“GOOD” FRIDAY?

I like movies that deal with a relatively innocent individual who ends up being attacked unjustly by some other individual, group or shadowy organization.  Such stories are predictable:  a peaceful life is disrupted, the protagonist turns out to be a retired expert at martial arts, guerilla warfare, improvised weapons manufacturing who has access to unlimited funds, fast cars and airplanes (along with the occasional tank and ballistic missile) and who knows people who freely and quickly fill him (generally it is a “he” in these movies) in on all sorts of top secret details that he needs to know.

Armed with his skills, money, resources and intel,  he sets out to destroy the villains, rescue the lady and get his life back.  We expect that he will be beaten several times, trapped in an inescapable trap, shot and be involved in at least one car chase. At some point, he will appear to be defeated, maybe even killed. But at some point, he will make a comeback–and he will win.  The bad guys will be destroyed in appropriately violent ways and the hero and his new found (or returned) love will settle back down in their peaceful life, at least until the sequel.

I like the movies and the stories because they are predictable, they have car chases, they have improbable feats of “skill”, and because the good guy wins no matter what the odds are.  No matter how evil the antagonist; no matter how powerful the opposition group; no matter how high in the government the shadowy organization reaches, the hero wins.  And it may be that this appreciation of that particular media genre comes from my faith.

I don’t think it comes because I see myself as the faith equivalent of the movie hero–far from it.  If I were in the movie, I would likely be the innocent, uninvolved driver whose car is the first one run off the road in the car chase–and I wouldn’t even be the one that gets to take flight and land in a tree or someone’s dining room.  No, I think the reason my faith gets tied up in this sort of movies is that my faith is based on the biggest version of this story.

Jesus’ story has it all, except for the car chase.  A quiet hero minding his own business who attracts the attention of a powerful organization who sets out to destroy him; some serious injustice and conspiracy; a betrayal; a beating–and in the end, an execution.  But where this story parts company with the movies is that this is a real execution, not something thrown together with special effects, top secret medications and covert assistants in the conspiracy.  Jesus dies and the bad guys sit around congratulating themselves on their power and ability to deal with issues.

All this in less than a week–by Friday, the conspirators are ready for a break and settle down to enjoy the holiday.  Jesus is dead; the story is over–roll the credits.  This is not a good movie–or a good day.

Of course, we know the end of the story.  Jesus is the ultimate hero who defeats even death.  The whole story gets turned around because everything that the bad guys did was part of the plan from the beginning.  Jesus dies–but for the story to end the way it is supposed to end, he has to die.  The conspiracy really only does what Jesus knows they are going to do–he uses their free choices to bring about his end.

And that is why a day filled with hatred, injustice, evil conspiracies, betrayals, denials, torture and anything else that our all too human bent towards evil can come up with becomes “Good Friday”.  It isn’t good because of what happens that day–it becomes good because of the way God transforms the evil of the day into the ultimate good.  Good Friday is only good because of Easter Sunday, the day when the ultimate hero stages the ultimate comeback for the ultimate good.

Good Friday shows us how God takes on the absolute worst that we human beings have to offer and overcome it with the absolute best that he can offer–the power of his unlimited love and grace.  Even though there isn’t a car chase, it is still without question the best hero story of all time.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHOCOLATE BUNNIES OR EXECUTIONS?

            As secularized religious holidays go, Easter really doesn’t measure up to the standard set by Christmas.  Christmas gets our whole western culture looking at religious themes.  If we aren’t seeing manger scenes everywhere, we are hearing about court battles to prevent or allow them.  We even get treated to religiously themes songs in various media outlets.

But Easter, well, Easter is a different kind of holiday.  Then whole season deals with stuff that most of our culture–well, most of most cultures–find unpleasant.  Easter puts the focus on things like political and religious corruption.  It deals with false arrest and torture.  It tells the story of a good man being legally, physically and emotionally brutalized for political reasons.  And then to make matters  worse, the man dies.  We could probably deal with the story as a culture if Jesus suddenly turns on his captors and using some swift and skillful Ninja moves, puts his captors in their place.

But Jesus isn’t some movie hero.  He feels the weight of authority and that authority wins–Jesus dies after a painful and sadistic process designed to not only kill the victim but also demoralize anyone nearby.  Crucifixion was Rome’s way of telling everyone that they had better watch their step or else–and the “or else” was regularly exercised along the public highways.

