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Mary and Elizabeth: Wombs of God

Fred Craddock, a teacher of preachers, has this to say about the story of Mary and Elizabeth:

“The two women, [Elizabeth and Mary] not only kin but drawn by a common experience, meet in an unnamed village in the Judean hills.  The one is old and her son will close an age; the other is young and her son will usher in the new.  Even the unborn John knows the difference and leaps in the womb when Mary enters.”**

Elizabeth’s baby, John the Baptist, has the honour and responsibility of closing out the old age.  Mary’s baby, Jesus, the Christ, has the scary and ground-breaking task of inaugurating the new age.   It is not a gradual change, the birth of one child ends the old age, the birth of the other child begins the new age. For both Elizabeth and Mary, the news of their epoch-shaking pregnancies was delivered by an angel visitant, but the responses to those visits were as different as the children they would bear.

The announcement and birth of John the Baptist was delivered to John’s father, Zechariah, a priest.  As a trained, professional religious guy he fell into the trap that a lot of us trained, professional religious types fall into: he figured that his own experience and intellect trumped what God was trying to tell him. When Zechariah was visited by an angel while performing his duties at the Temple, who announced that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child who would “go ahead of the Lord” (1:17) and “bring back many of the people of Israel to their Lord their God” (1:16), Zechariah could barely suppress a scoffing laugh. To the angel, Zechariah “mansplained” that the news was nonsense: Elizabeth had been barren all her child-bearing years and now was well beyond the capacity to become pregnant.  Lesson alert!! Don’t try to mansplain to an angel!! The angel did not waver from the original message, but did take away Zechariah’s ability to speak until the child was born – if Zechariah could not respond to a visiting angel bringing amazing news with words of faith, he would not speak at all.

The Gospel of Luke also has the story of the angel arriving to announce to Mary God’s invitation to be the woman to shelter and grow God’s beloved child in her womb and to bear the chosen One into the world.  Once she got over the initial shock of an angel visiting her, Mary uttered these unforgettable words (1:38) as recorded in the King James Version: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word”. Unlike the response of Zechariah, who put reason before proclamation, the young, frightened Mary was able to literally open herself to God’s possibilities, whatever that would entail.

Mary and Elizabeth: too young and too old, both women who were too unlikely to be God’s choice in bearing the child who would end an age, the other who would bear the child who would being the next age. Once again, our God is a God who chooses the last and least: the most unlikely of candidates to bear the Word into the world.

Mary and Elizabeth, our mothers of the faith, model for us the way to respond to the Good News that we, who are also the last the least, continue to be bearers of Jesus Christ into the world. We are always on the cusp of the old age passing away and a new age about to begin. The Good News of Christ is that we are continuously invited to let go of the things in our past that are no longer life-giving, but carry those things from our history that enhance our lives, and the lives of others into the new age that is forever opening before us.

As we approach the old/new story of Jesus’ birth, consider what God is bringing to birth in you, today.

Shannon Mang

** Luke: Interpretation; A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, ©1990

Welcome to The Wilderness

 

What do you think of when you imagine ‘wilderness’?

Is your image of a bleak and barren place?

 

Or is your image of wilderness a rich natural setting free of other humans?

In Jesus’ day sane, normal people avoided the wilderness. It was a place of dangerous wild animals and dangerous people- both outlaws and those possessed with demons who had been cast out of their communities.  And, at the same time, the wilderness played a profound role in many of the ancient Hebrew stories as a place where individual persons, and large groups of people could meet God and be transformed. Moses met God in a burning bush in the wilderness. The Hebrew people needed forty years of wandering in the wilderness to learn how to be God’s people and truly leave behind their lives as slaves in Egypt. During times of Exile, the Prophets spoke of the Hebrew’s captivity as a time in the wilderness and offered the people messages of hope that God had not abandoned them.

