September 30, 2007

Harvest Supper

The ANnual HArvest Supper is done for another year. Expand the post to see some pictures.

First we Gathered
Then of course there was the Food
And after you eat, you visit
But there is always the need to clean up

September 25, 2007

Well Worth a Read!

A PAstor in the states publishes a blog with Spiritual Reflections. The latest post, on the value of networking, is an excellent call to action for the church.

ANd it uses cell-phone commercials to do it!

Read it here

Looking FOrward to September 30, 2007 -- 18th Sunday After Pentecost

Gord is away at the fall meeting of Cambrian Presbytery this weekend. Thanks to Noreen for providing worship leadership.

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • From the Life of the Early Church: Acts 16:9-15
  • Psalm 100 (VU p.824)
  • From the Letters of the Early Church: Ephesians 4:1-16
  • From the Gospel: Luke 10:38-42

THe Hymns this week are:

  • 606 In Christ There is No East or West
  • 372 Though I May Speak
  • 512 Lord, You Give the Great Commission
  • 420 Go to the World

2007 marks the 45th anniversary of the merging of the WMS (Women's Missionary Society) and WA (Women's Auxiliary) to form the UCW (United Church Women). This week's service was prepared in celebration of that occasion.

September 21, 2007

Review of Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

Gord wrote this review that was published in the September 2007 issue of Touchstone, a United Church journal of theology and history.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press © 2005 247 pp. $16.99

A native of the former Yugoslavia, who watched his homeland torn apart in a brutal civil war, Miroslav Volf seems uniquely positioned to write about forgiveness. Volf writes that in part he learned the power and importance of forgiveness from his parents’ actions after his brother was killed in a tragic accident. Many of us have far less reason to wrestle with forgiving.

Actually the talk about forgiving is the second half of the book. Before that Volf talks about giving. In a parallel structure Volf talks about God the Giver/Forgiver and then asks two vital questions: “How Should We Give/Forgive?” and “How Can We Give/Forgive?”. The book then closes with a frank “Conversation with a Skeptic” that serves to tie things together and recap the major themes and challenges of the text.

In starting with giving Volf does two things. First, he lays out a base structure which he will later use to support his discussion of the often more problematic practise of forgiving. Secondly he provides an excellent set of readings for developing a theology of stewardship. In essence, he says that God gives because that is who God is (as opposed to a Santa Claus God who fulfills wish lists or a picture of God as a deal-maker in a quid pro quo model of giving). Then he challenges all of us to give as God gives.

In this discussion Volf also uses the argument that we are able to give because everything we have is given by God. Furthermore we need to give freely, with no expectation for reward, since that is how God gives. At the same time Volf makes I clear that we are obliged to give both by receiving God’s gifts and by the frequent commands to give we find in Scripture. Interestingly, Volf suggests that in essence we are “obliged to give freely” (p.65) and suggests that this is the message Paul was giving in 2 Corinthians.

From giving Volf moves on to the practise of forgiving. The interlude that marks this break is the story of his brother’s death and the amazing forgiveness shown by his parents. This interlude is worth reading all on its own to show the power and potential of forgiveness.
Volf’s model of forgiveness is challenging to say the least. As with giving, Volf calls us to forgive as God forgives. But he is clear about what that means. To parallel the God as giver imagery Volf describes two inaccurate images of God as forgiver. This is God as Doting Grandparent (p.136 ff) and God as Judge (p.131 ff). God does not judge and hand out the punishment we deserve but neither does God pat us on the head and say “that’s ok”. Volf describes God as choosing “To condemn the fault but to spare the doer” (p. 141). Throughout this discussion it is clear that for Volf part of forgiveness is acknowledging that wrong has been done. It is equally part of forgiving to erase the debt, to live as though the wrong had not been done.

While taking seriously the truth of forgiveness Volf does not set aside the idea of justice (which is tempting as a way of explaining how God is able to forgive). Volf’s model of how God’s forgiveness and God’s justice intersect leans heavily on Lutheran thought. As such it also leans heavily on the satisfaction theory of atonement. As he moves into how we can forgive he carries through to suggest that it is only in meeting and embracing Christ that we can do so. Volf addresses clearly the hurdles humans have in forgiving and takes them seriously. Still, in the end he calls us to the challenge of forgiving as God forgives.

