Monthly Archives: May 2010

Tell us what you know

I’ve heard it said that pastors don’t say what they know.  The idea is that there is stuff taught at seminaries that makes sense, that is worthwhile knowledge, but when it comes to conveying it from the pulpit, many (most or all?) pastors tend to toe the line on tradition and they say things that affirm what people already know – or have come to take for granted.

“What do you mean?” you might ask… Consider, for example, the big festivals of the church-year.  We all know about Christmas and Easter (at least all of us in western culture).  If I, as a pastor, tell you that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary – as it’s laid out in Matthew and Luke in the Bible – and that he was raised from the dead in a bodily resurrection (like the “empty tomb” story found in John), and then follow it up with “that’s how God works” (messiahs born of virgins; eventual bodily resurrection), that’s confirming what people know (at least in popular culture).  It doesn’t take much to say, “believe this and you’re a Christian.”

I can tell you, however, that that is not what I know about God.  (For that matter, I’m not going to be able to lay everything out in this blog-posting, either.)

If I preach on Christmas Eve about myth and ancient literary forms, and point people to Mark’s gospel where there is no birth-narrative (and also let people know that, of the four gospels in our biblical canon, Mark’s is the earliest – which also points to the fact that Matthew and Luke were inserting something into their gospel accounts, and so one might ask “why?”), it dispels what people might want to claim as comfort and miracle – and how God (however they may conceive of divine nature) works.

It’s always “baby steps” in the church because there are all kinds of perspectives that might show up at a gathering of the community (on Sunday or otherwise).  And we want for all those perspectives in community.  Encouraging openness and acceptance among those perspectives is a challenge (perhaps the challenge).

So what might I say?  What I try to do is to work with the images that are familiar, and re-frame them for the community.  At Easter, I’ve preached about ‘new life.’  People know that image – we’ve all experienced a baby in our arms, or a second chance (be it in sports, or otherwise), or perhaps recovering lost files on a computer that crashed – we can resonate with what new life is about.

When talking about God – why all the “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” stuff?  We know things about what drives us, what gives us life (be it a hobby, a gathering of people, a walk in the great outdoors, or what-have-you).  The ‘triune’ nature of God, as theologians have put it, is an attempt to explain the unexplainable.  Trying to pin-point “God” becomes an impossible task – and, yet, one worth pursuing because life is and we all receive life in different ways. I would say the whole of The Bible is peoples’ account (or accounts) of their experience of the divine.  So we have poetry, prophetic writings, wisdom literature, history – all kinds of styles of writing – to capture those various experiences. …and the biblical accounts are not the end of the experiences, but we continue to refer to those ancient writings because we can resonate with them (or some of them) today.

Instead of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” I prefer “Creator, Word incarnate, and Spirit” when referring to the triune nature of the Mystery, or the Divine, or God.  This isn’t to say I’ll never use “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but I try to work in other ways of speaking about God so its relevant for me – and perhaps for others, as well.

“Holy Trinity Sunday” is the Sunday after Pentecost – May 30, this year.  Let me know what you know – let’s talk!  …it’s always an ongoing conversation!

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How can we meet?

I’ve gone door-to-door in a local neighbourhood a few times to invite people to activities we’re hosting at All Saints.  I get a mixed response – mostly positive, but some hesitant and a small handful who are, outright, “not interested.”   For this person who tends to lean more towards the introverted side of the spectrum, this kind of activity – going door-to-door to invite people to a church event – is rather draining.

We’re in a different age than we used to be.  And connecting with people is different than it used to be.  I attended a friend’s wedding in the past year and, in the story about how the couple met, they said they met online.  That was strange fifteen years ago, sort of odd ten years ago, but I think it’s probably common now.  It may become one of the primary ways people meet down-the-road.  Face-to-face contact doesn’t happen as readily these days.

When it comes to church, I think there’s also an aversion to engaging with concepts around life, death, living with integrity, and whether a given church is expecting its adherents to subscribe to a set of beliefs (many of which may be assumed and not clear) or a way of life (also something that may not always be clear).  …and if that set of beliefs or way of life is open to variations of the norm or whether its restrictive to a particular list of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.”

