March 13, 2019

Say No to Control?

I’m getting ready for a contest in a few days and I’ve been talking to someone who has himself competed before in it.  He’s giving me lots of advice, including an invitation to think about what it would be like going to the world’s finals.  That seems way out of reach and an impossible dream, but it got me thinking about how life coaches will often invite people to imagine where they will be or what they will do in 2 or 5 or even 10 years.  To set ambitious goals and to strive every minute to keep that picture in mind.

Back in the 90’s I had lots of well-meaning advice from new age people who would tell me that visualizing was crucial to a happy life.  They quoted folks like Deepak Choprah or channellers like Ramtha, or positive thinkers like Shirley MacLean who were rediscovering teachings stretching back as far as Plato’s Cave and the beliefs of early Gnostics.

They painted a picture of life as the big dream.  If only we could be disciplined enough in our thinking, we could control the dream.  As Shirley MacLean said, it was all a learning experience, and if we felt called to learn from the experience of murdering someone, as an extreme example, then maybe murdering someone was actually the correct action for our maturing souls as we reincarnated through many lifetimes.  But disciplining our thinking to always envision positive outcomes would channel serendipity. Control your thoughts, control your feelings, keep everything happy and positive and the world will fall into place like an obedient child for the world is a daydream that you shape.

Not too different from Jesus being tempted in the desert.  In a way, he is being tempted with absolute control over all he sees.

Jesus, you can have so much control over your environment that you can even change hard rock into sustaining bread.  The world is a dream and you can tweak it to satisfy your every need.  You will never again face any physical suffering or hunger.  You control all.

Jesus said ‘no’.

Fine then, Jesus, you can control everyone you see, live in a palace, with control over politics, finances, countries, nations, foreign policy, immigrants, refugees, well, you could fix and impose your solutions on every human being.  You control everyone.

Jesus said ‘no’.

Okay, Jesus, try this on for size, you control God and the angels.  You become God yourself, ordering the angels to do your bidding, and you can order them to preserve your physical self at all costs no matter what ridiculous situations you might put yourself in.  You will never pay the price of having a mortal body, for you are God and can be rescued from the pains and agonies of a normal human life.  Even scripture says it will be so, and that must mean it’s okay if its in the Bible.

Jesus said ‘no’.

I think we all face similar temptations in our daily lives.  Parenting educators have talked about how all children have a need for a certain level of control in their lives.  Too much control going to the children and they become spoiled dictators, feel like they are entitled to do whatever they want whenever they want, and they do not develop any empathy for other people.  As parents they enforce strict rules and value obedience over relationship.  They crush their children’s initiatives and curiosity.  It becomes all about forcing the children to do what they are told and that the parent is the boss.  The parent has all the control.

Too little control in children’s lives can lead them into states of rebellion or depression.  Sometimes its easier for them to be passive and they will feel like their lives and interests won’t matter.  Sometimes they rebel and leave.  They grow up being used to the idea that their ideas and interests aren’t important in the world, that they can’t make a difference, and even that they deserve to be bullied or dominated.

They can become disastrous parents.  One lady I knew couldn’t understand why her teens were always rummaging around in her purse.  They were looking for the illegal drugs she had stored there so they could get high because they knew there would be no consequences from her.  Other people would let their children get drunk at parties because an eight-year-old staggering around was cute entertainment to them.  Alcoholics sometimes talk about how wonderful it was to finally get attention that way, and how it contributed to becoming an alcoholic.  No rules are as disastrous as too many rules.  No control is as bad as too much control.

Where are we on this spectrum?  Do we try to dominate conversations or decisions or do we spend all our time listening?  Do we think that everything is all our fault, or everything is everyone else’s fault?  Do we bounce back and forth between too much control and not enough, with wild swings between the two extremes, confusing everyone around us?

Jesus didn’t choose passive aggressive ways of controlling the world and humanity.  He did say yes to taking responsibility for his own choices.  Sometimes a little hunger is good for the soul.  It builds solidarity with the people who are always hungry.  We do not live by bread alone, but by reflecting on life and our relationship with God.

Jesus chose invitation instead of dictatorship.  Rather than bossing others, he listened with empathy, and reached out in love.  He would also call a spade a spade and call out bullying behavior when he saw it.

