Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Newspaper Column

What Do You Mean Forgive?!?

....and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us...

They are words heard in many churches every Sunday. Buried deep in the middle of the Prayer of Jesus (aka the Lord's Prayer) is this line about forgiveness. But is that really what we want?

Be honest with yourself. Do you really want to be forgiven just as well as you forgive others? Or do you want a whole lot more forgiveness than you often offer?

Forgiveness is hard. Several years ago I was leading a study on the Prayer of Jesus. The week we were talking about the chapter in our study book “Jesus' Prayer Calls Us to Forgiveness” more than one member of the group shared how much they struggled with forgiveness. I also have struggled with it. How do you forgive people who have harmed you or your loved ones, who have caused physical and emotional damage? Why should we?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)

Forgiveness is at the heart of living as a person of The Way. Forgiveness is at the heart of how we are able to form civil societies. If we, as individuals and as communities, are unable to forgive then life quickly begins to amount to grudge holding and revenge seeking. And that damages all of us.

But forgiveness is hard. It denies our need (or is it really only a want?) for payback, for “justice”. Telling each other, telling ourselves, to forgive makes it sound like we discount the damage done. And surely there are some things that are unforgivable. Right????

Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge [NOTE see a review I wrote here] describes forgiveness as choosing “To condemn the fault but to spare the doer”. This, Volf argues, is what God does with God's people. God recognizes the wrong done but chooses to waive the punishment. And then Volf has the nerve to suggest that this is what God wants US to do with each other. Acknowledge that a wrong has been done, but don't try for payback, don't hold it against the other, erase the debt, live as though no wrong had been done.

That is hard. It doesn't seem to make sense. Why should we forgive? I don't mean the little things, I mean the big ones, the ones where forgiveness seems impossible. God wants us to forgive those too?

Yes. God wants us to forgive those too.

In the end we forgive because forgiveness leads to health. Sometimes that is the health of the other, sometime it is our own health and well being. After all, there is an old proverb which says “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. When we are unable to forgive we are holding on to anger and hurt.

For many years I carried a grudge against classmates in my Junior High years. They had hurt me. I couldn't confront them (either at the time or later). But neither could I forgive them. Eventually I had to. Holding on to that hurt was still hurting me. Holding on to that hurt was keeping me from living. (Mind you it took several months of therapy to realize that and find a way to let go.) I will never forget, but I had to forgive. I had to stop letting those words and actions control my life.

As people of faith we proclaim that we are forgiven. As people who have been forgiven, we are challenged to go out and forgive others. We are, in the end, able to forgive for the same reason we are able to love. Because we are loved, because we have been forgiven, we can be people of love and forgiveness. We can make the choice.

It will not be easy. But anyone who promises that life can be easy is probably selling something. But if we are to be the people God created us to be we need to forgive each other, we need to forgive ourselves, and we need to accept forgiveness from others. We do it so that we can be healthy. We do it so that our neighbours can be healthy, we do it so our relationships can be healthy. And we do it because God is at work in us.

Maybe, if we are honest, we want to be forgiven better than we are able to forgive. But with practise we get better. The more we forgive the better we are at it. And our model is God, who has forgiven us already.

Now who do you need to forgive?

Monday, March 03, 2014

Books 5 & 6 of 2014 -- The Two Towers & The Return of the King

And then it was finished....

Barad-Dur has fallen, the Ring is destroyed, the crownless again is king, the Ring-wearers have sailed to the West.

OF course it all works out in the end.  Most classic quest stories do after all.

But there are surprising twists.  I remember it was only after several readings that I first caught the line Gandalf says just before he leaves the 4 hobbits on the journey home, where he tells them that they have been trained to deal with what they find when they get back to the Shire, that this training was one of the points of the whole quest.

In these last two volumes I have always wavered in which parts I preferred.  Is it books 3 and 5 which focus on the "main" battle, the events on the Western front?  Or is it books 4 and 6 which focus on Frodo and Sam, where the focus of success or failure eventually lies?  I tend towards the Western front.  More activity.

BUt then there is the Frodo-Sam-Smeagol/Gollum dynamic.  Smeagol/Gollum is a fascinating character study.  In some ways one of the most fascinating characters in the whole book.  What does it mean to be fallen?  Does it mean you are beyond hope?  Does it mean your contributions are without merit?  I think there is another paper in those questions.....

