The word that best describes my sabbatical…

I wrote the following as a “report” on my sabbatical.


Regarding Rhythms:
Sabbath for Rest.
Retreats for Reflection.
Vacation for Recreation.
Sabbatical for Renewal.

As you by now know, I am back from a three month sabbatical.  I’ve been thinking for weeks and weeks as to how to best describe my time away, and I keep coming back to the same word, over and over again:  Gift. A gift.

The timing worked out well, and Milo was born my first week off of work.  Both Ash and I got to be with Milo for his first three months of life in a way that very few parents get to do.  That was a gift, and I am thankful.

During my sabbatical, it was reaffirmed to me that this church called Grace Mennonite is a gift… This community of people is a gift.  I know all of our warts and all the silly things we do, we’re not perfect, but let me tell you, there is no other place that I would be, no other place that I’d want to raise my kids, than here.

Ash and I were in Chicago in September for the both the Enneagram Conference and the Why Christian Conference, and one evening we were on the 94th story of the John Hancock Center doing the touristy thing, and one of you sent me a message.  You told me that tomorrow was Orange Shirt Day, a day we invited to wear orange to remember all the residential school survivors, and you told me that even though you didn’t own an orange shirt, you were going to put some orange flowers on your desk to tell the story.  With tears in my eyes in front of some European tourists taking selfies, I looked at Ashley and said: I love our church, and we get to be a part of this.

While we were away, my 4 year old nephew had to have open heart surgery to fix a hole in his heart.  We were told it was a fairly routine surgery, but when we stopped to think about it, it was terrifying.  We were able to shoot a quick email to a bunch of you to ask for prayers, and instantly we were reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and that we do not walk alone.  My nephew’s surgery went well, and all your prayers were a gift.

When I was gone I didn’t give very much of my money away to charities… Just a couple bucks to some cancer walk here or a natural disaster fund there.  I wanted to reflect on what not giving money to church would feel like… It was kind of empty.  I was reminded that giving some of our money every month to church is far more than simply paying for the heating bill or Mel’s pension plan.  Giving money here is a one stop shop for a whole host of initiatives and community building.  Here we get to have conversations on poverty and reconciliation with First Nations and mental health, here we get to go to Pauingassi First Nation for family camp, here we get to walk with people as they grieve loved ones, here our children get to have extra grandparents in every corner of the church, here we get to sponsor schools around the world and support refugee families in town and help host Soup’s On and English classes and have a free thanksgiving dinner with 200 people. When we were in Chicago, I would be talking to strangers about our church, and I would explain who we are at Grace, and who we try to be, and they would look at me and say:  “You’re church sounds pretty awesome.  I want to come.”    I get to be here… You let me lead here… That is a gift.

When I was gone, I had some time to intentionally pray and reflect on this Christian faith that we find ourselves in.  One thing I read was that the role of religion is simply, to tell us, and to keep reminding us, of who we objectively are… That we are beloved recipients of God’s grace and peace, and we get to offer that to the world.  That is a gift.  We get to do that!

I could talk a lot longer about all of this… I think that when I got back to work last week I was like a fire hose… Poor Mel and Audrey.   If you want to hear more about all I did and learned, definitely be in touch.  And if you don’t, well, it’ll come out in my sermons for the next few years.

But back to the word that I keep coming back to…  Gift.  It reminds me of the definition I use for grace.  Grace is a gift, undeserved.

And I am grateful to be part of a church that has named itself grace. That is a gift.

PS – Plus, I built a canoe.  That is also a gift.

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Manure, the Antichrist, and Flossing – A post-election sermon

You spend 3 months on sabbatical thinking about what you’re going to preach about on Peace Sunday, and then you wake up Wednesday morning and find out that our neighbours to south of us elected Donald Trump.

I understand that we are in Canada, so we’re watching from a distance.

I understand that even here, we probably won’t agree HOW we talk about politics in church, let alone how we participate in our governments or who we vote for.

Also, I’ve heard it said that when we mix faith with politics, it’s like mixing ice cream with manure.  The manure isn’t ruined, but the ice cream certainly is.

But something profound happened this week, and I think for us to ignore it would be naive.  As wiseman Mel says – If we’re talking about it out there, we can talk about it in here.

This morning, I am going to try to speak as kindly and fairly as possible, but I am going to speak directly.  I am going to take the risk of saying something you may disagree with.  I am okay with that, and trust our relationship and our desire to be loving over our disagreements.  If Ash and I can still love each other and disagree on things, I’m sure most of us can as well.

For me, the best lens to look at this week’s election is through the lens of scapegoat theory.

Scapegoat theory works like this:

(Most of what follows are Brian Zahnd’s words from his book Farewell to Mars.  For the sake of flow, I didn’t cite which words were his and which were mine.   But if it sounds smart and concise, assume they’re his words.)

When a group of people perceive themselves to be slighted or wronged, displaced or threatened, they can grow into a vindictive crowd.  When a group or people becomes an angry, fear-driven crowd, the group-think phenomenon of mob mentality quickly overtakes rational thought and individual responsibility.  The mob takes on a spirit of its own and some of the words that describe the crowd are words that we usually associate with demonic forces:  Angry, vengeful, blaming, accusing. The words devil and satan both mean to blame and to accuse.

When the crowd is whipped up, it searches for a target upon which it can express the pent-up rage it feels.  The crowd looks for a scapegoat, whose role is to bear the sin of the crowd.  The crowd looks for a sacrificial victim to bear its sinful anger.

And when it finds a scapegoat, the mob becomes capable of evil that would be unthinkable for most of us as individuals.  The crowd proceeds to blame, shame, accuse, vilify, and possibly murder the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is usually a marginalized person or a minority group that it is easy to victimize.  And we as humans have been scapegoating since the dawn of civilization.   All of us, both on the left AND the right, are guilty

Some examples?

