October 23, 2018

Truth is a two-edged sword

How many of you had to carve the turkey last week?  What kind of knife did you need?  A sharp one.  A heavy one?  What would have happened if you had used a double-edged knife?  I was very surprised when I looked up the word sword in the New Testament, which is Machaira, which is the root of machete, to discover that it was not the Gladius used by Roman Soldiers and Gladiators, but more of a general word that could mean a weapon but also a butcher knife.  I’ve never seen a butcher’s knife with two edges, but I can imagine that it would hurt the person using it if they weren’t careful.
Our faith is like that.  If we use it as a weapon, we are likely to get hurt.  Or to hurt ourselves if we use it incorrectly.  On one hand, it is a great comfort to believe in a God who loves us.  On the other hand, there are times when our belief leads us to throw up our hands and cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
The young man found this out the hard way.  He wanted a quick trick, an easy list from Jesus, a tweet or maybe one of those websites that promise 5 easy steps to erase stretch marks or 7 ways to pay off your mortgage faster, something he could do that would guarantee God was on his side. 
Jesus looked at him and carved him up from the inside out, saw the truth of him for what the young man was looking for, and rather than answer him with something easy straight out of an Oprah magazine, he went straight to the heart of the matter.  Obey the laws about loving your neighbor.
The young man wasn’t happy with that, he wanted more.  Maybe he was struggling with a sense of something missing in his life, maybe he was dealing with a string of bad luck that left him struggling with his faith.  We don’t know.  But for whatever reason, being a good person wasn’t enough to fill an emptiness he felt in his soul.
I think we often get caught up in being good people with good intentions and friendly and nice to everyone we meet, but there are times when being good is not enough and we need to have someone who can look past the surface of our good lives to the real issues that are at the bottom of our discontent.  Maybe there are times when we think we’ve got it all together and can serenely go through life with a sense of satisfaction until we hit a bump that bewilders us.  When we realize that our goodness is only skin deep.
Jesus challenged the young man with that very question.  “Why call me good?  Only God is good.”  To be human is to be aware that we are not as good as we might like to think.  That’s what confession is about.  We do our best to be real, honest and truthful to who we are underneath all the surface stuff.  We’re not afraid in church to say, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Many things—such as loving, going to sleep, or behaving unaffectedly—are done worst when we try hardest to do them.” Sometimes we have to stop focussing on what we are doing and look at how and why we are doing them.
The young man wanted a checklist of what to do.  Instead, Jesus gave him an idea of how to be.  Be wise with your possessions and let what you own benefit others and not only yourself.  Don’t be a slave to your stuff or your bank account or your status or your Rsps or your Freedom 55 plan.  Be intentional about all you have and do in terms of God’s vision for the world.
That’s not the most important thing about this story, though.  The most important thing is that Jesus, our high priest, our two-edged sword, who can cut to the deepest soul sicknesses we have and carve them out of our lives like a piece of gristle on a turkey bone, looked this young man squarely in the eye and loved him.  Just as he was.  How many times have we spoken truth without love.  How many times have we thought we knew all the truth but found out later we only had a piece of the truth and the people we were arguing with also had a piece of the truth.  We do not own the truth, and we need to be humble when we think we know the truth.  That kind of attitude too easily falls into arrogance and pride.
The truth is that life can hurt.  Jesus also knew what it was like to suffer doubts and fears.  The reason that the first few words of Psalm 22 sound so familiar is that we read them on Good Friday.  They are among the last words Jesus spoke, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Or as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.”
Jesus said that all things are possible with God, even a rich man can enter into the realm of God.  I don’t know, but I like to think that the young man found his way.  I wonder, because Paul, when he talked about himself, would sometimes say, “I know a certain man who had visions” when he wanted to talk about himself without appearing to brag.  Who knows, maybe that certain young man was Mark himself! I like to think so, for them it means that even he, who thought it would be impossible to find faith by following Jesus, managed to do exactly that.  May we all find our way into the realm of God by opening ourselves to the Loving Word who loves us no matter what.

October 13, 2018

What we focus on matters!

