October 28 discussion: What is God?

On Monday October 28, 2019 at 7 pm, 19 people met in the sanctuary to discuss how our new Purpose Statement — “We are a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place” — might help us explore beliefs and traditions.

This Purpose Statement was approved at our March 2019 Annual General Meeting following almost a year of both formal and informal conversations.

Following this, Council established a Future Steps group to develop a plan to make this new Purpose Statement an active and living representation of whom we are as a congregation.

During the months of September and October, we included three articles titled “What is God” in both What’s the Buzz and the Weekly Bulletin (reprinted below). On October 28, we split into three circles to allow in-depth sharing on various reactions to these articles. We then reconvened as a whole to discuss other ideas to make the new Purpose statement a reality in the life of the community.

Here is a link to opening remarks by Rev. Ian

First article: What is God?

On June 6, 2019, in an article entitled “The Future Church: Over to You” Gretta Vosper, a United Church minister in Toronto recalls a Sunday morning 15 years ago in her congregation. She writes, “As I preached, my words spilled out into a total deconstruction of a theistic god called God. Founder of the Universe: gone. Creator of All Life: gone. Source of All Goodness: gone. Purveyor of Divine Blessing and Answers to Prayer: gone. Arbiter of Justice: gone.”

Thus began a process within her congregation and within the United Church of Canada to explore what church beyond belief might look like. In a June 13, 2019 article in response to the question – what “exactly is an atheist?” Gretta Vosper wrote, “My concept of god is one of relationship, represented in the United Church’s most recent statement of faith by the term ‘Bond of Love’: I do not believe in a being but I do believe in the enormous power of human community and the ‘god’ created within meaning-making community. The ‘power of god’ is the power created in human relationships, not something outside of it. I no longer use the term, however, for the simple reason that I want to be understood.”

In the introduction to a resource created by St. Stephen’s College here in Edmonton called, “Non-Theistic Liturgy Resources,” John Spong is quoted saying, ”God is not a supernatural entity, but the essence of life and love that is in the world and within each of us.”

Our perspectives of God are very personal and often based upon our backgrounds and experiences. For some, these perspectives have brought them into a church community. For others, they have caused them to leave or reject what they see the church representing. For all of us, this is an important aspect of our personal spiritual journey. Where are you on this important and live-giving journey? Is Mill Woods United Church a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place?

Article Two: What is God?

This is the second of three articles focused on the topic: What is God? In the first article, reference was made to a ‘theistic’ God. What does this mean?

In his book, Unbelievable, John Spong states that “theism” was the definition that saw God as a ‘being’ that dwelled outside the boundaries of the world, endowed with supernatural power and periodically intervening to answer prayers or to impose the divine will on life in this world.” In light of what we know today, many people find this definition limiting and not representing their image of God. Thus we frequently hear the use of the words atheism, non-theism or post-theism.

As we individually and collectively explore the question “What is God,” seeking alternate names or descriptions of God becomes very personal. We hear names like the divine, holy one, sacred, mystery, energy, justice, compassion or love. John Spong wrote – God is not a noun we are compelled to define. God is a verb we are invited to live.

In the resource, Non-Theistic Liturgy Resources, developed at St. Stephen’s College, criteria were developed which have been used to determine which resources would be included. This criteria clearly reflects an alternative to the theistic definition of God. A few of these are included below.

• Rather than portraying God as judgmental or violent, God is portrayed as unconditionally loving and accepting of all creation
• Rather than language of control, words that focus on compassion, justice or interconnection are used
• Rather than suggestions or requests for God to intervene in some situations and not others, prayer is focused on changing ourselves to bring about the change
• Rather than demanding we believe only one thing or something unbelievable, we are encouraged to welcome questions and recognize the journey of understanding of which we are each part
• Rather than seeing the Bible as the word of God or as an historical document to take literally, it is seen as a human document containing ancient truths coming from stories, faith, and myth.

As you continue on this important and live-giving journey, what are the images, vocabulary or criteria you use to bring you closer to understanding of the divine? How can Mill Woods United Church be your spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place?

Article Three: What is God?

This is the third of three articles focused on the topic: What is God? In our first article, reference was made to a sermon Gretta Vosper preached 15 years ago which opened the door for change and discovery. In the same article she makes other interesting and challenging remarks.

She asks if we have given much thought to why we are each still in the church. While our responses might include worship, music, prayer, the minister, etc, she suggests it is likely because of the people and the community we have each developed over time. She suggests we have perhaps fallen in love with being together. This has strengthened us and helped us be accepting and open to each other while serving our communities.

She then goes on to say that this love is a problem. This love and care for each other has helped us do fine work within the church and in our communities. It has provided us with some of the best friendships we will ever experience. But has this love of community and acceptance, moved us away from challenging ourselves and others about our understandings of God and the relevance of our liturgy? In today’s world of great knowledge, understanding and advancements, does what we experience in worship represent what we know, think or believe?

Or are we filtering what we hear, sing, pray, or read simply because we care for each other? Is this need to filter getting in the way of us each maturing and growing spiritually? Is the fact that we need to filter to get meaning ourselves getting in the way of new people looking for relevance and meaning, but not willing to filter to get it, becoming part of our congregations?

Within Mill Woods United Church, how do we continue to build upon our tremendous feeling of community, engage in our valuable outreach, while nurturing the spiritual needs of those presently in our congregation and those who might join us in this life-giving journey?

Perhaps there is a glimpse to the answer in this old folk tale. Is the answer in our hands?

Once there was a wise old woman who lived in a small village. The children of the village were puzzled by her — her wisdom, her gentleness, her strength. One day several children decided to test the old woman. They believed that no one could be as wise as everyone said she was, and were determined to prove it.

So the children found a baby bird and one of the boys cupped it in his hands and said to his playmates “We’ll ask her whether the bird I have in my hand is dead or alive. If she says it is dead, I will open hands and let it fly away. If she says it’s alive, I’ll crush it in my hands and she’ll see that it is dead. So the children went to the old woman and presented her with this puzzle.

“Old woman,” the boy said, “this bird in my hands — is it dead or alive? “The woman became very still, studied the boy’s hands, then she looked carefully into his eyes. “It’s in your hands whether the bird will stay alive or will die,” she said.