The Shape of Confession

An important element of Presbyterian and Reformed  identity is our writing of, and deference to, confessions. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has three confessions that define our faith and theology – they are the Westminster Confession, the Declaration Concerning Church and Nation, and Living Faith.

One of the things you quickly discover in looking at these documents is that their meaning is determined as much by the shape of the confession as by the content of it. What do I mean by this? Simply that the order in which ideas are presented is as important as what the confession actually says about those ideas. For example, in looking at the Westminster Confession and Living Faith we notice that Westminster begins with Scripture while Living Faith begins with God – and we might ask why this difference. Can we begin talking about God before we have said something definitive about the scriptures that reveal God? What does it say about our theology that we can begin talking about God before exploring the nature of the scriptures?

There are all kinds of questions that arise when we look at the shape of a confession. Another more important question might be, why do neither Westminster nor Living Faith begin with Jesus, who is the living Word, and the one in whom we see God fully? Continue reading

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supreme court confusion

Like most Canadians, I don’t make it a habit to read judgments written by the Supreme Court of Canada. Rather, I rely on journalists and other specialists to provide summaries and analyses in relation to various cases decided by the court. It is perhaps also fair to say that the trust I place in these secondary sources mirrors the trust I place in the court itself.

But this has recently been put in question for me.

In the past several days, a doctor in the Quebec City region became the first in Canada to (legally) provide a patient with a lethal injectors on to end his or her life and suffering. This physician’s action was made legal by Quebec’s new assisted-death law and by the February 2015 judgment of the Supreme Court in Carter vs. Canada. More specifically, the legality of this assisted-death should be understood with reference to the Supreme Court’s follow-up decision last week, in which it granted the Federal Government four more months to craft legislation but also allowed the legislative vacuum in Quebec to be filled by that province’s new law.

  It was after hearing these various news reports that I decided to go back and read the Carter decision for myself, in order to understand the arguments that have led to such a dramatic change in our moral and medical landscape. The result of my reading, I must say, is a greatly diminished trust in the Supreme Court of Canada. Continue reading

division, baptism, unity — or, who we are

Let me begin this morning by reading again just a few words from 1 Corinthians chapter 1. For me these particular words are more than a little odd – they almost stick out like a sore thumb – and for that reason I want to start with them. Paul writes these words to the church in Corinth: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.” Aren’t these curious words? “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.”

These words become astonishing when we realize that Paul is the one who founded the church in Corinth. These words come from the apostle who went to that city and who debated in its marketplace and synagogue, with the result that women and men came to faith and were baptized. These words come from the pen of someone who lived with the Corinthian church for 18 months – leading them and caring for them and teaching about their new life in Christ.

To this church, to this group of people with whom he has had such a significant and personal relationship, Paul writes: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.” Strong and strange words. Continue reading

this table – the shape of community

Over the next weeks and leading all the way up to Advent, we are going to be exploring Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians on Sunday mornings. It’s a remarkable letter in so many ways – it explores a huge swath of questions about what it means that we are followers of the risen Jesus. As you can see, I’ve entitled the series faith and body – I think the appropriateness of that title will become pretty clear over the coming weeks.

So this morning we start into this series, but this morning we aren’t going to begin at the beginning. We aren’t going to begin with chapter 1 verse 1. And we’re also not going to begin with an historical sketch of the city of Corinth or even with a sketch of Paul’s life up to the time of writing.

Rather than beginning at the beginning – and rather than beginning with the history and context of the letter – we are going to dive right into the middle of Paul’s letter. We’re going to start in the middle of chapter 11, which is where our New Testament lesson comes from this morning. Continue reading

Congregational Aesthetics – beyONd our walls (3/3)

In this short blog series I’ve been exploring this question: What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation. Otherwise put: What do the artwork and architecture and liturgical accoutrements of your congregation reveal about its faith and identity? And how do they shape your faith and discipleship?

In my first post I explored how we might respond to the artistic heritage passed down to us from earlier generations. In the second post I considered the importance of contemporary, artistic expressions of faith in our IMG_2868worship and community spaces. Now in this final post I want to push us out of the church building, into the wider community.

Too often the church has thought of itself in terms of a fairly strict separation from the world. The church has failed to identify with the world – it has failed to live for the world, in the world.

While we have to think about these issues carefully (theologically speaking), I’m of the view that we can and must conceive a much more porous boundary between church and world. This doesn’t mean watering down faith convictions, but it will require transforming mindsets and structures and programs – and in ways we may not yet be able to imagine. Such transformations must be defined precisely by our life for the world and in the world, since this is the only life that we can possibly embody in faithfulness to the one who is our life – Jesus Christ.

Continue reading

a glutton and a drunkard #jesus

Over the past number of days, the Prime Minister of Turkey has faced something of a crisis. A protest that began in Istanbul over plans to demolish a city park, has developed into a more widespread protest against his authoritarian tendencies. There is concern among some in that secular country that Prime Minister Erdogan wants to turn Turkey into a religious, Islamic state.

And one of the things that has secularists in Turkey up in arms is a law recently passed that puts significant restrictions on the advertising and sale of alcohol. Many in Istanbul have protested, or expressed their opposition to these restrictions on alcohol. Within much of Islam, of course, alcohol is forbidden – but alcohol sales are legal in Turkey and there are many restaurants and bars serving alcohol in Istanbul.

