Saturday, 29 December 2012

Christmas with the Grinch

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, Please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
Whatever the reason,
His heart or his shoes,
he stood there on Christmas Eve, hating the Whos,

            Christmas seems to always include a Grinch. There is always someone who just doesn't get caught up in the season. The decorations are offensive to their eyes. The music annoys them. They feel busier than they want to be. There are more people in the stores. There is no parking. The streets are slippery.  And, they are resentful at the social pressure to conform to the season.  In response to "Merry Christmas" inwardly they "Bah Humbug".
            Of course some of us have good reasons to not be in the Christmas spirit. For some of you Christmas brings with it an empty chair where a loved one sat. That's not really Grinchiness though. Grinchiness is really about the belief that Christmas is a sham.             
            In the Bible we meet Grinches too. No doubt Mary faced many Grinches as her belly grew and she was not yet married. Grinches are not likely to believe stories about angels and a miraculous pregnancy coming from a teenage girl. Likely Grinches looked down on Joseph who accepted a pregnant Mary as his future wife.  The Roman officials who forced a man and his pregnant wife to travel 155km on foot to complete a census were definitely Grinches. Perhaps the couple faced Grinches as they sought a place to stay in Bethlehem after such a long journey. The Grinchy King Herod learned from the visiting Wise Men that a child had been born who would become the king of the Jews. Not wanting to hand over his throne to a better king, the paranoid Herod took action to kill the child- the expected Messiah.   
            We have our own inner Grinches as well. Our inner Grinches tell us the whole Nativity story is just wishful thinking and fairy tales. Our inner Grinches have a hard time believing that this story (or something like it) happened in history. Our inner Grinches wonder if God even exists, and believing that God somehow became human is just a step too far. Our inner Grinches wonder how we can possibly be expected to believe this stuff.
            The Grinch thinks that if all the presents and sparkly decorations were taken away that Christmas would be shown for the fraud that it is. If the shiny wrapping paper was taken off and the elaborate bow was removed all that would be found is an empty box.           In Dr. Seuss' tale, the Grinch does just that. He dresses like Santa and sneaks into the Whos houses and steals their presents. He takes away the decorations. He takes away the food for the feast. He even takes away their Christmas trees. "On their walls he left nothing but hooks and some wire. And the one speck of food/ that he left in the house/ was a crumb that was even too small for a mouse." The Grinch expects a wail to arise from the town as the Whos wake up and realize that their Christmas has been stolen. He expects that they will feel an emptiness that matches his own inner emptiness.  
            The Grinches think that if all the presents and Christmas trees and twinkling lights were taken away, we would be left with a cold empty reality. The Grinches think that if all the sparkling lights and decorations were taken away we wouldn't really have anything left to celebrate. ... And that is a challenge to us. If it was all taken away from us, would we have anything left to celebrate?
            When the Grinch finished his night and had stolen everything he could from the Who's houses in Who-ville he waited outside of town to hear the fruit of his labour.  The Whos  are put to the test. Is Christmas all about presents?- as the Grinch assumes. ... The Grinch listens in anticipation...  and then he hears something, ... "But the sound wasn't sad!/ Why, this sound sounded merry!/ It couldn't be so!/ But it WAS merry! Very! ... Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,/ Was singing! Without any presents at all!/ He HADN"T stopped Christmas from coming!/ IT CAME!/ Somehow or other, it came just the same!"
            The Grinch believed that the decorations were not really decorating anything. ... The wrapping paper and bow, however, were not decorating an empty box. There was something inside. There was something to sing about. When all the decorations and food and presents were taken away there was still something to celebrate. The Grinch found the Whos singing. Inside that box that the Grinch thought was empty was a person and a story. 
            Inside the box was the story of Jesus' birth. Over 2000 years ago a baby was born. In some ways he was a very ordinary baby. He was human. He dirtied his diapers. He cried. He was fed. He needed protection. He needed the warmth and love of his parents. He wasn't even a very special human, by some standards. He was born where there was no room for him. He was born where there was no crib, so he was laid in a feeding trough for animals. He was not rich. He was not born in a palace. His parents weren't famous.
            The baby was a very real and ordinary human being, but he was also a very extraordinary baby. Accompanying his birth there are stories of angels, and prophecies coming true. No matter who you are and what you believe you cannot deny that this child had a tremendous impact on the world. The very way we measure time points to his birth. We are in the two-thousand-and-eleventh year of our Lord- A.D.- Ano Dominae (in the Latin). Jesus' teachings and followers have impacted the world and changed it. So, yes, this child is also extraordinary. That is something you have to admit whether you are a follower of his or not.  
            Jesus was a mixture of the humble and low, and the lofty and sublime. His mother was an ordinary Jewish girl, but she was still a virgin when she became pregnant with him. He was laid in an animal's feeding trough, but had the blood of the ancient King David running through his veins. He was visited by rough and tumble shepherds, but his birth was announced by angels. He was both ordinary and extraordinary.  And even more paradoxical  in Jesus the human and the divine overlapped in some amazing and mysterious way.
            So why would the Whos sing over this? Why are we gathered here tonight? Why are we singing? ... There are plenty of stories about human beings reaching toward the divine. They think that if they go up the right mountain they might have the chance to see that higher and more glorious place- they might experience the divine.  They think, perhaps if they use the right prayer or meditation they might be able to achieve the experience of heavenly reality. If they weave the right spell, or if they are good enough, or think the right thoughts, then they might be able to have an experience of heaven.
            Christmas, however,  isn't about our reaching for God. Christmas is about the exact opposite. Christmas is about God reaching out to us. Christmas is about God coming to us as a baby. And miraculously, and mysteriously, to know this baby is to know God. Christmas isn't about us reaching out to God through special ceremonies, on special days, with special potions, or special meditations or prayers. Christmas isn't about our reaching at all. Christmas is about God's reaching out to us. Christmas is about God writing himself into the story of humanity. It is about God writing himself into our story. God did this freely as an act of love. God gave us himself- that is the ultimate Christmas gift. That is what is inside the box that the Grinch thought was empty. That is what is worth celebrating even when all the decorations have been taken away. That is what the Whos sing about.  
            And this amazing gift wasn't just given to kings (though it is for them as well). The angels announce that "a saviour has been born to you." It's not just that Jesus has been born. He has been born "to you", or "for you" and this is "good news of great joy that will be for all the people". He has been born for you.  This gift wasn't just meant to be boxed up and taken out once a year. This gift was given to ordinary shepherds during an ordinary work-night. Jesus is a gift for our very ordinary daily lives. He is a gift that makes our ordinary lives extra-ordinary. He invites us to enter into his life, to have a relationship with him, and in that way we become a part of His story which has no beginning and no ending. In His story it is not the Grinches with the most money who are the main actors. It is not the Grinches with the biggest bombs, or nicest cars, or most beautiful faces, or most friends on facebook who play the big parts. The big characters in His story can be played by: a baby in an animal's feeding trough, his simple parents, and shepherds. The big characters are ordinary people who were drawn into an extraordinary story. Their lives are infused with eternal meaning. And that is his invitation to us. That invitation is his Christmas gift to us.
            That is what the Whos were singing about. If all the presents are taken away- If all the decorations are stolen- If our Christmas goodies disappear- we still have a reason to sing. We still have a reason to celebrate. God has come to us.
            If we listen closely with the shepherds tonight we might hear the angels' song. As that song penetrates into our hearts and we get wrapped up in Jesus' life and story we will find that, no matter how ordinary we feel, our small hearts grow three sizes, and our lives are infused with meaning and power to transform the world. As our stories gets wrapped up in his we find ourselves invited into an eternal adventure.   

