31 July 2019

A Theology of Cats

There is a delightful poem by Canadian poet Lorna Crozier that begins:
“If I were called in
            to construct a new religion
I should make use of cats.”[1]

Today is Paka’s “Gotcha Day” – 12 years ago today, on July 31, 2007, she joined my household as a 4-month-old grey fluffball. When I went to the Thunder Bay Humane Society to choose a kitten (shoutout to Tara and Leah who came with me to "help" – I had to promise your mother that we were only going to be coming home with one kitten and that kitten was for me!), she was the kitten who wouldn’t let me put her back in the cage.

One of the first pictures of Paka as a kitten

She has had to be adaptable over the past 12 years.  She has lived with me in 5 different homes, and suffered through 2 cross-province and 3 cross-country moves.  She joined me in mourning the loss of Lily in 2017 – Lily who had been the “old cat” when Paka joined the household.  And then she joined me in welcoming Nuru-kitten to the house last summer.

When we lived in Dartmouth

A recent picture of Paka showing off her whiskers

But as well as learning about adaptability from Paka, I also like to think about everything that I have learned about God from my cats.

Having a kitten in the house has reminded Paka how to play; while at the same time Paka is teaching Nuru how to “cat.”  Watching the two of them bonding over a crinkley pompom or leaping to catch the end of a fishing rod toy, I am reminded that God is a God of joy, who encourages times of play and a playful spirit.

Even at 12 years old, she's not to dignified to play!

Nuru with her "bitey toy" - she loves this stuffy, carries around the house with her,
and takes her energy out on the toy, rather than in biting me!

As I watch the two of them competing for the sunny spots in the house, then stretching out at full length to bask in the sunlight, I am reminded that the God of Sabbath wants us to pause and rest and take time to simply be. In the story of creation told in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, on the final day of the first week, the pinnacle, the high point of all of creation, God rested.

The sunny patch inside the back door...

... but the current preferred napping spot is the guest room bed

Both of my cats are enthusiastic purr-ers – there have been a couple of times when Nuru has wakened me up in the middle of the night when she jumped up on the bed and started purring – yes, her purr is that loud. And whenever one of the cats is on my lap purring away, I am reminded that God is a God of love, that I am loved and called to love, and that we are never alone.

Sunday evening lap cuddles!

And finally my cats remind me that we are created in the image of the triune God, the Three-in-One and One-in-Three, a God who is community at the core of God-self. I can watch Paka clean Nuru’s face for her. I see them sitting together on the windowsill, chattering at the birds trying to work out how to get through the glass. I experience them conspiring together to get me out of bed to give them their breakfast. And I am reminded that we are created for community. It is good to both give and receive; it is good to be vulnerable together and to be human together.

Lily and Paka curled up together on a rainy day 

Plotting something... 

Paka's contribution towards waking me up in the morning

What's here?

Thank you Paka for the past 12 years; and thank you Nuru for the past year. And thank you Lily, for all of the love you shared with me, with Ambrose (your first feline housemate), and with Paka in the 18 years you shared with us. Thank you for for the love that you share, and for everything that you teach me.

[1] Lorna Crozier, “A New Religion” in Small Mechanics (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2011), 68.

29 July 2019

"Noah's Ark" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
July 28, 2019

(Because this week's reading is so long, the reading and sermon are split up into 4 sections.)

Reading #1:  Genesis 6:5-8, 13-22

Reflection #1
So right off the top, I wonder why the story of Noah’s Ark is so popular when decorating babies’ nurseries or Sunday School classrooms.  Sure, animals two-by-two marching into a boat is a cute image, even though it was likely very noisy and smelly in real life.  But the story begins with God’s heart grieving the wickedness of humanity.

We are only 6 chapters into the book of Genesis, and we are told that God is already regretting the humans that were created in chapters 1 and 2.  These humans who were created in God’s image; these humans who were formed of dust and brought to life by the breath of God; these humans who had been tasked with caring for the rest of creation – these are the humans who have now reached a point where we are told, “God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”  (Genesis 6:5)  What has happened here?!

If we were to flip through the chapters that we skipped over, in chapter 3 of Genesis we have the original humans wanting to be like God, choosing to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and being banished from the garden.  Then in chapter 4, we find the next generation, Cain and Abel, and a story of jealousy and murder.  And then we have Lamech, the great-great-great-grandson of Cain and the father of Noah, and we are told that Lamech is also a murderer, murdering for revenge this time.  It didn’t take long for humanity to stray from the original vision of a creation that was very good in God’s eyes.

And so God decides to destroy all of creation – not just the humans but the birds and the animals and the reptiles.  It’s almost like God wants a fresh start, a do-over if you will.

