Saturday, April 30, 2022

Through those Doors

The season of Easter seems to have come and gone rather quickly this year. No, I refer not to ongoing wintry weather or Easter basket hunts slightly awry. I refer to my ‘faith addiction.’ In my experience – and therefore by deep conviction - Easter is the climax or centrum of the church year, and it is an occasion I am reluctant to let go  of. At any rate, I am relieved, and even inspired to have receive some further Easter resurrection teaching this last Sunday, a full week after Easter! 

Easter Sunday the Gospel reading (John 20:1-18) was about Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, who immediately recognized him as Rabonni, “Teacher,” and hastens to go tell the others, those disciples hiding away trying to make sense of the horrible ending to their three-year apprenticeship following this life-changing inspiring still confusing rabbi. Now this 2nd Easter was the latter half of that same gospel chapter (20:19-31). Those very disciples squirreled away in a nearby room, suddenly Jesus standing among them, “Peace be with you!” (:19). This twofold descript of Jesus appearing to the women and to the disciples cannot be ignored. 

First off, it is women who receive the first look. Why? Because they were tending to what needs doing; the spices, the burial rites. No matter the horrible indignity committed against teacher, against friend, against son, their grief put them front and center. Not only were the women present at the crucifixion (eg John 19:25), but also on hand as first witnesses. Not only in John but the other gospels, it is Mary mother, Mary wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, Joanna wife of Herod’s household manager (yes!), and Salome wife of Zebedee, these women are there. 

Who are the persons providing good pastoral leadership in today’s churches? It is women. Although sometimes stated as an evidence of shortage of preachers, the significance of women in leadership roles is palpable, definitely more than supply and demand. It is God providing the ministry needed. My seminary years were in the season of introduction to ‘women's lib,’ forefront of a new awareness, many of them angry academics providing new challenge for administrators and of course still resisted in churches. By now, fifty years later, women leaders are not the angry ones. 

No, quite the opposite. Many are providing the quality pastoral care – considerable relief from the ego consciousness of the male persona. Needless to say, not all male clergy are position anxious, and neither are all females the warm nurturers. There is the anima and the animus, masculine and feminine energies of varying degree in both male and female persons, so says Carl Jung (1875-1961), a famous psychiatrist who established analytical psychology. My intent here is not to pretend my way into the field of 'shrinks,' but I touch on it here only to emphasize the very significant fact of women the first ones to encounter the resurrected Jesus!

Secondly, this matter of men in hiding. 😓 These fellows, overwhelmed with the things just happened, desperately trying to make sense of it all, and of course 'afraid of the Jews' suddenly have Jesus standing among them, "Peace be with you" (:20). There is no "Aha I told you so," no gloating, no censure or scolding for their sleepiness in Gethsemane, or those siblings James and his younger brother John jockeying for position, or Peter’s recent hypocrisy in the high priest's courtyard pretending he did not know Jesus, for their shameful fearfulness, their running away. Jesus breathes on them (:22) and they are enabled to do that which they had said they would do. Even Thomas who was absent at the first reveal, after he gets the full satisfaction of touching the nail holes, receives the full assignment just like the others. These were the wimps; they receive the challenge. Go!  

All of us uniquely created, there are differing ways of spiritual encounter. The resurrection of Jesus, as described in the scriptures is a most convincing display of God having come among us and absolutely equally available for all. If in doubt, read John 20 again! The feminine way (anima), not exclusively the way of women, and the masculine way (animus) certainly not the exclusive ticket of menfolk. Myself apparently wired with some anima energy, I find Apologetics or Systematic Theology - the discipline of explaining how God gets things done - quite boring. 😏 Of greater interest to me is the appearance and the presence of the resurrected Jesus (Yes, walking in through closed doors in his peaceful demeanor). So, without going into the politics and opinions of gender ministry, I conclude simply with the following.

Christian ministry cannot happen without encounter with the risen Christ Jesus, this also well illustrated in a recent devotional which I read (Rejoice: Vol 57, No.3, MennoMedia). Peter one of those earlier scared disciples now the apostle Peter is involved in ministry that is resurrection driven - he himself now an on-scene participant, Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up (Acts 9:40). Resurrection living seems kind of optional in some church circles these days. In the effort to give credence to demographic realities or 'do good publicity' we read catchphrases like "Remembering Re-Membering," "The Hour has Come," "Encountering, Embracing, Embodying Christ in life, in community, in the world." etc. etc. These words are excellent articulations for growth plans, conferences and gatherings, based on meetings and consultation with specialists and event planners. Unfortunately words are only words, unless there is significant experience (or re-experience) with that risen Lord Jesus who may be appearing in surprising places just outside the meeting rooms or the church sanctuaries. 

