Preached Sunday, January 23, 2022, at Bethany Memorial Baptist Church.
2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” No,w if you do not commit adultery, but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.(James 2:1-13, NRSV)
In 2011, while I was studying as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, I applied to be the coordinator of a soup kitchen one night a week a few blocks from Queen’s Park, if you know the area. It was called the Gathering Spot, a weekly drop-in food ministry that operated in the basement of Walmer Road Baptist Church, an old historic church in the downtown. I applied because I wanted a simple, one-night-a-week gig to earn a few bucks while I did my studies. What I got was a lot more than what I figured for.
That is kind of like what we see here in the book of James. This packed little passage will give us more than what we figured for as well. James is a book that does not let us off the hook when it comes to difficult questions about how we treat others. This passage in James gets us to ask difficult questions like Just who are the poor? What is our responsibility toward them? And have we failed at this? Have we forgotten and shunned those of different status from us? These questions are what we are going to explore today.
Who are “the Poor”?
So the first question: who are the poor? Growing up in a middle-class suburban neighbourhood, I never really saw “the poor” in any tangible way. I was aware that we were not rich and some of my friends had it worse off than me, some were better off, but that was about it. Some of my friends had smaller houses than me, and others had bigger ones. I grew up in a conservative family where common dinner conversation was complaining about taxes and about how poor people were just lazy and didn’t deserve any of our hard-earned money. So, I had an assumption that if you did not have a job, it was because you were lazy and if you were collecting unemployment or a related service, you were essentially a leech on the system. That is who the poor was.
Well, at the Gathering Spot, my job was the program coordinator. I bought groceries and helped prepare a meal. I greeted people once they arrived, and I put together activities after dinner, usually learning seminars on city programs or helpful skills like first aid or price matching. On an average night, we would serve about 30-50 guests, most of which were people who lived in low-income housing in the area, but also people who were homeless and found their way to the Gathering Spot. All of a sudden, every Tuesday night, the “poor” had a human face. It was startling. I soon realized what poverty was. The poor was a gay youth that his parents had kicked out and was now on the streets. The poor was a senile elderly lady, who had a successful career as a nurse, but now in old age started hoarding things and her family stopped caring for her. The poor was an elderly man with the intellectual age of a 12-year-old, but with no family and not “disabled enough” to require more help in the government’s mind, he was left on his own.
Who are the poor? As I got to know a lot of the individuals, what they were going through was mental illness, plus abuse, plus addiction. Inevitably their choices were their own at some point. And yes, there were dishonest people that just wanted to use the system, but even their stories were not just straightforward as I assumed. Everyone had a story. Poverty had layers.
Who are the poor? I realized that poverty is the systemic consequence of the loss of family. A homeless person is “home-less” well before they are found without a roof over their head. Many of the homeless of Toronto were mentally ill individuals that had been deserted by family due to their erratic behaviour, such that they did not have a single person that they could crash on their couch or lend a few bucks or whatever. I had to think to myself: If I had something terrible happen in myself where I lost my home or health, I could still impose on my two siblings or even my uncle and aunt or even a few college buddies that would help me out. I had people to fall back on. They didn’t.
Who are the poor? I think about the fact that I was born into a loving family. I was raised with discipline and responsibility. I went to good schools. I am able-bodied and able-minded. I was financially supported through high school and college. But all of these factors that contributed to me getting where I am, I did not choose. I did have to work hard, but my father modelled that for me. I could have been born into a family that cared nothing for instilling basic virtues. I could have been born into the foster care system, getting bounced around. I could have been born with a mental illness or with a physical disability. Or take the instances where a person acquired a disability: a car crash, developing severe depression later in life or something like that. That could happen to any one of us, and that could mean at any moment we could be without a career or livelihood in the traditional sense, dependent on the care of others. We, as people that prize our achievements and autonomy, don’t ever want to think about the possibility of becoming dependent and unable. If we really understand that many of the people that face poverty were born into the absence of a support system of family and friends or have been stricken with a lack of mental and physical ability, then there is that nagging possibility that this could have been me.
This is why James connects the love of the poor with the love of neighbour as yourself (even if your neighbours aren’t particularly poor): 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” He calls this the “royal law” (the law that is king over all the others) – it is the criteria Jesus gives as to whether any law of the Bible applies and how it should be applied. Why do we love the poor? The logic is simple: because that could have been us. And if that is the case, we have to ask ourselves, if we can place ourselves in their position, what kind of society, what kind of community, what kind of church would I hope to be there to help me? Whatever our answer is, much like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, we are bound deep down in our conscience to then go and do likewise.
Have We Forgotten the Poor?
Working in a soup kitchen in many ways caused me to reevaluate how we are responsible to others in society how we may have forgotten the poor.
Our society wants to shun the poor. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The biggest, I think, is fear and guilt. There is a simple disgust at looking at a dirty homeless person. We see them and are afraid because they could be dangerous, we tell ourselves. But as I said before, I think the real fear is that their lives are unthinkable to us. The thought of being homeless is so terrifying, and the fact that it could happen to us if we had been born into a situation without family, with a circle of support, with challenges that make housing difficult. That could have been us, and we can’t even think about that. That fact scares people deep down, and so, we have to rationalize their situation to make us feel better: They obviously made bad choices, we tell ourselves. Just as the would-be friends of Job find it easier to blame than to help, it is because we cannot face the truth that calamity could have happened to us. Job replies to his friends, “Now you too have proved to be of no help, for you see something dreadful and are afraid” (Job 6:21).
If we get past the fear, there is usually an unproductive sense of guilt. The guilt of seeing poverty is that intuitive sense of feeling obliged to help but turning a blind eye. We do this often when we see a panhandler begging at a street corner, and we pretend not to see them. Or we give them some small token of money, which is more about appeasing our guilt than actually taking steps to help them often. And what if we did try to help them? Many of us would be overwhelmed at the amount of care many require: housing, medical needs, counselling, education, job placement, etc. The poor are a lasting reminder of the impotence of our civilization, our abilities. Ironically, the homeless make us feel powerless.
Frankly, most cities then decide that they just need to segregate the poor from the rest of us. Take the instance of Orlando, Florida, where it is now illegal to be homeless. If you don’t have a home, cops will just drive you out to the middle of nowhere, dump the person there, and tell them don’t come back. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it is illegal to give food to the poor on the streets. A 90-year old Christian man, Arnold Abbot, in 2014 refused to comply, and he went out to give out food and blankets. Cops arrested him, and he faced either a 500-dollar fine or up to 60 days in prison.
The government of Fort Lauderdale and Arnold Abbot illustrate two very different responses to poverty. One wants to reduce poverty by getting rid of the poor, the other by serving them. But we have to ask ourselves: Why take Arnold Abbot’s way? It can be uncomfortable, frustrating, even dangerous. And many of us know there is a strong likelihood that our attempts might not end with success. In a world that prizes autonomy, helping the poor is seen as too great an expense to oneself and even enabling those who refuse to “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In other words, why should I give my hard-earned money and time to those that I think won’t help themselves?
To ask this leads me to conclude that I think to care for the poor is made possible by something like a religious conviction. I say “religious-like” not because all religious people care for the poor – they don’t – or that only religious people care for the poor – which is not the case either. I felt a great kinship of goodwill with the atheists I worked with, sadly a closer kinship than them than with my fellow Christians, who were hard-hearted. I say religious conviction than because the drive towards empathy and service, whether in a religious person or an atheist, is spurned by a conviction that cannot be reduced to the world as it is. If it was, apathy would take over. The poor are just there, and that is just the way the world is: Too bad, so sad. We learn that true loving actions, as C. S. Lewis argues in his book The Four Loves, are “other-worldly” in some sense. Why should I empathize with people I do not know? Why should I experience unnecessary heartache? Why should I give at great expense to myself, not just a feel-good charity as guilt-relief exercise, but to help others that may not even say “thank-you”? The choice to care, to empathize, to serve beyond what we are naturally predisposed to do, what is naturally advantageous to us, beyond what we culturally are obliged to do that has to be in some sense a religious decision: a choice to act in the world in a way that is different than the ways of the world typically run. It runs against the grain.
Yet, sadly, as I said, many Christians have found reasons, couched in religious language, to forget about the poor. The “prosperity Gospel” is very popular in many streams of Christianity, far more popular than what we typically realize. Its central tenet is that if God loves you, you will be blessed, and blessing means health and wealth. Corrupt preachers have capitalized on this where, for instance, in the case of Toronto based preacher at the “Prayer Palace,” the pastors there have manipulated their congregation into thinking they should earn exorbitant salaries, drive fancy cars, and own mansions since this is a sign of God’s blessing. Then the preachers state that if people want to be blessed like they are, they need to give money to the church (to God, but really to them) and trust that God will bless them. While that is manipulative enough, the implication is that if you are not financially well-off, then God does not favour you. This means the rich are loved by God, and the poor are forgotten.
Of course, many of us know that this way of thinking is wrong, and we would never go to a church where a minister owned several mansions, hopefully. Let’s just say if there was a Bethany Memorial Baptist Palace, I would not attend it. But we all know there are subtle ways we forget the poor in our midst. We fall into similar mentalities.
I remember speaking with a church leader. While he was an honest person, he sincerely believed God would never forsake anyone who believes in him, and so, what that meant for him was that if you did not have enough in your life, you just did not have enough faith. I remember saying to them, “But what about the passage that says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…But woe to you who are rich, for you, have already received your comfort’ I remember him turning back to me scoffing, “Oh ya, where is that in the Bible?” And I said, “That is Jesus saying that in Luke chapter 6.”
I remember talking about our responsibility to the poor with a group of pastors, and I talked about what the Prophet Isaiah said: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). I remember one pastor, not hearing that I was quoting the Prophet Isaiah, getting upset at me that I was promoting socialism. In his mind, that was obviously one of those Old Testament Scriptures that did not apply anymore. That struck me as a very convenient interpretation.
James, similarly, has to contend with congregations who are showing favouritism to the rich, and it sounds like they have created a few excuses for their apathy towards the poor. The example he gives is the treatment of people who look wealthy when they come to a church gathering. The rich are given places of honour. Meanwhile, those who are not being told to sit on the dirty floor. And from a worldly perspective, who’s to blame them? What church doesn’t want to woo some potentially generous tithers? Such wealth obviously means they would be good to serve on a management board or may even be deacon material, we tell ourselves in excitement.
I remember being told by one pastor who did church planting: don’t bother much with the poor of your area. They have way too many problems. They take way too much of your time, and in the end, they don’t have any money. You can’t build a church with people with no money, so let the poor be someone else’s problem.” Frankly, what he said explicitly many believe implicitly.
What is interesting about James is that he says that when we treat people differently based on their wealth, their social-economic status, we do something actually terrible: have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? He says. He calls this evil. He goes on to say this:
10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now, if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
A transgressor of the law? If you notice the way James is talking about the matter here, you will notice his rhetoric is subtle but severe. He talks about the neglect of the poor alongside those that commit adultery and particularly those who commit murder. Ouch. That hits hard.
Have we thought about it that way? I think most of us think of charity work as a kind of the cherry on top of what is required, something that is not expected, but if we do, that’s an extra jewel in our crowns in heaven. Many of us have inherited a kind of checklist spirituality, by which we measure whether we are okay with God. An old Baptist saying is, “I don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and I don’t date girls who do.” That is a bit silly sounding, but many of us have these: I know I am good with God because I don’t sleep around. I don’t use bad language, even at work. I don’t watch HBO. I don’t get wasted on the weekends. Whatever that is for you. We can set a simple bar for ourselves.
That is not how James sees it. If serving the poor, including the poor, is the way that is most in tune with Jesus’ law of love, the way of conscience and empathy, the way that most honestly admits to the fragility of our existence and why we are bound to others in life, then going against that, well James does not mince words: Its not just bad or inappropriate or rude, but evil, he says. He begins the passage by asking: My brothers and sisters, do you, with your acts of favouritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? This is a legitimate question for James.
When you allow God’s word to do its work in you, you wake up to our responsibilities to each other in ways most don’t want to think about. Have we forgotten the poor? The worst night I ever experienced at the Gathering Spot was a night of a deep freeze in January (not unlike what we felt this week). In front of the store where I would get groceries, I saw one indigenous fellow who regularly attended. He had told me previously that he and his sister had been abused in the residential school system. His pain from what happened there was so much that he lived with a constant hatred of God and everyone else for what happened. He could not stand to go to a shelter. It would cause his anxiety to explode, and he would get in a fight. “What are you going to do tonight in the cold?” I asked. “Same I do other cold nights,” he said. He panhandled enough money for a bottle of whiskey. As the night fell, he would down it and sleep behind a dumpster. He would drink to the point that his blood turned to anti-freeze in order to survive in the cold. Can you imagine living like that, drinking yourself half to death just to stay alive?
What is our responsibility as Christians as well as Canadians to right the wrongs of the residential schools? We might be quick to say, “Well, I have never used a racial slur, or thought racist thoughts, or intentionally did harm to an indigenous person.” James might push us further: Ya, but what if that was you?
