Sunday, June 3, 2018

Wish I Could Be Afraid

            I wish I could be afraid. Like Peter was afraid, once.

It happened this way. One day, after a fruitless night of fishing, Jesus told Peter to throw the nets out on the other side of the boat. Peter thought, "No way. Wrong place; wrong time." But to humor Jesus — who had, after all, just healed his mother-in-law — Peter did as he was told. And according to the story Luke tells, Peter caught a huge load of fish. It seemed a miracle.

The next thing Peter knew, he was stepping out of the boat and falling on his knees before Jesus. Something about what had just happened — something about Jesus — terrified him. So, Peter said, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man."

Jacoba Bassano's The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1545)
I wish I could be afraid like that. Even if only once, for a minute, I wish I could feel the breath sucked out of me like Peter’s must have been, when he guessed, before he had words to say it, that Jesus was the Messiah, of God (Luke 9:20).

            This is why: my life is all about Jesus. I have gone to church all my life. I spent twenty years going to Christian schools, including seminary. I now preach about Jesus weekly. I pray to him daily. He is rarely far from my thoughts.

            Yet I have never held his hand. I have never laid eyes on his face. I have not put my hands in his wounds. I have not heard him preach. I can't get him to slap me on the back or pass the wine or even to tell me where to fish. He seems distant — almost unreal. Just once, just for a moment, I'd like to taste that mysterious, awful, painful, fear that seized Peter when he guessed who Jesus really was.

I don't know how exactly to say it. I think this would be a good fear, even if I could only hold onto it for a minute or two. A good fear — maybe like the longing fear a virginal bride and a virginal groom have at the foot of their wedding night bed as a whole new world of intimacy and trust opens up to them. 

I think Peter's fear must be something like that of a teacher facing her first classroom alone. She trusts her training and doesn't doubt her skills, but she is terrified by the enormity of her job and all the kids she'll help shape. She's just one, all alone, at the beginning of the rest of her life. 

I think this fear is something like the fear that those who love extreme sports look for. They want a rush, a brush with death, the exhilaration of being on the verge of losing it even as they know they will make it to the other side. 

Such fear is deeply spiritual. It is rooted in wanting more life than a body can stand, in wanting to look around the corner, at death, maybe even touch it — without having to embrace it.

Some Christians claim to have encountered Jesus in this way — to have tangibly felt his immanence and the holy fear that it inspires. I can’t speak, of course, about the truth or falsehood of anyone else’s claim to have experienced this kind of fear. All I know is that I’ve never felt it. Not the way Luke suggests Peter did.

            But as I carry on in faith, which for me includes this persistent struggle with doubt and uncertainty, I wish I could know — even for a moment — what Peter felt that day, and what Jesus' words cured.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Yonge Street and the Weakness of God

         I have been miserable for weeks. Too much tragedy striking close to home. First there was the Humboldt Broncos bus accident that killed sixteen people connected to that team. Then, barely two weeks later, the murder of ten people on Yonge St. 

         Why does God, if God is in control, allow such tragedies? Why do some Christians believe that no matter how bad things seem, God is nevertheless in control, and if only we pray, God might fix it? Or bless me? Or heal my aunt? Or get me that job I want? Or snap his fingers and bring peace to the Middle East? I mean, there is no shortage of prayers going up asking for exactly this—and the Middle East is God’s own backyard, too. Why not clean up your own backyard? What gives? 

         Is God really in control?


         God is not in control, and one of the great tasks of modern Christianity is to come to grips with this truth. The God of control is dead, long crucified on Golgotha.

Toronto gathers to mourn the Yonge St. murders. This is Mel
Lastman Square, Sunday, April 30.
         The bus accident and the Yonge Street murders—and the riots and killings on Gaza and Israel’s border this week, none of it is God’s plan. This stuff is not God’s idea and not something God has control over. God is not omnipotent, not a puppet master, pulling us and our neighbours' strings, making things work according to some good and inscrutable plan that we have to trust in spite of all appearances. 

         Nor are we humans, in turn, puppet masters who can make God dance, if only we pray with enough conviction, or enough times, or with enough people in what is sometimes now called a “concert of prayer.” (It’s all in the technique, apparently, so long as the technique is not to use a closet!)

