About twirlingjen

I am a Diaconal Minister in the United Church of Canada. I live in Yorkton with my family where I minister with the folks at St. Andrew's United Church. Please feel free to use and adapt the resources you find here.

Will you choose life or death?

pexels-photo-568027.jpegLazarus is ill. He’s been ill for some time so his sisters send a message to Jesus. They’ve seen Jesus heal others so why not Lazarus. Jesus decides to prove a point and doesn’t come right away. By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus is dead and has been in the tomb for 4 days. Jesus stands with Mary and Martha and weeps with them. The NRSV says he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Jesus experiences deep grief at the death of his friend. He immerses himself in Mary and Martha’s grief. He’s right there sharing every moment with them. Many of us will have seen the raw grief of families whose children died this week in Florida. We’ve seen the grief and anger of Colton Boushie’s family. That’s the raw emotion that’s taking place outside of Lazarus’ tomb. The scene goes on for a while before a calm starts to descend. No amount of grief and anger can change the deaths that have occurred.

Jesus wants the tomb opened. No wants to open the tomb. What would opening the tomb prove except that he’s dead? Jesus insists. They open the tomb and Jesus calls to Lazarus. I imagine the murmurs of the gathered crowd. They all know Lazarus is dead. Why doesn’t Jesus know? Just like the story of the cross, this should be the end.

But what happens next? I wonder what Lazarus thinks about having his name called by Jesus to come back to this world. When someone dies, we sometimes hear people say, “Jesus called them home” but in this case, Jesus called Lazarus to life. Lazarus has a moment where he has to decide between life and death.

Thinking about life and death in the broadest sense we are given a choice between life and death each day. In order to live fully, we need to choose life. We live in a time where violence is becoming normalized, where we spend more time with technology than in real relationships, where the earth is being destroyed but our lives are comfortable. This comfort is a form of death. It takes us away from seeing, feeling, touching what’s going on in the world. We see the anguish of families torn apart by senseless violence and then go back to being comfortable in our bubble. To really live is to place ourselves, like Jesus, in the midst of the grief, anguish, chaos, the joy and celebration of life and really experience it fully.

As I watched the news this week, I saw students and families asking for gun control. In the face of death and violence, they are seeking life. In their distress over the outcome of Gerald Standing’s trial, Colton Boushie’s family is harnessing the energy to create change. Whether you agree with the outcome of the trial is not the point. The family is choosing life. Their energy could be put into more violence, hatred, revenge instead they are seeking to create something good out of Colton’s death.

Choosing life is a choice and our comfort, our routines sometimes get in the way. Lent calls us to choose life. Lent invites us to pray for ourselves, for each other, for the earth. Lent invites us to fast—to give up the things that get in the way of abundant life. Lent invites us to giving—giving our time, our energy, our money to support God’s work in the world. God calls us to life.

To choose life is a choice. Will we stay in the tomb or choose to walk out embracing all that life has to offer?

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Help Me Stand Strong

strength-prayers-1482413_1920.jpgEver have a moment where you wonder why bad things happen? What did I do to deserve this? John 9 tells the story of a man who is blind from birth. The first question the disciples ask is: What did this man or his parents do to deserve blindness? Jesus doesn’t really care why the man is blind. Jesus simply has compassion for him and heals him.

When we encounter people who are struggling in life we sometimes want to know how they ended up in a particular situation. In other words, are they worthy of our care and concern? There is an important role for story-telling in helping us to understand what happened so we can prevent the same thing from happening again so that people responsible can be held accountable. But offering care and compassion is not tied to sin—to what someone has done or not done.

As the story moves on, Jesus heals mixes saliva and mud, smears it on the man’s eyes. Jesus sends him to wash and when he returns he can see. The neighbours and the community don’t recognize him anymore. They wonder if this the same man that they’ve known since he was a child. People begin to question the man. He keeps affirming that he is the same person they have always known and that Jesus was the one who healed him. This speaks to me of the process that happens when people come out about their sexual orientation or gender identity. As those of us in the LGBTQ community begin to talk about who we are, we say it’s still me. Who I am hasn’t changed. What has changed is your perception of me.  Sometimes there are questions about how or why people identify a particular way. The why or how isn’t necessarily important. The important part here is that we recognize that of God within someone. You can hear the man in the story says that Jesus is from God. As he affirms God is at work in Jesus he is also affirming that the healing, the thing that everyone is questioning is also of God.