Then there are the appendices.  Telling some of the backstory, showing the flow of the story/allowing the reader to know what things are happening at the same time, giving more insight into the world Tolkien has created through writing and calendars and languages.

THe question that comes to mind in this reading is who are the essential characters vs the non-essential?  Or who are the most essential or important characters?  Surprisingly I would suggest that there are few non-essential characters.  Most everyone plays a role in the eventual defeat of Sauron--even if that role could never have been predicted (Merry Pippin Sam and Gollum come to mind).

THere are a few books that I think most people SHOULD read.  Lord of the Rings is one of them.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Future is...

Like many faith traditions, the United Church of Canada is, well, struggling.  Not all of a sudden, the first signs of the trends that led to where we are now were visible decades ago (as a percentage of the Canadian population the UCCan has been declining since World War 2, only the baby boom bulge allowed our gross numbers to continue to swell until the early 1960's).

Like many faith traditions, changing the culture and structure of the UCCan to meet these changes has been roughly akin to the captain of the Titanic trying to back up when the iceberg was sighted--with about as much success.

It is very easy to argue that the UCCan as we have known it is not only dying, it is essentially dead, with even life support no longer being a viable option.

As a denomination our latest attempt to plot a new path forward was formed at the 41st General Council Meeting in 2012.  That gathering authorized the creation of the Comprehensive Review Task Group, and said that "everything is on the table".  The CRTG will bring forward recommendation to GC42 in 2015.

I'll admit to being more than a little bit skeptical about this work, particularly the "everything is on the table" line. Call me cynical but I truly expected something along the lines of deck chair shuffling.  Or possibly a revisit of an idea from 12 years ago that would have us move from a 4 court (Pastoral Charge, Presbytery, Conference, General Council) to a 3 court model that essentially combined the 2 middle courts and divided the church into a number (40 was one of the numbers suggested) of districts.  That proposal went to a remit, a poll of presbyteries and (in this case) congregations where it failed to garner enough support [this was the first time I had to explain a remit to a congregation--I fear I did not do a great job of doing so without influencing the vote].

Lately the CRTG has released 2 documents.  One was a summary of results from the congregational consultations they held Spring-Fall of 2013. I scanned that one but it was really a "what we heard was" type of report with some analysis.  I should probably find time to read it (very dry reading) more carefully.  The second was far more important and thought provoking.

This document is a Discussion Paper that the CRTG wants all 87 Presbyteries to respond to by June (note it is now February, some of us only have one meeting in that interval and have our own business to take care of--the timelines are far from great--especially since they did not even ask for time until January).

Well I take back some of my skepticism.  Everything indeed is on the table.  This discussion paper suggests a move to a 2 court, essentially Congregationalist, non-connectional polity.  (the .pdf of the paper itself is here)

There is some good in here.  There are also a whole lot of questions.  As a discussion paper it is short (very short) on details.  Partly because this is not yet a fully-formed proposal.  This is a "this is where we are thinking of going, tell us what you think" piece.  And I get the logic behind that.  Why go to the effort and time and expense of crafting a full proposal if the constiuency thinks you are heading the wrong direction.  This round of consultations allows the Presbyteries to weigh in, to raise questions, to give some more direction to the CRTG.  Then they can add more flesh and details as they prepare a recommendation that is set to be released with plenty of lead time before GC42.

When I first read the paper (I got a draft a bit earlier than the public release because I have found myself in a position where I will be helping facilitate this Presbytery's review of it) my first reaction was very negative.  As indeed will be/has been the reaction of many.  This paper simply does not describe the United Church as it has been since 1925.  Indeed I suggest our Presbyterian and Methodist forebears would be aghast at this proposal.  With such major changes a strong reactionary response is to be expected.

Then I read it again.  And I considered it.  ANd yes there is good here.  From a survival point of view (and I do believe this is a survival document with the possibility that it will help some thrive) this is the level of change that is needed.  The structure we have inherited is simply unworkable and unsustainable from both a monetary and a labour point of view.  This document takes seriously problems that have been raised over the years.  It tries to find ways to liberate folk to be the church without being handcuffed by rules and policies.  This document tries to find a new way, to be inventive rather than innovative or improving what is already there.  Tweaking (major or minor) the old simply WILL NOT DO ANYTHING.