I love the story of the two wolves warring inside of us.  I especially love the second ending that people hadn’t heard before, where we have to feed both the black and the white wolf(check out the longer ending here: https://danherr.com/2015/05/27/two-wolves-the-real-cherokee-story/ ).  When I was growing up, for example, it was the established understanding that we shouldn’t show anger or cry in public, for that was a sign of weakness.  Our comic book heros didn’t cry, the Lone Ranger or Zorro never shed a tear.  Instead they triumphed and rode off into the sunset, satisfied with a job well done and another case of justice made right.
A lot of the cowboy westerns by people like Max Brand and Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour would have a brave individual fighting to make things fair through perseverance, cleverness and knowing the difference between right and wrong.  But this was a lop-sided view of the world.  The image of men who could take a pounding and rise up to still prevail against the guy with the scar and the black hat was unrealistic to say the least.
Men did their best to live up to these high expectations.  They stuffed their anger down, they pretended everything was fine.  They denied to themselves how they were feeling.  They learned that it was more important to show folks a calm demeanor than to be real.  They embraced the phrase, ‘boys will be boys’, and bottled up all the negative energies they had.  Women didn’t do much better.  We were supposed to bottle up emotions and never get angry either.  We grew up with a double standard.  Nice girls don’t get noisy or demanding or angry or asking for justice.  Nice girls keep their legs together, dress modestly and stay at home dreaming of the prince who will ride into their lives, sweep them off their feet and plunk them into the castle of their dreams where they would live happily ever after.
Women needed rescuing and they couldn’t make decisions and the only emotion they were supposed to show was gratitude for being rescued by their strong man.  So no wonder the greatest pain that most people struggle with is one you would least expect.
Last weekend at the workshop I was at, we talked about spiritual pain, and how there were four kinds.  The loss of meaning, the loss of hope, the loss of relationship and the loss of forgiveness.  The one that was most prevalent in dying people was lack of forgiveness.  Veterans from the military, the modern tough cowboys of our society, were 73% more likely to be struggling with forgiveness than meaning, hope or relationship.  Forgiveness was broken down to four different issues: forgiveness of myself, forgiveness of others, forgiveness of God and forgiveness of multiple groups.  Guess who vets struggled the most with? Forgiveness of themselves.  Guess which was the hardest to forgive? God. 83% of people who were mostly angry at God failed to find peace and the strength to forgive God.
What is forgiveness? It is not going up to someone who abused you in the past, pasting on a cheesy grin and saying “I forgive you and Jesus loves you”. No, that is shallow and not terribly believable.  Instead my course taught that forgiveness is a voluntary letting go of the desire for revenge.  It does not say that the harmful actions were inconsequential or unimportant or even appropriate, but that we are not going to dwell on those harmful actions any more.  It is saying that I don’t want to live my life full of thoughts of resentment and envy any more.  It recognizes that anger is, as the Buddha taught, a hot coal that I pick up to throw at someone else but it burns my own fingers first.
Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters.  We cannot fill our minds with negative angry thoughts and holy ones.  We cannot spend our time thinking about grudges and hurts and resentments and God as well.  We cannot be both full of judgement or inflexible condemnation and Christian love.  It is one or the other.  Jesus taught that when we are feeling negative emotions, it can help to go for a walk in nature, thinking about birds or flowers or fields of grass.  Another practise is to write down a list of things we are grateful for.  In fact this is a very effective tool for healing our resentments.  It’s why we celebrate Thanksgiving.  And it is a powerful form of prayer.
But there are times when feeding the white wolf is not enough.  We need strength and resiliency.  There are times when, like Jesus, we need to have the courage to name oppression and abuse for what it is.  We know that it isn’t easy, and it couldn’t have been easy for Jesus to start heading to Jerusalem where he would speak against the injustices he saw around him, the abuse of power, the attempts to control vulnerable people, to exploit the poor and the lonely.  We saw plenty of that this week with the coverage at the senate hearings.  Regardless of who we found more credible, there is a troubling sense of conflict over what should be a priority in our world, unbiased, fair, level-headed justice.  Trustworthy people that will make wise choices not based on who is in power or what their personal beliefs or biases are, but for the highest good of the whole community.
The God view.  Seek first the community of God.  Even a practice of gratitude as the psychology experts recommend should take back seat to the work of looking for and creating the community of God, one that does not fear the future or what other people might think or say.  A community that seeks to heal one another and work for justice and equity for all.  A community of radical hospitality, radical generosity and radical forgiveness.  That is the kind of dream worth making great sacrifices for, that takes God-given strength and courage to work towards.  That takes radical acts of thanksgiving and forgiveness and uses it to benefit all the world, not just humans.  Thanks be to God that we are not alone in this journey.

September 12, 2018

Arguing with God?

