The Future of the Church?

It seems nearly everywhere I turn these days I am being confronted with a  question about the future of the church, even if there is a future.  Since I like to walk down the middle of the road a lot, I find myself responding in different ways.  Firstly, I have to ask what one means by “church”.  The institutional church will continue as long as there are people who will finance it for whatever reason.  Many will continue to support the church because they are devoted to doing God’s work, some even after their death through a bequest to the church.  Others will continue to support their church because they are concerned about their own futures after death.

At the same time there are those who have chosen to stop supporting any particular church.  These folks may have out-grown the effectiveness of what they were being fed by the church institution.  Their attitude likely is that since they no longer feel the church is relevant to their needs, why should they continue to uphold an institution that is past its due date.  Others simply may have stopped supporting the church because they may have felt hurt by the church.  I have learned over my years (often by mistakes being made) that if I close the church door in someone’s face, they are not likely going to try to get in through a window.  In the past churches have refused to marry someone unless they received an annulment from the church, despite they had children from the previous marriage.  I was asked once to marry a couple because they couldn’t get married in “their” church because they were divorced.  Yet once they were married, they would be more than welcome to fully participate in the church because they were married.

One group that operates both outside and inside the church is often known as the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) group.  Many in this group are outside the confines (more than one meaning intended) of the church.  They may not agree with those things done in the name of the church and therefore feel they can’t support something that acts, in their minds at least, as unloving.  Others may consider themselves as part of the SNBR group but have stayed within the church.   They have continued to grow in their faith and yet feel the need for the community that is provided in and through the church.  These folks may not agree with their church’s doctrine or dogma. They continue to study their Bible but refuse to take it literally.

So when it comes down to being asked about the future of the church, I find my reactions mixed. Since the beginnings of this institution nearly 2000 years ago, the church has gone through many changes.  Interpretations and understandings of the Word of God have changed for some but not so much for others, yet change has occurred.  Just having the Bible printed in English is a change.  (The saying that the King James Version was good enough for Jesus so it must be good enough for me doesn’t really work if it ever did.)  The music of praise has changed as even organs were not used when worship began.  Old hymns were once new hymns, and so on.

Does the church have a future?  Do we need the church in the future?  These questions and others like them will have different answers for different people.  What is even more important is how people act toward one another. If we follow the Way of God (name for original Christianity) we need to accept that change though difficult is also necessary.  We need also be prepared to accept that the Spirit that lives in, around and through us does not cease to do so just because we choose to thwart or deny it.  Rather to be part of the living Spirit we need first and foremost to live lives of meaning and love, knowing that we are loved regardless of what we decide about the future of the church.

Creation isn’t done.

An interesting discussion was overheard this week between a creationist and an evolutionist.   Well, it was more of an argument than a discussion.  At one point the person speaking in favour of evolution said that one could still believe in religion and also evolution.  The person speaking in favour of the story of creation was not convinced.  It would seem that there was no room in the story of God for the story of evolution.

To me, this argument is nothing new, but it does become very difficult to accept the Bible as the literal story of creation while still trusting the teachings of Charles Darwin and such.  However, science (which is not generally opposed to religion) has proven that the earth is millions of years old and not less than 10,000 years if one uses biblical calculations.

In arguing that evolution has and is occurring doesn’t prevent me from also believing in an “other” that has been called God or Allah or Jehovah.  At one time general belief accepted that the earth was flat; the world was three distinct layers (commonly referred to as Heaven, Earth and Hell).  One of the first Soviet cosmonauts has been recorded as commenting from “outer space” that he did not see any sign of “god or heaven or angels” while supposedly in the heavens above.  It could be that he didn’t know what to look for.  On the other hand, that to only look for God in outer space is itself very misleading.

When asked about belief in God and the Big Bang Theory (the event, not the TV show) the Roman Catholic priest heading up the Vatican’s science department asked, “What was before the big Bang?” Without denying the science that the part of the universe we know came into existence with a big bang, he also suggested that God was present.

