Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Scripture Shall No Longer Be Used As a Weapon of Mass Destruction

Matthew 25:31-45

 Today, in the United Church of Canada, is Aboriginal Sunday, the Sunday closest to June 21st, the summer solstice, which is the day that was declared by the Governor General of Canada in 1996 as National Aboriginal Day. Last year the day was renamed as National Indigenous Peoples Day. This is a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. The lives of all Canadians, those who have relatives that immigrated here years and years ago and those, like my friend Louise, who will become a Canadian in early August, the lives of all of us are bound up with the lives of the first peoples of this land we now call Canada. Depending on when and where you grew up, your connection with the Indigenous people of Canada may be extensive or it may have been limited or even non-existent. However, whether you realize it or not, your life is connected to the lives of the indigenous people of Canada. For no other reason your life is bound up with their lives, is because of you sitting here, right here in this space, on this holy ground, your life is bound up with the lives of indigenous people because of scripture. Because you have decided to be Christian. Because you have decided to be counted amongst those of us who follow the prophet Jesus who upon his resurrection and ascension, became our Christ. Because you woke up this morning and came here to worship instead of sleeping in or going for an early brunch. Your life is wrapped up in the life of Canada’s indigenous people because you are here today.

Throughout the history of time, humanity has used its imagination to create weapons of mass destruction so that one group of peoples could gain dominance over another. The desire for power seems to be a universal characteristic for us humans. It might, in fact, be our fatal flaw, a piece of our DNA that prevents what would actually ensure our own happiness and peace. Peace for ourselves and the peace we want for others, if for no other reason, so that their problems would no longer infringe on our lives. Or, it could be that this want and need for power is a learned behaviour so embedded in our different cultures that it’s hard to distinguish between what is nature or nurture. Humanity has a remarkable array of weapons at its disposal for use when leadership and power is threatened. Guns. Gas chambers. Nuclear bombs. Torture. Incarceration. Separation of families. Financial sanctions. These are weapons of mass destruction. But the weapon that has been used to hurt, by and far, the most number of people in the history of humanity is scripture. The word of God, the word of Allah, the Mormon word of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the Scientologist word of Ron Hubbard, the word of Saint Paul have all been used to hurt, to condemn, to ridicule, to dehumanize, to disempower, to disenfranchise, to belittle, to hate. The Pharisees used scripture to crucify Jesus and leaders today have used scripture to damage and to inflict pain upon the least amongst us. It’s being used TODAY. In our western, so-called civilized place in the world. 

The Gospel, the four books of our Bible, tells of a person of God who was so filled with the light and love of God’s peace, that people from far and wide were drawn to him to learn how they too, could be the hands and feet of God in a world that was fraught with fear and uncertainty. A world filled with people whose greed had them working diligently to oppress and repress others. Jesus showed up in a world of laws, of restrictions, of government, of empire. Jesus showed up and said to the world, the laws do not matter, the rules do not matter, sabbath does not matter, prayers do not matter, if first and foremost we do not love God and secondly if we do not love one another. Nothing else matters. He then spent the rest of his ministry trying to show the people what loving God and loving one another would look like. Like when he spoke the words we heard today. The righteous are worried, it’s not overly clear to them how they will know whether they will be the sheep or the goats when the Son of God returns. Whether they will be entering into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says, oh, that’s easy. Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me. When you have loved the other as you would have loved yourself. Jesus not only told stories but acted so that others could see how one might behave if love above all else was the driving force in life. He ate with the tax collector, with the prostitute. He visited the poor and destitute. He healed the sick on the sabbath, he offered a hand to the downtrodden, to the mentally ill, to the widowed, to non-Jews, to the uneducated, to the weak. 

Since his execution, the followers of Christ have interpreted his words and actions. Some of those interpretations made it into the Bible. Letters were written. Prophecy and revelations were shared. But, if you’re Christian, you understand that no further divine laws were created after Jesus. However, this has not stopped humanity from searching through the words written and bound up in the Bible to find ways to gain or maintain authority and power in their lives. Scripture from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians was quoted to keep slaves in their place in the United States – servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart. The Bible was used to tell black people that they needed to submit to white people and then used to help the white people whose riches were built literally on the backs of the black people, to develop a gospel of prosperity, declaring their success was a sign that God’s favour was upon them. The Presbyterian and Methodist churches took a line from Matthew 28, the one where Jesus says, go and make disciples of all nations, they took that as direct instruction to go and compel those unfamiliar with Jesus to declare Jesus as their personal lord and saviour. Because of this mission, along with their strong commitment to universal public education, it was a natural fit for the Presbyterians and the Methodists to assist in running Residential Schools for the Canadian Government. 
Unfortunately, their mission goal of providing education and proclaiming the gospel was not tempered by respect for the existing culture, values and spirituality of First Nations. In another letter from Paul, written to followers of Jesus who were living under a dictator and whose lives were under constant threat, Paul commends the fledging church to keep its head down, to submit quietly to the prevailing political winds so that they might evade persecution. He wrote them, ‘everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.’ These words from Romans 13 were used by Adolf Hitler to legitimize the Nazi authoritarian rule in 1930s Germany. I’m sure these words were used by the fictional leaders of Gilead to subdue the handmaids. And they were used this very week by a nation’s administration that seeks to repel, not welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The problem with picking and choosing pieces of scripture to back our leadership, to justify of our actions and our beliefs, the problem is that we forget something crucial, we deny something essential. And that is underlying everything that has been written and said about Jesus since the time of his ascension, needs to be laid upon the foundation of love. Which, according to the story today, is understood through action, through the treating of each and every person as if it were Jesus himself standing before you. Or at the receiving end of your email. Or is the one impacted by the law or bill just passed in Parliament. Or the one waiting line in front of you at the drive through at Tim Hortons. Sometimes it’s hard to remember you’re honking at a real person rather than just a vehicle when you’re waiting in line at Tims, isn’t it? Or is that just me? I can understand that the Presbyterians and the Methodists viewed the native people of Canada as the least of these that Jesus spoke of in story of the sheep and the goats. The establishment of the treaties and the resulting system of Reserves set in motion a series of circumstances in which the cultures and languages of the native people were not valued. As such, people new to the land that became known as Canada did not gain awareness or learn about the fullness and richness of the lives of indigenous people that existed when the Europeans began showing up on their shores. 

