Meadowview Message … June 30, 2013

Powered by the Spirit

Scripture: 2 Timothy 1: 3-14.

I’d like to start by having you imagine some powerful and loud sounds.  The sound of a thunderclap, a jumbo jet taking off, an electric chainsaw, a diesel train, a sports car revving up, the smack of a golf ball being hit soundly. A loud and powerful sound, especially a sudden loud and powerful sound, can make you jump. It can trigger your fight or flight response, your brain firing up your metabolism instantly, so that your body is primed to attack or run away.

Power can be good. We need electrical power in our homes. It’s good to have a power hitter on your baseball team. If you have to harvest several hundred acres, you want a powerful combine. I’m sure you’ve have heard of Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor. He was the home improvement guy on TV who always wanted more power for his tools. And why not? You can get the job done quicker and more efficiently with powerful tools. There’s even something called a “power suit” in fashion. It’s a tailored suit, sharply pressed, designed to give you a polished and professional look so people will have confidence in you and your decisions.

But power can be harmful too. Hurricanes and twisters are powerful storms that cause tremendous damage and even take people’s lives. Think about the recent tornado in Oklahoma, one of the most powerful and devastating on record. In Alberta, a wet spring and heavy rains caused rivers to surge powerfully, causing widespread flooding and the loss of life and property. It’s not just nature that can show the harmful side of power. We human beings have created missiles and nuclear weapons with almost inconceivable power and destructive capability.

I wonder if you ever realized that Christians are supposed to be powerful?  Maybe it’s not something that immediately strikes you as a Christian quality, not one we talk about frequently, not one of the fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5: 22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But 2 Timothy 1 talks about Christians being powered by the Spirit: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”

Have you ever thought about being a powerful Christian? I usually don’t see myself as powerful. Especially as we get older and our bodies don’t always work as well as they used to, it can seem almost rude for me, or, really St. Paul, to suggest that we should have a spirit of power.

Well, what does a powerful Christian do?  Let me just read the next few verses again: “So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life, – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. There are three verbs in those verses that tell us what we have to do as powerful, unafraid Christians. And they’re surprising.

The first verb is testify. We have to testify. It sounds like a legal word but it simply means tell. We have to tell others about Jesus. We have to share our faith. We have to talk! Talking doesn’t take power, does it? Sometimes it does. Sometimes you’re the only voice in a crowd that wants to speak the name of Jesus. That takes a certain kind of power. The power to stand up against peer pressure.

Sometimes we just feel disinclined to talk about Jesus. We don’t have the energy or we feel insecure. It will take some willpower to overcome that laziness or rise above those inhibitions. Paul seems to be aware that testifying isn’t always easy. He says, “Don’t be ashamed to testify about our Lord!” Don’t be ashamed to talk about your faith. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to go around forcefully accosting your friends and neighbours, pigeon-holing them into listening to a sermon. It means that in your everyday conversations, you will include references to your faith life. You might mention your church, what you’ve been reading in the Bible lately, what you’ve heard on the news that impacts your Christian outlook. It means people will know, just by knowing you, that you are a Christian. And when the Lord opens the right door or window, it means you’ll talk about the time when Jesus entered your life and it made a difference.

The second verb is suffer. That doesn’t sound very powerful, does it? We have to suffer for the gospel. But it does take power, the power to endure ridicule or misunderstanding and sometimes alienation and estrangement from those who want nothing to do with Jesus. Sometimes suffering for the gospel means having to bear another’s burdens, carrying a hurting friend through a difficult time. When we belong to the Body of Christ, we rejoice with those who rejoice, but we also mourn with those who mourn. It can be difficult and wearying, sometimes, to open ourselves up to the hurt and pain of others. Compassion takes a special kind of power, the power of selflessness and generosity of spirit.

The third verb is “called.” A Christian is called to a holy life. What does a holy life look like? Does it require power? The holy life is one of obeying God’s law out of thankfulness for the salvation, mercy and love he bestows on us in Christ Jesus. That obedience shows itself in grateful service, acts and deeds designed to advance the kingdom of Jesus. The holy life surely does require power! The holy life begins when you wake up in the morning and lasts all day. That reminds me of something humorous I read recently. It’s an honest Christian’s morning prayer: “I want to thank you, Lord, for being close to me so far this day. With your help I haven’t been impatient, lost my temper, been grumpy, judgmental, or envious of anyone. But I’ll be getting out of bed in a minute, and I will really need your help then. Amen.” Every moment belongs to Jesus and it takes a powerful energy to devote your whole day to him, much less your whole life!

