Wednesday, April 2, 2014

My Real Lent

It's Lent and I've enjoyed reading the different meditations and journeys that my friends are on. My Lent has been a bit different. I've lived with chronic pain for some time. It's a part of life and I just get on with doing what I need to do. I even confess a little pride in my ability to push the pain to the background and just continue.

This Lent my image of myself as a person who just gets on which it shattered. I'm on the strongest meds I've ever had to take, and they still aren't working well. I learned that I don't really handle pain that well after days of snapping at everyone because I couldn't stop myself.

But I'm not writing this for sympathy, I writing this because I'm learning something truly valuable about myself. I've been following Richard Rohr's meditations on the ego self and shadow self. My pride in my equanimity in all situations belongs to my ego self. It is an image I try to project, and when I fail, I try to protect with excuses. Better to just let it go, to watch it crumble beneath the weight of pain.

What is left?

If Lent is the journey toward God, then I'm on that journey. The more I let go of my ego and my need to be in control of my life, including the pain, the more I find God. The funny thing, the sad thing, is that I've been here before. I've felt God's hands holding me when life was impossible. I've heard her whisper. "I'm here." I just forgot.

I started to remember through the tears when I watched this video.

I understood the words the girl spoke, I felt them, as I felt the sudden glimpse of hope. Is this not what we are about? The sharing of hope in the midst of our darkest experience?

So, if I let myself die, the one who has it all together, what is left? What is left is the one who knows he's broken and in pain both physical and spiritual. Yet, who is not? Yet clinging to God, who is clinging to me, it is not my powers of self-control that will point people to God, but my faith in the one who shares my pain. That one who listens to me curse, who hears my fear, and still does not judge. It is time and past time that I give glory to that One, and I can only do that if I stop glorifying myself.

There is no end to this journey. It will continue on past Easter and round the seasons again, but each pass through this wilderness I come closer to apprehending the love of this God who made himself to be no more than me, so that I may become a great deal more like him.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Jesus and the Bully

The story from the Gospel this past Sunday was about Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus. It talks about how Judas took her to task for her actions. It was a waste of money, he said, money that could have gone to the poor. Or perhaps as the writer of John hints, into Judas's own pockets. Let's pause there for a moment.

We have a group of people who are an inner circle. They are aware of being an inner circle since they argue frequently about which of them has or will have more power. What they are all sure of is that they will have more power than anybody who is outside their circle; someone like Mary.

So Judas, who is the treasurer of the inner circle, complains, and complains in a way that is sure to make Mary feel terrible. After all he complains after the fact, it is too late for Mary or anyone else to do anything about selling the perfume. I get the sense that this was a common role for Judas, and the other disciples. They spend a lot of time in the Gospels complaining; complaining that other people are infringing on their power, complaining that other disciplines are claiming to be more important, complaining that these people that Jesus insists on talking to are making too much fuss.

If this is indeed the way the disciples were, than they were bullies. Bullying isn't about one fight in a schoolyard, or one mean comment in the lunchroom or on facebook. It is about consistent, prolonged use of power over someone else to push them down while hoisting ourselves up. Bullying comes from a place of power, like Judas, the treasurer complaining that this money should have gone through him.

Bullying seems to be embedded in us. We don't notice it much until we are the victims of it. Sometimes we hear a news story and we wonder how we can stop bullying. It means changing other people, because of course, none of us would ever be bullies. That is hard because we can't change other people, we can only change ourselves. So how do we change to stop bullying?

Like any change, we change in relationship, and most effectively in relationship with Jesus. We will see three ways that we can change ourselves to stop bullying. We need to be welcoming, we need to be family and we need to be courageous.

First we need to be welcoming. Look at how Jesus is. He talks to everyone. Even the Pharisees and the scribes and others who plot against him are welcomed to the conversation. The disciples themselves are an odd bunch and include fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and others. For Jesus, no one is excluded unless they exclude themselves.

This diversity of the people of God is reflected in Paul's letters. In First Corinthians he talks about how everyone is different and everyone is needed. There is no place of power in Christ's Church, because all are equal under Christ. The hymn to love in First Corinthians 13, you know: Love is patient, love is kind? We read it at weddings a lot, but Paul meant it for how we treat each other in our church communities. The only command that Jesus gave the disciples was to love one another. To be patient with each other, kind with one another, to not keep a record of how were wronged.

