Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Two War Stories--1917 and Ehud the Benjaminite


(If you would like to read the scripture where you can find the Ehud story, go to Judges 3:12-30. I'm going to be posting more of my sermons that deal with contemporary issues here, on the advice of my communication team. This is a sermon on this year's Oscar nominees, preached against the Judges story for comparison and contrast.)


            Before we read today’s scripture, I invited the children to leave for Sunday School. You see, our scripture for today was a war story, a particularly violent war story. I didn’t want to have to explain it to the children or apologize to the parents.

            And the movie that I’m going to review today, 1917, was rated “R.” That means anyone under the age of 17 who wants to see the movie has to be accompanied by an adult. 1917 is very violent.

            Why do we like these stories? Why are we such suckers for violence, murder and mayhem?

            So, first, the story of Ehud and Eglon. Not only is it violent, but ironically, this story is also supposed to be a divine comedy. Unfortunately, most of the humor gets lost in translation. I'll try to give you a taste of it, though. 

            Ehud is a Benjaminite, which means, in Hebrew, "son of my right hand." But we are also told that Ehud is a left-handed “son of my right hand.” Right off, the audience wants to know how the left-handed son of a right-handed people will take advantage of this confusion. 

            What is more, the obese King Eglon's name sounds like the Hebrew word for "fatted calf." So, now Hebrews are asking themselves how a left-handed son of my right hand is going to slaughter the fatted calf. 

            As it happens, after Ehud delivers Israel’s war tax, or tribute, to King Eglon, Ehud manages to trick the King’s retainers into leaving, so that Ehud is alone with the King. Then Ehud grabs his sword, successfully hidden on the wrong-right side of his body and buries it in Eglon’s belly. 

            Ehud then dumps the dead King in a bathroom, shuts the door, and runs. In Hebrew what follows literally reads: "The servants came and saw, look, the doors of the upper room are locked, and they said he must be relieving himself. They waited a long time and look, he's not opening the doors of his room, and they took the keys and opened them, and look, their lord is sprawled on the floor, dead.”

            Next, the Israelites take on the Moabite army. The Moabite soldiers are said to be “vigourous and strong,” though the word used can also mean "fat." So, in a neat little parallel to the fate of their master, all the "fat" Moabite soldiers are struck down too. 

            This story, whenever it was read, had Israelites rolling on the floor with mirth and laughter. When they finally quieted down, one of them would only have to say, "he was relieving himself," or "they were all vigorously fat soldiers" or “look,” and everyone would break out in laughter all over again. 

            The Oscar nominated 1917, on the other hand, isn’t funny. Not at all. 


            In brief, two British soldiers, Schofield and Blake, have to cross no-man’s land to warn 1600 isolated British troops to call off a doomed attack.

            It’s a death trip, underlined by images of burial, bottomless pits, and a hellish inferno.

            At one point, a German airplane crashes, Lucifer like, out of the sky. After rescuing the German pilot, the pilot plugs a knife deep into Blake’s belly and kills him—an echo of Ehud and Eglon. Only Schofield is left. So, we all pray, with Jean Valjean, “Bring him home. Bring him peace. He is only a boy.” 

            And that morning, after navigating Hades and bullets, Schofield gets to the 1600 isolated troops. And some of them survive.

            So why do we throng to see 1917? Why are we such suckers for this violence, murder and mayhem? 

            You are probably thinking, “well, we like these stories because they have deeper meaning, a moral.” Maybe. But just because a story has a meaning, is it the right one? Consider Ehud and Eglon again. It is quite clear that this story is told—as are all the stories in Judges—to convince the Israelites to worship Yahweh, and Yahweh alone. If they do so, God will give them health, wealth, and peace. If they do not worship Yahweh, however, God will abandon them, and they will be conquered.

            The problem, of course, is that this isn’t true. Whether or not the Jewish people have been faithful over the past twenty-five-hundred years, their history has almost always been, regardless of their piety, one of suffering, persecution, exiles, pogroms and holocausts. Even now, anti-Semitism is on the rise, and most of the nations surrounding Israel want the Jewish state quashed. It is ugly.

            Meanwhile, sadly, the State of Israel has responded with military occupation and illegal settlement and confiscation of conquered Palestinian territory, a universally recognized war crime and not peace at all.

            So, it isn’t true that when Israel walks with the Lord, in the light of his word, what a glory he sheds on their way; it isn’t true that while Israel does his good will, he abides with them still, and with all who will trust and obey.” We used to sing such meaning for ourselves too, but that is not how the world turns. Sometimes, often even, evil nations, like evil people, prosper. And nations trying to do the right thing, fail.

