Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hello, past... Goodbye, past...

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Image from @Sign_Craft
We talk about the kingdom of God as having come (Jesus declared as much), as being present, and as still to come. In the first chapter of Revelation, the Almighty One describes himself as "who is, who was, and who is to come." So closely is the kingdom of heaven related to the king of glory that when you see one, you see the other. Both king and kingdom encompass the realms of past, present, and future. If our theology emphasizes one of these aspects to the neglect of the others, we end up with some pretty lopsided doctrines such as cessationism, over-realized eschatology, or gospel escapism. I won't take time to unpack any of these (perhaps in a future blog) because my point here is that our personal spirituality, like our theology, can get a bit off-kilter if we do not invite God and God's kingdom into our past, our present, and our future.

In the context of living in the kingdom, our past refers to that which we cannot change. It is our story, how we got where we are, and what makes us the person we are today. Our present has to do with what we spend our time and resources on, what we intentionally or accidentally practice as a rule of life, our vocation. Our future deals with those things we invest in, the seeds we plant (hoping they will grow into something big and beautiful), the legacy we want to leave for generations to come.

We can see the kingdom of God touching all three realms when we take a look at the story of Zacchaeus found in Luke 19. Zacchaeus was born a Jew, a descendant of Abraham. He was also born into a time when they were under Roman rule and there were limited options for someone of Jewish descent to make a good living. Zacchaeus found a job collecting taxes for the Romans, work which alienated him from his fellow Jews. He did very well as a tax collector, adopting corrupt practices in order to become a rich man. When Zacchaeus heard about Jesus, he was curious about him. Perhaps Zacchaeus was discontent with the way his life had turned out, perhaps he desired something more. It certainly seems that Zacchaeus was ready for a change, for after his encounter with Jesus, he embarked on a new course. He pledged to give half of his money to the poor and to make things right with those he had cheated. Jesus spoke these words to those gathered in the tax collector's house: "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham." Jesus declared Zacchaeus's redemption by affirming his heritage. No longer was he to be labeled a traitor, but acknowledged as a true son of Abraham. Zacchaeus's past (Jewish heritage) was reanimated, his present (vocation) was reworked, and his future (what he invested in the community) was altered. This is what happens when one comes in contact with the kingdom of God.

On a recent walk through downtown Montreal, I noticed two large banners displayed on the side of a building. One read "Canada 150" and the other said, "Building on our past for tomorrow." The juxtaposition struck me as a bit odd. Celebrating Canada's heritage (150 years since confederation) is a bit complicated because our nation's history includes oppression of the First Nations people and mistreatment of those who were not European settlers. Given that ignoble background, it seems a bit naive to talk about building on the past for (a hopefully bright) tomorrow. We need to honestly address the past (as Zacchaeus did) in order to have any hope of building a better future. Otherwise, we will find ourselves repeating harmful and destructive patterns.

When we invite God into our personal past, we seek to do two things: 1) embrace his providence in birthing us into a particular family and a particular time and place in history and 2)  break free from those unhealthy ways of thinking and acting which were handed down to us. Our origins grant us certain opportunities and gifts, but they also carry with them some unhelpful and harmful baggage. Living in the kingdom of God means that we recognize and give thanks for the blessings and gifts bestowed on us from our past. It also means that we need to repair any faulty familial foundations and jettison any baggage which keeps us from fully and freely loving God and others (forgive the mixed metaphor).

If we look at the life of Joseph, the great grandson of Abraham, we can see both of these dynamics in action. Joseph was born into a generational covenant with God; his was a wealthy family poised to become a great nation. However, the family tree also featured generations of strained relationships, jealousy, deceit, and unhealthy competition. [1] By the time Joseph came along, the family conflicts were so out of control that his own brothers conspired to kill him. Thankfully, one of the brothers appealed to mercy, and Joseph was sold into slavery instead. When he arrived in Egypt, Joseph endured many years of trials and temptations, developing into a faithful and patient man (reminiscent of his great grandfather, Abraham). He eventually rose to become a high-ranking official in Egypt and successfully navigated the people through a period of famine (the descendants of Abraham were to be a blessing to other nations). When Joseph was reunited with his brothers many years later, he chose to offer forgiveness and act generously instead of perpetuating conflict and competition (he chose a different way forward). Joseph embraced the blessings of his heritage, but he also refused to propagate the jealousy and deceit which were part of the family dynamics.

