Wednesday, February 3, 2016

making good small decisions

Suscipe Prayer of St. Ignatius. Image from catholicismpure.com

Decisions, decisions...we make many of them each day. We decide whether to wear the pink socks or the black socks and whether to have yogurt or cereal for breakfast (or both). We decide whether or not we will go to the gym today, whether we will speak kindly or impatiently to others, and whether we will eat that second piece of cake. Some decisions are more consequential than others. What socks I am wearing has less effect on my well-being than whether I go to the gym, and my choice of breakfast food will have less impact on others than the words I choose to speak to them. Since we are faced with a multitude of decisions every day, it seems prudent to develop some skills in making good choices, choices which bring life and goodness and beauty to our world instead of destruction, chaos, and enmity.

One of the most helpful (and simplest) tools of discernment for decision-making can be found in the Christian tradition of Ignatian Spirituality. It finds its origins in the life of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), a young Spanish knight whose dreams of an illustrious career as a nobleman and military hero were cut short when he sustained a serious injury to his legs in the battle of Pamplona in 1521. During a long period of recovery which included several surgeries (before the invention of anesthetics), he read the only books available to him. Their topics were the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. He also spent much time daydreaming about a life of chivalry and a certain lady he admired. He observed that each of these past-times brought different results. After contemplating the life of Christ and the saints, he felt a sense of consolation and was filled with increased love, faith, and hope. His daydreams concerning chivalry and pretty ladies, pleasant enough in the moment, soon left him with a sense of desolation, sadness, restlessness, and apathy.

Over time, Ignatius developed a set of spiritual exercises which later became a hallmark of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) which he founded when he was in his forties. Ignatius proposed that one of the ways to observe the movements of the soul was to practice what he called the Examination of Conscience (Examen) every day. Basically, one looks back on the past 24 hours and observes where they felt close to God, in sync with God, grateful and full of life, and what moments one sensed that they were resisting God, when they felt far from God, when their soul was in turmoil and agitated. By being attentive to these moments each day, one could see where they were participating in the life of God and where they were straying from it. Over time, a person would become more attune to the presence and pull of God in their lives and learn to discern the implications of decisions before they were made.

In doing the Examen, a person is not just mulling over the day and evaluating it; the first important task in the exercise is to invite God to view the past 24 hours with us, to draw our attention to key points in the day. It is a bit like looking at something with a wise friend who points out things which we overlooked.

There are many variations of the Examen and some find it helpful to do it together as a family or with close friends, but a simple version which takes as little as 10 minutes looks like this.
1. Invite the presence of God.
2. Remember the day and answer these questions: For what am I most grateful? What moment filled me with joy and contentment? What moment did I feel alive and close to God? Thank God for this moment.
3. Look at the day again and ask yourself: For what am I least grateful? When did I feel disappointed or uncomfortable? What moment did I feel far from God? Bring the moment to God, repent if necessary, and note what brought you to that place.
4. Look forward to the next day and being able to experience God's grace in it.

Some find it helpful to write down their observations. Over time, this exercise can assist you in noticing which practices and attitudes make you feel out of sync with God and which make you feel alive and close to God. Ideally, you will find yourself avoiding the activities which lead you to desolation and focusing more on those where you find consolation. By being attentive to our emotions and responses, we can discover what desires and purposes God has placed in our lives and where we might be working at cross-purposes to them. As we seek to make each small step (each decision in each day) line up with Jesus, we will find ourselves crafting a life-long journey which is characterised by flourishing.

I have begun to see a spiritual director in order to discern the next steps in my life, especially as I finish my PhD and consider job opportunities, and one of her suggestions was to practice the daily Examen. It has been just over a week and the difference is noticeable. I have a remarkable increase in clarity of purpose and a new quickness in avoiding troublesome actions and reactions.

I am asking our faith community to consider practicing the Examen during Lent this year, either alone, as a family, or with a close friend. I believe that mindful attention to the Spirit of God in the midst of the mundane tasks of each day can open us up to radical transformation and revelation, one small decision at a time.

