Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Undress for success!

Oct. 4 Scriptures at First Mennonite Church.  Gen. 2:18-24, Ps. 8, Heb. 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16, Eph 2:11-22

Undress for success! Sounds laughable doesn't it? But I wonder.

When we dress ourselves, it is a form of protection. It is necessary armor to keep us from freezing in the cold or burning in the sun, to hide us from negative attention, to present an identity (protecting from misconceptions)...

Being naked is being vulnerable, nothing is hidden and there are no defenses against attack. We have to fully trust the caregiver, the doctor, our partner, whoever is with us in that moment.

Metaphorically, I like the concept of undressing for success. It's only when I let my defenses down, give up my excuses and accusations and explanations, that I can truly hear the point of view of someone else. I still might not agree with them, but at least I have a chance to understand and I do not inflict hurt on them because I've dropped my weapons too-I give them no reason to wear their own armor.

The Genesis 2 passage stops at verse 24, instead of reading 25 which says; "and the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed." Did the verse get left out because of the reference to nakedness? I think this is a crucial verse. They were completely open, trusting, and unprotected against each other and God. It is a metaphor for the perfect loving and open relationship that is the ideal at creation. No one needs protection, no one has anything to hide, both trust in God.

Ephesians 2 is a passage that also talks about what the ideal relationship might look like among people who want to follow God.. The topic is unity, emphasizing that now, through Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles are wholly acceptable to God and in relationship with each other.

I find it fascinating that the discussion of the sign of inclusion (no longer necessary) is circumcision. This was a physical sign that the person (male of course) belonged to God. The ironic thing is that it was a hidden sign, you can't see it unless the man is naked! In this passage I see a people being set free from secrets. In Christ, all people have access to God, there are no longer people who are "in" and people who are "out". The dividing walls are broken down and we can see each other for what we all are; children of God.

In Christ there are to be no walls between us, and no hidden ideas of in and out. We are "stripped" of the protections of barriers and encouraged toward peace, trust, love, and joint membership in one body-God's people. It is a metaphorical undressing. The community is made strong by it's unity, by it's ability to be vulnerable to each other, to be open and without secrets that do harm to each other.

Jesus made himself completely vulnerable, naked and defenseless. He died because he would not put on the armour of argument, or use the power that was his, or even run away. He made himself perfectly vulnerable to his people and perfectly open to the redeeming and resurrecting hope of God.

Question: What keeps you from being open and vulnerable to others and to God? What "armor" are you wearing that you could be better off without?

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Lord, help me dress for success.

Reading for Sept. 27, First Mennonite Church. Colossians 3:1-17

Dress for success! Look the part! The clothes make the man/woman. Dress codes. School uniforms. Team jerseys. Letter jackets....

I could never be accused of being a "fashionista." Comfort and practicality are the top determiners of my wardrobe. However, I cannot deny the power clothing has over me. Going for a run wearing baggy sweatpants and a shapeless old T-shirt feels hugely different from running in my sleek black Lycra with the bright blue and fuchsia slashes! In the Lycra, I feel like a serious runner, someone who cares about fitness and goes home to a salad and nut lunch. In the sweats, I am the couch potato, overcome with a momentary flash of guilt, running to justify my second bag of Doritos.
Bizarre isn't it?

Maybe not so bizarre, but something we need to understand so we can decide how we wish to act and be. The clothing we put on, the identity dress towards, affects how we act and who we become.

The famous Stanford Prison Experiment (Philip Zimbardo, 1971) powerfully demonstrates how every human being is susceptible to shaping by external forces, to "becoming" the role we wear. I'm particularly interested, here, in the place clothing plays in the experiment.

In the experiment, 24 physically and psychologically healthy young men were randomly assigned either to the role of guard or prisoner. Guards were dressed in military style uniforms and given sunglasses. Prisoners were given shapeless smocks, nylon caps, and numbers. What happened, in a nutshell, was that the young men took on their roles to a frightening degree. Guards quickly became abusive, prisoners took on a victim mentality. The experiment was supposed to last 2 weeks, but was cut short after 6 days because of the obvious psychological damage it was doing to both sets of actors. (Interestingly, it took a courageous outside observer to blow the whistle! Even the experimenters had gotten caught up in their put on identities!)

When we decide we want to be followers of Jesus, there is a "uniform" that can help us become more like him. Colossians 3:9 uses clothing language, saying that you have "stripped off the old self with its practises and have clothed yourself with the new self..." The follower is to get rid of anger, wrath, malice,slander and abusive language and to replace those with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. And when we don't quite manage these things, we reset" (re clothe?) by the action of forgiveness. All of this clothing is available from the one outlet, which is love.

It all sounds good, but we know it takes time and thought to change the wardrobe, to change our actions and to live like the new creations we are in Christ.

