Saturday, March 29, 2014

Earth Hour, or Welcome to the Dark Side

Today, March 25, 2017, is Earth Hour. It reminded me of a column I wrote a few years ago on the occasion of this worldwide event—about how the problem today isn't too much light, but not enough darkness, and how that might affect the popularity of light as a spiritual metaphor.

In 1610, the famed Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei published a book about the stars and planets he observed in the sky above Padua. 

Although his homemade telescope was less powerful than most beginners’ telescopes sold today, he made some remarkable discoveries about the moon, planets and the Milky Way.

Most people today would have trouble replicating Galileo’s ages-old feat, even with modern telescopes—not because the stars and planets are dimmer, but because the earth has become much brighter.

In an article in The New Yorker titled The Dark Side, David Owen notes that a person standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York City on a cloudless night could not repeat that feat.

A person today “would be unable to discern much more than the moon, the brighter planets, and a handful of very bright stars—less than one per cent of what Galileo would have been able to see without a telescope.”

Thoughts about Galileo, and about how our view of the heavens has changed over the past 400 years, come to mind this month during Earth Hour. That’s when millions of people around the globe turned off unnecessary lights.

Earth Hour also got me thinking about the role light plays in religion. Almost all religions use it as metaphor for knowledge, wisdom, justice and other spiritual ideals and goals.

Darkness, on the other hand, has most often been a common metaphor for evil.

Since the world’s major religions originated before electricity, it’s easy to see why light and dark were such important concepts—there was so little light back then.  The idea of God as light, piercing and dispersing darkness, would have been immediately understood and appreciated by all.

Today, that image is much less meaningful. If we want light, we simply flick on a switch. We can experience illumination 24 hours a day, if we want—something that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for most people not very long ago. 

The result? We fail to see light as something special, or even miraculous; it has become just another commonplace commodity that we take for granted.

If anything, we have too much light these days. The many lights from buildings, streetlights, cars and other sources in large parts of the developed world has created a condition called skyglow, the dome of light that appears over major cities and washes out the night sky.

This light pollution, as astronomers call it, means that those who study the skies have to go further and further afield to find places are dark enough to permit decent stargazing.

To see skies like Galileo knew, you would have to travel to the Australian outback or the mountains of Peru.

Does this mean that light is no longer a useful metaphor for God or religious understanding? No. But it may have lost some of its power and meaning today. What’s so special about light if you can have it whenever you want it?

Maybe what we need today is a greater appreciation for something we have so little of—darkness. Maybe instead of looking for God in the light, we need to seek out the dark. Maybe that’s where God can more readily be found.

Through something like Earth Hour, maybe we can appreciate the dark in a whole new way. Perhaps it is only in great darkness that we can fully see the light.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Sermon on the Mound: Baseball as a Road to God

(I'm not a huge baseball fan, but I do enjoy the game. I've written a couple times about its religious dimensions. With the new baseball season almost upon us, I thought I'd resurrect an old column and add some new information. With the boys of summer in spring training, what better way to forget about the cold weather that's still outside?)

Baseball is almost back!

Opening day for 2014 is March 31, although a few northern ballparks might be a little chilly.

Baseball’s return suggests that winter, at long last, has really been vanquished, even if the evidence outside our windows in Manitoba suggests otherwise.

Its return inspires a sense of hope, renewal and new beginnings for many—which sounds sort of religious, in a way.

In fact, for many people, baseball is a religion. It has all the religious elements: A creation story (replete with dissenting views about how this “faith” really started), falls from grace, redemption, prophets, heretics, deities, icons, rituals, holy books, temples, worship, miracles, sacrifice, miracles, saviours and sinners.

There’s even a Vatican-like place called the Baseball Hall of Fame, where “worshippers” can view holy relics, venerate the saints and re-live the great moments of the faith.

As Susan Saradon’s character said in the movie Bull Durham: “I believe in the church of baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones . . . and the only church that feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the church of baseball.”

