Month: January 2016

Love Love Love Love Love, Actually

“Funeral held yesterday for La Loche shooting victim” CBC News.

“Over 40 dead after migrant boat sinks off Turkey” Huffington Post.

“Increasing concerns over Zika virus is changing tourism patterns in Central and South America” CBC Online.

“Thousands of complaints about the behaviour of physicians lead to very few cases of discipline” CBC News.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

“Nova Scotia winter storm leaves thousands without power this weekend” The Gazette.

“Scientists find genetic link to Alzheimers.” The Daily Telegraph.

“Genetic law urgently needed to keep insurance and other companies from discriminating against those with previously hidden flaws, says watchdog” Yahoo Canada News.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

            “Republican candidate Donald Trump says he’s looking forward to Iowa debate.” PBS Public Radio.

“Man in Oshawa Ontario legally changes his name to ‘None of the Above’ so that voters can choose ‘none of the above’ in the Ontario provincial byelection soon to be held there.” CBC News.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my very body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient, love is kind…” We really know those words. They’re some of the most famous from the Bible. Thanks to weddings, even people who never go inside a church know these words: “Love bears all things, hopes all things…” However, they don’t much sound like words from the news. “Love is not envious, or jealous or boastful…”

Love, love, love, love, love. Saying it is all very pretty, but when you get right down to it, what does love mean? This is a bit of a problem when it comes to actually applying what Paul has so beautifully expressed.

He wrote: “Earnestly desire the higher gifts”. And we should answer: of course! The problem is, love isn’t something any of us actually disagrees with. I mean, EVERYBODY thinks love is good. If we hired a survey company to phone a thousand people and ask them about this, 990 would all say the same thing – that yes, love is a very, VERY good thing.

And Jesus too said it: Love one another as I have loved you.

But do we or can we even agree on what this ‘good thing’ actually looks like? How we live it out? Practice it?

There are least two quite different ideas about love. We’ve probably agreed with both at one time or another.

Number one assumption about love is this: we tend to love – and SHOULD love – what we’re used to. As in, only someone like me who grew up in Saskatchewan loves that desolate prairie landscape. Or more seriously: if you were a child who was abused or beaten by your dad, how could you ever come to love a god who sometimes goes by the name “our Father”?

This is what we could call the “natural” ideal of love. We love as we’re able. Love is one of our self-expressions, and as such it is limited by our experiences.

So far so good.

However, there’s ANOTHER idea about love, and it can’t be stressed enough that this second idea about love isn’t the same. In this idea, love doesn’t necessarily come OUT of who we are and what we experience. Rather love goes INTO who we are and what we experience. In other words, if we love in ways that don’t necessarily come naturally, perhaps what is natural for us will change.

Consider again Paul. The guy who wrote: Love is patient and kind.

Paul? Anybody who’s studied the man knows that patient and kind are not the first words you’d ever use about Paul. It doesn’t sound much like the sarcastic apostle who told his opponents in the book of Galatians that if they wanted circumcision so badly they should just go all the way and castrate themselves. Frankly, he could be quite nasty at times. It sounds to me a bit like Paul was hoping someday he might live up to his own words.

But would that be so bad? Maybe, instead of love being what comes naturally, sometimes love has to be what is actually a stretch.  Most of us can be, and often are, basically kind people. But it’s harder to be loving and caring about some Christian we don’t know, who speaks a different language and has a different culture, who is a refugee from Syria. Or, even more, the Muslim refugee from Syria. That’s the kind of love that takes, not just a natural rush of sympathy, but several days or weeks or months’ worth of conscious caring.

Sometimes we get the idea that the opposite of love is hate. We’re wrong. The opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s caution. It’s half-heartedness, fear, and distance.

Maybe, if we think biblically, we’re cautious of the kind of love Paul describes because we realize, down deep, that to love that way might be the end of us. Literally. Like it was the end of Jesus.

Since we ALL say we believe in love, we’d better know what it is we’re agreeing to. Paul leaves no doubt. Real love, he says, follows Jesus, who was not scared to show it. Real love results in the destruction of the old self and in the creation of a new self.

