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Spiritual Roses Are Difficult in the United Church of Canada


By Carman Bradley

On the occasion of the Eightieth Anniversary of the United Church of Canada, The Right Rev. Dr. Peter Short gave a sermon at Worship Matters, Halifax, titled “Roses Are Difficult Here.” [i]  Dr. Short asked the congregation:

Suppose you had to choose a title for your life and your work.  Suppose you had to say in a phrase what it’s like to be inside your skin and to live the struggle you live.  Don’t you think that might be a good title. ‘Roses Are Difficult Here.’  [He went on…]   We,ve got a lot of problems in The United Church of Canada…People are all the time telling me that roses are impossible here…It’s not the presence of problems or the presence of stress that makes roses difficult here.  In fact, it’s not the presence of anything.  It’s an absence.  It’s an abandoned and boarded up heaven.  It’s the empty space in the soul where wonder used to live light in the spring.  It’s the silence of God and the aloneness in facing the world that makes roses so unlikely.

Why is it that relational silence pervades this denomination, as if members must bear their personal and collective burdens in a spiritual vacuum (to use Dr. Short’s words, “The damned, godless, inscrutable absence,” as if “the world is godforsaken”) and yet, for other Christians each day comes up roses regardless of the hardship?  It is true that Job, a faithful and righteous man, experienced a period of rare personal catastrophe, felt abandonment by God (Job 23:3-17)[ii] and received poor advice from his “orthodox” friends.  And that in the end Job held his course and his personal relationship with God was restored to Job’s liking and he was also bountifully blessed.  Indeed, his orthodox critics and the Devil were duly silenced.  The key lesson in the Book of Job appears to be that obedient and god-fearing people experience suffering, and that for these people the reason may never be clear nor of their making.  The pain and hardship may only have meaning and value in the greater context of the spiritual struggle between Satan and God.  This Biblical lesson said, the remainder of my article is devoted to raising other Scriptural considerations for the United Church’s felt spiritual abandonment and none of these are insights from the Book of Job.  Christians do not live under God’s Old Covenant and although, not all Christians feel the same level of relief and measure of grace in coming to accept Christ’s lordship and redemption, most rejoice every day for the change in their lives, the fact of being saved for eternity from separation from God, and in the joy of their spiritual walk with Christ.  For these Christians every day is a rosy day.  This is not to diminish life’s pains and sorrows, but Christians under the New Covenant are never abandoned (Romans 8:38-39, John 10:27-29, Philippians 1:6, 2 Corinthians 4:8-9).  Satan wants us to doubt our salvation since this destroys our faith.  Nowhere in Scripture is there record of even one Christian being abandoned by Jesus Christ.  Counterfeit believers are exposed and abandoned, but not Christians (Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 13:22-30).  Biblical assurance is being certain of our salvation, totally free from doubt.  How is it that Paul overcomes catastrophes similar to Job (2 Corinthians 11: 23-29), yet he characterizes these trials and pains as delightful?

Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

If spiritual roses have been difficult where you are for what seems to be years or decades, this is not God’s intent.  God must be relational to humankind in order to be of any relevance to human life.  Our God is not a Gnostic unknown god.  As the saying goes: When God seems far away, it is not because God has changed or moved - it is because we have.  To grow spiritual roses - the same fruits of the Spirit that the Apostle Paul exudes (Galatians 5:22), you should (in my opinion) consider re-potting yourself, with or without your congregation.  Faith is affected by theology.  Life can be entirely different in the circumstance that God has revealed as ideal for spiritual growth and strength - a rose garden where the pure light never dims or stops, living waters never cloud or dry up and the soil is always deep and rich in nourishment for the soul.  Indeed, it is a rose garden theologically founded upon God’s loving gracious gift to humankind, His One and Only Son - Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:20-23).  

