23 April 2017

The Breath of Creation

Last week, I had an opportunity to walk the outdoor labyrinth at Tatamagouche Centre.  It was a chilly not-quite-spring day, but the sun was shining and the world felt alive.  And this was my experience in the centre of the labyrinth.

The Breath of Creation

I sit upon the earth
            upon the body of creation.
I feel the breath of creation as
            the earth gently rises
            gently falls

I see the breath of creation
            dancing on waves
            swaying in trees
            playing with old, dry leaves

I hear the breath of creation
            in the cawing of crows
            in the whistling of sandpipers
            in the cry of kestrels

I feel the breath of creation
            blowing my hair
            caressing my cheek
            chilling my body

And I am at peace
            as the breath continues to move
                        in the trees
                        on the water
                        through the air
And the earth continues to
            gently rise
            gently fall


(Picture taken not from the labyrinth, but close to Tatamagouche Centre)

2 March 2017

Remember Your Death

Yesterday evening I attended an Ash Wednesday service.  The palm branches that the church had waved last year on Palm Sunday to praise and celebrate Jesus as he entered Jerusalem a week before Easter had dried out over the year and were now burned to a fine ash.

People lined up, down the aisle of the sanctuary, waiting for the minister to mark their foreheads with the ashes in the sign of a cross with the words that echo the funeral liturgy, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

As I sat there, watching people of all ages come forward, I was reflecting that Ash Wednesday is possibly the most counter-cultural ritual that the church enacts.  It is already counter-cultural to be a follower of Jesus Christ, to proclaim that there is a different narrative than the one that the world presents.  And here, in the middle of a death-defying, death-denying culture, people were lining up to be reminded of their own mortality.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Later in the service as I was helping to serve communion, I was standing at the front of the church holding the cup as people lined up to come forward again, each person with the mark of ashes on their forehead.  Again, I was reflecting, as people took the bread and heard the words, "the body of Christ, broken for you," then dipped the bread in the cup with the words, "the cup of the new covenant, poured out for you."  We are all connected by our mortality.  This human flesh that is given to us to possess is a time-limited gift.  We will all die, as the ashes reminded us.  But we are connected by more than that.  Through our baptism, we are joined with Christ - we participate in Christ's life and death and resurrection.  Though we will die, in Christ we will live.  This is the promise of the new covenant.

God was present.  It was a holy moment.

12 February 2017

"Choose Love"

Sermon:  February 12, 2016 (Epiphany +6)
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Lockeport Pastoral Charge (Little Harbour)

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding the world to be a very difficult place to be in these days.  If you look at politics – for our neighbours in the US, for people in England, and even for us here in Canada – if you look at politics it seems like it is a constant battle between us and them.  There is no middle ground, there is no working towards a compromise – instead it is all highly polarized.  And then, if I look at how rights are being taken away from women, from immigrants, from people with disabilities, from people who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, I feel discouraged and disheartened.

And then there is all of the xenophobia – the fear of the other or the outsider – the xenophobia that is behind so much of what is happening in the world.  Six people are killed in a mosque just because they dress differently and pray differently than their neighbours. 

And don’t get me started about the fear.  It seams like everywhere you turn, there is evidence of more fear.  My sister and her husband who was born in the Middle East are now afraid to travel to the US.  People are risking life and limb and a bad case of frostbite walking across the border into fields in Manitoba in the dead of winter because they are even more afraid to stay where they are.  And yes, I know that our Prime Minister tweeted out that refugees are welcome here in Canada, but then you hear stories about refugees who have been waiting for more than a year to come to Canada.

So I admit, I’ve been having a difficult winter.  In my head, I know that God is in charge, and that God’s word will have the final word.  But sometimes it is just so hard to see that.


But then, sometimes, I’ll come across something like the passage we read from Deuteronomy this morning, that will remind me that God is present and that God wants good in the world.

The book of Deuteronomy sometimes gets a bad reputation, and I admit that if you read it start to finish like I had to for a course last winter on Deuteronomy, it can be a bit tedious.  After all, the first 29 chapters of the book are basically a recitation of the law that God gave to the Israelite people – do this, don’t do that, do this, don’t do that.  And some of the laws don’t make sense in our 21st Century Canadian context.  When I took that course last winter, on the first day of class, our professor told us that if we all came around to the idea that stoning wasn’t as bad as we thought it was, then the course would not be a success!

In the overall narrative arc of the Old Testament, the book of Deuteronomy is right before the Israelite people enter the promised land – the land that God had promised to them and to their ancestors.  Remember that the Israelites had been in slavery in the land of Egypt for many generations.  Remember that Moses went to the Pharaoh and demanded, “Let my people go!”  Remember that the waters of the Red Sea parted for the people so that they were able to cross over to safety.  Remember that Moses met God on top of Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law.  Remember that the people then spent 40 years wandering through the desert.  And then we come to the book of Deuteronomy.

Here are the people, perched on the bank of the Jordan River, ready to cross over into the land that had been promised to them and to their ancestors.  For 40 years in the desert, they had been fully and completely dependent on God.  God had led them with a cloud by day and a fiery pillar at night – a sort of holy GPS.  God had fed them with manna and quail.  God had made water come out of a stone so that they wouldn’t die of thirst.  But now they were about to cross over into a land of abundance – a land flowing with milk and honey – a land where it was still God who provided for them, but in a less obvious way.  But God doesn’t want them to forget that they depend on God.