            And what is the moral or meaning of 1917? That heroes triumph over adversity? That something as hellish as war cannot stop brave men? That to do one’s duty is the main thing? That today is a good day to die? I don’t know. For all of its macabre beauty 1917 left me feeling depressed about the human prospect. 

            So why do we throng to see it? Why are we suckers for violence, murder and mayhem?  Well, maybe such stories excite our basest, most ancient fight or flight instincts, without actually putting us in danger. Plus, there must be 101 reasons philosophers could give for the appeal of violence as an artistic subject. 

            But here’s the thing. If nothing else, both of these stories reinforce something that we all know but all too rarely focus on. War is hell. 
            
            I do not mean to say that when we are up against some final wall, and it is a matter of war or death camps, or basic freedoms—I do not mean to suggest we should never fight back. I am, at best, a half-baked pacifist. 

            But I am saying that those who live by war, countries that make war a habit, that find provocations easily, who cannot refrain from using violence to further what they think of as being in their national interest—those who live by the sword will die by the sword. This is another Biblical meaning than the one in Eglon and Ehud’s story, a very different one, and it is, I think, much closer to the truth. 

            I sometimes fear that here in Canada, as a neighbour of the USA and a partner with NATO, we are at risk of forgetting that war is hell, that it is not the answer, and we have begun to buy into the myth that might makes right, and anyways the West will never lose.

            We live in an era where, for meaning, we are inundated with half-truths and excuses and propaganda and fake news. I invite you to remember that even the Bible—as in the story of Eglon and Ehud—even the Bible gets meaning wrong sometimes. Think critically. Especially about military affairs and war.

            We live in an era where our neighbour to the South, the United States—a country of which I am a citizen—has intervened militarily in the affairs of its neighbours to its South, in Central and South America, over 80 times in 100 years, mostly in the name of democracy. Well, then, Central and South America should be among the most democratic places the world.

            We live in an era where our neighbour to the South, the United States, has been at war in the middle East continually since 2003—a good part of that time with our Canadian help. For all such violent interventions, this is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. 

            I don’t know how to fix these geopolitical matters. You don’t either. But, at the very least, when it comes to our prayers, we need to be with Maya Angelou, who prays, “Father, Mother, God, you, the borderless sea of substance, we ask you to give all the world that which we need the most: peace.” 

            Except that we must pray this prayer having learned from Ehud and the Israelites that ultimately God chooses to answer our prayers for peace only by making us humans responsible to make it so. It’s our job and ours alone. There is no “trust and obey God” path that guarantees peace, no “but we’re a Christian nation,” narrative that secures our superiority. We should try to learn, instead, how, by our voting and investing, in our politics and locker-room conversations, in our schools and churches—we could learn how, not merely to pray for peace, but to wage peace, ourselves. 

            You know. What Jesus wanted.

Monday, December 16, 2019

My 2019 Ten-Best (Maybe More) Books


         The first book I read this year was titled, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredityby Carl Zimmer. The best part of the book was its title. And a few nights ago I finished Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a SoulIt’s been on my “must read” list for about forty years. Jung’s book is interesting in that it is both wrong on many counts, as new scientific developments have surpassed him; but irresistibly wise too, about the invisible currents that move us and shape our lives. 

         I read a book-a-week this year. It's what I do to unwind. I also have the habit of once starting a book, always finishing it. So I read some books this past year that didn't much impress me (Marcus Borg's Putting Away Childish Things was a theology book disguised as a novel. One Goodreads.com star.) What follows here, though, are some of my favourite reads from the past year. They are all five-star worthy.

Science Fiction

         One: I found Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments to be both a page turner and a wise, hopeful take on how we as humans might overcome some of our darker religious impulses. It was gripping, and a fitting conclusion to her Handmaid’s Tale

         Two: I also read a trilogy of books—Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, Daughter of Eden, and Mother of Eden—about a human settlement on a planet with no sun, whose heat was all derived from a thermal core deep inside. It was a lovely exercise in world building. But the trilogy was an even more fascinating exploration of religion building, of class structure, and of sexual ethics. Science fiction is usually what I read for fun and escapism. However, all of these books—and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Timealso demanded serious reflection about our society and introspection about myself and my priorities.

Non-Fiction

         Three: A review in the New York Times led me to Silver, Sword and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American StoryAuthor Marie Arana discusses how commerce, military conquest, and religion have shaped South and Central American society and culture. The picture she paints is not pretty. But her story telling is superb, and it is definitely a story privileged white people like me need to hear. 