One of the chapters in Peter Scazzero's book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, is entitled "Going Back in Order to Go Forward." In it, he lists what he calls "The Ten Commandments of Your Family." These are ten areas in which we learn attitudes and behaviours from our family context. Because we were exposed to them from an early age, these patterns of thinking and acting become imprinted on us. Some might be good and loving ways of acting in the world, but others are probably not so healthy. In order to participate fully in the kingdom of God as followers of Jesus, we must invite the Spirit of God into our past so that inadequate and harmful ways of thinking and acting can be transformed. If we fail to invite God into our past, we end up building our lives on a false foundation. We also limit our ability to bring healing and wholeness to the world when we ourselves are not being healed and made whole.

Below are the ten areas along with some examples of blessings and baggage in each. I suggest that you take some time to prayerfully invite the Spirit to highlight where there are blessings to celebrate and where there is some baggage to jettison. Let us be people who graciously pass on the blessings we have received from our past and, by the grace and work of the Spirit, willingly discard any destructive patterns we have inherited.

1. Money: What was modeled for you? Good stewardship, generosity, resourcefulness, gratitude, simplicity? Love of money, stinginess, sense of poverty, hoarding, frivolous spending?
2. Conflict: How did your family address conflict? Loving and honest dialogue? With directness and patience? Were family members passive aggressive, volatile, or silent? Was conflict constant and expected?
3. Sex: Was sex spoken about openly, were healthy attitudes and boundaries encouraged around intimacy? Were there different standards for men and women, instances of promiscuity? Was sex a taboo subject?
4. Grief and Loss: Did your family process grief well, giving space for sadness and letting go? Was grief internalized and stuffed down? Were stoicism and practicality seen as strengths and sadness and depression seen as weaknesses?
5. Expressing Anger: Was anger given a safe outlet? Was it seen an as appropriate response to injustice? Was it avoided at all cost? Was it explosive and dangerous? Was sarcasm an acceptable way to release anger?
6. Family: Was your family close or estranged? Was loyalty expected no matter what? Were there dynamics of competition, jealousy? Was your family a source of support? Were you expected to pay a debt to your parents for all they did for you? What did/does your family expect from you?
7. Relationships: Were trust and vulnerability modeled for you? Was betrayal present in your family? What type of friendships were modeled for you? Did you learn how to be there for others? How to ask for help?
8. Attitudes Towards Different Cultures: Did your family embrace outsiders? Were they willing to learn from those who were different? Was your family wary of outsiders? Did they have an attitude of superiority? Was marriage between races and cultures looked down on?
9. Success: How was success defined in your family? Were there high expectations, perfectionism? Was there an attitude of defeatism?
10. Feelings and Emotions: Was your family okay with the full spectrum of emotions? Were some emotions not allowed? Were feelings not valued? Was reactionary behaviour common? Did emotions cause conflicts and breaks in relationships?

The Lord and the Spirit are one and the same, and the Lord’s Spirit sets us free. So our faces are not covered. They show the bright glory of the Lord, as the Lord’s Spirit makes us more and more like our glorious Lord.
(2 Corinthians 3:17-18, Contemporary English Version)

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[1] I am expanding on ideas found in Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).



Thursday, July 20, 2017

the in and out of giving thanks

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My office earlier this week
The giving of thanks before a meal is a common Christian tradition. It is a way of acknowledging that God is the Provider. Though the farmer may till the ground and plant the seeds, he cannot make anything grow. A baker can mix the yeast in the bread, but she cannot make it rise. We can be prone to believe that we are masters of our own destiny, but this is a delusion. The giving of thanks to the Creator and Sustainer of our lives (especially before partaking of a meal) is one way to remind ourselves that, in the grand scheme of things, we are humble recipients of grace. We rely on the earth, the crops, the trees, the birds, the bees, the animals, the rain, the sun, the wind, and much, much more in order to be able to enjoy nourishment every day. Even Jesus, Creator incarnate, gave thanks before he broke bread and enjoyed a meal with others.

