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W is for Waiting

steampunk letter wDec 23, 2019 4th Week of Advent – Day 23 of the Advent Alphabet

W is for waiting. How many sleeps until Christmas? Advent is a season of waiting.

When we were children we may have anxiously waited for a special gift on Christmas morning. With the passing of years, material gifts that once seemed so important come to matter less and less, and the meaning and affection behind them matters more and more.

What are we really waiting for? What do we actually hope for?

At church these past few Sundays we’ve lit candles on the Advent wreath, signifying Hope, and Peace, and Joy, and Love. Each of these are gifts more precious, more vital, more necessary to our living than any material object I can imagine giving or receiving for Christmas.

What do you hope for? What do you really need? What are you waiting for? You may not actually know.

For two years I studied, lived, and worked with Quakers, members of the Christian denomination also called the Society of Friends. Quakers talk about prayer, especially silent prayer, as “expectant waiting”- waiting upon God with faithful confidence that God is present with us, and God knows what we need.

My hope for all who read this letter, is you may find time in the midst of the busy-ness of the season, perhaps while you are waiting in line, or in traffic, to pray. Open yourself up to God, if only to ask if there is something important for which you should be waiting.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. http://www.harrowunited.org/ Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

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V is for Virgin

Letter-V-Tattoo-35-on-neck

Dec 22, 2019 4th Week of Advent Day 22 of the Advent Alphabet

V is for Virgin. A word that carries overtones of sexuality, judgement, and codes of purity, that almost always apply more to women than men. In the western world at least, there is no time of year we hear that word more often than in the season leading up to Christmas.

          “Silent night! Holy night!

           All is calm, all is bright

           round yon virgin mother and child.”

Did you know that Jesus’ virgin birth is a tenet of Islam? The Quran consistently refers to Jesus as “Son of Mary”.

According to Matthew and Luke, Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, without having had sexual intercourse with Joseph. Mark does not mention Jesus’ birth or the early years before his public ministry. Instead of a birth narrative, John’s Gospel has the famous “in the beginning was the word” passage, a poetic description of the presence of “the Word” with God when the world was being created.

The oldest parts of the New Testament, predating the Gospels by at least a generation, are letters from Saint Paul. They don’t discuss Jesus’ life before his public ministry, and offer no hint of anything unusual about his birth.

By the 2nd century after the death of Jesus, his virgin birth was accepted and taught by the Christian church. It went largely unchallenged until the scientific enlightenment of the 18th century.

In Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology, the Virgin Birth means Mary was a virgin when she conceived, and she remained a virgin when she gave birth. The later doctrine of Immaculate Conception expanded on this, to say Mary herself was conceived in the normal way, but from her conception she was free from the “stain of original sin”. Protestant denominations such as the one I serve do not teach this doctrine.

Modern commentators point out the Virgin Birth story reflects a pre-scientific (and deeply misogynist) view of reproduction, in which the “male seed” is planted in the “fertile ground” of the woman. It was believed in the ancient world a male child carried only the genetic inheritance of his father, while a female child was a male seed “corrupted” by the “vessel” into which it had been implanted.

Scholars suggest Matthew and Luke included the Virgin Birth for one or more of these reasons:

  • They accepted the tradition as passed on to them.
  • They gave Jesus an origin story to rival that of Caesar, said to be the son of the god Apollo.
  • They told a story meant to be taken as allegory, rather than literally true.
  • They were answering slanderous charges made against Jesus by Jewish detractors (and others) that Jesus was an illegitimate child.
  • They were doing theology, presenting Jesus as fulfilling the prophesy in the book of Isaiah that a Saviour would arise from Bethlehem, and that he would be the son of a virgin.

Some scholars dispute the accuracy of the translation of Isaiah available to Matthew and Luke. It was called the Septuagint, and it was in Greek. (Matthew and Luke seem not to have known Hebrew.)

The passage Matthew quotes (Isaiah 7:14-16) uses the Greek word “Parthenos”. (Modern science uses the term “parthenogenesis to refer to examples in nature in which offspring are conceived without sexual intercourse) The original Hebrew text of Isaiah used the word “almah”, which can also be translated as either “young woman”.

In another letter I asked whether Isaiah’s words were meant to be taken as predicting the future. (The Old Testament, actually much of the whole Bible tends to discourage people from listening to the words of anyone who claims to know the future- that was considered the work of soothsayers and necromancers, and other generally disreputable people.)

