Thoughts and Musings
Rev. C. Paul Grenier


UNITED CHURCH 

OF CHRIST
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UNITED CHURCH 
            
OF CHRIST

Thoughts and Musings

A Note of Grace

by Pastor Paul on 04/10/13

     Sometimes we are struck by a moment of sudden and vivid inspiration that is accompanied by a burning desire to express itself. The Greeks referred to this experience as, “being inspired by the Muses," In Christianity this experience is often attributed to a revelation of the Holy Spirit. I believe strongly in this idea of Divine Inspiration or Revelation. It is a key concept in my own theology that I conceive as a manifestation of God’s Grace. I believe this Revelatory Grace has inspired the greatest artists and thinkers of our past, present, and future world. It has been the driving force that encouraged the development of our civilization from the spark that lit the first fire, to the building of great Temples and cities, to the development of new sciences and technologies in our own times. In accordance with God’s generosity and love, it is important to know that God’s Revelatory Grace is not limited to specifically gifted individuals. It is freely given in great and small ways to everyone. We have all had those “ah ha” moments, where things just “click,” or ideas come into our mind seemingly from nowhere. The famous author on World Religions, Huston Smith call’s these moments, Grace notes.” The trick is to be open to these moments of Grace when they occur, and to be willing to act upon them.

     I would not be so presumptuous as to claim that I have been visited by any great Divine Revelations, but while reading a book on the spiritual life the other day I was struck by a quote by Victor Hugo, the author of Les Misrables. I had an “ah ha” moment of what I believe was God’s Revelatory Grace. In the blink of an eye a poem set itself in my mind and demanded expression. It surprised me, and came fully formed, like the classic metaphorical example of the Goddess Athena springing to life from the head of Zeus in full battle regalia.

     Therefore, I would like to share this poem with you as a possible example of how God’s Revelatory Grace manifests itself. I offer it here, in the hope that it might inspire you towards further insight and revelation.

“The Shining Heavens Above and the Shining Soul Within.”

There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky. Infinitely deep and infinitely high; Full of darkness it shines with light; Forever day and forever night;  There is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the soul within you and the soul which is called “I.”

One further note of caution on Divine Revelation and Revelatory Grace. “It is not crazy to think that God is speaking to you. It is only crazy to think that God is speaking only to you.”

Reference: "There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky. There is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the soul within us.” – Victor Hugo

Ash Wednesday

by Pastor Paul on 03/04/13

This past Ash Wednesday I was privileged to distribute ashes to literally hundreds of people throughout New York City. My journey began in the early morning in the subway tunnels under Union Square in Manhattan. When we started I was struck by how our solemn offering of ashes was sharply contrasted by a street preacher who set up only a few yards away. As my friend Mabel and I waited in quiet contemplation for anyone who was interested to approach us, the street preacher loudly sang songs about the glory of God, interspersed with fiery sermons about damnation.

Then around lunch time, we packed up our things and I went to work at Bellevue Hospital where I spent the majority of the day offering ashes to patients and staff. I finally ended my day with another visit to the subway, this time in the Bronx, where I helped distribute ashes with the St. Lydia’s Church Community. By the end of the day I had given out so many ashes that my thumb was sore, but this gave me plenty of time and experience to reflect on the meaning of this ritual practice.

Ash Wednesday, which is usually thought of as a solely Roman Catholic tradition has become more popular among Protestant Christians and I whole heartily welcome this trend! Marking someone’s forehead with the sign of the cross in dark ash may appear very odd to someone who is not familiar with this ritual. Indeed, we got many strange looks from passersby in the subway, and one woman even took our picture commenting,“I want to show my in-laws how we do it in New York.” Whatever this comment meant, it is clear that many rituals appear strange to those who do not understand the meaning behind them.

Some Christians consider the ritual of Ash Wednesday sacrilegious as it is not mentioned in the Bible and there is little to no evidence that it was practiced in the early Church. However, just because something is not in the Bible or ancient, does not necessarily mean it is a bad idea without deep import and spiritual merit. After all much of what we do in Christianity, from Christmas pageants, to organ music and electric lighting is not ”biblical” but is nevertheless beneficial in many ways.

