Urinals and Uriahs

I’m on pilgrimage at the moment.  I’m leading a group of 7 different Presbyterian churches through Israel and the West Bank on my 6th visit to this land the church calls “Holy.”  The other day we were in the wilderness down by the Dead Sea at a national park called En Gedi.

At the site you can see caves on the hills all around where David hid from King Saul. David’s on again, off again relationship with King Saul found him at times playing music to sooth the King in his court, other moments dodging spears or hiding in the fields waiting for Jonathan’s help or in this case – taking refuge in a desolate place with an opportunity to strike the King dead one day while he stands at the urinal. Who knew a bathroom could be so dangerous? My Israeli friend Shimon tells me one way to translate the passage is that King Saul went into the cave to “anoint his legs.”  I like that.  It’s in the cave at that makeshift urinal that David has his chance to strike King Saul.  But David hesitates, he respects God’s anointed and does not strike. The conversation that follows hints at reconciliation and forgiveness. But this is the real world, this is the Bible and characters here are messed up.

David is complicated. He’s human. He’s a sinner. He’s living and leading in a fallen world. David’s story is so appealing because it’s a story of human relationships, friendships made and broken. David’s story is a mess. Do you know anyone who’s life is a mess? I do. I’m a pastor. I’ve spent my whole adult life leading churches and equipping leaders for churches. Our best Reformed doctrine has to be total human depravity. It both sets the bar low on human expectation and looks for God to lift us out of the muck and mire of our sinfulness.  As Karl Barth is rumoured to have said, “a high Christology includes a low anthropology.” Isn’t it interesting that young David hiding in the caves of En Gedi would one day spot a rather attractive woman sunbathing while the troops, including her husband, are off at war. David’s abuse of power that leads to a relationship with Bathsheba is a fascinating twin to this story – urinals and urriah. Here David shows mercy to Saul, one day he’ll send Urriah to the front to die in order to cover his sin. But the Bible teaches us that human beings look on the outside and judge but God searches the heart.

In all of our churches and in all of our lives there are broken relationships– family, friends, co-workers, neighbour or even God.  That’s okay.  It just means we’re human somewhere between the mercy of a urnial and the malevolence shown to Uriah.  Pilgrimage is good for the soul (despite Papa Calvin’s reservations!) and on our pilgrimage through this life I pray that we might be ready to witness through words and actions to the healing and reconciling love of God.

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall at The University of British Columbia.

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Consumerism: What’s the Alternative?

Sometimes I think Marx was wrong.

Well, of course, he was wrong about a lot of things. But here, I mean that he was wrong about capitalism turning us into interchangeable units of labour. In one sense that’s true, and capitalism certainly casts that shadow.

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But I think in late modernity and late capitalism, we have become interchangeable units of consumption. That is, the consumer-capitalist matrix (in which many of us live in the contemporary western world) – that matrix asks us not to be citizens, or voters, or taxpayers; it asks us only to be consumers. It asks us only to buy stuff.

We are inundated, saturated, to an extent never before seen (and never before possible), with this message: BUY STUFF.

In light of this, perhaps it is no surprise that many folks are trying to find spaces in which consumption is not as important as community, and spaces in which being creative is more valued than being commodified. The New Monastic movement is a good example, as are festivals like Burning Man, Greenbelt, Skylight, and Wild Goose. My own visits to the Taizé community in France (which attracts tens of thousands of young adults every summer) certainly bear this out.

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Similarly, the worldwide resurgence of pilgrimage bears witness to the desire for an alternative way to be human.

As a result, I am thinking these days about how local churches can cultivate opportunities to be human – beloved, whole, embodied persons with emotions and ideas and hopes – and not just consumers. I’d love to hear stories about places you have seen opportunities like this.

Rob Fennell is Academic Dean and teaches theology at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He develops the question of what it means to be human in greater depth in another article, “Fundamentally Eccentric: Reflections on what it means to be human in our time.” You can find it from page 44 onward, here: Touchstone.

 

 

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A moral challenge to pantheism

I find pantheism deeply attractive at an emotional level. But morally, it is incoherent and untenable.

Pantheism is a faith conviction that the whole natural order is divine and filled with God’s presence. In its most complete form, pantheism is the conviction that all of nature IS God.