Compared to a baby being born in a stable with angels and cuddly lambs, this story really doesn’t cut it for our society.  That is probably why our culture has tended to ignore the basic Easter story in  favour of bunnies, chicks and a ton of candy.  Those sell better.  Eating a chocolate Easter bunny is a whole lot more fun that contemplating a cruel and vicious execution and the death of a popular but defeated hero.

Maybe we need to change the story to make it more acceptable to our culture.  We could, for example, talk about Jesus as a great teacher, a humanitarian whose words and deeds serve to inspire us even though he is dead.  If we emphasise that side, we don’t have to deal with the sordid and messy details like death and all that.  Jesus could join the ranks of people such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.  We could use Easter to celebrate the words of Jesus and pledge to make the world a better place by trying to follow some of his teachings–and still enjoy all the candy.

The words of Jesus are important.  The things he did are important.  But in the end, without the cross and the tomb which becomes empty, his story is somewhat pointless and meaningless.  And that is because underneath the whole story is a much deeper, much more unpleasant truth that our culture simply doesn’t want to see or deal with.

This deep and unpleasant truth concerns us as human beings.  Easter is built on the fact that we are not what we think we are and we are not what we were meant to be.  Easter reminds us that we are all flawed and imperfect beings who got ourselves into a mess that we can’t get ourselves out of and need serious help.

Easter tells us that we are as much a part of the corrupt, self-serving political-religious machine that executed Jesus as Pilate and the chief priest and the fickle crowed who praised on Palm Sunday and jeered on Good Friday.  We are those people and they are us–we are all tainted and damaged–we are all both the perpetrators and victims of sin, both ours and everyone else’s’.  This inconvenient truth poses problems for most people.  We generally recognize the reality of sin but want sin to be something we see on TV from some distant place were really evil people do terrible things.  We don’t want sin  to be something we do and we definitely don’t want it to be something serious enough that Jesus needs to go through all that cruelty and pain and injustice because of us.

But that is the story.  That is the reality.  And if most people prefer a chocolate bunny to this real story, that is understandable–not right but understandable.  We all tend to run away from what we don’t like–a good diversion beats reality hands down in our culture.

As for me–well, I like a chocolate bunny now and then–but don’t really need it.  I hate the idea of a crucifixion and unjust death–but boy do I need the resurrection and the forgiveness and acceptance that the risen, living Christ provides.

May the peace of God be with you.

ONE MORE RULE

Way back when I was a theology student, one of the strongest rules I learned came from the professor teaching us pastoral counselling.  Our group was assigned to do our practical work in a long term care hospital specifically for people with chronic lung problems.  During our initial briefing, we were given this basic and most important rule: “Don’t sit on the patient’s hospital bed.”  This was undoubtedly an important rule–sitting on the bed while convenient for the visitor did tend to make movements that upset the patient and likely increased the possibility of catching something from or giving something to the patient.  I have tended to be pretty good about obeying that rule.

But an even more important rule for me has always been concerned with the love of God.  His rule is that he loves me unconditionally and permanently.  Nothing can make God love me more or less.  His love for me–and the rest of humanity–is basic and unchanging, a constant in the ever-changing universe that we inhabit.

This is one rule that I have no interest in challenging or changing.  But as I look at the church and how we have approached this rule over the years, I discover that unfortunately, none of us in the Christian faith has been all that great about keeping the reality of this foundational rule in front of us.  Some of what I read, hear, see and occasionally practise myself suggests that the rule about God’s absolute and unconditional love is open to flexible application.

There is a church group, for example that regularly proclaims that God hates homosexuals, although they prefer to use a derogatory term for homosexuals.  I have heard Christians suggest that we need to do something about Muslims because God doesn’t love them.  I know of believers who are anti-immigrant because it seems that to them, the love of God doesn’t apply to immigrants, at least from some places and from some historical periods.

There are also the traditional theological flash points in our faith where believers line up and call names or worse, on the assumption that God can’t really love someone who doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible or the right of homosexual couples to be legally married.  The aura of anger, hatred and nastiness seen in such confrontations brings into serious question the reality of God’s universal and unending love.

But if this one basic and foundational rule isn’t true or is open to interpretation or is seriously flexible, none of us has a chance.  If that rule that God loves all equally and totally isn’t true, then there is really no hope for any of us, given the reality that none of us is perfect.  I think we sometimes get so focused on pointing out the flaws and imperfections of other people that we forget to look at the reality of our own.   And if we do look at our own imperfections, they are obviously relatively minor, more like endearing quirks than actual sins and imperfections.