William Herzog and Christopher Evans, who teach at Colgate Divinity School in Rochester, New York, seem to agree. The two are editors of the book The Faith of 50 Million, a collection of essays that “plumb how baseball illuminates significant patterns of faith and meaning.”

“People are incurably religious," said Herzog in an interview. “We have to have some form of religion, and for some people its baseball. It's only a game, but it has elements that point beyond.”

The book’s foreword is by theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a baseball fan and professor at Duke Divinity School.

He really brings it home for this Mennonite church member when he notes that “being a Cubs' fan and a pacifist are closely linked; namely, both commitments teach you that life is not about winning.”

Someone else who sees a link between baseball and religion is John Sexton, President of New York University and author of the book Baseball as a Road to God. 

Sexton, a Yankees fan, decided to combine his interest in religion and baseball into a course at NYU.

Also called Baseball as a Road to God, its a way to “get students to think about things that they see as mundane in a rich and nuanced way, and to do that through the trigger of something they see as an oxymoron.”

By using something familiar—baseball—he hopes to help them see the world in a different way, a way that “adds to the richness of your experience of everything in the world.”

As for baseball itself, Sexton sees that as a metaphor for a rich spiritual life—in baseball, time passes more slowly than in the real world, and since it doesn’t use a clock, it could go on forever.

Books on the reading list for the course include Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella, The Natural by Bernard Malamud, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by Kinsella, and The Universal Baseball Association Inc. by Robert Coover.

For Sexton, "baseball evokes in the life of its faithful features we associate with the spiritual life: faith and doubt, conversion, blessings and curses, miracles, and so on. For some, baseball really is a road to God."

Sexton admits that, for many—especially for those who aren’t religious—baseball is not a spiritual experience. “But if given sensitive attention, it can awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world of hard facts and hard science,” he says.

“We can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Other Side of Church Growth, or Do We Need a Theology of Retreat?

(The United Church of Canada has released a report about its future as denomination.  In it, 31% of respondents say they fear their church will close in the near future. The United Church isn’t alone; other denominations are also struggling. The situation reminded me of a column I wrote in 2009 about the disappearance of the historic churches of the Middle East--and what lessons it might offer for today.)

Church growth is a popular topic. A Google search for that topic returns millions of pages. You can find  institutes, seminars, conferences, movements and lots and lots of books about starting or growing churches.

But church death? It's not as popular a subject.

Yet the fact of the matter is that churches not only get born—they die. Every year hundreds of churches in Canada close their doors.

The United Church of Canada alone is closing about one a week; in the U.S., it’s reported that 50 churches a week shut down.

Despite this, it’s rare to hear much about church death. And that, says Philip Jenkins, is unfortunate.

“I sometimes ask audiences how many people have ever read a book on the growth or establishment of a church, and many people raise their hands,” says the author of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in theMiddle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died.

“Then I ask how many people have ever read a book on the death or extinction of a church, and virtually nobody does. But in history, church death is a very common phenomenon.”

In his book, Jenkins explores the rich history of Christianity in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

“Its sheer scale is astonishing,” he writes of the Nestorian, Chaldean and Jacobite churches that were thriving and growing at a time when Europe was emerging from the dark ages.

“Looking at the world in 850 or so, few observers would have doubted that the Christian future lay in the Middle East and Asia, rather than in the barbarian-ravaged lands of Western Europe.”

And yet, those ancient churches are gone. All that’s left are small remnants in places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and—growing smaller every year—Palestine, home to the original Christian church.

“There is a major theological issue that nobody addresses, the theology of extinction,” says Jenkins.

“How do Christians explain the death of their religion in a particular time and place? Is that really part of God's plan?”

Or maybe, he adds, “our time scale is just too short, and one day we will realize why this had to happen.”

Whatever the reason, “nobody is really discussing these questions,” he says.

The disappearance of these ancient churches runs counter to conventional thinking about Christianity. Christians, especially in North America, are accustomed to thinking about their faith in terms of growth and outreach and mission.

But churches also die. And when they die, very little is usually said about it. It’s sort of embarrassing—after all, nobody likes to admit failure.

