Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Ready for Christmas?

4th Advent. Lectionary Readings: 2 Sam. 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1: 46-55 or Ps 89:1-4, 19-26, Rom. 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

"Are you ready for Christmas?" I get so tired of this question in December! It is the seasonal variation on the classic Canadian banal conversation opener; "so, how about that weather?"

I'm not sure if anyone cares at all about the answer. I suspect they are just making conversation, but it makes me wonder, what does it mean to be ready for Christmas? The question is meant to be innocuous- a general wondering if shopping, cleaning, decorating, and turkey planning is all done.

Is that what it means to be ready for Christmas? To be perfect and planned and prepared for parties? If that's true, I'm a persistent and pathetic failure! I put up a few decorations, but tend to only accomplish about half of my intentions each year. I don't always get to shopping before the actual week of Christmas. I intend to send cards, but rarely do. We eat the baking before Christmas day comes. Sometimes the house gets tidied, but rarely do we get to the "clean" I would prefer. I think I've worn the same outfits for several years already. I'm certainly not "ready" in the way the question asks, however, I do feel ready in a different way.

I'm not stressed about it. Christmas happens no matter if the details are ready or not. It's more important to have time to ready my attitudes, to have some emotional reserves to be present with others, to have some space for renewing the message of Christ incarnate in our messed up world.

Today's passages help me to focus on what is important for Christmas preparation. All of them push our thoughts toward God. In Samuel, King David is all fussed about building a temple for the ark of the covenant. God tells him the tent is good enough. "I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent...did I ever speak a word with the tribal leaders...saying, "why have you not built me a house of cedar?" David is reminded that God's love does not depend on getting all the fancy stuff done.

Luke reminds us that nothing is impossible with God. This is a good reminder, however, the good news given to Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1:26-38 comes with a lot of responsibility. Am I ready, am I prepared for what it means for God to enter my life anew this season? What might God's good news mean as I interact with people this season? Somehow, I don't think God cares if my kitchen floor gets washed, or if I have a new outfit, or if all the gifts (for people who don't need them) are wrapped and ready.

Friday, 12 December 2014


Lectionary Readings for 3rd Advent. Dec. 14, 2014. Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Ps 126, Luke 1: 46b-55:1, Thess. 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

Testify! That's the theme for the third advent Sunday. (At least as suggested by our Mennonite Church materials this year.)

John came to testify to the light, and he did that even when some pharisees were sent to question him and harangue him for baptizing people. John pointed away from himself, saying that he wasn't even worthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah. That must have seemed strange to everyone there. After all, John was important enough to have crowds of people hanging on his words, how could he think he wasn't worthy? Or maybe that's a wrong way to think of John. He might have had quite a high opinion of himself-but his opinion of Jesus was much higher and he could easily set himself aside when the time was right.

How do we testify to our faith? What would be important enough for us to speak into the face of opposition? When do we set ourselves aside to point, with words/actions, toward God?

Many of us are quite uncomfortable "testifying" with words. We've seen people do this very poorly and been turned off, at least that's one thing that makes us leery of proclamation. I wonder, however, if the bigger reason we have trouble speaking out is just that we are scared. We aren't brave like John to speak into opposition. Or perhaps we find ourselves in different situations than John. After all, John was a speaker in the midst of speaking. What if you are a homemaker in the midst of diapers and meal making?

What are we in the midst of doing that testifies to who we are as followers of Jesus?  Thessalonians gives some advice. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances..." Reading around this passage, the Christians are urged to live good lives, helping others and always seeking to do good.  I enjoy being around people who live this way, who have attitudes of joy and helpfulness and who point people toward Jesus as the light.

Lives that positively impact people around them testify loudly to the light! So, if you are a speaker, speak! If you are a worker, work! Do it all for Jesus, for others, and with joy.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Shut up and kiss!

Lectionary Readings for Dec. 7, 2014. Second Advent. Isaiah 40:1-11, Ps 85, 1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

Well, time got away from me last week, but there were some images from the scriptures that have really stuck with me. I'll share them briefly here.

1. I thought of our culture's current obsession with celebrity when I read the story from Mark. People were streaming into the desert to get a glimpse of the weirdly compelling guy in the itchy clothes. John had celebrity status, but what he did with it makes his story different. He turned away from the adulation and pointed toward Jesus as worthy of praise. Then he declared the work of preparation-road building. He wasn't asking for a red carpet to be spread out for his expensively shod soles, he was urging people to join him in picking up shovels to level the road for the real celebrity. A call to action that makes it possible for the prince of peace to come.

2. The psalmist has an incredible way with words. Verse 10 particularly sticks in my mind where God's rule is described. "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other." I immediately think of the protracted negotiations and diplomacy needed whenever a 'peace' is brokered between nations (or even individuals) who are in dispute. TALK, TALK, feels like nothing with ever get done, nothing will get decided. But when kissing happens, the talking stops.  Perhaps sometimes we should shut up and kiss. Stop talking and get to doing the right thing because that will eventually lead to peace.

3. The 2 Peter reading contains the famous verses: "...with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you..."  This month, the Mennonite Central Committee is working hard to help bring Syrian refugees to Canada. They might be here in mid-December. Once a refugee claim is approved, it still takes 18 months or more for them to actually get to leave the refugee camp. The whole advent concept of time and hopefully waiting for what was promised takes on new meaning read through the lens of a refugee!

4. I can't read Isaiah 40 without the words of the hymn "Comfort, comfort, o my people" running through my head. It speaks to the needs of people feeling overwhelmed with loss. A balm for that grieving place that all of us find ourselves in at sometime in life. It is a balm, but also a promise that eventually we will be done with brokenness. Love this!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Anger at God. Appropriate for Advent?

Lectionary Scriptures for Nov. 30, 2014. First Advent. Isa 64:1-9, Ps 80:1-7 and 17-19, 1 Cor. 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

There's some real anger toward God expressed in the Old Testament readings, but you have to read the omitted parts to really get it! (Besides, it makes no sense to leave out 3 verses of the Isaiah chapter. Verses 10-12 are the concluding statements.)

Isaiah 9:5b says; " were angry and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed." Isaiah complains that God has been too hidden, that the people haven't seen great wonders like they did in the past. Then he blames God for the people going astray. Anger and blame are all directed at God.

In Psalm 80:8-16 the writer complains bitterly against God. Why has God bothered to save and relocate a whole people, and then, "give them tears to drink...make us the scorn of our enemies, and break down our walls?"

The writers don't hold back, they express their frustration with God. I wonder if these uncomfortable feelings are left out in Bible readings so often because we feel they are wrong somehow, as if speaking them might give them power, might drive people to wallow in anger and turn away from God. We don't know what to do with our doubts and questions and anger, so we don't read those pieces, it's easier to pretend we have solid beliefs and unwavering faith. But I wonder if not addressing our deepest angers and doubts actually gives them more power over us than less because we never deal with them. Anger festers and grows when it is hidden. How many people feel huge amounts of guilt, as they sit in church, because it seems that everyone around them can simply believe while they themselves struggle? How much anger is internalized and then blows up in misplaced and hurtful ways if we never legitimately work on it? If our answer must come from God, why does it seem God is hidden?

Advent is a great time to acknowledge anger, disappointment, and our deepest fears. It really isn't about warm fuzzies, softly falling snow, and pretending the "good will to all' is real. In Advent we come face to face with the reality of a screwed up world and our own inadequacies. Like these OT writers, we know something has gone wrong, that we aren't seeing God the way we want. These hard pieces give me permission to be real, to stop pretending I can fix things, to accept that my community and church and country actually need help. When we stop pretending things are great, maybe then we can get involved in living in healing ways. (What is that cliche, that an addict has to first admit they have a problem before they can start fixing it?)

Acknowledging our reality, our failings, our anger, our desire for God to show up, these all set the stage for the needed incarnation, the birth of God into our world that we celebrate at Christmas. Being real is appropriate, necessary, at Advent time. We wait and hope for God to become real in our world. The Psalmist, after expressing anger, concludes with; "Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved." Advent is a realization of need, a plea for help, and a waiting in great hope for the God of love to come down and be known.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Do I Look Fat to You?

Lectionary Readings for November 23. Ez 34:11-24, Ps 95, Matt 25: 31-46, Eph1:11-23

Today's reading follows beautifully from last week! Last week there was a strong warning about the dangers of complacency, a kick to our "collective complacent butts." The Ezekiel reading goes further. Here the rich and strong are not just comfortably ignoring the poor, but shown as actively hurting them. They are like fat sheep that eat and drink their fill, then spoil the pasture and water for those who had to wait. They also push and butt with their horns, scattering the weaker sheep so they do not have the protection of the herd.

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. In our rush to grow the economy and maintain (arguably unsustainable lifestyles) countries ravage the environments. fouling land and water. We displace aboriginal people, move the voiceless poor when they are inconvenient (every Olympic city has done this), and cut social programs for the disadvantaged at the same time as taxes are decreased for big business.

When I think of those in "power" in our society, it is the rich. It would be exceedingly difficult for anyone to run for public office if they were poor or even middle class. While I believe there are some excellent people in our governing bodies, I also believe it is very difficult for anyone to work against a status quo that tends to protect itself. When Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, (Mark 10:25) we all have to think what that means for us. While I can easily point at other people as "rich" in comparison to my family, we certainly aren't poor! I have a vested interest in the status quo too-I like my comfortable home, my recreation options, etc...I am comfortable enough to be complacent, to ignore others who need help. Am I defending my way of life by complacently accepting things that "foul the land and water for others?" Am I a fat sheep in the herd? Maybe we have to ask others to help us with the question; "do I look fat to you?" Is my life a blessing to those around me, or am I taking more than my share and hurting others?