When the neighbours aren’t able to figure out what happened, the Pharisees get in the action. These were people who are very observant of the Jewish faith. They were concerned that Jesus had done this healing on the Sabbath day, the day of rest. But they continued to question the man and he kept responding. I was blind and Jesus healed me. Then the temple authorities called the man’s parents and asked them how he had been healed. They refused to answer because they were afraid of being tossed out of the temple. This goes back to the on-going conflict the writer of John is dealing with between the Christian-Jews and non-Christian Jews. The parents don’t want to lose their place in the temple so they will not intervene for their child and they will not support him. Being removed from the temple essentially resulted in shunning by the community—they would lose social and business connections as well as their place of worship. The parents put the responsibility for answering questions back on their son.

The authorities call the man again to answer questions. This time when he answers the questions, the man has lots to say. You can almost hear is frustration as he says it again.

“One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. I have told you already how it happened, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples? Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he Jesus comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (NRSV)

The questions that he is asked, again and again, strengthen his faith in Jesus. Having to defend his faith helps him to be able to articulate who Jesus is for him. It helps him to be clear. He practices first with the neighbours—people who know him well and know him as a person. Then he begins to publicly defend himself. He doesn’t really have a choice. The man born blind is being questioned from every side. His life has been turned upside down. His livelihood has been begging but he no longer has that. No one is going to give to sighted, healthy person. He has no skills. He needs to be accepted into the community in order to survive. If he can’t convince the community that Jesus is of God, he will not have a place.

For those of us, like myself who are comfortable, it’s often easier to stay silent. I sometimes stay silent because I don’t want to upset anyone. It might be less complicated to say silent. Being able to stay silent is a source of privilege that not everyone has. Often it is those who are most vulnerable who use their voice to speak out against oppression, injustice, violence. Speaking out sometimes makes people more vulnerable and more of a target for hatred and violence.

We aren’t told what happens to the man born blind but unless others speak up for him, recognize that of God in him, his entire world will fall apart. Those of us who are comfortable, need to use our voices to stand with folks in our community and world who are vulnerable. We need to recognize that of God in the most vulnerable and lend our voices in support.

Unexpected Living Water

pexels-photo-296282.jpegThe story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well  offers an invitation to living water.

Imagine the Samaritan woman for a moment. She comes to the well in the middle of the day when no one else is likely to brave the heat. She knows what people say about her…The woman who couldn’t keep a husband. The woman who brought disgrace. She hears the whispers as she walks through the market when she has to go there to buy something. She tries to avoid it so that she won’t have to hear it. Just like she avoids going to the well when other people might be there.

But then a chance encounter changes her life. She goes to the well at a moment when she hopes no one is there. But a stranger is waiting—a man, a Jew. She knows she shouldn’t talk to him. It will just fuel the chatter about her. The man speaks to her and asks her for water and she questions him. “Why would you ask me for water?” Jesus offers her a drink of the “living water.” At first, the woman takes this literally, asking him where he will get this water—he has no bucket. As they engage in this conversation, the woman realizes that she needs the water. Very matter-of-factly Jesus tells her to call her husband. She responds by saying she doesn’t have a husband. Jesus doesn’t lecture her. He doesn’t question how she got into her situation. He simply acknowledges her reality. He doesn’t try to fix or change her.

Then the conversation moves to faith. She wants to know why Jews and Samaritans worship in different places. Jesus explains to her that it won’t matter where people worship as long as they worship in Spirit and in truth. The spirit is the breath of God that is within each of us. We think something being true means that it is factual. What was intended in the Greek seems to be a sense of dependability and loyalty. If we worship in Spirit and in truth this seems to suggest that we depend on the breath of God within us. We are loyal to the spirit of God within us.

Each of us needs to find the spirit of God within us. The spirit of God within me will look different than the spirit of God within you. We each have a unique breath of God that makes us who we are. The Samaritan woman had the breath of God within her and Jesus recognized that spirit. It spoke to him. The conversation that the Samaritan woman had with Jesus gave her the ability to depend on the Spirit within her. It gave her the courage to be the person God created her to be. In being the person God created her to be, she received the life-giving water of Jesus. This life-giving water is for everyone.

In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples not to go through Samaria and not to speak to the Samaritans. Matthew excludes the Samaritans but John specifically includes them.
The writer of John was having a conflict with the temple authorities. John’s Christian-Jews were trying to share what they knew about Jesus with the Jewish community and having little success. So in this story they seem to be expanding the audience—if our community won’t listen, the Samaritans will listen.

