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Thursday, 31 December 2015

Inspired Word for 2016

common things can contribute to jubilee
The past few days I have been pondering which word will be meaningful in ordering my life in the coming year 2016.  In 2014, the word I felt led to hold onto was "hope"; in 2015, it was "balance."  Through circumstances and a song Michael Card released with his 1994 album "Joy in the Journey," I came upon the word "Jubilee."
   Traditionally, we associate the word jubilee with celebrations of milestones like 25, 50 or 75 years for a monarch's reign or a couple's marriage.  The original meaning of this word goes back to the dense book of Leviticus, where a series of instructions is given in chapter 25 about how the Israelite people should conduct their affairs in light of the 50th year, the Year of Jubilee.  They are told that land prices should reflect the number of years until the Jubilee because in that year all land will be returned to its original ancestral owners.  Any person who had accumulated debt, which could also lead to slavery at that time, would have the debt forgiven and be released from slavery.  In addition, the people were to refrain from tilling the ground and, therefore, would eat from the abundance of food stored up from previous harvests. They were allowed to pick fruit and other produce of the land that grew up by itself.
   According to songwriter Michael Card, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Jubilee vision.  When he began his ministry in a remote synagogue in Galilee, he declared that his mission would include bringing good news to the poor, the release of captives, giving sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free.  Those who have experienced the transforming love of Jesus will set a priority on the same things.
   So, how will I apply these things in 2016? The enduring principles that come from the concept of the Year of Jubilee and that I wish to embrace are as follows:

  • I will be more aware of the fact that everything I have ultimately belongs to God and is mine to use only for a short time.  I will endeavour to hold material things loosely in order to make them available for those who need them.
  • I will further educate myself about human trafficking and bonded labour; I will join with organizations seeking to bring about freedom for modern-day slaves.
  • I know what it is like to have had debt forgiven, both monetary and spiritual.  I will aim to show that same grace to others.
  • Since jubilee has to do with resting in God's provision, I will try to live more in the present moment by being there for and loving my family and the others God has placed in my life. 

Monday, 28 December 2015

Last Look at Balance

   My "inspired word" for 2015 was "balance."  It was something I was striving for as I had various roles.  I will not pretend that I have arrived, but I have made some progress in a journey that I believe will continue into 2016 and beyond.  It seems fitting that a book I finished at the close of 2015 addresses the matter of balance, albeit in a different way.

   I'd like to spend a little time looking at another type of balance that is highlighted in a book by American columnist David Brooks entitled The Road to Character.  Borrowing from Jewish Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Brooks uses the archetypal names of Adam I and Adam II to define two distinct aspects of human beings.  Adam I, based on the account of creation in Genesis 1, represents humans in relation to the broader environment in which they have been placed.  God gives mankind (both male and female) authority over the other creatures and a task to care for their garden domain.  In contrast, Genesis 2 gives detail about the relational aspects of human kind: how Adam II relates to his wife and to his Maker.  Adam II involves the heart and soul of a person and the development of inner character.
   The Road to Character is not written as a biblical commentary.  Rather, Brooks explores cultural trends and delves into the lives of particular people who demonstrated solid moral character, even if it came at the expense of worldly definitions of "success" and "happiness."  He argues that in the present time (and since about 1945), people in the West have become more concerned about cultivating Adam I traits (getting more education, landing promotions, increasing their salaries, amassing material possessions, working overtime, being successful)  at the expense of Adam II. Having a strong moral compass, which exhibits itself in loyalty to spouse and family, self-discipline, genuine humility and a coherent spiritual awareness, is increasingly rare among the people who are held in high esteem. Brooks asserts:

"It's probably necessary to reassert a balance between Adam I and Adam II and to understand that if anything, Adam II is more important than Adam I" (page 260).
   Brooks brings this point home by aligning Adam I with a person's resume or CV: the record of education, employment and successes that tells only a part of who you are.   Adam II includes the things said about you in a eulogy at your funeral.  These are the qualities one was known for in terms of relationships and consistent, admirable qualities that will be missed the most.