There are also grave concerns here.  The document, as it stands, puts ministry personnel in a very vulnerable position.  The document, as it stands, removes all ongoing oversight of congregations from the picture.  The document, as it stands, will increase the isolation felt by some Pastoral Charges and some clergy.  It will also increase the chances of Pastoral Charges going "rogue" (which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending what "rogue" is I suppose).

Big picture, I think I support the vision.  I think there are a lot of details that need to be added.  I think there are things that need to be changed.  I think there needs to be more on how we continue to be a denomination in partnership with each other rather than a collection of churches that share the name "United Church of Canada" (even as I acknowledge that the church seems to be moving into a post-denominational reality).  But I think something is missing.

Structural change WILL NOT SAVE THE CHURCH.  At the congregational level, the regional level, or the denominational level structural change will not save the church.  It might help of course but it is not the "solution".  People catching fire is what is needed.  People on fire for the mission and ministry of that part of the Body.  People with a vision.  People ready to be salt and light, ready to love God, Neighbour, and Self in a full and active way.  People who have been infected and are ready to contaminate the world.

Until we can light the fire we are only shifting deck chairs.

And maybe part of the fire-lighting will be to start telling the stories of our successes?  Maybe part of it will be to stop trying to predict the future, to stop blaming ourselves/each other for the past, to stop trying to understand fully and just be the people God has called us to be?

Can we do those things?

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Book 4 of 2014 Who's Got Time?

I was intrigued when this one came out but it was not then available as an e-book (at least not on KOBO, it might have been on Kindle).  So I had to wait.

Then one day I was browsing and happened to check again.  Bingo!

As it happens, this would have come in really handy last fall when I was leading an adult CE session on spiritual practices (though none of the participants nor the leader would qualify as young adults anymore).

I liked this book.  I could well see myself suggesting it to someone who is searching for spiritual practices that suit their schedule.  While I read it straight through I would actually suggest people pop around in it as the chapter titles draw their attention.

And I am wondering if I can just assign the final chapter to folks to read in lieu of a stewardship program......

Monday, February 03, 2014

Book 3 of 2014 The Fellowship of the Ring

Now be honest, you all saw this coming right????

To be honest I pondered this post.  Is LOTR one book or three (or possibly 6 since each volume is divided into 2 books)?

So what are the highlights of the first volume?

One is the idea of fate/doom/destiny.  Gandalf says the Bilbo was meant to find the ring.  When Frodo offers to take the ring to Mount Doom Elrond it is suggested that this is how it was meant to be.  When the company opts to go through Moria Aragorn foretells the fall of Gandalf.  What is Tolkien saying about fate?  What is he saying about foretelling?

Another is the idea of the epic.  Not only the epic being told now but how that epic ties in with what has gone before.  This story may stand alone, but the characters in it are clearly linking to the epics that have gone before.  This is a wonderful sense and understanding of how we relate with history.

AS I mentioned previously, I first started reading LOTR when I was in Grade 4.  Over the next decade I read it almost once a year.  What fascinates me is that I was always finding new things, making new connections in each of those readings.  Which of course is part of why I can continue to read it.  Earlier today I saw a CS Lewis quote on Twitter:
No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.

Lord of the Rings certainly meets that description.   (As does Lewis' Narnia series for that matter)

And as it happens, I have used LOTR for two papers.  One was my final/major paper for English 30 in Grade 12, where I explored some of the thematic elements in the novel (I know I gave particular emphasis on the ideas of light and dark).  The other was in my first year of seminary, where I wrote a paper on Christology as found in the book.

And now I should relly finish one of the non-Tolkien books I have going.....

Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday 5 -- Encounters

It has been an epoch since I have done a Friday Five...

