Wednesday, 23 December 2015

They grow up so fast.

December 27, 2015. Psalm 148, 1 Samuel 1:18-20, 26. Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52

Here it is, a Sunday only two days after Christmas and he's 12 years old already and acting like a teenager.

They grow up so fast!

Jesus is asking questions, exploring his future career, deciding where to go and when, and hanging out with a different crowd than his family does. Basically, he's becoming independent, and his parents don't like the corresponding loss of control.

It sounds so familiar. Parenting teens is a constantly shifting balance between holding tight and letting go. It's tricky for everyone involved. The goal is to come out with independent and well-adjusted adults (all of us, not just our kids). Speaking as a parent of two teenage boys, I'm in the middle of the balancing act right now. It's hard to let go, to allow the questioning, the exploration, the plans that take them away from the exclusive 'family' time that we parents were always able to dictate according to our ideas.

It would be a mistake for me to continue to be the kind of authoritarian I was when the boys were little. If I try to dictate their every move I will become angry when it doesn't work (and it certainly will not) and they will be resentful and rebellious because it would be the only way to become independent adults. (Or I guess the alternative is that they might stay dependent and live in the basement forever.) I have to let go and let them grow up. Controlling them doesn't work out for any of us.

Jesus is not a baby. We can't control him. He grew up fast a long time ago, and is our Lord, but many of us struggle with balance in our Spiritual relationship and sometimes try to be more like parents than teens. We don't like to give up control of our lives or allow Jesus to ask too hard questions of us. He doesn't go where we tell him to go, or hang out with crowds of our choosing. It's good that we do not dwell for long on the baby stories of Jesus. God's plan for us is that we become independent and well-adjusted adults. Children modeled after Jesus.

The story in Samuel is an example of a mother who is able to let go and allow God to be in control of both her son and herself. Impressive. I don't think I could let go like Hannah did, but she is inspiring.

Colossians is a great reading for all of us who struggle with the balance between parent and child, holding tight and being able to let go of what is not ours to control. Next time I am frustrated, this might be a go to reading to gain some perspective so that I respond well to my family. "...clothe yourselves with humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another....above all clothe yourselves with love....whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

Question: What (or who) are you trying to control that you should let go of? Can you trust God to be in control?

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Reversals. The Upside-down Gift.

December 20 Third Advent
Micah 5:2-5a, Ps 80:1-7, Luke 1:39-56, Hebrews 10:5-10

Our family experienced an interesting reversal recently. Our son came home with the bad news that he had failed an important test at school. This was very confusing, he felt he had done well on the exam. However the numbers, it is said, don't lie. So he had to accept the bad news. More than a week later, we received phone calls from the school office. "Don't believe the "C" on the report card! Your son's test was mixed up with another student. Your son actually earned an "A".

What good news! What a great reversal of fortune! When our son got home, I could see the confusion lift from his expression, finally it all made sense! But his next comment was incredibly compassionate and thought provoking for me. "That means someone else is getting the bad news phone call." He said. I thought about being the parent on that end. To go from good news to bad. What a disappointing reversal of fortune for them.

It all worked out for us this time, but it is a reminder that life isn't fair. Some people get what they don't deserve, both for good and for bad.

As much as Mary's song (Luke 1:46-56) makes for beautiful music, it's message should disturb those of us who are among the proud, powerful, well-fed, and rich. We are the ones living with more than we need.

It does us good to rethink the stories we tell at Christmas, to turn them upside down and take a look at the reverse side of things, to wonder what life might look like if things were made fair.

This is a song of reversals on a cosmic scale. It is great news for the majority of earth's population, but what about those of us who might be receiving the bad news phone call?

The good news for the bad news getters is that God is merciful. God does not leave coal in our stockings, although I do think God allows us to fill our own stockings that way!

In Psalm 80, we read of exiles crying out to God to restore blessings and good fortune to them. They had been rich and powerful, then they were poor and homeless. Now they wish to return to home and health and joy. In verse 14, the psalmist says; "turn again...then we will never turn back from you."

'What comes around goes around' is a phrase I grew up hearing, and there is wisdom in it. If we treat people as if we are better than them, if we participate in systems that oppress and dehumanise, eventually it will all topple. Reading Mary's song is a chance to hear about inevitable turnings It invites us to participate in the good news. Instead of being knocked down from a place of power and privilege, perhaps the privileged can learn to share. We can take part in God's promise to reverse things, to lift up the lowly, to set captives free, to feed the hungry and to rejoice with all of the world's people.

Question: What reversal do you long for in your life? In the world? Are there ways that your good news is bad news for someone else?

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Trust amidst a culture of fear.

Advent Three: The Path of Trust.
Isaiah 12:1-6, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18, Philippians 4:4-7

How can we internalize a real trust in God in a time of fear?

We live in a culture of growing fears. Fear is a fire fed by terrorism, by media that highlights every tragedy, by political parties who use fear to bolster their power (and distract from less immediate/flashy issues), by the reality of climate change, by our own insecurities and movie-fed imaginations.

The issue of fear is huge right now. The attacks in Beruit and Paris and the mass shootings in the US have people thinking the world is spiraling into ever darkening depths.