It’s not just the sense that everything about the mountains and woods is “divine,” as in “really nice and aesthetically pleasing.” Pantheism, truly, means that the nature and God are one and the same. A correlating claim is that nature/God is all-good, and even all-loving.

But there is a major flaw to these convictions. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Trasancos-PANTHEISM

There is a long, impressive list of people who have been (or are) pantheists. My first exposure to pantheism was through William Wordsworth’s poetry. Like Wordsworth, I felt (and still feel) God’s presence in nature. Walking among lush evergreens, breathing in the delicious scent of lilacs, wondering at the vast canopy of stars at night, delighting in the tinkling chimes of a brook tripping over rocks—all of these are transcendent, wondrous moments for me. It’s not hard to feel spiritually alive in such moments. I can “feel” God (whatever that means). I really can.

There is, however, a significant problem with thinking that this material universe is divine, and specifically with thinking that there is nothing more than this (divine) material universe.

Pantheism, by definition, regards the physical universe as precisely the same as the divine or “God.” There is nothing other than this.

(For clarity: to say that all things are “in” God is panentheism, which is a different species of belief; and to say that God is somehow within but also beyond the material realm, is more like traditional theism.)

So what’s the problem with pantheism? It is as follows.

  1. In pantheism proper, God IS the material universe, and the material universe IS God. There is nothing else.
  2. If the material universe is divine, then all parts of it are divine. To say that only part of it is divine (e.g. just the nice bits like sunsets and wildflowers and chocolate) would not be a truly pantheistic position.
  3. If all parts of the material universe are divine, then all the bits we don’t like are divine, too, like cancer, woodticks, mosquitoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and the terrible things human beings sometimes do to each other.
  4. If you object to that last claim, you’re not a pantheist. A pantheist says the material world is divine, and there is nothing apart from it that is “God.” So murder, abuse, and everything else we call “bad” or “wrong” or “immoral” is really the universe (the divine universe, remember) simply being itself, unfolding normally. In pantheism, we can’t distinguish some of this world as divine and some of it as not-divine. It’s all divine.
  5. If the divine universe is just being itself when human beings murder, torture, and maim, there is no point and no meaning in calling these actions bad, wrong, or immoral. They are morally neutral—not good and not bad. They are just what the universe does. Once again, it is all divine. The world is divine, and what happens in the world is divine, and all the animals and trees and sky and rocks and people are divine. And when someone does something that most people would call “bad,” those who call it “bad” are simply unaware that the person doing that so-called “wrong” thing is fully part of the divine-universe-being-divine, being “God.”

So a pantheist, I think, has to admit that there is really no meaning to the idea of right or wrong, good or bad. All that is just IS, and it’s all divine. It’s all God.

This leaves me wondering: from where, then, do we get the sense that one action is right, good, and just, whereas another is wrong, bad, and unjust?

As a theist and a Christian, I believe that this sense of right and wrong is something that God (by “God” I mean a divine someone whose being is more than the material universe) has placed within human beings. Our inclination toward the good is a way that God draws us into God’s purposes. Right, good, and just actions are indeed distinct from and not morally equivalent to wrong, bad, and unjust actions. They are distinguishable because they have a frame of reference and a norm (namely, God and God’s purposes) that exceed the material world simply “being itself.”

A full commitment to pantheism means we can’t truly say if a given action (let’s say, intentionally killing another human being on a whim) is just or unjust, right or wrong. Logically, we can’t say it is both just and unjust, right and wrong. If we did so, the terms would be meaningless.

Most people would agree that murder is not right and not good. Yet a pantheist has no basis for saying that such an action is right or wrong. It is just the divine world being itself, being divine.

In the end, I find that a morally untenable position. Pantheism offers only an amoral universe and provides no basis for moral discernment.

What do you think?

Rob Fennell is Academic Dean of Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he also teaches historical and systematic theology. 

Photo credit: Mudassir Ahmed, the Milky Way over Nanga Parbat (Wikimedia Commons)

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Writing Prompts: designed to shake up your writing sessions

I’m just delighted to share the news that my new little book, Writing Prompts: 99 Karate Chops to Writer’s Block has just been released! It’s an e-book, so it’s easy to get hold of (so to speak) and there are no shipping charges.

FINAL VERSION WRITING PROMPTS

I wrote this book in between other projects, mostly as a way of doing something creative and fun. When the intense focus on a piece of research got to be too much, I’d draft a writing prompt or two to shake up my brain a little. After a few months, I had over 100. I sent them to a few friends to review and to vote on the ones they like best … these are the 99 that made the cut!

 What is a writing prompt, you ask? Here’s my note from the book’s introduction:

“A writing prompt is a short, punchy idea, question, or image. It is meant to get you started with a writing session. It can be a warm-up (like stretching muscles before playing sports), or it can help you get unstuck when you’re stuck with writer’s block. A writing prompt is often light-hearted and fun. It gets different parts of your brain and imagination working. I usually switch from a prompt to my main project, and I find the writing flows more easily.”

I hope that Writing Prompts will help you kick-start your writing projects, shake up your imagination, and let all those thoughts and emotions you’d like to share flow freely into the world!

See the reviews here: https://www.amazon.ca/Writing-Prompts-Karate-Chops-Writers-ebook/product-reviews/B075FGRPX5/ref=dpx_acr_txt?showViewpoints=1

Find it at Chapters/Indigo: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/writing-prompts-99-karate-chops/9781537847771-item.html

Or at Amazon (USA): https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Prompts-Karate-Chops-Writers-ebook/dp/B075FGRPX5/

Or at Amazon (Canada): https://www.amazon.ca/Writing-Prompts-Karate-Chops-Writers-ebook/dp/B075FGRPX5/

Rob Fennell is Academic Dean of Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, NS, and teaches theology and the history of Christianity.

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The Whisper of Witness

I received a text last week from my childhood pastor Allan Saunders.  He wanted to let me know that a beloved Elder in our home congregation was nearing the end of his battle with cancer.  Larry’s struggle with cancer was brief.  Diagnosed in the spring, he was near death by mid-summer.  I contacted Larry’s wife Carol and expressed my love and appreciation for his life well lived for Jesus.  I reflected this week on the various ways that Larry demonstrated his love of Jesus in my life.  As a teenager Larry volunteered to teach the rather rambunctious junior high bible class on Sunday mornings at our church.  Larry loved teenagers and in his quiet and thoughtful manner he was open to all our crazy questions about life and God.

When my Father died when I was 14 years old, Larry came alongside me in supportive ways taking me out for dinner on a regular basis for a good steak at the Keg (he had a glass of merlot and I had a coke!) as we worked through what I was feeling and where God was in the midst of all that.  When the local 9 hole golf course (where I had my “junior membership”) hosted its annual “Dad and son” tournament each year Larry gave up time with his own family to go around the golf course and help me participate in a day that I was often trying to forget.

In my university years, Larry played bass guitar in our church’s praise band called “Three Day Band.”  Together, with some of the finest Christians I’ve ever spent time with, we travelled throughout the prairies and led worship for farmers in little one steeple towns.  What struck me with all of these experiences was Larry’s quiet, dignified “whisper of witness.”  His trust in the Lord Jesus was clear and yet his winsome and cheerful way of walking through this pilgrimage of life was not “preachy” or “showy.”

I recall someone asking Larry on a Sunday morning in our teenage bible study how he could be so sure of his faith.  “Well, I met Jesus a long time ago,” Larry said matter-of-factly, “and when my life is done I’m willing to trust that Jesus will be waiting for me on the other side.”

Tomorrow, people gather in my old home town to worship God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to celebrate Larry’s life well lived.  I just hope he knew how much his “whisper of witness” impacted so many of our lives.  Heaven now has yet another face that makes me eager to run my race of faith with perseverance looking to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  The Communion of Saints is richer for Larry’s presence and our lives are fuller for his “whisper of witness…”

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver and Director of The Centre for Missional Leadership.

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Canada 150 and the Call to be Reconciled

“You’re turning 150? That’s so cute!”

So far, these words from Tom Jackson on This Hour Has 22 Minutes are my favourite response to Canadians’ sesquicentennial microburst of patriotism. He’s pointing, of course, to the fact that Indigenous peoples have been in this land far, far longer. While lots of red and white is hung up, fireworks are cued up, and barbeques are fired up, one does wonder if 150 years is really that big a deal.

Make no mistake: I love my country and my fellow citizens. I love the freedom and fairness we seek, even though we don’t always achieve it. I love the great, big, wide open spaces and (mostly) clean air and (mostly) clean water. I love the down-to-earth nature of most Canadians and the integrity, sincerity, and kindness I have known my whole life from most Canadians.

There are many shadow sides to the Canadian experience, too. You probably don’t need me to remind you.

The invitation I hear this week in the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation is not to more flag-waving or self-congratulation (although I am a big fan of fireworks and BBQ, make no mistake). It is a call to rededicate ourselves as people of faith to seeking the paths of reconciliation among nations, among peoples, with our neighbours, with those we love.

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The New Testament calls it katallage, reconciliation. The cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ together tell us the story of God’s desire to reconcile. As St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

Reconciliation insists, first, that we be honest, not naïve, about the realities of sin and evil in our world. It insists that we acknowledge what has gone wrong.

Second, reconciliation presses us to look to Christ as the source of our reconciliation, and to admit our frailty and inability to create this reality on our own through some kind of good-natured (but magical) bootstrapping.

Third, to be “given the ministry of reconciliation,” to have that message “entrusted to us,” means that we cannot be passive bystanders in a world of division, suffering, contempt, and violence. It means loving those we find difficult to love; embracing compromise; denouncing all that kills and diminishes the fullness of life that God intends; and living as if another world is possible.

And there is the good news: in the power of the Holy Spirit, for us, for all of us, another world is possible.

Photo: “Reconciliation,” Josefina de Vasconcellos, Coventry Cathedral

Rob Fennell is Academic Dean of Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Wait. Watch. Pray.

It’s time to wait, watch and pray.  I write this in an airport departure lounge on my way to Kingston, Ontario and the 143rd General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada.  Debates on human sexuality are on the docket again this year, just as most mainline churches (Lutheran, Anglican, United, etc) have been focused on these matters for the last several decades.  The PCC is next up in this discussion/debate discerning the will of the Holy Spirit, the interpretation of Scripture, and the call for justice in the church.  Canadian Presbyterians look south to the PC-USA suffering losses in light of their pro-inclusion decision of GA Detroit 2014, and overseas with the on going movement towards full inclusion in the “Mother Kirk” – The Church of Scotland.  Meanwhile, like every other mainline denomination in the West, the PCC is facing significant decline in membership, resources and influence in society.

In her exceptional book on Canadian Church History The Church with the Soul of the Nation, Phyllis Airhart offers this little gem from the old Church Union debate in the early decades of the last century:

The day after the inauguration of the United Church of Canada, author Lucy Maud Montgomery mulled dejectedly over glowing newspaper accounts of its “birth.” In recent years she and her husband, Ewan Macdonald, a Presbyterian minister, had made no secret of their opposition to the proposed union. Nevertheless, one of his two pastoral charges had voted to unite with the insufferable Methodists in Zephyr, Ontario. They now face the unwelcome prospect of packing up the family belongings and moving from the Leaskdale manse. Cynical about the claims made for union and embittered by the outcome of the vote, Montgomery wrote in her journal entry later that day, ‘in Nature the births of living things do not take place in this fashion…No, ‘tis no birth. It is rather the wedding of two old churches, both of whom are too old to have offspring.”

And so I sit here and prepare myself for more debates this week on a topic that I’ve been listening to for 30 years.  But I wonder about Montgomery’s cautionary note regarding old, mainline (offline?) denominations in the West who are focused on certain issues yet seemingly blind to others.  West Vancouver resident Douglas Coupland claims in his book Life After God that Gen X – my generation – is the first to be raised without religion.  While that may not be entirely true, perhaps we were the last Sunday School drop out generation, nevertheless we see the reality now with Millennials who are living their lives spiritually detached from the traditional church in mass numbers.  I would love to attend more church gatherings where the missional engagement of a post-Christendom generation is on the docket.  I would love to hear more conversation in the church about how we can effectively translate the gospel into the current culture and help make disciples for Jesus to bless and mend God’s broken world.  I would love to hear God’s people strategizing for how best to equip the elect, saved to be sent, into the world to witness to the glory of God we know in Jesus Christ.  Until then, it’s time to wait, watch and pray.

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall, Vancouver and Director of The Centre for Missional Leadership.

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