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,'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.)

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?