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Monday, December 20, 2010

the best Christmas Pageant ever

One of my family's favourite books is called "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever", which was written by Barbara Robinson. It tells the story of a church in a small town, and its annual Sunday School Christmas pageant, which is hijacked by the "Herdmans", a sibling gang of the "worst kids" in the world. Because none of the Herdman kids have ever been to Sunday School, or church, in their lives, they need to hear the whole nativity story. Through their questions, the reader has the opportunity to hear the story again, as if hearing it for the first time.

Tonight I was at my wife's church, St. Paul's United Church in Oakville, for a public reading of this wonderful book. Each of the chapters was presented by a different reader. Each reader brought something of themselves into their dramatic reading. My sense of this was heightened because I know some of the readers, including our daughter Naomi, who presented the first chapter.

Some stories, like the one about the birth of Jesus, are worth hearing again, as if for the first time.

During the weeks of Advent I have been meeting on Wednesdays at lunch hour with a group to practice the ancient prayer discipline called "Lectio Divina", which is a contemplative approach to reading and praying scripture.

This Wednesday we will have our final meeting of the "Munching on the Word" group. We will spend time with this passage from Isaiah, which has often been read in churches on Christmas Eve. Here it is as found in "The Message", which is a contemporary paraphrase of scripture, which can be helpful for those seeking a fresh hearing of the words.

" The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.
For those who lived in a land of deep shadows—
light! sunbursts of light!
You repopulated the nation,
you expanded its joy.
Oh, they're so glad in your presence!
Festival joy!
The joy of a great celebration,
sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.
The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants—
all their whips and cudgels and curses—
Is gone, done away with, a deliverance
as surprising and sudden as Gideon's old victory over Midian.
The boots of all those invading troops,
along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood,
Will be piled in a heap and burned,
a fire that will burn for days!
For a child has been born—for us!
the gift of a son—for us!
He'll take over
the running of the world.
His names will be: Amazing Counselor,
Strong God,
Eternal Father,
Prince of Wholeness.
His ruling authority will grow,
and there'll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.
He'll rule from the historic David throne
over that promised kingdom.
He'll put that kingdom on a firm footing
and keep it going
With fair dealing and right living,
beginning now and lasting always.
The zeal of God-of-the-Angel-Armies
will do all this. "

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Puppet Play

This past Sunday morning we had a special presentation by the Saint Paul's United Church Puppet Pals. They are children involved in the Sunday School at my wife's church, and my kids are part of the group.

What follows is the script I wrote for them. Their director, Rob Phillips made some changes and additions, but I don't have those!

The scene is the front of a church. Auditions are being held for the Christmas play. Molly and Martin the Mouse are waiting for actors to come out on stage. A camel comes out first.

Alice: My name is Alice, and I’m a camel. I will be auditioning for the part of the angel.

Martin the Mouse: Thank you for coming, Alice. What parts have you had in the past?

Alice: Two years ago I was in the Christmas play at my other church. I was the second cow next to the manger. I had no lines, but everybody said I had great presence. Last spring we had a Palm Sunday play, and I was the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem. I had to be very serious, even when the crowds were cheering.

Molly: Sounds like you have lots of experience. The angel in our play is actually a singing part. Can you sing for us?

Alice: Singing? Uh sure, of course. (Seriously off key) Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream…

Martin: Thank you, Alice. (Trying to get her to stop)

Alice: Merrily (louder, and worse) merrily, merrily, life is but a dream…

Molly: Thank you, Alice, we get the idea.

Alice: Would you like to see me dance?

Molly: Thanks, no Alice. We will let you know.
(Alice leaves)

Martin: Who’s next?
(A giraffe comes on stage)

Jerry Giraffe: I think that’s me. My name is Jerry, and I am trying out for the part of baby Jesus.

Martin: (Trying not to laugh) Interesting choice.

Jerry: My Mom says it is good to know what you want, and just go for it. Just stick your neck out!

Molly: We might need a bigger manger.

Martin: We might need a bigger stable!

Jerry: Mom says she can make me a costume. We have some king size sheets that would make great swaddling clothes.

Martin: Jerry, your enthusiasm is great. Have you ever been in a play before?

Jerry: I was in a play at my school. It was Jack and the Beanstalk.

Molly: Let me guess…

Jerry: I was the Beanstalk.

Martin: Yeah, I saw that one coming.

Jerry; Do you want to hear the lines I have prepared?

Martin; Go for it!

Jerry: I just need to clear my throat first. (prolonged coughing) Ahem, ahem, ahem.

Molly: You okay?

Jerry: I’m fine. Do you want to hear my lines?

Molly: Yes, we’re ready.

Jerry: Goo. (pause) Goo, goo. (pause) Goo, goo, goo. (pause) Goo.

Molly: Thank you Jerry, that was…. interesting.

Jerry: Should I tell Mom to start work on the swaddling clothes?

Martin: Jerry, we will let you know. Since you’re going out through the choir room, can you send in the next actor?

(Jerry leaves. A sheep comes on stage. And stands there, quietly. Looking a little sheepish.)

Molly: Welcome. What’s your name?

Barbara: I’m Baa-Baa-Raa. I’m a sheep.

Martin: Have you thought about what part you might want?

Barbara: Are you kidding me? I’m a sheep.

Molly: And…

Barbara: Of course I want to be in the flock the shepherds are watching over by night. I hope this isn’t one of those Christmas plays with a bunch of goofy extra characters.

Martin: What do you mean?

Barbara: They’re always trying to pull the wool over our eyes with little drummer boys and lost wise men and reindeers. Stuff that is not even in the Bible.

Molly: (a little defensive) What’s wrong with reindeers?

Martin: I think she is saying she hopes we are going to tell the real story, with nothing extra added.

Barbara: You’re darn right!

Molly: Barbara, thanks for coming to the audition. We will let you know.
(Barbara leaves)

Martin: This is going to be harder than we thought.

Molly: What’s wrong with reindeer? And what was she saying about Bible stories? Isn’t there just one?

Martin: I remember from Sunday School that the story of the birth of Jesus gets told twice. It’s in Matthew and in Luke.

Molly: But it’s the same story, right? Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem, and the innkeeper lets them use the stable, because there is no room in the inn. Jesus is born, the angels sing, and then the shepherds and the wise men visit.

Martin: Sounds like every Sunday School pageant I can remember. Notice there were no reindeer?

Molly: There were no mice, either, smart guy.

Martin: Last year the minister said we should read the stories from Matthew and Luke , and look for differences.

Molly: Do you always do what the minister tells you?

Martin: No, but this time it was really interesting. In Matthew, Jesus is born in a house in Nazareth, so there’s no innkeeper, and no stable. No singing angels, and no shepherds. Only the wise men come to visit, after following the star.

(A cat comes on stage)

Jinx: Meow! Did I hear you’re looking for a star? I’m Jinx, the cat.

Molly: Hi Jinx! Are you here to audition?

Martin: Something about this guy makes me nervous.

Jinx: Don’t worry about me, I’m a vegetarian. Can I audition? I might be the star you’re looking for!

Molly: Of course. Do you have something ready for us?

Jinx: It’s a famous poem.

Molly: We would love to hear it, wouldn’t we Martin?

Martin: As long as he stays over there while he does it.

Jinx: 'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

Martin: (whispering to Molly) What was that about a mouse?

Jinx: The stockings were hung, by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there…

Molly: Thanks, we get the idea. But we were just talking about sticking with the story from the Bible.

Martin: Actually, we were talking about how there are two stories.

Jinx: Do you want to hear the rest of my poem, or not? I was almost to the part about the reindeer!

Martin: No. we’re good, thanks. (mutters to himself) Again with the reindeer.

Molly: We will let you know. Thanks for coming by.

Jinx: Suddenly I feel quite hungry. Think I’ll go out for a bite. Know any mice, I mean nice restaurants around here?

Martin: I think the nice restaurants are really far away. You might want to go there, and see.
Jinx : Thanks for the audition. I hope you have a tasty part for me!

Molly: Bye, Jinx.
(Jinx leaves)

Martin: That was disturbing. Maybe we should move on to the next actor.
(A giraffe comes on stage.)

Molly: Jerry, is that you? We said we would call you.

Gary: No, I’m Gary. You must be thinking of my brother. We do look quite a lot alike, although Mom says I am a bit taller.

Martin: Do you want to be in the play?

Gary: I’m way too shy to be on stage, but I wondered if you need other kinds of help. Like if the wise men are following the star, I could hold it over their heads.

Molly: You have a great voice. Maybe you could be a narrator. Or read the Bible story.

Gary: I’ve always loved the Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon. You know the one where Linus reads from Luke’s Gospel. He says, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed...”

Martin: That’s the story that happens in Bethlehem, after Mary and Joseph travelled there.
(Donkey comes on stage)

Donkey: That’s where I come in. I’m their ride!