         No. God is not omnipotent. God does not cause or allow bus accidents or murders or global warming or poverty or crime. God is not an eerie undivided substance in three persons who sometimes answers prayers but usually not. Thinking so is just a fancy religious way of getting us off the hook for these things. 

         The truth is we humans are mostly responsible for the tragedies that get reported on the nightly news, as well as the good things that usually go unreported. 

         So, what does God do, if God doesn’t snap his or her fingers to make things come out peachy keen for us? Well, taking a hint from John Caputo, I like to think that God that comes to us not in fire or earthquakes and implausible answers to impossible prayers, but as with Elijah on Mount Horeb—read it in 1 Kings 19—God comes to us in a gentle but insistent whisper. As Jesus says of his own words, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” 

         God is not a monarch in the mold of a King David or a Pharaoh Thutmose, only divine. God is not a grotesque projection of our own worst rulers. God is, rather, in a strand of scripture that speaks to my experience, a gentle persuader, a mysterious cosmic susurration for shalom. God invites us to find him (or her) in the good we do rather than in the impossible things we ask for. God is the main event in all good, washing over us, inspiring us, calling us to be good. 

         God whispers. God’s haunts us with dreams of peace in wartime, with hunger for shalom where there is chaos, and with the desire to embrace and love where there is grief. God whispers that it is the least and the last, those unable to advocate for themselves that ought to be our number one concern. 

         Responding to this whispered plea, to this event both as grand and as silent as the cosmos, is called “following Jesus.”
         When things are at their worst, God whispers to us, in scripture, encouraging us to love our neighbours as Jesus loved his, and to imitate people like Terry Fox or Martin Luther King or Malala Yousafzai. We will, perhaps, never achieve their kind of world-changing stature, but we can imitate them in a way that makes a difference for the ones we are with.

         After Humboldt, I remembered that hope in the face of tragedy is a discipline we embrace so that whatever we touch becomes more of what it is supposed to be.

         And this week, in response to the murders Alek Minassian is charged with, Toronto’s citizens did did exactly that, embraced the discipline of hope, and in so doing made our city, province, and nation more of what we are supposed to be. 

         Last Monday bystanders who escaped death held the hands of the injured and dying. First responders on the scene saved lives. There was no panic. Hospital nurses and doctors did their job. Not only did people of all races suffer the tragedy, but together, people of all races and religions helped us deal with it. The police force has operated in this city, since its use of excessive force at the G-20 meetings in Sammy Yatin’s murder, under a cloud, for good reason. But the police officer who arrested the suspect acted in a most exemplary manner, and that gives me great hope that we can resolve some of the systemic issues we’re facing on the police front. 

         The American press was incredulous. According to CNN, “Politicians of all stripes were calm. The media was careful. The police were disciplined. And the people were unfazed. Instead of hysteria, accusation and anger, there were sorrow and sympathy. No xenophobic calls for vigilantism or limits on freedom. It was an extraordinary exercise in restraint -- a particularly Canadian response.”

        We are building something very special in this country—a multiethnic, caring, just society. Canada is no utopia, of course. This country is not perfect. Canada is also not—as some Americans believe about themselves—God’s one special nation. No, here in Canada we continue to struggle with things both profound—environment and racism; and mundane—infrastructure and traffic congestion, among a host of other issues. We have not arrived.

         But Canada’s response to tragedy gives me hope that we can tackle such issues not merely for personal or political or corporate gain, but for the good of all Canadians. Just as we took on the tragedy without asking questions about religion or party affiliation or rank or wealth, we need to take on our every neighbours’ needs and injustices, struggles and dreams, as if they were ours. 

