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Month: July 2016

New Wine. New Wineskins. Mark 2.18-22

New Wine. New Wineskins. Mark 2.18-22

Change can be difficult to navigate personally and organizationally. We want change and we resist change – sometimes simultaneously. As we move into the future, we sometimes find ourselves lamenting the passing away of traditions and activities that were meaningful in the past.

What ever happened to Kodak? The phrase “a Kodak moment” was once part of everyday conversations in North America. Kodak once dominated the global market of cameras, film, photographic paper and chemicals. Forty years ago, Kodak products accounted for 85 percent of camera sales and 90% of film sales in the USA. Ironically, in the same period. Kodak research teams invented the first digital camera. Senior managers in the company did not want digital to change the traditional market for Kodak cameras, film, chemicals and paper.

John Larish, a former Kodak manager, wrote an insightful account of the corporation’s decline. He stated “… there were far too many filmcentric people at Kodak who could not think in their wildest imagination that anything would replace film.” Larish went on to observe that you cannot stop consumers from wanting what they want.

The Kodak story emphasizes once again that we often resist change when it touches on areas that are deeply rooted in our identity, culture, and practices. We may recognize the need to change, even desire change, and resist it all at the same time. I believe that each person has experienced this strange matrix of emotions, volition, common sense, and negative reasoning.

Jesus uses two simple analogies or parables about a garment that needs repair and wine that must be stored for later use. The sayings are profound and disturbing. First, you cannot save an old garment by simply sewing on a patch of new cloth. The patch will shrink and create an even greater problem. I think Jesus was saying that the crisis in Galilee demanded something more than trying to simply fix things up provisionally for another season. I am staggered by this saying when I ponder its meaning in our context.

The second metaphor is more joyful and celebratory. New wine can be enjoyed if it is placed in new wineskins that are flexible and can stretch with the fermentation process. In contrast, new wine placed in old wineskins will be lost. The old cannot contain the new. The newness of God’s rule challenges us to examine traditions and ways of doing things that may no longer be as meaningful as in the past.

We are left wondering about the personal and shared meaning for the times and places in which we live. Too often the church has become a defender of the status quo rather than an agent of change and an advocate of justice and compassion. Many church worship services are predictable and boring. A decision to witness in the borderlands will require us to change the way “we do church.” This will be unsettling and at times chaotic. We will need to remember that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We trust in his love and care as we share our faith with unchurched people and invite them into our faith communities.

I will conclude with a few suggestions.

  1. The Kodak story is worth remembering. We can cling too tightly to what worked in the past and miss the gifts and opportunities of the present.
  2. Spiritual disciples sustain us in times of personal, social and congregational change. Theology is important because it helps us to think well. But spirituality if for the heart. Prayer, scriptures, and silence remind us that we are God’s beloved children. They allow God to whisper into our hearts during difficult times of change.
  3. We need community in times of change. We are supported by people who listen, understand, help us to discern, and speak God’s word into our lives.
  4. The call to witness has not changed in nature. Mission is always outward oriented. The Spirit pushes us outside the church to places where people celebrate, weep, work, and live. God calls us to live faithfully and joyfully in those places.
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What is Missing in the Election Campaigns?

What is Missing in the Election Campaigns?

The US presidential race is like a Canadian election on steroids. Election campaigns in both countries seem like an alternate form of consumerism. Millions of dollars are invested in opinion polls and advertising. There is a competition for the most compelling promises while repeating the refrain of lower prices (taxes). Candidates frame their messages to attract individual votes the way the product commercials seek to direct purchase decisions.

What is missing in all the rhetoric? I think that little attention paid to the common good of communities, our countries, and the world.

The environment, including the air we breathe and the water we drink, seldom receives significant attention. Perhaps most Republicans deny human caused climate change, detest government regulations, and want to exploit rather than conserve. Democrats may wish to avoid conversations about the cost of reducing carbon emissions, protecting water supplies, and mitigating the impact of prolonged droughts and violent storms. The environment is an important component of the commons that we share as citizens.

The wealth of a nation can be seen as another common good. Children deserve access to good schools and professional teachers. (Canadians should be ashamed of the inadequate funding for schools on indigenous lands.) Secure employment with adequate salaries provides resources for the needs of families. Taxes may need to be raised to create projects to restore infrastructure like sewers and water systems. Land and endangered species can be preserved. Low income housing can be built. Youth can be brought together to challenge the racism that divides our countries. Many of us would like to hear candidates speak about jobs that will benefit the common good.

