thinking theology

More from the wilderness

I am still thinking about John and Jesus. John looks back into his tradition to find solutions for what he perceives to be a recurring problem that ultimately can be  resolved only by Divine judgement. Jesus, on the other hand, carries his tradition with him, reshaping it for new circumstances. He understands the rabbinical idea that Torah does not change, but people and the world do. Thus Torah is perceived in new ways for every generation.
I do not think Jesus’ ministry is problem based, so much as responsive, open to previously unimaginable possibility. Jesus seems aware that only compassion can unseat violence and only vulnerability can challenge power. No amount of institutional obedience or even piety will bring the world to a new era. For Jesus, the Divine is in the world in relationship, in the flesh , in the struggle, joy, and grace of living and dying with integrity, with love.
John looks to the past, as the Church often does. Jesus opens the door of the future, inviting us to step through death into a re-embodied eternal present.


John the Baptizer’s story is created from bits and pieces of older scripture. The strain in the story rises from the disparity between John’s message and Jesus’. To this day, in the Mandean community, John the Baptist is still revered as the Messiah of the two ways, one of death and the other of life. In Islam, he is the great prophet Yayah. For the first writers of Jesus’ story, their problem was clear. How could they weave the story of John into that of Jesus without compromising Jesus’ message of reconciliation and forgiveness. Their solution was brilliant. We will never know if Jesus began as a follower of John or if he simply existed and preached at the same time. In any case, the solution lay within Torah; present John as the Forerunner of the true Messiah. Relate him to Elijah (although John himself rejected that idea).

‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.
2 Kings 1:8

The Forerunner would call for a new purity, a reclamation of the values of tribal culture, preceding that of king and city state. Jesus’ message, too, offered a possible return to the covenants of Noah and Abraham. John, in this case, is the trumpeting angel who calls for repentance and the subsequent promise of sanctuary. The Exodus passage 23:20 for example, suggests a requirement of absolute obedience to a way of life, and terror for those who oppose the righteous.

I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.

Another echo comes from the prophet Malachi 3:1-3

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

What is notable, however, is that it is the community that is called and individuals, only insofar as they constitute the newly redeemed and restored tribal community.  So how do we reconcile these two prophets for our time. John demands that the community remember a history and a covenant that probably existed as an ideal, rather than a lived reality. And Jesus, who called for a developed humanity that would choose justice with compassion, that would stand against power and privilege without violence, that would judge with forgiveness and reconciliation.

I think these two voices represent stages of our own insight into the problems of our own era. Some of us think to look back to an imagined better time and some of us look forward to the resolution of this stage of human history. Without doubt, we can hear the cry of and from creation, the cry of and from those being assaulted and oppressed.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Isaiah 40:1-4

We know with every fibre of our being that the world is at a turning point, a critical time, when change will come upon us suddenly and inexorably. I think many people in the world feel as if they have already been baptized with fire, either of the heart or physically and socially. The earth is wounded and lashing out in pain. This is not a question of an angry God, but of a body, the body of the world crying out to us to act, to teach the faith again, the faith of a new humanity, and death to our old ideas about power and safety. Our salvation is at hand but it involves protecting others, our world and all of us its creatures. We can forget about the old ideas of personal salvation and instead see the cosmic spirit within which Christ acted, that spirit into which we are all invited, that spirit that promises healing for all and life for all we had thought to be dying.

We can make Advent this year our commitment to act, to learn, to be faithful, not out of personal fear, but out of the love of Christ, who called us to be his friends and co-workers in the in the kindom of peace and joy.


Already here: Matthew 25:1-13

I am grateful to D. Mark Davis for reminding me that Matthew puts his own twist on Jesus’ parables, in this case to explain the delayed parousia. I also agree that this parable seems more like what the kingdom of God is not like.

I have some problems both with the parable and in how we translate it. Firstly, I do not think these unmarried women are bridesmaids as we understand them, guests and attendants. I think these are the servants for the event, or the household, with some particular set of tasks. They are probably tired after a day or a month of preparation and so they drift off to sleep. Some of them are shrewd and some of them are “morons’ as the text says. Some of them guess about how the rich behave and prepare for that eventuality; others do not even consider the possibilities.

