thinking theology

Identity Crisis

One of the social media groups that exist on the internet is called “I am not that kind of Christian.” The identity crisis in Christianity originates in its early shift from counter cultural resistance movement to being a recognized state sanctioned institution. Movements are fluid, evolving in goals and processes. Institutions create rules and aim for stability and order. Movements ebb and flow discernibly; institutions change slowly, and reluctantly.

The contemporary church finds itself caught in conflicting modalities of expectations, practice, and freedom to change. Like all religions, Christianity easily becomes a political tool for many different positions.

True religion is organic and will break through any long term attempts to contain its wildness, its creative chaos. For Christians today, there are new expressions of practice and resistance. While there may be what appears to be dissent between religions, in fact there is a deeper, more intentional conversation developing.

The parish church also finds itself rediscovering that, not only have the rules changed, the nature of membership has also changed. In the beginning, Jewish Christians met and planned and prayed in homes. They planned events to intervene in what they perceived to be a call for healing, for resistance, or for discussion about how to model the actions of Jesus. Some of these groups would become more theological, some more liturgical, and others more counter cultural.

Today, our partners in prayer are not necessarily Christian. The people who support the ecology or the social justice actions, may or may not be Sunday members. The standard for membership is less doctrinal and more practice based. At one time people who attended seasonally or during life events ( birth, death, marriage) were not considered committed adherents. Now, they are significant participants. The bells we still ring at the elevation of the host, originally reminded the working folks in fields or factories, of God’s love for them in the Christ. Today they remind everyone that we remember them and are praying for them

The church needs to relax in the knowledge that the faith is organic, and that means unpredictable, wild, diverse. Instead of worrying about our statistics, we need to trust that sharing the work of our communities, sharing the concerns of our towns and cities and farms, will help us fulfill the mission of Jesus. When people tell me that they don’t believe in God, but they do work for the common good, then I say that we share the same goals. The church’s purpose is transformation of the world, and we are all the workers for that movement.

Some of us take comfort and inspiration from the liturgy, the bible, the music of the church. These are gifts for some, but not for everyone. Some of us will feel more inspired as we prepare food for others, take part in a demonstration, be politically active. We are all part of the body, although how and when we appear may not be easily controlled.

There is no identity crisis for those who share peace, compassion, and well being for all, as their ethic and their goal. There is no identity crisis for those who share a love of the earth and wonder at the cosmos. There is no identity crisis for those who accept that the whole universe is constantly in a state of transformation and our awareness frees us to be knowing participants in that. When we all dream like that, when all work for that, then the time of religion as division will end and the time of singing” will come to us all.


My Beloved

After everyone else, Jesus goes into the river to be baptized. (Remember why being last is important.) And then people experience a vision of God in the form of a dove, announcing that Jesus is God’s beloved, indeed a child of the Holy One. The dove of course is reminiscent of the story of the ark, the messenger that names the earth again for humankind. 

So why was this story so important to tell? What message would the first followers hear?

Perhaps considering Jesus’ upbringing would provoke some thought on this. The common assumption is that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, with his father a skilled tradesman. Nazareth had an interesting geographical situation. It bordered the Samarian lands on one side; on another the mixed communities of Sepphoris and Tiberias and then the Hellenistic settlements in Decapolis. Further north, there were settlements of Syro-Phonecians. All of these communities were geographically closer to Nazareth than Jerusalem.

Several hundred years before, Rome had punished the people of Sepphoris for a theft of armaments, by crucifying 2000 Jews. The people of the north — the Nazarenes — were thought to be slack religiously, to be overly-influenced by their Gentile neighbours, and to be speaking a barbaric form of Aramaic. Although these separate communities may have been somewhat insular, there was a shared mistrust of Rome and, at least among the Jews, mistrust of Jerusalem and the powerful there who were Roman sympathizers.

