Friday, 27 June 2014

I wish I were a cartoonist!

Lectionary Passages for July 6, 2014. Zech. 9:9-12, Ps 145:8-14, Rom. 7:15-25, Matt 11:16-19, 25-30

I wish I were a cartoonist, because this Zechariah passage is great material! There is something hilarious about a triumphant king riding, not even on a full-size donkey but a colt, and putting himself between the charging warhorses and Jerusalem.

I find it extra funny because this year I've had a chance to see a real donkey every week at the farm where I go horseback riding. The donkey is willful and doesn't take direction well at all. He's strange looking, with his long ears and shaggy coat, and he sounds utterly ridiculous-the loudest rusty hinge impression you can imagine! (Wikipedia says you can hear the donkey's bray for 3 km!)

I think a good modern parallel might be to put a political leader on a scooter or moped in front of enemy tanks and say that this will stop a war and this leader will have dominion from sea to sea! Laughable to logical sensibilities!

One message here is that our hope should not be in our mighty human machines or in forceful and enforced leadership. God is the one who protects, not any human or human-made power.

Verse 12 is puzzling. The people are referred to as "prisoners of hope". Isn't hope a good thing? Why is it a jail here? Margaret Odell, professor of religion at ST. Olaf's College in Northfield, Minnesota, suggests one interpretation could be that the hope holding these people captive is hope in the wrong thing. They are hoping in their old military tradition, waiting for a Messiah of war and bloody victory to liberate them. Instead, Zechariah gives them hope in a humble king, someone who will be victorious in a new way because, obviously, the scooter can't stop the tank with force!

Odell writes; "How to release these prisoners of hope from old expectations? In effect, the scribes employ the older traditions to open new paths to peace. As in Zephaniah 3:14 and Zechariah 2:10, the audience is commanded to rejoice because of what God has done for Zion and its inhabitants. But where the older texts speak of enemies, Zechariah speaks of conditions that make for peace. The king is not the agent of deliverance, but one who has himself been humbled yet declared righteous and therefore delivered or saved."

I'm also caught, this week, by Paul's words in Romans. "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" 7:15

Here is the classic stand-off between logic and desire. We know what is best, intellectually we want what is good, yet when the second helping of dessert is offered, we load our plates with the artery blocking, health compromising momentary pleasures. Any of us who want to lose a few pounds knows the problem. But this problem isn't, unfortunately, limited to waistlines. It hits deep and hard at the important things in life like our relationships, our care for the environment, our goals and hopes for the future.

How many relationships are slowly destroyed because we can't quite bring ourselves to the honesty and hard work of communication required to keep them healthy? How many spectacularly blow up due to giving in to the temptation to be unfaithful? How many individuals and families struggle because of addictions (substances, gambling, porn, work, etc...) that steal time and money and personal connections from people?  The answer to the how many of us struggle is simple. It is 100%  We all struggle with our desires, some to more destructive effect than others, but we all struggle. Paul says the answer to struggle lies in God, not in relying on ourselves. That is helpful, but not simple, and here Paul doesn't talk about the importance of helping each other.  I wish that in the faith community we could all find places to share our struggles with each other. The church is not a place for perfect people, it is a place for the imperfect, the struggling, those who are searching for a hope that is different from the unworkable "answers" of the past. It is not a place to allow harmful behaviors to continue-but it is a place for us to strive together toward something better. It's not an easy thing to struggle together, but it is certainly preferable to the "old" way of pretending that the church is a "communion of saints" (where transgressors are excommunicated). And it is also preferable to an attitude of "anything goes."

We need God. We need each other. We need new kinds of hope-even when they might seem comical!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Sorting Through the Information Swamp.

Lectionary Passages for June 29, 2014. Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6: 12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

 Jeremiah doesn't give up. Even though he's been put in stocks for his unpopular message, he goes right back at it when he is released.

Chapter 28 continues the story of his struggle, but it can be hard for us to understand if we read the lectionary bits in isolation from the surrounding context. We also don't tend to spend much time reading Jeremiah, so it can seem kind of archaic and very far removed from today's concerns.

However, the message here is screamingly relevant as we try to navigate the information swamp that is our digital world. Jeremiah is only one voice among a number of prophets. How are people supposed to figure out who to listen to? What information is correct? Who speaks for God?

