Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thinking about Faith

The United Church of Canada called its most recent expression of our shared beliefs a “Song of Faith”. The title suggests that we are engaging more than just our intellect. In his book “The Heart of Christianity”, Marcus Borg discussed what Christians have traditionally had in mind when they used the word faith.

Assensus: To “assent” to something is to nod your head, to agree that something is true. It is fairly easy to assent to simple, “concrete” facts, but much harder when it comes to more complex or abstract ideas. This understanding of truth sets up a real problem for religious people. There is so much in Christianity that we cannot prove: God created the world. God cares about each of us. There is purpose and meaning in life for each of us. Jesus came to teach us about God. We may find meaning in these statements, even though we can't prove them to be true.

Marcus Borg teaches religious studies courses at an undergraduate school in Oregon. Many of his students think that believing is what you do when you aren't sure or don't know. There are some things you can know, and other things you aren't sure about, so you have to say you believe them.

This sets up knowing and believing as opposites. It also leaves no room for doubt. If along with this notion of faith a person also has the idea that faith is a requirement in order to qualify to be “saved” or loved by God, then you either have to believe, or you are doomed. Doubt then becomes a dangerous sin. This is a shame, because doubt, or an openness to questions, is a healthy part of a spiritual life.

Many people end up rejecting the kind of faith that means that they cannot ask intelligent questions, or express doubt. Borg offers ways to think about faith that are about being in relationship with God rather than in agreeing with the “correct” ideas about God.

Fiducia: Latin for “Trust”. This is about placing trust in God. The opposite of this kind of trust is anxiety, or worry. Trust is something that grows over time, and has to be exercised. There is always risk in trusting.

Fidelitas: Fidelity. Often at weddings I remind the couple that they are promising before God and their family and friends that they will love and honour their partner from this day forward, whether or not they feel like it. This is a conscious, lived commitment- a daily, hourly decision about who we are as a person. This kind of faith is only real if we live it out.

Faith as Visio: Borg suggests there are 3 basic ways to look at reality.

1. Life is short, cruel, painful, and then you die. Everything and everyone in the universe is out to get you. Paranoia is the only sane response. This view leads to selfishness, defensiveness, and closedness. This view of life is self-fulfilling prophecy. If you only look for bad, you will surely find it.

2. The universe is indifferent. It is energy and chemical reactions. Nothing really matters, and nothing really has purpose. Your life means something to you, but that's about it.

3. Life is a gift from a generous God. We live in response to the gifts God gives. There is purpose and meaning in life, and God knows what it is, even when we have trouble seeing it.

This third way of seeing life is faith as Visio- living with a vision for life. Believing that God is the source of life, and that living and dying, we are always with God.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

round and round and round

This past Friday I was out with my family, and another family, in celebration of their daughter’s 10th birthday. It was her desire that we all go roller skating, which is why we were at Scooter’s Roller Palace in Mississauga, going round, and round, and round.

It had been at least 35 years since I’d last been roller skating. In the last decade I have roller-bladed on city streets, but that is something totally different. Being on the roller rink, with the loud music and the flashing party lights, evoked memories of those nights at the Fort William Arena in Thunder Bay. In the spring and summer, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department turned the big hockey rink into a roller-skating venue. The music was very different 35 years ago, and we did not have the high tech lighting system, but the basic idea was the same- going round, and round, and round.

The epitome of the roller-skating experience back then was the “couple’s skate”. This event required two vital elements: the ability to skate while holding someone’s hand (which is harder than it sounds!); and someone to skate with. As a nervous and shy, and totally un-coordinated and un-cool early teen I really did not have either.

Thirty five years later, and I am going round and round the roller rink, and my wife is skating beside me. I reach out my hand, with the remembered hesitation of the 14 year old who always skated alone. My wife takes my hand, and we skate together. This is something we had not done, in all the years we have known each other. This kind of seems like something we might have done as a courting ritual, but it is just as fine a thing to do as we approach our 18th anniversary, and are sharing the roller rink with our 9 year old and 12 year old. Maybe it does not matter where we start, and where we finish, in the eternal round and round of the life’s roller rink.

