Sunday, March 15, 2020

All are Equal . . .

This has been quite a week! I will start my blog with my thoughts from a few days ago when I read the lectionary passage in preparation for writing this. Then I will add a couple of thoughts about the current emergency situation.

This week another well know passage is offered by the lectionary for the reading. The story is usually entitled The Woman at the Well (John 4:5-42). Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at the well and asks her for a drink. A conversation ensues where Jesus reveals that he is the one, the Messiah. I have blogged about this several times before.

I have also talked about the later conversation with the disciples where the talk is of worship, truth and mission. But this week as I read the passage one sentence really stood out to me. It was the one that recorded the reaction of the disciples on seeing Jesus with the woman. 

They “were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking to her?’(27).”

Maybe, the disciples had learnt enough to not question Jesus’ treatment of women. Good for them! Yet, the fact the narrator included the sentences they could have voiced, reveals that they were there, in the forefront of the author’s mind. 

As I read ‘Why are you speaking to her!’ I could almost hear the disdain in the narrator’s voice, and I found it really sad. It reveals patriarchy, sexism and racism — she was a Samaritan. I could excuse it by saying this was penned in a time with different social expectations regarding women and race. But today I will not do that.

I think it is even sadder to realize that although things have changed for the better, there is still a long way to go. Perhaps, my thoughts were influenced by the fact that as I read the verses to ponder over during the week, I had just heard that Elizabeth Warren had dropped out of the presidential race. Many reports I read referred to a root of patriarchy and sexism. I have heard it said that the country isn’t ready to accept a woman president!  Truthfully, I wasn’t that surprised. Yet, it is shameful that in 2020, almost two thousand years after the words of the text were penned, I can still hear the echo of that question with the same disdainful tone. 

Women are still viewed in certain areas of society as inferior and less able than men. It is said that women are equal, yet events show that is often not true. Perhaps summed up best in the famous words of George Orwell, “All are equal, but some are more equal than others.” (adapted from Animal Farm).

The above were my thoughts from earlier this week. I hope anyone reading this will pause to ponder why it is that men are often thought more capable than women!

But I can’t end this blog without a few short comments about the unfolding events of the last few days. What a week it has been! Every day has been filled with media reports that cause uncertainty, stress and often fear. We are currently in Covington, Georgia, visiting our son and daughter-in-law, and it has already crossed our minds that we may have to leave hurriedly if bans on interstate travel start to be imposed. In Georgia, the four of us are mindful of staying away from any large social gathering —enjoying lots of walks together.

I don’t want to make any comment on the actual virus— there is enough sensible medical reports out there for all to read. My advice is follow them, and be as safe as possible.

What has caused me to ponder is people’s reactions to the virus. A crisis always brings out both best and worst in people. Perhaps, I could even say it even becomes a test of human nature.

I just saw on Facebook a comment which read, “God, please put a hedge round my county so we don’t get the virus.” My instant thought was, why? Why is one person’s county or one person’s ministry more important than that of anyone else. It felt such a selfish response. As is extreme hoarding, which ultimately deprives others in need. Yet, as a balance, I have seen great generosity. I have read of people offering to share what they have and to help those in need. 

There will probably be a difficult few weeks ahead for everyone. Lots of uncertainties abound. One of the things we talked about at the community ZOOM chat last Monday was kindness. Kindness is important especially in times of crisis. So maybe, in the next few weeks, there will be many opportunities for kindness to be shown. Kindness matters! 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Choices, Choices, Choices!

Today’s text is all about the events immediately following Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1-11). It is a familiar story and one I have blogged on several times. 

Jesus went into the wilderness to fast. Fasting is a thread that runs through both Old and New Testaments. I think the placement of this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in all the synoptic gospels was to establish a special relationship to God. Both Moses and Elijah also fasted for forty days thus allowing a connection to be made in the minds of the readers. Personally, I think this was a story made that connection right at the outset of Jesus’ ministry. This is strengthened when one compares it with the transfiguration story, and the references to Moses and Elijah there. I don’t think that is just a coincidence, but a careful placing of texts in the gospels. But I’m not going to delve into that today.

Although, in contemporary times, fasting has been used as abstinence from various other things the actual meaning is refraining from food for a period of time — it is a practice of self-denial of the body. I always think it is strange that as soon as one starts fasting, hunger or desire for food (or whatever food item is being denied) kicks in almost immediately. Even if it is at a time when one wouldn’t normally eat. It says something important about the psychological effect of fasting. But again, I’m not going to dwell there today either.

This year as I read the text, the thought (or word) that came to mind was choices. In the story Jesus was given a series of choices. Decisions needed to be made. Direction needed to be set. The choices that Jesus made have taken on a power for greater than the few verses they are penned on. They are far-reaching and have influenced generations of readers stretching over centuries.

