Sunday, May 26, 2013

Canadian Idol

Texts: Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31 (Wisdom calls); John 16: 12-15 (the Spirit of truth)

God is Love, Christians say. And what could be more simple, and yet at the same time more complex than Love?

Christians also say that God is One, which seems simple, and Three, which seems complex. The "three-ness" or Trinity of God is expressed by phrases such as Father, Son and Holy Ghost; God, Christ, and Spirit; or Source, Saviour, and Sustainer.

Today's short Gospel reading was probably assigned to Trinity Sunday because in it Jesus mentions the Spirit of Truth, which glorifies both Jesus and the Father -- Father, Son, and Spirit.

To complicate things further, another of today's reading -- the one from the Old Testament book "Proverbs" -- throws Wisdom into the mix. The passage says that Wisdom calls to us from the heights and the crossroads. She was created as the first of the Lord's acts and was the Lord's delight when he marked out the foundations of the earth.

So, who is this figure called Wisdom? Some Christian scholars connect Wisdom with the Holy Spirit, others with Christ. Well, whatever we think about this reading, it shows that ideas about God from ancient Israel can be as complex as those arrived at by Christians.

Finally, another of the complexities we confront when thinking about God are false gods, or idols. So on this Trinity Sunday -- with our Scripture readings and an awareness of both the simplicity and complexity of love in the background -- I focus on idols and idolatry . . .

Idol is word that has come back into circulation in the last 12 years because of the TV singing competition, American Idol, and its spin-offs.

"Canadian Idol," CTV's version,  ran for six seasons from 2003 until 2008. People here in Rockglen, of course, remember Season 4 best because hometown hero Tyler Lewis finished third. It must have been an exciting time.

Unfortunately, CTV cancelled the series after 2008. And now, I read that the American version of Idol has just finished its 12th season with much lower ratings. For everything there is a season, I guess.

The success of the Idol TV series has led to renewed use of the word "idol" in popular culture. "Idol" used to be found mostly in the Bible, as in the Ten Commandments. The first two commandments include the following: "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol."

And yet, we do make idols: of celebrities, sports stars, the nation. Even church can become a false idol. But the good news is that within idolatry are impulses that can help us move beyond them to the Holy One and Holy Three who is the God of Love.

Worship involves the assigning of sacred value through ritual actions, and it seems to be a universal phenomenon. We all value something an as ultimate concern. In the church, we hope that our ultimate concern is the living God. Often, however, it is an idol.

Almost anything can become an idol. Young children are pretty much forced to idolize their parents because of their dependence on them. Soldiers would be hard pressed to obey the dangerous commands of their superiors if they didn't at least somewhat idolize their nation or empire.

Young people move beyond their families and into the world through a process of idealization and idolization. For some this means pursuing knowledge. For others it is adventure or pleasure. For yet others it is found in artistic pursuits.

Given how common and even necessary idols are, I am not surprised when I find this tendency in myself or in the church. Some of us worship our church buildings. Others of us seem to worship the Bible more than the God to which it points. But like any other idol, the seeds of a more mature faith are present there, I believe.

Worship -- even that of idols -- shows our need to move beyond our selves to something bigger. For instance, one of our common local idols is the Saskatchewan Roughriders. The devotion we show to the Riders reveals our longing to be part of an enthusiastic community, the value we assign to hard work and talent, and our wish to achieve great things together.

There is nothing wrong with everyday idols, I think, as long as we don't get stuck and never move beyond them to the God of Love who is truly worthy of being the object of our ultimate concern.

The Way of the Cross helps to lead us from idolatry to the Love known in God in Christ. When Jesus first meets his friends and followers, they see him as an idol. They believe that Jesus will be the next King of Israel who will lead it to military victory over its oppressors.

But Jesus, in his willingness to use non-violence to confront both the religious leaders of his nation and the Romans -- even to death on a cross -- opens his friends to something more wonderful than worldly success. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus shows us the power of Love, which comes to new life in the death of our illusions.

