Living the Questions

Sunday Morning Musings:  Over the years I have lived the wonderful paradox that is life.  Today I will talk about the paradox of asking questions.  We likely all have at one time or another encountered the child who seems to be constantly asking questions and feeling harangued by these questions we finally have to say: “Stop asking so many questions!”  On the other hand, we often may have encouraged that same child by telling him or her that “asking questions is the best way to learn”.  It is easy to see why asking questions can become one of life’s paradoxes.

Some of life’s questions can often be answered with simple answers.  Child: Are there yet?  Adult: No! But other questions may not be that simple.  “What is the meaning of life?” “What does God look like?” (I know of a book entitled: Does God Have a Big Toe?).  It maybe that we have rarely, if ever, given any thought to these or other of life’s big questions. During life’s journey it is important that we do give some thought to these and what I would call other spiritual questions.

Too often, we are fed the answers as if there is only one correct one which can often do us more harm than good.  I often wonder how many adults carry around in their heads the same image of God that they were likely taught as a child.  We will often make reference to “the Big Guy up there” when referring to God.  When a ten year old drew me a picture of God, he drew an old man with a beard in a long robe surrounded by clouds.  How does that fit with the “panentheistic” God who is in all things? (Note I didn’t use the word “pantheistic” which means “God is all things”.  The same paradox arises with other spiritual questions.

I strongly believe that asking questions is a very important way of learning. Yet, I just as strongly believe that to assume that there is only one answer and that answer doesn’t change is not very helpful.  When science proves that the earth is much older than Biblical genealogies tell us, it is time to change our thinking and understanding of the Bible.  I don’t mean that we should totally ignore the stories and history recounted in the Bible, but we must be willing to adapt our way of thinking.

I have often said that to think that if we think we have all of the answers, then we haven’t asked all of the questions.  That doesn’t mean we should ever stop asking questions.  Rather, we need to keep asking; we need to keep learning.

Living with the questions is very important.  It helps us deal with one of the many paradoxes of life itself.

Why Do I Attend Worship

Recently in the news there have been a number of stories again about the closing of various churches across the land.  Often the reasons cited included the fact that congregation’s members die or move away making it impossible for those left to sustain their worship place.  It doesn’t help matters that the buildings are often old and costly to maintain.  Yet I also know of fairly new buildings (less than 50 years old) that were also being closed for similar reasons.

As much as I feel badly when I hear of a church closing its doors or being de-consecrated, I am also a realist.  At one time every little community had its own general store, bank, post office , etc. and often more than one church building (sometimes buildings of the same denomination that need to spread its wings or resolve a dispute).  At the same time as some churches are closing others seem to be thriving which leads them to build new edifices and lead one to wonder why.

I asked myself why it is that I go to church.  I used to think that it was because I was expected to do so; after all I was the worship leader.  I figured that I might just not attend worship after my retirement and join the “spiritual but not religious” group.  But then I realized that even though I didn’t consider myself religious, I still wanted to attend weekly worship (not that that is the only thing a real church does).  Despite the fact that I am very much a “lone wolf” kind of person, I still feel the importance of communal worship.  Granted, that doesn’t have to be Sunday morning as in the past, but there is a need to meet with others.  It doesn’t even matter that we don’t even share the same “theological” beliefs.  What draws me to worship is the yearning for fellowship.

I have often heard people say that they don’t go to worship because they don’t get anything out of it.  I would suggest participating in worship is more than just receiving.  It really has more to do with giving (and I don’t just mean when the offering plate is passed around.  Sometimes we don’t know the effect of our presence on others.  One man I knew used to watch his wife and young family walk to church each week for years. Then one day he told me that he didn’t know what overcame him but he just knew he just had to join them, which he did and as every week since.  He didn’t know why, or what it might mean to him, but he knew that it meant something special to his family and so he joined them. (He also did find something for him as well.)

Together they have celebrated new life in their midst.  They have also mourned together at the death of one of their church family.  I have seen similar scenarios played out again and again.  Faith is taught but seems to be also caught.  Most importantly, each of us must make it our own.  Adding to our desire to be part of a larger community is also the desire to connect with the idea that we must be open to being taught and that means being strong enough to ask questions about we have or haven’t been taught.

