God of the “thrust-out”

I’ve been studying the feminist church later, particularly, the “church in the round” as a modern understanding of what it means to be Christian community. At the same time, I’ve been reading Rachel Held Evan’s book “Inspired.” As I looked at the lectionary readings this week these two influences together moved me from an academic discussion on divorce or how we enter the kingdom of heaven as little children to the times when I have felt kept at arms-length by hard-hearted laws and even well-intentioned disciples of Jesus because of my femininity. In my imagination, Sarai and Samuel were born ….

Based on Mark 10:2-16 and Psalm 26 

Sarai turns over the loaf of bread in her hands, oblivious to how soft it feels in comparison to what she and her son, Samuel, have just had for breakfast. She has no coin to pay for it in any case; for anything, really. She has only come, again, to the marketplace for a glimpse of the man who was – up until a few weeks ago – her husband. 

As he and his rabbi join another group of men, she sidles closer to hear the heated argument that is taking place.  “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” one sneers. “Yes,” her heart moans over the quiet reply, “it is lawful for a man to put his wife and child out on the street simply because she over-seasoned his dinner.”

Lost in her anger, her shame, her pain, she nearly walks away until the unexpected, inexplicable words root her to the spot. “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

The words that hold her fast have less to do with divorce than they do with the radical hospitality of the one who utters them.

Never before – not even amongst the most progressive of her husband’s friends – has she heard that, as woman, she is equal in the eyes of God: equal in God’s desire for her to have a blessed life, equal in responsibility for the state of her marriage, equal in the ability to demand that the one who has treated her so shamefully should be put aside.

She is “gerushah” – “a woman thrust out.” There is no masculine equivalent in her language, in her community, or in her experience. 

And yet, this man – the one called Jesus – who is known for his powerful teachings and miraculous signs – speaks of the sending away of one’s husband as if it is as natural as the sending away of one’s wife.

She shakes her head in disbelief; then smiles as she looks around the group and lists to herself all of the reasons that she has heard over the years as valid grounds for divorce:

“Oh, he can’t keep his hands to himself. Put him aside!”
“Ha, I saw him spinning around on the street just yesterday like a fool. Throw him out!
“And him! He’s far too noisy. Send him back to his mother!”

The smile swells into a giggle; the giggle into the first true joy she’s felt for many years; and both bread and hard-hearted husband are forgotten as she sets off to share what she has heard.

Later that day, Sarai returns to the place with Samuel in tow, as well as a few of the other discarded women with whom they had shared bread and light-hearted laughter and curiosity about the one who would dare say such things to the Pharisees. 

As Sarai points him out, the women began to jostle their little ones forward, to cry out for a blessing from the one who had seen them, who had proclaimed them equal.

This time it is not the law that keeps them at a distance; on the margins, as always, where the unwanted and the weak and the discarded seem destined to live. It is Jesus’s own followers with their coarse manners and rude rebukes that send the children scurrying back towards their mamas with tear-stained cheeks.

Unbidden, the words of an old song flow from her tired, wounded, angry heart; words her mother used to sing to her when life seemed unfair; words apparently penned by David himself during the terrible time of persecution when Saul was still king and resentful of the young shepherd and his harp:  

God, You be my judge and declare me innocent!

Clear my name, for I have tried my best to keep your laws
and to trust you without wavering.

Lord, you can scrutinise me.
Refine my heart and probe my every thought.
Put me to the test and you’ll find it’s true.

I will never lose sight of your love for me.
Your faithfulness has steadied my steps.

I won’t keep company with tricky, two-faced men,
nor will I go the way of those who defraud with hidden motives.

I despise the sinner’s hangouts, refusing to even enter them.
You won’t find me walking among the wicked.

When I come before you, I’ll come clean,
approaching your altar with songs of thanksgiving,
singing the songs of your mighty miracles.

Lord, I love your home, this place of dazzling glory,
bathed in the splendour and light of your presence!

Don’t treat me as one of these scheming sinners
who plot violence against the innocent.
Look how they devise their wicked plans,
holding the innocent hostage for ransom.

I’m not like them, Lord—not at all.
Save me, redeem me with your mercy,
for I have chosen to walk only in what is right.

I will proclaim it publicly in every congregation,
and because of you, Lord,
I will take my stand on righteousness alone!

With these last words she squares her shoulders, sets her chin high, and steps forward to challenge those who stand in her way …

… just as an indignant cry comes from Jesus: “Why are you getting in the way of these little children? Do you not know that my kingdom belongs to such like these? That they show you the way to enter my shalom, my peace?” 

And gently, lovingly, patiently, he takes each one in turn into his arms, wipes away their tears, asks about their family, and murmurs a blessing over them until dusk approaches and the noise of the marketplace dissipates as families head home for the evening meal.