But I have some questions here for God…

OK God, why are you punishing the innocent along with the guilty?  Surely there were babies who died who hadn’t done wrong.  And what about all of those animals – surely they weren’t contributing to the evil in the world?

And if you really wanted a do-over, why preserve anyone or anything?  You are offering to save Noah and his family, but we just saw that Noah is directly in the line of the ancestors who have done so much harm in the world?  If you save Noah and his family, aren’t you just going to have the same problems all over again when the floodwaters recede?

I have so many questions for God, and honestly I don’t have any good answers for them.

Reading #2:  Genesis 7:17-21

Reflection #2
And now we come to the heartbreaking part of the story.

In this part of the world, we know what it is like to watch the water levels rise.  We know what it is like to watch the water come up, and to know that there is absolutely nothing that we can do to stop them.

Now imagine watching the waters continue to rise.  Rise up to the rooftops of all of the houses, then keep on going.  Rise up until the very tops of the trees are underwater.  Rise up until even the very tops of the hills are under water, until there is nothing but water as far as the eye can see.

And my heart breaks if I let myself imagine it.  Imagining all of the people desperately seeking higher ground and then even that going under water.  Imagining all of the animals who didn’t get a spot on the boat swimming until they couldn’t swim any longer.

So much death.  So much destruction.  And still I don’t have any good answers why.

Reading #3:  Genesis 7:24-8:5

Reflection #3
And now our story turns to Noah.  Noah who received instructions from God to build a boat.  Noah who invited the animals to enter the boat in pairs.  Noah who entered the boat, along with his wife and his sons and his sons’ wives – we don’t know what happened to his daughters – presumably they were left behind to drown.

So here we have Noah and what remains of his family, mourning the loss of their friends and neighbours and family members, busy with the care of all of these animals – keeping the carnivores away from the herbivores, feeding them and giving them water to keep them alive, and think of all of the poop that they would have had to shovel every day!

And the days and the weeks and the months stretch on.  The waters rose for 40 days and 40 nights, but we’re told that they stayed high for 150 days before they started to go down.  As we know from floods in this part of the world, it takes a lot longer for the waters to go down than it does for them to rise.

And there we have Noah and his family waiting.  And grieving.  And waiting.  And shovelling some manure.  And waiting some more.

And 150 days later – 5 months later – God remembers Noah.  I wonder why it took so long for God to remember Noah?  Did it just slip God’s mind that Noah had been given these instructions about building the ark and calling all the animals?  I wonder if it took so long for God to remember Noah because God was also grieving – mourning the loss of all of the animals and the people; mourning the destruction of all of creation.

Noah waits.  And waits.  And waits.  And finally God remembers Noah.

And here we have the turning point in our story.  “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him on the ark.  And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.”  (Genesis 8:1)

Remember back to our scripture reading a couple of weeks ago; remember back to the very opening of the book of Genesis.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)

And now again we have that same Hebrew word, ruach, meaning wind or Spirit or breath.  In the beginning, the ruach of God swept over the face of the waters and creation began.  Now, the ruach of God blows over the flooded waters, and a new creation can begin.

A new creation is beginning.

Reading #4:  Genesis 8:20-22, 9:8-13

Reflection #4
Now we come to the part of the story that makes us happy.  I still don’t have any good answers to all of the questions that I had at the beginning, but our story ends at a place of hope.  The floodwaters dry up, the people and the animals get off the boat, and God makes a covenant not just with Noah but with all of Noah’s descendants and with all of creation.  God promises to never again destroy creation.  And God seals the covenant by laying down her weapons – God hangs his bow up in the sky, and whenever we see a rainbow, we can be reminded that God will never again destroy the earth.

This begs the question, what exactly is a covenant?  At its core, a covenant is a treaty.  Different nations could seal a covenant with one another.  Each party would make their promises – for example, country A will pay taxes to country B; and country B’s army will protect country A.  Covenants in Ancient Near East culture would usually be sealed with a sacrifice to whichever gods were worshipped in the areas covered by the covenant, there would be witnesses to the covenant, both human and divine, and there would be symbols exchanged so that each party would be reminded of the deal.

So here we have God making a covenant with all of creation.  God promises never to destroy creation.  We have Noah offering the sacrifice required to seal the deal.  And then the symbol of the covenant, God’s bow hanging in the sky, is presented.  The only thing that is missing is that Noah, on behalf of all of creation, doesn’t make any promises to God that are recorded in scripture.  This is very much a one-sided covenant.

I wonder though.  I wonder if the implied human responsibilities in this covenant are the same as God’s responsibilities – to never destroy the rest of creation.  Especially in this time in history when we have the ability to do so much damage, how are we called to live into this covenant that God made with Noah, with all humans, and with all of creation?

