Tuesday, June 28, 2022

What Is Your Picture? (A Column for the Newspaper)

August 1994. I am a volunteer counsellor at Camp Maskepetoon. Two cabin groups gather on the front lawn by the main lodge for Devotions. The leader passes out paper and invites us to grab some markers or crayons from the bin in the center of the circle. We are asked to write down what the word God means to us. Some of us write a list of words or phrases. Some of us draw a picture. Some do both. Later, we talk about what we had put down and why. We talked about who God was to us, what God meant to us.

In the years since that day on the lawn I have returned to that program idea a number of times. As people of faith we have to share with each other what images we have of God. We have to listen to each other’s understanding of who God is. We do that sharing in the midst of a great mystery. There is no one right answer to the question “who or what is God?”. There are a whole bunch of right answers. There are a whole bunch of images and metaphors and all of them are partially right.

Can we have the courage to allow for images of God other than our own? Can we have hearts open enough to allow our image of God to be enhanced and broadened when we hear how our neighbour sees God? As I read Scripture, which has an incredibly wide variety of ways to describe the Divine, I think we have no choice. In fact I think that is what God hopes for.

On a shelf in my living room is a children’s book written by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso called In God’s Name. The premise of the book is that all the people are trying to determine what the one, right, perfect name for God is. After all, everything else has a name, surely God must have a name. So each person suggests a name for God. Names like Mother, Father, Bringer of Peace, My Rock, and many others are suggested. Each person argues that their name is the one, the best, the most perfect name and “nobody listened. Least of all God”. Then one day they all gather around a calm smooth lake. They see each other reflected in the water and all together they each say their name for God. When that happens, the book says, “everyone listened. Most of all, God.” To describe God more fully we must use a wide variety of pictures and metaphors.

So how would you answer? If you had been sitting on that lawn with us what words or pictures would have been on your paper? If you were one of the people in that book what name would you argue was the best name for God? I am sure that day 28 years ago there were people who named the old man with a long white beard. As a child of the Star Wars generation I have always found the idea of the Force to be one of my metaphors for the Divine. One member of St. Paul’s, when asked this question, used the image of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings (an image drawn from Scripture). For Christians God is revealed uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen Christ. Many faiths see God revealed in their sacred writings. God is revealed in all of Creation. Who is God for you?

In the first story of Creation in Genesis we are told that we, humanity, are created in God’s image. I think that calls us to to see God’s image walking down the street in every person we meet. That means that God is Caucasian, African, Asian, and Indigenous American. It means God is male and female, cis-gendered, trans, and non-binary, straight and gay and bisexual. It means God is the centenarian and the newborn baby. It means God is seen in the addict, or the person resorting to theft to get money for food. It may be challenging to see God in all these ways. But we have no choice. If we truly believe that humanity is created in God’s image then all humanity needs to be part of our image of God. Otherwise we risk reversing the words of Genesis and create God in our image.

In one of the United Church’s statements of faith God is described as Holy Mystery. God is within and beyond all our words and pictures and metaphors. We can not claim that our understanding is the one right understanding. We have to share the wide variety so that we can try to capture the Mystery. What picture of God feeds your soul?

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Book 3 of 2022 Origin

 Earlier this year I happened about an article featuring this book (probably related to its release since it is very new). It sounded very interesting so I went shopping.

This look at how and when humans first arrived in and populated the Americas looks at very current research (it cites 2021 works). It starts by looking mainly at the archaeological evidence and then looks more at what has been learned from genetic research. There is also a naming of the fact that to do the work ethically one needs to build relationship with the modern Indigenous people whose ancestors are being examined. Raff is honest about some of the ways this work has been damaging. She talks about how early archaeology (and some present work in both archaeology and genetics) did a poor job at treating the Indigenous peoples (ancient and modern) with respect. She talks about ways that more current professionals are trying to build relationship and let the Indigenous people have much ore control over the process.

I was fascinated by this book. It does not claim to have a definitive answer to the questions of how humans came to be in the Americas. It does a good job of raising what some of those questions are, what we know to help answer them, and how the professionals in the field are trying to follow the various threads to will lead to a more complete picture.  And because I found it I have a number of suggested books that I may need to explore....

