Tuesday, April 18, 2017

what is salvation?


Why is Easter important? It is arguably the high point of the Christian calendar, celebrating Jesus' victory over death and sin. It is also a time of fulfillment in which darkness gives way to light, death gives way to life, the kingdom of earth gives way to the kingdom of God, and the final sacrifice for sin is offered. But what exactly happened when Jesus died and was resurrected?

The Christian church has many ways of explaining or illustrating the saving work of Christ. The Orthodox Icon of the Resurrection pictured above (there are several versions) is one of the most celebrated icons in the church. Icons, in addition to being invitations to prayer, are meant to be instructive. Here we see the risen Christ descending to Hades, grabbing Adam and Eve by the wrists, and raising them from their tombs. The position of Christ's hands denotes that the two being raised have no active part in the process; the work is all Christ's. The doors (gates), chains, and keys underneath Christ's feet represent him freeing those held captive to sin and death. The figures to each side of Christ include John the Baptist and Moses, and stand for all those awaiting the coming of the Messiah.

Another pictorial representation of salvation is found in the diagram below. Here we see a great chasm between a holy God and sinful humanity and Christ acting as a bridge between the two.
Image from preceptaustin.org
Note that the human figure is about to walk over the Jesus-bridge to the holy God. This is a bit of a problem, theologically, because God in Christ is the one who comes to us, even while we are in our sinful state. God is not distant and immovable on his holy throne as this diagram suggests, and we are not the ones trying to get to God as this figure is doing. Instead, God is the one seeking us out. One of the names of the Messiah reveals the divine character as "God with us."

Over the centuries, there have been many models of salvation put forth by theologians seeking to explain what happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As with any models or metaphors, they all break down at some point. It is also important to note that most of the models reflect a specific historical context and, because of this, some prove more helpful to us than others. While no one model can adequately depict salvation, I hope that by looking at a variety of them we will develop a better understanding of what happened when Jesus died on the cross and rose again the third day.

Redemption: When something is redeemed, it is bought back. In theological terms, we were slaves to death and sin and Jesus paid the purchase price for our freedom (see Galatians 4:5, Titus 2:14). This model was particularly meaningful to those living in a context of slavery (the first century followers of Jesus). If you were a slave, your life was not your own. However, if someone paid the required price to redeem you, you became a free person, no longer indentured to a master. The metaphor of redemption is about gaining freedom and entering a whole new way of life as a result. If we try to push the metaphor too far by asking, "Whom did Jesus pay? Was it the devil? Was it a just God?" we start to lose the beauty and significance of the word picture. The point of the redemption metaphor is not the transaction, but the freedom that is offered.

Satisfaction: This model of salvation is primarily associated with Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Anselm said that we owe God a debt of honour which we are incapable of giving him, but through Jesus, God is honoured and our debt is fulfilled or satisfied (see John 5:22-24). The context for this model was the 11th century when a derivative of tribal law based on a stratified society was in force. In other words, there were various castes (nobility, peasant, serfs) with varying degrees of authority, rights, and freedoms. Loyalty was due to the king and, by default, those who represented the king (nobility). To dishonour the king was akin to treason. Thus, Anselm's model posits God as having the highest demand on human loyalty, a debt of fealty which we are incapable of honouring. This model echoes the political nature of the phrase uttered by the early believers, "Jesus is Lord," which directly confronted the authority of Caesar. Today, it would be similar to saying Jesus is President or Jesus is Prime Minister. The satisfaction model does not have much traction in the Protestant tradition, perhaps because sin and guilt do not feature prominently. Interestingly, Anselm was exiled for resisting King William II and King Henry I on issues having to do with the authority of the monarch over church matters. The point of this model is that "Jesus is Lord" has significant ramifications in the life of the believer.

Penal Substitution: In this model, Jesus is punished in our place in order to satisfy God's justice and holiness. God as judge can justly declare a person righteous by imputing the righteousness of Jesus to the believer (see Romans 4:5, 8:30-33). This view is common among evangelicals and has its roots in the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin (1509-1564), a trained lawyer, believed that a juridical setting was helpful to explain the workings of salvation. This model has its weaknesses theologically, mainly because everything centres around a justice system which even God seems subject to. It is also problematic to make judgment the prime motivation behind Jesus' sacrifice instead of love (see John 3:16-17). We do find judicial language in the scriptures to describe salvation, but the law is only one of many metaphors used to illuminate the mystery of salvation through Christ. Pushing the metaphor too far results in mercy, love, and grace being virtually eliminated due to the view that salvation is a dispassionate court transaction. The point of this model is that the status of the believer changes from condemned to righteous.

Reconciliation: This model focuses on bringing an estranged people back into relationship with God (see Romans 5:10-11, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). The context here is the Old Covenant giving way to the next chapter in the story, the New Covenant. When Jesus died, the tearing of the temple curtain signaled that the way to God was open. Instead of the Holy of Holies being the locus of God's presence, the people of God were to be the house of God, carrying his presence through the Spirit of Jesus. This model has some similarity to the diagram above where Christ is the bridge to God, but we must be careful not to push the separation of God and humanity too far. The Psalmist reminds us that we cannot flee from the presence of God. We must also be careful not to dismiss the ongoing reconciling initiative of God or assume that God turns his back on sinners. Even when we were in sin, God showed his love for us (see Romans 5:8). The point of this model is the generous offer of reconciliation which God never withdraws.

Rescue: The language of rescue is common in our talk of salvation. Jesus rescues or saves us from sin and death (see Romans 5:9, 1 Timothy 1:15, 2 Timothy 1:9). It is important to remember that the Jews of Jesus' time were under oppressive Roman rule. They were desperate for a Saviour because their religion, their liberty, and their safety were under constant threat. They longed to be free in their own land, free to worship their own God and work for the well-being of their own families. The oppressed respond to the story of Jesus quite differently than those who enjoy the privileges of freedom, safety, and plenty. Instead of viewing the suffering and death of Jesus as a blip on the way to a grand and victorious resurrection, our brothers and sisters who suffer see the solidarity of God in the agony of the cross. Jesus not only knows what they endure but endures it with them. He does not turn his back on the undesirables but joins them as one of the despised, one of the outcasts. One possible weakness of this model is that we can see salvation as a one-time, dramatic event instead of an ongoing process of transformation. The point of this model is moving from a life under threat to a life of shalom.

Though the language of all the above models (and this list is by no means exhaustive) can be found in the biblical texts, no one model manages to capture the depth and mystery of the saving work of Christ. However, there is one model which I believe is highly resonant for our time and context, and that is the model of participation. 

Participation: In this model of salvation, the emphasis is not on a debt to be paid or justice being served, but on receiving a gift from a loving and generous God. The starting point is not God (or the devil) demanding payment or punishment. Instead, we begin with a good Creator inviting all of creation to participate in loving relationship with the Creator and with the rest of creation. Throughout history, in one way or another, humanity refuses this generous offer of participation and we find ourselves separated from God. This means we are separated from life, from love, from peace, from goodness. It seems like God has forsaken us, left us to suffer and die, but the God of life never stops offering participation in his life. At the cross, Christ entered fully into humanity (pain, suffering, death) so that we, in turn, might share in the light and life and holiness and righteousness of Christ. Christ's participation in our life invites our participation in his so that we no longer have to live separated from God but can receive the gift of Emmanuel, God with us (see John 15:1-17).

