It’s Complicated: Mark on Marriage, Divorce, and All the Messiness of Life and Love

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There is a movie, “Its Complicated,” with Alec Balwin, Meryl Streep, and Steve Martin. Jack (Balwin) and Jane (Streep) are divorced because Jack had an affair with a much younger woman, whom he is now married to, but is increasingly unhappy with because it was more lust then love.

Their kids have grown up and their relationship is civil, so at a graduation event, the two of them hang out. Wine was involved and the two of them get romantic.

At the same time, Jane is interested with Steve Martin’s character, Adam, who is a gentle charming divorcee, who also was cheated on, making him a perfect match for Jane. That gets put on hold as Jack and Jane proceed to see each other in secret so their kids don’t know.

They in essence have an affair as former husband and wife, which as the title of the movie suggests, is complicated. It is obvious that they are in a different stage of life and they do still love each other. However, Jack now is married. The kids are now stable from a rocky divorce. Jane has this other love interest. Jack wants to leave his current wife to get back with his ex-wife; Jane is hesitant.

The upshot of the movie is that their kids do find out. It is hard on them, so they don’t get back together. Oddly the best thing for everyone is to have them stay divorced. The end of the movie suggests Jane resumes seeing Adam.

The Bible is Complicated because Life is Complicated

The movie, “It’s Complicated,” humorously shows the complexity of relationships and situations in life. Sometimes there does not seem to be a right answer.

This could pretty much be the summary of what Christians are to think about marriage and divorce in the context of all the messiness of life: It is complicated.

When we turn to the Bible, sadly, we so often refuse to read the Bible though the fact that life is messy and complicated. We come to the Bible often trying to escape the messiness of the world to embrace something certain, simple, concrete, and black-and-white. Now, there is certainly a lot in the Bible that is clear and simple. In many cases we shouldn’t over think it and just do it.

However, the Bible is a book that was written by people in messy situations for people in messy situations. It is not a book that was written outside the complexity of life for people that want to escape the confusion of that complexity. The Bible is complex in many parts because life is complex. It can be complicated because life is complicated.

I think it is that way because we don’t learn to trust God when life is simple, easy, and clear cut. I know I have to trust the grace of God when life is stressful, confusing, when I am facing moral dilemmas, and when I just don’t know what to think. Life is complicated, so the Bible reflects that. It meets us there, and that is all the more reason to trust God, using discernment, good biblical reflection, and humble obedience.

Marriage Got Complicated for Me

We learn marriage from the examples of marriage we were raised with. My understanding of marriage got complicated.

As I have often said, my parents, who are now deceased, went through a messy divorce. They separated and my mother told me dad that they were getting back together, when she actually pursued a relationship with someone else. My dad did not come around that much because he felt hurt and depressed. Later in life I was able to get to know him better.

My mother remarried a man that was, for lack of a better word, verbally abusive. When my mother asked me, when I was in grade 9, whether I approved of him, I voiced the concern that it seemed like the guy did not have a conscience. My mom did not take my concern seriously, but turns out that was more or less true. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was in high school, they were already arguing severely about money. They shared a business that was a constant source of stress. My step-father actually started taking money out of their personal funds and business so that my mother could not use them for medical purposes. In other words, he was banking on her dying and was making sure he would have money after she was gone.

That kind of killed their relationship. I remember coming back from college to hearing them fight. I walked into the argument, as my mother was trying to convince my step-father to agree to a divorce. I’ll never forget his words: “The Bible does not allow for divorce. I have not cheated on you. You have no right to divorce me. You’re the one breaking my heart, Susan!”

It was the words of a true narcissist, and the Bible was a way for him to do whatever he wanted. I remember being at the time very zealous and idealistic. I believed divorce might never happen as long as you had enough faith. However, seeing all the pain my mother had gone through, I took it upon myself to sit with my step-dad and try to convince him to leave. I felt like I was going back on what I believed in. He did, however, and the separation continued many more years after that. Police were involved several times. It continued till my mother finally passed away from her cancer in 2009.

Children of divorce, like myself, have deep fears about marriage, which translates into deep fears about relationships in general. It is a fear about relationships working long term. It is a fundamental skepticism about the goodness of relationships, people, and even the goodness of oneself. This is something I had to work through in my own marriage.

Are you a married person? Are you a divorced person? Are you a child of a divorced family? Are your parents together? Or perhaps you don’t know your parents that much at all. This all affects us as disciples of Jesus.

Perhaps you are single and see your friends going through tough stuff. A lot of what I am saying will help anyone with any relationship, not just marriage.

With the complicated nature of life, we come to the Bible and seek to understand its truths.

What Does Mark have to Say?

Mark 10 reads as follows,

Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Notice where they are: across the  Jordan, an area ruled by Herod. Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus in bad-mouthing Herod. Herod stole his brother’s wife, and so, this “test” is a way of getting Jesus to potentially criticize the king, something that John the Baptist did and it costed him his life.

The question is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” There were three schools of Rabbinical thought at the time, all concerned with how a man could get rid of his wife: the school of Shammai: divorce on the basis of unchastity; the school of Hillel: divorce based on anything; and Rabbi Akiba: divorce was possible if the man falls out of love with the woman. At the time, it was possible for a woman to divorce her husband in Jewish culture, although it was very uncommon.  Women’s rights is not what the Pharisees are interested in. They want to know if they can divorce women at whim.

“What did Moses command you?” he replied .They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,”

Notice Jesus is pointing out the spirit of the law. The spirit of this law is not that divorce is a good thing, but because of human hearts can be hard. I should point out at this juncture that Christians, just because we live in the new covenant, does not mean our hearts can’t be hard too.

Originally, women were regarded as property and could be divorced on a whim. The Old Testament is a cultural advance, a “redemptive-movement” (a la William Webb), creating a legal process, which helped protect women. So, the spirit of the law was to help others and protect relationships, not to make them easier to get out of.

Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Jesus does not talk about marriage according to the clauses on how to get out; he refocuses us to marriage’s purpose and beauty when we stay in.

You can’t learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions on how to make a crash landing, writes commentator James Edwards.

Marriage was intended for intimacy, companionship, mutuality, vulnerability – all the joy that lifelong love can bring. If the Pharisees are looking to get out of their marriages, they really don’t get that.

10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

The parallel passage of this in Matthew 19:9 records Jesus saying,

 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

What do you notice there? Matthew includes the clause of sexual immorality as a possible grounds of divorce. Is this the only reason a marriage can fail and legitimately end in divorce? I know a lot of evangelicals offering their own little interpretation: “They did not cheat on me, but I felt almost cheated on by what they did. It was emotional adultery.” I hear that one often, and it shows that the truth and application of this passage is less than straight forward.

More interestingly, Mark does not include this clause.  Mark in his Gospel never gives any reason for divorce. Mark was circulated separately from the other three Gospels for decades. So, for some early Christians, their gospel text, their instruction manual for living the Christian life, seemed to offer no possibility of divorce of any kind. Does that mean Mark’s understanding of what Jesus teaches means he thinks Jesus did not allow for any form of divorce?

We should also note that there is no grounds in the concrete teachings of the New Testament for remarriage. All we have is the warning that if a divorce person remarries they are “committing adultery.” What is going on there? Does that means God condemns people who get a divorce and years later find love again?

Everyone say, “It’s complicated.” This is where we need to put on our thinking caps as thoughtful Christians if we are going to handle the Word of God with the care it deserves.

How (Not) to Take the Bible Literally

At the University the other day, I gave a guest lecture and I opened it up for Q and A. I don’t remember the original question, but one student informed me that “See this is why I don’t take the Bible literally.”

I asked her, “What does ‘literal’ mean?” She couldn’t answer that. Most mean literal in the sense of reduced and flat and over-simplified, as if the meaning is so plain you can read it thoughtlessly. In that case that’s correct. Generally speaking, we should not take the Bible thoughtlessly. There are lots of Scriptures that are straightforward (which look great on wall calendars and mugs), mind you, but there are others, like this, that are not.

Still others take literal to mean that they don’t take the Bible seriously. The Bible is only good for vague platitudes and principles everyone knows already. That’s not good.

But literal means “by the letter.” It just means reading the Bible by what’s written on the page. I hope everyone reads a book by reading what is written on the page!

The question then becomes how do the words on the pages recommend themselves to be read? How do we read the Bible biblically? How do we read the Bible the way the passage wants us to read it?

When Jesus talks about a good Samaritan, is he talking about a real guy he knows or a fictional one? To read the parable of the Good Samaritan literally means reading as a parable not report! That seems obvious. It is literally a parable.

When Jesus is described in Revelation as having a sword for a tongue. Does Jesus really have a sword sticking out of his head or does it seem obvious that the words of Revelation should be read as symbols. Jesus’ words are powerful, but they are not made out of metal. The words suggest that. That vision in Revelation is literally symbolic.