I also know and appreciate that some will remind me that worship doesn’t have to take place in a building.  I will not argue the point, but my only comment is that if we do not choose to make worship intentional, it misses so much.  I can take a walk in nature and feel the presence of the one I worship, but I then need to learn to share that encounter with others.

Doing What is Right

Sunday Morning Musings:   Many times I have heard it said that some people are “spiritual but not religious”.  I have also said that I believe that it can and often does mean different things to different people.  Earlier this week I shared a post from Facebook that read: A religious person will do what he is told, no matter what is right.  A spiritual person will do what is right, no matter what he is told. I shared it because I felt that it contained a certain amount of truth, and I liked the contrasting opinions offered.

There can be a big difference between some who is religious and someone who is spiritual.  As I have said before that such is not always the case but certainly this saying shows a significant difference between the two.  To acknowledge one’s ties to a religious set of beliefs can and sometimes does lead one to do what they are told to do regardless of its moral, ethical or just plain common sense outcomes.  We see much of this thing happening today with political as well as religious matters when it comes to separating families that have entered the USA illegally.  It is the law or the Bible has said that such actions are required.  If one is told to accept what is being said or done without as much as a question of what it means in the larger picture, then we are in serious trouble.

The sad part of this theory is that both sides will claim that they are right and obviously the other side is wrong.  Such is the result when “sides” are chosen.  My concern is that if we can stand together on certain issues, what is it then that separates us?

The answer is that we let our own interests or our egos to get in the way, which to me is the difference between being spiritual and being religious.  When we can get ourselves and our own needs out of the way; when we care about others first, we can begin to live in a way that is bigger than any religious beliefs. It doesn’t mean that we throw out our beliefs, rather we let those beliefs be guided by a different (I could have said “higher”) set of priorities. We are no longer ruled by the authority of the law, or the authority of our religion, nor religious books or persons.  Rather the final authority becomes our sense of providing care and compassion and love first and foremost.

The spiritual person may belong to a religious group, but each one must choose to think beyond oneself.  Even sometimes one’s ethical sense is stretched and our actions go beyond the utilitarian sense of what is the good for the nation or even the self.  The law or religious beliefs must be put aside in the name of doing what is loving and caring.

This past while there has been much discussion and controversy about the separation of families of illegal immigrants.  As mentioned in a previous article, the Bible has been used to support such actions. It is in just such a situation that we have to realize that any interpretation that calls us to support any action that is harmful is wrong.  When we let our own needs become such we must decide which is more important to us, our religion or our spirituality.

The Bible is Not a Weapon

Sunday Morning Musings:  When I was a child we used to be drilled on finding Bible verses in the hope of speeding up our abilities to be able to find things in the Bible.  This game was in complete agreement with Biblical teaching that recognized the “Word of God” as a weapon of great repute. As the writer of the letter to the Ephesians says: …to stand firm against the enemy, take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (6:17).  To be clear, the Christian Church as equated the Word of God with the Bible.  (Of course, this is a whole other topic since the writings quoted were written before the Bible came into existence.)

Despite the above fact, for the sake of these musings I will equate the two as has been often done for my argument today is abusing the Bible when it is used as a weapon.  Strangely enough it happens far too often and this past week has been no exception.  The President of The United State speaking though staff stated that it was considered Biblical to separate children from their parents.  Sadly, there were those that retreated to the Bible to refute such a contention.  To me, that is like meeting violence with violence – or like saying “if you want to sword fight, well, let’s do it.

The Bible is not a weapon and should never be used as such.  Nor should it be considered the only way that God has spoken or continues to speak to us.  To discuss the creation of “The Bible” and when it was determined to be God’s only word, would require a history lesson about canonization and include the Westminster Catechism of the 17th century, so we shall not go there in these musing.  Rather let’s spend what space is left discussing the Bible in general and its use.