Martin: But the Bible story doesn’t tell us how they got there.

Donkey: Kind of makes sense though, doesn’t it?

Martin: Maybe they put a donkey in the Christmas story, because when Jesus grew up, he rode a donkey on Palm Sunday.

Donkey: I heard that in one church play Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a camel. Guess they couldn’t find a donkey!

Gary: Uh, guys, when you get this all figured out, I would love to help any I can. Just let me know.
(Gary leaves)

Martin and Molly: Thanks, Gary!

Donkey: So do you have a part for me or not?

Martin: Maybe, Donkey. I think we have to decide what story we are telling.

Donkey: What story do you want to tell?

Molly: I can’t speak for Martin, but I just want to tell the story of God sending us Jesus, to teach us about love.

Martin: I agree with Molly. That’s the whole point.

Donkey: That’s good. I’d like to help with that.
(Barbara the sheep and Alice the camel come out)

Barbara: We’ve been listening from the choir room. Jerry and Gary are back there too.

Alice: Yeah, Jerry’s reading the Matthew story, with the star and the wise men, and Gary’s looking at Luke’s Gospel, with angels and shepherds. We all want to help you figure this out.

Barbara; There’s just one thing…

Molly: What’s that?

Barbara: No reindeer, okay?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Of war, and silence, and the Dixie Chicks

This past Sunday I re-told the story of the “Christmas truce” of 1914, when peace spontaneously broke out and interrupted the carnage of World War I, along the Western Front in Belgium. There are some excellent online resources that explore this true story. The ones I drew on the most for my sermon are the Wikipedia article, and one from

I also talked about Stille Nacht, the beautiful carol known to us as Silent Night, which is part of the reality and the mythology of the Christmas Truce. There are, of course, countless websites that detail the story of the origins of this hymn. The article I found most helpful was written by Bill Egan, and first appeared in Halifax Magazine. It is reproduced at this site:

A follow up to last week’s fifth page:
The response to my fifth page article about the choice to play a “Dixie Chicks” song as part of a sermon about Hope was quite heartening. All the people who emailed told me that they actually appreciated the song. I was encouraged to continue to take risks, to push the envelope of what “normally” happens in a sermon, and to keep on with my project of interpreting the culture in which we live.

(Not that it was a vote, but were I to count the responses I received to the sermon and the fifth page, it would be 3 votes against the Dixie Chicks, and eight in favour.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

One of the things I like to occasionally do in Sunday worship is to play a song from my Ipod, or a music video, that I think connects to a theme I am developing, or a point I want to make in a sermon. I do this for at least three reasons:

1) I like to encourage deeper “reading” or interpretation of the culture we live in. Viewing popular culture with spiritual questions in mind can help us see, sometimes, that we are not the only ones on a search for meaning.

2) There are song-writers and musicians who have inspired, challenged, touched me deeply through their work, and I like to pay homage to them.

3) Some songs just seem like a good fit.

This past Sunday marked the beginning of the liturgical season of Advent. Each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas has a traditional theme attached to it. We light a candle on the Advent wreath each successive week, for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

For “Hope” Sunday, I had this idea that we would listen to the Dixie Chicks song “I Hope”. This was a song that the group premiered a few years ago on a Red Cross telethon in the U.S. that raised money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

I like the song. It speaks to me about building hope, by making good choices about how we act, and about the need to be aware that our children watch our behaviour. We have the power, to some degree, to shape their futures, by the examples we offer them. A young girl who sees her father abuse and berate her mother may be more likely to see that behaviour as normal, and to accept similar treatment.

Maybe if I had introduced the song to the congregation with some thoughts about what I see in it, it would have gone over better. I usually try not to over-explain things, and trust that the listeners will hear for themselves what is of beauty and value.

The Dixie Chicks were not a big hit at Trinity this past Sunday. While most people in attendance were receptive, and appreciative of the service, and many offered their reflections on the overall theme- the only comments I heard about the song “I Hope”, were along these lines:

“ I just didn’t hear anything in it.”
“I liked everything else, but...”
“ Sorry, I didn’t like that song at all.”

I actually was not surprised to receive this feedback. I could feel in the sanctuary that the song was not “working”, not “connecting” with people. The night before, as I was doing my Saturday final touches on the worship script, I had actually considered not using it. There were a lot of other things happening in the service, and I was worried about running long. The song is a little over 4 minutes in length. The worship service ended up about 7 minutes over the usual hour.

I had decided to leave the song in, mostly because we had put the lyrics on a bulletin insert, and I thought it would be waste of paper if I did not use it.
“I Hope” that next time I will follow my instinct better, and not hesitate to pull something if I don’t think it is going to work.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In the running for redemption

As I mentioned in my sermon, I sometimes need external validation to get me out the door for my runs. (Especially on the grey and rainy days of autumn.) This month’s Runner’s World has these cover headlines:

“Special Inspiration Issue” “Get Fired Up!” “The Secrets of Lasting Motivation”

On one corner, in a yellow box resembling a tattered post-it note, was the headline: “The Doper Comes Clean: A marathon champion’s EPO use and quest for redemption”.

It is not unusual to read about inspiration in a sport magazine. But usually, the only mention of “redemption” is about an athlete or team aiming for a comeback. Redemption is one of those words that gets used all the time, but rarely in the sense that I hear it as a pastor and preacher.

In “church talk”, redemption is about turning away from evil, turning towards God, and trying to make our lives right. Redemption is about forgiveness of sin, and our intention to not repeat our offenses. In some circles, talk of redemption is not complete without discussion of the “saving act” of Jesus, in dying on the cross, as the sacrifice that pays the price for all of our sins. I don’t live, work, pray, or think in a circle that finds that aspect of the conversation helpful. It raises questions for me that I have discussed in other places.

But it does grab my attention that in the article about Eddy Hellebuyck, the word redemption actually does refer to his confession that he is guilty of using performance enhancing drugs, despite having denied it for most of a decade. He comes across in the article as having remorse for his choices, and a desire to “come clean”, and have a new life.

In my sermon I compared Eddy to Zacchaeus, the notorious corrupt tax collector, who was a seen by his Jewish neighbours as a collaborator and a cheat. Zacchaeus receives external validation from Jesus, and this seems to help him find the courage to change his life.

The Runner’s World article tells us more about Eddy than we can know about Zacchaeus. We get more of the details about life before and after the decision to change. The writer is generally sympathetic to Eddy, but near the end of the article, makes some pointed observations:

“While he claims to be selflessly risking his well-being for the sake of the truth, for instance, his remorse comes exclusively on his own behalf. He worries that racing officials will come back and investigate him. He also worries that he could suffer financially. And then there's the toll it has taken on his friends and family. "After we talked the first time at the restaurant, I felt really good about it," Hellebuyck had told me. "I kept getting really emotional [about confessing]. It is very important to me. I just cannot die thinking that my whole life I was a cheater. I was not. I didn't get any medals or anything, but I did some really great things—I ran a lot of great races, I managed, I coached."

Not once in our conversations has Hellebuyck ever voiced concern for the runners who finished behind him in the races that he ran juiced; the honest athletes who, as DeHart points out, Hellebuyck cheated out of recognition and potential prize money.”

This reminds me that in my own life, and in the lives of people I know, redemption/ conversion/transformation is usually neither instantaneous, nor complete. We are works in progress.

Monday, November 15, 2010

quiet thoughts

I was away from the pulpit this past Sunday. I had the opportunity to spend the weekend in silence. I took part in a Centering Prayer retreat organized by the local chapter of Contemplative Outreach. We stayed at a convent of the Sisters of Saint John the Divine, an Anglican order that was founded in Toronto more than 100 years ago. It is a beautiful quiet place.

Whenever I am away for a retreat or educational event I buy books. The convent does not have a store. Instead they have a hallway that is furnished with bookcases, which are lavishly laden with good books. The system is that you pick out what you want, read the price stickers, and place appropriate payment in the slot of the wooden box that sits on one of the shelves.

I love this approach. I wish I could do all my shopping this way. In many ways, I wish the world was more like the convent.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Supporting our Troops

This week I will lead a Remembrance Day service at the Queens Avenue Seniors Residence, which is about two blocks from Trinity United Church. The pastoral care team at Trinity has a healthy relationship with the Residence. A good number of residents at Queens are also involved at Trinity.

Once a month we offer a communion service for the residents. The Remembrance Day service is a natural offshoot of that ministry. It has become a well-attended tradition.

I am glad that we are able to have a service that leads up to the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of the year. I am old enough to remember when Remembrance Day was a school holiday. I also remember taking part in school assemblies close to the date, during which I was often the student asked to recite “In Flanders Fields”.

My father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and after leaving the military, was very involved with the Royal Canadian Legion for many years. I remember a lot of cold, grey November 11 mornings spent at the cenotaph, watching as my parents in the colour party.

