Sunday, May 28, 2017

Heaven: Spacial or Spiritual?

In the church’s calendar this is generally known as Ascension Sunday. The reading (Acts 1:6-14) is the dramatic story of Jesus being taken upward to heaven. It raises a few questions in my mind. None of which it is possible to answer, either fully or partially. However, it is always worth asking questions and always worth thinking them through. They aid us in our quest of discerning and considering what is central to our belief and what is peripheral.

Today, I’m going to focus on just one of the questions which came to mind.  What do I understand by heaven? The text says that those accompanying Jesus were gazing up into heaven. Were those friends of Jesus believing in heaven as a spacial realm? Almost like a parallel universe to go to and continue to live there.

There is no clear answer given in the scriptures. The ancient texts use heaven or heavens in various ways.  Psalm 78 reads that God stirred up the east wind in the heavens (26) while the book of Isaiah comments that rain and snow pour down from heaven (55:10). Deuteronomy talks about the heavens as the sun, moon and stars (4:19) which reflects the first verse in Scripture, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). These are all elusions to a spacial realm. A realm that in contemporary culture would be termed either the earth’s atmosphere or the whole universe.

Yet, there are other understandings of the word heaven. A spiritual realm where God and angels dwell. How much is this to be understood as metaphorical? How much of this belief is influenced by literature, especially by Dante’s epic poem? As a matter of interest, I googled “heaven”. I got 614,000,000 hits! Even a cursory glance at some of these shows the many and varied understandings of heaven.

I suspect if I polled a sample of the population about what they understand by heaven I would get a variety of opinions. And I am okay with that.

What I believe is important to me. Often, I have thought about issues and come to conclusions that make sense to me. Yet, that doesn’t mean they are rigid, never to be changed. As I read or talk with people something is said that challenges my belief. This is the point where I need to accept the challenge, take a fearless look at my life and belief and be willing to change if necessary. That is how growth occurs.

As I look at the things I believe I also need to let go of the idea that my understandings are right. That is just simplistic. It is also dangerous because it can affect how others are viewed. Formulating a belief from scriptures is not in the realm of right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It is me, or you, or others, dealing honestly with what we read, our life experiences, our personal spirituality and finding the position that makes the most sense and is most helpful at that time in our lives. Then believing that others have done the same even if their conclusion is different. That way I accord them all the respect their position deserves.

So, ponder heaven this week. Consider what do I believe? Why do I believe it? Be comfortable with being challenged. Be comfortable with concluding I don’t really know. I suspect, whatever we believe about details, whether it is a spacial, spiritual or metaphorical place, heaven is our highest aspiration of hope for a good future.

Photo: Sunset Over Knott End (August 2015)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother’s Day, Mould Disruption and Male Dominance?

Where are the women? That was the first thought I had as I read the lectionary passages this morning. The passages include questions by Thomas and Philip (John 14: 1-14), teaching by Stephen (Acts 7:1-60) and an admonition by Peter (1 Peter, 2:2-10). Stephen even began his lengthy discourse with the words, “Brothers and fathers listen to me” (1). Where are the women? Are they silenced? Are they invisible? Are they irrelevant?

It seemed strange that on the day the U.S.A. celebrates Mother’s Day that women are absent in all the readings.

I should note here that the U.K. celebrated Mother’s Day in March. In the U.K. it is always the fourth Sunday of Lent. Briefly it dates from the sixteenth century when people returned to their mother church and families got to be together. In the U.S. in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honour mothers. Regardless of the origins of the two days they share the same emphases.

I want to consider mothering. I have been reading a book by Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (Beacon Press, 1995). In the book there is an interesting linking of mothering with peace. This is not new. The U.S. mother’s day initiative was started in 1905 by Anna Jarvis to honour her mother who died that year. Anna continue her mother's work. Ann Reeves Jarvis was a peace activist and as early as 1868 organized Mothers’ Working Clubs to gather soldiers on both sides of the civil war to promote peace and reconciliation.

Ruddick does not see “mothering” as exclusively female. Mothering is about caring, nurturing, fostering growth and bringing about reconciliation. Society is at its best when these are valued.

I want to return to the story of Stephen. His story begins when a complaint was made about widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The twelve male disciples called the community together and said it was not right for them to neglect the word of God to serve tables (6:2). It is a sad statement, I wonder if at this point the male disciples missed the point of Jesus teaching which was about care, often reflected in feeding people. Certainly, an example of male dominance in the scriptures.

The solution was to select seven men to attend to the task of waiting on tables. I read this and excitedly think, “Great, they are disrupting the mould” (Or mold if US spelling is preferred). Waiting on tables, as with other domestic tasks, have traditionally been considered the work of women. Men are being selected to do it in this story of the early church.  The mould of women’s work is being broken. Mothering was a task for all.

Sadly, my excitement only lasted a moment.

Mould disruption or male dominance?

As I re-read the passage, I must consider the latter as the more likely option. Although the seven men were appointed to mothering, to feed people and to care for widows, there is no mention of them fulfilling that task. Was it done? Or was it not significant enough to be mentioned again? The women’s work is denigrated. 

The passage continues mentioning signs, wonders and enticing words spoken by Stephen. The importance of mothering is ignored. A great opportunity was missed.

Ruddick says, “As men become mothers and mothers invent public resistances to violence, mothering and peacemaking become a single, womanly-manly work —a feminist, maternal politics of peace’ (244).

Happy mother's day to all.

(Photo:  Our back garden, June 15, 2015)