In the face of these protests, and in the face of this opposition, the Prime Minister has waged a rhetorical war. Appealing to religious and political conservatives, Erdogan recently said that anyone who drinks alcohol is an alcoholic. As far as he’s concerned – or at least as far as his rhetoric is concerned – there’s no such thing as a moderate or acceptable level of alcohol consumption – if you drink any alcohol at all, you will necessarily drink too much alcohol. Continue reading

Reaching toward community – an occasional series (#001) #roddreher #littleway

I’ve just finished reading a lovely book by Rod Dreher entitled The Little way of Ruthie Leming. It tells the story of his sister’s struggle with and eventual death from cancer – but the book offers so much more besides. It is above all a story about place and belonging, and a reflection on what it means to be at home, to stay at home, to leave home, or to return home.

Rod Dreher’s sister Ruthie was the one who stayed home, in small-town Louisiana. He was the one who left home and then (following her death) returned home. The book is also a plea for us to acknowledge and rediscover the gifts of deep community – the kind of community that can only be built over generations and by way of a commitment to life in a particular place. His story and reflections are a plea for the humanizing of our lives, a humanizing that he discovers in Ruthie herself.

Dreher’s book gets me thinking, in the first instance, about my identity as the son of a minister.  Being a preacher’s kid has meant that an establishment of the kinds of local roots described by Dreher has been impossible for me. I spent formative years as a child in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and then in the towns of Beaverton and Hagersville in Ontario – calls to new congregations meant calls to new towns and schools and relationships. And while I have some sense of attachment to these places, that attachment and identification does not go very deep. In my youth I never had the experience of needing to run away from the suffocating life of a particular small town (in the way that Dreher did). Rather, it’s that I was never given the opportunity put down roots in any such place. Continue reading

A lesson in love – from José Sabogal and Marilynne Robinson #presence/absence

I spent a couple of hours at the Musée des Beaux-Arts today, taking in the exhibit: Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon. The exhibit traces a vast history of art and culture within Peru, with many astonishing and beautiful pieces. One that struck me was from the indigenismo movement – a painting entitled The Recruit, by José Sabogal (1926). The man is anonymous, but is a representative (for Sabogal) of the strength and independence of the indigenous people of Peru. While it seems that Sabogal was more interested in aesthetics than in portraying the difficult circumstances of indigenous peoples, his work nevertheless seems to show tremendous respect for them – and his work has been a historic factor in the inclusion of indigenous peoples within identity of Peru as a nation.

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This ‘recruit’ is anonymous to me. I know little or nothing of his life or person or family or work or suffering or brokenness. And yet perhaps openness toward him is not precluded by this anonymity – love is not precluded by his distance from me.

Today I was also reading in Marilynne Robinson’s book When I was a Child I Read Books. In her essay on imagination and community she writes these words (which were brought to my mind as I looked at The Recruit):

“Presence is a great mystery, and presence in absence, which Jesus promised and has epitomized, is, at a human scale, a great reality for all of us in the course of ordinary life. I am persuaded  for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly… I believe think fiction [portraiture?] may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.”

Those in the pew (or on the chair) beside me are in many ways distant from me and unknown to me (absent in their presence), yet life in the Body of Christ means seeing him or her as beloved of God, and means an imaginative and gracious reaching out to them, whoever they are. Today, a lesson in love.

honest engagement and the reality of risk #beingmissional

It goes without saying that we like to be in control – we as individuals want to be in control – and we as the church want to be in control. But being faithful to Christ will often mean relinquishing control. After all, the Spirit blows where it will, and the Lord we serve bears the marks of the nails in his palms today. The cross doesn’t correlate well with control.

If we are engaged meaningfully with the wider community, and are to enter into meaningful partnerships with the wider community, we do so because we trust that the Spirit is at work there, and that the reign of Christ may come to expression there.

But such partnership will mean not being able to control the other’s perceptions of the partnership, their actions in the partnership, or  the language they use to describe the partnership. That is always the case in meaningful relationships where we remain in some sense vulnerable – we engage honestly and faithfully with others where we perceive mutuality and respect, without presuming to tell the other who they are or how they must act/perceive/speak. In fact, there may be times we don’t like what is said or done by partners. (Discernment, of course, also means learning when a partnership can’t be a partnership anymore.)

There are those within the church who approach such engagement with the wider community under essentially unitarian assumptions – “God” is at work (whoever “God” is) in the culture and in the church, and we have nothing decisive to hold on to or offer in this context. We are all just stumbling in the dark trying to make the world a more beautiful place. And “God” is there helping, working. Continue reading

down by the riverside – the river as a boundary

In so many places around the earth, rivers are also boundaries. Rivers, of course, are natural geographic formations that are often difficult for people to cross or to get around. And so in the history of peoples and communities and nations, rivers have inevitably become boundaries that define those peoples and relations between them.

 So the St. Lawrence River forms part of the boundary between the Canada and the United States in Eastern Ontario.

The Colorado River forms part of the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

The San Juan River forms a large part of the boundary between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

The Zambezi River forms a part of the boundary between Zambia and three other countries – Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Nambia.

Rivers are these natural geographic formations that in many places have also become political boundaries. One people or nation lives on one side of the boundary, and another people or nation lives on the other side of the boundary.

There are at least two ways of to think about rivers as boundaries. And we’ve already been thinking about river boundaries in one particular way – we’ve been thinking of them in terms of a separation – in terms of something that divides people or keeps them apart. From this point of view, the river as a boundary might even be a point of contest or conflict – the river as boundary might become a source of animosity and political strife – or even of war. One simple, historical example – in the war of 1812, American troops crossed the Niagara River to attack British settlements near Fort George and Fort Erie. The British and aboriginal populations there eventually pushed them back across the river. From this first point of view, the river is something that divides or keeps people separated from each other. Continue reading