Our Purpose and Mission Statement

Working to build God's dream. Help wanted!

We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

“A sense of wonder”     Robin Wardlaw     February 16, 2014 

Epiphany 6, Year A
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15–20; Psalm 119:1–8; (1 Corinthians 3:1–9); Matthew 5:21–30
The feeling of grass on your bare feet. Water warm enough to swim in. Water not warm enough to swim in. The smell of bread baking. Gluten free bread, say, that everyone could eat. The first taste of fresh bread. All the many feelings that make our lives rich, based on our five senses. The sight of a welcoming smile. The sight of a seductive smile. The stimulation of all our senses by an intimate partner.
For an infant, the comfort of a mother’s breast full of milk. For a child, the warm breeze on a summer evening when the playing is outdoors, and parents seem to have miraculously forgotten bedtime for a night. For parents and grandparents, the squeal of delight as a child heads down a snowy slope. For some, the sight, smell, sound and feel of a perfect curl of wood emerging from a sharp plane. For others, the feel and sound of a beloved pet.
The list goes on and on: food tastes, drink tastes, certain smells, certain textures, certain sights. Our senses are adapted for our environment the same as those of every other creature. Scorpions sense their prey approaching in the dark through their feet spread out on the sand. Catfish smell what’s around them in murky water with sense organs on their whiskers and all over their skin. Dogs smell hundreds of times better that we do, and somehow sense earthquakes before they happen. Whales can communicate thousands of kilometres, apparently, with low frequency rumbles.
Everybody, every creature, takes in information, what they need to survive. What we are celebrating on Sensuous Sunday is the information above and beyond mere survival. Landscapes, textiles, art, performance, sweet treats, a consoling hug. Our senses bring us so much pleasure it’s overwhelming at times. They help to nourish our sense of wonder.
What if someone said, I’m giving you the choice of life or death. Choose life? How hard could that be? Sounds like an easy decision. According to Deuteronomy, ‘life’ means “loving God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments… loving God, obeying, and holding fast to God.” (Deut. 30:16, 19) Our question to this piece of scripture today is, What kind of life? If it’s just a dreary procession of days, life without wonder, maybe that’s not so appealing. If it’s all buttoned down and repressed we might need time to think about our decision. The writer is talking about the difference between the holy and the unholy. We’ll get back to the unholy in a moment. What it comes down to with the holy life is this, is it ascetic, or is it sensual?
What happens when life is not sensual? At all. We have the answer. It comes from prisons. Some prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for weeks, months, sometimes even decades, at least in the American system. And the answer is not good. People who live in small, plain spaces without sunlight, company or touch are profoundly changed. Their vision alters, for example, so that they can no longer focus on distant objects. If they become depressed and remain that way for long, their hippocampus shrinks according to a recent study, meaning their memory and ability to navigate the world both diminish.
Our senses are not just nice features of our lives. They are our lives. Do we care what happens to prisoners in solitary? Should we? Is that the best we can do? Or all we’re willing to afford?
The other experiment we’re running currently in the Western world is with ourselves, especially younger people. Some of us, some of them spend much of their day experiencing life through a screen, either looking things up online, posting photos of what they’re doing on a social website, or texting others. What is this doing to them, and to society? There were concerns when the telephone was introduced that it would wreck society because it allowed people to communicate at a distance, without being present to each other.
Did it do that? Most of would agree that telephones are an improvement. Except when the tele-marketer interrupts your meal or your favourite show. Are concerns about cell phones and texting just as inflammatory and exaggerated as the concerns a hundred years ago about telephones? Teachers say the new technologies are having an effect on children’s brains. They have short attention spans. They need to hop from topic to topic. A kind of mass attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
What about worshiping in person? If you could dial up church on Sunday morning, would you do it? Watch a minister, listen to a choir in your pyjamas, and click a button to make your offering? From what people tell me, it is important that church be a meeting place, that the social contact with others is good for them, a valuable part of their week. Does that mean we get considered more and more quaint as years go by, or will physically gathering in one place to sing, listen, think, pray, eat, drink, hug ever make a comeback, be considered health-giving, counter-cultural or cool?
While we’re talking about senses and sensuality, we need to reflect on the shadow side of the senses, the unholy, people gratifying their hunger or lust at the expense of others, people mistaking the deep bonds of love for a license to abuse someone else physically, psychologically or emotionally. Somewhere a predator is grooming a young person over the internet to compromise themselves with exploitive photos or videos. Someone is engaging in partner violence. Someone is scanning through their collection of child porn. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” the Teacher said, a long, long time ago.
Jesus was getting at the things of the heart, in this case, anger, judgement, hostility, lust. Or at least, the gospel writer was. It’s not clear that Jesus himself was big into proclaiming even more commandments. In some cases, it’s poor thinking that leads to trouble. In other cases, it is our sensuality run amok. The gospel is talking about the role of restraint. It’s making the same point as the Deuteronomy reading—the unholy is not just unfortunate. It leads to death, sometimes actual, sometimes death of the soul. If a sip of champagne is good, then surely a bottle or two are better. If one chocolate is good…. If smoking some of this or injecting some of that can heighten the senses, why not go for it? And again tomorrow, and the next day, searching, hopelessly, for that for that exquisite feeling, at the cost of everything else?
There is a shadow side to our senses, as there is to all of our humanity. Once upon a time the church acted as a kind of arbiter of what was acceptable, and how much. Not any more. And we don’t want to go back to the church as giver and enforcer of rules. That approach has cost the church greatly. So what do we do? The drug trade alone has the capability of skewing whole economies, making life cheap as drug lords battle for market share. Add to that the shadow side of our sexuality, the growing problem of the trafficking of people, mostly women and girls for the sex trade.
This church is a refuge for people who have decided to try to give up drugs or alcohol. It is a place where people are discovering they can tell the truth about themselves, and still be accepted.  Our senses are so strong that I suspect there will always be a market for excess of many kinds. Perhaps we can do something about childhoods full of pain, the kind of psychic pain that can lead to craving for pain relief in the first place. Perhaps we can work toward a world with better balance. We can certainly offer radical hospitality and offer a place of refuge and peace to get ourselves back into balance. We can celebrate the sensuous side of the holy and the holy side of the sensuous.
And when Valentine’s Day rolls around, we have an occasion to reflect on the love that gives us life. Once a year is too little, though. Every smile, every hug, every shared cookie is a time to celebrate our God-given senses, our sensuality, with a sense of wonder.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