Sarai and Samuel stroll home together in happy silence, their hearts full of wonder:

  • who is this Jesus who challenges the teachers of the law as easily as he does his own disciples?
  • how could he know of God’s intentions at the beginning of creation and suggest that the law was written by hard hearts instead of loving hands?
  • but above all, where is this kingdom in which women have equal rights and children are treasured heirs and how could they get there?

Star-gazing

As part of our journey during the Season of Creation, the Loop has created space for our community to encounter God in earth, humanity, sky, mountains and through the blessing of animals in different ways.

This past Friday, we enjoyed the quiet out in Uranquinty, simply staring at the stars and drinking in the silence as we contemplated the wonder of the God who knows them – and us – all by name.

Many thanks to Ruth Kerr who wrote the reflection below for the evening and has given me permission to share it here:

Stargazing

 

 

Earth Sunday: open your eyes

*reflection based on Romans 1:18-23 and John 1:1-14 for Earth Sunday – Season of Creation*

A couple of years ago my optometrist told me that the best gift I could give myself when I hit 40 was a pair of reading glasses. I’m now 42 and quite proud of the fact that I still haven’t had to get a pair; although, honestly, my eyes are very tired after a few hours of serious study and there are more than a few nights when I’ve gone to bed with a searing headache.

That gift to myself is actually long overdue, but I have plenty of good excuses: I don’t have time to go and see an optometrist; I’ve never found a pair of frames that really suits my face; it’s just another thing to remember and misplace and waste time looking for; but – honestly again – I’m actually pretty smug about the fact that I’ve spent hours of my life in front of a computer screen gaming and I still have excellent eye-sight!

The truth we encounter in Scripture today is that God longs to be known and offers us all of creation as the lens through which we can begin to see God’s eternal power and to unveil the mystery of God’s divine being.

Equally true is that many of us don’t want these God-coloured glasses – even though they’re the best thing for us. And we’re full of fantastic excuses:

  • we don’t have time to sit with and see the Divine Optometrist;
  • we’ve never found frames that suit our pre-existing picture of God or ourselves or the world around us;
  • they’re yet another thing for us to forget and misplace and have to intentionally search for;
  • and, actually, we’re pretty smug surrounded by the cheap figurines we’ve accumulated along life’s way that give the impression that we’re really important or smart or popular or successful or just plain better than other people.

The Message tells us that the reality of God is plain enough (vs. 18).

It’s captured in the stars, the silence, the burnt-orange sunsets, the crashing seas.

It’s in the science that keeps us grounded to this spot instead of suddenly floating away; that dictates that with the phloem and xylem of a flower cut off from the roots of the plant, it will wither and die in a few days; that allows us to create and capture our thoughts while sitting in our studies in Australia and share them with people we’ve never met, in places we’ve never visited in an instant.

It’s in the sum total of your life story and my life story woven together – all of the “coincidences,” all of the “you won’t believe what happened next-s,” all of the inexplicable moments that we haven’t even shared out loud because people might think we’re crazy.

The reality of God is plain enough … if we are prepared to open our eyes and take a long and thoughtful look at what God has created.

When we put on the God-coloured glasses of creation, and take a long and thoughtful look around us, there are a few things that we can see more clearly.

Firstly, we can see that God is far bigger than we can ever imagine or comprehend or describe or even begin to worship adequately. That’s why mystery is such an important term in the Christian faith: we’ll never know it all; we’ll never be able to claim that we are on the inside track of God’s good graces while others are on the out; we’ll never have a perfect understanding of who God is or what God wants – at least not in this life.

But God longs to be known by us, and every day, if we’re open to it, God enriches our knowing and our wonder and our love by unveiling the next little bit of the Divine mystery that we’re ready to receive, ready to wrestle with, ready to respond to.

In being open to the length and breadth and height and depth of God – and God’s love – we, secondly, see more clearly our own smallness in the ways in which we seek to contain and control this creative fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – or Birther of the Cosmos, Liberator of Women, and Comforter of those who weep – if we’re looking for less traditional imagery and language.

Sometimes we don’t treat God like God because we’re afraid of what we might have to sacrifice or surrender or change along the way. Sometimes we’re just being stubborn. Sometimes we’re so focussed on being good leaders that we forget to be humble followers. Sometimes we want things to work out in our favour, to go according to our plans. Sometimes we’re enraged by the bad things that happen to good people and the good things that happen to bad people and figure that if we take charge things would turn out more fairly. And sometimes, well, sometimes we think that we know best so we roll up our sleeves with an “I’ve got this God” attitude and get right to work without thinking through the consequences or worrying about who we might hurt or alienate or forget along the way.

There’s no excuse for it. No way to avoid the damage that we do when we pretend to know it all, to have it all sorted; when we replace the hands that hold the whole world with our own.

