Journey Towards Reconciliation: Ecumenical Confessions

pentecost

Can I confess that there was a time, many years ago, that if you had told me that I was going to become a pastor, and that as a pastor I was going to be speaking at an ecumenical breakfast with so many traditions here, I don’t think I would have believed you?

For me, I neglected to realize just how my story was intertwined with so many other traditions of Christianity. To date, before taking up my position at First Baptist, my wife and I have attended Alliance, Mennonite Brethren, and Pentecostal churches. I went to a Christian Reformed private school till grade 6, I attended a Catholic High School, I did my seminary at Baptist and Anglican colleges, and now, because God loves a good joke, I am a Baptist pastor and, oddly, somehow, a chaplain at and Anglican University, Thorneloe College, where I help lead services, and where I also teach Theology, Christian ethics, and the Gospel of Mark.

God’s Spirit is doing something beautiful in this age. God is causing us to dwell together, to realize we have a shared story and identity in our diversity. Our lives intersect now more than ever, and we can now see our commonality and build a common life together.

This week, First Baptist and the other churches of Garson, will be doing a unity service our communities have been doing for 14 years. I think the people at First Baptist first began doing the ecumenical service as a secret mission to convert Catholics, Anglicans, and people in the UCC. “If we get to know them and they get to know us, then we can show them what is actually in the Bible, then they will come to our church!” Some of you may have started your ecumenical journeys for the same reason.

After 14 years, the reality is something better happened: we have culminated a common life together.  A member of Trinity United leads our Day Care. My son goes to St. John’s school in Garson. The ladies at St. John’s even got Rev. Erin and I Christmas gifts this year. We see each other at the grocery store, and we talk like bumping into old friends. We are learning the truths of what the Scripture this year is: 2 Cor. 5:

 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

When I look at my life, my convictions about what the church is and ought to be, I had to come to grips with Christ’s reconciliation in myself and in the diversity of his body. So, let me unpack insights to reconciliation between us that I have learned in my walk in Christ’s church.

1.    Reconciled in Christ

What is familiar to us can be a gift: I am so glad I grew up going to Sunday school, Bible camp and youth group. But it can also become a temptation if we refuse to see Christ in other churches other than our own. I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. My Dad was a truck driver for Dofasco steel mill. Sudbury feels a lot like home because they are both steel towns (nickel, actually, in Sudbury). One mines it; the other makes it. My grandfather was a Baptist pastor. I grew up in the church. I said the sinner’s prayer when I was very little. I said it, actually because my older brother had the night before, and I wanted what he had. Typical younger brother, eh? That is when Jesus began his reconciling work in my heart.

I had a simple childhood until grade six. Then things got messy. My parents got divorced. It ended in infidelity. We switched schools. I had friends at my old school but as a young, confused, shy kid in grade six, I was picked on severely.

My mom decided to send me to the different high school from the public system. I went to a Catholic High School. Cardinal Newman CSS. My son goes to St. John’s. Why? Because I found that my faith grew in a Catholic school environment. The other day my son came home and told me that today in school they learned that Jesus is in his heart.
It was at Catholic High School that I grew in my faith. A former nun got me to read the Bible. Up until that time, me as a child raised with Sunday School and VBS, I assumed I knew what was in the Bible. But it was a former nun, Ms. Tessier, who encouraged me to read my Bible for myself. I remember opening the Bible one night in grade eleven, turning to the book of Romans, and being enthralled at its words of grace. As I reported all this back to her, she helped me form a small Bible study at Cardinal Newman, and she encouraged me to look into going into ministry. A Catholic nun helped raise up a Baptist pastor. Isn’t that funny? I wanted to be an architect up until that point. My mother wanted me to become a doctor (what parent doesn’t?). That February, I decided to practice Lent for the first time. I decided to give up video games and watching TV…and I played a lot of video games and TV, over 5 hours a day; it was an idol in my life for sure. With all the time I now had, and read Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. I realized my purpose was to serve God.

Impressed with myself I grew increasingly perfectionistic in my faith. Now, I know that it takes years for Christ to slowly work in our character sometimes, but then, I wanted to be perfect all at once (This was probably some of the Holiness Movement influencing me at the time). I figured if you have faith you can do anything, and if you mess up, that shows you don’t have enough faith. Then I kept messing up. So, I began to doubt: Do I have enough faith? If I am saved by faith, and I don’t have enough faith, am I really saved at all? Frustration built up and I began to beat myself up about everything.

I remember getting myself all upset about this. I remember beginning to cry in my room, wondering if I was saved. I didn’t think I had enough faith. At that moment, I looked up and saw myself in a cell of sorts, the door to the cell flung open, revealing a staircase going up into where I could not see. A blue cloud of light came over me and rested on me. For some reason, I could tell this was God’s smile on me, a sinner. I remember the vision fading before my eyes back to the walls of my room. I looked around to find I was on the other side of the room, on the floor.

Now, that sounds fantastic, but its truth is plainly found in Scripture: God loves sinners in their sincerity. We are not saved by our beliefs. We, thankfully are not saved because of our own righteousness. We trust that we are saved by God’s grace. That was something I misunderstood.

“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39

This is the God that has reconciled himself to us.

God loved us so much that he came in our human form in Jesus Christ.

God loved us so much that he died for our sins at that cross.

…while we murdered him, he prayed for our forgiveness.

…while we abandoned him, he bore our forsakenness.

…while we caused him despair, he gave us hope.

God loved us so much that he died our death so that we could have his life.

This is the God that unites us, who has made us brothers and sisters. This is what we all have in common here: God who loves us even to the point of death on a cross.

The challenge now is that if we worship a God that would love us that way, we, as the Scriptures say, are called to love each other a similar way.

If God loves us, this has profound implications for relating to other Christians. If God is real and directing our lives, we are free: We can be free to think, to ask hard questions, to be curious and listen, to be vulnerable and be open-hearted towards others. We don’t have to be afraid. If God has promised to be with us, although we might wander, might not what to think some days, he will not let us go.

2.    Encountering and Reconciling Our Differences

It took me a while to realize that… Along the way in our Christian walk we encounter Christians who don’t think that same as us. These are the differences we are to reconcile with.

I had the gift of a Christian upbringing. But what we were raised with can be a gift and a temptation. It is a gift because of the faith it instills. It can be a temptation because if you are familiar with one version of faith, another version is going to feel foreign. And just because it feels foreign, you are tempted to think it is wrong, absurd, even evil.

We are the most judgmental with how we worship, because if you go to that church, the way they worship is probably the most immediate thing you notice. We do that also because the ways we worship are some of the most intense ways of connecting with God and therefore the most likely place where we will feel sensitive, proud, or critical. This is why worship divides so many churches. My wife and I attended a Pentecostal church in New Market for several years. At Bible study I accidentally confessed that I was not much of a “singing person.” Three songs and a sermon, and I’d be good. I think the leader thought I uttered blasphemy.

