Thursday, February 23, 2017

stained and broken

Image result for stained glass picture
Image from applyityourself.co.uk
Recently, I was asked to speak at another church, and the passage of Scripture which was assigned to me was John 1:6-8. "There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light." (John 1:6-8, Amplified Bible)

The first question I usually ask when reading something in the Bible is this: What does this tell me about God? Two things are immediately obvious - God is a sending God and God wants to communicate - but there is a third which merits a bit more attention. Though God could communicate directly with humanity, sending truth and love to every individual via some divine mind-and-heart-meld, God chooses to send messengers. Not only that, instead of introducing Jesus directly to the world as the main event, an opening, warm-up act appears as a precursor. What is the point of incorporating a witness, a go-between, a messenger? It seems inefficient at best and a recipe for miscommunication at worst.

Perhaps one way to understand the role of a messenger or witness is to look at the metaphor of light used in this passage. Here we have two important words, both used three times in these three verses. Light (phos in Greek) means source of light, radiance, to shine. It implies a pure, brilliant quality, and here it refers to the manifestation of God's self-existent life and also divine illumination which reveals and imparts life, especially through Christ. It reminds one of the Psalmist's words to God, "In your light we see light" (Psalm 36:9). The second word is witness (martureo) which means to testify, commend, or speak well of. In being a witness, one affirms that one has seen or heard or experienced something, and gives testimony instead of being silent.

Two other very small words that are notable here are the prepositions peri (around, about) and dia (through). Peri means concerning, properly, all-around on every side, encompassing, full and comprehensive. This meaning is evident in the word peri-meter. Dia means through, by the instrumentality of, to bring successfully across to the other side of something. Hence the word dia-meter. John testifies about (peri) the light so that all might believe through (dia) him. When a messenger testifies fully and properly, people are successfully brought across to the other side of the message to engage directly with the subject. In other words, they are able to focus on the light instead of the witness to the light. John, the messenger, is not the light, but he testifies to the light. This "throughness" is what John means when he says, "He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

So, how does someone testify about the light? A metaphor that might be helpful here is that of stained glass. Stained glass is made by adding metallic salts during its manufacture. Sodium chromate yields a yellow colour. Potassium dichromate makes orange. Red comes from cobalt nitrate, purple from potassium permanganate, and green from nickel chloride hexahydrate. Most mineral pigments and dyes are salts. This lends another slant to Jesus's words, "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). It is interesting to think of Jesus's followers as not only the flavour and preserving agent, but the "colour" of the earth.

In order to adjust the colour and texture of stained glass, it is heated to around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. The coloured glass is then cut into small pieces which are arranged side by side to form a design. Finally, they are soldered together with strips of lead and held in place by a rigid frame. Heat (fire) and radiance (glory) are often linked in the Scriptures, perhaps most notably in the passion of Christ and his subsequent resurrection. The joining together of differently coloured pieces reminds us of the nature of the church, where each part is "joined and knitted firmly together" to form a functioning, unified whole (Ephesians 4:16).

Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of stained glass is that it is stained and broken. It is not a large, clear window allowing an unobstructed view of the light. In fact, the purpose of stained glass is to limit light, to constrain it, and to do so through showcasing broken, stained pieces of glass purposefully arranged by an artist. This constraint is what renders a masterpiece, what makes a work of art, what tells a beautiful story in glowing colour. Stained glass is a lesson in humility and restraint, both of which were embraced by Jesus when he walked this earth. He set aside his divine privilege and became broken, stained with blood and sin in order to reflect the Light of heaven in all its loving splendour. But not everyone saw the divine light in Jesus. The outside of a church with stained glass windows or a piece of stained glass sitting on a table do not look like anything special. But go inside a church and face the sun, or lift up a piece of stained glass to the light, and you will see colours and patterns and reflections which will astound you. In order to see the true beauty of stained glass, we must be facing the light. And if we are stained and broken pieces of glass seeking to reflect the true Light, we must remain in the Light.

Back to the question I posed at the beginning: why does God choose the inefficient use of messengers and witnesses? Why not a more direct route for revelation? Human messengers are imperfect, they are stained, they are broken. And that seems to be the point. The stained, broken pieces are nothing without the light, and they are nothing without other stained, broken, pieces. Donald Miller writes, "We are a little sliver of glass in a stained-glass window. We aren't the whole and we aren't the light." In some mysterious way, the relationship between God and humanity is always intertwined with the relationships we have with each other. This is the indirect, inefficient way that a loving, relational God chooses to reveal himself. But, oh, what a wondrous beauty shines through human beings when they join together and turn themselves toward the full light of heaven. When stained, broken glass is enlightened, the whole world is enlightened.

