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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando gives me hope

Like all of us, the shooting in Orlando has left me heartbroken.

I am not gay, I am not Muslim.  I am white, male, Christian, and heterosexual.  My family which is of mixed Scottish and Irish ancestry has been in the country so long that people have forgotten we were also once immigrants ouselves, and no one questions my right to be in this country and life my life as I see fit.  All this is to say that in all honesty, I have absolutely no idea what it feels like to be personally marginalized, oppressed or abused for who and what I am.

But nonetheless, I am heartbroken and I grieve for the dead and wounded, and I grieve for and with the gay and Muslim communities who must now and will continue to live with consequences of this event, and the consequences of events like it that happen all too often to marginalized groups all over the world.

The internet can be a terribly place when something like this happens, simply because it seems like most people are out to tear off scabs, point fingers or say "I told you so".

Those who are already against Islam take it as an opportunity to pillory Muslims.

Those who are already against religion pillory all religions and all religious folks.

Those who are already anti-gun pillory gun laws and gun owners.

People pillory the justice system for not keeping better tabs.

People blame our medical system for failing to identify and treat mental illness.

People post that they are praying, others criticize prayer as useless.

We are all left grasping at threads, trying to make sense of a tragedy that is by definition senseless.  We are left trying to find the root cause, trying to find something or someone to blame, and so we blame Muslims, religion, guns, etc.  This is human.  We are a species of problem solvers, gifted with intellect, and for many of us, finding "a solution" or "a reason" distracts us and drives the overwhelming pain we actually feel deeper down inside us.

I am not a sociologist, but I suspect that the problem is more complex than any one of the issues listed above.  I have heard all the arguments, and my intention is not to engage with them because I really don't think there is any point.

Yes, you could eliminate guns, but hatred will still find a way to do damage.  Yes, you could eliminate religion, but people have and will continue to find reasons to hate other people.  Yes, you could tighten up surveillance, but that would be at the cost of personal freedom and liberty.  Yes, you could stop people from praying, but sometimes that is all someone has at a time like this.

But in the end, "the solution" or "the reason" does not seem to be forthcoming, and we are left with pain.

I am not the most hopeful or optimistic of people at the best of times.  It is hard for me to look at the frequency and barbarity of this and other acts like it around the world and feel like there is reason to hope.

And yet there is.

I have seen footage of people lined up around the block in Orlando, waiting to donate blood, and those people were quite obviously from many races, creeds and colours.

I have seen footage and still photos of vigils around the world.

I have seen world monuments lit up with rainbows.

I have seen people posting messages of brotherly and sisterly love addressed to the LGBTQ and Muslim communities.  I have seen both of those communities posting messages of love to one another.

I have seen people refusing to hate, refusing to isolate, refusing the seek vengeance, refusing to demonize.

I have seen people ask and be informed how they can help or be of service.

I see people reaching out to people, regardless of who they are or what demographic they correspond to.

Don't get me wrong, there is most certainly evil and hatred in the world.  But there is also great love and great hope.

I have hope.  I have hope that we will someday be able to put away hatred in every form. I have hope that people will dance again at Pulse.  I have hope that people are already dancing elsewhere.  I have hope that people are coming home to their partners and letting them know how much they are loved. I have hope that more people are learning to love than to hate because more people are teaching their kids to love than to hate.  I have hope that every group or individual who sees hatred and violence as an appropriate response to anything will see that love is and will always be more powerful and will always win.

I have hope.

The liberation of sin

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 7:36-8:3.

Like many of you I am sure, I went through a period where I didn't just drift away from the church, I rowed HARD in the opposite direction.  This started when I was a pre-teen, and there were a number of factors that contributed to this, but prominent among them being a resentment I developed to being called a "sinner".

Although I cannot remember being called a sinner to my face by anyone in particular, the gist I got from the Bible, from sermons and from Sunday School was that I was supposed to feel pretty wretched and guilty about who and what I was, and that somehow belief in God made everything ok.

