Gideon’s Inferiority Complex

But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.—Judges 6:15

Read: Judges 6:12-18

Reflect: Has God ever called you to a task for which you felt unfit and unworthy? I have often felt like Gideon did in our text today. I grew up on a small mixed farm and was part of a small rural congregation of a small Mennonite denomination that used to be known as the Kleine Gemeinde, which means “small church”. A popular saying within this congregation, when translated from the Low German language, reads, “With me it means nothing”. I think this idea may have crept into my own personality.

It is not uncommon for people to struggle with a low sense of self-worth. It seems especially so for many people in the Bible who were called to special tasks: when God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt he complained that he was not worthy of this important work because he could not speak very well (Exodus 4:10) and Jeremiah said he was too young to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1:6). Gideon, in our story today, claims that he is from the weakest clan and the least of his family.

Yet God assures all these people of divine presence and strength for the task. God calls Gideon a “mighty warrior” (v.12); commands him to “go in the strength you have” (v.14); and, most importantly, God promises, “I will be with you” (v.16).

What is overwhelming you today? God speaks to us who doubt our worth and capability: “You are loved. You are valuable. I will be with you. I will give you the strength you need. We can do this together!”

Respond: With your strength and presence I can confidently face whatever is before me today.

Advertisements

Abram’s Name Change

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.—Genesis 17:5

Read: Genesis 17:1-8

Reflect: Sometimes people change their names when they convert to another religion, move to another country, or have a significant spiritual awakening experience; for Abraham, it was all three.

Abram became Abraham, which means “father of many nations”, because God had plans to bless many people through his descendants. He left his home in the empire of Babylon for a nomadic life in the desert in order to follow the God who called him. In this new land he had a special encounter with God where God made a covenant with him.

My parents named me Gareth (which means “sword bearer”) when I was born. In my teenage years it was popular to shorten one’s name and so I became Gary instead of Gareth. It was part of an experiment to discover my identity. In my thirties I encountered God through the journey of healing from childhood sexual abuse that had robbed me of my innocence. As a symbol of that healing I reclaimed my given name, Gareth, and felt a new sense of wholeness as a grown man. I also became a preacher who used, or bore, the “sword of the Spirit”!

Although you may not change your name like Abraham did or reclaim your childhood name as I did, we all have significant transformative experiences in our lives. It is important to recognize these experiences and to integrate them into our lives. What transformative experiences have brought you to follow God’s call on your life?

Respond: I will not fear for you have redeemed me; you have called me by name; I am yours.—Isaiah 43:1.

 

It’s December 1; time to haul out the Christmas music. The majority of musicians in the western world have produced at least one Christmas album. Many of these albums have been insincere and musically banal, thrown together in a short time to make a few extra dollars for the record company; usually a combination of well-known traditional carols and popular contemporary songs, and if the artist was adventurous, an original tune or an obscure gem from the vault. We own at least two dozen of these albums and despite my cynicism of the genre itself, there are a few treasures worth noting.

The best Christmas album of all time is an easy choice for me. It ranks far above the hundreds of Christmas albums produced over the years. There is no Christmas album that even comes close to the authenticity, originality, sincerity, meaningfulness, emotionality, and pure appropriateness to the Christmas theme. It is Bruce Cockburn’s “Christmas”. The album is bookended by two brief instrumental versions of classic carols, and includes an actual Huron version of “The Huron Carol”, Spanish and French songs, original versions of old English carols, a pulsating original, a few bouncy spirituals, and a haunting old southern carol to juxtapose the mixed emotions of the season. And, it has liner notes about each song! It is a work of personal passion that percolated for decades before being released; this is no obligatory rush job to cash in on seasonal spending.

