Monday, August 7, 2017

Got rhythm?

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Image by Sophie Gallo
Think about a typical day in your life. What's the first thing you do when you wake up? What's your morning ritual? What do you do during your lunch hour? What's the last thing you do before you go to bed? We all have life rhythms. Every day, we do certain things at a certain time in a certain way. Most of the time, we don't even think about these habits; they are just a part of our life. Each of these small details may seem insignificant, but they are building blocks. The habits we inhabit are formative. This is because our life rhythms are connected to two big questions: What is the good life, the flourishing life? What is our vocation (what is God calling us to)?

Let's look at an example. Here is the daily rhythm of a Benedictine community in New Mexico called Christ in the Desert.

Vigils at 4 am (read 12 Psalms, scripture lesson, reading from Church fathers)
Lauds at 5:45 am (prayer and Eucharist)
Breakfast, personal time
Chapter Meeting at 8:30 am (work assignments, announcements)
Terce at 8:45 am
Work
Sext at 1:00 pm 
Lunch (eaten in silence listening to a short reading from the Bible - feed the mind and the body)
Rest and reading
None at 3:30 pm followed by tea and Lectio Divina
Vespers at 5:50 pm (praying Psalms, a hymn, intercession for needs and intentions of whole Church)
Supper
Chapter Meeting at 7:10 (reading part of rule of St. Benedict, commentary by abbot, intercession for prayers sent to monks)
Compline at 7:30 pm (confession, 2 Psalms, a hymn)
Great Silence (turn thoughts to resting in God, no unnecessary talk until morning)

Of special note are the seven times set apart for communal prayer: vigils (night), lauds (daybreak), terce (third hour), sext (sixth hour), none (ninth hour), vespers (sunset), compline (retiring for the night). Here we can see how the monks' vocations are tied to living a good life expressed through a rule of life or a daily rhythm. In other words, since they are called to be set apart from the world and spend their lives dedicated to God through prayer and work (vocation), they follow a particular rule of life which allows them to inhabit practices (daily rhythm) which lead them to grow in love and peace through contemplation and service (good life). The daily rhythm of Christ in the Desert community gives the monks the means to fulfill their vocation, and the structure provides both stability and consistency in the community. One could say that the rule of life gives them a track to run on in order to get where they want to go.

Let's look at another example. In the book of Daniel, we find a young man who is forcibly taken from his home in Israel when the country is invaded and the government overthrown. The best young men of Israel are shipped off to Babylon to serve a new master, and Daniel finds himself in a strange country with unfamiliar customs and religious practices. Daniel and his fellow captives are to be assimilated into this new culture, but Daniel is a worshiper of YHWH and carries on the rituals and rhythms he learned in his homeland, practices which reinforce devotion to YHWH and remind him that he serves the Lord God Most High, not the Babylonian empire. Daniel respectfully declines a royal diet, refuses to bow down to statues, does not accept gifts or bribes, speaks the truth even when his life is in danger, and most significantly, prays to YHWH three times a day with praises, thanksgiving, and petitions. This rule of life is what keeps Daniel on track. It is what keeps Daniel from being assimilated into the culture around him. His daily rhythms guide his affections and inform his allegiances.

In theology, we hear a lot about orthodoxy (right belief or doctrine), a bit less about orthopraxy (right practice), and even less about orthopathy (right affection or passion). Thanks to Descartes and modern philosophy, we in the West tend to see ourselves primarily as thinking beings, but this assessment is distorted. James K. A. Smith believes that we are first and foremost lovers. Our lives are shaped not by our thoughts and ideas but by our affections. He has written a book called You Are What You Love in order to help people see human persons not as "containers filled with ideas or beliefs, but rather ... dynamic, desiring 'arrows' aimed and pointed at something ultimate." [1]

Though believing (trusting) in God is certainly mentioned in the Bible, when Jesus is asked to name the most important command, he points toward love, a love which is aimed at God and at our neighbour. All other acts of devotion, all other truth, all orthodoxy and orthopraxy stem from Jesus's articulated orthopathy. The implications of this are quite significant, especially when we live in a culture skewed toward competitive individualism. If we are primarily thinkers, we will situate ourselves in ideologies, often in isolation. However, if we are lovers first, we will situate ourselves in a love story, in a family, in a community. While not everyone is capable of being a brilliant thinker, we all have the capacity to be brilliant lovers. Love is the very nature of God. Therefore, love is at the centre of what it means to be human and made in the image of God.

So what does this have to do with daily rhythms? And the good life? And vocation? Basically, what we love, what we give ourselves over to, what we worship, will shape our hearts, our lives, and our beliefs. Our desires point our lives in a certain direction, either intentionally or by default, so we would be wise to ask ourselves this question: To what ends do our cultural institutions (education, politics, arts, entertainment), our contexts of work and home, our relationships, our churches, and our daily habits direct our love? Like Daniel, we are sure to find some rivals for our affection in our cultural contexts. It is up to us to incorporate rhythms of life which will direct our love toward YHWH and our fellow human beings and remind us whose we are. Let us develop rhythms in our life which intentionally reflect our vocation and give us practical, daily habits that will lead us to live good lives, lives spent loving God and each other.

