Set aside for suffering

I was supposed to have submitted this post this past Sunday, the 15th, but my schedule didn’t allow for that. The content is the same as it would have been, but since it’s not the 15th anymore, the numerical connection isn’t as strong. If that’s important for you, just bookmark this page, and read it again on April 15th. 🙂

You probably didn’t know that 15 was an important number in the Bible. You are probably more familiar with the 7 day cycle of work and rest, the 12 sons and tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples of Jesus, the 40 days and nights of testing, and maybe even the 144,000 elect in the Revelation of John. But what’s the deal with the number 15?

Jews will likely be far more aware of the Biblical signifigance of this number. A number of Jewish festivals fall on the 15th day of their respective month. Passover, when Jews mark the exodus from slavery in Egypt, falls on the 15th day of Nisan. Purim, the celebration commemorating their surviving the Persian conspiracy to destroy the Jews, falls on the 15th day of Adar. Sukkhot, Tu B’Shevat and Tu B’Av also fall on the 15th day of their respective months (Tishrei, Shevat, Av).

There are also fifteen Psalms of Ascent (Ps. 120-134) and when the pilgrims would arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, they would have to climb fifteen steps from the ground to the temple entrance.

It works it’s way into a few stories as well. During the flood, the story reads that the waters rose 15 cubits above the mountains. Is that the highest mountain or some sort of average? That number is clearly symbolic. Later, in the book of Hosea, when his wife leaves to go back to her life of prostitution, Hosea buys her back, and the price he pays is 15 shekels of silvers.

Still, the Bible is full of numbers, and by sheer coincedence some of them will be the same as others, but the number fifteen is different for mathematical and religious reasons. You see, the ancient Hebrews didn’t have a separate set of characters for numbers than they had for letters.

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As you can see in the table, one could easily put together any number from 1 to 999 using the same rules we use with our characters, except in Hebrew they read from right to left instead of from left to right. Everything works pretty consistently, except when you get to 15. To write it out with these characters, you would normally use the yodh (י) for 10 and the he (ה) for 5, except that this Y and H are the same characters that begin YHWH (יהוה), otherwise known as the name of God. So, out of respect for the name of God, they would use the tet (ט) for 9 and the vav (ו) for 6. The number fifteen is set aside and the appearance of these characters is a reminder that God’s people set things aside for God’s purposes.

Lent is supposed to be a time of setting things aside for God, with the idea that in whatever way we suffer as a result we should be drawn closer to God. This is tied to the old and often forgotten understanding that suffering itself brings us closer to God, as much or more than religious rituals. It’s a concept we’re all more or less okay with, as long as someone else is doing the suffering. We all want to believe that we have been set aside for comfort, that God is rewarding our past faithfulness with present and future comfort, so when the pain arrives, we often wonder what we have done wrong.

Near the beginning of the year I had suggested to our congregation that 2015 might be a year that we set aside for a special purpose, to discern a way forward and establish our vision going forward. That may still be happening, but it seems that maybe 2015 is a year set aside for other reasons. It’s only March, but already we know that 2015 will not be remembered as a year of good medical diagnoses and familial stability. The question is worth asking, is 2015 being set aside for us as a year of suffering?

Giving something up for Lent is probably the mildest example of a religious ritual designed to convey some measure of understanding using suffering as a delivery mechanism. One obvious flaw with this is that the things we normally give up, ie. coffee, chocolate, alcohol, fast food, reality TV, etc. are actually bad for us and in essence when Lent ends we choose to embrace our suffering once more. Another flaw is that this kind of intentional suffering is very often temporary. Suffering is not a machine that provides spiritual wisdom and then be turned off. We want to set time aside to learn and then get back to life as normal, but often time is set aside for us to suffer, and suffering becomes the new normal.

For me, this is still theoretical. As a pastor, friend and community member, I can try to lessen the suffering and I can do my best to empathize, but I am not suffering. The challenge for me, and anyone who would dare say something like ‘suffering produces wisdom’ is to not pity those who are suffering but to honour them. If we believe, and I think we should, that people are set aside for suffering, then we dare not set them aside to be excluded and forgotten.