So maybe by now you’re thinking that being a powerful Christian is a little out of your league. I feel like that way often, too. I want to say to St. Paul, “Paul, that’s really good advice for Timothy, but I’m more of a wimpy kind of Christian. I’m not really up to all this strong arm stuff.” But Paul wouldn’t accept that. He’d probably interrupt me in the middle of my excuses and say, “But you don’t have to produce this power all on your own. Listen to verse 14:  ‘Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.’”

We can be powerful Christians because we have the Holy Spirit in us, says Paul. And the Holy Spirit is powerful! According to the church calendar, we are in the season of Pentecost. We’ve celebrated Lent, Good Friday and Easter. And Ascension Day, when Jesus was lifted up into the clouds and returned to heaven. And then came Pentecost, what some call the birthday of the church. Pentecost was announced by a really loud sound … the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Tongues of fire descended upon the heads of the disciples – symbols of powerful energy. When the disciples received the Holy Spirit, wow, they were changed people! They began preaching powerfully to the people of Jerusalem. 3000 listeners were baptized in one day after Peter’s powerful sermon.

Listen to these words from Acts 2: “They (the new converts) devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” This is visible evidence of changed hearts. The new believers began to lead holy lives, supporting the church, reaching out to widows and those in poverty, sharing meals. In Acts 4 we read, “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and much grace was upon them all.”

Take the time to read Romans 16 sometime, maybe later today. The first 16 verses refer to all kinds of ordinary people God used to get the word of salvation out: Priscilla and Aquila, Epenetus, the first convert to Christ in Asia, Mary, who worked very hard, says Paul, Paul’s relatives Andronicus and Junias, Rufus and his mother, who acted as a mother to Paul, too, and many more. Ordinary folks.

The Holy Spirit was their power. In fact, Jesus was anxious to go to his Father so that he could send the Spirit to his disciples. “I’m telling you the truth,” he said, “it is for your own good that I’m going.” “Do not leave Jerusalem,” he told them, “but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.” He assured them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses.” Jesus was going to heaven to represent humanity at the right hand of the Father, but he wasn’t abandoning his friends on earth. He was sending them his Spirit, a Counselor and Companion for their every moment, hour, day and lifetime.

Sometimes Christians stumble a bit over the person of the Holy Spirit, not quite sure about his role in the Trinity. Here’s a simple image I find helpful. Imagine that you’ve received a heart transplant. You’re still you, but you’ve got a new heart. It works way better than the old one. You’re full of joy. It’s a new lease on life. Fear and despair have been replaced by hopefulness and trust that you can go on. Your life has been saved!

Spiritually speaking, that’s what happens as you accept Christ and become a Christian. The heart of Jesus gets transplanted into you. And it’s the work of the Holy Spirit to do supervise and execute the transplant. Like a skillful surgeon, a wonderfully qualified heart doctor, the Holy Spirit transplants the heart of Jesus within you, a procedure that’s going to save your life, and the Holy Spirit is going to stay right there to monitor your recuperation and recovery. He’s going to move right into your hospital room to make sure the new heart keeps on beating well. He’s going to monitor your new Jesus heart for the rest of your life. That’s why the Holy Spirit is called the Comforter. It’s comforting to know that the heart of Jesus is in you and that it’s being tended and cared for the Holy Spirit.

Here’s the most important thing to keep in mind. The power of the Christian is not the power of the world. It’s not a power suit, it’s not the powerful technology of one of Tim Taylor’s Binford tools. It’s a surprising power, an upside-down, topsy-turvy power, the power of a God who was willing to become weak, a God willing to become a baby, a God willing to accept humiliation, flogging, and an excruciating death on a cross. That’s a mystical and astonishing power. It achieves a strange victory where the poor in spirit end up being winners, the last become first and the meek inherit the earth.

