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January is a time of new beginnings, hopeful resolutions and a time for new opportunities to explore bright ideas. In the theological world it is a season called “epiphany.”
This is the season where we see what is revealed and awakened as we look to the story of the three wise sages in the Christmas Story. Following a brilliant star, they come bearing symbolic gifts to the new born child, Jesus. Epiphany celebrates this new season of “aha” and awareness. It is a mythic call to wisdom.
At Hillhurst United this month, we are exploring bright ideas by welcoming wise visitors from the west (from Vancouver School of Theology) to share their passion and insight. For four Saturday mornings, from 9 a.m. to noon, and the following Sunday mornings in worship, the professors lead in a series called Epiphany Explorations. Over 500 individuals have joined in the conversation.
We began with New Testament scholar Dr. Harry Maier, who kicked off the series inviting listeners into the subversive nature of parables as a way to awaken the unconventional wisdom about the kingdom of God. Likening it to a weed that is tenacious and abundant, he suggested parables were often unlikely surprises rather than one moral point or riddle.
“It is more about an expansive, generous, even humorous view of God’s grace overturning peoples personal piety,” he suggests. “It is like going grocery shopping in Calgary and ending up in Saskatoon, saying, ‘How did I get here?” It’s about unexpected surprises rather than pedantic moralism.
Secondly, we welcomed Dr. Ross Lockhart, director of missiology, who shared his research on Christianity in Vancouver — the most secular postal code in Canada. Paralleling the research with Calgary, he suggested the call of the “cathedral of nature” is challenging the desire of local church for people to attend on Sundays.
This inevitable call requires people to find new ways and times to meet and requires a need to overcome the hesitancy to share the good news of the Christian faith.
He likened it to our connection to democracy: “Most people, if asked, ‘Do you believe in democracy?’ would reply yes, 9 out of 10 in favour. If asked, ‘Did you vote?’ it may be more like 6 out of 10 would say ‘yes.’ Finally, if asked, ‘Are you a member of a political party?’ Maybe 2 out of 10!” would respond yes.
This parallels the same way people view religion. There is an overall openness to it, but a lack of commitment to show up. “We need to help people engage, commit and share good news to help transform the world,” Lockhart says.
The symposium also welcomed Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan, who teaches Hebrew studies, to reflect on her book: From the Mouth of Donkey, Re-imagining Biblical Animals.
The book looks at the role of animals in the Bible to be the mouthpiece of God, with animals reflecting ethical themes, allegorical meanings and allusions to God’s nature.
The epiphany series concludes this weekend with Dr. Mari Joerstad, professor of Old Testament, who will explore the role of anger in the Hebrew scriptures as a way to motivate change. As a common sense instructor, she sees the Hebrew scriptures as a collection of stories of how we are called to care for the earth asking the question: “What if we treated all of creation —plants and stars, soil and rivers — as our kin? . . . Understanding biblical texts is not simply an intellectual exercise, but an exercise in how to live.”
Our attention to climate justice makes it our collective calling. It is a call for faithful folk to familiarize themselves and to root themselves in the scriptures seeking wisdom on the journey.
Epiphany is about exploring an awakening, about new ideas and engaging in world transformation. It is about new ways of thinking and being. This is our hope and invitation to people — in person and online — who may wish to entertain a new way to start the year grounded in good theology, where the bible and newspaper are partners in a relevant theology.
Rev Dr. John Pentland is lead pastor at Hillhurst United Church. Go to the church’s website, hillhurstunited.com for details on Epiphany Exploration.