There is excellent encouragement in Matthew 25 for us "maybe fat"sheep. Here those who make a lifestyle out of helping others are commended and rewarded. The funny thing is that they don't even realize that they've been helping. Feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and clothing the naked is something so built in to their lifestyle and who they are, that it just happens.

I love the way this lifestyle feels so natural, and so naturally contrasts with the complacency condemned in the readings. Here is encouragement for the healthy sheep, the ones who aren't too fat or too thin, Instead of striving to become part of the elite, the healthy are those who turn away from that striving to reach a hand out to those who need help. They know when they have enough, and they use their "extra" to help others have enough too.

This last Sunday of the Christian Calendar year (before Advent) is called "Christ the King" Sunday. It is the day we celebrate Jesus as King of all, our lives and the world. It's amazing that we celebrate a caretaker king, a shepherd. This king is interested in the economics of relationships, in the health of all his subjects. He encourages his flock to live justly, but when they do not, he will step in.

Friday, 14 November 2014

A kick for complacent butts!

Lectionary Passages Nov. 16, 2014.  Zephaniah 1:7-18, Ps 90: 1-12, 1Thess. 5:1-11, Matt. 25:14-30

I'm amazed at how often the scripture readings resonate with current events or ideas.

This week I've been wondering about the correlation of wealth and the demise of organized religion. I notice it in society, in my church, and in myself. When people are comfortably wealthy and safe-not worrying about where food and shelter come from, we tend to feel in control of life. We question the need for God, we blame others for their situations and congratulate ourselves for what goes well in our lives.

I was at our church's seniors gathering last Wednesday when participants were encouraged to bring a book to share. One book was "The Lessons of History" by Will and Ariel Durant. An exert of the book observes that Christianity is declining, just like other religions in the past, when situations change. They say; "If another great war should devastate Western civilization, the resultant destruction of cities, the dissemination of poverty, and the disgrace of science may leave the Church, as in A.D. 476, the sole hope and guide of those who survive the cataclysm."

Wow. It takes tragedy for people to turn to God.

That idea, that people will cling to religion when they are in desperate need, is something I've seen too. When I visited South Sudan in 2009, I met people who had nothing and they lived in constant uncertainty and violence, however, their churches were vibrant places of belief, hope, and change for the better. Even here in Edmonton, people seem to reconnect to their faith at times of sickness and loss and need, rather than when they are "fat and happy."

I've been wondering about the wealth in my congregation, and in my life. Where is the balance point between spending our extra on fancy houses, recreation, lessons...and working to better the lives of others and investing time and money in making our church community a vibrant place of belief, hope, and change for the better? Sometimes wealth hurts our community. It fragments us as we spend time at cottages, on numerous vacations, at too many events. Sunday worship and time together get pushed to bottom priority-how does that help us or others? Are we building God's kingdom as we spend on ourselves, or are we escaping the needs we  have at home, at church, in the world?

Zephaniah's words speak into wealth. (He is writing in Jerusalem, at a time of prosperity and religious corruption. Wikipedia has a good, short, description.) I was struck by verse 12. "...I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, 'the Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.'"

These people are wealthy and disinterested in God. They are effectively atheists, saying that God is irrelevant. They are a picture of complacency.

I feel pretty complacent too, my life is good. I have a little extra for luxuries.  Zephaniah speaks into that too. In verse 8 he references "those who dress themselves in foreign attire." He is talking about luxurious imported fabrics and clothing that the rich and stylish are wearing. This reference is a call to simplicity instead of waste. I think we should pay attention, we who eat Californian strawberrries in the winter, guzzle African and Colombian coffee, travel constantly for "fun", and regularly update our wardrobes with clothing produced in foreign sweatshops.

I struggle to know how to live and preach this message! I do try to live simply, to find a faithful balance between sinful self-indulgence and ridiculous austerity. I want to live generously, acknowledging my need for God, sharing what I have, loving and laughing-not getting caught up in the delusions of control and individualism. I am called, as a believer and pastor, to challenge people to live justly, but it is difficult.

Zephaniah, Jesus, and many other Biblical prophets speak out strongly ( and often offensively) against the use of wealth for self indulgence. They kick us in the butt of our complacency, they advocate for the powerless. It's a hard message. It's desperately needed. How can we engage and stop resting on our dregs?

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Escapism or Engagement?

Lectionary Readings for Nov. 9, 2014. Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thess. 4:13-18, Matt. 25:1-13

I like to read "fluffy" novels before I sleep. I like fiction, fantasy, and fun in my late night reading because it takes me away from the worries of the day past and the day to come. I've noticed that when I am under stress, I read more of this stuff and I tend to go back to favorite books. It an escape for me, a mini-vacation where I don't have to think before I get back to the reality of daily life. I know, however, that this is not reading that helps me engage life's issues when morning comes. It doesn't help me to deal with my issues, it just postpones them. In the daytime, I have to fill my mind with substance, with reading the real stories, and scriptures, and thoughtful writings that build me as a person and equip me for service to God and my communities. The daytime is for engaging in what is real.

I began the scripture readings today with Amos, with darkness. The NRSV version I read from subtitled this section; "The Day of the Lord a Dark Day." This is definitely not late night material!

Judgement, punishment and darkness are not things a church like ours tends to focus on. We think of ourselves as people of the light. God is love. There is more grace than condemnation. There is good reason for our focus on the positive, however, I think that sometimes we do this almost as an escapism. An excuse to stay away from hard thoughts, from consequences, from having to think too hard about ourselves and changes needed in our lifestyles. We want to stay comfortable.

It's easy to read this Amos passage and think it is for others, for those not in church. We remember the last verse; "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" but forget who Amos was speaking to.  This was spoken to Judah-God's people, as well as to the surrounding people of Samaria and to Gentiles.It is all inclusive!

Amos is graphic. We might think that changes we've made and our faith is enough, but he says it is as if we've fled from a lion, and run into a bear! It is good to get away from the lion, but that doesn't end the need to be end vigilance or assume that we've "arrived" at the right place. It's not enough to believe the right things and do the rituals (avoid the lion) Amos calls for right living-to actually work for justice (avoid the bear). It's not good enough to assume that God will come and do the justice thing-we have to do it too (see 5:12)

Truly asking ourselves how our lives oppress others is a humbling business when we are wealthy, comfortable, and living in the suburbs.We live a life of escapism, not having to see much of the degraded environment, hear the beggars, eat beside those who have no food, or shiver with the homeless who get turned away from the full shelters.

Some escapism is necessary-we need a bit of time to relax our bodies and minds, but when and where and how do we engage? How do we keep our "escape" time from taking over?

In Matthew we read the familiar parable of the ten bridesmaids. They are all 'believers' there to support and cheer on the wedding party. But half of them are only half committed. They are there for the wedding, but not for the work it should have taken to get there.

(check out the series of 4 parables contained in Matt. 24:45- Matt. 25:46. All of them end badly for characters that who oppress others, don't prepare, don't bother using their gifts, or ignore the poor.)

It's important to take these scriptures seriously, to not escape from them. They are directed, not at some other evil people in the world, but at God's people, at us. We aren't all the bridesmaids with the extra oil, I wonder if the majority of us might even be the ones who come up short. If we take these warnings seriously, we will continually be looking for places to put our belief into action, we will truly live in this world instead of searching for ways to escape it's realities.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A whole that reaches beyond the self.

Lectionary texts for Oct. 19, 2014. Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, Matt. 22:15-22, 1 Thess. 1:1-10

Identity is a big deal. We all want to "be someone", "find ourselves", "know who we are." While personal identity has always been important, in the information age personal identity is something with which we are almost manically obsessed. Privacy laws proliferate in a society in which we have less privacy than ever before. (Examples: ad agencies know so much about each of us from multiple electronic sources that they can personalize and target ads for individuals. Poor choices, whether in photos or words, posted online can become international public property within minutes of being posted.)

Even with all the concerns, however, people are posting, you-tubing, facebooking, tweeting....putting themselves out on display, branding themselves as special individuals. The balance between healthy and harmful in this self-expression is precarious. People are willing to chance the harm because the drive to "be someone" and identify themselves somehow is so very strong. We all want to belong somewhere, to be important, to matter. Why, though, are we so fixated on ourselves?

In 1 Thessalonians, an identity has formed too-but it isn't all about an individual, it's about the whole church community. That identity hasn't been "creatively" constructed with bits of information. It has formed as a result of the communities actions. They have become known as a group of joyful believers, dedicated to serving God even in the face of difficulty. They are individuals (with, I'm sure, the healthy and the problematic personalities all part of the community) but they are known as a group.

Surrounded, as we are, by an obsession with glorifying the individual, I am intrigued by this communal identity. What kind of "identity" do churches have today? Do we as individuals concern ourselves with how our actions and words reflect on the whole or are we a "me first" kind of people? Are we simply collections of self-interested individuals, or do we understand ourselves as part of a larger identity-a whole that reaches beyond the self?

In the Matthew story, where Jesus says; "give to the emperor what is the emperor's and to God what is God's", he is forces his listeners to think about who they belong to. The biggest piece of their identity isn't some individual trait or talent, but who they see themselves as belonging to.

Who do you belong to? When we can answer that question, perhaps we are at least part way to understanding who we are.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Rotten Tomatoes and Thankfulness

Thanksgiving 2014 Lectionary Passages. Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

It's the time of year when going into our cold storage room makes me happy. Jars of bright orange peaches, red jellies, and green pickles line the shelves. Boxes full of crisp and fresh carrots, potatoes, and onions are stacked in the corners. I am so thankful to have this good food and there is a sense of satisfaction in seeing the harvest, the good work of the earth and our hands, ready to sustain us through the winter.

There are also flat boxes of green tomatoes slowly ripening on the floor awaiting their turn in my canner.

