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.)

 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.


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




The Heart of Christianity

At Trinity United Church in Oakville, we have begun an experiment- a congregation-based study of the book “The Heart of Christianity”, written 10 years ago by Marcus Borg. Each week I am basing my “Teaching Time” on a chapter of the book, and then after the worship service, those interested in further discussion are invited to the choir room for a “talk back” session.

I have realized when I have offered other educational opportunities in the past, that not everyone who might be interested in the subject, is able to attend a mid-week class. I also believe it important to engage as many faithful people as we can in what Borg calls the “unending conversation”, a metaphor for the ongoing process of wrestling with, and sharing our faith. Borg actually borrowed the idea from an American intellectual who wrote about language and culture.

The Unending Conversation

(from the Philosophy of Literary Form, by Kenneth Burke)

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

I think it is healthy to think about theology as a conversation, rather than as a collection of “truths” that we must accept and swallow without question, like a handful of foul tasting “pills” that someone says are good for us.

In a companion guide to “The Heart of Christianity’, my colleague Tim Scorer, a United Church educator from British Columbia describes three aspects of the “unending conversation” into which we are invited:

We receive what we have been given, what has been passed on to us. We
interpret our faith, in light of life in the world we live in. We allow the
faith we have been given to have its own voice in our current world.

On the companion site to this blog, I have posted my first two “teaching times” in this series. The introduction to the series is called “They grow up so quickly”. The second one is called “Old Paradigms and New Paradigms”. You can look at these by following the link below to “Sharing Bread Along the Way”.


Old and New Paradigms

Our gospel story today was about the Magi, mysterious wise men from the East, who venture far from home, to follow a sign in the sky, a star they believe will lead them to a child born to be the king of the Jews. It is a great story. I am glad that we heard it today, as we set out on something of a journey ourselves. For the next 3 months, we will work our way through Marcus Borg’s book, “The Heart of Christianity”.

This is a journey of exploration and discovery. It is a journey into what may be, for some of us, a strange place, beyond what is familiar to us. It may feel like we are going beyond our comfort zones. Perhaps the magi can serve as our models.

Over the centuries, many details have been added to the original Bible story about the Magi. We don’t know how many of them made the journey.  The idea of three comes from the number of gifts. Our tradition says three, and calls them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, but those names were added to the story sometime around the 6th century.

Syrian Christians name the Magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. In Ethiopia, the Magi are called Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while Armenians call them Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma.  Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China.

There is no mention of the Magi once they leave Mary and Joseph and the baby, and head home a different way to avoid King Herod. Many traditions built up over time to continue their story. Some believe that the Magi continued to travel for many years, and that they met up with the Apostle Thomas while he was on his way to India, after the first Easter, Thomas baptized them, and that they later became bishops.

Another tradition says Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine found their buried remains, and had them exhumed, and brought to Constantinople. Later the bones were moved again, to the Shrine of the Three Kings at the Cologne Cathedral. According to tradition the remains of each Magi were carried on a different boat, which is reflected in the old carol “I saw three ships come sailing in”.

I think part of the reason the story of the Magi has been embellished, and had layers built up on it over the centuries, is that it was of tremendous symbolic importance to the early Christians.

Epiphany, the name for the day when we tell the story of the Magi, is not a Bible word. It has its roots in the Ancient Greek words epi which means upon, and phaino, which means shine or appear. It was used to describe the sun’s appearance at the dawn of a new day, or revelation or manifestation of God to a worshipper, which is also called a theophany.

The celebration of Epiphany highlighted the idea that the message of God’s love as we learn it through Jesus was not just for the Jews. The image of these holy ones of another religion bearing gifts for the newborn Jesus was taken to mean that Jesus’ message is God’s gift to all people, and needed to be shared. The image of the star appearing, and being understood by people who did not grow up in the Jewish religion, said that God’s light and love is shining for us all.  In Jesus’ time, and in the centuries after, missionaries took up the work of passing on the message of God’s love.

As members of a faith community, that is what we are about, passing on the message of God’s love, to people, and to a world, that needs to hear it. Part of our challenge is to sort out how to express the message in ways that can be heard, and taken to heart.

In the late 1980’s I studied at a Quaker seminary in Southern Indiana called the Earlham School of Religion. There were students from many different denominations, and theological backgrounds. I was considered an international student, because I had come all the way from Manitoba.

