Friday, January 20, 2017

morning at the museum

Image result for nicolaes maes adoration of shepherds
Adoration of the Shepherds by Nicolaes Maes. Image from pubhist.com
Last week I spent a morning at the Museum of Fine Arts. They have recently built a new pavilion and to celebrate its opening, they offered free admission for the first few months, encouraging visitors to check it out. So on a cold, windy January Friday, I did. The space itself is beautiful, all wood and glass in the lobbies with plenty of places to sit and look over the city. There are four floors or galleries, each covering a different era and style. and I took a few hours to wander through all of them. To be honest, it was overwhelming. Nearly 5,000 square metres and 750 artistic works. Every three to six feet, one is presented with a masterpiece which has taken months, if not years, to create. It is just too much to take in. I ended up scanning each wall and only spending time with those pieces which caught my attention.

My favourite section was the fourth level which housed a lot of religious art, from models of medieval churches to stained glass which was hundreds of years old to icons and portraits of biblical figures. As was to be expected, there were a lot of paintings and representations of Jesus. I looked at them all, searching for a Jesus I could relate to, a Jesus I recognized. Most of time, Jesus was clothed in rich robes, the shadows of the folds painted with great care. The scenes of Jesus's family life were serene, depicting a leisurely day in the life of nobility, it seemed. Everywhere, Jesus was clean and muscular and, for the most part, unmarred, even on the cross. The iconic paintings were simpler, Jesus and Mary together in many of them, but even there, the simplicity was swathed in richness. Plenty of gold and fine fabrics. fluttering angels, and everyone posing perfectly to catch the light just right and show their good side. Distractions were minimized, every fold of cloth in its proper place, no screaming, squalling babies, only peace and light. It reminded me of the perfect pictures we post on Instagram, showing ourselves and our world at its best and brightest.

I am no art historian, but I am aware that portraits and icons are not photographs meant to capture the reality of everyday life. In many cases, paintings in other eras represented, and were meant to appeal to, those who commissioned them (mostly nobility or the church). Religious paintings incorporate symbolism and create their own reality to a certain extent. Nevertheless, it was troubling to me how far removed the portrayals of Jesus were from the earthy, messy stories we find in the gospels. There were a few exceptions, of course. One was the humble nativity scene by Nicolaes Maes (a student of Rembrandt) in which the stable, while not exactly dirty, includes brown cows, hay, a wheelbarrow and a shovel, and the faces of the shepherds are far from handsome. The scene comes off as ordinary and wonderful and strange all at the same time. The tiny icon of Matthew (about 3 inches tall) looking haggard and unafraid, wreathed in gold, was also a gem, easily overshadowed by the larger words, but definitely worthy of attention. There was also one painting of Jesus and Mary which caught my eye. He is chubby with curly blonde hair, wearing a bright red robe and clutching a sparrow. The pious expression of the mother verges on sorrow and the child seems out of place, looking longingly to the side. It unsettled me in its odd portrayal, and I liked that.

As I left the museum, I thought about all the ways we portray Jesus in our world today. Like any era, we project our own values onto our religious stories and clothe our religious figures in them. Is our Jesus wrapped in rich fabrics? Is our Jesus surrounded by pious family and friends? Is our Jesus strong and muscular, always the conqueror? Is our Jesus judging or forgiving? Is our Jesus untouchable, glowing with an unearthly glow? Is our Jesus unmarked by the scars of life? Is our Jesus always visible, the centre of every scene? Is our Jesus in clean, tidy environments, every hair in place, every person around him beautiful and successful? Is our Jesus a noble or a peasant? Is our Jesus Italian or Spanish or Caucasian or Black or Jewish? Is our Jesus in an art gallery, in a church, or in the dullness and pain of every day life?

Perhaps the most important question is, "Would I recognize Jesus if I saw him today?"
The Christ is present here and now. Do we see him?

"When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me. Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, “When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?” The king [Son of Man] will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:35-40, Contemporary English Version)


Monday, January 16, 2017

comedic timing

Comic by Joel Micah Harris at xkcd.com

One of my favourite jokes goes like this:
Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Interrupting cow
Interrupting cow w---
Moooooooo!!

Timing is important in both drama and comedy. A well-paced story draws the audience in and helps it invest in the characters, while a tale too hastily told or too long drawn out will fail to engage anyone. Surprise - something which interrupts the expected - is a creative use of timing and integral to any good story. If someone is reading a novel and everything unfolds in a predictable manner, they will probably wonder why they bothered reading the book. And so it is in life. Having life be predictable all of the time is not as calming as it sounds. We love surprises, especially good surprises like birthday parties, gifts, marriage proposals, and finding something that we thought was lost. Surprises are an important part of humour. A good joke is funny because it goes to a place you didn't expect it to go. Similarly, comedic timing allows something unexpected to develop right in front of your eyes or ears. The combination of unlikely circumstances and mismatched characters is the stuff of which comedies are made. In addition, comedy often relies on threes: something will be repeated, building suspense and/or expectation. Just when the audience thinks it knows what is coming, the writer inserts a twist or surprise (usually the third time) in order to serve up a comedic payoff.

