thinking theology

Our Legacy

In Psalm 49:5-11, we read,

Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?

Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never be enough to keep us alive forever and never see the grave.

When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own.

In the long view, humanity may be on the edge of extinction but the earth will probably recover from us and our frightening greed and lack of boundaries. I find that cold comfort and, like most of us, would like to imagine leaving as a legacy a world of peace and abundance for the generations to come.

Visiting the rubble of the great buildings of other cultures is instructive in the sense that if we are wise, we learn that everything changes, mutates from what it was to what it could be, or disappears for a time. If everyone dies, and all things change, where do we want to place ourselves in this pocket of the Now, of eternity? How then shall we live? 

A friend recently said how little interest they had in the disposition of their body after death since it belonged to the earth but their soul — something no one could touch — belonged to the stars. For those of us who are not victims of a particular society, yet without any individual power to transform our world, we still have our voices. We may not live in mansions, but we have voting options. For those who do have economic power and influence, how are you caring for the vulnerable, the victims? A child is leading the climate change movement. We can all stop to support and listen to the children who do not care about the GNP, who have no interest in how well the banks are doing. They care about survival. 

What legacy do we want to leave behind? Our empty mausoleums? Our rubble? Or do we want to be a part of the mass outcry to save this holy earth, all its creatures, even our children!

The psalmist is correct that we all die and our names blow away like the ashes of a bygone era. How we live with that depends on where we place our priorities. For me, the sacred nature of all life, the challenge and comfort of the spiritual life, the pain and joy of community has always held more value for me than money or status. In this one holy life, I have wanted to drink deeply from the well of knowledge, feel passionately about the issues that concern us all, forgive and be forgiven for trespasses I didn’t recognize at the time. 

Part of my faith says that resurrection is possible, that there is a balm in Gilead to heal us all. For those of us who follow Jesus, there must be commitment as well as hope, work with our prayers, and compassion that leads us to justice rather than judgement. 

When I die, I hope wildflowers and a maple tree spring up although they were not planted. I hope that I have brought more love and healing than pain and injustice. I do not need any rubble added to my life. I am happy to fade away. 

What do you want your legacy to be? Do you hope for rubble or something more eternal? I hope that we all live with such an appreciation of the sacred in our world that the strength of our prayer, and the strength of our voices and actions, help us to trust that the Holy is working with us to renew the face of the earth.

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In Luke 11,: 1-13, there is a discussion about persistence and generosity. People are encouraged to be generous without being coaxed. But if they resist, then persistence is the tactic to use. In a world where getting a deal is a high priority in both buying and selling, it is difficult to prize relationship and generosity over indifference and greed. I was thinking about the inherent delusion of “owning” property, rather than caring for a part of the earth. No one truly owns the plots of the earth. We inhabit various places for a few decades and then we are gone from and back into the earth. We become what we had thought to enslave. In the meantime, the “deals” of the real estate market have benefitted some and set up barriers for others.

This axial time is critical for what life will look like in 50 years from now. I will be, as they say, pushing up daisies by then, but I hope the earth is still cool and not on fire. Our children are begging us to put our enormous influential and economic resources to the task of saving what we can of our planet. And we keep giving them rocks and scorpions.

The world is knocking at the door of the wealthy nations begging for crumbs and safe harbour for the children. When will the impulse of generosity overwhelm the cynicism of power and narcissism/patriotism? Jesus said that for anyone who harms the vulnerable, it would be better if a huge stone were tied around their neck and they were dropped into the depths of the sea. This saying haunts me as I am aware that my financial and social comfort is part of a collusion with oppression, regardless of my intent.

So what can we people privileged with comfort, education, family, community do? The first order is to recognize that others are paying our way: we do not deserve our bounty. Secondly, we need to pray with such a deep spirit of gratitude that generosity becomes our norm. Thirdly, we need to educate ourselves so that we know the difference between crumbs and bread, eggs and scorpions, charity and justice. We need to learn how to listen beyond our fears and defences, opening ourselves to the gift and sacrifice of humility, setting our sight on that frightening cross in the hope of resurrection of vision and faith.

