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Archive for January, 2013

Awe

plasticine

I remember someone describing seminary as the place you lose your faith. Sadly this has been echoed by many people. Today, I sat in my “Roots of Christianity” course – taught through the religion department – and got thinking about it.

My rigid upbringing with a black and white framework was definitely challenged in attending a secular university and even a year of seminary. But I wonder now – is that a bad thing? Eight years ago, I would have defined what kind of Christian you are based on whether you believed in a seven day literal creation or not. If you didn’t, you were “liberal” meaning basically that you were not only wrong but really didn’t take Scripture seriously.

In one of my courses, we read Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity  (awesome book btw – prophetic, thought-provoking and challenging). Brian deals with the creation narratives in Genesis in an interesting way. He puts them in the context of the lives of the Jewish people in Babylon and describes the context of other creation narratives – something that all ancient cultures seem to have. He writes, “Genesis 1 is written to despairing exiles to give them hope. It cuts through the experience of exile to ground life in something more fundamental than the Babylonian experience – the creation itself. And it provides hope in a Babylonian context by being well-crafted, probably liturgically enacted critique of that whole Marduk, Tiamat, and Kingu story of creation” (pg 19-20). The Babylonian story of creation had human beings at the lowest rung, with the Israelites slaves. But the story of creation in the narratives that begin the Hebrew Scriptures speaks of a God who got involved with the elements of this world and created a masterpiece – human beings – who were made in God’s image. Read in this context, the narratives take on layers of meaning and depth and beauty that a simple literal read.

Now don’t get me wrong… I believe in a God who is capable of speaking creation into being in a matter of 7 24 hour days. I mean, he is God. And that’s pretty spectacular. I’ve often been told it takes more to believe in a story of evolution than it does creation. I think it is true. It’s much easier for my mind to comprehend a God who speaks and it is so than to believe in a God who created a world that keeps on creating and changing. Truth be told, none of us were present at the time of creation – whether that be a big bang, a spoken word or something. All we have is evidence and that evidence is inconclusive at best.

But I wonder if we lose majesty, splendour and beauty of God when we take texts that were written and put them under the scrutiny of the historical and scientific methods of our day – very modern methods  in comparison to these ancient texts. I wonder if demanding something more from a text is an unfaithful reading perhaps committing a greater hermaneutic sin than blindly accepting evolution as the current theory.

Taking courses has made me unwilling to take texts such as Genesis 1-2 to be simply historical and scientific fact. But if anything, these courses – while challenging the “truths” of my upbringing – have brought me to a greater sense of awe and love of God. How so?

I come away from these texts and the commentaries in utter awe for a God who orchestrates a story of beauty and meaning and hope in ways that I cannot fully comprehend. I like a good magic trick. But the awe quickly wears off. Instead, I am left with layers and layers of meaning and beauty that speak to God’s character and role in Israel’s life – and subsequently in my own life.

I read these texts that once provided me a “solid” answer to how the world came about (and a pride and arrogance that anyone who believed otherwise was simply wrong!). But now I have more questions and puzzles and turn to a God who is bigger than I ever could have imagined. Why does God have to create a world in a way I understand it? Why not create it with a beautiful mystery that keeps me exploring and in awe? Who am I to think that I could comprehend the ways of God?

I am admittedly quite ignorant when it comes to the “facts” of evolution and yes, some of these things seem bizarre to me. I have trouble with the “accident” language, and while I see some similarities, I struggle to see that we came from apes. But that is not my scientific mind speaking – it is my deep love of Genesis 1-2 that speak of God intentionally creating mankind as separate and special from the rest of creation. I’m not trying to defend or reject evolution here – anyone steeped in knowledge could very quickly pull apart any arguments that I have to make. But lately I have been wondering, why not? If God is who I say He is – capable of all things – who am I to say that I find it impossible to believe in the tenets of evolution, therefore it must be false? who am I to say that God’s ways must conform to my constructed view of the world and how science is recorded? What if, God created a world that continued to create and recreate and transform? What if God set the whole world into motion with free will?

