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".

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.
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, 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 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!