Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Tricky conversations about love and in love.

Lectionary Passages for May 4. Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1Peter1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

One of the reasons I reflect on the lectionary scriptures each week is to help me to think about life. I want preaching in the church to be relevant to what is going on in the various communities I am part of and hear about every day. Whether I am the preacher or a listener, thinking about the scriptures in my current context is helpful!

Last week and tonight, a small group (made up of representation from various branches/committees as well as anyone else who was interested to come) gathers to talk about issues of sexuality and the church. The discussion is based on the "Being a Faithful Church 5" document which can be found on the Mennonite Church Canada website.

A few things have captured my interest. Firstly, both the paper and our conversations are somewhat lacking in focus, simply because the topic is so broad and we all are touched by the issues, sometimes painfully. This is a huge conversation! Secondly, one bit that rises to the surface of the discussion is our constant need to respect each other so that real connections are possible. We are speaking about things that are intimate and deeply part of our relationships, identity, and faith. These conversations have been good so far, good practice for us as we express beliefs, thoughts and feelings, and struggle with fears that arise when we are different. How we treat each other as we disagree is absolutely crucial!

1 Peter calls us to holy living, and affirms that God is the one who judges all people impartially. In light of divergent views on issues, the reminder that God is the judge is helpful. Our job is to discuss, discern, and do our best, but ultimately God will judge us based on our deeds (verse 17). That is certainly a call to an attitude of humility. Peter goes on to say we are to love one another deeply from the heart. It is good to remember this love is based on a mutual striving to obey God. The following verse asks us to put away malice, slander, envy, and insincerity. We are asked to put away aspects of behaviour and attitude that hurt others. A good thing to remember both as we engage in touchy discussions and as we speak about them to others after the fact.

In Acts, it is again Peter who urges the faithful (in this case a wide diversity of Jews he describes as being from all nations 2:5) to respond to God with repentance. Then they are to engage in teaching and fellowship, eating and sharing together and praying.  They are to live together in peace, engaging each other hospitably, and striving to be true to God.

It's easy to have peace in small homogeneous groups, but the church is never this way, and it shouldn't be this way! Somehow the church is called to be a hospitable place in spite of all of us with our divergent views and differing ideas. We should always be welcoming new people among us. And that means we will be having people at all stages of their faith life, people of varying backgrounds, etc...joining us and continually "upsetting our apple cart." That is great, at least in theory. In practice, we have to keep working on respecting, loving, and hearing each other. Our core is the unity that Christ gives us, we strive to follow his example and teachings.

We are not without guidance in how to get along. The scriptures, like those we read this week, continually urge us to love each other. Working that out when there are differing views and touchy issues is exactly what the church is called to do! While discussing sexuality and all the surrounding issues is not easy, it has, so far, been good practice at having important conversations in a good way! With God's help, we pray that it continues to be so!

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Unless I see...I will not believe.

Lectionary Readings for April 27, 2014. Acts 2: 14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

The disciples are scared. They all ran away when Jesus was arrested because they were rightly frightened to be associated with a condemned man. The Romans and the high priests were formidable enemies, so the disciples hid. Now the tomb is empty, Peter, one other disciple, and Mary of Magdala had all seen it, but only Mary stayed behind and saw the risen Jesus.

Here in John 20, the disciples are still afraid and hiding. Maybe they just didn't understand and thought the body had been removed. Maybe they thought they would be blamed (like in Matthew's account where the story was spread that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body). Perhaps they had trouble believing that Mary had actually spoken with Jesus. At the very least, they certainly didn't know what to do next. Until they all saw Jesus, they simply couldn't get their heads around the fact that he was alive.

Thomas always gets a bad rap for doubting, yet all he asks for is the same thing that it took for the others to believe. He wants to see.

It should be enough for us that there are trusted witnesses, throughout history, who have passed on the story and lived their lives believing and following Jesus.But it is not enough for most of us, we are like Thomas, we need to experience Jesus before we can say; "My Lord and my God!"

And it seems very hard for the upper and middle class of us to claim that experience. I don't think we are very good at trusting God, at relying on God, and we are certainly not good at realizing that our lives are not truly in our control. While there are many poor people who also don't believe, overall I wonder if belief might come easier to those who have no other hope, no other way to "control" their lives.

1 Peter speaks of the great hope that has come into the world through Jesus' resurrection. The hope that suffering and death are overcome through him. That great joy can be had even in the midst of problems. Peter says; "even though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy..." v. 8.  Peter is speaking to a persecuted people. Victory over suffering is a theme throughout the letter. Perhaps they believe, even though they didn't see, because belief is hope that things will change.