I think of what I am able to create and every once in awhile I produce a “masterpiece” (typically a piece of writing that gets shared around the world). A few days later – if even that – site stats go down and that masterpiece gets archived and, probably forgotten. Maybe one day I’ll produce something cool enough that people quote in books and articles to come. In just thinking about this, I get excited about my work of art taking on a life of its own. What if it is the same with God? What if he sets into motion the world and then sits back for a moment and watches creation recreate? What if he takes pleasure in watching his creation continue to create and develop? Of course, we all know creation doesn’t always create beauty and wonder – thankfully God doesn’t step back from creation but get his hands messy in the dirt and walks in the garden with us.

It makes me sad that my linear approach to Scripture would have missed this. it makes me sad that I was once content with an arrogant assurance of knowing God’s ways when finding myself in the vast mystery is a much more beautiful place. I wonder if awe is more the point than literal answers? If such a reading is more faithful because it expands the horizons of possibility of who God is?

It reminds me of a few lines of simple words from worship song writer Matt Redman

You are God in heaven, and here am I on earth. So I’ll let my words be few. Jesus I am so in awe of you

Maybe that is the point of Scripture – to see God in all his splendour and glory and mystery. And to see how limited my own understanding and ability is. And to stand before God not with words and answers, but in a humble awe.

Reflection

Tonight was a beautiful and meaningful night. Friends and family members gathered in a small chapel to mark the end of a chapter, to pray for the beginning of a new one, and to Praise the Author of our stories. It has been a creative and redemptive process preparing for this night – from choosing the songs, preparing the liturgy, choosing the passages to be read. Oh how I deliberated over what Scripture should be chosen. But on Friday, I sat at work with a book and felt God say “this one.” I looked it up (Luke 23:32-43) and decided that it fit. And then I felt God say, “And you will speak”. Now I came up with every excuse in the book. And God gently spoke into each reason I offered.

People have asked me to share my reflection/sermon. So here it is. An earlier blog post was the beginning of this, so you may recognize some of the themes and even some of the paragraphs. Oh we also read Philippians 2:5-11 – so you will see references to that passage throughout.

May the words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer

I grew up in a tradition that emphasized that the penalty of my sin was death and that Christ paid that penalty. We’d read the Passion in the Gospels and see how we participated in crucifixion. As a child, I would sing the great hymn “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”. A doctrine of utter depravity informed my utter need for a Saviour.

As amazing as this is, I wonder if Christ’s work on the cross is something more than just paying the penalty for my sins. We gather tonight because of a story – one of abuse, rejection, and imprisonment. Each person here has participated in the drama of this story through prayer, support, friendship and love. We come together over a story of violence, and in the words of Phil Zylla read at the beginning of the service, we share

asking the honest question “why?” untroubled, finding a solidarity, a kinship in loss.

Violence demands an answer. I have been offered many answers over the years. Yet each of them has failed in some way. I’ve often said that if someone wants to get a message across to me, they should set it to music, and I will hear it. Canadian singer/song writer Steve Bell wrote a song that when I heard it I was sure that it was written for me and over time it has provided the answer to the question of violence.

Somebody’s gotta pay for this/ Nobody gets away unless somebody dies/ And it’s confirmed that there’s been pain/ Enough to satisfy the rage/ from the losses she’s sustained since age thirteen/ Only then can the rest go free.

In response to the news of my stepfather going to jail, I’ve had people suggest to me that justice is now being served and therefore I must be happy. Indeed, he is now facing the consequences of what he has done and a gruelling court proceeding is finally over. But there is really nothing he can do or endure that will make up for what I’ve experienced. If I want an answer to the violence I have endured, I cannot look to my stepfather. In Steve Bell’s words, He doesn’t have “enough to lose to pay for this.” He simply cannot pay the price for the pain he has caused me and the many people who are affected by his actions.

Steve wrote this song after a series of three dreams after learning of a situation of someone he cared about. The first dream, he was standing in front of the perpetrator, with a gun in hand and ready to shoot. The second dream, he again was standing in front of the perpetrator, with a gun in hand and ready to shoot, though this time, Christ stood in between them. The third dream, he stood in front of the perpetrator, with a gun in hand, and Christ said, “Shoot me instead.

This is not some meek and mild Jesus. This is One who, being in very nature God… made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant. This is a Jesus who gave up everything to take on my punishment for the sin that separates me from God. But more than that – this is a Christ who died to satisfy the rage of the losses I’ve sustained by age thirteen. This is a Christ who cares enough about me along with the other orphans, widows and lepers of society to avenge their cause. This is a Christ who answers the cries of the violated.