I have a theory… My theory is that younger people have no experience of church, and so they wouldn’t know what it offers or, really, what it’s about.  My hunch is that the vast majority of people 35 or 40 years old, or younger, have no memory of church because they probably didn’t go to Sunday School, and they may not have even been baptized – so there’s likely not even a picture in the house of them in church.  So the skepticism of, or aversion to, church is understandable.  Certainly, in our 21st Century, western culture, people still know something about church from media and movies, but it tends to be superficial (eg. a beautiful, backyard wedding with a token preacher to lead the couple through the “I dos” in a Hollywood hit) or negative (eg. the recent news about the Pope’s past where he covered up abuses carried out by priests).  …so, given this climate and attitude about church in our culture, why would young people approach the church, and why would they willingly trust people in it?

So, if I – as a pastor and representative of a church – want to meet you, how might we go about it?  Will you be happy to see me on your doorstep?  Do you want to see me wearing my clerical collar, or will that make you feel uncomfortable? Will you seek me out online – be it on a social networking site, or my congregation’s website?  Will you actively engage in conversation about what we believe, and trust that whatever you say or ask won’t be laughed at or judged?  Are you wondering about things in the church – be they the abuses of the church throughout the centuries, or why we use words about sacrifice in our services, for example – are you curious?  …because if you are willing and interested to talk with me, I am very interested to talk with you!

Do you know this, or do you assume it?

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchen’s book, “God is Not Great,” and I’m familiar with some of what Richard Dawkins’ thought is based on some interviews and lectures I’ve seen on TV.  These authors – as well as a few others (eg. Sam Harris) – are popular these days.

I am the first to admit – as I have in previous blog entries – that the church is not without fault.  There are hypocrites in the church; I know I’ve been in positions before where I’ve said one thing and done another (and, without meaning to justifying myself, I think we’ve all been there).  There are things that don’t make sense in the Bible – why do some faithful Christians speak adamantly about Jesus being born of a virgin and then having a bodily resurrection?

It seems to me that, when people are quick to leap on the faithful as being misguided and believing lies, they are making assumptions about what Christianity is – and, more generally, what faith is.

If one says something like “prayer is when you do nothing, but still feel like you’re helping,” or “it’s nuts to have to fear a wrathful God in order to be good,” or “if it can’t be proved by the scientific method, it can not be considered real,” they are expressing great ignorance about what faithful people believe.  These are assumptions that speak about the faith in such simplistic terms they are missing the point of it; and yet our culture seems to operate on these assumptions, allowing people to claim an expert opinion on something they, apparently, know little about.

While I may be coming down hard on an atheistic perspective, I’m also conscious that people within the very broad Christian tradition might make assumptions about me, also a “Christian.”  I would want people to get to know me better before they would, for example, want me to sign a petition to teach “intelligent design” in the public school system.  I’ve enjoyed reading a blog that exposes, with good humour, “Stuff that Christian Culture Likes” and that touches on many of the things that are assumed within the very broad Christian tradition.

Christian faith – when practiced in a thoughtful way – is not about conditions and being scared of a supernatural being.  It is about living in a way where we are considerate of all.  That means, we consider the experience and feelings of others – whether they are the same as ours or different.  It means that we consider that all life is sacred, and so we take time to honour life and give thanks for life.  It means that we consider how we – each of us – are part of a greater, inter-connected web of life.  I think these apply to Christianity, but probably also to all the other great faith traditions of the world.

Specific to the Christian faith, we might lift up these primary marks of the faith: being generous, showing hospitality, not coveting, not being vengeful, and observing sabbath rest (credit: Walter Brueggemann, based on Paul’s letter to the Romans).

Yes, there’s prayer.  Yes, we believe in God.  No, we can not prove it by the scientific method.  But we know that life is because we are.  …and so we pause to reflect on the gift of life at regular intervals, and we lift up occasions that are special in peoples’ lives to celebrate, lament, grieve, and reflect on it all.  This year, Pentecost Sunday is May 23rd.  On Pentecost, we give thanks for life together and a spirit that drives us all.

Not necessary to say goodbye

In an age of social networking, we don’t say goodbye like we used to (or, speaking for myself, I find “goodbye” isn’t as hard to say as it once was).  I tend to end conversations with “talk soon” more often.