In “Roses Are Difficult Here,” Dr. Short explains that “God cannot be captured and trained” and that the presence of God can leave a church.  Although most evangelicals would be quick to agree, the moderator’s meaning behind “cannot be captured” needs careful study.  The orthodox would argue that Christianity is not about projecting or selecting one’s own image of Jesus Christ.  Scripture advises: “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24).  Our faith is about escaping just judgment according to the Law through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father.  By divine authority the nature of this relationship is dictated by the terms our Creator has chosen to reveal:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning. (John 1:1-2)  The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.  We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

As soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up out of the water.  At that moment heaven opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on Him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.’ (Matthew 3:16-17)

I [Jesus] am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.(John 14:6)

I [Jesus] am the vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit, apart from Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

And how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:15-16)

Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says. (James 1:22)

A huge concern among those tired of God’s silence and absence within the United Church should be the denomination’s doctrine that Jesus Christ is not the One and Only Way to God the Father.  God will not be mocked without consequence.  They seek the true light for growing roses, but their church denies that Christ is the only light.  They seek the living water which Jesus declared before the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 1-26), but their church denies it is the perfect sustaining truth.  They seek to find good nourishing soil yet their church picks and amends scripture as if it is not the truth, not God inspired.  The parable of the Sower reveals much about the dearth of roses, as characterized in Dr. Short’s sermon.  Jesus said in the parable:

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the Word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8:15)

If Christ is not exactly who He says He is, as recorded in the Bible, than our faith is in vain.  Everything stands on Christ.  Even Karl Barth, quoted in “Roses are Difficult Here,” declares that the Word of God comes to man as a gift.  Man cannot know God other than God freely makes Himself known in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.[iii]  The key to the truth of the Bible and the infilling (to the brim) by the Holy Spirit is full acceptance of the one and true Gospel of Jesus Christ - a Gospel of God’s grace to humankind.  And yet the UCC Committee For Theology and Faith refutes the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

Our society is multicultural, our world is multifaith; our church community has varying theological perspectives within it.  Some make exclusive claims to absolute truth and find in these claims authorization to do harm…While believing that our faith is grounded in truth, our truth need not deny the truths of others. - Faith Talk II

I believe this multitrack theology of nil certainty (no absolute secure truth) drastically weakens the adherent’s faith, is at the heart of God’s silence and carries with it many more spiritual and social difficulties.  The God we follow affects our politics, our values, our worldview.  Choice Okoro, UCC Program Officer for Human Rights, further amplifies this multifaith doctrine by commenting on UCC policy for performing same-sex marriages:

The United Church does not believe that the faith stance of a community which supports same-sex marriage undermines the faith stance of a community that does not.

Dr. Short broaches this topic in “Roses Are Difficult Here” when he contends that God cannot be domesticated, God is “wild” in nature and will go where He pleases and do whatever He wishes: “God will not be tamed by any religious tradition, no matter how loudly and how long that tradition booms out the divine name.” In a letter to Members of Parliament on Same-Sex Marriage, Dr. Short writes:

Some will protest that we must have faith in the Bible, and that the Bible takes an unfavorable view of intimate same-sex relationship.  But I would answer that Christian faith is not an uncritical repetition of a received text.  It is a mindful commitment to the power of love, to which the text seeks to give witness. ..In fact, change is the only medium in which faithfulness can truly become faithfulness.  Uncritical repetition is more like being on autopilot.

Because God has given man the decisive revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, to try to find God somewhere else is to fail the first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).  In matters crucial to the Christian faith, we must acknowledge the Holy Bible’s claim on our faith and the Holy Scripture’s claim to inform our lives.


Copyright © 2008 StandForGod.Org

[i] See UCC website for full text.

[ii]The NIV Study Bible, 10th Anniversary Edition, Gen. Ed. K. Barker (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995). Used throughout.  Dr. Short, in “Roses Are Difficult Here,” likens the felt absence of God in the UCC to Job’s trials and experiences.

[iii] Livingston, J., “Barth, Karl,” Encarta Encyclopedia, July 2005, p.13