Thursday, December 22, 2016

singing lessons

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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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

consider....

Image result for flickr wild lily
Image from Flickr
I like to go for walks in my neighbourhood. Getting outside and engaging in some exercise is a nice change from my desk, but walking through the park and along the pond does more than get my blood and limbs moving; it also invigorates my spirit and my mind. When I am a bit depleted, tired, confused, discouraged, or fearful, going for a walk is really good medicine. Because looking at the birds, the grass, the flowers, the kids playing in the park, the trees, and the sky lifts me out of my self-absorption and places things in perspective. The feast of beauty available to my senses outside my front door invites my small and fearful heart to be still, to take it all in, to swell with gratitude and wonder and playfulness.

Beauty is something which attracts us, which causes us delight, and captures our attention. When one stands before a great work of art, the concern is not first about what sort of paint the artist used or the exact measurements of the canvas. One simply takes it in. One lets the beauty of the work saturate the senses and speak to the soul. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that doing theology is like gazing upon a masterful work of art; in other words, theology is not primarily an intellectual exercise. Like Moses who was mesmerized by the burning bush, our first task in theological encounter is not to question, but to stop and wonder.

Let's talk epistemology for a minute, okay? Epistemology is the theory of knowledge; basically, it addresses the question of how we come to know something. In our schools, we learn mostly through reading, listening to experts lecture, doing research, writing essays, and working on projects. In our modern world, knowledge is closely related to reason and empirical data. In other words, we link knowing things to verifiable facts and logic. These are valuable ways of knowing, but they are not the only ways. There is also revelation (we come to know people when they reveal themselves to us), experience (you can only know if a cup of coffee is good by tasting it), and participation (learning how to perform surgery or play the piano).

So what does epistemology have to do with beauty? The two come together in Luke 12 where Jesus is talking to his followers. One man complains that his brother is cheating him out of his due inheritance, and he asks Jesus to make things right. Jesus cautions the man against thinking that life is about possessions and as a further instruction, tells a story about a rich man who builds large barns to store all his surplus grain. Having secured his future with this storehouse of wealth, the man believes he can now eat, drink, and be merry. Jesus ends the story by saying that the man's life will end that very night and all his riches will do him no good. Jesus then tells his disciples not to worry about matters like food, drink, and clothing. Instead, he asks them to consider three things: the
crows, the lilies, and the grass. In other words, Jesus is asking them to rethink their epistemology, to reconsider where they turn to in order to learn about how to do well in life.

"Think about [consider closely, take note of, discern, contemplate, understand fully]  those crows flying over there: do they plant and harvest crops? Do they own silos or barns? [like the rich farmer?] Look at them fly. It looks like God is taking pretty good care of them, doesn’t it? Remember that you are more precious to God than birds! Which one of you can add a single hour to your life or 18 inches to your height by worrying really hard? If worry can’t change anything, why do you do it so much?" (Luke 12:24-26, The Voice)

Image result for crow
Image from Live Science
So let us consider the crow, let us stop and wonder at the crow for just a bit. What can it teach us? In general, we don't think kindly of crows. They are seen as scavengers, nuisances to farmers, and, as evident in the plural designation, "a murder of crows," they have been traditionally linked to superstitious, morbid activities. But let's look a little closer. Crows are communal beings, gathering in large groups around food sources. [1] Crows are very intelligent birds, and this is exhibited by a variety of communicative calls (not every kaw-kaw is the same), their ability to engage in play, a capacity for episodic memory, and the uncanny know-how to make and adapt tools in order to procure food.  They even have the ability to count! The tale goes like this: a farmer was annoyed by the crows who were eating his grain, so he decided to hide in a hunting blind and scare them away with his gun. However, whenever he entered his hunting blind, the crows flew away and did not come back until after he left. He decided to trick the birds by entering the blind with a friend, then having him leave. The crows were not fooled. The farmer invited more friends to join him in the blind and then exit, leaving only the farmer behind. They crows were a smart bunch, and it was not until they reached 17 people that the birds lost count of how many were still in the hunting blind. I would probably have lost count earlier. Jesus asks his followers to consider the crow, one of the most intelligent, resourceful birds on the planet, and learn about the care and attention of the creator.

Jesus goes on: "Think about those beautiful wild lilies growing over there. They don’t work up a sweat toiling for needs or wants—they don’t worry about clothing. Yet the great King Solomon never had an outfit that was half as glorious as theirs!" (Luke 12:27) Take a minute right now to look at [consider closely, take note of, discern, contemplate, understand fully] the picture at the top, a wild lily. What does it tell you about the great creator and designer?

Finally, Jesus asks his followers to look at the grass: "Look at the grass growing over there. One day it’s thriving in the fields. The next day it’s being used as fuel. If God takes such good care of such transient things, how much more you can depend on God to care for you, weak in faith as you are. Don’t reduce your life to the pursuit of food and drink; don’t let your mind be filled with anxiety. People of the world who don’t know God pursue these things, but you have a Father caring for you, a Father who knows all your needs." (Luke 12:28-30)

Let us consider grass. Grasslands take up over 40% of the earth's land, and grass is absent only from Antarctica and parts of central Greenland. Grasses (poaceae) are the most economically important plant family on earth, providing staple foods from edible seeds (corn, wheat, rice, barley, millet), forage and building materials (bamboo, thatch, straw), and food for animals (cows, sheep, horses). Grasses grow from the base and not from the stem tips, which allows them to be cut or grazed without severe damage to the plant. Grass stems are hollow in order to allow water to be drawn up through the blade. A cross-section of a grass blade shows its intricate interior.
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Image from Quora
Grass provides its own food through photosynthesis (converts light energy into chemical energy) and the waste product of this process is oxygen. So every time you see grass, thank it for the air you breathe. Stop and wonder at the grass. Learn about the integrative nature of creation, how one part is necessary for the nurture and life of other parts. This interconnectedness tells us something about the the creator and how we are meant to live on the earth.

