Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The importance of music to me - two examples

Like many people who are quiet and perhaps even shy, I find music to be a wonderful and needed form of expression. I sing and play the guitar OK and have no aspirations to do other than share who/what I feel with others through the medium. The other side of this reality is the receiving of others' gifts through their music. I write a few original songs, doctor and add to some but mainly enjoy singing and hearing songs whose words and tunes express what I know and feel. On most Wednesday evenings I join many others at FAT ALBERT'S, the oldest ongoing folk club (I believe) in Canada. Like most of the folks who attend, I sign up and sing my two numbers each time I go and once a year, again like most of the others, I get to do an extended set of about a half an hour. Christmas is only two weeks away now and so I've been thinking about what I would do tonight.

My first number will be a spiritual from the slaves of the old American South, a song that has long been a favorite and that I try to sing every year, one place or another. It goes like this:
Mary had a baby. Oh Lord. Mary had a baby. Oh yes, Lord. Mary had a baby. Oh Lord,
An de people keep a comin and de train don gone.
2) What did she call him?-------
3) She called him baby Jesus-----
4) Where was he born?-----
5) He was born in a manger.-------
6) Why did he come here?-----
7) He came to show the way.-----

The refrain," An de people keep a comin' and de train done gone" would have been a code message referring to the underground railroad with brought slaves up to Ontario to freedom. How ironic and aprapo that the words are just as meaningful today but in a new context. We are enslaved today to our blindness and materialism and we just keep a comin', needing to be set free. But it certainly does seem that the train is gone and we're left behind. Is there anyone/group to lead us to new life?

The first song was chosen but what should follow? What came to mind was not a song of the season as such but one that gives guidance as to what the last verse in the previous song was about. It is about "The Way" that to which Jesus and the "birth narratives" point and a song that I can well imagine being a favourite of Jesus had he lived in this setting. It is a song therefore of idealism and love, from the 1960's of course, song by The Holleys. The words "in God I'm" in the third line are my own insertion.
I invite you to hear the words as those of the angels or to be a star toward which you are called to follow. Think about it and even pray. Enough said.

The road is long with many a winding turn that leads us to who knows where, who knows when?

In God I'm strong, strong enough to carry him. He ain't heavy; he's my brother.
So on we go. His welfare is my concern. No burden is he to bare; we'll get there.
For I know he will not encumber me. He ain't heavy; he's my brother.
If I'm laden at all, I'm laden with sadness that everyone's heart isn't filled with the gladness of love for one another.

So on we'll go where ever the road will turn. While we're on our way to there, why not share?
And the load doesn't weigh me down at all. He's ain't heavy; he's my brother.

The Church's Lack of Leadership at Christmas

Our public in general, largely ignore the churches. We have many reasons to do so, one being their general lack of leadership in anything that is relevant. We are usually ahead of the churches when it comes to ethics and spiritual understanding. As an example I bring up the fact that most people here, religious or not, know that Christmas is much too materialistic; we spend far too much money and not enough time at Christmas. The huge gap between the reality and the hope of the season causes it to be the most stressful event of the year. The rate of suicide and mental illness peaks at this time. And we all know this. Every year there are numerous polls that confirm this knowledge and people individually vow to break the trend to evaluate the Christmas season by the effort/time/expense of gifts. Some people and families agree to donate to the needy or to designated causes instead of the usual swap of stuff. But most people slide back into the commerce induced habit of spending. This is one good example of how difficult it is to change anything important when you are basically alone.

I'm certain that every year, in every pulpit there are many cries of despair at the materialism of Christmas, of how far off the mark our society has "strayed" from the mark we Christians claim as our own. But what are the churches doing about it except weeping privately and wringing their collective hands? There are obviously many "unchurched" who agree with them and would like to be affective in changing what, they know, from various points of view, is a wrong and damaging trend. How difficult would it be for churches to organize a multi denominational and cross cultural campaign to de-commercialize Christmas? With a little publicity, (it would certainly be newsworthy), and word-of-mouth circulation, a movement like this would be a very real help to our culture and a sign that maybe there's something to value in organized Christianity after all. All you would need to do is provide meeting places in each neighborhood, a few designated people (each from a different church), and a few examples of faithful giving/causes to support. Treat it like an AA meeting, perhaps, encouraging people to share how crazy the Christmas season had become for them and to explore alternatives together.

No "evangelism" please, churches. You see, we have no reason to believe your words. We need to see some action, some proof that YOU believe your words. Churches, we need you to become real to us, to be TRUTH to us not mere story, not something that once was. So don't keep Jesus and God's WORD in the manger or on some hillside. Figure out some ways that you can BECOME the story to and for us! Churches, you are there. Let us hear from you in our time of need. In your time of crisis. Listen to us, the people around you. We are believers in the HOLY and in God's LOVE but we don't see it in what you are doing. In this season of Christmas when we know how crazy things have become PLEASE come to us with something more than manger scenes, teas, bazaars and choir concerts! Wake up to your blindness and deafness in order to see, hear and DO.