Now, other side of the coin: The first time I attended an Anglican service, they passed around the BCP. I had no idea what to do with this. Are they giving out Gideon Bibles? Where is the Power Point? Where is the worship band? They said, “Turn to page three hundred and so and so…now to page one hundred and so and so for the Eucharist…” I remember thinking, “Where are we? I lost my page! Why are you all making weird hang gestures!” I remember being so confused that for a while I wrote off liturgical worship as archaic and inhospitable. Now, funny enough, I lead chapels with the BAS and BCP at Thorneloe. I think the BAS’s prayer of confession for the Eucharist is one of the most well worded prayers out there. Every time I say it I think: “This is exactly what my heart is feeling right now” – and the words were not even written by Chris Tomlin!

As I mentioned, I went to Catholic High School. These were the first Christians that I recognized that different from me. My father hated Catholics. He told me they were not saved, because they did not actually believe the Bible or actually have faith. I had a book I read in high school about how Catholics were the Babylon of Revelation. At the time, I believed that.

Part of that was many of my fellow students were nominal Catholics. I saw so many calling themselves Catholics, but completely uninterested in following Jesus.

The other day I got a call from a person. They wanted to know how much it would cost if I baptized their child. Awkward. First off, who are you? A few things: It does not cost anything, BUT Baptists don’t practice infant baptism, we merely dedicate if the parents are committed to being disciples of Jesus Christ and committed to raising their child to be a follower of Jesus. Is this something you want to pursue with our faith community? “Oh no,” he said, “I’m Catholic…[it gets better]…My wife is an atheist. We don’t want our child to become religious or anything.” Ya, thanks pal. To which I had to say, “Oh, you’re Catholic. You wall should talk to Father Jim. Here is his number. Tell him Spencer sent you!”

Look, the Catholics in the room are seething. So you are just as upset about nominal Catholics as we are, eh? Seeing nominal Catholics out there caused me to have an unfair stereotype of Catholics that took years to overcome.

Seeing nominal Catholics, I did something terrible. I used the worst in one Christian tradition to represent all of them and I lifted up the best in my own as examples. That is called a double standard by the way. But the thing is, I know a lot of Baptist Christians, evangelicals Christians, that don’t know Jesus, that aren’t interested in following Jesus, and yet they call themselves Christians. We have that problem too. We are no better.

In seminary I took a class where we read through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I was amazed at how much we have in common. I think I agreed with 99% of what was in there. Can I confess another thing? I stopped reading it for educational value about what Catholics believed, and just start reading it simply because it helped me be a better Christian. It’s true.

Now, I have said a lot about Catholics, but we Protestants are not very kind to each other too. We have all done damage to Christ’s body.

I became aware of the division in Christ’ body at a Bible Camp. The Bible camp we went to was put on by church, which I attended many years. The people were wonderful, warm, salt of the earth kinds of people, but were incredibly dogmatic on several particular, parochial doctrines, that made them feel that they had recovered the “true church.”

The preacher made a call for baptism one afternoon: “If you believe in Jesus Christ, come forward and be baptized.” Excited, I came forward. I think I was in grade 10 at the time. The preacher stopped me, “Spencer, don’t you go to Stoney Creek Alliance?” I said, “Ya.” “Well,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I can only baptize someone who promises to go to a church that follows the entire Bible.” In a word, theirs.

It is funny, because our church said that we followed the entire Bible and everyone else didn’t. I remember as a young person feeling a bit hurt and confused: “He said that if you believe in Jesus you can be baptized? Why isn’t it that simple? Aren’t we all Christians here?”

How many of you in your lives have been told you were not true Christians because you did not share the distinctive another Christian held to be important? It hurts doesn’t it? You feel condescended and demeaned. You see, perhaps that lead you to being here this morning. We all have our wounds.

I had a Pentecostal roommate for a few years in college. We became good friends. However, he turned to me one night, “Spencer, you seen so unemotional. I am worried you don’t have the Holy Spirit.” I turned, “I think I have the Holy Spirit. I am just a very calm person.” I have, as my mother used to say, a “stoic personality.” He was unconvinced, and as he made his case, I indulged him. He proceeded to pray over me for perhaps the most awkward 20 minutes of my life, praying that I would receive the Holy Spirit, feel his joy, and I don’t know, have a good happy cry. At the end, he turned to me, “How do you feel? Do you feel any different?” I responded: “No not really.” And we played video games and never spoke of that again.

For some reason my friend thought that all Christians had to conform to one pattern, and if you didn’t you were not a Christian. How did we get to here? I think Christians for much of the modern era assumed that if you just looked at the Bible, the Holy Spirit would zap one clear answer into your head, (which effectively makes education and discipleship seem pointless – this is why we have such terrible Bible illiteracy even in evangelical churches). The Bible is simply plain and clear on everything (I think it is clear on Jesus, not everything, by the way). When some Christians found that other people claimed to be Christians too yet held a different view on an important issue, their response was to think: since I have what I know from the Holy Spirit, either this person is ignorant and needs to listen to me or they are evil, they refuse to listen to the Truth, and I need to shun them or worse, kill them. We remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year at the same time as realizing we are now at some 33 ooo denominations of our faith. After all the terrible wars of religion that rocked Europe, it is no wonder why we live in a secular world today. We can complain about it, or we can take responsibility for it.

We have so often forgotten the simplicity of faith. “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9). Jesus comes first. If we don’t put him first, we start putting him second. Do you really thing Jesus would want us to take ideas about who he is, even if they are right, and use them to hurt members of his family?

I would like to tell you that I learned my lesson in high school but I was young and immature. I continued to exclude and dismiss other Christians.

I often feel like I went to seminary to learn how to hate people better. It was not the professors but the culture. Seminary is an isolated place if it is full of only members of the same religious tradition. Bashing others who aren’t there was essay. (I say that as now someone who teaches theology, and would want all of you to check out the courses this summer at Thorneloe University!).

Good education confronts closed-mindedness, and sadly, sometimes I did not get that. In some of my classes, I was taught to hate liberals. Now, to be honest, I did not even really understand what that term meant, but I used it to label people and dismiss them. For others in other cycles it is the word, “fundamentalist.” Make no mistake: there are educated conservatives and there are ignorant liberals. It is not as simple as our stereotypes make it out.

We do something terrible in our faith. We exclude and then we scapegoat. We label then be demonize. Who is that for you? It is easy. Ask yourself, “Christianity would be so much better off if x people saw the error of their ways. If only those people became more like me, we would be doing so much better.” There is your scapegoat. I’ll admit that before Jesus convicted me of my hatred towards others, sermon prep was a lot easier. If I needed a sermon illustration, all I needed was to start bashing all those wrong Christians I did not like.