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[1] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 71. This book is a precursor to You Are What You Love.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

notes from the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference

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The Canadian contingent at Society of Vineyard Scholars, Yale Divinity School, 2017
Ever since I began graduate studies, I have presented at least one paper at an academic conference every year. Most years it is multiple papers at multiple conferences. Each paper represents weeks of research, writing, and editing as well as considerable time putting together a slide presentation and practicing the talk out loud to make sure it falls within the time limit. I have traveled as far as Switzerland and Scotland to present papers, but mostly I attend those which are easy for me to get to. One of the reasons for sticking fairly close to home is that I have to pay for the privilege of presenting my work to learned colleagues. Aside from a few travel scholarships I have received, the registration, travel, accommodations, and food expenses have all come out of my own pocket.

One might wonder why I invest all that time and money into traveling to a conference where I am one of the speakers. One answer is that it puts everyone on a level playing field: graduate students present their work alongside published authors and well-known professors. It also keeps the registration fees reasonable (can you imagine the cost of paying an honorarium to everyone who presented their work? At my most recent conference, this would be almost 70 people!) Another response is that it is a privilege to present my ideas to those who are uniquely qualified to critique them. My work is better because of these opportunities to get honest, informed feedback, especially in the question time after a presentation. The receptions and shared mealtimes are also rich with opportunities. At one such gathering, a seasoned professor gave me a strategy which helped me handle my rather hefty comprehensive reading list. Another time, I was able to encourage a young student who had just begun to study religion and felt totally out of place at the conference. There are so many opportunities to give and receive at these events. In essence, presenting work at an academic conference is an opportunity to be part of the dialogue in my discipline and to invest in my ongoing education.

In many ways, academic conferences represent what a local church community should look like. Everyone comes with something to give, to share, to offer. Everyone comes to learn from each other and willingly welcomes questions and receives input. Everyone invests considerable time and effort into bringing their best to the community, making the time together rich and vibrant and exciting. It is a coming together of service and delight where all are challenged to do their best.

I recently returned from the Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. It was so refreshing to be able to sink deep into a gathering where connecting with Jesus was as important as presenting original, stimulating, scholarly work. In addition to the presentations, panels, seminars, and plenary talks that one would expect at an academic conference, I enjoyed dinner at the local pub with friends from afar, took in a guided art gallery tour led by a local sculptor, heard a moving spoken word poetry performance during a wine and cheese reception, worshiped to jazz music and an indigenous-inspired liturgy, prayed for colleagues, stayed in a host home where three young children greeted me every morning, and was able to meet with a spiritual director. In every session, event, or in-between time, I was treated as a valued participant.

The organisers of the conference were very intentional about making space for everyone to shine: we moved smoothly from technical academic dialogue to artistic expressions to interdisciplinary engagement to discussing works in progress to moments of silence and lament to moments of joyful feasting and laughter. No realm of life was considered unholy or unworthy of being represented at the conference. I often say that the church could learn something from the academy, especially how to engage respectfully with others, how to challenge and encourage at the same time, how to disagree with grace and humility, how to call each other to do good work, and how to listen and learn. However, due to my experience at the Society of Vineyard Scholars, I believe that the academy would do well to learn from the church as well, especially how to honour the least among us, how to worship and pray as we reason and research, how to make space for diverse expressions of the glory of God, how to serve with joy instead of demanding recognition, and how to invest in the kingdom of heaven instead of the reputation economy.

To give you just a taste of what went down at this year's Society of Vineyard Scholars conference, I will briefly mention one thing that I brought and one thing that I received. There was so much more that happened, but you will just have to come next year and experience it for yourself.

What I brought: I presented a paper entitled "The Language (s) of the Kingdom: academic writing, parables, and spoken word poetry." In essence, I argued that academic language which favours critical objectivity and distance is not the best vehicle for inviting people to encounter the living God. Metaphors, word pictures, and parables make up much of Jesus's dialogue because this type of language draws people in, asking them to engage by doing the work of discerning and understanding and connecting and imagining. Here are a few quotes from that paper. The first is from Eugene Peterson and the last two are mine.

“The Hebrews and Greeks made one word do the work for which English employs two. Shamayin (Hebrew) and ouranos (Greek) mean either the visible sky over us or the invisible realm of God invading us, with the context determining which sense is being expressed. But whichever sense is at the fore, the other is whispering in the background, making its presence felt. English, by using ‘sky’ for what we see and ‘heaven’ for what we don’t see, eliminates the whispers. Clarity improves, but comprehension thins out. We eliminate ambiguity, but we also erase the irradiating lines of metaphor that shoot out illumination in several directions at once. The biblical ‘heaven’ (shamayim/ouranos) doing double duty for the visible and the invisible, keeps our imaginations at work making connections between what we see and do not see, both of them equally real, each a reminder of the other.” [1]

"By using parables which link unlikely subjects together, Jesus is redefining the popular notion of kingdom. His hearers (and most of us) would associate kingdom with sovereignty, power, and might. So why would Jesus compare his kingdom to someone who sows good seed, a mustard seed which grows, and yeast which expands? [2] Allow me to offer a few thoughts. First, mustard seeds and yeast are rather small and insignificant, yet both grow disproportionately large in comparison to their humble beginnings. The story of the sower also hints at inauspicious beginnings: a master sows good seed, an adversary sows bad seed, and both seeds are left to grow while the master patiently waits for harvest time. People walking past the weed-infested field would likely deduce that it belonged to an inept or lazy farmer. In these parables, Jesus is shifting the idea of kingdom away from categories of power, might, and outward signs of success to the divine qualities of humility and patience."