         Four: I read several books about Canada’s First Nations. The first was Toronto Star writer Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. This book explored the suspicious deaths of several First Nation kids who attended high school far from their homes, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The structural racism these kids faced by being forced to live so far from home to attend school, in a city where they were clearly seen as troublesome and expendable, in a school system that was much too short of resources for no good reason other than racism bears reading. Talaga tells her stories with compassion and flair, which makes this hard read also strangely satisfying and worthwhile.
         Jesse Thistle’s From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way tells a more hopeful story about how, in spite of beginning his life with many deficits, Jesse nevertheless somehow succeeded. A big part of the story here concerns the faithfulness of families, friends, and lovers. 

         Five: Tara Westover’s Educated is an amazing memoir about growing up in a Mormon family. Her parents are abusive, neglectful, and into survivalism. Tara is home schooled--barely. But she manages to make it to college and graduate school. 

         Six: I walked into Toronto’s best bookstore during the early fall—Ben Mcnally’s, on Bay Street near City Hall. Tragically, the store is being forced to relocate in order for its space to be redeveloped. But it’s a treasure of trove of books not necessarily best sellers, but all very fine. The book I found on my last trip there was Andrew Pettegree’s The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age. Given my academic interest in literacy this book about the Dutch book trade during its Golden Age was fabulous. 

        And since I’m of Dutch extraction, two other books were very interesting to me. Max Havelaar by Multatuli is a nineteenth century exposé of the horrors of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia that left the Dutch without excuse when it came to another hundred years of their racist and violent exploitation of that country. And Blacks in the Dutch World by Allison Blakely was an interesting account of the slow but growing presence of Blacks in the Netherlands from the fifteenth century on. The book covers the sickening role of Dutch slave traders in some detail as well. 

         Seven: Perhaps the most fascinating book I read, at least from a professional perspective as a preacher and theologian, was Ronald Hendel’s How Old Is the Hebrew Bible: A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study. I’ve read a number of books about ancient Jewish religion of late, and though this one was a bit technical when it came to Hebrew grammar, I could follow it pretty well. It was especially interesting when it discussed the evolution of Yahweh from a minor tribal god, to Israel’s chief god, to the idea that Yahweh was the one and only God—monotheism. 

Fiction

         Eight: Another New York Times book review led me to Cara Wall’s The Dearly BelovedHow could I not love this book about two clergy families? Two young ministers, one a social activist and the other an intellectual pilgrim, arrive together at a New York church as co-pastors. They struggle through the upheavals of the sixties to forge a close relationship in spite of very different spouses, beliefs, and family challenges. It’s about faith, the realities of being a minister, and the inner lives of people facing huge challenges. Beautifully written, too.

         Nine: A young woman who used to be my neighbour, Mariama Lockington, wrote a challenging, sad, but ultimately hopeful book for teens entitled For Black Girls Like MeThe book has received a lot of recognition and many awards. Although the setting is the United States, it is well worth reading by Canadians dedicated to making our multi-cultural society work.

         Ten: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is a strange book touched by just a bit of magical realism. It is about a slave boy who escapes his destiny in a balloon, finds himself by passing through both the arctic and deserts, and has an abiding love of sea life. He escapes slavery, falls in love, and finds himself. What could be better than that? This book also offers many insights into racism, slavery, and trauma along the way.

         Eleven: The strangest but most lyrical book I read this year was another one touched by magical realism—in this case a lot of it. It’s Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. Set in and just after Mexico’s civil war, this is a story about how a foundling saved a man from living a meaningless life. He—the foundling—had a thing for bees too, or rather, the bees had a thing for him. Lovely. It led me to read a non-fiction book about bees that was pretty interesting too, Thor Hanson’s The Nature and Necessity of Bees

        


Monday, December 9, 2019

The War on Christmas (or, Tired of Muscular Christianity)



            Let’s be honest. If our children or grandchildren thought that three wise men visited Baby Jesus on Rudolph, the red-nosed camel, we would smile but hardly be surprised. 

            Or, if the kids thought that angels serenaded shepherds in the field with jingle bells, we would  smile, but hardly be surprised.

            Christmas, the religious celebration of Jesus’ birth, is pretty much history. The Grinch has stolen it, big retail has monopolized it, and now Santa delivers it. 

            Starbucks knows this. A few years ago, they began celebrating the season by serving its Ventis in red cups. Some sippers were outraged, claiming that this—failing to mention Christmas on the cups—amounted to war on Christmas.