I challenge myself and I challenge you to be powerful Christians. It’s not about age, it’s not about ability, it’s not about gender, wealth, status or health. It’s about accepting the Holy Spirit’s powerful intervention in our lives, planting a new heart within us, reinvigorating us, making us unafraid to tell the good news, unafraid to suffer for the gospel and unafraid to lead holy lives filled with love, service and obedience to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Even if our physical eyes don’t see so well, or our physical ears don’t hear so well, our new spiritual heart pumps the blood of Jesus and so we have the strength to flex our faith muscles. In prayer. In a smile. In a kind word. In forgiving a wrong that was done to us. In attending church. In writing a note of encouragement. Powered by the Spirit, even the smallest acts of faithfulness are mighty in the kingdom of God.

 

“a small bench by the road”

(Feature article … Christian Courier, June 10th, 2013 issue)

Home - coverHome is an allusive word, instantly sparking childhood memories, familial connections and primal longings. Small wonder that Ikea’s slogan is “Long live the home” or that Tim Hortons sells coffee to the tune of the chart-topping “Home” by American Idol winner Phillip Phillips. The Home Hardware TV commercial with its cheery jingle, “Homeowners Helping Homeowners,” always twinges my conscience, however, implying that homeowners are, after all, a cut above. Tempted as I am by glossy décor magazines with their fantasy images of trendy homes, and invested as I am in my own home, I suspect that pride of home ownership might simply be an alias for idolatry.

I’m intrigued that two iconic female writers have chosen Home as the title for their most recent novels. Pulitzer-prize winning author Marilynne Robinson’s 2008 Home is masterful. The protagonist, Glory, returns to her childhood home, having ended a futile relationship with a married man. Caring for her ailing father and her alcoholic brother, and for the house itself, she both finds and demonstrates glory in her self-sacrificial love.

Last year African-American author Toni Morrison also published a novel called Home. A response to Robinson’s? Possibly. Both books are set in the south in the 1950s. Morrison’s characters inhabit a grim segregated landscape where police routinely check black men on the street for weapons in order to steal their money, a pastime so commonplace it barely warrants comment. While racism figures in Robinson’s novel as well, it’s viewed more comfortably from the genteel veranda of the Boughton home. Regardless of whether Morrison is deliberately referencing Robinson’s work, both authors are pointedly addressing our own culture – with its countless divorces, digitally-engrossed teens and cliff-hanging economic futures. Both novels are achingly poetic testaments about the pull of home and finding a place among your own people.

Unlike Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, an epic tale about a runaway slave, Home is surprisingly compressed, lean, terse. Characters are not immediately identified as black or white, but it’s still woefully easy to figure out the colour divide. Slavery is gone; its legacy remains.

The quest

Frank Money returns from the Korean War, deeply damaged. “You can’t imagine it because you weren’t there,” he tells an unnamed interviewer. As we follow him back to Lotus, Georgia, the home he couldn’t wait to leave, his undiagnosed, and as yet not medically-recognized, post-traumatic stress disorder is gradually revealed. He suffers from hallucinations, blackouts and fits of violence. He medicates himself with alcohol, his anguish stemming from the horrific deaths of his “homeboys,” two friends he couldn’t save in combat, and an even greater anguish about a secret crime. A cryptic note from his sister’s friend to come and get her because “she be dying” gives him a chance to redeem himself.

Frank and his sister Cee have always been close. “She was the first person I ever took responsibility for,” he says. Their parents were forced to flee their Texas home by “hooded” men when he was a child and Cee was still in his mother’s womb. A neighbour who refused to comply was strung up on the magnolia tree in his own yard. Those who snuck back to bury him under that same tree whispered that his eyes had been gouged out. The traumatic exodus unites the brother and sister, though it scars them for life.

The Money family (Frank notes the irony of their pennilessness) is reluctantly taken in by their father. He has married an avaricious widow, Lenore, who “owned her house” in Georgia. She seethes at the imposition. To Frank and Cee, she is a wicked witch who puts water on their cereal instead of milk and routinely switches their legs.

