Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecost: the fire this time

I wrote this post on our church's Community Conversations Facebook page, but thought I'd share it here as well.

Today is Pentecost, the day Christians around the world celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the believers gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus' ascension. Acts 2:2-3 describes it: "Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them."

Today as we view images of anti-racist protest and harsh police pushback all over the United States, I think about that violent wind and those tongues of fire. An old slave spiritual called Mary Don't You Weep includes the words "God gave Noah the rainbow sign: no more water, but fire next time." (Black American writer/activist James Baldwin took his book title The Fire Next Time from this lyric).

I imagine this fire as the Holy Spirit. We often think of the Spirit somewhat tamely, as our personal comforter and guide -- but the Spirit is also the Advocate for the oppressed, the Truth that comes from the Father, the One who Testifies (John 15:26). Perhaps today God is sending the fire of the Holy Spirit to stand up for the oppressed, to reveal the devastating truth about racism, to testify that God is not pleased when his image-bearers are crushed by generations of violence and hate. 

God, may Your Spirit's fire come to rest on us this time, moving us to repent and empowering us to act for justice. We want to be on the side of whatever You are doing in this world.


Saturday, May 16, 2020

Five Minute Friday: NORMAL

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. 

This week's word is NORMAL.


Two months into the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown, it feels like normal has taken on a whole new meaning. Back at the beginning of March we could hardly have imagined the things we wouldn't be doing: getting together with friends and relatives for birthdays and holidays or just a quick visit, going to school and church and camp, going out for coffee or lunch, gearing up for summer sports or travel. 

And we could hardly have imagined the things we would be doing: waiting in line outside a grocery store till the staff let us in, dropping off a package of yeast at the home of someone we've never met, asking neighbours for toilet paper, cutting our own hair. (Yes, I have been doing this, and so far it's working!) 

So it's a new normal -- but for us it has been a pretty manageable one, overall. Richard still works the same number of shifts; I'm still doing my online course work; Allison is finding it a bit tedious but not hugely disruptive; Jonathan's missing his structured activities but coping amazingly well for the most part. We are fortunate. 

But so many others have been hard-hit by this crisis: people who have lost loved ones to the virus and couldn't be with them when they died or honour them with a funeral; who have lost their jobs due to cutbacks; who have no choice but to go to work in high-risk settings; whose well-being was already precarious because of homelessness, poverty, or mental or physical illness.

And millions of people in the world were already living with the kinds of restrictions many of us are now lamenting as "deprivations," like empty store shelves, lineups for basic activities, lack of access to school and cultural activities. We're getting a very small taste of what normal looks like for the less privileged worldwide.

One great thing about these Five Minute Friday linkups is that they give us an opportunity to see the wide variety of ways people experience, interpret, and write about the same word. And the Covid-19 pandemic is giving us an opportunity to see what our definition of normal really is and whether it's worth preserving or needs to change.


Friday, April 17, 2020

Five Minute Friday: ANOTHER

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt.

This week's word is ANOTHER.


I don't know if you know this, but sometimes kids do things for no apparent reason. About ten days ago my son did one of those for-no-reason things (at least he didn't divulge a reason). When no one else was in the room, he went to the window ledge where I keep several house plants, and he ripped both of my shamrock (oxalis) plants, a purple one and a green one, out of the soil and dropped all the stems and leaves down behind the couch. He didn't touch the other plants, just the shamrocks. All that was left of the green one was soil; all that was left of the purple one was a couple of little shoots.

I cleaned up the mess, watered the soil in both pots, and basically neglected them for the next ten days (which is pretty much my usual method of caring for plants).

Ten days later, the purple shamrock looks like this:

Shamrocks are so resilient: even after what seems like total destruction, they bounce back quickly, grow like mad, and bloom enthusiastically and often. They just need another chance.

Part of me wants to rush to some quick parallel like "God is all about second chances!" or "Easter shows us that there is always another chance for new life!" or "Spring is nature's way of giving everything another chance!"

But in this difficult season, with our lives so disrupted by the Covid-19 lockdown and the reality of so many people sick and dying from the virus, I find it harder to make that leap. Some people didn't get another chance to speak to their loved one before they died. It's heartbreaking.

