Monday, October 26, 2009

the fifth page for Sunday, October 25, 2009

After two sermons in October in which I have been pondering the story of Job, I got wondering where the hero of this tale would fit in the “stages of faith development” as suggested by Dr. James Fowler. His is not the only analysis of faith development, but is the one I have worked with the most. Fowler suggests these stages, that seem to parallel cognitive development.

Primal faith is that which is formed in infancy, and reflects our basic sense of the trustworthiness and reliability of the environment into which we are born. Our parents or caregivers are the most powerful influence. (For good, or for bad, it seems.)

Intuitive-Projective faith is our pre-school stage. While our imagination is beginning to take flight, we grow in awareness of God, and of the reality of death. We are the centre of our own universe, and may operate with “magical thinking”- believing that things happen because of us.

Mythic-literal faith is our early school stage. We are taking in more of the world, and rely less on fantasy, and more on what we see and hear. Our faith is built on shared traditions, stories, and practices of others.

Synthetic-conventional faith is our early adolescence- we are pulling together a world view made up of elements we have absorbed, but likely without deep reflection on the individual parts of the puzzle.

Individuative-reflective faith is the project of our early adulthood, in which we are examining things more closely before we commit to them. Claiming our own identity.

Conjunctive faith typically arises in mid-adulthood or later. We learn to hold apparent opposites in creative tension, and we recognize that truth is more complex than we might have once thought. We become more open to other perspectives and interpretations.

Universalizing faith is the ultimate stage in Fowler’s analysis. It is characterized by “detachment”. The apparent tension between opposites seems unimportant. The movement is towards “kenosis”, spiritual self-emptying.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Hot Dog !!!

Once a month I leave the worship service at Trinity United right after the children's hymn, and I go to Sunday School with the children. This gives me a chance to spend time with them, and to teach a lesson. Unless there is something special happening in the worship service, I spend about 20 minutes with the Sunday School, and then come back in to the worship service in order to offer the sermon. (This week there was no sermon, as the service was led by choir members. The theme was Trinity's Favourite Hymns, as chosen by a poll of the congregation, a few weeks before. If you are interested in the list of the congregation's favourite hymns, you can see it, as well as special prayers I wrote for the occasion by looking at my sermon blog. There is a link to it on this page.)

This Sunday I had the opportunity to teach the Gospel lesson from the weekly lectionary, which was Mark's story about James and John asking for places at the right and left hand sides of Jesus when he "came into his glory". (Mark 10:35-45) Earlier in the week I had told the story to Joel, our eight year old son, and asked him for advice about a game to go with the lesson.

Joel suggested "Hot Dog Tag". In this game, if you get tagged by the person who is "it", you have to lay down on the floor. You are stuck there, until other players respond to your cry "I need buns!", and lay down on your left and right, to complete a hot dog. The way we played on Sunday, the person who was tagged, and then freed by being "bunned" then became "it", and then began to chase the other players.

It was a lot of fun. Joel chose the game because of the aspect of the game that called for buns to go to the left and right side of the new "wiener". While we were playing, I realized that without the help of the "bunners", very soon all the players except the person who was "it" would be laying prone on the floor, and the fun of the game would be over.

I asked Joel if he had this in mind when he chose the game. He didn't, and I didn't see it until I played it with the kids. Built into this game was a lesson about the necessity of helping each other.

"But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all." (Mark 10:43-44)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Scarcity, Abundance, and Thanksgiving

Mardi Tindal is the newly elected moderator of the United Church of Canada. For many years she was a co-host with Rev. Ken Gallinger on the United Church’s television program: Spirit Connection. She is currently the director of Five Oaks, a retreat and learning centre near Brantford. I read her moderator’s Thanksgiving message on Sunday morning as our first Thankful Thought:

A few years ago, my southern Ontario congregation decided to host a regular Sunday supper for anyone who needed it. My husband and I became team leaders and spent every third weekend from November to April shopping, cooking, and serving a meal for as many as 120 people.
After a couple of years, we and other volunteers began to feel the strain of this commitment. In fact, the coordinator even wondered if we might have to end the dinner, though it filled a critical need during the cold winter months.

But in this moment of apparent scarcity, we experienced unexpected abundance. Members of the Muslim community, with whom our congregation has a lively relationship, heard about our concerns and asked if they could take care of one Sunday a month. We gratefully accepted. Soon, the Seventh-day Adventist congregation with whom our church shares its building offered to coordinate another Sunday. The Sikh community also got involved, and other community members continued to give leadership.

The weekly supper is now entering its fifth season as an energetic intercultural and interfaith venture. Kitchen and guests have been introduced to menus from around the world. To me, it is an example of the abundance that can be found in community if only we open ourselves up to the possibilities. As many Canadians gather this weekend with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, it offers a powerful message of hope in a society that often tends to see what is not there, rather than what is there, and what might be.

