Thursday 29 December 2022

Endings and Beginnings

When ‘The Mood of Christmas’ was published in 1973, Howard Thurman was already a legendary theologian, preacher and teacher. He taught or influenced leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, many social justice movements and inspired the not-so-famous as much as the famous.

Many more of his books and writings are much better known and more influential, but every Christmas I like to take some time with a short poem in this one called The Work of Christmas. Especially in these days after The Big Day, it’s an important reminder that Christmas isn’t over, it’s just beginning.

I don’t mean the tree or the decorations or even a creche, if you have one. By all means, put those away when you’re ready, and you may be ready on Boxing Day. The scraps of wrapping paper and natural trees are often out the door first. You might do the Twelve Days of Christmas or somewhere in between. Put the stuff away when you’re ready.

But, at its best, the stuff can draw us into the story and give us signs and symbols that remind us of special moments. What’s at the heart of the story can’t be put away with the stuff because what’s at the heart of the story is a beginning. A new life is begun in that stable, yes, but also a way that is true and life-giving. The child will grow up to show us that we are filled with love and light, grace and kindness and how we might live that into the world, too. That’s how “the work of Christmas begins” now.

As we come to the end of a calendar year, there is an ending and a new beginning there as well. Perhaps it’s also a good time to consider what we might be putting behind us and what we might be stepping into, what things we might put away and what work needs to be done. Perhaps Thurman’s words aren’t just about the Christmas story, but our own stories too. Here’s what he wrote:

When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the kings and the princes are home,

when the shepherds are back with their flock,

the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost,

to heal the broken,

to feed the hungry,

to release the prisoner,

to rebuild the nations,

to bring peace among brothers,

to make music in the heart.

Thursday 22 December 2022

It's what Christmas is all about

This isn’t the first year that I’ve had to concede that I might look a little like Santa Claus. White hair (what’s left of it) and beard, I wear reading glasses that sometimes sit on the end of my nose, my face is a little red - let’s say rosey cheeks - and, of course, most importantly, I might be a little round. Not “like a bowlful of jelly” round, but round enough. Throw a red hat on that and I could be Santa.

I’m pretty sure I don’t meet the minimum “jolly” requirement and my “ho, ho, ho” is weak, so I haven’t been asked to stand in for the real thing. Although, I feel pretty certain that I could. So could you. I’ll come back to that.

I’m on a bit of a mission this year to remind people that Santa is part of the Christmas story. Maybe not the biblical one, but the bigger one, the one we live every year.

There are a variety of traditions that give us the features of the Santa we know, but most of them stem from St. Nicholas. Nicholas was a bishop in the late third, early fourth century in part of Asia Minor that’s now in Turkey. He was born into a wealthy Greek family, but his parents died in an epidemic when he was young. He was devoutly religious and the idea of Jesus as a loving servant, who cares for others and gives all that he has, inspired him to travel, giving generously from his wealth. The legendary stories of his gift giving became the most significant part of his later incarnations, along with Sinterklass in the Netherlands and Father Christmas in Britain and other local traditions.

So: Santa Claus was inspired by Jesus.

I doubt Clement C. Moore was thinking that in 1823 when he wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“Twas the night before Christmas”). It certainly doesn’t seem to feature in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer or any of the more recent incarnations, like the “Santa Clause” movie franchise. And then there’s all the other “traditions” we’ve added since to liven up our Christmas season. They seem to lead us further away from that night in Bethlehem. 

Hang on a minute, though. Do they?

The Christmas story is about love and hope. It’s about the birth of a child, in the most unlikely of circumstances, who will be something special. It’s about wonder, and a joy that finds its way into a dark stable in a remote corner of an occupied country, celebrated by people on the margins of society and honoured by the wisdom of magi. It’s about the promise of God’s loving presence in our lives.

However you might know God, by whatever name or however you might describe God, God is love. God is kindness and caring and grace and the spirit of life, not just one day but all days. That’s the thing about Christmas. The promise of that night is revealed in the life of Jesus. Sure, the teaching and preaching and healing and all the stories, yes, but the point is in the living of it. Jesus shows us the love that’s in all of us, and what great love we are capable of in our own lives.

