Posts Tagged ‘chaos’

Sink or swim

August 13, 2017

Sink or swim; what will you do?  In Peter’s case (of course), both.  In a show of false bravado, he demands that Jesus “command me to come to you…”  And out into the waves he goes – successful at first.

Isn’t it wonderful to think that Jesus’ presence can provoke such acts of faith – such a show of the miraculous…except that all too soon we discover that not even Jesus presence can keep Peter from sinking.  And all Jesus can do (once all are safe and dry) is sadly shake his head; “…why did you doubt?”

And as I told the session (in Thorburn) on Tuesday night, THAT is the question.  Why – with our storied history and rich tradition and our tenacious ability to be the church in this place – why do we doubt?  Because we do; we can’t help it.  We’re full of doubt – overwhelmed by it – up to our necks in it – and for no good reason.

Sure, times are tough for churches,  and all organizations that depend on public generosity.  Yes, it is frightening to read the news of nuclear powered nit-wits…(umm) leaders acting irresponsibly.  It would be the easiest, and most sensible course of action to doubt the presence of a caring, merciful, all knowing/seeing God when things seem to be spiralling out of control, so some personal (and collective) doubt is perhaps predictable (and maybe even understandable).  But current global events continue to demonstrate that the product of our doubt is also predictable…and not understandable in the least.

We sink.  We hide.  We lash out.  We blame.  We rally ‘round old habits, and despicable behaviours.  Some have, in recent days, disguised bigotry as “white advocacy” – in the name of security, safety and self-protection –

with the ridiculously dangerous argument that every group except ‘plain white people’ have demanded some kind of special privilege.

None of these are Christian behaviours.  All of it brings me to the point of despair…except for one thing.  Jesus.

Jesus – calm in the centre of the storm – calls us to remember what is on offer (and what is at stake!).  Jesus defies the odds and meets us in the midst of our terror.  Though he is the embodiment of peace and purpose, his presence first prompts more fear (it is a ghost!).  His response is meant to overturn our objections:“Take heart – it is I; Don’t be afraid.”

That is how it begins.  He names the problem – fear.  Fear of the unknown; fear of the “other”, and ultimately, fear of the remarkable difference that Jesus represents.  Jesus calls us to join him on the water and we may eventually go, but we’re not convinced that we can take him seriously.

But we’re Christians, you say – we’re charged with “making disciples”, “spreading the gospel”; “keeping the faith”.  Except making disciples doesn’t mean getting people to think and act like we do, but to follow (think and act) like Jesus.  We don’t keep the faith; we use faith to keep the world at a safe distance.  Too many have claimed a faith (that they call Christian) that looks only to some heavenly reward, and cares nothing for the troubles of this present world – the world to which Jesus said the kingdom was surely coming.  Faith comes to us as a way to navigate the troubled waters that confront us.  The difference is explored in this morning’s gospel.

What we fail to notice about Jesus is that he too is in the midsts of the mayhem – the storm is no less severe where he is standing.  We imagine that Jesus will ‘fix it for us’, but he doesn’t.  He asks us to join him before it looks safe to do so.

Peter asks Jesus to command him – nothing less than a direct order will get him out of the boat because the situation is unsettled; Peter can’t imagine it ending well.  Likewise, when we wade into any of the current debates on offer in coffee shops or on-line forums, we are right to go cautiously – and to enter into these environments without Jesus is to invite disaster – but we are invited by Jesus to engage these difficult and often dangerous questions.  The light of the world stands steady in the darkness and gives us the courage to speak against the insanity that assaults us from the front pages and the news shows…yet we continue to sink, because our fear continues to master us.

