Whether it is an earthquake, flood, famine, terrorism or some other cause of death and destruction for numbers of people, the most common responses in social media and from political offices contain the phrase, “thoughts and prayers”. So over used and hypocritically stated are “thoughts and prayers” that many are reacting negatively to the phrase claiming it is a trite excuse for not even trying to help, and an insult to the victims. Most recently in Texas when 26 church attenders were killed by a heavily armed man, it seems pathetic, to say the least, that US legislators were only willing to send “thoughts and prayers” when they have the power to control the sale of guns and won’t. It is lame as well for those of us who have the resources send “thoughts and prayers” instead of a donation, or a visit where needed and possible, or to stand with victims in public protest. I have nothing against “thoughts and prayers” but too often they could lead to some kind of action . . . . . and don’t.
The end of November brings not only the Grey Cup but also the end of the Season of Creation and the end of the church year. December brings a new church year with Advent and Christmas, and an opportunity to contemplate the meaning of those seasons from a faith point of view. Through Advent the excitement builds. God is going to do something new with Creation. Most don’t believe in a clockmaker God who started creation running and then left the scene, even though we can expect at times to rightly feel abandoned by God. Christmas is about the idea that God not only cares about creation and its fulfillment but actively and creatively engages an on-going, always unfolding creation ultimately leading to restoration and reconciliation. In the cry of a newborn infant we can hear the voice of a God that does more than send “thoughts and prayers”, an engaged voice calling us to be the hands and feet of God moving us into right relation with all creation.
This Sunday at Living Spirit United you are invited to “Dig Deeper” as we worship together and explore that call. Can our own talents and Christmas be more than “thoughts and prayers”? Something to think and pray about!
“War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that he too is
suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.” Karl Kraus, Austrian writer, 1874-1936
“Those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim Him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another. War springs from the love and loyalty which should be offered to God being applied to some God substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism.” Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1980 to 1991
While tempting, it is too easy to write a diatribe condemning war or a puff piece promoting peace. If avoiding war or achieving peace were easy, simple and uncomplicated we would all be living in blissful (if perhaps boring) harmony. Having done some scholarly study of world religions I believe it can be said that all of them (including ones that make us uncomfortable and/or afraid) promote a path to peace. As Christians we know that Jesus was and is called the Prince of Peace. At the same time he said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matt 10:34) and spoke of how his message of peace would bring conflict within families and between nations. If everyone in the world would just . . . Well I’ll stop myself there because there is no way that all seven billion people on this planet “would just . . .” anything! And that is the problem.
The diversity of people, thought, lifestyle, need, belief, fears, grudges and resentments in this world is infinite in its complexity. Trying to get everyone to think, feel and live the same has been tried again and again and inevitably fails – usually with horrifying results. As a Christian I believe that peace is not a goal but a process of living with respect in creation. Respect for God and God’s creation, our global neighbours and ourselves. So simple to say, so difficult to do. Yet it is at the heart of all the great religions – treat others as you would have them treat you. The “Golden Rule”.
To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, the path to peace has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.
My Remembrance Day challenge is to try once again, each day, every day, to live with love and respect for everyone and everything. It will be difficult. Of course you will fail. Try again. And again. And again. The proverbial glass is neither half full nor half empty and we all thirst.
Shalom, God’s peace through justice and healing, is with you each step of the way.
As we have seen too often in the past and once again in the last few weeks, the price of stardom, celebrity, even success in general is accepting that sexual harassment and sexual coercion are “normal” as unnatural, abusive and unacceptable as they are. Rightly seen, I believe, sexual harassment and sexual coercion are not really about sex as such but about power. When some people find they have power and control over others the temptation arises in them to use that power abusively. That abuse can take many forms and only some are sexual. That temptation does not have to be given in to, and yet sadly it is – again and again.
Behind the inability to resist the temptation that power brings is the love of self, the idolatry of one’s self. When we love ourselves too much and love God too little, temptation wins – especially when we see ourselves as better than or superior to others, for whatever reason. Strangely idolatry of the self arises not out of a big ego, the big ego and the love of it arises out of fear. Fear of one’s worthlessness, fear of being unloved and/or unlovable, fear of failure to name just a few. Fears breed idolatry and idolatry breeds abuse.
The church is certainly no immune to giving in to abusive temptations. Residential schools, paternalistic missionaries, abusive clergy and priests, etc. Even Catholic popes have not been immune. This Sunday Protestant churches mark the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses 500 years ago (actually Oct. 31, 1517). Luther was protesting the what he saw as abuses by the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Luther himself was abusive of Jews and Judaism. The wilderness of fear and its temptations to abusive power seem to be everywhere. Yet there is a way through.
This Sunday at Living Spirit we will be looking at our journey through the wilderness of fear and how we can walk it together without abusing ourselves or others. Hint: something must die! (Disclaimer: no violence will be done to your most precious idols should you choose to let them go).
In what seems like a long time ago the band “R.E.M.” had a hit song called “Losing My Religion.” Although many assumed it was about becoming an atheist that wasn’t exactly the case. In an interview with Q Magazine, Michael Stipe, the author and lead singer in the band, says, ‘”Losing My Religion” is about “someone who pines for someone else. It’s unrequited love, what have you.” The phrase is common in the US deep South meaning being at the end of one’s rope. When we have tried everything we know to get what we need or want and have run out of options, we tend to start questioning our understanding of reality. When we believe something is true, i.e., that a special someone loves us because we love them, and they show no interest back, it is a time of anguish. That hopeful dream must die a tragic death. That “religion” dies and grief sets in. Sorry if that takes you back to your teen, or even more recent, years of pain and sorrow.
Even more recently for some, the recent municipal election in Calgary is causing some to lose their religion. Dreams of new stadiums and uncontrolled urban sprawl to delight investors seem shattered. Strategies to sweep away opposing candidates have failed. Assurances that a gullible population could be manipulated into voting against their own interest have proved to give false hope. Regardless of your own political leanings I suspect you will agree that conservatives (note the small “c”) in Calgary need to offer something more than “Not Nenshi/N.D.P./liberal/etc” if they want to carry a future election. I think that they need to take a profound look at the failure of their “religion” and thoroughly examine what they really believe about the people of this city, democracy, good government, worthy candidates, and so on. I suspect that instead they will go into the next election with the same old religion and risk getting it handed to them on a platter.
Moses, after leading the Hebrew people out of oppression, out of danger from Pharaoh’s army, out of hunger and thirst and into a new understanding of how to survive together and minimize conflict (the Ten Commandments) was not faced with brilliant success but the one reality he probably didn’t want to face – more wilderness! (Exodus 33: 12-23) He really felt he had fallen out of God’s favour and longed to see God face to face. His deep yearning was heard by God who assured him that he was favoured and reminded him that if he were to experience the full reality of God (face to face) it would blow his circuits (Exodus 33: 20). God does, however allow Moses to see his backside (33: 23).
Jesus, confronted with a question about taxes (Matthew 22: 15-22), held up a small coin with an image of Augustus Caesar on it and uttered “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” This is often taken as meaning “Be good and pay your taxes”, an unfortunate interpretation. As I understand it he was telling his challengers it was time for them to lose their religion and decide on a new future.
I can say more on this and probably will this Sunday at Living Spirit. Please let me know what you think before then and maybe I’ll have to lose my religion.
God’s peace of justice and respect is with you.
My title, you may recognize, is a reversal of Barak Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope.” In turning it around I do not mean or intend any disrespect as it, along with poet Malcolm Guite’s meditation on the “Audacity of Vulnerability”, got me thinking about our life both as Christians and as a Church. This Sunday at Living Spirit we will be hearing a story and a parable from the Bible: from the Book of the Exodus (32:1-14), Moses and the golden calf, and from Matthew (22: 1-14), the king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. Whether these are familiar or not I would encourage you to look them up before Sunday and read them through at least once, there is a Table of Contents to help you locate them and they are short!
Audacity is obvious in both. The Exodus story centers on the audacity of the people who grow tired of Moses absence (he was up a mountain talking to God) and demand that his brother, Aaron, build them a golden calf to worship. In Matthew the audacity comes from the king (God?) who is angered by his nobles’ feeble excuses for skipping his son’s wedding feast and sends his servant out to invite everyone else (good and bad, go figure) to come in their place.
In the larger picture both stories speak of God’s audacity, defying our lust for upward mobility, stuff, status and monetary gain (success!), bringing the holiness of presence from abstraction down to earth and to each of us.
Have the audacity to worship this Sunday! We have pumpkin spice cappuccinos AND services.
If you are not feeling overwhelmed by a world of bad news these days you probably haven’t been paying attention. Or you are overwhelmed with your own personal and family struggles. Either way our inner bucket of thanksgiving may be near empty or just plain dry. When you have to think hard and dig deep to find gratitude for anything, Thanksgiving Day is not the most welcome day of the year. The thought of Thanksgiving Sunday worship might be sounding a hollow clang of emptiness that you don’t want to endure.
At the same time, worship on Thanksgiving Sunday might be just what we need. Rather than cocooning into solitary or family seclusion, being with good people (even though they are not perfect), and entering into the rhythms and cadence of worship brings its own comfort and peace. Hearing ancient words that still speak to our humanity and community can both challenge and heal. Singing into and out of emptiness becomes a bold statement of defiance against all who bring only hate, fear and violence. Engaging in conversation, both superficial and deep (sometimes at the same time) over tea, coffee or . . . Pumpkin Spice Cappuccino! . . . can be soothing and affirming. Know that a warm, welcome awaits you and a community which understands emptiness and brokenness will be there waiting with it.
Turning off the internet and TV and ignoring the News for a few hours, or, more so the whole long weekend, can also give the mind, heart and soul a break and help us gain a new and healthier focus. Other parts of our brain are engaged when news of disaster is not flooding our senses. The 24 Hour News cycle by itself is overwhelming. Conflict, catastrophe, calamity give headlines that “sell eyeballs” to advertisers – as more people watch, the more revenue will come in for the whatever media outlet you are watching. Media publishers put it this way, “If it bleeds, it leads”. Good news has trouble getting moved up from the bottom of the news barrel. A sad side effect of this approach to the “news” is the violent impression of the world it gives media consumers, people like you and me. You may find it hard to believe but historians tell us that we are living in a remarkably peaceful time.
Walking or being outside and unplugged can rewire our brains when we give attention to our senses. Autumn is a sensory delight with colourful, crunchy leaves, crisp air, new smells, the bright sun lower on the horizon, blustery days and chilly nights. All remind us of nature’s eternally changing beauty, reinforcing our need for this kind of Sabbath practice. Death is all around us and yet we live, we give thanks.
I am not suggesting we ignore the troubles of the world, our families or ourselves. They are real and they are important. Being overwhelmed and empty, however, reduces our capacity to respond reasonably and effectively. Spiritual practices enable us to engage our God, each other, and ourselves, connecting us with basic, powerful resources that we might make wise decisions and be responsive to the problems that confront us. We might even feel more alive and grateful! A hope, not a guarantee.
May the happiness of Thanksgiving find a nesting place in your heart this weekend.
This month we are offering Pumpkin Spice services – sweet, savory with the occasional Jack-o-lantern! Or not, we are just hopping on the bandwagon that is offering pumpkin spice flavouring in or on just about everything, and we do want to bring some warm comfort and joy to our journey together into the ever uncertain future. Also, for a small donation, we have pumpkin spice cappuccino from our Keurig machine, or regular coffee and tea if you are not so inclined.
This past week on Thursday I had the privilege of going to Red Deer Cemetery for the unveiling of a memorial stone. The stone (see pictures) commemorates four indigenous children, ages 13 and 14, who died in 1918 during the Spanish Flu epidemic. The children died at the Red Deer Industrial (Residential) School and were buried in unmarked graves by a funeral home in Red Deer. The staff at the school were so sick themselves that they were unable to bury the children on site as other children who died there had been. Family descendants of the children were there to participate in the ceremonies and share their stories with other participants, many of whom were members of Gaetz and Sunnybrook United Churches in Red Deer. President Kathy Yamishita and Executive Director Shannon McCarthy of Alberta and Northwest Conference of the United Church were there and took part in the program.
This Sunday at Living Spirit I will be exploring different kinds of complaining on our journey into a reality, a new wilderness. Like the Hebrew people of old there will be new things happening that can leave us doubting . Doubting our ability to survive as a congregation. Doubting our systems and structures. Unsure about proposed changes and directions. This Sunday we are having Open Doors Living Spirit! Who knows what that is about? Well . . . not anyone, really. It is a new thing that you can help make happen by sharing an interest, skill, hobby, topic in the Hall following our worship service. No rules! (although it should be presentable in a church setting)
Part of living (with spirit) into a new reality is that we won’t like everything that happens. We will not be comfortable, we may be anxious, we will have complaints. Our complaints need to be heard, even if they are not solvable – the past cannot be restored for anyone, resources are limited, there will be hymns you do not know! Praying to God can give us some relief for our discomforts and worries and remind us that we do not journey alone. Complaining to each other, to Council members, to clergy might help and might bring desirable change, so is worth a try even though we are all less powerful than our Creator. Dialogue and negotiating change are possible and encouraged as they can help us all get through this uncertain time. And remember, certainty is over rated. The Hebrew people never felt closer to God than in the wilderness, offering their complaints and being surprised at the outcome. Miracles do happen.
Is forgiving someone or some agency 490 times (7×70, as Jesus says) enough? Sometimes once is too much, in other situations we forgive passively and endlessly, allowing abuse to continue unchallenged for years, even generations. When we challenge neo-fascism, racism and hate based discrimination we are accused of intolerance. When we try to be nice and forgiving we are accused of being weak and doormats. Too often our assumed privilege in society clouds our perception and distorts our judgements. Is it possible to exult with the Hebrew people over Pharaoh’s army drowning in the sea, or millions left homeless by the ravages of nature, and still believe in a forgiving, loving God? I do not have the answer, so let’s engage the question together and see where it leads.
There is a reason preachers are always harping about forgiveness. It is one of the most challenging aspects of living out our faith in the way of Christ, so much so that our understanding of forgiveness is often distorted. We think forgiveness is a gift that we bestow on someone who has offended us, usually someone we would just as soon not have anything to do with. We think that forgiveness makes us look weak and open to abuse from others. We think that forgiveness gives approval and permission to those who have harmed us. We think that forgiveness means overlooking or forgetting our own hurt and pain.
There is a deeper way of forgiveness which honours our hurt and struggle and invites others into responsible living that we can explore together on Sunday in the Reflection time. If you are not able to be there, the recording will be on our web site (http://livingspirit.ca/sermons-2/ ). If you want to discuss this with me personally, please contact the church office at (403)243-3180 to arrange a time to get together.
Rev. Paul Mullen