Monthly Archives: November 2011

Thanks

The Pilgrims arrived in the New World with an optimistic plan of action. They didn’t bring farming implements or seeds or warm weather clothing or building materials or tools. They brought shoes and libraries but no ploughs.  It is as if they believed that their mission would be blessed with God’s providence to the point of not having to actually do any of the work themselves. Perhaps as they died in droves, they had a review meeting and decided they would do it better next time. They did, however, have great hats.

Hats or no hats, the pilgrim story has become a stream in the American national myth that those who settled the new world were like the Hebrews who were led out of Egypt into the promised land. The abundance they found was like a national anointing, similar to manna from heaven.  We are the chosen people and therefore we are blessed by abundance.

Giving thanks, however, goes far beyond recognising  the abundance that we have enjoyed.  It also requires repentance (  metanoia – a change of view) in recognising the source and cost of what we might call providence.

Yes, the land was rich but it was also populated by people whose way of life and providence came from it too.  The thanks of Thanksgiving can only happen when we recognise that the bounty most westerners see as their birthright comes from taking a lot, demanding a lot, threatening a lot, not sharing. We need to recognise that it isn’t that God has given us a lot, but rather our wealth  has been diverted from what God has given the world.

Repentance as a door to thanksgiving  helps me to celebrate Thanksgiving Day as a day for giving thanks for what God has truly given me. These are the  things that I couldn’t have provided for myself:  my lovely wife, my incredible children, my deeply caring and affirming friends, my intellect, my responsibilities, my opportunities.  I give thanks for the stuff that can’t be bought or sold or commoditized.

One of my favourite Thanksgiving celebratioins took place at theological college in Bristol.  We invited  friends around, some we knew well and others not so well. We did  turkey, pumpkin pie and lots of wine. It wasn’t grand because none of us had any money beyond what we needed to get through the week. But it was a magical night because we all enjoyed being together. Our guests  felt honoured that we would think to include them in this special meal. We felt special that they would want to come and share it with us. Our thanksgiving wasn’t for how much stuff we had or how great our nation was. Our thanksgiving was for our vocations, our kids and for each other. We were thankful that we basically had all we needed thanks to God’s providence for us.

My oldest son goes to a school whose motto comes from  Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador: “Do not aspire to have more, but to be more”. Romero reminds me to start the day by naming and repenting for what I have aspired to have, the ignorance I have feigned for how it became available to me and for how I have allowed what I have to define who I am. Unlike the national myth I grew up with I am now offered a story of freedom which liberates me to be thankful for today and everyday at little cost to everyone else.

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“Hi, I’ve heard your news….”

There are few things more heartbreaking than meeting with people who have just been told their adult child is dead.  There is heartbreak in dealing with a congregation whose children grew up with him and who are friends with the parents. Yesterday morning as we announced the news in church it sounded (from the collective sharp intake of breath) like we had all been punched in the stomach and were temporarily winded. Which is pretty close to the truth.

These are  tricky moments because everyone wants you to say something amazing and immediately soothing.  As you go from little group to little group everyone apologises for crying as if somehow we’re not supposed to feel the pain of death. There is a myth in christian circles that death has no power. It does. It can still wound us. But it does not have the last word unless we want it to. There is still much life to continue with and we grieve with hope.

John 11 describes Jesus standing at Lazarus’ tomb and weeping.  He weeps in mourning for a friend. He weeps for the present where death seems to  be invincible. Then he brings a taste of the future to the broken present and raises Lazarus from his tomb. He reminds everyone there, believers, non believers and death itself that Lazarus’ passing was only a temporary moment in the long timeline of eternity.  Lazarus would die again sometime, but he and his family know that like the first time it will not be forever.

So yesterday, a harder than usual Sunday (thank God we only work one day a week!) meant finishing all my morning duties and dropping in on a grieving couple with eternity in mind. They are strong, generous people who have been anchors of support for so many people in illness and despair. Yet here I was in the midst of their shock, tears, bewilderment, strength, doubt and  faith.

Can I let you into a secret about ministers? When we arrive in a scene like this, we may look serene and authoritative and ready to minister. However, inside, no matter how experienced we are, our first thought is, “What the hell can I do for these people? What can I say?”  You may expect that we have a script for these moments that is soothing and instantly comforting.  I’ve come to know that scripts and platitudes really mean you haven’t come with anything useful. I’ve had to accept that I have no answers, I don’t know how they feel and I don’t know what they need.