When our illusions in an idol die, new life can arise within the heart of God who is Love. The impulse to love lies deep within each of us. Christians often call this aspect of Love the Inner Christ. The love we feel for others forms a major part of our spiritual life. Christians often call this aspect of Love the Holy Spirit. The broad framework within which we seek love includes the cosmos, the culture, and our communities. Christians often call this ground of Love God the Father. Together they are Saviour, Sustainer and Source -- a Holy Trinity.

In worship and mission, we hope to know and show love. We wrestle with Scripture, we sing hymns, and we enter into times of prayerful listening in order to hear the still small voice of Love that can be heard inside every false god. We care for each other and work for peace with justice as a way to make our love real and to test it in the fires of family and community life. By the Grace of God's Spirit, we find new life in Christ, a life within the heart of the God who is Love.

Entering into new life in Christ does not make everything about God clear, of course. God is a Holy Mystery that will always remain beyond our understanding.

Love is often difficult, but it is worth everything to us; and so we give our heart to the God who is Love.

I am glad that the church and its theologians wrestle with difficult ideas such as the Trinity. I am glad that Scripture contains puzzling passages like today's reading from Proverbs with its mention of Wisdom. But the God who is Love will always remain partly unknown by mortals like us.

We don't need to "get it right." Over and over again, we may find ourselves puzzled by the mysteries of God and the Sacred. Over and over again, we may find ourselves worshipping idols instead of the God revealed to us in Christ.

Such "failure" is OK, however, since we trust that God in Christ through the power of the Spirit always brings us home. We will never understand everything about love or about the God who is Love. But with an unshakeable confidence, we know that God's love is our source, our calling, and our sure destiny.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, May 19, 2013

"That all may be none?!"

Text: Acts 2 1-21 (the day of Pentecost)

Pentecost Sunday is often called the birthday of the church. It marks the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples just a few days after Jesus has finally left them. Empowered by the Spirit, Peter and the other disciples preach, heal, and convert many people to the Way of the Cross; and from their initial efforts in Jerusalem, the worldwide church is born.

This year, however, we celebrate the church's birthday in the shadow of what might look like its impending death. The 2011 Canadian census figures, released two weeks ago, tell part of the tale. In its survey of religion, the census shows that the fastest growing group in Canada is people with no religion. It now includes 25% of us, up from 12% in 1991. Meanwhile, all mainline churches, including the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, the United Church of Canada, continue to shrink.

Around two million Canadians still claim adherence to the United Church; but only about 200,000 people show up in United Church sanctuaries on any given Sunday. Three quarter of Canadians still claim allegiance to one religion or another, but only about 10% of us attend worship on a regular basis.

Given these facts, what is there for us to celebrate this Pentecost? The United Church struggles with budget shortfalls, cutbacks, and the ageing of the people who keep our congregations running.

40 people from Chinook Presbytery discussed this situation at a workshop in Moose Jaw on May 10 and 11. We began by celebrating the things we love about our local churches. Then each person got a chance to name a lament they had about the state of the church. One woman at my table began to cry as she talked about generations of young people who do not know the Lord. Many of us shared her sadness.

The mood shifted on Saturday morning. We heard a presentation from Meewasin Valley United Church in Saskatoon. Like most churches, Meewasin has declined in numbers and resources over the last decades. So in 2012, they sold their church to a Seventh Day Adventist congregation; and today they worship in a lounge at St. Andrew's College at the University of Saskatchewan with a new sense of energy.

The people from Meewasin shared ideas about progressive theology and social justice. But I focused on their decision to sell their building. I think many congregations could be inspired by their decision to sell their church building while continuing as a distinct pastoral charge.

I suggested to the gathering that the Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church consider a 10-year campaign in which every congregation sells its building. During that period, many of our churches would be forced to sell anyway, which is always a painful experience. Perhaps selling our properties as part of a province-wide campaign might take some of the sting out of this difficult step.

Together, we could then help each other to find new places in which to worship and serve, places such as community centres, seniors homes, drop-ins, living rooms, or ecumenical worship centres. We could share ways to remember and celebrate the sacred events that had occurred in our former sanctuaries. We could learn how to make any space feel like a sacred one in which to gather.

I repeat this idea here not to suggest that our boards move to immediately sell our properties, but to remind us that the problems we face are not unique. They are shared by virtually every other United Church congregation in Canada and by a large percentage of all faith communities in the country.

Nor do I raise the issue of the decline of the church to discourage us on Pentecost, a day when we celebrate the Holy Spirit. I raise it because of the recent census report, the Presbytery workshop in Moose Jaw, and the United Church's three-year Comprehensive Review process. I hope that you will receive the radical suggestions I make today as brainstorming and as a way to stimulate all of our thoughts ahead of our conversation on June 4 with a Comprehensive Review facilitator.

The decline of the church has positive as well as negative effects, I believe. For instance, in the history of the church of the last 2,000 years, the longest period is also the one that troubles me the most: the church of empire. From the early 300s until the 20th Century, the Christian Church was the established state religion of the Roman Empire and its successor European empires.

The link between empire and church allowed Christianity to spread around the world. But it also implicated the church in all the negative features of empire: war, conquest, and oppression of all kinds.

In the last 30 years, the United Church has made great strides in coming to grips with its role in the destruction of First Nations culture in Canada's residential school system, and I am pleased that we have done so. But this process just scratches the surface, I believe, of the crimes committed in the name of our church over more than 1500 years. Thank God that those days are largely over.

This is not to say that empire has disappeared from the earth. Instead, it reflects the fact that today's empires no longer rely on the church as a key prop. Many scholars argue that this change occurred with the end of World War I, almost 100 years ago -- long before most of us were even born.

The war was a disaster for European civilization; and many churches were stripped of their official status as part of the attempt to cleanse Europe of its shame. This occurred at the same time that many of Europe's monarchies were also swept away. When the reign of the czars in Russia and of the kaisers in Germany and Austria came to an end, so did the official status of church in country after country.

After World War I, Canadians didn't immediately see the shift away from church,  perhaps because Canada was on the "winning" side of the war. The effects only become evident after 1960; and since then, the power of church has quickly waned.

To see some of the positive effects of growing secularization, we need only look at parts of the world where religion still influences public policy. In sub-Saharan Africa, conservative churches push governments to keep women as second class citizens and to punish homosexuality with death. In countries like Syria and Iraq, civil conflicts often follow the divisions between the Sunni and the Shia wings of Islam, in much the same way that Europe was torn apart by wars between Catholics and Protestants 400 years ago. In Burma, people from the majority Buddhist community often attack minority Muslims with horrible violence. The list could go on.

In Canada today where society is built upon free enquiry and scientific research, many of us resent attempts by conservative Christian or Muslim leaders to oppose science or to legislate morality on the basis of the Bible and the Koran.

Many of us look forward to the calming effect of secularization on volatile regions in Africa and the Middle East and to the continuing marginalization of those who want to legislate morality here in Canada based upon fundamentalism.

But given the irrelevance of church to most young Canadians, what are we to do as a pastoral charge or as a denomination? Even if we were to sell our buildings in order to lessen our financial burden, how can we continue to follow the path of Jesus with our ageing members and shrinking numbers?

Part of the answer, I think, might involve putting our denominational identity behind us. The United Church began when Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches joined forces 88 years ago. But for the last 50 years, we have not had success in uniting with other denominations since we became more liberal than the others. We were the first church in Canada to embrace equality for women and gay people, and the one that was most open to science and to non-church groups who tackle social problems like poverty or pollution.

I wonder if we might now be able to unite with Christians from any number of denominations -- Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Alliance -- in our mutual decline. If there is to be any Christian presence in small towns like ours 20 years from now, it can only come from combining our forces, I believe.

Worship might be a problem. I, for one, would feel uncomfortable to worship with conservative Christians who preached hellfire and damnation and second class status for women, gays and lesbians. So in a post-denominational church, we might need to have several worship streams: liberal, conservative, and so on.

But there remains much that I think we could do together: create ecumenical worship spaces, provide outreach to the poor, support community funerals, organize study and meditation groups, and so on.

One thing that might help facilitate working with people from different traditions, I think, would be to dissolve the United Church! In 2025, the United Church will celebrate its centennial. I would be happy if the Comprehensive Review group considered a recommendation to General Council in 2015 that we schedule a huge celebration of our centennial in 2025 -- and then dissolve in favour of something looser and less structured.

This radical decision would gain us a brief burst of media coverage, as well as scorn from both our secular and fundamentalist critics. But since the dissolution of the United Church seems inevitable over the next few decades anyway, the idea would be to get in front of the curve. At the least, I believe that talking about the end of the United Church and the beginning of something new could be useful.

Christianity is built upon death, endings and new beginnings. It was only when Jesus was killed that the dream of a new King of the Jews also died. Jesus' death cleared the way for his followers to better experience the God who is Love in Jesus' resurrection. 40 years later, the burning of Jerusalem and its Temple spurred the early church to move beyond its Palestinian roots into the rest of the Roman empire.

Today, the church faces a rapidly changing world. Like the first Christians, we are being forced to make drastic changes in how we follow Jesus. This fact does not mean that the Holy Spirit no longer touches our hearts and minds as it did Peter and the disciples at Pentecost 2000 years ago. It means that the Spirit might prompt us to try things that are different from our past.

I also believe there is nothing that any of us have to do. One option is to let the future take care of the future. Many here today have poured great time and energy into the mission of Jesus. What such people most deserve, I think, is celebration and thanks for long and faithful service, and perhaps a release from future obligations.

Nor do I believe that the fear expressed in Moose Jaw about today's youth need oppress us. God is much bigger than the church. True, many of today's youth are not learning Bible stories or adopting a life of worship and service in the church. But I trust that despite that, they are in touch with the living God.

The Spirit of Love calls us to work for God in Christ and not for our church. If the Spirit moves us towards something that no longer looks like church, we can follow that impulse with confidence even though we might also feel sadness.

Of course, my ideas of selling our buildings, dissolving the United Church into something post-denominational, and working with Christians from other traditions might not be good ones. But whatever changes come in the next years, we can trust that we will continue to be empowered and inspired by God's Holy Spirit.

No matter where we end up as individuals, as towns, or as a church, we know that our work will be informed and empowered by God's Love. As in the days of the first Pentecost, we trust that the Spirit will always lead us home to God.

Church may change. The Holy Spirit might bypass it completely in the future. But God's Love will always guide us, support us, and save us.

Thanks be to God. 


Sunday, May 12, 2013

"That all may be one"

Text: John 17 20-26 ("that all may be one")

"That all may be one" -- with these words from the Gospel of John in its heart and on its crest, the United Church of Canada came into being 88 years ago on June 10th, 1925. Because of this fact and because next Sunday is Pentecost, which is a celebration of the founding of the universal church, my sermons today and next week are about the state of the church and efforts to achieve church unity.

I am inspired not only by today's Gospel reading and Pentecost, but also by the Chinook Presbytery meeting, which Carla and I attended in Moose Jaw yesterday and Friday. The meeting included a workshop on "How to be church in our changing context," which I found interesting and useful.

Originally, I had thought I would weave the details of the Moose Jaw discussions into this sermon. But last night, I was too tired to tackle this. So today's sermons is a reworking of one I gave when I was student minister three years ago in Alberta.  More about Moose Jaw next time . . .

The Gospel passage from John contains the last words of Jesus to his disciples before his arrest and execution. In this parting message, Jesus urges his followers towards unity. But what kind of unity is meant by the phrase "that all may be one?"

Perhaps Jesus means a kind of mystical union. Listen to his words again: "as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." These convoluted phrases remind me of St. Paul when he writes about the inner Christ.

However, Jesus' phrase "that all may be one" has usually been interpreted the way that the United Church does: as a call for church unity. Jesus' prayer is for all the followers of the Way of  the Cross to form One Body.

