… to decide … to know …

I feel a little badly for PM Theresa May. They voted by a thin margin, two years ago, to take England out of the EU, and she is stuck trying to make it happen with as little damage as possible. It’s a huge decision with endless implications for Britain and all of Europe, so why hang it all on one referendum. Add in a couple of additional steps. Some time to second guess themselves … .

I know we have to decide things, accomplish things, make things happen.  If we don’t, it all stops and we die. All of us do this, but we, farther away from the equator where the four seasons come at us year after year, dramatically changing every three months or so, have probably created a culture obsessed with always ‘being ready’.  Even our summer vacations are stressful ’cause the time is always nearly over’.  Farmers, I think, feel this stress more than anyone else. On our farm, like all the others, the work never ended. It was never done. But I remember clearly that quite often, at the end of a day, our dad would stop us and say … tomorrow is another day … . 7VfjYWs2QLGawXSalwQkdw

When Adrienne and Sean were married, back a few years, they played a kind of advice-for-the-new-couple game. Everyone was invited to scribble a note to them, some of which the emcee then read to the group. So there was advice. Answers. But my brother George had written this: ‘sweep things under the rug; most things don’t need to be addressed.’ It kind of puzzled me a little because I thought George, being a sincere man, and veteran of several decades of married life, would have been more serious and constructive … . Maybe he was.

Quite a few years ago, one of the indigenous groups not far from Calgary had hosted an MCC gardening project for a while. One day we had a little meeting with them and they told us, very kindly and gently, that they had ‘outgrown’ that project and didn’t need it anymore. Fine, but in the conversation they seemed interested in continuing a relationship of some sort with MCC so I asked if they thought we could be helpful to them in the future. Orlando might say the colonizer came out in me,  because it’s the only kind of relationship I had thought of … us, whites, being helpful.  Well, they said, they did need some help with small business development. They wanted more people engaged in business, whether agricultural or in other areas, and they might be able to use some help from MCC.  And I, an always-accomplishing-something white man, then asked when we should meet to discuss this idea further. They hesitated. And then they said, again very kindly, ‘we will call you’ … .

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a pastor about something.  It was a serious question that I assumed he would want to talk about. He would invite me into his office, have a seat, and we would talk. But … hmmm … no. Some things are better not talked about.  If we do, it’s not resolvable, and people will feel they need to decide something.  So, no, he said, we don’t need to talk about that. Interesting I thought. Even refreshing. My experience with us evangelicals is that whether it’s a question of doctrine or service, or how to take communion, or whether to use a hymnal or words on the wall, we have a need to resolve things. We make decisions. Our entire understanding of salvation is about making decisions. We don’t really even allow ourselves to grow into salvation. We are given a choice, pressed to decide and then … we are either in … or not. It’s not the stuff of faith at all,  but this pastor seemed to have a trusting kind of faith … with some wisdom and patience … .

A while back I asked one of my brothers some advice, wondering if I should ask a question of someone who also happened to be a church leader. Don’t ask it, he advised. Don’t ask the question. If you do, they will feel a need to answer and you may precipitate a response that perhaps, neither you, nor they actually want to have.  Some things just need time to sit.  Maybe to lie fallow. Under the rug.

An architect from the Netherlands worked with us in Bolivia in the 90s.  He was leading a major project selling off some land MCC owned inside the city limits of Santa Cruz and developing that land so that it would become housing for low-income citizens.  He was a planner, for sure, and a visionary. He had to be to make this work.  But in the midst of that demanding schedule – there were deadlines and many people involved – he also talked about letting time do it’s work. It’s like the pendulum on a wall clock he once said to me.  If we mess with it, it doesn’t work. It needs to be left alone. Give time the space it needs … maybe especially when there is so much to do.

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27 years he waited in prison

The fall of 2014, I was part of an MCC group travelling to Lebanon, Jordon and Northern Iraq. In Lebanon, the president of the Armenian University in Beirut, who had once been a student at Princeton in the United States, said to us … ‘one of the unique things about you Christians in the West is your obsession with numbers.’  You count everything, he said. The people you ‘save’. The people in the pews. Outreach strategies, even when we say we want the Holy Spirit to drive them, have target numbers included, as if the Holy Spirit budgets people like we budget dollars. Last week, I visited with a woman who had been a missionary in another country a few years ago. In our routine reports to the Mission, she said, we were always asked how many people ‘we had saved’ during that reporting period. Sometimes I worry that all this counting has become so a part of ‘our’ Gospel that many of us can hardly have a friendship relationship with someone who is not already one of us.  People we don’t know, some whom we do know, including family members become a target, because that ‘conversion’ is more important to us than the friendship.  It’s in the relationships where time has space that the Holy Spirit does his most transforming work … ; it’s probably not helpful to be measuring it all the time.