Free of Charge was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lenten study book for 2006. As such it is written in a style that is less academic and more widely accessible. Both sections of the book have strong messages and challenges to the church and to the culture at large. Those of us who struggle with the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement will have issues with some of how Volf sees forgiveness happening but this doesn’t really take away from the challenge of naming and condemning the wrong but not condemning the doer of the wrong. Apart from a brief reference in the prelude there was little explicit discussion about “A Culture Stripped of Grace” but in the end it is obvious that issues of grace and gracelessness lie at the heart of both giving and forgiving. Anyone who finds the need to wrestle with one or both of these practises, which are central to how we interact with others, would do well to check out this volume.

Gord Waldie
Atikokan Ontario

September 19, 2007

The God Delusion

A Sermon preached at Riverview United Church, Atikokan ON
September 16, 2007

Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

When I sat down on Monday morning to think about what worship would look like this week the first line of the Psalm jumped out at me – “Only fools say there is no God, they only fool themselves”. It stuck out at me because earlier this year, there were a couple of books that got a lot of attention. This is one of them, it is by a well-known British atheist named Richard Dawkins and is called The God Delusion. I am sure you can guess from the title that he might have a different opinion than the person who wrote the psalm about who the fool really is.

Actually this week I did read the first chapter and a half but found it difficult to wade through the vitriol, as one friend describes it. Dawkins appears to be a very angry man and later in the book becomes very condescending to anyone who is foolish enough to believe in God. Dawkins talks about how this God delusion, or as he calls it in chapter 2 the God Hypothesis, has been the cause of many many terrible things over the years. He talks about how belief in God has caused warfare, and violence and anger. But of course he is coming from the point of view where the fool is the one who believes in God.

If you ask the Psalmist, the Psalmist would likely say that the problem is we don’t all believe in the right God. At this point in Israel’s history God is still largely a tribal god. It is only later, when the Israelites are in exile and come to the surprising realization that “Hey, the God who was with us in the Temple in Jerusalem is with us here too” that they start to broaden their understanding of God. For most of the history in the Jewish Scriptures God is, as the story puts it, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. God is a family god turned tribal god as the family grew. But as people’s understandings grew God became The One, Universal God.

What has often been debated in theological circles but not so much in local congregations is the question of “why believe in God?”. Most people grow up sort of assuming that, well if you go to church you believe in God. Part of the package as it were. For many years it was also assumed that everybody believed in God. Atheism has always been around – that first line of the Psalm shows that. But for many generations it has been the common assumption that people believe in God. Statistics show that this has been a pretty safe assumption. Census data from both Canada and the US consistently shows that a majority of people believe in something other. I say it that way because their something other doesn’t always look like the God we describe in the church.

Around 40-50 years ago something changed. Within the last 50 years atheism has become much more apparent. It has always been there but has become much more visible, even acceptable. I think there are a variety of reasons for that. Certainly one was that as our culture became much more scientific – so really since the beginning of the “Age of Reason” a couple hundred years ago – as our culture became more science-based, based on the idea that anything can be proven to be right or wrong. And people who were brought up in a church which told them to take literally the miracle stories, to take literally the Creation story met with a bit of a problem. One of the reasons that many many people have given up on the church is because that was their experience. Their experience of church was of a place that told them that as soon as they came in the door they had to switch off their rational brain. And many saw no purpose in doing that. So I think that is one reason for this apparent growth in atheism. People said “that is not a God I can believe in and so obviously there is no God and I’ll just continue merrily on my way and sleep in on Sunday thank you very much”.

At the same time this was happening in more people’s hearts and minds, we ran into what is now called the end of Christendom. Christendom is more than just the world wide Christian church. It goes into the belief that the culture itself was Christian. 50 years ago if you wanted to be elected mayor anywhere in Canada, or the United States, or much of Europe you had better be known to go to church. That was what “good people” did. And not only that but in many places you had to go to the “right” church. The Anglican Church was seen as being for one group or class, Baptists were another group. Or there would be the “management” church and the “union” church in union towns. To a degree we still see this today in that the United Church is largely a church of the middle and upper-middle class in Canada.

But somewhere in the 50’s and 60’s this idea that “good people” went to church started to break down. And so as more people felt free to say “well I’m not going to go to church” (And I think we get it wrong. I think it was as people felt free to say “I’m not going to church” that sports events started to get planned on Sunday. We in the church like to blame sports events for that but I think we have it backwards. If people still felt they had to go to church, including the people planning the sports events, the events would be planned differently.) But as that feeling grew and people stopped going to church a sort of practical atheism, or at least a practical indifference to the topic, grew. It may have been less a decisive statement of “I do not believe” and more of a “eh, doesn’t really matter”.

