Category: Suffering

It’s All Your Fault!

There are at least two reasons to like the Nashville Predators hockey team. First, the yellow uniforms. Obviously. You have to admire a team that cares so little about the intimidation factor that they’re willing to skate out in mustard yellow. Second, the Preds fans have (had?) this delightful tradition that follows each of the home team’s goals. They begin by serenading the opponent’s goaltender, chanting his last name in a kind of whiny, mocking voice, and punctuating the ridicule by screaming, “It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault, it’s all your fault!!” It’s great fun—at least if you’re on the right end of the score. I watched a bit of a Predators game last night before heading out to my own beer league hockey game where, as it happens, half of the goals our team gave up were, well, all my fault. Luckily there aren’t many fans at beer league hockey games and the few who do show up can’t be bothered to summon the requisite energy for mockery.
The season of Advent offers up an annual set of stark contradictions, at least in the West, and at least for those who go to church. On the one hand, we are surrounded by all kinds of Christmas-y kitsch and market-driven feel-good-ishness. There are lights and shopping and specialty coffees and all manner of other things designed to get us into the spirit of the season (and to loosen our grips on our wallets). On the other hand, for those who darken the door of a church during the first few Sundays of Advent, there are scripture readings that bring us face to face with wild prophets and ominous scenes of judgment and woe. There is talk of refining fires and an axe ready to fell an unfruitful tree and people shaking with foreboding for what will come on the earth when Son of Man comes in glory. There are also messages of comfort and hope, to be sure. But the season Advent thrusts us headlong into a narrative of judgment which isn’t always pleasant and certainly isn’t marketable.
The prophets are kind of a frustrating bunch. On the one hand, they offer some of Scripture’s most beautiful words of hope. They speak of the Righteous Branch who will usher in justice and righteousness. They promise a restoration of fortunes and point to the One who will gather up his people and rejoice over them with gladness. The herald a coming day when human beings will draw water from the wells of salvation with joy. They proclaim the Advent of the Prince of Peace who comes to meet the hopes and fears of all the years. They very often speak these words to people who are suffering in exile, far from home, seemingly abandoned by God, and without hope. And yet on the other hand, the prophets speak harsh language of condemnation and blame. They rant and they rave, wild-eyed, to anyone who will listen, screaming, in a sense, It’s all your fault! Your sins have caused or will cause your suffering. God is punishing you! You should know better! It’s all your fault!
There could scarcely be a less welcome message in our cultural context. This is surely victim-blaming of the very highest and most reprehensible order. This is kicking people while they are down. This is piling guilt and shame upon suffering. This is crushing the vulnerable and the weak with the intolerable burden of divine punishment as the “explanation” for their plight.  Who can tolerate such a message? Can you imagine the psychological and sociological damage that such a narrative would inflict upon a people? This is surely nothing less than unnecessarily traumatizing an already traumatized community.
It wasn’t an appealing approach for its first hearers either. The prophets were not a particularly esteemed lot. They were ridiculed and ignored, at best. At worst, they were nailed to a cross. Nobody much likes being told that it’s all their fault and we will go to great lengths to silence voices that tell us it is. And yet, the people of Israel (and, later, the church) have insisted upon preserving these words in their Scriptures. They have, retroactively at the very least, insisted upon interpreting their suffering theologically. There are socio-political explanations for why people find themselves in exile (literal or metaphorical), of course. The people of Israel knew this and we know it, too. It’s far easier to explain the Assyrians and Babylonians as the temporary fillers of a political power vacuum than as God’s chosen instrument of moral reproach for his people. But Israel and the church have scandalously insisted upon the latter approach. The judgment of God has been deemed preferable to the absence of God. It’s all your fault! has been deemed preferable to There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this.
As it happens, I’m not particularly into blaming and shaming as a pedagogical strategy.  I don’t like the image of God it implies. The prophets make me uncomfortable with all of their annoying bleating about sin and judgment and injustice and idolatry and God knows what else. I much prefer their words of hope and consolation to the rest of it. The prophets offend me, at times. And this is probably as it should be. I need the prophets. We all do, whether we realize it or not. We, who will blame almost anyone but ourselves for our trials need to be forced to entertain the possibility that some things might actually be our fault. We for whom judgment is deemed offensive—perhaps the last remaining sin—need to hear voices of a coming reckoning and refining.
The prophets hold before us a God and a coming that isn’t what we would prefer but is absolutely what we need. A God of mind- and faith-stretching paradoxes. A God who speaks both judgment and hope. A God who inflicts both a wound and a healing. A God who binds in order to set free. A God who says, “Who will comfort you at the wrath and rebuke of your God?” and “See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering.” A God who both lays the blame and takes the blame.
——
The image above was created by Patrick Foster and taken from this year’s Christian Seasons Calendar. It is a wild-eyed prophet named John the Baptist who saw something beautiful and ominious coming and offended plenty of people in preparing the way. 