As I thought about this man, that same night, we had an above-average amount of guests, so the food ran out. One man came in late out of the cold, and you could tell he was hungry. A young man had lost his apartment because he unexpectedly lost his job. We scrounged up something for him, not much. He told me that he had lost his apartment and had nowhere to go. I told him where some of the shelters were, but also, I suspected they would be full by now. He figured he would try anyway. We prayed together, and he left. I remember riding home on the bus back to my home in Bradford. I wanted to go with him, to be honest, but there was a cut-off for the last evening bus from the downtown back to Bradford (which was an hour and a half bus ride away). I could barely sleep that night. I worried about him, and I felt terrible, going to bed in my warm home.
In the morning, I read reports that 35 people were found frozen to death throughout the city. It did not make the papers since the city does not really want to know about this kind of thing. When a homeless person is found dead in an alleyway, no one cares. No one wants to be reminded that the tax breaks they got from the politician they elected were made possible because they cut funding throughout the city to programs that people needed to survive. No one wants to consider that if people are freezing to death in our city, maybe in some way it is our responsibility. The poor are our responsibility, and sadly, we have forgotten them.
So What Do We Do Now?
James says, in verse 12, So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
James hints that there is a way of obeying God, doing his will, following his way that is freeing, liberating, the law that brings liberty. Then he says that if we live without mercy, we will be judged accordingly. It is similar to what Jesus says about judging others: by your own standard, you will be judged. Or think of Jesus’ words that on the day of judgment, he will tell us, as you did to the least of these in this world, you did onto me. In other words, if you can live your life with a kind of comfort and apathy about those in need, God wants to prod us a bit, and said, what makes you think I won’t show you apathy then? The lord’s prayer says, Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. God is trying to say something here: If you really believe in God’s grace, forgiveness, and mercy, you have to show it. If you don’t, really saying that you don’t actually understand it.
We might be tempted to think that God is doing this to strong-arm us into being obedient, but the truth is that this is fundamentally a better way to live: the law of liberty, a rule or way that is liberating. When we show grace to others, when we are always ready to forgive, when we make room in our lives for those in need, putting others ahead of ourselves, while it is difficult, potentially dangerous, is fundamentally a better way to live. It is a way of living in clear conscience. It is living in the way that best appreciates that this is how God treats us.
Dwelling with the poor at the gathering spot also gave me some of the best memories that year. I watched people that had very little always be willing to give something, help in some way, or say a kind word. I saw some of the worst of human depravity, but also some of the best of human decency.
James remarks something: Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? I don’t think he has a naïve or too rosy view of the poor here. I remember meeting with a woman who had suffered from severe addiction her whole life long. I asked her, “What does your faith mean for you?” She said, “I know God loves me because he gave himself for me. I know I can’t get up in the morning without acknowledging his grace in my life. Without it, I can’t live.” I remember thinking, I am pretty sure I got out of bed and forgot to pray and got going on my daily grind of stuff. I was too busy that day to acknowledge my need for God when I got up. The thought occurred to me that I was the one, not her, that really needed to think harder about the nature of God’s kingdom. I had it in mind that I was there to help her, but I was the one blessed.
Christmas time was beautiful. Now my mother had died the previous year at Christmas time from cancer, so that season was something I was not looking forward to. I remember going into Christmas thinking the Grinch was really a misunderstood figure. However, having dinner – a feast actually that the kitchen manager, a frugal and stern but gracious Dutch lady named Marijke, made – was one of the best meals I had ever had. I tell you that lady could penny pitch and make the best meals with next to nothing. We ate, and we all got up and sang Christmas carols. Hearing a carol like “Joy to the World” sung by people that have nothing other than the simple thanks for a good meal and good company renewed my love of the season.
There is this wonderful permission to be yourself around people that have accepted they are imperfect. As I began to joke to people who couldn’t understand my work, I would say, “It is amazing how hanging out with mentally ill people each week keeps you sane.” I meant it as a joke, but it was true. “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
Loving God, God of the oppressed, the poor, the outcast, reminds us that our lives are fragile. That where we are is made possible by so many privileges. Convict us in the various ways we want to forget these facts and forget those around us.
Do not let us sit and wait for needy people to just show up in our church. Stir us to see the ways we can go out and meet them. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear the ways people cry for help, yet often without words.
Give us the wisdom to serve, to have big hearts, to endure the heartache of the tragedies we see in people’s lives. Allow these all to bring us closer to the mystery of what you endured for us at the cross in Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I got the email wondering if I would be up for speaking at Port Williams for thanksgiving, and I was told that Pastor Don would be away, it caused me to reminisce. This fall marks my fourth year here in Nova Scotia, moving from Sudbury, Ontario. It has been an eventful four years to say the least. Along the way, I am thankful for the friendship Don and Anita have extended to me. They were one of the first who called me up four years ago and said, “Hey you’re new to the area and so are we, come on over for dinner.” So, I am thankful for that gift of friendship.
Can I just say that it has been interesting to see Pastor Don climatize to being Canadian in real time? The culture shock has been a pleasant surprise, or at least that is what it seems like from his Facebook page. Now, I came from living in the hustle and bustle of Toronto, then pastoring in Sudbury where it was winter for a solid six months out of the year, but I think Don and I have both have had this feeling like Nova Scotia has been this refuge that we have both grown to love. Autumn in the valley is simply beautiful. Last weekend, my wife and our five boys – yes we have five boys (we had three and my wife really wanted to try for a girl and then we ended up having twin boys – three are with me today as my wife was also asked to play at Bethany Memorial to relieve their pianist) – but anyway last weekend we went hiking. We went to Noggins to picked apples and got terribly lost in their corn maze. I bought a caramel apple pie from there for later today.
We are so blessed. These are the words that ring in my mind this weekend, and I want to reflect more on what they mean today. I want to reflect on a text that I read this week with my son, Rowan, who we have been trying to read the Bible together every night. The passage, James 1:1-18, is about acknowledging God’s giving. I will read from the beginning of the book in chapter 1 for context, but I want to focus on the last verses.
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. 2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 9 Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10 and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. 12 Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13 No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14 But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15 then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved. 17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (NRSV)
James, who is very likely the brother of Jesus himself, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, one of pillar-leaders of the early church along with Peter and John and Paul, writes a letter to the Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman world to give them important advice about how to live wisely in light of the challenging times they face.
We are facing challenging times today, aren’t we (not that ours is the same)? It looks like they faced issues of division in the church, poverty and persecution, and to all of these, James recommends living out the character of Christ.
He begins this letter with advice on confronting the trials they face, but then he quickly addresses the rich and the poor. And then he makes a point of warning his congregations: “Don’t be deceived,” He says. Well…what are they deceived about? He says, “Make no mistake. Every good and perfect gift comes from God above, whose character does not change. But,” he says, “he has chosen us according to his purposes as first fruits.” If you read the passage quickly, it gives an impression like James is constantly segueing between several subjects, but they are actually all very connected.
People are facing trials where they are tempted to go another way than Jesus’ way. It sounds like staying on the right path will cost them, at least some of them, deeply, financially. Many are facing tough times. Yet others seem untouched by all this misfortune. And they are wondering, where is God, how is God acting in all this?
It kind of sounds like there are people in his congregations who believe God made them fall to temptation or that God brought calamity on them, meanwhile there are those who have made it through pretty good, and they are tempted to think God has done good to them more than others. Perhaps God makes some people rich, because he loves them more, and others poor, because he does not love them quite as much.
For five years I was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. This is a church about four hours north of Toronto. Sudbury was a cold place with very warm people. The church itself back in the late 70’s moved from its old building in the downtown to the area of Garson, which was a sub-urb of the city about ten minutes from the city centre.
The church moved out there thinking this would become the next up and coming affluent neighbourhood in the city. The reality was the opposite. The city built supplemented income housing there in an effort to move the problems of crime and poverty out of the downtown.
As I got to know my neighbourhood, I realized this was an area that struggled. A few moments really reiterated this to me. I remember one summer taking my kids to a playground behind our house. This playground overlooked on several sides a couple of different sub-divisions of the neighbourhood. There was ours, which was a group of semi-detached homes, then down the street were larger ones, a sub-division of newly built two story detached homes, but on the other side there were row homes and small apartment buildings, supplemented income housing and homes like that. My kids began playing with some of the other kids, and I joined in, playing tag. The one boy introduced himself. My son introduced himself pointed to our house. “We live just over there.” The boy turned and said, “Oh, you live there. My mom says that is where all the rich people live.”
I was stunned. My house was smaller than the house I was raised in. I always thought of our home as modest at best. But of course, that was my perspective, being raised in a middle-class family.
A part of me wanted to insist, “What? I am not rich! I work as a pastor! Pastors are not rich!” (Or if they are, let me just say, I have some questions).
I remember walking back home lost in thought. I felt conflicted. You see, I was raised in a fairly strict Dutch Baptist family. My dad was the son of a card-carrying fundamentalist Baptist pastor that came over from Holland. And there was a particular set of values instilled in me, many of them good, but they went like this:
Dutch people believe in hard work and that the life you live reflects that hard work.
A Dutch man is to provide for his family for this is the measure of being a man.
If you were poor, it was because you were lazy or not frugal with your money, pure and simple, and you needed to just man up and work.
To be a Christian is to be honest, have integrity, and to fulfill your obligations at work, church, and home.
If you do these things, these are the kind of things that God blesses.
God’s blessing means among other things, material provision, our daily bread and probably a good career with a pension.
God is sovereign, so God chooses what he wants to happen, and nothing happens that God did not choose. Somehow this strong sense of social mobility was married to this notion of God’s sovereignty, even though they actually don’t really go together that well.
These values have served me incredibly well, and I know as a father to five boys, I will teach them to be men one day that are honest and hardworking and of course to trust God. But when we stroll into the territory of God’s blessing, I never understood passages in the Bible like the one James just lists: “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.“
Well, that seems mean. What does James have against rich people? It is not their fault! That does not seem particularly wise given what the Proverbs say about hard work and everything else. Doesn’t God want us to plan and be frugal and save our money and work hard and through all of that enjoy the fruits of our labor? Those passages are in the Bible too, and I must say, I like those passages much more than this passage here.
But the reason for why James says what he says was illustrated to me one thanksgiving. As our church started doing outreach in the community. When I started pastoring, our church was that summer a dozen people, all easily twice my age. In some cases, three times my age. I worried about the future of the church, but I figured I can’t make this church grow, and I can’t attach young families to our church where there are churches with slick programs and staff in the area. So, I resolved to minister to those least fortunate in the community. We volunteered at food banks. I would drive people to the food bank and then take them out for coffee. I would deliver food to shut ins and we organized a community meal at one of these single-room apartment buildings. That meant over time a hand full of people started attending the church.
One person in particular was a man quite troubled. He faced a lot of mental health issues. He had no family. He lived in a one room apartment around the corner from me. I remember in church that thanksgiving Sunday remarking that I felt very blessed: a good home, good job, good family, health…I said I feel so blessed. Well, this person came up to me after the service. He, a young believer, although he was older than me, often asked those curious questions after the service. So, he came up to me, “Pastor, how do I become blessed like you? I wish God would bless me like that.”
As we talked, he shared with me that deep down, he worried maybe God did not love him all that much at all. Or at least not as much as God did for others. After all, God heals those he loves, and he has struggled with a severe mental illness his whole life. God provides for those he loves, and he could never find work, often he could barely leave his apartment due to his illness, and he struggled on disability payments that barely covered his rent let alone food for the month.
God blesses those he loves, and that implied for him, either he has done something wrong his whole life, his whole faith, or God just didn’t choose to love him as much as others.
My heart sank with those questions. I remember having a very pensive and reflective thanksgiving that year. My wife wondered why I was so quiet, lost in thought. I am always lost in thought by the way (that is an occupational hazard of being a professor), but this time more than usual.
I thought to myself, for instance, I was born able bodied. I didn’t have to be. I couldn’t control that. I was born able minded. I didn’t have to be. I was born into a loving household. I didn’t have to be. I was able to meet a person who has been an exacellent life-partner, my wife, where I know some people, some good people, that the person they married just was not the person they thought they were. We were able to have children, lots of kids (some days I am tempted to think too many kids). They are healthy boys.
It gave me pause, a pause that lasted through the day, of just how many opportunities I had received, that those, who were just as able, smart, and good, in many cases better, did not get. And yes, while there were good choices and hard work along the way, I felt overwhelmed by the fact that so much of the goodness of my life was not because of me, what I could choose and control.
That conversation fundamentally changed how I think about prayer, blessing, what it means to have good things in my life, and what my responsibility to others is.
This is what James is getting at: he says that all good things come from God. If you ever think God wills bad things, or shows favouritism, loving some more than others, that goes against the God who has an unchanging character of love, perfectly for every human being: every human being, without exception.
But we forget this. We have to find ways to adjust, shall we say, this truth in order justify why our lives are materially better than others, why we don’t have to feel bad about that fact, or more importantly, feel obliged to do something for those that have less than us, how we don’t have to do something as churches, as a society, about poverty, about mental health, or about systemic injustices.
That is when days like today, thanksgiving, we engage in that religious talk about being blessed or being thankful, and yet, if we ignore our responsibility to those less fortunate, that God loves all people with the same perfect longing to provide and lift all people into a place of flourishing, if we forget that, I am going to suggest to you we are not truly engaging in thanksgiving.
