Friday, 14 April 2017

Empty tomb, empty churchy words?

Easter Sunday. Matthew 28:1-10, Colossians 3:1-4

"So, if you have been raised with Christ..." (Colossians 3:1a)

What in the world does "raised with Christ mean?" Seriously, how do you explain it?

I've been a student of theology for most of my life, and it will take me awhile to think this through so I can articulate it clearly and simply. It's one thing to talk about this on Easter Sunday to pews full of Christians, but how would I explain myself to my neighbours?

"Risen with Christ" is insider language, churchy words that are easily as empty as the Easter morning tomb unless we know what we mean when we say them. There are a lot of churchy words being tossed around this weekend, and we assume those of us in the church understand them. Maybe we do, but even with my M.Div. and years of church work, I still struggle with the language of blood, justification, sanctification, substitution....etc...used at Easter. They are not the words I use everyday and it's hard to know how they are relevant outside of the church doors. Some of the language is outdated, but my problem is a bit more basic than that. I don't tend to like language that is broadly general and avoids specifics and explanations. I need my expression of faith to be relevant. I need understandable and relate-able ways to express why I believe what I do, who I believe Jesus was and is, and why it matters.

I don't think it should be so difficult to explain ourselves, sometimes we make faith needlessly confusing. It's easier to co-opt "churchy" words than it is to find an authentic and simple way to explain ourselves. Those churchy words seldom make any sense to someone who didn't grow up in a church-and I wonder if they really make sense to church folks either.

Ever had a teacher get after you for not using your own words to explain a concept? I feel a bit like I am doing that, but I am lecturing myself as much as I am my fellow "churchies."

A few years ago, I spent a week as a chaplain at Blue Bronna, a horse-back riding camp that exists to introduce people to God in a natural setting. It was a mother-daughter camp and I've never spoken to a more diverse group. The age range was from 8-69, some were long time Christians, some had never opened a Bible. Some were happy and healthy, others were in the midst of traumatic family crisis. I had carefully prepared what I thought were simple devotionals. It didn't work, it couldn't because we shared no common story and attention spans ranged as widely as the ages and emotional states. I had to switch gears. At the last campfire, the staff took the children to do some age-appropriate Bible stories so I had the adults to myself. I very simply shared my story of faith. No churchy words, no complex theology, just why do I believe there is a God. It boiled down to simple things. I can't look at creation without believing in a Creator. I believe that love is the greatest power in the world and for me, another name for love is God. Because we are creations of love, I believe there is hope for fixing the broken things. The best story I have ever heard to express the way that creation, love and hope work is that of Jesus. When I hear the story of Jesus, I am invited to be an active, conscious part of sharing that hope and love and joining with the Creator now and forever.

That was it. Then we talked and shared experiences when/if we felt God was near, when life made us ask deep questions, where we search for answers.

That experience of having to make my explanations really simple was helpful for me. I don't want convoluted big words that feel empty. I want to hear why something matters right now and why I should care about it.

So, back to my first question. what does "raised with Christ" mean? Obviously we are speaking about an event that occurred thousand of years ago, so what does it mean now?

I go to the story of Jesus. When I read any story, I find myself identifying with the characters somehow-trying to understand what they do and why they do it. Jesus inspires me. I love the way he asks questions, loves people, upholds the traditions that are good for the people, and challenges those that are not. He refuses to back away from doing what is right, even when he knows it will not be popular. He gives us a way to live that builds up communities, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, touches the untouchables, and teaches the hungry-minded. This is the way to conquer sin and trouble in the long run. This is the way of sacrifice-Jesus' love for others gets him killed, but the story doesn't end in the tomb. God raises Jesus, love never dies.

To be raised with Christ, we have to die with him first. That means following in his footsteps, with an attitude of loving others, willing to heal and be healed, to learn and teach, to be fed and to feed. To devote our lives to love, to trying to do what God wants-to act in love toward God and each other. It is a life of giving and of self-sacrifice (not the dour, grumpy kind of sacrifice, but a willing generosity toward others). When we "die" to the world of selfishness we are truly alive, "raised" with Jesus, to be a part of what God is doing in life, in death, in forever.

That's my attempt to say it simply. When I share my faith with my non-churchy friends, I don't want churchy words. In fact, the best and simplest way to explain "risen with Christ" to them doesn't start with words. It starts when I show them love-the Jesus living in me. When they see me living with joy, hope, and purpose and we share with each other, that is when I understand what it is to be risen with Christ.

Note: For the record, I like big words. I like churchy words when I am studying and reading-if they are used well and backed up with practical examples. Deep thinking and hard questions are important. I like the academic stuff, when I'm with academics. I need that deep level of discourse for my own learning...but it's also so much more important to keep it real and relevant to regular people when I speak than it is to preach it to the 'choir.'

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Mixed up and trepidatious

Trepidation.

It is the perfect word for Palm Sunday.The account of the "Triumphal Entry", the celebration of Jesus, does not soften what is to come. We know the rest of the story. It starts with hope and moves through treachery and despair before hope is rekindled. On Palm Sunday, for those of us who know the story, our hope is mixed. We know that in a few days we will be in the uncomfortable part of the story, the part that makes us wonder about humanity and about our complicity with evil.

For preaching Palm Sunday, the lectionary suggests either the donkey and palm branches of Matt; 21: 1-11, or the Matt. 26:14-27 story of the last supper which features the plot to betray Jesus. I don't want to focus exclusively on either the story of joyful hope, or the darkness of treachery. Both are present and important to the story and wholeness of faith as we approach the core story of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Another reading for Palm Sunday is Philippians 2:5-11 which contains the familiar words; "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." In a 'working preacher" post, Melinda Quivik does a great job of combining the joy and sorrow of Palm Sunday. She says;

"The brilliance and wisdom of Phi. 2:5-11 becomes especially poignant when the worship honors both the pageantry of the palm waving and the darkness of the passion celebrated together on one day, for the admonition to live in the mind of Christ Jesus entails both adulation and sorrow."

What a mixed up and "trepidatious" (yes, I made up the word) time in our church season. We want to celebrate the coming of a gentle king who upsets the powers that oppress, but unlike the crowds who welcomed Jesus on the donkey, we know that the way he upsets the system will get him killed. We know he is misunderstood and that he is being cheered as he goes to his torture and death. We also know that we are invited to "have the mind of Christ", to be involved in upsetting today's oppressive systems by following his example of love and self-sacrifice. It is daunting, disturbing, and yet because we know the ending, it is also amazing and a cause for deep hope.