            Donald Trump addressed the cup controversy on the campaign trail. “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks,” he said. “If I become president we’re all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you.” Maybe. Maybe not. But this year Starbucks cups say, “Merry Coffee.”

Hipster Christmas Creche
            I liked the Hipster manger controversy even better. As soon as Irene, my spouse, saw it, she had to have it. Mary has a Starbucks in her hand. The Wise Men bring baby Jesus Amazon packages on Segways and Joseph is taking a selfie with his iPhone.

            Casey Wright, who created this product, told CNBC about how people react.  “It’s usually, ‘This is hilarious. I need one.’ Or ‘This is sacrilegious, I hope you burn in hell,’ and almost nothing between those two extremes. 

           How do you feel about the commercialization of Christmas? We could fight it. This Christmas we could be muscular Christians ready for a fight.

            But personally, I am not interested in a Christianity forever offering its theological biceps to be felt, thumping its “holier than thou” breast, thanking heaven that it will, ultimately, with an inquisition or two, finally enforce religious uniformity and make North America great again. 

            Similarly, I am not interested in a Herod-type Christianity that insists every wise guy must worship at his alter, in obedience to Fundamentalist pressure politics. I am not interested in a Gilead-type Christianity, as described in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, where what you sing, and how you dress and what you are allowed to think is decided by politicians merely pretending to be religious. 

            I’ll be blunt here. Religious power corrupts and absolute religious power that coerces people either by law or social pressure corrupts absolutely. Too much power for religion looks like residential schools training First Nations kids to pass for white. Too much power for religion looks like social mores that force LGBTQ people or atheists into their closets. And absolute power for religion looks like crusades and pogroms and prison for unbelievers and nonconformists.

            No. we should not defend any attempt to officially put Jesus back into Christmas. There is a reason, according to our stories, that Jesus was born in a barn and laid in a manger. There is a reason he had, according to Isaiah, no form or majesty that we should desire him. There is a reason Jesus chose to be despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, who suffered and died rather than submit to the power of the priests or Romans. There is a reason Jesus fled to Egypt when Herod roared, instead of calling F-18s with angel pilots to blast him away.

            You see, the very character of Christianity is that its persuasiveness never lies in power as Herod or Franklin Graham or Justin Trudeau might conceive of it—the power of a lobby or a union or a corporation to coerce.

            No, Christians choose to sing Advent songs in a minor key. Christian persuasiveness turns on a voice crying in the wilderness. 

            The Christian way, when it comes to the war on Christmas, is to do as Jesus did, to turn the other cheek while clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and providing good-paying jobs in vineyards. Christians choose to let their care and concern turn heads, if there are heads to be turned.

            Christianity is no longer the religion of the mostest for the apparently holiest. Our faith is being marched out of the public square. But that’s okay. We don’t need to be a politically or culturally powerful religion to change the world. Christians are invited, rather, to imitate Jesus, wherever and whenever we can—to bring Christ’s values to our families, workplaces, corporations and politics. With kindness for the leastest and lastest left over.

            So never mind about the war on Christmas. It isn’t a battle Jesus would fight. In fact, I’d say that if you can stand it, you may as well try to enjoy a month’s worth of “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Camel.” In fact, go shop till you drop and open gifts on Christmas morning. Why not enter into the general frivolity and generosity of the most secular season at its best? Tis the season to have fun and family and festivity and who could argue with that?

            Just do it all with the attitude of Christ in your heart rather than with a “Jesus is the reason for the season” chip on you shoulder.

            


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Beware: Community Ministry or Focus Won't Save Your Church.


            I have been to half-a-dozen “denominational-visioning” meetings over the past few years. My own congregation organized one, a few years ago, on church amalgamation. A month or two ago it was a meeting about “innovative” ideas for ministry. This morning it was a gathering to consider what to do with our valuable but decaying Toronto church buildings. We are all property rich but cash poor.          

            And at all these meetings, participants usually talk about doing ministry for and in their local communities as the long-term basis upon which the survival of their congregations depends.

            They are wrong. It is actually the other way around. Only churches that survive—and thrive—can do great ministry in their local communities.

            So first, a caveat. I love how, in the United Church of Canada, I am continually bathed in excitement to do local neighborhood ministry. We do soup kitchens and ESL, host the homeless and offer incubator space for startups; we house schools, provide community space for AA and ratepayer meetings, and we sponsor foodbanks and cafes. We send our members out to lobby for the homeless, protest US immigration policy, attend Gay-Pride parades and make space available for community gardens. And on and on and I love it all. 

