Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Pick up Your Mat and...What?

Lectionary Readings for May 5. Acts 16:9-16, Psalm 67, Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5, John 14:23-29,  John 5:1-9
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

This week I've been hard at work on an article for the Canadian Mennonite, a feature about a journey with chronic pain. I had a chance to interview Rod and Susan Reynar twice, to hear them tell about their journey with debilitating condition called arachnoiditis. The pain has kept Rod in bed for 10.5 of the last 13 years.Their story is incredible, and there is much to learn from people like this who have done so much reflecting, meditating, and living through difficulty.

When I read John 5:1-9, I couldn't help but think about the Reynars. In John, Jesus heals a man who has been crippled for 38 years, telling him to pick up his bed and walk. I read this differently now. I used to    simply be impressed by the physical healing, that solves the problem, right? Now, I wonder about the crippled man. What kind of person was he? How did he deal with questions of faith and identity when he was an invalid? What was his life like? What about his family and community, how were they engaged with him? Now I think about the questions that come after the healing. This is a story of physical healing, but that can't be the whole story. Right now, Rod has experienced physical healing through a procedure that allows for pain control. He is up and walking, but he doesn't describe healing in primarily physical terms. He talks about the redemption, spiritual healing, that happened well before he had this surgery. He and Susan  told me that physical healing after such extreme pain comes with a cost too. I hadn't known, but it's common for people who experience a dramatic physical change like this to undergo depression and post-traumatic stress. Life has just changed so fast, the adjustment is difficult, the fear of the pain returning is real, and there is stress (alongside the great joy) of re-engaging in life and allowing yourself to hope for things. The family goes through the changes too-there are so many adjustments! Where did the formerly crippled man go with his mat? Where did he re-engage in community life? Who walked alongside him and shared his life? I realize now, in a very new way, that spiritual healing is the more miraculous thing. All those stories of Jesus saying"you are forgiven" those are the most amazing miracles! That healing lasts, even when the physical healing may not.

The other scripture that caught me in a new way is the Acts piece. I've been reading Sally Armstrong's book, The Ascent of Women. Armstrong is a journalist who has spent many years writing about the lives of women in (mainly) African countries. She talks of horrible cultural practices like female circumcision, the lack of education for women, etc...Then, she recounts stories of change and redemption coming into societies through women. When women are educated, the health levels, economies, and general well being of whole societies are improved. Many things often improve when the formerly oppressed women organize themselves and work for the good of their people.  In Acts, the disciples travel to Macedonia to preach the gospel, and they end up (verse 13) speaking to the women gathered at the river. This is what starts the change! They meet Lydia, a prominent merchant and leader, who ends up being a powerhouse of welcome and change for the fledgling church. Wow. That's a neat reminder for us to pay attention to the people who are sometimes forgotten. They are sometimes where the needed and best changes can take shape!

Monday, 22 April 2013

New Earth, Heavens New.

Lectionary Readings for April 28. Acts 11:1-8, Ps. 148, Rev. 21:1-16, John 13:31-35
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

This week, I read the lectionary passages through the lens of preparing for a funeral. Sitting with a grieving family, hearing their stories, and praying can be an experience of walking on holy ground together. The reality of death has a profound way of refocusing priorities, making relationships come into clearer focus and pushing us to call on God. It's a strange time, almost surreal, where all sorts of emotions, beliefs, questions, comforts, and agonies intertwine. We grapple with our faith, our hopes, our fears, our connections to the people we love. We are open to God and painfully vulnerable at times.

John 13:34-35 "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Our church community responds to crisis, like the one this week, in so many ways. The public support and organization that goes into preparing a meaningful service, the private phone calls and visits, the provision of food and comfort. It is a great witness to who Jesus is when we come together and act out of love. At times like this the church is invaluable. I wonder how people manage without this kind of community support, this kind of hope that God is present in us, around us, and waiting for us.

