Castlegar News Column for July 2024

Summer Sabbath
by Rev. Robin Pengelly

A few summers ago, I received an e-newsletter from the company who provides mental health services for United Church employees. They had two articles that caught my attention The first was: “Taking your work with you on vacation” about the importance of taking your vacation time off and NOT bringing office work with you. The second was: “Help your child maintain academic skills over the summer”. I couldn’t help but notice a disconnect there between what we are telling adults to do, and the habits we are teaching our children.

Personally, I feel children should spend their summers outdoors as much as possible, playing with friends, connecting with the land, doing chores like weeding the garden and mowing the lawn, and learning a whole set of skills not available in school classrooms. Then they can return to school in the fall refreshed and ready for academics again. This is why I dedicate much of my time to Camp Koolaree, a United Church Camp on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake, where all can come and generous donors make sure finances are not a barrier.

Adults need time to refresh their souls, too. For some, such as those in farming and construction, that time is in winter, as summer is their busy work season. But for many, summer is the time to travel, go camping, have backyard barbecues with friends, and enjoy the warm weather. That company newsletter was right to give people permission to set their work aside during vacation time and be fully present to the experience, their families and their own spirits.

In the Bible, taking time to refresh your spirit and connect with God and family is known as Sabbath. The Jewish people set aside one day a week for rest and prayer, but they also set aside larger blocks of time for rest every seven years, and held major celebrations that hit a social reset button at the end of seven times seven years, (so every fifty years) known as the year of Jubilee. (Leviticus chapter 25). Christians carry on the weekly tradition of Sabbath, not just because it is written in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11), but because we all have need of making time for God. (Mark 2:27)

What do you do to refresh your soul? Taking time out from life’s daily routine is important for attending to our spirits and connection to the divine.

Castlegar News Column for June 2024

Thoughts on the Lord’s Prayer
By Rev. Robin Pengelly

“Pray, then, in this way: Our Father…” (Matthew 6:9) With these words, Jesus invites us into the divine family. Flawed as we are, we are invited into intimacy with God. For some, this name “Father” is problematic, but gender was not the point when, nearly 2000 years ago, Jesus used the Aramaic name “Abba”, which translates into modern English more accurately as “Daddy”. The point was relationship. A good parent is more than just the biological creator or adopter of a child. A good parent is a teacher and provider, a loving nurturer, and also a voice of authority and comfort.

God as a parent is not a being who we own and have exclusive rights to, nor a being whom we can control. There is no trademark or copyright symbol next to God’s name – it is hallowed and not ours to use and abuse as it suits us. The God we pray to when we pray as Jesus taught, is bigger than the United Church of Canada, the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church, the Church of God or any other division we can dream up among Christians. God is bigger than Christianity itself.

Another implication of God as a parent is that God wants to hear our prayers, just like a parent wants their children to ask nicely for what they need. Jesus says, “Ask and it shall be given.” (Matthew 7:7-8) Does that mean God will give us everything we want, right at the moment we want it? Would you give your child candy for breakfast? What if they asked for a unicorn? But how about if they asked for bread to eat and share with another hungry person, or companionship when they were lonely?

We pray for God’s kingdom to come, that there may be peace in our world. Does God answer? The Mir Centre for Peace tells us, that in spite of all the evil that still is going on in the world, we are in an unprecedented time of peace. There are fewer acts of violence globally now than there were just fifty years ago. We pray for forgiveness for the evil we have created. We pray for the strength to forgive others. We pray not to be tempted by evil going forward. This is the path towards God’s peace, making this ancient prayer still worth saying again and again.

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:9-13)

Castlegar News Column for May 2024

Five Ways to Live a Christian Life
by Rev. Robin Pengelly

As graduation approaches for many in our community, I am inspired to review the question, “How should I live my life?” This isn’t just a question for young people leaving high school, college, or university. It is a question everybody can keep asking themselves. Am I doing what I am supposed to be? Is what I am doing giving life to myself and others?

Each person is gifted by the Creator in some way. Those gifts vary from person to person and also through the different phases of our lives. Each of us has our own personal journey. Figuring out, or discerning how we are called to use our gifts is important to Christian living.

There are a few places in the Bible that talk about this idea. Romans 12:6-8 names the gifts of prophecy, ministry, teaching, encouragement, giving, leadership, and compassion. 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 also names the gifts of healing and wisdom. An important common thread to these passages is that none of these gifts are more important than the others. All are equally valuable.

One of my professors in seminary, Rev. Janet Gear, named five operative theologies found within communities of faith, which I find apply to individuals as well. Each theology is a legitimate way to focus your gifts and faith. You will probably live with a little of each in your life, but one or two are likely to dominate your activities and choices.

There is an evangelical theology, meaning a focus on sharing the good news of God’s love with other people so they might find their own path to transformation. Next is an ecclesial theology, meaning a focus on church services, worship, and teaching or learning about God together. A missional theology means going out and being present where the need is, like volunteering in soup kitchens and offering practical help.

An ecumenical theology will see you working for broad social change, justice, and peace, with others, in groups or in government. And finally there is a spiritual theology, where you open your life to more wisdom and holiness, often through prayer, meditation, and contemplation.

None of these different theologies are more important or more correct than the others. Your focus will just depend on the gifts you have, and how they relate to the gifts of the people around you. Whatever you do, be kind and respectful of the paths others choose.

Castlegar News Column for April 2024

The Commandment to Love
by Rev. Robin Pengelly

If people know nothing else about Jesus, they usually know that he talked a lot about love. In Matthew 22:37-39, Mark 12:29-31, and Luke 10:27, three different books in the Bible, he is recorded as saying that we are to love God and one another.

