This morning I want to suggest that a church anniversary is also a time when we might consider our own faith journey and where it has led. In taking stock we might ask ourselves who or what has encouraged us, inspired us, and what particular enlightenment has helped to form a personal faith stance that has currency today, and more importantly, makes sense. Faith doesn’t come in a lump sum but rather develops over time and is never fully complete.
In June of each year our staff team meets to plan and get a good handle on the upcoming church year that commences in the month of September. Given that my active ministry will be coming to a conclusion at the end of the year, John suggested a few preaching dates for me to consider. One of these would provide me with an opportunity to speak more intimately concerning my ministry in the United Church and personal journey of faith. I am not sure whether John was concerned that I was approaching my “best before date” or that my shelf life was limited! For me, worship in whatever form it might take, is central and the very essence of church life. I am also mindful that to occupy this pulpit as clergy is a privilege and that whatever is shared should necessarily have relevance to our living in the world, whether or not we define that as a faith journey. On the lighter side I remember my late father-in-law, a minister, sharing his own experience and saying that when looking down from the pulpit you will encounter faces of encouragement and anticipation as well as others whose body language suggests that their thought process was something along the lines of “Bless me if you can this morning!”(Perhaps those folks are absent this morning!)
When we accept and celebrate a call to ministry we are ordained to the office and work of Word, Sacrament, and pastoral care. I remember that day dressed in a white alb and experiencing a misplaced delusion of grandeur that I was the angel Gabriel! Well it doesn’t take long for that sense of importance or authority to wear off, as many of us would soon find ourselves in small rural churches. It became very clear from the get-go that the people’s expectation was that they be loved and cared for rather than be preached at with that newly acquired theological education their minister delivered from seminary. Although I am not going to be developing this thought this morning I can say from personal experience that that basic expectation doesn’t really change whether that be a rural, city, or using another type of congregational classification, a corporate church. That is not to dismiss the place of scholarship and intellectual stimulation.
Over the last few weeks in preparation for today I have been reflecting on my life in the church both prior to and following entry to ministry. My thoughts have returned to the final class of the course requirements for the degree of Doctor of Ministry at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine. Dr. Glenn Miller was the Professor of Ecclesiastical History and he was retiring after an impressive career in academia and ministry in the church. Glenn had all the attributes of an academic. Rather an imposing figure with a beard, a warm smile, and a sharp mind. His scholarship and integrity quickly earned the respect of his students.
We did not cover much on that last day of class because Glenn chose to speak to his journey of faith as an Episcopalian, i.e. an Anglican priest, and his life in academia. You might say that this was his “swan song” and we welcomed the opportunity to have him share his experiences so personally.
At the end of the session Doctor Miller said something that I have never forgotten and which has had a profound affect on me since. Stroking his beard and motioning with his hands he said: “If all this turns out to be untrue, it has still been worthwhile.” The “this” we understood as describing the underpinnings of a life of faith, especially in the context of whatever theological positions he had arrived at, or indeed modified, or perhaps dispensed with, and which had influenced his journey. That process for Glenn had been a worthwhile exercise and indeed gave meaning to his life and work. His tone very much confirmed that he felt fulfilled at that personal ending point.
Let me elaborate on the impact of Glenn’s statement in the context of my own journey. For me, my early faith formation within the evangelical arm of the church can be described as one of conformity. We were introduced to absolutes in terms of beliefs and an assortment of do’s and don’ts, accompanied by heavy theological consequences for non-conformity. The alternative to heaven wasn’t particularly attractive! Whereas, in the absence of not knowing anything different, I took to heart these teachings. But there was always an element of scepticism on my part that consequences of an eternal nature couldn’t possibly be associated with the unconditional love we see in the person of Jesus. This was a complete disconnect. Surely the gospel message wasn’t intended to be punitive? In fairness I have to say that I do not wish to totally set aside those formative years and teachings. I see them as building blocks on which to grow, develop, and discover a meaningful way of being in the world and specifically in the practice of ministry. On the other hand I do recall that early experience as one that did little for my self-esteem or healthy sense of well-being. There was no opportunity to debate teachings, ask questions, and certainly not to express doubts. In summary there was so much being preached that just didn’t cut it!
But looking back I am grateful that my disillusionment did not cause me to join the ranks of the great church alumnae, i.e. those who have ceased to find meaning or anything life-giving in the sometimes church’s conservative and orthodox stance and voted with their feet. Despite these intense feelings I still found myself considering ministry as a vocation. It certainly wasn’t a Damascus Road experience of blindness that prompted my thinking. However I did, throughout my church life, experience what I call gentle nudges suggesting that I might consider ministry as a vocation.
After the involuntary conclusion of a corporate career I found myself as Administrator of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church for three years. It was during that time I entered into a period of discernment which, to make a long story short, ended with my entry to the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia on my fiftieth birthday. Another contributing factor to my decision was the immensely helpful exposure to contemporary theologians such as Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, John Domini Crossan, and others. This led to my becoming convinced that the Gospel was worthy of attention and its essence had meaning and direction for the wholeness of life. By the way all of these authors are in our library.