Last October, Kathy and I visited an old friend, near Santiago, Bolivia.  He is married now  with grown children, but in the early 90s, when Kathy and I had just returned to Bolivia to work in leadership with MCC there, he was still single. I remember asking him if he had any advice for us. He had been in Bolivia since the late 60s, was highly experienced and had made many things happen.  ‘No’, he said.  ‘Well, maybe one thing … don’t make decisions before you have to … .’

 

 

 

 

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… hospitality … Edwina Gateley…

Last Friday, I drove back to Calgary from MacGregor.  Twelve hours. Thirteen actually, with a few stops and a short nap at the half way mark.  It was minus 30 when I left MacGregor, and a few degrees on the plus side when I got to Calgary.  Strange winter. Ferociously cold and snowy in central and northern areas of Canada and almost continually mild from about Medicine Hat west.  Something like that.

So, I went back to the Nomad podcast, partly to keep me awake, and partly because they seem to be on a search.  All faith-based, I think, it’s based in England and their FB note says they are ‘stumbling through the post Christendom wilderness, looking for signs of hope’.  I listened to a conversation they had recorded with Edwina Gateley, a devout Catholic woman, also from the UK, who found herself, after several years working in Africa, in Chicago, working with prostitutes. fullsizeoutput_3e8e

Edwina had gone to Africa as a young woman, anxious to help, to change people, to convert them, to help make their lives better. She discovered, as she lived among the people she had gone to help, that, to her surprize, God had gotten there before she did.  She began to think that maybe her job was not to bring them a message from or about God, but to acknowledge the God already there, inside each of them and then to work with them, inside their culture, their history, their ways of understanding God.  She says that their generous hospitality helped her realize that the Gospel of Christ is centrally about that. Hospitality. Welcoming. Being good neighbors.

Gateley stayed several years and started a foundation to send teachers and people with other skills to 26 countries in Africa, not to change anyone, she repeats, but to learn, and then to work and live alongside their hosts. After a few years, she wasn’t sure she was needed in the Foundation she had started.  She felt, somehow, that God wanted her not to remain inside what had become a fairly large institution, but to ‘move on’.  She chose the United States because, as she says, there is an ocean between the UK and the USA and it would not be easy for her to ‘swim back home’. She studied for a while, getting a degree in theology but then felt a vague calling to a ministry at street level.  She went to Chicago, bought a cheap Caravan and waited there, 9 months, for some kind of direction. A dark, lonely 9 months, she says. But eventually then, she felt a calling to work with prostitutes, so she went to find some, knowing well the dangers of walking the streets of Chicago.  She did find them, and they told her to &%$k off.

The sermon last Sunday morning was about friendship. Peter denied Jesus (three times) but Jesus, after the resurrection, found him on the beach, fishing, and offered him and his fishermen friends breakfast. Fish and bread. And then he asked Peter if Peter loved him. Three times. Her point in the sermon was that despite the denials, Jesus persisted in that friendship, and that sometimes – not always – that’s the right thing to do. Edwina Gateley returned to that street in Chicago again, and again. She admits that she had no idea what it was like to be a prostitute, to be picked up on the street … maybe 10 or 15 times a night, but the women began to accept her … after she showed them her identification papers; she was an alien, from England.  An outsider. So were they.  The lowest on the social ladders of society. Abused. Used. Shunned. They were aliens.

Edwina Gateley listened to them. She learned, for example, that 94% of sex trade workers were abused as children.  They think themselves as dirty, she said, unworthy, people who have so long been victims of abuse and shunning that they blame themselves for it.  As in Africa, she found that her job was probably not to convert them to anything, but to help them see the God already inside them. That they were in fact … daughters of God … a God not outside, condemning or judging or preaching at them but a God already inside them. I’m not here to tell you about Jesus, she said, but to help you discover the Jesus already in you.  Wisdom, she quotes from Proverbs, wanders the streets looking for hearts that are open … to make her home in them. The gospel that transforms is a welcoming, hospitable Gospel, she says again.7VfjYWs2QLGawXSalwQkdw

A few years in, Edwina opened a house … a home for prostitutes.  There were rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no tricks in the house. But beyond that, it was their safe place.  She didn’t ask them to change their lives. Don’t change the world, she says in the interview. The world has been changed by Christ. He is already here, on the streets of Chicago. And everywhere else.

One day she was with a group of the women on the street somewhere. They pulled out some ginger ale and a box of dunkin donuts they had picked up. They had found some plastic cups, likely out of the garbage nearby. One of them poured the ale and they all had some. And then she, one of the prostitutes, opened the box of donuts, broke one in half and served them all.   ‘There is enough for everyone,’ she kept saying.  Holy Communion. The Celebration of the Eucharist.  The transforming Christ inside of us. All are welcome.

