thinking theology

Day by Day

In another conversation today with another male colleague (cleric) I heard about their faith crisis, creating a vocational crisis for them as well. Their pain comes out of a deep questioning of biblical theology and historical doctrines. What do I believe? What can I preach? What does any of it mean? These men identify with those who have left the church, and they do not recognize or trust the hope in the gentle but steady return.

Marcus Borg talked about pre critical, critical, and post critical faith. These clergy with great integrity are experiencing the pain of the second phase but I’m not sure what will help them move into the third phase without abandoning their vocations, or turning away from the faith in which they found nurture.

Most birds don’t leave the nest until they know how to fly because a premature choice can be deadly. I am afraid for my friends, afraid that their choices will not bring freedom but despair.

I was wondering why no women have spoken to me about this. I suspect it’s because women have to figure out how to work within a patriarchal structure and process. We have to see the diamonds in the coal, the precious fruit within a difficult covering. Because that is where we begin, I wonder if it gives us a method for dealing with new learning and the shock of that learning.

When I speak with lay people who are returning to church, they are coming because they buy into the social revolution of Jesus; in the beauty of traditional liturgical practice, they find rest for their souls. In the chaotic energy of family services, their hope is fed for a new world that sparkles with creativity and spontaneity.

The church offers an intergenerational community of people who are growing together beyond the answers and into the deep questions. These are people reimagining ancient metaphors and reframing old symbols, making ritual joyfully reverent, meaningful and spiritual food in a tough and hungry world.

I hope my brothers find support to move into the land of post critical thinking. I hope they find nurture and allow themselves to be new and vulnerable again. I hope awe overwhelms and opens all our hearts so that we may all see and love more clearly, more dearly.

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The Water, the Earth, the Air.

The Water, the Earth, the Air

I chant this hymn to the Trinity of life and hope. In these three, we discover each other, ourselves, and find God. In Marc Gellman’s story, “Water All Around” in Does God Have a Big Toe? it is not the noble animals, lion, eagle, or elephant who discover God, but the fish who are wise. They guess that God is their environment, is everywhere, and then somewhere else too.

From the beginning, the Spirit brooded over the shape of God, the primordial deep well of being. Water and air, similarly composed and yet each held in symmetry so that there can be life. In the deeps, we feel the power and presence of that which is more than we can iterate, more than we can define, deeper than we can explain. The deep is both beyond us and all around us. Indeed the oceans that tirelessly ebb and flow against the edges of the shore beat that same rhythm in our veins, sustaining and making life possible. About the only time, we notice the ocean beating within and around us is when it stutters inside us or rages at the edges of our buildings and constructs.

The air we breathe, the winds that smash against our pride, our Babel towers, the breath of God that enlivens and quickens these bodies, works in concert with water to keep us alive. And the air that rushes through our lungs has rushed through so many others, has tickled the trees of other civilizations, other cultures. The wind in our hair is a lesson in the history of all living beings if we stop to listen to its song spinning around us.

We forget about the earth on which we walk, the place where Moses experienced God in an improbable bush. The earth, where Jesus walked and saw the holiness expressed in the plants and animals he saw, who showed his disciples how to discover the Beloved in the faces of others, who confronted them with the truth of their own being, who taught that dusty graves are for leaving, not being trapped in. In Jesus we are invited to walk the earth with love and purpose.

The Water, the Earth, the Air.

The fish are wise. God is not to be found only by our minds but in our ecstatic gratitude for life, in our devotion to this planet, in reverence and awe for all that lives. If God is everywhere, then everywhere is the place and the occasion for worship. All water is baptismal water calling to remind us that we have received a very particular gift. We have eaten from the tree and now we know ourselves as separate. If we want union with the Holy, we must find ways to cross the bridge to reconnect, to remember the Holy in our own bodies, to see the Holy around us and to be the lovers and healers that Jesus called into ministry with him. Like the woman at the well, we are discovering the water of life, existing naturally within and around; spiritually calling us into a wider perception of reality and consciousness.

Albert Einstein said, “We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. The delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection to a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. “

The Day of Restoration

In James 5:1-8, we read a prophecy about rich oppressors. Listening carefully, we note that this is not a condemnation of wealth, but of the misuse of wealth. It echoes back to Leviticus (25:8-24) and the year of Jubilee, a festival for every 50th year; a year that is good news for the poor because debts are forgiven, good news for those who have been or might be cheated because restoration is expected. Absentee landlords are required to return to see how their properties have been managed because they are as responsible as those left in charge.

In James, we read that this has not been the practice, that in fact, restoration is no longer an expectation for the wealthy. The wealthy who are oppressors are those who refuse to see that everything they have, belongs to God and God demands restoration always. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Humanity lives and walks in the garden of the Lord . We own nothing, but are caretakers on the earth. Although inequities may occur, the balance is to be set right at least every 50 years. Injustice, imbalance must not persist; balance must be restored.The death of Jesus is laid in the hands of the powerful who hate him for advocacy of the poor, his challenges to the status quo.

Jesus is an icon of God’s proclamation of the righteous kingdom where the earth is protected, there is food and shelter for all and weapons have been turned into useful tools. In the year of the Lord’s favour, Jesus says, quoting Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21), there will be healing from the consequences of poverty and war. There will be restoration and equity for all. The scripture is fulfilled in the person of Jesus, not in law or prophecy, but in the life of a human being.

How are we, the body of Christ in the world, doing at fulfilling this vision of Jesus? I think this text is a challenge about mission. While many might think that mission is about getting church members, I think this text shows us that the mission of the church is to find co-workers in the task of healing what we have damaged, restoring what has been stolen and renewing right relationships among all people.

It really is not enough to hear Jesus’ words without feeling them. It is not enough to recite creeds written long after Jesus’ time, without promising to follow his mandate. It is not even good enough to say, “Lord, Lord” unless it changes our hearts, opens our minds, and puts action and mercy in our hands. Of all Jesus’ disciples, the early church recognized his mother Mary as the true teacher and so they placed the Magnificat on her lips.

Without this commitment to making the world a better place for everyone, all our songs and prayers, all our liturgical actions are self-indulgent. Our worship must be energizing for mission, reflective for repentance, and challenging to lead us on the Way; that is discipleship. For the good news of Jesus to be our good news, we must dedicate ourselves with love and courage to the earth, to the other creatures, and to all our brothers and sisters, even those we may wish to perceive as enemies. The work is too urgent for us to be distracted. The call of Christ is too compelling for us to turn aside. The day of the lord is here and the accounting is upon us. May Jesus be able to call us his good and faithful servants.

Neither Fire nor Flood

For anyone who even glances at the news these days, it might seem as if the whole world is a disaster movie. Each event seems to lead to another horrific event. The north west coastal forests of North America are aflame. In places as far apart as Nigeria and Bangladesh and Windsor, Ontario, flood waters are creating difficulties and catastrophes. One major Atlantic hurricane follows another. And, an earthquake shakes Mexico. To make matters worse, politicians are brandishing sabres and afflicting whole populations. The world seems to have gone crazy. It is not surprising that people are blaming God.

A person can deny climate change, but it does seem as if the earth is fighting back, fighting for its very life. Perhaps that is even true. Perhaps nature is balancing the harm done along with the anticipated changes in planetary evolution.

So what is a Christian response to all of this. In the story of the flood in Genesis, God assures the survivors that no matter how wicked and violent humanity becomes, the Holy One will never destroy the creation. (Genesis 8:21) However, as in the creation story, God again entrusts the world and all life on it, to humanity’s care and oversight. Clearly, we have been reckless caretakers, striding over the earth without regard for the sacredness of life. Wangari Maathi said, “When you revere, you do not plunder, you protect.” Have we revered God’s handiwork or has it been just another acquisition, just another disposable thing?

I think we can, from our theological history say, God is not destroying anything. What we believe in is Life, at least in principle. So our God cannot be held responsible for this destruction. We are the makers of health and harm, wonder and disdain. Jesus told us that neither religion, nor culture nor kings could save us.

