Sunday, 31 January 2010

Creation Myths

Used in Lesley's Creation and Faith sermon on 31 Jan 2010

Creation Myth of Ancient Greece

In the beginning, Hesiod says, there was Chaos, vast and dark. Then appeared Gaia, the deep-breasted earth, and finally Eros, ‘the love which softens hearts’ whose influence would preside over the formation of everything else.
From Chaos were born the gods Erebus and Night who, uniting, gave birth to Ether and Hemera, the day. Gaea bore Uranus, the starlit sky, who entirely covered her and she created the high mountains and Pontus, ‘the sterile sea’. Gaea united with her son Uranus and bore the 12 Titans and then the 3 Cyclops and 3 monsters.

Horrified by his all offspring, Uranus shut them up in the depths of the earth. Gaea plotted vengeance and produced a sharp sickle but only Cronos the last-born Titan would help. When evening fell Uranus, accompanied by Night, came to sleep with his wife Gaea. Cronos, who was hiding, mutilated him and cast his bleeding genitals into the sea, where they became a white foam from which the young goddess Aphrodite emerged. The drops of black blood from his wound seeped into the earth and produced the Furies, monstrous giants and tree nymphs.

Cronos liberated the Titans and they mated with each other and the primordial beings to produce many other gods and goddesses. The offspring of Cronos and his sister Rhea were Hestia, Demeter and Hera and the gods Hades and Poseidon, but Cronos swallowed each of his children as they were born.

Rhea sought help from Uranus and Gaea and when finally Zeus was born she presented Cronos with a swaddled stone to swallow instead of the baby. When grown up, Zeus persuaded the water nymph Thetis to give Cronos a draught so that he vomited up the stone together with his children, the gods. Cronos was cast out. Zeus and the other gods and goddesses fought long and bitter wars first with the Titans and then the giants. The Titans were defeated and chained in the abysmal depths of the earth.

The Titan, Iapetus, had 4 sons. One of these, Prometheus, had been neutral during this war and was admitted to the company of the Immortals. One tradition says that he fashioned the body of the first man with earth and his own tears and the goddess Athene breathed life into him. However, other sources said that this happened to replenish the earth after the Flood and that men came into being at the time the Titans ruled and enjoyed a golden age, but they angered Zeus. He ordered the first woman, Pandora, to be fashioned from clay. She opened a great vase from which terrible afflictions flew all over the earth, except for Hope, which remained.

Questions for Discussion

What sort of picture of divinity does this creation story give you?
ie. What are the gods/God like?

Was the creation an orderly process?

Does this story indicate a motive for the creation of the world?

What was the purpose for creating humanity?

In what order were things created?

If you believed this creation story how would it make you feel about the world and your role in it?

Native American Creation Myths

Native North Americans believe that everything in Nature is inhabited by a mysterious power which spreads out and influences other beings. The Algonquins call this power manitou, which means all magical powers from the lowest to the highest. Humans must get control of the small powers while trying to gain the favour of the higher powers which are intelligent spirits.

Pawnee Creation Myth

In the beginning Tirawa the great chief and Atira his wife dwelt in heaven. Tirawa gave tasks to all the other gods seated round them and a portion of his power because he wanted to create men in his image. Shakuru the sun was placed in the East to give light and heat and Pah the moon in the west to give light at night. He said to the evening star, ‘You shall stay in the west and all beings will be created by you.’ He gave roles and place to the morning and evening stars and those that support the sky.

Tirawa told the evening star to receive the clouds winds lightning and thunder. When the sky was entirely dark, Tirawa dropped a pebble and the thick clouds opened to reveal an immense expanse of water. Tirawa told the gods of heaven to smite the water with maces and the waters were separated to reveal the earth. On Tirawa’s order, the 4 gods sang of creation, bringing together the gods of elements and storms. causing a huge thunderstorm to split the earth into mountains and valleys. Singing of forests and prairies made another storm which left the earth covered in vegetation. At a third song streams and rivers began to flow and the fourth song enriched the world from germinating seeds.

Tirawa ordered the sun and moon to unite and they had a son – the first man -and the morning and evening stars together had a daughter. When they grew up, the woman was given seeds and moisture to make them grow, a hut and a hearth and the arts of fire and speech. The man was given male clothes, the weapons of a warrior, the knowledge of warpaint, shooting with a bow and arrow, smoking and the ritual of sacrifice. He was chief over the other men and women who were then created by the stars.

Questions for Discussion

What sort of picture of divinity does this creation story give you?
ie. What are the gods/God like?

Was the creation an orderly process?

Does this story indicate a motive for the creation of the world?

What was the motive for creating humanity?

In what order were things created?

If you believed this creation story how would it make you feel about the world and your role in it?

