Jesus

The Threshold

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A gate is an entry point. Or, depending on how you look at it, an exit point. Either way, a threshold is a place of potential, of encounter. It can also be a place to decide against encounter. Then Jesus said to his disciples. ‘There was a rich man dressed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man in his house. The poor man at his gate. Miles apart – even only a few feet. Doors – gates, borders – our liminal places – are INCREDIBLY important. Where we are in relation to them says a lot about our theology. Lazarus never, ever, made it into the rich man’s home. And the rich man never chose to go to the border of his own comfort. Later in the story, he PLEADS to go to a gate – from hell back to his home, to warn his brothers. But it’s too late. Father Abraham, the rich man begs, Let me go. If someone crosses the threshold from death to life they will listen. To which Abraham replies: let them listen to the scriptures. At our margins and borders (dangerous places: crucifixions take place at the borders of cities) we risk change. But only there, outside our comfort zone, can we share in the blessing of Abraham.

 

 

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No Such Things as Miracles

flying from Helsinki to Rovaniemi over ice

A week ago I woke up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. I had my cell phone, which is a little black rectangle the size of my hand, on which I do my banking, take my pictures, shoot video, get directions when I’m traveling, write poetry, and check updates from high school friends I haven’t seen in 30 years, right by my bed. When I woke up I saw I had text messages from my kids in Montreal: ‘when are you coming home?’ ‘I’ll be there in a few hours,’ I wrote back. Crossing the Atlantic in a few hours? ‘Oh, okay,’ they wrote back. ‘C U later. We weren’t sure if it was today or tomorrow.’ I had breakfast in my hotel, got on a train that took me straight to the airport, where I had to stand in a machine that whirred around me and looked through my clothes and probably into my body cavities, to make sure that I wasn’t bringing anything bad on board. Then I filed onto a metal bird weighing hundreds of tons, as high on its wheels as my three-story apartment, and carrying as many people as live in many Canadian small towns. We went really, really fast down a runway until we lifted up into the air and through it at over 500 kilometres an hour. About two thirds of the way into the flight, I checked on a little screen in front of me and I saw that we were going right over Greenland. I’ve looked down from a plane before and you can see, on a clear day, the glaciers of Greenland and the mountain peaks. It’s a perspective that the ancient Vikings thought only the gods would ever have: looking down on the ball of the earth from five miles up. And then that huge mountain of metal safely landed, and I got home, and a week later looked at the texts for this Sunday. And I thought: this will never work. I have nothing to say. These texts are all about miracles. And there are no such things as miracles.

The Swedish UFO Society

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On the plane yesterday, coming home from Europe, I watched a film called “Ghost Rockets”. It was about a group of – mostly elderly, now –UFO watchers in Sweden. These are not crazy people. They have regular jobs. They think, for the most part, rationally. They expect that almost everything they hear of as strange will have some completely normal explanation. They believe in weather balloons and eyes playing tricks on people, on sightings of Venus or Jupiter or the Space Station fooling people. They are NOT conspiracy theorists or folks who believe in little green men. But as one of them says to the camera: “it would be a sad life if there weren’t things out there that we might someday understand, but we don’t quite understand yet. There are more mysteries in life that we realize.”

Faith, frankly, falls into the mystery category. And within that, part of the problem with the Trinity is that it seems to be an idea of something that, like UFOs, is more than a little hard to understand, much less believe. God, Jesus, Spirit. Three in one and one in three. But what does that mean? How all those three come together is something that has mystified and confused the best minds for thousands of years. And now, most of us simply don’t care enough about it to even bother. And yet…. There were two quite old men in particular that the film followed. At one point the two, old friends, are having tea, and one says to the other: you know, I’ve been doing this for thirty years and it’s just as exciting every time. And then he turns to the other and says: I don’t know if we will ever find anything. But my life is just so much richer for the fact of being curious. Isn’t it a wonderful thing just to be curious, to want to know more?