When 1 Cor. 11 recommends that all women where head-coverings, I would hope everyone pays close enough attention to the fact that head coverings at the end of the passage are “only a costume” (some translations mis-translate the Greek). To read that text literally is to be aware that it is a contextual command that might not apply today.

Here is the funny one: 2 Corinthians 3:6 says, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The letter of the text actually here insists that we don’t read merely by the letter, but in the Spirit. To read the Bible literally, reading how the words want us to read and apply them, the words tell us to read in their spirit. The Bible is to be read literally in the spirit.

Everyone say the word, “hyperbole.” A hyperbole is a striking, over the top statement. Used in an argument it is meant to give you a kick in the butt.

Jesus loves hyperboles. If you read the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), Jesus says that if you say to your brother, “You idiot,” you could go to hell. Go to hell?! He says if you look at a woman lustfully you should cut out your eyes. How many people here are wearing eye patches? None? …hmmmm. These are hyperboles that are meant to shock the listener into reconciling with others and doing everything possible to root out causes of lust. If you were to read them as concrete teachings (bad literalism?), you would actually be doing yourself and others a disservice, particularly if you cut out your eyes! These texts are literally to be understood as hyperbolic. That is how the text intends them.

Interestingly enough, in the same strand of hyperbolic expressions in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also repeats that if anyone gets a divorce then gets remarried, they are commit adultery. So, how do I know this is a hyperbole in Mark? It is because it fits with Jesus’ pattern of using hyperboles elsewhere. It warns the readers that an action that they consider acceptable needs to be taken more seriously. The Pharisees wanted to divorce their wives on a whim. Jesus wants to drive home point that if you have that attitude towards another human being, namely your wife, your heart has some serious sin in it.

The Complexity of Life and Love

Does this mean that the only reason Christians can get divorced is because of adultery? Does this mean if there is infidelity the one person is free to leave the other, making a clean break? The Bible is not meant to offer simple, trite, formulaic ways of being a Christian that simply will not stand up to the complexities of life. Reading the Bible refusing to see these nuances that the text intends is bad literalism; it actually refuses to read the Bible the way it ought to be read. It is oddly not too literal. It’s not literal enough.

If we don’t read the Bible though the complexity it was written for, we can end up falling to grasp the complexities of life. Let me give you some examples:

  1. I know lots of good people that don’t believe in divorce that are now divorced.

There is lots of reasons why this happens. Christians, even the best of Christians, for all sorts of reasons, have broken relationships: friendships, marriages, working relationships. It does happen.

We often assume that the day we become a Christian to make a decision in faith, that from then on we are not going to mess up, but as Kierkegaard would say, “We are all in the process of becoming Christians.” We might have accepted Jesus, but that does not mean that we Christians can go through times where our hearts are hard or we are simply immature or the circumstances of life get the better of us.

Churches often demean those who have had a divorce. When we do that we stop being the family of God. Jesus came to save the sick. The church is meant to be a hospital to those that need healing. While we lift up great examples of faith in marriages – and we have marriages in our congregation that have lasted so many years, they are a wonderful testimony – we also have to lift up examples of men and women who when they were less mature or went through difficult times did get a divorce, but have worked on making sure they are on good terms with their ex-spouse and work to create stability with their kids.

Many of us have learned that being divorced from someone can actually be harder than being married to them. You often think divorce allows you to get away from the person. In reality, it’s far from.

In the past, the church has refused to have divorced people as leaders, however, there are people who in the past got a divorce, but have worked through it and have tried their best to live peacefully with their ex-spouses, and frankly, because of that experience, are more gentle, gracious, and wise people. In short, they are exactly the kinds of people we should have leading the church.

This is exactly that pattern of Jesus. Jesus chooses the supposedly unqualified and discounted to lead his church, because they understand what grace is. Levi, the extortion-thug of a tax collector, was called to be an apostle. Peter, the man who betrayed Jesus three times, Jesus installed as the head of the church. Paul, a man who rounded up Christians, imprisoning them and stoning them, Jesus gives him a vision on the road to Damascus, and made him the greatest missionary of the early church.

Perhaps you have gone through a divorce or our going through one. Know that we have a community that is ready to listen and walk with you.

  1. I know marriages that have dissolved and frankly rightly ended where there was no adultery.

I know that marriages that have ended because of one spouse’s addictions or others that were put under such strife from mental illness. Then again I know marriages that have worked through those.

There are ways of hurting a person, betraying their trust, causing hurt, causing a relationship to become completely dysfunctional, that has nothing to do with being sexually unfaithful. Remember the story of my mother and step-father. Again, if you read the exception in the cause of adultery as the only legal clause, you are making the Bible say something very trite, even destructive.

So, there are many cases where there was no adultery, but the marriage needed to end. I know marriages where, one instance, a family where the wife was being severely mistreated, but it seems like their pastor – I don’t know if he knew about the mistreatment or not – merely told the woman, you have to stay with him or else you are sinning. If you leave, you’re the adulterer and adulterers go to hell.  He didn’t technically cheat, so you can’t divorce him. The man function does not have any love for the woman, but that did not matter. The situation meant the women was now forced to stay with a person that demeaned her in terrible ways. I would call it verbal or emotional abuse, and the church, a religious officiant that represented the church, actually added to her sense of hopelessness and shame.

  1. I know some people who don’t have a lot of money who live in common law, but live faithfully.

In Canada, we have common law marriages where if a couple lives together long enough they are protected as if they are legally married. I think this is appropriate legislature since, again, the spirit of the law should be to protect relationships and people.

I know a lot of non-Christians who would consider their common-law marriage to be full marriage, and they have lived those relationships faithfully. Should Christians demean those individuals? I hope not. I hope we encourage them in those relationships, encourage them to act in all ways possible to protect their relationships as lifelong and permanent, and rejoice that while they might not have had a full ceremony, they have committed to loving each other.

  1. I know couples that are together through very unideal circumstances.

A person I know told me that he cheated on his wife years ago. He said he was sorry to his wife, but his wife kicked him out. Dejected he got together with his lover. They got married and now have kids. They have been married for many years now. As he told me about all this, he carried this terrible sense of shame and confusion. What should he have done? Not got remarried? Too late for that. Divorce the woman now? Try again to get back with his first wife, who hates his guts and refuses to forgive him? Or just continue on and try to make the most of where he is?

Again, if you read the Bible through these comfortable categories, you end up placing people in unsolvable situations. The most I could offer was saying, “All I can say is that I know God knows you and what you feel even more clearly that you know yourself.”

  1. I know marriages that have suffered infidelity but they are still together.

Finally, I know couples where one person cheated, asked forgiveness, the other forgave in the full sense of the word, and they continued on. I know several examples where marriages that had infidelity in them are now marriages that are stronger than they ever were before the one spouse did their terrible act.

Now, no one should be forced to stay in a relationship with abuse or infidelity, especially if the other is blatantly unrepentant and refusing to live up to their responsibilities of the relationship.

But, if we read the divorce exception clause as a way to get out of marriage, if we look for ways of getting out of relationships, we read the Bible, Jesus’ own teachings, the same way the Pharisees read their divorce laws. We can read Jesus pharisaically, oddly enough. We have to read for the spirit of the law, in all the complexity our relationships can take us. It’s complicated, but that is where God calls us.

The Beauty of Staying In

Jesus does not give us ways of getting out of the relationship commitments we are in. He points us to their purpose. He gives us strong hyperboles to stay on track with our relationships. Keep your eyes on the prize!

Just because we don’t believe in divorce does not mean divorce won’t happen. That is the complexity of life. That is why we walk in truth and grace. The most we can say is to follow Jesus’ advice. Look at what marriage is supposed to be about. Inseparable oneness. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In my marriage, I have learned that no one means me. For yours it means you.

You can’t learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions on how to make a crash landing, writes James Edwards.

It is not our convictions about divorce that keep us married. It is our convictions about communication, forgiveness, happiness, humility, and reconciliation applied to marriage that keep us married. It is our convictions on how to keep a relationship healthy that are the most important.

If you want a lasting relationship, learn to communicate. Learn to accept criticism constructively. Learn to tell the other person how much you love them without wanting something or how much you are frustrated with them without attacking them. Learn to give criticism lovingly.

Marriages fail when they become zero-sum games of what you can get out of the other. Instead, ask your self, “What else can I be giving?”

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to say, “When you did this, it made me feel like this…” rather than lead into accusing the person. So much hurt happens unintentionally because the other person was unaware of how their actions made the other feel. Giving people a chance to hear how an action made them feel without an accusation of intentional wrongdoing can allow a couple to correct the action without conflict.

If you want a lasting relationship, learn to forgive. Often your spouse will upset you and do something wrong. So will you. You are both imperfect people. You did not marry a soulmate that is perfect. The expectation that the person you married has to be perfect can really put a bad expectation into life. The reality is that you do not have a soulmate, but in every day learning to reconcile and forgive, giving things for each other, putting the other person’s happiness ahead of your own and them for you, in this, you can make that person your sole-mate.