And finally, we need to remember that we walk with Jesus, beyond the limitations of our churches and our traditions. In my garden, as I caress the the soil, the green growing things, an angel whispers in my ear, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” And when I simply cannot bear the violence, hatred and ignorance I see in the news, “ and the earth shall be full of the holiness of God, as the waters cover the sea.” Finally, when I despair and feel powerless, I remember that Jesus too felt abandoned, yet his death brought a taste of life that was new, born out of sacrifice and tears and suffering.

I think the future will be hard for all the children of the world, but perhaps by committing ourselves to loaves and fishes, eggs and freedom, safety and compassion, some of the suffering may be ameliorated. Maybe if we remember that we are the caretakers, not the owners of the earth, we will fall in love with its holiness again. Maybe, some of us will be redeemed, some of us forgiven, and all of us held in the embrace of Life and Holiness, in the Eden that we will then remember.

Always a Choice

I have been thinking about Mary and Martha this week. My mother — and many other women of her generation — took umbrage at this story. It seemed to show a lack of appreciation for the actual work of hospitality. It seems fine to invite friends home for dinner, but who will prepare the meal? Who will clean up? The women had been the worker bees in the church; they did the fund raising, made the coffee and goodies, ran the altar guild, taught the children, responded to the mission of the church. Usually the story of Mary and Martha was told as an elevation of contemplation and learning over the demand to serve others. No wonder it made them cranky!

Maybe we need to hear this story again. It is a story about choice after all, but maybe it does not praise one choice more than another. Maybe it is a story not just about choice, but our responsibility to ourselves to choose what is life giving over what is simply dutiful. Maybe Martha is being challenged to choose for herself, for what she needs. Perhaps her problem is that she can only choose for herself rather than impose her ideas on another.

I have been reading a novel by the late and wonderful writer, Ursula Leguin. The novel is called The Telling. In it, a society has had imposed upon it the morality, the expectations, and the purpose of life by an external system based on the industrial model of our world. In this artificial and dominating construct, the philosophy, beauty, social organization, and values of an earlier culture are under constant threat of erasure.

I was thinking how much American entertainment, clothing, religion, industry, and values dominate our planet. At last, some indigenous voices — in particular — are attempting to save the earth from the ravages of indifferent, hostile industry. Other voices call out for a civilization that values peace above productivity, education and beauty above expediency, and health above riches. It really is a question of choice for the whole planet. Our choices will determine our freedom, our compassion, our survival as a species. 

We cannot choose for another. We must choose for ourselves. It profits no one to blame each other. In our time, it is important for individuals to be thoughtful, not reactive; to be calm and inquiring; to learn how to discern whatever we think the truth is about the sacred, the precious, what is holy.

On Leguin’s planet, there is no religion. What is sacred is ancient story about how to walk in beauty and peace. Here is a lovely quote from the book:

So, without the telling, the rocks and plants and animals go on all right. But the people don’t. People wander around. They don’t know a mountain from its reflection in a puddle. They don’t know a path from a cliff… they hurt themselves. They get angry and hurt each other… they want too much… people eat poison food. Everything’s confused. Everybody’s sick. 

But we’re here, and we have to learn how to be here… how to study, how to listen, how to talk, how to tell. If we don’t tell the world, we don’t know the world. We’re lost in it, we die. But we have to tell it truly. Take care and tell it truly. (144-145p.)

So if Martha had wanted to study, she could have sat down. If she wanted to prepare the meal, then she could do that too. What is the better part that Mary chose? I think it was knowing what she needed to do, without imposing on another. Women must remember that we have choice. All people need to be honest about how and why we choose. For us as Christians, if we choose to follow the Way of Christ, then we must be ready to learn, and know when to take action. We need to learn how to listen without preparing an argument in our heads. We need to be ruled by compassion for all people and for our world.

