Sunday, 25 December 2016

the ordinary Christmas

I'm actually someone who really loves everything about this time of year. I love the decorations, even the cheesy ones. I love the lights and the music. I love the snow on the ground and just that general Christmassy feeling. However, in the midst of all the lights and decorations we can miss how ordinary that first Christmas actually was.

There was nothing special about when Jesus was born. Luke's biography of Jesus tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because of a census that was being done by the Roman government. Nothing special was happening. It was just a bit of politics that I’m sure everyone was grumbling about. Imagine the Canadian government told everyone to return to the place of their birth for a particular day so they could count the citizens and figure out a calculation for taxes. That doesn’t sound like particularly holy timing for the birth of the Messiah.

Now if I was in charge, Jesus would have been born on Yom Kippur, which was the highest holy day in the Jewish year- the Day of Atonement. … Imagine, Joseph and Mary travel to Jerusalem for Yom Kippur. They stay with friends in Bethlehem, and then they can't make it to the temple services because Jesus (the one who will bring atonement- at-one-ment between us and God) is born just as the High priest is conducting the most holy ceremony on the Day of Atonement. But he wasn't, he was born on an ordinary day. The kind of day where you buy your groceries, go to work, clean the house, play with your kids, and have coffee with friends. That's the kind of day Jesus was born on.

Jesus was also born to an ordinary couple. He wasn't born to a king and queen. Or to a high priest and his wife. Mary was a young woman- a good Jewish girl. Joseph was a carpenter. Sure he has some royal blood, being from the family of King David. But perhaps that was relatively common in people whose families were from Bethlehem, the city of King David. Jesus was born to an ordinary couple. We wouldn't be able to pick them out of a crowd.

Jesus was born in an ordinary way. He wasn't transported down from heaven in a glowing beam of light. He was born… and there was pain, and pushing, and blood, and crying, and then hugging, and feeding, and then tears of joy when they realize he's healthy and that Mary will be okay. Jesus was born the way human babies are born.

Jesus was born in an ordinary kind of place. He wasn't born in a palace. He wasn't born in the temple. He wasn't born on Mt. Sinai where Moses received the law. … There is a long tradition about Jesus being born in a stable, but he was probably born in a one room home. There was no room for them in the guest room so they were welcomed to stay with the family in the one room where they lived. The animals had a space at the back of that room where they would stay at night. The family room would often have either a wooden manger or a dug out bowl in the floor which would be used to feed animals. Jesus was born in a place where people lived their lives- where they cooked, cleaned, ate, slept, and lived everyday life with those they loved. Jesus was born and swaddled and they placed him in an ordinary manger, a kind of feeding trough for the animals. The place of his birth was pretty ordinary.

There is a lot that is ordinary about the birth of Jesus. … But, there are some parts about his birth that are extraordinary. For one, there are angels. Angels are heavenly beings that are often messengers of heaven. Angels appear to tell about the birth of Jesus. … But who do they tell? The angels did not appear to the Roman Emperor. The angels didn't appear to King Herod. The angels didn't appear to the High Priest of the Temple. Who did the Angels appear to? Luke says (Lk 2:8-14),
"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”"

This amazing angelic visitation was to shepherds - ordinary, bottom of the social ladder, run of the mill, shepherds.

We have this strange pairing of the ordinary and the extraordinary. An ordinary girl with an extraordinary pregnancy. Ordinary shepherds are visited by extraordinary angelic beings. This extraordinary child who is called Jesus (which means God Saves), and Immanuel (which means God-with-us), savior, and Lord- this extraordinary child is born, on an ordinary day, in an ordinary home, to an ordinary couple, and placed in an ordinary straw-filled manger used to feed ordinary animals. … Most people in Bethlehem went on with their day unaware that anything special happened.

And, I think that is how God wanted it. That is how God planned it. Because God works through the ordinary. That's what the incarnation is about- God working in the ordinary. "The Incarnation" is really just a big word for what the author C.S. Lewis described as “the author writing himself into the script of the play". Through the ordinary events of life- through the play that is life- God brings it about that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem belonging to the family of King David- just as the prophets foretold about the expected Messiah. God worked in the ordinary to bring about the extraordinary. God wrote himself into the play.

Jesus, the Son of God, (and mysteriously, God Himself,) lived as one of us. An ordinary life. He scraped his knee as a boy. He had friends and played. He learned from his parents. He grew up to be a carpenter like his father. … He didn't start his public preaching ministry until he was 30. Most of Jesus' life was lived in an ordinary way. That is what the incarnation is about- God enters the everyday ordinary-ness of human life as one of us. … That is what God wanted.

The teachings Jesus gave us were for how to live our ordinary lives in an extraordinary way. He didn’t just come to be our savior to bring us to heaven when we die. He came to teach us how to live in a heavenly way right here and now. That is what it means to follow Jesus. That is what it means to be a Christian- to learn to live everyday filled with God’s love. Allowing God to once again take on flesh through us- to act through us- to love through us. Jesus came to save us, yes, but he also came to show what it means to live saved lives. Through our ordinary lives God will bring about the extraordinary.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Advent 4- get uncomfortable if you want to join God

The stores are packed with everything you need to have the perfect Christmas. The variety is staggering- shelves and shelves of evergreen branches, Santa statues, and lights for your house. For those of us with fake Christmas trees they even sell a real Christmas tree smell, so you can feel like you have a real tree. The stores ring with Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby singing Christmas songs. The magazines on the stand boast perfect holiday dishes and decorations. Then there are the toys! Nearly life-size Darth Vader action figures, and dolls of every imaginable variety. Even the pet aisle is celebrating the holidays.

While some are planning the perfect Christmas experience, others are finding it difficult to get in the spirit. Some have experienced a death that the holidays seem to highlight with an empty chair at the table. Some are dealing with family problems that just never seem to get better. Some don’t even really know why they aren’t into it, they just aren’t feeling much cheer. They feel out of step with what is going on around them. Everyone is planning a perfect holiday and their lives feel so far from perfect they don’t even want to try.

The first Christmas was more of the out of step variety. God often seems to move out of step with the usual social expectations. Things would go a lot smoother if it was the High Priest’s wife the angel had come to visit with news about being pregnant with the messiah. She would have already been married and they could avoid that awkward pregnant and not married thing. Joseph wouldn’t have to struggle with what to do with his pregnant fiancé. Of course he knew it wasn’t his. Why should he raise another man’s child? Why should he take on another man’s responsibility? No, better to dismiss her quietly. But, he doesn’t want her to get hurt- he doesn’t want her to get stoned for fornication. But, It’s not fair that he should have to marry her. What would people think? They would think he was the fornicator- messing around before being married. No, best to do this quietly- as best you can in a small town. And this story about an angel, c’mon, really? That’s the story she wants to go with?

The whole thing is absolutely scandalous. Better to just distance himself from the whole thing. It’s not decent. It’s not the life he had planned for himself. I would imagine that is how things would have looked for Joseph.

Of course that’s how God seems to work. God interrupts our comfortable lives, and turns our expectations upside down. When the angel comes to Mary and tells her she will Have God’s son she sings a song that includes the lines, 
“he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:51-53).
 The normal order of things is upset. God disturbs our comfortable social expectations. If we expect God to move in our lives, then we should expect to be made uncomfortable. We should expect our usual ways of being to be disturbed. We should perhaps even expect scandal.

