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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Whose story do you believe?

(This was a reflection I gave at Ponsonby Baptist Church on 5/6/11 prior to leading the Communion service and following a sermon series on Transitions.)
A few weeks ago Jody mentioned a gathering at Carey Baptist College to discuss the book Love Wins by Rob Bell. I hadn’t read the book at the time so I didn’t go to the event but I like Rob Bell as an author who tackles big theological issues in a non-jargon way that relates very well to people across the board who are asking hard questions. I’ve recently read the book and yes it does deal with the heaven and hell issue and does so extremely well.  But its theme is broader than just that question – read it yourself and find out!

What particularly struck me was a slightly new angle on the familiar Prodigal Son story which we have heard read again this morning. (Luke 15:11- 32) I offer you my version of this as something that links very well with our series on Transitions and with our celebrating of Communion in a few minutes.

Whose story do you believe about yourself – and about God?

The younger son in the story believed that he had so messed up his life that the best he could ask for from his father was to be re-instated as a servant. His internal story about himself might have gone something like this: “I’ve really ruined my chances. I feel so stupid that I wasted all that money and wrecked my life. There’s no hope for me now. All I can do is grovel and hope for some way to save myself from starving. There’s no point in expecting to be in Dad’s good books again but at least he might have pity on me enough to let me live out the back and stay alive. It’s all very humiliating but what choice to I have?”

Inherent in this is the story he was believing about his father: “He is bound to be angry with me but he is my father so maybe he’ll give me a kind of second chance – but definitely a second best chance. He’ll expect me to learn from my foolishness and take the consequences of my actions on the chin.”

What the Biblical account reveals is that the Father lived out of a very different story! His story about the son was: “Here’s my wonderfully, dearly loved son. I can’t wait to give him the best of everything and celebrate with all the bells and whistles. I don’t even need to know what he’s been up to. He’s here!  Tell everyone. At last I can shower my love on him in the most extravagant way I can think of.”

Whose story do you believe about yourself and about God? Your own story or God’s story?

Then there is the older brother. His story about himself seems to be: “I am a good, hardworking person. In fact I “work like a slave” for my father. Not that I begrudge that exactly but I do think he should take a bit more notice of all I do and celebrate me a bit more. It’s all very well to be the good one but I think I deserve a bit more credit. Not that I’d say so of course. I work hard at being appropriate in everything I do and that includes being self-effacing. But sometimes I’m inwardly furious that other people get what they definitely don’t deserve and I don’t even get what I do deserve.”

Inherent in this is the story he was believing about his father: “He expects me to work like a slave and not complain. He’s really a hard taskmaster who doesn’t go in for affirming or celebrating. He just expects me to get on with life and not expect much from him.”

When the older son’s story really bursts out honestly in the face of the party for his undeserving brother we once again discover that the story the Father held was quite different. We might imagine the Father saying: “Oh my son. I’m so sorry you see it like that. No, no, no. You are right here close to my heart all the time and every single thing I have is always available to you. You could have had parties every week if you wanted. I thought you knew that! Let’s talk more about this later. But please do come and join in the party for your brother.”

Whose story do you believe about yourself and about God?

Both sons missed the point – but in opposite ways. One son thought his “badness” separated him from the Father’s love. The other son was waiting for his “goodness” to earn his Father’s love. Neither of them believed that badness and goodness were both immaterial. Their Father’s love was free, expansive and exhuberant for them both. Whether each of them “got” that or not depended on them being willing to drop their own story about themselves and launch themselves into the party!

Whose story do you believe about yourself and about God? Your own story or God’s story?

It’s quite a transition to drop our own story, our own self-talk, self judgment, self righteousness, self-striving… and allow God’s story of love without boundaries, love without conditions, love without merit or earning or trying or doing penance – to be the story we believe; the story we live in, the story we live out of.

Taking communion is a great time to drop our story about ourselves and receive the love of a God who says to each of us: This is my body broken for you. Can you accept? This is my blood poured out for you. Can you receive that?

Let your receiving of the bread and wine this morning express your willingness to drop the story of your “badness” or your “goodness” and enter the celebration of God’s love for you exactly as you are.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Paragliding Parable


A Paragliding Parable
(first published in Reality magazine)
I sat on a hillside in Wanaka and watched at close range a paraglider getting ready for take off. It took quite a while to get all the equipment assembled and then a few short dummy runs to test the strength of the wind. When the moment for take off came my own heart was pounding as he ran forward - and kept on running when the hillside disappeared. I watched his feet pumping in midair and then the tricky manoeuvre as he settled himself into the harness seat. The whole process looked terrifying to me. Would I ever dare to run straight off the side of a hill with only a parachute on my back and the wind to support me? To be honest, I doubt it.

But then he glided past me at eye level. I could hear the hum of the wind in the sail. I watched him circle and glide noiselessly and effortlessly over the pastureland below. I could almost feel the exhilaration and freedom and for a brief, mad moment I wanted to try it. For the present though, I settled for the safer option of vicariously enjoying his  journey! I watched until he landed safely far below and began packing up his gear. Then I set off for the long downhill walk.