Love, in other words, is scary.

And that, as it turns out, is exactly how God loves us. Despite our faults, despite our failings, despite years and years of minor or major betrayals, there is a hidden subject behind this passage. Our Creator still bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, and endures all things about us.

You and I are called to learn to love as does our Lord. Not as we can. But beyond what we can.

And these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

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Paul Did Not Convert

St Paul at St James church

In the calendar of the western church, today is the feast-day of the Conversion of St. Paul. This is a bit of a problem. Especially, it’s problematic for any Christians who happen to be biblical scholars. It should be a problem for everyone who still marks this day. It’s pretty much accepted, now, at least in academic circles, that Paul didn’t convert. That is, on the road to Damascus, whatever happened to the extremist Saul of Tarsus (between horses in the paintings, no horses, voices from heaven, no voices, scales on his eyes and assorted other details one can take Acts to task for, since Acts repeats the story several times with variations) Paul didn’t stop being a Jew and suddenly become a Christian. Perhaps the easiest objection is that he couldn’t have! There was no such thing as Christianity for Paul to be converted to.

But there are other, more substantial issues. For one thing, in his own writings Paul never says he converted. Rather, he presents himself very much like an Old Testament prophet, called by the God of Israel (not some new deity but the one Paul knew all along), to proclaim that God’s Messiah, Jesus. The fact that so many Jews in Paul’s own day didn’t think Jesus was the Messiah is, in this case, beside the point. All of them were thinking of Israel’s God, no matter their disagreement on whether that God was, or wasn’t, responsible for the crucified teacher from the Galilee. Paul was a Jew, a Jew who believed with every molecule in his body that the Messiah had come, and that Israel’s God was about to change all of human history. In what he believed was the world’s defining moment, he thought his particular task, as a faithful Jew, was to invite the non-Jews into the family of Israel as they were, as non-Jews.

So Paul was not a Christian. This, by the way, is the title of Pamela Eisenbaum’s book on the subject. Perhaps there will someday also be a book with a title something like “Paul is not a (contemporary) Jew”. Judaism, like Christianity, has changed since the first century. Both contemporary Judaism and contemporary Christianity are children of a heterodox first century faith that no longer exists.

Paul once wrote: “I have become all things to all people”. Well, he got what he wanted. Paul has been made and remade so many times in our images it’s hard to know what he ever really was. The poor apostle’s been co-opted by supercessionists, by gnostics, by anti-semites, conservatives, liberals, sceptics and humanists alike. He’s been promoted as everything from the first liberated male of western religion to the one person responsible for everything bad about Christianity. The truth, as always, is probably not just in between, but lost, lost somewhere way back there, in the first century. However, there’s one thing we can be fairly certain of on this Feast-Day: whatever else he did, Paul did not convert.

Paul statue

For now just carry the water

Image result for Orit Shimoni

This last week a friend of mine, Orit Shimoni (http://www.oritshimoni.com/), came to town to perform. She’s also sometimes known as Little Birdie. Years ago she did graduate studies at Concordia, which is where I met her. Now, she tours all over the world playing her music. The place she sang at last Wednesday was a café on Cote-St-Luc road (not very far from here). It’s a small venue – fits maybe thirty people. She did the set with just a guitar and nothing else, so the words were really clear. Orit’s got kind of a theological bent to her music, which is one of the reasons I like it. One set of lyrics in particular struck me. It was about Cana, sort of.

Apparently, in Cana, in Galilee (that is, in the north of Israel), Jesus and his disciples were attending a local wedding. During the reception, more by chance than anything, Jesus performed his first miracle. He turned water into wine. But for her song Orit turned the words around. “If I could turn wine into water,” she sang, “you would not be alone.” Wine into water? What did she mean? “If I could turn wine into water,” she sang again, “a path to you I’d find.”

Oh, I thought. Oh.