There is another practice which I have adopted in my life, and that is saying a heartfelt "Thank you, God" every time I go to the bathroom. For any of you who have had digestive issues, you know that bodily elimination is not something to take for granted. A good appetite and regular trips to the bathroom to expel toxins and roughage are two of the main indicators of good health. In the Jewish tradition, we find a prayer called the Asher Yatzar which one prays after going to the bathroom. "Blessed are You, God, our God, sovereign of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious in the presence of your glorious throne that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence. Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and performs wonders." [1]

Just as the act of breathing is two-fold (we inhale oxygen and we exhale carbon dioxide), the nourishment of the body includes both ingesting food and eliminating elements which are not helpful to the body. Giving thanks for a meal which smells delicious is easy. Giving thanks for waste which gives off a foul odour is less intuitive. We like to ingest, to imbibe, to gorge ourselves, to partake of the good things in life, but how often are we mindful that we must daily excrete, expel, evacuate, and eliminate if we want to remain in good health? Accumulation in the intestines is a sign that something has gone wrong physically. Accumulation in life (such as hoarding) is a sign that something has gone wrong on an emotional, social, mental, or spiritual level.

I am in the process of purging my office after 7 years of graduate school. Needless to say, I collected quite a lot of books, papers, files, and office supplies during that time. I started the week off with some excitement, re-imagining a streamlined and tidy work-space, but after three days of upheaval, tripping over piles of papers and books with seemingly no end in sight, I became somewhat disheartened. I temporarily abandoned the project and read a fiction book, which was probably for the best. Today, I am happy to report that there is only one more drawer to sort through. I realize now that had I done a small purge and reorganization every summer, things would have been much easier, but due to a heavy workload and limited energy, I fell into the habit of accumulating and neglecting instead of eliminating.

We can do the same thing in our emotional, social, and spiritual lives. We tend to spend most of our time focusing on good, positive input and hardly any time on letting unhelpful things go. We are heavy on taking in information and light on confession, repentance, weeping, grieving, righteous anger, loving confrontation, and forgiveness. In our society, it is more acceptable for a person to be an overstuffed consumer (I am rich and wealthy and need nothing) than for someone to have an honest breakdown, leaking out anxiety, anger, and doubt. But in order for us to exist with at least a modicum of health and have any hope of maturity and sustainability, we must orient our lives around the rhythm of ingesting, digesting, and eliminating.  

Going through my papers and books and notes and files has meant making many hundreds of decisions about what will be useful for me moving forward, what can be put in storage, what can be recycled, and what needs to be tossed in the garbage (our bodies do this with every morsel of nourishment we put into our mouths - what a wonder!). It is difficult but necessary work. It requires discipline, discernment, consistency, and a lot of letting go. This week especially, trips to the bathroom have become a spiritual discipline of sorts, helping to reinforce necessary rhythms of elimination in my life.

"Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness. I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself." (Philippians 3:8-10, The Message)

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[1] http://www.jewishpathways.com/files/asher-yatzar.pdf

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

encounters with Jesus

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Image from newtestamentperspectives.blogspot.ca

At the heart of the Christian faith is encounter with Jesus. This is what we hope for in our communal gatherings, in our personal times of devotion, and in our day to day lives. But what exactly does an encounter with Jesus look like? Well, it looks different for different people. Let's take a look at two of these encounters found in the gospel of John. The first story involves Nicodemus, a learned and respected religious scholar in the Jewish community (John 3:1-21). The second story concerns a Samaritan woman who has three strikes against her: being a woman in a patriarchal society, being a Samaritan of mixed blood and religious heritage, and having a history of numerous failed relationships (John 4:5-29). The first story features a religious insider, the second a social outcast. In the first story, Nicodemus is the one who seeks Jesus out. In the second, Jesus initiates the encounter. Nicodemus comes at night, not wanting to risk exposure or ridicule. Jesus approaches the woman in broad daylight in a public place.