The stifling atmosphere in Lotus, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield,” leads Frank and his buddies to join the army. Cee also flees Lotus with “a rat” named Prince who marries her and then promptly abandons her in Atlanta. She finds employment with a white Confederate-sympathizing doctor who drugs her and practises “inventions” on her in the interest of eugenics. By the time Frank reaches her, Cee is dying of uterine hemorrhage. He brings her back to Lotus where the neighbourhood women save her life, but not her fertility.

As children, Frank and Cee once watched two stallions fight in a field. Frank recalls, “They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.” The scene cements itself in his memory. “They were so beautiful. And so brutal. And they stood like men.” That same night they also witness a black man being dumped in hole under cover of darkness by a gang of white men. The children are transfixed by terror and wait for hours before returning home, but no one has missed them because of a “disturbance.” Decades later, Frank discovers that what they saw was the result of a ghastly “dogfight,” a switchblade duel to the death between a black father and his son, compelled to fight for a crazed betting crowd. The father orders his son to kill him to bring the game to an end. It’s an unspeakable but seminal event in the lives of the black citizens of Lotus who do what they can to help the bloodied son escape.

Beloved takes place in the antebellum South, Home in post-WWII America, but the struggle is the same – an unconscionable depreciation of humanity based on race Are horses men? Are men horses? Or dogs? Frank escapes from a mental hospital and runs to the nearest black church for help. Rev. Locke commiserates: “An integrated army is integrated misery. You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs. Change that. They treat dogs better.” When Frank hallucinates, all colour drains from his vision and the world becomes a “black-and-white movie screen.” He wonders “if this is how dogs and cats and wolves see the world.” On his journey he meets a boy whose arm has been shot off by a white cop and asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. The boy replies gravely, “A man.” In that succinct answer lies the crux of the novel. What is a man? Who decides? Who is human and who is a brute beast?

At the end of novel, Frank and Cee dig up the bones of the man in the field and give him a proper burial under a wounded tree. For Frank, it’s a redemptive act. On the grave marker he writes “Here Stands A Man,” an inscription meant to honour the man killed for sport. But the incongruity of the verb “stands” instead of “lies” suggests a broader interpretation of the epigraph, one that encompasses Frank himself, the Texan neighbour who defied the KKK, the boy with one arm, and maybe even Christ. The women who nurse Cee back to health, for example, triumph over their circumstances with deep faith: “Some evil, they believed was incorrigible, so its demise was best left to the Lord. Other kinds could be mitigated. The point was to know the difference.”

In spite of growing next to a river called Wretched, the tree is thriving. To Frank, it looked “strong” and “beautiful.” It was “hurt right down the middle,” but was still “alive and well.” The tree is like the lotus, an exquisite flower rooted in the muck of ponds – vigor and beauty springing from the mire.

Coming home

Frank hated Lotus for its “unforgiving population, its isolation, and especially its indifference to the future.” But, when he is “frank,” when he finally confesses his secret shame, he finds healing there. Saving Cee in the nick of time marks the turning point, a happenstance that Cee’s friend Sarah attributes to supernatural intervention: “Thank God. Exactly the way old folks said: not when you call Him, not when you want Him; only when you need Him and right on time.” Frank believes he was “smart” to liberate Cee without violence, another clue to his transformation.

Cee, too, achieves healing. The women scold her: “You good enough for Jesus. That’s all you need to know.” They offer her love in their shared adversity, and she embraces their example of moral resilience. Frank realizes, “They delivered unto him a Cee that would never again need him.” The final treatment for Cee is “sun-smacking,” exposing her naked private parts to the sunshine for an hour ten days in a row. She is loath to do this, but Miss Ethel insists she needs a permanent cure: “the kind beyond human power.” Like Frank, Cee decides she belongs in Lotus.

Art and the capacity to imagine

“You can’t imagine Korea’s horror because you weren’t there,” seems a valid assertion. But authors don’t really believe that. Authors write, as Solzhenitsyn said, because “Art extends each man’s short time on earth by carrying from man to man the whole complexity of other men’s lifelong experience, with all its burdens, colour and flavour.” Art germinates and grows the imagination.

In a speech Morrison once decried the fact that “there’s no small bench by the road” to honor the memory of the anonymous multitude of slaves whose deaths went unrecorded. Galvanized by her remark, the Toni Morrison Society began a campaign to place benches at historically significant slavery sites. Her novel Home is itself another “small bench by the road,” a memorable work that helps us imagine, even though we weren’t there, the complexity of being black in America in the 50s.

