As a kid growing up in North Kildonan, we were pretty much anchored in the life of the church. My mom went to various women’s groups, my dad was forever preparing for adult Sunday School lessons, not to mention leading choirs and going to church business meetings, and we daughters went to various clubs such as Pioneer Girls and of course Sunday School. Even German School was held in the church on Saturday mornings, which is probably what led to my early assumption that God spoke German. (I still clearly remember the day I had the Aha realization that God spoke English as well!)
But the highlight of each week was the Sunday morning service, which began on Saturday night with The Bath.
Like a strange baptism, the bath (with its resulting curlers to be uncomfortably slept on) got us ready for God. Off went the dirt of the week. I remembered reveling in getting extra grubby that day, riding my bike and playing hard with friends. Whatever family squabbles had gone on during the week, we were dressed in our Sunday best by the next morning, showing our clean and shining side at church, like families everywhere.
These memories came to me this week as our group got ready for our current study of the book of Mark. We read the story in Mark 7 of how in Jesus’ day, cleanliness rituals were a huge deal. There were rituals around hand washing, food preparation, handling utensils and what you could and couldn’t touch, or could and couldn’t eat. Touching a dead body or a person who was diseased was strictly forbidden for example. The religiously scrupulous didn’t practice these rules to be obsessive, but because they were part of their belief system; what they believed God wanted.
It’s hardly surprising that they were shocked when Jesus and his band of followers broke every rule in the book. In the passage we studied, the Jews were infuriated when they saw Jesus eating with his disciples and ignoring the hand washing rituals. When they challenged him, he challenged them right back, asking them why they obeyed outward rules yet paid no attention to following God’s inner, heart laws such as loving their neighbours. They were show-offs in following the rules, but lived how they wanted, not how God wanted. Jesus had confronted them with the heart of the matter, and as my students say when someone gets confronted, “Oh yeah! You just got told!”
As we studied these stories, our community considered whether we did the same thing. What Biblical teaching do we give verbal assent to yet don’t always live by? The resulting discussion has stayed with me during this week, giving me food for thought.
One teaching that came to mind for several of us was our difficulty in accepting forgiveness. I believe (and Scripture teaches) that God is a God of infinite forgiveness. Growing up Mennonite, we were good at feeling guilty for our sins, but not as good at hearing God say, “I love you warts and all”, and it’s a hard habit to let go of! As an adult, I can understand in my head that I’m forgiven, but often live as a guilty sinner, trying in many ways to appease a God whom I can unconsciously think is angry at me.
We reflected more on this feeling of “guilt”. Sometimes, in fact probably many times, our feeling of guilt is coming from somewhere, and we just haven’t dug it deep enough. Our society is so bent on “feeling better”. We hate the misery of feeling crappy about ourselves and like addicted people, we often want a quick fix without looking at the root of the problem. Don’t I do the same thing as the religious establishment, and follow outward rules without digging deeper and reflecting on the deeper laws of God?
During our discussion, we pondered this and Eldon provided the helpful image of a tree with rotten fruit. We bemoan the rotten fruit and all of our wishing for it to be better distracts us from the need to check the roots which may be diseased.
The whole discussion left me wondering, how open am I to hearing the truth, even when it is painful? Scripture tells us that “the truth will set us free” (John 8:28), but it just might make us miserable first. The deepest lessons of my life have often been the ones that required soul searching honesty and were most painful to learn. When I hear the truth and become defensive or (worse) play dumb and pretend not to understand, I am blocked from becoming free.
Another side to this coin is the question, how open am I to being honest with someone, even when it is uncomfortable.
This all led me to wonder – what truth has God been telling me lately? I would say that I too am often obsessed with how “clean” my day looks. In some strange and twisted logic, a “good” day = I am good, and a “bad” day = not quite as good! (Time to try harder…) As my days get messier with illness or other challenges, I can get discouraged and think God will only be there when I “get all my ducks in a row”.
But what if all notions of what is good or bad get wiped away in God’s kingdom, and everything is just what it is? Certainly Jesus modeled that example as he partied with his disciples and people who weren’t important in society’s eyes, without even washing his hands.
As I went through my week, amid the messes, one part of me labeled the imperfect bits as “bad”, and I had a hard time thinking of where God was. But Wednesday night helped me to remove the labels and remember that God is in the midst of messes, in days that feel good or bad. When I remembered that, everything seemed different and it was no longer difficult to figure out where God was.
I remembered the song “Imagine” by John Lennon which I taught to my students for this week’s winter concert. Their enthusiastic singing and love of the song opened my heart all week and in the midst of my lingering cold and feeling tired, they were a gift to me, helping me remember why I love kids. I remembered how our community helped a student in dire straits at an inner city high school and how happy it made us all to make the right decision, through group discernment. I remembered the restorative conversation at our Wednesday night study, and the prayers for healing at our Sunday morning service today. I’ve been so grateful for these contexts which are such a support.
One of the names for God which we hear about during this Advent season is “Emmanuel” which means “God with us”. May we all hear the truth that God is with us. Not when we’ve cleaned up our acts, but now, in the midst of our messy lives. May we all open our hearts and be free to listen.