Joseph could have dismissed Mary and gone on with his life- a life in keeping with the social norms of his community- a life that didn’t rock the boat. He could have went on to have a family and apply his trade to support them. Instead Joseph is thrown into scandal. Shortly after the child is born he even has to become a refugee and flee to Egypt. This is not the plan he made for himself.

I think we can be a lot like Joseph, when he wants to dismiss Mary. We want to go about our business. We want to accomplish our modest goals and not cause too much trouble. We want to be good people. We want to avoid having too much drama in our lives if at all possible. We want to be comfortable. Most of us don’t feel the need to be famous, or to strive to be billionaires. We just want enough that we don’t have to worry about it and can have a few nice things. We want family and friends that are healthy, and work that keeps our interest without being overwhelming. That’s what most of us want. I think we can understand Joseph wanting to dismiss Mary quietly, can’t we?

But imagine what he would have missed? Joseph would have missed his calling. He would have missed his call to be a father to the Messiah. He would have missed out on the heroic task of keeping him and his mother safe. He would have missed teaching Jesus how to be a man. He would have missed playing an incredible part of God’s story in our world. Joseph could have missed out.

Is it possible that we miss out when we decide to keep our lives normal, according to plan, according to social expectation? When we choose to not have our comfortable lives disturbed is it possible that we are missing out on what God is doing right in front of us? Is it possible that we are missing our calling because we have chosen comfort instead? That part of our life that we want to just go away, is it possible that that is exactly where God is trying to speak to us?

Joseph found that sometimes being faithful meant being at odds with society. It was in those unusual circumstances that Joseph saw God working in his life. Joseph stayed faithful to Mary even though society made him feel that he should walk away from her. It was in violating convention that Joseph found himself in God’s will. God often seems to work in the unexpected. He works in the interruption.

Joseph took a chance. He had a dream where an angel spoke to him and told him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife (1:20). It was fear that was holding him back- fear of what people might say- fear of his life being disturbed- fear of his life not going according to his plan- fear that Mary was lying about the angel and her pregnancy. Joseph decided not to allow that fear to lead him. Instead he chose to follow the dream that strangely spoke about a baby that would save people- with no clue about how that was supposed to happen. He wasn’t given a map of where they were going. He was just asked to walk through a door with only a vague idea of what would happen after that. He was off his map, but he walked onto God’s map.

Many of us live our lives wondering where God is and what God is doing. Maybe… just maybe… God has been trying to interrupt our lives. Maybe he has come to us as the irritating interruption, or the inconvenient neighbour. Maybe he comes to us, but answering Him means deviating from the plan we have drawn up for ourselves. What if we are left wondering where God is and what God is doing because we have been expecting God to work with our plans and in the convenience of our lives? Maybe we miss out on what God is doing when we aren’t willing to be interrupted, and maybe that leaves us with a sense of distance from God.

The poet David Whyte has a poem called The True Love where he says, the call “will not come so grandly, so Biblically, but more subtly and intimately, in the face of the one you know you have to love.”[1] Perhaps as we prepare for the perfect Christmas we can make ourselves ready to be interrupted- confronted- by “the face of the one [we] know [we] have to love”. Perhaps as we rush from one thing to the next we can notice God trying to speak to us in some unusual way- some inconvenient way- calling us off our own map and onto His. Perhaps we can allow ourselves to not allow the fear to decide for us. Maybe we can become willing to be made uncomfortable and find God there.

[1] David Whyte, “The True Love,” from The House of Belonging

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Advent 3- Patience

James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

James advises us to wait patiently as we wait for the coming of Christ. He mentions patience four times in these three verses we just read.

It has been said that patience is something we admire in the driver behind us, but not in the driver in front of us.

Patience is self-restraint in the face of aggravation. It is the opposite of anger when faced with difficulty. It is not losing your temper.

Patience is an essential part of mature Christian character. Patience is mentioned as one of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Patience is also mentioned as a characteristic of love in 1 Cor 13- “Love is patient; love is kind…” Over and over again when the Bible describes the character of someone who is living a faithful life we read that patience is a part of their character.

God has been trying to teach his people patience for a very long time. Abraham and Sarah were told they would have a child in their old age. In their impatience, however, they try to make this vision come true with Sarah’s servant, Hagar, which causes conflict after Sarah has the child God promised. Abraham was given a promise that his family would bring blessing to the whole world, but this plan moved slowly. It would take thousands of years, in fact.

Their decedents, the Hebrews, would have to be patient as they awaited release from slavery in Egypt. Then when they were released, they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land. They eventually were taken by the Babylonians into exile and learned patience as they longed to return. The people of Israel learned patience as they longed for the Messiah to come and save them. James mentions the prophets, who stood and spoke God’s words to a community that didn’t want to hear them and sometimes endured terrible persecution. The disciples of Jesus had to be patient as they awaited the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus’ disciples continued to be hopeful and patient as they awaited the day when Jesus would come again. We read James say today, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord”. The early Christian community would endure numerous hardships and persecutions. It is patience that allowed the martyrs to endure to the end.

Over and over again in the stories of the Bible, and in descriptions of Christian character we see patience mentioned or implied. It is a characteristic that we are to develop as followers of Jesus. God wants to help us develop patience.

We learn patience in numerous ways. We might learn patience as a part of our job. If you are a carpenter, or a farmer, or a lab tech, you will probably be better at it if you know how to apply patience. James says, 

“The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (James 5:7-8).
 I once read a story about a little girl who was part of a farming family. She was very excited to see the seeds the just planted start to grow. She would go out into the fields every day looking for green shoots. Day after day she would ask her father when the seeds would grow and her father just told her to be patient. One days she did see little shoots spring up out of the soil all over the field. She was very excited, but she grew impatient again as she watched the young plants. They didn’t seem to grow at all. So one night she snuck out of bed and went through the field and pulled each plant up just a little to help it grow a bit quicker. Well, we know how that story ends. If you don’t have patience, you won’t be a very good farmer.

We need patience to learn certain skills. To learn a musical instrument you need to spend a long time practicing. Without patience you’ll give up. To learn a language you need to spend time memorizing vocabulary and repeating grammatical structures. It takes patience.

We are also taught patience as we endure circumstances that are beyond our control. The weather is out of our control. It requires patience to endure the cold day after day, week after week.

We can use ordinary circumstances to help us learn patience. Waiting in line at the grocery store or the coffee shop can be an opportunity to learn patience. James says, 
“Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (James 5:9).
 Rather than grumble and complain and get snarky with the cashier (something we will be judged for), instead, use it as an opportunity to learn patience. Difficult people will also teach us patience. I often think that God gives us at least one difficult person in our lives to help us learn patience and kindness. Instead of grumbling against this person and casting judgement on them, learn patience. Use these circumstances as a gift from God to train your character in patience. We grow spiritually not only as we do religious stuff like reading our Bible, going to church, and spending time in prayer. These everyday circumstances are important opportunities for spiritual growth.

We can use difficult circumstances to teach us patience as well. Illness can be a powerful teacher of patience. I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I do believe that God can bring good out of suffering. Patience can be a good fruit God brings out of difficult circumstances. Enduring suffering can teach us patience if we let it.