God has promised never to destroy the earth.

What about us?

A Double Rainbow outside my house a couple of weeks ago
God is laying down her weapons - hanging his bow in the sky

22 July 2019

"Blessed are..." (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Annual Flower Service - July 14 and 21, 2019
Scripture:  Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed are the rich, for they will become richer.
Blessed are the emotionally numb, for nothing will disturb them.
Blessed are those with bombs and nuclear codes, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those with enough food, for they can afford to give away the crumbs from their tables.
Blessed are those with privilege, for they will decide what is right and what is wrong.
Blessed are those in the comfortable pews, for they can feel smug about their virtue.
Blessed are the bullies, for they can control the actions of others.


OK – so maybe Jesus didn’t say it quite like this.  But if you look at the way that our world works, what Jesus is saying in today’s reading from Matthew doesn’t make any sense.  If you look at the way that our world works, it usually isn’t the meek person who is given power, who inherits the earth.  If you look at the way that our world works, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness usually don’t get to see the fulfillment of their hunger.  If you look at the way that our world works, the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers aren’t usually the people who are exalted, the people who are respected, the people who are celebrated.  In fact it’s often the opposite.  Usually it is the people who hold the power, the people who are rich, the people who are beautiful, the people who come from the “right family” – these are the people that our world celebrates.

So what does Jesus mean when he calls the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – what does Jesus mean when he calls them blessed?

I think, at least for me, that the challenge comes in the word “blessed”; because how do we use that word in day-to-day conversation.  If you go on Instagram and search for #blessed, you will end up looking at pictures of babies and new cars and beaches; pictures of birthday parties and weddings and glamour shots.  Our world sees blessings in the material things in life.  I have all of these good things, therefore God must be blessing me; God must love me very much.

But this sort of understanding of God eventually runs into problems when things go wrong.  Because if we see good things in life as a sign or God’s favour, what does it mean when the bad stuff happens.  I don’t think that it is possible to fall out of favour with a God who is, by definition, love; but if we see material things as blessings from God, the flip side of that would be a withdrawal or loss of God’s blessing.

So these beatitudes, these blessings that Jesus offers to us, they obviously don’t mean blessing in the way that we often used the word blessing.  The poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers – these aren’t the people who are normally showered with praise and admiration in our world – these things that are normally reserved for the wealthy and famous.

The New Testament was originally written in Greek, and the Greek word that is used here for “blessed” is “makarioi” and if you were to look up that word, makarioi, in a dictionary, you will get a variety of definitions.  The first definition given is, and I quote, “the transcendent happiness of a life beyond care, labour and death.”  But it goes on from there.  To be blessed, in this sense, is to see the present in light of the future.  To see the present in light of the future.  It implies a tension between the state of the present and the state of the future.  The dictionary called it a “sacred paradox.”

And I think that this understanding of the word “blessed” is the key to understanding these words of Jesus.  Even though the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake – even though they don’t appear to be very blessed in Jesus’ time – or in our time – they are blessed.  They are blessed because they are living the present through the lens of what is to come.

Jesus is proclaiming a vision for a world that is radically different than the world that we see around us.  Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God where the power structures aren’t just re-arranged but are completely turned upside down.  Jesus is proclaiming a world where the poor in spirit are blessed; a world where those who mourn are blessed; a world where the meek are blessed; a world where the pure in heart are blessed; a world where the peacemakers are blessed.

So where does that leave us?  After all, we are living in a world that blesses the rich, the powerful, the privileged.  (quiet voice)  But the thing is, we are an Easter people.  We know that the world doesn’t get the final word.  We know that even when God dies on a cross and it seems as though the world has won, we know that the story doesn’t end on Friday.  We know that two days later, we will be celebrating the empty tomb, and God’s final word of joy and hope.  And because we know this, we can trust in the beatitudes.  We can trust that God’s kingdom will have the final word over the powers and principalities of this world.

Today we are gathered for our annual Flower Service – a day when we remember the people in our community who have died in the past year, and a day when memories of everyone who has come before us bubble up to the surface of our mind.

The writer of the book of Hebrews in the bible tells us that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” – all of the thousands and millions and billions of people of faith who have gone before us.  All of the people we have known, and all of the people we haven’t known, who have struggled to travel their journey of faith, and who have been blessed because they have lived in the light of what is to come.  We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, and so we are never alone on our journey of faith.

Today is a day when we can give thanks for the lives lived and love shared.  It is a day when we might shed a tear or two, because after all, grief is only love that has nowhere left to go.  But it is a day when we can celebrate too.  We can celebrate this God who turns the world upside down and who blesses the poor and the meek and the peacemakers.  We can celebrate this God with whom the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and who turns every end into a new beginning.