Forgiveness

One of the events on the calendar at the recent Truth and Reconciliation gathering I attended in Edmonton was an inter-faith panel.  Representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and First Nations spiritual communities were present.  Each panelist spoke about how their faith teachings lead them to deplore the abuse that so often happened at these residential schools.  They also each spoke about how their faith might point toward a path of reconciliation. Without exception, they spoke about the need for forgiveness, that whether it was earned, or even asked for, the victims would not find peace in their hearts until they were able to forgive their oppressors.

Like many of the events at the Edmonton TRC, this gathering was full to capacity, but of all the audiences I was a part of, this was by far the whitest.  This must have been the kind of academic exercise that was much more suited to the settler experience than the First Nations experience. The First Nations community leaders that I have talked to couldn’t think of a First Nations person who holds to an atheistic world view. The First Nations people, in one way or another, are a very spiritual people. Still, this didn’t seem to be the kind of spiritual gathering they were interested in attending en masse.

When the panelists had each finished their presentations, the MC invited questions from the floor, and a line formed at the microphone. I left after the second question, when it seemed clear to me that it would be a string of negative comments directed toward the Christian representatives, whether or not their own branch of the church was directly responsible.

But the first question/comment was powerful.  One of the few First Nations voices in the room spoke up and said that it was just a little bit too easy for them to speak about forgiveness, but for the people who had been affected, the pain was very real, and forgiveness was a very difficult thing to do.

Of course she was right. None of the panelists would have disputed her.  A number of the panelists I’m sure could have spoken of their own tradition’s very recent stories of overcoming victimization and how forgiveness was and is a central part of their healing.  I’m sure the Jewish, Sikh and Cree leaders could have told first- or second-hand accounts (even the Mennonite on the panel probably could have done the same).  But they didn’t.  Nobody said they knew how she felt.

In an event based on an apology, Stephen Harper’s official government apology to victims of abuse at Canadian residential schools, it might have been appropriate for one of the panelists to apologize for the ease with which they had spoken. None of them even made a half-hearted apology for any perceived insensitivity. Nobody was sorry for what they had said.

The pain this woman was feeling was clear in her voice and the way it quivered.  The stories of what happened to women like her were still resonating in our ears from what we had heard in other rooms at other times during the assembly. Nobody was going to deny her pain.  Nobody was going to force her to forgive or tell her that it would be easy to do so, but the conviction was the same, that anger and bitterness would only delay the healing.

The religious sentiment, almost without exception, toward this woman was empathy. It was visible in the faces of the panelists. Emotion in an academic setting, who would have thought. There was pain in her life and there will continue to be pain, that was obvious. While she is entitled to that pain, and her abusers are not in any way entitled to human forgiveness, that is where her healing will the begin.

Playmobil Advent – Day Thirteen

Today’s baby Jesus is from Playmobil kit #4884 and can be viewed/ordered here.

The smallest package was the most exciting.  The central piece of the scene arrived today.  With baby Jesus in the scene, we now have a natural center.

Day 13 – Isaiah 9: 2-7

2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. 3 You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as soldiers rejoice when dividing the plunder. 4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. 5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

Playmobil Advent – Day Seven

In seeking to establish a family Christmas tradition, this year my wife and I purchased a few Christmas and Nativity scene kits from Playmobil. Every day from now until Christmas Eve we will reveal more pieces and characters for our scene, tell a little bit more of the Christmas story, read a short passage of scripture, sing a Christmas Carol, and maybe enjoy a treat or two. I share this as a resource to other parents, and as a fun way of connecting.

Today’s cow and hay are from Playmobil kit #4884 and can be viewed/ordered here.

Day 7 – Deuteronomy 18: 15-19

15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your own people. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”

17 The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their people, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.

Playmobil Advent – Day Four

In seeking to establish a family Christmas tradition, this year my wife and I purchased a few Christmas and Nativity scene kits from Playmobil. Every day from now until Christmas Eve we will reveal more pieces and characters for our scene, tell a little bit more of the Christmas story, read a short passage of scripture, sing a Christmas Carol, and maybe enjoy a treat or two. I share this as a resource to other parents, and as a fun way of connecting.

Today’s character is from Playmobil kit #4884 and can be viewed/ordered here.