When we talk this way, thanksgiving ends up meaning something more like self-congratulations: I am thankful I worked hard; I am thankful I got good grades; I am thankful I made good career choices; I am thankful I did not marry someone who does not pull their weight; I am thankful I am such a good parent; I am thankful I have done so well.
This is a part of a mentality in our culture, a cultural myth of sorts that has a long history and endorsement in the church: the myth of the self-made person. You see our culture has this very strong insistence on the worth and power of the individual. This in many ways is a good thing. We believe people have inherent dignity and worth, individual freedom, conscience, and responsibility, but these insistences can have a down-side when made into an extreme: We can turn these values into the notion that all the good things in our lives are our doing. It is not because of privileges we were born into, opportunities we did not choose, all the various ways the starting line in the race of life was a bit further up for us than other people. This breeds a culture of entitlement where those that have less are effectively blamed for their misfortune.
Or we do something even worse: we think to ourselves that God wills this inequity to be the way things ought to be. We end up saying something, implicitly, truly terrible: we say I am thankful for the fact that God loves me a whole lot more than most of the people on this planet. I am thankful God wanted me to be privileged.
But that is not the pattern of Scripture. The deep contours of Scripture show that God chooses no one for ultimate ruin nor does God will evil or tragedy to anyone.
But what God does do is chooses, as James says, those who he will use to be the first fruits of an entire harvest of the goodness done to all people.
This is a pattern that begins in Father Abraham, who was blessed in order, the Book of Genesis says, to be a blessing, so that all the families of the world can be blessed through him.
It goes on to the Book of Exodus where God says he chose the Israelite slaves not because they were so much better or stronger or promising than any other nation, but because God favours the weak and the oppressed. God chooses the least of these in the world. God chooses to liberate them from bondage, not because he loves them and only them, but that through them, God says, they will be a kingdom of priests, firstborn of the family, as if all nations are God’s congregation, all our God’s family, but Israel is God’s paradigm and instrument of doing good to the rest inviting them in.
This continues on to the time of the prophets where, when God’s people grow haughty and disaster comes on them, Isaiah says God will uses a righteous remnant who will live in these difficult times self-sacrificially for the sake of the rest.
This all culminates in Jesus Christ, God himself who came in human form and chose himself to bear rejection itself at the cross, so that if anyone every questions, “Has God chosen me a sinner? Does God love me? Does God want what’s best for me?” All they must do is look at the cross and see the God that was willing to give of his very self for the sake of others, even those who meant him harm.
This is all so, so, so important to keep in mind in this time of a pandemic. We have not seen the disaster living here in Nova Scotia that many have elsewhere. We live in the safety of the Annapolis valley. While this past year was tough for me, teaching online and being stuck at home with my kids, I think my life just not been as bad as those who have faced unemployment, the loss of their business and livelihood, the impact of anxiety or depression.
I have seen how this terrible virus can hit. Some are not affected badly, others fatally. A college classmate of mine back in Ontario got covid, a person my age, went to bed with a cough and did not wake up. A person I know in Toronto got covid and he will now never breath again without a respirator.
Where does all this leave us: Do we pat ourselves on the back for having a government that responded well to the crisis when so many people did not choose where they live nor did they vote for the governments that are not acting responsible? Do we say God has protected us and God has blessed us, when the implication of that might sound like God has refused to protect others? We can very easily fall back into a thanksgiving that is actually self-congratulations and self-thanking. It is thanks-getting not thanks-giving.
Let me tell you the story of an inspiring person that illustrates the attitude we must have. His name is Charles Mully, born in 1949. He is a Kenyan business owner and philanthropist. At age 6, his parents abandoned him on the street. He spent years begging and getting by living on the street. He was able to be enrolled in school, and being exceptionally intelligent, succeeded. At age 16, he walked into a church and heard the Gospel, and he accepted the message of salvation. He did not have any money to go into higher education so, he packed up his things and walked 70 kilometers to Nairobi to find work. He did odd jobs until he eventually worked as a farm assistant and then for a construction company. He met his wife and they had eight kids together. During all this he saved enough money to buy his own truck and began his own trucking company. Within a short amount of time, he procured several other companies. Very quickly he became a multi-millionaire.
One day he was driving by in his car, and he saw a street boy, homeless, and he realized that there was no achievement he had that made God love him any more than those kids on the street. In fact, he concluded that the reason why God brought him from homelessness into such wealth was not for him to keep it but to give it away. And that is what he did. In 1989, he sold all his businesses and properties, opening up his homes to serve as shelters for the many street kids of Kenya. Since 1989, he and his family have helped 23 000 kids out of homelessness.
I tell you this story because If ever there was a self-made person, if ever there was a person that you could say, “That man earned every cent he owns,” if ever there was a person who might be tempted to think God has favoured me from rags to riches, it would be Charles Mully. And yet for him, his faith compelled him to believe that all the good things of his life were from a God that loves all people with that same perfect love. And with the goodness he has been given, with true thanksgiving, he realized he was to be the first fruits of a plan of God to help others with what he has been given.
What does that mean for us, for you and me, Port William Baptist Church? I hope you don’t take anything I have said to be some kind of kill joy on your festivities this weekend. God surely does want us to cherish the good things in our lives. Give thanks for your families with your families, enjoy turkey and pumpkin pie, play with kids and grandkids in the back yard. These are gifts from God that I know I don’t deserve.
But let us not stop there. It can’t stop there. For it to be true thanksgiving, it must be both giving thanks to God, but also giving thankfully to others.
If we acknowledge that all the goodness we have in our lives comes from God above, that God wills tragedy and misfortune to no one, what will we do to make sure we bring this goodness to others, those that don’t family, don’t have work, or don’t have health? How will we be fathers and mothers to the fatherless, the motherless, empowers to the oppressed, comforters to those in despair? How will we be first fruits in the way the Spirit of God might be call us of a harvest of blessing that is intended for all people?
So, Phase Five of the reopening plan in Nova Scotia has been delayed until October. I don’t know about you, but when I read that, while I think it is the right decision, I just groaned with that sound a drain makes when I try to pour soup down it: ugh. When will this be over?
Believe it or not, the people in Zachariah’s day were asking a similar question: When will the end come?
Zechariah is a prophet that writes at the time of the return from exile (this is 520 years before Jesus, in case you are wondering), but we need a bit more background to understand what is being said in our passage today before I read it. You see, the nation of Israel after King David and his son, King Solomon, split into two halves: The Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom, and this was due to the idolatry of King Solomon and the foolishness of his son, Rehoboam. While the Southern kingdom continued on for about two hundred more years, it was defeated by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was burned and levelled, and its people were carried off into exile in Babylon.
This destruction was prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah also prophesied that God would restore Israel after the exile. He says,
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jeremiah 29:10-11)
How many of us have had that Scripture read lately? We like that part of Jeremiah, don’t we?
After 70 years, God would fulfill his promises for Israel. These promises include God bringing about the kingdom of God. If you are already doing the math and thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute, Jesus came 520 years later,” hold that thought.
So, when the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, and the Persian kings ordered the return of the Jewish exiles back to their home, the Jews got back, and they started rebuilding, hoping for the imminent coming of God’s kingdom. They did not want the past to repeat itself, so they did the good religious thing, and they started fasting regularly. But beneath the piety, they had not actually changed.
God sends Zachariah, and Zachariah tells the people he has had visions in dreams. Chapters 1-6 record them, eight in total, each one perplexing and fantastic in its symbolism, and the first four and last four seem to mirror each other.
Zachariah dreams of four powerful angelic horsemen returning to Jerusalem, but then in his eighth dream, they are going out on patrol on standby. What is happening there?
He dreams of the horns of the oppressive nations being dismantled. But then he dreams of a woman being carried off in a led basket by angels to Babylon, where a permanent dwelling awaits her.
He dreams of measuring a new Jerusalem, where God dwells and protects his people. But then he dreams of a flying scroll going out into the land and finding anyone who has dealt with another falsely and cursing them.
He dreams of the high priest of his day, a man named Joshua, being accused in heaven by the Adversary, and God coming to his defense, taking his filthy, soiled clothes, and giving him a beautiful new priestly robe to serve the people.
Then he dreams of a golden lamp stand with a bowl with seven lamps standing beside olive trees. This, an angel explains, is the governor Zerubbabel. This is what he can be for his people if he trusts not his own strength but trusts in the Spirit.
Reading these, one cannot help but ask: When is this going to happen? Did it already happen or is it yet to happen? How are they going to happen? It does not exactly fit into a neat timeline (more on that in just a minute). Then the dreams close with God saying something strange in Chapter 6:15: “This will happen if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord.”
If? That’s weird. That can’t be right. The future is set and determined. The translator probably got that waw wrong. Or did they? Well, this brings us to our text today:
7 In the fourth year of King Darius, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah on the fourth day of the ninth month, which is Chislev. 2 Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-melech and their men, to entreat the favour of the Lord, 3 and to ask the priests of the house of the Lord of hosts and the prophets, “Should I mourn and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” 4 Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: 5 Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? 6 And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves? 7 Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, along with the towns around it, and when the Negeb and the Shephelah were inhabited? 8 The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: 9 Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. 11 But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. 12 They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. 13 Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts, 14 and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus, the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and a pleasant land was made desolate. (Zechariah 7:1-14, NRSV)
1. We want to know when all this will be over.
So…After the book recounts these dreams, it says that a delegation comes to Zechariah, and they say, “Hey, it’s been 70 years of exile since Jeremiah said God would come and restore us and fulfill all his promises. The clock is ticking. We are back, but life is terrible!” Let’s just say it was worse than a life of zoom calls and mask-wearing. So they say, “When is God going to come? When and how are all these dreams going to take place? When is God’s kingdom going to be here?”
Jeremiah’s prophecy looms in the background, and so the prophet brings it up. They want to know, when is it all going to end? When is a golden age going to dawn? You might say that they want to know if they are living in the end times.
I grew up in a religious tradition that was almost singularly obsessed with this question of the end times. As a person that has always loved reading, in my early years, I read book after book on predictions for the end times. As a young person, I felt deep down that things were not the way they were supposed to be. The world was becoming a darker place, not better, and when you read through a book like the Book of Revelation, it is very easy to draw the conclusion that the end is certainly near.
On Dec. 31st, 1999, my family was vacationing in Florida at my Grandparents’ condo over Christmas. Everyone was worked up about Y2K. Could this be the end? Will there be a mass computer failure, resetting civilization? Will the armies of the middle east rise up against the Western powers like what we saw in the Gulf war? Will the European Union become the new Babylon? Some of the preachers I read said it would. It’s 2000 years from the life of Christ. It makes sense. Two thousand years from Abraham to Jesus, the beginning of the covenant, so logically 2000 years from Jesus to the second coming.
I remember asking my dad about this, and part of him was skeptical. The other part was scared and felt anxious.
We watched the countdown: 3, 2, 1, Happy New Year! The ball dropped in New York, and people sang silly Irish songs. And as people out in the pool house of the condo ran around blowing their horns and noisemakers, my dad and I looked at the TV screen: reports came in that everything was fine. Nothing happened.
The end did not come.
I wish I could tell you that I learned a lot from that experience, but through high school, I really just went on to another prediction, figuring that the Y2K prediction was the right approach with the wrong conclusion.
Another event happened in my young adult life: 9/11. I watched from the big TV in the corner of our classroom in high school the planes flying into the World Trade Centre Towers. Then the war on terror was launched, then the Iraq war. The books I read suggested that these are the real prophesied enemies, Gog and Magog, and now, not Y2K, was the real beginning of the end. It felt like it.
But already, as a young person, this approach became dissatisfying to me, and perhaps you have felt this too (if you have any clue about what I am talking about). It seemed like those most certain that this politician or that terrorist attack was clearly this man on a horse in the Book of Revelation or that seal or bowl or trumpet or beast – whatever it was – it seemed that these preachers had been making these predictions for decades.
Protestant Christians have been habitually predicting the end since Martin Luther, who was convinced that the beasts in Revelation were Roman Catholicism. For 500 years, Christians have been treating apocalyptic literature as a code to crack and that we are now living in the definitive age that has provided the cipher, all to be proven wrong time and time again. Anna said last week: We have been living in the end times for 2000 years.
A few months ago, I was driving to work. I took a different way than I normally do. As I drove, I admired the farms and trees and all the beauty of the Annapolis Valley. Of course, I passed by churches. One church in particular (which will remain nameless) struck me. It had a sign on the front. It was a quotation from the Book of Revelation. It indicated that COVID-19 is one of the plagues from the Book of Revelation, revealing that we are in the definitive end times. Oh, and by the way, service is online at 10; all welcome.
A piece of me really wanted to deface that sign. Adorn a ski mask and spray paint something on that sign in the middle of the night. I don’t know what I would spray paint it with. Maybe Matt. 25:13: “You don’t know the time or hour!” I don’t know. I decided that probably was not the best idea.
I was tempted to call that church up and lecture them about how you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I can’t imagine that going well.