I don’t think it’s an accident that he pairs these two things. If we try to live out our faith in and love for God independently of other people, we meet only half of Jesus’ commandment. We may love God, but we also must love one another. Love is a verb and must be lived out through action.

How we treat other people is an important way to demonstrate our love for God. Micah 6:8 says “What does the Lord require of you but to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” At a time when animal sacrifice was a common religious practice, Jesus quoted the Prophet Hosea saying, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13, Hosea 6:6)

One doesn’t need to be religious to be a good person, and obviously being part of a religion doesn’t automatically make you a good person. We have all seen examples, both uplifting and troubling, that support this statement. But you can’t be a good person without being good to other people.

Now, I confess to being pretty introverted for someone in my profession. Left to my own devices, I might just stay in my own home and putter about most of the time. But I’ve come to the conclusion that being an active part of a spiritual community and not just living a privately spiritual life, is an important part of living a life of wholeness.

Intimate settings of small community, such as a church congregation, is where we demonstrate our love for one another through our day to day interpersonal actions and our work together. We journey together, pray for one another, and work together to grow God’s justice in our spheres of influence. We both challenge and support one another to live into our whole potential at whatever age or stage of life we may be.

Our love for God might be bigger than our relationships with one another, but it can’t be separated from them either. Mercy, kindness, and seeking justice, these are how we show love to both the world and the divine.

Castlegar News Column for March 2024

Why I Support 2SLGTBQ+ People as a Christian
By Rev. Robin Pengelly

Christians have a long history of disagreeing with one another. In the early Eleventh Century, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split over the nature of the Holy Trinity, and priestly celibacy. In the Sixteenth Century, Protestant Reformers split from the Roman Catholic Church over such issues as Papal hierarchy, and the collection of art and religious relics.
Today, one big point of Christian disagreement is the acceptance of 2SLGTBQ+ people. Many condemn any sexual orientation or gender identity outside of traditional cisgender heterosexual relations. The United Church of Canada, however, welcomes full membership and participation of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Here are some questions people have about this stance:
“Doesn’t the Bible say homosexuality is wrong?” The Bible was originally written in Greek (New Testament) or Hebrew (Old Testament) between 2000 and 4000 years ago. The word “homosexual” was a scientific term invented in the late 1800’s and doesn’t appear in English translations of the Bible until 1946. The Greek words these Twentieth Century translators changed to “homosexual” were often previously translated as “pederasty” or “boy molesters.”
Most of us can agree that the sexual abuse of children is wrong. It is also not the same thing as consenting adult same-sex partners.
“What about Sodom and Gomorrah?” This Bible story from the book of Genesis is clearly about a community using gang rape as a spectator sport, not about consensual same-sex relationships. Ezekiel 16:49 gives the reasons Sodom was destroyed as being “they were proud, gluttonous, lazy, and ignored the oppressed and the poor.”
“What about Romans 1:26-32?” There are a whole lot of sinful activities named there besides sexual ones; envy, gossip, rebellious towards parents, etc. I suggest Christians continue reading to Romans 2:1-5, where it says “do not judge.” Remember, chapter and verse numbers were added to the Bible in 1555, so Paul’s original letter had no division of thought there. The one refers to the other.
The most important commandments according to Jesus are to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. He says, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) To me, exclusion and condemnation violate this command. Perhaps my Bible interpretation about 2SLGTBQ+ could be wrong. None of us are ever 100% right, but if I am to be wrong, as a Jesus follower, I will always err on the side of love.

Castlegar News Column for February 2024

Separation of Church and State
by Rev. Robin Pengelly

We hear the phrase “separation of church and state” over and over again in contemporary Canadian society. Well, I hate to break it to some folks, but that is a United States thing. We don’t actually have that in Canada, not legally anyway. Since 1982, we have been guaranteed freedom of religion by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, but that same document also references the “supremacy of God.” So you are free to be atheist, but your government isn’t.

My own United Church of Canada was established by an Act of Parliament in 1925. We receive no public funding, so in that regard, we are separate, but if we want to change anything in our founding documents, it literally takes another Act of Parliament. Politicians 100 years ago hoped that by having our own church, Canada would seem more sophisticated, like all those European Protestant countries that have them.

And speaking of national churches, presently, if you take public office, a government job, or become a Canadian Citizen through immigration, you are required to swear an oath of allegiance to the King. King Charles III also happens to be the head of the Church of England. Again, not much separation there.

Historically, religion and politics have been inseparable. In many countries, as well as some traditional Indigenous Canadian cultures, they still are. Perhaps the separation idea has gained popularity because our current Western understanding of politics is mainly concerned with gaining and maintaining power. This is very different from traditional Indigenous, Eastern, and ancient Greek understanding of politics as living a good life within the larger community.

That shift from community to power is where the gap widens between church and state for me. Jesus modelled the need to stand up to political systems which put power and the benefit of a few ahead of the well-being of all, even if standing up to power results in negative consequences for us as individuals. Christians owe no loyalty to any political party and need to resist divisive politics. Our loyalty is to God and our political aim is justice, not power over others.

To live in wholeness as individuals, we will never be able to separate our values and beliefs from the rest of what we do, including our politics. I’m glad to be a part of a country that allows the freedom for each of us to do that.

Castlegar News Column for January 2024

What Is in a Name?
by Rev. Robin Pengelly

Between the deadline for me to submit this article and the time it goes to print, I will be getting married and changing my last name from “Murray” to “Pengelly.” A name change usually signifies a shift in a person’s social identity. Many stop using childhood nick names when they become adults; Billy becomes Bill. Most of my transgender friends changed their names when they began transitioning. In the Bible, Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah, while Simon was renamed Peter, meaning “the rock,” by Jesus.

