Thinking Out Loud

October 2, 2018

Parallel Trends in Other Faiths

Not realizing the direction my life would take, I regret to say that I only took one Religious Studies course at the University of Toronto. It was a rather broad survey course, probably used as an elective for Nursing students or Engineering students who needed a “soft” course to round out their program.

The professor said something that has continued to captivate me to this day. In the previous decade, a hot topic in Christianity had been The Charismatic Movement, a movement marked by instances whereby the ‘Gifts of the Spirit’ were turning up in places not normally considered Pentecostal in theology; not the least of which was the gift of speaking in tongues, or what is known as glossolalia. The teacher said that this was not exclusive to Christianity but that glossolalia was turning up in other faith streams as well, and had longstanding expressions in religions not at all affiliated with Christianity.

That rocked my world. To my mind at the time, anyone not following Jesus was pagan, so how could pagans speak in tongues? Or did this confirm the suspicions of conservative cessationists (though I didn’t know that word then) that all of this was of Satan, not of God?

The idea of elements of movement having parallels in other faiths brings me to today’s topic…

…We had walked down Toronto’s Brunswick Avenue following a sign for a yard sale, that turned out to be rather misleading. She had things on sale. And they were in her front yard. But not enough to warrant the block we had walked. As we were about to take a shortcut through a small park, a small building, not much more than the size of one housing lot, caught my eye.

As it turned out it was the First Narayever Synagogue. I peered through the window, and someone inside saw me and opened the door. A few minutes later, we were standing in the lobby looking at the inside. It was Sukkot and downstairs there was a crowd of people sharing a meal together in celebration of the high holy day.

It was then that the person who had opened the door told us that it was “an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue.”  Wait, what? You can do that? It was confirmed that the women — at least the two we saw — were wearing a head covering, one of which was the familiar kippah (or what we sometimes call a yarmulke) normally worn by men.

Again, my world rocked. My brain is still trying to wrap itself on the idea of being egalitarian and being Orthodox at the same time.

Critics of egalitarianism in Protestant circles argue that this is simply the church capitulating to the broader culture. An echo of the feminist movement of decades gone by, perhaps. But it does mean that the same cultural pressures apply equally in other faiths.

The website states, “Our shul follows the traditional Hebrew liturgy, with changes made for the purposes of gender egalitarianism.” That would seem to imply inclusive language. And yet, in matters of theology and practice, still Orthodox. The page also states clearly that their services are what Evangelicals would term “seeker friendly,” and again with no hint of theological compromise; the charge often levied at Christian groups who structure their service to welcome guests.

…In another way what we saw reminded me of Next a church in downtown Kingston, Ontario which is characterized by its lack of parking. This is a neighborhood congregation, though again, being Orthodox, many would live within walking distance of the synagogue, since driving a car would constitute doing work on Shabbat.

As is taking pictures. We were told that wasn’t possible. The one above is from their Facebook page. The one below we took outside after leaving. I’ve always wanted to sit through an entire service in a synagogue, but assumed that if I did, it would be one of the major ones in Toronto’s large Jewish community.

Now I think I’d rather it were this one!

 

 

 

 

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November 6, 2014

Philip Yancey on the Twilight of Grace

Changing societyIn my single digit years, I collected a box filled with low-tech, low-cost “magic” tricks, one of which consisted of two large die-cut pieces of cardboard in the shape of the letter ‘C.” One was red and one was blue, and as you held them side-by-side, if the red one was on the right it always appeared to be larger; but when you switched them, the blue one then appeared to be larger. The cutout pieces are identical in size, but the mind views the second one as larger when contrasted to the inside curve of the one before.

I always have this picture in my mind whenever I read something that purports to state that society is categorically getting worse. Haven’t people said that in past centuries also? Is the trajectory of society really in what pilots call a “graveyard spiral” or is redemption possible? Or perhaps do things simply go in cycles?

Philip Yancey’s book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? (Zondervan) is in many ways a state-of-the-union address on the moral, ethical and spiritual condition of our world in general and the Church of Jesus Christ in particular. Ever the journalist, Yancey tracks down every lead while at the same time maintaining a subjectivity common to most of his other writings. So it’s our world and his pilgrimage; one man’s effort to document where the human race is heading and how it impacts on one writer in the Colorado mountains.