Maybe that is inflexible rule number 2:  none of us is perfect.   We are all in some way shape or form tainted by our personal experience of rebellion against God, which is what the Bible calls sin.  And because we are all in that category, we all need rule number one to be true:  we need God to love us no matter what.

And if loving us no matter what is God’s number one personal rule, then we who claim to follow God through Jesus probably need to put a whole lot more effort into understanding, following and showing that rule.  Now, keep in mind that God isn’t going to love us more if we do a good job of this nor is he going to love us less if we do a poor job of this.  He is going to love us with his pure, unending and unlimited love, just the way he did before creation and just the way he will continue to do for all eternity.

I may not always like the rules that limit how fast I can drive; I may get annoyed by the rule that says I need to wear a tie in topical heat; I may find the rules about standing in line irksome when I could easily push people out of my way–but this rule, the rule about God’s unlimited, unending, unchanging, eternal love–that rule I like and am glad that nothing in all creation can change it.

May the peace of God be with you.

I DESERVE THIS

            I was doing the supper dishes a while ago and was watching the 6:00 news as I worked–if I sit to watch the news at that time, it becomes the 6:00 snooze.  Anyway, one item concerned a complaint an individual was making about a funeral or rather his experience associated with the funeral.  I gave this more than the usual half-focus since as a pastor in small, aging rural communities, funerals are a bigger part of my life than that of most other people except for funeral directors.

According to the news report, he and his family arrived at the funeral location a bit late and discovered to their dismay that there were no parking spots handy.  So, he dropped off his passengers and set out to find a parking spot.  After the funeral, he went to retrieve the car and found that it had been clamped and would not be released until he paid a fine.  The news report went on to tell how upset he was, how unfair he felt this was, that he was attending a funeral and should have been shown some compassion.

While the news report was fairly obviously slanted in favour of the person complaining, they did at least point out that the man had decided to park in a private for profit parking lot that had very large and very prominent signs telling people it was only for permit holders and that violators would be clamped and fined.  Returning to find the car clamped and a fine being levied shouldn’t have been a surprise to the man in the story.  But it obviously was–he felt that he should be shown special consideration because he was attending a funeral.

The story set off a chain of thought in my mind.  We live in a culture where we are becoming more and more convinced that we are all an exception to the rule and should all be given special consideration.  There are rules and regulations and standards–but they simply shouldn’t apply to me.  And in a lot of cases, I am not concerned about this trend–some rules, regulations and standards are wrong and unjust and unfair and need to be challenged and changed.

I was born left-handed and had I been born just a few years earlier, I might have been forced to become right-handed, no matter that the change would likely have caused some physical and even psychological problems.  When the rules and regulations and standards are obviously affecting the freedom and equality of individuals and groups, they need to change.

But that is a different issue from the attitude of entitlement that suggests that everyone is an exception to everything.  It may sound like I am just an old-fashioned ranting Baptist preacher but that route is exactly the route that the first man and woman followed and is at the root of all human sin–we think we are important enough to be an exception to every rule and regulation and standard.  In Genesis 2.16-17, God made one rule for humanity–they were not to eat from a certain tree.  According to the story, at that point humanity consisted of one man and one woman, who ultimately decided that they were an exception to the rule,

I break rules a lot–in my writing, I have been known to deliberatively split infinitives; in my driving, I occasionally drive too fast; in my work, I often challenge and go against the accepted approach to church activity.  Sometimes, I do this because it makes sense.  Sometimes, I do this because it needs to be done.  Sometimes, I do it because I don’t know the rule.  But I decided a long time ago that when I break the rules, I need to be willing to accept the consequences. As an old prison adage puts it, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”

So, if and when I get caught for speeding, I won’t argue–I deserve the ticket because I chose to do something wrong.  And if I am caught speeding while on my way to a funeral, well, that is my problem.  Trying to make myself an exception to everything is really only the same thing Adam and Eve did and we all know that that didn’t work out well for anyone.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NOT VERY CHRISTIAN DRIVER

This is a too common and too true story about me.  I am driving on a highway going somewhere.  I have plenty of time to get where I am going–if I am driving, there will be lots of time because I always build into the trip time to stop for coffee, take a bathroom break, change a flat or write a book.  But as I am driving along at my desired speed (which won’t be mentioned to avoid self-incrimination), I pull up behind someone going slower that I want to go.

