The God-Presence

Sunday Morning Musings:  More than once this week I have heard someone questioning the reasons why something terrible has happened, either to someone they may have known or to themselves.  The question I have heard is similar to the one that asks:  What have I ever done to deserve this?

The father of the man arrested after a driving rampage in Toronto that killed and injured many was overheard apologizing for his son’s actions.  A commentator attempted to reassure the listening audience that the sins of the son were not visited on the father, despite the scriptural reference used that states that those sins are visited on our children.  Personally, I have to agree with the person who feels that the father was not responsible for his son’s actions.

Then there was the case of a mother who was raising three children who needed support and wonder what she had done that was preventing her from receiving help.

As I mused about these situations, I also thought about the phrase or adage that reminds us that “what goes around comes around”.  At first, I thought this to mean the same as getting as good as one gives.  That is to say, if I am kind and caring, I receive the same.  Some have even used the idea of “karma” when attempting to describe why things happen to us, good or bad.

A simple response in these types of situations could be to suggest that there are always exceptions to the rule, or maybe everyone has to assume some responsibility for what happened.  No doubt there is an endless amount of blame to go around.  Some would even go so far as to blame “the big guy upstairs” for isn’t that what we are really saying when we say that the sins of the father are visited on the son; that we wonder what we have done to deserve something bad happening in our lives.  I have even heard it said that “God never gives us anything we can’t handle”.

It would seem that I have just given justification to those who would tell me this is the reason they no longer believe in God.  While at the same time I have given ammunition to those who would remind me that Jesus died for our sins and the only reason one is being punished (by God?) is because they haven’t yet made a proper confession or profession.  (Talk about keeping both sides happy!)

It is never my intent to support either view.  The God of my faith does not punish us for any reason.  The God of my faith is not capable of punishment, or judgement in this life or any other life.  When we choose to live and act in love, in compassion, we act with God-presence.  The vast majority of those who respond to tragic events (those on a massive scale or those on a more personal level) respond because of the need that exists. Rather than seeking to discover the “why” these terrible things have happened, we need to seek and find ways to let others see that our response is one of love, or being a real sense of “God-presence”.

It is time we open ourselves to a deeper understanding of the one called “creator”, or any other name.  We open ourselves to an understanding that believes in the goodness (the godness) of life, especially in the face of that which is hurtful and harmful.

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.

Letting Go to Move Ahead

Sunday Morning Musings:  As far as the church is concerned this week is often referred to as “Holy Week”, that is to say, the week before Easter.  For some, this week begins with a parade known as Palm Sunday and culminates with the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of the Christ.  In between these two celebrations we often hear the stories of “fake news” about what was said and when; as well as betrayal and denial by close friends; and mocking and death on a cross. In some instances this week is also known as Passion Week.

Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), my musings have been all over the place.  Truly, for many without Easter (the story of the resurrection) there would be nothing.  Even in the scriptures, Paul is convinced that without belief in the resurrection our faith is in vain (I Corinthians 15:14).  It would almost seem natural that the scientific minded among us would want proof (as did the disciple Thomas).  But proof does not exist. Such a statement has led many to the decision that seems so simple – either you are in or you are out.

I have to wonder though, whether or not if life is that simple. As I have remarked many times before, we seem to be a people who want answers.  There is no doubt that we have lots of questions, questions about nearly everything.  We want to know who was at fault when something doesn’t happen the way we think it should; we want to have explained (usually in simple terms) what things happen when they do.  I am told that a good detective doesn’t like to use the term “coincidence”.  As I mentioned previously in my musings, like Stephen Hawking, we want to know the “reason for everything”.

One of the most difficult tasks I have found is that of letting go.  More than nought, I want to control the outcomes of those things in which I find myself involved.  For some, such control issues affect one’s mental health – one of the conditions experienced by some is called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  To some extent we all feel the need to determine the outcome.  Sometimes it can be as simple as feeling that anything less than a “home run” is a failure.  (Trivia fact:  did you know that Babe Ruth struck out three times more than he his home runs?)

Of course, due to the society in which we live, words and concepts can take on different meanings.  Letting go or surrendering is often viewed as a negative action.  Yet, time and time again we are told in one way of another that “in losing our life we shall find it”. Too often when the outcome is not what we expect we will play the blame and shame card – blame someone or something or feel the shame of not being good enough.  Letting go often means stepping back from “judgment” and then we can begin the journey to wholeness with all of creation.

The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, wrote in her book, When Things Fall Apart (Shambhala, Boston, 2000): If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path. (p.38).

Letting go feels risky.  On the other hand, how will we know unless we do?  Letting go means to stop judging our actions or those around us and find a way to move forward.