This encounter with the risen Jesus excludes no one, not doubting Thomas, fast running John, impulsive Peter, wrong profession Matthew, Mary Magdalene, fussing mother nor loving mother. If the leaders, the assigned ones, remain huddled behind closed doors, diligently seeking new strategies and new ideas, they may not notice the risen One standing among them. Perhaps the risen One has already appeared among new immigrants, among strange new neighbors, among young people or perhaps the very old, or the indigenous who already know the Creator. 

More important than success or rank or employment in the church of the future is new life in Jesus,“I am the way and the truth and the life." (John 14:6) And more important than whether it's men or women preaching the sermons is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. He promised it before he died, "the Advocate, the Holy Spirit ... will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." (John 14:26) Jesus continues to come through doors.

“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22)


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Using the Church

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)

My blog posts of the last several years have been stridently written. It is a self-declared freedom which I continue to enjoy – and which friends and acquaintances either endure or genuinely affirm. I write regularly reminding myself that blogging is not a creative writing fest or a popularity contest nor written for book publishers. It is me from my homey vantage which was there when I preached sermons and will likely continue till the day that I die. Within that freedom on many occasions I have distinguished between faith and church, arguing repeatedly that genuine faith is not coterminous with church, citing repeated illustrations from truck drivers or varying profane settings which illustrated profound faith in contrast to some church situations that would illustrate anything but faith (eg "Where Have all the Churches Gone" July 28, 2021 and “Sacred and the Profane" December 16, 2020). These and other articles were bravely worded and possibly a bit overstated, but interestingly have yielded large numbers of hits and affirmations.

I attended a funeral a few days ago which is giving me considerable cause for further thought on topic of faith and churches. It was the funeral for a young South Sudanese man, shot dead by Calgary Police on February 19 last. Funeral Mass was at Holy Trinity Catholic Church. I sat in the assembly just back of reserved seating for family members along with hundreds of others at this liturgy offered by a young priest and an elder assistant along with music and soloist probably provided by parish or funeral home. It was a service which appeared standard, kind of generic, and became increasingly meaningful to me kneeling and rising as per screened instructions along with family, relatives and row upon row of African friends.

What struck me was the twofold reality played out right before my ears and eyes. It was both a service of the church and a service of the people. Not too long into service there was a disturbance off to one side near back of the assembly. A distraught woman was protesting many things, hard to understand her complaints, but causing some disturbance around her. As the troubles became more pronounced a large black man from opposite side of congregation walked calmly over to her and obviously provided some solace not only for her but everybody else in the building! The atmosphere kind of settled – still some protestations but subdued during reading of the Word and the homily. Then it resumed, even louder; this time several others joined in trying to help –  problem solving scene growing as per need. The service never faltered. The lamentations never quite ended, waves of emotion or sorrowful protest in varying intensity throughout Eucharist including the prayers of penitence, absolution, and even the censers of incense smoke. Something about this conjoined atmosphere became holy to me, even moreso as this woman came to the front and joined in with family at tribute to the deceased – her troubled grieving also part of the sharing and wiping of tears. There was minimal attention to her bothersome manner, yet full attention to her troubled spirit.

The celebrant priest did not participate in any of this extra drama. My impression was that it may have been a surprise to him too, and he accommodated it very well, perhaps aware this is what this community might do on this occasion. Nobody called into question any of the prayers or liturgy while the people grieved. After closing benediction and congregation beginning to exit following the casket a strong confident voice sang what was kind of an intonation, and then like crashing breakers, the whole church erupted in song, everybody at full volume, unabashed beautiful funeral dirge, powerful, tearful. I knew not the words, but I knew I was part of a huge mass choir. Thoughts of the heavenly worship in Revelation 5 came to mind.