Now that we have done all this considering, we are ready to hear what Jesus says next: "Since you don’t need to worry—about security and safety, about food and clothing—then pursue God’s kingdom first and foremost, and these other things will come to you as well. My little flock, don’t be afraid. God is your Father, and your Father’s great joy is to give you His kingdom." (Luke 12:31-32)

I have often heard this last verse (perhaps more familiarly, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you") used as an equation. Basically, if I earnestly exert effort to work for the good of the kingdom of God, to be more righteous in thought, word, and deed, then God will reward me with the good things in life. But that is pretty much the opposite of what Jesus is saying. He is asking his followers to consider the intricate beauty of birds, flowers, and grass, not giving them a formula for success. We are not to look to the wealthy farmer or businessman for keys to success; we are to open our eyes to the fullness and joy all around us in creation. Jesus is not telling people to try harder to be good, to get their priorities straight once and for all, he is asking them to look at the simple things, to see how they have been marvelously created to be resourceful, communal, creative, playful, beautiful, and generous. All of creation declares the glory of God. All of it speaks of God's extravagance, God's tender care, God's concern with detail and his attention to the universe in all its complexities. God reveals himself and his character in the beauty of the world around us. [2] This means that we, too, should learn to trust God and not worry about the future. Jesus is telling his worried, anxious, fearful followers that they, too, are in God's good care. They belong to God. Stop and wonder.

In Luke 12:32, Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of God is not something we have to strive for or a righteous standard we have to attain, but it is the Father's great joy to give to us. And what is this kingdom? Romans 14:17 says: "The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." Instead of being obsessed with material goods like the wealthy farmer in the story, Jesus invites his followers to seek, to turn their attention to, joy, peace, and righteousness. These are the true riches.

Jesus spoke words of comfort to a group of people worried about food and drink, clothing, safety, security, and societal norms. Are we any different? Like the birds, the flowers, and the grass, we are invited to graciously relax (not laziness but a restful abiding) into our unique vocations as part of the integrated glory of creation. How do we learn to do this? 

Do not worry.
Do not fear.
Consider the simple things around you, things not of your own making.
Stop and wonder.
Know that the Father cares for you. 

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[1] You can read an interesting study on the communal aspect of crows here.
[2] By beauty, I do not meant that which is merely pleasing to the eye or symmetrical. Theologically speaking, beauty is defined by Jesus which means that it encompasses glory, weakness. fullness, suffering, death, and resurrection. In Jesus, we come to see that beauty is that which is infused by love.

Monday, November 07, 2016

wanted: patience

Image result for patience
Image from Inc.com
Finish the following phrase: I need patience when....

Your answers might include things like parenting, standing in line, performing some detailed task, losing weight, or going through a hard time. Patience is the ability to wait, to continue doing something despite difficulties, to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed, to tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.

To illustrate the concept of patience, let me tell you two stories. Here is the first, a mom's story:

"Getting ready and out the door is a chore, as any mom of littles will tell you. No matter how much extra time you allot yourself, it's never enough. It seems those last 10 minutes before leaving are pure and utter chaos. It never fails. Somebody poops right as I step out the door. ... Oops, I forgot to water the dog. It's enough to drive someone mad—at least if that someone is me.

"I like to think I am a good mother. But I know for a fact I have one motherly flaw that protrudes like a plank from my eye: I lack patience. At no time is this flaw more evident than when my girls and I are trying to get out the door to go somewhere. The problem is, I'm an 'arrive on time' kind of girl. Or at least I used to be. Now, with two kids, I rarely reach my destination on time. But the drive to do so still pushes me to run over any obstacles in my path. Even if those obstacles are often my children. Today my 4-year-old, finally strapped down behind her five-point-harness, crying in the back seat, asked me, 'Why are you being so mean to us?' I was buzzing down the road, my eye on the prize of my destination, but in that moment my heart stopped, and I knew I was in the wrong. ... I decided right then and there that enough was enough. I don't want my children to remember their mother always in a hurry or always about to burst from frustration. I want them to remember examples of patience and love." [1]

I must admit that I, too, like to be on time and stick to a schedule. I have been unkind and impatient in the interest of timeliness, and I confess that it is never a pleasant sight. Patience appears in short supply in our fast-paced lives. We are always looking for ways to manage our schedules better, to make things more efficient, to cram more tasks into our already full days. But I believe time management is an elusive and sadly inadequate goal to be pursuing, mostly because it is based on pressure we feel from the culture around us and not on a desire to emulate the character of God.

Let's look at another story, this time in Nehemiah 9. Here the priests are giving instructions to people who are in the process of rebuilding their lives and their city. They have faced a lot of opposition and hardship, and though they have managed to erect an exterior wall, they have a long way to go to complete the project. The leaders call the people together to worship God and confess their sins, and then they tell them a story to put things in perspective. It is the history of God and his people.

The story begins with God making the earth and everything in it. God is not only the creator but the one who sustains all of creation. Things go a bit sideways when humanity decides to choose their own way instead of God's, but God responds with a way of salvation. God then makes a covenant with Abraham to make him a great nation through which all nations of the world will be blessed. The family of Abraham multiples over generations and rivalries and betrayal enter the story. The growing nation ends up in slavery in Egypt, but God sees their misery and rescues them. God leads the homeless nation through the wilderness, assuring them of his constant presence and care with a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, and miraculous provision of food and water. And how do the people respond?

"But our ancestors resisted following You. They were arrogant. They were proud.
They refused to obey Your commands, plugging their ears. Knowing what You had done for them in the past, they willfully forgot it in the present. Stubborn. Rebellious.
Instead of following You, they appointed their own leader to take them back to the land of their oppression—to Egypt!
But You are not like us, God.
You are filled with love, compassion, and forgiveness.
You endure much with your anger [are slow to anger] and display Your loyal love." (Nehemiah 9:16-18, The Voice)

To add insult to injury, the rescued nation attributes their miraculous escape from slavery to a golden calf instead of to God. And then they decide that freedom isn't all they had envisioned and they want to go back to their captors. The story goes on to mention the people's horrible atrocities, actions in stark contrast to God's incomprehensible compassion. Despite their terrible behavior, God never abandons them, he never removes the cloud or the pillar of fire, he never stops giving them food or water, and he makes sure their clothes and shoes do not wear out. After forty years, God leads the people into a new land, fertile and productive. And the people react like ungrateful children, refusing to listen, killing the messengers God sends to warn them. So God lets them experience the consequences of their actions and they encounter suffering. In their pain, they cry out to God for help. God listens, and God rescues them. Again.