   The persons I most admire, the people I know and love the most are not the ones who were out to conquer the world or who grasped at every opportunity to make personal gains.  No, they were my humble grandparents, who simply and faithfully went about the tasks God had placed before them. They lived without fanfare, leaving behind minimal assets; however, the spiritual heritage they left for me continues to guide me every day.  My parents are still living, and they have likewise chosen the path of humility; they are realistic about human nature but not bitter or hostile to anyone.  Their material success was received as a blessing on their labours; it was shared and never hoarded.  The short biographies that Brooks includes in The Road to Character are an interesting supplement for me, but I am grateful for the living examples of character I will never forget.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

True Humanity

   If we believe that Jesus came into the world, in part, to live the life of a perfect human being, then even his birth tells us something about what is good about being human.  That's where I will begin in this reflection.

  • Jesus was born as helpless and dependent as any infant.  Being helpless and dependent is part of being human.  It occurs early in life; it often occurs at the end of life.  For some dear human beings, helplessness and dependency accompany them their entire journey of life.  However, it does not make them less human.  Various forms of vulnerability are part of our humanity, and we should not see them in and of themselves as things to avoid at all costs.  
  • Jesus set aside his power [1] when it would make him selfish.  When I use the word power here, it includes such things as the potential for fame, knowledge and wisdom, ability to do miracles, authority over angels, and privilege as the son of God.  He had various things at his disposal, which he could have used to give himself a more comfortable life, but he refused to do this kind of thing. Satan tempted him three times in the wilderness to use his power to take a short-cut from God's purpose and plan.  What we can learn from this is that just because we may have certain forms of power (status, citizenship, possessions, position, wealth, opportunity), we are not to grasp these things for selfish ends.  Self-denial shows true humanity.
  • Jesus used his power to bless others.  When I use the word power here, I am thinking of his power of speech, his love, his authority, his heritage, his patience and his masculinity. He used the power of speech to convey truth to people confused and abused by previous teachers.  He used the power of love to forgive the sin of paralyzed man prior to healing him. Jesus used the power of his authority to answer the tough questions of Pharisee, Saducee and Herodian alike in order to set things right.  He used the power of his heritage to connect the writings of Moses, David and the prophets with his ministry.  He used the power of patience to endure all the hardships brought upon him because of the fallout of sin.  He used the power of his masculinity to show honour, respect and protection for men, women and children.  The very reason God has endowed humans with various "powers" is for the benefit of others around them.
  • Jesus represented God in the world.  In the beginning, God made humans in his own image, to represent him on earth and care for fellow creatures.  This high calling had been marred and stained by sin.  Sadly, when pundits say that humans are more cruel to each other than animals are, they are right.  Humans will cut down others who get in their way to attain manifold forms of power: even worthless possessions, fleeting fame, and the first place in a line-up.  However, Jesus came as the "image of the invisible God" [Colossians 1:18].  Jesus was greatly concerned with God's intentions for right living and stewardship of power--image bearing.  That image bearing comes at the intersection of fully recognizing both our power and our weakness.
  • A common way to refer to humans is to call them "mortals."  That is, they have a life span that will come to an end.  Jesus' human lifespan was just over three decades in length.  At cemeteries we can find tomb stones for those who lived just days or months and ranging all the way to those who saw beyond their ninetieth year.  Jesus' life and sacrificial death made a way to attain something more--eternal life.  In the book of Revelation, He promises to those who remain faithful to him that they will "have the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" [Revelation 2:7].  When Jesus rose from the dead, he had a body that would not deteriorate or decay.  In the resurrection at the fulfillment of all things, our physicality as humans will be affirmed and brought to its highest and best expression.  

[1] I am indebted to Andy Crouch's book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power (2013).  His way of describing what power is led to this train of thought being further developed by me.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Christmas Plus

