Monthly Archives: December 2010
Science and faith are not mutually exclusive.
Science, in its discovery and experimentation, seeks to replicate sequences of events so rules can be made about life. Faith, in its journey, seeks to make some sense out of the intricacies and anomalies so individuals’ experiences are affirmed.
I don’t mean to put down one over the other, or to say one is more necessary than the other. We need both.
We need to be able to have generalizations made about things that are similar; we need to allow for exceptions to rules when things can’t be categorized.
It seems to me that our cultural experience makes room, or doesn’t, based on what is seen as valuable and worthwhile. Culture is what binds us together – it’s what gives validity to artistic expression, and names values that are held commonly. In more recent years, western culture has said that individualism is good, but individual experience is not credible. So, we have people who pursue their own interests, but may not care about the interests of others – that is individualism. We also have those who experience things a certain way and are either given credit for their experience because there is enough of a group around to validate and vouch for their experience, or are discredited because there is enough of a group to discount them.
In western culture, where more recently there has been a movement to dismiss faith, science has been set up as an ‘alternative’ to participating in faith community. I think we need to reexamine what faith is about. As I understand it, it has to do with trust. (Some have said it has to do with believing out-dated and unsubstantiated dogma; that is a narrow view of it, based on others’ views which are equally narrow.) We all trust something. We all base our trust on our individual experiences. And yet, we must come together on certain matters of trust. Science, obviously, is one of those places where we can come together – so we are all indebted to the scientific method.
In matters of faith, we can not simply dismiss peoples’ experience – based on their interpretation of texts, or profound moment in nature or community, or what-have-you – because their experience is not mine, or yours, or any other individual’s. Faith traditions of the world, in their best forms, allow for those individual moments of experience within a broader understanding of an inter-connectedness of people.
It’s the end of a year, and we celebrate the beginning of another year shortly. This experience may bring up feelings of despair – based on regrets of the past – or feelings of hope – based on expectations of the future. In it all, we’re connected! We have a common earth and a common humanity in which we live.
Some thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain…
I’ve preached a number of times over the past couple of years on what I would call a theology of “giving ourselves away” (I think I have also blogged a bit about this, too). What I mean is, perhaps more than sacrificial living, that we are called to give generously to the point of not necessarily seeing an outcome, but risking all that we have on others who may or may not thank us for what we’ve given.
I bring this up because All Saints is at the end of its first year of part-time ministry – or, at least, part-time salary paid for ministry – and we’re entering into our second year of part-time ministry. It has meant a few difficult decisions, this year, and it’ll mean a few more difficult decisions over the coming year: what continues and what doesn’t? …what is key to our existence, and what is lower on the list of priorities?
A problem that has developed within church circles over time is that we’ve taken on a business model. A business model is one way of creating sustainable growth (see my blog about growth for some thoughts I have on different kinds of growth) but it invariably requires that input costs be recovered and, ideally, that a profit be made. Perhaps you’ve been a part of this model in your church, or organization – and perhaps programs have lived or died based on how they have ‘sustained themselves,’ in terms of profits and returns.
The thing is, churches (and I’m speaking especially about ELCIC Lutheran churches, since this is the context I know best) have been experiencing decline for at least a couple of decades now. To their credit, programs have continued with lower and lower numbers of people and resources – and our broader church is to be commended for keeping on as it has. But the reality is that we can not – and we won’t – be able to keep on as we have.
We can not always have growth. We have not had growth, and we can not pursue a model of growth.
Effectively, we must engage a ‘reverse economy’ of sorts. It is not an unknown fact that North Americans live well. And, I think it is also true that a majority of our established church-goers in ELCIC congregations are well-educated and of reasonable means, even when compared to North American standards. So, to engage a ‘reverse economy,’ we must consider that our input costs are going to be above our recovered costs: we will be losing money, in a traditional business sense. And, it’ll probably also mean a continuing declining number of people in our pews (so there won’t be noticeable changes that might give hope to a future for our church institution as we’ve known it – ie. no foreseeable longer-term return, either!).