In the story, it seems to be night, so it is unlikely that the women without enough oil would be able to leave to go into town and get more; nor is it likely any would be easily available. Oddly, there is no offer to share what oil remains.

I wonder if people might have heard the parable as a cautionary tale about trusting in princes to deliver justice and prosperity. The state is notoriously fickle and unreliable for the least of its citizen. There are promises made, but delivery on those promises may be attenuated, if they happen at all. The danger in trusting in the state is that it tends to pit the least in society against each other. So the shrewd have to always be on guard. The unprepared, the “morons,” will be left to their own devices, which will be disastrous; in the harsh world of the state, there is no mercy for these people, even from their own class.

In the kingdom of God, on the other hand, the bridegroom is always present, always available to heal and to restore, to lift up the lowly and scold the proud.The kingdom of God is about abundance and enough for all, not more for some and less for others. Worthiness has less to do with morality or wisdom and more to do with compassion and cooperation. In the kingdom of God, the bridegroom already has come and is returning simultaneously.

It is only “in the world” that a person would look for external signs; they are immaterial in the land of the faithful. In the life in Christ, time has ceased to hold its power over human life. The banquet of the Lamb has begun and continues, despite being unrecognized by those who took for signs of power or “put their trust in princes.”

This is an opportunity to interact with the text and ask who the bridegroom is in our world. Does it matter whether we are asleep or awake? Does it matter how much we have or how prepared we are? Is it really more a question of showing up? of being present to serve and to celebrate? to die and to live in the life of the Holy One, expressed in Jesus?

The Time for War

What is it we are remembering at this time?

I am remembering how many young people are sent to kill or be killed by other young people. They are the sacrifices for our resistance to peace making. Whether they survive or die, war scars everyone and we know that each war begets the next war.

I am remembering the futility and waste wrought by violence, revenge. I want to rescue the children of the world from these desperate and hopeless efforts. I want to say to the rich men whose greed and ambitions require the sacrifice of our children, “Show us how much you will profit from this war. Show us what you hope to accomplish.  And then we will tell you whether or not we think it is worthwhile.” When the revelations about how the world wars were engineered and the propaganda that hid greed and prejudice, my war hero father was reduced to tears. He had broken his soul for the sake of what he believed to be pure ideals of freedom and safety for all.

Please understand, I am not depreciating the courage and commitment of those who serve in the military. I am not suggesting that their sacrifices should go untold or unrewarded. I want us to understand that we must be prepared for the healing that will need to ensue and its expense in time, money and energy.

I am also suggesting that we admit the period of war as it has been fought is over. No one wins wars any more, if they ever did. We are all the puppets of large corporate interests unless we resist. As Christians, part of our task is just that, to resist the powers that choose violence and prejudice, that choose colonization over cooperation, that have very little concern for the individual lives they affect.

The time for fighting on battlefields is over. We must insist on other forms of conflict resolution. We must not support the voices that use fear and ignorance to make political gain. The time for the sacrifice of generations is over.

I am reminded that we were told to stop sacrificing our children early in our history. We were told that although we had understood that to be God’s will, we were wrong.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” …..So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22)

About this passage, Michael Lerner comments in Jewish Renewal (p.48) “Here Abraham stands out as the being whose life gives us the barest hint, yet enough to be a message of hope, that it is possible to break the chain of necessity, that we do not have to pass on to the next generation what was done to us.”

For Christians, one of the stories that illuminates this idea is Jesus’ arrest in the gospel of Luke:

When those who were around Jesus  saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (22:49-51)

It is time to put an end to war. As a way to honour those who have died in military service, let us say that we will do our utmost to make their sacrifice result in peace, because it is that for which they meant to fight. Let us say that we will do our utmost to make their sacrifice result in freedom for everyone, because it is that for which they meant to fight. Let us say that we will do our utmost to save all children from violence, because that was their dream. 

Perhaps we should wear these poppies every day to remind us that violence is a choice we make for others, but that peace is a gift for the living. May all those who have fought in war, rest now in peace. May their souls be at peace. May they send us their strength to renew the earth in compassion.

