Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Not Pastel Piety or Nauseous Niceness!

 Our scriptures for August 30 are Galatians 5:13-21, Titus 2:1-14, and the stories of David from 1 Samuel, 24-27.

The "fruit of the Spirit" theme for this Sunday is self-control. It's hard not to wince a little, hearing that we will consider this theme, after all, it's something all of us "fleshy" people struggle with for ourselves. Struggles to eat less, drink less, exercise more, waste less time, speak up, stop talking, quit looking at internet junk, love more, complain less...

Isn't it funny (not haha funny) how thoughts of self-control easily go to a self-centred place? I want to be skinnier, healthier, loved by others...What about how the exercise of self control makes for a better community?

Isn't it funny, (again, not haha), how the idea of self-control feels like a list of "should nots?"

Paul is definitely not about should nots, but about true freedom. "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." (Gal.5:13) His definition of freedom is to give up those selfish desires or habits that enslave us (like alcohol for alcoholics, gossip for the idle or those of low self-esteem, junk food for the overweight...). Those habits are all things that start as self-indulgence, maybe even almost harmlessly so, but they easily grow to destroy individuals, families, and communities. We all have stories of hurt caused by gossip, jealousy and nastiness between siblings, quarrelling and cliques. (Interesting that jealousy and quarrelling are listed along with fornication and idolatry. All these things are dangerous, none are harm free!)

True freedom, Paul says is giving up those things that destroy us and others, and becoming SLAVES to each other. I highlight the word slaves, because the irony is so blatant. To be free, we have to be slaves to what is right, to self-control. Freedom is knowing that we do not have to live with the consequences of alcoholism, or gossip, or anger, because we have not indulged in them or have broken free from their control. We may still suffer as a result of these things happening around us, but we should not be the ones causing the hurt once we accept this new kind of freedom. Paul urges the use of self-control to stay away from that which harms, and then to rejoice in the freedom of good relationships, of loyalty and love. It's a radical view of freedom!

I think, however, that we might have to be careful with these lists of what to do and what not to do, Paul is not trying to set up a rigid set of rules for us to use to judge one another, to decide who has self-control and who does not. Rigid rules don't work. Andrew Prior (from an article on TextWeek on Gal. 5) warns that it can be easy for individuals and groups to become self-righteous about how they follow the rules, saying that :"rules and niceties can be the exact opposite of freedom in Christ." When the emphasis is on rules, he warns that our faith can be a pastel piety and a nauseous niceness! This is not welcoming for people who struggle and need help, for addicts seeking a faith home and support, for people who desire to be open about their problems and needs. Also, how often are we judgemental when we hear of someone who struggles with addiction and yet do not see the problem when we ourselves gossip about it in ways that are by no means redemptive, understanding, or constructive?

I find encouragement in Paul's belief that the people of the Galatian church are capable of freedom in Christ. (Quite a lot of the letter is chastising them, yet Paul is hopeful.) The church everywhere is full of real people. We all have real problems. All of us can find places where we indulge in the works of the flesh as listed in verse 19. All of us can find encouragement in the goal of true freedom, freedom to use self control to practise love for each other. A love that is characterised, not by judgement, but by encouragement, by love , joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. There are no laws against such things, and it's so freeing to focus of a healthy list of shoulds instead of  on a restrictive list of should nots.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Power Under Control

Scriptures for Aug. 23 at First Mennonite Gal 5:22, 1 Sam. 16:14-23, Matt.5:5, Ps. 10: 7-18, John 10:1-21.

This summer our congregation is doing a series on the fruit of the Spirit. On Sunday the fruit theme is gentleness.

Do we know what gentleness is? I wrote up a list of synonyms to see what came to mind for me;
A soft breeze.
A quiet voice.
A non-forceful approach.

What surprises me is that my list is short. It also feels rather weak and wimpy. I usually have no trouble at all thinking up much longer and more varied lists when I do this exercise. Gentleness is a bit hard to define, so I'll try the exercise again to see if I can come up with what gentleness is not.

Angry words.
"Ladder climbing"
Grabby, a hard handshake.