We all need to be refreshed by the living water but sometimes those of us who have spent a long time around the church become immune to the water being offered. Its easy to get caught in our routines. The time we spend at church becomes a burden. Maybe the relationships are too challenging so we step back. We might be a bit like the temple authorities John was pushing against. We are comfortable.

And then Jesus speaks to an outsider. Someone with different ideas. Someone who doesn’t seem like us. Someone that its easy to whisper and gossip about. That person finds the living water. It refreshes and renews them. They invite us to drink. We are invited to come and see. We are invited to drink the living water—sometimes by someone unexpected.

Rethinking John 3:16

There’s a lot in this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is an important person on the temple in Jerusalem but he has witnessed Jesus clearing the temple and teaching. Jesus has caught his attention and he wants to know more. He came to Jesus in the middle of the night when no one would see him. At this point in the story he doesn’t want to be associated with Jesus but he’s curious.

He finds Jesus in the middle of the night and acknowledges what he has seen in Jesus. Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus’ words and actions must be from God. Jesus responds to this acknowledgement by saying that you cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above or born again. The translation is unclear and is used interchangeably.

In Jesus time, people’s status in the world was attached to them at their birth based on their family. If your family was wealthy and important—you would be wealthy and important. If your family was poor or less important—you would be poor and less important. Status didn’t change much through a lifetime. The situation you were born into was your situation for life. So in this passage, we hear Jesus saying that a person must be born again or born from above—born of God’s spirit. This rebirth means that a person is no longer poor and unimportant but is a child of God. Anyone who believes in Jesus has this rebirth which elevates their status.

God—of course—has the ultimate status so to be a child of God raises those with the least status to the highest status. The other thing this rebirth does is to level the playing field. All of the children in a family (with the exception of the first-born) are of equal status. Jesus is the first born and everyone else’s status is evened out. In a society where status determines all of your social interactions and opportunities, to equalize the status fundamentally changes the world.

In this passage, we hear a famous verse: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I will admit that I struggle with this verse because when taken on its own it seems to suggest that if you believe in Jesus you will live forever. If you do not believe in Jesus, you will not experience God after death.

There are a few words in here that need to be examined. The word believe has taken on a different meaning from what was originally intended. We think to believe means to know intellectually that something is true or real. According to James Rowe Adams, (Episcopal priest, founder of the Centre for Progressive Christianity) the intent that we find in John’s gospel seems to be “a recognition of a desire for God rather than an intellectual assent to opinions about God that cannot be supported by imperial evidence.” To believe in Jesus simply means that we have a desire for a relationship. This is more about an experience of the Holy than it is about knowledge. We do not need to sign on to particular statements of belief about Jesus.

Eternal life is another phrase that is sometimes problematic. It is often taken as a reference to life after death but in the Greek, it is in the present tense. So it is not intended as something that will happen but something that is happening… Here. Now. This is not about the length of life but about the quality of life.

So here’s what we get so far out of this scripture…As we are born from above we become children of God, equal to all other children of God. If we have a desire for a relationship with God and Jesus, the quality of our life changes. But wait…There’s more!

The passage goes on to speak about judgement and condemnation of God in the world. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

We need to think of the world in the broadest sense. The world includes the universe or entire cosmos. All creation is included in “the world.” Condemn means to separate, to distinguish or to decide. Jesus did not come into the world to separate. What we translate as judgement can also mean justice. To save means to heal or make right.

So thinking about this verse another way might mean: God did not send Jesus into the world to separate the world but in order that world could be made right.

pexels-photo-733881.jpegThose who have relationship with the holy are not separated. Those who have not found relationship with the holy are separated. We might think about this in terms of all the ways we are cut off or separated from ourselves, each other, the earth. When we no longer have a sense of ourselves within our relationships we lose our ability to love, to show compassion, to care. We are separated. Relationship with the holy mends the separation.

The final part of this passage adds one more twist. Claiming faith in Jesus does not give a get of jail free card for doing things that destroy or harm. And God will claim anyone who does what is good and right. Jesus’ role is to point the way. Jesus himself does not offer judgement but offers an invitation to be in relationship with the holy. By being in relationship with the holy, we find our own sense of purpose for good in the world.

There is no one who is outside of God’s love. That love is made known to us on a daily basis. We don’t have to wait until after death to experience God’s love. Simply a desire to be in relationship with the holy brings eternal life. Nicodemus came to Jesus with questions and uncertainty. He didn’t have the answers at the beginning of the conversation and he went away more confused than when he started.