I remember the curious looks I sometimes I got when I parked my little blue Chevy Chevette on campus. More than one under-graduate student asked where Manitoba was, and I would carefullu explain that Manitoba was a newly independent state, in the Balkans. They should come and visit our beautiful country! (The sad thing is, I think about half of them believed me! Does that make you wonder if you should believe what I say?)

In my first year I shared a house with a man named Jotham, from Kenya. He had served as a pastor for many years, and came to the United States to get his degree, so he could begin training other pastors to serve the 20 small villages that were his responsibility. He made the rounds to see his people on his bicycle. Jotham told me when he was growing up, there were no Kenyan pastors. All the Christian preachers and teachers were missionaries from England.

Jotham’s earliest impressions of Christianity were of being made to wear socks and shoes, and a dark suit, and a little bowler hat, to attend worship at 11 am, outdoors, under the heat of the African sun. His sisters had to wear long dresses, and bonnets, and little white gloves, because that was proper Christian attire.

Jotham’s family did what was expected of them, even though they had no use for those fancy clothes at any other time, except on Sunday morning, because they respected the missionaries, and believed that they were doing good in their village. But Jotham never really saw the point of those heavy dark clothes on those sweltering Sunday mornings.

More than 40 years later, Jotham could see the missionaries brought a whole lot more with them than the message of God’s love. They brought their Western European, British culture, with all of its ideas and biases about propriety, and class, and social status. “God Save the King” was as much a part of their Sunday School lessons as were the teachings of Jesus. Being a good Christian meant accepting your place in an empire under the rule of a distant monarch. It meant buying into the not-so-subtle belief that white English people were naturally superior to people of Jotham’s village, who needed to be saved from their heathen ways.  Presumably wearing socks and shoes and a bowler hat were outward signs of having been saved. The message of Jesus was embedded in a culture.

Years ago Desmond Tutu, Nobel laureate, and former Anglican Archbishop of Johannesburg was speaking about the legacy of the missionaries in his country. He said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

God was at work, even so. In spite of all the cultural baggage, and the racism, and the political agendas at work when the Europeans carved Africa up into colonial possessions, the liberating message of God’s love still spoke to the people. Desmond Tutu said, In the Bible, we first encounter God when God sides with a bunch of slaves against a powerful Pharaoh, an act of grace freely given.

Tutu has also said that he reads the Bible every day and recommends that people read it as a collection of books, not a single constitutional document: “You have to understand is that the Bible is really a library of books and it has different categories of material,” he said. “There are certain parts which you have to say no to. The Bible accepted slavery. St Paul said women should not speak in church at all and there are people who have used that to say women should not be ordained. There are many things that you shouldn’t accept.”

This is pretty close to one of the first points that Marcus Borg asks us to consider in his book. The Christian faith is passed along person to person, generation to generation. But not everything that gets passed along is the good news of God’s love. People take the message, but they interpret it, and they choose what they will teach, based on their worldview.

A worldview, or paradigm, is the set of experiences, beliefs, and values we carry inside of us, that affect how we see things. In the worldview of the missionaries in Jotham’s village, proper footwear and hats were seen as essential. It was also essential to teach Jotham to speak English, because that was considered more civilized, and therefore more Christian. Jotham’s challenge as he grew up was to hold on to heart of Christian message. You might say he needed to hold on to the baby, and not be afraid to pour out the bath water.

Our challenge, as Marcus Borg sees it, is to discern and cherish the heart of Christianity. To do this discerning, we may have to look closely at how much of what we accept as part of Christian faith is actually part of an older worldview or paradigm that may not be as useful or relevant in our time.

Borg ends the first chapter with an emphasis on the need to enter into what he calls an unending conversation about our faith. A man named Tim Scorer, who has a written a study guide to Borg’s book suggests that this conversation has three aspects to it. We receive what we have been given, what has been passed on to us. We interpret our faith, in light of life in the world we live in. We allow the faith we have been given to have its own voice in our current world.

Borg identifies 4 basic questions as major areas for conversation in a time of changing paradigms, that we will look at as we make our way through his book:

The Bible’s Origin: Is it a Divine Product, or a human response to God?

Interpreting the Bible: Do we read it as literally true, or do we allow that it could also be metaphorical?

The Function of the Bible: Does it reveal God’s final word on issues of faith and morality, or can we see it as part of an ongoing human effort to know what the Spirit of God is saying to us?

Christian Life: Is it all about believing and doing what is needed to get saved, so that we will go to heaven, or is it about an ongoing, transforming relationship with God in this life?