Over at the RGBP site we have this prompt:
In this week some of us are preaching about a woman who encounters Jesus at the well, please name five encounters in your life leading to unexpected results. They might include learning a new skill, making a friend, falling in love, discerning a call or anything around or far off from those ideas.
  1. I have told this story before, but it just fits so well.  After all, who goes to a Presbytery meeting to find a spouse?  But that is what happened to me at the first Presbytery meeting after I started in ministry. 
  2. When I was in Grade 5 there was a chance to take part in the production of A Christmas Carol.  I decided I would, had never done anything like it before (and ended up playing Scrooge).  And from then until the end of high School being involved in theatre was one of the things that saved my sanity (such as it is) and indeed my became my major in university.
  3. I needed a summer job.  ANd I had fond memories of having gone when I was a child.  So I applied for a job at Camp Maskepetoon.  There is a very direct (if not exactly straight) line between that choice and where I am now.
  4. It was for Integration Seminar, a class in social ministry in my 2nd year at St. Andrew's.  Part of the class was to volunteer at a social agency.  I met with the Placement Co-Ordinator and we decided a good place for me was the Saskatoon Crisis Nursery.  In the end it may not have been the best placement for me to meet the goals of the place and my own learning needs (though those learning needs may not have been met in any placement as it is probable I was not yet ready to face my demons), but that experience prepared me for the time two years later when I needed a job and got a job at an equivalent agency in Edmonton -- Kids Kottage and spent almost 3 years there.
  5. Wandering through the mall in Atikokan during my first 6 months of ministry the Catholic Deacon called me over to have coffee.  Did I know that that coffee group would become my main non-church contact point for the next 9 years? But it did.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book 2 of of 2014 The Hobbit

It was the fall of 1978.  I was in Grade 4.  Our teacher had a practise whereby the first block of time after lunch on Friday's he would read to us, generally a whole chapter.  The first book he read to us that year was The Hobbit.  So began my love affair with Middle-Earth.

As it happened, my dad had (and still has) a box set of Tolkien books on the shelf at home (which I think was fairly new at the time) and so as I grew tired of the chapter a week pace I started to read the book by myself.  I quickly passed the out-loud reading and was well into Lord of the Rings by the time Mr Davies finished the book in the class.

I have, of course, read the book many many times since then, though I think it has been 15-20 years since my last reading.

What is it about this book that makes it worth multiple readings?  Is it the story?  Partly  Is it Bilbo's growth over his "There and Back Again"?  Partly  But there is just something that grabs me, just as it grabbed me 25 years ago.  Once again I eagerly traveled from Bag End and the Unexpected Party to Rivendell, to the Halls of the Elven-King, to the Lonely Mountain.  Yes I knew what was coming.  But still it is worth reading.  It is, after all, a classic.

Now I just have to find a way to convince the girls to let me read it to them.......

Book 1 of 2014 --The Silmarillion

AS I mentioned in the previous post, on the first Tuesday of this year I discovered a series of Webinars dealing with Unfinished Tales by JRR Tolkien.  AS I was watching the first one I thought to myself "it has been too long since I read those books".  And so one of my goals for the year was formed....

Where do you start when sitting down to read Tolkien?  THe order in which they were published?  (WHich would be The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and then the many volumes of the History of Middle Earth series).  There is a logic to that, and certainly Hobbit is the most accessible read of the bunch.  But of course I am not a newbie to Middle Earth (my introduction to Tolkien will be discussed in the next post).  And so the next logical choice is to read the books in "chronological" order (sort of like if I read the Narnia Chronicles now I start with The Magician's Nephew but for a newbie to Narnia I would always suggest they start with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe).

And so I went downstairs and grabbed my old, well-worn copy of The Silmarillion off the shelf.  It is the copy I received as a Christmas gift 30+ years ago.  I can not remember the last time I read the book....

For those who are less familiar, this book is the history of the First Ages of Middle Earth. It begins with Creation, and follows through the struggles of the Eldar and the Edain against Morgoth in the War of the Jewels.  Then there is an account of the downfall of Numenor, which leads directly to Elendil and his sons returning to middle-Earth and creating the realms of Gondor and Arnor.

For those who have only read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings this is a different book.  But I like it.  It is a quick read (I started Tuesday night and finished it by the end of that week -- although the challenge in reading a book I know so well is to take the time to find new insights in it), but you get to explore the grey-ness of an epic struggle between good and evil over a number of fields and ages.  And it sets the stage for what comes after...

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Gift? Punishment? Blessing? Burden?

Which of those things is death?

Earlier this month I stumbled on to Mythgard Academy.  Both of the last two Tuesdays I have sat in on the free webinars (or at least the beginning of them before having to play chauffeur) exploring Tolkien's Unfinished Tales.  A comment made in the second one sparked the thoughts leading to this post.

