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Literal to Living
  I want to thank you for inviting me here this morning, and for giving me the opportunity to share with you the current state of my search for a living and working faith. I have been in this building only once before, at a PFLAG meeting several years ago. That is a very positive memory for me, and I'm glad to return and renew and extend that connection.

I suspect that many of you may share with me the experience of growing up in the faith (whatever that faith may have been), and then gradually discovering that this inherited faith, to borrow John Westerhoff's term, really didn't cut it. Too many gaps, too many contradictions, too little clarity in areas that mattered, and so on. I found that situation particularly difficult, since I was studying for ordained ministry with the United Church of Canada at the time. But it did engage me in a search, a journey, which continues to this day.

I realized, when I began to figure out what I wanted to say this morning, that there was some danger of my winding up telling what used to be called, in some circles, my faith story. I have no interest in telling that whole story, and I strongly suspect you have about the same amount of interest in hearing it. On the other hand, it does form the background for what I really do want to talk about. So here, in roughly 65 seconds, are the Cole's Notes to the Reader's Digest condensed version:

I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, first in Virginia and then in Minnesota. I was active in it through high school, accepting without much question the beliefs and understandings it offered. I left it behind when I left for university, and for the next 20 years I was an unchurched agnostic. I began to reconnect with the church through music, in a tiny United Church in Lake George. Following the lead of friends there who became my mentors, I developed a fairly literal understanding of the Bible, and a fairly strong fundamentalist, charismatic faith. During that time I attended a strongly charismatic gathering, and experienced a direct physical healing, an event which caused me a great deal of thinking and wrestling in the years that followed. After about 12 years (in 1992), Charlotte andI moved to Halifax, where I began studying for ordained ministry within the United Church of Canada (to my considerable surprise). While in Halifax I encountered very different understandings of the Bible and of faith in general, and I emerged with a very different faith from that with which I began my studies. I was ordained in 1995, and for the next 11 years served the United Churches in Marysville and Penniac as their minister. I learned as least as much theology around kitchen tables, hospital rooms, and funeral homes as I ever did in a classroom. I retired from active ministry in 2006.

There have been a lot of things, over the years, which have troubled me deeply about my faith and, by extension, the Christian faith. What was actually happening when I prayed for someone? Was I changing God's mind, or perhaps getting God's attention? Did it matter if there were lots of people praying for the same thing? What about the poor friendless soul who had no one to pray for him or her? How much was God directly responsible for? Accidents? Illness? Death? Good fortune? Wealth? If God is responsible for all of these (or any of them), how did God decide who won and who lost? And then there's Jesus. If Jesus was truly conceived by the Virgin Mary from the Holy Spirit, what did he have to do with me? My father was decidedly human, and, while I don't remember it, I have a pretty good hunch how I was conceived, and it was pretty earthy and earthly. I don't feel much in common with someone of divine parentage (even if it's only one parent). And what was all this about the cross - Jesus dying for my sins? Just how did that work? If God sent his only son to die for my sins, then God should be extradited from heaven, arrested, tried, and locked up for extreme child abuse and probably murder to boot. Do I want to worship a God like that?

Not surprisingly, the questions kept coming. Each one answered seemed to spawn at least three more. I became convinced that, if faith were to be really meaningful in today's world, it had to be a faith that would not only survive but welcome active, inquiring, searching questions. Every question had to be fair game. Anything less would be, for me, no more than a cardboard cut-out, without real strength or meaning. Buckminster Fuller once said that Faith is better than belief. Belief is when someone else does the thinking. Over the years I have come to that kind of faith, though it is still evolving for me, and hopefully will continue to evolve as long as I am alive to evolve with it. This, then, is the current shape of my faith.

Yes, there most definitely is a God. But, for me, this is not a God who is out there somewhere. God does not exist as a separate, distinct and autonomous entity. Nor does God intervene directly in earthly affairs. I have come to imagine and understand God as pervasive desire for the good of all creation. Pervasive in that that desire exists everywhere, without exception. It does not coerce or demand; it simply desires. Note the difference: it is not that God desires the good of all creation, but rather that God is that desire. The current understandings of original creation - the big bang, for example - are examples of this desire realized. Evolution is that desire enacting itself in the world. I believe that a component of this desire that is God is the presence of healing energies throughout the universe. There have been healers throughout all of recorded human history. This is most often understood - and explained - as God intervening in human affairs, to the benefit of some but not others. My understanding is rather that some people are gifted in ways that allow them to connect with the healing energy which surrounds us all, and through that connection are able to facilitate the healing of others. The actual healing is the real experience; the language surrounding it - In the name of Jesus, be healed! for example - is merely our explanation of what is happening. I believe that Jesus was such a healer, and that there have been many others throughout history. (There are more healing stories in the Bible than all the other miracle stories combined, and there are more healing stories told of Jesus than all of his other miracles combined.) These healings are not a matter of a God (a theistic God, to use John Shelby Spong's term) deciding that one person will be healed, another will die, a third will suffer for another few years, and so on. Such a capricious God is, to say the least, highly offensive to me, and not a God I might worship. Rather they are instances of people connecting with the healing energies which fill the universe, a reflection of God, the pervasive desire for the good of all creation.

