Saturday, April 23, 2011

An Easter Meditation on The Song of Faith

God is Holy Mystery,
beyond complete knowledge,
above perfect description.

in love,
the one eternal God seeks relationship.

So God creates the universe
and with it the possibility of being and relating.

The United Church Song of Faith was published in 2006. It is our most recent effort to express our shared faith. As we were reading it responsively during worship one Sunday, I felt my spirit resonate with one particular line, as if someone had rung a bell inside me.

“God creates the universe”

This is a statement in the present, and not the past tense. It suggests that God continues to be at work, and that the universe, including the part where we live, and our very lives, are still works in progress. Creation was not a static, once and for all action.

When I was studying philosophy at university, one of the images suggested for God was a kind of cosmic clock-maker who built everything, put all the pieces together, and then wound it up, and let it go. In this model, the universe was complete at the beginning, and is winding down as time passes. God’s work is done, and now all God does is observe.

I personally find more hope in the image of God as one who is still busy creating the universe. God’s work with the stars and planets, and with you and me, is not nearly done. We can learn, and grow, and change, and improve. There are always new possibilities.

Not long ago I went to the graduation performance of my daughter’s improvisational acting class. The teacher told us that one of the basic principles of this art form is “Yes, and…” The improvisational actor is challenged to accept what their colleague has just said or done on stage, and somehow add to it, improve upon it, carry the creation forward. It does not really work to say “No, I can’t work with that!” That would result in an abrupt, uncomfortable, and unsatisfying end to the show.

The Song of Faith goes on to say:

God tends the universe,
mending the broken and reconciling the estranged.

God enlivens the universe,
guiding all things toward harmony with their Source.

The image of God as Clock Maker does not work for me. Neither does the image of God as Puppet Master, pulling all the strings, and controlling all that happens. Somewhere in between these extremes is God as the Loving Creator, still at work, tending to the universe, mending what is broken, and nudging each of us in the best directions, without making us do anything.

On Good Friday we remember the story of Jesus dying on a cross. To me, this is a story of brokenness. People who felt threatened by Jesus, and all that he represented, conspired to kill him. His death was a malicious, violent, unspeakably cruel response to a loving and peaceful man, who gave his life and spirit to showing others the love of God.

How does God respond? It is conceivable that the evil of crucifying such a good man would have been enough reason for God to say, “No, I can’t work with that!” We could imagine God’s divine hands washing themselves clean of all humanity.

But God, the Ultimate Improv Artist looked upon the death of Jesus, one of his beloved children, and said,(at least in my imagination) “Yes, and….”

Somehow, God accepted what had been done to Jesus, and found a way to work with it- to allow that evil act to result in good. The revolutionary faith movement that had begun with Jesus and his first followers was not stopped. Jesus’ friends experienced the Risen Christ. Wondrously, mysteriously, Jesus was still with them.

The events of Easter Morning are part of God’s ongoing creative effort, to make and mend the world, and us. Happy Easter!

Grateful for God’s loving action,
We cannot keep from singing.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Jesus was not a puppet, and neither are we

I recently read a book by Donald Miller called "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life". Miller's most famous book is called "Blue Like Jazz", which was on best seller lists a few years ago. He often writes in a confessional, memoir style. He uses "stuff" from his own life as the basis for reflections on "life's big questions".

I see Miller doing often what one of my writing teachers called moving from the "particular"- authentic elements of his life, and the lives of people close to him, to the "universal"- questions or themes that have application to the human condition in general.

In this book, Miller muses about what makes a good story. Story becomes for him a way of thinking about how to live a good life. Describing how it felt to be at the funeral for his favourite uncle, Miller wrote, "there was such sadness at his funeral because his story wasn't finished. If you aren't telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon. "

I think I know what Miller is trying to say, even if I don't totally agree with how he has said it. If a person has not made a positive impact on other people's lives, what we might mourn at their funeral is the squandering of a life. If a person was in the midst of a life they were using to help others, part of our grief at their passing is connected to the impact they had on others.

Miller plays in his book with the idea that we each have the opportunity to live out a good story. He says, "all of us are living out stories. And what our stories are about matters, not just for us, but for the world... a story is based on what people think is important, so when we live a story we are telling people around us what we think is important."

Some of these thoughts were with me as I was working on my sermon for Palm Sunday. The story of the "triumphant entrance" of Jesus into Jerusalem for the Passover Festival is a good story. The story Jesus lived out told people what he thought was important. Jesus entered Jerusalem not as a rebel commander or a warrior king, but as a simple, humble, holy man.

Palm Sunday is also a kind of opening chapter for the Passion Story. Every Holy Week I find myself wrestling with the theology that would have us believe that the events of Holy Week were all planned, pre-ordained, and required by God from the beginning of time- that Jesus' death was a necessary piece in God's plan for humanity.

Did Jesus live out the story he did because it expressed who he was, and what mattered to him, or because he was playing a part already scripted for him? My thinking is that Jesus took real risk in making the trip to Jerusalem that week- and that he exercised free will. He could have made different choices.

The people who acted unjustly and cruelly, to have Jesus arrested, and tried, and condemned, were also exercising free will. They were not puppets in a play in which God pulled the strings, to make this gruesome thing happen.

Why does that matter? If Jesus and the other characters in this big story did not have any choice- if we buy into the notion that all of this happened according to a divine script- then they did not have free will. If they didn't have free will, then Judas' betrayal of Jesus was not a sin- it was more like a supporting player in a drama doing what was needed to further the plot.

For me, this is the big question: If there was no free will, and therefore no responsiblity for actions in Jesus' story, how could there be free will in our lives?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Something Fishy

This past December my wife, Lexie, who is the minister at another United Church here in Oakville, hosted a public reading of the book “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’, by Barbara Robinson. It was a great event.

I learned from some of the members at Trinity that back in 1985, the Trinity Youth Group presented a musical adaptation of the play based on the same book. A video recording was made of that presentation. I have been watching the video, and uploading clips to the Trinity Youtube Channel. Here is a link to the latest upload:

I don’t recognize any of the young people on stage for the production. I wish I had a list of those who were in the show. Where I see people who look familiar is in the audience- they are all looking towards the stage- but I have seen the backs of some of those heads before!

When I look at the stage- the front of the Trinity sanctuary, I can see some small things that are different from the set up these days. (There were changes made in the recent restoration of the building following some significant water damage.) One constant that stands out for me is a green banner, that displays an ancient Celtic symbol of the Trinity, a Triquetra.

The Triquetra is a symbol from Celtic culture that actually predates Christianity, but which was easily adopted, and put to use, after the “Christianization” of Ireland. (The three fishes can be interpreted to represent the Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.)

I would be very interested to know the history of that banner.