Monday, August 3, 2015

Teaching children and children teaching

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One of the biggest challenges in our faith community is making space for and involving our kids in spiritual formation in a meaningful and appropriate way. A lot of our activities are geared toward adults and assume a pretty advanced ability to grasp abstract ideas. Since we don't yet have the resources to offer Children's Church every week, we decided to try an experiment for a few months: every fifth Sunday we have an Inverted Meeting. The basic idea is this: the whole gathering is accessible for children and there are a few tidbits thrown in for the adults (what usually happens is the reverse, hence the name, Inverted Sunday). As well, there are also plenty of opportunities for the adults to join in and help out. Re-thinking our Sunday morning gathering this way has been and still is a bit of a learning curve, I have to admit, but we are all discovering how to be together in a more equitable way. I believe we are also becoming a better community through it.

Just over a week ago we had our second Inverted Meeting. These meetings usually involve five elements: worship (giving gifts to God), prayer (talking with God about things that are on our hearts), a Bible story (learning about God), an activity (practicing what we learned), and communion (remembering what Jesus did for us). On this particular Sunday, I was assigned the Bible story, and since I am presently doing a series on the Decalogue, the scheduled topic for that day was. "Do not murder." I was tempted to abandon the topic and pick another story, but the Children's Church coordinator told me to stick with it. Okay, then. How do you talk with 2 - 7 years-olds about the prohibition against murder?

I decided that we had to start with life, so I told a truncated version of the story of Creation, how the Eternal God scooped dirt out of the ground, shaped it into a human being, and breathed life into it, making it a living soul. This breath is what makes us alive. I blew up a balloon to illustrate the difference between being lifeless and limp and being full of life, bouncy and buoyant. I told everyone that this breath is precious and we must protect it. Then I told the story of Cain and Abel, two brothers with different jobs who made two different sacrifices (one that is not pleasing to God and one that is pleasing to God). I talked about how angry Cain was when God did not like his sacrifice, but did accept Abel's sacrifice. Cain became so jealous of Abel that he led his brother into a field and killed him.

I had two volunteers acting out the parts of Cain and Abel, and both were holding inflated balloons to represent their aliveness. I said that when Cain killed his brother, he destroyed the breath of God in Abel, something very valuable and precious. Everyone knew what was coming, but I made sure to give a warning about the loud noise we would hear when Cain destroyed Abel's balloon. "Cover your ears!" I said.  I gave a countdown. I did every thing I could to prepare the kids (and the adults) for the impending destruction. And then Cain crushed Abel's balloon with a loud bang, and Abel fell to the ground. One of the young children (a visitor named N) reacted quite strongly, disturbed and upset by the whole thing. He was in the front row, so we all noticed. I stopped and apologised. Others explained that the person wasn't really dead, it was pretend. The child's parents comforted the young boy, but he would not be easily consoled. The young boy said he wanted to go, so his dad took him in his arms and they walked away from the scene.

I stood there and wondered, "What have I done?" I have traumatized a young child, that's what I have done. I looked toward the back of the room, where the young boy was pressed against his father's chest, and felt stabbed through the heart. This sweet, innocent child, so sensitive. And I began to tear up. Something about his reaction was so honest, so real, so pure. I stammered out words to this effect: "May we all be like this child. May violence and the destruction of another human being affect all of us this way. May we not be desensitized to the taking of human life." I saw a few people wiping their eyes. I composed myself and continued on with the Cain and Abel story: God punished Cain because he was dangerous, but did not take Cain's precious breath of life away, too. Instead, God protected Cain from others who might want to kill him out of revenge.

