Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Handwashings

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (Matthew 27:14)

I have spent a major portion of my lifetime in fellowship with people of faith. This has included stretches of both gratitude and some frustration with these my fellow faithful. Also, a good portion of my days in company of those who do not share my faith claims. You might say I have been among both the sacred and the profane! In hindsight, the greater gratitude is for relationship with those not of my faith claims – possibly because lower expectations often yield less disappointment. Now having said this I do however offer a humble thank you to those who opt to continue reading. ๐Ÿ˜Š

I raise this opening thought only as a way of muddling into something considerably evident these days as a huge number of us baby boomers hit the retirement track. Also as indicated in previous blog ("Saints and Saintliness", Nov 2), we now have time for thinking or conversing or arguing or wishing or pretending. Post WWII baby boomers apparently have had it good, giving us the vantage of the privileged, not necessarily because we are all rich but because we have not been traumatized like many of our parents or grandparents or as presently experienced by some of our generation or younger ones in other countries of the world – Ukraine, Myanmar anybody? We are the ones grown up in democracy and therefore have made career and lifestyle and faith decisions as though it was our God-given right! Now we hold forth long and hard on many things especially from the vantage of the career path freely chosen by us which gave us the great wisdom (!?). Hence the large arsenal of opinions and proposals for solutions whether medical, social, spiritual, political, or mental or…  and everybody seems to think their latest analysis needs to be listened to!

Even from this vantage we take ourselves quite seriously. For example immediately following the latest Alberta by-election in Brooks-Medicine Hat, and at one of these seniors gab-fests I ventured that it accomplished about as little as the midterm elections in the U.S. Apparently it wasn’t funny – enough rednecks in this group to forge right on into similarities/differences of Danielle Smith or Jason Kenney, no mention of Rachel Notley! And then conversation continued into “masks or not”, no comment about healthcare professionals fired as first order of business by our new premier.  Life is hard for a socialist Christian in Alberta! ๐Ÿ˜€

My wife and I are privileged to have friends. Relationships so important to us, we frequently get into heated exchanges with each other regarding who or what must be considered as we think about an eventual further retirement locale. Yes, family, friends, faith community, neighbors, and in my case even an enemy or two, all are important as we make major life decisions. Obviously as social beings, we still hobnob most conveniently among persons of similar interest, education and age. We have a tendency to swarm no matter how we like to think we are neighborly or inclusive or whatever we call it. Occasions of gathering or relationship usually call upon fellowship, including conversation, and that is where we get to topic at hand. Conversations include a lot of problem-solving and entertainment - truckers call it bs - and often not much more!

Pilate was a Roman procurator during the time of Jesus, one of several who followed shortly after King Herod’s death. The Romans were the authority over Palestine; taxes required to fund the empire growing at the time of Jesus’ teachings and healings. There was much talking, much enthusing and railing and wondering from his own people the Jews about how can one who claims to be God incarnate be with them and yet tolerate, even respect the Romans (two interesting scriptures on this, Matt 16:16 and Matt 22:21). The occasion of the big showdown, of Jesus’ crucifixion, happened during Pilate’s watch. The energy, the mob mentality, the bloodthirstiness, came from Jesus’ fellow citizens, not from the Romans. Without seeking to justify Pilate, it is important to understand his handwashing, his clear demonstration of capitulation to the demand of the Jews. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” (Matt 27:21). Yes, he illustrated to them that the blood would be on them, including the betrayer Judas, the chicken -#-* disciples, his own family, and of course the High Priest and the law system. This produced the horror often explained as what had to be done in order for the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29b). My view is that this version of theology is mostly talk, efforts by religious ‘experts’ to try to explain why a savior had to die! I see it as mob action which caused the death of Jesus, moreso than his destiny. Systematic theologians (many of them also baby boomers) write books to explain why Jesus needed to die in order to be savior of the world. There is more to faith, yes christian faith, than a systematic explanation. Faith is an experience.