God is a master of timing. We often associate divine timing with efficiency or completeness, and many of our prayers tend to reflect this "just in time" mentality. However, timing can sometimes be more about enjoyment than fulfillment or completion, and this is the case in comedic timing. A comedian will use rhythm, tempo, and pauses to enhance a story and make an experience more enjoyable for the audience. Most of us are not used to thinking about the Author of our faith as having some mad skills when it comes to comedic timing, but I think that is because we get so serious about our spirituality that we become somewhat blind to the playful nature of the Creator.

About a year ago, I took an unexpected mini-retreat when a conference I was to attend in New York City was cancelled while I was en route (you can read about it here). It ended up being a rich time of contemplation, rest, and discovery. Since it was such a great experience, helping me find stillness and contentment in my mind and soul, I decided another retreat might be in order.

I have been feeling somewhat blasé and uninspired for the past few weeks. No doubt, some of that has to do with it being winter (less sunshine, more cold and wind, less time outside) and some of it has to do with this period of waiting or limbo I find myself in. Anyway, Dean left this morning for a business trip. He will be away for a week, so I decided to make another mini-retreat while he is gone. By retreat I mean taking time to step out of the cold winds of job searches, paper proposals, teaching, pastoring, office work, and wondering about my future in order to sit in front of the fire and light of God's love, letting my soul find warmth, settling into contentment, and rediscovering joy and meaning and peace.

Now, this week won't be all sitting around and contemplating. I still have work to do. I am leading a book study on Mark Buchanan's  Spiritual Rhythm which begins this week, so I have to do some preparation for that. We were meant to start the study on Thursday, but a last minute change meant we had to switch it to Tuesday, two days earlier. Now that's not a huge problem, except when I ordered the books last week, I did so thinking they had a week to arrive. Not so. The email says they will arrive on Tuesday by 8 pm. The study begins at 7:30 pm so here's hoping they arrive a bit before then. Also, I have the auditor coming to go over the church finances later in the week, and I am leading worship this Sunday so I have planning and rehearsal that need to happen. But in and around all that work, I am going to take moments to retreat.

I am going to see the movie, Hidden Figures, this afternoon. It tells the story of three brilliant African American women who were the brains behind some of the biggest NASA projects (seems appropriate on MLK day). I am going to read books I have been meaning to read, books that feed my soul and bring me joy and are not part of any writing or teaching project. Perhaps most importantly, I have decided to start each day by lighting a candle and sitting in silent contemplation for 15 minutes. For me, this is an exercise in surrender because it makes me pause and be more attentive to the timing of the Timemaster.

So this morning, I got the Vanilla Chai candle (a gift from someone who knows me well) and set it in the centre of the table. I grabbed a book of matches from the shelf and when I opened it up, I got my first surprise of the day: a friend whom I have not seen for many years had written on the inside flap "G---- was here 03/12/05." I smiled and laughed, thinking about the many shenanigans of this friend. It was a good memory and my soul was warmed.

I lit the candle and set an alarm so I wouldn't have to worry about the time, then I sat and gazed at the flame. A melody floated through my mind which I could not quite place. I tried to remember the words, but they eluded me. The melody kept coming back, and finally I recognized the song as Lead Kindly Light, a poem written by John Henry Newman when he was recovering from a serious illness and stranded on a boat far from home. The first verse goes like this:

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me

The words were encouraging to me and addressed my soul's current mood (finding light in gloom, being content with seeing one step at a time), but the surprising thing was that it also happened to be my father's favourite hymn. As I sat looking at the light of the flame, hearing this tune in my head, I thought of the time I was away at school and my father wrote me many letters, always signing them, "Your Father here on earth." It was another good memory and my soul was warmed for a second time.

My alarm sounded and I closed my time of contemplation by reading aloud the Suscipe (Latin for receive), a prayer written by Ignatius of Loyola.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory (such good memories this morning), my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me ----

Suddenly, my reading of the prayer was interrupted by a loud, long buzz. I hurried over to the intercom and picked up the phone. It was the mail carrier saying she had a package for me. I bounded down the stairs and received a large brown parcel from the carrier's gloved hands. I went back to the dining room and placed the package on the table next to the lit candle and the Suscipe prayer scribbled in the back of my journal. I opened the box and inside were the books I had ordered for the study. I laughed out loud. The third surprise in 15 minutes. The timing seemed so contrived that I imagined a scriptwriter chuckling to themselves as they wrote the comedic payoff: "Woman is praying prayer of surrender, trying not to worry about a much-needed package. Mail carrier rings buzzer and delivers parcel, interrupting woman's prayer. Instead of the unexpected event being a memory as it was the first two times, the third time it is an anticipation, a moving forward of time." I laughed again and shook my head. My soul was warmed with the good humour being played out in my life. And then I finished the prayer.

You have given all to me (even books arriving early)
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

Though this year's retreat is not even one day old, I have already experienced a comedic trifecta from the divine Timemaster. He's really good at this timing thing. And quite funny.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

building the church

Image result for popsicle sticks pile
Image from Instructables
Imagine two scenarios: 1) Give every person in the room a popsicle stick. Ask them to come together and put their sticks onto a table. Invariably, you end up with a random pile of sticks on a table. 2) Give every person in the room a popsicle stick. Show a picture of a popsicle stick bird feeder and ask people to come together and put their sticks on a table according to the picture. You will end up with the beginnings of a bird feeder on a table.

