The other night I was engaged in a group looking at the concept or idea of God. What does the word God mean, what does it mean to us personally? We used Marcus Borg’s series called “Adult Faith” to explore it a bit.
Marcus talks about his own experiences of ‘God” and his developing sense that there is a divine presence underlying all of life. He spoke of some mystical events that utterly convinced him of that reality when he was younger, and which he has never doubted since.
Wow that was a pretty powerful image, but not one that everyone shares. When leading groups like these, it always prompts some self reflection.
Why do I know what I think I know!!!
My own experiences aren’t that mystical. Rather it has been a growing sense that there is more to life that what we see in the physical world. Perhaps it was teaching Anatomy and preparing dissections for the classes! Since that time it has been a growing sense that what underlines life is an energy, an impulse, a spirit that supports and nurtures us at our deepest levels and encourages us to connect with one another in love. This presence cannot be seen, but rather can only be felt and experienced and then revealed in the way we live our own lives. It is a presence that for me is found in all of life, from the smallest molecule of the universe to the complicated but beautiful creatures we have become. It is the creativity underlying our passage from the big bang to homo sapiens and beyond. I am utterly convinced that this energy/spirit is what drives us to be better people, better communities and hopefully a better more just world.
I do also believe however that it’s really almost impossible to convince someone else, let alone ourselves, of the reality of God. Sure we can study the scriptures, taking into account the context in which they were written, explore the writings and actions of those people of faith who have gone before us, and who have been motivated to seek justice and peace. We can embrace the natural world revelling in the beauty found there or we can share together within our own traditions, but seek the wisdom that other faith traditions can offer.
We can do all this and still be wondering. Faith is something else, a trust that at the very depths of all there is, there is something more. It is at the level of the heart rather than the head. This type of faith does not hinge on certain beliefs, does not require blind followers, and does not expect that we will not have moments of doubt and longing. It does require a commitment to all people, a commitment to community and a commitment to love. Because for faith to become real and tangible it needs is to be lived out in the world. For me this type of faith is seen in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who reveals the something more in life, the intangible element within all things. It is Jesus who reveals God to me.
Borg described our relationship to God, or whatever term you choose, the divine presence, or spirit or energy or creative impulse, as fish are to the sea. It is not only that the water is in the fish but that the fish is in the water, buoyed and supported, in a way that is universal. We live in God in this way, and God lives in us. Perhaps this is what Luke meant when he said, God is the reality in which we live and move and have our being.
At the end of the meeting Marcus Borg recited a poem which sought to make real what he was describing. I could not think of a better ending than the song ‘Like a River” by Peter Mayer. God is like a river….let go. Here it is….
Ps. I would like to add that faith is a journey of discovery, and “certainty” a nonsense. The more you ponder the more questions are raised, but the richer becomes life.
We had our church AGM on Sunday. Now you may think that would be a pretty boring thing to do. In some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t. Reviewing where you are and where you want to be are pretty important things to do, whether you are an individual or a company or a church!
I think the one thing about churches is that they can so easily become all about us, all about the care of us, all about what is happening to us. Yet Jesus was very clear, it was all about caring for the other, and particularly the poor and marginalised, the least of us, who can be found anywhere.
In keeping with that it is a privilege to serve the people at the Wembley Downs Uniting Church, an intentional Christian community that looks beyond its border out into the wider world. A community that does not just meet for some cultural reason or out of habit or because we are friends, but one that wants to make a difference in the world. Reviewing the past year means seeing what we, a bunch of disparate people of different ages, at different stages of life, have been able to do for others. What we do and have done isn’t earth shattering but rather an act of keeping faith to the call of Jesus.
And this is where the rubber hits the road. Following the Jesus way is not easy. We are just ordinary people, with the same foibles, same desires and the same limitations as everyone else.
That is our paradox, we yearn to be perfect, love perfectly, forgive perfectly and yet we end up doing all the things we said we wouldn’t do. We can act in noble, selfless ways, then retreat to selfish and individual ways. We can seek justice for the poor, then live like kings compared to almost everyone else on the planet or we can want to protect the planet then behave as though our resources are limitless.
