Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Manger scene

Enough with the innkeeper!

I was still a youth the first time I heard the “poor baby Jesus, rejected before birth and born in a stable” narrative called into question. Would first-century Middle Easterners really fail to fulfill their cultural and familial obligations to host even a distant relative?

Later experiences and study reinforced the suspicions about the historical accuracy of our favourite Christmas pictures. There weren’t really inns at that time in the way we think of them now, and the word used in the nativity story isn’t the same one used for a caravanserai in the Good Samaritan story, but rather the one translated as “upper room” in the Last Supper. If memory serves correctly, a Palestinian priest explained that the whole setting was quite normal: often women would move to the part of the house where the animals were stabled when it came time to give birth because it was warm and private there.

But perhaps a manger scene serves a function other than education. This is where I don’t demand that we throw out our little stables with the holy family and adoring shepherds. Yes, it is a pedagogical aid to an important story, but perhaps it also has to do with emotion. We’re so excited about this amazing story of Love come down to earth in a most vulnerable form that we want reminders of it in our homes.

Normally, I’m not one to put aside fact in favour of feeling, but I think there is something profound happening when children put things in the manger scene. Beloved dinosaurs. A favourite doll. A tractor. However wrong all the details may be (that is, everything except the characters, and even the wise men are wrong if they are depicted simultaneous with shepherds), something is very right if kids understand that important things should be present. Precious things belong in the manger scene. There’s a sacredness to what we’re trying to depict there – and it has more to do with how we respond to Christmas than about the veracity of the details we can cite. Understanding the invitation inherent in the event is more important than getting the architecture right. These children, with their frank, open spirituality, intuit something profound about the scene that we have difficulty assimilating in the rationality of our adulthood.

Bring on the unicorns.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The gospel in few words

The concept of an elevator speech for the gospel is almost offensive to me. Is it not antithetical to the gospel (God with us) to lob it at a random stranger and leave?

Furthermore, I wonder whether the gospel is far less a proposition to understand and believe, but rather the things we do.

Even more than that, the gospel is almost a force all its own, a subtle power that quietly transforms.

But I did start to think about the challenge to express the gospel in 10 words, not to accost people with and demand a response, but because if one understands something, it should be possible to explain it simply.

So I lit on this: God’s self-giving love works wholeness into all aspects of being.

It’s open to revision, but that’s one phrase for it at this point in time. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Winter? bike

A speaker at a climate change event last weekend said what I've often thought: on the Canadian Prairies, it can be hard to be concerned about global warming because it mostly only means good things for us.

I chuckled ruefully at the irony last year when even the participants spoke positively about the unseasonably warm weather for a Dec. 1 climate protest march.

When climate change means shorter, warmer winters, and longer growing seasons that allow a greater diversity in crops, how can one complain? So we have a few more close calls with twisters. (Actually, the thought of tornadoes terrifies me, so if given a choice, I might just take -30 over terrifying and destrutive columns of wind). We're in no danger of losing winter altogether: who really wants to argue with fewer days below -25?

All this to say that after a gorgeously beautiful, mild fall, snow fell Nov 22 -- the latest recorded snowfall ever -- and even then it is acting like southern Ontario or something.

The fatgirl is on the road now; perhaps not so necessary today since it's still almost too warm for snow to stay but definitely appreciated on Tuesday morning when the 5-hours-old snowfall managed to produce road conditions including all of the following distinct states of H2O: snow, water, ice, slush, ice ridges.

Now, the challenge of expanded cycling infrastructure is the frustration that it doesn’t get cleared. And let me tell you, frozen ridges of slush imprinted with narrow cycle tracks are pretty nasty to ride on. Has anyone ever thought of building up all cycle lanes at least an inch or two above the rest of the road, so they don't become a repository for all the water, slush and debris on the road?

**Update: Mild enough weather persisted until Dec. 6 when it snowed for 3 days straight (okay, exaggeration, but it was a significant quantity of precipitation). My ride home that first night was the most challenging I ever had with the fatgirl (though, being so early in the season, my instincts were not yet honed to the conditions).

Once the snow finished, the temperature plummeted. It was only in the -20s, but it felt ridiculously cold, and forecasts were full of dire “extreme weather” warnings.

Monday, November 7, 2016

An evolving God

Wholeness. For me, that was the theme of Ilia Delio’s talk at the St Boniface Hospital in September 2016. The scientist and theologian religious sister was talking about evolution and Christianity, but the themes that resonated – from what I had encountered before and after – were wholeness and Holy Spirit.

“We’ve become so Jesus-centred, we ignore the Holy Spirit,” she said. That same challenge was posed on a CT podcast where the speaker pointed out that evangelicals fancy they’d love Jesus as their perfect pastor (in reality, we’d quickly look to fire him for his nonconforming behaviour, baffling preaching, and far-too-perceptive, honest critiques), but Jesus actually said he needed to leave so his followers could get something better – the Holy Spirit – to guide them every moment.

It’s a jarring thought for a Christo-centre Mennonite, but one that does not seem amiss on further reflection, especially as Delio continued to speak about wholeness in ways that affirmed and stretched my Anabaptist thoughts on shalom and community

Delio talked of God in terms of expansion, union and diversity. “We are strands in a web of life; our actions are not private; our actions are not individual.”

And the God who is simultaneously wholeness and diversity – as creator, truth and spirit – made his creatures prone to entanglement with each other. In the universe Delio paints of expansion, newness out of oldness, movement and forces of attraction and unification (always as diversity, not uniformity or conformity), it makes sense that we are always in a dance with each other. [Contra dancer aside: does that make the Spirit the caller, the musician or a meddling disruptive partner-less dancer mixing it up?]

This inclusive message is appealing in the current climate. Even in the Old Testament climate of exclusion, hospitality was a high virtue and God commanded the alien and stranger be taken care of. In the didacts of Paul’s writing in the New Testament, he preaches a freedom amid his principles and regulations. This is the shalom we believe God is drawing us to live: reconciliation with God, with each other and with our environment.

As for those who would argue “Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever,” perhaps “the same” doesn’t necessarily mean change-less or beyond the development of new understandings. Should we expect anything less than evolution from an all-powerful God intent on wholeness in a universe full of competing and self-guided forces?

Amid the wholeness, however, I missed the holiness which I believe is also central to who God is, and that which makes him other than us. For is it not holiness and truth that make shalom not just a positive feeling of happiness but an energy force of both justice and grace?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The politics of politeness

Politics – or patriarchy?

Just thinking out loud here.

I could be wrong, but there’s nothing wrong with “sir.” It conveys respect, politeness. One could argue it makes him feel old or that it is overly formal but that’s more about the recipient’s self-consciousness than the word’s connotations.

But how do you politely address a woman whose name you don’t know?

If she’s 18 or under, “miss” is fine. If she’s over 60 and you’re from the south, “ma’am” probably works. But what do you do with the swath in between?

Somewhere between 20 and 30, “miss” starts to feel patronizing or dismissive. But one isn’t necessarily a “mrs”/”missus”/”ma’am” – and even if one is, one doesn’t necessarily wish to be referred to that way.

Why must marital status be encoded in politeness terms for women while men’s terms of address are simple and unfettered? And if that weren’t irritating enough, there’s very little social judgement on men’s marital status whereas unmarried women of a certain age are assumed to be shrews or nitwits or both.

Why is society so concerned with women’s sexuality?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Haiku: Fall


Imprisoned toes and 
rows upon rows of laundry:
Sock weather is here. 

And unwelcome, in case you didn’t get that. I may have to close my window, too, alas. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The problem with being Spirit-led

Yes, I dare go there.

It sounds so good, “being Spirit-led.” Who can argue with that?
But that’s the problem. Is it wise to fancy a person or idea as above scrutiny? Patterns of exclusively single-sourced guidance often don’t turn out well, whether it’s only going by what the Bible says, only listening to advice from wise people (yes, even that could be problematic), or only listening to the voices in your head.

It’s not that Sophia won’t whisper in our ears, but are sure we’re often listening well enough to catch what she’s saying? Can we trust ourselves enough to rely so heavily on what goes on between the ears?

Perhaps others are less recalcitrant than me, but the only way I’m going to discern God’s direction is for the still small voice to beat through my walls of resistance and outsmart my well-evolved systems of self-delusion, I may never know what to do.

If I wait for a flash from heaven to shed new light on a situation, I’ll likely never find a way out of my ruts.
“Being led by the Spirit” in the way we use the terminology in Western evangelicalism presumes this kind of individualistic, me-an’-God, quiet-time whisper as the only possible mode of revelation.

But what about that thing you read that struck a chord of resonance OR conviction, or that person who challenged you OR nudged you toward something you’d never considered– who’s to say that can’t have been the Wild Goose (or the Great Pigeon! [A speaker on a podcast said most of the birds in the Old Testament are more mundane than we’ve translated them. Soar like an eagle? Hmm, maybe a buzzard. A gentle dove? Maybe just a dirty pigeon.])?

Anabaptists make a bit of a sacred cow out of the concept of community (and fail miserably to live up to our ideals), and, as with many movements, they are probably too enamoured by this corrective notion as the answer to everything. But it’s certainly a key component we are much the lesser without.

Please, not sola sciptura! And not just “Spirit-led.” Tradition by itself was never sufficient but neither are any of these. Community has also made interpretive mistakes but it’s an important partner with the rest.

We need all these things interacting – often in tension -- as we discern what God is saying to our communities and to our selves.

And might I add a fifth criterion to this rubric? One person called it the common sense filter. I like to call it “where’s the fruit?” Sometimes this can only be done in retrospect, but I suggest that even if all four other filters align, if the outcome just doesn’t seem God-glorifying, maybe despite it all, we didn’t discern correctly. Failure or embarrassment is not the worry here, but abuse and hatefulness. The Bible, tradition, and all our pals seemed to be in favour of slavery and the subjugation of women through most of history, but those never bore the fruit of righteousness.

It’s certainly not efficient to have to wade through all these filters in decision making and discernment, but we’re talking about a God who became incarnate among us in a specific time and place to share his mission with us. And then entrusted his message to a bunch of proven unreliable numbskulls. Doesn’t seem like a really high value is placed on efficiency there.

But that’s another subject for another day.

Does God speak? Yes! Does the Spirit lead? Indeed. Sometimes in unexpected ways. If the Spirit only ever sounds an awful lot like us, we might want to ask if we’re hearing her at all.