The Food Bank at East End United Church,
Toronto
           But meanwhile, many of the churches that these activities are sponsored by are shrinking and dying. Community ministry is a necessary component of any church’s ministry. But—with perhaps the rarest of exceptions—doing community ministry cannot sustain a church.

            Why not? Well, the reasons are myriad, but there are a few key ones. 

           First, churches are much emptier than they used to be because many fewer Canadians go to church. As late as 1965 more than half of Canadians could be found in a church on Sunday morning. Now, less than fifty years later, probably less than ten percent, not more than thirteen, might be found in church. Community churches like mine, “Lawrence Park Community Church,” used to fill with neighborhood people who walked to church. But now, with only one fifth of the Canadians going to church compared to fifty years ago, it is as if four out of five of those local homes people used to come to church from are empty. What's more, the remaining houses have far fewer people in them due to demographic trends such as people having fewer children now compared to fifty years ago.

Can this congregation survive? Do ministry? Change?
            Second, this means that no Toronto neighbourhood has enough people to support a church that draws its membership solely from that neighbourhood, or especially from the even smaller number of people the church ministers to in that neighbourhood. Besides, every neighbourhood also has churches from different denominations—or synagogues or temples or mosques—vying for the same dwindling population of religious adherents. It’s a church-eat-church jungle out there.

            You might wonder, of course, if some newer high-density neighbourhoods are different. With many more people per square kilometer, perhaps neighbourhood churches are possible in such communities. Maybe. But these high-density neighbourhoods, such as Toronto's hip Liberty Village, also tend to be full of younger people whose church attendance is even lower than among older Canadians.

            Third, with increased immigration, the ethnic makeup of many neighbourhoods is also changing. Two of the larger ethnic groups in my church’s neighborhood are Iranians and Chinese. Many are well-to-do. They are wonderful people whose wide range of experiences and cultural capital are a gift to Canada. However, very few of them are Christian. And, if they are, they tend to go to ethnic-enclave churches. There isn’t much opportunity for growth there.

            Fourth, local ministry often and rightly means ministry to marginalized Canadians—the poor, the homeless, the distressed, and recent arrivals trying to fit in. This is as it should be. But these same people should not be mistaken for the people who can financially sustain a church, even in large numbers.

            Fifth, property redevelopment is not a panacea either. At the meeting I went to today, we discussed the possibilities. The idea is that some churches may be able to both improve their worship space and maintain their local ministries by working with developers to transform their old church into new condos or office buildings or schools or retail space.

How about condos in an old church, including
some new worship space for that dying congregation?
            This could be all well and good, except that by the time churches choose for such options, they are already tiny, tired, and full of members thinking of moving out of the GTA to retire in Collingwood or Cobourg. And, a lawyer who works with developers told us, most redevelopment plans take ten years from start to finish. In such cases will anyone be left in the redeveloped church to turn the lights on for the first time?

            So where are we at? I have a few thoughts. 

            A. Churches that survive—whether they are Fundamentalist, or Evangelical, or Mainline—draw their adherents from far beyond their local neighbourhood. These “destination churches” offer people good reasons for travelling some distance in order to attend and belong. And usually, these “good reasons,” are very intentional and well thought out. 

            Not always, of course. Some destination churches draw people from longer distances almost by accident, as it were. Ethnic churches, for example. The Christian Reformed Church—a church made up largely of Dutch immigrants—will attract people from a distance because ethnicity is its strongest glue. A very few churches will have that one-in-a-million preacher that people travel far and wide to hear. Very conservative churches may use theological guilt memes about hell or shunning to continue to draw people from a distance, after they have moved away. But ultimately, if congregations want to stay strong, they are going to have to be very smart and very intentional about drawing people from far away into membership and mission.  

            B. Destination churches do local ministry because they are healthy churches. But they do many other kinds of ministry too. They give to national and international causes. They reach out not only to the marginalized, but also to those who are not. 

            A key ministry healthy churches engage in is the ministry of giving meaning and purpose to people who are looking for it to use in their workplaces, their distant neighbourhoods, and when they sit in front of TVs to watch the news. 

            Does our relentless focus on community engagement distract us from other important ministries? Such as offering people “meaning?” When Jesus saw the crowds that followed him around the lake, he had compassion on them. But what did he do next? The text is clear—he taught them. Only after that did he (according to the story) feed them. Today, people are hungering for meaning, for insight about how to morally apply the levers of power that they have their hands on, for how to make sense of tragedy and loss, for how to raise children or fight the racism (or sexism or LGBTQ hatred) they feel is directed against them.

