Together on the Journey

A Weekly Blog from Fr. Andrew Sheldon

June 7, 2024: The Sabbath

The Lord’s Day Act of 1902 was sweeping in its ordinances to ensure that Sunday be a true ‘day of rest’. Among other things, it was illegal to push children on a swing, to toboggan, or to watch ladies undress; I’m assuming this last restriction did not apply in a person’s home so much as in certain establishments. Officials also thought it important to add that you could not transport a dead horse on Yonge St on a Sunday. The department store Eaton’s even drew a curtain across its windows to discourage shopping of the window sort. This Act was repealed in 1992, and now Sunday is just another day. As it should be.

And what do you mean by ‘as it should be’, you may ask. All these efforts were seen to be in service of a Christian agenda in, what was considered to be the case at that time, a Christian country. The irony is that there is no such thing as a Christian Sabbath, at least, not a Christian sabbath burdened with myriad restrictions. This idea, borrowed from the Jewish sabbath, was not a feature for most of the Church’s history and only became a thing in the austere backdrop of Victorian Britain. For us, Sunday – the day of the Resurrection – is a day of celebration and delight, a feast day not a fast day. And nowhere in Christian scripture and early Christian texts is it offered as a day of graveness and restraint. Indeed, Jesus repeatedly ‘worked’ on the sabbath and was censured for doing so. His response was to remind his detractors that ‘the sabbath was made for humans, and not humans made for the sabbath’.

Nonetheless, I would suggest that although sabbath is not a commandment we are bound to, it is a promise we are invited to enjoy. That although we are not compelled to a strict observance of the sabbath; we should be compelled by the idea of a sabbath. And that is the idea of a day of rest, or at least a time of rest. A purposeful pause in the midst of our busy lives to relax our bodies, clear our minds, and reflect on God’s grace as expressed in creation, relationships, or solitude. Indeed, it is a time to push a child on a swing, to toboggan, to shed some clothes and bask in the sun, to shop for pleasure, to sit alone in silent contemplation on a beach, or in the woods, or in our homes. I am reminded of the words from that old hymn: ‘Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease; take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.”

This is true sabbath, and well worth observing.

Which brings me to summer. This is uniquely a time for sabbath. A time for us as a parish to know rest and refreshment. At St George’s on the Hill, many people have worked very hard these past ten months in providing governance, programming, liturgies, pastoral care, outreach, service, and hospitality. Now is a time for a parish-wide rest, a parish-wide sabbath. If you are around, please do join us on Sunday. But otherwise, it is my hope that, when it comes to church, this summer will be a chance for you to find some rest and refreshment.

Andrew +

May 24, 2024: The Way, the Truth and the Life?

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday and I’ll have plenty to say about the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in my sermon. But one way we reference the Trinity is through what is called the Trinitarian Formula. This formula is quite simply the words: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We baptise using this formula, we bless using this formula, we marry and bury using this formula. Last week, we looked at the Holy Spirit, and this week I want to focus on the relationship of Father and Son. To do this I want to reference another of ‘the one question I would ask God’.

Is it true that there is only one path to follow to God, and that it is through Christ?

There is a passage found in the gospel of John which is often interpreted as a resounding ‘yes’ to this question. In it, Jesus says, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ On the surface, Jesus could be seen to be saying that there is only one way to God and that way is through Jesus. As such, and many Christians have argued this, there is one God and the way to that God is through Jesus, and therefore Christianity is the one true religion and all other gods and religions are, by this definition, false. This Christian triumphalism has done more harm than good and has done much to undermine inter-faith dialogue.

My own conviction is that the God who is at the heart of all things is a God who can be accessed many ways through many paths. Indeed, this is rooted in our creation story; when God looked at all God created, God saw that it was good. All of it, good. God created humanity in all of its diversity, and from the beginning humans have embraced diverse ways of realising the same thing – communion with God. And so, to the extent that other faiths facilitate and promote engagement with God, then those faiths too are paths to follow.

But what then are we to make of the quote from John’s gospel?

I would argue that it is important to focus on the language used to describe God. Jesus actually does not say ‘no one comes to God except through me’. The text says, ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’. The notion of God as a heavenly parent is an innovation on the notion of God only to be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so, the text is not saying that Jesus is the only way to God. What the text is saying is that Jesus is the only way to the Father. The text is saying Jesus is the only way to God for followers of Jesus. Or, the only way to God for the Christian is through Christ. It is in Jesus, in Jesus’ words and actions, that we most profoundly encounter the Christian God. The God that Jesus points to is the path for Christians, and all who call themselves Christians must walk that path to truly encounter the one Jesus called Father. And all the while knowing that there are other ways, and other truths, and other lifes that follow other paths to the God who is at the heart of all things.

May 17, 2024: The Holy Spirit

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.” This, of course, was the plight of Sally and her brother in the classic book by Dr Seuss, The Cat in the Hat.