It’s not the prostitutes who need the church, but the church who needs the prostitutes, Edwina says at one point. She talks about our many church traditions and the cultural and political and other biases that have settled in and become theologies and doctrines. The church has rules about men’s roles, women’s roles, how to do this, whom to include for this or that, whom to exclude. How, possibly, can any of it matter to the women of the streets in Chicago. And it’s in and among those women, says, Edwina Gateley, that Jesus is present.

We are all here, she finally says, not for anyone else’s conversion, but for our own.

 

 

… all these things …

A long time ago, I took a course in Old Testament Biblical literature from Fr. Pare at the University of Sask.  I was about 22, a year of Bible School behind me, and lots of church and Sunday school. It was a small class, and half the students where Catholic Sisters.  He was a youngish priest, with 4 or 5 different translations in front of him as he talked to us about the first five books of the bible. The Pentateuch. They were oral traditions handed down and later written up by various writers, he told us. Moses probably didn’t write them.  At least five different ‘streams’ were compiled into one narrative which means that, for example, within the first three chapters of genesis, there are two creation stories. The final editors tried to compile a coherent narrative, but it’s clear, he said, that more than one person put it all together, and that each tradition was influenced by the cultures and realities of their times.  How could it be otherwise.WAIMmbmeRzCDglRB0bRxQg.jpg

I found it all very fascinating. I’d never really found the Bible to be boring but had understood that somehow, we were to understand it as a book of directions. Except that, if it had once been about directives, a lot of them no longer made sense, and though sometimes we deny it, we pick and choose which ones matter to us, in our times. Fr. Pare softened that understanding for me. It’s a long time ago, but I think he would have said that the Bible is a story, or rather, many stories of how people, through the ages, have understood God and how we have thought God relates to us and to his universe; the evolving revelation of how God is among us and among the stars.  It’s highly unlikely that Moses thought of God like we do today. My own children think of God differently that I do.  Kathy and I think differently. She is Swiss. I’m Russian/Dutch. I have ten siblings and it’s impossible to assume that we all interpret the same stories, the same way.  So, it’s a stretch for anyone to insist that the Bible, with all its translations and with every culture and every person adding their own interpretation, should be understood equally by everyone, throughout all ages. As I began to think about that, the Bible opened itself up a little more – well, a lot more – and I have never been able to quite stop wondering … about all these things.

Last Friday, driving to MacGregor from Calgary, I listened to a Nomad Podcast and stumbled into two interviews with Rachel Held Evans.  Our children had given me one of her books for Christmas – Searching for Sunday, which I was well into. An engaging story tellerin the interview, she talks about her faith ‘journey’, a metaphor she says, that ‘holds’, because our faith grows and develops. It changes.  Her book is about that journey; a journey that is not static, nor is it about a fixed system of beliefs. It’s a search for God and for how we are connected to God, however God is. The journey, she seems to  say, is more about listening, thinking, praying, conversation … than it is about defining things and then hanging on to them at all cost.  In other words, faith needs to be a bit open ended and if we work too hard to close the loops in our desperation for security … our search and our growing pauses. It stops, and we become fundamentalist. We become belief people more than faith people.

I thought I knew what fundamentalism is, but Held Evans says fundamentalism is not so much about what we believe, but about how tightly we hold on to our beliefs. It’s pretty well known that in every faith tradition, religion, political party, there are fundamentalists who hang on to their interpretations and beliefs … pretty closed to all other thought and even other reading … often causing the estrangement of others around them. It’s what polarizes … because compromise and sitting around a table with others who are not the same just doesn’t easily happen. And then walls, even physical ones, are built.         `

The interview with RHE was about an hour or so long and I was driving, so I’ll have to listen to it again. She was raised in the Bible Belt of Tennessee, in a church where women weren’t even allowed to pass the offering plate, much less take any teaching or leadership roles. But they were wonderful people, she said. They looked after each other through the traumas of life.  When someone was sick, they brought food. They did all the good and important things a community of people should do.  But they were a bit fundamentalist, and as she grew older, she began to also see the ways in which they excluded those who didn’t fit their understandings of scripture, their beliefs. They looked after each other with compassion and kindness, but they limited to whom that compassion was offered and who could be included.

