Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Blessed are those who will not be repaid!

Lectionary Readings for Sept. 1. Ps. 112, Proverbs 25:6-7, Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16, Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

There's a problem in Psalm 112. Verse 3 says; "Wealth and riches are in their houses..."  It sounds like prosperity gospel teaching that says if you are good then you will be rich.

Ick. Bleah. I need to read further to get a fuller picture of what's going on here.

There are so many faithful people who are poor that it's quite astounding to me that anyone would read a verse like this and feel justified or condemned based on their financial state. (My own experience, in the encounters I've had with poor people, has shown that the poor often have faith that dwarfs mine. They know how to rely on God for everything!)

The "problem" tends to fade into the background when the whole text, and all today's readings, are taken into account. The psalm goes on to define the righteous as those who are gracious and merciful. They share generously and justly. They give to the poor. These verses "dwarf" the idea that the "good" are wealthy.

The Hebrews reading goes on to list more characteristics that should be found in the Christian community, and again, sharing, caring, and justice feature prominently. Verse 5 urges that lives be "kept free from the love of money".

Luke urges the faithful to be generous too, and specifically generous to those who cannot reciprocate. Verse 14 says; "you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Wow. Riches are important in all these passages, but only when they are generously shared in ways that lift up those who cannot help themselves. I'm struck again and again, when reading almost anywhere in the Bible, that it constantly talks about dealing justly with our wealth. When we in the church argue over all sorts of other issues (important as they might be) I can't help but suspect we are spending time on specks and ignoring logs.

Yesterday I bought shoes and clothes for our growing (very fast) boys to go back to school. Today we have to pay (upfront for the year!) for bus passes for them. It's very expensive. We can manage, but many cannot. Maybe this is a direct call from the scriptures to me. I'm lucky enough to be able to pay, I think I should help someone else who can't.

Where do you feel called to give generously where you cannot be paid back?

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Time For a Little Impropriety?

Lectionary Readings for August 25.  Isaiah 587:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Heb 12: 18-29, Luke 13:10-17
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

These readings are a call to proper worship. While they don't prescribe elements or order of service, they are descriptive of the intended character of the community of faith.

When I was a child, there were certain unwritten, very firm ideas of what was proper for Sunday worship. Men wore suits (or at least shirts with ties), women wore dresses. The idea that one wore their "Sunday best"applied to more than clothes. It was also for language, habits, and topics of conversation,during worship. The intention was worthy, to show respect for God and the church, but it could easily lead to feelings of falseness and a "dress-up" righteousness, a Sunday faith. When what is "proper" becomes too much of a focus, it can make gatherings into places where poor people feel embarrassed about their thrift store look, or where people with problems (relationship, addiction, etc...) feel unwelcome. While it is important to be respectful of each other and God in our clothing choices, behaviour, etc...I am happy to see jeans and shorts mixed in with the suits and dresses on Sundays. It's good to see people caring for each other in their hurt and shame and/or talking openly about difficult issues. We still, however, easily get stuck in our "proper" ways of doing things and occasionally we need to be challenged.

Isaiah challenges what we think is worship. He is disgusted with acts of humility and religious practice that are all about looks. He calls for action. The whole point of worship, according to this piece of scripture, it that it results in feeding the hungry, doing what is just, and caring for the poor. Everything else is secondary.

I can't help but think of the disagreements that divide churches, and wonder if we are too caught up with what is "proper". I heard a report on CBC, an interview with a Catholic priest who has long supported and campaigned for women to become priests. He was defrocked for his improper views. Many other priests have told him they share his view, but they do not speak up for fear of punishment. I wonder about drawn out discussions on theological topics and Biblical interpretations. While I think these are important and relevant discussions to have, the reality is that our "forever" discussions mean we may put off the doing of justice and the showing of compassion. If we are so terribly concerned about getting things right and righteous before we act, we may never act at all. 

Maybe it's time to be a little improper, to be radically welcoming and inclusive in our worship. In Luke 13, Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath. It is completely improper-after all, he could have waited a day till the Sabbath was over. She had been crippled for 18 years, what's one more day? But Jesus was making a point. The Sabbath is about justice, about being set free. Jesus didn't say that one more day was okay-he said it's been too long already. The entire crowd is said to have rejoiced at what Jesus was doing. That would include those leaders who had originally chastised Jesus.

Is it possible for churches to live respectfully in some disagreement with each other, while still working together on the many things where we have agreement? Can we let these scriptures challenge us to make our worship more present and practical  and real on Sunday mornings and all week long? 