 

Syndicated from Rumblings

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All Peoples Will Mourn Because of Him

For churches whose preaching is lectionary based, one of the texts for this Sunday is Revelation 1:4-8. It’s a marvelous passage that describes Jesus in some of the most exalted language in all of the New Testament. The “faithful witness,” the “the firstborn of the dead,” the ruler of the kings of the earth,” the one who is and who was and who is to come,” the “Alpha and the Omega.” It’s breathtaking stuff. The risen Christ is described as the source and goal of all creation.
There’s another section of this passage that we are perhaps not so readily drawn to:

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
    and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
    and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.

We squirm a bit at the “coming with the clouds” language. Maybe it conjures up some of the awful eschatologies we’ve spent years dislodging from our theological framework, with images Jesus as a conquering hero rampaging down from a celestial throne to settle the score. Perhaps we cringe at this image of vast swaths of humanity weeping and wailing because they didn’t recognize their king at the time of his first coming and now there will be hell to pay. There’s certainly plenty of language in Revelation, at least on a surface reading, to justify these sorts of misgivings.
But what if the mourning proceeds from a different source? What if the tears are not those of terror but of a kind of desolate relief? What if the weeping is the result of finally seeing who the ruler of the kings of the earth truly is and how he will judge? What if the wailing is due not to the dread of punishment from a king who is no different than the tired procession of power-hungry and violent kings who preceded him, but because the sad truth will come crashing down upon us: we are the ones who pierced the source of our healing and salvation; we are the ones who turned our backs on the very one who offered (and offers still) forgiveness and wholeness.
And what if—impossibly—these are also tears of trembling joy? It’s not the most obvious interpretation, I grant, but whatever else might be said about it, it is anchored squarely and solely in the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
There’s a great passage in Dale C. Allison Jr.’s Night Comes that asks us to consider the final judgment at Christ’s second coming alongside the climactic scenes of his first:

[Although] the fact is often missed, in order to [forgive Peter], he has to negate his own somber warning: “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Mat. 10:33). Peter denies Jesus. Jesus doesn’t deny Peter. He rather says to him and his miserable fellows, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). In the resurrection appearances, the unqualified admonition about denial is set aside, and mercy triumphs over judgment…
What follows? If the Gospels identify Jesus with the judge of the last day, and if they construe his passion and resurrection as a mini-apocalypse, then Christian readers might well ask, Haven’t we seen how the judge once acted when the end came, and why shouldn’t we expect more of the same in the future? If Jesus has rehearsed the end, don’t his followers have some idea of what’s coming? Will the one who repudiated violence and vengeance think better of it down the road and adopt a different policy? Will the one who forgave his enemies once refuse to do so again? Will he finally call a halt to forgiving seventy times seven?
Large parts of the Christian tradition, including a few paragraphs in the New Testament, have imagined that things will indeed be different next time. When the judge appears, forgiving enemies will belong to the past. He will have had enough of the Sermon on the Mount and of turning the other cheek. It’ll be time to revert to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The sun will no longer shine on the just and unjust, but only on the just. Evil will be requited with evil.
All this, however, requires that Jesus’ behavior in the passion narrative is a temporary strategy as opposed to a demonstration of God’s deepest character. On this view, how Jesus behaved on one occasion says little or nothing about how he will behave on another, or is even altogether misleading. Yet how then will a Christian plausibly insist that the cross discloses the divine identity, or that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever? Is it credible that the figure in the passion narratives is a passing anomaly, that Jesus acted the part of a lamb led to slaughter only as some sort of provisional strategy which will, in the end, be abandoned for some radically different tactic? Does the risen Christ bear his scars as justification for revenge or as a sign of his everlasting character?

I don’t spend a great deal of time agonizing over the logistics of the final judgement, truth be told. I am content to interpret Revelation not as an eschatological blueprint but as a powerful set of symbols that are, at best, approximations of what we can only ever understand in part. I can imagine weeping at the sight of the judge’s coming, but only because the judge and Jesus are one and the same. Tears for the recognition that all of my petty, retributive, scorekeeping views of what God is like have been miserably inadequate. Tears for the way that I have reproduced these views in my own life. And tears for the beauty of hearing—against all odds!—words like, “Peace be with you.”
So it is to be. Amen.
——
The image above is taken from next year’s Christian Seasons Calendar. It’s by Tim Steward and is called “Enveloped in Gold.” 