In Exodus 20 we have the commands Yahweh gave to the people of Israel. One of them is this: Do not murder. The Hebrew word retzach (kill or murder) has a broader meaning which includes being generally destructive and breaking things. In relation to this command, Jesus said: "Anyone who is angry with his brother will be judged for his anger. Anyone who taunts his friend, speaks contemptuously toward him, or calls him, 'Loser' or 'Fool' or 'Scum' will have to answer to the judge." (adapted from Matthew 5, The Voice). So, if we not supposed to break, dash to pieces, or destroy other people with our actions and our words, how are we supposed to act? Jesus tells us what to do: "My commandment to you is this: love others as I have loved you. There is no greater way to love than to give your life for your friends." The best way to show someone that you love them is not only to protect their breath of life, but to give them something really important. And the most important thing we have is our life, the breath of God. This is what Jesus did for all of us. He gave his life, he let himself be killed, so that we could keep breathing the breath of God. He did the opposite of what Cain did.

We followed the story with an activity where we moved into a large circle and were each given a piece of paper with a chocolate taped to it. We were instructed to write encouraging words or draw encouraging pictures. We then gave these gifts to the person next to us. I received a piece of paper from a parent/child team: a young girl named L had drawn a colourful, lopsided heart and the parent had written the sentence, "You are a blessing." That crooked heart, oh my (makes me touch my heart and sigh every time I think of it). Then we ate the body and blood of Jesus in family clusters, remembering his precious, loving gift, and prayed blessings on each other. Afterwards, N invited me to toss his balloon and chase him around his mother's legs. Which I did, of course.

It was a Sunday when the children taught us as much as we taught the children.
And a little child will lead them all. (Isaiah 11:6)

Monday, July 13, 2015

why do we go to conferences?

I wrote a bit about my experience at the Vineyard USA Conference in Columbus, Ohio this past week. Here is the post as it appeared originally on my personal blog. Sorry for the lack of specific theological content. 

Part of the crowd at Vineyard Columbus
Last week I attended the Vineyard Church USA national conference in Columbus, Ohio. Around 60 nations were represented and over 4000 people were present. I won't try to give you a rundown of the week or the speakers or their talks. Check out the video archives of the main sessions if you want to get a glimpse (only available for a limited time, I am told). The highlights for many of us were Thursday morning's talk by Dr. Charles A. Montgomery on breaking down barriers (it starts at 1:35) and the worship led by David Ruis and Noel Isaacs from Nepal on Thursday evening (a particularly poignant lament song starts at 1:03).

The stuff that happened on the platform, in many ways, was just a small part of the experience. God doesn't need a microphone to speak nor does he require a crowd in order to be present. Our loving God is with us in so many ways if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. I came to the conference believing that I had something to offer; whether it was a kind word, a smile, a word of wisdom, money, or a prayer. The idea that I was there to give more than I was there to receive meant that I had no expectations, really. I did not need anything supernatural and significant to happen, I did not need to meet any of the big name speakers, I did not need to get prayer for any troubling situation, I did not need to sit with all my friends, I did not need to see the sights of Columbus or stay up late or go to bed early. I was there to encourage, to help, and to say yes to others. I was there to be truly present to God and to others and felt no pressure to have the most awesome experience ever.

I brought gifts for our hosts, I distributed cards signed by our faith community, I stroked the dog, two cats, and numerous horses at the place we were staying. I greeted complete strangers throughout the week, I asked volunteers how they were doing, I said thank you over and over and over again, I directed people who were lost, I saved seats for people who were late, I told people they were beautiful, and I prayed for people. One of the most touching moments for me was when I discovered that a friend from Chicago (whom I had only met once when she visited Montreal a few years ago) was sitting two rows behind me. We found each other in the middle of the worship time and wept as we embraced tightly, our hearts overwhelmed by the spirit of Jesus so present and so precious in the other. 

On Wednesday, I was asked to give a 2 minute talk at a Society of Vineyard Scholars meeting on Thursday morning and of course I said yes. At that same meeting, I listened to people around a table sharing their most important theological questions. One confessed that there was virtually no theological discussion happening in his church. Another said he wanted to know how to engage with Orthodox Christians. A woman thought it was important to make room for the voices of children. It was an honour to hear what was on their hearts; seeing total strangers open up to each other in that setting humbled me, I had several people ask me about theological education and I tried to offer them encouragement and a possible way forward. The topic of same-sex attraction came up and I tried to listen well because everyone has a personal story. I also tried to keep the discussion from getting polarised around a few issues, but sought to bring it back to Jesus, back to God's story, back to our call to surrender all our desires to God, back to walking together in humility. I spoke to people who were discouraged and I listened, I prayed, I shared their burden in a small way, and I offered what little wisdom I had.

