Friday, 14 April 2017

Empty tomb, empty churchy words?

Easter Sunday. Matthew 28:1-10, Colossians 3:1-4

"So, if you have been raised with Christ..." (Colossians 3:1a)

What in the world does "raised with Christ mean?" Seriously, how do you explain it?

I've been a student of theology for most of my life, and it will take me awhile to think this through so I can articulate it clearly and simply. It's one thing to talk about this on Easter Sunday to pews full of Christians, but how would I explain myself to my neighbours?

"Risen with Christ" is insider language, churchy words that are easily as empty as the Easter morning tomb unless we know what we mean when we say them. There are a lot of churchy words being tossed around this weekend, and we assume those of us in the church understand them. Maybe we do, but even with my M.Div. and years of church work, I still struggle with the language of blood, justification, sanctification, substitution....etc...used at Easter. They are not the words I use everyday and it's hard to know how they are relevant outside of the church doors. Some of the language is outdated, but my problem is a bit more basic than that. I don't tend to like language that is broadly general and avoids specifics and explanations. I need my expression of faith to be relevant. I need understandable and relate-able ways to express why I believe what I do, who I believe Jesus was and is, and why it matters.

I don't think it should be so difficult to explain ourselves, sometimes we make faith needlessly confusing. It's easier to co-opt "churchy" words than it is to find an authentic and simple way to explain ourselves. Those churchy words seldom make any sense to someone who didn't grow up in a church-and I wonder if they really make sense to church folks either.

Ever had a teacher get after you for not using your own words to explain a concept? I feel a bit like I am doing that, but I am lecturing myself as much as I am my fellow "churchies."

A few years ago, I spent a week as a chaplain at Blue Bronna, a horse-back riding camp that exists to introduce people to God in a natural setting. It was a mother-daughter camp and I've never spoken to a more diverse group. The age range was from 8-69, some were long time Christians, some had never opened a Bible. Some were happy and healthy, others were in the midst of traumatic family crisis. I had carefully prepared what I thought were simple devotionals. It didn't work, it couldn't because we shared no common story and attention spans ranged as widely as the ages and emotional states. I had to switch gears. At the last campfire, the staff took the children to do some age-appropriate Bible stories so I had the adults to myself. I very simply shared my story of faith. No churchy words, no complex theology, just why do I believe there is a God. It boiled down to simple things. I can't look at creation without believing in a Creator. I believe that love is the greatest power in the world and for me, another name for love is God. Because we are creations of love, I believe there is hope for fixing the broken things. The best story I have ever heard to express the way that creation, love and hope work is that of Jesus. When I hear the story of Jesus, I am invited to be an active, conscious part of sharing that hope and love and joining with the Creator now and forever.

That was it. Then we talked and shared experiences when/if we felt God was near, when life made us ask deep questions, where we search for answers.

That experience of having to make my explanations really simple was helpful for me. I don't want convoluted big words that feel empty. I want to hear why something matters right now and why I should care about it.

So, back to my first question. what does "raised with Christ" mean? Obviously we are speaking about an event that occurred thousand of years ago, so what does it mean now?

I go to the story of Jesus. When I read any story, I find myself identifying with the characters somehow-trying to understand what they do and why they do it. Jesus inspires me. I love the way he asks questions, loves people, upholds the traditions that are good for the people, and challenges those that are not. He refuses to back away from doing what is right, even when he knows it will not be popular. He gives us a way to live that builds up communities, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, touches the untouchables, and teaches the hungry-minded. This is the way to conquer sin and trouble in the long run. This is the way of sacrifice-Jesus' love for others gets him killed, but the story doesn't end in the tomb. God raises Jesus, love never dies.

To be raised with Christ, we have to die with him first. That means following in his footsteps, with an attitude of loving others, willing to heal and be healed, to learn and teach, to be fed and to feed. To devote our lives to love, to trying to do what God wants-to act in love toward God and each other. It is a life of giving and of self-sacrifice (not the dour, grumpy kind of sacrifice, but a willing generosity toward others). When we "die" to the world of selfishness we are truly alive, "raised" with Jesus, to be a part of what God is doing in life, in death, in forever.

That's my attempt to say it simply. When I share my faith with my non-churchy friends, I don't want churchy words. In fact, the best and simplest way to explain "risen with Christ" to them doesn't start with words. It starts when I show them love-the Jesus living in me. When they see me living with joy, hope, and purpose and we share with each other, that is when I understand what it is to be risen with Christ.

