Tag Archives: religion

Sensing God Through Our Sight

This Sunday, we’re kicking off a new series at The First Mennonite Church called Sensing God Through Our Worship.  The series was created by Arlyn Friesen Epp of Mennonite Church Manitoba and explores how we might experience God through all 5 of our senses.

This Sunday, we’ll be looking at Sight!

For me personally, there are two sights that often come to mind for me when I think of God.  The first is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son.

Rembrandt

Of course, I’ve been personally impacted by much of Henri Nouwen’s writings on this painting, and this image often reminds me of things such as God’s grace, mercy, love, acceptance, belonging, and redemption.  The Son finds true healing, true self-worth, and true self-value in the intimate embrace of the Father.

When I think of seeing God in nature, my mind immediately jumps to a very special place for my wife and I, Vespers Point at Camp Hermosa in Goderich, ON.

the point_Fotor

Not only do you get incredible sunsets and a view of Lake Huron that constantly reminds you of the amazing things that God has made; but this is where people have been taking time to worship God every summer evening for over 80 years.  Marriages have been proposed here.  People have shared vulnerable, gut-wrenching stories of loss here.  People have made their first decision to believe in God and follow Christ here.  Families have been meeting here for several generations.  This sight reminds me of a very sacred place on God’s good earth.

What sorts of sights connect you to God?  Or make you feel like you are experiencing something of the divine?

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Wrongs to Rights

This Sunday, we kick off a month-long exploration into a discussion that affects all of us.  For the next few weeks, we’re going to look into one of the moments in history when church was not at its best.  And we need to hear this truth.

The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, published in 2015, details just how much churches participated in the systemic cultural genocide of First Nations people across the country of Canada.  And this doesn’t include just particular denominations or particular churches.  It largely includes all of us who were doing church in Canada over the last 200-300 years.

But we believe there is hope.  Hope both for our First Nations brothers and sisters and for the church.  The TRC is a step forward in hope.  Now, the next step is for us to listen, learn,and discern how we will respond to the evidence of history.

This Sunday, Tom Neufeld will share with us on some of the history behind the church’s colonialism and exploitation of First Nations peoples, and he will share this within the context of stories within the Bible itself where people of faith decided that it was okay to harm and exclude a particular race or group of people.

To get the conversation started, here’s a video from Mennonite Church Canada connected to the TRC sessions that took place in Montreal in 2013.  We think this will be of great value for you to check out before we begin on Sunday

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Why does God make it so hard to reach heaven?

Continuing on our list of questions from our Googling for God series, this is one of the questions that we received online.

I think this raises one particular question for me.

What is your assumption about getting to heaven? In other words, what exactly are you under the impression that it takes to get to heaven?

I think if I knew the answer to this question, I could likely best answer you. But unfortunately, we don’t have the opportunity to go back-and-forth for clarity. So, I think I’ll make an assumption here that is fairly common when I converse people on this topic: we get to heaven by performing enough good deeds and avoiding enough bad deeds.

Christians have often believed this assumption. We have often said that we have to do the right things, avoid enough of the wrong things, wear the right clothes, hang out with the right people, avoid the wrong people, and do enough of these things in order to get to heaven.

In fact, this assumption is fairly common amongst many spiritual and religious views. For some of us, we believe we have to follow all of the right laws and not break any of those laws. For some of us, we must prove that we are a good person by performing enough good deeds or acts of kindness.  For others, if we perform enough spiritual rituals or acts, then God will accept us.

Most of these views predicate themselves on the action and the work of the believer. It’s up to the believer to get him or herself to heaven.

So long as our arrival in heaven depends on our personal efforts, it is going to feel hard. Will I ever be good enough? How do I know that I am good enough? What if I’m deceived into thinking I’m good enough? Will I ever be able to do everything that God demands of me?

In this situation, it IS hard to reach heaven!

Many faiths and religions run under the assumption that heaven is like a mountain. We’re all trying to be good enough to reach the top and avoid any bad things that may drag us down.

But here’s the thing that’s interesting in the Christian story: God comes down from the mountain and lifts humanity up to the top.

Christianity seems to suggest that when Jesus dies on the cross and is resurrected, he removes any and all need for us to perform ritual sacrifices, say and do the right things, and earn our way into heaven. Instead, it is all done for us.

Paul says this in Romans 3: 27-28: “Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal [another way of saying reaching heaven] is not based on our good deeds. It is based on our faith. So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law.”