All it took for that "happy" to change one day was one rotten tomato. The whole storage room stank, souring my mood and sending me into a search for the culprit. It had oozed it's foul innards onto the cardboard box. The good tomatoes all had to be moved and the rotten one and the box thrown out.

I thought of that tomato when I read Philippians. Paul is pleading with two people in the church to find a way to get along. He asks others to help them. I wonder if their dispute is "rotten tomatoing" the whole group and souring the collective mood. He goes on to remind the church of what else is on the 'shelves.' "Rejoice in the Lord always" he says. Address the issue with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving.

The word thanksgiving is key. There is so very much good surrounding us, that thanksgiving should always be the foundation from which a problem is approached. One rotten tomato smells overwhelming, but it really isn't as big a stink as it seems. It doesn't remain so powerful for long if it is dealt with. If however, it remains and touches other tomatoes, the rot spreads. On the other hand, if a tomato is ripening well, it is good to have it with the green ones, because it gives off the right kind of smells to encourage ripening in them.

Paul urges the people not to focus on the rot, but on the true, the right, the noble, the pure, the lovely, the admirable. If anything is excellent or praiseworthy-that is where the majority of energy needs to go.

When I step into a smelly cold room, I need to deal with the issue, but I need not be overwhelmed by it. There is too much to be thankful for! I can work with the problem, but it's the places where things are ripening well that should be what really is allowed to affect me.

Of course, Paul isn't advising a neglect of issues, just encouraging and reminding the people that they've got more to be thankful for than they do to complain about. When we have thankful hearts and joyful spirits, we have the energy to clean up what needs attention and we can still grow in joy.

I like the Isaiah passage for it's exuberant thankfulness to a God who is a refuge for the poor, and who promises to remove the shroud of despair and death from all peoples. I don't like that verses 10-12 are eliminated from the reading. They are probably left out because they are darker, speaking of judgement that will come down on the oppressors. Unappetizing stuff, the bad tomato. We don't naturally tend to ever associate ourselves with that group, we lump ourselves in with those who receive the soothing message of comfort and hope. But what if we are the rotten tomato? What if it is our lifestyles, and attitudes, and treatment of others puts us into the category of the Moabites?

We need to hear these words of judgement with humility, carefully thinking about how our words and actions affect the growth and health of those around us.

If we can cultivate an attitude of thankfulness and let our gentleness be seen, in prayer and petition, God's peace will guard our hearts and thankfulness will be the foundation from which we will share with others.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Tied Together

Lectionary readings for World Communion Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014. Exodus 20:1-20, Psalm 19, Matthew 21:33-46, Philippians 3:4-14

I'm really looking forward to this Sunday! This year, Mennonite Church Canada asked Adela Wedler (a musician and great worship planner) and myself to write materials for World Communion Sunday. The resource is available on the Mennonite Church Canada website.

It was a good experience, reading the scriptures months ahead and shaping worship service ideas with another person who loves to do this too.We wanted to pay attention to the idea that our churches are diverse, yet because of Christ, we are all tied together. Our observation of communion on this day is symbolic of that greater unity in the church.

We noticed that all the scriptures have something to do with the celebration of God's good law. Often we think of law as constrictive or limiting. God's law, however, is meant to be freeing. It provides a framework within which all people are treated as loved children.

The ten commandments are a familiar list of "rules." In order to show how rules can be helpful and freeing, I wrote a children's story about some friends who decided that soccer would be more fun without rules. My son drew the illustrations (a bonus for me, getting to work with him, and the pictures are great!)

Psalm 19 rejoices in the way that God's laws 'revive the soul." The way that good laws set people free is a fantastic message in a culture obsessed with personal freedom and individual rights. The law helps us to look to the good of our neighbours-another way to foster unity in the midst of our diversity.

Both the Matthew and Philippians pieces focus on how the intent and meaning of the law are more important than legalistic obedience to it. This is particularly glaring in the story of the wicked tenants. Instead of following through with the punishment the tenants deserve, the landowner keeps on trying to find new ways to get the tenants to understand that they are being offered new life and hope through God's ways. God applies the laws in freeing and unusual ways that invite, rather than coerce, cooperation.

The message of the need for good boundaries and laws, and the grace to apply those laws in life-giving and flexible ways, is an amazing message for today's church. When issues, diverse cultural understandings, and a complicated society threaten to isolate churches from each other, we do well to remember these passages. The Bible provides good guidelines, but it is Christ who ties us together in surprising ways.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Definitely not a Doormat!

Lectionary  Passages for Sept.28: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Psalm 25:1-9, Phil. 2:1-13, Matt 21:23-32

Sour grapes. Here's where the phrase comes from! When the parents eat sour grapes-the children's teeth are set on edge. That's not right, why would the children have to suffer because of the parent's poor choice of fruit? It is obvious that the actions of parents affect children-the parents provides the atmosphere the children grow up in and learn from-but that's missing the point a bit here.

Ezekiel is telling the people that individuals have to be responsible for their own actions, that they cannot continue to blame subsequent generations for historic sins. They can't hold the child to the debt the parent incurred. (this is fair, but certainly irritating for those trying to collect!) Like any normal human being, these people would rather spread the blame around to take the focus off of themselves. It makes me think of times when I've confronted my children with some transgression. Instead of focusing on what they did, the first impulse is often to blame the sibling. "Yes, but he told me to do it!" or "yes, but he did it too!" I've tried to respond well by saying something like; "Right now I don't care what your brother did, I want you to think about what you did."

We can only control our own actions, and ultimately, we are responsible for the bad and the good that come out of them. We have to resist crying out the "unfair" buzzword (see verse 25) and take responsibility for ourselves. We also are encouraged to allow others to change. We can't keep remembering the transgressions of the past and not allowing people to grow. God is the ultimate judge who wants all people to "turn and live."

Psalm 25 encourages an amazing and humble attitude for change. The psalmist petitions God to save him from shame, leaves any retribution to God (v 3), and then humbly focuses on an attitude of learning that occupies the rest of the Psalm. It's amazing. I wonder what could happen for groups of people if we took responsibility for our own actions with an attitude like this. It perhaps doesn't address big problems, but it does give each individual a place to start in any situation.

Phillipians also pushes this humble attitude, encouraging us to imitate Christ who "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave...) This is amazing, a mandate to put aside selfish interest to serve others.  This, however, can easily be misinterpreted and turn Christians into doormats, people so humble and self-effacing that they get walked on.  That's not what is offered here. Jesus was no doormat. In fact, he could be downright blunt in addressing injustice where he saw it. He often spoke out publicly against the powerful leaders who thought too much of themselves. Those who could change their ways were included even among his disciples! (Think of Matthew-who traditionally is thought to have been a tax collector, yet he is also traditionally thought of as the author of the gospel that emphasizes the gospel and ethics, faith and morality.)

In the Matthew story, Jesus certainly doesn't lay down for others to wipe their feet on him. He challenges the scribes and pharisees to treat him with the same respect he would show them. When they do not, he refuses to answer their question. Definitely not a doormat, and yet definitely open to change. The next parable has the story of the son who at first refused to work for his father, then later changed his mind and did what was asked. This son is proclaimed as faithful! Change, although it does not always happen, is possible!

Friday, 19 September 2014

Meant to be Ridiculous...and Meaningful

Lectionary Readings for Sept. 21, 2014. Jonah 3:10-4:11, Ps 145:1-8, Phil. 1:21-30, Matt. 20:1-16

It's funny to me that the story of Jonah and the whale is one of the favourites of Sunday School, taught to children and accompanied by great pictures from the imaginations of artists. As a child, I thought the story was kind of ridiculous. I wanted to believe it, but it didn't make sense. The adults in church taught the story in such a serious way that my choices seemed to be either to accept it as factual truth, or lump it into the same category as Santa and the Easter Bunny. Put it into the category of "weird things adults say to hide the truth."

As an adult I've had fun studying this story. I've come to love it for it's humorous style and it's message.

The style is stand-up comedy. Really. This was meant to be told/read out loud with expression and drama and characterization. I imagine people gathered around a fire, laughing and enjoying the telling. The book is entirely narrative. Unlike other prophetic books, there are no long oracles, it's just story with an important message. The characterization of Jonah is hilarious. He is a caricature, an unbelievably obtuse individual. The idea that he (especially as a prophet) tries to run from God is absurd. Then he's dense and insensitive enough to fall asleep in a boat during a storm. (Note: when Jesus sleeps in the boat it was because he trusted in God and was not afraid. Jonah is very different!) He shows a flash of courage when he finally, after much interrogation, admits that he's at fault and offers to be thrown overboard. The courage of the sailors, however, is at least as admirable! For the sake of one, Jonah, they try desperately to get to shore, risking their own lives until there is no choice but to toss him into the waves.

Then the fish-wow that's funny. Finally, forced into a corner (of an intestine) Jonah prays. It's stinky and the idea that Jonah gets vomited onto the shore is funny. Finally he does what God asks, but only because he wants to see Ninevah destroyed. When that doesn't happen, he is petulant, a tantrum-throwing little child. He doesn't even want to live if Ninevah is spared. What a contrast to the sailors who worked so hard to try to save this one sorry excuse of a prophet! Here the one prophet is willing to watch the death of thousands and unable to see past himself.

The message is great. God is in charge, we are not. We are to obey, think of the welfare of others, and rejoice in God's ability to save those we think cannot be saved. We have to be humble and able to rejoice in the good fortune and outcomes of others, even when it doesn't seem right or fair to us. (See Matt. 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard for a great parallel message.)

How might we hear scriptures differently if we read them the way they might have been intended? Try reading Jonah out loud as a comedy/drama. It's fun!