Fear is winning because we have eliminated something crucial to Jesus’ message.  If the sixties era ‘hippie-Christians’ were guilty of ignoring judgement to claim love, there are those in our own time who would go too far in the other direction.  The so-called ‘christian response of those who give assent to the fanatical nationalism that is becoming so common in otherwise ‘civilized countries’ (USA and Canada) profanes the name and cause of Christ.  White supremacists and those who met them in violent opposition in Virginia – each twisting their minds to a different religious rationale – have chosen judgement over love of any kind, and it is fear that throws them together.  We can’t imagine listening in love (or listening at all) because, out of fear, we must not let our minds be changed or our hearts be moved.    The way forward is hurtful and hateful if we forget who (and why) we have been called ‘out of the boat.’

God is at work here – standing in the waves in the person of Jesus – and God will not be fooled, nor will God be faithless.  In Christ, God dares us to imagine something else; something different – something impossible – a storm that cannot overwhelm us; a world that honours love, faith and hope, all three in equal measure.  By his presence in the streets of Charlottesville – speaking peace to those deafened by their fear.   By his presence in the carefully considered conversations around immigration and economics and the global balance of power, Jesus would put our fears to rest – not because the crisis is over, but because his presence, his life, death and resurrection, have changed the terms of engagement.  It means that something new must emerge from the chaos.  You can be sure Peter was never the same after his near drowning, and remember, even his failure did not keep Jesus from trusting Peter with the job of engaging his culture in faith.

So yes, the times are dangerous.  And yes, we are liable to lose our nerve, sinking beneath the waves of worry and fear.  And certainly It is easier to fear than it is to learn; it is easier to sink (then pray for help), than it is to learn to swim, And Jesus shakes his head, wondering why we would continue to doubt. because I think that  Jesus is offering us life, eternal and abundant; gifts for the future and the present.  What could be better in times such as these, with the water already up to our necks, than swimming lessons – on the arm of the one who walks on water!

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Not the way it ought to be…

January 15, 2017

Not the way it ought to be…we have said that often enough.  In the last 12 months, I have certainly said that often enough.  When things are sliding south – when troubles mount and anxiety and grief are overwhelming – it is natural to consider that life isn’t as it should be.  All of us believe (at some level) that there is a ‘master plan’, except that it has been abandoned in favour of chaos.

This may be what is behind John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus.

John has been acting as a herald – the one who proclaims that God’s ultimate messenger is just over the horizon.  John is the prophet of “big changes are coming”.  He sings his songs in the key of Isaiah, for the kingdom John proclaims is God’s kingdom of justice and peace and righteousness.  John describes “one who is coming” to set things right – a king unlike any king the world has ever known – and on very little evidence (at least it is so in Matthew’s gospel) John has decided that Jesus is THE ONE.

Everything we think we know about the relationship between Jesus and John comes from other sources.  Matthew’s gospel brings us first John, then Jesus praised (and baptized) by John.  Whatever their relationship, John has decided that the kingdom is upon them and that Jesus is the embodiment of that kingdom – God’s justice; God’s peace; God’s righteousness have come together (for John) in Jesus…and yet Jesus asks to be baptized by John…it defies logic!

Whatever John expected, this wasn’t it.  Why would God’s chosen one need repentance?  Why would the one who represented God’s righteous judgement – God’s merciful justice – why would such a one as Jesus submit to such a humbling act as Baptism?  For Baptism was (and remains) an act of great humility…

But here he is, and surely Jesus has been among the crowds long enough to know that Baptism demands repentance – signifies a turning from self and a turning (again) towards the things of God…and that is when we discover that Jesus Ito is familiar with Isaiah’s songbook.  “Let it be so now…for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness…”

Jesus – even Jesus – will humble himself in the sight of the Lord; for justice is not the concern of the proud; righteousness is not the territory of the powerful; real righteousness is the privilege and property of God.  God calls servants in righteousness – indeed, God’s call defines righteousness – and it is God’s righteousness that is satisfied by Jesus insistence on being baptized.  Jesus follows this path of humility and service for God’s sake, not for Jesus’ own agenda.

Jesus is not ‘proving’ his omnipotence – Jesus is not suggesting that he knows how the story will end so that John will provide the necessary plot line.  Jesus is acknowledging that no matter how he (or we) might interpret Scripture, or the events of our lives, there is always a power at work that outranks, out thinks and out lasts us all.