And he chose to live in relationship with God and the natural laws of the universe that he lived in.  How tempting that must have been to be invited to change the very foundation of the world.  He chose to be responsible for his choices, rather than expecting rescue at the last minute like a bad author throwing in a deus ex machina.

Let us take time this week to explore our own relationship with control, listen for the tempting voice that wants to lead us into all or nothing thinking and practise like Jesus saying no to the unhealthy temptations to control what is outside of us, and saying yes to the things that help us practise appropriate control through prayer, reflection, and scripture on this Lenten journey.

January 31, 2019

Could it be Magic?

Have you ever watched a really good magician do his tricks?  David Copperfield is coming to town and he’s got posters up and Facebook ads and television commercials and all kinds of tricks up his sleeve.  Maybe he’s got coverage on the local news station, and he’s got an amazing trick planned like making the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty disappear that he tells everyone about.  He razzle dazzles them, and folks flock to see him perform.  There’s going to be lights, there’s going to be fireworks, there will be sound effects and dramatic music, and from the moment you step into the room, he’s going to try to fool you into thinking that what he is doing is not what it seems.  Like a simple coin trick.  Anyone can make a coin disappear, right?  First, of course, you need a coin.  Anyone?  Then some clever patter, like I’m so Scottish, I can pinch a penny until it screams, or at least I used to be able to do that when Canada still had pennies.  Or I can stick a pin with a balloon and it won’t pop.  Something like that.  I can make this quarter disappear before your very eyes.  Don’t believe me?  Well, like all things around managing money, it takes practise and patience and sometimes things don’t go as planned, and coins can be slippery and hard to hold onto, but the next thing you know, well, where did it go? All of the sudden, the coin has disappeared, and if I were a really good magician, I could hide it right in your ear, and there it is.  It’s a great skill to be able to do something like a good magic trick at a party, and even a wedding party, make a little entertainment, have a few laughs, and leave them wanting more.
But if we treat the story of the Wedding at Cana like a magic story, well, Jesus is a terrible magician.  First of all, where was his publicist?  He hasn’t really had any advertising yet, he only has a few followers, and did you notice that John doesn’t even name Jesus’ mother?  She comes across as a bit of a nag, quite honestly, and it wasn’t a terribly polite response he gave her. 
If my son called me ‘woman’ when I was out with him at a family party, I’d be more than a little annoyed at his response.  Odd to say the least.  And really, why is his mother sticking her nose into other people’s business anyway?  Why should she care?  Is this one of his brothers getting married and she wants first-born to save younger brother from public embarrassment?  John never says.  He never names the bridegroom, he never says why Jessus is at the wedding in the first place, and there are a lot of loose ends that have many biblical scholars viewing this story with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when this is the only version we have of the wedding at Cana.  Matthew, Mark and Luke have no record of anything like this.  John is a lousy story teller, but I think he is a marvelous theologian.
Going back to my first point of Jesus being a lousy magician, he’s got some pretty cool stage props, the big water jugs for doing ritual purification for religious practises and observances.  But they are all behind the scenes, so far from the action that even the head caterer doesn’t know where the wine came from.  The only ones who knew what happened were the servants, the Diaconos
When we hear the word servant, we should always pay close attention to that word.  Repeatedly in all four gospels, Jesus talked about being a new kind of leader, a servant leader.  Especially in the Gospel of John, there is no mention of a last supper.  There is, however, the last footwashing, when Jesus said that the one who would lead must be a servant to the others.  So it is a theological statement when John tells us that the only ones who knew what really had happened that day in Cana, were the servants.  Those who were serving.  Those who already put Jesus teaching about the last being first, the blessedness of the humble and lowly, to practise every day of their lives.  The disciples didn’t get it yet, even Jesus’ mother didn’t get it.
The servants were the only ones who knew what had turned that party from a potential shameful disaster of epic embarrassment into a marvelous celebration of hope for two people starting a new stage in their lives.  The servants knew who was responsible for saving the day, livening the event, cheering the folks and helping people forget for a moment the tough lives that they lived in an occupied country where they had little safety and predictability.  The servants knew, and they remembered that it wasn’t always the flashy, braggy person who loved to be in the spotlight that had made the event a happy success.  No, it was the quiet man in the back halls, hovering behind the kitchen that had made everyone go home with a smile on their faces and a spring in their step.
Just as this gathering can be inspired, filled with the spirit that takes ordinary food like bread and grape juice and makes it something that brings joy and healing to us all.  There are no fireworks, no disco balls and no puffs of smoke.  And yet, despite that, we experience something deeply real that enriches our lives and helps us remember that we are also called to servanthood, to community and to listening for Jesus, tiptoeing around and changing our lives in wondrous ways when we least expect it.  I think that’s a much better kind of magic , and thanks be to God that it is here every time we break bread and gather in Jesus name.

January 15, 2019

Fifty Shades of Rainbow

Some days I feel like there are two kinds of people, those who see the world in black and white, and those who don’t.  Some might see the world as divided into 50 shades of grey, but what if it’s more 50 shades of rainbow?  When a bus crashes in Ontario, when people preach hatred of immigrants from positions of power, it’s easy to reduce the world to black and white.  But that ignores the brilliant variations in color and tone that make up this big beautiful world of ours.  The kindness of strangers at the ATM machine on a chilly January morning, the choir that sings for the folks at Extendicare, the time when we go to pay for our coffee at the Tim Horton’s to find that someone has already footed the bill.  The glorious blue sky, the clear sharp sparkle of stars in a night sky, the glimpse of the aurora borealis are reminders that our world is much more than black and white.
John the Baptist saw things in stark terms, those who were hypocrites and those who were humbly repentant.  Most mentions of him in the Gospels has him shaking his fist at someone who doesn’t meet John’s standards.  They don’t measure up, especially those judgemental pharisees.  They get blasted and scolded by both John and Jesus and can’t seem to get the holiness thing right.
But lest we think that pharisees are a thing of the past, a recent poll did a survey of Christians in the United States and discovered something odd.  They asked questions like “I find it hard to be friends with people who consistently do the wrong thing, or it’s not my responsibility to help people who won’t help themselves, or If only people followed the rules, they would have a better life, or I prefer to serve people who attend my church rather than people outside my church, and I tell others the most important thing in my life is following rules.”  51% of Christians agreed with these statements.  The researchers based the questions on what Jesus and John said pharisees believed in.  Statements that were based on what Jesus did, eat with sinners, party with prostitutes and so on, didn’t go down so well.  That means that 51% of Christians are more like the Pharisees than we might like to think.  That’s pretty stark.  And the number one reason, that people give for avoiding church? They are afraid, survey says, of people judging them.  If most unchurched people are afraid of being judged and most church goers are likely to judge others, we have a serious communication problem!
Jesus had a different view of humanity than John did.  He didn’t see the world as either Pharisee hypocrites or saintly followers.  He saw them all as flawed human beings.  He could have looked down on all the folks he saw as inferior or lazy or silly or what have you.  Instead, his gaze was one of compassion that saw what fearful lives they lived.  But just like the words from Isaiah, Jesus wanted to help everyone raise above that fear.  Do not fear for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you!
God loves us just as we are even though we are fearful and anything but perfect, even when we are most like the Pharisees.  We may try to impress God with how well we follow the rules, but God sees us with different ways of knowing.  We may build up false images of ourselves or be stylish or busy with too many things, but in the end it’s not what we do or how we think that impresses God.  We really can’t earn God’s love.  God loves us just as we are.
How do we know that?  Actions speak louder than words.  Jesus didn’t have to get baptised.  He could have started his teaching and healing on dry land, which would have been the sensible and appropriate thing to do and would have impressed the Pharisees.  He could have stayed in the Temple, debating with scholars and pouring over scriptures.  In fact he could have joined the Pharisees.
But no, Jesus saw the folks in the muddy, dirty Jordan river, who were hurting or afraid or broken or guilty or tired or any number of 50 grey shades of reactions to the challenges of being alive.  When he saw all those folks hoping and praying and dreaming of a fresh start, a new beginning, a freedom and a healing, a rainbow of possibilities, well, Jesus went down to that muddy cold river and got right in just like the others.  He was there with them in all their hopes and fears.  He humbled himself in the mud and damp to be with the people.  And when he got down into the waters, Luke wrote, the skies opened up and the world changed.  No longer did people have to hide their bits of shame and fear, but they could experience that through Jesus the word made flesh, God went into the muddy waters with them.  God still reaches down to be with us in all our messy muddy lives.  That’s what we testify to here, it’s what we hope and pray, the ultimate scandal of Christianity, we are not alone, we live in God’s rainbow world, in life, in death in life beyond death, God is with us, thanks be to God.  Amen.

January 09, 2019

Entitlement or Epiphany?

28 years ago to this very day, I lumbered into church, feeling like a beached whale.  Our sanctuary didn’t have wooden pews but soft backed chairs, so I was able to get through the service in some comfort.  Then my brother in law invited us to Costco, a real treat as we didn’t have a membership.  But the big warehouse and cement floor had me stopping at every chair I could find for a rest.  Back in the car, with minus 25 temperatures, I was not impressed when my brother in law’s little hyundi refused to start.  I’m going to have this baby here if you don’t get the car started, I sulked.  Somehow the three Rosborough men got the car going, I went home and 12 hours later, I had a baby.
So my Epiphany Sunday started in a sulky mood of entitlement.  I was not in a good space.  I felt entitled to kid-glove handling and a certain level of sympathy as I waddled around church and store.  But when that baby was finally put into my arms, all the sulks disappeared in the sheer wonder of the miracle of holding a beautiful child.
It took the hard work and pain of labor to shake me out of my entitlement mind set.  But Herod did not have that pain and agony.  He stayed stuck in his entitlement and was so threatened by the visit of the magi that he turned violent.  The suggestion that there was a new and different kind of leadership out there, an alternative king to him, was so threatening, Matthew says, that Herod resorted to the worst crime against humanity; he targeted small children for slaughter.  All because of three wandering philosophers who asked too many questions in the wrong place.
It was a natural mistake for the Magi to make, assuming that the palace would be where an infant king would be born, and natural to assume that Herod would be the father, or perhaps even the grandfather. 
After all, that’s where kings and rulers are born, not in an insignificant town full of dirt poor people.
And this story would have resonated with Matthew’s audience who all knew the tale of their greatest leader, Moses, who also survived a tyrant targeting small defenseless children. 
What is it about children that leave us shaking when they are attacked?  Whether it is a drug addict in Edmonton attacking his girlfriend’s children, or a Syrian toddler drowned on a beach as his family tried desperately to flee war, or children held in detention centres for illegal immigrants dying needlessly, these stories cut to the heart of what it means to be human.  All too often children are the victims of willful, entitled people grasping for power and control.
We don’t need to look too far back in Canadian history to see the damage done when we as a society were so threatened by children that we put them into schools to teach them what we thought would make them most like us.  And the TRC calls us to become educated about how that has impacted generations of families.  But we also see children at the Mount Cashel orphanage, or the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, and even here in Athabasca where a coach is alleged to have targeted his young athletes.  For whatever reason, some people feel like they are entitled to take out their negative emotions and lust for power or control on humans least likely to be able to stand up for themselves.
Matthew placed Jesus firmly in the camp of folks who knew what it was like to be threatened by powerful people.  He shaped his understanding of Jesus from Matthew background in the stories of Moses.  He showed Jesus not as a powerful king and leader, but as someone so threatening that his parents became refugees just to save their child’s life, to protect Jesus when he was most vulnerable.
But Jesus never stopped being vulnerable.  He never stopped identifying with the poor, the powerless, the folks who had little to no say in what happened in their lives.
The ones who knew pain and suffering.  The ones who struggled to live by higher principles than just power, control and accumulation.  The ones who look elsewhere than palaces for direction.  The ones who recognized when they were in a place where self-aggrandization is more important than doing what’s right.  And even the wise philosophers who recognized that maybe where they think they will find answers in glorious places of pomp and circumstance, turned out to be places of greed and selfishness.
We are called by Matthew to turn from the palaces and the powerful, as the Magi did, and search again by a star of wisdom and wonder.  To humble ourselves enough to go into a stable where the hope of the world should never be found.  We are called to ward against our own attitudes of entitlement and instead choose the surprise of finding epiphany in strange places.
In the end, the Magi chose a humble path, and that humbleness was what led them to what they were truly seeking.  But, as I found out 28 years ago, it’s when we are most humble, most honest with ourselves, and most prepared to face the pain of being truly vulnerable, that we can find the deep joy of an encounter with a God that so loves us, that pain and vulnerability is worth the risk to reach us.
The scandal of the Gospel message, and the scandal of the Magi’s search for meaning is that the Divine is not found only in lofty places, but also in the lowliest times, the earthiest and most humble of places.  And that divine reach right down into our deepest pain and suffering is a reach of love that brings healing and joy.  May we all be transformed by such joy as we follow our Epiphany stars.