"There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light. There it was - the true Light [the genuine, perfect, steadfast Light] which, coming into the world, enlightens everyone" (John 1:3-9, Amplified Bible).

Thursday, February 09, 2017

fun with hermeneutics



I am a reader. The stacks of books in my bedroom, living room, and office, many of them still waiting to be cracked open, testify to this fact. I love to read, but I also know that not all reading is the same. Some is more work and some is more pleasure. A light work of fiction requires little of me but to engage my imagination and be carried away by the story. Online reading requires a bit (or a lot) of discernment to make sure the sources are reliable and the facts check out. Academic reading requires me to reason through the arguments being made and connect them to what I already know or have read in the field. Reading an ancient text requires that I suspend my 21st century perspective as best I can and learn a bit about the worldview and language of the time. Acknowledging a text's context, intent, and genre enables me to hear the words and ideas in such a way that my view of history and the world are enlarged.

Reading, interpreting, and understanding the Bible are important to those who profess faith in Jesus, but they have their challenges. When done poorly, with little thought to the context or genre, it is easy to twist the meaning of a text to suit our purpose. And this has been done by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people over the centuries. Take any high school literature class and you will know that it takes some effort to understand poetry, allegories, fables, and theatrical plays by the likes of Shaw and Shakespeare. Even the simplest work of fiction has multiple layers, and any historian will tell you that a historical document is never as straightforward as it seems. Likewise, the collection of books known as the Bible is not all that easy to read or understand. There are multiple genres (poetry, history, prophecy, wisdom, narratives), the collection covers a rather large swath of history and includes various accounts of the same time period, and some of the language is so obscure and/or filled with unfamiliar metaphors that the meaning is confusing. Nevertheless, there are many passages which are inspiring and beautiful in their simplicity, easily transcending the differences in time and culture to speak to us today.

If you are a student of the Bible, it is in your best interest to learn some basic principles of interpretation for this unique collection of books inspired by God. The science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. Below is a quote from Biblical scholar, Milton Terry. It is over a century old. I chose to include it because not only will it give you the chance to learn a bit about the topic, it will also give you the chance to practice adjusting your thinking to a slightly older way of writing. Here it is.

“Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. The word is usually applied to the explanation of written documents, and may therefore be more specifically defined as the science of interpreting an author's language. This science assumes that there are divers modes of thought and ambiguities of expression among men, and, accordingly, it aims to remove the supposable differences between a writer and his readers, so that the meaning of the one may be truly and accurately apprehended by the others.”

Thanks, Milton. I have hobbled together a few principles of Biblical interpretation and I share them with you here. Some I have gleaned from different sources, some I have learned in my studies, and some I have found in thoughtful readings of the text itself. The list is by no means complete, but should give you a good start in reading the ancient texts with a bit more understanding and a bit less confusion. Hopefully, it will also cut down on misinterpretations of the text (don't worry, we all do it at one point or another).

A few principles for interpreting the Bible:

1. The Hebrew Bible (OT) and the New Testament should not be separated. The mystery of Christ sheds light on the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament cannot be properly appreciated without knowing the history, style, and spirit of the Hebrew writers. The whole Bible is a divinely constructed unity, and in studying one part to the neglect of the other, we may fall into “one-sided and erroneous methods of exposition.” (Milton S. Terry)
2. The Bible is both a divine and a human text. This means that it speaks of divine mysteries through the lens of human experience. If we emphasize one aspect over the other, we miss the generous encounter in which it is grounded.
3. Take into account the author’s intention. We are over 2000 years removed from the biblical authors and in order to understand what they are saying, we must know a bit about their context, history, culture, literary forms, and audience. The scriptures were not written to us as contemporary readers, but they have implications for us. Commands and directives given to the nation of Israel are not necessarily commands to us, and promises made to biblical characters are not automatically transferable to us.
4. The context of a passage should always be considered. Context determines meaning, and isolating any phrase or story can lead to a misguided interpretation.
5. Identify the genre of the biblical passage. Is it historical narrative, laws, wisdom literature, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel, parables, or correspondence? Each type of literature requires a slightly different hermeneutic method. Histories recount journeys we can relate to. Wisdom contains principles to live by. Parables make a certain point to the hearers. Poetry uses imagery and metaphor to paint pictures of ideas and express feelings.
6. Do not confuse interpretation with application. Jesus calls his followers to leave their jobs in order to follow him. This is part of a larger story in which Jesus gathers disciples. It is not a command for all people everywhere to forsake their family businesses. Just because Paul wrote that slaves should obey their masters (Ephesians 6) does not mean that he is condoning slavery.
7. We all bring our own worldview and context to any interpretation, which is okay, but we must be mindful of imposing our own presuppositions or unrealistic expectations on the biblical text. Peter Enns says, “If we come to the Bible expecting something like a spiritual owner’s manual complete with handy index, a step-by-step field guide to the life of faith, an absolutely sure answer-book to unlock the mystery of God and the meaning of life, then conflict and stress follow right behind… what if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is without needing anyone to stand guard over it? Not the well-behaved-everything-is-in-order version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith.” That being said, it is perfectly normal to have questions about what you read in the Bible, to be puzzled about certain things and bothered by others, and to change your mind on what it means as you delve deeper into these sacred texts. It is the joy of engaging with the divine mystery. (The Bible Tells Me So, pages 7-9)
8. God reveals himself to us through Jesus, the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is our teacher. Our own efforts at understanding accomplish little without the life and breath of the Spirit. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you when you read and study the Bible. “The Bible … isn’t a problem to be fixed. It’s an invitation.” (Peter Enns)