And it is hard not to despair. This morning I heard reporters discussing Donald Trump and his statement that the US should have a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US." After the attacks in Paris, he suggested the US should refuse all Syrian refugees. These are horrible, fear intensifying comments. More horrifying to me, however, is that there are actually people supporting Trump, agreeing with him, and creating ever more fear and stereotyping and hatred.

Isaiah 12:2"...I will trust and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my salvation."
How do God's people claim this?

Isaiah is written in a time of spiraling darkness, the writer is looking toward future hope and encouraging his people to do the same.

I find this hard to read, hard to understand. Have you ever sat with someone who is utterly despairing or been there yourself---and been able to speak or hear words of hope?  Those words ring so hollow, or feel so condescending, or just impossible. It's better to just be there in the moment to stare at the darkness together. some point words of hope have to come, and this is the time Isaiah speaks.

Philippians 4:4-7 is a similar passage. The words are uplifting, almost Polly-annish, until we understand the context. Paul is writing from jail and Christians are being persecuted. Out of these situations, he instructs people to "let gentleness not thankful...God will give you peace."

How does Paul internalize this depth of trust in God?

I listened to the "Pulpit Fiction" broadcast for the third advent, and was inspired by discussion on where to look for hope. The hosts remind listeners that too often we are looking for hope in the wrong places. We will not find it in the headlines. We should look for good news, not among the "lions" (headlions?), but look for it where it is actually happening.

It is happening among our neighbours, among people working to help refugees, at soup is happening wherever people are building relationships and "letting their gentleness show."

The advent hope does appear at the bottom parts of the dark spiral, as a buoyant and determined hope that refuses to give in to circumstance. (Idea pulled from Walter Brueggemann as quoted on the pulpit fiction broadcast.) True hope breaks through human darkness when we realize that we need God and that God really is there. That trust is possible. Trust frees us from our fears and gives us God's strength to do God's work of bringing and being hope to each other.

Question: What will be our advent act of determined hope that refuses to give in to despair?

Postscript. I can't end here without looking a bit at the fascinating passage from Luke. The people John calls "vipers" are people who have come to be baptized! He isn't preaching to the choir, but kind of cursing at them.  They are coming for baptism, but perhaps not understanding that this baptism isn't just a declaration of belief, it is a symbol of real, substantial change! Being "in the fold" of Abraham isn't enough, they have to change how they live. They have to be more loving and generous (no hoarding, if you have two coats, give one to someone who needs one), they have to be honest (don't take more than you should), and use power judiciously (don't take advantage of others, be satisfied with your lot.)

The bit about having two coats and giving one away is so relevant right now when we see the great needs of refugees. We have so very much here in Canada. We can give our extra to refugees. Many of us can and should live with fewer coats and be satisfied with our lot!

There is so much more interesting stuff with this passage----if you have a chance, take the time to listen to the pulpit fiction podcast. You can skip to the Luke passage if you don't want to listen to the whole thing. Great stuff to push our thinking about sharing , hope, and repentance for Advent and beyond.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Hang a bar of soap on your Christmas tree!

For Advent #2, Dec. 6, 2015. Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:3-11

Refiners fire and caustic soap, hardly images I want as ornaments for my Christmas tree! Yet these are important symbols for this time of year when we yearn for change, for light to pierce darkness.

The story from Luke 1 is another "not so ornament worthy" Christmas message. "Repent!" The word acts like a starter's gun-it starts most of us sprinting away!

I like to listen to a weekly podcast called; "Pulpit Fiction."pulpit fiction podcast

This week, the host mentioned how he doesn't like the words sin or repentance, because they carry too much negative baggage. We associate them with crackpot "end of world" street prophets, shrieking away in gloomy self righteousness.

At Christmas, we don't want gloomy, we don't want guilt, we don't want darkness. Our frantic, glitzy celebrations distract from reality for a short time, which feels good-at least till the bills, weight gain, hangovers....etc....have to be dealt with. Then we wonder why we did all the same old things again.

It is much more useful to think about the meaning of repentance. The word means; to turn from, to change direction,to change perspective. The podcast host said that one interesting definition of "sin" comes from the idea of an archer missing the target. Repentance, then, could be thought of as trying again, re-aiming. Learning how to get closer to what we are aiming at.

The season of advent is a time for re-aiming, for re-setting our perspectives and trying again. Thought of this way, each new Christmas season is another reset, hopefully a step up from where we were the year before. It's not a quick bandaid for problems. It's more than one turkey dinner for the poor, it's a commitment to try to get at the root causes of that poverty during the rest of the year. It means changing perspectives to make that ongoing engagement more real every time we celebrate Jesus' coming.

Actually, I kind of like the idea of fire and soap ornaments for my tree. Fire changes things and gives light ant warmth. Soap cleans things, and helps me deal with messes. Christmas should inspire more than seasonal change too.

Question: What would you like to turn away from in your life? What new direction should you start in?  (Note: This question is not only for individuals! Try putting your church name in place of the word you as well, remembering that you have both individual and corporate responsibility in the work of that change!)