Step 10: A Song for All Seasons

Step 8: Faithfulness is a Journey

One other truth told us in the birth naratives of both gospels is that faithfulness is a journey; don't expect to stay as you are if you want to grow in love/spirit. Just because we are loved/forgiven/accepted by God just the way we are does not mean that God doesn't will much more for us, doesn't offer us ways of growth and paths to discovery. In the same way that a parent loves and accepts a mischievous four-year-old but hopes they will grow up some day and does their best to present to them paths of maturity and love in the hopes that the child will chose them for their own.

The three astrologers (wise men) embark on a journey toward a new king, a smart move politically and economically. They made their calculations, their choice and then went for it. The wealthy and powerful in Herod's court knew everything that the wise men did but chose to stay at home. They missed out. Joseph and Mary figured out the facts and journeyed to Egypt, to refuge. When the time was right they chose to journey back. In the Lukan narratives Mary travels to visit Elizabeth. (This would have been very unusual thing for a lone woman to do.) Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The shepherds leave the flocks and travel to (or into) Bethlehem.

We shouldn't be side tracked by any arguments over the details. A few miles or a long and dangerous journey. These are truths to teach us not historical acts. These are present perogatives. For us. For all. For then. For now. For all time. If we desire to become more. If we really want to claim out heritage as God's Children. If we could grow, even to the stature of Christ. If we would follow in the WAY of Jesus of Nazareth we must chose the journey. What are the "stars" that point the way? Identify them and then really do search for them knowing that what may be the obvious may not be the true. Be calculating about it. God gave you a brain. Aren't you really stupid if you don't go for all that live has to offer?

Is there someone who you think might be able to help/guide/challenge/support you? (Elizabeth) What's keeping you from going/seeking and learning from them?
What is threatening us, endangering our growth, our Herods? How can we escape from it? Where is a haven to where we can go that will facilitate our growth, and "Egypt" for us?

Do we listen for God's WORD in the world around us? If we do hear it do we ignore it? Where will we most likely hear it? Do we assume that, common as we are God's WORD is not for us? (Remember the shepherds).

What are the things that hold us back from our journeys? Remember that the shepherds had to leave their flocks. (This didn't mean total abandonment for they no doubt would have had cousins that would have looked after them for a while. All the same, it would have been a risk.
Enter your journey with both eyes open knowing that you not only don't know what you will be involved with on the journey, or how the journey will turn out, but that you can assume that the journey you foresee is only the start in itself; the journey you are trying to identify is only itself the first step in a greater journey. There will be results./affects to the trip that will enable and call you to more. Jesus certainly had more to do when he returned from Egypt. What Mary learned from Elizabeth helped to prepare her and guide her all her life. In the story of the astrologers we aren't told of any results in their lives but their journey changed many others, setting in motion other journeys. The shepherds returned as different people, enabled and changed in their proclamation of God's love.

The message, the truth, the WORD is there for us: God's CALL is all around us, there for us to see and hear. Those that should be most aware of it often (usually) miss it or try to mold it to suite their own agendas. We have full power to answer it or ignore it. We are given our minds and experience to help us in our choice. To follow is dangerous and unusual. Power and Wealth is against us. We will be changed and risk much in the journey. It is open ended and the only promise is that God will be with us.

This is not kids' stuff. We can easily understand how the manger scene and Santa are more popular than what the gospel writers had to tell us. The truths of the birth narratives are so much more difficult than belief even of the birth from a virgin. It's better public relations wise to cover up a difficult truth with a belief in the impossible.

But through it all God still come to us. Vulnerable, loving, accepting, humble and open, just like a little babe born of poor and outcast parents of an oppressed people in a conquered land.

Step 9: The Church's Lack of Leadership at Christmas

Step 7: The Christmas Story in Luke

The gospel we call Luke is clearly for the underdog, the poor. The message for the reader is that the birth (understand life, words, ministry, purpose, etc.) of Jesus of Nazareth is predicted and recognized by the PROPHETIC in the person of John the Baptist. Now John was certainly a real person in history, a prophet who, as usual, was outside the mainstream religion and certainly not well thought of in official circles. We are fairly certain that he was killed by the rulers of his day. Prophets are rarely popular with those in authority. John was a proverbial shit-disturber and his recognition and validation of Jesus would warn the reader that the things John got in trouble for would be multiplied in Jesus. The song that Mary sang is clearly revolutionary in every way and can be overlooked or misinterpreted only by those who are blinded by wealth and power. Throughout the Lucan narratives this theme holds true. The background of John the Baptist is outside of the mainstream and unexpected. As is the birth of Jesus.

