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From our Canon Chaplain

June 4, 2019

Is this my church?

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The past month for me has been one of considerable variety and contrasts. As a member of the Licensed Professional Counselor Association of Georgia, I attended their annual conference in Savannah recently. This was an exhilarating experience in which, for four days, I was around fellow professionals who were not talking about the church from within. What a refreshing change!       

One of the courses was entitled 'Is going to church damaging to your mental health?' This was presented by a Baptist Pastor who was brutally honest about the destructiveness of his and other denominations' negative teaching about sin and salvation. He was quite clear that he regards a great deal of the churches' teaching about these issues as a distortion of the scriptural messages of both Old and New Testaments. Most impressively, he talked about church exclusiveness as a denial of personhood and what we call 'the dignity of every human being.'

The reason for including a presentation like this in the conference was that mental health workers have large numbers of clients who suffer from what a colleague of mine once called 'the baneful effects of bad religion.' I was glad to be a part of this discussion with fellow counselors - and without a need to be in any way defensive about the church.

I also attended a Clergy Study day with Dr. Robert Franklin, which addressed social and racial issues from the point of view of clergy in the public forum - engaging in discourse as 'public theologians.' Significantly, Dr Franklin used a classical quotation - 'Democracy depends on a virtuous people - a vicious society seeks a master' - as the basis for much of the discussion about the Clergy's role, and how we represent and can proclaim the virtues society needs to be truly democratic.

This was followed a day later by a symposium sponsored by the Church of the Common Ground on 'Poverty, Racism and Homelessness.' There were representatives of Ecclesia and the Cathedral of the Common Ground, along with a large number of local participants. The symposium was called 'Beyond Sandwiches' - which I think speaks for itself.

Within days of all this, I was involved in the Province IV Clergy Pilgrimage out of Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. This was perhaps the most challenging experience of all. During three days (not including journeys to Charleston and Savannah undertaking by the pilgrims), I found myself forced to reflect more deeply than ever on the fundamental and systemic problems of race in our society and in the church.

My friends, this is not something we should be concerned about alongside other issues facing the people of God - this is THE issue affecting the whole character of what we are daring to call the Beloved Community. When I read Bryan Stevenson's book 'Just Mercy' a year ago I was enraged - this pilgrimage with its deep interpersonal work leaves me grieving and praying for wisdom and guidance.

Pray with me as we again celebrate the birthday of the Church and seek the presence and infusion of Holy Spirit.

JOHN

 

May 7, 2019

Theodicy: What are we to say, or can we say about evil ?

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

There is hardly a week between Sundays, when we preach the Gospel of God, that does not present yet more evidence of the presence of evil of every kind. 

The questions of ' where is God in relation to evil ?' or 'where are we in response to evil within God's creation ?' or ' where are we in relation to God in the presence of evil ?' - are raised, if not overtly then by implication in many of the conversations we have with one another and with fellow members of the Body of Christ.

I thought I had a kind of answer by introducing to the discussion the awesome reality of human free-will.It sounds almost convincing to say that God's desire for our freely given response of love has to provide the option of refusal and rejection - which might somehow account for evil. But in the end that will not do. There are too many obvious exceptions to a simple denial of love becoming the source of evil.

Then there is the 'accidental' argument - that nature,including human nature, is prone to accidents. It can go wrong - with resulting evil and destruction. Not quite good enough if we are to continue to say 'Almighty God.'

At one stage in my theological development I embraced a kind of progressive approach to the notion of creation, believing that because it was incomplete it might also be imperfect. But I have to remember that 'God looked at what He had made and saw that it was VERY good.'

In the end we always have the 'war in Heaven' approach with its fallen angels and Michael defending the righteousness of God. Actually the Book of Revelation has the answer to this problem if we are brave enough to go there. But living in our present age, surrounded by manifestations of hatred and violence on a vast scale and human indecency and malignancy on a more local level these theological and somewhat mythical answers often will not do.

In the end, the 'Why does God let......' questions have to remain unanswered with a starkly direct honesty about it all - 'I don't know.'  On the other hand - and it's a very big hand - we are people of the resurrection,people who trust this often incomprehensible God and people who live in the context of new and redeemed life.

I guess we need to look deeply into the meaning of ascetic theology !                                                          

                                                           Easter Blessings,

                                                           JOHN

April 2, 2019

Only God loves me more than my dog

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am unashamedly going to use this Lenten opportunity to depart from issues and topics - given the contemplative and potentially peaceful character of the season - in order to talk about Ruby.

 Ruby is my little dog - a beautiful and 'diverse' combination of Yorkie, Chihuahua and a touch of Poodle. The poodle component contributes to a high level of canine intelligence. She is of uncertain origin and age, having been a rescue dog.

While obviously I am engaging in a fair amount of anthropomorphic projection (what's wrong with that ?) I find my relationship with Ruby to be profoundly spiritual and, for me, comforting and reassuring as to the ultimate meaning of life, love and relatedness.

In fact, in the simplicity and directness of this mutual affection, I experience wordlessly the presence and love of God in creation. The key ingredient of this connection is its being totally unconditional. Granted this has to do with food, walks outside, safety and a lot of sleep - but it is so eloquent in its simplicity and immediacy. It is also ultimately forgiving - absent of any hint of resentment when mistakes and unintentional hurts occur.

Some time ago, until his death, I spent twelve years of my life with a horse. His name was 'Upstate' (sire Secretary of State, grandsire Secretariat).

Our relationship was one that brought home to me the deepest meaning of trust. This half ton of powerful animal could easily have killed me with a single swipe of his hoof.

Despite my sitting astride him, signalling to him with leg pressure, rein pulling and tapping with a whip, State never objected - and when I had occasional 'involuntary dismounts' he simply waited patiently for me to get back in the saddle.

Horses don't merely endure our riding and training them because, as some say, they are too dumb to know better, they partner with us in a joyful expression of energy and shared movement. As Eric Liddell said: ' When I run I can feel God's pleasure.'

On one very memorable occasion, after we had ridden together and I was watering State at the pond we caught each other's gaze for a moment. In that eye contact there was a clear communication - 'we are both,although of completely different species, creatures of the same God. '

My friends, in this season of quiet reflection and deeper inner contemplation, let us thank God that the living creatures with whom we share this earth and this existence, can give us such awareness of the beauty and love of our creation and of our Creator.

Blessings,

JOHN