John Suk is currently leading a book study using the final book written by Marcus Borg before his death with the title: Convictions: How I learned What Matters Most. Borg says (and I quote) “The story of my life and my Christian journey is about memories, conversions, and convictions. (SLIDE 1) He elaborates by saying that “Memories are what I absorbed growing up; Conversions as major changes in my understanding of the Bible and God and Jesus and what it means to be Christian; and Convictions being the affirmation that flowed from these changes.” This for Borg was a faith journey. Whether we are conscious or not of this three-stage process in our own lives it is a natural development of simply growing up.
At the risk of coming across like a seminary lecturer let me go one step further with Borg’s line of reasoning. What he has to say reflects what I claim as my own story, that being in the context of sorting out a meaningful and workable theology and understanding of Christianity today. I am sure that I am not alone in identifying with Borg in that this is a life-long quest for many of us. Theology and faith are not exempt from life-long learning . . . despite the fixed and stationery mind set of fundamentalists.
(SLIDE 2) In our childhood stage, which Borg calls Precritical Naiveté, he says, “We take it for granted that whatever the significant authority figures in our lives tell us is true, is indeed true. Whether that be about the tooth fairy or the star of Bethlehem that appeared every Christmas Eve, this naïve stage was exciting and foundational to our early development.
(SLIDE 3) Then comes to all of us the necessary stage of critical thinking where we sort things out for ourselves. Borg refers to this stage as an unavoidable part of growing up and that we do not become adults without it. I think you know where Borg is going with this in that, in this stage (and I quote him): Generally accepted modern knowledge calls into question the factuality of much of the Bible and of religions more generally. (End of quote) Let me respectfully suggest that many of us have reached this stage and perhaps are still struggling with the questions. That is perfectly okay and I encourage you to stay with it and work it through. I think it fair to say that all of us at some time have experienced the unavoidable intersection of science, religion, rationality, and common sense.
(SLIDE 4) The third and final stage of Borg’s model is what he calls Postcritical Affirmation. This is when we come to the realization that some truths, especially religious truths, can be expressed only in metaphorical and symbolic language. For me this was clarifying and the enlightenment that made perfect sense. It was a freeing experience. It negated the need to struggle with questions. It affirmed why I was engaged in ministry. When we are able to clear the deck of questions of fact then we, as those privileged to occupy a pulpit, can get to the heart, the very essence, of what scripture has to say to us today. . . not yesterday.
Well, you are probably wondering when I am going to turn to today’s gospel reading and also why, with the season of Advent soon before us, I have chosen a post-Easter reading. I did so for two good reasons relevant to what I have shared this morning.
First, I recall the application for entry to seminary, the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax. One of the questions was not unlike what we might ask a Sunday school class. “With which disciple do you identify the most, and why?” For some reason I knew without thinking what my answer would be . . . Thomas, the disciple most often referred to as doubting Thomas who had, from my perspective, played a pivotal role in the development of post-resurrection understanding. Perhaps because my early faith formation didn’t allow for questions or doubts, I saw in Thomas the courage to question, to seek proof, to want to know for himself rather than take word of his fellow disciples. He was direct in his questioning . . . essentially simply saying, show me. I see no reason why he should be dismissed as a doubter. Rather it may be more appropriate to dismiss a theology that equates doubt with sin.
Second, this Gospel story serves as a wonderful example in the context of Marcus Borg’s triad of stages in a developing understanding of the Bible, God, Jesus, and what it means to be Christian. I specifically refer to stage three where we come to the realization that some truths, especially religious truths, can be expressed only in metaphorical and symbolic language.
The author of John’s gospel imagines and presents a beautiful and poignant story with the use of metaphor. This is not a story to be taken literally but it still has the ability to capture our attention. It is like a parable, which by definition, is a narrative of an imagined event used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.
A few years ago I heard Marcus Borg speak to the annual meeting of the Maritime Conference of the United Church. He opened the plenary session with a gospel reading, which he prefaced with a statement saying: The facts of this story may not be as presented . . . but the story is true. Applying that statement to today’s story and Thomas’ encounter with Jesus serves to emphasize the brilliant use of metaphor . . . an imagined event to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. At that poignant moment in the story Thomas came to the realization of the significance of the person of Jesus, the one he had followed and believed in. That same Jesus now lived within him and called for his continuing discipleship. The gospel writer concludes this episode by saying to Thomas and by extension to you and to me: “Because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” We reside in that latter company and have no need to adopt a show me attitude.
As I anticipate my active ministry soon coming to a conclusion I can echo the words of my teacher Dr. Glenn Miller and say “If all of this turns out not to be true, it has still been worthwhile for me.” Ministry is, and has been, indeed a privilege and a sacred trust. To personally follow to the best of one’s ability and to promote a model of living with integrity, as that demonstrated in the person of Jesus and his “Way,” will never become obsolete. When we are prepared to set aside what can become the baggage of dogma, creed, and non-negotiable beliefs we will, to use the words of Marcus Borg, arrive at and learn what matters most. Let me say respectfully - This is where I stand! Amen.