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A home for things I write

20190515_185448My first mystery novel, The Book of Answers, made the short-list for The Unhanged Arthur Ellis, an award for unpublished crime fiction. The annual competition is sponsored by Dundurn Press and CrimeWriters of Canada. On May 23, my wife and I attended a banquet at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, where I had the honour of meeting other authors who were nominated, as well as a number of editors, publishers, and authors. It was great fun!

The winning manuscript in my category, the Unhanged Arthur Award for best unpublished crime novel, was The Scarlet Cross, by Liv McFarlane. You can learn more about Liv at her website: https://livmcfarlane.com/

I look forward to reading The Scarlet Cross, and the work of the other nominees:

  • Hypnotizing Lions by Jim Bottomley
  • Omand’s Creek by Don Macdonald
  • One for the Raven by Heather McLeod

 

That the manuscript of my first ever novel was even considered for such an honour, has inspired me to improve my online presence. This site is a re-tooling of my old “Sharing Bread Along The Way” blog, along with old material from “The Fifth Page”, which is where I used to post what didn’t make it into my sermons, which are always a maximum of 4 pages. (I now call them “learning times”, to reflect the truth that I am still learning as I go.)

I am a minister in The United Church of Canada, currently serving the congregation and wider community of Harrow, in beautiful Essex County, Ontario. In the words of Max Marshall, a singer-songwriter from Harrow, it’s a “bread-basket town” in “fruit-stand land”. You should also check out Max, he’s great! 

https://www.maxmarshall.org/about

Our stories shape, and reflect our worldview. Learning time for Sept 19, 2021 at Harrow United Church

When I tell you a story, whatever it is about, I am telling you about myself, my culture, my beliefs, my politics, my issues. The story may not sound like it is about me- but if I picked it, the fact that I am telling it, says something about me, who I am, and where I come from. The way I tell it may say even more. Have you ever noticed that some people, when they tell a story, what ever it is about, manage to make it mostly about themselves?

Everyone has stories. Stories pass on information, a worldview, a way of living.

You’ve heard the comment that history is told by the winners. The stories that get preserved, tell us something about the dominant culture, and what it values. The stories I learned as history, about the creation of Canada as a nation, were usually about brave and adventurous European discoverers, coming to a vast, untamed, and largely vacant land. The fact that there were communities, civilizations, nations long established here was never the focus of the story.

It reminds me of the way Sir Edmund Hilary is described as the first person to climb Mount Everest. He was the white guy, a beekeeper from New Zealand. How many of us can name the man who made the final ascent with him?

Tenzing Norgay was Hillary’s Sherpa guide. But Hillary and Norgay wouldn’t have got anywhere near the top of Everest by themselves. They were members of an expedition that included a dozen climbers, 35 Sherpa guides, and 350 porters, who carried the 18 tons of food and equipment needed for the climb.

We usually only hear part of the story, and what part gets chosen, tells you something about those who choose, and tell the stories. My favourite part of Edmund Hillary’s story is that 7 years after his famous climb of Mount Everest, he led another Himalayan expedition, sponsored by the World Book Encyclopaedia, in search of the Abominable Snowman. They did not find each other, but that’s a whole other story.

I grew up minutes away from the Fort William First Nation, on the edge of Thunder Bay, and never heard stories from that community, even though its history goes back a lot further than that of the Europeans who settled in Northern Ontario. It was as if the history of Canada, of this whole continent, began when white men arrived on its shores.

When the government of Canada decided to dismantle the culture and traditions of the First Nations people, they took the children, many against their will, and without parental consent, to places where they were not allowed to hear or speak the languages of their people. They were only allowed to hear, and speak English, and their traditional stories were replaced with the stories of the Bible, and with the same primers and textbooks used in white people’s schools.

Take away the language, you take away the stories. Take away the stories, and you take away cultural memory. That’s a very effective way to destroy a people. The goal was to solve the Indian Problem in Canada, by making the children into slightly darker skinned versions of white kids, so that they could be fit in, assimilated into mainstream, meaning white, Canadian society.

The stories we tell, and how we tell them, tell a story about us. The Bible has some kind of creation story in at least five different places. Over the weeks of the season of Creation we are hearing them. Last week we heard Psalm 8. This week our story comes from Genesis chapter 1. It’s the one that describes the Creator making everything over the course of 6 days, and then taking a rest day, to step back and enjoy it. In this story, before the Creator relaxes, they make humans, and then ask the humans to take care of the earth, and all that has been created, including all the creatures.

In our western culture we seem to have taken that part of the story about being caretakers, and upgraded ourselves from land managers, to owners. That was the attitude our forebears brought with them when they colonized and settled here in this part of the world. They used all their powers of persuasion, friendly and otherwise, to get title to the land, to claim it as their own.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a member of the Potowatami First Nation, wrote:

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold.”

Did you hear that? Really hear that? The land, the whole world viewed as a sacred gift from the Creator, meant for the good of all, and not to owned, or bought, or sold.

That is such a foreign, weird idea to most of us. It’s not the story we have been told, or that we tell about the world. It’s a story that was not easily compatible with the stories the White Europeans came here with, that shaped their view of the world, and how to live in it.

The Ojibwe’ story we heard about the creation of Turtle Island shows Sky Woman working together with the animals, to make a safe place for them all to live. It is a cooperative vision, not a competitive one. It is a story not about owning and exploiting the gifts of creation for profit and power, but of taking care of what has been given by the Creator, for the good of all.

I read a commentary on this story, that pointed out that the creation of Turtle Island depended upon the bravery and determination of the smallest water creature in the story. Muskrat risked their own life to dive deep, and bring up the bit of soil Sky Woman needed, to begin the making of the new place to live.

Muskrat had a story about themselves, that said they were not as capable or useful as the larger water animals, the beaver, the fisher, the marten, or the loon. But when all these larger, stronger creatures failed, the muskrat let go of their former, limiting story, and lived into a story that encouraged them to try, to stretch themselves, to risk giving themselves to something beyond themselves.

Wilika Matchweta Asimont, the woman who offered that commentary describes herself as a survivor of Canada’s First Nations boarding school legacy and foster care system. What stories about herself did she have to let go of, in order to make a life beyond all of that? What stories did she discover in new ways, to live into, in order to survive, and thrive, and be of help to others?

As a community of Jesus followers, we have a story that we tell over and over again, and act out, that is meant to tell us something about the world, and about the Creator, our relationship to the Creator, and to each other. It’s a story we hold sacred, sacred enough to call it the sacrament of communion.

When we share the sacrament today, and I say the words, I will also be listening deeply to the story, trying to go as deep into the story as little Muskrat, to get a hold of a little something, that will help build a world.

Being like a Butterfly

This is the “learning time” I wrote for Sunday, September 12, at Harrow United Church. It was our first in-person worship service after the province moved to Step 3 in its re-opening plan. It was great to be with some folks I had not seen in person for quite some time. Our sound guy, Eric, brought some special guests. He knew I would be speaking about Monarchs, and has a friend who raises them. Eric brought a portable enclosure containing five adult butterflies. They were on the communion table for the worship service. Afterwards, we brought them outside and members of the congregation helped release them.

Acknowledgment of the Land:

We live, and make our living on land that was known, and cherished, lived on and travelled long before explorers claimed to discover it, and settlers arrived from other lands. The area we call Essex County is traditional territory of the Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, and Caldwell nations of the Three Fires Confederacy, and the Huron/Wyandot nation. The people who knew this land long before our forebears arrived, had rich history, and culture, and spirituality, and a deep and profound relationship with Creation.

Psalm 8 (The Message)

God, brilliant Lord,
    yours is a household name.

 Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you;
    toddlers shout the songs
That drown out enemy talk,
    and silence atheist babble.

 I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
    your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
    Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
    Why take a second look our way?

 Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods,
    bright with Eden’s dawn light.
You put us in charge of your handcrafted world,
    repeated to us your Genesis-charge,
Made us stewards of sheep and cattle,
    even animals out in the wild,
Birds flying and fish swimming,
    whales singing in the ocean deeps.

God, brilliant Lord,
    your name echoes around the world.

Caring for the Earth: Some words about Monarch Butterflies

Just the other day Greg Iler was on his ATV, heading from his house to the equipment barn, and he noticed the sound of the ATV roused hundreds of monarch butterflies from the cedar hedge.

Greg told us about it at this week’s meeting of the church board. I offered a devotion that asked people to remember if they’d recently had an “awe” moment- when they saw something surprisingly, wonderfully beautiful. There are moments that we just want to share, and that lift us out of the ordinary, and I think, remind us of the holiness of life, and creation.

