Certainty and Skepticism

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20

I’ve been reflecting on what it is that seems to divide religious and political liberal and conservatives. These debates, discussions and disagreements seem to linger throughout history and remain a predictable part of the ongoing public discourse. If I had to sum up those quarrels it would that some see the world and the Divine with a lens of certainty and some with the lens of doubt. The former need a rock to stand on, they are not comfortable with shifting answers and want a definite law or truth or value that is never-changing and always true. They see change in value as inherently destabilizing and indicative of selfishness and moral decay. Those in the latter group view everything with skepticism and doubt. They know their history and know the change is constant, that over time some things we thought were constant turned out to be relics of the past. The litany of the examples speak for themselves; slavery, patriarchy, racism, colonialism, and a cosmic belief that our earth was flat, that the sun rotated around the earth.

And so you have it, on all matters of religious doctrine and political ideology you have these two sides challenging each other; those who believe in certainty pointing to the anarchy and moral ambiguity of a confused public and the skeptic pointing to the false god of whatever law or truth we chose to invest our certainty in today. The former group do not believe human beings are capable or living in a constant state of change and deconstruction, that we need the law, flawed as it may be (more self-aware certainty types will admit that many laws do in fact change) to provide a kind of “guard rails” to our human character, that includes a tendency to sin. These folks will say that like human parents, flawed as they are, there is a need for concrete do’s and don’ts, otherwise we risk moral anarchy.

But those on the doubt side of this debate rightly point out that these laws, temporary or permanent as they may be, almost always seem to favour those with power and privilege. They skepticism is based on the assumption that the powerful often dress up their privilege as truth and enshrine with political and religious absolutes, making any effort to question it akin to heresy or being unpatriotic. Again the evidence of this analysis is not slim, history is riddled with examples of white privileged men writing the rules, enforcing the rules and defending the rules as “eternally true”.

I think Jesus had it right, he was truth and his presence was the beginning of God’s New Jerusalem coming to be. He spoke of law as necessary but of himself as the fulfillment of the law. Some point to this text in Matthew as an example of how the law cannot be changed. However, skeptics can take heart in another Gospel text.

Jesus said to them, The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. Mark 2:27

Jesus had deliberately changed the law. This law, that the Sabbath was such that nothing happened on those days, was undone by Jesus in favour of a deeper law, the hungry needed to be fed.

Jesus left the law in place, told us that that law was important but would challenge it, upend it, change it, when this law was contrary to the Spirit of this New Jerusalem that he came to embody and live out. Surely the Church, who are called to witness to Jesus and live his Good news, can do no less. We have a law and often this law provides stability, an anchor to a society in need of constants. But dare not make an idol of these laws, they are human interpretations and therefore need constant and vigilant monitoring, if not some careful deconstruction.

As an old friend once told me, “Kevin, there are stories and there are stories. Knowing the difference between them ones we keep and the ones we let go is what we call wisdom.” Amen to that.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

When couples come together under one roof there is always some negotiation and flexibility required to find a way to live into new rituals. Eating meals together, and usually in our culture households gather at supper time, is one of those rituals that each partner in the relationship bring their own experience. When Kim and I were first married each of us had very different experiences of gathering around the supper table. In Kim’s family all four of them were present at the appointed time, all four were involved in the preparation and the serving of the meals and everyone sat around the same time, quietly, with grace to start and then the passing of the various dishes. When everyone was served, and only then, would the eating begin, soon followed by the sharing of how your day had been. Each person would take their turn, speak slowly and deliberately, and share every detail of their day. No one left the table until everyone was finished their meal. It was rare for any guest to be at the table, these gatherings were for the immediate family.

In my family the only common experience with the Footes was the Grace before the meal, “God is grace, God is good, thank you for our food, Amen.” Given the busy schedules all five of us had it was common for the meal to begin with two or three people. My mother cooked all the meals, served all the meals, cleaned up after all the meals. Sometimes we began at the table, but most days the table was jammed full of stuff so we took our plates to the living room, watching TV and made observations about what we were watching, If we shared anything about our day it was only details and you had to speak quickly, if there was a pause another family member would finish your sentence. The same was true if you left food on your plate, if you left it there too long beware! Someone might put it on their own plate. So we all ate quickly, we were all going somewhere else, and we were often wearing a sports uniform ready to be driven to a practice or game.

Two major differences between Kim’s family suppers and the Little meal times were the guests who showed up and the quality of the sharing. There were many guests my family would invite, usually without notice. My mother never knew who was going to show up and she herself would invite people who were lonely and going through difficult times. But I will say that these guests, our wild and chaotic family, did not share the quality of information I heard at Kim’s family table. I never had any idea how the day had gone for any member of my family and we never really did hear from our guests. They felt welcome, they were included and they were not alone. But there was little opportunity to share.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” God gives us bread and gives to us daily. But the meals themselves have symbolism and significance far beyond the actual bread. Food nourishes the body, we cannot live without food. But meals are more than food and no one demonstrated the sacred power of meals more than Jesus. Remember that when Jesus tells the story of his encounter with the Confuser he is offered all of the bread in the world and responds with, “One does not live by bread alone.” Moreover Jesus tells his disciples that when he is physically gone from their presence they can always experience him in a deep way by sharing in the bread and wine. The early church, worshipping in people’s homes, went further, not only did they share in a formal ritual that came to be the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper they also ate together as a community, as a family. Refugees and long-standing members of the community, men and women, widows and families, the sick and the healthy, rich and poor, landowners and slaves, they called themselves sisters and brothers. And when they ate their “daily bread” they gave thanks to God and found in their communal meal the presence of the Saviour.

Whether it is the feeding of the five thousand or Jesus revealed as stranger after his crucifixion and resurrection or his numerous instructions to hosts of a feast, Jesus insists that his presence is felt most deeply when everyone is around the table, not just those we know and those who have done for us. The bread is a gift and thus an instrument of grace. We do not receive the bread because we are good, we receive the bread because of an unconditional love. Our response is thanksgiving and what better way to celebrate than to share in a meal. And what better way to remind ourselves that we are at the table because we are loved than to invite those who would not normally be invited by our success/status drive culture (Luke 14:7-14).

N.T. (Tom) Wright, Bishop, scholar and prolific author says that meals, celebrations, are often Holy occasions for coming together, that what was broken has now been put back together. “The banquet, the party, is a sign that God is acting at last, to rescue God’s people and wipe away all tears from all eyes.” The presence of those who have their tears wiped away is a sign of God’s healing presence, eating together as a family reinforces the nature of community, of family.

The story of the Prodigal Son is an example of how a broken relationship, having been healed, is cemented with a meal, in this case with a party. “Jesus is offering all this daily bread…which means in this story, Let the party continue…”

William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas reference the way bread opens us up to the deeper realities of our lives, the spiritual dimension of humankind. Luke records, “Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him (Jesus).” “When we want to meet God, we Christians don’t go up to a high mountain, do not rummage around in our psyches, do not hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah in the hope of revelation. We gather and break bread in Jesus’ name.” It is fascinating to me how breaking bread often breaks us open to the presence of God, of that mystery and source of love that bring forth our true selves. Isn’t it amazing how often persons in conflict with one another, in deep disagreement, sitting around a table of abundance and sharing, listening, and being bonded together in a new and unexpected way?