I received much as well: some people bought me chai tea and ice cream, other people provided yummy food and drink. People prayed for me, people spoke many encouraging words to me, a teenager gave up her bed for me, and people invited me to hang out with them. I ended up in unexpected and pleasant situations like backstage talking to musicians, in a horse barn watching a young girl practice her riding, on a patio late at night listening to Noel tell me about the situation in Nepal, and in the airport hearing a stranger's experience in Jerusalem. 

My goal in going was to give something of myself and to share the riches with which I have been blessed. Conferences like this can be a bit of a challenge to introverts like me, but most of the time I felt like I was floating on grace, able to joyously embrace each person I encountered and accept each situation which came my way. Giving is a richness in itself, it seems, because I never felt depleted or exhausted. Whether we are the ones who give or the ones who receive (or both), the goodness of God never runs out.

Monday, June 1, 2015

What's in a Name?

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In our culture, a name is mostly a means of identification, but in biblical times, a named told you something about a person's identity, about who they were, about their character or destiny. The name which God gives when identifying himself to Moses is YHWH, a form of the Hebrew verb "to be" which basically translates to "I am who I am." Because in Hebrew the verb "to be" denotes activity which defines a subject, YHWH or I AM could also be translated to mean, "I will tell you who I am by what I do." This is why we find so many stories and also so many names of God in our sacred scriptures. They are all revealing more to us about this God, YHWH.

In our faith community I am working through a series on what is commonly know as the Ten Commandments, and yesterday we talked about what's in a name. Exodus 20:7 reads: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain" (New King James). Another translation reads: "Never use the name of Yahweh your Elohim carelessly. Yahweh will make sure that anyone who carelessly uses his name will be punished (Names of God Bible). The Hebrew word, shav, translated "in vain" in the NKJV, means emptiness, vanity, emptiness of speech, lying. If I were to attempt a modern, colloquial interpretation of this directive, it would go something like this: Do not empty out the holy significance, character,and authority of the name of YHWH. 

Basically, there are three ways in which people trivialize the name of YHWH. First is by perjury and swearing, both of which have to do with improper use of oaths. To willfully tell an untruth in court after having taken an oath (invoking the name of God) to tell the truth reveals what a low respect one has for the name of God. Swearing has a positive, promise-making sense, such as the oath to tell the truth in court, as well as a negative sense. The negative aspect of swearing relates to using offensive words when one speaks. Basically, it is taking a word which is positive and using it out of context in order to add emphasis, usually in a negative, disparaging way. In Quebec, curse words are primarily church words (tabernacle, the host, the chalice) which reflect Quebec's bitter history and disrespect for the Catholic church. 

The second way is through breaking a promise or oath made to God, such as when the Israelites repeatedly dishonoured the covenant God made with them. I won't go into any more detail on that. The third way is probably the most applicable to our contemporary context, and that is speaking words on behalf of God which he has not spoken. We can use God's name in a way which is contrary to his character, we can invoke God's authority when he has not given it, or we can misquote God, attributing our ideas and words to God in order to legitimize them. R.T. Kendall has some strong words on this topic. 