There’s a tragedy behind that song. I didn’t ask her, but I think it’s about alcoholism. Orit sings a lot of sad songs, and songs with bite. But this one in particular has a ring. IF I could turn wine into water. Meaning: I can’t. And even though I don’t know the details, and I don’t know if it’s even about Orit: whoever that song is about couldn’t make a miracle. That’s what the song is about. That person couldn’t stop the alcoholism. Couldn’t turn wine into water.  And so now, instead of singing about a happy future, the song is about regret.

Makes for a great song. But a sad memory.

In the Bible story, the bride and groom, in fact, the whole wedding party, are headed for a disaster. Not an earthquake, ice-storm, tsanami kind of disaster. But the small kind of disaster we all run into every day and all hate: a major glitch. A screw-up: the wedding reception was about to run out of wine.

Now. This is not the worst thing that could ever happen. But if you’re the bride and groom, or the person responsible for the reception, it’s bad enough. No wine means unhappy guests. Probably guests leaving. So it says that Jesus’ mother stands up from where she’s seated, and makes her way over to see him.

The writer makes it clear that Jesus and his disciples were at the wedding in Cana, NOT to face any tests, but just to enjoy themselves. It’s not even clear if Jesus knew the wedding couple. I imagine in the hills of Galilee, it might have been a bit like some Italian weddings I’ve been to, where the whole neighbourhood is invited.

In any case, when we meet him Jesus is off in a corner, well-hidden. He’s out of the spotlight and wanting to keep it that way. But then the wedding runs out of wine.

Mary’s clearly a mother who knows her own kid better than he seems to know himself. She comes to his table and announces: “they have no more wine.” As if the next step is obvious. “They have no more wine – now, do you want to leave your own mother without a glass of Chardonnay?” Quite naturally, Jesus responds: “what does that have to do with me?” I love that. This is NOT the pious, angel-faced, head-upturned or downturned Virgin Mary we see in statues so often with her hands clasped meekly at her side. This is a tough Jewish mother who knows what her son is capable of, and won’t take no for an answer.

You would think that the Lord speaking should be enough for any human being. But no. Mary ignores Jesus completely. The Son of God, the Lord of Life, and what does she do? She goes back to her own table. And tells the servants: “do whatever he tells you.” She KNOWS he’s going to fall in line! The fact that the Bible treats a lack of wine as a disaster is already interesting. But that’s NOT the main point. The main point, at least in my thinking, has to do with the water.

You can imagine Jesus sighing and shaking his head. Once a kid, always a kid, even Jesus. Do you see those stone jars over there, he tells the servants? Fill them to the brim with water. Then, he says, go, take a jug, and fill it up from those same stone jars, and take it to the chief steward.

And so, timidly, one of them does.

This is where you and I come in. You and I are that one scared servant. Like the woman my friend Orit was singing about, you and I don’t have the power to do miracles. If we could, we would.

All we can do is carry the miracle. Every time we get together, every time we pray, and especially every time we go OUT in Jesus’ name and try to do something for the world, we’re the poor, terrified, uncertain servants. Just like at Cana, it’s all simple stuff – water, bread, wine. Or maybe in our cases, it’s a hug, or a song, or an ear, or a moment’s time, or a few dollars, or a few words. Now draw it out, Jesus tells us, even though it looks like simple water, and take it to the world.

So. If we’re faithful, if we’re trusting, and more often than that, even if we’re doubting, we do that. We draw the water out of our unremarkable, unmiraculous lives. Because ultimately, THAT’S ALL WE HAVE. Then we go. We carry what we fear might be way too ordinary, to a world that doesn’t expect or believe in miracles, but like the wedding guests need them just the same. And if it turns out that the water is just water, then, like St Paul said, we’re the greatest fools of all.

It took faith for whoever that first nameless servant was, to take a jug of what he or she was pretty sure was worthless, and take it to the head steward of the whole feast. And it takes faith for you and I to do OUR simple commissions, with our simple lack of resources and abilities. But we have to. That’s what we’re supposed to do. That is how we will be judged.

