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

Joy will find a way

A few years ago I wrote a series of sermons based on the Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, and tied them to songs composed by one of my musical heroes, Bruce Cockburn. This week, the words of his song “Joy will find a way” have murmured and echoed in my heart.

Before I played the Cockburn song for the congregation, I offered a quote from Michael Franti. He is a hip-hop artist who draws on a lot of reggae and folk and pop influences. He is also a deeply spiritual person. In an interview he said, “ joy is the intersection between the human and the divine, and that’s why at some points, when you experience joy you throw your hands in the air, you laugh, you dance, but at other times you experience joy you cry, and you like release in this other way, and it’s the same thing, and its coming from this place of letting go…”

This is very different from the conventional definitions, which tend to equate joy with happiness. We can know joy, even in those times when there has been great sadness, and cause for tears.

In the Book of Isaiah, we hear the prophet say,

“1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,

2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,

3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.”

Many of us know people who are in mourning. We know that for many, the holiday times can be very hard. We remember people who are no longer with us. We think of hopes that never came to be. We think of relationships that did not work out as we planned or dreamed. We may feel alone with our thoughts, our memories, our regrets.

How do we light a candle, and look forward to Joy? Here are the lyrics to the song by Bruce Cockburn:

Joy will find a way (a song about dying) words and music by Bruce Cockburn, 1974

Make me a bed of fond memories
Make me to lie down with a smile
Everything that rises afterward falls
But all that dies has first to live.

As longing becomes love
As night turns to day
Everything changes
Joy will find a way

I think that this song is about living through the times of sadness, and coming out the other side, changed, and believing it possible to go on.

In our culture there is a tendency to try to avoid going through the hard stuff. Everything should be smooth sailing, with no hint of storms. But that does not seem to be the way it works. There is no real new life without facing death. There is no change without loss. There is no joy, without living through the sadness.

Michael Franti says it this way:

“in the history of African-American music we have the blues, which is this expression of deep sadness, and sorrow, and struggle, and then once you have passed through the blues you come to funk, which is the same chords, just played faster, and now you have music that is celebration, and it is that transformative quality of music that keeps us all coming back”

He calls it the transformative quality of music. We might call it the transforming, resurrecting, new life giving power of God, who sees to it that Joy will find a way.


“Joy in the Mean Time”

Preachers all over North America have been struggling this weekend, to know what to say in the aftermath of the violent event at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. How can we approach the Advent theme of Joy, when as President Obama said in his television address, our hearts have been broken? It is not an exaggeration, or mere political overstatement. It was truly heart breaking to watch the news, and think about the children, their families, the teachers, the principal, the other school staff, all the first responders, and a whole community. I found it particularly hard to think about the kids I saw in the news coverage, who survived the attack, but who witnessed bullets flying by, and people being killed. What lies ahead for them?


While preparing for this morning, I read on the CBC news website about an attack this weekend at a school in China, in which 22 children and one adult were injured by a man wielding a knife. The attacker who had access to firearms did a lot more damage- twenty of his victims died of their wounds. But in both situations, a school filled with innocent children was the scene of the attack.


The Connecticut incident is getting most of the media attention right now. This terrible event pushes other stories off the front page. But I am still thinking about other places where school children and their families are at risk. I am remembering news videos about the Gaza strip, where schools, and homes, and hospitals have been targeted by missiles in the ongoing territorial fight between Israel and the people of Palestine.

One person acting alone to cause mayhem, suffering and death is not the same as an ongoing fight over territory and political autonomy, but I am not sure the differences matter to the victims.


Innocent victims. When I first heard the news yesterday about yet another gun-wielding American, at yet another school, terrorizing, wounding, and killing more innocent children, my consciousness went in at least two directions. Part of me was remembering fragments of the other similar stories from the last few years, and how each time this happens, someone in the U.S. government quickly says, like they did yesterday, “today is the day to grieve, not the day to talk about gun control ”.  The preacher part of me was thinking about the biblical story of the slaughter of the innocents- which, like John the Baptist railing against sin, and calling the people, and the rulers, to repentance, is an unsavoury part of the Advent and Christmas story.


The slaughter of the innocents is the name given to an armed military action ordered by Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of the Holy Land around the time of Jesus birth. Having learned from the visiting wise ones from the East of the birth of a great king, Herod commanded all the male children under the age of two be put to death. These children were guilty of no crime. It was not their fault that a power mad king feared one of them might grow up to be his rival. They had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like the kids in those schools, and all the kids who live in war zones, and disputed territories.