The video can’t completely capture the wonder of what he saw, when all those monarchs flew over his head. Maybe it was one of those you had to be there moments.

The Monarch is in peril of becoming an endangered species, which makes the “you had to be there” seem a little more urgent. Monarchs depend on milkweed as their place to land, rest, feed and lay their eggs, if they can find them.

Over the last 20 years, millions of acres of milkweed plants have been plowed under to farming or uprooted by development.  In 1996, the annual monarch count was about 1 billion butterflies. Recent counts are down to around 50 million, a loss of around 95 percent of the monarch population.

We are blessed to live in an area that is on one of their migration routes. This is a great time of year to see them as they gather to head south.

It wasn’t until I watched a video of the Monarch’s development from the laying of an egg to the emergence of a butterfly that I grasped all the stages that must happen. It’s truly amazing, and for me, a reminder of the mystery and wonder of life.

We often use the image of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly to talk about transformation- but seeing all the stages, from egg, to the first larva, or instar stage, to 4 more growth stages where the larva sheds its skin, to pupa building its cocoon, or chrysalis, then to the imago, or adult butterfly, was a powerful reminder that transformation, while it is a natural process, is also a lot of work.

It takes a lot of determination, and energy, and time to become something new. Even if we already have the DNA, the genetic blueprint to guide us, the changes don’t come quick and easy.

Everything in creation is changing, all the time. Everything goes through stages of transformation.

The monarch’s transformation leads them to become something wondrous, and beautiful. If you didn’t know about butterflies, and you saw the little translucent egg perched on a blossom, or the tiny, odd-looking larvae scrunching around, chomping holes in a milkweed leaf, would you ever imagine what it is destined to become? How does the larva know when to stop chewing and swallowing, and spin the little sac that becomes its cocoon? How does it know when one stage of life must give way to the next? What urges it on, to do the next thing?

We can look at the Monarchs, and enjoy them as marvelous creatures, part of God’s amazing creation. We can also learn from them.

As we take steps towards re-opening the church building, and working together, in person again, at our ministries, the leaders of the congregation are beginning to see, and wrestle with the likelihood that some of the changes that happened during COVID are going to lead to other changes, and that we are being kind of urged into a new way of doing things.

We’ve learned a lot about making online worship videos over the last year and a half, and we recognize the need to carry on with them. We will move to live-streaming our services, so folks who can’t be here on Sunday morning can watch and listen, and worship with us, as it happens.

Our families with school age children have been through different stages of how education is delivered, and we hope and pray with them that the return to in-person school goes well. We are still pondering how we can do our ministry with children and young people in this new time. How will Sunday School evolve? How can we best stay connected to these families and children, who are so important to us?

The caterpillar works hard to build the cocoon, and maybe it looks like it gets to rest, but inside the cocoon its body is changing, developing, becoming something new. It’s hard work.

Does the caterpillar ever ask, “Why can’t I just stay a caterpillar?”

Each individual caterpillar is being a caterpillar for the first time, and doesn’t have other caterpillars to watch, examples to follow. Everything they must do; they’ve never done before!

When it’s time for the mature butterfly to emerge, it wrestles itself out of the chrysalis sac, to begin its new life. Change is hard! Adapting to new conditions, to a new stage of life, is challenging.

As a congregation, we may find that things will have to be different, going forward.

We’ve missed the Harrow Fair, but last weekend the ministerial organized a worship service on the fairgrounds, and we had 130 people attend. It was not the same as what had been done before. It was something new, that grew out of the former event, emerging like a new butterfly

We now sell our famous and wonderful Harrow Fair pies through Lee and Maria’s Market Garden in Kingsville. For Thanksgiving we will be taking pre-orders, and folks can pick up their pies here at the church.

Plans are under way for the turkey supper, the first Saturday in November, as always, but for the second year in a row it is all take-out, and you’ll pick up your meals at our drive thru. It’s not the way we used to do it, but it’s the way we are able to do it now. We’ve had to become nimble, creative, and patient with ourselves and others as we find our way.

There are champions of the monarchs in Windsor and Essex County, who promote planting milkweed, to provide places for the butterflies to feed and rest and lay their eggs. I bought milkweed plants at the Fruit Wagon two years in a row. We now have two varieties of milkweed thriving in our backyard, and it sends a little thrill of joy through me whenever we are visited by Monarchs.

My wife and I listened to a book this summer while we travelled up to Thunder Bay, written by a naturalist and adventurer named Sara Dykman. It’s called Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration.

Her story opened with the author climbing a mountain in central Mexico, to visit one of the protected butterfly reserves where tens of millions of monarch butterflies winter in the oyamel fir tree forests.  They fill the sky and cluster so heavily on the trees that the branches bend with their weight and look like they’re covered with orange and black leaves.

Lexie and I were cycling at Pelee on Thursday evening and saw a cluster of monarchs on one branch high above our heads. Maybe you’ve seen similar sights. Imagine what it would be to see millions of monarchs in one place.

When things begin to warm up in March, it’s time for the Monarchs to migrate north, through the U.S. and up here into Canada. Each butterfly can travel 25-30 miles a day. It was the author’s plan to go along with them, making the journey on her bicycle.

The book includes valuable observations about the butterflies, and other creatures, their habitats, and the threats to their survival. She described her visits to schools, parks, and community groups, during which she shared her conservation message, and her reverence for nature with all who would listen. Everywhere she went, she encouraged ordinary people to do their part, by planting and protecting milkweed.

Sarah Dykman made her amazing journey in 2017, including stops at Point Pelee, and a school in Windsor. It would have been great to hear her speak, and see her pictures, and her bicycle, which she called her ButterBike. I bet it was a great experience for the students in the schools she visited.

Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention when I was in grade school, and we learned about Monarch Migration. I knew they fly north from Mexico in the spring, and back south in the fall, kind of like the migratory birds.

I didn’t realize that except for the adult butterflies that make it to Mexico and go dormant in the cold air of the mountains, each butterfly lives only for 2 to 6 weeks. They fly along, breed, stop and rest and feed and lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The butterflies die not long after breeding, and it’s the next generation that continues the journey. It takes 4 generations to complete the long journey from Mexico to Canada and back.

Scientists have different theories about how each new generation knows where to fly. They may be navigating by the stars, or by the angle of the sun in the sky, or perhaps by the earth’s magnetic fields.

Scientists put tiny bands on butterflies at various places on the known migration corridors and can tell that generations of butterflies descended from the same ancestors follow the same routes every year. Butterflies with different genetic profiles follow different routes.

As I pondered it taking four generations for the monarch to travel from their winter homes to where we live, and back again, I thought about the Seventh Generation Principle, which comes from the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people, that says decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.

As we have been finding out these last two years, the present and the future do not always turn out the way we expected, and we face new decision points. As we make plans for our families, our businesses, our communities, our church, perhaps the Monarchs can be good teachers for us. Each Monarch has their part in something so much larger than themselves. Their efforts are part of the ongoing survival of their species.

Do we think that way? Do we consider that choices we make, for good or for bad, have implications for our families, communities, species, that will last for generations?  How do we calculate how much effort we are willing to make and what level of inconvenience we will tolerate, for the benefit of those who will come after us, generations, and decades, and centuries down the line?

I was cycling with some friends the other day, our own little migration from Kingsville to Harrow, and back. One of the guys, who is in his 70’s talked about spending a day near Peterborough, with a group of volunteers who were planting trees. He observed that most of the tree-planters were older than him, and many would not live to see their saplings grow big and tall. He thought that was a good example of optimism.

I think’s it’s more than optimism. It’s a sign of spiritual transformation, when a person grows to a stage in life at which they find meaning and purpose in doing things for the benefit of future generations- and act more like Monarch Butterflies. Amen

Service for July 25, 2021

Learning Time: “Have Mercy” 

Take a moment in silence, to remember a time when you said or did something that upset or hurt another person.  I will do this with you, knowing full well that it is not pleasant to remember when we have wronged another person. 

Before we go further, let’s remember that God loves us, and through Jesus we know that there are no barriers to God’s love, and God’s forgiveness. If you feel a need to, offer a prayer asking God to forgive the thing you just remembered, about hurting someone else. If you have not already done so, and need to, you may want to make a plan for how to reconcile with that person.

Now, take a moment and remember a time in which you were the one on the receiving end- when something that was said or done caused you upset or hurt. 

Have you been able to be reconcile with the person who hurt you- or their memory? Some of our hurts may go back so far that the person who caused them may no longer be around. Have you forgiven the person? Are you still working on forgiving them?