When the Methodists and 70% of the Presbyterians voted to create together the United Church of Canada, they brought with them, responsibility to oversee twelve Residential Schools across Canada – from Norway House in northern Manitoba, where my family lived when I was a small child, to Alberni in British Columbia to Mount Elgin in Ontario. The church leaders and volunteers who ran these schools understood one of their mandates to be was to form the Indian child so that they could grow up to interact and be productive in the western European culture that the new country of Canada was being built upon. We hear today the phrase used behind closed doors in certain government meetings was, ‘beat the Indian out of the child’. The Indians were annoying. They were barriers to complete control and ownership of the vast lands of Canada. Mixing this belief with the religious seeking to convert the so-called savage allowed for the devastation of the Residential Schools to develop.

Can you imagine, just for a moment, what might have happened if those religious leaders, those faithful at the table planning with the government, if they remembered for just a moment Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats? That Jesus said, whatsoever you did not do the least of these, you did not do to me. And whatever you did do to the least, you did it also to me? If the faithful imagined for a moment that Jesus, as young child, would no want to be separated from his family or, possibly as a parent, would not want to have his children taken from him. Or from their mother. I can’t help but think that if some Christian, early on in the process of creating Residential Schools, if that Christian stopped to think, hmmm…what a minute, Jesus never said anything about destroying cultures when bringing the Word of God to all people. Jesus did not tell us to conquer and divide. Jesus taught us and showed us how to build up one another with love.

This is why the lives of each one of us here are bound up in the lives of all indigenous people today. Because scripture calls us, Jesus tells us, that for the kingdom of heaven to be possible on this earth, we must first treat the least of those amongst us as if we were treating Jesus himself. And we now know better than we did before. We are aware of the necessity and value of a diversity of cultures and people living together in the same land, in the same nation. We know that we have much to learn from one another. That one way of being does not supersede another. We have admitted wrongdoing. We have apologized. We have participated in a Commission to find out what truth and reconciliation might look like. And, we’ve been told, it looks like what is contained in the 94 Calls to Action listed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a series of actions which are intended to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of Canadian reconciliation. We are bound up in the lives of others because our scriptures tell us that peace on earth is not possible without caring for and creating justice for the least amongst us. The least like Jordan River Anderson from Manitoba.

**At this point I shared with the congregation that I had just recently realized how close Jordan's story is to my family situation. I had a sister who was born in 1961 while my family was living in Norway House, MB - the same community as Jordan. She was also born with a very disease and was flown to Winnipeg. The health care system permitted my sister to live at home for periods of time between hospital visits until she died in Norway House at the age of two.**

Jordan’s Principle, as it’s called, is the basis for the third call to action listed by the TRC and it states: We call upon all levels of government to fully implement Jordan’s Principle. Jordan was from Norway House Cree Nation. He was born in 2000 with a very rare disease that required hospitalization. As people from northern Manitoba do when they need acute medical care, Jordan was moved to Winnipeg where he lived the rest of his life. He lived in the hospital for two years until it was determined that he could move out to a family home as long as it was near the hospital. However, the different levels of government could not decide who would pay for what. The result of which meant that Jordan lived the rest of his days in hospital. He died at five years old having been prevented from living in a family home due to financial disputes. Eleven years later—eleven years!! the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal determined that approaches to services for First Nations children was discriminatory and Jordan's Principle was created. It says: all First Nations children can access the products, services and supports they need, when they need them. This means giving extra help with a wide range of health, social and educational needs when needed so First Nations children have an equal chance to thrive. Which, in a nutshell means, the government of first contact pays for the service and resolves jurisdictional/payment disputes later.

There is nothing easy about the 94 Calls to Action and nor should there be. Travesties were done in no small part as a result of taking scripture and using it to deny the spirituality that was in this land long before any European arrived. But surely to God, we can manage number three which more or less says that we will treat children, who are vulnerable, who need love and care, who enter the world at no fault of their own, who live in remote areas, we will treat these least amongst us just as we would treat my sister and any other child in our  country regardless of ethnicity, language used, family of origin, where they call home or who their parents are. We could use scripture for the good news it was supposed to be. We could stand up and demand that we treat the least of us as would treat Jesus. We can stand up and declare that our children will not be left hungry, not be left naked, not denied the access to return home just as we would never deny those things to Jesus. It is time to take back our scriptures and no longer allow them to be used for weapons of mass destruction. It is time to take back our scripture and use them as Good and Holy News for our world, for our communities, for our friends, for our family, for ourselves and always, always, for the least that live amongst us. May it be so.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Images of God: House Fires and the Burning Bush

Exodus 3:1-15

**Remarkably enough - when I got home after church on this Sunday, I discovered that someone in my life lost their home to a house fire in the early hours of Sunday morning.**

This year on Pentecost Sunday, which was just on the long weekend last month, anyway on Pentecost Sunday, colleague of mine, who lives in a small town, went to church in the morning, as usual, and led worship. He preached, as I did that day, about the miracle that happened on the first Pentecost—he spoke how tongues of fire came down, as if from heaven, and rested above the heads of those followers of Christ who began to gather together in community in the days after his  ascension. Remember the fire represented the Holy Spirit moving in and amongst the people who were not giving up the teachings of Jesus, even though he was no longer there in body to lead them. God, through the Holy Spirit, inspired Peter to preach and three thousand were joined to their number that day. Anyway, my colleague preached about this fire descending upon God’s people and it did not harm or burn anything. He left church after worship and returned home as he normally does on Sundays. And then his beeper went off. Not his phone or an alarm. It was the beeper he carries everywhere with him because he is volunteer firefighter. He spent the rest of Pentecost Sunday trying to quell a fire that ended up consuming a family’s home that afternoon.