In this model, resurrection is not seen as an act of power (good triumphs over evil) but of love. Love goes to the deepest and darkest corners of life, love finds the lowest places, love suffers and endures it all, but love cannot be kept down, cannot be killed. I find it helpful to think of a trampoline. Love comes tumbling down from the sky like a giant ball. It hits the fabric of life's trampoline and goes down, down, down, all the way to the bottom where suffering and death lurk, and when the giant ball of love has touched the very lowest point, crushing the ugly netherworld, it rises. This is what love was made to do. Love was made to go down low and come back up. You could call resurrection a giant love bounce. 

When we think of salvation, let us think in terms of gift, not transaction. In terms of love, not power or victory. It is interesting to note that after Jesus rose from the dead, he did not greet his disciples with exclamations of victory or proclamations of power. He said, "Peace (wholeness, completeness, security, flourishing, contentment, friendship, harmony) be with you." That peace sustained the disciples through persecution, hardship, and martyrdom. They said Yes to Jesus' invitation to participate in his life of love and sacrifice.

What Jesus did, what God did, what the Spirit does are all birthed out of love. Justice and judgment are aspects of love, not counterbalances to love. Love defines justice. Love is what makes justice just. Love never fails.

Thanks be to God for the gift of love through Jesus Christ.
In death, in life, Jesus is present with us.
Sin cannot snuff out love.
Love always burns bright.
Even death cannot destroy love.
Love always remains. 
For God expressed His love for the world in this way: He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not face everlasting destruction, but will have everlasting life. Here’s the point. God didn’t send His Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction. (John 3:16-17, The Voice) 
Love is here.
Let love have his way in us today.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

when words fail...

Image from sundayisforlovers.wordpress.com
Words. Words. Words.
Sometimes I tire of them.
Well... that's not exactly true.
I do not tire of them as much as I lose my grip on them.
And then they tumble down, untethered from significance and meaning and emotion.
They become husks without seeds.
Clothes without a warm body.
Balloons without breath.
Sounds without intelligibility.

I am writing words right now.
This morning I have probably read more words than some will read all day.
I live in the world of words, a world I love.
But for many days now -
Perhaps weeks or months, if I am truthful -
When it comes time to pray, I have few words.
If I am alone, I will sit in silence at my table.
Perhaps light a candle.
Aside from the occasional Thank you 
Or God, you know
Or What  are we doing? 
Not much is said or thought.
If I am with others, I hesitate.
Because anything I might say in the way of prayer seems weak at best and untrue at worst.
I can ask that someone will know that God is with them.
I can say, Help!
And often, that is all I can muster (in honesty) in the public prayer department.
I sit or stand beside people as a form of prayer.
I touch people if that seems appropriate.
I say their name and lift my hands to the sky.
God, you know.

The daily Jewish prayer found in Deuteronomy 6:4-6 begins with the word shema.
It means listen.
Turn your attention to.
Focus on.
Hear and do.
Listening is active.
It requires care-ful and mind-ful devotion.
We turn our bodies and faces and eyes and ears and hearts and minds toward another.
We listen with our whole being...while saying nothing.
We cannot be wordy people and listen well.
And that is perhaps why I have a word shortage right now.
I am learning to listen.
To lean in and hear the divine Lover's breath exhaling and inhaling.
To participate in the unhurried patience of the Longsuffering One.
To hold my breath so I can catch another's hopeful whisper or stifled groan.
To sit still in the midst of trouble and frenzy.
Not cluttering the air with senseless platitudes or advice which is wise only in my own ears.

Listen.
It is an imperative.
A command.
A discipline.
A blessing.
A respite.
A surrender.
A repentance.
An undoing and a doing all in one.
Listen.

-----------------------

Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God. The Lord is the only God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words that I give you today.
(Deuteronomy 6:4-6, God's Word Translation)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

where does community come from?

Image result for community people
Image from makingsociologymatter.com
I recently taught a course on Building Christian Community. We began with our own stories of community done well and community that hurt instead of helped. I heard tales of people showing sacrificial love and generously embracing differences. I also heard stories of pain from fractured relationships, and disappointment with ill-conceived directives from the powers that be. My own experience has shown me that quite often the church does not have a clear idea of what genuine community looks like. Many church communities in the West model the values found in consumer-driven, capitalist contexts, exhibiting an odd mixture of corporate sensibilities and spiritual propaganda.

When it comes to Christian community, our model is the Trinity. Speaking about three persons who are one grates a bit on the logical mind, but the idea of a communal God needs to be understood relationally, not logically. Part of the problem in understanding the idea of Trinity is that we in the Western world believe that the "one-ness" of God holds sway over the "three-ness" of God. This emphasis on one-ness can lead us down some sketchy paths both theologically and practically, because it directs our attention to uniformity instead of complexity, to authority rather than equanimity, to unifying doctrines and creeds instead of the movement of love.

Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff writes: "We believe that God is communion rather than solitude. It is not a 'one' that is primary but the 'three.' The Three come first. Then, because of the intimate relationship between the 'three' comes the 'one' as expressing the unity of the three. Believing in the Trinity means that at the root of everything that exists and subsists there is movement; there is an eternal process of life, of outward movement, of love. Believing in the Trinity means that truth is on the side of communion rather than exclusion; consensus translates truth better than imposition; the participation of many is better than the dictate of a single one. Believing in the Trinity means accepting that everything is related to everything and so makes up one great whole, and that unity comes from a thousand convergences rather than from one factor alone." [1]

What Boff points out here is that beginning with one-ness (insisting on uniformity) perpetuates inadequate models of community and church. It also leaves us with problematic hierarchical forms of leadership and authority. Even more basically, our understanding of Trinity impacts how we interact with those we deem "the other." If we begin with one-ness, we are prone to trying to assimilate those who are not like us.

The mysterious specificity of a community of three is not immediately obvious, especially to those of us who live in a society which champions individuality. Boff explains, "If there were only one Unique One, only one God, solitude would ultimately be all there was. Underlying the whole universe, so diverse and so harmonious, would not be communion but only solitude." [2] If God is One and only ever One, there is no foundation or reason for community, and it makes sense that we are forever doomed to live as fractured humanity futilely trying to impose some sense of uniformity on each other. Boff continues, "If there were two Unique Ones, the Father and the Son, separation would be uppermost. One would be different from the other; and so there would be exclusion; one would not be the other." [2] Separation and exclusion are rife in our society; it is our lived experience. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, noting the differences between us and them, and as a result of these differences, excluding people from our circle of friends. The reason for three-ness becomes clear. "Through the Trinity, the solitude of the One is avoided, the separation of the Two (Father and Son) is also overcome, and the exclusion of one from the other (Father from Son, Son from Father) is overcome. The Trinity allows for communion and inclusion. ... The Trinity shows that underlying everything existing and moving there dwells an impulse of unification, communion, and eternal synthesis of those who are distinct in an infinite, living personal, loving, and absolutely fulfilling whole." [2]

The source of all community is the Trinity: three persons who give themselves to each other with such abandon that one cannot see one without seeing the other. Not one of them comes before the other, they are all first and all last. Their embrace and communication are eternal, having no beginning and no end. Their differences are not erased but celebrated through mutual surrender. "The fundamental characteristic of each divine Person is to be for the others, through the others, with the others, and in the others. Each living Person is eternally vivified by vivifying the others and sharing the life of the others." [3] This is a great and wonderful mystery. And perhaps an even greater mystery is the generous invitation of the Trinity to share in their loving communion, to be one as they are one.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Teach us what it means to live together in community, joined together by your bond of love.

[1] Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity: Blessed Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), xvi.
[2] Boff, 6.
[3] Boff, 48.

Monday, March 06, 2017

what does the cross mean?