Seek me, says the Creator, and I may be found. Emphasis on the ‘may’. Look for me, and I will be there. Use your brains – and your imaginations, and your arts and your poetry and your worship and your wonder. The point is that love comes in at least three shapes. Whatever else it is, will sustain our search, like those Swedes, to old age and beyond.

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The Promised (Fin)land

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I really LOVE Montreal, one of “my” Finns will say. It’s a great city. It’s so exciting. But….But then the Finn will get a dreamy look on their face: “But you know, I’m only here temporarily. It’s a two-year contract. And then our plan is to move back to Helsinki.”

Montreal, nice as it is, is just the waiting station. For many, the land of their dreams is, was, and always will be, Finland. We’ll talk about Mount Royal and how nice it is in the spring to look out over the city. We’ll chat about going out for a sugaring-off and maple syrup, or skating on Beaver Lake, and we’ll all agree that there’s nothing like the taste of tire-sur-neige when there’s still snow on the ground and sap flowing in the trees. We’ll talk about going to La Banquise for poutine and the night life on St-Denis and the jazz and the great music and the outdoor terrasses for a cappuccino or a café au lait.

And that’s where I, for my part, would stop, maybe. But sooner or later, something, maybe talking about the Laurentians, will set the others on to Finland. Oh, the forests, they’ll say. You don’t have to go far out of Helsinki you know. The birches. I miss the birches. And then their conversation will be all about the saunas, and swimming in the deep dark lakes, and picking lingonberries and the quiet of the northland woods. And they’ll get this smile and this far-away look on their faces: You can be SO happy there, so easily! Even just dreaming about going back is what gets us through.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, writes John the Elder, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Life, frankly, looks a lot more like traffic jams on Atwater street than either the idealized Finland of some folks I know, or the heavenly Jerusalem. But you and I CAN find glimpses of how things should be, even here, even on Monkland Avenue or Sherbrooke Street or Victoria avenue St-Lambert, in how we treat each other and the world around us, around the table, with all of our faults and warts and misgivings and hesitant happinesses.

Then, and then truly, we will experience that voice Revelation describes, speaking to us from the throne. The voice we cannot always hear, but the one we know is calling, and more than calling, promising. Telling each one of us. Behold, I make all things new even you.

 

Vintage Love

Norwegian teapot

This last week I was in a used-items store in Verdun when something on one of the tables caught my eye. It was a 1960s teapot, white with green figures in peasant costumes. There was a man and two women at an outdoor picnic. I loved the design – in fact, it looked kind of familiar. I picked it up. Underneath was stamped: made in Norway. Wow, I thought. Norway. Right here in Verdun! I don’t remember this particular teapot. But given the fact that I was a child in the 60s, and with all the Norwegian-background families I grew up around (my church was called ‘St Olaf’s’), it wouldn’t be at all surprising that maybe I’d seen that exact design before. Definitely something from my past.

I loved it. So I carried it to the clerk at the cash.

Oh, she said, with a funny expression. I was wondering when someone would take that. She didn’t look entirely pleased. It’s one of my favourite pieces, she went on.

Now. Maybe store owners always say that, to make the customer feel good. But I don’t think that was the case here. She turned it gently in her hands and looked at it again. This one, she said….This one deserves a good home.

Well, I told her. I see it’s made in Norway. My grandparents came from Norway, and my father’s first language was Norwegian. She brightened a bit at that. Not that I’m all that Norwegian myself, I hastened to add. But I will DEFINITELY appreciate it.  At that she smiled. We had a little back and forth about what it’s like for her to go out looking for items, to spend time and attention and care on things and to have them in her store, just to have someone come along and take them away again. She wrapped the pot carefully and almost reluctantly handed me the bag. There, she said, I hope you enjoy it!

I will, I answered.

Then, just as I turned to leave, she blurted out again: make sure you take good care of that teapot. I want to hear that it’s in a good place.

Don’t worry, I reassured her. It will be!

