Eugene Peterson’s “Long Obedience in One Direction” came to an end this week. His life has touched many and his life’s work will continue to influence for years to come. He was a pastor’s pastor. He taught by word and example how a true shepherd cares for his “sheep”.
I was most influenced by his “Message” which was a poetic paraphrase of the Bible. Many folks I came across had suffered a kind of spiritual abuse at the hands of Bible quoting authoritarians, who wielded scripture like a weapon. “Spare the rod …” “Thou shalt not…!” etc. So familiar were these rebukes that people had a built up resentment to scriptures and so could not “hear” the Good News they contain. When I discovered the Message I heard a fresh voice, free of the undeserved baggage that other versions carried. The Message became a valued tool in my evangelistic tool kit. It is extremely raw in places and ever so tender in others. It evokes a response. It is startling because it does not suffer with the contempt that comes with familiarity. I am keenly aware that it is not a text for biblical scholars. It is not a literal translation, but it is wonderfully and powerfully literate. I continue to use it personally and with my friends.
I came across a brilliant Peterson quote just the other day. “Our senses have been dulled by sin. The world, for all its vaunted celebration of sensuality, is relentlessly anaesthetic” We have so much stimulation that we are numb. We are stupefied by stimulation. We like the fashionable zombies of the screen are in a kind of slumber. We have succumbed and are in Peterson’s words “relentlessly anaesthetic”. The opposite of anaesthetic is aesthetic. Could the cure for our stupor, our numbness, be as simple as ‘beauty’?
I think it is as we pause with all our devices shut off and as we as the old chorus says “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” as we gaze at the beauty of the great Good News, as we are still and know that He is God, that we come to life. It is all too easy to become overwhelmed. It is all too easy to become so stimulated with information and opinion. The antidote isn’t more stimulation, or different stimulation, or faster stimulation. The answer isn’t some Luddite repudiation of technology. The antidote is to find beauty. Paul writes “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” (Philippians 4:8 “The Message”)
Things are beginning to come ‘full circle’.
When I first started ministry in inner-city Saint John we began with a “Healing Clinic”. The idea was that we would simply ‘hang out our shingle’ and offer prayer to folks in the neighbourhood. We did this as an attempt to meet our neighbours in a way that would provide us the best opportunity to really listen to their concerns. I have often told the story of meeting Ron at these early meetings. We prayed for him and then didn’t see him for months. He had been so gravely in need of a new kidney that I thought he had probably died, but then he showed up again! When I asked where he had been, he looked at me like I was stunned. “You prayed I’d get a new kidney and I’ve been in Halifax where I got the surgery giving me one! What did you expect?”
Susan used to come to these clinics, as well. She wasn’t looking for any real healing but she was lonely and wanted someone to listen to her. She lived in a care home where she was seldom ‘listened to’. To be honest she had very limited things to say and our times were full of repetitive stories. While they seemed fresh to Susan I often felt like I was caught in a time loop. But these were meaningful encounters for her.
Out of the core of people we met through our Healing Clinic we formed Up Town Church. We defined ourselves as “an honest accepting community of broken people, together finding wholeness through Christ and sharing the love of God through acts of kindness by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Through Up Town we continued to pray for people. I remember Janet who came one Sunday Evening. Her neck was in a brace and she asked if we had any high backed chairs. We borrowed a chair from the church sanctuary that night but soon found a suitable one at a local thrift store. We were ready for Janet’s next visit! When she arrived I rushed to the spot where we had stored the chair only to learn that she no longer needed it. Like Ron, she was surprised by my lack of faith! We had prayed for her the previous week and she no longer required that kind of support.
We have had other wonderful examples of God’s healing work over the years and we have lots of examples of smaller ‘miracles’ and plenty of times we have not seen the same kind of encouraging results. As I look back on these particular encounters, though, I realize that God’s activity does not depend on my faith. I am the butt of God’s healing jokes. I had no expectation for Ron or Janet. I had little patience for Susan. My short comings did not seem to hinder the flow of God’s grace.
Recently I found myself free on Monday mornings. Out Flow, where I do my studies has a wonderful play program with children in that time slot. Over the last month or so I have just ‘sat with that’ not wanting to jump into anything but instead to be led to the right thing. I believe the right thing is to open (or re-open) a Healing Clinic. So Monday mornings I will return to Stone Church and will figuratively hang out my shingle (I will literally put out our Street Hope sidewalk sign) and be available to listen to and pray for our neighbours. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t know how long it will take to become useful. I do believe that it is an opportunity to go deeper with people. I am becoming less and less interested in a broad ministry with bigger numbers and keener and keener for in depth conversations, which may lead to healing and deliverance.