But the other part of me had to say: Aside from the sign being in bad taste, it is a question people are asking: Is the world ending? Cause it kinda feels like it is. If not, when will it end? How will it end?
So, to give these folk some credit, all our hearts feel the same thing: the foundations of our world are shaking, and our social fabric is tearing, and that has led so many of us to pray: How long, O Lord? When will your promises be fulfilled? When will your kingdom come and will be done? Because our world today feels like it is on the precipice to oblivion.
2. What does the end reveal about us now?
As I reflect on it, that sign probably revealed just as much about me as it did about that church. Apparently, I have tendencies towards vandalism, and I get really bothered by other people’s bad theology (It is an occupational hazard).
Something similar, however, is true of the visions of Zechariah.
An apocalypse is an unveiling, a revealing, that is what the word in Greek means, but it is not God giving believers a spoiler video clip of the conclusion of his own movie before the movie comes out.
It is prophetic poetry that uses fantastic and frightening symbols: of fire and flying scrolls, beasts and bowls of wrath, angels and dragons – and if we read it as literal, something will happen exactly like this or that, or we dismiss it as vague mythology of a by-gone era, something modern science with its laws of the conservation of energy has disproven, we miss that these figures are trying to unveil something in us, something in front of us.
Books like Zechariah or Revelation are not maps to the future. They work more like postcards and compasses because we so often lose our way on the journey of faith.
Sometimes we are tempted to go our own way, take history into our hands, and think that now we can make God’s kingdom come here. All we need to do is lie here, cheat there, or kill those getting in the way.
Other times we are tempted to be so certain Jesus is coming we sit back and do nothing and watch idly as the world becomes a darker place as we wait to escape it. We think the end is about fleeing earth to get to heaven, rather than living a way on earth as it is in heaven.
Other times we fall to despair and say God isn’t coming, there is no hope, and we recede into ourselves, caring only about our little slice of the world we can control, and we try to distract ourselves with life’s few fleeting moments of pleasure and peace.
Which have you been most tempted to do during this pandemic? Have you spent the pandemic angry at others? Or just waiting for it all to be over because you’re just done? Or have you just stopped caring?
These visions give us something more like a collage of pictures and mirrors: pictures that point to God’s end for all things, yes, but also mirrors that reflect these figures on ourselves, allowing us to see what is going on in our selves at a particular time so that we can get back on the right path to God’s end.
These are the things these visions are trying to truly unveil. Notice the move Zechariah makes, and it is a move that Jesus makes as well when the disciples ask him about the end in Acts 1. The people ask: when is it going to end? Zechariah responds with a challenge:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
3. The End is an Invitation
Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist pastor and theologian, once said, “It is for us to see the Kingdom of God as always coming, always pressing in on the present, always big with possibility, and always inviting immediate action.”
We want God to come. But then God opens a door and says: ok, step through. The future is an invitation, the future is a choice, and it is being presented to us every moment of every day. In this way, we are living in the end.
Embrace God’s future, live in line with the restoration of all things, or hold on to your past and the ways of this world and live in line with the road that leads to Gehenna’s destruction. The choice is before us, and it is a call we so often ignore.
We want to know what is true in this world, seeing it as it truly is, but we cling to easy answers and protect ourselves with lies.
We want a world of justice, but we cling to our privilege and complain about the sacrifice it calls for to set right what has gone wrong.
We want a world of love, but we don’t want to forgive or empathize with those we disagree with.
We ask God when will all this be pandemic stuff be over? When are you going to bless us and fulfill your promises?
God replies: Be honest; start being kind to one another; stop oppressing the marginalized of society; stop hating others. It is simple, but we keep refusing to listen.
During this pandemic, have we learned just how important it is, to be honest, to pursue sound truth and follow good common sense?
Have we learned through this pandemic just how interconnected we all are, just how much our actions affect those around us? That our health is connected to the health of others, that we are only as protected as those least protected.
Have we learned how we are connected to the earth and to each other and how the only way we can succeed as a society is by using our rights and resources to lift each other up?
Have we learned to be kind to those with whom we disagree? Have we learned that people have more worth in them than their opinions and that no opinion can make them worth any less?
Have we learned to care more about the vulnerable of society: our seniors, those that live in long-term care facilities, front-line and minimum wage workers, those who face eviction, homelessness, unemployment, mental illness, and disability, those that face hardship through no fault of their own?
Have we learned that money cannot dictate morality? Have we learned the real thing that has kept society together has been individuals coming together and giving their time and service to the common good?
If we have not learned these things, this might sound apocalyptic, but will society survive another pandemic? Can we even survive the next few years or even months?
When will all this be over? Scripture flips this question around on us and simply asks: What will you choose now?
But the answer to that is predictably dim and disappointing. Zachariah says that the people refused to listen, and here we are 2500 years later, and we still don’t want to listen. Have we learned that much from the pandemic about how to live in the way God wants us? I don’t think we have.
And so, Zachariah, like many of the other prophets, calls us to repentance and justice, and he offers us words of warning and even wrath, but then also ends with hope, hope that does not depend on us, although it constantly invites us into it.
He proclaims in chapter 9: “Rejoice O Daughter Zion, your king will come to you. Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Then God says, “Because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free… I will restore you.”
It is the hope that the God that made this world and has spoken promises through prophets has come into the world in Jesus Christ, his Son. God became a man, and this man died on a cross because of our failure to embrace goodness and truth when God has proclaimed it. But the forces of death, disobedience, destruction, and despair did not have the final say.
In this, we trust and hope today, despite our own selfishness and stubbornness, that God desires the resurrection for everyone and everything so that the force that emptied the tomb will fill every corner of this world, every heart and mind, beginning with us.
And so, we ask: When will all this end? The church knows it will and simply prays: Come, Lord Jesus Come. We are ready to step into your kingdom!
Lord, God, Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, you are Lord of history because you have taken on the darkness of history and bore it in your very flesh, then you rose from the dead into a future of hope, forgiveness, and joy.
Lord, we long for this pandemic to end. But may this be the end of our selfishness and hatred; put an end to our deceit and ignorance; may this be the final day we tolerate injustice and division.
Let a dawn of resurrection righteousness shine in our hearts, in our relationships, and our communities. May we see something new among us, in us, and through us, by the power of your Spirit.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.
A reading of Psalm 77 from the NRSV:
1 I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
3 I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah
4 You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
6 I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
10 And I say, “It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16 When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the depths trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
May God bless the reading of his word.
The Psalms are the prayer book of Israel, arranged to mediate and pray through our life of obedience to God’s law. They are written in five books just like the books of Moses, mirroring them. They are a lasting reminder in the canon of scripture that true faith in God and true obedience to his ways are only possible by prayer.
As Psalms 1 and 2, the gateways to the Psalter, state, these poetic prayers are also intended to pray through the rise of David, the anointed one, the plight of the persecuted righteous, but then the Psalms form a narrative of sorts, praying through the failure of the Davidic kings, and then the exile of God’s people and its devastation, and then finally the restoration of Israel’s hope surrounding the coming messiah and restoration of temple worship. Psalm 77 occurs in that middle point, between the times of thanksgiving.
In this travail of 150 Psalms, I was surprised, the first time I read through them in high school, to find out so many of them are psalms that express lament, doubt, even anger and accusation at God. About half are psalms what Walter Brueggemann calls psalms of “disorientation.” And they are disorienting, make no mistake. The first time I read some of these psalms I remember my words being caught in my throat in shock.
Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps. 22)
Why have you rejected me? (Ps. 43)
Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? (Ps 44)
O God, why have you rejected us forever? (Ps. 74)
Lord, where is your great love? (Ps. 89)
I remember saying to myself, “How can this be in the Bible?” Does the author not trust God? If you trust God, how can you ask such false, absurd, disrespectful things of him? I was taught that God is good and if you feel otherwise your feelings are wrong, so don’t trust your feelings.
I was also taught that we were saved by faith, and how do you know you have faith? You believe the right things. How do you come to know the right things? The Holy Spirit convicts you directly, so don’t ever question your beliefs. To doubt them is to doubt what saves you. You trust them and never waver, for so many have doubted their way along that proverbial “slippery slope.”
I was taught that all that a Christian needs to do to overcome sadness or despair, if true Christians are capable of such things, was to believe a bit harder, to focus on Jesus a bit closer, obey more purely, and if that does not help you have done something wrong. We sang, “Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed my heart from sin, I’m inright, outright, upright, downright, happy all the time.” Of course, we know that life is not uniformly happy, but some have heard this and thought: If I am sad, does that mean I don’t have Jesus?
So, when I came across a psalm like this one, my automatic gloss on a text like this in order to make it fit my paradigm was, “Oh well, this is Old Covenant. So glad we are in the New Covenant of grace now!” (Somewhere Glenn Wooden and Matt Walsh just shuttered, I’m sure).
The Psalms are perhaps one of the most interesting books of the Bible in that they are God’s word to us by first being our words expressed to God, which possess all sorts of interesting conundrums for how we understand inspiration for sure. If Marshal McLuhan is correct and the medium is the message, the fact that the psalter is the experience of God’s people prayed to God – experience of creation, politics, love, war, illness and healing, obedience and confession, thanksgiving and despair, praise for God’s presence in one’s life, and more pointedly, lament over times of a sense of God’s absence – all of these prayers, strangely and beautifully, turn back to be a word from God to us, and this says something: there is no domain of human experience, whether science or history, politics or poetry, that is irrelevant or meaningless to our relationship with God. This includes times of despair, feelings of abandonment by God, even anger at God. God permits these to be meaningful to him.
Worship, according to the Psalms means there is no facet of human life that God does not find meaningful, and no facet of human life that cannot find its meaning in him. Whether it is the mountain of divine ecstasy, miracles, that fuzzy feeling we all get when Andrew Conrad sings in chapel with silk-smooth voice, or the opposite: “valleys of the shadow of death,” darkness, discouragement and despair.
The Psalms, like this one, then offer a template for emotions to inhabit, words to give voice to what is our hearts, or, as John Calvin once said, a mirror to see into our souls. They offer a rhythm to allow scripture’s story to be our story and for our story to an extension of Christ’s story in the world.
There is a Christian poem that we have probably all heard so many times that to quote it now may sound a bit cheesy, but it goes like this: there was a man walking along the beach with God, and he looks at the footprints to find that there were only one set of tracks where his life seemed the toughest. “Where were you then?” he asked God. “My child,” God replies, “that is when I carried you.”
We miss the insight here that often in times when we think God is absent – that indeed there are times we will feel God is absent, that we will feel like God has forsaken us – it is in these times he is in fact present to us in a way we only discover afterwards.
The mystic Simone Weil once said that the absence of God was more present to her than the experience of all other presences. For her times where she thought she saw God absent in the world begged deep multi-layered questions for faith and prayer that atheism only gave shallow responses to.
Mystics like St. John of the Cross have called these experiences the “dark night of the soul.” Dark nights are times in which we feel distant from God, times that we might even then get angry at God, accusing him, or blaming ourselves, and yet, if these experiences do their work, they are pathways to deeper trust, deeper intimacy, deeper love of a God who is ineffable: beyond all our words, ideas, feelings, and actions.
Have you gone through a time like this? Did you wonder whether God was there? Perhaps you still wonder. Perhaps you are going through one of sorts right now. Or, perhaps, you are sitting here thinking this does not apply to you, and so, perhaps you should just bank this message for later: perhaps you may need this message in the near future, say some time between mid-terms and finals (I don’t know, but that is just my guess).
I can tell you I needed this message. My most significant personal trial occurred in the final year of Bible College, which I call “my dark summer.” I went to a Bible College in Cambridge, Ontario. My experience in Bible College up until this point I think had been pretty standard. I hung out with friends. We would goof off playing video games till 2:00 am, pull all-nighters getting essays done that we waited till the night of to do, or sit around strategizing how to “court” certain girls. I say “court” because – thank-you Joshua Harris – we did not believe in “dating” (if you don’t know that distinction, trust that you have been spared). The guys residence, which did not permit the presence of any woman in there except for a small window of a few hours after lunch on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, was like a G rated National Lampoon’s Animal House, with holes in the walls from wrestling matches and broken lamp shades from air soft rifle attacks, and other collateral damage from the ongoing prank wars. The kind of usually college things.
I loved my studies, despite not taking them particularly seriously. I was always an insatiably curious person. And while the seminary’s official perspectives were generally conservative, in the ongoing rigor of academic studies, I began to ask questions about the reliability of scripture; how do you interpret Genesis one? What do you do with the ending of Mark? Could even, dare I even utter the question, a woman be ordained? (That was a dangerous question in those circles). Each time I would just repress the question, swallowing it back with an easy proof text to keep me on the straight and narrow, lest I go down the “slippery slope.”
Or at least I certainly tried. While I was in college, I helped a small house church. I remember one night after Alpha Course, I was angry at one person because they believed in infant baptism (how dare he!). I turned to my pastor and friend saying, “We need to stop that person from thinking that way! It’s unbiblical!”
My pastor and friend turned to me in the car, “How do you know you aren’t the one who is wrong?”
I responded, “I can’t be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit!”
He smiled and echoed my words back to me, “You are saying you cannot be wrong?”