Then it struck me. I didn’t even try to know them or love them. Often I wouldn’t even listen to them. I would not read what they wrote. I would just turn by ears off and tell them their wrong. I remember thinking about that one day. I remember feeling uneasy in my conscience about the hate I obviously had against people that at times I really did not even bother to know. Then the thought struck me: Spencer, isn’t a part of the greatest command to love your neighbor as yourself? If you love these people, don’t you think you should hear them out the same way you would hope they listen to you?

It was unthinkable that there could be biblically minded, passionate Christ followers that held to liberal notions of the faith. I say that realizing that we just celebrated Martin Luther King Day, a Baptist minister by the way (one point for our team), who if you have read his sermons was a Social Gospel liberal. It did not compute for me, but he knew his Bible; he loved Jesus; he lived for Jesus; and when it came down to it, he died following Jesus.

Like I said, who is it that you often dismiss. That is the person or group that Jesus might be call you to reconcile with.

Let me give you a few pointers. (1) Many of us take journeys from one church tradition to another through our lives. If you were raised a Catholic and converted to Protestantism, you probably have some unfair views of Catholics. If you got frustrated with Evangelicalism and became a Catholic, you probably have a prejudice against Evangelicals. We tend to feel shame towards what we used to be, where we used to be. If you grew up in one tradition and came to another, admit that there are good people there and that while you had a bad experience there, there was probably a lot of good things too.

(2) When we realize we all family in Christ, when we see another Christian who is different, can we give them the benefit of the doubt? Can we hear them out? Can we ask ourselves: what is it like for them? What if I am the one who is wrong and they are right, and God has placed them in my life not for me to tell them the truth, but for me to help realize it though them?

(3) Can we learn to protect each other and fight stereo types about each other in our churches? You might say, Spencer, that’s hard. There are some people in my church and they think some really ignorant stuff about other Christians, but they are good tithers, they are prominent leaders, we could lose members!

Let us remember the cost of our own reconciliation. While we were God’s enemies, set against him in our sin, God himself died for us, reconciled himself to us at the cost of his own life. We are brothers and sisters because Jesus bled on a cross for us. What is Jesus’ reconciling blood worth to you?

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

Father,

We come before as your children.

We want to confess that we have not always treated each other as a family.

We also confess that there is only one way to change that, and that is to take up the love of Jesus Christ.

Help us to love each other, to listen, to speak honestly, to protect, and forgive one another.

Give us the opportunities to dwell with one another so that we can experience the gift of the many members of Christ’s body.

Bind us together in love, so that this love may be a witness to our broken world.

These things we pray in your name,

Amen

 

God is King: A Sermon for the American Election

throne-of-jesus

Preached at First Baptist Church of Sudbury on the week before the American election, 2016.

“You see, having pledged all my allegiance to the Lamb I have none left for elephants or donkeys.” – Brian Zahnd

Isaiah 6:1-8: In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

1. Our time like Isaiah’s is a time of political uncertainty

This awesome vision of God on his throne is at a precarious time in the nation’s history. The beginning of the passage tells: “it was the year king Uzziah died.” It was a time of political instability, the death of the king, the prospect of a new king, the vulnerability of the change of power.

We are seeing some political instability of our own today, are we not? It is mostly our brothers and sisters to the South of us, but people like myself, who had an American Father (dual-citizen), a brother who has made America his home, congregants the are snow birds, American friends, etc. It feels like we are apart of this election too.

American politics effect us all, and so, we the world watch, almost powerless at this political spectacle.

We have watched perhaps one of the most divisive elections in recent memory. The division is perhaps most bitter because Christians have had the most inner conflict over who to support. Both candidates just don’t shine all that brightly.

I won’t get into it too far, but let me spell it out. For those of you who may be locked into one side or another, allow me, as your pastor, to take you down a notch. I am going to be as honest as I can and impartial as I can, because as I will say, that is apart of our calling as Christians. Honesty first.

First, Trump. Trump has shown himself to be a bash and vulgar candidate. His statements about ethnic minorities and women – joking about he can sexually assault women at will, getting away with it because of his wealth – is disgusting. His business dealings seem deeply questionable. Recent news leaked about his tax returns shows that the only reason he is a wealthy businessman is because his business dealings are so shady.

His faith is vague and self-serving at best. He seems functionally biblically illiterate. His God is the god that has made him rich.

Yet, many conservative Christians seek to support him because of the policies he has agreed to abide by. He has agreed to robust republican principles. He has chosen Mike Pence, a respected devout evangelical governor as his running mate.

And when it comes down to it, many evangelicals just can’t get to the point of trusting Hilary Clinton either.

Hilary Clinton is an accomplished politician, but that is probably the biggest problem. She is a politician through and through. An establishment thinker, a person that totes political ideals only when expedient, often compromising. She is what everyone hates about politicians.

Her email scandals, as Wikileaks has shown, reveals she has flip-flopped on numerous issues, backstabbed her colleagues to get ahead, colluded with the press to propagate misinformation; she has accepted corporate bribes and installed puppet positions for corporations, and she has many financial ties to questionable people.

Her support of near-term abortion is hard for even non-evangelicals to stomach. She holds to America’s right to pre-emptive war.

Now, having said all that, interestingly enough, as I read this week, Hilary Clinton has an oddly devoutly liberal Christian faith. I was surprised at this, since I assumed she was non-practicing. Actually, she is a life-long active member of the United Methodist church. She even has taught Sunday school for many years in Arkansas, when her husband was governor.

When Bill Clinton cheated on her, she took counsel from leading evangelical pastors like Rick Warren and Tony Campolo, both attest that she read her bible constantly during this time, and under great pressure from feminists who wanted her to leave her husband, she refused, citing her faith.

Evangelicals have a tendency to dismiss liberal Christians as illegitimate Christians, but if that is the case, we give credit where it is due. However, you wonder: does this really mean she has a personal relationship with Jesus, or is her faith more like a general sense of belief in God? I am not sure. Hilary keeps her religious commitments very private.

All of this is a bit of a head scratcher isn’t it? When it comes to who is the Christian, the choice is a Christian whose faith is completely self-serving and a Christian whose faith is completely private.

Christians are locked into an ideological battle: unclear questions over how to run the economy, how to support liberty, how to keep the world safe.

We are facing a time of deep political instability. There are rightwing militia groups that are threatening violence if Hilary is elected. People are googling how to move to Canada…which is flattering, but as I preached last year at our election, we’re not perfect, either.

I’ll be the first to say that a parliamentary system is more representative than an electoral college, but still…

The worst act I can see in this election is what has happened on Nov. 3. Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, church in a predominantly Black area of Mississippi, stated their objections to supporting Trump based on his racist remarks and the church was burned to the ground then tagged with the line, “Vote Trump.”

Republicans have denounced the act, but the fact remains. It was probably done by punk kids, but now a church, our brothers and sisters, have been attacked because of their convictions. Things are out of control.

Where do we look in the midst of this instability?

Do we look to ourselves? Do we look to particular candidate? Do we look to a particular party? What do we put our hope in?