As indicated above, we have a tendency to hobnob, socialize (visit), write books, for likeminded people about things apparently important, sometimes attempting solutions not available to armchair philosophers. Is it an occasion where winners or losers need to be declared? It’s a bit like the talking heads (experts) positing all kinds of analyses of NHL hockey games with little or no thought of the players themselves as  persons. Genuine relationships at risk, sometimes it's only the game.

Relational conversations include give and take, silence, introspection. A recent breakfast meet yielded this noteworthy statement. “Leadership positions are absolutely impossible these days” said my friend. “Yes but,” said another, “is that an excuse for those who have those positions to provide no leadership?” Good question. And the ‘conversation’ continued and got a little more animated. This was quite a good occasion actually, but it yielded the differing points of view. Before you know it, two brothers in the faith have a little difficulty looking each other in the eye. The injunction to wisdom is already present in the O.T. "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10a), and of course it was fully exercised by Jesus when he gave the gift of silence, of love, of submission to the will of those who must have it their way. He gave his life, yes bearing the cost. 

Fascinating, in the last several years I have been privileged to participate in our city's Interfaith Council. A suggested plan for this next year's United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week is to  include an official 'silence' within the ceremony to communicate our shared desire for God's peace to reign over and within us, especially as we acknowledge the present brokenness of our world. In this interfaith environment I have enjoyed some excellent conversations with friends of other faiths - full opportunity to speak about Jesus bearing the cost, and yes, dying because we, yes us, have trouble understanding the love of God. From the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).

God forgive us? The opinions are free, at least so far in this country. Maybe even us smart baby boomers still have a few things to learn. The gas and the grocery prices are going up!

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Saints and Saintliness

An oft-used generic expression for death is “the other side.” It provides us with that all-purpose image of … exactly that! The most common occasion of assembly these days is funerals or ‘celebrations of life’ as many of us baby boomers head in that direction. In this environment of recently departed friends, relatives, parents, grandparents there are many variations on said topic. We do need images to help us celebrate or grieve or pray with or whatever it is when multi generations gather in today’s pluralistic society. At time of death “the other side” is an equalizing image perhaps acceptable to a good chunk of the population. The image may be inspired by a sympathy card with picture of angels or soft clouds, or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or other funeral home type creations. So whether it’s a religious service or not, images of the other side are easy to come by.   

Death is indeed the occasion of seeking the sacred texts, whatever the religious moorings. Our Bible includes still the powerful and most touching image, Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders (Hebrews 12:1). Even with the departed now beyond interviews and explanations, the vantage of that person looking over us from over there is a comforting one. Those just departed; both their absence and their presence are so very comforting and significant, I think. Needless to say this may bestow sudden angelic qualities on the departed they themselves not aware of and may never have been looking for. I also find that cloud of witnesses helpful for reflecting on my life journey of threescore and ten plus years.

Every time I visit my home province of Saskatchewan I stop by the country graveyard not far from the home place to say hello and goodbye to my dear mom and dad. Their earthly days now over, and well testified by family and neighbors and friends now engraved “side by side” for all to see. I’m glad for these occasional graveside holy moments, even though I was not always impressed with my parents' ways, nor points of view (definitely not always in agreement with dear old dad). I now envision them looking down with love and encouragement, probably appreciating the cemetery visit as much as I enjoy the security and the love of that place.

I know my parents have ‘been there done that’. I know it even more clearly having read latest edition of Preservings (No.44, Spring 2022) a history journal detailing the Old Colony Mennonites deciding whether or not to move away from this worldly Canada to reside in the welcoming country of Mexico. My parents did not join the throng even though my dad’s parents and some of his siblings chose the departure and lived the rest of their days there - grandparents buried in Durango. My parents stayed here in this country, raising their family on a dairy farm - a bright, quizzitive, healthy, energetic brood of nine boys and three girls - in this worldly environment of sports and school activities and all kinds of neighbors and traditions and questions asked by us every day. When another batch of Old Colony relatives and friends a few years later made another move (auswanderung) to ‘God’s land’ in LaCrete, Alberta, I recall my dad’s slightly cynical but firm declaration that we would not participate in that escapism. “The devil will probably show up there too!” ๐Ÿ˜  Nonetheless he was charitable to them, even submitting our three-ton farm truck to hauling some loads of furniture way up into that northern Alberta hinterland for them.