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

escaping the messy world- Malachi 3

Second Sunday in Advent-

Malachi 3:1-4

3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;3:3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.3:4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Luke 3:1-6
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,
3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
3:4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
3:5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" [written to exiles in babylon?]


There is a movie called “Into the Wild”. It's a book too, but I haven't read it. It is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless. When he was 22, he graduated from college, and then walked away from his privileged life and disappeared. His friends and family couldn't find him. He burned his identification. He disposed of his car. He burned all the money in his wallet, and gave his savings of over $20,000 to charity.
 While on the road he spends his days hitchhiking and taking odd jobs. As the movie unfolds we learn that Christopher is running away from a life of lies. He learns that his parents lied about how they met. His parents met in an adulterous relationship. His father left his wife to marry his mistress, who was Christopher’s mother. He learns that he has siblings that he has never met. He becomes suspicious of society in general. In his view it seemed to be a complex arrangement of lies and illusion. He was suspicious of consumerism and refused to buy into "the World's" idea of success. He eventually gets sick of it all and wants to run away into the wild. He wants to escape the sinful world. He wants to abandon the lies, and so in 1992 he heads for Alaska to live in the wild. He wants to live alone, off the land, in some pure state, away from the polluted, self-deluded, and sinful world.
            He is one in a long line of people who have sought to escape the world and all its trappings; its seemingly pointless politics; its web of lies and false relationships; and its unending complexity. They have sought to escape the lax morals and blatant cruelty; people abusing children; commercials saying you need this thing to be successful, or beautiful, or desirable, or cool, or happy. 
            The prophet Malachi had his own mess he was living in.  Malachi saw the corruption of those who were supposed to be moral and spiritual leaders of the community. They were pitiful examples and the people didn't seem any better.  The priests led the people in half-hearted worship. The people offered God their leftovers rather than their best.  The people and their leaders saw God as a burden. They did not come to God as their great king.  Through Malachi, God says that it would be better for them to stay home rather than come to worship in such a way.  Malachi didn't just see corruption when it came to worship, he saw injustice, arrogance and wickedness everywhere, not just in worship. To Malachi, his culture seemed like a mess. I can imagine Malachi wanting to run off into the wild.       
I can relate to the desire to escape into the wild sometimes. The problems of the world are just too big. I sometimes want to run away to a place in nature, untouched where there are no people, where I can live in peace and simplicity. There maybe the problems can be dealt with. At least there you can get your head around the problems. What do I eat today? How do I keep warm? Where can I find water? No more worries about mortgages. No more worries about student debt, or taxes, or the car breaking down, or selling a house, or politics, or messed-up families, or the destruction of the forests, or the failing health care system, or terrorism, or Iran having nuclear weapons. I can relate to the desire to escape all that. Just the wild and me. It’s simple. It’s understandable.
The desert Fathers and Mothers did exactly that. When the world seemed corrupt and the spiritual communities seemed to be watered down they fled into the wild, where they could worship and live in purity and holiness. The problem for the desert Fathers and Mothers was that when they fled they quickly found out that they haven’t really escaped. They soon realize that they have brought the “World” with them. The brokenness followed them. it followed them because it was rooted in their own hearts.  
In the true story of Christopher McCandless, in 1992 he finds his way into the wilderness of Alaska, just as he hoped. He escapes into the wild. He finds an old abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere that had been at some point used as a makeshift hunting cabin. He soon discovers, however, that he is not in harmony with nature. He shoots a moose, but fails to preserve the meat properly before it is filled with flies and maggots. He uses a field guide to forge for food, but ends up poisoning himself by gathering the wrong plant. He attempts to flee the wild and return to society, but a river that had been a little more than a creek when he arrived was now a raging torrent. Instead of discovering true happiness secluded in the wild away from all the world's problem's, he discovers that happiness is only meaningful if its shared. The brokenness and disorder of the world followed Christopher into the wild. His body, along with his journals were, discovered two weeks after his death.
Those who attempt to escape the brokenness, chaos, and sin of this world find that it follows them. When the London Times Newspaper invited a number of authors to write articles answering the question “What’s wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton replied. “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton”. We cannot escape the corruption of the world because it has crept into us. We bring it with us wherever we go.
It has become fashionable to underplay this. We’re all just human, we say. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. ... And it’s true. ... However, there are consequences. Take a lie, for example. Or, even just a broken promise. Everyone has made a promise with the best intentions, but have been unable to keep it. We get busy, or we just plain forget. Think about what that does to the world. … People become a little less trusting. The world becomes a little more suspicious. Our word becomes devalued. When our word is devalued we need some sort of system to make us keep our promise. Soon our “Yes” or “No” is no longer good enough. We have to promise by signing on the dotted line with witnesses signing under us, and agreeing to consequences that will then motivate us to keep our word. Take any little seemingly meaningless sin and multiply it across the world- Everyone committing “little” sins here and there everyday all over the world, and we are left with a very broken world.
When we say “nobody’s perfect” to justify our mistakes and not feel bad about them or do anything about them we are justifying our contribution to the mess of the world.  Are we going to make mistakes? yes. ...  But, we must take the consequences of those mistakes seriously. We must own the fact that we make the world a worse place, because of our failings. We have to own it personally. With G.K. Chesterton we have to recognize that the problem with the world is me. ... This doesn’t mean we go around with long sad faces feeling sorry for ourselves. That’s hardly the point. The point is that God wants to change it. God doesn't want it to be this way, and really... neither do we. We accept the mess because we aren't quite sure what to do about it. We all deal with sin in our lives, and if you can't pinpoint it then your sin in probably pride or vanity. We all wrestle with something that contributes to the mess of the world. We just don't know how to fix it in ourselves, let alone in anyone else. We'd like to be able to fix it, but we don't know how, so we just learn to accept it rather than stress out about it.
When Malachi's people were crying out to God, asking him when he will fix the world, God replied through the prophet,
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. ... Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness" Mal 3:1-4 