Sunday, March 20, 2022

In The Face of Evil -- Newspaper Column

In the March 11 edition of her e-newsletter “The Cottage” Diana Butler Bass writes:
“War is a sin. War is evil. And yet it continues. War is one of the rare things in human history that doesn’t vary. It is what humans do... You might say that our inhumanity to others is a sobering characteristic of being human. That’s really depressing. And it is painfully true.”

It is my firm belief that pacifism is the most faithful way to follow Jesus Christ. Violence of any sort is incompatible with the Jesus I meet in the Gospels. And yet when I see things like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the Rwandan genocide, or almost innumerable other examples of one group using violence against another there is a part of me that wants to call out for the use of violence and force to protect the vulnerable. Do we have a duty to protect, even when the only way to do that is inflict pain on another?

What is our best response when we see evil being lived out in the world?

In that same e-newsletter Bass explicitly names what is happening in Ukraine as sinful and evil. She also predicts that it will get worse. Since it arrived in my mailbox the news reports out of Mariupol have proved that prediction accurate. Siege warfare has always been a brutally and punishing form of conflict. It has always meant that non-combatants are going to be killed and wounded. This was true in medieval Europe, in Aleppo a few years ago, and in Mariupol today. Deep in the evil and sinfulness of warfare is the fact that non-combatants are killed, wounded, left homeless, have their lives destroyed.

So what is our faithful response when we see evil being lived out in the world? Do we respond with thoughts and prayers and protests? Do we volunteer to be observers and human shields? Do we resort to the use of violence ourselves to counter the violence we wish to end?

To be honest I find myself conflicted on this one. As I said earlier, I honestly believe that the most faithful way to follow the path laid out by Christ is pacifism. Before being accepted and co-opted by the Emperor Constantine the church was a pacifist group. In the earliest church you could not be both Christian and soldier. At the same time extreme pacifism seems a little bit idealistic in the face of the evil done by empires in our world. What can we do?

To begin with we need to be ready to tell the truth about what we see. As people of faith we need to be ready to name the evil that is being done, no matter who is doing it. Even if it is done in the name of faith. Even if it is done by the empire we support (though it could be argued that to faithfully follow Christ means we support no empire). And then we need to make a stink, shout out into the world, refuse to be silenced. We need to speak truth to power and call people to account for their actions. It is the least we can do. Maybe it is the best we can do, or maybe we need to call for more concrete responses.

Right now we have evil happening and making the front pages. Because there is such a strong connection between Canada, especially in the prairie provinces, and Ukraine we have a heightened sense of outrage. Some call for more militant action, some prepare to support refugees either in Europe or here in Canada. As a multi-national society we are trying to determine how we will respond. Is a no-fly zone the best response? Will other nations need to put boots on the ground? Will those things contain the evil or make it worse? These are complicated questions with no really clear answers.

There is evil happening elsewhere in the world that does not make our front pages. Aleppo was besieged for years during the Syrian Civil War. Terrible things have been happening in Yemen for years. The same thing can be said of Gaza. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this century led to great evil. How did we respond then? How can we respond to the evil that continues?

As a follower of Christ I am called to seek justice and resist evil. As a follower of Christ I am called to proclaim that there is another path to follow. Invasion and warfare, violence that destroys lives, is evil and sinful and wrong. The challenge is to figure out how Christ wants me to respond to that evil.

May God help us all.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Book 2 of 2022 Freeing Jesus

 This is a title that jumped out at me one day while browsing. And since I have always enjoyed Diana Butler Bass I had to give it a try.

The book is memoir theology. It is Bass describing various ways she has known Jesus through the course of her life. She describes what the image at hand has meant to her and why. She talks about how that image intersected with the event of her life. While she lists 6 basic images (all drawn from Scripture and tradition) within each image there are subsets that broaden and deepen the base image.

It is my sincere belief that every Christian is called to answer the question Jesus asks Peter "Who do you say I am?' for themself. I also believe that at various times in our lives different aspects of who Jesus is is the focus of our answer. Jesus is not, as Scripture tries to suggest, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Jesus, like any other person, has many different sides. Jesus is the way God reaches into our lives and addresses the big questions we have. My questions are not the same as your questions. They may not even be the same as the questions I had 30 years ago. 

