Thursday, October 29, 2015

A little more hope

Me at Kingsport Beach, Nova Scotia
Last week Dean and I were on the East Coast for a few days of leadership meetings for the Atlantic Vineyard Churches. It was great to arrive a day early to have some down time: wandering around the Halifax harbour, driving through the Annapolis Valley, stopping at Kingsport Beach, and chilling in front of the fireplace in our historic Bed and Breakfast, originally an army barracks. It was also a real treat to see friends we had not encountered in years and catch up a bit with folks who are dear to our hearts.
I so appreciated the tone of the get-togethers which were focused on gathering together over food and telling stories and praying for each other and worshiping our great God together and listening to the still, small voice of God for each other and not so much on hearing a lot of speakers give talks, great as that can be. On the Friday night, I was sitting meditatively on a couch during worship when I felt that God was offering to teach me how to hope again. Now, I think of myself as a pretty hopeful person in general, but if I am honest with myself, my hope is a bit rusty these days. Many times I find myself retreating to a pretty safe place of faith; a place of careful, tentative prayers. I ask God to heal, transform, and upend our society, but expect little to change. I believe that the supernatural intervention of Jesus is going to happen, just not today, and a teaspoon of caution seems necessary to avoid being disappointed time and time again. I am especially aware of the danger of assuring people that God will bring about this change or that change, and then see them sink into despair when nothing appears to happen. I would never want to foist that type of delusional faith on anyone. By default, then, I hope for very little. So, yeah, my hope might be a little rusty. My response that Friday night to the divine invitation to hope was Yes, God. Teach me what hope is.

Being a student, the first thing I did was look up the definition. The Greek word for hope is elpis and it refers to confidence, trust, expectation. Confidence is a hard one for me. Do I have confidence in God? Yes, but often that translates to just speaking well of God (confidence in his goodness, love, grace, forgiveness) and not confidence that God can disrupt life as we know it. Basically, I am talking about miracles. I have been witness to few of them, but know well the transformative power of slow, faithful love and surrender over time. So that is my go-to hope: that all this will not be in vain, that it is all heading somewhere good. I don't mean to diminish long-term, gradual change, but that's not the only dynamic we see in the ministry of Jesus.

As I continued to read the definition of elpis, I came across its origin: from elpo: to anticipate, welcome. And then (light bulb) I knew what vibrant, healthy hope could look like for me: I could welcome the breath of the Holy Spirit, the touch of the Father, and the power of Jesus' death and resurrection by making a generous space. I did not have to forcefully declare anything, nor name it and claim it, or do any of that other stuff sometimes associated with spiritual authority which, to be honest, always seems slightly disingenuous when I try it. If hope is being welcoming, then I can prepare a place for the movement of the Spirit. I can look out the window for the first glimpse of Jesus (or climb a tree like Zaccheus). I can open the door when Jesus knocks. I can expect that in every situation, I will be surrounded by the God of love and grace.

I admit that, at times, I am a doubting, cynical, negative host. I brace myself for the worst, ready to accept a scenario where most of the invited guests will probably not show up and the food I have prepared will be inadequate and tasteless. I am ready to be disappointed. I half expect the party I have planned to be lackluster and boring, I assume that at some point in the evening I will discover a stain or a rip in my clothes, and someone is sure to break something or spill food on the furniture. As the party progresses (and indeed, far more people come than I expected), I see the dishes pile up and think about how much work there will be in the aftermath. Less people is less mess, really, so I start to resent the guests and their jovial attitude.

Oh, how small and safe my heart can be. How much it resists enlarging. How it clings to safety and comfort. How little it dares to hope. How afraid it is of disappointment. So I ask the Lord of hospitality to teach me to have a welcoming spirit. To say, Yes, come Holy Spirit. You are welcome here. We have been looking and waiting for you. We have prepared a place for you. Come and change us. Come and live in us. Come and bring your healing, your gifts, your wisdom, your life. We open our arms. We run to greet you. Welcome!

"Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you." - Psalm 37:9

Monday, October 19, 2015

The S word: salvation

Image from petapixel.com. Photo by Mary Chind
Last week in an introductory theology class for which I serve as a Teaching Asssitant, the discussion centred around the concept of salvation. For many of us who have heard the word over and over again, it can begin to lose its meaningfulness. As I sat in class and listened, I realised again just how rich and amazing this idea of salvation is. So I decided to talk about the what and how of salvation in our faith community this week. Here is a summary of that talk.

Salvation, according to common usage, is basically "rescue from harm." The theological term for the study of salvation is Soteriology (soter being the Greek word for savior). The biblical names Yeshua, Joshua, and Jesus all mean to rescue, to deliver, to save. If we look at some of the names of God in the Hebrew Bible, we find El-Yeshuati (God of salvation), El-Yeshuatenu (God of our salvation), YHWH Hosheah (Lord saves), and YHWH Yasha (Lord my Savior). These names let us know that these texts are about a God who saves; it is in his very nature and part of his character. Salvation is not just a contingency plan, but part of who God is.

An important question to ask is this: What do we need salvation from? We can distill the answer to two things: sin and death. What is sin? Often that word (especially in evangelical circles) carries a lot of moral heaviness with it, the implication being that sins are actions which are the worst of the worst. However, I believe that sin is best defined as that which separates us from God. It is not the baddest of bad things, not something we measure by degree (one sin being worse than the other), but a reflection of our state as sinners. We make choices that separate us from God. We wander away from God. This is the state of sin. It is the opposite of holiness, and holiness, again, is not moral perfection, but what God is. God is holy. There is no one like God. 

Paul writes: "For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ." (Romans 3, The Message)

Paul is writing about Jews and non-Jews (us and them), but it doesn't take too much effort to translate that to our present context. We, too, often position others as morally inferior to ourselves. Paul's point here is that we are all in the same boat: incapable of living the glorious life which God wants for us. When we are saved from sin, we are no longer prisoners to those situations and actions which separate us from God; we are free! "All your lives you've let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you've started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!" (Romans 6, The Message)

The second thing we need to be rescued from is death. Death is a lack of life (obvious, I know), but when life is equated with the breath of God, with flourishing, with growth, with ongoing transformation and reproduction, then death can be thought of as a downward trajectory. Instead of moving toward life and flourishing, death means we are headed toward decay and destruction. When we are rescued from death, we enter the realm of life! "The thief approaches with malicious intent, looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy; I [Jesus] came to give life with joy and abundance." (John 10, The Voice)

Another way to look at the dynamic of salvation is to think of change. There is a change from slavery to freedom. There is a change from sickness to healing. There is a change from being lost (like a sheep who has wandered off into dangerous territory) to being found. There is a change from the trajectory of death to the trajectory of life. And instead of separation from God, we are connected to God in a loving relationship. Salvation is also adoption: when we are rescued by God, we have a change in identity. No longer are we enemies of God or far away from God, we are children of God (an intimate relationship). Salvation is also justification, which is a change in legal status; instead of being guilty, God forgives us through Jesus and declares us not guilty! Salvation can also be described as redemption, a transaction which releases something or someone. In the first century, it was not uncommon for someone who was in debt (and had no resources) to sell themselves into slavery in order to pay that debt. That slave could be redeemed (released from slavery) by someone coming to their aid, their rescue, and paying for their freedom by wiping out the debt. 

It is important to remember that salvation, God rescuing us, happens in the context of covenant. As we saw earlier, God is a saving God, it is in his nature to save and redeem and restore. The covenant(s) which God established with people like Noah, Abraham, and David were all invitations to be connected in loving, ongoing, faithful relationship. Even though history shows how humanity broke those covenants, God never gave up, never stopped desiring loving connection. Because God saves, God continues to offer covenant through Jesus. That's who God is, a saving God. 

How does salvation happen? Through sacrifice, which is love that gives itself for another. Through victory, which is love that overcomes all obstacles. Through forgiveness, which is love that brings wholeness back to creation. In 1526, William Tyndale was translating the Bible into English and noticed that the language was lacking a word for reconciliation, so he invented one: atonement. It means a coming together of that which has been separated: at-one-ment. The atoning action of God is at its peak in Jesus Christ. When God united divinity and humanity into one person, God affected a rescue which changes everything. We no longer need to be separated from him. We no longer need to be prisoners of hate, fear, addiction, pride, greed, selfishness, etc. We are saved. We are found. We are free. This once for all act (Jesus's sacrificial death) means that we have salvation available to us all the time. 