Hannaniah prophesies that Babylon's control will be broken, that articles taken from the temple at Jerusalem 3 years earlier will be returned, and that all exiles will return. This is exactly what people want to hear. Independence sounds good and the priests want their control (and wealth) back. Doesn't this sound like a campaign speech? It's an easy message to speak because it speaks to people's hopes, and it promises immediate relief. Jeremiah (v5-6) would like this to be the case, and responds diplomatically, saying "may the Lord make it so!" (although there may be sarcasm too!) Then he goes on with the message no one wants. He tells them they should accept the yoke of Babylon for now, (in chapter 27 he actually started wearing a wooden yoke as a visual aid to his message) it will be generations before they will be free. Jeremiah does offer hope-eventually they will be restored, but his immediate message is to peaceably accept foreign rule, to build houses and plant gardens. They are to settle in, not fight the Babylonians.

Jeremiah accuses Hannaniah and others of lying to the people with too good to be true messages-messages that were more about their own aspirations than God's. He urges them to think about whose message lines up with God's prophets from the past. He also tells them that the true prophet will be known by the prediction coming true.  Later that year, as Jeremiah predicted, Hannaniah dies.

There is so much here that is relevant as we struggle to understand and sort through the many messages we receive today. Jeremiah's guidelines are helpful. Are messages in line with what we know of history and God's story in our past? Are we too easily convinced by what we would like to believe instead of doing the proper discernment and practical thinking that leads to good choices? Finally, do we pay attention to predictions and outcomes and then learn from these as we go forward?

Too often we simply believe the convenient, most immediately hopeful message and ignore the real prophets because we don't like their message. Climate change is a good example. We know we need to change our lifestyles, but it's easier to simply believe in the next  new energy saving technology instead. We ignore history (think Easter Island) and keep believing that someone somewhere will invent a solution. Perhaps a better start to a solution is to look at God's word-to love others, to only use what we need, to care for the poor.

The Matthew 10 piece is an interesting "chaser" to the Jeremiah. The "little ones" referred to aren't children or the outcast as we often assume. They are the prophets and righteous people! Like Jeremiah, they often have a hard road, they've spoken tough messages, they've incurred hard feelings. It's likely not an easy thing for someone to step forward and offer the compassion symbolized by the cup of cold water. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, the first leaders. They will have a hard road too-blessed be the ones who help them! Was there anyone who offered a "cup of cold water" to Jeremiah?  I guess I have to keep reading to find out.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Scared to be a Jeremiah

Lectionary passages for June 22, 2014.  Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69: 7-18, Romans 6:1b-11, Matt. 10:24-39

Jeremiah is a role model, a man of God who does the right thing even when it hurts. In verses 1-19 (essential background to today's reading), one of the head priests, Pashhur, took exception to his prophecies and had Jeremiah put into stocks overnight, displayed like a criminal at a major city gate. As soon as Jeremiah is released, he renames Pashhur, calling him "terror all-around." Then Jeremiah resumes his unpopular work. Why keep going with the unpopular message, even throwing gas on the fire, knowing it won't be listened to and you will be hurt?

Our lectionary passage picks up here, with Jeremiah doing some introspection. He acknowledges that his work brings derision from others. Even his friends are watching him like vultures (v 10) and he wishes he hadn't been born (v 14 and following). He feels deceived/persuaded (NIV), and enticed (NRSV) by God into this difficult, no win job. He'd rather not have this work, but the message inside him has to get out..."within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones, I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot."

Jeremiah's job is eating him alive, why does he stay the course?  In the middle of his lament, we find a remarkable bit that helps to explain his perseverance. In verses 12-13, he acknowledges that God tests the righteous and looks into their hearts and minds. Jeremiah is at peace, because he is committed to God. Then he praises God for caring about the needy. I assume he includes himself as among the needy, but this certainly isn't only, or even primarily, about Jeremiah's situation. Jeremiah is always about the larger picture, the end goal.

Wow. In the midst of his turmoil, Jeremiah is able to do it all. He releases frustration by ranting about the unfairness, accepts his lot and commits to doing what he is called to do, he thinks about others, and he moves forward in the certain hope that God cares.

Few of us are ever as important as Jeremiah, but we have all faced situations where doing the right thing, or speaking up with what others don't want to hear, is excruciatingly hard. It is easier to be quiet when we fear we might be attacked for speaking.  That quietness, however, can be damaging too-maybe not to ourselves personally, but to the community.

I heard a story on the radio this week about a woman in Sherwood Park who has a mom's work-out club in her garage. Some neighbours are protesting. While I'm not sure of all the details, bylaws, thing really stuck out to me. The woman said she was unaware of the concerns of her neighbours until city officials were involved. She said that no one approached her personally to talk about their concerns before she was reported. When she attended a "secret" meeting of neighbours (to which she had not been invited) she said she felt lynched there.

