Category: Faith

Faithfully cynical

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I don’t think of myself as an optimist. Hardly a situation will pass without a dire warning from me on the likelihood of its going to hell, a habit not helped by the fact that my proclamations are often correct: yes, our recently widowed neighbour was trying to get rid of her tenant’s daughter so she’d have the tenant all to herself; yes, our other neighbour’s new wife used him to have a baby and now wants a divorce and for him to sign the child off*; yes, the gardener everyone was raving about turned out to be a liar and a thief. And so on. I don’t think it’s an ability so much as it is cynicism: you’re rarely disappointed when you bet on the worst of people.

One area I’ve tried my best to battle this ominous cynicism is the church. Yes, the church – which gathers the very worst of us together and sticks labels that read “free”, “saved”, “grace” and “righteousness” on otherwise bottomline bad people – has received a (relatively) free pass from me and my jaundiced eye. Ironic, because if you’re looking for the worst of human pettiness, treachery, hatred and coffee, even in the best of congregations, the closest set of church doors will usually do.

Take for instance the debacle that rocked the tea duty roster at the church where I’m volunteering. Everyone wants to have tea and gossip after the church service; you’ve gotten up at seven am on a Sunday, you might as well, or so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, very few of the people who want to have tea and coffee after the church service want to take turns serving tea and coffee to the other members of the congregation, and so the same five people ended up doing it Sunday in and Sunday out. If I hadn’t been one of those five people, and if I hadn’t been expected to spontaneously take over the tea duty roster on account of a stray vagina I happened to have in my possession, I probably would have cared less; but I am, and I had to. The situation went south rather swiftly.

Okay, we can be pointed about this, the church council decided: tea after church was cancelled. Now, a few weeks later it’s still cancelled, because despite complaints about its absence and the minister’s plummeting popularity re: all matters tea related, there weren’t enough volunteers to prompt its revival. The excuses are varied: we’re busy, I’m sure you understand; we’re men and our hands fall right off if we so much as look at a teapot; we did it before, once, two decades ago; we did it before, once, two decades ago, and swore a blood oath against its then-organiser; we don’t want to; it’s not part of the job description; what is “tea”?

The tea duty roster furore demonstrates on a small scale why so many churches empty every year: we’re bloody awful at church.

So why the free pass on my part, one wonders? There are a few reasons: I really like Jesus and the Holy Spirit and sometimes even God the Father; I like learning more about Jesus and Christianity in general; I have an otherwise fairly useless degree in theology; I want to share my relationship with Christ with other people; I can’t otherwise sing in public. And perhaps, in my heart of hearts, in a deep place that still believes in good things, fundamentally good people and happy endings outside Young Adult fiction, I cherish a hope that church could help transform me into the kind of person who I’d want to go to church with.

But there comes a point when one’s deepest hope begins to flicker like a candle left to its own devices in a breeze. It’s not an instantaneous process. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of pointless politics and small-mindedness, a lot of struggling to adapt and failing to fit in, a lot of strife and gossip and frustration to admit that church as I’ve experienced it is hardly beyond my old friend, cynicism. In many respects I’ve been the church’s unlikely champion, had to be, as a would-be minister. I always defended it on the principle that church could be good – or failing that, better – if only it were done right. But, as we stand on the precipice of a tea duty roster impasse, who knows what is right, anyway?

I still hope that Jesus will disappoint this cynicism of mine, I have to admit, and not just because I want a job at some point. I’d like to be proven wrong about life and people and religion, I think. I’d like a glimmer of the church’s beginnings as a radical, sweeping and transformative first century movement to shake my dusty foundations of tradition and obnoxiousness and privilege. I’d like to be reminded just how deep and wide and tall and encompassing Jesus’ love for bottom-of-the-barrel people such as myself can be.

So even while giving the church a critical once over, I realise that few places are more in need of grace than the church. Some would doubtless stake a similar claim for prisons, but honestly? At least prisons serve tea.


*I was literally revising this when my mother phoned with fresh gossip: the wife left yesterday morning and will be moving out over the weekend.

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There’s no wrong way to be a lizard in the sun

 

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I love November. It’s the summer month par excellence for me. Early mornings, days stretching to their apogee, their afternoons often swallowed up by thunderstorms and rain that beats the smell of ozone from the earth. November is full of the dance of some old thing we’ve mostly lost to the advent of 24-hour living. Novembers are simply magical.

November isn’t hugely productive as a rule. Combined with the mischievous wink of summer and sun and the approach of Christmas (tacky, seasonally inappropriate decorations seemed to go up at the stroke of midnight on the 31st of October) and the beckon of the schools closing for the year, November is about as circumspect as a toddler presented with a bowl of candy. It’s an odd time to be thinking about the Advent season and the new year, when so many things seem to be telling you to stop thinking, to turn your face to the sun and the season and to just breathe it all in.

I wonder whether God isn’t asking the same thing with prayer. Glancing through my prayer list, much of it is busywork: me trying to press my case or impose my will (masquerading as God’s will of course) or otherwise labouring at my idea of what a faithful life looks like. Sometimes that labour is necessary – if I didn’t go against my natural urges, how often would I get up early on a Sunday morning to go to church, for instance – but maybe like the month of November, sometimes prayer isn’t a job to do or an item to tick off or a solemn request to make, but a turning to the “sun” of God in our lives.

For the last few weeks, whenever I go outside it’s to a scatter of small lizards streaking in all directions, startled by my appearance. If basking in the sun were a religious practice, lizards out-holy us all. They go to the sun with nothing but the need to be warmed, and nothing but the expectation that they will be warmed. There’s no wrong way to be a lizard in the sun, other than not seeking the sun, of course. There’s no wrong way to seek God, other than not seeking him.

