Prayer for Good Friday

Holy Presence.

Holy One.

You are with us.

In the face of pain, confusion, cruelty and death.

You are with us.

In the places we would rather not be.

You are with us.

In the situations we endure.

You are with us.

You bring peace.

You bring love.

You bring hope.

Even in the darkest places there is hope.

There is the flicker of hope.

Because you are there.

Help us to remember to hope, to remember you.

Help us to remember,

trusting that you have not forgotten us.

Amen

Practicing Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World

religion in canada

Based on 2001 Statistics Canada figures, if our country was made up of 100 people, 43 would be Roman Catholic.  2 would be Orthodox. 29 would be Protestant. (Of the Protestants, 9.6 would be United Church.)   2 would be Muslim, 1 Jewish, 1 Buddhist, and 1 would be a Sikh. About half a person would represent all other religions.  16 and a half people would have no identified religion.

We live in an increasingly diverse culture.  My children go to school with, and have friends, whose families came from places I had barely heard of, when I was growing up.  All we need to do is go for a walk in a mall, or turn on the television, or spend time on the internet, and we can clearly see that Canada is no longer the uniformly “Christian” country we used to imagine.

The fact of other religions can be both a challenge, and a blessing to us. The challenge is we may have to re-think our attitudes. The blessing is we may grow in understanding, not only of other religions, but of our own.

Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, sets out to build a bridge between an older paradigm of Christianity, and what he sees as a new paradigm, that is emerging in our time.

In the old paradigm, the approach to other faiths was often what Borg calls absolutist- affirming that Jesus was the only way.  Anyone not a Christian risked going to hell. That provided a powerful incentive to do missionary work, to convert as many people as possible, before it was too late. Figures like Saint Patrick were heroes of the faith for virtually eliminating the pre-existing non-Christian religions in their mission fields.  Borg reports the majority of Christians in North America no longer think this way- even though it is still the party line of some Christian denominations.

I think part of the reason for the decline in the absolutist, “my way or the road to hell” is education. The more we know about other people, and how their cultures have developed, the harder it is to defend the claim that we have all the answers, and everybody else needs to be more like us.

As we relate to people from other faith backgrounds, we are more likely to have our hearts opened. This is what happened in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the traveller was beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road, he was ignored and avoided by officials from his own religion, but helped by a stranger, from a different land, who practiced a different faith.

Maybe we are more like the traveller in the parable than we realize. I go to a lot of meetings where people sound pretty pessismistic, and I read a lot of material that suggests that Christian churches in our part of the world are done for. The picture is that we have been robbed of vitality, we continue to bleed members, that we are struggling on the side of the road, while other interests zoom past us in the race to capture the attention of Canadians. There may be some truth to this, but I don’t think that other religions are actually the problem.

My own experience is that I often feel I have more in common with kind people of other faiths, than I do with absolutist and arrogant Christians.  I have fond memories of friendship with a man named Kohtaro, a Japanese lay Buddhist monk. We studied together at a Quaker seminary in Indiana called the Earlham School of Religion. Kohtaro was a good friend, and a kind-hearted soul. We prayed together sometimes. He would sit quietly, chanting the words of a sutra, a Buddhist long prayer, and I would sit in silence, saying the Jesus Prayer to myself. He did not know my words, and I did not know his, but we each knew about the other that we were praying.

My memory of those Buddhist/Christian prayer times came back when I read a wonderful piece by the Roman Catholic Benedictine nun, Sr. Joan Chittister, called “Becoming Prayer”.

When we have prayed prayers long enough, all the words drop away and we begin to live in the presence of God. Then prayer is finally real. When we find ourselves sinking into the world around us with a sense of purpose, an inner light and deep and total trust that whatever happens is right for us, then we have become prayer.

When we kneel down, we admit the magnitude of God in the universe and our own smallness in the face of it. When we stand with hands raised, we recognize the presence of God in life and our own inner glory because of it. All life is in the hands of God. Even the desire to pray is the grace to pray. The movement to pray is the movement of God in our souls. (The Monastic Way, In My Own Words)

Marcus Borg suggests that each of the world’s enduring religions can be seen as sacramental, as helping grow closer to the presence of the holy. Just as the bread and cup of Christian communion are human products, that can point us toward God, religions other than Christianity also bring people closer to their conception of the sacred, the divine. The major religions of the world are different in their origins, their scriptures, the particulars of their religious practice, and their theology, but they also have five basic things in common.

1)     They all affirm that there is something “more”, and that the sacred can be known- “not known completely or exhaustively, but known in the sense of being experienced.”

2)     They all affirm a way, a path. “the way of Lao Tzu, the way of the Buddha, the way of Islam, and the way of Judaism all speak of the same path: the path to dying to an old identity and way of being and being born into a new identity and way of being.”

3)     They all offer practical means to travel on the sacred journey of transformation- practices of worship, rituals and prayer.

4)     With examples of saints, and with explicit teachings, they all “extol compassion as the primary ethical virtue of life. (The Good Samaritan could be Confucian, or Buddhist, or Muslim.)

5)     They all have collections of written words used to pass along their faith.

Borg says the fact that Christianity has so much in common with other major religions of the world actually gives our faith more credibility.  The something “more” that we experience at times, and yearn for at other times, is also known, and sought, by most other human beings on the planet. This can be an encouragement for us to grow deeper in our own faith, to become more mature in our relationship with God.

We don’t have to become scholars of all the world’s religions in order to have a life-giving, transforming relationship with God. The Dalai Lama was once asked by a Christian seeker whether she should become a Buddhist.  Borg paraphrased the answer given by the Dalai Lama. “No, become more deeply Christian; live more deeply into your own tradition.”

If we are living more in the way taught by Jesus, we are in a better position to be respectful of, and grateful for the insights and wisdom of other religions. We can also be better neighbours to people of other faiths, and recognize how they are neighbours to us. We begin to see that sincere people of other faiths are not our rivals, or enemies. They are actually our partners in bringing more people into the way of sacred living.

The whole point of religion is to become more centered in the one to whom our particular tradition points to, in whom we live and move and have our being. As followers of Jesus, we say that it is God. A Jew does the same with the framework of their tradition, as does a Muslim, or a Sikh, or a Hindu.  The differences are so much smaller than what we share in common. As Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma once said,

“If a man reaches the heart of his own religion, he has reached the heart of the others too. There is only one God, and there are many paths to him.”

This suggests that the way for us is to dig deeper into our own faith. From the beginning of our exploration of Borg’s book, the Heart of Christianity, we have been hearing him tell us in many ways that the emerging paradigm of our faith is less about having the right ideas in our heads, and agreeing to the correct beliefs, and more about opening our hearts, and living the faith, experiencing it. Borg writes that the practice of faith includes “all the things that Christians do together and individually as a way of paying attention to God. They include being part of a Christian community, a church, and taking part in its life in community. They include worship, Christian formation, collective deeds of hospitality and compassion… devotional disciplines, especially prayer and spending time with the Bible. And they include loving what God loves through the practice of compassion and justice in the world.”