Forgiveness is not always easy.  It’s important to recognize that we may have to work at it, and that it may come in stages, or in layers, depending upon how deeply we were hurt, and how far back the memory goes.  Reaching the point at which we feel that we have forgiven someone may actually come long after we have made the choice, the decision to forgive.

Like most things that are worth doing, forgiveness takes work, and practice. It may take a while before we get good at it. There are times, though, when it comes miraculously quickly, as if we have been given a tremendous gift.

I want to tell you about a man named Gilbert Tuhabonye. Gilbert was the third of four children born into a farming family that was part of the Tutsi tribe in the southern county of Songa, in Burundi.  From an early age, it was clear that Gilbert was born to run. Whether he was chasing his family’s cows, fetching water, or making the five mile trek to school, he loved to run everywhere. 

After 6th grade, Gilbert had to leave home to attend a boarding school 150 miles from the family farm. At the Kibimba school he began running competitively. In his first year he won an 8k race while running barefoot. In his second year he caught the eye of a coach who taught him proper running technique, and encouraged him to train hard, and aim for the Olympics.

As an 11th grader, Gilbert became a national champion in the 400 and 800 metre races. By his senior year Gilbert was on track and headed towards a scholarship to a US school, with the goal of getting an education, and returning to his home in Burundi.

One terrible afternoon in October 1993 life changed dramatically for Gilbert, and many others in Burundi. The historic tribal conflict between the Tutsis and the Hutus erupted into horrific violence, and overtook the school. The Hutu students at the school, with their parents, some teachers, and other tribe members forced the Tutsi students and their teachers into a room in which they were beaten, and left to be burned to death.

Gilbert was badly hurt, but somehow survived. He spent 9 hours in the smouldering room, working his way out of the piled bodies, and managing to break through a window with a charred bone. He jumped free of the burning building and ran into the night, with 3rd degree burns on much of his body, machete wounds, and a twisted leg. He survived, while 249 others died.

Gilbert recovered from his injuries, returned to running, and received a full athletic scholarship to Abilene Christian University. He won several national titles as an NCAA runner, and is now a teacher and coach in Austin, Texas. He runs a program called Gilbert’s Gazelles, and has started the Gazelle Foundation, which raises money for development work back in his home country of Burundi. He focuses on creating supplies of clean water where Hutu and Tutsi people alike can meet, and talk, and get the water they need to live.

I heard an interview with Gilbert. He described being discharged from the hospital, and realizing that the people who killed so many of his friends, and tried to kill him, were still walking the streets.  One day he actually encountered the man who had organized the attack on the school. This man had thought Gilbert was dead, and was shocked and frightened to see him. He collapsed at Gilbert’s feet begging for forgiveness.

Gilbert said, “I let him go. Forgiveness is a powerful tool for me. I struggled a lot, and when I let that person go and live free, it was the beginning of everything. And then, I used running to clear my mind. Instead of every day dreaming to get revenge on the people who tried to kill me, instead, I am dreaming to be the best that I can be. “

He went on to say, “Exercise and running is something that has helped me, and I want to teach everybody to enjoy it.” Gilbert gives his students t-shirts that have his motto on the back, “Run with Joy”. I have seen videos of Gilbert training classes of young runners, and even though he is working hard, and working them very hard, they are laughing, and smiling, and finding the joy in life.

I recently celebrated my 60th birthday, and I marked the day by riding my bicycle for 26 miles. That’s the same distance as a marathon. I used to run marathons, but these days I limit my running to 3 or 4 miles at a time. Over the years I have had some good running partners and teachers, and have helped others learn how to run.  Running has taught me a lot about how to be a human being. 

When I took up running in my late 30’s, I couldn’t go for more than 2 or 3 minutes without having to stop. I had to learn to start slow, and stay slow, and focus on building up a habit, and building up some endurance. It took months before I could run a mile and not think I was going to collapse. It felt miraculous when I reached the level where I could run 3, 4 or 5 miles, and not really be out of breath. 

Two weeks ago I ran in a race in Leamington, a fundraiser for the Hospice, and my pace and time were about the same as the first race I ran in Windsor, more than 20 years ago. So maybe I am really fast 60 year old, or I was just slow when I was younger! What I have learned is that if I want to keep being able to do something, whether it’s running, or writing sermons, or praying, or asking forgiveness, or offering it, I have to keep working at it, even when I might feel like giving up, or sleeping, or watching tv, or maybe eating a donut.

God creates us with the basic tools we need, but we may need to learn how to use them. We may need coaching, and encouragement, and practice, lots of practice, before we do it well. Even when we are growing in our spiritual fitness, there will be times when we would rather not do what is good for us. There are times when we would rather wallow in bitterness or self pity.

Think again about Gilbert, on the street, meeting the man who organized the attack that killed everyone at the school except Gilbert.

I don’t know if the forgiveness Gilbert extended came easy to him. Whether or not that forgiveness came through Gilbert all at once as a miraculous gift, or whether it came after long hard struggle- the point is that it came. Gilbert says that it was faith that made it possible for him to carry on, to run from danger, to build a new life, and to forgive those who had killed all his friends.

Forgiveness can happen. We can forgive, and we can be forgiven. And when forgiveness comes, as it did for Gilbert, and for the man he forgave, it offers the hope and possibility of a brand new life. Thanks be to God. Amen

Worship for July 18, 2021 “Take Me Out to the Ball Game!”

Mark 12:28-34 New International Version

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but God. To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Learning Time:

I thought it would be interesting to re-imagine that conversation between the teacher of Jewish law, and Jesus, as if it were a baseball game. So let’s play ball!

It is the biggest game of the season in the Jerusalem baseball league. The home team, the Temple Pharisees, are hosting the Galilee Disciples. It is one of the last regular season games. Tension has been building between these two teams. The big city Pharisees don’t want to be beat by these small town players, some of whom look more like fishermen and farmers than they do ball players.

Jesus is up to bat. The bases are loaded. Simon is on first, James is on second, and John is on third. The other disciples are on the bench, all eyes on the batter. They are 3 runs behind, it is the last out, and they really want Jesus to bring their team-mates home.

The infield and outfield positions are staffed with Pharisees ready to pounce on the ball, and make the play. They just need an out, and this game will be theirs.

There is a home field advantage in this game, because the Pharisees have also supplied their own umpire. The umpire pays close attention to how Jesus addresses the ball, and what happens when he hits. Will it be fair or foul?

I once knew a Toronto Bay Street lawyer who volunteered in the summer time as a little league baseball umpire. He also encouraged his daughters to be umpires, because he believed that it was good training. To be an effective umpire, he said, you have to know the rules inside out. You have to watch carefully, and very quickly make your call, and be decisive when you make it.

The Jewish religion in Jesus’ time was very much about following a list of 613 rules from the first five books of the Bible, so the teachers of religion were a bit like lawyers, or umpires who expected people to follow their calls.

My son Joel, who will turn 20 in a few weeks, said just the other day how much he misses playing ball. I can remember being at one of his games when a very excitable assistant coach was almost ejected from the game, because he kept challenging the umpire’s calls. His behaviour was such a contrast with the kids on the team, who were there, most of them, because they love the game, and wanted to play, and weren’t all that caught up in winning or losing.

The Jewish teachers of the law saw Jesus as a threat to their ability to run the religion game. They may have just been itching to call him out on strikes, or even throw him out of the game altogether. But back to our game, between the Temple Pharisees and the Galilee Disciples.

The pitcher sends one flying towards Jesus. “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

Jesus might have seen that one coming. He looks relaxed and ready. He takes his swing, and makes a good connection. He says:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

It’s a hit!

The pitcher nods and smiles. He respects a good hitter. After all he loves the game, and wants to see it played well.

Jesus is quoting the Shema, a verse from the Book of Deuteronomy recited twice a day by pious Jews. It is foundational to their faith that there is only one God. This is a way of saying that all other gods are false gods- distractions from the true faith. We are to love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind and strength.

Even the umpire looks happy. “Fair ball!” The crowd is waiting for Jesus to run the bases. Even a good hitter has to touch all the bags, to score. But Jesus isn’t ready to move. He watches the ball arc into the sky, and says, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The crowd are going crazy! They can see why Jesus was in no hurry to run, because this ball is out of there. He has literally hit it out of the park.

Jesus sets down his bat, and makes a leisurely circuit of the bases. When he gets back to home plate, Simon and James and John have all made it in. They are so excited. They embrace Jesus. The pitcher runs to the plate to congratulate Jesus, and even the umpire is uncharacteristically enthusiastic. Something important has just happened.