The prophet Isaiah speak to a Christ’s suffering:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:2-5

This is a Christ who, again in the words of Steve Bell, chose to pay the price, on a tree, silently and still, just long enough to kill. It is a Christ who sees our pain and anger and says, “I can take it, give it to me.” It is a Christ who allows himself to be wounded beyond what my mind can comprehend so that not only can I be saved, but that I can be healed by his wounds and be given peace.

This is a love that I have begun to experience the depth and width and breadth in this journey. However, Steve Bell sings that this is a “kind of love that changes everything”. I think we see this poignantly in Christ’s words on the cross. 

He was hung with criminals, as a criminal, and mocked for his innocence. Christ left the throne of God to get involved in the messiness of humanity for its salvation by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.. He was offered wine vinegar to drink – something that the poor drank. He was mocked for being King of the Jews.

And there he stood, looking upon the people watching and the rulers sneering at him, and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

If I were to find any pride or satisfaction in Christ avenging my cause on the cross, this profound prayer humbles for me. I cannot comprehend the amount of suffering Christ endured, the pain of being mocked by those he came to save and heal. And certainly my first words would not be to pray for those who hurt me in the midst of my pain, let alone pray that God forgives them.

This is the kind of love that changes everything. This is a love that was pierced for my transgressions, crushed for my iniquities. And I cannot bask in this love for long before I see that this is the love I am called to – to forgive and pray for my enemies, to forgive and pray for those who have hurt me. Indeed, we are taught to ask God for forgiveness of our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Christ’s death on the cross is a love that changes everything.

This Gospel reading includes a short exchange with Christ and the other criminals that is not detailed in the other gospels. As I’ve pondered these words, I see a great hope that speaks into the situation that gathers us hear tonight as well as other situations we find ourselves in. One of the criminals acknowledges that he is suffering because of his own wrongdoing and that Christ is innocent. And he turns to Christ and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Christ’s responded with “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

I think this exchange is important. While the others were mocking Jesus, this criminal got it. Peter – the disciple who enthusiastically claimed he would follow Christ to prison and to death only a day before – denied knowing Christ. The disciples fell asleep when they were asked to keep watch and pray. In the other Gospels we are told that the disciples hid after Christ’s death because they were afraid.

But was this criminal saw who he was and who Christ was. To me, this speaks great hope into a story that is not over. God can and will continue to work in my stepfather’s life, in my family’s lives and in my own life. God isn’t finished yet.

Awhile ago, I visited a community that ate and studied Scripture with people who had been in jail. Before we broke into small groups, one man – an ex-convict – gave a monologue on grace. It was a profound moment that brought tears as this man talked with God saying, “You want me? But I have nothing to give. Are you sure? What about all the bad things I’ve done?” God used an ex-convict to teach me about grace.

Steve Bell proclaims in a lot of his concerts that he is here today because Canada’s most unwanted men in the prison where his father was chaplain took an interest in teaching him to play the guitar.

Just when we reach a point when all is lost, God seems to throw in a wild card that we weren’t expecting. My most profound experience of God’s presence was in the midst of a gruelling cross-examination. My most profound experience of God’s love was when I gave up on life only to discover that God wasn’t finished with me yet. I learned to delight in God’s ways after months – or rather years – of complaining over and over about the ardious wait.

But then, isn’t this the way of God? To orchestrate beauty and grace in the midst of the messiness of humanity? To choose “the lowly things of this world and the despised things to that no one can boast before him?” (1 Corinthians 1:28-29).

I leave you with the words of one of my favourite poets. Anne Sexton was deeply troubled most of her life, but had periods of closeness with God and wrote some of the most beautiful descriptions of what life with Christ looks like. This poem has become my prayer as I see what God has done through the events that bring us together tonight and as I look to life in this new chapter.

I’m mooring my rowboat

at the dock of the island called God.

This dock is made in the shape of a fish

and there are many boats moored

at many different docks.

“It’s okay,” I say to myself,

with blisters that broke and healed

and broke and healed –

saving themselves over and over.

And salt sticking to my face and arms like

a glue-skin pocked with grains of tapioca.

I empty myself from the wooden boat

and onto the flesh of The Island.

