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MCBC’s Indigenous Relations Coordinator. It gave me a great opportunity to get to know him better, hearing his stories and learning about the challenges he is working through being both First Nations and Christian. I felt honoured to get some more insights into this journey both for him as well as for our sisters and brothers who are working through these theological and faith questions. Three things particularly stood out for me during my time there: We spent one day travelling around the area and I was surprised to learn that one of Choctaw churches had been bombed during the early 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement and conflicts in Mississippi. The Nanih Waiya Church was fire bombed three times during this period by those who were angry that the congregation was working at integration. I attended a number of workshops that addressed the question of how First Nations Mennonite Christians could embrace their particular culture and understanding and celebrating those elements that had often been vilified in the past by European missionaries. This included talking about the drum, healing circles, sweat lodges and the medicine wheel. I found it particularly moving to hear of the struggles of people who had been taught for many years that elements of their culture had been deemed ‘evil’ but who now were beginning to be able to embrace them as ‘God given gifts’. And finally, I was honoured to twice be able to join drummers on the big drum during our times of worship. This was an inclusive gesture by those who were leading our worship that touched me deeply . Thanks to these brothers and sisters for their gracious welcome and hospitality during my time there.
www.pilgrimageproject.com. These were some of my thoughts. In the introduction to Thomas Cahill’s book ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization’ he writes about history in a way that I think applies equally to the history of the church and our specific history as God’s people in this time and this place. “We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage – almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, (and) gave something beyond what was required by circumstance” (p.v). I think Cahill gets at something that we value as followers of Jesus; that is, that the stories that are most true, that most reflect the God we worship who Jesus made present on earth, are stories of relationships made right, instances when grace has shone through, blessings have been received and gifts given. Now, our history and our histories don’t just include those times but they include enough of them, enough to continue to give us hope that ‘all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. I’ve thought about the relationship between historians and preachers and one of the places where passions and interests intersect is that both groups like good stories. Now pastors, as a rule, are not as concerned about the veracity of the story – whether it happened or not – as historians are. You know the old adage about never letting the truth get in the way of a good story; however, the telling of good stories that are engaging as well as truth-filled is something that both preachers and historians hold to. Phyllis Tickle recounts a denominational conference she attended where there was some serious debate over a theological point; it went on over the course of whole morning with proponents of various opinions speaking passionately from their positions. She said that during the debate she saw a young man, one of the servers, standing at the back listening intently to the conversation. At lunch she took him aside and asked him what he thought about the conversation and what his viewpoint was. He told her that on this theological point the story is so beautiful, it must be true, even if it never happened. (From The Great Emergence.) I recall hearing a story about a Mennonite who was stranded on a desert island for quite a number of years. Finally, he was found, and the leader of the group that rescued him was walking with the stranded man who was giving him a tour of the island and he pointed out his house, and his church. But there was a third building as well, and when the rescuer asked him what that building was, the Mennonite replied, ‘Oh that is the church that I used to go to.’ I think that is a story that is true even though it may never have happened because it points to those many true events in our history that actually have happened. We have had and continue to have this propensity to bring narrower and narrower ways of defining what is true sometimes to the point of even excluding ourselves! (I heard Peter Rollins tell this story on a podcast recently – same story only this time it was Seamus from Ireland!) As an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia I studied sociology and specifically looked at religion and my own story as a Mennonite. I’d been nurtured in a Mennonite church, however had found a renewal of my faith through the Jesus People and Campus Crusade and other more evangelical groups and as a result had very little use for my traditions. Probably, as with many others of my generation, I knew that history began with me and the pinnacle of understanding and faithfulness and following Jesus was exemplified in what I and my friends were experiencing. So when I began to study Mennonite history and the rich legacy that there was, I gained a new and deep appreciation for the tradition that had nurtured me and had given me this soil to grow in. Learning about those who had gone before me reshaped my understanding of faith and of the church in very significant ways. I discovered I was not in fact the pinnacle of all that God had done in the church, but rather I was receiving from those who had gone before me as I would be giving to those who came after me. I discovered John Howard Yoder while studying theology at Regent College and was drawn to the carefully reasoned responses for pacifism and clarity in theological understanding about what it meant to live as if Jesus life was saying something about how to live in the world I live in. As I read about the historical context that he came from I was struck by a couple of things. One was the conflict that he and some of the other young Mennonite scholars had in the early 1950s with their elders and leaders in the Mennonite church, as they took a different theological path and began to challenge them. They were pushing the boundaries of what the church and its theological traditions were all about. And we know the impact that Yoder has had on Anabaptist theology and on the larger theological conversations that have come about from his work. I also learned that Yoder came out of a church that had been excommunicated from its conference for an infraction (I don’t remember what) but this shaped him as well. Although the church a few years later regained its status of a congregation in good standing, it must have had an impact on how he did his theology. What impressed itself on me was that what many others and we now understand to be important