This is a good book. In reading Bass' memoir theology (and I tn to agree with her that all theology is based on our live experiences, it is all memoir to some degree) the reader is pushed to consider their own life and their own understanding of who Jesus is. I suspect that was the point all along.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Book 12 of 2021/Book 1 of 2022 Rescuing the Gospel From the Cowboys

 What does it mean to support an indigenous church? How do we best allow and support folk to experience and express the faith in ways that resonate with their own culture? These are the sorts of questions that this book raised in my mind.

A few years ago the Indigenous community within the United Church shared their Calls to the Church. When I first read them I remember wondering if what was being proposed was a church within a church. I still think that to a degree that may be what is actually needed if we are going to live out those calls if we are to take seriously the intention to give ownership to the Indigenous church. At the same time, based on reflecting on those calls and what Twiss has to say in this book I strongly suspect that the non-Indigenous church stands to benefit from opening the door to different ways of expressing and exploring the faith.

The one thing I, coming from a mainline tradition, would have preferred to see in this volume was some more discussion of how the mainline churches have been a help or a hindrance in the development of contextualized theology. It seemed more focused on the relationship with the evangelical communities. I suspect many of the challenges would have been similar in the mainline community, with the added challenge that the mainline churches in Canada at least were a major partner in the assimilationist policies of the past.

This was the 2nd book that had been recommended for an online course I took last fall.  It raised important questions about our relationships with the Indigenous Christian community. It is well worth a read

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

What Do You Hear? -- Newspaper Column

“As a Christian leader, how can you allow that to be hanging in the window?” So began one of the most memorable conversations in my ministry career.

The question came from a member of the community who had seen the Pride flag hanging in our front window. It seems that this bothered (or angered) him because his understanding was that to be LGBTQ+ makes you unacceptable in God’s eyes. My response was and is that to be a faithful follower of Christ requires me to support full inclusion regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. The conversation quickly got very heated and I am sure neither one of us convinced the other of anything. I believe we were hearing God differently.

As a person of faith I firmly believe that God is still speaking to the world. I believe that God speaks through the words of our sacred stories. And God speaks through those who have gone before us in the faith. And God speaks new words in new ways, constantly challenging us to grow. I am reminded of Paul’s great hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 where he says “For now we see in a mirror, dimly... Now I know only in part; then I will know fully”. God’s hope and plan is that our vision will grow less dim, that our knowledge will grow more full as the years pass. So God keeps speaking to us, challenging us to grow in faith, in hope and in love.

Because God is still speaking and calling us to grow in faith, in understanding, in love there are times when we will be confronted with a vision of the world that is different than the picture passed down to us by those who have gone before. Some times we will understand that our past practices and beliefs have been an inaccurate reflection of God’s hope for the world. If we are listening carefully those realizations will force us to change how we live as faithful followers of Christ.

Many years ago now Gracie Allen said “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”. In the early part of the 21st century the United Church of Christ made use of that quote as a part of their “God is Still Speaking” campaign. That campaign pushed people to consider what God continues to say to God’s people. God still speaks to our hearts and souls and minds.

Admittedly it is not easy to follow when the voice of God leads us to a new place and a new way of seeing the world. I remember a story I was told that came out of the 1960’s, as the Roman Catholic church changed the rules about eating meat on Fridays. An older gentleman was trying to make sense of the change, saying “All my life they have told me God did not want us to eat meat on Fridays. Did God change his mind?”. New understandings come hard. But if we truly believe that God is still speaking, if we are intentionally trying to listen to what God is saying we need the courage to explore.

I think this is the harder path to follow. I think it would be easier to assume that God said what needed to be said long ago and all we need to do is follow the old wisdom. I think it is harder to constantly be asking ourselves if what we are hearing is God’s wisdom or just following the social trends. But we are called to the harder path of careful listening and discernment. If everything we hear confirms everything we have ever been taught, then maybe we are hearing the culture and not God. If everything we hear leads us to act just like everyone else in the world, then maybe we are hearing the culture and not God. If what we hear challenges us and makes us think seriously about how the world should or could be, then maybe we are hearing God over the culture.