Several times in the Bible, God shows up in people’s lives as some form of fire. God was in the pillar of fire that went before the Hebrews as they escaped Egypt. God lit the way as a torch in Genesis. The Holy Spirit came as fire on Pentecost. And God is revealed to Moses in the burning of the bush that was not consumed by fire. The bush was at foot of what is now known as Mt Sinai. Fun fact, Saint Catherine’s Monastery has been built up around what is believed to be the bush that continues to grow from the roots of the original burning bush. The experience of my colleague was a sober reminder that fire is a force in our world that we have every right to be wary of—to be careful around and to be scared of in some circumstances. I’m sure the early Hebrew people had a similar relationship to fire as we do today. Fire is necessary in our lives but we very well know that fire consumes and it harms when it escapes our control. As an aside, when the alerts went off on all of our phones in May while I was at a large gathering of clergy for the Conference. When the alert sounded on the one hundred phones in the sanctuary, the minister from Fort McMurray, went into a bit of shock as the collective noise of the alerts sounded so very much like the alarms that rang through her town in 2015, telling people they had to evacuate in a great hurry.

The power of fire is incredible and immense. Maybe that’s why the Hebrew people used the image of fire when trying to explain how God was making God’s self known in their lives. But, rather than the fire being a frightening sight, the fire that represents God is a fire that continues to burn without having to consume anything. The fiery bush is an icon of the Divine—a biblical symbol that offers a window into God’s presence—an awesome and powerful holiness that is, at once, dangerous and attractive, frightening and comforting, untamed and reassuring. We have talked about humanity being made in the image of God and how an expansive view of God goes beyond the male imagery of our Creator to include not only women but also those non-human images. We need also to consider a vast range of imagery for God because no one image can encapsulate the totality of what or who God is in our world and universe. And, as I’ve said before, we, the people of God are perfectly imperfect and so we do not have enough understanding of the mystery that is God and, as such, we cannot give a comprehensive description of the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, the God of David, the God of Jesus. We do, however, have enough imagination to use metaphors and similes to describe our God whose face has been seen only by one person—Moses in his old age, just before he died. Each of these comparisons give a small picture of God but when we all share what we believe to be true about God, the mystery of God is revealed a little more every time and what we understand about God is increased bit by bit.

So, we have this story and the others, that are images of God filled with the immense power of fire and yet the fire is not destructive, affirming that our God is a Creator not a destroyer. Just as when the breath of God moved over the earth, it created the world, it did not destroy it. Just as the wind of Pentecost did not blow apart the gathering place of God’s people. Just as the hen of Jerusalem protected her chicks, she did not force them to stay out in the cold, all these images tell of a God that continues, without ceasing, to care for our well-being. We don’t name God after these images. They are metaphors and similes. They paint for us a picture from which we can discern the nature of God. And so, we don’t call God ‘Fire’ but we call God Powerful. We call God Beloved. We call God Creator. We call God Lover.

Later, in this story of the burning bush, God reveals something akin to a name for God’s self, which, in turn, reveals more of the character of God. Moses is being difficult with God. God tells Moses to go free the people of the Egypt and Moses is resisting. Because I have a somewhat belligerent sixteen-year-old, I can imagine the non-edited version of what this discussion with God sounded like:
  • Moses, you aren’t doing anything important right now, go set my people free.
  • Do I have to?
  • Yes, they are enslaved, they need freeing!
  • Right now? Because I’m in the middle of a game of Fortnight—I might win.
  • You have to go now, it’s important – go before I unplug the PS4.
  • It’ll be a waste of time because they won’t listen to me.
  • Oh, for the love of Pete, will you just go already? They’d be free by now if you had left when I told you to go.
  •  What if they ask for a password or something so they know it’s you that sent me? I know, why don’t you tell me your real name? Better include your middle name, so they know it’s you.
  • Arg! Just tell them I AM WHO I AM has sent you. No middle name. I AM for short. Now go!
  • Alright, alright, I’m going already. Sigh.
So, God very cleverly avoids giving Moses a name but does give this expression of I AM WHO I AM. I can’t help but think it’s like responding to the kids after they’ve asked why they have to do what you say and you say, because I’m the mom that’s why! So, Moses is resisting, and God says I AM WHO I AM and that’s plenty enough authority for you to do what I need you to. The scholarship around this great I AM suggests that this phrase could be more accurately interpreted from the Hebrew as I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. Either way the expression ends up as YHWH in the scriptures—there are no vowels in Hebrew. In English, we pronounce that as Yahweh, which we use as an alternate name or title for God. The name Yahweh is built upon the Hebrew “to be”. Through saying, I will be what I will be, God reveals that God will be made known through God’s actions for others. And, as you make your way through the Bible, it is easy to get caught up in the chaos and turbulence in the lives of God’s people. No one would blame a first-time reader if they judged God as being harsh and unforgiving. But upon closer inspection, we realize that it is not God who is harming and punishing people (let’s not get into a discussion right now about the flood or Lot right now, shall we? I’ll need another hour of worship time to talk those ones through). If we look more closely at the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, you will see that the misfortunes that befall the people of God were because of their own actions or inaction. King David asks for a lot of smitting to happen by God in the Psalms that he composed but there is little evidence that God responded to his requests of vengeance.
If we can agree for now to set aside the flood and poor Job, it can be said that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures offers again and again for humanity to return to righteousness. To remain in relationship with their Creator, to be welcomed back again and again into the love that is God. God freed the slaves of Egypt, led them through the desert despite their contentiousness, led them into the Promised Land. God did not set aside Jacob for his greed and his betrayal of his brother Esau. God gave the exiles living in Babylon hope through the words of the prophets. God gave the people Jesus to live the love God knows that is possible in our world. God did not let Jesus perish but rose him from the tomb to declare to the world that hate and terror will never win out over the power of love. I will be what I will be – God has shown that God will be many things. God will be just, kind, loving, compassionate, forgiving, merciful, full of hope, peace and joy. There are so many images we can use for God and how the Holy Spirit moves in our life—fire, wind, the majesty of the mountains, the perfectly formed intricate flower, a crop of wheat rippling with the breeze, the open sky of the prairie, the crashing waves of the ocean.