Two ideas come to mind when discussions are had talking about the Bible.  They are infallibility and inerrancy and are often related.  The former reminds us: “To confess that the bible is infallible is to confess that the Scriptures are incapable of teaching any error.”  Whereas the latter states: Since the authors could not err when writing Scripture, the bible contains no affirmations of anything that is contrary to fact. Inerrancy is a quality of the original text of the bible. Translations may err, but the original manuscripts penned by the prophets and apostles do not (Ligonier Ministries).

Such a statement about inerrancy does allow for “misinterpretation” which many seem to ignore choosing rather simply to say:  “if it is in the Bible it must be true because God wouldn’t lie”.   And since the Bible is God-inspired, why would any of the many writers lie to us reader?  Yet, that fact in itself is a problem since we also know about “unconscious bias”. Nor does it take into account the fact that “history is too often written by the winners” to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill.

I am not suggesting that we no longer read the Bible, but do suggest that we not use it as a weapon to defend our point of view.  I am also hope that we would include other writings as sacred texts that can also contain “the Word of God”, that is to say, they contain important truths about our relationship with “God and how these truths are revealed to us.

Only when we begin to broaden our perspectives about God; about how love is more important than defending our points of view can we ever hope to live together in peace and harmony.

The Hereafter

Sunday Morning Musings:  Recently I heard the story of the old minister who said to his younger associate that he had been thinking a lot about the “hereafter”.  When pushed to explain himself more the older minister said to his colleague that whenever he entered a room he would usually have to ask himself: What did I come in here after?   But it is the former “hereafter” that I wish to muse today.

There was a time, and for some it still is, the goal of Christian faith was a safe arrival in the hereafter.  To be saved meant that one had secured a place with the Almighty.   One’s halo and wings were just waiting for the end of our earthly journey and they would be awarded.  That’s right; I am talking about “heaven”.  At one time, our earthly life really didn’t mean much.  What mattered was achieving the ultimate goal – according to the Apostle’s Creed – being judged worthy by Jesus who “will come to judge the living and the dead”. Of course, it doesn’t offer any specifics on which we shall be judged, nor what will happen should we be judged as “inappropriate”.

Before I muse any further, let me assured you that I do believe in “heaven and hell”, just with certain caveats.  Firstly, heaven (and hell) is not a physical place.  Such an idea may have had some resonance with the idea of a three-level world (heaven above, hell below with us living here in the middle).  In the early days of the race to space a Russian cosmonaut radioed from “outer-space” that he did not see “God” or any semblance of heaven.  Although, volcanoes do indicate that below the surface of this planet called “earth” is plenty hot.

I can only say again, that to speak of the “hereafter” is not spoken of a place, rather a state of being.  Some have told me that “heaven and hell” are experienced by us in the here and now.  There are times when we can experience such a positive feeling that we might describe it as “feeling like heaven”.  As well, there are times when we can experience “hell on earth”.  I am not about to deny such experiences.  To be honest, I believe that we have all experienced both feelings at different times during our earthly lives.  What I will say about the similarities of these experiences is whether or not we feel that presence of God (my word used to express a sense of something beyond myself). To feel a presence is a heavenly feeling.  To feel totally alone feels like hell.

But all this talk doesn’t say much about the “hereafter”.  What happens after this earthly life is over – what happens when we die?  I don’t believe that it is all over for us.  Our physical bodies die, are buried, even cremated.  Yet, we are more than our bodies.  That which is called our “spirit” lives on in the “hereafter” but like the spirit in this life, space and time don’t come into the equation.  Beyond that fact, I am sorry to say that I don’t have much to add.  We become once again part of all that is, all that was, and all that ever shall be.  Some will tell us that how we experienced life while we were alive will be enhanced after death.  Goodness will become more goodness.  I supposed the opposite must also be considered as holding true as well.

Does it matter how I live now?  Of course it does.  Will how I live now determine my life in the hereafter?  I don’t know.  But I am certain that as God is with me now, God will always be part of my life, not only here but hereafter too.

I Don’t Believe Anymore?