What is the difference between the two scenarios? In both, each person brought what they had and contributed it to the collective. However, in the first scenario, there were no guidelines, no plan, and no right or wrong way to pile the sticks. People came, placed their sticks on the table, and walked away. In the second scenario, people were given a plan to follow and as a result, something specific was built. Instead of walking away after they made their contribution, people huddled around the table to watch what was being built. Some were quick to point out if a stick went in the wrong place.

Image result for popsicle stick bird feeder
Image from Factory Direct Craft
In recent days, I have once again been pondering Jesus's words, "I will build my church." Several years ago, a friend urged me to consider each word of this phrase in turn and the emphasis it carries. "I" means that Jesus is the master-builder of the church. "Will" means that the project will be completed, there is no doubt about it. "Build" means that it is a work in progress, it is put together stone by stone and stick by stick. "My" once again emphasizes that the church belongs to Jesus, not us. "Church" indicates what Jesus is building: an ekklesia, an assembly, a people who congregate, who come out from the world (ek) and are called to (kaleo) God.

The Greek word for build is oikodomeo and it refers to what a house-builder does. In our day and age, a master house-builder is often referred to as a general contractor. The builder oversees the overall coordination of a building project. Though he or she does not hammer every nail or lay every brick, the master-builder is involved in every part of the building process. They assemble a team of skilled labourers and coordinate the different efforts in order to ensure that all are essentially building the same house, not doing their own thing. The master-builder handles the timing of things, deals with costs, makes sure deliveries happen, oversees work conditions, provides materials, ensures that proper equipment is available, and coordinates the delegation of tasks. As master builder, he or she is the only one who knows how it all comes together.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus names himself the master-builder of the church, the one who oversees the overall coordination of the project, but what exactly does this look like? How does it happen? Well, if we read on, we find some clues. In verse 20, right after Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus has responded that this revelation is foundational to the building of the church, he urges them not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. In other words, as the master builder, he is telling them something about timing. Just because we have a revelation from the Father does not mean that we automatically act on it. Jesus often said, "My time has not yet come" because he was mindful of God's purpose unfolding in the fullness of time (see my blog on patience for more on this). In verse 21, Jesus tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer terribly, be killed, and three days later rise to life. The master builder knows the cost involved. The building of the church cost Jesus his life. The early Christians also bore witness in their bodies to this high cost.

In verse 22, Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him this cannot happen, that suffering and death are not God's plan (It makes me laugh and gives me hope to hear Peter say, "You are God" and immediately follow that with "And you're doing it wrong!"). Jesus tells Peter to get out of his way. The master builder makes sure deliveries happen, and Jesus made sure that nothing stood in his way when it came time to deliver up his body to die for the salvation of the world. In verse 24, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to be his followers, they must forget about themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. The master builder sets out the conditions under which the work must be done. He does not ask anyone to work in conditions that he himself is not willing to embrace. In verse 25, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to save their lives, they will destroy them, but if they give up their lives for him, they will find them. The master builder tells his disciples that their very lives are the materials out of which the church is being built.

In John 14:26, Jesus indicates that the Father will send a great Helper, the Holy Spirit who will teach his followers everything and remind them of all Jesus has said. The Holy Spirit will equip and empower them (give them the proper equipment) to carry on the work of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes a letter to one of the early churches, reminding them that the master builder is the one who delegates the work and they are to be attentive to the Spirit's leading. "There are different ways to serve the same Lord, and we can each do different things. Yet the same God works in all of us and helps us in everything we do. The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others" (1 Cor 12:5-7, CEV).

This is how Jesus builds the church. It appears that the way I (and the disciples, it seems) would build something is quite different from the way the master builder does it. My main concern in timing would be efficiency and expediency, not fullness of time. I would count the cost in terms of dollars, not suffering and death. I would insist that people deliver their goods in a timely fashion, but hesitate to deliver myself up for the sake of others. I would make sure that work conditions included benefits and payment for overtime, and forget about taking up my cross. My materials of choice would be strong steel and solid brick, not fragile lives. As to equipment, I would make sure that we had all the latest sound gear, comfy chairs, and a coffee machine instead of relying on the Spirit to breathe gifts into people. In regard to personnel, I would seek out the most qualified and creative people for the job, not the marginalized, the overlooked, the outcasts, the poor in spirit. I guess it is pretty obvious that I am not that good at building the church. And that's okay, because Jesus is the one who builds it. My job is to get on the same page as he is.

So often I have come to the church and tossed my popsicle stick on the table. There you go, that's what I have to offer, that's my part. I pay little attention to what Jesus is building, what he is putting in place, how I fit into the larger picture. Or perhaps I become part of a group that has a plan, and I see where I fit, and I dutifully plop myself into place. But without the glue of love ("Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together" Col. 3:14, CEV), the structure has no stability and falls apart as soon as some stress is put on it. We all have our church failure stories, but don't be discouraged. "I am confident that the Creator [builder], who has begun such a great work among you, will not stop in mid-design but will keep perfecting you until the day Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, returns to redeem the world." Philippians 1:6

I was listening to a recording of a message last night and the preacher said, "This church is for you and for your world." What? Did I hear right? I think I understand the point she was trying to make, but the church is not being built so that we have a place to belong and grow and flourish; the church is built to be the dwelling place of God.