Syndicated from Rumblings

I See Things That No One Else Can See

He’s sitting in his chair when I arrive. That’s it. Just sitting. Not watching TV, not reading. Just vacantly staring up at the ceiling. The curtains are drawn and the window closed, even though outside it’s a pleasant October day. The air is stale, sad, heavy.
He doesn’t hear my knock on the door. He looks at me quizzically when I walk in, then a smile gradually grows over his face as he recognizes who I am. At least I think he does. I’m never quite sure. He struggles to sit up straight. Everything is slow. Everything hurts.
“How’s it going?” I ask him. It instantly seems a stupid question, particularly in a place like this. I know precisely how it’s going, which is to say, not particularly well. I know that he’s lonely, that he’s in near-constant physical pain, that he’s lonely, that he’s confused and disoriented, that the food isn’t what he would like it to be, that he’s lonely, that he misses friends who have died, that he’s lonely, that he wonders why he can’t be with his wife… Also, that he’s lonely.
He looks up at me and says with a raspy and strained voice, “It’s really terrible, this life. But I guess we gotta get through it.”
He smiles and tugs on his eyebrow. He’s been doing this since I arrived.
We drift around the edges of conversation. Sentences start but don’t finish. Thoughts float around but never really land. We talk of old days, old friends, of better times. The light in his eyes flickers. We sit in silence, waiting for something, anything to break it.
“I see things that nobody else can see,” he suddenly says. He points to the top of a cupboard where a ceramic ram sits beside a duck and an eagle. “Everyone tells me that those animals don’t move, but I see them running around all the time. They come down at night and I see them wrestling with each other. But nobody else can see this.” He sighs somewhat plaintively or impatiently—as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, but he can’t really make me understand.
I look up at the ornamental animals, willing them to move, to wrestle, to wreak a bit of blessed havoc for the sake of this dear old soul. They remain obstinately, irritatingly still.
I think of Genesis 32 and Jacob wrestling with his mysterious night visitor, of emerging from a night of madness with a limp and a new name, of refusing to let his adversary  go until he received a blessing. I think of the many hurting souls in sad and lonely places who see things that most of us can’t see, don’t want to see, refuse to see. I think of those who wrestle with things seen and unseen, who struggle with God.
I pray for my friend. Some things I pray out loud—that God would ease his pain and his troubled mind, that he would experience love and comfort, that kindness and grace would soothe his troubled days. Other things I pray in the quiet of my own mind—that he wouldn’t give up wrestling until he wrenches a blessing from the hand of God.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Why Appreciate a Pastor?