"I came to academic writing from creative composition. To me, it seems counter-intuitive to lay out my thesis right at the outset and expose my methodology for all to see, like I did at the beginning of this presentation. Why would anyone bother listening past the introduction when I have already given it all away in the first minute or two? I prefer to craft a story which includes an element of mystery, revealing the characters and the narrative bit by bit, one scene at a time (one could say, one parable at a time). A good story can never be captured by a thesis statement, because there is no room for the characters to develop and interact, and no space given for the reader to be drawn into the world the writer has created. Because of this, I believe that academic writing, useful as it is in many ways, cannot adequately reflect the drama of divine/human interaction. If we want language which can carry the weight of paradox, the breadth of complexity, and the depth of encounter, we need metaphors, word pictures, rhythms, and polyphony. In other words, we need poetic narratives."

What I received: Last year at SVS I attended a women's breakfast. We gathered around tables, ate yogurt and biscuits and fruit, and listened to each other's stories. Then we wrote our names on small stones, along with a word which represented an ongoing challenge or desire in our lives. We tossed the stones into the middle of the table, and as we left, each of us picked up a stone, pledging to pray for that person until we met again next year. I had no idea who picked up my stone over a year ago because it was all a bit of a jumble as we tidied up and rushed off to the next session. This year when we gathered for the women's breakfast, someone whom I have only met a few times came up to me and told me she had been praying for me this past year. As we stood together in front of a bright window in the early morning, she began to recount the words she had spoken in her prayers. I don't remember exactly what she said, but I do remember that as she spoke, her voice began to tremble with emotion. I was moved by her tender compassion for me and her deep commitment to my well-being. I got a little teary myself as we shared that sacred moment which represented a year's worth of life and service. I marveled at how we are supported and cared for and brought into the presence of Jesus through the faithful prayers of others, even though we are often unaware of it. I was given a gift of grace each day this past year. I know that now.

This year, I had to leave the breakfast early to prepare for a session, so once again I have no idea who took the stone with my name on it. But I do know whose name is on the stone that sits near my kitchen sink. Every day I hold that stone in my hand and ask God to hold my colleague close and bless her. 

Matte Downey
Vineyard Montreal

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[1] Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 169.
[2] Matthew 13.

Monday, June 5, 2017

what is justice?

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Image from ec.europa.eu
There seems to be an increasing emphasis on addressing injustice, at least in the circles I move in. Everywhere I turn, it seems that someone is talking about how we can become more just people. On a recent trip to Toronto for a conference, I was reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy which tells about his work as a lawyer in Alabama, addressing systemic injustices in the legal system. When I arrived in the city, I visited a downtown church which had posters and banners addressing issues of social justice all around their sanctuary. At the conference, some of the presentations identified specific people groups who have been victims of injustice and suggested ways we can move forward to more equitable interactions.

What is justice? The symbol for justice in the legal system is a blindfolded woman (known as Lady Justice) holding a set of scales. The symbolism suggests an impartial, careful, and accurate weighing of matters. The dictionary tells us that justice is fairness, equity, impartiality, neutrality, honesty, and righteousness. In the Hebrew bible, the word tzedek (to be just or righteous) is rooted in the nature of God, joining the idea of impartiality with promoting the good and dealing with sin. In Greek, we have the word dikaiosune which basically means approved by God. When we link justice to the nature of a loving, merciful God, we get a slightly different view of justice than when we equate it with moral rectitude. I offer two stories to illustrate this, one from the Hebrew Bible and one from the New Testament.

In Deuteronomy, we find specific laws given to the nation of Israel which were to guide their behaviour and ultimately, reflect their worship of a just God. One of these had to do with ensuring that a widow was not left destitute when her husband died and she had no sons. Since the women in the Ancient Near East had their value and their livelihood tied to men, when a woman's husband died and she had no sons to receive the family inheritance, her situation was precarious. The law made provision for this.

"When two brothers are living together, sharing family property that hasn’t been divided, if one of them dies leaving a widow without sons, his widow must not be married to a man outside the family. The brother should marry his sister-in-law and try to have children with her in his brother’s name.
Her firstborn son will be named after the brother who died, so that the first husband’s name will not disappear from Israel and that son will receive his share of the family inheritance" (Deut. 25:5-6, The Voice).

Basically, the brother-in-law of the widow was to ensure that the deceased brother's name and inheritance were not lost. In effect, a man who married his brother's widow was sacrificing part of his inheritance in order to honour his dead brother and protect his widow. Understandably, some men were not too keen on fulfilling this obligation.

Case in point. In Genesis 38, we find the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah had three sons and the first one married Tamar. He died, and since Tamar had no sons and no means of income, she depended on the family she married into to take care of her. Judah told his second son that he must marry Tamar and any sons she bore would have his dead brother's inheritance. Well, he resented the imposition and the implications it had for his prospective wealth, so he begrudgingly took Tamar as his wife and had sex with her, but took precautions to make sure she would not become pregnant. That second son died as well. Now, Judah had a third son who was not yet of marrying age and, understandably, Judah was reluctant to have Tamar wed him. The two men who had been her husband had both died, and it seemed like she was a cursed woman. In fact, in the story we learn that both her husbands were wicked men. Nevertheless, Judah told Tamar that when the third son reached marrying age, she would be guaranteed a husband and a future. She waited and waited, but even though the youngest son became eligible for marriage, there was no talk of a wedding. Judah's wife died, and after the time of mourning was finished, he went on a trip to work with some sheepherders. Tamar was desperate and saw an opportunity. She dressed up as a prostitute and waited on the side of the road. When Judah came along, he saw her and expressed interest in engaging her services, offering to send her a goat when he got home. She insisted that he give her the cord he was wearing and his staff as a personal guarantee. He did so and they had sex. When he got home, he tried to send a goat as payment and get his possessions back, but no one could find the prostitute.