Back to Luke’s story: Who were the people who had waded into the Jordan ahead of Jesus? Mostly they would have been Jews, of course, but very few would have been rich or powerful. (The rich and powerful would able to use their own personal, ritual baths, having no need of the dirty water of a river.) Some of these, perhaps out of spiritual hunger, curiosity, or happenstance, might have been engaged by John’s rants, although his attacks on the morality of Herod would have also made participation dangerous.

Jesus walks into the water without comment. He stands not in the courtyard of the wealthy or the priests. Rather he stands with the poor, and the not quite wealthy enough. He stands with the people who could not follow the codes for ritual cleanliness or food, because they simply dId not have the wherewithal. 

Later, we know he will share food and conversation, healing and story with these same kinds of people. It would have been easy to write him off as a person of questionable background, who grew up in a mixed and perhaps not quite savoury area. His Aramaic would have revealed his northern origins.

Luke wants us to know where Jesus stands, who his people are. For the early Jewish Christian communities, the challenge of inclusivity, of resistance to an acceptance of violence, of visionary thinking, had to be rooted in the model of the the One who came as the child of God. 

I think Jesus is the child of God because God is not partial. Anyone who is humble, who is just and compassionate, reveals the face of God and is acting out the wisdom of Torah. If we say Jesus is love, peace, and justice, then we are saying something about the nature of God. Surprisingly, we are also saying something about what we can be also. If Jesus is God’s beloved, then so are you and I. 

Our lineage is not derived from service to oppressive power or imposing status. Our lineage is of the One who loves the earth, who says the last shall be first, who holds us to a higher standard of love. Our baptism is not about our personal salvation, but about the salvation of the world from fear and complicity. Our baptism must be a sign of God’s hope for all people. We personally don’t have to do anything except open ourselves to the Spirit of Wisdom who made us, to the passion of Jesus who calls us to follow him, and to the Holy One who travels ahead, making all creation new and blessed.

Liberating the Wheat

In Luke 3:7-18, we read about a reasonable John the Baptizer, who warns people to remember who they are and to whom they belong. He calls them a brood of vipers to link them to a story of the Exodus. When the refugees hungered and thirsted, God gave them water to drink and manna to eat. But eventually they were unsatisfied. Then poisonous snakes came and bit them. Sadly the poisonous snakes of doubt, of fear and of self protection came again in the first century to divide the people from each other and from their God.

To survive an occupying force requires some compliance, but John reminds them that that compliance cannot involve them turning on each other. The God of Israel requires them to be faithful, to be righteous with each other, to be generous, and to trust in God’s presence to save and to liberate. In other words, living through an occupation does not abrogate or diminish the communal demands of Torah. John’s expectations are modest. As the people recognize their need to cooperate, to take care of each other, to maintain community despite the external pressure of different gods and different laws, so they can receive the baptism of awareness.

John, however, points to the coming of another one whose words and actions will winnow the souls, to leave them holy and healthy. Chaff is the result of beating or tossing grain in the air to blow off the outer husk. What is left is the edible part, the source of bread, of nourishment.

The baptism of Jesus is like fire because it is passionate. It asks an honesty of us, and a vulnerability that shields others while exposing ourselves to the elements of a violent, selfish world. This passage is not about judgement but freedom to fully embrace our humanity, that looks exactly like the humanity of Jesus. Time to let the vipers of suspicion, of resentment, and of fire, go. It is time to walk into the healing stream that is the tough love of Jesus and the tough task he has set for all time. We are the bearers of hope in a dry land, abundance in what appears to be scarcity, joy in the face of rage. We celebrate this task because we understand that we will be liberated and reborn in the spirit of justice and truth, wisdom and love. Bread for the world, promise for the poor and healing for all. 


Lift Up Your Heads

We are living in fin de siècle times, end times, when everything that we have assumed has been called into question. We are at the end of the age of enlightenment. This period has been characterized by growth in the sciences and technology, by certainty in facts, by a belief in progress toward defeating death, outer space, sickness, and poverty. In this period, we have also staged some of the bloodiest, most unjust wars in history. We have developed particularly cruel forms of slavery and, despite our medical advances, spread plagues from continent to continent. Indeed, the earth and all its creatures suffer from our so-called progress.