According to a website that tracks hot zones in the world, there are currently armed conflicts in 24 countries in Africa, 15 in Asia, including Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, in 8 countries in the Middle East including Iran, Iraq and Israel, and in five countries in our hemisphere, including Colombia and Mexico. Worldwide, there are 60 countries involved in some kind of war. And those are just the more or less “official” conflicts. This of course does not include all the places where children are dying for lack of clean water, or adequate food, or being forced to work as slave labour in factories to support the world’s addiction to cheap manufactured goods.


As I mentioned earlier, preachers are struggling this weekend with how to celebrate the Advent theme of Joy. Many people have been following the tragic story from Connecticut. But as awful as that story is, it is just a few drops in the ocean of misery that individuals, and countries inflict on each other. This story has our attention this week, but there are, as we know, a lot of other ongoing stories.


So how do we respond as faithful people? The reading we heard this morning from the letter to the Philippians calls us to “4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”


Those are the words of a preacher and missionary named Paul, who founded many churches in the first century after the time of Jesus. Paul lived in a time when there was at least as much misery in the world as there is now. There were politicans who cared more about power than doing the right thing. There were people addicted to wealth, and status. There were poor people suffering at the hands of rich and powerful, who needed cheap labour to support their lifestyles. The details change, but the ways people have of hurting each other are pretty consistent through human history.


Even though Paul knew what the world could be like, he called upon people to place their hope and trust in God, and to “rejoice in the Lord”. He told them that they could know joy, even in the midst of hardship and misery.


Isaiah spoke similar words, to his own people, centuries before Jesus and Paul. He said,


“ Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. 3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”


Isaiah was a prophet in ancient Israel. He told people their only real hope, and the only way to real joy, was to follow the ways of God.  Prophets did not claim that all the pain and evil in the world would instantly disappear. They told their people that they could experience true joy, in the midst of this world, as they began to live their lives differently. They could have a taste of the joy that God desires for all people.


So what do we have to do, to experience this real joy, that can grow in our hearts in spite of the pain in the world? John the Baptist, preaching out in the wilderness, and calling people to turn their lives around, had words that may help us. He keeps it pretty simple:

10 The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”

11 “If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”

12 Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”

13 He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”

14 Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”

The way of living that John is describing leads to true joy, which is something very different from the manufactured holiday happiness that is used to hypnotize at this time of year, so that we will spend more money. John is talking about leading a life that is based in trusting God, and daring to take part in God’s plan to make the world a more loving place.


As we read the gospel story about John the Baptist, we can see that his audience could hear and see something in what he was preaching. The story says:

15 The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”

16-17 But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

John is talking about Jesus. Not the little baby Jesus in the manger, whose birth we are getting ready to celebrate, but the grown adult who came to bring a message about God’s continuing love for this world and its people, in spite of all the awful things we are capable of doing to each other.


The slaughter of the innocents reminds us there have always been forces in the world threatened by the way of love and peace that Jesus represents. But Herod’s troops failed in their effort. Thirty years later, different powerful forces conspired to kill Jesus. They even accused him of claiming to be king, to justify their violence. But Easter story of the adult Jesus is that even though he faced the worst cruelty and violence that the world could throw at him- it was not the end. God did not allow death and violence to be the whole story.


Jesus came to tell us that God will never give up on us, and that God is with us, in the midst of our lives in this world. Jesus came to tell us that we can live differently, and that God will work with us, and strengthen us, and give us sustaining glimpses of joy along the way. Amen


Peace be with You

The second Sunday of Advent is traditionally a time to attend to the theme of Peace.  During that week leading up to this occasion, I had opportunities to think about what we mean when use that word.

One of my children went on a class field trip to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, and learned about the work of Canadian military aviators in peace-making. He heard about times in which men and women place themselves in harm’s way, to intervene in situations where differences and conflict have escalated to violence and bloodshed.

I presided this past week at a renewal of vows ceremony for a couple celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary. He is in business, and she is a justice of the peace. It was interesting to hear about her daily work. One of her duties is to preside over hearings in which a person may be “committed” to a psychiatric ward for mandatory mental health care. She routinely issues search warrants that are used by the police in their efforts to enforce laws, and to investigate crimes. She also has the legal authority to preside over marriage ceremonies, and she tells me that she only does so if she believes the couple is seriously committed to living up to their promises! (Interesting to think about this as proactive peacemaking)

There are so many aspects to the meaning of Peace. What does the word mean to you? We may think of: An end to armed conflict. Resolving political tensions. Cooperation and dialogue amongst religious groups. Healing of relationships. Safety and well-being. The establishment of equality and fairness in economic, social, and political terms. Inner peace.