Note: For the record, I like big words. I like churchy words when I am studying and reading-if they are used well and backed up with practical examples. Deep thinking and hard questions are important. I like the academic stuff, when I'm with academics. I need that deep level of discourse for my own learning...but it's also so much more important to keep it real and relevant to regular people when I speak than it is to preach it to the 'choir.'

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Mixed up and trepidatious


It is the perfect word for Palm Sunday.The account of the "Triumphal Entry", the celebration of Jesus, does not soften what is to come. We know the rest of the story. It starts with hope and moves through treachery and despair before hope is rekindled. On Palm Sunday, for those of us who know the story, our hope is mixed. We know that in a few days we will be in the uncomfortable part of the story, the part that makes us wonder about humanity and about our complicity with evil.

For preaching Palm Sunday, the lectionary suggests either the donkey and palm branches of Matt; 21: 1-11, or the Matt. 26:14-27 story of the last supper which features the plot to betray Jesus. I don't want to focus exclusively on either the story of joyful hope, or the darkness of treachery. Both are present and important to the story and wholeness of faith as we approach the core story of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Another reading for Palm Sunday is Philippians 2:5-11 which contains the familiar words; "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." In a 'working preacher" post, Melinda Quivik does a great job of combining the joy and sorrow of Palm Sunday. She says;

"The brilliance and wisdom of Phi. 2:5-11 becomes especially poignant when the worship honors both the pageantry of the palm waving and the darkness of the passion celebrated together on one day, for the admonition to live in the mind of Christ Jesus entails both adulation and sorrow."

What a mixed up and "trepidatious" (yes, I made up the word) time in our church season. We want to celebrate the coming of a gentle king who upsets the powers that oppress, but unlike the crowds who welcomed Jesus on the donkey, we know that the way he upsets the system will get him killed. We know he is misunderstood and that he is being cheered as he goes to his torture and death. We also know that we are invited to "have the mind of Christ", to be involved in upsetting today's oppressive systems by following his example of love and self-sacrifice. It is daunting, disturbing, and yet because we know the ending, it is also amazing and a cause for deep hope.

Rob Fringer, a lecturer at Nazarene Theological college in Brisbane, Australia, says that Paul invites the Philippians to consider a God who yields power rather than wields power. This must have been received with mixed feelings by that early church. They were being persecuted, so the idea that their saviour was also weak according to the world's standards might have made them feel understood and encouraged in new ways of being strong. Or perhaps it made them feel hopeless. Possibly they were encouraged to continue in the hope of resurrection beyond earthly struggle. Likely all of these feelings were present.

As we move through scripture and worship toward the events of Easter, it is good to be a part of both the joy and trepidation of the central story of our faith. Our joy comes from God, a God of peace who is the answer to and the salvation from the mess humanity makes in our striving for power. Our despair is real, the Bible story shows us how humanity failed and our newspapers show us how the failure continues. Then, as now, the ultimate hope is in a God who continues to love, re-create, and resurrect-always inviting us to be a part of the story that ends in life.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Simple Truth

Lent 4 is an exploration of light and darkness, sight and blindness, truth and deception. The passages behind my reflections today are: 1 Sam. 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, and John 9;1-41.

The story in John 9 is the one that captured me. We read it out loud at last Thursday's Bible study and that was eye-opening! I hadn't realized how many questions pepper the passage! (17, but more if you count the implied ones.) It became clear that the Blind Man's answers start out being simple and clear, then he gets justifiably frustrated and sarcastic when his truth is dismissed and negated. He ends up having to choose between his simple truth and the politics and entrenchment of his community.

The doubters go down all the rabbit trails they can find or invent. Some actually ask helpful clarifying questions to verify facts, but others try to distract and disengage from the simple truth. There are obvious attempts to discredit Jesus by those who feel threatened. They are more concerned about themselves and what they would like to believe than they are open to hearing anything new. They try to discredit the witness, but the fact that the Blind Man is no longer blind keeps staring them in the face. When one line of questioning doesn't produce the discrediting they are looking for (such as questioning the man's parents) they switch to other ways to go after both Jesus and the now not-blind man. Strange that the fact a blind man sees gets lost in the arguments over the Sabbath. Strange the blind man's former life of poverty was not deemed an issue. Strange that the questioning continues long after clear answers were given. It is obvious that the Pharisees against Jesus had no interest in any truth but their own.

It is important to note that not all the Pharisees are against Jesus. They are a divided group, and that muddies the waters for the crowds who are trying to sort through what is happening and who they should believe. Ironic, isn't it, that Jesus puts mud on the Blind Man's eyes in order to open them?