Babylonian Creation Myth

In the beginning, when sky and earth were nameless, there existed only Apsu (sweet water) and Tiamat, a personification of the tumultuous sea and also the blind forces of primitive chaos against which the organising gods struggled. All beings arose from the fusion of these two. First came Mummu, the tumult of the waves. The first gods were Lakhmu and Lakhamu – monstrous serpents who gave birth to Anshar, the male principle, and Kishar, the female principle. These are also respectively the celestial and terrestrial worlds. To Anshar and Kishar were born the great gods: Anu the powerful, Ea of vast intellect, together with the Igigi, who peopled the sky, and Anunnake, scattered throughout the world and the underworld.

These noisy gods disturbed their elders. Apsu complained to Tiamat that he couldn’t sleep and he talked of destroying them, though Tiamat wanted to give them a chance. Ea learnt of this, however, and seized Apsu and Mummu with magic incantations. This enraged Tiamat so she gave birth to an army of monstrosities and gave command of it to Kingu.

Ea got help from his father Anshar but the war went badly for them until supreme authority was given to one of the Igigi called Bel-Marduk, son of Ea. He killed Tiamat in battle and threw Kingu and Tiamat’s other followers into the infernal regions in chains.

Then Marduk decided to make a work of art with Tiamat’s dismembered corpse. From one half he made the earth and from the other the vault of the heavens. The earth was a round plateau bounded by mountains on which rested the vault of heaven. It floated on and was encircled by the Apsu from which came the springs which broke through the earth’s surface.

Marduk constructed a home for the gods in the sky, installed the stars which were their image and formed and regulated the heavenly bodies. From Tiamat’s spittle he made rain and created the great rivers. He made a house for himself and for all the gods to visit on the earth at Babylon. The gods rejoiced and made Marduk their king. For the pleasure and service of the gods, Marduk made humanity by moulding the body of the first man from the blood and bone of Kingu. Finally the myth mentions vegetation and animals, both wild and domestic. The creation was complete.

Questions for Discussion

What sort of picture of divinity does this creation story give you?
ie. What are the gods/God like?

Was the creation an orderly process?

Does this story indicate a motive for the creation of the world?

What was the motive for creating humanity?

In what order were things created?

If you believed this creation story how would it make you feel about the world and your role in it?

Maori Creation Myth

Io is known as the Supreme Being and, out of nothing, created the entire universe. He created Ranginui (Rangi) and Papatuanuku (Papa) - Sky Father and the Earth Mother, respectively. The sky and earth produced numerous sons while they were physically, “cleaved together in a procreative embrace.” The children were forced to live in the darkness since their parents blocked all the rays of the sun. They soon became distressed at the living conditions and gathered to decide whether to separate their parents or to kill them for more room and light.

The fiercest of the offspring, Tuma voted for death, while Tane wished to just separate the mother and father so that the earth will “remain close as our nursing mother.” Most of the sons, including Tuma, finally agreed with the plan for separation.

The children began to divide Rangi and Papa, and soon realized their task was very difficult. Tane finally succeeded as he placed his shoulders against the earth and his feet against the sky. He pushed slowly with both his upper and lower body with great strain, only pressing harder as the parents cried out for him to stop, and eventually the Sky and Earth began to yield. The Earth Mother and Sky Father bled and this gives rise to ochre (red clay), the sacred colour of the Maoris. Now that the separation was complete, there was a clearly defined sky and earth.

One of the offspring, Urutengangana, stated that there was one element still missing, and he urged his brothers to find the female element, ira tangata, to enable the creation of woman. The search spanned both land and sea, and finally Tane consulted his mother, Papa, for her advice and knowledge. The earth took pity on Tane and told him to search in a place called Kura-waka. Tane told his brothers. The children founnd the element in the Earth and dug it out to contribute in the creation of woman. The elder siblings shaped the body and the younger ones added the flesh, fat, muscles, and blood. Tane then breathed life into it, and created Hine-ahu-one, the earth-formed maiden.

Questions for Discussion

What sort of picture of divinity does this creation story give you?
ie. What are the gods/God like?

Was the creation an orderly process?

Does this story indicate a motive for the creation of the world?

What was the motive for creating humanity?

In what order were things created?

If you believed this creation story how would it make you feel about the world and your role in it?

Australian Aboriginal Creation Myth: The Dreamtime

In the beginning the earth was a bare plain. All was dark. There was no life, no death. The sun, the moon, and the stars slept beneath the earth. All the eternal ancestors slept there, too, until at last they woke themselves out of their own eternity and broke through to the surface.

When the eternal ancestors arose, in the Dreamtime, they wandered the earth, sometimes in animal form -- as kangaroos, or emus, or lizards -- sometimes in human shape, sometimes part animal and human, sometimes as part human and plant.
Two such beings, self-created out of nothing, were the Ungambikula. Wandering the world, they found half-made human beings. They were made of animals and plants, but were shapeless bundles, lying higgledy-piggledy, near where water holes and salt lakes could be created. The people were all doubled over into balls, vague and unfinished, without limbs or features.