Set aside the commercialism and the stuff for a minute. Santa’s about giving. Santa’s about the good that’s in all of us. Santa’s about kindness to others. It seems like Santa does it all in one night, but it takes a whole year. Jesus isn’t just about one night, either, but every day, every night, every moment being filled with wonder and love.

Thursday 15 December 2022

How I hope it would go here

If the author of the gospel of Luke were here today, and the Christmas story was happening here today, where I live, I wonder how they would tell it … (Luke 2:8-20.)

And there were, in the same country, cattle farmers, keeping watch over their cattle by night. And lo, an angel appeared unto them and they were not so much sore afraid as they were just sore. Long day.

The angel is understandably surprised. So far, having an angel suddenly appear before you has made people fearful and perplexed. “Why aren’t you afraid?” the angel asks, “I’m an angel.” And one of the cattle farmers replied “oh, we see angels every day. This is Bashaw, the church here has this Angels Among Us thing that reminds us who the real angels are in our community.” The others all nod. “Hey, if you help us out, we’d nominate you and you could get a cool toque and a little angel with your name on it tied to the rail of the church. And then everyone knows you’re an angel. It thanks folks and inspires others to be angels, too.” Another looked up from their camp fire. “Maybe, that way, people will be less afraid of you all the time.”

“Oh, that does sound tempting,” replied the angel. “Okay. I can help you: I have news.”

“We were hoping for something to eat, or a warm beverage.”

“Nope,” said the angel, “it’s news. Big news. Good news, even, tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the town of Bashaw a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, bundled up against the cold, with his parents, in an old car that’s out of gas, parked in front of the Bashaw and Area Community Resource Centre. They’re not from here, they just got here, they don’t have any money, and they’ve got no place to go. They’ll be easy to spot.”

And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest! Peace and goodwill to all!” And then they were gone. 

“They were really good,” said one cattle farmer. “Like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” said another. “Hey, I think we should go check this out,” said a third, and they all jumped in a nearby truck and drove into town. 

They pulled up in front of BCRC and got out. There was no one there.

And lo, an angel appeared unto them again, this time wearing a pink toque with the Angels Among Us logo on the front.

“Hey guys, sorry, they’re at the hotel. Yeah, it turns out the folks at the Bashaw and Area Community Resource Centre saw them and helped them get a room at the hotel, some food and a couple of gas cards.”

One of the cattle farmers gives the angel a friendly punch on the shoulder and says “I told you, there’s angels everywhere here.”

“So I see,” said the angel. “And they’re sure needed. That’s what this child is all about: showing people how important it is to love and care for each other. They’re getting a good start here. And a good thing, too, because things aren’t merry and bright for everyone, especially these days. We need more angels.”

“We should go see how they’re doing,” said one of the cattle farmers, “see if there’s anything we can help with.” “And we should call some friends, too,” offered another. “Maybe they could bring some gifts.”

Thursday 8 December 2022

In the Voice of a Child

Is there any better way to hear the Christmas Story than in the voice of a child? Some people might like to hear the words of Luke’s gospel - in the King James Version, of course - intoned by candle light on Christmas Eve, but, let’s be honest, who doesn’t prefer Linus?

Remember that remarkable moment in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Charlie Brown asks “isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” “Sure, Charlie Brown,” replies Linus, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” And he steps out onto the stage, asks for “lights” and proceeds to recite Luke 2:8-14, simply, innocently, as only Linus can. The animation of his face and hands, the moment he drops his security blanket when he gets to the angel saying “fear not,” the joy of “for unto you is born this day …” That’s what Christmas is all about.

For me, it’s a tradition to watch that every year. Another tradition, in many churches, is to have a Christmas Pageant, a dramatic re-telling of the story, more often than not with children playing the key roles. It’s sometimes organized, scripted, prepared and rehearsed. Other times it might be intentionally not any of those things and a little chaotic. It might be dramatic, it might be a little comedic, it might be musical, it might be a little messy, but, with children, it will be full of hope, joy and wonder.