For it’s when we try to trivialise God’s glory and apportion God’s love and administer God’s justice through our own small view that human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate and people lose faith in a church that has lost sight of the renewing, restoring, revitalising life and love of the God who paints with many colours ….

Indeed, through the lens of creation we begin to see the both-and possibilities of God, rather than the either-or (or even neither-nor) position that, in our smallness, we seem to adopt as our default way of being in a world so big and a universe so unknown and mysterious.

In the beginning … was the Word and the Word was with God; in that beginning, as all things came into being through the Word and the words “let there be light” brought something new into the darkness, we saw the full glory of God – not in the light obliterating the darkness but, in fact, accentuated by it.

Light and dark;
heaven and earth;
ebb and flow;
life and death;

Father, Son and Spirit;
proton, neutron, and electron;
gas, liquid, and solid;
animals in the sea and sky and on land;

spring, summer, autumn, and winter;
earth, air, fire, and water;
north, south, east, and west ….

In our ever-expanding Universe, God is always astounding and – sometimes – confounding us – in the miracles of conception and development, the abundant diversity of life, and the confluence of factors that sustain it.

You and I are wholly insignificant in the grand scheme of things and yet we act as though we are at the centre of the universe and all that exists should either contribute to our happiness or be cut off, cut out, ignored, isolated, attacked, ridiculed, corrected, or even – obliterated.

Do you want to know the most amazing thing about being God’s created children?

Despite our smallness and our relative insignificance and our silliness, God sees us – clearly; beyond the skin and bones that God knit together cell by cell, to who we are in our hidden depths … and God wants to be known and loved and worshipped by all (the whole) of us.

Over the next five weeks of the season of creation, as we look together at the earth, at humanity, at the sky, at the mountains, and at the animals, we have the opportunity to examine our lives through the lens of God’s creation and see who or what it is that we are really worshipping.

Against the vast mystery of who God is and how and why God loves us, we can know our own smallness and take ownership of the myriad ways in which our insecurities and ambitions have damaged the Earth and caused the people with whom we have journeyed pain or sorrow. We may even be moved to that radically vulnerable act of saying sorry and working towards reconciliation and understanding.

We can be liberated through the creative imaginings of God who brings together colour and form and function in oftentimes contradictory and surprising ways to enrich the grand tapestry of life from the sense of scarcity and self-importance that leads to so much of the mistrust and wrongdoing in the world.

We can find rest as we entrust those things that we have grasped hold of as our own and sought to manage and contain and control into the hands of the One who holds the whole world.

And, above all, if we’re open to it, we can be surprised by God, delighted by the gift of Earth, re-energised and revitalised by the wonder of what is and what might be.

So … clear a morning, or an evening, turn off your phone, shake off your walking shoes, pack a picnic, head to a quiet spot … perhaps even take a friend or a family member with you … and sit in a place that speaks to you of God’s greatness and your smallness … and treasure a moment in which you are surrounded by the handiwork of God … and wonder at the fact that in that moment God is treasuring you too – for you are God’s handiwork.

The reality of God is plain enough … if we are prepared to open our eyes and take a long and thoughtful look at what God has created.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your love is extravagant

Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 6:1-21

What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “extravagant?”

By definition extravagance has to do with a lack of restraint in spending money or using resources. It’s a word associated with luxury, lavishness, comfort and indulgence. An extravagance is usually something optional, over-the-top and unnecessary, a waste really.

Yet Scripture tells us that God’s love for us is extravagant.

High and wide and deep and long, it breaks through our human dimensions of time and space. Intimate and endless, it transcends our reason and understanding. Inclusive and enduring, it defies all earthly limits and all our efforts to contain and control it.

In our Gospel this week, we read of God’s extravagant love being unveiled to a large crowd of people who had followed Jesus across Lake Galilee because of his power to heal the sick. Among them was also a large number of pilgrims heading towards Jerusalem to offer the traditional unblemished lamb as a Passover sacrifice in memory of their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Now, we know from Mark’s retelling of this event that the disciples had recently returned from their own healing and teaching ministries and were tired, so Jesus had taken them off to a desolate place along the shoreline in the hope of having some time to eat and rest and share with them.

But when he was confronted by this mass of about 15 000 people (including the women and children of the group) so desperate to know of the power and presence of God moving among them that they had run on foot to get ahead of him, Jesus’s heart was full of compassion.

Because God’s love for us is extravagant: high and wide and deep and long, it breaks through our human dimensions of time and space so we’re never unwelcome, never unwanted, never intruding. When we reach for God, our needs are met with power, our deepest longings with loving-kindness.

Knowing full-well how he would deal with the massive crowd who just longed to be near him, Jesus asked one of his disciples, Philip, where they could buy enough food to offer hospitality to them all.