As I read the text it made me think about life as a series of choices. I make choices and have no way to know the outcome of the direction taken. I may sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d made a different choice — I’m sure others have on occasion wondered the same thing. Yet, there is never any way of knowing what would have happened. 

I can glance at this text and consider what would have been the outcome if Jesus had made a different choice. What if the stones had been changed into bread? Maybe the text would no longer speak of temptation. Maybe it would say that after forty days Jesus turned stone into bread to break the fast. Then, possibly, instead of a story about temptation it would have been read as a story about an amazing miracle — even the first miracle! Of course, this is pure speculation — impossible to know what the outcome would have been. 

This was simply part of my thinking about choices and “what if’s” in my own life. I always like to think of life as a journey, perhaps choices are the forks in the road. Decisions about which way to go. Choices happen throughout life. Of course, some decisions are easy while others are much harder and not made lightly. Maybe sometimes a different choice would have led down a different path — not better or worse, not right or wrong, just different.

Often trusted companions can help in a difficult choice of which fork to walk down. In the Lindisfarne Community we have many who have chosen to walk alongside those faced with hard choices in their lives — chaplains, therapists, educators, etc. It is a worthy calling to do so. Yet, in the end, each person makes their own choice. Each person walks their own path. Today, my hope is that all who are standing at a fork in their journey will be comfortable and fulfilled with the direction taken. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

To Worry or Not to Worry — That is the Question?

Another lovely and oft quoted passage is the focus for today (Matthew 6:25-34). It makes almost romantic reading, the picture painted is of birds flying and lilies swaying in the breeze in wonderful, carefree lives. Into my mind comes the image of a lovely pastoral scene on a warm day — much needed as I look over our white landscape although that too can be quite beautiful.

I wrote about this text three years ago (and it feels like yesterday). I started by saying that I found it a profoundly disturbing passage. Although my thoughts on reading it this time were somewhat different, much of that feeling remains. I feel somewhat unsettled with it.

The central theme is of not worrying — I will not repeat my thoughts of three years ago but include the link below. On the surface that sounds great, it is a good modern theme, as the popular song urges, “Don’t worry, Be happy” (Bobby McFerrin, 1988). 

In the passage the reader is urged not to worry about food, drink or clothing. The passage starts by asking those listening or reading, “Is not your life more than food and the body more than clothing?” This is a great query. My answer would be a resounding, yes. Of course, my life is more than food or clothing. 

Still, it is worth pausing for a moment and thinking about life and what comprises life. Actually, I suspect for many people a significant portion of life is working to earn to provide material necessities. Hopefully, any job is more than just a means to earn but also a rich part of life and a fulfilling experience. Food for thought but not where I want to linger today.

The verse that caused me to stop, think and ultimately feel very unsettled about is at the end of the passage. “Strive first for the realm of God and God’s righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well (33).

This pulled me up short. My first instinct was to say this is simply not true (how very unchristian of me!). Yet, I can’t escape being disturbed by these words. It feels like a false promise at the worse and at the best could lead to false expectations

It is the basis for a prosperity gospel. That if a person is spiritually doing all the right things then material goods and perfect health will follow in abundance. I find that disturbing. I have known friends and acquaintances experience awful times — poverty, death of loved one, chronic ill health, accidents, etc. These are good, spiritual people and I refuse to believe that the lack is theirs. Actually, on more than one occasion I have heard someone say to a person suffering that if only they had more faith things would be different. How sad. Surely, support rather than condemnation would be better when someone is going through a hard time.

I’m sure I will continue to ponder the balance between spirituality, material necessities and worry for the next few days. Life is short and precious. I don’t want to waste life in unhealthy worry but nor do I want to sit with a false expectation that because I seek God it will be a life of ease and prosperity. Finding balance is important.

(Photograph was taken at Trap Pond State Park, Delaware)

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Value of People

Two lovely stories in the lectionary today. The author of the gospel writes of two older people — Simeon and Anna— who waited for the birth of a saviour (Luke 2: 22-40). 

The story talks of Mary and Joseph taking the infant Jesus to the temple as required by the law. They had two significant encounters. They met Simeon and they met Anna who both confirmed that this child was indeed the promised Messiah. 

Simeon, who was described as righteous, devout and one on whom the Holy Spirit rested had been told that he would not die until he saw the birth of the Messiah. As he saw the baby he praised and prophesied saying he was now content to depart the world. 

Simeon also added a word to Mary — that “a sword would pierce her soul” (35).  I often wonder how it would feel for Mary to be told these things. A bit like saying your child will do great things, but it will be a rough ride and all end in heart break. How hard must that be for any parent to hear? 

Anna was 84 years old. She had resided in the temple since being widowed seven years after her marriage. I calculate that must be about 60 years. She too praised and prophesied about the child. 

