Sunday, August 25, 2019

Kindness Matters.


How people relate to each other is important. I suspect everyone has at some time or other met an unkind person, maybe even been wounded by their words. Or seen an unkind action towards a child, or a dog or a friend. It is not pleasant to witness. The media often highlights unkind deeds or words. So much so that if one hears about or sees an unkind act to another human or non-human it jars the psyche. It simply feels wrong.

Fortunately, there is also a lot of kindness in the world. Most people are kind to each other, to strangers in the street, to animals. Hearing or witnessing acts of kindness make people feel good about the world they live in.

Today’s lectionary reading illustrates an act of kindness. The story (Luke 13:1017) is about a woman who for eighteen years had been crippled, unable to stand up straight. Jesus spoke to her and healed her. She immediately stood upright and began praising God. 

A good outcome, a woman healed and praising God. Surely all around should be rejoicing with her. After eighteen years she could stand up straight. Maybe her friends were all delighted but not everyone was.

The story continues, the leader of the synagogue was annoyed because she had been cured on the sabbath day. Jesus was told that he should not have healed her —shown kindness to her—on the sabbath day. 

The feminist in me can’t help but wonder if the response would have been the same if it had been a man healed. If one of their own had been the recipient of the healing and started praising God.  Would they too have been rejoicing? 

However, back to the text. Jesus responded by calling them hypocrites. Religion could not be used to justify unkindness. That thought alone causes me to reflect on all the times I have heard religion used to be unkind to someone who may believe or live a little differently. Right here, in today’s text, that thinking is condemned. Kindness matters.

Jesus reminded those opposing the healing that each of them was kind to their donkeys and oxen. Freeing them to walk and drink water on the sabbath. Was this women’s bondage less important?  

Happily, in this tale, the opponents in the crowd received the condemnation and joined in the rejoicing.

So, kindness matters. Jesus healed on the sabbath day. One could say that kindness was more important than pushing that law to extremes. Of course, I’m not advocating a Robin Hood type laying aside of laws and going out robbing the rich to feed the poor!  But sometimes, one needs to set aside ones’ own routines, one’s own rules to show kindness.

One of the small (but important) sections in the State teaching for new foster carers is entitled “Unspoken Rules”. It is intended to illustrate that everyone has personal unspoken rules which often need to be set aside to show kindness. Often, they are not recognized as rules until exposed as such. One of the mild examples illustrating this is seating — chairs around the dining table or around the television set. Often people have their own preferred seat. I know Andy and I nearly always sit in the same spot. It is an unspoken rule that Andy always goes to the end of the sofa near the window! A teenager or child, new to the household, may be told sit anywhere but could face unspoken antagonism if they picked someone else’s seat. The message is seating is unimportant. Our unspoken —unrevealed—rules are unimportant.  Kindness matters.

Maybe there is an outing planned for the day. Just as the search for the car keys begins there is a knock at the door. A friend stands there, “I’m sorry to interrupt but I’ve had an awful morning.” Immediately, plans for the outing are abandoned, the friend invited in and the kettle put on. Kindness matters.

I think the reading today illustrates this very important point. It is a rule to build one’s life on. Kindness matters.





Sunday, August 4, 2019

We have One Life.

We have one life. 

This phrase has been playing in my mind all week. I can’t get it out of my head. The thought arrived a few days ago as I was reading and pondering the Gospel text designated for today (Sunday).  

We have one life. 

In the lectionary passage (Luke 12: 13-21) a story is recited. It is the tale of a young man who has over-abundance produced on his land. He wonders what to do with the excess which far exceeds his needs. In the story, he decides to build bigger barns and store enough that it will last him for many years. His plan was to “eat, drink and be merry” but then, the story tells us, that night he lost his life and all his abundance of wealth amounted to nothing.

Now, I have heard this story pushed to ridiculous extremes where it has been said that it is wrong to have pensions (Social Security) or make any provision for the future. In contemporary times, that may not be the wisest course of action but I don’t wish to dwell there today.

My thoughts all focused around my phrase mentioned above — we have one life. 

There is no choice about only having one life — there is no second earthly life. Furthermore, no-one knows how long that life will be. Therefore, it is really important to live that life as well as possible. In the context of the parable, I think this could be summed up as live generously.

Although the text talks about the young man having an abundance of riches. I don’t read anywhere in the passage that it was wrong for him to have these riches. This is not a parable against having riches. The parable was told to illustrate this one point, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” 

So, live that one life generously. 

Generous with possessions,
generous with time,
people sharing what they have and what they are.