Personally, my faith in God, and commitment to follow Jesus do not depend on whether Matthew and Luke got it right, and Jesus actually was conceived without sexual intercourse. I believe every person who is born, and every life is holy, and miraculous, and an amazing gift from God. Jesus taught us we are all God’s beloved children.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

 

 

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U is for the United Church of Canada

2012uccrestcolour_largeU is for the United Church of Canada The Advent Letter for Dec 21, 2019

My last few Advent letters have been about how we read the Bible. I hope they’ve been helpful to you as you think about God, and our relationship to Jesus.

I am grateful that much of my formation as a person of faith, and as a preacher, teacher, pastor, writer, and spiritual director has been within the United Church of Canada.

As a denomination we have been courageous, and sometimes controversial as we keep listening for God’s presence, and for the revelation of God’s purposes in history. We have not always got it right, and for the most part, I think, that serves to keep us humble in the face of the complexity of life, and the mystery of God. We have changed our minds about some very important things.

I choose to be part of an organization committed to stretching the imaginations, and the hearts of those who follow Jesus, with the aim of building, and re-building communities of inclusion. I don’t think Jesus would have us leave anyone out. When the way we read the Bible leads towards exclusion, we need to read again, with even more openness of heart, and mind.

In 2006 the United Church published “A Song of Faith” which proclaims:

We sing of Jesus,

a Jew,

born to a woman in poverty

in a time of social upheaval

and political oppression.

He knew human joy and sorrow.

So filled with the Holy Spirit was he

that in him people experienced the presence of God among them.

We sing praise to God incarnate.

 

Jesus announced the coming of God’s reign—

a commonwealth not of domination

but of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

He healed the sick and fed the hungry.

He forgave sins and freed those held captive

by all manner of demonic powers.

He crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.

He preached and practised unconditional love—

love of God, love of neighbour,

love of friend, love of enemy—

and he commanded his followers to love one another

as he had loved them….

 

By becoming flesh in Jesus,

God makes all things new.

In Jesus’ life, teaching, and self-offering,

God empowers us to live in love.

In Jesus’ crucifixion,

God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.

In Jesus’ resurrection,

God overcomes death.

Nothing separates us from the love of God.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

 

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T is for Theology

T embroideredDec 20, 2019 3rd Week of Advent – Day 20 of the Advent Alphabet

T is for theology. The first half of the word, “Theo” refers to God. The second half, “logia” (study) is connected to the word-family that includes “logos”, which means “word”, and “logic”, which suggests a system or method. We are doing theology when we think about God, and the activity, the identity, the purposes of God. “What is God doing?” “Who (or what) is God?” “Can we understand God’s will, or plan?”

We do theology as we read the Bible stories about Jesus’ birth. We seek to understand something about God, and our relationship with God. This is good for us to do, and even better that we do with it with awareness that it is not a simple task.

I remember a lecture during my under-grad years, (I was a philosophy major) about the distinction between “Event” and “Event Meaning”. The professor said: Two groups of people, wearing clothing that identified them as members of opposing sides, faced each other across a wide expanse. There was a loud noise, and then a fairly large projectile was observed flying through the air, from an area dominated by one group, towards an area dominated by the other group. Then there was a lot of confused movement, and more loud noise, and it appeared that members of both groups were quite agitated.

 The professor asked, “Can anyone tell me what I was describing?”

One student made a convincing argument that the scene was a battlefield. Another said it was a football game. A cynical soul at the back of the room wondered if there was a difference.

In order to interpret the description, we needed more information. If that information was not available, we might “fill in the blanks” using our own memories, creativity, or biases. Sometimes that is called “embroidering”- adding our own touches to the story, that are not based in what is actually present in the text. The result might say more about ourselves, than the author’s intended meaning.

An author brings their culture, and beliefs, and language, and biases with them to their work. We as readers are on alert to sift through and get a sense of the meaning. We may be hampered, or helped, by our own education, experience, and attitudes. In an earlier letter I mentioned how important it is to read what is in the text, and not what we expect to be there. (Can you find an inn-keeper, drummer-boy, or cattle in the nativity story?)

This problem of communication and interpretation can crop up with relatively simple documents, like a shopping list or a sales receipt. (I have never learned how to read a baseball box score in the newspaper.) When the subject matter is much more complex, there is even greater need for humility.

I believe that we are meant to use our minds, and ask questions, and think carefully about matters of faith. I don’t mean to suggest that it is a purely intellectual exercise- we definitely need to listen to our hearts, and pay attention to our experience in life.