With their great stone knives, the Ungambikula carved heads, bodies, legs, and arms out of the bundles. They made the faces, and the hands and feet. At last the human beings were finished.

Thus every man and woman was transformed from nature and owes allegiance to the totem of the animal or the plant that made the bundle they were created from -- such as the plum tree, the grass seed, the large and small lizards, the parakeet, or the rat.
This work done, the ancestors went back to sleep. Some of them returned to underground homes, others became rocks and trees. The trails the ancestors walked in the Dreamtime are holy trails. Everywhere the ancestors went, they left sacred traces of their presence -- a rock, a waterhole, a tree. For the Dreamtime does not merely lie in the distant past, the Dreamtime is the eternal Now. Between heartbeat and heartbeat, the Dreamtime can come again.

Questions for Discussion

What sort of picture of divinity does this creation story give you?
ie. What are the gods/God like?

Was the creation an orderly process?

Does this story indicate a motive for the creation of the world?

What was the motive for creating humanity?

In what order were things created?

If you believed this creation story how would it make you feel about the world and your role in it?

Creation and Faith

Preacher: Lesley Misrahi

I was asked to step in because Lloyd Peterson wasn’t able to be with us today, so, in the spirit of recycling I have brought out and dusted off a sermon I first preached in 2001. I’m hoping that everyone who was there at the time was asleep – but stay awake now because I’ve got things for you to do later.

At that time, I was asked to talk about the conflict between science and the gospel and then I thought how very unsuitable this was because I‘ve been both interested in science and a believer since childhood and have never found them to be in conflict. At University I studied Maths, Microbiology and Community Medicine and did some research on viruses. Later I did a degree in Contextual Theology. Have I been deluding myself, I began to wonder by just keeping different ideas in separate boxes? There are other scientists in the church. Are they also somehow engaged in a process of double-think?

Our Western culture, in contrast to any that preceded it, is, in its public philosophy, atheist. Modern philosophy has driven a wedge between spirituality and theology on the one hand and the social and physical sciences on the other. In academic and public life what one believes about God is supposed to be a private matter that makes no difference about one's views on either the sciences or the political arena. So there are two worlds - the private world, in which one can be spiritual if one chooses and the public world in which a belief in God is neither necessary nor desirable. On the one hand we can say that something is right because it accords with something that is called an objective fact. On the other hand, there is a private world where what is good or right morally is a matter of personal taste.

Although there is a growing interest in spirituality these days, it has no difficulties in co-existing with the kind of scientific atheism I have described when it is a spirituality that does not deal with the material world and human society. But if it’s a spirituality that talks about God as the Bible does - the Maker and Sustainer of everything, who has specific purposes for the world and who has criteria for human actions as individuals or groups, then there can be some difficulty.

One of the reasons that people feel there is a conflict between science and faith is because prior to the development of science, anything inexplicable and mysterious tended to be explained in spiritual terms. So people everywhere have creation myths in which gods of some sort play a central role and many natural phenomena are explained in terms of the actions of gods. Thunder, for instance, was thought to be the voice of a god, rather than the vibration of air molecules caused by an electrical discharge. This way of thinking has been called the God of the gaps. God's action in the universe was seen as being to intervene at certain points, to do things that could not be explained by so-called natural laws. And because some things were inexplicable, of course there must be a God.
I was reminded of this by Wayne and Lois’s sermon a couple of weeks ago, when they talked about God standing in the gap in people’s lives, and their role in helping with this. That’s the sort of God of the Gaps I believe in.

However, as science has found explanations for more and more phenomena, including the origins of life and the universe itself, the gaps for which it is necessary to use God as an explanation become smaller and smaller and the God of the gaps gets squeezed out. Christians find themselves forced into desperate last-ditch stands to defend viewpoints which become increasingly unreasonable in the face of mounting scientific evidence. The best example of this is the evolution debate. Some Christians make me cringe when they seize upon the slightest area of controversy in Darwinism to try to destroy the whole edifice of evolutionary thought. They don’t understand how scientific debate works. Science does not proceed in a linear way without error, but by building one block of knowledge upon another. Sometimes those blocks don't fit together well; sometimes they are wrong and have to be torn down, or re-arranged, but the amount of credible evidence for the basic tenets of evolutionary theory amassed since Darwin's time is now enormous.

Such Christians are genuinely trying to defend their faith. But it ‘s a faith in the God of the gaps. They have fallen into a trap which is reinforced by some scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan who are evangelistic atheists. It’s strange that both Dawkins and Creationist Christians seem to share the view that if scientific explanations can be given for natural processes then this rules out a theological description of the universe. Dawkins doesn’t believe in the God of the gaps. Well neither do I!