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This is our hope – when we declare with a sigh that “this is not the way it should be…”  Our hope is that “master plan” that lies hidden at the edge of our awareness actually has a Master; our hope is that the plans we make – plans that always seem to be frustrated by circumstances beyond our control – might somehow be rescued by divine intervention.  Even those who claim no; faith carry that hope within them – that is why there are lotteries in developed countries.  (no, I’m not suggesting that God is somehow at work in lottery wins…)

The point is we hope for help from beyond ourselves because we recognize that our plans are not always successful, and our abilities are not always sufficient to navigate the changeable circumstances of life on this planet.  And we find that hope in Jesus, because Jesus points to God in hope when he asks to be Baptized.  Jesus is seeking God’s will – not because he knows what it is, but because he trusts God to meet the needs of God’s faithful people.  Putting yourself in God’s hands, as Jesus does, is to admit that there is a power in creation that wants (ultimately) only good for us (and for all creation)

So things aren’t supposed to be like this.  Churches aren’t supposed to struggle – the Good News shouldn’t be so hard to share (or so hard to hear…) – those who follow Christ, who answer, in faith, the call of God, ought to find peace and comfort and joy in abundance…but reality is uncomfortably intrusive.  Churches are closing.  The faithful are struggling to find interest and enthusiasm for the message of the Gospel.

The ‘timeless promises of God’ seem to taunt our efforts to live into the peaceable kingdom declared by prophets and poets in Scripture.  And Jesus comes – at a time when chaos reigned and the Romans had their way with the world and says quietly to John “Let it be so now…”

Let the powerful make their noise; let it seem as though chaos will reign.  The peace that passes understanding is a whispered word in the furious storms that surround us, and whispers are often lost in the wind, but this Word made flesh will one day still the storm and hush the wind.  Jesus, who comes in humility and points to the rock-solid constancy of God, will demonstrate for us how to navigate the stormy waters of uncertainty.  Aware of the chaos, but never losing sight of the presence and purposes of God, Jesus  leads us through baptism – through death – and into the heart of God’s “master plan”.

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So Jesus is both prophet and the answer to prophecy.  He walks into his earthly ministry full of a desire for the things of God – never sure what they may look like – and invites us to follow his path; to walk with him on our own journey, that he might lead us to a life full of promise – full of hope – full of God; for that is how it ‘ought’ to be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen

Witness

November 13, 2016

“Not one stone will be left upon another…when you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified…nation will rise against nation…there will be dreadful portents…but before this, they will arrest (and ) persecute you.”

Odds are, these are the things that jump out at you when Luke 21: 5-19 was read a moment ago; nothing but the promise of destruction, disaster, hatred and betrayal – what a combination!  And it’s possible that they would have drawn your attention even if the past week hadn’t featured an American election which marked the conclusion of a campaign that made it easy to imagine that the end – of something – was  near.

The news services, and our various social networks (both the electronic and the flesh-and-blood kind) have not been shy about their assessment of recent events.  Liberals, conservatives and everything in between, have offered opinions and presumed motives and dared to prophesy; all with very little regard for fact.  “Now we’ll see some real change!’, says one.  “Not my President!” says another.  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that both voices are wrong.

What we always fail to hear when the voices of culture cry doom is the voice of Jesus – who reminds us (in Luke’s gospel this morning and elsewhere) that troubling times bring an abundance of voices, strong with certainty, designed to carry over the din of our desperation:  “the time is near! – I am HE!”

Remember what Jesus said about those voices?  “Beware that you are not led astray…Do not go after them.”

We can convince ourselves not to follow those who make outrageous claims; The ragged street-corner preachers, or the nay-sayer who writes ten letters a week to the local paper no longer get our sympathy.  We have grown discerning in the twenty-first century.  It takes information to sway us – THIS is the information age, after all.  We are now drawn to slick media campaigns; we are ‘engaged’ (and I use that term very carefully) by public ideas that invade private spaces in a way that Walter Cronkite could never have imagined.