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Competing Messages

Lectionary Readings For August 18. Jer. 23:23-29, Ps 82, Heb. 11:29-12:2, Luke 12: 49-56
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Jeremiah's discussion of false prophets who claim they should be listened to because; "I had a dream..." makes me think of some of the drop-ins to the church office over the years. There have been several men who have dropped in to talk to us about their prophecies/visions that they feel God wants them to share. Some First Mennonite people might remember the young man, a visitor, (I think this was about 6 years ago now) who got up during sharing time to talk about the new Bible God told him to write. Another time, at the end of a church service, Tim had a visitor talk to him, at length, about prophecies of doom that he felt called to deliver to pastors. Once I had a man come to the office on a weekday, by appointment, to share his prophecies. All of these "prophets' were unknown to our community, they just dropped in once to say their piece, then disappeared.

Jeremiah is warning about false prophets, but he is also encouraging those "who have my word to speak it faithfully." v 28. How are we to know the difference? Of those I mentioned above, the first young man was obviously suffering from mental issues. He was in need of compassion and help, he obviously had "delusions in his own mind' v.26. (He was disruptive during the service, and left very quickly after it. How would we have responded to him had he continued to come to our church? Are we able to have compassion and offer some support while being firm about protecting the rest of our people from his obvious dysfunction? It's always an interesting balance, feeling out how to respond well in these situations!) The second man had no desire to interact with us either. He just dumped his doom message on Tim and left. That left a bad taste and we did not take him seriously at all-he clearly didn't take us seriously either, because he wasn't interested in dialogue, he just wanted to tell us what to do. It's hard sometimes, not to resent the time this sort of thing ends up wasting! The third man also only dropped by once, and didn't get to know our community either, however, he was a bit different. His "prophecy" was based in scriptures. He discussed various passages with me (I don't remember exactly which ones) and was mostly concerned that churches pay attention to scriptures. I appreciated his message. He pushed me to think, he didn't claim that he had any corner on truth himself, and the idea that we interpret scripture and prophecy as a church community felt at home in our conversation. He never claimed "he had a dream" so that his message would supersede all others, he just wanted to share what was on his heart to share, and leave it to God. It felt like he was trying to speak faithfully. He didn't immediately raise my defences, he engaged me in God's word, and challenged me respectfully. Even if we couldn't see eye to eye on all his points, this felt faithful and good, it felt like church listening to God. Of course, it's also hard to do much with someone like this too-I had no idea who he was, and he knew nothing of our church. That makes it easy to deal with-because I don't have to deal with him again-but it leaves me wondering about something. How do we deal with our own "prophets"? Do we really listen to our own people, who know us well, when they feel called to push us to discussion and discernment? Is it only listening if we agree with them, or can we really discuss and discern things well with each other? (Actually, this will always necessarily be a growing edge for any healthy church. I think we're doing some good things in learning how to discuss and agree and disagree. It's certainly not easy, but it is one of the things we are called to do as a faith community.)

There are so many competing messages in our lives every day. It's hard to know which ones to listen to, which ones to give the time and effort. Jeremiah warns us not to jump on the dramatic "dream" bandwagons, but to listen to the faithful voices, the humble voices, the voices that speak of justice and not personal advancement. There's no easy way to always know what is of God. The people in Jeremiah's time also struggled with knowing which voices to listen to-our situation is not new!

Monday, 5 August 2013

No Shortage of Faith

Lectionary Passages fro August 11. Gen. 15:1-6, Ps 33:12-22, Heb. 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

I had a conversation with a friend recently where we talked about religion and our faith. We both grew up in Mennonite churches, went to a Mennonite Bible school, and are still involved in Mennonite churches today. We're both in our mid-forties now, and the idealism of youth has been tempered by experience and continued learning. Well, maybe tempered isn't quite a strong enough word, maybe snapped is more accurate! Lots of what we believed has significantly changed. Sometimes belief has grown, and sometimes it has disappeared. He said some things that really intrigued me-things that point out some of the differences between religion, beliefs, and faith.

What is faith anyway? Hebrews 11 says it is; "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." The passage lists a number of examples of faithful people, and then in a twist, says in verse 13 that these people were still all living by faith when they died. In their lives they did not receive what they hoped for, but saw and welcomed it from afar. Hmmm. They lived and died in hope-but that doesn't tell us if they ever got what they hoped for. It's also hard, in today's world, to accept that we can be certain of anything.

Faith and beliefs were simpler when we were children and hadn't had to figure much out for ourselves. In addition, we were still living in a time when the church held a lot of power over everyday life, most people went to church and basically "toed the line" (at least publicly) even if, in their hearts, there was no real belief. The practices that made up church life were straightforward, there was wrong and right and maybe a tiny bit of grey area. For both my friend and I, as we've aged, the grey area is the part that has really spread and pushed away a lot of the black and whites that made things easy. When we talk about our beliefs now, my friend says he doesn't have many, at least he doesn't believe in most of the "religious" stuff, the traditional beliefs of the church. While that may come across as shocking to some, it's exactly what has always happened to established 'beliefs' of the church through history. The flat earth belief was part of the church at one time, and when scientists were able to prove "flat" was incorrect, there was a crisis in the establishment. But faith persisted and the church lived on.