            There will be a messenger who will prepare the way for God, but it won't go as expected. Most of us want to put the problems with the world "out there" somewhere. The world is a mess because other people have made it that way. It's someone else's problem. We want God to fix those other people. But, of course the truth is that "the problem with the world" is in each and every one of us. And so the prophet says, "Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?". When God comes to deal with the world's problems He will deal with each and every one of us.
            Then the prophet gives us two actions. Refining and cleaning. Both are images where something valuable is recovered. You clean your car. You refine gold that has impurities. The positive and hopeful part of the prophet's message is that God sees us as worth cleaning and worth refining. You don't clean garbage. You don't refine manure. We are worth cleaning. We are worth refining. But, this is also an invasive process. This requires deep cleaning soap. This requires fire that will melt us down right to the core, not just along the edges. If God is going to deal with us He has to get deep down into our heart. God can't just deal with our outward actions. It won't work that way. Our actions are an out-flowing of our hearts. Without a change in our hearts our actions will continue to reflect the brokenness that is there.  The gold has to be purified right down to the centre. It has to be completely melted down to be purified.
            The messenger to announce the coming of this purifying God has come. We are told that John the Baptist was in the wilderness near the Jordan River and had the words of Isaiah and Malachi on his lips. He came to prepare, and to call people to change. He was washing people in baptism, and saying another will come with a refiner's fire. Malachi said the messenger would prepare the way for God, and John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus.                Repent, clean, baptize, refine, prepare- these are words we are given during the Season of Advent. They are primarily God's words. God cleans us, Baptism is a sacramental gift from God, God's fire refines us. Even repentance is something God does inside us.  Of course there is a cooperative element in this. God wants us to want to be changed, cleansed, baptized, refined, and prepared. These are words that make us a bit uncomfortable. What does refining feel like? Does it hurt? What if we aren't ready to let go of something God wants to burn away in the refining fire?      
            Aside from the anxiety these words can provoke in us, these words are also hopeful- Repent, clean, baptize, refine, prepare. These are hopeful words because they point to the fact that we can be changed, and the world can be made a better place. Where it feels impossible for us, it is possible with God. We can be made ready for God’s coming. We can have our minds and hearts changed. If God is going to rule the world, he has to rule our hearts first.
            C.S. Lewis says that we let Jesus into our lives often because there is something wrong or something missing. He's like a houseguest we invite in because he's a bit of a handyman. We have a leaky faucet and the sink won't drain right. We would like a garden door put in the back. So we're happy to have Jesus staying with us. We're happy to have those little fix-it jobs done finally. ... But soon we recognize that he's mucking about with things we never really wanted fixed. He's knocking down walls and putting making additions to the house. he's tearing up the back yard and putting in a garden and water fountains and it all makes us nervous because we weren't sure this was what we were looking for when we let him in. It makes us uncomfortable. We can resist, but if we're going to really have Jesus in our house he won't stop until our house matches his plans. That fixing begins when we invite Jesus in, but it will only be completed when Jesus finally comes to set the world right.
            As Jesus works on us we become people who are in tune with God's compassion and love.  He will fill you with God Himself. He will not only wipe the slate clean. He will give you the strength to live as people of God’s kingdom. He will not only forgive and wipe away your sins. He will empower you and use you to change the world for the better, and it's all happening right now. He is making it so that God is living in you and changing the world through you. And that means that you are becoming one of those places where God is breaking into the world. And that is how God is dealing with the mess we are in. Not by imposing his will on us, but by working with us on our hearts- Refining us, cleaning us. And the end result is good.  