(a post script: Jonah is a whole story, a short story. It really doesn't make sense to read just the closing paragraph like the lectionary suggests. This is another way we miss the style of the story, and maybe some of the message1)

Friday, 5 September 2014

Crucial Conversations in the Church

Lectionary Passages for Sept. 7, 2014. Ezekiel 33:7-11, Ps 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matt. 18:15-21

I read the Matthew 18 passage with a mixture of thoughts, feelings, and varying ideas. My Bible subtitles this familiar passage with; "Reproving another who sins."

I can't help it, it makes me think of self-righteous finger shaking, condescension, and heavy handedness.

I wonder why I feel this way, because the passage is meant to be the opposite of those things. (In Matt. 5:38, Jesus says; "you've heard it said, 'an eye for an eye...but I say to you do not resist an evildoer...turn the other cheek...) I think this passage, giving guidelines for reprisal, should be taken in this light. Jesus is scaling back on heavy handed discipline and providing guidelines for a process of reconciliation. A process that is respectful of persons, yet takes boundaries very seriously.

Applied well, this is excellent! Most difficulties between individuals can, and often are, resolved quietly and don't go public.

In theory, I love this model. In practise, I hesitantly like it, acknowledging that it can be brutally hard work and doesn't always meet with success. In fact, when something is bad enough to blow up publicly, bridges get burned and things are often beyond repair. I suffer from being an idealist, maybe its all those stories with happy endings I heard as a kid, and still love. I like to believe that if I do everything the right way, or at least to the best of my ability, the ending will be happy. Life, however, teaches that it ain't so! Life isn't always fair and logical. Success is not guaranteed and  maybe not even likely once a problem moves beyond a few people, but it's even more important that good process be followed.

We've all likely heard stories of how Matt. 18 has been hurtful and misused. I remember cases where people (usually cases of unmarried pregnancy) were pushed to "confess" sin in front of the church. Thank God this is not common practise anymore! Instead of restoring people to community, it seemed to further ostracise and humiliate. Hmmm. How come I never heard of anyone having to confess their hurtful gossipping, or financial cheating, or lusting, some other sin in front of everyone? Here is one of the problems. The good process was never meant to be a "big stick" or a punishment, and it was meant for use when someone's actions were hurtful to another.

I do like that this passage takes boundary crossing, things that are hurtful, seriously. Too often, at least in the contemporary Mennonite church, we don't speak forthrightly about hard things. Instead, we do the wishful thinking that pretends that silence will result in happy endings, that the first step of private address always works. Matthew is practical, it does say that "offenders" sometimes don't listen and then become "like a Gentile or tax-collector" and outside of the core fellowship.

Maybe the best way to look at this passage is through the lenses provided by verse 20 and following. Verse 20 is a reminder that we need each other, that when the group gathers in Jesus' name, he will be there with us. The verses that immediately follow these guidelines deal with forgiveness. A topic on which Jesus is generous and challenging. The gathered church is to be forgiving in actions and attitudes. This does not negate the seriousness of what has gone before, the hurt and sin must stop, but the body is challenged to be forgiving in attitude-bridges cannot be burned.

Perhaps another way to look at this is also helpful. Try reading it from the perspective of the sinner, the one to whom someone comes to point out the fault. Ask yourself; how do I respond? Do I listen well and consider the other? If witnesses are brought along, and a trusted group from the church has a concern against me, am I willing to take their counsel? Can I admit being wrong? It's interesting and humbling to think the passage through from this perspective. Chances are, in our lifetimes, we will be on both sides of the equation at some time or other. So, how do we do this important stuff well? It's hard enough for an individual, how can we do this as a church?

I'd be interested to hear the comments and sharing of stories from others. How does this passage make you feel? Think? Is it helpful?

A great resource that a small group from our church discovered at a communication seminar is called: "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High."  If anyone would like to see the book, I've got a copy in the church office. It's also readily available at any Chapters bookstore or through Amazon.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Offensive Prayer?

Lectionary for August 31. Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

 "Never avenge yourselves...Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." Rom. 12:19

Payback is a common theme in these passages, and a natural desire of all human beings at some time! When wrong is done to us, when we see injustice done to others, we have a gut longing (sometimes a burning drive) to see perpetrators punished. We rejoice when the 'bad guy' gets what's coming to them or the thoughtless suffer the natural consequences of their indifference. We like to lay blame and point fingers, because that is part of exonerating ourselves, laying issues to rest, and maintaining a sense of control over our lives.

This drive to set things right is too often self-serving and based on faulty reasoning/assumptions.  Jeremiah says; "O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors."  At first this feels like an offensive way to pray. It feels like we are trying to manipulate God the way a child would ask a parent to punish a sibling for them. When I thought about Jeremiah's words for awhile, however, I started to feel that he's on to something important.

Jeremiah acknowledges that "God knows", which implies that Jeremiah does not know all the angles of his dilemma. He is willing to concede that things might be other than his personal experience. By asking God to do the punishing, Jeremiah gives up control to God. That's a hard thing because it means accepting that the outcome might be other than what what Jeremiah would choose. (Remember the story of the labourers in the vineyard in Matt. 20? The landowners judgement was not what many of the "good" people wanted!)

Jeremiah, in fact, is frustrated with God. He wonders why he is in so much pain, and says God is like a deceitful brook and waters that fail. (v.18)

All four of these passages display the difficulty of turning over control to God, but also help me understand the rightness of it. Our own understandings are too limited to be reliable. We simply cannot know all sides and situations involved in any conflict situation. Of course, we have to do our best with what we have. We need good rules, accountability, boundaries, and ways to apply these and work with each other. But over all of that, we must "let love be genuine, persevere in prayer, find ways to bless those who frustrate us, and leave room for God to be the final judge." (paraphrased from the Romans passage.)

This summer, I've had the opportunity to listen to a variety of people, in and outside churches, talk about difficulties they face in their family and work relationships. Bosses that turn a blind eye to the struggles of employees, deceit and cover-ups in families, the pain of blatant disrespectful comments. It's so hard for people who see themselves as in the 'right' (and likely they are) to do their best and then turn it all over to God's control for the outcomes.   When Peter heard the Jesus was going to surrender himself to unfair judgement, he argued with him to the point that Jesus said; "Get behind me set your mind, not on divine things, but on human things."

This week, I think I'll try to practice "offensive" prayer like Jeremiah whenever I experience something that "isn't fair" or when I feel the urge to "set something straight." It will likely be frustrating, and sometimes the feeling that God isn't doing anything will challenge my desire to control things! Our calling is to do our best where ever we find ourselves, act honourably, and leave control to God.

Friday, 1 August 2014

No Internet and Big RVs

Lectionary readings for August 3, 2014
Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9-14-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

In our campsite in Jasper last week, I had no internet connection. It was actually kind of a luxury to be without it. I didn't check email, didn't worry about what work wasn't getting done, and enjoyed a great mystery novel.

The scriptures for August 3 have the theme that God will provide, especially for those who know they need help. There is a subtle theme here too, that we don't always know what we need. I love Isaiah's question in verse 2. "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?" It's a perfect question for our wealthy, accomplishment driven, very busy society. Why do we spend money on luxuries that we don't need? Why do we use up so much of our limited time on earth working crazy hours to pay for things we don't need?

It's a great question for me to reflect on after having camped in Jasper. It's hard to believe how many huge, luxurious RVs are in the campsites. Some of those units are massively expensive, and they are just a luxury for most of those using them. They have TV, air conditioning, big generators, fridges, toilets, showers, pull-outs, etc... Isn't this excessive, a flagrant waste in the face of environmental and social justice issues? How much time away from family and friends does it take to pay for these beasts so that family and friends can |"holiday" together?

I enjoy camping, I don't want to begrudge people their trailers, but I think something is seriously wrong when it goes to such extremes and people spend so very much money on these luxuries. (Can that even be called camping when the campers are so isolated from the very outdoors they ostensibly are experiencing?)  Isaiah doesn't begrudge people the "good things" in life. He goes on to say; "eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." He's not advocating asceticism. His question, however, does push us to consider what it is we really need.I don't think Isaiah is telling people to blindly indulge themselves at the expense of others or the environment. He is rejoicing in the way God richly provides for our needs.

When I didn't have the "luxury" of internet connections, I could relax. I talked with my family and we played games. We enjoyed hiking and biking and seeing the mountain sights. We cooked together and sat around the fire. Sure, I was on holiday and I didn't need the internet like I do when I am working, but the break from it helped me ask the question how much do I really "need" it? When does the luxury of high-speed connection become something that takes my time away from the good things (family, friends, community, charity...) that would actually nurture me and those around me?

Psalm 145 reminds us that God has great patience with us, and will satisfy the desires of all living things, but we need to call on God. That means realizing we need help in figuring out what is good. It's hard, when we're rich, to see that we need God. We easily lose sight of what is truly needed and what is wasteful luxury that actually takes us away from what is important.

God provides for our needs. These scriptures are a good reminder to help us think about what it is that is truly needed.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Sighs Too Deep for Words

Lectionary passages for July 20, 2014 Isaiah 44:6-8, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

(Sorry for missing out on the July 13 blog! We were at the Mennonite Church Assembly in Winnipeg and I was busy writing for the Canadian Mennonite. I decided to take a blog break!)

The Edmonton Journal this morning was full of news about the situation in Israel and Gaza. The cease fire proposed by Egypt, the rejection by Hamas, the continuing threat of a ground assault by Israel, a lop-sided listing of casualties, an article about life "as usual" for Israelis-and of course-very little about what life "as usual" is in Gaza.

I read the lectionary passages with this situation in mind.