The Eden We Deserve

Christianity, in its original form, is a simple way of life. Don’t take more than you need. Share with others. Be merciful. Do not be judgemental or bigoted. Assume the best in others and, if they reject you, go eat at a different diner. 

Over the millennia, we have created complexities and bureaucracies that obfuscated the beauty of Jesus’ message and turned it into crowd control with elites and petitioners. From time to time, the temple is swept clean, but the new temple quickly remembers the ways of the flesh and surrounds itself with rules and  hierarchies, circles that determine who is worthy and who is not. 

No wonder the world has lost faith and hope for something better. The meeting of General Synod this weekend showed how the people of the fish can show courage and strength and change direction. It also showed how a minority of mean talkers, self aggrandizers, and hard hearts can thwart the peaceful dreams of the many. 

So what do we do between the sweetness and promises of Jesus, and our own tendency to perverse cruelty? Well, there was a person who was beset by robbers and left in a ditch, no money, beaten and afraid. Several folks passed him, busy on their way, following what they understood to be their best choices. And still the person bled, and suffered in the ditch. Finally someone stopped and took a chance. They cleaned the person up, arranged for lodging and sustenance, and offered restitution for any expense. It was a risk for them both. The victim had to be willing to be helped by a stranger; the passerby had to hope the victim would not — somehow — turn on him. It was all about trust and compassion.

There is not a lot of trust in our world and we can see why very clearly. Look at the water in Attawapiskat. Look at the children in detention centres. Look at our prisons, our homeless, our broken and bleeding people, some of whom appear to be clothed in the garments of the middle class, but have still been broken. Look at our own hearts that are daily assailed with problems that bewilder us, situations in which we are powerless. 

We are called to be peacemakers, not judges. We are called to humble tasks, caring with words and actions, for everyone whom we may meet. We are called to forgive ourselves so that we know how the healing of Jesus may begin in us and extend beyond us. This acceptance of forgiveness again and again will teach us humility, trust in the Holy One, and open our hearts to see the best in others. And when our hearts are open, we will also recognize meanness and pettiness, and we will rebuke those demons with our firm and uncompromising commitment to love and justice. 

We will get tired and feel defeated from time to time by those who abuse their power, but we will rise again and again because you cannot keep a holy person down. Like dandelions in the spring, like ants in the sugar mill, like yeast in the dough, we will rise and we will change everything.

Our  lives here are brief, so we have only a little time to do the work and model the love of Christ. But our life in Christ is eternal so we have no fear. There is a movement of the Spirit in the world. Let us quicken our ecological resolve in gratitude for this planet, in compassion for all creatures, including ourselves. Let us believe in the vision of Christ with such faith and fervour that it is actualized and becomes the new reality. 

This week, I was browsing in the Restore for Habitat. When I came out, there were two men, obviously new Canadians, struggling with a dresser too large for their little car. I watched for a bit with interest. Ann has frequently had to do packing magic when I have made similar errors in furniture shopping. She always gets it in! Anyway, I offered to take their dresser home for them in my slightly larger car. It was a bit of language struggle, but then the deed was done: the dresser was in my car, I followed them home, I delivered the dresser. I think they were still confused about what had happened as I drove off. It has made me chuckle ever since. They will probably be telling the story too. Now I am telling you because I want you to know that it may have been a good deed but it so delighted me that I can’t stop smiling about it. And thats how the world is supposed to work. We do what we do and it brings us delight. We live in love, and so we receive love. We trust, and are ourselves proven to be trustworthy. 

Jesus calls us to this ministry which will sometimes be rewarding, sometimes frustrating, sometimes infuriating, but act by act we are transforming the world into the eden that we deserve. 

Pentecost 2019

Pentecost: the denouement of the Easter season, the answer to all our questions about the resurrection, the church, the mission. Do you think?