            To me this is one of the more important truths we need to hang onto. Ministry is not just doing—our ministries need to cover heart and mind and hands. And for all the priority we place on hands “doing” sort of ministry, we should not forget that however we now frame it, the church was founded as a locus of good news that transformed the hopes and dreams of people. We need both Martha and a Mary sides to our ministry and it even appears that Jesus prioritized the Mary-teaching side (though I recognize that this is a favourite area for scholarly debate). Churches must be incredibly intentional about sharing this “gospel.” What churches have on offer must speak to the longings and confusions of our current society in a compelling way that keeps people on the edge of their seats. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, years ago, “If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon, or build a better mousetrap than his neighbour, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”  

            I am not, by the way, here arguing for nothing but traditional sermons. There are other ways to share the gospel, from discussion on Sunday mornings to classes on Wednesday nights. And I am not arguing for an old-fashioned orthodoxy either. Meaning is not singular. It isn’t just one sanctioned teaching and no other that I care about. Meaning is something we make together as congregations on the way, with the insights—scriptural or not—that we all bring to the process. No one would ever mistake me for orthodox when it comes to Christianity’s old creeds! But Jesus' story is the good news deep in my bones that inspires my hands to get to work.

            C. Similarly, worship matters. There are 101 United congregations doing variations of Anglican-light liturgy and music and vestments and litanies and rituals. Fine. We need all that to be a part of our denominational mix. But Anglican light is not the language of a majority of the people of Toronto. Indeed, it may be impenetrable to people who rarely go to church. So, what are you or your congregation doing about that? How will you change the worship in your congregation without falling into worship wars? 

            D. Destination churches invest in getting out the word about their preaching, their worship, and their ministry opportunities for involvement. They experiment with new forms of bringing good news to people far and near. And when, through amalgamation or endowment they end up with a pot of new money, they don’t sit on it, or use it to fix their buildings (a renovated building never brought in a new adherent)—healthy destination churches use these resources to become more relevant, more engaging, more focused on sharing their take on the good news, instead. 

          All healthy churches engage in evangelism. In our mainline setting, this won't be evangelism based on the idea of getting people to choose for heaven (or not). It will be evangelism based on offering good news for people who are looking for meaning, understanding, a supportive community, healing, and all the other things our tradition has to offer. 

            E. As long as we have one or two United Churches in every city neighbourhood, we simply have far too many churches to expect that more than a tiny handful will ultimately survive and thrive. And until they die, in most of these neighbourhoods, these United Churches will be in competition with each other for the same neighbourhood members. They will all struggle with diminished resources at just that time they need more to offer robust reasons for new members to join. 

            So, many, many city churches must now amalgamate before they enter into almost absolutely irreversible death spirals. They must amalgamate while they still have imagination and people energy and financial resources to do D, above.

            We all know that the prognosis for people who have had CPR resuscitation to restart their hearts is never going to be as good as it is for people who haven’t had a health emergency. But the same applies to churches. We must take up healthy amalgamations long before churches need CPR to survive. Our world and neighbourhoods, our transportation systems and culture, our resources and preoccupations are way different now compared to 100 years ago when walking or a tram were the only ways to get to church. 

          Still, in spite of all the societal and city change, we too often expect the worship and architecture and music and locations of the past to still work seamlessly in this new setting. None of it will, however. So among all the other things we ought to do, we must cut back on the number of churches we have. We must amalgamate them to focus our resources—and the best locations—on taking on today's challenges instead of early-twentieth-century challenges. There are many models for healthy amalgamation: multi-campus, multiple-point, satellite locations, shared staff, re-launch, and so on. The trick is that they all work in inverse proportion to how soon two or more congregations get busy with such amalgamations. 

            F. If people are going to attend destination churches rather than a church they can walk to, they must have parking, and lots of it. Because when you attend a church you can’t walk to--a destination church that has figured out it needs to reach beyond its immediate neighbourhood--when you attend such a church you will usually drive. Transit may be an option for some, but people coming in from the further suburbs don’t always have great access to quick transit out there. Too many of our churches have no parking, or little parking, or force their aging adherents to walk ever longer distances to find street parking. This is not sustainable, and such churches will eventually close, no matter how much great neighbourhood ministry they do!

Even churches with access to transit need parking
for those coming from the suburbs.
            This means that one of our best options might be deciding to build a new amalgamated-church building in order to locate somewhere where both parking and transit are available. This relocation might not be to a church. Perhaps a former retail or industrial site? A mall that is closing (most are, for some of the same reasons churches are). 