I can’t resist interjecting a feminist thought here — note the ways the two prophets are described. Simeon is described through his character — righteous, devout, Holy Spirit on him (25). Anna is described through her relationship to men — her father, her husband and her late ancestor. Yesterday we shared a cup of tea with our neighbour. The conversation drifted to a book she had been reading for her book club. The club was meeting the author that week for questions and she was planning to ask why a character had been described the way he was. This led to further discussion about how often people (who are not straight, white, protestant males) are described by a reference to their sexuality, gender, colour or ethnic background. I think the conversation was still in my mind as I noted the way Anna was described. I think this is very important to ponder on — consider and notice how people are described.

But today I want to dwell briefly on two aspects of both these people which I noticed as I read the passage. The first thing I noticed was the patience both Simeon and Anna exercised. We have often talked about how we live in the “microwave generation” where we expect everything to be ready instantly. I confess I do it with my computer. I press a key and usually get an instant response. If I don’t, I’ll say, “Come on, come on, hurry up and download …”. Andy will often look at me and say, “Patience!” 

Simeon and Anna waited for years to see the fulfillment of their dreams. I think there is an important lesson in that. The passage doesn’t give any sense that their lives had been wasted through the waiting time. Hopefully they lived full and meaningful lives while they waited — the passage certainly hints at that. 

The second thing I noticed was that they were elderly.  Anna was documented as 84 and although Simeon’s age is not documented it is a fair assumption to say he must be elderly as he was expecting to depart the world soon.
In our contemporary times there is sometimes a disdain for the elderly and society is poorer for it. Wisdom and experience are lost. Youth can be arrogant brushing aside the experience and wisdom of those who are older. Yet, youth are often brimming with ideas and enthusiasm. Both the contributions of the young and the old have value.  Ideally the ideas and enthusiasm of youth needs to be tempered with the wisdom and experience of those who are older. 

What a good thing Mary and Joseph took time to listen to the words of the elderly. What a blessing would have been missed if they had ignored Simeon and Anna because of their ages.

(Photo: Grandma and Child, Forbidden City, Beijing, China, December 2017)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Gathering the Men!

Last weekend as I read the lectionary texts, I was struck by one phrase. Unusually for me, it wasn’t in the gospel which is where I am currently trying to focus. Yet this one sentence stood out like a glaring spotlight — “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).

I couldn’t really get past it. As we had a full house last weekend my thoughts never made it to paper. However, the phrase stuck in my mind and I have pondered it frequently this week.

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

Most of my thoughts were self-reflective. If God shows no partiality, should I? Do I show partiality? In what areas? I then expanded this from personal to the more general, Does our contemporary society show partiality? Again, in what ways? (Sadly, I can think of quite a long list without even spending a lot of time pondering it)

Today I moved to the texts for this Sunday. The reading is the calling of the disciples (John 1:35-42). I have in the past talked about this story and the way the disciples were called. But today, probably because of my musings this week, the first thing I noticed was that they were all men. 

Two hard concepts to put together “God shows no partiality” and the “gathering of the men”. Somehow there seems to be a huge discrepancy between these two ideas. 

I could try excusing the gathering of the men because of the culture of the time. It wouldn’t be comely for women to be around men in that close a company. Should the men be even talking to the women? Would that leave them open to gossip and hinder the gospel message? Practically, it would be much harder for women to leave spouses and children as the men did. 

If this had only happened in the first century, I could accept it as an historical event in a certain cultural context. However, I don’t want to hide what happened behind a cultural veil. So, I call them excuses for not including women, mainly because nothing much has changed over the centuries. 

I would love to think that if Jesus was physically calling disciples today women would be included. However, I want to be realistic and, sadly, I find it hard to believe the world has changed that much.

I have only to look around at photographs in the media to see the gathering of men. Any important discussion or major event and the photographs usually depict a gathering of (white) men. Even church leadership often is a gathering of men. So sad that the women are still silenced and the gifts and wisdom they could offer ignored.

Today, I read an article about an issue affecting mainly women. There was loads of good discussion in the comments. Then a man joined the discussion.  He wrote/spoke with what he obviously perceived as authority. In my mind, it simply read as arrogance. He told all the women that they would not feel the same way in twenty or thirty years. I was appalled by his assumption that he knew better than all the women who had commented  and about an issue that affected women. 

So, today I read the story of the gathering of men in the gospel with sadness. I wish I could confidently say that society has changed. I do truly believe that progress has been made and will continue to be made. However, I cannot deny the evidence of my own eyes — as I look around, I continually see the gathering of men in many aspects of life.

I think change starts with awareness. I want to look at media and be aware when a gathering of men is photographed or talked about. I want to have a voice to remind people that women could have an important contribution to the discussion at hand.