It will also be full of the unexpected. Things always are with children. They have questions and they have their own way of seeing things, their own way of doing things. And, like the rest of us, they might be nervous in front of people, they might not remember everything, they might not always follow instructions exactly, they might not always react the way we expect.

But the story’s like that, too. Mary didn't expect what happened, Joseph sure didn't, the innkeeper was overwhelmed, the animals might have been put out, the shepherds were surprised, Herod was nervous and you can bet the magi wondered what kind of king was the son of poor people. And that’s just the people we hear about. What about the families of Mary and Joseph? The people they meet on the way to Bethlehem, the townspeople or the people the shepherds share the news with? What about anyone else who saw the star and wondered what it could mean?

In the midst of all the unexpected, there seems to be one constant: don’t be afraid. The angel offers that each time they appear. But imagine how often Mary and Joseph might have said it to each other, how often the shepherds reminded each other. I imagine the magi sharing that assurance frequently on their journey there, and home again.

 God is in every moment of the Christmas story, just as God is in every moment of our lives. Knowing God is with us empowers us to face the unexpected, to engage the challenges of our lives knowing we are not alone. And I think that knowing God’s presence in our lives frees us to wonder, just as children do. Later in his life, Jesus will remind us that we need to come to God with the wonder and openness of a child. Perhaps that’s why I love to come to the Christmas Story as a child. I don’t want to be afraid of the unexpected in the Christmas Story. I want to wonder at how an angel might bring messages from God.  I want to wonder at how that message might be for those who, on the surface, seem the least deserving. I want to wonder at how the creator of all things might choose to come to us as a weak, fragile, needy baby. I want to wonder at how that was revealed to those wise enough to see. I want to wonder at what this birth might mean for me, today.

Thursday 1 December 2022

Let it begin with me

If you’re looking to find peace in the Christmas story, you might be tempted to just head straight to the manger. The one represented in so many creches, paintings and stories, is a beautiful pastoral scene where everyone has gathered with the baby Jesus, quietly enjoying the starry night sky. Beautifully backlit, somehow, the shepherds are there resting in awe, the animals are there quietly sleeping, and “the little lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” It’s truly just like the carol “Away in a manger.” It’s a lovely sight.

And there’s a place for that. It invites us to wonder and reflect on each of the characters and how they made their way there. It invites us to rest with them a moment - just a moment - from our own busy journeys. It’s “the solemn stillness” of “It came upon the midnight clear.” Is that the peace we’re looking for?

The reality might have been very different. Birth’s aren’t quiet and peaceful. New born baby in a rough blanket, lying in straw? There’s going to be some crying. If there were animals about, they sure wouldn’t be quiet about having company. And the visiting shepherds and magi would have had questions, surely, and I hear there was even a kid playing a drum. Or did we add that? Anyway, it might not have been quite so peaceful. But is that the peace we’re looking for?

You might step back a bit and look at the shepherds “abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock.” That seems quiet and peaceful. Assuming the shepherds weren’t fighting off any animals or thieves. And then there’s that “multitude of the heavenly host.” If you’re looking for the word “peace” it’s right there in their song. But, a field in the middle of nowhere or angels singing about it, is that the peace we’re looking for?

Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem might have been quiet, even uneventful, but was it peaceful? Not a comfortable trip for a pregnant woman under any circumstances, and they were poor. And they were not yet married. It’s complicated. 

And what about that story of the angel’s visit? Mary was scared and she was “much perplexed” by the angel’s words. “Don’t be afraid,” says the angel as they explain, a phrase we’ll later hear Jesus use often. When Jesus said it, he didn’t mean flick a switch and stop being scared. He meant to acknowledge the fear and remember: it’s okay to be scared, just know that God is with you and will be with you whatever comes next.

Mary certainly seems to have heard that because, by the end of her encounter with the angel, she says “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In that, I hear more than acknowledgement and acceptance, I hear her embracing God’s presence in her life. Later, Luke says she sings of her joy in God, in what God is doing through her and through the world. She knows. God is with her.