A few months later, Tamar was reported to be pregnant. When word got to Judah, he demanded that she be dragged into the public square to be condemned and burned. He had always had suspicions about her. As Tamar was being brought out, she let it be known that the man who had made her pregnant was the one who owned the cord and staff she had. It was soon revealed that Judah was the one responsible for her pregnancy. Judah's response is noteworthy: "She is more in the right (tzedek) than I." Justice, that attribute which links someone to the nature of God, was found in Tamar, the woman who played a prostitute to trick a man into taking care of a widow.

This reminds me of another story, this time in the New Testament. Jesus was teaching people at the temple when the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and presented her to Jesus, asking him what to do. The law allowed for the stoning of such a woman, and the religious leaders were trying to trick Jesus into doing something that would allow them to accuse him of breaking the law. Jesus didn't fall for it. Instead, he ignored them, drawing something in the dirt with his finger. They continued to bother him and demand an answer, so he finally said, "Let the first stone be thrown by the one among you who has not sinned." The Pharisees had no response to this, so they left, one by one. Eventually, it was just Jesus and the woman. Jesus asked, "Where is everyone? Did no one condemn you?" She replied that no one had. Then Jesus said, "I don't condemn you either. Go on and sin no more" (John 8).

The Jewish religious leaders had, in fact, not accurately quoted the law. It states that both the man and the woman involved in adultery should be stoned (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:24). They were twisting the law to their own purposes: making a trap for Jesus so that they could get rid of him. One commentator has speculated that Jesus writing in the dust might be a reference to the law which forbids writing on the Sabbath, but does permit writing with dust. If this was the case and it was a day of rest, Jesus might have been illustrating that he knew the details of the law just as well as they did and would not be trapped by it. Others have suggested that Jesus wrote words of condemnation regarding the woman's accusers. Whatever the case, in this story we find the same kind of inversion that happens in story of Judah and Tamar: the one looking to condemn someone for an unlawful act is shown to be the one who is unjust. Jesus put the shame of adultery in direct contrast to the shameful way the Jewish leaders were acting (trickery, bending the law to suit their needs, treating the woman with disrespect, rejecting God in the person of Jesus). Jesus does not condemn the woman, but calls her to a new life. We can be prone to over-emphasize this last line (go and sin no more), but in doing so. we unravel the mercy evident in Jesus's refusal to condemn, even though he would have been lawful in doing so. It is important to remember that the law is not the standard for justice, Jesus is, and he requires those doing the judging to reflect on their own sinfulness before judging others (Matt. 7:1-3).

So what is justice? It is that which reflects the nature of God, that which God approves of, and in these two stories, the person on the side of justice is not the religious leader or respected citizen (those in positions of power), but a woman who has committed a shameful act and stands ready to be condemned and killed by her accusers. As I stated before, the law does not equal justice; only God is justice, because being just means being approved by God. So how do we stand on the side of justice, and how do we respond to injustice?

We can be prone to ignoring or doubting stories of injustice when they don't directly affect us. We can complain about the inconvenience of injustice and try to remove ourselves from its effects (NIMBY: not in my backyard). We can be prone to judging (it's their own fault) or begrudgingly agree to do the bare minimum to fulfill the law (like Judah's second son), hoping to mitigate its effect on and cost to us. If we are the ones wronged, we can seek to exact revenge on those who have wronged us, or prosecute someone to the full extent of the law, assuming that we are the faultless ones.

Looking at these two stories, it seems more in keeping with the nature of God to stand as sober witnesses to those who have suffered injustice, making sure that we hear their voices and their complaints. We can pray, repenting for our part in injustice and asking God for healing and reconciliation. We can change the question from "How does this affect me?" to "How does it affect the most vulnerable, the least of these?" We can make sure that we are not stone throwers, but stone catchers (a phrase I came across in Bryan Stevenson's book), that we step in-between those who condemn and the condemned, showing mercy instead of judgment. It is what Jesus does for us everyday. We can seek wisdom to discern what compassionate, thoughtful action we might take. Above all, like Jesus, we can seek to bring hope to the hopeless.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Come and See

A friend of mine was recently verbally abused at a bus stop. He was told to go back to his country and take his filthy diseases with him (my paraphrase). My friend is here on a work visa, married to a Canadian, and employed as a pastor at a church. The lady obviously didn't know anything about him, his legal status, or his hygienic habits. Because the colour of his skin was a slight shade different than hers, she felt free to judge him. [1] I must admit that when I heard about the incident, I felt a bit free to judge that lady, too, even though I know nothing about her and have no idea why she felt threatened by a kind, gentle, and compassionate man. I am reminded of the saying, "Don't judge someone until you have walked a mile in their moccasins." Walking a mile in someone else's shoes is not easy, especially since we find our own shoes so much more comfortable, but it is central to the gospel of Jesus.

