Out of silence

Texts: “Making Peace” by Denise Levertov * Luke 1:18-25 (waiting in silence)

“No justice, no peace!” This slogan has been a staple at protest marches for years. It also describes the type of peace heralded by angels at the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus.

Caesar had proclaimed “Pax Romana” or “Peace of Rome” soon after he began his 40 years of imperial rule. His Peace would persist for more than 200 years, from the time of his ascension to the Roman throne in 27 BCE through the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE. During these 200 years, the Roman Empire was stable, and no outside power threatened its might. But no matter how impressive The Peace of Rome seemed then or now, it was not peace with justice.

Rome’ peace was built on conquest and the oppression of its workforce, many of whom were slaves; and it was maintained by the army with an iron fist.

At the first Christmas when the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to all,” they are not praising Caesar’s peace. They are heralding the coming of Caesar’s opposite – a divine child who represents the hopes for peace with justice of people who are as humble as this tiny infant.

In the centuries since, the church has proclaimed Christ over Caesar, and over the Czars, Kings and Kaisers who succeeded the Roman emperors. We claim that sovereignty rests not with monarchs on their thrones, but with the Risen Christ who lives within the hearts of followers of a Way of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

But just because the church proclaims Christ over Caesar doesn’t mean we now enjoy peace with justice. Jesus and his friends didn’t overthrow Caesar in the First Century. And today in the 21st, we continue to struggle with war. So, where is the peace that the angels announced 2,000 years ago?

This morning, I reflect on this question against the backdrop of today’s two readings and on our November theme on refugees here at Mill Woods United.

I am grateful that the Future Steps Team proposed that we read the book “Homes: A Refugee Story” in November and that we used three Sunday mornings to reflect on its themes of war, migration, and welcome. I am especially glad that on November 3, we heard the thoughts of Winnie Yeung, the Edmonton teacher who wrote “Homes,” which tells the story of Abu Bakr and his family as they fled from Iraq, to Syria, and finally to Edmonton in 2014; from Junaid Jahangir on November 17 who told of his family’s flight to Pakistan amid the deadly partition of India in 1947 and of his experiences as a gay Muslim learning to cope and thrive in Edmonton since 2001; and from our Office Administrator, Liliana Angel, who on November 24 told us the story of her family as they fled as refugees from Colombia in 2009 to a new life in Edmonton. I found all of them informative, moving, and inspiring.

Edmonton is a relatively peaceful and just place. This is not to say that we don’t have our share of violent crime and acts of discrimination based on sex, race, and cultural background. Unfortunately, we have far too many of these. But compared to other places and times, most of us feel blessed to live here.

But our November theme on refugees reminded me of how the injustice and violence of the wider world is also relevant to life here. Canada may never have had a civil war, but people from India, Syria and Colombia have fled war to come here and they bless us with their presence and many contributions.

People living in British-controlled India in the years preceding independence in 1947 probably expected only good things as Britain finally left the sub-continent after hundreds of years of imperial rule. Unfortunately, the existence of divisions between Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities allowed racist nationalists to rip the country apart in a convulsion of violence and death. Both India and Pakistan were born with wounds from their colonial past and with new wounds caused by misleaders who exploited tribal divisions for political gain.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the people of Colombia probably had hopes for economic expansion and social development. Unfortunately, outside meddling in Colombia — first in the context of the Cold War and then in the disastrous War on Drugs — sparked more than 50 years of violence there. This violence has warped the lives of millions and caused the deaths of tens of thousands. This includes the violence that led to Liliana to flee with her family to Edmonton ten years ago as refugees.

In 2010, the people of Syria probably were pleased as they reflected on years of economic growth and on the fading of memories of past conflicts with Israel. Unfortunately, as the Arab Spring revolt challenged the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad in 2011, the existence of communal divisions between various strands of Islam and Christianity in Syria allowed leaders like Assad and others to turn the Arab Spring into a civil war in which hundreds of thousands have died and millions have fled their homes as refugees.

These civil wars include untold horrors and trauma. A tiny silver lining, at least for us, is the arrival of refugees in Edmonton who become a blessing to the city’s economic, cultural, and social life.

But could the type of civic conflict that we heard about on three Sundays in November happen here as well?

The situation to our south provides a cautionary tale. The election of the current US President three years ago was aided by a Russian assault. It was an ideological and not a military assault, but its results have been devastating. It has threatened the rule of law in the US and weakened the ability of the world to tackle issues like climate disaster and weapons of mass destruction.

In 2016, Russian Internet trolls and bots exploited racial divisions in the United States to foment fear, misinformation and anger on social media platforms. The US was vulnerable to this attack because, just as Canada is far from healing the wounds of colonialism involving its First Nations, so the US is far from healing the wounds caused by 400 years of slavery and racial discrimination.

There are many reasons to desire a world in which women as well as men, gay as well as straight people, and those with ancestors from all corners of the world can live together with equality and peace. One of them is that continued social divisions make us vulnerable to cynical manipulations by nationalists that can lead to violence as in India in the 1940s and Syria in the decade that is just ending.

In the church, we work for peace with justice. We do so to act upon our values of love, kindness and hospitality. This work can also inoculate us against the irrational hatred that can lead to violence.

As Junaid Jahangir’s ancestors and as Liliana Angel’s and Abu Bakr’s families learned, often the only thing one can do in the face of violence is to flee to a safer place. And I am happy that Canada is a haven to so many refugees and other immigrants who have created a wondrous tapestry of cultures here over the last 60 years.

But is there anything a church can do to counter the forces that lead to civil wars in places like India, Pakistan, Colombia, and Syria?

I think so; and I end with some thoughts about about how using words and refraining from using them that can help us in the struggle for peace with justice.

When Zechariah questions the Angel Gabriel’s news that he and his wife Elizabeth are to become parents, the angel strikes him mute for nine months. Elizabeth accepts the situation more calmly, but she too goes into seclusion for five months.

Sometimes in the face of fearsome or awe-inspiring events, all we can do is stand mute. Things like war, revolution, or impossible births can overwhelm us. In those cases, we may need to sit silently or spend time in solitude as we search for stability and a new ground from which to act.

An opposite tack is taken in the poem “Making Peace,” by Denise Levertov. It suggests that we can make peace in the same way one writes a poem – by sensing a rhythm, shifting towards it, and exploring its metaphors as one speaks and acts.

Levertov also promotes long pauses as a way to detach from desires for profit and power and as part of the work of creating an energy field more intense than war. She suggests that our words and actions can create a vibration of light that can help us create the world of peace and justice/love we want.

I believe that all of these ideas — of silence and solitude, of standing against hateful speech, and of using our words and actions to create a vibration of light — are valid ways to join with the angels at Christmas to proclaim the coming of peace with justice.

Living as we do with the wounds of colonialism still so painfully evident among us, we are vulnerable to nationalist and racist manipulations like those that have devastated Syria and that have brought the US to the brink.

