In the middle of Luke chapter 9 we hear Jesus giving his followers some harsh news: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” He is telling them, and telling us, that we can’t save our lives by trying to save our lives. If we hold on too tightly, if you try to keep everything under control, we will lose our lives. The liveliness will be gone. We’ll squeeze out the vitality.
Then, a few verses later, Jesus says something really strange. He says that some of the people listening to him will see the “kingdom of God” before they die. Actually he says, they will see it before they “taste death.” They will “see” before they “taste.” It’s an interesting way to put it. Continue reading “To the Mountain, with Nobodies (190)”
One of the most persistent pieces of spiritual advice is to “trust in God.” Like so much of the spiritual life, what initially seems simple and direct, becomes more profound and more challenging as the years pass.
What does it mean to trust God when experience tells us that this does not mean our lives will unfold in the way we had hoped? What does it mean to trust God with loved-ones who we know will not escape suffering? Continue reading “What does it mean to trust God?”
Nostalgia makes my skin crawl. I’ve seen the damage it does, the exclusivity it masks, and the lies it tells. So it is strange for me to wonder now if what I carry in my heart is that pernicious thing.
Several months ago my parents sold the home in Pennsylvania where I grew up. The house itself was simple. It was one of those split-level models popular in the 1980s, with vinyl siding and fake shutters. Half of the basement was a “family room” and half a garage, a division that trades on the assumption that families receive their identity by watching TV. When I was young the house did not have an automatic garage-door opener. I remember stepping into the humid night air, bathed in the car’s headlights, and heaving the door up high enough for the springs to do their work. My parents installed a powered opener after my brother and I went off to college. Around the same time they bought a riding lawn mower and a snow blower. Before mechanization my brother and I mowed the sloping, root-infested lawn with a push mower. We worked together with grain shovels to clear drifts from the driveway after snowstorms. Continue reading “A Eulogy of Home: On Nostalgia and Memory”
[I Cor. 12:12-31a; Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6]
The community of faith in Corinth was vibrant and young, but the group needed help figuring out how to do life together. So Paul penned several long letters in which he addresses some specific challenges. He insists that because of Jesus things are different. Because of Jesus’ teaching, because of Jesus’ death, because of Jesus’ resurrection in the power of the Spirit—the community of faith should stand apart. It should be a people shaped by worship, overflowing in love and powered by the Spirit. And as we read in I Corinthians 12, it should be a community where everyone contributes.
Not too long ago a fellow named John Kaag discovered the abandoned library of an important American philosopher in the hills of New Hampshire. Kaag is a professor at a university in Massachusetts. He tells the story of his find alongside the history of American philosophy in an impressive little book that came out in 2016. Very few people can talk about philosophy in a way that’s interesting for general readers and isn’t just boiled-down nonsense. I know this is hard because I see some of you beginning to glaze over simply because I’ve used the word ‘philosophy’ four times in one paragraph. Continue reading “Body Membership and the Importance of Being Needed (186)”
[Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22]
If you go to any good museum there are usually places where you can get a sense of what something historical felt like: maybe you can feel the weight of a Viking sword or maybe touch the sort of cloth worn by the Romans. The Bible suggests that are similar touchpoints for the Christian life. There are at least four natural phenomena that allow us to feel life with God. Continue reading “When you pass through the water (185)”
The group left the lake behind and pushed further into the bush. They needed to make camp, but staying by the side of a lake was too obvious. The thick ice made the water virtually inaccessible anyway. There were seven in the group, in various states of health and fitness. If you were to cast a group on the move, you would not cast a group like this. Among them there were no weightlifters, no action stars and no lanky beauties. Only two of them could have even been described as young, Dorcia was about twenty and Andy was fifteen. Phoebe, who had a persistent cough, as well as Eunice and Matt were all over 50. Mary and Simon were somewhere in between, but nobody new exactly and it hardly mattered. Dorcia walked with obvious stiffness; you could see the lump of a bandage under her winter layers.