"Somehow your mercy is inexhaustible...
Over and over and over You intervened and saved Your people...
Year after year, Your patience endured...
It was because of Your great mercy that they were not completely annihilated or forsaken.
You are a grace-filled and mercy-laden God;
Our True God - You who are great, majestic, and awesome, You who always keep your covenant of loyal love... (Nehemiah 9:28-32, The Voice)

The story that the priests tell the people rebuilding the city of Jerusalem highlights the patience and faithfulness of God. No matter how much trouble their ancestors caused, God never abandoned them. He demonstrated his patience and compassion over and over again. This story was meant to encourage the people in the long and difficult task of rebuilding their lives. God's patience was to become the backbone of their patience.

Our modern world seems to value efficiency over patience and longsuffering, but efficiency is not a fruit of the spirit of God. If there is anything that the history of God and his people demonstrates, it is his indefatigable patience. Might I suggest that we are often impatient with others because we don't realize how patient God is with us. We can be so focused on the chaos in front of us that we don't realize that we are the chaos God has to deal with. And in our arrogance, we dare to accuse God of being slow, of not acting, of not caring, of not listening. God is not ignoring us, he is being patient, but this is a difficult concept for impatient people to grasp. We must resist projecting our experience onto God, and instead, allow God's spirit to inform and transform our experience.

"Don’t imagine, dear friends, that God’s timetable is the same as ours; as the psalm says, for with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day. Now the Lord is not slow about enacting His promise—slow is how some people want to characterize it—no, He is not slow but patient and merciful to you, not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn toward God’s." (2 Peter 3:8-9, The Voice)

"Do you take the kindness of God for granted? Do you see His patience and tolerance as signs that He is a pushover when it comes to sin? How could you not know that His kindness is guiding our hearts to turn away from distractions and habitual sin to walk a new path?" (Romans 2:4, The Voice)

Let's take a brief look at the words for patience in the scriptures. There is no one word in Hebrew to describe patience. Qavah means to wait, to expect, to bind together (hints of covenant). Khool means to hope for and comes from a root which means "to calve" (hints of the patience and suffering required in giving birth). Erekh ruach means long of spirit and is translated "patience" in the story of Job. In Greek, hupomeno means to remain, to abide, to persevere under misfortunes, to endure, to bear bravely, to hold fast to one's faith. Another Greek work, makrothymia, combines the word long with the word anger, and here we get the idea of being slow to anger, or longsuffering, having forbearance, steadfastness, and staying power.

The idea of "fullness of time"[2] can be explained by thinking about pregnancy (remember khool coming from the root "to calve"). One mother told me that her pregnancy seemed to last forever. But ask that same mother if she would have preferred delivering a premature baby and she would say absolutely not. We want a baby to be fully developed and strong before it enters a harsh world. And that means we don't rush things. We have patience, because a life is at stake.

Let me offer a few final thoughts on patience:
1. Patience is demonstrated to us by a loving, loyal, longsuffering God; we are the benefactors of God's patience every day. Let us never forget this when we are tempted to be impatient with others.
2. God's patient character is meant to be reflected in us, his children.
3. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit (it takes time to grow).
4. Patience is also something we practice. We have to nurture the seed that God has planted in us.
5. Patience places love and mercy front and centre, not efficiency, not performance, not perfection.
6. Patience is not the same as slowness; patience is discerning God's way and timing and working in sync with them.
7. Patience means embracing God's concept of fullness of time. This means we avoid doing things prematurely, we try not to put things together hastily, but give adequate time for the necessary growth, strengthening, stabilizing, and bonding (remember qavah and its hints of covenant). Fullness of time is the time it takes for fullness to develop. For you coffee drinkers, perhaps it helps to think of instant coffee versus freshly roasted coffee beans, ground and brewed as you wait. For those with a sweet tooth, compare eating a cake pulled out of the oven before it is quite done to waiting till it attains the perfect spongy lightness.

Next time you find yourself being impatient, you might want to think about fine coffee and yummy cake. And the inexhaustible mercy and longsuffering of our loving God.

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[1] From a blog by Kelcie Huffstickler. You can read the whole story here.
[2] "With immense pleasure, He laid out His intentions through Jesus, a plan that will climax when the time is right (fullness of time) as He returns to create order and unity—both in heaven and on earth—when all things are brought together under the Anointed’s royal rule." (Ephesians 1:9-10, The Voice)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

belong

House in Charlottetown, PEI
This past month, I had the privilege of setting foot in parts of Canada that I have never been to before. I traveled to Prince Edward Island for a Vineyard gathering and got to spend some time wandering the streets of Charlottetown, strolling along the scenic boardwalk, and eating the best ice cream in the nation (that's what it said right on the store window). As I walked around the quaint city, I had a faint sense of not belonging, of being a stranger. It was a bit odd because I don't usually feel that way, even in foreign places, so I decided to look into the idea of "belonging."

Be-long: be (an intensifier) + longen (old English, "to go"). Basically, "belong" means to go along with, to properly relate to. In our common usage, the word denotes acceptance (of a person) or possession (of a thing). However, the original meaning of the word is much more active than our contemporary, more passive usage. Instead of having someone confer belonging on us as a person, we actively choose to belong by walking with someone, by properly relating to them. Interesting.

What was even more interesting was the talk I heard after I started pondering the notion of "belonging." In one of the sessions, Terry LeBlanc, of Mi'kmaq descent, talked about the history of First Nations people in the Maritimes. The first thing he mentioned was how he felt at home when he came to Prince Edward Island, because this was where his ancestors were from. Well, now it was starting to make sense that I, a third generation European immigrant to Canada, would feel like an outsider in the land of the Mi'kmaq people. Terry outlined the tragic history which unfolded after the Europeans came to North America, and it was sobering to hear about the deliberate steps taken to strip this land's residents of their identity, their culture, their livelihood, and their future. Listening, truly and humbly listening, to the voices which have been historically silenced is an important part of healing and reconciliation. So we listened. And then we sat in silence. What else could we do?