Sunday Morning Musings:  Someone asked me if I would be remaining with The United Church of Canada now that I am retiring.  At first the question seemed strange but as I pursued it with the person asking, I realized that the question came from a place of concern about whether or not my “theology” would allow me to remain within the confines of a religious denomination.

My answer seemed straight forward – yes.  On the other hand, I was intrigued by a comment I also read wherein the author had said: “I don’t believe anymore.”  At first, I had no problem agreeing with the comment as I don’t believe anymore either.  But as always there is more to what one sees and says.

What I believe now is not the same as I believed 40 years ago or 6o years ago.  If it is the same, then I am in trouble.  Belief cannot become or remain stagnant.  I do not have the same belief and understanding of “God” as I did as a 10 year old.  For the most part I believed what I was told.  In terms of faith development that could be called being in the “affilliative” stage.  Such a stage is liked by the church hierarchy because it keeps “believers” in control.  Sadly, there still are church leaders today that want their followers to “trust” them.  (I have a lot of problems with the minister who tells his followers that God told him to buy a 50 million dollar jet – more with those who “blindly” listen to their minister than the minister themselves).

I strongly believe that we must move past this type of belief.  Of course, to move on and start to question and think for ourselves does not always feel safe and comfortable.  In the non-religious realm the next stage feels dangerous.  Some have referred to the next stage as one of myth-busting. Immediately, I am at odds with those who cannot understand that myths are also part of the very Bible we read.  A few years ago my grandson asked if I thought that one could really lose all his powers if his hair was shaved off like happened to Samson in Judges 16.  What is the truth not is it true or not?

If we fail to think for ourselves, if we fail to question (yes, even the Bible) then we do a great injustice to our beliefs and to our faith.  Too often we have been led around by those who have claimed they are the ones to be followed.  It has happened again and again and sadly is still happening today. Even Jesus was put to death for questioning the religious leadership of his day.

I don’t believe anymore those things that keep me from “doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God” (to quote Micah 6:8).  We don’t have to agree on the meaning of even these things but we must keep doing that which gives life and love.  It is important that we all have teachers, but not teachers that expect us to follow them, rather ones who support us to ask the questions and explore the various answers.  A Chinese proverb I read on FB this week said:  “Your teacher can open the door, but you must enter by yourself”.   As scary as that may sound it is true, but remember, as you enter this new world, you will never be alone.

That is something that I do believe.

Grief Never Ends But…

Sunday Morning Musings:  May 27 will mark my final Sunday worship in a regular “call” relationship within The United Church of Canada.  Of course, any ending brings with it a bitter/sweet experience.  On the other hand, an ending can also mean a new beginning.  Yet, regardless of the circumstances, any ending results in some sort of loss and any form of loss means there will be grief associated with it.

Rather than talk about my particular grief I want to muse about grief in general.    Mitchell’s Funeral Home offers a quote from Leonard Cohen that I find thought-provoking“The broken heart illuminates a path, and it is a different path for each broken heart” (Leonard Cohen).  As I ponder this quote it reinforces for me that grief is unique for us all.  Yet I also know that there many commonalities to our grieving.  Today, I want to focus on one such common element of grief.

It has been my experience over the years of journeying with those encountering grief to know that the broken heart mentioned by Cohen, does not really ever heal.  Grief was once described to me as being like working on a jigsaw puzzle and throwing the whole thing in the air but when it came down one piece was missing.

Because the heart never fully recovers and even though we must continue to go on with our lives and living, we can never be sure when we will once again feel the sorrow of our loss.  I, and many others, have described this idea of grief as the “wave effect”.  Quite some time ago I was invited to go fishing (when I lived in southern Nova Scotia).  We were in a 20 foot long dory doing some hand-lining.  It was a marvellous morning and the Atlantic Ocean was as smooth as glass.  Then without warning I looked behind me and noticed a wall of water approaching.  I could see nothing else but the huge swell that I was sure was going to smash into us.  A moment later, we were sitting atop that same swell and all seemed fine again.