“We have a theology of mission, not a theology of retreat,” states Jenkins, adding that this “is a major theological issue that nobody addresses, the theology of extinction.”

A central tenet of Christian faith is that the church belongs to God. Whether it lives or dies is not up to us. But that may not be very comforting to people who are seeing their membership decline. How can denominations help them makes sense of it all?

Maybe Jenkins is right; perhaps we need a theology of retreat, after all.

Monday, March 10, 2014

How Far Would You Go to Save a Life?

(March 13 is World Kidney Day, a day for raising awareness about kidney disease. With that in mind, here’s a column from 2014 about a Mennonite pastor who gave a bit more than most to help others—one of her kidneys.)

Over 3,000 Canadians are on waiting lists for a kidney transplant. Over 200 of them are in Manitoba. Many of these people will die while on the waiting list.

Carol Penner thinks that's wrong. So wrong, she donated a kidney herself to help someone who needed the life-saving procedure.

"These are needless deaths," she says of those who will die before receiving help. "There are millions of healthy kidneys in Canada."

Penner, pastor of Edmonton's Lendrum Mennonite Brethren Church, was moved to donate one of her kidneys after her husband lost one of his to cancer in 2008.

"I didn't realize how easy it is to live on one kidney," says the 53 year-old. "There was no change in his life."

After thinking about it for a couple of years, in 2011 she offered to donate a kidney as an undesignated donor--her kidney would go to whoever needed it most. What followed was a year of medical appointments, tests and questionnaires. 

Once accepted, Penner--then the pastor of First Mennonite Church in Vineland, Ontario--was put on the list to donate when needed.

In October, 2012 she received a call and had surgery to remove one of her kidneys. Soon after, someone living somewhere in Canada received her gift of life.

Why did she do it? 

"People across Canada are dying of kidney disease," she says. "If I could save someone's life, why not do that?"

Her faith also played an important role. 

"Our body is the biggest gift God has given us, especially if we've been given good health," she says. "We can share it with someone who needs to get healthy."

Looking back, Penner says that donating a kidney was "one of the most joyful things I have done in my life."

Now she is on a quest to encourage more people to help save the lives of those awaiting a new kidney-starting with her own denomination. 

"As Mennonites, we could lead the way," she says of the 200,000 or so Mennonites in Canada. If just a fraction of that number donated a kidney, "we could wipe out the 
waiting list in a year."

She acknowledges it won't be easy; giving a kidney is quite a bit different than giving money to feed people who are hungry, poor or sick in another part of the world.

But she thinks Mennonites, and other denominations and faith groups, should still try. 

 "We are constantly encouraged to give money to help others without needing to know who they are," she says. 

"Why not do the same with a kidney? The rewards are huge-you can save someone's life."

Penner has a blog about her experience of donating a kidney, and is happy to correspond with people who are interested in doing the same thing. Click here to visit it.

"Hate Taxes More Than They Love Jesus"

(Nobody likes to pay taxes. But is there a religious duty to do so? Some religious leaders believe the answer is yes, as I found when I researched this subject in 2004.)

Do Christians have a religious duty to pay taxes?

The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales says yes. And not only that, they say Christians should be happy to do it.

But wait, there’s more: They also say that wealthier Christians should pay more taxes, in order to ease the burden on the poor.

“Taxes are very much based on the principles of solidarity, which is based on the commandment to love your neighbour,” said Bishop Howard Tripp at launch of Taxation for the Common Good, a 40-page document that is designed to spark discussion about taxation and public services in the United Kingdom.

According to Tripp, Christians should “rejoice” in the chance to contribute towards the sort of society that they want. 

“This document is suggesting taxes are a way to play our part and it is something we should be pleased to do,” he said. “It’s all part of our duty to our neighbor.”

Added the Most Reverend Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Cardiff, who headed the committee that created the report: “Taxation is a sign of social health, a moral good. Our willingness to pay it is a sign of our solidarity with one another, and of our humanity.”

One person who tried to put this kind of thinking into action was Alabama Governor Bob Riley.