It is “in my blood” to pause on Remembrance Day, and pray for the victims of war, and for the many people who have served their countries, and for their families. It is also part of my nature to think about how we do our remembering, and how we honour the sacrifices that have been made.

There seems to be a tendency in some circles today, to equate “supporting our troops” with never questioning the appropriateness of their mission. It seems to me that one of the best ways we can support our troops is to pay attention to what our political leaders have ordered them to do.

As a person of faith, my questions about the mission of our military will always be informed by my hopes and beliefs about God, and how God wants us to live.

There have been times in Canada’s history when churches and preachers have allowed themselves to be pulled on to the nationalist, patriotic bandwagon. There have been times when faith leaders have shown such enthusiasm for a war effort, that subtly, or not so subtly, the message has got across that “our” soldiers were on the right side in a holy war, and that God blessed their efforts. In effect, many churches became tools of government policy, helping to rally public support for a military effort.

I still remember that after September 11, George Bush rallied support for an American-led offensive against Iraq by characterizing it as a modern-day Crusade. He craftily called upon the historical images of Christian nations taking up arms against a Muslim foe, to re-take the Holy Land.

To use any religion as a propaganda tool is offensive. I am more and more convinced as I get older that God’s hopes and dreams for us do not include solving our problems with violence.

Monday, November 1, 2010

forgiveness and revenge

Like many others, I have followed the story of the former air force colonel in Belleville, Ontario, who has been convicted on about 90 criminal charges, including two counts each of rape and murder. While reading on the CBC website, I noticed that alongside the article, the featured ads were for surveillance equipment, pepper spray, and home alarm systems.

There is a multi-billion dollar industry in North America that trades in equipment and services meant to help us feel safe.

When violence is perpetrated against us, or those we love, or happens close enough to feel personal, we are confronted with our essential helplessness. I don’t know anyone who enjoys being reminded of the fragility of life.

On a visceral level, part of me desires to exercise power over the forces, and the individuals that threaten me. Maybe it is about the need to reclaim control. Or maybe it is just a primitive desire for revenge.

Years ago I had a summer job as a prison chaplain. When certain offenders were entering the system, their story arrived before they did. Word passed from the staff to the inmates about anyone convicted of sex crimes against women and children. I made visits to a man held in the infirmary because he would not be safe in the general population.

The part of me that wants to punish those who would threaten me, or the safety of those I cherish, understands why other prisoners would attack a sex offender. It would let them see themselves as better than him. It would be an outlet for their feelings of frustration, that they could not protect their loved ones from “people like him”.

I preached on Sunday about the potential for every person to be the “true self” that God creates us to be. I asked if there is anything that we can do or say, that places us outside of the embrace of God’s love and forgiveness. After the service, it was pointed out to me that I did not actually answer the question.

The “standard” answer is that we “love the sinner, and hate the sin”. We hold the hope that God always loves us, in spite of our mistakes and confusion, and there is always the possibility of reconciliation between us and God.

I think it is important to identify our feelings, which may include a desire for revenge, and separate them out from our thinking about whether or not God can forgive.

I think it is also important to realize that even if we were in a position to act on our desire for revenge, that anything we did would not un-do what the perpetrator had done. Most likely, any satisfaction would be short-lived. We look to our legal system, as imperfect as it may be, to provide judgment and consequences for heinous acts.

The spiritual challenge is for us to set aside the habit of seeing ourselves as the judge of others, and seek to be compassionate towards all.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Seeing Jesus

This month’s print edition of The United Church Observer contains an article in the “My View” section by a retired minister named Wayne Hilliker. In the article, entitled “Intelligent Faith”, he says “our pews and our pulpits contain increasing numbers of people who find less and less meaning in the traditional doctrinal language of the church. The end result is that many find themselves believing in less and less. On the other hand, they also testify that what they do believe, they believe with greater and greater conviction. The theological challenge in such a climate is discovering the language that best expresses the core convictions that lie at the heart of the Christian story.”

I think Hilliker is arguing for preaching that expresses theological ideas in precise language, with the goal of stimulating the intellect- giving the mind something to chew on. I get this idea from the way he uses the words “belief” and believing. I think you could take out the word “belief”, and replace it with “idea”, and take out “believing”, and replace it with the word “agreeing”.

I appreciate the way that belief is defined in the glossary to Karen Armstrong’s book “The Case for God”. She says, “ Originally the Middle English verb 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 (”beloved”) and the Latin libido (“desire.”) In the English versions of the Bible, the translators used these words to render the Greek pistis;pisteuo; and the Latin fides; credo. Thus “belief” became the equivalent of “faith”. But “belief” began to change its meaning during the late seventeenth century. It started to be used of an intellectual assent to a particular proposition, teaching, opinion, or doctrine. It was used in this modern sense first by philosophers and scientists, and the new usage did not become common in religious contexts until the nineteenth century."

I pay attention to the words I use in a sermon, especially the words that come with a lot of doctrinal or pietistic baggage. My own goal is not necessarily to be precise. I want to appeal to more than the intellect. I strive for expressions that may be vague, but which leave room for the play of spiritual imagination.

This past Sunday I re-told the story of the miraculous catch of fish, which Luke records early in the chronicle of Jesus’ adventures with the disciples. I held it beside the version from John, which is placed near the end of the gospel, and appears as a resurrection story. In Luke it is a story about disciples being called to follow Jesus. In John it is a story that offers the reassurance that somehow, the resurrected Jesus was still with them, even after his physical death. I also made reference to another story from Luke, in which Jesus and a group of disciples are crossing the lake, and a storm comes up that threatens to swamp the boat.

Jesus, who was sleeping, wakes up, and rebukes the storm, and it is calmed, and the waves subside. All the gospels were written long after the earthly life and death of Jesus. We can hardly help but read them with awareness of the Easter story. In a sense, every gospel story is a resurrection story. Does Jesus waking from sleep remind us of his resurrection?

One of the causes of hope we can draw from these stories is that like the disciples, we are not alone when we face the storms of life. My “short-hand” way of saying this in the sermon was to say that “Jesus was with” the disciples, and that “Jesus is with” us as well.

But what does it mean to talk about Jesus being with the disciples, or us, after his physical death? If I was going to “unpack” the baggage that comes with that phrase, I would end up saying something like this:

Through his very presence, as well as his words and actions, those who met Jesus saw/experienced/felt/knew the presence of the holy, the divine- perhaps something like what happened to Moses at the burning bush. Once they had been introduced to this divine energy/presence/light/love, their own minds/hearts/spirits were changed, and part of the transformation was that they became more attuned to seeing the divine, even in the absence of Jesus’ physical body.

Those in the mystical branch of the Christian faith have long been telling more mainstream believers that it is possible to have present-day experiences of “the Risen Christ”.

Monday, September 27, 2010

breakfast on the border

A few years ago, over breakfast at Cora’s, a colleague for whom I have great respect used a phrase to describe herself that challenged me deeply, and nudged me down a path of learning and growth that has changed me. Speaking about her own spiritual life, she said she’d been living as a “functional atheist”. She continued to teach and preach about faith in God, but did not feel close to God, or that God was involved in her daily life.

I understood. For me, faith had moved from being a matter of the heart, and a way of living, and making every-day decisions, to a dry, intellectual exercise. When I considered God, it was more the idea of God, than the presence of God in my life.

The Bible stories I have been reading lately are been about people who are anything but “functional atheists”. Prophetic figures like Elijah, and Elisha, and Jesus responded to God’s call to leave behind their old lives, to travel into the wilderness, trusting that their basic physical needs would be met. Elijah lived in a ravine, drank his water from a brook, and ate bread brought to him by ravens twice a day. John the Baptizer lived in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and wild honey. Jesus had his desert time, during which he fasted, and told the tempter that we do not live by bread alone.

Later on, Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs, with only the clothing on their backs, and a message about God’s love in their hearts: "When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near you.’ ”

These holy ones lived on the edge of existence, in a border place between life as we try to understand and control it, and life in the huge realm of God, where all is mystery, and we recognize that we do not really understand or control anything. They depended upon God for their very survival.

We do not always have to travel to a physical place, to find ourselves on the border between the known and the unknown, the safe and the wild, the sensible and the mysterious. Events in our lives, and in the lives of those we care for, can bring us to a time of wilderness, a time of searching- a time when life as we have known it no longer holds together, and we have to travel in a desert for a while, before we can see a new liveable place on the horizon.

The lives we build, and the things we take for granted can fall apart, and be taken from us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods are dramatic examples, but the same eventual deterioration of all that we have happens with the passage of time. Prophets and other spirit-filled people are a blessing to us, because they challenge us to look for more in life than what seems secure and comfortable.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

real hope

Near the end of my sermon on Sunday I was quoting a wise woman named Joan Chittister, who is a Benedictine nun living in Erie, Pennsylvania. She is a prolific author, having written more than 40 books. This past weekend she was interviewed on a CBC radio program called Tapestry. That interview can be heard at the CBC website.