God is seen even these goofballs and my friends Andrew and Samson. But let us remember that images are only perfectly imperfect glimpses of our God. God will be what God will be and so take you the images you have of God, lay along beside them, what characteristics of God you know to be true to help make the picture you have be less fuzzy and more in focus. We each may only have a limited ability to see and understand God but if we can share our images with one another and talk about how God will be through describing God’s characteristics, together we might better reflect the God that made humanity, made each and every one of us, in God’s own image. May it be so.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Why Do You Stay Alive?

Two weeks ago I took two books home to read by the end of May. A big one and a little one. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s autobiography and Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. Naturally I picked up the little one first cause it wasn't going to take very long to read before I started the brick-sized book of Martin Luther King.

Well. Theory is one thing and reality is another. Matt Haig's book is a compelling read that a fast reader could whip through in a time of dedicated reading. But that would be doing him and his book an injustice.

Matt Haig is a best-selling author who is married with a couple of children. (I did a bit of work on the Google while taking reading breaks.) By all accounts, he is an accomplished man who have people who loves him and who he loves. In addition to his creative talents and his identity as a spouse and father, Matt has another facet to his life - mental illness. It is easy to look at successful people who have found love and who family in their lives and assume they are happy. But we forget each and every one of us has a history and a life full of details that we choose not to lay bare at the feet of anyone who knows of us. Kate Spade comes to mind as I write this - her death by suicide after years of depression came as a shock to those who felt they knew Kate through her designer handbags.

Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses lie to those people who live with them. I know this because depression is not an unknown entity in my life or those I love. Matt found himself suddenly and completely disabled at the age of 24 by mental illness. With his parents and girlfriend supporting him, Matt crawled out from under his illness over a long period of time. He still has moments when the illness tries to take back power over his mind and life but he has managed to choose life over death for nearly twenty years.

Reasons to Stay Alive is a recounting and description of his debilitating illness and his subsequent recovery. It is a challenging and difficult read. It is also a story of hope and encouragement. It is an excellent read to have a better understanding of the impact that mental illness has on a person's life (and those who love that person). We would never ask someone with a broken leg to help us move our furniture and yet, people who live with mental illness, are often told they are lazy and/or unwilling to get better when they are unable to participate fully in their lives. Mental illness is very real. And it can be incapacitating. The more of us who understand mental illness, whether we have it or not, the better our world will be.

The bookends of this book have photos of reasons why people choose to stay alive. Here's my reason to stay alive.
What is your reason to stay alive? Feel free to post a photo in the comments of this blog or on my Facebook post. And then go read the book. As always, if you want to borrow my copy, drop in to the church and I'll lend it to you.

PS. I'll read about Martin Luther King next week. 😊

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Old White Guy in the Sky

Genesis 1:26-27

I love going over this story of Creation with the youth group during confirmation classes. There are a few of these quirky events in the Bible where you think you know the details but it turns out they are made up—like the number of wise men who visit baby Jesus—we think there are three because three gifts are listed but the actual number of people who traveled to see the Christ Child is never revealed. The youth are always surprised when they find out there are two creation stories—this seven day one with God saying things like, let there be light and then creating humankind and then the story in the next—you know the one where the man is created and given the job of naming all of creation and God feels sorry for him being all alone and creates a woman from his rib. Two very distinct stories of creation. Anyway, the creation story Donna read for us is from chapter one and takes place after God has created everything in the world, except for humans. We don’t know much about God at this point other than how powerful God must be to have created so much out of nothing. Over these next three weeks, Stephen and I will be exploring the images that we have for God. Many of us grew up in a time in which there was not much question of how we would describe God if asked—the answer would likely be, an old white, bearded man, living in heaven up in the sky. I don’t know about you but when I was younger I couldn’t help but think of Charleston Heston like in this photo—he was actually playing Moses but to my mind, this is how I thought of God while I was in Sunday School.  It’s hard to know when this older male image of God was created in the imagination of humanity—perhaps Michelangelo had something to do with it when he revealed his painting in the Sistine Chapel—you know the one, where God is creating humanity by reaching out and touching fingertips with Adam.