"One of the hardest habits for some of us to break is saying, 'God told me this' or 'Here is what the Lord showed me.' Is this truly a bad habit? Yes. In fact, I believe it's one of the worst claims perpetrated in churches today, despite being a clear violation of the third commandment... How do we misuse God's name when we claim He told us something? With out intent. Most often we mention Him for one reason: to elevate our own credibility. It is not His name we are thinking of, it is our reputation. Adding the weight of God's name to our words gives us authority and respectability. But the truth is, we're not thinking of God's name and glory when we do this - we're thinking of our own. ... We quote people when we speak to give our own words a higher standing, a greater level of underlying truthfulness. That is certainly why I quote Scripture. In the same way, if I quote St. Augustine or John Wesley, it is to make you feel that I have a greater measure of reliability on my side. But no one likes a name-dropper. They're not a popular type. If I told you I know Oral Roberts or Billy Graham or the pope, who would I be trying to make look good? Not them. It's no different with God." [1]

So how can we go about honouring the intent of the third commandment and not becoming name-droppers? For me, it is helpful to think about how I use the names of people I love and respect most. When I was in college, my roommate had an interesting expression every time things were going wrong or she was frustrated. She would exclaim, "Oh, Martha!" And not in a pleasant tone of voice. That happens to be my name, so I found myself wincing every time she said it. I wanted my name to be associated with joy and goodness, with love and friendship, with truth and honesty, not with disappointment and frustration. 

One interpretation of the directive to treat God's name with respect developed during Second Temple Judaism (about 515 BCE to 70 BCE) when temple leaders decided to place a taboo on pronouncing the name of God (YHWH) and instead, replaced it with Adonai (Lord) or HaShem (the name). This was meant to keep people from trivializing the name of YHWH, but does avoiding the name altogether fulfill the intent behind the command? I don't think so. Though I respect the gravity with which the Jewish tradition approaches the law, I believe the reaction is one based in fear and not love. It does not move one towards intimacy and relationship. Going back to the story of my swearing roommate, I didn't want her to stop using my name, I just wanted her to use it properly. Likewise, if I stopped calling my husband by name, that would be odd, and indicate that something might be amiss in our relationship. Sometimes I say his name in frustration (Argh, Dean forgot to put his dishes in the dishwasher again!). I don't like it when I do that. I want to speak Dean's name with love in my voice, reflecting his kindness and generosity and commitment to me, with a sense of our many years of friendship and delight in each other. 

So how should we use God's holy name? Lovingly, respectfully, with delight, with joy, never emptying it of its wonderful and rich nature, but being mindful of the character revealed in the name, remembering the acts done by the God of this name. Let us sing, pray, and shout to our God. Let us tell of his wonderful mercy and kindness, let us proclaim the good news of his love, and let us call on his name to help us when we are helpless. This is YHWH. Hallelujah!

Matte (Martha) from Montreal

[1] R. T. Kendall,"God Told Me... Really?" in Ministry Today. You can find the whole article here.

Monday, May 4, 2015

worship practice

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Theology is not black and white. It is not cut and dried, whatever that means (sounds a bit like beef jerky). For most of us, at some point, this supposed fuzziness becomes slightly problematic. We would prefer theological answers to be clear. Why can't the actions of God throughout history and the words written about God be more straightforward and obvious? But...sigh... this is not the case. I suppose this might be one of the reasons why worship can be difficult; worship primarily requires submission, not understanding.

I myself am in a season where I am discovering again what it means to worship the Most High God, especially communally. Sunday morning gatherings in my faith community are rarely an optimum time for me: I am usually tired and trying to juggle any number of things like hauling equipment, setting up, greeting people, rehearsing music, trying to get the right words on the screen, or preparing to give a talk. Musically speaking, the old songs seem a bit ragged and tired, and the new songs are too repetitive and, dare I say, maybe a bit trite? That's just my opinion.

But honestly, there will always be an excuse for why I find worshiping God difficult or uninteresting. Worship, when we honour someone or something with extravagant love and extreme submission, is not our natural posture. And yet, it is. (See, not cut and dried!) We were created to worship, to be in communion with the divine (see the creation story). Because we are dependent beings who long for intimacy with God and with each other, we are, in a way, always worshiping. We are always putting our longing and extravagant love out there. It might be for a new car or a bacon cheeseburger or some beautiful and talented person or a shiny golden calf, but we are always trying to give ourselves to someone or something.