I pulled some quotes about hope from the interview:

“People want to know about hope when they don’t have any.”

“Hope is the capacity to dance around corners with a smile on your face.”

“Hope is not an antidote to struggle. Hope is what comes out of struggle.”

“Hope is seeing in myself the ability to cooperate with a universe that is friendly and creator who wishes me well.”

Hope from this perspective is not a denial of hardship, or sadness, or loss, or challenges in life. Hope is the confidence that comes from having lived through hard times and come out the other end, altered by the experience, but still alive.

Sister Joan’s perspective on hope helped me see something new in the story of the “miraculous catch of fish”, and the call of Simon and other disciples. This may not be a new thought for others, but it jumped out at me that for Simon, the moment when he sees that life can be different than what he has known, hope is born, and he recognizes the call to follow Jesus.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Naked Truth about the Bible

the fifth page for Tues, Sept 14, 2010

Only God is God. Anything that is not God, is not God. If we substitute anything for God, or in our thinking or behaviour act as if anything but God is God, we are in danger of wandering into the territory of idolatry- the worship of a false god.

It is tempting to find God-like qualities in something close at hand. We crave answers, and reassurance, and security. It can be deeply unsettling to realize that these are hard to come by.

Part of a child’s maturing process is realizing that parents do not know everything. For the parent, this can be trying, as everything they say is challenged and tested. For the child, this is an exhilarating time, and a frightening time.

Some people are able to move from reliance on a steady stream of “right” answers, to a new kind of living that allows for ambiguity and mystery. Others find this intolerable, and quickly latch on to a new source of authority and rightness.

There are many refuges from the difficulty and discomfort of thinking for ourselves, and living with unanswered, and unanswerable questions. It might be loyalty to a cause, or an institution. It might be adherance to a religious perspective or philosophy. It might be an extreme attachment to another person, who seems to have all the answers.

I sometimes think that Christians use the teachings, the trappings, the institutions they have created as shelters from the storm of the unknown. The tendency to look upon the Bible as “inerrant” is a perfect example. The claim that this document reflects perfectly the mind of God strikes me as a desperate effort to hang on to “something” that is for sure.

As I preached on Sunday, there is so much that is beautiful and good and helpful in the Bible, and there is also a lot that we reject as racist, homophobic, misogynist, violent, and dangerous. Blanket claims that every word is “divinely inspired” require faithful people to accept, or give the appearance of accepting a lot of ideas we know are wrong.

I suspect that as an institution, the Christian church has been acting like the “yes men” in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, who can see the King is strutting around naked, but are afraid to tell him.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

God kneads us

This past Sunday we heard the passage from Jeremiah in which the prophet is sent by God to “the potter’s house” for a visual message. This story is the source of the image of God as a potter and humans as the clay. To remind us that we are each made by God to be “makers”- to create things, I gave every person who came for worship a plastic bag containing a ball of home-made play dough.

Here is the recipe we used:
1 cup flour
1/2 cup salt
2 tablespoons cream of tartar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup water
1 three ounce package of jelly powder

Combine the ingredients in a pot, and stir over heat. I found that the mixture “works” better if it is cooked. I tried the recipe the first time by mixing it in a bowl, and using warm water, but it was not as successful.

Once the mixture seems cooked, and you have stirred the lumps out, turn the dough out onto a flat surface to cool a bit, and then knead it as if it were bread dough.

Kneading the dough gives it a smoother consistency, and is also a wonderful feeling.

The jelly powder gives the play dough colour and scent. I chose orange, which made things a bit confusing, because the little balls of play dough in baggies looked and smelled like apricots.

Monday, August 30, 2010

an altar in the world

My summer preaching series was focused on the Lord's Prayer. At the end of summer, and the series, I realized that the prayer can be understood as an invitation not just to pray those words, or to a life of prayer, but actually to a whole way of living, that incorporates awe, and humility, and ethics, and compassion.

As I was preparing for this week's sermon, I listened to portions of a book by the Rev. Dr. Barbra Brown Taylor, called "An Altar in the World". I made reference to this book as I introduced the Old Testament reading from the Book Of Exodus, which described Moses' encounter with the burning bush. For Moses, the burning bush represented the presence of the mystery of God.

I highly recommend "An Altar in the World", as a guide to things we can do on a daily basis that may help us become more aware of God's presence. Here is a video clip from Youtube, of an interview with Barabara Brown Taylor:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

“6.9 billion and counting”

That’s not the number on the McDonald’s sign telling us how many they have served. That’s the world population., according to the best numbers I could find online.

This past Sunday I showed a short video called “The Miniature Earth”, which presents the world and its people as if we were a village of 100. This is based on the work of a researcher named Donella Meadows.

Dr. Meadows taught at Dartmouth College, and worked and wrote extensively, and with great influence, in the areas of environmental conservation, global development, and the limits to growth. She founded the Sustainability Institute, which combined research with a practical experiment in cooperative living on an organic farm in Vermont.

In 1990, Dr. Meadows published a report called “Who lives in the Global Village?” Many people have picked up on her idea of presenting the state of the world, and the relative status of different groups in terms of a village of 100 people. “The Miniature Earth” is just one of a number of such presentations that are easily found at YouTube. Here is the link to the one I used.

After the worship service I had a conversation with someone who works in the actuarial field. Actuaries are often employed by the insurance industry, to assess risk, and help companies calculate the amount of money they must set aside to pay annuities and death benefits. The person I spoke with was quite surprised to see that the video presentation made the claim that the world’s population is evenly divided between men and women. My friend questioned this, because he knows that statistically, women live longer than men. His question made me curious enough to look it up.

According to the website of the French Institut National D’Etudes Demographiques, the world population is about 50.3 % male, and 49.7% female. This site went on to say that 105 boys are born for every 100 girls, but that since males have a lower life expectancy, this difference evens out in adult years.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Forgiveness is a process, not a product

In the sermon on Sunday I said that a disproportionate number of sermons have been about how we gain access to God's forgiveness. Not enough sermons have been about how we forgive ourselves and others. I think that this is unfortunate, and distracting from what I would see as essential to the spirituality that Jesus taught.

We live in a culture in which self-interest and consumerism are powerful influences. It is not surprising then that "forgiveness" has been packaged as a purchasable product. Preachers have pandered this product as something that Jesus has paid for with his "precious blood", and we can get our portion of the product if we accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

This approach to marketing has at times been effective in winning converts to a version of the Christian faith based on fear of damnation, which exploits our self-interest. If we can be convinced that we will go to "hell" if we are not "saved", then we can be further convinced to buy into the solution, which is to accept the brand of Jesus that is being sold by a particular preacher or church franchise.

If I sound cynical in this characterization of "evangelism" as high pressure sales, it is because I think that it is abusive of people, and gives Jesus a bad name.

During these summer weeks I have been using the Lord's Prayer as the basis for a series of teaching sermons. It has struck me that me that Jesus taught this prayer as a model for how people can approach God. I see no indication in the Gospels that Jesus believed any so-called "saving act" or "blood sacrifice" was necessary.

Jesus invited his followers to pray to God as a loving parent- the word used for father in the original Aramaic tongue is "Abba", which is something like calling God "Daddy".

Jesus instructed us to pray "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

I notice that Jesus did not tell us to pray "forgive us our trespasses, because the price for our sins has been paid by the death of Jesus on the cross".

Jesus did not teach that. Jesus gave his friends the example of this prayer, including the line about asking God to forgive us, while he was still alive.

This suggests to me that Jesus' death was not necessary to gain our forgiveness, and that in his lifetime, Jesus taught people that the basis for God's forgiveness was not in a price being paid, but in the love of "Abba".

I also notice that the forgiveness talked about in the prayer is not just God forgiving us. It is not just a product we seek for ourselves. Forgiveness is also a process, something we are called to do. We are to forgive,even as we are forgiven.

The emphasis in our culture on "getting" often means that not enough attention goes to the giving, and forgiving, that we are called to as people of faith.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jesus takes the wheel

On Sunday I showed the congregation a very funny, and instructive clip from the movie Talladega Nights. The clip shows a fictional NASCAR driver named Ricky Bobby saying grace before a meal. A theological debate erupted during the prayer, which made for a good launching place for my sermon.

Last October I visited an old friend, Ray Luther, who is the pastor of a Society of Friends (Quaker) congregation in High Point, North Carolina. Ray grew up very near High Point, in Randleman, North Carolina, which is home to the Richard Petty Museum. Richard Petty may be the most famous, and most recognized NASCAR driver of all time. (Incidentally, he raced his first race at the CNE grounds in Toronto.)

My friend Ray brought me to the museum, and this afforded me the opportunity to glimpse the important role stock car racing has had in the culture of that area.