Philip’s reply is interesting in the way in which it demonstrates the difference between our own mindset and God’s. Notice how Philip actually avoids the question that Jesus asks of “where” this food can be bought and responds with how much it would cost if everyone was to have even a little piece.

Philip was blind to the extravagance of Christ’s intentions because of his own preoccupation with numbers: the size of the crowd, the cost of the food, how much – or how little – each person could have in order to keep their expenditure to a minimum. In Philip’s eyes, the extravagance of love that would be demonstrated by feeding a crowd of this size was reduced to a more symbolic act of offering a mere mouthful – and even that was beyond their current financial limitations!

His friend and fellow disciple was a little more creative. At least Andrew took the initiative to find a nearby food source. But even as he presented the child with his five barley loaves (a poor man’s bread) and two small fish, he evaluated what was on offer against what was needed and concluded that it just wasn’t enough.

But God’s love for us is extravagant … even though we are slow to comprehend both its nearness and its magnitude. Intimate and endless, it transcends our reason and understanding. When we focus on our limits, God reveals the untold riches of God’s glory and favour. When we are driven by the sense of “not enough,” God unveils a power and a plan beyond what we could ever have imagined or guessed at or requested.

So Jesus instructed the disciples to have everyone sit down. Imagine what welcome words those must have been to these desperate, hopeful, hurting people who had run so far from their homes to find him in the desolate place.

And he took the little that was on offer from one of the little ones in the gathering – who, for the record, isn’t named or even numbered among the 5000 because of his young age – and he gave thanks to God and began breaking it so that the disciples could share it out among the people.

Miraculously, the food multiplied, and everyone ate as much as they wanted, until they were completely satisfied. From the little that was offered, grew – in the breaking and the sharing – not just enough to feed 15 000 people, but more than enough with twelve baskets full of leftovers being gathered together!

Because God’s love for us is extravagant … but in no way over-the-top nor unnecessary nor wasteful. Inclusive and enduring, it defies all earthly limits and all our efforts to contain and control it.

Growing from a little, multiplying through dividing and sharing, this is what the table, the cross, the church, the kingdom of God is all about!

Yet, the immediate response of the people to this extravagant love was the desire to take hold of Jesus and forcefully make him their king. God-with-them on a grassy hill no longer measured up to their ambitious scheme to overthrow their Roman rulers so Jesus withdrew into the hills from the God-over-our-enemies mentality that even today seeks to cleave and crush and conquer.

Even the disciples were in danger of getting sucked in to this predictable plot which is why – in the other gospel accounts – Jesus, in fact, commanded them to head across the lake towards Bethsaida without him.

Their inability to control and contain the extravagance of God’s love, God’s plans, God’s kingdom was soon made apparent as a strong wind began to blow and the waves got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and they couldn’t even manage to get themselves to where they wanted to go.

But Jesus came towards them, walking on the water, speaking words of profound truth and deep peace: “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” And they happily took him into the boat with them and landed immediately at the place where they wanted to go – even though, through their own strained efforts, they had only made it about halfway to the opposite shore.

Those words in the Aramaic allude more strongly to “you know who I AM” than just “it is I.” Against the backdrop of darkness and the desolate place, at the time of Passover, with the manna-like provision of bread and the Moses-like power over the sea, these words are the climax of this chapter and the heart of the Good News: that Christ Jesus, the son of the Great I AM WHO I AM and I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE is the extravagance of God’s love given shape, present and active and moving among us.

As they landed at Bethsaida, on the opposite end of the lake to Jerusalem, Jesus resumed his work of bringing God’s great love for the world within reach of everyone. Soon everyone would hear him confess …

“I AM the bread of life,”

“I AM the light of the world,”

“I AM the good shepherd,”

“I AM the way, the truth, and the life.”

And they would know it was true for he fed the 5000, restored sight to the blind, sought out those for whom society no longer cared, and rose from the dead to restore to us the very fullness of life.

As we gather as church in a particular time and a particular place, we sit in fellowship with one another and in the refreshing presence of God to be met by the extravagance of God’s love and fed from the Bread of life.

The challenge though is not to try to control or contain what we receive as though God’s love is not enough but to allow the resting place of God’s love to become the very source and root of our life as the people of God within our particular community.

God’s love for us is extravagant. May our love for the world be no less high or wide or deep or long.

 

Meditation: where God dwells

2 Samuel 7:1-10; Ephesians 2:17-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The lectionary readings set for the week do something a little strange when it comes to the good news that we have been following in the Gospel of Mark: they scoop out the middle of the story (the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water) leaving us with just the beginning and the end of this particular pericope.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much left over to shape a meaningful meditation from. But when we lay these fragments of story about Jesus being deeply moved by and responding to the sheer immensity of human need with his transforming power alongside God subverting David’s plans to build an appropriate house to hold God’s holy presence with God’s own promise to plant his people in a place of peace and prosperity and the admonition to the congregation of Ephesus to tear down the barriers that divide their society and embrace the one new humanity that is united in Christ, a rather challenging question begins to emerge: where does God dwell? Where does God dwell?