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Remembrance Day

Before I begin, I just want to say that not everyone is going to agree with what I'm about to say.  I hope that if anything I say bothers you that we can have a conversation. This goes for all my sermons actually. You can disagree with me.

            I find Remembrance Day to be a difficult day, which is probably how it should be. This morning I would like to share a bit of that struggle.  I think it is important to remember those who have suffered in war. It is important to remember the high cost of war- then and now. It is important to remember how fragile peace can be. It is important to remember the monsters that live inside of us. It is important to remember those who risked their lives trying to do something about suffering because to sit back and do nothing was a worse evil. Remembrance Day is also a day to remember Jesus' words to us about violence and about how we are to treat our enemies. 

Personal Connections to WW2

            My Oma and Opa (grandma and grandma) were in Holland during the war. On a regular basis the Germans would pull my Opa and his family out of bed in the middle of the night and raid their house. My Opa tells me about a gold pocket watch that was handed down through the family- a bit of a family heirloom- that was stolen by the German soldiers.

            My Oma lived on a farm near a river and the Germans would float bombs down the river and they would explode near their house. (I should also say that "Roth" is a German name.) Oma would go to bed with a pillow over her head to muffle the explosions in the night. When she went to sleep she wasn't always sure if she was going to wake up and would comfort herself with the thought that she might wake up in heaven.

            My great grandmother's last name was "Goldstein". She was Jewish, but adopted into a Christian Dutch family. They spelled her name in an unusual way which is likely why the Germans never took her away. So I'm also conscious of my unknown Jewish relatives who suffered in World War 2. 

            I had conversations with my wife's grandpa before he died. He was a rifleman in the Canadian Army. He didn't talk about this often at all, but on the rare occasion if it was late enough he would share glimpses of his story. He was part of a group that liberated a concentration camp. He described one prisoner who was standing at the gate of the camp. The man was just skin and bones. He was so excited when the troops came to free them that he passed out and died.

            I encounter war through the memories of those around me. I have never had to make those hard decisions, nor have I had to live in the midst of those unimaginable conditions. But, these memories also allow me to see the war in a personal way. I see it through the eyes of family and people I care about. Good people.  

            The situation in the mid 20th century was horrible. Something had to be done. A decision had to be made to help those who were suffering. And the action that was decided on was not the easy option. Those who went to fight risked their lives trying to do something about what was going on. They were willing to put their lives on the line for those who were suffering.

            And that is something we are called to as Christians. We are not permitted to stand by and do nothing as people are suffering. Christ calls us to step into the situation as peacemakers. We are called to stand with the victims of oppression and cruelty. Jesus calls us to risk our lives if necessary. In the midst of the conflict I feel within myself during Remembrance Day, I also acknowledge that many died trying to something about the suffering and injustice that was going on. They were willing to risk their lives to do something about it. They refused to stand by and do nothing when others were suffering.

Encounter war as a Christian

            There is no doubt in my mind that Christians are called to risk their lives to do something about injustice. ..But,... I'm really not sure that 'something' involves taking the life of another human being. This is where I feel conflicted. It's the killing part that bothers me.

            The reason I feel conflicted is because Jesus said to his followers: "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:35); "Do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6:27); and "Turn the other cheek" (Luke 6:29). The Jesus we serve allowed himself to be killed on a Roman cross. He wouldn't let Peter fight for him. Peter cut the ear off one of the soldiers and Jesus healed the soldier and rebuked Peter telling him to “Put [his] sword back in its place ... for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (Matt 26:52).

             I'm not sure what can be done to cancel out these plain teachings of Jesus against deadly force. And that leaves me conflicted. What would Jesus have us do about Hitler and the Nazis? Did Jesus really mean what he said? Is there any way that a person can love their enemy, but outwardly strike them across the cheek? I have heard plenty of interpretations of people trying to wiggle around what Jesus said. (I've probably been guilty of it myself).  His words make us uncomfortable. His words don't seem realistic.  They seem too hard. He is asking too much of us. He's asking us for everything. He's asking for our very lives. ... He is. ... He is asking for everything from us. We shouldn't try to wiggle around what he's actually saying, and make him say something else. Our only question in response to his teaching is "will we follow him? Are we willing to give him everything?"

What is the Christian response? Have to do something, but Take Jesus' words about our enemies seriously.

Just War Theory

            Christians have tried to wiggle around Jesus' words for a long time- how do we protect ourselves from enemies, and help those who are victims of violence and still follow the words of Christ? The best attempt to justify a Christian use of violence was St. Augustine's Just War theory.

            Augustine put together a theory of Just War at a time when his people were being killed and raped by foreign armies. He spelled out principles, which are still used today, under which circumstances a nation can justly go to war. Augustine clearly saw it as a last resort to be used only when all other means have failed and when the other nation compels a defensive response. War is always used as the lesser of two evils. The suffering and evil of not defending and allowing the enemy to destroy at will with no opposition is seen as too great an evil to endure. The suffering of war would be less than the suffering of not going to war. Entering into war amounts to less evil overall.

            St. Augustine came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward dispositions. So in self-defence I may actually kill my attacker, but inwardly my actual motivation was to protect myself. I did not want to kill my attacker. It was a kind of accident that occurred as I was defending myself. So to St. Augustine the sin to be found in a war is really internal- it is to be found in motivation and inward disposition.  It is the inward disposition that motivates the act that determines if the act is right or wrong. If I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than out of a desire to punish my enemy, then I am justified in killing.