But with our ears open to sacredness in the dark and silent nights of Christmas; with our hearts open to people of backgrounds very different from our own; and with words of equality and justice on our lips, we can stand against the trolls and racists who would exploit tribal divisions to foment injustice and war.

Christmas remind us that peace with justice is our birthright. Indeed, it is reason that Love comes down at Christmas.

So I pray that as sing Silent Night again this Christmas Eve, we will find comfort and joy in the sure hope that angelic voices will join us with their refrain: “No justice, no peace!”

May it be so. Amen.

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Finding hope in the darkness

Texts: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver * Luke 1:1-17 (the birth of John the Baptist foretold)

I have been experiencing a strange feeling of late. I think it might be . . . hope!

Of course, hope is always available to us. We can let it flood into our hearts just by remembering our interdependence with the families, culture, and web of life of which we are just one tiny part. From this perspective, life is a free gift from the Source of Love we call God. This perspective can also help us remember that regardless of sickness, social crisis, or other troubles, we have come from God’s Love, and to it we all return. When we view each moment as a gift of Grace, there is never a situation, no matter how dark, in which we need live without hope.

I try to end every sermon with this hope. Faith, hope and love are Paul’s three cardinal virtues. And while the greatest of these is love, hope is essential; and happily, it is always available to us.

But the strange feeling I have experienced of late is of a more standard kind of hope. I am starting to sense that the massive rise in fear that has been so damnably evident in many countries over the past few years might be ebbing; and so, I am feeling more hopeful we will have an opportunity to participate in a big shift in consciousness, one that would counter fear, racism, and violence.

This morning, I reflect on both of these kinds of hope in relation to birth and parenting.

Christmas is about birth. It is our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago, and of the rebirth of Christ in our hearts.

But Advent is also about birth and parenthood. Luke’s Gospel contains two stories of miraculous births. The better known one involves Mary, the Angel Gabriel, the Holy Spirit, choirs of angels, and wandering and wondering shepherds who attend the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

The lesser known birth found in Luke is that of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. In today’s reading, we heard a story in which an angel announces to Zechariah the unlikely news that his aged wife Elizabeth will finally bear their first child. This is the last of many births to improbably old people found in the Bible. A few weeks ago we heard the first such tale from the book of Genesis when three angels tell Abraham and his wife Sarah that they are to become parents for the first time despite the fact that both of them are more than 100 years old. Not surprisingly, Sarah laughs at this strange news. Next week, we will hear how Zechariah and Elizabeth handle their news.

Learning that one is pregnant yields many emotions: joy, fear, excitement, and . . . hope. Few things can arouse our hopes for the future more than the news that we will become a parent. And so, the two miraculous pregnancies and births in the opening chapters of Luke link up with Advent Hope.

Contemporary discussions about birth and parenting involve two contradictory observations. One is that fertility rates continue to decline almost everywhere. This decline has many effects just one of which is a large number of disappointed would-be grandparents. Many of us can attest that recent generations in our families have fewer children than previous ones. The decline in birth rates has also led to fears of economic decline.

The contradictory observation is about a continued robust expansion of the world’s population, now at more than 7.5 billion. The number of people in the world continues to climb because every day because more than 350,000 babies are born. But how can this be the case at the same time that fertility rates are plummeting?

Well, the figure of 350,000 births a day is both the highest ever and one that has held steady for several decades despite a growing population. If the fertility rate had stayed as high as it was 50 years ago, the number of births per day would be closer to 600,000.

On an average day, about 150,000 people die, which means that world population increases by about 200,000 per day. This is the equivalent of one new Edmonton every five days! But if fertility rates continue to decline, the number of deaths per day will overtake the number of births in a few decades, and world population will start to decline.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times published a column called “The End of Babies.” In it, the author Anna Sussman outlines the reasons she sees for the decline in fertility rates. She writes, “at its best, the declines reflect better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living. At its worst, they reflect the failure of employers and governments to make work and parenting compatible; the failure of our ability to solve the climate crisis so that children might seem a rational prospect; and a function of an increasingly unequal economy. These latter reasons make having fewer children seem less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavoury circumstances.”

Now, I don’t know if her column got things right, but it made me think. If becoming a parent is a profound act of hope, what does the decline of fertility rates imply?

One of the things that has delighted me at Mill Woods United this fall has been an increase in the number of infants and children here on Sunday. This is one of the reasons I am feeling more hopeful.

Another thing fueling my hope is the movie “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which opened one week ago. It is about a friendship between Fred Rogers, who produced and starred in the children’s educational program “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” on PBS from 1968 to 2001, and a journalist who wrote a profile of him in 1998. I highly recommend the film, and I hope it is successful.

“Beautiful Day” is about parenting. The journalist who is befriended by Fred Rogers is raising an infant son and dealing with painful turmoil in his relationship with his own father. In Fred Rogers, the journalist finds acceptance and a loving and steady gaze that helps him grow to the point where he reconnects with his alcoholic father.

I was deeply moved by the movie. It deals with anger, resentment, longing, and grief. Mr. Rogers was an advocate for children, a Presbyterian minister, and a wise friend who helped people to name their emotions and to realize that they have choices about how to express and deal with them. Despite his TV show being for children, Mr. Rogers didn’t shy away from fear, anger, or pain. He helped his young viewers to acknowledge such feelings and to respect themselves in the midst of childhood’s messiness.

In the movie, as the journalist becomes more accepting of his pain, his grief opens his heart to the point that he can repair some of the damage that had plagued his relationship with his father for 30 years.

I find reason for hope in the recent attention paid to Mr. Rogers – both with this fall’s biopic and last year’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbour.” Rogers showed millions of people how to love and accept reality even in tough situations and to name and express emotions in ways that led to healing instead of more harm.

The spiritual path followed by Mr. Rogers is one of Advent Hope. He embraces everyone no matter how wounded. He doesn’t shy away from difficult feelings and the situations that give rise to them. And he shows us how to find love and joy in expressing our difficult feelings. His path is about following the light of love even in a dark season.

The final pillar of my new-found sense of hope is news of a growing moral movement in the United States that seeks to elect a government that has turned its back on the racial divisions and lies that have been the bedrock of its current government. There seems to be a growing awareness that not only is a change of government required, but also a change of heart in which we go deep enough to touch that which connects people of all races and cultural backgrounds. The level of fear that has allowed immoral and untruthful statements and actions to appeal to so many people in the U.S. and elsewhere may yet be countered by movements that are focused on unity, healing and justice.

Much more could be said about this last latter pillar of hope. But for today, I close with what I see as some truths about parenting and the future.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We do know that children fill our lives with challenge, change, and endless opportunities for love and joy. And we know that no matter how long we live or what vicissitudes we experience, at the deepest level we are already healed, already accepted, and already embraced by the Love that was our source and is our destiny.

