thinking theology

Four Paths of Lent

Last week I was feeling weary from noting all the various encouragements for Lenten observation. Mostly, I think that late winter easing into spring is a time for quiet reflection, for spiritual regrouping, for taking time to make sure that we are equipped for the work of discipleship. At our church, we will have four stations to get us started. Here are some thoughts for meditation as you move through these stations in your imagination.

At the first, we are marked with ashes. Ashes remind us that from the conflagration at the birth of the universe, some of the bits of stardust became life on earth. We are connected to this universe, part of it forever. We share the biological markers that say we belong to this planet. And so, dust and ashes are the sign of belonging, of being part of the process of birth and transformation. Being marked by ashes means, for me, that I offer my life willingly in gratitude for being alive. Throughout Lent, we can whisper this mantra to ourselves: Child of this holy earth, I am called to rise in the light.

Another station to reflect at is the bowl of stones. We will place a stone in the bowl to show what we intend to leave behind. And there we place our self doubt, our regrets, our failures, because we intend to learn and move on. We will not be imprisoned by our past but release it for our liberation. Sometimes, we may have to carry the stone with us until we can see that this piece of a mountain is manageable for us because we are surrounded by Love. And so we say, I am made in love from stars and I can climb mountains in safety.

Next, we come to the bowl of earth and spring bulbs. We plant a bulb to remind ourselves that hope is trusting that new life comes in the dark, in mystery, unseen until it breaks open the ground. We plant for the future — always — modelling for others that nothing can happen without faith in some outcome, although it may be a surprise. In the morning we might say upon awakening: I open myself to the possibilities of this new day.

And finally, we come to our beginning, to the font and the waters of baptism, to the promises we have made about how we will follow Jesus. At the font we are reminded that we are part of the cloud of witnesses, witnesses to the conviction that our world can be peaceful, just, and healthy for all people. And we trust that in our midst is the Christ who showed us how to be human, how to experience that Holy one within, around, and before us. And so we say, in every moment, grace.

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Blessings in a broken world

Jesus came down from the mountain, but often we wish he had stayed there, remote, beyond human understanding or imitation. It is much easier to deal with statues or paintings than the persistent call of Jesus to follow him in and out of the desert, in and out of favour, in and out of  safety.

The Beatitudes, so called because we have thought of them as blessings, are in fact a manifesto of change. They are one expression of Jesus’ blueprint for a transformed world. The Beatitudes offer a critique of the present situation and a vision of how those without power can bring change for themselves and for everyone. 

beatitudesI don’t think the beatitudes are metaphorical. I think they ask us even now, whose side are you on? To be onside with the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable means to become vulnerable ourselves. And that is the dividing line between the followers of Jesus and everyone else. By followers of Jesus, I do not mean Christians necessarily, but all those who are willing to be God’s fools, the compassionate ones, the generous ones, the ones who choose risk over security, who choose solidarity over tradition, expediency, or even law. 

It is a terrifying question Jesus asks us. More than our possessions, Jesus asks us to learn how to be uncomfortable with our own comfort, to go to pow wows and blanket exercises, to serve in soup kitchens, to learn about how our prejudices contribute to the sin that rages through our societies, causing violence, disorder and suffering. We are asked to be on the side of the poor, the ones who make us uncomfortable. 

What possible benefit could we possibly derive by following him, what is in it for us? Blessed are those who live with no or limited resources because they appreciate every single good thing that comes their way. From those with little, we learn gratitude. We learn to resist judging without understanding. We learn humility as we recognize our fears that cause us to put walls around our perceptions and our actions. 

As we grow in solidarity, in a sense of unity and equality with others, we grow also in our Christ nature. We discover the Christ who is both glorified on the mountain and reachable on the plain. As a community of the Way, we take on the path that inevitably leads to death, and to new life, no longer alone but living for each other.

A Light to Awaken

Candlemas concludes the Christmas cycle with the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. Joseph and Mary are greeted by two elderly people in the Temple, who exclaim when they see Jesus. Simeon exclaims that now he has seen one who will illuminate the whole world. When the prophet Anna sees Jesus, she recognizes in him the liberator of hearts and minds, new hope for the world, freedom from division and violence. For the Jews, they can claim him as their own, born out of their faithfulness to God. 

What I love about this story is the way the generations reach out to each other, the very elderly and the child, both ages reaching across the parents. The parents are warned to prepare themselves for change and upheaval.

I have a friend out west who jokingly says that the reason children and grandparents get along so well is because they have a common enemy.  Seriously, however, I think parents have the unenviable task of keeping order, discipline, direction; whereas children and grandparents live in times of learning, gratitude, visioning, and dangerous activities.

