Posts Tagged ‘history’


September 11, 2016

Loss is a constant feature of life on this planet – or so it seems.  We lose battles and games; we lose stuff, we lose our way.  We talk of lost love, lost innocence, lost enthusiasm and lost purpose.  We fear the loss of life and lost relationships, and religion has been vital to us (as humans – over history) in our efforts to make sense of it all.

Ancient Hebrew stories of redemption – liberation from bondage in Egypt, or restoration from exile in Persia – these are ‘lost and found’ stories on a large scale.  John Newton, author of the words to ‘amazing Grace’, personalizes the lost and found motif from a Christian perspective, and that is how we think of our faith journey most often; as a personal revelation of our ‘lost-ness’ blossoming into being ‘found’ in Christ – a powerful metaphor for salvation.  Good news, to be sure  – but what if there’s more to be learned?

Jesus makes it personal with these two short parables in Luke 15.  We know what it is to lose something of value – the ache of losing can be replaced by the joy of finding – but when Jesus offers his theological tagline: “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents…” – he takes this parable into new territory for us.  If Jesus is talking to the “found”, then the parable isn’t personal any longer; he has stopped talking about us.  We are instead being asked to consider those who are outside the fold, who are (it seems) equally precious in God’s eyes.

And so, this parable is a useful model for mission; and ‘seek the lost’ becomes “the world for Christ” and the word is taught and preached in all corners of the globe, in cities and towns and villages with great faithfulness and that is the way it should be.  But loss continues to be a feature of life on this planet – our religious fervour notwithstanding – and I wonder what this metaphor says to those who lose but never find.

Because that happens doesn’t it.  Each of us knows someone who has lost a spouse, or parent or friend as a result of their death.  Many of us have  experience with those whose sense of self seems to be slipping away because of dementia.  In tough economic times, many face the loss of work, which results in lost confidence – and there are days when the restoration of those things seems so far into the future that we can only despair; we know those, and sometimes we are those, who know only loss.

Where is the good news for us in this metaphor?

Being urged to persistence in the search is no help.  Neither is being invited to the party when someone else has been successful – these only underline our sense of having failed.  And when our losses cannot be recovered -when death or degenerative diseases are the cause – there’s nothing to search for but memories, and they are hard to find and harder still to hold.

Today’s memorial moments are the exception, I suppose – but the events of 11 September, 2001 serve to prove my point.  In addition to the loss of life, North Americans lost a sense of privilege that day.  We had been blessedly insulated from such large scale acts of barbarism – acts of war usually involved the people and property in Europe, Africa and Asia – we were actors on someone else’s stage.  And since that day, fifteen years ago, the powers that be have claimed to be searching for something – revenge; security; a return to ‘what was’ – and it simply can’t be found.  So I ask again; where is the good news?

Jesus theological reflection – repeated for emphasis – holds the clue.  Yes, he speaks of joy in the repentance of one who is lost, but consider what that says about the attitude of God.  Because we count ourselves among the ‘found’ – because we call on the name of God, and make much of God who is in our midst as we worship and work – we are inclined to forget that God is not ‘one-dimensional’  God may be gathered with us as we celebrate our redemption, but God also waits with those who are waiting for a word of hope.   The good news for all who wander lost, is that they do not wander alone; the good news for all who suffer loss, is that we never search alone. We need not endure the pain of loss alone, for if God stands ready to rejoice in the finding, surely that means God has been present in the searching.  Yes, there is redemption in finding and being found; yes, there is joy in repentance and recovery of that which is precious.  But what I am learning – and what Jesus words here suggest – is that the act of losing; the struggle to make sense of death, disease or the stunning state of world affairs – all these things can be redeemed when we recognize that God is with us; anxious for us – sharing our tears – bringing an unquenchable light into the darkest corners of our lives.  That light doesn’t right all the wrongs, nor can it turn back the clock on our pain, but it serves as a reminder.