The background to this story has Jewish roots in a harvest festival, Shavuot, later to be associated with the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. The reading of the Law would have been accompanied by the sober reminder that at the harvest festival, those who had been landless, homeless, and hungry, would be grateful for their unearned blessings and restoration. And that those still in the chains of hunger or poverty would receive generosity and restoration in terms of land, a sense of belonging, and hope. So at this festival, these Jewish disciples would identify the mission of Jesus with the expectations of a holy society. It is interesting that this story of the reception of the Holy Spirit would be grounded in the very concerns of both the Law and of Jesus around justice, hospitality, and generosity.

At the beginning of the narrative we hear that the disciples are again sequestered in one place. We might remember that whenever they gathered in this way, Jesus has surprised them. This time, the Spirit bursts into their inward looking conversation and throws open the doors of the room. Fire and wind, images of exodus and Elijah, liberation and challenge. Suddenly they remember why they even came to know each other. From their incarceration by fear and lack of focus, they are pulled outside themselves, drunk with the presence of the Christ who has reached out to the whole world from the restriction of the cross to the freedom of the resurrection: Jesus, remembered as the Beloved teacher, transformed into the wild Spirit that severs the chains of oppression and alienation.

Peter, the spokesperson, finds he is no longer afraid of otherness, but welcomes interaction with those not of his language, not of his culture, not of his religion. In finally understanding the freedom offered by Jesus and fulfilled by this event of the Spirit, the blindfold falls from his eyes. He now sees that all people are worthy of freedom, of peace. All people are worthy of love, of a seat at the banquet of creation, this blue and green palace made by God.

I imagine that the disciples now understood that Jesus’ death and resurrection were release from limitation. I imagine they were surprised increasingly by how this explosive experience would bend the fortresses of prejudice in their minds and would cause them to dream of a world only prophesied about. I picture them as dizzy with insight and so full of the power of the Spirit that they were compelled to share this gift of freedom from the shuttered mind, the social barriers. As David danced with the return of the Ark of the Covenant, I imagine them dancing and singing as they discovered the power of Jesus’ spirit with them still, his compassion. But most of all, they would understand his revelation of the desire of God for all people to awaken to the holiness within creation, the holiness that would open us to become communities where the poor don’t simply get remainders — scraps from the table — but where poverty is always being healed.

I think the questions brought to Pentecost then, in that isolated room, are still with us. What do we want from resurrection? What are the messages we see every day about how we are to live? How are we are being freed to rethink our convictions, our opinions? How is the Spirit freeing us to be generous and welcoming, not tolerant of difference, but energized by it?

These are not rhetorical questions. These questions will define which Christian communities thrive and which become holy relics. Jesus is with us when we are the community in motion, the community that can speak the gospel of justice and liberation in many languages, with many cultures. Jesus sits at tables of strangers and engages in story telling and community activism with many partners. Salvation belongs to those who bring hope, who share lives, who act and speak with courage. Peace comes with the awareness that we are each a tiny but important life, living for the community of God, a peaceful, abundant earth, one family throughout the world.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 

— John 12:24 —

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 

— 1 Corinthians 15: 35-38 —

These two passages offer very significant clues for thinking about the season from Good Friday to Pentecost. They help us move away from literalism to a rich understanding of Jesus the Christ and of how his resurrection is a promise for us and for all.

On Good Friday, the first disciples were overwhelmed with the awareness that their teacher and friend, their mentor, was in fact as human as they. He died in a particularly gruesome and humiliating fashion. No lightning bolts came to save him. He died with us, sharing even fear and pain with us. For me, this has always been an important insight, a reality that demands that we are born and that we die: some of us easily, some of us horribly. Nothing can save us. We are designed for death. But maybe we are also designed for resurrection!

When family and friends first encountered the risen Messiah, you will remember that they did not recognize him. He had been transformed. It is in relationship that his nature was revealed to followers, sometimes immediately, as in the garden with Mary; sometimes later, after he left the dinner and prayers in Emmaus. Although his presence seemed concrete and corporeal, he was able to appear and disappear mysteriously. All the post-resurrection stories happen only with his followers. There is no mention of any encounters with strangers, enemies, or other friends. John Dominic Crossan (Resurrecting Easter) has pointed out that the Eastern Church maintained its commitment to the idea of a corporate resurrection as the important idea, whereas the Western Church became focussed on personal salvation. Of course, both belong together. It is not possible to conceive of isolation in the company of Christ. Everything happens in community, but it also leads to individual experience. 