The Church as an institution is in crisis again. We are an increasingly secular society and there is, once again, new information and situations (like our incredible multiculturalism) that will change our collective beliefs and practices-and that is often, admittedly, uncomfortable. Right now, society is not particularly 'church-going'. Churches and church organizations are struggling. There are issues with all of this, but I don't think faith in God is one of them. People are spiritual beings, many people now don't go to church or profess religious belief, but if you ask them if they believe in a God or higher power, they say yes. They are just unwilling and unable to describe much more than that. Some, very rightly, have issues with religious tradition and institutions. Faith is alive, it's just changing again. The church is going to look different, but I certainly don't want to predict what it might be. I guess I have faith in something I cannot see, and maybe won't live to see.

My friend rejects (or at least doesn't put his faith into) a lot of the traditional Christian beliefs he was raised with.At the same time, however, he believes there is life after death and that God is. I'm certainly with him in a distaste for platitudes and blind acceptance of doctrine and practices that simply don't make a lot of sense any more. I do, however, still hold on to hope that the church (in some form) is important and the study and interpretation and reinterpretation of scripture needs to happen within communities of people striving to live faithfully, in hope for ongoing life with our Creator.

Another definition for faith from this passage is in verse 14. People are "longing for a better country-a heavenly one." If faith is longing for something better, we can be certain that there is no shortage of it in our world.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Time and Chance Happen to Us All

Lectionary Passages for August 4. Eccl. 1:2, 13-14, 2:18-23, Ps. 49:1-12, Col 3: 1-11, Luke 12:13-21
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

We're back at home now, after spending a month in Quebec and Ontario as part of our sabbatical. The bulk of our time away, 2.5 weeks, was spent in Montreal. We lived at the "House of Friendship" (supported by Mennonite Church Eastern Canada until recent budget cuts), and volunteered at the St. James Drop-In Centre, a ministry for street people. One of the directors there is Alain Spitzer, an associate member of our church in Edmonton. We wanted to get to know the people at the centre, spend time with Alain, and think about how faith and life fit together.

In presentations Alain does with various groups, he emphasizes that anyone can end up on the street. Anyone, even people like us. And we saw the truth of that. Among the men we met were incredible musicians, artists, people with university educations (even professors), young good-looking guys, those who were clean cut and articulate, and those who were dishevelled and smelly. Recovered and current addicts. Some were mentally disabled. Some had dysfunctional families, some had families trying to reach out to them. They end up on the street for a variety of reasons including; lack of support, addictions, mental illness, financial crisis, and often simple bad luck. The St. James Centre isn't a "hand-outs" place, it is involved with it's members for the long haul-developing relationships and a supportive community.

Reading Ecclesiastes, I can see some of these people and myself. (I read the whole thing-if you just read the bits suggested, it leaves no room for hope and I wanted to find out what made life worth living for the author!) 9:11 says; "...The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all." What a clear summation of the people at the centre-and people like me who seem to have it made. It's humbling to face the fact that our successes and failures have more to do with chance than personal merit or deservedness. The author states repeatedly that "there is nothing better than to do good and be happy while we live-God is in charge." 3:12-13  There is a call to contentment, to doing good, and to crediting God whatever our lot. No room for puffed-up self satisfaction in any of life, all of us are on the same footing with God. This gives value to the downcast, and I think, pushes us "haves" to be realistic and quit deluding ourselves that somehow we deserve our good fortune. We are perhaps the deluded ones, to think we deserve what we have. Those who have nothing understand some things better than we do.

The other readings fit well with Ecclesiastes, and help push toward repairing the feeling of "meaninglessness" expressed there. Psalm 49 levels the field between rich and poor and verse 13 warns of the fate of those who trust in themselves, and verse 20 says that a man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish. Obviously, meaning is not to be found in riches or social status. The story of the rich fool in Luke personifies the issue.

Colossians emphasizes that meaning is found in God. "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." 3:2  It then urges righteous living, a life that stops hurting others, and understands that "there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all." 3:11. This is a helpful ALL, again emphasizing that we all have equal worth before God, and that is meaningful!

None of this is new thinking-it's material that we've heard in church many times over the years. (And it's not unique to the church, we hear this in human rights talk too.) It is, however, so much more real and resonant for me when I hear these scriptures while thinking about the people I met at the St. James Centre. I so much appreciated meeting them face to face, hearing some of their ideas and hard stories, laughing with them, and just being God's people together despite the chances that life has thrown all of us. Many of the members at the Centre have significant problems they have to take responsibility for, but really, so do I. Mine are just hidden a little better, from others and myself. Maybe together the "haves" and have-nots" can figure out a meaningful way to respond to each other and to God.