Saturday, 30 April 2016

A Dumb Question?

John 5:1-18 The man at the pool. For May 1, 2016

“Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asks a sick man lying beside the healing waters of the Bethesda pool in Jerusalem. The man had been there, among throngs of others who were blind, lame, or paralyzed for 38 years, ostensibly waiting to be made whole.

Jesus’ question, at first, appears to be a dumb one. I can almost imagine the man rolling his eyes and saying “DUH! Why else would I waste time lying here?’

I say the man is “ostensibly” waiting to be healed because I’m not convinced that is why he is there.  Perhaps he was for the first few years, but after 38, he’s in a rut. The pool is a place where the crippled and helpless gather, and where people come to help them. It’s a good place to beg. It has become the man’s community. He has quit trying. This is normal life for him, his routine. He sounds resigned to his fate.
So when Jesus asks the “dumb question” the man gives him a defeatist kind of answer, an excuse for why he has never made it in to the pool. If he really wanted to be healed, if he still had hope, wouldn’t he have answered differently” A hopeful person might have responded with; “yes! Will you help me?” The man’s answer is a “poor me” answer, he is stuck in a victim mentality, a belief that he has no ability to change anything and that it is up to other people to do everything for him.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. People often stay in bad relationships, unhealthy jobs, and continue in bad habits because it is what they know. It is their “rut” and change seems too scary or difficult, so they make excuses about why they need to stay in their rut.

A long while ago in university, I had a friend who fit this category. She was smart, nice looking, and I enjoyed her company…mostly. The one thing that was hard to deal with was her constant “poor me” talk. She talked as if everything was wrong with her life. No car, no boyfriend, no email on her computer (this was a long time ago-no cell phones yet). She became known for ‘cornering’ sympathetic people with long sob stories. It became her mode of operation, her rut, her way to get attention. She refused a mutual friend’s offer to set up her computer to receive email. She turned down a classmate’s invitation to go for coffee. (I didn’t understand the refusal. He was a brilliant student and an interesting guy. If I hadn’t been dating someone, I would have gone for coffee with him!) It’s like she was looking at the pool of Bethesda, and refusing offers of help to get in because that would change everything she was used to.

Jesus doesn’t back off, and he doesn’t help the man get in the pool. Instead, he says; “Stand up, pick up your mat and walk.” He hears and refuses the sob story. He does something real and immediate, there is no time for the man to develop all sorts of rationalizations and excuses for staying where he is.

The man’s reaction is fascinating. When the Pharisees immediately chastise him for carrying his mat on a Sabbath (another whole topic-ridiculous legalism)the man makes an excuse and defers the blame to Jesus. He is still in “victim” mode, everything is someone else’s fault! Instead of joy and dancing and owning his actions, he points a finger elsewhere. This blaming mentality is one of the ruts of the perpetual victim mode. It is sad, but understandable. After 38 years, this man doesn’t know how to be healthy, how to take responsibility, he doesn’t know where to walk, how to earn a living, who he will be with in community…his whole life has to change. That is a huge thing to face.

People often stay in bad situations and accept poor ways of doing things because the alternative, while it might be better (probably is better) is unknown and scary. They feel stuck.

The answer, thank goodness, isn’t only up to the crippled man, it isn’t only up to us. Jesus intervenes and heals, whether we give him a straight and honest answer or not.  He gives us the gift of wholeness, what we do with it is up to us. I’m not impressed with the attitude and actions of the healed man, however, there is some hope here.  Jesus finds the man in the temple, (Giving thanks? Seeking direction?) After meeting Jesus that second time, the man becomes a witness, spreading news of Jesus among the Jews. That sounds positive, not victim like!

Where are you resisting the wholeness Jesus offers? Are you stuck in an unhealthy rut, blaming others for the situation? When Jesus heals you, where will you walk, how will you talk?

Do you want to be made well? Maybe not such a dumb question.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

From Death to Life

For April 17, 2016. Acts 9:36-43, Ps 23, Rev. 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

The main character of the story in Acts is Tabitha,(if you speak Aramaic) or Dorcas (if you speak Greek) Well, that doesn't help me much, I speak English. Apparently the name, in both languages, means "gazelle." Still not sure I am helped, except to know this story is obviously meant for a church made up of two ethnic groups. The Aramaic speakers were likely Jewish, and the Greek speakers were Greek. That may not seem important, until we start thinking about cultures and their different customs, and what might happen at a funeral.

This is what we walk in on here. Gazelle has died. She was loved by everyone in both cultural groups.There's no hint of problems, but it's easy to imagine the groups might have differing ideas of what has to happen next. (I think the way Gazelle is named in both languages deliberately gives ownership to both groups. No one can say that because she is Greek the funeral should be a certain way, or Jewish and it should be their way.)

This week I spoke to a friend who attended the Indian funeral of a relative. The customs are a bit different than the European Canadian ones-more "hands on". It was hard for my friend to experience the differences.

Funerals are hard, and not always for the obvious reasons. At funerals, feelings are magnified and things that had always been put off or ignored can flare up. Our usual "filtering" of our responses doesn't happen quite properly because our emotions are frayed and some of the old boundaries (like let's get along for mom)-don't stand anymore. Old grievances may flare up, unsolved issues surface, arguments about what best honours the deceased, disagreements over inheritances, decisions over clothes, coffin choice, funeral or memorial service, cremation or burial, who sits where, which pastor do we want, one side of the family is too evangelical the other is we let uncle Bernie go to an open mike....

Funerals can also be an incredible time of family connection, the gathering and telling of stories that enlighten and comfort, a celebration of life and a support, and a providing of hope for the future.

Gazelle's funeral gathering is a place of storytelling. It is an incredible group of grateful people. It is also a place of tremendous grief. The grief isn't only that Gazelle is gone, it is also a loss of hope for these people-these widows were helped, and now their source of help is gone. It is crisis! Gazelle was a disciple (she merits the only use of the female form of the Greek word for disciple in the New Testament!) The community sends for Peter, whom they know is nearby. They obviously do not feel they can handle this crisis on their own----and perhaps they hope for a miracle?

Peter's actions mirror what he saw Jesus do in Mark 5:35-41. Here, Jesus raised Jairus' (leader of the synagogue) daughter. Peter does things the same way. He tells people to leave the room. He prays. He tells Gazelle to get up. She does. It's a direct parallel and an example to all who wish to follow Jesus. If we do what he does, death turns to life.

Of course, this is figurative speech. Miracles do happen, but not on demand, and not by our choice. The power is always God's. This does not lessen the claim that when we follow Jesus there is life.

The stories here in Acts are all about the power of resurrection turning lives upside down. In this little story, everything is topsy turvy because people are following Jesus. The paralyzed walk (9:32-34), a woman is called a disciple directly for the first time, Jews and Greeks are together, fishermen preach to priests, death turns to life, loss to hope, and customs are turned upside down. There is an odd little note in 9:43 that says Peter stays with a tanner. We don't necessarily "get it", but a tanner would have been at the bottom of the social ladder. Tanning was a stinky, unclean job. So we may as well say that the amazing itinerant speaker (evangelist?) who comes to town has gone to stay in the rough end of town in the home of a garbage collector. This would offend Jews (it's terribly unclean!) and Greeks (who value prestige). Peter is making a point.

Where disciples courageously follow Jesus, hope will grow. Life will change. Death becomes life.

What an amazing message. No wonder resurrection is at the heart of our faith! It's a hard message too, because death comes first.

Question:  Where have you experienced something that felt like a death to life change? Where do you long for one?

Tuesday, 5 April 2016


Passages for April 10, 2016
Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Rev. 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

(Note: Since writing this post, I found out that this Sunday's speaker is using the doubting Thomas story, not the ones I have listed. Guess we have a little extra thinking for this weekend!)

How does change happen for someone? We all love the dramatic "turn-around" stories. Tales that fit into categories like rags to riches, addict to anti-drug crusader, chunky couch potato to fitness guru.

We love the contrast of the before and after of a dramatic makeover, but I always wonder, what happens next? Lottery winners often go broke, rehab is revisited, and fitness turns to flab.

The story of Saul's  (Paul's) life features a makeover that sticks. His conversion is dramatic; blinding light, voice of Jesus, faithful God inspired intervention, healing, and proclamation. When opposition comes and Paul's life is threatened, he keeps going. His makeover is permanent.

Most of us aren't going to experience a dramatic conversion from or to anything. In fact, I'd guess most of us might experience the slow, painstaking change of weight loss, only to have the pounds creep back. Or invest in some education or job training to discover that it's not really what we are suited for (or there are no jobs), or perhaps the faith you thought was strong bleeds away under the pressure of grief.

How does change stick? How does the makeover look once you are back to your old routines?

There are reasons that Paul's change sticks. One is a passionate personality. When Paul commits to something, he fully gives of himself. Another piece is that his change is in line with God's purpose for him. Verse 15 says; "...he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings..." A third "stickiness" comes in the faithful community. Ananias listens to God and instructs Paul. Once Paul starts sharing his experiences, other Jesus followers help him (even lowering him out of the city in a basket!)

Our own needed changes, conversions, may not be so dramatic, but the same things can help them stick. We have to believe passionately in order to maintain energy for change. We need to be in line with what God wants for us. We need a faithful community around us for mutual teaching, support, and sometimes even rescue.

Psalm 30 is a makeover story too. The psalmist thanks God for taking him from death to life. (Not sure if this is a recovery from illness, or a rescue from enemies.)

John 21 is a great story of how a slight (not dramatic-just putting nets in on the other side) change in perception or actions can instigate change. I like how this story emphasizes that the change on our part is something we can handle, if we listen to Jesus, and that it is up to God to produce the results!

Question: What in your life needs change? Is there anything encouraging in these scriptures that might help your change to stick?

Note: The following  link takes you to a children's story I wrote to accompany the Acts scripture. It is part of a series of stories commissioned by Mennonite Church Canada to go along with the lectionary passages for the Easter to Pentecost 2016.