It is important that we develop patience because it is a part of being like Christ. Jesus was able to love those that were beating and torturing him on the cross partly because of his profound patience. God is very patient. He works slowly and incrementally throughout history. Even in my own life I’m amazed at God’s patience to watch me take two steps forward and then three back. God’s goal is transformation over a lifetime, not a moment. If we are to become more like Christ, then it is essential that we learn patience. If we learn patience then we will be able to stand against injustice and oppression. If we learn to be patient in the grocery store, and in learning an instrument, and with difficult people, then we will become stronger when it comes to dealing with the big things. We will be ready when God needs us to stand against some evil. If we are not patient in these small things, then we will not have the character to stand in these big things.

God is not finished with this world. He is working in history to bring about his promises. But we will have to be patient because this is on his time-line not ours. We might want all the jerks in our lives to be made into nice people, but God works over time. Small changes over a long period of time. God is patient, but a time will come when God’s world will become what He always wanted it to be.

Monday, 5 December 2016

John the Baptist- repent

John the Baptist is someone who would probably make most of us uncomfortable. He comes calling people to repent. To repent is to change- to change your mind- to change your purpose- to reorient yourself towards God. Change is often uncomfortable. If we want to lose weight we need to change how we eat and our exercise habits. If we want to learn to play guitar it means changing our schedule to make time to practice, which can be hard on the fingers until we build up callouses. If we want to stop a habit like smoking or drinking we will have to change how we react to stress, and change our patterns. … Change is often uncomfortable.

Of course staying the same can be uncomfortable too. Usually we will only change if the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing (I think Tony Robbins said something like that). Sometimes we won’t change our diet until we start having health problems. John made the pain of staying the same greater for those listening to him. He said that the Kingdom of heaven is just around the corner, and if they weren’t careful they were going to miss out. He was like a doctor telling them that if they don’t change their eating habits and start getting regular exercise they are going to have a heart attack.

Those in control tend to want things to stay the same. John says to the religious leaders, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt 3:9-10). Being a child of Abraham was a way of presuming their relationship with God because of the group they are a part of. John tells them to not rely on that. It’s a bit like saying you belong to a church and were baptized as a child. Those are good things, but don’t think you are safe from judgement just because you are part of that group. John called the most respected religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers”. He told them that if they really were coming to repent that they should produce good fruit- evidence of their repentance and changed life.

What was John’s problem with these religious people? The Sadducees took care of the Temple, which was the only place Jewish people could sacrifice. They cared for the main institution of their faith- they kept the sacrifices and worship services going. In Jesus’ day it was an institution many people felt was corrupt and too aligned with the interests of the Roman Empire. The Sadducees did not want to rock the boat. They were in power as long as the Romans wanted them to be, so it was in their interests to keep the Romans happy.

The Pharisees were similar in their outlook in some ways. They too shared a sense that they had special status before God as the children of Abraham, but they tended to emphasize the keeping of the Law. So much so that they created new laws to keep themselves from breaking biblical laws. When Jesus criticized them it wasn’t so much for following the Bible’s laws, but for these other laws they made up- sometimes called ‘the traditions of the elders’- or for placing too much emphasis on personal purity and not enough on care for their neighbours.

John’s problem with these religious people was that they put on a good show, but they lost the heart of who they were supposed to be. God had called Israel to be the light to the nations. They were supposed to follow God in such a way that the whole world would be drawn in by the beauty of a life following God. It was supposed to be a community marked by love and care for those on the fringes of their society, and complete dedication to God. 

The parable of the Good Samaritan is about this. The religious people walk past the man robbed, beaten, and left for dead in a ditch. The religious people probably walk past the man because of fear of the impurity that comes from touching a dead body. Their over-concern for purity rules kept them from helping a person in need, which denies the very heart of who they were supposed to be as God's people.  

That is what John was doing. He was calling people to repent and be the people God has called them to be. He called them back to the Jordan River that their ancestors crossed when they came to the Promised Land so they could re-enter it as the people they were supposed to be.

So what might John say to us? He would challenge us to be who we are called to be. What is the mission of the church as the body of Christ? Being a Christian is not a hobby. A church is not a social club. Being a Christian is not about being a good Canadian. Being a Christian isn’t just about believing in God, or going to church, or being a ‘good person’. … Being a Christian is about being a disciple of Jesus Christ. It is about learning to live life the way he taught us to live it. It is about allowing the way of Jesus to determine our actions in family, and business, and in everything we do. Being a disciple is to be an apprentice- to learn to live and be as the Master is. It is the life Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). … In all the ways that we are not acting and thinking as disciples of Jesus, John would call us to repent. … John would challenge us to be who we are called to be. We call ourselves Christians, he would want to hold us to that. But being a Christian is more than believing in the existence of God. As James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe [that]—and shudder!” (James 2:19). … I’ve sometimes found it interesting to try to meditate on my life imagining what it would look like if I took church away- would there be evidence that I am a disciple of Jesus in the ways I treat others? In the way I spend my free time? In my prayer life? In my generosity to the suffering? In my reaction to enemies?  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer hinted towards this).

Being confronted with the idea that we might have to change is uncomfortable. We always expect Advent to be warm and comforting as we prepare for Christmas. Then we are confronted by prophets like John the Baptist calling us to repent and telling us to prepare for a coming judgment. It doesn’t exactly leave us with an egg nog and Christmas cookies kind of feeling.

But for those who were ready to hear it, they went to John in droves to be baptized. They wanted change. They saw a man in the wilderness crying out. They saw their path was crooked and they wanted to make it straight. The Pharisees and Sadducees were offended by John. But there were crowds of ordinary people that welcomed his words into their lives. They saw a prophet like Elijah, and the words of the prophets were on his lips. And prophets were often killed for being in tension with their society and the ruling authorities- as John would be. Prophets offend those who don’t want to change. But for those who know that the world is a mess, and that they are a mess, they are more likely to embrace change.

People were flocking out to see John the Baptist because in repentance they saw hope and life. Our problem is that often when we think of repentance we think of it from one side and we leave it there- We tend to see repentance as thinking “I’m a bad person” and we stop there. In the Bible we read, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… so turn and live” (Ez 18:32); “Turn to me, says the Lord of Hosts, and I will turn to you” (Is 45:22; Jer 15:19); “I am the Lord who does not remember wickedness, provided one turn from his evil ways and all his iniquities so that he may live” (Ez 18:21-22). God desires our repentance the way a doctor desires that we will eat better and get some exercise. We define Repentance as recalling the awful things we have done and then feeling bad about those things. The people went to John not because they wanted to focus on their sin, but because they wanted to turn towards God. Really that is what repentance is about- turning to God. This comes with an honest look at our lives to see where we might have turned away from Him.

Christian Spirituality includes repentance. Not as a way of living in guilt and bad self-esteem, but as a life that is constantly turning towards God. The verse from Isaiah that is attached to John the Baptist is 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’. We repent to prepare the way of the Lord as he enters our lives.

The goal of human life is to love and serve God and to enjoy him forever. When we understand this and live this way we will find our deep happiness. That is the teaching of the Church and the experience of the saints. Loving and serving God leads to lives of meaning and joy. This is not a simple joy, as if we will never deal with pain or suffering, but it is a joy that will underlay our lives. Repentance is the process of turning towards God in all parts of our lives. Repentance is turning to the One who loves us, and created us, and wants the best for us. Sometimes we have gotten stuck on repentance as being a locked stare on our mistakes and short comings. We need to refocus on repentance as a ‘turning toward’ God. If we do not take repentance seriously, then we will not grow in our spiritual lives because the spiritual life is the process of turning towards God.