In the first 300 years after Jesus, such unity was not easy. The church was small and far-flung. It existed in house gatherings all around the Mediterranean. Travel and communication were difficult and slow. There were no printing presses, so Christian sacred writings such as the  letters of Paul and the gospel narratives were shared as hand-made copies. In this situation, there was not just one brand of Christianity. There were scores or hundreds of different kinds of Christianities.

All of this changed in the 300's when the Roman Empire exchanged its old pagan cults and adopted Christianity as the official religion. By the year 400, all the many strange and diverse types of churches had been unified into one official brand --  Roman Catholicism. It had a common creed, an agreed-upon list of books for the Bible, and a common way of running each congregation. Any writings, creeds and practices that didn't fit with what the Emperor and his councils decided upon were ruthlessly suppressed by the state.

This top-down approach created Christian unity. But I am sure that this was not the unity for which Jesus prayed on the night of his arrest since it was enforced by violence; and the enforcer was the same Roman Empire that arrested Jesus on the night of his prayer and executed him as a political prisoner the next day.

Still, the church was unified. And when the Roman Empire disintegrated under barbarian attacks in the 400's, the Catholic Church was a key institution that kept Europe somewhat united during the Dark Ages.

Around the year 1000, the church split into a Greek Orthodox wing, centred in what is now Turkey, and a Catholic wing centred in Rome. After that split, uniformity was maintained for another 500 years in two different flavours: a Latin flavour in the Catholic West of Europe and a Greek flavour in the Orthodox East.

All of this changed as European powers began their conquest of the world in the 1500s. The Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in France and Switzerland, King Henry VIII in England, and John Knox in Scotland shattered Christian unity. The rage to create new denominations, which continues to this day, began.

Its not that we oppose the Reformation, of course. By the year 1500, the Church in Western Europe had grown tired and corrupt. The reforms introduced in the new denominations of Lutheranism, Anabaptism, Presbyterianism, and Anglicanism, and also within the Roman Catholic church itself in the Counter-Reformation, had many positive results.

Christianity became the world's dominant religion after European colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia. It also split into scores of different denominations.

The diversity of Christianity in the first decades after Jesus had come naturally. It flowed from  smallness, poverty, and the difficulties in travel and communication. Although Christian teaching called us towards unity, the social situation did not make such unity possible.

By the time of Jesus, most of the world had finally been inhabited by humans. There were only a few islands in the Pacific Ocean like Hawaii that had not yet been reached by humans. But at that time, people in the Roman Empire did not know of the existence of the Americas; people in the Americas did not know of the existence of Africa; and people in sub-Saharan Africa did not know of the existence of Asia. Christians might wish for human unity under God, but the human race was still developing in isolated pockets on different continents.

European conquest after 1500 changed all this. European powers united all of humanity through war and conquest. Since then, we have lived in a world with one economy. This is the context in which we pray for church unity today.

By the end of the 19th Century, the pendulum among Protestants was swinging back towards unity. And the strongest expression of this movement was right here in Canada. When the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches joined to form the United Church of Canada in 1925 it was the first, the most hopeful and the most influential church union of its day.

Not that there aren't difficulties in church unity. Different churches have different traditions, different ideas on key issues, and different missions. United Church history of the past 88 years shows us many of the problems.

Despite the difficulties, modern attempts at church unity show greater promise than the original unity created by the Roman Empire, I think, because they are about unity from below and not from above.

19th Century "union churches" in Canada's West provide an example. In many small farming communities in what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta, settlers came from different denominations. But they didn't always have the resources or the desire to create more than one church. So a "union church" phenomenon grew up here.

These union churches in the West proved in practice that Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican or Baptist Christians could successfully worship and work together. This practical experience of small union churches in the West encouraged the more established Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist churches in Eastern Canada to move from talking about unity to actually achieving it.