Honourable mentions, without attempting to limit myself to Canadian artists in this 150+ year, also happen to be by Canadian artists. “Wintersong” by Sarah McLachlan includes some of the obligatory song choices listed above but also the original title track, some unique arrangements, and my favourite song on the album: Joni Mitchell’s “River”. McLachlan’s soaring soprano is just so appropriate for Christmas songs; it sounds sincere and the album seems carefully crafted. “Bare Naked for the Holidays” by Toronto’s Bare Naked Ladies is just plain enjoyable and includes a memorable collaboration with the aforementioned on “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” And I have to mention the award winning EP “For Your Weary Head” by my son, Joel Brandt, released last year online at https://joelbrandt.bandcamp.com/album/for-your-weary-head. It is beautiful while sparse, emotive, and lyrically poignant. The one non-Canadian album I like is Sufjan Stevens’ boxed set of five folksy, bluesy, homey recordings, complete with booklet and stickers; although the five CD set really has only enough good material for maybe one full-length album.

 

I’m finishing off my Sabbath year of mostly reposted blogs with some Advent devotions I wrote for REJOICE! Devotional Magazine some years ago. They are kept in the same style: key verse, the larger Scripture reading, a reflection on the Scripture, a response. With the last Sunday of Advent being the 24th of December, Advent is a bit short this year so I’m starting early. I hope they help you to reflect on the unexpected and “upside-down” nature of the coming of Jesus into our world.

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.—Luke 1:38

Read: Luke 1:26-38

Reflect: The Beatles recognized Mary’s words of wisdom when they sang, “Let it be”. I don’t think it was accidental that God chose a teenage peasant girl to bear salvation to the world, as the unconditional trust of the young is an example for all of us.

The story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to tell her she will bear God’s Son is the central story of the Advent season, and what a story it is! It begins with an affirmation from the angel: “The Lord is with you” (v.28), which perplexes Mary even before the angel tells her the astounding news of her immaculate conception. Mary rightfully wonders, “How can this be?” (v.34). I have a feeling the tone of her question is very different from Zechariah’s doubtful “How will I know?” in the previous scene (v.18). Mary’s trusting “let it be” changes her world forever and, through her, the history of the world in which she lives.

It is good for us to marvel every year at this story: to ask, how does this story speak to us today? What do Mary’s words of wisdom mean for us? I like how Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster put it in their book, The Godbearing Life: “While the coming of Jesus Christ in a virgin’s womb is the unrepeatable mystery of God, God invites all of us to become Godbearers—persons who by the power of the Holy Spirit smuggle Jesus into the world through our own lives, who by virtue of our yes to God find ourselves forever and irrevocably changed.”

Respond: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.—Luke 1:38

 

132 years ago today Louis Riel was murdered by the Canadian government in Regina, SK. Louis Riel continues to be a controversial figure more than a hundred years after he lived and died; after all, it was only 25 years ago that he was finally acknowledged as the founder of Manitoba. I believe that the inclusion of all three prairie provinces in confederation can be attributed in part to his vision and work. Riel’s work dealt with a number of issues we continue to struggle with in Canada: western alienation, the rights of indigenous peoples, differences between French and English culture and language, and the mixing of politics and religion. I see him as a young visionary ahead of his time whose final years were marked by controversy and tragedy. A few paragraphs of a Maggie Siggins biography capture the turning point in Riel’s life when he went into exile.

Life might have been different for Louis Riel. With an unconditional amnesty he would have taken his place among the ruling elite of Red River. He likely would have increased the family’s land holdings and taken advantage, like everyone else, of the imminent boom in Winnipeg. He would have been a source of pride to his mother and looked after the education of his siblings, seeing that his sisters married well and his brothers got decent jobs. He might have married the “pious and holy” mate he was looking for, and produced children who continued his life’s work, much as he had done his father’s. His political career likely would have thrived; with his natural aptitude, a stint as a member of Parliament might have turned into a Cabinet position. Given his passionate concern for his own people, he could have served as Premier of Manitoba and then—who knows?—he might have tried for the highest office in the land.

But he was exiled. It wasn’t just that he would miss his family, or that he would remain poverty-stricken, reduced to living off hand-outs. More, he well understood that a unique accomplishment in North America—the establishment of a society in which the Native peoples could have some say and maybe even prosper—had been crushed. And the interlopers… who cared only about the fortunes to be made in Red River and nothing for its traditions, now had their revenge and were laughing out loud. If, over the next few years, Riel suffered great emotional exhaustion and turmoil, what else could have been expected?