Matthew 1: 18 – 24 (TNIV)

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

Playmobil Advent – Day Two

In seeking to establish a family Christmas tradition, this year my wife and I purchased a few Christmas and Nativity scene kits from Playmobil. Every day from now until Christmas Eve we will reveal more pieces and characters for our scene, tell a little bit more of the Christmas story, read a short passage of scripture, sing a Christmas Carol, and maybe enjoy a treat or two. I share this as a resource to other parents, and as a fun way of connecting.

Today’s character is from Playmobil kit #4887 and can be viewed/ordered here.

The Christmas story is full of angels.  Angels deliver messages from God to the people.  This angel’s name is Gabriel, and before he delivered a message to Mary or Joseph, he delivered a message to a priest named Zechariah.

Day 2 – Luke 1: 5-20 (TNIV)

5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both well advanced in years.

8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.

14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Remembrance, Interrupted

In hindsight, we probably should have been more prepared for it.  Between the four of us pastors, we had probably over sixty years of public speaking experience.  My more charismatic colleague has had more sermons interrupted than he cares to count  by a prophetic voice.  Our local veteran and our newly arrived veteran can also tell stories of various church services, community program and council meetings that were interrupted by a dissenting voice.  A few times I have even found myself surrounded by people who were preparing to further their cause of social justice by being that interrupting voice. I guess, for some reason, we thought that this couldn’t happen at a Remembrance Day service.

It is one of a declining number of community Remembrance Day services that invites Christian pastors to play a lead role, and believe me, we approach it with the respect and humility it deserves.  The program was going along quite well, if not maybe a little behind schedule, but we were doing and saying the right things.  The eleventh hour was approaching and the trumpet player was getting ready for last post. Suddenly, a lone voice at the back of the auditorium spoke up. With the spotlights facing our direction it was difficult to identify the man, but we could see that this was a man in some kind of uniform.

He went on to list of a number of Canadians killed in WWI who were not soldiers. In fact, he was quite sure that the first two official deaths and the last one, were not technically soldiers.  He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t disrespectful.  He simply thought that an important group of victims had not been mentioned. The man at the podium thanked him, and the program continued as planned.

Nobody seemed to mind. Maybe people thought it was planned. Maybe it was because he was senior in a uniform, and if there is any time in Canada when a senior in a uniform is given extra freedom, it’s November 11th. Still, I’ve seen less solemn gatherings turn hostile when a dissenter let their voice be heard, so I was surprised that the response was so peaceful.

Later, I chatted with the other pastors about the incident.  They admitted to being surprised, but also confused. Maybe we hadn’t included WWI merchant marines, but our tributes certainly hadn’t been exclusive to soldiers.  In my opening prayer, I mentioned soldiers returning with PTSD and their families, I mentioned governmental leaders and decision makers, and I asked for time when the rules of engagement would be guided by the love in soldier’s heart (rather than the normal chain of command).  The pastor giving the meditation was careful to use generic words like ‘sailor,’ to include those who were in the navy when their boats went down and those who weren’t, and ‘victim’ to include fighters (allies and enemies) and civilians. His message honoured everyone who put themselves in harm’s way and empowered everyone in the audience.  Finally, the group prayer included such a wide swath of victims that it was hard to imagine that he had left anyone out.  Despite all of our efforts toward inclusion, we were unable to remove the need for this interruption.

We could, in self-defense, write this man off as someone who is impossible to please.  Someone even suggested that he had perhaps made this kind of interruption in the past.  But maybe there is something more going on.  Remembrance Day ceremonies are full of processions and pagaentry, poetry and prayer, but are our carefully chosen words enough?

Is an hour and a half, once a year, enough to honour the soldiers who fought (and died) in what they believed was the pursuit of freedom and justice?  Is it enough to honour the sacrifices of an entire country in the pursuit of victory?  Is there room to include the long list of victims; the soldiers who died, the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, sons and daughters left behind, the soldiers who returned with irreparable physical and emotional wounds, the innocent and loving family members who suffer abuse at the hands of those so emotionally scarred, the soldiers who died on the other side not knowing why they were even fighting, anyone relying on entire economies destroyed in the conflict, children of deceased soldiers who swear vengeance and carry hatred their whole lives, women who raise children without their fathers because of the war, women who are called in unwillingly to “comfort” the soldiers, those who suffer from the bombs and landmines left behind by the war, those whole societies who fear retribution, and the list could go on and on and on.