Fundamentalist assumptions about how God works in the world focus on the origins of the Bible. If we assume that God only usually intervenes in ways that defy our understanding then we will expect the Bible to have been dictated literally. We would not think that it could have emerged through the work of God in human society in ways appropriate for particular kinds of literature at certain points of history. We would expect only to see God at work in ways that were supernatural and without scientific explanation.

But this kind of literal dictation of Scripture is not a genuinely Christian view. The Moslems believe that the Koran was dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel, from the original which is engraved in Arabic on silver tablets in heaven. And somehow the prophet, who was illiterate, managed to remember each chunk long enough to get someone to write it down later.

Christians have never believed that the Bible is like this. Otherwise we would not have dared to translate the literal word of God into so many languages. We would be studying it in ancient Hebrew and Greek. We understand that the Bible contains many different sorts of text, written by humans, under God’s inspiration for their time, but capable, through the interpreting power of the Holy Spirit, to speak to us in our time. Those with fundamentalist views understand parts of the Bible in the same way. They’re not advocating that we eat kosher or stone adulterers and most are not even insisting that women wear head coverings in church. But when it comes to Genesis the fear of losing the God of the gaps drives fundamentalist views about creation. The Creationists are saying that the world must have been made exactly as it says in Genesis – in 7 days, each of 24 hours, and by a process of direct creation of everything by God Otherwise, if the Universe, the world and the people within it came into being through the workings of natural law, they are afraid there will be no need for God at all.

But in trying to make it a book of science, which it isn’t, perhaps they miss the fact that there is a poetical story that can tell us a huge amount about who God is and what God’s purposes are.

To do this let’s have a look at some Creation Myths from different peoples throughout the world. Two of these are the creation myths of the Babylonians and ancient Greeks which some of the Biblical authors must have encountered. Others are from widely scattered parts of the world.

Divide into small groups of 4-5 people Each group to discuss one myth
Answer the questions together Appoint someone to feed back

Feedback answers to questions with flipchart. (Other people can read all the stories later)

The creation story in Genesis will be familiar to most of us. But let’s just hear it read again.

Read Genesis 1 (seven readers)

Think about it in contrast to the questions you answered of the other creation stories. (Plenary)

Many theologians agree that the at least one of the accounts in Genesis was written down to set the record straight for Jews coming into contact with the Babylonian religion. Creation in the Bible is full of beauty and order. God made the world, and it was good. Christians believe in a universe that is based on rational laws and one that does not keep repeating itself in endless cycles or changing irrationally at the whim of some spiritual being. It’s this very belief in a rational universe which allowed the development of science in the first place.

Most of the people who feel that there is a conflict between science and belief are neither good scientists nor good theologians. The so-called modern scientific viewpoint that has permeated our culture in fact goes back to the 18th century. Mathematicians such as Laplace believed that it was possible to explain the universe through knowledge of all the forces, bodies and particles in the universe and the mathematical laws which governed them.

This gave rise to a kind of hierarchy of explanation. So Physicists try to explain their observations of the universe in mathematical terms. Chemists increasingly understand the chemical interactions with which they work in terms of the interaction of the subatomic particles described by physicists. Biologists explain the workings of biological systems in terms of physics and chemistry. Then there are psychologists who try to describe the workings of the mind in terms of physiology, genetics and other biological disciplines.

This is called a reductionist philosophy, and the end of the endeavour would be to explain everything in the universe in terms of natural physical laws, expressed mathematically. As you can see, and as Laplace remarked, there is no need for God in any of this. Unfortunately, what this process does is to explain how, without explaining why. It is summed up by the phrase 'nothing but'. So a human being is nothing but a collection of chemicals. Our religious experiences are nothing but abnormal neurochemical processes. Yes, they may be these things, but this is not the full story.

Let me give you an example. We know that whales are supposed to be very intelligent, perhaps as intelligent as we are in different ways. Now suppose that a bicycle somehow falls off a boat and ends up at the bottom of the sea. The whales go to investigate it. They can use their knowledge of physical principles to understand how it works. The clicks and hoots and whistles resound about the ocean as the whale scientists hold a seminar about the nature of this strange object. They describe how if pressure is put in the same direction alternately on these two flat things here, then a circular motion is produced in this crank here and this motion is transmitted by means of a chain to the two circular objects. They could describe the chemical composition of the steel and aluminium and rubber and plastic. The only thing they wouldn't know was what it was for. Never having seen a road and being unable to conceive of beings like us that want to move about on it, they could understand everything about a bicycle, except its purpose. For that they would need a higher order of knowledge beyond the physics. chemistry and biology which they knew from the world they lived in.