Riley, an evangelical Christian and Republican, stunned many of his conservative supporters in 2003 when he advocated a tax reform plan that would have shifted a significant amount of the state's tax burden from the poor to wealthy individuals and corporations.

In trying to rally support for the plan in the heavily-religious state, Riley argued that it was a matter of Christian duty to reform a tax system in which a family of four making as little as $4,600 a year paid more taxes, percentage-wise, than the richest of the state’s residents.

Said Riley: "I've spent a lot of time reading the New Testament, and it has three philosophies: Love God, love each other, and take care of the least among you. It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 a year an income tax."

Under Riley's proposal, which critics called the “How would Jesus Tax Us?” plan, just the top third of income earners, plus corporations and large farm and timber operations, would pay more taxes. Anyone earning less than $20,000 a year would pay no income taxes at all.

Christians in Alabama were divided over the plan, with some church groups in favour and others attacking it.

“Never in Scripture does it say, ‘Render unto Caesar so he can take care of the poor,’ said John Giles, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, which opposed the plan. “It is the church's responsibility.”

When Riley’s tax reform plan was defeated by Alabama voters in a special election, one observer was prompted to remark that “for all the moral high ground Christians claim,” their opposition to the proposal showed that “they hate taxes more than they love Jesus.”

Given reports of government waste, the last thing many people of faith in Canada want to hear is that we have a religious duty to give politicians our hard-earned money.

But maybe the English and Welsh bishops have a point; maybe there is a moral and religious foundation to taxation that includes Jesus’ command to love our neighbours, whoever they are, and wherever they live.

It’s a shared commitment to creating a society that serves the common good, with a special concern for the neediest among us.

So if you’re up late one night this month trying to calculate your income tax, maybe it will help if you don’t think of it as a burden. Maybe you will feel better if you see it as a way to serve God and love your neighbour.

But I think you will be forgiven if you don’t feel happy about it.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Is Faith Funny? An Interview with Cuyler Black

(Christians aren’t known for being particularly funny—at least, not intentionally. One funny person of faith is Cuyler Black of Inherit the Mirth. I was able to interview Black in 2011.)

 Is faith funny? Cuyler Black thinks it is.

“I believe that God is a God of joy,” says Black, who draws cartoons about the funny side of religion.

“When Jesus talks about heaven, he talks about a banquet or wedding, a place of joy and laughter,” he says. “Laughter is a part of who God is.”

Born into a preacher’s family in Ottawa, Black, 44, started cartooning at the age of ten in a local newspaper. At 17 he produced Furtree High, a comic strip about high school life, for the Ottawa Citizen; it ran from 1984-96.

He syndicated another strip from 1996-98 before going into youth ministry in London, Ont.

“I decided I didn’t want to be chained to my drawing table, so I dove into youth ministry,” he says.

He started drawing again in 2003 raise money for a youth group mission trip at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richfield, CT, where he was working at the time.

People loved the cartoons; five years later he decided to do cartooning full time and started Inherit the Mirth, a company that produces greeting cards, calendars, books and other products.

“My ministry is founded on the belief that God has a sense of humor and that positive laughter can improve health and spread joy throughout the world,” says Black, who still lives in Connecticut.

He acknowledges that not everyone will appreciate his humour, which has been described as The Far Side meets the Bible.

“Not everyone going to find them funny,” he says, noting that humour is subjective. His goal is not to make fun of Christianity—just to have some fun with it.

“I’m not making fun of faith, and I don’t want people to think I don’t take church seriously,” he says. “I consider my cartoons to be playfully reverent, or reverently playful.”

He has, in fact, only received a couple of complaints, even though most of his sales are in the American Bible belt.

His goal is to “encourage Christians to lighten up—we don’t need to feel we have to check our sense of humour at door when we go to church,” he says.

At the same time, he views his cartoons as a way to reach out to people who aren’t religious.

“Many people say to me ‘I’m non-religious, but your stuff is really funny,’” Black says.

“I find cartoons can be used to witness—they can be a light-hearted opening gambit.”

In addition to his cartoons, Black has also published two children’s books and a collection of cartoons. He’s also is producing youth curriculum, and is exploring animated e-cards and applications for phones.

