I was asked to say grace before a dinner at our local community hall. Perhaps the organizers thought that because I write about religious topics, I have a library of prayers to trot out at any occasion. Prayer on demand.
As I sat down, a man nearby grunted, “You didn’t mention God.”
No, I didn’t. I try to avoid using the name altogether in public situations. Because the name “God” evokes too many different images in people’s minds. Even if I were to start by saying, “This is not about an old man in a white robe who sits on a cloud in heaven, playing a harp, and delivering dinners for our enjoyment,” they would still substitute their own preconceived notions of God.
All of which defy any simple classification.
Let’s make a deal!
A while ago, though, my minister Jim Hannah came up with an intriguing metaphor in a sermon. He invited us to remember the game show, Let’s Make a Deal. (By some happy coincidence, launched in this month, 54 years ago.) One of the show’s gimmicks was to have three doors. Contestants risked swapping their prize for something of unknown value hidden behind one of the doors.
Jim Hannah applied the “Three Door” metaphor to beliefs.
Behind Door One, he suggested, is the traditional deity. Almighty. All-powerful. All-knowing. A supernatural being who keeps track of good deeds and bad deeds, and hands out rewards and punishment at the end of this life.
And who also occasionally pokes a finger into earthly affairs, to make sure the right team wins the SuperBowl, to divert a forest fire or cure a terminal illness, or to adjust the value of the American dollar.
The Door Two god looks just like the Door One god, but is powerless, impotent. Rather, dictators and powerful people invoke the Door Two god to persuade a gullible populace that right and might are on their side. If God endorses you, how can you be wrong?
But Door Three has nothing visible there. More precisely, no thing visible. There may be some kind of shimmering mist, or myst, as in mystery. Or perhaps sunshine pouring in. Or a fresh breeze from a virgin forest, the sound of waves on a shore, the scent of cinnamon buns baking....
Whatever it is, it invites you to step through the door into a new life.
A classification system
In the weeks since that sermon, I find myself using Jim Hannah’s Three Door analogy often. I hear people talking about miracles and I think, “Ah! Door One!” I hear right-wing politicians spouting Bible verses, and I think, “Door Two!”
Much of traditional worship, it seems to me, is about Door One. Kneel in submission. Offer praises; beg for favours. Promise unquestioning loyalty. Feel guilty for failing to measure up.
Door Two doesn’t need worship at all. Rather, Door Two serves His acolytes; they occupy the pedestal -- as long as their actions don’t sabotage the Divine Image. Because a god about whom people are skeptical loses any leverage over them.
But how do you worship whatever’s beyond Door Three?
Maybe you don’t try. Maybe you just accept the invitation to go through the open door, and see what’s on the other side.
Copyright © 2017 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last Wednesday, I wrote about dying churches. I suggested that they were dying because they were unwillilng to let go of theologies and worship services that were familiar to them from their youth.
Margaret Carr wrote, “Thank you for today’s column. Now can you tell me how to get people to understand what we need to do. to get people to listen to what we are saying? I am 85 years old and have tried to get people to think and to use their God-given minds to see we need to change our thinking about the Bible being inerrant. There is a reason young people do not believe what they were taught in Sunday school. They have seen humans walk on the moon; they know there is no heaven up there, or that God looks down through the stars to see who is misbehaving.
“Can we not help them understand that God is inside each of them. and that how we treat others is more important than what they were taught years ago? Only 1 out of 4 of my children are churchgoers and I am tired of trying to change them. We need the young to stand up without fear of a Gretta Vosper tribunal, to speak out loud and clear about how our thinking has changed over the years -- not an 85-yr-old trying to get her mind to say the right words.”
Anne McRae believes “The church will come back -- maybe not in my lifetime because I am 90 but people will realize they need God in their life, and the church is the best support for that life. If you hit rock bottom where do you go if not to God?”
Tom Watsondescribed his own recent experience: “Recently, I was in two different churches, two successive Sundays. It was almost like being caught in a time warp; they were a century apart liturgically and theologically. One was stale and boring -- the seasons have come and gone for it. The other was bright, alert and upbeat, and it felt as if it was trying to grab hold of a different carousel.
“I'm not sure what the future holds for either of those places, but the second one at least has a shot at meeting the needs of the time we're in.”
Chris Duxbury said Australia faces similar situations: “Faithful congregations face closure due to smaller numbers, with the majority of members quite elderly.
“But historically, churches were built in each little town and suburb as people walked or rode a horse. Things are different now. People can drive to church. We can still be the church -- Christ's hands and feet on our patch -- and focus on what we can do instead of what we once did.
“I guess it depends on what you consider to be a dying congregation. I don't think the size of a congregation necessarily reflects its health. We need to use a different paradigm. To do justice, show kindness, and walk with humbly with our God, I reckon that is a better yardstick in measuring the health of a congregation.”
Alma Pratzlaff recalled her childhood: “When I was a little girl we went to Church regularly. The Pastor came to visit us regularly. All my children were baptized, confirmed and got married in the Church. The pastor, whether an old one or a new one, knew us all.
“The children's children are all baptized, confirmed, and none of them are married. If I give them a cheque. some will say Thank you. But none of them care to visit, call, etc.
“This is not the churches’ fault. The problem is parents not teaching their children to respect your elders, parents, police, health care workers, and yourself. But we have taken away the command that children should obey. If young people have no respect for themselves, they have no respect for others.
“In our case, I think we gave them too much. But we did teach them to pray, and I pray for them every day.”
David Gilchrist felt the churches were slipping on “more than one banana peel. Probably one of the most significant comments came from a former Moderator who wrote: “The Church that is not mission, will be missing!”
“Whether people like to use that term or not, I see the four Congregations you mention all to be on a mission. To me, that means putting more energy into the needs of others than being absorbed in our own survival. And that is less dependent on ‘theology’ than on the attitude of the congregants: it is happening in other denominations too.
“But I must take issue on the ‘illegitimate’ baby, for two reasons:
1. We really don’t know if Mary and Joseph were married, or if the father was someone else; but it wouldn’t matter one whit to God, who uses whoever is willing to be used. Jesus was who he decided to be no matter how he came into the world.
2. But more importantly, there are no illegitimate babies. There may be ‘illegitimate’ relations between adults and teens: but the babies are legitimately born into the world, and should never carry a stigma as if they had done something wrong.”
Walter Epp: When I read of churches going out of business, I am sad that there is no growth. It appears to me that when ministers have never confessed their sins to Jesus Christ, begging forgiveness, inviting Christ into their heart and life and submitting to the written Word of Truth, there cannot be any power in a life without submission.”
Walter gave some of his history, from attending Pine Hill seminary in Halifax to leading several Mennonite Brethren congregations. He finished, “I am convinced churches die when we start replacing the Truth with present-day fads. Stick to the Holy Word.”
“Well said, Jim,” Nan Erbaugh wrote. “I am the pastor of a Church of the Brethren in Dayton, OH, which is open and affirming, passionate about justice, and integrated. We may be small (25 on a Sunday), but we feel we have a calling to serve our community. It's not about correct theology, whatever that is, but about following the example of Jesus. Needless to say, there are many congregations in the Church of the Brethren who disagree and would love to yank my ordination. Nonetheless, we persevere.”
Two readers accepted the conventional wisdom that has been preached for about 50 years, that conservative churches are growing, and liberal churches aren’t. Steve Roney assured me that Barna and Pew studies were wrong, and added,: “And you have kind of fudged your point by restricting your view to the U.S. Worldwide, the more evangelical denominations are doing far better than the ‘mainstream.’”
The column only dealt with North American churches.
John McTavish admitted to discomfort “with what feels like a reductionist alternative -- either a gospel reduced to social issues, or given a gospel with plenty of Christ talk but no social bite.
“As for why the liberal churches are dying while the conservatives forge ahead: I think the main issue here is the Pill which gradually but irrevocably secularized the cultural patterns of the West. This ended up hurting the churches on the left far more than the churches on the right. Cultured retirees today, for example, are far more at home in Probis groups than in churches; young families congregate more easily in hockey arenas and baseball fields than in church buildings on Sundays; and people of all ages flock to the malls far more readily on weekends (which of course includes Sunday morning) than they gravitate to worship centres.”
The lectionary gives me a choice of Psalm 126 or Mary’s Magnificat in Luke. I like Psalm 126, but given the season, how could I chose anything but the song in Luke.
My body grows round with wonder;
my soul swells with thanksgiving.
For God has been so good to me;
God did not say, "She's just a girl."
Once I was a slip of a girl,
but now I am woman,
one who can bring forth new life.
In all generations, I am blessed.
How could anyone miss it--
this new life in me is divine.
It is holy.
God grants new life to all who have not lost a child's wonder;
they will be born again, and again, and again.
God watches over them;
God's fierce love fills predators with sudden fear.
The miracle of birth levels our human differences:
tough men become tenderly gentle,
learned professors blurt out baby talk,
even politicians fall silent in awe.
But the small and helpless are wrapped warmly in soft blankets;
they are held lovingly in caring arms;
they drink their fill with eyes closed.
The rich, for all their wealth and status, can go suck lemons.
That is how God deals with all of God's faithful people,
all who do not put their faith in themselves.
So God has always done,
so God will always do,
from Sarah's miracle, to mine.
For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I’m leaving out some of the links to other blogs and pages, to see if those links have caused the recent blockages, preventing some of your from receiving the columns at all, and preventing others from sending responses. We’ll see.
To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols.
Ralph Milton ’s latest project is called “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Ralph’s HymnSight webpage is still up, http://wwwDOThymnsightDOTca, with a vast gallery of photos you can use to enhance the appearance of the visual images you project for liturgical use (prayers, responses, hymn verses, etc.)
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet