Monday, August 1, 2016

A World That Isn't

We are creating a false existence, everyday on social media I see examples of it. A world that isn't real. Hyperbole has become our proffered reality. It was once said "You can believe what you see" but this is no longer the case. As a photographer for many decades I have tried to capture on film, and more recently in bytes, what caught my eye in the world around me. Landscape photography was my preferred format, and I would share my best images with others, in print or in slide shows. Freeman Patterson, a mentor in this field, once said that if he had 2 or 3 images in a roll of 36 pictures that he considered great images he was satisfied that he had done well. That meant waiting for the right lighting, being in the right location, and having the settings on the camera perfect for the image one was trying to capture. I'm talking about those eye-popping pictures that seem to jump off the page or screen - the rare images that captured the beauty of nature in a way that did justice to the scene as experienced by the photographer.

These days there are amazing pictures posted on social media all the time, everyday astounding images fill our feeds - but they're a lie. Almost every image that you see has been enhanced in one way or another. The built in cameras that come with smart phones means one never has to be without a camera - but the apps that capture the images on our phones also enhance them, deepening the colour and contrast, because the app writers know what kind of images appeal to us, lots of colour and strong patterns. The picture above is an example of that - I took this with my iPhone from on top of a building in downtown Regina. The storm cloud was truly big and beautiful, and worthy of a picture. The image is close to what it looked like in real life, but the colours are a bit more intense and the contrast more striking than what my eye perceived. But it makes for a great image.

This is mild to what I see people do with digital enhancements, using programs like Adobe Photoshop to make the image more appealing. The law of diminishing effect is at work here, in order to make one's picture stand out from the others the temptation is to use more colour saturation, or higher contrast. Soon those images seem plain in comparison, so even more manipulation of the original image is rendered. The images no longer represent reality, but instead a hyper-reality that doesn't exist... but it sure gets a lot of like on one's Facebook page! Will we get to the point where we give up looking for beauty in the real world, and simply respond to endless false images on computer screens? Does that matter?

Perhaps not so much with pictures of nature, but it certainly matters with politics and people. We now live in a time when reality is manipulated to suit the individual. If something seems right due to one's biases, then it becomes truth - facts no longer matter. What feels right must be right, and we gather around ourselves those whose feelings are similar to ours - this is particularly easy with the algorithms of social media programming. We are fed what we like, and soon this becomes our reality. But the reality is false, and we are being manipulated. For example, our social media feeds are filled with stories that provoke fear, and paint the world as a place saturated with violence and danger. However if one looks at statistical information the truth is we are living in a time when crime rates are significantly lower than in previous decades (there are of course anomalies, but generally speaking this is true from a purely statistical analysis). But like enhanced photos, we are drawn to the exaggerated information that calls out to us from our screens. It's time to resist.

The best way to resist is to explore the world, the real world. Go outdoors, go to new places, meet new people, sit quietly in the midst of nature, look and listen carefully. Discover the world that is, as it really is. Consider this a spiritual pilgrimage, a search for truth, a worthy vocation. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Jesus' Lightsaber

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on the first Sunday in Lent this year. It is based on Luke 4:1-13 and Romans 10:8b-13.

Jesus – full of the Holy Spirit – is led into the wilderness. Jesus is leading a new exodus – and thus it is only fitting that it begins in the wilderness. The Hebrews were led out of slavery into the wilderness – their path to freedom – but they lose their way (spiritually speaking). They are tempted and tried in the wilderness – and they turn away from God. Jesus is tempted and tried in the wilderness but he doesn’t turn away from God’s path. He resists the lure of self-centered use of his power for material needs and gain. He resists the use of his authority without sacrifice. He resists taking the easy way out.

Jesus fights off the temptations of the evil one with his weapon. It is a weapon that can be both used for defense and attack, a weapon that functions as a shield as well for offense, a weapon that shines light on the situation. When I thought of these things I of course thought of a Lightsaber.

In Star Wars Episode IV – the movie that introduced the lightsaber to the world (when I was still a teenager!) Luke Skywalker in introduced to this weapon of the Jedi. He first learns its defensive capabilities, practicing warding off attacks from a training droid aboard the Millennium Falcon. Later he learns of its awful power when Darth Vader uses it to strike down Obi Wan Kenobi.

A Lightsaber can be used to deflect attacks from an enemy, or to strike at that enemy, to drive the enemy back. So what weapon does Jesus in his struggle against the devil in the wilderness that has such power and versatility? What is it that I consider like a Lightsaber?

Jesus' Lightsaber is Scripture – Jesus uses scripture to fend off the temptations of the devil. For every temptation attack Jesus counters with a scripture passage – and that is enough to force the devil to try a different approach.