Currently, it grieves me to see the rise in racism and xenophobia.  Sadly, this was illustrated once again by many precious lives lost in two separate shooting incidents in the last 24 hours. 

As I read the reports I cannot help but link this to the message of this parable. This rise in racism and xenophobia reflects a need to be selfish, to be greedy, to not to want to share with others who may look or speak a little differently. Why is that a threat? Why not be generous? Why not open our arms and embrace all?  

Perhaps, in contemporary times, this also illustrates another area where living generously is necessary — being generous with our voices. Refusing to remain silent in the face of injustice. Raising our voices for those who have no voice.

We have one life.

Don’t waste that life,
Find joy in that life,
Be generous with that life,
Make that life count.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Peace to this House

As I read the gospel text for today as often happens, one phrase caught my attention. Today’s story is about seventy people being sent out in pairs to every town with various instructions about what to do and what not to do. 

The sentence I spent time pondering is I think, perhaps, the most important sentence in the passage. It reads, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ (Luke 10:5).

What a lovely idea. Maybe, one that needs reviving in contemporary times. Sometimes when invited to someone’s home for dinner I take some flowers, chocolates, local coffee or some other token of appreciation. Other times, I just pop into a neighbour’s home for a cup of tea and simply bring a greeting. Whatever the occasion or the means of entering another’s home, imagine if each time we took a blessing of peace. Maybe it wouldn’t be the exact same words as used in the gospel, but the intention of bringing and giving peace.

Would that then influence conversations, set the tone for an afternoon and evening together? I would like to think so.

Personal peace is often a strange concept to express in words. It is much more of an inner knowing than a definition. I think most people know inwardly what it is, that sense of calm and well-being with an absence of strife. Andy and I have spent two weeks holidaying in our camper van. We headed for sunshine and the beach. Altogether, we stayed in four different campsites each brought us a sense of peace. We experienced the quiet of standing by the ocean with empty sands stretching in both directions or being by a lake without a ripple on the water. I posted a picture of one of the places we visited. A friend commented, “it looks peaceful.” My response was, “It is.”  We felt peaceful. 

Of course, the idea of “peace to this house” could be expanded into our whole sphere of life. Not just a blessing of peace to those whose homes are entered but to those met daily —at work, at the shops, on the street. I am sure if I lived daily giving out peace, peace would return to me and affect my life too.

And the idea can be expanded again and again, to those not met face to face. Nowadays many conversations take place over the internet for all to see. Many are fun and lighthearted, but sometimes I cringe when I read a comment intended to cause hurt to another. Why not replace causing harm with bringing a blessing of peace?

Currently much concern is being expressed about the treatment of those seeking refuge over borders. What an awful situation it is. Imagine if those seeking safety were met with a blessing of peace. How could unkind treatment ensue if that was first uttered? 

Many other situations can be imagined where bringing that initial blessing of peace would change lives and situations — too numerous to mention!

So, for today, I’ll conclude by saying “peace to your house”.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Re-Visioning Ministry: Breathe, Wind and Fire!

Re-visioning ministry — that was the title of our Beltane retreat this year. What a fantastic weekend it has been. This morning the community received a new novice, two people were ordained to the priesthood and one to the diaconate. For each of them it is a new step in their life and ministry. Others at the retreat shared about the way their personal ministry has been re-visioned as their journeys have twisted and turned with each new stage of life.

Today it is Pentecost Sunday — the time when the church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. A very important day in the church’s calendar. Surely, for those early disciples, this was the ultimate re-visioning of ministry. They had been followers of Jesus, going where Jesus chose and doing what Jesus suggested, now they were thrust into a new phase of ministry. The time for grief and retrospection had past. The time for moving forward and stepping out in new directions had arrived.

Scripture gives us two accounts of the giving of the Holy Spirit— both are full of wonder. They are surrounded by mystery, in many ways they are unfathomable. A mystery that cannot really be defined in only one word. It was breath, it was wind, it was fire. Pulsating with life. So vibrant that lives were changed and events, previously unimagined, were experienced.

One account of the giving of the Spirit is in the Gospel of John (20:18-21). Imagine the scene. The disciples were sad and scared. The text reveals that they were behind locked doors because of their fear that they too would be captured and, I suppose, crucified. Then amazingly Jesus came and stood among them. What a mystery! Not only was he there but he spoke to them, “Peace be with you.” Imagine being so scared that even the room had to be locked and the first thing given was a blessing of peace. It was exactly what they needed. Then Jesus breathed into them and uttered a second phrase — “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And something happened, something changed. The disciples were no longer huddled scared in a room, they went out on the lake fishing.

