thinking theology

Mothers and Shepherds

Happy Mother’s Day! I guess. Aside from the emotional minefields produced by that greeting, for many it is a wonderful day. As a person almost totally lacking in sentimentality, I would just forget it except for my great kids who want to remember it. My problem with the idea of the Good Shepherd has similar problems.

On Mother’s Day, we forget the terrible mothers, the tragedies in motherhood, the women separated from their children by incarceration or social stigma. Similarly, the picture of the Good Shepherd is usually that of a kindly, white, clean, handsome man, holding clean lambs in his arms. And we see ourselves as those dear little lambs, being kept in safety from accident, or being lost, or perhaps being butchered. 

What if we adjust the lens on these pictures? What if the pictures of mothers we hold up are those of starving Yemeni women struggling to find food for their kids, of Palestinian mums trying to shield others, of black mothers worrying whether or not their sons will come home safely? What if the picture of the Good Shepherd is our broken church struggling to remember that the lambs we are called to protect are the very people we avoid? What if we, like Judas and Peter, are ourselves broken and confused? What if this is the struggle to transform our world not simply with words, or political rhetoric, but with action, with money, with advocacy?

How do we celebrate this day? I think we could begin by agreeing that there are lots of ways of mothering and of being mothered. None of them is easy, but often the reward is in the doing rather than being acknowledged. We are all born within our Mother Earth, the paradise given to us by God. If we are good mothers, we will teach our children not to soil their environment. We will teach justice as the path to peace. We will learn to discriminate not on the basis of class, but of neediness, of solidarity.

As shepherds in the risen body of Christ, we confess our woundedness to each other, so we will be free from judging others. We will know that being a shepherd does not require us to spend time making ourselves look good. Shepherding is a dirty, dangerous business. But the lambs are more important than concern for ourselves. We will see that there is only one flock and its name is humanity, albeit in all the crazy diversity that our Creator seems to love. 

And so let us welcome each other to this day, accepting our narratives as the ground for greater love. Let us mother each other and be mothered into a way of peace. Let us reach out to be rescued, turning to the lamb on the precipice beside us, and dragging them along with us. And so, hand in hand, generation upon generation, we learn how to let our mothering, shepherding God grow in our souls, in our hands and in our minds, so that the world may be re-knit in the loving image in which we were made. 

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Do You Love Me?

“Do you Love Me, now that I can dance” was a song performed by the Contours in 1964. There is a delightful YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrlafREM_pE) to go with the song. 

animals dancingNow what might that have to do with John 21? One of the deficiencies of the first followers of Jesus was their need for a validating sign, a proof, that Jesus’ teaching and way to peace and justice was worth risking everything. Some of them had left behind employment and personal security to follow him down the roads and through the villages, even into the great city of Jerusalem. It’s not entirely surprising that they wanted reassurance. First Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities, perhaps to force a sign as much as for compensation. Then Peter, after Jesus’ arrest, denied him not once but three times, another betrayal of loyalty. 

I reflected this week that everyone wanted Jesus to dance to a different tune, to be something other than a man, or simply show “his moves” to the authorities. Even in this anecdote in John 21, when Jesus asks Peter if he can love him with the kind of passion with which Jesus loved God, Peter demurs. Instead of the word agape that Jesus uses, Peter responds with the word, philios. I love you like a friend.

So then, despite the possibly implied disappointment in Peter’s response, Jesus sets him on a mission. Now interestingly, the text says that it is Peter who is disappointed because Jesus does not seem to trust his answer. 

We continue to be disappointed that Jesus does not provide proofs, that we still must respond to his question, that we are still stuck between waiting for him to dance, and having the world instantly transform into his likeness.
So what do we take away from this story? First, I think some of us will relate more to the
historical Jesus, the apocalyptic prophet, or the healer, or the inclusive, open friend to women, children and the poor. Some of us will relate to the suffering servant who gathers all the pain of the world into his arms on the cross. Others will look to the Christ, the sacred figure who united heaven and earth, who promises a future in which pain and sorrow will.

polar bears dancingSome of us will be blinded by the love we have for the human Jesus or the divine man, and will entirely commit our lives to his service. Some of us will love him more than anyone else, but maintain some distance. Some of us will only form a passing acquaintance, but still name ourselves his followers.  There is space for us to intensify and release. There is room to learn and deepen our understanding of him. Some of us will tango and some of us will waltz with him, but always he will be stretching his love and his life to us, for us and with us. Let’s dance.

Faith and Reason

Faith and reason are two responses to encounters of the Holy. In John 20:19-31, the writer sets these responses apart in the disciples’ comments. For a long time in the church, however, all education, all “science” or knowing existed within the boundaries of religious oversight. Sadly, rather than embracing discovery and invention as Holy gifts, they were frequently perceived as heresy. 

Those religious scholars needed to reread John. Jesus does not chastise Thomas for his questions or for his need for physical proof. Nor does Jesus treat faith without proof as a sign of naïveté or gullibility. Rather, he accepts the different ways his followers accommodate a difficult truth. The gospel of John encourages us to “know” ourselves through integrating  Mystery that becomes reality for us. The disciples come to terms with their grief that things are different than they imagined, but that Jesus is and was and will become the Christos they loved and would only begin to know after the resurrection. 

So I don’t think the story of Thomas is about a schism between faith and reason; rather, faith and reason form the base for spiritual development. Faith is bedrock that promises a foundation of relationship with the Holy, a spiritual home for the seeking heart and mind. Reason — questioning — is also a Holy gift that impels beyond the truth of today into the unfolding truth of tomorrow. 

Judy Cannato said, “All our knowledge leads us to greater consciousness. Our knowing what we know is an act of self-transcendence, and our acting upon what we have learned will lead us to greater consciousness still.” (Radical Amazement)

At this time in history, we have folks who want to hide from learning about life, faith, the universe, while equally there are people asking deep spiritual questions that our religious institutions are just beginning to entertain. It is an exciting time for the church as we release ourselves to learning and to more profound consciousness.

In The Gnostic New Age, April DeConnick, says, “Gone is the God of damnation. Gone is the focus on sin and retribution. In its place is the God of Love that the Gnostics claimed to know. Separation from God and reunification with the sacred has become the story of salvation…. To be successful, religion today must promote personal well-being, health, and spiritual wholeness.” 

I would say that the latter values have been held safely by the mystics and the cloistered for all of these centuries. At this time, though, faith and reason are beckoning us into an adventure, an ark to a renewed world, an exodus into liberation, a wilderness of testing and fulfilment. And at the end, whenever and whatever that may be, we are promised joy.

Christos Anesti!

Bunnies and chicks, chocolates and maple candies, spring flowers and sunshine: the ingredients of our Easter celebrations. Oh… church, too! I think Jesus would have loved all the intercultural props for the service that celebrates his resurrection into the Body of his followers. I am convinced that we are made for delight, for affection, for appreciation of the goodness of life. On this morning, we celebrate that healing is as real as pain, that death is an event in a life, not the end of life. 

Today we laugh away how imprisoned we have been by doubt and fear. Now we see how life could be, how we can remake the world in the image of sacrificial love, of peace, of enough for all. With our linear thinking, our over-confidence in knowledge, we forget to trust the impulse of our experience that will always draw us to beauty, to mystery, to the horizon where Christ is calling. 

Consider the lilies this morning. Artfully designed by the Creator and arranged by loving hands, they focus our vision on how we could work together with the Holy One. This is how life might be if we saw ourselves as co-workers with God. Such tiny specks in the universe, yet we have been asked to be the ones who give meaning, who provide for the safety of the other creatures and the earth. We have been commissioned by God to maintain this planet, this first home. We have been called to live resurrection, to speak resurrection, to become resurrection. With all the world, our song must be awe and praise and thanks. 

Do not fear that prompting in your heart. You have nothing to lose but isolation. Open your heart in community and discover that together we are on the path. If God were a verb, I would say that we can only “god” in community. By ourselves, we can prepare, we can send love and peace in prayer. But as we “god,” we discover how much may be achieved, how wonderful it is to sing together, and finally how much we lift each other in hope.

And so enjoy the chocolate today. If you are alone, go out to a restaurant and sit at the bar, enjoying the company of others, or call a friend to wish them happy easter or happy spring. If you are toiling under the demands of a big family dinner, remember what a miracle each life is. 

Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! 

And so may our hearts and love for each other rise with such beauty that Christ is revealed in our lives. 

Alleluia! Amen!

Who has found the place of Wisdom? the prophet Baruch cries out. The place of Wisdom is filled with light and music.

— Baruch 3:20 —

All creation, from the stars above to the little mice that creep through the pantries of the world, praises the joy of living. Most of us are only visitors to the halls of the Holy, but we do catch glimpses from time to time through the lens of creation and through prayer, and those moments open our hearts and make us hunger for more.

During evening prayer we sing, “May our prayer rise up like incense before you, the lifting up of our hands as the evening sacrifice to you.” (Psalm 142:2) We give thanks for the gift of Jesus who teaches us that all life is sacred, that meaning must be assigned to all sacrifice, that the time for violent solutions has ended. When we all subscribe to this, war will become abhorrent to us, there will be no need for retribution any longer. The sweet smell of incense rises with our commitment to acts of peace and justice, with our prayer for transformation for ourselves as the body of Christ in the world.  