In the story of Zacchaeus, we read about a despised tax collector who stole from people as part of his livelihood. Jesus saw him in a tree, looking for Jesus, and said to him, "I am coming to your house." Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into home and, overwhelmed by the presence of compassion and love in Jesus, embraced the offer of rescue. He renounced his thieving ways and became part of a vibrant community of Jesus-followers, no longer an outcast. Jesus said, "Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.” In these few statements, we see the context of covenant (son of Abraham), the initiation of God to rescue the lost, and the restoration of one who was a sinner (on the outside, separated from God), a prisoner to greed (heading down the trajectory of death). The change from death to life, from slave to free, was there for all to witness. 

Sometimes we think of salvation as that one-time prayer we say to accept Jesus into our life and surrender ourselves to God. I don't know about you, but I need saving every day. I need to be rescued from hopeless places in my life. I need to be connected to God again, every morning, afternoon, and evening. Salvation is not a one-time event; it is ongoing. We always need to be rescued from sin and death, we always need God's grace to take us off the trajectory of destruction and decay and place us on a pathway to flourishing and transformation. God, through Jesus, offers us salvation every moment of the day, because that's the kind of God he is: a saving God. 

Let that word, salvation, cause our hearts to leap every time we think about it, hear it, read it, or say it, for it reveals the never ending, loving action of our God, a God who never gives up on us. 

Just for fun: Rescue Me by Fontella Bass

Friday, October 16, 2015

when enthusiasm goes missing...

Image result for why am i doing this
Image from secondlook2nd.blogspot.com
It has been great to be back in the classroom this fall after months of sitting alone at my desk and writing, drinking vast amounts of tea, and trying not to pull my hair out. This term I get to serve as a Teaching Assistant for Introduction to Theology. I love being in a supportive role for both students and the professor, but it was a bit of a rough start.

I remember coming to the first class in early September and for the first time in my life (as long as I can remember), not being super excited about the beginning of the school year. I didn't even take the traditional first day of school photo. I was just tired, fatigued by the ongoing demand for high level, innovative, scholarly output and the exceptional dedication required by the multitude of tasks on my schedule. I was depleted by a summer spent wringing words onto the page day after day without any real break. I felt the constant, weighty pressure of finishing my doctoral dissertation, sitting like a yoke on my neck. That first day of school, all I could muster was a lukewarm smile. The fact that the class happened really early in the morning in a subterranean, windowless classroom three flights of stairs away from the open sky didn't help matters any.

I watched the students enter the classroom that first day, some timid, some overly confident, some confused, some lacking motivation, but many eager and open and ready to learn. And then the professor started talking about theology, the study of God. You know, a strange thing happens when you talk about God; he draws near. I don't remember exactly what the professor said, no doubt it was all stuff I had heard before, but as the lecture went on, my weary heart began to be warmed. I again felt the ache that accompanies beauty and revelation and I found myself once again leaning into the divine mysteries. I remembered why I loved theology: not because it was interesting or challenging or helpful in my role as a pastoral leader, but because it beckoned me to come and be amazed. Admittedly, theological studies is not the most practical discipline. I don't often hear the phrase, "The world needs more theologians!" I don't know exactly where my studies will lead me in the long run, and there are definitely challenges ahead in finding gainful, suitable employment, but theology is where I live and die and then come back to life.

Frederick Buechner writes about the complex dynamics of a call to ministry. I feel the same way about my relationship to theology and have added my words to Buechner's below, adapting them to my particular setting:

"I hear you are entering the ministry [studying theology]," the woman said down the long table, meaning no real harm. "Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?" And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else's. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring in the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery [at the sound of God being misrepresented]. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and could not even name the name for sure. [Jesus said] Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden [unsure of the meaning of life, unsure if you can ever please God or yourself or anyone else for that matter] and I will give you a high and driving peace [beyond any form of human critical reason or understanding].'" (from The Alphabet of Grace)

I am still weary and somewhat heavy laden this term as I try to finish up my dissertation, help students understand theology, assist my professor with organising some theological events, teach in my faith community, and attempt to walk lovingly with people on their spiritual journey. But I hear the words, "Come to me," and I try to follow the sound of that voice, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. 