When asked if there was a particular moment when things started to change in her faith journey, she said yes, there was. It happened after the American invasion of Afghanistan, following 9/11.  She was following the frequent news updates, one of which was about the execution of a Muslim woman in Afghanistan. She was accused of adultery, and, with a full arena of people looking on, was executed.  Rachel Held Evans then said that she realized her earlier understanding of God and grace and how this all works, could not possibly be the whole picture. Would the God she believed in and was trying to follow really condemn a woman like the one executed in the arena, to everlasting punishment? Even hell fire?  Had she surely not already suffered far too much? Would her God, whom she was raised to believe a God of compassion and grace really send most of the people ever born onto this planet, to endless physical or spiritual punishment?  Why and how, possibly, would a God of infinite love do such a thing.  And as Held Evans says, once you allow yourself one question, they keep coming. But the questions don’t destroy your faith.  They change it. And they may keep you on the journey.

Listening to Rachel Held Evans, I couldn’t help thinking that the wondering and searching and open-endedness is really a search for compassion and grace. For LoveWhat caused her to look a bit deeper was the behaviour of people in her community, where grace was measured and limited.  To think about God requires imagination and an appreciation for abundance rather than measured scarcity. The real search is less for the detail and truth of it all, which always leads to measuring and boundaries, and more for grace. Which is what Jesus offered into the on-going revelation of himself, of God among us. The distractions of belief and search for ‘truth’ detail, held too strongly, can keep us from finding the center of it all, which really, is … the person of the Christ. It was he who said it all comes down to loving God and loving the person next to us … whoever and however that person is.  Not with any judging, nor any ‘if only’ call to ‘be more like this or that’; just … love. That’s pretty much it.

 

 

 

 

…so, what’s next …

I whiffed past a CBC radio comment the other day while driving somewhere. Or, more likely,  it whiffed past me. Either way, I caught part of the conversation of two women talking about dying and grieving.  A grandparent had passed away and they were talking about what happens to a family. In the middle of the conversation, a little boy interrupted and said, I assume to his mother, ‘where is grandpa now?’ His mother responded, saying ‘grandpa isn’t anywhere.  His body gave out, and he no longer exists.’ And then she added, as a kind of aside to the other woman in the conversation … ‘sometimes it’s just important to say things as they are.’

She might be right.  Maybe, in the end, there really isn’t anything for us after we die.  We really do just go into the ground or the incinerator and that’s where it all ends. But I felt badly for the little boy wondering what was next for his grandpa.  Nothing? It seemed like an unfortunate comment to make to a boy, who, perhaps even without consciously knowing it, was searching for a connection to the bigger mystery. The mom, I am pretty sure, could not deny that pretty much any human being alive or that has ever lived, wrestles with the question of what comes next and whether or not we are in fact part of something much bigger than our limited experience on this little planet as we circle the sun covering, every 365 and 1/4 days, 940 million km.  That annual journey boggles my mind, but it’s a very small part of the mysterious giant somethingwe are part of.  Last week, a space camera zipped past the Ultima Thule, a little reddish snowman-like object (actually two objects held together by the pull of their own gravity) 6.4 billion km from our sun on the outer edge of our solar system. And we already know that it all goes well past those ‘edges’.  In the fall of 2017, astronomers in several places around the world detected light signals off two neutron stars that had collided 130,000,000 years ago. To get here, the light had travelled 1.3B light years. All this to say … the mother could be right; we get our 75 years on this little blue ball and it’s done; lights out. But it makes no sense to me. We’re in a very big place.IMG_5846.JPG

I grew up thinking of God as quite small. It’s likely that every young person, as we slowly become conscious, begins with big and wild images of the world, parents, God, heaven, other worlds. It’s all kind of magical in those early years as light begins to dawn inside our little brains. But where we lived, evangelists in revival tents came into our lives and the God of my early imagination became smaller, less exciting, more punitive and angrier.  Some preachers took bits and pieces out of the many stories that make up the bible and scripted out end times scenarios, as if this planet and we descendants of Adam and Eve really were the entire picture, while God with his ever watching eye, was mostly trolling us, keeping record of our failures. We reduced that earlier, more interesting and wonderful God to a harsh kind of accountant.  It was a lot about winners, losers, rewards and punishments.

Sometimes I think the Old Testament, besides being a collection of stories of how Israel and their neighbors in those days thought about God, is really an artistic image of the adolescence of faith before it matures into adulthood.  Things are fearful. God is harsh, rarely happy with us, and when he is happy, we will somehow have paid for that happiness. We had to earn God’s happiness. And maybe the New Testament is an image of our growing up a bit; God has come among us as a beacon of hope and grace; our relationship with God is no longer about winners and losers. It’s about love and no one is excluded. The promised land for the Hebrews and the kingdom of God on earth are no longer about real estate.  They never were, but it took the millenia of the Old Testament, the prophets talking about justice and kindness and peace, and the birth and life and death of Jesus the Christ for us to get this … even in the smallest way. Sadly, we, messengers of the New Testament, abundant, full-of-grace Gospel of Jesus, still tend to drift back into our adolescence. We sometimes miss our angrier, smaller, record-keeping king-God idea.

