Taking the Journey – the road ahead
These days we are assailed by media images that reflect the tenor of our times. Images of hypocrisy, scandal, impropriety and fraud; extremism, war, brutality and terror; oppression, torture, cover-up and denial; intolerance, violence, betrayal and murder. We are left to ask where is god? Where is the god of compassion, generosity, gratitude, joy, justice, love, mercy, and peace.
Our spiritual balance is under attack by, among others, radio talk show pundits who preach a never-ending diet of cynicism, despair hopelessness.
No one is accountable. Everyone else is to blame. Only we are without fault.
We are told to foster a spirituality of me-firstism and to set aside any consideration of what god would have us do.
It is a dilemma of our times. One that can only be countered by putting god on the table for discussion and the consideration of what god would have us do, as a basic ingredient of our decision making. There is a necessity for god.
At an AOTS workshop several years ago we examined the question has your view of god changed over time and if so how?
Most said yes; that the male image of god had changed in their beliefs, even if it remained as imagery in their minds. That included one man who said that after all the mess of things men had made that he was now convinced that god was a woman.
Hallelujah for that.
Yet, for all the men there was a constancy of god and a necessity for god even though their image of that god had changed throughout their journey.
So to it is with the church. Prior to and in preparation for General Council 40, which took place in Kelowna in August of 2009, moderator David Giuliano wrote the words ``We are both shaping and being shaped``.
We engage with god anew everyday – as a church of the social gospel we struggle to hear god’s voice on contemporary issues.
Three central questions for the church were addressed by GC 40. Who is the church? What is ministry? What is our doctrine? They are part of our journey as a united church, part of our history, part of the way we do things. And implicit in the discussion is the constancy of voice of god, necessity for that voice and the reassurance that the voice brings as the compassionate one, the one who provides for us all.
It is this sense of compassion that guides our consideration of all of these questions.
Who is the church?
We recalled the church’s apology to Aboriginal Peoples, “In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We imposed our civilization as a condition for accepting the gospel......We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be”.
That was twenty years ago. This is a post apology period; we live out god’s word, in truth and reconciliation. We begin a process of inclusion to revisit what we did not do at the basis of our union and establish as policy the presence and spirituality of First People in the United Church.
What is ministry?
What is the place and authority of those who undertake the responsibility of professional ministry? How might people best be educated? How are we doing now? What is changing? What are our challenges?
They included the strengthening of the capacity of presbyteries to effectively exercise their oversight functions. Many congregations struggle financially. The issue of staffing expenditures is often a central concern. How they acquire those staff is a function of the presbytery.
In addition there is the need to prepare and enable new expressions and forms of ministry in a rapidly changing social context.
Much of this relates to youth.
For the most part, our children are not participating in church affairs as much as we would prefer. Many of them don’t attend church regularly at all. We age as a denomination.
In our country, our growth is dependent on immigration.
And no one comes to Canada as a member of the United Church.
But people come with myriad other designations and understandings of spiritual moral development. People assess meaning in life, god in life, out of their own background and upbringing.
And in dealing with the challenges and opportunities of the intercultural context the necessity for god and the discussion of meaning is even more apparent and more required. We need god more now than ever.
What is our doctrine?
Just as we assess our ministry so we also assess our doctrine. Essentially, the proposal of GC 40 is to recognize scripture as our doctrine and include in the Basis of Union three other church statements alongside the 20 Articles of Faith. They are the 1940 Statement of Faith, New Creed (1968) and Song of Faith 2006. We choose to recognize these statements as subordinate to scripture, while recognizing that our doctrine itself grows and develops over time.
So as changes to church, ministry and doctrine evolve, our understanding of god is enhanced. God leads our work. The constancy of god shelters us. God the compassionate one. God the one we find amidst the noise and cynicism of our contemporary existence. God who we find in contemplative reflection, prayer and meditative thought. A god for all people…. a god of green pastures and still waters, a god of right paths, where even in the darkest valley, we fear no evil. Where our shepherd has prepared a table in the presence of our enemies…
In Philip Keller’s book ``a shepherd looks at psalm 23`` he identifies the reference table as tableland or mesa, a flat-topped plateau in the mountains, sought after by shepherds because it was the best grazing place for sheep. The shepherd goes to elaborate lengths to make the land ready for the flock. The table land doesn`t have everything the sheep need so the shepherd brings salt and minerals from without. The shepherd clears waterholes, repairs dams, removes poisonous weeds, protects the animals from their natural predators. The shepherd is the servant of the flock preparing the tableland as the compassionate one. We, of the flock, shall not want.
While god is constancy for us, our understanding of god changes, grows and develops over time; as we are guided by god in our understanding and redefinition of church, ministry, doctrine.
This theme of the shepherd is described again in Revelation 7, where the image of the compassionate one is repeated ``and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them”.
This passage expressed in the simplest terms is as follows: there is a time of great tribulation on the Earth which combines natural disasters with war on an unprecedented scale; it sounds like today. The "Lamb" saves his people from the tribulation, destroys the wicked, and ushers in an age of peace; after the age of peace, there is a second, brief time of trouble which results in the permanent banishment of the wicked; a new heaven and a new earth replace the old, and the people of God go to live in the presence of God and Christ in a heavenly city described as the "new Jerusalem." No matter what their trial or tribulation.
As Martin Luther King Jr said “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
There is no corruption too significant; no impropriety too profound, no toxicity too severe for the compassionate one.
We only need recognize the necessity for the voice of god to be heard in our discussions, our deliberations, our decisions. It will illuminate our path forward in spite of our inability to see the road ahead. God will guide us.
We can be satisfied with the care provided to us by the great pastor of the universe, who we worship in awe and wonder and mystery. Our shepherd is Jehovah. God gives quiet and contentment in the mind, whatever the lot is.
The Revelation passage concludes with the multitude crying out in worship of god who has provided them shelter. “They will hunger no more and thirst no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
And they cry out ``Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might, be to our God forever and ever Amen.
Past President Jim McKibbin