I have a few copies of Borg’s book left if anyone wants to buy one. I will be around at coffee time after worship so we can talk. I am looking forward to this ongoing conversation.

“They grow up so quickly…” (Jesus grew up, and so must we, and so must our faith!”

9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

I often read those lines from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians at weddings. You might think it’s because of the famous words in this poetic passage about love. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” That’s good stuff, but the actual reason is the part about the movement from childhood to adulthood.  “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

I appreciate the reminder that there is a maturing process going on in life- or at least, there is meant to be. None of us speaks or reasons the way we did when we were children. As we live, we gather new information, and we gain experience. Our families, our friends, the community and country we live in, and our culture all contribute to our thinking, and influence our way of seeing things.

The reason I like to read this at weddings is I want both parties to the marriage to bear in mind that their partner is not a finished product. Each person will grow, and change, and learn along the way. We are all works in progress.  That reminds me of the t-shirt that was popular a few years ago, that bore the words, “Be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.”

 The Gospels offer us only two stories about Jesus before he grew up. The one we did not hear is about Mary and Joseph bringing him to the temple when he was just a few days old, to offer the ritual sacrifice  of two doves, which is what jewish religious law required when a couple had a baby boy.

The other story about Jesus as a child is the one we heard today. Mary and Joseph lose track of Jesus for three days, and then find him in the Jerusalem temple, in deep discussion with the teachers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Jesus said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

As the father of an adolescent, I can appreciate how Mary and Joseph might have been feeling at that moment. Relief the child was safe. A certain pride to see how clever he is, that he can hold his own in discussion with the religious teachers. Maybe also exasperation at his response.

“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

To me, with my twenty-first century parent’s ears, that sounds a bit like, “Well duh, as if you couldn’t figure out where I would be!”

As a parent, I would hope and pray that the child will continue to learn and grow, and that eventually, qualities like consideration, and respect for the feelings of others would catch up with the other, more advanced personality traits. But God was not finished with him yet. Jesus, like all of us who live on this earth, was a work in progress.

This would not be the last time that Jesus was in energized discussion with teachers at the temple- although, as a grown up, what often seemed to be happening was that religious teachers would ask him questions to try to trip him up, to discredit him. On one of those occasions, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, an expert in the law tested Jesus with this question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus was quoting the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, that contains laws passed down from the time of Moses, about how to be a faithful follower of God. Jesus might have easily suggested that these kind of religious conversations he had in the temple, were actually a way to love God, by exercising the mind, and heart, and soul.

Let’s go back for a moment to the couple that is getting married, and hearing these words:

9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

I also want them to hear the phrase, “for we know in part”- in other words, we cannot claim to know everything. Part of what it means to learn and grow, and progress through life, is that we keep learning. So there must be more to learn!

In our human relationships, like marriages, there has to be room to learn and grow. In our relationship with God, there has to be room to learn and grow.

I spend quite a bit of time with people who might describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”. Often what they mean by that is that they have a sense of God in their lives, and they pray, and believe there is more to life than meets the eye, but they don’t go to church. If you ask them what bugs them about church, here are some likely answers:

Christians are close-minded and judgemental.

Christians take the bible literally, word for word.

Christians believe the world was created just a few thousand years ago, and that dinosaurs are an evil hoax.

To be a Christian you have to choose faith over science, and turn your mind off. Questions and doubt are bad, you just have to nod your head and go along with what you are told.

Christians hate anybody who is different from them.

Christians believe that there is only one way to know God, and that if you are not a Christian, even if you lived before Jesus was even born, or in a place where he has never been heard of, it is God’s plan that unless you accept Jesus, you are going to hell.

I don’t believe any of that stuff. I often meet people who have these ideas about Christians, and the church, when someone in their family dies, and they want to have a minister help with the funeral, but they don’t want a lunatic to come in and smack all their friends over the head with a Bible. I have some friends who are funeral directors, and they call me in these situations, when the family is clearly seeking hope, and comfort and meaning, and are fearful that they may not find it from the church.

I am convinced that many of us who go to church have bigger hearts, and a much more inclusive, and compassionate, and intelligent faith than we are given credit for, by people outside the church. Part of the problem is that we have to develop new ways to talk about what matters to us.

We need to exercise our hearts and minds and souls in religious conversation, like Jesus did at the temple. We need to continue to grow and learn, and to embrace the reality that God is not finished with us yet. We don’t know everything we need to know!