I invite you to pray for this new (old) venture as things come full circle in the Uptown, for us.
Perhaps you have seen the signs outside church buildings “Every Member a Minister”. While you may doubt the truth of this affirmation you shouldn’t doubt that this is God’s plan for his Church. Too often church looks like a hockey game in the third period of overtime; a small group of exhausted professionals needing rest while thousands of spectators, who could probably use some exercise, watch on from their seats. When I began ministry in the inner-city I knew I wanted to encourage this ‘every member ministry’ but I knew if I used the word “ministry” that my friends would feel unqualified and opt out. So I never used the word ministry. I spoke about being kind. We issued kindness challenges and I would ask people the next week how they were able to show kindness. Before they knew it they had joined the ministry team! Kindness isn’t too hard. Anyone can be kind.
The church I attend has had a series on the Fruit of the Spirit and a couple of weeks ago the topic was on ‘Kindness”. Since then I have been thinking a lot about kindness. It seems to me that kindness is a tangible expression of our obedience to the Great Command to Love God and our neighbour. We can all be kind is a fact. That this world is often a cruel and unkind place is also a fact. While we are capable of kindness as evidenced in calamities or snow storms, are we kind often enough to ameliorate the cruelty of the world?
A friend of mine experienced very little kindness after his father’s death, until he met Christians while in prison. He tells the story of his first bank robbery as a young man. The idea of performing this armed robbery occurred to him as he walked the streets of Toronto. He saw an elderly man trip and fall on the sidewalk. People walked by without taking notice or helping. This young boy said that at that moment it occurred to him that he could rob a bank and no one would even bother to stop him. The unkindness and absence of kindness had so influenced him that this single example set him on a course of crime.
A simple act of kindness to that nameless elderly man might have averted a life of crime. We will never know. So it is with all of our acts of kindness. We will never know what effect the smallest kindnesses may have on others or even for ourselves.
Years later the kindness of a whole string of chaplains and volunteers finally broke through to my friend. He discovered a new life and has dedicated himself to acts of kindness.
God is kind and we reflect our Creator’s image most closely when we too are kind. This takes no financial means or theological training. It takes simple obedience. The next person I meet is the one to whom I ought to show kindness and then the one after that. I don’t even need to ‘feel like it’ but as I am kind I become kind. It is true that you cannot out give God!
I have had many role models. There were people who inspired me to say “When I grow up I want to me like ….” The first one was my dad and as my world expanded so did my role model list. Yesterday the religious world celebrated one of my recent role models, Francis of Assisi. I realize though that I had the wrong formula. I could never grow up to be like Francis for in all the important ways Francis never grew up. This was his charm and the secret of his spiritual life.
In the Gospels Jesus reminds us that we are to come to him as little children. Many have struggled with just how to do that but Francis had the answer! Francis knew the lovable God and loved God with his whole heart. He knew that he was loved and loved enthusiastically in return. He wanted nothing more than to love and be loved by God. It is not so much that he forsook the worldly pleasures. It was that he had no room for them, so full was his heart.
In his itinerant evangelistic ministry, he pointed people to the lovable God. This was in sharp contrast to the more theologically sophisticated rule laden and performance based message that was and is so prevalent. It is no wonder people responded! He so obviously loved the God of Love that his message asking folks to repent and turn to this God who so loved them, was gladly received.
His authentic childlike devotion stands as an example for this day. It is in the reversion to simple childlike devotion that we follow in his steps. There is something wonderfully kenotic about this reversion. It feels like the call to take up one’s cross, to die to the things that crowd out childlike ardour, and follow after the lovable Saviour.
There are many tomes written filled with deep theology. Francis did not pen a one of them. Instead we have his poetry and prayers and songs. In them we glimpse the Peter Pan of Church History, for Francis never grew up!
As I visited an elderly Mennonite couple’s home, I read a plaque. It said “We are too soon old, and too late smart.” Francis is forever young and I am only grasping the beauty of that now. Better late than never, I guess.
When I grow up I want to be a child, a child of the lovable God revealed in the lovable Saviour.
I want to take some space to thank folks who encouraged me over this last week. I really appreciate it.