Some would have us think that this is progress.  We can inject our opinions into any debate we choose, and we do.  It is easy to ‘play along’, because governments, businesses, even religious organizations have discovered that the evening news is not enough; they must establish a presence across a variety of social media platforms to ensure that their ’message’ is conveyed, considered and properly controlled.  And that message?  “the time is near!”  “the enemy is everywhere!”  “we have the solution!”

Sound familiar?

It can be unsettling when the lessons chosen for a particular Sunday resonate so strongly with current events – people of otherwise good sense loose their faithful minds when this happens.  Suggestions and theories about the nearness of the end of days are trotted out for consideration.  But times like this can be instructive, if we would remember something very important: although Jesus has something to say to us, his message is not exclusive to the state of affairs in November 2016.

These moments of situational harmony (fairly frequent occurrences, if I’m honest) between ancient Scripture and modern life are signals to us that human social problems are unaffected by the passage of time – we are inclined to make the same mistakes, over and over again.  And from the perspective of those who would follow Jesus, those mistakes quite often have large social and political consequences.  And from across the ages, Jesus’ message is the same; “Don’t fall for the trap!”  “Don’t be led astray!”

That is all well and good, Jesus, but what we really want is a strategy for response to those voices of doom – those smooth-talking sources of our anxiety.  What should we DO?  How do we respond?

The answer is not what we expect.  Jesus claims that times like these – times of upheaval and uncertainty – will provide a chance for the faithful to testify to the sovereignty of God, but…don’t think about what you will say.  Don’t prepare in advance.  What kind of advice is this?  We are inundated with information; we have our opinions; surely a carefully crafted response – an impassioned speech, or a well written article – is just what is required here…

“Don’t play the game”, is what Jesus seems to be saying.  Not “preparing words” is not the same as not being prepared.  Jesus has been preparing his disciples from the beginning of their time together, not to excel in the debate, but to live according to the principles of God’s reign.  Jesus has instructed us in compassion, humility, justice and grace, and often enough, those things require our presence.  Words are what got us in to this mess.

Words that categorize and divide and injure or insult.  And when there are so many words that none can be properly heard, Jesus calls us to be present.  To stand before the barrage of words, ideas, and policies; to stand with those most affected by these frightening situations, and simply witness to the glory of God that is found in the weak and the weary – the outcast and oppressed.  “You will be hated by all because of my name”, Jesus says, but you will not be harmed; “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

This goes against the grain, doesn’t it…but it is the same strategy that Jesus will use when faced with the power of a state whose policies made prisoners of citizens – whose power was widely acknowledged – whose leaders acknowledged no rivals for their adoration.  Jesus’ witness to the power of God, the reign of God and his love for the people of God, attracted the wrath of all manner of earthly powers.  The death sentence pronounced by those whose voices seemed loudest was not the final word.  The noise of the crowds is silenced, every time, by the quiet power of the love of God; whose love promises life, abundant and eternal, in every generation.

The disciples heard the voices of doom and wanted to know; “when will this happen, Jesus?” –  but they were asking the wrong question.  It has happened – is happening – will happen.  Such is the human condition.  And in every generation – to every situation, Jesus offers the same advice;  Stand firm – be patient in faith – and do not be afraid.  God’s love will not – has not – cannot fail.