"And so you are no longer called outcasts and wanderers but citizens with God’s people, members of God’s holy family, and residents of His household. You are being built on a solid foundation: the message of the prophets and the voices of God’s chosen emissaries with Jesus, the Anointed Himself, the precious cornerstone. The building is joined together stone by stone—all of us chosen and sealed in Him, rising up to become a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you are being built together, creating a sacred dwelling place among you where God can live in the Spirit." (Ephesians 2:17-22, The Voice)

Thursday, January 05, 2017

shiny and new

Image result for azur metro cars
New AZUR metro car. Image from STM. 
It is a new year. Time for new beginnings and all that jazz. I didn't get the sentimentality gene, so I don't experience much sadness when things come to an end. I love a fresh start, a new challenge, and get buzzed by the changing out of old things for new ones. In Montreal, they are slowly switching our old subway cars to brand new, spiffy, updated trains. The original ones are from 1966 when the subway was first built, just in time for Expo 67. The flashy new trains started appearing early last year when they put a few into circulation for some test runs. The sleek silver and blue trains were a rare sight at first, and every time I was privileged to catch one, I sat on the edge of my commuter seat like a kid on a Disney ride.

Over the last few months they have added more new trains, and for awhile there, I seemed to have incredible luck, catching a new train at least 50% of the time I traveled on the subway. It was uncanny. I admit, it made me feel special. I watched the poor people getting on the old trains across the station and I felt sorry for them. I like being on the shiny new trains: they are clean, spacious, have bright lights, sleek lines and swooshy doors, and you can move from one car to the next while in motion. Very fancy. But it appears that my luck has run out. Even though there are more new trains on the tracks than ever, I always seem to be missing them. A few days ago one pulled into the station just as I was leaving. Yesterday one closed its doors just as I was running to catch it. It felt a bit personal. I waited and got on the next train, an old one, and plopped down on a well-worn seat, deflated. Some minutes later we squeaked and rattled into a station and while we were stopped, a new train pulled up right beside us, going the other way. I looked at the people on the shiny train. a bit envious. They seemed happier than the people on my old train. Why wasn't I on that shiny new train? Why did they get to be there while I was stuck here on a tired, dirty train? My bottom lip might actually have protruded a bit.

But then wisdom paid me a visit and gave me a little talk. It went something like this. Do you really want to be on that shiny new train right beside you? Sure, it's lovely to look at and rides smoothly and goes fast and has all the bells and whistles, but where is it going? It is going downtown and you want to go home. The train that you are on, old as it is, is going where you want to go. You don't get on a train because it is new and shiny. You get on a train because it is going where you want to go.

Yep. That's the truth. So I took a moment to think about my fascination with certain shiny new things. Go ahead, do it with me. That shiny new church building or congregation down the road from (y)our old, tired one. That shiny new theology book with a flashy picture of the up and coming author. That shiny new conference which has the internet abuzz. That fabulous new job in a shiny new city at a shiny new university. I soon realized that some of the shiny new things that I gaze at with longing, that leave me feeling left out and left behind, are not going where I want to go. If I did get on that shiny new bandwagon, I would soon find myself at odds with where things were heading.

Now, there is nothing wrong with updating old modes of transportation, or freshening up old church settings, or re-framing and rethinking our liturgies and theologies, or attending popular conferences, or taking new jobs and moving to new places, but the first question must always be, is this going where I want to go? Whether it is an old and sturdy vehicle or a shiny new one, it matters not as long as it is heading toward home.

"And so the end of our way of life is indeed the kingdom of God. But what is the (immediate) goal you must earnestly ask, for if it is not in the same way discovered by us, we shall exhaust ourselves, we shall strive to no purpose, because a man who is traveling in a wrong direction, has all the trouble and none of the good of his journey. ... The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end." - St. John Cassian

Thursday, December 22, 2016

singing lessons

Related image
Image from coolcards.co.uk
When I was a young child, a visiting preacher came to our country church. He brought his two daughters with him, and before he gave his sermon, they sang beautiful duets about Jesus. They had lovely voices which blended well. The preacher, meaning to impress on us their God-given musical talent, mentioned that the girls had never had any singing lessons. The congregation nodded and ooohhed in appreciation. I was puzzled. I didn't understand how not learning was a point of grace or even pride. After all, people who have natural abilities in sports, math, writing, art, or science find it extremely helpful to study under teachers who can aid them in their development and introduce them to things outside their own experience. Being self-taught (though sometimes the only option available to those with limited resources) is not a cause for pride or celebration. Why? Because that's just not how the communal, relational Creator set things up.

I have been singing since I was a child. Over the years, you could find me warbling melodies and harmonies in church, in school choirs, in a group of friends around the campfire, and even in a small singing troupe which toured part of the USA in the 80s. I love to sing, but I have never felt I was all that good at it. Sure, I can hit the notes and read music, but the tone of my voice has always seemed muddled, muted, even mousy, never ringing out clearly. In my late 20s, I decided that after decades of singing in my falsetto (which allowed me to fit into the mezzo soprano range), it was time to start using my lower-range chest voice. Those vocal muscles had not been used a lot, so I had to build up my stamina and work on my precision. My voice still tired quickly and I had little power or range, but at least I felt more comfortable, more like I was singing with my real voice.

