Month: January 2015

Why We Can’t Trust God

A few years ago I had a student who cheated. Pure and simple. There was no way around it. She handed in work that was not hers. She had simply gone on the internet and cut and pasted a bunch of stuff. She didn’t even cheat all that well. Then she handed it in and put her name on the top.

The student was totally unembarrassed. She could have cared less about what I thought. I talked with her gently about the cheating. But she refused to admit it. I gave her a second chance. She handed in the same plagiarized material. I asked her about the cheating, and she looked at me with that that kind of privileged attitude that told me that what I thought wasn’t important. She could do what she wanted. She was rude and self-righteous and most importantly, she didn’t stop.

Finally I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the administration. “Can you justify your accusations?” they asked me. It took time. I had to go on the internet and find and copy all the same things this student had copied. It took me several hours – hours I didn’t have – but I did it. I listed all the websites that she had used for cheating, put it all into a nice document, and handed it in.

“Okay don’t you worry, they said. “We’re going to take this problem off your hands.”

Great, I thought. I forgot all about it.

Then came an email. “We’re going to have a meeting with you and the student,” said the email from my bosses. “So that we can talk about this together.”

Talk about it? There was nothing to talk about. The evidence was all there, right in front of them. You’d have to be blind not to see the cheating. But I had no choice.

At the meeting the student was there, and some representatives from the university.

“We have a student here who is highly motivated to make this case work,” said one of my bosses. “We have agreed to let her submit her work again to you a week from today.”

“WHAT?” I thought. I have to do all this again?? Can I do something? Make some complaint? No, came the answer. You are to mark her paper again.

A week later the student handed in another essay. And again, the essay was full of other people’s work, badly cut and pasted.

I’ve always loved the story of Jonah. But the reason I love it you might find a bit odd. I love it because of how much it annoys me. God said Nineveh would be destroyed. And it wasn’t. Like my bosses at the university, God kept giving the benefit of the doubt to people who didn’t deserve it.

Jonah was told by God to go to Nineveh and try and get the people to repent. But Jonah doesn’t WANT them to repent. Jonah wants them to suffer. “I’d just as soon all Ninevites turned to toast,” Jonah tells God. “In fact, as an Israelite and their sworn enemy, that would delight me. And secondly, even if I go and tell them, those people will never change”.

Go, said God. And eventually, with some convincing in the person of a big fish, the story is that Jonah goes to Nineveh. According to the Bible Nineveh was so vast that it took the angry old prophet three whole days just to walk across the city. “I’m telling you – it’s never going to happen,” Jonah says, trudging along. So like a sulky kid, upset with God for making him do this, he walks one whole day and then mumbles out what God told him to say.

“O great city of Nineveh, repent,” mumbles Jonah.

And miracle of miracles, the city actually DOES it! (Unlike my student) Nineveh repents.

And the people of Nineveh believed God, it says, and they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

And then, to my mind, comes the most important part of this lesson:

And then God saw what they did, it says, And God changed his mind about the calamity that God had said would come upon the city; and God did NOT do it.

But that’s not how the story ended for Jonah. Because if you keep reading on in the book, you find out that there was one unhappy prophet, still stuck there in the place he hated most in the world.

“What?” he yells at God. “You’re going to what? Cancel the destruction?!? All this trouble I’ve gone through, all the evil this city has done, and you’re changing your mind? How dare you?”

And so Jonah marched straight out of Nineveh and sat down and crossed his arms and said that he wasn’t going to budge until God lived up to his word and destroyed the place.

Most people, when they read about Jonah, get hung up on the details. Was there a whale or a great fish or what exactly? Is it a fable or a tall tale or history?

Thinking about those things is missing the point. To my mind, the whole point of Jonah is to tell us that God will do what God wants. Especially being unpredictable.

God both CAN, and DOES have a change of mind. And that means God is the one in charge. Not us.

Good thing we’re NOT the judges of the world. Because, like Jonah, my suspicion is that we would actually be much harsher, on ourselves and on others, than God turns out to be.

This last week a New Testament professor named Marcus Borg died. He wrote several books I’ve used in my classes, and a great book titled “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” He had a lot of what you could call “liberal” opinions about Jesus and the resurrection. And yet, he was open to the spiritual, open to others who disagreed with him, and confessed that Jesus was God’s messiah not only in history, but also for him.

What I liked best about Borg was that you couldn’t completely pin him down. He practiced a real gracefulness in his writings, and an unpredictability that looks, to me, very Christian.