The heading for Isaiah 44 (in my NRSV Bible) is "God's Blessing on Israel".  We have to be careful here to give the right meaning to the name Israel. It is not the particular nation state as formalized in 1948. Israel is the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God. (Genesis 32:28, 35:10). The Israelites of the Old Testament are the descendants of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all part of the Abrahamic faiths.  (Aside: I got to walk the streets of old Jerusalem in April 2008. I saw depictions of Jewish stars, St. George, and the Dome of the rock carved into the ancient stones of the marketplace. They were together, neighbours to each other-all with legitimate ancient roots in this place.) When Isaiah 44 speaks of God's blessings to the descendants of Israel, it refers to all people who follow God. Verse 5 includes those who call on the Lord's name, those who go by the name of Jacob, and those who are "adopted" in. This is an inclusive list of the chosen! The other bit to remember is that the nation state of Israel is secular. Although it is a "Jewish" state, this identity is more cultural than religious for many people. It is a hugely diverse society! To put the blame for conflict on religious differences between Israel and Palestine is a red herring and perhaps a too convenient scapegoat for those who wish to divert attention from themselves. Religious differences within Israel are as vast as anything outside of it. The issues boil down to power and politics, just like anywhere else, except with more history!

The heading for Psalm 86 is for "Help against Enemies," something both sides to the conflict are asking for! Verse 11 asks God to teach the ways of truth. I read the newspaper with a cynical eye, whose truth is it? Where is God's truth? The violence and suffering going on is clearly wrong, so how can it change? In 2008, our group met many Palestinians and Israelis who were making efforts to work for peace, making efforts to get to know each other, and were speaking out against violence. Like kids in the sand, however, it's much more time consuming to build a castle than to destroy it. The conflict goes on and generations of people seem unable to make progress, proving that might doesn't make right-but we're not good at anything else.

Romans says that all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. That is inclusive of a huge variety of people, but of course, there are many who are not led by the Spirit. The idea that the whole creation is groaning and waiting for redemption is apt. There really are no words to adequately describe the suffering and frustration and humanity has proven unequal to the task. God is needed, but how do the people find the hope and patience Romans talks about? Sighs too deep for words sums it up pretty well.

The parables in Matthew, the weeds among the wheat, the mustard seed, and the yeast, all speak to the reason hope is still possible. The servants can't go among the wheat to pull weeds, because they damage too much of it. (Hmmm, sounds like human attempts to eliminate the problems with more destruction!) They have to simply wait and let God do the judging at harvest time. The other parables remind us that the tiny seeds of hope are hidden in all sorts of situations. Just because we can't see it, doesn't mean it's not there. There are so many good people, Israelis, Palestinians, Arab, Christians, Muslims, Jews...all trying in small ways to stop the violence and build peace. How can their efforts be watered and warmed so seeds will grow and bread will rise?

Friday, 27 June 2014

I wish I were a cartoonist!

Lectionary Passages for July 6, 2014. Zech. 9:9-12, Ps 145:8-14, Rom. 7:15-25, Matt 11:16-19, 25-30

I wish I were a cartoonist, because this Zechariah passage is great material! There is something hilarious about a triumphant king riding, not even on a full-size donkey but a colt, and putting himself between the charging warhorses and Jerusalem.

I find it extra funny because this year I've had a chance to see a real donkey every week at the farm where I go horseback riding. The donkey is willful and doesn't take direction well at all. He's strange looking, with his long ears and shaggy coat, and he sounds utterly ridiculous-the loudest rusty hinge impression you can imagine! (Wikipedia says you can hear the donkey's bray for 3 km!)

I think a good modern parallel might be to put a political leader on a scooter or moped in front of enemy tanks and say that this will stop a war and this leader will have dominion from sea to sea! Laughable to logical sensibilities!

One message here is that our hope should not be in our mighty human machines or in forceful and enforced leadership. God is the one who protects, not any human or human-made power.

Verse 12 is puzzling. The people are referred to as "prisoners of hope". Isn't hope a good thing? Why is it a jail here? Margaret Odell, professor of religion at ST. Olaf's College in Northfield, Minnesota, suggests one interpretation could be that the hope holding these people captive is hope in the wrong thing. They are hoping in their old military tradition, waiting for a Messiah of war and bloody victory to liberate them. Instead, Zechariah gives them hope in a humble king, someone who will be victorious in a new way because, obviously, the scooter can't stop the tank with force!

Odell writes; "How to release these prisoners of hope from old expectations? In effect, the scribes employ the older traditions to open new paths to peace. As in Zephaniah 3:14 and Zechariah 2:10, the audience is commanded to rejoice because of what God has done for Zion and its inhabitants. But where the older texts speak of enemies, Zechariah speaks of conditions that make for peace. The king is not the agent of deliverance, but one who has himself been humbled yet declared righteous and therefore delivered or saved."

I'm also caught, this week, by Paul's words in Romans. "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" 7:15

Here is the classic stand-off between logic and desire. We know what is best, intellectually we want what is good, yet when the second helping of dessert is offered, we load our plates with the artery blocking, health compromising momentary pleasures. Any of us who want to lose a few pounds knows the problem. But this problem isn't, unfortunately, limited to waistlines. It hits deep and hard at the important things in life like our relationships, our care for the environment, our goals and hopes for the future.

How many relationships are slowly destroyed because we can't quite bring ourselves to the honesty and hard work of communication required to keep them healthy? How many spectacularly blow up due to giving in to the temptation to be unfaithful? How many individuals and families struggle because of addictions (substances, gambling, porn, work, etc...) that steal time and money and personal connections from people?  The answer to the how many of us struggle is simple. It is 100%  We all struggle with our desires, some to more destructive effect than others, but we all struggle. Paul says the answer to struggle lies in God, not in relying on ourselves. That is helpful, but not simple, and here Paul doesn't talk about the importance of helping each other.  I wish that in the faith community we could all find places to share our struggles with each other. The church is not a place for perfect people, it is a place for the imperfect, the struggling, those who are searching for a hope that is different from the unworkable "answers" of the past. It is not a place to allow harmful behaviors to continue-but it is a place for us to strive together toward something better. It's not an easy thing to struggle together, but it is certainly preferable to the "old" way of pretending that the church is a "communion of saints" (where transgressors are excommunicated). And it is also preferable to an attitude of "anything goes."

We need God. We need each other. We need new kinds of hope-even when they might seem comical!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Sorting Through the Information Swamp.

Lectionary Passages for June 29, 2014. Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6: 12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

 Jeremiah doesn't give up. Even though he's been put in stocks for his unpopular message, he goes right back at it when he is released.

Chapter 28 continues the story of his struggle, but it can be hard for us to understand if we read the lectionary bits in isolation from the surrounding context. We also don't tend to spend much time reading Jeremiah, so it can seem kind of archaic and very far removed from today's concerns.

However, the message here is screamingly relevant as we try to navigate the information swamp that is our digital world. Jeremiah is only one voice among a number of prophets. How are people supposed to figure out who to listen to? What information is correct? Who speaks for God?

Hannaniah prophesies that Babylon's control will be broken, that articles taken from the temple at Jerusalem 3 years earlier will be returned, and that all exiles will return. This is exactly what people want to hear. Independence sounds good and the priests want their control (and wealth) back. Doesn't this sound like a campaign speech? It's an easy message to speak because it speaks to people's hopes, and it promises immediate relief. Jeremiah (v5-6) would like this to be the case, and responds diplomatically, saying "may the Lord make it so!" (although there may be sarcasm too!) Then he goes on with the message no one wants. He tells them they should accept the yoke of Babylon for now, (in chapter 27 he actually started wearing a wooden yoke as a visual aid to his message) it will be generations before they will be free. Jeremiah does offer hope-eventually they will be restored, but his immediate message is to peaceably accept foreign rule, to build houses and plant gardens. They are to settle in, not fight the Babylonians.

Jeremiah accuses Hannaniah and others of lying to the people with too good to be true messages-messages that were more about their own aspirations than God's. He urges them to think about whose message lines up with God's prophets from the past. He also tells them that the true prophet will be known by the prediction coming true.  Later that year, as Jeremiah predicted, Hannaniah dies.

There is so much here that is relevant as we struggle to understand and sort through the many messages we receive today. Jeremiah's guidelines are helpful. Are messages in line with what we know of history and God's story in our past? Are we too easily convinced by what we would like to believe instead of doing the proper discernment and practical thinking that leads to good choices? Finally, do we pay attention to predictions and outcomes and then learn from these as we go forward?

Too often we simply believe the convenient, most immediately hopeful message and ignore the real prophets because we don't like their message. Climate change is a good example. We know we need to change our lifestyles, but it's easier to simply believe in the next  new energy saving technology instead. We ignore history (think Easter Island) and keep believing that someone somewhere will invent a solution. Perhaps a better start to a solution is to look at God's word-to love others, to only use what we need, to care for the poor.

The Matthew 10 piece is an interesting "chaser" to the Jeremiah. The "little ones" referred to aren't children or the outcast as we often assume. They are the prophets and righteous people! Like Jeremiah, they often have a hard road, they've spoken tough messages, they've incurred hard feelings. It's likely not an easy thing for someone to step forward and offer the compassion symbolized by the cup of cold water. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, the first leaders. They will have a hard road too-blessed be the ones who help them! Was there anyone who offered a "cup of cold water" to Jeremiah?  I guess I have to keep reading to find out.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Scared to be a Jeremiah

Lectionary passages for June 22, 2014.  Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69: 7-18, Romans 6:1b-11, Matt. 10:24-39

Jeremiah is a role model, a man of God who does the right thing even when it hurts. In verses 1-19 (essential background to today's reading), one of the head priests, Pashhur, took exception to his prophecies and had Jeremiah put into stocks overnight, displayed like a criminal at a major city gate. As soon as Jeremiah is released, he renames Pashhur, calling him "terror all-around." Then Jeremiah resumes his unpopular work. Why keep going with the unpopular message, even throwing gas on the fire, knowing it won't be listened to and you will be hurt?