Even before humans could write, they told stories of how they came to be; of why things are like they are or at least should be, especially if power and control was to be exerted by those with it.  For about three quarters of the time the Christian world has been counting (that is to say “after the birth of Jesus”) the written stories were not available to the common person in English or French or any languages other than Hebrew (Aramaic), Greek or Latin.  (Just so you may know, I studied these three but never did very well.) As these stories and historical accounts became more readily available to those who could read, study became even more important as there is often more than one meaning in a story.  It became all the more important for me to “wrestle with the Scriptures” searching for a revelation.

The more I would wrestle, the more it became apparent to me that to view God as Creator was not inappropriate, nor was it enough to accept the literalness of the stories.  Rather, it became quite obvious to me that both arguments (for and against evolution) had merit. Yet to limit one’s thinking was not only inappropriate but sometimes dangerous.  It becomes dangerous whenever one tries to limit the existence of God.  It is dangerous to believe that God is a being who is all-powerful. It is dangerous (and downright lazy) not to accept that what once was believable can change.  I have been told that everything contains a flaw and numerous songs and stories remind us that, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “that is how the light gets in”.   And for me at least, that light is in some way the Divine

Sorrow amidst the Joy

Sunday Morning Musings:  As the Advent/Christmas season approaches the paradox of life and its joys and sorrows seems to come more into focus.  I suppose the sharpness of contrast is prevalent any time of year but more now.  I recently watched and listened to the sights and sounds of the local Santa Claus parade.  I am not sure whether the children were as excited as their parents and grandparents but what a joy it was (especially when those standing in front of me hadn’t attended before and were surprised at the candy handouts).  Even as I walked slowly (I am getting too old to stand too long) back to my car the enthusiasm of the young families filled the air.

Yet, I am very aware that this same season of wonder and hope knows its share of sadness.  Grief doesn’t have a season and can wash over one at any time.  There is the struggle that confronts those who hear all around them the sounds that ring out happiness while they feel the heaviness of loss.  As the expression of grief has become more acceptable or main stream in the past thirty or so years there have be a rise in the number of occasions designed to address this sorrow.  Despite the fact that different names are used to attempt to label these events (Blue Christmas, The Longest Night…), all of these services hope to allow acknowledgement that even amidst the sorrow, joy can be found.  And I suppose the opposite is true, that amidst the joy it is okay to express our sorrow.

The main reason to acknowledge this paradox is that life is made of both our joys and our sorrows.  Kahlil Gibran in his book The Prophet wrote “when you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” (p. 29).  As much as anything I understand this to mean that our joy is muted because of our sadness, but that it only because we have loved and now have lost that love that we feel its pain.  Furthermore, this means that to really honour the sorrow, we can and should allow ourselves to cherish the memories and the love and joy we carry with us.

Buddhist teachings, according to Pema Chodron in her writing When Things Fall Apart, goes so far as to tell us that “when inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself.” (p. 87).  We can use our loss to inspire us to think about others and it can become an opportunity for us to show compassion.

How truly it is for all of us to show compassion and those who feel the pain and sorrow of loss can lead the way.  What an honour we offer to our loved one when we act on his or her behalf living a good and meaning filled way.  There is no doubt that we can offer compassion in so many ways, all we have to do is look and reach out.  That is not to say what I do is going to be the same as someone else, but when each of us uses our sorrow to create joy, healing begins.

Not Having to be Perfect

Sunday Morning Musings:  In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be, (Little, Brown and Co., 1996), the author, Harold Kushner speaks of guilt and shame that arises within each person as they are “capable of recognizing the gap between what they are and what they can be expected to be, and of being embarrassed of the difference” (p. 35).  He then speaks of the difference between guilt and shame and how they both can create the way we see ourselves, and think that others will see us.

There is no doubt that much of our understanding comes from various interpretations of the Bible and from the ideas of original sin (Adam and Eve in Genesis) and that of atonement through the cross of Jesus (He died for our sins). Yet it seems that as our society moves away from these concepts the stories or sense of guilt and shame continue.  In some sense it may be that society is so imbued with religious overtones that there is a strong carry over.

I mentioned in my novella, Dying to Live (Shelsid Publishers, 2014) about a dying person who seemingly had little or no connection to the church confronted the chaplain with the statement, “I am going to hell!” The first question that came to mind was that of where this question/idea had come from.  Obviously, there was a fear and sense of guilt that arose and the idea of going to hell was causing a great deal of stress. (The whole idea of heaven and hell as a physical place is another issue for another blog.)

That is not to say that we shouldn’t feel guilt or shame.  But as Kushner goes on to point out that “Religion properly understood is a cure for feelings of guilt and shame, not their cause.” (p. 43).  And yet, the sense of not being or feeling worthy continues.   I wonder just how we can overcome it.

I am not as perfect as I would like to think I am, but do I really have to be or even could I be?  I don’t think I am flawed because God made me that way.  I am not sinful because my parents sinned and their parents before them.  I make mistakes and worse yet I let myself think that I am not worthy because of those mistakes.  Even worse is when someone has wronged me and I blame myself for it. Sadly, that is so much the case today.  How often do we blame the victim?  How often does the victim feel unaccepted and thus unacceptable?  These feelings of inadequacy usually end with the individual avoiding talking about the issue. Such being the case with allegations of sexual abuse that we are currently hearing about that may have happened years ago.

The positive we need to take from all this is that guilt and shame are not God-given; they do not make us worthy or unworthy.  Nor do we ever have to think that we can or have to be perfect.  Rather, I have heard told many times the idea that imperfection helps us to understand that I am okay just as I am. Various writers including Leonard Cohen in Anthem have told us that the crack lets the light, or the wound lets God in (E. Kurtz & K. Ketchum) to name a couple. The difficult part is believing it, letting it live deep in our hearts.

Flip a Coin or Think?

Sunday Morning Musings:  I remember being asked one time about making choices, at least the choices that have an either/or response. When I couldn’t decide I was asked to flip a coin and told afterward that the answer was not in the coin but in the feeling that occurred when I saw the result of the coin toss.  The inner feeling, or as some might say my “gut reaction”, indicated my choice, or at least what I hoped would be the result.

As I mentioned, this is a good idea as long as the choice requires an either/or response.  But what happens when the choice isn’t that simple?  Questions get asked that don’t have a response that is so easy or is often followed with a “but”.  For example:  Do you believe in the Bible?  My response would not simply be yes.  I do believe in the Bible, but whose understanding of it, whose interpretation?  Or, do I believe the Bible to be the Word of God.  Again my answer would be “yes, but…” or even better to use my improv skills would be to say “yes, and…”  There is not a simple answer to these or similar questions.

I was surprised to hear our Governor General commenting about the either/or essence she felt existed between science and religion.  I will admit that for some even today, the two are like oil and vinegar.  Yet, my experience with oil and vinegar holds true for science and religion.  They go together well as long as they are mixed properly and not left to divide.  I believe in creation, only not as it has been and often still is taught.  New life is created every moment of every day.  The scientist (at least some) would say that is true but might add that it doesn’t mean that God is behind it all.

Again, what we create is an either/or situation.  If God creates the heavens and the earth, then God makes both good and bad alike.  And, of course, that means that every bad that happens is a result of God’s will.  Evil exists because God chose or chooses to allow these things to happen (wars, shootings, terrorism, poverty, hunger…) On the other hand, if there is no God, then it is easier to explain these things just as fate.

My experience has taught me that life isn’t that simple. It has also taught me to be respectful of those who have different views.  But wouldn’t it be easier if I just spoke my mind? Then I could simply say that s/he is wrong, I have the right answers and if you don’t believe me, well then tough.  Wouldn’t it be easier not to have to think any more about right and wrong, about truth and untruth, about science and religion?  All we have to do is believe the “so-called” experts, right?

My experience has also taught me that one for Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: Life is Difficult is also very true and that means that life isn’t always simple.  It doesn’t mean we don’t have choices to make, rather it means we need to think about our choices and not always leave the thinking to someone else.  We have to value ourselves and our choices and our differences. Yes, and we must always be respectful and loving and compassion.