Work and necessity will play tug-o’-war with November for our heart. Even Advent will push its own agenda. But I think the month of November is itself a kind of prayer. All the while, whatever the season, God is there, trying to lure us from the shadows of tradition and busywork and our own limitations into the warm sun of his light, love, grace and mercy; back into relationship with him, friendship with him, communion with him.

Sometimes that communion is bread and wine in a church building. Sometimes it’s the rustle of Bible pages at the end of a long day. Sometimes it’s a hurried, muttered prayer in the mornings. But sometimes, other times, it’s a shady, grassy spot under a big tree with the wind whispering through the leaves.

Looking Lectionary: Proper 27A/Ordinary 32A/Pentecost +23

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A look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.


Reading: Matthew 25:1-13

“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ Matthew 25:9 NIV

“There may not be enough.” We usually read this parable as an indictment of the unprepared virgins. They had more than enough time; they knew the Bridegroom was on his way; and as they hurried off to buy more oil, we see a lack of resources wasn’t to blame for their situation, merely unpreparedness. But Jesus loved telling stories inside of stories, and I think we find a deeper, more complex message here than “just” “you know the day and the hour”. This parable isn’t just about the five unprepared maidens, but about the five “prepared” ones too.

In the months leading up to the 2016 US presidential election, I was “friended” to a popular prophetic account on Facebook. I’d say that 95% of the people on that page were pro-Trump, and one of the reasons they gave was that Trump would be God’s “trumpet” – that he’d herald the beginning of the end, bring on the glory of the Lord and the final judgment. Quite a few of these people seemed to understand that Trump would be a terrible president, but – to their way of thinking – that would only hark on the end of the world all the more quickly.

I’ve never understood this obsession Christians have with the end times. Some people are literally excited that Jesus is coming to judge and cast all unbelievers into fiery damnation. This has got to be the epitome of insider mentality. I mean, whose fault is it that so many people are unsaved? We love to lay all the blame at the door of unbelievers. “We brought enough oil,” we say. But would we still be so excited about the day and the hour if we admitted our culpability in the decline of the Christian religion? If we faced the fact that people leaving the faith or not wanting to join in the first place isn’t God’s fault, or their fault, but ours?

We’re such schmucks, Christians. You just have to cast an eye over the news to see the often viral evidence of our failings, not just as Christians, but as human beings. In the parable of the ten virgins, can we really say that the five “prepared” maidens acted in a Christ-like way? If our salvation is secured (and it is, when we believe); if we are new creations in Christ (which we are, whether it feels like it or not); if we are living in a state of grace, mercy and love (check, check and check) just what are we so afraid of losing if others, lost as we ourselves once were (and often still are) get to experience the saving grace that we do? Why so afraid, Christians?

I do believe that the day and hour will come. I don’t look forward to it, because – graced as I am – I know I’m guilty of others’ loss. But maybe if I’m more willing to share my most undeserved “oil” with others (by giving them the benefit of grace, for instance), on some day, at some moment, someone will share their undeserved “oil” with me in turn, and we can go into the Feast together.

#MondayPrayer

Need of Jesus

LORD JESUS,
I am blind, be thou my light,
ignorant, be thou my wisdom,
self-willed, be thou my mind.
Open my ear to grasp quickly thy Spirit’s voice,
and delightfully run after his beckoning hand;
Melt my conscience that no hardness remain,
make it alive to evil’s slightest touch;
When Satan approaches may I flee to thy wounds,
and there cease to tremble at all alarms.
Be my good shepherd to lead me into the green pastures of thy Word,
and cause me to lie down beside the rivers of its comforts.
Fill me with peace, that no disquieting worldly gales
may ruffle the calm surface of my soul.
Thy cross was upraised to be my refuge,
Thy blood streamed forth to wash me clean,
Thy death occurred to give me a surety,
Thy name is my property to save me,
By thee all heaven is poured into my heart,
but it is too narrow to comprehend thy love.
I was a stranger, an outcast, a slave, a rebel,
but thy cross has brought me near,
has softened my heart,
has made me thy Father’s child,
has admitted me to thy family,has made me joint-heir with thyself.
O that I may love thee as thou lovest me,
that I may walk worthy of thee, my Lord,
that I may reflect the image of heaven’s first-born.
May I always see thy beauty with the clear eye of faith,
and feel the power of thy Spirit in my heart,
for unless he move mightily in me
no inward fire will be kindled.

Taken from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, edited by Arthur G. Bennett.

#MondayPrayer

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Dear Lord, I don’t want to write a prayer for you today, not when you’re technically responsible for PMS. I don’t want to pray when praying feels like falling down a deep pit with no bottom in sight and no way to turn back. Maybe, really, I just don’t want to pray at all. Words, words, words. I’m tired of talking when talking doesn’t seem to do any good.

They say You’re in the silence, Lord. Today I need to believe that. I need to believe that silence isn’t an absence of You, but Your presence magnified to the point where speaking or hearing isn’t necessary, but arbitrary, like comparing dim long-distance phone calls to  companionably sitting together on a couch as the sun sets. I need to believe, again, still, always, in the reality of You. It’s such a beginner lesson, Lord, but I keep failing this class. For the love of You, help me.

Help me to have faith, and love, and mercy, and above all hope that You are even a speck of who You say You are. Surely that speck is bigger than the visible cosmos.

Good heavens, please. Amen.