It doesn't matter how good we are, how special we are. If we don't have that love, we are lost. It is that love that allows us to welcome everyone into the circle, no matter how different they are. One challenge of our world is that we love to draw lines in the sand. We're Roughrider fans, or Bomber fans, we drive Ford, or Dodge, or Toyota, we vote NDP, or Conservative or Liberal. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, until we use our beliefs as a reason to exclude someone else. Just as Judas excludes Mary from really understanding what Jesus is about because she doesn't sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. It is sad how often Christianity is seen as a bully. Hardly a day goes past when we don’t hear of another person telling another group of people that they are terrible people. Far too often we just let it pass. We may not believe that, but we don’t speak up to say that all people are loved by God.

So Judas cuts Mary’s gift of love off at the ground but Jesus doesn't allow that to stand. He doesn't call out Judas, or get angry. What he does is affirm the love behind Mary's actions and turn it into something of beauty and power. There are no insiders and outsiders in this Dominion of God. All are welcome, all are loved.

Next we need to be family. There is something called the bystander effect. This is the sad reality that people who are alone are much more likely to stop and help someone than people in a crowd.  Bullies know this. They count on it. They can push people around and do all kinds of terrible things and be certain that the people in the hall will continue their way through their day.

We know that calling people names or destroying their belongings is wrong. We get angry at people who abuse others physically, emotionally or sexually. But in a crowd, we are most likely going to walk on past. This is because when we are in a group, it isn't our problem. It is someone else's problem. We might feel sorry for the victim; we might even wish that someone would intervene. But it will probably not be us.

We don't have enough relationship with each other. That other person might not be part of the right group. They don't look like us, pray like us, think like us. So their problems aren't our problems. 

For Jesus, everyone is family. We are all brothers and sisters. Paul uses this kind of language too. He makes it even more intimate. We are not just family, we are one body. The suffering of one person is the suffering of the whole body. If that person being yelled at, excluded, smeared is part of our family, then the situation is changed.

When people are our family we are going to step in. It is our responsibility. When we expand the borders of family to include everybody, we will act differently. Notice that Jesus doesn't single out Judas and berate him. Judas is family too. He just affirms Mary and corrects Judas's narrow view of what the world is about.

The people who have the most power to stop bullying are the people who see it; the peer group of both bully and victim. One person stepping forward and saying  "This is wrong. We shouldn't treat each other this way" has immense power to stop the bullying. Some studies suggest that it will stop bullies about 75% of the time. But it isn't easy. Not even for family.

So we need courage. Courage is hard. It means being afraid and acting anyway. What if we challenge the bully and we become the next target? Will anyone speak for us? What if we step outside of the circle, will they let us back in?

One of the reasons the bystander effect is so powerful is the anonymity of the crowd. Nobody knows, nobody cares, and we’re safe. When we speak up, we are no longer part of the crowd. We are exposed. Maybe we're wrong. None of the other disciples speak up for Mary. That doesn't mean that they didn't feel for her.

They were still learning welcome, still learning family. They didn't get it yet. They wouldn't get it until after Jesus hung on that cross; the ultimate victim of power and cruelty. They wouldn't get it until after that morning when the tomb was empty and Jesus showed them that the real power in the world is not with the powerful, but with the loving.

Courage comes from knowing that we aren't alone. We will never be the only person to speak about love. We won't be the only person to say that cruelty is wrong. Jesus will stand with us, speak with us. His marked hands will rest on our shoulder. Our courage will come from the same place our welcome does, the same place that family does. It comes from our love. As we love God, as we love each other, as we love ourselves we gain the ability to speak and change and challenge.

The more we love, the greater our courage. That doesn't mean that is gets easier, but it means it becomes possible.

There are bullies everywhere that there are people. Each of us has the potential to be bully as well as victim. As I researched anti-bullying strategies, I found that many of them bullied the bullies. It was a puzzle; until I realized that too much of the time we are trying to force change on other people. We try to reach out and change the bully. If they don't wish to change, we push harder. We become what we hate.

Whenever we make the other person the focus of our efforts, we may become bullies. Jesus spoke to everyone. Some he spoke to gently and kindly, some he challenged in words that we may find harsh. Yet Jesus left each person to decide for themselves whether they would follow or not, just as Jesus gives us a choice to follow or not.

The call to make a better world begins with allowing God through Christ to make a better me. In this season of Lent, that is our goal. To be shaped by God for the purposes of Love. It is in Easter that we find to our joy that Love triumphs. It is astonishing to follow the disciples after Easter. It is as if they are a different bunch. They still argue, but their arguments are about how to bring people in instead of how to leave people out.