An outcast? In a manger? No room for them? Recognized only by the most maligned and "unclean" people in that culture, shepherds? Who do God's angels talk to? The educated? The religious of the day? The rulers? NO WAY! They are all completely unaware and uncaring.
This is scary stuff. It would have been revolutionary to read two thousand years ago and it had better be now also or else we are clearly either missing the whole point or are part of the majority that are just blind to what is going on in God's world. I know it scares (and enlives) me for I am among the wealthy of the world, am well educated and am part of the establishment. Do I really understand God's call to us in Christ? I can only try to listen from my own hillside and try to hear what is sung to me and to follow as I am guided.

Is this WORD what we hear in churches at Christmas? Where is the danger, the calling, the warnings, the hope and joy of the change that can be ours and the world? Enough of the cuddly manger scene! It makes me sick! What was meant to warn and guide us in life and death has been relegated to a cute children's story. What a sin! What a waste!

Step 8: Faithfulness is a Journey

Step 6: More on the Christmas Story in Matthew

As stated earlier, the purpose of the birth narrative in Matthew is not to teach us history but to remind us of truths we really all ready know. Things that we should hold in mind as we read the body of the gospel. The lens through which we'd better be seeing if we're going to have a chance to understand the fullness of the GOOD NEWS imparted.

The condensed story is this: when King Herod was on the throne three astrologers some to court in order to give homage to the newly born heir to the throne. Of course the whole court is traumatized because there is no such person. Because of an obscure passage that looks forward to a future king being born in Bethlehem, the three inquirers are sent there with the understanding that they are to report back. The short (five miles) journey is made and the baby is located in a house (not a manger as in Luke). The three men do as their custom requires and they leave for their home after being warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem to Herod. When Herod figures out what happened he has all the young boys in Bethlehem killed but Joseph and Mary had already left town and were on their way to Egypt.

What would have the original readers of this story understood? Firstly, as Gentiles (non-Jews) they would feel invited and included by the story because in it the first to seek Jesus were also Gentiles. To recognize and follow Jesus you certainly wouldn't have to be a Jew. This was a universal affair. Secondly, they would recognized the reality that the Word of God in any form is never appreciated and usually is in opposition to those in power. Power and wealth is always threatened by LOVE. Wealth always does what it can to destroy LOVE. If LOVE is going to survive it must be smart and mobile and recognize the peril and preciousness of its position.
There are other themes and lessons from Matthew but these are the greater. I have rarely heard them proclaimed in challenging ways in this season. Yet how many "wise men" have we all seen? Cute little kids in robes and crowns. Photo opportunities. Lost chances to learn and grow. The clergy know this stuff but are too lazy or scared to share the meaty stuff. So we get the fluff year after year.

Step 7: The Christmas Story in Luke

Step 5: The Virgin Birth

Most non-Christians assume that all Christians believe in the doctrine of the virgin birth. Although that is not true during the Christmas Season we certainly run up against this belief at every turn. It is certainly assumed in our carols and pageantry. Few Christian habits/traditions are as destructive and misinformed as is this one. The story of Mary being a virgin is a great story and has truths to tell us but it is not history. That many believe it to be fact is a tragic exposure of ignorance, spiritual laziness and the power of the first aforementioned sin.

Belief in the virgin birth was clearly not important to all early Christians because it is not mentioned in the earliest Gospel, Mark, or in the latest Gospel, John. Indeed, that only two of the Gospels, the ones that have birth naratives at all, mention it is some context should inform us that the idea was a tool used by those early evangelists and not a main part of the message itself. And it is only used in the birth narative sections of these two gospels. There is absolutely nothing within the body of any of the gospels that imply anything out of the ordinary regarding the family of Joseph and Mary. The story is told in Matthew but only after the author goes to great lengths to impress upon the readers that Jesus of Nazareth is part of and indeed the product of all the good and holy men that had come before him within the Jewish people. He is a descendant through Joseph. The writer of this gospel is very concerned to prove that Jesus was predicted by Jewish scriptures and bends over backward in his proof-reading and searching for anything that could possibly be construed or contorted to be used to that affect. It is clear that much of what he writes is to support these scriptures. It is ironic that the quote he uses as proof is in error. He is quoting from he modern Greek translation of his day. The problem lies in the fact that in the original Hebrew, the word used is that Matthew reads as "virgin" really is "young woman'. No virginity is implied. Every translator today know this. But the tradition is followed. It seems as if we don't have enough nerve to correct the translation glitch.