The pitcher says, “Well said, teacher!” The crowd is going wild. Both benches are cleared, and all the players are jumping up and down. But it is not a brawl, it is a celebration. The pitcher calls for quiet. The umpire nods his head in agreement. He wants to hear what else the pitcher has to say.

“You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but God. To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Now the crowd is very still, as the pitcher’s words sink in. They can’t believe their ears. The star pitcher of the Pharisees had just agreed that it is more important to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself, than it is to make sacrifices at the temple.

That ball really was hit out of the park. And out of the temple. Because a Pharisee has just realized that following God is more important than simply following the rule book, and going through the motions.

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

What did Jesus mean when he said the Pharisee was not far from the kingdom of God?

In Luke’s Gospel there is another story of Jesus facing the hard pitches. One of the Pharisees asked him when the kingdom of God would come.  “He answered them, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”  (Luke 17:20-22)

To love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself. This is all about being in relationship. How we are connected to God, and to others, and to our true self. These connections make our lives bigger, and truth to tell, much more worth living.

This is a movement beyond a religion of rules, where we always need external guidelines, and umpires to tell us if we are safe or out. This is a movement towards learning, or remembering who we are, and what life is actually all about. It is as if the Pharisee, who has been going through the motions of religion his whole life, is starting to wake up, and see it all in a deeper way.

When I watch baseball, at any level, from little league to the big leagues, I love watching the players for whom the game has become natural. They are so into it, they don’t really have to think hard before they make a play. It is as if their deeper self just knows what to do, and they do it. They are really in the game. I also love watching the ones who just seem to be having a great time- playing as much for the joy of the games as anything else. Ever watch the Jays star first baseman, Vladimir Guerrero Junior? He’s like that.

When Jesus told the Pharisee he was not far from the kingdom of God, what he was saying is that the Pharisee was beginning to get it- he was moving from following an external religion, to living an internal faith- one that he knows from the inside out. The Pharisee is beginning to see that the point is not just to follow rules, to stay out of trouble with the religious umpires.

The point is to love, because it is in loving that we actually have the experience of knowing that we are close to God, because God is all around us. Love is not just a feeling, or an idea. Love is actually a powerful force, at work in the universe.

In the first letter of John, it says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

The letter goes on to say, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

When we open ourselves to consciously loving God, and other people, and ourselves, we can experience God’s love as a powerful energy that flows into us, and through us. When we live, and love in this way, it is a whole new ball game. Amen

Worship for July 11, 2021 “All My Relations”

The first year I was at seminary we had a visit from a local representative of the Canadian Bible Society- their logo is a line drawing of a sower of seeds. I still have the Greek New Testament given to me by the Bible Society. Sharing the Word is sowing the seed.

Over the centuries, the parable of the sower has offered us a job description, and a comforting way to think about the fact that not everyone wants to join us.

Built into the parable are the images of rocky soil, of shallow soil, of soil over-ridden with weeds. Not every place the seed lands, will result in growth, new life. There is room for the preacher to say, some people are like that- some are shallow, or rock hard, or shadowed by weeds that won’t allow the gospel to take root.

The story gives us the tools, not just to encourage persistent sowing, but also to congratulate ourselves for being good soil, and to be judgmental of others. If not everybody who hears our message becomes converted, transformed, it may be because somehow their soil is not ready. This story can be misused, manipulated, to give us a sense of superiority.

It’s often easier, and tempting to think of the world in simple terms. Good soil or bad. Jesus follower or not. Sowers of seed, and tracts of dirt. Saved or not saved.

Stories are powerful, and can be used as weapons. When white people first came to this continent, the story they brought home was they had discovered a vast empty land, a Terra Nullius, with just a few ignorant savages on it.

Another story, called the “Doctrine of Discovery” was told, that said that the relatively few people on this vast empty land had no claim of ownership, because they weren’t civilized, and they weren’t Christians. They needed colonizers to come in and show them how to live.

The recent stories about unmarked graves of hundreds of children, on sites of former residential schools make it more difficult to ignore what has been known for seven generations, in indigenous communities, that terrible things were done to children, and very few perpetrators have been held accountable for their actions. 

This is a time for soul searching, for our country, and for each of us as citizens, who have the privilege of life in this beautiful land, that had a rich history before it was claimed and colonized.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission tried to tell us, 6 years ago, when they produced their final report, that included a lengthy list of recommendations, most of which have gone largely ignored. They also told us, way back in 2015, about more than 4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school. The Commission recorded first-hand stories from survivors, about the treatment of children, and the efforts to hide their deaths.

Justice Murray Sinclair believes a large number of children who were very ill, were sent home to die. He fears the total number of deaths may be over 6000, of the 150,000 children who attended the schools. That’s a mortality rate of 4%, significantly higher than that of adults serving in the Canadian Forces. It would have been less dangerous to draft these children into the army.

We have made our lives, and our living, on the land, and with the benefit of the rich resources of this country, which was not ours, until representatives of the British Crown took it.  They often used the argument that white people could manage it better than the original residents, to mask the real intention, which was to create profit for investors.  Corporations like the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company were granted Royal Charters, and protected by Acts of the British Parliament, which gave them the right exploit the land and residents of what would become Canada.

For over 100 years our country had a program with the goal of eliminating First Nations culture, identity, language, spirituality, and political power. The Indian Act, which gives tremendous power to the federal government, paid lip service to the idea of helping people find their way to becoming “productive citizens” in the mainstream of Canada, but the underlying motivation was the assumption that being white is better than being indigenous.

I wish this wasn’t our history, but it is. Not every white Canadian is a racist. But these racist things have been done, by every single elected government, over the course the history of Canada.

Something else I wish was not true- that the United Church of Canada, as well as other major Christian denominations, were willing, active partners in this sickening enterprise. Churches entered into contracts to run residential schools across this country. I knew people who worked in them, and I know people who survived them, but not without physical and emotional wounds and scars.

The largest Christian denominations in Canada failed, not only in their treatment of the children. They failed to ensure the people they hired to work in these schools were decent and kind. They gave pedophiles and sociopaths unhindered access to innocent, vulnerable victims. They actively covered up the crimes of their employees, and made excuses for the high mortality rates.

The churches failed to be prophetic, to challenge the lie that white people are inherently better than people of colour.

I get weary of thinking of these sad things, but feel a responsibility to grapple with them, and glean some of the truth they contain. That feels more faithful than to avoid talking about it.

As a preacher, and teacher of the Jesus Way, there are questions that weigh heavy on me.

How could leaders, and members of Christian churches fail to see the white superiority inherent in the system as a problem? How could they look the other way at the treatment of vulnerable children, families, and communities? Why weren’t more of my brother and sister preachers over the last century calling out the sin of racism? How could they claim to be Christian, and do what they did, in the name of the brown-skinned, dark-eyed teacher, prophet, saviour Jesus?

How can our churches have any credibility, with indigenous people, or anybody else? Can we really claim to passing on the Gospel of Love, when by our actions and inactions we condoned racism, and contributed to the deaths of thousands of children?

I don’t support the choice of those who burn down churches, but I can understand their anger.

Reflecting on these sad truths, that aren’t just history, but a present reality, pushes me to look again at the superiority inherent in thinking of ourselves as the sower of seeds. We still have that responsibility, but we also need to think of ourselves in more humble terms.

The latin root of the word humble is humus, which is also the word for soil, or earth. In the creation story, the first humans are formed of earth, into which God breathes the breath of life.

The soil is sacred. The earth was made by the Creator, and is inherently good. We can think of ourselves as both soil, and the sower of seeds. Our “soil-ness”, or our “dirtness” is a good thing- it connects us to all that God makes. We may be sowers of seed, but we did not create it, and we do not have exclusive rights to the seed- they are not GMO products, patented by some agri-corporation- they are gifts from God, to God’s people, all of God’s people.

In August of 2012, at the 41st General Council, The United Church of Canada acknowledged the presence and spirituality of Aboriginal peoples in the United Church by revising the church’s crest. One of the changes was the addition of a Mohawk phrase which means “All my relations.”

Richard Wagamese was an Ojibwe’ man born in Minaki, Ontario in 1955. He died just a few years ago. He was an award winning journalist and author, who described himself as a second generation survivor of the residential school system. In 2013, he wrote an essay for the newspaper in Kamloops, in which he described spending time on his deck, early in the morning:

To be here as morning breaks is to feel unity. It’s to feel connected to everything around you and to absorb it, bring it into the very fiber your being, like learning to breathe all over again. It’s to come to understand that you are alive because everything else is. It is to comprehend what your people mean when they say “All my relations.”