            It is also the duty of the ruler to maintain order and peace. At times this means war. If order and peace in a nation are part of God's will, then it also becomes God's will to partake in war which seems necessary to maintain that order and peace. So while war in itself is not good, it is necessary at times to maintain the peace and order of the state. The end justifies the means.         

            It is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It helped those Augustine was advising to use violence to protect their people. ... But, there are problems with it. I will give two examples.  First, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas once said, "I just want to know when the Just War theory has led Christians to say 'no' to a war". Just War theory often provides a way of justifying wars, but doesn't really ever seem to have the power to prevent a nation from entering into war.

            A second problem with the theory is that it separates our motivations from our actions. Jesus taught that our actions flow from our inward dispositions. The act of adultery begins through the lust in our heart. Murder begins through the anger in our heart. If we love our enemy our actions will flow from that disposition, our actions will not contradict our inward disposition. Loving our enemy is turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate us. It seems strange to see an act of inward love expressed through a balled fist swung at an enemy's nose.

            We want to wiggle out of Jesus' words to us because they are challenging. Jesus forces us to trust him entirely or reject him entirely. We want middle ground that he doesn't seem to give us. As Christians we are forced to act between two extremes. We cannot do nothing, but neither are we permitted to kill our enemies. WE have to do something to protect those who are suffering and we have to love the enemy that causes the suffering. We are called to risk our lives, but we are not to kill.   

Forced into this position  because Christians weren't acting as Christians

            When thinking about war and violence we often think of ourselves put in the middle of an already existing battle, but we have to remember that there were many events that led up to the war. The ethicist Robert Brimlow says, "If the question is asking how a pacifist church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the holocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation. The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it is a result and culmination of centuries of failure." 

            These are difficult and challenging words. He is basically saying that if Christians had been listening to Jesus' call before Word War 1 and World War 2 those wars might not have happened. In the World Wars national flags became more important than their Lord and Savior, and Christians were willing to kill other Christians. In the Bible Christians are not even permitted to take each other to court. How could it be that Christians were killing each other when they are called to love even enemies? Brimlow has strong and challenging words to say to past generations. I don't know how justified they are. They lived in difficult times and had to make difficult choices.

            Perhaps Brimlow's words can stand as a warning for us now. It's not fair for us to look into past generations and cast judgment on them, especially if we are not willing to make our own choices today.

            In our own lives there are two things we can do. First, we can deal with the seed of war in our own hearts. We can deal with our own anger, contempt, and leanings towards violence. We are called to become more Christ-like by taking our spiritual formation seriously. When we speak about being a people of Mission that is not a new church trend. Not recognizing and grasping our sense of mission has real life consequences. Brimlow would tell us that Christians not taking their Mission to be the light of the world seriously resulted in the deaths of many millions of people. Christians not taking their spiritual formation into Christ-likeness seriously resulted in millions of lives lost. We don't know what is in our future, but our own spiritual lives concern more than just the salvation of our souls. So first, we have to deal with our own hearts as we follow Jesus recognizing that there is much at stake. 

            Second, when we do find ourselves facing a violent situation we are called to a third way. Through prayer and the creativity of the Spirit we find a way somewhere between doing nothing and killing our enemy. We find a way to protect the innocent and stand with them, while also loving our enemy with the love of Christ.  This makes us uncomfortable because we imagine ourselves during World War 2 and we wonder what we would do. What if we had to protect our families and friends from an invading army. What would we do if we knew about those who were suffering in concentration camps? As disciples of Christ we are called to be peacemakers and to turn the other cheek. What do we do? 

                We are called to a third way. We are not to partake in killing, but neither are we to do nothing. We are to sit in those hard questions and pray. And in prayer we are to have faith that God will provide a third way.  It will not be predictable. It will not always be safe. It will not always be rational. It won't be a formula that can be applied to every violent situation. It won't even necessarily be the right action for similar situations. We have to rely on God through prayer to give us the right way- To give us a third way. Jesus' way of love led to his own death, but there are worse things than death for the Christian. The third way will mean that we are with Jesus walking in his footsteps. In the big eternal picture that is the safest place to be. His way may lead us to death, but it will also lead us to resurrection. We follow Jesus' way because we are disciples who want to follow Jesus and we know that ultimately peace and freedom come not from war, but from God.
            So yes, on this Remembrance Day we remember the suffering caused by war. We remember the high cost of war- in lives lost, in social damage, and psychological damage. We remember that partaking in war changes us. We remember the preciousness and fragility of peace. We remember that the monsters of war live in our own hearts. We remember that sacrifice is often needed to react to violence because to do nothing is a terrible evil. ...But today we also remember that our choice to live lives following Jesus has an effect on the world. ... And the opposite of that is also true, our choice to not lead holy lives also has an impact on the world.       So on Remembrance Day we also remember Jesus' challenging words to us about violence and loving our enemies, and we remember the high cost of Christians not taking Jesus' call seriously.    

If you want to learn more about Christian non-violence here are two great resources:

Monday, 5 November 2012


Seven Deadly Sins- Envy  

            The sins and virtues have a funny relationship in our world. Even take this series itself. We are advertising it as the 7 deadly sins. We are not advertising it as the seven virtues. But, honestly ask yourself, which one sounds more enticing? The seven deadly sins? or the seven holy virtues? Which one are you really more interested in hearing about?   In our culture sin is sexy. Virtue is boring and geeky.  Even as Christians we tend to think that Sin would be a whole lot of fun if God just didn't have a "thing" about it.