To make matters worse, it is impossible to pass the person immediately.  There is too much on-coming traffic or no passing lane or the road conditions are poor.  Whatever the reason, I am stuck behind the slower driver, forced to slow down and drive as what I consider a less than optimal speed.  Now, remember, I am not going to be late–I have built in enough time for the trip so that I could probably walk and still make it on time.

My response to the situation is to get very frustrated.  The longer I am behind the slow driver, the more frustrated I get.  When I run the route in my mind, I get even more frustrated when I realize that the next best passing spot is at least 3 minutes away–an eternity at this point.  Then, almost inevitably, I begin to question the sanity of the other driver, wondering why they are even allowed to be on the road, questioning what right they have to be there.  Soon, I wonder who they bribed to get a driver’s license–obviously someone so poor at driving couldn’t have actually passed a driving test.   Finally, the passing zone comes and I get by, making sure to think nasty thoughts about the other driver, his/her family, the driving instructor and inspector and anyone else as well on the way by.

I am not overly Christian when I drive, something that I have been becoming more and more aware of.  And when I am honest, I discover lots of other areas in my life where my Christian faith is set on the shelf while I deal with things in alternative ways.  I get very angry with pastors who abuse churches; I get incredibly judgemental and vengeful towards people who abuse children;  when I see intolerance, I become incredibly intolerant; hearing someone insult and denigrate another group of people caused me to become very insulting and denigrating towards them.

I could take some of the sting out of these revelations by suggesting that I am no different than anyone else but as tempting as that it, and as common as it is, being in the same bad category as a lot of other people doesn’t really deal with the fact that there are large areas of my life that have only a distant acquaintance with my Christian faith.  Knowing that nobody is perfect and that I am in good company doesn’t alter the fact that I am a sinner–nor does it make the confession any easier.

The essential struggle for me–and most other believers–is to deal with the reality that we aren’t what God meant us to be.  I am pretty sure that God’s original design plans for me didn’t include me being a rude, impatient and insulting driver.  I am equally convinced that somewhere in God’s blueprint for me was a specification for how I would drive as a person of faith.  In fact, I actually have read some of those specifications.  The design specs require Christian drivers to be kind, not rude, not self-seeking and not easily angered (I Corinthians 13).

I actually teach those design specifications to others–and get paid for it.  Granted, as a part-time pastor for small, struggling rural congregations,  I am not getting paid big bucks, but I am getting paid to tell other people how to drive as a Christian.  Some of the people paying me actually listen to me and maybe some of them are actually becoming more Christian in their driving.

I  need to listen to my own sermons–I need to practise what I preach.  I know that and have known that forever but every now and then, I need to remind myself that I need the lessons as well and that I need to grow in faith and learn how to integrate my faith into more and more of my life.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTEN TO ME!

We live in a world where we are surrounded by sound and pictures and videos–people have more methods of communicating than ever before.  The internet has added another layer of communication possibilities which allows people to communicate as never before–real-time, as it happens reports on everything potentially available to everyone, or at least to everyone with internet.

It seems like we human beings have a desperate need to communicate with each other.  We want people to know what we had for supper, where we went for vacation, how the cancer treatment is going, when the new job starts, who we care about.  And so we communicate:  we talk, we post, we upload, we visit coffee shops, we stop the pastor on the way to the pulpit.  We want to communicate and so except for a few people even more introverted that me, we look for any possible way of communicating.

But the weakness in the whole thing is that we often forget that communication is a two way process.  Communication is more than just someone speaking or writing or posting or uploading a video.  The communication process consists of me sending a message and you receiving that message and letting me know that you have received the message.  Unfortunately, my admittedly biased impression is that we all want to do the first part but don’t want to do the second part.

One somewhat cynical description of general conversation that I ran into a while ago says, “When you are talking, I am thinking about what I want to say next and wishing you would stop talking so I can say it.”  As a pastor and counsellor, one of the most common things I hear from people struggling with some issue is that no one will listen to them.  Not feeling that we have been heard is one of the great causes of pain in our culture.

As Christians, this is something that we need to pay attention to.  Learning to listen to others is a major part of the practical expression of our faith.  Ours is a community based faith and to be a healthy community, we need to be willing and able to listen to each other.  While there are some who are gifted in listening, either by birth or because of the Holy Spirit, we can all learn to listen better.  Part of loving our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22.39) consists of listening to our neighbour as we would like to be listened to.

