Questioning Religion, Keeping Faith

Sunday Morning Musings:  Over the years as I have changed physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, I have also come to realize how little about most of these changes I have talked with anyone.  Even today, there is still little discussion about our growth.  I measure the height of my grandchildren each time they visit.  I marvel at the books they read and the knowledge and wisdom they are gaining.  As their hormones change I also realize the moodiness that is present. Yet, most of our discussions are very informal and some don’t even take place at all.

From a theological point of view it was only when I entered the ministry that I began to learn more about what was simply called religion.  For the most part I accepted what I had been told as simple fact.  It was even suggested that it was better not even to question some of the long held ideas or theories of the church.  If I needed an answer I could just turn to a catechism.  One of my favourites was the Westminster Catechism of 1648, especially the very first question that asked about the chief purpose of humans.  The answer was to enjoy God.

However, the more I studied and learned about God, I found it harder and harder to “enjoy” God.  God was all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-knowing who blessed goodness and cursed evil.  Of course, goodness and evil were defined by the church which claimed its authority from scriptures (and/or the Pope).  Naturally, I wanted to know where these writings came from.  Why was there a difference in the number of books in what was called the (Roman) Catholic Bible and the Protestant one?  Why some writings were excluded altogether?  Was any consideration given to including writings not found until the 20th century?  My whole understanding of the Bible itself came under question.

Over the years other elements of my Christian beliefs also began to become troublesome for me.  Jesus was always pictured as “meek and mild” except for the temple scene, but that was considered an abnormality.  For the most part Jesus was viewed as God incarnate who came to save the world from hell. Of course, my mind struggled with this notion in a couple of ways.  If I proclaimed the name of Jesus, would I be saved from eternal torment?  Did Jesus really come just to die on the cross for my sins?  In other words (not words I learned without seminary training), Jesus’ death was considered as “substitutionary atonement” in that God wanted/needed to punish someone for all the evil that was present in the world and Jesus fit the bill.

What did such a requirement tell me about God? It certainly was not a God that one could enjoy.  As a result I began to move away from much of my early teachings.  I had to develop a different understanding or I would have nothing (sadly, many have taken this route).  One of the first things I needed to do was to accept being loved by God because God is love.  God was not some super-being who either didn’t care or cared so much that I was nothing but a puppet.  I had to be concerned more about the here and now, as opposed to the hereafter.

The bottom line me became not my religion but my faith.  For too long I had simply accepted the church’s teachings.  I no longer can do that without asking lots of questions (without musing). What is more, I have come to accept that there are not always nice and neat answers to all the questions asked.  My catechism is still being written and I can enjoy God much more easily.

Grieving!

Sunday Morning Musings: For more than a week now, much of our country has been grieving the tragic deaths of many young hockey players (as well as others who were part of the team).  Maybe because it involved the game of hockey, it seems that there is such a strong outpouring of this grief.  In some ways grieving together like this seems to make it somewhat more tolerable.  Communal grieving is a good thing.

However, we must also be respectful of the need for private grief.  Not everyone grieves in the same way, nor do we all grieve at the same time. A good example of these differences was revealed in the scripture story of the death of Jesus.  Poor Thomas has been saddled with the moniker of “Doubting Thomas” because he wasn’t with the rest of the group and asked for proof.  He wasn’t with the whole group and now centuries later he is still being abused.  Sadly, we continue to put everything including grief into a box and often without we assume that anything outside the box one must be abnormal.

My experiences have taught me that there is no normal when it comes to grieving.  The stages of grief that have often been used as a guide have, at times, become more harmful than good.  Grief does not follow any pattern.  I am not saying that the feelings felt are not denial, anger, numbness, bargaining and so on.  But to attempt to put them into any type of pattern, to give them any timeline, is but a ruse.

We know there are different types of grief depending on each person’s situation.  Men often grieve differently than women.  The death of one’s second parent often causes one to grieve differently than when the first parent died.  Grieving parents often deal differently than any siblings of the deceased. Children grieve but not like their adult parents or even grandparents.  Many of the same emotions will be experienced, but no two of us are alike.

What this means for me is that every situation, every person must be considered individually.  The other day hockey sticks were left on porches, jerseys were worn, ribbons worn all seeking to be seen as a symbol of honour and respect.  Many have chosen to donate money.  It is important that all and any such actions or tributes be considered as ways of grieving and none should be considered wrong. Yet, such actions should also be named.  If we are doing something because we are told to do so, or because everyone else is doing it, perhaps we should do a personal check in.

Sometimes we choose to act out of our own sense of guilt.  Yes, guilt is a form of grief, but not always a healthy one.  Too often, we can also spend time asking the question “why?”   Hopefully the investigations will reveal some of this tragedy.  But a more important question that needs to be asked is “what now?” We will never fully know why a bus full of hockey players collided with a loaded transport trailer, but we can honour the memories of those who died, and support those whose lives have been forever affected.  That support can come in many forms.

Hopefully, we will also realize that live needs to lived fully every day, and love needs to be spoken every day. Accidents can break us, but they can also open our eyes and hearts.