Image result for cross coloring
Image from bestcoloringpagesforkids.com
Words which we use a lot can sometimes become divested of their depth of meaning. In the Christian tradition, we talk about the cross a lot. We see visual representations of the cross in prominent places in our gathering spaces, we wear crosses around our necks, some get crosses tattooed on their bodies. The cross is a ubiquitous symbol in Christianity, so lately I have been asking myself, what exactly does the cross mean? For the most part, the cross as portrayed in contemporary Christianity is a beautiful thing, festooned with flowers and sunsets and radiant beams of light (just google cross or cross coloring page). But in the first century, the cross was a symbol of disgrace. To the Roman empire, this ignoble instrument of death was for those who were traitors and enemies of the state. We are many centuries removed from this view of the cross as the locus of torture and death and shame. The fact that Christianity has made the cross a symbol of hope and beauty is a good thing, but perhaps we have also sanitized it from its original scandalous context. 

What I have been pondering in relation to the cross are Jesus's words to his disciples, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34, NRSV) What does it mean to take up your cross? In the midst of mulling over this question, I awoke one morning to find a Lenny Kravitz song running through my mind: Are You Gonna Go My Way? Here are some of the lyrics: 

I was born long ago
I am the chosen I'm the one
I have come to save the day
And I won't leave until I'm done
So that's why you've got to try 
You've got to breathe and have some fun
Though I'm not paid I play this game
And I won't stop until I'm done

But what I really want to know is
Are you gonna go my way?

Kravitz's commentary on the song is enlightening: “I’m singing lines like ‘I was born long ago’ and ‘I’m the chosen I’m the one’, but obviously it’s not about me,” he clarifies. “It’s about Christ, and it’s coming from the Jesus Christ Superstar kind of place. I’m singing in role, y’know, as if it was a musical, and the question means: are you gonna go the way of love? Let’s think about what Christ really said. His methods were all about love. So the question is, are you gonna continue to live in this way, full of hate, or are you gonna live in the way of love? Are you gonna go my way?” – Interview with Lenny Kravitz in Classic Rock Magazine (2011)

Image result for jesus carrying cross passion of the christ
Image from dfiles.me
According to the gospels, going Jesus's way means denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. So let's take a closer look at these three aspects. First, the context. Jesus addresses his disciples with these words after he performs a miracle of feeding thousands of people, after Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is, after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, after Jesus tells his disciples about the suffering, death, and resurrection to come (which his disciples can't comprehend), after Peter rebukes Jesus for saying such things, and after Jesus rebukes Peter for trying to stand in the way of what God is doing. It seems that being a follower of Jesus required some clarification, because even his disciples were misunderstanding what it meant to follow Jesus. 

Deny yourself means to refuse to recognize the self as source. In some way, we disown the self. In other words, it does not own us or call the shots. Take up means to lift something up to carry it, and the implication is that one must first put something aside (the self) in order to be able to take up something else (the cross). The cross refers to the actual physical cross-beam that was carried by a condemned person to the site of their execution. The cross, originally a symbol for suffering and disgrace, became a symbol of infinite love and sacrifice when placed on the shoulders of Jesus the Christ. The word follow comes from the Greek akoloutheo and it joins two words: unity + road. It means to be going in the same way as someone (as Kravitz sings). Perhaps one reason Jesus felt he had to spell this out to his disciples was because they were confused as to what going the way of Jesus looked like.

In his book, The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson contrasts the way of Jesus with the way of several high profile leaders of the time.[1] His points help us understand how radical Jesus's way was and why Jesus's followers (and you and I) find it hard to comprehend and embrace the counter-cultural, counter-self-interest, counter-power structure, counter-control way of Jesus.

Herod vs. Jesus: Peterson observes that Herod was impressive. Herod was effective. Herod was successful. He got things done by importance, bigness, and power. No one did kingdom better than Herod. But Jesus lived as if Herod barely existed. "Jesus ignored the world of power and accomplishment that was brilliantly on display all around him. He chose to work on the margins of society, with unimportant people, giving particular attention to the weak, the disturbed, the powerless" (Peterson, 204). Jesus chose to forgo the pursuit of importance and power. Instead, he focused on relationships which reflected God's love and heart for reconciliation.

Pharisees vs. Jesus: Thousands of years ago, in the face of great pressure for the Jewish people to adopt Greek civilization (laws were passed forbidding Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, temple sacrifices, etc.), the Pharisees rose up to preserve and reinforce the Jewish identity. They did so not only by pushing back against the governmental laws but by also implementing new rules and customs meant to keep the Jewish identity sharp. The Pharisees were passionate protectors, protesting anything they perceived as a threat to their way of life, but they got stuck in protect and protest mode. Jesus did not take his cue from the loyal intensity of the Pharisees. He was not obsessed with purity and precision or rules which defined and defended and regulated. His way was personal and relational, inviting participation from perceived outsiders. Instead of emphasizing purity, he showed people the love and mercy of God. Instead of protecting himself from threats and dangers, he demonstrated trust in God and talked about a kingdom which is greater than any force on earth. 

Caiaphas the High Priest vs. Jesus: Peterson characterizes Caiaphas as impatient with being a servant of God and impatient with God's people. As a result, Caiaphas took control of things. He set himself up as a manager of God's business, doling out salvation and damnation, collecting taxes, and becoming a power player by cozying up to the governing Romans. In this way he was able to enjoy wealth and influence during a time when most Jewish people were outcasts and second-class citizens. However, we must remember that the way of Jesus is not a path to privilege. When the cross-beam landed on Jesus's shoulders, it meant he was headed for death and disgrace. Most of Jesus's disciples eventually walked that same path: they spent their lives discipling others, preaching the good news of the Messiah, healing the sick, and dying horrible deaths because they followed Jesus. Peterson writes: "[Jesus] said 'Follow me' and ended up with a lot of losers. And these losers ended up, through no virtue or talent of their own, becoming saints. Jesus wasn't after the best but the worst. He came to seek and to save the lost" (Peterson, 219).

Zealots vs. Jesus: Zealots have great courage and determination, going to any lengths to aid their cause, even violence. When the opposition is identified (and labeled as evil), they will use force, bullying, manipulating, and even killing in order to gain the victory for their side (which is labelled as good). When faced with unfriendly treatment, two of Jesus's disciples (James and John) asked Jesus, "Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" Jesus rebuked them. His way was to overcome evil with good, not by using force or violence or retaliation. Sadly, church history recounts wars, killings, and devastation incited by zealots who fought in the name of Jesus. For the medieval Crusaders, the cross painted on their shields was not a symbol of sacrificial love, of giving their lives for the sake of others, but a justification for the taking of lives, particularly those deemed heretics. It is easy to condemn the mistakes of the past, but we are guilty as well. "Men and women in our Christian nation are still killing others in the name of Jesus, sometimes with guns, sometimes with words. Do we forget so easily that Jesus equated word-killing and sword-killing (Matt. 5:21-22)? (Peterson, 260). Jesus showed us a merciful and loving God, not a zealot God.

The question, "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" is one that Jesus asks each one of us who would be his followers. Will we unseat ourselves as the centre and source of our lives? Will we refuse to take on the role of protectors of purity and align ourselves with the suffering in the world? Will we offer healing and hope to others through the sacrifice of loving action? Will we stop seeking after importance and power and begin to cultivate relationships with the poor, the needy, the broken? Where we are prone to defensiveness and protest, will we join ourselves to others in a way that demonstrates vulnerability and humility? Will we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus?