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Image from pastorlee.org

Despite the many differences between the two stories and the two people, there is at least one thing they share: encountering the Son of Man profoundly changes their lives. I encourage you to read both stories and make your own observations about how Jesus interacts with each person according to their context. Here are some of my thoughts on the two accounts, framed in the form of a few questions.

1. What did they want?
Nicodemus wanted to know God. He had devoted his entire life to the pursuit of God, and he recognized something familiar in Jesus. He wanted to know not only how Jesus was connected to God, but if Jesus could show him how to have a deeper connection to YHWH.
The Samaritan woman wanted to be loved and accepted. That a Jewish man would approach her in broad daylight and ask her for a drink of water was extraordinary. Jews did not associate with the impure Samaritans and men did not speak freely with women in public. For Jesus to treat her like a human being instead of a dirty dog was shocking. He asked her for a drink of water, never showing disdain for her heritage or fear of contamination. When he revealed her history of failed marriages, he was not merely uncovering her shame, but acknowledging the pain of rejection she had suffered. In that time and culture, a woman had no means of income or support without a husband. She also had no power to end a marriage; only the man could do that. Basically, she had been rejected and left destitute five times, and Jesus's words let her know that he saw what she had been through.

2. What did Jesus offer?
To Nicodemus, Jesus offered a new way of looking at relationship with God. Being born again made no sense to Nicodemus (at first), but Jesus invited him to change his thinking about how one encounters God.
To the Samaritan woman, Jesus offered acceptance and respect (by taking her seriously), but he also invited her to ask for something greater. She was concerned with everyday needs and concerns, but Jesus asked her to consider the deepest desires of her heart. He saw her, and in turn, invited her to see him for who he was: the Messiah.

3. What did Jesus call them to?
Jesus called Nicodemus to be transformed by the spirit, to be born again, to enter into a living relationship with God through the Spirit of Jesus.
Jesus called the Samaritan woman to look beyond the externals and embrace the spirit and truth of the Anointed One: himself. This meant she no longer had to be concerned with the rules and regulations of religion (those things which divided the Jews from the Samaritans), nor did she have to seek acceptance from men or from society (so much failure and pain for her in both arenas). Jesus offered her direct access to the lover of her soul when he said, "I am the One you have been looking for" (John 4:26).

4. What did they do?
Nicodemus's transformation was not instant, but from what we read of him later, it seems that he did embrace the new birth Jesus spoke about. When his fellow religious leaders wanted to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up, reminding them that the law requires that a person cannot be condemned before they have been given a chance to speak (John 7:50-51). After Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus provided costly burial spices and assisted in the burial rites, showing his love and devotion for the one his colleagues condemned as a despised rebel (John 19:39-42).
The transformation of the woman at the well was more immediate. She was so impacted by her encounter with Jesus that she left her water pot and went to tell people about this man who knew her deepest desires. Due to the excitement and insistence of the Samaritan woman, people came to see and hear Jesus, and at the invitation of the villagers, he stayed there two more days. The village of Sychar was transformed.

Sometimes we assume that an encounter with Jesus happens in a certain way. When we look at multiple stories of Jesus interacting with people, we see that he reveals himself (and the heart of the person) in diverse ways. When we encounter Jesus, we should not expect these encounters to always look the same, even in our prayers or every day devotions. Knowing God is not a system, but a living relationship. So, what can we learn from reading these two encounters together? Here are a few ideas. Feel free to add your own.
1. Seek Jesus out. He promises that those who seek will find.
2. Let Jesus interrupt your day. Listen. Engage. Drop your water pot when necessary.
3. Ask questions. Jesus loves questions.
4. Seek something greater. Look beyond your immediate concerns and needs.
5. Be willing to adjust your thinking/feeling/doing.
6. Talk to your neighbours/co-workers. Treat them with respect and dignity.
7. Make friends with outcasts. See above.
8. Embrace both the fast and slow elements of transformation.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