            'Wrath' sounds like a superhero name- "Captain Wrath". Ladylust is a Yahoo email address. There is a sense of power and individualism that comes with sin. When we think of virtue, however, we think of a Victorian woman with lace gloves and a parasol fighting off a man's advances and "protecting her virtue".

            This has led to many of us knowing the sins better than the virtues. The 7 Sins get movies staring Brad Pit and Morgan Freeman. Most people can't name the virtues, if they are even aware that there are opposing virtues to the seven sins.

            Perhaps that is the way it has always been. Sin has always seemed more sexy, which is why we are drawn into it. We don't see sin for the muck and filth it actually is. We choose not to see it for the pain and destruction it causes. We see the excitement and adventure and power, ... but the allure of sin is always a trick. Sin always steals some good to wrap itself in. It wraps itself in some beauty that is not its own. You think it is a delicious fruit that will make you like God, but really you end up full of shame, and cut off from the source of all pleasure and joy. Sin is disease. It covers itself in false promises and temporarily hijacked pleasures. If we really saw sin in its true form we would see it as the putrid pile of manure and muck that it is.

            Envy, however, is the least sexy of the seven deadly sins.  If your average Joe or Jane were asked to list the seven sins, most wouldn't name Envy. But, our whole society is permeated by envy. To a large degree our economy is driven by it. Advertising is designed to heighten our envy and drive us into consumerism. So it's funny we aren't more conscious of the dangers of envy.   

             The reason we don't think about it more is likely that envy still seems to carry with it a sense of shame. Even the most worldly of people will still be embarrassed by their envy. They don't want to admit to feeling lower than someone because they value equality, and individuality so highly.  They will hide envy with sarcasm, or  with anger, or maybe disgust. People don't really show their envy truly. It feels gross, so we usually disguise it as something else.  

             Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. What is 'envy'?  Imagine two people. Me and Scott. Scott has some 'good'. Scott has a brilliant theological mind. Now, I could admire Scott and his mind, and there is nothing wrong with that. Admiration is actually good. I can admire a saint and be drawn deeper into relationship with God. Admiration can motivate me to be better than I am. The Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft says "Aspiration looks up and says, 'I aspire to be up there too.' ...Envy, on the other hand, looks up and says, 'I want you to be below me.' Envy is essentially competitive."  'Envy' is when I want him to be destroyed just for having whatever good he has. In my envy I would be happy just to see Scott get the flu and be not able to finish a lecture series where he exercises his gifted mind.  

            So there is a good that someone has. I am upset that that good is not mine because in my mind it elevates them above me in worth. I then begin to hate them for possessing this 'good'. Ultimately I desire their downfall. I want that person to fall on their face in the mud. I am pleased to see the suffering of the person who has that good.  Thomas Aquinas called Envy "sorrow for another's good".

            It differs slightly from jealousy and greed. There is a blurry line between them. Jealousy worries about being dispossessed of something they have. For example, we might worry about someone stealing their boyfriend or girlfriend. Greed is when we want to take something from someone and make it our own. ... In envy we are upset merely by the fact that the person has the good thing.        

            In our Scripture reading today David is blessed with being a successful warrior- that is the 'good' that he posesses. King Saul doesn't admire him. He isn't pleased because David is winning battles for the kingdom. Instead King Saul is filled with envy. He wants David to go down.

            We see this in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. God is more pleased with Abel's offering than with Cain's.  Cain kills his brother Abel, filled with envy over God's favor towards Abel.

            We see envy again when we read about Joseph's brothers selling him into slavery and faking his death because their father, Jacob, bestowed favors on him that he withholds from the others.  

            We see envy in fairy tales. The wicked queen looks into her mirror asking, "mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" When the mirror answers "Snow White" instead of the queen, that is when she plots to kill the girl.  

            If I'm honest with myself, I can sometimes become envious when I think about the fact that I have as many years of education as a lawyer, but my paycheck doesn't reflect that.

            Envy comes from the Latin word, "invidia", which means "to look upon". In Dante's Inferno the envious have a particular punishment. Since they have derived pleasure from seeing others suffer and be humbled their eyes are sewn shut with iron wire (13.43-72).            

            Someone is blessed with some good- a beautiful body, a seemingly perfect boyfriend or girlfriend, a nice car, a new iphone, a front loading washing machine, a vacation, a house, good grades, musical talent, ... (fill in the blank).... And we can't stand the person because they have been blessed with that good.

            In envy there is a twisting of our sense of fairness and equality. Something inside us can't stand that someone has something we don't. It's not fair. Envy hates the idea that we are living in a world where people have more money than us, and are more talented than us. Envy hates that some people can conceive and have children and others can't. Envy hates that some of us have to grow up without both our parents in our lives. Some of us deal with tragedy and trauma and others don't. Some get good grades without trying. Some are better looking than others. And envy hates them for it. You can feel envy in you. It eats at you. It feels gross and sick. To feel envious is to feel inferior.  

            It is essentially a selfish state of mind. Rather than rejoicing at the blessings those around us receive, we feel contempt for them. When something good has happened to our neighbor, God calls us to rejoice with them. Peter Keeft points out that, we are to "'rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep'.... [but] envy weeps at those who rejoice and rejoices at those who weep." Envy denies that God is sovereign to deliver good gifts to whoever He likes. Envy causes us to be ungrateful for what we have been given, and focuses our attention on what has been denied us and given to another.             

            In other sins there is a hint of gaining some pleasure. Lust promises pleasure, for example. Wrath promises justice. But, in envy there is only pain and sorrow. It is emptiness. Like the other seven deadly sins, Envy leads to more sin. In particular envy quickly leads to hatred.    