Somewhere out there, in this city, is a student who graduated from my class without doing the work she was supposed to do. She’s a cheater. Pure and simple. And I’m still upset that justice wasn’t done.

But our God says that what’s important in life, actually, is not justice, but mercy. And that means that maybe, the next time WE screw up, the next time WE’RE the ones who are stubborn, or unfaithful, or impatient, or irresponsible, or late or sick or tired or just plain wrong, we can be thankful that we are loved, and worth being loved, anyway.

Once there was a prophet who got angry with God’s change of mind. The bottom line of Jonah is that we have a God who practices constant, and sometimes surprising forgiveness. Like Jonah, sitting under his tree, and like me with the university administration, may we learn that our judgments don’t really matter. And knowing that, may we learn to be less like Jonah, and more like Jonah’s God: more graceful, more forgiving, more surprisingly unjust in our mercy, and thus more like Christ.

end of term Loyola

Saying Goodbye to a Tough Season

Montreal night Jan

There were two ugly Christmas ornaments on my tree again this year. Every January I think of getting rid of them, but I never can. So I pack them away in boxes for next December and know that when I take them out I will think of the woman who sold them to me.

At that time we were living in a posh neighbourhood. This woman and her family didn’t “belong”. She and her three kids lived with her mother in a ramshackle place down the street. Their house always had something going on. No one seemed to have a job. Strange vehicles and hard-looking men came and went. The police made regular visits. The grandmother, a saint, did a lot. For long periods the woman would disappear. She had that gaunt, undone look of someone with addictions.

One snowy December afternoon our doorbell rang. I opened it. It was the neighbour.

At first I didn’t know what she wanted. Then she drew out of her coat pocket two boxes – large Christmas balls and small ones. She handed me one. She had hand painted crude designs of trees and snowflakes on dollar-store glass balls. Aren’t they beautiful?

I’m selling them to raise money for Christmas presents for my kids.

There really was no question. I bought two. And we hung them on the tree that Christmas.

That was many, many years ago. I’ve long since moved away. The three kids have grown up. Occasionally, I see one of the young men, who seems to be doing well. But their mother is gone. She died – they say of a drug overdose – a few years after selling me the decorations.

Maybe it’s just sentimentality that has me keeping these childish ornaments. But in the glitter and glitz that is Christmas, every year it seems a bit more important to pull them out of the box and think about them. And I remember a mother so desperate for money for presents that she went door to door, to her neighbours, without shame. And that reminds me of all the others for whom putting away ornaments is saying goodbye to a tough, tough season.

A Destination Worth Our Trip

highway hearse 2014

Years ago now, I read a lovely short story. I don’t remember the author or the title. But I remember it was about a quite elderly, widowed man who had finally decided the time had come to move into a nursing home. He moves in, and downsizes. One of the things he is about to lose is his car. He has decided to give his beloved old Cadillac to his granddaughter since he won’t need it anymore and doesn’t feel he’s as safe a driver as he used to be. The nursing home, this man, and his children all agree: giving up the car is the best thing to do.

The day before he is supposed to hand over the Cadillac, the man takes the keys, and walks out from his little room to the parking lot to see it one last time. He thinks about the car….how he’d been to Florida with that car, how that car had taken them on family vacations and in recent years, how it had been his constant ally as he drove to more and more funerals – and he opens the door and gets behind the wheel one last time. Then, in a surprise even to himself, he puts the keys into the ignition, starts it up, and drives away from the nursing home.

As the story progresses, you don’t really know why he’s doing this, or what’s going to happen. At the home, it takes a while for them to discover he’s gone. But once they do, they think he’s skipped town, or maybe showing dementia, and there’s a panic over what might have happened. His children don’t know what to do, and wonder if he’s changed his mind about staying at the home.

Meanwhile, the man drives west. He listens to the radio awhile, rolls down the window, notices the prairie grass, smiles at the sunshine and the big, big sky. The miles tick away as he rolls westward.

At the nursing home they hesitate and hesitate, waiting to see if the man will be back for dinner. When that doesn’t happen finally they all the police. The family are in a state. Everybody is consulting with everybody about the state of emergency. Is the old man suicidal? Is he lost? What’s happened?

The man stops at a truck-stop diner where he has a wonderful warm conversation with a little child and a good heart-to-heart with a waitress. But soon he’s right back behind the wheel. He’s intent on driving. He stops at a roadside hotel for a few hours of sleep. But then, with the sun, he’s awake and back driving. Prairie towns and cities fly by as he keeps the big Caddie’s nose pointed west.