That is sad. Not surprising, but sad. Concerns should have been brought personally as a first step. Perhaps misunderstandings could have been avoided. Instead, the quietness, the secret alliance gathering, and the anonymous reporting had created a huge issue, a media story, and likely all sorts of misinformation and misunderstandings flying around  and causing major hurts instead of minor, more treatable, irritations.

Of course, a personal connection may not have worked. It would have felt risky for the person confronting this woman. But where do we put personal "safety" on the line to open conversation, share information, and engage well in community discernment?

Another example is that of David Suzuki. No matter what you might think of him personally, he has been an important contemporary prophet. He has consistently raised concerns about human treatment of the environment even in the face of derision.

How are each of us called to speak up to issues and difficulties in our own environments? Do we stay quiet even when there is fire in our bones?

Psalm 69 echoes Jeremiah's plight, but like Jeremiah, the Psalmist is still able to praise God. Romans 6 speaks of being so in tune with Christ that we die and rise with him-and Jesus certainly didn't hold back under threat! Matthew 10 approaches conflict with humility and fearlessness-a commendable combination!

These scriptures certainly encourage speaking up when it is needed, but the costs are clear. Most of us, maybe even all of us, are rightfully scared to be a Jeremiah-but if that is what we are called by God to do, we have to give up the wearying job of holding it in and speak up with the kind of humility and conviction Matthew talks about.

PS: I apologize for being slow to post Lectionary Reflectionary in the last few weeks. The June rush of kid's concerts, summer worship preparations, meetings, etc....has me scrambling a bit. I know I'm not alone with the feeling of longing for the slower pace of summer to arrive!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

When God Winks

Lectionary passages for June 8. Pentecost Sunday. Acts 2:1-21, Numbers 11:24-30, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, 1 Cor. 12:3-13, John 20:19-23, John 7: 37-39

Growing up in the Mennonite Church (general conference), I don't remember talking very much about the Holy Spirit. We talked about the Trinity, but the bulk of the year that meant God and Jesus. The Spirit came up in the Pentecost readings, but I never really felt like we knew what to do with it or how to have an understanding of the Spirit enliven our faith lives.When we did talk about it, my perception was that it was a rather private thing between me and God. I guess it's just hard for those of us who are used to being practical and logical to try to get our minds around the concept of the Holy Spirit. It's a bit like trying to pin down the wind.

The best explanation of the Spirit I remember hearing as a child, was during a story that my mom did during one worship service. She showed us kids an apple and explained how the peel, the flesh, and the core are all different, but all apple. Then she also talked about how we could experience water as a solid, liquid, or gas, yet they are all the same thing. She said God had many different aspects too, and we could experience God as a heavenly parent, a human friend, and as quietly present in our conscience. That helped me with the Trinity idea, but I still didn't really get the Spirit part. Especially when it was sometimes referred to as the Holy Ghost. Ghost! That bit was hard for a kid to get her mind around!

The readings help us understand various aspects of God as Spirit.While we tend to emphasize that the Spirit was given to all believers at Pentecost, there is a great story of God's Spirit given to the elders with Moses in Numbers 11, it pushes them to prophesy, to tell God's story. God's Spirit is a creating and renewing force in Psalm 104. In the Corinthians piece, the Spirit bestows a variety of gifts on believers, gifts meant for the building up of the church. In John 20 the gift of the Spirit is related to the ability to forgive.In John 7, the Spirit is something that will "stream" out from the believer.

In all these passages, the Spirit of God is an energizing presence that absolutely must be shared. Those gifted can't help but respond and spread the news to others.

This is not a private "conversion" experience, or some inner quiet knowledge. This Spirit is bestowed in groups, is creative, is joyful, and builds up the community.  While I have appreciated my church experience with it's cerebral understanding of faith, I would like to also feel the fresh, creative, communal, and renewing wind of God's Spirit on more days than just Pentecost!

A book I discovered at Chapters this week has been very helpful. It's called; "When God Winks", by SQire Rushnell. (Yes, the Q is supposed to be a capital.)  This little book talks about all the ways God uses things we might call coincidences to nudge us. When we pay attention to these nudgings of the Spirit, we allow God to guide and direct us in life. Its got me paying attention to God in a fresh way this week.  Creative and fun, and I hope to have lots of chances to share!