Sunday, March 23, 2008

I Believe

The following is a talk that I gave at First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo on Sunday, March 23, 2008.

Good morning, and I’m glad for the opportunity to share with you for a few minutes. Happy Easter to those of you who celebrate the holiday in one of its various forms.

As I stand before you here this morning, I can’t help but think back to the days when I would be up in front of a congregation on Sunday mornings or during talent nights performing solos. It was on one such occasion, over 10 years ago now, that I stood in front of my home congregation and sang these lyrics:

Lord I want to be a servant of the King
And I want my life to be inspired by all you bring
But for this I must die
And sometimes it's hard to understand the reasons why
Isn't there some way I can save a piece of me
Isn't there some how you can take this cup from me
Lord I hear you whispering that this is how it has to be
But my God it's awfully hard to say goodbye to me

Hold me close as I say goodbye to me
Let my heart know that you are all I need
I'll stay right here on my knees
Until I have the strength to say goodbye to me
'cause I'm tired of living somewhere in between
My love for you and my love for me
So take whatever's left of me
I sacrifice it Lord to Thee
Goodbye to Me.

All I can say after that is “My, how things have changed!” I now find these words unfortunate at best, but more-so very offensive. But that is what I used to strive for, to be obedient to a supernatural God, which meant a sort of emptying of myself.

I grew up in a Christian family with strong roots in the church, and I went to Sunday school and church services from the time I was a baby. When I was 7 I attended an evangelistic crusade and at the end of the service I went forward and accepted Jesus into my heart. I don’t remember the sermon, but I remember telling the counsellor backstage, when they asked, that I wanted to be a fireman when I grew up. As I entered my teens, I immersed myself into the Christian culture. I wore Christian-themed t-shirts, and listened to Christian music almost exclusively. Eventually I found myself increasingly in positions of leadership, in my youth group, or on music teams. When it came time to go to college or university, after quite a bit of thought I moved to Kitchener and attended Bible college.

All of my life I identified myself as a Christian. And for me, that meant obedience to God by following Jesus. I heard songs and scriptures that said, among other things, “It’s no longer I that liveth, but Christ that liveth in me,” “Whoever wants to follow me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” And one of my personal favourites was a song that said, “So forget about yourself and concentrate on him, and worship him.” Although I was told by my family and people in the church that God loved me, I also thought that to be Christian was to become less myself and more like Jesus. I believed doctrines like original sin, which suggested that because of Adam and Eve’s sin, all of us were sinful at the core and needed to be redeemed. I had no problem accepting these things.

I would sin, get on my knees and ask forgiveness, get up, sin again shortly thereafter, and be on my knees again. This I would do over and over and over again. I’m a little surprised that my legs are in decent condition today.

I lived this way, trying to be a better Christian, all my life. Until my 3rd year of Bible college. It was then that I entered a spiritual crisis of sorts; I came to the point where I pretty much convinced myself that I had offended God so much by my sin that he had kicked me out of his family and I was now going to be damned. I was in anguish. But finally, the guilt was more than I could bear, and I just had to stop fearing God’s wrath. I let it go. After that, big time questions starting arising. Questions like “Is there a Hell?” and “Could only Christians be saved and go to heaven?” I left college to “take a year off,” and never went back. For quite awhile I still called myself a Christian, but eventually that faded as well. For several years I didn’t want much to do with religion. But I still believed in “something More.” Eventually I decided to start searching again, and thought that finding a church would be a good thing to do. The second church that I walked into was First Unitarian on Dunbar, and here I am today.

Much has changed with me as far as beliefs are concerned. Most of the doctrines I believe are no longer of major concern to me. Doctrines asserting, among other things, that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died on the cross for my sins, that he literally rose from the dead, are either things that I object to or am just not crucially interested in anymore.

So what about Jesus then, on this Easter morning? (I am aware that pretty much anyone can make Jesus into who or what they want him to be.)

For me, I find it wholly more wonderful to think that if he lived, Jesus was fully human, born of two human parents like everyone else. It doesn’t bother me to think that he wasn’t perfect. If he was indeed a carpenter and hit his thumb with a hammer, it doesn’t bother me to think of him yelling out an expletive or two. I have no problem thinking that perhaps Jesus was married or had children (though it really doesn’t matter to me.) I do not think that it is my or anyone else’s job to be what I like to call “Jesus-clones.” In fact, I tend to think that if Jesus were to walk into most churches today, he’d say “What is going on here?” I’m not the point!” I think of the verse in the Bible that has a man referring to Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Jesus responds by saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” That doesn’t sound like a person who considers themselves to be an Almighty God paying a visit to his creation.

So what is the point of Jesus? Why did people around him identify him with God, how did they come to call him the Son of God? What can I learn from this person? I believe that Jesus was about wholeness, reaching out to those who were cast aside by society. I believe that Jesus was probably more aware of the connection between the divine and the human than perhaps anyone around him in his time, or at least among those who lived around him. He was so aware of the divine in him that he was able to make statements such as “I and the Father are one,” and “if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.”

I believe that you and I can say the same thing, though the imagery and language that we use when referring to the divine may be different. I believe the point today is that there need not be a split between the divine and the human. I believe that, rather than being originally sinful, you and I are wonderfully unique beings. Our job is not to “be Jesus,” or our parents, or anyone else in the world we may admire. Our job is to be as much ourselves as possible. I believe that when we reject ourselves or don’t express our unique selves, that we deprive the world and those around us of something that perhaps could not be expressed exactly the same way by anyone else on earth. Going a bit farther, perhaps each of us is a unique window into the divine. I believe that we find the divine when we become more fully human, more ourselves, not less. Catholic writer Henri Nouwen wrote:

“A split between divinity and humanity has taken place in you. With your divinely endowed center you know God’s will, God’s way, God’s love. But your humanity is cut off from that. Your many human needs for affection, attention, and consolation are living apart from your divine sacred space. Your call is to let these two parts of yourself come together again.”

I believe that perhaps we are being called to a new humanity, where we realize that we are one with the divine. We must be courageous. We must say goodbye, not to ourselves, but to all forms of self-rejection. It is time, I believe, to step forward and trust our own inner beauty. Does this mean that everything that we do is good? Of course not. A quick glance at the morning paper or the evening news will tell you that. But you and I are not originally bad, we are each wonderfully unique. When we tap into this and accept it, the way we act will change. We will act out of a place of peace, not rejection.

This Easter, it is my personal wish for myself that I'd realize the wonderful truth that I and the divine are much closer than I once believed.

Thank you.