“If”       Robin Wardlaw      February 9, 2014 

Epiphany 5, Year A
Readings: Isaiah 58:1–12; Psalm 112:1–9; (1 Corinthians 2:1–16); Matthew 5:13–20
Is love, especially the big kind, the love of God, conditional? Listen to this part of our Isaiah reading:
“If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday.”
Not only that: “God will guide you…, satisfy your needs in parched places…, make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden…, a spring of water… Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt…,” et cetera, et cetera.
If. If you do this, then… It certainly sounds like a tough bargain is being driven here. Let’s go a little deeper, see what we find.
We look to prophets such as Isaiah for a strong call to ethical living. The need for a strong call to ethical living has not gone away over the centuries, sadly. Our treatment of one another these days is sinful. All the things Isaiah complains about still happen: self-interest at the cost of society and creation, oppression of workers, the keeping of bread from the hungry, the shocking lack of decent, affordable housing. Our expectations of ethical behaviour have gone up, though. Our focus is wider now. If Isaiah were preaching today, we would be hearing denunciations of sexism and homophobia, racism and ageism, environmental criminality and abuse.
The pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil that Isaiah complains about over two thousand years ago, are still common. We have a mayor in this town quick to complain about workers, the media, anybody at all who disagrees with him, and terribly slow to take real responsibility for his shameful leadership, leadership that includes his recent announcement that he will stay away from World Pride, and even opposes flying a rainbow flag at City Hall during the Olympics. We have governments around the world passing and enforcing laws that oppress women or homosexuals, or both.
As a country, we face a shifting world beset by economic inequality and climate catastrophes in various parts of the world. We have now decided that the way to deal with it is to pull up the drawbridge against new immigrants, turn the clock back to the bad old days of colonialism, racism, sexism and fear of the other, turn the powers of the state over to multi-nationals. We learn that our communications security agency feels free to gather information on us, possibly breaking the law, and that it doesn’t report to Parliament. Corporations that sell us food, dig up commodities, transport those commodities send changes in legislation they would like over to the government and they get turned into law.
Some politicians want to roll back rights workers have fought and shed blood for generations to get. Regulations are softened, standards are lowered, our rights as citizens go out the window. We are not surprised by a backward slide. Money always speaks very loudly. It finds a way to get its way. We should be surprised that we had a several generations of gaining human rights, growing a more fair society, making the economy serve people rather than the other way around.
Still, we get angry when we hear how well the one percent are doing compared to the rest of us. We bristle when we see the police who are supposed to serve all of us protect the powerful and take away the liberties of people on our streets. We fume when we hear of our government tacking provisions onto budget bills that strip environmental protections or the ability of scientists employed by government to tell us of their findings. We explode when we hear that government agents snoop on activists meeting in church basements as they work out how to resist big oil, then feed that information to big oil.
But it’s hard to stay angry. There are so many issues to keep track of at once. It’s exhausting. Our saltiness gets watered down, washed away. Our bright flame of indignation falters and gutters. Will the force of love, the spirit we call God give up on us? If we can’t seem to get our act together as a species, are we doomed to be abandoned by that Spirit, left alone as the planet heats up and we fall to fighting among ourselves?
