Revitalizing The Church: Give Love Away – Joyce Sasse

“Love is something if you give it away”, we sing.  “It’s like a magic penny.  Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many they will roll all over the floor.”

The life and work of the Church is likened to that magic-penny-imagery.  Revitalizing any of our Christian communities is possible only when we “give love away”.

For the next few weeks I shall try to share my understanding of a presentation made by Joan Chittister.  She is a Benedictine abbess, writer and thinker who offers prophetic insights about the church and spirituality.  I treasure her wisdom.

She addressed the world-wide congress of Benedictine followers last fall.  Her theme Let the Call be Heard!  I’ll try to translate her thoughts in terms of the people and church-folk I know in this place and these times.

What we have been entrusted with are “gifts given to us by the spirit in order to maintain the spirit of Jesus in the church today”.  But the understandings we receive cannot be hoarded for ourselves (either as individuals or in community).  “They exist only when they are shared and given away.”  Our responsibility as faith-filled communities is to look for fresh and vibrant ways to live out our undertakings.

Next week I’ll look at how Chittister describes the partnership that must exist for the church to remain vital.  She names three partners:

  • The theologians and designated leaders of our faith-communities;
  • Those people from the everyday world who bring with them the realities of that world;
  • The spirit of Jesus, which fuels us …

For comparison between what has been and what might become in the church, see 15th c. de Vinci’s painting of the last supper.  It depicts an “all-male, apostolic, privatized version of Jesus and his disciples”.

On the other hand, the 20th c. Polish artist Leszek Piasecki’s painting of the Passover meal shows “men, women and children all sharing the same meal, all called to the same cup.  And all are participants in the theological development of the early Christian Community.”

How do you celebrate Seder?

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Precious In My Sight – Joyce Sasse

“Don’t be afraid” was the song of the Angels, according to the Biblical Story, sung at the time of Christ’s birth … a time when the Great God Almighty was seen to identify most closely with humankind.

At the beginning of Lent we remind ourselves of this basic understanding, especially in the face of those who preach about mortal sin and hellfire.

Oblate Priest Ron Rolheiser writes “Fear of divine punishment and hellfire can, admittedly, be effective as a (conversion) motivator … But its wrong!”  That kind of bullying not only intimidates individuals but “often leaves religious and emotional scars that can last a lifetime.”  He continues.  “Preaching the divine-threat dishonours the God in whom we believe.”

“Where have you been?”  “What have you discovered of God?” These might be more appropriate ways for church leaders to approach both their congregants and enquirers.  Instead of posing answers to questions people-of-faith aren’t asking, the better way might be to help folks explore and develop their own spiritual insights.  The vitality of a living God can speak to and through any one of us.

Those with a vision of justice and peace-building, for example, are thus empowered to find ways to ensure children are not abused, women are no longer ignored, and those once labeled LGBTQ are treated as persons.

If we understand ourselves to be “precious in God’s sight”, by extension that includes the refugee and immigrant and persons of other heritages and faiths.  It helps us more readily recognize the “abilities” of those we once thought to be “dis-abled”.

Where have you been?  What have you discovered of God?  In talking with each other about these matters we can understand more clearly the spiritual truths that direct our lives.

Be not afraid.  All creation is precious in God’s sight.  What a gift!

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Faced With Despair & Grief – Joyce Sasse

How can we express our feeling of despair and grief?  Some Biblical texts give wise advice.

The Psalmists repeatedly offer the invitation to join in private and public prayers of lament.  Psalm 17 is one such prayer.  “Listen, O Lord, to my plea for justice; pay attention to my cry for help.”  The defense is there.  “You know my heart.  You have come to me at night.  You have examined me completely and found no evil desire in me.”  This situation is not of my doing…. “Hide me in the shadow of your wings from the attacks of the wicked.”

That image brings to mind a clucking-hen charging at people-sized-threats while calling her young to hide under her feathers.  Imagine how safe those young, cocooned in downy softness, must feel.

When our whole being feels threatened, we may become aware of God calling us to a place of shelter.  As feelings of smallness and inadequacy overwhelm us, the support given allows time for us to marshal our strength against the harshness of life.