There was another reason for the virgin birth to be included in birth narratives. We must remember that the gospels as we have them were written to Gentiles in a Greek-thinking culture by other Gentiles. This was done some thirty to seventy years after Jesus, after his followers began to understand that Jesus was not going to come back and lead them to glory. With this change in understanding they became aware of the need to write things down in ways that would help future people to understand, believe and follow. Although they were not Jewish (the Jewish followers of Jesus being mainly killed by the Romans in the rebellion in the 60's) they used the Jewish forms of literature. Two gospels, those we call Matthew and Luke adopted the Jewish custom of introducing the main part of their writing with stories that set the stage, that told the big truths that were bigger than time and history. The best example of this in Jewish scriptures is the first ten chapters of Genesis that sets the stage for and lays out the truths in a rememberable and challenging, but yet unhistorical way for the rest of the Torah.
So how to tell present and future Greek thinking people about Jesus of Nazareth? Fact: the TRUTH and WORD of the God of Israel was and is found in Jesus of Nazareth, now for them CHRIST. What forms of speech and imagery would best be used to convey this truth? To the Jew, The SON OF GOD meant someone who was especially close to God, but had certainly no divine connotation. To those with a Greek cultural background it meant much more. In Greek mythology Hercules was the offspring of Zuse and Princess Lia (or her stand-in). In their mythology gods were very sexual and randy beings. So the Virgin Birth helped to explain the reality of what people experienced in Jesus to be understood withing the Greek culture for whom the gospels were directed.

There was also within Greek culture (as opposed to the Jewish) an understanding that anything good and of God was not earthy and of course, sex was very unholy. How could one through whom God comes to us be sexual or even be born because of sex? Again this concern was solved by the story of the virgin birth. It is tragically ironic that this simple story that was told to clear things and help in understanding now is such an obstacle. It us used by the so-called fundamentalists proof of belief. If one does not believe in the virgin birth they are definitely not Christians and are therefore going to fry! How stupid, un-Christ like and how very unlike the early church. Saint Paul didn't know anything about it so if it doesn't make sense to us, don't worry about it.

I long to hear a good sermon preached on the virgin birth, on how it answered questions in that time, questions that we still have today. Questions about how God comes to us and leads us through this Jesus of Nazareth, questions of life and birth and death. But the questions and answeres must be in language and imagery that are our own, not that of a foreign culture two thousand years ago. Use the imagery but remake it to be your own. When you sing "Silent Night" don't take it literally but allow it to take your mind and soul on a search of mysteries, of God, earth and you, to awaken yourself to the possibility of God becoming real within you again, like a baby, ready to be raised again in new life.

Step 6: More on the Christmas Story in Matthew

Jesus, the Messiah? No Way?

We are now well into the Christmas Season. I’ll try not to bore you and depress myself with the usual and well shared observations of how our habits and displayed values at this time are so opposite to what we know is faithful to the meaning of the spirit to which we give lip service. What I will do is highlight some deathly errors in understanding that have been perpetuated for many centuries. They are deadly in that they lull their believers into laziness and stupidity, keeping them/us from growth and life.

Last Sunday, the first of Advent, there was the predictable Jewish scripture readings that looked forward to a Messiah. In the Christian tradition these have been taken as proof that indeed Jesus of Nazareth was that foreseen person. We continue to unquestioningly follow that assumption with dozens of songs and sermons that refer to him as messiah or king. Nothing could be more contrary to the message, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

First of all, some definitions and education. The word MESSIAH is used to describe the king of Israel in the same way that CZAR was the king of Russia or PHARAOH was the king of Egypt. It did not have any divine connotation other than the hope that the messiah would be a person who ruled as God willed, that is, with justice and love. The Jews were very realistic about their rulers. Even the best example of their considerable run of messiahs (King David) was not remembered as being perfect in any way. Indeed, no other people of ancient times was more earthy and realistic about past rulers.

At the the time of Jesus the Jews had been ruled by oppressors for many generations and longed for a messiah to claim the throne and lead them in faithful revolt against Rome and all she stood for. The first task of the claimant to the title and throne would be to kill the present rulers, Roman and those Jews who had been co-opted by their "Pax Roma" and wealth. All who read or have even a passing knowledge of what Jesus did and said well know that Jesus not only didn’t fit the job description, he wasn’t even interested in the job. Even more than that he thought the job unfaithful and against the will of God.

Within the writings we call the New Testament there are at least three times the people tried to make Jesus the Messiah (King). He rebuked them each time. He refused to become ruler. When he asked Peter who the people said he was Peter answered that many, Peter included, wanted him to be the Messiah. Jesus harshly cut Peter off with the famous "Get you behind me, Satan"! But they simply wouldn't take him at his word, assuming that of course he wanted to be the messiah. Who wouldn't? Can't God use all the earthly power and influence available? Finally, in agony, resignation and sadness, as a last resort to make them understand, he allowed them to have their way. What we observe on PALM SUNDAY is Jesus entering Jerusalem as Messiah, his followers literally taking control of Jerusalem, offering Jesus the throne and assuming that they would be reigning with him in God's new kingdom, the kingdom of Israel. What did he do? He deserted the city, allowing the Romans to come out of their fortress Antonia where they had holed up and to again take control in the name of Caesar.
Only by showing them in this most radical and costly way could they be made to truly understand that Gods WAY was not the way of violence and enforced piety.