There is inspiration in this service of space and liturgy offered by the Catholic Church. With minimal words of welcome or commentary about the deceased, especially the emotional circumstance of his death, it was a service of prayers to usher this brother into presence of almighty God, forgiving sins and commending to his eternal home, providing opportunity for those who desired to also taste of the living bread (There were only about a dozen who took communion on this occasion). In hindsight I recognize now that the liturgy and the disturbance were both essential to make this a genuine holy occasion, fully reinforced in the sharing time from the pulpit which followed. Here a daughter of the deceased shared tearfully her love for her dad, and also conviction that he should not have died just yet, with others wiping her tears while she spoke, including the distraught lady who had made all the noise earlier! In my mind this is what embodied the service which then perfectly climaxed with the recessional hymn led by the mystery cantor. Beyond a doubt at this funeral mass I knew myself to have been in the presence of God.

The Church. I have always equated it to the faith community of those who have made adult decision to become followers of Jesus Christ. In the last while I have become somewhat critical of today's churches seemingly more attentive to institution or building maintenance than spiritual ministry. Needless to say this gathering of black mourners so well accommodated by the world’s largest liturgical church leaves an impression on me. Seems to me I saw demonstration of being church, rather than many these days still trying to do church. 

This is the church which has been found wanting by evangelicals because of minimal requirement of personal faith commitment, found wanting in recent years because of clergy misconduct and recent further discovery of residential school horrors like burial of unnamed children on church property. This also is the church at present time with new  attention to evangelism, youth education and pastoral care as well as stepping up to the plate to confront environmental and sociopolitical developments in the ‘world’s lungs,’ namely the South American rainforests (see Beloved Amazonia, Pope Francis, Orbis Books, 2020).

So, perhaps a bit of corrective is in order here. I still maintain personal faith is more important than institutional form and liturgy. It appears, however, that a repentant church which allows itself the avenue of selfless service, as demonstrated at this funeral, is a good testimony and invitation to personal faith. The Protestant mode operandi of pulpit ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ no longer has the lustre it had, especially when the pulpiteers themselves fall victim to the very sins they are apparently proclaiming us out of. Seems to me therefore that churches whether Catholic or Protestant or in-between who by their very being allow themselves to be used for the benefit of all; they are the ones who will hear "Well done, good and faithful servant(s)!" (Matthew 25:23)


Saturday, April 9, 2022

The Human Condition

My thinker has been quite active the last couple of weeks. Surprise? Probably not. Those who have read previous posts know that this was the bane of my father and perhaps of other family members to this very day – this eldest son, the nescheah always asking questions and then offering perspective about everything.  Also, this is the season of Lent: lots of lent-type things. I decided this year it would not be a mere resolve to ‘give up something’, but to actually focus my thoughts and my very being on what’s going on around us these days. So what’s new, you may be thinking,😕 everybody else thinking about that too! True, therefore good season to think about those many things! Here we go.

I just finished reading a book. This type of book is not in my regular diet, but read because I am a fan of this author and my daughter brought it home for me from Value Village. John Grisham is good. His books are thick, and I read them at three times the speed of my other reads. It’s a page turner. Every chapter ends with a trigger which ‘must be resolved’ hopefully in first paragraph of next chapter! Himself being a lawyer, Grisham describes high stakes courtroom dramas, providing the reader with intrigue and moral quandaries well demonstrated by accused and plaintiffs, by researchers, jury selection, colorful feisty lawyers, lots of community gossip and often quite likeable judges. This book, A Time for Mercy (New York: Random House, 2020), features the protagonist lawyer reluctantly taking on the case of a sixteen year old boy who shot his mother’s boyfriend dead, and needless to say our lawyer friend ‘gets very involved’ in all that follows. Excellent read.

Also I am presently engaged in very interesting Sunday School lessons. In our church this Lenten season we have a series entitled  “Imitating Jesus” ( Without going into much detail, this is a quick overview of a never ending theme in churches. Who is Jesus? How do you recognize him? recognize other followers? misunderstand him even like his disciples? and Jesus’ death and resurrection quite timely for this season in the year of our Lord 2022. In my mind this is essential material even for those of us who think we already know it all. 😐

My thinker? It’s about this novel just read and the Sunday School class. It’s also about the sacred and the profane. It’s about life these days. Within both there are some commonalities. Whether in church or in courtroom or watching National News, some things are playing out in similar tune. This year I am inspired and also troubled by those of us in faith communities. Even as we have yet another dose of holy seasons – Muslims’ Ramadan and Christians’ Lent and Easter, I am kind of troubled by things wanting to get back to business as usual after two years of covid, yet not quite sure what is usual in the worldwide unfolding of things. Russia kowtows to a ruthless demented leader, member of Russian Orthodox, pommels a neighboring country composed of relatives and friends in a horrible and inhumane display of brokenness. Other European countries and NATO negotiate with the rest of the world, including the still superpower United States, to provided necessary bombs and artillery to keep economies going even while providing necessary sanctions to isolate Russia. The world mixture of church and state is not getting on well! Seems somewhat consistent with the news reports I have listened to my whole lifetime (yes I’m a post WW2 baby boomer). Politically, environmentally, socioeconomically and religiously our world is not getting on well.