So there, on the banks of the Jordan River, before they can cross over, Moses repeats the law that had been given.  29 chapters of a remembrance of the law that had been received on the mountain in Sinai.  And then we come to chapter 30.  This is God’s final exhortation to the people, a final pleading with the people to remember God.

It’s an equation, but it’s pretty simple math.
Walk in God’s ways = life and blessings.
Forget God’s ways = death and curses.

So what are those ways that God wants the people to walk in?  You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  That comes from chapter 6 of Deuteronomy.  Then there are the Ten Commandments, which can be summarized into two main categories – there are the ones like worshiping only God instead of other idols and keeping the Sabbath that are about being in a right relationship with God, and then there are the ones about being in right relationship with your neighbours – honour your parents, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t covet what your neighbour has, don’t bear false witness.  And running through many of the laws in Deuteronomy, is an obligation to look after people less fortunate than yourself; and the three groups of people who are named are widows, orphans, and foreigners who live in your land.  Especially given the fear of immigrants and refugees we see in the world today, it’s interesting to note that God commands the people to look after foreigners who live in your land, because, as God frequently reminds the people, they had once been foreigners in the land of Egypt.

So this is how God wants the people to live.  To be in right relationship with God, to be in right relationship with their neighbours, and to look after people who are in less fortunate circumstances.  If the people do this, if the people choose love, then God promises them life and blessings.

And so God pleads with the people:
            Choose life.
            Choose love.

And God reminds the people:
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            my love is stronger than your fear.
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            and I have promised, promised to be always near.¹

When I’m traveling around the city, I often like to take public transit.  It saves me the stress of worrying about driving and traffic, and I can either sit back and let the bus driver worry about crossing the bridge from Dartmouth to Halifax during rush hour, or I can enjoy a short ferry ride across the harbour.  On Thursday morning, a week and a half ago, I had walked down from my apartment to the ferry terminal in order to catch the ferry for a 9am class.  When I got over to the Halifax side, I walked two blocks up to Barrington Street where I can catch a bus that takes me almost right to AST.  There had been a bit of snow the night before, not more than a couple of centimeters, and it was going to warm up in the day so the snow didn’t last long.  But right by the bus stop where I wait, there’s a wall, and the top of the wall is angled outward, and there in the snow, someone had written LOVE > FEAR.  Just those two words with a “greater than” sign in between.  And when I got onto my bus and found a seat, when I looked out the window, there it was, right at eye level with me.  I don’t know how long that message stayed there in the snow.  Maybe half a day.  Maybe only a couple of minutes if someone brushed the snow off the wall right after the bus pulled away.  But for however long it lasted, there was a visible message that love is stronger than all of the forces that work against love in the world.

And so God pleads with us:
            Choose life.
            Choose love.

And God reminds us,
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            my love is stronger than your fear.
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            and I have promised, promised to be always near.

Recently in class, we were talking about the political situation in the US but also here at home, and we were trying to make sense of it all.  One person said, “I heard a program on CBC radio and this was what they were saying…”  Another person said, “I was reading an article from the Huffington Post that was arguing that…”  Another person said, “On the television last night, there was a panel discussing…”  Finally, our professor said to us, “These are all narrative explanations of what is going on.  They are trying to impose order on the story so that we can pretend that we understand why something is happening.”  And then she asked us if there was a different way to make sense what was going on in the world, one that didn’t try to impose a narrative onto the events.”

That question stuck with me for the rest of the day, and I ended up sending an e-mail to that professor the next day saying that I was seeing a different sort of explanation coming from the artists of this world.  I thought of the photograph that came out last weekend of the mosque in Halifax that was completely encircled by people holding hands protecting the people who were praying inside.  I thought about a song that was released on the day that Donald Trump was inaugurated called, “When God Imagined Me” that affirms that all people, no matter their gender, no matter their skin colour, no matter their religion, that all people are created in the image of God and ought to be honoured as such.  I think of the poem that El Jones wrote for the Women’s March in Halifax that names the ways that women have been and are still being oppressed, yet affirms a better way forward.  I think of the painting that looks like a traditional icon of Jesus with wounds in both of his hands, trapped behind barbed wire.  Are we the ones who have put Jesus behind barbed wire like a refugee?  Or are we the ones who are trapped behind the barbed wire of the world, and Jesus wants to rescue us from our imprisonment?

And so God pleads with us:
            Choose life.
            Choose love.

And God reminds us,
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            my love is stronger than your fear.
            Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger,
            and I have promised, promised to be always near.

It isn’t easy, choosing love instead of fear.  We can choose love in one moment, but then in the next moment we can be caught back up into a cycle of fear.  And so I think that it has to be an ongoing decision, every day, every hour, every minute, to choose love instead of fear.  And if we slip up, if we succumb to fear, it’s not the end.  We still have another chance to choose love.  We still have another chance to choose to love God and to choose to love our neighbour.  And God is with us.  And love is always stronger than fear.  How are you going to choose love?

¹  John L. Bell and Graham Maule, "Don't Be Afraid," in More Voices, ed. Bruce Harding (Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 2007), 90.  Audio of this song can be heard here.