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Posts tagged ‘Gospel of Mark’

God in the Messes

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!)

appartment-bath-tubBut 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.

23427_10150158979050722_10150120062685722_11800975_2796993_n1-300x240It’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.

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Be Thou My Vision

“I want what God wants, that is why I’m so happy.” Desmond Tutu

This week I experienced God through an image which guided me and kept me on the path of faith.

It was Sunday morning and our community had gathered for worship. We’re a small group, less than 20, and we meet in Dave and Lorna’s living room. Just a motley bunch of very ordinary people but it never fails to be one of the highlights of my week.  Talking about what matters most in life with this group is always like a fire that warms the heart and gives us “words to live by”, as we often say.

One of our traditions is the centerpiece, set on the round glass coffee table, which reflects the morning’s theme. Eldon, who is an artist disguised as a mailman, is the one who usually puts this together. The centerpiece is always helpful, especially when the weekend ends and the rubber hits the road at work on Monday. I may not remember the nuances of what we talked, sang and prayed about, but I can remember the centerpiece and be guided back.

On this particular Sunday morning, the centerpiece was simple: a vase of flowers with a pair of glasses on either side. It illustrated the two ways of seeing that scripture often talks about – seeing life through human eyes or seeing life through eyes of faith. We had been talking about the passage for the morning from the gospel of Mark. Jesus is talking to his disciples and they’re trying to figure out who the heck this guy is. In fact, everyone is wondering. Is he God’s son as he claims? Jesus asks them, “Who do people say I am?”

The discussion that follows after Jesus asks them this question is actually humorous. They tell Jesus what others have been saying about him, but Jesus presses them and asks them, “But who do you say I am?” Peter steps in and perfectly illustrates the two glasses of the centerpiece, one minute giving a faith-filled answer, and the next minute losing his faith entirely as he tells Jesus he “shouldn’t talk that way”.

One thing I love about the gospels is how I can relate to the disciples. They are a bunch of dim-wits, “dumber than a bag of hammers” as Paul Patterson likes to say, always getting it wrong. Jesus is incredibly patient with them. It seems he is forever repeating his kingdom vision to them and they keep getting it wrong. They forget his previous miracles and words and act as though Jesus doesn’t know how to turn “the-way-things-seem-to-be” on its head. They keep having one set of glasses on and Jesus urges them to put the lenses of faith on instead.  Like a good teacher, Jesus doesn’t let them get away with sloppy thinking. He keeps admonishing them, “You are thinking like everyone else and not like God!” (Mark 8:33)

I’m right in there with the disciples because I get it wrong so often during the week. Like Peter, I can be full of faith but then the smallest thing happens and I’m doubting. This week I noticed it when a lesson that was supposed to take 10 minutes fell flat. The wind went out of my sails for the rest of the day and my “old way of thinking” set in.  My lenses got all skewed and I lost the vision that had me inspired. I start feeling insecure about myself, doubting all the words of faith I heard earlier. My co-workers probably wouldn’t notice but inwardly I was scrambling for affirmation. “Am I ok?” (and the voice of doubt answered, “No!”). Invariably, this human way of thinking seems very convincing.

I was tempted to think life is small but that evening I remembered the centerpiece and heard Jesus’ voice reminding me alongside Peter, “You are thinking like everyone else not like God”. “Which pair of glasses do you want to wear there kiddo?” I came back to a place of prayer, asking God for help and confessing my slip.   It helped to meet with the group on Wednesday night, this time to talk about C.S. Lewis again.

Desmond Tutu is a South African activist and retired Anglican bishop who became a famous voice against apartheid in the ’80’s. He is a very down to earth man who loves to laugh, and words of his that I heard years ago came back to me this week. “I want what God wants, that is why I am so happy.” He has the right lenses on, I thought. That day, my vision had been corrected and I felt I was saying the words along with him because I experienced how living God’s way restored me. I certainly don’t live this way very consistently, but it is my deepest desire in life to “want what God wants” too. It’s the only desire that has ever led to happiness, that is, deep happiness that doesn’t depend on circumstances.

Sometimes I think the only thing that’s happening as I’m getting older is that I’m learning not to trust my insecurities and doubts. They are like bad friends, not to be trusted. What can be trusted is God’s promises.

During the week, I often ponder what to write for the blog, and at one point my heart felt like it was overflowing and I wanted to write an early Thanksgiving list. This list will be written soon no doubt. Until then, this is my declaration of where God has been this week, repeatedly correcting my vision, being the World’s Best Coach as I am guided back to my deepest desire. That is why, no matter what the weather, I find myself echoing Desmond Tutu, more often than I used to, that I am so happy.

Week after week, God stitches me back together this way and it’s as though an unseen Hand gently takes off my human glasses and corrects my vision again and again.

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