Translating the Bible into English would likely also have been a factor. The Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, were written in Hebrew. Hebrew does not have pronouns such as the English language—no ‘he’ or ‘she’. But the Hebrew language does assign a gender to all things in a similar way of the French language. As such, God had a masculine designation, not necessarily because the early Hebrew people understood that God was a man, God was just happened to be masculine. I suppose, it’s just as likely God could have had a feminine designation just as the Hebrew words for grapevine or sun. Of course, later in the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament, Jesus refers to God as Abba, which is Aramaic for father—abba refers to a relation of personal intimacy—which is exactly what God is to Jesus. Jesus was likely very aware of the story of how his mother was made pregnant through divine intervention and so it follows that Jesus would have thought of God as his father, therefore directing humanity’s imagination to the image of a older man. The lighter features of God comes from the very fact that it was western Europeans who have had authority over the church for so many years. Using English, Bible states, God created humankind in his image. The word for God is masculine and the English language requires a pronoun to be used in this situation, so the sentence is God created humankind in HIS image. Our history had men interpreting the Word of God for the people, and so they read this bit of information revealing what God was and they looked at themselves. Their logic probably went like this…if God made us in his image, we must be what God looks like. Which leads us to the pervasive uses of older, male imagery for God today. Even in the TV show, The Simpsons, the character of God is light skinned and has a long white beard. Here’s a fun fact that I’ve shared before but I still like to point it out…God is the only Simpson character to have five fingers, the other characters all have four fingers on each hand.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this older male imagery for God other than it can be restrictive when portraying God if other perspectives are not permitted. The English language is limited when it used to describe the Holy Mystery that is God. Last week we heard the early Christians speaking about the Holy Spirit using images of fire and the sound of wind because they did not have the language to describe the fullness of how God was moving in their lives on the day of Pentecost. As much as we try, developing a comprehensive image of God is very, very difficult, impossible even. But humanity, as a general rule, likes order in the world. And, let’s admit it, we the faithful, like rules and organization. If you need any proof that humanity values consistency as a virtue, have a look at the success of McDonalds or stand behind someone at Starbucks as they discover the location they are at has run out of earl grey tea. You can’t possibly make a tea latte with anything other than earl grey. And, no, English breakfast is never, ever an option for a London Fog, thank you very much! As much comfort rule and order offers to us, sometimes consistency can be filled with ruts that are hard to escape. And when our religious structures become too rigid with the portrayal of God, there is not room for those people who do not find comfort or peace in those portrayals. If a child suffered at the hand of their father growing up, perhaps the image of God as the loving Father cannot be reconciled with their abusive father. If a person has been sexually assaulted by a man, it might be hard to find comfort in praying to a man for strength and courage. There are also people who find it challenging to consider the greatness of God’s mystery being contained within any type human form. It is helpful for those folks to be given space for God to be more, to be bigger, to be wider than any one person. For people whose vision of God does not include Charleston Heston, we to allows for an expansive view of the one we call the Almighty.

Let’s take a moment to look at our scriptures to examine what they tell us about God. There are many, many descriptions for God throughout the whole Bible—metaphors such as fire, wind, the quiet after a storm and also characteristics such as being just, loving, wise and in all places at all times. So, in this very first chapter of the entire Bible, we find ourselves at the end of a rather impressive list of things and creatures that God has managed to create and we know that all of it is good. Then God makes humankind. In a stunning revelation we find out suddenly that God does not seem to be alone. God says, “Let US make humankind in OUR image.” It turns out that God is not an ‘I’ but rather, God is an ‘us’. As an aside here, this is a piece of scripture that certain Christians use to explain the Trinity and to ‘prove’ that Jesus was with God since the very beginning of time. However, the same Christians then ignore the next few lines and use only the creation story from chapter two to explain how women are to be subordinate to men. But I’ll leave that for another Sunday. So, to recap, God is an us, not an ‘I’ and God wishes to make humankind in their likeness—again plural rather than singular. God goes ahead and makes humankind and AGAIN we hear plural not singular—God created THEM. Male and female.

Did you notice that the male is not named Adam in this story? That happens in chapter two. The Hebrew word for red dust is adama and it is believed that Adam is named for the dirt from which he was created. Back to chapter one and the male and female being created together. One thought is that this one being had the male facing from one side and the female facing from the other. Psalm 139 says, "You hem me in—behind and before, you have laid your hand upon me.” At some point, they were separated. Or it could simply be that both were created at the same time as individual beings. What is important to take away is that both men and women were created in the likeness of God. Which then begs the question of how it is that we haven’t used other images for God alongside the father, an old man with a beard? If we, each one of us, are made in the image of God, we do not have to look very far to find out some of the possibilities of what God is. Male, female, transgendered, homosexual, heterosexual black, brown, white, tall, slim or wide.

Last summer, in Zambia, in response to the question as to why the United States and Canada had so many gays when Zambia had none, I told the Zambian taxi driver that we, in Canada and in the United Church know that a person has no more control over whether they are born gay or straight than they are born black or white or male or female. We are born the way we are, just as God would have us be. And each and every one of us is made in the image of God. God can be many things. I’ve shared here before that when she was four years old, Abigail described God as being big and blue and riding a bike. I think of God as being a big cloud type of thing, like a massive flock of birds that move in tandem together in the sky—as the love from which we are born and the love to which we return when our time on earth is at an end. But it is helpful for me, particularly when I’m in the drive through line at Tim Hortons and I’m feeling tense about who might cut into the line to remember that each and every one of us reflects God and all the possibilities of God. However, individually we are not the sum total of all that God can be. Remembering that God created humanity, both male and female together from their likeness—from the plural we were created into community. Neither one alone is the full image of God—only in the community of humankind is God reflected. For us to begin to understand the Mystery of who and what God is and the power of God in our world, we need to be with each other. We need to be together, acknowledge one another, try to understand one another, be loving to one another, offer grace to each other just as God’s grace is given to us, to ensure justice for our neighbor as we would want for ourselves, to be compassionate and full of mercy just as God is, for each and every one of us is made in the image of God. God has created us into a community in which we are encouraged each and every day to call each other into full being in fellowship, a fellowship that can only be accomplished when we look at the other and recognize that God is as reflected in the person before us as God is reflected in ourselves. And, if you need reminding of all the possibilities of who the US is that is our God, of the US that made humankind in their image…here are some photos of just a few in this world who bears God’s image…

**At this point a slide show of images of a diverse group of people, including Donald Trump, Syed Soharwardy and Wab Kinew- photos and selfies - appeared on the screen while Donna and Karen sang I Am a Child of God - #157 More Voices - by Cheryl and Bruce Harding, 2002**

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Is it Pentecost? Or an Ice Cream Truck?