            If the disease is envy then what is the cure? The 4th and 5th century monk John Cassian said that of all the deadly sins envy was the hardest to cure because we hide it. But, if we can admit that we struggle with envy, there are choices we can make to help us deal with it. There are disciplines, or practices, that place us so that we can receive God's grace. We can practice refocusing our perspective. We remind ourselves that God is sovereign. God is in control and knows what He is doing. God has the right to bestow good gifts on whoever He chooses. We have no right to criticize God's choices, which is what envy does.

            We can practice compassion and empathy allowing ourselves to relate to the person we are envious of. We can learn to shift the focus off ourselves and learn to celebrate the blessings and the positive traits in others. We humble ourselves so that we can see ourselves as we are- not deserving any good any more than another person. 

            In humility we can remind ourselves that God loves us, not because of any good that we possess, but simply because we are His creatures. We can learn to believe that God truly does love us, and that we can trust Him to care for us, then we will learn to be content with what God has given us. When we truly know that God loves us, then we will in turn share that love that is poured into us. If we love others, we will want the best for them. The best example of God's love poured out is Christ on the cross in his willingness to suffer for the benefit of others. He becomes our example. He is who we aim at. When we grow in Christ-likeness and learn to love as he loved, then we will be able to suffer in love for others as well.  When we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of others our soul will be free of envy.

            This might sound a bit impossible. "So all we have to do to be free of envy is be like Christ. Thanks. Real helpful." ... The Christian life is the impossible life... in human terms. Loving our enemy and turning the other cheek are counterproductive to perpetuating our DNA. This life is impossible in human terms. It has to be Christ's life, and Christ's work in us.  We receive the grace and work in cooperation with God, but ultimately Christ begins to live his life in us. That is all that can free us from sin. We can't be freed by our own efforts or tactics.  Even the disciplines of refocusing our thoughts and reminding ourselves of God's truth are actually God's grace to us, given to us to help us walk the path of Christ. It's Christ living in us.

            In learning to love our neighbour as Christ loves us, we will not rejoice in the suffering of the person we envy. Instead we will learn to rejoice in the blessing that God has freely given to those around us.  Instead of having some sense of inequality we celebrate the fact the we live in a world where God freely showers us with blessings. When we learn to love as Christ loves we will be free of the pain and destruction of envy.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

JOB- Suffering and how to speak to God

Job is a book of wisdom. Job is like a long parable, almost a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was a man named Job, and he was the greatest man who lived in the land. Job is blameless. He lived in a big house, on lots of land, with a big family, and many possessions.  Job loves God and turns away from evil. And God, like a proud parent, richly blesses Job with family and property. Job is a good, good, good man.

          God even brags about Job to the Satan, which means “the accuser” or the “adversary”. He's a bit like a legal prosecutor against humanity. Satan looks at Job and tells God, “Ya, he’s good, but what happens if you take away his toys? He’s only good because you bless him at every opportunity- Of course he’s going to be good. But, what happens when the blessing stops? What happens when you take away his reward for being so good and faithful? Do you think he would still be good? I doubt it. In fact I think he would curse you right to your face.”
          There are few things I like more than giving my two boys something they love. I love the way they jump up and down when I’m giving them candy. When Zander was potty training he loved M&Ms, and so we used them to reward good behavior. He cleaned up his toys faster if he knew there was an M&M in store for him. However, if we reward him with an M&M for every good thing he did, what would he do when he knows that there are no more M&M’s? Would he still do what is right without a reward? Would he still follow our directions out of love for us, and not love for the reward?

          This is Satan’s question for Job. "How do you know Job really loves you, or the blessings you give him? Do you really still think he would be faithful and good if there were no reward?"

          God trusts in Job’s faith, and believes that Job will still love him, and that he will still be good without all the rewards. The Father trusts that his child will still be good even if there are no more M&Ms. So God allows Satan to take away Job’s blessings. There is an awful, horrible catastrophe that not only destroys his possessions, but his children as well. Job is heart broken, but he will not turn on God. Satan doesn’t stop there. Next he inflicts Job with painful sores all over his body. Job sits on an ash pile with a piece of broken pottery scratching at his skin trying to get some glimmer of relief from his suffering.

          Job stands as a representative of all humanity and is tested without knowing it- Can a human being love God without being rewarded? Can a human being do what is right when there is no personal benefit?

          Job’s friends sit with him in mourning for seven days without saying anything, ... but then they try to help him understand what is happening. Surely God wouldn’t allow this suffering to happen for no reason, so they start to come up with reasons that God would allow suffering like this.  Maybe Job is being punished for some awful secret sin. We know God is good, so the blame much be with Job. He must have done something to deserve his suffering.

          We know differently. This is not the case with Job. Job hasn't done anything to deserve this suffering. Actually, he is the best human being on the planet. There is no skeleton in his closet that would call for such suffering.  Job knows he has done nothing to deserve this. Job’s friends are trying to help, so they push him to expose the secret sin and ask forgiveness, but they are really only making things worse.

          Job sits with his friends among the ashes, oblivious to the causes of his suffering, but deeply wants to know “why”. And this is the Job that everyone of us relates to at some point in our life. Why is this happening? We endure some kind of tragedy, or illness, or we lose a loved one, and we want to know why? Is this some cruel joke? Could there possibly be any point or reason for it? How could a loving and all-powerful God allow this to happen?   
          The book of Job rests in the tension between two questions. On the one hand, we have Satan’s question, “Can people love God without being showered with blessings?” Satan is saying that people will only love God and be good if there is a reward. Without blessings of property and family, and protection from pain and suffering people will not love God and be good.
          On the other hand, we hear Job’s question- “Is it right for God to let those who love him suffer?” How can God, who is good and all-powerful, watch one of his children who loves Him, suffer and not do something about it?