God continues to speak to the world. God continues to give us a clearer vision, a fuller knowledge, of what it means to live as God’s people. Listening to God has pushed us to rethink how we live in a variety of ways. Listening to God will continue to push us to rethink how we live, will make us change our understandings of how the world works. It has been, and will continue to be, hard work but it is part of being faithful. Martin Luther King reminded us that the moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice. We only follow that arc if we listen carefully to the God who is still speaking. What do you hear?

Saturday, January 01, 2022

Book 11 of 2021 -- Gilead

 A congregation member read this book in her book group and suggested I would like it.

The book is a letter from an older preacher to the young child of his old age. He is trying to give his son some wisdom to carry him forward. John Ames is nearing the end of his life and will not see the child grow up. He tries to let his son know a bit more about where he comes from.

And so we get some of the history of the Ames family. John is a third generation preacher (I believe in a congregationalist setting) and the church in which he preaches is the church where his father preached. Gilead has been home for his whole life. 

The letter John is writing to his son is written over a period of several weeks. It is a bit of a stream of consciousness piece as John jumps from topic or event to another, then reminds himself what he meant to be talking about. Mixed in with the history of his family and his own personal biography are reflections about theology and faith -- particularly reflections about grace as the book nears its end. 

Good book. One that was often hard to put down.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

A Christmas Story

With a heavy sigh Morgan put down their phone. December 15th and it looked like another disappointing Christmas was just around the corner.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They had such high hopes just a couple of months ago. This year they would get to go home and visit with family. True, home was not always perfect but at least it was home. This year they could travel. This year families could gather together. This year would be different. Or at least that had been the plan.

It had been a hard year. Well really it had been a hard couple of years now.

Back at the beginning of the pandemic Morgan had lost their job. Taylor had to shut down their catering business for a good 6 months. Morgan got CERB payments but those were not quite enough to cover basic expenses, so the debts started to pile up. Finally Taylor felt able to start catering again. Morgan found a new, and better, job. Things were looking up.

Because there were no big meals and office parties to cater Taylor tried something different. They rediscovered the joy of baking, of making fancy desserts – and found out how wonderfully enjoyable that was. It opened a whole new window as the holiday season approached. Orders for dessert platters came flooding in. Add in a few orders for family turkey dinners and business was going great. Things were looking good.

Still Christmas that year felt off somehow. Even though Taylor’s family all lived in the city there was, of course, no way to gather all together. Christmas greetings with family and friends were limited to standing at opposite ends of the driveway shouting greetings across the distance as gifts were dropped at the door. Or maybe a few video chats with people more distant. They were nice, but it wasn’t the same. Even the local church was only having services online.

On Christmas Eve Morgan and Taylor gathered in front of the TV and watched worship service. They sang along with the choir. They listened to the story again. It was nice to see familiar faces in a familiar space but still something was missing. Later that evening they went out for a walk along the river. The air was crisp. The moon was bright. There were church bells ringing. Other people were out for a walk and singing carols. Something special was in the air. With a smile Taylor realized Morgan was softly singing “Fahoo forays, dahoo dorays Welcome Christmas, bring your light Fahoo forays, dahoo dorays Welcome in the cold of night” By the time they got back home they were cold but refreshed.

Christmas Day everybody was up bright and early and piled into the kitchen. Food was prepared and portioned all morning. Then driving around town and delivering meals to family and some close family-like friends – all the people who would normally have been coming over for dinner that night. Later they all gathered together over video chat to eat dinner together. Stories were told. Laughter rang out over the web. Dinner deliveries had included Christmas crackers so everyone was wearing their paper crowns. After dinner, just before logging off, everyone talked about what they missed the most this year, and what was the best part of Christmas this year.

Later that night, as they were preparing for bed, Morgan and Taylor both commented what a good day it had been even though it was not exactly what they wanted. As Morgan put it “Covid did not stop Christmas from coming, it came. Somehow or other it came just the same”. Taylor laughed and said “yes but next year I want us to all play zoozittacarzay and carve the roast beast together”. They both looked at the Grinch ornament on their tree and laughed heartily.