And yet, are any of us name-changers really much different than we were before? Inside, I am the same person as I was before my wedding. I still love my grown children just as much as I did before. My love for my new husband keeps growing as it did when he was my fiancee. I love God as much as ever and God knows my deepest thoughts and desires, like before.

A transgender person changing their name is still the person they have always been inside. They have never not been transgender, even if it took them a while to come out. This is why we use their new name even when talking about them in the past. God purposely knit them together in their mother’s womb as transgender. Diversity among people is part of God’s delight and creative spirit.

There is speculation that Peter was called “the rock” because he was hard headed and slow to understand Jesus’ teachings. But he was also the solid foundation on which Jesus said he would build his church. Likewise, Abraham and Sarah, “father of nations” and “princess,” were the founders of several monotheistic faiths that have spread globally. All three were important parts of a bigger plan. God chose them because of who they already were, then helped them become more.

Name changes are an outward symbol of something already in progress inside. They are a descriptor to give other people an indication as to what God already knows about an individual, and to signify to others a commitment the person is making to be true to themselves, to a partner, to their community, to God, or perhaps a mixture of these things. Names help clarify your social role to other people. They don’t change who you are or how much God loves you. Nothing can change that. (Romans 8:38-39) Not even a name.

Castlegar News Column for December 2023

Christmas Connection
by Rev. Robin Murray

The Christmas story is one filled wonder and mystery, and perhaps that is why we tell it over and over each year. The scientist and sceptic in me used to struggle with the details – angels, prophetic dreams, a virgin birth, all these things don’t fit neatly into our scientific understanding of how the world works. And then there are the inconsistencies between the birth accounts found in the Bible, and knowledge that while we celebrate it in December, based on the shepherds and the Roman tax year, it must have happened in the spring. So much just doesn’t line up that I had to consider carefully whether I believed this baby really was the “Son of the Most High”.

And I decided that yes, yes I do believe. I believe in the fundamental truth this story points to, that God’s very essence is one of relationship. The Trinity of the Christian faith, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, speaks to this. Not only that, but all the universe points to this through the unseen forces that pull stars together in relationship with one another as swirling galaxies and through the intricate relationships of living things within the Earth’s ecosystems.

In the Christmas story, we see God reaching out to human beings, seeking relationship, delving into the human experience in the most intimate way possible and inviting us into the mystery of divine love. In the birth of Jesus, we see that our dividing into “us and them”, “human and divine”, is irrelevant. We are all connected to one another and to God. There is no one who is truly independent from other people and creatures in this world.

As you shop for each Christmas gift, imagine all the people whose hands were part of its making. What is it made of? Who made those materials? Were they mined? Grown? Reclaimed? What about the tools the craftsperson or farmer used to make it? What were those tools made of? What about the roads and vehicles and people that transported them from where they were made to their spot beneath your tree? We quickly realize that even a simple pencil represents work by tens of thousands of people, often spread over many generations.

Perhaps this awareness of connection to Creator and creation is one of the best Christmas gifts, and one that really can lead to “peace on earth and goodwill to all.”

Castlegar News Column for November 2023

Why I Left the Church for 20 Years
by Rev. Robin Murray

I confess, I left the church in my early 20’s and did not return until my early 40’s. After having my teen years nurtured by a United Church music outreach program (my parents were not church-goers), and finding great support and comfort there, I was shocked to learn about the church’s past involvement in residential schools.

On top of that, around that same point in my life, a group of boys my age from a Catholic orphanage near me, shocked the entire community by revealing the abuses they had experienced from priests. Meanwhile, a number of my friends were coming out as gay or lesbian, and I was dismayed that people in many different churches were ignorantly lumping them and their loving consensual relationships in with pedophiles like those priests.

None of this squared with the gospel of love I had been hearing in my church experiences as a teenager. Maybe most church-goers believed the residential schools and orphanage were places where needy children were being helped and cared for, but there were some in the church who knew better and turned a blind eye, and some who perpetrated these crimes against children and families.

Hypocrites! I was angry enough to walk away.

I tried being “spiritual but not religious,” but nothing changed. As a settler and a cis gender straight white person, just walking away from one institution didn’t absolve me from responsibility for past harm to indigenous peoples, and persecution of 2SLGTBQIA+ people. Our entire social system is designed to benefit me at the expense of other people who don’t fit my privileged profile.

The gospel of love, the gospel of Jesus (Mark 12:28-31), that captivated me as a teenager, calls Christians to love God and others, not to be an oppressor. With time, my anger began to shift. I began to get angry at the pedophiles and supremacists for stealing my church from me and also from my gay and lesbian friends. So, after 20 years away, I decided to take it back.

What better way to change a system than from the inside out? I rejoined the network of people coast to coast that is the United Church of Canada, who all profess to believe in the rule of love. We are messy, flawed, and human, but we’re trying to make things right, together. We believe that with hard work and God’s guidance, love will win.

Castlegar News Column for September 2023

Back to Community
by Rev. Robin Murray

It is that time of year when many people head back to school, when activities like choirs and sports teams that were suspended for the summer resume gathering, and the community comes back together. Having a break during the warmer months is nice, but I’m always glad for fall. There is something about community that refreshes in a different way than summer activities do.

Of course, its not all just happy reunions with friends. Being in a community can also be hard. There are difficult relationships to maneuver, lines to be waited in, and injustices to face.