If you want a lasting relationship, learn to be a servant. Learn to find happiness in making the other person happy. One of the best pieces of advice on marriage is that if two people love each other and always put the other’s happiness ahead of their own, the two will always be happier and better cared for together than they ever could be alone. But that takes humility. That takes the constant choice of sucking up your pride and being a servant.

That takes us to right now.

May you know that you are in the presence a God that has called us to be an understanding family of grace in all the complicity of life.

May you know the grace of Jesus Christ in all the broken and complex relationships and moments of your life. May you walk in grace through them.

May the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ be on you to empower you to love as he loves us. May the love you have for others and the love they have for you be a reflection of the beauty of God.

Amen.

Practicing Lent, Finding Grace: An Evangelical Journey

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For many years, I have practiced lent as a protestant Christian.

What is Lent? Lent is the time of fasting before Good Friday, traditionally for 40 days (although it has been practiced at different lengths in different traditions), for many breaking on Sundays or times of feasts like weddings.

“Why do we practice Lent?” is a far more interesting question. Understanding that has been a bit of journey for me.

In high school, I practiced lent for the first time. As a young evangelical believer, I was intrigued by it, despite having some very ignorant anti-Catholic views. I despised anything that seemed like post-biblical tradition, but, for some reason, still wanted to try it. It ended up being one of the best things I have done in my life.

What did I give up? I gave up video-games and TV. When I made that commitment, I did not know what I was getting into. I watched a lot of TV: three to six hours a day on a school night. I played a lot of video games: if I was not watching TV that day, it was because I was hooked the next game I bought from EB Games.

With giving those things up, I realized that I had A LOT of time on my hands with nothing to do. So, I began reading my Bible. Later that year, I finished reading my Bible cover-to-cover. I decided to read Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. In essence, where TV and video games were, now was time spent with God….It was like TV and video games were my god before. Lent, the practice of fasting from something important to me, helped me draw close to the grace of Christ and rid myself of something that was borderline idolatry in my life.

In reading Purpose Driven Life, I was motivated to think about God’s purpose for my life. I realized I loved God’s Word and I wanted a career in it. I was a good student, and my mom was pushing me to become a doctor, but I found love in following God. Lent helped me draw close to Christ such that it produced a new found love of following Christ.

Without practicing Lent that year, I don’t know if I would be a pastor today.

The second time I practiced Lent was at seminary for a spiritual disciplines course. I thought I would really challenge myself, and I gave up all forms of meat. I was extremely stupid for doing that. I was obsessed with doing something that showed some kind of feat of self-control. I bordered on protein deficiency and lost a lot of weight because I simply did not keep up with protein from other sources. I fell to something like 135 pounds. I was miserable and melodramatic.

I remember my dorm-mate also gave up meat, but took it as an opportunity to gorge himself on just about everything else. He invited me to all-you-can-eat pasta restaurants. While it kindled a wonderful friendship, looking back, it really took away from the notion that what we were doing is a “fast” and not just a dietary restriction.

Also my brother got married at that time, and I refused to celebrate with him in all the great food that the celebration had. I did not understand the traditional practice took breaks during times of celebration like Sunday and weddings.

Lent that time, I practiced for the wrong reasons. I made it about showing off some feat of spirituality, which is the definition of works righteousness. Lent is an act not of self-will, but an act to acknowledge our lack of will, our need for grace, our yearning for the cross, our realization in a small degree for what Christ as done perfectly and completely for us because we are not able to have perfect self-discipline!

Lent is not about whether a person is successful or not in fasting from something for 40 days. I know a lot of people that want to give up silly things like chocolate for Lent. Lent is not a semi-religious way of losing weight or becoming healthy. You should be doing that anyway, and if what you are doing is about you, what you are doing is not about Jesus. Jesus is the point of lent. He died for our sins. We are merely responding with a fast to remember him with our bodies.

In some cases, then, I hope some people do not complete their Lent. If Lent is about what you can do, perhaps you need to be reminded that it is not you that does anything, but the grace of Christ that lives in you. Our strength, our will-power will fail. Lent is a lament, knowing the cost to Jesus, not ourselves, what it took to pay for our failures of will, our sin.

This is why in Roman Catholicism Lent is marked with ashes, thus Ash Wednesday. It is a reminder we are mortal; we are finite; we cannot save ourselves; we are dust and ashes. We must confess our sin and failure as we lament the costly death of Jesus for our sins. We lament Jesus’ death (while otherwise we celebrate) because our salvation simple is not worth his death. He died willingly, yes, but we would be deceiving ourselves if he died because we are such good salvation-worthy people.

That is the only way death, spiritual death, is overcome. It is not about our spirituality or our superiority it is about our mortality and our inferiority.

I took a break from practicing Lent for a while there. That Lent was not good for me. Years later, when I was a pastoral intern, I decided to practice Lent again. I gave up coffee, figuring I depended on that way too much. Turns out I was right! Every day at about 6:30, I would get just the worst pounding headache.

This time it was more consciences about what it was. I did research on the history of Lent. I was thinking increasingly more about the methodological questions of ritual and tradition in the practices of biblical faith. As any good protestant, I was raised with an allergic reaction to anything not in the Bible. Yet, what I found made me realize the problematic nature of evangelical understandings of ritual and tradition.

While Lent is not spoken of in the Bible, for as long as there has been Christianity, there seems to have been some kind of fasting before Easter. You can look up the various histories of Lent, and you will find the history is quite messy. It happened in varying forms and duration until its normative form of 40 days.

What is the place of traditions that Christians hold that are not in the Bible? Does it mean they are all illegitimate, ipso facto? This cannot be the case because much of what protestants hold to is not found in the Bible. After all, the canon of Scripture, the list of Scriptures, is not in the Bible. The canon of Scripture is the decision of the church, held on by tradition. It did not make the Bible, but the church did recognize the Bible, where there is no criteria in the Bible itself. The church that canonized the Bible did not seem to have a problem with Lent. The creeds are not from the Bible, but are considered essential summaries about the core of biblical faith. Doctrinal language like “Trinity” or “two-natures” is not found in the Bible, but help the Christian make sense out of what is in the Bible.

Look around your church and you will see a plenitude of traditions, practices, artifacts, etc. that are not found in the Bible, but no one makes a fuss about. Why? While these may be traditions, they are useful traditions or at least banal ones. They are traditions compatible and conducive to Scripture and the church’s mandate of following Christ.

We are traditioned beings. Anything we hand on is a tradition. Christmas is a tradition. Canada Day is a tradition. Cooking is a tradition. Education is a tradition. And also, how we uniquely worship is a tradition. It is a tradition because someone handed on this materials and practices to another to carry them on. To say that tradition is bad is to incorrectly understand the nature of humans as situated historical beings.

Believe it or not Scripture is a tradition: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you [literally, “traditioned”], whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Scripture so happens to be the highest tradition, our authority over all others, but it is “traditioned” nevertheless. The church had to collect it, preserve it, canonize it, interpret it, and teaching, generation to generation. That is a tradition.

The question is not rather we should have traditions, it is a question of whether they are good or not. It is not the case of whether they are all found in the Bible either, because there are lots of traditions, as I said, that are not directly found in the Bible that people don’t see as problematic. If you look in the Bible for the exact pattern for how to order a worship service or run a church business meeting, you will be searching in vain. While Power Point and Robert’s Rule of Order are hardly inspired, they are useful tools and practices that we continue to use.

We carry on any tradition that is useful to helping us live out Christ.  We should be living out the practices directly found in Scripture that apply today, obviously, but that does not mean there are other practices and traditions that will help us live the Bible out better as well. And if a practice does not help us live out Christ, we should be ready to get rid of it (that is the Reformation impulse). Lent is a practice, if done for the right intention, like many post-biblical or extra-biblical traditions, are not in the Bible but deeply compatible and conducive to the teachings of the Bible.

Lent if practiced in the right spirit is well inside biblical principles. Scripture teaches us to fast. Check. Scripture teaches us to worship Christ with devotion. Check. Scripture calls us to self-sacrifice as an act of worship. Check. Scripture observes periods of devotion and fasting over 40 days. Check. All the early church did was place said fast before Easter, which seems like an appropriate time as any.

Many dislike that Lent is a ritual. Again, ritual action is constitutive of our humanity. We brush our teeth. We mow our lawns. We eat at regular intervals. We fix our behaviour to important dates. Our lives are situated in rituals. Rituals, good rituals, carry memory and meaning. Many people have left the church because it is a bunch of “rituals” and then wonder why their lives have less meaning. God commanded regular actions so that we remember him. A ritual, whether celebrating your spouses’ birthday or singing Amazing Grace, is a way of remembering something meaningful. The question is not whether we have rituals, but whether we will do our rituals well and with the right intentions.

All we should be concerned about then is not the practice of Lent itself, but the condition of the hearts that do the practicing.

