Sunday, December 11, 2016

Kids and religious violence

I haven't written much about my kids in a while. Ok, I haven't written much about anything in a while. And yes, the word "kids" is plural--we have a son now too!

I've been thinking about how we teach kids stories from the Bible and what to do with the violent ones.

Our three-year-old has heard the story of David and Goliath--a shorter, toned down version anyway. One day, she wanted to play David and Goliath. She was David and I was Goliath. Fortunately, she didn't sling a rock at my head; it was just pretend. But after a few times acting out that scenario, she wanted to switch places.

So when I was David I paraphrased a few lines that I remembered from the Bible. When she said I couldn't defeat her, I said, "I have God's help!" Then after I defeated her we switched places again.

This time she said "I have God's help!" before defeating me. And it got me thinking...

I want to teach her to trust God. But how will she understand what that means, especially when some important stories of God's people involve God-ordained violence? When she thinks about trusting God, I certainly don't want her first thought to be, "God will help me succeed at violence." So how do we respect scriptures and not sanitize them too much, while guiding her away from this kind of thinking?

Monday, May 30, 2016

Church search: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Quote #2

Part of my "Church search" series...
What might surprise you or perhaps even worry you would be my theological thoughts and where they are leading, and here is where I really miss you very much. I don't know anyone else with whom I can talk about them and arrive at some clarity. What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words--whether with theological or with pious words--is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" aren't really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by "religious." But our entire nineteen hundred years of Christian preaching and theology are built on the "religious a priori" in human beings. "Christianity" has always been a form (perhaps the true form) of "religion." Yet if it becomes obvious one day that this "a priori" doesn't exist, that it has been a historically conditioned and transitory form of human expression, then people really will become radically religionless--and I believe that this is already more or less the case (why, for example doesn't this war provoke a "religious" reaction like all the previous ones?)--what does that then mean for "Christianity"? The foundations are being pulled out from under all that "Christianity" has previously been for us, and the only people among whom we might end up in terms of "religion" are "the last of the knights" or a few intellectually dishonest people. Are these supposed to be the chosen few? Are we supposed to fall all over precisely this dubious lot of people in our zeal or disappointment or woe and try to peddle our wares to them? Or should we jump on a few unfortunates in their hour of weakness and commit, so to speak, religious rape? If we are unwilling to do any of that, and if we eventually must judge even the Western form of Christianity to be only a preliminary stage of a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well? Is there a such thing as a religionless Christian?...
The questions to be answered would be: What does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life, mean in a religionless world? How do we talk about God--without religion, that is, without the temporarily conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, the inner life, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we can no longer even "speak" the way we used to) in a "worldly" way about "God"? How do we go about being "religionless-worldly" Christians, how can we be those who are called out, without understanding ourselves religiously as privileged, but instead seeing ourselves as belonging wholly to the world? Christ would then no longer be the object of religion, but something else entirely, truly lord of the world. In a religionless situation, what do ritual and prayer mean? Is this where the "arcane discipline" or the difference (which you've heard about from me before) between the penultimate and the ultimate, have new significance?...
The Pauline question of whether circumcision is a condition for justification is today, in my opinion, the question of whether religion is a condition for salvation. Freedom from circumcision is also freedom from religion. I often wonder why my "Christian instinct" frequently draws me more toward non-religious people than toward the religious, and I am sure it's not with missionary intent; instead, I'd almost call it a "brotherly" instinct. While I'm often reluctant to name the name of God to religious people--because somehow it doesn't ring true for me there, and I feel a bit dishonest saying it (it's especially bad when other people start talking in religious terminology; then I clam up almost completely and feel somehow uncomfortable and in a sweat)--yet on some occasions with nonreligious people I can speak God's name quite calmly, as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God at a point where human knowledge is at an end (or sometimes when they're too lazy to think further), or when human strength fails. Actually, it's a deus ex machina that they're always bringing on the scene, either to appear to solve insoluble problems or to provide strength when human powers fail, thus always exploiting human weakness or human limitations. Inevitably that lasts only until human beings become powerful enough to push the boundaries a bit further and God is no longer needed as deus ex machina. To me, talking about human boundaries has become a dubious proposition anyhow. (Is even death still really a boundary, since people today hardly fear it anymore, or sin, since people hardly comprehend it?) It always seems to me that we leave room for God only out of anxiety. I'd like to speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness. When I reach my limits, it seems to me better not to say anything and to leave what can't be solved unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the "solution" to the problem of death. God's "beyond" is not what is beyond our cognition! Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God's transcendence. God is the beyond in the midst of our lives. The church stands not at the point where human powers fail, at the boundaries, but in the center of the village. That's the way it is in the Old Testament, and in this sense we don't read the New Testament nearly enough in the light of the Old. I am thinking a great deal about what this religionless Christianity looks like, what form it takes, and I'll be writing you more about it soon.
 --Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his letter to Eberhard Bethge on April 30, 1944, from a Nazi prison less than a year before his execution (Published in the book Letters and Papers from Prison), bold text emphasized by me.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Lutheran church

Part of my "Church search" series..

