New Years’ Balance

Sunday Morning Musings:  As an old year comes to an end and a new one begins, it seems to be a time for the making of resolutions.  Or as some of us like to think, a time for hoping and wishing that things would change in our lives and in the world.  On the other hand, many say that they no longer make New Years’ resolutions because they do not often keep them very long.  That may be very true, but is it that we find change difficult; or do we resolve to undertake too much.  As someone reminded me recently, perhaps we need to think like the person who decides not to drink for one day at a time, rather than telling himself that he can’t drink for the rest of his life.  Our goals or resolutions need to be attainable, as well as measureable, realistic (make them SMART).

I have found the same to be true about my spiritual life.  (Not that one can or should ever try to separate one’s spirituality from the rest of life.)  I have made resolutions in the past about spirituality but have often (always?) kept these goals to myself.  Most of my “secret” reasons have had to do with what I considered the idea that these are private matters.  As a result, I would resolve to pray more, be kind to everyone, exercise more, eat healthier foods – you know the drill.   Usually, because of my lack of will power, I would gradually or not so gradually revert to my old ways.  Often times even without thinking – my old patterns would return.

I had the right idea.  That is to say, my whole life is inter-connected.  I know that “balance” was the key.  Often I would find something that gives me a reason to change and so I pursue it.  Unfortunately, I often got stuck doing too much of the one thing.  Some people walk to exercise their body and use that time to meditate and converse with their God.  Some people run because running gives them a “high”, literally and figuratively.  I admire these people who find the connectedness of the physical and the mental and the spiritual.  When I served in Almonte, Ontario (birthplace of James Naismith, inventor of basketball) Naismith’s primary focus for all humans was always “body, mind and spirit”.

Though he lived over 100 years ago, he wasn’t creating something new.  This idea of balance in one’s life has been around since the beginning of time.  Too often, we even lose this idea of balance in the various thoughts and beliefs that get floated around.  Even religion went overboard.  Religion became about doctrine and dogma.  We were told that if we believed certain things that we would be “saved” or “blessed”. We were also told that if we did certain things we would find ourselves on God’s “naughty” list and bad deeds would not go unpunished by God.  Only recently has there been an increasing amount of positive discussion connecting science and religion, which is a good start.

I would like to think that I am correct all of the time – that I know the truth and that is that.  However, to let one’s prejudice override others’ thoughts becomes only a losing proposition for all.  It is okay to “preach to the choir”, that is to say those who agree or accept my views.  But it is best when I also listen to what is being told to me.  If my mind is made up before we begin then there is no use in beginning. My hope for this New Year is that we can spend more time listening.  I mean really listening even before we start to think of a response.

The Christmas Story

Sunday Morning Musings:   Through many Christian homes the Christmas story is being told once again.  It is always a special treat for me to hear the many versions that have been created over the years.  Even from the very beginning of the story the telling and re-telling gives its own twist to events.  Some would even go so far as to say that it all is nothing more than a made-up story.  There is no historical truth to any of it.  Even if that fact was true, it does not prevent me from realizing that historicity is not the point of the story at all.  Whether or not the story is true, I am not prevented from finding in the story so much worth celebrating.

The gospel according to Mark tells nothing of the Christmas story at all. And over the centuries there has been a “mashing” together of different parts of the story, or stories, which have combined legends creating in all likelihood something much different from writers of the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  Again, it is not the even the facts of the story that hold the true meaning of the Christmas story.

Full disclosure tells me that a “virgin” birth is possible (I can’t explain miracles, nor can accept that Mary was perpetually a virgin), but to me it doesn’t affect the meaning of the birth story.  The fact we are told by the writer of Matthew’s gospel that the “wise men” or magi visited in a “house” rather than in the stable, does not make the story invalid.  The recollections of both Joseph and Mary as they must have spoken about the visits they received from “angels” may have changed with re-telling but again it is not the incident but the meanings that are important.