And just in case you and I think we have nothing to offer, we should think of the news story from CBC this last week. Did you hear about it, or read about it? There was a fourteen year old kid who was begging on the street, saying he was homeless, and in the midst of that terrible cold of this past week, although a few folks gave some change, guess who was the ONLY person to stop and offer this kid a coat – in fact, the coat off of his own back? The only person to help was another street person, an Inuk man, Putulik Kumaq, originally from Nunavut, but homeless on Montreal streets for the past 17 years. It turned out that the 14 year old kid was doing a school project and was being filmed secretly by his brother, which is the only reason we know about this selfless act.

Anytime we say we have nothing to give, we can remember the servants, who were just asked to carry water, and we can remember Putulik, who said “it’s cold, and I had a feeling he needed help”.

On the third day, it says, there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and here, amid the food, and drink, the visiting and gossiping and the stuff of life, Jesus did the first of his signs.

Wine from water is just the beginning. That is the real point. In your life and mine, wine from water is nothing, compared to what our Creator can do. You are carrying miracles, if only you know it, says the Creator of singers who come to Montreal, of street people and poets, of Putulik and Paul, and of you and me.

 

 

 

To see Orit playing the song, watch:

To hell and back

highway hearse 2014

I went to visit a parishioner in the hospital once and was completely thrown by what I discovered when I walked into her room.

Maybe I hadn’t been paying enough attention. Someone had told me what this woman was in for, I remember that. But I’m afraid it had gone straight in one ear and out the other. So when I walked into the hospital room, I was surprised to discover there was no bed. Instead there was this thing in the centre of a large space. It looked like some kind of miniature circus ride. Or a space-ship pod, or a climbing frame or something.

Hello? I said, tentatively. I stopped in the doorway. Was I in the right place? Then from the middle of the tubing and bars I heard the small voice of my parishioner: “hello….I’m down here.” I peered closer. Near the floor. And there she was, strapped right into the middle of that contraption. Hanging upside down.

I walked up to it. There was a bed there, all right. I could see it at this point. But it was an upside down bed. There was also a chair beside it. When I sat in the chair I couldn’t see the woman at all. It’s called a Stryker frame, she informed me dryly, while I sat down, got up again, and then kind of wandered in a circle around her, looking for some way I could actually make eye contact. Are you having trouble, pastor?

Obviously, it should have been me asking HER this question. But there we were. I have a spinal cord injury, she told me, while I dithered and fidgeted. I’m going to be in this thing a month, at least. My poor husband’s stuck at home working his job and taking care of three kids. We’ll be lucky if we’re still together by the time I’m out of this thing. You can stop shuffling around like that. She sounded annoyed. I’m not going anywhere.

I stopped shuffling around.

Are you okay? She asked.

I’m okay, I answered her.

Well, I’m not, she said. Welcome to my own personal hell.

Now when all the people were baptized, it says, and when Jesus likewise had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

So pleased, apparently, that God would lead this Beloved Jesus, also, to his own personal hell, tortured and dying, on a cross. Someone once said: beware of being one of God’s favourites. It gets you into trouble every time.

And when you think about it, isn’t that true? Martin Luther would’ve been burned at the stake if they could’ve gotten hold of him. Or Martin Luther King, shattered with a bullet for speaking up for justice. Or Thomas a Becket, run through with a sword right there, on the steps of his altar. Or Saint Paul, persecuted and ridiculed and shipwrecked and murdered. Or any of a thousand Syrian Christians right now, in a country that was one of the first blessed with the Gospel, fleeing desperately to save their lives.

With you I am well pleased. That’s what the voice said to Jesus when he was baptized.

It’s an odd sort of pleasure.

In trying to understand the mystery of why Jesus was baptized at all, I think about the woman in the hospital, who told me she was in her own personal hell. Or the comment I saw on Facebook yesterday, congratulating another woman on her first cancer-free diagnosis. After five years of hell, said the Facebook post, finally free!

Yes, I think. I understand hell, when you put it like that. Probably all of us do. Certainly any of us over – I don’t know – 40 years of age. You don’t make it that far without a few cuts and bruises: cancer, divorce, separation, child problems, parent problems, dreams lost, dreams found. Who knows? Life, we eventually realize, isn’t what we do when we’re not suffering. Life eventually becomes, more than we might think, the ways in which we DEAL with suffering. Live through it. Rise, not above it, exactly, but with it. Sometimes, even, because of it.