One of my children once asked me to have a word with a high school teacher about how the way he spoke to (or yelled at) classmates was impacting my child’s learning. The teacher responded that he couldn’t understand why a student getting A’s in his class would care what was happening to others. His advice was to put on headphones in class and ignore it.

But that’s not how a Christian is called to view others in community. As Paul says in Romans 12:14-16: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live a God-centred life, reaching out to the community around us by being a prophetic voice for the outcast and abused, speaking truth to power, and journeying with the suffering of others in compassion, regardless of their background, religion, or other ways they differ from ourselves. This is the way Jesus lived his life.

In a society that either tells us to ignore injustice or promotes polarization around issues of disagreement, living in community can be a major challenge. It is tempting to curse and ridicule those with whom we have serious disagreement and to arrogantly act as if we know everything there is to know about the subject, therefore they should agree with us.

But what if we took the time to listen? What if we stopped to care about someone else’s experience, even if we didn’t understand it or experience things that way ourselves? Imagine what an amazing community this could be if all were respected and cared for! May it be so!

Castlegar News Column for June 2023

Creation and Consumption
by Rev. Robin Murray

Summer is a time a lot of us get out and enjoy the great outdoors. With the heat increasing, and all of the things such as wildfire and thunder storms that go with that, we are really feeling the effects of climate change. Our world has gone out of balance as a result of our excessive consumption of fossil fuels and our attitude that the world is ours to dominate and its resources are there simply for us to exploit and consume.

The Bible speaks of the consequences of our attitude of domination for the rest of creation and how creation hopes for the restoration of humans into right relationship as the Children of God (Romans 8:20). Christians often think of “sin” as not following the social rules outlined in the 10 Commandments. But much of our flawed relationship with creation can be better understood if we define sin not as behaviour that breaks a laundry list of moral rules, but as any behaviour that creates an estrangement or separation from God

Before there were Ten Commandments to break, we see the Genesis 3 story of God giving Adam and Eve instructions to eat of the fruit of any tree in the garden except one. We read how “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and … she took of its fruit and ate” even though she had been warned not to. (Genesis 3:6) I would argue the key message from this story is that our first, or primary sin as people is not disobedience to God, but putting the desire to consume above all else, even our relationship with God.

Both in Christian faith and most traditional indigenous Canadian spirituality there is an understanding of balance and harmony as holding a sense of healing and reconciliation with Creator God, the world and one another, as well as a sense of generosity on the part of the Creator in making our world. Many other religions share ideas similar to this.

Our relationship to Creator, each other, and creation are linked. When we do things that violate those relationships and over-consume, our world goes out of balance. People and animals suffer, and God, in infinite love, suffers alongside us. As we go into this summer season, may we seek forgiveness for past abuses to the land and to live in harmony going forward. May it be so.

Castlegar News Column for May 2023

How Can God be Love?
by Rev. Robin Murray

In previous columns I have mentioned a little about the Christian understanding that the very essence of God is one of relationship; the Holy Trinity, traditionally called “Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” but also “Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit,” as well as a number of other names. But what about this idea of “God is love” that you so often hear?

Because “love,” as both a noun and a verb, is based on relationship, for God to be capable of loving, there must be a relationship. If God is love and Creator God made the world in love, how could God be love prior having that relationship – prior to the existence of creation? For God to be love, therefore, God must have existed in loving relationship prior to the creation of our universe.

In the Christian tradition, that relationship is understood to be the one existing between the Trinity; one God consisting of three distinct but inseparable “persons” in eternal relationship with one another. The universe reflects the importance of relationship through forces like gravity and atomic structure, which are entirely based on the relationship of objects and particles to one another.

This is some pretty complex theological reflection that sometimes makes my head spin. Nevertheless, I think it is important to do, because otherwise words like “God is love” just become empty platitudes we find printed on coffee mugs and then are forgotten in the way we actually live our lives.

God, as love, moves through our hearts, changing us from selfish beings to outward moving beings, reaching out to others in relationship. Through the incarnation as Jesus, God the Christ has entered our world, becoming one of us, living and dying in relationship to those around him.

Beyond that life, the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, gives us all the choice and promise of a Christ-like relationship with God and with others, one based in love. In Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, we find a way to live in new relationship with God. Through the Spirit of Christ, we can experience a new intimacy with God as children of the divine (John 1:12) saving us from a life lacking in meaning and love.

The most important take away from all of this, though, is that we live in loving relationship, too, with one another, with God and with all of creation. May it be so.

Castlegar News Column for April 2023

Christianity and Creation
by Rev. Robin Murray

Among many other things in the United Church of Canada’s “New Creed”, it says that as a church, “We are called…to live with respect in Creation.” As Christians, our starting point for understanding creation, while sometimes wild, dangerous and unpredictable, is inherently good. (Genesis 1:31)

Also, as Christians, our starting point in understanding God is that God’s very essence is a loving relationship, traditionally represented as the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is “trinitarian” understanding of God, with Christ as equal to God, is what makes Christianity distinct from other Abrahamic faiths, such as Judaism and Islam, and is essential to who we are.

In recent years, we have seen an increase in the wildness and unpredictability of our earth on a climactic level, due to human industrial activities raising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. This imbalance in nature is a result of our selfish desire for endless growth and consumption.

Too often, Christians have justified putting human desires above natural processes, citing Genesis 1:26 which says we “have dominion over” the other living things in creation. Genesis 1:26 also says that we are designed in the image of God. Put that together with the Christian understanding that God is a Trinity, then we are designed to live in loving relationship with one another, with the Trinity and with creation.

Then perhaps we should view the idea of dominion found in Genesis, not as a mandate to dominate the earth, but as a simple descriptor; we have the capacity to dominate. However, to follow God’s example and live as those created in God’s image, we should not seek to dominate, but to live in respectful relationship with creation.