From the earliest times, God was on the move – with and among God’s creation. In Genesis, we have that beautiful image of God walking among the gardens with Adam and Eve, enjoying the intimacy of fellowship and face to face conversation. In Exodus, we read of the fiery pillar and the sheltering cloud that led and accompanied the Israelites on their long journey of freedom. It is during that pilgrimage towards the Promised Land that the first tabernacle  – or tent of meeting – is put up: a prototype of all later temples and churches, a place where anyone can come to seek God.

But, unlike the temple that David envisioned and his son – Solomon – ultimately built, and unlike the ancient churches and the modern sanctuaries of this day, the tent of the
tabernacle could be assembled and dismantled to travel with the people of God on their journey. So God resided among them – wherever they were.

But once the conquest of Canaan was over and David had declared Jerusalem the capital and moved into his fancy palace, he grew ashamed of God still dwelling in the old tabernacle tent of their wilderness years. 

And God ultimately accepts Israel’s need for a temple, as God had accepted her need for a king but in the message that the prophet Nathan receives and relays, God makes it clear that God doesn’t want or need a house to hold God but is, in fact, the One who is busy establishing the house or dynasty of David and the eternal resting place of God’s people. 

And, indeed, history tells us that the temple which was meant to be a focus of God’s divine rule and holy presence became instead a place of privilege and corruption and division where the poor, the sick, and the foreigner were kept at a distance through purity laws that had more to do with the power of the priests and the greed of the community leaders than the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart that God so desired.

Does Yahweh Tsebaoth, the God of Angel Armies and the Heavenly Host, dwell there, within that context of containment and control?

It is, in fact, into this very context that Mark’s Gospel breaks through with the good news of God on the move again in the person of Christ Jesus – a healer, a teacher, a shepherd who was full of compassion for the crowds of aching, searching, hopeful people who followed him from place to place, desperately seeking in him the power and presence of the God who was with them wherever they were.

There is a simple truth which has  profound implications for our understanding of what it means to be disciples of Jesus in the world today:

Jesus did not come into the world to start the Church. 

At the very start of his ministry, he declared that his God-given purpose was to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom and he didn’t go about that by setting up a preaching place or taking over the temple but by journeying with and among the ordinary people who he encountered in streets and marketplaces, by wells and seashores, on the hills and in the storms, close to home and in the neighbouring country of Samaria.

And his disciples were called – and sent – to be part of that work, to extend the kingdom by travelling like pilgrims without food or money or baggage. At the start of today’s Gospel reading, they had just returned to Jesus to share how they had demonstrated God’s power and presence by driving out demons and healing the sick in Jesus’ name … not to advise Jesus of the prime piece of real estate that they had secured for future worship and ministry.

As the Church – the resurrection community entrusted with being the tangible presence of God in the world until the kingdom of God has been fully established – we have been guilty of living by the mantra of “if we build it, they will come” for far too long.

When the people of Gennesaret recognised God moving among them, they didn’t seek to control or contain it or to create an appropriate space to worship him. They were too busy running to fetch those too sick and too weak to run. And wherever Jesus was in the region, that’s where they showed up with makeshift stretchers full of broken, needy people who didn’t ask for much – just to touch the hem of his garment as he walked by for they knew that that would be enough.

A dusty floor littered with stalls full of food and baskets and sandals and cooking utensils and goats for sale, with a press of people bearing loved ones in in their arms, their
neighbours in on mats; beckoning, waving, calling for the Christ to walk down the narrow aisle in which they waited; hope rising in the air, excitement, cries of wonder, tears of celebration as people leapt to their feet for the first time in many years – full of the new life the Christ had come to make possible – what a radically different picture to so many of our churches and meeting places today: so neat and tidy and comfortable and carefully planned; the focal point of so many of our resources and our conversations …

… as if, once the lights go out and we’ve gone back to our ordinary lives, God dwells here and just sits around waiting for us to gather again.

“Who are we to build a house for God?” our Scriptures ask us.

It is God who is building the dwelling place that God longs for – not of bricks and stone and wood and gold – but of each and every one of our ordinary, imperfect, and often broken lives.

As we read in the letter to the Ephesians, the Holy Spirit of God is within us. This <hold hands to heart> is where God dwells – transforming us from the inside out, shaping us so that we fit together as an enduring symbol of the sweet message of peace that God welcomes all people into the family of God.

Our world today is as full of weak and fragile and hopeless people as it ever was – many who have been hurt and disillusioned by their experience of religion. Local churches in our communities are important in proclaiming that here is a place where the living God can be encountered. 