The Holocaust scapegoated the Jews.

The Crusades scapegoated Muslims.

Terrorists scapegoat the West.

The West scapegoats terrorists, especially if they’re Muslim.

We can even directly name things closer to home.

Community meetings against Bill 18 was about scapegoating members of the LGBTQ community.

The angry barrage of social media posts cursing politicians who weren’t at the Pride March in July was all about scapegoating.

Almost every partisan election is an example of scapegoating.  We scapegoat conservatives and liberals and urban folk and rural folk and rich people and poor people and more educated and less educated and Muslims and Quebecers and the Reformers and the Religious right and Hispanics and First Nations and African Americans and Jews.

We are always looking for someone to blame for our problems, to project our own anxieties upon.

The angry crowd is always wrong.  Even if it calls itself Christian.  Even if the issue is right, the angry crowd is wrong in spirit.   The angry crowd is dangerous because they are looking for a scapegoat.

Jesus does not lead the angry crowd.  Jesus does not lead his people to join the angry crowd.  Jesus never leads anything other than the gentle and peaceable minority.  Jesus hides from triumphalistic crowd that tries to force him to be their war-waging king.  Jesus weeps over the nationalistic crowd whose Hosanna’s are meant to egg him into violent revolution.   The angry crowd is the antichrist.  The angry crowd can evil kill the son of God.

The gospel narratives make it clear that Jesus filled the role of scapegoat.  By becoming the scapegoat, Jesus dragged the demonic practice of scapegoating into the light where it could be named, shamed, and once and for all rejected.  Jesus carried our blame down to Hades and left it there.  Jesus became the final scapegoat.

That’s why Christianity is the only religion in the world whose founder suffered a violent death and there was zero call for revenge or retaliation.  For three hundred years there was only grace and peace and forgiveness, even for “enemies.”

It was human systems of blame, sacrifice, and violence that put the Son of God to death. But this sacrificial death drags the sin of the world into the light where it is forgiven by Christ and where it is to be forsaken by us.

The Jesus way of producing peace is based in mercy and forgiveness, not blame and retribution.

So in any election, in any discussion or debate about what’s right and wrong, or who’s right or wrong, we can name our anxiety, we can lament the realities in front of us, we can work for justice, we can admit our fear and ask God to help us, but what we cannot do is turn towards others and blame them in anger.   Especially those on the margins of society.  Especially those with less social capital and resources and community connections and places to draw strength from. Doing so is the antichrist.  Not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Rachel Notley (if you live in Alberta).   The angry crowd looking for a scapegoat is the anti-christ.

Two things for us today.

Number one.

The church doesn’t have a social strategy.  The church is the social strategy.  – Stanley Hauwerwas

The primary confession of the first Christians was three words:  Jesus is Lord.  No matter what happens, anywhere, anytime, the first task of the church is to simply be the church and say together that Jesus is Lord.  Saying that Jesus is Lord means that we give Jesus the right to tell us how to live.

So that means that we keep welcoming refugees and we standing with minorities and we keep feeding the hungry. We keep clothing the naked and keep inviting people to parties and keep being kind to immigrants and outsiders and we keep giving back all that we have received.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to racism and say yes to reconciliation.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to sexism and misogyny.  Bragging about sexual assault like it’s normal is not okay.  Especially in the church.

Denouncing sexism and racism isn’t a liberal agenda. It’s a Christian one. 

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to homophobia and yes to equality for all of God’s beloved children.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to dropping bombs on our enemies and yes to praying for them.  It means that we say no to drone warfare and yes to doing good to those who would hurt us.

Jesus is Lord means that we are pro-life means that we care about the quality of life for everyone from the womb to the tomb, not just part of one’s life.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to scapegoating others and yes to working for the common good.

Jesus is Lord means that we say no to fear and hate and yes to peace and grace and justice and love.

Jesus is Lord means that we keep loving our neighbours as ourselves, imagining a better future for everyone, even if it costs us… Love is not a victory march, but it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. 

Jesus is Lord means that, to quote Bruce Cockburn, we keep (non-violently) kicking the darkness til it bleeds daylight.

Number one:  Jesus is Lord.

1669323205cbe57ace5e04433be5e389Number two:  Loving our enemies takes practice.  It doesn’t just happen.  It’s seems so counter-intuitive that often it doesn’t make sense.  But if we declare that Jesus is Lord, we have to practice ways to love our enemies.  Kind of like flossing our teeth.  We know we should do it, we don’t really want to do it, we don’t always like doing it, but when we do it, and do it well, we open ourselves up to the amazing world of good dental hygiene.  If we don’t choose to nurture loving kindness, it is unlikely that a year from now we’ll be any more loving (Richard Rohr).

So, today we’re going to nurture our loving kindness by ending few minutes of contemplative prayer.

As I light the candle, I’d invite you to sit a comfortable position and put your hands out like you are receiving a gift.

As you close your eyes, take a few breaths. Notice your breathing.

Begin by finding the place of loving kindness inside your heart, the place where God’s love and affirmation for you is as real as it can be.

Drawing upon this source of love, bring to mind someone you deeply care about, and send loving kindness toward them.

Now direct this love toward a casual friend or colleague, someone just beyond your inner circle.

Continue drawing from your inner source of loving kindness and let it flow toward someone about whom you feel neutral or indifferent, a stranger.

Remember someone who has hurt you or someone you struggle to like. Bless them. Send them your love.

Gather all these people and yourself into the stream of love and hold them here for a few moments.

Finally, let the flow of loving kindness widen to encompass all beings in the universe.  Imagine God’s love reaching into every corner and crevice of the universe.

Amen.

And grace and peace to everyone.