Do we have a message of hope at all? We are the people who climb out of arks, who struggle across distances, albeit grumbling all the way. We are the people who enshrine the concept of protection for the stranger, the vulnerable, the outcast. We are the people who say that death is a passage not a wall. We are the people who understand resurrection, its physicality, its potential to make all thing new. We are the people who know that repentance is an action not a word. We are the people who are empowered by the Spirit to lead others in hope, to bring people together, to heal what has been broken. We have a message of hope, even in the darkest hour and we have a plan. It is Jesus’ intention that we should we should see each other as one family, united in peace, even when we disagree. One family that is unafraid to drink from one cup, share one loaf, which might even feed 5000. We believe in the miracle of becoming aware, becoming generous, loving, empowered. So do not despair at this turning of the world. Pray for our brothers and sisters everywhere. Take their struggles into your hearts. Stand tall, beacons of hope on this darkest night, beacons that offer safety and a resting place for all.

This past week, I was in conversation with some folks and we were talking about what we meant when we said we had good news. Most people talked about the good news in terms of liberation. Understanding God as divinely inclusive love meant a freedom from judgement. Some people talked about the good news as radical inclusive community, a freedom from isolation. Others spoke the freedom to question, to learn. to expand one’s mind and consciousness. Still others talked about the good news as freedom from anxiety.

This reading from John is one of me favourites:

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

The suggestion here is that although humans cannot either contain or manage the Spirit of the Divine, we can be born into it or of it. It sounds reassuring but that Spirit is also unpredictable. How disconcerting for a species that thinks to elude death by creating monuments and shrines, rules and cultures. It is not that any of these activities are ill considered on their own necessarily. The problem is that we tend to rely on them to save us rather than on the living presence of Christ in our midst. And that unpredictable Christ will cause us to ride along with strangers, eat with the socially unacceptable, lay healing hands on the undesirables of each society. That Spirit will not let us recline on comfortable sofas, or even uncomfortable pews. If we want to be participants, we must leave the safety of our emotional and cultural assumptions with other treasures of our past. We are called to sail on stormy seas, even when we are unsure about our competence for the water.

Freedom in the missional sense is not without boundaries, however. It is our ethic, expressed in tribal terms in the decalogue, and in first century terms in the beatitudes. For us, living in this time, it might expressed as an ethic of responsible relationship, of mutuality of service and support, of compassion beyond pity or reason. Of eagerness to learn, to question, to make connections across the boundaries; a willingness to sacrifice in order to cultivate new friends, to stretch the network of love.

Freedom is not the easy path. Freedom requires thought and planning, effort and openness. The only way to escape the wind is to hide inside a cave. The only way to escape the Spirit of truth and love is to shutter the windows of our hearts and minds. The only way to experience the wonder of resurrection is to let that same Spirit blow through us like the seeking wind that will recreate us and teach us to live in the holy and eternal moment of God’s love.

The Earth is the Lord’s

The earth is angry and hurting. Monstrous hurricanes, uncontainable wildfires, flooding, drought in tender places on the planet. Like any wounded body, the body of the planet is reacting not just to normal cycles but to some abnormal stresses placed upon it. Its crust has been drilled, its air and waters poisoned; its meadows covered in asphalt and cement. If you just contemplate for one moment what humanity has done to our paradise, you will understand immediately what is happening now.

We think we are very smart but some of you may have read that there is a 3,700 year old tablet from Babylon that has things to teach us about mathematics. This generation does not have all the answers, nor have we even asked wise questions yet. I think the earth is in danger from our ignorance combined with our arrogance and pride. We have the capacity to destroy ourselves many times over. What makes us think we are wise or even smart. We are the mice who poison our own litters, the wasps that sting ourselves.

In Isaiah 54, there is a prophecy about God’s steadfast love, the divine heart that is grieved but cannot remain distant. One of the ways for Christians to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is to consider Jesus as the wise teacher who shows us that God has entrusted us with the mission of reconciliation of the people, the creation. But it takes courage to acknowledge that our present course must change, that we have learned that our cultures, our knowledge, our experiments have been dangerous and often ill considered.

Where do we begin when we have allowed mega institutions and rich men to control our education, our health, our labour? I think we begin in humility. We begin by acknowledging our weakness, our lack of wisdom. We begin by discarding all the language about separation that we have created, language of ethnicity, gender, race, religion. Jesus moves from a tribal perspective to a universal perspective. We must work at this also. The divisions in our minds will not disappear without intentional effort.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. It has been ceded to us for our comfort and well being, not for greed and not for hoarding. When we see ourselves as caretakers rather than conquerors, we will have begun to remember that the earth is for sharing not owning.