Rob Fringer, a lecturer at Nazarene Theological college in Brisbane, Australia, says that Paul invites the Philippians to consider a God who yields power rather than wields power. This must have been received with mixed feelings by that early church. They were being persecuted, so the idea that their saviour was also weak according to the world's standards might have made them feel understood and encouraged in new ways of being strong. Or perhaps it made them feel hopeless. Possibly they were encouraged to continue in the hope of resurrection beyond earthly struggle. Likely all of these feelings were present.

As we move through scripture and worship toward the events of Easter, it is good to be a part of both the joy and trepidation of the central story of our faith. Our joy comes from God, a God of peace who is the answer to and the salvation from the mess humanity makes in our striving for power. Our despair is real, the Bible story shows us how humanity failed and our newspapers show us how the failure continues. Then, as now, the ultimate hope is in a God who continues to love, re-create, and resurrect-always inviting us to be a part of the story that ends in life.




Friday, 24 March 2017

Simple Truth

Lent 4 is an exploration of light and darkness, sight and blindness, truth and deception. The passages behind my reflections today are: 1 Sam. 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, and John 9;1-41.

The story in John 9 is the one that captured me. We read it out loud at last Thursday's Bible study and that was eye-opening! I hadn't realized how many questions pepper the passage! (17, but more if you count the implied ones.) It became clear that the Blind Man's answers start out being simple and clear, then he gets justifiably frustrated and sarcastic when his truth is dismissed and negated. He ends up having to choose between his simple truth and the politics and entrenchment of his community.

The doubters go down all the rabbit trails they can find or invent. Some actually ask helpful clarifying questions to verify facts, but others try to distract and disengage from the simple truth. There are obvious attempts to discredit Jesus by those who feel threatened. They are more concerned about themselves and what they would like to believe than they are open to hearing anything new. They try to discredit the witness, but the fact that the Blind Man is no longer blind keeps staring them in the face. When one line of questioning doesn't produce the discrediting they are looking for (such as questioning the man's parents) they switch to other ways to go after both Jesus and the now not-blind man. Strange that the fact a blind man sees gets lost in the arguments over the Sabbath. Strange the blind man's former life of poverty was not deemed an issue. Strange that the questioning continues long after clear answers were given. It is obvious that the Pharisees against Jesus had no interest in any truth but their own.

It is important to note that not all the Pharisees are against Jesus. They are a divided group, and that muddies the waters for the crowds who are trying to sort through what is happening and who they should believe. Ironic, isn't it, that Jesus puts mud on the Blind Man's eyes in order to open them?



In the end, even the man's parents are afraid to say more than that this is indeed their son. They say he can speak for himself and they effectively wash their hands of the whole situation. They are worried if they say anything that could be construed as supporting Jesus, they will be exiled from their community. When the formerly blind man refuses to change his story or deny his simple truth, he is driven out, not allowed to join in the temple and community life that was denied him when he was blind. When Jesus finds him, the man sticks to his truth and follows.

Sometimes all the arguing should be set aside so we can focus on the simple truth. A blind man sees because of Jesus. Maybe we need to ask Jesus to put mud in our eyes too.

This story is amazing in how it challenges us to pay attention to what we see and hear, to ask good questions, and to stay on track with truth. What an appropriate message in this time of false news, alternative facts, and distraction!

Friday, 17 March 2017

Desperate Thirst

For March 19. Ex.17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

Have you ever experienced desperate thirst? The kind that had you seriously considering dirty puddles or saltwater as a place to dip your cup?

Last summer, my husband and son hiked to the top of Mt. Rundle with my brother and his son. It was a strenuous, long hike and the day was hot and dust dry. Their water bottles proved vastly inadequate, making the last half of their day tortuous. Had anything gone wrong, if they had made an incorrect turn or someone had gotten hurt, they would have been in trouble. As it was, the mild dehydration (headaches, dry mouth, dizziness, and tiredness) were easily remedied once they returned to the car.

The experience left them with a visceral understanding of the way our bodies crave the clean water that makes life possible. Thirst, when it is desperate, takes over and directs thought and action. Another story; a friend told me that when she broke her ankle (she fell on some stairs) the pain was such that she totally forgot about her baby whom she was carrying at the time. The baby was fine because the car seat protected him, but she was later horrified that her own need overwhelmed her to the point of forgetting her child.

These stories help me see the desperation of others with more empathy. The story of the people wandering in the desert in Exodus makes more sense. It seems the people are always complaining (and they are). I used to wonder why they never got to the point that they trust God, after all, they have seen miracles. Thinking of the overwhelming nature of thirst and pain, I can begin to understand.

The desperation of thirst helps me understand. My faith would have to be unbelievably strong to enable me to refrain from being a complaining Israelite when I feel I am dying for lack of water. (And really, the complaining seems to work, pushing Moses to talk to God and strike the rock. What do I do with that fact when I don't want to be a complainer?)

Is the faith asked for by God simply impossible for humans? That is one conclusion, however, I think the point is more that God is stronger than our needs. In 2010, I had the opportunity to visit South Sudan. Christians there are in desperate situations, hunger, thirst, violence...it's endemic. Yet the church was vibrant, faith was strong. I don't think it was in spite of desperation, I think it was because of it. Their desperation pushed them to rely on God, and that hope and faith was the only constant, the only living water they had. And it was keeping them alive.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favourites in the Bible. I love the way Jesus speaks to someone he is not supposed to talk to, and I love the smart way she challenges him and is eventually able to accept what he offers. She could, very likely, be in the category of desperate. She is at the well in the heat of day, when no one else would go. That says she is perhaps "unacceptable" to her own people. She has had multiple husbands; maybe not her fault, but she would be viewed as unlucky or sinful in any case. I love that when the disciples see Jesus behaving 'unacceptably' by speaking with a woman, they don't question him and they just observe. Then, I love that this outcast woman witnesses to her neighbours, and because of her, many receive the water of life-the answer to their spiritual desperation.