But God does not dwell in the number of windows that let light in or, really, in the fierce discussions and grumbling complaints that we often have about church property. God lives within us and touches the broken and the needy through:

  • the warmth of our greeting, 
  • the openness we show to those different from us, 
  • the hospitality of our table,
    the faithfulness of our prayer for others, 
  • the gentleness with which we hold another’s hand through a journey of hardship and struggle,
  • and the energy with which we run to find and to carry those who long only to touch the hem of his garment and be healed.   

May God forgive us for the times when our focus on the church
has been at the expense of God’s kingdom;
when our holding on to God
has gotten in the way of others touching the hem of Christ’s garment;
and when we have mistaken bricks and stone for God’s dwelling place
rather than our hearts, our hands, our homes.

And may the Spirit of God within us make us into a people who are on the move again to be instruments of healing, agents of reconciliation, and bearers of the good news of God’s kingdom.

A winter blessing

Written  by Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr
in a contemplative and challenging journey through the seasons of life.

***

Blessed are you, winter,
dark season of waiting,
you affirm the dark seasons of our lives,
forecasting the weather of waiting in hope.

Blessed are you, winter,
you faithfully guard a life unseen,
calling those who listen deeply
to discover winter rest.

Blessed are you, winter,
frozen and cold on the outside,
within your silent, nurturing womb
you warmly welcome all that longs for renewal.

Blessed are you, winter,
your bleak, barren trees
preach wordless sermons
about emptiness and solitude.

Blessed are you, winter,
you teach us valuable lessons
about waiting in darkness
with hope and trust.

Blessed are you, winter,
season of blood red sunsets
and star-filled, long, dark nights,
faithfully you pour out your beauty.

Blessed are you, winter,
when your tiny snowflakes
flurry through the air,
you awaken our sleeping souls.

Blessed are you, winter,
with your wild and varied moods,
so intent on being yourself,
you refuse to be a people-pleaser.

Blessed are you, winter,
when ice storms crush our hearts and homes,
you call forth the good in us
as we rush to help one another.

Blessed are you, winter,
your inconsistent moods
often herald spring’s arrival,
yet how gracefully you step aside
when her time has come.

Forgive our sins we pray

While it’s been almost a year since we made the move to a new country and a different denomination, one of the constant thrills has been discovering new music (complemented by the comfort and familiarity of having many of the hymns I grew up with as a child included in our hymn book). Today’s treasure as I prepare for worship this week:

Sourced from youtube @ https://youtu.be/NRTLG7jPszA


Together in Song 635
“Forgive our sins as we forgive,”
You taught us, Lord, to pray,
but You alone can grant us grace
to live the words we say.

How can Your pardon reach and bless
the unforgiving heart
that broods on wrongs and will not let
old bitterness depart?

In blazing light Your cross reveals
the truth we dimly knew,
what trivial debts are owed to us,
how great our debt to You.

Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls
and bid resentment cease;
then, bound to all in bonds of love,
our lives will spread Your peace.

Trinity Prayer

by Richard Rohr, 2005

God for us, we call you Father.
God alongside us, we call you Jesus.
God within us, we call you Holy Spirit.
You are the eternal mystery that enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,
Even us and even me.

Every name falls short of your goodness and greatness.
We can only see who you are in what is.
We ask for such perfect seeing –
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
Amen. (So be it.)

Of this I am sure

*a reflection based on Ecclesiastes 12 and John 12:44-50*

I want you to think for a moment of something you’re sure of; something you know deep down inside to be absolutely infallible, 100% certain and true.

Perhaps you want to share it with your neighbour or your friend ….

If you don’t, or if you hesitated for a moment, I wonder why. Did you suddenly think that your sure thing was too silly? Or did panic and doubt flare up in you briefly the moment that I asked you to express it rather than just think it that it might not actually be 100% true? Were you worried that it might begin a debate or elicit an opinion contrary to your own?

Perhaps your sure thing was a scientific fact, like the earth is round or the grass is green. But while the world may look like a perfect circle from space, it is more accurately a bumpy sphere; and I don’t know about yours, but my grass is looking decidedly brown beneath the sun’s recent unrelenting heat.

Perhaps you’re certain that butter is bad for you, but these days the processed trans fats found in margarine are regarded as far worse and coconut oil is the in thing for the health conscious. And here’s three cheers to chocolate and caffeine now being linked to increased longevity but you’ve only really got until the next sponsored nutritional study to enjoy that “fact”.

Perhaps your conviction lies among more spiritual lines: in the wonderful assurance of God’s eternal love for you; yet, if you have ever questioned that unconditional love for a pimp; a paedophile; a person from a different race, religion or sexual orientation, then you’ve inadvertently opened yourself up to an uncomfortable little niggle of worry that perhaps there are limitations on God’s welcoming embrace – even for you.