The clothing image is trans formative. There is a choice here in what we wear. When I get up in the morning, if I put on my Lycra running suit, I am more likely to go running than if I put on baggy sweats. Likewise, if I get up determined to set aside anger for compassion, and slander for kindness, I am much more likely to be aware of my actions. I may not feel kind, but if I decided to "wear"kindness, my clothing will influence my actions. I will grow into the role of what I have chosen to wear.

Philip Zimbardo said; "Situational variables can exert powerful influences over human behaviour, more so than we recognise or acknowledge." Reading Zimbardo's work has been a helpful, humbling influence n my life. None of us is able to be "good" apart from solid accountability structures, being surrounded with what we want to become, and everyday choices that shape us. Christ gives us a choice about who we want to become. What do we choose?

Physical clothes are easy to put on, to have others see. How can we put on these Colossians clothes?

I think I might put a prayer up on my closet door, to remind me each morning of what I want to choose that will help to shape my identity as a Jesus follower. Something like this (a beginning draft for a poem...)

Lord, help me dress for success.

Give me a little cotton for compassion, to absorb and alleviate pain.

A bit of Teflon, so anger and abuse slips off and doesn't stain.

Accent the outfit with a bit of white, a reminder for me not to fight.

Perhaps a forgiving polyester shirt, I can wash and wear again.

Surround me in the fleecy warmth of love, Your gift of peace from above


Questions: How would your treating someone kindly (even though you do not feel like it, they don't deserve it, you don't like them...) change you?

How did it (or would it) feel if after you have verbally attacked someone, they responded with quiet kindness?

How does this "kindness for unkindness" play out in the church community? can you see hope in this approach to each other?

Thursday, 17 September 2015

You again!

This Sunday, we're not quite back into the regular lectionary readings. The focus of worship will be the theme of; "Hopsitality; Leaving openings in our lives to meet Jesus." Scriptures are: Matt 10:37-42, Lev. 19:34, and Luke 24:13-34. Go ahead and read the scriptures-they're all challenging as we think through Christian hospitality. Today I'm going to tell a couple of stories that you can throw into the mix of thinking around this theme.

What does it mean to welcome another person in Christ's name?

It's easiest to welcome those who look like us, smell like us, think like us. Even then, however, it can be a struggle to welcome or feel welcomed. A number of years ago, I moved into a small town kind of place. I saw a sign advertising a "Boots and Saddle Club" meeting, and all were welcome. I had a horse, and thought this would be a great way to get to know the community, so I walked in to the hall where about 20 people were gathered. I sat down with them. No one said a word to me, the person sitting beside me even lit up a cigarette without asking if I minded. I did. The ironic thing was that the theme of the meeting was; "how do we get new members?" I stayed for the whole meeting. Afterward, no one approached me, so I introduced myself to the chairperson. I was, I think, constructively blunt in saying how I wanted to be a new member, but was disappointed that no one talked to me. In spite of the rough start, I really did end up fitting in and I found a valuable community to belong to-but I had to put in some significant effort!

What if the people who want to belong look different, smell unusual, and have different ways of thinking? What if they don't feel able to introduce themselves? How do we open ourselves to be like Christ to them, or to meet Christ in them?

Debra Dean Murphy relates this story, said to originate in a Russian Orthodox Monastery, of an older monk telling a younger one;

"I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, 'Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?"

This story tickles me because I hear that last sentence in two different ways. One way has an exasperated tone. I'm tired of hearing 'needy' stories, of giving, of feeling like this might be "wasted time." The second way has a joyful tone, I'm curious about the person and I look forward to the surprise revelation of the face of Jesus that often catches me unaware. It's not all about giving to them, it's about learning from them and receiving their gifts.

A question for discussion;Think of a group or individual who is on the receiving end of what you give to the church. (refugees, homeless, people in a women's shelter....). What do you/can you see yourself receiving or learning from them? Are you serving and receiving with an exasperated tone or a joyful tone?

Here is the link for Debra Dean Murphy's very good (and not long) article.


Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Pick up your inheritance!

Passages for Sept. 13 at First Mennonite Church
Psalm 116:1-9, Galatians 5:22-23, Romans 8:12-17, Mark 8:34-38

You get a surprise call from a trusted relative, informing you that a large inheritance has been left in your name. The amount is staggering, you will be financially secure for life. All you have to do is go pick it up.

How do you react to the stunning news! Lottery winners, in the first flush of realization, often say they will quit their job, buy a fancy car, pay off the mortgage, travel the world. The first thoughts are, quite naturally, self serving. Human beings are "hard wired" toward self gratification, and when that is coupled with a consumer centered culture, the results are predictable.

I wonder, however, if after the initial reaction to the inheritance calms down, how would you think about the future? How will this idea of absolute security change the way you live? Will it change who you interact with? Where you live? Your involvements in church and community? What about decision making-do you bow to group discernment or make executive decisions because now you have power?

Would you ever consider not picking up the inheritance?