Ray told me that just a few months before he had taken part in an event called the "Faster Pastor". This is a stock car race in which all the drivers are pastors of local churches, who borrow cars, while the owners, and presumably, the church members pray for their success and safety on the track. I am including a link to a video clip from the High Point Fox Television affiliate.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Another Jesus Prayer

I have just started a series of "Summer Seminar" Sundays at Trinity United in Oakville. For five Sundays: July 4,11,18 and August 22 and 29, I am teaching about the Lord's Prayer. Some of my inspiration for this series comes from Becoming Jesus Prayer: Transforming Your Life Through the Lord's Prayer, by Gregory V. Palmer, Cindy M. McCalmont and Brian K. Milford. These three authors are all ministers in the United Methodist Church in Iowa.

The book was designed as a guide for a 7 session group study. I am adapting some of their material, and adding to it, and presenting my own version as the "sermon time".

The context for these presentations is a modified version of the typical Sunday morning service, shortened and simplified for summer time worship. I have thought for a long time that people who make the effort to come to a non-air conditioned sanctuary for worship on a sunny summer Sunday morning deserve at least 2 things: a sermon that nurtures their faith and a service that is a bit shorter!

This summer I am also experimenting with what I hope will be a more contemplative style of worship- a format that has built into it more opportunities for silence, reflection, and prayerful encounter with God.

I spoke about prayers we know by heart, and the potential that the use of memorized prayers has to help us make the journey from our "heads to our hearts".

There is a tradition amongst Eastern Orthodox Christians of something called "hesychasm", which is essentially "prayer without ceasing". I was first introduced to this way of prayer in a little book called The Way of a Pilgrim, which is the story of a Russian spiritual seeker who lived in he mid 19th century. He describes receiving instruction on this way of prayer from a "starets", an Orthodox monastic priest and spiritual director, who read to him from a classic text on the subject called the Philokalia:

"Find a quiet place to sit alone and in silence; bow your head and shut your eyes. Breathe softly, look with your mind into your heart; recollect your mind-- that is, all its thoughts-- and bring them down from your mind into your heart. As you breathe, repeat: ' Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me'- either quietly with your lips, or only in your mind. Strive to banish all thoughts; be calm and patient, and repeat this exercise frequently."

Much of the rest of The Way of the Pilgrim is description of this seeker's internal journey, and wandering in the world, as he deepens in his practice of this discipline of prayer. While the object of any true contemplative practice is not a temporary spiritual high, but only to live with a deeper awareness of God, it is still encouraging, and exciting to read these words from near the end of the book:

"The prayer of the heart delighted me so much that I thought there could be no one happier than I in the whole world and could not imagine how there would be any greater or deeper contentment in the Kingdom of Heaven. Not only did I experience all this within my soul, but everything around me appeared to be enchanting and inspired me with love for and gratitude to God. People, trees, plants, and animals- I felt kinship with them all..."

Monday, June 28, 2010

It's all good

I wrote this "Creation Rhythm Poem" a few years ago. It has been used in a number of different churches, and other settings. It has been published, but I think I still own the rights to it, so I am putting it on this blog. In a day or two I hope to add a link to a soundfile of the poem being "performed" in worship this past Sunday. I used it as part of a Sunday School recognition service that had the theme of nurturing growth.

In the beginning... There was quiet.
Shh. Shh. Shh. Shh.
There’d never been sound.
Shh. Shh. Shh. Shh

God said, “Light!”
Light. Light. Light. Light.
God said “Day” God said, “Night”.
Day. Night. Day. Night.

God made the Sky. The sky was high.
Sky High Sky High
God said, “Wet.” God said, “Dry”
Wet Dry Wet Dry

God made the sea. God made the land.
Wet Sea. Dry Land
Wind Water Waves Sand
God made a beach. God made rhythm.

Day Night Day Night
Wet Dry Wet Dry
Earth Sky Earth Sky
God said, “It’s good”

Good Good Good Good

God made things grow.
Plants Trees Plants Trees
Bark Leaves Bark Leaves
Fruit Seeds Fruit Seeds
Growing is good.

Good Good Good Good

Then God made stars. And God made time
God made rhythm. God made rhyme.
Stars Time Rhythm Rhyme
And it was good.

Good Good Good Good

God made the Sun God made the Moon.
God made midnight. God made noon.

God made fish, and birds and whales
God made fins and wings and tails.
God made swallows and guppies and eggs.
God made beaks and feathers and legs.
God told them to go, and grow, and thrive.
God said the word, and the world came alive.

Then it got really good.

Good Good Good Good

God made cows, and frogs
God made gerbils and dogs.
God made weasels and mosquitoes and camels and beavers and lions and spiders,
And God just kept making and making and making.
God made more insects and fish and birds and animals
and microbes and other living creatures than we could ever count.

And they’re all good.

Good Good Good Good

God made people to care for the earth
The birds and bananas and the bees and the dirt,
The dolphins and the weasels and the frogs and the trees.
The pandas and the kittens and the chimpanzees.

God made you. God made me
God made our friends. And our family
God made us to sing, and play and pray
To dream at night and work in the day.

Dream Play Night Day

Rhythm to life.
Music in our heart.
Work to be done.
We each have a part.

And it’s all good.

Good Good Good Good

God says it’s good.
Good Good Good Good

(Thanks everyone, you did good!)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Daddy and Mamma Mia

the fifth page for Monday, June 21, 2010

We are all children of God. On Sunday, I stepped out of the worship service to spend time with the children of our congregation. It was Father’s Day. I asked them to repeat after me the words of the Lord’s Prayer. I also talked about the enormous significance of Jesus teaching people to call God, the mysterious maker of the universe, “Father”. Many scholars have pointed out that the Aramaic word that the Gospels record Jesus as saying was actually “Abba”, which is more like “Daddy” than “Father”.

For people of my generation it is hard to hear the word “Abba” without thinking of a Swedish super-group from the 1970’s.(Mamma mia!) If we can get past that, it is wonderful to think that Jesus taught people to say “Dear Daddy” when addressing God.

My own kids are old enough, now, that they sometimes choose the less intimate “Dad”. (This is often when they think I am being tough on them, or being goofy, and the word is pronounced with extra vowels “Daaaaaad!”) But when they call me “Daddy” it feels like it has come straight from the heart, and that is where it goes, straight to my heart.

This leaves me hoping and praying, and holding to the faith that what Jesus was telling us is true, that when we pray, it is a heart-to-heart communication. We sang the following hymn at the beginning of our Father’s Day service:

Come, let us sing of a wonderful love,
tender and true, tender and true,
out of the heart of the Father above,
streaming to me and to you:
wonderful love, wonderful love
dwells in the heart of the Father above.

Jesus the Saviour this gospel to tell
joyfully came, joyfully came,
came with the helpless and hopeless to dwell,
sharing their sorrow and shame,
seeking the lost, seeking the lost,
saving, redeeming at measureless cost.

Jesus is seeking the wanderers yet;
why do they roam? why do they roam?
Love only waits to forgive and forget;
home, weary wanderers, home!
Wonderful love, wonderful love
dwells in the heart of the Father above.

Come to my heart, O thou wonderful love!
Come and abide, come and abide,
lifting my life till it rises above
envy and falsehood and pride:
seeking to be, seeking to be
lowly and humble, a learner of thee.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Time Out

I spent the last week in residence with the Jubilee Program for Spiritual Formation and Direction. This was the final gathering of our group, which has been on a journey together since the spring of 2008. It was a rich time of learning, and celebration, and saying goodbye.

My plan is to "get back" to regular posting on this blog,in the coming week.

Monday, May 31, 2010

ways we learn

In the sermon this past Sunday I spent some time talking about contemplative prayer as a way to spend time with God. This mode of prayer is about being with God, rather than asking God for things, or telling God things, or in any way expecting anything from God. I used the analogy of a human relationship, in which it is necessary, and a blessing to spend time with the other. Can we imagine growing in relationship with another person without spending time with them? Can we imagine growing in understanding of them if we do all the talking, and fail to take time to simply be present with the person, and open to what they offer? My sense is that for many of us, our relationship with the Divine can benefit from simply being quiet.

I made use in the sermon of the image of a Russian Orthodox icon, painted by Alexander (Andrei) Rubilev, painted around 1410. It depicts the Trinity, the Christian doctrine that God is “One God, Three Persons”. The image is taken from a story in the Book of Genesis in which Abraham, patriarch of the Jewish people, extends hospitality to three strangers that turn out to be angels, messengers from God.

Many people around the world pray with icons and other images. This is distinct from praying to an icon! The visual image provides a way to enter into an exercise of prayer.