Riel’s vision of a multi-cultural society is still alive, and the failures of the Canadian government to fully embrace it still haunt us today. We no longer execute “renegade” leaders like we did Riel and we do enjoy a multi-cultural society to some extent, but the pallor of living conditions in most First Nations communities and the ongoing inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women remind us that we still have a long way to go.

Memory is one of the primary handles we have to the roots of our faith. All people of faith have immediate experiences of transcendence but even those experiences are built on the foundation of memory. Memory keeps the significance of past events relevant and meaningful for the present. On Remembrance Day the country we live in asks us to remember the sacrifice of soldiers who died and are dying in battle. What does the church ask us to remember? We also remember conscientious objectors to war and we remember Christian peacemakers such as Tom Fox, who died in the line of duty. We remember the ultimate peacemaker, Jesus Christ. The memory of Jesus motivates us to live in the Jesus way.

The most foundational memory for the church is the remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We remember the Christ-event. Our living memory of this event is indeed a subversive act of peacemaking. The passion of Christ upset what is often at the very foundation of human relationships- the myth of redemptive violence. Throughout our culture, from entertainment to government, we are bombarded with words and images that “might makes right.” But in Christ, the threat of death and violence no longer have the ultimate power. Jesus’ death and resurrection destroys the effectiveness of killing and war. Love and Life are the most powerful weapons in the world. They are the weapons of the church. This is how the church works to build a community of peace around the world.

“Armistice Day” was the original name given to a national holiday in 1919 to remember the First World War as the “war to end all wars.” The sad irony is that Jesus already fought the “war to end all wars” two thousand years ago. Armistice Day was when Jesus died. On Remembrance Day we remember the horrors of war and the millions of men and women who have died, but let us also remember the sacrifice of Christ. “Lest we forget…” [and thus repeat the horrors of the wars of history] goes the familiar line. As we remember the peacemaking work of Christ we are grateful and also motivated to participate in the ongoing work of peace in our homes, communities and our world. Jesus showed us that war does not have to be the way to resolve differences or promote human values. Only the way of peace leads to peace.

Martin Luther redefined Christian vocation by saying, “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks.” When he talked about vocation he liked to use the most mundane examples: “the father washing smelly diapers, the maid sweeping the floor, the brewer making good beer.” Luther was known for tipping back a mug or two and the Germans continue to be known for their beer. In this spirit, I repost something that was also published in the GEEZ Magazine “confession” column a number of years ago.

Confession: I gather at a pub with men from my church every first Thursday of the month to drink beer and talk.

Justification: It all started innocently enough a few years ago. As an academic I was doing a project on men’s spirituality and needed some men as guinea pigs. What better way to loosen their lips to talk about God than to consume some beer once a month! The project ended, but a few months later the deacon in the group proposed that we meet again for counsel and refreshment of the body and soul. Now, we have become so obsessed with craft beer that we are often meeting twice a month, once locally and once for a “field trip” to visit other micro-breweries in the Pacific Northwest [and they are numerous]. Craft beer is up to $7 a pint and sometimes one is not enough, but it has become a life-giving religious ritual. Consider the support of local crafts people, the communion around the table, and perhaps most importantly the simple enjoyment of God’s good gifts.

Those who are wondering why this needs to be the subject of a confession may not understand my background. I grew up in a conservative Mennonite church that broke away from the larger Mennonite church in 1812 over various liberal tendencies, one of which was the brewing and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Incidentally, I have now joined that larger Mennonite church, which gives me the freedom to enjoy beer, but not without occasional nagging feelings from my past.

So, if you have experienced the freedom of the Lord and appreciate the bounty of God’s creation in a brewed format, then raise a glass of German pilsner to our brother Martin on this Reformation Day to celebrate the 500th anniversary of his risky act of protest.