Which brings us to the story of the Ascension, a story that is limited by a shift in our knowledge base and the literalism of our era. Buckminster Fuller calls the whole story into question with his famous perspective that in a round world, there is neither up nor down. So if not an up and down movement, than what do we make of this tale? I believe the story of the ascension has everything to do with grief and empowerment. 

Many people who are grieving say quietly that they have either seen their loved one or that they experience their presence. There is a Netflix series call “After Life” about a man struggling grimly with his grief, so much that he views videos of his deceased wife, over and over. Eventually, he is able to move beyond his personal pain to acknowledge that the world still exists and instead of fighting it or hiding from it, he can be a force of compassion and wisdom. 

The ascension story might be about the disciples releasing their grief and their personal sense of disempowerment in order to become the church. Unless the seed falls into the ground…. And that seed is the misdirected hopes, the keenness of feeling abandoned, the confusion around the choices that those first disciples must have felt. Also, the time had come to reassess who Jesus could be for them in the present, rather than clinging to the beloved leader of the past. 

One trajectory for this story is to understand the ascension as the movement from Jesus the mortal, the man, to Jesus, filled with the Spirit of the Holy One, as the Christ; Jesus, the one anointed to show the world that death is a gateway not an abyss. The Christ who — through his transformation from the Beloved to the Christ — becomes for us the sign of inclusivity, and who combines all the knowledge of the suffering and joy of humanity with the cosmic wisdom of the Spirit of the Holy One. 

Jesus, the man of history, would have been an influence but would not be such a world-shaking experience without his transformation. The disciples could not have become the church without turning away from gazing into the skies, waiting for an unrealistic dream. Instead, they look at each other, at their world, at the circumstances of their lives, and they begin to plan their next steps as the followers of Jesus, now the Christ. 

On the day of Pentecost, the story of the gathering of the disciples, for the first time as the Body of Jesus, transforms them also into the body of the risen Christ, no longer limited by other knowledge, or false hope. For themselves and for the witnesses, they become people who — like Jesus himself — reach out to all people, regardless of status or ethnicity. They are filled with the wine of vision and new hope. They come to believe that they have not been abandoned at all but, like the earthly Jesus, they have been anointed for the work of transforming others with compassion, hope, and healing. 

They no longer look like those first fishermen. They are no longer seeds planted in hope, but food for a hungry world.

They discover abilities they did not know they had. They become orators, motivational speakers, powerful in prayer and in the radical messages of acceptance and the destiny of humanity. The gospels certainly are about love, but about a tough love, one that has endured suffering, that has experienced the pain of becoming new, that has had to leave the past behind to grasp for an awe-filled, unbelievable promise. Through these disciples Pentecost calls: “Follow him with us and discover that death is a gate and there is so much more to life than we can know in one lifetime.”

Pentecost is the promise that if we open our minds and our emotions, we too can be filled with the new wine of promise and the courage to live our lives with openness and authenticity. Pentecost is a story about finding the Holy as an experience that comes for those who allow themselves to live on the other side of platitudes and vulnerability. 

“God loves us already and has from our very beginning. The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it is about seeing what is already true: that God loves us already and then beginning to live in this relationship. It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God.” (Marcus Borg)

At the heart of the institutional church, the Holy Spirit still burns and stirs, no matter how deeply we may from time to time have embedded it in stone and statutes. The wild Spirit will break out and demand freedom and justice, hope and healing, compassion and vision beyond our knowing. 

And from the late Judy Cannato (Radical Amazement), mystic and believer:

Our knowing what we know is an act of self transcendence, and our acting upon what we have learned will lead to greater consciousness still. . . . . We must accept accept the power and grace that is in the emerging universe. . . .This is our moment. Let us live connected and in love. . . .

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.