I was forwarded an email yesterday about “Pastor Appreciation Month.” I think I vaguely knew that this was a thing, but I had no idea that it was upon us. Apparently, one of the ways that my church can show appreciation to me is to give me a gift certificate for a discount on books. It’s a nice gesture. But honestly the last thing I need is more books. I already have a dozen waiting to be read and I have probably reached that stage of life and ministry where I am less optimistic than I once was that a book holds the key to whatever intellectual, pastoral, or administrative deficiencies I daily inflict upon my church. But, again, a nice gesture. And it got me pondering a rather simple question: Why appreciate a pastor?
Well, the short answer is because while being a pastor is incredibly rewarding in many ways, it’s also kinda hard. Not harder than being a farmer or a nurse or a builder or a business person or a professor, I should hasten to add. Just harder in different ways. I spent some time this morning enumerating some of the things that I, personally, find most challenging about this utterly unique position that I never imagined I’d find myself in.
I want to be explicitly clear at the outset that this is not a plea for sympathy or some kind of passive aggressive dig at my church for not being sufficiently appreciative. Nothing could be further from the truth. My church is generous and supportive to a fault. But for those who only darken the door of a church a few times a month and wonder what on earth pastors spend the rest of their time doing or how it could possibly be hard to work for twenty minutes once a week (wink, nudge), here’s some of what might be going on in your pastor’s brain when they stand up on Sunday morning. It’s what’s often going on in mine, at any rate.
To be a pastor is to wonder and worry about the future of the church. It’s natural, when one’s professional identity is tied up in the ongoing existence of an institution, to feel this anxiety. Not admirable, perhaps, but natural. These are not the best of times for the church in the West. The church is (rightly and wrongly) associated with all kinds of sins, past and present. People have walked away and continue to walk away in droves. The research and the statistics show only downward trajectories. This can be a demoralizing space to inhabit. It can also be invigorating, I should add, because it can clarify priorities and sharpen theological vision. But it takes work to see the glass as half-full when the world “out there” often sees the thing that you have given your life to as irrelevant at best. And many of us, if we’re honest, have no idea how to “fix” this or turn around trends that aren’t terribly encouraging.
To be a pastor is to often feel incompetent. It’s no secret that people can expect a lot from pastors. A pastor should be a gifted orator, a compelling theologian, an efficient administrator, a sensitive counsellor/caregiver, an intuitive asker of the right question at the right time, a thoughtful event planner, a cheerful networker, a social butterfly… The list goes on and on. A friend of mine was recently on a search committee for a pastor. When I saw the job description at the end of the process, I cringed and said, “Jesus wouldn’t qualify for that job!” Larger multi-staff churches can adopt a divide and conquer approach to this impossible list of demands, but smaller churches can’t. Often it’s one or two people that are expected to cover all that terrain. And speaking personally, after ten years in this gig I know for a fact that I am terrible at some of those things. It’s easy to feel like you’re constantly disappointing some people at least some of the time.
To be a pastor is to constantly fight the temptation to measure your worth and success in the role by unhelpful (and un-Christian) metrics. How many people are in the pews? How many of them are under fifty? How much criticism or praise did the last sermon receive? How many disinterested yawns? How many programs, articles, baptisms, meetings, and pastoral visits can I point to in order to justify my position? How’s the budget looking? Who hasn’t been around in a while? Are the customers satisfied?
To be a pastor is to sometimes feel like you are having faith on behalf of others. Not only are churches emptier and older than they were a generation or two, those who come aren’t necessarily buying what the church is selling. They’re there for community or some other felt social need, but they’re not at all sure about this “faith” business. It all feels rather exclusive and intolerant. Sometimes it can feel like people are relying on me to keep a faith that they couldn’t.
To be a pastor is to often straddle the fault lines of difficult issues. Our cultural moment is dominated by a constellation of hot-button issues (race, sexuality, gender, identity, etc.). And of course, people bring their issues to church. These issues have the potential to tear families, communities, and churches apart. They have done so in the past. As pastor, people look to you to have something definitive (or at least helpful) to say. But to be a pastor is not simply to dutifully pronounce upon the correct theological conclusions about issue x. It is also to feel a deep (and appropriate) obligation to the real human lives who are wrestling with these issues. It is to know that sometimes it’s best not to have something definitive to say for the sake of preserving a relationship. Sometimes it’s best to withhold judgment. And sometimes? Well, sometimes you just don’t have a damn clue what to say. Sometimes you just don’t know. But saying “I don’t know” isn’t something pastors are supposed to say.
To be a pastor is to watch people suffer. This one is perhaps the most difficult for me. Watching people descend into the abyss of a debilitating disease, watching age steal people’s minds and bodies, listening to the heartache of parents whose kids are carving a path of chaos and destruction through the lives of everyone around them, watching marriages fall apart, watching faith and hope wither… These things take a psychological toll. Prayer and listening and co-suffering love all matter and make a difference. And to remind people of Christ within them, the hope of glory is the truest thing I will ever say. I am as convinced as I ever was that the church must be a place where human suffering can be interpreted and lived theologically, where it can be anchored in and tethered to the suffering Christ. But it’s easy to feel profoundly helpless in the middle of it all.
This has been a bit bleak, I know. I’m (sort of) sorry about that. It doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story. And it can feel kind of small and petty when set alongside the trials faced by pastors in situations of persecution and trial around the world. But I still think it tells an important part of the story at this particular time in this particular place. I know many pastors who have walked away from the role because they found it too exhausting or frustrating or whatever. I know other pastors who struggle to put on a brave, happy faithful face on Sunday morning while inside they are falling apart. If nothing else, the preceding might inspire you to say a prayer for your pastor as they clear their throat behind the pulpit next Sunday morning. Or to remember that grace is among the best forms of appreciation.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Whose Suffering?

This is an excerpt from a sermon preached on October 7, 2018.   Job 1-2:1-10 While the question of why people suffer is at the heart of Job, there is another question I’ve been thinking about as I read the first two chapters of Job this week. I’ve been thinking about this question because our…
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Podcast: Dear Greg: Does God Accommodate, or is God Simply Powerless?

Greg wrestles with a really tough tragedy and offers theological insight.
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There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy

Another Way for week of June 29, 2018 Thoughts on Mercy It’s a song I’ve sung most of my life at church. As so often happens, I often do not really pay that much attention to the words. We enjoy the tunes and the sound but so often are minds are not open or connecting […]
Syndicated from findingharmonyblog

How the Bible Sounds in Occupied Territory

One more reflection based on my time spent in Palestine and Israel over the past few weeks. After this, I shall endeavour to give this “blogging sabbatical” thing another, better, try.
 ——
It’s an interesting thing how geography and social location affects the way you read and hear Scripture. Most Sundays, I am reading and hearing Scripture as a relatively comfortable, white, middle-class Christian in a more or less peaceful country where religion often occupies a peripheral (at best) role in most people’s thinking and living. This affects how I read and hear the words of the Bible. My default, whether I want this or not, tends to be to listen in ways that will more or less endorse and validate myself and those who are like me. This is, as I said, most Sundays. Last Sunday, however, I worshiped in Palestine.
It was a tiny little Lutheran church where we gathered in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem. It was a mixture of Palestinian Christians and foreigners who happened to be lingering around the town of Jesus’ birth. The liturgical forms in the service were familiar enough, even if the language wasn’t. But they had transliterated the readings and prayers and it was possible, with a bit of effort, to follow along. The Scripture readings were done in both Arabic and English. And given what we had seen and heard in the previous week about how the Israeli occupation was affecting our Palestinian sisters and brothers, the readings sounded, well, different.
Psalm 35:1-10
We began the service by responsively reading from this Psalm. I am used to reading psalms like this through the lens of either the ancient Israelites or the suffering church. But it was impossible, in this place, to not hear through the ears of those who presently find themselves on the wrong end of the score in the Holy Land—those who are harassed and harried by teenage soldiers wielding automatic weapons, those who endure endless checkpoints and discriminatory policies restricting where they can go and when and how, those who are increasingly sequestered into urban ghettos by legislation that seems cruelly crafted to drive them from their farms and their land.