Children can see the light of possibility; seniors pray for that same light to waken the world to a different perspective: one of justice, mercy, and peace. Children, who have not yet been harmed by living, exhibit trust and hope in the future. Seniors can bring wisdom and experience to dreaming forward.

Jesus offers us freedom from thinking that war and poverty are inevitable, that there is only one way to experience the Holy, that words have only one meaning. It is ironic that having been taught that freedom, the religion founded in his name has created fences and laws and intellectual limitation, alongside deep spirituality, beauty, and compassion. 

I think this fracture between two world views echoes what Moses said to the people in the desert after rehearsing the laws. He said they had to choose a way of life or a way of death. The way of life demands justice and compassion. Life is only authentic when there is freedom and equality for all. We resist choosing and so have neither security nor a sense of living freely.

Here is a post from Andre Henry, an evangelical, social activist whom I follow:

Leader: What do we want?
Crowd: We don’t know!

Leader: When do we want it now?
Crowd  Now!

“We know that the way our society is currently arranged is not working for everyone, but the same arrangements continue because many people can’t imagine the world being arranged any other way. This is why, as hokey as it may sound, the first step for us that want to create a racially just society is to dream.

“We begin by imagining the details of what ‘racial justice’ would look like in our homes, schools, churches, businesses and halls of governance.

“Until we think concretely and imaginatively about what an anti-racist world would look like, we will continue to fight the same forms of racial oppression that have plagued us for centuries. We will never create what we don’t first imagine.

“So then, let me invite you to ponder this, how would a racially just society be different than the one we currently live in? How would schools, churches, neighbourhoods, laws, media, policing, housing, and economics be different in that world? Perhaps there’s a friend or loved one you can ponder this question with. If not, you can always write to me.

“A new world is possible.
It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Andre

Because this is black history month, and because of our commitment to justice for indigenous people, I want to share with you two people who worked for honesty and justice. These people, now deceased, ask us if we are still willing to open our eyes. Will we awaken to the freedom and justice that could be, or will we turn away from the light and nurse our fear in and of the dark?

carrie best

Nova Scotia’s Carrie Best was a poet, writer, journalist and activist. She founded The Clarion, the province’s first black-owned and published newspaper in Nova Scotia in 1946 and in 1952 she began hosting The Quiet Corner radio program which would run for 12 years. Best was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1979. She died in 2001. (Thanks to CBC.ca.)

tootoosis

Tootoosis was appointed chief of his band by his community in 1920. His leadership was not recognized by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs, the branch of government responsible for reserves as the Indian Act dictated that a chief had to be 25 and another chief was chosen. Despite this Tootoosis continued to assert a leadership position. Upon the formation of the Union of Saskatchewan Indians in 1946, he served as its president and later as a member of the executive. In 1959, the union was reorganized as the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), and Tootoosis became its first president. In 1970, he was appointed to the federation’s newly formed senate, and served in this capacity for the next 19 years. In recognition of his work and his devotion to “…seeking answers to the grave problems of his people” he was became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1986. Tootoosis died on February 2, 1989. (Thanks to Wikipedia.)

Will We?

In Luke 4:14-21, Luke has Jesus read from a scroll of Isaiah. What he reads are two passages, Isaiah 58:2 and 61:1-2, although It sounds to us like they are one. God’s judgement is omitted in what we would call the original text. leading me to think we have two theological considerations here.

The first is the question of the fulfillment of these prophetic statements. Usually, we understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s justice and mercy. But what does that mean? Practically speaking, the world has not improved its record of kindness and peace. In our era, we are systematically destroying the planet and its creatures, including ourselves. Isaiah’s words sound almost forlorn and hopeless to us. 

Perhaps the Isaiah quote was Jesus’ call to awaken Israel to the purpose for which it was chosen, to be the model community, the sacred community, the keeper of justice and peace. I wonder, though, if the people of Nazareth had hoped for a cheerier interaction from a home grown son. Maybe they wanted comfort rather than a call to action. Jesus imbeds this call in his own life, and ultimately in his death. 

The call to justice and integrity is not bound by contemporary circumstance; rather it is the expectation of a commitment  by the faithful. In Judaism, it is expressed in the law and the prophets. In Christianity, it is expressed in the resurrection. Every Sunday we are reminded that we are the living body of Christ in the world. Every Sunday we express our gratitude for his presence in our lives.