“On with it!” He says and thus

we squat on the rocks by the sea

and play – can it be true – 

a game of poker.

He calls me.

I win because I hold a royal straight flush.

He wins because He holds five aces.

A wild card had been announced

but I had not heard it

being in such a state of awe

when He took out the cards and dealt.

As he plunks down His five aces

and I sit grinning at my royal flush,

He starts to laugh,

the laughter rolling like a hoop out of His mouth

and into mine,

and such laughter that He doubles right over me

laughing a Rejoice-Chorus at our two triumphs.

Then I laugh, the fishy dock laughs

the sea laughs. The Island laughs.

The Absurd laughs.

Dearest dealer,

I with my royal straight flush

love you so for your wild card,

that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha

and lucky love.

Amen.

Thoughts on a ‘rainy’ afternoon

Rain rings trash can bells
And what do you know
My alley becomes a cathedral

Eyes can be archways
To enter or leave by
Vacuums replaced by a crystal

Jesus don’t let Toronto take my song away

It’s easy to love if
You let yourself love it
But like a moth’s wing it’s easily crushed

Jesus don’t let tomorrow take my love away

Bruce Cockburn (Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon)

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Let me all go to You

Let them all go to You

all the joys and sufferings

of this day.

Let them all go to You

all the worries of today.

Let them all go to You

all the mistakes that I made

Let them all go to You

all the people that I care for

Let them all go to You

all the sufferings of the world.

Let them all go to You.

 

All the happiness I held

let it all go to You

All the good that was done

let it all go to You.

All the beauty that appeared

let it all go to You.

All the beauty that appeared

let it all go to You.

All the love that I was given

let it all go to you.

 

Let me all go to You.

– Mary Jo Leddy (Radical Gratitude)

My Lord will Keep me sane

I haven’t had much time lately to write. I have a TON of reading for my courses, and I’ve been planning some services and have had a lot going on. I can’t believe we are in mid January and that this is my second week of school. Anyways, this song has been on my mind a lot lately. So I thought I’d share it – come on, come on wind and rain! I know the sun will shine again! until then my Lord will keep me sane.

I wrote this to a friend and mentor recently: Through all these struggles, I find myself reaching out to God more. Sometimes in complete desparation and others in frustration and others still I laugh in delight of knowing he knows me better than I know myself. I don’t know what God is up to in all of this. It’s not a perfect reaching out. But I do know he is good. I don’t know how people cope without God. Mind you, I’ve been reading stuff for school that talks about Christians being called to stuff that leads to suffering (last night reading about Jeremiah)… that’s perplexing to me. but knowing that the God who created the universe loves me inside and out no matter how much I fail and mess up or how lost I feel at times brings a sense of security in the midst of turmoil that I don’t know how people manage without.

Seriously, in the midst of the wind and rain, I know the sun will shine again… but until then, I know the Lord will keep me sane.

Up above my shoulder the ragged rooftops rise
Casting shadows over streets they seem to despise

Come on, come on, wind and rain
I know the sun will shine again
Till then my lady and my Lord will keep me sane

I went down to the dead lake shore to see what I could see
Along the breeze came, away my cap went, my head it was set free

Come on, come on, wind and rain
I know the sun will shine again
Till then my lady and my Lord will keep me sane

And I hear a far away tune come drifting through the gray
It clears a path before my feet, it makes my fingers play

Come on, come on, wind and rain
I know the sun will shine again
Till then my lady and my Lord will keep me sane

Come on, come on, soot and storm
I know the sun will break your arm
Till then my lady and my Lord will keep me warm

– Bruce Cockburn

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Pressing on

Words are my friends. I cannot express myself in ways that people understand what is going on for me. I don’t cry. I don’t shout. And most days, I can put on a front that all is well. Words are all I have to communicate where I am at.

The past few days have been dark. Not within me, but around me. Well, there’s plenty of darkness within me and I often find myself kneeling before the throne of God humbled by his love for me, a sinner. But the darkness is around me too. And silence has set in because I have no words. I have no understanding. I have no wisdom.

Marks were posted today and despite doing well most of the term, my final exams brought most of my marks down by quite a bit. For this, I also have no words.

The path moving forward in all the situations I find myself in is unclear. It seems I have a mountain to climb before me and it seems impossible.