Now here it was, a whole year later. And it looked like Christmas would be pretty much the same. It had been a hard year. Sure Morgan loved the new job, they had even gotten used to working from home. And Taylor’s business was growing steadily, though missing out on a second wedding season had been a bitter pill to swallow. But Morgan’s family were all ranchers. The heat and drought over the summer had taken a real toll on the ranching business. Then their mother and brother had both tested positive for Covid. Neither had to be hospitalized but full recovery was taking a long time. It had just seemed so important to be able to go home for Christmas, even with the inevitable disagreements about so many things – this year including pandemic restrictions and vaccines. Just as Taylor walked in Morgan dropped their head to the table and began to cry.

“Hey!”, What’s with that?” asked Taylor, moving over to rub Morgan’s back.
“I just called mom to tell her we wouldn’t be coming out next week.” Morgan replied. “It just feels like Christmas is going to be terrible again.”
“What do you mean again?”
“Well like last year, when nothing was the way we wanted it.”
“But last year was great. Well maybe not great, but it wasn’t terrible – just different”
“I guess so” Morgan sobbed, “I just had so many hopes for this year”
“So we have to adapt again this year, we can do that”

Morgan stopped and looked at Taylor for a moment. Then Morgan thought about everything that made last Christmas so special. Was it what they had wanted? No. Was it perfect? No. Was it a disaster? Also no. Maybe this Christmas could be special too.

“Oh by the way.” said Taylor, I signed us up to help out at the Community dinner on Boxing Day. And I put our names on the list for the late service on Christmas Eve.”

Taylor reached out and took Morgan’s hand. Morgan looked up into Taylor’s eyes and realized that just like last year they could still do Christmas. Even if it was video chats and not dining room visits. Even if it was masks and social distancing at church. Even if it wasn’t the same as it had always been. Christmas would still be there. They could still sing some carols, tell the story, and listen for angel song. And, not for the first or the last time, Morgan realized how blessed and lucky they were to have this life they shared with Taylor.

“You’re right,” said Morgan, drying their eyes. “Now let’s go finish that last batch of baking so we can do our deliveries tomorrow” 


** Quotes from the classic animated Grinch special taken from here

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Book 10 of 2021 Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision

 This is one of the books that was suggested for a course I have been taking this fall (and an excellent series of lectures it has been I might add).

It is an wonderful book. It appears it is based on the work Woodley did for his dissertation where he talked to people from a variety of North American Indigenous communities about what he terms the Harmony Way. Actually Woodley suggests that some version of the harmony way exists in indigenous communities around the globe. His suggestion is that it appears in the image of a community of true shalom as envisioned in Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

As I read my way through the book I found it truly compelling. The logic fits well. The linkages across cultures work. There are at least two sermons in the past month that have been, in part, informed by what I found in this book.

What would life look like in the Kingdom of God? What would it look like if we practiced the spirit of the jubilee year as prescribed in Leviticus? What would it look like if shalom, with all its multi-layered depth of meaning, was the guiding principle of our life together? This book helped me explore those questions from a new perspective. And it reminded me of the words of Dame Julian of Norwich (words I used in prayer this morning) "All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing be well".

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Book 9 of 2021 -- God and the Pandemic

 There seem to have been a number of books published last year looking at the Covid-19 pandemic and issues of faith. I sort of expect there will be a whole bunch more as time goes by. At any rate this is the third such book I have read this year.

This book is very aware it is speaking early in the pandemic process. It spends more time talking about how to respond at that point than trying to prescribe how to come out. I appreciate that. Wright has a clear sense that there is much that is not yet known (and more than a year later there is still much that is not yet known).

I do not always follow the same theological lines as Wright does but I always appreciate the way he writes, the way he does theology. He takes a close look at the ways some faith writers have responded to the pandemic and finds them wanting. Instead he invites us to look at our Scriptural witness and ask how it leads us to respond. Much of what he said resonated in my soul as I was reading.

I would love to see a follow up volume as we indeed start to rebuild a "new normal" (I really find that I dislike that overused phrase), something that builds on the last section of the last chapter in this book.