In Revelation 21, John describes a vision of a new earth and heavens where God wipes away our tears and there will be no more death or crying or pain. An incredible vision of hope. It is assurance that this bit of life we experience is not all there is. A timely and encouraging piece of scripture to read today.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Tell Us Plainly

Lectionary Readings for April 21: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Rev 7: 9-17 John 10:22-30
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

"If you are the Christ, tell us plainly!" This is a question we want answered today, a question asked since the beginning of faith.

In John, the 'Jews' ask this question of Jesus at the temple. This "Jews" label can be problematic if the us vs. them aspects of it are the focus. It's helpful to remember Jesus and his followers are Jews too!  The question is asked by those opposed to Jesus, in an attempt to trap him. They want him to make a clear, blasphemous statement so they have public justification to go after him. When Jesus says; "I and the Father are one" in verse 30, they pick up stones to kill him.

 Jesus' enemies use the question as a trap, but it is a good question. What do followers need to see or hear to erase niggling doubts? The people in John see miracles and hear Jesus speak, and it isn't enough for all of them. Today we describe many miracles scientifically, but just because there is an explanation, is it any less of a miracle?And what about when unexplainable things happen? There is a huge amount science cannot yet grasp or understands poorly. Is God simply a convenient explanation for the gaps in knowledge? That kind of faith lacks integrity.

The Acts passage is the story of Dorcas, a much loved helper of the poor in her community. Peter prays for her, she is raised from the dead, and many people believe. Would we believe if/when something like this happens today? I think our story would be a lot like the one in John. The people have seen and heard Jesus. Many believe, but many simply cannot. What would it/did it take for you?

Psalm 23 is a gorgeous expression of faith. The writer has endured hardship, even the 'valley of death', and yet there is faith, gratitude, and hope. Here there is personal experience of God walking alongside, shepherding, comforting with good use of discipline (the rod and staff which protect, but also keep the sheep in line), and giving hope in both present earthly life and what is to come. Perhaps this helps answer some of the question of what it takes to have faith-it takes a lifetime of experiencing God in the good and the difficult.

I won't comment much on the Revelation piece-except to strongly encourage people to read Nelson Kraybill's recent book; Apocalypse and Allegiance; Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation. It's a great read, interesting, full of story snippets from history and today, has good archaeological photos, and it helps to make sense of Revelation in a way that encourages the church today-and challenges the harmful interpretations and fear-based interpretations that are currently popular. We've got the book in our pastor's library, but it is easily available on-line as well. 

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Resurrection Fallout!

Lectionary Readings for April 14. Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Rev. 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

These passages all deal with consequences of the resurrection.

In the John piece, Jesus appears on the shore of the lake and cooks breakfast for the disciples. He calls out to them, calling them "children". Why a diminutive? Is this only a reference to them as students, or are they significantly younger than he is? We tend to think of the disciples as the same age as Jesus.Maybe that's not right-it is very possible they were young adults, maybe less than 20 years old. At a youth ministry conference a month ago, our speaker displayed a famous painting of the last supper. He asked what was wrong with it. After a time, he pointed out that the disciples were depicted as old men! That, he challenged, is a wrong perception, the disciples would have been young, they were students with time to follow Jesus. They would not be grey beards! If these are the ones Jesus entrusted his mission to, are we doing enough to equip, entrust, and challenge our young adults with the work and outreach of the good news? Are we expecting too much perfection out of each other and ourselves, leaving ourselves afraid to try? One consequence of the resurrection is that all the disciples become 'missionaries'. The spreading of the faith is no longer in the hands of a select older, accomplished, and established few. How can this challenge us?

