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.