And if you want to practice a little hermeneutics right now, try reading these scriptures, keeping the above principles in mind (questions below based on material by Craig Keener).

Read Psalm 50. Is God’s announcement that He owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” an assurance that He can supply all our needs? (v. 10) Or does it mean something else in this context?

Read Psalm 118. Which day is the “day that the Lord has made” (v. 24) Does the text refer to every day or to a specific day?

Read Romans 10. What is the “word of God” (or, “word of Christ” in most translations) in verse 17? Does it refer to the Bible or to something else?

Happy hermeneuting....Matte

Friday, February 03, 2017

disruption

Image result for disruption
Image from thefinancialbrand.com
A nasty virus hit me a week ago on Thursday evening and laid me out for most of three days. I had proposals I was working on, a pile of paperwork on my dining room table that needed attention, preparations to make for church on Sunday, emails to answer, supplies to be bought, a house to clean, and laundry to be done. All of that was disrupted. The sickness rendered me unable to think, read, work, stand upright for any length of time, or do much else other than sleep and ingest the occasional protein smoothie. I thought of chocolate and had no interest. I thought of checking my email or Facebook and it just didn't seem to matter. I picked up a book and put it down again without even cracking it open. My fever finally broke Saturday evening, but I was still pretty useless the next day, my brain and body not capable of much. Monday morning, I woke up feeling almost normal. I decided to read a theology blog. My brain ate it up like it was the first bite of solid food in days. And with that bit of fuel, my brain immediately started to put together some writing ideas, plan a paper proposal, and thought of ways to incorporate what I had read into a research proposal. I said out loud, "Welcome back, brain!"

In some ways, it felt like my brain had been turned off and then on again, and the renewed clarity was a gift I humbly received. Once again I could see why a certain way of thinking wasn't working or making sense, I could articulate things, I could make connections between ideas. What had originally seemed like a total waste of three days, was somehow a good disruption, a Sabbath in disguise.

Life is riddled with disruptions. It is rare that something goes exactly as expected. The challenge and adventure of being human is this: how do we take everything that life throws at us and turn it into the most beautiful story of love and hope that we can manage? This is not an easy task, and though some of us would prefer if everything unfolded according to plan, that would make us closer to robots than humans. One thing a robot (or computer) is incapable of is wisdom. This virtue is gained through facing disruptions and adversity and, despite the odds, finding a compassionate way forward.

A disruption is basically neutral, meaning that it can be either good or bad depending on the context. Someone turning off your computer in the middle of a project would be a bad disruption. Someone turning off your computer when your screen freezes is a good disruption. Disease is a disruption of health, but healing is also a disruption of disease. Most disruptions are not so clearly defined; they tend to be a mix of good and bad, and it requires a good deal of discernment to extricate one from the other.

Right now, the political landscape is filled with disruptions. Many people don't know what to make of it. Those who thought things were going in the right direction are dismayed and troubled. Those who were fed up with the status quo feel empowered. The reactions are varied: denial, paralysis, bravado, resistance, compliance, and booing as well as cheering. But what is wisdom here? What is the way forward to writing the most beautiful and hopeful story we can manage? Digging in our heels and amplifying divisions will only create volatile situations, and engaging in power struggles has never ended well (it is called war). So what do we do? Might I suggest that we use these current disruptions to take a moment to rethink things, to reboot compassion, to lend our ears to voices we might have overlooked or neglected.

Disruptions are golden opportunities for us to learn something new about ourselves and our world and above all, be transformed into better disciples of Jesus. The choice is up to us. How will we respond to the disruptions? Here are a few ideas.