Our lectionary passage picks up here, with Jeremiah doing some introspection. He acknowledges that his work brings derision from others. Even his friends are watching him like vultures (v 10) and he wishes he hadn't been born (v 14 and following). He feels deceived/persuaded (NIV), and enticed (NRSV) by God into this difficult, no win job. He'd rather not have this work, but the message inside him has to get out..."within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones, I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot."

Jeremiah's job is eating him alive, why does he stay the course?  In the middle of his lament, we find a remarkable bit that helps to explain his perseverance. In verses 12-13, he acknowledges that God tests the righteous and looks into their hearts and minds. Jeremiah is at peace, because he is committed to God. Then he praises God for caring about the needy. I assume he includes himself as among the needy, but this certainly isn't only, or even primarily, about Jeremiah's situation. Jeremiah is always about the larger picture, the end goal.

Wow. In the midst of his turmoil, Jeremiah is able to do it all. He releases frustration by ranting about the unfairness, accepts his lot and commits to doing what he is called to do, he thinks about others, and he moves forward in the certain hope that God cares.

Few of us are ever as important as Jeremiah, but we have all faced situations where doing the right thing, or speaking up with what others don't want to hear, is excruciatingly hard. It is easier to be quiet when we fear we might be attacked for speaking.  That quietness, however, can be damaging too-maybe not to ourselves personally, but to the community.

I heard a story on the radio this week about a woman in Sherwood Park who has a mom's work-out club in her garage. Some neighbours are protesting. While I'm not sure of all the details, bylaws, thing really stuck out to me. The woman said she was unaware of the concerns of her neighbours until city officials were involved. She said that no one approached her personally to talk about their concerns before she was reported. When she attended a "secret" meeting of neighbours (to which she had not been invited) she said she felt lynched there.

That is sad. Not surprising, but sad. Concerns should have been brought personally as a first step. Perhaps misunderstandings could have been avoided. Instead, the quietness, the secret alliance gathering, and the anonymous reporting had created a huge issue, a media story, and likely all sorts of misinformation and misunderstandings flying around  and causing major hurts instead of minor, more treatable, irritations.

Of course, a personal connection may not have worked. It would have felt risky for the person confronting this woman. But where do we put personal "safety" on the line to open conversation, share information, and engage well in community discernment?

Another example is that of David Suzuki. No matter what you might think of him personally, he has been an important contemporary prophet. He has consistently raised concerns about human treatment of the environment even in the face of derision.

How are each of us called to speak up to issues and difficulties in our own environments? Do we stay quiet even when there is fire in our bones?

Psalm 69 echoes Jeremiah's plight, but like Jeremiah, the Psalmist is still able to praise God. Romans 6 speaks of being so in tune with Christ that we die and rise with him-and Jesus certainly didn't hold back under threat! Matthew 10 approaches conflict with humility and fearlessness-a commendable combination!

These scriptures certainly encourage speaking up when it is needed, but the costs are clear. Most of us, maybe even all of us, are rightfully scared to be a Jeremiah-but if that is what we are called by God to do, we have to give up the wearying job of holding it in and speak up with the kind of humility and conviction Matthew talks about.

PS: I apologize for being slow to post Lectionary Reflectionary in the last few weeks. The June rush of kid's concerts, summer worship preparations, meetings, etc....has me scrambling a bit. I know I'm not alone with the feeling of longing for the slower pace of summer to arrive!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

When God Winks

Lectionary passages for June 8. Pentecost Sunday. Acts 2:1-21, Numbers 11:24-30, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, 1 Cor. 12:3-13, John 20:19-23, John 7: 37-39

Growing up in the Mennonite Church (general conference), I don't remember talking very much about the Holy Spirit. We talked about the Trinity, but the bulk of the year that meant God and Jesus. The Spirit came up in the Pentecost readings, but I never really felt like we knew what to do with it or how to have an understanding of the Spirit enliven our faith lives.When we did talk about it, my perception was that it was a rather private thing between me and God. I guess it's just hard for those of us who are used to being practical and logical to try to get our minds around the concept of the Holy Spirit. It's a bit like trying to pin down the wind.

The best explanation of the Spirit I remember hearing as a child, was during a story that my mom did during one worship service. She showed us kids an apple and explained how the peel, the flesh, and the core are all different, but all apple. Then she also talked about how we could experience water as a solid, liquid, or gas, yet they are all the same thing. She said God had many different aspects too, and we could experience God as a heavenly parent, a human friend, and as quietly present in our conscience. That helped me with the Trinity idea, but I still didn't really get the Spirit part. Especially when it was sometimes referred to as the Holy Ghost. Ghost! That bit was hard for a kid to get her mind around!

The readings help us understand various aspects of God as Spirit.While we tend to emphasize that the Spirit was given to all believers at Pentecost, there is a great story of God's Spirit given to the elders with Moses in Numbers 11, it pushes them to prophesy, to tell God's story. God's Spirit is a creating and renewing force in Psalm 104. In the Corinthians piece, the Spirit bestows a variety of gifts on believers, gifts meant for the building up of the church. In John 20 the gift of the Spirit is related to the ability to forgive.In John 7, the Spirit is something that will "stream" out from the believer.

In all these passages, the Spirit of God is an energizing presence that absolutely must be shared. Those gifted can't help but respond and spread the news to others.

This is not a private "conversion" experience, or some inner quiet knowledge. This Spirit is bestowed in groups, is creative, is joyful, and builds up the community.  While I have appreciated my church experience with it's cerebral understanding of faith, I would like to also feel the fresh, creative, communal, and renewing wind of God's Spirit on more days than just Pentecost!

A book I discovered at Chapters this week has been very helpful. It's called; "When God Winks", by SQire Rushnell. (Yes, the Q is supposed to be a capital.)  This little book talks about all the ways God uses things we might call coincidences to nudge us. When we pay attention to these nudgings of the Spirit, we allow God to guide and direct us in life. Its got me paying attention to God in a fresh way this week.  Creative and fun, and I hope to have lots of chances to share!

Monday, 26 May 2014

Wind full of sand, or encouragement?

Lectionary Passages for June 1. Acts 1:6-14, Ps 66:1-10, 1Peter 4: 12-14, 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

There's a lot here about waiting. Waiting through times of suffering, secure in the knowledge that everything will work out, that it's all for the good.

That's hard, and it's not a welcome message when you are in the middle of crisis. I remember being in the midst of grief after my dad passed way suddenly. A man at the funeral reception "preached" at me, quoting some scripture and saying that it was all good, that dad was in a better place. I know he meant well and wanted to offer comfort, but he was speaking to my head and it was my heart that was hurting.The message was unwelcome at the moment.

In the midst of struggle and pain, words like those in 1 Peter blow like a wind full of sand. I think the words make a lot more sense after the worst of the crisis is over, when the mind can process the experiences of the body and spirit.

To be fair to 1 Peter, this passage isn't meant to be applied to our individual struggles and griefs. The Christians he refers to are suffering because of their faith, not because of a natural loss or illness or some hardship they couldn't avoid. This is suffering brought on because they are actively following Jesus and being persecuted for it. They are thinking through decisions every day, and choosing a hard road. In their case, I can understand how words spoken to the mind, even during the hardship, make sense. They are to keep their heads up (no disgrace) and keep right on choosing the good. There are two verses that jump out at me, speaking to my mind and soaking into my heart: 4:19 "Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God's will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.  5:7 "Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you."  God is there in the midst of their crisis, helping them to understand and keep on doing what is right.

This scripture is about the big stuff, the choices made to follow God when that means giving up certain opportunities for careers and money, even when other people might get angry with us, even when our life may be at stake. It's quite a stretch, for those of us in a free country where the living is easy, to understand what the original recipients of this message were dealing with. We get tempted to apply words of comfort and assurance rather shallowly, to our individual stresses, making it all about us instead of all about God.. I think we need to resist the urge to stay in the shallow water. This is meant to apply to those deep decisions/choices of faith that make like difficult. It's meant to encourage a persecuted people, not to merely assuage life's regular trials.

I love the way Psalm 66 works. The psalmist offers great praise, but does it from the perspective of being past the crisis. He is no longer in the refiner's fire or carrying burdens. He speaks from the place of abundance, v. 12, and calls out for people to "come and listen, let me tell you what he has done for me..." v. 16.  It is after the crisis when the psalmist is able to look back and think about where God was acting. After the crisis he is a clear headed witness to God's consistent caring.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A way to witness

Lectionary Passages for May 25. Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect...: (RSV)

The passages for May 25 are so amazingly relevant for Christians in a pluralistic society!  So many of us have friends, co-workers, and neighbours who are of different cultures and religions than ourselves. One of the responsibilities we have is to be witnesses to the good news of Christ in our world.

But how do we witness? There are two extremes that bother me. One is to be overly forceful and condescending, demanding that others follow our way. This is the extremist view that would have the whole society "towing the line" (think crusades, reformation, persecution...) The other extreme is to be timid and overly apologetic, unconvinced and unconvincing.

In today's readings, I find a way to witness that feels right. In 1 Peter, the believer is to do good to others, even under duress. They are to keep a clear conscience and be ready to explain their reason for hope in this life. That tells me that the Christian is a joyful person, living a life that entices others to ask their secret. They aren't out there pushing their faith, just living it so well that others can't help but notice and ask!  And when the opportunity arises, they are ready to explain themselves well, in a gentle and respectful manner that will not raise the ire of the asker.