On the way down the mountain I met him climbing back up complete with the harness and sail. We stopped on the narrow track for a chat and I noticed that his helmet said "Tandem Paragliding". Yes, he said, he was an instructor  and guide in a company that took people tandem gliding. Why didn't I come along and try it one day when the season started?  Coward that I am, I was relieved that it wasn't  "the season" now - and that I would be many miles away from Wanaka by the time it was!

That incident took place months ago and I hadn't thought about it since - until this morning. This morning I read the familiar passage (Mark 8:34-38) where Jesus tells us that if  we try to save our life we will lose it, but if we lose it for his sake we will find it. "Take up your cross and follow me" Jesus said.  That is the way to lose your life - and find it. My mind wandered to another saying of Jesus "Take my yoke upon you" (Matthew 11:29). "Take up your cross... Take my yoke..." That's when the picture of the paraglider came to mind. Perhaps there is a link between taking up the cross and taking Jesus' yoke. The paraglider helped me to see it.

The harness and the parasail are heavy and cumbersome on the ground. Only when the person wearing them gives up control of his/her life by running off the hillside into the wind do they become the source of life and of effortless movement.

The parasail as a yoke is something to put on which makes impossible things possible - and even easy. (I wouldn't recommend running off a hillside without one!) But running off the side of a hill into the wind is a kind of dying. Taking up the parasail and running forward is an act of giving up control and trusting oneself to a completely new source of life support.

If I ever did have the courage to try paragliding I would definitely want to start with a tandem ride. Being yoked together with an expert would reduce, if not eliminate, the terror. I would experience the exhilaration of flying which I can never know while I sit on the hillside. Yoked to Jesus perhaps I can dare to risk more than ever before and trust the wind of the Spirit to support me. And the cross which seems to be an instrument of death will turn out to be the harness and the sail to carry me into new dimensions of life.

I hope I won't offend anyone by paraphrasing the words of Jesus thus:

"Come, you who are burdened and heavy laden, put on my paragliding harness and let's go for a tandem ride."

"If you want to be my disciples, take up your parasail and run off the hillside into the wind. If you try and stay safely on the ground you'll lose out, but if you risk everything, even life itself, by trusting me and the power of the Spirit - you'll experience a whole new dimension of life!"

A Safe and Comfortable God?

(First published in Reality Magazine)

Sometimes I wonder if we are in danger of domesticating God; taming God into a manageable loving companion who has already done everything for us in Jesus so we are free to sit back comfortably knowing that all will be well in the end.

Of course there's wonderful truth in that picture of God. God's character is one of amazing, unconditional love. God does want to be our constant companion. In his life, death and resurrection Jesus has done for us what we could never do and he does want us to be secure and rest in that. So it's true, God is like this. But is it the whole truth? I don't think so.

What about the wild, unpredictable, breathtaking God who thunders out of the darkess on quaking mountains?[1] What about the God who tells people to walk into the middle of the sea or traipse round city walls with musical intruments instead of weapons?[2] What about the Jesus who is ferociously angry at the misuse of a place of prayer?[3] Or the Jesus who pulls no punches as he denounces the phoney spirituality of the so called religious leaders?[4] What about the Spirit who descends like flames of fire on the heads of timid disciples and sends them out to reckless exploits in a hostile world? [5]

Have you been in touch with this God recently?

I suspect we have hardly begun to touch the edges of this Mystery, this wonder-full, awe-full, majestic being we call God. I don't want a comfortable God who is little more than my security blanket. I want  a God who sweeps me off my feet and has me alert with all my senses tingling with that strange mixture of awe and excitement which is the fear of God. If the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom[6] I want to discover what that means.

In contemporary language fear usually describes a negative emotion we want to avoid. Being afraid makes us hold back, run away, close down, narrow our world into the safest  margins we can. If we equate the fear of God with being afraid of God I think we've missed the path to wisdom.  Psychologists tells us that fear and excitement are part of the same continuum. Energy is generated for action. Sometimes it is for appropriately self protective action and sometimes for  leaping forward into new experiences.  You've probably experienced the mix of fearful excitement: standing on the high diving board, pushing off on skis down a snowy mountainside, making a risky life choice and not knowing where it wil lead... Adrenalin is pumping, the senses are alert, emotions are heightened. The line between fear, excitement and awe is hard to find. At this point "fear" blends into exhilaration, taking us forward into the unknown with an abandonment that is the opposite of self protection.  Maybe this gives us a clue as to what the fear of God may be like.

No one puts it better than CS Lewis in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". In this allegorical story Aslan represents Jesus. Mr and Mrs Beaver are explaining to the children who Aslan is: 
"I'll tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don't you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion - the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh!" said Susan, I thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

I believe we can dare to meet the wild, exhilarating God who "isn't safe" when we know that he's good, he's loving, he's the King. Then we can come with knees knocking and hands outstretched whispering: "Yes! Wherever you take me - yes!"

[1] Exodus 19:16-20
[2] Exodus14; Joshua 6
[3] John 2:13-17
[4] Matthew 23
[5] Acts 2:1-4
[6] Psalm 111:10