In an election of trying to choose between the lesser of two evils, should there really be a Christian way of voting?

In all of this, Christians must look first and foremost to the king, not a president not a prime minister.

In the year that King Uzziah died, [in the time of deep uncertainty] I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne [I saw the true king]; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim [the majestic worldy powers], each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with [the] smoke [of worship].

2. We do not look to earthly politics, we look to the King

In times of political uncertainty, we look to the Lord, ruler of the universe.

This world cannot contain him.

This world’s politics cannot define him.

This world’s corruption cannot restrict him.

He is a God unmatched, unblemished, unlimited in power, holiness, glory and grace.

So many people obsess about who will occupy the throne of the American empire, Christians, however, have seen the Lord of hosts, seated on his throne, ready to render judgment, the world quaking from a simple glimpse of his splendor.

When we know this, we don’t put our trust in another god. Every political party wants to hail their leaders as messiahs. No. Christians have already seen the messiah.

Every political party wants to say that if their candidate doesn’t get in, it will be the end of the world. No. This world of corruption already has been overturned. It happened the moment the true messiah said, “It is accomplished.”

Every political party wants to say this is the path to progress and salvation. No. The path of progress is in trusting the Lord of history. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

When we realize this, our cry is Isaiah’s cry:

“Woe to me!” […] “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

When we see the King, we set our eyes on his kingdom, his way.

His way is honesty, purity, integrity, justice and peace.

The world says exalt yourself above and against your political opponents. They are wrong, you are right, and it is us versus them.

But Jesus says the first command is to love your neighbor as yourself. In his kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first.

In doing so, we have to repent of how we have invested our faith in a way that goes against the way of the cross.

3. If Jesus is our King, we have not been loyal to him

This election has shown us the importance of social media: petty twitter wars, the vast amount of online articles by self-proclaimed experts all obsessed with the next click-bait. Social media has fundamentally changed the way we relate to one another at every level, for good and bad.

Good in that we see real time fact-checking, but their findings are not comforting. Trump, while he has a kind of shoot from the hip feel of unfiltered honestly, his delusions of grandeur makes him almost completely incapable of giving an accurate assertion. On the other hand, Clinton, while clearly a more studied individual, has a kind of methodical intellect that lies very strategically, making both untrustworthy.

This election has been about the question of character, the lack of character each has. But we are just as bad. As we did in our own election last year, we sat in front of our TV’s watching political sparing for entertainment.

We mock and decry the ignorance of our political discourse, but very few of us have even bothered to read the party platform they voted for. Most voting in the US and Canada is done as a kind of knee jerk reaction to whoever feels right.

Trudeau proposes bill on assisted suicide. MP’s on both sides report their alarm at how little public reaction occurs. Trudeau bumps an MP with his elbow. It is a media frenzy. They called it Elbow gate. See what I mean?

When we buy into the political powers of this world, conservative or liberal, we have bought into a system where honesty is exchanged for popularity, integrity for expedience, reason for rhetoric, substance is exchanged for spectacle.

We sneer at the vices of the candidates in Canada and the US, but we are the ones with unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.

Sorry Lord. Sorry Jesus. We have allowed our fears and fantasies to blind us to your Spirit. Forgive us.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

4. Jesus commissions us for his way

When we realize our sinfulness, our unclean lip, we also realize that Jesus is always there ready to forgive. And more than that. He forgives, then he commissions.

The saddest thing for me to see is fellow Baptist Christians on both sides overlooking character flaws of candidates to give their endorsements, all to make sure their faith privileges and power are maintained, their convictions validated.

As Baptists we believe in a little thing called separation of church and state. As the former president of the Baptist Union of the UK, Nigel Wright said, the separation of church and state is fundamentally the separation of faith from power.

That means I think it is unethical for a pastor to ever use their popularity to endorse a candidate, much less invoke God’s approval of one or another, and even worse threaten God’s judgment on those that disagree. It’s not just unethical. I think it is blasphemous. It is the way of Caesar, not Christ.

I fundamentally disagree with attempts to legislate Christian convictions in laws. I don’t want the government to do the church’s job. I don’t want laws to do the Holy Spirit’s job. I could delude myself into thinking that would help the church stay powerful and privileged, but history shows the opposite. Every time we have gone back on our principles and tried to use political power to maintain the faith, hypocrisy and scandal usually followed. Christ’s name has not been hallowed.

I am fundamentally skeptical about political powers being able to help the church build the kingdom of God. “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” Zechariah 4:6.

Democracy was inspired by Christian principles of the liberty of the soul. Liberalism, in one version, despite its secular form now, was founded on the notion that all people have rights because they are all God’s creation, in his image. Conservatism, in one version, sought to conserve traditional Christian institutions, values and wisdom to confront modern problems.

But Christians need to be separate from all earthly powers, and that means realizing the democracy, our democracies, are flawed. That is what Christians need to be doing. Instead of bickering about who do vote for, let’s talk about how our voting system is flawed.

For the most part, the full extend of our interaction with our candidates is checking an X on a little flimsy piece of paper.

You cannot state that you support some of the candidate on that paper.

You cannot just say you support just some of one candidate’s policies.

You cannot just say that you support the party but not the candidate.

You cannot say anything.

All you do is make an X.

And when I put that X, I don’t have to research a candidate in order to vote. I can be completely ignorant.

I don’t have to have good motivations to vote for any candidate. For fiscal conservatives it is voting for the person that will give them more tax breaks and protect my cultural privileges. For liberals, it is the person that will give me more in social spending and legitimate my lifestyle. We who live in Ontario, will vote for what benefits us more at the cost of those who life in BC or the Maritimes.

Even worse, I can be completely thoughtless in my choice. But in a culture that valorizes choice above all else, even irrational, immoral, self-destructive thoughtless choice, that is still acceptable. “This person looks better and talks smoother; I’ll vote for them!”

Then we demonize who oppose us. Let’s be realistic. The figures show that some in this room are more right leaning, and others more left leaning. Our political discourses want to portray our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as stupid, evil, our enemies in advancing what is good.

When we want to talk about a Christian way of voting, let’s start with that.

In a moment of true prophetic brilliance, Pastor Brian Zahnd, has promised his vote to someone else. This is by no means a recommendation for us all, but he thought to himself, “I am a middle class white person. I will always have a voice. I need to be a voice to the voiceless.” So, he approached a man in his community that he had supported for years. A man that legally came to US, has a job, kids born here, but because of the terrible immigration laws and backlog, he has lived in poverty, afraid of being deported at any moment. Pastor Zahnd has promised his vote to him. On election day, he will take a sealed envelope and X off the choice this person decided.

Like I said, that might not be normative for us all, but that does show a politic where the first will be last and the last will be made first.