It seems easier to think of what gentleness is not, than to come up with a good description of what it is. The scripture passages for today refer to meekness. I have never thought of gentleness as meekness, and yet the words seem to go together or are interchangeable in the Bible. To me, meekness equates with a hesitation to speak up, and I'm not sure that gentleness has to have that kind of "hang back" quality. In fact, sometimes gentleness means courage, speaking up, and taking risks. Maybe meekness does too. So why do we easily think of gentleness, or meekness, as something that is weak, tame, or deficient in courage? Can a gentle person ever be a successful leader, a politician, a business person? Does the more gentle person always get taken advantage of?

The Bible describes gentleness as "power under control." (I am indebted to an article from www.theologyofwork.org/blessed are the meek, for some of these thoughts. It's a good one to google!)  The article says that gentleness is power under control; 1) It is a refusal to inflate our own self-estimation. 2) It is reticence to assert ourselves for ourselves.

 In Numbers 12:3, Moses is described as the most humble (meek in some translations) man on the face of the earth-yet he was definitely not a wall-flower personality! I never would have included Moses in my top ten list of gentle people in the Bible! Jesus, in Matt. 11:29, is described as gentle and humble in heart-yet he is also the one who, in Matt. 21:12, clears out the temple, overturns tables, and calls the merchants "thieves." He was never hesitant to speak up, to condemn injustice,...or to let the children come to him!

In today's scripture from John, Jesus is the good shepherd who doesn't hide from the sheep like a thief, but enters through the main gate. The sheep recognize him and follow him. He is willing to risk everything, even his life, to protect the sheep. And here is a verse I found particularly interesting, "No one takes it (life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord, I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again." (v.18)

This is power under control. Gentleness here is a choice. It is a choice made for the good of those who need to be cared for. There is nothing weak, or deficient in courage about this kind of gentleness. Gentleness is using our power to care for others. It is rescuing those who cannot do it for themselves. It is a choice to be calm instead of angry, quiet instead of loud, giving instead of pushy, co-operative instead of combative. Above all, it is acting in the best interests of others.

So I can answer my earlier question. A gentle person can be a leader, a politician, a business person. In fact, we need these powerful people to be gentle, to be in control of their power for the good of others. Sometimes it might mean being loud and forceful like Jesus was in the temple-because it was for the good of people. The temple was restored to it's purpose, and the poor who were coming to worship were not to be taken advantage of! Sometimes gentleness means biting back hard words, or refusing to do negative ad campaigns, or not sacrificing workers to the idea of maximizing profits. I wish we could celebrate our leaders who lead like this!

Of course we know that often the gentle and principled leaders may not survive when the more cutthroat, dishonest, and self-driven leaders are their competition. But who would you rather have as your boss? Which of these types of leaders would have the respect and love of their workers, citizens, and even their families? (When Jesus says the 'meek will inherit the earth' I think this is what he is talking about. He is talking about the building of real, healthy communities where caring and gentleness set the tone for economies and politics instead of the brutal and selfish strategies of those who lead for glory and power for themselves.)

Gentleness is not weakness. It is a different kind of strength that is maybe hard to understand, takes practice to implement, and a lifetime to understand how to choose it. Sometimes gentleness is decisive action, like Jesus in the temple, or the good shepherd dying for the sheep. Sometimes gentleness is a soft breeze, a warm hand, and a quiet word of encouragement. These things are power too, and build up the strength and gentleness capacity of the community.

Let's strive to be gentle with each other, to choose to use the power we have, whether it is our money, our words, or our time, to build up our families and communities in the style of the good shepherd. The gentleness Jesus showed in life and death is courageous and full of love for others. That's a challenging definition of gentleness. Maybe now I can go back and expand my list of what gentleness is.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Loyalty; a dusty antique?

Scriptures for Sunday Aug. 16 worship at FMC. Gal. 5:22, 1 Sam 20, Matt. 25:14-30, Lam. 3:22-24
Theme: Faithfulness

What does faithfulness look like? In a society where the individual is at the center of decisions, where the possibility of litigation is a first thought before a church program can begin, where people change careers like clothing, and serial monogamy is perhaps becoming normative, what is the value of faithfulness? Is loyalty important or an antique to admire, but leave on the shelf?