People often ask me how we at Bethany can live out our mission in 2017. Isaiah 43:19 says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” My conviction is that church mission comes from the talents and gifts God has given to the church members. Ministers don’t impose mission, even gifted church consultants can’t do that. What Ministers and consultants can do is listen and observe what gifts God has given to the local church and articulate that back to the congregation and hope that this inspires further and deeper efforts. I have observed that Bethany people like Bethany people. It is a sight to behold. There is bread, there is community and there is deep sharing. As new people come to our community my prayer, my hope, is that we make room for them as you have made room for me. That we will see the newcomer as we might welcome Elijah or Jesus or a Fraser or a MacLean. Let’s have more parties, more gatherings where we come together and get to know each other with broken bread, sharing what is on our broken hearts. As sure I am standing here in this black gown the healing and life-giving Jesus is here when we come together and receive our daily bread.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him (Psalm 34:8). Amen.

Happiness

What is happiness? Can we define it, can we name what it is for us? If you had to describe your view of what happiness looks like, feels like, sounds like, what words would you use? So often we hear people say that family is happiness. That is certainly true for me, no two people make me happier than Kim and Lucy. They are smart, funny, caring, creative, calm and authentic. All things I value in others. I find happiness in them. I am happy knowing I can be myself, that they will hold me accountable, celebrate my strengths and support me in my weaknesses. In a very real sense happiness for me is being myself; edging toward being better, having the humility to laugh at myself and having the true awareness of being able to celebrate my real gifts.

I am at heart someone who likes to serve, who likes to serve my way, but who does not expect to go my way. In other words I like to be involved with others, get to know others, find out how I can help others, be creative in my serving but above all know that things will work out in their own organic way, sometimes the way I want, often not. I recently told someone that I grew up knowing I was “different” which meant I never expected things to be done my way or to be done the “normal way”. I am fortunate in that I am quite dull, ordinary and conventional but what I want to make me happy is not the norm. In other words what I eat, wear, say and read is just about the same as any 50-something male. But what I want to make me happy is not the same as others. I don’t want “stuff”, I love to take public transit and I would rather work all day than take a vacation. In short I am a minimalist in a consumer culture and I am someone who loves my work in a culture that can’t wait to retire to play golf in Florida.

Each of us has to find our own happiness but it is important to listen to others to understand where our happiness fits in the larger picture. For instance my happiness comes from being of service, being of service in my own unique way. In order to truly be of service to others, and not just think I am, I need to understand what others really need. I have no interest providing X when what others need is Y. On the other hand I have no interest in just offering X in the most conventional way, I feel called to offer X in my own way. People like sermons, they want to learn something, they want to be entertained, and they want to be part of something bigger. So I visit people, listen to their interests and passions, their concerns and joys, and I create sermons that come from my own interests that still speak to what others want and need.

I really don’t have many talents and it is good that I know this. Because I am a talker, a loud talker and work as a Minister people naturally come to me for advice. It would be so easy to pretend to myself I know these answers. But I don’t. I have no common sense and have next to no skills. But as Popeye says, “I knows what I knows”. I keep my advice to very specific things, like knowing your happiness, making a difference, and having fun along the way. I think analytically about everything, I have been told more than once that I over-think things. Guilty as charged! But all this thinking allows me to find what makes me happy and then just do it. It also allows me to help others find their happiness, in their own voice and encourage them to do it.

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At the end of the day all we have is our personal and communal joy. Its best we start looking for it now.

One Day at a Time

 “Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank God for all God has done… Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Philippians 4:6,8

When we are down and in a funk about something, large or small, it is hard to navigate ourselves out to a more positive and hopeful frame of mind. When our minds and hearts are focused on something negative, worrisome, getting out of that mindset is a lot easier said than done. Often friends and supporters of those in this downward spiral have a tendency to say things that are unhelpful; “it’s really not as bad as you think” or “it’s going to get better” or “just put that out of your mind” or the pious Christian, “just give it to God and God will take care of that.” These comments may help some going through such trials but I can tell you with full confidence that they do not help the vast majority going through hard times.

As I have said and written many times it is often less what we say that helps a friend or loved one and more what we do and where we are that has a positive effect. The famous quote by the New York City pastor who said, “A casserole is always better pastoral care than bad theology.” He means that when people put themselves in the place of God and pronounce what is going on in this suffering they run the risk of saying very hurtful things. Better to offer food. I have heard people say, “God must have had a reason to visit this pain on you.” Really! My friends who are atheists tell me these kind of comments were usually what drove them to the assertion there is no God. When people see the hand of God in the care and support they receive from God’s people they experience the love of God in a deep and powerful way.

God wants the Spirit one day at a time: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not for next week. Not for next year. Not for next month. Just one day at a time. Philippians 4 give us some insight to how we lean on God for help in times of trouble. Tell God what your troubles, thank God for the blessings of the day, “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise”.

“Today’s trouble is enough for today” says Matthew 6:34. Indeed they are! Taking one day at a time allows us to be freed from our instinct to try and solve all of us challenges today. Leaning on God for support “One day at a time” gives us permission to focus on today. It also allows us to experience the blessings of today. I don’t feel guilty enjoying something or someone because of the weight of troubles if I know that I need to take one moment at a time, one day at a time. Getting through such moments and days gives us strength and confidence. God can heal when we free ourselves from the anxiety of next week, next month, and next year.

You don’t have to be thankful for bad things in your life. You don’t have to be thankful for cancer or a car accident or war or abuse. But God says in everything give thanks. Why? Because you know that God is with you always. God gives us a list of things to think about, things that are true, honourable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and worthy of praise. One day at a time.

Statues

There is a lot of talk these days about statues. On one side of the argument are those who say that if a renowned figure stood for causes of hate or violence the general public have no interest to see, much less think about, this historical figure. On the other side is the argument that if someone was a part of history they embody something of the evolution and understanding of what was and what is. They would argue that if you remove these statues all you are doing is rewriting history. The latter group also want to put persons in context, that we can’t judge historical figures by our current culture and values.

But I think we are missing one of the central functions of public art, which surely is one of the reasons we place these statues in highly visible places. It seems to me that a public statue is as important as a means of inspiration as it is as a means of information. Throughout our daily lives we witness many images and one of the great things about public art is that it gives all a common set of images to relate to and identify with. Americans love their Statue of Liberty because it reminds them of their mission, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” There is lift to those words and an iconic statue adds to those whole experience of transformation.

When we were dealing with statues of real people who each have a history we are moving into the complicated realm of humanity. No one is perfect. I remember leading a faith study at a church on various Saints throughout history. Every one of them was challenged by someone in group, they had all committed various sins and we all knew the extent of their shortcomings. One example was Martin Luther King Jr., surely one of the great and inspiring historical figures of recent times. But to several in our little study King’s relationship with women, his repeated infidelities, made him no Saint. They could not even listen to the causes King led, his words of justice and love and all of the legislation he helped pass that shaped a nation in a better way.

There are many who have mixed feelings about the statue of Winston Churchill on Spring Garden Road. Many argue that Churchill’s leadership may have saved civilization from a Nazi empire. But Churchill also stood against women suffrage and for colonialism. And in the case of these latter two issues it was not a case of being “in his time”, many contemporaries of Churchill were on the opposite side of both. Surely Churchill must be held accountable for his views on those topics.

For me the matter of statues and which ones stand and which ones are removed comes down to this, do these historic figures inspire us, did they rise to the challenge of the issues of their time to do important things or were they mere products of their time, an example of how leaders then carried out their mission. Leaders like those of the US Confederacy worked for one goal, to be a nation that could keep their slaves. Whatever personal virtues they had their stated cause was slavery pure and simple. While such figures can never be removed from history, they should remain in texts and museums, they are surely not qualified to be part of public art, public images that inspire and lift our spirits. Our own Edward Cornwallis carried out violent acts toward very specific groups. The question I have is this, did he stand for anything, do anything that would be an inspiration to those of us who walk the streets of Halifax. If the answer to that question is no then his statue should come down. If the answer is yes tell me what that is. I am not aware of Cornwallis’ virtue apart from being the leader in his time. There were many such leaders then. What makes Cornwallis stand out? I think Churchill should stay, he is a human after all and in spite of his mistakes, which we all make, he did some amazing thing and spoke some amazing words of hope. When I am down some of the words I use to inspire me are Churchill.