We should look for balance between our needs and the needs of other living beings. If nature is truly under our care, as we are in God’s care, then we might also need to be ready to make sacrifices for it, just as Christ sacrificed himself for us. What does your faith call you to do as we approach Earth Day on April 22nd? How will you live with respect in Creation? How can we, together, work towards, as Pope Francis said in his encyclical letter, Laudato Si’ on Care for our Common Home, the “peace, beauty and fullness” God desires for us and our planet?

May we pray on these things, hear the answer from God and take action.

Castlegar News Column for March 2023

Old Language in the Bible
by Rev. Robin Murray

I have heard some people say they find the language in the Bible “too old fashioned” and “it just doesn’t resonate in today’s world.” The oldest of these scriptures were probably written at least 5000 years ago and the most recent are from almost 2000 years ago. To complicate matters, what we are reading in English are translations of the original texts, most of which were written in Ancient Hebrew, and the rest in Ancient Greek.

The “fear of God” is a common phrase that puts some people off. In today’s society, we don’t like living in fear. Freedom and liberty are our buzzwords. We fight against fear and tyranny. Some would simply substitute the word “awe” or “reverence” for “fear” when talking about God. However, I would argue the Bible’s “fear of God” is more than just “awe.” It can best be understood as allowing ourselves to be awash in a love so big, it is terrifying. The God of the Universe stretches beyond our comprehension and that can be scary.

Patriarchal language in reference to God, such as “he” or “him” and “father” is another struggle for many. If masculine words are a stumbling block for people, I’m willing to switch. Changing to gender neutral words can be done easily without changing meaning. There are plenty of languages around the world that have no pronouns at all, into which the Bible has been translated, and those translations are no less sacred than our English versions.

Objections to imperial words such as “kingdom” and “Lord” are more difficult. Written during the height of the Roman Empire, the New Testament of the Bible borrows well known imagery and words from Roman propaganda and deliberately turns it upside down. To use the same words to describe the Emperor as to describe a wandering teacher from a conquered people, who had been shamefully executed on a cross, was a dangerously radical thing to do back then.

Perhaps today, we need to substitute ”economy” for “kingdom” and call Jesus the “CEO of CEOs” instead of the “King of Kings” for people to grasp the message! The words of the Bible may be old, but the ideas they represent are still relevant, because the nature of both humans and the divine remain unchanged in all this time. We may stumble over words, but engaging the Bible can still teach us much about living today.

Castlegar News Column for January 2023

The Ever-Changing Church

by Rev. Robin Murray

Okay, I got a bone to pick with y’all! According to Betsy Kilne’s article on the 2021 Census back in late November, 355 of you Castlegar folks claimed the United Church of Canada as your church, but we only see about 40 people on Sunday morning and maybe 100 on Christmas Eve. Where have the rest of you been hiding? Us 40 regulars miss you!

But seriously, the article talked about the decline of church attendance in Canada, however did you know globally, the percentage of Christians remains about the same as 100 years ago? That’s because while numbers in Europe and North America are shrinking, there is lots of growth happening, especially in East Asia and Africa. The worldwide church is now much more diverse than it once was.

This is not the first time the church has faced such dramatic change. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther ignited the revolution known now as the Great Reformation, that brought on both the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic church.

Five hundred years before that, the church saw the Great Schism, which split the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches from one another. Five hundred years before that, with the final collapse of the Roman Empire, Pope Gregory the Great laid a solid foundation for monastic communities as places of education and faith.

So what is the 500-year change the church is going though now? The structures that once dominated Christianity are no longer sufficient to hold the work of the church. Within the United Church of Canada, we have seen changes that affirm the belovedness of all people, regardless of their race, cultural background, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

We have also seen changes in how we view our relationship with the earth, recognizing the belovedness of all Creation. Additionally, the United Church has shifted it’s attitude towards other religions, recognizing that none of us have a monopoly on Truth and we all have something to learn from one another.

The church is known as “the body of Christ.” We are a living thing, not a static institution. Our job is to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world as it is today. So, led by the Holy Spirit, we have to continually adapt and grow to animate Jesus’ message of love and justice in the world. It’s work we do better together.

Castlegar News Column for December 2022

Celebrating Love and Justice
by Rev. Robin Murray

At Christmastime, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Whether or not you believe in the Christian claim that he was/is the son of God is up to you, but either way, he is worth celebrating. The things he stood for as an adult, and his birth, which was at once both ordinary and extraordinary, are worth celebrating.

I say his birth was both ordinary and extraordinary, because he was born in such a humble way. He was born in a stable and soon afterwards his family became refugees, a scenario that was not and is still not unique. Millions of poor people birth their children into such situations or worse. And yet out of such hardship this time, was born an extraordinary man who advocated for love and equality, challenging the authority of both the Roman Empire and his own Jewish religious leaders.

There are two very different accounts of his birth recorded in the Bible, but they are not incompatible. The account in the book of Matthew focuses on how Jesus fits into the establishment. It gives his genealogy and talks about ancient prophecies, not just Jewish ones, but also includes Zoroastrian scholars who travel from Persia, sometimes called kings, sometimes called wisemen. It also tells of the local king, Herod, a puppet ruler of the Roman Empire, going on a murderous rampage to try and kill the infant Jesus.

The account in the book of Luke focuses on how Jesus fits into the lives of the poor and oppressed. We hear how his unwed pregnant teenage mother, Mary, declares her faith that God is turning the power structures of the world upside down and bringing justice to the poor, in the now famous “Mary Magnificat.” We hear how he is born in a stable and visited by shepherds, among the poorest and lowliest people in society at that time.