By most standards the group appeared leaderless, which is to say, nobody barked orders and none of them new this country particularly well. Only a few could even tell the full story of how they had come together. They usually just said they “met along the way.” Continue reading “Inhabited by the Word – a short story (183)”
Last fall the British newspaper The Telegraph ran a piece that highlighted the jobs most at risk from new automation technologies. The news is not good if your livelihood involves data entry, processing photos, preparing taxes, sewing by hand, doing legal research or repairing watches. It isn’t much better if you are a model, credit analyst, insurance appraiser, sports umpire or a bridge/lock tender. What is safe? Well, the good bet seems to be on work like occupational therapy, mental health, audiology, managing disasters and doing front-line repairs and installation of mechanical equipment. I couldn’t find pastor on the list, so my own future is fuzzy.
Changes like these have happened since whenever it was that people first started dividing up labour. Someone set out to spend a lifetime chipping arrowheads and lost out to others who worked with metal. Someone repaired wagons and ran out of work unless they learned to repair cars. I can remember colleagues who earlier in their careers had been hired to run machines that graded multiple-choice tests or duplicated documents. When they started that was more-or-less specialized work. It’s important not to make light of how difficult such changes are for us. To have trained for something and become highly proficient at it, only to learn that your skill is no longer needed . . . . That would, I imagine, be deeply disruptive. I imagine that it would be hard to not think that it was ‘you’ that was no longer needed. Continue reading “How Not to Become Obsolete”
[Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18]
I want to begin with part of a prayer from Thomas More. More was a 16th-century lawyer and an ardent critic of the Reformation, including our spiritual ancestors the Anabaptists. Sometimes we find wisdom in our enemies. Let us pray:
“Grant us, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest. Grant us healthy bodies, and the necessary good humour to maintain them. Grant us simple souls that know to treasure all that is good and that don’t frighten easily at the sight of evil . . . .”
* * *
I don’t know if you heard it, but our reading from Luke has a very contemporary ring. This is a passage about privilege.
John has barreled in from the wilderness, chased by an epiphany. He has realized that his people were abusing their privilege. Way back in the book of Genesis we learned that their ancestors were blessed in a special way with God’s presence. John believed they had let the gift sour. John’s people had become complacent in their status. So he marches in to share his epiphany. It’s this: God can use stones. Stones can fulfill the mission. God doesn’t need a special people. The people have become like a privileged tree that doesn’t produce any fruit. John tells them to get ready for the axe. Continue reading “Discovering a bit of Joy (182)”
[Luke 1:68-79; Luke 3:1-6]
Some time before, Zechariah had drawn the short straw. He had been chosen by lot to carry out the priestly duties in the most holy, and most dangerous, part of the temple.
Different time and different culture, but this time of year we see fellows who have drawn the short straw too. They are the ones in the Christmas parade carrying the shovels, following the horses.
It was different for Zechariah. For him drawing the short straw may have meant that his colleagues clipped bells to his robe and tied a rope to his leg. If the bells stopped ringing his colleagues knew he had been struck dead and had to be pulled out by the rope. As it happened, Zechariah was not struck dead. He did, though, have a strange encounter. He saw an angle. The angle said that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. This son would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Continue reading “By the Tender Mercy of our God (181)”
Churches have histories. Or to put it more generally, the church is not just an idea, it is an actual social entity linked across geography and time. Hebrews 12 tells us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses: we are linked to the faithful that have come before us. The other side of that claim is that we are also linked to ventures that have been misguided, misdirected, and sometimes harmful.
Last summer I found myself doing something unusual: planning worship in an attic. I was collaborating by e-mail with one of our congregation’s worship leaders. He was near our church in Ottawa. I was in an out-of-the-way building in a small mining town on the other side of the province. I had traveled there to gain a better understanding of how mission agencies connected to our branch of the Christian family tree came to be intimately involved in a colonialist project. More specifically, for a period spanning roughly 1960-1990, Mennonite missionaries ran three schools that were a part of the government’s effort to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Euro-Canadian culture.