Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Stone buildings and heavenly dwellings on mother's day

May 14 is Mother's Day. Churches all over the world will be honouring mothers in their worship services. While I don't think it's a bad thing, it does kind of make me wonder about focus in worship. Mother's Day was not in existence when the scriptures were written and compiled. It began in 1908 when a woman named Anna Jarvis held a memorial service for her mother, Ann, at the St. Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Ann had been a peace activist, caring for wounded soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War. In 1914 Mother's Day became officially recognized in the USA.

The observance of Mother's Day is a relatively new thing, yet we pair it with ancient scriptures to celebrate mom in our worship time. I have no problem with celebrating mother's day in church, as long as the focus of worship is God and the scriptures are used authentically, not stretched into whatever shape serves our 'Hallmark Card" idea of mother's day. May 14 is the 5th Sunday after Easter and the scriptures assigned to the day have nothing to do with the authors thinking about their moms. John 14:1-14 (In my father's house are many dwelling places...I go to prepare a place for you...) 1 Peter 2:2-10 (...like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house...)

Having said all that, I do like the way these verses talk about building family and that is quite a good theme on mother's day. We all have different experiences with our mothers, with being a mom, with not being a mom... We may cling to our cultural ideas of what a family is. The church is meant to be family-not the biological kind or household kind of family, but a kind of family that is not about the boundaries of genes or circumstance. It is a family lead by God as parent (Mother/Father-for this Sunday I will focus on the mother part of this identity). It is a place where all who commit to it are brothers and sisters, and it is about building each other up into community. The passage from 1 Peter is about building that community, being family to each other and building something strong together with Christ as our cornerstone. The John passage speaks of what God is building for us-emphasizing the care of a parent. I love this passage for mothers day at First Mennonite when we traditionally have a dedication service where parents dedicate their children to God and the church dedicates itself to being faith family for them. In the passage, Thomas worries; "Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?"

When we dedicate children to God, we commit to letting them go follow God 'even to the ends of the earth." That's a commitment full of worry for every parent! Jesus assures Thomas that he will not be lost because he knows the way, the truth, and the life. We also can feel that assurance that our children (and ourselves) will not be lost for the same reasons. When we build the church as family and treat each other as such, no matter where we go, we will have brothers and sisters to walk alongside under the watchful eye of our mothering God.

A Prayer on Mother's Day

Here's a mother's day prayer that acknowledges the complexity of feelings for this day. It is for everyone, whether they are looking forward to mother's day, or dreading it. We have all of these people in our church family-let's surround them all with the love of the family we build together.

"I want you to know I'm praying for you if you are like Tamar, struggling with infertility, or a miscarriage.
I want you to know that I'm praying for you if you are like Rachel, counting the women among your family and friends who year by year and month by month get pregnant, while you wait.
I want you to know I'm praying for you if you are like Naomi, and have known the bitter sting of a child's death.
I want you to know I am praying for you if you are like Joseph and Benjamin, and your Mom has died.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if your relationship with your Mom was marked by trauma, abuse, or abandonment, or she just couldn't parent you the way you needed.
I want you to know I am praying for you if you've been like Moses' mother and put a child up for adoption, trusting another family to love your child into adulthood.
I want you to know I am praying for you if you've been like Pharaoh's daughter, called to love children who are not yours by birth (and thus the mother who brought that child into your life, even if it is complicated).
I want you to know I am praying for you if you, like many, are watching (or have watched) your mother age, and disappear into the long goodbye of dementia.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if you, like Mary, are pregnant for the very first time and waiting breathlessly for the miracle of your first child.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if your children have turned away from you, painfully closing the door on relationship, leaving you holding your broken heart in your hands. And like Hagar, now you are mothering alone.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if motherhood is your greatest joy and toughest struggle all rolled into one.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if you are watching your child battle substance abuse, a public legal situation, mental illness, or another situation which you can merely watch unfold.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if you like so many women before you do not wish to be a mother, are not married, or in so many other ways do not fit into societal norms.
I want you to know that I am praying for you if you see yourself reflected in all, or none of these stories.
This mother's day, wherever and whoever you are, we walk with you. You are loved. You are seen. You are worthy.
And may you know the deep love without end of our big, wild, beautiful God who is the very best example of a parent that we know.
Amen."
- A prayer for Mother's Day, originally written by Amy Young, adapted by Heidi Carrington Heath 



Wednesday, 26 April 2017

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

Trepidation.

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, violence...it'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?