In the weeks following Easter we will begin another series of teaching Sundays, called “Acting Out for Jesus”. They will be based on the lectionary readings from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, that describe events in the life of the earliest Christian movement after the earthly life of Jesus.  We will look at some of the practices that formed and sustained these early followers, and which can make a difference in our own faith lives today. Amen

 

Sin and Salvation: Transforming the Heart

Years ago I was part of a continuing education course at the University of Toronto. The teacher was a Presbyterian minister named John Bryan, and the topic was appropriate and effective use of power. I learned important things in that class, and still occasionally look back at my notes. But as sometimes happens, the biggest insight I gained was not part of the formal presentation. In one of the last classes, Dr. Bryan reflected on what he looks for when he attends a church. He said the most important thing was the reminder that God loves him, and there is nothing in all the mistakes, and mis-steps, and confusion of life that can change that.

While I rode home on the GO train that evening, I looked around at my fellow commuters, and wondered, “Do they know how much God loves them? How would their lives be different if they did?”

While on that train I wrote the first draft of the assurance of God’s love we have often said in worship. I have been using it for almost 12 years. Some of you seem to know it by heart. I start with, “Let us say these words that each of us need to hear”, and you join in with the response:

God loves me.
God has always loved me.
God will always love me, no matter what.
My sins are forgiven, and I am loved by God.

I have not included it in the service lately. I very much agree we all need reminders of God’s love. I have not been using because it is there is so much more to our relationship with God, and so much more to say about God’s love, than can be expressed in terms of sin and forgiveness. As Marcus Borg says in this week’s chapter of The Heart of Christianity, “When sin becomes the one-size-fits-all designator of the human condition, then forgiveness becomes the one-size-fits-all remedy.”

Borg offers a good illustration. Visiting a church, he had “just preached a sermon on the “closed heart” and our need for an “open heart”. In the pastoral prayer following the sermon, one of the clergy prayed, ‘We ask you, O Lord, to forgive us our closed hearts.” Borg thought to himself, “Well, okay, but it misses the point. If we have closed hearts, we don’t need forgiveness as much as we need to have our hearts opened.”

Abraham Kaplan was a Ukrainian born son of a rabbi, who became a teacher and philosopher. He formulated the law of the instrument, which he expressed this way: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

I can definitely relate. Two summers ago I borrowed a compressor and an air-powered hammer from a friend, to use while installing baseboard and coving in our house. There are places where I can still see the damage I did, in my enthusiasm to use the “big gun”, where what was needed was something more gentle, more subtle.

The sin and forgiveness talk that dominates many churches can be like using a hammer, when perhaps another tool would be better.

Of course we need to be reminded that forgiveness is part of how God loves us. But there is a lot more to be said. Imagine it this way. What if every time I want to tell my son, or daughter, or my wife that I love them, I say, “I forgive you!”? My guess is that this would fit less than 1 percent of the time. In those times when it is needed, there may be nothing more important than to say and hear the words, “I am sorry,” and “I forgive you.”

But for all the other times I want to show my love, it is about appreciating them, encouraging them, blessing them, cherishing them, praying and hoping for good things for them, comforting them, helping them, letting them know how much they mean to me, and how much better my life is, because they are in it. Often my expressions of love go beyond words, beyond the action of forgiving. My expressions of love include providing shelter, and sustenance, and good and interesting things to do, and life lessons, and laughter, and smiles, and hugs, and tears. Forgiveness only comes into it if a wrong has occurred, or pain has been caused, and we need to get past the hard feelings.

If I said, “I forgive you” every time I wanted to say I love you- people I love might end up feeling they were always in the wrong, always being judged, and they could never do or be anything except in need of forgiveness. There is so much more to relationships than this! After a while, the words “I forgive you” would cease to communicate my love. Those well intentioned words would end up feeling like hammer blows, pounding down the human spirit, and leaving the person broken, bruised, and miserable.

There are churches, past and present, and preachers, well acquainted with the wielding of this heavy duty hammer. There is a particular way of being Christian that seems to be mostly about sin and forgiveness- getting saved. As Borg says, in this kind of Christianity,

“Sin is the problem from which we need deliverance. It is commonly understood as the reason for Jesus’ death: he died for our sins. Indeed, in many forms of Christianity, we could not be forgiven if it were not for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Sin is thus the reason for the incarnation. If we had not sinned, Jesus’ life and death would not have been necessary.”

When we hear the word sin we may think about actions or thoughts that show us to be breaking the rules, being bad. Another nuance is something called “original sin”- the idea that because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, we are all somehow tainted, and need to be washed clean. These notions of sin fit with the judgement/forgiveness model of our relationship with God. The problem of sin fits with the tool available, the hammer of forgiveness.

But do these ideas of sin, either that we broke a rule, or that we are tainted with original sin really address all the situations humans find themselves in?

Our Old Testament reading this morning is part of the story of the Hebrew people on their long journey away from Egypt, and towards the Promised Land. God sent Moses to lead the people to a new life. The solution to their problem of being slaves in bondage was not forgiveness, but the hope of liberation.

In the kind of Christianity that places almost total emphasis on our sinfulness, and our need to be cleansed, the word salvation is used in a fairly limited sense, to mean whether or not we are personally “saved”- whether or we have accepted Jesus as our personal saviour, and have confidence that we will go to heaven when we die.

As Borg says, “Ancient Israel’s story is a story of the creation of a new people, a nation, a community. Salvation is about life together. Salvation is about peace and justice within community and beyond community. It is about shalom, a word connoting not simply peace as the absence of war, but peace as the wholeness of a community living together in peace and justice. Salvation is never only an individual affair in the Hebrew Bible.”

Borg looks carefully at the word salvation. “The root of the English word is helpful. It comes from a Latin word that means “wholeness” and “healing” (the same root from which we get the word “salve,” a healing agent). In its broadest sense, salvation thus means becoming whole and being healed.”

Salvation is about God’s dream that we embrace the love we are offered, and live transformed lives. Borg points to some beautiful metaphors for salvation that appear in the New Testament, in which Jesus shows us that God’s love is about far more than judging and forgiving us.

For those who feel caught in darkness, Jesus is the light of the world.

For those who are spiritually hungry, Jesus is the bread of life.

For those who are thirsty, Jesus is living water.

For those who feel lost, Jesus is the way.

For those who feel estranged, or cut off from life, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.

For those seeking re-birth, Jesus is the path of dying to the old life, and rising to the new.

For those seeking healing, Jesus is the one who makes us whole.

For those longing to live in God’s presence, Jesus is the new temple.

The parable we heard this morning about the Prodigal Son contains many of these aspects of salvation. It is a story about a person who tries to make their own way in life, and gets confused and lost. He wanders into darkness, and ends up feeling alone, and afraid, and ashamed. He is physically and spiritually hungry, and longs for re-connection to his family and community. He tries to plan out what actions and words might end up restoring his life, bring him back from the living death which he can no longer endure. Ultimately salvation is found in the love of his father, who does offers him forgiveness, but far more than that.