When he’s asked by some of his followers what he expects them to do in order to be saved or reach heaven, Jesus says, “This is what God wants you to do: Believe in the one he has sent.”

I can understand why you may be under the assumption that you have to work to earn your way to heaven. That’s a pretty common assumption. But maybe you need to hear the Good News that God came down from the mountain and paid the price, so you don’t have to worry about earning enough to make your way to heaven.

Now, you simply have to trust and believe that God has done this for you; and see what life looks like when you live in that reality.

I think Jesus means it when he says in Matt. 11: 28-30: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light.”

I hope that’s Good News to you today!

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Trump, the Pax Romana, and Palm Sunday

This Sunday, many churches around the world, including our own, will take time to remember and honour Palm Sunday: the moment when Jesus enters into Jerusalem and begins the events prior to his arrest and crucifixion.

Two particular things happen on Palm Sunday: Jesus rides a donkey colt, and a number of people wave palm branches and shout, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The symbol of riding on a donkey colt was meant to conjure up the image of a King riding into Jerusalem.  Solomon rides on a mule when he is anointed as King over all of Israel.  Zechariah also prophesies that when the long-awaited Messiah, the great King of Zion, will enter Jerusalem “riding on a donkey’s colt” (Zech. 9:9).

The addition of palm branches is interesting.  Palm branches were already a common symbol of royalty in Jewish culture at the time; but palm branches were particularly connected to when the King entered the Temple and performed a sacrifice upon the altar.

Palm Sunday is a celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry as a King into Jerusalem and we see two things quickly emerge in this image of Jesus: 1) the donkey colt was also a symbol of humility and 2) Jesus is going to be a King performing a sacrifice.  But instead of sacrificing an animal on the altar, he sacrifices himself upon the cross to heal the world of its sins.

Now try lining up this image of King with that we see quickly emerging in our beloved Donald J. Trump.  As a leader or ruler, Trump says things like:

“We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me.”

[Speaking of a protester] “I want to punch him in the face.”

“If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. Okay?”

“See, in the good old days this didn’t use to happen [people protesting], because they used to treat them very rough. We’ve become very weak.”

When asked about the recent assault of a protester who was subsequently manhandled by three police officers (not the man who actually assaulted him), Trump says, “He deserved it. The next time we see him, we might have to kill him. We don’t know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization.”

Trump represents what we could call the Pax Romana or “Peace of Rome.”  Just before the birth of Christ until about 180 A.D., Rome enjoyed about a relative peace for about 200 years.  Their claim was that the civilization and military expansion of the Roman Empire had engineered this peace.

However, the Pax Romana was anything but peaceful.  The Empire engaged in widespread torture and executions in order to maintain power over oppressed cultures, and it still engaged in warfare.  It just didn’t have any major civil wars during this time or any major opponents who threatened the stability of the Empire.

But the basic concept of the Pax Romana was that physical force and violence against your enemies creates security and peace.

This is what Donald Trump believes will happen when he uses physical and verbal force against protesters.  This is also what also lead Trump to say things like: “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.”

This was the logic of the Pax Romana.  Use whatever physical force is necessary in order to ensure peace.

Two different leaders.  Two different concepts of “King.”  One leader advocates that because he is so rich and powerful, he will make America great again.  The other leader rides on a donkey colt to announce his arrival.

One leader says you have to sacrifice people on the altar of peace and security in order to be safe.  The other leader sacrifices himself to save the world.

This Palm Sunday let’s ask ourselves “What is truly the peace that we want for the world? And which kind of King will we ultimately follow?”

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Dangerous Religious Thought Pt. 2

So, you might recall that last week, I responded to Gretta Vosper’s statement of “our use of theological language that posits a moral authority is a very dangerous tool in the 21st century,” by suggesting that “You don’t have to just be religious about God to be dangerous. You can be religious about anything and be dangerous.”

You might also recall that I alluded to Part Two of my response to Rev. Vosper by quoting Jesus when he says “love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you…if you love only those who love you, what good is that?” (Matt. 5: 44-46, NLT).

When we consider the teachings of Jesus, are they dangerous? Is the moral authority of Jesus dangerous? Jesus certainly says, “anyone who obeys my teaching will never die” (John 8: 51, NLT) and “anyone who listens to my teaching and obeys me is wise” (Matt. 7:24, NLT). So he certainly seems to posit himself as a moral authority in the lives of people who listen to him.

