Monday, January 25, 2010

The devil on television

I have been thinking about recent comments made by the television evangelist Pat Robertson. My first thought is that people should read this excellent piece by Natalie Hopkinson, in which she does much to correct the false and narrow, and I think, racist views expressed by Roberston. Link to the article:

My other thoughts have to do with Robertson’s view of God.

Robertson sees a devastating earthquake as the product of God’s wrath against the people of Haiti. This tells us that he sees God as an angry and violent holder of grudges, who will use pain, death, and terror to wreak revenge, not on the perpetrators of this supposed “pact” with the devil, but on people living hundreds of years later. This is a scary God.

If we believe that God is all powerful, and is “hands-on” in every aspect of nature, and of human history, then it follows that we hold God responsible for everything that falls under the category of “act of God” on insurance policies- every disaster, every weather event, every shift of tectonic plates that leads to earthquakes and tsunamis.

If God is all powerful, and is “pulling all the strings”, and literally making all these things happen, then we want to know why. (This is out of fearful self-interest- so we can avoid doing or saying whatever it as that brings down that kind of punishment.)

All through human history, cultures have looked for human causes to explain why God would act so maliciously. What people have usually done is blame the victims.

Is this the God that Jesus talked about? Is this a god of love?

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 13, we can read part of a conversation between Jesus and some of the people he taught. The topic seems to be the question of whether or not disaster befalls people as punishment for their sins.

"Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

Jesus rejects the idea that those who died when the tower in Siloam fell were somehow “more guilty”, or more deserving of punishment than anyone else.

Robertson, and many other preachers over the centuries have tried to scare people into accepting their version or “brand” of faith. Often the “sales pitch” has included the not-so-subtle hint that “believers” will be protected from the kind of harm that befell the people in Siloam, and Haiti.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"a fine balance between hope and despair"- WB Yeats

During the Christmas season I read “A Fine Balance”. It first appeared in 1995, the second novel by Rohinton Mistry. Mistry lives in Canada, but was born and raised in Mumbai, India. The story is set in Mumbai, and occurs between 1975 and 1977. In this period the government of India responded to what was called “The Emergency” with the suspension of certain constitutional rights, and “crackdowns” on those perceived as being in opposition.

The story focuses on the lives of 4 unlikely housemates, who seem to be thrown together by monumental forces. For a brief time, these characters experience a sense of community, and happiness. But all around them there is tremendous difficulty and misery.

The characters in “A Fine Balance” exist in a well-rendered, complex setting. Their lives, the forces at work around them, and the choices available to them are clearly shaped by the long history of this sub-continent. I hesitate to draw any simple morals, because I don’t think that would do justice to the scope of Mistry’s work.

But having said that, I would also observe that the characters who are portrayed as having wealth, power, and privilege, are essentially unhappy. The characters who seem most able to “maintain a fine balance between hope and despair”, are the ones the world would see as the poorest, the weakest, and the most vulnerable.

In the end, the character who had the most “promise” has given up, and two “untouchables”, who can no longer work, and now eke out a subsistence as beggars, are still able to find joy and meaning in their days. That gave me a lot to think about over the holidays.

Monday, January 11, 2010


“As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

We say the same thing about those we baptize, that they are beloved children of God. This is essential to our faith, that we are all God’s beloved children, and that God is passionately and deeply involved in our lives.

When we baptize a person, I always try to make it clear that in my own view of God, this great love for each of us is totally unconditional. God does not love us more, or differently, as a result of our being baptized. We are loved, always.

I can remember reading the baptismal record book of the rural Maritime pastoral charge where I was sent after being ordained. There were an extraordinary number of home “christenings”. I learned that most of these babies had been born at home, and that care was taken to see them baptized as soon as possible, in case they did not survive their first few weeks. In some cases, the minister saw these babies and their mothers before the doctor did.

Baptism was seen by some as a kind of “insurance policy”, or mystical veil that would protect the child. If the unthinkable did occur, and the infant died, then the family held on to the sacramental reassurance that their child was heaven-bound. I heard some tragic stories, passed down in family lore, of babies buried in their christening gowns.

When I did clinical training as a hospital chaplain, there was an early morning when I was called to the neo-natal intensive care unit. I met with a couple whose new-born son was about to undergo heart surgery. If this little one had not been tethered to his tiny bed by all the tubes and monitor leads, I could have held him in one hand. His parents had placed a gold St. Christopher medal beside him, and they asked me to bless the medal.

Even though I do not come from a tradition that blesses religious medals, on that day, I did. We prayed for Michael, for his family, and for those who were helping him. I asked God to bless the medal. I baptized Michael. Many hours later I visited Michael’s family, who were celebrating that the surgeons had successfully mended the hole in his tiny heart.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Word to the Wise

This week’s 5th page contains material I used last year in the Advent Letters series:

M is for Magi. I want to talk about the wisemen, but I already used the W! I have always thought that outside of the baby Jesus, the magi were the most fascinating characters in the nativity story. And they are magi- not kings. I don’t know when, or really even why that song about “We Three Kings” ever became popular- because if you read Matthew’s Gospel , it says clearly that they were wisemen, not kings from the East who came to pay their respects. (Incidentally, the only reason we think of there being three is because that’s how many gifts they brought. In some streams of the Christian tradition, they talk about as many as twelve visitors.)

I like the magi because they are seeker s after truth. There are lots of sayings about how it is the truly wise who can admit they do not know everything. These wise ones serve as models for anyone who is willing to endure hardship, take risks, and literally step away from all that is familiar, and go where they have never been, in order to fulfill their quest.

The wisemen were not Jewish. Nonetheless they were interested in the birth of a child some hoped would be a Messiah for the Jews. There is no indication in the story that they became followers of Jesus. They were faithful people who were open-minded enough to look beyond their own religious traditions, to see God at work.

Part of my not-so-hidden agenda is to offer nurture to people’s minds as well as their spirits. The phrase I have been playing with is “intelligent piety”. I believe it is healthy for us to ask questions, and dig deeper into the stories of our Christian tradition.

The Jesus movement has lost a lot of great people who felt they would have to turn off their brain, or at least compartmentalize their thinking, in order to stay in the church. I had a wonderful conversation recently with a man who holds a doctorate in atmospheric physics. He said he felt like a hypocrite going to church. He thought he was expected to accept unquestioningly the Bible, and the creeds as literally true.

A former colleague makes the distinction between faith and belief. He would say that it is possible to have faith in God, and to see the sacred and spiritual dimensions of life, without necessarily buying into, or “believing” every aspect of the portrayal of God found in popular religion, the teachings of the church, and all the layers of tradition.

How about you? Do you think we can have faith, and at the same time have questions, and doubts about what we have been taught about God, and Jesus?

Here is something about which I have no doubt. Jesus taught that God wants us to bring our bodies, and spirits, and minds along for the ride, on our journey towards truth. When a religious teacher asked Jesus which was the most important commandment, he said,

"'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. 'The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:30-31)

That’s a word to the wise!