In John 1, we see Jesus interacting with two of John's disciples. John has just pointed out that Jesus is the Lamb of God, and these disciples are intrigued. They want to know more, so they start to follow Jesus.

Jesus: What is it that you want?
Two Disciples: We'd like to know where You are staying. Teacher, may we remain at Your side today?
Jesus: Come and see. Follow Me, and we will camp together.
It was about four o-clock in the afternoon when they met Jesus. They came and saw where He was staying, but they got more than they imagined. They remained with Him the rest of the day and followed Him for the rest of their lives.  (John 1:36-41, The Voice)

I like this particular translation/paraphrase of the incident because it adds some meaningful commentary (the words in italics) which fleshes out the implications of the interaction. The potential disciples want to hang out with Jesus and find out what he is all about. Jesus replies with that wonderful, concise invitation, "Come and see." What does he mean by this? The Greek word for "come" is erchomai. It means "to come, to go, moving from one place to another." While English speakers might think that using the same word for "come" and "go" is rather imprecise, the expansive nature of the term allows it to express a sense that moving or going is always related to the welcome waiting at the end of the journey. Perhaps we have something to learn from this close association between commission and invitation. The Greek word for "see" is horao and it means to look upon, experience, perceive. In other words, it is much more than just observing something with your sense of sight. To see means to experience and understand in some way.

The invitation to "Come and see" is not an invitation to be a tourist, to see a few sights, taste a bit of local food, take a few selfies with the natives, and move on. The invitation to "Come and see" is a call to move in.  Eugene Peterson captures this sentiment when he paraphrases John 1:14. "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood" (The Message). The reason Jesus issues the invitation to "Come and see" is because it is part of his incarnational message, and he has already modeled it. Jesus came and saw what it meant to be fully human. He lived among us and did virtually nothing but become familiar with our world for the first thirty years of his life. He did not seek to teach/minister/heal until he had learned what it meant to be a human being in the first century. Jesus came to this world not as a tourist, but as a resident. He came as a baby, learning from day one what it meant to be hungry, to have growing pains, to be tired, to feel pain, to obey your parents, to be part of a family, to trust others to take care of you, to work hard, to learn by listening and imitating. His first task was not to save the world, but to live in the world, to "Come and see."

We sometimes miss this vital part of the gospel of Jesus. Before we invite people into our church gatherings or expect them to adopt our worldview and faith, we should consider being present in their settings and learning what it is like to walk in their shoes. Hospitality is more that just inviting people over to our homes for a meal or a brief stay in our guest room. Hospitality includes going to other people's spaces, getting out of our comfort zones (where we have some measure of control) and going and seeing what life looks like for someone else.

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Image from madeforpakistan.com
There is a story (I can't find the original source, so I might get some details wrong) about a group of well-meaning Westerners who showed up in a poor village in a distant country, intent on helping the people there establish more sustainable ways of living. The villagers struggled to maintain a consistent, plentiful food supply, so the foreigners decided that the perfect solution was to plant crops. They decided to start off with tomatoes, and rallied all the villagers to work together on preparing the ground and planting rows and rows of plants. The results were encouraging. Within a few months, round, red orbs were ripening on the vines. One night, when the tomatoes were almost ready to harvest, the wildlife in the area descended on the field and ate and trampled the entire crop. The next morning, the foreigners were devastated by the sight of the destroyed plants, but the villagers just shrugged. The foreigners were puzzled as to why the villagers were not more upset by the loss of an entire crop of food. The villagers replied that they knew this would happen. The wildlife always came to eat anything they grew, so they did not plant large fields of crops out in the open. The foreigners were a bit miffed. Why had no one told them this before they had put all that time, money, and effort into planting a crop? The villagers said, "You never asked," and added,"You were so excited about the project that we didn't want to be impolite and refuse to help." Truth be told, the foreigners acted more like tourists than residents, imposing their ideas on the locals instead of taking the time to come and see, to learn from the villagers, to spend time walking a mile in their shoes before asserting their Western ideas. Sadly, some of the church's missionary efforts more closely resemble tourism than "come and see" incarnation.
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Image from dailyemerald.com