So I won't end with comforting cliches. I'll just look at my shamrock whenever I need another glimpse of hope, another reminder to wait and trust through difficult days.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Quick Lit: three good novels for a time of social distancing

I haven't linked up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit" in a long time. But right now, with the coronavirus pandemic causing the cancellation of activities and the need to distance ourselves from others to prevent the spread, there really isn't a better time to read. Not that there is ever a bad time to read...

So if you're looking for some good fiction to get you through the next few weeks, here are the three novels I've read this year so far. BONUS: they are all by Canadian novelists!

(I'll do another post for nonfiction another day, just to spread things out.)

The Difference by Marina Endicott.
I may as well start with the best. The Difference (to be released in the US in a couple of months under the title The Voyage of the Morning Light) is one of the best novels I've read in a long time, maybe ever. Set in 1911, it is about a young girl named Kay who joins her older sister Thea and Thea's husband, the captain of a merchant ship, on a voyage from Nova Scotia to the far east. Kay has nightmares about a traumatic time she and Thea lived through in western Canada where, we come to find out, their father was head of a native residential school. Then an encounter with a boy on a small island in Micronesia changes all their lives, deepening Kay's questions about God, forgiveness, and the differences between people and between all creatures. The descriptions and settings are breathtaking, and the characters are unforgettable. The only negative thing about this book was that it had to end.

Five Wives by Joan Thomas.
Another great novel. This is a fictionalized account of the real-life story of five American missionaries (the best-known being Jim Elliot) who were killed by members of the Waorani people in Ecuador in 1956. Thomas imagines the events up to, including, and after the missionaries' deaths from the points of view of their wives; she also includes modern-day episodes about some of the missionaries' children and grandchildren (these parts are completely made-up, with invented names, etc.) and how these later generations reflect on the true impact the missionaries had in the lives of the Waorani. This novel really makes you think hard about Christian missionary efforts and the choices people make in the name of doing God's will. So good.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson.
My daughter Allison, knowing my great interest in The Crown television series, thoughtfully chose this book for me as a Christmas gift. It is a lovely novel about two young women, one English (Ann) and one French (Miriam), in postwar London. They work as embroiderers and are, to their great excitement, tasked with doing embroidery for Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress. The story is told from the perspectives of both women as well as that of Ann's granddaughter, who receives some pieces of embroidery when her grandmother dies and who goes to London to try to find out more about Ann's early life. If you like Kate Morton's novels, you'll probably like this one.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Five Minute Friday: LESS

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is LESS.

(Last week I wrote my FMF post about an episode from the Gospels, so I thought I'd do the same here. There is so much to unpack in the stories of Jesus!)

In Luke 21:1-4 we read,

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.”

This sounds like an inspiring story of generosity: this poor widow had so much less than the other people there, but proportionally she gave more -- "everything she had to live on" -- so Jesus was praising her for her selfless act and reminding his watchers to give generously of their money too, just as she was doing.

But it may be that Jesus wasn't holding her up as an example at all. Instead, he may have been commenting on how this woman was the victim of an unfair and demoralizing system. Quite likely she felt she had no choice but to give to the temple treasury; the religious leaders probably had her convinced that it was her duty. After all, in the verses right before this scene, at the end of chapter 20, Jesus is harshly critical of the religious leaders who "devour widows' houses." And if she was so poor that her small contribution left her penniless, why weren't the religious leaders helping her out?

This probably isn't a "God loves a cheerful giver" feel-good story. It's a reminder that God isn't pleased when those in power take advantage of those who have less, making them feel obliged to perform pious acts without helping them when they need it most. 

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Five Minute Friday: TABLE

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is TABLE.

There's a disconcerting story in the Bible (Matthew 15 and Mark 7) in which Jesus goes to the area of Tyre and Sidon and is accosted by a Syro-Phoenician woman. She begs him to heal her daughter, who is possessed by a demon.

Jesus doesn't reply, but she persists, and his disciples urge Jesus to get rid of her. So he says to her in a dismissive-sounding way, "I'm sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." 

She knows that as a Greek woman (and more insultingly, a "Canaanite" as the passage translates it), she clearly doesn't qualify. However, she keeps begging for help, so Jesus says to her, "It's not right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Wow. What a slap in the face. She approaches an esteemed Jewish rabbi for help, and he calls her a dog?! But she still doesn't give up. She gives an instant clapback -- after all, what does she have to lose? -- "But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall under the table, don't they?"

Jesus is impressed by her faith and persistence and instantly heals her daughter.

There are various ways to interpret Jesus' exchange with this woman:

- Jesus is totally in the right calling her (a desperate Gentile woman) a dog. Jesus is God and can say whatever he wants, even if it sounds unkind and racist. 

- In fact the "dog" remark isn't really that bad -- I wouldn't mind being called a puppy, would you? And if he said it he was probably just joking, which is also perfectly acceptable if you're God.

- He's trying to test her faith: he wants to know if she really wants her daughter healed or if she'll flounce off in a huff at the first sign of being insulted. She passes the test.

- Jesus' encounter with the woman expands his vision of his own ministry. Before that moment, he was focused on preaching, teaching, and healing "the children of Israel"; through this woman's words and actions, he discovers that his ministry is much broader than that.

This last interpretation might make us uncomfortable: The Son of God got it wrong and had to be corrected? The Son of God had to learn something? But of course Luke 2:52 tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom, just as he grew in physical stature. In his full humanness as a man of his time and place, he might understandably have seen Greeks as second-class people and expressed that in his words to the woman. 

And if that does make us uncomfortable, then alternatively we've got to come to terms with the story in some other way: maybe by saying it's OK for God to make a racial slur (which is definitely how it would have been taken), because he's God and his ways are higher than ours. Or that it really wasn't a slur, just a harmless joke, and she responded with her own witty humour. Or that he didn't really say it at all, that Mark and Matthew got it wrong ... but then that means the Bible's "wrong" ... and/or they went ahead and wrote it even though it made Jesus look bad. Or that Jesus was literally correct in the first place: he came only to save Jews ... in which case all the Epistles -- and the whole gospel, come to think of it -- fall like dominoes ... Whew. It's complicated. 

I'm not a Biblical scholar, but I love reading the gospels -- and I'm OK with the "Jesus learned a lesson" interpretation. It doesn't make him seem any less divine to me; it just shows me that, in his humanness, he might have had mental/social blind spots. It doesn't make me upset or weaken my faith, anymore than it would if I learned that he had some physical limitation. 

But regardless of the interpretation, I love this story. I love this woman, who is humble enough to plead for help and confident enough to believe she deserves whatever crumbs she can get. I think when we encounter Jesus we're always going to be changed in some way. And it's exciting to think that maybe Jesus is changed through his contact with us, too.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Five Minute Friday: SACRIFICE

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. 

The word this week is SACRIFICE.

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I've been a parent for over 21 years, and I hope I don't sound like I'm looking for a Nobel Prize when I say that parenting involves a lot of sacrifice. Parenting may require us to sacrifice time, privacy, peace and quiet, plans, a clean tidy house ... oh, and sleep. A lot of sleep.

As a child I took very little conscious notice of the sacrifices my parents made for me and my brothers. They weren't passive-aggressive "Why aren't you grateful for all I've done for you!" types, so I never felt the weight of guilt or shame that we kids were preventing them from enjoying the life they might otherwise have had if they hadn't been parents.

We were their life. I know that now. Maybe it's because I'm a parent, or maybe it's just because I've grown up and can see the extent to which they sacrificed in great and small ways for our happiness.

That's what this poem of mine, "On whom his favour rests," tries to capture: the spirit of sacrifice that comes from a heart of love.

On whom his favour rests

We watched from the kitchen window as Dad plunged down
the lane through knee-deep snow, flashlight beam bobbing
ahead, to start the truck. Exhaust plumed round the red
tail lights, and soft snow flurried as he brushed off the hood

and windshield. Afterward, he walked back to the barn to hitch
the horse to the sleigh, then drove it to the door for Mom
and the boys and me to climb on. We sat on bales he’d placed
on the sleigh bottom, and held tight for the lurching ride

down the lane to where the truck sat running. While we waited
in the warm cab, he returned the sleigh to the barn, tied up the horse,
and came back to the truck at last. At the time, we were so impatient:
it was Christmas concert night, and we wanted to be at the church

already, to shrug out of our coats, don angel wings or
shepherd’s robes, and act out the greatest story again. Yet
now what I think of when I recall that night is not my lines
or cues, or even the news of great joy, but the whickering sound

of the horse’s breaths, the creak of wooden shafts on leather harness,
how the stars swung shivering overhead, and how my father
did without complaint all he could to give us those times of wonder
and bring all the peace on earth our hearts could hold.