notes from the Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference

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Image from divinity.yale.edu
This Spring I attended three academic conferences, so much of my time in the past few months has been spent writing papers, traveling, giving presentations, and taking in lots of talks about religion and theology. My favourite one each year is put on by the Society of Vineyard Scholars which was held at Yale Divinity School last week. I wrote a few thoughts about this year's gathering over at the Thoughtworks blog. Check it out here if you are interested.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

a complex flavour profile

Winning ... Billie’s botrytis cinerea dessert, which won her the competition. Picture: Channel 10.
Image from www.news.com.au
Botrytis cinerea dessert, Australian Masterchef 2015 winning dish
I am not much of a foodie. Most days, a protein shake and a few handfuls of popcorn constitute lunch. And I like it that way. However, my husband, Dean, loves to experience food from around the world and is always looking for exciting combinations of flavours and textures. A gourmet meal features depth and complexity in its flavour profile. There may be bitter, sweet, sour, spice, and saltiness all present in one bite. Rich cream, fresh mint, hot cayenne, spongy light cake, and crunchy chocolate brittle all stimulate different sensations. A fine meal is one which causes not only your taste buds, but your olfactory system, your eyes, your ears, and even your sense of touch, to be awakened.

I often think of Jesus's invitation/command to Peter to "feed my sheep" (John 21). This is not only a pastoral metaphor with multiple meanings (Jesus as a shepherd, people as sheep who need care and nourishment, one shepherd training another shepherd, etc.) but it is also a food metaphor. Eating is something that all living creatures spend a significant amount of time doing. Like the other appetites, eating combines necessity with pleasure, ensuring that those things which give us life in a physical sense also give us life in other ways.

Whenever I preach, teach, or write, my prayer is that I might provide something both tasty and nourishing for those who receive my words. The reason I pray this is not only because of Jesus's directive to Peter, but because preparing a feast is what God does. During the wilderness wanderings of the newly-freed Israelites, God provided sweet, flaky manna every morning. The seven feasts established in Leviticus describe the covenant between God and humanity through a complex Middle Eastern menu. In Psalm 23, we see a shepherd who leads sheep to an oasis, providing respite and refreshment along with food and drink. Later in the poem we find a contrasting setting: a feast prepared in the midst of enemies. Both quiet meadow and hostile environments become settings for enjoying nourishment.

In the gospels, we find Jesus miraculously feeding hungry people with simple peasant fare (fish and bread) and providing fine wine to those already satiated at a wedding feast (John 6 and John 2). But the meal that subsumes and supersedes all of these is the one where Jesus indicates that he himself is on the menu. Quite early in his ministry, Jesus said: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (John 6:51). At a Passover meal with his disciples, he was even more explicit, asking them to eat his body and drink his "blood of the covenant" in the form of unleavened bread and wine (Matt 26).

Unleavened bread is made with flour, salt, olive oil, and water. It is poor person's bread, and in the Passover feast, it is known both as the bread of affliction and the bread of freedom. During a Passover seder, there are four cups of wine drunk during the celebration, each remembering one of the promises of YHWH found in Exodus 6:6-7: 1) I will take you out, 2) I will save you, 3) I will redeem you, and 4) I will take you as a nation. The Eucharistic meal, which echoes the Passover feast, features the simple elements of bread and wine. However, as already noted, it reveals a surprisingly complex flavour profile. The feast of Jesus encompasses the sweet (fullness of joy) and the bitter (share in his sufferings). It combines finely aged ingredients with fresh ones (old and new covenants joined together). It presents a shocking, acidic tang (love your enemies) while at the same time stewing everything in a soothing, warm broth ("I am with you always [remaining with you perpetually - regardless of circumstance, and on every occasion], even to the end of the age" Matt. 28:20, The Amplified Bible).

The feast of Jesus is a gourmet meal prepared by a master chef.[1] It is a complex combination of flavours which stimulate and awaken all the senses of mind, body, and spirit.  The best chefs are able to take all their experience, all their knowledge and skill, all their love of good food, nutrition, and beauty, and put it on a plate for others to enjoy. Jesus, our chef, does more than that. He puts himself on a plate. He is the food for our hungry souls. Let us pull up a seat at his generous table and dig in.

"O taste and see that the Lord is good." (Psalm 34:8)

[1] Chef: a French word meaning chief, head, leader, or master.