----------------

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: a conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Company, 2007)., 


Thursday, February 23, 2017

stained and broken

Image result for stained glass picture
Image from applyityourself.co.uk
Recently, I was asked to speak at another church, and the passage of Scripture which was assigned to me was John 1:6-8. "There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light." (John 1:6-8, Amplified Bible)

The first question I usually ask when reading something in the Bible is this: What does this tell me about God? Two things are immediately obvious - God is a sending God and God wants to communicate - but there is a third which merits a bit more attention. Though God could communicate directly with humanity, sending truth and love to every individual via some divine mind-and-heart-meld, God chooses to send messengers. Not only that, instead of introducing Jesus directly to the world as the main event, an opening, warm-up act appears as a precursor. What is the point of incorporating a witness, a go-between, a messenger? It seems inefficient at best and a recipe for miscommunication at worst.

Perhaps one way to understand the role of a messenger or witness is to look at the metaphor of light used in this passage. Here we have two important words, both used three times in these three verses. Light (phos in Greek) means source of light, radiance, to shine. It implies a pure, brilliant quality, and here it refers to the manifestation of God's self-existent life and also divine illumination which reveals and imparts life, especially through Christ. It reminds one of the Psalmist's words to God, "In your light we see light" (Psalm 36:9). The second word is witness (martureo) which means to testify, commend, or speak well of. In being a witness, one affirms that one has seen or heard or experienced something, and gives testimony instead of being silent.

Two other very small words that are notable here are the prepositions peri (around, about) and dia (through). Peri means concerning, properly, all-around on every side, encompassing, full and comprehensive. This meaning is evident in the word peri-meter. Dia means through, by the instrumentality of, to bring successfully across to the other side of something. Hence the word dia-meter. John testifies about (peri) the light so that all might believe through (dia) him. When a messenger testifies fully and properly, people are successfully brought across to the other side of the message to engage directly with the subject. In other words, they are able to focus on the light instead of the witness to the light. John, the messenger, is not the light, but he testifies to the light. This "throughness" is what John means when he says, "He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

So, how does someone testify about the light? A metaphor that might be helpful here is that of stained glass. Stained glass is made by adding metallic salts during its manufacture. Sodium chromate yields a yellow colour. Potassium dichromate makes orange. Red comes from cobalt nitrate, purple from potassium permanganate, and green from nickel chloride hexahydrate. Most mineral pigments and dyes are salts. This lends another slant to Jesus's words, "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). It is interesting to think of Jesus's followers as not only the flavour and preserving agent, but the "colour" of the earth.

In order to adjust the colour and texture of stained glass, it is heated to around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. The coloured glass is then cut into small pieces which are arranged side by side to form a design. Finally, they are soldered together with strips of lead and held in place by a rigid frame. Heat (fire) and radiance (glory) are often linked in the Scriptures, perhaps most notably in the passion of Christ and his subsequent resurrection. The joining together of differently coloured pieces reminds us of the nature of the church, where each part is "joined and knitted firmly together" to form a functioning, unified whole (Ephesians 4:16).

Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of stained glass is that it is stained and broken. It is not a large, clear window allowing an unobstructed view of the light. In fact, the purpose of stained glass is to limit light, to constrain it, and to do so through showcasing broken, stained pieces of glass purposefully arranged by an artist. This constraint is what renders a masterpiece, what makes a work of art, what tells a beautiful story in glowing colour. Stained glass is a lesson in humility and restraint, both of which were embraced by Jesus when he walked this earth. He set aside his divine privilege and became broken, stained with blood and sin in order to reflect the Light of heaven in all its loving splendour. But not everyone saw the divine light in Jesus. The outside of a church with stained glass windows or a piece of stained glass sitting on a table do not look like anything special. But go inside a church and face the sun, or lift up a piece of stained glass to the light, and you will see colours and patterns and reflections which will astound you. In order to see the true beauty of stained glass, we must be facing the light. And if we are stained and broken pieces of glass seeking to reflect the true Light, we must remain in the Light.

Back to the question I posed at the beginning: why does God choose the inefficient use of messengers and witnesses? Why not a more direct route for revelation? Human messengers are imperfect, they are stained, they are broken. And that seems to be the point. The stained, broken pieces are nothing without the light, and they are nothing without other stained, broken, pieces. Donald Miller writes, "We are a little sliver of glass in a stained-glass window. We aren't the whole and we aren't the light." In some mysterious way, the relationship between God and humanity is always intertwined with the relationships we have with each other. This is the indirect, inefficient way that a loving, relational God chooses to reveal himself. But, oh, what a wondrous beauty shines through human beings when they join together and turn themselves toward the full light of heaven. When stained, broken glass is enlightened, the whole world is enlightened.

"There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light. There it was - the true Light [the genuine, perfect, steadfast Light] which, coming into the world, enlightens everyone" (John 1:3-9, Amplified Bible).

Thursday, February 09, 2017

fun with hermeneutics



I am a reader. The stacks of books in my bedroom, living room, and office, many of them still waiting to be cracked open, testify to this fact. I love to read, but I also know that not all reading is the same. Some is more work and some is more pleasure. A light work of fiction requires little of me but to engage my imagination and be carried away by the story. Online reading requires a bit (or a lot) of discernment to make sure the sources are reliable and the facts check out. Academic reading requires me to reason through the arguments being made and connect them to what I already know or have read in the field. Reading an ancient text requires that I suspend my 21st century perspective as best I can and learn a bit about the worldview and language of the time. Acknowledging a text's context, intent, and genre enables me to hear the words and ideas in such a way that my view of history and the world are enlarged.

Reading, interpreting, and understanding the Bible are important to those who profess faith in Jesus, but they have their challenges. When done poorly, with little thought to the context or genre, it is easy to twist the meaning of a text to suit our purpose. And this has been done by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people over the centuries. Take any high school literature class and you will know that it takes some effort to understand poetry, allegories, fables, and theatrical plays by the likes of Shaw and Shakespeare. Even the simplest work of fiction has multiple layers, and any historian will tell you that a historical document is never as straightforward as it seems. Likewise, the collection of books known as the Bible is not all that easy to read or understand. There are multiple genres (poetry, history, prophecy, wisdom, narratives), the collection covers a rather large swath of history and includes various accounts of the same time period, and some of the language is so obscure and/or filled with unfamiliar metaphors that the meaning is confusing. Nevertheless, there are many passages which are inspiring and beautiful in their simplicity, easily transcending the differences in time and culture to speak to us today.

If you are a student of the Bible, it is in your best interest to learn some basic principles of interpretation for this unique collection of books inspired by God. The science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. Below is a quote from Biblical scholar, Milton Terry. It is over a century old. I chose to include it because not only will it give you the chance to learn a bit about the topic, it will also give you the chance to practice adjusting your thinking to a slightly older way of writing. Here it is.

“Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. The word is usually applied to the explanation of written documents, and may therefore be more specifically defined as the science of interpreting an author's language. This science assumes that there are divers modes of thought and ambiguities of expression among men, and, accordingly, it aims to remove the supposable differences between a writer and his readers, so that the meaning of the one may be truly and accurately apprehended by the others.”

Thanks, Milton. I have hobbled together a few principles of Biblical interpretation and I share them with you here. Some I have gleaned from different sources, some I have learned in my studies, and some I have found in thoughtful readings of the text itself. The list is by no means complete, but should give you a good start in reading the ancient texts with a bit more understanding and a bit less confusion. Hopefully, it will also cut down on misinterpretations of the text (don't worry, we all do it at one point or another).