Thursday, October 01, 2015

hospitality challenge

Image result for empty plate
Image from medicaldaily.com
On Saturday I will be presenting a paper at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association conference. My topic is Theological Hospitality, and (spoiler alert) my main point is that we are all guests at the theological table, that we speak about God not from a place of ownership but as outsiders who have graciously been given access to divine mysteries. In light of this, we should adopt the same posture toward any who may act, think, and believe differently than we do about theological matters.

I love the idea of hospitality, of being open to others in personal, physical, and spiritual ways, but in practice, I find it rather difficult. Part of my research for the paper led me to a book by Jessica Wrobleski (The Limits of Hospitality) which cites several works by Henri Nouwen on the subject.  Because we are imperfect human beings dealing with other imperfect human beings, there is no such thing as totally safe or foolproof hospitality, but Nouwen offers wisdom on how to adopt a hospitable posture (which means embracing vulnerability and risk) in a grounded way.

He states that hospitality "requires first of all that the host feel at home in his own house." [1] This means that self-rejection, self-judgment, self-criticism, and complaining about our status in life make us inhospitable people; these habits keep us from making space for others. If we do not feel safe or welcome or comfortable in our own world, our own skin, how can invite others to share that space which we perceive as cramped and inadequate? Gratitude opens us up to the richness of God's abundant goodness, even in the most humble of circumstances, and reveals how much we have to give, to share, to celebrate. Nouwen writes that our most important movement is "not a movement from weakness to power, but a movement in which we can become less and less fearful and more and more open to the other and his world. This movement, allowing us to receive instead of to conquer, is the movement from hostility to hospitality." [2]

Celebration is another important part of hospitality, and Nouwen indicates that hospitality should create a space for guests "to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language without fear." [3]

However, hospitality is not absolute openness or some form of passivity. Nouwen recognises that both receptivity and what he terms "confrontation" are necessary in hospitality. The receptivity creates the friendly space for strangers to be themselves, while the "confrontation" (not aggression) is the articulate presence of the host, the particular context of their home and their unique identity. The guest is welcomed not with empty walls, nondescript food, and a neutral personality, but a decor which reflects the taste of the host, a meal which displays the host's culinary preferences, and the opinions, attitudes, and viewpoints unique to the host. The "confrontation" is between two (or more) distinct personalities and this encounter is where things can sometimes get uncomfortable, but it also has great potential. Nouwen insists that the purpose of hospitality is "to offer a free and friendly space where change can take place." [4]

This is the scary part of hospitality for me: not the hard work involved in making meals and cleaning rooms and washing bedding, not even the time it takes away from work, the invasion of my home office, or the high level of social exertion required on my part. No, the scary part is that when I invite someone to share my world, when I invite them into my safe and comfortable space, I must be willing to be changed.

Hospitality is not simply giving someone a meal or a bed while keeping a professional distance from them. Neither is it offering a service to someone as if they are a client or a customer. Hospitality has the potential to change relationships between two human beings. It can turn a stranger into an honoured guest and an enemy into a friend. We never know what will happen when we extend a welcome to someone, when we open our lives and our homes and our dinner tables up to others. But we are called to practice hospitality because this is what Jesus did for us. When we were unattractive sinners, when we were unworthy outsiders, when we were making bad life decisions, when we were contentious and hard to get along with, when we were angry and sad and bitter, he invited us to sit as his table and taste his sweet goodness. How can we not do the same for others?

[1] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday/Image Books, 1979), 89.
[2] Henri Nouwen, "Hospitality," in On Hospitality and Other Matters, Monastic Studies 10 (Pine City, NY: Mount Savior Monastery, 1974), 3.
[3] Nouwen, Wounded Healer, 91-92.
[4] Nouwen, "Hospitality," 8.