The voice

January 10, 2015

In this morning’s lessons, it’s all about the voice. You know what I mean – you’ve each had a moment when, while you read or listened to Scripture being read; or while you pray; or as the credits roll on your annual viewing of “The Ten Commandments” you’ve said to yourselves, “I wonder if that’s what God really sounds like?” We may always struggle with what we learn, and what we think we know about our faith – but it boils down to the voice of God; how can I hear it? Why don’t I hear it? What should God sound like? and more importantly, what if I’ve missed it, somehow…?
The lessons set for this day seem to suggest that God’s voice would be difficult to miss…or to mistake for anything (or anyone) else. Genesis offers a glimpse into the power of God’s voice; things happen; the earth – all creation responds to the call of God; “Light”, God says, and there is light. Order, life, the seasonal mechanics and the whole of the biological catalogue; all it takes is a word from God. Genesis does not offer us definitive proof of the origins of the Universe. This book of beginnings presents (with real conviction) the character of God. We are introduced to an active, creative, intentional God, whose impulse is to know and be known by all creation. Genesis teaches us to yearn for the voice of God.
The Psalmist learned this lesson well. Look at the ‘evidence’ of God’s involvement, says Psalm 29 – look at the power in this mysterious, heavenly voice; our only response is to “Cry Glory!” and expect that our devotion might somehow grant us access to this heavenly gift of power. For all that this psalm sounds like a description of an ancient storm – full of destruction and the potential for disaster, the Psalmist leaves no doubt (in the end) that this is a display of God’s will; there is a precision and a sense of deliberate control. The voice “over the waters” reminds us that creation came from chaos too, and God is the master of all of it…
It is a different kind of chaos on the bank of the river Jordan that Mark’s gospel describes. A strangely serious man named John – fresh from the ‘wilderness’ – is welcoming one and all to confess their sins and be baptized. There is an aura of power surrounding John, for all he is dressed like a first century hippy. Mark describes him as a back to nature, locust-eating stranger who speaks of repentance and the coming Holy Spirit. There are crowds of curious people, and then all at once, there is Jesus. This is not like any Baptism we have ever experienced; there is confrontation, and perhaps some confusion – John has been hinting at the arrival of someone special; could this be him? – and then, something happens that (for Mark) marks this as a clear sign that God is, once again, at work.
Just as Jesus comes up out of the water (by now we cannot fail to make the connection…) the fabric of creation is ‘torn open’, a dove-like apparition descends on him…and that voice. It is the voice of God that ‘settles the issue’ for Mark, as he conveys the scene, and for us. A voice from heaven assures us that this is legitimate; that this otherwise strange scene just might have some lasting importance in Jesus’ life, and in the unfolding drama of our collective lives. This is an echo of that same, creative thunder that declared all things “good” in the beginning. This moment imparts a different kind of authority to all that Jesus does. and once again, we are drawn to the voice of God.
God’s voice – audible and alarming – doesn’t feature in our thinking. We speak metaphorically, or of ‘the still, small voice’ of conscience or nagging doubt. But we cling to the belief that God calls the faithful. We are called to worship; called to serve; called to share in the gritty glory of discovering and revealing God’s promises. A kingdom is coming; repentance and forgiveness are the founding principles; love and grace the currency. And it is the voice of God that draws us into this project. Not a thundering, terrifying noise from above that leaves everyone trembling – and not always a gently personalized whisper either – no it is the same voice, modulated, transposed, and transmitted by the witness of Scripture and the revelation of Jesus.
The significance of ‘the voice’ at the moment of Jesus baptism is to focus our attention on this new and different form of revelation. God-with-us, the prophet said; hard to imagine, and harder to ignore. In this promise is the hope that, even in a week filled with death and destruction, God speaks comfort, consolation and once again wills grace into the man made chaos that was the city of Paris. We may have found a different explanation for the awesome forces of nature that play themselves out in all seasons, but we can still be overwhelmed by God’s commanding counsel – in the inexplicable sense of comfort that comes when we pray or mourn or work together for good; or in the urgency that draws us together to defend justice, or dispense mercy; in the peace that comes when grace is offered to us.
The ‘voice’ made flesh draws our attention even now, inviting us to the communion table; inviting us to discover grace and do mercy and walk humbly with the one who commanded order, light and life out of chaos. Let us continue to tune our ears to God’s invitation, and may we give thanks to God for that voice that calls us from chaos to something better.

Plus ca change…(Pentecost, 2014)

June 8, 2014

Pentecost Sunday: Everything has changed.

One week ago I was in Waterloo, Ontario, attending the 140th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The weather was beautiful, the company was encouraging, the discussions were engaging, and all seemed right with the world; but all was not well. I had already been told of two tragedies at home – I knew even then that things would never again be just as they were when I left for Ontario. On our return, we were met with the news of more job losses in the county, and the horrifying events in Moncton that resulted in the death of three RCMP officers – Everything had changed.

Now, the conversations around the tragedy in Moncton got me thinking; the language of radical change is in everyone’s speech. We are led to believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg; that measures must be taken; that all this is a sign of our decline as a civilized nation. And I find that I cannot agree.

Our access to events of this nature is easier; we are ‘tuned in’, through our computers and cell phones, to the instant and constant flow of information from the scene. Murder and the resulting machinery of justice have become spectator sports. That has certainly changed. Seventy years ago (today) when the largest battle group ever assembled began an assault on the beaches of the Norman coast, our access to information was restricted by both necessity and the lack of invention. We were not eye-witnesses to the D-day invasion; the general public became experts only after the fact, and our sense of fear or our notions of change were (are) influenced by carefully crafted descriptions of courage and carnage. Such purposefully moderated reports changed the way an entire generation viewed war, duty, sacrifice and honour. We have learned much since then, and not all to our credit.

Change is an unavoidable consequence of the beating of hearts and the drawing of breath. And catastrophic change is a regularly recurring feature of the human experience. What changes most, however, is our response to such violent and heart-rending episodes of change. The changes wrought by war continue to affect politics and economic realities in every corner of the globe. In some places, the battle continues unabated, the reasons renewed by successive generations of combatants. There is no beginning, and seemingly no end to the manner and methods of our distress, but the Christian church has encountered, in every generation of her existence, a radical response to such things.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” so begins the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles – a book which describes the reaction of the (mostly) faithful friends of Jesus to a series of horrific and life-altering events. Things had gone from bad to unbearable with Jesus arrest and execution. Then, an empty tomb, and the appearance of Jesus alive and among them. And fifty days later, the unkindest cut – Jesus is once again taken from them; in glory and light, this time, but taken, nonetheless. And on the day of Pentecost, the festival of celebration of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, there comes a rushing wind, and something like fire from heaven, and the Spirit of God speaks comfort and hope into the situation – and not for the last time, everything is changed.

This spirit still speaks, if we would hear it. It blows into our lives, past the wreckage and the clutter, and draws our attention to the truth in our situation. The Spirit of God is not deterred by tragedy or misery – in fact, it brings new light into such dark places as we have visited in recent days. Pentecost, as described in Acts was not a once and only thing, but a reminder that as long as God’s people face challenge and fear, the Spirit will rattle the doors and shake the foundations and bring our attention to the activity of God in those moments of uncertainty.

The Spirit moves even now to change our focus, to alert us to alternatives. It comes, not in tongues of fire but in that imperceptible nudge that suggests a new path, or that brave idea that you can’t keep to yourself. The spirit was present at the Assembly in the noisy debate and the quiet times of reflection and reconnection among the commissioners. And most important, the Spirit presides over this changing church, here in this changeable world.

Following their encounter with this holy wind, The friends of Jesus could do nothing but praise – they could see nothing but promise. Their situation was no different than it had been the day before, but their eyes had been opened to the power of God – their perspective changed – their behaviour changed.

So our situation seems grim – the world is going to hell in a hand-cart; changes beyond our control are threatening all that we hold dear – yet this is familiar ground for God’s people. We who wait longingly for signs of grace, and are called to live as citizens of the peaceable kingdom should, by now, recognize this pattern. For it is into this pattern of chaos and hopelessness that God’s Spirit is speaking comfort and hope. We know what to look for; we know the power of this gift from God – and not for the first time, we will see everything changed. Thanks be to God! Amen.