What gives scripture such power? Why is it a force to be reckoned with? I would suggest this power comes from the covenantal relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Scripture derives its power from its ability to remember the relationship between God and God’s people. The power of scripture is not in the words but rather in the relationship the words point to.

But there is a danger with scripture for can also be misused. Like any powerful tool it can be used for good of for ill. In the Star Wars saga we learn that both the good side (the Jedi) and the dark side (the Sith) use Lightsabers. Notice too, in the story of Jesus in the wilderness the devil also quotes scripture – the tempter attempts to use God’s word against God’s Son.

This should be a warning to us that not everyone who quotes scripture is in line with God’s will. There are many who quote the Bible to justify their judgmental attitudes, their hatred of others, their selfish and lavish lifestyles, and so forth. The Bible in untrained hands can be destructive and damaging.

So too does the Bible require great skill and training to use properly. Thus the importance of hearing scripture expounded on in sermons and explored in Bible study. I believe the best way to learn the proper use of scripture is in a faith community – such as a Bible Study group.  Group discussion allows the Spirit of God to reveal through conversation and reflection a fuller meaning of these ancient words.

 The Apostle Paul encourages Christians to take hold of this weapon. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul encourages his readers to put on the whole armour of God, which includes “the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.” (Ephesians 6:10-18) The scriptures are like a light that brings insight into the darkness and confusion of our lives. The scriptures can deepen our relationship with God, and it is that relationship that will keep us from giving in to temptation.

God equipped the Apostle Paul to bring the Gospel into a hostile world. Paul knew well how to wield the power of the Lightsaber called Scripture. In his letter to the Romans Paul quotes scripture to give encouragement and guidance to the Christians in Rome. These same scripture quotations I leave with you, as a weapon against despair and fear, against temptation and struggles.

Let the light of these ancient words blaze into your world today, sustaining you in the days and weeks to come:
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.”
“All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame.”
“All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

3 Reflections on Epiphany - Reflection #3 – Gifts Suggestions

The three gifts the magi bring to Bethlehem are often considered as symbolic indicators of Christ’s nature. Origen, the 3rd century theologian, gave us a concise example of this way of understanding the gifts when he wrote “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” This was the interpretation I grew up with, and one that still resonates with me today. However I would like to suggest another way of interpreting the significance of these three gifts.

I would like to propose that the three gifts given by the magi to the Christ child can also represent a proper response for all of us who seek to honor and worship the Saviour. The gifts of the magi can help us understand what gifts we can offer to Jesus, in the here and now.

Gold – it seems to me the giving of gold by the magi suggests that we give to Christ from our resources, through our offerings of time, talents and treasures to the work of the church and beyond. Giving of our gold (money) is really a way of sharing our time and talents. Money is both a measure of the time we have worked at something and an indication of the value of our skills and abilities. When we give from our resources to others, especially to those less fortunate than ourselves, we are giving them to Christ. As the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40 NIV)

Frankincense – as incense was used in Biblical times in religious ceremonies I would suggest that the giving of frankincense by the magi would indicate that it is appropriate that we give to Christ our worship, our prayers. We offer our petitions to the Lord because not only is Jesus worthy of receiving our prayers, but also because as the Son of God Jesus is able to receive our prayers and respond. The gift of frankincense indicates that the one born in Bethlehem is also the one we can turn to in prayer, in worship. With the psalmist we say “May my prayer be like incense in your presence.” (Psalm 141:2 NJB)

Myrrh – I would suggest that this final gift tells us that it is appropriate to give to Christ the gift of our serving, specifically serving as agents of healing and reconciliation in the world. Myrrh had a number of uses including as a medicinal agent in healing balm. We are called to make the world a sweet smelling place, not through dousing everything with perfume, but by spreading the healing and pleasant aroma of love – not a romantic love, but the self-giving love of God, shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Loving service inspired by Christ, the caring serving of others to honour Christ, this brings light into a dark world, brings healing into a broken world, and as the gift of myrrh suggests, brings a sweet aroma into a world made putrid with hatred, vengeance and exclusion. “Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.” (Ephesians 5:2 CEB)

Perhaps these Epiphany thoughts of mine can best be summed up with the words of the closing verse of the carol written by the English poet Christina Rossetti - "In the Bleak Midwinter
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him – give my heart.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

3 Reflections on Epiphany - Reflection #2 – Journeying Together

There is some significance in the number of magi who came to Judea. I am not talking about the number three, that number is never specifically mentioned in Matthew's account – tradition simply assumes this because of the three gifts. The group of magi could have been larger, for example the Syriac church tradition has twelve magi making the journey to Bethlehem. The important thing for the point I would like to make is that there were simply more than one. We know this for sure because the Greek word (magi) is a plural form, hence the English translation “wise men”.