Monday, June 05, 2017

what about justice?

Image result for justice
Image from ec.europa.eu
There seems to be an increasing emphasis on addressing injustice, at least in the circles I move in. Everywhere I turn, it seems that someone is talking about how we can become more just people. On a recent trip to Toronto for a conference, I was reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy which tells about his work as a lawyer in Alabama, addressing systemic injustices in the legal system. When I arrived in the city, I visited a downtown church which had posters and banners addressing issues of social justice all around their sanctuary. At the conference, some of the presentations identified specific people groups who have been victims of injustice and suggested ways we can move forward to more equitable interactions.

What is justice? The symbol for justice in the legal system is a blindfolded woman (known as Lady Justice) holding a set of scales. The symbolism suggests an impartial, careful, and accurate weighing of matters. The dictionary tells us that justice is fairness, equity, impartiality, neutrality, honesty, and righteousness. In the Hebrew bible, the word tzedek (to be just or righteous) is rooted in the nature of God, joining the idea of impartiality with promoting the good and dealing with sin. In Greek, we have the word dikaiosune which basically means approved by God. When we link justice to the nature of a loving, merciful God, we get a slightly different view of justice than when we equate it with moral rectitude. I offer two stories to illustrate this, one from the Hebrew Bible and one from the New Testament.

In Deuteronomy, we find specific laws given to the nation of Israel which were to guide their behaviour and ultimately, reflect their worship of a just God. One of these had to do with ensuring that a widow was not left destitute when her husband died and she had no sons. Since the women in the Ancient Near East had their value and their livelihood tied to men, when a woman's husband died and she had no sons to receive the family inheritance, her situation was precarious. The law made provision for this.

"When two brothers are living together, sharing family property that hasn’t been divided, if one of them dies leaving a widow without sons, his widow must not be married to a man outside the family. The brother should marry his sister-in-law and try to have children with her in his brother’s name. Her firstborn son will be named after the brother who died, so that the first husband’s name will not disappear from Israel and that son will receive his share of the family inheritance" (Deut. 25:5-6, The Voice).

Basically, the brother-in-law of the widow was to ensure that the deceased brother's name and inheritance were not lost. In effect, a man who married his brother's widow was sacrificing part of his inheritance in order to honour his dead brother and protect his widow. Understandably, some men were not too keen on fulfilling this obligation.

Case in point. In Genesis 38, we find the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah had three sons and the first one married Tamar. He died, and since Tamar had no sons and no means of income, she depended on the family she married into to take care of her. Judah told his second son that he must marry Tamar and any sons she bore would have his dead brother's inheritance. Well, he resented the imposition and the implications it had for his prospective wealth, so he begrudgingly took Tamar as his wife and had sex with her, but took precautions to make sure she would not become pregnant. That second son died as well. Now, Judah had a third son who was not yet of marrying age and, understandably, Judah was reluctant to have Tamar wed him. The two men who had been her husband had both died, and it seemed like she was a cursed woman. In fact, in the story we learn that both her husbands were wicked men. Nevertheless, Judah told Tamar that when the third son reached marrying age, she would be guaranteed a husband and a future. She waited and waited, but even though the youngest son became eligible for marriage, there was no talk of a wedding. Judah's wife died, and after the time of mourning was finished, he went on a trip to work with some sheepherders. Tamar was desperate and saw an opportunity. She dressed up as a prostitute and waited on the side of the road. When Judah came along, he saw her and expressed interest in engaging her services, offering to send her a goat when he got home. She insisted that he give her the cord he was wearing and his staff as a personal guarantee. He did so and they had sex. When he got home, he tried to send a goat as payment and get his possessions back, but no one could find the prostitute.

A few months later, Tamar was reported to be pregnant. When word got to Judah, he demanded that she be dragged into the public square to be condemned and burned. He had always had suspicions about her. As Tamar was being brought out, she let it be known that the man who had made her pregnant was the one who owned the cord and staff she had. It was soon revealed that Judah was the one responsible for her pregnancy. Judah's response is noteworthy: "She is more in the right (tzedek) than I." Justice, that attribute which links someone to the nature of God, was found in Tamar, the woman who played a prostitute to trick a man into taking care of a widow.