And at last his followers understood. For about two hundred years the early church was able to follow THE WAY of peace and radical love. They in fact the followers of the risen Christ were first known to others as THE PEOPLE OF THE WAY, living lives of a radical and new kind of love in the example of what was shown them in Jesus of Nazareth. They knew as did Paul of Tarsus whose writings in our "New Testament" are the earliest we have and who tells us that "all are called to grow, even to the stature of Christ." Jesus was not a messiah to them to be merely believed in but the true example of what there were called to become. His WAY, the WAY proven to be that of God was the only way worthy of their lives. But gradually the need to be accepted and popular overcame the movement and faithfulness gave way to faith. Jesus became more of a king and less of a suffering servant. The person of Jesus became more important than the WAY he showed us in word and life. But we can’t be too hard on the Christians back then. Have we done anything differently?

We so dearly want Jesus to be KING. We long for, desire a king – it’s instinctive. A good king will solve all our problems, fix all the wrongs, will do everything for us. All we’ll have to do is cheer as he comes by, pay the taxes he levies and give up much of our freedom. Small prices to enable us to believe in a king who is divine and all seeing, He’ll know we are cheering in our belief, take note of us, kiss us and make "it" better.

Although we humans claim to want independence we are really quite lazy in most things. We’d really rather not get involved with much of the reality of this world. Live is so much easier when we can believe that LOVE has nothing to do with JUSTICE, that what we do and want affects only those in immediate contact and the problems of the world and reality of poverty is the responsibility of a higher level of authority or "people" in common, not our affair as a person. Let’s trust in democracy, we tell ourselves, vote the right person in and then we can forget about it. Let’s make Jesus King and then all we have to do is believe and not follow.
But if we value at all the person of Jesus, somewhere we must recall him telling others that as children of God they were to DO. His whole message was that ALL are children of God, that nothing is more important than doing/living a life of LOVE in God’s Spirit. Everything he did and said led and called others to assume responsibility for their journey and to take the courage and direction to get on with that wonderful and risky life. Jesus did nothing for us but to show us the way. He was not a magical king who did it for us. What he did was show us the way, get killed because the WAY of God is usually threatening to those in power. If the experience of his followers had ended with the cross (the usual form of Roman execution) we wouldn’t be writing/reading this for the WAY of Jesus would have obviously NOT have been the WAY of God. The experiences of the resurrection validated what Jesus did and said, exposing as a lie the assumption that power/wealth/death rules and dictates how we should live. Only after that experience did the followers of Jesus know that his WAY was truly God’s WAY.

But Jesus as Messiah? NO WAY! As our king to bow down to and worship? Nothing would be more abhorrent to Jesus of Nazareth. He told them and tells that we still have to do it ourselves. It is up to us, entirely. We now know beyond a doubt what and where the real power lies but we still must claim it and do it. Jesus has saved us by opening our eyes, not by taking any responsibility for us. He has not taken any sins away. He couldn’t care less about any past sins. What he cared about then was that people wouldn’t waste their lives by not growing in love. It’s tragic that we haven’t learned but are still sinning.

Talk about SIN! The most deadly sin is to chose to stay small in love, to make a king of Jesus so we don’t have to think, feel, love and grow. Yes, we’re all sinners, but not how we’re used to thinking of it. Every time we hear about "King Jesus" or the "Messiah is Born", and are comfortable about it, shudder a little and understand your and my sin. None of us want to take responsibility for our spiritual selves.

Don't expect churches to start to deleting or changing their hymns/carols and speech. To become communities of PEOPLE OF THE WAY would necessitate many giving up power, presitge and false assumptions that have been the foundations of faith for generations. It isn't likly to happen. The death of the old and rebirth of the new is much more feasible. But we can always hope for the unexpected.

In the meantime, "the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay." Let’s just let King Jesus do it! Back to our Christmas shopping.

Step 5: The Virgin Birth

Step Three: December 3, 2007

We braved the snow and attended worship with about twenty-five others at the little church we are currently attending (singing in). I wouldn’t have missed it in spit of my love/hate relationship with "the church". If I have the honour of you following along in my mutterings I’d better spent a few lines on the "love" part of that relationship since most of the time I’m finding faults with and "doomifying" the church.

No matter the denomination, Catholic, Baptist, United, etc., I love the people and the clergy. As they understand it they are sincere and are trying to be good. They are coming together in a way that is meaningful to them and in which their experience has shown can bring them closer to God. Together and alone they are there to hear what God has to say to them. In church they hear and talk about things that are much greater than themselves. They are presented with ideals and absolutes that they know can not be achieved but only, perhaps, be approached. But the best of things, like LOVE, FAITH, HOPE and JOY are put out there to be looked at and searched for.