“And then something went bump! How that bump made us jump!” And in waltzed the Cat in the Hat with Thing One and Thing Two, with their games and their tricks, and chaos ensued.

Now, we have no idea what the weather was like that other day – that is, the Day of Pentecost in ancient Israel – but we do know there was a bunch of people sitting in a house. Like Sally and her brother, they too had been left behind. Ten days before, Jesus had left them and, for all we know, they had spent that entire time huddled in that room wondering what to do next. And then there was a knock on the door, and – whoosh – in waltzed the Cat in the Hat. Well, actually, it was the Holy Spirit, but the resulting chaos was pretty much the same. Thing One and Thing Two were out of the bag.

And this is something I have a hunch that we have lost. The wildly unpredictable, somewhat chaotic, entirely subversive nature of the Holy Spirit. We have tamed the Spirit. So much so that the symbol of the Spirit is a dove, gently cooing.

In the Celtic tradition, the Holy Spirit too is represented as a bird, but not the peaceful and serene dove. For their symbol of the Holy Spirit, the Celtic people chose the wild goose. Why did the wild goose speak to those ancient Celtic Christians?

To begin with, wild geese aren’t controllable. You can’t restrain a wild goose and bend it to your will. They’re raucous and loud. Unlike the sweet and calming coo of a dove, a goose’s honk is strong, challenging, strident and unnerving, and just a bit scary. In much the same way, the Spirit of God can be compelling, demanding and unsettling.

On that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit took discouraged people closeted in an upper room and it sent them rolling down the stairs and out the doors to instigate a benevolent mob scene. With great joy and with wind and fire and Spirit, it made them look like a bunch of happy drunks in the midst of a numbingly sober and sour world.

What happened to that kind of witness? Can you imagine anyone stumbling into St George’s and mistaking us for drunks? Hung-over, maybe, but drunk? Now, I do know many of you well enough to know that your Christian walk does bring you great joy, and I love our lively celebrations on Sunday morning. I wonder, however, what it would look like to push that envelope a bit more. To welcome a bit of chaos.

I sometimes think the church can be like the fish in The Cat in the Hat, the fish that said: “No! No! Make that cat go away. Tell the cat in the hat that you do not want to play.”

But play is what the Spirit invites us to do; to get out of our comfort zones, to learn new behaviours. And it starts with words. When the Spirit showed up, those early Christians spoke up.

As Augustine knew long ago, to be silent is to betray the Spirit. There is no getting around the fact that when the Spirit shows up, people get to talking. The Spirit compels us to speech. St Paul wrote to the Romans: “If you believe in your heart and confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord than you will be saved.” Pentecost seems to put to rest the decidedly Anglican notion that we can be a quiet witness.

Now, I know words alone will not do. Indeed, the history of the Church has been about a surfeit of words. And I’m reminded of the words of St. Francis who reminds us to share God’s love at all times, using words if we must. But I wouldn’t want dear Francis to let us off the hook. Whether we like it or not – and I suspect we don’t – it is words that grow a church. The only tried and true way of getting people into this place is words. Your words, sharing your experience and inviting others in, and, once in, our words of welcome, warmth and good news.

But Pentecost also compels us outdoors into the world as it is. Not the dreamy uniformity that we wish existed, but the brawling chaos that is. Faith compels us to hear the many languages being spoken out there. We can become resentful of the babble. Too many voices, too much diversity, too many people whose life experience isn’t like our own and yet they demand attention. Too much brokenness, too many patterns of abuse shaping a new generation of abusers. Too much complication.

And yet, this demanding Spirit sends us forth, not to replicate ourselves, but to speak in those languages other than our own.

Pentecost has become a festival of looking inside. It is fun to wear red to church, and celebrate the Church’s “birthday”. But we need to remember that the point of Pentecost was to send the disciples outdoors, into a world deeply divided, where fragmented communications had to be overcome.

And then, the coming of the Holy Spirit in power will not just be an event we commemorate but an experience we realize. The Spirit will show up day after day, will show up when we gather on Sunday where, indeed, the Spirit has been all along. I wonder, will we show up to the Spirit? Are we prepared to receive power? Can we take risks? The extent to which we experience the Holy Spirit, are empowered to speak, to roll out our church doors and into our world is the extent to which we show up to the Spirit.

So, like the Cat in the Hat, when the Holy Spirit shows up, let her in. And don’t worry about the mess.

May 10, 2024: Who or What Are You, God?

As you know, over time I have asked people to share with me ‘the one question I would ask God’.

And this week’s question certainly gets to the heart of the matter!

Are you there? Who or what are you?

Our texts and tradition are rich in answers to this question. God is that which was there at the very beginning and who created all else out of nothing. God is the one God who in a world alive with gods is the God who is all of God in every place. For Christians, God is quite simply the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thinkers through the ages have posited God as the prime mover, the cause of all effects, all that is good, the ground of our being, love.

I am reminded of the time Jesus asked his disciple who they thought he was. Although the text could be interpreted as Jesus looking for the right answer, it could also be interpreted as Jesus asking the right question that knows many answers. Who do you say God is? And whatever your answer, who am I to dispute it?!