Is this the peace we’re looking for? Not just wonder and awe, not just quiet pastoral beauty, not just an easy time of it or the absence of conflict in relationships or in our world, not just relief from fear, anxiety or trouble, but something more central. Something that’s at the heart of those things, connects those things, empowers us to engage those things and embrace those things.

It’s love. God is love, and that’s already in you. The child we come to find in that manger will show that love to the world, show us how to find it in ourselves and how to live it, too. Don’t be afraid. True peace begins with you.

Thursday 24 November 2022

There's More to the Story

The season of Advent begins this week. That’s the four weeks before Christmas that many churches observe as a time of anticipation and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It’s often seen as a time of reflection, a time of stillness and peace, a time of shadows and darkness into which breaks the Light of the World on Christmas.

Or. It’s a hectic time of shopping, concerts, parties, baking, wrapping, decorating and Hallmark movies and the shadows and darkness have been lit up like a Christmas tree - literally - since November 12.

Well, it’s not “or” at all, is it? It’s “and.” The reality for most people is that Advent will be a time for all those things. And more.

Some will also struggle with grief and mental health in a season that seems to demand as much as it offers. It can be a time, not of peace, but loneliness, not a time of busy-ness, but of pressure and anxiety.

A very long time ago, the prophet Isaiah said that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined” (Is. 9:2). For Christians, Isaiah is an important part of the Christmas story. He foretells the coming of Jesus, the light that lightens our darkness. He has more to say about Jesus and also about another character in the Christmas story: John the Baptist, the voice calling “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” (Is. 40:3).

As an adult, John will call people to repentance and to be ready for the messiah, but he’s part of the Christmas story, too. The gospel of Luke tells that John’s mother Elizabeth is a cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke writes that, before going to Mary, the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah, John’s father, to tell him that they would have a son who would be very important - he would call people back to God and to be ready for Jesus. Since Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly and unable to have children, he was more than a little surprised. Amazed even. Sound familiar?

There’s more to that story, but that’s just my point: there’s more to the story. We might want to jump to that wondrous tableau so beautifully represented in the creche: the baby in the manger, all the other characters there, the star lighting things just right. But there’s more to the journey there. And it’s not all darkness.

Each week, we light a candle to light the way: lights for hope, peace, joy and love. Lights that remind us that the light of Jesus is already here, alive in us, and we can live it each day, not just in anticipation of the one day each year we might celebrate the coming of the light.

They’re lights that remind us that there’s more to the story. There’s the hope of Elizabeth and Zechariah, patiently waiting (Luke 1:5-25). The peace offered by angels to the shepherds, the first to hear the news of Jesus birth (Luke 2:8-20). The joy of Mary, singing a song of celebration and praise to God when she visits with Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-55). The love of God come to earth in Jesus (Luke 2:7).

They’re lights that remind us there’s more to our story, too. They’re lights that guide our journey, through anxieties and peace, through hectic preparations and moments of rest, through joy and grief. Lights to remind us to to make the time to engage our whole story.

Thursday 17 November 2022

What were you expecting?

Many churches follow a calendar that begins with the First Sunday in Advent. That’s the four weeks before Christmas, so, give or take a few days, about a month before the calendar year begins. The last Sunday of the old year - New Year's Eve for church, if you like - has been known in many denominations as Reign of Christ Sunday or Christ the King since 1925.

It was the Pope’s idea. Pius XI thought it was a good way to encourage people in a secular world to remember that God rules over all creation, including our daily lives. I’m not the Pope, and I wasn’t there, so I don’t really know what was his understanding of “rule” and “king” and the biblical language of kingship, but I imagine many people struggle with the image and don’t find it as familiar and comforting as some other depictions of Jesus. Especially in the 21st century, our understanding of kingship is murky at best, clouded with limited experience, historical figures and fairytale kingdoms.