Growing up in the United Church, I did not spend a lot of time praying with icons. Actually, I spent no time with icons! Most of my religious education, and experiences of worship have been either verbal (word based, as in readings, sermons and spoken prayer) or musical (singing or listening to church music or hymns). Some of the churches I have been part of make some effort to appeal to visual learning, with banners, stained glass windows, and other art, but these tend to be peripheral.

Recently, as I was researching curriculum choices for Sunday School, I came across a publisher that has drawn inspiration from the theories of a Harvard psychologist named Dr. Howard Gardner. In a book called “Frames of Mind”, Gardner proposed a theory of Multiple Intelligences. He posits that humans learn through a wide variety of “intelligences”.

The Sunday School curriculum, called “PowerXpress” sets out to appeal to different ways of learning. They suggest that Verbal learners work well with word-based material, and become frustrated without verbal stimulation. Logical learners enjoy abstract and scientific thinking, and do less well in arenas of confusion. Visual learners do well with pictures, and mental imagery, and artistic work, but are discouraged when there is too much text-based material. Physical learners like to be active, and move, and tune out if they have to sit still too long. Musical learners are bored by lectures, and thrive if the material is set to music. Social learners like group work, and thinking out loud with others, and are stifled by long periods of silent study. Independent learners are reflective, introspective, and self-aware, and group activities cause them to withdraw.

Recently, Gardner has proposed two other “intelligences”: Nature, and the Spiritual.

It seems to me that these insights can be very valuable to those of us who may be trying to plan worship. They can also be useful in our personal explorations of how to spend time with God in prayer.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

listening to each other

Last week I spoke at an inter-faith gathering hosted by the Oakville chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim movement. A few times of year, this group arranges events like this one. They ask representatives of various religions to offer perspectives on issues such as the topic for last Thursday evening, which was “Is God Relevant in today’s world?” This is the second time I have attended one of these evenings. Each time I have been aware of two things that seem important to share.

The first is the genuine warmth, and the heart-felt spirit of welcome in the room. The organizers, and the attenders bring an openness and willingness to be with people of different backgrounds that I do not think can be feigned.

The second is that those who speak, regardless of their faith background, tend to approach the questions in a positive, life-affirming, down-to-earth way. Very often, the essence of the views offered are very similar, regardless of whether they are rooted in the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Christian traditions.

How is this possible? It would be overly-simplistic, and would not do justice to the various faith traditions to suggest that at heart, all religions say the same thing. I don’t think that’s true. What I do see is that a spiritually based way of living can lead to surprisingly similar reflections, when members of the various traditions are asked to talk about a question that is relevant to them all.

The people I have met at these gatherings are not specialists in inter-faith dialogue, tasked with the onerous responsibility of rationalizing or justifying their theologies in light of the other traditions. They are just ordinary people of faith, who are interested in moving beyond the fear, suspicion, and narrow-mindedness that too often takes the place of religious discourse in our world.

It is important, I think, to recognize that too much broadcast air-time, and ink in the print media, is given over to the views of religious fundamentalism. As Karen Armstrong, that heroic and prolific scholar of religion says in her book “The Case for God”:

“In all its forms, fundamentalism is fiercely reductive faith. In their anxiety and fear, fundamentalists often distort the tradition they are trying to defend. They can, for example, be highly selective in their reading of scripture. Christian fundamentalists quote extensively from the book of Revelation and are inspired by its violent end-time vision but rarely refer to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and not to judge others. Jewish fundamentalists rely heavily on the Deuteronomist sections of the Bible and seem to pass over the rabbis’ injunction that exegesis should lead to charity. Muslim fundamentalists ignore the pluralism of the Qu’ran, and extremists quote its more aggressive verses to justify violence, pointedly disregarding its far more numerous calls for peace, tolerance, and forgiveness.”

Armstrong goes on to offer this comment on fundamentalism in all its forms:

“Fundamentalists are convinced that they are fighting for God, but in fact this type of religiosity represents a retreat from God. To make purely human, historical phenomena – such as “family values,” “the Holy Land” or “Islam”- sacred and absolute is idolatry, and, as always, their idol forces them to try to destroy its opponents.”

I will remember this the next time I read something in my e-mail inbox about the “evils” of Islam.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


My sermon last week was based on an "adventure story" about Paul and Silas, two missionary companions, as found in the Book of Acts. The story described Paul exorcizing a spirit from a young slave woman, which had given her the ability to tell fortunes. Her owners had exploited this girl, earning their living by charging people for conversations with her. When Paul cast out the spirit, he effectively ended the slave's usefulness to her owners. The story does not make it clear whether or not this led to her freedom.

The focus of the story remained on Paul and Silas. The owners of the slave girl were enraged, and beat up the missionaries, and hauled them before a local court on trumped up charges. Paul and Silas were beaten again, stripped, put in shackles, and locked in jail.

The story describes Paul and Silas sitting shackled in their cell, praising God and singing hymns. Their surprising joy attracted the attention of the other prisoners, and eventually, the jailer and his family. In the middle of the night there was an earthquake, which shook the jailhouse and threw open the cell doors. The jailer despaired that the prisoners would have fled, and was mystified to discover that they were all gathered around Paul and Silas, rapt in wonderment as the missionaries shared their faith.

The jailer and his family were baptized that very night. As a modern counter-point to this ancient adventure tale, I told the story of a friend who is a volunteer at the Don Jail. He works with violent offenders who are on the path towards sobriety.

I realized as I told these stories that all this talk of addictions and convictions and violence may have left the impression that the Good News of the Gospel is only for those who are actually in jail.

The truth is that there are many kinds of prisons. In February I spent a few days at Mepkin Abbey, which is a Cistercian monastery in South Carolina. There is a man named August Turak who regularly visits Mepkin for extended spiritual reteats. Mr.Turak is a very sucessful, incredibly wealthy business person, who works as a consultant to major corporations. He is quite open about how his life was transformed by faith.

On his website, Turak recently responded to a question from a participant in one of his conferences, who wondered about what kind of prisons he might have experienced in his former life:

No, I was not a drug addict nor was I ever arrested. But I don’t think transformation or brokenness depends on such radical ways of “going wrong.” While I had my share of pain (my mother’s early death in 1984), my path was based on MORAL, rather than physical suffering. I battled severe depression throughout most of my adult life. Again and again I rose to the “bait” of life, trying to find satisfaction through worldly success, only to be left with ashes in my mouth. I was looking for something in Mother Nature that she was incapable of providing. I was filled with profound spiritual longing yet tortured by doubts. I not only doubted my own spiritual potential but spirituality itself. I call this state being “trapped between heaven and earth.”...

...Transformation requires surrender and this is what I could not bring myself to do. The spiritual life is a process of disillusionment. The Christian mystics say we must lose all hope in the world before we will turn utterly to God. This is the painful process I endured for years.

Ironically, my putative “success” was crucial to my ultimate spiritual surrender. Many people imagine that if they just had money or fame or romantic love they would “have it all” and be at peace. Because I had experienced all these things and was STILL miserable I was finally forced to admit that what I sought could not be found in the world. This was a blessing.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


the fifth page for Tuesday, May 11, 2010

(My reflection is based on a recent real-life experience. Out of respect for the right to privacy of the people involved, no names are used. I also want the readers to know that I have sought, and received, the permission and blessing of the family involved, to tell this story.)

I was privileged to be part of an important moment this past weekend. I was on-call as chaplain for a local hospital, and received a request to visit with the family of a woman who had slipped into a coma, and was expected to die very soon. I have learned over the years that there are nurses, especially ones who work in palliative care, who are adept at identifying when a person is close to death. When that call comes from the hospital, it is good to move quickly.

The woman was at the end of a long and difficult fight with a number of ailments, including cancer of the liver. Her two adult children, themselves both grandparents, were with her. It was good to see how at ease they seemed in the room where their mother lay dying. They were taking turns holding her hand, and speaking to her. They spoke to me of being conscious that their mother was likely on some level, aware of their presence, and of their words.

From the moment I walked into the hospital room, I found myself remembering being in another palliative care room, a few years ago, at the moment that the person died. I had this feeling that the person had left the room. Not that they had ceased to be, but that they were just no longer there, in that particular place. They had, in the fashion of Elvis, “Left the building”.

I talked to the son and daughter about that previous time of leaving, because it seemed to me that there is hope in this- that our loved ones, when they leave us, go somewhere else. Where do they go? How does this transition happen? I do not have the kind of religious faith that includes definitive answers for those kind of questions. The kind of faith that is growing within me, and which I feel able to share, especially in times when it might be helpful, is in God who is in the midst of mystery.

One of my favourite poets on this subject is Bruce Cockburn, who wrote the following words on the occasion of the death of one of his fellow song-writers:

There you go
Swimming deeper into mystery
Here I remain
Only seeing where you used to be
Stared at the ceiling
'Til my ears filled up with tears
Never got to know you
Suddenly you're out of here
Gone from mystery into mystery
Gone from daylight into night
Another step deeper into darkness
Closer to the light

I read some other words that night in the hospital room, from the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, in the Hebrew Scriptures, that remind us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven, and that there is a time to live, and a time to die. I held the woman’s hand, and offered her a blessing. I prayed with her son and daughter, that she would know that she is loved, and that God is with her, and that she is safe, and that she would know that it was okay, when it was her time, to die.