These are some of the reasons why we welcome everyone to Mill Woods United – people of all ages, families of all configurations, everyone who is now an infant or child or who was once an infant or child, everyone who bears both the wounds of our mortal and conflicted lives and who also is open to the rebirth of love in the dark of another sacred winter.

As Mary Oliver’s poem reminded us this morning, the world offers itself to our imagination, and calls to us like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing our place in the family of things.

As so as we seek new life this Advent, I pray that none of us will lose sight of the joys that come from the struggle for a world of greater compassion and peace; and of the realization that come what may, all is well, and all will be well.

Amen.

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Back to the Garden: from war to rebellion

Texts: Revelation 22: 1-5 (the Tree of Life) and Matthew 5:43-44 (love your enemies)

There are a thousand things about war that horrify or dismay us; and one of them is how popular it can be. World War One, which is what prompted King George V to call the first Remembrance Day in the British Empire 100 years ago tomorrow, provides an example.

When the different European empires first declared war on each other in 1914 – the Austro-Hungarian Empire on Serbia on July 28, the Russian Empire on the German one on July 29, and finally the British Empire on the German and Austro-Hungarian empires on August 4 – their declarations were met with wild enthusiasm. Labour parties that had spent the previous 15 years threatening to call general strikes at the outbreak of a European war succumbed almost to a person to popular support for war. Young men from farms and cities enlisted in their millions to fight for their respective Czar, Kaiser, or King. Within months, they were facing each other along a Western Front in France and an Eastern Front on the border between Austro-Hungary and Russia.

The division of “Christian” Europe into two warring camps and the division of each country’s population into a tiny sliver who opposed empire and war and the overwhelming majority who favoured them make today’s partisan divides seem mild by comparison. Today, in remembering how the social consensus in support of war of 1914 had by 1919 turned into rebellion against it, I seek hope that the attempt of today’s leaders to divide us along racial, religious and national lines can again be converted into love for so-called enemies and the creation of a world without war.

My maternal grandfather, Mackenzie Rutherford, who is the man in the kilt projected behind me in a photo taken as he prepared to sail to France, was one of the young men who said “yes” to the call to war. My grandfather had grown up on a farm on the shores of Lake Ontario east of Toronto, but had moved to Vancouver in 1910 when he was 20 years old. In 1912 on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Confederation, he wrote an essay on the promise of Canada. When my mother showed it to me a few years ago, I was impressed with how well it exhibited the optimism and liberalism of the pre-War years. These were ones in which people like my grandfather saw nothing but continued progress towards the creation of God’s Kingdom on earth.

1915-Mack-kilt

As an enthusiast of the fledgling Canadian Dominion, of the church, and of the British Empire, I am not surprised that he immediately enlisted when Britain joined its ally Czarist Russia in war against Germany. I am also not surprised that when he returned to Vancouver in 1919, he was badly disillusioned in Britain and in the pan-European project of colonies, competition, and war.

My grandfather fought in the trenches in France where he was wounded in 1915. After spending a night alone in the mud, he was evacuated to London where he spent 12 months recovering in hospital. He was released with shrapnel in his leg and a permanent limp, and he spent the rest of the war working as an army clerk.

Grandpa never talked about his war experiences with his wife, his children, or his grandchildren. So, like many other people who have ancestors who were veterans, I know next to nothing about his war experience. We know that he was badly wounded, but I wonder if he ever killed anyone. Being injured and humiliated in a war that you eventually decide was not a worthy one sounds bad enough. But killing enemy combatants in such a war might be even more traumatic.

One thing I do know is that my grandfather, like many millions of others, returned home disillusioned in the empires that had allowed this war to happen. These empires, their governments, and their churches had persuaded more than 50 million young men to fight their supposed enemies and had led ten million of them to their deaths. Out of this disillusionment, he and millions of others became open to new ideas about how to organize society.

When my grandfather died in 1970, my aunt suggested that his grandchildren look through his shelves for books we might like. The only one I remember taking was a pamphlet published in 1919 in Vancouver by the BC Federation of Labour. Titled “Who Are the Bolsheviks?,” it was, to my surprise, a pro-Soviet booklet that he had kept for 50 years.

Grandpa eventually moved back to Ontario, bought a farm near where he had grown up, and led a quiet life raising a family. The last time he visited my family in Cornwall was in 1967 when we took him and my grandmother to Montreal to visit Expo 67; and I was struck by the fact that the only pavilion he wanted to see was that of the Soviet Union. It seems that 50 years after the end of the Great War, the illusions he and many others had placed in the Soviet Union to replace the ones they had lost in the old European empires were still there.

Remembrance Day was called by King George V in 1919. But his relatives in the other empires did not do the same. George’s first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, was in exile in Holland having been deposed by the German Revolution of October 1918, which had led to the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918. His distant cousin Charles I of Austria was in exile in Switzerland after having presided over the defeat and dismantling of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czar Nicholas II, who was the husband of another of King George’s first cousins, Alexandria, was dead having been executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 during the Russian Civil War that followed the Revolution there in 1917.

Britain was the only monarchical empire to survive the disaster of the Great War, and as such, it was the only one that saw fit to commemorate the war with a Day of Remembrance. But while Britain may have “won,” the British Empire, which had once covered one third of the Globe, was badly wounded. Twenty-five years later after the Second World War, independence movements in India, Africa, and the Caribbean began to successfully dismantle it.

Colonial rebellions were just some of the changes that followed the War. Women achieved suffrage in country after country. Several new European nations established themselves in the rubble of its empires. The prestige of religious leaders, who had supported “their” Czar, King, or Kaiser, began to diminish. Workers organized for better wages and working conditions. Art, music, and architecture underwent vast changes.

In Canada, these changes are best exemplified, I think, by a General Strike in 1919. In May and June of that year, 35,000 workers in Winnipeg, which had about 170,000 people at the time, sustained a six-week long general strike.

This past June, Kim and I spent four nights in Winnipeg and were able to participate in several of the celebrations that marked the centennial of this high-water mark in Canadian labour history.

The one we liked the most was the premiere of a play called “Strike! The Musical.” It was held in the 2,000-seat Rainbow Stage in Kilodan Park on the eve of the centennial of the event that ends the play – an attack by the police on June 21, 1919 on a protest march by veterans of the War in support of the arrested members of the Strike Committee who had led the rebellion for five weeks.

We loved the musical, and we hope that a film version of it, which is supposed to open in Edmonton on November 29, is as effective.

The musical is a Romeo and Juliet-like love story involving a Ukrainian and a Jewish immigrant who get swept up in the workers’ rebellion. The play ends with police shooting 12 of the veterans and killing two. But this violence, which led to the end of the strike, does not wipe out the fact that Winnipeg 1919 demonstrates that it wasn’t only in Germany or Russia, or Seattle or Turin, or India or Kenya that the disillusionment occasioned by the Great War led masses of people to fight for a new form of democracy. This was also the case in Canada.

I had known that one of the leaders of the Winnipeg Strike was a former Methodist minister, J.S. Woodsworth, who after the strike became a Member of Parliament from Winnipeg until his death in 1941 and who was the first leader of the CCF Party when it was founded in Calgary in 1932. But in June, I learned that the Winnipeg Strike had a lot more church involvement. Woodsworth became the editor of the strikers’ daily newspaper after its first editor was arrested. But I hadn’t known that this editor was also a Methodist, Rev. William Ivens. He and other ministers had formed a Labour Church, which was a key organizing centre for the Strike.

The involvement of these ministers represents a small redemption for the church. In 1914, almost all clergy in Europe and its settler states supported the war. Orthodox patriarchs supported the repressive and incompetent Czar in Russia. Lutheran pastors supported the German Kaiser despite his militarism. Anglican priests supported the British Empire despite its oppressive rule in India and Africa.

The history of church support for imperialist war from the fourth to the 20th century is a damning one. So, I am always pleased to learn of exceptions, and Winnipeg 1919 provides some shining examples.

The trajectory followed by my grandfather and millions of others around the world during World War One is a path of spiritual growth. At the beginning of the War, they put their faith in emperors and empires that were not worthy of it. Through terrible trials and loss, they became disillusioned in these idols. Having been disillusioned, they then looked for values that might be more worthy of the God who is Love – things like democracy from below, solidarity across lines of race, gender, and nationality, and collective projects that hoped to create a more peaceful, equitable, and sustainable world.

Did my grandfather, or the German and Russian revolutionaries, or the strikers in Winnipeg 100 year ago, find their way Back to the Garden? No. But the paths they walked with pain and joy can remind us of how moments of social crisis can turn into moments of mass conversion from idolatry to something closer to the Source of Love we call God.

Nineteen nineteen was a key moment in which blinders of hate were lifted from the eyes of millions and attempts were made to build a realm of peace and freedom on the rubble of the rotten empires of that day.

Fifty years ago was another moment in which another imperialist war, the one that the USA waged against Vietnam, moved millions of people to question their rulers and to wake up to the fact that their so-called enemies were actually their neighbours who were worthy of their support and love.

Today is yet another moment when millions of us are being told to identify immigrants and Muslims as our enemies. Many of us may succumb to such ideas and so find ourselves worshipping nation or race in a manner similar to how most people at the start of the Great War worshipped their Czar, Kaiser, or King and misidentified the people on the other side of imaginary lines as their enemies.

But in the hard knocks of life or in the horrors of war, millions often turn their backs on illusions peddled by misleaders in church, parliament, or palace. In the space opened up by this disillusionment, they may hear again the call of Jesus to love our enemies. Sometimes this radical message pierces through the fog of hate; and we may find ourselves in the middle of a massive festival of peace and music, or in a general strike that reveals the beauty of our city we had never noticed before, or in rebellions that topple a czar or kaiser, or in struggle that bring independence to a former colony.

Sometimes we may find ourselves marching with millions of others in a quest for a way Back to the Garden where the Tree of Life grows. With Grace, sometimes we remember that “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is already living within us; that war is over if we want it; and that peace can reign in our hearts, our cities, and throughout all of God’s good earth for ever and ever.

May it be so. Amen.

Preamble to worship on November 10

I believe that dreams can help us in our spiritual journeys. In six Sunday gatherings this Fall, we have looked at the Biblical dream of The Tree of Life. We first encountered the Tree on September 1 when we heard the story of the Garden of Eden from the first book of the Bible, Genesis.

Today is the seventh of seven services that seeks inspiration from Joni Mitchell’s 1969 song “Woodstock” – the one in which she dreams that we might somehow get ourselves Back to the Garden from which Jehovah expelled Adam and Eve in Genesis. To close this series, today we will hear a passage in which a writer named John imagines that The Tree of Life has been replanted in a new paradise. In the book of Revelation, John brings the Bible to an end with a dream he wrote down about 1,000 years after Genesis. His dream imagines the Tree of Life yielding fruit in a New Jerusalem where, disease, war, and death are no more.

The dream-like images of Genesis and Revelation have been influential for centuries, and have inspired many artists, including Joni Mitchell.

In her 1969 song, Mitchell also dreams that bomber jet planes turn into butterflies above the nation; and to me, this is a fitting epigraph for today’s service focused as it is on war and remembrance. Tomorrow is the centennial of the First Remembrance Day. On November 11 1919, which was the first anniversary of the Armistice that ended WWI, people in the British Empire paused to reflect on the horrors of war and the sacrifices of our ancestors. Today, I reflect on how remembering those sacrifices might help us turn bombers into butterflies and find our way Back to the Garden.

Many dreams have gone into this morning’s service, and we will see how many of them come to reality in the next 60 minutes or more.

Before we hear a passage from Revelation about the Tree of Life in a New Jerusalem, and before children go to the Lower Hall with Nate Burton and Rob McPhee for a time of play, we will have elements that are typical for the first half of our time together. We will also hear a wonderful story about friendship, loss, and remembrance that Rob will read. The choir will sing as usual. And before children leave, we will be invited by the Prayer Shawl Team to bless the shawls you see before me.

My hope is that our time together on this wintry day will help us with the gracious work of remembering. And may it remind us of the light of the Prince of Peace, which can guide us to a world in which war will be no more.

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Theism, Non-Theism, Atheism?

Below are opening remarks I made at Mill Woods United Church on October 28, 2019 at an evening of sharing on the theme “What is God?”

Why is there debate over the question “What is God?” Doesn’t the Bible, or the Church, or the minister have the answer? Isn’t the answer clear?

To help us prepare for our conversations, I start with some personal background. My late father was a United Church of Canada minister, so I was raised in the church. But like my siblings and most of my friends, I drifted away from church as a teenager, and didn’t pay it much attention for almost 30 years. Like many people of my generation, I decided that God, and Jesus, and church had become irrelevant; that there were better places to understand the world; better places to find hope and purpose; and better ways to figure out how to live in into love, beauty, and truth.

When I stumbled back into my local United Church in east Toronto in 2001, I was surprised that I was moved by the Spirit that was alive in that community. I joined the choir and became active in the church, but I felt a bit foolish doing so. Hadn’t I decided that God was a fiction so many years before?

Then in 2002, I wandered into a bookstore close to where I worked in downtown Toronto, and started looking through the religion section. These two titles captured my attention – “Why Christianity Must Change or Die” and “A New Christianity for a New World” by Anglican bishop John Shelby Spong.

I was intrigued, so I bought and read them. I was delighted to learn from Spong that there was a whole current in the church that had moved beyond the images and conceptions of God, Jesus, and the Spirit that I had encountered in Sunday School. This is a current that uses the word God not to refer to a superhuman being among all the other beings in the universe. Instead, it uses God to refer to the very Ground of Being, or the Ground of Love. It affirms that there is a Higher Power, but it doesn’t imagine that this Higher Power is a person-like supernatural being. Instead, it imagines God as the essence of existence, or of life, or of love.

These ideas excited me. For others, they are not compelling, which is OK by me. And in the years since, I have often confronted the tension between theism – or the idea of a supreme, supernatural being – and non-theism. And here is where I have landed.

I don’t find the question “do you believe in God” useful. Instead, I perceive that everyone engages in worship, even if when we don’t call it worship. That is, everybody assigns ultimate worth to someone or something. Children worship their parents. Then they are disillusioned. So, they may start worshipping their peer group or a pop star. Then they become disillusioned. So, they may start worshipping their nation. And if they are lucky, they become disillusioned yet again, and stumble around for other objects of worship.

Some people worship a tribal god, or one god among many. Perhaps they worship a god like the one in the Hebrew Bible. Jehovah or YHWH is often not portrayed in those books as a Supreme Being or the as the Creator of the Universe. Instead, he is often portrayed as just the tribal god of the Hebrew people. Jehovah helps the Hebrew people in their wars with rival tribes and their gods, and he punishes them when they violate some of his rules, like marrying outside of the tribe.

But in today’s globalized world, and in a world dominated by science and the social production of knowledge, tribal gods no longer work as well. So, instead of a tribal god, I try to worship something more worthy of ultimate concern – a God who is Love, or a God who is Spirit, or a God that transcends all tribes, all nations, and the concerns of all of our egos.

But what about Jesus, you may ask? There a thousand reasons to love Jesus and the stories about him in the Bible. But isn’t Jesus a being — a divine one, yes — but a being among all the world’s other beings? Doesn’t loving Jesus, then, make one into a theist?

This is so for many people, and I am OK with that. But it is not how I see Jesus. I am particularly grasped by an awareness that in the stories of the death of Jesus, we have been given a symbol of the death of our illusions in tribal kings like David, or tribal gods like Jehovah. Just as it was for Paul, death and resurrection are less physical or historical events, and more metaphors for spiritual growth (Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is not longer I who lives, but Christ that lives in me.” Galatians 2:19).

For me, the death of Jesus can symbolize the death of any god who is too small to be truly worthy of worship. Some of the other small gods that “die with Jesus on the cross” could include alcoholism, or worship of money and power, or a million other ways that individuals and communities can be selfish or egotistical.

Because this is the way that I see Jesus, I also see non-theism, or post-theism, or even atheism as consistent with the Gospels. Most pointedly, I believe that the stories of the death and resurrection of Jesus point in this direction. Many people see something else, and in congregation like ours there will be a lot of perspectives, which I value and applaud. I just want to be clear on my perspective.

I am also sure that none of us ever get it perfect. All of us are constantly stumbling into new illusions and finding in the hard knocks of life that we have become disillusioned yet again. With grace, we rise from these hard knocks possessing values and an ethical path that bring us closer to our neighbours and closer to a God that is truly worthy of ultimate concern. With Grace, these cycles of illusion and disillusion bring us closer to Love.

So, these are some of the reasons why I appreciate Bishop John Spong, leaders like Rev. Paul Tillich who came before him, and leaders like Rev. Gretta Vosper who have come after him. It also describes the path I try to walk personally and the vision I try to preach on Sunday mornings.

So, with that said, I hope this has been helpful as we move into small group sharing . . .

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Back to the Garden: for love or money

Text: Luke 4: 14-21 (good news for the poor)

Budgets have been in the news a lot lately. Last Monday was federal election day, and deficits, debt, and taxes were hotly debated in the campaign. Should the federal government move to erase the annual deficits it has been running over the last years, or should the priority be on social and infrastructure investments? Should carbon pricing be part of the solution — both to fund a transition away from fossil-fuel consumption and to motivate the changes required to build an economy that doesn’t contribute to climate disaster — or does artificially increasing the price of carbon wreck the economy?

Then on Thursday, the new Alberta government brought down its first budget since being elected in April, and for the first time in a generation, it is projecting a decrease this year in overall spending. Is this prudent fiscal management or is it short-sighted austerity that will hurt people in the province?

This is also budget season at the church. The Council and its Financial Team are working hard so that they can present up-to-date financial statements and a 2020 budget for the church’s Annual Financial Meeting. This will be held after the Sunday morning service on November 17.

As you may have seen in the “What’s The Buzz” e-newsletter on Thursday, a key consideration is the loss of our main tenant, Weight Watchers, which held its final meeting here eight days ago on October 19. On the positive side is the news that Council is close to signing an agreement with a new tenant for the Lower Hall – 4Point Taekwondo. But even if that agreement is signed, they won’t move in until June of next year. This would mean a seven-month period in which the church’s rental revenues will be less than they have been for the past few years. Can the church handle this seven-month drop, or should we find new ways to increase revenue, cut costs, or both?

Deficit budgeting can be a big deal for churches, provinces, and nations alike – unless, of course, the nation in question is the United States. The U.S. now has a debt of more than 22 trillion dollars, and in 2019, which is the 11th year of a long and robust economic expansion, the U.S. is projected to spend close to $1 trillion more than it gets in revenue. Just to remind ourselves, one trillion is one thousand billion! I guess when you are the largest economy in the world and can print money as needed, the debt and deficit concerns that affect the rest of us don’t apply.

But given that Mill Woods United, Alberta, and Canada are not the United States, how worried should we be about deficits? And more broadly, how should we as church members and citizens try to organize our economic life?

Before I continue, I want to address the question of whether the pulpit is an appropriate place to discuss taxes, debts, and deficits. Some people would say “no.” Others point to the fact that in the four gospels Jesus is always talking about money and economics, both in parables and otherwise. In fact, the Gospels portray Jesus talking about money more than just about anything else.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says “it is the year of God’s favour,” which in Hebrew tradition is a year in which debts are forgiven and slaves are freed. This may be a happy thought for debtors and slaves, but not so much for bankers.

Like the poem of Mary Oliver’s that we heard (“A Dream of Trees”), Jesus is not mild when it comes to tackling crises – in his case, the plight of the poor, the imprisoned, and the enslaved. He boldly proclaims good news for them.

As in the time of Jesus, many of the issues we confront today, from poverty and pollution to war, are connected to the economy. How could wealth be distributed more equitably? How could everyone be assured of adequate education and healthcare? How could all the varied industries that comprise the economy – from resource extraction to tourism, and from home construction to entertainment – thrive without at the same time harming the natural world?

You won’t be surprised that I don’t have answers. But I do perceive that the way our economy functions is not sustainable. At present, all who participate in the world economy — from individual corporations, to economic sectors, to nations — must expand their footprint or die. Capitalism operates through competition, and for the last 300 years this has led to unprecedented innovation and growth on all fronts.

But if a corporation or nation decides to ease up in this game, they are swallowed by competitors. Smartphones provide an example. The Canadian firm Blackberry pioneered the smartphone 15 years ago, and for a while it had a huge percentage of the market and generated big profits. But when bigger companies like Google and Apple decided to offer smartphones, Blackberry found that not staying ahead of them didn’t just mean they would no longer be the market leader. It meant its sales plummeted to the point that it had to exit the market altogether.

“Grow or die” is a powerful motivator; and it has completely transformed every aspect of life during the last 300 years. Unfortunately, it has also helped breed things like colonial wars and habitat destruction.

There are many ways to measure the growth of the last 300 years, and one of the key ones is population. When the global market was first stitched together in the 1600’s, the world had about 500 million people. When my parents were born, there were two billion people. When I was born, it was three billion. Today it is about 7.7 billion. This growth in population means that the economy keeps leaping ahead, even as other problems unfold.

On the other hand, population growth has slowed in all of the richest countries in the last decades. Canada’s population would have declined sharply in the last 30 years except for immigration. But because Canada takes in 300,000 or more newcomers each year, both Canada’s population and its economy continue to grow.

But what happens when all nations have negative birth rates, as some demographers predict will happen in the years ahead? This might sound like a good news for the environment. But in a world in which growth is the central value, it would mean economic crisis. What this suggests to me is that humanity has to somehow find another way to organize itself besides “grow or die.”

While competition is dominant in our society, not all of life is governed by money. Families are a sphere where the monetary bottom line is not everything. Other values like health, spiritual growth, and love are more important. The same thing is true for churches. While our ability to attract numbers and money is key to our sustainability, the central values of a community of faith are the health and well-being of its members and of its neighbourhood, and the spiritual growth it can promote in terms of beauty, truth, and love.

So, while churches may not have the answers to government budget deficits; and while we may not possess economic programs that if implemented by a province or nation would allow happiness to flourish without destroying the environment, we can still play a useful role. Like the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music, we can provide counter-cultural models of communal life.

Any church worth its salt is one that focuses on kindness, compassion, and hospitality. In a world driven by the fires of competition, we provide a zone of non-competitiveness and solidarity. In a society that sees value in terms of dollars and cents, we uphold the inherent value of all living beings and proclaim the sacredness of the earth. In a neighbourhood in which many of us are driven to distraction by our fears of poverty and our desires for endless consumption, we provide a sanctuary where abundance and eternal love are proclaimed as realities already guaranteed to us simply by our existence.

I love how these sacred values are expressed in this community of faith – through outreach projects like The Bread Run and the Clothing Bank; through justice initiatives like GEA and the work of truth and reconciliation; in gatherings where we mourn and celebrate in community; and in services like this one when we reflect on our blessings and our concerns in silence and raise our voices in song in ways that strengthen our wills and express our feelings of fierce love.

A world organized around corporations and nations that either grow or die is both wildly inventive and productive and not sustainable in the long-term.

This leaves me with huge questions: how might communities of faith move from being ones that reflect on love to being catalysts for the conversion of a whole country to a new logic of love? How can we help create movements that might end greed and war and create a world in which both humanity and the rest of the biosphere are sustained in beauty and harmony?

Despite how big these questions are, I plan to ask them again in two weeks when we finish the “Back to the Garden” series. That service will include the dazzling visions of the book of Revelation and a reflection on the turmoil and hope alive in Canada 100 years ago around the time of the first Remembrance Day.

When drafting budgets, we confront surpluses and deficits, assets and debts, and our understandings of how to sustain a church, a province, or a nation in the long-term. So, as we reach out to our neighbours in care, may we remember that they are people like us who are caught in an economic logic that doesn’t provide either sustainability or enough justice and love. May we be encouraged by the vision of Jesus. And may we we work together to make this the year of God’s favour in which debts are forgiven and the oppressed are set free.

May it be so. Amen.

Preamble to worship on October 27, 2019

Welcome to another beautiful day in which every moment is a free gift from Source, Spirit, and Love; and another day in which we have gathered with others in search of spiritual growth.

Today the focus is on some of the most spirited of topics – money, budgets, and debts. Like all spiritual topics, these are hot ones. And while they are often in the news and are often intimately connected to our fears and desires, they are not necessarily front and centre on Sunday mornings.

Are there ways to reflect on economic topics that might both upset and inspire? Be both pointed and open-ended? Be both conservative and radical? I think there are ways to do this, and today as we wade into these waters, I pray that it will be with a spirit of faith, hope and love.

Today is the sixth of seven Sundays inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music of August 1969. Today’s connection might seem tangential, but I hope it will be stronger when we finish the series in two weeks on November 10. That will be a service that not only returns us to the Tree of Life that we left behind in the Garden of Eden in a reading from Genesis on September 1, but also one that marks the centennial of the first Remembrance Day mandated by King George V for November 11, 1919.

Today’s service can also serve as a springboard to tomorrow evening’s discussion on “What is God” that the Future Steps group is leading. As recommended by this group, today’s reflection is not only based on a reading from the Bible, but also on another source, today by a poem by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver. And as in other services this fall, the lyrics to the hymn of response have been slightly restated to reflect a more spiritual and less traditional image of the Divine. “My Soul Cries Out” is the first hymn to which I ever made such adjustments. This was for the wedding ceremony for me and Kim at SSUC three years ago. And speaking of SSUC, This Is Us today is a report back from those of from Mill Woods United who attended the Ever Wonder Conference at Southminster-Steinhauer United earlier this month.

All of these elements stand on their own. But I hope they may also inspire more of us to consider coming to a time of discussion and sharing tomorrow at 7 pm, right here in the sanctuary.

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Back to the Garden: “Bread and Roses”

Text: Luke 1: 46-55 (Mary’s song)

How do you get 400,000 young people to gather on an ill-prepared dairy farm and happily spend three days in the rain and mud without adequate security, food, or bathrooms? The answer is obvious, I think — music!

The Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music, which occurred 50 years ago this August, had an incredible lineup of musicians: Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jimi Hendrix, and about 15 other bands or performers.

The U.S. government was afraid of the hippies who came to Woodstock because of their opposition to the War in Vietnam and their disdain for established norms of dress, sexuality, and personal ambition. But I imagine music drew the masses much more than rebellious politics.

Those 400,000 people heard a lot of music: folk classics, covers of Beatles songs, rock and roll, both old and new, some world music, and psychedelic jazz; and the playlist included a lot of protest songs. Richie Havens improvised his biggest hit “Freedom” on the spot. Joan Baez sang “Joe Hill” and “We Shall Overcome.” Jefferson Airplane played “Uncle Sam Blues.” And most amazingly, Jimi Hendrix closed the weekend with a wildly distorted version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

It is hard to catalogue all the ingredients of the youth rebellion of the late 60s. In the 1950s, North America had been conformist and repressive. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a WWII general, was President of the U.S. McCarthyism stamped out the radicalism of the 30s. Suburbia bloomed and churches filled to the rafters. It was the era of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”

This began to change in 1956. Elvis brought Black soul music to a wider audience. The pill helped to change sexual mores. Martin Luther King Jr. led a powerful Civil Rights Movement for Blacks, which was joined by ones for women and gay people and against the War in Vietnam. Liberation struggles around the world reduced the French and British empires to rubble. A new generation that had not been scarred by the Great Depression and the Second World War began to break free of conformity.

“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” is one way to characterize the Woodstock generation. But the rebelliousness of 1969 was multi-faceted; and if one was drawn to hippie clothes and lifestyles, one was probably also in opposition to war and to the civic leaders of church, school, and government who had made the 1950s seem so dull.

The various social and cultural rebellions fed into the music, and the music helped fuel those rebellions. If there was going to be a revolution – and many people anticipated one – it was going to be accompanied by lots of music and dancing.

Music has always been connected to communal celebrations and movements for freedom. Think of the spirituals sung by African-American slaves. Think of the story of King David singing and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant 3,000 years ago. Think of Mary in today’s Gospel story singing a song of love and justice when she learns she is to become the mother of Jesus

I was glad but not surprised that there was music at the big Climate Protest in front of the Alberta Legislature here on Friday. Much of it was led by First Nations drummers, including my favourite group, Chubby Cree. Not only do songs and drums provide rhythm for marching, they help those who gather to express their feelings.

Church gatherings like this one have similarities with festivals of peace and music. We gather to pray, sing and reflect on values of compassion, justice, and love, which run counter to the values of the dominant society. We gather to express our care for humanity, our concerns for those scarred by poverty or war, and our hopes for the web of life that suffers from the depredations of economic activity.

We also sing. We may not always pay attention to the words. We may not always understand or like them when we do. But in the vibrations that our songs set in motion, we sometimes sense that we are not alone. In so doing, we embody our desire for a society of greater love . . .

This past Tuesday at a Worship Committee meeting, Ethel asked the three of us there who had also been at the Ever Wonder Conference from Oct 4-6 at Southminster-Steinhauer United Church – this was myself, Celia, and Laine – to say a few words about the event. And although I quite enjoyed Ever Wonder, I had trouble articulating why. What I could remember was a spirit of caring and joy that was created by the communal singing.

I’ll have another chance to say a few words about Ever Wonder next Sunday. The group of us from here who attended are going to use “This is Us” next week to say a few words on different aspects of the event.

But on Tuesday evening, I was struck above all by how important the singing had been for me.

We are living through a tumultuous time, one that might prove to be as disruptive as was the aftermath of WWI one hundred years ago or the youth rebellion of 1969 50 years ago. And so we need drums, marches, and songs of joy and protest.

One of the most joyous moments of protest in which I ever participated was an International Women’s Day March in Toronto on March 8, 1978. This was the first time in memory that feminists and their allies had decided to march in Toronto on IWD, and nobody knew how many people would come.

In the end, several thousand of us noisily snaked through downtown Toronto, and I especially remember the singing. My favourite song was “Bread and Roses,” which was written after a strike by female textile workers in Lawrence Massachusetts in 1912. I loved the lyrics. I loved the choir who sang it. And I loved that they taught it to us, so that we could all join in.

This past June, Kim and I were in Winnipeg for a few days of vacation and to participate in the centennial celebrations of the Winnipeg General Strike of May and June 1919. As part of the latter, we attended a public unveiling of a sculpture in front of City Hall. On the screen behind me is projected an iconic photo from June 21st, 1919 of an overturned streetcar that been driven by a scab. The unveiling of the sculpture was held 100 years to that day when police attacked the strikers, wounding 14 and killing two of them.

At the unveiling of the sculpture, which is also pictured behind me, the Masters of Ceremony began by singing “Bread and Roses,” and I was thrilled.

So, to close this short reflection on gatherings, protests, and songs, I too will now recite the poem “Bread and Roses”

“As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men
For they are women’s children and we mother them again
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses, too

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it’s bread that we fight for, but we fight for roses, too

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.”

May it be so. Amen.

“Preamble” to worship, October 20, 2019

There are many reasons why we gather on Sunday mornings: to meet friends and neighbours; to remember our sacred values; to reflect on today in the light of tradition; to celebrate and mourn with one another; and so on. But one of the most consistent motivations I hear for coming to this sanctuary on Sunday mornings is to sing together and to hear great music.

I appreciated the fact that the choir led the service here on September 15, and that it focused on music in worship. In particular, I am grateful to Elfrieda Penner for taking a lead on that gathering and for sharing the script of the service with me.

Today, we focus on singing again. This time, I am seeking connections between music and protests against injustice. And once again, I am taking inspiration from the 50th anniversary this August of the Woodstock Festival of Peace and Music.

In a few clergy gatherings this fall, I have mentioned this series of Sunday morning reflections title Back to the Garden. This is the fifth of seven. Next week, I plan to focus on what an economics of love might look like as opposed to today’s economics of money; and I hope to finish the Back to the Garden series on Remembrance Sunday, November 10, in a service that looks back not only to the first Remembrance Day 100 years ago on November 11, 1919, but also to the aftermath of World War I, which in Canada is illuminated most sharply, I believe, by the Winnipeg General Strike of May and June 1919, and by visions of a return to the Garden of Eden not only in Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock,” but also in the strange and hallucinatory final book of the Bible, Revelation.

Some ministers expressed surprise that there might be seven Sunday mornings-worth of material from Woodstock. I think it is doable because of the strangeness of our current situation. 2019, just like 50 years ago in 1969 when Woodstock occurred, and 100 years in 1919 in the aftermath of World War – today is a time of social upheaval, new expressions of love and justice, and hope for renewal in the face of our fears.

I hope that you are enjoying this series as much as I am, and that today’s hour of song, ritual, and reflection will help turn our hearts, minds and souls to the joy of singing, the power of gathering, and our hopes that a return to the Garden might one day become a reality on earth as it is in heaven.

 

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Turning wounds into blessings

Text: Genesis 32: 21-31 (Jacob wrestles with an angel)

The ancient biblical story about wounds and blessings we just heard strikes me as a strange and provocative one.

I decided to focus on this snippet from the story of Jacob today because this passage was the subject of an hour-long CBC radio documentary broadcast on “Ideas” in September; and because today is Thanksgiving, a day in which we think about our blessings.

In the story, Jacob receives both a permanent wound in his hip and a divine blessing after a night-long wrestling match with a man or angel, whom, the text implies might even be God Himself.

Jacob is one of the founding patriarchs of the Jewish people, and the one who gets the most ink in the book of Genesis – more than the first patriarch, his grandfather Abraham, more than his father Isaac, and more than his 12 sons, including the most famous one, Joseph of amazing technicolor dream coat fame. Jacob’s story covers 25 of the 50 chapters of the opening book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis.