So for whatever reason atheism became more and more widespread. We see it today especially in the United States with ongoing arguments about the separation of church and state. But that means we have to take very seriously the question of “why believe?” Or, as I like to put it in light of the opening verse of the Psalm, “who is the fool, the believer or the unbeliever?” We have to take it seriously.

Many years ago a man named Blaise Pascal looked at the same question. The common picture of God in Pascal’s time was of an angry God who would judge and condemn you to hell if you stepped out of line. So Pascal looked it and reasoned that if he believed in God and acted in the way God wanted him to act and died and that was the end he had lost nothing. If he died and there was a God and a heaven he gained everything. On the other hand, if he didn’t believe and died and there is nothing else again he lost nothing. But if he didn’t believe and there was a God and he was damned for his unbelief he lost everything. So Pascal chose to believe because it was the better bet, the better odds. It is called Pascal’s wager. That would be one reason. I am not sure it is a convincing reason but it is a reason. Believe just in case, hedging your bets.

Is that really what God is about? Is God a being in whom we believe solely to avoid eternal punishment? That seems like a rather scary vision of God. This is the cover of Time magazine in April 1966 – “Is God Dead?” The wording comes from a book by the German philosopher Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra) where one of the characters runs around yelling that God is dead – and no-one really cares. And in fact there was a theological movement in the middle of the 20th century called the “God is Dead” movement. And It was a theology in that it did not give up on God totally. But it did say that older images of and ideas about God were no longer helpful and needed to die. And indeed that really is what that cover story from Time went into (imagine my surprise at being able to read a 41 year-old cover story on the Time website).

Oh and there is at least one other reason that people give up on God. And I think this is the big one. In the first half of the 20th century (and continuing on until today) the world fell apart. In 1914 a young Serbian nationalist shot an Austrian Archduke, the heir to the throne. And in a war that would be “over by Christmas” – they just didn’t say which year – millions, an entire generation of European boyhood, died. Not only that but 20 years later another World War. And in the aftermath of those two wars and especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust (and remember that most of those SS troopers and Gestapo agents and German Army soldiers were good Germans from Christian homes) in the aftermath of those horrific events people couldn’t help but ask “how can I possibly believe in God?” This wasn’t just a philosophical question now. It wasn’t based on indifference. This was anguished asking how such events could match with the God they had been taught about. How could they reconcile these experiences with a God who controls everything, who knows everything, who has a plan for everything?

That’s where the God is Dead movement grew wings. Because the old images and descriptions didn’t help deal with genocide and gas chambers new images were needed. So new visions came out. And part of the answer theologians, at least liberal theologians, came out with, was that God didn’t allow these things to happen and so we can believe in God. This was part of a radically new vision of God. It required a vision of God who wasn’t the puppeteer in control of everything (which is an image I often get from older descriptions of God). It required a God who was more than the Creative Clockmaker, an image popular around the time of the American Revolution, a model called deism. In the face of horrors like genocides you need a God who is present. You need a God who is not “up there”. But you also need to be able to admit the possibility that God isn’t in control.

As these new images developed you had phrases like “the Ground of Being”, which was used by a famous theologian named Paul Tillich. It is also an image we find in Acts where Paul talks about the “God in whom we live and move and have our being”. This wasn’t the God in control. Indeed many modern theologians question the old idea that God has a plan. They also question the adage that God never sends you more than you can handle. I have talked to many people who when they hear that say “God must have a lot more trust in me than I do” – often wishing perhaps God would have less confidence in them.

So who is the fool, the one who believes or the one who doesn’t? I think it is the wrong question. It isn’t a matter of asking who is more foolish or who is delusional. There are many people who have faith and yet are foolish and delusional at times. There are many unbelievers who are foolish and delusional at times. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is good to be foolish at times. And in the end I don’t think many people really believe because they were brought up being told about God (atheists would call this indoctrination, and they are right – all education is in fact indoctrination). That is part of it of course. But in the end most people believe because they have experienced God in their lives.

Medieval theologians spent hours trying to work out proofs for God’s existence. Thomas Aquinas came up with 5 (although 3 of them are pretty much the same thing in different words). But in the end the only proof that God exists lies in the believer. It isn’t something you can prove in any scientific fashion. It isn’t something you can prove to another person. The most you can do is say “I Believe because…” and then tell your story. And that is the step the church needs to take.