It is not surprising that when we read these end times excerpts in the gospels, we can suddenly relate to the fear of the 1st century folks. In Luke 21, we hear warnings from a period in history after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. What is also on the horizon, is the strain in the Roman Empire and its colonies. So what does Jesus say as a response to both natural and social calamity? He offers no practical advice at all. He says, “Lift up your heads. Pay attention! Get ready.”

What does that mean for us as we too witness the social structures around the globe cracking and the earth fighting for its own healing? What does it mean for us to lift up our heads? I think it means don’t run to ground, don’t hide from reality, don’t cover our eyes. Some people will say that climate change is not really an immediate problem. Others will say that the market in human slavery has been exaggerated. And I will not rehearse here the denial of the crisis that precipitated the Truth and Reconciliation process between settlers and indigenous peoples. Jesus says, “Lift up your heads, open your eyes.” Be tellers of truth as you have learned it; be open to learning more. Be brave enough to see clearly. So one aspect of standing up, of lifting up our heads, is observation.

Another aspect of lifting our heads is to recognize how we will be needed in the future, how we will speak the good news, how we will model the justice and integrity of Jesus in our own time and place. I think this and all other sacred places, need to remember that we are here as sanctuaries for the desperate, as oases for the thirsty, as hostels for the wanderers, and as hospitals for the broken. Identifying the call for the future means engaging intentionally and persistently in reflective prayer. We will need to take time to feel the Spirit living amongst us, creating pathways where we can only see forests now.

And finally, I want to challenge us to think about preparation. The dramatic challenge of anticipation in the advent gospels calls us to deepen our faith as we wait so that the words of hope might come swiftly to our lips. The wonder of a world in the throes of chaos, the birth pangs of something new, should make us drop to our knees in awe and wonder that people of spirit may be the doulas and midwives of a new human paradigm.

If the age of reason is ending, what will take its place? We see some glimmers in the renewal of interest in leading lives of Spirit, in young people being less focused on success and more on quality of life. The renewal of energy and determination in indigenous people all over the world is an indicator of the ways ancient knowledge and culture is being reformulated and repurposed for the whole world. But for all of us as Christians, our task is to be open, to be aware, to listen to the powerful stirrings of Holy Incarnation that shakes the world. And so we wait, with both frightened and eager longing, and we trust in the Holy One, who uses babies and bread and wine, stories, and the earth itself, to grace us with hope and equip us for service.

Advent Musing

It is the beginning of a new church year. We call the season Advent to signify that someone or something is coming. All our prayers and music celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives. We also look to Christ continuing to move more deeply into relationship with us, a progressive second coming. 
What does that actually mean for us in our time and in our world? I would like to suggest that it is an alternate path to the transformation of the world. Neither military force nor doctrines, neither false leaders nor true; no systems of any kind have been able to save us from ourselves, or the world from our predatory behaviour. 
I think people of faith, in all the religions of the world, need to commit ourselves to the life of prayer. By that, I mean the conversion of our hearts to listen without arguing, to act without counting productivity, to open ourselves to the healing, winnowing spirit of Christ. It will be the risk of vulnerability, of being changed, of following the one who worked in relationships rather than systems.
As a personal discipline this advent, I would invite you to say this simple prayer as many times a day as you think of it. “All life is sacred. Thank you for my life and for all that lives. Jesus come into my heart.”
May this season fill you with hope, in the bright and in the dark of your life. May Christmas bring delight in your relationships and in what you value most. May the holy family find shelter with you. May Christ come to your feasting table. 