Seeing and hearing from others is a very important way that my faith gets fed. Experiencing "God moments", times when I feel God is near and helping or guiding or encouraging me, those moments help feed my belief. I think in my own way, I am Thomas. I need to see.

What great hope keeps you going and gives you joy? What do you need to see to believe? How do you handle the times when you aren't seeing evidence of God?

Monday, 14 April 2014

Faith hinges on a shocking event.

Easter 2014 Lectionary Readings: Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Col.3:1-4, John 20:1-18 or Matt. 28:1-10

The Easter event is the high point of the Christian story. Our faith hinges here, our belief that Jesus is Lord over death gives us hope in new life, new possibilities, new humanity.

The symbols of new life surround us. Bunnies, eggs, fresh green grass, and pussy-willows speak of new birth after the long sleep of winter. These symbols, however, are limited. We expect them. We know that the seasons circle and as miraculous as plant growth and baby animals are, they are by no means surprising!

The Easter story is different. It was unexpected and shocking. Jesus was DEAD. Completely and totally stuck through with a sword for insurance kind of stone cold gone. When we preach these same scriptures each year, it's easy to slip into platitudes and traditional messages. After all, we know this story and we have our certain ways that we've "always done Easter." Tradition is good, but we shouldn't think of the resurrection as a circular, expected event. IT IS SHOCKING!

The resurrection brings earthshaking hope to otherwise hopeless people. Because Jesus has power over death, there is hope that dead and rotten parts of our lives and world are actually salvageable through him. The unimaginable to us is possible for God. Hallelujah!

I tried to read these scriptures with fresh eyes, and I did notice some "new to me" things. I am more familiar with the John account than Matthew and had sort of conflated the two in my mind. It's good to take each account on its own again, to catch what that particular writer was trying to say.

John has the disciples confused, not understanding. Peter and the other disciple see the empty tomb, and verse 8 says; "he saw and believed." What he believed, at first, was Mary's initial thought that Jesus' body had been taken. The walk home must have been tortuous for the two men. They had not only lost their leader, the stolen body would have destroyed any shred of hope that Jesus would rise like Lazarus. They needed a body for it to be raised! Mary, because she stayed at the tomb and was greeted by Jesus, was able to make that same journey home with much lighter feet!

Matthew is dramatic! An earthquake, stunned guards, and angels who speak directly to the two Marys. While the women are running home with the angels' message, they get stopped along the way by Jesus himself who repeats the instructions to go tell the other disciples. Then there is the interesting bit where some of the guard who had seen the events are bought off by the priests and elders so they would not witness. But the women are not stopped, and neither is their witness! (I love that while the world dismissed the importance of the women, Jesus did not! And I guess that because he had always valued them, so the disciples were also able to hear and value their words even in a culture where women's testimony was often discounted.)

This shocking and hopeful news of life where there was death is meant to change us. "So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above...." Colossians 3:1  A shocking, hopeful change is there for us!

He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Homework has to happen.

Lectionary Readings for Palm Sunday. Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 31:9-16, Phil2:5-11, Matt. 26:14-278:66, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Matt 21:1-11

I'm amazed at how much more than basics are expected from our public schools. On top of equipping children with knowledge, schools work to teach respect, citizenship, teamwork, health, and more. Teachers are expected to handle (and solve) behavioural problems. Schools have extra activities to keep students constructively busy and out of trouble. But even at 6 hours or more each day, it's not enough. Homework has to happen, and above all, parents and communities are needed to successfully educate and develop a child's potential.

It's interesting to compare what we expect of school to what we expect of church. One hour each Sunday isn't enough. It's not enough to know the Bible, it can't provide the amount of teaching and reflection it takes to keep faith growing, and it doesn't offer the space for practical application and correction that is needed to hone ideas and skills.Homework has to happen, and above all, parents and communities are needed for any of us to successfully grow and develop our faith potential.

One hour is certainly not enough this time of year, when we are contemplating the climax of the Christian story. There has to be some homework this week if we want to learn and grow from the story.

The Matthew reading is long, reflecting the importance of the Passion story being heard in its entirety. Chances are, most churches aren't going to read all this, and pastors aren't going to try to preach all this on any one Sunday. For our one-hour worship services, we have to focus more tightly.and depend on (and encourage) people to dig in outside of Sunday morning.

Reading through the whole Passion story in Matthew, I noticed a few things I don't see when I have to focus on small bits on a Sunday morning. I noticed that two of my favourite bits of the story, where Jesus heals the slave's chopped off ear, and when a criminal dying beside Jesus confesses, these parts are both missing from Matthew's account. They are also missing from Mark and John. Only Luke "softens" the story with the healing and the last minute salvation. Matthew leaves us contemplating failure. Here, nothing is fixed until Easter.