How do we treat the desperate people who come in to our lives? When they come into the church office, I am often suspicious of the "sob story" I am told. I know that often these are lies or at least exaggerations designed to elicit sympathy and money. What I have also come to know is that these people deserve my empathy (maybe not a food voucher or money but definitely an ear and a prayer!) They are desperate people, blinded by their own needs, searching for the living water that will quench their thirst. I'm not Jesus, I can't give that water. I can, however, be the woman who listens to Jesus, challenges what I hear, and then joyfully witnesses to what I have received in the hopes that others will go to that well too.

And when I find myself in the shoes of the desperate person? I hope then to also follow the example of the Samaritan woman. Listen to Jesus, ask questions, to give up the urge to complain, and be open to receive and share



Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Answers and more Questions

Lent 2. Gen. 12;1-4, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Have you ever gone somewhere looking for answers and left with more questions? It is a common life experience, happening often when we visit our doctor, when we ask our teenagers about their decisions, when we study an issue...

Somehow being a spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy person can only happen when we are able to engage our questions and live with both the answers and uncertainties that are sure to come. A sense of wonder and mystery can be embraced instead of feared.

This story of Nicodemus is one of my favourite Jesus stories because of all the questions and wondering it makes me do.

Nicodemus has questions. Are they his own or on behalf of a group? Does he come to Jesus at night because he is afraid to be seen? Is he embarrassed? Is this simply an initial inquiry so he doesn't want either pro-Jesus or anti-Jesus groups to see him? Is the night the only time that Jesus might be free to have an extended/relaxed conversation?

He has questions, but Nicodemus starts the discussion with a statement. "We know that you are a teacher who has come from God..." Jesus doesn't even acknowledge the statement, but goes straight to a mysterious assertion. "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above..."

That sends the discussion into a mysterious place talking about both body and spirit, the seen and the unseen. Jesus makes a good point that if the pharisees are having trouble believing even things they see with their own eyes, how can they possibly hope to understand and explain God's ways of spirit? The example of the wind, something they hear but can't see, is great. They are to teach what they know, but remain humble and open to what they do not understand-open to learning what Jesus has to offer. If they acknowledge Jesus as from God, like they say they do, then why is there resistance?

As if that isn't enough of a challenge, Jesus goes on with the very hard teaching that he must be lifted up (sacrificed). Just like looking at the snake Moses lifted up, looking at Jesus will heal the people. Poor Nicodemus! Lucky Nicodemus! He has so many questions, he lacks understanding, but he is trying and he is questioning.

Then Jesus offers words of reassurance into the confusion. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son into the world that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

Here Jesus makes it simple. Go ahead and struggle with questions, that is good, that is part of making sense of life. But know that getting all the answers right isn't what is ultimately necessary and it is impossible for us. What we must understand is simple. God is love. God offers an inclusive "whosoever believes" that doesn't depend on dotting every I or crossing every T of the law. God's love is for everyone, and there is mystery in it that belongs to the creator of the wind. This is an amazing thing to say to a Pharisee, whose whole life is dedicated to doing things right according to very particular laws. A leader from whom the people expect to get answers.

I wonder what answers and questions Nicodemus took back to the other Pharisees after this late night discussion? What are the faith questions I need answers for and what can I comfortably leave in the realm of God's mystery?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Mushrooms and Genesis

For March 5. Gen.2:15-17, 3:1-7. Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matt. 4:1-11

For me, reading the first few chapters of Genesis is both hugely inspiring and somewhat frustrating.

Inspiring because I find the background study of Babylonian creation stories and the two strands of different traditions (chapters 1 and 2 have different accounts) instructive. It's fascinating to try to understand the world views that existed when Genesis was first written down and to wonder about the new revelations God was speaking into those contexts. (Example: The Genesis account is a peaceful creation of humanity in God's image, whereas in the Babylonian myths people are a result of violence between gods and a desire to create servants. How did people react to this new understanding of God? What did they think when, after the flood, God "retires" the war-bow by hanging it in the sky as a promise that this destruction would never happen by God's hand again?) I love the Genesis themes of creativity, a good creation with a built in purpose of care and companionship that extends to all the earth, and a "nothing hidden" relationship between God and humanity. The idea of sin as trying to be like God, disobedience, and dishonesty still resonate today.

I find the reading somewhat frustrating because of the persistence of outdated interpretations. Genesis is metaphorically and symbolically rich, an amazing resource for learning, but when it is reduced through literalism/creationism, it becomes shallow in meaning and irrelevant to today's minds and experiences. Bits and pieces of the idea that men and women aren't equal (only in ch. 2!), remnants of the theory of original sin (Eve as a sexy temptress, poor hapless Adam...I can't actually figure out where this all comes from), and recitations of the 7 days of creation as if this is historical fact (only in ch. 1), try to pack these amazing stories into small, inflexible boxes that are easily dismissed.

Here is an example of how I keep getting excited about Genesis and the things this story can teach if we are open to creativity in our study, thinking, and application.



A few years ago, as a joke, a friend gave me a book called: The Mushroom in Christian Art by John A. Rush. I have a bit of an interest (my family says obsession) with mushrooms, so the gift was perfect. (Here is a link to see the pictures from the book.)

https://www.google.ca/search?q=christian+art+mushrooms&espv=2&biw=1600&bih=794&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjcvOeOobbSAhVI6YMKHfzWBpQQsAQIHw&dpr=1

The basic premis is that "Jesus is the mushroom experience." (The book is far fetched, I think maybe the author may have had a few too many of the wacky kind of shrooms....) It includes many examples of early Christian art with mushrooms imagery. It was not unusual for the tree of knowledge to be adorned with mushrooms, not apples. Now that I found interesting, especially when you read that eating the fruit results in gaining the knowledge of good and evil...Genesis 3:5.  There are many mushrooms known to have psychedelic effects, and many religions have used them throughout history.  So...what was the understanding of these early Christian artists?

This morning, when I read Genesis 3, I thought the account of the first sin in chapter 3 could be used creatively as a warning against poor lifestyle choices-specifically lifestyle choices that involve drug addiction-so the mushroom is apt. Certain drugs have been used by some people to "open the mind", and might have short term effects that feel quite good. In verse 3 the woman tells the serpent that God has forbade them to touch the fruit because they will die. The serpent says they will not die but instead will have their minds opened. Well, the mind-altering effects of drugs may not cause instant death, but their use certainly leads down an unhealthy path both for the individual and their loved ones. The death may not be instant, but it is real. Perhaps there are interesting and creative new ways to understand and learn from this old scripture! What kind of death was Eve being warned about?