Here is a short video (6 minutes) on the Examen which offers some further insight. The Examen.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The new normal

Sheep path. Image from chriscollision.wordpress.com
My feline companion of over 17 years passed away last month and I am adjusting to a new normal, one where there is no cat living in our house (you can read my blog about Jazz here). It will take some getting used to, but I know I will adapt because we are wired to do just that. Paul Ricoeur talks about two sides of the self: idem, the self which remains the same and provides continuity, and ipse, the self which is always developing, always in process. Idem is that part of us which never changes, which makes us recognizable no matter how we age or are altered. Ipse is that part of us which allows us to learn, grow, and experience transformation. If the self were all idem, we would stagnate and become atrophied. If the self were all ipse, we would have no stability. We are uniquely, unalterably ourselves, yet we are built for change. Every time we breathe in and out, every time a cut heals, every time we learn something new, we are being changed.

I recently read the story of Jesus healing the man at the pool of Bethesda. You can find it in John 5:2-9. Here was a man who had been lying on a mat for 38 years, surrounded by other invalids, all waiting for the stirring of the waters at the pool. Legend had it that the first into the pool when the stirring happened would be healed. Jesus saw the man and asked: "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man replied that he had no one to help him into the pool so someone else always got there before he did. Then Jesus said to the man, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." And the man did so.

Two points stick out to me in this story. The first is the idea of being paralysed in some way. Here was a man who was stuck; things never seemed to change for him. He was surrounded by others who were also struggling with paralysis, of being unable to move on with their lives. Part of being paralysed (whether physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, or relationally) is that we see others moving forward, getting ahead, getting on with life, and we are left behind. We see others being transformed and we can't seem to get to that place. It is frustrating and discouraging to be unable to move forward. The second idea is that of being alone. The sick man said, "I have no one." When we are alone, we feel like an outsider, we feel there is no one to help us when we need it, we feel forgotten, cast aside, and of little value. I don't know about you, but I can identify with this man's paralysis (being stuck) and his sense of alone-ness. Good thing the story doesn't end there.

Here comes Jesus. Jesus sees the man. Jesus comes to the man. Jesus knows what the man has been through. Jesus knows the man's current state. And Jesus has a question for him which is really two questions: "Do you want things to change? Do you want to change?" In other words, do you want life as you know it to change? Are you willing to leave the place where you are now? Are you willing to change how you act, think, and relate to others (after 38 years)? Are you willing to get off your mat, your small place of comfort? Are you willing to trust someone, to give up your independence and alone-ness? Are you willing to start the long journey of learning new ways as you embrace Jesus's new normal?

These are important questions for us. Sure, we pray for healing. Sure, we pray for circumstances to be changed. But are we prepared for the hard work of embracing a new normal? Let's think about a hypothetical situation. Say you are a long-term smoker and after years and years of inhaling toxins into your lungs, those organs are pretty much useless. You go see a doctor and he gives you the good news that you are eligible for a lung transplant. Wonderful! Within a few months, you get the call that some unfortunate, healthy soul has died in a tragic car accident and their perfectly pink lungs are now yours. You race to the hospital and undergo a successful procedure which removes your diseased lungs and replaces them with healthy lungs. It's a miracle! You arrive home from the hospital, thrilled with your new lease on life, and reach for the familiar pack of cigarettes and light one up. What's wrong with this picture? The surgeon has done everything he can, but unless you change the way you think and act, you will end up in the same unhealthy situation you were in before.

Let's admit it, we can be a bit impatient and even passive when it comes to change; we expect God to do all the heavy lifting and fixing, not realising that in order for us to survive and flourish in God's new normal, we need to make some drastic changes. In short, we need to forge new ways of being, some new pathways on which to walk. The picture at the top is that of a sheep path which zigzags across a field in a totally inefficient pattern. The sheep keep walking this same, crooked path because they have always walked this path and forging a new pathway would require a lot of effort. They keep taking the path of least resistance. Our brain's neural pathways work the same way. It is said that it takes three weeks to form a new habit, to develop a neural pathway that makes a thought or an action natural instead of hard work. In other words, change is about developing new habits, and that requires some diligence and constancy on our part.

