Tuesday, December 13, 2016

More Election Reflections

We are not quite at the official action of the electoral college, and the inauguration of Donald Trump follows soon after. I expressed some of my thoughts after the election here, and we have all had time to reflect more on what lies ahead.

I remain cautiously hopeful that the next four years will work out—at least so far as life in North America is concerned, but I admit to increasing anxiety as new directions take shape. So here is a brief sample of my thoughts (as much to allay my own fears by expressing them as by a sense that anyone else need read them).

1. I said before that I am concerned with the way that we the people have validated bullying and vulgarity with our choice. That sense has not decreased. An account of the Michigan recount suggests that the Republican playbook is made up primarily of using political and legal might to force the desired outcome, rather than any real desire to do what is right.

2. The recounts are an interesting idea—not because they might change the outcome (I don’t think the outcome is in doubt; the hanging chads from Bush-Gore were far more serious), but because how people respond to the idea shows again what they think. Trump’s response was to say: No recount; the only true result is that I won (the popular vote too, not just the electoral college). Clinton’s response was to say: We’ll co-operate. What else would she say? The real opportunity was for Trump to show that he believes in the basic integrity of the state officials running the elections. Clearly he doesn’t. Which suggests that he believes that he was the only honest person in the election. That attitude troubles me.

3. Trump’s lack of concern for facts continues to bother me. I am not sure that he is actually any different in this regard than most Democrats. We have adopted the idea as a country that perspective is truth. If that idea is correct, we have no grounds for saying that Trump is not speaking the truth, just because we don’t like his ideas. Both sides of the aisle tend to applaud the facts when the facts support the truth they want. Both sides of the aisle tend to pretend the facts aren’t there when the facts support the truth they don’t want.

This last point is perhaps where we could begin a national conversation [not national: big conversation involving lots of people, but national: lots of small groups of people talking and trying to understand what’s going on]. We need to decide what to do with facts. It is a fact that biologically we have two genders. It is also a fact that a small minority of people are biologically mixed. We have ignored the facts on both sides: one group of people ignores the fact of people born with two sets of genitalia; one group of people ignores the fact of gender entirely and makes it all a matter of how one feels inside. But if we go only by how we feel inside, on what grounds do we refute Trump’s positions. That we don’t like them? Then “might makes right” becomes our national motto.

Similarly with global warming. The facts are clear [the globe is warming, and we are helping make it so]. How we interpret those facts, what we do with them, is a further and vital conversation. I could continue with most of the hard conversations in our society. We retreat too quickly into calling names (homophobe; radical; whatever name you think of for those people you don’t like). Many people have observed that we need a return to civility in public discourse. Such civility, I believe, requires also that we admit both the factness of the data of life, and the importance of perspective and interpretation in handling that data.

The question of who hacked whom during the election is one such arena. The CIA says, “The Russians.” (I think the CIA is right on this one.) The FBI says, “Not so fast.” Okay, let’s acknowledge that good and intelligent people regularly disagree, and let’s abandon the defensive response that says, “Your interpretation can’t be right, because I disagree.”

In my own field of study we call this process of trying to understand the world around us “critical realism”, a recognition that perspective matters, and an admission that reality remains beyond our limited perspectives. We need each other to cope with an increasing complex real world. Trump’s administration is set to roll. I hope they open up their ears and minds for the journey, and I hope we do too.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

God’s Healing is at Hand

Christmas is a time of joy, but we know that many people walk in a bubble of darkness through this season of light. I think of my parents many years ago—a young couple in Zambia, who had just buried their eight-month old daughter to malaria. I had not yet been born, but I imagine them hearing the wishes for a good and joyful Christmas, and then returning to their space filled with loss and hurt. I think of a friend and his wife whose prospective son-in-law died in a hiking accident this past summer. As they walk through this Christmas, with one child just married and another child recently bereaved, I imagine that Christmas comes with a mixture of light and darkness. How do we anticipate Christmas when we are broken? Our friends wish us joy. How do we receive God’s joy when sadness and hurt overwhelm us? We turn to two texts—from Isaiah 35 and from Luke 1—to seek for guidance.