Saul's conversion in Acts 9 is another place where strange consequences occur. Saul is a highly unlikely choice for a missionary, yet God chooses, changes, and sends him. I'm struck by Saul's response to the blinding experience. He doesn't eat or drink for 3 days. He goes the route of spiritual discipline, fasting and waiting for revelation, for God to speak. When something traumatic happens to us, we immediately run to science (the hospital) for answers. And that is a sensible response, but do we also wait for God to speak? Does God sometimes need us to slow down and be receptive to the thoughts, words, dreams, and insights of those around us? I have been blessed to sometimes hear stories of people who have either taken (or more often been forced by illness to take) time to listen for God. They have some amazing things to say about life, about God's presence, and about changed perceptions as they move forward. A consequence of the resurrection is that God speaks into our spaces and questions, changing us and the world in ways we could not have predicted. Can we listen for God?

The shocking part of the Revelation piece, even weirder than the apocalyptic genre, is the central idea. The idea the only one worthy to open the scroll in the glory of heaven is not a resplendent, richly garbed hero type, but a slaughtered lamb. Incongruous! Unbelievable! A complete turning over of the expectations and proprieties of worldly kingdoms. The one who is worthy is the one who was willing to be humiliated and die for the love of others. A consequence of the resurrection is the calling of the followers of the lamb to be like him, to sacrifice themselves for the good of others, to change the very fabric of society into something that honours the servants, not the kings. Sometimes we get glimpses of this as the church serves others, but sometimes we get so caught up in maintaining our systems that it is hard to remember why we do it all. How does remembering the resurrection each year stir the church to faithful, humble, service?

Psalm 30 says; "you have turned my mourning into dancing". May this be so for each of us and for those we are sent to minister to each day.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Read it All, Read it Fast, Then Go For Coffee!

Lectionary Readings for April 7. Acts5:27-32, Ps 118:14-29 or Ps 150,  Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

This is one of those weeks where the readings do not go far enough-both the Acts and the John definitely need some more “reading around” the stated text to give enough context for understanding.
It is weird to read this John passage over two Sundays-when most of it occurred on one day and it is written down in a constant stream of action words. I can’t stand putting down a novel in the middle of an intense scene. And that is what this feels like! Easter Sunday, after Mary talks to Jesus, she immediately tells the disciples, and then Jesus appears to them. Without delay, we launch into the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Thomas situation.We should read to the end of verse 25. (Then in verse 26, a week later, Jesus appears again when Thomas is present-there's the natural break!) Chopping the story up disturbs the mood of breathless rush, steals away excitement, and turns the action movie style into talking heads. Eeek. In our contemporary world of sound bites and short attention spans, why do we take a fast, intricate story climax and slow it to a crawl? I’m all for study and the “slow work” of letting this story soak in, but not at the expense of losing the “flood” of excitement innate in the original telling! Read it all, read it fast, then sit down in a coffee shop (or upper room) to take the action apart and chew on the meanings, just like you’d do after seeing a movie with friends!

The bit from Acts makes little sense unless you read verses 12 to the end of the chapter. Then you have enough context to understand how the apostles are getting into trouble. They are healing and teaching from the most prominent spot in Jerusalem, the temple-and people are crowding the temple entrance. I wonder why the high priest has such a hard time with this. With lots of people there, he should be inviting them in! The apostles weren’t telling folks to leave their Jewish faith, so it seems the high priest could have engaged people even if they weren’t quite on the same page as the apostles. One reason they couldn’t engage is because they were jealous. This issue is still a problem today! We get “jealous” of our own understandings and want to have things under our control. There is a lot of power and privilege tied up in the high priests actions-and he is largely bound by the traditions, expectations, and perks of his role. How would people have reacted had he engaged the apostles differently? Could he have done something different? An insight into that question is in the Pharisees suggestion in verses 38-39   “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them-in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" ” The advice is partially followed, the apostles are not kept in jail, but the high priest still flogs them and demands that they be quiet. He couldn't quite keep his hands off! He certainly didn't use the opportunity to invite people into the temple. There is a challenge here for us too. When something new comes along, that doesn’t quite fit our established way of thinking and doing, how do we respond? How can we wait to see if something is of God without feeling threatened?