thinking theology

Archive for December, 2011

As Close As My Own Heart

One of the things I love about Christmas is the quiet. I was thinking though that quiet is relative and never complete. Even with all the stores closed and the cooking and the praying and the singing done, there is still sound. I was thinking about what a baby hears before he/she is born. What do they hear? They hear their mother’s heart beat. At the nursing home this week, I asked if they remembered being born and they looked anxious, “Is this another trick question?”

I confessed that I, and everyone else for that matter, cannot remember that time. Perhaps the memory gets washed away in the trauma of birth. But I have been thinking ever since then about what is really true. What is true is my own heart beat that connects me to that moment when all I could hear was a heart beating in sync with mine, the body providing me shelter and nurture. I do in fact remember my birth; it is as close as my own heart.

One might say that one of the unique things about Jesus is that he never forgot his own heart, or hearing that primordial pounding. No trauma could divest him of his connection to the rhythm that is at the core if all life. Not even death could sever his connection to the heart that beats through all of life.

So tonight in the quiet, we remember the heart that is divine, that beats in and through us all, the heart of the Maker of all, the Source of love and new creation. Let us remember that heart beat that connects us to our parents, to our ancestors, to the rest of creation. Let us remember this story that claims a place for God under a human heart, inside a human womb, the DNA that connects us to everything living. Let us remember the mystery that is the heart of God pounding through our lives whether we hear it or not, whether we remember or not.

At the centre of everything in the midst of the midst is the holy. And that holiness, that beauty, can be evidenced in human life. The incarnation of love, joy, and a dream for the future: that is the story of Jesus. And the sanctuary that he desires is your heart, your deepest self that can remember when you first heard the universe calling you to life.

Remember to whom you belong, the God that is giving birth to you whether you pay attention or not. Listen to your heart beat and remember the story of a baby who grew into an adult filled with passion and awareness of his own source. Remember that all is life, always beginning, always changing, always sheltered and nurtured by holiness.

In the womb of life, we live and hear the rhythm of the universe. We are invited to offer our wonder at the altar of a baby, the sign of God with us, within us, amongst us, abiding. God is in your heart and your breath. In the quiet, hear God’s love resonating through your veins and through our world, down every mountain and waterfall, across every prairie and ice field, in lakes and trees. With all the creatures we say Glory and praise for the one who makes us holy.

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The Truth about Myths

Last week, I heard someone say they didn’t want to come to church because it’s all a bunch of myths. Well, that boy is quite right — about the myth part anyway. A myth is a narrative that tries to explain or teach something about how the world is. Every culture has its gods and stories about how the world began. These are not facts like “rain is wet.” These are stories to help us understand the truth behind certain events or ideas.

At this time of year we say we are remembering the birth of Jesus, but of course no one knows for sure what happened or what his early life was like, so we are not really remembering. We are re-imagining.

Some scholars have found some interesting ideas that they think may be true. There was a child born to a woman called Mary. His name was Jesus and his father may have been a Roman soldier called Panthera. If that is true, then probably Panthera was called to duty before he perhaps even knew that Mary was expecting a baby. A man in Nazareth called Joseph, who was perhaps a widower with children of his own, offered to marry Mary. So, Joseph was most likely his stepfather. Jesus had several stepbrothers and sisters and maybe Mary went on to have other children. No one knows for sure.

What we do know is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth in a fairly traditional Jewish home. He was probably a Pharisee. His mother must have taught him to see the burdens the occupation of Rome and the ruling class of the Jewish temple placed upon his neighbours and the people who were homeless.

In fact, Jesus was so remarkable, that when good people met him as an adult, they saw the holiness in him. At first they called him a great prophet and healer and later they said he was a child of God, born to set the people free.

The stories in Luke and Matthew about Jesus’ birth were written after his death. They had several purposes. The first thing they wanted to say is that the revelation of God is not shown by rulers like the Caesars. Luke and Matthew took stories about the birth of Augustus Caesar and changed them so we would see what a real holy birth would be like.

And so what happened in those stories? Jesus was not born in a palace but in a wayside inn. There was no royal court around, just the shepherds watching their sheep in the night. Instead of candles and flaming torches, there was the beautiful night sky, filled with stars and the song of the universe as it turns around and around. Instead of kings arriving to take advantage of something new, there were scholars who wanted something more important than facts to guide them.

This myth of Jesus’ birth has so much real truth in it, that people keep writing variations on it. Everyone can see that the truth at the heart of the story is about God who lives within us, inside us, and between us. And the other thing we know is that all who met Jesus were either in love with him or afraid of him. That’s a lot of power in one ordinary guy. And that’s the biggest mystery of all: why did the life and death of one man change the world so much? The problem isn’t that his story is told in myth, but that people don’t have enough patience to let the mystery unfold, to see that if you want the truth, you need to learn how to wonder and imagine. So when your friends say it’s all a myth, you say, “Yes!” Isn’t it a great story about how God’s love is expressed by ordinary people, babies, stars, the night sky. Better yet, because it is a mystery, we can keep on telling stories about it and keep on learning until finally we will be filled with the whole of God’s mystery. And then maybe God will begin another story….

Take Christians out of Christmas

The time is here. Let’s take the Christians out of Christmas and into the Incarnation. On the (now) feast of Christ the King, let’s concentrate on what the second coming and rule means in a third millennium world. On what is now Advent 1, we could look at the myths and stories about John the Baptist. On (now) Advent 2, we could think about how Jesus and John the Baptist together influence Christian thought. On (now) Advent 3, let’s think about how Mary is the model of ministry and let us espouse her as did Joseph, nurturing and lifting Jesus up. I say this because I think our imagination about ourselves as Jesus has not always been good, certainly for the clergy, but also for the church and its sense of entitlement. On what is now Advent 4, we could celebrate the feast of the Incarnation, with all the bells and liturgical whistles we associate with Christmas. That would give time to enjoy the solstice and allow us a theologically — rather than a secularly — driven christmas season.

The Origins of Christmas

Christmas, as a celebration, has very little to do with Christianity. You will notice there are no dates in the Bible other than the mention of Quirinius, which would mean Jesus would have had to have been born in 4 BC. A lot of work has gone into trying to pin down a date, most commonly in one of the autumn months, in about 3 ad. However, as a feast, it was unremarkable, and certainly was not celebrated as a birthday but as a reflection on the incarnation, the indwelling of God within humanity.

Until 386, very little attention was paid to the nativity, except as a teaching about how the kingship of Jesus should not be mistaken for ideas about worldly power and dominance. In the 4th century, in an effort to either contain or modify the excesses of Saturnalia, a thoroughly repulsive Roman holiday, the pope of Rome declared Dec. 25th to be the date of Jesus’ birth. He encouraged the converts to meditate on the nativity rather than revel in the streets. At its worst, Christianity became corrupted by some of the less savoury behaviour of the season. Most of our Christmas customs are related to much older religions and have nothing to do with Christianity.

It would probably be helpful for Christian families to separate Christmas and its fun, from the feast of the incarnation, the feast of “Immanuel,” God-with-us. I think we can enjoy the fun of the holidays, Santa and presents, reindeer and feasts, without having to harmonize them with a religious tradition that is about simplicity, about connection to the natural world, and to the ordinary folks who are the beloved of the Divine. For us the feast of the incarnation is about discovering the indwelling spirit of the Holy One who connects us to the earth, to each other, and to a story about how we are becoming truly human.