Monday, 24 February 2014

Of Doubt and Hope

Lectionary Passages for March 2, 2014. Exodus 24:12-18, Ps. 2 or Ps. 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matt. 17:1-9
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

There are so many parallels between the Moses and Jesus stories, and these readings of Exodus and Matthew show a clear one.  In both, there is a transfiguration at the top of a mountain. In both, an aspect of God is seen by key leaders, who eventually pass the message on to the people. In Exodus 24:9-10, 70 elders of Israel see God before Moses and Joshua go up the mountain and disappear into the clouds.  In Matthew, Jesus is transfigured in front of the disciples and they get to see Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. (another interesting bit-in Exodus the leaders eat together, in Matthew Jesus touches the disciples. Both are actions linked to physical being, emphasizing that this is more than a spiritual or mental experience.)
What catches me here is the focus on leaders. These people are enormously privileged, they get to experience God up close while surrounded by other leaders who see the same things. Yet, we know that in both cases, these leaders still have doubt and struggle. The Israelite leaders go on to forge a golden calf, warping the newly received laws and betraying God. Jesus’ disciples end up betraying and abandoning him at the crucifixion. People fail. God has to come in and rescue people over and over again.

Struggle and doubt are part of our relationship with God. Many of us have experiences of God and yet we struggle. There are times when we feel God is close and comforting, times when we are awestruck at creation and can’t help but know of the Creator, times when the miraculous touches us, and times when someone’s story of divine encounter sounds the strings of our soul. There are times when we despair and know that only God can speak into the mess of the world. All these experiences could be seen as ‘transfigurations”, places where God is revealed to us. Yet, like the leaders of the Old and New Testaments, we doubt and fail. Like them, we are also still called to carry the story of faith forward. God must see something in us that is hard for us to see in ourselves-something that rises above (or from) doubt and shines.

Psalm 2 talks about leaders of this world, and the futility of the counsel they take with each other. It is kind of apt as we bask in the afterglow of the Olympics, a time when world leaders try to pretend all is right between them, or at least it’s all okay for 2 weeks. The leaders of Canada, Mexico, and the United States have also just met too, and that certainly isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. (I wonder, cynically, if this meeting was planned so that it would be overshadowed by the feel good of the Olympics!) Here again, in scripture and current news, we see examples of human failure. Of relationships that don’t work, of power and problems, of leaders who don’t measure up to the unrealistic hype of elections. The psalmist, however, still concludes with hope; “Salvation belongs to the Lord, Thy blessing is upon Thy people.”  It’s hard to avoid doubt, but the hope here is easier to grab!

Finally, I Peter refers to the eyewitnesses of God’s majesty. When people experience God, there is a duty to share it with each other. Eyewitnesses have an important part in telling God’s story, however, the emphasis is on what God intends, not what people end up doing. Power is actually taken away from any individual leader in the statements (v20-21) that no prophecy is useful when it is of private interpretation. If it is the pronouncement of any one human leader it is misguided. God’s words of instruction and blessing are for all, not any select few. The experiences and words glorify God, not the speaker. In the end, it is God who saves us, not any human being. There is the hope that finally conquers doubt.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Immensely Hard Teaching!

Lectionary Passages for Feb. 23, 2014. Lev. 19:1-2, Ps. 119:33-40, 1 Cor. 3:10-11, 16-23, Matt 5:38-48
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

It's been a sad week for news listening. There are ongoing tribal conflicts in many parts of Africa, people tortured in North Korea, "Christians" and "Muslims" killing each other in Syria. Where atrocity is visited on a group, there is often retaliation. Then more retaliation. The cycle gets harder and harder to break. It' is impossible to understand how people can be so awful to each other, and how we don't seem to understand what it takes to stop the downward spirals.

The scriptures this week are all about how we deal with each other-especially when things are not going well. Matthew 38 is the familiar passage where Jesus tells his follows not to respond "eye for eye", but to break the cycle by refusing to fight back in kind. It's important to note that Jesus is not prescribing neutrality, he is pushing the wronged party to turn their cheek and go the extra distance. It's not good enough to simply not respond, we are to respond with generous kindness. This is an immensely hard teaching! Choking down anger when we are wronged is next to impossible. It feels like a triumph sometimes just to bite our tongues and refrain from making a situation worse, let alone finding the fortitude to respond in the ways Jesus asks. I've always wondered too, how far should we take this teaching? Jesus is referring to the specific instance of a Roman soldier requiring a citizen of the subjugated nation to carry his gear, a legal (if insulting) act. But what about the people in a village in Africa, whose families are killed by a neighbouring tribe? What about those Koreans whose loved ones were taken and tortured? This teaching seems ridiculous in the face of such evil.