But having a pretty clear idea of what kind of king they wanted didn't help the first century Hebrews understand Jesus either. Because he didn't give them the kind of king they were expecting. They wanted a warrior, he gave them peace. They wanted someone who would hate the enemy, he told them to love everyone. They wanted someone to restore their glory and riches, he told them to give it all up. They wanted someone who was powerful, as they understood power, and he gave them vulnerability. They wanted someone to serve, he was their servant. They wanted someone who would take back what was theirs, he gave them someone who sacrificed for all.

At the very least, Jesus redefines kingship in a radically different way.

From his birth, which was hardly regal, to his death, he lived a life that challenged people’s understanding of power. In Luke's account of the crucifixion, the sign "This is the King of the Jews" reminds us we once failed to understand what kind of king Jesus is, and perhaps we still do. When we talk about being a great leader, the first things on the list are rarely love, compassion, kindness and service.

But maybe, like one of the criminals crucified with Jesus, we might come to understand Jesus' kingship better if we understood the relationship to the kingdom. "He said to him, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' He replied, 'truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.'"(Luke 23:42-43)

If we want to find paradise, it won't come through war and anger. It won't come through controlling others, crushing our enemies, exercising great power, acquiring enormous wealth or forcing others to serve us. It will come with love and grace.

The first century Hebrews expected a messiah who would return them to their glory days and make them great again. Are we still expecting that kind of king?

Thursday 10 November 2022

Just What Do You Mean By That?

"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." That's the way we most often recite it, likely because we memorized the Lord’s Prayer in Sunday School. It’s still the most common version, but as we see more contemporary translations of the original text in the Gospel of Matthew, and new ways of expressing the prayer itself, there are more opportunities to ponder what Jesus might have meant here. And what we mean, when we pray it.

Pope Francis weighed in back in 2019, approving a change to the Lord’s Prayer that would reword "lead us not into temptation" to "do not let us fall into temptation." The Pope found that there was the inference that God would, perhaps, intentionally lead us into temptation. The Pope feels God wouldn’t do that.

Roman Catholics worldwide are still working their way through it. There’s resistance, as you can imagine, both from those who feel anchored in the traditional words and scholars who debate the accuracy of literal translation versus understanding. Some also suggest that there are instances in Hebrew scripture when God does use temptation. And then there’s the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. I’ll come back to that.

While we’re talking about accuracy of translation, it’s not just the leading part, either, it’s the “temptation” and the “evil.”

The ancient Greek word used, “peirasmos,” has a variety of meanings and could be temptation or trial or testing. It's the same word used by Matthew when Jesus goes into the wilderness and when Jesus prays in Gethsemane. The word for evil could be translated just as evil or as the evil one, a generic evil or a specific entity. So how specific do we think Jesus is being?  Is it about a specific temptation or test and a certain evil or a more general context of the world around us?

I’m not a qualified biblical scholar or linguist and I’m not the Pope, but I think this is one of those moments when the answer is simply "yes." It is both and all. This is a moment for our discernment with our own lenses, both personal and communal. Our lives include an almost constant presence of temptation. It's part of our decision making process that requires choice and choosing for what is right, true and good, just as those moments we feel are a test or a trial. We have free will. Even when confronted with what we understand as evil, we still need to make a choice.

Sometimes we think it's easier to make a choice if we can name evil. So we call it the devil, for example, or an evil spirit, thinking that somehow, when we name it, it is easier to address. But is it easier? When we put a label on something, we often don't look any deeper - we think we already know what it is. Just as we need to discern our relationship with God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit, we need to discern what is true when we make choices, from the routine to the complex. Sometimes our life experience makes that a challenge.  Sometimes, evil - as the antithesis of good - makes that a challenge.

Again, our participation is required. I think that it's not about God leading us or not leading us to the temptation or rescuing us from evil, it's about God accompanying us through. I don't believe that God tempts or tests. I don't believe that God is about that kind of power. And power is something that's important to us.

I mentioned earlier that "peirasmos" is the same word used in Matthew's telling of Jesus being tested by the devil (or the personification of evil) in the wilderness. But what's that story of testing really about? Isn’t it really about Jesus finding what’s true in himself? Isn't it about power and who has it? "The devil" tempts Jesus to exercise power over things, only to find that Jesus "full of the Holy Spirit" (Luke 4:1) chooses another power, one that is true and life-giving, one that is true to the good that is in himself.