This past September, for the first time in my life, I took private singing lessons. It is something I have always wanted to do and now I finally had the time and the opportunity. I found a very capable, kind vocal coach who challenged and pushed me (sometimes literally) in all the right places, but who also offered gentle encouragement every step of the way. It has been a rich experience in many ways, and I was surprised how much it required of me personally and spiritually. Here are a few lessons I learned in the process.

1. Singing is a whole body, whole person activity. It is not just about vocal chords and getting them to do what you want. We began each lesson with stretches and breathing exercises and letting go of any stress or tension. We made odd noises, we lay on the floor, we flapped our arms like airplanes and helicopters, we adjusted our posture. Sometimes we talked our way through to a more peaceful state of mind. Only after we prepared the body and mind did we venture into singing. I had no idea how much this body preparation affected my singing until I changed things up one week. I usually walked to my singing lesson from the metro station, a good half-hour through some of the most beautiful parts of Montreal. When Dean was away on a business trip, I decided to take advantage of having a car at my disposal and sleep in a bit. I drove to my singing lesson and arrived a few minutes late due to snarly traffic. It soon became apparent that something was different; my voice was more strained and less free-flowing. The only difference was that I had driven instead of taken public transit. As a result, I had not had any time to read and contemplate on the subway, no time had been given to walking and remarking on beautiful things. And it made a world of difference. What comes out of me is directly related to what I take in and to how I live, how I move in the world, and how much time I give to contemplation, preparation, and beauty.

2. Singing is about release, not effort. This idea really changed how I approach singing. I was used to my voice fatiguing rather quickly, but surprisingly, it was never tired after an hour-long lesson. I always came away energized and feeling like I was a bird floating in the air, able to sing with joy and gusto. And most of that had to do with just letting sound come out of me instead of pushing myself to make good sounds. This meant that a lot of focus was spent on the inhale (breathing, preparation, focus) and on letting the exhale (release) have a clear channel, obstacle free. And it worked. I discovered that when I access my whole body and mind in a deep inhale, I have quite a powerful voice. I actually surprised myself in many lessons, making sounds which had never come out of my mouth before. I was able to do this not by trying harder, but by letting go, by giving something away.
    
3. Singing is an exercise in vulnerability. I never realised how much fear was a part of my singing until my vocal coach started pointed out the tiny ways in which I was constricting my voice. I hesitated between inhaling and singing a note, I tightened up my throat when I came to a high note, I locked my hips and pushed out my chin to muscle out a note. I took shallow breaths and squeaked my way through my vocal break. All of it a result of fear, of thinking my voice would fail me and that it would produce ugly sounds. So we spent an entire lesson singing through and around my break, that awkward place between my chest voice and my head voice. And it was so much less ugly than I thought it would be. I found I had so much more strength and control than I thought I had. I also learned that tackling my weak spot head on and working to improve it in a safe place was a better approach than pulling away from it or avoiding it. Singing requires bravery and vulnerability. Fear masks and distorts my real, genuine voice, but when I am willing to be vulnerable, I can embrace and accept my unique voice and be willing to be heard for who I am.

4. You sing not only to others but to yourself. In one lesson, I was singing the late 19th century hymn, O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus. It was not that difficult a song, but required some precision and lots of breath. I was singing it okay, but my teacher and I both knew that something was not connecting. It is a song about vastness, so I tried to sing it big, arms extended, launching the words out to the world. I couldn't quite pull it off. We tried several exercises - phrasing, physical movement, voice placement - but it still wasn't right. Finally, my teacher told me to curl up in a ball and sing it to myself. I crouched on the floor, wrapped my arms around my knees, and sang: "O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free." And I was undone. Tears formed in my eyes when my soul heard the words it needed right then. Sometimes so much emphasis is put on projecting (or releasing) our voices that we forget to sing to our own hearts (see Psalm 42). We cannot project or give away what we do not first embrace and hold in our hearts.  

5. Singing is an exercise in integration. By design, singing is meant to be an integrative, holistic action. All of us have different aspects of our voice which are quite distinct: we can resonate in the chest, in the jaw, in the nasal cavity, and in the forehead. These all produce slightly different sounds. We also have a chest voice (the same timbre as our speaking voice) and a head voice (sometimes referred to as falsetto) which is more breathy and higher than our normal speaking voice. There is also the whistle register, the highest range, which is used to great effect by some sopranos (like Mariah Carey). It takes some training and practice to flow from one register to the next without strain or a significant shift in tone. I happen to have a very notable break between my chest voice and my head voice. That's just the way it has always been. But my vocal coach told me (and showed me) that it is possible to use these two registers together, to have the chest voice support the head voice so that I produce a much more solid, grounded sound. What? I had always assumed that the two were mutually exclusive, like jumping from one moving car to another, but I was wrong. They are actually meant to work together. Oh, segregation and compartmentalization, once again you rear your ugly heads.