John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement, drew upon scripture, tradition, reason, and experience when he was seeking theological understanding. He encouraged all Jesus-followers to do the same. Too often preachers have acted as if their congregations operated only from their hearts, and needed someone to tell them what to think.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

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S is for Story

DecLETTER-S-PNG-FREE-ALPHABET 19, 2019 3rd Week of Advent – Day 19 of the Advent Alphabet

S is for story. As my children used to love to point out every year in pageant rehearsals, there are two distinct Nativity stories. Matthew and Luke’s stories are often “conflated”. That is the term scholars use when two stories are fused into one. (So that you end up with the shepherds from Luke and the Magi from Matthew all crowded on the same pageant stage.)

People often find it hard to believe there are significant factual differences in the two stories. As I suggested in yesterday’s letter, a good way to sort that out is to read Matthew chapters one and two, and then read Luke chapter one, and chapter two up to verse 20. Before you do your reading, (or re-reading!) let me try to address why these two stories are so different.

Both Matthew and Luke were gospels, rather than historical accounts. The writers were doing theological, rather than journalistic work. Matthew wrote at least 50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke may have been written a little later. They were most likely 2nd generation followers of the Jesus movement- and not amongst the original disciples. (Scholars note that it was common in the ancient world to attach the name of an honoured figure to a religious document- this was at the same time a tribute, and a way to claim some of the stature of the person.)

Matthew was probably a Jewish scribe (perhaps trained in the Jewish religious system), who lived in Syria, and a Jewish convert to Christianity. Scholars see hints that he wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome in the year 70 C.E.

Luke was probably a Gentile who became a follower of Jesus. He wrote his gospel in “koine’”, an ancient greek dialect that was the language of government and trade in the Roman empire.

Matthew and Luke were not eyewitnesses to anything they wrote about, certainly and especially not the birth of Jesus. What they were witnesses to, was the effect that Jesus and his ministry had on the people whose lives were touched. They saw the movement of people that grew around the first disciples, and quickly began to spread. They were aware of God at work in human history- of God being with them through Jesus of Nazareth. They experienced the spiritual presence of “the risen Christ”, which they saw as the fulfillment of ancient promises about a Saviour. They were passionate about spreading the “Good News”- the Gospel.

A gospel writer has more in common with a song-writer or poet than a reporter. They used human language to transmit the meaning and power they saw in the Jesus movement to change lives. They used stories that had survived in the movement’s oral tradition, hymns and sermons that were collected, and other documents that were shared amongst the early churches. They wove them together, each writer with their own style, and agenda. Matthew and Luke were writing for specific audiences, and would have wanted to be accessible, and make sense to the people who would hear their words read aloud in worship.

Spreading the Good News is not the same thing as reporting “the news”. When we try to describe the reality of God, and the work of God in our midst, and our response to God, that happens within us, we rely on allegory, and metaphor, and images and concepts that are already part of religious vocabulary. (Try describing an everyday wonder like a sunset, or a baby’s smile, and you’ll see what I mean- words are limited!) In the ancient world, those listening to a “religious story” would not expect it to be factually true- they would be listening more for truth than for facts.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, the minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario. Each day from November 30 until December 25, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. 

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R is for the “Real Story”

 

R is for Reading the fine printDec 18, 2019 3rd Week of Advent – Day 18 of the Advent Alphabet

On Christmas morning we have a family tradition of reading about the birth of Jesus from the Bible before we do anything else. At that moment it is enough to hear the story again, listen with the heart, and open our spirit to receive God’s gifts. (Then we move on to exploring our stockings, and tearing away at wrapping paper!)

While there are times to soak in the wonder of the biblical stories- there are also times to use our considerable intellectual gifts. (The wonderful minds God has given us.) A good exercise is to read the first 2 chapters of Matthew, and compare them to the first 3 chapters of Luke. It is amazing how many church folks, and other followers of Jesus have never done this. It only takes a few minutes. You may want to have 2 Bibles handy, so you can read them side by side.

In seminary, we used a special book called “Gospel Parallels” which lays out Matthew, Mark, and Luke in 3 columns, grouping the similar stories, and highlighting the parts unique to each Gospel- they are not the same!

We’ll leave Mark out of this discussion, because that Gospel has nothing to say about Jesus before he began his public ministry, as an adult.

Both Matthew and Luke offer a “genealogy” for Jesus. (Matthew’s is in chapter one, Luke’s is in chapter three) These family trees are very different. Matthew says Jacob was Jesus’ grandfather, and Luke says it was Heli. Each genealogy asserts that Jesus, through Joseph, is a descendant of King David. Matthew traces the family line back to Abraham. Luke traces it back to Adam. (For now, we might set aside questions about why the family lineage would be traced from Joseph’s side.)

