Sunday, January 29, 2012

Whose authority? Whose teaching?

Text: Mark 1:21-28 (teaching with authority)

What power do mere words possess to heal a broken life or change a troubled situation? And what good can can come from a mere speech or sermon? These are some of the thoughts that came to mind as I reflected upon today's Gospel reading.

In it, we hear of the start of Jesus' public ministry and how Jesus astonishes his newly-called disciples with his teaching. Unfortunately, the Gospel writer Mark does not tell us what he teaches. In fact, the only lesson we get from this passage comes from the mouth of the evil spirit who has possessed a man in the synagogue and who correctly shouts out that Jesus of Nazareth is "the Holy One of God."

But the passage implies that simply by speaking and teaching, Jesus makes a difference. And it is often this way in the Bible. John begins his Gospel with the evocative phrase, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Likewise, the Hebrew Bible begins with God's speech in Genesis -- "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light," and so on.

For the past 2500 years, Jews and later Christians and Muslims have been known as People of the Book. We centre our worship around Holy Scripture and on sermons that comment on it. And we continue today in this manner even though today's culture is dominated by audiovisual media. Has our focus on reading and discussing Scripture perhaps become outmoded?

Also, we are often reminded of the need to move from words to actions -- to not let our speeches or sermons remain mere words on a page. Instead, they are supposed to inspire us to act in order to change our lives and communities.

And yet in church we continue to read and talk -- especially preachers! Should we perhaps find a different way to make an impact on the world than just teaching in a synagogue as Jesus did 2,000 years ago or preaching in a church today?

And yet words seem to have power in and of themselves. One of the last books by the great United Church minister and literary critic Northrop Frye was titled "Words with Power: a Study of The Bible and Literature." And psychoanalysis has now had more than 100 years to demonstrate the power of its so-called "talking cure." Simply talking about issues with a patient often helps to heal a troubled mind.

Our very minds and personalities are constructed with words. And so a central part of learning is focused on words and their meanings. Take a simple word like "sun." As children, we learn that the bright orb that rises in the sky on a cloudless day is called the sun. And in the ancient past this might have included the understanding that the sun was a god that circled the earth each day bringing light, life and healing.

But today we learn that, despite appearances to the contrary, the earth revolves around the sun and that far from being a god, the sun is one of trillions of stars, which are huge balls of hydrogen undergoing nuclear fusion. So just by becoming familiar with the word sun and the concepts behind it, children are introduced to ideas about the immense age and size of the cosmos, the structure of our solar system, nuclear power, and other astonishing facts of science.

It is the same in the church. Here each week, we discuss crucial words such as sin, redemption, grace, eternal life, justice, mercy, compassion, and love. What do we mean by these important words? How can we be defined by these words? And how can talking about the ideas behind them bring us closer to God in Christ?

The latest book by the influential biblical scholar Marcus Borg is called "Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning." I haven't yet read it, but I am intrigued by his title. Sometimes I wonder if we Christians are using the cherished words of our tradition in out-of-date ways -- that, for instance, we use a word like redemption as though it had undergone no changes over the last 500 years unlike a word like "sun."

Since God is love and since love is what we most yearn for in life, my fondest wish when I was studying at Emmanuel College was to learn more about what we mean by the word "love." And while there were some discussions that I found useful in that regard, overall I was disappointed with that aspect of my theological education. Of course, we can best learn about love by living in trouble- and grace-filled families and communities. But discussing love has a role to play as well. And so I come to worship each week to reflect upon and search for love in the light of our current situation. And as you know, this is often not an easy task.

When I was in Toronto this past month, I was pleased to attend other church's worship services. I went to a different United Church on each of the four Sundays. I was at a friend's ordination service in an Anglican church. And I went to one of the Wednesday afternoon services at Emmanuel College. And while I appreciated each of these services, I was also a bit disappointed in most of them.

In only one case would I have said that I felt I was in the presence of one who teaches with authority -- this is a preacher who almost never fails to make me laugh in astonishment, to think, and to feel changed after listening to his sermons.

But while preaching, prayer and worship are not easy tasks, many of us feel compelled to return to them. So we come back again to the texts, to church, and to our prayers, and rituals -- even when church services sometimes disappoint us . . .

The other thing that came to my mind this week in relation to the idea of "teaching with authority" is the role of speaking in political campaigns. At present, we have the spectacle of the presidential campaign in the United States, and this is an arena where speeches make a big difference.

The speeches of President Barack Obama are what I like best about him. Like many people, I have been disappointed in Obama's first three years in government, what with continued war in Afghanistan, economic and environmental problems, and social inequality. But I love his speeches.