Love has won the day and though they fall short, still their goal is that there are no lines to separate, no walls to divide. All people have a place in the Body of Christ.

So may your days be filled with love and courage, welcome and family, through the Grace of Christ.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Breathing God

It's Pentecost and Trinity so lets mix the two. John 3 is one of the readings for Trinity. I have to admit that I much prefer talking about the close of the reading, 16 and 17 than addressing the famous "You must be born again." Yet while I was worshiping with the delightful seniors at the PCH on Thursday, I realized something.

We didn't ask or take part in being born the first time.

Really, it just happens. I'm sure if you polled babies minutes after they were born that they would be very unhappy with the situation. They feel cold and separated from their mother. Light hurts their eyes, and it isn't long before hunger makes its presence felt. Yet we breathe and get on with life.

When we are born the second time, it happens the same way. We aren't asked. There is no poll or tick box saying "Do you want to be born of the Spirit?" It just is, and it already is. There is no formula, no prayer, no attitude. The only thing required of us is to breathe and get on with our lives.

But now we are not breathing just air. We are breathing God.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Fear of Doubt

We give Thomas a hard time. It wasn't his fault that he was out buying groceries, or whatever reason he wasn't trapped by fear with the others in that room. Maybe he just wasn't as afraid.

Thomas, from the little we know of him, was the practical one. He was the one, when Jesus said they were going to Bethel to see dead Lazarus, "Let's all go and die with him." It might very well be that Thomas was just getting on with his life. It was really too bad that Jesus died, horrible really, but he was gone and and the cupboard is empty....

So Thomas wasn't there that first Easter Sunday evening when Jesus appears to the rest of the gang. He shows them his wounds, eats fish and generally set their minds at ease. This is real. When they tell Thomas, he wants the same level of proof that the others got. It's only fair. Jesus seems to think so. The next Sunday he shows up again and gives Thomas exactly what he asked for.

There is a fundamental shift in Thomas' perspective. He drops to his knees and cries out "My Lord and My God." I think this is the moment of his real call. Up to this second he was on board because it was the logical thing to do. He wanted to change the world and Jesus looked like a good bet. It would explain his lack of fear the week before. It wasn't that he didn't care, but it wasn't personal.

When Jesus shows up with his wounds and his knowledge of Thomas' doubt, the world shifts and suddenly Thomas is following is Jesus the person, not Jesus the idea. It is at this point that a lot of us get hung up. We are dedicated to Jesus the idea. Either the idea is not a very powerful one and it doesn't move us past our intellectual coolness, or the idea is a very emotional one and we need to protect it fiercely against all threats so that it doesn't get lost.

In either case doubt is a problem. If we are just intellectual Christians, than doubt is immaterial. We can change and shift our idea so it still matches what we want from it. We can even give it up and follow a different idea because it doesn't connect with the rest of our being. It never becomes more than an idea.

With the emotional connection to the idea, doubt is a threat. If we doubt, question, probe the idea maybe it will lose its power and our connection to it will fail. So the idea never really gets tested.

Either way we are a people who hate doubt. We want to know with exactitude. We have polls and surveys. We bring up statistics. We create scientific models. We argue, but we rarely doubt, we rarely question ourselves in the midst of screaming questions at other.

Doubt is a powerful pathway to faith. Thomas doubted and the resolution of his doubt changed him. He brought Christianity to India. He was driven, not by pragmatism, but by his relationship with the person Jesus.

Doubt pushes us to go deeper, past the intellectual, past the emotions to a place where we don't find certainty, but a person.

Monday, March 26, 2012

April Fools

Palm/Passion Sunday falls on April 1st this year. This is appropriate for a number of reasons.

I write regular articles about ethics, religion and sometime technology for I am tolerated as a curiousity - a religious person who kind of makes sense. Still it isn't my primary goal in writing these articles to make sense, but rather to offer glimpses of another kind of sense that isn't easily accessed by the world we live in. Sense in this world is about balancing rights and needs, profit and responsibility. Worshipers of the bottom line say that it is just unreasonable to expect companies to reduce profits to feed those who are starving. Food prices go up, people are moved off of land that used to feed them, and the number of hungry increases.