The prodigal is embraced in the arms of love. He is kissed and shown compassion. His old clothing is stripped away, and he is dressed in clean garments. There is a great celebration, with food and drink, singing and dancing. The community gathers to welcome him home. At the end of the story the father explains that the prodigal “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Thanks be to God. Amen

Thin Places: Opening the Heart

There is more to life than what we can normally see. In our heart of hearts, we know this to be so, or we at least hope this is true. When our hearts are heavy with sadness or grief, or buzz with confusion, or when we feel the need to cry out our pain, our anxiety, our desire for relief- we cry it out to that greater reality. In times of great elation, when our hearts jump for joy and sing with gratitude- we are singing and dancing towards that greater reality.

Thomas Merton said:  “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows (God’s) self everywhere, in everything- in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without (God). It’s impossible….” (Merton quoted in “The Heart of Christianity”, by Marcus Borg)

This week’s chapter of The Heart of Christianity is called “Thin Places: Opening the Heart”. As  Carl Petter Opsahl, the Norwegian jazz clarinetist and ordained minister noted in the video, Celtic Christianity speaks of places where the line between divinity and humanity is very thin. Opsahl deliberately looks for thin places in his urban setting.

Sylvia Maddox, a retreat leader from Texas says, “There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.“

There is more to life than what we can normally see. We rely on poets and prophets, artists and mystics to point us toward the “something more”. In an article written in 1928, Mohandas Gandhi, also called Mahatma, or Great Soul wrote:

There is an indefinable mysterious Power that pervades everything.
I feel It, though I do not see It.

It is this unseen Power which makes Itself felt and yet defies all proof,
because It is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses.
It transcends the senses….

That informing Power or Spirit is God….
For I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth, truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.


Hence I gather that God is Life, Truth, Light. He is love.
He is supreme good.
But he is no God who merely satisfies the intellect
If He ever does.

God, to be God must rule the heart and transform it. (Young India, October 11, 1928)

A travel writer named Eric Weiner, asked a good question in a New York Times article about thin places, and then began to answer it for himself: (http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html?pagewanted=all)

If God (however defined) is everywhere and “everywhen,” as the Australian aboriginals put it so wonderfully, then why are some places thin and others not? Why isn’t the whole world thin?

Maybe it is but we’re too thick to recognize it. Maybe thin places offer glimpses not of heaven but of earth as it really is, unencumbered. Unmasked. “

Is it the world that needs to be unmasked, or is it something about us? As Borg discusses in this chapter, a lot depends upon the condition of our heart. “The heart, the self at its deepest level, can be turned toward God or away from God, open to God or closed to God”.

We do not see clearly when our hearts are closed. In our own world, we miss a lot. A closed heart lacks gratitude. If successful in life, a person with a closed heart often feels self-made and entitled. If life has gone badly, they feel bitter and cheated. A closed heart is insensitive to wonder and awe. The world looks ordinary.

The closed heart is an image for our human condition. Borg describes the closed heart as a natural result of growing up. As we develop self-awareness there also comes an increasing sense of being a separated self. It is as if we live within a transparent, but tough shell that separates us from others. For those who knew a chaotic childhood or radical instability the shell may be even harder.

A closed heart forgets God. It loses track of the Mystery always around us. A closed heart lacks compassion. Compassion is the ability to feel the feelings of another at a level lower than the head and then to act accordingly. A closed heart can be charitable but does not feel the suffering of others. A closed heart is also insensitive to justice.

We need our hearts opened. In the Bible the open heart is a symbol of renewed life with God. Psalm 51 says, “ Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

In Ezekiel, God speaks these words through the prophet, “ A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

In a thin place, something happens to us. The presence, the power, the love, the mystery of God breaks through, not only into our world, but through the hard shell we may have around our hearts. The something that happens is a touch of God’s grace. A writer I mentioned earlier, Sylvia Maddox described a moment in which she found herself at a thin place.

“As I set out on a solitary journey for Columba’s Beach (on the Island of Iona), I could feel the presence of all those who had gone before me in their quest for a greater vision of God. Wandering over the mountains and the valleys, I suddenly realized I was lost and a long way from my destination. The mystery of the thin place was already revealing itself to me. The outward journey was mirroring my inner journey. I was lost but not afraid. There was a peaceful presence in the eternal rocks that seemed to offer me shelter and guidance. As I stood on the pebbled beach, the waves of the ocean seemed to whisper Jesus’ words,” I am with you.” (http://www.explorefaith.org/mystery/mysteryThinPlaces.html)

In the gospel story we heard today, the disciples who climbed the mountain with Jesus experienced him, or the situation, perhaps both, as a thin place. They felt and saw the glory of God. The way they later told the story involved his clothes glowing white, and important figures from the religious history of Israel appearing. Whatever we make of all of that, we get the message that the disciples, experienced in there time with Jesus a powerful, life-changing encounter with the power and mystery of God.

The thin place does not actually have to be a place. A person, like Jesus, or Gandhi, or you or me, can be a thin place, for others, if God is shining through. Poetry, visual art, especially photography, literature, dance, music, drama, movies can all be thin places, “in which the boundary between one’s self and the world momentarily disappears.”

Many people experience worship as a thin place, especially the music, and often the sung hymns. In our church we name both baptism and communion as sacraments- things that we do with the belief that these actions are a way to be in touch with the grace of God. The things we say in a service, such as the creed, or the Lord’s Prayer, “can become a thin place as we join ourselves in the sound of the community saying these words together.”

Our exposure to thin places may help us lower our inner defenses, and allow God’s love to work within our deepest selves. I have been learning some Christian practices, that are about making space for God in our lives. I have felt renewed in my own life, and in my work as a minister, to see what centering prayer, journaling, spiritual direction, group bible study, silent retreats, and other practices can do, to help the shell around the heart crack, to allow the light of God to shine.

When our hearts are more open, we can see God, in our own lives, and in the world around us. An open heart is more alive to wonder. An open heart knows radical amazement. An open heart and gratitude go together. We can feel this in our bodies. Borg says, “In the moments in my life when I have been most grateful, I have felt a swelling, almost a bursting, in my chest.” I recognize what he is talking about.

An open heart also feels the suffering and pain of the world and responds to it. Jesus said, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” As Borg says, “the Christian life is about the ‘hatching of the heart,’ the opening of the self to the Spirit of God”.

This chapter about thin places and opening the heart ends with a beautiful prayer from the journal of Dag Hammarskjold, a Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations:

Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;

Humble hearts, that we may hear you;

Hearts of love, that we may serve you;

Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you. Amen

The Heart of Justice

The Kingdom of God; The Heart of Justice

On our Florida vacation we visited one of the big theme parks. It was a great place for people watching. When you spend a half hour, or forty five minutes, or longer, waiting in a line for a theme park attraction, there is little else to do, but observe the interesting variety, shapes and sizes and ways we have, of being human.

I noticed something happening inside myself while waiting in line. Confronted with people from different places, and ethnic backgrounds, and to some extent, social and economic standing, the first thing I tend to notice is the differences. I might tell myself I am seeing how people are different from each other, but on a deeper level, I also pay attention to how people are not like me. I also look to see if there is anyone around who is like me. I play a bit of “them and us”.

