Wednesday, April 22, 2015

head, heart, and yummy snacks

Image from whatsgabbycooking.com
Last week I was in Media, Pennsylvania at the annual Society of Vineyard Scholars conference. Besides beautiful, sunny, warm days and the meeting of friends new and old, what impressed me most about this unique gathering was the co-mingling of academic rigour, encouragement, critique, worship, prayer, beautiful art, pastoral care, prophetic warning, repentance, and great snacks. I have never been to anything quite like it before, but it left me wanting more.

The academy tends to do some things better than the church, in my opinion, and some of these are the ability to listen and speak with humility, to embrace different voices and learn from them, and to welcome critique instead of bristling defensively against it. At the conference in Media, I had the opportunity both to present a paper and to offer a critical response to a panel of three presenters. It is good to be at both ends of this dynamic. It is good to be in the vulnerable position of a presenter who is offering their ideas for consideration by a learned community. I always get a bit nervous before I give a paper because I know I am exposing part of myself to people who may disagree with me, who may find my ideas simple or faulty, or who may deem my words mostly irrelevant. On the other hand, I find it equally difficult to be the responder, the critical voice asking tough questions, pointing out inconsistencies, or suggesting that ideas need to be reworked and reconsidered. It feels a bit awkward, to be honest, but in the true spirit of learning, most people at these events graciously accept critique, especially when the words are spoken out of kindness and humility. Academics generally realise that critique is necessary to make one's work better.

One of the highlights of the conference was a talk given by Stanley Hauerwas (Duke University), one of the USA's most influential contemporary theologians. His critique of the systems we find ourselves working and living within was sobering. He constantly drew our attention to the distinction between the values of the kingdom of God and the values of our current culture (including church culture) and urged us, with strong language, not to confuse the two. Our Western society is addicted to using violence, aggression, and wealth as ways of changing the world, and yet, these were not Jesus' methods. In other ways, Hauerwas suggested, we have become adherents of tolerance, producing people who say: "I believe Jesus is Lord, but that's just my personal opinion." Above all, he urged us to tell the truth: to each other and to ourselves. This means unearthing the deceit and duplicity present in our narratives and beliefs which underlie everything from our political views to our private prayers. Tough to do, but necessary work if we are to be people who humbly follow Jesus with integrity.

Other thought-provoking nuggets from Hauerwas:
- (On the religious right): They have no joy. And if there's no joy to it, it won't last.
- (On how we can engage with other faiths): Are we interesting enough that people of other faiths want to talk to us?
- (On the question: Are we responsible for decisions we make when we don't know what we are doing?) If we are not responsible, this makes marriage and having children unintelligible. Who of us knew what we were doing when we said our marriage vows or when we had a child? When you have children, you never get the ones you want. It takes grace to accept the situations that God gives us.
- Only God exists. We do not. The question is not does God exist but do we?
- We tend to believe that we have no story except the story we chose when we had no story. This is supposedly freedom. But our story starts in God, not in ourselves (paraphrase).

And that's a taste of what it was like to be at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference this year. I wish you could also have sampled the tiny pretzels and the homemade salted caramels, but maybe next time.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Horray! It's the weekend!

Resurrection Morning by JRC Martin
Many of us are used to thinking of the weekend as a respite from work and the daily grind, a few days to relax, unwind, and have a bit of time for ourselves and our loved ones. During this Easter season, I was reminded of quite a different kind of weekend, a holy weekend. It began when I read something by N.T. Wright a few weeks ago.

Wright draws attention to the parallels between the creation story in Genesis and the story of Jesus found in the gospel of John. For instance, both start off with "In the beginning." Of particular interest are the last few days of Jesus' life in light of the creation story. On the sixth day, God created humankind. On the sixth day (Friday), Pilate brought Jesus before the crowd and declared, "Here is the man!" Also on the sixth day, God finished creation. On the sixth day, Jesus cried out, "It is finished!" On the seventh day, the Creator rested from his work. On the seventh day (Saturday), God incarnate, Jesus, rested in the tomb, his redemptive work complete. The first day of the week in Genesis was the first day of God's creation. The first day of the week after Jesus's death (Sunday) was the first day of God's new creation. [1]

Here we see the deliberate and precise structure of two stories which reveal something about how God creates, sustains, and redeems life. With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the Holy Weekend of Jesus.