God gives us a new heart, a new spirit, a new mind, a new freedom. How do we flourish in God's new normal instead of reverting back to our old, crooked ways? Spiritual disciplines like prayer, gathering regularly in a community to worship, theological study, and fasting help to reinforce the work that God is doing in our lives. Transformation happens when we cooperate with God. God does what we cannot do. He gives us a lung/heart/mind transplant. He heals our paralysis. But then he invites us to get up off our mat and walk, to undertake a new normal which reflects God's gifts of freedom and healing. In all likelihood, the man in John 5 did not go back to the pool the next day and lay on his mat. After 38 years, he had to discover a new way of being and thinking, learn new actions, and explore a new way of relating to people. No doubt it was a challenge; forging new pathways is never easy.

A few months ago I was in Vancouver for a set of lectures on faith and science. During a cab ride, the biologist asked the theologian, "How do you know when you are wrong?" The theologian answered, "It has to be cohesive to be true, make sense in all areas of life. We are always learning. We believe things to be true based on our knowledge at the time. When something better is revealed, we change what we believe. Just like science." I love this. First, because it was a privilege to be in the company of learned colleagues who exemplify humility, respect, and a desire to learn from each other. Second, because it reflects both idem and ipse, both constancy and change. We strive to be faithful followers of Jesus AND we are always adjusting our perspective to align more closely with God's new normal, a normal which sets aside our self-interest and embraces God's interests. We can recognise God's pathways because God reveals himself through history and tradition, through Jesus, through the witness of the scriptures, and through our own experience and reason.

As we begin to walk into a new year, may we know that our areas of paralysis and alone-ness are not permanent. May we know that Jesus sees us and knows us and is aware of our situation. May we be brave enough to respond when Jesus asks us to get up and walk, and may we continue to forge new pathways which reflect and reinforce the newness of life which God so graciously offers us. Here's to the new normal, God's normal (clink of glasses).

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

calling all the fearful, doubting, and confused

The Annunciation. Image from ncregister.com
I have been reading Father James Martin's excellent book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, which is a meditation on the life of Jesus based on Martin's memoirs of visiting the Holy Land intertwined with historical background and spiritual insights. When I came across his chapter on the Annunciation, appropriately titled "Yes!" I was surprised at how much Mary's experience resonated with me (not usually the case with Catholic portrayals of Mary). The story can be found in Luke 1:26-38. Go ahead and read it again. Martin suggests that Mary's story is our story, a window into our journey with God. Below are some of Martin's points mixed with my own thoughts. See if you find yourself anywhere in the story.