If I’ve met a person – even just briefly – I can usually count on finding them somewhere online.  If they don’t have a website, they might have a blog; if they’re not on Facebook, they’re probably on Twitter.  I found that even other people I didn’t know were researching me online to make it easier for other people to find me – it was a bit creepy, and yet kind of flattering all at once.

Does all of this change how we understand our mortality?  Can we, in essence, live on in the ideas, comments, postings that we put “out there?”  I know of Facebook profiles where the user has died, and yet people continue to post on their profile, sort of like a “living memorial.”

It’s strange because, in a way, we’re living with a virtual beyond-reality, let alone virtual reality.  There are so many ways to collect data and store it that we can practically harness the essence of a person’s ideas on disc, these days!

It’s possible to capture information and store it.  I’ve enjoyed making audio recordings for many years now.  I began by recording on cassette-tape; then I added a micro-cassette recorder to my arsenal so I could record without hauling heavy gear around; I remember putting things on CD for the first time in late-1995 (very expensive!); in 1997, I got a mini-disc recorder and began using that a lot; I recorded on digital audio tape (DAT) in the late-1990s; in the early-2000s I was introduced to computer multi-track recording, and I’ve built on that since.  …hard-drive space has come down in price; DVD (and even Blu-Ray) burners are accessible; USB thumb-drives can be obtained with 64GB on them, and external hard-drives are counting in the terra-bytes now.  (Heck, I even have a memory of real floppy-discs; floppy discs which have, just in the past couple of weeks, had their production stopped!)  When I was in seminary, my classmates called me “The Chronicler” for recording all the things I did.

So, what happens with all the data?  Do we have to retain any memories ourselves if we can look them up online down-the-road?

When I was a child, I remember visiting my grandparents in the mid-west States and tears running down my face when we had to leave because I knew it’d be the better part of a year (or, in my mind, an eternity) before I’d see them again.  Now, my toddler Skype’s with her Grandmother, and it doesn’t even cost the price of the postage stamp I used to have to put on the letters I sent my grandparents.

The title on this post is “not necessary to say goodbye,” but I mean that with an ironic tone.  It is necessary to say goodbye – when we’re parting ways for a week, or when we’re honouring a loved one who has died.  It’s a way of showing respect and letting someone know they matter to us.

Who do you look up to?

I was thinking… We all look up to someone, don’t we?  And, faith can be way in which we live that out.

Have you ever hosted a meal or drinks, or such, where you had a “guest of honour”?  It may have been someone who was something of a celebrity, or perhaps someone held in high esteem.  It seems to me that, those people who we look up to are those who, at least in one way or another, epitomize what we want for ourselves or for the world.  …so we may even try to be like those people.

Talking in terms of faith, each major tradition has a person – or several – who are virtuous in some way, so people follow them.  For Jews, it’s Moses; for Muslims, it’s Mohammed; for Christians, it’s Jesus, and so on.  Each had characteristics that were so exceptional to their time and place that people saw something “divine” in them.

I wonder if that’s what we see in our honoured guests today.  I know that people scoff at the idea of religion a lot of the time, especially in the culture to which I belong.  But I suspect that there is still this desire to be better – individually and collectively – and we look to those who have those desirable traits.  They may be good speakers; they may be artists; they may have compassion for people.  Whatever it is, we all can think of people who we look up to.  …people we’d like to commune with; people who may or may not be living (think of all the magazine surveys or online articles that put that question out there: if you could go for dinner with anyone dead or alive, who would it be?).

Actors, big-business people, and politicians tend to get the most press – we tend to hear about them a lot in the media.  Are they the ones we look up to today?  Do they set the tone for our culture?  They certainly know how to spend money and live lavishly – is that what we care most about these days?

As my congregation gears up to host its fifth, annual Ascension music festival tomorrow evening, I’m recalling having shared a meal, even several, with one of my heroes who happens to be a composer.  They’ve written many songs and hymns.  A big part of what I appreciate about them is how they’ve found new language and words to express things I believe about welcome and caring – one of their lyrics paraphrases a Hebrew scriptures prophet: “”You have been told the way of life, the way of justice and peace: to act justly, to love gently, to walk humbly with God.”  We’ll be singing some of their music tomorrow – I look forward to it!