Is inner peace possible without peace in the world? Is peace in the world possible if we do not have peace inside ourselves?

Our English word peace is a translation of the word “pax”, from the Vulgate- the latin version of the Bible. Pax was the latin translation of the Hebrew word “shalom”. “Pax” is the same word that was used to refer to a treaty to end a war.

The Hebrew word shalom is very similar to the Arabic word “salaam”. In modern Hebrew, Shalom means peace, completeness, and hello or goodbye. In many languages the word for peace is used as a greeting, and a farewell.  Shalom, Salaam, and Aloha are used that way. So is the Sanskrit word Namaste’, which is what my yoga teacher says at the end of every class, as she bows to us, and we bow to her.

At the end of a yoga class, especially when we have spent the last few minutes resting in quiet meditation, allowing the effects of all the breathing, and stretching and posing we have done to work in our bodies, there is often a feeling in the room that I would describe as a shared desire for well-being. When my body feels well treated, and relaxed, and my mind is at ease, I can more easily recall that I want only good for those around me.

 When the Bible writers used the word Shalom, they were drawing on a deep well of meaning. In Middle Eastern culture, Shalom and the words related to it meant to be safe and secure, and complete. This was understood on an individual level, but also in terms of how people related in a society, and how countries got along. It is connected to working concepts of justice, and truth, equality, and basic fairness.

A Japanese Buddhist teacher named Daisaku Ikeda said, “peace cannot be a mere stillness, a great interlude between wars. It must be a vital and energetic arena of life-activity, won through our own volitional, proactive efforts. Peace must be a living drama.”


Shalom is about much more than just the absence of dispute or conflict. It is about an active presence- a movement towards fullness, rightness, completeness, for all people, for all of creation. It is a commitment to help things be as God would have them be.

 I realized the other day, as I sat on the yoga mat, that I was not feeling “peace”, or “namaste’”, or “shalom” at that moment only because the teacher had bowed to us, and offered her blessing. It was not just the speaking of the word that was making it come true. Any sense of peace I felt at that moment was also related to the work I and the other students had been doing. In our own small ways, in that place, we were engaged in making, or being peace.

I mentioned that Shalom is related to the Arabic word Salaam. In a number of middle eastern languages, there are words built around the S L M consonant sounds that express personal commitment to these universal concepts of peace, safety, wholeness, and well-being.  These are not just nouns, but they are action words- things we are supposed to be working towards.

Salaam is the root of the words Moslem, and Islam. Literally, a Moslem is one who has committed, or submitted themselves to God. They find their wholeness, their completeness, their peace, in God.

At Christmas time we remember the angels singing, “Peace on Earth, Good will to all of God’s people.” Later in the Gospels, we often read of Jesus saying to his followers “Peace be with you”. This is our translation of “Shalom Aleichem”, which can also be read as “Well-being be upon you” or “may you be well”.

We can hear that as a kind greeting. We can also hear it as a promise, that God’s dream of peace is possible. As followers of Jesus, I believe we can also hear it as our job description. Peace.

Peaceful Steps

The first reading we heard this morning from Luke’s Gospel contains words coming from the mouth of a father, about the birth of his son, who grows up to be John the Baptist. Like Jesus, John is a Biblical character with an interesting birth story.

John’s parents were Elizabeth, a cousin to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Zechariah, a temple priest in the Jewish religion. The story says that Zechariah and Elizabeth were quite old- at least old enough to be past the child-bearing years.

Like Joseph, Zechariah learned the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy from an angel. But Zechariah’s reaction seems more realistic than Joseph’s. While Joseph seems to easily accept the odd news, Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Zechariah was struck mute. He did not speak again until the day of John’s bris, or circumcision ceremony. The people gathered for this occasion, which was also a naming ritual, assumed that the baby would be named after his father, “but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”
They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.”

At that moment Zechariah is said to have regained his power of speech, and Luke’s Gospel then records a lengthy monologue. It seems like Zechariah the preacher had many months of sermonizing stored up. When the tap was opened, a lot flowed out, all at once. Zechariah praised God, and went on to offer a prophecy, spirit-filled words about the hope, and the promise that he saw in his new-born son. The essence was that this special child John, born to an elderly couple not expected to ever have children, would grow up to be a special man, with holy work to do. He would be a leader and a prophet like Elijah, and be part of God’s ongoing plan for Israel, the chosen people of God. Near the end of Zechariah’s speech, he says this about his son:

“And you, my child, “Prophet of the Highest,” will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways,
Present the offer of salvation to his people, the forgiveness of their sins.
Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace. “