Today our world needs greater unity to tackle economic, environmental, and security problems. But there are legitimate fears about trying to create unity from above based upon the history of attempts to control the whole world through military force as with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Perhaps it is those of us who modestly try to follow Jesus' path of faith, hope and love in churches big and small that offer a better model. As members of the Body of Christ we worship and work together despite many differences. God's Spirit grants us the Grace to know God's love for us. On this basis we are able to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Of course, the church in Canada faces big problems today. As last week's Canadian census results showed, all churches continue to shrink in size. The number of Canadians with no religious affiliation continues to grow. Young people are increasingly unlikely to seek spiritual fulfilment in a church. These realities formed the backdrop to our discussions in Moose Jaw on Friday and Saturday.

Nevertheless, I see spiritual possibilities in the church's struggles. As with the union churches in the West 100 years ago, perhaps we can find new life for worshipping and working together in small towns and so also help people in larger centres to also find a new path towards the unity for which Jesus prayed.

Perhaps it is in Spirit-led churches that a unity that is truly diverse, democratic, and post-denominational can best be imagined. I will explore these ideas further on Pentecost next Sunday . . .

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed that the love with which God the Father loved him may be in us and that he be in us as well.

With God's grace, may we continue to know and experience this deep reality of union with Christ and with God's Love and so be inspired to seek a human unity that respects diversity and seeks peace with justice.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Rituals for the seasons of our lives

Text: John 14 23-29 (the Holy Spirit will teach)

How do we mark key passages in our lives -- events such as birth, death, and the transition from youth to adulthood? I ask this question today because of the baptism this morning of Hudson Trethewey in Coronach, as well as the funeral service for Beatrice Skundberg in Big Beaver last Friday, the funeral for Kae Thompson in Coronach this Tuesday, and the graduation ceremony of the Grade 12 class last night in Coronach.

There are many reasons why I am glad that Megan and Robert brought Hudson to be baptized today. One of them is the fact that more and more people no longer turn to church for rites of passage. Today, many people rely on secular rituals, or forgo rites of passage altogether.

I read a column on this trend in the January issue of the United Church Observer magazine by Toronto journalist Larry Krotz. Here is how it begins:

"Last spring in Edmonton, I attended a graduation for my grandson. It was exactly as you’d expect -- excited anticipation as families and friends scrambled with cameras and bouquets of flowers for the graduates who sported mortarboard hats and who filled the first rows of the theatre. In the background, school staff with corsages pinned to their best outfits, prepared to take students and their guests through the highlights of their time in school before handing out the coveted diplomas.

Sitting back for this spectacle, I realized that I now like rites of passage, which wasn’t always the case. I belong to the generation that skipped our college graduations and wrote our own wedding vows -- that is, if we got married at all. When I was young, the more time-honoured the convention, the more I wanted to flout it. But now that I am older, I have changed my tune . . . "

He continues, "for many Canadians, there’s no rite of passage quite like a graduation. It takes the individual on to the next stage of a prescribed journey. It signals to a family that everything is normal; their child is keeping pace.

Here I should point out that the graduation we attended in Edmonton was graduation from kindergarten. It was the first rite-of-passage ceremony my grandson Timothy had experienced since neither he nor his brother had been baptized as infants.

The church used to have the corner on life ceremonies. The very terms 'rite' and 'ritual' are in fact church definitions. For Protestants, baptism and confirmation stood for many generations as the main markers in early life. However, as everyone knows, people are not turning to churches for the traditional rituals as much as was once the case.

United Church numbers, for example, tell us that baptisms dropped from 66,000 in 1960 to 10,000 by 2009. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean our need for rites and rituals has disappeared . . . [But] what the church once gave us -- and still gives to many -- is often now found elsewhere in secular society."
Larry goes on, but I think you get the point.

Grad last night in Coronach is an example of the trend. Nothing has impressed me more about Borderlands since I moved here almost two years ago than high school graduation. I am blown away by how big an event it is.

As a rite of passage, Grade 12 graduation strikes me as combination wedding, debutante ball, and perhaps even funeral. I worry for the grads since the stress must get quite high. I also worry that the grads might get the mistaken idea that Grade 12 is the high point of life.