         This is human faith taking responsibility for itself rather than waiting for God to pull strings. This is hope embracing discipline. This is the Canada I love and want, and the Canada this world both needs—and already has.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Entrepreneurial Wisdom for Churches

            I was invited to speak to a seminary class at Emmanuel College at the UofT a few weeks ago, on the theme, “Entrepreneurship in Ministry.” It was fun. The students asked good questions. Just before I was ready to go, I shared this list of “ten true statements” that ministers need to keep in mind, these days—and parishioners, too, if they have any interest in the future health of their congregations. So, here goes:

            One: Being a minister, here and now, is perhaps not harder than ever before. We are not being persecuted for our faith, after all. And we’re not laying it all on the line like the Reformers did.     
            Still, being a minister now is really, really challenging, because the playing field is changing incredibly swiftly. The listening skills audiences bring to preaching, the secrets people live with, the values of our society, the time constraints everyone struggles to undo, the wealth we take for granted—it is all fascinating, but it is also a minefield for both minister and parishioner.
            Meanwhile there is only one person in any congregation with the stated, paid responsibility to lead in this situation. The minister.

            Two: Ministers (or someone they can work very closely with) must be entrepreneurial. By entrepreneurial, I mean that church leadership must be dedicated to growth along with all the other goals healthy churches have, from social justice to relevant preaching. This is Biblical (if that matters a lot to you—I’m thinking the Great Commission here, and the example of Paul’s preaching). This is also practical. Refusing to prioritize or take smart risks for growth is to volunteer your congregation for a short lifespan. Why do that? Toronto needs the United Church’s witness and example!
            I have some more ideas about entrepreneurial wisdom. It is a spiritual thing, a refusal to bury your or your congregation’s talents in the sand. Entrepreneurial wisdom does not mean that you have chosen to fall for a “health and wealth” gospel sort of faux Christianity that pervades the airwaves—and it better not mean that. If ministers are not entrepreneurial themselves, they must nurture that sort of leadership in others, and support it like crazy-which isn’t so different from the minister who can’t play an instrument or hold a tune but who supports the Music Director 100 percent.

            Three: Faith in entrepreneurial wisdom adds up to a refusal to be a church “decline theorist.” Decline theorists are those who say things like, “well, of course, if we stand up for what we believe in, we’re not going to be popular and of course we might die.” Even if this was true, wouldn’t you look for ways to work a little resurrection into that equation?

            Four: Many churches have hidden resources. Some churches can mortgage their property,  for example, to make an investment in ministry geared to church growth. Why not? If you don’t invest, you won’t change, and your slow decline will accelerate, and you will close. Once you are closed, the church's resources cannot be used by that congregation anymore. Why not access those resources, if possible, before you close?  Some city churches might be able to sell their buildings and relaunch in rental space, or some other kind of shared arrangement. If your program succeeds, great! 
            A mortgage isn’t the only alternative resource. Not all these resources are available to everyone, but spend some time doing research. The United Church has grant programs. Volunteers may do work that is often paid--from janitorial to accounting to pastoral to youth to babysitting. Some people in your congregation may have deep pockets. The government offers grants for summer job programs. Rent your facilities. Consider amalgamation. Seminary students may do great work for less  cost. Don't presume that everyone has considered every option till you've called a meeting of the congregation with the express purpose of thinking outside of the box.

            Five: A church made up almost entirely of elderly people (let’s call them “Boomers,”) can survive indefinitely if it brings in a steady stream of new elderly people to replace the ones who die. I’m not being facetious. A sixty-year-old person can easily contribute twenty or more years of his or her life to church community. Church community is great for elderly people. They key is to grasp this as an opportunity if it is the one that works for your church, and then intentionally pursue it.

            Six: One of the largest costs of doing “business,” in the UCC in Toronto and other large Canadian cities is ministerial wages. Many Evangelical groups don’t have these high costs because they pay less. That means they need fewer resources to launch new churches in promising city neighbourhoods, or they can divert more resources to outreach. Many Evangelical ministers are happy to engage in tent-making ministries, to earn lower wages because of spousal support, even to work for nothing until a church grows to the point that it can support them. They do so because they believe in what they are doing. I’m not sure what to make of this. Should we pay less? Is a fair wage worth a church’s dying for? Can we promote tent-making as an option? Or, are we just to old, to set in our ways, too tight with our privilege to respond to innovations happening elsewhere in Christianity?

            Seven: If you are going through a mid-life crisis and want to (and can afford to) find yourself spiritually by going to seminary, great. But the ministry is not a place for people looking to find themselves; it is a place for growing, nurturing churches that can make a difference in the city and country by offering those churches leadership, vision, encouragement, and wisdom. It is for building Christ-like communities so compelling that people see God in them, even from a distance. This is hard work for people who know who they are and what they want, not for people who see their primary goal in life as remaining a pilgrim.