The power of God is love. And that's not a power over or a power to control, it's a power with, a power to be shared. We should pray for that.

Thursday 3 November 2022

"Forgiveness liberates the soul"

"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Or debts or sins in some versions. We usually translate Matthew’s original text as “debts,” but they follow up the prayer with a bit about forgiving others their “trespasses.” Those all can mean different things and, at times, we’ve made a point of trying to clarify exactly what’s being forgiven but, frankly, it ought to include all of them. Forgiveness ought to be whole. Let's stick with the action part for now, though, the forgiving.

I think this should remind us that the action of forgiveness flows to, and from, us, that we can forgive because we are already forgiven. If we're asking God to forgive like we do, we're definitely in trouble because we’re not very good at it. So I think Jesus wants us to know that the power of forgiveness is in us, literally to give, because God's grace is for all and is freely given. We pray that we might know that strength and use it just as freely. That’s why it’s a petition and not just a statement.

We should know, then, that forgiveness isn't conditional on repentance, changed behaviour, changed circumstance or retribution. Forgiveness is, most importantly, freely given. It is not about the response, but the giving. The freedom it offers, the wholeness it extends, comes first to the forgiver and from there opens the opportunity for reconciliation and relationship. Nelson Mandela always talked about how, when he was finally released from prison, he needed to leave the bitterness and hatred behind or he’d still be in prison. “Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear,” he said.

That's why we should never "forgive and forget" or, sorry Elsa, “let it go." Forgive and remember. Remember that forgiveness was given and that the experience - all of it - has become part of our life and can inform our living.

Forgiveness is hard, yes it is. It is one thing to talk about, but a different thing entirely when you are faced with doing it.  "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive," C. S. Lewis wrote.  And yet, Jesus calls us to live into our being "created in the image of God."  Within us is the power to forgive, unconditionally, and free ourselves from the bonds of unforgiving, of blame, anger and hate.

I don’t recall Jesus ever saying it was going to be easy, only that it would be rewarding. Truly, deeply, wholly rewarding.

Friday 28 October 2022

Daily Bread

Do you like bread? I like bread. Probably too much. I like a good sandwich, especially a simple cheese and lettuce. Or a grilled cheese. You don’t want to add too much because it takes away from the bread and that’s the most important part. I like a good whole wheat especially. You just can't beat a freshly baked loaf of whole wheat, fresh from the oven.  It's practically a comfort food.

How lucky some of us are to be able to think of bread that way, with an appreciation, a sense of thankfulness for something abundant, enjoyed abundantly.

But not everyone gets to see it that way. Many in the world wonder if there will be any food at all on their table today. Their daily experience isn't abundance, it's survival. I bet the first century listeners hearing Jesus pray "give us this day our daily bread" would have felt that way, too. Their's would be less likely a prayer of thankfulness they knew would be fulfilled, but rather a prayer of desperation and an intense longing for the security of "daily" bread.

I think these would also have been people who understood "daily bread" with the unique perspective of the exodus experience. Hungry in the wilderness, God fed those freed from slavery in Egypt with manna, bread from heaven (Exodus 16:1-36). This bread came daily and "morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed," and only what they needed for each day. Any they tried to save went rotten, except on the sixth day when they collected enough for the sabbath also.

So God provides what nourishment was needed. There was enough for each according to their need, no more and no less, and those who could not gather were provided for by those who could. So the story reminds us what's important: according to our need, that we are all equal in need and that our participation is required.

Yes, our participation is required. We still have to gather and share. We still have to be good stewards of the creation that feeds us. And all of that can be challenging and worrisome, especially in today’s world.

Remember how Jesus tells the people not to worry about food and clothing, because God will provide it, just as for the birds in the air and the lilies in the field? (Matt. 6:25-34) They are provided for, according to their need, but they still have to participate, they still have to do work. They still do what birds do and flowers do, they do what each part of creation does, by being what it is meant to be. We are a part of that creation.