Maybe it is a leftover trait from earlier times. Our ancestors banded together into extended families or tribes for protection from other groups that might covet the food or water or shelter they claimed for their own use. Members might dress alike, or do their hair in similar ways, or wear markings that identified them as part of one group, and not part of the other. That’s why sports teams, and armies wear uniforms.

When I was relaxed and patient, and feeling okay about waiting in line, the differences amongst people were interesting, actually kind of entertaining. At times when I was losing my patience with waiting, or when my feet hurt, or I was hungry or thirsty, I was less entertained. Then I might begin to notice how some people’s behaviours were annoying. Maybe they were speaking loudly, or to my mind, rudely. Maybe they were being unkind to their kids, or people nearby. Maybe they were eating loudly, or drinking, or smoking, and subjecting others to second hand smoke. Maybe they just looked not merely different, but weird to me.

My attitude about people’s differences changed depending upon on how I was feeling, and whether or not I felt like my needs were being met. Like my need to get to the head of the line!

I also noticed that if a child became upset, or someone needed help, another shift happened inside me. I began to be able to care about these folks I did not know. Once I saw a child escape from the attention of its mother, and begin to wander, and my “dad” instincts kicked in. I broke out of my invisible cocoon to talk to the mom, and point to the child. That led to a little conversation about who was from where. Compassion overcame the barriers that separated us, and we became something other than strangers, we became fellow travellers.

In this week’s chapter of The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg says that the United States is the most individualistic culture in human history. I don’t think we are much different in Canada. Emphasis on individual responsibility, and the belief that we are masters of our own lives, the product of our own efforts leads us to ignore the web of relationships and circumstances that shape our lives, and make them possible. We buy into the idea that we are self-made, self-sufficient, and tend to live in self-serving ways.

This self-centered way of being is encouraged by a certain kind of Christianity, that focuses on personal salvation. When the emphasis is on what each person must do to ensure their place in heaven, there is little attention given to how things are going on earth. In this paradigm of Christianity, God’s justice is seen as only being about how we are judged by God for our sins, and God’s mercy is only about God’s forgiveness. This narrow, and distorted conception of God’s passion for justice does not encourage us to go beyond our individual concerns. It discourages faithful people from talking about politics, or trying to fix our broken system. It skips over the words of Old Testament prophet Micah, who when asked what God requires of us, answered, “to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)

Another author, an evangelical Christian named Ron Sider, in a book called “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”, told the “Parable of the Ambulance Drivers and the Tunnel Builders.”

A group of devout Christians once lived in a small village at the foot of a mountain. A winding, slippery road with hairpin curves and steep precipices without guard rails wound its way up one
side of the mountain and down the other. There were frequent fatal accidents. Deeply saddened by the injured people who were pulled from the wrecked cars, the Christians in the village’s three churches decided to act.

They pooled their resources and purchased an ambulance. Over the years, they saved many lives although some victims remained crippled for life. Then one day a visitor came to town, Puzzled, he asked why they did not close the road over the mountain and build a tunnel instead. (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger Word Publishing, 1997, pp. 223-224).

“Ambulance drivers” try to respond to the needs that they see. “Tunnel builders” try to address what causes those needs to arise in the first place. The picture Marcus Borg paints of Jesus is that he was as much a tunnel builder as an ambulance driver.

Central to Jesus’ teaching were the words “Kingdom of God”. We use that metaphor every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. ”Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” Kingdom is a political word. Jesus could have spoken about the community of God or the family of God. Those images would express how we are all connected. But Jesus used the word “kingdom”, in a time and place in which kingdom meant very specific things.

Jesus was a Jew born into poverty in Palestine, a state controlled by the Roman Empire, which ruled through military might, and with their puppet Jewish King, Herod. Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God in ways that were at odds with life in the kingdoms of Herod and Caesar. Under Caesar, ordinary people had no voice in the way things worked. They were ruled by the monarchy and a powerful aristocracy.

Ordinary people were exploited for their labour in a system in which 90 percent of the people were poor. 1/2 to 2/3 of the wealth produced ended up in the hands of the wealthiest 1 to 5 percent of the population. Poor people had much harder and shorter lives than the wealthy elite.

The religion of the Roman Empire proclaimed Caesar was a god on Earth, who ruled by divine right. In places like Palestine, the Roman occupiers kept the local religion in place, and used the figurehead king, who already had the blessing of the local religion, to run things for them. This perpetuated the idea that the way things were, was the way the gods had created them to be. To question the authority of Herod, or his Roman bosses was not just treason, it was also heresy.

When the Jesus movement began to grow and thrive, it became common for people to declare “Jesus is Lord”. To our ears this sounds like an expression of piety. In places under Roman control, this was also a political statement, because “”Lord” was one of the titles of the Roman emperor. To say that Jesus is Lord was to say that Caesar is not Lord.
On coins, and on the inscriptions on statues and public buildings, Caesar was also referred to as the “son of god”, as “savior”, as “king of kings” and “lord of lords”. Caesar was also credited for having brought peace to the earth.

When the writer of Luke’s Gospel told the story of the birth of Jesus, they included a declaration of the angel to shepherds, amongst the poorest of the poor, that contained direct challenges to Caesar. “To you is born this day a Saviour, who is the Christ, the Lord… who will bring peace on earth.”

For a follower of Jesus to say in Roman times that Jesus is Lord, is like Christians in Nazi Germany saying, Jesus is mein Fuhrer, and therefore Hitler is not. Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God were a radical critique of Caesar’s earthly kingdom.

With the exception of Jerusalem, Jesus avoided cities, which were home to the wealthy and their servants, and the small middle class of merchants and traders. Jesus spent his time in the villages and towns of the rural countryside, where he lived with, and spoke with, and shared meals with peasants. Many of them lived hand to mouth. They sought work each day to earn the money to feed their families.

We don’t have to look any further in Jesus’ teachings than the Lord’s Prayer, to see the passion for justice. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. “In other words, “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.” The way things are under Roman rule is not how God wants them to be.

“Give us this day our daily bread” reminds us of our daily dependence upon God, but it also comes out of the peasant’s daily experience, their struggle to find enough to eat each day.

The next part of the prayer, depending upon which version we read, is about the forgiveness of sin, or the forgiveness of debt. There is spiritual value is praying for forgiveness of sin, and it is important to connect that to our capacity to forgive others.

To pray the other version, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” speaks to the situation of the peasants, many of whom had lost or were losing their homes, or the small parcels of land their families had held. When they had nothing left that could be foreclosed on, many ended up being sold into indentured labour, virtual slavery.

The Lord’s Prayer we say so often, without really considering its justice dimension, can be heard as a rallying cry for social change. A call for a more just system, in which there would be fair access to food for all who are hungry, and a way out from under the crippling burden of debt. It is no wonder that in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua, priests and ministers, missionaries and nuns who taught ordinary people to pray this prayer, and to study the words of Jesus were called dangerous revolutionaries.