I believe that John was so hard because of his great care for others. He believed there were consequences for living a life that was turned away from God. John talks about a tree that is cut down and thrown into the fire, and a chaff that is burned. Just as water is a symbol of washing, so Fire is a symbol of purification. Christ who is coming will baptize with Spirit and with Fire. John wants to see fruit of repentance. He wants to see that we have the humility to recognize that there are parts of our lives that need changing. Maybe we can interpret what he is saying like this- within us all we have branches that need trimming and chaff that needs to be burned. We are living trees with dead branches. We are wheat with the chaff still attached. Repentance is putting forward our dead branches and chaff to be burned by the fire Christ brings. This isn’t about God wanting to cause us pain, rather the branches God wants to remove are infected. He wants them thrown into the fire so that the rest of the tree will not be infected.

If we believe that God is for us and not against us- if we believe that God loves us- then we will not fear repentance. He desires our repentance the way a doctor desires their patient will start eating better. Repentance is ultimately about hope because it implies that there is a better future to turn towards. It implies that our future selves can be more like Jesus and God wants to make that possible.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Three Spirits of Advent- 1

Today is the church’s New Year. The Church year always begins with Advent. Advent is a season that brings a certain level of tension. Our culture wants to sing Christmas Carols, but the spirits of Advent says “wait”. Our culture wants to celebrate by eating cookies and decorating Christmas trees, but the spirits of Advent say “wait”. On the way to church we hear Frank Sentara’s voice on the radio singing “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas”, and our heads are filled with cozy images of sleigh rides and fire places and hot chocolate. When we get to church we hear readings that prepare us for God’s coming to us as the Christ-child (which we expect and hope for), but unexpectedly our readings also call us to repentance, and warn us to prepare for a coming judgement as we wait for Jesus to come again. It can feel a bit like Lent invading our Christmas celebrations.

Advent is a season that many of us want to “bah-humbug”. “Give us Christmas”, we say. But, the three Spirits of Advent stand in between us and Christmas.

The first spirit that will visit us is the Spirit of Advent Past. A man with a scroll comes to us- an old prophet. His scroll is filled with prophesies and longings. This Spirit reminds us of the cries of humanity throughout history. A history that is filled with war, violence, disease, and suffering. This Spirit reminds us to not be naïve about the world we live in. This Spirit stands between us and our cozy images of warm fireplaces and eggnog and reminds us of the suffering of humanity. From the suffering masses there are voices that cry out with hope. The Spirit of Advent Past points to prophets that foresee a future that is better because of a saving God and a coming hero.

The Prophet Isaiah yearns for a time when the countries of the world will look to God for guidance

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.” (Is 2:3-4)

The Prophets yearn to be saved, but they also point to why things are so bad. They call humanity to look at itself. To us, who always want to find the problem somewhere outside ourselves, the prophets point to us and make us view the reality that we don’t even live up to our own standards, let alone God’s standards. The prophet’s call for justice is spoken in the midst of a human race that selfishly fights and claws to get their own way- even at the expense of others.

But this Spirit gives us hope by reminding us of the ways God has saved His people in the past, and that God will not allow injustice to persist. The Spirit of Advent Past points to hope, but it is hope to be saved from a mess humanity created.

As the Spirit of Advent Past recedes we see another figure come forward- The Spirit of Advent Future. This Spirit is mysterious and comes carrying a box. We don’t know what is inside. We don’t know if we should be excited or fearful. When we are sending Christmas cards with pictures of a glowing baby in a cozy looking manger she reminds us that this baby will grow to be the king of kings, the lord of lords, and the judge of all. She points to a coming time of judgement- when what is wrong with the world will be made right. … Surely part of what needs to be put right is us. We don’t know how we will stand at the time of judgement. We trust in Jesus, but we can only hope. He owes us nothing.

In many of us there is a little twinge of fear when we think about Christ’s return. The preacher, Austin Farrer, said, “The God who saves us is the God who judges us. We are not condemned by his severity and redeemed by his compassion; what judges us is what redeems us, the love of God. What is it that will break our hearts on judgment day? Is it not the vision, suddenly unrolled, of how he has loved the friends we have neglected, of how he has loved us and we have not loved him in return; how, when we come before his altar, he gave us himself, and we gave him half-penitences, or resolutions too weak to commit our wills? But while love thus judges us by being what it is, the same love redeems us.” The Christ who judges us is also the one who loves us and died for us.

The Spirit of Advent Future points us to a time when the one who we waited for- Jesus Christ- will come again. Christ himself says,

36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matt 24:36-44)

This Spirit claims that anyone who predicts a date for Christ’s coming is a liar. Christ himself, like the church, does not know the day or time. The angels don’t know. The first sign that someone is wrong is that they claim to know. We know it is in the future and so the Spirit of Advent Future points, but we don’t know if she points to tomorrow or a thousand years into the future. .. She might also be pointing to the end of our life, when we will stand before Jesus and with him look at our lives. She stands before every generation and points to the future reminding us to be vigilant and prepared.

Another Spirit comes forward- the Spirit of Advent Present. This spirit carries a bell. She rings it constantly to remind us to be alert, awake, and ready. She reminds us that if we live in the present moment, full of the Gospel, full of Christ, then we have nothing to worry about, and don’t have to be concerned about when that end might come. The Spirit of Advent Present calls us to be ready at every moment. St. Paul says in Romans,

11 ”the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom 13:11-14)

Paul reminds us to live now as if he will come today. We might pat ourselves on the back for not being involved in an orgy, but we should remind ourselves that the works of darkness include quarrelling, which is harder for most of us to exclude ourselves from.

The Spirit of Advent Present also reminds us that not only has Christ come in the past, and not only is he coming again, but that Christ is in our midst now. We are the body of Christ and he promises to be in our midst, especially when we gather (Matt 18:20). He says he is present in those who are in need and to offer them help and kindness is to do the same for him. To reject them is to reject him (Matt 25). Christ will eventually come, bursting into the world in an obvious way no one can deny, but he comes to us now, disguised.

As we go through this season there will still be those who ‘bah-humbug’, wanting to rush past the self-reflection we are called to in Advent. But I encourage you to remember the three Spirits of Advent. Remember the longing of humanity for a future filled with justice and the presence of God. Be diligent, knowing that there is a coming time of judgement. And more than anything, be present now- be awake and alert to who we are called to be in the Gospel, present to Christ now. If we pay attention to the Spirits of Advent, then we will be prepared for Christmas.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Christian Caregiving 7- helping someone forgive

We are continuing with our sermon series today, which we have called Christian Caregiving. This is actually the last in the series because next week is the beginning of Advent. This week we are dealing with caring for someone who wants to forgive someone. We have dealt with caring for someone who sins and we spoke about how to help them confess and then to speak God’s forgiveness as a representative of Christ. This is a bit different. This week we are speaking about you, as a Christian caregiver, helping someone who has been hurt by someone else.