The other account is in the book of Acts (2:1-4). Those verses were the lectionary passage for today. Again, I can only imagine the fear and sadness as the story tells us they were all together. Suddenly something happened. Here too something was seen and felt. It was described as a violent wind and tongues of fire. Again, the story of the giving of the Spirit is full of mystery. It feels like the author of Acts was trying to find words to describe an experience that was really beyond the limits of human language.

Whichever way the Pentecost experience is described, it caused a huge change. People who were scared and sad were suddenly re-vitalised. What a re-visioning of ministry! I wonder if any of those people who walked with Jesus would ever have thought where they would end up. What a roller-coaster ride they had been on. Now the disciples were ready to begin the new phase of their ministry. They were passionate about their calling. They could bring about change. The disciples went out ready to fulfil the ministry they were called too.

All this weekend we have talked about re-visioning ministry. I find the ideas contained in these two accounts helpful. They were key as the disciples prepared for their life’s work.  Perhaps they are important to consider every time ministry is revisioned. 

The quietness of peace — an inner state which is reflected for others to see in the outer being. 

The vibrance of experience — the breath, the wind, the fire which keeps the life and vitality in ministry.

The commitment to the work of one’s calling — keeping going, following a calling is not always easy. 

Blessings this Pentecost as ministry is re-visioned and new steps of the journey are begun.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Noticing Gender Bias.

Last week Andy and I attended the Adoption and Foster Family Coalition, New York (AFFCNY) conference. We had the privilege of presenting two seventy-five minute workshops that we entitled Minimizing Harm in Transitions. The conference was excellent and we had the opportunity to attend several other workshops throughout the three days.

I attended one led by Judge Karen Peters and Kristen Anne Conklin Esq. It was a brilliant and informative session. They talked about the NYS Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Childrenof which Judge Peters is the chair and Kristen Conklin is the Executive Director. It is a fantastic initiative (see http://www.nycourts.gov/ip/justiceforchildren/index.shtml)

One of the objectives they talked about is “Girls Justice.” This much-needed initiative speaks to the increased number of girls in the justice system and their needs. Of course, much more complex than my one sentence summary. Their research also reflects the gender bias that still exists.

So, with those thoughts buzzing around my head I read the lectionary for today (Sunday). One of the readings is Acts 16:16-34. As I read it I couldn’t help but notice the same gender bias and lack of compassion for the girl in the tale.

The text is a story about an incident during Paul and Silas’ travels. They were journeying in Philippi. Briefly, a slave girl followed them shouting comments to them. Ultimately, they quieted her by casting a demon out of her. An action which resulted in Paul and Silas being arrested and gaoled. During the night an earthquake broke open the prison walls. They didn’t escape and the jailor was so thankful he became a follower of God and was baptized. A many faceted tale!

The gender bias was glaringly apparent as I read this story. What a difference in the treatment of the slave girl and the jailor. Of course, there may be a social class bias too but for today I’ll remain with the gender bias.

The slave girl was doing her job of divining (awful as it may have been). Her shouted out words annoyed Paul and Silas. The passage does not tell that they looked at her with compassion or that they felt sorry for her predicament thus wanting to help her. No, their motivation was that they were annoyed, and, most probably, irritated by her. So, they used their power to stop her. 

Paul and Silas had deprived her of her livelihood yet offered nothing in exchange. The passage adds that her owner became angry which could not have been good for her. This poor, unnamed woman went from a really bad situation into an even worse one. As I read the story I can only conclude that Paul and Silas did not see this slave girl as a person, merely an irritation to be dealt with.

This is in stark contrast to the story of the jailor. Paul and Silas did not fare well after their treatment of the slave girl due to the anger of her owners. They were arrested, beaten, put in innermost cells and shackled in the stocks. Later that night, an earthquake opened the doors and released the shackles. The jailor was so upset he was going to commit suicide presumably because he would incur the wrath of his supervisors for not doing his job. Paul and Silas called to the jailor not to do so as they had not escaped. 

What a contrast! The slave girl was left to the anger of her owners. The jailor was saved from the anger of his superiors. This time Paul and Silas did have compassion for the outcome. 

The story continues. The act of compassion from Paul and Silas caused the jailor to embrace a belief in God. The girl was sadly not afforded that opportunity. 

So, I ask myself, “In the eyes of Paul and Silas was the life of a male jailor worth more than that of a female slave?”

Sadly, my conclusion must be “yes”.

I don’t highlight this gender bias because I am surprised by it — actually I expected it. 

I highlighted it because it still exists today. Unfortunately, I don’t have to look too hard to find this gender bias. The conference session I attended focused on just one aspect of this gender bias, but it is everywhere.