This past week, Obama gave an hour-long speech to Congress, his annual State of the Union Address, which I only read about. But I have been quite moved by some of his past speeches including the one he delivered after the attempted murder of Congresswoman Gabbie Gifford a year ago, two he gave on race relations during the 2008 campaign, and his victory speech from that year. Obama's speeches often remind me of sermons, complete with biblical references; and I have concluded that he might make a better "Preacher-In-Chief" than a "Commander-In-Chief."

On the other side of the U.S. campaign are the Republican candidates. The current leader in that race is former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. He may yet be defeated by Party establishment favourite, Governor Mitt Romney. But Gingrich won the primary election in South Carolina last weekend, and he was leading in the polls federally as of mid-week.

I have only ever heard Gingrich give one speech, and it astonished me. He delivered it to a meeting of Christians United for Israel, a group led by the right-wing televangelist, John Hagee, in 2007. I had heard of Gingrich when he led the Republican Party to victory in Congress in 1994, but this was the first time I had seen him in action. I caught his speech while surfing around the TV dial one night when I couldn't sleep.

I was impressed by how smart and articulate Gingrich seemed to be in that speech and by his passion. But I was also appalled by his ideas. Christians United for Israel is part of the wing of Christianity that sees the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 as a sign of the imminence of the Second Coming of Christ, perhaps through nuclear war. It predicts mass destruction and death as an inevitable part of God's plan. And unfortunately, Gingrich is right in the thick of this part of the church.

Gingrich seems to speak as one with authority, which is why he has done well so far in the campaign. But I do not perceive his authority as holy or biblical. I disagree with the theological and political stances of Rev. Hagee and Gingrich. I hope that Gingrich does not become the Republican nominee for President and I certainly hope that he doesn't become President of the United States. Such a role would give him too much scope to bring "biblical" fantasies of war in support of Israel to reality, I fear.

Obama also seems to me to speak with authority, and his strikes me as an authority gained through an interesting life, including a spiritual crisis that led him to be baptized in a United Church of Christ in Chicago in his 20s. Compared to Gingrich's authority, Obama's is one that I largely trust.

But of course, I could be mistaken in my perceptions of both of these men. And when I experience strong distaste for a figure like Gingrich, alarm bells should probably go off in my mind about the dangers of my own arrogance and possible blindness.

Given my negative thoughts about Gingrich and his brand of Christianity, I was glad that the first service I attended back here this week was an ecumenical one that Carla Yost and others in Wesley United organized in Rockglen on Friday afternoon. The service was part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and I greatly appreciated it. [And thanks again to Carla, Anne, and others who led this service.]

Friday's service reminded me that, regardless of the differences between Christians, when we gather in worship to focus on love, healing, and God's grace, our differences can disappear -- perhaps even with people like Rev. Hagee and Newt Gingrich!

Passionate commitment -- whether political or religious -- can sometimes lead us astray. The Holy Spirit is our guide and our companion, but spirituality can also lead us into self-righteous anger and other traps. And this is as true for a "liberal" Christian like me as well as a "conservative" one like Gingrich.

Better, I believe, to be reminded in worship, as I was on Friday, that we are supported by God's Grace and that with God's help, we can give our will over to His.

I don't always find ministry easy. But I love this path and I feel grateful to be in ministry with you here in Borderlands in this new year of 2012.

Today, we hear again of Jesus as the Christ teaching as one with authority. He speaks a Word that breaks us open and transforms us. It is a Word of Power. It is the Word of God.

Thanks be to God.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Big Muddy Triangle

Yesterday in Regina while waiting for the bus to Coronach, I was struck by a big map of Saskatchewan on a wall in the terminal that listed all of the routes operated by the crown corporation STC. What lept out at me was the big area with no service east and north of Coronach. Along with the Cypress Hills near East End and the Great Sand Hills south of Kindersley, the area east of Coronach to Estevan and north to Moose Jaw is the largest unserviced part of southern Saskatchewan. You can view the map here.

It is the clearest indication I have yet encountered of how few people live in this part of the province. Because of the shape of the unserviced area, and because it includes the Big Muddy Badlands, I have given it the name "Big Muddy Triangle." The land east and north of here is beautiful, dry and largely uninhabited.

I got another indication of Coronach's isolation from the number of passengers on the bus. Yesterday traveling south – just as on on Boxing Day when I traveled north to Regina – I was the only passenger on the bus between Coronach and Assiniboia, a drive that takes the first or last hour of the journey.