A few principles for interpreting the Bible:

1. The Hebrew Bible (OT) and the New Testament should not be separated. The mystery of Christ sheds light on the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament cannot be properly appreciated without knowing the history, style, and spirit of the Hebrew writers. The whole Bible is a divinely constructed unity, and in studying one part to the neglect of the other, we may fall into “one-sided and erroneous methods of exposition.” (Milton S. Terry)
2. The Bible is both a divine and a human text. This means that it speaks of divine mysteries through the lens of human experience. If we emphasize one aspect over the other, we miss the generous encounter in which it is grounded.
3. Take into account the author’s intention. We are over 2000 years removed from the biblical authors and in order to understand what they are saying, we must know a bit about their context, history, culture, literary forms, and audience. The scriptures were not written to us as contemporary readers, but they have implications for us. Commands and directives given to the nation of Israel are not necessarily commands to us, and promises made to biblical characters are not automatically transferable to us.
4. The context of a passage should always be considered. Context determines meaning, and isolating any phrase or story can lead to a misguided interpretation.
5. Identify the genre of the biblical passage. Is it historical narrative, laws, wisdom literature, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel, parables, or correspondence? Each type of literature requires a slightly different hermeneutic method. Histories recount journeys we can relate to. Wisdom contains principles to live by. Parables make a certain point to the hearers. Poetry uses imagery and metaphor to paint pictures of ideas and express feelings.
6. Do not confuse interpretation with application. Jesus calls his followers to leave their jobs in order to follow him. This is part of a larger story in which Jesus gathers disciples. It is not a command for all people everywhere to forsake their family businesses. Just because Paul wrote that slaves should obey their masters (Ephesians 6) does not mean that he is condoning slavery.
7. We all bring our own worldview and context to any interpretation, which is okay, but we must be mindful of imposing our own presuppositions or unrealistic expectations on the biblical text. Peter Enns says, “If we come to the Bible expecting something like a spiritual owner’s manual complete with handy index, a step-by-step field guide to the life of faith, an absolutely sure answer-book to unlock the mystery of God and the meaning of life, then conflict and stress follow right behind… what if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is without needing anyone to stand guard over it? Not the well-behaved-everything-is-in-order version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith.” That being said, it is perfectly normal to have questions about what you read in the Bible, to be puzzled about certain things and bothered by others, and to change your mind on what it means as you delve deeper into these sacred texts. It is the joy of engaging with the divine mystery. (The Bible Tells Me So, pages 7-9)
8. God reveals himself to us through Jesus, the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is our teacher. Our own efforts at understanding accomplish little without the life and breath of the Spirit. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you when you read and study the Bible. “The Bible … isn’t a problem to be fixed. It’s an invitation.” (Peter Enns)

And if you want to practice a little hermeneutics right now, try reading these scriptures, keeping the above principles in mind (questions below based on material by Craig Keener).

Read Psalm 50. Is God’s announcement that He owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” an assurance that He can supply all our needs? (v. 10) Or does it mean something else in this context?

Read Psalm 118. Which day is the “day that the Lord has made” (v. 24) Does the text refer to every day or to a specific day?

Read Romans 10. What is the “word of God” (or, “word of Christ” in most translations) in verse 17? Does it refer to the Bible or to something else?

Happy hermeneuting....Matte

Friday, February 03, 2017

disruption

Image result for disruption
Image from thefinancialbrand.com
A nasty virus hit me a week ago on Thursday evening and laid me out for most of three days. I had proposals I was working on, a pile of paperwork on my dining room table that needed attention, preparations to make for church on Sunday, emails to answer, supplies to be bought, a house to clean, and laundry to be done. All of that was disrupted. The sickness rendered me unable to think, read, work, stand upright for any length of time, or do much else other than sleep and ingest the occasional protein smoothie. I thought of chocolate and had no interest. I thought of checking my email or Facebook and it just didn't seem to matter. I picked up a book and put it down again without even cracking it open. My fever finally broke Saturday evening, but I was still pretty useless the next day, my brain and body not capable of much. Monday morning, I woke up feeling almost normal. I decided to read a theology blog. My brain ate it up like it was the first bite of solid food in days. And with that bit of fuel, my brain immediately started to put together some writing ideas, plan a paper proposal, and thought of ways to incorporate what I had read into a research proposal. I said out loud, "Welcome back, brain!"

In some ways, it felt like my brain had been turned off and then on again, and the renewed clarity was a gift I humbly received. Once again I could see why a certain way of thinking wasn't working or making sense, I could articulate things, I could make connections between ideas. What had originally seemed like a total waste of three days, was somehow a good disruption, a Sabbath in disguise.

Life is riddled with disruptions. It is rare that something goes exactly as expected. The challenge and adventure of being human is this: how do we take everything that life throws at us and turn it into the most beautiful story of love and hope that we can manage? This is not an easy task, and though some of us would prefer if everything unfolded according to plan, that would make us closer to robots than humans. One thing a robot (or computer) is incapable of is wisdom. This virtue is gained through facing disruptions and adversity and, despite the odds, finding a compassionate way forward.

A disruption is basically neutral, meaning that it can be either good or bad depending on the context. Someone turning off your computer in the middle of a project would be a bad disruption. Someone turning off your computer when your screen freezes is a good disruption. Disease is a disruption of health, but healing is also a disruption of disease. Most disruptions are not so clearly defined; they tend to be a mix of good and bad, and it requires a good deal of discernment to extricate one from the other.

Right now, the political landscape is filled with disruptions. Many people don't know what to make of it. Those who thought things were going in the right direction are dismayed and troubled. Those who were fed up with the status quo feel empowered. The reactions are varied: denial, paralysis, bravado, resistance, compliance, and booing as well as cheering. But what is wisdom here? What is the way forward to writing the most beautiful and hopeful story we can manage? Digging in our heels and amplifying divisions will only create volatile situations, and engaging in power struggles has never ended well (it is called war). So what do we do? Might I suggest that we use these current disruptions to take a moment to rethink things, to reboot compassion, to lend our ears to voices we might have overlooked or neglected.

Disruptions are golden opportunities for us to learn something new about ourselves and our world and above all, be transformed into better disciples of Jesus. The choice is up to us. How will we respond to the disruptions? Here are a few ideas.

1. Disruptions can make us compassionate helpers or armchair critics. When disruption comes, we can choose to get close to those most affected by the disruption and alleviate their suffering or we can offer critiques at a distance where it costs us nothing.
2. Disruptions can humble us or make us more stubborn. We can choose to exhibit a willingness to listen, to question our assumptions, to step outside of our limited worldview and see someone else's, to admit that we don't know it all, or we can adopt a defensive stance, protecting our perceived rights and shoring up our sense of superiority by surrounding ourselves with agreeing voices.
3. Disruptions can draw us together or split us apart. We can choose whether we will open our arms and our homes or lock everything up tight in fear.
4. Disruptions can challenge us to find inner strength or steer us to outward shows of force. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said, "for they will be called children of God." Jesus never taught his disciples to threaten others or seek positions of power and influence in order to further their cause. Quite the opposite. He taught his followers not to fear those who can only harm the body.
5. Disruptions can make us bitter and angry or we can choose to face our own demons in ways we never have before. This is perhaps the biggest of challenge: to see ourselves in the faces of those we disagree with or those who are making our lives difficult. Jesus asks us to love God, to love our neighbours, and to love our enemies. That means love must rule.

Disruptions are harsh gifts, but they are gifts if we are willing to do the hard work of learning what wisdom they are offering and seeing what transformation is required in order for us to flourish in love and humility.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

make us one

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In 1908, a Franciscan Friar named Paul Wattson instituted the Octave of Christian Unity, 8 days focused on praying for church unity. Over the last century, this period of time morphed into what is now known as Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and at present, it is observed by many churches in the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. This past week, I was privileged to participate in an evening of prayer and worship commemorating this ecumenical call to prayer. There were ten churches represented as we gathered in downtown Montreal on a stormy January evening. That in itself seemed pretty significant.

One of the large Catholic churches in Montreal, Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, hosted the meeting in their parish hall. Their priest gave a very gracious opening welcome. Short meditations on reconciliation were given by a female Anglican pastor (in French) and by the pastor of a small congregation affiliated with the Mennonites (in English). A chorale from the Cathedral sang joyful gospel songs in French. We were invited to attend different prayer stations around the room to write our prayers on post-it notes or to say silent prayers and light a candle to represent our intercession. The themes of the different prayer stations were Germany (the featured country for this year's week of prayer), First Nations, the government and the city, students, reconciliation, and creation care. It was moving to see people standing in silent prayer, lighting candles, writing their deepest desires and requests on small rectangles of yellow paper, and seeing the walls fill with words of hope and compassion.

As part of the evening, several people were invited to say public prayers in French and English. I was asked to pray for reconciliation, and I chose to sing the first part of my prayer in the form of a classic Vineyard tune by Carl Tuttle. I sang it acapella, not as a performance, but as a call to prayer, wanting to match the vulnerability of the words to the vulnerability I felt in singing in front of strangers with no accompaniment.

Oh Lord have mercy on us and heal us
Oh Lord have mercy on us and free us
Place our feet upon a rock
Place a new song in our hearts, in our hearts
Oh Lord, have mercy on us

Oh Lord may your love and your grace, protect us
Oh Lord may your ways and your truth, direct us
Place our feet upon a rock
Place a new song in our hearts, in our hearts
Oh Lord, have mercy on us.

I followed this by reading a prayer I had written:

Oh God, Creator of all. Have mercy on us.

We divide the things you have knit together. We lift one person above another. We argue and disagree and push each other away. Forgive us. We are petty and prideful and think too highly of ourselves.

Spirit of Jesus, come and show us the way forward. Teach us to lay down our lives for each other. Teach us to build up instead of tear down. We ask that you do the work we cannot do: transform and enlarge our hearts so that we can love, truly love, with the love of Jesus. 

Make us one as you are one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

The meeting ended with the people in the hall enthusiastically singing 10,000 Reasons and Great are You Lord led by a small worship band which included musicians from two different churches. People were reluctant to leave the meeting, spending time introducing themselves to strangers, greeting old friends, munching cookies, and offering words of encouragement to all who had participated.

A group of us were hungry, so 11 of us from different churches capped off the evening by trekking through the snow and ice to Five Guys for burgers, fries, drinks, and convivial fellowship. It was a sweet time. Everyone I talked to said, we love this, praying and worshiping and hanging out with people from other churches. Yes, it is good and pleasant. It is like a sweet fragrant oil. It is like refreshing dew. It is an activity blessed by God.

See how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters live together in harmony!

It is like fine, scented oil on the head,
running down the beard—down Aaron’s beard—
running over the collar of his robes.
It is like dew on Mount Hermon,
dew which comes down on Zion’s mountains.
That is where the Lord promised the blessing of eternal life.
(Psalm 133, God's Word Translation)


Friday, January 20, 2017

morning at the museum

Image result for nicolaes maes adoration of shepherds
Adoration of the Shepherds by Nicolaes Maes. Image from pubhist.com
Last week I spent a morning at the Museum of Fine Arts. They have recently built a new pavilion and to celebrate its opening, they offered free admission for the first few months, encouraging visitors to check it out. So on a cold, windy January Friday, I did. The space itself is beautiful, all wood and glass in the lobbies with plenty of places to sit and look over the city. There are four floors or galleries, each covering a different era and style. and I took a few hours to wander through all of them. To be honest, it was overwhelming. Nearly 5,000 square metres and 750 artistic works. Every three to six feet, one is presented with a masterpiece which has taken months, if not years, to create. It is just too much to take in. I ended up scanning each wall and only spending time with those pieces which caught my attention.

My favourite section was the fourth level which housed a lot of religious art, from models of medieval churches to stained glass which was hundreds of years old to icons and portraits of biblical figures. As was to be expected, there were a lot of paintings and representations of Jesus. I looked at them all, searching for a Jesus I could relate to, a Jesus I recognized. Most of time, Jesus was clothed in rich robes, the shadows of the folds painted with great care. The scenes of Jesus's family life were serene, depicting a leisurely day in the life of nobility, it seemed. Everywhere, Jesus was clean and muscular and, for the most part, unmarred, even on the cross. The iconic paintings were simpler, Jesus and Mary together in many of them, but even there, the simplicity was swathed in richness. Plenty of gold and fine fabrics. fluttering angels, and everyone posing perfectly to catch the light just right and show their good side. Distractions were minimized, every fold of cloth in its proper place, no screaming, squalling babies, only peace and light. It reminded me of the perfect pictures we post on Instagram, showing ourselves and our world at its best and brightest.

I am no art historian, but I am aware that portraits and icons are not photographs meant to capture the reality of everyday life. In many cases, paintings in other eras represented, and were meant to appeal to, those who commissioned them (mostly nobility or the church). Religious paintings incorporate symbolism and create their own reality to a certain extent. Nevertheless, it was troubling to me how far removed the portrayals of Jesus were from the earthy, messy stories we find in the gospels. There were a few exceptions, of course. One was the humble nativity scene by Nicolaes Maes (a student of Rembrandt) in which the stable, while not exactly dirty, includes brown cows, hay, a wheelbarrow and a shovel, and the faces of the shepherds are far from handsome. The scene comes off as ordinary and wonderful and strange all at the same time. In another room, a tiny icon of Matthew (about 3 inches tall) looking haggard and unafraid, wreathed in gold, was also a gem, easily overshadowed by the larger works, but definitely worthy of attention. There was also one painting of Jesus and Mary which caught my eye. In it he is chubby with curly blonde hair, wearing a bright red robe and clutching a sparrow. The pious expression of the mother verges on sorrow and the child seems out of place, looking longingly to the side. It unsettled me in its odd portrayal, and I liked that.

As I left the museum, I thought about all the ways we portray Jesus in our world today. Like any era, we project our own values onto our religious stories and clothe our religious figures in them. Is our Jesus wrapped in rich fabrics? Is our Jesus surrounded by pious family and friends? Is our Jesus strong and muscular, always the conqueror? Is our Jesus judging or forgiving? Is our Jesus untouchable, glowing with an unearthly glow? Is our Jesus unmarked by the scars of life? Is our Jesus always visible, the centre of every scene? Is our Jesus in clean, tidy environments, every hair in place, every person around him beautiful and successful? Is our Jesus a noble or a peasant? Is our Jesus Italian or Spanish or Caucasian or Black or Jewish? Is our Jesus in an art gallery, in a church, or in the dullness and pain of every day life?

Perhaps the most important question is, "Would I recognize Jesus if I saw him today?"
The Christ is present here and now. Do we see him?

"When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me. Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, “When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?” The king [Son of Man] will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:35-40, Contemporary English Version)


Monday, January 16, 2017

comedic timing

Comic by Joel Micah Harris at xkcd.com

One of my favourite jokes goes like this:
Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Interrupting cow
Interrupting cow w---
Moooooooo!!