Romans 8:12-17 is a trusted source that informs the Christian community of an inheritance so large that those who pick it up will be secure for life. "you have received a spirit of adoption...we are children of God...heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ..." This inheritance, however, is different than the lottery. The security is one of spirit and eternal life, not money. The inheritance does not enable self-gratification, but enables self-giving. The adoptees are no longer "slaves" to the desires of human tendency to reward themselves, instead, their eyes are opened to the needs of others.

In studying this passage, I was greatly helped in my understanding by listening to a "Pulpit Fiction" podcast on the passage. The NRSV version of the Bible (my usual go-to) talks about being freed from the "sins of the flesh". That phrase tends to limit our thinking to physical desires, so we think of things like sexual sin, greediness, the misuse of alcohol, to name a few.  The CEB (Common English Bible) translation is different, instead of "sins of the flesh", it says; "selfishness". That is a much more broad, and I think accurate, description of what Paul is getting at. (And fewer of us can claim innocence!)

If accepting this inheritance from God frees us from selfishness, it strongly affects how we handle ourselves into the future. We will use our gifts (all sorts of them) for the good of the community, we live as family with God as parent, we accept that we have not only picked up the rights of children, but have taken on responsibilities within the family.

Being adopted into God's family means spiritual security, knowing that whatever happens in life, our significant spiritual inheritance is secure. Being adopted means being freed from the "rat race" of selfishness that drives so much of humanity. Being adopted means being a part of a healthy family that (even though families have their issues...) is always trying to work at it's issues.

This Romans inheritance is different than the lottery. The promise is tremendous, but it comes with responsibilities and the willingness to work for God and others, instead of being guided by selfishness. I can see why many people would hesitate to pick up this inheritance-but if more people did pick it up...that's the kind of world I want to be part of!

So, will you  or have you picked up the inheritance that changes who you interact with, how you live, where you live, your involvements, your focus in life? Do you accept God's offer to adopt you?

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A Dark Side to Healing

This weekend, many people from First Mennonite Church will be at Camp Valaqua for an annual retreat. A worship service for those remaining in Edmonton for the weekend will be on the theme; "Listening for the Spirit".

Lectionary passages for Sept. 6, 2015. Isaiah 35:4-7, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

I read through these passages trying to keep my ears and eyes open to what the Spirit of God might be trying to say to me at this particular time and place. I try to be open, but I realize that my own experiences, prejudices, opinions, and perceptions always colour the message I receive. There is no such thing as complete objectivity! So the best I can do is pray to be aware of what I bring to these readings, and try to be receptive to having my eyes opened in new ways, if that is what the Spirit is doing.

All the passages today are about God fixing things. the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the desert blooms, prisoners are set free, the downtrodden are helped...This is the stuff of hope and comfort for those who are crippled and oppressed. This is the stuff of hope and comfort too, for those who long to see the world set right. We so often feel helpless and overwhelmed by the scope of the issues we see. We easily put ourselves into the shoes of the underdog, the victims, the ones that God is coming to vindicate. But should we perhaps try to put ourselves into the shoes of the privileged, the perpetrators, those who should take warning from these words?

This time when I read the passages, I saw a dark side of healing. What about "God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense..." (Is. 35:4) That is scary stuff for the oppressors. Or; "...the way of the wicked He brings to ruin." (Ps 146:9) Why do I make the assumption that the "terrible recompense" is aimed at someone other than me and mine? Why do I assume I am not among the wicked? Is it always someone else's problem to fix? When do I need to hear the words from a new perspective?

How do we let the Spirit speak to us with these passages? Do we only identify with the those who are being freed, or are we able to sometimes hear the Spirit speaking these things against us? Today when I read that the "blind see and the deaf hear" I wonder if the blindness is not  always physical. What if the "eyes" of the rich were opened to see what their lifestyles have cost the poor? What if the "ears" of the powerful were opened to hear the cries of the oppressed? What if the lame complacency that afflicts so many of us was suddenly cured? The healing of spiritual blindness and deafness and lameness comes with a cost. If we are healed, we have to get involved. (James 2:17, faith without works is dead.) Admitting our participation in injustice, and working toward something better for others is hard work. It is straining to see through the dark and allowing God to lead us through to morning.

The passages spoke to me today in a way that challenges assumptions. I have to be open to the possibility that I might sometimes be willfully blind or selectively deaf, or complacently (conveniently) lame and only responding to the message the way I want it to be. There is a dark side to healing, if our eyes are opened, we might see our complicity in oppression and injustice. We might have to change somethings. Then again, we might not. The challenge is to be open to hearing and seeing and following where God's Spirit directs.

The vision in all these scriptures is hopeful. God promises healing for a hurting world. I pray that God helps all of us to have our eyes and ears open to the moving of the Spirit, so that our lameness is cured and we can work together toward the vision of justice and health for all.