“That’s right,” I said again, “I cannot be wrong. I have the Holy Spirit.”
This repeated on for a while, longer than I would care to admit, and he kept repeating my words to me till the thought struck me, “Wow, I sound really arrogant. I’m human. I’m a sinner. Of course, I could be wrong!” The day I learned to ask myself “Could I be wrong?” about the things I regarded as “too important for me to be wrong,” was the day my faith started to fragment.
Psalm 77 says in verse 3, “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints.” Tremper Longman notes that the Psalmist seems to be uncomfortable with the ideas they had about God. The pat answers no longer satisfy.
But then something else happened, my father, who had just retired, complained at Christmas time of stomach-aches, and doctors diagnosed it as inoperable, pancreatic cancer. In four months, he lost over a hundred pounds, shriveling up into something you would see in holocaust pictures.
Yet, my Dad had a very strong faith. He knew that he was going to die, and told me, “Spencer, I know I am not getting out of this one.” He told me how proud he was of me and encouraged me to continue pursuing my ministry calling and academics. As he said that, he took off his wedding ring and his favorite watch and gave them to me.
He kept telling me that the last thing he wanted to do was see me graduate, so in April, we drove him to Forward Baptist Church, and we brought him in on a wheel chair for the graduation ceremony. He passed away two weeks later in hospice, just over four months after being diagnosed.
Losing your Dad is like losing the one reason to make another person proud, because he was that person. Watching your Dad die, knowing that pancreatic cancer is hereditary, is like watching yourself die, to be permanently haunted with the suspicion that one day, you too may just get a stomach-ache, and this is how you will go too, and it will be painful. It caused me to wonder what the point of doing studies was. Was there a point to anything?
Yet, he showed me an example of perseverance in suffering. One time, his meds wore off, and he clenched his fists so that his fingers dug into his palms. Bent over in the tremendous pain, he prayed, “Thank-you, God, even for this. Thank-you for every opportunity you give me to show my love for you!” Those words have gotten me through a lot.
At the same time, that summer, more happened. I went to the mall. I saw my close friend, who was a part-time supervisor there and also an associate pastor in the area. He asked if I was up for coming to his car, while he was on smoke break. I agreed. When we got there, he confessed to me that his marriage had come to a brutal end. I asked, “Why?” and he responded: “Spencer, I’m gay.” This came as a complete surprise to me. He apparently married his wife trying to suppress or change his orientation, but the result was the opposite. He went through reorientation therapy and it only made matters worse. When he told his senior pastor, the pastor fired him on the spot, saying, “Obviously you just need more faith!”
The ensuing scandal led him, my friend, to become suicidal. He had become convinced that he was predestined not to actually have salvation because, as he thought, “With enough faith I can do anything, but if I am still like this, I must not have enough faith. And if I do not have faith, which God gives as a gift, God must not want me to be saved. Perhaps,” he said to me, “maybe I am one of those people who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but never were actual believers.” So, he concluded that if he did not have God in his life, life was no longer worth living. He attempted suicide and, thankfully, failed, and as he told me his story, he showed me his scared, sliced hands, which he had hidden under long sleeves. I was moved with tears. What I managed to choke out was that if he was willing to take his own life in the idea that life without God is not worth living, then truly he revers God in a way that I have never had to. That, I can only reason, is a sign that he does have a relationship with God. The first beatitude is blessed are the poor in spirit, not the rich in spirit, after all. If Jesus died for all sin at the cross, I simply could not accept that God rejects a person who needs him, no matter who they are.
My summer had more to it. Yes, there is more. The pastor of that little church I volunteered at, had recently closed, and moved into another congregation. My friend was really getting wayward at this point. He and his family went off on vacation to his hometown.
They got back and something was different. I felt like they were angry at me for some reason, as they just seemed stand-offish and dodgy. Turns out it was because their marriage was ending. The man had met up with a woman from high school while in his hometown and he was planning on going to leave to be with her. News like this did not stay hidden, soon everyone knew, and it was a mess.
He left, and I remember him telling me this and me just being in a state of shock for days. I idolized this person, my mentor and best friend. Yet I watched this man spiral mentally and spiritually into chaos. He left for a time, but in time he eventually came to his senses in that months that followed and came back.
Along with this, I was also penniless. I could not find a student job at the beginning of summer, and so, I was getting back on summer rent and worried I would get kicked out with all that was happening. I eventually finally got a job working night shift at Tim Horton’s. My only conversational partner in the dead of night, as I cleaned coffee pots and changed garbage cans, was a Polish immigrant lady named Helena, who knew enough English to take a coffee order, swear in half-English-half-Polish under her breath, and ask to go for a smoke. Those were lonely nights. As the semester started, I had to work night shifts then go to class, sleep, then work all night, and I did this for a time until I could find another job.
My father dying, my fiend coming-out about his sexuality and attempting suicide, my friend and mentor having a mental break down – this all happened in one summer.
When you care about a person, when you have a deep friendship, their doubts have a way of becoming your doubts: their pain, your pain.
The Psalm records in verse 6, “I communed with my heart in the night; I meditated and searched my spirit.” One night, I recall sitting in my room feeling that all rational grounding for my faith was left void, all practical examples of faith in my life had failed, left the church, or, even worse, had passed away due to horrific god-forsaken illness. It was in that moment of despair that I sensed a great void of meaning confront my life: Could all this be worthless? Is life an abyss of vacuous truth?
The Psalmist asks in verse 8, “Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
Similarly, I asked: Where are you God? Why didn’t you heal my dad? Why didn’t you come through for my friends? Are you even there?
Then something happened. Something manifested itself to me. I remember sensing in that abyss of the void, the truth of Christ beyond all the failures of human thought and religion, a hope that prevailed. It did not take away the abyss, but make the darkness less of fear and more like stillness. An existential Selah, the Psalmist might suggest.
It simply assured me that while I can get my faith terribly wrong, Christ is still there. My “truth” could fail, but Christ will not. If Jesus is who he is, “Even if we are faithless,” says 2 Tim. 2:13, “he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.”
The Psalmist, similarly, despite doubt, despite anguish and accusation, recounts the deeds of God and feels assurance, meditating on the Exodus:
I will meditate on all your work…
Your way, O God, is holy…
You are the God who works wonders…
You redeem your people…
The result of this was that I committed myself to rethinking my faith with a new-found hope and reassurance. That summer I must have read through about 30 books. I thought to myself that if Christ is true even if my beliefs have failed, then I must give Christianity the benefit of the doubt and investigate what others have said, others I either ignored or missed. My studies became excited by a deep personal drive that pushed me on to doctoral studies, driven by the thrill of wondering and wandering with a God who is with us even in the questions.
I would not presume to say to you that somehow this means all these questions I had then have been resolved. The point of faith, of relationship, is not to have it resolve. St. John of the Cross reminds us that while periods of despair lift, the Dark Night of the Soul is actually without end in this life. For that is seeing, as Paul would said, always “as in a mirror darkly” until the final day where we will see God face to face.
I did not mean nor want any of the things that happened to me that summer in seminary. No one wants their faith to be fragmented like this, especially those who need it most, as I did. I have met so many Christians who have gone through a time of questioning or a time of discouragement, and they have fallen away from the church and from faith altogether, often because of an expectation of faith that could not permit doubts or could not see God’s presence in times of darkness, yet this psalm invites us to see, paradoxically, that God’s presence is there even in times of absence, light in times of darkness, and faith in and through the toughest questions.
If you know someone in your life perhaps like this, continue to pray for them, for we know that our good shepherd does not forsake the lost sheep. And if you feel you may be one of those lost sheep, know that our God has not forsaken you either. If you feel alone, know that you have a family here at ADC that may know a thing or two about what you may be going through.
My other concern is for us teachers and pastors also. Sometimes we can be so obsessed with numeric growth we neglect the hard work of spiritual growth. Sometimes we are so afraid of the fallout of asking a provocative question to our congregations we don’t ask it at all. Or worse, sometimes we become so afraid of the consequences of these questions, we stop asking them of ourselves entirely. To paraphrase St. John of the Cross, those who are in the darkest nights of the soul are the ones who have convinced themselves they are walking in perfect daylight.
C. S. Lewis once said this after his wife died, in his book, A Grief Observed, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has been shattered time after time. God shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? And most are offended by this iconoclasm; but blessed are those who are not.”
Brothers and sisters, blessed are those who are not.
So, may you know today in all your questions, wonderings, and wanderings, that you have a God that knows you deeper than you know yourself, closer to you than you are to yourself, who sees you with eyes of mercy, who holds you with hands that were pierced for you and bleed for you at the cross.
May you be free to bring to him in prayer your whole self, nothing held back, whether confession or accusation, joy or despair, and know that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ.
May you be blessed to be shattered, to have your faith in fragments, and yet, little by little, day by day, fragment by fragment, may you be remade into a mosaic that depicts Jesus to our broken world.
Rev. Dr. Spencer Miles Boersma
Acadia Divinity College Chapel,
September 30th, 2020.
We have all heard the Christmas story before.
The Christmas story is the story of a baby born miraculously and mysteriously to a virgin mother.
About a nobody girl named Mary, who saw the announcement that she would be the mother of the messiah to be the greatest privilege of her life, despite its meaning she would be ostracized perhaps the rest of her life, since she was not married
It is the story about a good and merciful man, named joseph, who when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant and he was not the father, he could have subjected her to disgrace and even had her stoned in the culture, but moved with compassion, simple was going to dissolve the marriage quietly.
A man that was reassured by an angel to marry the woman, and that he would be the legal father of the savior of the world.
It is a story set to the back drop of God’s people conquered and oppressed by a massive empire, ruled a tyranny Emperor who claimed himself to be the Son of God.
It about this little unlikely family having to travel miles through storm and sand to the town of Bethlehem to be counted by order of the Emperor Augustus.
It is a story about this family who upon returning to their own hometown found that no one wanted to give them shelter for the night. No family wanted them.
It is a story about the king of heaven being born in the muck and mire of a barn.
It is a story about good news announced by angelic hosts to lowly shepherds, forgotten in the wilderness, tending their sheep.
It is a story about wisemen following stars, fooling a local corrupt ruler and coming to worship the messiah child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is a story about an escape in the night as Herod sent out guards to kill the children of Jesus’ age, trying to stop the potential usurper.
And so, this is a story about miracles and the messiah, about faithful servants and faithful spouses, unplanned pregnancies and ancient prophecies; it is about shepherds and tyrants, about journey and escape, about humility and royalty, oppression and hope.
This story is the first Christmas. It is the story. It is the most important story. It is the story of all our salvation. Our salvation began to be accomplished in history on that day, in that stable, in that dirty manger, to that poor Middle-eastern couple, two thousand years ago.
It is the truth that God is now with us: the incarnation. The infinite God dwelling with us mortals.
It is the truth about God’s rule. The messiah Jesus shows how God rules: he chooses the lowly; he chooses the poor; he chooses the unworthy, the forgotten, the unlikely. He prefers them to the powerful, the rich, the proud, and the oppressor.
It is the truth about forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t just the king of the righteous. He didn’t just love the deserving. He also loved sinners. In fact, he died for the people trying to kill him. He died for Emperor just as much as the shepherds. He died for King Herod just as much as the wise men. He died for the criminal and the terrorist just as much as he died for you and me.
The Christmas story is the truth about God’s fundamental character of love and compassion, about God being born in our form, identifying with our plight, binding himself to our fate, all to say that nothing can separate us from his love.
Immanuel: God is with us. He is not against us, he is for us. He gave us his son. He gave us himself.
It is also a difficult story to believe, too isn’t it? We live in a world of skepticism. It seems that usually about this time every year someone publishes an article, proclaiming their modern brilliance at just how unbelievable the Christmas story is.
Angels don’t exist. Miracles don’t happen. Virgins don’t have babies. Stars don’t give travelers directions. Gods don’t reveal themselves. It is simply an unbelievable story.
It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing. Things like this just don’t happen.
But our culture’s skepticism over the things of God – whether it is the possibly of miracles or the fact that God could indeed reveal himself – pays a high price.
Skepticism against the Christmas story is skepticism against hope itself.
We live in an apathetic age.
Wars can’t be stopped. Poverty can’t be solved. Politicians always lie. Life is always unfair. Marriages never work. Churches never help. God isn’t there.
There is no life after death, and ultimate no reason for life before it.
Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and tragedy, these are just creations of the human imagination with no real anchor in reality.
The world is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse and to be honest, most people would think we are not worth saving.
Forgiveness? Hope? Love? Goodness? It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing.
It is unbelievable.
Perhaps the Apostles passed along this story not because they were primitive, but because they were just like us.
They lived in a skeptical age. Tyrants stayed powerful; peasants stayed poor; lepers stayed sick; women and slaves stayed property; the dead stayed in the grave; and there is nothing new under the sun.
…Until Jesus showed up. Perhaps the reason the Apostles passed along this Christmas story is precisely because it was unbelievable. Unbelievable yet true.
This is a watershed moment in history, a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, an epiphany, an event.
God showed up. Hope showed up. Goodness and mercy and forgiveness showed up. Nothing like this had ever happened in their time. Nothing like it before or after. Prophets had foretold this, but who could expect it happening in this way?