Especially me, because sometimes pastors make the worst Christians!
This is who I am, this is who we really are. We need to acknowledge and accept this reality. And through acknowledging it make choices about which road we will follow.
And if it is the road of Jesus, then we must follow it together, forgiving ourselves and others along the way for being human. God is not worried about the human part, God is worried about the trying part. We are called to try to transform life around us, and if we fail we are to try again. For God is with us on the journey, a creative presence bringing forth new life out of darkness and despair.
So when people ask what the characteristics of a church should be I can think of nothing more suitable than what Michael Morewood said a few years ago, based on the teachings and example of Jesus.
- To constantly affirm the presence of the sacred in people’s lives.
- To proclaim in speech and action that human loving and decency are intimately connected with the sacred.
- To be gracious, welcoming and generous to all.
- To take risks, and be prepared to be unorthodox if compassion calls for it. For this is what Jesus did.
- To seek what is common ground, not in terms of a religious package of beliefs but in terms of our human experience of God.
- To look outward, beyond one’s own religious community and concerns. To look especially to the concerns of social and environmental justice and ecumenism.
- To act against evil and not tolerate behaviour that is clearly contrary to the Spirit of love. Even and especially by our government.
- To trust that the spirit of God works in the body of the faithful and all need to be heard.
As a church we aim high and accept that the journey we are on is long and never ending. We do hope that every day and every year we might nudge that little bit closer to the new heaven and new earth Jesus could see.
For it is the ordinary people who will change the world.
I was on a panel the other day answering “faith related” questions. A couple of days later one of those present emailed me saying she was impressed with what I said about the bible not being taken literally and asked me if I could provide her “with the exact words I had said as they resonated so strongly for me.”
I wasn’t able to accede to her request. I have no idea what I said, and even if I did my “age related” memory probably wouldn’t permit its recall. The best I can do is to guess at what I said. I think it was probably with respect to an insight of Marcus Borg which expressed clearly what I have been on about for some time – that the context of the expression of the Christian faith is crucially important to its understanding. As Borg puts it “Not only do the New Testament texts come alive in their ancient settings, but we are saved from the fanciful misunderstandings that result from non-historical interpretations”.
He goes on to speak of three contexts in the form of concentric circles. The first is the context of Jesus and his disciples, peasants and poor. The second is the context of Judaism, the context of hope and how God’s promises to Abraham might be fulfilled. The third context was that of the Roman Empire which was politically oppressive, economically exploitive, chronically violent and legitimated by religious claims. The Emperor at that times was one born as Octavian but after he defeated Antony in 31BC he became known as Caesar Augustus – ‘augustus’ meaning “one who is to be worshipped and revered”. He was heralded as “Son of God” and said to be divinely conceived by the God Apollo. He was referred to as “Lord”, and called “Saviour of the World” because he had brought “peace on earth” by defeating Antony. He was succeeded by Tiberius Caesar Augustus who carried on the tradition and had his image and title inscribed on the coinage. He was the Emperor when Jesus was killed.
The point that Borg is making is that the New Testament writers use the terminology of imperial theology but apply it to Jesus “Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ – the Emperor is not. Jesus is ‘Lord’ – the Emperor is not. Jesus is the ‘Saviour” who brings “peace on earth – the Emperor is not.”
The point that is being made by Borg, and many of us, is that context must be taken seriously. Context matters
The context which we live in today is very different to that in which Jesus lived. It could be referred to as the “context of evolution” – and that is why in a few weeks time I will be trying to convince a group of people that “God is the evolutionary energy inviting and encouraging us to fullness of life, and Jesus of Nazareth is the light that reveals the way” – just as he did two thousand years ago. I may even point out that our society too is politically oppressive, economically exploitative, chronically violent and legitimated by spurious religion. I will try and point out that the best description for Jesus and his followers today may well be “agents of change”.
Chances are, of course, that when people ask me what I said, I will be unable to remember.