Let me reframe this shameful history in the context of belonging. The First Nations people who truly belonged on (properly related to) the land were aggressively and unfairly displaced by people who did not belong there. Not at first, anyway. The immigrants could have belonged, they could have walked together with the First Nations, they could have learned to rightly relate to this new land and its indigenous people, but instead our interloping ancestors chose to conquer, to subjugate, to dominate, to eradicate. Belonging was interpreted as taking possession, not offering to walk together in mutual respect.

In our church communities, we don't do "belonging" very well, either. We attribute a sense of belonging to being with people we relate to, to hearing music that is to our taste, to sitting in comfy seats and drinking good coffee and being welcomed by an enthusiastic greeter, to having people know our name, to gaining a position of influence. We think belonging is basically the result of good customer service, and if we don't get that feeling of being valued, if we believe we are not being treated with enough deference, we walk away. But none of the perks of Western church culture mean that we belong. Belonging only comes by doing the hard, humble work of walking with someone because we choose to, not because they make us feel all warm and tingly and secure. Belonging is saying, "I choose to walk together with you, to be bound to you in a mutually respectful way. I choose to honour you as a person, I choose to be changed by you and to adjust my journey because of you. We belong to each other, so let us walk together, let us make this a journey of joint discovery because we are better and stronger together." Belonging is a familial bond, not a tentative sociological construct.

Jesus called his disciples with a simple phrase, "Come. follow me." There was a lot packed into those few words. Jesus was saying, "Let us walk together. Join your story, your history, to mine. Let me show you what it means to belong, to bind yourself to another, to rightly relate to God and your fellow human beings."

The call is still the same today. Come. Belong. Walk together. Let us learn to do this better.


Monday, October 24, 2016

what are you carrying?

St. Dunstan's Basilica, Charlottetown, PEI
Disciple: pupil, apprentice, learner, follower, student.

Jesus called disciples, inviting them to follow him, learn from him, live with him, and do what he did. I have given my life to being a disciple of Jesus. In my particular case, it takes the form of prayer and mindfulness, it happens through theological formation, it is present in the tasks of leading and administration, it shines through making music and art and participating in worship, and it is woven into my relationships. I perhaps feel closest to being a disciple of Jesus when I catch glimpses of beauty in skies and trees and animals and oceans and words and eyes, when my heart knows it is too small to contain the wonders it witnesses each and every day.

But being a disciple is more than emulating a master craftsman's values and practices. A disciple also believes that the world would be a better place if others learned the ways of their teacher. In other words, disciples don't want the teachings and practices of their mentor to die with them. They want them to be passed on from generation to generation. Being a disciple, a learner, comes somewhat naturally to me, but being a disciple-maker is just plain hard. The first is primarily concerned with my own growth and transformation, but the second requires me to look beyond myself, to make significant sacrifices in order to facilitate growth and transformation in others. It is the difference between preparing a tasty meal for my own enjoyment and spending all day cooking for guests.

Being a disciple-maker is the best and the worst job I have ever had. In general, I feel ill-equipped to help form the lives and practices of others. There are days when it seems impossible and I fear that I am both a bad student and a horrible teacher. But there are also days when it fills me with wonder and joy and there is nothing I would rather be doing than helping others learn to walk with Jesus. In other words, I seem to have much in common with Jesus's twelve disciples: slow, inept, self-absorbed, yet hopeful, eager, filled with spurts of faith, and willing to try anything the master asks me to do.

While in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island last week, I stepped into St. Dunstan's Basilica for a few moments of contemplation. As I sat there in silence, my gaze was drawn to two statues. On my left was a sculpture of Joseph carrying the infant Jesus. On my right was Jesus carrying the cross on his shoulders, flanked by two men. The two images became connected in my mind: we carry Jesus and he carries us. As a disciple, I recognize that my master Jesus carries my mistakes, my weaknesses, all the places I fall short, my shame and guilt, my burdens, my worries, my doubts, my whole work-in-progress life. Jesus unburdens us, rescues us, and saves us. But he also asks us to carry him, to lift him up, to hold him in our arms, to care for him as we would a young child, to treat him as a precious gift, to always be attentive to his presence and nearness, and to take him with us everywhere we go, to the all places and the people in our lives. Even as I write this, I wonder if it is really right. The Eternal, Almighty God asking me to carry him? It is a mystery, the mystery of a God who humbly unites himself with humanity in all its fragility, being present to us in ways which undercut our narrow narratives in which we engage in endless power games, hungry for the appearance of success, hopelessly addicted to the hollow trophies of fame and fortune. Instead of giving us a way to conquer the world and become great, Jesus gives us a way to serve. We honour and serve him best when we carry him.

And this, perhaps, is another way to think of disciple-making. Instead of viewing it as the overwhelming task of convincing people that God is real and getting them to change their bad habits and making them obedient followers and teaching them correct doctrines, perhaps disciple-making is as simple as carrying Jesus wherever we go. Jesus is the one who inspires. Jesus is the one who teaches. Jesus is the one who transforms. Jesus is the one with the authority (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus is the one who promises to always be with us. We simply carry him wherever we go. And as we do, the world is changed.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

what binds us together?

Image result for braiding techniques for bracelets
Image from fene4ki.ru on pinterest.com
For the past few weeks, I have been reading a book by famed psychiatrist M. Scott Peck which chronicles his travels (together with his wife) through remote parts of the UK in search of prehistoric stones. The book is part travel journal, part spiritual musings, part psychology, and part personal anecdotes. A mixed bag, to be sure, and not always a winning combination. At one point, I considered putting the book aside, not finishing it, but then Peck started writing about community. He is no stranger to the concept. He has led hundreds of community-building workshops over the years, helped start a non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering community, and written a compelling book about the topic, one which greatly impacted me when I read it oh so long ago.[1]

In preparation for a course I am teaching next year, I have been doing quite a bit of study on unity and community. Once you start thinking about it, you see and hear evidence of it everywhere. (See my blog on the impact of believing in a trinitarian, communal God here.)