            There is more to be said. And, I admit, this has taken the form of a Jeremiad—a sermon that is basically a rant. I sound like I know it all. The truth is, in my later ministry, some of this is just starting to dawn on me, and some of these actions are just in the experimental stage. Still, it now seems to me that these are the sort of things we need to talk about, whether my diagnosis is right or wrong. Because doing more local neighbourhood ministry with smaller, older groups of people is not a solution to the troubles we face.


Monday, November 18, 2019

Evolution Is the Solution (to One of Preaching's Biggest Problems).


I'm also trying to figure out evolution, and how it informs my faith. This blogpost is one such effort, shared with my congregation, and based, in part, on my reflections on Psalm 8, and the lofty (evolved?) status that humans are given there.

         An eighteen-wheeler semitruck has, well, eighteen wheels. Each one is important. If you ever find yourself driving down the highway in a semi you wouldn’t want any of those tires to go flat. 

         But, perhaps more than any of the others, you want the semi’s two front two tires to stay on track. If one of those blows it will be very hard, perhaps impossible, to steer. Blow one of your front tires and you may have an emergency on your hands.

         That is how it is for me too. I have at least eighteen interests: family, literature, birds, sailing, theology, and more. I like them all. If I had to drop any one of them, I’d be sad. But two of my interests have steered me, as a minister, more than the others. One is a hobby—evolution. The other is a passion—preaching.

         So first, evolution. Evolution is the slow process by which genetic mutations have transformed ape-like creatures that lived millions of years ago into modern humans. It’s a theory, of course, like gravity is a theory.

My Australapithicus Sebida tie!
         I have always been fascinated by evolution. One of the highlights of my sabbatical, five years ago, was the opportunity to visit the Cradle of Humankind, near Pretoria in South Africa. Many ancient human fossils have been found in these limestone caves. I crawled through them, deep underground, where archeologists were still working. 

          I also picked up the skeleton tie I’m wearing today at the Cradle of Humankind museum. It shows the skeleton of an individual from a species known as Australapithicus Sebida. This person lived about two million years ago, walked on two feet and used stone tools. We can’t be sure whether or not Sebida was a direct ancestor to humans, but if it wasn’t, Sebida was a first cousin. 

          This next picture is of a Homo Rudolfensis individual, who lived at about the same time, but in East Africa. The pictures I’m showing today are facial reconstructions based on the shape of the bones and marks left by ligaments. It’s a process much like that police use to reconstruct the faces of people whose bones have been found but can’t be identified. Scientists are pretty sure that our species, Homo Sapiens, is descended from Homo Rudolfensis. 

Home Rudolfensis.
         Rudolfensis, like Sebida, used stone tools—scrapers, knives, and axes. The shape of their teeth suggests they ate meat, but it was likely raw because there is no evidence they used fire. It doesn’t sound like great cuisine, but then, you know, some people still eat sushi. According to Psalm 8, humans are “a little lower than God.” Sebida and Rudolfensis were, perhaps, on the way—but they certainly did not yet have the “dominion” (v. 6) over creation the Psalmist claimed for us.

         The next picture is of Homo Naledi, a human species discovered in the Cradle of Humanity not long after I visited there. We are not descended from Naledi. They are another cousin species, like Sebida. 

Homo Naledi
         This person lived about 350,000 years ago, and compared to us, had a much smaller brain. A large number of individuals were found buried in a cave far underground, suggesting that they were deposited there ritually. And, they must have had portable fire to get so far below, in the dark. That would have been an impressive technological development. But, like Sebida and Rudophensis, Naledi is extinct. Human species do go extinct. Many already have. Think about that. Extinction is in the realm of human possibility because it has already happened—a few times.

         The last picture is of a Homo Neanderthal individual. Neanderthals are our kissing cousins because we Homo Sapiens sporadically interbred with them. Most humans outside of Africa have some Neanderthal genes. Neanderthals showed up in Europe about seven or eight hundred thousand years ago, and went extinct about 35,000 years ago, just a few thousand years after Homo Sapiens arrived in Europe. That means that Neanderthals were in Europe fourteen times longer than we Homo Sapiens have been in Europe!

Homo Neanderthal
        While Neanderthals look odd to us due to their huge nose and eyebrow bones, they used fire, managed to live in cold climates by sewing together clothes, had complex tools, and took care of their aged and wounded even when they could no longer work. Because they buried their dead with rituals and plants, Neanderthals probably had beliefs about an afterlife. They made jewelry and flutes. 

         However, as far as we can tell, Neanderthals never managed to domesticate and other beasts of the field, a feat the Psalmist does claim for us (vv 6,7). 