We all need images to inspire us to hope. Let’s see if there aren’t more diverse images for our increasingly diverse community.

Follower Leaders

“All of us who want to make a difference need to learn how to be follower leaders — to use our positions and our privilege and access to money in a way that actually bolsters the initiative that the families take. But not to lead. It’s hard to stand back and trust families. But this change in perspective — to respect poor people — is what this country needs right now.” David Bornstein

In this New York Times column author David Bornstein gives us a glimpse of what it takes to move from despair to contentment. The larger argument made is this, if you approach people with a “one size fits all” solution people will inevitably shift their narrative to suit the criteria. Thus in matters of poverty a family living without resources or hope will shape the narrative they tell themselves and others to receive the largest benefit. The author makes the point that the outcome of such a delivery of programs to assist the poor is persons and families believing they are without talent, without ideas and without initiative. If a system offers you only one way out of your troubles and the system tells you that THEY know best and demands you conform to it the only conclusion can be that THEY have the answers and I do not.

The solution favoured by this column is clear, bring people together, see what they are doing that works and share the successes with the larger group you are trying to assist. The idea is that success breeds success, if someone in poverty hears that a neighbor is trying X and it is working s/he will likely do likewise. And what that neighbor does that makes a difference can be shared with another, and so on. The human condition is to adapt and experiment with what works. In the approach of this column the government is less the solution maker and decider and more a facilitator and communicator. Governments can provide resources to those who need something to make THEIR idea come to fruition. But the government is not providing the answers, only sharing what works and helping people live into their ideas.

There is also a strong statement about leadership, that leaders in this approach are not people who impose their solutions, they “stand back” and allow solutions to emerge and then facilitate the living out and the sharing of these ideas. Such a leader would not be recognized as a leader in our current culture, we value persons who impose their will, make thing happens, compete to get what they want. “Follower leaders” are not weak and easily led, rather they are listeners, making themselves aware of what good ideas are already in the room. Follower leaders are not people who put their finger in the air or procrastinators who wait for things to happen, they actively search for ideas, record ideas, find out what ideas are working and for whom, let others know what is working and then encourage people facing challenges to try what others in the office, in the neighbourhood, are doing.

The ideas, the solutions, are there in our communities, what is required from leaders is to find out which ones are working and celebrate them, resource them, encourage them.

Music is a healing

A colleague and good friend wrote me the other day to ask about a song I was teaching the congregation. The words were “Are you feeling. Are you feeling, Pain and stress, Pain and stress, Music is a healing, Music is a healing, Amen, Amen.” He didn’t think it sounded like me, something I would do. I assume this impression of his of me was formed because I am not known for being overly “warm and fuzzy”, that my style of pastoral care tends to be more acts of kindness, caring and connections than sentiment and emotion. He has a point but I as I pointed out to him “music is a healing”, in my life, and more importantly, in the lives of most everyone I know. I sat with a person yesterday who was going through great stress, emotional turmoil and pain, and out of the blue she began to sing. She looked at me and said, “Music is a healing” and smiled. She had learned the song and knew its truth.

Not long ago I endured a car accident. Anyone who knows me well understands THE most traumatic events in my life are car incidents. It’s been hard to “get back to normal”, to breathe, and to be like nothing happened. The sources of healing for me have been nature, landscape, walking (per usual), being with my wife and daughter, going to bed early, helping others, and trying to be attentive in each and every encounter. The latter is so challenging as in anxiety my temptation is to skip ahead and move on, to bypass anything that stands in the way of “getting through this”. And yet by being present in a calm, measured, relational and caring way I receive a healing that super-speed, anxiety fueled, manic behavior cannot replicate.

As I guessed compliments, affirmation, assurances, these are not healing. I live with a fear that my own incompetence with the things that everyone takes for granted; driving being one, will eventually undermine everything in my life. That’s where faith comes in, I need to breathe in the Spirit, the Spirit that connects me to what is truly important, the Spirit that reminds me that such incidents can be wake up calls to be present, attentive, and not to rush through everything. When things are good for me I tend to move and think faster and faster and miss the moment. Interruptions, especially unpleasant ones, bring me back to what is important and the need to be open hearted and open minded to the incident that is unfolding in front of me.

It’s not so much that I need to slow down, I think that critique is often leveled by those who feel defensive that they don’t go at the same speed, are irritated by my energy, but it is important to take time to smell, hear, feel, connect. That is why music and nature are a healing, they come to us in moments that require savoring and embracing. I work hard, move fast, process quickly, but I sometimes miss those in between moments that connect all the good works and good experiences that come my way.

So “Music is a healing”, Nature is a healing” for me. Silence, stopping, relaxing, none of these really heal or work for me. I know they heal others but we need to be true to ourselves and the way God made us. Just stopping offers my own soul nothing restorative but stopping and seeing, stopping and listening, stopping and engaging, these do heal, these do offer hope and new life.

Momentary Afflications

2 Corinthians 4:17-18                                                         

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

Last night I was involved in a car accident. Needless to say I was quite shaken by the experience. I find myself being acutely aware of everything; my voice, my walking, every sound around me, especially the sound of cars. I am an anxious driver so this will not help. But it reminded me of two important things; 1) that there are so many more important things in life than what we spend so much time worrying about and 2) there are so many others in our world going through their own anxiety and I feel compelled this morning to call each and every one of them and tell them I am thinking/praying about them.

This sense of proportion and empathy are crucial to healing in times of crisis. There is always the temptation to take one’s own troubles and feel they are the only thing going on at the time. I sat in my room last night watching my daughter draw and realized that there is what I truly care about, that nothing else even comes close. Cars can come and go but these relationships are what matters. The other realization hit me this morning when I realized how many people in the church deal with pain, grief, loss of a magnitude that a non-fatal car accident cannot compare to. Perspective is so important to me in my healing and coming to terms with challenges. I need to see what I am experiencing in relation to the world around me, not the “others have it so much worse than me” but rather how big is this challenge I am facing. Sometimes these challenges are big, huge even, and sometimes they are big in terms of a day or a week. Knowing the difference helps with the coping.

Not to minimize our challenges, I am so stressed right now and someone telling me, “It’s all in your head, shake yourself” would NOT be helpful. I don’t want to hear that or say that to others. But I can say it to myself, I can be aware of what is going on around ME, I can take that responsibility to engage my own anxiety and weight it accordingly. I know car driving and mishaps are my nemesis and that is not going to change, least of all when others tell me it’s all “in your head.” But allowing myself to feel the anxiety while at the same time knowing another day, another week, will change this perspective, is helpful.

We can only see what is temporary and thus our view is always narrow and particular. Still it is our view and God loves each and every one of us. We all need to learn to care for ourselves in the unique ways we know that works. But part of moving forward is connecting our challenges to the broader story of humanity. If I face a life threatening illness that is an existential threat, if my daughter or wife are ill in a serious way that too is existential. If our planet is heating up to the point of no return or civil society is about to fall into anarchy, that too is existential. But other challenges that particularly unnerve us need to be understood in a larger context.

Thy Kingdom Come

Last Sunday night we were discussing the Lord’s Prayer at Brunswick Street United Church and the person sitting next to me leaned in and said, “When we live out the justice and love God intended us to embody as a community, as a world, we find the Lord’s Prayer alive and real.” He looked me in the eyes and repeated, “Thy Kingdom Come.” Indeed.

