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Monday, January 31, 2011

Blinded by the Light

Hildegard of Bingen was a controversial and influential teacher, writer, composer and artist, and nun, and mystic who lived in the 12th century. Hundreds of years after her death, people of many different faith streams are still fascinated by her writings, and artwork, and musical compositions. (One of the legends about her is that on September 17, 1179, her sisters claimed to see two streams of light appear in the sky, and cross over the room where she lay dying. )

My theme for the sermon and worship service this week was how each person, each child of God, is a necessary part of the body. I worked from the text in the twelfth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which he uses the image of the human body as a metaphor for the faith community.

One of the hymns I chose for this week was “Many are the lightbeams”, which uses the image of light to talk about the value of unity and diversity in the community of faith.

Hildegard often wrote about her experience of God in terms of light- she described visions in which she was “blinded by the light”. This is reminiscent of St. Paul, who was blinded for three days following his life-changing vision on the road to Damascus.

Hildegard is quoted as having said, "Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of divinity" and again "Every creature is a ray of GOD." People like Paul and Hildegard, who had visions from God that pointed them towards new ways of living, have often been amongst those who are left out or forced out of the “body” of faith communities. The light they reflect is not always viewed as a gift.

I have been following the story of an American pastor named Amy De Long. In February Rev. De Long will literally be put on trial by her own denomination, the United Methodist Church, for violations of church discipline. Her church trial is set to begin on April 11, 2011 at a church in Appleton, Wisconsin. For more information, check out

Rev. De Long’s ordination and livelihood are at stake because she officiated at a same sex union, and she herself is in a committed lesbian relationship. Her story challenges me on a deep level, because people who claim faith in God, and who follow the way of Jesus, as I seek to do, do not seem able to embrace a diversity that includes this woman.

Rev. De Long is the executive director of Kairos CoMotion. I found an apt comment about 1 Corinthians 12 on their lectionary dialogue blog, written by Wesley White:

“I am that which I am joined to and have both communal and individual identities. Like it or not, being part of the body of Christ puts me in connection with some very questionable characters, including Jesus. To pull my individual Christian identity too closely around me would finally isolate me from every other Christian and to have theirs pulled too closely around me makes me want to give up an identity I have cherished. It is important to claim Christ as larger than any of our Christianities.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

the light of God's love

Mechtild of Magdeburg was born around the year 1207, most likely into a noble family in northern Germany. At the age of 12 she had an ecstatic experience, along the lines of Saul on the road to Damascus, which she described as seeing "all things in God and God in all things."

When she was in her twenties she joined a religious order, became a nun. She continued to have mystical visions. She had a spiritual advisor who encouraged her to write about those experiences. The book took most of the rest of her life, and was called “The Flowing Light of the Godhead”. It described the intimate union between God and the human soul in terms of a sacred marriage. Much of the book reads as love poetry, and after her death, her writing came to be considered amongst the most beautiful written in the German language. Her work was an influence on the Italian poete Dante Aligheri, who has a character in his Divine Comedy named Matilda, who is thought to be based on her.

Here is an English translation of one of her poems:


Love flows from God into man,

Like a bird

Who rivers the air

Without moving her wings.

Thus we move in His world

One in body and soul,

Though outwardly separate in form.

As the Source strikes the note,

Humanity sings --

The Holy Spirit is our harpist,

And all strings

Which are touched in Love

Must sound.

Monday, January 17, 2011

on the road

I recognized when I referred in my sermon to a CBC radio podcast from the program Tapestry, that it would be good to provide a link to it, so that people could check it out for themselves.

Here is that link:

I was also aware as I worked with the podcast that each of the four people in the stories about “Road to Damascus” experiences moved from their former religious orientation to devotion to a form of Islam. ( It’s interesting that the CBC producers used a Christian, biblical reference in their title.) The choice to feature all these stories about conversion to Islam may reflect the reality that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. I note that as a statistical fact, not as something that I am particularly concerned about.

As a person of faith, a spiritual director, and a pastor, I have come to a place in my own spiritual journey at which I am not overly concerned with the “brand” of religion a person practices, as long as it is life giving, sane, and involves compassion to self and others.

I believe that a life lived with awareness of our relationship to God, (whatever we call that God,) is a better life. I don’t agree intellectually with the theological claims and arguments of many “fellow” Christians. That does not stand in the way of my seeing them as kind and good and faithful people.