Friday is a day of betrayal (Judas), doubt (for both Jesus and the disciples), violence (Peter attacks a soldier, Jesus is tortured), denial (Peter denies Jesus, the disciples scatter), things going horribly wrong (from the perspective of the disciples), injustice (an innocent man is punished while a guilty man goes free), and finally, death. Jesus prays, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not what I want but what you want." (Matt. 26:39). Later, as he is dying on the cross, he calls out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"(Matt. 27:46). After Jesus is arrested, the disciples begin to question what Jesus said. Was Jesus really the Anointed One, the one sent by God? Perhaps they got it all wrong. Everything is falling apart around them and they think about walking away from it all. While the disciples are understandably disillusioned and distraught, Jesus gives himself to the very last breath.

Saturday is silent. It is the sabbath and nothing stirs. God seems to be silent. The disciples are disoriented, in a state of shock and confusion. What do they do now? Do they go back to their old lives? If not, how do they move forward? They seem stuck, caught in a liminal place between what was and what is to come, unsure of the future, not sure who they are, what they believe, or what action to take. Bishop Campbell says: "In these last hours of the great silence of Holy Saturday, when the Eternal Word reaches into the hidden recesses of death, let all flesh keep silent and in this silence, let us be attentive and listen."

Sunday dawns like any other day, but something seems to have changed. Some women report that Jesus has disappeared from the tomb. Mary says she saw Jesus alive. A few of the disciples go to the tomb to verify that it is empty, but this latest development leaves the disciples even more confused and disoriented. They are not sure what to make of the women's news, since women can be emotional and unreliable in times like this. They are fearful because the events of Friday and Saturday have shaken them to the core and they know they are in danger because of their association with Jesus whom the religious leaders and the Romans saw as a troublemaker. So they huddle together in a room and lock the door. And this is where Jesus finds them on Sunday night.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:19-22).

The resurrection of Jesus is not just a happy ending to a story, it is the beginning of a new creation. When the resurrected Jesus appears, walls, locked doors, and other obstacles become irrelevant. The scarred Jesus reassures the disciples that he is not a ghost, but their trusted friend who bears the marks of love. The resurrected Jesus brings peace and joy to chase away their fear and disappointment. Jesus breathes on his disciples (reminiscent of Genesis 2) his Holy Spirit breath. And Jesus lets them know that they can't huddle in a locked room forever. In the same way that God the Father sent Jesus to not only bring the good news of hope and forgiveness and wholeness but to embody it, Jesus sends the disciples to do the same.

Wright says: "How [can we] show to the world the signs of love, how can we reach out our hands in love, wounded though they will be if the love has been true, how [can we] invite those whose hearts have grown shrunken and shriveled with sorrow and disbelief to come and see what love has done, what love is doing, in our communities, our neighborhoods?" [2]

The question I have is, which day of the Holy Weekend do we find ourselves in? Are we experiencing the death and despair of Friday? Are we confused by being stuck in the silence of Saturday? Or are we caught up in the disorienting whirlwind of change as Holy Sunday unfolds? Is hope crushed, dormant, or fully alive? Are we surrounded by doubt or beginning to doubt our doubts? Is fear beginning to subside because Jesus is near and the hot breath of the Holy Spirit is on our faces? I think it is important to remember that Holy Sunday didn't happen in one instant for the disciples; the events unfolded throughout the day and the ongoing weeks and years as Jesus revealed himself to people and they slowly began to realize the implications of new creation.

One day is not more holy than the next, Jesus is present in times of death, silence, and renewed hope because he has lived through them all. If we are in a Friday stage, let us not despair. Perhaps it would behoove us to ask someone who is experiencing Sunday to pray for us and walk us through this dark place. If we are in a Saturday silence, let us be patient and attentive, listening well and avoiding making any quick decisions. And if we are living in Sunday mode, let us rejoice! The scars we carry from Friday and Saturday can be signs of hope and love to those around us. Let us receive the words of peace from Jesus and let go of the fear that paralyzed us. And let us embody the good news of new creation by reaching out hands of love to those in despair, confusion, and sorrow.