Lots of other good stuff in these passages-but we are off on a ski trip, so I'm finished for today. What did you find in your reading that got you thinking creatively?


Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Don't Worry, Be Happy.

Don't Worry, Be Happy. I hadn't listened to this Bobby McFerrin tune for years. Click and get an automatic mood boost! Listening to this (and watching Robin Williams dance) is a great "pick-up".

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-diB65scQU



Seriously though, can we do it? How realistic is the "don't worry" message in our climate of fear? We worry about everything, global warming, economic meltdown, terrorism, racism, harassment, war and violence, what so and so might think if I speak my opinion, am I dressed right, who is laughing at me, do I matter, are my kids going to be okay....

The worries are big and small and myriad. The happy video points some of them out. I can't escape the irony that Robin Williams dances in this one. Mr. Williams, who made so any people laugh, took his own life on Aug. 11, 2014.

Now read Matthew 6:24-34. The message is so much the same. Do not worry. There is, however, no glib 'be happy' message. Instead, there is a down to earth reminder that we are not in control. We can't, by worrying, add a single hour to our lives. (v. 27) God is in control and God cares. The message here might be more aptly titled: "Don't Worry, Be Trusting."

So, in light of the earthy fact, what is our response?

Jesus is pretty clear on this. If our priorities are in the right order, we will be taken care of. The familiar; "you cannot serve God and wealth", kicks off the discussion. And what a discussion starter for those of us who always worry about our paychecks, our insurance policies, and all our stuff. We live in a culture that, in many ways, equates 'security' with money.

Acquiring things, however, does not reduce anxiety. "It generates anxiety. You buy some kind of insurance to protect you against some kind of risk, which means that you now have one more bill to worry about paying, as well as worry about the loopholes your new insurance policy doesn't cover..." (John Petty. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2011/02/lectionary-blogging-matthew-6-24-34.html)
Many people who have traveled into poverty stricken areas come away humbled by the generosity of the poor. They are often willing to share and help in the moment, because they are unable to accumulate much. If everyone shares the little they have, they are all richer. Why can't we do this well when we are comparatively rich?

Isn't this "do not worry" thing a strange balance? On the one hand, I totally agree that I'm not in control, and I shouldn't worry because ultimately God will take care of me. On the other hand, thinking ahead about the future and saving for it, having decent insurance, and a decent dependable income are prudent and important things. We do need to plan for and take care of our needs. But what is my priority?

A story: Years ago, my husband and I knew someone (actually more than one person) who didn't worry, who lived "in the moment." They traveled a lot but did not own a car and regularly depended on others going out of their way to supply rides, help pack and carry luggage, meet bus and train deadlines...It really wasn't an issue, we didn't mind helping, until it started feeling like an obligation and sometimes an unnecessary burden on us. The responsibility to care for oneself and one's family is real and something that needs good attention. Living free of worries because you can sponge off of others is not what Jesus is promoting here!

The key is having priorities in order. If accumulating money and things is most important to us, then we will worry because we can lose them. We strive for houses and cars that are too big and fancy for our paychecks. We vacation expensively and often because we can. People ignore the real needs of others because they are too preoccupied by their own wants. However, jobs end, economies change, natural disasters happen (just ask anyone from Fort Mac!) and the poor are always with us. If our priority is God and we "strive first for the kingdom of God", then peace of mind cannot be taken away. There is less selfishness and more sharing. God knows our needs (v.32).

I think this whole, "do not worry" is not only about money and things. It is helpful, also, to think about it in terms of our attitudes. If we always function with an attitude of scarcity-not enough people coming to church, not enough volunteers...we spiral down into a culture of negativity and create an atmosphere of not enough, an attitude of "can't", a culture of complaint, and no one is happy. If instead we could switch priorities to  being thankful for what we have, practice grace rather than complaint, and just plain stop worrying about really talking to each other...what anxities might disappear? What does God in control look like?

Imagine a world where more people truly had their priorities straight, where we would strive first for righteousness? So much would be added on to us.

Do not worry. It's a tall order, but maybe if I work on my priorities it will fall into place.


Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Staring at a bug from the balcony

Lectionary for Feb. 19, 2017: Matt. 5:38-48, Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Cor. 3: 10-11, 16-23

Last Sunday I challenged our congregation to read the whole Sermon on the Mount straight through, without stopping after the Beatitudes, without omitting the parts we don't like. (Matthew 5-7) My study and preparation for preaching suggested that a good "lens" for reading the Sermon is to think about it in terms of good relationships and then applying the teachings to our own issues, following the pattern Jesus uses. (Jesus does not reject the law, but understands the "why" of  it and then looks at specific situations.)

There are favourite bits in the Sermon where we like to dwell, but reading the whole thing instead of isolated verses gives a broader perspective. It's sort of like the difference between sitting in a pew and staring at a bug on the floor of the church and being in the balcony to look at the bug. In the pew you are very close and, if it's a wasp or some other scary thing, it totally fills up your attention and it's the only thing you deal with. If you are in the balcony, you are either unconcerned (or unaware) or looking at how the whole congregation might be affected.

 

Today I'd like to take the balcony view and look at two "bugs". How do we understand these bits of the Sermon as integral to the whole?

The two pieces are favourites for us Mennonite Christians. The "eye for an eye" passage, and the "love your enemies" are familiar as Sunday School and sermon topics. David Lose, at www.workingpreacher.org, says these are so familiar that our reactions predictably fall into one of two patterns. One is that we've heard the verses so often that they hardly register, we ignore them. The second is to assume that what Jesus says is simply too hard and doesn't work. Either way we don't allow them to challenge us.


A view from the pew.
Any Mennonite kid who has been in Sunday School knows these passages. We learned not to fight back, felt bad if we got angry, and heard stories that taught us to be nice to the class bully and it would change him/her from an enemy into a friend. Well...did it really work that way for you? I didn't get the fairy tale ending. The girl who picked on grade 3 me on the school bus didn't stop (in spite of my gentle responses and asking her to quit) until my Dad dragged the story out of a distraught me, got really angry, and went to talk with her parents. The guy harassing me in Jr. High didn't stop until (after repeated warnings) I finally punched him. It worked.

These sorts of real life experiences, as childish as they are, made me start questioning these teachings long ago, even though I am a committed pacifist. David Lose is right, These are brutally difficult teachings to enact, because they don't immediately equal good endings. Lose says; "turning the other cheek and returning hatred with love is no way to get ahead in this world. But that's just the point. Jesus isn't trying to modify the rules of the world...rather, he's starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question..."