It struck me this year that the magi were a group - a group who most likely discussed and planned together, then traveled together, and ultimately worshiped together. It is that communal aspect of the magi’s journey that I noticed in particular this year. I saw it as another example of the communal nature of the Christian faith. There is wisdom in making our journeys of faith with others. In community we can provide support and companionship for one another. In community we have access to a wider perspective and broader understanding when seeking to discern meaning. In community our joys are multiplied, and our sorrows divided. In community we experience relationship, which is central to faith. The Christian faith places relationship with God through Jesus as the foundation to everything else. The way we live our lives grows from that relationship with God to impact how we relate to others around us. The magi, by arriving as a group, suggest that this will be about ‘God and us’, not ‘me and God’.

This late 19th century painting by James Tissot, called “The Journey of the Magi” is one of my favourite because it shows the whole community that was needed for such a journey. Not only do we have the magi, but many others in the camel train. Perhaps there were cooks and labourers, soldiers for protection and herders for their knowledge of the animals. This painting depicts people with a diverse range of backgrounds all making the journey to honour the Christ child. Tissot’s painting reminds us that Jesus was born for all humanity, not just the powerful and mighty.

This insight, which grew out of my pondering the story of the magi this year, is a reminder to myself that a community of faith is important. We need to resist the lure of a culture that raises the individual above all else, a society that places personal preference as more important that what’s best for the whole. Even the wise and mighty magi knew the value of journeying together – we should not forget that lesson.

Monday, January 4, 2016

3 Reflections on Epiphany - Reflection #1 – The First Gifts

Epiphany is an ancient Christian festival day that centers on the revealing of Jesus as God incarnate. In Western Christianity the season of Epiphany begins with a commemoration of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. The visit of the Magi which is found in the Gospel of Matthew, often gets mixed in with the birth narrative found in the Gospel of Luke, but to mix the two stories together misses the unique themes and messages of each story. In this post, and the two to follow, I will reflect on some of the particular insights I gained from pondering this account of the Magi this year. I begin with the first gifts.

The first gifts given in this story were not the gifts of the Magi, but were instead gifts from God. The first gift is the gift of knowledge. It is a gift of the Creator that humans have the ability to think and wonder, to interpret and imagine, to remember and to plan. Without this gift the Magi would not have been seekers of truth, exploring the heavens and the earth for a deeper understanding of the world around them. Without this gift the magi would not have been able to read and understand the writings of others, or have the ability to plan for a difficult and lengthy journey. The magi remind us that the ability to think is a gift from God, one to be used rather than discouraged. Faith does not require us to turn off our brains, rather it should motivate us to use this gift that God has bestowed on humans to the best of our ability.

The second gift is the gift of the star. This is the gift of a pointer, a sign which helps direct the seekers. I believe God gifts us with signs, whether something in nature, or in the actions and words of others, or in the passages of sacred scripture. Signs can be highly personal, meaning something for one person, but not for others. There must have been others who saw the star of Bethlehem, but they either didn’t pay attention to it, or were unable to discern its meaning. The aurora borealis have sometimes been a sign for me in the night sky, a sign of God’s presence and an affirmation of certain directions I’ve taken in my ministry. On one level I know that the northern lights are simply the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun, but even while knowing this I still acknowledge that in some way the aurora borealis have become a sign for me. I think it is less about when the aurora are visible and more about when I notice them. The star the magi noticed had a deeper meaning for them than simply an astronomical phenomena, it was a sign to be pondered and interpreted.

The third gift is the most significant, it is the gift of the Christ child himself. God incarnate, the Word made flesh! This gift is beyond our ability to understand fully, yet it is the centerpoint of time – after this gift was given everything changed. This mystery, this wonder, this surprise, this babe born in Bethlehem remains the greatest gift given to humanity. While Mary could hold this child in her lap, no human can hold the fullness of this gift within their own understanding. In many ways we continue to unwrap this gift given two millennia ago, discovering a fuller, deeper relationship with God as we draw this gift closer to ourselves, and as we share it with others.

