Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Black is brown if the right person says so?

Lectionary Passages for March 30, 2014. 1 Samuel 16:1-3, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

I disguised myself and rode a distinctive black horse onto the field where the children (12-13 year olds) were playing. I dropped a note and galloped off. It was part of a "Where's Waldo" mystery theme at the children's camp my husband and I were directing back in 1997. I was sure they would figure out who "Waldo" was, but at the supper time discussion in the lodge building, it wasn't at all clear. Finally, one of the kids who was a ringleader stood up and said; "it couldn't have been Donita. Waldo was riding a brown horse and we all know Donita's horse is black." That settled it. The campers believed her and I remained anonymous!

Seeing and perceiving are different things.The kids all saw the black horse, but their perception of the event, in retrospect, was erroneous. People were easily convinced to believe what they wanted to hear, because it gave them an easy answer and they could maintain the mystery for another day.

In the story of David's anointing, we read; "the Lord does not see as mortals see, they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." Knowing how badly people can misjudge appearances, these are comforting words! This should inspire humility and carefulness on our part when we have to make judgement calls about people or events. There is always a good chance that our perceptions are incorrect.

It is ironic,after this 'the Lord sees the heart" bit, that in verse 12 the description of David emphasizes his good looks! If the Lord sees the heart, why bother with this over the top description of David's eyes, complexion, and appeal? Is the writer unable to let go of the need for the future king to be physically statuesque? I wonder, if David had been average looking, or on the scrawny side, would he have been accepted by the people?  There have been numerous studies that show good looking people tend to get preferential treatment in business and social life. God is able to see beneath the surface but we struggle with that. We also have trouble accurately evaluating what we see.

There's a good example in the John 9 story of the man born blind. The Pharisees, with the evidence right in front of them, can't agree. They can't even agree on the man's identity, let alone what has happened to him. Some of them believe in the miracle and Jesus, others just keep on arguing, desperately looking for some way to maintain their own perceptions of the way things are.

It seems crazy. We trust our eyes, but then find out that we are easily convinced that black is brown if the right people say it is. We know that appearances can be deceiving, yet we can't let go of our prejudice towards certain forms of beauty. We can see evidence, and yet argue it away if we don't want to believe it.

This week many people will take part in the Truth and Reconciliation gathering in Edmonton. We will hear stories, be presented with evidence, and we will yearn for healing and a way forward into new ways of being Canadian, neighbours to each other. Will we be able to see past appearances and prejudice? Can we see the hearts and keep ourselves humble enough to be receptive to truth and change?

In John 9:41, Jesus addresses the Pharisees who remain resistant to the truth. "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'we see', your sin remains."  I pray that this weekend people will have hearts open to see, and once that we have seen, that we will collectively be open to learning what changes might bring healing to First Nations, to those of us who have been blind, and to our country as a whole.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Relentlessly Positive

Lectionary Passages for March 23, 3rd Sunday of Lent. Exodus17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

My friends used to joke that I shouldn't be left alone, because strange things happen. A few examples: I've been alone on the farm when the cattle got out, and when the neighbour's bull broke through the fence to fight with our bull. I've been dropped off alone in a strange city with no key to get into my new apartment. I've had a hot water tank blow at night when I was the only one in the house.When our children were small, every time Tim was gone for an extended time, one of the kids would throw up. (I clearly remember one evening Tim had left, the kids were asleep, and I thought I was clear. Then the cat walked up to me and barfed.) Thankfully every situation resolved well. I learned to handle problems on my own and now I have funny stories to tell. In retrospect, I am thankful for those experiences because they helped me grow in confidence.

Reading Romans 5 reminded me of my "don't leave me alone" stories. Sometimes, in the midst of dealing with things, I wondered what God was preparing me for next. Paul was dealing with much more serious circumstances when he wrote; "we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope."  How can he be so relentlessly positive in the face of so many hard things? Somehow Paul is able to find the good in the situation. He is confident in God and is able to look at hardship as times of growth.

What a contrast the Romans story is to the grumbling in the Exodus story! In this one, the people are facing hardships in the desert and their attitudes are sour. They've forgotten the miraculous escape across the sea (chapter 14). They've forgotten how God gave them water at Marah (15:22-25). They've forgotten the manna and quail (chapter 16) and now they are complaining bitterly against Moses because, once again, they are thirsty and lacking in faith. Moses complains; "what am I to do with these people?" (17:4).

In Romans, the hardships push people to rely on God. They remain positive and get the best out of their situation because they really believe God is in control. In Exodus, in spite of repeated miraculous help, the people continue to whine. I know which group I'd rather be part of!

A number of years ago, I made several visits to a woman who was dying of cancer. She would openly share her grief, cry, and then we'd talk about other things. She had made a conscious decision to be positive, to live into every moment she had left. She was a joy to be with and I left those visits feeling blessed and encouraged by her. Because of her example, and stories like these in Romans and Exodus, I will strive to choose the relentlessly positive attitude!

Hardship is part of life. We all face difficult things, some more than others. A positive attitude and trust in God's love allows people to learn and grow and gain from those hard times.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Giving something up for Lent? What does it take to make real change?

Lectionary Readings for March 16, 2nd Sunday of Lent.  Gen 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

People are familiar with the concept of giving something up for Lent, and coffee and chocolate seem to head the list. My family jokes that I can not give up coffee because the point of Lent isn't to make them miserable! Joking aside, I haven't seen much point in giving up some trivial thing when my motivation is more selfish (lose weight, save money...) than penitent. A few years ago, however, someone suggested a different focus. We could give up gossiping or complaining. Or perhaps we could pick up a good habit like regular meditation, or scripture reading, or prayer. I like that line of thinking, the idea of establishing a useful, persistent habit that I don't intend to drop like a hot potato as soon as Lent ends.