It means everything. It’s not uttered in a casual way nor is it meant to be. In its solemnity it is meant as a benediction, a blessing and a call to this unity you feel all around you in the depth of morning. This phrase, this articulation of spirit, is a clarion call to consciousness.

It means that you recognize everything as alive and elemental to your being. There is nothing that matters less than anything else. By virtue of its being, all things are vital, necessary and a part of the grand whole, because unity cannot exist where exclusion is allowed to happen. This is the great teaching of this statement.

“All my relations,” means all. When a speaker makes this statement it’s meant as recognition of the principles of harmony, unity and equality. It’s a way of saying that you recognize your place in the universe and that you recognize the place of others and of other things in the realm of the real and the living. In that it is a powerful evocation of truth.

Because when you say those words you mean everything that you are kin to. Not just those people who look like you, talk like you, act like you, sing, dance, celebrate, worship or pray like you. Everyone. You also mean everything that relies on air, water, sunlight and the power of the Earth and the universe itself for sustenance and perpetuation. It’s recognition of the fact that we are all one body moving through time and space together.
Amen

A David and Goliath Story: Worship for July 4, 2021

This portion of the Book of Joel is quoted in the passage from Acts we hear read on Pentecost Sunday. It contains the hopeful reminder that the Spirit of God is active around us, and even within us, guiding us along the way, with signs in nature, with visions, and with dreams.

Joel 2:28-32 (The Message)

“And that’s just the beginning: After that— “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters. Your old men will dream, your young men will see visions. I’ll even pour out my Spirit on the servants, men and women both. I’ll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below: Blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red, Before the Judgment Day of God, the Day tremendous and awesome. Whoever calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help. On Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be a great rescue—just as God said. Included in the survivors are those that God calls.”

Learning Time: “A David and Goliath Story”

The Bible story we are working with today is about David and Goliath. It is one of those stories that almost everybody knows, even if they have never sat down and read it. How many times have we heard it mentioned in a sportscast? It is an instantly recognizable way to talk about the victory of the underdog, when someone says, “It was a David and Goliath story. “ We know immediately what they are talking about.

More than a decade ago I enrolled in a two year program to learn about Christian Spirituality, and to become a spiritual director. Spiritual direction is a specialized ministry that grew out of an ancient tradition of helping people to become more aware of the presence, and the work, and the leading of God in their lives. We begin with the basic idea that God is real, and that God has hopes and dreams for each of us, for what happens in each of our lives, and what choices we make. We can help each other listen for God, and become more aware of who God is calling us to be, and what we are meant to do.

When I read the story of David and Goliath, I see the character of David acting on his belief that God is with him, and that God has work for him to do. I deliberately referred to David as a character, a dramatic figure, because I don’t necessarily read the story as being literally true.

One of the things I learned, in my spiritual direction training, was to pay attention to my own dreams, and to listen carefully when other people want to talk about their dreams. If God can show us things, and guide us, and point us in the right direction in our waking life, perhaps God can also be at work in our dreams.

People who analyze dreams often begin with the premise that everything in the dream, all the characters, the mood, the furniture, the weather, the plot, and the dialogue, all come from deep inside of us. It is as if the dream is made up of pieces gathered from our conscious and unconscious memories, from things we are aware of in our day to day life, and things we may not have thought about for some time. These elements are all woven together in a production at least as interesting as any play or movie we might watch, or story we might read. The dream may use all these images from our own depths to get our attention, and tell us something.

Around the world there are certain images, plot-lines, human characters, and even animals that show up repeatedly in folk-stories, fairy tales, and dreams. Thinkers like Carl Jung used the term “archetype” to talk about these seemingly universal figures that carry meaning in many different cultures. Not surprisingly, the Bible is full of these kind of archetypal characters, like wise old men, and angels, and children who must be protected from harm, and kings, and warriors, monsters, giants, and heroes.

If we were to listen to the David and Goliath story as if it were David’s dream, it might tell us a lot, about the character of David, and about the way God works. Here is how the story begins:

 1 Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah. 3 The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.

 Even this description seems dream-like and symbolic. Opposing forces staring at each other across a divide- perhaps like warring parts of a personality, weighing the pros and cons of a decision.

 4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet tall. 

Giants are literally larger than life characters. Sometimes in our dreams we are confronted with symbols of the things that we fear, like change, or loss, or death. I would take the presence a nine foot giant as a sign that this story is not meant to be read literally. Maybe Goliath represents some big thing that David feels he must conquer, or some huge fear that he has to face. Everyone of us, if we live long enough, has faced, or will face some challenge or problem that seems gigantic.

8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

This part leaves me feeling that this story was passed down from generation to generation for a long time before it was preserved in writing. The story teller tells us how King Saul and all the Israelites felt. How could anyone really know how the whole army felt? It is a kind of shorthand, that is there to set the stage for David’s entrance into the drama.

I don’t know if there was ever a time in human history when wars were fought the way the story describes, with one champion from each side representing their king, in a winner takes all fight. I find it harder to believe than the 9 foot giant!

But if this was how wars were fought in our time, there might be a lot less bloodshed. What if each time a country wanted to go to war, they sent one champion, perhaps their prime minister, or president, instead of plane loads of 20 year olds?

We better get back to the story, because here comes the hero:

 12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was old and well advanced in years. 13 Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. 14 David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.

 16 For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand.

When we hear about shepherds and Bethlehem we immediately think of Jesus. When we hear the number 40, we remember other uses of that number. Noah and the Ark, and forty days of rain. When Moses takes the Israelites across the desert, it is a 40 year journey. When Jesus goes out into the desert to fast, it is for forty days. The number 40 is a biblical symbol for a long time. This is what it’s like in our dreams- elements from old familiar stories all fall in the pot, and make a strange new soup.

But back to David:

 17 Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. 18 Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them. 19 They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.”

David’s Father Jesse is worried for the well-being of his elder sons. He sends basic food for them, and a tribute, almost a bribe, to their commander.

 20 Early in the morning David left the flock with a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. 21 Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. 22 David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and greeted his brothers. 23 As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. 24 When the Israelites saw the man, they all ran from him in great fear. 25 Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his father’s family from taxes in Israel.”

 26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

 27 They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.”

 28 When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”

Even before David can get to the part where he would fight the giant Goliath, he has to deal with the anger of his oldest brother, who clearly has no confidence in him, and is actually angry that David might involve himself in the battle. Does Eliab’s voice represent that part of David that is filled with self-doubt and self-loathing, and that believes that he could never do anything right or good?

David sounds like every little brother or sister everywhere when he begins to stand up for himself:

 29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” 30 He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him.

 32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

 33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth.”

David faced down his big brother, and now he has to argue with the King. In many mythic tales, the hero has to face preliminary challenges and tests, almost like practice or warm-up fights, before the big scene in which they save the day.

 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
      Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”

I can remember learning this story in Sunday School with the little flannel graph figures. Even then I found it hard to believe that David would actually have grabbed a lion or a bear by its hair, struck it, and killed it. This sounds to me like a symbolic way of saying that David has faced his fears, and placed his trust in God, and is ready for his big challenge.

I have doubts about God taking sides in any war. Martin Niemoller, a German pastor who was sent to Dachau prison for challenging Hitler’s treatment of the Jews once said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.”

American writer Anne Lamott puts it this way, “ When God hates all the same people that you hate, you can be absolutely certain that you have created him in your own image.”

I interpret David’s story as being about having the courage to be who God calls you to be, even though there will be both internal and external barriers in your way. Each of us face times of test and trial in our lives- times when we have to decide whether we will go along with what the world is telling us, or will we do what we believe to be right and good.

 38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.
      “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

I love the image of David rejecting the armour and weapons of the King, and going back to his shepherd’s tunic and his sling. He faced down the temptation to look and act like somebody he was not. This makes me think about people who have lived their lives I fear of revealing to people who they really are, for fear of rejection or persecution.

I think of all those people who’ve had to pass for white, or pass for straight, in order to survive, and simply live their lives. I think of all the amazing stories of women who were forced to dress and act as men, in order to do the work they were called by God to do.

 41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42 He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”

 45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

 48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

 50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.

 51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.
      When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.

When we were taught this lesson in Sunday School, they left off the part about David cutting off the giant’s head. It is a gruesome image, especially if we read it literally. I was looking this week at a detail from a Caravaggio painting of David holding up the freshly severed head of Goliath, and it was horrifying. We can’t use this story to glorify or justify violence, even for a cause we believe in.