In Acts 17, Paul finds a natural opportunity for his witness when he finds the statue to the unknown god. He resonates with much of what the people of Athens already believe and affirms them for it. Certainly this is a respectful approach. He goes on to explain his particular joy, that God sent Jesus to show humanity how to live and to give the invitation into Christ's victory over death. At this point, (read through to verse 34), Paul loses some of his audience. After all, the idea that someone was raised from the dead was and is bizarre.  Some of the crowd, however, want to hear more. The same thing happens when we share our faith. It's fine if people don't see things our way. Our job is simply to be respectful and "ready with an answer" it's God's job to do the convincing!

I have a good friend of another faith. She and I share many values and beliefs, but they are expressed in different words and through a different culture. I don't press my belief and she doesn't press hers. We are both open to seeing and hearing God in each other. I'm not waiting for her to convert, I'm just sharing the reason for my hope as best I can, anything else is up to God. This feels like a natural and relevant way for me to be a witness in our multi-cultural society.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Living Stones or Weapons?

Lectionary Passages for May 18, 2014. Acts 7:55-60, Ps 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

Remember building forts as a child? I built them with blankets and couch cushions at home, sticks and rocks when we were camping, snow in the winter, straw bales when I was big enough to heft them around. My Dad built us kids a playhouse, also a kind of permanent fort. There was always something kind of magical about these play structures. It was fun, but now when I think about it, it was also an expression of a natural human desire for security. Kids play at building houses and forts at least partly because of that urge toward being safe.
Psalm 31 speaks of God as a strong fortress, built of rock, a place to be physically and spiritually safe. A child inside their fort and under the parent’s good care.
1 Peter refers to Jesus as a ‘living stone’, the cornerstone of the church, God’s home in the world. All of us are also living stones to be built around that cornerstone, leaning on it for support. Even when we crumble, the corner remains and can be built on again. It is a comforting and lasting image!
But then, there is a disturbing picture in Acts. The rocks here are not part of a protection, fortress, or house.  Here they are weapons used to kill Stephen, a faithful and productive disciple of Jesus. Stephen had been preaching, teaching, and healing. The result of his work was that the church was growing. The powerful religious leaders in the synagogue were concerned with these “Jesus freaks”, worried that they were leading people astray and worried about their own hold on power.  Stephen preaches to them, going through their own long history of faith-a faith shared by Stephen. Stephen accuses them of being stale in their beliefs and not open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  At this point it doesn’t matter that Stephen largely agrees with all the same faith tenets-they are just angry with his challenge of their authority. Rocks are weapons.
Finally, in John, Jesus refers to dwelling places and says that he goes to prepare them. These are safe places in the house of God where safety and care are assured. (Note, this is the only lectionary passage that doesn’t actually refer to rocks. God is building with something else!)
Reading all these passages, I wonder what we do with our “rocks”? Do we use our lives, talents, and abilities to build safety? Do we anchor ourselves against a firm cornerstone? Do we build each other up, or do we use our rocks as weapons when we disagree or challenge each other?

“…like living stones, let yourself be built into a spiritual house…once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (From the 1 Peter reading.)

Monday, 5 May 2014

A Granola-Hippy-Communal Picture

Lectionary Readings for May 11, 2014. Acts 2:42-47, Ps 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

Here is the story of the beginnings of the church. After Peter shared the story of Jesus, crucified and risen, many people wanted to know how to respond. "Repent and be baptized..." is the answer given in verse 38. Many people do this and the Acts story for this week is the "what next" part of the tale. The 'repenters' meet every day for study, fellowship, prayer, and eating together. They start seeing God's hand in everything. They sell possessions and give to anyone who had need. The love they freely show isn't targeted "evangelism", it's just Jesus followers being themselves, and this attracts others and the church grows naturally.

The response to Jesus' story is to form a community of sharing. The people meet in the temple, and in their houses. They are reportedly in favour with everyone, not just the baptized in-crowd.

It's an idyllic picture, conjuring up all the good parts of community, of sharing, and the excitement of starting something new. It's great to enjoy the 'honeymoon' of idealism here at the start of the church, but it's hard to read this and not be cynical, searching for problems, knowing that they will come, finding reasons to say we can't do things the way this first church did. What will happen when people take advantage of the system? Who decides where the 'common purse" gets used? What about when people quarrel? Did these people think Jesus' return was going to happen in their lifetimes? Why do I easily relegate this granola-hippy-communal picture into the category of impractical and undoable?

Of course this "idyllic" community is going to face challenges. I read somewhere that "persons are smart, people are stupid" and there is something to that. Where ever a group of people have to work together, whether in families, or organizations, there will be problems to work through, dumb decisions, betrayals, hurtful actions. I wonder, however, if my immediate leap to cynicism is a bit of a cop-out, a way to justify/remain comfortable with life in an imperfect church. I wonder if I'm looking for excuses to keep all my stuff to myself. Do I really believe this picture of happy sharing in community is so unrealistic that I make an excuse for myself to not bother with striving for improvement?

On the less cynical side, it is in the church community that I have experienced glimpses of this ideal community. When someone connected to the church needs help, there are people who reach out. Many members of the church give generously to support a great variety of charities (fitting into the category of helping all who have need...). Many members give time and caring to each other, and reach out in their home communities too. I think we often don't realize how remarkable, how counter-cultural, this really is! Sometimes we are so busy looking for problems and being cynical that we make ourselves overly near-sighted and critical.

For myself, reading this passage today, I want to set aside the inner critic and celebrate the bits of the ideal I do see in the church. The caring questions, the knowledge that people are praying for each other, the giving that happens when a need is expressed, the casseroles that arrive for someone who needs help, the real joy and grief shared between people who are not related biologically, but are family through the church, the voluntary giving of time and skills to better the whole community.  These things are so much a part of who we are as Jesus followers. We certainly aren't perfect, but we do get little tastes of what is possible. Instead of being cynical about today's story, I'd like to view it as an ideal to work towards. We likely won't ever achieve it entirely, but every little bit counts.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Tricky conversations about love and in love.

Lectionary Passages for May 4. Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1Peter1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

One of the reasons I reflect on the lectionary scriptures each week is to help me to think about life. I want preaching in the church to be relevant to what is going on in the various communities I am part of and hear about every day. Whether I am the preacher or a listener, thinking about the scriptures in my current context is helpful!

Last week and tonight, a small group (made up of representation from various branches/committees as well as anyone else who was interested to come) gathers to talk about issues of sexuality and the church. The discussion is based on the "Being a Faithful Church 5" document which can be found on the Mennonite Church Canada website.

A few things have captured my interest. Firstly, both the paper and our conversations are somewhat lacking in focus, simply because the topic is so broad and we all are touched by the issues, sometimes painfully. This is a huge conversation! Secondly, one bit that rises to the surface of the discussion is our constant need to respect each other so that real connections are possible. We are speaking about things that are intimate and deeply part of our relationships, identity, and faith. These conversations have been good so far, good practice for us as we express beliefs, thoughts and feelings, and struggle with fears that arise when we are different. How we treat each other as we disagree is absolutely crucial!

1 Peter calls us to holy living, and affirms that God is the one who judges all people impartially. In light of divergent views on issues, the reminder that God is the judge is helpful. Our job is to discuss, discern, and do our best, but ultimately God will judge us based on our deeds (verse 17). That is certainly a call to an attitude of humility. Peter goes on to say we are to love one another deeply from the heart. It is good to remember this love is based on a mutual striving to obey God. The following verse asks us to put away malice, slander, envy, and insincerity. We are asked to put away aspects of behaviour and attitude that hurt others. A good thing to remember both as we engage in touchy discussions and as we speak about them to others after the fact.

In Acts, it is again Peter who urges the faithful (in this case a wide diversity of Jews he describes as being from all nations 2:5) to respond to God with repentance. Then they are to engage in teaching and fellowship, eating and sharing together and praying.  They are to live together in peace, engaging each other hospitably, and striving to be true to God.

It's easy to have peace in small homogeneous groups, but the church is never this way, and it shouldn't be this way! Somehow the church is called to be a hospitable place in spite of all of us with our divergent views and differing ideas. We should always be welcoming new people among us. And that means we will be having people at all stages of their faith life, people of varying backgrounds, etc...joining us and continually "upsetting our apple cart." That is great, at least in theory. In practice, we have to keep working on respecting, loving, and hearing each other. Our core is the unity that Christ gives us, we strive to follow his example and teachings.

We are not without guidance in how to get along. The scriptures, like those we read this week, continually urge us to love each other. Working that out when there are differing views and touchy issues is exactly what the church is called to do! While discussing sexuality and all the surrounding issues is not easy, it has, so far, been good practice at having important conversations in a good way! With God's help, we pray that it continues to be so!

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Unless I see...I will not believe.

Lectionary Readings for April 27, 2014. Acts 2: 14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

The disciples are scared. They all ran away when Jesus was arrested because they were rightly frightened to be associated with a condemned man. The Romans and the high priests were formidable enemies, so the disciples hid. Now the tomb is empty, Peter, one other disciple, and Mary of Magdala had all seen it, but only Mary stayed behind and saw the risen Jesus.

Here in John 20, the disciples are still afraid and hiding. Maybe they just didn't understand and thought the body had been removed. Maybe they thought they would be blamed (like in Matthew's account where the story was spread that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body). Perhaps they had trouble believing that Mary had actually spoken with Jesus. At the very least, they certainly didn't know what to do next. Until they all saw Jesus, they simply couldn't get their heads around the fact that he was alive.

Thomas always gets a bad rap for doubting, yet all he asks for is the same thing that it took for the others to believe. He wants to see.

It should be enough for us that there are trusted witnesses, throughout history, who have passed on the story and lived their lives believing and following Jesus.But it is not enough for most of us, we are like Thomas, we need to experience Jesus before we can say; "My Lord and my God!"

And it seems very hard for the upper and middle class of us to claim that experience. I don't think we are very good at trusting God, at relying on God, and we are certainly not good at realizing that our lives are not truly in our control. While there are many poor people who also don't believe, overall I wonder if belief might come easier to those who have no other hope, no other way to "control" their lives.