One church we visited met in a school about a 10-minute walk from our house. We'd heard about it through the flyers they occasionally sent out about community events they organized. It turned out that it was a small Lutheran church plant, affiliated with a mid-sized Lutheran church a little further away. It was part of the Lutheran Church--Canada, which is the more conservative of the two biggest Lutheran denominations in Canada. (By the way, this shows just how divided Protestantism is--there are multiple Lutheran denominations, multiple Baptist denominations, several denominations called "Church of God," and who knows how many other subdivided denominations.)

This church used fairly contemporary music in its worship, and followed traditional liturgy, although didn't seem as traditional as Anglican or some other Lutheran churches. (We did visit one more liberal Lutheran church a couple of times too.) It was a small church, but had a decent number of young people. There were also a number of mentally and physically handicapped people that sometimes attended, and it was good to see how they were welcomed.

The first couple of times we visited, we didn't really connect with the people, and we continued visiting other churches or skipping church on Sundays for a while. But then one time we talked with the people some more and started feeling more of a connection there. We began to attend more regularly and even attended a few mid-week Bible studies at someone's house.

Although we were connecting reasonably well with people, I got a sense that this church was a bit too close to what I was used to. I got a sense of legalism (getting too hung up on following the rules) from some people. I also had a feeling that if I expressed some of my doubts or less conservative beliefs, that they may not understand or accept that as well as our previous church, but I'll admit I didn't really test this out.

I looked into some information about this Lutheran denomination and found out they do closed communion--not all Christians are welcome to take communion there; only those that agree with the church's beliefs about communion should participate. I didn't particularly like this, but decided to find out more.

The next time I was there when they had communion, Cathy wasn't there with me. I went forward, but I said to the pastor, "I'm not Lutheran. Is it OK for me to take communion here?"

"Let's talk after the service," he replied, and he said a blessing.

I sat back down, and soon the pastor sat beside me and asked if I would like to take communion. I said yes, so he served communion to me. After the service he gave me a short explanation of their beliefs about communion, that the body and blood of Jesus are really present in the bread and wine, and he explained a bit of the difference between that and Catholic beliefs, for example, that Lutherans don't have to do anything special if they spill the communion elements. (I assume this means Catholic priests need to do something special if they spill the it because it is the body and blood of Christ.)

I was somewhat familiar with this belief before that, and I said that I find it believable but I'm not sure about it. He said I'm welcome to take communion there any time.

Shortly before our daughter was born, the leadership of this church decided to shut it down temporarily while they tried to find a different location and work with other Lutheran churches in Edmonton to get some more people involved. I don't think it ever restarted.

We attended the "parent church" of this little church a few times that fall and winter. That church had the same pastor as this one, but we didn't connect with any others there.

Then spring came, daylight saving time started, and after the time change our daughter started waking up from her morning nap around 10:30, the same time that services started at that church. That didn't leave us enough time to get there without trying to change her nap schedule. And since we weren't feeling any sense of attachment to that church...

To be continued...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Church Search: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Quote #1

Part of my "Church search" series...
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.

A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves this dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.

When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
--Dietrich Bohoeffer, Life Together

When I first saw this quote, I only saw part of it (and yes, there's even more than I've quoted here, so look it up if you want to read more). It started from almost the middle of the third paragraph: "Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community..." This and other things I read affected my concept of what church should be. As I've talked about before, I found it so tiring when pastors would come up with one idea after another of how to reach out to the community and hopefully grow the church. It seemed like there should be a better, simpler way--something that is better at welcoming people in various places in their faith and practice, yet manages to unite without insisting that people need to get with the program.

This is still what I hope for. That hasn't changed, at least not much.

But eventually I read a bigger chunk of this quote. I hadn't seen the first couple of paragraphs before. That turned my attention onto my own wishes for a church community. If I find a church that seems alright but doesn't quite match what I hope for, do I leave? Do I insist that the church change? Or as Bonhoeffer said, a church that doesn't meet my expectations could be exactly what I need.

There's a time to leave a church and a time to stay. I'm not trying to say people should always put up with whatever church they happen to be in. I'm not even going to try to lay out a set of rules for deciding whether to stay or go. Certainly, I think people should leave churches that are toxic environments, but how do you define a toxic environment? And I left a church that I don't consider a toxic environment.

But I will conclude this post by repeating myself because I can't come up with a better ending: a church that doesn't meet my expectations could be exactly what I need.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Church search: United church and liberal Christianity

Part of my "Church search" series...

One Sunday, we decided to visit a United Church. (The United Church is a Canadian denomination formed in 1925 by a merger between a few denominations including the Methodist Church and most of Canada's Presbyterian Church. I don't think there's an exact equivalent in other countries, although I'm sure there are similar churches. It's one of the largest and most liberal Protestant denominations in Canada.)

Visiting that church was my idea. We both come from the more conservative / evangelical side of Christianity (conservative in beliefs, not necessarily in worship style), and I wanted to understand and experience the liberal side of Christianity more. I consider myself somewhere between conservative and liberal. In my experience, conservative Christians are quick to dismiss liberal Christians as "not real Christians." I don't want to be quick to do that, so I wanted to see what these churches are like. I had been to United Churches before (for cousins' baptisms and that sort of thing), but not for years.

I'm not sure if Cathy was all that interested, but she came along. We walked in the church and found that some singing had already started, and I don't think we were late. Almost everyone there looked like they were over 60 years old. The minister might have been one of the youngest people there, probably in her 50s. But the place was packed. People say the United Church is in decline, but this church seems strong for now. However, with its demographics, it certainly will be in decline in the next decade or two unless something changes.

Cathy asked if I wanted to stay. I was hesitant, but I wanted to see what the actual service would be like.

The service that day had a theme of friendship, related to one of the lectionary readings that day, from the book of Ruth. Through the songs and sermon, I don't think I ever heard of Jesus referred to as anything more than a supreme example of friendship. It left me wondering, do they believe that Jesus was the son of God? Do they believe that in some sense Jesus has redeemed us and overcome death? (There are varying ideas among Christians on how Jesus redeems us and I don't want to be too picky about how they understand it, but I have a problem with throwing out the idea of redemption entirely.)

I realize there are people who call themselves Christians, and even some priests / ministers / pastors, who don't believe in God at all. Today I'm not interested in getting into a debate about whether they should be considered Christians or not. My point is that these people still find meaning in Christian practices and worship, even if they believe there's nothing supernatural behind it. While I don't want to disrespect what they find meaningful, personally I don't find much meaning in religious practice without some sort of belief behind it. I'm not talking about complete certainty--God knows I don't have complete certainty myself. This gets into what I mentioned in my previous post about the Anglican Church, rising above doubt.

I appreciate worship that gives me a sense of something greater than myself, greater than the people around me, greater than any human institution. Hearing reflections on friendship with some mentions of Jesus thrown in doesn't do that for me. As I said in that Anglican Church post, I can appreciate a church that can understand and appreciate doubt. That said, doubt can't be the last word. In what the church says and does, it needs to lift us up toward something greater, not sit at the lowest common denominator. This may not be easy to do, but in my experience, liturgical and evangelical churches tend do this better than mainline non-liturgical churches such as the United Church (and yes, my mainline experience is pretty limited). Evangelical churches on the other hand can be less understanding of doubt.

Maybe we visited that church on an off day. Maybe a lot of other United Churches are better at rising above doubt (and maybe have more varied demographics too). Maybe I just haven't been exposed to this form of faith enough to see the beauty in it. But I don't see myself practicing my faith in this way. We haven't been to a United Church again and have no plans to go again. I'd still like to understand liberal Christianity better, and I'm not sure where to look.

One more experience I'd like to share, this one from an Anglican Church:

The Anglican Church tends to vary between liberal and conservative beliefs, but it is one of the churches that many evangelicals would consider overly liberal, kind of like the United Church. A while back, the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton passed some sort of motion about wanting to bless same-sex civil marriages, although without considering them church marriages. That motion probably needed approval at the national level before it would have any effect on their practices, but still, most conservative Christians would consider the blessing of same-sex unions to be a bad thing. (I'm not entirely sure where I stand on this issue. Politically I'm in favour of allowing same-sex marriage, but in the church I'm not sure what should be done given differing interpretations of the Bible.)

The Sunday after this motion passed, I happened to visit an Anglican church. The priest talked about it, didn't really give his opinion, but he acknowledged it has been a contentious issue in the church for a number of years. But what stuck out to me is this: he said the recent decision was made with grace. And though the liturgy of that service, I always had a sense that this church honours Jesus as savior, redeemer, and Lord. Maybe they are overly liberal, I'm not sure, but they still give me a sense of a living faith in a real God.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Four months into fatherhood

Our daughter is over four months old now so I'd like to look back on the last little while.

She was born in the morning, and since we used a midwife rather than a doctor, and everyone was thankfully healthy, we went home in the afternoon. My parents and my brother came to see her. (My sister was away on vacation so she couldn't meet her that day.) At night she cried for hours, so Cathy and I switched off holding her. Around 3 or 4 in the morning she went to sleep and must have slept for 5 hours. And so began parenthood.

As anyone who's been through this will tell you, the first few months are tough, especially the first few weeks. Fortunately the baby slept better most nights than the first night--no 5 hour stretches of sleep for a while, but no 5 hour stretches of crying either. And at first she slept better in the day than at night.

If parenting would always be like the first couple of months, I wouldn't want to be a parent. I was sure it would get better, so I didn't regret having the baby, but wasn't loving fatherhood either. Hearing Cathy's frustration was tough too. Sometimes she'd even say she wants to put the baby up for adoption. She sounded serious, but sometimes it's hard to tell how serious she is when she's frustrated. The baby seemed to fit the definition of colic too, so that didn't help.

And then sometimes I'd imagine the future. I imagine taking her camping, seeing her fascination with seeing certain animals for the first time, and teaching her some camping skills. I imagine her curiosity about the world around her. I imagine her affection for us. Then it really feels like parenting will be worth it. I know parenting isn't supposed to be a selfish thing, but I want to experience joy in the sacrifices that it takes to raise a child, and I'm sure I will.

Things have improved a lot. After 6 or 7 weeks, her crying reduced to the point where it wouldn't count as colic. She's healthy, she smiles at us, and she plays with toys (mostly putting them in her mouth or dropping them). We're both embracing parenthood more, and finding more joy in it. I've seen Cathy's confidence grow so much. It is a joy to play with her and see her mature. I'm looking forward to seeing what she's like when she's older.

We're very grateful for all the support we've received, especially from both of our parents, and even more especially, from Cathy's mom who stayed with us for four weeks.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Church search: Liturgy and Anglican churches

Part of my "Church search" series...

Since I've been most interested in visiting churches that are not evangelical, most of the churches I've visited have been on the more liturgical side, some of them Anglican. Cathy has visited some of these with me. Also, we've visited one United church (I don't think that's considered liturgical) and a couple of Lutheran churches. I'll cover the United and Lutheran churches separate posts.

I find that when I go to an Anglican church when I haven't been to one in a while, I find many parts of the liturgy quite meaningful. There are some beautiful things said about God's love and grace. Also, through some things I've heard and read, I've come to appreciate taking communion more, and communion happens more often in liturgical churches.

And then after a few services, things start to seem more repetitive. Granted, non-liturgical churches can be almost as repetitive in different ways, and in both cases, we are saying or singing words that some other writer came up with, so in either case we aren't just saying personal things. The difference with liturgy isn't just about how repetitive it is; it has to do with a different understanding of what's happening during worship. One place to read about this is this article called "Liturgy Is Not a 'Style'." Getting back to communion, these churches teach that God really does something with us through communion, that in some mysterious, not-fully-understood way, our souls are nourished by the body and blood of Jesus even as our bodies are nourished by the bread and wine. I don't know if I believe that, but I find it believable, and it has deepened my appreciation of communion.

I find that churches with less conservative beliefs tend to understand and appreciate doubt better than more conservative churches. As someone who has wrestled with doubts about God for years, I can appreciate this. But it's important to rise above these doubts, not to explain them away or suppress them, but to find ways of experience God and appreciate Christianity even in the midst of doubt. I find that appreciation of mystery is one way to rise above doubt without simply suppressing it, and that's one reason I appreciate a liturgical understanding of communion. (I'll talk more about rising above doubt when I write about the United Church.)

One time in particular that I visited a certain Anglican church for the first time, I really felt a strong sense of both reverence and grace, through the words that were said and sung, through looking at the stained-glass windows. The songs were familiar enough too, and that helped. Other times that I've been there, it hasn't always felt that way. The time that I went there with Cathy, the sermon was done by one of the lay leaders in the church, and it was painful to listen to. She wasn't a good speaker (maybe needs more practice), and the subject was about giving money to the church.

I also find that I want to learn more from church history. The historic churches seem to have many good insights and helpful practices that often get lost in evangelical churches' desire to follow the Bible alone. On the other hand, the historic churches have done a lot of awful things over the centuries, but it would be good to learn from those mistakes. I appreciate how the Anglican church tries to embrace the best of both Catholicism and Protestantism, and has a more open attitude toward other Christians than some other churches have (for example, they welcome all baptized Christians to take communion, unlike some churches).

In general, I haven't been able to connect well with people at the Anglican churches I've visited. There generally aren't many people around my age, but there are a few, and some that are younger too. I've had good conversations with a couple of priests, but haven't really got to know others.

So my Anglican experiences have been meaningful, sometimes repetitive, and haven't provided much experience of community. I'm not sure if this tradition is the way I want to practice my faith long-term, but it's definitely one that I want to continue learning from.