In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren, quoted this week in Richard Rohr’s daily reflections, writes: ‘for centuries, Christians have presented God as a Supreme Being who showers blessings upon insiders who share certain beliefs … but who punishes outsiders with eternal conscious torment. Yet Jesus revealed God as one who “eats with sinners,” welcomes outsiders in, and forgives even while being rejected, tortured, and killed. 

For centuries, Christianity has presented itself as an “organized religion” … that protects and promotes a timeless system of beliefs that were handed down fully formed in the past. Yet Christianity’s actual history is a story of change and adaptation. We Christians have repeatedly adapted our message, methods, and mission to the contours of our time.’ And we can see that adaptation in any church, during any bible study or church service. We are always interpreting and adapting. Other faiths, whether they admit it or not, do the same.

McLaren continues: Of the many radical things said and done by Jesus, his emphasis on love was the most radical of all. Love was the greatest commandment . . . love for God, for neighbor, for self,  for stranger, for outsider, for outcast, for even the enemy. The new commandment of love [John 13:34] meant that neither beliefs nor words, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most.  Love centers everything.

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He spoke about the power of love

We are in this marvellously giant place, endlessly around our sun, one star among the many. I’m very glad we have scientists and religious leaders who open little windows for us to see into that vastness. I also think that the power of love is what drives and energizes that giant vastness and that somehow Jesus the Christ, whom we first met as a child, is the Center of it all. And maybe too much nailing down of things should be discouraged, by both faith people and scientists alike. Too much certainty almost always leads to conquering and domination and win-lose relationships. When we allow ourselves into the mystery and when we allow it all to be bigger than we are, we become people of faith.  And when we are people of faith, even of tiny faith, we take better care of each other.

So … I’m not trying to prove or disprove God, nor any theories of creation or evolution; I’m just saying that when a little boy wonders if there is more to the life of his grandfather than just life and death as we see it, that search into the bigger-than-us mystery should be encouraged.

 

… Christmas …

Jen Hatmaker, an American writer, posted a tweet last week that went like this: ‘Bethlehem. The manger. The star. The unassuming, young, almost family from Nazareth. The angels. The baby Lord at his birth.  I’ll never get over that this is the way God did it. The weary world rejoices.’

Someone else posted this: The irony of Trump forcing a shutdown over a border wall right before a majority of the country observes a holiday celebrating a refugee giving birth in a barn because she had no shelter should not be lost on anyone.

 Three days ago, Christmas day, as Kathy and I rounded a corner in MacGregor, near one of the 4 or 5 church buildings in town, Kathy said, ‘I wonder how much longer we will be celebrating Christmas?’ It wasn’t really a question. More of a statement, and it had nothing to do with whether or not we wish each other Merry Christmas or something else. At first I thought she was talking about our own personal relationship with Christmas, but whatever, I was curious about it, thinking that of course we, and pretty much everyone else will keep celebrating it. I mean, look at the annual spending. We start shopping and planning before Hallowe’en is over. Even before Canadian Thanksgiving, which happens the first half of October, we are well immersed in Christmas sales promotions. So, yes, I don’t see us slowing this down or stopping it anytime soon. And the truth is, I kind of enjoy a lot of the fluff. I like the tree. The lights. The baking and cooking. The family stuff.  The always-too-much food. The color. The pause that Christmas creates for us in the annual cycle of busy-ness.   IMG_1647.JPG

But Kathy wasn’t talking about our own relationship with Christmas.  And she wasn’t talking about the festival and the commerce of it.  She isn’t worried that somehow the whole thing would collapse. We’ve built up the tradition over 2000 years and these days, the commerce of it – alone – would sustain it. Look how we’ve turned Hallowe’en into a full-fledged, month-long event that has, with its orangey, smart, fall colors almost absorbed into itself the annual thanksgiving weekend, pretty much just by over-the-top commercial indulgence.

We do stress and fret over it all, but December is a time when we remind ourselves of others around us. The shopping and gifting. People are kinder to each other at Christmas time.  In Calgary two major media-based Foodbank drives raise over a million dollars each during the month of December, and they do it every year. We wish total strangers a Merry Christmas and ten out of ten they wish it right back, including those who are not Christian.  Families who rarely see each other try a little harder at Christmas. Friends meet at pre-Christmas parties. It’s a pretty good idea, this festival we love to fret about.

Probably most of us wonder about the future of the celebration as we do it these days. Sure. Yes. Sometimes I think it could just all explode from it’s feverish pace at some future extreme. Or, more hopefully, we could have a less stress-filled season if we all decided that slower and small really is – finally – beautiful and that quantity and dollar value don’t ever say very much about love and affection.  But either way, I suspect the getting and spending of it won’t threaten this deeply rooted tradition any time soon.