All that, over a teapot. Don’t get me wrong. I’m already quite attached to it. But the teapot, and the fact that two sensible human beings were both so worried about giving a home to this inanimate object proves one thing: everything we do, we human beings do within a web of attachments, memories, hopes and desires. Life is never just a question of functionality. We’re so biologically and spiritually wired for contact and attachment that even a teapot – and the memories and culture and symbolism and life and expectations attached to it – can be important. You are with me, says the twenty-third psalm. You anoint my head with oil (which means – you call me your special one, the one YOU turn over in your hands and say: this one deserves special care and attention). You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You cancel all my appointments, and make me breathe and wipe the worry off my forehead  and anoint me with oil. And you do this in Mosul and Montreal and Attawapiskat. Whereever the need for justice and care are the greatest. Maybe the best and most valuable thing about shepherds, especially in light of what Jesus says in the Gospel, is simple. Maybe it’s just that a true Shepherd is always THERE. To relax in the presence of, to be oneself with. To be cared for. Like one is with a really great teapot, full of tea.

Life After Normal

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photo: Matthew R. Anderson

‘Do you love me?’ Jesus challenged Peter. ‘Lord, you know that I love you.’ ‘Then feed my sheep’.  ‘Simon, do you love me?’ A second time. Peter, wondering why again the question: ‘Lord, you know that I do.’ ‘Then feed my sheep.’ And again: Jesus being a bit pushy. ‘Simon, do you love me more than anything?’ Big Peter, stung now, maybe turning red, and being a man of quick temper maybe a bit angry: ‘Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.’

And finally, only then, Peter, always a bit dense, realizing too late what the importance of the number three was. Precisely how many times he’d betrayed Jesus. That’s a whole new kind of hope and life. It’s truth-telling, and repentance. It’s surprising, and life-GIVING rather than life-taking. As if all the hidden,  bad banks in Panama we’ve been hearing all about were suddenly to open their books and say: okay, now all of this money can go BACK. Take it. Take it back, back to the hospitals with their peeling paint and the falling down elementary schools that governments couldn’t keep open, and the health care workers being paid minimum wage, and the veterans who aren’t being given payments. All those austerity measures so the rich could get richer. Take it BACK! Let this wealth create life rather than destroy it.

John Mellencamp sings: “Life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.” Sometimes, there’s just no going back to normal. The Gospel of the resurrection is the sacred word that sometimes we shouldn’t even try – because normal wasn’t right to begin with.

The resurrected Jesus stands on the shoreline of our lives, calling out to us in our little boats. Don’t go back to normal, he shouts out. That’s done, now. You can grieve it, if you need to, but it’s gone. Come sit, and be quiet, and have a little something to eat. And then together, let’s talk about what you’ll do next, now that things have changed. Let’s sit and think and ponder whatever resurrection is needed in your own life.

The Curious Unrecognizability of Christ

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It’s always bothered me. In John’s version of Easter, Mary, when finally she turns around and bumps into Jesus, thinks he’s the gardener. Isn’t that a more than a little bit strange? I’m sure I’m not the only one. After all, we know who’s supposed to be Jesus. And unlike us, Mary was there. She’d known Jesus. But she sees him at the grave and – very strange – instead of being overjoyed doesn’t even recognize him. She thinks he’s the gardener. That just doesn’t make sense. It had only been, what? Thirty-six hours?

The whole thing is weird. Despite church tradition the first (human) words from the resurrection aren’t really “he is risen”. The first words from the resurrection are really “who are you?” Not an assertion, but an ongoing question, the same one we’ve been asking 2000 years.

Maybe it was the shock. Maybe it was Mary’s grief, blinding her to the man standing right in front of her. Those are all good, rational arguments. But for me, there’s another, more interesting possibility.

Maybe, I wonder, maybe new life ALWAYS changes our appearances somehow. Maybe the kind of passage from death to life that we celebrate strips away everything, like a fire, and only leaves the real person that the Creator intended. Including with Jesus.

Maybe reality is upside down, and it’s not that the resurrection isn’t real so much as what we’re living right now might not be. Maybe it’s not so much that we change, but that, given enough love and time, and perhaps some divine intervention, we become, if we’re lucky, who we really are.