elements of contemporary Anabaptist theology grew in soil and weren’t seen widely at the time. And what also became apparent was the fallibility of even the most committed and theologically astute individuals. Both grew in the same soil. I also remember studying the history of Christianity while at Regent and starting most classes with a song or a hymn; some music that came from the period we were studying and how the theology of the song was shaped by the issues of the day. I recall singing Luther’s hymn ‘A mighty fortress is our God’ and reading the verse that begins with the line ‘The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him’ and then talking about Luther’s insistence that ‘the word’ was that most powerful force on earth. This at a time when he was wrestling with the authorities and powers around him as the Reformation took shape around him. Our theology is shaped by the world around us – what we wrestle with in the church is determined by what we wrestle with outside the church. I could list many more examples of how I have been shaped by what I have learned from the telling of stories from the past of those who have been faithful (or not) and have done extraordinary things (or not). Let me end with another quote from Cahill’s book. As he recounts the specific history of the Irish in his book, I think the understanding of what is going on and what is at stake is also something that all of us would affirm to be true, for as we reflect on our history we discover that “…the great gift-givers, [women and men, church leaders, pastors and lay people] arriving in the moment of crisis, provided for transition, for transformation and even for transfiguration, leaving us a world [a church] more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found.” (book introduction)
Finding St. Paul in Film, p. 30) We don’t have solid evidence of what happened to Onesimus but the fact that this letter has been preserved for us as scripture strongly suggests that Philemon did welcome Onesimus back and took him in as a brother. There is also another clue. The 2nd century church leader Ignatius wrote a letter to the churches in Asia Minor in which he identified Onesimus as the bishop of the church in Ephesus; signs that the eruption of hope, the breaking in of the reign of God, was happening slowly but surely. For all the times when we see the failures of the church and the ways we get it wrong, we also see signs of hope, sightings of the new creation being evidenced in lives around us. The stories of slavery and apartheid being dismantled are signs of hope that, despite the power of structures and old systems which are at work holding back the reign of God, light does break through and we now look at these ways of treating others as history rather than as the way things should be. And one final thought - from our position we can second-guess Paul. Why didn’t he speak more forcefully about slavery? Why did he send Onesimus back to his master rather than confronting the powers? These are easy questions to ask with centuries of hindsight at our disposal. And so it encourages us to be gentle, and to be humble with what we think we have achieved or arrived at. As with Paul we are catching glimpses of the potential of this new reality God is growing in our world. Sometimes we get it right and other times we get as much right as we are able to see. This much we know – that God is at work in our world, renewing and recreating all things, and we are part of this holy experiment. And even if we don’t always get it all right, we are still beloved children. Paul invites us to imagine what the world can look like when there are no longer divisions that we nurture and accept as ‘givens’ in the new creation God is imagining with us. Just imagine. Thanks be to God.
While reading the story of John the Baptist, I was reminded of the U2 song “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. Since it’s release in 1987 it has been an inspirational song for millions and even though it has been played endless times in endless situations and borders on becoming trite, nevertheless, the power of the song continues. The reason, I think, is because it is speaking truth, getting as close as we can get to something that we all feel –1st century Jews as in John’s case, or 21st century Christians as in mine, or in fact any person who takes the time to think about their life. What the song elicits is this deep longing in all of us for something more, something deeper and richer and wilder and truer that we know is there. Augustine wrote “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”. It is this ‘holy longing’ that is in our being and that we hear in this song. This restlessness is part of our human condition – it is how we have been created. John Caputo comments on this longing in his book ‘On Religion’ “We all want to know who we are and what our lives are ‘about’ – that is our first, last and constant concern. That is the passion of our lives and it is a deeply religious passion. For better or worse…we do not simply live but we wonder why; for better or worse, we do not simply live but we dream of things that never have been and wonder why not… We are not content with life, with the limits that the present and the possible press upon us, but we strive and strain for something or other, we know not what… We seek but do not find, not quite, not if we are honest, which does not discourage the religious heart but drives it on and heightens the passion…(p. 18) Baptizer John is pointing in this direction as well, and it is for this reason that the people are flocking out into the middle of nowhere to be confronted by this seemingly (or actual) wild man. They come because they are hoping to find something they can hold on to as they live their lives, longing for God. When they get there he tells them that they need to examine their lives and make things right - between themselves and God, and between themselves and their neighbours. John names this repentance. They are being invited to live lives that are moving in the same direction as God’s intentions. It isn’t a hell fire sermon but rather an invitation to live fully into God’s intentions. ‘You are waiting for the Kingdom of God to break into the world?’ John asks. ‘Still waiting for the Messiah? While you wait, start living as if the Messiah has already come.’ These are the ones who recognize their longing ‘whose hearts are restless looking for God’. These ones are invited get into the water and be fully immersed in the mercy and wonder and grace of God. They are invited to start living into their longings, trusting the one who is coming will be all they hope for and while they wait, live expectantly. This advent, we are invited to live as if the reign of God is ‘already here’ but we also know just by looking around that it is ‘not yet’. John sees it breaking in with Jesus coming, but we are still waiting for the final fulfillment of all things. We still wait and long and hope. “I believe in the kingdom come, when all the colours flow into one… you know I believed it…but I still haven’t found what I’m waiting for.”