Still, Christmas wasn’t ever about the getting and spending by themselves.  Christmas and the Christ coming among us was entirely about the giving, which, in our currency driven world, we have turned into spending.  But giving is the whole Jesus story. Even the Santa stuff is about giving. A few days ago someone posted a note that talks about this in the most uncompromising terms …  written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer back in the 1940s: ‘Who will celebrate Christmas correctly?’ he asked. ‘Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger.’  He sets a high bar about giving for us, and about holding nothing back.  But it’s the same bar set and lived by the Christ among us. MjKFa9S6TJed5kn4uFKnKA.jpg

Most people who participate in the big, busy Christmas festival think of others as we spend on neighbors, friends and family. It’s not a season for selfishness.  But we Christians have also tended toward individualism and a self-protectionism and the conquering of others for a long time. That, in full view of the Jesus message which has always been about opening our doors, not closing them, about taking down walls and fences, not building them up. Jesus was never about conquering and victory and prosperity, and he was not about the separation of children from their parents, no matter how it’s justified, and if the majority of American evangelical christian people or even just most of their leaders spoke firmly against this, it could not be happening. The list of human sufferings is long and the opportunities for Christians to bring to earth the kingdom of heaven, is just as long.

So Bonhoeffer makes a corresponding comment about Christmas.  ‘Jesus stands at the door and knocks. He asks for help in the form of a beggar, a down-and-out, a man in ragged clothes, someone who is sick, even a criminal in need of our love. He meets you and every person you encounter in need. So long as there are people around, Christ walks the earth as their neighbor, as the one through whom God calls to you, demands of you …. That is the great seriousness of the advent message and its great blessing. Christ is at the door. He lives in the form of the people around us. So he asks …  will you leave your door safely locked or will you open it?

We will surely keep having Christmas.  It’s a most wonderful month. But if we really wanted to turn the world upside down with it, we could worry a little less about our own securities and more about the needs of the so many. Jesus birth, his life and his death are profoundly this. When almost nothing is about ourselves and almost everything is about the other … the Jesus who is Christmas among us will become known … .

 

 

 

 

 

… el anuncio …

A month ago, I stumbled onto a song by Ann Vriend, a soul singer from Edmonton.  She sang it with a group of students in an elementary school where there are about 20 spoken languages. ‘It’s already happening’.  One of the repeated lines is … ‘they say that change is coming. Nobody knows when’. But the refrain keeps leading to … ‘it’s already happening’ … in the traffic, on the billboards, on the sidewalks, among the girls and boys. Without saying so, it’s a kind of advent song.  Hope … and waiting.

Earlier this week, Orlando and I were talking about advent. A short conversation. When I was young, he said, they called this the time of ‘el anuncio’in El Salvador. Makes sense. The announcement.  The Messiah, the Christ, the new Kingdom, God’s coming among us … it’s going to happen. And ‘it’s already happening’. That pregnant … not quite yet.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer died April 9, 1945, near the end of WW II, hanged by the Nazis for plotting to assassinate Hitler. He had just turned 39. A pacifist, he had decided to give up that strongly held belief for the greater good. It cost him everything.IMG_4209

While he was in Tegel prison, he wrote many letters.  Elizabeth Rain Kincaid, in Christianity Today, writes about one of those letters, written as they were headed into advent, in 1943. ‘A prison cell like this’, he said, ‘is a good analogy for Advent. One waits, hopes, does this or that – ultimately negligible things – the door is locked and can only open from the outside.’ ‘The comparison between Advent and a prison cell may seem strange,’ Kincaid writes. ‘It evokes powerlessness, hopelessness.’  We Christians are often a bit reluctant to disengage from power. In fact, we sometimes seem to cling to an image of it as if that really was the kingdom Christ ushered in among us. Power and conquest. As if maybe we misunderstand to this day, the Christ of the bottom-up kingdom.

