Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd March 26, 2017
Three important theological conversations, within the space of one week, just happened at Westworth. The first was a presentation that Rev. Eleanor Geib gave at ACES. For those of you who don’t know, ACES is a monthly gathering of seniors over a bag lunch, with desserts & drinks provided. They bring in speakers on a range of topics of interest to seniors. At this last gathering, Eleanor spoke about prayer. Why do we pray? “Because we must,” she said, “just as we must breathe.” Prayer is our connection to God and to others. Sometimes we’re only hanging on by a few threads, but these connections are vital.
A few days later, the men’s spirituality group talked about Greta Vosper and her fight to remain a United Church minister while being an atheist. When I talked to Greta a few years ago, I asked her who she prays to. She replied that she and her congregation have vertical prayer—when they pray, they simply listen to each other and respond as appropriate. There was no acknowledgement of anything; any one larger than themselves. I understand that the conversation at the men’s spirituality group quickly moved from Greta to a wider discussion of inclusion, boundaries, and an acknowledgement of holy mystery—all very important topics.
Then, at our AGM last Sunday, Rev. Gordon Toombs challenged us to stop singing about and praying to God as an interventionist God. He said that if we truly are the hands and feet of Christ, we should stop sloughing off our responsibilities onto God. Instead of asking God to heal and mend the earth, we need to step up to the plate and be the healers and menders ourselves.
I love a good challenge and so, I’m hoping to blend some of the notes of these seemingly divergent conversations together into a dance of faith. First, I would like to acknowledge the diversity within this congregation. We are both believers and sceptics. Some of us believe in a personal God whom we address as Father, Mother or Lord while others of us believe in a divine holy mystery that cannot be named. We have had people join us for our worship services who call God Allah or Adonai or Creator or our higher power. Some of us in this congregation pray every day, either in daily rituals or informally throughout each day, while others of us pray on occasion, and still others don’t pray at all. Some of us believe that God intervenes directly in the course of history and that nothing happens outside of God’s will. Others of us believe that God has given us freedom of will where we can chose that which is of God or that which is not. What happens is left to us and God cannot be blamed for the evil that is done.
I have described only part of the diversity of our beliefs—there is much more. Is it possible for us, as one congregation, to find a common faith in the midst of such diversity? The answer might be yes and no—with a maybe thrown in just in case. There is no one theology that will satisfy all of us. That is why we are privileged to have a variety of preachers in this congregation with a variety of theologies.
There is, however a theology that I have found that brings together a number of these diverse beliefs. It is called process theology. I will try to explain it through the introduction of a dance ensemble. May I first introduce to you our transcendent God, divine mystery, unknown, holy other. Jewish tradition refuses even to pronounce the name of God because of God’s holiness and replaces it with the name Adonai. I encounter holy mystery when I am stunned by the beauty of creation, by the complexity of our universe, by the unknown force that creates and holds all things together in spite of the tremendous forces of chaos. This is God the Creator, the most dignified dancer of all.
The second dancer I would like to introduce to you is the radically immanent God in the person of Jesus. Through Jesus, God experienced all of the human emotions and sensations—the struggles, the pain, the joy, the laughter. I expect that Jesus was also silly at times, playful and teasing. He had close, tender relationships with both men and women. He would be the dancer who can’t resist that extra twirl. At other times he was a bit arrogant and rude, with outbursts of anger as his dance steps turned to stomps. God was in all of this—not just in the righteous, pure moments, but also in the tumultuous, brazen times. God was fully, radically immanent and present to others through the person of Jesus. God also experienced the cruelty of what humans can do to one another. God was tortured and killed on that cross and the dance turned into a discordant dirge. The music didn’t quite stop, though. Slowly, it began to gather notes until it burst through the night with a resurrected song of hope.
There is a third dancer of the Godhead waiting to be introduced. God the Holy Spirit is the connecting thread between holy mystery and radical presence. The Spirit introduces the dance amongst the persons of the Trinity, swirling around in the mists of creation, co-creating with holy mystery and with the Word made flesh. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” Note that the pronouns are plural in Genesis 1:26. The Spirit is personified as Wisdom in Proverbs where she is described as God’s master worker, creating alongside God, daily his delight. (Prov 8:30). In the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as the Word who was in the beginning with God, co-creating all life. This is the wonderful, creative dance of delight between the three persons of the Godhead.
The fourth dancer waiting in the wings is Adám. You will know his name as Adam, but this Hebrew name actually means humanity. Adám also loves to dance, but is a little more awkward than the persons of the Trinity. He frequently steps on toes, gets out of step and sometimes leaves the dance altogether. Created in God’s image, Adám knows the exhilaration of creating and making new. But Adám has been given a gift of free will and can choose to remain in God’s dance or step away. God as holy mystery, does not grab the strings of a puppeteer, and allows Adám to live without God’s intervention. But God is not aloof. To the contrary, God is still at work every second of every day through the Spirit sending heart tugs and conscience pangs to Adám, leading, guiding, nudging but never coercing. Eventually, Adám needed more than internal nudges and God actually became human in order to give Adám both a tangible example and another source of grace to step back into the holy dance.
At various times over the course of millennia, Adám has discovered that life is much more fulfilling and peaceable if one can live in a state of open-heartedness with the Godhead and with all of creation. Adám understands prayer to mean a welcoming of the Spirit’s powerful nudges, heart tugs and pangs of conscience. Prayer is to resist the impulse to put up the protective shields and instead be open and vulnerable to the Spirit’s proddings and to all that a day has to offer. Prayer is also a blending of one’s healing energy with the power of the Holy Spirit, which can be directed towards others for their healing. It is a dance of opening, receiving and sending love.
There is one final dancer whom I would like to introduce. Her name is Ecclesía, the body of Christ, the church. Ecclesía found that the power of the Holy Spirit was much greater when the believers began to gather together, to meet each other’s needs and to pray. As her members opened themselves to the Spirit, they became better aware of each other’s needs and how to meet them. They became conduits of the healing power of God’s Spirit moving through them as they joined together in a circle dance.
Ecclesía began to offer herself as the hands and feet of Christ to minister to her own body and then to the community beyond. The circle danced into an open spiral. Miracles of love and healing began to flow as they allowed the powerful Spirit of reconciliation and renewal flow through them. They remembered Jesus’ stories to his disciples, such as the story of the blind man who received sight. Jesus told his disciples that the miracles of sight and insight are theirs to perform—miracles not only of Jesus, but of all followers of Jesus as they attend to God’s love.
Ecclesía will tell you that miracles happen every day, not through an extraordinary act of God intervening and changing the course of history, but through the common lives of believers who are nudged by the Spirit to grab onto Jesus’ grace and step back into the holy dance once again.
These are the dancers of the holy dance of faith and they are offering their hands to us. Care to dance?