It is with a heavy heart that I turned to prayer this morning. As you probably know by now, I pray through the Celtic Daily Prayers daily. They have scripture assigned to each day and a meditation assigned to each month. The meditations, since they are repeated each month, have become my friends. So are the canticles in the morning and evening prayer liturgies as they ground me and focus me on a God who is with me and loves me and is faithful to me even when I doubt such faithfulness. The scripture passages often meet me where I’m at each day. This is something that always amazes me when I follow a lectionary of some sorts – for the verses assigned to today were there long before today happened, when only God could know what today would hold, and he speaks through these words to my heart today.

Today’s epistle reading is familiar but fitting.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:12-14

I was talking with my aunt the other day who mentioned that we are called to someone and not necessarily something. As I look at the darkness I find myself in and my utter lostness of how the night came and how to move forward to the light, I see my own insecurities and neurotic thoughts. And dark words – unkind words – pounce on these insecurities. This passage reminded me that I must abandon myself to God – he must be the one I seek with all my heart, soul and mind. It is his purposes and his delight that I seek. Indeed, it was only a few days ago that God spoke to me “Well done, my good and faithful servant” – a moment that I treasure and left me tearing up on the subway ride to an event. I am to abandon myself to a God who has shown me mercy time and time again and unfailing love.

Instead I look to others for approval. I look to people who will disappoint, hurt and will not give me the love I am searching for. I am not speaking of any person in particular. This is a general tendency I have- a common one, I know. The problem is that if I put my hope in people, I cannot press on. I will forever be trapped.

But if I abandon myself to God alone – one who delights in me, is always faithful to me, and is constantly forgiving me, then I can press on. I can move forward, forgetting what is behind and strain toward what is ahead. I can dwell in the darkness of depending on others for my self worth, or I can cling to the One who passionately loves me.

One of the most influential sermons I’ve ever heard was from someone who said that at the end of the day, God asks two questions: do you love Me? and do you love My people?

All else is meaningless in comparison.

So today, I press on to love God and to love his people, forgetting past failures and resting in the arms of my Beloved.

Surrender

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The past few weeks I have been brought to my knees over and over.

I remember going on a retreat with the youth when I worked for another church. I described my horrible camping experience a little in another post. This was a weekend I dreaded. Because I had to somehow be strong during a weekend that I knew would be full of triggers. I found myself over and over questioning God, questioning his role in my life and my suffering and why the heck I’ve been through what I have and lost all that I have.

I sat on the rocks and looked out at the lake. The lake was huge. I could not see past the horizon.

I felt God quietly saying to me, “Elizabeth, you cannot see beyond the horizon of this one lake… how can you see my plans for your future?”

I’ve been reminded of that moment a lot lately. And reminded of another passage in Isaiah:

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but I will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’

Over and over I am seeing how God has had is hand all over my life. He has been intimately involved even in moments that i thought he had left me alone. God orchestrates my life and redeems the difficult things and even my bad choices to turn it into a beautiful song that brings honour and praise to him.

I’m in a strange place of discernment right now. I’ve never enjoyed periods of discernment. I like clear answers and clear roads. Yesterday, I was fretting and worrying about my future. Today, all that fretting and worrying seems futile, even funny – for all God asks of me is to follow him. And over and over he has shown me that he really does know me inside and out, and that he really does go before me and with me. I have a course load this term that is not representative of a science student at all – I cannot get into any science courses. Only theology and church history courses. It’s not what I expected would be on my plate – but I need to trust that God has this too in the palms of his hands.

I am learning to surrender. It’s not easy for someone like me who wants to be independent and who is known for her stubbornness. But one by one, the stubborn parts of me are being broken down and I find myself letting go of me – of my will, my hopes, and my dreams and saying be it unto me.

Today I heard a song that I haven’t heard in ages by David Crowder. It is my prayer today. and tomorrow. I imagine I will have to keep saying these words over and over because it is so easy to forget to surrender and God knows how much I kick and scream when I do not understand his ways. But today, I offer them earnestly.

Take my heart, I lay it down/ At the feet of you who’s crowned/ Take my life, I’m letting go/ Lifted up to you who’s throned.

And I will worship you Lord, only you Lord. And I will bow down for you, only you Lord.

Take my fret, take my fear/ All I have, I’m leaving here/ Be all my hopes, be all my dreams/ You are my delight, my everything.