But it also seems to me that the question ‘who or what are you’ is predicated by a belief that somehow a right answer can be arrived at and that evidence can be offered to buttress the answer. This question could be asked by people who believe they have the answer and are looking for corroboration. It could also be asked by people who doubt the existence of a God and are anxious to refute any answer offered. In both cases, people believe that God is a concept that can be proven or disproven through logic and reason. And I find this way of thinking problematic.

I am reminded of the story of Thomas who was missing on the day of resurrection and doubted the disciples’ account that Jesus was alive. The next week, Jesus showed up and Thomas got the proof he was looking for. But Jesus said something interesting; he said to Thomas that he believed because he had seen Jesus ‘but more blessed are those who believe without seeing’. For some, seeing is believing; for others, not seeing is not believing. But perhaps for us, believing is seeing. Perhaps, belief in God is not a matter of evidence that demands a verdict as much as it is a matter of faith that nurtures a conviction. After all, our Creed says, ‘I believe in God’, not ‘I believe the following things about God’.

And so, perhaps the answer to the question of who or what is God is simply: I’m not sure. Furthermore, I can’t prove what it is I affirm. But I have chosen to believe that there is something at play in the universe that is bigger than the sum of its parts, that is inherently good and loving, that is revealed to us uniquely in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and which makes a claim on my life as to how I will live it. This I believe; and in my better moments, this I see.

Andrew +

April 19, 2024: What Happened to Jesus When He Was Dead?

In the season of Easter, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and I have spoken and written much about that. In Holy Week, we worked through the events leading up to his crucifixion, and on Good Friday we remembered and rehearsed the events of that day. But what about that in-between time, the time between the crucifixion and the resurrection? And, indeed, someone did recently ask me the question:

What happened to Jesus when he was dead?

There is a tradition rooted in the letter attributed to St Peter that during the time Jesus was apparently dead he was actually quite busy. This sentiment is captured in the Apostles’ Creed in the words ‘he descended to the dead’. The notion is that Jesus’ descent was not ‘into death’ but ‘to the dead’. That is, that after his death, Jesus visited the dead and proclaimed the good news to those ‘who were imprisoned’. Indeed, an earlier version of the Creed had Jesus descending to hell; purportedly to preach to those who ‘were disobedient to God long ago’.

For me, the problem with this tradition is that it seems to suggest that Jesus didn’t really die; at least, not in the way humans generally die. The effect of this, I believe, is to dilute the significance of the resurrection. At Easter, we affirm that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead but that he was raised from the dead. To name it this way is to affirm that Jesus was dead, powerless, and incompetent to effect his own resurrection. God raised Jesus from the dead because Jesus was in no position to raise himself. The picture of a Jesus bouncing about preaching to the dead belies this important Easter message.

I realise that this is a short blog post but it seems to me that the plainest answer to the question of what happened to Jesus when he was dead is: Nothing, he was dead.

April 12, 2024: The Book of Acts - a Story of Mission

What do four hobbits, a dwarf, an elf, two men and a wizard have in common? Not much. Unless they are part of a fellowship. Unless they have a profound reason to be together as one. Unless they are united in a purpose that transcends their differences. Unless they have a mission.

This, of course, references J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and especially the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. These characters come together around the hobbit Frodo Baggins and his need to get the ring to Mordor in order to destroy the power of Sauron who threatens to plunge all of Middle Earth into a dark age. The task of these nine individuals is to enable this to happen. The people who make up the “fellowship of the ring” are not natural allies. They have little in common, and they join the fellowship with different personal priorities. But they are held together by the overriding need to save their countries from the menace of evil. They must learn to trust each other, to rely on each other’s skills and judgement, and allow for each other’s particular weaknesses.

What do six fishermen, a tax collector, a freedom fighter, a twin, a banker and a couple of nobodies have in common? Not much. Unless they are part of a fellowship. Unless they have a profound reason to be together as one. Unless they are united in a purpose that transcends their differences. Unless they have a mission.

These twelve had come together around Jesus. Jesus had a mission. It was God’s mission for the world to bring the world into closer communion with their creator God. Jesus has a message, that God so loves the world that God gives, gives Jesus, so that all may have life, abundant life and eternal life. And for this purpose, Jesus dies; and for this purpose, is raised to new life; and for this purpose, leaves this band behind with the same message and the same mission. The book of Acts, from which we hear throughout the Easter season, is the story of how these spirit-filled people took seriously the mission and began to proclaim the gospel in word and deed to great effect. The people who make up the fellowship of the early church are not natural allies. They have little in common, and they join the fellowship with different personal priorities. But they are held together by the overriding need to proclaim the message of their risen Lord. They must learn to trust each other, to rely on each other’s skills and judgement, and allow for each other’s particular weaknesses.

So, what do a number of retirees, a smattering of financial advisors, some professors and teachers, an architect, bureaucrats, and any other number of occupations have in common? Not much. Unless they are part of a fellowship. Unless they have a profound reason to be together as one. Unless they are united in a purpose that transcends their differences. Unless they have a mission.

The people who make up the fellowship of St George’s on-the-Hill are not natural allies. We have little in common, and we join the fellowship with different personal priorities. But we are held together by the overriding need to proclaim the message of our risen Lord. We must learn to trust each other, to rely on each other’s skills and judgement, and allow for each other’s particular weaknesses. We need to be one. We need to be in fellowship. Because we have a mission.

And the key here, I believe, is the sense of mission. This sense of mission corrects the rather debased Christian usage of “fellowship”, which is often used to mean little more than being temporarily nice to each other. The great symbol of fellowship being coffee time after church. As if that is the reason we exist.

No, we are united by our mission. Our fellowship is for mission. Fellowship without mission is idolatry. We are serving the wrong thing. As we have been reminded many times in the sentiment expressed by Archbishop William Temple, the church is the one institution that exists primarily for those who are not members. The church exists for its mission. This fellowship exists for mission. And so, everything we do reflects this. Everything supports this mission.

Our worship, for instance. Worship that is rooted in a tradition, but a tradition that serves the mission. Thus, worship that is welcoming, user friendly, fresh and attractive.

And a building where our task is not to ensure that the clubhouse is in good shape for the next generation of believers but to ensure everything about it supports our proclamation of the gospel in word and deed. And programmes that are not just about the needs of the adherents but also about the needs of the community.

We are one, brothers and sisters. Because we are a fellowship. And we are a fellowship because we have a mission. And what we offer to you who may be new to this fellowship is not so much an opportunity to join as an invitation to journey.

The book of Acts is the story of that first generation of Jesus people who were faithful to the mission. Our story is to be faithful to the mission in our generation.

Andrew +

April 6, 2024: If God Is All-Powerful, Why Is There So Much Suffering?

When we look about these days, we are struck by the extent of the suffering so many are enduring.  Whether it’s war in Gaza and Ukraine, turmoil in Haiti, earthquakes in Taiwan, or, at home, the rise in food bank use and the lack of affordable housing. And then there is the everyday suffering as a result of grief, or depression, or a terminal diagnosis. It is not surprising therefore that the one question some would ask is: 

If God Is All-Powerful, Why Is There So Much Suffering?

 First of all, it must be named that this question has bedeviled humankind for centuries, and many a theologian or philosopher has performed theoretical gymnastics in trying to address it. So, to start, let us get at this question as a theologian or philosopher might. The first thing to address is the assumption that an all-powerful God would use that power to allay suffering. Indeed, if the all-powerful God was also good and loving, as many believe God is, then the assumption would certainly be a fair one. Surely a good and loving God who had the power to do so would choose to relieve suffering at every opportunity. Since that is not the case – suffering exists – then it would seem we are left with two scenarios. Either God is all-powerful but not good and loving, or God is good and loving but not all-powerful. There is, however, a third scenario – that God is all-powerful – and conceivably good and loving – and yet chooses to limit that power in the service of something God perceives to be an even greater good. And that greater good is human free will. As the argument goes, God’s power is not diminished because it is God’s choice, God’s use of God’s power, that enables and allows free will. And free will, which is inherent in all of creation, will inevitably result in the kind of events or choices that lead to suffering. Therefore, God remains all powerful, and yet suffering exists.

 Now logically this argument holds. But it is not all that satisfying, and especially not in the face of so much suffering.

 So, it seems to me that another question that is implicit in the larger question is: what is God’s relationship to suffering?

 Jesus actually addresses this question himself on more than one occasion. Once, he was asked who had sinned to cause a man to be born blind, the man himself or his parents. This question is based on the view, that some still hold, that God invokes suffering as a result of sin. Jesus rejects this view out of hand. Another time, he was asked about a tower that had fallen and killed innocent people while they were at worship. His questioners were aghast that God would allow such a thing to happen to righteous persons. Again, Jesus rejected the notion that there was a relationship between people’s relative guilt and innocence and their suffering.

 I think it is important that we continue to reject such a view. We do not serve a God who chooses to use God’s power to punish sin or to reward righteousness. If, according to the earlier argument, God’s intentional limiting of God’s power in service of free will holds true, then God is not intervening to punish or reward. God too, as it were, is at the mercy of free will. Indeed, the story of Jesus, the very human embodiment of God, is proof that bad things can happen to good people.

 And so, what is God’s relationship to suffering? I would suggest it is that God suffers along with us. That God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. That God laments with us at the brokenness of this world. That God weeps with us in the face of the suffering of those we love.

 In conclusion, it is natural to want a seemingly powerful God to act on our behalf in the face of so much suffering. It is not surprising that in my ministry I have addressed questions like this a multitude of times. And I completely understand why we, like Jesus on the cross, may sometimes cry out, my God, my God why have you forsaken me?! And so, we too have a choice. We can despair in the face of God’s apparent distance from our suffering, or we can turn and discover God’s presence and care within our suffering. The latter stance may not take the suffering away, but many would attest to the comfort and peace it brings.