Yup, there are lots of questions. I'm not convinced that my Dad's anger or my finally punching the guy were wrong. They worked, and the relationships in both cases did get better. That does leave a bit of confusion for the wanna be Jesus follower doesn't it? Then, what about verse 42 "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." Just last week I refused a man who called our church asking if we would pay his rent for him. He was desperate. He had tried all the government helps. He told me the Alberta Works program had helped him before and wouldn't do it again. I said we were not set up as a church to pay people's rents. He asked if we could take up a collection for him. I said no and he abruptly (angrily?) hung up. I was gentle and respectful to him in the conversation, I tried to hear him out, but I didn't give him anything. Did I just go against what Jesus wants? If I read this passage literally, I am most definitely out of line.

So, a close up and personal view of this passage leaves me with challenges. What about taking the balcony view?

From the balcony.
Getting a little distance and looking at Jesus' instructions for us as a whole people instead of just for my individual issues might be helpful. What about loving our enemies? Jesus speaks these teachings to an occupied people. Rome has the power and sets the rules. The piece about walking the second mile refers to Roman soldiers legally entitled to demand luggage carrying services from citizens in the occupied area. Jesus urges people to give more than asked...perhaps to embarrass the soldier? We don't have the same kind of enemies here, we are not an occupied people, so how do we look at this as a nation? I am impressed with Canada's welcome of Syrian refugees and our governments refusal to name all Syrians as enemies. But before I feel too self-righteous about my country, I remember the fact that we haven't had the same border pressure that European countries have. Now that we have a few starting to walk into Canada from the States, will we be generous or will we start naming enemies? What would happen if our whole nation "went the second mile" when we are asked to take in refugees? When the giving starts to change us-when we have to give up some of our luxuries so that others can live here too, will we be gracious in offering that second mile? How much can be given before things don't work? If I look at these passages from the collective point of view, again I don't know that we can ever quite manage to live up to Jesus' teachings.

Verse 48: Be perfect...

Can't do it, just can't be perfect. So does that mean that we either continue to nod and say:"how nice", and ignore their challenge? Does it mean we give up because this is impossible?

Perhaps it is helpful to go back to the whole Sermon on the Mount. We've already seen that it can't all be taken literally. (Remember 5:29-30. We have never plucked out eyes or cut off arms!) Jesus does use some dramatic hyperbole to get his points across. That is not, however, a reason to dismiss what he says. We need to understand the why of these teachings, and if we interpret through the lens of always striving towards love, towards making relationships better, then what Jesus says makes sense. It is still terribly hard to do, but it makes sense to keep trying.

In all the examples Jesus gives in these verses, he proposes a course of action that takes us by surprise. Turn the other cheek, give everything away, walk a second mile, love your enemies...

New Testament scholar, Rick Gardner, says; "In each instance the respondent does the opposite of what is expected...The intent of these (Jesus') proposals is not to legislate behavior in the four cases cited. Their purpose is, rather, to refocus our approach to every such case, and to look for new ways to respond." The Jesus way of looking for new ways to respond halts the old ways of tit for tat and escalating hostilities. It might mean letting go of wounded pride, forgiving a debt, stopping a gossip, being embarrassingly helpful, refusing to take offense....When we find new ways to respond, we have opportunities to change whole systems.

David Lose says; ""Strength eventually fails, Power corrupts. and survival of the fittest leaves so many bodies on the ground. Love alone transforms, redeems, and creates new life."

Finally, a comment on the "perfect" word. The Greek word used is telos, and it "typically denotes something not so much morally perfect as it does something that has grown up, matured, and now reached its perfect end. That is, telos is the goal of desired outcome of a thing."

When I read Jesus' teachings about how to respond to enemies, those who make unreasonable requests, and those who hurt others, I don't want to dismiss or ignore his hard words. I want them to challenge me to grow and mature-both as an individual dealing with my "bugs", and as a part of God's community concerned about the whole people. I want me and my communities to mature toward better ways of relating, better ways of expressing to each other the kind of love that is God.







Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Troubles With "The Sermon"

It happens so often. "It" is the serendipity of seemingly coincidental things lining up in ways that I have to take notice.

Two weeks ago, the Beautitudes from Matthew 5 made an appearance in the lectionary and in a prayer of blessing at the inaugaration of Donald Trump. I found and posted a satirical "Trumpian" paraphrase of the Beautitudes on my blog for Jan. 29.

Since then, I keep running across references to the Beautitudes everywhere, on facebook, in conversations, and in material for a High School Sunday School class.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is a core scripture for our Anabpatist/Mennonite churches. The "Begin Anew" discipleship ciriculum (Mennonite Church Canda and USA), says:
"The Sermon on the Mount is our Lord's specific instruction on how spiritually mature, spirit-filled persons can meet the practical challenges of life. Reading it carefully and often will help you develop a Christ-centered point of view."

Hmmm. While I don't disagree, my experiences with the "Sermon" causes me to have trouble with this simple assertion. While it is powerful and formative, I also find it confusing and open to misinterpretation.

For one thing, we tend to equate the whole sermon with the Beautitudes. We often stop reading after these 12 verses. This, however, is only an introduction. It's the poetic "hook" that is supposed to invite a deeper examination of the whole sermon. Too often the list of "blessed are" ends up functioning as a list of virtues to aspire to. That never quite works. Poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, the hungry for justice, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers...Yes, some of these things are virtues, but there is also an odd picture here of the Christian as a sort of wimpy, quiet, hard-done-by character. A helpful thought I ran across this week (in the Believer's Church Bible Commentary, Matthew. Richard B. Gardner) is that these are not commands, or virtues to strive toward as much as they are promises. God is promising to help those who are hurting, hungering, spirit-starved, feeling voiceless, refusing to fight...

That promise and encouragement is a great launch into what Matthew does now with the rest of this sermon. In this sermon, Jesus is portrayed, not as rejecting Jewish law, but affirming it and encouraging deeper engagement. Instead of just following rules, the people are pushed to understand the why of them and apply the principles to their particular contexts. Jesus sets the bar very high. It's not good enough to follow the rule, you have to know why it's there in the first place and apply some critical thinking and action to how you live your life.

