thinking theology

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. 

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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.

Anticipating Easter

The spring rains and April sunshine are awakening the earth. The crocuses that we planted on Ash Sunday are getting ready to bud. And yet, there is still Holy Week before the Easter for which we yearn. 

Why do we put ourselves through the spiritual purging of Holy Week? We know how the story ends, after all. I think the passage from the desperate cries of Palm Sunday, “Hosanna. Save us!” to the joy of resurrection, invite us to see this reality in each of our lives and in the life of our nations and even the earth. Birth and death are both struggles into new life, new awareness. We can engage in these struggles as active participants. I invite you to allow yourselves to use this Holy Week to deepen the appreciation of the Divine working in our lives, both in shadow and in sunshine. 

From the cries of the crowd to the stillness of Good Friday, we walk a holy path in solidarity with all who suffer and with the communities of love and faith that gather in gardens, at altars, by candles, waiting in hope. 

When we shout, “ Hosanna; save us!”, let us hear the voice of the Holy One, saying, “I already have. Come to the feast of love and life… and bring your friends.”

Come to grieve for our world; come in hope. Come to rejoice that love is eternal, resilient like those pesky dandelions. Come because we are incomplete without

you. Come to the feast of life… and bring your friends.

A Judgment called Grace

Love is the strongest force in the world. Like our persecution of dandelions, we can try to poison it, dig it out of cultures, mine it until it’s exhausted, misrepresent it as punishment or morality, and yet it continually resurrects as itself. In a very limited way, I would say that love is the eternal force that inspires freedom, that surpasses judgment, that has no knowledge of punishment or retribution. It is the core of Judaism that informed every parable of Jesus, that taught him how to be the Christ in the world, the physical manifestation of God’s grace. 

From Genesis on, we read stories about God’s love in creation. When the first humans are offered self-awareness, they seize it and can no longer remain in ignorant bliss. They come to share with the Divine the awareness of belonging and alienation, choice and power. Of course, Eden looks different for them. Have you ever tried to return to a place of memory? But in the story, the Holy One softens the blow of reality by making them clothes, comfort against their new life. 

This is the pattern of the story of the relationship between God and humanity. Humanity makes promises and breaks the promise. Humanity is offered justice, freedom, compassion as a lifestyle, as a place where the holy and the human can meet in mutual delight. Unfortunately, we are slow learners, socially, and return to violence and self-centred aggrandizement rather than the ways of peace. At each break, priestly voices offer cultic solutions, prophets cast warnings of how the road poorly chosen will lead to disaster to no avail. I don’t think God punishes anyone. I think we punish ourselves and blame God. 

blog picIn the story of the prodigal son, we see the archetypal split of two brothers, each seeking the meaning of life. One brother chooses the ways of self-indulgence; the other brother chooses the path of duty. The father, who is loving, forgiving, tolerant, and patient, loves them both. In a culture based on productivity and duty, the indulgent son should be punished. In a culture based on freedom without self-discipline, the older brother is perceived as unreasonable and judgemental. 

These two brothers are the poles between which we swing, duty and self, reward and punishment, forgiveness and retribution. It is so difficult for us to imagine a world in which there is no punishment, but instead processes of reconciliation and accountability. The father does not ask either brother to change but waits, rather, for them to become aware of the possibility of a different path.

What is wrong with our world? Just this: at some point we will have to give up pointing our fingers at each other. In the novel by Herman Hesse, Siddhartha*, we read:

“It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.” 

Imagine a world in which we begin with positive affirmation, with a willingness to listen rather than shout slogans. Imagine that we believe there is nothing that can separate us because we are family. 

Beyond all this, I hear the story of the prodigal son as the encounter of humanity’s doubt, fear, shame with the loving gift of grace, a free gift of healing and reconciliation, no strings or conditions attached. Another quote from Siddhartha:

“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.” 

The compassion of Jesus arises because he is not the divided son. He is the human who lives equally in the grace of God and the delight of life in this world. On the cross, he lifts up fear and faith, suffering and release. He lives in the garden, but with awareness of the precious nature of life, of relationship. He sees the holy within and around all life. 

As we come to the end of Lent, let us give ourselves the gift of recognizing the ways in which we are self-centred, the ways in which we are self-righteous, and the greater promise that we can be filled with grace. It is there, as close as our next breath, intimate, yearning for our healing, hopeful for our growth. Let us release blame of ourselves and others; let us release the fears that teach us to mistrust our neighbours near and far; let us feel the holiness rising within to set us free. 

 

* Footnote: In 1951, Herman Hesse published a novel called Siddhartha, based on the life of Gautama Buddhas. It is about a young man who begins a search for enlightenment, which leads him through spiritual exercises, decadent living, and finally enlightenment.

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.

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.)