My friend’s questions

It seemed appropriate to post the questions which occasioned my previous post. Here they are, in his words:

  1. Tell me about God: Is He a he? Is He in any way like a person? Is He conscious? Does He interact with humans? Does He hear and answer specific prayers? Does He have a plan? Is He all-loving? All-knowing? All-powerful? How do you know He’s real?
  2.  Tell me about the Bible: Is it the word of God? Was it written by men inspired by the God you told me about? Is it history? Is it mythology? Is it perfect? Are there errors?
  3.  Tell me about Worship and Prayer: What is it? What is it for? Does God need it in some sense? Is it a kind of meditation? Is it an art form? Why are some prayers answered and others ignored? Are 10 people praying for something better than one?
  4.  Tell me about Heaven and Hell: Is there literal life after death? Will I be aware and conscious? Will I remember anything of my life on earth? Are Heaven and Hell metaphors for what we do and experience in the here and now?

Believing: What or How?

A friend posted some questions on Facebook a few weeks ago, wanting to know what modern Christians believe. As I told him in my reply, the questions point to some of the most basic and profound theological issues. It would take a library to address them in any comprehensive way that would make sense to my very intelligent friend. At one time he would have described himself as a Christian, but now… I’m not sure what label he would accept, if anything other than “sceptic.”

Facebook is certainly not the venue to address his questions, and neither is this blog. Matters of God’s being, of how we know that being, of the nature of the Bible, of prayer, of heaven and hell — all these require more words than most people would have the patience to digest. Of course, I would end up answering the questions more in a sense of my own beliefs rather than others’. No-one can escape their own point of view, and even a sociological analysis of “what people believe” will inevitably be coloured by the analyst’s perspective.

I won’t try to answer “what?” for myself or for anyone else. You can read the various books of theology and religious studies for those answers. Suffice it to say that Christian belief today has a huge multidimensional spectrum. Even in my last parish, I could introduce you to people who held an almost fundamentalist view of scripture and theology, sitting in the same pew as others who regarded it all as one big metaphor.

What I want to address is a different question: “How do modern Christians believe?” I am indebted to Diana Butler Bass, whose book Christianity After Religion has helped me to understand some of the most important  tensions in modern Christianity, and what the future might look like. The book is an extended look at the question of what it means to be “spiritual but not religious,” a phrase often heard in contemporary  In its central section, Butler Bass re-frames the traditional central religious questions in spiritual terms. (Broadly speaking, “religion” pertains to matters of structure and institution, while “spiritual” pertains to more fluid aspects of living in relationship to the divine.

The traditional religious approach to forming new members follows this sequence: first we’ll teach you what to believe, then we’ll teach you how to behave, then we’ll let you belong. Butler Bass first re-frames the questions at each step:

  1. Believing:
    The religious question “What do I believe?” becomes the spiritual question “How do I believe?”
  2. Behaving:
    The religious question “How do I do that?” becomes the spiritual question “What do I do?”
  3. Belonging:
    The religious question “Who am I?” becomes the spiritual question “Where am I?”

But it doesn’t’ stop there. Butler Bass turns the whole process on its head, by suggesting that people do not enter at the question of belief, but at the other end, with a community that attracts people, who then learn what it is that the community does by being among the community. Intentionally doing what others doing leads us to share an understanding of what they are doing, and what lies at its roots.

Belief in this sense grows out of doing rather than the reverse. As Butler Bass, points out, the word has a German root “beliebt,” related more to loving than to knowing and understanding.

So…
To understand what Christians believe, you should look at how they believe.

  • What drives them?
  • What passions energize their lives?
  • What does that look like?
  • How they behave?
  • What’s their mission?

Re mission:
A retired bishop told a clergy conference some years ago that everyone has a mission and a mission statement. “Just look at a person’s chequebook. That will tell you what their mission in life is.”

Or as Jesus put it:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
(Matthew 6:21)

Both Fish and Fowl

After four Sundays taking services at St. George’s, Devon, I will be back to the choir at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (HTAC, for short) this weekend. I really enjoyed doing the services, but I also missed being part of the HTAC community for those weeks. The folks at Devon were kind enough to say they wished I could stay, but other arrangements have been made, and I really want to be able to worship with my wife during Advent and Christmas.

Will I take another such assignment? Very likely, if it is feasible. We shall see what the future brings.