1. Disruptions can make us compassionate helpers or armchair critics. When disruption comes, we can choose to get close to those most affected by the disruption and alleviate their suffering or we can offer critiques at a distance where it costs us nothing.
2. Disruptions can humble us or make us more stubborn. We can choose to exhibit a willingness to listen, to question our assumptions, to step outside of our limited worldview and see someone else's, to admit that we don't know it all, or we can adopt a defensive stance, protecting our perceived rights and shoring up our sense of superiority by surrounding ourselves with agreeing voices.
3. Disruptions can draw us together or split us apart. We can choose whether we will open our arms and our homes or lock everything up tight in fear.
4. Disruptions can challenge us to find inner strength or steer us to outward shows of force. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said, "for they will be called children of God." Jesus never taught his disciples to threaten others or seek positions of power and influence in order to further their cause. Quite the opposite. He taught his followers not to fear those who can only harm the body.
5. Disruptions can make us bitter and angry or we can choose to face our own demons in ways we never have before. This is perhaps the biggest of challenge: to see ourselves in the faces of those we disagree with or those who are making our lives difficult. Jesus asks us to love God, to love our neighbours, and to love our enemies. That means love must rule.

Disruptions are harsh gifts, but they are gifts if we are willing to do the hard work of learning what wisdom they are offering and seeing what transformation is required in order for us to flourish in love and humility.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

make us one

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In 1908, a Franciscan Friar named Paul Wattson instituted the Octave of Christian Unity, 8 days focused on praying for church unity. Over the last century, this period of time morphed into what is now known as Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and at present, it is observed by many churches in the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. This past week, I was privileged to participate in an evening of prayer and worship commemorating this ecumenical call to prayer. There were ten churches represented as we gathered in downtown Montreal on a stormy January evening. That in itself seemed pretty significant.

One of the large Catholic churches in Montreal, Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, hosted the meeting in their parish hall. Their priest gave a very gracious opening welcome. Short meditations on reconciliation were given by a female Anglican pastor (in French) and by the pastor of a small congregation affiliated with the Mennonites (in English). A chorale from the Cathedral sang joyful gospel songs in French. We were invited to attend different prayer stations around the room to write our prayers on post-it notes or to say silent prayers and light a candle to represent our intercession. The themes of the different prayer stations were Germany (the featured country for this year's week of prayer), First Nations, the government and the city, students, reconciliation, and creation care. It was moving to see people standing in silent prayer, lighting candles, writing their deepest desires and requests on small rectangles of yellow paper, and seeing the walls fill with words of hope and compassion.

As part of the evening, several people were invited to say public prayers in French and English. I was asked to pray for reconciliation, and I chose to sing the first part of my prayer in the form of a classic Vineyard tune by Carl Tuttle. I sang it acapella, not as a performance, but as a call to prayer, wanting to match the vulnerability of the words to the vulnerability I felt in singing in front of strangers with no accompaniment.

Oh Lord have mercy on us and heal us
Oh Lord have mercy on us and free us
Place our feet upon a rock
Place a new song in our hearts, in our hearts
Oh Lord, have mercy on us

Oh Lord may your love and your grace, protect us
Oh Lord may your ways and your truth, direct us
Place our feet upon a rock
Place a new song in our hearts, in our hearts
Oh Lord, have mercy on us.

I followed this by reading a prayer I had written:

Oh God, Creator of all. Have mercy on us.

We divide the things you have knit together. We lift one person above another. We argue and disagree and push each other away. Forgive us. We are petty and prideful and think too highly of ourselves.

Spirit of Jesus, come and show us the way forward. Teach us to lay down our lives for each other. Teach us to build up instead of tear down. We ask that you do the work we cannot do: transform and enlarge our hearts so that we can love, truly love, with the love of Jesus. 

Make us one as you are one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

The meeting ended with the people in the hall enthusiastically singing 10,000 Reasons and Great are You Lord led by a small worship band which included musicians from two different churches. People were reluctant to leave the meeting, spending time introducing themselves to strangers, greeting old friends, munching cookies, and offering words of encouragement to all who had participated.

A group of us were hungry, so 11 of us from different churches capped off the evening by trekking through the snow and ice to Five Guys for burgers, fries, drinks, and convivial fellowship. It was a sweet time. Everyone I talked to said, we love this, praying and worshiping and hanging out with people from other churches. Yes, it is good and pleasant. It is like a sweet fragrant oil. It is like refreshing dew. It is an activity blessed by God.

See how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters live together in harmony!

It is like fine, scented oil on the head,
running down the beard—down Aaron’s beard—
running over the collar of his robes.
It is like dew on Mount Hermon,
dew which comes down on Zion’s mountains.
That is where the Lord promised the blessing of eternal life.
(Psalm 133, God's Word Translation)


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. In another room, a tiny icon of Matthew (about 3 inches tall) looking haggard and unafraid, wreathed in gold, was also a gem, easily overshadowed by the larger works, but definitely worthy of attention. There was also one painting of Jesus and Mary which caught my eye. In it 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)