In each of these gifts the common denominator is that they were given first. These were not earned, they were not deserved, they were not lucky coincidence. Instead they help us understand the love of God, given as a gift always first and foremost. All we can do is receive such gifts with gratitude. That these gifts from God are first-given is grace, this is God’s way, this is good news. So how do we respond to such gifts? That question I will explore in another post.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Fallout from 9/11 – Faith and Cynicism

It was a Tuesday morning, I was just heading out to our Lutheran Ministerial meeting (a monthly gathering of local Lutheran clergy). I happened to have the television on, and there it was – an image I will never forget – the World Trade Center twin towers on fire, and then collapsing into a cacophony of images, sounds and confusion. Prying myself away from the news coverage I made my way to the ministerial meeting where there was only one topic discussed – the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and how we as clergy could respond to this devastating day.
Now fourteen years later as I reflect on the changes 9/11 has brought to our world, I think not only of the increased security measures, a futile misguided war in Iraq, and an endless emphasis on the fight against terrorism – I also think of how it has eroded faith.
Since 9/11 we have seen a rise in cynicism, an eroding of faith people had in something larger than themselves – whether that be institutions, governments, or even God. More and more people do not trust the narratives that have been told to them, the over-arching narratives that unify our nations, our culture, our communities. This cynical attitude creates in its wake an “every man for himself” mentality. When I was a teenager we had a saying “Never trust anyone over 30”, now it could be rephrased “Never trust anyone, especially those with any kind of authority”. Churches have been caught in this undertow of distrust, as more and more people simply turn their backs on anything that claims any type of authority, including religious authority.
How did 9/11 lead to this growth in cynicism? One simple phrase answers that question: Building 7.
Two years ago it was reported that:
a new national survey by the polling firm YouGov reveals that one in two Americans have doubts about the government’s account of 9/11, and after viewing video footage of World Trade Center Building 7’s collapse, 46% suspect that it was caused by a controlled demolition.
It is noteworthy that almost half of Americans do not believe the official story about what caused the collapse of Building 7. If one in two people have trouble believing the official account about Building 7, then it would suggest that a significant percentage of people would also have reason to doubt the official narrative for the whole of the 9/11 incident.
Conspiracy theorists are a dime a dozen these days, and the internet helps them spread their deconstruction of official narratives to more and more people. The seeds of doubt are planted, and soon it seems safer to distrust all traditional sources of authority rather than accept the narratives that have been proclaimed through the government and corporate spokespersons.
It is no surprise that religion wouldn’t be immune to such rising cynicism, especially with high profile cases of religious hypocrisy being regularly revealed to a world happy to knock down straw men.
Since the grand narratives can no longer be trusted by a cynical society, we can no longer rely on such narratives as created by Christendom. Instead we must once again return to our roots, to the simple narratives of our individual lives. Trustworthy truth will be found in an authentic living out of a life of faith and love, in small but meaningful acts of peace making and justice seeking carried out in our local communities. But perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing, after all, isn’t that exactly what Jesus did?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

What Madison Avenue Can Teach Us About Sabbath

My first spoken word, according to my mother, was “Coke”.  Apparently I was watching the television and during a Coca-Cola commercial I repeated after the voice on the TV “Co… Co…” (I wasn't able to make the ‘k’ at that stage). How sad that rather than saying “Ma” or “Dada”, either word indicating the significance of my parents and their care and love for me, I instead reflected the corporate message machine with my first word. Coke has been an ever-present part of my life since then.  I am constantly reminded of this soft drink – advertising for Coke abounds. Knowing that this sugary drink is not good for my health I keep making attempts to cut it out of my life, but it’s hard to ignore it.

What advertisers know is that in order for their message to shape people’s lives, the message must be continually reinforced, repeated and referenced.  It is not enough to hear a message once in order for it to influence our behaviour, it requires repeated listenings. Thus the advertisers make sure the message of Coca Cola is repeated over and over, the slogans may change with the passage of time, but the underlying message is hammered home.  This is what Madison Avenue can teach us about Sabbath.

Sabbath is a reminder that in order to not be overwhelmed and unduly shaped by the messages of the culture around us we need to regularly hear a different message.  There are few places in our current culture that encourage a life of loving others, rather than being self-focused and self-serving. Advertisements tell us “Do this for you” or “Buy this because you deserve it”or most insidiously “Become the you that you want to be.” More for you, YOU, YOU, YOU – that’s what it’s all about. At the same time advertising is designed to make us feel inadequate, putting us in a state of perpetual disappointment, and susceptible to retail therapy. This is the message that surrounds us most of the time.

In order to not be consumed with this approach to life we must take time, regularly, not occasionally, to hear some good news – thus a weekly Sabbath. It is not enough to hear once and a while that meaning is found in a lived out life of discipleship, that we are called to a higher purpose than gluttonous consumerism. This is a message that needs to be received on a regular basis in order to counteract the other voices trying to influence us. Sabbath, one day in seven, is a chance to reset our direction, rest from the grind of trying to keep up with the expectations of a stressed and hyper culture. Sabbath is a chance to hear ‘the old, old story’ once again, and have it draws us back into relationship that restores and revives us, regardless of what surrounds us.