Timing is important in both drama and comedy. A well-paced story draws the audience in and helps it invest in the characters, while a tale too hastily told or too long drawn out will fail to engage anyone. Surprise - something which interrupts the expected - is a creative use of timing and integral to any good story. If someone is reading a novel and everything unfolds in a predictable manner, they will probably wonder why they bothered reading the book. And so it is in life. Having life be predictable all of the time is not as calming as it sounds. We love surprises, especially good surprises like birthday parties, gifts, marriage proposals, and finding something that we thought was lost. Surprises are an important part of humour. A good joke is funny because it goes to a place you didn't expect it to go. Similarly, comedic timing allows something unexpected to develop right in front of your eyes or ears. The combination of unlikely circumstances and mismatched characters is the stuff of which comedies are made. In addition, comedy often relies on threes: something will be repeated, building suspense and/or expectation. Just when the audience thinks it knows what is coming, the writer inserts a twist or surprise (usually the third time) in order to serve up a comedic payoff.

God is a master of timing. We often associate divine timing with efficiency or completeness, and many of our prayers tend to reflect this "just in time" mentality. However, timing can sometimes be more about enjoyment than fulfillment or completion, and this is the case in comedic timing. A comedian will use rhythm, tempo, and pauses to enhance a story and make an experience more enjoyable for the audience. Most of us are not used to thinking about the Author of our faith as having some mad skills when it comes to comedic timing, but I think that is because we get so serious about our spirituality that we become somewhat blind to the playful nature of the Creator.

About a year ago, I took an unexpected mini-retreat when a conference I was to attend in New York City was cancelled while I was en route (you can read about it here). It ended up being a rich time of contemplation, rest, and discovery. Since it was such a great experience, helping me find stillness and contentment in my mind and soul, I decided another retreat might be in order.

I have been feeling somewhat blasé and uninspired for the past few weeks. No doubt, some of that has to do with it being winter (less sunshine, more cold and wind, less time outside) and some of it has to do with this period of waiting or limbo I find myself in. Anyway, Dean left this morning for a business trip. He will be away for a week, so I decided to make another mini-retreat while he is gone. By retreat I mean taking time to step out of the cold winds of job searches, paper proposals, teaching, pastoring, office work, and wondering about my future in order to sit in front of the fire and light of God's love, letting my soul find warmth, settling into contentment, and rediscovering joy and meaning and peace.

Now, this week won't be all sitting around and contemplating. I still have work to do. I am leading a book study on Mark Buchanan's  Spiritual Rhythm which begins this week, so I have to do some preparation for that. We were meant to start the study on Thursday, but a last minute change meant we had to switch it to Tuesday, two days earlier. Now that's not a huge problem, except when I ordered the books last week, I did so thinking they had a week to arrive. Not so. The email says they will arrive on Tuesday by 8 pm. The study begins at 7:30 pm so here's hoping they arrive a bit before then. Also, I have the auditor coming to go over the church finances later in the week, and I am leading worship this Sunday so I have planning and rehearsal that need to happen. But in and around all that work, I am going to take moments to retreat.

I am going to see the movie, Hidden Figures, this afternoon. It tells the story of three brilliant African American women who were the brains behind some of the biggest NASA projects (seems appropriate on MLK day). I am going to read books I have been meaning to read, books that feed my soul and bring me joy and are not part of any writing or teaching project. Perhaps most importantly, I have decided to start each day by lighting a candle and sitting in silent contemplation for 15 minutes. For me, this is an exercise in surrender because it makes me pause and be more attentive to the timing of the Timemaster.

So this morning, I got the Vanilla Chai candle (a gift from someone who knows me well) and set it in the centre of the table. I grabbed a book of matches from the shelf and when I opened it up, I got my first surprise of the day: a friend whom I have not seen for many years had written on the inside flap "G---- was here 03/12/05." I smiled and laughed, thinking about the many shenanigans of this friend. It was a good memory and my soul was warmed.

I lit the candle and set an alarm so I wouldn't have to worry about the time, then I sat and gazed at the flame. A melody floated through my mind which I could not quite place. I tried to remember the words, but they eluded me. The melody kept coming back, and finally I recognized the song as Lead Kindly Light, a poem written by John Henry Newman when he was recovering from a serious illness and stranded on a boat far from home. The first verse goes like this:

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me

The words were encouraging to me and addressed my soul's current mood (finding light in gloom, being content with seeing one step at a time), but the surprising thing was that it also happened to be my father's favourite hymn. As I sat looking at the light of the flame, hearing this tune in my head, I thought of the time I was away at school and my father wrote me many letters, always signing them, "Your Father here on earth." It was another good memory and my soul was warmed for a second time.

My alarm sounded and I closed my time of contemplation by reading aloud the Suscipe (Latin for receive), a prayer written by Ignatius of Loyola.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory (such good memories this morning), my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me ----

Suddenly, my reading of the prayer was interrupted by a loud, long buzz. I hurried over to the intercom and picked up the phone. It was the mail carrier saying she had a package for me. I bounded down the stairs and received a large brown parcel from the carrier's gloved hands. I went back to the dining room and placed the package on the table next to the lit candle and the Suscipe prayer scribbled in the back of my journal. I opened the box and inside were the books I had ordered for the study. I laughed out loud. The third surprise in 15 minutes. The timing seemed so contrived that I imagined a scriptwriter chuckling to themselves as they wrote the comedic payoff: "Woman is praying prayer of surrender, trying not to worry about a much-needed package. Mail carrier rings buzzer and delivers parcel, interrupting woman's prayer. Instead of the unexpected event being a memory as it was the first two times, the third time it is an anticipation, a moving forward of time." I laughed again and shook my head. My soul was warmed with the good humour being played out in my life. And then I finished the prayer.

You have given all to me (even books arriving early)
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

Though this year's retreat is not even one day old, I have already experienced a comedic trifecta from the divine Timemaster. He's really good at this timing thing. And quite funny.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

building the church

Image result for popsicle sticks pile
Image from Instructables
Imagine two scenarios: 1) Give every person in the room a popsicle stick. Ask them to come together and put their sticks onto a table. Invariably, you end up with a random pile of sticks on a table. 2) Give every person in the room a popsicle stick. Show a picture of a popsicle stick bird feeder and ask people to come together and put their sticks on a table according to the picture. You will end up with the beginnings of a bird feeder on a table.

What is the difference between the two scenarios? In both, each person brought what they had and contributed it to the collective. However, in the first scenario, there were no guidelines, no plan, and no right or wrong way to pile the sticks. People came, placed their sticks on the table, and walked away. In the second scenario, people were given a plan to follow and as a result, something specific was built. Instead of walking away after they made their contribution, people huddled around the table to watch what was being built. Some were quick to point out if a stick went in the wrong place.

Image result for popsicle stick bird feeder
Image from Factory Direct Craft
In recent days, I have once again been pondering Jesus's words, "I will build my church." Several years ago, a friend urged me to consider each word of this phrase in turn and the emphasis it carries. "I" means that Jesus is the master-builder of the church. "Will" means that the project will be completed, there is no doubt about it. "Build" means that it is a work in progress, it is put together stone by stone and stick by stick. "My" once again emphasizes that the church belongs to Jesus, not us. "Church" indicates what Jesus is building: an ekklesia, an assembly, a people who congregate, who come out from the world (ek) and are called to (kaleo) God.

The Greek word for build is oikodomeo and it refers to what a house-builder does. In our day and age, a master house-builder is often referred to as a general contractor. The builder oversees the overall coordination of a building project. Though he or she does not hammer every nail or lay every brick, the master-builder is involved in every part of the building process. They assemble a team of skilled labourers and coordinate the different efforts in order to ensure that all are essentially building the same house, not doing their own thing. The master-builder handles the timing of things, deals with costs, makes sure deliveries happen, oversees work conditions, provides materials, ensures that proper equipment is available, and coordinates the delegation of tasks. As master builder, he or she is the only one who knows how it all comes together.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus names himself the master-builder of the church, the one who oversees the overall coordination of the project, but what exactly does this look like? How does it happen? Well, if we read on, we find some clues. In verse 20, right after Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus has responded that this revelation is foundational to the building of the church, he urges them not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. In other words, as the master builder, he is telling them something about timing. Just because we have a revelation from the Father does not mean that we automatically act on it. Jesus often said, "My time has not yet come" because he was mindful of God's purpose unfolding in the fullness of time (see my blog on patience for more on this). In verse 21, Jesus tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer terribly, be killed, and three days later rise to life. The master builder knows the cost involved. The building of the church cost Jesus his life. The early Christians also bore witness in their bodies to this high cost.

In verse 22, Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him this cannot happen, that suffering and death are not God's plan (It makes me laugh and gives me hope to hear Peter say, "You are God" and immediately follow that with "And you're doing it wrong!"). Jesus tells Peter to get out of his way. The master builder makes sure deliveries happen, and Jesus made sure that nothing stood in his way when it came time to deliver up his body to die for the salvation of the world. In verse 24, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to be his followers, they must forget about themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. The master builder sets out the conditions under which the work must be done. He does not ask anyone to work in conditions that he himself is not willing to embrace. In verse 25, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to save their lives, they will destroy them, but if they give up their lives for him, they will find them. The master builder tells his disciples that their very lives are the materials out of which the church is being built.

In John 14:26, Jesus indicates that the Father will send a great Helper, the Holy Spirit who will teach his followers everything and remind them of all Jesus has said. The Holy Spirit will equip and empower them (give them the proper equipment) to carry on the work of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes a letter to one of the early churches, reminding them that the master builder is the one who delegates the work and they are to be attentive to the Spirit's leading. "There are different ways to serve the same Lord, and we can each do different things. Yet the same God works in all of us and helps us in everything we do. The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others" (1 Cor 12:5-7, CEV).

This is how Jesus builds the church. It appears that the way I (and the disciples, it seems) would build something is quite different from the way the master builder does it. My main concern in timing would be efficiency and expediency, not fullness of time. I would count the cost in terms of dollars, not suffering and death. I would insist that people deliver their goods in a timely fashion, but hesitate to deliver myself up for the sake of others. I would make sure that work conditions included benefits and payment for overtime, and forget about taking up my cross. My materials of choice would be strong steel and solid brick, not fragile lives. As to equipment, I would make sure that we had all the latest sound gear, comfy chairs, and a coffee machine instead of relying on the Spirit to breathe gifts into people. In regard to personnel, I would seek out the most qualified and creative people for the job, not the marginalized, the overlooked, the outcasts, the poor in spirit. I guess it is pretty obvious that I am not that good at building the church. And that's okay, because Jesus is the one who builds it. My job is to get on the same page as he is.

So often I have come to the church and tossed my popsicle stick on the table. There you go, that's what I have to offer, that's my part. I pay little attention to what Jesus is building, what he is putting in place, how I fit into the larger picture. Or perhaps I become part of a group that has a plan, and I see where I fit, and I dutifully plop myself into place. But without the glue of love ("Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together" Col. 3:14, CEV), the structure has no stability and falls apart as soon as some stress is put on it. We all have our church failure stories, but don't be discouraged. "I am confident that the Creator [builder], who has begun such a great work among you, will not stop in mid-design but will keep perfecting you until the day Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, returns to redeem the world." Philippians 1:6

I was listening to a recording of a message last night and the preacher said, "This church is for you and for your world." What? Did I hear right? I think I understand the point she was trying to make, but the church is not being built so that we have a place to belong and grow and flourish; the church is built to be the dwelling place of God.

"And so you are no longer called outcasts and wanderers but citizens with God’s people, members of God’s holy family, and residents of His household. You are being built on a solid foundation: the message of the prophets and the voices of God’s chosen emissaries with Jesus, the Anointed Himself, the precious cornerstone. The building is joined together stone by stone—all of us chosen and sealed in Him, rising up to become a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you are being built together, creating a sacred dwelling place among you where God can live in the Spirit." (Ephesians 2:17-22, The Voice)

Thursday, January 05, 2017

shiny and new

Image result for azur metro cars
New AZUR metro car. Image from STM. 
It is a new year. Time for new beginnings and all that jazz. I didn't get the sentimentality gene, so I don't experience much sadness when things come to an end. I love a fresh start, a new challenge, and get buzzed by the changing out of old things for new ones. In Montreal, they are slowly switching our old subway cars to brand new, spiffy, updated trains. The original ones are from 1966 when the subway was first built, just in time for Expo 67. The flashy new trains started appearing early last year when they put a few into circulation for some test runs. The sleek silver and blue trains were a rare sight at first, and every time I was privileged to catch one, I sat on the edge of my commuter seat like a kid on a Disney ride.

Over the last few months they have added more new trains, and for awhile there, I seemed to have incredible luck, catching a new train at least 50% of the time I traveled on the subway. It was uncanny. I admit, it made me feel special. I watched the poor people getting on the old trains across the station and I felt sorry for them. I like being on the shiny new trains: they are clean, spacious, have bright lights, sleek lines and swooshy doors, and you can move from one car to the next while in motion. Very fancy. But it appears that my luck has run out. Even though there are more new trains on the tracks than ever, I always seem to be missing them. A few days ago one pulled into the station just as I was leaving. Yesterday one closed its doors just as I was running to catch it. It felt a bit personal. I waited and got on the next train, an old one, and plopped down on a well-worn seat, deflated. Some minutes later we squeaked and rattled into a station and while we were stopped, a new train pulled up right beside us, going the other way. I looked at the people on the shiny train. a bit envious. They seemed happier than the people on my old train. Why wasn't I on that shiny new train? Why did they get to be there while I was stuck here on a tired, dirty train? My bottom lip might actually have protruded a bit.

But then wisdom paid me a visit and gave me a little talk. It went something like this. Do you really want to be on that shiny new train right beside you? Sure, it's lovely to look at and rides smoothly and goes fast and has all the bells and whistles, but where is it going? It is going downtown and you want to go home. The train that you are on, old as it is, is going where you want to go. You don't get on a train because it is new and shiny. You get on a train because it is going where you want to go.

Yep. That's the truth. So I took a moment to think about my fascination with certain shiny new things. Go ahead, do it with me. That shiny new church building or congregation down the road from (y)our old, tired one. That shiny new theology book with a flashy picture of the up and coming author. That shiny new conference which has the internet abuzz. That fabulous new job in a shiny new city at a shiny new university. I soon realized that some of the shiny new things that I gaze at with longing, that leave me feeling left out and left behind, are not going where I want to go. If I did get on that shiny new bandwagon, I would soon find myself at odds with where things were heading.

Now, there is nothing wrong with updating old modes of transportation, or freshening up old church settings, or re-framing and rethinking our liturgies and theologies, or attending popular conferences, or taking new jobs and moving to new places, but the first question must always be, is this going where I want to go? Whether it is an old and sturdy vehicle or a shiny new one, it matters not as long as it is heading toward home.

"And so the end of our way of life is indeed the kingdom of God. But what is the (immediate) goal you must earnestly ask, for if it is not in the same way discovered by us, we shall exhaust ourselves, we shall strive to no purpose, because a man who is traveling in a wrong direction, has all the trouble and none of the good of his journey. ... The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end." - St. John Cassian