Although Jacob is considered to be a hero in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, he often acts in unethical ways. As the second-born son of Isaac, he is called heel-grabber, or Jacob, because he emerged from his mother Rebecca’s womb holding onto the heel of his twin brother, Esau. Rebecca prefers Jacob to Esau and teaches him so-called womanly arts like cooking. Esau is his father’s favourite, perhaps because he is so masculine. Unlike Jacob, Esau is hairy, strong, and a hunter.

Despite being the second-born, Jacob acquires his father’s birthright through two acts of trickery. The first comes when Jacob refuses to feed Esau when he returns famished from a day of hunting unless Esau cedes his birthright to him.

The second comes when, with the help of his mother Rebecca, Jacob tricks Isaac into conferring a deathbed blessing on him as head of the family by preying on Isaac’s blindness and wearing Esau’s clothes and some sheep skin.

This trickery also earns Jacob the murderous anger of his twin brother. So, Jacob’s mother sends him off to live at the home of her brother Laban.

At Laban’s house, Jacob falls in love with his cousin Rachel. His uncle Laban offers Rachel to Jacob in marriage in return for seven years labour. But after seven years, and in what might be considered an early example of karma, Laban tricks Jacob. On his wedding night, Laban sends his oldest daughter Leah into Jacob’s tent instead of Rachel. So, Jacob then labours for another seven years to win Rachel as his second bride. After that, Jacob fathers 12 sons, each of whom become the head of one of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Jacob builds a prosperous life on Laban’s land. But after many years, he yearns to see his mother one last time and to claim his ill-gotten birthright. So, Jacob extricates himself from Laban through yet more trickery.

In today’s story of a night-long wrestling match, Jacob and a huge entourage of spouses, sons, slaves, and livestock are about to encounter Jacob’s brother Esau. After his night of struggle in which he receives a wounded hip and a divine blessing, Jacob completes the journey and is surprised when Esau welcomes him affectionately instead of killing him. So, all’s well that ends well?

When I was a child, I learned this tale of deception, sibling rivalry, and multiple-wives in Sunday school. That’s just what children in Christian families did in those days. But does Jacob’s story have anything to teach us, other than the origin of the name Israel, which the angel confers on Jacob as part of his blessing?

I believe that the church would be OK if it never focused on stories like this from Genesis. But I am also OK when we do so, with a few caveats.

One is to realize that stories like this one are not history. The book of Genesis, like most of the Hebrew Bible, was stitched together from various manuscripts and stories between 587 and 539 BCE when the Hebrew elite of Jerusalem lived in exile in what is now Iraq. That was about 2500 years ago. But the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are set about 1,000 years earlier than that.

Instead of viewing them as history, I view the tales in Genesis — from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, through Noah and the flood, and to the stories of Abraham and his sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons — as tribal myths; and I think a good way to approach them is as dreams that have been retold around campfires for generations.

Dreams do have their uses. Last Friday, I was privileged to join a spiritual direction circle that focuses on dreamwork. For the past five years, it has been led by a spiritual director at Providence Renewal Centre and has been comprised of a rotating group of ministers. This year the circle includes myself and three other United Church ministers. I enjoyed the first session, and I look forward to our monthly meetings.

This spiritual director, who taught Pastoral Counselling Education and theology at St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton before retirement, has long been influenced by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and philosopher. On Friday, she directed us to return in November with some dreams to discuss.

At our meeting on Friday, I suggested that dream analysis is also a way to approach Scripture. And I think today’s story makes a good case study.

The wrestling match is dream-like because it occurs in the night and leads to a resolution of a long-standing inner conflict within Jacob.

Despite being effeminate and the second-born son, Jacob has worked hard to become the patriarch who will succeed his father Isaac. Perhaps Jacob thinks he has proven his manhood not by tricking his brother and his father, but by building a fortune on his uncle’s land and by fathering 12 sons. And what could be more masculine that wrestling all night long with a divine angel and prevailing?

This dream gives Jacob the courage to complete his journey home to Esau. It also leaves him with a permanent hip injury.

The wounding and the blessing occur just before daybreak, which might symbolize enlightenment. After wrestling through the night with his fears and his flaws, Jacob finally brings to consciousness some of his shadow side. Having dreamed his dream, he emerges both wounded and blessed; both injured and healed.

Perhaps the wrestling match symbolizes a conflict between the feminine and masculine sides of Jacob. Perhaps he wrestled with the pain that flowed from betraying his father and brother. Viewing Jacob from today’s perspective, we could imagine he was also wrestling with the burden of being a slave-owner and a polygamist. Regardless, in wrestling with his inner demons, Jacob fights his way to a blessed state that is also accompanied by an acceptance of some of his wounds.

On the surface, Jacob’s story strikes me like a bad plot line from a TV series like “Dallas” or the “Godfather” movies. But viewing his story as a dream turns it into archetype that might resonate with us.

Like Jacob, we often find wounds in our blessings. Our family relationships are among our most precious and life-giving of blessings. But they also open us to some of our deepest losses. The longer we live, the more loss we experience . . . parents die, our physical abilities wane.

On top of these losses are the challenges of family life. We may both love a sibling and envy and compete with them. We may both love our spouse and find ourselves yearning for someone else. We may be blessed by many children, but find that our affection for one has led to conflict between them and the others.

And as much as we love the wonder of existence and the mysteries of life, the human condition is challenging. We are fragile and mortal. We are capable not just of gusts of ecstasy, joy, and delight, but also of waves of grief, pain, and disappointment. For good or ill, the blessings of life are accompanied by wounds. It seems that can’t embrace the things we like without also accepting the reality of some of the things we don’t like.

In today’s social conflicts, we might also hope for blessings to emerge. Could news of environmental destruction finally spur us to create a society in which the production of goods and services didn’t destroy habitats? Could the attempt to achieve reconciliation with Canada’s first peoples finally lead to a country in which the wounds of colonialism, which scar all Canadians regardless of ancestry, had been healed? Could confronting the reality of war finally lead to a world in which all nations were united in diversity and peace? In our struggles to heal these wounds, many blessings can flow regardless of our success in achieving our goals . . .

Another inspiration for today’s reflection comes from the hymn we will sing in a few minutes. “My Love Colours Outside the Lines” is filled with metaphors for different aspects of a life of faith. The one that ran through my mind this week is found in the second verse — “turns wounds to blessings and water into wine.”

Jacob’s wrestling match connects wounding with blessing. The same connection is made much more starkly in the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As people of faith, we trust that our lives will be marked by many deaths and resurrections. Each time we encounter a wounding trial — whether in family, church, or society – we have a gracious chance to die to an illusion and be reborn closer to Love. With each painful blessing, the reality of the Risen Christ burns brighter in our hearts and minds.

We are people blessed by new life in Christ. We are also individuals, families, and communities who bear the marks of many struggles and wounds. May we give thanks for the enlightenment, self-acceptance, and love that sometimes flow from dark nights of the soul.

And on this weekend when we give thanks for our blessings, may we also give thanks for wounds that open us to a love so deep that it passes all understanding.

May it be so. Amen.

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