Isaiah 35: 1-10
35 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God.
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

As we have said before, this passage both points to the end of time and as well as to our lives today. Isaiah speaks to people who are facing an uncertain political and spiritual future. The road ahead appears to be a desert, but it will burst into bloom, and they will be filled with joy. Notice who receives strength and joy and healing: “the feeble hands”, “the unsteady knees”, “those who are afraid”, “the blind”, “the deaf”, and “the lame”. God’s joy and healing are there for the people who need it, and for no one else.

This text emphasizes God’s call for holiness (verses 8 and 9): “A highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; … The unclean will not journey on it; … but only the redeemed will walk there.” The call to holy living is important, but this morning I observe something else also in the text. These people who are in such great physical and emotional need find a way of complete safety, a place where “lions” and “ravenous beasts”, symbols of danger, are not present. Echoing last week’s text (Isaiah 11), it is the blind, deaf, lame, and oppressed who receive God’s full salvation. We turn, then, to Luke 1 and Mary’s Song, a passage we hear often at Advent.

Luke 1: 1-12
46 And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.’

Mary sings this song after Angel Gabriel told her that he child would be the Messiah, while she was visiting Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist. We have this interesting scene in which John “leaps” in Elizabeth’s womb as he senses the coming of Jesus in Mary’s womb. Then Mary sings her song. Her song sounds a lot like Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2: 1 to 10, as she celebrates God’s saving action through the birth of her son, Samuel. This teenage girl celebrates the amazing truth that “the Mighty One”, that is God, has done great things for her—giving her a child before she slept with a man, a child who would save her people, indeed, who would save the world from the power of sin.

This salvation brings down rulers and exalts the humble. It fills the hungry and sends away the rich, leaving them empty. This salvation fulfills the promise that God made to Abraham when God first called Abram and Sarai to leave their home (Genesis 12). Like Isaiah, then, Mary sings of salvation and hope, which comes to those who are broken and empty and helpless here on earth. The climax and point of her song comes in these words from verses 51-53: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

The Upside-Down Reality of God
This pattern—that God fills the weaker and brings down the stronger—is a theme that runs the whole way through Scripture.

Consider Cain and Abel. Cain is the older brother (Genesis 4); Abel is the younger brother. We can debate why, but the pattern begins here—that God accepts the lower and rejects the higher.

Consider the patriarchs. Abraham’s first son was Ishmael, and his second son was Isaac. God’s line of promised salvation ran through Isaac. Isaac’s first son was Esau and his second son was Jacob. God’s line of promised salvation ran through Jacob. Among the 12 sons of Jacob (“the Children of Israel”), the oldest son was Reuben, but the line of the Messiah ran through the third son, Judah.

Even the way that Jacob’s wives and concubines bore these sons makes the point. Judah’s favourite wife was Rachel, and her son Joseph became great in human terms. One might expect the Messiah to come through Joseph, whose life in the Old Testament serves as a fore-runner of the life of Jesus. Instead, the line of the Messiah runs through Leah, who was the wife less loved (“When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive”: Genesis 29: 31). Even the priestly line (the Levites) comes from Levi, the son of Leah.

We could continue, but you see the pattern. God regularly chose to work through those who were less valued in human terms. The elder son was always the primary heir. The older son received “a double portion” when his father died, but God chose to work through the younger son and the less loved wife to bring about God’s plan of salvation for the human race.

We see the same pattern in Jesus’ ministry, captured in his well-known words, “the first will be last, and the last first.” What’s going on in this pattern? It reflects another statement with which Jesus described his own ministry (Mark 2: 17): “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” Why does God turn us upside down when God heals us? Because those who are healthy don’t need healing. Because those who are righteous don’t need saving.

Thus Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor [in Spirit], for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven/God.” I remember a quote defining the poor as we meet them in the gospels: “The poor are those who need God’s help and know it.” [I don’t remember the source of the quote.] This truth helps us understand John’s words to the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3: 14-17): “These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”

Talking About Ourselves
We are a people who value our ability to get things done. We are a people who value self-sufficiency. A basic reason that the church in North America has become weak is that we see ourselves as strong people, people who do not need a physician, people who do not need a Saviour. But of course we all need God’s help. When life crashes in around us, we realize that we are not able to take care of ourselves. When we see that, God can help us.