The US and Canada are economically privileged. We have a role to play on the world stage for the common good. Global problems will not be solved by domination and fear of our armed forces. We are challenged to act constructively and generously with people who live in desperation on the margins. I would be interested to know how Clinton and Trump would address hunger and poverty in Africa.

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s current prime minister, seemed to understand the importance of appealing to our better natures and our concern for the common good in the 2015 Canadian election. He elevated conversations about the environment, indigenous rights, Syrian refugees, and assistance to low income families. The election of the Liberal Party proved that there is a constituency that wants more than rhetoric about individual benefits and freedoms.

The Hebrew prophet Amos spoke to those in power when he said: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a river.” St. Paul, in a time of hunger, wrote about a fair balance between the secure and the needy (2 Cor. 8). Faith and people of faith are concerned about the common good of the whole community. There is a place for us as Christians to challenge our candidates to address the issues that concern the well-being of our communities and the world.

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Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas

Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas

I believe that God’s word speaks into every human crisis – those that are personal and those that are social. This has been a tough period for our American neighbors. Over the past two weeks most of us witnessed, by television or internet, Caucasian police killing African American men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Later we were stunned by the actions of an African American sniper shooting at police in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter rally.

In subsequent interviews, a number of social activists described themselves as depressed, fatigued, confused, and angry. A journalist commented that segments of the population are wounded and enraged. We instinctively understand the discouragement of this moment for Christians who work for God’s rule of justice, mercy, and the dignity of each human life.

What does God’s word have to say to Americans who struggle with the legacy of slavery, to Canadians where indigenous women are at risk in cities like Winnipeg, to Bolivians where Aymara and Quechua people are judged by the color of their skin and the traditional clothes that they wear, in India where the caste system still relegates some people to be untouchable, and in countless other social locations where people are judged by their race or ethnic background?

I have been reflecting on two verses from the apostle Paul. I want to introduce them by saying that the cities of the Roman Empire were melting pots of different ethnicities and races. People tended to live in areas that were determined by ethnicity. And there was violence and misunderstandings between different groups. People often lived in fear. It was into this context that Paul proclaimed the message that God’s grace was freely given to all through the death of Jesus Christ. He died as a Roman prisoner executed by the state; he also died as a sacrifice for our sins. He rose from the dead through the power of God. The first Christians lived in a world that called Caesar Lord and Savior. They defiantly called Jesus Christ their Lord and their Savior. They were a new people that could be called the family of God and the body of Christ.

Paul wrote the following words in the second letter to the house churches in Corinth. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, even thought once we knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away. See, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5.16-17). In simple words, faith is transformative. Faith changes us dramatically. We simply cannot follow Jesus and uncritically accept the destructive standards and prejudices of the social world around us. There is a new creation and we are called by God to live into that new creation. It requires us to change through the presence and grace of God’s Spirit.

The second text comes from Galatians. Here we have another mixed church community. The city around them is divided by social positions, ethnicity, and patriarchy. Paul makes the following statement about this new social group called the Christian church. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is not longer male and female, there is no longer slave and free, there is no longer male and female. You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3.28). He does not mean that ethnicity no longer exists, that gender no longer exists, that slavery had disappeared from the Roman Empire. He means that these divisions are not tolerated and perpetuated by followers of Jesus. There is a new fellowship around the cross of profound and transformative inclusion.

I pray that followers of Jesus will hear God’s voice, deepen their faith in the power of the gospel, and recommit their lives to be servants of God’s kingdom and witnesses of God’s love in their families, communities, and world.

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A Call Gives Strength in Tough Times

A Call Gives Strength in Tough Times

A sense of call is an important source of strength when we navigate through difficult times. This period in history is certainly a dark valley for women and men that work for racial or ethnic equity, understanding, and reconciliation. This week most of us witnessed, by television or internet, Caucasian police killing African American men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Later we were stunned by the actions of an African American sniper shooting at police in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter rally.

In subsequent interviews, a number of social activists have described themselves as depressed, fatigued, confused, and angry. A journalist commented that segments of the population are wounded and enraged. We instinctively understand the discouragement of this moment for Christians who work for God’s rule of justice, mercy, and the dignity of each human life. As Canadians, we pray that God will call leaders in America to speak messages of honesty, confession, and reconciliation in regard to personal and social evils. We can ask God to raise up a new generation of Christians that will offer their gifts and abilities to bring healing and hope.  Their vocations will require courage and conviction.