I think we need to learn how to pray again and by that I mean opening our hearts and minds to the deep well of wisdom and compassion that is the Divine Presence. It is time to pray that we will learn how to repent and rebuild what we have lost. It is time to experience our smallness in the universe and the enormity of the trust that has been placed in human hands. Praying is primarily listening into the silence, hearing the drum of our hearts, the whisper of our breath, that is shared with every other atom of earth. Praying means connecting ourselves to the mystery of life, rather than cherishing our lonely separateness

The practice for this way of being means being generous, hospitable, interested in other beings, unafraid of what we might learn. We need to remember that as the baptized, we are witnesses and missionaries in every single moment of our lives. How we speak to others, the degree of generosity and compassion we model, the joyful friendliness we share – all these behaviours testify to the Spirit of Christ working within us. And that Spirit calls out, “My saviour and my Lord” in our hearts because we know that Jesus shares this journey with us.

And so finally, don’t be afraid. That’s what the angels always say before they send us on a mission that is going to be challenging. But then there are rainbows and open tombs, there are everyday miracles, friendship, bread and wine and suddenly we know that not only can we survive this time, we can be agents of peace within it. And so a life: work, meaning, companions and peace at the end. May God’s holy name be praised!

Soil, Sand and Rocks

Against the rocky hill, surrounded by the trees, and a wall of stone, lived an old king. Behind the walls, orchards and vineyards wreathed the slopes behind. The king sold the wealth of the fields, but he never tasted its produce. People who lived outside the wall, worked on the terraces, but they were poor.

THe king was very cranky. His partner had died; his children had left. There he sat year after year, crown on his head, bitterness in his heart. The outsiders came and worked his fields. The guards in their rock-hard armour protected him, although there was no threat.

One day, two strangers came to the walls. They asked to speak to the king because they had good news. The guards said, “Our king has no need of good news.” One of the visitors planted a flower in a crack of the soldier’s armour. They waited while the flower grew and bloomed. That soldier said, “It can’t hurt. Maybe it will cheer the king.” So they took the strangers to meet the king

The king said,”Who are you and what are you doing here?” The strangers replied, “We have great news! The time of your loneliness has ended. It is time for your castle to be filled with music and rejoicing.”

But the king was afraid of the message and he threw the strangers out of the castle, beyond the walls. Before they left, the strangers touched each of the soldiers wearing the rock hard armour with a seed of joy.

Late in the night, the king was awakened by the sounds of music and laughter. He peered out of his window at the top of the castle and he saw and heard beyond the walls. The farmers and the soldiers, the strangers and the families, were playing music, dancing and having fun. It made him furious and he felt his power slipping away like sand.

In the morning the king called his soldiers but only six came. Their appearance was worrisome. Their armour had flowers in the creases, and coloured ribbons on the corners on the breastplates. He commanded them to escort him to where the villagers lived. They hesitated. “You won’t like it Sire. They are all really, really happy.” “Why are they so happy?” The king demanded. The soldiers said that the strangers had brought a message of freedom and hope. “Hrrmmph.” said the king.

When the party got beyond the walls, the hard armour simply fell off in the sunshine. The king marched up to a table where people were eating and talking. When they saw the king, they invited him to sit down. But he said, “Those better not be my peaches that you’re eating.”

“Oh no, said the villagers, “we will grow our own now. You can keep yours.” At that the king noticed no one was paying any attention to him at all. “What can I get you to do to work on my fields again? Who will keep the terraces so that the plants don’t slide in the sandy soil?” The villagers replied, “First you have to share this meal with us. Then you can dance with us. Then we will talk about how to help you.” The king said, “I don’t know how to dance” but the villagers taught him the steps. To this day, there are no sweeter peaches grown anywhere and the king renamed his kingdom, “the Dancing Land”

You may ask what happened to the strange visitors. Well, they slipped away during the dancing. Two of the villagers went with them. They move from place to place, teaching people to dance and changing the hearts of kings.