But bad habits are hard to break, and good ones difficult to develop. It's especially hard to break life-time patterns. People who grow up eating lots of bread and fat have a hard time switching to vegetables. Those who never exercised have a hard time learning to enjoy it. People who habitually complain can't just decide one day that their personality is going to turn to the bright side.

How possible is real change? The story of  Nicodemus is a great case study. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. He is well educated, has a respected place in society, a good living, and influence with the "people who matter." Jesus' work makes Nicodemus question his assumptions, but like any good scholar, he is sceptical. He needs more information from the primary source. So he sneaks to Jesus, under the cover of night, to ask questions. Gerhard Sloyan, a New Testament Scholar, calls this action an earnest spinelessness. I disagree. Nicodemus is being prudent. Why should he give people a chance to assume his position before he's even had a chance to think through things without pressure? He has questions and wants to ask them privately.

He affirms Jesus as a man of God-there is no way he can reconcile what he's seen and heard with anything other than Divine connection. Jesus then gives him the whole "born again" metaphor, which Nicodemus pushes. The commentaries I've looked at all suggest that Nicodemus just doesn't get it, he doesn't understand that Jesus is taking about spiritual birth instead of physical.

While that is a valid interpretation, I don't really buy it as the complete story. Nicodemus isn't dense, he's brilliantly educated, and I just can't accept that he is unable to grasp the metaphor. The problem is more practical than that. My guess is that Nicodemus responds with resistance because he already believes Jesus is right. What Nicodemus struggles with is how this new truth might change him and his comfortable life. He wants to be absolutely certain, because his belief might mean loss of respect, loss of position, and a very different life.Jesus challenges him in verse 12. Nicodemus has seen and heard Jesus, so what else is left to explain? What's left is for Nicodemus to change his life. That's the hard stuff.

John 3:16-21 is both an incredible encouragement and a challenge as Nicodemus considers changing his life to fit what he believes. Jesus assures him that God is love and that following him leads to life. Jesus challenges him to live by the truth and "come into the light" with his actions. (I love the literary bookending here! The story starts with Nicodemus sneaking in the dark and ends with him challenged to walk into the light and be seen!)

So what does Nicodemus do?

There are only two other  references to Nicodemus. One more in John 7:50, where he speaks up to defend Jesus in front of other Jewish leaders, and once in John 19:39 where he brings a large amount of myrrh and aloes to help wrap and entomb Jesus' body.  Apparently, Nicodemus made the hard changes and "came into the light" with his desire to believe and follow Jesus.

Nicodemus is a good model for change. He thinks, he asks questions, and then when he is sure of what he wants for the long term, he acts. Real change is possible, when we are convinced of the need for it, and willing to accept what comes as consequence.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Talking about sin feels like chewing lemons.

Lectionary passages for March 9: Gen. 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Ps. 32, Rom. 5:12-20, Matt. 4:1-11.

Most of us would rather chew lemons than get into a discussion on the theme of this week's passages. Sin is a topic that can lead to polarized comments, long philosophical discussions on the nature of the beast (pun intended), vague and pointed guilty feelings, disagreements on proper consequences, and finger wagging.

We are, however, stuck with this important topic, and we should be talking about it. If the "lemons" of black and white thinking and pointing fingers can be left alone, the topic has the power to lead people into forgiveness and freedom.Engaging the scriptures is a great way to get at the topic, especially when we try our best to leave preconceptions behind.

In Genesis, the issue of sin is simple. The people sin when they clearly and deliberately disobey God. So much has been done with this "original sin" concept, that our thinking about it is often muddied-but the scriptures are simple. It's not about sex, it's not about who tempted whom. It's about people, men and women, deliberately defying God to try to elevate themselves to the status of God with their knowledge. They knew what they were doing, and they did it anyway. Defiance of God and self-aggrandizement are the original sins that separate people from God.

Psalm 32 deals with the weight of guilt, the glory of forgiveness, and the desire to trust in God. "When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long..." (v 3) Although the psalmist experiences the heaviness of his sin, once he confesses to God, he is freed and joyous in his outlook. So, while the topic is sin, the focus is much more on God's power to bless, deliver, and protect. This is not an exercise in guilt, but in release and hope!

The Romans passage does some of the philosophical circling that tastes a bit "lemony", especially when Paul gets into the business of what is sin if there is no law bit, but here too, the focus is more on redemption than on the particulars of offense. Paul compares Adam and Christ, saying that just as sin can come into the world and multiplied from one source, so too grace multiplies from one source. It's a real encouragement that we shouldn't feel overcome by sin, because the gift of God's love is so much greater that it can overwhelm the consequences of our sins. In verse 14, Paul even references people who haven't sinned by breaking any laws-showing that it is possible, there are people who are blameless. Paul's focus isn't pointing fingers or bemoaning past transgressions, or calling everyone hopeless sinners. His focus is rejoicing in a God who is able to redeem the world, a God who is stronger than sin.

The Matthew passage isn't really about sin, it's about temptation. If Jesus had turned stones to bread, or had angels put on a "rescue" show, would that have been sin? I don't see anything to suggest that it would, but it certainly would have paved the way for more listening to poor counsel! Bowing down, the third temptation, however, would definitely have crossed a line and been a sinful act. (Deut. 6) The story of Jesus' temptation is a model of responding well to avoid sin. He knows what God has asked, he doesn't seek glory for himself, and he puts God first.

Thinking about sin in light of these passages sugars the lemons for me. Instead of a distasteful finger pointing or guilt inducing discussion, or a naming of black and white, the focus is strongly on God's ability to set us free.

We do need to talk about sin, but these scriptures inspire us, as we speak with each other, to keep our focus on God's power to redeem not on our proclivities to categorize and condemn.