The sense I offer is the foolishness of God. That love, that attitude and action of care, can - must - has triumphed. We just need to recognize the power of rejecting power, the wisdom of counting ourselves as fools, the audacity of thinking of ourselves as more than somewhat intelligent apes.

It is that foolishness of God that comes to mind as we look at the juxtaposition of Palm Sunday and Passion. Here we have Jesus riding in triumph into Jerusalem. It is a victor's parade, his steed shows that he is a peaceful King, but still there is no doubt he is a King. When the pharisees tell him to quiet the crowds, Jesus replies that if the crowds were quiet the very stones would cry out.

This is success as we understand it. If the life of Jesus were written by Hollywood, the movie would end here. There would be a fade out as the adoring fans of Jesus cover him with praise and his enemies are defeated.

Yet this isn't Hollywood and we know that life rarely gives that kind of victory. In little less than a week that victory will turn into the bloody, painful death of crucifixion. There are many theories about what happened. Why did Jesus die?

Atonement suggests that Jesus died for our sins. He was the ultimate sacrifice; choosing to give his life to reconcile God with humanity and erase the sin that blots our life by the shedding of his blood. People look at this these days and think eewwww. Few folks understand sin anymore never mind the need for sacrifice to atone for them. They just see a cruel God who demands that His Son die to pay for something that they only have the vaguest idea about. The other problem with the atonement is that it doesn't explain the entire life of Jesus. He wasn't about purity and piety. He was all about justice and relationship.

So perhaps the crucifixion was a political murder. It was the leadership that Jesus challenged that set him up to die. They were the ones that maneuvered the trial to end in Jesus' death. They were the ones who manipulate Pilate into giving the death warrant. It is true that Jesus challenged authority. He put people ahead of cultic religion. The same cultic religion that practice the atonement sacrifices that we talked about above. The political murder theory also doesn't cover all the bases. It explains why Jesus died, but not why he had to die. Jesus knew he was going to die. As soon as the disciples get that he is the Messiah, Jesus starts talking about death, like his death is an inevitable part of his ministry.

There are parts of both these theories that work, and there are a lot more too. The one I want to talk about this week is that God is playing an April Fools joke on the world. Here we have a guy who is a King, who rides into the city in triumph. People are thinking that now they will see a change. This guy is going to do something. All the time God is thinking. You have no idea what is coming.

What is coming is the utter humiliation of that person. Kenosis means emptying. Jesus emptied himself of everything. All his plans, all his preaching, all his followers, all his power, all his personality, all, all all of it gone. He hangs on a cross dying. Why? Because he chose to be there. He chooses to be there so that we will meet him when we experience the darkest places of our lives. We want to blame God, judge God for not running the world properly. There he is, on the cross, subject to our judgement. We demand death for his failure and we mete it out. We kill our neighbours, we kill our faith , we kill love. God weeps and bleeds for us not to cover our sins but His. Sin is separation, and God is separated from us, separated by our pride, our need to blame, our need to be right. So God dies.

Jesus is there on the cross utterly empty and we can't take our eyes off of him. His very emptiness compels us. We realize that this world we depend on is empty. We are empty. We are lost. We have killed Love.

But that isn't the end, the punchline isn't the cross, it comes three days (more or less) later when women go to the tomb and find that it is empty. Empty of death, empty of guilt, empty of sin. God is laughing with joy because this is the joke. Here is the point. Love wins. It isn't about sin, except that it is forgiven, it isn't about politics and power, except that they have no lasting power. Love wins. Jesus emptied himself so he could be filled, so we could be filled with the only thing that is eternal

Jesus died because he loves us, even when we don't. This God, She isn't about blame and sin and the games of guilt and shame. She is about welcome and hope, and most especially Love.

It is good to weep on Good Friday, it makes the laughter on Easter all that sweeter.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The voice of the weak.

Last Sunday we heard the story of Naaman being healed of leprosy. 2 Kings 5:1-14 Jesus at one point mentions Naaman in connection with the idea that a prophet has no credibility in their own community. Naaman was the General of the armies of Aram (around present day Syria). He has leprosy which will mean that he will no longer be able to lead the armies as lepers are forced to be separate from the rest of society. Naaman's wife has a servant girl from Israel who was captured on an earlier raid. This servant girl suggests that Naaman
could go to Israel and be cured. At this point we see the first miracle of this story. Naaman listens to her and takes her seriously. This girl is as close to being a non-person as you can get. She is a captive slave from a tiny country. It would be like a CEO taking advice from the girl who cleans his house.