In the same way, understanding the physical and chemical principles that determine the working of a car, say does not explain it as a mechanism. You can tell this if you ask yourself 'How do I know when the car is not working correctly?' The answer is when it does not fulfil its purpose in enabling me to bring the shopping home from Sainsbury's. In other words, we can describe the car's working in terms of physics and chemistry but these do not explain why the car exists in the first place and what constitutes going wrong. Only when we look at the original purpose of the mechanism can we say whether it is working properly.

The fact is, though, that while our culture in general sees science as having an answer for everything, and that rules out the need for questions of purpose and the existence of God, science itself is becoming less and less sure of its ability to explain things. The physicists have discovered that for extremes of speed and size, it is mathematically impossible to determine everything accurately. Godel's theorems now show that in any rigidly logical mathematical system, there will always be some things which cannot be proved or disproved. The reductionist philosophy is seen itself to be a myth.

If we are really going to understand the universe and our place in it then science with its reductionist tendencies is not enough, even to understand something as simple as a bicycle. We have to call in arguments about purpose, which we usually have only at the back of our minds because, for instance, we know quite well what a bicycle is for.

The same applies even more so when we speak about biological life. How do we know when an animal is sick? - when it cannot carry out its purposes of eating, sleeping, reproducing etc. Even though we may be talking about as a biological mechanism for purposes of scientific study, we know this in the back of our minds all the time. It is not sufficient to reduce everything to the laws of physics; we need higher orders of knowledge.

In particular, when we interact as humans, we are not dealing with each other as biological mechanisms. We aren't thinking to ourselves, 'Oh, he smiled, that means he moved this particular set of muscles in his face.' We can detect very subtle variations in the way people use their muscles in smiling. We have knowledge at an unconscious level, which we learnt the hard way as babies. We just know ' This is a really warm and generous person' or 'That smile seems a bit phoney to me.' So at the level of human interaction, purpose is the most important thing, far more important than our knowledge of somebody as a biological organism.

Mature human relationships are characterised by being reciprocal - they are intended to meet the needs of each person in an even-handed way. Immature relationships may not be like this. There may be efforts to dominate, seduce or exploit the other person. But in the kind of relationships that are acknowledged to be the best, there is a development of purpose that suits both parties. If we disagree, people talk about listening to each other - in other words trying to hear and understand what each other's purposes are. For true relationship to exist I must treat the other person in accordance with the purpose for which he or she exists and not as an object to be used for my own ends. Without such values, which cannot be inferred from the laws of physics or biological mechanisms, or any of the other facts about a person, human relationships become simply matters of mutual exploitation. The only way we can discover the other person's purposes is through communication. I have a strong belief that Jeremy is interested in film. Now you couldn't tell that to look at him, could you?

We've seen that understanding the components of the mechanism doesn't mean that we know all about it; we have to know its purpose. Is there any reason to suppose then that looking at the mechanism of the universe is going to enable us to deduce all the purposes for which it exists and to come to a full knowledge of the Creator? Just as we don't understand an individual without listening to his or her purposes, so we can only fully understand the world and its Creator through the communication of God’s character and purpose.

We can only know about the existence and purposes of God through communication with God. We can't expect to derive this knowledge from the reductionist processes of science because it simply does not deal in issues of purpose, which are the everyday commerce of our social life and especially of our relationship to God.

At that point we have to go beyond science and ask, is there a God; has he communicated with us? The answer is found in the testimony of believers throughout the ages. The Bible and the church's interpretation of it in its corporate and individual life are the record of part of that communication from God as to his purposes. The way in which we understand that communication of God's action and purposes is called faith. So Hebrews says. 'By faith we understand that the Universe was formed at God's command' And it goes on to describe so many faithful witnesses who testified by their faith to God's character and purposes. And whatever way God made the world and whatever the radical atheists may say about Christian belief, they cannot take away that experience.

So where does that leave us as Christians? Is there a conflict between science and the gospel? The answer is yes and no. We do not have to be at loggerheads with scientists over the how of the natural mechanisms in the world. And as scientists, Christians can help to discover the glories and mysteries of Creation. But when scientists begin to think that understanding how things work gives them an explanation of why they exist, they are arrogating to themselves both the province of theology. When biological explanations are put forward as if they define human actions, while leaving out human purposes that can respond to the will of God, then we have something to say.

And we believe that God has communicated the divine nature and purposes by being incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ. Our testimony is that God has both affirmed the value of the creation that he has made and developed a way for the whole of the natural universe to be reconciled to himself. God has become subject to those natural processes, even death, and has shown himself able to transcend them, through resurrection. Against arguments from social sciences that violence and force are an essential part of human society, we can set the intentions of the maker, who has called the church to demonstrate a radical alternative.