Imagine being a tadpole. Your whole life has been in a pond. All you know is water. That’s the limit of your comprehension. And one day, your close friend, another tadpole, disappears. You think she’s gone, but she’s just following nature, which means that there’s a resurrection of a sort going on. She’s changing into the adult. A toad. Something all of you tadpoles don’t even suspect exists, even though it’s coming for all of you. Then, one day, from somewhere, somehow, into the water dives this magnificent creature from beyond. Not a tadpole. Something completely different. And yet you sort of recognize her. If that happened, it would alter everything you believed about reality, there in the tadpole world. Maybe Jesus became who he really was, who we will ALL someday be, only by going through the suffering he did. That’s certainly is the case for other people. I can safely say that at 56, my sufferings have changed me, and I know I’m not alone.

Easter doesn’t mean life eternal. It means life after death – or maybe better, through death. The spring of our lives is upon us, but there will never be a spring without a winter, and every winter, no matter how hard, carries spring in its bosom. Northern Europeans know that well enough. May God give us the eyes, and the hope, and the expectation, actually to believe, see and trust in THAT kind of resurrection.

Innocent Suffering

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photo: M. Anderson, Ireland, 2013

We have a problem.

Our problem is simple, and it’s this: on the one side we have a God who, we say, is almighty, all powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. On the other side, this God’s world has toddlers lying drowned on beaches and terrified young girls kidnapped out of their schools by armed men who sell them as slave-brides. How do we reconcile our beliefs with the suffering of the innocent? It’s the age-old dilemma of faith.

This world, I realize, also has rainbows and beautiful sunsets, laughter and hugs –

but not enough of those, not nearly enough.

Today is a dark day, a way-of-the-cross day.

Today is a day to hear the crowds shout for blood, and to see Jesus’ blood streaming down his face from the thorns.

Today is a day for remembering sadism, the callous ability to cause harm, the sickness of powerful men who find joy in hurting others. Let’s be honest and name evil for what it is, and how OFTEN it is: today is a day for marking that there are, in our world, too many sociopaths and psychopaths, and not just individuals, but psychopathic tyrannical governments, too, whole systems that murder to cover up, who would rather their citizens die than vote, or who believe peace means crucifying to make an example. Demonic powers, the power of the dollar that sells arms to countries where children soldiers shoot other children, the powers of efficiency that ran the trains to the gas chambers, the powers of cynicism that say there’s nothing we can do, except to make our own selves comfortable and make money. How can we believe in a God through all this?

Crucify him! Crucify him! There is NO answer to the problem of innocent suffering. These children do not deserve to suffer. That’s the truth. All we can do, this frightening not-so-Good Friday, is to say that loudly and clearly. There is no faithful answer to suffering except one – the voluntary suffering WITH others. The standing up to injustice, even when it costs us, as well. And the remembering that God was in Christ, as Paul says, on the cross – the holy, terrible, awful, painful, wrongness of the cross – reconciling the world. For there is no answer to innocent suffering, except to stand with the innocent.

Grandpa, you were right

Grandpa

photo of John Golling, by Matthew R. Anderson

My grandfather – my mother’s father – was a character. As a young man he’d been a handsome fellow who worked on the railroad all across the northern United States. By the time I remember him, he was a tough and crazy old man. He lived out on my uncle’s farm. Or that’s where he sat, in a chair, in the corner of the farmhouse, and preached. As far as I could tell, he didn’t do much on the farm except some cooking. But he liked to express his opinion. All day long. And he had LOTS of opinions.

It’s the big money people, he’d always say, shaking a bony finger at me. I found this thin, bony old man with the piercing blue eyes more than a little scary. Don’t you ever forget that. When I picture Old Testament prophets, I see him, because that’s what he looked like. All emaciated, bone and ropy sinew, chin stubbly and startling, bright blue eyes wild: It’s the BIG MONEY PEOPLE, he’d rail. Damn them! We’re the little people. We’re just pawns. They’re the ones running this world. They don’t care about you and me. Only the almighty pocketbook!