And yet, where will the violence ever stop if everyone insists on their right to fight back?

In the Corinthians passage, Paul addresses a quarreling church, reminding them they should be focused on Christ, not themselves or their leaders. The leaders are only transient workers, the people are only a field in which God's work should grow. It's never about the one, it's about the health of the whole. It's a humbling reminder to keep perspective-another difficult thing to do in the midst of turmoil. Again, however, this keeping of proper perspective is a way forward, a way to break the cycle of jealousies and quarreling. It must be about Christ. Verse 18 points out that none of us is wise-no one person has the answer and we have to constantly be open to learning.

A few years ago, I read a book called; The Lucifer Effect; Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. by Philip Zimbardo. It was a real "changer" for me.  Zimbardo, (a social psychologist and creator of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment), does a thorough job explaining how any one of us could 'go bad' given the wrong set of situational pressures. After reading this, I resonate with Paul's assertion that none of us is wise (v 18). It was frightening for me to realize that I could also be capable of atrocities, not just petty things, but real harm to myself and others. Just being aware of this reality is already helpful! It is difficult for anyone to "buck the system" and actually manage to turn the other cheek, to react with kind generosity in the face of evil, and to break the cycles of retribution and harm.We have to help people see opportunities to stop hurting each other so that negative cycles are broken.

In spite of the difficulty, sometimes people can change things. Zimbardo calls them heroes. One of the best ways to help create the opportunities for heroes to emerge is to educate people. To help all of us understand that no one is exempt from going bad, to help each of us understand we can make choices to break downward cycles. Reading scriptures like Matthew and Corinthians (and Leviticus which sets up humane structures to guard against abuse...) and letting them soak into our understandings gives us options-choices of how to respond. These choices may be sacrificial, but somewhere the cycle has to stop. It isn't all about us. It is about how God wants us to respond, so that others who come behind us are not still caught in the negativity.

Friday, 7 February 2014

In the midst of the mess of life

Readings for Feb. 16, 2014: Deut 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Cor. 3:1-9, Matt 5:21-37.
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Psalm 119 has captured my interest this week. At first, when I read the eight verses listed for this week, (I used the NRSV) I was caught up with the "happy" word. What is happiness? Is it having a spouse, a white-picket fence, two kids and a dog?  Is it feeling smiley and giggly? Is it really the thing we are supposed to pursue in life? (Yes, there is some sarcasm here! The second part of verse 8 certainly tells us that not all is happy-the psalmist worries he might be abandoned by God. Not happy.)

I guess I think of "happy" as a fluffy word, lacking substance. While it is fun and I revel in being happy at times, happiness is also ephemeral, frothy, and often temporary. Words like joy and contentment, on the other hand, seem to have more depth and endurance to them. I can be content, even though I'm going through a rough patch. I can have a deep attitude of joy, even when my surface cannot smile.

Other versions of this Psalm (like the NIV, and NKJ) use the word "blessed" instead of happy. That's a deeper word, something that exists beyond the moment and doesn't rely on transitory feelings.

The second thing that caught my interest is the length of the Psalm. This is 176 verses long! It is exhaustive and all-encompassing. Apparently the psalm is composed of 22 sections representing each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each section is 8 lines long and they all begin the same way. There are 8 different synonyms for "law", showing the important place God's word has in the psalmists outlook. This is an exquisitely crafted piece of poetry, but some of the beauty gets lost in translation!

Not wanting to stay in the happy fluff floating on top, I plunged in and read the whole Psalm and was amazed at the great variety of emotion, experience, and teaching that is here. (Lots of great descriptive language too!) This "happy" psalmist experiences his soul clinging to dust (v 25) and he needs to be brought back to life, he has detractors (v 69-70), he is impatient while he waits for God to be the judge (v 84), he delights in the law (v 92), he asks for teaching and understanding (v 33-34) he cries streams of tears when he sees God ignored (136), and in the end he admits he has gone astray and he asks God to find him (v 176).

The Psalm is a whole worship service in itself, the beginning and the end and all the praise and confession and joy in between. It is a celebration of God's love and care as expressed in scripture. It is an invitation to delight in God's word and to gain the blessings that come from it. Much more than just happy, this is enduring contentment and joy in the midst of the mess of life.

This week the Psalm was a blessing to me. (Right now I'm happy too, but the blessing part will stick around long after the happy fades!)