For God too has suffered loss.  The work once described as ‘very good’ has taken innumerable twists and turns – and the purpose of faith – the mission of the church -what one writer (Marcus Borg) calls “the dream of God” – is the redemption of all that is lost.  And that dream of God has come to us in Jesus, who was a friend to those who were lost – people who had no hope, no influence, no dream of their own – and to those (and to us) he offers a chance to find something new.  New life; fresh hope; a glimmer of light – a memory redeemed.  Thanks be to God, this is what the gospel of Christ offers, not just to those who find, but to all who search.


That old-time religion…

February 14, 2016

Deuteronomy is an account of the end of the wandering by the Hebrew people, and the beginning of a new challenge; how to live as people of the promise in the land that embodies the promise?  Moses has helped Israel to the borders of the promised land; it is up to Joshua to take the lead once the boarders have been crossed.  And through this memorial document that we call the book of Deuteronomy, the people are reminded of the most ancient of promises – God’s promise to provide, to deliver, to respond to the distress of God’s people.

The so called ‘books of Moses’ – Genesis to Deuteronomy – represent the selective history of a very specific people.  These are not first=person accounts – they are written generations – even centuries after the fact.  Most of our Scripture comes to us in this manner, emerging from the constant sharing of the memories of the community.   Their stories are recorded – the rituals formalized and they are used to encourage and empower a nation on the verge of something new and terrifying.  The Hebrew Scripture develops as the people ‘come in to their own’ – they become a nation; a force to be reckoned with in the ancient near east.  And throughout the Scriptural story, every time they forget their heritage, or grow arrogant, or fall prey to more powerful neighbours, they are called to remember that they are still strangers in a strange land.  “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”

Memory is a vital part of a life of faith.  And the many layers of these memories make up what we call ‘religion’, which is a word that describes the systematic articulation of spirituality.  Lately, religion has become something of  a dirty word.   More accurately “organized religion” has become code for “something to be avoided”, the same way we might avoid ‘organized crime’.  Religion has become associated with the structures (both beautiful and corrupt), and with the people (both faithful and fallible) and in the analysis, people have decided religion has no redeeming qualities.  Interest in things spiritual, however, is at an all time high.  As a religious person (as well as a religious official) this is very frustrating for me.  To be sure, when a religion abandons its spiritual foundations, it ceases to be useful to society. But a spirituality without ‘religious parameters’ – that is, a dis-organized (chaotic) spirituality – is an equally purposeless endeavour.

The ancient Hebrew memories became ritual; festivals to mark important moments in the history of their becoming a nation and in their relationship with God; Scripture to stand as a lasting testament to their discovery of faith.  Their religious identity develops as an expression of their experience with God’s guiding presence – religion and Spirituality are indistinguishable; civic leaders have religious function; religious festivals and activities are an integral part of the social fabric.

The Old Testament is an incomplete summary of the development of the religion of the Hebrew people.  Within that religion, differences of opinion and interpretation develop. There will be those who follow the rules for the sake of convenience, and still others who will seek a deeper connection with God by taking a mystical approach.  But the basic structures of religious life are common to the earliest days of the Kingdom of Israel and to the people living under Roman rule in Jesus’ day.

The power of The Spirit was not unknown – it is the Spirit’s voice that speaks at Jesus’ baptism; it is the the Spirit that leads Jesus to the wilderness – towards temptation.  But it is religion that guides Jesus through his interview with the Tempter.  What Luke describes is a competition between religious structures; the devil offers one scenario, Jesus counters with fundamental Jewish religious truth.  These expressions of Jewish Spirituality, quoted by Jesus chapter and verse from Hebrew Scripture are available to Jesus because his religion preserved them, embodied them and taught them to the community generation after generation.  This continues to be the task of religion.

Jesus didn’t call on the power of ‘religious authorities’ during his crisis of temptation – he offered the truth about God that his religion taught him.  He has been led to this “by the Holy Spirit” – a leading he trusts because of that same truth.  The temptations are meant to exploit weakness: physical hunger, the hunger for achievement.  When Jesus answers those first temptations with his religious convictions, the devil makes an appeal to Jesus’ pride: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…”  Put your money where your mouth is, in other words – but Jesus isn’t fooled.  The truth taught by his religion is that even the power of God abides by the rules of creation.

People who appeal to the ‘power of spirituality’ (even Christian spirituality) have been tempted by the idea that religious rules somehow limit the power of the Spirit – but nothing could be further from the truth.  Religion is what helps us understand the framework in which the Spirit of God works – an imperfect understanding, of course, and always open to re-evaluation according to our Reformed heritage – but there it is; the Spirit of God is a Spirit of order, not chaos, and the Christian religion (at it’s best) affirms that order and teaches us to recognize the work of the Spirit when we see it.

Can ‘religion’ save you?  No, but it can point you to the saving power of God.  Are ‘religious people’ somehow superior to those without religion?  No, but religion can (indeed it certainly should) affect the way you live your life – for better or (occasionally) for worse.  Christian religion has the power to change lives because it expresses the power of the spirit of God; the Spirit of order and peace; of love and life.  Thanks be to God the power of that Spirit meets us and guides us in the person of Jesus, whose trust in God changed forever the way we express our religious convictions.

“Who’s your people?”

November 24, 2013

When you want to convince someone in Pictou County

that you have authority, or that you mean business,

the simplest way is to tell them who you’re from.

Even if you come from away,

the story of your family history may include a Nova Scotia connection,

and that may earn you some credit.

The question “who’s your people?” is more than just idle curiosity;

it is an important step in gaining (and giving)

trust and credibility to the rest of your story.

In terms of the story of God’s people,

the gospels carry out a similar function.

In these accounts – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John –

we are told of a turning point in the relationship between God and humanity.

In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,

we encounter a power at work like no other;

the power of God’s love for creation – a love that overcomes even treachery and death.

An amazing and riveting story, one that gives us our identity as God’s people –

the body of Christ – in the twenty-first century.

So to tell that story, the authors of the gospels need to give their audience context –

some reason to read further; some reason to trust the authenticity of the tale.

Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the four, opens with Jesus fully formed –

baptized by John, and entering into his vocation as a travelling teacher,

and teller of difficult truths.

John’s gospel, the last one written,

begins with a hymn to Jesus’ transcendence – a beautiful and moving piece of poetry,

but here again we meet Jesus in adulthood, ready to do battle, as it were.

Only in Matthew and Luke

do we find what Paul Harvey would describe as “the rest of the story…”

We have come to treasure the story of Jesus birth.

We have developed rituals and traditions around Christmas

that are unrivalled by our rather subdued recognition

of the real miracle of Jesus Resurrection.

And we owe the gospels of Matthew and Luke

a debt of reluctant thanks for some of those rituals and traditions.


Both gospels were trying to tell the good news to a new people.

Each hoped to convince their wider audience of the new Christian community’s claim

that Jesus’ message was an offer open to “all nations” –

it was going to be a tough sell, so both Matthew and Luke opted for a similar approach;

they would start at “the beginning”;

they would tie Jesus firmly to the centuries old story of redemption as told by his ancestors.

So Jesus is born a Jew, but not just any Jew;

a particularly well connected member of the Jewish community.

Descended from Kings and Prophets; part of the story that was already being told –

a story of prevailing and promises kept.


That the lists of names are wildly different, seems not to matter.

Oh, it would mater to us,

because who you are is only understood once we know who you came from,

but it doesn’t matter in the same way

to those of us who claim the Scriptures as a source of truth.

These names serve a different purpose –

they tie different communities to the same promises –

and they help us find our place in God’s family too.


The particular names don’t matter –

Luke and Matthew don’t even agree on the simplest, most accessible details –

(who was Joseph’s father ?)

No, what matters is that each of these names would have told a particular part of the story.

Each name connects one more family, one more community, one more generation,

to the story that the gospel writers actually want to tell –

the story of Jesus path to the cross,

and of God’s glorious act of grace that is his resurrection.

Soon, we will begin again at the beginning.

We have asked the question – and Matthew and Luke have tried to tell us

how this child fits the puzzle that is the history of redemption at the hands of God

In time, we will stand in silent wonder at the cradle of this new born king

And we will find ourselves part of the history of Salvation.

Know that this is our story – these are our people –

and it is God who stands at the centre of this story of grace and hope.

Thanks be to God.  Amen