Monday, December 24, 2007

God With Us - Christmas Eve 2007

It has been several years now since Christmas has held very much of a religious significance for me. Growing up, I have fond memories of Sunday School Christmas programs, where us kids would put on a Christmas play. One year I played the role of one of the wise men, and I remember that a small bottle of Aqua Velva served as my gift of myrrh. A bath robe would suffice when I needed a shepherd outfit. Then there were the Christmas Eve services, which would include the singing of carols and usually the lighting of hand-held candles. I particularly enjoyed attending late-night candlelight services. When I was a kid, and as I grew into my 20’s, Christmas for me was the recognition or celebration of the birth of Jesus in a lowly stall in Bethlehem. It was about the arrival of the Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary. He was sent from Heaven to earth to save humanity from our sins.

As I continued farther into my 20’s, things started to change. I could no longer believe certain previously held viewpoints such as the existence of a literal everlasting hell, the notion of original sin, or that Jesus was the only way to heaven. So, what to do with Christmas? If humanity was not originally sinful, what was the purpose of Jesus? Even more, if there was no eternal damnation for us to be saved from, what did we need Jesus for at all? For a few years, Christmas was mostly about time spent with family. The themes of love and peace still resonated with me, and I still went to Christmas services, but I didn’t know what to make of the story of Jesus.

And now, here we are on Christmas Eve 2007. If I can’t be home with family, perhaps the next best place to be is here at Starbucks with a grandé Christmas blend.

So what does Christmas mean for me this year? Throughout the course of this year I have started to explore again what I believe when it comes to spiritual matters. And what conclusions have I come to? My first response would be to say that I don’t think it is necessary to rush to conclusions. I’m much more comfortable seeing life as a mystery to be experienced rather than a problem to be solved. While I have been learning things and examining what I believe, I am learning to be comfortable with my beliefs not having to be concrete. They are a work in progress, and I think that will always be so as long as I live. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have strongly held beliefs about certain things, I just think we need to be flexible, be content to be on a journey, and be willing to make changes when needed.

What do I believe about Jesus this Christmas Eve? It does not matter to me that I hold firm beliefs about who Jesus was. It does not worry me very much if I believe or don’t believe that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. It does not matter to me that Jesus was or was not perfect from the time of his birth to the time of his death. In fact, it gives me more comfort to think that Jesus was born of two human parents just like me and that he made mistakes. Maybe he threw things at his siblings as he was growing up, got into the odd fight on the schoolyard, or swore when he stubbed his toe. To me the significance of Jesus is that here was a human being, flesh and blood, who eventually came to experience the divine in such a strong way that he could say, “I and the Father are one,” and “When you’ve seen me, you have seen the Father.”

I love traditional Christmas carols. I particularly like a couple of lines from the last verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.

While I don’t necessarily believe that Jesus descended from Heaven or came to make us acceptable to God, I like the thought of God being born in us and abiding in us. I remember in years past being exhorted to “make room for Jesus in our hearts.” The line from “O Come All Ye Faithful” comes to mind: “Let every heart prepare Him room.” I believe that perhaps I can find new meaning in Christmas, and that can include celebrating that in Jesus we see the union of divinity and humanity. However, I think we need to then take the next step of realizing and being glad in the knowledge that God is equally as present in us. To me it is more of a miracle that the divine could dwell inside the hearts, minds, and bodies of fallible, “sinful” human beings, rather than only being present in a perfect human being such as Jesus is often made out to be. I think that when we spend much of our time worshiping Jesus, we miss the forest for the trees. We spend so much time looking at Jesus and trying to emulate his presumed perfection that we miss an equally wonderful miracle. That miracle is that in the midst of our daily lives, in the middle of our complicated, broken lives, the divine is present within us and in everyone around us.