Acts 2: 1-21, 41-47

Video shown at the start of the message time: The Skit Guys: Pentecost. The characters are talking about the excitement of Pentecost and one of them wonders if the sound from heaven they are hearing is an ice cream truck - because what is more heavenly than the sound of an ice cream truck entering your neighbourhood?
During the scripture reading, an emoji version of the reading appeared on the screen - see below for the emoji reading.
These are my notes that I used to speak with the children (and the congregation).

Pentecost is a time of celebration – it is the birthday of the church. Just at the beginning of Acts, Jesus ascended to heaven after spending some good, quality time with the disciples. They witness him rising up towards the sky and they stand there, dumbfounded. What were they to do? How were they going to manage? And then some bright spark says, why are alls y’all standing there just looking up? Jesus is going to return one day. The disciples stop looking up and start looking at each other and realize they have work to do. They return to Jerusalem and go about replacing Judas with Mattias. They begin to pray together in one another’s home and one day, fifty days after Easter Sunday, they find themselves in a unique set of circumstances. What they later can describe only as the Holy Spirit descends upon them and transforms them from the students of Jesus to the apostles carrying on the ministry that Jesus began when he was born into the world as the Word Made Flesh. They were not the only ones affected that day. People from all over the land experienced the Holy Spirit moving that day.
As much as we have tried to contain God to certain images or descriptions, God is so much bigger and mysterious than any language we humans could possible use. We are limited in our understanding and knowledge of the wholeness of what God is and what God can do in our world and in our universe – we have no idea. Which is why Christians have three expressions and understandings of God. We call it the Trinity. While there are many ways to describe them, here is one way – God the Creator, Jesus the teacher and the Holy Spirit, the inspirer.
In an attempt to express how they experience the spirit of God, the early Hebrew People often used the imagery of wind or breath to describe how God moved in their lives. Breath of God – ruach, a Hebrew word meaning wind or breath – refers to Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit
The early Christians experienced the Holy Spirit in the sound of rushing wind but there were earlier cases of the disciples comparing the Holy Spirit to wind…
Book of John – 3:8 – Having just said one must be born of water and Spirit to enter into the kingdom of heaven - The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
John 20:22 – breath – In the locked room after his resurrection to the disciples Jesus said, “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Making Wind (We made the sound of a thunderstorm using the campfire game of rubbing our hands together, snapping fingers, clapping hands and stomping our feet as loud as we could.)
Another image the early Hebrew people used for God was fire. Can you remember when fire was used in the Old Testament – Hebrew Scriptures – to represent God? The burning bush. And now today we hear that tongues – not tongs – of fire came down upon the people of God, to show the Holy Spirit moving in their lives. Let us create an image for ourselves.
Making Fire (The children and members of the congregation were invited to come forward to light a bunch of candles in the sand table on the stage. The lit fire at the top of the tall tapers brought to mind what the tongues of fire might have looked like resting above each person at the time of Pentecost.)
We welcomed three new members during this service. Following the service, we shared a potluck meal together, had a Pentecost treasure hunt, sang happy birthday to the church and then shared this awesome cake (made by the great Heather Klekta).

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Marching Onward

I began writing this blog sometime near the end of March.
PEOPLE - it's now MID-MAY!!! I no longer have any idea how time works.
I've been serving in full time ministry for almost seven years and I still find myself surprised that the distance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is so very, very short. When I was a kid, six weeks was an eternity. Remember what it felt like when the first day of summer holidays or Christmas Day was six weeks away and EVERY single day was like a full week worth of time and so it took FOREVER for the celebrations to begin? Pure torture. But now it seems the six weeks of Lent fly by in the blink of an eye. Which is all to say, that I did, in fact, read my March books but the blinking of my eye did not allow for me to sit down long enough to write about them. I found a little time today, in the quiet of this Wednesday afternoon to reflect on the books I read last month. (And now it's a Tuesday in May. SIGH.)

I began March by reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. You will recognize Evans name from previous books I've written about in this blog. Evans is a former evangelical Christian. She is still a Christian but no longer identifies as evangelical. She spent her twenties exploring what aspects of Christianity remained important to her and what aspects of her Christian upbringing she needed to let go of in order to live faithfully as a loving and compassionate servant of God.

In her former evangelical world, there had been much emphasis on controlling what women could and could not do as a follower of Christ. Supporting her husband by staying home and raising children was on the "Do" list. Preaching or being in church leadership was on the "Do Not Do" list. Whenever a woman moved out of her lane, so to speak, she was likely to be reminded of her role in God's world. As part of her faith journey, Evans decided to earnestly explore what the Bible (and presumably God) had to say about what it is, exactly that is expected of women and live a year following what biblical rules she could find about womanhood.

After culling the Scriptures for all references to how a woman should behave, Evans selected 12 virtues and did her best to fulfill them, one at a time, each month - following some general guidelines on how to act or not to act such as she didn't cut her hair for a year and covered her head when instructed to do so. The virtues were: Gentleness, Domesticity, Obedience, Valor, Beauty, Modesty, Purity, Fertility, Submission, Justice, Silence and Grace. Many instructions of how the biblical woman is to behave can be found Proverbs 31.

And this is my confession...I got four months into her year of biblical womanhood and became so annoyed with the whole project that I put the book into a time out. There are so many reasons to be annoyed with a religion that attempts to restrict woman that it would be impossible list them here. So I won't. I will just say, the book sits somewhere between my complete pile and my desk and every once in a while I pick it up but progress is slow. Life is too short to read books that cause existential angst.

The next book I read, however, did not cause me any angst other than to be sad that there will be no other books coming from its author, Marina Keegan. Unfortunately this author of The Opposite of Loneliness was killed in a traffic accident within her days of graduation from university. She was a talented writer and had volumes of material which her parents and former instructor curated to create this tribute to this wonderful and talented young woman. The book has a variety of fiction and non-fiction selections.