[1] N. T. Wright, "Becoming People of Hope," in Surprised by Scripture (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 207-217.
[2] Wright, 213.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

looking for heaven

Yeast under a microscope.
Image from wonderville.com
Sometimes I think about dying. Over the past few months those thoughts have been more frequent as I happened upon the writings of Kara Tippetts facing her last days after several years of battling cancer. She wrote with such honesty, such kindness, such generosity at a time when it probably would have been easier just to withdraw into her community of family and friends. But she didn't, and the world is richer - I am richer - because of it.

In recent years, a number of books have been published (with some being made into films) in the genre known as "heaven tourism." These are stories written by those who claim to have died and seen glimpses of the afterlife. Just today, LifeWay Christian Resources removed all titles in this category from their stores due to questions of authenticity and the lack of theological support. This week I read the parable Jesus told about the unnamed rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16). After both die, the rich man finds himself in a place of torment while Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his rich family about their impending fate. Abraham replies that if his brothers are not listening to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen to someone who comes back from the dead. Hard words, but true.

The popularity of heaven tourism saddens me a bit. We are curious about what awaits us after death, but I believe we would do better to pay close attention to the scriptures and teachings we already have instead of looking for spectacular accounts of the afterlife. Instead of dreaming about heaven, perhaps, like Kara Tippetts, we should spend our time living (and dying) with courage and kindness.

I recently taught a class on the topic of eschatology in which I asked the students what they thought should be included in heaven. Their take on a Utopian afterlife included the expected elements: joy, reunion with family and friends, and the absence of death, pain, and evil (especially fascists). Most of us wish for a time when things will be better than they are now, so it is natural to hope for what we lack. But is that really what heaven, what the kingdom of God is all about? Getting what we want? Not really.

Jesus spoke often about the kingdom of heaven and his words included many ideas which were hard for his listeners (and us) to hear. He said that the kingdom of heaven is come near and is among us. He said that we must receive it like a little child, like the poor in spirit, by aligning ourselves with the purposes of God. He said the kingdom of heaven is like a small seed, like yeast, growing from something insignificant into something great. It all makes little sense when you try to put it in the context of a faraway place where we end up after we die. But when we think of the kingdom of heaven as the place where God is with us no matter what the circumstance, it becomes clearer.

Kara Tippetts wrote:
My little body has grown tired of battle, and treatment is no longer helping. But what I see, what I know, what I have is Jesus. He has still given me breath, and with it I pray I would live well and fade well. By degrees doing both, living and dying, as I have moments left to live. I get to draw my people close, kiss them and tenderly speak love over their lives. I get to pray into eternity my hopes and fears for the moments of my loves. I get to laugh and cry and wonder over Heaven. I do not feel like I have courage for this journey, but I have Jesus - and He will provide. He has given me so much to be grateful for, and that gratitude, that wondering over His love, will cover us all. And it will carry us - carry us in ways we cannot comprehend. [1]

That, to me, is the kingdom of God coming near. Life and death intermingled with grace and the presence of Jesus. Pain and loss and weariness overshadowed by moments of bright love and hope and joy.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann explains the nature of our future hope:
But the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God's first love.

This is what we long for: not all those things we are missing here in this life, not a mansion in the sky and eternal bliss, but knowing that we are loved, that we belong, that we are waited for. And that is what Jesus offers us every moment of every day, whether we fathom it or not, whether we receive it or not. The mystery of heaven is not really about all the wonders we will see in the sweet bye and bye but about the wonder of divine love which is poured out in generous measure on us right here, right now. In good days and in bad days, in pain and in sorrow, in joy and sunshine and friendship, in loss and in gain, in failure and in victory. We are God's beloved. What more could we want?

[1] http://www.mundanefaithfulness.com/home/2015/3/22/homecoming

Friday, March 13, 2015

the mystery of Trinity

Rublev's icon representing Trinity
This is not a post about a character in The Matrix. Just so we are clear. This is about one of my favourite topics, the theological concept of a triune God, three in one and one in three. At the same time. It can be a difficult concept to comprehend because we are not used to thinking of distinctiveness and unity as occupying the same space. In our world, if we happen to see evidence of several distinct personalities manifested in one person, we suggest that they get some therapy. So when we encounter the idea of three persons acting as one, it mystifies us. And so it should. As Augustine says, "If we can fully grasp it, it is not God." What we can do, however, is get glimpses of Trinity, see Trinity from several perspectives, if you will, and in this way, get some idea of what it means to be in a community of unity.