The second theological question is around being corporeal, in the flesh. Christianity is less a philosophy and more a practice. It is less a religion and more rooted in the lifestyle of Jesus. It is spiritual in a physical, relational way. I think Jesus would love the new cosmology that sees how everything is connected.

So what does this passage mean for us in our time? I think we need to spend less time on intangibles and more time being present in and for our world. As a corporate body, our beliefs are useless to our neighbours, but our baptismal promises are crucial to how we participate in and transform our community and our world. 

It doesn’t really matter where we begin. It does matter that we understand that we cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus without paying attention to the promises made in baptism, to the call to be part of the resurrection now, to hear the voice of God through the prophet Isaiah. Here is what one contemporary prophet said:

“The movement is everyone who sends supplies, everyone who talks to their friends and families about the underlying issues, everyone who takes some form of action to get involved in this civic process.”

— Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Occupy Wall Street Co-founder

And here are some baptismal promises:

Presider: God is love. God gives us life. We love because God first loved us. In baptism God declares that love; in Christ God calls us to respond. From the beginning the Church has received believers by baptism. On the day when the apostles first urged his hearers, saying “Turn and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are far away, everyone whom God may call.”

Sponsor and Candidate: I hear God’s call and come for baptism.

Presider: Will you learn to recognize what you need to grow and change for the good?

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Will you work for justice and peace among all people? Will you care for God’s creation? 

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

Presider: Do you trust in Christ’s love which brings freedom and life? Will you turn to him in time of trouble?

Sponsor and Candidate: I will, with God’s help.

The question to ask ourselves as we meditate on our own baptismal promises: Will we?

Identity Crisis

One of the social media groups that exist on the internet is called “I am not that kind of Christian.” The identity crisis in Christianity originates in its early shift from counter cultural resistance movement to being a recognized state sanctioned institution. Movements are fluid, evolving in goals and processes. Institutions create rules and aim for stability and order. Movements ebb and flow discernibly; institutions change slowly, and reluctantly.

The contemporary church finds itself caught in conflicting modalities of expectations, practice, and freedom to change. Like all religions, Christianity easily becomes a political tool for many different positions.

True religion is organic and will break through any long term attempts to contain its wildness, its creative chaos. For Christians today, there are new expressions of practice and resistance. While there may be what appears to be dissent between religions, in fact there is a deeper, more intentional conversation developing.

The parish church also finds itself rediscovering that, not only have the rules changed, the nature of membership has also changed. In the beginning, Jewish Christians met and planned and prayed in homes. They planned events to intervene in what they perceived to be a call for healing, for resistance, or for discussion about how to model the actions of Jesus. Some of these groups would become more theological, some more liturgical, and others more counter cultural.

Today, our partners in prayer are not necessarily Christian. The people who support the ecology or the social justice actions, may or may not be Sunday members. The standard for membership is less doctrinal and more practice based. At one time people who attended seasonally or during life events ( birth, death, marriage) were not considered committed adherents. Now, they are significant participants. The bells we still ring at the elevation of the host, originally reminded the working folks in fields or factories, of God’s love for them in the Christ. Today they remind everyone that we remember them and are praying for them

The church needs to relax in the knowledge that the faith is organic, and that means unpredictable, wild, diverse. Instead of worrying about our statistics, we need to trust that sharing the work of our communities, sharing the concerns of our towns and cities and farms, will help us fulfill the mission of Jesus. When people tell me that they don’t believe in God, but they do work for the common good, then I say that we share the same goals. The church’s purpose is transformation of the world, and we are all the workers for that movement.

Some of us take comfort and inspiration from the liturgy, the bible, the music of the church. These are gifts for some, but not for everyone. Some of us will feel more inspired as we prepare food for others, take part in a demonstration, be politically active. We are all part of the body, although how and when we appear may not be easily controlled.

There is no identity crisis for those who share peace, compassion, and well being for all, as their ethic and their goal. There is no identity crisis for those who share a love of the earth and wonder at the cosmos. There is no identity crisis for those who accept that the whole universe is constantly in a state of transformation and our awareness frees us to be knowing participants in that. When we all dream like that, when all work for that, then the time of religion as division will end and the time of singing” will come to us all.

My Beloved

After everyone else, Jesus goes into the river to be baptized. (Remember why being last is important.) And then people experience a vision of God in the form of a dove, announcing that Jesus is God’s beloved, indeed a child of the Holy One. The dove of course is reminiscent of the story of the ark, the messenger that names the earth again for humankind. 

So why was this story so important to tell? What message would the first followers hear?