Vanishing GraceYou could easily read Vanishing Grace and conclude that these are the rantings of a writer who has finally reached his curmudgeon years. ‘Back in my day…’ you expect to hear him say; but Yancey is on to you and instead each section is scented with the slight aroma of the hope that no matter how dark, there are still lights and there is still The Light.

The subjectivity means that the book is rooted in an American perspective, but Yancey’s travels have made him very much a citizen of the world, and so the book is one part personal reflection, one part ripped from the pages of the newspaper and its online equivalent, and one part history lesson, borrowing from the best of both actual events and what has been expressed by poets, playwrights and novelists.

Some will find the book a little disjointed. In the introduction he states that he set out to write a book, but really wrote four books. In the afterword, he acknowledges that parts of the book previously appeared in print and online in a variety of forums. This is not a problem, as Vanishing Grace is intended for the thinking Christian who ought to be able to navigate the manner in which the material has been arranged.

Yancey writes,

The church works best as a separate force, a conscience to society that keeps itself at arms length from the state. The closer it gets, the less effectively it can challenge the surrounding culture and the more perilously it risks losing its central message. Jesus left his followers the command to make disciples from all nations. We have no charge to “Christianize” the United States or any other country — an impossible goal in any case.  (p. 253)

Just a few pages later he adds,

Several years ago a Muslim man said to me, “I have read the entire Koran and find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.” He pointed out that Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics. The courts enforce religious (sharia) law, and in a nation like Iran the mullahs, not the politicians, hold the real power. (p. 258)

Both the first and second halves of that excerpt are packed with food for thought, typical of what one finds in the pages of this book.

Is Vanishing Grace truly a sequel to What’s So Amazing About Grace? written nearly two decades earlier? The new book certainly brings a maturity to the subject, but I would contend that the earlier title is well-suited to new believers and house study groups, while this 2014 is more profitable for pastors, leaders, mature Christ-followers or anyone interested in how one Christian views the state of our changing world. One thing that both share however — and this is common to much of Yancey’s writing — is their acceptability to giving to someone outside your faith circle.

An advance copy of the book was provided by the Canadian marketing department of HarperCollins Christian Publishing.


Here’s a longer book excerpt that ran at Christianity 201 a few days ago:

Jesus “came from the Father, full of grace and truth,” wrote John in the preface to his gospel.  The church has worked tirelessly on the truth part of that formula:  witness the church councils, creeds, volumes of theology, and denominational splits over minor points of doctrine.  I yearn for the church to compete just as hard in conveying what Paul calls the “incomparable riches” of God’s grace.  Often, it seems, we’re perceived more as guilt-dispensers than as grace-dispensers.

John records one close-up encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman.  Knowing well the antipathy between the two groups, she marveled that a Jewish rabbi would even speak to her.  At one point she brought up one of the disputed points of doctrine:  Who had the proper place of worship, the Jews or the Samaritans?  Jesus deftly sidestepped the question and bore in on a far more important issue:  her unquenched thirst.  He offered her not judgment but a lasting solution to her guilt over an unsettled life.  To her and her alone he openly identified himself as Messiah and chose her as a grace-dispenser.  Her transformation captured the attention of the whole town, and Jesus stayed for two days among the “heretics,” attracting many converts.

That scene of Jesus and the Samaritan woman came up during a day I spent with the author Henri Nouwen at his home in Toronto.  He had just returned from San Francisco, where he spent a week in an AIDS clinic visiting patients who, in the days before antiretroviral drugs, faced a certain and agonizing death.  “I’m a priest, and as part of my job I listen to people’s stories,”  he told me.  “So I went up and down the ward asking the patients, most of them young men, if they wanted to talk.”

Nouwen went on to say that his prayers changed after that week.  As he listened to accounts of promiscuity and addiction and self-destructive behavior, he heard hints of a thirst for love that had never been quenched.  From then on he prayed, “God, help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people.  And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.”

That day with the gentle priest has stayed with me.  Now, whenever I encounter strident skeptics who mock my beliefs or people whose behavior I find offensive, I remind myself of Henri Nouwen’s prayer.  I ask God to keep me from rushing to judgment or bristling with self-defense.  Let me see them as thirsty people, I pray,  and teach me how best to present the Living Water.

(pp 27-29)


For an interview with the author, check out all six pages at this link to Leadership Journal

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