Where else in our society does that happen? Who else has the nerve, audacity or good sense to strive for these great things? What other other beacon do we have? When I share in worship I am greatly strengthened by the others around me because the fact is that things happen in groups that simply can not happen when alone. Even when I am deeply aware of being different in some understandings, in background, colour or age, just the fact that others share the space and the assumption/knowledge that we are all God’s children and that God IS and with us. What more unifying force could there be? How could that not bring strength to me? Even the fact of my discomfort with so much that is or is not happening within churches enhances my need for community worship. The very act brings into focus the truth that God is bigger than each and all of us; that God is very well indeed if Her Spirit can be heard is so many ways.
And I need the reminder (time and time again) that mine is not the only WORD and way. Every person around me has their own journey and calling. Mine is only one and no more important to me than are others to themselves. It is only in the coming together that these differences and similarities can be shared, questioned and understood. A church should be where all that can happen. Sometimes it does. That it often doesn’t is not a reason to condemn but to critique and to try harder.

Churches remind us that we are not traveling in a vacuum but come from a past and with others. The traditions and stories of the past need to be part of us before they can be understood and the lessons relearned in our time. Who/What but the churches try to pass this on?

I may be saddened by what does or does not happen in church, I may be called to question the limitations of the system and the narrowness of the prophetic call and understanding; I may believe that perhaps the only way forward is death and then resurrection. But I am as much a part of the Christian Church as any. If I didn’t love, value and respect it, If I didn’t desire deeply its rebirth in faithfulness I would abandon it – give it up for nothing or try to foster an alternative.

Step Four: December 4, 2007

Step Two: A Problem Protestant Clergy

The vows of ordination in all Christian traditions are similar in that there are promises to preach the word of God and to do it faithfully within a congregation. The problem is that both of these can’t be done – for long. Not in this materialistic society.

The old Jewish system that fostered ours had two recognized "holy" functionaries, the priests and the prophets. The former did the cultic and "people things, leading and directing at religious functions, burying, marrying, etc. and keeping the system running. The prophets set the people, rulers, rich folks and the system straight, reminding them of why they were there and reminding them all that God was indeed their parent; if they were God’s children they’d better start acting like it or they just might be treated like naughty children.

Two needed functions. Two opposites. In our ignorance we’ve put them together. They don’t mix well, not at all, really. The result is that the system and God’s WORD suffer.

How can a pastor challenge and call to task those who pay his/her salary? How can you criticize a way of life or situation when you yourself are required to be an integral part of it? Is it any surprise that God’s WORD is so seldom preached from pulpits in the wealthy world? It is true that no one can serve both God and mammon. Ministers are expected to be examples of the congregation’s self image, similar (or better) in dress, manners, housing and behaviour.

An immediate and visible result of this tension is the fact that very rarely is the call of faithfulness (a way of life that is based upon God’s will) heard from preachers. Faithfulness has been replaced by mere FAITH, belief that God is or that Jesus is. This change of emphasis and accepted since there seems to be so much more about faith in scriptures then faithfulness. But the truth is that over three fourths of the times when the print says FAITH, in the Greek, the original language of our gentile scriptures, FAITHFULNESS is clearly implied. Even though we now know better, we continue to follow the lead of the early reformers in the 1500’s who were big on the FAITH issue. Their reasons were real in their time for translating the Greek word as FAITH To be accurate and true to God’s WORD to us we need to correct this deadly error. Until then, faith replaces faithfulness clergy are caught and limited and few people grow in understanding for fewer are challenged by what they hear.

This making the clergy responsible for every aspect of Christianity, of service to people and the proclamation of God’s WORD is a hindrance to both and all. As a profession clergy have a higher rate of mental illness and family breakdown than any other group. Ordination is clearly not helpful in the long run. If the protestant clergy/church system is compared to other examples within Christianity we find that it is not successful either. It seems that mainly clergy are put on pedestals and then stoned if necessary.

Since they are the designated as spiritually zapped SUPER CHRISTIANS a congregation’s success is of course measured by the number of its staff. Pity the poor congregations that have to share a minister! What a day it is to celebrate when a growing congregation can afford two or more professionals! And what a sign of failure then, even after all that time at fund raising and budgeting you have to reduce the clergy staff!

They are the doers. The members of the congregation are the believers. The clergy are expected to live vicariously in faithfulness (as the parishioners interpret it) and those that sit in the pews have faith, do little but pay the bills. Lip service is given to the concept of the PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS but even that concept is doomed because it is not translated as the PRIESTHOOD OF THE FAITHFUL as is should be.

We are so tied to the clergy system! In my last church I tried in vain to be hired as half time, with the other half of my salary going to training members of the congregation. Just imagine, I implored the board, what difference it would make of teams of people could be trained and empowered in special areas and really DO in those areas! You won’t be able to stop the congregation! I would be the leader of the worship, visitation and outreach and be resource to all.