Have you ever noticed how tiny children cling to their mother’s knee?  As they gain confidence, they move a short distance away.  The least upset sends them scurrying back for reassurance … But eventually they are able to move on their own.

We’ve all faced serious doubt and fear-filled times.  Our places of solace may be with a companion, in a sacred place, or wrapped in a special memory – God-given places.  There we re-focus ourselves and rebuild our level of understanding.

Jesus well understood the imagery.  With a heavy heart he stood near the gate of a turbulent Jerusalem and said “How many times I have wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.”

For Jesus, and for us, lament is a valuable survival tool which helps us move toward the promise of a New Day!

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Viva La Differences – Joyce Sasse

Both of us had served as missionaries in Korea.  Sharon, my senior by twenty years, had been overseas that much longer – and approaches to mission work had changed a lot over those years.

When we returned to the same city in Canada, a friend asked if we would both be theme speakers at the Mission Festival his church was planning.

Our friendship with each other was special, but the differences in how we looked back on our work with the Korean Church was vastly different.  We tried to explain this to our friend, with the suggestion that things would be simpler if he invited one or the other of us.  He accepted our luncheon invitation, listened to our arguments, then said that both our names were already on the Festival venue.

It was up to us to work out details…  In the end, one of us selected from our collection of slides, while the other offered most of the commentary.

What a revelation that experience was.  In the past, the approach had been to give the audience a “this-is-the-way-to-do-it” message (as if everything always stayed the same).

What we learned from our shared-presentation-experience was that the audience expected transparency.  They knew us to be two different persons, with different approaches to many aspects of life.  It wasn’t up to us to sort out what we thought they should hear.  It was up to them to hear the differences, and draw their own conclusions about what to take from that experience.

In most instances, today, we accept the fact that such differences are normal.  There are few right-and-wrong ways of thinking or doing something.  Audience members freely draw their own conclusions.  It is encouraging to hear people openly, but respectfully, express their differences.  That way no one in the audience has the excuse of needing to catch up on “40 winks”.

Viva la differences!

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A Life Well-Lived – Joyce Sasse

The picture of a 60-year-old woman expressing exuberant joy, which accompanied Jessie Snow’s obituary, says more than words can about how this 97-year-old celebrated life.  She was my oldest and one of my dearest friends – and I feel so grateful she was part of my life all these years.

Before I was in my teens, Jessie volunteered in our tiny church to lead CGIT.  From that time on, along with her family responsibilities (aging parents, 3 kids and managing a ranch with husband Jay), our group came under her wing.  We learned from her and along with her as she became one of south Alberta’s outstanding youth leaders.  Along the way “we” had another three children.

“She cared for and shepherded her family” through the passing of her parents, the loss of a son and son-in-law, and her husband.  Then she lost first one leg to circulatory disease, and then the other.  When the medical folk were refusing to give her a prosthesis in place of the first lost-leg (because she was 90) she told them “hell could feel like a rest stop compared to where they were headed”!  She won the argument and taught herself to walk again.

Her wonderful sense of curiosity was contagious.  She fulfilled her dream of attending university (at the same time as her oldest son), and was elected Student Union President.  In 1968 she served as a founding member of the University of Lethbridge Senate, then became a member of their Board of Governors.  She helped found Lethbridge CMHA, was named YWCA Woman of Distinction (1978), and became special education needs consultant for the Lethbridge Catholic School District (for 20 years).

What better mentor could one ask for?  She challenged us, led by example, stood strong for the things she believed in … and always welcomed us into her home and her heart.  She was a spiritual pillar.

During a quick visit back to Milk River during my time overseas, she arrived with two young daughters.  They brought a small collection of their favorite comic books “to share with the kids in Korea”.  Such practical generosity.

I am so glad she made that trip back to the ranch for Christmas.  We’ll be at the ranch again in the spring, with family and friends, to give thanks for her life as we spread her cremains and commend her into the care and keeping of the Almighty.

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Churches: Frayed and Forgiven – Joyce Sasse

Sometimes the Church disappoints us.  Sometimes it betrays our understanding of how its members should act.  Sometimes it leaves us feeling abandoned.

We know these things happen elsewhere in society, but we think they “shouldn’t happen in the Church”.

In church we hear talk of high and revered things: of being part of a community of love, of dedicating one’s self to noble actions, of witnessing to God’s faithfulness through serving as a living example.