While we were praying, we were watching this woman closely. Her breathing had been laboured, and her mouth had been open, slack-jawed, distorting her face, and giving the appearance of anxiety. During the spoken prayer, she seemed to relax. Her mouth closed, her chest movements changed from the heaving action to a more measured pace. Her head nuzzled a bit into her pillow. Something had changed for her, it seemed.

At the end of the prayer I released the woman’s hand, and suggested that her son take it. I said my goodbyes, and let the son and daughter know that they could call me if they wanted me to come back in the night.

The son told me the next morning that about 15 minutes after I left, his mother died. This week I will have the honour of helping with her funeral.

Monday, April 26, 2010

“Praying on the Right Side of the Brain”

The fifth page for Monday, April 26, 2010

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuro-anatomist whose work has involved mapping the human brain. “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” is an account of her experience during and after a massive stroke, when a blood vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. She describes not only her recovery, but the personal transformation that resulted from this experience.

This section of Bolte Taylor’s book, in which she is describing how she was feeling immediately after the stroke event, points to the possibility of another way of being:

“Although I experienced enormous grief for the death of my left hemisphere consciousness- and the woman I had been, I concurrently felt tremendous relief. That Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had grown up with lots of anger and a lifetime of emotional baggage that must have required a lot of energy to sustain. She was passionate about her work and her advocacy. She was intensely committed to living a dynamic life. But despite her likable and perhaps even admirable characteristics, in my present form I had not inherited her fundamental hostility. I had forgotten about my brother and his illness. I had forgotten about my job and all the things in my life that brought me stress- and with this obliteration of memories, I felt both relief and joy. I had spent a lifetime of 37 years being enthusiastically committed to “do-do-doing” lots of stuff at a very fast pace. On this special day, I learned the meaning of simply “being”… I shifted from the doing consciousness of my left brain to the being-consciousness of my right brain. I morphed from feeling small and isolated to feeling enormous and expansive. I stopped thinking in language and shifted to taking new pictures of what was going on in the present moment. I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.” (p.68)

Bolte Taylor’s view that the mystical capacity is “hard-wired’ into the neurological circuitry of the right brain is not shared by all brain scientists, but has nonetheless entered our culture, and had a major influence, largely due to the work of Betty Edwards, the author of “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. Early in that now classic text, Edwards quotes a neurosurgeon named Richard Berglund:

“You have two brains: a left and a right. Modern brain scientists now know that your left brain is your verbal and rational brain, it thinks serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters, and words… Your right brain is your non-verbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in patterns, or pictures composed of ‘whole things’ and does not comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words. “ (Edwards, p.xx)

Edwards was inspired to develop a new way of teaching drawing to her high school art students based on the insight that we have different “cognitive modes”.

A more recent book called “The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientists’s Case for the Existence of the Soul”, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, describes Beauregard’s work to identify the areas of the brain which are active during mystical or spiritual experiences. Beauregard’s interest is to make the case for a non-materialist view of the human mind, to show that “your mind does exist, that it is not merely your brain. Your thoughts and feelings cannot be dismissed or explained away by firing synapses and physical phenomena alone. In a solely material world, ‘will power’ or ‘mind over matter’ are illusions, there is no such thing as purpose or meaning, there is no room for God. Yet many people have experiences of these things, and we present evidence that these experiences are real. “ (Beauregard and O’Leary, p.x)

Beauregard’s research group conducted neurological scans of fifteen Carmelite nuns “while they recalled and relived their most significant mystical experience”. They also scanned the nuns during a normal restful state, which provided a baseline for comparision. While Beauregard’s study results do not support the idea of there being a “God-spot” particularly on the right side of the brain, he does assert that brain activity is observably different during a mystical state.

In interviews at the end of the experiment the nuns were asked to describe their mystical experience. “the nuns said that they had felt the presence of God and his unconditional and infinite love as well as plenitude and peace.”

(There will be no fifth page next week, as Rev. Darrow will be away with his family on a spring break.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

on the right track

This week there is no regular sermon at Trinity. The “Trinity Players” are presenting “Something Fishy in Galilee”, a little play I wrote a few years ago based on a resurrection story from the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel.
I thought I would share with you part of a sermon I wrote this week to deliver at a funeral. The man who died had a fascinating life story, but it was also a story with some unfortunate turns. It seemed important to speak about God’s forgiving grace.

Tom’s latest project was in the basement. A whole room was being devoted to the layout of an N Gauge railway. This was an old passion of Tom’s that he was finally finding time to work on, and Louise and Tom were planning to complete it together.

I have friends who are quite involved in model railroading. It’s seems like there is a sense of peace and a degree of comfort in being able to build a little world, in which things work in predictable ways, and if they don’t, you can probably fix them. Life beyond the models does not often follow even our best laid plans.

Life is hard. That is true for most people I have met. Everyone has hardship, and sorrow, and everyone’s life has times when the train goes off the rails. Real life is not as easy to fix as a model train set.

At least with the trains you get catalogues and instruction manuals, that tell you what fits where, and where you can get spare parts when you need them. I was going to say that there really is no instruction manual for real life- but that is not entirely true. Depending on how we grow up, we read the living instructions that are written all over the lives of the people we know. We learn from examples, good and bad. We are shaped and influenced by other people. Also depending on how we grow, we may have some sense of faith- some ideas about God.

A few years ago there was a big fad for these little bracelets that people wore, that had the initials WWJD printed on them. The letters stood for “What would Jesus do?”, and the idea was that when faced with a decision, or a moral issue, or a time when we just did not see a clear track to follow, we should simply ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”, and then do it- or not do the wrong thing, depending on the situation.

There is some merit in asking ourselves the WWJD question, but frankly, I think the better question is, “How does God love?”. In my own life there have been times when I felt helpless to do the “right” thing, and I have hurt myself, and others. There have also been times when other people have hurt me. They may not have wanted to- but it happened anyway.

Dwelling on the right thing to do can lead us to spending a lot of time judging ourselves, and judging others. That’s why I think the better question is about love, and grace. Grace is the capacity God gives us, to forgive ourselves when we have messed up, and to forgive others, when their choices have hurt us.

Love and grace are what makes life in the real world possible. Because life is hard, and people do not always know what to do, and we have to find a way to carry on, even after the hurtful times. I believe Jesus came to teach people that God’s love and grace are limitless, and there is always the possibility of new life, beyond the pain and hard feelings.

I mentioned when I introduced the reading from Psalm 139 that God is always with us. God knows us from the inside. God knows our strengths, and weaknesses, and our noble plans, our best intentions. God also knows that life is hard.

God is with us when we were at our best, and in the other times. And God has loved us through it all. God has been with Tom since before he was born. God was with him for every breath, every step, every moment of his life. God cried with Tom as he lived through hardships, and celebrated with him in the joyous times. God was with Tom when he died, and in death, Tom has gone to be with God. Thanks be to God.

Monday, April 12, 2010

What we see

Jesus said to Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

There is more to life, and to our spiritual lives, than those things that can be seen.

At the end of February we had a day-long workshop at Trinity about the practice of Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is a way of cultivating a relationship with God, taught and encouraged by an organization called “Contemplative Outreach”. In one of their pamphlets, Centering Prayer is described as a “method of prayer which prepares us to receive the gift of God’s presence, traditionally called contemplative prayer.”

So what is Contemplative Prayer? In the same pamphlet, contemplative prayer is described as “a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to Divine union. One’s way of seeing reality changes in this process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the Divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists.”

In a book called “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening”, author Cynthia Bourgeault, who is an Episcopal priest, retreat leader, and spiritual teacher, writes about two “ways” of praying that have been recognized in Christian spirituality over the centuries.

Cataphatic prayer engages our “reason, memory, imagination, feelings, and will... the normal human operating systems that connect us to the outer world and to our own interior life.” Most of what happens in a church service appeals to one or more of our “faculties”, and give us content to focus upon.

Apophatic prayer does not appeal to our faculties of reason, memory, imagination, feelings or will. It tries to bypass our normal ways of relating to the world, to create space for our under-used, and often ignored other faculties, what Bourgeault calls our “spiritual senses”, or “spiritual awareness”.

Bourgeault quotes a Trappist monk named Father Tom Francis, who is also a teacher of Centering Prayer:

“....the person goes to their center, their spirit, their true and deep Self, their personhood, where they are made in the image of God, spirit to Spirit, in a wordless union, communion, the lover with the Beloved... the state of being in direct contact with the God who dwells within...”