Have you ever asked yourself if it’s okay to argue with God?  Some folks don’t like thinking about God because they take every bad thing that ever happens in the world and either blame God for it or decide it’s proof that God does not exist.  Some folks take misfortunes like their daughter’s ill health or their disabilities as a test of their obedience.  But sometimes I think it is quite okay to argue with God, to challenge what we think God has or has not done.
We see Jesus getting challenged.  He wanted to get away and have a vacation where he wouldn’t be recognized.  Like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt putting on sunglasses or Benedict Cumberbatch sporting an ugly beard, Jesus thought he could go off and relax deep in the heart of gentile territory, modern day Lebanon.  He got called out by the Syrophoenician woman, who refused to take no for an answer, who refused to be treated with racist and sexist comments.  Despite her ancestors being at war with Jesus’ ancestors for generations, because let’s not forget that Goliath was a Philistine and Phoenician who was killed by David, one of Jesus’ ancestors, this lady was not going to take no for an answer.  Despite the cultural animosity between their two peoples, she was going to challenge Jesus until he could see things her way.  And he shifted his opinion.  He realized that God’s love is not limited to one race, to one faith, to one culture.  He took that learning into his next teaching stop, the Decapolis.  Opening a man’s ability to speak was similarly dramatic and like a cork popped on a genie’s bottle, the good news of that healing could not be contained or silenced.  Good news spilled out wherever he went.
James also was letting the good news spill out.  He spoke out against favoritism, reminding everyone that they were beloved regardless of their income level, how much they could throw in the collection plate, how famous they were or how they dressed. And that just praying for folks in difficulty is not enough.  Like recent gun control advocates in the states remarked, there comes a time when we have to stop praying for the victims of mass shootings and start challenging the NRA.  Start boycotting companies and organizations that profit from the manufacturing of tools meant to hunt humans.  Hurt them in their pocket books.  Something that even we Canadians can take part in.
But I like to argue with James.  Just as Paul argued with him, and Martin Luther argued with him.  James thought it’s all about our actions and deeds.  Paul thought it was all about grace.  This is one of the oldest arguments in our Christian faith, and it is not easy.  Which comes first, faith or action?  Or in academic words, praxis or prayer?  And why does one answer have to be the right answer?  Some people come to faith first and then learn to act from a faith perspective, some practise acting like they have faith before they have it.  Do we have to say that either way is better than the other?  Do we have to demonize all wealthy people like the Koch brothers who support libertarian organizations in the states, or can we remember folks like Jimmy Carter who is also a wealthy man and who came to Edmonton at the age of 92 to work on a Habitat for Humanity build?  Or the millionaires who helped fund The Ocean Cleanup, which has raised $35 million US in donations to fund the project, including from wealthy folks like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
Christianity is at its best, I think, when we argue with the scriptures and with our teachings.  Augustine argued with the folks who taught him about Plato. 
He argued with the people who wanted to take every story in the Bible literally, saying that sometimes it is clear that the bible stories, even the ones about Jesus, needed to be looked at as metaphors.  And scholars have argued with him too, on concepts like just wars and his sense of sexuality, which was much healthier when he was living with his concubine and son.  We argue.  It’s healthy.  But as James reminded us, if we are going to argue, it must be done in a spirit of love.  We must remember to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  If we argue, let it be done with a higher purpose in mind, whether it’s to develop a deeper sense of our relationship with God, or to develop an action plan to address an injustice.
Why is this important?  I heard two different rumors this week that were very disturbing.  One person claimed that all Subways stores were being forced to get rid of their ham and bacon due to pressures from Muslims.  Another told me that Christian churches are being burned down around the world by Muslims.  Both of these are patently false, planted to foster fear and suspicion.  True, some Subways in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods have chosen to see what their customers would buy, but that’s a few places in England.  Lest you say they should leave their food culture at home, where would we be without dim sum, pizza and cabbage rolls?  And true some churches in the Middle East have been burned by Muslim extremists, but they are destroying museums and archeological sites, not just churches.  And in Egypt, Muslims often surround Christian churches to protect their friends so they can worship in peace.  And the Koran says that Hallal meat can be blessed by people of the book if no Imam is present.  Who is a person of the book?  That’s how they describe Christians and Jews. 
In the end, we are called to be both healed and healers.  The call comes from God, and we do need to argue with that call to make sure it is indeed God’s voice calling and not our own egos or need for power and control.  We are called to take the time we need to be centered and grounded in God’s word, in prayer and in community.  We are also called to do what we can to heal the injustices we see around us.