I have begun listening to podcasts while working out at the gym (so much better than blaring music or insipid television shows), and last night, the episode happened to be on church unity.[2] In light of all the fractures evident in the Christian church universal, especially the Protestant arm of the church, the hosts of the podcast asked: what is it that unifies us? The obvious answer is Jesus, but in practice, Christians seem to be following different versions of Christ. Some believe he is here to bring world peace, others quote Matthew 10:34 and say he is here to bring a sword. Some claim that Jesus means Christians to govern and rule while others want to separate church and state. The particular points by which Christians measure whether a person is with Christ or against him are just as diverse: for some, the stance on gay marriage delineates a true Christian from a false one, for others, it is whether one adheres to an inerrant and mostly literal view of the scriptures. Still others place a high value on loyalty to particular traditions (infant or adult baptism) or obedience to certain expressions of righteousness such as modesty or abstinence from alcohol. To be honest, these so-called litmus tests for Christianity seem a bit arbitrary, and I can confidently say that most (perhaps all) of them fail to take into account the whole biblical witness and the variegated history of the church. How did we get so good at being separatists and so bad at building community?

Peck has some helpful thoughts on this. "We are all equal in the sight of God. Beyond that, however, we are utterly unequal. We have different gifts and liabilities, different genes, different languages and cultures, different values and styles of thinking, different personal histories, different levels of competence, and so on, and so on. Indeed, humanity might be properly labeled 'the unequal species.' What most distinguishes us from all the other creatures is our extraordinary diversity and the variability of our behavior. ... The false notion of our equality propels us into the pretense of pseudocommunity, and when the pretense fails, as it must for any intimacy or authenticity, then it propels us to attempt to achieve equality by force: the force of gentle persuasion followed by less and less gentle persuasion. We totally misinterpret our task. Society's task is not to establish equality. It is to develop systems that deal humanely with our inequality - systems that, within reason, celebrate and encourage diversity."[3] Peck rightly observes that we have mistaken submissive compliance (don't rock the boat) and a flattening of differences to equate unity. Unity is not achieved when everyone believes or practices the same things. In fact, thinking of unity as an achievement places it in a performance-based paradigm instead of a relational context, and unity is, above all, relational.

Rachel Held Evans notes that when people question her in order to ascertain whether or not she is a true Christian, whether she is on the team or off the team, they always ask what she believes. Rarely do they ask if she exhibits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. She comments that people ask about our opinions/beliefs on things when, in contrast, Jesus teaches us that Christians can be identified by how they love one another and how they love others, even their enemies.[4] Genuine Christian community is birthed when love transcends all differences. But how do we get to that point?

Based on his research, Peck divides the building of community into four stages:
1) Pseudocommunity: This is something that looks like community but isn't. It is a group characterized by good manners and glossing over differences. This behaviour has its place, offering primitive tools for coexisting peacefully, but it is not real community.
2) Chaos: When differences inevitably surface, the group disintegrates into chaos. The natural response is to try to make everyone the same, to convert everyone back to pseudocommunity. Unfortunately, the pressure to revert to a superficial unity can become progressively more and more forceful until the group self-destructs in conflict (war) of some sort. Nevertheless, chaos is a step closer to reality and a stage which cannot be skipped in moving toward peace.
3) Emptiness: This is the hard part of becoming a community. Peck says, "Pseudocommunity and chaos come naturally to us humans. Emptiness does not. But it is crucial (if you'll pardon a not so accidental pun). In the stage of emptiness the members of the group will sacrificially empty themselves of whatever it is that stands between them and real community. The list of 'things' that must be emptied can seem almost endless: fixed expectations and rigid agendas; prejudices or simplistic instant likes and dislikes; quick answers arrived at without listening; the need to heal and convert or 'fix' others; preset positions and notions of what winning might look like; needs for certainty and control and looking good; intellectual equanimity and the appearance of sophistication; excessive emotional detachment; sexism, racism, and other 'isms'; a fondness for fighting on the one hand and a desire for peace at any price on the other."[5] In other words, the only way out of chaos is surrender.
4) Community: When participants have emptied themselves enough, Peck notes, community just happens, like a miracle. A marked shift is noticeable in the group and they begin to speak authentically and concisely. Space is made for silence and people listen well. What was irritating becomes endearing. In essence, the group operates in sync, like a beautiful piece of music. Peck observes, "Some experience it as if the door had suddenly been thrown open and God had walked into the room. Even more commonly that moment is felt as the entrance of a palpable spirit of peace. Peace - pure, deep, soft, ever so gentle peace."[6] The peace that accompanies genuine, loving community is a peace that originates in the communal God, the God who loves his enemies enough to die for them. This peace rewrites our simplistic definitions of unity and transcends our feeble and often forceful attempts at conflict resolution. Quite simply, peace surpasses our understanding of what it means to live in community.

I think most of us would agree that we want to live in peace with others, but sometimes we are unwilling to do the hard work this requires. As stated above, humans are good at pseudocommunity and good at chaos. Not so good at emptying and peacemaking. Even after a group has entered into genuine community, there is no guarantee that it will remain there. Community is not a once-for-all state. Like peace, it requires tending and nurturing and ongoing work in order to avoid devolving into pseudocommunity or lapsing back into destructive chaos. We must always be willing to do the work of emptying, of surrendering our quick judgments and unrealistic expectations, letting go of the need to fix or control others, sacrificing our desire to win. This is the hard work of peace. This is the relentless work of community. This is the large, demanding work of love. This is the ministry of Jesus.

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[1] M Scott Peck, MD, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (New York: Touchstone, 1987).
[2] "Church Unity," Episode 4, September 9, 2014. The Liturgists Podcast. Available on iTunes.
[3]  M. Scott Peck, MD, In Search of Stones (New York: Hyperion, 1995), 254.
[4] Rachel Held Evans, interviewed on "Church Unity," The Liturgists Podcast.
[5] Peck, In Search of Stones, 249.
[6] Ibid., 250.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A book review: Patmos

Patmos Book CoverPatmos by C. Baxter Kruger. Jackson, MS: Perichoresis Press, 2016. 240 pages (ebook version used for review).

Kruger is a huge fan of The Shack, in fact, he authored a book called The Shack Revisited (Faithwords, 2012) in which he unpacks the theological ideas in Paul Young's popular book. Patmos is Kruger's contribution to the Christian mystical fiction genre (my term), and in many ways takes its cues from The Shack. The main character, Aidan, has an out-of-body experience and ends up on the isle of Patmos with the apostle John for three days. While there, he finds answers to his many questions about God and healing for some past wounds.

