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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Silence, and God's leading

The Fifth Page for Sunday February 1, 2009

I wrote about "expectant waiting" for the morning sermon partly because I am leaving on Monday for a week of study leave, part of which I will spend in a three day silent retreat. This is part of the discernment phase of a two year program in the ministry of spiritual direction. I have been a part of this program since the opening residential week in June 2008.

Since I began this blog, the 5th page has been posted on the Monday following a Sunday sermon. It is often in conversations after the service that I get a sense of what should appear here.

I am going to be "off-line" while on retreat, and will not be able to post anything.

Instead, I reccomend you look at these quotes from the Quaker educator Parker Palmer. They are all from his seminal book "The Courage to Teach", and they express a Quaker theology of personhood, relationship, and education that I think applies as well to a faith community as it does to a classroom:

The subjects we teach are as large and complex as life, so our knowledge of them is always flawed and partial.

The students we teach are larger than life and even more complex. To see them clearly and see them whole, and respond to them wisely in the moment, requires a fusion of Freud and Solomon that few of us achieve.

We teach who we are.

Teaching holds a mirror to the soul.

When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my own unexamined life—and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well.

Teachers at all levels of education have more in common than we think, and we should not be so glib about which level we call "higher."

Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness.

The self is not infinitely elastic—it has potentials and it has limits.

Teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.

Unlike many professions, teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Holy Places

The Fifth Page for January 25, 2008 Rev. Darrow Woods
What makes a place “holy” or “sacred”? Did those ancients who erected monoliths at Stonehenge do so to create a holy place, or was it in response to some quality of the location that they had already observed? (These days, if you were choosing a location for a new church, especially in a developed urban setting, your considerations would likely have mainly to do with zoning, access to major transportation arteries, and affordability.)

While serving in a previous congregation, I had the opportunity to sit in on meetings with an architect who specialized in the renovation of existing churches. It was fascinating to watch how he sought to balance the desire to retain the “churchy-ness” of the structure, with the need to modernize, and make the building more accessible, and more amenable to the use of technology (lcd projector, large screen, audio system, room-darkening shades). It is not always easy to sort out what is essential, and what is merely familiar, or traditional.

Do we make a place holy by how we regard it, and what we do in that place? I can think of several churches in which I have felt more alive, more vital, and more connected, simply for walking in the building. I have also been in at least one that felt like a kind of spiritual “black hole”, that sucked life and joy out of people who came there to worship.

Some of the spaces I have been in, that seemed the most “prayed in” are actually not called churches by those who worship in them.

I spent two years working and studying with Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends. This denomination began in the 17th century when a man in England named George Fox came to the powerful realization that he did not require a priest or church, or any ritual to mediate for him the presence and power of God. Part of what Quakers offer to the world is the reminder that God is always present, and at work, within us, and around us.

Quakers call their places of worship “meeting houses”. In my experience, Quaker meeting houses are very plain, unornamented structures, with simple furnishings. My favourite ones have lots of windows. This seems fitting in a denomination that often speaks of God’s presence in each of us as the “inner light”.

Ephesians 2:19-22 (NIV)
You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Monday, January 19, 2009

wisdom and culture

The Fifth Page for January 18, 2009
In the course of my research about Eli Stone, I learned that it has been cancelled by ABC. I have not seen all the episodes, but as I mentioned in the sermon, I have enjoyed it. I like that it begins with the premise that God is real, and that God is actively involved in our lives. I like also that as the episodes unfolded, the Eli Stone character’s life was being changed by his involvements with other people. He was not just some heroic figure stepping in to save strangers from danger- as he formed relationships with people, his life, and their lives, were changed for the better.

There is a website called that explores not just television and movies, but other aspects of North American pop culture from a spiritual point of view. Their reviews on current releases may be of some help in making choices about what movies and television shows are worth the investment of our money and time.

In the children’s time this week I told the story of the call of Samuel. It served as a good introduction to the idea that God calls individuals to holy service. The fact that the wise old man in the story was named Eli also provided a “bridge” to the clip from the television show. (Eli is a common Hebrew name, which means something like “person of God”. “El” is a word used for God in many pre-Jewish middle-eastern cultures.)

One of the commentaries said that in structure and form the story of Samuel’s call resembles a folk tale. It may be that in the centuries before reading and writing became more common and accessible, stories about important figures like Samuel (and Jesus, for that matter) were preserved and transmitted in this way.

I like to examine popular culture for evidence of our human quest for spiritual meaning. For good or for bad, movies, television shows, and popular music seem to serve the function that folk tales would have in earlier times. Commonly held ideas and aspirations are presented, played with, held up for scrutiny, reinforced, and sometimes challenged. Having said, that I think that we need some of Eli’s wisdom to interpret what we see and hear.