1. God initiates a conversation. Our spiritual journeys begin because God makes the first move, and they continue on because God keeps on moving. Perhaps we see an angel, or perhaps something unexpected happens, or perhaps someone speaks to us words that pierce our hearts, or perhaps we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. In Mary's case, a messenger from God greets her with these words: "Dearly loved one, endowed with grace. God is with you." Martin explains that the tense indicates that she is already full of grace. The angel does not confer it on her; it is something God has done. "Though Mary holds no great position ... and though she is most likely poor, and though as an unmarried woman she occupies a lowly state in society, God loves her - lavishly. Mary is the forerunner of all those in the Christian life who will be judged by human standards as unworthy of God's grace. But God has other ideas." [Martin, 35]. A gracious God generously bestows grace on the unlikeliest of people, of which I am one.
2. We fear. Mary was much perplexed and thoroughly shaken by the words of the messenger and wondered what they might mean. An unexpected encounter with the divine can be scary, Fear is a natural response. We fear we might be exposed or condemned or perhaps something difficult or impossible might be required of us. Or we might just die on the spot because we are in contact with holiness. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." If we are fearful when God comes near, we just might be on our way to becoming wise. But we can't remain fearful.
3. God reassures us and tells us what will be required of us. After telling Mary not to be afraid, the angel outlines the plan in basic terms: she is to give birth to the promised Messiah. It is all a little overwhelming and Mary can't quite comprehend how any of it is possible. It sounds so far-fetched.
4. We doubt. Mary asks, "How can this be since I am a virgin?" What Mary is admitting is that she is not up for the task, she does not have what it takes, she is under-qualified. When we doubt, when we are confused, it is usually because we are focused on our inadequacies and have taken our eyes off God's adequacy.
5. God points us to past experiences and helps us to trust. The angel directs Mary's attention to her cousin Elizabeth's miraculous conception in her old age. This was probably not news to Mary, but a simple reminder that God had done the impossible before and he could certainly do it again. It is important to remember the times when God has been faithful, when God has provided, when God has transformed pain into love and hope. In times of doubt and fear and confusion, we need to be reminded that God has a track record of being trustworthy. This is why I read the stories in the Bible over and over again. This is why I listen to the testimonies of others. And this is why I recall the goodness of God in my own life. It helps me remember that "the impossible is possible with God." (Luke 1:37, The Voice).
6. We say Yes. And because of this, we are able to bring into the world, with God's grace, something new. Mary's words, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word," are powerful. They reveal that she had a choice in the matter. The Holy Spirit was not going to rape her (excuse my graphic language). And despite the fact that she was living in a patriarchal society, Mary made her decision without appealing to a man. She didn't ask anyone for permission or advice, but gave her consent on her own initiative. Before she knew exactly how everything would play out, she said Yes. She didn't know her child would be threatened with death, she didn't know they would have to flee their homeland, she didn't know Jesus would be viewed as a political and religious rebel, she didn't know he would die a violent death. She would be a witness to great sadness, but she would also be witness to great joy as Jesus grew into his calling of teacher, healer, miracle-worker, peacemaker, and the visible presence of God on earth. In saying Yes, Mary took on the role of a slave, one serving at the pleasure of another, and because of this daring decision, Life and Light came into the world. We can make the same choice every day, to bring the light and life of God into the world by saying Yes.
7. God is silent. The angel leaves Mary and there is no more opportunity for her to ask questions and receive answers, at least not in a direct manner. What do we do when God is silent? Sometimes we forget this part of the story, the part where we feel alone and confused and less sure about God's call.
8. Time for faith. Mary had to trust that God would keep the promises made to her, even in times of waiting, suffering, pain, and uncertainty. At times, the angel's visit must have seemed so long ago and the words he spoke so distant and faint. Mary had to trust that God would be true to himself and bring salvation to the world, even when things didn't look very promising.
9. Time for action. After the angel left, Mary packed her bags and went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary surrounded herself with people who also believed that God could do the impossible (remember Zechariah's encounter with an angel?), who were also recipients of God's grace, who were also living in a mixture of faith and uncertainty, and together they encouraged each other and pondered the mysteries of God's love in action.
10. Time for worship. Mary's song of praise (Luke 1:46-55) is a beautiful poem calling to mind God's gracious promises to her and to Israel. God is the one who reverses the order of a power-driven society and lifts up the humble, embraces the poor, feeds the hungry, and plucks the most unlikely out of obscurity. Lovingkindness is at the forefront of God's saving, liberating action, and Mary celebrates its presence in her life, even before Jesus is born, before she witnesses any of his miracles, before he dies and is raised from the dead. Worship brings together the past, the present, and the future promises of God.