Perhaps this story is true in all its remarkable, exceptional, unbelievable, beauty.
We can ask, just like Mary, “How is this possible?” And the angel’s words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago: With God all things are possible.
With God all things are possible.
If we grant that, this story starts making sense.
Good does triumph over evil. Love does triumph over hate. Forgiveness does triumph over hurt. Peace does triumph over violence. Faith does triumph over idolatry. Hope does triumph over despair.
These truths are not the delusions of us human bi-pedal ape-species with an overgrown neo-cortex.
The deepest longings of the human heart, the groaning of the soul for a world without hunger, sickness, sin, death, and despair – as unrealistic as that sounds – that yearning knows this story is true the same way our thirsty tongues know that water exists.
Its real. Its possible. It is out there. It is here: in Jesus.
The only left to do with this story, when we are done pondering it and puzzling is to trust it.
Can you tonight trust this unbelievable story? Can you trust that with God all things are possible?
Can you trust that your life is not just there without value, but it is a gift, it was planned and made by a God that sees you as his child?
Can you trust that the wrong in your life, the sins we have committed that no excuse can defend has been forgiven by a God that knows you better than you know yourself and sees with eyes of perfect mercy?
Can you trust that God has come into history, has shown us the way, has died for our sins, and conquered the grave?
Can you trust that God can set right all that has gone wrong as we invite him to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and strength, our relationships, our job and family, our past and future, our communities and our country?
Can you trust that this Christmas story about God’s miraculous power, his unlimited compassion, his surprising solidarity, can be shown to be true this night just as much as it did then? In you, in the person next to you, in this church, in this town.
We give gifts at Christmas time as a sign of God’s generosity, but do we look forward to God’s gifts to us each Christmas?
Do we look for the gift of renewed spirits?
Do we look for the gift of transformed hearts?
Do we look for the gift of forgiveness of past hurts?
Do we look for the gift of reconciled relationships?
Of new freedom from guilt and shame, from hurt and hatred, from addiction and despair, from materialism and apathy.
What gifts are we going to see given from God’s spirit this Christmas.
Perhaps it will be like what happened to Nelson Mandela (just one story I read about this week about how the truth of Christmas changed someone in remarkable ways). In South Africa where Blacks were segregated off from the privileged of White society, Mandela as a young man advocated armed uprising and was imprisoned for life in 1962.
In prison he faced all the things that would, by any worldly standard, destroy hope, love, joy and peace in any man’s soul. He was beaten by the guards. He recount one day being forced to dig a pit that the guards taunted him saying it would be his own grave. As he dug, they peed on him and spat on him. The prison was so dirty he contracted tuberculosis.
Conditions like that fester the heart not just the body, but the miracle of Christmas reached him. Mandela recovered his Christian faith in prison, and was moved with hope towards a better tomorrow, with love and forgiveness towards even his guards that beat him.
In a sermon he gave later in life, he spoke about the hope he gained knowing that the messiah was born an outcast like him. This unbelievable Christmas story, the story that we recite and remember till it we often take it for granted, restored a man’s heart in one of the darkest of places.
Christ’s name is Immanuel: God with us. God was with the shepherd, with Mary, with Joseph, with the oppressed Israeli people, and so, also with Nelson Mendela.
After 26 years in prison, campaigns to have him pardoned succeeded, and Mandela went from prison to the presidential campaign, running to become president and end apartheid, not through violence but through reconciliation.
He won and he even had the guard that beat him from prison, whom he reconnected with and forgave, at his inauguration, a guest of honor.
Its an unbelievable story isn’t it?
How will God work something unbelievable in you tonight?
We could say that our lives aren’t as fantastic as Mendel’s, but then again, if we say that, we would be selling ourselves and our God short.
You see, a story about angels and a virgin giving birth and about a God found in the form of a baby might be unbelievable, but we Christians take that as part and parcel of what our unbelievable God does.
There is a saying that goes if you are in for a pound, you might as well put in a penny.
If we know that God has done the miraculous, can we trust him now with the mundane?
If we know that God has given us life, can we trust him with our finances and family?
If we know that God has atoned for all sin, can we trust him with our fears and failures?
If we know that God has conquered the grave, can we trust him with the worries of tomorrow?
If we know our God is a God that can do all things, that he has already accomplished everything, perhaps can you trust him with something small now. Let’s do something small right now. Something small but still significant.
Let’s have a moment of silence and stillness. We don’t get enough of those in this busy season. Have a moment right now to say to God whatever you need to say or to listen to God and hear whatever he as been trying to tell you, then we will pray together…
Living God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ.
May the worship we have shared this Christmas lead ro acts of service which transform people’s lives
May the carols we have sung this Christmas help others to sing, even in times of sadness.
May the gifts we exchange this Christmas deepen our spirit of giving throughout the year.
May the candles we have lit this Christmas remind us that you intend no one to live in darkness.
May the new people we have met this Christmas remind us that we meet you in our neighbors.
May the gathering together of family and friends this Christmas make us appreciate anew the gift of love.
May these unbelievable stories we have told again this Christmas be good news of great joy to us and all people, proclaimed on our lips and embodied in our lives.
May the ways you have come close to us this Christmas not be forgotten.
May we remember your unbelievable love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – that you are our life, our light, and our salvation, this season and always, because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
[End prayer modified from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples by the Baptist Union of Great Britain]
I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
The other day I got to participate in a showing of The Shack that our church, First Baptist Church of Sudbury, and Valleyview Community Church sponsored.
It happened in the beautiful Imagine Theatre Movie Lounge with its wonderful recliner seating (I am not being paid for that plug by the way – it really is nice!).
The Shack is a movie based on a book where a man, Mack, suffers the loss of his daughter. His daughter, Missy, is murdered, and he hates God for it. His life is beginning to unravel when he gets a card requesting his presence at the shack where his daughter was murdered, signed by “Papa,” the name for God his daughter used.
Mack goes to the shack wondering if the murderer is there, and Mack comes ready to kill him. When he goes there and finds no one, he lets out his anger at God. Shortly after in the woods, a man who we find out is Jesus, invites him back to the shack to have a weekend with the Trinity.
God the Father, “Papa,” is portrayed as female, a big black lady and the Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman, Sarayu. Mack is invited into fellowship with them. Mack is struck by the warmth of Papa, the relatability of Jesus, and the mysterious wisdom of Sarayu.
Mack learns that the Father is fundamentally love. Rather than seeing God the Father as distant and unforgiving, disconnected from Jesus – essentially being the thing Jesus saves you from – the Father is unified with Jesus, one in the purpose of loving humanity. The cross is the full disclosure of the love of God, all of God. Mack is surprised to see the mark of the nails on Papa’s hands.
Mack goes out to the garden and speaks with Sarayu. They begin digging a hole. Mack wonders why the garden is so messy and wild. The garden, Sarayu indicates, is Mack’s heart. Her work is wild and beautiful and creative and she is working in him, growing something that he does not understand right now.
A pivotal point in the journey is that Mack goes out on a boat. He begins to think about his pain and his loss, and realizes the boat is sinking into the dark waters. The sea is the primordial chaos of satanic sin, seeking to swallow him. The only thing that saves him is that he sees Jesus walking on the water towards him. He grabs a hold of Jesus and does not let go. After that is some, as I call it, “Christian cheese,” where Jesus and Mack goof around walking on the water. The point is theological: Mack admits that Jesus is the most accessible of the members of the Trinity.
Mack is taken to a cave where he is confronted with lady Wisdom. Mack angrily wishes God to smite the killer of his daughter. Wisdom invites him to sit in God’s throne and play God for a moment. Wisdom invites him to give judgment on who will live and who will die. Eagerly Mack sits, ready to pour out his ire on his daughter’s killer. However, Mack’s other two children are placed before him. Their sins are recounted, and Wisdom requests Mack to choose between them, who will be preserved and who will die. Mack is confronted with the fact that if God is a loving Father to all people, God still loves the murderer, despite his brokenness, and is working to save him just as much as all his other children, not wanting any to perish.
At this point, Mack is given a glimpse of heaven, and sees Missy enjoying the fellowship of Jesus. He realizes that God in his love has placed her in a place beyond the pain of her death, and this comforts him to know she is okay.
Mack begins to heal as he learns to forgive as God has forgiven him. In the process, Mack learns he has to forgive his father, who was abusive. Interestingly after he does this, Papa appears to him as a male. Mack needed healing to approach God as Father. Papa previously appeared as a mother to appeal to the love that Mack already knew. Now, Papa is about to teach Mack a new stage of forgiveness. Papa brings him to the place where his daughter’s body was hidden. Along the walk, Mack is confronted with the need to forgive his daughter’s killer. As Mack lets go of his hate, Papa then brings them to the small cave where the body is stashed.
They delicately bring the body back to the shack and Mack realizes that Jesus has been working on a beautiful casket for his daughter. They bring the casket to the garden, and Mack realizes that the hole he was digging with Sarayu was a grave to bury Missy in. Mack realizes the love the Trinity had for Missy is the same as his and that God was with her through all that she went through. They all have a little funeral service there together.
Mack leaves the shack with a new found love at work in him, which he uses to rebuild his fractured marriage and family.
The movie was wonderful: good acting and cinematics. It is a bit of a crier, with many emotional and touching scenes. Admitfully, a movie of this nature is hard to pull off. Depicting God as a character, let alone the Trinity as a black lady, a young middle eastern man, and a weird Asian lady, is hard to do with warmth. We expect either the comical Morgan Freeman of Bruce Almighty or the powerful austerity of the voice coming from the burning bush like in The Ten Commandments. To depict Mack engaging in a friendship with God, and to do so tastefully, is perhaps most difficult because we don’t often want to think about God that way.
The movie presented the love of God, the invitation to trust Jesus, the wisdom of the Spirit, the need to live out God’s forgiveness and love as a response to the problem of evil in perhaps some of the most clear and success ways I have seen in Christian cinema. I look at some of the crap out there in Christian movies, not to name names, but The Shack was frankly refreshing.
Now, some will say that this is just literature and others, the movie’s critics, point out that it is teaching theological convictions. Both are correct. My reaction to the theological themes of the movie, which I will take up next post, are same as the book. Several years ago I read the book curious as to whether it was “heretical” but was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. My reaction is the same: “Am I missing something? Why are people getting angry at this?”
If you want to understand the book you really must listen to Paul Young’s testimony here. People need to walk a mile in Young’s shoes before casting judgment. In deed, as Christians I don’t think they can do that without listening to him. The Shack is a metaphor for his wrestling with God, as a man that was the son of missionaries, thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical thinking. We would be wise to listen to the views of such an insider. Our children know our flaws better than anyone. His father abused him and taught him a theology of shame. Later in life he was unfaithful to his wife, repented, and sought counseling. The level of vulnerability and emotional insight in his testimony is staggering. The counseling was so intense that he almost committed suicide, but through it, he finally understood God’s love and grace. The book was written as a present to his kids, never intended to be published at the scale it has achieved. For any critic of Young, even if you disagree with his ideas, I would hope they would extend understanding on a person that shows us so much about how to follow Christ through suffering and brokenness.
As someone who is a person that saw abuse in our home (my mother’s husband to her), as someone who did grow up around emotionally toxic Christianity (my father was a pastor’s kid and his father abused him), this movie is highly therapeutic. As someone that has experienced a lot of difficulty, especially in my college years with my parents dying of cancer, while I will get into it more in the next post, this movie has forgiveness and faith at the center.
That is, I think, what the book is about at the end of the day: A man learning about the love of Christ through pain and suffering, propelling a person towards forgiveness. Am I missing something? What is wrong with that?
My wife and I, on our honeymoon, did a Mediterranean cruise. We saw Malta, Naples and Pompei, Rome and the Vatican, Florence and Pisa, and finally Cannes, France.
Florence was a gorgeous city. We toured the city’s cathedrals, and through the streets we saw statue after statue, all by walking along very picturesque cobble stone roads.
We came to the city center where the Duomo was. This is a massive cathedral constructed by the same architect that did the St. Peter’s Basilica. The baptismal chapel on the one end of the Duomo has gold gates, called the “Gates of Paradise,” lined with plates of biblical artwork.
I remember thinking, we really don’t have stuff like that in Canada. We don’t have the depth of history like a place like Florence does.
The tour took a break and so I want to the bathroom. As I was washing my hands, one of the other people on the tour started talking to me. Apparently it was acceptable to talk to others in a bathroom in his culture.
“Are you enjoying the tour?”
“Yes, the gates were awesome,” I said.
“You’re an American, yes?” he asked.
Of course, I replied, “No, I’m Canadian.”
To which he replied with one of the most insulting things you could say to a Canadian in that instance: “Oh, same thing!”
If this was hockey, the gloves would have come off!
So, I turn to him and asked, “Your ascent – its Irish, isn’t it?”
“No, I am from London.”
To which I replied, “Oh, same thing!”
Now, since then, that story has caused me to reflect on what it is to be a Canadian. What does it mean to be a Canadian? Are we, as John Wing joked, “Unarmed Americans with healthcare”?