My attention was caught by that last line. “showing us the way, one foot at a time,
down the path of peace.” That was the inspiration for the spiritual practice I offered for this week of Advent, in the Trinity Branches newsletter. I made the suggestion that you make an appointment with yourself (and perhaps with a friend) to go for an early morning prayer walk. Think about this line of scripture as you walk. (Although I offered the scripture in a slightly different translation)

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)

Whichever translation I turn to, I get a sense of God’s peace being something that happens in a kind of simple, plodding way, one step, one person at a time. I also get the sense that peace is something is for each of us to do. It is not a big thing that will be done to us, with the press of a cosmic button, or the explosion of bombs, or the building of walls. Peace is something grows slowly, like a baby, and takes the needed time before it is born.

I have a true story for you, that I heard this week. I have changed the names, and some details. Lorenzo and Maria moved into a modest, older neighbourhood 23 years ago. The neighbourhood is changing now, but it used to be the kind of place where you were thought of as the new people until you’d been there at least 10 years, or the next new people moved in after you.

Lorenzo and Maria mostly kept to themselves, which was good, because most of the time, if they spoke to you, they only had nasty things to say. They were particularly hard on the people in the house to the right of theirs, Norma and Thelma, a retired woman and her aging mother.

Lorenzo and Maria hated the old garage behind Norma and Thelma’s house. They said it was unsafe and falling down. They said it was an eyesore. They said that it was too close to their property line. They threatened to tear it down. When repairs needed to be done, they refused to allow the workers to step in their yard, to fix the eavestroughing on that side of the garage. They threatened to bring in a surveyor to mark the property line, and document the violation, even though the garage had been there for decades before they moved in.

One day, Norma looked out her back window and saw Lorenzo piling garbage in front of her garage door. When she went out to talk to him about it, he actually took a swing at her, and his punch left a bruise, and a red welt on her shoulder that was there for days.

Through all of this, Norma and her aging mother Thelma did their best to hold their tongues, and be civil. They also prayed for Lorenzo and Maria, convinced that if they could be that irritated and bitter about a garage, there must be other issues in their lives. They tried to rise above the provocations, and not let themselves be bothered by the angry stares they experienced if they ventured out the door at the same time as Lorenzo or Maria.

A few years ago Maria became very sick. Talk in the neighbourhood was that she had cancer. Lorenzo, long ago retired, spent his days at the hospital, and stayed until visiting hours were over. He brought food each day, because he knew his wife did not like the meals she was served.

People on the street organized themselves to help. When they went shopping, they’d pick up a few groceries for Lorenzo. If it snowed while he was at the hospital, they would have his walk cleared before he came home.

Norma went over one day after Lorenzo got home from the hospital, and brought a covered dish containing a small roast, and potatoes and carrots. She figured with his focus on feeding his wife, Lorenzo might not be feeding himself. Lorenzo refused to accept the meal, but did invite Norma into his front hallway, which was a first. He talked at length about his wife’s condition, and his worries for her. Norma told Lorenzo she understood about caring for a sick loved one, because she was living it with her mother Thelma.

A few days later Lorenzo came over to Norma’s house, and said, “Let’s put the past behind us.” From then on, things were different.

How does peace happen? Time, and patience, and grace, and prayer. God at work with us step by step. Compassion seeping through the cracks in our shells, and healing hard hearts, one at a time.

I read some great words this week from Jean Vanier, the Canadian known around the world as the founder of the L’Arche communities. In 1964, through Vanier’s friendship with a priest named Father Thomas Philippe, he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with developmental disabilities. Vanier’s response to the situation was to prayerfully take the steps he was able to take. He invited two men who had lived their lives in institutions to come and live with him. Today, L’Arche is an international organization with active communities in 40 countries, and on every continent.

Decades of living in L’Arche communities has shaped and influenced the way that Vanier approaches the big questions, like what is life all about, and how do we help peace be born in our world. Here are two good quotes from Vanier’s book “Community and Growth”:

“ Today as never before, we need communities of welcome; communities that are a sign of peace in a world of war. There is no point in praying for peace in the Middle East, for example, if we are not peace-makers in our own community; if we are not forgiving those in our community who have hurt us or with whom we find it difficult to live.”

“When we begin to discover and to drop the barriers and fears which prevent us from being ourselves and which prevent the life of the Holy Spirit from flowing through us, we become more simple. Simplicity is no more and no less than being ourselves, knowing that we are loved. It is knowing that we are accepted, with our qualities, our flaws and as we are in the depths of our being. Simplicity is letting the love and the light of God flow and shine through us.” Amen