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me!
[S]ay to my soul, “I am your salvation…”
For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.
Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in his deliverance. All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”

I don’t really have anyone contending with me in Canada, no real need for a shield or buckler. But my sisters and brothers from Beit Sahour do. They long for a strong arm of deliverance from those too strong for them.
It is grimly ironic that those who see themselves as descended from the same David who penned this Psalm, those who were once the weak that needed rescue from those who despoiled them, are now the ones that Palestinian Christians are praying for deliverance from.
Luke 16:19-31
The rich man and Lazarus… One enjoyed the best things in life while the other experienced only suffering and deprivation. Both die. The rich man ends up in torment in Hades and cries out to Father Abraham, with Lazarus by his side, saying, “Please, just a drop of water for my agony!” Father Abraham says, “Well, you’ve had your good things, haven’t you? You’ve been on the right end of the score for quite some time, and now the tables are turned.”
Father Abraham.
It must be such a complicated thing for Palestinian Christians to reckon with the word “Israel” in their Scriptures. But here, Father Abraham, patriarch of the nation, speaks a word of hope to them, to those who endure water shortages and intermittent electricity in the blistering heat of summer, to those who look over the (large and imposing) fence and see their Israeli neighbours with unlimited access to water and gleaming shopping malls and newly paved freeways (that Palestinians can’t use)…
Father Abraham says, “Comfort is coming, even across this vast chasm.”
1 John 4:15-21
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
This land is often called “holy.” Everywhere you go, it seems, something holy happened once upon a time. This is the place where Abraham died or where David did this or that or where Rachel is buried or where Jesus was born or where Muhammad went on his night journey. This is where God has apparently done a great many special things for a great many special people in a great many holy books. But what makes a land “holy?” What makes it matter to God? How would we ever know?
According to 1 John, it would seem rather simple. A land is “holy” because of the presence of love and unholy where this love is absent. God abides in those who love. And, presumably, takes his leave of those who persist in enmity and strife and all manner of unlove. God has little interest in this or that chunk of dirt where this or that thing happened in this or that holy book—at least not when it isn’t accompanied by love.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

Like I said, the bible sounds different in occupied territory.
——
I took the picture above at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. The man in this picture is the father of the boy in the poster below the UN sign. It is his thirteen year old son who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in that exact location. The father now spends most of his days volunteering at the UN center for his refugee camp.

Syndicated from Rumblings

Pray For Me, St. Joseph

Joseph greets me with a smile and warm handshake before serving me breakfast every morning in Bethlehem. I met Joseph two years ago during my first trip to Israel and Palestine and it has been a delight to reconnect with him this week. Joseph is a Palestinian Christian and is always willing to share about his life and story. The one memory of him that stood out in 2016 was of him telling me about the hotel being shut down and commandeered by the Israeli army during one of the uprisings of the early 2000’s. For forty days, the top floor was used for army surveillance and sniper locations. Joseph was conscripted to prepare food for the army and not permitted to leave for the entire time they were there. 
This week, thanks mostly to my wife’s curiosity, I’ve learned a bit more of Joseph’s story. His family comes from the area around what is now called Tel Aviv. In 1948, when the state of Israel came into being, they were forced from to flee as refugees and found their way to Bethlehem. He and his family were given a tent and much later a one room structure in a UN refugee camp. They assumed that it would be a temporary move—that they would be allowed to return home once the conflicts settled down. Seventy years later, Joseph and his family still live in that same UN refugee camp. The camp has grown swelled and bloated over the years as many more refugees have had to leave their home and now is a congested urban jungle numbering over fifteen thousand souls squeezed into one square kilometer.
 I asked Joseph about his family. He has four children, two sons and two daughters. The oldest two have recently completed university, one becoming a lawyer, the other an x-ray technician. I wondered how on earth Joseph managed to put two kids through university given what I knew of his situation. So I asked. He smiled and paused before saying, “Well, I managed.” He told us that he would go to England once a year loaded down with olive wood products from Bethlehem. For thirty days he would set up outside churches selling woodcarvings and cooking food and collecting donations outside churches. He did this every year for the years when his kids were studying. He did this so that his kids could afford not only the exorbitant costs of tuition, but also the costs of transportation to get to and from Jerusalem each day, which is always a time consuming and expensive task for any Palestinian.
And so it went. Joseph would sell and cook and sell and cook and work, all the while doing without himself. He has no car, relying only “these size 42s to get around the city.” He has a larger house in the refugee camp now, but only because he spent years working himself into the ground so that his kids wouldn’t have to sleep “under the bed” in the one room house they were allotted. Additionally, Joseph would take time each year during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan to collect beans, rice, noodles, and other things for forty-five of the neediest families in the UN refugee camp where he lived. He still does this. I do not detect even a hint of pride in Joseph as he tells this story. A barely concealed anger, perhaps, but not pride. He is not special. Others are doing the same as him. It is what must be done given the conditions they must live in as Palestinians.
Joseph moves to clear a plate. He looks at the food remaining on it and says, “I don’t like to see food wasted. We never waste food here. If there is any left, I bring it home and give it to someone who needs it. Food is a gift from God and it is a sin to waste it.”
 As I take my leave, Joseph wishes me a good day in the Holy Land. “Don’t worry about my story, just enjoy yourself here,” he says. But I wonder if that would be a sin on par with leaving food on the breakfast plate he has prepared for me. Can I share your story, I ask. “Of course,” Joseph says. “I have nothing to hide. I want people to know the truth.” I thank him and head out into a Bethlehem day.
Pray for me, St. Joseph.
——
The image above is of the city of Bethlehem, taken from the restaurant where Joseph serves us each day. On the first day we were here, I stood with Jospeh looking out over the city and said, “It’s quite a view.” Jospeh shrugged his shoulders and said, “Not for me.” 