If a practice is done to bring you closer to Christ, like Lent, and is compatible with biblical principles, then by the liberty of the Spirit, do it. To be afraid to would be, ironically, the same fear that drove Paul’s opponents to cling to the Law.

If you are living out matters that are meaningless, following them begrudgingly, or worse, perhaps you are doing them to make yourself feel more spiritual, even if what you are doing is found in the Bible, you need to re-examine yourself. God commanded the Sabbath, but Isaiah reports God denouncing it for how the people practiced them (Isa. 1:14).

The last few years I have given up coffee and TV. Coffee caused crazy headaches, and it made me depend on God’s grace through the day in weird and wonderful ways. It was a moment by moment reminder to pray and thank God for his sacrifice of love for me. I also started breaking the fast on Sundays. “Let your Sundays be as joyous as your Lent is sober” goes an Anglican proverb. Try it. I started looking forward to Sunday with a new zest.

Giving up TV, what I am doing this year and last year, has allowed me to refocus my mind on Scripture and prayer. I hope your Lent does the same.

I hope Christ is present to you as you draw close to him.

I hope that you are able to participate in Lent, not be works but by grace.

May the same love that gave his everything for you, be kindled in your soul as you give up just a small thing this Lent.

May all you do, all we do, glorify the God who died on the cross for our sin.

Amen.

A Prayer for the Quebec City Mosque Shooting

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Father in heaven,

We stand in powerless awe at the reports given to us of a shooting in a mosque in Quebec City, struck by the perhaps arrogant surprise it has happened to us, in one of our cities, but to them, in their own place of worship.

We are grieved at these acts of violence against your Muslim children, our neighbors, people made in your image, worthy of dignity and protection. We lament the particular depravity of a mass shooting happening in a place of worship.

Comfort their families; heal those in hospital; have mercy on the victims. Protect all Muslims as we work together to build a nation of empathy, co-operation, understanding, and peace.

We are shocked that a new intolerance has infected our nation. May your mercy be on the shooter to lead him to repentance. Let not our anger drive us to towards vengeance, but the true justice of restoration and reconciliation.

Lead us also to repentance for any hatred or lies about our Muslim neighbors that we in moral laxity or fear have held. Forgive us for building cultural walls of “us versus them,” which have contributed in thought and attitude to this heinous crime. We are a people of unclean lips. Our fears of the violent intolerance of terrorism so often have made our souls into ugly mirrors of what we detest.

Forgive us for we have been disloyal to our true nation, our true citizenship. As we cling to other loyalties before the lordship of Christ, we realize now that we privileged white Canadians are not a religion of peace! Build in us true religion that “acts justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly” with you. Tear down our false gods of nationalism, class comfort, and religious arrogance so that you may build the kingdom of heaven, which knows no borders, refuses all violence,  permits no ignorance, and encompasses the full diversity of your family and the full reach of your mercy.

May all come to know the mercy of your Cross.

May all come to know the Cross by its mercy.

May we take up our crosses to be that mercy in our broken world.

Until the day when your mercy is revealed in full, we pray in Christ’s name,

Amen.

Journey Towards Reconciliation: Ecumenical Confessions

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Can I confess that there was a time, many years ago, that if you had told me that I was going to become a pastor, and that as a pastor I was going to be speaking at an ecumenical breakfast with so many traditions here, I don’t think I would have believed you?

For me, I neglected to realize just how my story was intertwined with so many other traditions of Christianity. To date, before taking up my position at First Baptist, my wife and I have attended Alliance, Mennonite Brethren, and Pentecostal churches. I went to a Christian Reformed private school till grade 6, I attended a Catholic High School, I did my seminary at Baptist and Anglican colleges, and now, because God loves a good joke, I am a Baptist pastor and, oddly, somehow, a chaplain at and Anglican University, Thorneloe College, where I help lead services, and where I also teach Theology, Christian ethics, and the Gospel of Mark.

God’s Spirit is doing something beautiful in this age. God is causing us to dwell together, to realize we have a shared story and identity in our diversity. Our lives intersect now more than ever, and we can now see our commonality and build a common life together.

This week, First Baptist and the other churches of Garson, will be doing a unity service our communities have been doing for 14 years. I think the people at First Baptist first began doing the ecumenical service as a secret mission to convert Catholics, Anglicans, and people in the UCC. “If we get to know them and they get to know us, then we can show them what is actually in the Bible, then they will come to our church!” Some of you may have started your ecumenical journeys for the same reason.

After 14 years, the reality is something better happened: we have culminated a common life together.  A member of Trinity United leads our Day Care. My son goes to St. John’s school in Garson. The ladies at St. John’s even got Rev. Erin and I Christmas gifts this year. We see each other at the grocery store, and we talk like bumping into old friends. We are learning the truths of what the Scripture this year is: 2 Cor. 5:

 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

When I look at my life, my convictions about what the church is and ought to be, I had to come to grips with Christ’s reconciliation in myself and in the diversity of his body. So, let me unpack insights to reconciliation between us that I have learned in my walk in Christ’s church.

1.    Reconciled in Christ

What is familiar to us can be a gift: I am so glad I grew up going to Sunday school, Bible camp and youth group. But it can also become a temptation if we refuse to see Christ in other churches other than our own. I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. My Dad was a truck driver for Dofasco steel mill. Sudbury feels a lot like home because they are both steel towns (nickel, actually, in Sudbury). One mines it; the other makes it. My grandfather was a Baptist pastor. I grew up in the church. I said the sinner’s prayer when I was very little. I said it, actually because my older brother had the night before, and I wanted what he had. Typical younger brother, eh? That is when Jesus began his reconciling work in my heart.

I had a simple childhood until grade six. Then things got messy. My parents got divorced. It ended in infidelity. We switched schools. I had friends at my old school but as a young, confused, shy kid in grade six, I was picked on severely.

My mom decided to send me to the different high school from the public system. I went to a Catholic High School. Cardinal Newman CSS. My son goes to St. John’s. Why? Because I found that my faith grew in a Catholic school environment. The other day my son came home and told me that today in school they learned that Jesus is in his heart.
It was at Catholic High School that I grew in my faith. A former nun got me to read the Bible. Up until that time, me as a child raised with Sunday School and VBS, I assumed I knew what was in the Bible. But it was a former nun, Ms. Tessier, who encouraged me to read my Bible for myself. I remember opening the Bible one night in grade eleven, turning to the book of Romans, and being enthralled at its words of grace. As I reported all this back to her, she helped me form a small Bible study at Cardinal Newman, and she encouraged me to look into going into ministry. A Catholic nun helped raise up a Baptist pastor. Isn’t that funny? I wanted to be an architect up until that point. My mother wanted me to become a doctor (what parent doesn’t?). That February, I decided to practice Lent for the first time. I decided to give up video games and watching TV…and I played a lot of video games and TV, over 5 hours a day; it was an idol in my life for sure. With all the time I now had, and read Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. I realized my purpose was to serve God.

Impressed with myself I grew increasingly perfectionistic in my faith. Now, I know that it takes years for Christ to slowly work in our character sometimes, but then, I wanted to be perfect all at once (This was probably some of the Holiness Movement influencing me at the time). I figured if you have faith you can do anything, and if you mess up, that shows you don’t have enough faith. Then I kept messing up. So, I began to doubt: Do I have enough faith? If I am saved by faith, and I don’t have enough faith, am I really saved at all? Frustration built up and I began to beat myself up about everything.

I remember getting myself all upset about this. I remember beginning to cry in my room, wondering if I was saved. I didn’t think I had enough faith. At that moment, I looked up and saw myself in a cell of sorts, the door to the cell flung open, revealing a staircase going up into where I could not see. A blue cloud of light came over me and rested on me. For some reason, I could tell this was God’s smile on me, a sinner. I remember the vision fading before my eyes back to the walls of my room. I looked around to find I was on the other side of the room, on the floor.

Now, that sounds fantastic, but its truth is plainly found in Scripture: God loves sinners in their sincerity. We are not saved by our beliefs. We, thankfully are not saved because of our own righteousness. We trust that we are saved by God’s grace. That was something I misunderstood.

“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39

This is the God that has reconciled himself to us.

God loved us so much that he came in our human form in Jesus Christ.

God loved us so much that he died for our sins at that cross.

…while we murdered him, he prayed for our forgiveness.

…while we abandoned him, he bore our forsakenness.

…while we caused him despair, he gave us hope.

God loved us so much that he died our death so that we could have his life.

This is the God that unites us, who has made us brothers and sisters. This is what we all have in common here: God who loves us even to the point of death on a cross.

The challenge now is that if we worship a God that would love us that way, we, as the Scriptures say, are called to love each other a similar way.

If God loves us, this has profound implications for relating to other Christians. If God is real and directing our lives, we are free: We can be free to think, to ask hard questions, to be curious and listen, to be vulnerable and be open-hearted towards others. We don’t have to be afraid. If God has promised to be with us, although we might wander, might not what to think some days, he will not let us go.