Beyond Kings

In this era that feels pre-apocalyptic, I want to reflect on what this feast day of Christ the King might mean. In the 1800s, a philosopher and diplomat by the name of Joseph-Marie Comte de Maistre — a man of significant influence — argued for the divine right of kings, the supremacy of the Church, and the right and obligation to impose Christianity on all people. He famously said that the people received the government they deserved. He would also have agreed with the Doctrine of Discovery that asserted that the church should colonize all nations not presently under the rule of the Catholic Church and the Pope.

We persist in thinking that we no longer share in these ideas but we continue to make little kings and queens out of the people we elect and then react with anger when they are clearly human, buffeted by conflicting demands and realities. The problem with government is that it is asked to act on a history not redeemable and on situations that are not legislative but based in relationship. For example, in the government’s relationship with First Nations, I wonder how often we ask those representatives about their suggestions, rather than rushing to partial and unsatisfactory solutions. Parental, solution-based decisions sabotage relationships. In other forms of government as well as democracy, there remains the idea that the whole must be governed by a small group who know what is best for everyone, and certainly for themselves.

I wonder if we are standing in Pilate’s shoes when we try to make Jesus a king of this world who will mandate culture, politics, even economy. I worry when any of us employs the name of Jesus as a political tool or benchmark. I recall Jesus handing back the coin with the face of Caesar on it and remarking that the product of empire belonged to empire. At trial, Jesus mocks Pilate and scoffs at the title of king, a title laden with corruption, violence and self-interest. 

So what is the truth to which Jesus testified? I think he was pointing to a revolution of human self-understanding. I think he would encourage us to get beyond depending on whomever we have made a king. I think he would say that if we want a different world, we will have to make it one meeting at a time, one hour in prayer at a time, one act of courage at a time.

In the world, we must pay taxes, vote, discern the best paths. In the world of Christ, we are remaking how we imagine life and society. We are an undercurrent of change gently whirling society from top-down to consultative decision-making, from imposition to exploration in relationship. Kings will be kings. But we will carry a hope and a vision for humanity that is beyond kings, beyond armies, beyond law.

Our vision begins with the idea that the creation is holy, people are holy. Life is sacred. It is irrelevant whether this is achievable. That is the measure of kings and corporations. What is relevant is what is happening in each human, in you and in me, and in how seriously we undertake this transformation. The solution is not out there, but in our hearts and minds. From the Alpha to the Omega, from the beginning of understanding to its fulfillment, it is all made in goodness. To understand this is to stand in the midst of the Divine, with Jesus, forever.

In Mark 8:27-37, we read about the struggles in the early church to place Jesus in some kind of traditional context. There are serious questions to be answered. If Jesus was the son of God, why would that God allow him to die a scandalous death? Who really was his father? Was he actually John the Baptist? If he wasn’t the Messiah, then perhaps he was Elijah, who would precede the Messiah. He certainly didn’t fit any of the expectations of a messiah. He wasn’t a king or a fierce warrior. He seemed to have no interest in insurrection or political leadership. In fact, his teaching and his behaviour were inconsistent with the expectations of a messiah

In this narrative, we “overhear”a conversation between Jesus and Peter. We become the disciples who were listening in. Jesus seems exasperated that Peter cannot understand, and therefore cannot correctly transmit Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is not the anticipated messiah, nor is he anyone else but his own unique self. Raised in the spiritual expression of the Judaism of his era, and in the experience of Roman occupation, Jesus is anointed by the suffering and oppression, initially of his own people. That broadens into an awareness of the potential for human liberation, both spiritually and politically.

That is a historical moment that we will always be reliving as his disciples. We each agree to follow a particular expression of Jesus’ mission and vision. To understand that mission and vision, we must learn the stories about him that shape our faith. And we need each other to test our ideas, to develop our shared understanding, to learn how to live out our faith.

Today, we’re going to baptize Noel into this community, this faith. And how will he learn this faith? Will you show him love, understanding, conviction, action in Jesus’ mission? We are promising today that we will never abandon him, we will be his safe harbour until he can choose Jesus’ path for himself. We will continue to be learners with him. And we will grow in discipleship with him.