1973 DODGE D800 at MarketBook.ca

 Myself being a young teenager at that time I was enthralled with my parents' bravery in standing up to some churchly expectations which they could not abide by. I respected them for it, and also appreciated their encouragement for us to do well in elementary and high school, even if it was the government public system! This became a significant factor in my own faith decision and later formation. From their heavenly vantage now up there within that cloud of witnesses, I would love nothing better than to hear another assessment from my dad of how we are doing so far! They were and they still are my parents!

This morning’s devotional reading is on same topic (Rejoice!, MennoMedia Vol 58, no 1, 2022). Only it moves that idea of saints in heaven to what they may have been like during their earthly days, well ahead of the funeral and post-funeral sentimentalities. In other words, what saintliness might characterize us as we go about our daily affairs in the here and now? Gentle Wisdom is the term used by the writer Leonard Beechy as he ponders the impact of some of those persons on his life, and so invites us readers to do the same. Basing his thoughts on James chapter 3, Beechy, makes reference to All Saints Day (Yes, the day after Hallowe’en - many lawns and trees in recovery from skeletons and goblins and witches laying or hanging around - the irony of a morbid dismissive death evening followed by attention to saints). The devotional goes on, “Let us search our memories for those whose presence has warmed and illumined us with models of divine wisdom. They are part of our cloud of witnesses, a community beyond time that surrounds and blesses us.” And then he concludes with another reference to the Apostle James, who, “makes clear that, God help us, we need to embody this gentle wisdom ourselves” (p.66).

Good reminder for me, this slightly worn out workaholic. Life is not only the things accomplished in these brief earthly years (check out Isaiah 40:7). It also includes the  memory and consideration of those who have gone before. We are a part of all that we have met. What we do with that begins here and now. Our high calling to saintliness begins with the words, the actions, the spirit we offer to the next person we meet.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:17-18).

 

 

Monday, October 17, 2022

Deacons

In the same way, deacons[a] are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. (1 Timothy 3:8)

This threatens to be a boring article. In fact, congratulations for reading the first sentence. To the uninitiated, the word deacon probably brings up either blank or stereotypically negative images perhaps gleaned from a television show or a novel which may have placed them in the legalistic old-fogey religion category. None of these are true. Deacons are the most important people in any Christian fellowship that has even a breath of life. So here we go. This is an exciting subject. 

I discovered deacons in my fifth year of pastoral ministry, already a seminary grad and into my third (yes) position as pastor. Previous tenures had been brief not because I got ousted but because I ousted myself, thinking I needed to pursue further training (I took on my first position before seminary). Anyway, my real discovery of deacons did not happen among all that further training. It was not learned at seminary, but on the job shortly thereafter.

I landed a position that was good for the ego - lead pastor of a brand new church in an urban setting. I was youthful, excited, the people were excited … and then I promptly got nervous, not quite sure what to do with all this. This congregation seemed to have been made in heaven, or at least standing at the edge of the promised land. It was begun in an environment of ultimate cooperation and oversight from a mothering congregation, and deacons were on the menu in the new organizational bylaws and constitution being worked on – our template of officers not all that different from mother church (very important when you need the mothering support๐Ÿ˜‰).

I confessed my nervousness in an early meeting with the freshly appointed deacons, some anxiety that I might screw it up and it could be a bad dream for all of us! They smiled and they rallied, confessing some similar things, and just like that there was a melding. We were a team, on the same page supporting each other, and what’s more they became the experts on what was going on among the people. All we needed do was have some conversations – listening and speaking and some prayers. Deacons became the heartbeat of a caring growing loving fellowship of believers.