Worshiping Together

Sunday Morning Musings: As something different for the next six or seven weeks I have asked my congregation to submit their requests for favourite hymns and to offer a few words about their particular choice.  The response was good, and even more fascinating, have been the reasons for their choices.  Some like the melody and others spoke about the words, some like the combination of words and melody.

I have to admit, that there are tunes that I like and prefer, but it may be the poet in me, but I am often struck by the choice of words.  Granted when it comes to hymns in our latest hymn book there are still many that are over 100 years old, or older.   One hymn even mentions the desire to get away from “stagnant traditions”.  In some churches the old hymns and even hymn books are being discarded almost completely.  Even the traditional church organ is being replaced as electric guitars and drum sets have found their way into worship.  It may be my traditional up-bringing, and maybe my centre of the road approach to life, but my preference would be to use it all. (Although, I do admit that I still prefer an acoustic guitar to a dual pick-up one with a whammy bar.) Regardless, music is an integral part of any worship.

I also find that worship can be just as meaningful if it is held outside a “traditional” church building.  Many congregations are not even concerning themselves with buildings – yet much of my experience over the years is that even new congregations then to develop a focal point (place) for worship.  I have even known one new congregation that went so far as to replace their chairs with pews in the worship area.  I must admit that pews (especially those fixed to floor) do limit the functionality of the space. On the other hand there are those people who are quite willing to do just that and want the pews left.

But as I mentioned, worship can and should happen outside the traditional sanctuary.  After all, creation is all-encompassing and the God we worship is there too.  Which brings me to another aspect of worship.   What is worship all about?

At one point worship was defined as “(that which seeks) to honor with extravagant love and extreme submission” (Webster’s Dictionary, 1828). Worship thus means to express the worth we have for “God” in our lives. (One can also worship money but that is another story.)  So it is that each week, often like-minded people, gather to offer praise and gratitude.  I say “like-minded” people because there is such a variety of understandings about God and other elements of religious life, that many find it easier to seek out a place where they feel more accepted and more comfortable.

What I have found most hurtful occurs when one form of worship is viewed as better than another. Not all of any worship service is going to touch everyone in the same way.  Some folks want a more traditional celebration.  Others may go only for the music or other elements of the service itself. No matter the reason for participating one of the main reasons is the fellowship of sharing with others the wonder of being part of a larger family, part of the whole of creation.

Lastly, worship is intended to be a celebration, but also an invitation or challenge. It is not enough to gather once or even twice a week and not seek to live our faith every moment of every day.  We can and must do this, always aware that we are never alone.

Easter Life

Sunday Morning Musings:  Happy Easter! I supposed some also might include some kind of practical joke and then say “April Fools”.  In some ways the story of the first Easter as it is recorded by the gospel writers (some 40 to 70 years after the fact) can appear as a weird April Fool’s joke. Even some 2000 years later people are still trying to make sense of what happened.  To further confuse the issue for many people has been the inclusion of a bunny that hides eggs, as if the whole idea of a bunny leaving eggs isn’t difficult enough to understand.  Some have even suggested that belief in the Easter bunny is more plausible than the resurrection of the Christ.

Of course, the images created or metaphors promoted by the resurrection of the Christ; the new life represented by bunnies and eggs all fuel the Easter Story.  The fact that Easter occurs in the spring of the year (at least in the northern hemisphere) also adds to the sense that all these elements are about life coming from what appears to be death.  Spring announces the arrival of new life – animals give birth, dormant plants return to their glory.  The story of the prodigal is fulfilled:  what was lost is found, what was dead is alive.

Yet, the Christian story is still confused.  Some find it difficult to comprehend the resurrection of Jesus other than a “physical” event.  Even though in Mark’s gospel (the original ending – chapter 16 verse 1 through 8) – the Jesus figure doesn’t make an appearance.  The women go to finish their duty of preparing the dead body.  They experience an empty tomb and then run away in fear.

Over the centuries, the story has been told and re-told.  Some of these accounts seem to dove-tail together while there are also significant differences (as is found through other stories told in the Bible).  Yet the idea remains for many – what happened?

Personally, I have no difficulty in accepting (along with the apostle Paul) a spiritual resurrection, not unlike happens when any one of us dies.  Our physical life can no longer sustain us.  In one way or another, for one reason or another, our physical bodies no longer function.  (I choose not to get into the discussion about just when “death” occurs – at not at this time.)  All I want to say here is that even though the body has died, we have not reached the end of the story.

As I have said many times before, I do not have a scientific mind, but I am prepared to be confident that we are more than our bodies. I also have no difficulty in understanding the resurrection story as a mystical experience that move us away from even having to have proof (if that is what we want to call the empty tomb and burial clothes).  The Easter story is about life in its fullness.  It is about life that is lived after the body has stopped functioning.

One writer when asked about the meaning of the resurrection in our lives today remarked that “it is a journey toward intimacy with the creator of the whole universe” (Brian Findlayson).  Easter becomes a stepping stone and maybe even for some, a starting place, to live in the fullness of love and compassion.  Besides experiencing the power of God in another other, we are challenged to find and live that experience for ourselves.