Just over a hundred years ago, Edwin Abbott Abbott penned a satirical novel called Flatland. The story takes place in a two-dimensional world where one of the inhabitants, a square, encounters a sphere who lives in a world with three dimensions. Because Flatland has no concept of up or down, it is difficult to convince the inhabitants that there is more out there than their present experience. Think about it: if a human being were to step into a two-dimensional world, what would appear? Two foot-shaped, flat geometric shapes, not connected to each other in any way. As the human being passed through (moved down) the two-dimensional world, different sections of the body would be visible at different times, but the overall effect would be extremely puzzling because the shapes would be shifting continuously as would the number of foreign objects to be observed when the legs, torso, arms, and finally just the head passed through the two-dimensional world. If the body were in motion (picture a dancer) when it passed through Flatland, the experience would be quite different than the one I just described. It would be totally understandable if the two-dimensional creatures made no connection between the first, static body passing through their world and the second body in motion. And remember, in two dimensions one cannot see from above, so one would have to "walk around" an object just to get a sense of what shape it is. From a single, static perspective, everything would look like a line.

Perhaps this analogy is helpful when we think about how we encounter God, a being with more dimensions than we can fathom. We can only see partially, from our limited perspective, within our current dimensions. But if we have eyes to see (physical and imaginative and spiritual eyes), we can catch some wondrous glimpses about who this God is: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. I would like to mention two glimpses of Trinity which I find challenging but which, at the same time, inspire deep longing in me.

1. There is no hierarchy. It is hard for us to imagine authority without a governing structure, and a governing structure necessarily puts some people at the top (the decision-makers) and others at the bottom (the workers). This seems basic to human nature. Just watch a group of children play and observe how, in many cases, one child soon emerges as the dominant one, the decision-maker. It is hard for us to fathom total freedom within unity of purpose, but this is what we find in Trinity. There is community and connection without confusion or division or subjugation. Trinity is an understanding of God as a mutually loving, interacting, and sustaining society (Alister E. McGrath). While I cannot totally understand it, I love it. Since we are made in the image of Trinity, generous equality is what we should bring to society. I want to be a person who does not automatically default to a hierarchical model of leadership, be it at work, at play, in my friendships, in my family, and especially in my local expression of church. We are meant to give all of ourselves to each other in trusting love. That is not likely to happen perfectly outside the final consummation of the kingdom of God, but we can nurture pockets of it in our sphere of influence.

2.. There is no isolation. God is not a private deity. We find it easy to group ourselves into "us" and "them." Many times we don't even know we are doing it, but we draw a clear line between ourselves and those who are "the other." But in Trinity, there is perfect, generous love offered to all without prejudice. There is hospitality. Cornelius Plantinga says that Trinity is "a zestful, wondrous community of divine light, love, joy, mutuality, and verve." In Trinity, otherness is celebrated because it brings added dimension to the whole. In the parable of the wedding feast that Jesus tells, we find a host who sends out invitations to the community to come and join in a grand celebration. Unfortunately, many refuse the invitation because of their preoccupation with their private lives. Yesterday in class I asked students what they wanted heaven to include. One student mentioned that she would like there to be some alone-time. I suspect she is a bit of an introvert like me and values her contemplative, private times. There is definitely a time and place for withdrawing from others to be with God or to think and work. Jesus did it all the time. But one would never say that Jesus was isolated, lonely, or a recluse. His purpose was to bring hope to everyone he met, to show them that God was with them, and that the kingdom of heaven was near. His was not a private spirituality; he told his disciples to spread the good news and heal people! Being in communion with God means being in communion with each other.

3. There is no spoon.  I couldn't resist a wee bit of Matrix humour.

One word that is used to describe the interconnection between the members of Trinity is the idea of perichoresis. Most define this theological term as interpenetration or mutual intersection, but one theologian uses the idea of "circle dance" to describe the idea of peri (around) and choresis (step, approach, make room for, contain). I like the dynamic, moving nature of "circle dance" which hints at the idea of shared leadership and joyous good fun with a group of friends. May you enjoy a circle dance with God today and offer it to those around you as well.