When I was young one of my favourite shows was Gomer Pyle, USMC. Even though this was a show about life in the Marine Corps, and was aired during the height of American military involvement in Vietnam, that war was never mentioned. Years later, the star, Jim Nabors said that he had difficulty watching the show’s opening sequence because many of the men he was shown marching with were later killed in Vietnam.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Fifth Page for January 11, 2008

I ended up making cuts to the sermon after I posted it to the Trinity website. Folks that heard it on Sunday morning did not get this part about John the Baptist:

After Jesus was baptised, John the Baptist followed the path of many prophets before and after him. He got himself in trouble, by daring to point out wrong where he saw it. John was critical of Herod Antipas, the Roman-backed ruler of Palestine, who was in an incestuous romance with his niece, who was also his brother’s wife. The king responded by having him arrested, and thrown in jail. Later he was beheaded.

Some scholars think that the details about John the Baptist story were included in the gospel stories about Jesus to firmly connect Jesus to the prophetic stream of Israel’s religious history, and also to foreshadow what lie ahead for Jesus. For Jesus there would be challenge, and suffering, and difficulty, but also great meaning, and joy, and love, and the hope of a life lived for more than just himself.

Salome was the daughter of Herodias. Herodias was the niece and sister-in-law of Herod Antipas. Their romantic/sexual relationship flew in the face of both conventional morality and Jewish religious law. From all evidence available, there was a lot of family dysfunction, and corruption in Herod’s household. Salome danced for Herod at his birthday feast, and so “pleased” him that he offered her anything she liked, even up to half of his kingdom. Following her mother’s agenda, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist. Traditional religious art often depicts this gruesome scene.

If John the Baptist is for us an archetype of the brave prophet who denounces the excesses of those in power, without counting the personal cost, then Herod Antipas is a representative symbol of the dangers inherent in unbridled, dictatorial rule. As my childhood hero, Spiderman used to say, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Has anyone seen the special Inauguration issue of the Spiderman comic that features an adventure with President-elect Obama?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Fifth Page for January 4, 2008
If you were to keep reading a bit beyond the gospel selection for this morning, you would come upon the story we often call the “Slaughter of the Innocents”- Herod’s insane scheme to kill all the male children under two years of age born in the Bethlehem region. One commentary said that this genocide is the first appearance of evil in Matthew’s Gospel, but not the last. We remember that later on, the adult Jesus faces a different kind of death sentence, at the hands of another worldly power.

Jesus is born into a world in which evil is real, and bad things happen. There are Herods, who act out of fear, or greed, or madness. As it says in my favourite Sunday School hymn: “Many kinds of darkness , In the world are found—Sin and want and sorrow. So we must shine— You in your small corner, And I in mine.”

We know people who are hurting, who are sad, who are lonely, or in pain. We know of tragedies and crimes and conflicts that are ongoing. We may reflect on our own lives, and feel that the world we live in is pretty much the world into which Jesus was born.

Jesus lived a flesh and blood life in our cruel and bloody world, in which petty tyrants do evil things to protect their own interests. Jesus grew up in our world, in which even religion gets used to justify wrong actions. Jesus grew up in our world, in which the weak, the vulnerable, and the innocent are often abused and poorly used.

We need to know that God is at work in our messy and beautiful and complicated world. There is great hope in knowing that God is with us in the place where we actually live. God is at work, in spite of darkness and evil.

God is at work in Jesus, and in the hearts and minds of Joseph and Mary, who respond to God’s urging to bear this child, to care for this child, and to protect this child from harm, as best they can. This baby changes their lives, and challenges them to draw deeply on their capacity to love, to trust each other, and to have faith.

God is at work in the wise ones from the East, who respond to signs they have seen, and their desire to witness for themselves, the beginning of something new in the world. I love that it is a star they follow, a source of light in the darkness. There are all kinds of theories about planets converging, or novas exploding to make a big light for them to track across the sky- but I prefer the idea of it just being a little star in the sky- bright enough to see, but only if you were actually looking. The wise men find light because they are seeking light. They find what God is bringing to life in the world, because they are willing to search. They leave behind their former lives, and go on a spiritual quest.

I also love that later in the story, they find another way to travel- they go home by another way, to avoid a second encounter with Herod. The wise men defy the wishes of powerful Herod, who was expecting them to report back to him with the location of the new born.

This is a powerful image- and a clue to how God is at work in the world. God offers us choices. We can choose a different way to go. We do not have to go along with things we know are evil. We can tell the difference between the good way to go, and the bad way to go, and we can choose the good.

The Fifth Page is a ministry of Rev. Darrow Woods at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario. Each week the Fifth Page will deliver content and background that did not make it into the Sunday sermon. Please visit: