Sunday, 29 December 2013

What's wrong if we are not happy?

Lectionary Passages for January 5, 2014.  Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ps 84, Eph. 1:3-6, 15-19a, Matt. 2:13-15, 19-23, or Luke 2:41-52, or Matt. 2:1-12
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

The word "happy" jumps out from Psalm 84. It's a great word to stimulate thinking in the aftermath of the season of gift giving, the 'most wonderful time of the year.'

There is a lot of happiness Christmas Eve and morning as we watch children. The excitement, the toys, the engagement with friends and family. There is, however, the other side of all the frantic activity. The frayed nerves, the overtired, overstimulated, sugar loaded toddlers, the tired parents/grandparents who have hosted houses full of visitors, those who had to navigate crammed airports and icy roads, exhausted retail workers, relatives who don't get along but had to spend time together...

So what is happiness? Is it those moments where everything is fun and the difficult realities fade to the background? Is it a goal to strive toward? If we are not happy, what is wrong?

Psalm 84 mentions happiness 3 times. In verse 3 the ones who live in God's house are the happy ones. That sounds like a future thing, like heaven. (At least if we think of God's house as somewhere other than earth-as an ultimate destination.) That makes some sense, but feels a bit to far away for application here and now.

Verse 4 says those whose strength is in the Lord are the happy ones. This sounds more like a state of being, something achievable today. However, to get it we have to give up self-reliance. That is hard. The verse goes on to say that the happy have their hearts set on the pilgrim way. Here, being happy is relying on God for strength and walking roads that might be unknown, maybe not safe, and definitely will be a lot of work. (At least that's what the word pilgrim seems to suggest.) So maybe the happy people are the ones who live what God asks as best they can and allow themselves to be challenged. Somehow, these people live through the tough stuff and are still happy. Verse 5 continues the thought. In it, people going through the desolate valley (not anyone's definition of happy) find surprising places of renewal. They find these because their strength is not their own, but God's. It doesn't depend on limited human understanding or strength. So even though people are in hard places, they can still be happy. It seems incongruous, but I like the idea that travelling hard roads does not extinguish joy, but allows us to discover the true source of lasting happiness.

Finally, the Psalm ends with the key statement; "Happy are those who put their trust in You!" Happiness here is not a fleeting feeling, but a deep set attitude, a belief that God has all of life in hand. It is an understanding that can buoy us through the difficult times and help us to keep our eyes open so we will not miss those surprising bits of joy where it is not expected.

I feel some relief that the busy season (for pastors, but also for teachers,  retailers, emergency workers...) is over, but also some of the "bleah" of cleaning up and resuming regular time and duties is certainly going to set in. Am I happy? Absolutely. When I remember to rely on God (and actually manage to internalize that), when I trust that God is there in the valleys, and when I look with hope to the future (instead of worrying or complaining) I truly do have the happiness of Psalm 84. It isn't a superficial thing, happiness is a gift from God to help us walk that Pilgrim journey.  The times when I can recall true .unhappiness, there has been something wrong. Those are the times when I've relied more on myself than God, and isn't a good place to be when things go wrong.

Happy are those who put their trust in YOU!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

We Need More Floor Scrubbers!

Lectionary Readings for Dec. 29. Isaiah 63:7-9, Ps 148, Heb. 2:10-18, Matt. 2:13-23
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

I hadn't expected to find anyone else at the church. It was early on a Saturday morning and I, the youth pastor at a smallish church in Ontario, was going to do some preparation for Sunday. When I unlocked the front door, however, I found our senior pastor (and he was a senior) down on his knees scrubbing the foyer floor. When I asked why he was cleaning, he simply replied that it looked dirty.

One of the lessons I learned from working with this particular man was that the pastor has to be one of the people. Real, practical, and not exempt from any of the ministries we expect others to do in and for the church and its people. We have to be able to get our hands dirty alongside everyone else. While all have different gifts, no one person is worth more than another. None of us is above scrubbing the floor or the toilet if that is the job that needs to be done. That levelness or commonality among people is what helps us relate to each other, to feel we can share in each others pains and celebrations with genuine empathy.

When I read Hebrews 2:10-18, I couldn't help but think of how my pastor scrubbing the floor was doing the same kind of thing Jesus did-albeit on a smaller scale. Paul, in his usual convoluted style, tells us how Jesus humbled himself to become one of us. "Therefore he became like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God..." v. 17.  God certainly did not have to become human, but in doing so, Jesus was able to relate to us in a very special way-as a brother. He shared what it means to be human, the joys, the unfairness, the dirt. That willingness to be right beside us, to participate fully in humanity, makes God approachable. It gives us a realistic model that  we actually have a hope of imitating. Jesus, our brother, shows us how to be truly human in a way that connects us to each other and to God.

I love verse 16. "For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham."  He came to help those of us least able to help ourselves. Because he knows what it is to suffer, he is able to help those who are mired in their own circumstances.The ones who least deserve God are still fully able to relate to Jesus and to find a helpful and compassionate friend.

The Isaiah and Psalm pieces praise the God of creation and are bursting with joy. I had a hard time reading the Matthew piece after those beauties. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary flee and spend years in Egypt to avoid the infanticide an enraged Herod inflicts on the people. It's a horrible story. It shows the contrast between the love of a God who is willing to live among the people and the hate of a jealous man bent on his own exaltation. This is one of those events that leaves me wondering about why God ever gave people free will.