We are not alone.  God is with us, and we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Our "Bouquet of Memories"
at Long Reach United Church

7 July 2019

"Created for Community" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
July 7, 2019
Scripture:  Genesis 2:4b-25

“It is not good that the human should be alone.”

In the story that we read this morning about the time when God created the earth and the heavens, the first human was moulded out of the dust of the ground, and brought to life by the breath or Spirit of God.  God, like an artist, creates a human form out of dirt and breathes in to it the breath of life.

God placed this earthling into a garden.  God, like a gardener, fills the garden with good things for the earthling to eat, and God gave this first human a job to do – to till the ground and take care of the garden.

But then God observes,
“It is not good that the human should be alone.”

Right from the very beginning of time, humans were not created to be solitary – we were created to be in community.

And so God’s artistry skills come in to play again, and God creates all of the different animals and birds that are found in the world, and the human gives names to them.  I wonder how much laughter was shared between God and the earthling as the different animals were created and named.  There is a popular internet meme that speculates on this, coming up with things like:

[God creating kittens]
God:  make them really fluffy and adorable like little furry hugs.
Adam:  That’s so sweet.
God:  And put razor blades on their feet

[God creating octopuses]
God:  Give it 8 super-strong arms and hands
Adam:  Um, we’re out of bones.
God:  OK.  8 weird floppy arms with suction cups.

And then think of the fun that the earthling must have had naming them all!  In English alone, we have glorious names for our animals like hippopotamus, rhinoceros, platypus.  I shall name you elephant.  And I shall name you chimpanzee.

I wonder how much fun God and the earthling had when all of the animals were created.

But still God says,
“It is not good that the human should be alone.”

I disagree with God a little bit here – as someone with cats, they are company, and when I go home each day, I know that I’m not going home to an empty house because they will be there to greet me and demand their supper.

But the point is, we are created for community.  The times I’ve been stuck at home for several days in a row – either because of a snow storm or because I’m sick – after a couple of days I’m going stir crazy being alone, despite the cats being there with me.  We are created for community.

So God takes the earthling and divides them in two.  Two humans where there was only one.  The beginning of a community.  The earthling is no longer alone.

This passage is often read at weddings, referring to two people coming together to form a new family; but I think that it has a broader interpretation than that.  We have so many different understandings of family and of community in our world.  Community can be found in romantic relationships and in family, yes, but community can also be found in other places:  in community groups, in volunteer organizations, and yes, in churches.

When I think of the times in my life when I’ve gone on wild and crazy adventures, the thing that has had the most impact on me has been the communities that I have encountered and been a part of along the way.  Five years ago this summer, I was living in Thunder Bay but packing up my house and wrapping up my work there, getting ready to move half-way across the country to Halifax to begin my Master of Divinity at the Atlantic School of Theology.  Of the five schools that I could have attended, this is the one that I wanted to attend, because it is an intentionally ecumenical school.  I was prepared to be challenged, I was prepared to learn and grow, I was prepared to work my behind off.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the community that I ended up encountering there.  A community that supports one other, a community that celebrates together, a community that worships together, a community that has fun together.  There in a city and a province where I didn’t know anyone, I was not alone.

(One of my favourite pictures from the Atlantic School of Theology community)

Our New Creed in the United Church begins and ends with the words, “We are not alone.”  Not only is God present with us, by the Holy Spirit, in every moment of every day; but we are traveling this road of faith surrounded by the church.  We are never alone.

And I think that this is one gift that the church can offer to the world in a time when there almost seems to be an epidemic of loneliness in our country.  Despite social media that seems to connect us more easily than before, more and more people report being lonely and cut off from others.  We could probably spend all day debating the causes of this – whether it be people working at home or children moving away for work or the ease of connecting with others without actually meeting them.

In this world, the church offers a community that does meet face-to-face.  The church offers a community where we can exchange handshakes and hugs on a regular basis.  The church offers a place where we can challenge one another, where we can support one another, where we can mourn together, where we can laugh together, where we can grow together.  The church offers us a place where we can be authentically human, where we can be vulnerable together before God as we try to figure out who we are and what we are doing here.

This morning, we baptized Colton into Christ’s universal church.  Colton is now part of a network of people that stretches through time and space, all committed to loving one another and loving God.  Colton has been welcomed into the family!  He will never be alone, but will be surrounded by the support and prayers of this community and the church around the world.

God looked at the first earthling and said,
“It is not good that the human should be alone.”

And we are never alone.
God is with us.
The church is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God!