All of us have times when we are fearful, when we doubt, when we are confused. I had a bout of that just this afternoon. I suspect that those of us who study theology and/or serve the church are quite susceptible to this. Let us not be afraid. It is all part of the pilgrimage of faith where we learn to take the next step even though the path seems unclear, where we learn to lean on our fellow travelers when we are weary, where we remind ourselves that the faithfulness of God is evident all around us, and where we practice trusting and worshiping and acting and being part of a loving community until we get better at it,

Thanks, Mary, for showing us what it means to say be a servant of God in order that the world may see the beauty of Jesus. We join you and say together, Yes!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

snapshots of trust

Image result for climbing ladder of success
Image from immigrationimpact.com
Snapshot number one: 

Last week I was in Vancouver for a series of lectures at Regent College and St. Mark's College. After a few days of talks, meetings, and a chance to see good friends, I was back on a plane headed for home. Before we took off, the pilot announced that we would be flying through a weather system so the ride might get a bit bumpy. He assured us that it was not unsafe, and he had been back and forth across the country a number of times in the past 48 hours, and there didn't seem to be any way to avoid a bit of turbulence. He told us to be prepared for the seat belt sign to be on for a good portion of the trip.

Well, the seat belt sign did light up a bit during that flight, and there were some bumps and sudden dips along the way. I also heard the engines whining and then slowing down, which seemed a bit odd. I usually take my cue from the cabin crew, so since they appeared unconcerned about the uneven engine noise, I did not concern myself about it either. Near the end of the trip, the pilot's voice came over the speakers again. "What can I say? I knew it was coming, but I didn't think it would last that long. I changed altitude six times to try to make things a bit smoother, but it didn't seem to make much difference. However, we are through the worst of it and should arrive at our destination half an hour early. Thanks for flying with us." I was so impressed with the pilot's demeanour, especially the way he informed us about the situation and reassured us that everything was going to be okay, despite what it might feel like.

As we exited the plane, the pilot was standing outside the cockpit and I just had to say something: "Thank you! It was a great flight!" He was taken aback by my enthusiastic greeting and positive appraisal of the trip. He looked at me, puzzled, then asked, "It wasn't too bumpy for you?" I replied, "Not at all! It was great!" What I was trying to convey was that I found him to be a trustworthy person, that I had confidence in his abilities as a pilot, and that because of his calm and honest communication, he had dispelled any fears I might have had. He did not promise there would be no turbulence, but he did say he would get us to our destination safely, and I trusted him to accomplish that. It reminded me of these words written by Frederick Buechner: "Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us."

Though things got bumpy and passengers were sometimes difficult and impatient, none of that really mattered much. Just because someone spilled tea on me didn't mean that the pilot had lost control. These things just happen sometimes. What mattered was that the pilot was going to get us where we needed to go. My trust was in him, not in a perfect flight or perfect passengers.

Snapshot number two:

In Genesis 28, we find a story in which Jacob is fleeing from his brother, Esau, who was threatening to kill him for stealing his blessing. Jacob is on the run (his mother having pointed him in the direction of relatives), not sure what lies ahead or how things will turn out. He goes to sleep and has a dream about a ladder which reaches from heaven to earth. Messengers of God are ascending and descending the ladder, and at the top of the ladder stands the Lord who speaks words of promise and blessing, assuring Jacob that one day he will come back to this land he is fleeing. Jacob awakens and says, "There is no doubt in my mind that the Eternal One is in this place - and I didn't even know it!" He renames the place (which is called Luz) to be known as Bethel which means "house of God." Then he makes a vow, stating that if God does what he has promised, taking care of him and bringing him back to his father's house, then the Eternal One will be his God, and of everything God gives him, he will give one-tenth back to God.

Trust is not passive. Sometimes we think of doing a "trust fall" and deduce that trust is all about going limp and letting someone else do all the work. In my experience, I have found that trust is hard work, more like climbing a ladder. It means letting go of one thing while reaching for something else. It means always moving on, taking the next step, and never giving up.

In this story of Jacob, I see five aspects of the hard work of trust:

1. Seeing God. Many times we cannot see God in our situations, especially if we are in times of uncertainty or peril. Unless we see God in those moments, we will not be able to trust him. The hard work of trust starts with searching for God in places where we feel abandoned or alone.