We don’t have to come to faith with answers. We come to our faith with questions. Through the questions, Jesus gives us an invitation to deepening relationships, a sense of purpose and works through us and others to heal the creation.

What’s Essential in Worship?

This reflection is based on the story of Jesus Cleansing the Temple–John’s version. Before I really get into the story I need to clarify some of the language being used. Many translations use the word Jew. Because of time and distance from the original context recent scholarship suggests that this word has been mistranslated and should be translated as Judean. Judean simply meant someone from the territory of Judea. This is especially important in reading John because John paints this group in a very unfavourable light and John has been used through the centuries to foster anti-Semitism.

The other thing we need to understand in order to make sense of John is that there were Jews who believed they had found the Messiah in Jesus. Continued to practice the Jewish faith and follow Jewish customs but their insistence that Jesus was the Messiah put them in conflict with other Jews. Eventually, these Jewish Christians were forced from their communities of faith and no longer permitted to worship in the temple. In this story, when we hear Jesus arguing with “the Jews” it will be helpful to remember that the writer of John was having a specific conflict with Jewish authorities over access to the temple.

That’s the stage for the story we heard today. This story does appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In those stories, Jesus quotes from Jeremiah suggesting that the temple has become a den of robbers. In these gospels, there seems to be a focus on the money changers and sellers of animals.  In John, it is the disciples who quote Psalm 69 as a way of making sense of this story. “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me.” By doing this, John shifts the focus from specific practices to the bigger picture. He questions the entire system that needs the sacrifice, the money changers, the animal sellers.

He seems to be suggesting that all the required ritual is getting in the way of truly worshipping. The temple and everything that goes with it is unnecessary. In our own context, we sometimes lose sight of what allows us to truly worship and what just seems normal because it has always been so in our lifetime. Could we worship God without this building? Could worship God without bulletins or powerpoint? Could we worship God without musical instruments?

It goes to the heart of a question. What is it that is truly necessary to worship God? God doesn’t need our worship so God doesn’t particularly care about all the outside trappings. We care because they are helpful or comforting or beautiful or even just familiar. God doesn’t need all the trappings. Worship is for ourselves. It is one of the ways that we open ourselves to God at work in our lives. As a community, we need to reflect on what is truly necessary for worship. In the Greek worship and service have the same roots.

pexels-photo-248074.jpeg

I want to use our hands as a model for reminding us of some of the important aspects of worship:

  • Thanks/gratitude/Praise
  • Concern for struggles – our lives, people around us, our community, our world
  • Experience of the Christ within and among us
  • Story – roots us in our history, reminds us of who we are and whose we are. Sometimes scripture, sometimes other stories, stories of God in our time and place, stories of God in other places, at other times
  • Sabbath—rest, nourishes and sustains

All the fingers are connected. The veins in the hand form a heart of love. Our hands are meant for doing. Sometimes we fold them in prayer. Sometimes they are active. Our hands are one of the most common ways we initiate contact with another human. They connect us. Our worship sends us back into the world to be the hands and feet of Christ.

In Isaiah 58, the prophet is protesting people who follow the rules and yet forget what’s at the heart of their worship.

 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

They were doing the proper fast but forgot how to care for their community. Jesus seems to be protesting something similar. All the proper sacrifices are happening in the temple but the people have lost sight of the reason for their worship. They have lost sight of how the sacrifices are actually harming people and preventing people from experiencing God. We need to be attentive to this in our own lives and in our community—worshiping properly but without concern for the people whom God calls us to serve.

Life Changing Moments

pexels-photo.jpgJesus has gathered some disciples and he heads off to a wedding in Cana with his mother. They are into the wedding (which will last several days) and there’s a bit of a disturbance. Jesus’ mother comes to him and suggests that perhaps he could do something about it. Jesus resists this little nudge and questions why it’s his problem. He tells his mother he isn’t ready to respond to her suggestion or to allow God to be at work in him. He isn’t ready yet. It isn’t time. But his mother knows that he is a dutiful son and that he will give in eventually.

Sometimes our life with God includes a bit of resistance. When I was about fifteen, our minister at the time suggested to me that I become a minister. I considered this until I realized I would have to talk to people. It took me almost fifteen years to be ready to respond to that call.