         “Us” are, in this case, a human species called Homo Sapiens—which means, ironically, translated from the Latin, “wise humans.” Not only do we control fire, we split atoms. We have perfected the technology of healing human bones, reading them for ancient DNA, or replacing them when they wear out. We live in unimaginable comfort and ease compared to Neanderthals. And, for better or worse, we do have dominion over all the earth and everything in it, and we do have god-like powers with respect to the earth, just as the writer of Psalm 8 observed.

         Unfortunately, we have also been implicated in the extinction of countless species of birds of the air and fish of the sea—never mind plants of the earth. We are changing the climate of the planet, perfected racism and genocide and nuclear annihilation as political tools, threatening ourselves with extinction. We can feed everyone on our planet, but don’t. We have the capacity to think morally, about what is right and wrong, but often refuse to do so in the search for short term gain.

         I said we have the capacity to think morally. That brings me to the second wheel that steers my semi. It’s preaching. My PhD is in Speech Communication. I’ve taught preaching in seminary and continue to think a lot about it. And one of the most irritating problems I face as a preacher has always been the problem of nagging. 

         You see, I am convinced that Jesus is a model for human morality. But that means when I get into the pulpit, I’m also tempted to tell my congregation what to do: imitate Jesus, be courageous like Jesus, heal like Jesus, love like Jesus, fight injustice like Jesus, treat the poor like Jesus. Every Sunday I’m off to the races and encourage Christians to go, go, go. But if that is my message, week in and out, I am going to sound like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal—a nag. And my congregation is going to feel inadequate because no matter what I say, they know they can’t do it all, always, as well as Jesus did, or Jesus told us to do, or I am tempted to nag them to do. 

         So, using my first interest, evolution, I want to suggest a way of thinking about my second interest, preaching, that will help get at solving the nagging problem. It’s called the Butterfly effect. Two science-fiction writers, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, put it this way in a recent book, Good Omens. 

It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realized that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.

         The butterfly effect is obviously much more complex than described here. But it has also received a lot of attention recently, especially by both social and hard scientists. Basically, the theory recognizes that small, unpredictable events often have a huge impact down the road. What if, as related by Victor Hugo, Napoleon’s cuirassiers at the Battle of Waterloo had not plunged into the little hidden ravine between them and the English on the Road of Ohain? Hugo thinks Napoleon would have won. What if a Viking fisherman, five hundred years before Columbus, in Newfoundland, had passed on European diseases to First Nations back then? Would that mean that resistance to Western diseases might have been widespread by the time Columbus arrived? Would the Incan civilization not then have succumbed to Western diseases recently introduced by the Spanish? Would Spain have then been unable to commit their centuries of cultural rape and genocide in the names of God and King? The history of the world turns on many similar, otherwise unremarkable, events.

         There is an ancient proverb that gets at this mystery. It is about the nail that fastens a horseshoe to a hoof. It goes like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

         In an analogous way, the accumulation of small, evolutionary changes—but perhaps more importantly, the accumulation of daily events in our ancestors’ lives, has made humans—both with our good traits and our bad ones—what we are today. We are who we are, in part, because of a million, billion butterfly wing flaps by countless nameless saints through the millennia. 

         And now, when it comes to the planet, to how we act at work, to how we educate our children, to how we spend our cash—our small and unpredictable actions are also what the future of the human race will rest upon and be determined by. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t make a difference. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that your contribution has to be heroic, or it won’t make a difference. 

         Wrong. The accumulation of our simple actions, over the course of our lives and magnified by many other actions by many other people over thousands of generations changes the world we live in, often in unpredictable, but also potentially beautiful ways. And our challenge, our adventure in life, is to do good, moral things that can yet nudge us to fulfil all our potential, the potential the Psalmist bragged about—perhaps a bit prematurely.

         We face huge challenges. We are overwhelmed, individually, by climate change and racism, by our new social media habits and fake news, by homelessness in the streets and plastic in the ocean—and even by the knowledge that other human races have failed and are no longer with us. 

         And yet, the lesson of human biological and cultural evolution is that bit by bit both we and our environment change. And cumulatively, we transform the human prospect together, may even keep our rig on the road, by trying to be like Jesus in the small things first. Perhaps, over time, our culture and we as humans will not only get the dominion, but do so for beauty of the earth. 

         So, don’t lose heart if preachers nag you too much, at least occasionally. Don’t imagine that you really have to be the hero who does it all by yourself. Just try to follow Jesus today. In the small things. Those are the actions that will help determine the future of our world.