Out of all this grows a child and then a man, who would set in motion a movement that changed the world. Often in history, his movement has been hijacked by the powers of oppression, but the truth of his message of love always manages to resurface again and push us back towards justice.

So we celebrate Christmas and the hope that the way Jesus taught, the way of peace, love, equality and justice will be born once again, in our hearts and in our world. Merry Christmas to all!

Castlegar News Column for October 2022

Being Intentional
by Rev. Robin Murray

“Going to Church? I don’t have time for that!” she said, “I wish I did, but I just don’t need one more thing on my to do list.”

Our world is so fast paced and stressful, its true, we don’t have time for near as much as we wish. We can’t do it all, so something has to go. Deciding what that is going to be, is tough.

The people who show up at church on a Sunday don’t have any more time than anybody else. They, too, have the weight of work and volunteer commitments, toilets that need cleaning, leaves that need raking, and families needing attention. They have simply made church a priority.

I think it helps to consider that going to church is not like going to a concert or sports match or even a yoga class, it is more like a relationship. Going to church sets aside time for you to explore your relationship with God, the Universe, or whatever it is you call the divine. It also sets aside time for you to develop your relationship with community.

In that way, setting aside Sunday morning becomes a little like having a “date night” with God and community. Just like in a marriage or any committed relationship, you have to set aside time to care for and maintain your relationships. If you neglect them, they don’t usually come running after you. You just slowly drift away until one day you wake up and go, “What’s missing in my life?”

What’s missing is connection. Even introverts like me crave relationship with something bigger than ourselves, be that God or community or both. But life is so busy so much of the time, that connection doesn’t happen unless you are intentional about it.

Okay, now maybe you’re saying, “Yeah, but being intentional is just one more thing on my to-do list.” So, do you feel anxious? Do you have trouble finding hope in this world? Working on your relationship with God can help with that.

As for community, well, sometimes God puts on a human skin and shows up in the form of other people. I’m not talking about angels, I’m talking about regular human beings, who show up with a hug when your down, and sometimes even will rake leaves or clean toilets when you really need the help.
So, make the time. Church is worth it.

Castlegar News Column for September 2022

Let’s Eat!
by Rev. Robin Murray

The Bible tells of over 100 instances where Jesus eats a meal. Every few pages, he is sitting down with friends for dinner, drinking wine at a wedding, eating with despised community members such as tax collectors, or feeding thousands of people on a hillside. The guy loved to gather people around a simple meal.

It’s no surprise then, that people in churches like to eat together. As a teenager, I remember many Sunday luncheons at United Churches that consisted of four different kinds of tuna casserole, six different varieties of devilled eggs and about ten different kinds of jello salad. These days, you are much more likely to find four different kinds of soup, six different varieties of hummus and heaps of fresh fruits and vegetables. The point is, there’s good food, and lots of it.

The pandemic was really hard on us church folk, that way, cancelling our potlucks, community dinners, and in-person soup kitchens. But we got creative, like everyone else did, with things like ordering pizza to be delivered to multiple families and then having a Zoom pizza party, and cooking meals in our church kitchens so we could deliver meals to those in need.

Slowly, we are returning to shared meals and communal cooking. Castlegar United Church is excited to be planning for a return of our Annual Pie sale the first week of October this year, in which we expect to make at least 500 apple pies with the help of friends in the community. While it is a fundraiser, the truth is, we do it more for the fun of getting together and rolling out all those pie crusts and getting sticky with juice as we peel the apples.

There is a sacredness to sharing food together. We come together with gratitude for the meal and with the joy in the sharing of common experience, be it ever so simple. There aren’t many places in today’s society where we gather to eat together as community, where people are invited to simply bring what they can and take what they need. I am grateful that churches can once again be host to such gatherings safely.

Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt. 18:19–20) So, lets dig into that hummus with our friends. It’s what Jesus liked to do!

Castlegar News Religion Column for July 2022

Money Talk
by Rev. Robin Murray

Let’s talk about money, shall we? There are always folks that want to see churches pay property taxes or who consider religion “big business.” Like any other charity, churches can become corrupted and spend too much on luxury for their leadership, but most churches strive for a healthy relationship with money as an organization and as individual members. Money is needed to meet our goals, but it is not the goal itself.

So who actually owns and funds churches? In some parts of the world they are owned and/or funded by the government, but not in Canada. Church buildings are usually held in trust on behalf of church members. The costs of upkeep and staffing in most churches, however, in most cases falls entirely on the shoulders of local church-goers.

The buildings may seem to be worth a fortune on paper, but unless the property underneath is worth more than the building itself, churches seldom realize the insured value of the building when it is sold. Often they are historic buildings that need prohibitively expensive upgrading to be useful for any other purpose than a large gathering space.

The real value of the church building is what happens inside. Weddings, funerals, and holiday celebrations, potlucks, AA meetings, community dinners, choirs, children’s groups – these are the things where having a church building is an asset, not just to Sunday church-goers, but to the entire community.

So, back to the issue of who pays for all this? It is mostly local, individual donors, usually the people who attend religious worship services. They do this, not just for the tax deduction, but as a spiritual practice of giving to the community. They are giving the gift of gathering space. They are giving the gift of staff people who can be there for the highs and lows of people’s lives and can organize meaningful events. They are giving to people in crisis.

Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34) Where is your treasure? Is it sitting in a bank? Is it locked up in mini-storage? Or is it out in your community? Is it invested in your relationships with others and the good you can do in the world? Like investing in your home creates space for your family, so investing in a church creates space for community. Family and community are the real treasure.