This reminds me of another story, this time in the New Testament. Jesus was teaching people at the temple when the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and presented her to Jesus, asking him what to do. The law allowed for the stoning of such a woman, and the religious leaders were trying to trick Jesus into doing something that would allow them to accuse him of breaking the law. Jesus didn't fall for it. Instead, he ignored them, drawing something in the dirt with his finger. They continued to bother him and demand an answer, so he finally said, "Let the first stone be thrown by the one among you who has not sinned." The Pharisees had no response to this, so they left, one by one. Eventually, it was just Jesus and the woman. Jesus asked, "Where is everyone? Did no one condemn you?" She replied that no one had. Then Jesus said, "I don't condemn you either. Go on and sin no more" (John 8).

The Jewish religious leaders had, in fact, not accurately quoted the law. It states that both the man and the woman involved in adultery should be stoned (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:24). They were twisting the law to their own purposes: making a trap for Jesus so that they could get rid of him. One commentator has speculated that Jesus writing in the dust might be a reference to the law which forbids writing on the Sabbath, but does permit writing with dust. If this was the case and it was a day of rest, Jesus might have been illustrating that he knew the details of the law just as well as they did and would not be trapped by it. Others have suggested that Jesus wrote words of condemnation regarding the woman's accusers. Whatever the case, in this story we find the same kind of inversion that happens in story of Judah and Tamar: the one looking to condemn someone for an unlawful act is shown to be the one who is unjust. Jesus put the shame of adultery in direct contrast to the shameful way the Jewish leaders were acting (trickery, bending the law to suit their needs, treating the woman with disrespect, rejecting God in the person of Jesus). Jesus does not condemn the woman, but calls her to a new life. We can be prone to over-emphasize this last line (go and sin no more), but in doing so. we unravel the mercy evident in Jesus's refusal to condemn, even though he would have been lawful in doing so. It is important to remember that the law is not the standard for justice, Jesus is, and he requires those doing the judging to reflect on their own sinfulness before judging others (Matt. 7:1-3).

So what is justice? It is that which reflects the nature of God, that which God approves of, and in these two stories, the person on the side of justice is not the religious leader or respected citizen (those in positions of power), but a woman who has committed a shameful act and stands ready to be condemned and killed by her accusers. As I stated before, the law does not equal justice; only God is justice, because being just means being approved by God. So how do we stand on the side of justice, and how do we respond to injustice?

We can be prone to ignoring or doubting stories of injustice when they don't directly affect us. We can complain about the inconvenience of injustice and try to remove ourselves from its effects (NIMBY: not in my backyard). We can be prone to judging (it's their own fault) or begrudgingly agree to do the bare minimum to fulfill the law (like Judah's second son), hoping to mitigate its effect on and cost to us. If we are the ones wronged, we can seek to exact revenge on those who have wronged us, or prosecute someone to the full extent of the law, assuming that we are the faultless ones.

Looking at these two stories, it seems more in keeping with the nature of God to stand as sober witnesses to those who have suffered injustice, making sure that we hear their voices and their complaints. We can pray, repenting for our part in injustice and asking God for healing and reconciliation. We can change the question from "How does this affect me?" to "How does it affect the most vulnerable, the least of these?" We can make sure that we are not stone throwers, but stone catchers (a phrase I came across in Bryan Stevenson's book), that we step in-between those who condemn and the condemned, showing mercy instead of judgment. It is what Jesus does for us everyday. We can seek wisdom to discern what compassionate, thoughtful action we might take. Above all, like Jesus, we can seek to bring hope to the hopeless.

Friday, June 02, 2017

go and ...

This is part two of a series talking about Jesus's calls to come and to go and the relationship between them. You can read the first part, "Come and See," here.