But loving and submitting are hard. Really hard. Because they demand that we not be self-absorbed or self-reliant. When we worship God, we put ourselves in loving mode, in surrender mode, in listening and receiving mode. When we worship God, we unite ourselves with the activity of the kingdom of heaven (that's pretty cool!). Worshiping God keeps us honest and truthful as we bring praises, laments, cries for help, proclamations of God's will and ways, and stories of God's faithfulness to the community. Worship, like any spiritual discipline, is a creative skill which requires practice. We don't always do it well, but that doesn't make it any less valid or worthwhile. Loving someone is a daily exercise. Submitting to another means that we are constantly re-submitting ourselves.

This might all sound like a lot of work, like we have to dig deep to get our worship on (I heard that unfortunate phrase used on the radio this past week), but I believe worship is not first and foremost work; to me, it is more like a mirror. Because God has shown us love, we open ourselves up to him, and when we are in open, submitting mode, we experience more of the extravagant love that God has for us. Our natural response to this overwhelming, unending love is to worship, to reflect the love and glory of God back to him. Worship, in fact, is not something that we pull up out of our inner being; it is gratitude and affection fueled by the extravagant and overabundant love and mercy of our divine lover. In the process of reflecting God's glory and love back to him, we (and all of creation in some way) are touched by this glorious presence of holy love. Paradoxically, when we worship God, when we give glory to God, when we submit our own wills to the will of the Eternal One, often sacrificially, we become unexpected recipients, receiving so much more than we give. This is what extravagant love does.

So the fact that I have been finding communal worship rather uninspiring lately probably means that I need to practice putting myself in an open, loving, submissive posture before God. I can take on this posture of worship (love and submission) anytime, anywhere. No need for an inspiring song, perfectly executed vocals, or catchy lyrics. No need for circumstances to be ideal or my attitude to be perfect. I can simply turn my eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. [1]

[1] Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. Lyrics by Helen H. Lemmel, 1922.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

is theology helpful?

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The ever candid and refreshing Anne Lamott recently wrote: "Now, two Sundays ago, I had two boys out of three in my youth group that same age [17], who have had brain cancer. One still has it. The other is blind in one eye. At a church with 30 regular members. Right?
(The first thing I am going to ask God when we meet face to face is, "What on EARTH could you have been thinking?". And He or She will know exactly who I am talking about, the many way-too-young who have died or had serious pain so far, in my 60 years here. Who have been raised by closet psychotics. "What was THAT all about?" God will say what God said to Job--"I'm God, and I don't have to explain. Plus, there is a zero chance you would understand. No offense. Rock on.”)
I always teach them that they are loved and chosen, no matter what; that God's got it, no matter how hard and unfair things seem; that all we have to do is take care of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, including ourselves, and give thanks for the tender mercies of our lives. I hugged them goodbye. I said, "Go get em."" [1]
In thinking about the nature of evil and all things horrible, we can soon find ourselves asking, "How in the world did it get this way when God started it off with goodness oozing out of every molecule?" It is a question that is not likely to be answered to our satisfaction, as Anne suggests. This makes me think that it might not be the best question for us to ask. Jon Stovell (Vineyard Canada theology guy) suggests that we might do better to ask a different question. Instead of "Why would a loving and omnipotent God allow evil in his creation?" he suggests that we ask, "Why did he put us into this world before he was done perfecting it?"Jon bases his question on the idea that while God gave creation a really good start in Genesis, it is not yet completed. We see the final fulfillment, the end of the story, the new creation is all its splendour, evident in the final chapters of Revelation. And the answer to this better question, Jon suggests, is this: "To help."[2] In Lamott's words:"All we have to do is take care of the poor, the hungry and thirsty, including ourselves, and give thanks for the tender mercies of our lives."
The recurring themes in the Bible do not revolve around how to make sense of life, nor around providing rational answers to philosophical questions, not even around understanding what God is doing (though we as theologians keep looking for that). The recurring themes have to do with chaos being reordered into goodness and beauty, suffering being infused with meaning and mercy, and death being transformed into new life. I don't understand it, but I can participate in it. And that is the point Anne and Jon are both making. We are here to help the helpless, speak words of comfort to the disconsolate, hug the unloved, and bring beauty and kindness wherever it is lacking in this world. Because that is what God does for us. And to me, that is the task of theology.
"Only a few can be learned, but all can be Christian, all can be devout, and - I shall boldly add - all can be theologians." - Desiderius Erasmus

Matte in Montreal

[1] Anne Lamott's Facebook page, March 23, 2015.
[2] Jon Stovell's Notebook:, February 2, 2015.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Where's Jesus?

You've seen those children's books in which the challenge is to find the small, distinctive figure of Waldo in a highly-detailed, colourful illustration filled with dozens and dozens of people doing various activities. It's not as easy as it seems.  Following Jesus can be a bit like this sometimes, in my opinion. Jesus can be difficult to recognize in challenging, complex life situations that buzz with activity.

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On a recent vacation to Mexico, Dean and I visited Chichen Itza, the most famous of the ancient Mayan ruins sites. Our tour guides informed us that the first century Mayan religion was characterized by the worship of multiple nature gods (snake, jaguar, sun, rain, corn, etc.). This highly sophisticated civilization established one of the first written languages, developed complex mathematics (including the concept of zero), engaged in elaborate astrological calculations pinpointing the equinoxes and planetary orbits, and built some of the most elaborate temples and structures all without metal tools of any sort. One of the most disturbing features of the Mayan religion was the incorporation of human sacrifice as a way of appeasing the gods and ensuring good crops. The clever incorporation of numerology, symbolism, and religious ritual in all their structures reveals an incredibly intricate system which fused astronomy, mathematics, agriculture, politics, sociology, and superstition in an effort to bring harmony between deities and humans and guarantee prosperity and longevity.

The crumbling buildings testify to the futility of it all. I found Chichen Itza to be a bit of a dark place, a sad place, a hopeless place. A place where it was hard to see Jesus. One of the most complex, sophisticated religious systems in human history could not save itself or its people. No amount of blood-letting, sacrifice, religious ritual, or human ingenuity could bring about the desired peace and prosperity.

The day after we returned from Mexico, I heard someone quoting from a book by Jack Klumpenhower entitled Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids. It brought my experience at Chichen Itza into perspective by showing me my own depraved tendency (as a teacher and budding theologian) to construct a moral system for others to follow instead of simply inviting them to an encounter with Jesus. I have not yet read the book myself, so let me offer a quote from the book cited in a review.

Typical religion is about doing what your god or gods require; it's following your beliefs and methods to achieve some goal or approval ... Let's  face it: Christianity is often packaged this way. Live a good life and things will go well for you. Find the right spiritual resources and you'll be blessed. Ask Jesus into your heart and you'll be saved. This is why many people say all religions are the same. In some sense, they're right. But Jesus didn't bring typical religion. He brought good news... The principle [of news] is, "Here's what happened, and it will change your life." News is not what you do, it's what someone else has done that affects you. The good news means you relate to God based on what Jesus has done for you, not what you've done to prove yourself worthy. If you are a believer, the good news says that God already accepts you fully - he's adopted you as his child - because you're joined to Jesus, who died on the cross for you. Yes, believing this means a changed life. Flat out. You'll have a hungry, iron grip on Jesus. You'll run after him forcefully. But you'll do it because you rest in him. All your effort to obey will be a response to what he's already done, never a performance to win his favor. There's no need for such scheming. No pressure. No false fronts.

The typical lesson for kids isn't like this. Instead, it tends to be what mine were for years - little more than a lecture about some way you ought to live for God. Such lessons create pressure and invite pretending. We've been dispensing good advice instead of good news. Eventually, kids will tire of our advice, no matter how good it might be. We'll wonder why they've rejected the good news, because we assumed they were well grounded in it. In fact, they never were. Although we told stories of Jesus and his free grace, we watered it down with self-effort - and that's what they heard.