This is not as obvious a question as it sounds. Yes, I was born in the area in between the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans, North of America and South of Greenland, but that does not tell us much about what it means to be a Canadian. That’s geography. However that may tell us something or two.
“Canada [geographically] is like an old cow. The West feeds it. Ontario and Quebec milk it. And you can well imagine what it’s doing in the Maritimes.” – Tommy Douglas
My apologies to all the Maritimers in the room.
Anyways, what I am talking about is being a “true Canadian.” Is there such a thing?
Do Canadians have a particular culture? We love hockey. We love camping. Outdoor sports in general. Everyone in this room knows what it is like to walk out of your house in the winter and breathe in -45 degree Celsius air.
Canadian food: Maple Syrup, bacon, Nanaimo bars, poutine with globs of gravy and cheese curds, beaver tails, etc.
We like to drink unhealthy amounts of coffee, double double. We get our milk in liter plastic bags, not jugs.
Our money is all sorts of goofy colors, and for some reason, the Canadian mint is slowly turning all our bills into progressively larger coins. The 5 and 10 dollar coins are coming, people. What then? I think eventually we will have 20 dollar coins the size of frisbees and eventually 100 coins the size of manhole covers!
We have iconic figures like beavers, moose, the Canada goose. We are apparently really proud of our wildlife!
We sort of go to those kinds of things in order to understand ourselves, but those kinds of things are pretty surface level and outward. That does not tell us a whole lot about us. Hopefully there is more to us than that.
The fact that we have receded into those kinds of cutesy notions of who we are shows what the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan said decades ago:
“Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.”
McLuhan was the man that stated, “The medium is the message.” Canada had these brilliant culture philosophers like George Grant and Northrop Frye that no one really remembers today. It’s kind of sad.
Anyways, we are a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, not a culture but a set of cultures, and that leads us to feel a sense like we don’t have a uniform set of values. We often don’t feel like we know who we are deep down as Canadians.
However, interestingly enough, while many Canadians are unaware of it, there is a bizarre consensus in Canada on values.
In college I read the book, Fire and Ice: Canada, the United States, and the Myth of Converging Values. It was a bit of an eye opener. Canada, according to sociologist Michael Adams, is becoming very different from its American counterparts. We are similar to Americans, but as far as values goes, the presence of America to the South of us as caused us to be increasingly different form them on lots of stuff.
That is one way of saying who we are, isn’t it? Canadians are not Americans. Whoever we are, we ain’t that. We are proudly not that.
We always define ourselves in terms our brothers and sisters to the south. Pierre Trudeau once likened North America to a bed where Canada was a beaver trying to sleep next to a raging Elephant (the US).
And while Americans assume they have a more uniform melting pot kind of culture and Canada has a multi-cultural, diverse culture, Canada is actually far more uniform from sea to sea than the US. That’s ironic.
In values of Authority vs. Individuality and Survival vs. Fulfillment, American regions are very diverse: the Deep South is strongly Authority-Survival, South Atlantic is Individuality-Survival. Some states were closer to Authority-Fulfillment while others closer to Individuality-Fulfillment. Meanwhile, all Canadian provinces fell within the Individuality-Fulfillment quadrant.
What does that mean? Here are some of his statistics: Only 20% of Canadians attend church weekly versus 42% for Americans. Only 18% of Canadians feel that the father must be Master of the house versus 49% for Americans. 71% of Canadians felt that a couple living together were family versus 49% for Americans. Only 25% of Canadians were prepared to take great risks versus 38% of Americans. Only 17% of Canadians feel a widely advertised product is probably good versus 44% of Americans
Adam’s said, and I think this sums it up well: Americans would be more likely to brag about a new car; Canadians more likely to brag about the trip they went on.
Adams feels that “an initially conservative society like Canada has ended up producing an autonomous, inner-directed, flexible, tolerant and socially liberal people. On the other hand, “an initially liberal society like the US has ended up producing a people who are materialistic, outer-directed, intolerant and socially conservative.”
Now, here is the important question for today. Does that make our culture the right one?
According to the news, people from both American and Britain have been googling “How to move to Canada” at record rates, but I think that is short-sighted.
I don’t think anyone of them is necessarily bad or good. I see things like and things I am concerned about in those statistics. Sure there are cultures that have strong education or have less crime or promote religion. However that can all have good aspects and bad aspects.
Of course, if we said that Canada’s culture was the best, we would be saying that out of bias, and we would also be failing to cultural arrogance, which is not good.
The fact is that you can take your culture in a good way or a bad way. You can’t blame your culture for stuff you know is wrong. Any culture has upsides and downsides. The point is to be aware of it. There will be extremes. Culture is not necessary a thing to be opposed in faith, but is something to be understood critically, placing our faith and discernment first. We need to celebrate the good and work at eliminated the bad.
Christians have usually two dangerous responses to our cultural identities:
(1) Isolation: Churches that Retreat from Culture
This is very common of fundamentalist churches. Our culture is bad, impure, evil, so lets huddle in our faith bunker where it is safe.
Churches that get isolated don’t use the goodness the Spirit of God has planted in the culture to use to communicate the Gospel. Paul knew this when he spoke to the people at Mars Hill.
There is no such thing as a culture-less church. No church is free from culture. God did not intend it that way. The Bible was written within a culture of its own, but the Word of God speaks to all cultures. The church should be working to promote the best of culture. The point is discerning the good from the bad.
It is not weather we will have a Canadian culture within us or not, the question is will we be aware of it and response appropriately.
Canadians are more skeptical about consumerism and war, and more hospitable to immigrants. That’s good. I think Jesus was too!
Canadians are individuals that value strong relationships over institutions and programs. That is something we can work with.
Canadians might be skeptical about religion, but they are open to talking about justice, spirituality, ideals, and values. In a round about way, that sounds religious!
Lots of people want to lament that our culture is becoming less Christian. That is true in one way, but that does not mean the Spirit has stopped working in our culture to make opportunities for the Gospel.
(2) Accommodation: Churches Claim All Culture for their Own
The worst example of this in history is when Emperor Constantine in the third century made Christianity the state religion. To be Roman was to be Christian. To be Christian was to be Roman. Roman law was ordained by God. The church went to war against Rome’s enemies.
We saw horrific examples of this in Nazi Germany where the state church proclaimed Hitler to be chosen by God to bring glory back to Germany.
We see the same in the British Empire. Where the Anglican Church sanctioned colonialism. The British colonized half the world and now complain about immigrants taking their identity!
We see this also in America today, sadly. American wars for oil have become evangelical crusades against Muslims. The American motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is preached as gospel in some churches.
We Canadians can do the same.
I think ours is a culture of apathy and skepticism. We have allergic reactions to organized anything, except organized sports. We have trouble committing to community. We are terribly afraid of offending people with the truth. We are individualists that don’t know who we are and don’t want you to tell us.
That comes out in our religion.
We say stuff like, “I believe Jesus in my Lord and Saviour, but that is just my personal opinion.” (A joke often made by the ethicist, Stan Hauerwas).
We are multi-cultural, which is great. But also we have allowed tolerance to go a bit too far. There are two kinds of tolerance, by the way. One kind says, “You are different from me, so please help me understand you, and let me make a space for you, so that we can have peace.” That’s good.
There is bad tolerance that says, “I don’t know you, I don’t care, you stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours. If we bump into each other at Foodland, lets have a shallow conversation about the weather or local sports team, but not anything meaningful, let along religious.”
We are terribly afraid of speaking truth and very afraid to commit to organization and community. That fear has caused us to shrink back from opportunities to encourage people with the Gospel. We are so afraid of offending people that we miss opportunities to encourage.
When we think about our nationality, we have to be critical. We are called to be “in the world and not of the world”
We need to understand that there is good and bad in our culture. We need discernment to that we do not fall into nationalism. Being Canadian can be a good thing, but not necessarily.
This is why we look to how we are apart of another nation: the kingdom of heaven…
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
In his book, Night, Elie Weisel gives his bitter account of the Holocaust, an event so horrifically evil it unsettled the very core of his Jewish faith. He was only a boy when he saw the execution of an innocent man, starved, emaciated, beaten, broken – broken of his very humanity. He was robbed of his dignity by people devoid of their own humanity, the Nazis.
This man was hanged in front of all the other prisoners: the poor man was made into a spectacle of the Nazi’s brutality as the audience was made to watch, feeling the full measure of their own powerlessness. Weisel, a boy, was made to watch.
As this happened, someone called out, “Where is God?” That man had had enough, the injustice caused him to cry out at the risk of his own execution. “Where is God?!” As if to say: How can he not be here? How could he not intervene in a moment like this? The crowd could give no answer as he indicted God in a crime of cosmic proportions.
“Where is God?” the voice rang out again, again and again.
Elie Weisel, a young man at the time, felt in his heart the only possible explanation: Where is God? God is dead. He died there in those gallows.
Weisel saw this admission as the very moment his faith collapsed into a bitter semi-atheism. His hope in God was shaken.
But as Weisel reports, he did not lose faith, for while he felt hurt by God, the prospect that there was no God at all rendered the events of the Holocaust even more tragic: no God to denounce the evil as fundamentally wrong, no God to command compassion rather than indifference, no God to offer the promise of restoration.
Weisel’s shaken faith, I think, is an honest faith. Faith calls for nothing less than honesty about ourselves and our world, and that honestly about our world calls for nothing less than the honesty of being deeply upset over the tragic injustices of this life.
But to have that honesty in faith means addressing that frustration and lament before God as Jesus did: “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?”
This phrase comes from Psalm 22, a psalm written by David, who was a righteous man that was attacked by his king, his friends, and later, even his own family. He spent much of his life on the run, hunted like an animal.
One way to understand the cross – perhaps the most basic way – is to understand that Christ died, “according to the Scriptures” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Jesus embodies the story of Scripture. He is the word of God.
He is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” He is the “stone that was rejected that is now the corner stone” (Psalm 118:22 cf. 1 Peter 2:7). He is the perfect Passover lamb, slain as a sin offering for us, etc.
Jesus fulfills this scripture as the rest of the psalm shows:
Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment. (vv. 16-18)
In claiming these words as his own, he is not merely fulfilling the Scriptures. He is showing God’s solidarity, his oneness, with all the forgotten of this world. Jesus in crying out in forsakenness, embodying the cry of the oppressed, the abused, the victimized, the neglected, the humiliated – all who feel that God was not there when they needed him. Listen to the rest of the Psalm:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest (vv. 1-2)
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him. (vv. 6-8)
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me. (v. 14)
This is the lament song of a soul in despair. This is also the words of God in Christ.
In Christ, God knows what it is like to be abandoned, betrayed, tortured, humiliated, blamed, and executed.
Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the subject of personal betrayal: his best friends and students ran, denied him, and even received money to betray him.
Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the victim of religious corruption and abuse. He was accused of blasphemy for his message of forgiveness: that God is with us, sinners. He was tried falsely by corrupt priests who didn’t want their sins exposed or their power taken away. As John 8 tells us, Caiaphas, the high priest, ironically saw Jesus as his sacrifice to save their religion.
Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the target of political oppression. He was brought before the magistrate, Pilate, who ultimately cared only for order at any cost. So, he gave Jesus over to his psychotic soldiers for torture, humiliation, and finally execution by the slow death of the cross.
The cross is a rare kind of anguish. It is the slow death by bleeding out from the torture and nails. Hanging on the nails meant one’s diaphragm would be stressed, causing the person to gasp for air. The subject would hang there starving to death, slowing hallucinating in a delirium of despair as people stand there and mock. Nailed there, few pictures of the atonement render it accurately: few picture the victims unclothed and naked, exposed to desert sun that would blister exposed skin. (Ironically, no crucifix renders Jesus naked – an accurate depiction of the cross is still too scandalous, even Christians!) And the nakedness of exposure was more than physical: hanging there naked, the victim was exposed to the scoffers, jeering, removing whatever dignity remained. Jesus had the added pain and humiliation of a thorn crown pressing into his head and a sign above, mocking his claim to the throne of David.
How could God let this happen to Jesus? How could he have forsaken him? Where is God?
The answer is right there. God was right there. God was in the man who was godforsaken. God revealed that he is with those who feel forsaken by God.
Jesus, Immanuel, “God is with us,” is here as God bound to our fate, our death, our despair, our pain, our sense of the absence of God. He loves us so much he stands with us in our darkest moments.
This does not make sense by our worldly logic, but this is the logic of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well when he said, “Only a suffering God can save us.” Only love that is willing to suffer with a victim, feeling their pain, willing to take their pain as his own, can disarm the anguish of suffering.
Jesus cried out, “My God why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus deserved justice’s vindication, but he gave it up to live in solidarity with those whom justice has forgotten.
Jesus deserved the throne room of heaven, but chose a crown of thorns.
Jesus deserved to inhabit heaven, but instead he chose to harrow hell.
So, we return to our Holocaust anecdote: Where was God as an innocent man died in the gallows of the Holocaust?
God was with that dying man. He was in that dying man. He was dying for that dying man. God is that dying man, “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).
God did die that day, but not in the sense that would lead us to atheism.
God did die that day, because he is love; he is suffering love; he is a God that refuses be far away from those who feel forsaken.