So, this Christmas Eve, I will find a late night church service to attend, I will sing the songs I sang when I was a kid, and hopefully the good news will continue to sink in – that God is indeed with each one of us.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Love of God

"There's a wideness in God's mercy
I cannot find in my own
And it keeps this fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching, with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless, raging fury
That they call the love of God"
-Rich Mullins

Near the end of my time at Bible college several years ago, I found myself in a panic. I had committed a grievous sin against God and became convinced that He had kicked me out of his family. I was in a terrible state, thinking that I might be out of God's favour and that I may be tossed into Hell when my life ended. It was awful. I lived with this fear for quite some time, and at the same time I was having questions about some of the beliefs that I took for granted as being true. I left college and continued on, praying and hoping that God could somehow take me back. I came to a point gradually where I couldn't live with the fear of damnation anymore, so somehow I gave it up, I stopped worrying about it. But the questions I had been having, they persisted. Perhaps foremost among these questions was "How could a loving God send people to Hell?" Eventually I came to the place where I am today. I don't believe anyone goes to Hell. I also don't view God as I used to, as a supernatural, powerful man in the sky controlling every minute detail of the universe and my daily life. I don't believe that God orchestrates what kind of job I'm going to have, or that he chose what colour of hair I would be born with. I don't believe that God chooses to heal some people of their illnesses and for some reason lets others suffer despite the persistent prayers of people who care for them. I don't believe that God works that way. However, I strongly affirm the reality of God, though I am hesitant to use that name because of the connotations it has of a controller in the sky. This is why I use the term "the divine" sometimes. In the past I've used the term "Love." I have a hard time calling God "it" because that infers that the divine is somewhat of a sterile, impersonal object. For the sake of discussion, I'll continue to use the word God.

As I sit at Starbucks sipping on my decaf Sumatra, I would compare the journey I have taken to a flight to another part of the country. For most of my life I grew up believing traditional evangelical Christian beliefs. It was familiar territory. I was taught many things, chiefly that people who called on the name of Jesus for salvation would be saved and those who didn't would be lost forever. Eventually many of these things, including this view of salvation, didn't ring true to me anymore and I felt that there were wholly different provinces to visit. It is as if I jumped on a plane one day and flew to Newfoundland. It's a nice place, there is a lot to see and I've hardly even begun to explore it. In this new land I have come to believe that the experience of God is not limited to those who call themselves Christians. Rather, I believe that God is a spiritual reality who lives inside me, all around me, and is also in the people around me. God will not be restricted to one belief system. This is a liberating place, and I'll remain here until I am led somewhere else.

There is a bit of a problem with taking a plane though. In jumping on a flight and then landing in St. John's a few hours later, I have missed out on experiences that I could have had if I had taken other modes of transportation. There's the unique province of Quebec, the beautiful scenery of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. So I backtrack a little bit and take it a bit more slowly. What was one of my first steps on my journey? As I previously mentioned, it was the question "How could a loving God send people to Hell?"

The answer that I am finding to this question is emphatically that "He doesn't." I return to the Rich Mullins lyric that I included at the beginning of this writing. Mullins describes the love of God as a "reckless, raging fury" and says that it ignites a fire that melts his heart of stone. I am slightly hesitant to compare the love of God to fire since fire can be destructive. But I think that it can also be a helpful image. For one, if the love of God is like fire, it is indeed reckless, raging and furious. This is not a small campfire that you roast marshmallows over. This is not comparable to the contained flames of a cozy basement fireplace. It is as uncontrollable as a huge forest fire that you see on the evening news. These fires are reckless and raging, affecting everything in its path. Firefighters direct water hoses towards it, planes drop loads of substances on it in attempts to stop it, but it rages on. It cannot be negotiated with, it doesn't stop for 48 hours while families can properly pack their belongings and get out of its way. It is indiscriminate. And while I leave the image of fire for now, I believe the love of God is like that. It is persistent; it cannot be contained, no matter how much we try.

I believe that God's love is persistent and available to all. I am coming to believe that the Bible must be read as a historical document and that it contains certain people's accounts and perceptions of God, rather than it containing words from God that must be taken literally word for word. However, I think there are many valuable truths within it, many of which point to the persistence of God's love.

Three parables from the book of Luke are good examples of this. The first is the parable of the lost sheep:

"So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance." - Luke 15:3-7

Following this is the story of a woman who loses a silver coin and sweeps her house until she finds it. Following that is the story of the prodigal son, who rebels against his father, demands his share of the inheritance, and leaves home. He squanders everything and ends up feeding pigs to make money. Eventually all that he can do is return to his home, hoping that his father will hire him on as a lowly worker:

"So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate." - Luke 15:20-24

What I am embracing is that God is a God of love who never stops searching or waiting. As it is with the shepherd and his lost sheep, or the woman and her lost coin, or the father and his lost son, God never gets tired of searching for his children or waiting for them to come home. He doesn't look at his watch, and realizing that it's past his bedtime, goes and turns off the lights and climbs into bed.

This love of God persists, it never ends. Not even death can separate us from the love of God. If God's love for us ends when we die, and gives up on us and casts some of us into Hell, that is a limited love.

One of the strongest beliefs that I was taught growing up in the church was that we had to make a decision to accept Jesus as the way to God and we would be saved by grace. However, this still puts the onus on us, that we choose God. Grace is given to us if we choose it. But, as author Marcus Borg writes, "grace that has conditions attached is no longer grace."

The good news is that God chooses us. Even if the prodigal son would have never returned home, his father would have always loved him. If the story were have to continued much longer, I suspect that we would read how the father left the farm in the hands of his other son and went on a journey to find him. God chooses who he will love, and I believe he loves all, and would never punish his children eternally.

People often find comfort in referring to God as their father. For those of you with children, would any of you, even if your child was to spit in your face and say they hated you and walked out of your life, would you stop loving them? And if they were to disappear, would you ever stop searching for them? I think it's safe to say the answer is a resounding no.

Neither would God.

What about punishment? Parents periodically have to punish their children for bad behaviour. In their fantastic book If Grace Is True, Philip Gulley and James Mulholland write:

"I understand the need for punishment and consequence. Since I punish my children for their misbehaviour, I can hardly deny God's right to correct his. My trouble is with eternal punishment. No loving parent would send their child to their room forever." Later on, they write, "parental punishment is never designed to inflict pain. It desires to redeem, shape, or protect. When it is excessive, it becomes abuse."(Gulley, Philip, and James Mulholland. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.)

I believe that the love of God cannot be contained by one religious system. God breaks through all of the containers we like to put him in. And our understanding is often dramatically changed. A good example of this is Peter, Jesus' disciple:

"In the tenth chapter of Acts, we're told Peter saw the heavens open and a sheet descend from the sky. The sheet contained certain creatures the Scriptures forbid Peter, a faithful Jew, to eat. The voice of God said, "Rise, Peter, kill and eat."

Peter replied, "No, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean (Acts 10:13-14).

Peter knew what he believed. He was faithful to those beliefs, even if it meant saying no to God. Then again, no is almost always our first response to God. Especially when God wants us to think or act in a new way.

Like most of us, Peter was resistant to change. God had to repeat the vision twice. During each vision, Peter was cautioned not to reject what God had accepted. While Peter puzzled about his visions, God sent three Gentile men to knock on his door.

To appreciate how Peter felt when he saw them on his doorstep, you need only recall your discomfort when unwelcome visitors knock on your door. Multiply that by ten. Three times Peter had been told to accept what he considered unacceptable. Now three Gentiles stood at his door.

Peter opened the door.

The men asked Peter to accompany them to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. Peter was torn. To visit a Gentile's home was to violate the rigid rules separating Jew from Gentile. Rubbing shoulders with Gentiles wasn't kosher. Socializing with them was fraternizing with the enemy. Torn between what he'd always been taught and his experience with God, Peter relied on his experience. He went with the men and saw God pour out his Spirit on the house of Cornelius and all the Gentiles gathered there...(Peter) trusted his experience with God, though it challenged a belief of his religion and contradicted certain Scriptures. Despite all this pressure to conform, Peter believed something new."

- Gulley and Mulholland

It seems that even Jesus was reluctant to accept that God's goodness was for anyone but the Jews:

"Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly."- Matthew 15:21-28

And so it is with us. When I was growing up in my church, I considered members of the Anglican and United churches to be "dead," they weren't really Christians. I thought the Pentecostals were "out there." Now I am coming to believe that the love of God is not limited by any denomination or by any religious system. I would agree with Howard Thurman when he writes that, "It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem."

Finally, the question must be asked, "What does salvation mean if no one is going to Hell?" I am coming to believe that salvation isn't primarily about the afterlife, but it has to do with this life. Borg writes the following concerning the word salvation: "The root of the English word is helpful. It comes from a Latin word that means "wholeness" or "healing" (the same root from which we get the word "salve," a healing agent). In its broadest sense, salvation thus means becoming whole and being healed." I think that we all need salvation. We can definitely find value in the words and stories of Jesus, in that he cared for the poor and downtrodden, he reached beyond barriers and touched those who were thought to be unclean. He reached out and showed the love of God to those around him. And similarly, we can show this love to people around us. It's not about suggesting that people have to believe the same set of doctrines as we do "or else," but it is a message of liberation. Paul wrote, "if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:2) Our job is not to convert people to our set of beliefs, but to love them.

"I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."

That is my prayer for myself today.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Brownies, Burning, and Bumbles

Currently I find myself in Starbucks enjoying a Caramel Macchiato, and get this, a "low-fat vegan brownie." Doesn't that sound appetizing? It just sounds wrong, like "jumbo shrimp" or a "straight Clay Aiken." But alas, I bit into it and it's pretty good. One of the barista's - I never used to like that word - informed me that they use apple sauce to replace some of the bad stuff in the brownie. So it's like I'm eating baby food, however, so far I have no pablum with the taste.

Moving on, just a bit earlier tonight I was at the bus stop, one that is near this Pentecostal church. I thought about going to the night service, but it probably would have just upset me, and it was too late. I looked over and there was a woman sitting with her bible waiting for the bus. I had my iPod with me. Then up walks this other lady in her 50's or 60's wearing red, trying to hand me a small piece of paper. I removed my earphones and it didn't take long to realize that she was trying to share her beliefs with me. Now, normally I would politely smile and take the paper and say thank you. But instead I found myself saying "No thanks, I've tried that before." She started saying things about Jesus, and I started on about Hell. "What is Hell?" she asks at one point. "There is no Hell," I reply. I try to give her some indication that I know what she's trying to accomplish. "I was a Christian for 20 years," I say. She says at least once that I've been deceived. "God wouldn't send anyone to Hell," I say. "Oh, yes he does!" I replied with something like, "The Muslim, Jew, Buddhist (aren't going to Hell)."

I didn't yell, but instead of smiling and nodding to what she was saying, I eloquently came out with "that's a bunch of crap." The short exchange ends with this lady giving me the good news that "Tonight if you die you'll be in the lake of fire." She tried handing me more pamphlets which I didn't take. She told me she'd be praying for me, and I think she started praying for me there, and bizarrely she said I'd see results in three days or something. (Admittedly, a lot of Christians with the same beliefs aren't this odd.) We got on the bus, where she proceeds to hand these papers out to people.

I find it interesting that at the time she approached me I was listening to either the old Christian group 2nd Chapter of Acts' 1980 album The Roar of Love, based on The Lion, Witch, and The Wardrobe, or a Neil Young song called When God Made Me.

The other lady at the stop made some remark to me as we got on the bus which made it clear that she was embarrassed by the other lady. She, like many Christians, would never take this approach; it feels wrong to them. But inside they truly believe this, that if you don't believe that you are bad and ask forgiveness from Jesus that you are lost, eventually forever.

Spirituality, or an awareness of spirituality has been prevalent all throughout my life. It is something I have never been able to shut out, nor would I want to. But I don't think that I can ever again subscribe to the belief that God sends people to Hell. In some ways it is a scare tactic, and you don't get people to love you by scaring the crap out of them. If I ever again use the word Christian to describe myself, it will be because I have learned or I can identify with some truth from the teachings of Jesus, rather than because it is the only way I can know God. Some may say that a Christianity without Hell is like a low-fat vegan brownie, or the abominable snow-monster without teeth. But the brownie was actually edible, the snow monster could still bounce and place a star on top of the Christmas tree, and so too can Christianity exist without such threats.

I think that the divine is present with me and in me during each and every moment. The power of God is coursing through my veins, and "he" is in the Jew, the Muslim, the Buddhist, and yes, the woman at the bus stop handing out pamphlets, however much I disagree with her. We can learn from each other rather than condemn each other. We don't have to believe and understand life the same way, nor do I think we were meant to. We can love each other with our differences.