In the biblical world hyssop was used for both medical and ceremonial purposes. It’s an aromatic plant, a bit like sage or mint. It was prescribed for sore throats and upset stomachs. The ancient Hebrews used it in purification rituals. That’s what the poet in Psalm 51 has in mind when he asks to be “purged with hyssop.” He has confessed; he’s hoping to be cleansed and forgiven.
The most famous advocate in our own time for the power of confession and forgiveness must be Desmond Tutu. In 1986 Tutu was named the Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. The job came with an official residence in an area known as Bishopscourt. At the time black folks like Tutu needed special passes just to enter that part of the city. Archbishop Tutu declined to apply for such a pass. He decided he would live in the archbishop’s traditional residence with or without the approval of a racist government. Tutu did not lack for courage. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison he spent his first night as a free man in that residence, hosted by the archbishop. Continue reading “Cleanse Me with Hyssop (170)”
Here in II Samuel 6 we have another difficult biblical passage. It is allegedly a simple story of David moving the ark of God to a more prominent location. Earlier in the week, when I sent out the electronic version of our church’s order of service, I mentioned that I was having trouble with this passage. One person wrote back and suggested that I just follow David’s example . . . and dance.
Given the difficulty of this passage, I couldn’t help but take the suggestion seriously. Liturgical dance was a thing when I went to seminary. I didn’t take the class, but I’ve seen it done. However, in giving the idea some thought, it occurred to me (as it may have just occurred to you) that what got David in trouble was the fact that he danced in nothing but a linen ephod. Our denominational code of ethics doesn’t actually deal with this specific situation, but still . . . instead of dancing with this story, I think we are better off wrestling with it. Continue reading “A Terror and a Blessing (169)”
The fourth chapter of Mark ends with the great story of Jesus calming the storm. What we don’t always notice is that when they were caught up in the storm, Jesus and his disciples were heading toward a part of ancient Palestine known as the Decapolis. It was the “other” side. The Decapolis was a group of cities culturally distinct from the area Jesus and most of his disciples called home. This area was so deeply influenced by Greek culture that many devout Jews would have considered it morally suspected, or possibly even depraved. For them it was the kind of place, that if you went at all, left you feeling contaminated.
As soon as they got out of the boat on this side of the lake a naked man with broken shackles and chains rushed at them. This would have confirmed the darkest of the disciples’ suspicions. Yet Jesus met the man, spoke to him, calmed him . . . and healed him. The locals were intimidated. They asked the group to leave. Our reading (Mark 5:21-43) comes right after this. When Mark says that Jesus and his friends “crossed again” it meant they were coming back to their side of the Galilee. Continue reading “He Saw a Great Commotion (168)”
What do we do with some of these Bible stories? If you happen to be at a place in life where you are looking for kid’s toys, you have probably seen about a hundred different versions of Noah’s ark. All the sets are brightly colored. They have fun little boats and all sorts of wonky animals. Yet if you’ve ever actually sat down and played with one of these with a child, you’ve probably found yourself in an awkward situation. Maybe you were pushing the boat across the carpet in the living room and narrating the story in a funny voice . . . and then you suddenly realized what an awful story it is. The narrative involves all of humanity, except for one family, being drowned! Almost all the animals drown. You close the cute little door on the ark with all the animals on board, Noah’s family is peaking out a portal—and the rest of humanity is screaming in terror. Most of us skip that last part. Yet for some reason the story of Noah’s ark persists in being one of the first that we tell to children: “Welcome little one to the beloved community, let me tell you about the time God killed everyone.” And we wonder why some kids hate taking baths. Continue reading “David, Son of Jesse, Child Soldier (167)”
It is election season here in Ontario. That means it’s hard not think of Sunday’s New Testament reading (II Cor. 4:5-12) in terms of Paul having an image problem. Might that bring to mind one or another of our political leaders? Whether it does or doesn’t, it was true for Paul. He did have an image problem. Commentators tell us that two things dogged Paul’s relationship with his constituents in the city of Corinth and beyond. Continue reading “Not Driven to Despair (165)”
In the beginning of Isaiah chapter six we find an account of the prophet’s vision of the heavenly throne: Isaiah sees the Lord, he hears the seraphs, he is cleansed and called. I wonder how you experience reading a biblical passage like this. My guess is that many of us love the majesty and the smoky mystery of the vision. At the same time, we find it hard to take the actual substance of the claim seriously. Isaiah saw God? Isaiah was called by God personally? It may seem more like an excerpt from a fantasy novel than a historical report. Continue reading “Holy, Holy, Holy or Whatever (164)”
I wonder if you’ve ever had one of those conversations about God where you felt like you got hold of something especially honest and true. Maybe you were driving with a friend or paddling a canoe. Maybe you were stuck in an elevator or stuck in a snowbank. Whatever the context, it was just limiting enough to give you one of those magical hours where you and a friend talked openly and vulnerably about God. And maybe, just maybe, you came to the conclusion that so many others have come to, which is that it’s hard to talk directly about God. The best we can do is look around for analogies. Maybe you concluded that God is like the sun, an old analogy, or like electricity, a much newer one. Maybe you likened God to beauty or to a rock. Or maybe you said that God is like the channel of a stream or a protective mother hen. Or maybe you said God is like the wind.
Our churchy language has a tendency to becomes so familiar and easy that we forget it’s mostly analogies. Sometimes it takes a new analogy to help us see things that are true but so very hard to notice. I think it was Julian of Norwich who described everything that exists as a small, round hazel nut. Seeing it that way helped her gain a deeper appreciation for the expanse of God’s love. Continue reading “Groaning in Labour (163)”
I want to focus on the story of Peter and the gentiles today. It’s from Acts 10. We’ll get there in a moment, but first I have a question for you about Mennonite moments.
Have you ever had a Mennonite moment? More specifically, have you had a Mennonite moment in the shower?
This sounds weird. You’re wondering: What is a Mennonite moment? Is it allowed, even in the shower? Is that the only place it can happen? What about Menno Simons? He didn’t even have a shower. Does a Mennonite moment involve peace? Does it have something to do with baptism? Is it a historic thing, like being burned by Catholics or drowned by the Swiss? Can you have a Mennonite moment . . . if you’re not a Mennonite? Continue reading “The Limits of Water (162)”
Some of you are probably familiar with the story of Paul Kalanithi. Just a few years ago, as he was nearing the completion of his neurosurgery residency, he began feeling ill. At the same time, he was also a neuroscience research fellow. Before going to medical school he had completed degrees in literature and philosophy. Kalanithi was already an immensely credentialed person, but the completion of his residency meant that he would soon have his choice of his choice of prestigious job offers. He would have a handsome salary and more realistic hours. If he could just hold things together physically and emotionally for a little while longer, things would change. However, his symptoms persisted, and it became clear that his health problems weren’t simply due to the exhausting hours associated with his top-flight medical training. Continue reading “Reading for the Road (161)”
One way to understand a piece of literature is to look for patterns. There are several patterns in the gospel of John. One pattern relates to belief. Someone hears about Jesus, but the hearing is not enough. They need something more. They need some kind of validation. Fake news is not new. One instance like this is found in the very first chapter of John. It involves a man named Nathanael. Nathanael’s friend tells him that he has found the one whom Moses and the prophets were expecting. The expected-one’s name is Jesus. He the son of Joseph and a rabbi from Nazareth. Nathanael is not convinced: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If you’ve ever spent time in Alberta, you may have heard similar misgivings about Ottawa. Continue reading “Too Brilliant a Darkness (159)”