All Grown-up

The difference between a juvenile sensibility and an adult one probably has to do with the level of one’s responsibility in their life. …at least, that’s been the case for me.

In many ways – I’m still a big kid.  I’m closing in on my mid-thirties, but I still hear things like “you’re too young to be a pastor” or people are surprised I’ve got a toddler at home.  I’m a big kid in that I like toys – technology gadgets are more my thing (than, say, boats or cars) – and I get a kick out of silly movies, like ones with Jack Black or Ben Stiller.

But I also have responsibility in my life.  My parents instilled that sense of responsibility in us kids in a few ways.  We grew up on a hobby farm, so my brother and I tended the goats, as well as a pony and horse, and my sisters (who were a number of years younger) tended some ducks and occasionally the chickens.  We also had a big garden, which was mostly my dad’s responsibility, but the whole family contributed to the watering, weeding, and harvesting of it.  My mom kind of held it all together – making sure the eggs got washed (by herself or us kids) and sorted to sell; making sure the goat’s milk was stored properly; making sure the beans from the garden were preserved properly, and so on.  The farm was good learning for me as I was growing up – giving me responsibility and also a lot of fun!

I moved out on my own in my university years, but it wasn’t a situation where I had responsibility for a house – I rented (of course!).  …but I was responsible for getting my homework done, without the prodding of my parents or watchful eye of grade-school teachers; I was responsible for my own laundry, for paying rent, for cooking meals, for getting myself to different appointments, and so on.

Now that I’m married, and a parent, I have responsibility for household expenses, for a certain amount of upkeep of the house, for paying more expenses.  And, as a pastor, I have responsibility for things like preparing services on Sundays, being in touch with people in the congregation (especially if they might be ill or unable to go out), and I have a responsibility to be in the community speaking out for marginalized people – words that can challenge people (or even cause me to rethink my place in society).

Without a doubt, I’m not always as disciplined as I’d like to be; and I’m sure there will be bigger responsibilities ahead of me.  All of these contribute to my adult place in the world!

Dynamics among us

In music, the term “dynamics” has to do with levels of volume.  Often they’re noted within sheet-music scores – “p” for soft, “f” for loud – but in most cases, the dynamics are interpreted by the musician playing the piece.  …so the very same piece might be played in quite a different way, depending on the performer.

In terms of inter-personal relating, we also hear about “dynamics.”  It’s not necessarily level of volume, though that might be a helpful descriptor, but it has to do with things that are personal to each person.  Some people get more energy from the inner world of thoughts and ideas – those people are “introverts” – while others get energy from the outer world of people and conversation – those people are “extroverts.”  Some people, perhaps depending on their cultural background, enjoy certain foods and flavours, other people other foods and flavours.  Some people, perhaps depending on their age, use certain images and words to describe things (eg. when my parents were in their youth, I’m told that they talked about things being “groovy,” when I was younger, things were “awesome,” now young people talk about things they like as “sick”).  All these kinds of things affect the dynamics of inter-person relating.

But such dynamics are not as quantifiable or measurable as other things in life – like the distance from one place to another, or the weight of one item versus another, or the amount of monetary-value one product has compared to another.  We need to know about them, however.  We need to talk about these dynamics.  We need to be aware of these dynamics.

It is these dynamics between people that raise or lower tension in the room – or tension between countries.  It is these dynamics that make a joke funny or not.  It is these dynamics that make it possible for us to care, because we know what it is to feel.

Feelings can be categorized under four main headings: happy, sad, angry, or scared.  We have all felt these feelings, and different circumstances bring out these feelings in each of us.  One song may make me happy; another song may make you happy.

These inter-personal dynamics are important to know about, and we only learn about them by journeying together – and I wouldn’t be so naive as to think that’s easy to do; it takes time, it takes energy.  As my spouse and I have lived together, we’ve learned about what makes each of us happy, and what makes each of us mad, and so on.  As I’ve been with the congregation of All Saints Lutheran, Kelowna, I’ve learned what makes certain people happy, and what some people fear.

As we journey together, we need a balance between the familiar and an openness to new things.  If we are familiar with dynamics among us, we can go far!