Suddenly some members of that community of love show evidence of spite or wrong-doing.  Once-hard-working members are treated as has-beens.  Or word spreads that a faithful member has committed a gross indiscretion.  In our time of pain we feel bereft.  .  Our trust is shattered!

Over the life of every congregation many members find themselves on the outside, looking in.  Slowly they realize that church folk have feet of clay.

But the Spirit within keeps many fighting for stay connected.  It says “in spite of what happened, I need to be nurtured by the community, the traditions, the mystery, the expectation of God in my life.”

This is the growing edge – this is when we accept the fact that the gathered church IS an imperfect community, frayed and incomplete.  Wendell Berry described this gathered community as “always disappointed in itself.  It is always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness.  It is marred by those who may be indifferent to it or against it, but are never-the-less its members.”

However, Berry goes on to speak of the work of God’s love.  He says that he envisions the gathered community “as somehow perfected, beyond time, by another’s love, compassion and forgiveness … it is said we may be perfected by (God’s) Grace.”

Those who understand these paradoxes have their lives enriched.

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The Many Faces of God – Joyce Sasse

My first Christmas away from home was 1963, when I was sent as a delegate to a Student Theologs’ Conference in Toronto.  Remembering back, I recognize how the presentations at that Conference formed the bedrock on which my understanding of ministry rests.

Rev. Gwenyth Hubble, a Baptist Minister from England, was on her way home from a World Council of Churches meeting in Mexico City.  The churches there were discussing “Missio Dei” – how the Mission of the Church was but one part of God’s mission.

Instead of churches believing their job was to convert the whole world, they recognized the possibility that there might also be other ways people understand how a compassionate God can work to build a better world.  Christians can learn from each other and from other World Faiths, and all of us can learn from those many label as “secular”.

The second presenter was Fr. Gregory Baum. He had been raised by a Jewish mother and Protestant father, and was brought to Canada as a child refugee in WW II.   Baum worked behind the scene at Vatican II in Rome.  He brought the excitement of a reawakened Catholic Church.  There the delegates stopped hiding behind liturgy and Latin.  They heard God calling them to speak in the languages of the people, they considered engaging in dialogue with other Faiths … and they let women listen in on their discussions.

Both presenters spoke of how faith-renewal begins at the edges of society. Christians can find God in surprising places.

This approach to ministry fit well with my own understanding honed in the little prairie community I called “home”.

What a privilege for me to deepen my faith by learning from teenagers what “spiritual thinking” meant to them, and by encouraging non-church attenders to talk about their spiritual journey.  Ranchers and farmers readily respond when I invite them to share thoughts about their encounters with God.  A cooperative Ministerial Association in a community, I saw clearly, gives denominational leaders opportunity to work together while learning respect for each other’s differences.  Could God also be working through other World Faiths?  Talking together is a good way to find out.

We are so privileged to be able to catch glimpses of some of the many faces of God.

WITH MANY WISHES FOR A BLESSED NEW YEAR

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Xmas Notes – Joyce Sasse

“XMAS” someone challenged when they saw the word written on a church sign board.  “You’re taking the Christ out of Christmas!”

“Heavens no!” I replied.  “This is not the x of unknown quantity.  This ‘X’ is the Greek Letter ‘Chi’ that stands for Christ, and is prominent in so many church symbols.  This puts Christ at the very centre of the celebration!”

“No crowded eastern street / no sound of passing feet / far to the left and far to the right / the prairie snows spread fair and white / yet still to us is born tonight / the Child, the King of glory.”

Do you know this hymn written by Prairie born Freida Major in 1958?  Her family had settled on a long narrow lot adjacent to the Red River before the turn of the 19th Century.  Since schools and hospitals were distant, Freida (born in 1891) was taught and nursed at home by her mother and nurtured within their small community.  After receiving further education in Winnipeg, she eventually found work with a large financial firm in the City.  But she never forgot her rural roots.

The Christmases that she knew were vastly different from the Biblical story.  “No rock hewn place of peace / shared with the gentle beasts / but sturdy farm house, stout and warm / with stable, shed and great red barn …”  She looks to the heavens.  “No blaze of heavenly fire / no bright celestial choir / Only the starlight as of old / crossed by the planes’ flash, red and gold …”

Typical of rural life, there are “no kings with gold and grain / no stately camel train/ … for still to us is born tonight / the child, the King of glory.”