The next morning I was in a palliative care room at the hospital, in my minister’s alb and stole, helping a wonderful couple make their wedding vows. They have been together for more than a decade, and decided just a few days ago to seal their love with the churchly formalities. She had waited for him to ask him, and he did. It seemed he wanted this to happen before he died.

It was a sacred and powerfully moving event. The ten or so people gathered in the room were loving witnesses as these two brave souls sat side by side, holding hands, and looking into each other’s eyes.

Love is stronger than death. This is one of the deep truths of faith. Love is eternal, and timeless, and just keeps going round and round. Like the golden circle of a wedding band. Like loud and flashy circuits around a roller rink, without a clear beginning or end.

To promise yourself to another person is an act of faith and hope and will. Does it matter whether this hope-filled promise happens nearer the beginning or the end of our earthly life?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thomas Keating and Henri Nouwen

Thomas Keating is a Cistercian monk and priest, and a prominent teacher of the spiritual discipline called Centering Prayer. He believes that every child comes into the world with instinctual needs for survival and security, affection and esteem and approval, and power and control.

Keating goes on to say that the craving for these things is essential to surviving early childhood. He would also say that every child is to some degree deprived of the optimal level amounts and qualities of these things. We are not born into perfect families, and it is not a perfect world. In fact, for many children, for many people, the world we live in is a dangerous and difficult place in which to grow up.

Keating suggests that there is a correlation between how the child’s instinctual needs for security, and love, and encouragement, are met, and the child’s success at establishing a meaningful relationship with God.

If that connection to God is not established in a healthy, life-giving way, Keating believes that the child may seek happiness by either compulsively seeking to fulfill the instinctual needs mentioned earlier, or by over-identifying with its social group- by which he means family, ethnic group, community, village, tribe, country, or even religion.

Keating uses the phrase “emotional programs” to refer to the effort human make to find happiness and peace by satisfying their instinctual needs. He would say that this is a hopeless and doomed effort, because those emotional programs are driven by limitless need- we never actually get “enough” of these things to make us feel whole, and good, and at peace. (Keating would describe this as being addicted to our emotional programs.) The same is true of seeking happiness and peace by identifying with the values and agenda of another person, or a social group.

To me, this all seems like a more nuanced expression of what Henri Nouwen was saying when he described faithful living as keeping in a healthy balance our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Vision and Mission

I have been a minister for more than 20 years, and for most of that time, I basically bought into the idea that my primary role as the minister was to keep the church going. Over the years I have actually had congregational leaders tell me that my job was to keep things calm and comfortable, so that the current membership would remain loyal, and so that the money would keep flowing, so we could cover all the costs, including my salary. In other words, keep the church going so that we can keep the church going. Don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge people, stick with the party line on all the issues. Teach and preach what people have come to expect. (I am not sure how well I did at times, in sticking to this mandate.)

The way I think about church is changing. I am coming around to the idea that keeping the church going is only a worthwhile project if the church is living out its mission. So what is the mission of the church, if it is not just keeping the church going?

I wrote something for a letter of invitation to a newcomers event, that I also used in our church annual report. It is a statement of my own vision, and it is a work in progress:

“My personal vision for Trinity is that it continues to grow as a faith community that encourages and nurtures people in their spiritual lives. This is very different from the kind of church that tells people how to think, what to believe, or how to live. I believe that each of us has a built-in appetite for God: a yearning for peace, and purpose and joy. Being part of a church helps us deepen our awareness of God, who is already at work in us, and all around us. Together we can engage in activities that make a difference in the lives of people in our community, and not incidentally, help us grow spiritually.”

I am still tinkering with these words, and wonder if “grow spiritually” really covers what I want to say. It may be something more like “Be transformed from the inside out”.