The author has a PhD in Theology from University of Aberdeen, so there are some rich nuggets tucked into the story: a discussion of nuances found in the original Greek in the first few chapters of John, some ponderings on the nature of the Trinity, a brief structural analysis of Revelation, snippets of church history, and the reframing of several biblical stories. Kruger's main point is that much of Christianity through the ages has emphasized separation from God instead of believing in the inherent unity of the Creator with his creation through Christ. It is a valid and important point.

In chapter 15, the main character observes that throughout history, Western tradition has exhibited, "a dualistic mind-set occupied with separation, condemnation, legal justification that didn't really touch our broken humanity, certainly not mine. You talk about the lie of separation! As I think about it now, I see everything was separated: spirit separated from body, head from heart, heaven separated from earth, the Farther separated from the Son, people separated from God, elected people separated from damned people, the saved from unsaved, the Word separated from the words." John's description of Jesus in us is key to Kruger's distinction between the lie of separation and the truth of unity with God through Christ. In chapter 17, John the apostle says to Aidan, "The gospel is not the news that we can receive Jesus into our lives. The gospel is the news that Jesus has received us into his - union, my son." This is the thesis of Kruger's mystical tale.

Despite a strong theme and some sound, creative theological writing, the work has its flaws. First, there is a minor issue with formatting. In writing dialogue, a new paragraph should start each time the speaker changes. Kruger clumps different speakers together into the same paragraph. This causes some confusion for the reader and at times, I was not sure who was doing the speaking.

Second, the pages are filled with stilted, forced similes. I know Kruger is trying to portray a character from the South who uses colourful language, but I found the overuse of mismatched similes annoying and distracting. I suppose they were to lend humor to the story, but for my part, they just seemed like bad writing. One example: "His gaze made me think of a fine tea, subtle with a variety of flavors." The last half of the book seemed less plagued by these intrusive, awkward similes, or perhaps I just became immune to them. Whatever the case, I think they distracted from the story instead of adding to it.

Third, the premise lacks some believability. The main character is supposed to be a theology professor, but is frightfully ignorant of very basic theological concepts and comes across as someone who has never traveled outside his hometown. He is continuously having his mind blown and world shattered. He is always on the verge of being flabbergasted and baffled through hearing the unfathomable, things that are too good to be true. Much of the time, he is in a state of shock, knowing that his life depends on the next great, momentous, monumental thing to come out of John's mouth. Those are just a smattering of the descriptors liberally scattered throughout the book. I understand the author wanting to build tension and suspense, but many scenes end up being melodramatic and overstated. Might I suggest another round of editing which would cut out many of these extra descriptions and superfluous similes so that the story can shine through without the wordy baggage. A reader appreciates a bit of subtlety.

Finally, at times the theological content overshadows the story and comes off a bit heavy-handed; basically it reads like a sermon. Again, the author would do well to give the reader some credit for being able to make connections and draw conclusions on their own.

Overall, it was an okay read. I very much enjoyed the chapters in the middle which unpacked the idea of separation vs. union, but felt that the book suffered from a lack of finesse which made it difficult for me to become immersed in the story. Nevertheless, every writing venture is a learning experience, so bravo to the author for trying his hand at fiction.

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This book is provided to me courtesy of the publisher and SpeakEasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Friday, September 23, 2016

trying hard

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We all love success stories. But in these stories, the success shouldn't come too easily. There should be some setbacks, maybe a disadvantage or two. And struggles, doubts, and a point of nearly giving up. But then, when hope is almost lost, our hero should rise up to overcome the odds and show us that hard work, perseverance, and determination pay off. Of course, don't forget the help of faithful friends who are just as determined and hard working as our hero is; it is a team success. This is the classic hero tale, evident in most myths and movies. But is this what really happens in our lives? 

I have spent many years working hard, persevering, determined to do all I can do. I want to make things work out for myself and others, to make this world better, to complete the tasks I believe I have been given to do. I admit that I am also a bit too uptight about these tasks and a tad perfectionistic, which makes it difficult for me to share the load, to make it a true team effort. But I try. Really, I try hard. 

The place where I try the hardest is in the church. I want so badly for people to have peaceful hearts, to be whole and healed from the blows they have suffered in life, to enjoy healthy relationships with God and with each other, and to be able to give and receive with joyful grace. This is endless work and I feel ill-equipped to do it, but I try. I try hard.

And then I look at Jesus and am undone, because the main thrust of his message isn't hard work, perseverance, and determination. It is not about trying hard to get it all right. He speaks words of rest to the heavy-burdened, not so they can catch a bit of a breather and then get back to it, but so that they will never pick up that burden again. He rebukes the perfectionists, not so they will chill out for a bit and not be so hard on themselves and others, but so that they will never require things of people that God himself does not require. He heals those who come to him, not to empower them to live fuller, more complete lives, but because in the presence of Jesus there is mercy and grace and wholeness. He redefines relationships, downplaying established hierarchies and highlighting the hidden, not because he seeks to start a revolution to free the oppressed, but because he wants to show us what God is like, and that his kingdom is not based in might and power.

We talk about love being the underlying message of Jesus, and it is, but for me, even that word, love, is closely associated with work: giving more, treating people better, being more outgoing, trying harder. Sad, I know. I am basically a Pharisee. I know a fair bit about religion, I try really hard to do the right thing, and I have impossibly high standards for myself and others. On the outside, it looks like success of a sort. But this is not what the kingdom of God looks like. It's not even close. 

Instead of talking about success, perhaps we should be telling stories of surrender. Surrender is so much more difficult than working hard. Letting down a wall of protection is harder than building one. Trusting someone to catch you is not as easy as being the catcher. Letting go of power is more challenging than being competent. Surrendering my dreams and desires takes more out of me than drafting a 5-year plan. And it gets no applause. Surrender is not trendy, because it looks suspiciously like giving up, like passivity, like laziness, like a lack of strength, like you just can't do it or perhaps don't care. But it is the deepest expression of love and community that we know.

I have been reading on the subject of Trinity and community this week and I am grieved by how little I live in this space of mutual serving, mutual trusting, mutual loving, and mutual surrender. Nothing is ever grasped tightly in the Trinity; all is open arms. Nothing is forced or demanded, always freely given. There is no hierarchy, no patronizing, no democracy. Only loving, mutual surrender. Surrender is not a temporary stance, not a respite, not a resetting of power, not a negotiating tactic. Surrender is what God invites us to do because it is what God does. He is always facing outward, toward the other, arms and heart open, not afraid. Surrender is a kind of death.