If you are interested, here is an animated movie based on the book, Flatland. It was meant as a political critique of hierarchy.

Monday, March 02, 2015

waiting for the sun to come up

After a whirlwind of travel, teaching, deadlines, and meetings in the past few months, Dean and I managed to get away for a bit of a warm vacation last week. It was a welcome break from the work and the cold weather. We were both attacked by some ugly, demented plague flu just before our scheduled departure, but we were determined to get on that plane to Cancun even if we had to crawl on our hands and knees. And we did. We arrived pretty much depleted so the first days in Mexico were spent drinking, eating, napping, and marveling at the sensation of being warm.

I usually like to catch the sunrise when I am in a beautiful location with big, unobstructed views, so one morning I woke up early (no alarm necessary), threw on some clothes, and made my down to the beach. The sun was scheduled to rise at 7:12 am, and when I arrived at the water's edge just before 7 am, there were already a few other people gathered there for the event. Some sat quietly on beach chairs while others were strolling along the sand. I stood and waited. There was a bit of cloud cover at the horizon so I was anticipating quite a show. From past experience I know that clouds make for the most glorious sunrises and sunsets because of all the reflections they give off. Total cloud cover will hide the sun's appearance, but a bit of cloud...well, that's the best case scenario for stunning sunrises.

7:15 am
By 7:15 am the sun was above the horizon and the world was much brighter, but the sky was still dull grey. There was nothing special happening in the sky so most of the people who had come to witness the dawning of a new day left. But I waited. The cloud cover near the horizon was hiding my view of the sun, but I knew that eventually it would peek out, and when it did, it would be worth the wait.

I wondered if I should have spoken to the people who left and told them just to wait a bit longer, that I knew from experience that the best was yet to come. But I didn't. Technically, it was 7:15 am, the sun had risen, and they had seen it.

Thirty minutes later, the sun finally broke through the clouds. And it was "Wow!" I spent a good fifteen minutes snapping pictures, giving thanks to God, running back and forth on the beach, and talking to the birds as we shared that special time of day. I know that others witnessed the same spectacular show, but it felt like a private moment of overabundant beauty and splendour, almost too much to take in.
7:45 am

If I can offer any lessons from my experiences with sunrises, let me tell you that the clouds which at first hide the sun eventually display the most amazing, multi-dimensional reflections of beautiful light and colour that you will ever see. Don't curse the clouds in your life. Also, be patient. Don't expect everything to happen all at once. If you don't see the brilliant sunrise today, then try again tomorrow or next week. The sun is always there, even if we can't see its distinct, glowing orb. Keep looking and it will reveal itself. Photographers know that they cannot make a great shot happen; they can only wait and hope to capture a special moment when it arrives. Let us not miss great beauty in our lives because we are impatient or looking at a clock. Beauty appears when it is ready. Let's hope we are ready, too.

Friday, February 06, 2015

the problem of evil & the problem of good

Image from paradigm-shift-21st-century.nl
These past few weeks have been a bit of a blur. Two weeks ago I was in Toronto at Wycliffe College for a symposium. Last week I flew to Edmonton for another symposium at King's University and stayed an extra few days to visit friends. On the way home, I got stranded in Toronto overnight, but I arrived back in Montreal on Sunday morning just in time to give the talk at our weekly faith gathering. After a day or two at home, I got on the plane again and flew to the East coast for some meetings with church leaders. I have enough boarding passes to wallpaper a small room. Okay, that's a bit of an overstatement, but you get the point.

In all of these travels, I have been privileged and extremely grateful for the opportunity to see different parts of the country, explore various institutions of higher learning, meet many new people, and spend time with old friends. We are made richer by our wanderings.

Some of the people I met had tales of grief, pain, loss, and uncertainty. These were in stark contrast to the bounty of fullness and goodness I live in most of the time. The problem of evil seems to have a parallel in the problem of good. We may find inexplicable and undeserved suffering and tragedy in the world, but we also find inexplicable and undeserved goodness happening as well.