In the end, even the man's parents are afraid to say more than that this is indeed their son. They say he can speak for himself and they effectively wash their hands of the whole situation. They are worried if they say anything that could be construed as supporting Jesus, they will be exiled from their community. When the formerly blind man refuses to change his story or deny his simple truth, he is driven out, not allowed to join in the temple and community life that was denied him when he was blind. When Jesus finds him, the man sticks to his truth and follows.

Sometimes all the arguing should be set aside so we can focus on the simple truth. A blind man sees because of Jesus. Maybe we need to ask Jesus to put mud in our eyes too.

This story is amazing in how it challenges us to pay attention to what we see and hear, to ask good questions, and to stay on track with truth. What an appropriate message in this time of false news, alternative facts, and distraction!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Desperate Thirst

For March 19. Ex.17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

Have you ever experienced desperate thirst? The kind that had you seriously considering dirty puddles or saltwater as a place to dip your cup?

Last summer, my husband and son hiked to the top of Mt. Rundle with my brother and his son. It was a strenuous, long hike and the day was hot and dust dry. Their water bottles proved vastly inadequate, making the last half of their day tortuous. Had anything gone wrong, if they had made an incorrect turn or someone had gotten hurt, they would have been in trouble. As it was, the mild dehydration (headaches, dry mouth, dizziness, and tiredness) were easily remedied once they returned to the car.

The experience left them with a visceral understanding of the way our bodies crave the clean water that makes life possible. Thirst, when it is desperate, takes over and directs thought and action. Another story; a friend told me that when she broke her ankle (she fell on some stairs) the pain was such that she totally forgot about her baby whom she was carrying at the time. The baby was fine because the car seat protected him, but she was later horrified that her own need overwhelmed her to the point of forgetting her child.

These stories help me see the desperation of others with more empathy. The story of the people wandering in the desert in Exodus makes more sense. It seems the people are always complaining (and they are). I used to wonder why they never got to the point that they trust God, after all, they have seen miracles. Thinking of the overwhelming nature of thirst and pain, I can begin to understand.

The desperation of thirst helps me understand. My faith would have to be unbelievably strong to enable me to refrain from being a complaining Israelite when I feel I am dying for lack of water. (And really, the complaining seems to work, pushing Moses to talk to God and strike the rock. What do I do with that fact when I don't want to be a complainer?)

Is the faith asked for by God simply impossible for humans? That is one conclusion, however, I think the point is more that God is stronger than our needs. In 2010, I had the opportunity to visit South Sudan. Christians there are in desperate situations, hunger, thirst,'s endemic. Yet the church was vibrant, faith was strong. I don't think it was in spite of desperation, I think it was because of it. Their desperation pushed them to rely on God, and that hope and faith was the only constant, the only living water they had. And it was keeping them alive.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favourites in the Bible. I love the way Jesus speaks to someone he is not supposed to talk to, and I love the smart way she challenges him and is eventually able to accept what he offers. She could, very likely, be in the category of desperate. She is at the well in the heat of day, when no one else would go. That says she is perhaps "unacceptable" to her own people. She has had multiple husbands; maybe not her fault, but she would be viewed as unlucky or sinful in any case. I love that when the disciples see Jesus behaving 'unacceptably' by speaking with a woman, they don't question him and they just observe. Then, I love that this outcast woman witnesses to her neighbours, and because of her, many receive the water of life-the answer to their spiritual desperation.

How do we treat the desperate people who come in to our lives? When they come into the church office, I am often suspicious of the "sob story" I am told. I know that often these are lies or at least exaggerations designed to elicit sympathy and money. What I have also come to know is that these people deserve my empathy (maybe not a food voucher or money but definitely an ear and a prayer!) They are desperate people, blinded by their own needs, searching for the living water that will quench their thirst. I'm not Jesus, I can't give that water. I can, however, be the woman who listens to Jesus, challenges what I hear, and then joyfully witnesses to what I have received in the hopes that others will go to that well too.

And when I find myself in the shoes of the desperate person? I hope then to also follow the example of the Samaritan woman. Listen to Jesus, ask questions, to give up the urge to complain, and be open to receive and share

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Answers and more Questions

Lent 2. Gen. 12;1-4, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Have you ever gone somewhere looking for answers and left with more questions? It is a common life experience, happening often when we visit our doctor, when we ask our teenagers about their decisions, when we study an issue...

Somehow being a spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy person can only happen when we are able to engage our questions and live with both the answers and uncertainties that are sure to come. A sense of wonder and mystery can be embraced instead of feared.

This story of Nicodemus is one of my favourite Jesus stories because of all the questions and wondering it makes me do.