“There is so much room for the God of joy,” he says of his ministry. “I think God wants me to be in this, to use me to help show a side of who He is.”

More information about Cuyler Black and his cartoons on his website. 

Brian McLaren: Not "Business as Usual" for the Chuch

(One of the advantages of being a newspaper columnist is that I can contact almost anyone and ask for an interview--and usually get it. In 2011 I was able to interview Brian McLaren in advance of his visit to Winnipeg.)

For some people, Brian McLaren is a heretic, challenging old beliefs about Christianity and promoting new ways of thinking about things like salvation and spirituality.

For others, McLaren is a fresh, welcome voice, precisely because he challenges old beliefs and suggests new ways of being a follower of Jesus.

No matter how he is viewed—McLaren is one of the most visible leaders of what is called the Emergent Church—gets a lot of attention.

Those who are looking for new ways of being a Christian appreciate his call for a new kind of Christianity where personal, daily interaction with God is more important than institutional church structures.

They appreciate how he talks about faith as being a way of life more than a system of beliefs, about how being authentically good is more important than being doctrinally “right.,”

Others feel that, in searching for new ways to live the Christian faith, he goes too far. 

As one critic put it: “McLaren rejects absolute truth, authority, theology, objectivity, certainty and clarity. He embraces relativism, inclusivism, deconstructionism, stories (to replace truth), creative interpretation of Scripture, neo-orthodoxy, and tolerance.”

For McLaren, it’s all part of the struggle the church in North America finds itself in today—and he’s the lightning rod.

“We are an embattled Christian community that is trying to retain its influence and foothold,” he says of the current situation, where Christianity no longer holds a dominant role in society.

This position of dominance “can’t be regained,” he says, even though some badly want to turn back the clock. “We have to imagine a new ethos for Christian discipleship.”

And what does that new ethos look like?

The new kind of Christianity is “a movement of quest,” he states. “Early Christianity was a way of life, not a system of belief. We need to recapture being followers of the way of Jesus.”

This is in contrast to the “old kind of Christianity,” which was “unmoving, defensive, used to being in control,” defined for believers by institutions, doctrines and statements about belief.

McLaren is quick to note he’s not against institutions.

“But the temptation is to go on autopilot, just participate in its rituals and functions,” he says.

Some Christians find the changes and challenges to traditional ways of living the Christian faith to be very unsettling.

“Many respond by developing a list of essentials,” he says. The problem with that approach, he says, “the list of essentials is shrinking as we discover the grand simplicities in the teachings of Jesus.”

If it is an unsettling time for some, for McLaren it’s an exciting time to be a Christian.

“This is a time of radical reappraisal of the Gospel,” he says. “The most exciting times in church history were times of movement, setbacks and mistakes. They were huge ventures of faith.”

McLaren believes that Christians today need to take some venturesome steps.

“This is an extremely dangerous time,” he said, adding that the fate of the world depends on the choices people make today.

For McLaren, there are three major crises facing the world today.

The first is the planet—too many people live in ecologically unsustainable ways.

The second is the widening the gap between the rich and poor.

The third is escalating violence, both in North America and around the world.

“We need to rediscover what the Scriptures have to say to us about these things,” McLaren said, suggesting that we need new ways of viewing Christian faith that use the Bible as an inspired library, not a constitution or set of rules and regulations

As for what churches do on Sunday mornings—worship—it should be “less about what happens after we die, and more about what God is doing in the world today . . . more about what God is doing in the world, not just what God is doing in our hearts.”

Many worship services, he says, are too often “a celebration of our pleasant, middle class lifestyle. I’m all for celebrating, but we also need to keep in mind the needs of the world.”

When Christians shrink the frame of God’s activity “to my soul, we shrink the frame of God’s work, turn it into sentimentality, something that doesn’t fit in a world of suffering,” he adds.

For McLaren, Christians today “need to find a way forward,” not do “business as usual.”

Jesus, he says, “didn’t say stand with me, or retreat with me, but follow me.”