          The book of Job rests in this tension. And out of this tension arises a third question. In this mystery of undeserved suffering, how do we speak of God? How do we speak to God? Throughout the book, Job expresses his anger to God. He expresses his questions and demands answers, but he never curses God. He never turns his back on God. In fact, he’s the only human in the book who speaks directly to God. The friends philosophize and try to fit God and the situation into some kind of box, but Job brings his pain to God, and Job is angry. Job does not give up. He maintains his gaze on God in his suffering. He holds onto God even when his theology seems to fall apart. The friends continue to accuse Job and say that he is the cause of his suffering. And Job continues to cry out to God asking for an explanation because he knows he hasn’t done anything to deserve the loss of his possessions, family, and his health.    

          In the end, after everyone has had their turn speaking, God shows up in a whirlwind. And God questions Job about the creation. To Job’s questioning of God, God asks Job about the mysteries of creation. God asks Job about two creatures of chaos- Behemoth and Leviathan. These are God’s creatures, but who cause destruction. Job is dumbstruck, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” 

          Job has a mystical encounter with God. Previously he had heard of God, but now he sees God. And in seeing God and hearing his response, Job is transformed, but is also left speechless. His time for crying out in anger at God has ended when he encounters his Creator face to face. He realizes how much he doesn’t understand, and can only respond with silence.             

          God then turns from Job, and expresses his anger towards Job’s friends, “My wrath is kindled against you … ; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” These are Job's friends who were trying to defend God with their theology, but really they put more suffering on Job. God then asks the friends to ask Job to pray for them. Job prays for his friends, and God blesses Job once again with family and doubles the wealth he had before. 

          No answer is given to Job. The reason for his suffering is never given. We will find no easy explanations for our sufferings in this book. What we will find is words to speak to God in our suffering. Job has given us words to speak, and God has said that they are the right words. The friends who attempt to give an explanation for Job’s suffering are in the wrong. Their attempt to reduce Job’s suffering to his own sin, is what angers God. Job’s crying out to God in anger and pain is what God accepts.

          The ending of Job is not about a happily ever after ending, but it is an ending. It is not a na├»ve return to the beginning of the book where everything is sunshine and kittens. It is about going through the suffering and coming out the other side after wrestling with God. In Job’s life suffering did not have the last word. There was a time when the suffering moved from the forefront of his life. This ending gives hope that there is some goodness that will eventually overwhelm the suffering. Suffering will not have the last word.

          In Job, no explanation for suffering is given. I’m sorry if you are suffering. I’m sorry if you feel like Job right now. I don’t know why these things happen. I don’t know why we suffer. I don’t understand why God allows it to happen. But whatever suffering is about, it seems to be central to what it means to be human.

          Struggling with the loss of his 25 year old son, the Christian philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff confesses in his book Lament for a Son, “I cannot fit it all together by saying, ‘[God] did it,’ but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing [God] could do about it.’ I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job, endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric’s death. To live without the answer is precarious. It’s hard to keep one’s footing.” … It’s not that Wolterstorff doesn’t believe he will see his son again, he believes in the resurrection, and he believes his son is with God. He continues, “Eric is gone, here and now he is gone; now I cannot talk with him, now I cannot see him, now I cannot hug him, now I cannot hear of his plans for the future. That is my sorrow. A friend said, ‘Remember, he’s in good hands.’ I was deeply moved. But that reality does not put Eric back in my hands now. That’s my grief. For that grief, what consolation can there be other than having him back?” In the Christian life, “to the ‘why’ of suffering we get no firm answer. Of course some suffering is easily seen to be the result of our sin: war, assault, poverty amidst plenty, the hurtful word. And maybe some is chastisement. But not all. The meaning of the remainder [of suffering] is not told us. It eludes us.” … “Suffering is down at the centre of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history. But the mystery remains. Why isn’t Love-without-suffering the meaning of things? Why is suffering-Love the meaning? Why does God endure his suffering? Why does he not at once relieve his agony by relieving ours?”

          There are no answers to Wolterstorff’s questions that we can see. And he is not interested in easy answers. We dare not speak as Job’s friends have spoke. We dare not give easy answers to another’s suffering. The book of Job tells us that this angers God. We cannot tell Wolterstorff that the death of his son Eric is “not really so bad.” (These are his words again) “because it is [bad]. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench”. (God, Medicine, and Suffering. Stanley Hauerwas. P 149-151).

          As human beings, at some point in our life, we will sit with Job on the ash heap, and we will have no explanation for our suffering.  We will have well meaning friends say foolish things in the attempt to make us feel better. But there was one who came to join us in our suffering. There was another man who suffered for no sin of his own. Immanuel- God-with-us- The Creator of the universe took on weak, suffering, human flesh and submerged himself in the muddy Jordan River, baptizing himself in all of our pain and sin. The only human being who did not need baptism did not leave anything behind in the river, rather he took on our muck.

          God has not abandoned us in our suffering. He has joined us in our suffering. God does not sit off in the distance watching us suffer. He joins us in all the filth, in the dust and ashes. No explanation is given, but God came to sit with us in our mess. But he will not leave us there. God will not let suffering have the last word in God’s good creation. Jesus will be with us. He will descend into the grave with us, and he will rise with us. Jesus sits with us in our pain and suffering, but he is there to guide us out of our suffering as well. He is there on the other side of our suffering. Life does not end with a cross. God will not let life end with a cross. The cross will lead to resurrection and life that does not end. The cross is horrifying, but the unexpected resurrection overwhelms that suffering and turns the suffering of the cross into a symbol of hope. Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”                    

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