Was Jesus divine? Not in the sense that question is usually meant. Any decent DNA test would have cleared the Holy Spirit of paternity in Jesus' case. (I included this statement in a sermon one year, about two weeks before Christmas. The reaction I got was interesting: two people thanked me for saying it, adding I've always suspected that!) He was fully 100% human in his conception, birth, life, and death. He did have the gift of healing, as others have throughout time. I believe he was, or became, acutely aware of the divine desire for the good of all creation, and, in looking at the world around him, saw ways in which this could be lived to fruition. He understood this desire to be the highest desire of which he was capable, and he took it into himself more and more throughout his life. Sometimes it brought him up short. He tried to exclude a Gentile woman from his ministry, and she brought him up short with her response, using humour, word play, and a very sharp wit (and sharp tongue!). Jesus realized that she was as much a part of creation as anyone else, and changed his practise to include the Gentiles in his ministry. He was not born perfect; he was born human, and spent his life living into the fullness of being human. As he lived more and more into that desire for the good of all creation, he became more and more fully human, more and more fully in line with that desire as he took it into himself, and thus more and more divine. The fullness of humanity, for me, is to live fully into that desire for the good of all creation. Jesus is my image of what that looks like.

Do I want to be like Jesus? Not in the usual sense. I certainly don't want to imitate him; that would be absurd. He was Jesus and I am me; we are half a planet and two millennia apart. To try to be the same would be crazy. But I would like very much to become who I am with the same integrity that he became who he was, and, like him, to make the desire for the good of all creation my overwhelming passion. In that sense, I name myself as a Christian, a follower of Jesus.

One further note. Did Jesus die for my sins? No, in a word. (It is at this point that, in the past, I have been told that I am most definitely not a Christian.) Jesus died in a particularly horrible, though not very unusual, way - he was crucified as a public example, executed as a common criminal) because he refused to yield primacy of place in his life to anything but the desire for the good of all creation. He understood that what he was doing might win him no friends in high places. Then as now, the good of all creation is rarely good for the powerful elites of creation. But to avoid alienating those elites, he would have had to mute his voice and muffle his actions. This he would not do, with inevitable consequences. His integrity is, for me, both powerful example and compelling challenge, which I try to answer in my living. For me, that is vastly more meaningful than any notion of Jesus dying for my sins.

What, then, of prayer? Is that merely meaningless words uttered to someone who doesn't exist, having no effect at all on anything? Or, to paraphrase slightly Shakespeare's far more eloquent words, words that are but a walking shadow that strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more; a tale told by an idiot, full or sound and fury, signifying nothing. Well, not quite. I still pray. Not being particularly disciplined, I don't pray at certain times each day, or in fact with much regularity at all. But I do pray, sometime with words, aloud; sometimes with words, but silently, and sometimes in complete silence of mouth, mind, and heart (or as close as I can get to that silence). I find that such prayer is one of the ways that my theology continues to develop and expand. There is some small leprechaun of the mind that trips me up when I lapse back into traditional prayer language, and I seek other ways to express whatever it is that is in me trying to find expression. That seeking, though often difficult, is also often helpful. And prayer does other things as well. I am not fortunate enough to have the gift of healing, of tapping into universal healing energy on another's behalf (or on my own behalf, for that matter). I was, many years ago, briefly part of a small group which did seem to bring about some healing for some people. At that time, I understood what was happening as God (or God's spirit) responding to our fervent prayer. I understand it differently now, but I do not doubt its reality. Praying for someone else is the best I can do to connect that person with healing energy. I don't know how much good I actually do, and I'm not sure how much my knowing matters. Certainly I would like to be able to effect healing with each prayer (though the responsibility of deciding then whom to pray for would be difficult in the extreme). But the best I can do is simply pray for someone's healing, so I do that. In doing it I feel more connected to divine desire as well as to the one for whom I pray, and I simply trust the there is some benefit to the one prayed for. One thing I am sure of is that, if I do not pray, I will exert no change whatsoever.

In many ways, my real prayer lies in how I live each day. If I take a little extra time to talk to someone I might have simply passed by, if I commit time, effort, and such resources as I can muster to furthering social justice in some way, that is prayer. It is living out the divine desire here and now, and that is, for me, very real prayer.

These understandings, this faith, has earned me the names of atheist and non-Christian on occasion. I don't accept either name. My understandings are certainly non-traditional, but for me, they are very much in line with the divinity I encounter in the Bible (which has become one of my favourite books, by the way) and in the world around me. I find nothing in the New Testament which tells me that my understanding of Jesus is off the rails. Being a Christian has become, for me, not a matter of following a set of rules laid down long ago and interpreted by a variety of people in a variety of settings. It is rather a matter of bringing all the resources I have to bear on understanding who this man was and who he is for me today, and living that understanding into reality each day. Faith has definitely not gotten easier, but it certainly has gotten more interesting, and it has become deeply connected with the world in which I live. Any possible world beyond the grave as a distinct and self-aware being of some sort with some connection with the creature I am no is beyond my knowing and thus pointless for me to worry about. I do understand that the components of my body - the atoms, molecules, etc. - will, when I die, return to the larger creation of which they have always been a part, and I am comfortable with that notion. What matters most to me is how I live here and now. It is my faith that guides and enriches that living, both for me and (hopefully) for the world in which I live. I would not have it any other way.