As the season of Advent approaches, our lectionary readings offer a profound word to us in this post-modern era of shifting certainties, fake news, and relative truth; of – as the Quester puts it throughout the book of Ecclesiastes – the insubstantial, swirling smoke that clouds our vision of what is truly important and trustworthy.

It’s all smoke, nothing but smoke.
The Quester says that everything’s smoke.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:8 (The Message)

The fun, the freedom, the exuberance of our youth quickly fades beneath the burdens and worries of adult responsibility. Between bills to be paid, houses to be maintained, children to be raised, the best years seem to fly by until we’re left tired yet unable to sleep; up with the birds yet unable to hear clearly the sweet songs they’re singing; with an abundance of free time to do the things we’d once dreamed of doing, yet unable to come and go as we will as physical limitations and fear of the rapidly-changing world take over.

Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (The Message)

Yet the Quester, as he laments the meaninglessness of life, the futility of our toil, and the fickleness of pleasure so dramatically, does not want us to throw our hands up in despair and wonder if there’s even a point to getting ourselves out of bed tomorrow.

I remember quite clearly telling my husband in the early years of our marriage that I fully intended to take a handful of sleeping pills or fall elegantly off a rooftop just after my fiftieth birthday because I didn’t want to experience any of the frailties or the illnesses or the losses that I associated with old age at the time, and I didn’t think God would mind too much getting me back early. Now that I’m in my forties and have been touched by the dignity, the memory, the wisdom, the authentic love of those significantly older than myself, I’m all too eager to revise my position on the matter ….

… because life – lovely while it lasts – is too soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.

As he offers these words, the Quester longs to rouse us from our apathy so that we remember the remarkable gift of each new day and honour the One who has given it. He wants to shake us free of the smoke that has suffocated our passion, our vigour, our vision – those people, those “priorities,” those possessions that have actually just filled our lives with clutter and kept us from pursuing the precious and important. He wants to goad us to become people of substance in a world that has lost its way in its pursuit of power, prosperity and pleasure. He wants us to live well.

And of this I am sure: that Christ came into the world to make that good life, life real and eternal, possible for all people.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says of himself:

I am Light that has come into the world so that all who believe in me won’t have to stay any longer in the dark.
~ John 12:46 (The Message)

“Won’t have to,” “should not,” “would not continue to,” “shall not remain …” different Bible versions put it in different ways: that through his love and sacrifice, Christ has enabled us to live differently; through his teaching and actions, Jesus has made possible an alternative way of being in relationship with God and with one another and with the world at large.

But ultimately – and this is another thing I’m sure of – the choice is ours: to live and work and love and play and pray in the light of God’s all-encompassing, liberating love; or to stick to the shadows with which we have been acquainted for so long that we don’t even see them; or even, happily hide within when we begin to speak or think or act in a way that we know falls far short of the measure of God’s love for us and for the Other that we may be judging, deceiving, manipulating, disrespecting, or betraying at the time.

We don’t have to stay any longer in the dark. We don’t have to chase the fleeting, insubstantial smoke of this world of which the Quester so passionately warns us. We don’t have to ….

Yet if we choose to be children of the Light, to honour and make the most of each short day, here’s a sure thing to hold onto in the midst of the uncertainties and distractions of life – the last and final word, the conclusion of the matter, as the Quester puts it:

Fear God.
Do what he tells you.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:13b (The Message)

Jesus says it too, right before his final Passover Feast:

I know that his command leads to eternal life.
~ John 12:50a (NIV)

Fearing God is not about being afraid; it’s not the dread of a sinner or a slave.

It’s the reverence that we have as children for a Father who has consistently and unconditionally demonstrated love for us.

It’s the certainty that our respected Teacher has our best interests at heart that gives us, as lifelong students, the courage to try and to obey.

It’s the wide-eyed wonder at how giving and forgiving our Gracious God has been that inspires us to be giving and forgiving ourselves.

It’s the awe that brings order to our day – replacing appointments in diaries or tasks on to-do lists with opportunities to encounter God’s grace.

It’s the sacrifice of  worship that we offer, unrushed by the work of the kingdom and unhindered by the lack of workers for the harvest, but flowing from the deep desire to connect and reconnect with the Spirit who sustains each breath.

It’s the very real wrestling with how hard it is to be people of substance when others get to do whatever they desire – without judging them or resenting them or pitying them.

***

In his concluding chapter, the Quester writes that:

The words of the wise prod us to live well.
They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together.
They are given by God, the One Shepherd.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:11 (The Message)

I pray that his wise words might prod us to live well, and that today, these three nails have been hammered home:

  1. That Christ came that all might enter into life real and eternal.
  2. That it is ultimately our choice to live in His light or give in to the smoke and the shadows.
  3. That living in His light begins by honouring and enjoying the One who first breathed life into us and to whom our spirit will return.