And here is my second trouble with the sermon. My experience with this scripture is one of "pick and choose." The verses 33-37 concerning oaths, and the 38-43 eye for an eye, and 44-48 love your enemies were always favourites in the Sunday school lessons and sermons I sat through. But I heard very little of the "concerning adultery" and "concerning divorce" paragraphs. Where is the critical think-through for the hard stuff?

I think we've missed something.

The teachings of Jesus, collected and presented by Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount, are all about relationships. Jesus is not trying to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, to make the "blessed ares" come true. The way to do that is to follow, not the law, but the purpose for the law-which is right relationships. Look at what he does in 5:21-26. He pushes people to deal with their anger long before it ever gets to the boiling over point of murder. The law only dealt with murder, Jesus deals with the feelings and attitudes behind it. This is about working toward right relationships. It's about doing more than following a rule.

He goes on to apply the same principle of "deal with it while the problem is small" when he talks about adultery. If the people would rein in unhealthy thoughts and desires and deal with them before they act on them, individuals and families and whole communities might be spared the terrible pain and shame of betrayal and break-up.

Then there is the divorce bit. This is a piece that is often unhelpfully quoted and misinterpreted. What if we looked at it through the lens of relationships and context? Here is a reality check. Sometimes we try to deal with our anger well-it doesn't always work. Sometimes our desires and lusts get the better of us and we trespass. Sometimes things do not work out and an ending is the only way. Divorce is lawful here.

Here again, Jesus is about justice.The law allowed for divorce, but it terrible for the woman-putting her into a hopeless situation, so Jesus does the "it was said...but I say..." In his time, if a man divorced his wife, she had no means to survive, economically she was destitute. She would have to find another man to attach to, and it is easy to imagine that these situations often did not end well for her. Jesus' prohibition is about protecting the vulnerable and not forcing her into a situation of no good choices. (Note: all the instructions are for the man, the one who has the power here.) In our context, where men and women are more equal, I think Jesus would have told both of them to treat the other well, to be fair, to protect their children. Sometimes, even though we might try to get at issues before they balloon, we fail. Divorce here is the "better to lose one of your members" reality. When the reality of failure in relationship happens (any relationship, not only marriage. Membership in community might be another one.) there is sometimes no way to "fix"it, but there is always a way to pay attention to justice.

The Sermon on the Mount is not easy to understand, but it is a great thought provoker. It is a good tool for teaching us to think beyond the black and white, beyond the "shalt nots" and to think about God's intentions. God intends us to work at improving relationships in spite of the fact that we will sometimes fail. God promises that the blessings will come.

I'm going to keep on working with the Sermon on the Mount for the next couple of Sundays, keeping my eyes and ears open for the serendipity, the ways this message is alive and informing the context in which we live and follow Jesus.

Extra: For an interesting take on the US election and how the church might think about being an "agent of change" go to  http://www.canadianmennonite.org/hope-ballot. There's a great video here that has an inspiring interview with a Baptist pastor. I like his take on what makes a people "great".

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Indictment and Direction

For February 5, 2017

I’ve been reading world news on my facebook feed, looking at the Edmonton Journal, and listening to the CBC news. (I’m disclosing my sources because that’s important, especially in an age of false news and populism!) There has been awful stuff like the tragic shootings in Quebec and the immigration ban in the US. There have also been good things like the many vigils in support of our Muslim neighbours and politicians and organizations who are trying to speak with constructive voices against hatred. I am, however, left confused and frustrated with people (of all stripes) who seem to have left critical thinking behind in order to yell whatever slogan they resonate with. I am frightened by the lack of decency people display to each other. I am impressed by a few who are able to combine respect and critique at the same time.

I’ve also been reading the lectionary passages, and have found again, that they help in a reading of humanity throughout time. This week Isaiah 58 offers an indictment of the negative use of power. It can (and should) be read both as a corporate indictment of nations, and as meaningful to us individuals.

Here are a few verses that haunt me:

2: “day after day they seek me…as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God”

3b: “look, you serve your own interest…and oppress all your workers.”

4: “…such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.”

Then there is this call to action and obedience:

V6-7: “Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The following verses tell of the reward for this kind of self-giving obedience. They show a people and nation made great because they have refrained from pursuing their own interests. They have lifted others up and become a people together.

It is particularly disturbing to see comments made on facebook by people supporting the wall and the immigration bans. So many of them do not have any basis in facts, they simply claim that this is “making us safe again.” Seems to me that walls and injustice create enemies, not safety. The Isaiah call to action for justice is much more likely to heal divisions than any more barriers between people.

How do we speak and live into these times in the name of Jesus?  As defiant protestors? As lofty intellectuals? As self-righteous do-gooders? As avoiders, so quiet and meek that no one knows we are there? Things are so complicated, I know I live in my own “echo chamber”, hearing and seeing mostly what already supports my opinions. I know I would likely be categorized as a “left leaner”, a condescending liberal…etc…but I don’t want my voice dismissed like that. And I shouldn’t just out of hand dismiss the voices of those I disagree with either.

1 Cor. 2:1-12 is helpful. Paul goes to the Corinthians in weakness, fear, and trembling. He has nothing but the simple message of a savior who sacrifices himself for others. He says he doesn’t speak in lofty wise words, but encourages faith in the power of God. Matt. 5:13-20 follows up the beatitudes by claiming that Jesus followers are salt and light. They do things that help others.

To be salt and light we must show respect to everyone, including those we strongly disagree with. We have to reach out to the hurting. We must sacrifice some of our own self-interest for the good of others. Not an easy thing on an individual scale-crazy hard for nations.

On a somewhat related note, here is a link to an amazing sermon that helps me rethink my own viewpoints. Thanks to Ryan Dueck (pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church) for pointing me to this one!

http://tamedcynic.org/the-parable-of-the-good-deplorable/

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Start With The Beatitudes

On January 22, our church gets to do something wonderful. We get to celebrate our relationship with the Edmonton Christian Life Community Church (formerly called the Edmonton Chinese Mennonite Church). Each year we have a joint worship service followed by a shared potluck where the food is always amazing!

This year, Pastor Ken Tse will give the message. One of his scriptures is the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12. This is a passage that Mennonites have traditionally placed a lot of value on, it's almost a theme scripture for us. It is humble, it is active in support of the downtrodden and hurting, it encourages purity of heart, peacemaking, and the pursuit of righteousness even when it is painful.

The Beatitudes were read as a blessing by Rev. Samuel Rodrigues at the opening of the inauguration of US president, Donald Trump.

That strikes me as wrong or ironic, I'm not sure which feeling takes precedence. I've read news bits that say this must have been read as an indictment. Other news bits seem to feel that it was a blessing. Here's a piece I found by a Rev. Erik Parker. He "rewrites the Beatitudes According to Trump." Click this link for his whole article. https://millennialpastor.net/2016/11/06/the-beatitudes-according-to-trump/


“The poor are a bunch of losers,
for they deserve to be poor. Get a job! Which I alone can give.
“The hungry, what a bunch of lazy bums,
just get some food, I mean c’mon.
“Sad people, the worst, the worst,
sad poeple haven’t done anything for the world, let me tell you.”
“But rich people, I love rich people,tremendous.
I love just ‘em. I am really rich, by the way.
“And people with lots to eat,We gotta protect people with lots to eat.
We gotta do something for them.
“And happy people, happy people are the best
I will be the greatest president for happy people. No one else will be a better president for happy people”
“Now listen, we are going to make things great again, trust me.”
Unfortunately, I can hear Trump's voice in my head as I read that satire!

Before the ceremony, Trump listened to a sermon by preacher Robert Jeffress. In this sermon, Jeffress compares Trump to Nehemiah, a builder who raised a wall around Jerusalem. It is horrifying, in my opinion, that the Old Testament is co-opted in this way to bless and encourage Trump to build the wall between the US and Mexico. It is horrifying that he is encouraged to ignore his critics (that's blatantly ridiculous in a real democracy). I find it bizarre that Trump and Pence can be called great leaders on par with Nehemiah, they haven't proven themselves yet. What we do know of their past, to me, doesn't sound too great. You can read the sermon here:  http://time.com/4641208/donald-trump-robert-jeffress-st-john-episcopal-inauguration/

Another thing that I find frightening is the idea that Trump's Christianity might be the so-called "prosperity gospel" which basically purports that if you are faithful, God will make you rich.

So, what are we to think and do as followers of Jesus who remember that Jesus walked with the poor and outcast? Who remember that Jesus refused to set up an earthly kingdom to replace the Romans? Who remember that Jesus died, forgiving us and showing us how to live?

We do well to remember and read the teachings of Jesus. This week, I start with the Beatitudes.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Hope for fractured and fractious world.

January 22, 2017 is World Fellowship Sunday. It is a time to consider our relationships with churches of the Mennonite World Conference as well as people of all cultures, religions, and situations around the world.

The stories of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), and the hearing in their own languages (Acts 2:1-18) are intriguing when read parallel to each other.

In the Babel story, the people are described as of one language, but more than that, they are of one mind. It's a culture of self-aggrandisement. They want to make themselves great, to raise a tower into the clouds. With their amazing technology, being able to make bricks as hard as stone, they can build bigger and faster than ever before. When you consider that they thought the mountains were the dwelling places of the gods, it is quite clear that they seek to become gods themselves, they are aiming for that level of control over their own destiny.

But who will stand on the top of that tower? Everyone who builds it? Not possible. And if you think of how humans tend to build these wonders (think pyramids, Roman roads, castles...) it's not so wonderful. They were so often build on the broken backs of slaves and poorly paid and overused workers. Unfortunately, this isn't just ancient news, Here's a page from fairly recent, (late 1800's) Canadian history.

Although Chinese played a key role in building the western stretch of the railway, they earned between $1 and $2.50 per day. Unlike their fellow white railroad workers, the Chinese had to pay for their own food, clothing, transportation to the job site, mail, and medical care, leaving barely enough money to send home. Chinese workers were delegated the most dangerous construction jobs, such as working with explosives. Not only did families of those killed workers not receive any compensation, they were not even notified of the deaths. Sadly, many of these Chinese men spent their remaining years in lonely and poor conditions because those who did survive working on the CPR often did not have enough money to return to their families in China.http://www.library.ubc.ca/chineseinbc/railways.html

Nation building has always been about connections, communications, new technology, and most of all, power and control. It's always the case that only a few have it-but we're all in pursuit of it. In the Bible, it's always the case that people get in trouble when they try to take the control that belongs to God. Control over both themselves and others.

The tower of Babel is never finished. The people cease to be able to understand each other and they are scattered to the far ends of the earth.

The Acts story begins with a scattered  and subjugated (under Roman rule) people travelling to Jerusalem to worship God at Passover. They are people of many languages because they are from many places, but also because that is what happens to conquered peoples and powerless nations. They have their own "mother-tongue", but they learn the languages of their neighbours and conquerors as well. So in Jerusalem their problem isn't the multitude of languages-there are probably enough common languages at the temple for everyone to understand. The problem is that so many people are not hearing in their hearts, They are still subjugated, sidelined, hopeless, and disorganised. They are listening to words and ideas that simply are not their own.

The miracle of "each hearing in their own language" is that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, they all hear in the language of their heart. They are valued, at home, invited into the core of faith instead of pushed to the periphery.  This is a people without control or power who are blessed to experience the control and power of God. When God is in control, the scattered are brought together to share a common message-a message of the good news of Jesus. And it makes sense to them. This is the leader who will not make them carry bricks, will not build his fortunes and power on their backs, and he will not make them great in the ways human rulers seek to do.  This is a leader who will give his life for them and show them the power of love that brings scattered people together. He doesn't set up a new political power, but invites them to give God control. Not a message the human powers want to hear, but a message that speaks a new kind of power. Sharing instead of greed, love in place of hate, welcome instead of closed borders. It's wonderful and very hard at the same time.

Our world is so complex. We have unprecedented access to information in our little phones. The wealth of a few (8) rich individuals exceeds the combined wealth of 50% of the earth's population (I heard this on the news this week-sorry -I'm not citing a source other than my memory here) and in the wealthy countries we seem pretty self-aggrandising. Power is centralised. It sounds pretty Babel like doesn't it? It will, like Babel,not be sustainable.

On this world fellowship day, it is good to think of how we, as people of God, might come together and hear God right into the core of our beings, in the mother tongue of love for God and each other. That is where hope and unity reside in a fractured and fractious world. When the human towers fall, it is because God is in control. When people come together and hear their heart language, it is also because God is in control.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

GO FLUFFY!

For January 15, 2017. Isaiah 49:1-7, Ps 40:1-11, 1 Cor. 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Can you imagine a professional sports team called the "Lambs?" Big, burly football players running onto the field to the pounding of drums and shouts of "GO FLUFFIES!"

Nope. It just doesn't work. We expect a team name to reflect some power, dominance, or toughness. (Toughness is the only way I can understand 'Penguins' as name. 'Ducks?' That still makes me laugh.)  Predators are understandably popular for team names. Lions, Panthers, Sharks, Coyotes, Knights, Devils, Kings...those names all imply some threat or dominance.

But Lambs? It would never work. We don't expect a lamb to be anything but cute, or needy, or dinner.

Last week the Isaiah passage presented a gentle leader who wouldn't even break a reed, yet he is tough enough to bring about justice for the nations. A hard concept to wrap our heads around.

This week, Isaiah 49 continues the description of the leader God sends to change the world, and it is still hard to understand. It speaks of a leader shaped and called and poured into a mission to gather God's people. He is to be a light to nations and kings will bow to him. However, that leader also will feel they have laboured in vain (v 4), and will be despised and abhorred (v. 7). It's not a happy bandwagon, the servant leader is not an easy answer to the world's problems.

It is so hard to understand the kind of leader God invites us to follow, it goes against our 'common sense." We want our leaders to be strong, courageous (in certain ways that agree with us), and to take no crap from outsiders. In short, we want confident, powerful, ethical people who defend our interests. A lamb doesn't fit the bill. (However, it is important to remember that a lion doesn't fit it either when it turns around and eats it's followers.)

Followers of a lamb are at risk of being misunderstood. Yielding, gracefulness, putting others first, refusal to hurt others, and being willing to be sacrificed...these things should not be mistaken for weakness. It takes more courage for a lamb to speak into a roomful of other beasts than it does for a lion. Lamb leadership is a very different kind of leadership that expects a lot from it's followers.

In John 1:29-39, John the Baptist introduces Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The people of that time were used to lambs being sacrificed as sin offerings in the temple. Who would want to follow this leader? Apparently quite a few of John's disciples, and Andrew, and Peter, and Philip and Nathanael. They were ready to pitch in; "GO FLUFFY!" Did they know how very different from other leaders Jesus was?

I don't think we understand how bizarre this is. If are to be disciples, to follow Jesus the lamb of God, it means being a lamb too. It means sometimes being sacrificed for others, it means we believe in the power of love even when, in the short term, violence and hate seem stronger and more efficient. It means having patience beyond our short lives. It means believing that God is in charge. It does not mean giving in to the lions, but it might mean getting eaten by them.

It means working toward a very different understanding of society, an upside-down kingdom. And somehow, even with my confusion about how this works, it feels like very good news. We so desperately need something different to rule our world.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

I hit him hard...I am gentle. Contradiction?

Hmmm....sorry about this! I had this drafted and ready to go last week and just never hit the "post " button. I guess this becomes a retrospective, a review of one of last weeks readings.

For January 8, 2017

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matt 3:13-17

I hit him hard with the flat part of the big metal file I had in hand. He grunted, dropped his eyes, and I finally had the control to do want I wanted to do.

True story, but it sounds awful doesn't it? It certainly doesn't sound like I am a gentle person. I hit him hard...but I am gentle.

So here's the context. I was trimming my horse's hooves. It doesn't hurt the horse-it's like trimming your fingernails. It is very hard work for me. (Imagine doing a squat, holding a horse's leg between your own, then using a huge clipper and file to shape big, hard nails!) On this particular day, my horse was impatient. He kept trying to pull his leg away, sometimes lifting me right off the ground. When that didn't work, he'd lean on me. NOT GOOD! I told him to quit. He ignored me. Finally, I dropped his back leg, wound up and hit him hard across the flank with the flat of the large metal file. It made a huge smacking sound. He knew he deserved it, he didn't jump or get scared, just grunted. After that, he stood perfectly and I never had a problem trimming him again, He let me take control and neither of us got hurt. (Horses kick each other all the time to establish dominance. My hitting him like that was language he understood.)

I tell this story because it helps me understand Isaiah 42. When I read that the servant of God; "will not cry or lift up his voice...a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice..." This sounds incredibly gentle, even "touchy-feely". It clashes with the next bit that says; "he will faithfully bring forth justice."

Contradiction? How can such a gentle, caring soul deal with the cruel rulers who are causing the injustice? How is he going to release the prisoners and bring justice to the nations? Is he going to love, pet, and cuddle and appeal to their good senses? Verse 4 says; "he will not faint of be crushed until he has established justice..."

Well, if I had loved, petted, and cuddled my horse at the point he was misbehaving, I may have fainted from the effort and been crushed under his weight. He never would have gotten the trim he needed...maybe causing lameness for him, and he may have become dangerous to me and others who handled him in the future.

There are contradictions and contrasts in this Isaiah piece. The servant that God provides is not a wimpy pushover, he is love incarnate. He is tough love. He will be different than the human powers because he will not crush the weaker ones like they do and he will firmly challenge them. He will somehow bring about justice and straighten things out without creating more victims. This will be hard, there is a threat that he might be crushed or faint from effort---he will have to be incredibly tough to do things differently. And his followers have to start looking for a different kind of "reign of justice". I'm not sure we truly have a good idea of what this kind of "just" ruler would look like. How can a ruler be in control if they are good to the powerless? How will they ever gain control over the unjust who are violent and forceful? Perhaps the answer lies in the response of the followers. How will we respond when God's servant uses some tough love on us? For those of us with lots to eat, good shelter, and money and time, following means sharing more than we have in the past. How will we respond to God's gentle, yet demanding servant?

This Isaiah passage is tough love, not wimpiness. I can't help but think of Psalm 23. We should never forget that our caring Shepherd carries a rod and staff. Those are for discipline. We can be whacked hard on the flank for our own good. It doesn't mean our Shepherd isn't gentle. It means he is concerned about our behaviour long term. We have to, for our own good and for the good of others, acquiesce to the discipline, drop our eyes, and allow God to be in control.

I've been tough and gentle training the horse I have right now. As our partnership continues to develop, I am able to use less and less pressure on him. He has happily accepted me as his leader and he trusts me. It's so much fun for both of us. It's a good model to help me understand my relationship to God. If I quit resisting and let God take control, what kind of partnership might develop?