That said, this morning I awoke to sunshine and mild temperatures, I have a sermon percolating in my head (check for it on the blog on Sunday!), and I am glad to be back.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Regina, sunny-side up

I am in a Regina cafe near the Bus Terminal, waiting for the early-evening bus to Coronach. Statistically, this is the coldest week of the year, but the temperature here today is plus 7 and the sun is shining bright and clear. Saskatchewan seems to be welcoming me home.

I am glad to have had a chance today to become better acquainted with downtown Regina. There wasn't much to see from the air other than endless, empty white fields and frozen sloughs. But after lunch, I stumbled upon a pedestrian mall that runs south of the city centre mall to Victoria Park; and I like how early 20th Century buildings have been preserved in the downtown. Especially inviting is the Globe Theatre, which seems to inhabit what was once a municipal building, and which has a plaque that commemorates the "On-to-Ottawa-Trek" of unemployed radicals, which ended in a police riot in Regina in 1935.

There is also an excellent magazine store off the pedestrian mall where the "New York Review of Books" caught my eye. I bought it because the January issue has material that might feed my sermon for this coming Sunday on "speaking and teaching with authority" – especially a survey of the crazed theo-cons who infest today's Republican Party.

But although I like this tidy city of 200,000 people and appreciate the short and cheap cab ride from the airport to the bus station, I am more focused on how much I liked Toronto during my vacation. 

Toronto continues to look better and better to me. All the wounds of ground-level parking lots are being filled in by condos or office and retail buildings; the horrifying strip malls of Yonge Street north of Sheppard have now been mostly replaced by gleaming towers; and the old highlights of the waterfront (Sunnyside, High Park, Ontario Place, Harbourfront, the Distillery District, and the Beaches) are being stitched together in a frenzy of new developments. Finally, Rob Ford, the lamentable mayor, is being tamed by new alliances among city councilors after his disastrous first year in power.

The wrong-headedness of Rob Ford is well-exemplified by anti-immigration comments he made during the last mayoralty campaign. He claimed that because of the "chaos" Toronto suffered with its 2.5 million inhabitants, it should consider a halt to immigration for the time being. 

The opposite, of course, is the truth. It is population growth, cultural diversity, intensification of infrastructure and new immigrants that make Toronto shine bright. Toronto should be gearing up for 5 million or more people, in my opinion – and within the boundaries of old Metro and not in further suburban sprawl. 

Given the richness and excitement I experienced in Toronto, I may experience a bit of withdrawal when I am back on the Border tomorrow. But at least it will be sunny. The forecast includes virtually nothing but sunshine for the next two weeks, with no severe cold snaps either. And the days are getting longer too . . . 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Six months on the border

After working from July 1 to Christmas in Borderlands pastoral charge, I am taking my first vacation in Toronto. Below are some observations about my life and work on the border so far.

I love the sunshine. Almost every morning, the sun rises in a cloudless sky. And almost every night, the stars shine with incredible brightness in the pitch dark that descends on the empty land of southern Saskatchewan. I find it to be a strange and beautiful country; and it is a place that has a great deal more sunshine and a great deal less rain and humidity than Toronto.

On my flight back to Toronto last week, I read Wallace Stegner’s memoir/history, “Wolf Willow” (1963), and I doubt anyone has ever read it with more interest. The book was a gift from a member of the congregation in Rockglen, and I loved it.

Wallace Stegner, who was an American novelist, academic, and essayist, lived in the southern Saskatchewan town of Eastend from the ages of five to 11 during the first six years of that town's existence, from 1914 until 1920. His father farmed a homestead 75 km south of Eastend right on the border with Montana. So even though Eastend is on the west side of what is now Grasslands National Park, I learned a lot about my part of Saskatchewan, which is on the east side of the Park, from his account.

The border with the U.S. along the 49th parallel helps keep southern Saskatchewan and northern Montana depopulated. It is an artificial barrier that dampens down what would be a natural exchange of people and commerce between the two regions.

This past spring, the border crossing south of Big Beaver, which is just 30 km east of Coronach where I live, was closed. And now Canada and the U.S. are talking about closing more. Probably the crossing just 10 km south of Coronach will stay open (after all, 20-30 cars cross on average each day!), but I would not be surprised if the border south and west of Rockglen is one of those that are closed.

I am curious to live in Saskatchewan during these years of economic boom and population growth – fueled by potash, oil, natural gas and uranium – but in an area that is still declining in population. We do have the coal mine and electrical power plant in Coronach, which are the reasons that the towns I serve have not withered away like scores of other Saskatchewan ghost towns. But as the terrible roads improve, more and more workers in these two industries commute from the north instead of raising families down along the border.