The important questions to ask myself—
“What can I do to stand for gender injustice?”
“How can I speak up when I become aware of such a situation?”
“How can I be an advocate for those involved?”


Sunday, April 21, 2019

An Idle Tale

Christ is Risen
Christ is Risen Indeed.

The lectionary for Easter Sunday offers two accounts of the resurrection. The choice is the story in the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Luke. I read through them both, the phrase that really caught my attention was “these words seemed to them an idle tale” (Luke 24:11). 

Each account of the resurrection has some minor differences. In Luke’s story the spices were being taken to the tomb in the early morning. One presumes to continue the practice of preparation of the body, which may have been interrupted by the Sabbath. 

It was a party of women, three of whom are named —Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James — they found no body. In the Lucan account, they met two men who spoke to them. “Why do you look for the living amongst the dead?” Then proceeded to remind the women that on the third day Christ would rise. 

The women returned to the disciples. The text doesn’t tell us how they returned. Were they quiet and ponderous or running and happy?  I can imagine a lot of conflicting emotions — perhaps some joy, perhaps some hope, perhaps some confusion, perhaps some fear.

They reached the disciples and told their story. Initially they were not believed. The apostles thought it “an idle tale”. Did they dismiss it because it was women who testified of it? Or, was it simply too incredulous? I wonder if I had been one hearing from the women would I, too, have dismissed it as an idle tale. Ultimately, Peter decided to check out the story and was amazed also to find the empty tomb.

This “idle tale” is the foundation of the Christian faith. 
This “idle tale” has brought hope to millions of people worldwide. 
This “idle tale” reminds us of the cyclical nature of life—death—life. A cycle that is reflected each year in nature. 
This “idle tale” fills with overwhelming joy.

What a powerful story. What a powerful “idle tale.”

Christ is Risen
Christ is Risen Indeed.

Happy Easter

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Doing the Unexpected!

The gospel reading for today is the story of Mary anointing Jesus with costly perfume. (John 12:1-8) Jesus and the disciples were once again together in the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. The author of the Gospel of John brings to the readers’ attention that Lazarus was the one raised from the dead. I’m sure the occasion was a happy one, maybe they were celebrating Jesus’ role in that resurrection. The text announces that the dinner was in Jesus honour. 

This story is also recorded in the other gospels. Today, I’m only going to focus on the Johannine account. Although many details are different —for instance the woman is unnamed in two accounts —it is clearly the same tale. 

I think the most important thing to note is that Mary did the unexpected. She stepped outside the acceptable role for women of the day. It is easy to miss the impact of this in the familiarity of the story about Martha and Mary. Often, we read it as if Martha took the role of service and Mary the more spiritual route, like these were their permanent roles.
I prefer to think of Mary’s action as an aberration. She stepped out of role and did the unexpected. It was noted as such as it caused a reaction from the disciples. Maybe it even sent a shockwave through them. A powerful woman stepping out of her place!

Mary anointed his feet with costly oil. This is a powerful prophetic action which is almost unequalled in the gospels. 

The story tells us that Mary had purchased the perfume to “keep it for the day of [Jesus] burial” (8). Yet, she chose to anoint him that day. I repeat — a powerful prophetic action which is almost unequalled in the gospels.

I often wonder how Mary felt. It certainly can’t have been easy for her to do this. It is never easy to go against the status quo. Maybe it is worth realizing how hard this action must have been for Mary. Yet this one deed, this significant anointing, caused her to earn her place in history.

There is also a sort irony in this story. One worth pondering for the last weeks of Lent. At a celebration for Lazarus who was “raised from the dead” (1) Jesus was anointed for his own death.

I want to glance briefly at the role of Judas in this story. He queried whether the perfume should have been sold and given to the poor. The writer of the gospel notes in parenthesis that Judas wanted to steal the money. However, they would not have known that at the time. I often wonder if it wasn’t merely a later attempt to show that Judas was always bad! If not, why let him handle the finances? Imagine if Peter or John had been the ones to query whether the money should be given to the poor. Would it have sounded different? 

Jesus message had consistently been to side with the poor and marginalized, yet here he was lauding Mary’s action. Clearly, this shows the importance of this one prophetic action. In this story, this single action takes precedence over caring for the poor. This is not a light thing. Another part of this story well-worth reflecting on. 

Mary performed a powerful prophetic act. She stepped out of her expected role. She broke the stereotype of how a woman had to behave. Mary, and a few other women like her, made the gospel relevant for women. She helped to form and change Christianity, and continues to do whenever her story is revisited.