In the dark of night, the stars shine above even if we cannot see them and the purposes of God, like the stars, lead us to save ourselves, even when God seems absent. Within the womb of the world, new life is stirring, kicking away barriers and opening a way. God births us with pain and with love, trusting that we will find our way home, creating joy and gratitude with our passage through life. 

On this holy night, when grief becomes new sight, when we discover that nothing has been lost but everything is being changed; on this night we fan the flickering flames of our faith, and our dream of a redeemed and healthy world. For a while, we can stop sitting by graves and walk into the garden of springtime hope. We are invited to leave behind the binding cloth of death, shift what had seemed to be boulders, and wait for dawn, for the Beloved who is different and yet the same, the mystery of resurrection.

Again this year we gather to remember the death of Jesus — then — and the meaning of his life for us today. We do not gather to remember a dead hero. We do not gather to beat ourselves up with guilt. Rather, we gather to collect the promises and commitments we made on Ash Wednesday. Good Friday is the culmination of our Lenten devotions, our opportunities to minimize the suffering in our world, to devote ourselves to creating hope and the possibility of its fulfillment. 

For Jesus’ brutal death to continue to have meaning, we must accept his living presence in our lives. That means we intentionally lead lives of prayer and action. Our prayers require openness to our own historical complicity in the manufacture of violence, prayers that will lead us to acts of justice and reconciliation. We offer our commitment to grow into the Way that Jesus modelled for us, lives of peace-making, lives of compassion. 

At the centre of the cross is Jesus’ heart filled with the pain and hurt of life. But his arms reach out to the world in love. Christians, perhaps, should have been called the people of the broken heart. We stand at the foot of the cross like the bandits, unsure of our worthiness, not always sure what we believe. We stand at the foot of the cross with the women, who shared the pain of Jesus’ passing. 

And today we are here again, to recognize what it may cost to live a life of love and integrity. We kneel in gratitude that the story does not end with martyrdom because we know that Jesus’ love continues to connect us from birth to death, from crucifixion to resurrection. Through his broken heart then and our broken hearts now, the light of Grace shines through to remind us that we live in the presence of the Holy, the Source of all Being, the path that with all creation leads to transformation. Leonard Cohen said that everything has a crack in it and that is how the light gets in. 

The Stones Cry Out!

The stones cry out! If the earth has a language of protest, we are certainly hearing it. Bomb cyclones, torrential rain, earthquakes and melting glaciers, extinctions of some species. Stones are hard of course, and human hearts are fragile: physically, emotionally and spiritually. We, with all creation, are crying out for justice, for healing, for peace. Why is this so hard?

As we take our first step into Holy Week, we are reminded that Jesus came not to be a king or a conqueror, but a healer, a gatherer of human lives. He particularly cared about those whose voices were easily unheard. I muse that at the centre of the cross, all the suffering of the world is held, awaiting resurrection, awaiting hope of a new world, with different values, different priorities. 

(Romans 8: For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.)

On that day when Jesus rode into town on a borrowed donkey — to a crowd of street urchins, market folks, none posh enough for the upper city — he made a statement about who his people were and whose needs claimed his attention. Now, I don’t know if he was afraid or not, but the clarity of his understanding of the problem in his time shaped both his actions and his refusal to be bent by Roman authority. 

Palm Sunday carries both our desperate plea — “Hosanna, Save Us!” — and our hope for the seemingly impossible stand against the powers and principalities of the world. And so we open our hearts this week to the remembered pain of it all that is re-enacted, daily, somewhere in the world. Again we open our lives to a holy scrutiny of how cold our efforts have been in compassion for our neighbours, how much we have fallen short in our commitment to understanding and acceptance of others, how ungrateful for this creation we have been. 

Our leader has no magic wand, no fast cure, just the promise of a community of love, and a home (no matter how far we have travelled or how weary we have grown). He comes on a donkey, down an ordinary street, to ordinary people, and asks us to become his body, his love in a world become unlovely, his hope when for so many that light has dimmed. 

Palm Sunday ends with questions really. Will we sit at his table without judging the other guests? Will we be willing to stand with him on the side of the vulnerable, not counting our, or their, worthiness? Will we admit that without trust in him, our vision will be narrow and our efforts shallow? Will we accept his sacrifice as our own, his work as ours, his wounds are ours, his love to set us free? 

And so we pray,

Compassionate God, in whom is our dream of heaven and the peaceful dream of earth, help us to love ourselves and to forgive ourselves, so that we can love and forgive our neighbours and those whom we do not want to know. Break us and heal us, so that we may be strengthened by the fire of your love, and tempered by the heat of your compassion. In the name of Jesus, who lived in the full experience of Love, inspire our hearts with his passion and his faith in you. Amen.