The integration of my two voices or registers will take some time. It is such an unnatural sensation for me to access deep sounds when making high sounds, but it is possible. I know that part of the work is head work, getting my brain around a new, integrated way of thinking. Another part of the work is heart work, seeing my different voices as one. It is also spiritual work, having implications for how I perceive and practice my vocation(s). In other words, I must be careful not to compartmentalize my academic voice and my pastoral voice, not to separate my public voice from my private voice, not to divide my spiritual and my physical natures. For a culture steeped in specialization and individualization, integration is hard work. But it is worthy work because it results in more beautiful, grounded singing and a more beautiful, grounded life.

You don't have to take singing lessons to develop good spiritual practices concerning integrity, receiving and releasing, preparation, vulnerability, soul-care, and integration. But it could help. That has been the case for me.

Here is Selah singing O The Deep Deep Love of Jesus. Still undoes me.



Monday, December 05, 2016

tradition


Christmas is a time of year when we see traditions being enacted all around us. Traditions, at their best, tell a story. They are meant to be reminders of identity, history, and hard-won values. Unfortunately, traditions can easily become unmoored from their stories. When this happens, the tradition morphs into something else: it may become a hollow act practically devoid of meaning, or it may become associated with a different story, or the story may be revised to reflect a more convenient story. About a month ago, I heard aboriginal women telling the heart-wrenching story of the slaughter and conquest which accompanied the original celebrations of Thanksgiving in America. This inconvenient story has been removed from the tradition in favour of a more sentimental, Euro-centric tale. The tradition changes when the story changes, and we must resist whitewashing the stories associated with our traditions, for doing so causes us to lose our way.

Jesus encountered some very devout traditionalists in his time. The religious leaders dedicated to upholding the Jewish laws and traditions also turned out to be the most resistant to the good news Jesus embodied. For them, the traditions had become separated from the story of a merciful, redeeming, patient, generous God. Instead, the traditions became rigid rules and practices meant to protect and preserve Jewish identity and purity, and as a result, they were blinded to the story of God's loving compassion unfolding right before their eyes.

I did not grow up with a lot of Christmas traditions so I am discovering some of them for the first time, and the stories which they tell are rich and powerful. One example is the Advent wreath. It originated with the Lutherans sometime in the 16th century and was associated with fasting and mindfulness of the second coming of Christ. In the early 1900s it became associated with looking forward to the celebration of Christmas and, over time, symbols and meanings became attached to the tradition. The tradition varies somewhat in the church, but the Advent wreath tells a wonderful, accessible, memorable story of Jesus. Let me show you.

The wreath is a circle, reminding us that God's love has no beginning or end.
The use of evergreen branches is a sign of life in a lifeless winter, pointing to new life and hope of eternal life in Christ (hints of the original meaning behind the wreath).
The candles represent the light of God coming into the world through Jesus, his son. They contrast to the darkness in the world.
The red ribbon on the wreath represents Christ the Redeemer and the blood he shed for us on the cross.
The four candles (one lit each Sunday in Advent) represent a period of waiting. They symbolize four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi (Old Testament) and the birth of Christ (New Testament).
The colour of Advent in the liturgical church is purple, meaning that it is a time of waiting and preparation. The colour of Lent, a penitential season, is also purple, but Advent is considered a time of expectation, not repentance. Purple is also traditionally the colour of royalty, because the dye used to produce this colour was originally very rare and expensive and only the elite could afford to wear purple.

The First Candle is purple and is known as the Prophecy Candle, reminding us that God is faithful to keep his promises. The theme for the first Sunday of Advent is HOPE. In Isaiah 9 we read: "A child has been born for us. We have been given a son who will be our ruler. His names will be Wonderful Advisor and Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace. His power will never end; peace will last forever. He will rule David’s kingdom and make it grow strong. He will always rule with honesty and justice. The Lord All-Powerful will make certain that all of this is done” (Isaiah 9:6-7, Contemporary English Version). This was written roughly 800 years before Christ was born. The prophecy concerned Jerusalem and Judah who were suffering under an Assyrian attack at the time. This was a message of hope given to a nation who longed for peace and for a righteous ruler. Most likely the people at the time did not fully recognise the messianic overtones in Isaiah's words, but when the writer of Matthew applied it directly to Jesus some 800 years later, Isaiah's message of hope came to life in the person of Christ.

The Second Candle is also purple and is known as the Bethlehem Candle, again reminding us of God's faithfulness and inviting us to be prepared to welcome God into our midst. The theme of the Second Sunday is PEACE. "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the woman in labor gives birth... And he will stand to lead his flock with the LORD’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored around the world. And he will be the source of peace…” (Micah 2:2-5, New Living Translation). Here we find a prophecy about a small, humble village being the birthplace of a world-renowned ruler who will bring peace. Again, the original hearers might not have understood the messianic implications, but when we read them today, in hindsight, the many references to the details in the amazing story of Jesus are quite obvious.