It’s not surprising that in a world that thinks that science has explained away everything, there’s often a loss of sense of purpose. We need to speak out boldly that God is not entirely separate from his creation, like a car mechanic who occasionally tweaks the mechanism to make it run a bit better. (If you do that too often by the way, you'll end up like my first husband who used to like to fix up his motorbike. He ended up on the side of the M4 in the middle of the night with a hole burnt through the cylinder head of the engine. That’s probably why miracles aren’t that common!)

We have on offer a life consistent with a scientific view of the world, but one in which there is purpose and hope, and in which it is possible to move beyond whatever limitations science would set for us, through the working out of the purposes of God.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The God Who Dwells in the Gap

A dialogue sermon by Wayne and Lois

W: We bring you greetings from other Christians around the world, who also send their greetings to you.

L: We are Londoners now. W: Please mind the gap between the train and the platform. Please mind the gap. L: We have no car, and rely totally on public transportation for traveling farther than we can walk. W: The next station is Highgate. Please mind the gap. L: We hear the “Mind the gap” message repeatedly while negotiating the subway system. W: When you exit the train, please mind the gap.

W: “Mind the gap” is a reminder to be careful. We seldom notice “the gap” as we step easily into the train, but the fact is, it is a place of danger. Sometimes it is a step up or down. One could trip, a young child could step into it, it is a long way down, and there is an electrified “third rail” down there. Pay attention to where you plant your feet.

L: Since March Wayne and I have been more conscious of “minding the gap”. There are funny ones—the gap between British English and American English. Like Mark Twain observed, the United States and Great Britain are two great countries divided by a common language! There is the gap between the British way of serving tea, and the American way.

W: There is a huge gap between British and American driving habits, so please, if you are walking, look to the right first before you step off the sidewalk, because that is the direction from which the traffic is coming.

L: In our work, we are minding the gaps that inevitably show up on the mission field. Cultural gaps, language gaps, relationship gaps, family gaps, gaps between what is and what we wish would be. Gaps between our best hopes and wishes and the realities of a difficult world; Gaps between our energy level and the tasks that are waiting to be done.

W: It is our job to travel to places where there are Mennonite Mission Network workers, and provide encouragement, pastoral care, attention to the mission work, counseling as needed and requested, and in general, wrap the arm of the sending church around our workers. Since June, 2009, we have also been asked to visit Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers when we are in their areas.

L: We are getting a close up and comprehensive view of Mennonite Mission work around the world. We are finding mission workers who are flexible, friendly and open with cultural issues, dedicated to their work as only those with a firm sense of call are able to be. They deal with great disparities in standards of living, and are joyful in their work. They all work on shoestring budgets and are amazingly resourceful. They are the ultimate examples of “making do”. One mission worker in Burkina Faso laughingly told us that one of us needs to be a handyman. Counseling is okay, but they would gladly forfeit that if we could fix things—that is what is really needed.

W: At the same time, they have been very glad for our visits. Sometimes we get to take the place of absent grandparents, and play with children. Sometimes we minister by playing games. We have long conversations, in English, and learn that the language is a challenge for mission workers, even when they have been in a country for years already. After all, when our mission workers finish most language school courses, they have achieved about a third grade vocabulary. That is inadequate to discuss the abstract concepts of faith, the nuances of theology, or teach a Christian Education class about faith. Yet that is what our workers are doing.

L: We are also seeing workers wrap their language skills in a blanket of loving respect for the people to whom they are seeking to relate. When Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message,” was he thinking of mission workers? They know that no matter how well they know the language, if they do not know how to appreciate and live within the culture, no one will hear their message. If they commit cultural faux pas, the locals will not listen to what they are trying to get across. If mission workers do not respect the local people and their ways, the local people will disregard the workers.

W: We are fortunate that when we visit, we have the mission workers to help us navigate the local customs. We find that this actually is one more way to validate their work and experience, as they educate us about what they already know. If they have been on the mission field for a number of years, they have a great deal of experience and sensitivity.

L: By telling us about their work, they review for themselves what is important, and to what it is that they give their energy. They tell with pride what they do. At the same time, they are human. They get discouraged. They worry about whether they are doing what the sending church would expect of them. Are they spending the contributed dollars conscientiously? Should they take a vacation? Are they worthy of good self care?

W: We also know that when tensions are high, it is the spouse and the family that usually gets the brunt of the disgruntled moods. L: Perhaps the spouse is the only other person who can speak English, and can hear the anguish in one’s mother tongue. W: Perhaps he attends church, but seldom gets fed, either because the service is his responsibility Sunday after Sunday, or the worship style and language are not his preference. L: Perhaps she is worried about her kids and their experience, or about parents back home. W: Perhaps he is discouraged, doubting, or caught up in something that makes him doubt himself. L: Perhaps she is having trouble with other mission workers. W: Perhaps they have hit a snag in their marriage relationship.

L: In these and similar circumstances, we are available to listen, to help think through the issues, to support, to provide a different perspective, to pray, to hear underlying layers of meaning.