There is another way to look at things. It could be that God just sulks unless we do what God wants. Not a pretty picture. Or it could be much simpler than that. No divine temper tantrums, no threats, deals or ultimatums. Instead, look at it this way: the prophets had the wisdom, the genius, the spiritual maturity to see that only ethical relations between people are sustainable. We don’t need a grumpy God to make us do the right thing. We need to wake up and realize that the other ways of going about things just don’t work. Good behaviour, ethical behaviour isn’t just nice, it is the only way to “satisfy your needs in parched places,” and “raise up the foundations of many generations,” as the prophet puts it. The psalmist puts it a little differently: those who are “gracious, merciful and righteous…who conduct their affairs with justice…will never by moved.”
What does this mean for you and me? We need to dwell on this, celebrate this, as part of our faith lives. Jesus would say we need to stay salty. Not in our language, maybe, but our determination to resist other kinds of values that seem not to care about the poor or the planet or the public good. We need to let the Christ light in us out.
There is much talk these days about spirituality. People don’t want to be part of any organized religion, but they want to be spiritual. This is the fastest growing group, by the way, when Canadians are asked about their religion—spiritual but not religious. The term spiritual seems vague, and that is probably part of its appeal. No rigid definition that might limit a person, no camps of spirituality that might divide. I’m sure I have much to learn about this, but the spirituality I hear about doesn’t seem to include prophetic anger about injustice. It doesn’t seem to inspire people to work together to change anything, but rather, to get better at accepting things the way they are. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I don’t see evidence of it.
On the other hand, maybe none of this matters. Maybe we don’t have any responsibility to one another, to future generations, or to other species. Maybe it’s everybody for themselves, winner take all, look out for number one. But we wouldn’t be here if we believed that. We wouldn’t join together to worship. Especially to worship Jesus as Christ. He poured out his life for others, for ideals of compassion and justice. He was willing to very far for this vision of what real human life is for, and what it’s like. In fact, he was willing to go all the way.
And us. What about us? Our faith is not a job, a task. It is a joyous way of being in the world. It doesn’t take much salt to flavour a whole dish. It doesn’t take much light to expose what’s in the shadows, what shadowy people would rather stay hidden. And it’s not a case of bringing a shiny apple to the teacher in the hopes of getting a good mark. That’s not what the ‘If’ is about here.
If you do these things, you nations, if you live like this, you people, it will go well with you, and your spirits. You will live long and prosper, as the catch phrase from an old TV show puts it, and not just you, but others, human and non-human. And the love in you are made, in which you have your being is with you always, no matter what.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the realm of heaven,” Jesus told them. His version of the ‘If.’ Luckily, that’s not difficult. Well, it is and it isn’t. As Jesus experienced them, the scribes and Pharisees followed all the rules, but didn’t really get the spirit of them. If we finally realize that we’re all in this together, that if I win at your expense I really lose, it will be well with us. And everyone, no matter where they live. And with burrowing owls, and coral reefs, and monarch butterflies.
We have this vision. Or more accurately, we inherit this vision from others. We will not win our struggle for a world of ethical behaviour, of course. Not in our lifetimes. That’s not the point. The point is be in the struggle, to remain salty, a bit of a light. Others will taste the good flavour, see a light, and gain hope. When we finally sleep in the Spirit, it will be with the hunger for God’s dream still strong within us, and the satisfaction that we have carried the torch in our time and passed it to others.