On Sunday we will spend some time with John the Baptist who appeared in the wilderness and called the people of Judea and Jerusalem to “Repentance”- to receive a Baptism by water and turn their lives around in anticipation of the One who was coming. People flocked to John “IN” the wilderness to hear his message and receive Baptism in the River Jordan without regard for the ancient prohibition against going into the wilderness. In early Jan. we will watch Jesus go into the wilderness for forty days of fasting immediately following his baptism by John. Wilderness is where Jesus went to prepare for his ministry.

Living Spirit United Church has been living in a wilderness time. I have begun to hear honest stories about the difficult and the good coming from this time: the painful departures and the blessed gifts of this time. Our wilderness time is not over. There are more gifts yet to be found in wilderness time together. Our remaining wilderness time will benefit from the tools available through the Intentional Interim Process.

Over the next two years we will map our way as we explore Five Focus Points:

Heritage- Leadership- Connections- Mission- Future.

We’ll explore each of these areas and discern together what the future is that God is calling this community to.  Sometimes the way will be bleak and barren. Sometimes the way will be rich and nourishing. The Good News is that we travel this way with Jesus, our brother, God our Creator and the Holy Spirit, the one who will comfort and teach us. I am blessed to be on this journey with you.

 

Shannon

When Christmas is not Red or Green but Blue

Over the years churches and other institutions like funeral homes and grief counselling services have been offering special services at this time of year for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one or a profound change in their life situation. These are often called “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” services. This practice emerged from recognizing that not everyone is in the emotional place where they can be cheerful and upbeat, often fearing they will “spoil” Christmas for others by letting their grief show when others are at least trying to be happy. Living Spirit has been a part of the Blue Christmas Service trend, and rightly so as the need is as real as people’s pain.
In recent years, Christian churches have started to realize that our view of Christmas is not about parties, presents and perfection. While preparing to celebrate (ie, lift up) Jesus’ birth we know the story’s end. The Holy Child is born in the shadow of the cross and the reality of death at the hands of brutes. Blue Christmas, then, need not be apart from our Advent preparations, and can be a meaningful addition to the season. As a result this year our Advent services will have a blue note – a recognition that all is not well with individuals, communities, nations or the world, and that tears are healing, not shameful, and a source of healing and strength. Yet we don’t stop celebrating because things aren’t what we hoped they would be. We celebrate that it was in a very dark time in history, a time of persecution under the glittery yet violent “success” of the Roman Empire, that the Christ child was born. God digs deep into our lives, knows our sorrows and our joys, and brings hope, peace, joy and love. So we will decorate the Sanctuary in a more muted way, we will light the blue candles and a pink one too as we prepare our hearts for something great to be born in them and remember those whose hearts are hurting.
If you would prefer to attend a separate Blue Christmas service the following places are offering them:

Deer Park United Church – 77 Deerpoint Rd SE –  www.dpuc.ca

Wild Rose United Church – 1317 1st Street NW –  www.wildroseunited.ca

Mountain View Funeral Home – www.arbormemorial.ca/en/mountainview
(their’s is Dec 3 at 2:30 pm )

Hope Is a Song

One thing about our faith is that we never run out of hope! The bible is an accumulation of stories about new beginnings and the love that accompanies us and the spirit that leads us as we venture forth together. Even through suffering and death hope is raised, the story is not finished as we cannot be separated from that ever present love which permeates our being and all creation. In the bible and in life, God speaks to us in times of despair saying, “Don’t be afraid!” and “Look, I am doing a new thing!” To which we (too often) respond, “That’s great, God, but I am just getting (or am quite) comfortable with the old thing!” Yes in some ways God and life can be just as irritating as computer and software companies with their new models and constant updates – yet slightly more cosmically. At Living Spirit UC we are entering into a re-tooling time as our reality has changed locally and everywhere churches are confronted with the need to find new life. The heart (software) of our ministry and mission is essentially the same as it has been for 2000+ years, but needs an upgrade to be effective and efficient as new ways of being church emerge. I invite you to click on the blue link below, and at leas read summary of the interview and take five minutes listen to the recorded interview, it gets better toward the end. See how one Calgary church is upgrading its ministry to fit its mission.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/knox-united-church-downtown-calgary-sanctuary-cafe-1.4421478

Our situation is different, we are not a downtown cathedral, we don’t have thousands of people passing by each day, but  we do have an open future if we take some time to work it out. I believe re-engaging the surrounding neighbourhoods is essential and isolation and loneliness are huge and problematic needs that are calling for ministry. I believe our mission is not about filling pews with people but filling people’s hearts with Good News. I also believe that God has great hope for Living Spirit UC and what we can do and be together.