There are still many people out there who will continue to say “everybody has to believe in God”. There are people who hold Pascal’s wager to be correct, that you should believe as the safe bet, to avoid damnation. But I think to reach those people, and we are now talking about 2 generations, who for whatever reason have said “eh, church isn’t that important”, we have to tell our stories. The way to reach out is by telling them why faith is important to us, by telling the “I believe because” stories and by inviting them into the dialogue. We have to trust that they can make their own decision –whether they make the choice we want them to or not.

The Psalmist may say they are fools. The Psalm may say that only fools say there is no God. Richard Dawkins may say that only fools say there is a God. I say so what. Fools are fools are fools and we are all fools at some point in time. I think we tell our stories. We tell how God has been active in our lives. And we trust that, when people are ready, when people are open, they too can sense God active in their lives. But in the end the choice is up to them, not us. May God help us as we continue to understand what it means to be a believer, and what it means to tell our stories. Amen.

As a response to this we sang #92 Like A Rock from More Voices (the new hymn book supplement)
Like a rock, like a rock God is under out feet
Like a starry night sky God is over our head
Like the sun on the horizon God is ever before
Like a river runs to ocean, our home is in God evermore.

September 18, 2007

Looking Ahead to September 23, 2007 -- 17th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings for this Sunday are:
  • From the Jewish Scriptures: Amos 8:4-7
  • Psalm 113 (see insert)
  • From the Gospel: Luke 16:1-13

The Hymns this Sunday are:

  • 236 Now Thank We All Our God
  • 356 Seek Ye First
  • 603 In Loving Partnership We Come
  • 312 Praise with Joy the World’s Creator

The Sermon title is Dishonest Stewardship.

Early Thoughts: What makes for a good steward? How many masters do we try and serve?

These are two of the questions raised by the Gospel passage this week. Jesus tells this rather strange story where the protagonist is certainly not a laudable character. We certainly would have trouble using him as a model for how we should act as stewards in God's kingdom.

And that brings us to the first question. What does make a good steward? Is the good steward the one who tries to make sure everyone gets whats coming to them? Whose interest is the steward supposed to watch -- the steward's or the master's? What behaviour should be praised and rewarded?

The people of God are stewards, all of us are stewards. We have all been given the task of working with/looking after part of the "Master's" wealth. What principles guide our stewardship? The challenge is to find the way to care for ourselves and our loved ones without caring only about ourselves and our loved ones. This seems to be where the steward in our story stepped out of line (and yet somehow was praised for it). It seems that maybe this parable is best understood by seeing it as a warning. Parables always have a twist. The twist here is at the end when Jesus talks about being faithful or dishonest. And that of course leads directly to our second (and more important) question. How many masters do we try and serve?

Jesus points out that it is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to serve two masters. As stewards therefore we need to make a choice. Do we serve the interests of our Maker or the interests of our own gain? What we do with our resources, especially our money answers that question far more clearly than anything we might say or profess.

Here at Riverview, as in many churches, we try to avoid talking about money using hard terms like these. It is always easier to talk in broad terms about stewardship and making the world better. And of course talking about the need to give on a Sunday morning is literally preaching to the choir, talking to those who already believe that it is important to give. Still there comes a time to ask what master we are serving. There is the time to talk about the realities of finances and the church and giving levels. And the question of honesty comes in here too. Many times we tell ourselves that "I can't do/give anymore!" But sometimes that isn't true, sometimes it is true. Honest stewardship means we have to look carefully at how much we can do, at how much we are doing, and what the difference is. Oh and sometimes the equation means we do/give more and sometimes it may mean doing/giving less or in new and different ways.

September 15, 2007

Presbytery Youth event

Every year Cambrian Presbytery has their fall meeting on the last weekend of September. This year it is September 27-30 in Fort Frances.

One of the things that happens at every meeting of Presbytery is a youth event. This is for all UCCan youth within the Presbytery area in Grades 7-12. YOu can contact the church for more information or download a registration form here

September 11, 2007

Looking Ahead to September 16, 2007 --16th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • From the Jewish Scriptures: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
  • Psalm 14 (see insert)
  • From the Letters of the Early Church: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
  • From the Gospel: Luke 15:1-10

The Hymns are:

  • 264 Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
  • 266 Amazing Grace
  • MV #162 Christ Within Us Hidden (insert)
  • 288 Great is Thy Faithfulness

The Sermon title is The God Delusion.

Early Thoughts: Why believe in God? Who is the foolish one, the believer or the unbeliever?

The psalmist makes a bold statement when he says Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”. Richard Dawkins got a lot of press recently for saying the exact opposite in his book The God Delusion.