Of course they wouldn’t go for it. They were mainly afraid that others would think them a failure for not having a full time minister.

I should have resigned at that point. But no, I was too blind, cowardly and used to the clergy system myself to take a chance.

So many congregations are caught in this downward spiral that is in a large part caused by the very system that has made them. Their leaders simply can not be faithful to themselves or God unless they alienate those who keep the church together. The WORD of God is not proclaimed. Most of the energy of the members goes to pay the salaries of those who can’t do fulfill their calling so little effort goes to the real work of God in the world. So few outside of the church see anything within it to be curious about. Far fewer new people join than die or move away. Eventually the congregation joins another to form a larger dying congregation.

WHAT TO DO

It’s time to rely on RESURRECTION. The fact that the system is largely hindering rather than helping God’s WORD can be an exciting understanding. The acceptance of that as fact opens us to the realization that it is merely us that is the problem and not God. The age-old message that God is indeed with us in all our times can then be taken at face value and instill within us the courage and vulnerability that will enable us to face the changes that SPIRIT will bring. Be we the jailers/household or the slave woman (in the Paul & Silas story from Acts), our worlds will be turned upside down in our liberation.

Any church system that can not accept the fact that God’s WORD needs to be heard more clearly not only is doomed, it in fact should die now. The present role of clergy is too entrenched to be changed. But the figure of the biblical prophet can be recognized and given room. The church system need not fund it. In fact that would be contrary to the very validity and call of the prophet. But any congregation/church that indeed wants to grow into faithfulness simply must demand to hear a prophetic WORD by a non-supported source. As in the ancient Jewish faith, that message would not automatically be accepted as God’s WORD to them without debate, evaluation and prayer, but at least it would be out there. At least it would aliven those that heard it, awakening them to the fact that there was at least a possibility that there were other possibilities of faithfulness than theirs. Nothing would be risked accept complacency and spiritual stagnation.

There are plenty of religious critics. Are they prophets? They are only prophets to Christians if the Christians are looking for prophets, if they recognize the possibility that God can and does have something to say to them through outsiders. I hear prophetic words every day. It is just as rare for the speakers to think of themselves as prophets in the religious sense as it is for people within churches to recognize them and give them space or time. We have allowed the fundamentalists to change the definition of prophet for us, from one who proclaims God’s WORD into one who predicts the future. Mind you, there is always a future element. I am a prophet. If I am true or not is for others to say. My WORD is for today and now. But part of that is for tomorrow also. It is this : Most churches today are doomed to die. They should die now because they are not attempting to live a life of faithfulness. Christians are not being challenged to proclaim and DO as Jesus did. Churches are not feeding and being lamp, salt, food and WORD; God’s WORD is not being fleshed out. Much has to die. And it will die. If is dying.
Repent. Change. Be part of the resurrection. Be ready to be changed. Prepare for new birth. Prepare for death. Be ready to be unprepared but be confident that God will be with you in ways you have yet to dream of. Open your eyes to new things and use your God-given sense to close your eyes and minds to those things that are holding you back from becoming part of the new future.

In this season of ADVENT we await a new beginning. Look through all the garbage of the season and the watered down clich├ęs that we hear from the pulpit, the cutsy sermons and oo-so-nice manger scenes, try to hear again the call to change that comes to us year after year at this time.

More later. Since it isn’t raining, snowing or blowing right now I’d better get some Christmas lights up on the boat or Jude will kill me. I can only write (share) this stuff for a little while at a time - I get so fired up – need to get outside and so something physical.

Step Three: December 3, 2007

Step One: Interlude

Yesterday, on the invitation of a dear friend, Judy and I accompanied her to church and sang with her in the small choir. There was so much good will and love. So much acceptance. But for me there was more sadness than joy. The congregation was six funerals away from death but it was clear that they didn’t know it or at least acknowledge it. Only twenty parishioners were in the sanctuary while twelve choir members were hidden in the balcony loft (with the organist/director). How I wanted to help, to make suggestions that might improve or give them strength! For instance, if the choir and leader were seated within the congregation’s vision what an increased sense of community there would have been!

The minister was young and well spoken and the sermon predictably semi-evangelically fundamentalist. Strong on the belief side and weak on the do. The scripture mostly talked about was the story from ACTS about Paul and Silas being tossed in jail after Paul had exorcised a demon from a slave woman. The demon had given her the power to predict the future and see the present and the slave owner was naturally perturbed when his property lost its valuable gift.

It is much more safe to preach on faith than it is on faithfulness and that is what the pastor chose to do. In the scriptures used there were several examples of faithfulness and as always, all were risky. Faithfulness necessitates change, not always the kind that we can predict and request. The young minister spoke about the belief of the jailer and family that happened afterwards in the story and I understand why. It’s good news and had a happy ending (or at least, a happy start). On the other hand the poor slave woman has lost her value to her owner and we have no reason to think that anything positive came from Paul’s impulsive action as far as she or her master is concerned.