W: It is our aim to be flexible, as it is not easy to host strangers for several days, in settings that are not familiar to the visitors. We are told we are easy to host, and we take that as a great affirmation. Yes, we can eat African food with our hands, sitting on little stools around a common pot. We realize that we are being honored to be invited into their courtyards to eat with them, and know that they feel honored by our being there. Thus we are enriched over and over again, in many places, with many people.

L: Since March of 2009, Wayne and I have visited 15 countries, and have slept in 65 or more different beds. As a past-middle-age woman, I consider it a specials gift of God’s grace that I have been able to sleep well in spite of it. That has been a special blessing, and a confirmation that this work is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.

W: As we go out, we are confident that God walks with us, that God is in the gaps—the challenges, the conundrums, the puzzles, the dangerous spaces we encounter. Indeed, the good news of the gospel is exactly that—God is there, always, extending love, acceptance, care and nurture. It is because of this that we do mission work.

L: But gaps are difficult places to be and to stay in for any length of time. How does a mission worker stay & work in some of these gaps / spaces? How does anyone negotiate these places? Where is God in this process?

W: Psalm 139, read at the beginning of the service, speaks about a persistent God who does not give up on us. This God simply will not let us out of His sight. “O Lord, you know me … You know when I sit down & when I rise up.” Vs 7: “Where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is “nowhere”, but the Psalmist does not say that. Instead, to paraphrase, he says, “Even when I live in the gap, and it seems like death or Hell (Sheol), you are present even there, as well as in the good places. Even if I go to the far reaches of the world to serve you and others, even there you are present.”

L: Story of Mission Worker who prepared before she went to Ukraine, as a young girl who studied Russian.

W: We have a God who has promised to be with us in the gaps of life. That is a very comforting thought, because when we serve God, we can find ourselves in many different & difficult situations.

L: Story of a mission worker who said to her neighbors and teenagers, when a conflict arose, “There will be no violence in my courtyard!”

W: Mission workers sometimes find themselves in cultural situations that suggest a different way of dealing with a situation than their own orientation would suggest. Now, what is the right thing to do - The direction of the local culture, or the mission worker’s tendency, which feels so right? S. American missionaries in Argentina faced this one. Confusion was coming into the process – Whose work is this?

W: Three mission worker families are translating the Bible into Toba & Pilaga. As they worked they found their own cultural way of proceeding getting in the way of the Toba owning the process and claiming these scriptures as their own. So they stepped back and asked the local church leaders to designate people to lead the process. That happened, and the mission workers took the role of walking beside the local translators as resource persons & technical advisors. This worked so well that now they firmly embrace the concept of “accompaniment”, rather than doing things themselves.

L: Story of a mission worker who counsels military personnel in Europe regarding their options when they begin to ask questions about how faith and military service intersect.

W: These are stories of mission workers who have stepped into the gaps which were present. As ambassadors of Christ, mission workers step into the gaps to represent God in those places. For them, stepping into the gap is a step of faith.

W: In similar ways God’s call to mission comes to every one of us. All of us may find ourselves in situations where we will choose to enter into the gaps of people’s lives in one way or another.

W: When we choose to walk with people through the situations and gaps of their lives, it may not be easy. But again, we have the promise of God in Romans 8, where God promises that nothing can separate us from the love of God. This is true even in those spaces/ places/ gaps when we’re not sure we can feel God’s love. And yet, in Rom 8, God is the one who claims us as belonging to God. God is for us as we walk with people through the gaps in their lives.

W: I have gaps in my life as well. I live with them, and need to claim God’s grace for those times & situations. I also need people to live and walk with me through those times. I need to recognize God’s promise to me to be with me in these gap times. You most likely need that also. Let’s together claim God’s grace & presence for ourselves & for each other.


Sunday, 10 January 2010

Covenant service

Preacher: Sue

So we begin another year together. We look back over the past year. We anticipate the year ahead. And for us as a church, as we peer out into the coming year, much is shrouded in uncertainty.

Of course in some ways the future is always uncertain. We may think we know what is coming but the truth is that everything could change in the blink of an eye. I hope this won’t sound too much like a caricature of Donald Rumsfeld, but there are times when we know that we don’t know what the future holds and other times when we have an illusion of certainty and don’t know that we don’t know what the future holds.

But right now we know that we don’t know what the future holds for us as a church. The question of where we will worship on Sundays is still wide open. And by the time we say goodbye to Ed & Phyllis we will in the space of just one year have lost 7 North Americans who have been very much part of our community and we will need to find new paths without them.

So I’ve been trying to think of characters in the bible who experienced uncertainty and thinking about what we could learn from them.

