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.