Castlegar News Column for June 2022

Sharing Your Gifts
By Rev. Robin Murray

A phrase you will often hear in churches is that “we are the body of Christ.” This means that because Jesus is no longer living as a physical human in the world, it is up to those of us who are physically living to do the hands-on work towards love and justice that needs to be done in the world. With God’s guidance, we have to carry on the work that Jesus began in his ministry of teaching and healing 2000 years ago.

But there is more to the idea of being Christ’s body. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:4-5 “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Not only are we Christ’s physical being in the world, but we each have a special part to play, making us stronger as a whole.

Each person helps the body in a different way, just like your fingers do one job and your eyes do another in your body. Together, we make up something much bigger than ourselves, something more than any of us can be or do on our own, and this is important because the world is crying out for more justice, healing and sharing of love.

Church is one of those places you can connect with others to be a part of something larger, so that together we can make a positive difference in the world on a larger scale than we can alone. When we celebrate our different gifts and let go of jealousy over the giftedness of others, we can become a powerful force for good.

Perhaps you might not even know what gifts you bring to the larger group. Perhaps you think because you can’t do what others do, you don’t have any gifts to share, but that would be like a finger saying it isn’t useful because it can’t hear like an ear can. Even if your gifts aren’t obvious to you, they will probably become obvious to the rest of the group once take a chance to become part of it.

Come and share yourself with your community. The world needs your unique contribution to the larger whole. There’s a place for you in the Body of Christ. Come make a difference.

Castlegar News Column for May 2022

Greatness in Service
By Rev. Robin Murray

What does it mean to be a great person? The followers of Jesus in ancient Roman Palestine assumed it meant being rich and powerful. But Jesus challenged their assumptions. The Bible recalls many instances of Jesus teaching his followers that to be truly great, they should act as servants, rather than kings. Once, when he caught them arguing over which of them was the greatest, Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10: 43-44)

Christians today take these words very seriously, and most try to live into this call to serve in some capacity in their lives. Service as a mark of greatness is not unique to Christianity, of course. Service is foundational to many other world religions and indigenous cultures, such as the Sinixt, but it is definitely a common feature among people in most churches.

The United Church of Canada declares in our “New Creed” (adopted in 1968) that “We are called to be the church…to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil…” To serve others, be it through community food and garden programs, or volunteering in the Thrift Store, visiting in care homes, or marching in rallies for racial or environmental justice, folks at church generally have well-developed networks for connecting volunteers in the church with the needs of our community.

Often those networks extend across the country and around the world. “Organized religion” often gets frowned on in popular culture, but sometimes organization can be the key to getting work done. Our large, organized network in the United Church helps find opportunities and funding for people to follow their passions in service, while also vetting international charities, making sure they aren’t scams. Together we can do so much more than any of us could on our own.

If you are looking to make a positive difference in the world, Churches are a great place for getting “plugged in” to ways you can help others. As a minister, I go to more funerals than most people do, and I have to agree with Jesus, the things people remember as “great” about someone, seldom have anything to do with power or money, and have everything to do with how they loved and cared for others, and how they helped make the world a better place.

Castlegar News Column for April 2022

God and Suffering

By Rev. Robin Murray

This week is Holy Week in the Christian tradition, the most sacred time of the year in which we remember the journey Jesus made to his death on the cross. We remember how his disciples declared their love and loyalty and then betrayed or denied knowing him as soon as times got tough. We remember how the Roman Governor, Pilate questioned him after his arrest, found him to be innocent, but sent him to his death anyway, because it was politically expedient to do so.

As we remember these tragic things, we remember that things like this continue to happen today, and the temptation to put our own interests above goodness and truth is not unique to the disciples and Pilate. We are all faced with this temptation, and giving in can have devastating results for other people and other living things. The innocent suffer and die with shocking regularity in our world because of poor choices made by others. Just look at what is going on in Ukraine.

Of course, this begs the question, if God exists and is all-powerful, why does God allow such suffering to go on? We feel that if we had the power, we would make everything right for everyone, everywhere in the world, creating a universe without destruction and chaos. However, a universe constructed in such a way would be static, without growth or freedom. Like it or not, we live in a world of cyclic change with constant growth, where our lives are finite, making our death inevitable.

Our comfort lies in knowing through everything, God is there. God journeys with us, not as some distant deity watching from on high, but as an intimate part of our experience. Christians believe that God entered our world as a human in the person of Jesus. In his death on the cross, God demonstrates the willingness to suffer and die as we do. Jesus is willing to sacrifice everything in the name of peace and love.

Holy Week ends with Easter Sunday. Our sorrow is turned into joy as Jesus is brought back to life, reassuring us that death is not the final word and love always wins. In the Easter story, we find a way to live in new relationship with God, not denying evil, but living into a call to respond to good and evil the way Jesus did, with compassion and love.

Castlegar News Column for March 2022

What We DO Believe

by Rev. Robin Murray

Do you ever get frustrated by politicians who seem to define themselves by the “other guy”? They will tell you all the things they are opposed to that the other parties are doing, but never tell you what they would do if elected or what they actually stand for themselves.

People often approach their religious beliefs that way. When people tell me they don’t believe in God, I will ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in. Usually it turns out, I don’t believe in that guy either! Once we start talking about what we do believe, we share much more in common than they first thought. Often their understanding of God, churches, and what it means to be a Christian, has come from the media, not from ordinary people of faith like me.

Unfortunately, it is often the negative groups that get publicity. When a church says they don’t believe in evolution, or vaccinations, or homosexuality, that’s what gets attention. The rest of us churches are just quietly living out our beliefs in the miracle of God’s constantly changing creation, God’s gift of science and medicine, and the love of God for all people, but who reports on that? We’re out here, though you wouldn’t know it from most news.