Syndicated from Rumblings

Somewhere to Be

I know I’m technically on a “blogging sabbatical,” but I decided to interrupt it to offer a few reflections and observations on a trip I’m presently on to Israel and Palestine. One of the things we consistently hear wherever we go in this conflicted area is, “Tell others what you have seen and heard with your own eyes and ears.” It’s a serious call, and one that I feel an obligation to respond to given the privilege that I have of being here. Here are some assorted stories and reflections from my first few days here.
At 5:30 yesterday morning we made our way to the main checkpoint that Palestinians must take to get from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. We were coming a bit later in the morning—most Palestians (men, mainly) arrive before 4:00 am in order to ensure that they can get through in time to get to work on the other side by 7:00 or so. After a briefing from a few humanitarian monitors of the checkpoint, we proceeded through a labyrinth of cages and turnstiles and barbed wire and metal detectors and soldiers. We wanted to get a sense of what it was like to be a Palestinian for whom this is a daily reality.
But of course we only got a tiny sense of what it was actually like. It was far emptier than earlier in the morning. We got to sleep in until 5:00 am to get there rather than waking as early as 1:00 am to travel from surrounding villages to arrive at the checkpoint by 4:00. We had no need to consider if our employer would be waiting for us on other side, no cause to worry about a medical appointment we might miss, no anxiety about whether we might be turned back once we finally got to the Israeli soldiers, often for reasons as simple as expired paperwork or the fact that there were reports of someone in our village who threw a stone at an Israeli vehicle. Or less. We didn’t have a hard day of labour in the hot sun to look ahead to once we made it through the lineup (which can take anywhere from half an hour to two hours, depending on how many metal detectors they decide to open at any given point of the day). We didn’t have any anxiety about whether we’d even have a job waiting for us on the other side nor did we have to struggle with the grim irony that surely must accompany the common reality of Palestinian day labourers building helping to build Jewish settlements on what is supposed to be their land. We didn’t have to think about doing it all over again tomorrow morning. And the morning after that. And the morning after that… We got through with barely a disinterested glance at our passports and made our way back to the hotel for hot coffee and breakfast.
At one point when we were walking along the long walkway that felt like a livestock chute, an older Palestinian man said to me, “Welcome to our checkpoint, what do you think?” I shook my head and mumbled something like, “I don’t quite know what to say when I see something like this… What do you think?” He just smiled and said, “Every day,” before hurrying off past me. I suppose he had somewhere to be.
We spent part of Sunday touring through the Old City of Jerusalem. At one point, my wife and I wandered down from the Al Aqsa mosque toward a lookout point that faces over toward the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives. There was a structure there and I offhandedly asked the guy beside me if he knew what it was. He proceeded to summon his Holy Land tour leader to come over and answer my question. What followed was some interesting theology.
“Well, you see, this is the East Gate but the Muslims have walled it off and built a cemetery on the other side… And of course we know that when Jesus returns he will touch down on the Mount of Olives and make his way over here to institute the new temple… But he can’t set foot in the Muslim cemetery, of course (of course?)… Luckily, it was recently discovered that there was a fault line on top of the Mount of Olives… And of course (of course?) we know that this fault line is designed by God to literally split the earth in half and pave the way for Jesus to triumphantly reenter Jerusalem. My face must have looked rather blank as I pondered this image of king Jesus parachuting down from heaven onto the Mount of Olives to be ushered via earthquake through the remains of a Muslim cemetery to reestablish a Jewish temple. An interesting eschatological path to take for the Prince of Peace. Jesus, too, apparently, has somewhere to be.
As I reflected upon these two experiences, I wondered what might happen if the Holy Land tour guide I met would walk through an Israeli checkpoint. I wonder if he might get a glimpse into the grinding, soul-crushing daily reality that his theological fervour feeds into for ordinary human beings. Would he pause to wonder if his need for the nation state of Israel and Jerusalem in particular to be a staging ground for his particular version of eschatological pyrotechnics legitimates the kind of struggle and suffering for ordinary people that is obvious at the checkpoint? Would he soften his position in any way? Would he think twice before mapping out Jesus’ triumphant (and violent) return to Jerusalem for eager tourists every day? Or would he only see tens of thousands of potential terrorists being daily herded like cattle through a maze of steel and barbed wire?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. Obviously. I don’t know the answer to very many questions when it comes to this part of the world. But I do know that if this land is ever going to turn into somewhere to be for both Jews and Palestinians, it is going to require a determination to imagine things from the perspective of the other and to at least try to see a human being where it’s so easy to see only an enemy. It’s going to require Jesus-y things like forgiving what seems impossible to forgive, in turning cheeks that have been stung too many times with violence. It’s going to require walking miles that we have little interest in walking to places we would rather not go because we’re convinced that there has to a better future around the bend.