Last Thursday I attended a diocesan clergy day, led by the Rev. Dr. Eric Law, founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute. For the most part I enjoyed the presentation, but I came away from the day feeling a bit down and anxious. That may have been partly because I was dog-tired, but there had to be something else. After a few days’ reflection, I have come to the realization that events like this used to stimulate me because I was always looking for something to take home to my parish — and I no longer have that focus. Future ministry in the Diocese may give an outlet, God willing.

While in parish ministry, I was constantly looking for ways to improve things. I am an incurable reviser, never fully satisfied with a piece of work. That’s how things get better, I do believe. Learn from your failures and shortcomings — it’s the best school going! [check this out!] I would do (e.g.) an Advent Lessons and Carols service one year, and then ask myself “how could it have gone better?” If I had received the material from Eric’s presentation two years ago, I know that it would have shown up in some way in my ministry.

So what do I do with it now? In my current situation, it’s an interesting concept, but of no immediate utility. Time was, that would not have bothered me. Much of my early educational career was taken up with studying pure mathematics, which is subject to the same assessment. But more recently… let’s just say I found the need to focus myself on my part in God’s mission, and I have tended therefore to study things which seemed to be leading somewhere practical.

The other thing that happened last week was that I didn’t go the parish conference at HTAC, also led by Eric Law. It would have been interesting, I’m sure, but I was very much of two minds about attending. When we first started there, most folks accepted me just as another body in the pews, but as I have met more people, and they have found out I am ordained, I have sensed them responding to me differently. To be sure, that may be from my wearing a clergy shirt when I came to pick up J. from HTAC. Nonetheless, it has made me conscious of being in a liminal state: neither fully one thing nor the other, but on the threshold.

Am I a person in the pew, or am I clergy? Or is it both/and?
Am I …

Neither Fish nor fowl?
Or
Both Fish and fowl?

Stay tuned.

A hallway not of my choosing

hallways are a bitch

Last Sunday I took the first of four Sunday services at a small church in a commuter suburb. It was the first time I had functioned as clergy since my last Sunday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. I wasn’t at first sure I wanted to do this, because I was really beginning to enjoy being a person in the pew. However, in order to find out if this kind of work is what I may be called to do in the future, it seemed reasonable to take the gig — it’s the only way to find out!

Well, as it happens, things went well, although I had to contend with the first real snowfall of the year. The weather meant that a substantial number of parishioners stayed home, including both pianists. So we sang a cappella, which was mostly OK, except I nixed singing the service music, because I was unfamiliar with it. At any rate… I had fun. It was good to preside and preach, once again doing the things that have dominated my life for the previous 26 years. I don’t believe I lost my edge in four months, and things were well-received by the folks.

But that got me to thinking: I left full-time ministry on a high note. I believe that my work in my last year was the strongest in my career. And then I hit the magic 6-5, and it was all over — more or less arbitrarily. The fairness of mandatory retirement has somewhat unexpectedly come back to me as a major question. There have been court cases challenging the practice in several fields of work, most of which I believe have upheld it as a reasonable limitation on freedom. In general, I tend to agree with it, but in specific, it is not so easy to live through. I wouldn’t want to work until I dropped, but in some ways I would have preferred to have the option of working longer if conditions warranted it. “Are you still able to fulfill the role?” would be a reasonable question.

There’s a sense in which I am repeating history. When I was seeking ordination, the Bishop of Edmonton at the time asked me if I would go “wherever God called me.” How could I say no to that, even when I knew that it would probably mean going to a small town. I grew up in a smaller place (Drumheller AB), and I well knew what small-town life was like — that was one of the reasons we had settled in the city! At any rate, my first charge was in a town smaller than my home town, a place that I had real trouble adapting to. My mentoring priest challenged me on this: “You knew you would have to do something like this. Why are you complaining now?” My response, not unlike my present feelings, was that it is one thing to know something in your head, and quite another to live through it.

Am I complaining now? I don’t think so. There’s much about my present existence that I like, and there’s much about my prior life that I don’t miss. (Please don’t ever ask me to manage a heritage building!) But I really found last Sunday that I felt good about what I was doing — leading worship is for me fundamentally life-giving and life-affirming, and I had been missing it. So I am left wondering if we couldn’t somehow manage this business a bit better, not just in the Church, but in society as a whole.

I’m still in the hallway, but I know that there are doors opening ahead. And that’s good.