I spent this past Saturday with a group of Centering Prayer teachers and group facilitators. These folks were not monks or hermits or wild-eyed mystics. They are ordinary people who have answered a longing in their own hearts, to spend time each day in silent prayer, opening themselves to the possibility of the presence of God.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Can we find meaning in Jesus' death?

I am not an academic theologian. At seminary I absorbed enough theology to be able to navigate without getting too lost. In the years since, I have tended to follow my curiousity into specific areas, and avoided others. I would compare it to my knowledge of the City of Toronto- I know the broad layout, and how to get around, but could easily make wrong turns in neighbourhoods I have not explored.

The theological neighbourhood of “the meaning of Jesus’ death by crucifixion” is not one I have spent a lot of time in. I know some of the major intersections- the “cross” streets, if you will, but not the intricacies of all the back alleys and cul de sacs, the developments and re-developments that have emerged over the centuries.

I have usually steered clear of this neighbourhood. It has a horrible reputation, because of the predominance, at least in Western Christianity of what is called the ”substitutionary atonement theory”. This bully on the block makes me want to stay away. This theory, which scholar Mark Heim says, “came in fact to seem almost identical with the image of the cross itself”, is laden with guilt and shame about being human, and abject fear of God.

Heim summarizes the theory this way: “God’s redemptive plan revolves around offering an innocent Jesus for punishment and death in place of a guilty humanity, allowing a just God to practice mercy by saving sinners whose debt had been paid by God’s suffering on their behalf.” (Saved from Sacrifice: a Theology of the Cross, Mark S. Heim, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,2006.)

More recently I have been challenged by the fact that some of my spiritual heroes consistently look to the cross in their writings, and have found tremendous help and meaning there. I am cautiously looking into this neighbourhood again, not ready to move in, but willing to check it out.

It has been helpful to be reminded that the substitutionary atonement theory is not the only route that Christians have taken, and that many Christians have never gone that way.

In his book, “The Heart of Christianity”, Marcus Borg says that while the ingredients for the atonement theory are present in the New Testament, they were not brought together in the theory’s present form until about 900 years ago. Borg also notes that Jesus did not see his own purpose as dying for the sins of the world. (The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Marcus Borg, HarperCollins, 2003.)

Borg sees at least 4 other interpretations of Jesus’ death on the cross present in the New Testament, and makes the important point that all of these are “retrospective”- written by members of the Jesus movement who are looking back at the cruel suffering and death of Jesus, and trying to find meaning and purpose.

1) The Resurrection is God’s “Yes” to Jesus, in response to the “No” of the worldly authorities who had him killed.

2) The death of Jesus on the cross exposes the moral bankruptcy of the world’s powers, and the power of evil. Jesus triumphs over evil by not resisting it.

3) In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we see the “Way” of spiritual transformation, of dying to an old way of life, and being raised to the new, that is the heart of Christianity. (I am most drawn to this view, and would go further, to say that this is the “Way” of all the major spiritual traditions, not just ours.)

4) Jesus’ death on the cross is a revelation of God’s love for us. This reading depends upon the theology of the “incarnation”, the belief that God assumed human form in Jesus, and lived and died as we do.

Mark Heim makes the point that most Christian teachers and preachers draw on elements of one or more of these theories when constructing their own theology of the cross. We can probably see signs of these different theologies in the hymns and prayers we encounter in worship.

Monday, March 29, 2010

life, death, and life beyond death

fifth page for March 29, 2010

Our guest speaker at Trinity yesterday, Joan Cooke, spoke from the heart about her “journey of joy”- which began with the death of her husband, Ron. Joan decided that funds given in memory of Ron would be given to an organization called “Roofs for the Roofless”, which was, and is, engaged in development and outreach work in a number of rural villages outside of Chennai, India.

Later this week, the audio recording of Joan’s presentation will be available on the Trinity website. I recommend it as a story to ponder as we approach Easter. What I heard in Joan’s words was the story of a woman who moved through the grief and sadness of loss, into a continuing journey of transformation, that has given her a life she might never have imagined.

I spoke this week with a close friend who has just had a loss, and at this point, cannot quite imagine how her life will be in the days, and weeks, and years following the funeral.

The Jesus story is about life, and death, and new life. We can hear the story as being about one figure in history. We can also look at the pattern, or paradigm for existence towards which that story points. For all of us, there is life, and life interrupted by loss, and the possibility of life beyond that loss. There is also the hope that the Spirit will be at work, to not just sustain us through our grief, but to help us live in new ways.

In his book,"The Awakened Heart", Gerald May wrote, "...the journey of presence will take us places we would not have chosen for ourselves. Some of these places turn out to be filled with beauty and joy; others show us painful brokenness in ourselves and in our world. At such times what had felt like trust now feels like taking a risk. And it is in the risking, not the trusting, that we most fully live our consecration."

Joan Cooke opened herself up to a journey of joy that has led her through grief into an unknown, sometimes risky territory, where she has seen much human brokenness, and incredible hope.

Monday, March 22, 2010

God is where we are

This past Wednesday on the Roman calendar was the Feast Day of Saint Patrick. I cannot claim to be Roman Catholic, and have only vague connections to Irish roots, but as they say, on Saint Patrick's Day, we are all Irish. For the last two Saint Patrick's Days I have marked the occasion with a "Celtic Communion" service at a nearby senior's residence. Much of the liturgy is borrowed from the service book of the Iona Community. I love these words from a prayer of approach and confession:

"O hidden mystery,
sun behind all suns,
soul behind all souls,
in everything we touch,
in everyone we meet,
your presence is around us,
and we give you thanks."

I think that this sense of the immediacy of God- of God being where we are, is one of the gifts of Celtic spirituality. Of course, it is much more likely that we will be aware of, and appreciate the closeness of God, if we are also present where we are.

On Sunday I talked a bit about the challenge of actually living in the present moment, in the place and time occupied by our body. It is very easy to "be somewhere else" emotionally, mentally, spiritually. We have memories that tug us backward, and worries that pull us forward.

In the Gospel lesson for this past week, Judas Iscariot chided Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, because she lavished an expensive gift on Jesus. Mary anointed Jesus' feet with perfume made of nard, an expensive substance often reserved for the preparation of a body for burial. Judas railed that the perfume might have been sold, and the proceeds used to help the poor.

Judas may have a point, and the conversation he seem to want to have, about how people of faith should use their resources to do acts of mercy, would be worth having. But I think that Judas is also trying to shift attention away from that particular moment. It may be that he finds Mary's expression of love and of anticipated grief too much to face.

Talk about money, and obsession with possessions is often a way to avoid living in the moment, and directly experiencing the pain and the joy of human existence. I know that I do it! Often after an emotional pastoral visit I will go for a walk through a department store or a thrift shop. I usually don't buy anything- but the "shopping therapy" is a deliberate strategy of escape.

Part of the appeal for me, of Celtic Spirituality, is the invitation to stay in the present moment, because that is the place where we can meet God, and know that God is with us in all of our celebrations and consolations.

In her article. "The extraordinary in the ordinary", a scholar of Celtic spirituality named Esther de Waal quotes an ancient prayer spoken at the beginning of the day, by a woman in her hut in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland:

" I will kindle my fire this morning
In the presence of the holy
angels of heaven. "

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In the last few years a significant aspect of my ministry has been working with families who are "outside" the church, and who request the help of a minister with a funeral. I am grateful for good working relationships with a number of very sensitive and ethical funeral directors, with whom I share a desire to help families.

I meet a lot of people who are leery of organized religion. Sometimes it is because they have had no experience of church. More often it is because they have had negative experiences of church. As a United Church of Canada minister, I have the somewhat dubious, but occasionally helpful distinction of being seen as "not too religious"!

This past week I was asked to help with a memorial service for a man who had died in his early sixties of lung cancer. The family had met with another minister and decided not to work with him, largely because he came into the meeting with his plan for the service already laid out. The family did not experience much "room" for them in the planning process.

What I often find when I work with families is that they are quite open to hearing my ideas, and my beliefs, if I have first taken the time to hear them out, and get a sense of their ideas, needs, and beliefs. It also helps if I can show them that I am not attempting use the "opportunity' of a vulnerable time to push a particular agenda. (Like getting them "saved".)

Most families are looking for care, for comfort, and for hope. Of the many families who have requested "something not so religious", I can recall only two situations in which the family was totally opposed to there being prayers, scripture, readings, or a sermon in the funeral service. Most of the time, it seems, that the concern is around style and tone rather than content.

People do not want to get beat up with a Bible.

I was thinking about all this on Sunday, as we sang "Amazing Grace". This hymn is often picked to be played at "non-religious" funerals.

I think this makes a lot of sense. When people are in grief, and when they are planning to gather their loved ones together for a funeral, they are often, perhaps unconsciously, seeking grace rather than religion, and hope rather than shame.