So how do we begin to practice being with others in a meaningful way? How do we "come and see?" I have no easy solutions, but I do have a few suggestions.
1. Learn to listen. By this I do not mean a passive posture where we let someone talk while we think about our clever response, but an active, engaged, intentional entering into the story of another. True listening means that we refrain from offering advice (unless specifically asked for), refrain from prescribing a course of action, refrain from relating everything back to our own situation (thereby pulling the focus away from them and back to us), and use imaginative compassion to put ourselves into their situation, to see ourselves walking a mile in their shoes.
2. Go to people in their settings. I don't mean intruding on people's lives or showing up at someone's door without concern for their ability to receive visitors, but making ourselves available to be with people in their setting in a way that shows our genuine interest in them and their situation. The posture is one of learning, of humble openness to see the world through their eyes. It requires time and patience, ears to hear and eyes to see. There is an organisation called Movein which encourages Christians to prayerfully move in among the unreached, urban poor. Their mission is to love their neighbours by living among them, by being one of them. In this way, the gospel is not something presented by outsiders; it lives next door. [2]
3. Develop purposeful habits.
   a. If you are a reader, read books which will take you out of your own experience. One of my friends has this rule: for every one book he reads by a white male, he reads two by a woman or person of colour. [3]
   b. If you are present on social media, make sure your circle of friends or your feed includes viewpoints which challenge yours. Learn how to listen without interjecting or arguing. Learn how to interact kindly with those who think differently than you do and whose experience is different from yours.
   c. We cannot be physical neighbours to everyone, but we can look for opportunities to stand in solidarity with those who have been wounded or are struggling. Let them know that they are not alone. When a white supremacist marched into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina during a prayer service in 2015 and killed 9 people, the community was in shock. A small black church in Halifax, Nova Scotia called a prayer vigil to mourn the tragedy and pray for reconciliation. They issued personal invitations to all the churches in the city and got the word out in the media. A friend of mine who attended this prayer meeting said that aside from a few invited officials asked to speak from the platform, only 6 people outside the black community showed up. [4] We must do better than this. We must learn to love our neighbours in the way that Jesus described in the parable of the good Samaritan. We don't have to agree with everything someone says or believes or even like them in order to be their neighbour. We do have to be people who will stand with those who are struggling and hurt and in need of help.

I close with a poem penned by Mary T. Lathrap in 1895. Its words ring clear and true to this day.

Walk a Mile in His Moccasins

Pray, don't find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.

There may be tears in his soles that hurt
Though hidden away from view.
The burden he bears placed on your back
May cause you to stumble and fall, too.

Don't sneer at the man who is down today
Unless you have felt the same blow
That caused his fall or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.

You may be strong, but still the blows
That were his, unknown to you in the same way
May cause you to stagger and fall, too.

Don't be too harsh with the man that sins.
Or pelt him with words, or stone, or disdain.
Unless you are sure you have no sins of your own,
And it's only wisdom and love that your heart contains.

For you know if the tempter's voice
Should whisper as soft to you,
As it did to him when he went astray,
It might cause you to falter, too.

Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

I believe you'd be surprised to see
That you've been blind and narrow minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.

Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.

Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people's lives, our kindnesses and generosity.

Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.

Image result for homeless shoes
Image from kindnessblog.com

[1] Thanks to Suhail Stephen for letting me share this story. 
[2] www.movein.to
[3] Thanks to Chad Lucas for this bit of wisdom.
[4] Thanks to Beth Wood for letting me share this story.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

when words are not working...

Image from sundayisforlovers.wordpress.com
Words. Words. Words.
Sometimes I tire of them.
Well... that's not exactly true.
I do not tire of them as much as I lose my grip on them.
And then they tumble down, untethered from significance and meaning and emotion.
They become husks without seeds.
Clothes without a warm body.
Balloons without breath.
Sounds without intelligibility.

I am writing words right now.
This morning I have probably read more words than some will read all day.
I live in the world of words, a world I love.
But for many days now -
Perhaps weeks or months, if I am truthful -
When it comes time to pray, I have few words.
If I am alone, I will sit in silence at my table.
Perhaps light a candle.
Aside from the occasional Thank you 
Or God, you know
Or What  are we doing? 
Not much is said or thought.
If I am with others, I hesitate.
Because anything I might say in the way of prayer seems weak at best and untrue at worst.
I can ask that someone will know that God is with them.
I can say, Help!
And often, that is all I can muster (in honesty) in the public prayer department.
I sit or stand beside people as a form of prayer.
I touch people if that seems appropriate.
I say their name and lift my hands to the sky.
God, you know.

The daily Jewish prayer found in Deuteronomy 6:4-6 begins with the word shema.
It means listen.
Turn your attention to.
Focus on.
Hear and do.
Listening is active.
It requires care-ful and mind-ful devotion.
We turn our bodies and faces and eyes and ears and hearts and minds toward another.
We listen with our whole being...while saying nothing.
We cannot be wordy people and listen well.
And that is perhaps why I have a word shortage right now.
I am learning to listen.
To lean in and hear the divine Lover's breath exhaling and inhaling.
To participate in the unhurried patience of the Longsuffering One.
To hold my breath so I can catch another's hopeful whisper or stifled groan.
To sit still in the midst of trouble and frenzy.
Not cluttering the air with senseless platitudes or advice which is wise only in my own ears.

Listen.
It is an imperative.
A command.
A discipline.
A blessing.
A respite.
A surrender.
A repentance.
An undoing and a doing all in one.
Listen.

-----------------------

Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God. The Lord is the only God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words that I give you today.
(Deuteronomy 6:4-6, God's Word Translation)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Health Begets Health: The First National Vineyard Canada Webinar of the Year

What does it mean to say that “health begets health?” This was the topic for our National webinar for Vineyard Canada on February 24, 2017. In a webinar co-led by David Ruis and me (Beth Stovell) with guests Michael Raburn and Caleb Maskell, leaders visiting with us from Vineyard USA, we unpacked and explored as a community the complexity, depth, and richness of this idea.

From the start our call was focused on the Holy Spirit as the one who births health in us. Joyce Rees opened our call with a prayer dating back to the ancient church fathers in the 600s A.D. as we asked the Holy Spirit to come and join us. This beautiful prayer helped to focus us on how the Holy Spirit––comforter, guide, well spring of life and renewal––shapes what it means for us to seek health as a movement. We live in a world teeming with busyness, stress, anxiety, and depression: What would it look like to ask the Holy Spirit to come in the midst of all of this and make us well?