Syndicated from Rumblings

I Wanna Open My Heart

His eyes rarely leave the floor, even as he’s baring his soul. He’s young, tough-looking, brown skin marked with tattoos, black hair slicked back over the middle of a mostly shaved skull. It’s the first time he’s showed up at a group I participate it in at the local jail. He’s looked wary about the whole thing since he walked through the door. But he mustered up the courage to begin a sentence like, “I think I wanna say something…” And the story comes pouring out. 
He tells of growing up on the streets of Winnipeg, raising himself since he was eleven year old. About a mom and dad who seemed not to want anything to do with him. Or couldn’t do anything with him. Of falling in with some violent people doing violent things. Of substance abuse and confusion and of neglect. Of coming out west and meeting a girl who loves him and who he loves. He calls her “my girl.”
He’s heard about God, he says. There’s never a shortage of words about God out there, after all. And he believed, he said. He really did. But then his girl got pregnant. And miscarried. And then again. And again. The last time he even saw the stillborn body. And something snapped inside of him, he said. He descended into a spiral of rage and alcohol and hard drugs that landed him here in jail. He struggles to sleep he said. He can’t get that image out of his head.
He’s still looking at the floor when he says that well-meaning people in his life—aunties, case workers, maybe priests or do-gooder volunteers like me—have always told him to believe in and pray to God. “The thing is, I prayed and I prayed, but I never heard from God. And how could God take our kids like that? What kind of God… That was my child, my little girl…” His voice trails off.
The room is dead silent. There’s no more flipping through pages or smart comments or bad jokes. We know that there is something sacred about a moment like this. We know that souls aren’t easy to bare, particularly in here. Finally another guy looks up and says, “Brother, thank you. If you ever need someone to talk to, just come find me. I’m usually in the laundry room…”
He doesn’t look up, but he nods. He sniffles a bit and says, “So, I been here for a few months and I’m feeling a little less angry. I try to pray. I took one of them bibles and I read the whole things in four days. I think I get it, or some of it, anyway. It kinda makes sense. I don’t know if I can believe in God. I guess I’m kinda on the edge or the outside. But I guess I wanna open my heart.”
There’s an easy narrative out there that gets plenty of traction. The jail is full of bad people who did bad things and need to be punished. This script demands very little of us. Labels are affixed. Categories are preserved. Everything stays in its place. But I think the gospel of Christ compels us challenge the easy scripts that we choose or inherit—scripts that keep our lives and our view of the world mostly untroubled. This is particularly necessary when it comes to something as precious as a human life.
What I saw in this young man today was not a rough twenty-something year old addict who had broken the law, who needed to clean up his act. That’s an easy story, but it’s not a true story. Not true enough, anyway. What I saw was a little eleven year old boy who never had anyone to love him well, who was the product of a toxic, racist, and dyfunctional system. I saw a little boy whose heart was broken because he wanted to be the kind of dad that he never had and felt like that possibility was ripped away from him—by God, by circumstances, by who knows what. I saw a little boy that wanted to believe in God but was honest enough to say that sometimes it seems like bullshit. I saw a heart struggling to stay open when it had every opportunity to slam shut.
During worship yesterday, I invited people in our church to the communion table with these words:
This is the table,
not of the Church, but of the Lord.
It is made to be ready
for those who love him
and who want to love him more.
 