Nicodemus has questions. Are they his own or on behalf of a group? Does he come to Jesus at night because he is afraid to be seen? Is he embarrassed? Is this simply an initial inquiry so he doesn't want either pro-Jesus or anti-Jesus groups to see him? Is the night the only time that Jesus might be free to have an extended/relaxed conversation?

He has questions, but Nicodemus starts the discussion with a statement. "We know that you are a teacher who has come from God..." Jesus doesn't even acknowledge the statement, but goes straight to a mysterious assertion. "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above..."

That sends the discussion into a mysterious place talking about both body and spirit, the seen and the unseen. Jesus makes a good point that if the pharisees are having trouble believing even things they see with their own eyes, how can they possibly hope to understand and explain God's ways of spirit? The example of the wind, something they hear but can't see, is great. They are to teach what they know, but remain humble and open to what they do not understand-open to learning what Jesus has to offer. If they acknowledge Jesus as from God, like they say they do, then why is there resistance?

As if that isn't enough of a challenge, Jesus goes on with the very hard teaching that he must be lifted up (sacrificed). Just like looking at the snake Moses lifted up, looking at Jesus will heal the people. Poor Nicodemus! Lucky Nicodemus! He has so many questions, he lacks understanding, but he is trying and he is questioning.

Then Jesus offers words of reassurance into the confusion. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son into the world that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

Here Jesus makes it simple. Go ahead and struggle with questions, that is good, that is part of making sense of life. But know that getting all the answers right isn't what is ultimately necessary and it is impossible for us. What we must understand is simple. God is love. God offers an inclusive "whosoever believes" that doesn't depend on dotting every I or crossing every T of the law. God's love is for everyone, and there is mystery in it that belongs to the creator of the wind. This is an amazing thing to say to a Pharisee, whose whole life is dedicated to doing things right according to very particular laws. A leader from whom the people expect to get answers.

I wonder what answers and questions Nicodemus took back to the other Pharisees after this late night discussion? What are the faith questions I need answers for and what can I comfortably leave in the realm of God's mystery?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Mushrooms and Genesis

For March 5. Gen.2:15-17, 3:1-7. Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matt. 4:1-11

For me, reading the first few chapters of Genesis is both hugely inspiring and somewhat frustrating.

Inspiring because I find the background study of Babylonian creation stories and the two strands of different traditions (chapters 1 and 2 have different accounts) instructive. It's fascinating to try to understand the world views that existed when Genesis was first written down and to wonder about the new revelations God was speaking into those contexts. (Example: The Genesis account is a peaceful creation of humanity in God's image, whereas in the Babylonian myths people are a result of violence between gods and a desire to create servants. How did people react to this new understanding of God? What did they think when, after the flood, God "retires" the war-bow by hanging it in the sky as a promise that this destruction would never happen by God's hand again?) I love the Genesis themes of creativity, a good creation with a built in purpose of care and companionship that extends to all the earth, and a "nothing hidden" relationship between God and humanity. The idea of sin as trying to be like God, disobedience, and dishonesty still resonate today.

I find the reading somewhat frustrating because of the persistence of outdated interpretations. Genesis is metaphorically and symbolically rich, an amazing resource for learning, but when it is reduced through literalism/creationism, it becomes shallow in meaning and irrelevant to today's minds and experiences. Bits and pieces of the idea that men and women aren't equal (only in ch. 2!), remnants of the theory of original sin (Eve as a sexy temptress, poor hapless Adam...I can't actually figure out where this all comes from), and recitations of the 7 days of creation as if this is historical fact (only in ch. 1), try to pack these amazing stories into small, inflexible boxes that are easily dismissed.

Here is an example of how I keep getting excited about Genesis and the things this story can teach if we are open to creativity in our study, thinking, and application.

A few years ago, as a joke, a friend gave me a book called: The Mushroom in Christian Art by John A. Rush. I have a bit of an interest (my family says obsession) with mushrooms, so the gift was perfect. (Here is a link to see the pictures from the book.)

The basic premis is that "Jesus is the mushroom experience." (The book is far fetched, I think maybe the author may have had a few too many of the wacky kind of shrooms....) It includes many examples of early Christian art with mushrooms imagery. It was not unusual for the tree of knowledge to be adorned with mushrooms, not apples. Now that I found interesting, especially when you read that eating the fruit results in gaining the knowledge of good and evil...Genesis 3:5.  There are many mushrooms known to have psychedelic effects, and many religions have used them throughout history.  So...what was the understanding of these early Christian artists?