The principle is very simple really. We sometimes say, “God helps those who help themselves.” The truth is that God fills those who hold out empty hands. God heals those who embrace their brokenness and come for healing. If you don’t need God, God won’t help you. God helps you only when you discover and own your weakness and brokenness.

I began with the memory of my parents’ loss during their first term of missionary service at Sikalongo, in Zambia. They lost their second-born, their daughter, my sister, Dorothy. One of the consequences of that loss was to deepen their relationship with the people around them at Sikalongo. Many years later, in 2003, I went back to Sikalongo with Lois and our sons. When I met the principal of the school that is there now and he heard my name, he said, “Your parents were David and Dorcas. Your sister is buried there” (pointing to the cemetery.” There is a strong and rich bond that is created only when we have been broken and healed.

Sometimes we think that people who walk in darkness must be afraid of this season of light. But remember words of Isaiah (9: 2) “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Are you walking in the darkness of a broken relationship? God has healing and hope for you. Are you living in the darkness of death’s shadow? God brings light to you. Are you struggling to make ends meet? God brings hope for you. This is not a magic formula, but a call to lean on God and discover the life and light that God brings through the birth of Jesus in our lives. Are you walking in darkness? Come, walk in the way of God’s healing.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
11 December 2016

Sunday, December 04, 2016

God’s Harmony is at Hand

Last week we talked about God’s peace. Today we consider harmony”—a word similar to peace, but bigger. Harmony, as we see it in the passage from Isaiah 11, includes justice and righteousness, peaceful co-existence, the whole of creation living the way that God wants it to be. In its biblical form, Shalom carries a similar fullness, so that harmony may be a better word than peace to translate the idea of Shalom. This morning we want to explore this idea of harmony and hear God’s invitation to enter into a world that leads to complete righteousness and peace. We begin by hearing the text from Isaiah.

Isaiah 11:1-10
11 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.

The form of Isaiah 11 is prophecy—someone from David’s line who will bring in the fullness of God’s will. Isaiah probably had in mind someone who was a king on David’s throne in the same way as the kings of Judah who reigned while he was alive. From our perspective today we see that these words, “a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse [David’s father]”, apply to Jesus, the “Son of David”. This is a Messianic passage. As we said last week, such passages have a double fulfillment—one that takes place in Jesus’ earthly ministry, and one that takes place at the end of time.

Isaiah tells us that this “fruit of the Davidic Branch” will be filled with God’s Spirit, which brings wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, through the knowledge and fear of God. God’s Spirit brings a constellation of joy and power:
  •          Righteousness for the needy;
  •         Justice for the poor of the earth;
  •         Judgment for the wicked.
This note of judgment is one we do not hear comfortably. Are we the needy, the poor of the earth, or the wicked. These are not comfortable choices. Further, the truth that God is love has persuaded us that God therefore will not act in anger to judge the wicked. But people who live in contexts of oppression hear these passages as words of hope: The wicked who oppress them will no longer have power to do so, and they will receive instead righteousness and justice.

The further fruit of God’s Spirit through the Messiah is a radical picture of harmony: Animals that normally live as hunter and prey become friends; children do not need to fear poisonous snakes. Of course this picture is a metaphor. I have heard the question, “How will the hunters survive if they can’t eat prey?” Of course this passage is not meant to say anything about eating meat or vegetables. We don’t need to break out the Arrogant Worms singing “The Scream of the Vegetable” to argue for eating a good steak. (“All we are saying is ‘Give peas a chance.’”)

Rather, Isaiah paints a dramatic picture to make clear the fullness of peace in which the whole of creation has turned to God. So perfect harmony—peace, justice, and righteousness—is promised to God’s people as we live in the presence of Jesus in our world, and as we look forward to the return of Christ bringing in God’s Reign in power and great glory, when the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of God “as the waters cover the sea.”

A hymn (number 638) in our blue hymnal pictures this well:
God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year:
God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth unless God blessed the deed;
Vainly we hope for the harvest-tide till God gives life to the seed;
Yet nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

We turn, then, to Matthew 3, in which John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ’s first coming.