Imagine a day when I could read “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” and see that reflected in all areas of society. What a day that would be!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Massacre of the Innocents

Sometimes it feels like following the church’s calendar is a roller coaster ride. One minute there are incredible highs, the next a fast plunge downhill. Today, is one such low. Perhaps, even reaching rock bottom. The passage for today is somewhat unpalatable (Matthew 2:13-23). The text raises lots and lots of questions.

The story is of God’s protection for the infant Jesus. Herod feeling threatened by the stories he had heard about the rise of a new king had all the children under two years old murdered. Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and flee as Herod wanted to kill him. It is hard to read. Only one parent was warned to protect their child. All the other children were sacrificed. Not a pleasant thought. Was an all-powerful God not able to save more babies?

As I started thinking about saving more children it put me in mind of the film, Schindler’s List. There is a scene towards the end where Schindler wishes he’d been able to save more people. The scene is frantic with a feeling of regret and desperation being clearly portrayed. 

I wondered how Mary and Joseph felt? Their baby was safe, but many others weren’t. Other parents were grieving — “wailing and loud lamentation” (18). They hadn’t received a warning. They had no time to protect their offspring. If the incident had happened today there would have been talk of trauma and survivors’ guilt for Mary and Joseph. 

In the church’s calendar this event is remembered by the feast day of Holy Innocent’s (Dec 28). These children were regarded as the first martyrs of the church. Interestingly, in Medieval England the sadness and pain of the day was remembered by whipping children as they awoke in the morning. Thankfully, that custom ended in the 17th Century.

This story does not appear in any other gospel. Scholars are divided on the authenticity of it. Regardless, it is part of the faith tradition so I need to ponder it as I would any other text. I look around my house still full of lights and decorations to welcome the Christ child — it is, after all, only the fifth day of Christmas! 

In the middle of this celebration of Christmas comes this very harsh reading. Perhaps, the story serves as a reminder of the brutality of the times the Christ child was born into. Yet, it raises question about how one deals with these unpalatable passages. Are they to be ignored? Are they to be swept under the carpet? When one is reading the lectionary there is always the temptation to focus on the “good” bits of the story. That has always felt a little dishonest to me. 

Faith and honesty in dealing with the scriptures sometimes feels like walking a tightrope. I want to be honest, but sometimes that honesty leads me to say that a passage displays a trait of God which I do not like. This is one such passage — a God who only saves one child, albeit a child with a special mission. It feels a little distasteful.

So, this week, as we continue to celebrate Christmas, I will keep shaking this passage in the hope I will find a blessing in the words that were penned as I walk my tightrope between faith and honesty.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Christmas Love

Today the last purple candle in the Advent wreath is lit representing love. Love adds to the message of hope, peace and joy.  As the candle shines out, the lectionary invites us to read the beginning of the Christmas story. It is the story of love.

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down,
 (Charles Wesley: First Seen 1747)

Those two lines sum up the Christmas message. It’s all about love.  The text (Matthew 1:18-25) is just seven short verses explaining how the infant was conceived. It doesn’t really matter how one interprets the details. I know there are differing understandings. Details simply make a story exciting and readable. It is the core truth conveyed therein that is important. So, today, I want to ponder that core truth. For me it is about love — divine love and human love. What can be better?

This story of love is so important that it restarts time. Hope, peace and joy are redefined. Everything changes because of this one story. 

As always, I want to consider how this story of love affects me. Obviously, there are many outward aspects of the celebration of the Christmas story. I have up my Christmas tree, I have decorated the house, I am displaying my Christmas cards from old and new friends, I am listening to Christmas music, I have purchased Christmas gifts for friends and family, I have my Christmas pudding, I am planning our Christmas lunch. I love doing all these things. 

I’m sure many others have similar Christmas traditions. Traditions are very important. They build stability and continuity for the next generation. Traditions demonstrate the cyclic nature of life — the ebb and flow of seasons.

Christmas traditions keep the story of divine and human love alive. And it is not just by the outward signs but by a deep inner working of love. As in this story love is often manifest in giving, of ourselves and of our possessions. Often social media portrays a negative view of society, but this week it has been full of an outpouring of love. People sharing needs, and others responding to the need. Clothes, food and shelter being provided for the homeless, shelters trying to get homes for their animals for Christmas, money being raised for a whole variety of charities. It is love being spread around. The message of that first Christmas — love made manifest — is still very much alive over 2,000 years later. 

So, as we ponder love, I close with the words of a well-known Christmas song that has been recorded many times by many different artist —

I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes
Love is all around me and so the feeling grows
It's written on the wind, it's everywhere I go
So if you really love me, come on and let it show
Come on and let it show
Come on and let it show
Come on and let it show
(Reg Presley, 1967)