This election reminds us that we have a different king. Our allegiance is to King Jesus. “You see, having pledged all my allegiance to the Lamb I have none left for elephants or donkeys.” – Brian Zahnd

This election reminds us that we have a different kingdom

We have a different ethnicity: the people of God, where all people are heard, given dignity, shown forgiveness and grace.

We have a different constitution: Where the poor in spirit, the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the prophets, are the blessed citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

We have a different way of life: the cross, where the first are last and the last are first.

This election reminds us that we have a different hope: Hope in God’s Spirit, that Jesus’ kingdom is beyond any earthly power, but is imminent to those who trust in him.

Whom shall the Lord, Our King, send?

Here we are, Lord, send us.

 

Kingdom Come: Tommy Douglas, Baptist Preacher turned Politician

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I will not cease from mental flight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

– William Blake

He has come to be known as the most “influential politician in Canadian history to never have become Prime Minister,”[1] and in 2004, he was voted first on CBC’s Greatest Canadian contest. Thomas “Tommy” Clement Douglas was one of the most prominent and influential Canadian politicians in recent history, known for his success for instituting universal health care, but generally his undying care for the poor, for human rights, and for building a better world for all people.  Few have turned to consider why he fought for such things with such integrity. Few also remember that he was a Baptist preacher before he became a politician. So, this biographical essay will retell the life story of Tommy Douglas through his uniquely Baptist convictions.

1. Childhood

Tommy Douglas was born 20 October 1904 in Camelon, Falkirk, Scotland. He immigrated to Canada with his family as a small boy of age six.[2] During World War I his family returned to Scotland and Douglas returned back to Winnipeg in 1918.

Three early experiences were highly formative for Douglas. First, his conviction of universal healthcare was partly derived from his experience as a boy fighting Osteomyelitis. After having his leg injured, bone inflammation set in, and he had to undergo a series of operations to rid his leg of the condition. For that experience, as he tells, he had an irresistible conviction that all people deserve the same medical treatment and availability, regardless of income: “I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside.”[3]

Second, when Douglas returned from Scotland after World War I, he witnessed the Winnipeg General Strike where workers were beaten down and even shot by police for their labor demands. Witnessing these events fueled Douglas’ later passion for human rights and economic justice.[4]

Third, when he was 14, he started getting involved in church. His mother was already active, and Douglas soon found purpose and a sense that through the church he could be a “useful contribution to the world.”[5]

Douglas was a small boy but had a lot of fight in him. At 135 pounds, he won the Manitoba Lightweight Championship at Boxing several years in a row.[6] As a young man in his teens, he worked in a cork factory and latter in printing before sensing a call to ministry then to politics. Douglas jokingly said, “I was a printer and then I became a preacher. And then I became a politician and then I became a premier. And that is the true descent of man!”[7]

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2. Baptist Preacher

Talking up the call to the pastorate, he went to study at Brandon College in 1924 (meeting his wife there) and a master’s degree in sociology at McMaster University in 1930 (he also did work at University of Chicago towards a Ph.D. that was never completed). At Brandon, he paid his way through his education by performing humorous monologues[8] and pastoring here and there. Douglas recalls going to preach in the churches of Winnipeg at age 19. Arriving at the church, the members were mortified that “a kid” had showed up to preach. Yet, moved by his sermons he was invited back, and often.[9] Douglas dreamed of being the next Charles Spurgeon, and he saturated his devotional life with his sermons and stories.[10]

At Brandon, he was persuaded to lay aside his more fundamentalist beliefs, influenced by his professor, H.L. MacNeill. MacNeill impressed on Douglas that Scripture needed to be read through their genres (Psalms as poetry, Job as drama, etc.) and that their application had to reflect the purpose they were written. These were radical notions at the time, now common to almost any seminarian. MacNeill also taught that Jesus spoke from the tradition Jewish prophets, calling for the kingdom of heaven, “rather than an earthly kingdom based on power and might and on the sword, it was to be a Kingdom of the spirit in men’s hearts, made up of righteousness and justice.” [11] MacNeill was constantly threatened with dismissal, yet responded with gentle, honest answers. In McNeill, Douglas saw the spirit of Christ far more than the supposed Christians that attacked him, so, as Douglas recalls, this “liberalized” his views.[12]

In 1930, Douglas was ordained in Calvary Baptist Church at Weyburn. He remembers the ordination process and speaks of his specifically Baptist understanding of doctrine: “The Baptist church as no fixed set of doctrines. Rather the New Testaments sets forth the beliefs, and there is no dogma, as in the Presbyterian or Anglican church.”[13]

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3. Passionate Politician

In the early 30’s Douglas also became political. With not enough aid for the poor, Douglas helped form the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Douglas promoted the party with remarkable zeal, running for the provincial election. He remarked that he went from town to town speaking, asking for donations that just barely got him to the next stop on the campaigns.[14]

Unfortunately, Douglas did not get elected in 1934. Instead, he returned to preaching. There he found himself being encouraged back into politics by the support of his church. In fact, some saw his political talents so desperately needed that the superintendent threatened him to go back to politics or else.[15]

Douglas ran and got the Weyburn constituency in 1935 and was re-elected in 1940. This was the same year as a bloody riot where homeless travelers gathered and were beaten back by RCMP officers. This only motivated Douglas’ work for economic rights. He comments on the meals he gave out saying, “We never turned anybody down I still almost weep. Some poor soul always lined up – oh gosh, they never stopped coming. I’ll never forget that period.”[16]

In the 1940’s, Douglas recalls a more intentional reliance on the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel was powerfully exposited by Water Rauschenbusch, who argued that salvation had a social as well as personal character. Disregarding other-worldly metaphysics, Rauschenbusch argued for a practical and political gospel:

The purpose of all that Jesus said and did and hoped to do was always the social redemption of the entire life of the human race on earth…Christianity set out with a great social ideal. The live substance of the Christian religion was the hope of seeing a divine social order established on earth.[17]

Douglas took this vocation to heart and grew passionate about realizing the kingdom of God in politics.[18] He recalls being challenged by conservative Christians on this matter:

I was attacked by a minister of a very prominent city church, who got up and said in all seriousness that the Bible told us that the poor we will always have with us and that God made two classes of people, the rich and the poor. He made the rich so that they would learn the lesson of benevolence and charity. He made the poor so they would learn the lesson of gratitude, and that we were interfering with the will of God when we tried to abolish poverty. To me, this was sheer blasphemy… My concept was the idea of the kingdom of righteousness and justice for every person in it.[19]

While politically supportive of World War II, Douglas criticized the neglect of politicians to think through economic rights of the soldiers, many were in poverty before they went to war and possibly would be afterwards: “One year ago men could be seen riding the rods on freight trains across Canada. Today hundreds are in His Majesty’s uniform. Most of us know some of these young men personally. These men are going to fight for a society that could not even give them a job. What do we propose to do with them when they come back on the rods? God forbid.”[20]

In 1941 he was elected president of the CFF and in 1944 he became premiere in Saskatchewan. His accomplishments in this role are nothing sort of extraordinary. He increased pension for seniors, initiated debt reduction programs for farmers, protected farmers form evictions; he created more schools, universalizing education; he increased maternity leave and created grants for disabled fathers. All of this was done while lowering the debt of the province by 72 million dollars.[21]

Meanwhile, he passed the Saskatchewan Elections Act, ensuring voting rights to natives, as well as the Bill of Rights, ensuring general rights to all people, in 1946. However, his most notable accomplishment was in 1961 with the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act, instituting universal healthcare that would catch on nationally, attracting global praise.[22]

In 1961 he stepped down from provincial politics to help reform the CCF into the New Democratic Party. He did not get elected to Prime Minister, being defeated in the federal elections up until his stepping down in 1971. Biographers record this time as a point of uncertain leadership: Douglas was still inspiring but noticeably older than other candidates. The party seemed to want younger leaders but none came forward. This put immense pressure and criticism on Douglas.[23] Eventually he stepped down, but he continued to help the party serving in the Nanaimo–Cowichan–The Islands riding until retirement in 1979. He died in 1986 of cancer at age 81. [24]

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Conclusion

One cannot overstate Douglas’ influence over Canada. As Lorne Calvert describes,

The social vision and goals of the social gospel movement – human rights, trade union legislation, labor standards, pensions, medicare, – non-existent a century or even fifty years ago – are now taken for granted as defining of Canada. Even the most right wing of political ideologies must at least pay homage to the principles born of the social gospel movement. The movement has shaped us, there is no question.[25]

Douglas’s political conviction was from the teachings of Scripture, particularly what he saw to be the kingdom of heaven as summarized in the Social Gospel movement. Douglas sought to bring heaven to earth. The Social Gospel does have its drawbacks: Often its understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven was indebted to highly historical critical readings of the Bible, making its more agreeable tenets unappealing to evangelical Christians; it too often focused on economic and political progress as the primary extent of the Gospel; its social optimism, part and parcel to its realized eschatology, did not readily grapple with the failure inherent to human sinfulness and the need for transcendent hope; putting trust in politics, it became essentially self-secularizing, removing itself from church life. However, Douglas’ vision and zeal is attributable to nothing other than his commitment to following Christ. While some can charge the Social Gospel with leaving the church, Douglas did not. Douglas attributed this dynamic to the cowardice of his fellow pastors that often voiced their fears of losing tithes and support by their wealthy, business-owning congregants.[26] For Douglas, the Social Gospel left the church because the church lacked the conviction to support it. If this is the case, the church has lost out profoundly on its vocation in living out the kingdom of heaven to earth. Thy will was not done.

This biographical essay has attempted to summarize the life, work, and convictions of Tommy Douglas.[27] We quickly find that Douglas had deep convictions based on his Baptist faith: his commitment to theological honesty and reformulation, his doctrinal minimalism (no dogma but the New Testament), practically challenging the status quo, and enacting the kingdom of God in this world. Douglas’ life can be summarized easily in the prayer he often prayed (and more importantly lived): “…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matt. 6:10)

[1] Ian McLoed and Thomas McLeod, interviewed by Peter Gzowski, “Tommy Douglas and the NDP: The Road to Jerusalem,” CBC Digital Archives, last modified April 22, 2013, accessed April 24, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/politics/parties-leaders/tommy-douglas-and-the-ndp/the-road-to-jerusalem.html.

[2] Walter Stewart, Tommy: the Life and Politics of Tommy Douglas (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2003), 23.

[3] Tommy Douglas, interviewed by Thomas Lewis, in Lewis Thomas, ed., The Making of a Socialist (Calgary: University of Alberta Press, 1982), 6-7.

[4] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 33.

[5] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 39.

[6] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 37.

[7] Lorne Calvert, “Beyond the Social Gospel,” (Address on the 100th Anniversary of Stella Mission, Winnipeg Manitoba, 2009), paragraph 7.

[8] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 44.

[9] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 41.

[10] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 42.

[11] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 51.

[12] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 51.

[13] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 48.

[14] Doris Shackleton. Tommy Douglas (McClelland and Stewart, 1975), 68.

[15] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 80.

[16] Doris Shackleton, Tommy Douglas, 49.

[17] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 67, 69.

[18] Of course, one of the weaknesses of the Social Gospel is its utopian notions of progress. Just as Rauschenbusch became very utopian in his ideas about this-worldly human progress, so did Douglas. Douglas’ master’s thesis at McMaster’s advocated for the usage of eugenics, which after the findings of the concentration camps of WWII, Douglas implicitly recanted of his earlier ideas on the matter.

[19] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 66.

[20] Brent Decker, “Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas,” Canadian Union of Public Employees, last modified 1998, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.cupe1975.ca/bursary/burs8.html. This is the winning biographical essay written for a bursary program for CUPE.

[21] Brent Decker, “Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas.”

[22] Brent Decker, “Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas.”

[23] Ian McLoed and Thomas McLeod, interviewed by Peter Gzowski, “Tommy Douglas and the NDP: The Road to Jerusalem.”

[24] Canadian Press, “MPs mourn Douglas in Commons tribute,” Montreal Gazette (February 25, 1986), accessed April 22, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=k6QkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=7KUFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2772%2C2659141.

[25] Lorne Calvert, “Beyond the Social Gospel.”

[26] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 68.

[27] This biography did not proceed by merely offering life facts, but is deliberately a piece of biographical theology, using deliberate criteria. Biographical theology was a method pioneered by baptist theologian, James Wm. McClendon Jr. See, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 1974. Revised edition, Philadelphia: Trinity, 1990.

God is with the Insignificant: Mary

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Who was Mary? Mary was a poor girl from the middle of nowhere. Mary was a popular name at this time. Mary the person was just a girl, just an insignificant poor girl. Her name might of well have been Jane Doe. There is nothing about her that warranted the attention of God to choose her for the role of bearing Jesus – nothing except her character.

But an angel appeared to Mary and says, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you!” He tells her that she will be carrying a son, to be named Jesus. He will be great, son of the Most High, Son of God. The Lord God will give to him the throne of David and his kingdom will have no end.” Ladies, imagine if God did that to you. Flattered, or better, humbled would be an understatement.

The angel announces this and Mary does not understand how this could be possible because she is a virgin. The angel Gabriel reminds her that nothing is impossible with God.

Luke records the song of Mary the next chapter over, where she sings, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… [that’s her!] He has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich.” In God’s kingdom the powerful get humiliated, and the weak and poor get vindicated. In coming to Mary God revealed the beginning of Jesus’ work: God with us, us the insignificant.

Perhaps you have come here tonight wondering, “Does God love me?” Or just: “What is special about me? What am I worth? Do I have worth?” God chose Mary and that shows us something. God is with us, us who feel like no one cares about us, us who sometimes feels like we are insignificant, nothing special.