Matthew also deals the most harshly with Judas. Judas repents, throws his payment back at the priests, and then kills himself. In the other gospels, he simply isn't mentioned after the betrayal.

The rest of the disciples don't perform much better than Judas. They all fall asleep in the garden when Jesus needs them, they run away when he is arrested, and Peter verbally denies Jesus even after being warned that he would do it! Reading the whole story emphasizes the multiple failures of all the disciples. They only stick close to Jesus when everything is going well, when the palms wave and the table is set. When things get challenging, they bail. The impact is sobering, humanity fails. We fail.

Our failure is the note that sounds at the cross, and it leaves us yearning for Easter, waiting for the hope that Jesus' triumph kindles. The biggest difference I see between Judas and the rest of the failures, is that the rest of the disciples stick around for the whole story.

I hope we can encourage each other to stick with the whole story this week, to hear it in its entirety so we are ready for Easter morning and the impossibly real hope that comes even after we fail.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Exposing Skeletons in the Closet

Lectionary passages for April 6, 2014. Ezekiel37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

"Them bones, them bones, them dry bones..." the song runs through my head when I read Ezekiel 37. The story of the valley of bones coming to life invokes a creepy fascination and bizarre mental images. It terrifies the kid in me, yet the idea of going from death to life instead of the other (normal) way is completely intriguing!

I've always heard this interpreted positively, emphasizing renewed life, but today I have a different feeling about it, and it leans more toward terror because there is pain in exposing bones, bringing them to life, and learning to live with a new (even if better) reality.

This past weekend, I spent 2 days at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Edmonton learning about the impact of the residential school system (1870-1996, 150,000 children) on First Nations people in Canada. Sitting in on sharing circles, I heard survivors speak of the horrors of being torn from their families when they were 4-6 years old and having their clothes, hair, names, and language taken away upon entering the school. Hunger, sickness, confusion, abuse of all sorts, and isolation was all meant to 'kill the Indian in the child.'. The "dry bones" of this legacy of horror are in evidence in the tears of mothers who lament that because of the damage, they were unable to parent their own children. It is in evidence in the many survivors who spoke of turning to alcohol or drugs to dull the pain of remembered trauma, stolen children, and to stop the ceaseless onslaught of nightmares. It continues to affect the children today because of the broken families, the lost identities and culture, and the ingrained racism that blames people for the horrible heritage forced upon them.

The TRC was meant to enable the process of bringing renewed life to these dead bones, but I can't get the words of one survivor out of my mind. She was desperately weeping as she said; "I thought that telling my story would help, but it's made it worse..." The anger and hurt was all there, but instead of being buried, it was exposed and she was actively and publicly stalled in her agony. The residential school was decades in her past, but her pain was immediate and at the level of crisis. Renewed life doesn't happen just because story flesh is put on the bones of the past. Something more is needed.

The truth really hurts. More and more bones are being uncovered and refleshed by the commission, but it's not enough if that's where it stops.

Many people have skeletons in their closets that they don't talk about, betrayals, abuses, bad habits, loss, regrets, and other unmentionables. When we can keep our closet doors closed, we pretend to get on with life as if we are okay. Skeletons are quiet, they don't move around, but we don't like to look at them. What would happen if flesh and life was added to what we keep hidden? I imagine voices would come from the closet, and when they find the door handle, bodies would walk out and enter the room. Individuals and families and communities would learn hard things and have to deal with them.

The TRC has blown Canada's closet wide open. Many Native people are courageously telling their stories and it hurts. It hurts desperately. Over and over we heard both survivors and leaders and the commissioners say that truth telling is only the first step, and despite the pain, it is the easiest step. That is terrifying, even as it is hopeful. The hard work begins now. Reconciliation is the work of responding to the truth. As a country and as individuals, are we going to try to stuff these stories and these people back into the closet, or are going to hear them and walk alongside?

In Ezekiel's story, the bones don't really come to life until God's spirit fills them with the breath of life. Story flesh on bones isn't enough, people need to be infused by God's spirit, by the Creator's spirit. Over and over at the TRC, survivors who were on a healing path talked of the importance of the Creator. I think they would resonate with Ezekiel's vision.

I still like the bones coming to life image, but I wonder how many of us have the courage to do more than just listen to the story. What would it take for our skeletons to come to life? What would we deal with if our hidden stories were told? What kind of reconciliation is needed in our lives as individuals and how do we start down that path?

I am glad to have been a part of the TRC event, but it was only a beginning. I got a glimpse of my country's closet, and there are valleys full of bones that are getting up, walking, and getting life from the Creator. Will I find a way to be part of that new life? Will our society and churches respond with true lament, confession, and a way to make sure this will not happen again?