The Thin Times

If you look on the internet, you will discover many articles about “thin” places or experiences. The common characteristic of both is the element of surprise. In the midst of walking, or feeling, or doing something, suddenly, the reality of the moment collapses, only to expand to a sense of being that is linear, unquantifiable, ineffable. And really any time and any place can become a burning bush, a voice in the clouds, a dazzling ray of sun. The thin time or place allows us to know the world of both spirit and matter as a sacred whole. In the season of All Saints and Souls, we connect the communion of those who have lived amongst us with this present community of faith and practice. It is a season meant to offer us the opportunity to see time as a tapestry being constantly woven with threads of our lives. We are invited to open ourselves to seeing and thinking beyond the limitation of our knowledge.

In speaking about faith as trust in the intrinsic goodness of creation, Marcus Borg wrote that it was through “mystical” experiences that he discovered the God that permeates reality with grace and compassion and wonder. (Awe and Wonder, p.26) These thin times grant us similar moments of possibility, moments when we remember that we are not alone, that our consciousness is bigger than our brains, and that we are intimately connected to a work in progress.

I was visiting an elderly friend this week. She felt distressed that she has memory issues. As the conversation went along, this became apparent as she kept forgetting who I was and saying how familiar I looked. She was embarrassed by these lapses. I told her that she was living in the thin time when past and future had less value than the present moment. She was delighted by a cheeky blue jay that kept coming to her window to eat bird seed and peek at her. I asked her if it was important to her which bird came. “Well, no” she replied. I said that it was the appearance of the bird that mattered most of all. She concurred. I told her that there exist whole schools of spiritual discipline that attempt to teach people to live in the moment and that now she was perfecting that way of being. It seemed to comfort her that it was natural and acceptable not to have to remember but to be content with the moment.

In the back of my head I was hearing, “Consider the lilies.” At this season of the thin time, perhaps we can practice letting go of our needs for control. We cannot initiate a mystical experience, but we can monitor our way of being in the world. We can develop the spiritual discipline of awareness, of being fully present both in our soul and in our body. My parents ashes were interred in our memorial garden. Now I know that those ashes have long since dissipated into the earth, but it still gives me a sense of peace to sit in the garden and remember those two loving people. I try to remember to make “Thank you for life” the first thing I say in the morning. I work at paying attention to my surroundings rather than the voices in my head, clamouring for attention and worry.

Mostly we rush about, but if we can intentionally get out of our heads and move into observer status, we might just discover an amazing world inviting our wonder. We might also reflect that being in the world, we can never leave it. We are, at the least, a part of its history, but maybe our energy, our souls, if you like, are part of this incredible package of stunning reality. Maybe we could trust Jesus when he says that we will be together always. Maybe we can trust the power of transformation to mold us into the forms we need.

In this thin time, let us open ourselves to moving beyond fear to trust, beyond cynicism to the wonder of childhood. Let us cease evaluating and categorizing for a time and just breathe with the world. Maybe we could just let the ancestors drift past us knowing that we belong to them as much as we belong to the dreams of our children. And the earth awaits our awareness that we are part of the planet. Not a dream, but the reality of life constantly living and recreating itself. We shall not die but live in the twinkling moment of revelation, in the heart and mind and body of God.

Caesar’s Face

With thanks to D. Mark Davis for his comments and translation.

In Matthew 22:15-22, we hear about the trap forming around Jesus. In this case, the temple and the Roman sympathizers form an unlikely and probably uncomfortable alliance. They ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. There is no safe answer to this question. The temple, of course, also collected funds. The coins in either case were different. Temple coin could not be engraved with a human face or God’s face. Roman coins were engraved with the face of the emperor.

If Jesus said the coin should go to the Temple, it would be blasphemy, and also treason, a double whammy as they say. He turns the question back to them. He says, “Whose face is engraved here?” Then, it is logical that the coin belongs to the state. But God has presence over all, so the power of this coin is minimized by being part of a greater reality. It is a clever response, but also one to cause the listener to think. To whom do I owe my life? To whom do I owe my loyalty? To whom do I offer my service? Whose gifts do I appreciate and why?

Suddenly, we are confronted with some troubling thoughts. We in Canada, may not be living in occupied territory politically, but we might ask ourselves who owns our water? our natural resources? our fields and farms? our dairy and forests? How much control do we have over our daily lives?