Bonhoeffer sees the season before Christmas as an expression of the tension that ‘informs our entire lives’ as Christians … probably as all human beings, Christian or not.  We know the salvation of God, but … not yet. Even those who don’t know Jesus by name wait for it. It’s not a warm and cozy waiting, but a ‘dangerous, shot through with sorrow and pain’. He writes, Advent is like the pain of Moses, waiting to enter the promised land, seeing the land from Mount Nebo, but never getting there. (Deut 32). He knows the promise; it is ‘grafted into him’ as the love of God is grafted into each human being, but it is never fulfilled for him.  Advent is like Joseph: he takes the pregnant Mary as his wife with the promise of the baby saviour, and then … they have to run for safety, back to Egypt, land of his people’s slavery. When they are finally able to leave Egypt, they end up, not in Jerusalem, not in any place of high acknowledgement, but in Nazareth. The little-regarded Nazareth. How, possibly, would anyone understand the saviour of the world to have such a small, danger-filled, hardly-noticed beginning.  But through his life among the poor and humble in Nazareth, Jesus lives the life of all those who are humble and obscure, who wait without ever knowing that God’s kingdom comes for them.  And advent is also, says Bonhoeffer, like the life of Mary, who waits her entire life, from the announcement of her pregnancy to the most humble birthing experience (there was nothing quaint or lovely about giving birth in a barn), to running for their lives, through Jesus’ turbulent 3-year ministry. And then they killed him. Even after he is risen, she waits. The kingdom, the deliverance is … not yet. It’s happening, she knows this, but nobody knows quite when.

So how do we wait?  Bonhoeffer says that because we know the kingdom is coming, we are not passive nor resigned, even in our prison cells. The promise calls us to engage in the waiting, living out the freedom of God within us, thinking ‘not only of ourselves, but being for the other’.fullsizeoutput_335a

Harry Leslie Smith died two weeks ago. He was 95.  He lived, as a child, in the poverty of a mining town in England. His sister died in 1926, of TB. He survived the Great Depression and World War II. At 84, he started writing and travelling to refugee camps and other places of immense suffering and poverty around the world. He wrote 5 books, spoke often, pressed governments and society about change and our need to resist the chaos, division, and the ‘same destructive forces that wrought havoc almost 100 years ago. ‘I want to tell you what the world looks like through my eyes, so that you can help change it’, he wrote.  He died, waiting.

Bonhoeffer became part of the underground ‘resistance church’ in Germany. As their work became increasingly dangerous, his friends urged him to go to the safety of New York.  He did, but as soon as he landed, he knew he could not stay. He caught the last ship back to Germany.  His life and work retain a meaning beyond the daring attempt to end a brutal dictatorship; they are more than the musings of a pastor looking upon his own death. ‘They point’, writes Kincaid, ‘even from a prison cell, to a way that all people of conscience can exist in a flawed world’. In July of 1944, he wrote this paragraph: “I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.”

Orlando made a second comment yesterday morning.  It was something like this:  ‘How is the church so much absent from the suffering of the world?’ he said. It connects to his earlier comment.  Advent is about tension.  I like the promise, the announcement of the kingdom, that kingdom where the poor, the meek, the bullied, the refugees, the children, the abused and victimized … where they live in peace and wholeness. But the suffering continues in so many places, with so many victims.  So many know only the other part … where we live, waiting, with promises so massively unfulfilled … that suffering part. Bonhoeffer would say the church is called into that place; that massively unfulfilled place of suffering.SALVADORAN ARCHBISHOP OSCAR ROMERO

I like all the hopeful joy and even the fluff of Christmas, but advent reminds us that our waiting is an active, engaged waiting, where we enter into each other’s lives, into each other’s sadnesses and terrors.  The horror of children taken captive, the hunger of 8 million people in Yemen, the already forgotten Rohingya in Bangladesh, the relentless poverty among those living on the streets of many Canadian cities in the cold of winter,  the trauma of job loss, or of abuse and neglect affecting lonely people … the silent people.

Archbishop Romero died serving mass to his parishioners in El Salvador in 1980.  Like Bonhoeffer, he chose to stay with the oppressed, knowing well the cost. Thousands had already been killed. He spoke these lines on Dec 3, 1978: Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is advent: Christ living among us.

 

… all we need to know …

I don’t know if I have ever been able to convincingly say that I love God. So, I don’t really say it very much.  I don’t not love him, but to claim that I love him has always felt like a stretch to me. Mostly because I can’t see him.   I believe he is there, here, everywhere.  I believe that the Christ is God incarnate, that he is everything … our before, our after … , that all things are called to him. Richard Rohr quotes Teilhard de Chardin as saying that  ‘the cosmos is fundamentally and primarily living.  Christ, through his Incarnation, is interior to the world, rooted in the world even in the very heart of the tiniest atom’. I believe that too.  But I don’t know if I love him in the way I understand that word.  And I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in that little hesitation.