I remember thinking, "You know what, screw that, I'm only 10, I haven't even had time to DO anything yet!"  And I remember thinking that my friends had done far worse things than I had ever done at that point.  OK, I may have lied to my parents a little here and there, but I knew kids who stole money off their parents dressers and filched their beer every once in a while.

So I consoled myself by looking to people who had committed worse sins than I had, thereby, some weird how, absolving myself from my own sins.

Pretty childish, huh?

I realized some time ago that this is actually a behaviour I have carried into adulthood.  The other day, my wife and I had a "discussion" because I didn't do the dishes.  I responded by accusing her of not changing the empty roll of toilet paper.  Her response stopped me dead in my tracks.  She said, "And we can talk about me after, but right now we are talking about you".

Drat.  She's smart.

I sometimes think that many of us have brought that attitude forward from childhood, particularly when it comes to the concept of sin.  Sin is not something we like to talk about in Anglican circles.  It is too Catholic or it belongs to the evangelical/pentecostal set.  It belongs to the pathologically guilt-ridden, and has no place in our "I'm ok, you're ok" generation.

I would argue that the concept of sin does belong to all of us, and that, strangely, it is a liberating concept, and I hope to clarify that here.

The Gospel passage for this week is all about sin.  It is about degrees and severity of sin, and it is about our ability or inability to acknowledge and therefore for liberated from sin.

The story focuses around a sinful woman who is reputed to have been a prostitute.  She is often named as Mary Magdalene, but recent scholarship debates that association, and this gospel passage does not name her as a prostitute or as Mary Magdalene, merely that she was "a sinner".

We can only imagine that her sins must have been great, however, because she throws herself at Jesus' feet, washed them with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints his feet with fragrant ointment.

Jesus' host, Simon the Pharisee, is skeptical of this display and derisive towards the woman.  He thinks to himself that Jesus cannot be a prophet because if he was, he would never allow this woman to touch her.  We need to understand that prostitution or any kind of sin made you ritually impure, and an observant Jew in Jesus' time was not supposed to be in contact with anyone who was obviously ritually impure.  This was partially because it was simply not in good taste to associate with sinners, but may also be because ritual impurity was considered to be almost contagious in that if you touched something or someone impure, you yourself because impure.

But Jesus turns the tables on him by telling him the parable of a moneylender who was owed money by two men.  One owed him 500 denarii, the other 50.  The moneylender forgives both debts.  "Now which of them will love him more?", Jesus asks.

"The one for whom the greater debt was canceled", answers the Pharisee.  Jesus affirms that this is the correct answer, and goes on to explain why.

This is where we need to know a little bit about ancient Jewish hospitality laws.  When someone comes to your house, what is the first thing you do?  Offer them a drink, of course.  If you forget, your guest might gossip about you at the next dinner party or around the water cooler, but that is the worst that will happen.

Hospitality was actually part of Jewish law, and failing to follow it was a sin.  After a long journey on foot in sandals in a hot, dusty climate, the first thing a host was supposed to offer his guest was water to wash his feet and a cloth to dry them.  He was also supposed to greet his guest with a kiss of peace.  In a time before deodorant, a host was also supposed to offer fragrant oil or ointment for a guest to refresh himself with.

Simon did none of these things, and Jesus points that out.  The woman, on the other hand, has done all of these things.

The point is that Simon broke the law and therefore sinned, but rather than acknowledge his own sin, he preferred to point a finger at the woman's sin, perhaps because in his mind it was more severe and glaring.

We have all heard the saying, "Clean your own side of the street".  I think this applies here.

Look, everybody does bad stuff, but if our goal is to become better and happier human beings, zeroing in on the sins of others is not the path you want to follow.  We need to look to our own sin in order to free of it, not because it makes God angry or makes him not love us, not because we are beholden to God for forgiveness, but because our own sins weigh on our consciences.  When I do something bad, I FEEL bad.  God is not even required for that.