This morning, when I read Genesis 3, I thought the account of the first sin in chapter 3 could be used creatively as a warning against poor lifestyle choices-specifically lifestyle choices that involve drug addiction-so the mushroom is apt. Certain drugs have been used by some people to "open the mind", and might have short term effects that feel quite good. In verse 3 the woman tells the serpent that God has forbade them to touch the fruit because they will die. The serpent says they will not die but instead will have their minds opened. Well, the mind-altering effects of drugs may not cause instant death, but their use certainly leads down an unhealthy path both for the individual and their loved ones. The death may not be instant, but it is real. Perhaps there are interesting and creative new ways to understand and learn from this old scripture! What kind of death was Eve being warned about?

Lots of other good stuff in these passages-but we are off on a ski trip, so I'm finished for today. What did you find in your reading that got you thinking creatively?

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Don't Worry, Be Happy.

Don't Worry, Be Happy. I hadn't listened to this Bobby McFerrin tune for years. Click and get an automatic mood boost! Listening to this (and watching Robin Williams dance) is a great "pick-up".

Seriously though, can we do it? How realistic is the "don't worry" message in our climate of fear? We worry about everything, global warming, economic meltdown, terrorism, racism, harassment, war and violence, what so and so might think if I speak my opinion, am I dressed right, who is laughing at me, do I matter, are my kids going to be okay....

The worries are big and small and myriad. The happy video points some of them out. I can't escape the irony that Robin Williams dances in this one. Mr. Williams, who made so any people laugh, took his own life on Aug. 11, 2014.

Now read Matthew 6:24-34. The message is so much the same. Do not worry. There is, however, no glib 'be happy' message. Instead, there is a down to earth reminder that we are not in control. We can't, by worrying, add a single hour to our lives. (v. 27) God is in control and God cares. The message here might be more aptly titled: "Don't Worry, Be Trusting."

So, in light of the earthy fact, what is our response?

Jesus is pretty clear on this. If our priorities are in the right order, we will be taken care of. The familiar; "you cannot serve God and wealth", kicks off the discussion. And what a discussion starter for those of us who always worry about our paychecks, our insurance policies, and all our stuff. We live in a culture that, in many ways, equates 'security' with money.

Acquiring things, however, does not reduce anxiety. "It generates anxiety. You buy some kind of insurance to protect you against some kind of risk, which means that you now have one more bill to worry about paying, as well as worry about the loopholes your new insurance policy doesn't cover..." (John Petty.
Many people who have traveled into poverty stricken areas come away humbled by the generosity of the poor. They are often willing to share and help in the moment, because they are unable to accumulate much. If everyone shares the little they have, they are all richer. Why can't we do this well when we are comparatively rich?

Isn't this "do not worry" thing a strange balance? On the one hand, I totally agree that I'm not in control, and I shouldn't worry because ultimately God will take care of me. On the other hand, thinking ahead about the future and saving for it, having decent insurance, and a decent dependable income are prudent and important things. We do need to plan for and take care of our needs. But what is my priority?

A story: Years ago, my husband and I knew someone (actually more than one person) who didn't worry, who lived "in the moment." They traveled a lot but did not own a car and regularly depended on others going out of their way to supply rides, help pack and carry luggage, meet bus and train deadlines...It really wasn't an issue, we didn't mind helping, until it started feeling like an obligation and sometimes an unnecessary burden on us. The responsibility to care for oneself and one's family is real and something that needs good attention. Living free of worries because you can sponge off of others is not what Jesus is promoting here!

The key is having priorities in order. If accumulating money and things is most important to us, then we will worry because we can lose them. We strive for houses and cars that are too big and fancy for our paychecks. We vacation expensively and often because we can. People ignore the real needs of others because they are too preoccupied by their own wants. However, jobs end, economies change, natural disasters happen (just ask anyone from Fort Mac!) and the poor are always with us. If our priority is God and we "strive first for the kingdom of God", then peace of mind cannot be taken away. There is less selfishness and more sharing. God knows our needs (v.32).

I think this whole, "do not worry" is not only about money and things. It is helpful, also, to think about it in terms of our attitudes. If we always function with an attitude of scarcity-not enough people coming to church, not enough volunteers...we spiral down into a culture of negativity and create an atmosphere of not enough, an attitude of "can't", a culture of complaint, and no one is happy. If instead we could switch priorities to  being thankful for what we have, practice grace rather than complaint, and just plain stop worrying about really talking to each other...what anxities might disappear? What does God in control look like?

Imagine a world where more people truly had their priorities straight, where we would strive first for righteousness? So much would be added on to us.

Do not worry. It's a tall order, but maybe if I work on my priorities it will fall into place.