Faith is Searching

Sunday Morning Musings:  It has been quite a week – even though I have about the furthest thing from a scientific mind, I was moved like many others to learn of the physical death of Stephen Hawking.  Like other great people with the thirst for knowledge and understanding, Hawking may have originally hesitated to speak of a connection between science and spirituality, but he was also willing to search the mystery. (I used the word spirituality” instead of “religion” because they often become confused in any discussion with science.)

Far be it from me to even begin to understand the full extent of the connections, other than to say that I admired Hawking greatly for the simple reason that he chose to explore and think beyond himself.  I have been told that to constantly ask questions is a sign of my lack of faith.  I admit that I do lack a faith at times, but it is not in what I call “God”, but in those that try to tell me or anyone that they have all the answers.  Even the Bible that is a record of man’s experiences and their attempt to describe such encounters throughout history is limited.

To limit the recording of these encounters to a time frame of six or seven thousand years is beyond incredible to me.  It doesn’t take a mindful-genius like Hawking to realize that the universe was present millions of years ago.  Nor does it take any stretch of my imagination or mind to realize that God was, is and will be a part of it all.

The difficulty arises when we try to put God in a box, no matter the size of that box.  God is beyond time and space, beyond matter. God is both “singularity” and in all things, both nothingness and everything. Will some great mind ever fully understand this paradox?  Even Stephen Hawking whose physical life was fifty years longer than most expected was still searching for answers.

One of the most admirable features of Hawking for me was that he never gave up (and those who loved him never gave up on him) his learning and seeking for understanding.  To me, that is faith.  One of my favourite Hawking quotes has to do with a somewhat controversial idea within religious groups as well as outside them.  Hawking is quoted as having said:  I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.

Besides the implications of which he spoke, his sense of humour was incredible.  Despite the hand that he was dealt, he lived his life fully.  When I begin to feel sorry for myself and the situation in which I am at that time, I find people like Hawking very inspirational.  As I mentioned above, I am far from him intellectually, but I believe Hawking would be the first to remind us that searching is the key.  I have always felt that “if I have all the answers, then I haven’t asked all the questions” and the journey continues.

As the title of the movie about Hawking’s life reminds us: The Reason for Everything, we all are part of something greater than what we see and even know, and it is our calling to keep asking the questions.  Yet, the great paradox in this search also involves learning how to “let go”.  Which is likely a good topic for further musings.

God is not Mr.-Fix-it

Sunday Morning Musings:   As I write these musings I find myself listening to the news (maybe too much).  It seems that everywhere I turn I find concerns.  There are concerns about the effects of tariffs; there are weather concerns (too hot, too cold, too much snow, not enough snow); should the POTUS meet with the leader of North Korea and why; pundits wonder who will win elections and movie awards and what people will be wearing.   The list of these concerns seems endless.  And as much as any or all of the above will have an effect on us personally, the list doesn’t even go into individual concerns about individual health.

Even more important, is the effect that all of these concerns have on us spiritually. (May I remind you, that I do not necessarily interchange the term spiritual with religious?)  Religiously, I have been told that there is no concern to worry about.  God is in control and that is all we need to know.  An old bumper sticker tells us:  If Jesus is in your co-pilot, you are in the wrong seat.)  I can accept this concept of God to a certain degree.  No matter what happens in the world, in my community or in my own personal life, I have no doubt that there will be a presence with me.  I may not know how or even why, but I know it, I believe it, I live it.

Of course, the question is often raised as to why an “all-present” God could or would allow terrible things to happen.  (If you haven’t read Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, please do).  A god who controls life, and blesses and curses our behaviours is not a god worthy of our worship.

I am not saying that belief in “God” is not good.  Rather, I am suggesting that for spiritual growth to be helpful in difficult times we need a fuller understanding of our own spirituality.  I will admit that when we encounter difficult situations we first look for a cause.  We ask:  why is this happening?  Even if we don’t add the “to me” the thought is likely present.  As if we were to think that it should be happening to someone else?  Too often when we can’t find someone else to blame it must be “God” punishing us and so we rail against whatever we can, or passively accept our punishment.

When I allow myself to continue to grow spiritually, I can still have questions but they are not a frantic searching kind.  Nor is my belief a simplest one that leaves it all up to God.  True spirituality grows toward an oneness or unity with “that which is beyond understanding”.  Such an understanding does not mean I will not experience “tough times”.  It does mean that I am never left alone to face whatever comes my way.  Spirituality means that I am a part of life and no matter what life throws at me, I don’t have to face it alone.

What is God?

Sunday Morning Musings: This week there were so many things running through my mind, it was difficult even to narrow down my musings.  I was very intrigued by a question I saw recently asked nearly 20 years ago by the late Marcus Borg.  Instead of the more tradition question, Borg asked: “What is God?”

At first I wondered how I might have a personal relationship with an object (i.e. a ‘what’ and not a ‘who’).   Almost since we began telling and recording stories about God, we have personified “God”.  At the very least we have given God the traits of a person (after all, man is made in the “image of God” so why wouldn’t God be more human like than anything else in creation?)