The power of a sense of call has been part of our conversations in the past month. I will give two examples. Adrian and his family never envisioned leaving Atlantic Canada where they have deep roots. This summer they will relocate to Toronto in response to a call of the Spirit. Adrian, a pastor, was drawn into international ministry through a trip to Bolivia several years ago. There he witnessed the impact of Chagas Disease on rural families. He returned to Canada with a call to raise awareness and support in his area for Chagas programs. Over the intervening years other human issues in the Global South have touched Adrian’s heart and deepened his call. He is moving to Toronto in order to lead a program of Christian volunteers that, among other things, will help people in Bolivia to protect their homes from the vinchuca insect that is the main vector for Chagas Disease. Adrian’s life has been transformed by a call.

Elizabeth is a Ph.D. student from Uganda. She was studying law at a university when she felt the Spirit’s call to abandon her studies and become a sister in a Catholic order. God seemed to be whispering in her ear that real change would come through nurturing faith and working for justice as a nun. She recently spent more than seven months in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo doing research in the impact of mining. The work was dangerous. She regularly changed her place of residence, and even her appearance. Elizabeth shared with us that she has not regrets about leaving law to follow the Spirit’s call although it sometimes exposes her to danger.

There are many moving call narratives in the scriptures. The eighth century BCE prophet Isaiah was in the temple during a time of national crisis (Isa. 6). He describes being overwhelmed by a mystical experience that transported him into the presence of God. He becomes aware of the personal and social evil around him in which he participates. A burning coal purifies his voice and he offers his life in service to God. There is a sober warning that his mission will be directed to people who deliberately choose to be deaf and blind to the events around them and to God’s message for their times. During difficult periods, I am sure that the certainty of his call gave Isaiah strength to remain true to his vocation.

I pray that God will call thousands of men and women of every age cohort to serve his kingdom in the places of violence, anger, and despair.

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Thorn in the Flesh

Thorn in the Flesh

The Apostle Paul’s description of a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12.7b-10) holds meaning for many of us who struggle with chronic illnesses. In my case, Still’s Disease robs me of many former activities and confines me within disciplined life of rest, light exercise, contemplation, and limited work. Many people, of course, deal with conditions that leave them bedridden with the prospect of death on the horizon. I count myself fortunate and blessed.

The thorn in the flesh seems to have been a debilitating and recurrent affliction that was unpredictable, painful, and humiliating. I am attracted to the suggestion of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg (The First Paul) that the apostle had contracted a form of chronic malaria as a youth in Tarsus. The fevers and headaches can leave a person drained of all strength. There is a striking paradox embedded in this section of Paul’s letter. The thorn in the flesh is presented as both a gift of God (note the passive verb “was given”) and a messenger of Satan. Undoubtedly the condition imposed limitations on Paul’s apostolic mission. It is possible that his opponents mocked him as a sick healer that God refused to cure. Yet it is also a strange gift that has passed through the hands of God who loves him.

Paul states that on three specific occasions he had pleaded for God’s healing intervention to permanently remove the thorn in his flesh. The response to his prayer was a message: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect (reaches its goal) in weakness.” These words represent both an affirmation and an explanation. Paul will be given grace to cope with the pain, embarrassment, and shame of his condition. Furthermore, he is told that God’s power to transform human lives reaches its goal in the midst of human weakness (Greek en astheneia). There is no room for arrogance, false bravado, and misguided ideas of self sufficiency.

Paul goes on to cite other situations in which his weak social position and inability to defend himself are publicly evident. His commitment to Christ forces him to deal with insults, hardships, persecution, and calamities. He neither plays it safe nor retreats into leading a small life. Paul writes about the power of Christ pitching a tent beside him in troubled times. He concludes with a statement that is important for all of us who live with limitations and follow the Spirit’s leading into difficult places of service. “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul’s words help me to understand how I experience Still’s Disease as a gift from God that has required me to depend on his grace and develop a quiet life of prayer. Simultaneously, I have been embarrassed by commitments that I have been unable to complete and my requirements for rest that restrict ministry. We find ourselves in Paul’s company when we understand that Christ pitches a tent beside us in difficult times and that his power is revealed in the midst of our weakness.

 

 

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