Love is the Only Authority

Sunday Morning Musings:  I have been struggling for a while now about the paradox of authority.  I like to be in control and therefore like to exercise my authority in a situation.  On the other hand, I am respectful of those in authority over me.  Therein lays my conundrum.  How do I tell the difference between exercising my rights and responsibilities to be an authority figure and accepting what I am told?

I am a firm believer that we operate with at least three different levels of being with others.  As a child I was very dependent upon others.  I had the expectations that my parents, my schools, and my church would lead me in the right paths.  What they told me was the truth.  As a teenager I began to rebel against such dependency.  I was actually encouraged to think for myself.  Even though my parents were still authority figures to me, they encouraged me to ask questions and search for answers even if they didn’t always agree with me.  The same was somewhat true as I advanced through school and church.

However, I was soon to learn when I became a teacher that asking questions or encouraging my students to ask questions could result in the unpredictable happening. It was much easier as a teacher just to have my students respond as they were expected.  Teaching by rote is okay for a while, but it really doesn’t promote a sense of independence of thought.  I do remember a grade 13 teacher (yes, I am that old) telling me that if I was to write a good essay I would need to present more than facts.  I was told to tell what the facts meant.  That seemed to work as long as my meaning and the teacher’s meaning were much the same.  In other words, I could be an independent thinker as long as I thought in the “acceptable” manner.

The church seemed to treat me in much the same way, even as I advanced into theology.  If I gave the expected answers I was accepted.  I learned how to play the game and as a result I got the required grades and ultimately was ordained.  (That is not to say that is the only reason I was ordained.)

In many minds the churches (and religions) have not changed much over the centuries.  We still have a book that is the authoritative Word of God, and as long as it is interpreted “correctly” all is well.  And for correct interpretation all I need to do is read what it says.  Why this book even tells me to consider men as better than women, as white men better than non-whites.  Who would believe that stuff, that nonsense?

Now the alternative could be just as bad.  In the play Sola Fide! (a Friendly Dramatization of Martin Luther’s 500 Year Old Reformation) written by Reverend John McTavish who with tongue somewhat in his cheek put words into the mouth of Cardinal Eck, “Imagine if every priest or monk decided to interpret the faith for himself.  There would be chaos, Luther.  Churches on the corner of every street, all of them claiming to possess the truth in their own little Bibles, their own little paper Popes”. Who decides?  Who is  the final authority?

So we come to my third phase of life which is that of interdependence.  We all have the possibility of being right and wrong.  We have the authority to think for ourselves and should be encouraged to do so. But we do not have the authority to act on our own or in way that is disrespectful of others even if they disagree with me.  We do have the authority to be compassionate and loving. I have thought this though and for me, this is the word of God.  (Now the issue of power vs. authority is another topic!)

Another Reformation

Sunday Morning Musings:   An insert recently available for inclusion into Sunday worship programs builds on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s actions of posting his 95 thesis on the chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany.  To my understanding the actions of Luther were done in that he wanted to begin discussion about “reforming” the Roman Catholic Church (Luther had been a monk/priest at the time).  The insert to which I refer asks the question of us as to how we might want to see reform happening in the church today.

As with many today, I too struggle with this idea of change that is necessary within or around the institution.  Now, as then, some will wonder what is wrong with the church that it would need or want reforms.  Others may have given up on the idea of church altogether and feel as if any attempts at change are not worth the effort. Others still feel the need for the church to become more relevant, not so out-dated.  Some of the arguments that have been around since the birth of the church itself are still not settled in the 21st century (divorce, abortion, equality of genders, the gender issue itself to name but a few).

So what changes will make any difference?  Many of the church buildings still have fixed seating (pews) in the sanctuary.  Some congregations have replaced organs with keyboards and may or may not include a whole “modern” band with drums and guitars and other various instruments. Some congregations choose multi-use buildings that put the chairs away so various sports can be played during the week.  New sound systems are employed. Old buildings have to be brought up to “code” and so elevators or lifts are installed.  With so many options it can become very mind boggling.