During these travels I was reading some thoughts by N.T. Wright on the problem of evil. Wright suggests that there are three problems with how we view evil:

1) We ignore evil if it doesn't hit us in the face. Basically, unless evil or suffering directly affect me, I don't make much of a fuss about it. In contrast to this, we see Jesus get up close and personal with suffering and evil. He comes into direct contact with it, willingly. He does not avoid or ignore evil, but confronts it.
2) The second problem Wright sees is that we are surprised by evil. When we hear of some crime in our neighbourhood, we are shocked. How could this happen? We live in a nice, safe place, don't we? I believe part of the problem is that we are unaware of the depth of evil in our own hearts. We have this idea that we are the good guys and others are the bad guys. Wright says that, "That fateful line between good and evil runs down the middle of each one of us. We are all infected." We are simultaneously God's good creation and a continuing source of chaos and terror. When we acknowledge this in humility, recognizing our poverty of goodness apart from God, we are no longer shocked by evil, but have compassion for those trapped in sin. Like Jesus, we seek to set people free from the power of the evil one, not to insulate ourselves from them.
3) We react in immature and dangerous ways to evil. Because we are shocked by evil, unwilling to recognize our own participation in it, we lash out, we resort to violence, we react with self-righteous attempts to enforce stricter laws which will clamp a lid on evil. None of these reactions make much room for redemption and restoration. God deals with evil from within creation. He does not fly in from the outside and magically fix everything; God chooses to walk with sinners and transform them from the inside out.  The work of Jesus was to exhaust the power of evil by draining it of its power. He did not overcome evil by a show of might, but by submitting himself to punishment, to death. By swallowing up death and evil, he rendered it powerless in the face of divine goodness. Light banishes darkness when the two came into contact. Love is always stronger than death.

But what about the problem of good? For the cynics, those who doubt, those who see evil and decay lurking around every corner, those who are weighed down with suffering to the point of hopelessness, the problem of good is real. Why does good pop up in places that have nothing to do with their own efforts to be free of sin and its effects? Why do good things happen to bad people?

In the same way that we can ignore evil, we can ignore good. Similar to our blindness regarding the evil in our own hearts, we can be unaware of the goodness of God which resides in every creature on earth. We have a hard time believing God is with us because we define goodness by some other standard than "God is present with us." Instead of expressing wonder and gratitude at the glimmers of goodness in this world, we see only darkness, destruction, and hopeless situations. In truth, we can react to occasions of goodness in dismissive ways, effectively pouring cold water on barely glowing embers. What we see from Jesus is the ability to recognize the spark of goodness in even the most unlikely candidates, and then to fan that bit of goodness into flame (examples are Zacchaeus the tax collector and the woman of ill repute who poured expensive perfume on Jesus' feet).

Discernment is the ability to tell not only the difference between good and evil, but to identify the first signs of evil before they become full-blown. If we can do this, in our own lives and in the lives of others, we can change our ways before much damage is done. If we look for ways to bring restoration, redemption, and wholeness by being quick to respond, quick to repent, quick to rethink and adjust our attitudes, then we are practicing discernment.

Discernment is also the ability to see the good in all of God's creation, the beauty in the midst of the chaos, and to call it forth, to celebrate it, to give it space to grow, to water it, tend it, to fan a tiny spark into flame, By doing this, we participate in the work of Jesus which is to exhaust and drain evil of its power and hold on people. Jesus indicated that when we are struck on one cheek, we should turn the other cheek. This means absorbing the impact of evil and letting the goodness of God, the righteousness of God in us through the person of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, swallow up the evil. It means bearing the suffering of another, removing that bit of chaos and evil from the world by letting Jesus in us bear it and strip it of its power. This is not an easy thing to do, to go head to head with evil forces and not let them turn our hearts dark, but instead, to shine light on them. But greater is Jesus in us than all the evil in the world.

Let us overcome evil not by engaging in a power struggle, but by letting the goodness of God swallow it up. Let us celebrate beauty and goodness wherever we see it, no matter how small it is, and let us fan it into flame so that it burns brighter. This is the work of Jesus and we are invited to participate in it.