The Third Candle is pink and known as the Shepherd Candle. The theme of the third Sunday is JOY and it refers to the joyous good news the shepherds received from the angels. We find the story in Luke 2: "Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, 'Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 'Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors'" (Luke 2:8-14, Common English Bible). Though the Jews were looking for a messiah who would make things right for them, the story of Jesus is filled with indications that God's mercy and favour extended beyond the nation of Israel. In the angel message here we find mention of "all people" which seems distinctly inclusive to us now, but might not have been taken that way by the original hearers.

The Fourth Candle is purple and is known as the Angel Candle because the angels brought news that God's love had come to the world through the person of Jesus. The theme of the fourth week is LOVE. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won't perish but will have everlasting life" (John 3:16, Common English Bible). These are words spoken by Jesus himself and once again we see expansive words such as "world" and "everyone." This is the very nature of love: to grow, to expand, to overflow, uncontainable and unmeasurable. And this kind of expansive love which reaches even to the lowest of the low is what we see present over and over again in the story of Jesus.

The Centre Candle is white and is called the Christ Candle. It is usually lit on Christmas Eve to indicate that Christ has come, the time of waiting is over. The shift from expectation to excitement is evident in the story of Simeon found in Luke 2: “A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law [dedicate their first child to God]. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said, 'Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.'” (Luke 2:25-32, Common English Bible). Simeon, led by the Spirit, recognised in Jesus the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love which Israel had been longing for. He also saw the expansiveness of God's love and compassion (a light for the Gentiles).

The story of Jesus teaches us that God's salvific work is so much more magnanimous than we had hoped and also so much more humbling than we had anticipated. And that is why it is important to keep telling the story of Jesus, not only in words, but in traditions. Traditions serve as reminders, metaphors, symbols, and spiritual practices which keep us connected to the story of God and reveal to us again and again the divine desire to live in communion with humanity. In telling and re-telling the story of Jesus, the story told in the Advent wreath, we remember that we, too, need a Saviour to restore us to God. We, too, long for someone to come and rescue us. We are reminded to prepare ourselves, because in order to welcome Christ into our lives (our families, our work, our play, our relationships) we need to make space and remove the clutter. This is the message which John the Baptist preached: "Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight" (Mark 1:3). In Advent, we are reminded to minimize the distractions, avoid the detours, remove the obstacles, and make a clear path of welcome for God.

One of the ways we can do this is by making our everyday waiting (in lines, in traffic, in meetings, etc.) a spiritual discipline, an act of worship and devotion. Waiting can be an Advent practice which transforms our self-centred impatience into an act which reminds us of the hundreds of years that Israel waited for someone to come and restore them, to rescue them from their suffering and sin. Another way to practice Advent is to be attentive to stories of waiting and preparation which point use in the direction of hope, peace, joy, and love.[1] Whatever the tradition(s) you participate in this season, may you take the time to remember the story which is connected to the tradition, and find your place in a re-telling and re-living of it.

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[1] One such story which has just been made into a movie (Lion) is that of Saloo Brierley. You can read an article of this amazing story of hope, remembering, and perseverance here.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Belong. Believe. Become.


Image result for tattoos on the heart
Image from Catholic Reporter
Gregory Boyle and some friends from Homeboy Industries
This past weekend, I went to a chalet for the weekend. Together with 17 other people. It was our semi-regular church retreat during which we cooked meals together, washed dishes together, sang songs together, participated in morning and evening prayer together, played outside together, went on a hike together, and just hung out. We also spent some time talking and thinking about what we are trying to build as a faith community and what that looks like.

Basically, it comes down to three ideas found at the heart of one of the models of church found in scripture. The model is the family, and the three ideas are belong, believe, and become. Children are born into a family and they immediately belong. Whether they are grumpy babies or happy babies or sick babies, they belong. Before they do anything to contribute to the family, they belong. As they grow up, they learn what it means to be part of a family, and through experience, example, and instruction, they develop trust and faith in people who are faithful and become faithful themselves. Eventually, the children become productive members of society who are able to contribute in a meaningful way to their own family and, in some way, to the world. Ideally, children are transformed from self-absorbed, crying babies into mature adults who are knowledgeable, skilled, responsible, generous people with a desire to help others. Put another way, we could say the pattern is this: family, faith, formation.

The order is important here. The first requirement cannot be maturity or good character or a certain level of faithfulness and skilled, good work. This is backwards. And it fosters an expectation that is sure to end in disappointment and failure. Insisting that a baby be a responsible member of the family makes no sense. Unfortunately, the church has often required a certain demonstration of faith or godly character before allowing people to belong to the church family. Jesus sets this unrealistic standard on its head. He was always hanging out with outsiders and those on the fringes of society, deliberately going against the notion that people had to exhibit some form of godliness before they were worthy of his attention. So let's take a brief look at each of the three words.

