It’s my last Sunday to speak with you from the pulpit for a while, and the subject of our Scripture readings for today is a doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity! This seems somehow fitting to me, as I prepare to go on sabbatical to work on my doctoral thesis.
Over the next four months I will be immersing myself in questions of doctrine, of what we believe, and why it matters, and how we hold on to belief in a world that seems determined to eradicate religious belief. I’ll be exploring the challenge of how to hold beliefs gently, respectfully, in ways that don’t allow them to become weapons, or tools of conflict.
You may have guessed from my preaching over the past few months that I have grown concerned about our denomination’s relationship with belief and doctrine; that I’ve become concerned that we have given up too much of our heritage in the pursuit of cultural relevance. We want the world to like us, so we have stopped saying things that the world doesn’t approve of. We’ve even stopped believing in things the world doesn’t approve of.
My thesis is that beginning in the 1960s, the United Church of Canada made a pivot, a conscious change of direction. We switched from an emphasis on sharing our story with the world, to an emphasis on listening to the world’s story. There were a lot of good reasons for that; there were a lot of cultural reasons for that. It was the Sixties––a time of huge cultural and social ferment in Canada.
There were books written––like Pierre Berton’s A Comfortable Pew and the United Church of Canada’s Why the Sea is Boiling Hot––books that made the case that the church had become irrelevant, old-fashioned, out of step with the times, behind the times, especially on issues such as sexual morality. In many respects, the assessments of those books were correct: mainline Protestant churches like ours had become comfortable bastions of conventional morality in a world that was confronted by urgent moral questions.
The church was failing to meet the challenges of its time. Gospel challenges: challenges like sexism, racism, and homophobia; challenges of poverty, colonialism, and ecological damage. So the church was called to go out, to step out of our sanctuaries, to go out and listen to the world, to engage with the world, to act out our beliefs in the world.
We decided to listen to the world, and my argument will be that the more we listened to the world’s story, the more we were seduced by it, to the point where we’ve come to love the world’s story more than our own story.
We somehow got ourselves into the situation where we believed it was an either/or: either the world’s story of scientific reason, and human progress, and human freedom; or the Church’s story of dogma and doctrine, strange unbelievable myths, restrictions and codes, and prudish limitations that labelled things as sin.
Faced with that kind of choice, the throwing off of doctrine and tradition makes rational sense.
What I hope to show in my thesis is that that is a false choice. That it isn’t an either/or. That we had other choices then, and more importantly, that we have other choices now. It seems to me we are still living with the legacy of that Sixties pivot, and that it has not been helpful for us as a church.
Despite our radical pivot in the Sixties to listen to the culture and engage the world in the service of the Gospel, our churches have once more become comfortable places detached from the critical issues of our time. Gospel issues. We’re not at the forefront of social change. As I said last week, we tend to support good causes at a distance, rather than risk being a place of change.
The issue then was our faithfulness to the Gospel. The issue now is our faithfulness to the Gospel. That is always the issue for the Church. And here’s the thing: the Gospel is always inherently relevant. The Gospel––our Story––always has something to say to the crucial issues of our time. The Gospel has something to say to older people; the Gospel has something to say to younger people.
The Gospel has something to say to the Silent Generation, to Boomers, to GenXers, and to Millennials. The Gospel has something to say to our precious children.
The problem has never been the Gospel; the problem has never been our Story. The problem is always our fidelity to that living, powerful, witness of the Gospel: the Story we encounter in Scripture, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the ongoing, right-here-right-now, in you and me and everyone, work of the Holy Spirit. The problem is in our willingness to live in our story.
Our story, our doctrine
Our Story, our doctrine, like the doctrine of the Trinity that is before us today has the power to shape our lives in such a way as to make us better people, children of God even, so that the way we live makes for a better world for all God’s children and for creation. There is a quote from the English writer G. K. Chesterton that often comes to mind for me: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” That, it seems to me, gets at the perennial issue for the Church.
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
We have a powerful story. We also have a beautiful story. In today’s reading from Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman who was with God as co-creator at the beginning, fashioning the world and delighting in it; and then down through time continuing to call out to us.
In the opening verses of John’s gospel, Jesus is described in very similar terms, as the Word made flesh, God the Creator taking human form. And then, in the reading that Audrey read from John’s gospel, Jesus promises the coming of the Holy Spirit, as an ongoing presence with God’s people, with the church.
These stories of the Trinity––God as Creator, God enfleshed in Jesus, God as the Spirit present with us now––these are not stories of dusty doctrine; they are stories that tell us that the heart of reality is a loving, creative, parental being. A God who loves us so much that he will not let us go, and will never give up on us. A God who will go to any lengths––even to death on a cross––to save us from ourselves, to save us from destroying ourselves and the world.
A God who continues, despite our rejection, despite our disbelief, despite our functional atheism, to keep showing up as the Spirit, nudging, cajoling, inspiring, and enflaming us, to give a “hoot” about the world, to have a heart for all that God has a heart for.
Our Story––our old, old, strange story––need not draw us away from the world, or from its challenges. Our commitment to our story need not lead us into conflict with science, or with people who hold other beliefs. It’s not an either/or. Our strange old story can draw us closer to the world, can inspire us to live better lives and help make a better world.
I’m always struck by how progressive, open-minded Christians so willingly embrace the stories of our First Nations neighbours. I think of the story of the Raven and the first men depicted in a Bill Reid sculpture in the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. It’s a story of the creation of human beings, and it tells of how Raven found a very large clam shell with little people inside. Raven coaxed the little people to come out of the shell and live in the world, and that’s how the first Haida came to be.
It is also a beautiful story, and seeing the sculpture is very moving. We don’t feel any need to question the reality of this story––Is that really where the first Haida came from?––much less to describe it as dogma or irrational or unbelievable. We understand how this story can be life-giving, how it can be part of a meaning-filled relationship with other people and with the world.
My question is, Can we manage to see our own story that way? Can we look upon our Christian story with wonder, can we recognize its beauty, can we allow it to penetrate our hearts and minds such that it changes us? Can we stop defending ourselves against this powerful and beautiful story, can we suspend our disbelief, and instead allow the Story to transform us and our living in the world?
Can we open ourselves to a living relationship with God the Trinity, God who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, and who works in us and others by the Spirit?
Can we do that in a way that is life-giving, and world transforming, in a way that brings together our faith, our beliefs, even our doctrine, and our God-given passion to set the world right, and continue to challenge social evils and injustice?
Working to answer those questions––that’s the work that is set before me in the next few months. I hope that I will find some answers or some suggestions that will be helpful to the church. I covet your prayers over the coming months, that the Holy Spirit will guide me in the work that I will do.
I want to conclude today with a Trinitarian prayer. It’s a poem that John Burton shared with me. John will, of course, serve as your Sabbatical Minister during my absence. The prayer-poem is by John Donne, and it’s called Batter my heart, three-person’d God, and it’s an invitation to God to overwhelm the poet’s defences with God’s relentless love:
“Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. “
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