The story of our church supper reveals a truth, and a paradox, described by Parker J. Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal in Washington state. Palmer points out that when we think something is scarce, we tend to act in ways that increase scarcity. We fear food shortages so we hoard, decreasing the supply. We fear rejection so we withdraw affection, diminishing relationship.

But when we act as if we believe in the abundance of what appears to be scarce, we create conditions that help generate abundance. When we do this in community, the power that arises from our common action is almost unbelievable.

This isn’t magic, and it’s not just “Pollyanna.” And please don’t confuse it with the notion that abiding by religious beliefs is the route to being rewarded with stuff, or the damaging idea that our ambitions can be limitless. To the contrary, one of our greatest challenges is recognizing the natural limits of the earth and living within these limits for the sake of life itself.
Rather, it is an invitation to imagine what it would mean to trust in the supply of whatever seems scarce in our lives today. It is an invitation to courage.

Each of us has fears, and many people from marketers to political leaders try to capitalize on them. When election posturing heats up, for example, I’m struck by how political leaders tend to wield fear like a weapon: “You must support us, or there will be [name your fear]: scarcity of economic prosperity; scarcity of physical safety; scarcity of healthy food, clean air, and water.”
We need courage to resist such manipulation, and we should demand it of our leaders.

The degree to which there will be enough food, shelter, and ecological resilience is the degree to which we trust that these are shared desires and that the rest of our extended community—those in other political parties, cultural groups, faith communities, and families—will work with us to bring them about. Why would we assume otherwise? Why assume that others don’t want good things for their children, or that they aren’t prepared to work as hard toward these goals as we are?

Over the past few years, living in my small southern Ontario city, I’ve grown accustomed to meeting friends and neighbours everywhere I go. But, after a recent move to Toronto, I’m tempted to perceive manifold scarcities when I go out into a sea of strange faces—scarcity of friends, scarcity of comfort, scarcity of trust. It takes courage to perceive these unknown multitudes as potential friends on a common journey.

One recent evening, my husband and I took a stroll in our new neighbourhood. We noticed a nearby church and decided to take a look inside. The back door was open. We came upon a few activities going on here and there as we wandered through the large structure. People glanced at us, complete strangers to them, but no one asked us who we were or what we were doing. Smiles and words of greeting were all that were offered.

In the face of such abundant trust, we think we may have found a place to belong, a place to bring food to a table where everyone is welcome—and where we trust that we, too, will be fed. A table of Thanksgiving.

Monday, October 5, 2009

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

the fifth page for October 4, 2009

“When bad things happen to good people” by Rabbi Harold Kushner is the book many people think of when Job’s plight, and the questions raised by Job’s story are discussed. Kushner wrote it in response to the death in 1977 of his 14 year old son, Aaron. Aaron had the incurable disease progeria. The book is dedicated to his memory. If you have not read this book, it is well worth picking up. I have a copy you can borrow, and I am sure it is available at the library. It has been a best seller since it was first published in 1981.

Kushner writes in read-able prose, and does not hide behind vague academic or theological jargon, as he wrestles with the same question as Job: “ If God is benevolent and loving, why do bad things happen to us?” This is the classic “problem of evil”.

"I knew that one day I would write this book," says Rabbi Kushner. "I would write it out of my own need to put into words some of the most important things I have come to believe and know. And I would write it to help other people who might one day find themselves in a similar predicament. I am fundamentally a religious man who has been hurt by life, and I wanted to write a book that could be given to the person who has been hurt by life, and who knows in his heart that if there is justice in the world, he deserved better. . . . If you are such a person, if you want to believe in God's goodness and fairness but find it hard because of the things that have happened to you and to people you care about, and if this book helps you do that, then I will have succeeded in distilling some blessing out of Aaron's pain and tears." (from the Random House website)

I am going to include an excerpt from the first chapter, to offer you a taste:

“There is only one question which really matters: why do bad things happen to good people? All other theological conversation is intellectually diverting; somewhat like doing the crossword puzzle in the Sunday paper and feeling very satisfied when you have made the words fit; but ultimately without the capacity to reach people where they really care. Virtually every meaningful conversation I have ever had with people on the subject of God and religion has either started with this question, or gotten around to it before long. Not only the troubled man or woman who has just come from a discouraging diagnosis at the doctor’s office, but the college student who tells me that he has decided there is no God, or the total stranger who comes up to me at a party just when I am ready to ask the hostess for my coat, and says, “I hear you’re a rabbi; how can you believe that . . .” —they all have one thing in common. They are all troubled by the unfair distribution of suffering in the world.

The misfortunes of good people are not only a problem to the people who suffer and to their families. They are a problem to everyone who wants to believe in a just and fair and livable world. They inevitably raise questions about the goodness, the kindness, even the existence of God. “