2.    Encountering and Reconciling Our Differences

It took me a while to realize that… Along the way in our Christian walk we encounter Christians who don’t think that same as us. These are the differences we are to reconcile with.

I had the gift of a Christian upbringing. But what we were raised with can be a gift and a temptation. It is a gift because of the faith it instills. It can be a temptation because if you are familiar with one version of faith, another version is going to feel foreign. And just because it feels foreign, you are tempted to think it is wrong, absurd, even evil.

We are the most judgmental with how we worship, because if you go to that church, the way they worship is probably the most immediate thing you notice. We do that also because the ways we worship are some of the most intense ways of connecting with God and therefore the most likely place where we will feel sensitive, proud, or critical. This is why worship divides so many churches. My wife and I attended a Pentecostal church in New Market for several years. At Bible study I accidentally confessed that I was not much of a “singing person.” Three songs and a sermon, and I’d be good. I think the leader thought I uttered blasphemy.

Now, other side of the coin: The first time I attended an Anglican service, they passed around the BCP. I had no idea what to do with this. Are they giving out Gideon Bibles? Where is the Power Point? Where is the worship band? They said, “Turn to page three hundred and so and so…now to page one hundred and so and so for the Eucharist…” I remember thinking, “Where are we? I lost my page! Why are you all making weird hang gestures!” I remember being so confused that for a while I wrote off liturgical worship as archaic and inhospitable. Now, funny enough, I lead chapels with the BAS and BCP at Thorneloe. I think the BAS’s prayer of confession for the Eucharist is one of the most well worded prayers out there. Every time I say it I think: “This is exactly what my heart is feeling right now” – and the words were not even written by Chris Tomlin!

As I mentioned, I went to Catholic High School. These were the first Christians that I recognized that different from me. My father hated Catholics. He told me they were not saved, because they did not actually believe the Bible or actually have faith. I had a book I read in high school about how Catholics were the Babylon of Revelation. At the time, I believed that.

Part of that was many of my fellow students were nominal Catholics. I saw so many calling themselves Catholics, but completely uninterested in following Jesus.

The other day I got a call from a person. They wanted to know how much it would cost if I baptized their child. Awkward. First off, who are you? A few things: It does not cost anything, BUT Baptists don’t practice infant baptism, we merely dedicate if the parents are committed to being disciples of Jesus Christ and committed to raising their child to be a follower of Jesus. Is this something you want to pursue with our faith community? “Oh no,” he said, “I’m Catholic…[it gets better]…My wife is an atheist. We don’t want our child to become religious or anything.” Ya, thanks pal. To which I had to say, “Oh, you’re Catholic. You wall should talk to Father Jim. Here is his number. Tell him Spencer sent you!”

Look, the Catholics in the room are seething. So you are just as upset about nominal Catholics as we are, eh? Seeing nominal Catholics out there caused me to have an unfair stereotype of Catholics that took years to overcome.

Seeing nominal Catholics, I did something terrible. I used the worst in one Christian tradition to represent all of them and I lifted up the best in my own as examples. That is called a double standard by the way. But the thing is, I know a lot of Baptist Christians, evangelicals Christians, that don’t know Jesus, that aren’t interested in following Jesus, and yet they call themselves Christians. We have that problem too. We are no better.

In seminary I took a class where we read through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I was amazed at how much we have in common. I think I agreed with 99% of what was in there. Can I confess another thing? I stopped reading it for educational value about what Catholics believed, and just start reading it simply because it helped me be a better Christian. It’s true.

Now, I have said a lot about Catholics, but we Protestants are not very kind to each other too. We have all done damage to Christ’s body.

I became aware of the division in Christ’ body at a Bible Camp. The Bible camp we went to was put on by church, which I attended many years. The people were wonderful, warm, salt of the earth kinds of people, but were incredibly dogmatic on several particular, parochial doctrines, that made them feel that they had recovered the “true church.”

The preacher made a call for baptism one afternoon: “If you believe in Jesus Christ, come forward and be baptized.” Excited, I came forward. I think I was in grade 10 at the time. The preacher stopped me, “Spencer, don’t you go to Stoney Creek Alliance?” I said, “Ya.” “Well,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I can only baptize someone who promises to go to a church that follows the entire Bible.” In a word, theirs.

It is funny, because our church said that we followed the entire Bible and everyone else didn’t. I remember as a young person feeling a bit hurt and confused: “He said that if you believe in Jesus you can be baptized? Why isn’t it that simple? Aren’t we all Christians here?”

How many of you in your lives have been told you were not true Christians because you did not share the distinctive another Christian held to be important? It hurts doesn’t it? You feel condescended and demeaned. You see, perhaps that lead you to being here this morning. We all have our wounds.

I had a Pentecostal roommate for a few years in college. We became good friends. However, he turned to me one night, “Spencer, you seen so unemotional. I am worried you don’t have the Holy Spirit.” I turned, “I think I have the Holy Spirit. I am just a very calm person.” I have, as my mother used to say, a “stoic personality.” He was unconvinced, and as he made his case, I indulged him. He proceeded to pray over me for perhaps the most awkward 20 minutes of my life, praying that I would receive the Holy Spirit, feel his joy, and I don’t know, have a good happy cry. At the end, he turned to me, “How do you feel? Do you feel any different?” I responded: “No not really.” And we played video games and never spoke of that again.

For some reason my friend thought that all Christians had to conform to one pattern, and if you didn’t you were not a Christian. How did we get to here? I think Christians for much of the modern era assumed that if you just looked at the Bible, the Holy Spirit would zap one clear answer into your head, (which effectively makes education and discipleship seem pointless – this is why we have such terrible Bible illiteracy even in evangelical churches). The Bible is simply plain and clear on everything (I think it is clear on Jesus, not everything, by the way). When some Christians found that other people claimed to be Christians too yet held a different view on an important issue, their response was to think: since I have what I know from the Holy Spirit, either this person is ignorant and needs to listen to me or they are evil, they refuse to listen to the Truth, and I need to shun them or worse, kill them. We remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year at the same time as realizing we are now at some 33 ooo denominations of our faith. After all the terrible wars of religion that rocked Europe, it is no wonder why we live in a secular world today. We can complain about it, or we can take responsibility for it.

We have so often forgotten the simplicity of faith. “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9). Jesus comes first. If we don’t put him first, we start putting him second. Do you really thing Jesus would want us to take ideas about who he is, even if they are right, and use them to hurt members of his family?

I would like to tell you that I learned my lesson in high school but I was young and immature. I continued to exclude and dismiss other Christians.

I often feel like I went to seminary to learn how to hate people better. It was not the professors but the culture. Seminary is an isolated place if it is full of only members of the same religious tradition. Bashing others who aren’t there was essay. (I say that as now someone who teaches theology, and would want all of you to check out the courses this summer at Thorneloe University!).

Good education confronts closed-mindedness, and sadly, sometimes I did not get that. In some of my classes, I was taught to hate liberals. Now, to be honest, I did not even really understand what that term meant, but I used it to label people and dismiss them. For others in other cycles it is the word, “fundamentalist.” Make no mistake: there are educated conservatives and there are ignorant liberals. It is not as simple as our stereotypes make it out.

We do something terrible in our faith. We exclude and then we scapegoat. We label then be demonize. Who is that for you? It is easy. Ask yourself, “Christianity would be so much better off if x people saw the error of their ways. If only those people became more like me, we would be doing so much better.” There is your scapegoat. I’ll admit that before Jesus convicted me of my hatred towards others, sermon prep was a lot easier. If I needed a sermon illustration, all I needed was to start bashing all those wrong Christians I did not like.

Then it struck me. I didn’t even try to know them or love them. Often I wouldn’t even listen to them. I would not read what they wrote. I would just turn by ears off and tell them their wrong. I remember thinking about that one day. I remember feeling uneasy in my conscience about the hate I obviously had against people that at times I really did not even bother to know. Then the thought struck me: Spencer, isn’t a part of the greatest command to love your neighbor as yourself? If you love these people, don’t you think you should hear them out the same way you would hope they listen to you?

It was unthinkable that there could be biblically minded, passionate Christ followers that held to liberal notions of the faith. I say that realizing that we just celebrated Martin Luther King Day, a Baptist minister by the way (one point for our team), who if you have read his sermons was a Social Gospel liberal. It did not compute for me, but he knew his Bible; he loved Jesus; he lived for Jesus; and when it came down to it, he died following Jesus.

Like I said, who is it that you often dismiss. That is the person or group that Jesus might be call you to reconcile with.

Let me give you a few pointers. (1) Many of us take journeys from one church tradition to another through our lives. If you were raised a Catholic and converted to Protestantism, you probably have some unfair views of Catholics. If you got frustrated with Evangelicalism and became a Catholic, you probably have a prejudice against Evangelicals. We tend to feel shame towards what we used to be, where we used to be. If you grew up in one tradition and came to another, admit that there are good people there and that while you had a bad experience there, there was probably a lot of good things too.

(2) When we realize we all family in Christ, when we see another Christian who is different, can we give them the benefit of the doubt? Can we hear them out? Can we ask ourselves: what is it like for them? What if I am the one who is wrong and they are right, and God has placed them in my life not for me to tell them the truth, but for me to help realize it though them?

(3) Can we learn to protect each other and fight stereo types about each other in our churches? You might say, Spencer, that’s hard. There are some people in my church and they think some really ignorant stuff about other Christians, but they are good tithers, they are prominent leaders, we could lose members!

Let us remember the cost of our own reconciliation. While we were God’s enemies, set against him in our sin, God himself died for us, reconciled himself to us at the cost of his own life. We are brothers and sisters because Jesus bled on a cross for us. What is Jesus’ reconciling blood worth to you?

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

Father,

We come before as your children.

We want to confess that we have not always treated each other as a family.

We also confess that there is only one way to change that, and that is to take up the love of Jesus Christ.

Help us to love each other, to listen, to speak honestly, to protect, and forgive one another.

Give us the opportunities to dwell with one another so that we can experience the gift of the many members of Christ’s body.

Bind us together in love, so that this love may be a witness to our broken world.

These things we pray in your name,

Amen

 

God is King: A Sermon for the American Election

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Preached at First Baptist Church of Sudbury on the week before the American election, 2016.

“You see, having pledged all my allegiance to the Lamb I have none left for elephants or donkeys.” – Brian Zahnd

Isaiah 6:1-8: In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

1. Our time like Isaiah’s is a time of political uncertainty

This awesome vision of God on his throne is at a precarious time in the nation’s history. The beginning of the passage tells: “it was the year king Uzziah died.” It was a time of political instability, the death of the king, the prospect of a new king, the vulnerability of the change of power.

We are seeing some political instability of our own today, are we not? It is mostly our brothers and sisters to the South of us, but people like myself, who had an American Father (dual-citizen), a brother who has made America his home, congregants the are snow birds, American friends, etc. It feels like we are apart of this election too.

American politics effect us all, and so, we the world watch, almost powerless at this political spectacle.

We have watched perhaps one of the most divisive elections in recent memory. The division is perhaps most bitter because Christians have had the most inner conflict over who to support. Both candidates just don’t shine all that brightly.

I won’t get into it too far, but let me spell it out. For those of you who may be locked into one side or another, allow me, as your pastor, to take you down a notch. I am going to be as honest as I can and impartial as I can, because as I will say, that is apart of our calling as Christians. Honesty first.

First, Trump. Trump has shown himself to be a bash and vulgar candidate. His statements about ethnic minorities and women – joking about he can sexually assault women at will, getting away with it because of his wealth – is disgusting. His business dealings seem deeply questionable. Recent news leaked about his tax returns shows that the only reason he is a wealthy businessman is because his business dealings are so shady.

His faith is vague and self-serving at best. He seems functionally biblically illiterate. His God is the god that has made him rich.

Yet, many conservative Christians seek to support him because of the policies he has agreed to abide by. He has agreed to robust republican principles. He has chosen Mike Pence, a respected devout evangelical governor as his running mate.

And when it comes down to it, many evangelicals just can’t get to the point of trusting Hilary Clinton either.

Hilary Clinton is an accomplished politician, but that is probably the biggest problem. She is a politician through and through. An establishment thinker, a person that totes political ideals only when expedient, often compromising. She is what everyone hates about politicians.

Her email scandals, as Wikileaks has shown, reveals she has flip-flopped on numerous issues, backstabbed her colleagues to get ahead, colluded with the press to propagate misinformation; she has accepted corporate bribes and installed puppet positions for corporations, and she has many financial ties to questionable people.

Her support of near-term abortion is hard for even non-evangelicals to stomach. She holds to America’s right to pre-emptive war.

Now, having said all that, interestingly enough, as I read this week, Hilary Clinton has an oddly devoutly liberal Christian faith. I was surprised at this, since I assumed she was non-practicing. Actually, she is a life-long active member of the United Methodist church. She even has taught Sunday school for many years in Arkansas, when her husband was governor.

When Bill Clinton cheated on her, she took counsel from leading evangelical pastors like Rick Warren and Tony Campolo, both attest that she read her bible constantly during this time, and under great pressure from feminists who wanted her to leave her husband, she refused, citing her faith.

Evangelicals have a tendency to dismiss liberal Christians as illegitimate Christians, but if that is the case, we give credit where it is due. However, you wonder: does this really mean she has a personal relationship with Jesus, or is her faith more like a general sense of belief in God? I am not sure. Hilary keeps her religious commitments very private.

All of this is a bit of a head scratcher isn’t it? When it comes to who is the Christian, the choice is a Christian whose faith is completely self-serving and a Christian whose faith is completely private.

Christians are locked into an ideological battle: unclear questions over how to run the economy, how to support liberty, how to keep the world safe.

We are facing a time of deep political instability. There are rightwing militia groups that are threatening violence if Hilary is elected. People are googling how to move to Canada…which is flattering, but as I preached last year at our election, we’re not perfect, either.

I’ll be the first to say that a parliamentary system is more representative than an electoral college, but still…

The worst act I can see in this election is what has happened on Nov. 3. Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, church in a predominantly Black area of Mississippi, stated their objections to supporting Trump based on his racist remarks and the church was burned to the ground then tagged with the line, “Vote Trump.”

Republicans have denounced the act, but the fact remains. It was probably done by punk kids, but now a church, our brothers and sisters, have been attacked because of their convictions. Things are out of control.

Where do we look in the midst of this instability?

Do we look to ourselves? Do we look to particular candidate? Do we look to a particular party? What do we put our hope in?

In an election of trying to choose between the lesser of two evils, should there really be a Christian way of voting?

In all of this, Christians must look first and foremost to the king, not a president not a prime minister.

In the year that King Uzziah died, [in the time of deep uncertainty] I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne [I saw the true king]; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim [the majestic worldy powers], each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with [the] smoke [of worship].

2. We do not look to earthly politics, we look to the King

In times of political uncertainty, we look to the Lord, ruler of the universe.

This world cannot contain him.

This world’s politics cannot define him.

This world’s corruption cannot restrict him.

He is a God unmatched, unblemished, unlimited in power, holiness, glory and grace.

So many people obsess about who will occupy the throne of the American empire, Christians, however, have seen the Lord of hosts, seated on his throne, ready to render judgment, the world quaking from a simple glimpse of his splendor.

When we know this, we don’t put our trust in another god. Every political party wants to hail their leaders as messiahs. No. Christians have already seen the messiah.

Every political party wants to say that if their candidate doesn’t get in, it will be the end of the world. No. This world of corruption already has been overturned. It happened the moment the true messiah said, “It is accomplished.”

Every political party wants to say this is the path to progress and salvation. No. The path of progress is in trusting the Lord of history. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

When we realize this, our cry is Isaiah’s cry:

“Woe to me!” […] “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

When we see the King, we set our eyes on his kingdom, his way.

His way is honesty, purity, integrity, justice and peace.

The world says exalt yourself above and against your political opponents. They are wrong, you are right, and it is us versus them.

But Jesus says the first command is to love your neighbor as yourself. In his kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first.

In doing so, we have to repent of how we have invested our faith in a way that goes against the way of the cross.

3. If Jesus is our King, we have not been loyal to him

This election has shown us the importance of social media: petty twitter wars, the vast amount of online articles by self-proclaimed experts all obsessed with the next click-bait. Social media has fundamentally changed the way we relate to one another at every level, for good and bad.

Good in that we see real time fact-checking, but their findings are not comforting. Trump, while he has a kind of shoot from the hip feel of unfiltered honestly, his delusions of grandeur makes him almost completely incapable of giving an accurate assertion. On the other hand, Clinton, while clearly a more studied individual, has a kind of methodical intellect that lies very strategically, making both untrustworthy.

This election has been about the question of character, the lack of character each has. But we are just as bad. As we did in our own election last year, we sat in front of our TV’s watching political sparing for entertainment.

We mock and decry the ignorance of our political discourse, but very few of us have even bothered to read the party platform they voted for. Most voting in the US and Canada is done as a kind of knee jerk reaction to whoever feels right.

Trudeau proposes bill on assisted suicide. MP’s on both sides report their alarm at how little public reaction occurs. Trudeau bumps an MP with his elbow. It is a media frenzy. They called it Elbow gate. See what I mean?

When we buy into the political powers of this world, conservative or liberal, we have bought into a system where honesty is exchanged for popularity, integrity for expedience, reason for rhetoric, substance is exchanged for spectacle.

We sneer at the vices of the candidates in Canada and the US, but we are the ones with unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.

Sorry Lord. Sorry Jesus. We have allowed our fears and fantasies to blind us to your Spirit. Forgive us.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

4. Jesus commissions us for his way

When we realize our sinfulness, our unclean lip, we also realize that Jesus is always there ready to forgive. And more than that. He forgives, then he commissions.