This puts us in a tight spot. Some of us will want to hang on to what we’ve got. Others will want to toss everything out with the hope of starting again from scratch. So what do we do? I don’t claim to have a clear answer, but my hunch is that things will be different for different local communities. We need to be clear, corporately, as to what we’re about – so having some well-articulated ideas of what it means to be Lutheran would be good for our ELCIC. We need to be clear, locally, as to what we’re about – so having a good sense of identity, and living out our Lutheranism in our local contexts, is key.
If we give ourselves away, we model a different thing for culture around us. It’s worth pursuing! Instead of hoarding what we have, or conserving and restricting, we live lavishly and generously, trusting that all have a desire to be good.
If we engage a reverse economy, we show our country what we – as not-for-profit charitable organizations – are about. We don’t preserve buildings for our own, individual use, but we open our doors to need in the community (especially in situations where our church buildings are likely to be sitting vacant most of the six days between Sundays). We don’t invest our congregational budgets in developing our programs, but engage in community activity that connects with people who may be in need. We may find ourselves partnering with groups and organizations we’d never considered before!
These become models for how we might do more with declining numbers, and how we might be seen to have more relevance in a day where more and more people have less to do with faith community.
But this will, without a doubt, take effort on the part of those of us who have been a part of Lutheran community in North American culture. We will have to see our roles, as individuals and households who form congregations, as contributors to a different way of being. We will have to share more generously of what we have, and be willing to loosen the purse-strings – corporately – when need comes knocking from places we hadn’t previously considered. We will have to free our clergy, and empower them, to be voices for those on the margins in ways we haven’t done before. (And if we can’t pay clergy full-time salaries, we’ll have to have more lay involvement with things like church administration – so who will step up to the plate to help with the work that needs doing? More and more pastors are finding themselves in positions where they’ll be taking up second-income jobs to maintain household expenses, and their 10% tithe to the church!)
I don’t know if we can make a change like this, corporately, in a few years. I think stressing factors are, however, forcing change on us, and we’d be wise to engage the change instead of resisting it and circling the wagons as – it seems – some are doing. An economy of grace, where we give ourselves away, can be a freeing way of living what we believe as Lutheran Christians!
Have you seen the 1951 film version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” starring Alistair Sim? It’s a superb film, and I connect a family tradition at Christmastime with watching it.
In the story, Scrooge says something like “what business is it of mine if people are poor?” and “are there no prisons? are there no workhouses?”
It seems to me that, while we each need to be free to live our unique lives, we are all connected in a great web of life. Sadly, our culture wants to urge us into individualism to the point where the ‘business’ of others should be of no consequence to us – that we each choose our state in life. In fact, we need to care enough about our neighbours, near and far, that their lives matter.
I think that’s the point of the incarnation. God – the source of life and love – cares enough to become real in the person of Jesus; God enters in to the world in a vulnerable baby.
We are all vulnerable in life. We are all in need at some time. Christmas reminds us of our need for one another. May this care for each other be a source of encouragement and inspiration always.
My sermon for this Third Sunday in Advent…
May the grace and peace of the anticipated Christ, the incarnate Word, come to you in these words.
The coming of the anointed one – the Messiah, the Christ, the one foretold – is not what we expect. Perhaps this is the message of Advent. Wait. Hope. Anticipate. Prepare. …but as you do these things, be open. Don’t build up your expectations. Don’t presume to know definitively. And so we might start to ask: what are we waiting for? What are we hoping for? Who are we anticipating? For what are we preparing?
We end up in something of a bind. How do we do church if we don’t know what to get ready for? How do we live ready?
In effect, it’s like that message from Romans on the First Sunday of Advent – a couple weeks ago – live honourably. In all you do – in all we do, collectively – do it well, and with a mind for others and the needs of creation.
In a day when we’re keenly aware of changes – decline – in faith community, it’s important to be aware of how the trends affect us directly. It’s important to be aware of outside perceptions of us – and we can work at changing such perceptions! This is from a national newspaper…
At a time of year when many Canadians traditionally turn to their faith, The Globe and Mail [looks] at the state of religion in Canada. What [is] seen is a sea change in 40 years, a march toward secularization that mirrors what’s happened in Europe. A look at the youngest Canadians suggests the transformation is gathering pace. In 2002, 34 per cent of 15-29 year olds said religion was highly important to them. Data from Statistics Canada’s 2009 General Social Survey show that number tumbling to 22 per cent.
Only the persistence of religious traditions among immigrants, whose religiosity has increased slightly over the past 25 years, has slowed the march away from our places of worship.
[That which is attractive about church to] native-born Canadians … these days, says religion sociologist David Seljak of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., is the availability of parking, quality of preaching and children’s programs, in that order. It’s not doctrine or liturgy or biblical scripture (The Globe & Mail)
What I take from this is that we need to work at presenting faith tradition better. Parking, preaching, and child-minding – to the exclusion of things like liturgy and biblical literacy – seem inconsequential in the great scheme of things.
In today’s gospel text, we find John the Baptist in prison. Remember last week? We heard about people going to the wilderness to be baptized, and we saw Jesus connecting himself to the baptismal rite that John was carrying out. But Jesus did not seek to continue things exactly as John did them – he changed them. He empowered others to be movement-builders, as well. Today, it’s almost as if John is asking, “hey, is Jesus doing things the way I did them?” And then Jesus has to reframe things for John – look at the effect of doing things this way: people are being empowered, re-socialized, connected again with the community around, and that is changing the structure of society for the better!
And when people begin to look at Jesus as though he may not be doing things quite right, he puts it back on them. Going out to join in a movement never means returning as one left. It automatically means change at some level. Ideally, a movement is to build momentum in order to effect structural change.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Is that all you were doing? Were you being looky-loos? You make the step to go out there, so evidently you’re in search of something; evidently you see that the societal structures are not perfect. What, then, were you looking for?
And us, here, today, in this place: What are we here for? Surely we don’t come here in order to carry on as we did before. Surely joining in stories, sharing food, and singing together is not just for the edification of our day-to-day lives. If that’s all we came for, why bother?
We know that life is not complete in only the routines of buying groceries, preparing meals, putting in time at the office or other workplace. We know that we need to have our intellects challenged in such a way that we feel whole in body and mind – in spirit – and so this gathering ought to be pushing us to new places. …and then we go back to daily life with a new outlook, and encouragement for others in their perspectives on life. We don’t arrive here expecting to leave here unchanged in some way; if we do, it may be that such gatherings actually are pointless.
Hear the story of someone who was changed, and then could not go on living as he did: In June 2002 in India, Narayanan Krishnan witnessed something that changed his life – he saw an old man suffering from acute hunger and eating his own human waste. Now, Krishnan was a twenty-one year old chef at a five-star hotel, and was being groomed to take a position as a chef in Switzerland. But he left that opportunity, and chose to spend his savings and time feeding people like this destitute and desperate man on the side of the road.
Krishnan would cook at carry food to the impoverished, feeding people one by one. As an old man ate the food given to him, he would hold Krishnan’s hand, giving a very real sensation of a powerful energy. This triggered an experience of inner happiness and fulfillment Krishnan had never felt before. So, this young man began Akshaya Trust.
Akshaya cares for helpless, mentally ill, very old, and the destitute living and dying on Madurai roads in India.
In September 2010, over 400 people are served freshly cooked food, three times per day, costing Rs.15,000 (approx. $337 CAN) per day.
Krishnan said the name Akshaya is Sanskrit for “undecaying” or “imperishable,” and was chosen “to signify [that] human compassion should never decay or perish. … The spirit of helping others must prevail for ever.”
He seeks out the homeless under bridges and in the nooks and crannies between the city’s temples. The hot meals he delivers are simple, tasty vegetarian fare he personally prepares, packs and often hand-feeds to nearly 400 clients each day. (www.akshyatrust.org)
Jesus says that the least in the kingdom is greater than John the Baptist – one who is the greatest of those born of women.
The world is turned on its head. The kingdom is not for those who have the world by the tail – those who have their interests met, the freedom to make choices, food on their plate. The kingdom of heaven is about now, and it’s about those whose needs are not met.
Think for a moment about what that means.
That means that while we may say, “don’t do ministry there unless there’s a noticeable return,” we’re being told, “go and do ministry in those places where there may not be a return.” Go among those who may not be able to pay. Go among those who may make your clothes stink if you happen to rub up against them. Go among those who may not decide to come sit in a pew on Sunday. Go among those who are looking for a place to feel welcome, and included. Go among those… whoever they may be! However old they may be! Whatever characteristic may be a part of who they are! We are called to be with all, and to invite all – to be generous and hospitable for all.
This is such a pivotal piece for what the church is in this day. We – perhaps especially as Lutherans – MUST go to those who are outside of our walls, those who have little interest in what takes place within these walls. Our community may only exist to provide a base for a few of us to go and connect with the throngs of people needing a compassionate word, or a helping hand, or some affirmation of their being.
Some might say that they attend church to meet God. But one might ask: How have you been the presence of Christ, God-incarnate, to others – whether here in this place, or outside this place?
It’s so contrary to our social structures which operate on a business model: if it isn’t paying for itself, don’t do it. If you can’t turn some kind of profit, it doesn’t deserve to exist. But ministry is a reverse-economy. If you treat kingdom of heaven living as a business, you miss the point.
We’re being called to give to causes that won’t give back – at least not in ways we expect. We’re being called to show hospitality to people who can’t repay the favour; we’re being called to be generous with people who may not show generosity themselves.
If you’re looking for a numerical outcome, we may well not get that, either. But take heart in the fact that Jesus had twelve committed followers (well, relatively committed – until the going got tough, anyway!) and Jesus didn’t live lavishly either, getting his meals and accommodations as he went, living on the charity of women. So if we have much, we are reminded that we’re to share of that abundance! Consider less the message of scarcity with which we’re bombarded with in media and commercials, and think more of the great abundance out of which we have to be generous.
That’s the constant challenge. That’s also what we believe and live out in our sacraments. We need to embrace the baptismal life, and Eucharistic sharing, once again.
No one is left out. All receive enough. Grace flows abundantly – some for each and every person.
And we’re empowered to live this way. We’re reminded weekly as we come to this place; we’re driven to live this generous and hospitable way in our daily lives.
It means embracing different living. But that’s good news because the kingdom of heaven – which we can experience even in these days – is life for all.
There’s a song called “Hanukkah Blessings” by Barenaked Ladies, and in it is a line: “we remember how Maccabees fought so that all of us could be free.” I am not Jewish; that is not really part of my story, so why should I believe that Maccabees did anything for me?
I occurred to me that, while some might see their belief-system as being the one and only way, all people want to include all others in their world view. Even an atheistic perspective that may say, “you must have tangible, measurable evidence for something to be regarded as true or real,” is a way of including all people in one particular world view (that is, the laws of physics, and the discoveries in science, apply to us all, and – in their best sense – that is what many atheists desire for a basis of unity among peoples).
A colleague of mine brought to my attention (through a Facebook post) the Nobel lecture for the Literature prize, evidently just posted today. Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa says:
“We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.”
It makes sense to me that our ability to imagine who we are and who we might be, and then to communicate that, is a way in which we frame reality. So the stories which I include in my reality include you – whether you would include those stories in your reality, or not. It’s part of what gives me faith, and it’s reason to keep believing – with an openness to others’ experiences.
While we’re in the season of Hanukkah for Jews, as a Christian, I am in the season of Advent – the season of anticipation and expectation. I look forward to the coming of Christ. I also am conscious that Christ’s coming – and that for which Jesus stood for – is up to me (at least in part). It affects how I live and relate with others.
The story in which I find myself is a story I think we can all relate to – we’ve all experienced eager anticipation, and we’ve all waited, expecting the arrival of something or someone. In that spirit, I wish you a blessed Advent!