On the other hand, I am pleased at the spotlight grad puts on our young people and at the exhilaration and joy they express there.

Personally, I am OK that many rituals now occur outside the church. The important thing for me is that the rituals actually work; that they help us move forward; that they satisfy the spiritual hunger we have in moments of change; and that they connect us to God's Spirit.

And as much as I like church worship and rituals like baptism and communion, I know that the Holy Spirit is not contained by the church. The Holy Spirit -- which Jesus promises to his disciples in today's Gospel reading -- moves where it will.

Sports provides an example. Last Sunday, I saw a report on the PBS TV show "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly." It was about a new book called "Baseball as a Road to God." The author, John Sexton, argues that baseball is quite spiritual. The ballpark can be seen as a sacred place of community. The game itself can become a sacred meditation on time, blessings, curses, and miracles.

Sexton argues that God is something we experience more than we understand. Religion can become bogged down in dogma and ideas. But what we often want more than religious understanding are experiences of community, of shared moments of beauty, and of the search for something greater than ourselves.

To translate Sexton's book into a Saskatchewan context we need only shift the focus to football and the Roughriders. But this is not to say that sports always satisfies our spiritual needs.

Like a grad ceremony that contains more stress than joy, a ball game can become a failed attempt to experience God's Holy Spirit. But then the same could be said about a Sunday worship service, a wedding, or a funeral. Ministers and those who gather on Sunday or for a funeral are only human, after all. We may come looking for God, or consolation, or a moment of authentic community, but we may not find them.

I hope that many of us feel a connection to God in our worship services, but I can't be sure. Being up here in the pulpit may distort my view. Nevertheless, I believe we can sense when the presence of God's Spirit is felt.

For instance, I enjoyed last night's grad in Coronach more than the one in 2012. Perhaps it was the tears shed by Belinda Spagrud at the end of her keynote address. The 17 grads had been in the same class with each other for 13 years, and for three consecutive years Belinda had been their teacher. The bond felt by children who study and play together for that length of time must be very strong, and I felt some of that bond last night.

I hope that at key moments of our times in worship we also feel the bond with each other and with God.

The changing role of church and the rise of secular rituals provide some of the background for the conversations we will hold in church this spring. At the Presbytery workshop in Moose Jaw this Friday and Saturday and in our meeting with a facilitator trained by the United Church's Comprehensive Review group on June 4, we will express our feelings and ideas as to how our congregations are responding to this moment. I am excited to discover what we will say at these meetings and what guidance we might find.

A rite of passage in which church continues to play a prominent role is when we face the death of a loved one. Gatherings at funerals continue to be large, and church-led worship is often central. That being said, I am also concerned that more and more people are foregoing funerals. I believe they can be a crucial part of the mourning process for both families and the wider community.

On the other hand, funerals are stressful and difficult. And we have all probably attended funerals that contained elements we disliked or that didn't seem to quite "work." Still, we can only try our best. We rely on God's Spirit to do the rest.

The same is true with all aspects of life. Each breath is a chance for us to remember our connection to God's earth. Each loving moment with a family member is a chance to encounter a divine spark within ourselves and them. We don't always find God in each moment, of course. But then another moment appears, and another, and another . . .

In a few minutes, we will celebrate again the holy sacrament of communion. Perhaps this time when we take the loaf and cup, we may not be reminded that Jesus lives in us. But we may.

We celebrate communion for the same reasons that we bring our children to be baptized, or that we celebrate their graduations, or that we gather to mourn and celebrate the life of a loved one who has died. We do it because we seek to touch God's Spirit every chance we get.

And often -- just as Jesus promised -- God's Holy Spirit comes to us: in a celebration of the birth of a new baby; in a sports stadium; in a loving encounter with a spouse; in a moment of wrenching grief; or at the Lord's Table. God's Spirit can felt during any moment in this wide, wild earth and in this pain- and joy-filled life.

And so we say again, thanks be to God.