Nevertheless, I have given some thought to what I might try to change. Likely, the first change I would like to make (that which was lost due to the reformation movement 500 years ago), is that of the further developing of the “inner self”. Even though there is much talk about the importance of self in today’s world, we have often neglected the spiritual side of things.  Only recently, and still not as fully as possible, the spiritual work of meditation (some say, mindfulness), contemplation (if prayer is us speaking to God, contemplation is the listening part). I think that too often we have equated religion and spirituality and that is not to say there need not be some connection. But for the most part religion has become very legalistic (do what the Bible says) as if the Bible is a rule book rather than a book full of stories, history, teachings and so that can reveal a loving relationship with a non-theistic God.  Too often the Bible is simply held up as “the” Word of God.  I am pretty sure that there are other ways to hear that Word.

I would hope that another change for the church would be around the whole idea of “charity” (a word used in the King James Version of the Bible for love).  Too often either our charity (generous self-giving) is to make us feel better (there I have done something kind) and as a tax break; and sometimes the donation doesn’t really benefit the recipient.  To me, a real gift makes a real and lasting difference in the life of the one who receives.

My reforms would see a church that is accepting and inclusive.  It would put hospitality as a major effort. There would be no hidden agendas, especially around the love that is called God.  I guess I want too much, but am open to working with anyone who will join with me in trying to live a life of love.

Faith Can’t Be Lost

Sunday Morning Musings:   I recently listened to a program talking about ministers who have lost their religion (faith?).  The show was very interesting but I have to admit that I was less than pleased with the idea put forward but these ministers.  My reason for dismay is simply that it seemed to me that to say one has lost something is never a good reason to give up looking for it.  In fact, my experience is that religion/faith (and I am not convinced that these two are synonyms) fluctuates in everyone.  Sometimes we can do anything and other times we can’t get out of bed.

Maybe I need to separate religion and faith now.  There are many who have given up on religion (at least the institution) but still have faith (which includes doubts).  Such an idea has given rise to the newest denomination SNBR (Spiritual But Not Religious).  One of the things the SNBR idea can mean is that people are still believers but are not happy with the institution. Such unhappiness or disillusionment can be traced back to a dislike of the hymn choice, a comment made that may or may not have be taken out of context or misunderstood, a deep hurt to which the person felt let down by the church.  The list is virtually endless and may or may not be considered valid; but then again perception often trumps reality.

Back to the issue of losing one’s faith!  It is my belief, and I only can offer anecdotal proof, that we all have faith.  Some will call themselves “atheist” indicating that they no longer believe in a “theistic” being.  When I hear a definition of the “God” in which they have lost faith, I often would call myself an atheist as well.  Many attempts have been made over the centuries to put God in a box (or book!) and as a result of our attempts we create further confusion in our minds no matter what we might understand with our level of intelligence.

Each of us is imbued with the divine.  Sometimes the spiritual flame burns brightly, often it is only a spark and we sometimes may feel that even that spark is gone out.  A Willie Nelson song says: “Love is like a dying ember, only memories remain”.  Yet faith remains in the memories too.  Even when we cannot feel or believe that faith remains, or that faith even matters, we are never left alone.

It seems very rare to me that there exists anyone who has not experienced the absence of the divine within. Ministers may refer to such an experience as a “dry spell”.  Biblical references call these times as “wilderness” experiences. The bottom line is that even though we may not feel the presence, it doesn’t mean it is not there.  A quote I recently used says: “Absence of proof is not proof of absence”.

I believe that we do not lose our faith but sometimes we just can’t be bothered looking for that presence that is mystery. We don’t want mystery we want something more absolute. Yet that is the very paradox of God – that which we call “absolute” appears anything but. So I have to challenge those whose faith is feeling gone, to keep living, to keep searching.

Risky Business

Sunday Morning Musings:  A long time ago my preaching professor used to tell us to listen for the “ping factor” when preparing to write a sermon.  It was not only good advice regarding listening to scriptures to find what would resonate within for preaching but has been good practise in life as a whole.  And that which has been “pinging” for me this week has been the idea of journeying and pilgrimages and mystery.