For those of us who are to some degree removed from those daily survival issues, the political, justice seeking aspect of Jesus’ message may seem less relevant. But for Jesus, the two halves of the message; the need for each of us to be transformed, to become a new person, and God’s desire that the kingdoms of this world reflect real love and real mercy, are inseparably linked. Our spiritual well-being depends upon the well-being of others. The work for justice in our world needs to be rooted in our awareness of God’s love for us, and for every other person. We really are all members of God’s family, fellow citizens of God’s kingdom. Amen

Jesus: The Heart of God

I want to play a song for you. Johnny Cash is covering a song written by the 1980’s electronic band Depeche Mode. Their songs often use religious images, but they usually have a fairly dark tone to them. Even when Johnny sings it, you can hear a bit of cynicism. Play the video:

None of us would be gathered here, if it wasn’t for Jesus. As Marcus Borg says in this week’s chapter of his book “The Heart of Christianity”, it is through Jesus that his followers learn of the character and the passion of God. Jesus is what makes Christianity distinct from other religions.

Borg is careful, and I am with him on this, to say the unique role of Jesus as the person who reveals God to us, makes Christianity different, but not necessarily superior to other ways of knowing God. Borg quotes a man named Krister Stendahl, a New Testament scholar and bishop in the Church of Sweden who said we can sing our love songs to Jesus with wild abandon without needing to demean other religions.

The exclusivist view- that Jesus is the only way to know God is often combined with a way of seeing God built more on fear than love. The teaching that faith in Jesus is the only possible way to avoid God’s wrath is almost always built on a narrow literalist way of reading the Bible.

When the life’s work and teachings of Jesus were boiled down to a few phrases about believing in him, or going to hell- it made faith much easier to teach- and easier for some people to accept. It was essentially not about life here on earth at all- only about what happens when we die. This is important, and grows more important to us as we get older- but does not do justice to most of what Jesus actually said-which was more about living in the here and now, than in the hereafter.

A religion that focuses on the ultimate fate of souls, can co-exist within any culture, any political regime, any economic system, because it has been tamed- domesticated. More like a de-clawed, neutered tabby cat that can’t scratch up the furniture, and has no particular desire to go outside- than like a mighty lion whose roar can wake us up, shake us up.

Critics of the modern church sometimes point to Sunday Christians, and call them hypocrites because they go to worship God on Sunday, and then for the rest of week act like they themselves are the centre of the universe. Faith for Jesus was not just about whether the individual soul was right with God. It also had to do with how people lived each day, and how they regarded their neighbours, and whether justice, fairness, and compassion were evident in their daily affairs.

The glimpses we have of Jesus as a person come from the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These were all written between 30 to 70 years after Jesus’ earthly life. They were not written as objective biographies. They were written to convey the significance of Jesus- the effect he had on the people who knew him.

Jesus is a name we use to refer to the historical person. The word ”Jesus” is our version of an Aramaic name that would have been written down in an alphabet that did not use vowels. The actual name is more like “Yeshua” or Joshua.

Christ is not a last name. It’s a title, and one that Jesus would not have recognized. The English word “Christ” derives from the Latin version of another Greek word, “Christos”, which means something like “anointed one”, which was the closest the Greeks had to the Jewish word “Messiah”.

I think of it as what happens when you throw a rock in a pool of water. You see the ripples long after the rock disappears. The Gospels tell us something about the ripples. The “Jesus of History” is the rock, and the “Christ of Faith” is like the ripples, the effect of Jesus, and the efforts made to understand him. Everything we have about Jesus was written, not during his earthly life, but in the years that followed his death. None of it would likely have been written, or kept as long as it has been kept, except that after Jesus’ death, something mysterious happened.

This “mysterious something” is what we call the Resurrection. Jesus raised from the dead. These were the words gospel writers used to describe the ripples, the impact Jesus had. They needed to find a way to make sense of two confusing things. The first was that Jesus was falsely accused of crimes, and violently killed. The second thing is that this did not seem to stop him. In the decades and centuries that followed, the struggle to make sense of these two things led to the development of the idea of the “Christ”, that Jesus was actually not just an ordinary human, but actually God.

This has been the big question about Jesus- was he human, or divine? If Jesus is fully human, then he knew the same challenges and joys in life that we know. He knew about fearing death. He knew about being lonely. He knew about the body getting sick, and aging. On the other hand, when we feel that we need to be rescued from trouble, from being lost in the darkness, from facing mystery all by ourselves, then Jesus as fully divine is very appealing.

But if Jesus is an all powerful God, then why is there still so much loneliness, and fear, and suffering, in our world? Jesus has left a lot for us to do. A lot more than just repeating a simple prayer and saying that we believe. My own personal Jesus is probably more on the human side of things. If Jesus is human, then the way of living he was teaching is something that we can actually follow.

Another classic question is about where God lives. In formal terms theologians talk about God as transcendent, or God as immanent. In other words, is God above and beyond the world we live in, or is God in our midst, where we live? If God is mostly outside the world and away from us- then we need Jesus to be more like God, to be our go-between. If God is with each of us, then Jesus can be more like us, and we can strive to be more like Jesus.

These two classical questions, and the extreme answers, fit for me into a visual image. We can use the cross. The top of the cross is God way above us. The bottom of the cross is God completely in the world. One arm of the cross is Jesus as human- suffering and striving like us. The other arm is Jesus as divine, with powers beyond our imagination. For me the truth lies near the middle of the cross, where God is both out there and right here, and where Jesus is somehow human like me, but more than me. That’s as close as I can pin it all down. In the center of the cross, and in the heart of our faith, there will always be mystery.

But even with the mystery, there are some things to say about Jesus. In “The Heart of Christianity” Marcus Borg points to five important aspects of Jesus as an actual person.

Jesus was a Jewish peasant, who grew up in a rural village in Galilee. His family was not wealthy, and probably never owned land. Their country was dominated by a foreign power that did not understand their faith, but used it to control the people. Jewish religion in Jesus’ time was run by officials who were under the thumb of the Romans.

Like many of the prophets from earlier times, Jesus was offended by the abuse of power by religious teachers. He saw them use talk about holiness to shame people, and keep them afraid.

Jesus was a spiritual seeker- a mystic. He spent time in the wilderness seeking a connection to the God that the keepers of the Temple tried to franchise and market. He found God everywhere he looked. God deep inside himself, and God in the people he met. God in creation. God in the possibility of life being different. His purpose in life was to help others know the presence, the power, the love of God.

Jesus offered healing to sick and hurting people. He challenged the politics and economics of the time he lived in, because the system was designed to make a small few very wealthy, at the expense of the poor and powerless.

Jesus taught about prayer, and about faith, but mostly outside the doors of the temple. He spoke to the people who were not welcome at formal religious services. He spent time with diseased people, the homeless, with prostitutes and with collaborators, that class of Jewish people who made their living doing the dirty work of the Roman rulers.

Jesus brought the radical message that the God of the Universe loved every person with equal passion, and that human ideas about one person being better or more deserving than another were ridiculous. There were people who loved what Jesus had to say, and the window he opened for them to bask in the light of God’s love. People were willing to drop their old lives and leave everything behind to follow him.