Galatians lists faithfulness as a fruit of the Spirit, and the Samuel and Matthew stories present stories of faithfulness, from two very different perspectives.

Samuel 20 is a dramatic account of faithfulness between friends, a faithfulness that comes at great cost to Jonathan, who makes a difficult and daring choice to side with David instead of King Saul, his father. From our vantage point, relying on a Biblical account biased toward David, it is easy for us to choose the young, brave, and charismatic David over the jealous, deranged, and delusional Saul. Jonathan, however, had to make his choice from the midst of chaos, divided loyalties, and  political ambition. He loves David, believes him innocent of treason, and is sworn to friendship with him. On the other hand, he is also loyal to the king and is expected to sit the throne himself someday. He probably loves his father, too. His decision to stand by David, and to try to reason with Saul is a choice he knows will likely cost him the throne. He knows it will incur Saul's anger. (Saul gets so angry he even throws a spear at him.) Jonathan still chooses to be faithful to David. He also chooses to be faithful to Saul, remaining in the court and continuing to fight where Saul sends him. It must have been a difficult place to stay. His only consolation is that in all of this, he believes he and David have acted faithfully in the sight of God. "the Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever." (v. 42) In chapter 31, Saul and his sons, including Jonathan, are killed in battle. Jonathan's faithfulness to both David and Saul was a brutal choice. It did not lead to an easy life, but it is clear that Jonathan made his choices and faithfully stuck with them, not for himself, but for love of his friend, his God, and his family. His loyalty did not "pay off" for him directly, but years later, it paid off for his descendants, when David honoured his part of their pact.

The story of the talents in Matthew is also a story of faithfulness. The master trusts his 3 servants with his fortune while he is away. This is a significant amount. A "talent" was worth 15-20 years wages for the average labourer! So even the servant who was given one talent, was given a massive trust! (Each servant was given; "according to his ability". This means the master knew that they could handle the responsibility-it was not beyond their skills.) Two of the servants handle the money the way they knew the master would want it handled. When the master gets back, he calls them trustworthy, because they acted according to their skills and their knowledge of him. The third makes excuses. He even insults the master by calling him harsh.This is how he justifies his fear, yet, it doesn't make sense and the master calls him on it. He could have, with minimal effort and no risk, put the money in the bank instead of burying it. That would have made more sense if he truly believed the master was harsh.

(An aside: We might think burying the money was strange, but it was a common practice. It was easy and often make sense for people to do this. In the servants case, it was plain lazy and may have also been self-serving. He couldn't be bothered to act out the part of the faithful servant, even to simply gather interest on the money. I think this hiding of money is still common. Many people have a "mattress stash" or a wallet of cash, or money stuffed under the rug like we found in our home when we pulled up the original carpet. People like to have an emergency fund, a bit of money for a 'rainy day' that only they know about. I wonder if the 3rd servant was thinking of his masters hidden money in this fashion---he'd return it if all went well, but take off with it if he ran into a personal emergency? In any case, he was putting himself first, and the master's possessions and desires were a distant second.)

The third servant wasn't faced with hard decisions like Jonathan was. He lived in security. He was complacent instead of faithful. He put his own convenience ahead of his responsibilities.

Sometimes being faithful is hard, it might mean choosing between God and family expectations. It might mean making people angry. It might mean losing a job or losing face. On the other hand, sometimes being faithful is easy, simply doing something you already have the resources to do. In all cases, faithfulness isn't about doing what is best for "me", but what is the best in God's eyes, what is the best in the long run for God's people.

I don't want to have loyalty and faithfulness as dusty antiques on the shelf. Our time, skills, and resources need to be employed in the difficult and the easy times for the long term good of the whole people. I want to live in a community and world where the majority of people can be depended on to do what is best for the whole, instead of being mainly consumed by their immediate desires.When the master returns, I long to hear those words; "well done, good and trustworthy slave...enter into the joy of your master!"