Yet, Mary shows us in her insignificance how we are all significant in the eyes of God. We are also all capable of doing things extraordinary. She responds with simple obedience, which we can all do. So, Mary, without hesitation, says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.” Our lives matter to God, no matter who we are, and God is calling us to extraordinary things in his eyes, and that begins by saying, “Here I am Lord. I am ready to follow your word.”

Are you ready to do something truly significant in our lives? Are we ready to say to God, the infinite God who meets us in our insignificance. Can you say to him tonight: “Here I am God, I am ready to walk with you.”

Immanuel (1): God is with the Hopeful: Zachariah and Elizabeth

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The angel announced, “…the child conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Look, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’ (Which means God with us).”

In Jesus, God is now with us. A woman two thousand years ago has a bizarre virginal conception of a child and this is means God with us. The question I want to mediate upon to prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas is how is God for us through this story? Specifically, what do the characters of this story show us about how God is with us today?

We can learn a lot about the company God chooses to be near in this story. So, we are going to look at Zachariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and kings.

God is with the Hopeful: Zachariah and Elizabeth

The story of Christmas does not begin with the story of Christmas. It begins with the birth of John the Baptist. It says a priest named Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth “lived blamelessly according to all the commandments of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). They did not have children, but they placed their hope in God obediently. What I find ironic about this is that when hope did come, Zachariah couldn’t believe it.

When Zachariah was in the sanctuary of the Temple. An angel appeared and Zachariah was terrified. The angel says, “Do not be afraid.” He continues to tell him that he and his wife will have a son, John the Baptist, who will be filled with the Holy Spirit, will announce repentance, and will prepare the way for the Lord.” Interestingly enough, Zachariah questions the angel. If an ultra powerful, supernatural being materialized in front of me, I don’t I would question what this being was saying to its face. So, I find that funny. Zachariah is described as a man of near perfect obedience to God, and when a supernatural being appears to him to tell him that he and his wife will be granted what they probably have been praying for decades, he can’t believe it! It is ironic really.

Sometimes people of great faith still can’t believe the good news. Sometimes people of great hope and prayer can’t comprehend it when their prayers are answered.

This is just like us isn’t it? We live our lives waiting on something better. Waiting on the perfect life, not settling on anything less sometimes. Yet when we hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the answer to everything we could never want and need, we say, “How can that be? That can’t be! I’ve been hoping for the impossible, but now that it is here, I can’t believe that – why? – because its impossible! It doesn’t make sense!”

People have trouble trusting good news. My question to you is what have you been waiting for your whole life? What is that better thing you have been striving for, hoping for and praying for? And can you allow yourself to trust that Jesus is the fulfillment of all your goals, dreams, and prayers to night?

A Remembrance Day Prayer

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Father,

This Remembrance Day, we acknowledge that we are a people of memory. We trust you, because we remember who you are and what you have done. You have been faithful to act in history. We are a people of that history, that memory.

We as Christians first and Canadians second, take time to remember you, Father of all humankind, King of a kingdom greater than any nation, leader of a way higher than any of our values. Hallowed is your name.

Every human is your beloved child. We, Christians, confess to know you as a loving Father, knowing you have adopted us into the vision of your kingdom: a restored human family through Christ.

You sent us your son, our perfect brother, Jesus Christ, our king. He taught us the way of your kingdom: repentance, lament, humility, justice, purity, mercy, peacemaking, prophetically challenging our present with your future. Jesus died on a cross by the powers of religious, political, and military oppression. He died for his enemies with a perfect, self-sacrificing love.

You, first of all beings, made yourselves last for the least.

Jesus rose from the dead on the third day to show that death and fear and oppression have been conquered not with might, but by your obedience, not with the bullets, but with your own blood.

Father, recommit us to this way for the sake of our neighbors, our nation, and all humankind, our global family, so that we might never take the life of a bother or sister.

We say that knowing that the world is a messy imperfect place. Wars continue to happen. We have supported our nation in the past in causes we hope were just. Canadian soldiers have fought wars to end all wars.

Impress on us the burden of remembering the awful cost of war: the lives of Canadian soldiers, as well as the forgotten lives of the soldiers our nation has fought against, as well as the vast toll of helpless non-combatants. Today we honor courageous sacrifices and lament war’s terrible losses.

We have fought wars to end all wars, but we know that it is only be your kingdom that violence will truly end. We work towards world peace, but we know true freedom is in your love. We know war will end when we turn our hearts to you, allowing your Spirit to undo our hate, our ignorance, our complacency, our desire for safety over sacrifice, for vengeance over reconciliation.

We pray for our soldiers, and more than that, all people in positions of authority throughout the world, who wield power and the capacity of force. We neglect the sacrifices of many police officers and firefighters. We thank you for every person that has entered danger, willing to sacrifice their lives to help another. Protect them, comfort their families, and inspire them to continue to act courageously always within the convictions of justice and mercy.

Send us your Spirit, we pray. Where we have held hurt and hate, move us to repentance. Where we have fostered ignorance, move us toward humility. Disarm our urgency for violence, and inspire us with the creativity for effective peacemaking. Invite us deeper into the work of kingdom building.

We long for the day when,

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

As the kingdom is near in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we seek to live that day today.

Come Lord Jesus come. Our world needs you. We need you, now and forever, amen.

Centre and Circumference: Thoughts on an “Atheist Minister”

 

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The United Church of Canada (UCC) has the difficult decision to eject a minister, Gretta Vosper, who claims that she is an atheist but deserves to still exist within the UCC. She has abandoned all language of God, providence, Jesus or faith. It seems like her church is merely a social organization promoting good character and social progress. That is not terrible (in fact the world would be a better place if more people attended an organization like that), but the question is whether that is “Christian”?

The notion of an “atheist Christian” is a contradiction in terms, which has caused the UCC to essentially become a laughingstock by Christians and non-Christians alike. Even worse, many conservatives now have stereotyped the UCC as a denomination full of atheists masquerading as Christians, disregarding the fact that Vosper will be removed and has only a small fraction of those sympathetic to her interpretation of the tradition.

The UCC has a difficult road ahead. They will have to think more about the bounds of orthodoxy and the limits of inclusion. Ironically, to be inclusive you do have to take a stand on some things. That is for them to think more about and us to pray for them with brotherly and sisterly love.

As my father used to say, “Don’t point fingers at people. You will have four fingers pointing right back at you.” I think this situation calls us, evangelicals, to think further about what the limits of what our faith is, who is included, and to realize that we have done a terrible job understanding the bounds of orthodoxy in the other direction.

In seminary I have heard the statement between two students in the cafeteria, “You’re not a premillennial dispensationalist? I don’t how you can be in the Truth!” (If you don’t know what “premillennial dispensationalism” is, don’t worry; you’re only proving my point).

I have seen evangelicals divide congregations and denominations over women in ministry, evolution/creationism, nature of the scriptures, nature of the atonement, treatment of sexual minorities, eschatology, and everything in between.

The silliest division I have ever head about was the “one-cupper” movement of the Stone-Campbell tradition (they are an off-shoot of Baptists). Apparently a major schism happened over whether to drink from one cup or use individual cups in communion. Apparently some felt that everyone drinking from one cup was the apostolic pattern and to fail to do so would be one small step down the slippery slope to oblivion. So… Yes…Christians have actually divided and condemned each other over that, and I have heard these kinds of “slipper slope” arguments for all sorts of, frankly, stupid stuff.

One thinks of this comic here:

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Now, the one-cuppers is not my experience or context. Mine has been over women in ministry. I was once a devout complementarian, but after going to seminary, I found that the position was wanting. At the time I was pastoring in a very conservative Baptist denomination that saw the affirmation of women in ministry as unbiblical. And make no mistake: to be called “unbiblical” is synonymous with apostasy. I might have well have been an atheist!

Eventually I was sat down and told that if I wanted to continue to pastor, I would either have to shut up, leave, or have my funding cut. An “ultimatum” is too light a term. I remember begging that particular leader, arguing that we need to understand our lines of unity and diversity through who God is (Jesus, the Trinity, his love) not stuff like how we do ministry. However, the devil is in the details. Practical matters oddly are more divisive than doctrinal questions sometimes.  His response was flabbergasting. I was literally told by that leader that when it comes to what is most fundamental about how the denomination operates, “Gender roles [i.e. complementarianism] is more important to the Gospel than the Trinity.” Ironically, those who use the “slippery slope” rhetoric the most have their own slopes.

I have since moved denominations to one that affirms women in ministry, but the question now presents itself: would I seek to push out someone who is against women in ministry if they arose in my association? A part of me that wants to promote an atmosphere where a woman is not discriminated against in her vocation. But, in good conscience I wouldn’t. I believe in changing minds with good exegesis, good reasoning, and good character. I fundamentally believe there ought to be liberty on secondary issues like that. Christ comes first; the Gospel comes first; the Kingdom comes first; then everything else.

One should note with the sparing between liberals and conservatives is that, ironically, every liberal is a conservative and every liberal is a conservative also, in some way. The UCC now faces the question of what essential aspects of classical Christianity it will conserve as the core of its faith, lest it loose  particularity of what it uniquely is.

Conservatives snicker, but the same question presents itself to them, they have just answered without realizing their own revisionism. No conservative I know promotes the institution of slavery, despite it being in part responsible for the division between Northern and Southern Baptists in the 1800’s (Southern “conservatives” defended slavery as biblical; Northern “liberals” appealed to conscience; the result was messy). However, now, no conservative I know promotes slavery. Most abstract slavery passages to apply their fundamental principles to employer-employee relationships, which is obviously not the same. No conservative, not even a young earth creationist, holds that the earth is flat, the sky is domed, or that the Leviathan or Behemoth are real creatures. No conservative holds that heaven is literally up in the sky or hell is literally down in the ground, despite that being the language of Scripture. Do conservatives deny Christ’s ascent and descent, which is bound to that cosmology? Most don’t, and the reason is because they have unwittingly revised what they think is essential to the Christian faith from what is not. They take the Copernican revolution for granted and separate the core doctrinal substance about creation and Christ’s ascent and descent from its pre-modern cosmological form. All Christians have the task of asking what is form, what is substance, what is essential, and what is incidental.

You see, all Christians have the task of faithfully revising their faith and conserving what is most essential. Thus, every liberal is a conservative and every conservative is a liberal in some way. The question is not whether one does it, but rather, what is the limits? Conserve too much and you have fundamentalism, revise too much and you have… well… Gretta Vosper. Most Christians do not look at an earthquake and think God is angry with the citizens of that place. All Christians have revised a more naïve understanding of providence to one that recognizes that sometimes the weather, by the laws of nature, just happens. Is Vosper completely deluded to then say let’s scrape the whole idea of providence altogether? It is not that she is not allowed to revise her faith, it is the question of whether it is simply too far.

Having questions about the limits and circumference of our faith reminds us what is the centre. The New Testament is quite minimal in its central statements of faith: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2) and “Confess ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, and you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). False teachers in the Bible, far from being equated with sincere liberals or people with doubts and moral imperfections, were those that taught for selfish gain (1 Peter 2:1-3). In this regard the New Testament was quite refreshingly simple: Love Jesus? Do you following him sincerely? We’re good!

The early church composed creeds to express this core with more substance. The creeds are great summaries of the biblical story, by which the faithful can be instructed. They can be used as prayers of confession in worship. They can also aid as a doctrinal minimum for unity between all orthodox Christians, but of course, these articles of the creeds will find different interpretations, so they are not blueprints to unity. Their minimal nature suggests that Christians do not all share a common systematic theology – never have, and until eternity, never will. Yet, all Christians share a common story and common relationship with a person, and we must never forget the simplicity of our faith, or forsake the liberty of the Spirit in making the church diverse, when choosing our bounds of unity.

Paul warns that those who perpetuate “quarrels, divisions, and fractions… will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:20-21). In some evangelical circles I have walked in, there is an arrogance over the idea that we are the true church and everyone else is wrong that is so unsettling, I wonder, “Is Christ really in this place?” Who is Christ more likely to admit to the kingdom of God: A humble atheist or a hypocritical Christian? I don’t have an answer as to whether it is obviously one or the other – Scripture gives as much assurance to people who reject Christ as those who claim to know Christ and flagrantly sin.  That is to say, not much.

Where does that leave Gretta Vosper and the UCC?  I commend her for believing what she believes sincerely, and so, I don’t think anyone should demonize her. I know a lot of Christians who are completely nominal. They have no sense of Scripture’s truth or obedience to God’s will, but they like the idea that good people like them obviously should land up in heaven. I wish more people were sincere atheists and come to terms with that, then living the lie that they have a relationship with God. Such people are flames that offer neither light nor heat.

Thus, I do think Vosper should be removed, since it is a primary issue of doctrine. I don’t hold it against her for wanting to stay. Longing for inclusion is a basic human desire. Also, exclusion hurts, no matter the situation. No one likes being told they don’t belong, even when it is true. So, the most anyone can ask is whether is it in fact true. She has explicitly abandoned language of Christ, not just radically reinterpreted it. I admit, if I held the views she holds, I don’t think I would hold it against anyone for seeking to remove me. However, that admission comes with the sadness that I know how it feels to be pushed out of my own faith community for not being “biblical” enough. A moment like Vosper’s removal should and will be always a cause for lament.

Whether she goes or stays makes no difference in one sense: Christ’s body is still broken. My point: we cannot look down at the UCC for its lax borders while most evangelicals share a highly problematic understanding of our own limits. The evangelical lust for control and propensity for division should be equally as troubling as the UCC’s disregard for orthodoxy.

May we all cling to Christ and love one another.