There were also people who were profoundly disturbed by what Jesus represented. If Jesus was right, and all people were equal, and equally loved by God, then the whole religious and political order could fall apart. The powers that ran the show in first century Palestine had Jesus killed. Charges were trumped up, he was arrested. There was a mockery of a trial, and then Jesus was put to death, by crucifixion, the Roman method of capital punishment as a deterrent to going against their system.

But that was not the end of the story. If it were, we would not all be in the same room this morning, gathered in the spirit of Jesus, seeking the same connection and closeness to God that he taught about more than 2000 years ago. Amen

God: The Heart of Reality

We are continuing our teaching times based on chapters of “The Heart of Christianity’, written by Marcus Borg. Last week I introduced a metaphor that Borg calls the “ongoing conversation”. Humans have always been in this conversation about faith. Even though people may drop in and drop out, the conversation goes on. The questions and answers change over time, as do our ways of expressing ourselves- but at heart it is a conversation about God, and how humans relate to God. Each person, each generation, each culture brings different words and concerns to the conversation.

The emerging paradigm of Christianity says documents gathered in the Bible came from communities that were engaged, as we are, in this ongoing conversation about God. The writings in the Bible naturally reflect how the people in these communities thought about God and how they understood the world around them. It turns out that how we understand the world has a major influence on how we think about God.

There are people who hold a religious view of the world, and those who have a non-religious worldview. The religious worldview says there is more to reality than can be seen. There is a non-material layer or level to reality, that depending upon where you are from, gets called God, the Spirit, the sacred, or Yahweh, or the Tao, or Allah, or Brahman or Atman- there are many different names.

The non-religious worldview says there is nothing more to reality than what we can see and measure. The universe is made up of matter and energy, and everything, including our thoughts and feelings can be explained as the interaction of matter and energy. This view is a product of the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth century, when scientific observation and theory began to displace religion. Science emerged as a way of looking at the world, that had little interest in anything that could not be measured or proven. This kind of viewpoint does not easily take into account the life experience of people who have visions, dreams, mountain-top moments, encounters with mystery that change their lives.

Borg makes the interesting point, that on the edges of post-modern science, there are theoretical physicists who now say the only way they can imagine, to explain how the universe works, is that there are fundamental processes that underlie the whole of reality, that take place outside of space and time. In other words, there must be something more.

I watched an interview yesterday on a CBC podcast. Jian Gomeshi, the host of the show “Q” talked with Colonel Chris Hadfield, of the Canadian Space Agency, who is currently living on the International Space Station. It was fascinating to watch him let go of the microphone, and see it just hang in the air.

It was also quite inspiring to hear Colonel Hadfield reflect on the meaning of his experience in space. He said, “Living in space is just a constant rush of stimulation… there is all this stuff going on, and its only when you float over to the window and pause for a second, and look at the huge impermeable permanence and beauty of the world that’s underneath you, this great reassuring wonder of it, and it makes you thoughtful, to combine the high paced action that we are doing on board with this magnificent planet that is out the window at all times. “ (from an interview on “Q”, January 25, 2013)

Hadfield’s words brought to my mind the words of an author named Frederick Buechner, who encourages us to open ourselves to the way that God speaks to us in the events of our daily lives:

“Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.”

I just loved hearing an astronaut reflect on beauty and reassuring wonder. There is so much more to life than science. When I was very young, the Soviets and Americans were competing for supremacy on earth and in space. Propaganda out of the Soviet Union, officially an atheist country, said that none of the cosmonauts who left the earth had ever seen God.

Those barbed comments were targeted at anyone who still believed in things they could not see. They were also aimed at a particular cosmology, or understanding of the universe, that sometimes gets called the three layer cake model. We live on the middle layer of the cake. Below us is the underworld or hell, and above us, above the atmosphere, and the dome of sky that holds the stars in their places, there is heaven.  This was how most people in the ancient world pictured things, including the people who wrote the Bible. It is hard to know for sure if they really believed it, but that was their poetic way of describing the universe. So far none of the cosmonauts and astronauts who have slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the sky have cracked through the dome to get to an actual physical place- a heaven where God lives.

A lot of religious thinking, especially amongst Christians in the last couple of hundred years has depended upon this placing of God in a slightly out there place- not quite with us in our world, but also not too far away- our prayers still have to be able to reach wherever God is. We talk about heaven, and often look vaguely upward when we do. But it is extremely hard to reconcile this idea of a supernatural God figure who lives somewhere, with all that we are learning about our solar system, our galaxy, the universe. Where is the where, where God is?

Marcus Borg points to two ways of imagining God that are present in the Bible. The one I have just been talking about is what he calls “supernatural theism” that conceives of God as a personlike being, that exists “out there”. Borg says when people come to him and say that they simply cannot believe in God, it is generally this kind of God that they have rejected.

There is another way of imagining God, present in the Bible, and in sacred texts of other religions. A technical term for it is “panentheism”. God is imagined as a spirit that encompasses everything that exists. Our world, our solar system, our galaxy, the entire universe exist in God, rather than separate from God. Pan means “everything”. En means “in”. Theism comes from the Greek word for God, “theos”.

I have mentioned before my admiration for the music of Bruce Cockburn. I want to play one of his older songs for us now. It comes from 1976, and it is called “Lord of the Starfields”.

In the Book of Acts, Saint Paul is said to describe God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” God in all things. Not God really far way, out there somewhere, somehow beyond space. If we can imagine God in all things, perhaps we can begin to imagine that God is in us, in our lives. Amen

Talking about the Bible

This is one of a series of videos about twin boys, Sam and Ren. Their parents make them available on YouTube.

It is human nature for us to talk with each other. We gather information, share thoughts, argue, and test new ideas on each other. We express feelings, pose questions, praise, protest, pray, and otherwise prattle on. From a very early age, we are doing the formative work of making sense of life, ourselves, everything, in conversation.

Imagine you have walked into a room full of people, who are engaged in a lively conversation. You know some of them, but other faces are new to you. A few people nod hello to you, but are quickly drawn back into the discussion that was happening before you came in. You see a few people leave, and another person come in, and you get the idea that this conversation has been going on for a long time, and that people come and go, but the conversation carries on. You are interested in what they are all talking about, and you find that you have opinions you want to share. You dive in with a question. Someone answers, and then someone else asks you a question. You begin to reply, and someone interrupts you, with a differing view point. The person beside you agrees with your position, and leaps to your defense. Before long someone makes a point that takes the discussion off in another tangent. You are enjoying the stimulating dialogue, and are learning a lot, and find it hard to believe that hours have passed since you came in the room. As you excuse yourself, and bid the room good night, someone else enters and takes your place. There is no sign that the conversation will be slowing down any time soon.