Some men came to Jesus and told him to be careful about what he was saying. Get away from here, they told him, Herod wants to kill you. Kill the man, kill the message. Jesus was saying uncomfortable things. He was, as they say, speaking truth to power, which gets you crucified. Traditionally when scholars talk about this passage, they call it “Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem”. But the essence isn’t really Jerusalem. It’s my grandpa. It’s a bit of a rant about power.

Oh Jerusalem, says Jesus. You can almost see him shaking his finger, like my grandpa. Oh Jerusalem:YOU BIG MONEY PEOPLE. See, your house is left to you. In other words – the crash is coming. And I tell you, you will not see me again until the time when you say: ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord’.

In Jesus, we see something else about prophecy. Real, honest, reproof is there, not to deflate us, but to take care of us. To nurture us and heal us and make us healthier and more whole. Like a hen who keeps her errant chicks warm and safe.

I don’t know if you noticed this, but did you see who it was who tried to warn Jesus? None other than those same people who are traditionally painted as his enemies: the Pharisees. THEY were the ones who came to Jesus to say: “Get away from here – Herod wants to kill you.”

I used to think my grandfather was crazy. Maybe he was, a little. I used to think his words about how it was the big-money people manipulating everything were incredibly naïve. I grew up to scorn him, a bit. To think he was a conspiracy thinker and a bit loony.

Then came the Gulf War. All those Iraqis dying, and some mostly poor, mostly black, American kids. For the sake of what? Oil. Somebody’s profits. Then came Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans. And the levies, which government report after government report had said to fix, but never were because they were in poor neighbourhoods, were washed away, and the lives of so many poor African-Americans with them. Then came the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and people got sick but nobody paid. Then came the financial crisis, and who gets bailed out together with their huge severance packages? The poor people who lost their homes? No: the bankers.

Maybe my grandfather wasn’t so crazy after all.      

Jesus was a thorn in the side of the rich, powerful, political elite of his day, centred in Jerusalem. Don’t buy into their schemes, he told his disciples and anyone who would hear him. Love is free. The world is yours, not theirs. Is it any wonder he wound up the way he did?

To be a person of faith is to believe our Creator can and does still, somehow, speak to us. If we hear words that pick at us a bit, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Not everything my grandfather said was worth listening to. But he was right about this: there are powers in this world that ARE evil, because they side with death and don’t care about life. In that struggle, we need to be on the side of those who celebrate, share, and preserve LOVE. Jesus said so, with his life. In this one thing, at least, grandpa was right.

harold

photo by Matthew R. Anderson

(this last photo is not actually my grandfather but still a relative, who reminds me of him sometimes)

We Call it Winter

Today, with how cold it was, I got out the gear. Actually it was kind of fun. Snow pants, long special mitts good to -40 Celsius, thermal underwear, Russian-style hat, boots. Since this winter has been, generally, so mild, it’s okay – maybe even good – when every now and then the temperature drops. Nobody is complaining about the cold snap. So long as you’re prepared, you’re okay. Right?

Jesus, apparently didn’t have much preparation time for his excursion in extreme conditions. Luke says that Jesus returned from the Jordan river area and was led into the wilderness. Just like that. No prep time.

That word – wilderness, and the mental and physical and spiritual space it represents – is important. We Canadians have our own form of wilderness. We call it winter. We’re proud of it and scared of it, at the same time. Like the people of the middle east, or peoples anywhere, and their wild places. In the Bible the wilderness represents more or less what the hardest times of winter represent for us Canadians – a place of deprivation, but also of challenge, and survival. Also, and very importantly, the wilderness represents a place where Israel, and later Jesus, and later, the early Christians, consistently meet God. In that struggle for survival and meaning they define their true identity.

Interesting, how that works. It’s the HARD places, the difficult circumstances, where we tend to find our true characters under stress, AND where our Creator is to be found. The wilderness is a place that allows us, in fact, drives us, to meet our Maker. It’s just us and the elements, the most basic needs to survive. Lent represents our time in the cold. Our winter.