Life is precious. But it is also fleeting. May we make the most of every moment all the way to our eternal rest and may the Christ who is the same today as he was yesterday and will be forever, keep us standing sure-footed through the trials and temptations of life; and, as we walk in the certain love of God the Father, and the clear leading of his Holy Spirit, may others come to know through our words and deeds the assurance of Christ with them, always.

Amen.

Costly choices

A reflection based on “beyond the lectionary” readings:

The decision to follow Jesus is one often made in response to a moving, tangible experience of God’s grace – without too much thought or concern about what may follow; but, if taken seriously, it is a choice that has serious and abiding implications, and sometimes complications, for our lives.

For me, the crucial moment came one Sunday during a youth church meeting. As I watched the crucifixion of Christ being dramatised, I was struck by the enormous realisation of what God’s love for me had cost Jesus as he suffered upon the cross, and I knew that I wanted to return such love with reverence and devotion.

Truthfully though, since making that heartfelt commitment to follow Jesus at the age of thirteen, there have been plenty of painful moments in my walk with God that have made me wonder: if I had known then of the valleys of dryness, of darkness, of death through which Christ would lead me, would I have made the same choice?

I certainly have not regularly responded with the humility and obedience of Job who, after losing all that he valued most – his security, his livelihood, his family – fell to the ground in worship and proclaimed:

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth.
God gives, God takes.
    God’s name be ever blessed.

Job 1:21-22 (The Message)

Job’s story is a constant reminder that it is easy to love God and to shun evil when all is right in the world, when we seem to be living the abundant life that Scripture promises, when the Good Shepherd leads us into green pastures and beside still waters instead of into the places of desolation and despair.

This is the very charge that Satan levelled against God; the accusation with which he mocks us this day: it is so simple, so natural to say that you love God when you’re hemmed in, protected; when the works of your hands are blessed and you lack nothing. But when things get tough, when you’ve sustained a great loss, when you don’t know how you’re going to make ends meet, you’ll turn your back on your beliefs and curse the One you claimed to love.

Jesus too, in our Gospel reading, criticises the crowd who follows him – an audience made up of those who have heard his testimony and believed that he is, indeed, the light of the world who they should follow in order to claim eternal life.

Yet even as they profess their faith in him, Jesus sees within their hearts the desire to continue living exactly as they had before. They want the benefits, the blessings, of the light of life without having to hold onto Jesus’ teachings and give up their sins or their spiritual pride. As descendants of Abraham they should be capable of great faith and obedience to God, yet ultimately they have no room for God’s word in their lives and may well end up as part of the crowd who shouts “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

In Paul’s second letter to the community in Corinth, we see a similar inconsistency between belief and action: Paul has been trying to collect money to support those Jews in Jerusalem who have been disowned by their families because of their conversion to Christianity but the Corinthians have been slow to see this matter as any concern of theirs and have not contributed meaningfully to the call.

Paul urges them to express their faith as generously as the Macedonian Christians who, in spite of a time of great trial and persecution, had exceeded all expectations and given beyond their capability because they so greatly desired to share in what it cost others to follow Christ.

Mary Flannery O’ Connor, a North American novelist, wrote:

What people don’t realise is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.

Each one of these passages urges us today to count the cost and still choose the cross:

  • If life has been so easy for such a long time that you find yourself merely going through the motions of faith because you think that you’re actually the one who has everything under control – choose the cross.
  • If you made a commitment to God so many years ago that you’ve forgotten the reasons behind it or the devotion that you once felt – choose the cross.
  • If things are such a broken mess; so painful, so chaotic that you’re questioning whether God ever loved you – choose the cross.
  • If you’ve lost everything – home, family, employment, faith – choose the cross.

Choose the cross not because of what you might gain – future blessings or eternal life or a fresh chance to start again with all your sins washed away.

Choose the cross because God chose you and has never forgotten, never forsaken, never been unfaithful to his promises and his plans.

Choose the cross knowing full well that it comes with a cost.

For Job, the cost was being willing to hold onto God’s faithfulness even in the midst of unimaginable anguish; to declare God’s praises and God’s presence even when others suggested that God had abandoned him or was punishing him.

For Jesus, the cost of true discipleship is allowing God’s Word to take such firm root in our lives that it displaces the shame, the pride, the lust, the anger, the greed, the laziness, the hatred – all the sin in which we have indulged and to which we have been enslaved for so long.

For Paul, the cost of the cross is intentionally taking upon ourselves and sharing in the burdens of someone else – though we may have trouble enough in our own lives and our resources may seem scarce.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who ultimately gave his life for his belief wrote:

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell that he has. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives the man the only true life.

As you choose the cross this day – and each day – in a hundred different choices and an infinite number of ways – may the true life of overflowing joy, costly grace, and rich generosity be yours.