I don’t know about you but I get really jittery around awkward moments.I just want to get out ofthere! I know it is part of our human condition but I’d rather not be that close to this aspect of our humanity. But I guess this is who we are as human beings, and as it turns out, it is also part of the Gospel story. Matthew, after telling us about Jesus’ genealogy - that he is the great-great-great…grandchild of King David - let’s us peep in on an intimate exchange between a newly engaged couple just when the husband-to-be finds out that his soon-to-be-wife is expecting a baby and he knows full well that it isn’t his. This is one of those moments. A couple of weeks ago we watched ‘Juno’ at our film evening. It’s the story of a high school student who get’s pregnant and her journey. After she is finally able to blurt this news out to her parents, and leaves the room, they have a brief conversation: Dad: ‘Did you see that coming?’ Stepmom: ‘Yeah... but I was hoping she was expelled, or into hard drugs.’ Dad: ‘That was my first instinct too. Or a DWI... anything but this!’ I’m thinking that Joseph was thinking similar things when Mary told him this ‘good news’. You probably know the story. Joseph is mortified – this is scandalous and he is in a quandary. Does he make this confession public which it will soon be anyway, and would be a legitimate thing to do, or does he divorce her quietly. Continuing with the engagement and marriage is out of the question. He decides that he really doesn’t want to disgrace her because he still loves her, so determines to do the annulment quietly and let things be. But then he has this strange dream – in fact his life with Mary and this new infant is filled with a number of strange dreams – in which an angel tells him that he doesn’t need to be afraid. He doesn’t need to worry about whether she has been unfaithful, because she hasn’t been, nor about how the child came to be, because this one is a special one, ‘from the Holy Spirit’. And so Joseph says ‘yes’ to the angel’s request and takes Mary and the infant on as his own. The only thing he doesn’t have control over is the scandal which will surely follow him and his family. Awkward moments. You would think that God would find less disreputable ways to break into the world but this isn’t the way God works. The mystery and wonder of God’s coming in the flesh is shocking in many ways – from the initial shame filled pregnancy and birth, to the company the adult Jesus keeps, to the ways he expects his followers to give up all they have to follow him, to the outrageous call to treat as loved ones those who intentionally hurt us. And yet this is the amazing power of the gospel that invites us to live in love, not fear, and to join in this scandalous journey on the way that leads to life, to wholeness and grace. Have a Blessed, ‘Scandal-filled’ Christmas.
You wouldn’t be far off if your first impressions of Jesus were that of someone who liked to stir up trouble and controversy and especially if you were one of those whose task it was to keep ‘these kind’ in their place. The way he speaks of family: who is my real family – not my mother and brothers and sisters - but all those who are part of the Kingdom of God. Or in his sayings: ‘You’ve heard it was said “You shall not murder”, but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgement…’; or ‘You’ve heard it said “love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Jesus is doing something here that, when you flip to the end of the book, get’s him killed, something that is profoundly about God’s business of disturbing us in order for us to see clearly. He looks at the world around him and begins to tear down these edifices that have taken over. The keeping of the specific elements of the laws has become more important than the reason the laws have been given. The ‘letter’ of the law became the point rather than the ‘spirit’ of the law. And often Jesus followers have carried on this tradition. They picked this up when dismantling the notions of who is ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’; the idea that within the Church ‘slave’ and ‘master’ were equals, women and men had the same status and religious and ethnic distinctions were not recognized. The problem has been that the church has also been very quick at rebuilding structures and institutions that have put up the walls again and so the task of the church continues to be to do what Jesus did. John Caputo in his wonderful book ‘What would Jesus deconstruct’ writes ‘The deconstruction of Christianity is nothing new. It is the ageless task imposed on the church and its way to the future, the way to be faithful to its once and future task, to express the uncontainable event from which the church is forged. (p. 137) This is what Jesus does as he teaches. He 'opens up' the laws and intentions of God, in order to find what is at the center, what is the kernel of the Good news Jesus came to bring - about caring for the other so much that you do not even call her an 'idiot' - never mind kill her. Jesus invites his followers to do the same. “To engage the gears of deconstructive thought and practice is not to reduce our beliefs and practices to ruins…but (rather) to entrust oneself to the uncontainable event they contain, breaking down resistance… exposing them to… the kingdom that we call for, the kingdom that calls us. (pp 137-138) The church is always discerning what it means to follow Jesus – and then the church discerns again. We are always deconstructing what has been given to us in order to find that kernel – the ‘pearl of greatest price’ or ‘the treasure hidden in the field’.And this is done best in community. It is done together with others who too are stumbling along towards the resurrection. This is what it means to be part of the church - paying attention to this impossible notion of together hearing the Spirit and then living into this understanding. For faith is only really necessary for those things that are impossible. And Jesus calls us to imagine and then live in to this 'impossible possible' reality of God's intentions for humanity. But what then is the kingdom of God? Where is it found? It is found every time an offense is forgiven, every time a stranger is made welcome, every time an enemy is embraced , every time the least among us is lifted up, every time the law is made to serve justice, every time a prophetic voice is raised against injustice, every time the law and the prophets are summed up by love.” (pp137-138)