Wednesday, November 4, 2015

snapshots of trust

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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...

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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

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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.