So maybe the baptism of Jesus makes sense if we think of baptism, not as something that leads away from suffering, but something that leads straight through it. And then, if that’s it, the fact that Jesus was baptized means that he was willing to take on, willingly, the kind of voyage into hell that the woman in the Stryker frame was talking about, or that the Facebook post person was just getting over. The human condition.

I felt like such a fool for the first few minutes I was visiting that woman in the Stryker frame. I just stood there, towering over her while she complained bitterly and then cried about what she was going through. I felt completely out of place, awkward and embarrassed. It took me forever to realize the simplest thing: that I didn’t need to be standing at all. Eventually, when the nurse came in, she found me where – if I’d been sensitive enough to realize it – I could have been from the beginning: on my back, on the floor, parallel to the bed, looking up at this parishioner. Sharing her perspective.

What really pleases God, it turns out, is solidarity. That’s what the baptism of Jesus is probably really about. For Jesus emptied himself, Paul writes, taking on the form of a slave, and in that form – on the floor, lying beside our human suffering, he became obedient, in love, to the human condition, even death on a cross. Only then was he raised. Like Jesus, it will be for us only when, trusting in the compassion and community we see in the cross, and finally beginning to understand this strange way of being God’s favourites, that we too, through death, in solidarity with the one who went first, will know what it means to rise again.

Which Star We Follow

De L'eglise after snowstorm

It’s January third. And I think it’s safe to say that this year, there’s not a lot of optimism. New Year’s Eve I was at a small dinner party. One of the people there had prepared some lovely cards with questions on them that went around the table and we all had to answer. When the questions were about last year, each of us shared warm memories. It was great. Lots of laughter. But then came the question: “what significant happenings do you expect on the world stage in 2016?” And all of a sudden, you could feel the chill. Each of us had wonderful recollections of the year past. But most of us were quite apprehensive about the year coming. War, violence, financial crisis, disease, climate change, breakdown. One after another we laid out forecasts of doom. That’s what we saw in the stars.

When the Magi heard the king, it says, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star they’d seen at its rising.

Apparently, not all stars say the same thing. At our dinner party, we saw bad things. Trouble, and difficulty, and pain, and disaster, despite our fairly rosy personal stories. But according to the Gospel of Matthew, the magi also followed a star, right to the Messiah.

So which is it? Will our coming year be guided by a star of great difficulty, or a star leading to Bethlehem? Which ways are we being led?

Epiphany is such an important moment that every year it surprises me we don’t make more of it. It’s huge. If it wasn’t for Epiphany, there’d be no Christian faith, as we know it. Without the kind of trip commemorated today, those of us from European ancestry, at least, might still be worshipping the god of some oak tree or other in the vast, dark, northern forests.

To put it another way: Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew and died a Jew. That is fact. Insofar as anyone in his day believed he was a Messiah, it was a Jewish Messiah. “Born to set his people free” as the old hymn says, emphasis on HIS people. That we who are non-Jews got in on the Jesus thing is actually kind of surprising. If wasn’t God’s plan – which of course, Christians believe it WAS – then it’s one of the greatest ironies of history (as Nietsche believed!). Christianity is what happens when Israel’s Messiah comes and everyone believes it BUT Israel.

We Christians are not the originators of the Christmas story. And we’re not even its first and most important recipients. Yet, according to Matthew, we were at least invited to the party. How do we know this? Because of Epiphany. Because of the Magi, the first non-Jewish worshippers, following the star to find the baby, born in Bethlehem.

So the very first image we get of our own spiritual ancestors is that they were pilgrims (which is, of course, great for me to be able to say!). They were outsiders, and foreigners, and seekers. They were also a little bit lost.

I started out asking which star you thought this year might be hanging in our skies: a star of difficulty and danger, or a star leading to the love and transformation of the Christ child. The irony is: they are probably both the same star. And isn’t that a pretty good description, maybe, of who WE should be, following it? Pilgrims, outsiders, foreigners, and seekers – despite often being a little bit lost.