Image result for child imitates mom computer
Image from healthland.time.com
We learn things by being around other people, and they learn things by hanging out with us. That's the way it works. The first people we learned things from were members of our family. Children are natural imitators and they mimic the behaviour and attitudes they see in their parents and other influencers present in their lives (for better or for worse). Growing up on a farm, I learned how to care for animals, how to plant and harvest, how to embrace the seasonal nature of life, and how to shovel manure. Like I said, for better or worse. Not all of the ideas we assimilate are helpful, and as responsible adults, we need to honestly evaluate learned behaviour to see if it contributes to a flourishing life, a good life, a life consistent with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Nevertheless, imitation is a very effective teaching tool. Jesus invited his disciples to come and see, to hang out with him and observe what he did and how he interacted with people. They witnessed sermons, healings, conflicts, and impromptu feasts. In other words, they learned what it was like to love the world. In Matthew 9, we find a record of what Jesus's followers saw and heard.

Jesus went through many towns and villages. He taught in their synagogues. He preached the good news of the kingdom of God. He healed every disease and sickness. Whenever crowds came to Him, He had compassion for them because they were so deeply distraught, malaised, and heart-broken. They seemed to Him like lost sheep without a shepherd. Jesus understood what an awesome task was before Him, so He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send more workers into His harvest field.” (Matthew 9:35-38, The Voice).

But let's not stop reading. There is an important development that follows, and we have to ignore the imposed chapter division in order to fully appreciate it.

Jesus called His twelve disciples to Him. He endowed them with the authority to heal sickness and disease and to drive demons out of those who were possessed. These are the names of the twelve apostles: Simon (who is called Peter, which means “the rock”) and his brother Andrew; James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew (the tax collector); James, son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot (who would betray Him). (Matthew 10:1-4, The Voice)

Let me spell out the development. Jesus invites people to follow him, to come and see his ministry, mission, and method. Those who take up this call to come and see become his disciples, pupils and learners. After they have followed Jesus around for some time and borne witness to his ministry to the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden, Jesus gives his disciples the authority to do exactly what he has been doing, to carry on the work of the kingdom of God. After this, the language changes. No longer are they called disciples (learners, pupils) but apostles (sent ones, delegates). Their identity is changed. They remain disciples, for they will never stop being followers of Jesus, but they also become representatives of Jesus, doing what he does and bringing the good news of God's kingdom to the world. Responding to Jesus' call to come and see naturally leads to Jesus's commissioning to go and do, or perhaps a better way of putting it, go and be like Jesus.  

So what does it mean to be like Jesus, to do the work of Jesus? What follows in Matthew 10 is a list of instructions for the twelve apostles. The details do not translate directly into our context, but we as contemporary followers of Jesus and "sent ones" can draw some principles from these directives. Below are a few of the specific instructions along with a corresponding general principle for us today.

1. "Jesus sent out these twelve with clear instructions. Don’t go to the outsiders or to the towns inhabited by Samaritans, a people whose Jewish ancestors married Gentiles. Go instead to find and heal the lost sheep of Israel." Start where you are. Before we rush out to save the world, we should look at bringing healing and wholeness to those around us: our families, friends, coworkers, neighbours, and city.
2. "As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, and cleanse those who have leprosy. Drive out demons from the possessed." Our message of hope, demonstrated in our actions, is that God is near, God is a healer, God brings life, God is a restorer, God brings freedom.
3. "You received these gifts freely, so you should give them to others freely. Do not take money with you: don’t take gold, silver, or even small, worthless change. Do not pack a bag with clothes. Do not take sandals or a walking stick. Be fed and sheltered by those who show you hospitality." Let us be generous with what God has given us, and allow others to be generous with us. Let us travel light, live simply, and trust God to supply everything we need.
4. "Listen: I am sending you out to be sheep among wolves. You must be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. You must be careful. You must be discerning. You must be on your guard." We can expect opposition and expect to be treated badly. We should never assume that everything will go our way. Let us learn wisdom. Let us cultivate discernment. Let us practice faithfulness. Let us be courageous. Do not fear. We can trust God in all circumstances.

Jesus's invitation to come and see, to participate in the life of Jesus and in the lives of others, is always linked to Jesus's commissioning to be delegates, to bring the life and love of Jesus wherever we go. The Greek word, erchomai, means both "come" and "go." This is the dual invitation of Jesus.