This morning’s devotional reading (Rejoice, Vol 58, no 1, MennoMedia, 2022) was from Acts 6, the initiation of deacons in the early church. It seems like my story. Deacons were appointed because the apostles, the preachers were not getting around to the depths of need among the people – and they did something about it! Needless to say the New Testament goes on with the many adventures of those early apostles: PauI, Peter, James and John with fellow adventurers like Barnabas and Silas and Timothy, and much reference to decisions needing to be made as the new fellowship took shape. Deacons were part of that, especially as varying gifts within that group of believers were discovered and recognized (eg 1 Cor 12; Eph 4; Rom 12). The new fellowship experienced all the challenges of people finding each other in a new way (1 Cor 14). Deacons were there, not making all the speeches, but undeniably at the heart of the new communities (see also 1 Tim 3). Not unlike the early church, I know from personal experience at that early kairos meeting, my ministry could not live without these persons.

So why does the Deacon image slip into the boring boring category? Why? I think it is because we are addicted to stimuli, entertainment, distractions. Within this environment of appetite sin can take root (James 4:17). Jesus would refer to this as wheat and tares growing together. It can easily show up among leaders, often allowing strong personalities or rank to rule so that preachers become strategic (careful) in their preaching (2 Tim 4:2-3). Deacons, very important here, may not be the first to be chosen as the speakers or spokespersons or those 'up front,' yet absolutely essential especially if the gathered group is composed of humans! ๐Ÿ˜ŠDeacons are needed to hang in with us – not as people pleasers but as truth seekers. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32); “you always have the poor with you” (Mk 14:7); “blessed are the poor in spirit” plus that full row of beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12). Jesus has endless encounters with the beggars, the sick, the evil-possessed. At the heart of encounters with ‘less than’ circumstances we need not only the answer man. We need the Jesus person (Jn 14:6), and the way to encounter this Jesus was with help of those around him, namely the disciples during his earthly ministry among the people, and by deacons in the early church. This becomes ever so clear for anyone who will take the time to read chapter after chapter of the New Testament epistles.

Unfortunately, this biblical truth is kind of optional these days. The dirth of deacons is especially evident in today's North American preacher-centred pop Christianity. Even churches encountering the present shortage of pastors seem to forget the biblical model for church that is administered from within rather than from without. The secular business model has become the mode operandi. So instead of calling to the best of resources within, there is a search for just the right pastor, often administered by a human resources committee!

Similarly the current trend of hiring for every task to be performed. Recently my wife and I visited an urban trendy church. Before an usher got to us, we were already met by a Pastor of something (forgot her specialty) who gifted us with a Tim Horton’s gift card! I would have preferred a plain old deacon or even a volunteer greeter. Rather than smiley associates, youth pastors, children’s pastors, outreach pastors, teaching pastors, preaching pastors, etc. I'm on lookout for those at the heart of congregational living, not necessarily the ones paid to  smile at me in the foyer. A number of years ago I visited a Catholic Church in Jamestown, North Dakota (passing through town on a Sunday morning). I found a sanctuary alive with warmth and friendliness, an atmosphere that continued throughout the service. Even the Eucharist, fully blessed by the young priest as per Roman Church requirement, was served by a group of deacons! It was a blessed occasion, blessed sacrament, blessed worship, a service this low-church Mennonite could easily relate to.

The trend in almost all churches is to digitalize. Everything appears on screen - announcements, sermon titles, Bible texts, responsive readings, pictures, etc. to the extent that the mind goes blank. These digitalized services depend on professionals or at least those with the technical know-how. Similarly, office work in these churches is taken care of by employees not necessarily in the know of congregational life. And so the message or the fellowship spirit can easily go AWOL among all the Eventbrite or Facebook happenings!

“The Medium is the Message”, said Marshall McLuhan about a half century ago, Understanding the Media (Sage Publications, 1964). Checking this out on Google, I was surprised to see my point being made precisely. Says Google, “… the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.” The essence of our faith can easily become stilted towards the media savvy, the pew sitters, or virtual sitters, and of course controlled by those who 'hold office.' When the meeting is dominated by screen, the essence can easily be lost. For example, This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Ps 118:24) or I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Ps 122:1). These are Calls to Worship, not something to be nuanced on a screen!