So, come,
you who have much faith
and you who have little,
you who have been here often
and you have not been for a long time,
you who have tried to follow
and you who have failed…
Those who love him and those who want to love him more… you who have much faith and you who have little… you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
These words came back to mind as I listened to this guy’s story today. It’s funny how the same words can sound completely different in different contexts. They sound one way coming off the lips of a “religious professional” in a church sanctuary full of people who are often well-practiced in hiding (from ourselves, from each other, from God). They ring a bit different in a room full of guys in blue coveralls who have done a lot of trying and failing… and whose failures are a lot harder to hide than the rest of ours.
I’ve often heard people say that places like AA meetings or support groups in the jail are more honest than any church service. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. But I do know that the church ought to be a safe place for those who have tried and failed, those who can’t quite believe, those whose faith feels week, those whose hearts are struggling to stay open. Which is probably all of us at various points along the way, if we’re honest. And I hope that if one of these guys ever shows up to worship once they’re out that they will be able to take their place alongside all the other saints and sinners trying to keep coming to Jesus. I hope the church can be a place where hearts that wanna stay open can find refuge.

Syndicated from Rumblings

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Sparrows

My wife tells me that I shouldn’t read the news because the news makes me sad. Or angry. Or confused or helpless or despairing or apathetic or cynical. Or some toxic combination of all of the above. She’s probably right. She’s right about a lot of things.
This September has seemed like a month where a whole bunch of bad things got together in a kind of global committee meeting and decided to all happen at once. The names and the places are familiar to us. Irma, Maria. Mexico, Puerto Rico, Florida, Cuba. India, Nepal, Bangladesh. British Columbia, southern Alberta. Earthquakes, wind, rain, fire.
I read the news this morning and came across an article that talked about a little girl who was wiggling her fingers in the rubble of her Mexico City school. She’s still alive, apparently, although who knows for how long. Her name is Frida Sofia. My eyes stopped on that sentence. Amidst all of the statistics and official calculation and quantification of the destruction of this latest calamity… One name. One girl. I thought, as we inevitably do, about my own daughter. I thought about what it would be like to be Frida Sofia’s daddy, watching helplessly as people tried to dig my little girl out of a pile of metal and rock. I thought that those wiggling fingers would probably drive me mad with rage and despair and hysterical hope.
From a purely rational perspective, these bad things are not catastrophes at all. They are utterly normal meteorological and geological events that have been happening for countless millennia on this volatile planet. The devastation that they visit upon human subjects is as much a function of exponential population growth and unsustainable urban planning and development as anything else. If we wanted to be really crude and calculating about it, we could even say that these “natural disasters” do our planet a kind of (surely inadequate) service in population control. And even leaving aside these political and sociological factors, on an existential level, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about men and women, boys and girls being crushed in falling buildings or swept away by the storm. Human beings suffer and human beings die. It’s been happening since, well, forever. It’s part of the human condition. Nobody gets out of here alive. Life is harsh. The world is not a safe place.
But we aren’t really capable of the detached rationality that we flatter ourselves with, are we? We see little girls named Frida Sofia with wiggling fingers under the rubble and we rage against God or the cosmos or climate change deniers or Trump or whatever. We forage around for someone or something to absorb our righteous blame because we believe, deep in our bones, that things like this should not be. We don’t always have particularly good reasons for this belief, especially if we are convinced that the universe is just impersonal matter in motion, but we persist in it nonetheless. Frida Sofia should be safe and sound in a peaceful, orderly school, cheerfully becoming all she can be. She should not be wiggling her fingers under the rubble.
In Matthew 10:29-30, Jesus says the following to his disciples.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.

When I was young, I read these verses as saying something like, “God won’t let bad things happen to you. If he even cares about a couple of birds, he’ll surely protect you from harm.” It’s bizarre how quickly we human seize upon interpretations like this. Even as a young boy, I had ample empirical evidence that God seemed to have no particular affinity for sparrows. I had seen a dead one or two lying around the farm. And even the text itself doesn’t say that the sparrows don’t fall. Their falling is just divinely supervised, apparently. But we are experts in seeing what we want to see, in texts and in life, aren’t we?
I read Matthew 10 again this morning with Frida Sofia in my mind. I tried to imagine how her daddy might read these verses (if he was inclined to read things like verses). Perhaps he might say something like, “That’s all very nice that you have the hairs on my little Frida’s head counted, but perhaps you could do something about the sparrows’ falling part? With all due respect sir, it doesn’t make the slightest difference to me if she falls ‘apart’ from you or she just falls. The falling is the thing we could do without.”
He’d probably say it in a considerably more angry tone. I know I would.
I went over to Luke’s version of the sparrows’ falling, where I noticed some slight differences.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

The math and the economics don’t match with Matthew’s version, but I’ve never particularly cared about math or economics. What caught my eye in Luke is the second part. Not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, in this world where the bad things gang up on vulnerable people and bury little girls named Frida Sofia. We are not forgotten by God. Somehow, all the suffering and calamity of this fragile little planet with its stubbornly irrational and carlessly hopeful inhabitants is gathered up into God and remembered. Literally, called to the mind of God. Which I am convinced, at the end of it all, is still the best place to be called.
Watch over us, Lord Jesus Christ. Preserve us from fear. Remember us. Your sparrows are falling.

Syndicated from Rumblings

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