 Andrew +

March 26, 2024: How Do We Understand the Resurrection of Jesus?

A few years back, I began my sermon on Easter Sunday with the words: “I am here to tell you categorically and decisively that Jesus did not rise from the dead.” I absorbed the somewhat stunned silence for a moment before continuing, “Nothing in the Christian story would suggest that Jesus rose from the dead. What is stated, however, is that Jesus was raised from the dead.” This is an important distinction.

Even as Jesus’ virgin birth and healing miracles are embraced as metaphor, the resurrection remains for many the one core, non-negotiable, and historical fact at the heart of Christianity. Yet the only way one can maintain an unquestioning, literal interpretation of the events surrounding that first Easter is by steadfastly avoiding the reading of the Bible.

This practice leads to the aforementioned misconception that Jesus ‘rose’ from the dead. This view of the resurrection is problematic from several points. One is that it implies that Jesus had the resources to revive himself from death. If that was the case then he wasn’t actually dead, which then significantly depletes the power of the resurrection. Furthermore, it can lead to the notion that the resurrected Jesus was simply a resuscitated corpse. A close reading of the text would suggest this was not the case. Close friends did not recognise Jesus; he frequently disappeared into thin air and seemed to walk through walls; he covered significant distances in no time at all. These are not things that purely physical beings can do. Jesus’ resurrection, although having physical elements to it, was a profoundly spiritual affair.

And it begins with God. It is God who raises Jesus from the dead. This is significant because it suggests that the power at the center of the universe, the ground of our being has embraced and endorsed Jesus’ radical message of love and vindicated that message through the resurrection. The powerful of this earth tried to silence the message by killing Jesus, and the all-powerful God brought it back to life through the raising of Jesus from the dead. This is the significance of resurrection, not a physical body picking things up where they were left off only seemingly to have it all end again.

This is not to suggest that the resurrection was only some mysterious metaphorical affair conducted at the purely spiritual level. The resurrection had clear implications ‘on the ground’ as it were. Clearly, something happened in the days following the crucifixion that transformed the disciples from uncertain followers to heralds of the Jesus message, evidently willing to die for their convictions. While we will never know the details of how the Jesus of their daily lives became the Christ-presence of their future, the gospel accounts are testimony to people’s hunger to know more. Whatever happened in the days following the crucifixion, the followers of Jesus were propelled into a new way of living and relating to this Galilean peasant they had been following. They were compelled to re-evaluate their Jewish heritage in ways that accounted for their experience of Jesus, both in his temporal life and as a spiritual presence in the present. And so, the profoundly physical aspect of the resurrection is fleshed out in the bodies of Jesus’ earliest followers.

And that is still the case. Today, the metaphor of resurrection stands for many Christians as a symbol of the call to new life, as an appeal to practice resurrection here and now. Life is precious. It’s to be shared with generosity. The gospels are clear about this. What should also be clear is that resurrection isn’t just limited to the experience of Jesus or to however we understand a life after death, but in passing from death to life here and now. The message of resurrection and of Easter hope is that we can live fully in this life, giving of ourselves, and risking for love’s sake. So, help someone who’s hurting. Open the eyes of love for someone who is blind. Free a captive. Heal a wound. Feed someone who is hungry. Give the gift of yourself, for the gift of who we are was given to us in order to be given away.

The secret to practicing resurrection is in giving who we are and what we have away, completely and wholly, to something greater than ourselves, in escaping from the circumstances and choices that entomb us and entering into new life here and now. In life and in death, Jesus modeled this generosity and transformation for followers then and now. As we embrace resurrection as a credible and meaningful principle for living, we, like Jesus, may become more than anyone around us – or even we ourselves – could have imagined.

Andrew +

 

March 15, 2024: What Happens When We Die?

For many years, and in different contexts, I have invited people to consider ‘the one question I would ask God’, and to submit it to me for consideration. I thought that for the next few blogs I would address some of the questions I have received in the past. I also invite you to submit your own question (andrew@stgeorgesonthehill.ca), to which I will prepare a response. So, today’s question:

What Happens When I Die?
And Will I be Reunited with Those I Have Loved?

I approach this question – by the way, the ‘I’ is Andrew and not God! – and questions like this with some fear and trepidation. In part, I do this because so many people have so much emotionally invested in after-death issues. For instance, many are invested in the possibility of being reunited with those that they have loved in life. Fear and trepidation are also the case because our texts actually aren’t all that clear around what happens after we die. I actually believe that the most honest answer I could give to this question, and other questions about the afterlife, is, ‘I’m not sure’.

But let’s dig a little deeper than that.