I now see that this man’s voice wasn’t simply an unnecessary part of an otherwise well orchestrated event, it was a necessary part of a perpetually inadequate gathering.  We will continue to remember, and when there is a part for me to play, I am happy to do so, but remembering cannot simply be an exercise of intellectual recall, it needs to be the first step in our efforts to bring peace into this world.

In the news again

Mennonites are in the news again in Canada.  Maybe in a good way, maybe in a bad way, and maybe both.  The Canadian Mennonite, a periodical published by Mennonite Church Canada has been asked/warned by an agency of the government to refrain from partisan political activity.  It referred to certain editorials and articles that covered political territory, including a few that encouraged readers to take certain issues to heart when selecting their candidates.  The editor of this periodical is a professional and knows not to endorse any particular parties or candidates, but by advocating treatment of the poor and the environment as critical political issues, this government agency deemed it to be partisan political activity.

[Canadian Mennonite article here.  CBC news report here.]

The Canadian Mennonite has gone public with the communication it has received.  Much of the response has been supportive of the magazine and critical of the government’s action.  At a political level, I agree that this attempt to silence anything that appears to be opposition is a step away from the freedoms we enjoy in this country.  At a practical level, I agree that this activity did border on promoting partisan political interests.

As with almost every group in Canada, there is a broad political spectrum represented in Canadian Mennonite religious and cultural communities.  All of the major mainline political parties will get votes from Mennonites motivated by their religious convictions.  There are a number of elected and aspiring politicians across the political spectrum who are ethnically Mennonite and/or hold Mennonite/Anabaptist religious convictions.  Driven by their stance on a variety of social causes, one could easily vote for any Canadian political party and still call themselves a rational human being.  Any intellectually responsible person will admit they need to set aside some principals in the ballot box in order to hold up certain other principals.

Some might argue about which political party best represents our Anabaptist convictions.  I’ve heard that argument.  It’s either boring because everyone blindly agrees, or it’s futile because finding any common ground seems impossible.

Some might vocally defend our right to speak against government decisions.  We have that right.  We have those convictions.  But rather than hearing why we should be allowed to speak against Harper, it would be more convincing to see the articles where we spoke against Chretien or Layton or May.  Would any of them carry out the office of Prime Minister without contradicting Mennonite/Anabaptist principles?  Where was this call for increased civic engagement when the Conservatives were on the political fringes?

All of this though is a distraction.  The Anabaptist understanding is that we, as Christians, are Kingdom people.  And so the political process in this or any other country is irrelevant to our primary pursuits.  If your Kingdom call prompts you to feed the poor, then feed the poor, whether or not there is government funding to do so.  If you want to promote responsible family and economic decisions, do it, but don’t expect our elected officials to be motivated by the same principals and seek the same ends.  Encouraging people to vote, even if you’re telling them to take their Christian principles into the voting box, does not align you more closely with the original Anabaptists, it does quite the opposite.

Some are claiming that the Mennonite community is being punished for its non-conformist stance, but by engaging in the political dialogue at all, we are conforming to the societal norm.  We can respond to this issue in a few different ways, but I worry that we will do it wrong.  We could respond to this government decree with defiance and become more vocal and more specific about our political opinions.  We could cower away and quietly avoid political conversations.  In one, we could boldly become worse Anabaptists, in the other, we become better Anabaptists, but out of fear.

Our true allegiance is to the Kingdom.  Artificial dividers like political or national affiliation distract us from our true callings.  A wise man once said that mixing church and state is like mixing ice cream and manure, it has little effect on the manure, but it sure buggers up the ice cream.  If we write off our government as hopeless they will ignore us.  If we too eagerly embrace the opposition, we will compromise our allegiances.  Either way, we lose our prophetic voice.

I Walk the Line

First thing this morning I went for a walk. I had a letter that needed to be mailed and the nearest post office is at our nearby grocery store.  Since my letter needed an authorizing stamp, there needed to be an actual staff person there to receive it and that staff person wouldn’t arrive until 9.  I was there at 8:45 and so I thought that in the meantime, I should call my wife and see if there were any groceries I could pick up while I waited.  She obliged and gave me a list of half a dozen things that would be needed in the upcoming meal plan.