I want to lift one idea from Keegan's book. She wrote an essay for the graduation issue of the Yale Daily News. She speaks of the variety of communities that she found herself at home in while studying at Yale. She mentions that there is not an opposite word for loneliness. If there was, that is what she felt while at Yale - the opposite of being lonely. As I was sharing this essay with someone who joined the Brene Brown book study earlier this year, he told me - "I know what the opposite of loneliness is - it is belonging. Brene Brown taught us that." Lovely.

This book is definitely worth the time. If you'd like to borrow it, please just ask. You can borrow the other one too. 😉

Next on my list (For April. Cause, remember, I don't know how time works.):
Reasons to Stay Alive  by Matt Haig and a biography of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Purse is Stalking Me!

Romans 12:2

For this month of April, we have been exploring a variety of spiritual practices. And because Stephen and I appreciate a certain amount of good and reasonable order to things, we chose spiritual practices that all start with the letter ‘s’. For a long time in our schedule, this Sunday’s topic was listed as “another s”. As it was my Sunday to preach, it was up to me to find a spiritual practice that I wanted to talk about which also happened to be an s-word. And I just could not find one. Until one day, as I was writing in my bullet journal (and if you want to know what a bullet journal is, come talk to me later) but as I was working in my journal, I thought, that’s it – I want to talk about journaling. But journaling does not start with an s. So, I did what I had to do when we were naming child number four. We both liked the name Abby if the baby was a girl but because our naming rules (and, yes, we had naming rules to help in the choosing of names for our kids—that’s one of the many joys of living with me—just ask my dear spouse). Anyway, the naming rules included the rule that no one would be named with a nickname. They had to have a full name. So, we agreed on ‘Abby’ but then had to work ourselves backwards to get to Abigail. This is what I had to do with the word journaling—which, if you think about it, is just another way to say writing. So is the word scribing. And so here we have it—another s to round out our month.

Stephen explored the practices of stillness and simplicity. For the Sunday we looked at the practice of sabbath, Dave Robertson spoke about how he used cycling to deal with his cancer diagnosis, which has recently returned with no good outcome in sight. And today we are looking at how we can use writing, journaling, scribing to calm our minds, ease our souls and allow the Divine to enter into our here and now. As people of faith, we use spiritual practices for a variety of reasons however the fundamental purpose of a spiritual practice is to make space in our lives for the Divine. You will notice that we have not specifically mentioned prayer. Prayer is, of course, a spiritual practice but we wanted to lift up these other particular practices which cause us to declutter, so to speak. They allow us to clear out and make room for thoughts and ideas to flow unencumbered. They free up time in order to allow the processing, for different experiences to be uncovered, layer by layer. And then, sometimes in those times of making such space, prayer can be known to leak out of us. Maybe it happens by accident. Maybe it happens on purpose. But I think in times in which we open ourselves up to self-exploration and discovery, prayer happens. The Divine is sought. Or maybe it is that you realize the Divine is seeking you. You simply give thanks for what you have or what is before you. Or you cry out for help because it all seems impossible. Or, like so many of us, you begin the complicated process of negotiating for peace of mind and soul. Perhaps then, the Holy Spirit might move. Maybe it moves gently like a breeze brushing ever so gently past our cheek. Or maybe it moves with an insistence such as when the wind grabs at the front doors of our church on certain weather-filled days up here on this hill we sit upon. The moving of the Spirit sometimes reveals to us an answer we’ve been seeking or sometimes points us in a direction we had not previously considered. Spiritual practices make space for God to be made known in our everyday living. 

Our first scripture reading today was from Proverbs. The Book of Proverbs is regarded as a collection of wisdom—a significant set of teachings of how to live a happy and peaceful life by honouring and respecting God as all good and all powerful. Today, from chapter four, we heard that above all else we are to guard our heart as it is the wellspring of life. For anyone who has had their heart broken by a lover, a friend, by a family member, we know that it is instinctual to protect our hearts after a hurtful event by turtling in, wrapping ourselves so tightly around our hearts that it is hard, on most days, for another to find their way in. But, the way of God, the way of Christ, is not to wall off our hearts. Rather than close up hearts from the world, our God calls us again and again to keep our hearts open, as the hymn says, to the joy and pain of living. To keep ourselves open we must dare to be vulnerable and reach outward rather than retreat inward. But we can’t protect ourselves in a world that has little regard for our tender hearts until we know ourselves well and believe firmly in the path before us. And we can’t know these things unless we take the time and space to explore matters within us. Proverbs goes on to tell the reader to keep corrupt words from leaving the mouth, to keep their gaze straight and to not veer off their path. But how is one certain which words are not corrupt? Or that the direction in which one is looking is the correct one? Or, for that matter, that the path one is on is the path set by God? Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans. By renewing your mind and testing what it is that is God’s will. By taking time to allow God to enter in and speak. For giving space to seek out God and for God to find you. 

Paul knew that making and keeping a connection with God is a difficult thing in a world that is out to get us. Well, maybe it’s not the world, as in God’s creation that’s out to get us—unless, of course, you don’t count the poisonous spiders or the spiders that are so large that they are likely to induce heart spasms when you encounter them—if you can just set those aside, I don’t think it’s so much the world that’s out to get us so much as it is humanity’s need for conformity that’s out to get us. In order for humanity to first survive, in the beginning of time, humans had to band together to hunt and protect themselves from the elements of nature. Now our survival is directly tied to understanding the necessary social norms for one to advance and succeed in supporting oneself and families. In order to survive, humans have always had to conform to what the collective did or believed. Society through politics, religion and social groups pressure us to stay within certain boundaries of tradition and customs and, this way, we are marked as who we are supposed to be and what we are to believe. 