2. Renaming our situation. Once Jacob saw God, everything changed. He no longer thought of the place where he was camping as a random city on the journey, but as the dwelling place of God. Seeing God meant that he spoke differently about his situation. The hard work of trust asks us to rename our situation in the light of God's presence with us. Instead of identifying something as a place of uncertainty, depression, or fear, we can confidently say that it is a place where God is with us. It is the house of God.

3. Commitment to act and follow-through. After renaming his situation to reflect his confidence in God, Jacob acted. He set up a memorial stone so that he would not forget the encounter with God nor the promises God made. He made a vow to be faithful to God, made plans for the future, and then continued on his journey. The hard work of trust requires that we take action which includes making plans and following through on them.

4. Working toward reconciliation and completion. Assured that God would bring him back to his father's land and fulfill promises of blessing, Jacob endured twenty long years of working for a crooked relative, trusting that God was present in it all. And when it was finally time to return to his father's land, he humbly approached his brother, Esau, and they were reconciled. The hard work of trust means that we never lose sight of what God has called us to, and we actively work toward its completion. It also means that we are always involved in the work of reconciliation because this is what our reconciling God does.

5. Having open hands. Part of Jacob's trusting action was a determination to hold everything he received from God in open hands. In other words, he wanted to cultivate generosity instead of ownership. Jacob wasn't always successful at this, but his acknowledgment that the blessings he received were ultimately from God, and his vow to offer one-tenth of everything back to God, were a way of demonstrating that God was his provider. The hard work of trust means that we receive with open hands and give with open hands.

Trust may be hard work, but it is also powerful. It is not passivity or "I give up" thinking. Parker Palmer writes: "Who does not know that you can throw the best methods and the latest equipment, and a lot of money at people who do not trust each other and still get miserable results? Who does not know that people who trust each other and work well together can do exceptional work with less than adequate resources?" When we trust the Creator of the universe, we bind ourselves to God. When we develop trusting relationships, we bind ourselves to others. As a result, we are stronger, bigger, smarter, wiser, more creative, more resourceful, and more capable than we could ever be alone. The hard work of trust is the hard work of building community,

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he’s the one who will keep you on track.
(Proverbs 3, The Message)



Monday, October 5, 2015

cookies and questions: report from the CETA conference


This past weekend I participated in the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association's fall conference at Tyndale University in Toronto. I had never been to this particular conference before so did not know quite what to expect. I am happy to report that there were white chocolate macadamia nut cookies and pink lemonade. Theologically speaking, there were some things which were not surprising, such as a high percentage of males versus females and some fairly conservative interpretations of the gospel. But there were many refreshing, spacious places of encounter as well. I heard nine presentations at the conference. I offer you highlights from two of them:

1. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, "...for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." Rachel Tulloch brought attention to the fact that perhaps Jesus is not merely telling his listeners that they must go out and do good works, be his hands and feet, so to speak, but letting his followers know that he is present in the poor and marginalized. Too often we dole out charity from a position of power and superiority, assuming that we are the ones with the truth and the resources, and the poor, needy, and unsaved are lucky we came along. In this story, Jesus identifies with the needy. He is not the one giving out charity but receiving it. Rachel encouraged us to "see Jesus" in the needy before we try to "be Jesus" to them.

2. Another talk which got me thinking was James Harrichand's presentation on recovering the language of lament. He noted that 40% of the Psalms are individual laments, and yet, much of the evangelical Western church adopts a type of triumphalism which leaves no room for such language, no space to sit in suffering and silence and complaint, calling on God to hear our cries. We tend to rush right to pithy, trite platitudes meant to dispel disease instead of giving suffering and grief proper expression. Prayers which mingle together lament and praise, trust and doubt, are prayers which God welcomes. They can help us to create a space where, as James says, "people in distress are encouraged to tell their stories and express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and secure environment." Lament is where we get real with God and with each other, and in the process, move closer to hope.