I listened to a speaker talk about his time spent on the Camino trail. I was very moved by his reasons for making this journey and his encounters along the way.  There were many things I took away from his talk but the idea of God as mystery is something that I hold very dear to my heart.  The biggest take away for him and me, was the idea that mystery means that it is okay not to have all the answers, not to understand what we might encounter.

Each of us is on many journeys all at the same time.  That is to say, that life has many layers but we have to be open and willing to experience them.  At times, I would like to just drift through life and not have think about anything.  I suppose that this is possible, but like most others I find myself wanting to dig a little deeper.   As my friend reminded me in his talk, risk is the choice that is before us.  We don’t have to risk anything, but without risk we have nothing, at least we will not find any real fulfillment in our lives.

If one “googles“ “risk taking” there seem to be endless quotes talking about how important it is to put oneself out there.  One of my favourites has always been Robert Frost as he talks about two roads diverging “and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. So many times it was easier to go down the familiar way, to do what has always been done before. Only when we step out into the unknown, only when we tell ourselves that it is okay not to know what is there, that we will find that difference.

Yet risk is risky. I prefer not to leap even after looking, but sometimes, (most times? all times?) it means not moving forward, and growing.  This situation is especially true in the area of spiritual growth.  If I am not willing to live with the idea of unknowing, to step forward with a sense of trusting that which I cannot see, I am choosing not to live my life fully.  Now, I am not recommending that anyone, especially me, do straight out foolish things.   I could write a cheque for a million dollars that would help any organization, but knowing the cheque would bounce, that would be foolish.  I can tell you that I will jump from the CN Tower and fly to the earth safely, but we all know that is foolish (and messy).

No, by taking risks I mean that we use wisdom and discernment, knowledge and understanding to its fullest and proceed with that to which we are feeling called.  Sometimes we will be called to make small changes and other times the changes will require a great deal of effort.  We will be expected to move to places that are out of our comfort zones, or do things that will make us seem different to others. That is risk and that requires trust, even trust in that which is unknown, in that which is called mystery.

Time to Give Thanks

Sunday Morning Musings:  In Canada, the second weekend of October is celebrated as Thanksgiving. Over time the name has changed from Harvest Thanksgiving to just a time for giving thanks.  For those of us who live in Ontario’s cottage country (no we are not all rich in money), we have so much for which to be thankful.  It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that family is truly number one on my list.  There is no doubt that I love my children and their children, but I am also thankful for my larger family even beyond siblings.  I have always been blessed to be part of a church community as well as the community in which I live.

Sometimes family can make me want to cry over the seemingly silly or downright stupid things they might do.  But for the most part they make me want to cry out of joy.  When they write poems or tell stories of their families, I find myself laughing until I cry.  Just recently my youngest granddaughter when asked about her day broke out laughing and said the funniest part of her day was her mother’s reaction to ice cubes flowing (and flowing) from the ice maker and how it had surprised her mother. Just her laughter as she remembered the incident made my day.

But I realize that not everyone (not even me) has only good days.  Often mixed in with the good are more trying times as well?  No doubt many have been told that tough and rough experiences help us grow.  As the old song reminds me, “No one ever promised me a rose garden”.  What would roses be if it weren’t for the thorns?

In my many years I have experienced both joys and sorrows – who hasn’t?  Of course, what would life be if we didn’t know what seem to be opposites: light/dark; sun/rain; and so on.  What really matters is not so much what happens to us, but what we do with the seeming mess life has given us.  When I drive through Algonquin Park in the autumn and find a thrill in the colours, I am still mindful of the horrible things that have happened in the world as well.  I know that some things may have happened years ago but the effects are still present today. That doesn’t mean that I am not responsible to do whatever I can to help others.  Yet, I also know that those hurt must want to be helped before any good can be found.

I am the first admit that I do not have the answers – does anyone?  Hatred and dis-ease can be eradicated if we wanted to do so.  But, I don’t think we are willing to put others ahead of ourselves.

I have much for which to give thanks and I will, just don’t ask me to do anything else!