But what do you think of his teaching?

In the quote from Jesus that I included in last week’s post, Jesus doesn’t seem to demand the destruction and murder of those people who oppose him. Instead, he tells his followers to love them, and pray for them. Is that a dangerous religious thought?

Jesus says in Luke 6: 20-21 that God blesses those people who are poor, hungry, and in mourning. Not people who are rich, greedy, and boastful. Is that a dangerous religious thought?

In the fourth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus breaks down both gender and cultural barriers by not only talking to a Samaritan woman (something a good Jewish boy was not supposed to do), but also giving her dignity by saying she has access to God. Is that a dangerous religious thought?

Don’t get me wrong. I think there have been many dangerous Christians throughout history who have been capable of great and terrible things; but therein lies the exact problem. It is “Christians” who have been dangerous, not “Christ.”

We must never confuse Jesus with the circle of people who are around Jesus and following him. We follow Jesus, not the circle of people around him. We follow Christ, not Christians.

And I would argue that Jesus is not a dangerous moral authority but rather an incredible model of love and peacemaking.

Don’t believe me? Don’t go solely on my opinion. Check out the gospels for yourself. See what you think of Jesus. Decide for yourself. Is the moral authority of Jesus dangerous, or is it actually quite intriguing?

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Dangerous Religious Thought?

If you’ve been following the story, Gretta Vosper is a minister in the United Church who recently made headlines as a church minister who is openly…wait for it…atheist. That’s right. She works as a minister, and she openly and intentionally teaches that God does not exist; neither does Jesus.

Now, this raises all sorts of interesting questions. What does it mean to be the church? What is the connection between God and the concept of church? How do doubt, skepticism, and just outright disbelief fit into a community that uses the word “church” to describe itself? How do we handle things when someone disagrees with us on our understanding of God? How do we facilitate dialogue between different opinions?

I don’t want to spend a lot of time initially on the question of whether or not Gretta can be a minister and be an atheist (that’s a whole different series of questions); but I did find one particular comment that she made interesting. During a recent CBC interview (link is below), Gretta Vosper says, “Our use of theological language that posits a moral authority is a very dangerous tool in the 21st century.” Gretta seems to suggest here that belief in a deity that leads to moral authority is dangerous. And I’d actually like to respond to this statement in two ways. Today, I’ll share part one of my thoughts.

I’ll start by saying this: “You don’t have to just be religious about God to be dangerous. You can be religious about anything and be dangerous.”

What do I mean by “religious?” Let me suggest that in this context, I’m using “religious” to refer to “anyone who believes so certainly in an idea or a principle that no difference of opinion is accepted.”

It is not wrong to simply have an idea or a principle, or even a moral authority. This is actually just how thought, interaction, and relationships all take place. For example, your moral authority could be “God wants me to be kind to people,” or you might say, “it is generally good for the survival of human beings to be kind to one another.” Both are moral decisions, and both possess a moral authority that drives someone to make a decision. In one case, it’s the theological idea of a God that says be kind to others; in the other case, the moral authority is a philosophy that might make reasonable sense to the person who chooses it.

All of our interactions with the world are fueled by ideas and principles (ie. it is good to have friends, I like this person, I wish to be kind to this person, it is good to be kind to people, etc.). A problem arises when we become religious about our ideas and/or principles. By this I mean, it is dangerous when we believe so certainly in our idea and our principle that any degree of coercion and/or force is justified in order to cause people to conform to your idea or principle.

For example, “non-believers are going to hell, we must make them confess belief in God through any means necessary,” or “religious belief is the opiate of the masses, we must eliminate religion through any means necessary.” Many people have made both kinds of statements.

I agree with Gretta that being religious about something can be very dangerous. We’ve certainly seen that play out in most major religions in the world; even my own faith of Christianity.

However, I would say that religions do not have the corner market on religious behavior. As human beings, we can be religious about a great many things: political systems, economic systems, scientific theories, socio-economic class divides, sports team fandom, racism, and more.

I’ll give you a bit of a teaser for next week’s part two of my response to Gretta Vosper’s statement: when asked about people who disagree with him, or are “enemies” with him, Jesus says, “love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you…if you love only those who love you, what good is that?” (Matt. 5: 44-46, NLT).

More next week!

Here is also the link to the CBC interview with Gretta Vosper:

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-january-11-2016-1.3398187/atheist-minister-fights-to-keep-her-place-in-the-united-church-1.3398237

 

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