And what is our “work?” What are we meant to be? Perhaps we can learn that in another way in which we are fed our daily bread. In John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as the Bread of Life. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” he says (John 6:35) This isn’t only spiritual nourishment, but the life of Jesus, himself, which shows us how to live into what we are meant to be. It’s a life that shows us how to live with ourselves, with each other and with creation in a relationship that feeds us all. The wholeness of that relationship is our daily bread, food for body, mind and spirit. 

Friday 21 October 2022

In this heavenly kingdom

There's more than a few wonderful moments in the classic movie 'Field of Dreams,' based on the equally classic book 'Shoeless Joe' by W.P. Kinsella. If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, you should. There’s a lot more to it, but, essentially, Ray, a corn farmer in Iowa, hears a voice tell him “if you build it he will come” and is inspired to plow under part of his field and put up a baseball diamond. Long dead players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, come to play there and Ray’s father, who he never really knew, is one of the players. One of my favourite moments is when Ray meets him.

His dad asks, "is this heaven?" and Ray answers "it's Iowa." His dad ponders that and says "I could have sworn it was heaven." "Is there a heaven?" Ray asks and his dad says, with certainty, "oh yeah, it's where dreams come true."  Ray looks around at his family, his home and the land that he loves, he looks at the baseball diamond that has brought him healing with this father and, finally, wholeness in his life, and he says "maybe this is heaven."

Yes, Ray, yes it is.

I think this is what Jesus means when he says “heaven is near.” I think it’s also what Jesus means when he prays “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” It’s an affirmation of what is, not something we’re asking for or that we hope will one day be. This kingdom isn't in the next life or the kingdom promised with Jesus' return or the New Jerusalem of Revelation. It's now.

I think God’s “will” isn’t about a divine plan or about power or authority. It’s not what God wants, but what God is: love. It’s grace and compassion, kindness, justice and peace. It’s serving our neighbours and caring for the earth. It’s a whole and true relationship with all creation. Sure, I know that sounds big, general and idealistic, but it’s all there in the stories of Jesus’ life and those who live as Jesus. It’s the kingdom Jesus lived. It’s the kingdom Jesus said was so near because it’s already here, if we can only grasp it, engage it and live into it as Jesus did.

 Perhaps one of the difficulties we have is the very language Jesus seems to use in those stories, speaking of the kingdom, of God's will. It’s language that sounds hierarchical and about the power of God over us, rather than with us and in us. But that’s where God is, among us in Jesus, within us and in all creation around us. What's needed is our participation, our engagement of it. We pray "on earth, as it is in heaven" as if God - and all the love and grace that is God - is something that belongs in that other heaven and is somehow foreign to earth. As if, at best, it needs to come in here from outside somewhere, somewhere on the other side.

I believe the heaven Jesus talks about “on earth” is what Ray sees. It’s not like his life has been easy, it hasn’t. In the story, he had no relationship with his father. He’s struggling with the farm. And farming’s hard work, so is a family and building a home. There’s no suggestion that it’s easy. But when he looks around at where he is, how his life is, I think he sees the heaven that Jesus is telling us is right here: a heaven he’s part of.

Thursday 13 October 2022

The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us

Did you learn how to recite The Lord’s Prayer when you were little? Back in the day (maybe even still today, in some places), The Lord’s Prayer was the first thing you memorized in Sunday School. Or Confirmation class. Or even in school. It was pretty much everywhere.

I remember memorizing it in Sunday School, along with the classics: the Ten Commandments, The 23rd Psalm and The Beatitudes. There were probably others, but those I still remember. Mostly. I'm pretty sure I could recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory when I was five or six. With some interesting pronunciation, probably. Words like "hallowed," "forgive," "trespasses" and "temptation" are a challenge for a little person to get their tongue around. Seems ironic that those are also the words that adults often have trouble with understanding. The meaning, at least.

That’s the thing: the meaning. I remember memorizing the words long before I understood what they meant. It was even longer still before I started to wonder about them and how I might be living them.

Anyway, that was a long time ago. These days, one can’t always assume that people know it. That may not be such a bad thing: new things can be fresh. And there's newer translations that might be better to understand than the old thees, thous and thines.