Advertising pushes us further to conform to whichever groups we belong. Everyone has what they are selling and shouldn’t you also have it? Or, better yet, you can belong to a more elite group if you just get this other, more expensive thing over here. And we know from recent revelations from Facebook that we are being manipulated and coerced in ways we never understood before. Although the news really wasn’t all that surprising. I am currently being harassed by a purse on Facebook. I made the mistake of expressing an interest in a certain very lovely bag that popped up in my Facebook feed and now the advertising for that bag is stalking my every moment I’m on Facebook. I have yet to come up with a logical rationale for Christopher as to why I should just buy the darn purse so it’s still lurking there in my newsfeed whenever I log on.

So far, I am holding strong. But that’s just a purse. What about those advertisements or postings that prey upon those who have been hurt? Who are broken? Who are lonely? Who feel inadequate or not worthy? And who amongst us has never found themselves in one or more of these categories? And so, when we see signs or notices that encourage ways of thinking that dehumanize others, that dismisses the goodness and the joy of others, that disregard the truth of other people’s experiences and lives, how do we advert our gaze? Because not being conformed to a world of fear and scarcity that certain leaders uphold is a tall order. To believe in a world of love and abundance, this world of possibility that God has been telling humanity about since the beginning of time, a world of peace and unity that Jesus taught about for his whole ministry, to believe in this type of world is to fight every moment to look the other way rather than to allow the glimpses of injustice, hatred, oppression, immorality, greed and violence to define our world.

‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ It takes transformation, a renewal of the mind, to detach ourselves from the world’s attempts to occupy us with things that do not matter. Paul implores us to shake off the negative effects of this world and attend to things that matter and to discern what is good. Transformation such as this happens only when we take the time to ask questions, to express our doubt, to search ourselves for what we know to be true, to notice how the Holy Spirit has and is moving in our world, to allow for the teachings and sayings of Jesus to be the wisdom and truth guiding our actions and to listen for the small, still voice of God, that continues to speak to us whether we can hear it or not. And how do we do that but through spiritual practices such as scribing otherwise known as journaling.

Now, I have a small confession to make. After all this working towards how journaling can be beneficial in making a connection with the Divine and discerning how best to live your life, I woudn’t blame you if you thought that I might be pretty great at journaling. I am not. My journaling totally follows how I approach completing tasks. I don’t. My personality type is very much about starting things. Not finishing things. So, I have journal after journal of all the trips I’ve been on. They all look the same. I start out strong with lots of details of the activities we’ve done and the people we’ve met and, inevitably, by day four or five, my writing begins to wane. And by the end of the trip I’m too exhausted to write anymore. Oh, I always, always tell myself I will go back and fill in the missing details. But I never do. Oh my goodness, I just picked up a lovely looking journal that I’ve had for awhile. It was like walking down memory lane as I looked at the variety of entries I had written. Apparently, I bought it for my last year of ministry training.

I don’t journal well but I like to draw. I’m not an artist like my mom was but I like using colour and making simple line drawings. I often find myself praying in a free-flow kind of way when I do that in my journal. I also like to make lists. When I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed and I’m fretting, Christopher says, why don’t you make a list? And he’s right. What the list is listing doesn’t even really matter. It’s the action that allows me a moment of feeling like the world is not completely out of control. And as often as not, the Holy Spirit will move as I’m making the list and I will notice what’s been missing and has been the cause of my underlying anxiety. Or She will make explicit that what I was worrying about really isn’t the bother of worry about it. There was a time, when our house was chaotic with four children between the ages of 1 and 7, with three very energetic boys who loved to cover their baby sister with stickers or stick her in a laundry basket and see what they could do with said-basket and I felt like I had NO space, time or energy to talk to God, much less hear God speaking to me. But I found if I sat down just before I went to bed and jotted down all the things swirling in my
brain—the to-do lists, the things I needed to remember, a funny thing the boys said or did—I would jot it down in a journal beside my bed. When I was done, I would close my eyes for a moment and think, “There you go Jesus—you take it. Thanks.” Christopher called it my, ‘giving it over to Jesus’. And I would sleep pretty well those nights, except for, you know, the nights where there was barfing, I had a nightmare, I can’t sleep, the night terrors—other than those events, I usually slept well because I didn’t have all those thoughts distracting me and bothering me—Jesus had them. And the next morning, I had a look at the list and notes and I took back only those that needed doing. Because, remarkably, somehow in the night my brain had the space to come up with solutions for some of the concerns that I had been worried about the night before. I think, maybe, this is some of what Paul was writing about, be transformed and discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Not all spiritual practices work for all people. It is a well-known fact that I can’t sit still or stay quiet for much longer than an hour so a silent, six-day yoga retreat like the one she did in Eat, Pray, Love is definitely not for me. My brain might explode. But I know plenty of others who would love that type of practice and would learn so much about themselves and how they want to be in the world. Simplicity would work for me if we could agree that my craft room is not included and no laundry baskets for sorting go near it. And Sabbath for me is Monday. Just as Dave cycles, I have my own routine for Mondays that give me the space and the freedom to work through thoughts and feelings from the past week, to make my lists for what’s coming and to do certain activities that allow my brain to shut off for a little while and make room for God to enter in. We have had some pretty good chats, God and I, on Mondays. Not that God isn’t in and around my life other days of the week, it’s just that I listen best on Mondays. And I journal. In my own way and with lots of different colours. In a variety of notebooks. Which I am definitely not hoarding. What practice works best for you? What gives you the freedom of space and time to connect with the Divine? What do you do to allow for transformation to take place, so that God can enter in, so that the teachings of Jesus can be considered, so that the Holy Spirit may move in your life? God is always with us but sometimes it can be hard to see or hear how God is working in your life. Finding a spiritual practice that works for you, will work for God and reveal more clearly that God is indeed working in your life and in this magnificent world of ours. Thanks be to God.