Quotations taken from N. T. Wright, "9/11, Tsunamis, and the New Problem of Evil," in Surprised by Scripture. HarperOne, 2014, 115.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

beautiful money

Abstract Painting by Jolina Anthony, image from fineartamerica.com
I was in the subway a few weeks ago, waiting for the train to come. We have a lot of subway musicians in Montreal, people showcasing everything from rap music to classical opera to electric guitar solos to saxophone riffs. As is to be expected, some are better than others. This particular afternoon, as I stood and read my book while I waited for the train, I heard a ukulele being strummed and it made me stop reading. That in itself is quite something. Then I heard a sweet voice singing to the strumming, and I was compelled to turn around and look at the source.

She was young, with long blond hair and baggy clothes. Her right hand was rhythmically stroking the strings, her eyes were closed, her face was tilted slightly down and to one side, and she sang a song that pierced my soul. I don't remember the lyrics, but I remember feeling like someone was showing me their most vulnerable, yet strong side. I stood there, a bit in shock, wondering if anyone else was witnessing this incredible moment. Most people just went about their business. I wanted to let the young musician know that I appreciated what she was offering, so I made eye contact and gave her a big smile. She returned the gesture.

And then I had this deep conviction that I needed to give her money. I immediately felt awkward. My train might show up at any time and I would have to dig around in my wallet to see what change I had, walk over to the place where she was... You know, just silly excuses. But I knew it was important, so I opened my wallet, grabbed some change, and dropped it in her ukulele case. I wish I could have listened longer, but my train arrived and whisked me away.

This encounter got me thinking about money. Why was there such a contrast between the two actions? The music was so beautiful and my act of donating a few coins seemed so crass. I wanted what I did with my money to be as beautiful as the music I was hearing. It made me think that perhaps money is like crayons or brushes and paint, creative tools through which we express ourselves. And as with any art form, one needs to develop skill with money, exercise a certain amount of discipline with money, but also make room for spontaneity and freedom and creativity and above all, strive for beauty with money.

I was reminded of the story of the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus's head at a dinner party shortly before the Passover (see Mark 14). When she did so, the dinner guests thought it was wasteful. Why, the rare perfume could have been sold for almost a year's wages and the money given to the poor! Jesus defended her, indicating that her act was an extraordinary show of kindness and a symbolic preparation for his upcoming death. After this event, Judas, the disillusioned disciple, met with the chief priests and arranged to betray Jesus in exchange for a monetary reward.

I find four different attitudes to money in this story. First, the woman acted out of the notion that money should be used to make something beautiful, to perform an act of worship which in some small way reflected the extravagant love that Jesus had for her. In contrast, the dinner guests, solid upstanding citizens that they were, had a more practical approach to money. Money was a tool to do the most good for the most people. Efficiency mattered. Reputation mattered. Third, we have the chief priests who recognized that money could be used to "grease the rails," to make things go a little smoother, to make sure that the right side had the upper hand. Fourth, Judas the opportunist thought that money was a way to get ahead, to better his situation. That didn't turn out too well.

What I see here is the principle that money follows love. Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6). Wherever our love is, the money will follow. If we love our families, our money will be spent on them. If we love ourselves, the money is spent on things we want. If we love our enemies, we won't think twice about lending them money or helping them alleviate a need. If we love God, we use the crayons of money to create beautiful expressions of worship which reflect the kingdom of God. Like the poor widow who placed two small coins into the temple treasury, we give freely, selflessly, as an act of gratitude and worship to the God of heaven and earth. We are compelled by love. Our money follows love. It is the way of integrity.

But what if we are short on love? If love is lacking, money will find something else to follow, some other strong force in our lives like fear, pride, insecurity, greed, unforgiveness, lust, etc. Money used for any other purpose but love brings many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6). We cannot judge others and how they deal with money, but we should certainly look at what kind of picture we are painting with our money. Do I see my use of money as an act of worship, a display of gratitude reflecting God's generosity toward me? Do I use my money to contribute toward a generous, benevolent community or am I mostly concerned with my own needs and desires? How does my money reflect my relationships, values, and goals? Do I live as if money has power or love has power? Does my money follow love? And if not, what does it follow? How does my use of money reflect the kingdom of God? Do I sow money like the farmer scatters seeds, knowing that some will land on good ground and some will never bring a return, but I freely sow anyway?

Let us paint beautiful pictures with the money we have in our crayon box, pictures which reflect love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, generosity, mercy, grace, and gratitude. What's in your wallet?