This was NOT the image I carried of the Lord’s Prayer when I was a child, an adolescent or an adult. Throughout most of my life when I heard the expression, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven” I was aware of two different interpretations. On one hand there were those I called the “escapists” who believed that one day, in the sweet by and by, all injustices would be made right. Thy Kingdom would come, but not until the next life, Heaven, and we could only wait with eager anticipation for that utopia to come true. To those living through slavery, drudgery, a painful life, such a conception of Thy Kingdom come must have felt like a Divine escape, to leave behind the wretchedness of the now for the beauty and truth of tomorrow.

But the more familiar and attractive interpretation of Thy Kingdom come was summed up in Tommy Douglas’ familiar speech, “To build a New Jerusalem”, that is naming our task as the building of this New Jerusalem, God’s Kingdom, brick by brick, until one day the world we know with all its warts will be that shining city on a hill imagined by Jesus himself. That is what I thought of when I repeated the Lord’s Prayer, reciting the line “Thy Kingdom come”, that one day we will get there. Martin Luther King Jr. would often say that “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice.”

When I was in seminary studying to become a Minister the dominant theology of the time for mainline churches was Liberation Theology. To sum up Liberation Theology believes that God is not neutral in the world, God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. If you want to understand where God is in the world you need only look for the poor and oppressed and find God on their side. And this theology fit well with my notion of Thy Kingdom come being built, one brick at a time, one social change at a time, one economic change at a time, until one day, perhaps quite some time in the future, our great, great, great grandchildren would live to see the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, become a reality.

I asked a former colleague of mine who once worked in a very economically challenged country, a place known as a hotbed of Liberation Theology in the 1980’s, why churches there were turning their backs on Liberation Theology and instead focusing on that uniquely American theology called the Prosperity Gospel. His answer surprised me, he said that if you were a very poor family and one group of Christians came along and told you that one day God would liberate you and all of the poor of this land but not for many generations and another group of Christians came along and said if you believe in the literal truth of the Bible, if you believe God has a plan for you to be wealthy, if you work hard, be loyal to your family, you can escape poverty now, which group of Christians do you think the poor family will join? The truth is whatever you think of a theology that suggests God wants everyone to be wealthy by asking the people to work hard and be loyal to their families this group of Christians is suggesting a small change in behavior that can make some difference in a family’s livelihood, wealth or no wealth. People crave the presence of the Kingdom now, in their lifetime.

It was about that time I came to read Tom Wright’s and William Willimon/Stanley Hauerwas’ books on The Lord’s Prayer and the way they interpreted the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God was not as escape from the ugliness of present times or the long wait for the coming New Jerusalem. Rather it was an event, an experience that occurred when Jesus was alive, when the presence of Jesus came among us and we celebrated together as God’s people. Jesus had told us that he would be present in the sacred meal, in the people as we shared in a gathering that turned the wisdom of our present world on its head.

Wright points out that the people in Jesus’ time were searching for a King and for a Kingdom. “Jesus contemporaries were longing for God to become King. They were fed up with the other kings they’d had for long enough. As far as they were concerned the Roman Emperors were a curse, and the Herodian dynasty was a joke. It was time for the true God, the true King, to step into history, to take the power and the glory, and claim the Kingdom in God’s holy name.” And this anticipation of a King and a Kingdom had long been foretold, hear Isaiah, “There will be a highway in the wilderness; the valleys and mountains will be flattened out; the glory of God shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Jesus took Isaiah’s kingdom-message and set about implementing it. Somehow Jesus seemed to be saying, through his strange work the kingdom was appearing, even though it didn’t look like people had imagined.

And how do we know that Jesus and his Kingdom is present in our world?  William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas write, “When we see Jesus healing people, casting out demons, we are to know that the kingdom of God has come upon you. Mark 1:14-15 says Now after John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news. Faith in Jesus is not simply an idea or emotion, it is a concrete reality that we are joining forces with.” In times of inclusive celebration, in times of healing, in times of unexpected good news, we experience the Kingdom.

Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that how we practice our citizenship in this kingdom is as important as the oath we take to join it. “To say Your Kingdom come, is to be willing to become part of the rather weird gathering of strange people, often people whom the world regards as outsiders, who are now in the inside with Jesus. One of the most persistent criticisms of Jesus was the charge that he hung out with disreputable people. Hear Matthew 9:10-13 (The Message) Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?” Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”

You know that Jesus wants us to build this kingdom now. You know from every chapter in the Gospels, from the Book of Acts, that Jesus wants us a Christians to be participants in the cause of justice, to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed, to set the captives free. But as we work for the Kingdom to be real to more and more people surely we can take the time to experience Thy Kingdom come now, on earth as it is in Heaven.

My friends I have seen this Kingdom alive here at Bethany. Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven has come to this little piece of earth and you and I have seen it with our own eyes. Perhaps you have something else in mind, perhaps you’ve been looking for what our world calls Thy Kingdom come and thus you are missing the Kingdom as it has come alive here and now. Perhaps you’re looking for a full church, full of the right people, with a full choir and shiny well-kept building, where everything matches and everything is just so. But I imagine Thy Kingdom come right here on earth as it is in Heaven when someone loses a loved one and the church is there to offer unconditional, sustaining and unrelenting love. I’ve seen this Kingdom come when someone who did not look like or talk like most of our church community walked into a Christmas service and you treated him like a brother. I’ve seen this Kingdom come when a group of 40+ amateurs came together to be in a play, filling all of us with a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves. And I’ve seen this Kingdom come at the early Christmas Eve service when the most amazing readers in church you’ve ever heard bring the story of Mary and Joseph to life.

I leave you with the words of Willimon and Hauerwas, “The Christian faith is kingdom based, always leaning into the future, standing on tiptoes, eager to see what God is bringing to birth among us.” Amen.

The Surprise of the Holy Spirit

How do you know when an opportunity is more than a chance to do something positive, that could be the work of the Holy Spirit? My evangelical friends often point to a pattern of behavior or experience that I might call a series of coincidences. Where I might see random chance they would see the hand of the Holy Spirit. My rational side has trouble going that far, I ask myself, “Is this really how God would get my attention?” Moreover what about all the times when chance lines up in this fashion and nothing happens? If there is no sudden “aha” moment that comes after the pattern does that mean I somehow failed to impress God I was ready?

I am a rational person but the older I get the more I understand that there is much we humans do not understand. In an odd way the more advanced we become as a society the more obvious it is that we are limited in our assessment of what is truly going on around us. I think there is an energy of the Spirit that is all around us. And things happen that I can neither explain nor control. As I age I accept what I don’t know, what I can’t know, far more readily. What I object to when others point to patterns and chance as “signs” of forthcoming Divine action is 1) how much control such a system implies and 2) how fixed these patterns are on one person, divorced from any larger context. Is it really “all about me” with God and can God really be domesticated by these “signs” in such predictable ways? I think not.

I experience the wildness, the unpredictable and the mysteriousness of God all the time and I can see how grace-filled these experiences are by how little control I have over them. Granted living a virtuous life, a life pursuing truth and justice and a life defined by compassion and love can only enhance any experience of the Divine. No one is more focused on right-action than me, working hard to make a better world. But along the way I have learned that these epiphanies of the Spirit, when something just “shows up” in my midst, is a gift and not a reward. My response to such revelations is not to pat myself on the back and say, “Look at me, I must be special to God” but rather to offer thanksgiving to a God who loved me into existence and blesses me with undeserved grace.

The other day a face and name I had not encountered in 7 years came back into my life with a request, to support a refugee living in a far-away land. The man doing the asking was a Priest, someone I had partnered with years ago. Now he sat in my office asking if I and others I might know could put our names to a document to bring a refugee to Halifax. This request was more complicated than presented, I knew it would be. In my follow up with the United Church experts I have learned more about the Group of Five Sponsorship rules. And I am praying to the Divine, asking God for guidance.