Of course, there are noticeable differences between what different types of churches believe, and it is worth finding out what those are, if you are looking to be a part of a faith community. We have differing opinions, for example, on how to interpret the Bible and what authority it has in our lives. Focus differs, too. Some might focus on the afterlife, some on our lives here and now. Some might focus on personal piety, some on group action rather than individual behaviours or beliefs.

Most churches do share the common values of welcome, community, and caring for one another. We believe there is value in spending time together sharing in worship and supporting one another through life challenges, or we wouldn’t bother gathering. These aren’t the things you would know if you only watched news reports or tv shows. Hollywood producers are seldom knowledgable about or interested in the real lives of faith communities.

What are some things you believe in or wonder about, thinking in positive terms? Chances are you are not alone. Chances are, there’s a community waiting to welcome you.

Castlegar News Column for December 2021

Preparing for Hard Times

by Rev. Robin Murray

Winter has come to the Kootenays as it always does. We prepared for it. We put winter tires put on our cars. We got out the mitts and toques from the backs of our closets. Those of us with gardens turned off the water spigots and drained the hoses. We got everything ready and now the cold is here.

In our lives, we know the hard times will come, just like winter. We know it. Our health will challenge us. Loved ones will die. We might face other challenges like a loss of work or our home, often through no fault of our own. There will be times in our lives for each of us where we need help or comfort.

So what do we do to prepare?

The best preparation there is, is to build relationships with a network of those who we can count on when times get tough. For me, that network is my church community. And I know I can count on them for a couple of reasons. First of all, because we spend time together talking about our fears, our concerns, and our shared values of helping those in need. We have laid a foundation for mutual trust.

Sure, you can wait until you are in crisis to reach out, and chances are, church folk will try to help out. But it is difficult to figure out what a person really needs if you don’t know them. And it is equally difficult to receive the full support you need from someone who you don’t know well enough to fully trust.

The second reason I know I can count on my church community, is that I have been there for them when they needed me. Ecclesiastes 4: 9-10 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.”

Of course, not everyone I have helped during times of trouble will be capable of returning the favour when my need arises. This is where having a relationship with a whole community of people is so important. We can’t be all things to all people all of the time. All we can do is to love and support one another as we go, as best we can.

Castlegar News Column for October 2021

Sharing Our Doubts

by Rev. Robin Murray

“How can I come to church when I’m not even sure I believe in God at all, let alone what it is that I believe about God?”

There was a time in the history of the church that it was understood that first you believed, and then you belonged. But that simply isn’t true for today’s mainline Christian churches. Now, you bring all your doubts and questions with you and still belong, just the way you are.

In fact, in my denomination, the United Church of Canada, it is unlikely you will ever hear someone tell you the church has all the answers for you. Our job as church-goers is not to find definitive answers, but rather to journey together and help each other live into our questions. Church gives us a safe space to share our doubts.

In case you are concerned about how God (assuming you do at least sort of believe there is one) will respond to you and your mixed feelings, you should know that many before you have had similar worries.

There is a lovely story about Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, in which the disciples brought him a boy with epilepsy for healing. Jesus said, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And Jesus healed the child.

Another thing to consider about whether your unbelief is a barrier to joining a faith community is to ask what role doubt plays in your other relationships. Do you have any other relationships that are completely doubt free? Maybe in terms of the reliability of the other person or maybe in your own ability to always understand them?

As I said in my last column, the universe points to God as being fundamentally about relationship. Relationships are always works in progress. If you wait until everything is perfect to even begin a relationship, you will never get anywhere as a human being.

So, I encourage you to let go of that perfectionism. Let go of the idea that there is a giant single “TRUTH” that you must learn before you can start on a life of exploring your faith. Let’s release our past expectations about believing, and learn, explore and grow together, finding ways to share light and love in the world.

Let’s be the church together, doubts and all!

Castlegar News Column for August 2021

Talking About Religion

by: Rev. Robin Murray

Organized religion – these words are often spoken with distain in Canadian society, and for good reason. A friend of mine was so shocked and disgusted at what has been and continues to be done in the name of religion, after his job with the UN Peacekeepers stationed him in Jerusalem, that he basically thinks organized religion should be illegal. I can see his point. The clash of the Christians, Jews and Muslims in that part of the world has been bloody and has gone on for millennia.

So why do I not only belong to an organized religion, but have dedicated my life to it as an Ordained Minister in the United Church of Canada? Probably because I am a hopeless optimist who believes in the beauty of what could be. That’s also the reason I vote in every election, in spite of continual disappointment in our elected government. I know the journey we are on is far from perfect, and never will be perfect in my lifetime, but I will not let that stop me from striving for better.

From time to time, I see glimpses of the beauty that could be, in the now. I see children connecting to elders. I see people slowing down and making time to connect with God and community. I see alcoholics beating their addiction and healing from past pain, through faith in a higher power and connection to people who care. I see people banding together and working towards justice for those who are suffering. I see people supported by others in times of need. This is the work of organized religion.

None of us can fully fathom God or the vastness of the universe, so if there is one thing we know about religion, is that we all have at least some things incorrect. Our understanding of the divine is at best, incomplete. The organized part is where we can go either very wrong or very right. There is power in people joining together for common ideals, and power is always dangerous. But power can change lives for the better, too.

Intentionally talking about matters of the spirit and our relationship to the divine and one another, and creating space to do so, is a start towards tapping into that power, to live more whole lives, as individuals and as community. Thanks for joining me here in such conversation.