules that we impose on the ten sayings. As a society, most laws and rules tend to be designed to tell you what you can’t do or what you must do - or else. There’s a consequence to not following the law and it’s punishment.

But this is a covenant, not a contract, a covenant with God and each other. In a covenant, each party offers its part to build a new thing, in this case a mutually supportive community of love, grace and compassion in which everyone can belong and have an equitable place.

Suppose we were to look at all laws and rules differently. Suppose we could look at them like people who believed in a God of hope and promise, who’s story included being a God who heard the cries of people in bondage, broken and hurting, and then sought to do more than just free them. A God who sought to bring them to a new life and create a new world in which relationships were honoured, lives were respected and compassion, honesty and truth were commonplace, not exceptional. We could sure use that right now.