Still, in the book of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying there are two commandments. Love the lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.  And the second is like the first. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments, he said, hang the law and the prophets.  In other words, pretty much everything hangs on them. But apparently the two commandments aren’t different from each other; they are the same. One doesn’t follow or precede the other. So, to love God is not possible unless I love my neighbor and to love my neighbor means that I love God. Which really means that God is my neighbor?  It kind of makes sense because my neighbor, as is biblically stated and acknowledged, is made in the image of God.7VfjYWs2QLGawXSalwQkdw.jpg

A bit strange that Jesus, in giving us this summary of all that matters didn’t say we need to believe certain things, or many things, or frankly, any things. He said to love God and our neighbor. And he talked about it and lived it all the time.  So, does believing ‘the right things’ not help us to love our neighbor better?  Will believing not quite the right things make us less able to love our neighbor as we should? I don’t know, but I don’t think there was anything, anywhere in Jesus’ teaching and in his actions that didn’t have directly to do with how we treat each other.  How we actively love our neighbor.  This is not something that happens in ‘our hearts’ and then sits there as a nice feeling. It  seems always to be about paying attention to those on the margins, those who are left behind.  Migrants desperately trying to get to a better life in the United States. Children of those migrants, sitting, still, in prison. Eight million Yemeni people starving because of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, supported by American and apparently many other interests. And around the world … neglected children, traumatized and impoverished adults, 68 million displaced people … . Jesus was that good shepherd who left the 99 in the holding pen and went out to look even for that last, terrified lost one.

Early on, in Matthew 5, Jesus talked to a crowd and revealed his kingdom as upside down from what was expected. And to this day,  much of even the Christian world seems to still prefer that other kingdom; the more familiar one that comes with power and conquest. But Jesus said, blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted.  It was a sermon near the beginning of his teaching and healing ministry.  And if you skim through the rest of the book, it’s loaded with tiny interventions, all of them a big deal for the people affected. Turn the other cheek. Walk the second mile. Give to the one who asks. Love your enemy. Don’t accumulate wealth and security. Be slow to judge.  Jesus heals the leper. The Centurion’s servant. Two demon-possessed men. The parlalytic. The blind and the deaf.  And he shows his impatience for those who can never get past the details of their beliefs. ‘They honor me with their lips,’ he says, ‘ but their hearts are far from me’. (Chapter 15).IMG_0912

It’s the season of advent.  Nearly Christmas.  When I was young, I didn’t really understand some things our dad did with us around Christmas.  He may have explained them to the older ones, but from where I was,  he just did things.  Every Christmas Eve, well before bed-time, after the cows had been milked, he would put some candies and oranges and peanuts into several little brown paper bags, and he’d pile us kids into the car. We were quite a few, so not everyone could go.  But we were always enough to be able to sing some songs. Our little Janzen choir.  Our first stop was usually the home of Tina, a mile down the road. She had cerebral palsy and didn’t get out very much.  Dad would knock on the door, and we would be invited in.  He would arrange us a little, and one of our sisters would start us singing a couple of songs. Some german. Some english.  Then dad would ask us each to recite a little Christmas verse we would have memorized for Sunday School. And finally, one of us would give Tina the little bag of goodies. Dad would visit a little with our hosts and off we went.  Harry was blind. A mile the other way.  Two older women lived alone at the other end of the village and we would visit them also.  Usually, there were 4 or 5 stops and, finally, we’d be on our way home. Christmas Eve!!

Christmas morning we would do the same little visit for two older couples who also didn’t get out easily anymore. They lived almost next door.  We would make these visits just before we sat down to our mom’s Christmas dinner; it was a kind of inconvenient interruption because we were all pretty hyped with whatever toys and coloring books we had just received earlier that morning. And we were hungry.

I don’t think we ever complained about these visits; we went because dad and mom expected us to.  I don’t remember dad ever belaboring these experiences with us, but I’m pretty sure he went to all this trouble as much for us as for the people we visited; he took us into the activity of loving our neighbors … for us kids to experience that those who hardly  get out, who are ill, or blind, or alone, or elderly … need us to show up.  We needed to do it … for them … and for us.

I read a sermon last weekend.  It was written by Carol McNaughton, the Peace Program Coordinator of MCC Alberta.  It’s a thoughtful sermon in which she talks about the need to love our neighbor, to show up with them, and to share space around a table where all are equally welcome.  She also reminds her hearers that ‘showing up’ can be complicated because sometimes just showing up isn’t enough.  But it gives me hope, she writes, to think that Jesus did not so much come into the world to have us worry about doctrines as to show us how to live.  He asked people questions and told them stories they identified with … and all of it, one way or another was about loving God and our Neighbor. pfcmpjLlSTyzA7%tBUIZ+g.jpg

Maybe I do love God.  But I don’t know if it matters.  What matters is the loving my neighbor part, especially when it’s difficult and complicated to see ahead and God, for sure, is in there somewhere, right alongside and among those neighbors.  It’s what Jesus was pointing to when he said the second commandment is like the first.  They are the same.

Carol ended her sermon with this line:  ‘may we love our neighbors and trust that doing so will teach us everything we need to know’.  That’s a big word, but I think our dad understood something about this.