This experience was not triggered by a series of coincidences or good works or right belief, rather this encounter just came to me, a phone call followed up by a personal visit. It is all swirling in my head now and I am trying to separate out feelings of guilt and feelings of getting into something over my head from the invitation by the Spirit to do something transformative and life-giving. I may or may not accept this invitation, it may or may not prove to be feasible. But the sheer act of this invitation was a gift of the Spirit and for that I give thanks.

labels

Labels are only good for cans. That’s the mantra we use to dismiss and neutralize the use of labels to put peoples in a box, classify them, make them one dimensional. All of us have been labelled and all of us have labelled others. I remember a classic example when I was in seminary. A fellow student of mine, strident in his liberal beliefs, was in full rant mode about the way conservatives label people, calling them wishy-washy and easily led, not standing for or against anything. He was tired of being characterized in this way. And then he said, “Those conservatives, they are so mean, hypocritical, judgmental and limited in their thinking.” “Aren’t you labelling them like they label you” I asked. Of course we are all guilty of this bit of hypocrisy.

When labels are used to close down a conversation, to assume we know the whole story, that the others are misguided and stupid and we are right and clever then we are using categories in a rather convenient way. It’s sheer laziness to plug everyone into a box and use such limited information that the moment you see or talk to or hear someone you know where s/he belongs. Human beings are massive collection of contradictory thoughts and feelings, none us can be so easily assessed. Further, the motivation for this labelling is usually not to understand but to put someone down, to criticize them, usually in front of a like-minded audience.

In these times we are told not to judge and not to label even though we all do. I have long thought the problem is not the labelling or the judging but the lack of humility and wrong motivation, namely wanting to insult or diminish others rather than understand others and ourselves. Surely a worthy human trait is to understand others and thus to have insight into ourselves, to use a testing process to determine what we are seeing and hearing in others and determining what that says about us too. If I want to know the basic thrust of my approach to politics or theology or the workplace or money management or civic engagement the only way to make that determination is to test it by examining how my views compare with those of others. That does not necessarily imply that they are wrong and I am right but it does require me to have an open mind to hear others in their own voice, not the voice I give them that makes them less credible.

A good example of how labels can be helpful is the way my own denomination is struggling now. The United Church of Canada is not just shrinking in numbers, it is currently in an identity crisis. I am more concerned about the latter than the former, I don’t think Jesus was ever concerned about “numbers”. When we see other denominations in a healthier place we may wonder if there are things we can learn from them. Too many of my colleagues dismiss more conservative and evangelical Christians as backward and reactionary. And I have some sympathy for this assessment since many, many conservative and evangelical Christians make equally disparaging remarks about liberal Christians like the UCC. But rather than get into a food fight with each other why not look at the differences and see what is driving them and what the other might have discovered that would be helpful to those of us facing a challenge? For instance I have zero interest in becoming a conservative Christian, it is not what I believe. But I do think the term “evangelical” at its best means the sharing of good news and we liberal Christians need to find authentic ways to share our good news in a pluralistic society.

We need not shift what we believe, that is who we are, but surely how we share what we believe can be examined and examining how others share their news can be helpful. Knowing that others are “evangelicals” and labelling them as such does not mean participating in a gathering of like-minded people where we pile on criticism toward those we don’t agree with. Instead seeing that evangelicals have a way of being and a way of sharing allows us to dig deeper into their world-view and see what parts of that can be helpful to our faith journey. Ideally they could do likewise as they come to terms with their beliefs on climate change and sexual orientation. I think we have learned a lot on those matters and some of my conservative and evangelical Christian friends have admitted to me privately that they want to look at our resources on these issues so they can find their own way forward. Knowing we are different and using a label or two to identify ourselves and others is not about setting up a feud or shouting match. Instead it is just a way to understand each other as we are and finding those things that can be helpful to all of us as we attempt in humility to be God’s people.

When a crisis hits

When the crisis hits where do you go, what do you do, how do you respond? These are questions I have come to experience as a Minister, discovering that a parishioner is going through: a marital separation, a cancer diagnosis, a job loss, a family conflict, bankruptcy, etc… In each of these cases I try to remain calm, listen to the entire story, affirm the worth of the other, share what I have learned from others going through similar crisis, recommend professional help if needed, confess my own limits as a spiritual/pastoral care giver (I am not a professionally trained counselor), listen some more, offer ongoing support, offer to pray with the other if appropriate, check in regularly, occasionally be a truth teller if necessary (ie if a person shares lots and lots of problematic behaviours and asks “why are bad things happening to me???”), and most importantly make it clear that throughout this crisis this person is loved and supported and cared for.

In most cases time heals and with long walks, long talks and good listening the person will live to see a better day. Of course with certain diagnosis that may not be the case and it is important to not offer false hope. I am calm and try to remind the person of the positives that surround her/him in the challenging time but I never say, “It is all going to be fine, you are going to be well and live for a long time to come.” I have heard pastoral care givers share these words and I worry that if they are wrong the person in crisis may never trust again. Further, I worry that such words prevent the other from grasping realities that may require new responses. If the person does receive a terminal diagnosis there may come a time for her/him to turn attention to closure, goodbyes, looking at legacy and if that person remains focused on this promise you have told them, that all is going to return to normal, those important responses may not come to pass.

It is also very important to find the right balance between listening to the other with ears to hear a very unique story and at the same time to listen to common ground where you can legitimately share some of your personal experiences that resonate with the other. It’s a tricky balance, going too far with the uniqueness of the other’s story prevents you from sharing experiences from your life and other’s lives that my give hope to the other. On the other hand sharing “I know exactly what you are feeling” is a dangerous phrase and may well bring you to the arrogant assumption that you know what the other SHOULD do. Whenever I share experiences, mine or others, I always add the caveat that this “might” be helpful, that this was helpful to “him/her/me” but perhaps not applicable to the other, and always, always, always I remind the other that I am not a professional counselor and what I am sharing comes only from a place of experience and humility.

I confess I am a doer so there is always offered to the other at least one tangible “take-away”, ie a phone number of an agency that might help, a book or article  I found helpful, or a support group that may provide some relief. We all care for others in part by using methods we would wish others might care for us. I like “take-aways” provided they are not offered with the word SHOULD in the mix. That word is almost always a way to disqualify your advice to me. I like advice, I like “take-aways”, I like it when others share what worked for them but when I am in a crisis or dilemma I like the qualifying word “might” that confesses humility and openness.

Job Satisfaction

I was asked yesterday, in an email, if I was happy at work. I am enjoying my work, all of it. I offer pastoral care, preaching and administrative leadership in my full time work here at Bethany, Sunday night Bible study leadership and worship leadership at Brunswick Street United Church and employment navigation early morning at local foodbanks in Dartmouth. It’s a busy life and a fulfilling one. Each day I have several goals in mind for my work, some are task oriented, some are long-term, and some are matters that need attention this week. Much of the work I do involves people and relationships and making sure everyone feels affirmed. And there are outcomes that cannot be forgotten along the way that come with deadlines and expectations. And the joy or happiness for me comes through all of this, working at understanding people, the dynamics of groups and the long-term goals of organizations.

Just in case anyone thinks I am being a Pollyanna, looking at the world only in rose coloured glasses I always mention the part of my work I dislike, meetings. I don’t mind the brain-storming kind of meetings that gather good ideas and find common ground between participants for a cogent plan to move forward. But I am inpatient with going “backward”, returning to matters on the agenda already dealt with and going down “rabbit holes”, diverting to matters that are not on the agenda but happen to be issues specific individuals in the group just like to rant about from time to time. I happily indulge and participate myself in such practices one-on-one or at a coffee shop or a pastoral visit but not at a meeting. At meetings I am all business and easily annoyed by those who stray off topic. I do NOT enjoy that aspect of my work.