This became a key part of what I shared when I told my own story of health. In one of the darkest places of my life, where health felt lost in so many ways, God began a journey with me towards health and wholeness. God longs for us to be well: a holistic wholeness that touches every part of our lives, our church, our society. The question is: Do we want to become well? How does becoming well then allow us to speak in places of rest and peace for others?

David’s talk on the interrelationship between humility, mercy, and justice explored the ways we live out health in our church and in the world around us. A rich conversation ensued about how we can describe health not as a “win,” but in the midst of our weakness. Rejecting the model that health=power, we explored the idea that health looks like honesty and vulnerability, allowing God to be our strength in weakness and God to become our wholeness.

Mike Raburn picked up on some of these themes in Haggai 2. Mike spoke of the spaces where Israel struggled and lamented as they returned to the Promised Land after the exile. They looked at the temple and cried because it wasn’t like they remembered, but God promised that He had more for them: more of His presence, more of His glory, more of His Spirit poured out on them.

Caleb Maskell targeted this belief that health is only a story of victory, showing how the story of Rocky with its cliffs and valleys is a reflection of our journey. God often may lead us down to a valley when we are at a high point into some new difficulty that we will need to overcome, but that is part of what hospitality to the Holy Spirit looks like.

Steph Antonio ended our session with sharing a vision she had of us all on a bus that was moving, but that bus was actually a traveling hospital. Getting healthy may mean caring for those along the way who are sick. In fact, all of us are in need of our Great Healer, who seeks to transform all of us!

I left the call feeling encouraged and excited! I asked myself: what will be born in a new way when our “health begets health?” When our movement toward vulnerable wholeness gives birth to more vulnerable wholeness, what new life will emerge for us?

Monday, March 6, 2017

what does the cross mean?



Image result for cross coloring
Image from bestcoloringpagesforkids.com
Words which we use a lot can sometimes become divested of their depth of meaning. In the Christian tradition, we talk about the cross a lot. We see visual representations of the cross in prominent places in our gathering spaces, we wear crosses around our necks, some get crosses tattooed on their bodies. The cross is a ubiquitous symbol in Christianity, so lately I have been asking myself, what exactly does the cross mean? For the most part, the cross as portrayed in contemporary Christianity is a beautiful thing, festooned with flowers and sunsets and radiant beams of light (just google cross or cross coloring page). But in the first century, the cross was a symbol of disgrace. To the Roman empire, this ignoble instrument of death was for those who were traitors and enemies of the state. We are many centuries removed from this view of the cross as the locus of torture and death and shame. The fact that Christianity has made the cross a symbol of hope and beauty is a good thing, but perhaps we have also sanitized it from its original scandalous context. 

What I have been pondering in relation to the cross are Jesus's words to his disciples, found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34, NRSV) What does it mean to take up your cross? In the midst of mulling over this question, I awoke one morning to find a Lenny Kravitz song running through my mind: Are You Gonna Go My Way? Here are some of the lyrics: 

I was born long ago
I am the chosen I'm the one
I have come to save the day
And I won't leave until I'm done
So that's why you've got to try 
You've got to breathe and have some fun
Though I'm not paid I play this game
And I won't stop until I'm done

But what I really want to know is
Are you gonna go my way?

Kravitz's commentary on the song is enlightening: “I’m singing lines like ‘I was born long ago’ and ‘I’m the chosen I’m the one’, but obviously it’s not about me,” he clarifies. “It’s about Christ, and it’s coming from the Jesus Christ Superstar kind of place. I’m singing in role, y’know, as if it was a musical, and the question means: are you gonna go the way of love? Let’s think about what Christ really said. His methods were all about love. So the question is, are you gonna continue to live in this way, full of hate, or are you gonna live in the way of love? Are you gonna go my way?” – Interview with Lenny Kravitz in Classic Rock Magazine (2011)

Image result for jesus carrying cross passion of the christ
Image from dfiles.me
According to the gospels, going Jesus's way means denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. So let's take a closer look at these three aspects. First, the context. Jesus addresses his disciples with these words after he performs a miracle of feeding thousands of people, after Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is, after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, after Jesus tells his disciples about the suffering, death, and resurrection to come (which his disciples can't comprehend), after Peter rebukes Jesus for saying such things, and after Jesus rebukes Peter for trying to stand in the way of what God is doing. It seems that being a follower of Jesus required some clarification, because even his disciples were misunderstanding what it meant to follow Jesus. 

Deny yourself means to refuse to recognize the self as source. In some way, we disown the self. In other words, it does not own us or call the shots. Take up means to lift something up to carry it, and the implication is that one must first put something aside (the self) in order to be able to take up something else (the cross). The cross refers to the actual physical cross-beam that was carried by a condemned person to the site of their execution. The cross, originally a symbol for suffering and disgrace, became a symbol of infinite love and sacrifice when placed on the shoulders of Jesus the Christ. The word follow comes from the Greek akoloutheo and it joins two words: unity + road. It means to be going in the same way as someone (as Kravitz sings). Perhaps one reason Jesus felt he had to spell this out to his disciples was because they were confused as to what going the way of Jesus looked like.