Now that might sound like we are frauds. Not frauds, just humans. The first duty is to listen and hear the truths that need supporting and the lies that need minimising so they can grieve properly. There is an honesty in the room that isn’t always present in the  tea and cucumber sandwich visit which is  full of best behaviour . In matters of  life and death the truth comes out if you know how to recognise it. The truth here is that they love their son and will miss him.  The truth is that through their tears their instinct is to give thanks for their time with him and the love of life that he shared with his friends and family.

The bible tells us that when we don’t have the words the holy spirit speaks for us. He pushes out what needs to be said and closes our lips to those words that can wait for a more appropriate time. This same spirit creates a diverse family who will grieve and hope with those in despair, offering both as divine gifts with eternal patience.  At first I thought journeying with people like this might feel burdensome. With time I’ve discovered it is a blessing.

What the Potter Teaches Us

“Maybe God gave us the excess not so we can have more but so we can give more”.

This is attributed to David Platt, an American pastor and author of a book called Radical. He is a mainstream Shane Claiborne without the communal living and hand made clothes. His book has been part of a movement to allow American conservative evangelicals to  feel free and safe to talk about the gospel in the context of society, injustice and peace rather than sex, abortion and how we get to heaven.

I haven’t read his book so I don’t know if this quote comes from it and I don’t want to deter anyone from exploring Platt’s important message that the American dream is not an expression of the gospel. He encourages Christians to think deeply about how their time, money and selves are resources for the Kingdom of God .

Has God given us a wasteful amount of abundance in order that we may be generous givers? Does  excess mean what’s left after the school fees, the mortgage, the holiday, the two cars, the kids’ clothes, the new TV, the 12 hour days and weekends packed with stuff to do? Is excess what is left over when I done playing with what I have been given? Shouldn’t we be thinking about why all the excess and the cost of acquiring it?

Scripture doesn’t teach that people are made rich so they can give it away. It teaches that if you strive to be rich you need to rethink your life. If you do carry on towards wealth you are required to embed those riches in the whole community and not just in yourself. If that isn’t what you signed up for, tough. Jesus teaches that the disciple’s journey is about losing the life they thinnk they want for the one that will last an eternity. Jesus’ followers learned that life is a process of being trimmed, pruned, shaped and reshaped.

We are like clay in the hands of a master potter.

My wife is a gifted ceramicist. When she starts a project, she looks at the lump of clay and sees what she is going to form from it. As she works she knows there will be clay left over because to make arms, legs, teapot spouts or whatever, you have to trim off clay to get the shape you saw before you started.

We might think the clay she has trimmed off is now waste, but it’s not. She does not begin with “too much clay  than I needed”. That clay was, if you will, given away so that a teapot can take its shape. The scraps and trimmings go back in the bucket to be reused for new and beautiful works of art and learning and experimentation. In the end when working in clay there is no “excess”, only clay to be worked with.

Giving works the same way. We don’t give from excess, we give from ourselves. As we do so, we begin to take our proper shape.   I fear all those who have said amen to the quote may be saying amen to what allows them to feel better about the prosperity they have and may feel culturally entitled to rather than a process of being shaped for the Kingdom of God.

Giving  is not a transaction involving what is left over after I have met all the needs I believe I have. It comes from knowing that I am the better for giving being a regular part of my life regardless of whether I live in poverty or wealth.  Excess is a condition we create; it isn’t a gift.

Life on the Edge

Like most people, I tend to live my life on its circumference. That’s where my identity and happiness are distilled from the roles I play, the aspirations I’ve been taught and my progress so far in reaching those (what I suspect to be) utterly unreachable aims.  The circumference is a place where I am supposed to be dissatisfied with who I really am so I can go and be the person I deserve to be.

I am just as prone as anyone to wishing I had trendy facial hair, a good book jacket photo of me looking wise and lots of airplane rides taking me to make keynote speeches because I am “in”. I sometimes wish my congregations were cool and my churches had funky names and cappuccino bars.

I look around my little town, my small congregations, my cold house, my muted ambition and general lack of shininess and reality bites. The grass must be greener somewhere. The house must be warmer somewhere.  Distracted by this, I’m vulnerable to missing the moments that truly give life and energy to me.

 I had one of those moments last week.

It was at the communion service I lead on Thursday mornings. The 10 attendees are in their sixties or older, they are not Facebook savvy or
glued to their smart phone.  Alternative worship means using a different Eucharistic prayer. We would be easily be dismissed as irrelevant by all the trendy keynote speakers I wished I shared a platform with.  Glamorous doesn’t describe us. Ever.