1 Peter speaks of the great hope that has come into the world through Jesus' resurrection. The hope that suffering and death are overcome through him. That great joy can be had even in the midst of problems. Peter says; "even though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy..." v. 8.  Peter is speaking to a persecuted people. Victory over suffering is a theme throughout the letter. Perhaps they believe, even though they didn't see, because belief is hope that things will change.

Seeing and hearing from others is a very important way that my faith gets fed. Experiencing "God moments", times when I feel God is near and helping or guiding or encouraging me, those moments help feed my belief. I think in my own way, I am Thomas. I need to see.

What great hope keeps you going and gives you joy? What do you need to see to believe? How do you handle the times when you aren't seeing evidence of God?

Monday, 14 April 2014

Faith hinges on a shocking event.

Easter 2014 Lectionary Readings: Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Col.3:1-4, John 20:1-18 or Matt. 28:1-10

The Easter event is the high point of the Christian story. Our faith hinges here, our belief that Jesus is Lord over death gives us hope in new life, new possibilities, new humanity.

The symbols of new life surround us. Bunnies, eggs, fresh green grass, and pussy-willows speak of new birth after the long sleep of winter. These symbols, however, are limited. We expect them. We know that the seasons circle and as miraculous as plant growth and baby animals are, they are by no means surprising!

The Easter story is different. It was unexpected and shocking. Jesus was DEAD. Completely and totally stuck through with a sword for insurance kind of stone cold gone. When we preach these same scriptures each year, it's easy to slip into platitudes and traditional messages. After all, we know this story and we have our certain ways that we've "always done Easter." Tradition is good, but we shouldn't think of the resurrection as a circular, expected event. IT IS SHOCKING!

The resurrection brings earthshaking hope to otherwise hopeless people. Because Jesus has power over death, there is hope that dead and rotten parts of our lives and world are actually salvageable through him. The unimaginable to us is possible for God. Hallelujah!

I tried to read these scriptures with fresh eyes, and I did notice some "new to me" things. I am more familiar with the John account than Matthew and had sort of conflated the two in my mind. It's good to take each account on its own again, to catch what that particular writer was trying to say.

John has the disciples confused, not understanding. Peter and the other disciple see the empty tomb, and verse 8 says; "he saw and believed." What he believed, at first, was Mary's initial thought that Jesus' body had been taken. The walk home must have been tortuous for the two men. They had not only lost their leader, the stolen body would have destroyed any shred of hope that Jesus would rise like Lazarus. They needed a body for it to be raised! Mary, because she stayed at the tomb and was greeted by Jesus, was able to make that same journey home with much lighter feet!

Matthew is dramatic! An earthquake, stunned guards, and angels who speak directly to the two Marys. While the women are running home with the angels' message, they get stopped along the way by Jesus himself who repeats the instructions to go tell the other disciples. Then there is the interesting bit where some of the guard who had seen the events are bought off by the priests and elders so they would not witness. But the women are not stopped, and neither is their witness! (I love that while the world dismissed the importance of the women, Jesus did not! And I guess that because he had always valued them, so the disciples were also able to hear and value their words even in a culture where women's testimony was often discounted.)

This shocking and hopeful news of life where there was death is meant to change us. "So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above...." Colossians 3:1  A shocking, hopeful change is there for us!

He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Homework has to happen.

Lectionary Readings for Palm Sunday. Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 31:9-16, Phil2:5-11, Matt. 26:14-278:66, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Matt 21:1-11

I'm amazed at how much more than basics are expected from our public schools. On top of equipping children with knowledge, schools work to teach respect, citizenship, teamwork, health, and more. Teachers are expected to handle (and solve) behavioural problems. Schools have extra activities to keep students constructively busy and out of trouble. But even at 6 hours or more each day, it's not enough. Homework has to happen, and above all, parents and communities are needed to successfully educate and develop a child's potential.

It's interesting to compare what we expect of school to what we expect of church. One hour each Sunday isn't enough. It's not enough to know the Bible, it can't provide the amount of teaching and reflection it takes to keep faith growing, and it doesn't offer the space for practical application and correction that is needed to hone ideas and skills.Homework has to happen, and above all, parents and communities are needed for any of us to successfully grow and develop our faith potential.

One hour is certainly not enough this time of year, when we are contemplating the climax of the Christian story. There has to be some homework this week if we want to learn and grow from the story.

The Matthew reading is long, reflecting the importance of the Passion story being heard in its entirety. Chances are, most churches aren't going to read all this, and pastors aren't going to try to preach all this on any one Sunday. For our one-hour worship services, we have to focus more tightly.and depend on (and encourage) people to dig in outside of Sunday morning.

Reading through the whole Passion story in Matthew, I noticed a few things I don't see when I have to focus on small bits on a Sunday morning. I noticed that two of my favourite bits of the story, where Jesus heals the slave's chopped off ear, and when a criminal dying beside Jesus confesses, these parts are both missing from Matthew's account. They are also missing from Mark and John. Only Luke "softens" the story with the healing and the last minute salvation. Matthew leaves us contemplating failure. Here, nothing is fixed until Easter.

Matthew also deals the most harshly with Judas. Judas repents, throws his payment back at the priests, and then kills himself. In the other gospels, he simply isn't mentioned after the betrayal.

The rest of the disciples don't perform much better than Judas. They all fall asleep in the garden when Jesus needs them, they run away when he is arrested, and Peter verbally denies Jesus even after being warned that he would do it! Reading the whole story emphasizes the multiple failures of all the disciples. They only stick close to Jesus when everything is going well, when the palms wave and the table is set. When things get challenging, they bail. The impact is sobering, humanity fails. We fail.

Our failure is the note that sounds at the cross, and it leaves us yearning for Easter, waiting for the hope that Jesus' triumph kindles. The biggest difference I see between Judas and the rest of the failures, is that the rest of the disciples stick around for the whole story.

I hope we can encourage each other to stick with the whole story this week, to hear it in its entirety so we are ready for Easter morning and the impossibly real hope that comes even after we fail.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Exposing Skeletons in the Closet

Lectionary passages for April 6, 2014. Ezekiel37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

"Them bones, them bones, them dry bones..." the song runs through my head when I read Ezekiel 37. The story of the valley of bones coming to life invokes a creepy fascination and bizarre mental images. It terrifies the kid in me, yet the idea of going from death to life instead of the other (normal) way is completely intriguing!

I've always heard this interpreted positively, emphasizing renewed life, but today I have a different feeling about it, and it leans more toward terror because there is pain in exposing bones, bringing them to life, and learning to live with a new (even if better) reality.

This past weekend, I spent 2 days at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Edmonton learning about the impact of the residential school system (1870-1996, 150,000 children) on First Nations people in Canada. Sitting in on sharing circles, I heard survivors speak of the horrors of being torn from their families when they were 4-6 years old and having their clothes, hair, names, and language taken away upon entering the school. Hunger, sickness, confusion, abuse of all sorts, and isolation was all meant to 'kill the Indian in the child.'. The "dry bones" of this legacy of horror are in evidence in the tears of mothers who lament that because of the damage, they were unable to parent their own children. It is in evidence in the many survivors who spoke of turning to alcohol or drugs to dull the pain of remembered trauma, stolen children, and to stop the ceaseless onslaught of nightmares. It continues to affect the children today because of the broken families, the lost identities and culture, and the ingrained racism that blames people for the horrible heritage forced upon them.

The TRC was meant to enable the process of bringing renewed life to these dead bones, but I can't get the words of one survivor out of my mind. She was desperately weeping as she said; "I thought that telling my story would help, but it's made it worse..." The anger and hurt was all there, but instead of being buried, it was exposed and she was actively and publicly stalled in her agony. The residential school was decades in her past, but her pain was immediate and at the level of crisis. Renewed life doesn't happen just because story flesh is put on the bones of the past. Something more is needed.

The truth really hurts. More and more bones are being uncovered and refleshed by the commission, but it's not enough if that's where it stops.

Many people have skeletons in their closets that they don't talk about, betrayals, abuses, bad habits, loss, regrets, and other unmentionables. When we can keep our closet doors closed, we pretend to get on with life as if we are okay. Skeletons are quiet, they don't move around, but we don't like to look at them. What would happen if flesh and life was added to what we keep hidden? I imagine voices would come from the closet, and when they find the door handle, bodies would walk out and enter the room. Individuals and families and communities would learn hard things and have to deal with them.

The TRC has blown Canada's closet wide open. Many Native people are courageously telling their stories and it hurts. It hurts desperately. Over and over we heard both survivors and leaders and the commissioners say that truth telling is only the first step, and despite the pain, it is the easiest step. That is terrifying, even as it is hopeful. The hard work begins now. Reconciliation is the work of responding to the truth. As a country and as individuals, are we going to try to stuff these stories and these people back into the closet, or are going to hear them and walk alongside?

In Ezekiel's story, the bones don't really come to life until God's spirit fills them with the breath of life. Story flesh on bones isn't enough, people need to be infused by God's spirit, by the Creator's spirit. Over and over at the TRC, survivors who were on a healing path talked of the importance of the Creator. I think they would resonate with Ezekiel's vision.

I still like the bones coming to life image, but I wonder how many of us have the courage to do more than just listen to the story. What would it take for our skeletons to come to life? What would we deal with if our hidden stories were told? What kind of reconciliation is needed in our lives as individuals and how do we start down that path?

I am glad to have been a part of the TRC event, but it was only a beginning. I got a glimpse of my country's closet, and there are valleys full of bones that are getting up, walking, and getting life from the Creator. Will I find a way to be part of that new life? Will our society and churches respond with true lament, confession, and a way to make sure this will not happen again?