Naaman goes to his King who not only allows his General to go, but sends him with a letter and a train of gifts. The King of Israel, who is unnamed in this story tears his clothes in despair and anger at the idea that he is supposed to somehow cure the uncurable. He decides that it is a ploy to start a war. Elisha hears of the visit and tells the King to send Naaman to him. Elisha is a bit of a conundrum. He is grumpy and anti-social, but his ability to heal in God's name is powerful.

Naaman arrives at Elisha's house expecting a show. He is after all an important man. What Elisha does is send a messenger to tell Naaman to bathe in the Jordan River. It would be like travelling across the world to meet with a famous doctor only to have the doctor send the receptionist out with a couple of pills. Naaman is furious. He sounds ready to start that war that the King of Israel was afraid of.

This is where we get the second miracle of the story. A servant talks to Naaman and suggests that he do what the prophet asked. If it had been some impossible task he would have done it, why not this simple prescription? Once again Naaman listens to the voice of the powerless and he goes to bathe and is healed.

This story is about the powerful hearing wisdom from the powerless. We in the church want to be powerful voices in the world. We want to have governments and corporations listen to us. Maybe what we need more than clout is humility. It is the voice of humility, of people who have no direct profit from change that will catch the attention of the people in power.

When I was working in Ontario I attended the semi-annual seminars set up by ISARC. There we heard about the need for secure income and housing for the poorest of the poor. Politicians of all parties came to listen, in part because we were not lobbying on our own behalf.

In this Sunday's Transfiguration reading the voice of God tells the disciples to listen to Jesus. Jesus who came to change the world through transformative love. Not by power, not by legislation, but by self giving love. We are called to reflect that illumination that comes from perfect love, and by listening to Jesus our Christ, become the weak that the powerful might hear.

Friday, January 13, 2012

God's Calling to speak and live

For the last few months I've been occupied with the ethics of responsibility and their intersection with human rights. See over here. This spawned an article at the Institute for Ethics in Emerging Technologies and some other discussion that crystallized my sense that God calls us to responsibility much more than she give us rights. I talk about this idea in depth at my other blog so I won't repeat it here.

This week's reading are about call. God calls Samuel to speak his word and Jesus calls Nathaniel to follow him. Samuel is given the word of God and Eli instructs him that he must speak that word even it means pain to Eli. This is when Samuel is still a child mind you. God doesn't tell Samuel "You have a right to live as you wish." Rather She gives him responsibility to chastise those who have mistakenly taken that right upon themselves. Samuel's first words from God are directed to Eli who has not taken responsibility for teaching his sons their responsibility as priests of the temple. It is this failure of responsibility that will result in the tragedy of Eli's son's death.

What words does God give us responsibility to speak? Do we watch passively as other abuse their positions and trample on the rights that we have decided belong to every member of the human species? A call from God is a call to responsibility. That is a responsibility for action, but also a responsibility to speak clearly and prophetically. If we are going to claim to belong to God, then we also need to be ready to be open to speak the words and live the life that God gives. As it was with Samuel, the words that we may need to speak will very likely not be words of comfort, but words that chastise and challenge.

If our world is broken and far from God's plan for creation, then we need to speak, and live the hard truths. We as a species are responsible for how we live with each other and with creation. We are called to be prophets. Like Elijah, if we are given words to speak warning and we refuse, we are culpable. On the other hand we are also responsible to bring the words of hope that God give us and speak them to the world. Not as an exclusionary hope for those who believe as we do, but a inclusive hope that says there is a purpose to creation and all of us are part of that purpose whether we understand it or not.

Jesus' call of Nathaniel is around the idea that Nathaniel has no deceit in him. He is truthful. The implication is that being truthful, he will speak the truth. As a witness to Jesus' ministry his words will carry extra weight because he is known to have no deceit in him. Our challenge is to be truthful, not just about the Gospel we share, but about our failure at time to share it well. The more we take responsibility for our failures, the more others will acknowledge the possibility of our success. No one in the scriptures aside from the person of God is perfect, yet we in the church strive to present a face of perfection to the world and thus fail at our real task of pointing the way to reconciliation between God and human.

There is a ministry and an authenticity in failure that can't be achieved by an artificial facade of success. Our responsibility as disciples called by the Christ to witness to the gospel is to witness to God's success in using our failures to bring good into the world. As we allow ourselves to be human, we allow God to be God, and we open ourselves to God working through us to bring hope and love into a broken world.