 

Happy Advent

Paul

Giving Up or Digging In

Whether it is an earthquake, flood, famine, terrorism or some other cause of death and destruction for numbers of people, the most common responses in social media and from political offices contain the phrase, “thoughts and prayers”. So over used and hypocritically stated are “thoughts and prayers” that many are reacting negatively to the phrase claiming it is a trite excuse for not even trying to help, and an insult to the victims. Most recently in Texas when 26 church attenders were killed by a heavily armed man, it seems pathetic, to say the least, that US legislators were only willing to send “thoughts and prayers” when they have the power to control the sale of guns and won’t. It is lame as well for those of us who have the resources send “thoughts and prayers” instead of a donation, or a visit where needed and possible, or to stand with victims in public protest. I have nothing against “thoughts and prayers” but too often they could lead to some kind of action . . . . . and don’t.

 

The end of November brings not only the Grey Cup but also the end of the Season of Creation and the end of the church year. December brings a new church year with Advent and Christmas, and  an opportunity to contemplate the meaning of those seasons from a faith point of view. Through Advent the excitement builds. God is going to do something new with Creation. Most don’t believe in a clockmaker God who started creation running and then left the scene, even though we can expect at times to rightly feel abandoned by God. Christmas is about the idea that God not only cares about creation and its fulfillment but actively and creatively engages an on-going, always unfolding creation ultimately leading to restoration and reconciliation. In the cry of a newborn infant we can hear the voice of a God that does more than send “thoughts and prayers”, an engaged voice calling us to be the hands and feet of God moving us into right relation with all creation.

 

This Sunday at Living Spirit United you are invited to “Dig Deeper” as we worship together and explore that call. Can our own talents and Christmas be more than “thoughts and prayers”? Something to think and pray about!

Peace: It takes more than a desire

“War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that he too is

suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.” Karl Kraus, Austrian writer, 1874-1936

 

“Those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim Him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another. War springs from the love and loyalty which should be offered to God being applied to some God substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism.” Robert Runcie,  Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991

 

While tempting, it is too easy to write a diatribe condemning war or a puff piece promoting peace. If avoiding war or achieving peace were easy, simple and uncomplicated we would all be living in blissful (if perhaps boring) harmony. Having done some scholarly study of world religions I believe it can be said that all of them (including ones that make us uncomfortable and/or afraid) promote a path to peace. As Christians we know that Jesus was and is called the Prince of Peace. At the same time he said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matt 10:34) and spoke of how his message of peace would bring conflict within families and between nations. If everyone in the world would just . . . Well I’ll stop myself there because there is no way that all seven billion people on this planet “would just . . .” anything! And that is the problem.

 

The diversity of people, thought, lifestyle, need, belief, fears, grudges and resentments in this world is infinite in its complexity. Trying to get everyone to think, feel and live the same has been tried again and again and inevitably fails – usually with horrifying results. As a Christian I believe that peace is not a goal but a process of living with respect in creation. Respect for God and God’s creation, our global neighbours and ourselves. So simple to say, so difficult to do. Yet it is at the heart of all the great religions – treat others as you would have them treat you. The “Golden Rule”.

 

To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, the path to peace has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.

 

My Remembrance Day challenge is to try once again, each day, every day, to live with love and respect for everyone and everything. It will be difficult. Of course you will fail. Try again. And again. And again. The proverbial glass is neither half full nor half empty and we all thirst.

 

Shalom, God’s peace through justice and healing, is with you each step of the way.