But first I think we need some background....

In the mythology of Middle Earth as presented in the Silmarillion, there are two races who are referred to as the Children of Iluvatar.  These are Elves and Men.  Elves are immortal, unless they are slain they will live forever.  Men are mortal. Not only do they die of old age but they are far more likely to die from wounds and are susceptible to illness.  It is stated, repeatedly, that this death is teh gift of Iluvatar to men.  They are not bound to the world.  Elves, it is said, grow weary of the world but are bound to it, they do not have the release of death. (It is my belief that this world-weariness is far more a fate of those elves who have left the Undying Lands to live in Middle-Earth proper and/or those who are born in Middle-Earth.  Does one grow weary of living in Paradise?)

But the nature of life is that Men have difficulty seeing death as a gift.  It seems more like an unfair burden.  And they chafe at it.  The downfall of Numenor, the island of the Gift, was brought about largely because of this issue.  The last king of Numenor, in his vanity and arrogance (and egged on by Sauron) sailed with a mighty fleet to the Undying Lands to wrest immortality from the Valar.  To be fair the Elves also have trouble understanding death as a gift, but they may not taste the bitterness of the gift quite as directly (with the notable exceptions of Luthien in the Elder Days and Arwen in the early years of the Fourth Age).

In the webinar last Tuesday the presenter mentioned that Tolkien claimed nothing in his Middle-Earth mythology was in contradiction to standard Roman Catholic theology.  It was then mentioned that questions have been raise in this regard when it comes to the idea of death as a gift (remember Silmarillion, Unfiinshed Tales, and all the other books that have come afterwards -- there are a fair number--have been published after Tolkien's death by his son Christopher so Tolkien himself has  not necessarily been a part of these discussions).  It was also mentioned that there is a hint in one of the volumes of the History of Middle Earth series of a "Garden of Eden" type of story.  So is death the Gift of Iluvatar?  Or is it a punishment because the earliest fathers of men in Middle-Earth had their own Fall at the hands/instigation of Morgoth? 

But what is the "proper" theology of death in our world?  Is death solely a punishment accruing from the Fall as described in Genesis 3, a result of having been turfed out of Eden and no longer able to access the Tree of Life?  Or have we as humans done what the men of Middle-Earth have done when it comes to death?  Have we taken something that was part of ing, part of existence, possibly even a gift and turned it into something terrible and against God's plan?

The Men of Middle-Earth, for a variety of reasons, generally see death as a burden, not a release, not a gift.  They seek ways to avoid it.  They embalm the bodies of their dead in a statement against death's bitterness.  Does this sound familiar?

What if death, particularly a natural death after a life well-lived in old age, is not the enemy?  What if death was always a part of being alive?  Not a punishment for wrongdoing, but merely a part of reality.  What if the Fall was not the beginning of death but the beginning of humanity's struggle with death?

How many people in their later years have expressed a weariness, a wondering why they are still around?  How many families, at the end, have referred to the death of a loved one, particularly after a long or trying illness, as a release or relief too long in the coming?

What if death is, in a way a gift??  A double-bladed bitter gift too be sure.  But is there a way or a time when it is a gift from God? What is the "proper" theological approach to death?

I suspect it is somewhere between simple acceptance and Dylan Thomas' admonition "Do not go gentle into that good night".  It may be part gift, part burden, depending on a variety of circumstances.  In the Appendicies of Lord of the Rings we read of the death of Aragorn.  To Aragorn is given the opportunity to embrace his death peacefully before it is forced upon him in a period of dotage.  It is bitter for Arwen to watch happen, but it is embraced peacefully as a gift.  Maybe there are times when that would in fact be healthier for us too.  SO maybe Tolkien's theology is right after all...

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Book 11 of 2013 -- Pastrix

I am not big on memoirs or autobiographies (or biographies for that matter).  But when I saw some of the online comments about this one I thought it was worth a read.

And I was right.  Bolz-Weber tells her story with honesty and open-ness.  And in doing so casts a different light on the Gospel as she interacts with it.

There were a couple of times as I was reading her story that I saw a way to preach annual festivals (Baptism of Jesus and Easter) in a slightly different tack.  I especially liked her image of Jesus with the dirt of his tomb under his fingernails....

I would suggest this as a light, enjoyable, and very worthwhile read