God refused to stand far off as his beloved children suffered. It is that same refusal of a God that chooses to suffer with us that refuses to leave suffering forever forsaken in our broken world. If God suffers with us, we know that God did not cause our suffering. If God suffers with us, we also know that he would not will this suffering to be without end. A God of love is a God of hope for us.
We know this because three days after the cross, Christ rose from the grave. Suffering will stop because the cross leads to resurrection.
So the Psalmist affirms in his suffering that one day…
The poor [i.e. the oppressed, the abused, the abandoned] will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations. (vv. 26-28)
There will be a day when suffering stops, when tears are wiped away, when hunger is satisfied, when wounds are healed, when pain turns to praise, when repentance and reconciliation reigns.
There will be a day of perfect justice, perfect mercy, and perfect peace.
That day is coming because the God who died on the cross, rose from the grave. Death could not change the impassible character of a God who is boundless life.
The cry of the cross was answered with the triumphant joy of resurrection. Let’s pray…
We ask with Jesus sometimes, “Why have you forsaken us? Why all the injustice? Why all the destruction? Where are you?”
God, remind our broken souls that you were with us in the times that seems like you were absent. Help us to look to Jesus and trust that you are not far off. You are with us. You are for us. You bear our pain.
You did not abandon us as you did not abandon Christ. Soften our hearts to let go of that pain and anguish, knowing that you have already taken on that pain in the cross.
Lord, allow the wounds of our past to heal in the same way the cries of Golgotha were answered with the resurrection.
Allow the cross and resurrection to inspire us. Give us the grace to live out what your promises demands. Convict us of the courage to confront the injustice of life with Jesus’ innocence. Convict us of the empathy to confront the suffering of this world with Jesus’ solidarity. We pledge to act in trust, compassion, and hope, knowing that you will restore all things.
This is a reflection I wrote back in 2011, when my first son, Rowan, was born. It is, as I call it, a “theo-poetic” reflection, as I could not help but think about the grandness of this event as connected with faith in God.
Some would question whether fatherhood is a valid impetus for religious reflection. What do the two have to do with each other? I am of the opinion that even an atheist, when gripped with the beauty of life’s greatest moments ultimately resort to religious-like vocabulary: words of transcendence like “sublime” or even, “sacred.” There is a reason why the Hebrew prophets were not scientists or philosophers – those who think the mysteries of life can be objectified, scrutinized, and exhausted, those that naively hold that thought begins in doubt and ends in certainty rather than beginning and ending in wonder. Rather, all of the prophets were poets.
Many know their fathers as appearing cold and silent, perpetually poker-faced. After my son was born, my wife turned to me wondering why I did not cry at the sight of my son. I said that I did not know. I almost felt ashamed that I did not. Could I be that emotionless? However, as I reflect on this, and many of the powerful moments of my life, I have found that there are, for me, moments so profound that their magnitude invokes such a complex polyphony of emotions, our bodies do not know how to express one where our minds are wrestling with many. It is not that men are emotionless or emotionally shallow (as some have said), it is, I think, that sometimes we are so complicated, no one expression of emotion does justice. Thus, we appear reductionistically simple.
For this reason the Christian scriptures were not written as pure historical reports, logical propositions, and empirical data – objective yet dry, stale, and irrelevant – but rather as narratives, poetry, proverbs, and epistles – subjective, personal, and thus, real and relevant. Poetry is the enemy of science, as science accuses poetry of un-realism, yet it is poetry that seems to come to grip with what reality is for the human experience more than science. In French, the same word is shared for an account of history and a story, l’histoire, as it is understood that in order to communicate the flavor of life’s memories accurately, one must ironically use the metaphor, forsaking the demands of the factual in order to fulfill it and employing the rich meanings found typically in fiction. The wondrous thing about poetic reflection is that it is the attempt to wrestle into words the things that matter most to us, yet render us silent and speechless.
It is a strange wordless feeling becoming a father. Watching my wife’s pregnancy was just that: watching, a position that intrinsically predisposes a father to a sense of aloofness. Another’s pregnancy, for all its power to produce the sense of maternity, is no process to prepare for one’s own paternity: no inherent connection is formed between father and fetus, no nesting instinct clicks on automatically. A guy does not spend his childhood unwittingly rehearsing for childcare with his toys and their many nursery related accessories. Compared to the astounding ability to produce life from within oneself, to shift seamlessly and intrinsically into a parental-consciousness, men are left feeling as the “weaker sex.” Fatherhood, at least in its initial impulse, far from its place in perceived male headship, subverts the great chains of social hierarchy – hierarchy with all its promise of strength and security – that we as men wish to remain unthreatened.
I take Meagan in to be induced on the evening of Good Friday. We stay the night for observation. I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep: part anticipation part the stiff hospital chair-bed-thing is not actually suitable for sleeping.
Then the labor happens in the morning, Easter Saturday, April 23. Trumpets from heaven might have well of blasted: all the signs were there, all of it expected, however, an urgency sweeps over you that makes you feel you were never ready for what is to come. All preparations feel illusory and inadequate. It is the eschaton of my life, as I know it.
Moments become eternal as memory fragments into snap-shots that somehow also bleed together like a long exposure photograph: At the hospital, Cervidil administered, epidural, lunch from the Hospital’s Subway, contractions set in, the movie Ben-Hur plays in the background, cervix is fully dilated and ready to push. I look at my watch, its 4:25. Ben-Hur is at the chariot race scene. I hold Meagan’s hand. I hold her leg. Meagan’s mother, on the other side, does the same. Breathe. Push. Pause. Breathe. Push. Pause. I see the head.
I am not going to lie, it is gross. Life in it’s most raw forms, we often find disgusting; without all our prim and proper adornments to shield ourselves from the overwhelmingly messy purity that life is, we find it scary before we can properly appreciate it as sacred.
A haze of helplessness, ignorance, and anxiety from watching my wife have contractions, have pain, have labor, have something I have never witnessed before and can never understand, leaves me unsure of what is going on, what I should be doing, what I could even do at all. Men are supposed to “fix things.” I don’t know what to do. I say, “Good job,” as if I am the expert, as if I am not feeling awkwardly pathetic.
It all comes to the pivotal moment I see the little body and the loud cries begin. The sur-reality of labor splits sunder by the sharpness of the in-breaking reality of delivery. Adventus at 4:57.
The image behind the shadowy ultra-sound phantasms and amorphous movements within the belly manifests itself for the first time in one tiny distinct form: the crying naked body of a tiny baby boy. The tohu-wa-bohu of childlessness break by the bara of conception, that leads to the badal and miqveh of pregnancy, and culminates in the final barak of birth.
I give my wife a kiss, no longer simply between two lovers, but from the father to the mother of our child. A mature love is affirmed, love that culminated in new live, a new journey: our family. I hold my wife, my wife holds the baby, the baby holds my hand. Bone of my bone holding flesh of my flesh: we are three, yet, in love, we are one.
We named him Rowan Albert Boersma, Albert after my dad, John Albert Boersma. However, I was so tired after the birth that when I called my family to tell them the news, I told them the wrong name! It was the most pleasant point of exhaustion, I’ve ever felt!
I take my son in my arms and I look at him, and he opens his eyes and stares at me. Some refer to a religious experience as an “I-Thou” encounter, the finite “I” encountering God’s absolute “Thou.” The presence of the infinite being produces a sense of being infinitesimal, under the weight of the wonder of that which is Wholly Other. To hold my son for the first time is an similarly unspeakable feeling, apophatic yet oddly inverse: I feel like the thou, staring down at this being that is in my “image and likeness,” this person that is utterly dependent on my providence: so small, so fragile, so vulnerable, so innocent, but above all else, just so. With all that I am, I pronounce blessing on this being: I see him as “very good.” His finger reaches out and touches my finger in Michelangelo-esque sublimity.
As I sense myself as the Thou, the child becomes the I. And thus, I see myself in something other than me. In doing so, eye to eye, I sees I, self-hood is seen in another and otherness in self, an infinite reciprocal circle of identity and alterity. A type of self-transcendence occurs. The I-Thou reverses as I stand before a new tiny Thou. All senses of deity, the feeling of being bigger than you have ever been, paradoxically permeates with the sense of being smaller than you ever have been, feeling the full weight of fatherhood, the magnitude of responsibility, and the fear of innumerable potentialities of failure. The future in all its awesome potentiality presents itself, simultaneously dazzling as dangerous.
In holding that child for the first time, with the instantaneous love, you feel that you are more sure about what is right in the world than ever before, yet at the same time the most unsure. With love, an kenotic agape occurs as someone other than yourself becomes the measure of your essence. As you love this little someone, you see yourself in them, and your own idenity as a loving person becomes bound to them, covenantally. You bind your self-hood to something other than yourself, freely allowing yourself to be taken hostage to this someone that you know has the uncontrollable judgment to pronounce you a success or a failure in your task of loving, in your ability to be loving. The certainty in love appears also as the greatest risk. For those that define masculinity as a man’s self-sufficiency, power, and ability, fatherhood appears as a threat-to more than a fulfillment-of manhood.
Is this what God felt like as he beheld Adam? Is this what the Father felt as he looked down upon Christ lying in a manger? Through the divine tzimtzum, is this the risk of God’s essence as love entails as he constantly proclaims to his children, those other than himself yet from himself? Is this the mystery of God’s promise and proclamation to all humans, when he says, “I am love; I created you from love; I love you; I will always love you”? Is it in the finite response of gratitude for God’s love that God’s infinity is realized? Did God, as a being whose supreme ontological predicate is love, risk his very deity in the act of creating humans? It is only when every “knee bows and tongue confesses” the Spirit’s love, Christ’s lordship, and the Father’s paternity that God will truly be “all in all.” The marvel of God’s sovereignty is his willful vulnerability.
How can God be vulnerable? In Greek mythology, Cronus the Titan devours his children so that none can challenge his sovereignty. Zeus the all powerful, Cronus’ son, slays his father, only to become an absent uncaring father himself to myriads of bastard children of the women he seduced. He, the “father” of all gods, is a god that intervenes to win wars for his subjects – wielding the symbol of his power: the lighting bolt – only for the profit of more temples, more worship, more reputation, more fear of his might. The gods of the Greeks were defined as timeless, impassible, unchangeable, omnipotent and omniscient. And because of this, the Greeks logically concluded, in all their metaphysical sophistication, that the gods do not care about us. They must not care, or else they would not be gods! To care is to be weak. This is what the world conceives of as divinity: power and control.
Some wonder why an infinite deity would choose to identify himself as gendered and allow himself to be named by his people as “our father” (although there are many parts of scripture, I should point out, where God is depicted as motherly too), yet everywhere in our world we see absent fathers – people, perhaps, afraid of the risk of love – broken homes, abandonment, even abuse. And yet in our darkest moments something, someone, beyond all our experience, beyond all notions of how the world is, pierces the veil of despair and shines through in glorious consolation: God as love appears as the one that never abandons, always keeps his promises, always protects, is always proud, is always daring to love.
The God who identifies himself with the stories retold by the community that claims their brother is Christ is a God that we profess does nothing like what a god is expected to do: he comes into history, changes himself into a sacrifice, suffers with us, becomes weak and helpless choosing powerlessness over violence, chooses compassion over wrath, and even is said to have become the very thing God is not: the misery of sin and death. Though the vile yet beautiful cross – the symbol of the Christian God’s awesome ability – all this was done to say to all the fatherless: to all victims those crying out for rescuing, to all the abandoned that will never understand themselves as being worthy of a father’s proud smile. All this to say to all people: you have a father! Daddy loves you. He is proud of you. He will rescue you. He is never going to leave you.
Indeed, no psychological projection, no philosophical system, no misguided mythology constructed by human minds could invent the notion that a God would choose to use masculine language to define his magnificent characteristics yet fundamentally in his very essence, in his very being and becoming, be something so unbecoming of the impassible power and sovereign invulnerability of our notion of “male” deity, that is, the unfathomable and ineffable reality that God is love.
Hearing my crying child, holding him for the first time, and not knowing what to do to end the crying is an absolutely terrifying experience. Something so small renders someone so much older, bigger, and more capable that itself, ultimately incapable: omnipotence dissolves into omni-incompetence. However, he calms down and sleeps sweetly, and I pause to take in the strange soothing fragrance of a new born baby at peace on my chest, his soft head against my cheek. We both rest, I in pride and Rowan in purity. I think to myself that this is how God must have felt on the seventh day. Shalom, the peace that all existence strives for, engulfs us.
I use the blue musical teddy bear to comfort him, the same one my father used to comfort me. Now I understand what my parents felt, and I regret every moment that I ever took their love for granted. My father has passed away, my mother also, yet I am here. I say, “Daddy is here. Daddy is never going to leave you.” A generation passes, a generation comes, and yet in the flux of life’s frailty, for all its uncertainty, love is what remains eternally and assuredly the same. Death is no competitor to the renewing power of life through love. The “risk” of becoming a father, love’s risk of being inadequate, vulnerable, and the potentially a failure, in turn, is then what becomes illusory, dissolving into epiphany, as love’s jeopardy becomes life’s victory, as love demonstrates itself as the essence of immortality, as love demonstrates that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, never ends and never fails.”