When I was in University, I walked to the grocery store all the time.  You shop differently when you walk.  Anything you buy, you have to carry.  Whether you want to carry it or not, you need the groceries. So I bought the 5kg  bag of flour instead of the 10kg. I walked with a 4L jug of milk inside of two grocery bags and a dozen eggs in one hand, and the flour and produce in the other. I didn’t buy anything unnecessary, because I would have had to carry it.  I didn’t buy a snack for my walk home, because I would have had to fight with my bags to even bring the snack food to my mouth.  I rarely walk long and hard enough for my walk to a strain on me, but with a 12 kg load (or so), I could feel my arms and legs yearning to be home.

Although not technically a walk, I did use my feet for something else today.  I rushed back from the grocery store so that I could meet our sewing machine repairman at 9:30. I watched as he cleaned, oiled and tightened my machine.  When my wife’s paternal grandmother died over ten years ago, Ana got her old treadle sewing machine.  I used it a few times at our apartment in Ontario, but even then it had a few glitches I couldn’t figure out.  We wanted to modify some curtains last week, so we brought out the old machine again and I couldn’t get it working. We looked over the owner’s manual, and while it had a warranty when it was purchased, that expired in 1944. Luckily there is a guy in town that fixes them, and so we called him over. He was a retired widower, and as he adjusted knobs, wound bobbins and sewed test patterns, we talked.  We talked about the small world connections he had made. We talked about other sewing machines he had fixed, many of them donated to a thrift store and sold for charity.  In just over an hour, he had the machine working smoothly again.

So as I held my strips of curtain fabric and tried to keep it straight, I couldn’t help but reflect on the past.  The needle going in and out of my fabric was being powered by my feet, just like it had been powered by my children’s great-grandmother in years past. I feel like when I make choices like to use this old sewing machine, I am giving a vote to my ancestors on how things should be done.  When you take your foot off of a treadle sewing machine, it doesn’t stop immediately. At the beginning, when it’s most important to be holding the fabric correctly, you also need a hand on the wheel beside you. If your foot falls out of rhythm with the machine, you need to focus on what you’re doing before you throw off the pattern.

There were no profound discoveries on my “walks” and again a lot of old memories that weren’t giving me any new information, but they were worth the effort once again.

I’m walking, look at me

Sunday morning I challenged my congregation to do a few things.  I suggested they should pray more if they aren’t already praying regularly.  I also suggested that they could use the words of the Psalms as their prayer or at least to frame their prayer.  Those, while perhaps new for me, are pretty standard things for a pastor to suggest to his congregation.  The other thing I added was a challenge to go for a walk.

Walking is good exercise, better for the environment than driving, etc. but walking is a chance to get away from the worries of our life. Walking can be a profound time of closeness to God.

I have little control over who will follow my advice, but the biggest question isn’t will anyone else do what I say, the greatest question to me is will I do what I say.

So, tonight, I went for a walk.  The distance and the destination aren’t terribly relevant.  I walked for about half an hour, and it wasn’t long before my mind started cycling through the various pertinent issues of my life. But rather than arrive at some sort of epiphany, I simply replayed conversations in my mind. If anything I found myself re-convincing myself of the things I had already said.  This reminded me of another spiritual quest.

My memory can’t give me any new information, so what is the point of reflecting on it?

I’m likely not the only one who feels this way, but when I am in a conversation/argument where the same things are being said over and over again and there doesn’t seem to be any progress, I would rather not be there.  I would rather leave.  More than once I have left a conversation like that to go for a walk. When I go for a walk though, I keep hearing the argument played out.  I hear again and again what was said to me, and repeat in my mind the words that I said back. I reiterate why I was write to say those words.  But I cannot leave that conversation.  Not only am I reminded of my words, but I am reminded of the ineffectiveness of them.  When I go for a walk after a stressful conversation, I am putting myself in the shoes of my opponent. I hear my own words over and over again. I start to realize that they were not good enough, and I start to understand that I need to either say different words or say my words differently.

So, while I haven’t gotten any new information, the parts of memory have assembled themselves and I am farther ahead than when I left.