I hope the example Jesus sets in becoming one of us, in helping the poor and broken, and in being willing to give up himself proves stronger than our needs for aggrandisement, status, and power. The world is definitely better off with more floor scrubbing leaders than people who are worried about keeping themselves on top!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

God With Us

Lectionary Scriptures for Dec. 22. Fourth Advent. Isaiah 7:10-16, Ps 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

God with us. That is the meaning of the name Immanuel, the name given to the promised saviour.

Isaiah is speaking to king Ahaz when Judah's enemies are forming powerful alliances and surrounding them. He says a child will be born, and that even before this child is old enough to make good decisions, the lands of those enemies will be deserted. What kind of reassurance is this? The threat is immediate, and king Ahaz is only offered the possibility of a baby saviour who has to grow up a bit before anything happens. (And I really don't get this curds and honey thing-guess I'll have to do a little research to understand that reference!)
How is the land of the enemies deserted, do they just walk away? What happens with the immediate crisis? Why would the future hope of a little kid reassure a king and his people whose "hearts are shaking as the trees of the forest shake before the wind?" (1:2b)

The answer is in the name of the child. "God With Us". Isaiah is reminding the king and all of Judah that they are in God's hands, regardless of what goes on around them. Jumping back in the text to verse 9, we read; "If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all." There is a powerful message here that God is in charge, that human armies and powers will not, in the end, matter. The idea that God's hope can come as a child saviour emphasizes this point. Judah may need to wait. They must have faith. And their redemption will look a lot different than anything they can imagine! God is doing something unique, and it is rather difficult to understand as the people watch the enemy surround them. They must accept, by faith, that God is with them.

Where the Isaiah message is corporate, for a whole people, Matthew 1 puts the "God With Us" into a very personal setting. Here we get a glimpse of the struggle Joseph is having with his choice of wife. This is a personal, family agony. Things aren't right and Joseph is simply trying to do the best he can during his family turmoil. The angel tells him (in the midst of his agony) that God is with us. Because God was with him, Joseph's choice looked a lot different than it would have if he had relied on his own decision making.

The Christmas story offers us reassurance, as a whole earth, and as individuals. May we be granted the faith to stand firm, to believe that God is with us in all our problems, no matter their size. Redemption just might have a very different look and timing than we can ever imagine!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Certainly Not a Saint. Mandela inspires Ordinary People.

Lectionary Readings for Dec. 15, 3rd Advent. Isaiah 35:1-10, Ps 146: 5-10, or Luke 1: 47-55, James 5:7-10, Matt. 11:2-11
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Yesterday Nelson Mandela died. Today, on CBC radio, the morning was dedicated to reviewing his life and talking with people who knew him and his work.  By all accounts, he was an extraordinary man, a great inspiration to many ordinary people.

I've thought about him in the context of these passages, and wondered what his life has to say to the questions they raised for me. All the passages speak out of a context of oppression. Isaiah prophecies to a captive people, encouraging them to hope in God. Psalm 146 and Luke 1 are about food for the hungry and justice for the down trodden. James calls for patient hope to endure suffering. Matthew, through an imprisoned John, affirms that Jesus brings healing to the hurt and good news to the poor. 

How do we as First World people hear these words? We are free and fed and individualistic in outlook, so how should we hear this? How do we hear words of hope originally preached for groups of oppressed people when we are rich? What part of the message of hope are we called to?

This is where Mandela's story is interesting, because he lived both points of view. He knew what it was to be part of an oppressed people. He also rose to the highest pinnacle of power in South Africa. and knew what it was like to hold the reins of power and prestige. Mandela could speak from the side of the poor and oppressed, and also from the side of the rich and powerful. When apartheid was in full swing, Mandela used his skills and position for the good of others, trying to bring about justice. When he was finally released from jail and apartheid dismantled, he still tried to use his skills and positions for the good of others. Wealth and power did not make him a bystander, they were just new tools to use in tackling injustice.

Most of us haven't lived the life of the captive, the racially oppressed, or the desperately poor. We especially haven't lived that way as part of a whole segregated society. We also haven't lived the life of a president or the super wealthy. We do, however, live lives of relative ease, warm and fed and educated among a population that is generally very well off. I think we become satisfied bystanders, content to look inward to our individual pleasures and convinced that problems that do exist are too big for us anyway, so we don't get involved. Mandela's example is fantastic. When he was poor, he did what he could. When he had power, he still worked for others. What do we do with our power?

It was helpful today, to hear some of the interviewees say Mandela was not a saint and that he would have been among the first to admit it. He was an ordinary man who used what he had for others. Now he seems so much bigger than life, but the interviews reminded me that he was surrounded by people who shared his causes, helped him, and suffered alongside him. That he was a family man, and there were failings and pains for him there too, like there are for ordinary people. That once Mandela was president, issues became more complex, and it was more obvious that he wasn't perfect. He had to deal with economic chaos, political corruption around him, and the difficulties of international issues. He had contradictions in his views on non-violence and the use of force.There are people who call him a communist and accuse him of terrorism. But the fact remains, he led the charge to get rid of apartheid, and he did it well.

The scripture passages call us to think about hope in terms of changing things for the better for all of God's people. They come from places of pain, they speak to peoples who need hope. They speak to the powerful and the ordinary too. We are all part of the people, how do we hear and implement this hope for others? How do we take our ordinary and put the extra in front of it?