As we celebrate this Xmas Season, stand outside your door – watch and listen for news.  “Jesus the Christ is come!”

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The Little Red Wagon – Source of legend unknown (submitted by Joyce Sasse)

In a little Mexican town there was a simple little church where the true spirit of Christmas still lived.  It was the custom there, on Christmas Eve, to put many candles on the altar and, close by, little figures of the Nativity Scene.

There was the manger in the stable, and Mary and Joseph, the Baby Jesus lying in the straw, and the animals in their stalls.  Overhead was the one bright star which guided the Wise Men to Bethlehem.

Early on Christmas morning the pastor of the church went to see that all the little figures were in place for the first service.  He was horrified to see that the tiny figure of the Baby Jesus was gone.  The pastor looked everywhere but he could not find the Baby Jesus.

As the pastor left the church he was almost run over by a little boy racing a red wagon along the sidewalk.

It was Pedro, the baker’s son.  The pastor smiled and started to speak to the boy when suddenly, he noticed, in the red wagon, the missing figure of the Christ Child.

“Pedro!” he cried, “it was you!  You took the Baby Jesus.  Why did you do it?”

Pedro hung his head and was silent.  The pastor scolded and questioned.  Still Pedro would not explain.  He just hung his head and dug the toe of one scuffed shoe into the side of the other.

“It – it was like this,” Pedro finally blurted out.  “I – I wanted a red wagon for Christmas, and I prayed.  I asked Jesus to let me have a red wagon.  And – and I promised Him that if I got one, I’d give him a ride in it.  It’s his birthday you know.”

The good pastor knelt down and looked carefully into the boy’s face.  There were tears in the pastor’s eyes.

“I am sorry I scolded, Pedro.  I didn’t understand.  You are quite right.  It is his birthday, and you have given him the finest gift of all.”

Walter Farquharson wrote lyrics for this story (printed with permission) in which the worried pastor sings to Pedro

“… This is serious business … The church is a holy place set well apart … / I’ve lessons to teach you … / The road you are travelling is rough and unclean, / You race down the stairway, around corners careen. / If Jesus went bouncing, bounced high and away, / What then, little Pedro, what would people say?…”

But once he heard Pedro’s apology and explanation, he regretted his scolding.

“Thank you, Pedro, for your gifting – gift of God and gift to me. / I’m so busy being religious, a miracle I could not see. / I am sorry for my panic, sorry that I scolded you. / You know better than your teacher what it is that God will do”

The choristers invite everyone to join them –

“Bring your wagon, bless our worship, we may all sing newest song. / When we take Christ on our journey, Christmas lasts a lifetime long.”

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Wanted: Someone to Share Christmas – Joyce Sasse

Being single, and always living in small family-centred communities, I’m most grateful when one of those families invites me to share Christmas dinner with them.  That was the same tradition my mom followed – including all the “strays” and extending the table to fit more people.

Therapeutic songster Deanna Edwards tells about seeing a small ad in the local paper.  It read “Wanted: one family to share Christmas dinner with.  I will furnish the turkey.”

Edwards put words and music to that request and imprinted on all who heard how important it is to keep alert, even in our time of bustle, to those whose situations are so different.

I think of times when I’ve seen well wishers drop a poinsettia off at the door of a tiny home where no guest has taken time to visit for the last month.  The emptiness is made even more hollow because of excessive talk of good cheer on the TV.

In another place I watched members of a Church Board decide to make a Christmas tape for each of their shut-ins.  Each participant gave a reading or shared a memory.  Songsters they weren’t.  But they did their best.  Then each went to visit one of the parishioners to share that tape and a cup of tea.  Such a wonderful experience for everyone involved!

In writing her melancholic song about the lonely person, Edwards wanted to inspire people to express more love in the world, not only at Christmas but through the whole year.

Each week I find myself running through an imaginary check-list of people who might not otherwise have had their phone ring for days, nor a visitor entre their home.  What a treasure when someone brings some cheers and shares a few stories and prayers.  All are reminders that we live in the presence of God.

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