The saddest thing for me to see is fellow Baptist Christians on both sides overlooking character flaws of candidates to give their endorsements, all to make sure their faith privileges and power are maintained, their convictions validated.

As Baptists we believe in a little thing called separation of church and state. As the former president of the Baptist Union of the UK, Nigel Wright said, the separation of church and state is fundamentally the separation of faith from power.

That means I think it is unethical for a pastor to ever use their popularity to endorse a candidate, much less invoke God’s approval of one or another, and even worse threaten God’s judgment on those that disagree. It’s not just unethical. I think it is blasphemous. It is the way of Caesar, not Christ.

I fundamentally disagree with attempts to legislate Christian convictions in laws. I don’t want the government to do the church’s job. I don’t want laws to do the Holy Spirit’s job. I could delude myself into thinking that would help the church stay powerful and privileged, but history shows the opposite. Every time we have gone back on our principles and tried to use political power to maintain the faith, hypocrisy and scandal usually followed. Christ’s name has not been hallowed.

I am fundamentally skeptical about political powers being able to help the church build the kingdom of God. “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” Zechariah 4:6.

Democracy was inspired by Christian principles of the liberty of the soul. Liberalism, in one version, despite its secular form now, was founded on the notion that all people have rights because they are all God’s creation, in his image. Conservatism, in one version, sought to conserve traditional Christian institutions, values and wisdom to confront modern problems.

But Christians need to be separate from all earthly powers, and that means realizing the democracy, our democracies, are flawed. That is what Christians need to be doing. Instead of bickering about who do vote for, let’s talk about how our voting system is flawed.

For the most part, the full extend of our interaction with our candidates is checking an X on a little flimsy piece of paper.

You cannot state that you support some of the candidate on that paper.

You cannot just say you support just some of one candidate’s policies.

You cannot just say that you support the party but not the candidate.

You cannot say anything.

All you do is make an X.

And when I put that X, I don’t have to research a candidate in order to vote. I can be completely ignorant.

I don’t have to have good motivations to vote for any candidate. For fiscal conservatives it is voting for the person that will give them more tax breaks and protect my cultural privileges. For liberals, it is the person that will give me more in social spending and legitimate my lifestyle. We who live in Ontario, will vote for what benefits us more at the cost of those who life in BC or the Maritimes.

Even worse, I can be completely thoughtless in my choice. But in a culture that valorizes choice above all else, even irrational, immoral, self-destructive thoughtless choice, that is still acceptable. “This person looks better and talks smoother; I’ll vote for them!”

Then we demonize who oppose us. Let’s be realistic. The figures show that some in this room are more right leaning, and others more left leaning. Our political discourses want to portray our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as stupid, evil, our enemies in advancing what is good.

When we want to talk about a Christian way of voting, let’s start with that.

In a moment of true prophetic brilliance, Pastor Brian Zahnd, has promised his vote to someone else. This is by no means a recommendation for us all, but he thought to himself, “I am a middle class white person. I will always have a voice. I need to be a voice to the voiceless.” So, he approached a man in his community that he had supported for years. A man that legally came to US, has a job, kids born here, but because of the terrible immigration laws and backlog, he has lived in poverty, afraid of being deported at any moment. Pastor Zahnd has promised his vote to him. On election day, he will take a sealed envelope and X off the choice this person decided.

Like I said, that might not be normative for us all, but that does show a politic where the first will be last and the last will be made first.

This election reminds us that we have a different king. Our allegiance is to King Jesus. “You see, having pledged all my allegiance to the Lamb I have none left for elephants or donkeys.” – Brian Zahnd

This election reminds us that we have a different kingdom

We have a different ethnicity: the people of God, where all people are heard, given dignity, shown forgiveness and grace.

We have a different constitution: Where the poor in spirit, the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the prophets, are the blessed citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

We have a different way of life: the cross, where the first are last and the last are first.

This election reminds us that we have a different hope: Hope in God’s Spirit, that Jesus’ kingdom is beyond any earthly power, but is imminent to those who trust in him.

Whom shall the Lord, Our King, send?

Here we are, Lord, send us.

 

Kingdom Come: Tommy Douglas, Baptist Preacher turned Politician

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I will not cease from mental flight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

– William Blake

He has come to be known as the most “influential politician in Canadian history to never have become Prime Minister,”[1] and in 2004, he was voted first on CBC’s Greatest Canadian contest. Thomas “Tommy” Clement Douglas was one of the most prominent and influential Canadian politicians in recent history, known for his success for instituting universal health care, but generally his undying care for the poor, for human rights, and for building a better world for all people.  Few have turned to consider why he fought for such things with such integrity. Few also remember that he was a Baptist preacher before he became a politician. So, this biographical essay will retell the life story of Tommy Douglas through his uniquely Baptist convictions.

1. Childhood

Tommy Douglas was born 20 October 1904 in Camelon, Falkirk, Scotland. He immigrated to Canada with his family as a small boy of age six.[2] During World War I his family returned to Scotland and Douglas returned back to Winnipeg in 1918.

Three early experiences were highly formative for Douglas. First, his conviction of universal healthcare was partly derived from his experience as a boy fighting Osteomyelitis. After having his leg injured, bone inflammation set in, and he had to undergo a series of operations to rid his leg of the condition. For that experience, as he tells, he had an irresistible conviction that all people deserve the same medical treatment and availability, regardless of income: “I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside.”[3]

Second, when Douglas returned from Scotland after World War I, he witnessed the Winnipeg General Strike where workers were beaten down and even shot by police for their labor demands. Witnessing these events fueled Douglas’ later passion for human rights and economic justice.[4]

Third, when he was 14, he started getting involved in church. His mother was already active, and Douglas soon found purpose and a sense that through the church he could be a “useful contribution to the world.”[5]

Douglas was a small boy but had a lot of fight in him. At 135 pounds, he won the Manitoba Lightweight Championship at Boxing several years in a row.[6] As a young man in his teens, he worked in a cork factory and latter in printing before sensing a call to ministry then to politics. Douglas jokingly said, “I was a printer and then I became a preacher. And then I became a politician and then I became a premier. And that is the true descent of man!”[7]

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2. Baptist Preacher

Talking up the call to the pastorate, he went to study at Brandon College in 1924 (meeting his wife there) and a master’s degree in sociology at McMaster University in 1930 (he also did work at University of Chicago towards a Ph.D. that was never completed). At Brandon, he paid his way through his education by performing humorous monologues[8] and pastoring here and there. Douglas recalls going to preach in the churches of Winnipeg at age 19. Arriving at the church, the members were mortified that “a kid” had showed up to preach. Yet, moved by his sermons he was invited back, and often.[9] Douglas dreamed of being the next Charles Spurgeon, and he saturated his devotional life with his sermons and stories.[10]

At Brandon, he was persuaded to lay aside his more fundamentalist beliefs, influenced by his professor, H.L. MacNeill. MacNeill impressed on Douglas that Scripture needed to be read through their genres (Psalms as poetry, Job as drama, etc.) and that their application had to reflect the purpose they were written. These were radical notions at the time, now common to almost any seminarian. MacNeill also taught that Jesus spoke from the tradition Jewish prophets, calling for the kingdom of heaven, “rather than an earthly kingdom based on power and might and on the sword, it was to be a Kingdom of the spirit in men’s hearts, made up of righteousness and justice.” [11] MacNeill was constantly threatened with dismissal, yet responded with gentle, honest answers. In McNeill, Douglas saw the spirit of Christ far more than the supposed Christians that attacked him, so, as Douglas recalls, this “liberalized” his views.[12]

In 1930, Douglas was ordained in Calvary Baptist Church at Weyburn. He remembers the ordination process and speaks of his specifically Baptist understanding of doctrine: “The Baptist church as no fixed set of doctrines. Rather the New Testaments sets forth the beliefs, and there is no dogma, as in the Presbyterian or Anglican church.”[13]

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3. Passionate Politician

In the early 30’s Douglas also became political. With not enough aid for the poor, Douglas helped form the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Douglas promoted the party with remarkable zeal, running for the provincial election. He remarked that he went from town to town speaking, asking for donations that just barely got him to the next stop on the campaigns.[14]

Unfortunately, Douglas did not get elected in 1934. Instead, he returned to preaching. There he found himself being encouraged back into politics by the support of his church. In fact, some saw his political talents so desperately needed that the superintendent threatened him to go back to politics or else.[15]

Douglas ran and got the Weyburn constituency in 1935 and was re-elected in 1940. This was the same year as a bloody riot where homeless travelers gathered and were beaten back by RCMP officers. This only motivated Douglas’ work for economic rights. He comments on the meals he gave out saying, “We never turned anybody down I still almost weep. Some poor soul always lined up – oh gosh, they never stopped coming. I’ll never forget that period.”[16]