BELONG: Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, writes about his work with gang members in Los Angeles in his book Tattoos on the Heart. His is a slow labour of love and service, trying to convince outcasts that they belong, that they are worth something. He writes: "If you read Scripture scholar Marcus Borg and go to the index in search of 'sinner,' it'll say, 'see outcast.' This was a social grouping of people who felt wholly unacceptable. The world had deemed them disgraceful and shameful, and this toxic shame ... was brought inside and given a home in the outcast. Jesus' strategy is a simple one: He eats with them. Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, 'I will eat with you.' He goes where love has not yet arrived, and he 'gets his grub on.' Eating with outcasts rendered them acceptable. ... Recognizing that we are wholly acceptable is God's own truth for us - waiting to be discovered." [1]

We read about Jesus generously and recklessly associating with the outcasts of society, letting them know that they belonged, even before they believed, even before they gave up their bad behaviour. "Levi [the tax collector] gave a large dinner at his home for Jesus. Everybody was there, tax men and other disreputable characters as guests at the dinner. The Pharisees and their religion scholars came to his disciples greatly offended. 'What is he doing eating and drinking with crooks and sinners?' Jesus heard about it and spoke up, 'Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I'm here inviting outsiders, not insiders - an invitation to a changed life, changed inside and out." (Luke 5:29-32, The Message)

Gregory Boyle tells the story of his parish, Dolores Mission Church, declaring itself a sanctuary for undocumented people from Mexico and Central America. Soon, men were sleeping in the church and women and children in the convent. Some people in the neighbourhood did not appreciate the church's decision and the ramifications it had for the area. One morning, they discovered that someone had spray-painted WETBACK CHURCH across the steps. Father Boyle was about to ask someone to remove the words when a woman in the church spoke up: "You will not clean this up. If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mojados (wetbacks) ... then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church." [2] Boyle notes that Jesus was not a man for others, but one who was with others.

BELIEVE: We belong because God turns toward us and accepts us. Then and only then are we able to turn toward God and trust him, believe him, have faith in him. We often associate the concept of believing with giving assent to right doctrine, but the idea of belief in the New Testament means to cling to, to rely on, to depend on. In other words, to believe means to put our well-being and our life in the hands of another, no back-up plan. Believing in someone means that we know they are faithful and trustworthy because they have shown themselves to be so. At a time when people were abandoning Jesus because his teachings were difficult to accept, Simon Peter affirmed his belief in Jesus: "You [alone] have the words of eternal life [you are our only hope]. We have believed and confidently trusted, and [even more] we have come to know [by personal observation and experience] that You are the Holy One of God [the Christ, the Son of the living God]." (John 6:68-69, Amplified Bible)

We come to believe and trust someone by walking with them, by working side by side with them, by getting to know them. Father Boyle tells a story of two rival gang members, sworn enemies, grudgingly working together at one of the businesses run by Homeboy Industries. At first the two men would not even look at each other. Six months later, when one of them was shot and seriously wounded, the other, a former enemy, offered to give his blood for someone he now called his friend. What changed hatred into trust? Belonging to the same community of workers, working side by side in order to improve their lives and the lives of others in their neighbourhood, and learning that they belonged to each other.

BECOME: In the context of a family, we belong first. We are accepted just as we are before our parents even know what kind of people we will become. As we grow and develop, we learn to trust and believe and have faith in our family and in others. Experience teaches us the value of faithfulness. Over time, we are transformed, no longer crying, needy children, but strong, helpful, generous, compassionate, skilled adults who contribute significantly to our family and to the world. We are no longer needy, but needed as caregivers and builders and artists and companions. We have been transformed. Being born of the Spirit means that we become new creations. What is old is gone. All things are new. However, it takes time for the character of Jesus to be formed in us, for old habits and ways of thinking to be changed. We are created in the image of God, but having our minds and hearts and wills and actions transformed to look like Jesus is a life-long process.

Paul writes that we have all been on the outs with God. We have all experienced what it means to be outside, but God personally opens the door and welcomes us back in. In light of this, he says: "So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out.... God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." (Romans 12:1-2, The Message)

The story of Thomas serves as an example of belonging, believing, and becoming. Thomas belonged to Jesus's close circle of friends for three years. It was there that he belonged and was intimately known by Jesus and the other disciples. Thomas was skeptical when he heard others say that Jesus had risen from the dead. He said he had to see and touch Jesus's scars before he would believe it. For this reason, he is often referred to as doubting Thomas. This is unfortunate, because once Thomas encountered the risen Christ, he declared, "My Lord and my God." Tradition has it that following this life-altering experience, Thomas sailed to India to bring the Gospel to the people there. He started churches in at least seven locations there and was eventually killed for his faith. The Thomas Christian Churches are still present and active in India today. First Thomas belonged, then Thomas learned to believe, and then Thomas became an evangelist and a church planter.

Sometimes we in the church can focus so much on the need for people to be transformed that we forget that they need to belong first, and that they need to be in a relationship with faithful people before they can believe and trust. Transformation is the fruit that results from being in a loving, committed family or community. It is not a prerequisite for inclusion. If that were the case, none of us would ever belong. But because of the overflowing, merciful love of our heavenly Father, we are invited to be part of the family of God, yes, even when we are wailing, puking, needy, selfish, fearful, confused babies. Thank God for that.

Here are some questions to ponder and pray about:
What does it mean to belong? (see my previous post on belong here)
How does God invite us to belong?
How do we invite others to belong?
How do we come to believe and trust someone?
How do we learn to trust God?
Where do we find it hard to trust God?
How are we transformed from selfish, proud, fearful people into loving, compassionate, generous followers of Jesus?

Let Jesus show us the way to belong, to believe, and to become more like him.

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[1] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York: Free Press, 2011), 70.
[2] Boyle, 72.