But if we read this as David’s dream, we can share in David’s joy as he has faced down his big fears, stood up for who he really is, and survived, to tell the story. Amen

What do we do on Canada Day?

(My latest column for the Kingsville Observer)

Canada Day a time for sober reflection about the country’s past and its future (kingsvilleobserver.com)

When I lived in a larger urban centre, I was often called on during the Christmas season to help with funerals for families without a church connection. I had a personal rule that I would never say no to helping with a funeral in that season, even if it was on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes families wanted to discuss “what to do about Christmas” in the shadow of a loved one’s death. Some chose to maintain their traditional events and customs. Others felt it improper or disrespectful to celebrate during a time of mourning. I often heard strong cases made on either side, within one family.

As an outsider, I appreciated the privilege of sitting with a family as they listened to their own hearts and to each other. As a pastor, I felt it was my role to acknowledge and honour their grief, but not to tell them how they should mourn.

When the announcement was made at the end of May that the unmarked, undocumented remains of at least 215 children were found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School, there were calls to cancel Canada Day celebrations. The City of Victoria in B.C. did exactly that after two local First Nations, the Esquimault and the Songhees, withdrew their participation from previously planned online events.

And on Thursday, June 24, Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School.

There are many people, families and communities who carry stories and grief and grievances associated with the federally mandated residential school system and with the larger, underlying realities of colonialism and racism. How could we who have not lived with those wounds have anything to say about how mourning should happen?

A few days after the Kamloops announcement, there was the terrible story of what is now being called an act of terror. A 20-year-old man in London was arrested for what amounted to using his vehicle as a murder weapon. Five members of a beautiful Canadian family were on foot, waiting at a corner for the light to change, when this man allegedly drove his pickup truck over the curb and ran them down.

The driver has been charged with killing a grandmother, her son, his wife and her granddaughter. Police say terror charges will likely be added.

The only survivor of this cruel and brutal attack is a nine-year-old boy named Fayez Afzaal.

I heard a heartbreaking interview with the mother of one of Fayez’s schoolmates. She said her child wanted to know if they could bring Fazel home to live with them so he would not be alone. The child also told their mother they never wanted to go outside again and later said, if I have to go outside, I don’t want to walk on sidewalks because they are not safe for us.

My hope is that whatever we find ourselves doing on the 154th anniversary of the passing of the British North America Act in 1867, we might take a moment for sober reflection about the kind of Canada we want going forward.

We are a relatively young country even though we are building it on land that has been known, cherished and occupied long before Europeans came. I say we are building it because Canada is growing and changing. Our country is a work in progress.

I think it would do us good to take a breath, stand back a little and think, and remember, imagine, and, perhaps, even pray.

I shouldn’t tell you what to pray for when it comes to our country. We do, after all, value freedom of thought and freedom of religion in Canada.

I will tell you about my own hopes and prayers, which have to do with the life ahead for that nine-year-old boy in London.

I hope we can do better and work together with all people of goodwill, to build, rebuild and fix Canada so that it can be a place where Fayez, who watched his family die, will someday feel safe. I pray that he and his friends, actually all children of all races, cultures, religions, and backgrounds can feel safe, respected, valued and protected. I pray for a Canada in which Fayez can heal and grow and begin to feel less sad and less afraid.

Worship for June 27, 2021

Introduction to the Scripture Reading:

Our scripture reading for today is the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, in the Old Testament. It is one of those bible stories that many people think they know, and have probably never read. Misinterpretations of the story have been the foundation for some very unfortunate theology, that has reinforced, and encouraged sexism, and misogyny, with a distorted, and negative view of women.

As we hear the story, I invite you to pay attention to what is in the story, and what you expected to hear, that is not actually in the story.

Genesis 3:1-24 (New International Version)

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock
    and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
    and you will eat dust
    all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring[a] and hers;
he will crush[b] your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.

21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

Video:

Learning Time: What about Good and Evil? A reading of Genesis 3

Life is a gift from a generous God. We live in response to the gifts God gives. There is purpose and meaning in life, and God knows what it is, even when we have trouble seeing it.

One major challenge to this vision for life is what philosophers have named the “problem of evil”. The question usually goes something like this, “Why is there death and pain and cruelty in the world?”

From early in the history of the Christian faith, the answers to that question have usually involved the words sin and evil, and the starting place has tended to be with the 3rd chapter of the Book of Genesis. I don’t find it helpful to read The Garden of Eden story as literal truth.

We may also need to shovel through all the interpretation, and editorial comment that over the centuries has been piled on top of the actual story. First off, there is no mention in the story of a Devil. There is a talking serpent. In our English translation the snake is described as “crafty” but scholars say that in the original Hebrew, the word would be more like “sharp-witted”, or “mentally acute”.

Preachers have often put the serpent in the role of tempter, but is that true to the story? Here is what the serpent actually says to Eve. You will not surely die… For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The serpent tells her the truth. Touching the fruit does not kill her. Somehow, eating the fruit gives her wisdom, and the capacity to know what is good, and what is evil.  How exactly is that a bad thing? As a parent, I hope and pray that my kids will be able to discern good from evil! The world is a far more dangerous place if we walk around without this basic survival skill.

Does knowing that there is evil make us more likely to do bad things? If anything, not being able to tell the difference between good and evil seems like a guarantee of getting hurt, or hurting someone else.  I wish there was some fruit I could feed my kids that would give that wisdom. I’d like some for myself as well!

Often when this story is told, the spin is added that the as yet un-named woman then went on and tricked Adam into taking a bite- a bite of the what? Is it a pomegranate, a boysenberry, or a tomato? We have been programmed to think it is an apple- but the story does not say that. What else did the preachers and teachers add over the years? The story says:

”When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”

The woman did not trick the man into eating the fruit. He was with her, she offered, and he ate it. The suggestion that she led him astray is unfair. According to the Bible, he knew the rules before she did.

If God made the first man, and then made the first woman to be his helper, would it make sense that God would make the helper as a temptress, to lead her partner astray? This makes me wonder if all those story-tellers and preachers over the years forgot the other creation story, in the first chapter of Genesis:

“So God created man in his own image,
       in the image of God he created him”

In that creation story, God made the world, and then made the first people, and then set them in charge of the world. There was no special tree that humans could not touch- it was all made for their use. At the end of the sixth day of all this making, God saw all that was made, and saw that it was very good. God did not make defective or corrupt human beings. Humans were made in the image of God.

Unfortunately, certain male authority figures in the early Christian church preferred the creation story in the second and third chapters of Genesis. They used the story, in ways that I think go beyond the text, to explain the existence of sin and evil in the world. For them, the trouble starts when sexuality is introduced to the human drama. After the first man takes his bite of the mango, or whatever, the story says,

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. “

One author has suggested that they might have eaten a fig, since they sewed fig leaves together. That is the image we remember: Adam and Eve with very carefully placed fig leaves as their only protection.

Being naked has become an issue. They just barely got their fig-suits on, and God entered the scene. But this is a very different God than the one we pray to and sing about. This God has an actual physical body. The story says “ the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

This God does not seem to know all and see all.  “… the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”  (Would the God we think of really have to ask?  Can you hide from God?)

The man answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid. And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

  The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

The man and woman sense that they have done something wrong. But what?  Was it the eating of the fruit, or is it connected to having noticed each other’s nakedness?

At this point in the story some preachers would start talking about sin. The sin of lust, as these two are looking at each other being naked. The sin of disobedience, because they broke the rule about not eating the special fruit. Hunger for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would be connected to other physical hungers and desires. In the more traditional teaching, the point would be made that in our spiritual lives, it is the body that drags us down into the pits of sin. The woman would especially be blamed, representing as she does the temptations of the flesh.

No surprise here, as the first to teach it this way were men, priests of a church that had begun requiring celibacy in order to serve, and rationalizing it with a theology that said, in spite of our being created in God’s image, the world and our bodies are not good, but the source of corruption and sin.

Out of this interpretation of the Garden of Eden story came the idea of the Fall, the moment at which all human beings were condemned to be tainted by sin and prone to evil, because of the actions of the first man and the first woman, after listening to a very clever talking snake.  Aside from my questions about reading the story this way, I wonder about the God character in the story. Is this a fair and loving, and righteous God?

If eating that fruit was an evil thing to do, how could the first man and woman even know that it was wrong, if they did not have the knowledge of Good and Evil? Some argue that they offended God by disobeying the directive to leave that tree alone. But even in our less than perfect legal system we do not put people on trial if we know that they are incapable of knowing right from wrong. Wise parents do not punish children for making mistakes when they are too young to know the difference.