I love Thursday mornings. This is a group of experienced Christians who believe there is something still to be learned. They are committed to prayer. They let me practice wacky theological ideas and exegesis on them. They ask questions and make comments. They care deeply about the world around them and the good they can do in it. They are always willing to break the taboo of most Anglican worship and allow real life into the service.

In the intercessions we pray for each other and the world. At this point one woman began to weep. Her husband is in a care home with dementia
and she misses him greatly. This morning, she couldn’t suppress that feeling and she began weeping opening.  She was embarrassed because you aren’t supposed to cry in church.

A tear formed at the corner of my eye as we chatted honestly and forgot for a moment that we had a liturgy to get on with. What moved me
even more was the comfort offered by the lady next to her whose husband is in the early stages of dementia. Without a word, she reached over and took the weeping woman’s hand for a moment. She didn’t have to say anything. Her touch said that she was walking the same ground and they’d walk it together.

After awhile, we all dried our eyes and we prayed and shared bread and wine together before going back out into our busy days.

I suspect if I had a shinier job with a big congregation and lots of big moments, I would have missed this. If I spent a lot of time trying to maintain some image of success and greatness, I would have missed this.

In that moment I made a deep realisation that every Thursday morning I am being offered the chance to participate in real life in the presence of God.

Jesus once talked about the Kingdom of God being like a treasure hidden in a field. You stumble over it and just get a glimpse of its value. You go and buy the field so you can dig it up and discover that it is richer than you imagined. My treasure lies in these moments of laughing and weeping. In the buzz of my church school hard at work. In the goofing around with my kids and receiving the love of my wife given so generously to me as a gift.  My real calling is to dig a bit deeper in the life I have and find the treasure that God has planted for me to find.

A Remembrance Sunday Sermon

 

I wonder what you are afraid of.

I am afraid of spiders. No matter how small they are they may seem, they are always big enough to eat me. They scare me the most when I don’t have my glasses on and am feeling vulnerable, like in the shower. “Is that a hair? Hair doesn’t move”. I have to call my wife to come and deal with it. She shakes her head pathetically as she scoops up a bit of hair and throws it in the bin.

But enough about me…what are you afraid of? And what are you willing to do to rid yourself of that thing you fear?

Wars begin with fear. We fear things that are different and hard to understand. We fear people who are passionate about things we don’t understand or agree with. We fear people who seem more powerful than us and we fear losing what we have. We fear losing power. We fear losing our standard of living. We fear the unknown. When we fear, we are paralysed. We are irrational. We want to stamp them out. We want to hold more tightly to what we have. Frightened people are also easier to control.

Fear makes us bad citizens.

In Micah 4:1-5 there is a description of the Lord’s mountain to which all the nations will be called. There the tools of war become the tools of planting seeds and cultivating fruit. They become the tools of a settled life, a peaceful life where there is the time to grow, to sit under a vine and feel content. It suggests abundance and a lack of worry about invading armies and rogue bankers and terrorists and the wrong people having a nuclear button to push.

Here there is no worry about prosperity or disability or exclusion. It is a picture of humans getting the chance to truly be human rather than parodies of humanity. There is a sense of Shalom – which we translate as Peace. But we can also use it to describe “contentment” as in having enough to be contented and alive.

Within this passage there is a phrase that always gets overshadowed by the swords and ploughshares and pruning hooks: “and no one will make them afraid”. Fear has no part of this shalom. Fear is used to make me hate muslims. To hate gay people. To buy new shampoos because I am afraid to be ugly. To cling to a damaging economic system because I am afraid to be poorer than my dreams tell me I should be. Fear gets me to go along with two wars which after a decade it’s hard to recall what they were about. Fear allows me to suspect my neighbour.

Every year, no matter how different the words may be, my remembrance Sunday message is the same: if we are going to ask young men and women to be prepared to die for us, our way of life and our principles, we must have exhausted all the other options first. We must have asked ourselves “does this take us a step towards that scene of peace and contentment, not just for ourselves but for all?” We need to ask “who benefits from this war?” Most of all we need to ask: are we doing this because we are afraid? Have we failed at all the other options because we have been too afraid to explore them?

Living without fear makes us better citizens and declares that lives are too expensive to throw away on a fearful whim. We honour the dead today not as cheerleaders for war or as some brave soldier society that values warriors. We value them because when they were told to go, they went. They went because, rightly or wrongly, we as a nation thought they needed to. The best way to honour and remember them today is to be vigilant of fear. To make sure that the grounds on which we make our request for young lives are the best possible and yet deeply regretted. We must be certain we have exhausted every avenue to peace and mercy.