I gave a talk at the end of the day on theological hospitality. It was an invitation to become more aware that we have a hospitable God who embraces us while we are still enemies, strangers, and sinners. My conclusion was this: "Because we have been graciously, undeservedly received by Jesus, we must open ourselves to others whom Jesus is also inviting, especially those who look, speak, act, think, and believe differently than we do. If we are to practice theological hospitality, we must become better listeners. We must cultivate spiritual hunger and humility, and we must stop being easily threatened. We must look for occasions to celebrate what unites us with others instead of pointing out what divides, and above all, we must acknowledge that the theological table is ultimately God’s, not ours. We are merely guests."

There were some very thoughtful questions after my presentation. One person asked why we are so inhospitable in our theological contexts. In other words, how did we get this way?  My response was that our heritage as Protestants might have something to do with it; our theological particulars were born out of protest to certain problematic traditions and practices in the church. In some ways, we continue to carry that identity, seeking to protect ourselves from theological error and protesting anything which appears to be a dilution of the gospel. In general, it is a reactive posture, not a loving posture. I am sure there are many other good answers to that question, but that was the best I could do on the spot. 

Another question was this: what can we do to become more hospitable? My answer was no doubt a bit too simple, but I replied that we need to become better listeners. By that I meant that we don't always need to voice our opinion or add our insight or knowledge to a particular situation. Sometimes we just need to shut up and listen. Let us give people the dignity of actually hearing them instead of simply using them as a jumping off point to spout off our agenda. There are times when we are to speak and there are times when we should be silent. Wisdom discerns between the two. Being silent can be an act of faith, trusting that God is able to speak to people in any number of ways and not just through us. The Holy Spirit is infinitely creative in communicating truth and love to each one of us. Every one who dabbles in theology, myself included, needs to be reminded of that on a regular basis.

Come, Holy Spirit. Reveal Jesus. Reveal the Father. Reveal your truth and love.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

go ahead, ask a question...

Image from likesuccess.com
This morning I attended a presentation on the topic of critical realism and how it connects theology and science. Basically, the presenter sought to develop a link between scientific theory (making deductions based on perceptions) and revelation (drawing conclusions about God from narratives). Though the topic is outside my area of study and much of the philosophical and scientific underpinning on the topic was lost on me, I enjoyed engaging with the basic ideas. The technical term for this type of knowing, of moving from evidence to hypothesis, of looking backwards from effect to cause, is abduction, and it relates closely to the theological notion of faith.

One of the most interesting comments that came out of the discussion around the table afterwords was an observation by one of the theology professors. He mentioned that some students from the Sciences indicated that in their classes, the theory of evolution is treated as dogma. Just as a reminder, dogma can be defined as, "a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true," therefore, something which cannot be questioned. Interestingly, this is a hardening of the meaning intended by its Greek origin (dokein) which means "opinion" and "seem good, think." These students complained that they were not allowed to question evolution in their science classes; therefore, they came to theology classes because there they were allowed to ask questions about origins.

The idea that theological study is a context in which one is allowed to ask questions is something which I believe we must be careful to protect, even while affirming certain core doctrines. It also brings us closer to the original meaning of dogma, especially when we practice communal discernment ("it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." Acts 15:28). The beauty of faith is not only its call to simplicity (our foundation is God alone), but its emphasis on humility (we know only in part). A tendency which we as teachers can have is to present doctrine as dogma that cannot be questioned, and this is not how it should not be. We who have had the revelation of God shine on our hearts and minds should never close ourselves off to that bright light, thinking that we have seen all there is to see and now know exactly how things go. I am not suggesting that we embrace every wind of theological change, but that we become better listeners to the questions that are being asked, especially regarding the sensitive issues of our time.

The divine character of God does not change. We can always affirm his goodness and his justice. But divine love, so unfathomable and vast, shows itself afresh and anew in the world, over and over again. Can we see it, hear it, taste it, feel it, even in forms unfamiliar to us? My prayer is that we can and will, every day of our lives.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Teaching children and children teaching

Image from developer.mozilla.org
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)