Matthew 3:1-12
3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

John came preaching the kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repenting meant to act in ways that reflect the kingdom. No one could claim exemption based on their family or on their record within the established religious structures. The only acceptable step to be ready for God’s Reign was to turn around and walk towards God. Repentance is more than “I’m sorry I did that.” John says: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” To repent is turn towards God and live the way God calls us to live. The Sermon on the Mount gives a clear picture of what this fruit looks like. In Luke 3, Luke records specific teachings by John, which echo the Sermon on the Mount. To repent is to begin to follow the ways of God’s Reign.

You have heard this sort of thing before. The Hebrew word for “repent” is shuv: To turn around. The Greek word used here in Matthew 3 is metanoias: According to my Greek-English dictionary, “A change of mode in thought and feeling.” The common thread of change, of movement in a new direction, is much more than a simple, “Sorry.” If “sorry” were enough, Canadians would have done all the repenting John asked for and more, but “sorry” is not enough. Real change, leading to the real fruit of God’s Reign in our lives, is necessary.

Of course we are not able to produce such fruit on our own. We cannot live the way that God wants us to in our own strength. So we confess our failures (here’s where saying “sorry” comes in) and open our lives to the presence of God’s Spirit, as described for the shoot of Jesse in Isaiah 11, because it takes God living in us to produce the fruit of repentance.

Have You Ever Seen a Real Conversion?
We call this process “conversion”—the change from death to life, the change from living for the rulers of this world to living for the Ruler of all Creation. Have you ever seen a truly converted person? I think of someone like C.S. Lewis. Near the end of his life an American named Walter Hooper came to help him sort out his papers. Hooper described Lewis as the “most thoroughly converted man I ever met.” We know Lewis through the Narnia Series and his other writings, but Hooper was referring to his general conversation and lifestyle. Lewis had many small charities he had started: people he supported through various uncertainties in their lives. He was unfailingly generous in life and in his conversation. He produced “fruit in keeping with repentance”. This is what it means to enter into God’s harmony with all of creation.
(A brief quote to illustrate Lewis’ charities: “As book royalties mounted during the later 1940s, and continued to spiral upward thereafter, C.S. Lewis refused to upgrade his standard of living. Partly out of disdain for conspicuous living, but mostly out of commitment to Jesus Chris, he established a charitable fund for his royalty earnings. Neither the extent nor the recipients of C.S. Lewis’s charity are fully known. Indeed, he made valiant efforts to conceal this information. It is known that he supported numerous impoverished families, and underwrote education fees for orphans and poor seminarians, and put monies into scores of charities and church ministries.” From http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/40)

I think of a quite different organization, A Rocha. A Rocha (which means “The Rock” in Portuguese) began in 1983 in Portugal, started by Peter and Miranda Harris. Harris has described their story in Under the Bright Wings and in Kingfisher’s Fire. He tells how they began their conservation efforts in Portugal as an expression of their worship for the Creator of the earth. Today their efforts have spread around the world, including to A Rocha Pembina, which began in 2000. In a real sense they are making visible Isaiah’s vision of a truly restored creation. They are producing “fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Last week I spoke about the movement of God’s Spirit within“the house of Islam”. David Garrison tells the story of Rafiq, a North African immigrant living in Paris in 2001, where he pursued his career as a musician. Garrison intereviewed Rafiq and tells his story in A Wind in the House of Islam (81-84, 96-97). This again is the story of a truly converted couple, whose lives are producing “fruit in keeping with repentance”.
(I do not tell the story here, but refer the reader to Garrison’s book. The story is of Rafiq and his wife Nora, and how Rafiq fell in love with Jesus through a crucifix in a cathedral in Paris, and a picture of the Good Shepherd; then wrote a musical of the life of Jesus. He returned to his home in North Africa, where he lives with his wife and children, writing music in French, Arabic, and the Berber language. The story is well worth reading.)

What About Us?

What then should we do during Advent? God invites us to turn from our lives of conflict and discord and embrace the harmony and peace of God’s Reign. When we do so, we find that God’s Spirit moves in us to bring about the kind of peace that Isaiah describes. We may still live in difficult situations, but at the centre of our lives God gives a wholeness and joy that lives in harmony with God. We become pictures of peace in times of storm, people in whom God’s goodness shines. God’s wholeness and harmony is at hand; come, walk in the way of God’s peace.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
4 December 2016