I’ve always liked the way some older translations of the Bible refer to the Holy Spirit as the ‘Holy Ghost’. Ghosts are unpredictable, at least that’s how they’re portrayed. They show up unannounced and unbidden and scare the bejeebers out of someone. Maybe something like that has happened to you–a mysterious bang or bump in the dark of night and suddenly you found yourself believing in ghosts and feeling like you just lost control of the situation. I had a housemate once who had an experience just like that. The trouble for him was that he didn’t believe in ghosts in the daylight. He later put his world back together by diagnosing himself with a vitamin deficiency. I don’t really care if you believe in ghosts or not. It’s this Holy Ghost that the scriptures bring to our attention. Theologically we say that the love of the first two members of the Trinity for each other is so real, so solid, so vibrant, that we can speak of it too as an acting agent, a member of the Triune God—the animating power of the cosmos and the divine Spirit. One of the essential elements to the Christian way of life is the belief that this Spirit dwells in us. That is, Christians believe the Spirit dwells in the community of Jesus’ disciples. Read more
I require your imagination to get started. Imagine a little improv game with two people. It starts with one person pretends to give the other a gift. He picks up an imaginary box, determining its size and weight. He hands it off to a second person. She pretends to open, saying “Oh my, thank you for this beautiful . . . (saying whatever comes to mind) . . . this wonderful teddy bear’s foot.” The first person thinks of a quick reply: “Yes, yes, I got you the teddy bear’s foot just to say . . . I’d give you my right leg if you wanted it. That’s how much I value your contribution to the office.” It’s fun little game; give it a try sometime. I’ll say more about it in a moment. First, I want us to turn our attention to I Corinthians (our reading for Jan. 22 was I Cor. 1:10-18). Read more
On my drive in to the church today I was reflecting on how to respond to the events that have made news headlines over these past days. There has been yet another deliberate shooting of the innocent, an attempt to take as many lives as possible. We extend our prayers and sympathies to the victims in Quebec City as well as to our Muslim neighbors here in Ottawa. That much is obvious. As the news is recounted on the radio connections are made to the way our southern neighbour is closing its doors to those who wish to flee violence in some of the most unstable parts of the world.
It occurs to me that just as violence can creep through communities of faith and co-opt their commitment and devotion, so too it can poison the love of nation or culture. In a better world a person’s willingness to kill for an ideology, a faith, a culture or a nation would trigger some kind of automatic shutdown. It would tell us that we have gone too far and it would force us into some critical self-reflection. It would tell us that when our love for something we believe is ‘ours’ demands the death of others we have stooped too low. In a better world we would always recognize the inherent, divinely-ordained dignity of the lives of others. Read more
I used to teach an Ethics course to undergraduates. It was fun because conversations in the seminar would move from the highly theoretical to the intensely practical quick enough to give everyone whiplash. One of the topics that almost always got students riled-up was distributive justice. This is the classic question of who should get what. I can remember one particular seminar where a student was trying to make the case for a libertarian approach by saying that those who develop skills more valued by society should be financially rewarded more handsomely than those who don’t. He said that the free market is a fine instrument for working this out. As you might expect, another student brought up professional athletes. Read more
We begin with ‘water’ and with the words of an ancient Hebrew poet.
The poet would have composed in his head and then dictated the lines to a copyist. The copyist would have written the lines out with a stylus on a papyrus scroll. The scroll would have been made from the stalk of a papyrus plant. The papyrus stalk would have had it’s rind removed and the inner fibers sliced lengthwise into long strips. These strips would have been placed side by side in two layers, each layer at a right angle to the other. The two layers would have been wetted and pounded together. The joined layers would have made a long sheet that, when it was dried, could be rolled up as a scroll. The scroll would have been divided into columns by the copyist and filled with the poet’s composition. Here are the words scratched down:
Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name;
worship the LORD in holy splendor.
‘Ascribe’—the poet means ‘name God this way’ or ‘say these things about the divine’. He then encourages us to worship the LORD as one who is magnificently different. Sometimes, when a morning is bright and the snow is new it’s as though we can see these words, ‘glory’ and ‘splendor.’ They cling to the trees and lie heavy and thick on the grass. Read more
We could take a little poll to see what percentage of us would appreciate more joy. All we would need to do is ask for a show of hands. I don’t think we have to. Joy is something most of us crave. Christians are led to expect it. In the beginning of Galatians 5—this is Paul’s description of the things the Spirit produces in our lives—we read that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,” and so on. There is joy coming in at number two.
In the last verse of Isaiah 12, a few chapters out from the Old Testament reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent we come across this: Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. Joy is a response to the presence of the Holy One in our midst. It’s the culmination of the thought that begins with the famous phrase, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” The shouting, the singing for joy at the presence of the Holy One—it’s the culmination of that. And then, of course, there is Luke 2. The angels are talking to the shepherds. Do you remember what they say? “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior . . . .” Did you catch that, “great joy”? We find ourselves in a mess that runs too deep for us to fix. So there is joy at the birth of a savior.
The quick and obvious conclusion is this: God’s presence in our world and God’s work in our lives should make us joyful. If the faith helps us live well, joy should be part of the deal. But saying it ‘should’ isn’t the same as saying it ‘does’. Read more
Joanna waved from the café window. Henry was striding confidently over the winter sidewalk. He was thinking about how well he was moving for a tall fellow in his 80s. Optimistic thoughts like these had become an oddity for him. Henry had just raised is arm to wave back when he slipped. Everyone knows how this kind of slipping feels. Unanticipated. Your legs go out from under you. Read more
I once worked for a college program that focused on developing students’ leadership skills. We used the wilderness as our classroom. In the fall semester students were encouraged to spend 24 hours camping alone. After the experience was over we would gather together and talk about how things went. Most students described about grappling with fear or loneliness. The silence bothered some. I remember one student, who wasn’t particularly anxious going into the experience, sharing how he woke up in the morning to find his campsite circled by the tracks of a mountain lion. There is something unnerving about that thought: it’s the switch from thinking about the food chain to thinking of ourselves within it. It’s a very basic, very primitive feeling of vulnerability. Read more
Earlier this week I took a walk to our neighboring congregation, the shul or synagogue just up the hill. I think it was Wednesday. Wednesday was a blue-sky day, one of those days that tempts you to walk clear across the city. As I climbed the hill some lines from Isaiah floated through my mind:
In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
One person walking up to a synagogue is not exactly the streaming of nations, but I trust you can see the connection. Read more
If you have a Bible, on your phone or one of the traditional codex versions, take a look at the second to last verse in II Thessalonians. It’s verse 17 of chapter 3. You’ll want to see the context for these lines, but what I want to draw your attention to is this strange statement: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write.” This begs us to play literary detectives for a few moments. Why would Paul write these lines? Does he have some sort of fetish with wanting people to recognize his handwriting? Is he looking for the respect that some graffiti artists or taggers want when they sign things? What’s going on? Read more