“[Jesus] freely assumes death as ultimate expression of his love for whoever rejects him. He wants the last word to be that of communion rather than exclusion. Jesus dies in solidarity and in communion even with the enemies who condemn him so as to assure the victory of love and communion. ... If we want to be united with the Blessed Trinity, we must follow the same path as Jesus: pray with intimacy, act radically on behalf of justice and communion, and accept our own death as a kind of total surrender and ultimate communion even with our enemies.” [1]

This is not easy stuff. I want so badly to make a success out of my life, my faith community, my family, my work. But Jesus shows me his way is surrender, giving the best of myself not to the work, but to the other, to him. That is all.


[1] Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 21.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Look at the grass

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I have been reading Paul's letter to the Colossians. The words are joyous, buoyant, effervescent, not the kind of correspondence you would expect from someone in prison. I suppose the words appeared especially bright and bubbly to me this past week because I found myself inexplicably dark and gloomy, not to mention negative, critical, and impatient. It is clear to me now that it was that old demon of control baiting me because, well, things are out of my control. Yes, people make mistakes, unexpected situations happen, and life has a tendency to be overwhelming and disappointing at the same time. But mostly, I believe the trigger was my current state of job limbo. It is scary. So, naturally, being impatient and complaining are the solution, somehow. Demons make no sense.

Anyway, there is nothing like a walk outside in the sunshine to put things in perspective, so I pointed my feet to the park and away we went, me and my irritations. I saw trees, I saw sky, I saw water. It was all good. And then I saw grass. Oh my, what lovely grass. The first grass I noticed was just under three feet tall, its tips soft and heavy with rows of pale seeds. It waved at me as I walked along the gravel path, and I greeted it with a jaunty Hello as I ran my hands through the thin stalks. A few steps further, the grass on the other side of the path beckoned. This grass was taller, its stalks thicker, its seeds more delicately formed in small clusters. I stopped to look at the grass, to really see it. I held it gently between my fingers for a moment, then ran my hand along the top of the grass patch. It felt like a gentle caress.

There were gardeners working in the park that day. Some were using hand-held trimmers, noisy and ruthless instruments. Another man was riding a large industrial mower. As I watched, he attempted a sharp turn around an evergreen tree on a steep incline and stalled the machine. I stopped to watch the scene for a few minutes. The gardener backed up, pulled forward, stalled again, got off the machine, said a few choice words, got back on the machine, started it up again, and stalled again. Oh grass and trees, you are so patient with those of us who trim and groom and try to manage your green growth. Even when our machines fail, you don't gloat or claim a victory. You just keep on waving in the breeze in all your vibrant green glory.

As I headed for home, I came upon some swaths of newly mown grass and I stooped down to touch the soft, damp piles. I took out my phone and tried to capture the many subtle variations of green displayed in that small patch of grass, but my camera wasn't up for the challenge. Oh, grass, what a wonder you are.

And then the grass preached a sermon.

Look at the grass in the field, in the park, all around you. The grasses are here now, but they will be gone soon, cut down, burned, discarded, dormant in winter. And yet, God clothes and colours them so radiantly. How much more will He clothe you and colour your life, you of little faith, you who have no trust? So do not consume yourselves with questions: What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear? Where will we get a job? What about our finances? What about security? Others make themselves frantic over such questions because they don’t realize that your heavenly Father knows exactly what you need. Search out first the kingdom of God, make it a priority to live according to God's economy and His way of making things right. Then you will find that these other small details fall into place and the worrying stops. That's right, you don't have to worry about tomorrow. Living faithfully is a large enough task for today, so do that. [1]

Thank you, grasses for teaching me that my first job every morning is to raise my hands high to the sky and thank the Creator. Whether it is rainy, sunny, windy, or snowy, I begin by thanking the Creator. Even if it is the day when the gardeners come to cut and weed and trim, I lift up my eyes and thank the Creator. Thank you for reminding me of my humble place in creation, that I have made none of this beauty and yet it is here for me to enjoy every day. God cares about each blade of grass in the field and every hair on my head. so there is never any need to be frantic or worry, no need to complain or be impatient. It accomplishes nothing. Standing up tall and waving my hands to the Creator, like you, lovely grass, do every day, that is participating in glory. That is faithfulness. That is surrender. 

[1] Matthew 6:30-34, my adaptation of The Voice translation.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

same old same old: quantum physics and questions

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Last night I attended a lecture entitled, "Quantum Physics and Christianity." I know, who could resist a topic like that? Quantum is the Latin word for "amount" and in physics, it refers to the very small increments into which energy, such as light, is subdivided. The lecturer was Dr. Arnold Sikkema, a professor of Physics from Trinity Western University. There was a lot of talk about electrons and particles and how physics is increasingly verisimilitudinous (we are always learning more about how things work), and even mention of a cat, though not in a very pleasant way (what do you have against cats, Schrodinger?). It is common to associate science with certainty, precision, and verifiable predictability, but in reality, the more scientists discover, the less they speak in terms of certainty.

Dr. Sikkema mentioned that in the last hundred years or so, worldviews in science (and much of culture as well) have shifted from certainty to uncertainty, from dualism (either/or) to duality (both/and), from predictability to probability, from determinism to indeterminism, from believing we can be objective observers to realising we are subjective participants, and from reductionist tendencies to a more holistic outlook. All of these shifts are marks of progress, not because uncertainty has more value than certainty, but because these outlooks more accurately reflect reality. We are naive to think we have it all figured out or that we know how things will turn out.

My favourite part of the talk had to do with epistemology (how we know things). In quantum physics, it has been found that the questions you ask affect the answers. For instance, if you ask, "Does light behave as a wave?" it will give you wave properties. If you ask, "Is light a particle?" it will give you particle results. It is now believed that light is both a wave and a particle (dualism shifted to duality). There is an important principle to be noted here: the best way to know something about a subject is to let the subject inform the type of questions we ask. For example, if I want to know something about a piece of furniture, I hope I would ask different questions than if I want to get to know a person. If I want to know something about electrons, I would ask different questions than if I want to know something about key lime pie (don't you want a piece right now?). The object of our inquiry actually tells us, or at least gives us clues to, what the pertinent, important questions are, if we are willing to listen and watch and learn.

Basically, the art of asking good questions is closely tied to revelation. The object of our study will reveal itself to us over time if we are patient and attentive, but we must also be responsive to what is revealed. If we insist on foisting our own questions on the object, paying no heed to what it tells us or shows us, that revelation will be obscured or blocked.

Always asking the same questions doesn't get us anywhere, not in quantum physics, not in philosophy, not in theology, not in relationships, not in art, not in life. The basic questions are more or less constant (who? what? when? where? why? how?) and we flesh them out to apply to different situations. Sometimes, our questions get stuck in a rut and as a result, the answers are rather unsatisfying. If I go to a party and ask everyone the same two questions (What's your name? What do you do?) I will end up knowing less about the people there than if I ask a variety of questions (What is satisfying/challenging about your work? Where would you like to travel? Who inspires you?).

I have been revisiting the book of Job this week as I edit one of my dissertation chapters for possible publication. Job is full of questions for God, good questions that deserve answers, or so he thinks. But they are always the same questions. Why are you silent, God? Why are you picking on me? Why don't you defend me or help me or even kill me? When God responds, he doesn't answer Job's questions. He speaks of glory and creation instead of suffering and injustice. The questions that Job was asking were not the questions that God was answering. Revelation usually happens when we are willing to change our questions or set them aside.

Quantum physics teaches us that if we want fruitful research, the object of our inquiry must inform the questions we ask. I believe life, especially the life of faith, teaches us the same. What questions have you been asking lately? Are they the same ones you have been asking for years? Perhaps it is time we stop and listen, stop and look, and interact with the object of our attention instead of interrogating it. Perhaps we don't need answers to our particular questions. Perhaps we need a bit more revelation.

Monday, August 22, 2016

job hunting

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I am on the hunt for a job. PhD in hand, I am a theologian for hire. The thing is, not a lot of places are hiring theologians these days, and if they are, they are usually looking for scholars with skills and experience outside my area of expertise. Today I found job opportunities for those knowledgeable in Religion, Race, and Colonialism, Philosophy and History of Religion, Islam and Society, Languages of Late Antiquity, Religion, Ethics, and Politics, and an ad for a Molecular Genetic Pathologist. Not one posting for a Dramatic Theologian with  a side order of Spirituality and a dash of Methodology.

I know, I know. My expectations are a bit unrealistic if I believe I will find an exact match for my particular skills. I know that job descriptions are wish lists to some extent, so no candidate is ever a perfect match. I also realize that one must adapt one's skill set according to the requirements of the job and be flexible. But there are so few jobs which come within ten or even a hundred feet (or meters) of what I do.

There are plenty of things I can do and am doing to give what I have to the world, like writing academic articles and teaching at my church and blogging here, but none of this pays any money. There is a question people ask each other when they get a bit weary from the grind: "If you didn't have to worry about making money, what would you do?" Well, if money were not a factor, there are a few projects I would immediately begin working on. I would fling my theological riches all across Canada (for starters), offering to teach and discuss and learn together with anyone who would have me. I would sign-up for unpaid postdocs or internships so that I could work alongside some of my favourite, gifted teachers and scholars. I would be an artist-in-residence in a community which nurtures creativity and write a book or a play. And in-between, I would travel the world and exclaim, "Oh," and "Ah," all day long and share that wonder and beauty with people through words and pictures. That's just for starters. But all these things would cost me a lot of money instead of putting any money in my pocket. I am a grown-up. I know you can't pay the bills with dreams and wishful thinking.

Last week I was once again pondering my future prospects (and lack thereof), kind of thinking, kind of praying, kind of complaining. It went something like this: Well, God, what are we doing? I can't seem to find a job which matches my area of expertise, and if I do find something remotely close, there are hundreds applying for it, many of them more qualified and experienced than I am. I'm not even sure I make a good academic or scholar. I want to write and teach from the heart as much as from the head. And there is that thing I have about forgetting almost everything after I read it. Really, what's the point? Maybe I should just work at the local movie theatre. At least I would always be around popcorn.

The thing about kind of praying something is that you invite the Holy Spirit to join in the conversation and intrude on your thoughts. In the midst of my complaining, I realized that I was making an error in tying my vocation to my provision; these are two separate things. My vocation is what God has called me to do. My provision comes from the Provider. I am responsible to walk in my vocation. God is responsible to provide what I need. In some cases, vocation leads to provision, but vocation is never the source of provision. In fact, God is very good at providing from a source completely unrelated to our efforts. In Genesis 22, where we find the name of God, YHWH-Jireh (The Lord will provide), this is exactly what happens. I won't go into the whole story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the many questions it raises about what kind of God would do that. You can read a short piece I wrote on that topic here. The bit I want to draw attention to is this: when Abraham is called to do something and he responds to that call, God ends up providing what is needed, not Abraham. God takes on the role of provider, not Abraham.

So I have begun to think of my theological vocation slightly differently, and I find myself asking two questions: What is my job? What is God's job? My job is to spread the theological joy around as much as I can. God's job is to provide what I need to do that. I have found these questions helpful in other areas as well. When I am serving as a pastor/teacher in the church, I ask: What is my job? What is God's job? My job is to act lovingly toward others, to worship the Almighty giver of life, to open my home to strangers, to speak truthfully about God, and to pray for people. What is God's job? To transform, to convict, to draw people to himself, to build his church, to heal, to raise dead things to life, and to provide what we all need individually and communally. I admit, I overstep my job description sometimes and tread in on God's territory. Thankfully, I'm not very good at it.

I may not have a full-time theology job, but I don't have to have one in order to do what I am called to do. I can study, write, teach, present papers, and hang out with colleagues any day of the week. The opportunities are there if I look for them. I also don't need to be paid as a pastor in order to pastor people, or be paid as worshiper in order to worship, or be paid as a teacher in order to teach. I just need to do my job. I leave the provision up to the Provider.

Let us pray together with Jesus: "Give us today our daily bread." - Matthew 6:11 (New English Translation)