Love Your Neighbour as You Love Your Selfie

As we have seen too often in the past and once again in the last few weeks, the price of stardom, celebrity, even success in general is accepting that sexual harassment and sexual coercion are “normal” as unnatural, abusive and unacceptable as they are. Rightly seen, I believe, sexual harassment and sexual coercion are not really about sex as such but about power. When some people find they have power and control over others the temptation arises in them to use that power abusively. That abuse can take many forms and only some are sexual. That temptation does not have to be given in to, and yet sadly it is – again and again.

Behind the inability to resist the temptation that power brings is the love of self, the idolatry of one’s self. When we love ourselves too much and love God too little, temptation wins – especially when we see ourselves as better than or superior to others, for whatever reason. Strangely idolatry of the self arises not out of a big ego, the big ego and the love of it arises out of fear. Fear of one’s worthlessness, fear of being unloved and/or unlovable, fear of failure to name just a few. Fears breed idolatry and idolatry breeds abuse.

The church is certainly no immune to giving in to abusive temptations. Residential schools, paternalistic missionaries, abusive clergy and priests, etc. Even Catholic popes have not been immune. This Sunday Protestant churches mark the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses 500 years ago (actually Oct. 31, 1517). Luther was protesting the what he saw as abuses by the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Luther himself was abusive of Jews and Judaism. The wilderness of fear and its temptations to abusive power seem to be everywhere. Yet there is a way through.

This Sunday at Living Spirit we will be looking at our journey through the wilderness of fear and how we can walk it together without abusing ourselves or others. Hint: something must die! (Disclaimer: no violence will be done to your most precious idols should you choose to let them go).

 

Shalom!

Paul

Faith to Face

In what seems like a long time ago the band “R.E.M.” had a hit song called “Losing My Religion.” Although many assumed it was about becoming an atheist that wasn’t exactly  the case. In an interview with Q Magazine, Michael Stipe, the author and lead singer in the band, says, ‘”Losing My Religion” is about “someone who pines for someone else. It’s unrequited love, what have you.” The phrase is common in the US deep South meaning being at the end of one’s rope. When we have tried everything we know to get what we need or want and have run out of options, we tend to start questioning our understanding of reality. When we believe something is true, i.e., that a special someone loves us because we love them, and they show no interest back, it is a time of anguish. That hopeful dream must die a tragic death. That “religion” dies and grief sets in. Sorry if that takes you back to your teen, or even more recent, years of pain and sorrow.

 

Even more recently for some, the recent municipal election in Calgary is causing some to lose their religion. Dreams of new stadiums and uncontrolled urban sprawl to delight investors seem shattered. Strategies to sweep away opposing candidates have failed. Assurances that a gullible population could be manipulated into voting against their own interest have proved to give false hope. Regardless of your own political leanings I suspect you will agree that conservatives (note the small “c”) in Calgary need to offer something more than “Not Nenshi/N.D.P./liberal/etc” if they want to carry a future election. I think that they need to take a profound look at the failure of their “religion” and thoroughly examine what they really believe about the people of this city, democracy, good government, worthy candidates, and so on. I suspect that instead they will go into the next election with the same old religion and risk getting it handed to them on a platter.

 

Moses, after leading the Hebrew people out of oppression, out of danger from Pharaoh’s army, out of hunger and thirst and into a new understanding of how to survive together  and minimize conflict (the Ten Commandments) was not faced with brilliant success but the one reality he probably didn’t want to face – more wilderness! (Exodus 33: 12-23) He really felt he had fallen out of God’s favour and longed to see God face to face. His deep yearning was heard by God who assured him that he was favoured and reminded him that if he were to experience the full reality of God (face to face) it would blow his circuits (Exodus 33: 20). God does, however allow Moses to see his backside (33: 23).

 

Jesus, confronted with a question about taxes (Matthew 22: 15-22), held up a small coin with an image of Augustus Caesar on it and uttered “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” This is often taken as meaning “Be good and pay your taxes”, an unfortunate interpretation. As I understand it he was telling his challengers it was time for them to lose their religion and decide on a new future.

 

I can say more on this and probably will this Sunday at Living Spirit. Please let me know what you think before then and maybe I’ll have to lose my religion.

 

God’s peace of justice and respect is with you.

 

Paul

The Hope of Audacity

My title, you may recognize, is a reversal of Barak Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope.” In turning it around I do not mean or intend any disrespect as it, along with poet Malcolm Guite’s meditation on the “Audacity of Vulnerability”, got me thinking about our life both as Christians and as a Church. This Sunday at Living Spirit we will be hearing a story and a parable from the Bible: from the Book of the Exodus (32:1-14), Moses and the golden calf, and from Matthew (22: 1-14), the king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. Whether these are familiar or not I would encourage you to look them up before Sunday and read them through at least once, there is a Table of Contents to help you locate them and they are short!

 

Audacity is obvious in both. The Exodus story centers on the audacity of the people who grow tired of Moses absence (he was up a mountain talking to God) and demand that his brother, Aaron, build them a golden calf to worship. In Matthew the audacity comes from the king (God?) who is angered by his nobles’ feeble excuses for skipping his son’s wedding feast and sends his servant out to invite everyone else (good and bad, go figure) to come in their place.

 

In the larger picture both stories speak of God’s audacity, defying our lust for upward mobility, stuff, status and monetary gain (success!), bringing the holiness of presence from abstraction down to earth and to each of us.

 

Have the audacity to worship this Sunday! We have pumpkin spice cappuccinos AND services.

 

Blessings,

 

Paul

When Giving Thanks is Tough

If you are not feeling overwhelmed by a world of bad news these days you probably haven’t been paying attention. Or you are overwhelmed with your own personal and family struggles. Either way our inner bucket of thanksgiving may be near empty or just plain dry. When you have to think hard and dig deep to find gratitude for anything, Thanksgiving Day is not the most welcome day of the year. The thought of Thanksgiving Sunday worship might be sounding a hollow clang of emptiness that you don’t want to endure.

 

At the same time, worship on Thanksgiving Sunday might be just what we need. Rather than cocooning into solitary or family seclusion, being with good people (even though they are not perfect), and entering into the rhythms and cadence of worship brings its own comfort and peace. Hearing ancient words that still speak to our humanity and community can both challenge and heal. Singing into and out of emptiness becomes a bold statement of defiance against all who bring only hate, fear and violence. Engaging in conversation, both superficial and deep (sometimes at the same time) over tea, coffee or . . . Pumpkin Spice Cappuccino! . . . can be soothing and affirming. Know that a warm, welcome awaits you and a community which understands emptiness and brokenness will be there waiting with it.

 

Turning off the internet and TV and ignoring the News for a few hours, or, more so the whole long weekend, can also give the mind, heart and soul a break and help us gain a new and healthier focus. Other parts of our brain are engaged when news of disaster is not flooding our senses. The 24 Hour News cycle by itself is overwhelming. Conflict, catastrophe, calamity give headlines that “sell eyeballs” to advertisers – as more people watch, the more revenue will come in for the whatever media outlet you are watching. Media publishers put it this way, “If it bleeds, it leads”. Good news has trouble getting moved up from the bottom of the news barrel. A sad side effect of this approach to the “news” is the violent impression of the world it gives media consumers, people like you and me. You may find it hard to believe but historians tell us that we are living in a remarkably peaceful time.

 

Walking or being outside and unplugged can rewire our brains when we give attention to our senses. Autumn is a sensory delight with colourful, crunchy leaves, crisp air, new smells, the bright  sun lower on the horizon, blustery days and chilly nights. All remind us of nature’s eternally changing beauty, reinforcing our need for this kind of Sabbath practice. Death is all around us and yet we live, we give thanks.

 

I am not suggesting we ignore the troubles of the world, our families or ourselves. They are real and they are important. Being overwhelmed and empty, however, reduces our capacity to respond reasonably and effectively. Spiritual practices enable us to engage our God, each other, and ourselves, connecting us with basic, powerful resources that we might make wise decisions and be responsive to the problems that confront us. We might even feel more alive and grateful! A hope, not a guarantee.

 

May the happiness of Thanksgiving find a nesting place in your heart this weekend.

 

Shalom

Paul