That's the thing about The Lord's Prayer: the balance between what it means to us as a piece of our ritual heritage and what it has to say to us.

For many, the meaning of the prayer isn't just the words, but the connection to our sense of community. We all say it together. It's the one thing so many know together, that's common to different traditions and denominations. If we know it, that is. Imagine how you might feel if it’s assumed you know it from memory and you don’t. While everyone else is reciting it from memory, wouldn’t you feel left out? So much for belonging.

Note to self: if you’re going to use it, make sure that The Lord’s Prayer is always printed where everyone can see it.

I do love that community aspect of it. And to me, it's like a treasured hymn or song that we all know, but we might know slightly different words or variations of the tune, and that’s okay. We can still share in it all together and have our own distinctiveness.  You, instead of thy, or maybe even mother or parent, instead of father.

I think that's all good. I'm not convinced that The Lords' Prayer was meant to be a set prayer. It might have been an example of how to pray, rather than "The One Prayer." I also don’t think it was meant to be just a community prayer. I think it was meant to be a personal prayer, too. More importantly, I think it bridges both. Jesus, I always remind myself, wasn’t an either/or kind of guy, but an and/with one.

This prayer is personal, this prayer is communal, this prayer is shared.  In 'Speaking Christian,' the late theologian Marcus Borg wrote that "the Lord's Prayer is a summary of what mattered most to Jesus.  When we pray this prayer, we are praying for what he was passionate about … we are praying for what God is passionate about.  We are praying for God's dream for the world.  To pray this prayer is to be invited, enlisted, into participation in God's passion and the passion of Jesus." We are invited, enlisted, together.

Thursday 6 October 2022

Finding Fullness

There’s two big fish stories in the gospels.

Just before Jesus calls the fishermen to be his first disciples, Luke says that they hadn’t caught anything that day. Jesus sends them out to “the deep water” and they catch full nets of fish. Then Jesus tells them to come with him and they’ll fish for people together.

The other one’s in John and it’s right at the very end of the gospel. After the resurrection story and Jesus’ encounter with Thomas, the author of John seems to wrap things up with a closing paragraph that sounds very much like “The End.” Except it isn’t. There’s another chapter. In that chapter, the disciples have gone back to fishing. They’ve worked hard all night and not caught anything, when a figure appears on the shore and tells them to fish “from the other side of the boat.” They do and catch a ridiculous abundance of fish. One of them recognizes Jesus, they end up on the shore having a meal with Jesus, he talks to Peter and sends them on their way. And that’s the end. It’s as if the author of John thought they needed an epilogue, a little something more about what could happen next.

I like both these fish stories because I think that’s what they’re about: what happens next.

For Luke, what happens next is that four fishermen are inspired to leave their boats behind and follow Jesus. I wonder if the fish story here isn’t meant to foreshadow what was happening next: they go “deep” with Jesus and find abundant life. 

In John, the disciples have already experienced life with Jesus. They’ve also experienced the trauma of his arrest, the grief of his death and the wonder of the resurrection. And, after all that, Jesus tells them “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” It’s been a whirlwind. And then there’s that first ending.

But I wonder if the author of John then thought, “after all that, what would the disciples do? Would they go and do as Jesus said? Would they even know how? Or would they, after all that has happened, be looking for a little normalcy in their lives? Ordinary, frail human beings, perhaps they would want to find something familiar and comfortable, something they know with certainty. Like fishing. And so they do. And what does it bring? Nothing. They fish all night and catch nothing. Because you can’t go back.

Then, Jesus appears again and tells them to try something different, to turn another way, to some nothing new, something opposite what they know, opposite what’s familiar and comfortable. And then they find what they’re looking for: a way forward.

One tells a story of finding abundant life in following Jesus and learning how to love, to go deep into the self and the spirit, the other of finding abundant life in living that love into the world. Both offer life-giving experience that comes from being open to something different and willing to step fully into it. Into the deep or to the other side, wherever we go, Jesus goes with us and we go forward.