In the 1940’s, Douglas recalls a more intentional reliance on the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel was powerfully exposited by Water Rauschenbusch, who argued that salvation had a social as well as personal character. Disregarding other-worldly metaphysics, Rauschenbusch argued for a practical and political gospel:

The purpose of all that Jesus said and did and hoped to do was always the social redemption of the entire life of the human race on earth…Christianity set out with a great social ideal. The live substance of the Christian religion was the hope of seeing a divine social order established on earth.[17]

Douglas took this vocation to heart and grew passionate about realizing the kingdom of God in politics.[18] He recalls being challenged by conservative Christians on this matter:

I was attacked by a minister of a very prominent city church, who got up and said in all seriousness that the Bible told us that the poor we will always have with us and that God made two classes of people, the rich and the poor. He made the rich so that they would learn the lesson of benevolence and charity. He made the poor so they would learn the lesson of gratitude, and that we were interfering with the will of God when we tried to abolish poverty. To me, this was sheer blasphemy… My concept was the idea of the kingdom of righteousness and justice for every person in it.[19]

While politically supportive of World War II, Douglas criticized the neglect of politicians to think through economic rights of the soldiers, many were in poverty before they went to war and possibly would be afterwards: “One year ago men could be seen riding the rods on freight trains across Canada. Today hundreds are in His Majesty’s uniform. Most of us know some of these young men personally. These men are going to fight for a society that could not even give them a job. What do we propose to do with them when they come back on the rods? God forbid.”[20]

In 1941 he was elected president of the CFF and in 1944 he became premiere in Saskatchewan. His accomplishments in this role are nothing sort of extraordinary. He increased pension for seniors, initiated debt reduction programs for farmers, protected farmers form evictions; he created more schools, universalizing education; he increased maternity leave and created grants for disabled fathers. All of this was done while lowering the debt of the province by 72 million dollars.[21]

Meanwhile, he passed the Saskatchewan Elections Act, ensuring voting rights to natives, as well as the Bill of Rights, ensuring general rights to all people, in 1946. However, his most notable accomplishment was in 1961 with the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act, instituting universal healthcare that would catch on nationally, attracting global praise.[22]

In 1961 he stepped down from provincial politics to help reform the CCF into the New Democratic Party. He did not get elected to Prime Minister, being defeated in the federal elections up until his stepping down in 1971. Biographers record this time as a point of uncertain leadership: Douglas was still inspiring but noticeably older than other candidates. The party seemed to want younger leaders but none came forward. This put immense pressure and criticism on Douglas.[23] Eventually he stepped down, but he continued to help the party serving in the Nanaimo–Cowichan–The Islands riding until retirement in 1979. He died in 1986 of cancer at age 81. [24]

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Conclusion

One cannot overstate Douglas’ influence over Canada. As Lorne Calvert describes,

The social vision and goals of the social gospel movement – human rights, trade union legislation, labor standards, pensions, medicare, – non-existent a century or even fifty years ago – are now taken for granted as defining of Canada. Even the most right wing of political ideologies must at least pay homage to the principles born of the social gospel movement. The movement has shaped us, there is no question.[25]

Douglas’s political conviction was from the teachings of Scripture, particularly what he saw to be the kingdom of heaven as summarized in the Social Gospel movement. Douglas sought to bring heaven to earth. The Social Gospel does have its drawbacks: Often its understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven was indebted to highly historical critical readings of the Bible, making its more agreeable tenets unappealing to evangelical Christians; it too often focused on economic and political progress as the primary extent of the Gospel; its social optimism, part and parcel to its realized eschatology, did not readily grapple with the failure inherent to human sinfulness and the need for transcendent hope; putting trust in politics, it became essentially self-secularizing, removing itself from church life. However, Douglas’ vision and zeal is attributable to nothing other than his commitment to following Christ. While some can charge the Social Gospel with leaving the church, Douglas did not. Douglas attributed this dynamic to the cowardice of his fellow pastors that often voiced their fears of losing tithes and support by their wealthy, business-owning congregants.[26] For Douglas, the Social Gospel left the church because the church lacked the conviction to support it. If this is the case, the church has lost out profoundly on its vocation in living out the kingdom of heaven to earth. Thy will was not done.

This biographical essay has attempted to summarize the life, work, and convictions of Tommy Douglas.[27] We quickly find that Douglas had deep convictions based on his Baptist faith: his commitment to theological honesty and reformulation, his doctrinal minimalism (no dogma but the New Testament), practically challenging the status quo, and enacting the kingdom of God in this world. Douglas’ life can be summarized easily in the prayer he often prayed (and more importantly lived): “…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matt. 6:10)

[1] Ian McLoed and Thomas McLeod, interviewed by Peter Gzowski, “Tommy Douglas and the NDP: The Road to Jerusalem,” CBC Digital Archives, last modified April 22, 2013, accessed April 24, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/politics/parties-leaders/tommy-douglas-and-the-ndp/the-road-to-jerusalem.html.

[2] Walter Stewart, Tommy: the Life and Politics of Tommy Douglas (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2003), 23.

[3] Tommy Douglas, interviewed by Thomas Lewis, in Lewis Thomas, ed., The Making of a Socialist (Calgary: University of Alberta Press, 1982), 6-7.

[4] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 33.

[5] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 39.

[6] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 37.

[7] Lorne Calvert, “Beyond the Social Gospel,” (Address on the 100th Anniversary of Stella Mission, Winnipeg Manitoba, 2009), paragraph 7.

[8] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 44.

[9] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 41.

[10] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 42.

[11] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 51.

[12] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 51.

[13] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 48.

[14] Doris Shackleton. Tommy Douglas (McClelland and Stewart, 1975), 68.

[15] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 80.

[16] Doris Shackleton, Tommy Douglas, 49.

[17] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 67, 69.

[18] Of course, one of the weaknesses of the Social Gospel is its utopian notions of progress. Just as Rauschenbusch became very utopian in his ideas about this-worldly human progress, so did Douglas. Douglas’ master’s thesis at McMaster’s advocated for the usage of eugenics, which after the findings of the concentration camps of WWII, Douglas implicitly recanted of his earlier ideas on the matter.

[19] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 66.

[20] Brent Decker, “Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas,” Canadian Union of Public Employees, last modified 1998, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.cupe1975.ca/bursary/burs8.html. This is the winning biographical essay written for a bursary program for CUPE.

[21] Brent Decker, “Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas.”

[22] Brent Decker, “Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas.”

[23] Ian McLoed and Thomas McLeod, interviewed by Peter Gzowski, “Tommy Douglas and the NDP: The Road to Jerusalem.”

[24] Canadian Press, “MPs mourn Douglas in Commons tribute,” Montreal Gazette (February 25, 1986), accessed April 22, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=k6QkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=7KUFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2772%2C2659141.

[25] Lorne Calvert, “Beyond the Social Gospel.”

[26] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 68.

[27] This biography did not proceed by merely offering life facts, but is deliberately a piece of biographical theology, using deliberate criteria. Biographical theology was a method pioneered by baptist theologian, James Wm. McClendon Jr. See, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 1974. Revised edition, Philadelphia: Trinity, 1990.

God is with the Insignificant: Mary

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Who was Mary? Mary was a poor girl from the middle of nowhere. Mary was a popular name at this time. Mary the person was just a girl, just an insignificant poor girl. Her name might of well have been Jane Doe. There is nothing about her that warranted the attention of God to choose her for the role of bearing Jesus – nothing except her character.

But an angel appeared to Mary and says, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you!” He tells her that she will be carrying a son, to be named Jesus. He will be great, son of the Most High, Son of God. The Lord God will give to him the throne of David and his kingdom will have no end.” Ladies, imagine if God did that to you. Flattered, or better, humbled would be an understatement.

The angel announces this and Mary does not understand how this could be possible because she is a virgin. The angel Gabriel reminds her that nothing is impossible with God.

Luke records the song of Mary the next chapter over, where she sings, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… [that’s her!] He has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich.” In God’s kingdom the powerful get humiliated, and the weak and poor get vindicated. In coming to Mary God revealed the beginning of Jesus’ work: God with us, us the insignificant.

Perhaps you have come here tonight wondering, “Does God love me?” Or just: “What is special about me? What am I worth? Do I have worth?” God chose Mary and that shows us something. God is with us, us who feel like no one cares about us, us who sometimes feels like we are insignificant, nothing special.

Yet, Mary shows us in her insignificance how we are all significant in the eyes of God. We are also all capable of doing things extraordinary. She responds with simple obedience, which we can all do. So, Mary, without hesitation, says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.” Our lives matter to God, no matter who we are, and God is calling us to extraordinary things in his eyes, and that begins by saying, “Here I am Lord. I am ready to follow your word.”

Are you ready to do something truly significant in our lives? Are we ready to say to God, the infinite God who meets us in our insignificance. Can you say to him tonight: “Here I am God, I am ready to walk with you.”