Tuesday, May 22, 2012

May 20, 2012 - Reflection by Rev. David Boyd - Easter 7

Our Thursday morning book group has finished until next fall. We read a book by Peter Rollins, whom I mentioned some weeks ago; I saw a YouTube video of Rollins and thought a book by him might be interesting. The book we read was called Insurrection: To believe is human, to doubt, divine. It was a provocative book in many ways although we did we argue with Rollins about his ideas. He ended his book with a poem and the last line, a take-off on the commissioning at the end of many worship services, which is "go in peace to love and serve God," reads, "go in pieces to see and feel your world." Rollins advocated that only by sharing our vulnerabilities and doubts can we truly be human and experience God.
Rollins wrote about living the resurrection today in how we live, in how we confront the powers and principalities of our day, and in how we make ethical choices. All of that was fine; it was the way in which he wrote that troubled some of us; he wrote in absolutes. For example, he wrote about the problem of religion being a crutch that props us up; some truth to that, surely, but not an absolute. Some of us found this absolutism to be judgemental of people who were just trying to live in this complicated world. He kept knocking the pins out from underneath us by suggesting that only if we always live out of our suffering and vulnerability will we be able to live the resurrection power, and only if we stop seeking the comfort of using God as a crutch will we truly live as Christian people. These expressions of absolute thinking I found difficult. While reading the book, and pondering these absolutes, I kept thinking of a woman in Northern Ontario, a parishioner who had experienced unbearable heart-break quite literally; Mrs. Leavoy was her name. Mrs. Leavoy and her husband, who had died at an early age of a heart-attack, had combined to create a genetic storm by passing on genes that trigger an overabundance of bad cholesterol. The first funeral I did after I was ordained and arrived in Northern Ontario was for Mrs. Leavoy's daughter who died of heart failure around the age of 40. Mrs. Leavoy's husband and 3 children had died of heart disease. One son remained alive who also had heart problems. Mrs. Leavoy's family was studied by the medical and genetics departments of Queen's University, I believe, in Kingston. What kept her going were her faith and her church family. She found tremendous comfort in attending church and she had a profound sense of God's presence holding her and her family in love. What would Rollins say to this, I wonder?
This past week, reading the gospel for today and some background to the readings, I kept coming across headlines and comments that contradicted Rollins' absolute ideas. At The Edge of Enclosurewebsite that I read each week, Suzanne Guthrie wrote in her title "do not leave us comfortless." At the workingpreacher.org website, the scholar of the week, James Boyce of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, said this, "As Easter people, we are encouraged not to dwell in feelings of abandonment or despair, but to hope in the assurance of Jesus' continuing presenceÉ."
How then do we live with the error, according to Rollins, of relying on the comfort of God on the one hand and the absolute of having to always live out of our vulnerabilities and mistakes on the other hand?
The truth is, I believe, somewhere in between these two absolute poles. Someone once said many years ago, and it's a saying that has been repeated over and over, and I suspect it probably arose in some glib, off-hand kind of way that has a certain wisdom about it, "The Church is called to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted." I believe that the Church is a paradox that lives in the tension between celebrating the Commonwealth of God here and now, knowing God's presence in our lives especially in times of challenge and difficulty, living the resurrection today in our lives, AND waiting for the fullness of God's grace, justice and peace to be realized in this life, or in other words, to be honest about the brokenness of the world. I know of many like Mrs. Leavoy who live in that tension.
The Apostle John articulates this tension in the idea that we live in the world, which has many challenges that we need to be honest about, but that we are born from above in God's love and so therefore are not of the world. (Remember, John wrote that God so loved this world, but this world is also interpreted by John as a reality of many challenges and injustices.) Living in the paradox of this tension, according to John's Gospel means that we live extravagant giving. The tension between experiencing comfort and living honestly in with our struggles is given legs in the idea that we are called to an extravagant giving that leads to unity. This idea of extravagant giving is throughout chapter 17 of John's Gospel and throughout the whole of the gospel. God gives. Jesus gives. We are given (life, love) and we, in turn, give of our lives. We open ourselves to each other and give of the deep gifts God has given. We give ourselves in the world for that is the path that leads to wholeness. In giving of ourselves, we discover that we are in one another finding unity and togetherness. We give with the extravagant gift of our lives just as God gives with the extravagant gift of God's life in Christ.
At the end of Rollins' book, he talks about his own personal struggles and from reading these, his ideas make a little more sense. At least they did to me... there weren't as many absolutes in his expression of his personal struggles. One of the things that I appreciated in his concluding chapter was the importance of worship. He wrote about the idea that in worship we come together as one, leaving our identities at the door. We worship as people who are equal, sisters and brothers together. And in this space of worship, we tell the story of extravagant giving, of extravagant love, of extravagant grace. We speak of what it means to live the resurrection of Christ in our lives here and now. We speak of our connection and unity with the whole creation. We speak of our quest for justice and meaning in the face of war and torture. We hold the hope for change in solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma and the hopes of the Karin women coming to Canada. We stand with the Mrs. Leavoys of the world who are hurting and grieving. We stand with our sisters and brothers in the reconciliation process with 1st Nations peoples. We stand with transgender folk in our humanity. In worship we create space to go out into the world renewed to live with integrity and hope, to live in the tension between comfort and struggle.
As many of you know, I have named my challenges and struggles in the past. They continue and what I have learned along the way is that I can live in the tension, the paradox, of comfort and struggle. I can't live constantly in the middle of my struggles and challenges. It is debilitating and too difficult; there is no lift, no joy. We can't live in the place of comfort all the time, either, for we become stale and stagnant. William Blake, the 18th century poet, wrote a poem that I've used in funerals that captures this tension well:
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine;
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so;
We were made for joy and woe;
Through the world we safely go.
As Jesus reminds us, we seek unity and solidarity with one another in living in the tension between struggle and comfort. In unity, we find the courage and impetus to live the United Church creed, for example, which is to celebrate God's presence, live with respect in creation, love and serve others, seek justice and resist evil, and to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen.
With this creedal calling, and together with you, I can live in the tension between the absolutes that Rollins describes. I can step out in justice-making and peace-seeking being honest about the difficult challenges of the world; in grief and loss, acknowledging our vulnerabilities and our humanity, we can console one another and practice healing touch and find compassion. Together, we can be the Church living joy in the midst of woe, and acknowledging woe in the midst of joy. For Christ is in us and we are in Christ, together in God seeking the renewal of this world in which we live, seeking the comfort that empowers us to truly live AND seeking the honesty to speak of our, and the world's, vulnerabilities and struggles openly. In this tension, the resurrection power of God's love and compassion are lived in each of us, and it truly becomes an insurrection of love.
May it be so. Amen.

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