What would have been the faithful sermon, the WORD of God to this congregation? The slave, her master and the jailor (with his household) all had certainly been changed. To survive meant to evaluate, accept and adapt to a new reality for each. To survive and be faithful, the congregation would have to certainly have to do these things also.

But should the seeming mortally ill be informed (or reminded) of their condition by a brash outsider? Is it better that they continue in their limited love and understanding, unaware that they are indeed dying or hope for new life? Does TRUTH always set us free? Whose truth?
I have usually erred on the side of what I saw was the truth and have paid dearly for it. But this congregation is not mine and I doubt if any words of change I might offer would have more than a negative affect on anything. No doubt that part of the sadness I feel is self pity for I realize that I lack the nerve and strength to risk sharing my insights with them and to face being partially responsible for the agony and hurt that would inevitably occur if they indeed were to chose to change. I’ve been there before.

Yet there are thousands of congregations in this near-end state. I know in my heart that change is possible (not really change, but resurrection) and that a small portion of them would be reborn. And no-one is there to help in most situations. And not me.

Forgive me, Lord.

Step Two: A Problem Protestant Clergy

The Start

The most difficult and important step of any journey is the first one you take. So very many things make it difficult. They will vary from person to person, journey to journey but they are always there, visible or unseen, recognized or subconscious, but there, never the less. The innumerable things and events that have brought us to the point of departure – the present and past that we may be jeopardizing in the taking of that step – the sheer audacity, possible terror, hope, fear, excitement, etc, of finally choosing to not just think and dream about it but to really do it. TO GO!

And you know how important it is. So important that if you dwell on it for long you are immobilized and never move. Since that’s how it’s been so many times before maybe now you just step out with little conscious decision. But, of course, you’ve been over every conceivable aspect how often? So, which way to move? To which star will you set your compass? You know course corrections can be made later on but that takes so much more energy and time. And you don’t want to waste time.

Isn’t that why you are embarking on this journey? Because you are wasting your precious time (life) as you are?

Any written work is a journey with accompanying baggage, risks, considered destinations and the acceptance of unforeseen possibilities. The more personal the topic is to the writer the more difficult it is to begin. As I will be trying to fully share my thoughts on faith, spirituality, organized Christianity and becoming human, I must first strive for full disclosure on my baggage, etc. not only to myself but to all who might accompany me.

After twelve years of teaching and cattle ranching I sold out and enrolled in Vancouver School of Theology which was at that time, as it turned out, was probably the most forward thinking seminary on the continent. I had been raised in the church but thoroughly bored. In my 20’s, through friends, I had become involved with a more enthusiastic and fundamentalist approach to Christianity and became more spiritually alive and questioning. I entered seminary to explore only; the last thing I thought of was being clergy!

After two years study I was begged by a northern B.C. congregation to take the pulpit for six months since their minister had suddenly resigned and they needed time in which to find a permanent replacement. Finally, I accepted. I was green and very un-ministerial. They loved me into the job and I flourished. After nearly two years I left, only because there was a time factor on my completing my degree.

Because of that great experience I felt that perhaps the church had room for me after all and I accepted ordination upon graduation. Although I certainly had some wonderful times in the next twenty years and was blessed through hundreds of people, I grew increasingly frustrated by the general lack of spiritual growth of the congregations. And increasingly there was a gap between my calling and my job as minister. And I was too stupid/blind/arrogant/etc. to recognize the trouble I was getting into. I entered into a deep depression and burned out, unhelped by those around me largely because of my own denials.

It is now ten years later. I remain wounded but mostly healed. Retired but, frustratingly, still called by God to share with others. I now have nothing to hold me back – no church board to please or job to lose. Every day is filled with time to fill as I chose. So I clean the boat and keep it in repair, do the odd jobs that are required, bike some to keep my knees in shape and do some reading Now is start something new and old – communicating with others what I know and hear to be God’s WORD to me and to my world. To do it is hard. To not do it is much harder. To try is the least I can do. I tell myself that the first step is just to get the word out there and to not worry about what might be next. That’s God’s business.

I see myself in the tradition of the prophets of old, trying to communicated God’s WORD to those around them. It’s not fun, profitable or popular – just something that has to be done. And in this time and place that is so damn unloving I surely can’t hurt anything. Most prophets had a pretty short time of activity. Their WORD was addressed to certain people at a certain time. So maybe I’ll do my thing for a few months and then be done. Time will tell. As to the truth of what I say, only those who receive it can tell. If it is truth to a few then it is well worth it. Even if it finds no ears it needs to be said because it festers within me if left.

God be with us all as we try to become part of the WORD, hearing, understanding, struggling, speaking, and doing. AMEN!

On to Step One: The Interlude