I think what helps me so much in my job satisfaction is being clear about what I count as success at the end of every day. I know what makes me tick, what makes me happy, what I need to take away from work to experience some kind of meaning. And that satisfaction is knowing I have made a difference. Difference can be measured in many ways; doing something for someone is the easy one, helping someone imagine a new reality is another, working toward a good cause is important, and building momentum toward a more just and compassionate world is never to be underestimated.

It helps so much to be self-aware, to see yourself as others see you. I am keenly aware of the things that frustrate me. I don’t like long meetings and have taken steps to 1) be more patient with the pace of a meeting and 2) step up and be honest about my lack of focus after the meeting has gone on for more than 90 minutes. I am less passive aggressive when I am honest about my limits, and frankly after 90 minutes I am by no means the only person in the room getting frustrated. I find when I speak up I hear from many in the room later that they were feeling the same way but could not say it. I am much, much happier now that I am being more patient in the first 90 minutes and speaking my mind in the “overtime” period. I am also affected by drama and while all churches have drama I am better about leaving the drama alone when there is nothing to do done as it unfolds. Where I used to take on the responsibility to “fix the drama” I now acknowledge that unless the drama becomes a huge distraction or starts affecting the health of the church I can leave it be.

In the end what I need from my workplace is a sense of community, of making a difference and a sense of proportion, that we are not taking ourselves too seriously yet also engaging others with a sense of purpose.

Open Hands

An open hand. That is an image that comes to mind when I think about Jesus. An open hand symbolizes many things; the welcome to the newcomer, the warmth of the familiar, the offer to walk together, the offer to serve, the opportunity to connect, and more. Our hands are not always welcome, sometimes this is because we are not ready, we need time to heal and rest, to work through things. Perhaps we simply cannot be open to a certain person due to the circumstances, the baggage of the past. We pray that someone else can be open to that person we cannot offer relationship to. But we do want to open our hands to others and others want to open their ands to us.

Our faith journey is a relationship and these relationships need a beginning. The open hand is a beginning, a continuation and an offer to restart that which has been delayed or interrupted. Too often we think of the open hand as a symbol of a task, something someone can do for us, something we can do for the other. But deeper than the task is the intent and the spiritual connection and that is what can sustain us throughout our journey. The image of someone or something holding us as we walk through our challenges is what makes life worthwhile. At the end of our life what we recall and treasure are those moments of connections, those relationships that mattered, and those revelations of deep joy when we knew we were part of something much greater than ourselves.

I remember in seminary watching evangelicals and liturgical types opening their hands, palms up, as they sat ready to pray. I had never seen this before, this posture of openness, attention and expectation, when we await the presence of the Divine. I have tried this way of prayer a few times, sometimes it has been very powerful and I have felt the Spirit in an immediate way. Other times it was just so different I was too self-conscious. But more and more I think opening our hands in prayer is a wonderful posture to experience the mystery of being filled with God’s love.

Two scriptures often read at funerals remind me of the open hands; the 23rd Psalm and John 14. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want… The idea of God as a shepherd, leading us, holding our hand, taking us where we need to go but doing so in solidarity and community. An open hand to that spirit is such that we are ready to be guided in our journey. John 14 reminds us that in God’s house there are many rooms. In the early church the reminder of Jesus’ presence was the meal, the house church ate together and then celebrated Jesus with the Eucharist. At the table we arrive with open hands, open hearts and open minds to be filled by the Divine, to be filled by Jesus.

Throughout our day we can remind ourselves, are we opening our hands to others, to God, to the opportunity to be part of what the Spirit offers? I find myself looking at my hands, wondering if they are open or closed, if they offer relationship or distraction, if they demonstrate service or a clenched frustration.

Open our hearts to the presence of Jesus. Amen.

The Sacred Circle

People often ask me what it is like to be at Brunswick Street United Church on a Sunday night from 6-8 pm. What I always say in my response is this, “3/4 weeks of the months it is tremendously stimulating, inspiring and surprising in God’s grace. The other Sunday night can be a little chaotic, everyone talking at once. I get a little frustrated that the wonderful things people are sharing are not being heard by all.” My hunch is that the others in the circle would not share my frustration as disorder and hearing everything everyone else is sharing does not seem to be a concern to anyone but me, otherwise it would be different. Things change when people want them to change. But at the core the Holy Spirit is present in this circle and I believe what makes it so obvious is the personal sharing that arises from the Bible reading for the night.

Let’s take last night as an example. I am leading a 5 week preaching series on The Lord’s Prayer and our first service focused on “Our Father/Mother who art in Heaven.” I shared insights from two books written by authors as well-known as Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon and NT (Tom) Wright. These texts lifted up the importance of the word “Our”, that it is a collective experience of being a Christian to be formed around this prayer. The Lord’s Prayer was one of the formation tools used by the early church, it is documented that it was part of the original church catechism. Again the use this prayer was less a test or a measure of understanding some doctrine and more a means to live into a way of being, that as we say this prayer together we become the people God wants us to be.

As I shared these insights at 6 pm. I quickly transitioned into my question for the circle, “When you say this sacred prayer what is it that you think and/or feel?” The words of Hauerwas/Willimon/Wright ringing in their ear, this very engaged circle of believers and seekers responded with their usual insight and personal sharing. I should say that my personal agenda in these gatherings is to learn how people use these sacred texts and the Christian way to make sense of their lives, particularly when moving through some challenging issues, personally and collectively. But I recognize that that for most of the others the agenda is more raw and emotive, they want to be touched by the care of the others in the group, witness how we care for each other and how the others care for us. In a deep sense that is how church, at its best, is supposed to work and be.

After the time of sharing and reflection based on the Bible reading for the night came to an end we shifted to worship, an order of service that would be familiar to most every church goer. But the difference was that in this context everyone in circle takes a turn in leading a portion of the liturgy. That makes it unique. Purists would not like the editorializing that takes place between sections of the service, sometimes even in the middle of a prayer or hymn someone will just start sharing. In the sermon section I usually share 3 minutes of Biblical exegesis and then through it open to questions and reflections. Sometimes the sharing relates to the theme of our service that night, sometimes we move off topic. But given how organic this community is that “off topic” may represent the real intentions of the Holy Spirit. Who knows where the Spirit will lead us.

Last night questions arose as to what language Jesus spoke and a reflection by one of our participants about a requiem he wrote about the death of hundreds of Koreans in a ferry in 2014, the direct result of corruption. This participant wrote his masterpiece to remember the victims and used the Lord’s Prayer to connect the pastoral nature of grief and what it gives us in times of deep mourning and reflection. He then played the piece on his computer and we all deeply listened, affected profoundly by what we heard. How all of this came to be is a mystery, the Spirit moves where it wills but our gathering, in a circle, does have an impact on our collective experience of the Spirit. It truly makes this prayer, all of our prayers, “Ours”.

Our Father, Who Art in Heaven

One of the crossroads in my life was a period in the late 1980’s when I had just completed six months of work as a Labourer-Teacher in the Canadian north with Frontier College. My work there was to fetch resources for carpenters and iron workers who were building forms for concrete to be poured that would eventually become a large scale Hydro-electric dam. I was paid well for that work but Frontier College placed me there to provide free tutoring on basic literacy for the largely immigrant work force. When that intense experience came to an end I did not know what to do, I had saved all of my income and I could reply on UIC to continue a steady flow of revenue but I had no purpose, no place to go. That’s when my old friend Matt wrote to invite me to live with him and three other Mennonites in downtown Winnipeg.