As noted, there are differing views to be found in our text, and all have made their way into the tradition. One popular conception is that when we die, we go straight to somewhere, and that somewhere is heaven. (Let me state that I categorically reject the notion of a physical hell where bad people go after death to be eternally tormented at God’s behest.) This argument is supported by Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross that ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. But what did Jesus mean by paradise? It is important to remember that these words came at the end of a conversation in which the thief affirms Jesus as a good and innocent man and asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus may simply have been stating that today this thief would indeed join Jesus in his kingdom, his ‘paradise’ – that is, the place, on earth as in heaven, where God’s will is done. Notwithstanding the question of what Jesus meant by ‘paradise’, our tradition is rich in language and images of individuals ascending into heaven upon death.

And yet, the bulk of the afterlife narratives in Christian scripture speak of a future resurrection when ‘the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised’. St Paul weaves a long and intricate argument to this effect, the core of which is that Christ’s resurrection prefigures our own future resurrection. Indeed, Jesus reinforces this point when, on the night before he died, he told his friends that he was going to prepare a place for them so that ‘where I am you will be also’. By this definition, then, there will be no resurrection, no looking for our loved ones until some distant point in the future. This is captured in words that Anglicans know well: May she/he rest in peace and rise in glory. First, we rest and then we rise.

And so, the question of when the dead arrive in heaven is an open one, but the question of how to find loved ones remains. Again, the tradition is rife with language that suggests that heaven will constitute one big family reunion. In our Anglican church, a prayer in the funeral liturgy states that after our life on earth we will ‘be reunited with our brothers and our sisters’. It would be logical to infer from that that heaven is the venue for a homecoming and so the only challenge left would be how to ‘find my loved ones’. On this, the tradition seems to be silent. And so, even if all of the above holds true, we are left only with the hope that heaven will afford a way for this reunion to take place.

Nonetheless, our scriptures also suggest that the matter of identification is not a cut-and-dried one. If Jesus’ resurrection foreshadows our own, it is important to remember that in his post-resurrection appearances he was often not recognized. The inference is that a post-resurrection body is very different than a pre-resurrection body. The book of Revelation also talks of a great crowd of witnesses without number gathered around the throne where only the lamb, Jesus Christ, is recognisable.

So, the question of how we find our loved ones in heaven, like all questions about an afterlife, is left unanswered, at least from a scriptural standpoint, or at least answered in a way that may not prove ultimately satisfying.

But I am compelled by some words that St Paul wrote to the church in Rome. In so many words he wrote, ‘whether we live or we die we belong to God’. There is nothing precise or specific about those words, and they drive us deep into the mystery that often accompanies our journey of faith. And yet, these words are also comforting. They remind us that even in the absence of clear answers to our questions about what happens after death, we have the promise that we will be in God’s hands and God’s care. That, although death may be a sad, even shocking, event for those around us, for us it will be a seamless transition from one way of belonging to God to another way of belonging to God. Comforting also because God is also the God of the living who remain, and they too can count on the comfort and care of God even as they grieve.

How can we find our loved ones in heaven? What happens after we die? I’m not sure. But I do know that all of us, dead and alive, belong to a loving, caring God. And perhaps that is enough.

Andrew +

March 8, 2024: Miracles

Last week, I wrote about the purpose of prayer; and in a discussion I had this week, the issue of miracles came up. That is, that so much of what we ask for in prayer, if fulfilled, would constitute a miracle. So, the question was: Is there such a thing as miracles?

If I were to come at the question slightly differently, I might ask: What is the purpose of miracles in our story? This could lead to many answers. In the first place, and if we take miracles at face value – as in, that they actually occur – miracles could serve to establish the bona fides of our God, of Jesus, and of the Christian faith. In pre-modernity, this is the most likely purpose they served. Indeed, in pre-modernity, just about every occurrence was seen to be of God, and so just about everything that happened had a miraculous component to it. The modern mindset is very different. On the one hand, science has given us logical reasons for what was previously thought to be miraculous, and on the other, the notion of the supernatural is viewed cynically by most people, including many Christians. As such, the modern Christian may take three positions. One, is to continue to believe in the reality and importance of miracles in our story. And indeed, we all know of occurrences that are simply miraculous; where there really is no natural, logical explanation. The second, is to simply dismiss the miraculous as impossible and irrelevant. And the third, is to try and explain the so-called miracle in purely natural terms. Take the feeding of the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes. Some would say it happened, exactly as recorded. Some would say it didn’t happen because it’s just plain impossible. And others would say that when the little boy was willing to share his lunch, his selflessness and generosity motivated the others in the crowd to take their food out of hiding and share it.