Phillip Phillips sings, “If you get lost, you can always be found / Just know you’re not alone / I’m gonna make this place your home.” His catchy song speaks to the need to belong and the power of human love. As I grapple with my own middle class responsibilities, and idolatries, I place my hope in an even greater love: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

The kingdom of heaven is like a choir

Christian Courier column (May 27th, 2013 issue)

 

IMG_3674 copyYou haven’t lived till you see a seventy-something tough old dude who looks like he’s survived a battle or two, deep lines crisscrossing his face, eyes like horizontal slashes in a rutted terrain, standing ramrod straight, fervently singing about the tender love of his Heavenly Father. Or, next to him, a middle-aged guy with impressive handlebar mustache and dignified demeanour pleading with his “precious Lord” to take him home because he’s “tired,” he’s “weak” and he’s “worn.” If you’re in a grand old church with the rays of the evening sun slanting through stained glass windows and pooling on rich chocolate brown pews, you might, like me, feel as if you’re on heaven’s threshold.

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DSC01199Choirs are a dying breed, but I love them. I’ve been a member of the Con Spirito Choir since the early 90s. I’d be inclined to boast, but my mom will chime in that she’s been in choir for 65 years, so pride is moot. Choirs come in all shapes and sizes – male choruses, four-part mixed choirs, and my favourite, gospel choirs with robes, clapping and ecstatic improvisations. You can coax ten members of a tiny rural church to line up in front of a piano-playing director and call them a choir.

Here you might be expecting a dirge on the loss of the church’s great choral traditions and the dwindling interest of the next generation. But I don’t really know enough about music to deliver a convincing rant. I just love to sing with other believers who also love to sing. And not just for the singing.  For whenever a ragtag bunch of choristers gather, I see something about how the Body of Christ is supposed to function.

These are the kind of things that are happening: the director is battling a severe head cold, but he’s there with his game face on; the pianist, who’s gifted beyond what the choir deserves, is playing the same bass line ten times with exquisite patience; someone is leaning over to point out a tricky CODA to a neighbour who can’t read music; a board member has come early to put on the coffee and  another one’s staying behind to turn off the lights and lock the doors.

A choir is communal. William Sloane Coffin, well-known American clergyman, has said: “Many of us overvalue autonomy, the strength to stand alone, the capacity to act independently. Far too few of us pay attention to the virtues of dependence and interdependence, and especially the capacity to be vulnerable.” But a choir does. A choir pays particular attention to the “virtues of dependence and interdependence.” A choir has to blend, to bend individual talent to the needs of the whole. To sing in a choir, you have to be willing to be a follower, to place yourself under the leadership of the director. You have to listen to others, adapting your voice, and even your breathing, to those around you. And you have to practise forgiveness. A lot. For this one’s excessive vibrato, that one’s habit of holding on to a note just a fraction too long. Within all this “interdependence,” you’re gradually blessed to discover the “peoplehood” of God that Richard Mouw talks about in Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, a covenantal togetherness that says you can’t be a Christian alone. “Christian” only comes in plural, he says, like southern “grits.”

A choir takes sustained work and commitment, very much like the kingdom of heaven Jesus describes in Matt. 24. You have to get up and show some initiative: sow seeds like a farmer, plant a mustard tree, mix yeast like a cook, let down your nets at dawn. It takes determination – like a merchant who spends all day hunting for that pearl of great price.

IMG_9244 (1)Yes, the kingdom of heaven is like a choir. When we’re ascribing to the Lord the glory of his name and worshipping him in holy splendor (Ps. 29:2), we’re being changed. Singing in a choir places us in Westminster Confession mode where our chief end is defined this way: “to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”

Sometimes, when I’m singing in the choir, that really does happen. I lose myself,  enjoying God. When I get to enjoy God forever, in heaven, it might be kind of hard to spot me “crying out with many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand,” and “chanting with every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea.” I’ll be the one belting it out like Mahalia Jackson between tough old veteran dude and distinguished handlebar mustache, waving my palm branch and wearing my white robe.