To me, the story of Christmas is about relationships.  Firstly, there is the relationship of God (that is the word I will use) with humans.  The Christmas story reminds us of different elements of this relationship. We often do not recognize the presence of God (remember, I do not think of God as a being, rather God just “is”).  Mary, and others, were visited by “angels”.  Again, using the example of Mary, she did not know what was happening, she didn’t understand what she was told; but neither did she refuse.  She accepted the mystery and when she shared this “visit” with others (at least with Elizabeth) she saw a bit more of the picture.  As is so often the case, our hindsight is quite good. Mary‘s story is one of relationship. As is Joseph’s story and ours.

The idea of the name “Emmanuel” speaks further of “relationship” when we are told the name means “god with us”.  I love the version told by kids from New Zealand that reminds us throughout that “they won’t expect that”.  Their story reminds us that our relationship with the divine is always happening but so often we are not expecting it and therefore don’t realize or recognize God’s presence with us at all times. (Again, I don’t believe in a God who causes bad things just so we might be comforted by God.)

Most importantly, the Christmas story invites us to be part of the relationship in that we are called to find the divine in all that we say and do; in all that we meet.  Edgar Guest once wrote:

“I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day; I’d rather one should walk with me than merely tell the way.” To me, Guest understood Christmas.  It was about re-telling the story but in very practical ways. It was about more than just hearing the story, but living the story, about living in the presence of God; about seeing the divine in the everyday occurrences of life.

Giving All Year Long

Sunday Morning Musings:  I heard a story about a child born in December who once remarked that he wanted to celebrate his birthday in July.  To explain this choice he simply said that the way things are now everything happens in December and then I have to wait a year for it all to happen again.  There was little question about his thought process.  Even more so was his contention that everything happens in December (well at least seems to happen).

Many nursing homes will tell you much the same thing.  The person responsible for programming events has to work overtime to try to fit all the extras into their schedules.  Groups or choirs they may not hear from any other time of year try to make arrangements to visit in December. I understand part of their reasoning to be that they have usually prepared all autumn for a December concert and want to share their work which is a wonderful gift. However, the overlap can be almost “too much of a good thing”.

It also seems that since most people are in a “Christmassy” mood that they may also be more willing to give.  As a result there are all kinds of “food” drives and “toy” drives.   None of these asks are wrong and are greatly needed. Giving to or sharing with others in need is important.   In his daily meditations Richard Rohr quotes Sally McFague who says:  “[I]f one understands God to be not a ‘substance’ but the active, creative love at work in the entire universe, then ‘loving God’ is not something in addition to loving the world, but is rather the acknowledgement that in loving the world, one is participating in the planetary process (which some identify as ‘God’) of self-emptying love at all levels.”

I understand Rohr to be telling us in part that to give of ourselves is to be acting as we are intended to act – lovingly, which in turn reveals the divine within us.  And I would be the last person to ever suggest that we should not be more God-like.

What I would like to suggest is that we need to try to be as active in our revealing God within us throughout the whole year.  What if we could have “White Gift” Sunday once a month instead of once a year?  Even our public network TV channels would prefer regular monthly installments over once a year giving. Spreading things out throughout the whole year is a good idea. I remember one time being asked by the group home our Sunday School was planning to visit to sing and offer gifts was asked if we would come in January when the residents were so overwhelmed with “visitors”.

December is often considered a very busy time for us all.  In the Church we hold extra services,  groups from inside the church or outside clamour for space to hold their functions. In many ways we tend to feed the frency that happens in December (actually starting in late November with Black Friday sales).

Perhaps one of the best things that happens, at least for me, is that late on December 24th, most of the busyness seems to stop for a bit – and voices young and old join in the singing of “Silent Night”.  And though we may hold many different views and opinions about what the birth of a baby in Bethlehem may mean, there comes a stillness that can penetrate the heart.

If only, we could find a way to keeps that feeling all year long instead of just once a year and not have to wait a full year for it to happen again.

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.