Deacons have and must continue to represent the divine Life within a community of believers. This is an everlasting required presence in season and out of season. They will not be enamored by latest fads, but uphold preachers and congregants alike, helping all to walk in accountability to one another and in faithfulness to the one who is Lord of all.

Boring? Not at all. Thank you for reading to the end here. ๐Ÿ˜Š Deacons are the ones, regardless of denomination, whether in high church or low church congregations, whether of systematic, historicist or new age theology. They are the ones with the biblical diakonos mandate to walk with all of us, every variety of personality and giftedness or neediness, not only to minister to those within, but also to pray for and equip all, including the preachers, to reach out with that good gift of new life in Jesus.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Out of Silence

Many years ago I read a book by then contemporary author, Elizabeth O’Connor. Journey Inward Journey Outward was title of the book (Harper & Row, 1968) and it gifted me with a framework for my spiritual journey and also professional understanding which moved my life in ways I had not dreamed of as possible. I had an early entry into pastoral ministry, but even after a few years of experience and seminary graduation under my belt, I had need of what was provided at that crucial point. O’Connor’s book is simply a story of Church of the Savior in Washington, DC and its innovative ministries. She wrote of this church’s vital balance of engagement with self, God, and others (Journey Inward), and how it proceeds from this to involvement with the needs of the greater community (Journey Outward). I was hooked, consumed this book as well as a number of others by this author, also began reading another prolific author, Father Henri Nouwen. Interesting how resources from beyond sometimes provide just a little more than we know we need! Anyway, I was taken in by O'Connor's convincing thesis that quietude is absolutely essential for any person or any faith community of any kind to have a breath of life. There is death if we are dependent on ideas only. I already knew at that early stage that my ministry would falter very shortly if somehow I did not learn something more about this.

I remember like it happened yesterday. I was appointed pastor of a brand new church-plant, a very positive process of discernment and cooperation with a parenting church which eventually provided occasion for a daughter church to begin in another part of the city. A great gift in that formative situation was that there were some very enthusiastic participants with vision and literally a willingness to do ‘whatever it took’ within this new fellowship. And mercifully it was not all rah rah, even though we were surrounded by many cheering sections from other churches as well as our denominational leaders. What a privilege to be a part of such a supportive community. Within that group among those willing workers there was also what seemed to me like a supernatural yearning for something beyond the enthusiasm, the lively singing, the ball games and small groups, etc. This yearning was kind of ironic because outwardly there was nothing missing. We were a bunch of young families with lots of noisy kids and teenagers along with many activities providing a fine opportunity for me to write some nice pastoral reports the first year or so. The environment was anything but silent. We made a lot of noise and I think I preached quite well among all of that. Yet several within our hardworking deacons group were advocating for something deeper.

Being a hard worker myself, and also kind of socially apt, able to hold up my end of conversations both loud or quiet, I sensed this ‘voice’ among us was probably of God, needed to be heeded. That is how we became acquainted with the story of Church of the Savior. In short order there were some of us, along with a number of persons in other churches of similar interest, participating in Silent Retreats with resource persons from that unique church all the way down there in D.C. I still don’t know who paid travel expenses for the resource person because the retreat costs were quite reasonable (Probably a supportive benefactor or two writing a few good cheques). At any rate these retreats I believe became a godsend for our congregation. It is within silence that we began to listen more deeply to one another. It enabled us to hear one another and it provided confidence for those leaders working with the pastor to do what needed doing, even modeling considerable transparency including both pains and inspirations. There was a growing comfort in being with one another regardless of what was being spoken or not spoken. We began to experience some faith commitments and requests for baptism and membership even from those who still had considerable questions. They became members of a church still in formation. The church started to grow!