Jesus was very political in his time and we must be too. It is not enough to hand over our coin to the state and then turn a blind eye to how it used, for good or ill. Politicians receive hate mail all the time. I wonder if they receive equal amounts of encouragement for their service in ecology, in justice, in compassionate legislation. We live in fractious times, but it is not all bad. I am proud of Quebecois who are wearing face coverings to protest the new law prohibiting such dress. Apparently even some bus drivers are protesting. This is an example of peaceful, but strong resistance to racism and martial law. I am happy to see Lloyd Longfield (MP) writing in social media about what he is thinking. Agree or not, it is an effort at transparency.

The best society is the one which understands sharing of resources , sharing personal as well as corporate responsibility. Jesus addresses not only social victims but also power brokers, demanding justice and consideration for all. The coin may belong to Caesar, but Caesar is accountable to God. In Hebrew scripture, in many passages, we hear the prophets warning rulers that security in leadership requires integrity. When integrity fails, so will the state ultimately. The lesson is that natural law will prevail because God shelters all.

The question for us in the passage is how do we use the coin that is stamped with our Caesar’s names? How do we decide whose agenda dominated our decisions? How do we weigh the easy prize against the long term care for the earth, and its people? Sheri Tepper, the novelist, commented that justice must be weighted on a case by case basis. God sees the sparrow, sees the tree, sees the whale, sees us. God sees the particular as well as the whole. Where do we place ourselves as church, as city, as family in that mirror; what do we see?

If asked the same question as Jesus was, how do we say with integrity how we support our society, our church, our family? Is it even a question we ask ourselves or have we forgotten to whom we belong, whose service liberates us?

Eat, Pray, Act

Eat, Pray, Act

This thanksgiving is a weekend for counting our blessings. As I write in Southern Ontario, I am looking out my window at dramatic weather, wind chasing clouds grey with rain, then in the next minute, clear skies and hot humid air. And I am reminded that I am not worrying about how to survive a hurricane, an earthquake, a tsunami, or even someone filled with rage and malice who wants to act violently.

There is plenty of food in the kitchen, plenty of family and friends with whom to share, plenty of love to go around. I live in a pleasant neighbourhood with trees and flowers and gardens, in a city that is fairly enlightened, and fun. How could I be anything but grateful! These are the macro thanks.

On a simpler note, I am incredible grateful for electricity and running water. I had a new appreciation for my laundry room and appliances when I read the article about Puerto Ricans, trying to remember how to do laundry without electricity or running water. And yet, I saw a picture of some families, men and women laughing together about how they wished they had listened to their grandmothers.

All over the world, people just like me except for circumstance, are struggling for survival, worried about how to take care of their loved ones, worried that they might be killed for having the wrong religion, colour, language, gender, politics. Again, in the midst of and despite so much pain and uncertainty, people are acting to improve things, speaking out although at risk; choosing to act rather than passively accepting the status quo. They are creating hope in what might look to us like impossible situations.

And what are we doing with our abundance, with our security, with our blessings. I think our first act is to give thanks at the tables where we find ourselves, banquets of food and spirit(s), to look with wonder on our lives, to turn from negativity to delight and appreciation, to cherish each other and the ways in which we are connected. The first chapter of the letter of James says that religion that is authentic calls us to and from the table, both acts of love, both acts of faith. People are encouraged to act on their faith, not simply contemplate their theology, or good fortune, or blessedness. Gratitude is a process that begins with appreciation, then recognizes that the cup is not just full, but running over. Then we are called to employ our hope, our assets, our skills, our privilege in the work of sharing blessings.

I cannot look at my grandchildren without thinking how I want all the children of the world, to have clean drinking water, to feel safe, to be proud of who and how they are. I want to do what I can to turn away violence and discrimination and injustice. I want to be a person who promotes peace and joy, not out of a sense of duty but because I have so much of all of this that I want to share it with others. May your hearts be broken and healed in love, both in the receiving and in the giving.

Here is my prayer
O Wise and Only One, how carefully you made us.
We are blue clay streaked with colour, full of divine radiance;
after the molding, after the fire, earth yet open to be filled.
Our days are but a moment through which your breath passes, sanctifying body and soul.
Burst from our hearts, Lover and Friend, unite us to one another like forests sharing sunshine and rain, water and wine, holiness gleaming through our tears.