Marcus Borg used this metaphor of an unending conversation in his book “The Heart of Christianity”. He borrowed it from a scholar of culture and language named Kenneth Burke. It applies just as well to the ongoing exploration of how we relate to God, and how we live with each other. Borg wrote his book to encourage us to take part in the very large, ongoing conversation about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Borg borrowed the metaphor from something published in 1941. I re-wrote the illustration to bring some of the language up to date. I was tempted to change the image from a large room to an online chat. I spent time on Facebook yesterday, engaged in a lively conversation with some American friends about faith-based approaches to gun control in the United States My teenaged daughter stays connected with her friends in ways I would never have dreamed of- sometimes using her phone to text, while at the same time talking with people using Skype.

Technologies change. Cultures change. Jesus taught with examples involving vines and yeast and houses built on sand. In our day we talk about the internet and viruses and condos and timeshares. People came to Jesus with problems such as whether or not they should pay their taxes to Rome, or make ritual sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. Interpretation is required to make sense of what they are talking about, to see whether it has meaning for us.

Today we are looking at Borg’s chapter about the Bible. He begins by saying that the Bible is at the heart of Christian tradition. The Bible points us toward God, and is centred on our relationship with God. It is possible to know God in other ways, but for those who wish to follow Jesus, the Bible is a necessary voice in the conversation.

Sadly, there are many times when the Bible is wielded like a blunt instrument, that actually brings the conversation to a stop.

The Bible, or rather, how the Bible is used by some, is a major stumbling block that prevents many people from taking Jesus seriously. Borg talks about the older paradigm of Christianity teaching that the Bible is infallible, and an accurate source of historical, geographical, medical, even astrophysical information. There are at least two major difficulties with these claims. The first is that they don’t really hold up under scrutiny. If we set the Bible up in competition with science we come out the losers. The second problem with presenting the Bible as something like an encyclopaedia is that it misses the point of what the Bible actually has to offer.

When one person, or group decides that they have all the answers, and they know what is true for all people, in all times and places, that is pretty much the end of conversation. We have all met people like that, I am sure. People who either have all the answers, or they want to convince you, or themselves, that they do. I heard a psychologist say that a fanatic depends on the absolute truth of an external authority. They gain credibility, by attaching themselves to that authority. They get to say they are right, because they can quote the truth as they have been given it. This seems to be to be more about power than faith.

My impression of Jesus is very different. I have this impression that Jesus actually listened to people. I have the sense that Jesus looked at people with love, and hopefulness. Jesus was about helping people, rather than showing them how right he was.

My motivation for teaching from Borg’s book, is to help us continue the conversation about faith, in a world that could really benefit from Jesus’ message of unconditional, freely offered love. Borg believes there is an emerging paradigm of Christianity, that helps us use the Bible in ways that will draw people into the conversation, rather than silencing them, and pushing them away.

The emerging paradigm has recovered the understanding that the Bible is not actually a book, but actually a collection of documents produced in two different religious communities. Ancient Israel produced the Old Testament, and the early Christian movement was the source of the New Testament. These documents were not written with the idea that they were sacred scripture. Individuals in faith communities wrote down stories, and poems, and prayers, and letters, and ethical statements, and lists of rules and laws, and words of wisdom. These writings reflect the spirit of the ongoing conversation in these faith communities, about who is God, and who are we, and how shall we live in response to our awareness that God is with us?

The documents preserved in the Bible give a sense of how some of our spiritual ancestors viewed their relationship with God. We can follow the story of how they heard God speaking to them. We can also take advantage of what has been learned by historians and archaeologists, and other scientific researchers, to place their spiritual insights into an historical context. It is helpful to know a bit about how the Roman Empire controlled the territory in which Jesus lived and taught, to gain a deeper understanding of what he had to say about paying your taxes to Caesar.

It took over five centuries for the religious leaders of ancient Israel to settle on which documents would be collected as sacred scripture. It took most of 300 years for the early Christian movement to make similar deliberations about which documents they should preserve and copy and share, and which they should not. The generally accepted list of which documents are included in the Bible is called “the canon”. There are small differences between the scriptural canon of the Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Protestant churches. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also called the Mormons, has a whole other volume that they consider to be sacred. There are also some who question whether the canon was ever officially closed. Some people think that the Letter from Birmingham Jail written by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would make an appropriate addition to the worldwide conversation about life with God.

We began today with the image of an ongoing conversation. That image, or metaphor, is a teaching tool. We use metaphors to help each other think in new ways. We use metaphors to get across ideas that we believe are meaningful, helpful, important. I don’t think it takes away from the usefulness of the metaphor to say it is just a story- and it did not actually happen as I described it.

The emerging paradigm of Christianity is far more open to the reading the Bible metaphorically- seeing the point of a story, truth that does not depend on the factual, historical, scientific accuracy of the story.

Today’s gospel reading may be a good example. We heard about Jesus making a lake crossing with some disciples. Stormy waves threatened to swamp their open boat. “The disciples went and woke Jesus, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

If we read the story simply as history, and limit our discussion to whether or not Jesus would actually have fallen asleep in the boat, and whether or not he could actually do anything about the storm, we could easily miss the point. Why would the early followers of Jesus tell this story? Why was it passed on, person to person, and then later preserved in writing? What does the story have to say to us? How does it point us towards God?

We don’t require personal experience of crossing open water in a storm, to know that life can be hard, and at times frightening. A small sinking boat is an evocative metaphor for the trouble and confusion we sometimes find ourselves in. The story continued, “Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement the disciples asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

With such excellent questions, the conversation goes on. Amen

Group Spiritual Direction

Growing in Faith Journey Group: An Introduction to Group Spiritual Direction

 Rev. Darrow and the Trinity United Christian Development Committee are offering a special learning opportunity for the Lent/Easter season:

 Monday evenings, 7 pm to 9:30 pm,  from February 25 to March 25

 Learn about, and experience Group Spiritual Direction, a powerful way to grow in our walk with God, and to be of help to others.

Group spiritual direction is a process in which people gather together on a regular basis to assist one another in an ongoing awareness of God in all of life. They are seeking support for their responsiveness to God and they agree to support others in that same responsiveness. Three conditions are essential to the life of the group. Members must agree to:

  • commit themselves to an honest relationship with God
  • to participate wholeheartedly in the group process through prayerful listening and response
  • to open their spiritual journeys for consideration by others

(This description comes from Rose Mary Dougherty, on the website of the Shalem Institute.)

http://www.shalem.org/index.php/resources/publications/pamphlets-on-spiritual-direction/group-spiritual-direction-what-is-it

 Enrollment will be limited, so please speak with Rev. Darrow if you think this may be for you. You do not have to be a member of Trinity to take part in this group. It is helpful to have an active connection with the faith community of your choice, as you live out the first condition for involvement in this class, which is commitment to an honest relationship with God.

Faith

I want to play a video of a song that is stuck in my head. It is from 1966, and this version is by the Monkees, but it was actually written and first recorded by Neil Diamond. It has been recorded by many different groups, and a version by Smashmouth was used in the movie Shrek. It’s called “I’m a Believer”.  Play video clip.