The same is true of people who adhere to other religions. If their religion has helped form them as loving, and helpful, and peaceful people, I don’t feel the need to dissect their theology, or to argue that my “brand” of spiritual soap is a more effective cleanser of souls.

The other thing I did not have space to develop in Sunday’s sermon was that the two conversion stories I told, one about Saul the Pharisee, and the other about Charles, who becomes Abdullah, are both about movement into a new community of faith. Over the more than 30 years since my own religious conversion, I have tended to focus on conversion as a highly personal experience- God at work in my life, in my soul. This may be because my analysis of conversion has been influenced by the study of the psychology of religious conversion, and that the works I have read in this field have been mostly the products of North American culture, with its inherent individualism. Or it may be that I am finally waking up to the fact that none of us make the spiritual journey on our own.

Like Saul on the road, we need the help of travelling companions.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Is it well with your soul?

the fifth page for January 10, 2011

In my Sunday sermon I said a bit about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It seems to me that one of the strengths of this movement in its early stages was the formation of classes of people who met regularly to offer each other nurture, encouragement , support, accountability and prayer. I talked about how the leader of a class might ask each member in turn “Is it well with your soul?”

This is a much deeper question than “How are you doing?” or “Some weather we’re having, hunh?”

There is a difference between the polite and casual conversations we often have, and the care of souls.

I mentioned on Sunday that often as I am walking around in the church before the service begins, or in the coffee time after, I see and hear conversations happening all around me. I don’t actually listen in. I am usually on my way to do something, or connect with someone. But on an emotional level, I often pick up the sense that important things are happening in these conversations.

I believe that one of the needs that is being met, to varying degrees, when people take part in the life of a faith community is to know and be known by other pilgrims- other people who are on their own spiritual journeys.

I wonder if there are ways that we can nurture this aspect of our shared life. Can we help each other know how to ask, and how to listen, and how to be present for people? Can we discover ways to make it more likely for people who are newer to our congregation to know and be known by others? (To the degree and with the intensity with which they are comfortable, of course.)

This would be a different kind of work than simply “welcoming” people- although we may need to begin with looking at, and thinking about how we do that!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Z is for Zoroastrian

Today’s fifth page is recycled from December 24, 2008. It was the “Z” entry in a 26 day e-mail marathon called the Advent Alphabet:

Z is for Zoroastrian. Have you come across this word before? Some scholars have suggested that the Magi who appear in Matthew’s Gospel as visitors to Jesus were Zoroastrian priests. The word Magi derives from an Old Persian word “magus”, which was an occupational title for members of the priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion. The Zoroastrians were very interested in the stars, and had a highly developed “science” of astrology. Their reputation as astrologers led to the term Magi being used in connection with the occult, and this led to the development of the English word “magic”.

The Zoroastrian religion survives to this day. While it was once the dominant religious force in Iran, now it survives there only in an underground fashion, because of the radical Islamic fundamentalism that considers it to be a heretical religion. The largest number of Zoroastrians are found in India and Pakistan. In India they are called “Parsis”.

Historians of religion credit Zoroastrianism as being one of the oldest to have a revealed credal basis- meaning that it had written statements of belief. The religion was founded by the prophet Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra, who codified religious ideas and practices that already existed, and added to them his own world-view. Zoroastrianism is also likely one of the earliest “monotheistic” faiths, meaning that they recognized that there is only one God. Zoroaster is typically depicted as dressed in white, in garb that is very much like what modern Zoroastrian priests wear. His poetic writings form the basis of the religion, and its liturgy (prayer and ritual for worship).

Zoroastrianism had a powerful influence on the development of the world’s major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (often called the Abrahamic faiths because they all trace their histories back to Abraham).
Some basic Zoroastrian beliefs:

-there is one God, called Ahura Mazda, the one Uncreated Creator
-there is a conflict in the universe between order and chaos, and humanity has a role to play
-the moral code of Zoroastrianism is universally summed up in the words, “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds
-the religion teaches the equality of all, regardless of race, sex or social position
-Zoroastrians are urged to preserve and protect the environment
-Zoroastrian religion teaches that fire and water are to be used for ceremonies in which a person is made ritually clean. Prayer takes place in the presence of some form of fire, which is considered to be evident in any source of light.

There are active Zoroastrian faith communities in Canada, the largest being in Toronto and Vancouver. The Zoroastrian Society of Ontario is based at its community centre on Bayview Avenue, and is an active participant in Mosaic Interfaith, which is a group that promotes peace and religious tolerance.