The negatives associated with the border surprise me since I grew up along the U.S. border in Cornwall Ontario, right at the point where Ontario, Quebec and New York State all touch along the St. Lawrence River. Cornwall is like much of Canada – clinging to the south. But since northern Montana is just as devoid of people as southern Saskatchewan, the border offers no advantage over more northerly parts of Saskatchewan.

I have come to see southern Saskatchewan in three layers. The most northerly is the Trans-Canada, Hwy 1, which connects Medicine Hat with Swift Current, Moose Jaw, and Regina and then on to Winnipeg. This is where most of the people, traffic and services lie, and it is often terribly flat. The next level is 50 km south and is marked by Hwy 13, which connects Assinboia and Weyburn. It is much less populated, but the road is still good, the scenery is more varied, and there are often full services.

The bottom level is another 50 km south, and that is where I live along the U.S. border. Our east-west road is Hwy18, which is very lightly traveled and often quite dodgy. The scenery is usually breathtaking – badlands, rolling hills, and little lakes.

I was amazed that a coyote carcass lay in the middle of the road between Coronach and Rockglen from mid-August to mid-September disturbed only by carrion birds and the odd tire track until it finally became no more than a whiff of fur.

This road, like the others in my region, has no shoulders and is poorly engineered. This is OK during daylight. But in the dark of the long winter lights, the poor sight-lines mean you have to slow down in case there is a deer or fox on the road over the next little knoll. I find it remarkable -- and somewhat lonely -- to drive for 30 minutes without having to dim the high beams once and to see nothing but blackness in the rear-view mirror.

The three towns I serve -- Coronach with 800 people, Rockglen with 400 and Fife Lake with less than 50 – are slowly shrinking. Unlike the first wave of workers who staffed the coal mine and electrical plant in the late 1970s and who were drawn from the existing towns and farms or who moved south to live along the border, many of the newer employees commute from bigger centres like Assiniboia (2500 people, 30 minutes drive north of Rockglen and one hour from Coronach), Moose Jaw (35,000 people and 1.5 hours drive north) or Regina (200,000 people and two hours drive north and east).

As the terrible roads improve, vehicles become more comfortable, and climate change makes the winters less scary, more and more people decline to live where they work. And as people in the south drive north in greater numbers to shop and find services, the incentive to stay close to the border also declines.

It has been about five years since a doctor has lived in the region, and all of us are distressed that the closest doctor is now one hour’s drive away.

When Coronach was just 300 people in the 1940s, there were two doctors, a dentist, shops and services of all kinds, and seven full-time paid Christian ministers. But back then, the drive to Regina was an all-day slog. Today, I am the only clergy-person, there are no doctors or dentists, and there are very few shops.

I call the local “What Not” shop our Walmart. It accepts donations of used goods, and it is the only place in Coronach to buy clothes, household goods, books, and DVDs. It does a brisk business. However, I am almost as likely to see members of the congregation in Sobey’s in Moose Jaw as I am in the Coop Foodlands in Coronach.

As Stegner argues in his book, the late settlement of the arid grasslands of southern Saskatchewan was a marginal proposition. At first, there were just cattle ranches. Then a terrible winter in 1906-7 wiped out much of the herds. After that, homesteading and wheat were encouraged. But the lack of moisture means that wheat and other grain and legume crops often fail.

I detect a sadness in our area about the depopulation of the countryside. There used to be a farmhouse every quarter mile along the grid roads. But now farm houses are either abandoned or non-existent. Farms are enormous and hamlets like Fife Lake have more abandoned houses and stores than inhabited ones. The border region also has very little history because it is the last place in southern Canada to be settled by non-Natives.

Just north of the border are several French communities, which were settled by Metis people in the late 19th Century: Gravelbourg, Willow Bunch, Lisieux and others. But the area where I live was not homesteaded until 1910-15, and the towns were not created until the late 1920s. Soon after came the dust bowl of the Dirty Thirties, which stifled much of the promise of those early years. Then after World War II, the arrival of better highways and petro-farming meant more depopulation. So the area has beautiful vistas, but very few people and not much history.

Despite the lack of population and history, I am enjoying my experience in Borderlands. I appreciate the small but enthusiastic congregations. I greatly enjoyed the two community Christmas choirs in which I sang. And I am learning a lot as a new minister. It feels like a good place for me to grow during my first years after ordination.

While it is a stereotype to be settled as a United Church minister in Saskatchewan – for instance, my great-uncle Archie Peebles was the United Church minister in Eastend in the 1930s and my father did a summer-field placement in Beechy Saskatchewan, north and west of Moose Jaw, in 1946 -- I can see the advantages.

And so I look forward to returning to Borderlands in a few weeks. At the least, I am sure that there will be a lot of sunshine.

Happy New Year to all!