            Eight: Beware of guilting. We love social justice. We live for the least, the last, the marginalized. But if we get into the pulpit and make it a steady stream of “you must,” “do this,” “get on with it!” you will drive your parishioners to spiritual depression. Don’t forget to speak of other things from the pulpit, of gratitude, and grace. Don’t just crack the whip, but offer perspective, teach the story, laugh, and poke fun at yourself. Guilt is what we as Christians are supposed to get rid of, not cultivate.

            Nine: Do not, for a moment, underestimate the value, importance, absolute necessity of great preaching. It is harder than ever to hold an audience’s attention. To do so, one must become a student of narrative, an astute observer of how contemporary media works (and doesn’t), and one must be willing to spend a lot of time crafting something that will surprise and delight—at least on a regular basis! Boring people is a sin.

            Ten: Minsters must have sincere and enduring affection for everyone who comes to worship. That affection needs to be worn on the shirt-sleeve. If, on the other hand, you suggest, as a minister (or even as a parishioner) that “I’m not really that interested in you,” or, “I don’t like you,” or, “you are not making the grade,” they will leave. It is by our love for one another that people see Jesus—but it is also a huge motivation to belong. And the congregation will always look to the minister to see how it is done. That also means, by the way, that in the church the minister—and the rest of the leadership—needs to be the first to say, “I’m sorry.” Such powerful words, those. But entrepreneurial too, because they advertise a community that is not only relevant and interesting and engaged—but a community that is safe.

Monday, February 12, 2018

What's Even More Miraculous than Jesus' Miracles?

            The second most common reason that Canadians lie awake at night, at least according to an Abacus poll from last year, is Health Care.

            Fully fourteen percent of Canadians (compared to over 50% in the United States) sometimes lie awake worrying about health care: whether they will get it, whether it will be high quality, whether they will be able to get a doctor, whether they have to wait too long, and whether or not they will be able to afford the meds that are prescribed. 

            I’ll get back to that fourteen percent in a minute. But first, I want to put it in the context of a story found in the Bible. In Mark 8, Jesus heals a blind man in Bethsaida. People had brought him to Jesus and asked Jesus to touch him. That’s it. They thought that would be enough.

            But it isn’t. Jesus has to spit into his hands, and rub the saliva in the man’s eyes. Then, when Jesus asks him if he can see, the blind man doesn’t say, “Yes, thank you Lord!” No, he says, “well, sort of. A little bit.” So, Jesus tries again. He lays hands on him—whether with or without more spit isn’t clear. Then Jesus stares at him. And finally, the man can see again.

            It is all a bit strange. Jesus seems to fumble this miracle. Instead of a fancy deke at the end of a breakaway, Jesus has to bang at the puck a few times in front of the net to make it go in. It isn’t very pretty. Bible scholars scratch their heads and wonder what this story might mean, why it is told this way.

            Mostly, they think the story of the blind man is actually a parable that Mark has made up for Jesus to act out. The blind man, in this reading, is really a stand-in for the disciples. You see, like the blind man, the disciples can’t see Jesus for who he really is; or they can only make out Jesus vaguely, as if he were a tree rather than a person. Both the story before this healing, and the story after, focus on the stubborn blindness of the disciples when it came to seeing who Jesus is.

            So, before the healing of the blind man, Jesus is upset because in spite of the fact—according to the story Mark tells—in spite of the fact that he has miraculously fed 4,000, and then 5,000 people on a single sack lunch, the disciples are worried about food. They don’t get it. So, Jesus asks them: “Do you have eyes and fail to see?”

            And then, after this miracle, Jesus asks the disciples who he thinks he is. Their answers are ridiculous. John the Baptist. Elijah. Maybe a prophet. Maybe someone else. All the answers are wrong! Even after being reminded of the miraculous feedings, and even after the healing of the blind man, the disciples don’t see Jesus for who he is, and what he has done. And the rest of the chapter, which we didn’t read, is more of the same. Peter finally says, “well, you might be the Messiah.” But when Jesus says he is going to be a suffering Messiah, Peter says, “no way!” And Jesus, disgusted, says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”

            The disciples live with Jesus, listen to Jesus, watch Jesus, but they don’t see who he really is, and they don’t see the bigger picture. They want a wonder working magician Jesus. But the real Jesus turns out to be a savior by example, who demonstrates in his life and in his death that people are worth dying for. It is one of the hardest Biblical lessons, one that we, like the disciples don’t much like. But there it is. Do you see it?