This is why I say sin is liberating.  Not the actual act of sinning, mind you (although most of us have had our fun breaking a few rules), but the concept itself.  Because once you acknowledge it and identify the situations or the character defects (ie sins) that are preventing you from enjoying life, you can take the appropriate steps to resolve the situation or get rid of the defects.  Being free from sin is, in my opinion, less about being right with God, and more about being right with ourselves.

This is a point I think Jesus makes in this passage.  "Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.   But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little".

I had to reread that passage several times, because there was something that didn't make sense to me.  Read it again.  Doesn't it sound like Jesus got it backwards?  Doesn't it sound like it should read, "She has shown great love, hence her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.  But to him who loves little, little is forgiven"?  Doesn't make more sense to say, "The more we love, the more our sins are forgiven" as opposed to "The more our sins are forgiven, the more we love"?

It sounds almost as though Jesus is saying that those who have sinned greatly and repented of those sins are capable of loving more deeply, more profoundly than those who have not sinned and repented.  And I think in many cases this is true.

Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting we all go out and sin like mad just so we can feel more love, that's not the way it works.  I can also not be sure exactly what Jesus Christ meant when he made that statement, but I certainly can attest to the liberating feeling of coming out from under the immense weight of great sin.  In my own life and in my pastoral interaction, I have seen lives changed by the admission of problems with adultery, drugs, gambling, violence, hatred and resentment.  I have seen lives changed by a commitment to stop doing those things that profane and disrespect our very spirit, our very being.

In my experience, the deeper someone has been into the chasm of sin, the greater their love for themselves, others, life and God becomes.  This is not to say that those of us who have sinned "just a little" cannot feel this love, but if nothing else, Jesus is striking a chord of hope in this passage: no matter how far down you have gone, you can still grasp for the light.  You can still be whole and happy, joyous and free again.

But the first step, as they say, is admitting you have a problem.

I personally don't buy the concept of Original Sin, not even for a minute, but let's face it, every single one of us has done something wrong in our own lives.  We have lied, stolen, cheated, hurt others, maybe even brought violence or death upon another being.  None of us is without scar, and every single one of us has scarred another, either emotionally of physically, through our action or lack thereof.

In other words, all of are with sin.

But this is not meant to be and indictment.  Whereas there are some religious folk who will acknowledge that they are sinners and just sit around moping about it, flagellating themselves figuratively (or literally, if you are into that), the whole point is that the acknowledgment of sin is supposed to be a call to action.  A call to be free.  A call to go forth and sin no more and enjoy life free from the burden of the things that destroy and enslave us.

May we all do that today.

Monday, June 6, 2016

What is the hope that is within me?

So this weekend, I was asked a very poignant question, and that question was, "What is the hope that is within you?"

This question was asked in the context of a Deanery meeting in which we were discussing some possible restructuring of parishes, deployment of ministry, and so forth.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Anglican/Episcopal structure, for administrative and ministry purposes, each of our Dioceses (think provinces or states, depending on where you live) are further divided into Deaneries (think counties).  Each of these deaneries are then further divided into Parishes (think municipalities).  It's not the most accurate metaphor, but you get the idea.

If you follow the religious world, then you know that most of what has always been called 'mainstream religion' is on the decline in North America: the Catholic church, Anglican/Episcopal, United, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and many others have seen substantial decline in the last 50 years.  What this means is that keeping churches open and active continues to be a challenge given the cost of maintaining buildings and paying clergy.

So we as a Deanery met to address this issue and start coming up with solutions.  The facilitator of the meeting dropped that question as the last discussion point, and he suggested that we all walk away and wander around the inside or outside of the church and ponder that one for about 15 minutes before coming back to discuss it in our table groups and then bring it back to the large group.

At first, the question did not resonate with me.  I am a typical male: solution-focused and not really given over to introspection and navel-gazing, which I at first took the question to be.  Hope is not something I feel on a regular basis, and sometimes it can be hard for me to feel optimistic about the future of the church.  I know it has one, and I know that it won't look like what it looks like now, but as I do my part to help this new church emerge, it causes me anxiety if anything.