Jesus only takes a few minutes to resist and then respond. How did he know to fill the jugs with water and they would become wine? Did he have a list or miracles packed away in the back of his mind that he could just pull up at moment’s notice? Had he gone to miracle school and learned this skill? He simply responded to God’s call. I wonder if he knew what his actions would set in motion? I wonder if he knew that responding would change the course of his life? Maybe he just wanted to have a nice quiet, ordinary life. That one response changed everything going forward.

What happened when Jesus was finally prepared to respond? The most extraordinary thing: water became wine—and not just any wine but—the best wine ever. The steward in charge of the wine calls the groom and commends him for offering his guests such fine wine. Jesus doesn’t protest and say “Hey, I made that wine. It was water a minute ago.” Jesus allows the groom to take the credit and he gets on with being himself.

In my own life, when I was finally able to respond to God’s call to ministry my life did change. I find myself in situations I never dreamed of. My path has crossed with people that I wouldn’t otherwise have met. I’ve been stretched beyond what I thought were my limits. Sometimes, when things feel overwhelming or especially heavy or uncertain, I ask myself why I responded to this call. I ask myself why I decided to be a disciple of Jesus. There are moments when I look around and see people using their gifts and responding to God’s call. There are moments when I see the world shift for someone and recognize the spirit at work. There are moments when I see good things happening. In those moments I know why I responded but it isn’t about me. It’s about what God is doing when we respond. These are moments when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Each of us has a call. A call isn’t something that is learned. It isn’t something that we plan. A call is a response. Calls are not reserved for extraordinary. They are responses of ordinary people. As ordinary people respond to God, extraordinary things happen around us and within us.

Evangalism: An Invitation

pexels-photo-191034.jpegJohn is different from the other gospels. With Matthew, Mark and Luke there is a certain amount of overlap and the stories are similar. John has several stories that only appear here. John opens by declaring that Jesus is the word of God made flesh and that this “word” has been with God since the beginning of time. John the Baptist is introduced.

As a side note, this gospel was not written by John the Baptist. The gospel was written about 60 years after Jesus’ death so most of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life would have been dead. The stories in this gospel seem to come from a group of Jews who understood Jesus to be the Messiah but who maintained their identity as Jews. The stories are told by this group to help the Jewish community around them understand who Jesus is.

Further on in chapter 1 the story continues with John the Baptist pointing to Jesus and indicating that there is something different about him. Two of John’s disciples quit following him and begin following Jesus. These two disciples seem to be looking for someone to follow—someone to help them make meaning out of life. John wasn’t giving them quite what they needed and so they decided to see what Jesus had to offer. And Jesus’ first words to them ask a question: “What are you looking for?” They respond with their own question: “Where are you staying?” Finally, someone answers a question. Jesus responds by inviting them to “Come and see.” The go to where Jesus is staying. One of the disciples is Andrew. He goes and finds his brother Simon who Jesus immediately renames Simon Peter—meaning “the rock.” The next day Jesus comes across Philip and says, “follow me.” Philip then goes and finds his friend Nathanael. After some initial questioning, Nathanael also understands Jesus to be the Messiah and follows Jesus.

Within this story, we see how networking builds the community of followers. John points out Jesus to Andrew and his friend. Andrew brings along his brother Simon Peter. Andrew and Simon Peter are from the same place as Philip. Philip finds his friend Nathaniel. All of these people become followers of Jesus because someone they know has a connection and invites them into this mission. They don’t randomly find Jesus and begin following.

These first disciples are invited to come and see by someone they know. Folks who have spent their whole life in church sometimes forget that other people need an invitation. They may not realize that there is something to see in the person of Jesus or in the community of a church.

It’s a word that we sometimes avoid in the United Church. Evangelism sometimes makes us uncomfortable. It might conjure up an image of walking up to a perfect stranger and asking them if they know Jesus or handing out pamphlets on a street corner. Maybe it reminds us of missionaries in Africa or the role of our churches in residential schools.

Evangelism at its core simply means to tell the good news. It’s a good word that has a bad reputation. Evangelism is an invitation and it is a practice which has often been lost in the United Church. Evangelism—at its most effective—is an invitation to those around us who may not have experienced Christian community to come and see. It might be an invitation to someone who has been away from Christian community for a while to come and see.

Evangelism doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. It doesn’t need to have the purpose of converting or asking for a commitment. Evangelism is an invitation. It seemed to work for Jesus. He went from no followers to five in two days simply by inviting. Perhaps that is something we need to take seriously as a faith community. We sometimes have this idea that people will just turn up but sometimes the most effective way of engaging people is through invitation.

Who might you invite to come and see? How might you be an evangelist for the good news of God among us?