Many years ago Blaise Pascal laid out Pascal's Wager, a statement that said the safest bet was to believe. Pascal argued that if you believed and there was no God, then you lost nothing. But if you didn't believe and there was a God judging you at the end of life then you lost everything. That would be a reason to believe (not necessarily a good one but it is a reason). So why believe in something which, in the end, can not ever be actually proved?

In some ways this is a question that has plagued the church for years. There have always been atheists and agnostics who challenge the concept of faith. In the last century however the challenge has become more strident. Likely this is due to a number of things: the end of Christendom as a socio-political force, the continuing development of thought started in the Enlightenment period, the development of scientific theories and knowledge that directly challenged a literal view of Scripture, and horrific events such as the World Wars and the Holocaust. In fact in April of 1966 Time Magazine's cover story announced that "God is Dead"

And yet we still believe. Some believe experientially, that is we have experienced God's presence in our lives. Some believe "genetically", that is we have been raised in a believing family. Some of us have believed, have not believed, and have come back to believing. Are we deluded? Have we been indoctrinated (a charge used by some atheists regarding faith formation activities for children and youth)? Are we just following Pascal's wager and playing it safe?

In the end charges of foolishness where faith (or no faith) are concerned are probably not helpful. So are words like delusion. In the end we each come to our own decision on whether and why (not) we believe. And that is as it should be. On Sunday we will explore a bit about our "God Delusion". Want to come and join in the foolishness of faith?

Six Years LAter

Six years ago today much of the world mourned.

On this anniversary day we pray in memory of those killed on that day and of the many many thousands who have died in what flowed from that day: remembering Iraqis, Afghanis, Canadians, British, Spanish, Americans...

Please share your prayers in the comments.

September 07, 2007

Board Notes

THere was a BOard meeting last night. HEre is some of what was discussed:

  • The proposed Congregational Meeting for September 16. It was decided that we would postpone this and have a supper meeting at the end of October. The focus of this would be on visioning and the future. Details will follow.
  • Our Natural Gas contract comes due this fall. We decided that we will float on the market price at this time.
  • There is a Lay Worship leader program coming up and we discussed people from Atikokan who might be interested in attending.
  • Various Property issues were discussed. A new water heater will hopefully be installed soon and the downstairs washroom will have some work done on it.
  • At present the church is approximately $10 000 behind for the year.
  • We did some discussing of the upcoming Presbytery Oversight visit
  • Some possibilities for enhancing music in the church building were discussed.
  • A brief discussion of the Bruce HArding concert was held.

The next Board meeting will be a special meeting on September 16 following worship to plan for the supper meeting on October 28. The next regular meeting will be on October 4.

September 04, 2007

Looking Forward to September 9, 2007--15th Sunday After Pentecost

The Scripture Readings this week are:
  • From the Jewish Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1-11
  • Psalm 139 (VU p.861)
  • From the Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

The Hymns this week are:

  • 232 Joyful Joyful We Adore You
  • 260 God Who Gives to Life Its Goodness
  • 384 The Lone Wild Bird (Tune 372)
  • MV #162 Christ Within Us Hidden (insert)

The sermon title is Fully Known, Fully Loved.

Early Thoughts: Psalm 139 is a beautiful piece of poetry. It sings of God's omnipresence and of how we are lovingly, wonderfully Created in God's care. In the Jeremiah passage we read about God as a potter working the clay, and then reworking the clay, and then reworking the clay until the work is "right".

The psalm makes it clear how well known we are by God. God watched us forming in our mother's womb, God knows us better than we know ourselves. There can be some fear with such a realization. If we see God as an angry judgmental Parent then being so fully known can be terrifying. Being fully known means that our misdeeds, even our "bad thoughts" are known. When the judgment comes we must be doomed.

But then we return to the potter. Jeremiah watches the potter make a slip. Instead of tossing the piece in the junk pile, the potter reshapes it, doesn't give up, keeps working with the clay. There is hope here. The clay of our lives is constantly being reshaped (whether we want it to be or not) by life. But the Potter (no not Harry) doesn't give up. The Potter keeps working with us, trying to coax out the best possible piece of work.

What grace is this? Even though we are so fully known, even though all our darkest secrets are laid bare, we are not tossed away. We are indeed fully known but also fully loved. May God the Potter keep us on the wheel of life. And as we spin and spin, may God's hands gently and lovingly guide our reshaping into the beautiful piece of art that is to be.