And I thought of Moses in Exodus 3. Every time I read this passage I am struck by God’s response to Moses’ uncertainty and reluctance. "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" asks Moses plaintively. This isn’t Moses’ last question or objection by any means, and God gradually gives him more and more concrete reassurance, but just look at God’s first response: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

That response asks a lot of Moses. “Just get on with doing the impossible task I’ve given you and after you’ve done it all you’ll be grateful and you’ll realise that I was with you all along.” It’s quite a different response from, for instance, the one Gideon gets when he sets up a series of elaborate tests to show him whether it was really God speaking to him and whether God would really rescue Israel from her enemies. (For those of you who may not know or remember those stories from Judges 6, God obligingly works through all the tests till Gideon is convinced.) And Moses does in due course get some much more specific encouragement and guidance.

But I think it is helpful for us to remember this strand of the story of how God interacts with the people he calls, the way God expects Moses just to do what he’s asked and let his questions be answered along the way. In a rather less frightening but surely more puzzling instruction, Jeremiah is told, with no explanation, to buy, wear and then bury a linen loincloth. Then some time later he is told to dig it up. Only then does God give him the prophecy for which the now rather manky loincloth will be the visual aid.

What I think this tells me is that it is OK if sometimes we don’t know what is going on or why. It doesn’t mean God isn’t with us and it doesn’t mean things will never make sense.

Now the most awake of you may be wanting to point out that even if Moses and Jeremiah didn’t know the full story, they both had very clear instructions from God to get to work on. It’s all very well saying that they just got on with doing what God had asked them and only much later had the certainty that God had been with them and that there was a point to it all, but they did have some basic direction. What if you don’t even have the clear instruction in the first place?

One of the things that I have found hard about the lengthy church decision process about where to worship on Sundays is that I couldn’t ever say for sure “this is what God wants us to do”. Over time I came to the view that we should ask to worship at the London Mennonite Centre for a variety of reasons but none was a clear instruction direct from the mouth of God. So if we’re a bit in the dark about how the future will pan out AND we don’t have a clear instruction from God, what are we supposed to do?

Well, I think one answer is simply to be faithful. It can be a real test of our faith finding the faithfulness and maturity to keep on seeking to serve God even when we’re not getting lots of exciting concrete instructions from God day by day, as perhaps some of us experienced in earlier days of our relationship with God. (Some of you will be aware of various ways of mapping the stages of faith and maybe the personality of this church is partly shaped by the fact that many of us have been Christians a long time and are in the later stages of faith.)

So even if we don’t have clear instructions from God on our worship location, there are some instructions that are clear. The sermon on the mount from which we heard an extract is just one example: “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return”. Or there’s the “greatest commandment”, to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength and your neighbour as yourself. In our sermon series on poetry and wisdom literature in the Old Testament, we looked at the book of Proverbs which Walter Brueggemann suggests is an exploration of how to be faithful in the routine of settled daily life once God is no longer putting on dazzling displays of intervention to establish Israel in the land or rescue her from her enemies. So Proverbs too may provide some guidance on faithful living.

So one response to uncertainty or to the apparent absence of particular leading from God is just to seek to live faithfully, just to put our heads down and get on with obedience in daily life.

But I think there is a risk here, and maybe the mention of Proverbs has already set some of you thinking along these lines too. Because I can’t help thinking of Proverbs as a largely conservative book with quite a small-scale, domestic vision. I wonder whether, as we press on faithfully, we are in danger of taking only the old familiar paths of obedience and missing new paths or even of viewing the new as a diversion from faithfulness.

We are a church that values tradition and our heritage as we see ourselves in the line of God’s people from ancient Israel, through Jesus and the early church to the 16th century Anabaptists and then those who were so influential in the founding and shaping of this particular community. But, whether this year we start to worship at the LMC or stay here and have to adjust to a new phase in our relationship with the LMC, we may need to forge some new traditions and some new ways of thinking and being.

We start the year by voicing again our commitment to God and each other in the words of the covenant and in communion. Though some questions are wide open, let us seek to follow faithfully God even in that uncertainty, in the dark as it were. Let us trust that in due course we will find that God was with us all along and has a purpose for us which we may not yet discern. And as we seek to follow faithfully, may we at the same time be free and willing to embrace the new as part of our faithful following of Jesus.

Exodus 3:1-12
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."

Luke 6:27-31
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that "he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and "to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and "to love one's neighbour as oneself,'—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

Teach us Your ways, O Lord, and let us walk in Your truth.
We put behind us our stubborn independence, and turn again to You.
Now let us willingly fasten ourselves to the God of covenant:
That we be Christ’s, and Christ be ours.

Christ has many tasks for us. Some are easy; others are difficult.
Some bring honour; others bring reproach.
Some are to our liking, and coincide with our own inclinations,
and are in our immediate best interest; some are just the opposite.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
In others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
Yet the power to take on all of these is most definitely given us in Jesus;
for it is He who strengthens us, and comes to help us when we are weak.