The reviewer goes on to say that outward obedience without heart change is dangerous. Ouch! This is pretty much the same thing Jesus is saying in Luke 11 when he rebukes the religious leaders because of their fastidious attention to rituals and laws and their neglect to the things that really matter: justice and the love of God.

I believe one of the reasons why it was hard for me to see Jesus at Chichen Itza and why it is challenging to recognize Jesus in different situations in my life is because I am too preoccupied with other sights and sounds. My vision can be overwhelmed by darkness or confusion. My sight can be obscured by the values of this present culture. My mind can be distracted by the tasks that are always demanding my attention. My view can be distorted by mixed motives in my own heart and in the hearts of those around me, especially those whom I respect. And I can be blind because Jesus is often disguised in humble form, many times in my very own brokenness.

Like the blind man in Mark 8, I need Jesus to touch my eyes so that I can see him. I need a community of friends who will point me in Jesus' direction and who will approach Jesus on my behalf (intercede for me). I need to let Jesus take me away from the crowd. I want to let Jesus touch me in whatever way he chooses (even spit in my eyes). I want to let Jesus control the process of healing, learning, and transformation and not become demanding or impatient. I want to learn to stay with Jesus and let him touch me again and again and again until I can see him clearly.

Where's Jesus? Let me quote part of the prayer known as the Breastplate of St. Patrick.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
Christ in every eye that sees me
Christ in every ear that hears me

This is my prayer today.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Pray and Break Bread

I came across an article a few weeks ago which described one of the pedagogical tools used by City Seminary of New York. City Seminary's focus is purposefully narrow: to provide "leadership development for urban ministry in New York, primarily in the city's ethnic and immigrant communities where Christianity is thriving." And one of the ways in which they engage their students with urban ministry is by making the city their classroom; in fact, Professor Emmanuel Katongole, a theologian originally from Uganda, says that, "The city is the seminary." The school's primary focus is "ground up" (valuing experience) instead of "top down" (students sitting in a class and taking notes from a learned scholar). The seminary emphasizes participation and communal settings within an academic setting. The students not only study theology, but learn about New York and its history, and spend time looking at global Christianity.

Green Spot Restaurant in Montreal
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One of City Seminary's initiatives is called "Pray and Break Bread," a series of pilgrimages in which students travel to each borough in New York and spend a few hours there. They learn about the history, demographics, resources, and challenges of the area, they spend some time meditating on scriptures, then they break into small groups and wander around, praying as they go. They finish the time with a meal together at a local restaurant, offering reflections on their time walking the city. Rev. Mark Gornik, the pastor and scholar who launched City Seminary in 2003, remarks: "We're on the streets, learning from one another, having a great time together and sharing food. That is the seminary in a nutshell."

We at Vineyard Montreal pray for our city every week as we gather on Sunday mornings in a local downtown library. We have, on occasion, done prayer walks in our neighbourhood, but are always looking for fresh ways to engage more meaningfully with our city. The model of "Pray and Break Bread" gives us a framework to get on the ground in our city in a number of ways. When I mentioned the possibility of trying a "Pray and Break Bread" event, people in our faith community were enthusiastic about it. So enthusiastic that I immediately had two volunteers who said they would be willing to lead one. They will do some research on a particular neighbourhood in Montreal and present us with their findings, acting as tour guide as we walk around, praying for God's blessing and healing in general and for any people we encounter along the way. And they will select a local eatery where we can share food, support a local business, exchange reflections on our mini-pilgrimage, and experience being part of the neighbourhood for a few hours.

To me, this sounds a lot like the work of Jesus: walking with people, praying for people, eating with people, listening to people, talking to people, visiting people, bringing hope, healing, friendship, and good news wherever we go. Let us be good news for our city as we pray and break bread, whether informally in our day to day lives or in more intentional ways as demonstrated by City Seminary.

All quotations taken from the article by Bob Wells, "The Wonder of It All," in Faith and Leadership, December, 2009. You can read it here.