Forgiveness is a persistent theme throughout Scripture. Within the pages of the Bible we meet a God who takes sin incredibly seriously, but who is also very willing to forgive his people when they honestly repent and humbly seek forgiveness. When we get to the New Testament there is an emphasis, not only on God’s forgiveness of us, but our need to forgive one another. Jesus says that if someone is repentant, that we should never draw a line as to when we stop forgiving someone even if they sin against us over and over (Lk 17:3-4). When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray he relates God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others as if they are two sides to the same coin- “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Lk 11:4). (I’m not always sure I want God to forgive me the way I forgive others- Frankly, I’d prefer Him to do it much better towards me than I do to others). In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) we often emphasize the Father’s incredible forgiveness of the lost son, but we often don’t see that the older brother’s un-forgiveness of his brother leaves him outside his father’s house (which have actually been more to Jesus' the main point when speaking to the Pharisees).

Jesus tells an important parable about forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-35:
“21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.”

A talent was the largest monetary unit of the time. One talent was worth more than 15 year’s wages of a laborer. To owe ten thousand talents is to owe a debt that is impossible to pay back. The modern equivalent would be billions of dollars.
“25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii…”

One denarii was equal to a day’s wage for a laborer. So he owed him something like 1/3 of a year’s wages. It’s not a small debt, but it’s not an impossible debt. It is thousands of dollars, but not billions of dollars. It took 6000 denarii to equal one talent which gives you a little bit of a sense of the difference between the debts. This servant owed 100 denarii, compared to the previous servant’s 10,000 talents.
“… and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The lesson here is that God has forgiven us much much more than we will even be asked to forgive someone else. If God offers us forgiveness of our great offence against him then how dare we withhold forgiveness of someone who has offended us in a smaller way.

There are plenty more examples we could give. Jesus declared at the Last Supper that the cup is for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28) and he cried out for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying him saying they didn’t know what they were doing (Lk 23:34). Forgiveness was an important part of the Gospel Jesus’ followers were trying to spread. We are inheritors of that Gospel and so we are also ambassadors of that that message. Forgiveness should be our specialty- not only helping people accept God’s forgiveness, but also helping them through forgiving someone who has hurt them. It is especially important because God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others are related. It’s almost as if our unwillingness to forgive others shows that we haven’t really accepted God’s forgiveness.

So say someone comes to you and they say that someone has done something to them and they are having a hard time letting it go. How can you help them?

First it is important that, as Christians, we invoke Christ to help in this whole process. It is through him that we gain the power to forgive. If the person is a Christian, it’s also important to ask yourself if this person has experienced the forgiveness of God in their life in a real and practical way. It doesn’t mean you bring this up in your conversation with them, but you should have this sitting somewhere in your mind as you are talking to them.

It’s also important for us to honestly recognize that anger and outrage at someone hurting someone else (or us) is natural. It is an internal alarm for justice. We want to be careful what we do with that anger, but it is important to just recognize it as a natural alarm when we encounter perceived injustice. It would be a scary world if we didn’t have that alarm inside us.

Maybe we should also say a word about what not to do. We shouldn’t just quote Scripture to the person and tell them they have to forgive. Forgiveness isn’t an on/off switch in the soul. It is a process. It is an even more involved process if it is a long-standing hurt from years ago and anger and bitterness is now attached to it. Forgiveness is a process and it can take time to truly forgive.

So where do we begin? We begin by affirming and showing compassion to the person who has been wounded. We listen to them deeply. We hear their story. We need to acknowledge their pain. Sometimes it can be hard to let go because they don’t feel like anyone really understands why this was hurtful. They, in their pain, need to be deeply heard and accepted.

We want to be careful that we don’t go through that part too quickly. We want to really take time to hear their pain. Otherwise their forgiveness will be superficial and might even become a kind of denial. As good Christians they know they should forgive, but without going through the process they might put on a show of forgiveness (they might even convince themselves it’s genuine). They might be left feeling guilty because the thoughts about what this person has done to them still haunts them continuously, and they might feel like they can't talk about it because they have supposedly forgiven them. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say that forgiving too soon is “cheap grace”. We don’t want to withhold our forgiveness, but we also don’t want to forgive without being ready.

Sometimes we have this image of forgiveness that tells us that forgiveness means saying what happened wasn’t really so bad after all, which isn’t true. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, 
“forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.”
 We need to recognize what has been done as being wrong, and as being hurtful. Forgiveness is not forgetting, and it is not about saying it’s not really that bad.

We should also not make forgiveness equal to reconciliation. Forgiveness is our part. We can do forgiveness apart from the person who has hurt us. Reconciliation is a restoration of the relationship. Reconciliation requires both people- the person who has been hurt and the offender. Reconciliation won’t happen if one party is unwilling. It might also be unwise in some abusive relationships to pursue reconciliation. Or the other person might have died or they might have lost contact. So reconciliation doesn’t always happen, but forgiveness can happen apart from reconciliation. That means we also don’t need someone to confess their fault to us for us to forgive. That is part of reconciliation, but not forgiveness.

Once the person has been able to honestly share their story and their pain, then they can talk about the anger and resentment towards the offender. … I remember someone telling me a story about how their forgiveness process worked. They said in prayer it was as if they stood before God as a judge. The person who hurt them deeply was imprisoned in the courtroom and they told God everything this person did to them. As they spoke they saw the compassion is God’s eyes, but they also saw outrage in His eyes towards the attacker. When they spoke everything they left the courtroom so God could deal with the person. They gave God their desire for vengeance.

Another example is from a Palestinian man I met once. He was working for a moving company we hired to help us move back to Alberta from Toronto. When he asked what kind of building I was moving out of I told him it was a seminary where they train priests and theologians. They he replied, “I am from Bethlehem! Do you believe in Bethlehem!?!” He told me about some of his painful experiences as a Palestinian Christian in Israel and in more colourful language than I will use here he said, “When Jesus comes back it is going to hit the fan!” He gave the judgement to Jesus. Rather than strapping a bomb to himself, he gave the judgment and vengeance to God.

That act takes a lot of faith because we have to believe that God will do what is just- that God will take justice seriously- that God will take our pain seriously. We have to believe that God loves us deeply and cares deeply about what has happened to us. Only when we believe that will we be able to hand over our anger and revenge.

When we decide to do that, then we are able to forgive. It has to be a decision. It probably has to be a spoken decision, even if we are all alone. 

That act of forgiveness doesn’t mean the pain and other consequences automatically go away. You still need healing from your wounds. … To give a silly example- Say you step on my toe. You feel bad and say you’re sorry. I forgive you, but my toe still hurts. I might not want revenge, but my toe still hurts even if I have genuinely forgiven you. … Healing can take time. And we might have to speak our forgiveness over and over as we let go of layers of anger and resentment.

We might think forgiveness is a difficult thing for God to ask of us, but we should also consider how it goes for those who don’t forgive and are filled with bitterness and anger. God specializes in bringing beauty out of human darkness and pain. Human beings caused the cross and God brought forgiveness and resurrection out of it. When we open ourselves to forgiveness we could be making space for God to do something beautiful. We saw amazing powers of forgiveness coming from The Rev. Dale Lang when his son was shot in a school in Taber. Or The Rev. Martin Hattersley when he forgave his daughter’s murderer and even sat with the offender during his trial in Edmonton. We saw this in the example of an Amish community in Pennsylvania when a gunman killed 8 preteen girls in their school (see the movie "Amish Grace"). We see this in the life of Desmond Tutu after experiencing the horrors of Apartheid. There is tremendous power and healing available through forgiveness. As disciples of Christ we are ambassadors spreading the gospel of forgiveness. AMEN

(If you would like to learn more on this see "Don't Forgive Too Soon by Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn)

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Christian Caregiveing 6- Boundaries

Today we are continuing our sermon series on Christian caregiving. We are going to be dealing with boundaries today.