Oh, oh, I’ve done it now. Half the popular is going to be after me – let me tell the story I once heard about God creating man and having done so looked at this creator and said “I can do better than that and so created ‘woman’.  – Hopefully that should do it, or is everyone now upset with me?  Maybe I should just stop thinking.  Where was I?

What is God?  I have to admit that the more I mused about this question, the more I began to comprehend what I think Borg was getting at.  God, for many even today, is still up there in heaven and is seen as having very masculine traits – God is an old man with a long beard in the sky surrounded by angels.  This God looks down upon creation and sees and blesses the good while cursing and causing bad things to happen – sometimes without us even knowing what we have done wrong.  Even if we have been good (like Job) we still must have “sinned and gone astray”.   We were so bad that God knew that there was only one option left (even the flood wasn’t enough).  Jesus would come and be crucified for our sins – atonement was the only way.

Now that makes me ask: What is God?

Because I do not follow the theology of atonement in the sense that I have been taught – that is to believe that the only way to be at one with creator and creation is to believe that Jesus died because I was unredeemable, I have a lot of re-learning to do.  Firstly, I had to stop taking the Bible literary and wrestle with it (like Jacob) and how to understand it.  As an example, I can refer again to Jacob and Jacob’s ladder.  To me when I read this story the ladder represents the relationship that exists, that I am not separate from God.  Again and again the Bible tells me about the on-going connection of creator and creation.  When Jesus “cleansed the temple”, I feel that we are being told that God doesn’t just dwell in the temple or our churches, but everywhere there exists any attempts to marginalize anyone – which by the way is everywhere, even in our churches and mosques and synagogues…

After yet another mass killing in a school in the USA I say a t-shirt that said something along the lines that it couldn’t be God’s fault because God isn’t allowed in schools anymore.  I agree that killing is never God’s fault, but whether we want to admit it or not, God was there.  Not as a ‘who’ but as love and compassion.  God was there, God is everywhere good needs to be.  Without love there is nothing (1 Corinthians 13).  Without love there is no God.  What is God?  God is love.

Enjoying the Mystery

Sunday Morning Musings:  I told someone this past week that my favourite theological word is “mystery”.  This word not only fits with my understanding of “God” but the relationship between creation and the one I call “Creator”.  It is also like the adage that tells me that the more I know I realize how much I don’t know.

Many who know me will not be surprised when I say that it is unfortunate that most of us don’t start to live and until we learn and accept that this physical life doesn’t last forever.  (Cheap plug:  my novella is called “Dying to Live” with a play on words).  We are all spiritual beings yet most of us pay little or no attention to this element of our lives until we reach the end-of-life stage of our physical living.  Of course, there are many reasons why we choose to avoid the topic of dying and death despite the fact that so many would encourage us to do otherwise (this writer included).  Yet, we continue to fear dying (if not death) for many reasons, some of which are rational and some not.

But back to the idea of “mystery”.

We also live in a society that has often pitted religion against science, beliefs against facts, and even The Bible against other writings. Sadly, to do so is to hinder our spiritual growth at our own peril.  We live in a society that teaches us to “prove it”.  Too often this concept is used with the re-telling of biblical stories.  Last week I preached about the story of Noah and his boat (ark).  I mentioned that there are endless humourous quips and tales about this story.  For some everything is just as the Bible tells us, even including the dimensions.  The “unbelievers” might question the idea of “two of every living creature” (Genesis 6:19); even citing the above mentioned verse in contrast with Genesis 7:2 which calls for Noah to takes seven pairs of clean animals. Can you see the mystery within the mystery?

The quest for me becomes not attempting to “solve” this or any other mystery – (I am no William Murdoch or Agatha Christie or…- you get the point). On the other hand, I am not about to simply throw up my hands in defeat and quit.  I can still learn and question.  But I should never assume that I have all of the answers either.  Far too often, one piece of learning leads to a new question and quest in my faith journey; in my spiritual journey.

Unfortunately, many people don’t want the challenge of such a quest.  Some want the answers – simple and now.  They are the ones who often don’t question any aspects of their faith, even though they may not be totally willing to accept all the precepts of their religion.  At the other extreme are those who find themselves so at odds with what they are told that they simply turn away altogether.  Interestingly, I wonder how many “new” denominations (not just in Christianity) have been created out of differences of opinion.  I remember reading one time about a group that divided over a disagreement about whether facial hair for men should or could include a moustache as well as a beard.  Now if I believed in a God who had anthropomorphic characteristics that thought would be both sad and humourous at the same time mixing laughter and tears.

There are many things that I believe about my spiritual journey and these include that I don’t know all there is to know and that is okay.  My spiritual journey will not end when my physical body can no longer support itself (with or without medical assistance).  I enjoy the mystery fulfilling for me the called from the Westminster Catechism (1648) to “enjoy God” – enjoy the mystery.