Given this sociopolitical reality with a little religion thrown in, it begs a question. How might faith communities actually intervene? Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox; part of the solution or the problem? Militaristic God and country American regimes, part of the solution or problem? Muslim countries watching to see who might lose? It would be so good if faith communities could discover (rediscover?) who they are, rather than cower in old orthodoxies and old rhetoric. There have been many ‘corrective’ wars and schisms within church history, and the results of those schisms cannot be equated to a present arrival at ‘true’ church. It does not follow that by now, after 2020 years or so, the church is getting close to correct understandings. No, there are too many denominations to lend credence to that idea.

This is why I affirm my denomination of the Christian community - Anabaptist Mennonites, historic peace church, neither Catholic nor Protestant, with Sunday School lessons about the teachings and the passion, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and implications for ALL. Although I often wax somewhat critical of my people slipping into new orthodoxies, some leaning toward ecumenism and others towards the evangelicals all the while lusting after Pierre Burton’s Comfortable Pew (McCLelland and Stewart, 1965), at present I posit ‘us’ as something the world is looking for. I remind us that we are in excellent position to address the human condition.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came … full of grace and truth. (John 1:14).

10 I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10).

What is believable for me, and what still keeps me solid in the evangelical camp, is a strong conviction that God still allows us to learn of God and also learn from one another. It’s there in the Old Testament. In Exodus 3 God is identified to a nervous Moses “I am who I am” (:14), and “This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation (:15). Even in this call for Moses to lead the Israelites out of trouble in Egypt, God is identified as the One. Accordingly, this God, this I AM is not culturally bound. And then in the New Testament this becomes totally clear (at a terrible price - it's Holy Week! 😓). After the new community founded by Jesus is underway, we read in Galatians chapter 3, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (:28). Huge reason for hospitality. No longer is it enough to merely acknowledge ‘those others’, but rather a full-scale invitation to become acquainted with them. This is an especial challenge and an opportunity in today's multicultural neighborhoods. In Calgary, for example, we have Muslims yes, but actually we have Ismaili, Sunni, and Shia, and also several groups kind of sectarian, followers of Fethullah Gulin and the Ahmaddaya. Also we have Sikhs, Buddhists, Indigenous Traditionalists and Christians, South Sudanese Christians of Nuerr and Dikkha tribes, and of course representatives of most Christian denominations. 

Recently in conversation with a Muslim friend, he quietly agreed that their Ummahs must grow in grace and hospitality with one another. Needless to say I assured him of that same self-assignment looking at our many Christian denominations. The learning goes on; Sikhs persecuted by Hindus, and of course us Christians can no longer deny our privileged colonialist history.

So there is more – actually now I could keep rolling. There are the artists, the novelists, those who would have us think and often entertain even while stirring our comfort levels (afflict the comfortable 😏). I just watched a Prayercast about artists struggling to find acceptance within Islam (yes often within the Church too!) <>.  Without presuming a political statement here or sounding off like a woke liberal, I do assert that there is no one sanctified church or tradition that fully and adequately represents God. Similarly, all Christians, Muslims, and all religious groups need to examine beginnings and perhaps rediscover truths in our respective traditions.

I recently watched a YouTube of an Amish worship service (filmed by a former Amish!) reminding me that those old-fashioned traditions apparently outgrown, perhaps need to be revisited. Me of the Russian Mennonite lineage, also could use an educational visit to an Old Colony Mennonite Church perhaps in LaCrete, AB one of these days. Thanks to some recent learning, I now know that my forbears’ Sunday morning worship finds them seated in almost same format as Muslims at Friday service, although Mennonites would not go so far as to remove shoes! Hmm.

That’s it for now. Back to the Future anyone?