 My daughter Naomi and I are revising lyrics for this pop classic, with the hope that the youth choir at St. Paul’s can add it to their repertoire. We are following in the great tradition of people like Martin Luther, the German reformer whose efforts led to the founding of the Lutheran Church, and John and Charles Wesley, who started the movement that became the Methodist Church. They were known for taking music from popular culture, like drinking songs from the neighbourhood pub, and turning them into hymns. (I have not mentioned the drinking song part to my daughter.)

Most good hymns are love songs, and many popular love songs are not far from being hymns. “I’m a believer” contains a few lines we will keep in our version, because they point to things that are true whether the relationship being sung about is with your romantic partner, or with God.

I thought love was only true in fairy tales,
Meant for someone else, but not for me
Ah, love was out to get me,
That’s the way it seemed,
Disappointment haunted all my dreams.

The singer yearns for the connection to their beloved. They experience disappointment along the way. They worry that their long search, their journey will be fruitless. But for some reason they persist, they don’t give up. The pilgrimage, the quest, the long search is finally rewarded.

Then I saw her face,
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind,
I’m in love
I’m a believer,
I couldn’t leave her if I tried.

I appreciate the connection between doubt and faith, although I think it is a bit overstated. I think that for most of us, the desire to believe, and active, curious, sceptical doubt can co-exist. We don’t know things for sure, but we don’t let that stop us from living, and loving.

My two favourite lines in the song are: “ I’m in love, I’m a believer “.

I mentioned that the song was written by Neil Diamond. I don’t think he has any particular training in theology, or the history of Christianity. Even so, his song reminded me of the book, “The Case for God”, in which Karen Armstrong, the British historian of religion, discussed the meaning of the word “belief”.

“Originally the Middle English bileven meant ‘to love; to prize; to hold dear’; and the noun bileve meant ‘loyalty; trust; commitment; engagement.’ It was related to the German liebe and the Latin  libido (“desire.”) “(From the Glossary of The Case for God, p.370)

She went on to say that when translators worked on the first English versions of the Bible, they used the word belief or faith almost interchangeably. But in our modern world, we no longer do that. Over time the understanding of the word faith has moved from being a heart thing- what you love, to a head thing- what you agree with.

In the early church, converts were not taught the creeds, the ideas about God, until after they were baptized. You joined the community of the faithful first, and then learned the fine points of the teachings. In recent years we have tended to do the exact opposite- confirming people as members only after teaching them our ideas about God, and asking them to agree.

Here is part of Armstrong’s description of how people joined the church in 4th century Jerusalem, under Bishop Cyril:

 “the ceremony of baptism took place in the small hours of Easter Sunday morning in the Basilica of the Resurrection…..

“When the ceremony began, baptismal candidates were lined up outside the church facing westward, in the direction of Egypt, the realm of sunset and death. As a first step in their reenactment of the Israelite’s liberation from slavery, they renounced Satan. They were then “turned around” in a  “conversion” toward the east- to the dawn, new life, and the pristine innocence of Eden. Processing into the church, they discarded their clothes, symbolically shedding their old selves, so that they stood naked, like Adam and Eve before the fall. Each mystes (candidate) was then plunged three times into the waters of the baptismal pool. This was their crossing of the Sea and their symbolic immersion in the death of Christ, whose tomb stood only a few yards away. Each time they were pulled underwater, the bishop asked them: Do you have pistis (faith) in the Father- in the Son- and in the Holy Spirit? And each time, the mystes (candidate) cried, “Pisteuo!”: “I give him my heart, my loyalty and my commitment!”

In his book “The Heart of Christianity”, Marcus Borg discussed what Christians have traditionally had in mind when they used the word faith.  The first is called “Assensus”, and it seems to be the prevailing, or most commonly held idea about what faith is.

To “assent” to something is to nod your head, to agree that something is true. It is fairly easy to assent to simple, “concrete” facts, but much harder when it comes to more complex or abstract ideas.

How many here would agree that I am holding up five fingers? (The only debate here might be whether or not the thumb counts as a finger.) How many here would agree with the provincial governments approach to solving labour disputes? (This kind of issue requires us to bring facts, opinions, feelings, principles into the discussion.)

One of the difficulties with the “assent” model of faith is the idea of “truth”. We live in a time when the prevailing idea of “truth” is that something is true, only if we can show it to be true.  2+2= 4  We can prove it. The mathematical or scientific model dominates in our world today. Everything has to “add up”. Statements are either proven or unproven, true or false.

This understanding of truth sets up a real problem for religious people. There is so much in Christianity that we cannot prove: God created the world.  God cares about each of us. There is purpose and meaning in life for each of us. Jesus came to teach us about God. We may find meaning in these statements, but we can’t prove them to be true.

Marcus Borg taught religious studies at a college in Oregon. Many of his students think that believing is what you do when you aren’t sure or don’t know. There are some things you can know, and other things you aren’t sure about, so you have to say you believe them.

This sets up knowing and believing as opposites. It also leaves no room for doubt. If along with this notion of faith a person also has the idea that faith is a requirement in order to qualify to be “saved” or loved by God, then you either have to believe, or you are doomed. Doubt then becomes a dangerous sin. This is a shame, because doubt, or openness to questions, is a healthy part of a spiritual life.

Many people end up rejecting the kind of faith that means that they cannot ask intelligent questions, or express doubt. The other weakness in the idea of faith as “assent” is that you can agree in your head with all the “right” ideas, and still be living a miserable life. What’s in your head can be totally separate from how you live, and what’s in your heart.

Borg describes three other ways of talking about faith that are more about being in relationship.

Faith as Fiducia:  Fiducia is the latin word for “Trust”. This does not mean trusting in the truth of statements about God- it is about placing trust in God. The opposite of this kind of trust is anxiety, or worry.  The relationship with God is in some ways like a relationship with a friend or partner. Trust is something that grows over time, and has to be exercised. There is always risk in trusting.

 Faith as Fidelitas: Fidelity.  Often at weddings I remind the couple that they are promising before God and their family and friends that they will love and honour their partner from this day forward, whether or not they feel like it. This kind of faithfulness is a conscious, lived commitment- a daily, hourly decision about who we are as a person. This kind of faith is only real if we live it out.

 Faith as Visio: This is faith as vision, or a way of seeing. Borg suggests that there are 3 basic ways to look at reality.

  1.  Life is short, cruel, painful, and then you die. This view of life is self-fulfilling prophecy. If you only look for bad, you will surely find it.
    1. The universe is indifferent. It is energy and chemical reactions. Nothing really matters, and nothing really has purpose. Your life may mean something to you, but that’s about it.
    2. 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.

This third way of seeing life is faith as Visio- living with a vision for life. Believing that God is the source of life, and living and dying, we are always with God.

Borg suggests that a fuller understanding of faith requires all these aspects. We assent to certain ideas or propostions about God. We place trust, or Fiducia in God. We make conscious choice to give God our fidelis, our loyalty. We embrace a vision or way of looking at life that is brighter because God and God’s love are part of the picture.

Borg concludes his chapter on faith by saying that faith is about love. “The Christian life is as simple and challenging as this: to love God and to love that which God loves. “

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment he said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

 As Borg says “To believe in God is to belove God”. Amen