Wise parents also do not discipline when angry, and they try to match the severity of the offence with appropriate consequences. God in the story loses their temper, and sends enormous punishments flying out all over the place. All serpents are cursed because the woman listened to the one in the Garden. (At least this detail confirms that the serpent was really a serpent, and not a symbol for the Devil.)

This God says that woman’s pain in childbearing will be greatly increased. This is a curious curse, and a clue to us that the account is not be taken literally, since at this point in the story there has yet to be any child-bearing. The first man’s curse is that he will now have to work for a living, and eat by the sweat of his brow. That will be his fate until he dies.

This God makes clothes for the first man and first woman before ushering them out of the Garden of Eden, and into the cold hard world. Then this God says something I find very interesting- perhaps the most revealing thing in the story: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

Who is the “us” in the phrase “like one of us”? This sounds like a story about a god who knows they are not the only god.

This is one of the places where the Bible reveals itself to be a kind of library for stories and traditions which are much older than Israel, and the religion of the Jews. There is a hint here that some of this story came from a polytheistic religion, that had more than one god.

Most religious traditions have some kind of creation myth that addresses the questions, “Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is it all for?”  As people from different cultures met through trade, or travel, or war, they would exchange stories. Over time, the stories could move into the religious folklore of a people. They would be kept if they seemed to ring true in some way.

The story of how Adam and Eve come to leave the garden is not all that useful in explaining the origins of sin and evil in the world. Interpretations that blame Eve, and by extension, vilify all women, are offensive. But if the story does not explain our lot in life, it does offer a pretty accurate description. The story tells us that

there is pain from the moment of our birth, that we are called upon to make choices between good and evil, that we have to take care of the world, and work to feed ourselves, that none of us will live with forever and that even when we get in trouble, God is with us. Amen

Worship Service for June 6, 2021, and a note about the Kamloops Residential School

The worship service for this week was prepared and recorded 3 weeks ago, long before we heard the terrible news about the hidden, unmarked graves of at least 215 children, buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School, which was one of many facilities funded by the federal government, but operated by Christian denominations, for the purpose of assimilating children taken (often forcibly) from First Nations families and communities. This horrific practice led to many kinds of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse of children. Conditions at these residential schools were often far below standards that would have been acceptable if the students had come from white families. Tuberculosis was rampant in several of the schools, as was malnutrition. Children in some of the facilities were made subjects of “scientific” experiments, and treated as laboratory specimens. Many children died, and for years, survivors of these schools have told stories about their friends, whose remains were unceremoniously buried, with no markers, no documentation, and no effort made to to inform loved ones.

The board of Harrow United Church met online via ZOOM this week, and we discussed the news from Kamloops, and how to respond.

A motion was passed that going forward, we will begin our meetings, classes, worship services, and other church events with a land acknowledgement. I have accepted the task of finding/creating the wording that we will use.

This is a small step, but one we hope will have a lasting effect on how we look at our relationships with the peoples who lived on, and cared for this country long before colonizers and settlers from Europe and other places arrived.

Acknowledgment (a first draft)

Some First Nations peoples tell stories about Turtle Island, and use that name for what colonizers called North America. We live on Turtle Island, which in some stories is made of soil brought up from the depths of the ocean, and piled on the turtle’s back. It is a beautiful image, that points to the precariousness of life, and the care that must be taken, to protect and honour, and respect, all that lives.

Here are the words used by the Greater Essex County DIstrict School Board in its acknowledgement:

We acknowledge that we are on land and surrounded by water, originally inhabited by Indigenous Peoples who have travelled this area since time immemorial.  This territory is within the lands honoured by the Wampum Treaties; agreements between the Anishinaabe , Haudenosaunee , Lenni , Lenape  and allied Nations to peacefully share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.  Specifically, we would like to acknowledge the presence of the Three Fires Confederacy (Ojibwe , Odawa , Potawatomi  and Huron/Wendat) Peoples.  We are dedicated to honouring Indigenous history and culture while remaining committed to moving forward respectfully with all First Nations, Inuit and Métis.

“God loves each of us works in progress”

From 1995 to the year 2000 I served as the minister at a church in Old Walkerville, in Windsor.  Old Walkerville was originally a company town, built and owned by Hiram Walker and his family. They made their fortune in the distillery business, producing whiskey and other spirits. They owned the streets, all the houses, and even the generating station that provided electricity for the homes, and the street lights. They also employed the local garbage collectors, and a private police force that kept the peace.

It may not be a coincidence that the distillery, that is still operating today, was built on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, which forms the border between Ontario and Michigan, between Canada and the U.S. In the days of Prohibition, when the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States, that distillery produced a lot more whiskey than was sold on our side of the border.

Old Walkerville has a colourful history. It is no longer a company town. The city of Windsor took over the public services decades ago. The Walker Estate, which included the family mansion, is now a public park, and their home, Willistead Manor, is rented out for art shows, weddings, and other fancy catered events.  There are two churches very close to Willistead Manor.  One is Chalmers United Church, where I worked.

The other nearby church is Saint Mary’s Anglican Church. The Walker family built the church and gave it a lot of financial support. It was originally a Methodist church, but after 2 years it was close, and latered re-opened as an Anglican church. Community lore has it that the Walker family preferred the more lenient attitude of the Anglicans about the use of alcohol.

In my first year at Chalmers, which was a former Presbyterian congregation that became part of the United Church in 1925, I got to know an older man named Jerry. He came to see one day to ask if it would be okay if he came to church on Sunday.  When I assured him he would be absolutely welcome, he told me that years before, he and his family had been active in the church. They were living just down the street in one of the former company houses that Hiram Walker had built, long since sold to private owners, and Jerry worked at the distillery, helping to maintain the huge boilers.

Jerry had grown up in the church, and because he wanted the same upbringing for his family, he had volunteered first to teach Sunday School, and then to be the Sunday School superintendent. But when a new minister arrived on the scene, and learned that Jerry worked for Hiram Walkers, he had decided that Jerry could not be involved with the Sunday School, or any longer be an elder in the church. He was still welcome to attend, and make his weekly offerings, but he could not be seen as a leader.

Jerry and his family left the congregation. They went down the street to St. Mary’s Anglican Church, the one that whiskey built. He and his wife raised their kids in the Anglican church, and that was where Jerry stayed until a year or two after his wife died.  Then he began “keeping company” (Jerry’s way of saying living together) with a woman who was separated from her husband, and the Anglican minister told him that didn’t look right. So Jerry asked if he could come back to the United Church.

He wondered, and worried whether or not he and his new friend would be welcome. She had faced similar disapproving looks in her Roman Catholic parish, partly because her ex was still quite involved in the Knights of Columbus. He would have nothing to do with an annulment of their marriage, and certainly not entertain a divorce. Jerry and Margaret, these two lovely lost souls, cast adrift by their communities of faith, found their way into the church where I served, and were warmly received. Jerry and Margaret never did get married, but a few years later, when Margaret died, we had her funeral at our church, and Jerry sat in the front pew, with his children, and hers.

It is at times like that I am most proud to serve, and be a member of the United Church. It is sometimes said about us that we take anybody. I hope that this is true. Because I think that as far as we are able to be accepting and welcoming, we are being like Jesus.

Our Gospel story this morning is a great illustration of how God’s love can work its way into a situation, and bless and transform people, and relationships, even when from the outside looking in, there are plenty of reasons to write the people off as lost causes.

Jesus was visited a town called Capernaum. He is approached by some local Jewish leaders, who want a favour. They want Jesus to go to home of a Roman centurion, a military official, who was probably in command of the local garrison, and help one of his slaves, who was dying.

The Roman Empire controlled all of its provinces, and conquered lands, with a military presence. The Roman army had the job of keeping the peace, ensuring safe transport routes for trade, and enforcing the collection of taxes. As representatives of a foreign ruling power, they were often hated and feared.

This Centurion seemed to have a different reputation. The Jewish elders appealed to Jesus on behalf of the centurion, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

At first glance, the centurion reminds me of old Hiram Walker, who built a town and named it after himself, and who built a Methodist church, and then shut it down and turned it into one that better suited his purposes. These Jewish leaders sound like they are impressed with the wealth and power of the centurion.

“Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”

It is not the centurion’s power as a Roman military commander that impresses Jesus, or even the esteem in which he is held by the leaders of the local Jewish community. What Jesus looks for, and sees in the man, is his faith. Jesus looks under the surface, to see what is happening in the person’s heart and soul. Jesus looks for what is real.