When folks described events that happened to them, not only in the first couple of years but many years after the initial loss, it was common for them to mention the idea that they felt “overcome” by something connected to their loss.  Sometimes, the event that cause the moment of devastation was as simple as seeing a bird or hearing a song or even a word.  Long after the feeling that we are past the initial loss, we are still affected.  The saving grace is that over time we learn that it is okay to feel the grief and though it is never totally gone we will be back on top and life will go on.

It is important that we continue to learn about this thing we call grief.  There will always be uniqueness to it – and we will each walk a different path.  Yet, along that path there will be those experiences that others have also known.  What is most important for us to remember is that grief is a normal reaction to loss.  Grief continues as part of our lives but does not have to govern those lives.  We should also remember that even years afterward grief will still be present and that too is normal. Like most elements in life, our response is the issue.  It is vital that we recognize and acknowledge grief and let ourselves feel the loss and continue to grow.

Uncomplicating God

Sunday Morning Musings:   The Church has its own seasons and today begins the season called Pentecost.    This new season begins fifty days after Easter and commemorates the receiving of the Holy Spirit by Jesus’ first disciple (according to Luke`s writing in the Book of Acts).  Of course, in John`s gospel Jesus offered the Holy Spirit to those gathered on the evening of Easter, bringing once again into question the writing of and meaning of Scriptures.  Naturally, this would lead an inquisitive mind to ask about other elements of belief.

One of the most difficult to understand is that we called the Trinity.  Sometimes the Trinity is referred to as the idea of God being revealed as three entities, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Ghost – if we read the King James Version).    I have given up trying to make any explanation of the concept of The Trinity.  Arguments have taken place over the centuries, which have led to disagreements about the very nature of Jesus.  Was he human with divine qualities or fully divine just pretending to be human, and so on   It is no wonder that many folks today are just throwing up their hands with the whole idea of religion and its beliefs.

It was no surprise to me to see a cartoon this past week about two people discussing the concept of the Trinity.  The one said to the other: (not an exact quote) you seem to have no problem believing in black holes, yet you can`t get your head around believing in the Trinity.  Which once again raised the issue of science versus religion – or in other words: give me proof.

Besides a sense of wanting proof for everything, it dawned on me that maybe proof has little to do with a sense of disbelief in God.  Rather, what occurred to me was that our concern is not so much about needing a complete explanation as is the fact that we don`t want a complex God.  We want a God who is easy to understand.  Sadly, this often leads to wanting a God who can also be controlled by us.  Wasn`t it so much easier to have faith when we believed that God was like an old man with a beard, up in the sky watching over everything waiting for us to die so `he could send us either to heaven or hell?     Yes, those were the good old days.  Never mind the fact that such is what John Westerhoff referred to as an affilliative stage of spiritual development.  That is to say, a level where we connect with those who thing or believe as we do because we are told to do so – we don`t need to think for ourselves.

I have no difficulty with anyone believing what we choose to belief – we all do that.  But I do have concerns around those who do not do their own thinking, who want a much less complicated God.  I want a less complicated God, as well, but I don`t want the what has become for many the church`s god who offers conditional love that demands we fit into certain boxed.  A church sign I read recently spoke of the impartiality of God – yet, LGTBQ people are often excluded, as are blacks or others of different faith groups.  I once invited other churches to join in a prayer vigil but was told that because I chose to invite non-Christian groups they would not participate.

Let’s not complicate God or faith with strange beliefs.  God is love.  For me that is all that matters.

Your Important Now

Sunday Morning Musings:   I don’t know whether I am getting closer to retirement or something else, but the weeks and days seem to be filled with more to do.  The month of May (my last of official duties) just seems so busy.  I realize that other factors including my participation in the theatrical production of Sex Please We’re Sixty, and unfortunately personal health issues are at play.  I also realize that time has not changed in one way or the other – each minute is still the same as it was years ago.

I say all of this because it speaks again of the need for balance in one’s life.   By balance I mean, doing what needs to be done, setting priorities and including in those priorities time for one’s own growth which includes rest.  Over the years I have found giving myself permission to rest is often the most difficult of all.  If I am not doing something, it seems like I am not being useful or productive.