   The season of Advent draws together many strands of the Christian story.  We look back at the Old Testament prophecies surrounding Jesus' birth and how they were fulfilled with precision.  We anticipate the second coming of Jesus, an important hope without which our faith would be incomplete.  
   Perhaps less common in some traditions, we also look ahead to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Even the old man Simeon hints at Jesus' painful destiny before the infant is even two months old, when he says to Mary: "And a sword will pierce your own soul too."  Christians are reminded of this reality of suffering when we take communion during Advent.  Christmas truly is a time of joy, but it cannot be completely isolated from what comes before, after and that which we still await.
   Two pieces of music that are commonly performed during the Christmas season embody this "Christmas Plus" idea within them.  Incidentally, they were written twenty-two years apart in 18th century England.  
   The first is "Joy to the World" by Isaac Watts.  Originally this hymn was not written as a Christmas carol, but as a version of Psalm 98.  It does not refer to specific events from the Matthew or Luke versions of the first Christmas, but some of its phrases, such as "Let earth receive her king" and "Let every heart prepare him room," do fit nicely with the idea that Jesus came as king and that his coming requires a response.  Alyssa Poblete even suggests that the song is more about Jesus' second coming than his first:
"So why do we sing this song at Christmas? It is clearly a song about Christ’s second coming—when the full expression of his glory will be revealed. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the Christmas story. Or does it? After all, there is no second coming without a first coming." [1]
Indeed, we cannot properly hail Jesus' birth without also keeping in mind what things will be like when his Kingdom comes in all its fullness, when the effects of sin will all be eliminated, as symbolized by thorns no longer infesting the ground.
   The other piece of music that helps Christians celebrate Christmas Plus is George F. Handel's Oratorio Messiah.  While he originally wrote it to coincide with Lent/Easter, this rich vocal and instrumental work is not out of place at Christmas.  Beginning with Isaiah 40's "Comfort Ye My People" and ending with the heavenly vision of Revelation "Worthy is the Lamb", Messiah gives us a sweeping narrative of God's good intentions for humanity.  
   When we see the Christmas story in its full context, as the songs I just mentioned help us to experience, it also becomes more real.  It is more than just a time to pretend everything in the world is perfect or a season to over-indulge.  Christmas by itself does not work magic.  In the midst of the mess we find ourselves in as humans, we can be assured that God has a rescue plan.  It is a work in progress, and the final ending will be beyond our imaginations!
[1] Alyssa Poblete wrote this on December 22, 2014 in the following blog post Joy to the World

Christmas hospitality

 I was asked by someone in my church to share a story of a past Christmas.  I thought I would include it here as well.

   The Christmas season in North America involves many social gatherings and dinners.  We receive advice from web sites and blogs about how to serve the right foods, decorate in the latest style and create the right atmosphere for our guests to enjoy.  However, what is Jesus’ advice about such dinners and feasts?  In Luke 14:12-14 he says something that we find hard to swallow.  He says to invite people who may not be in our circles, those who don’t normally get invited to these events.  Jesus says we will be blessed if we do this.
   I do not want to pretend that this is what I do every Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter.  Often I live such an insulated life that I would not even be aware of who needs such an invitation.  Just looking after my own extended family can feel like enough.  However, over the years I have experienced the opportunity and blessing from including people who might not be the typical guests.  I will share one particular Christmas Eve story in hopes that it re-inspire me and perhaps others to find a way to celebrate Jesus’ birthday by following his advice about dinner parties.
   One spring I met a single mother (Kay) and her pre-teen daughter who lived in a subsidized housing complex not far from my rural home.  Kay was bound to a wheelchair and received daily help from a personal support worker.  This initial meeting was followed by me visiting her about once a week, with my pre-school children coming along with me.
   As Christmas got closer, my natural inclination was to invite the two of them over for a meal, but our house was not equipped with a ramp.  Not giving up, we thought of taking hospitality “on the road” and proposed bringing Christmas Eve dinner to the town house and enjoying the meal there all together.  Kay readily agreed.  Her own relatives had not made any effort to include them in a Christmas dinner, it would seem, for many years.
   So it was that on Christmas Eve my husband and I loaded up hot casserole dishes containing chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes and vegetables and bundled children in car seats to go to Kay’s house for dinner.  I also packed a table cloth, grape juice and paper napkins.  Kay’s daughter let us in, not quite sure what to make of this.  She helped set the table, apologizing that not one place setting matched with another.  Even though our forks and knives did not match and the walls bore pock marks from an unwieldy electric wheelchair, our Christmas Eve dinner was a time of warm fellowship.  We brought a Bible and read about the first Christmas before closing in prayer.

   Is there room at your table or in your schedule to include someone who would otherwise be alone this time of year?  It is indeed more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35b)