The spirit and theology behind the ritual of Ash Wednesday is very much biblical. The tradition of putting Ashes on one’s head as a sign of mourning or repentance is as old as grief though it is first reported in the Old Testament in 2 Sam 13:19. Some orthodox Jews still rip their clothes and put ashes on their heads as a sign of mourning or repentance. Indeed, Ash Wednesday has much in common with the Jewish Holy Day Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement,( Lev 23:26–32) and it may even be a Christian re-appropriation of this old tradition.

Of Course, Ash Wednesday is not just, one day but it is the beginning of a forty day period of repentance and reflection called lent, that leads up to Holy Week, when we retell the story of Jesus final entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion and resurrection. The Forty days of lent our also linked to the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness struggling with Satan after his baptism at the Jordan.(Matt 4:1-11)

I believe Ash Wednesday and Lent are the most important time for Christians because it forces us to look directly at our utter humanity, our mortality and sin, and wrestle with how this truth affects our relationship to God and other people. We must struggle, like Jesus with temptation to grab riches, power, and glory. Ash Wednesday not only invites us to confront this temptation, but also to accept it as a constant presence within our lives. It is important to remember that even after Jesus came out of the wilderness he struggled with temptation to the very end, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane that he not be crucified.(Matt 26:42)

The traditional “blessing” that is said when one gives ashes is, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” This simple statement is to remind every Christian that salvation does not mean an end to suffering, pain, and death. In fact, Ash Wednesday and Lent invite us to reflect on this reality and use it to deepen our relationship with Christ. We cannot grow in our relationship with Christ if we continuously deny the sin, and suffering that accompany the life of every person whether they are Christian or not.

Many modern Christian movements try to deny temptation and suffering all together as a problem for Christians. They content that once one is saved suffering is minimized and replaced by an overwhelming joy. Any form of temptation meanwhile can by overcome through faith in Jesus. Furthermore, any signs of suffering or doubt, are indicators that one might not be truly “saved,”and so the tendency is for believers to deny and repress their human experiences of temptation, pain, and suffering. This line of thinking was dubbed a “Theology of Glory,” by the Reformer Martin Luther and he contrasted it with the “Theology of the Cross.” He said that God was not only hidden in suffering, but that God was at work in our anxiety and doubt. To paraphrase he said when we are at the end of our rope-when we no longer have hope within ourselves-that is when we run to God for mercy.

Through the lens of a Theology of the Cross Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a forty day spiritual journey where we are invited to take a good hard look at ourselves. During this time we are supposed to reflect on our failings and strive to overcome them. Even more importantly, we are given the greater challenge of acknowledging some of our failings as a reality that cannot be overcome. We are challenged to accept this reality and integrate it into our lives with an appeal to God for forgiveness and mercy. As expressed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov: "You will burn and you will burn out; you will be healed and come back again."

This is the joy that comes at the end of Holy Week which we celebrate with the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. To reflect this understanding when I passed out the ashes on Ash Wednesday I said, “From dust you came. To dust you shall return. Reflect on this and grow towards God.”

Advent: A season of waiting

by Pastor Paul on 12/16/12

             The Holiday Season is a season of waiting in line.  This time of year lines are so pervasive that you can often get trapped in a line that has nothing to do with you.  A flash mob in search of a good deal is almost certain to frustrate your errands sometime this month.  Waiting in line can be especially harrowing during the Holidays because of all of the things we know we have to get done.  The list seems endless and any delay just produces anxiety and frustration.  But does it have to be this way?

The other day I was listening to a radio host interview a math and social behavior expert who had just written a book about lines.  The host asked him, “how we can avoid that terrible experience of waiting in line?”  The expert replied with some pretty sound and standard advice.  He said that we should try to avoid lines if at all possible by shopping during off hours, or if we expect that we will get stuck in a line we should bring something with us, like a smart-phone, to occupy our attention while we wait.  It wasn’t the expert’s answers, but the host’s question and the general tone of the conversation that got me thinking.

Is waiting in line really all that terrible?  If so why?  Why isn’t it restful, like when a person stops and sits for a few minutes in the middle of a long hike?  Can waiting in line become a good thing? 

A part of me wants to shout out “no!” waiting is always terrible.  I want to be as productive as possible and waiting just hinders my productivity.   Some would argue that waiting is so frustrating because “We shouldn’t have to wait.”  I have a friend who staunchly persists in believing that all waiting is caused by the inefficiency, laziness, or stupidity of others.    For him waiting in line is not a mere inconvenience but an assault on our freedom and productivity by inconsiderate or ignorant perpetrators.

            But the traditions and practices of Christianity gently insist that, yes, patience is a virtue, and waiting is a positive way of cultivating this virtue.  The traditional Christian service that has often been lambasted for being slow and plodding is a prime example of how Christian practices tend to cultivate patience.  Even more stunning the month before Christmas Eve that we normally think of as “the Christmas Season,” is actually called “Advent,” by the Church calendar.  It is an entire month set aside for the practice of waiting in expectation for the “Advent” of Jesus’ birth.  We’ve all heard that “good things come to those who wait,” but maybe good things come to those while they wait as well.

            The gifts of waiting are many.  First, despite my insistence that I could be doing something better with my time than waiting in line, if I’m honest with myself I know that I’d probably spend any surplus time  watching TV or in an equally unproductive way.  Secondly, there is no reason why waiting in line cannot be productive.  I could bring a smart phone or knitting to occupy myself as the expert suggested, but I could just as easily be more adventurous and use my time to meet new people and spread the joy of the season, or on those days when I’m not feeling particularly chatty I could use the time waiting in line or traffic for prayer, self-reflection, or meditation.  With the overabundance of cellphones and portable media around us today, there is very little time for people to be alone with their thoughts. 

            Finally if my friend is right that waiting is so infuriating because it is usually the fault of others, it becomes one of the most important Christian practices.  Waiting allows us to freely practice love and forgiveness towards strangers who have trespassed against us.  What often makes us upset is not the action of others, but the frustration of our own desires.  Waiting teaches in a very visceral way that our time and our lives are not our own.  The better we grasp the lessons of waiting in the season of advent the better we can rejoice at the coming of Christmas.v

The Christian Roots of Halloween

by Pastor Paul on 11/05/12

            Ever since I was a little kid I have loved the Holiday of Halloween.  Not only because of the loads of candy we would collect, in fact my older brother would usually trick me into giving him all of my good stuff, but because of the decorations, the colors, the costumes, and the general spirit of the whole season.  It would begin with the changing of the leaves from monochrome shades of green to vivid displays of reds, oranges and yellows.  Our senses became alive to the beauty and bounty of the fall festival as our meals started to include favorites like pumpkin pie, hot apple cider, butternut squash, and candy corn cookies.  On our way to and from school the leaves would crackle under our feet, and even the air seemed to crisp with sharp anticipation for the holiday.

Then of course there was the costume planning.  My friends and family would agonize as we each tried to out do one another in creativity and cleverness.  I think our best year was when my friends and I went as the I.R.S., Internal Rascal Squad, handing out Halloween audit slips from door to door in exchange for candy. 

Though I never articulated it I always thought of Halloween as a supremely Christian holiday, where family, friends, and the entire community were called upon to revel in the gifts God had given us, such as the physical gifts of food, or the spiritual gifts of creativity and beauty.  I have also always thought that Halloween powerfully embodies many Christian values such as community, hope, and love.  The concept, as I understood it, was that the entire neighborhood had informally decided to spend their money and time throwing the local children a party as a sign of their love for their neighbors and hope for the future.  Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but because of its prehistoric roots in the celebration of the fall harvest and the preparation for winter, Halloween lends itself easily to many secular and religious interpretations.  The early church knew this as they adapted the Celtic Samhain and the Roman Frelia, to become “Hallowseve” or Holy Eve and all Saints day.  These are days for celebrating life, and remembering the dead Christians who went before us.

The meaning behind Halloween goes far deeper than kids and candy, and some people are trying to cultivate this deeper meaning as Halloween in America changes into a more adult holiday.  I have attended many college memorial services at the end of October or beginning of November, which honor the dead.  I have also seen several attempts to bring the Mexican Holiday of Dias De La Morte on to the campus and into the chapel as students build alters for their lost loved ones.  On a less somber note some people have started hosting Holy-eve, parties where guests dressup in religiously themed costumes, bible figures, favorite saints, or even a burning bush or two.  Then they share scripture, stories, and fellowship around a steaming bowl of apple cider.  As a form of communal outreach and activism, I once participated in an activity called “Random Acts of Candy,” where students handed out candy to people on the streets for no reason other than to spread happiness and joy.  This can be a great way to evangelize the Christian spirit of love and charity embodied in our modern Halloween.  It was inspiring to see how much happiness and joy strangers felt from recieving a small peice of candy from a Christian organization on Halloween.  Another idea is to carve religious symbols and pictures into your pumpkins, afterall the original story of Jack and his lantern is about a man condemned to roam the earth with a lantern because he was so nasty even the Devil didn’t want him. 

The trend seems to be that Halloween is becoming less an event for kids in their neighborhoods, and more a celebration for all ages that takes place in public areas such as malls, town centers, and college campuses.  Dare we hope that Churches and Chapel’s become an open venue for this celebration as well, where the Christian spirit of the fall festival can be celebrated in all its many ways?
            If you are planning or have participated in such a Christian celebration please comment below.

The most difficult Doctrine of Christianity

by Pastor Paul on 11/05/12

 The most difficult part of being a Christian is not that we have to believe in any particular doctrine that appears to go against modern science, but it is following the Christian way of life and living out the moral and spiritual teachings of Jesus.  Whereas believers and non-believers have offered countless empirical and logical arguments for or against Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection, for millennia, few have essayed to confront the primary principle of Christian life, i.e. that good will overcome evil.  They have not confronted this because it cannot be proven in the slightest and must be taken on faith.

Though we have all been taught that good triumphs over evil since childhood, I believe it is important for the serious Christian to recognize how absurd such a principle really is when exposed to the harsh light of reality and all we know about the way the world works.  For invested in this idea is the belief that it is better to be a poor honest nobody, who returns blessings for insults, than to be a rich and famous leader of men, who does not need to bother with the concerns of others.  To live the Christian life is to take seriously the belief that the best course of action is to answer evil with good, to love your enemy as yourself, and the concurrent notion that somehow this will lead to a happier and a more fulfilling life. 

This radical and transforming belief proclaimed in so many scriptures by Jesus, most prominently in the Sermon on the Mount and the beatitudes, that the best life available is won through love, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice, rather than sectarianism, retribution, and opportunism, goes against all empirical evidence, and has no basis for belief either in reason or science.

Though we may extol the virtues of love and honesty, our common sense often causes us to repay hate for hate and injury for injury.  Our worldly society tells us that happiness comes from wealth, fame, and power.  Our earthly biology tells us to, “Look out for number one,” or at least your own clan.  And every day we see examples of those who compromise their morals and gain more wealth or power, while those who stand up for justice are often crushed and forgotten. 

A friend once remarked to me that, “the doctrine of original sin, that we are all innately selfish is the most provable doctrine of the church.”  Throughout our communal and individual histories people have shown over and over again their propensity for selfish gain and self-righteous behavior.  The desire for self-preservation and advancement is borne out by evolutionary science, and is so strong that even the church has repeatedly fallen victim to the corruption of its own sin.  The horror of man’s inhumanity to man is so evident that it is the one thing that both Christians and non-Christians agree upon.

But whereas the atheist can only shrug his shoulders in the face of such a challenge and give some patronizing exhortation about working for the greater good of all, the Christian is called to shake his fist at this system and shout “Anathema!”  Being a Christian requires a different way of thinking.  The Apostle Paul instructs, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your spirit. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.”(Rom 12:2) 

To truly accept the mantle of Christianity is to turn the wisdom of the world on its head and believe many things even when they appear to go against our commonsense and worldly experience.  For Paul again says that Christian believe, “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”(1 Cor 1:25) 

            Therefore, when Christians and atheists dispute the validity of Christianity by offering scientific and logical proofs they completely miss the essence of faith.  When Jesus says that, “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt 7:13-14) he is talking about the difficult path of Christianity.  This difficulty does not come from believing in some historical event, such a thing would be far too easy. 

The signs and miracles of the Gospels are not unique to Christianity and they were commonly believed by just about everybody in a world where lightning was evidence of God and disease was explained almost solely by evil spirits.  The people who wrote the Bible and spread Christianity for the first 1500 years did not think in terms of scientific proofs and archeological evidence.  The truth of Christianity was, and is, meant to be believed and experienced through living out the primary principle of good overcomes evil and love conquers all.  This is a course of life of faith, prayer, and action, which cannot be proven through empirical data and logical debate.  As Galileo poetically put it, “The Bible shows us the way to go to Heaven, not the way the Heaven’s go.”

The difficult path that Jesus speaks of is the one that can only be walked by faith, even today in our modern world.  It does not involve the denial of any science, but it does involve the rejection of our world's most prized goals of wealth, fame, and power, and the most effectively proven methods of achieving these goals.v