Perhaps considering Jesus’ upbringing would provoke some thought on this. The common assumption is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, with his father a skilled tradesman. Nazareth had an interesting geographical situation. It bordered the Samarian lands on one side; on another the mixed communities of Sepphoris and Tiberias and then the Hellenistic settlements in Decapolis. Further north, there were settlements of Syro-Phonecians. All of these communities were geographically closer to Nazareth than Jerusalem.

Several hundred years before, Rome had punished the people of Sepphoris for a theft of armaments, by crucifying 2000 Jews. The people of the north — the Nazarenes — were thought to be slack religiously, to be overly-influenced by their Gentile neighbours, and to be speaking a barbaric form of Aramaic. Although these separate communities may have been somewhat insular, there was a shared mistrust of Rome and, at least among the Jews, mistrust of Jerusalem and the powerful there who were Roman sympathizers.

Back to Luke’s story: Who were the people who had waded into the Jordan ahead of Jesus? Mostly they would have been Jews, of course, but very few would have been rich or powerful. (The rich and powerful would able to use their own personal, ritual baths, having no need of the dirty water of a river.) Some of these, perhaps out of spiritual hunger, curiosity, or happenstance, might have been engaged by John’s rants, although his attacks on the morality of Herod would have also made participation dangerous.

Jesus walks into the water without comment. He stands not in the courtyard of the wealthy or the priests. Rather he stands with the poor, and the not quite wealthy enough. He stands with the people who could not follow the codes for ritual cleanliness or food, because they simply dId not have the wherewithal. 

Later, we know he will share food and conversation, healing and story with these same kinds of people. It would have been easy to write him off as a person of questionable background, who grew up in a mixed and perhaps not quite savoury area. His Aramaic would have revealed his northern origins.

Luke wants us to know where Jesus stands, who his people are. For the early Jewish Christian communities, the challenge of inclusivity, of resistance to an acceptance of violence, of visionary thinking, had to be rooted in the model of the the One who came as the child of God. 

I think Jesus is the child of God because God is not partial. Anyone who is humble, who is just and compassionate, reveals the face of God and is acting out the wisdom of Torah. If we say Jesus is love, peace, and justice, then we are saying something about the nature of God. Surprisingly, we are also saying something about what we can be also. If Jesus is God’s beloved, then so are you and I. 

Our lineage is not derived from service to oppressive power or imposing status. Our lineage is of the One who loves the earth, who says the last shall be first, who holds us to a higher standard of love. Our baptism is not about our personal salvation, but about the salvation of the world from fear and complicity. Our baptism must be a sign of God’s hope for all people. We personally don’t have to do anything except open ourselves to the Spirit of Wisdom who made us, to the passion of Jesus who calls us to follow him, and to the Holy One who travels ahead, making all creation new and blessed.

Liberating the Wheat

In Luke 3:7-18, we read about a reasonable John the Baptizer, who warns people to remember who they are and to whom they belong. He calls them a brood of vipers to link them to a story of the Exodus. When the refugees hungered and thirsted, God gave them water to drink and manna to eat. But eventually they were unsatisfied. Then poisonous snakes came and bit them. Sadly the poisonous snakes of doubt, of fear and of self protection came again in the first century to divide the people from each other and from their God.

To survive an occupying force requires some compliance, but John reminds them that that compliance cannot involve them turning on each other. The God of Israel requires them to be faithful, to be righteous with each other, to be generous, and to trust in God’s presence to save and to liberate. In other words, living through an occupation does not abrogate or diminish the communal demands of Torah. John’s expectations are modest. As the people recognize their need to cooperate, to take care of each other, to maintain community despite the external pressure of different gods and different laws, so they can receive the baptism of awareness.

John, however, points to the coming of another one whose words and actions will winnow the souls, to leave them holy and healthy. Chaff is the result of beating or tossing grain in the air to blow off the outer husk. What is left is the edible part, the source of bread, of nourishment.

The baptism of Jesus is like fire because it is passionate. It asks an honesty of us, and a vulnerability that shields others while exposing ourselves to the elements of a violent, selfish world. This passage is not about judgement but freedom to fully embrace our humanity, that looks exactly like the humanity of Jesus. Time to let the vipers of suspicion, of resentment, and of fire, go. It is time to walk into the healing stream that is the tough love of Jesus and the tough task he has set for all time. We are the bearers of hope in a dry land, abundance in what appears to be scarcity, joy in the face of rage. We celebrate this task because we understand that we will be liberated and reborn in the spirit of justice and truth, wisdom and love. Bread for the world, promise for the poor and healing for all.