            But now I want to get back to the whole “lying awake about health care” thing. Like the disciples, one of the issues we sometimes struggle with is a failure to see the miracles all around us. We are, are usually surprised when things don’t work out as quickly or as easily as we would like them to. So perhaps some context will help.

            In the New Testament, Jesus does about forty miracles, including about 30 or 35 healings, depending on how you count them up. And then, depending on whether we are a United Church person or a Fundamentalist Baptist or maybe a Roman Catholic, we sometimes sit back in our arm chairs and argue about whether or not these miracles really happened. That’s okay, as far as it goes.

            But forget those forty miracles for a minute. What I’d like to ask, this morning, is this. What about the millions, perhaps billions of healing miracles in Canada and around the world that we take for granted every day? Do we stop, often enough, to admire what is happening all around us?

            Here is what I mean—just a brief little story. When William was about three years old, and Irene and I were both graduate students, we visited some friends for an evening of Risk—a board game. The tea pot was on the floor, beside a couch, on a hot air register. Meanwhile, William, was climbing the couch like a monkey, wrapped in three layers of pajamas because it was cold.

            The next thing you know, William falls off the couch, onto the tea pot, and is badly burned, to the third degree, around his shoulder and under his arm. We couldn’t help him at first, because we had to take the PJs off, and that took a while, and it was excruciatingly painful for William and we rushed him to the hospital which was a few blocks away. It was awful.

            What happened next is interesting. Though there were ointments and meds, tears and bandages, hand wringing and regrets for weeks after, the one thing we never worried about was whether or not William would live. Of course, he would live. We never doubted it.

            But here is the thing. One hundred years ago, in the 1920s, simple burns like William’s were the third leading cause of accidental death in the USA, and so probably in Canada too. Just 100 years ago, in the 1920s.

            But there is more. One hundred years ago the number one cause of all deaths in the was diarrhea, followed by TB and pneumonia. Do you know anyone who has died of diarrhea?

            There is more. Two hundred years ago, nearly 50% of children worldwide died by the age of five from diseases and accidents. By one hundred years ago, mostly due to the discovery of germs and the need for cleanliness, that had dropped to 33% of children who died, worldwide, from diseases and accidents before the age of five. Today—including the whole world, not just the developed West, that number is less than 5%. Do you see this miracle of bread and loaves, of the blind seeing? Do you understand its import and significance? Have you, unlike the disciples, stopped to think what it means?

            Of course, we lie awake with our personal worries about medical care—most of us, in fact, lie awake with such worries well into our eighties or nineties, and almost unheard-of age to live to 100 years ago—but an age we all reasonably hope for now. Our mortality, our aches and pains, our worries about health and health care shouldn’t be minimized or dismissed.

            But what also ought to keep us awake at night is the real miracle of what we do have. Amazing, incredible, nearly unimaginable—at least 100 years ago—health care.

            Our health care system—like Jesus’ bumbling cure of a man’s blindness, in our text—is not perfect. Our system is not always speedy, especially when it comes to elective care. Yes, meds are expensive, and achingly out of reach for too many Canadians. And naturally, we can always count on the newspapers to focus on a few medical cases that went wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, rather than the millions of people who are patched up, healed, or sent on their way better every year.

            But no one today is dying of polio, or small pox, or typhoid, or diarrhea. Heart attacks are not a death sentence. Cancer, a disease of old age, mostly, is being beaten back, bit by bit. Most infections do not kill. We think of kidney transplants—even heart transplants—as almost routine.

            It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. It’s a health care system that isn’t perfect—just as none of us is perfect. But still, wow. Look around. This is a good time to be alive. We don’t have merely 40 or 45 miracles; modern medicine has given us billions.

            It’s a beautiful, reassuring thing. Thank God.