Feeling a sense of value is a struggle I believe is a fairly common short-coming among many today.  It certainly appears more readily as one approaches the end of one’s physical life.  For me (and others) I believe that this is our spiritual life (our spirit) encouraging us to pay attention to this very important part of who we are.  Yet for the most part many neglect their spiritual life, or confuse it with a religious life.  Too often we connect “going to church” or “keeping the Ten Commandments” with being spiritual or not.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the true.  Too many religious people are not spiritual at all.  And too often spiritual people are often cast aside because they are not religious enough.  A third group, those who have been able to meld their religious and spiritual lives together, can also be misunderstood.  Out of these misunderstandings divisions arise that don’t seem to ever find reconciliation.  As a result another group has been created known as “Spiritual but not Religious” and a whole new group is founded.

As long as we keep dividing there can never be the true oneness that is intended.  It is also important that oneness or unity does not mean the same as uniformity.  We can look different but to proclaim that my way is better than anyone else’s way will only continue to separate us.  This separation, I believe, was not the intention of creation.  Every element of this universe was created out of energy and lives within and around everyone and everything.  There is a legend of a group of people who would encircle a tree and shout at it until the tree’s spirit died and the tree fell.  I like that the idea behind this story is not that people are stronger than even trees, but that even the tree has a spirit.  Many religious groups seem to have forgotten or just chosen not to accept such a belief.

Balance in life means allowing the sacred to be part of our everyday living.  It also means recognizing the spirit’s presence in all that is done.  We don’t have to wait until we are near death to live spiritually.  Rather we need to recognize that what we do matters now.  We need to realize that our true value is found in our willingness to share freely our value (our love) with others.   When the things we say and do, help others in this life, your life has great meaning and purpose.  And isn’t that the most important element of life?

Obeying God

Sunday Morning Musings:  As I was perusing the Bible this week, I was struck once again by the number of laws that it contains.   Someone once commented that there were over 600 laws (thou shalts and thou shalt nots).  Thinking that to be lots and knowing that many were from what is called by many Christians as the “Old Testament”, I felt some relieve when told that many of those “laws” really didn’t apply. Yet, many were still in force and even news added over the centuries.  For the life me, I never understood why we always ate fish sticks on Friday. Yet, many households will not eat meat on Fridays, and so fish it is.  I don’t recall reading that in my Bible, but then again not all laws are necessarily biblical in their origin.

Not sure of its source, I read somewhere this week:  “Have you been baptized to have your sins washed away by the blood of Christ? If you haven’t, then you still have every sin that you have ever committed.  With your sins you can’t go to heaven to be with God when you die, but you will have to go to the other place where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth forever and ever”. (Sorry the source is lost to me).  When I read it I was hoping that the writer had his/her (their) tongue firmly planted in one’s cheek.

No doubt the Bible can be interpreted to express the above.  But then the question of literalness raises its ugly head.  There have to be certain parts that one can only say that we don’t understand and therefore let’s call it mystery.  I enjoy mystery about God as much as anyone, but claiming literalness on one hand and mystery in the same breath, doesn’t do it for me.  We can’t take some things as literal and give less than literal meaning to that which we choose.

For example, we are told in many places throughout the Bible that we should/must obey God.  Not to obey God is to choose to turn away from God.  Sounds straight forward and leads to the idea of substitutionary atonement, i.e. Jesus died for our sins.  So I am left thinking that I really don’t have to obey God just believe in Jesus.

Of course, we can then begin to parse each and every word – and like former president Clinton we can ask what is meant by the word “is” and so on.   For me the first question I have to ask has to do with my understanding of God – if I am to obey God, what does this mean?

If I view God as the judge, or any other word that might personify and create a “being”, even a supernatural one, I believe that we still will miss the point.  What does it mean to do what God wants us to do?  If I say that God is love (as does the Bible, by the way), I obey love, I trust love in that I have to be loving even when I don’t feel like it, to those I don’t feel like loving as well as those I do love.

Obeying God is not a matter of keeping this law or that, of eating bacon or not, as Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians: without love I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.