So, how do we listen? Well, I think most of us would be wise to begin with some prayer.  We could pray a prayer of confession, openly admitting to God that we don’t listen very well.  The small percentage of the population who does listen well could still benefit from this prayer because even the best listeners aren’t perfect.

We can follow that prayer with a prayer for enlightenment–part of the task of the Holy Spirit is to teach us what we need to know (John 14.26)–and how to listen is something that we all need to know.  And then we can follow that with a prayer for the discipline to actually practise good listening skills.

It should be clear that I am approaching our poor listening skills as a spiritual problem.  The difficulty we have in listening to others seems to me to point directly to the self-focus that is the root of all sin.  We can’t see beyond ourselves and that means we can’t hear beyond ourselves.  Overcoming a lack of ability to listen is the same as overcoming any sin–we need to involve God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the process.

I am not totally sure that I am comfortable seeing my inability to listen to others as a sin–I would rather see it as a result of my introversion or my need to focus on getting ready for worship or being tired or having something important on my mind or needing someone to listen to me for a change.  But in the end, when I don’t have time or space or interest in  listening to someone else, it is because I am focused on my own stuff.  And at times, that might be okay–but when I consistently don’t listen to others, that slips into sin and I need God’s help to deal with that.

May the peace of God be with you.

DENYING SELF

I am the pastor of small, rural congregations.  All of our buildings are old–at least 100 years and one is getting close to 200.  While all have been updated and upgraded to some extent with new-fangled things like electricity and somewhat efficient heating systems–a couple of them even have restrooms–they are still old buildings, designed and built in a era when personal comfort was something looked on with great suspicion.  People who wanted to be comfortable when worshipping God were soft and probably in serious danger of committing sin.

While I sometimes joke with people that the seats in our old buildings were designed specifically to be uncomfortable, I think that is much more a reality than a joke.  The Christian church has a long history of being at odds with comfort and ease.  I think this comes out of a desire to take seriously the words of Jesus that we find in Matthew 16.24, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (NIV)  In order to enable people to take up their cross, the church has perfected many ways of helping people deny themselves.

The seats in our older church buildings are a prime example, although seats themselves, no matter how uncomfortable, would have been seen as something of a temptation to an earlier generation of church leaders–many early buildings didn’t have seats at all.  I mean, after all, Acts 20 tells the story of a young man named Eutychus, who was sitting down during worship and managed to fall asleep.  Standing was a much better option for some church designers when it came to imposing self-denial.

Now, as pastor, I don’t normally have to sit in the pews in our church buildings, although the chair for the preacher which I get to sit in for short periods of time is not a particularly comfortable one.  But I do have some thoughts on the whole self-denial thing, whether it is forced or voluntarily chosen.  For me, we generally start the self-denial process in the wrong place, make some wrong assumptions and then, on the basis of this, end up doing some pretty pointless things.

When we begin the process with the denial stuff, I think we are bound for trouble.  As a pastor and a counsellor, I have realized over many years of ministry that self-denial needs to begin with the self–meaning that we need to have a much better understanding of who and what we are before we begin denying ourselves or others than we normally do.

Often, we are taught that we are worthless, evil and sinful from the moment we are conceived.  We are encouraged to see ourselves as beings with no redeeming features–our very best is still sinful and wrong and tainted and hopelessly evil.  And while that may be a very common and popular conservative-leaning Christian theology, it is simply wrong.

Humans are made in the image of God.  As the Psalmist tells us, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14).  We come into the world with talents and abilities and possibilities and potentials that are divinely planned.  Certainly, we and all that we are affected by sin, both ours and the rest of the world’s.  But we don’t somehow become worthless as soon as we come into being.  We become beings whose whole life and potential is affected negatively by the reality of sin–but that doesn’t mean that we lose all the good and all the potential and all that might be.  It does mean that it will be harder to be who we were meant to be; that we probably won’t reach the heights that God planned for us; that our full potential will never be realized–but it doesn’t mean that we are worthless worms.

Before we begin denying self or giving in to the institutionally encouraged denials, we would probably be a lot further ahead emotionally and spiritually if we got to know who and what we are.  We can and need to look at how we are affected by sin–but we also need to know what we are and what we can be.  We need to be able to see what God has given us; to discover the fearful and wonderful way God has knit us together.

Before we even think about denying self, we should get to know ourselves.  After all, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves loves us as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.