Matt invited me into his Mennonite world which included Friday night gatherings of young couples, most who had met at the Mennonite Bible College. These persons, all my age, held similar views on matters of faith but their upbringing as Mennonites were all very different than my own in the mainline church. My own experience of faith was largely individual in orientation, I went to a church but the members were not “family”, they were akin to fellow members of a club. I knew them and they knew me and based on what I did and they did we related to each other in doing “the Lord’s work”.

But these Mennonites had grown up a minority in Canada, indeed their feelings about Canada was somewhat mixed. Canada had given them freedom and security but we had not always respected their pacifism. Mennonites saw themselves less as good Canadians and more as Christians, loyal to Jesus above all. Further, their connection to each other was less about a club and more about a world-wide movement. Thus these young people, unlike me, had all given a year or two of service in a global context, not to converting people but to witnessing to their faith by offering their skills in agriculture and public education. These Friday night gatherings were opportunities for these believers to share what they were learning, living out their faith, and putting their gifts into practice in the community, around the world.

I have read two excellent books to try and understand The Lord’s Prayer, one by two of my favorite authors Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon Lord, Teach Us, The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life and the other by Bishop NT (Tom) Wright The Lord & His Prayer. Hauerwas and Willimon spend a lot of their first chapter on the word “Our”, specifically writing about what we mean when we say that word in the prayer. In our mainline churches we often focus on our own individual walk with Jesus and when we think of “us” or “our” we are thinking less of sisters and brothers in Christ and more of those we know, those who are our kin, those in the church we like. They write, “Think of Christianity, not primarily as a set of doctrines, a volunteer organization, or a list of appropriate behaviours. Think of Christianity as naming a journey of a people.”

In other words “Our” is a state of mind, a collective understanding that we are in this together, that we seek to live out, to witness to, our faith. “Our Father, who art in Heaven” is a way of saying that we set out on this journey together, and together we will live out this prayer, this faith, in our community, in our world. Another insight from Hauerwas and Willimon is that the early church used this prayer to instruct new believers in how to live out their faith. Again, these new followers of Jesus would be instructed that they are organically connected to a global, world-wide movement, all of us related by a common parentage in God whom some call Father and some Mother. It is simply not enough to call God my personal Father or Mother, this Holy Parent has many children, myself being only one of them. We are in this together. “Salvation, Christian salvation, is not some individual relationship between me and God. Rather, salvation is being drafted into an adventure, having our lives commandeered by God to go on a journey called the Christian faith. This prayer, this Our Father, is the naming of, and the participation in, the means whereby we are saved.” Regarding other faiths Hauerwas and Willimon are clear, “What God does for Buddhists and Hindus is God’s business. All we can do in the Lord’s Prayer is to testify to God, and anyone else who will listen, how God has dealt with us.”

In short Hauerwas and Willimon want us to understand that when we say “Our” we are not being possessive. The danger in taking the “Our” into our hearts as “Our friends” and “Our country” and “Our family” is that it domesticates our dynamic and transformational God. It is God who has befriended all of us, not we who have chosen God. “It is comforting to know that even though you don’t always feel like a Christian, though you don’t always act like a Christian, much less believe like a Christian, your relationship as a friend of God is not based on what you have felt, done or believed. Rather, you are a friend of God because of God’s choice of you in Jesus through the church…The journey with God is not a test to see if we can make the grade with God and be good enough to be friends with God. The journey with God begins with God in Christ calling us friends, inviting us to go because God wants us to be part of the journey. Friendship with God is the name of the journey rather than the destination.”

Finally, Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that the term “Heaven” with reference to the location of God has an important part to play in how we see Our Mother/Father God as not only our own. “Most of the time it is difficult for us to see much beyond ourselves. God tends to take a larger view. Looking at the world, God’s view is not limited to our national boundaries. Heaven provides a good vantage point for the whole picture.”

Bishop NT (Tom) Wright focuses his attention on this first portion of The Lord’s Prayer on the word “Father”. Wright’s attention to this word has less to do with gender and more to do with what a parent would want for her/his child. Specifically Wright grounds his analysis of this word in the Old Testament, the roots of our faith. “The first occurrence in the Hebrew Bible of the idea of God as Father comes when Moses marches in boldly to stand before the Pharaoh, and says: Thus says Yahweh: Israel is my son, my firstborn, let my people go, that they may serve me (Exodus 4:21-22).” As Wright points out, those the world saw as slaves were in God’s eyes daughters and sons”. If we are all truly children of a living God then no one can hold us down, thwart our freedom to be whom we are called to be, to categorize us in any way that makes us appear less than any other son or daughter of God. “The very first words of the Lord’s Prayer therefore contain within them not just intimacy, but revolution. Not just familiarity; hope.”

As Wright points out, “The word Father, then, concentrates our attention on the doubly revolutionary message and mission of Jesus…we are called to step out; as apprentice children, into a world of pain and darkness.”

My friends our call in this familiar prayer is not to become piously holy or even kinder and gentler or even to find comfort. Our call in this most formative of prayers is to let the words transform us, change us, make us new. This is our prayer, this prayer is for us to say together, in community, in our family of faith. We say this prayer to remind us who and whose we are. This prayer is our passport, it is our identity, and it is our mission, to set the captives free, to be free to serve this God who calls us friend, who calls us son or daughter, who calls us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. “Our Faither/Mother, who art in Heaven”. “We are not alone…we live in God’s world.” Amen.

Inreach/Outreach churches

All churches have an inreach and an outreach character, aspects of their life that lean into caring for each other and offering care and advocacy for the other, in the community, in the world. The vast majority of churches, due to human nature, are inreach focused, that is they race to visit and care for their own. And in a capitalist culture like ours “their own” refers specifically to those who have worked hard in and for the church. Cynics who don’t understand church life commonly make the mistake of thinking churches bend to the wealthy and privileged. It’s true that church members are often impressed and intimated by persons of means but when it comes to the attention and care of the average church member it is the “worker”, the “doer” who attracts the casserole, the visit, the phone call, the card.  

Of course many mainline church clergy are driven to distraction by this bias in church life. Try as they may to motivate a church to care for a vulnerable group in the community, refugees coming into the country, the climate, the common response of church volunteers is “we don’t have resources for that.” Or “Look at our budget, where will we get the money?” BUT if the budget is tight and the church is looking at whether it can afford a Minister of Pastoral Care or can afford an expensive elevator that will allow older members of the church to attend worship then all of a sudden the debate changes, “We must find the money to do this, we owe those who have worked so hard in the church to take care of them.” Now that is an inreach mantra if ever I heard one.

I have served only two churches I would call outreach focused and both were large buildings with large endowments and outreach motivated clergy. Only in those churches did I witness leaders willing to consider the needs of the community on par with their own needs. The Hall, the kitchen, the bathrooms, all would take their share of wear and tear and these leaders would say, “it is the cost of doing business”, meaning that if outreach to the vulnerable in your community is your mission then you have to expect some damage to your building. Again in the vast majority of churches that kind of thinking would be unheard of, a parlour set aside for church meetings would be screened like a hawk, any “outside” group that left a mark in the room would be reprimanded, given a warning, possibly evicted.

The reality of human needs and spiritual mission is this, everyone needs to know that they matter and belong. If you don’t have a community with the spirit of “Cheers”, where everyone knows your name, than what have you got? But, if all you do as a church is care for people who look, act and think exactly like you then what you have is a club, not a church. We can’t care for all of the billions of people on this planet but with prayer and discernment of the gifts the church offers we can become a beacon to some group or cause that is a growing edge for the church, a way for the church to stretch and grow into God’s love.