I want to suggest another way of coming at miracles, and that is to see them as parables. Now, one of the things we say about parables is that they are not about what they are about, that the parables of Jesus are stories he made up that were seemingly about everyday people and circumstances but were actually claims Jesus was making about God and himself. And so, what if miracles too are not about what they are about but are about claims being made about God and Jesus? Indeed, Jesus gave this viewpoint some credence in the aforementioned feeding of the 5000. In teaching after the ‘miracle’, Jesus noted that as impressive as the feeding may have been, they would still all be hungry again in a matter of hours. And so, he said, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever feeds on me will never be hungry’. The miracle then was a parable on what real food is; it is the spiritual food that Jesus offers that will ultimately assuage our hunger and satisfy our cravings. Accordingly, turning water into wine may be about the generosity and hospitality of a God who keeps providing. The healing miracles are about the compassion of a God who knows our deepest needs and offers healing which is so much more than a simple cure. The walking on water and stilling of the storm is about a God who, when the storms hit or we feel ourselves sinking, is there with us through it all. And so on.

Which leads to another question: I wonder what other miracles-that-are-parables could really be about?

Andrew +

March 1, 2024: What is the Purpose of Prayer?

In Lent we are called to pray; to pray in a way that we might not for the rest of the year. Perhaps we can think of it as purposeful prayer. But what is the purpose of prayer?

I have some ideas of what the purpose of prayer could or should be, but I want to begin with what I think the purpose of prayer couldn’t or shouldn’t be, precisely because I believe prayer is in dire need of a makeover.

In the first place, prayer isn’t simply – and only – a repertoire of words that we learn in church and then repeat throughout the rest of our lives. As Anglicans, because of our tradition of ‘common’ prayer, we are especially susceptible to this, praying always and only ‘by the book’. Now this is not to suggest common prayer is faulty or wrong – I continue to believe that the Collect for Purity found in our Eucharistic liturgy is a prayer that perfectly captures and articulates the purpose of our worship – but common prayer is just that, the prayer we hold and express in common. This is not enough; prayer must also have a personal component, and more on this later.

Secondly, prayer is not transactional. Many people approach prayer in a way that makes God into a cosmic vending machine: insert prayer into slot, make your selection, and if you’re good, the answer you desire pops out! In this case, prayer can be confused with magic; passionately stringing together the proper words into incantations in hopes of conjuring up the power to realize our desires. Indeed, there are verses in the Bible that would suggest this transactional approach is the case:

Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive. (Matthew 21:22)
Ask, and it will be given you. (Luke 11:9)

The problem lies in taking these verses, and others like them, out of context. Far from being guarantees of getting whatever it is you want, they are instead about making the way of God, the gospel of Christ, real on earth through acts of healing, reconciliation, and justice. For instance, when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, he gives them the “Lord’s Prayer”. Rather than a prayer on how to get your own way, it is a prayer that invites them to be engaged in doing whatever work is necessary in bringing about the kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’. In this sense, we can see the prayers of the people as a call to action.

A variation on the transactional theme is what is called intercessory or petitionary prayers; intercessions are where we ask for things on behalf of others, and petitions are prayers we pray for ourselves. Although they are the type of prayers people pray all the time, they can be problematic. On the one hand, as many people still perceive the Divine to be in the reward and punishment business, when the prayers aren’t answered people can experience guilt because they’re obviously not good enough or faithful enough for God to answer in the affirmative. On the other hand, people also point to the lack of an answer to prayer as evidence that prayer doesn’t work and is a waste of time. Both these responses are predicated by a belief that this type of prayer assumes the existence of a malleable deity obliged to change the direction of the whole world just to please the desires of a supposedly righteous person or two.

So, if prayer isn’t transactional then what positive purpose can be found in prayer? In the first place, there is a whole new branch of science called psychoneuroimmunology which explores the effect that one’s emotional and spiritual well-being has on your immune system. Studies have indicated that people who pray, and are prayed for, recover more quickly than those not prayed for. So, by all means, pray for healing; not because you or others will always get well, but so that you and they can connect with the still mysterious and natural power of healing. Pray for safe travel – not because God will necessarily protect your plane, but so that you can be prepared for whatever happens. Pray for the end to a drought, for a job, for whatever you desire – not because prayer is going to control the weather, a future employer, or anything else, but so you can avoid the temptation to despair of God’s goodness in times of difficulty. You may ask, isn’t that defeatist? No, it’s acknowledging the reality that life is what it is and that God walks alongside us whatever the circumstances of our life, good or bad. Personal experience confirms that the rain falls on both the good and the bad. And for many, prayer helps in raising an awareness of the divine who shares in both the joys and sorrows of life.

And so, being in relationship with God does not create some sort of divine force-field protecting us from harm. Being in relationship with God strengthens us for living life, come what may. In difficult times, when our most heartfelt petitions seem to go unanswered and we feel abandoned by God, people often wonder what they’ve done to deserve such a fate. Even Jesus is said to have cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The experience of faithful people over the ages suggests instead that God is not, in fact, in charge of fixing our problems. Instead, the Spirit that gives us life longs to be recognized as an intimate companion on our life’s journey. We are in covenant with the Spirit that remains with us whatever happens along that journey.