As the pastor I was encountering a mysterious paradox. The congregation included a considerable portion of persons who liked proclamation, ie strong unapologetic evangelical preaching, as well as those desiring a more meditative liturgical worship experience. I found these both personally acceptable, actually quite comfortable in both worlds ๐Ÿ˜€ fully convinced that Jesus’ powerful teachings and miracle works came out of essential quiet times (Mark 1:35; Matt 26:36) this also with good O.T. support (Isaiah 32:7) as well as N.T. epistles (eg Eph 5:21; 1 Pet 5:5). Both ends of this preference spectrum seemed to be acceptable in our fellowship - even for the ones of no fixed opinion! Services were always planned carefully by pastor working with rotating worship leaders as appointed by a worship committee. In hindsight I attribute the church’s early growth to the people’s comfort with both ‘holy preaching’ and ‘holy quiet'.

Silence is still a mysterious go-to this many years later. Many churches are now in the empty pew syndrome. Even as Sunday morning attendance is waning I observe some hints of longevity, which seem to be new discovery or possible recovery thanks to ... silence! For instance, a women’s group in our church continues with a recently identified clarification that they love to sit with, to be with one another – actually a book study which includes sharing which grows out of quiet. This method of being together seems to be surviving pandemics or leadership variations or styles or what have you. Interestingly the church in Acts at its beginning experienced that very thing (see Acts 2:46-47). This is a usable transferable reality: My son’s mother-in-law meets weekly with a group of fellow seniors in Peterborough, ON. Pandemic Zoom meetings only strengthened their commitment and belief in God’s presence in their Friday meetings – always beginning with silence, and nobody ever getting anxious even with long stretches of no chinwag. What emerges out of the quiet is always gratefully received and considered, not lectures or debate but up-building one another.  Humor is there, but it shows up naturally, not because of noisy entertainers. It’s been a pleasure to join them several times.

Retirement involvements here in Calgary have brought me into the world of Interfaith, including city-wide participation in a yearly Worldwide Interfaith Harmony Week, regular meetings of Sacred Text discussions, and varieties of joint service projects. These all provide excellent opportunity to ‘be’ with one another even alongside considerable difference of worship requirements and styles including current and historic differences. These have become for me a fresh occasion to remember the things discovered during those early years in Edmonton. No matter the location or the decade, God, Allah, Creator is  present with and among us all. 

Recently our local grouping of this Calgary Interfaith Council enjoyed a potluck meal for any who wished to share food items for a Food Pantry for students in a Catholic University located in our neighborhood. The gathering seemed to be sacred quite beyond our various orthodoxies or even orthopraxis. Interfaith experiences provide opportunity for what I would call holy quietude with new friends (old friends?) ironically also including clergy from the Roman Church, that same denomination of colonialism so critiqued by so many here in Canada these days. I have come to appreciate the blessed thoughtfulness, some humility and the healthy participation of this Church in exemplary ways in our communities (cf my blogpost "Using the Church", April 13, 2022). Let those of us in our churches without sin (John 8:7) cast the first stone. And the Indigenous? Always fully present and onsite, to wit: an ordained United Church Minister from the Chinook Winds Region, simply one of the gang.

I conclude with some reflection gleaned during the years toward the end of my pastoral ministry when I retreated to the safety of wide open highways as a longhaul trucker. Actually this was a retreat into what I mention above – what I had tasted early in my profession. Although I received professional mental health assistance to navigate a considerable mid-life decision, I knew my best therapy was going to be connected to what I had learned in those earlier years of pastoral ministry. My mental health needed silence. Even as I envisioned endless highway miles, I knew I would not survive driving team. I did not need a driving partner, especially not a yappy one. I needed the silence of a quiet obedient truck, which is why in short order, with the assistance of my financially astute wife, we purchased the needed truck. The spiritual journey was able to continue for another 20 years until retirement! Had I not identified that early need for silence I would not have recovered as I did. Also, I know this was a key to my enjoyment of life in this present ministry of retirement.

26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.” (John 17:26)