All churches will find that they lean more to inreach or outreach but hopefully they will be open to possible transforming experiences that allow both to be present. Refugee sponsorship is in many ways the ideal form of both, reaching to the other but deepening a sense of community and togetherness.

It's Not All About Us

I was getting on the shuttle bus into the city yesterday and the bus that pulled up was not the usual smaller, more sleek shuttle but instead the very long city bus. These long city buses are the ones you see every day in the city. The person in front of me as we boarded the bus said, “Oh those buses are so uncomfortable.” This patron and the persons who nodded their heads as she spoke were used to the shuttle bus and its more comfortable seats. But as someone who rides the city buses throughout the day I don’t think those seats are really all that uncomfortable. These seats are the usual means of transportation for people using public transportation in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. In those cities most everyone takes the bus and most everyone is satisfied and comfortable to sit in “those seats.”

What we are dealing with here are two things; 1) what many call First World problems, that is an issue that would only be a challenge in a place where almost all of our needs are being met, in other words in a place with deep social challenges the comfort of the seat for a 30 minute bus ride would be considered frivolous. And 2) we are used to having things our way, in a manner we design and we select. We can go online and select the product we want, in the colour we want, the size we want, we can customize everything and we have come to expect and demand this level of service. I see this all the time as non-profits where middle class people like the ones at my bus stop come and ask/demand a certain service and are appalled they cannot have what they want, when they want it.

Case in point is early December every year. I get calls from such families asking me about a place where their precious teenage children can volunteer and serve “the needy” a Christmas meal. Leaving aside the obvious, which would be why do you need to jam such service into a Christmas experience and not be a volunteer all year long, the coordinators of these centres get frustrated because they need volunteers 51 weeks of the year but are over-supplied with volunteers the week of Christmas. So the coordinator has to tell the parent, “I am afraid there are no openings to serve that week but there are many, many openings the rest of the year.” I usually get the call from the parents afterward with a “Can you believe they don’t have any openings!” We expect what we want, when we want it.

It’s amazing to me how we got here, only two generations ago our forbearers were living through a depression and a war and the break out of terrible contagious diseases and here we are complaining about the comfort of a seat on a bus and the fact our teenage children cannot serve “the needy” on Christmas day. Really?

This is a challenge our liberal churches rarely talk about. The sin of affluence and privilege is a deeply problematic issue for the church, it is a spiritual matter. I take a back to no one on social justice preaching, addressing issues like sexual orientation, income inequality, poverty, racism, climate change, etc… But there is also the matter of privilege and entitlement that is rampant in our culture and unless we take it on we will forever confuse our lifestyle choices with the real injustices of the planet. The unfortunate thing is that while sermons on injustice are meant to make us all look in the mirror and examine our complicity too often the exact opposite occurs and we assume our challenge of privilege is on par with someone facing matters of indignity and disrespect and inadequate resources.

Friends

John 15:15-17

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant[b] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Last night my daughter responded to an idea I floated about a get-together for friends with “Do we have that many friends?” I was stunned. For most of my life I have had many, many friends. For most of my life I sent out 200+ Christmas cards. And these were not superficial relationships, each one was a person I had shared in some deep and meaningful conversations, and we knew we could count on each other. Each one was a person I had reached out to at critical moments of their lives. Each one had regular contact with me and I could tell you exactly what was going on in her or his life. I was connected to many persons I would call friends.

But then I had one of those mid-life moments where everything I did was held up to my own scrutiny. I examined everything I did and wondered whether I should keep it, change it or leave it behind. I decided that maintaining 200+ friendships was a lot of work and that I needed to fill my life with more work that was mission-orientated. I became a parent around this time so that too made time more limited. But the major cause for the shift was one of priorities, I wanted to make it my focus to be about mission work.

This mission-work is neither strictly personal nor cause related. I know people who focus their mission-work on personal acts of kindness, working at a foodbank, a clothing centre, helping children at risk in their community, etc… And I know people who are involved in the struggle around climate change, justice for indigenous peoples, justice for Palestinians, etc… My own mission-work is more existential, that is I ground it in the personal but it is about experiencing the personal as the political or spiritual. I look for the “other”, the “Christ”, the transformational experience, in relationships that fall outside the norm, and seek in those relationships to find moments of Divine presence and order. I feel at one in these moments.

So bringing marginalized peoples into community with those living in the suburbs, creating space and community for those not connected to any community, talking to anyone and everyone on the bus or at shelters about what they find important and where they find meaning, these experiences are my North Star. This is my mission-work and where I feel called to be and do.

So now my deeper connections are with my spouse and daughter, my father, the people who share my passion to connect others into deeper community, and a handful of others who are funny, caring and stimulating. Thus my daughter’s question, whether we have many friends. In John’s Gospel we are told Jesus calls his disciples his friends, and in other scripture we are told Jesus calls his family those who share his mission-work. My friends are those who sit at the table with me and find connections where our culture see us as only strangers. And so it goes…

Considering Our Volunteers

How does the church respond to those who contact us with requests like, “I want my baby done” and “I want a funeral with all the bells and whistles, like Jimmy was a member of the church” and “I want a wedding at the church and perhaps a reception and sound system and…” Long time church members and active adherents see this and blow a fuse. They look at people with tenuous connections to the church taking advantage of the congregation, getting the church to offer lots of services, the building, the staff, for next to nothing. After a time the church will begin to think it is time to create policy, say in writing that members get these services for free and non-members have to pay for them. The sense of satisfaction with this remedy lasts for about a month. That is until persons calling the church tell the office they are members, that the paper work has been lost. And to add insult to injury the long time and active adherent now has to pay for these services. Oops.

I do understand this frustration, though less from a monetary point of view. We simply don’t know why some folks offer limited financial contributions and others are more generous. Even when we assume people have nice homes, drive sturdy cars and have generous pensions we don’t know the total picture, financial demands that may be more onerous than we realize. My view of these offerings by the church is that we do them with grace-filled love and suggest an amount with no strings attached, for everybody, no exceptions. Working in a church, a place inspired by Jesus, is to understand that these kind of challenges are “the cost of doing business”. If you set out to be a witness to a grace-filled love you don’t expect reciprocity, you do what you do in love and hope others will too.

What frustrated me is not the money, it is the lack of consideration. I am a staff person so I expect people to ask me to do things. If a member, adherent, active person, someone who never darkens the door of the church, come to me with a request I try my best to fulfill that request regardless of what the other does or doesn’t do. But I am troubled by how inconsiderate people are of the church volunteers. Imagine taking advantage of a volunteer, 80 years plus, who comes first thing in the morning, lifting chairs, making sandwiches, using their modest pension to pay for things like foodstuffs, so something can come in and demand service. Again, it is not me who I am protective of, I feel responsible for the volunteers who offer their best to assist anyone and everyone who needs the church for a funeral or a wedding or some other event.

So I am bothered when someone comes to the church and expects the service of an events planner, a paid support staff from a hotel, the building to be carried for like a convention center, when in reality they know they are dealing with a church, where the only paid person is the Minister. Is that fair?

In a culture of me-first, where we expect to receive service the way we want it, when we want it, where we can go online and complain when the service is not perfect, it is no surprise we have these kind of behaviours. But it is regrettable and unjust and cause for concern. Further, leaving aside what this kind of demanding attitudes do to others think what it does to the soul of the person making these expectations known? Is it really any way to enjoy life to go around demanding, expecting, without ever offering to be part of a group (people don’t join groups much anymore) ourselves? I feel for these persons and hope and pray they do come to see the world from other perspectives, in particular the perspective of the one doing the volunteering.