With the blessing of the worship committee, we at Trinity are going to do something a little different for the next little while. There is a book called “The Heart of Christianity”, written by Marcus Borg, which is a good discussion starter for conversations about faith. Starting next week, I will be using the teaching or sermon time to talk about a chapter of the book. The point is not to convince you to agree with the author- but to get you thinking, wondering, exercising your own heart, mind and soul.

You don’t have to read the book to follow the discussions, but if you want to, I have some copies available for purchase. I bought them at a bulk rate, so they are a little cheaper than if you went to buy one at Chapters.

After the worship service starting next week we will have a “talk-back” time. We can go to the fellowship hall, grab a coffee, and then sit together and dig a little deeper into what we have heard. I will take notes during those conversations, and if there are things I need to say more about, they will appear in my online blog, or in the next sermon.

My hope is that it can be a kind of new year’s resolution to spend some time this year learning and growing in our relationship with God. Amen

Great Big Love

“Great Big Love” by Bruce Cockburn (from “Nothing but a burning light”(1991)
Evening sun slants across the road
Painting everything with gold
I’m headed for home, got a woman there
I can barely wait to hold
Got wind in my hair, got the heat inside
Heart jumping up and down
An empty head and a messed-up bed
I’ll be floating just above the ground
Great big love
Sweeping across the sky
Seen a lot of things in the world outside
Some bad but some good stuff too
Felt the touch of love in the works of God
And now and then in what people do
Never had a lot of faith in human beings
But sometimes we manage to shine
Like a light on a hill beaming out to space
From somewhere hard to find
Great big love
Sweeping across the sky
I ride and I shoot and I play guitar
And I like my life just fine
If you try to take one of these things from me
Then you’re no friend of mine
Got a woman I love and she loves me
And we live on a piece of land
I never know quite how to measure these things
But I guess I’m a happy man
Great big love
Sweeping across the sky

Great big love sweeping across the sky”. That’s a great image. There are times when looking at the beauty of the sky, especially at sunset, is all the proof I need that the universe, this world, and all of us were made on purpose- how could all that beauty be an accident? It is love, beauty, the creative energy from God that actually makes life possible.

In two days it will be Christmas Eve, and many will gather to sing carols and hear the story of the birth of Jesus. It is a story of which we do not tire. We hear and feel new meaning in it each time. Given the events of recent weeks, I am touched again by the vulnerability of the child born while the parents are on the road, far from home. No attending physician, no birth coach, no midwife. No soft lights, warm blankets or soothing music. No furniture. Just straw, and a manger. Cold wind whistling in through cracks in the stable walls. Pungent smells from animals who made the place their night time home.

Every baby, when they are growing within their mother, and when they emerge from that place of floating safety, needs to be loved. They need to be held, and washed, and soothed, and kept warm. They soon need to be fed, and burped, and held until they fall into sleep.

Not every baby is surrounded and nurtured by that kind of love. Some babies do not thrive, because they are not properly cared for. Some parents lack the means, some lack the will, or the example, to care for the new born.

Life is fragile. We are born so dependent on others. We get older, and we develop the illusion of self-sufficiency and independence. We come to believe that we can get by more on our own. Which is okay, as long as we do not get so full of ourselves, that we forget that as we needed help, others still need our help.

Earlier this month, the pastoral care team at Trinity hosted the annual Christmas luncheon for the seniors group we call Trinity Young at Heart. Musical guests, the Harptones, provided wonderful Christmas music, and invited us to sing along. My son Joel, who studies harmonica with their leader, joined the group for the day.


Between carols, I read portions of the Nativity Story from Luke’s Gospel. Near the end of the program, we offered an opportunity for each person to place a special ornament on our Christmas tree, in memory of a time, or place, or person they will think of over the season.

Some, but not all those who placed an ornament on the tree are at times quite lonely. Some, but not all these folks do not have family to share Christmas with, or family may be too far away for a get together. Some, but not all of these people have trouble getting around, and might not get to another celebration of Christmas.

When I reflected on the luncheon, and the program, I felt thankful that it went so well, and grateful that I could be part of it.  I realized that while we were there, being present for other people, and hopefully, shining some of
God’s love into their lives, I was not at all worried about the economic recession, or the value of my retirement fund, or even if I have finished all my Christmas shopping. It was like looking up at a sunset, and seeing the great big love of God. Amen