So I got to thinking about this question, and instead of looking forward (where you would naturally expect hope to reside), I looked backward, and realized I do indeed have reason to hope.

I have been pretty candid on this blog about my struggles with depression.  I have dealt with issues of grief, substance abuse, abusive relationships, and a number of other things on this blog.  I realized as I reflected on this that I have every reason to hope for the future because I had reason to hope in the past.

Let me explain, and this might be where it gets a bit weird.

I, like most people. have reached a bottom where I felt like that was it for me, I was done, there was no way I was ever going to get past this, pick myself up and get on with life.  Sparing you the details, I just thought there was no coming back from some things that had happened in my life, there was no way things were going to be okay ever again.  But by the grace of God, I got past them, I worked them out, I overcame them and I moved on.

Now don't get me wrong, I didn't exactly fall on my knees and pray or throw myself at the cross.  God and/or organized religion and I have had a rocky relationship over the years, and being the atheist that I once was, I was of course not only reluctant but downright opposed to even acknowledging a power higher than myself, much less relying on it.

It would take a long time for me to explain how things shifted for me, but suffice to say that grace entered into my life through doctors, therapists, friends and family both atheist and religious.  Gradually, my sense of impending doom shifted to one of hope and joy.

I know, cheesy religious words, but they are the words I need to use because they describe what I felt and what I feel today.

If you have ever read the Bible and looked at in a large-story-arc way, you will probably realize that the whole story is one of God saving people again and again.  Saving Noah and his family, saving the Hebrews from Egypt, bringing them into the promised land, saving them from conqueror after conqueror, and even in the times when they were in occupied territory, never abandoning them.

Yes, you can perhaps argue the miraculous nature of some of the stories, but those are not the points of the stories, and you do yourself a disservice by discarding entirely based on that alone.  The point of the Bible as a whole is not so much to be a set of rules and dogma (which of course some parts are) but it was meant to be this great story of salvation, or rescue, of love, faith and hope, of the best of our human virtues being passed down through the generations.

I have experienced rescue, love, faith, all those thing on a deeply personal level.  I have, at the lowest points in my life, met God in the faces of caring people who helped me over whatever obstacles were in my way.

I'll be honest: I have great difficulty with the concept of a personal God, an omniscient, omnipotent being who sits up there on a cloud and moves all of us around like so many chess pieces.  I do not have trouble with the concept of an immanent God who is the embodiment of love, mercy, justice, hope and compassion in the world.  No problem at all.  Because I have experienced that.

I have experienced those things in the context of a healthy Christian community.  I heard of horrible stories of judgment at the hands of Christian communities, so it is clear that they are not all created equal, but if you are part of a good one, you know the blessings that can be.  To be part of a community that supports and journeys with you, not only through the celebrations of life, but through the darker corners of life as well.

And that is my hope.  That is what I would want to pass on to my kids.  That is what I would want to pass on to future generations.  That no matter how dark it seems, that no matter how far we had drifted from our intended or ideal path, not matter how far beyond reprieve we may feel, there is always hope.  Our Christian communities are full of people who have good reason to hope.

Walk into any church, and at first glance, you might think, "These all look like pretty normal and perhaps rather dull people", but when you stop to consider that some of those people have lost parents, spouses or children; some of them were in the armed forces, police or fire services and have seen some crazy stuff; some of them have survived cancer, depression, addiction; some of them have lived through abusive relationships, divorces...well, those people are anything but normal or dull.

They are walking example of strength, resilience and hope.  I'd be willing to bet if you looked back on your life that so are you.  I bet you have been through some stuff too.

The hope that I have and that I want to share is just that: we have all seen some stuff and we are still walking, talking and functioning, thanks to the grace of God.

If you sometimes feel that there is no hope for the future, remember back to times in the past when you thought that.  It's ok to be wrong:)