Jesus’ willingness to look deeper can inspire us to do the same. We can notice that this Roman military officer had genuine compassion and concern for one of his slaves. We can also notice that he sought the help of an itinerant Jewish preacher and healer. Jesus’ reputation must have reached him. Perhaps some of his teaching has also reached him. He had reason to believe that Jesus would be willing to help a Gentile- a non-Jew.

We might also notice that the Roman centurion was able to recognize that as powerful as he was, he did not have authority over everything.  He was open to the possibility that a power greater than him had influence in his life, and in the life of his slave.

These are all ways to say that God was at work in the soul of this Roman centurion. He may have been one of the most unlikely people to be a follower of Jesus.

What does that say to us? I hope it is a reminder to us that our mission, as a community of faithful followers of Jesus, is not only to reach out to people who seem most likely to be hungry and thirsty for the Good News of God’s love. We are here to show God’s love, God’s encouragement, God’s acceptance, even to people who seem unlikely to want it, need it, or believe in it.

Every person is a child of God. Every person is also a work in progress. God finds ways to work within us, to help love grow. Our transformation, our re-creation may be mostly invisible from the outside, but that does not matter. God knows us from the inside, and God knows who we really are, and who we can be. Thanks be to God. Amen

Worship for Sunday, May 30, 2021

Learning Time: “The God Formula”

The big excitement in Kingsville these days is that we now have a Dairy Queen. I have cycled by it a few times, and there is always a long line of vehicles making its way through the drive-thru line.

Can you remember life before McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s, and Dairy Queen, and all the other franchises? I can’t, but I have heard stories about a time when all restaurants and coffee shops were not the same! Can you imagine?

Years ago I worked at a church in a neighbourhood called Applewood Acres, in Mississauga. One of their claims to fame was that a man named Harlan Sanders lived in the neighbourhood, at least in the spring and summer time, and when he was in town, came to their church. There are pictures of him, in his distinctive white cotton suit, sitting in his favourite pew, with his wife. They were active and committed Christians, having been baptized in the Jordan River in Israel. They were also friends with Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  

I wonder what he brought to their church potluck suppers. Harlan Sanders was the founder of Fried Chicken. When he came up with the secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices that made his chicken special, he was also breaking ground in the business world. The genius of what he did was to take a food item that was already popular, and common in the Southern U.S. States, and attach his name and flavour to it. If you wanted to sell the Kentucky Fried Chicken, you had to buy the essential ingredients from him. The person with the secret formula held a lot of power.

As Americans after World War 2 became increasingly mobile, and their interstate highways made travel that much easier, it was not long before it was possible to taste the same fried chicken wherever you went. Was this a good thing? People seemed to think so. It was certainly good for the Colonel, who had a piece of every bucket of chicken. He may not have invented the fast food franchise, but he certainly did well by it.

In the 4th Century after the time of Jesus, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Constantine, was establishing a different kind of franchise. He made Christianity the official religion. He built churches and cathedrals all over the empire, and formalized a hierarchy of priests, bishops, archbishops based on the command structure of his armies.

The Romans had used religion as a unifying force in their expanding territories for hundreds of years. Whenever they conquered a new land, they would allow the people to keep their local religions and customs, as long as they agreed to worship the Emperor as a god, and make room in their towns, and in their temples, for statues of the Roman gods.

What Constantine did was to take the fastest growing religion in his empire, Christianity, and make it the officially sanctioned faith. To control it, he had to get his hands on the secret formula that made Christianity work- the religious version of the herbs and spices.

Constantine sponsored what later became known as the Council of Nicaea, which brought together the bishops and archbishops, and other key figures in the church. Their job was to sort out the official formula about God.

In the first few hundred years after Jesus’ earthly life, there were a number of competing ways to think about Jesus, and God. Some Christians believed that Jesus did not die on the cross, that he was rescued by his disciples, and went on to live a long life.

Some Christians believed that Jesus was as human as you or I, and that his significance was not in being divine, but in being a person who was so connected to God that he helped others trust that God was real.

Some Christians believed that Jesus really was God made Flesh in the world, but that he could not have died on the cross, because God is eternal and immortal, and nothing humans could do should be able to change that.

Some Christians believed that Jesus existed before the world was made, and was there when all things came into being. In this view, Jesus really is God, but not the Creator. So did that mean that we have two Gods: God the Creator, and Jesus who came to be our Saviour?

It sounds odd to our ears, that Christians in the Ancient World were talking about having more than one god. But they lived in an environment where there were lots of other religions, and most of these religions had more than one god.

This was the problem that Constantine and his religious leaders faced. They needed to find a way to talk about God and Jesus that made Christianity palatable to the people of the Empire, who were used to whole teams of gods, but they also needed to maintain the basic belief that came from Christianity’s Jewish roots, that there actually is only one God, and all others are false idols.

The church leaders bought into this agenda for their own reasons, but Constantine’s agenda was also obvious. He wanted to use Christianity,with its message of only one God, to unify the whole Roman Empire. Religion was then, and remains, a powerful force with which to exert political control.

Trinity Sunday is the church’s occasion to celebrate the work of the Council of Nicaea, and subsequent councils, at which the official description of God was hammered out. The idea is that there is only one God, and God has what the theologians called three “persona”, which we translate as “persons”. I think we might understand the term “identities” easier. The three identities of God are God the Father, or Creator, God the Son, or Saviour, and God the Holy Spirit, who is also called the Comforter.

It was decided that Jesus was, and is, at the same time, completely human, and also completely God. Whatever you think of these ideas, they had a powerful effect on Christians of that time, and for centuries after. Once there was an official formula for talking about God, this formula became the measure by which all religious ideas were judged.

The hierarchy of the church developed a central authority- like the generals in an army. They had the backing of the Emperor, and they used the power of the Empire to wipe out any competition. Any priest, or bishop, or local church that had different ways of talking about God, or Jesus, were declared to be heretics. They were removed from the church, and could be jailed or killed unless they agreed to follow the official teachings. Whole libraries of books were burned, and lost forever, because they did not conform.

It is often said that history is written by the winners. That was also true for theology- for the official ideas about God. Constantine had the winning team, and the losers were called heretics.

The local congregations, and priests, and bishops that survived, were those that used the secret recipe from headquarters. Local variations on the recipe were not allowed. Before long, the same religious food was being cooked up all over the empire.

Was this a good thing? There are arguments to be made either way. The argument in favour is that Christianity needed a unified voice in order to be heard above the voices of the competition- all the other religions of the ancient world. The argument against is that a lot was lost when the local traditions and ideas and ways of expression were wiped out. Perhaps the greatest loss was a loss of confidence, that ordinary people in their own home towns and villages could have something to contribute to an ongoing conversation about the God we are all seeking. There is nothing so powerful as claiming to have all the answers, if you want to stop people from looking at the questions in their own way.

My personal view is that everything we say about God is poetry, not an exact science. Poetry thrives on mystery, and science is frustrated when it can’t answer all the questions. It is shameful that people were persecuted and sometimes killed because their words for God were different. I am convinced that living a faithful life, and building a connection to God, and being able to pray do not depend upon getting the words right. I also suspect that the effort to get the words right was basically a head exercise, and that in its reliance on the intellect, missed out on other ways of knowing God.

God gave us our minds, and our hearts, and our souls, and our full range of senses, and we can use these to become more aware of the ways of God.

Our experience of, and the impact of God, of the holy on our lives, is not easily boxed in by words. Once, when our youngest, Joel and I were out for a walk- Joel might have been 5 at the time, I noticed on the path ahead of us the amazing sky blue of a robin’s egg. I was about to point it out, but stopped myself as we got closer, and I saw that within the broken halves of the egg there was the tiny dark form of a partially formed bird, shiny and wet, and being devoured by insects.

In that moment when I realized what I was seeing, I experienced a powerful lesson about the beauty and brutality of creation- a lesson that I am still not able to put into words. There was life and death, beginnings, and endings, and new beginnings all painted into the scene.

What I saw spoke to my mind, certainly, but also to my heart, and in ways that touched my soul, that I can return to, just by remembering, and re-imagining the scene. I learned, and am learning, something deeper about God, and creation, that does not easily distill down to a few words.

Here is what I think about knowing God: Don’t let anyone’s words about God get in the way. Let the ideas about God be clues in your search, but don’t let anyone convince you that the ideas themselves are perfect, and should be worshipped. Save that for God. Amen