If we have compassion for others and we want to do the right thing and believe God is calling us to help make the world a better place, eventually we will deal with issues having to do with boundaries. 

There will be situations where you are asked to do something by someone and you feel uncomfortable about it and you might not know why. Many people are afraid to get involved with hurting people because they are worried about getting stuck in uncomfortable situations. This gets somewhat easier when we have a good sense of boundaries. 

What are boundaries? Basically boundaries are knowing where you end and another person begins. It is knowing where your responsibility is and where your responsibility isn’t.

God allows people to make choices. He will give them information and allow them to feel the consequences of their choices. In the book of Judges we read that, 
“the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals [other gods]. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. ” (Judges 2:11-12).
 Over and over God told the people what would happen if they walked away from Him. They could only survive in the land under His protection. If they walk away from that protection they are putting themselves in danger. The consequences were that they were raided and plundered. Their enemies got the upper hand on them and attacked them. And their armies couldn’t be successful when they had walked away from God.

The book of Judges is a book about consequences. Eventually, in their distress the people would cry out to God. God would send a judge, who was a powerful leader and warrior who would save them from their enemies. Once they were saved they would soon turn again to their old habits serving other gods and disobeying the commandments given to them by Moses. Enemies would rise up against them again. In their distress they would cry to God for help, and God would send another judge to save them from their enemies, but soon they would return to their old ways. This is sometimes called the Judges Cycle. 
You can see the same pattern over and over. So in chapter 3 we read, 
“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. So the land had rest for forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died” (3:7-11). 

Healthy boundaries means (among other things) allowing people to feel the consequences of their choices (as opposed to saving them from those consequences, or you feeling the consequences rather than them). As Galatians 6:7 says, 
“God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap".
 This can be very difficult for some of us who really want to help people (whether they want our help or not). In the normal ways we care for others, I do think it is important for us to allow people the freedom to make their own choices and at times, reject our help.

 For example, if someone repeatedly refuses to seek help for an addiction that is hurting those around them, counselors will sometimes organize an intervention where family and friends basically tell the addict how much they love them and what the consequences are for their continued addiction. Consequences might be losing visitation rights with a child, losing the option of using a vehicle, or evicting them until they choose to go to treatment. They then feel the consequences of their choice rather than continuously being saved from the consequences of their actions. The person struggling with the addiction will sometimes try to make others responsible for those consequences. For example, they might say “I can’t get to work because you won’t let me use the car”, or “you kicked me out of the house”, when really these are the consequences for their behavior. The consequences are essentially their choices because they wouldn’t have happened if they chose to seek treatment instead of continuing in their addiction. (Of course this has to be done wisely and not with cruelty. Boundaries, for a Christian, have to be about love and the long term healing of the person we are dealing with).  

Moving to the Gospel we see Jesus advise us about boundaries in Matthew 18. This is a process every Christian should have memorized. First, 
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matt 18:15). 
So first we go to the person that we have the problem with. We don’t gossip about them until everyone in the church has heard about it. We speak to them directly. If they don’t hear you or they disagree with you then, 
“take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (18:16). 
Maybe it is a misunderstanding, so you need to get other witnesses who know the situation. Choose people you both respect, not just people who you know will be on your side. If others come with you and it seems obvious that this person does have a problem and is just being prideful and stubborn, then 
“tell it to the church” (18:17).
 I take this to mean telling it to the leadership. And if the leadership of the church speaks to the person and they refuse to listen then they essentially have rejected the authority of the church and are choosing to live apart from the community. We don’t like that idea in the church because we don’t like that use of authority. We have come to have an image of love that says love means letting people do what they want. But, for those of us who are parents, we are very quick to correct our children and it is because of love that we do. A parent who doesn't care if their child is playing in the street isn't being loving. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is allow someone to feel the consequences of their actions and then, hopefully upon reflection, they might choose a wiser future action. We cannot make someone change. But, we can choose to protect someone from feeling the consequences of their actions (which can be grace), or we can choose to allow someone to feel the consequences of their actions.

Part of dealing with boundaries is dealing with natural consequences for a person’s behavior. But boundaries can also be quite subtle. Looking at the letter to the Galatians, we hear Paul speak about bearing one another’s burdens. In Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book “Boundaries” they talk about backpacks and boulders. All of us have a backpack to carry full of our own usual responsibilities and cares. Galatians 6:5 says, 
“For each will have to bear his own load”. 
That is normal. We shouldn’t expect that we can give someone our backpack, put our feet up on the couch and have someone else deal with our daily responsibilities… unless we have become very ill. In that case we are no longer dealing with a backpack, we are dealing with a boulder. We all need help with our boulders. Boulders might be a serious illness, or a traumatic death, or the loss of a job. It is regarding boulders that Paul says, 
“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:7). 
 We are not able to deal with boulders on our own. It requires strength, resources, and knowledge that we don’t have. It would be impossible to push the boulder on our own. We can get in trouble when we mix these up. We might reject help with our boulders that will crush us if we try to deal with them on our own. Or we might be asked to carry someone else’s backpack that is really someone else’s responsibility to carry.

The reason we tend to have problems with boundaries is that quite often we are dealing with a deep identity issue. From a young age we might have been given other peoples' backpacks. For example, some people grow up with parents that are incredibly irresponsible and abusive. The child learns they have to take on a parental role by taking care of the house and taking care of younger siblings from a very young age. They can learn to feel responsible for things that probably aren’t their responsibility. When that child grows up they might feel the need to care for people in a way that disregards boundaries, which means they can easily get taken advantage of. This person can have a very hard time saying “no” to any request. They might even feel a very intense guilt saying ‘no’ to relatively inconsequential requests. To avoid the guilt they might just say “yes”.

In the church it is very important that we don’t manipulate people into certain tasks because there might be people who will help because of their guilt, which means they can become quite bitter and resentful. It is important that we make opportunities for service and giving known, but we have to be very careful about manipulating people into doing something.

As I said, quite often our boundary issues come out of an identity issue. "I feel responsible for everyone around me." "I feel the need for other peoples’ approval." "I feel the need to be seen as successful." "I feel the need to be seen as nice and selfless and helpful." From our identity we will have behaviors that will sometimes lead us to work too many hours. Or we will allow people to manipulate us. Or we will do things we really don’t want to do out of guilt.

So what do we do? First, it is important to know our identity issues. Know what your pattern is, which often comes from earlier experiences and relationships. Next, and this is the harder task, we want to correct our identity so that we see ourselves as children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ.

Jesus knew who he was and so he wasn’t manipulated. He was completely free in his choices. He saw his responsibility to God as being first and so everything was in order under that. In Mark 1 there is a moment when a crowd of people in need were looking for Jesus- they were people with all kinds of problems they wanted Jesus to fix. And Jesus left them to go to other towns. Jesus was not a slave to people. There were times when he did heal a great many people who came to him, and no doubt there were many long days, but Jesus was also willing to leave and go preach somewhere else, or to leave the crowds and go pray. Jesus allowed his relationship with his Father to determine his interactions with others. 