At the time of King Herod the Great, it says, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, having traveled a great distance to see him.

So what happened, exactly, that made the Magi travel so long, and such a distance, to follow that star?

They weren’t running away from anything, the Magi. They were traveling TOWARD something special.

It seems a bit trite to say that life is a journey, but it is. It’s a journey we start on before we can remember, before we even realize fully, that we’re traveling. Sometimes the journey is exciting, and often it’s just a day-by-day slog. We walk through green valleys, and sometimes across high mountains that are difficult but rewarding. And there are, inevitably, in every life, hard, difficult and painful paths, paths we’d rather not go down, but have to. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow…., like it says.

Sometimes it takes faith to keep going in life, and it would take faith, in the ancient world, to travel across the East as the Magi are supposed to have done. I’ve been watching a Netflix TV series called Marco Polo. It’s not starting off all that well – the plot is hard to follow, the Chinese and Mongolians all speak English, and there’s lot of violence that has nothing to do with the plot. Apparently, according to the reviews, the story line gets better.

The basics of the show are really good, however. How can it not be? It’s about Marco Polo – the great adventurer. The vistas and costumes and settings are magnificent. And historically, Marco Polo brought back to the west tales of a wonderful, exotic, foreign, and strange and terrible and beautiful world. One of the things that caught me about the show was that in it, Polo looks to the stars called the “Three Sisters” and tells himself that that will always be the way home.

Epiphany means, “the light shines” – in our case, and in the case of the Magi, the light of the Christmas star. It too was a guiding star. The Messiah star is a light that’s supposed to guide us, to cheer us on when all else fails. When we don’t know what else to expect, there will always be that star, that one point of faith we can hang on to. In other words, like the Magi, our journeys do not have to be random, and our way does not have to be without hope.

We don’t know for sure, but the Gospel of Matthew was probably written by a Jewish-Christian to a small and struggling group of other Jewish-Christians. It’s natural they’d be wondering about enlightenment. Why did THEY, this small group, follow Jesus as Messiah when the vast majority of Jews didn’t? Why did they believe what others rejected? Probably, the way they worked out their loneliness and disappointment was by deciding that they happened to be the only ones who had seen the star, metaphorically speaking, and knew what it meant.

These days, when organized faith is less and less fashionable in our society, we’re again in a bit of a position like that. How can it be that we see this star, when everyone else dismisses it so easily? Why are we traveling in this particular direction, when other paths seem so much more common?

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. And then, opening their treasure chests, it says, the Magi offered the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

It’s nice to look at Wise Men in our creches. But the Gospel doesn’t even tell us if there really were three, or whether their names were Caspar and Melchior and Balthazar. So more important is to consider what the Magi DID: they were willing to go on a difficult journey to discover truth. They were pilgrims. And they left gifts.

For me, the most important verse in the whole Epiphany story is the last verse. After everything that they did, Matthew says, the Magi did one last thing: they went home by another way. My understanding of a true Epiphany is that even after a small one, you can never go home by the same way. Once our God reveals something to us about love or grace, about justice or the truth or perhaps about ourselves, there’s no going back. We will always be changed.

In the story of the man and his Cadillac, it tells how he finally reached Calgary. You think maybe he’s going to stop there but he doesn’t. He keeps going, straight through the city, driving west, always west.

Now, you all know what’s west of Calgary……

Right. The Rocky Mountains. And there’s where the story ends.

It says that the man drives his Cadillac into the foothills, and right up to a viewpoint lookout on the side of the highway. And there he parks, gets out of his car with the cool high altitude air in his lungs, leans back against the hood, and looks up at the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The ancient granite walls rising majestically from the foothills. Only for a few minutes.

Then finally, he calls his children, who are worried sick. “I just needed to see the mountains with my own eyes,” he tells them. “One last time.” And then he gets in the Cadillac, turns it around, and heads home. “Now I am ready,” he says.

You and I are on a journey. Many journeys, of course, some we hardly even recognize we are traveling. But the question we need to ask ourselves is: “Is the epiphany we have felt, the spiritual vision we have witnessed, going to sustain us?”

May we too, like that elderly man, and like the Magi, be given guidance for the easy and the not-so-easy roads ahead. May we find joy in our destinations. And by this world and the miracle, the Word and the Spirit, may we also be granted a vision – the equivalent of the mountains, or of the Magi’s star – to guide us through all our coming years.