Perhaps, then, the benefit of prayer rests in our ability to liberate it from simply being an exercise in begging, asking, or informing God of anything. In an apocryphal story, Mother Teresa is asked by a reporter: “When you pray, what do you say?” She replies, “Nothing; I listen.” “What do you hear?” asks the reporter. “Nothing. God listens.” Seeing the puzzled look on the reporter’s face, she assures him, “If I have to explain it to you, you won’t understand.” Deeper than a conversation with God then, perhaps, prayer is best understood as simply being open to the Divine.

As such, the purpose of prayer is not to let God know what we need or want but to intentionally be in God’s presence. Like any pursuit of intimacy, prayer is intensely personal. In all its many forms, prayer defies analysis and superficial systems for implementation and success. Prayer is a life-long courtship – testimony to humanity’s striving toward a relationship with that unknowable yet inescapable sense of the divine, in such a way that our lives reflect that relationship. As I like to say, we should pray as if everything depended on God, and act as if everything depended on us.

Andrew+

February 23, 2024: Penitence and Grace

Lent is the time for sober reflection on the ways in which we fall short of God’s ideal for us. As such, it is customary to begin our worship with a penitent heart.

These are the words found in our 10:30 service leaflet at the beginning of our Sunday Celebration. And indeed, it is customary, and appropriate, that we begin this way, because Lent is a time in the church year in which contrition, confession, and repentance have a heightened presence in our life together.

But I have a strong conviction that this need not always be the case, and you will see that reflected in our liturgy in the other seasons of the church year. This has long been my practice and some have, as you may, asked why we don’t confess our sins every Sunday.

Well, actually, we do. But it is true that we will not always do the longer version at our Sunday Celebrations. In part, this is because confessions in the Anglican liturgy are always communal affairs; the Book of Common Prayer refers to ‘The General Confession’. The understanding therefore is that the worshipping community is confessing its collective failure to love God and neighbour. It has never been the case that this prayer is an opportunity for individuals to confess their particular sins. The Prayer Book assumes that private confession has been done before, and in preparation for, public worship.

The question then becomes how much time and content to put into the general confession in our services. The Book of Alternative Services allows that the prayer of confession in the Eucharist may be used if penitential intercessions were not used in the Prayers of the People. As such, you will have noticed that in the season of Epiphany we did include a penitential intercession in these prayers, and this will be the case going forward.

But all of that is simply liturgical theology and of interest only to those of us fully invested in the church. I would ask you to consider something other than liturgical adherence based on traditions and personal preferences, and think of how penitential practices are experienced by the individuals in the pew.

As such, I do believe that an overly penitential ethos is potentially off-putting to long-time attenders, newer parishioners, and perhaps most especially to guests and strangers. I know this is the case because over the years many have told me that this is the case. I also have a hunch that this is the case because the Church at large is in decline and is not doing well at attracting and retaining newcomers.

Now, I am under no illusion that we as individuals and as a parish are in the habit of sinning. We fall short of God’s best all the time. But I am also aware that most people are acutely aware of this. Quite frankly, I need to be reminded that God loves me; my unworthiness is without a doubt. And I have a hunch that many, if not most, of those who make their way through our doors are looking for this affirming message as well. I know that St George’s is largely a welcoming, generous, non-judgemental, and inclusive place. I know that because I know you. I’m simply saying that we ensure our liturgical practices are sending the same message.

As always, I would be happy to converse on this or any other issue at any time.

Lenten blessings,

Andrew+

February 16, 2024: Lenten Disciplines - Giving Up and Taking Up

Friends,

As of this past Wednesday, we have entered the season of Lent. This is considered a penitential season, one in which we reflect on the ways we have fallen short of God’s ideal for us, and one in which our rituals and practices capture a deepened turning towards God. Among the practices is the notion of fasting. This is captured by the Lenten discipline of ‘giving up’ some thing(s) for this 40-day fast. But it is my conviction that we give up something in order to take up something else. We fast so that we can spend more time in prayer, or in study, or in service to others. We fast so we can also feast. Often these things we give up are things we consume; things we eat or drink or inhale. This is all well and good, but I would encourage you to also think of those habits of the heart and the mind that might be worth putting aside for the season of Lent, and even beyond. In this spirit, I offer you this poem written by William Arthur Ward:

Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ within them.
Fast from emphasis on difference; feast on the unity of life.
Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.
Fast from thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God.

Fast from words that pollute; feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.

Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from worry; feast on trust in God’s Care.
Fast from unrelenting pressure; feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from facts that depress; feast on verities that uplift.

Fast from lethargy; feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from shadows of sorrow; feast on the sunlight of serenity.
Fast from problems that overwhelm; feast on prayer that undergirds.

Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from personal anxiety; feast on eternal truth.
Fast from discouragements; feast on hope.

On another note, Lent is also a time when many engage in a Lenten discipline of study. To this end, I recommend a weekly offering of the brothers of the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE). SSJE is an Anglican Order based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I have gone on retreat there many times and have found the brothers a comfort and an inspiration. They have put together an online Lenten programme called In the Midst with a new offering coming out each Wednesday in Lent. You will find the link here.

Lenten blessings,

Andrew+

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