I remember struggling with living up to peoples' expectations. Somehow I became convinced that being a good Christian priest meant not disappointing anyone. Well when I realized that was impossible I hit a wall. In that time I also remember reading through one of the Gospels and being very aware of how often Jesus didn't live up to the expectations of those around him. He was born, not to the high priest's wife to be groomed in the life of the Temple, but to a young unmarried nobody promised to a carpenter. Jesus disappointed some of the crowds who expected healing. Jesus disappointed his own disciples by not being a warrior messiah like David, kicking out the roman army. I disappointed all the religious groups (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots) of the time by not siding with them. I was shocked as I read through the Gospel at how often Jesus was almost rude (by modern standards) in not living according to someone else's expectations and requests.  

And so it should be for us. We are surrounded by needs. If you are on facebook or social media you will constantly see people’s needs. You will see many many asks for donations and to sign a petition. You will see emotional cries for help. If you turn on the TV and listen to the news you will be bombarded with people in crisis. Those who are sensitive to the needs of others can be left exhausted. It is impossible for you to fill all those needs- to answer every request to give- to answer every cry for help. We should follow Christ’s example and first know who we are and what particular gifts and missions God has given us. Then we can help on the basis of God’s call, rather than the unending stream of requests for help. In the midst of the sea of needs we attempt to discern God’s call and allow that to guide us. 

For more on boundaries see:
Cloud and Townsend's book "Boundaries"
"Speaking the Truth in Love" by Haugk and Koch

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Remembrance Sunday

Issues of war have often been difficult for Christians and we have often not been of one mind. Jesus’ words to us about enemies were quite plain: Jesus says in Matthew ch 5:38-44, 
"You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. … “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

These teachings led the early church father Tertullian to say in 204,
 "I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians... Should it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in battle when it does not even become him to sue at the law courts? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? ... Shall he keep guard before the [pagan] temples which he has renounced? ... And shall he diligently protect by night those who in daytime he has put to flight by his exorcisms, leaning and resting on the spear with which Christ's side was pierced? ... You may see by a slight survey how many other offences are involved in the performance of military officers which we must hold to involve a transgression of God's law." (De Corona IX). 
For Tertullian, and many other early Christians, the war and violence of the Roman Empire were not something the Christian was permitted to partake in.

That early question about war had to do with the occupation of a Roman soldier. It was probably a question because Christians indeed were soldiers and it created a bit of controversy. Some even speculate that Christianity spread through the empire partly by Christian soldiers. The issue was somewhat contentious because there are a few positive interactions with Jesus and Roman soldiers- in Luke 7 Jesus heals a soldier’s servant and praises his faith; and similarly John the Baptist speaks to soldiers in Luke 3 and advises them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages”. Neither Jesus, nor John, advised them to quit their position as soldiers (though we’re not entirely sure what to make of that silence).

In the Early Church the issue of war had to do mainly with whether it was okay to be a soldier or not. Christians didn’t really have much power to consider war and violence on a mass scale until after the Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 380. Before this Christians lived in the empire, but they really didn't have any power. The empire felt the need to use violence to maintain the empire. They felt they had to squash rebellions internally and to fight enemies who attacked the empire externally. Suddenly, there was a need for a Christian understanding of how a “Christian” empire can use violence.

Here is where St. Augustine put his mind to work. He imagines the parable of the Good Samaritan. There is a man travelling on the road who is attacked, robbed, and left for dead. A priest and a religious person pass by, not helping the man, but someone you wouldn’t expect to help is the one who helps the man bleeding and dying in the ditch. Jesus uses this story to talk about loving your neighbour. St. Augustine wonders what would happen if the Good Samaritan came upon the man as he was getting attacked. How would the good neighbour respond? Surely the good neighbour wouldn’t look away and ignore the beating. He came to the conclusion that we could separate outward actions from inward dispositions. So in defense of my neighbour I may actually kill the attacker, but inwardly my actual motivation was to protect my neighbour. I did not want to kill the attacker. It was a kind of accidental consequence that occurred as I was defending my neighbour. 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. The act of killing is somewhat neutral since all humans die anyway. It is the inward disposition that motivates the act that determines if the act is moral or not. If I am motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than out of a desire for cruelty and violence, then I am justified in killing.

On top of this, St. Augustine believed that the social order we exist in is part of the natural order ordained by God to give us stable and peaceful lives. God meant society to be organized under rulers. Jesus’ words to us as individual Christians about how we treat our enemies are perhaps not applicable to the ruler of a country when considering defending their people against an aggressive military force. So we read in Romans 13:1,4 that 
“…authorities that exist have been instituted by God… the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”
 And in 1 Peter 2:14, Peter describes 
“governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good”.
 So, according to this way of thinking, God meant for there to be empires and kingdoms. Since God placed these authorities over us, we are to obey rightful authority. In fact, according to this theory, since God ordained this order, obedience to the rightful ruler is actually obedience to God himself to some degree. It is the duty of the ruler to maintain order and peace and 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. War in itself is not good. It is something that causes bloodshed and suffering, but it seems to be necessary to maintain the peace and order of the state, which is what God wants for his people. War is really a means to an end. And, in this case it is believed that the end justifies the means. For the sake of maintaining peace and order war is permitted.

This does not mean that St. Augustine was bloodthirsty. He wanted to create a way of figuring our when it is necessary to go to war. He 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 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.

It is a compelling argument that Augustine put together. It helped the empire to resolve the conflict. And it should be said that to go against this theory is to go against the vast majority of Christians throughout history (as CS Lewis’ essay Why I Am Not a Pacifist explains, which is found in the collection The Weight of Glory).

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, even if a greater motivation to defend our neighbour is within us. When we separate our inward dispositions from our outward actions we start down a dangerous road. When two Christian soldiers on opposite sides meet on the battlefield what does Jesus ask them to do? It’s easier to generalize and think of countries, but to think of individuals on the battlefield is not as easy.

Most of us will not be practically involved in deciding whether our country should go to war. So what can we do here and now? As disciples of Christ we are called to be peacemakers. To be a peacemaker means willing to be in the thick of conflict. Being a peacemaker sounds nice and gentle, but it means being with those who want to harm each other. We are not permitted as Christians to ignore conflict. And if possible, we are to participate in a way that violence doesn’t have to become a realistic option. It also means being realistic about the sin inside each of us that can lead to war.

The theologian Robert Brimlow in his book “What about Hitler?” imagines how the World Wars might have been prevented. How might we have prevented the Holocaust? He says, 
“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 favor 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."[1] 
… Those are hard words to hear.

He is telling us that the next World War might be prevented by our serious and intense discipleship to Christ right now. The sacrifice we expect of our soldiers, we have to be willing to make for the Gospel. The seriousness and vigor with which we try to live as people of the kingdom right now, is precisely what the world needs to prevent future wars.

We don't know what lies in the future, but if human history is any indication of the future we can expect that war will continue to be a part of human reality for the time being. We have choices now. The violence, hatred, suffering, and sacrifice that we remember as a part of war is a part of each one of us. The seeds of war lie dormant in each one of us. When someone offends us we are given the opportunity to practice peace by not shooting hurtful words back at them. When we see someone being hurt by someone else we are being given the opportunity to be a peacemaker. When we are tempted to lash out in anger at others we are being given the opportunity to destroy that seed of war within us. Perhaps it is possible to prevent some future violence by being people of the Kingdom right here, right now, being salt and light to those around us.

The Just War theory Tells us that war is an evil, but it amounts to less evil than not going to war. But perhaps we can live now in a way that war becomes an obsolete idea for humanity. As Christians perhaps we can live in such a way that we so influence our world that our children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren don’t have to know the violence and loss that so many past generations have known.

Past generations should be remembered for not taking the easy way out, and for being willing to die to do something about the suffering they saw. We need a similar sacrificial spirit in following Jesus’ ways of the kingdom. The peaceful world the prophet Micah speaks of, where the people of the world "will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks; [and] Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war." That world will come about as God works through us- When the Sin that infects us and causes war is fully healed by the work of Jesus- and we are transformed into people who see each other as God's children- brothers and sisters of Christ under one Father.

It is important to remember the suffering. 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 the sacrifices of those who tried to do something about the suffering because to sit back and do nothing was a worse evil. It is also important to remember Jesus' call to us to be people of the kingdom- and the suffering and self-sacrifice it takes to live it. 


[1] Brimlow, “What about Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus' Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World”
seee also, John Howard Yoder's, "If a violent person threatened to harm a loved one... What Would You Do?" 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Christian Caregiving 5- healing prayer

Today we continue our sermon series on Christian caregiving. Last time we spoke about caring for people who sin. Today we are going to talk about praying for people who desire healing.   
Some find this topic intimidating because it brings to mind televangelists. Others dislike the topic because it is not predictable enough- we don’t know when a person will be healed and when they won’t be- there are no guarantees. There are no techniques or words that always bring a predictable result. It is a controversial topic for many people. And yet… it is a part of what we are called to do as disciples of our Lord.  St. James writes, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:14-16).  We read about the ministry of the 70 that were sent out- Jesus instructs them “cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Luke 10). We also see this ministry of healing continue in the book of Acts after Jesus ascends into heaven. St. Peter and St. John were going to the temple to pray when they come across a crippled man begging. Peter turns to him and says, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ (Acts 3:6). The man is completely healed and this starts a huge controversy with the authorities. Praying for healing is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, who of course was constantly engaged in healing.
Many of us also either have our own stories of physical healing or know people who claim to have received healing in response to prayer.  No doubt God uses medications and various medical treatments and the wisdom of doctors and nurses and various other healing professionals. But, God also uses prayer to bring healing.
There have been some scientific studies in the area of prayer. A doctor named Larry Dossey wrote a book called “Healing Words” where he makes reference to these studies. As an agnostic medical doctor he came to the following conclusion after looking at these studies, “over time I decided that not to employ prayer with my patients was the equivalent of deliberately withholding a potent drug or surgical procedure. … I simply could not ignore the evidence for prayer’s effectiveness without feeling like a traitor to the scientific tradition. And so, after weighing these factors for many months, I concluded that I would pray for my patients” (Xviii). “[T]he evidence is simply overwhelming that prayer functions at a distance to change physical processes in a variety of organisms, from bacteria to humans. These data, …, are so impressive that I have come to regard them as among the best-kept secrets in medical science” (p.2). He believes the studies show that when lifting a person in prayer- with an attitude of empathy, love, compassion, trust, and gratitude- that prayer is effective.  This doesn’t mean that the results of prayer can always be predicted, but he found that the studies say that overall prayer has an effect. Of course there are still “sickly saints and healthy sinners” that show us that the spiritual world is a complicated place. For example, Paul had a thorn in his flesh that would not be healed (2 Cor 12:7).   We live in a world that is often beyond our control, but that should not stop us from praying.      
The fact that prayer doesn’t always bring physical healing doesn’t refute the fact that sometimes it does bring healing. We don’t understand how it all works, but sometimes it works and so we should pray for healing while also understanding that there are deeper purposes that might mean healing will not always come.  There may be a deeper purpose in suffering. Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places”.  Mysteriously sometimes God can bring a deeper healing for our soul out of suffering that we would not receive if the suffering were taken away. The healing and strengthening of our soul might be more important than our physical healing. But, we have to admit that sometimes we see no purpose in suffering. It is deeper and more mysterious than we can understand.
Jesus performed some amazing acts of healing. He healed people that were born blind. We even read about Jesus bringing people back from the dead. The most famous of these was Lazarus, but there are others as well (Jairus’ daughter- Mark 5; The Widow’s son at Nain- Luke 7). Jesus healed people, but it is important to remember that eventually they all died. Physical healing is only temporary. So physical healing really only points towards a greater healing.   
Jesus in his compassion and mercy is about healing the entire person, body, mind, spirit, … but this isn’t just a matter of healing the individual. Jesus also desires the healing of social relationships, which is why he places such an emphasis on forgiveness. Jesus’ ultimate goal is to heal the relationship between the world and God. Jesus’ physical healings (which are temporary) really foreshadow and symbolize that great healing.
In Jesus we see humanity as it was meant to be- he is the fully healed human being. This is God’s desire for us as well. The church is ideally meant to be an instrument of God used to help heal the split between the world and God. It has been said that the church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.  We enter the church as broken, fallen, sick, and confused human beings, and through a variety of spiritual disciplines, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, and following the teachings of Jesus, we enter the process of becoming healthy. 
We see this healing most clearly in the saints (The feast of All Saints is in a few short days). They are the ones who have received the deep healing God is offering. They followed the way Jesus taught us and have been healed of their sin, and, being healed, show the Fruit of the Spirit- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
The theologian Paul Meyendorff says, “the very purpose of the Church is to heal us, to restore the rift between God and humanity which is caused by our sin and leads to death. This is achieved precisely when we are united to one another and to God in the body of Christ, which is the church”… “Jesus Christ is here asking for nothing less than the healing of the whole world, all humanity, all creation. This is achieved when we come to know Christ, when we become one with him and with one another. Everything that the church does, all its sacramental and liturgical life, all its teaching, is directed at restoring the proper relationship between God and creation, which has been corrupted through our sinfulness. This is the real meaning of Christian healing, and it involves the whole person, body, soul, and spirit.”[1]
With that ultimate greater healing in mind, we are called to pray for people. This can be intimidating for some of us, but I promise that, if you are nervous about it, it gets better the more you do it. You might worry about stumbling over your words, but that is okay. The power of prayer is not in the eloquence of the words, it’s in the One who is listening. In prayer, it is more important to consider your heart over your words. Silence is okay. John Bunyan said, “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart”. So if you are nervous about praying with someone that is okay. We were probably nervous about learning to ride a bike too.
As you are speaking with someone who is expressing some sort of pain, or expressing their need for help, you could ask, “do you want to pray about this?” or “What would you like prayer for?” Don’t impose, be polite, but they might be wanting prayer, and are nervous to ask for it.  When you pray, be honest with God and pray as you would if you were speaking to someone you respect and love. God is your loving Father. Be yourself. Be honest about worries and emotions and confusion. Take your time. Allow silence to be a part of the prayer as well. If it feels appropriate, hold their hand, or place your hand on their shoulder. Ask God to bring the healing that is desired.
In the Bible God has called us to pray for those who are suffering, so, in obedience and love, we pray. We can have confidence that God hears and has the power to act. We also recognize that there is a bigger picture God is aware of that is hidden to us. We pray trusting that God will work to do what is best for us. Our ultimate greater healing is his desire. As the church, this is who we are called to be. AMEN.   

[1] Paul Meyendorff, the anointing of the sick, p 19
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