Matthew does not describe the birth of John the Baptist or the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she will bear a child. Matthew does not describe Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, or Mary’s recitation of the Magnificat , which is almost certainly lifted straight from Hannah’s song in the Old Testament story of Samuel. Matthew makes no mention of the journey to Bethlehem. There is no Roman census. Baby Jesus is not wrapped in bands of cloth or laid in a manger. There is no inn, no stable, and there are no shepherds or angels (except the angel that appeared in Joseph’s dream). In Matthew, the Magi visit Jesus in a house.

Luke’s story does not include the Magi, or the star. There is no mention of Herod ordering the death of all Hebrew boys under the age of two, and Mary and Joseph have no cause to flee to Egypt with Jesus.

Despite the efforts of pageant directors to “harmonize” these two stories, a close look suggests they are not complimentary tales that each fill in blanks left by the other- they are different stories, told by different authors, who each had their own audience, and their own theological points to make.

There are things about which these writers agree. They both say Jesus was born near the end of the reign of King Herod. Bethlehem was his birthplace, but he grew up in Nazareth. They both present Joseph as the father of Jesus. They agree that Mary was the child’s mother, and that his name was Jesus, although in Matthew he is also called “Emmanuel”. In both stories an angel announces that this child is destined to be a saviour. (In Luke the angel tells Mary, in Matthew, Joseph is told by an angel in his dream.)

Both gospels say that Mary and Joseph were betrothed but not married at the time of Mary’s pregnancy, and that Jesus was born after they began to live together. Both suggest that Mary was a virgin, and that Joseph was not involved in Jesus’ conception- that it was by the Holy Spirit.

What do we do with all of this? Personally, my faith in God, and my passion for following the way of Jesus do not depend on the reliability of the stories about his birth. If we read the rest of the stories about Jesus, as we have them in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are many discrepancies and disagreements. I don’t think they were writing history- they were telling stories to teach theology. I am drawn to the meaning of the stories, and the “rightness” of the way of living that Jesus taught.

Outside of the two Nativity stories, and the story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52) having a theological discussion with the Temple priests, the Gospel stories are all about Jesus as an adult. (There are fascinating tales about the boy Jesus as a trouble-maker and wonder-worker, but they are not found in the Bible.)

Until the moment that Jesus began his public ministry, and was gathering followers, why would anyone (outside of his family and neighbours) have known about his early life? He was the child of simple, probably illiterate people, from an obscure village in an unimportant province of a small territory of the Roman Empire. Who would have been there to write down the “real story”?

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.

 

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Q is for Questions

q and question markDec 17, 2019 Third Week of Advent – Day 17 of the Advent Alphabet

Is it possible to have faith, and at the same time have questions, and even doubts about what we have been taught about God, and Jesus? I have a friend who makes the distinction between having faith in God, and believing everything that has been put forward as part of our religious tradition.

I hope some of my questions and opinions about our religious tradition encourage your own thinking, and questioning.

The Jesus movement, as it evolved first into the early church, and then over time, to the multiplicity of churches and sects and denominations, has collected a big “box” full of ideas about God, and Jesus, and our relationship with God. Different groups keep their own special containers of ideas that make them distinct from others within the Christian family. There have been terrible feuds over the centuries about what should, and should not be in the “box”.

Many denominations, including the United Church of Canada, have developed creeds, or statements of belief. (The word creed comes from the latin word “credo” which means “I believe”.) Often we use creeds not so much to teach people about what we believe, but to say, “If you agree with these statements, you can be one of us”. I remember that when I attended confirmation classes as a young adult, at each session the minister “explained” a section of the Apostles Creed. (Not be confused with Apollo Creed, who got in the ring with Rocky in several of those movies.)

Creeds have been a kind of “entrance examination” that we use before welcoming someone into the church. Before we baptize an infant, we ask the parents a set of questions- that contain some pretty abstract and complex ideas- and they are basically expected to say “Yes, I believe that”, if they want to have their child baptized.

There are good reasons for asking those questions- we want to make sure that people know what we stand for, before they agree to join us. But there are also problems with the “faith in a box” approach. It doesn’t encourage independent thinking. We often ask our newest members to agree to things that the average person in the pew couldn’t explain. It also perpetuates what I call the “faith as a noun” problem.

Asking people to say yes to our package of ideas has led to thinking about faith as something we “have”. To “have faith” is often thought of as accepting what is in the box. (The other side of this would be that if you question or doubt anything in the idea box, you obviously don’t “have” faith.)

Faith should be a verb rather than a noun, action rather than static object. Faith is praying, loving, risking, trusting, hoping, thinking, doubting, doing, building, helping, singing, living. It is what we do, not what we have. We can do these things in the company of people who may keep different ideas than ours in their box. We can do all of these things, and be active faithful people, even when we are not sure anymore if we agree with, or understand everything in our own box.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.