In his book, The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson contrasts the way of Jesus with the way of several high profile leaders of the time.[1] His points help us understand how radical Jesus's way was and why Jesus's followers (and you and I) find it hard to comprehend and embrace the counter-cultural, counter-self-interest, counter-power structure, counter-control way of Jesus.

Herod vs. Jesus: Peterson observes that Herod was impressive. Herod was effective. Herod was successful. He got things done by importance, bigness, and power. No one did kingdom better than Herod. But Jesus lived as if Herod barely existed. "Jesus ignored the world of power and accomplishment that was brilliantly on display all around him. He chose to work on the margins of society, with unimportant people, giving particular attention to the weak, the disturbed, the powerless" (Peterson, 204). Jesus chose to forgo the pursuit of importance and power. Instead, he focused on relationships which reflected God's love and heart for reconciliation.

Pharisees vs. Jesus: Thousands of years ago, in the face of great pressure for the Jewish people to adopt Greek civilization (laws were passed forbidding Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, temple sacrifices, etc.), the Pharisees rose up to preserve and reinforce the Jewish identity. They did so not only by pushing back against the governmental laws but by also implementing new rules and customs meant to keep the Jewish identity sharp. The Pharisees were passionate protectors, protesting anything they perceived as a threat to their way of life, but they got stuck in protect and protest mode. Jesus did not take his cue from the loyal intensity of the Pharisees. He was not obsessed with purity and precision or rules which defined and defended and regulated. His way was personal and relational, inviting participation from perceived outsiders. Instead of emphasizing purity, he showed people the love and mercy of God. Instead of protecting himself from threats and dangers, he demonstrated trust in God and talked about a kingdom which is greater than any force on earth. 

Caiaphas the High Priest vs. Jesus: Peterson characterizes Caiaphas as impatient with being a servant of God and impatient with God's people. As a result, Caiaphas took control of things. He set himself up as a manager of God's business, doling out salvation and damnation, collecting taxes, and becoming a power player by cozying up to the governing Romans. In this way he was able to enjoy wealth and influence during a time when most Jewish people were outcasts and second-class citizens. However, we must remember that the way of Jesus is not a path to privilege. When the cross-beam landed on Jesus's shoulders, it meant he was headed for death and disgrace. Most of Jesus's disciples eventually walked that same path: they spent their lives discipling others, preaching the good news of the Messiah, healing the sick, and dying horrible deaths because they followed Jesus. Peterson writes: "[Jesus] said 'Follow me' and ended up with a lot of losers. And these losers ended up, through no virtue or talent of their own, becoming saints. Jesus wasn't after the best but the worst. He came to seek and to save the lost" (Peterson, 219).

Zealots vs. Jesus: Zealots have great courage and determination, going to any lengths to aid their cause, even violence. When the opposition is identified (and labeled as evil), they will use force, bullying, manipulating, and even killing in order to gain the victory for their side (which is labelled as good). When faced with unfriendly treatment, two of Jesus's disciples (James and John) asked Jesus, "Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" Jesus rebuked them. His way was to overcome evil with good, not by using force or violence or retaliation. Sadly, church history recounts wars, killings, and devastation incited by zealots who fought in the name of Jesus. For the medieval Crusaders, the cross painted on their shields was not a symbol of sacrificial love, of giving their lives for the sake of others, but a justification for the taking of lives, particularly those deemed heretics. It is easy to condemn the mistakes of the past, but we are guilty as well. "Men and women in our Christian nation are still killing others in the name of Jesus, sometimes with guns, sometimes with words. Do we forget so easily that Jesus equated word-killing and sword-killing (Matt. 5:21-22)?" (Peterson, 260). Jesus showed us a merciful and loving God, not a zealot God.

The question, "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" is one that Jesus asks each one of us who would be his followers. Will we unseat ourselves as the centre and source of our lives? Will we refuse to take on the role of protectors of purity and align ourselves with the suffering in the world? Will we offer healing and hope to others through the sacrifice of loving action? Will we stop seeking after importance and power and begin to cultivate relationships with the poor, the needy, the broken? Where we are prone to defensiveness and protest, will we join ourselves to others in a way that demonstrates vulnerability and humility? Will we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus?

----------------

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: a conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Company, 2007)., 



Thursday, February 9, 2017

fun with hermeneutics



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

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

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

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

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

A few principles for interpreting the Bible:

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

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

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

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

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

Happy hermeneuting....Matte

Thursday, January 5, 2017

shiny and new

Image result for azur metro cars
New AZUR metro car. Image from STM. 
It is a new year. Time for new beginnings and all that jazz. I didn't get the sentimentality gene, so I don't experience much sadness when things come to an end. I love a fresh start, a new challenge, and get buzzed by the changing out of old things for new ones. In Montreal, they are slowly switching our old subway cars to brand new, spiffy, updated trains. The original ones are from 1966 when the subway was first built, just in time for Expo 67. The flashy new trains started appearing early last year when they put a few into circulation for some test runs. The sleek silver and blue trains were a rare sight at first, and every time I was privileged to catch one, I sat on the edge of my commuter seat like a kid on a Disney ride.

Over the last few months they have added more new trains, and for awhile there, I seemed to have incredible luck, catching a new train at least 50% of the time I traveled on the subway. It was uncanny. I admit, it made me feel special. I watched the poor people getting on the old trains across the station and I felt sorry for them. I like being on the shiny new trains: they are clean, spacious, have bright lights, sleek lines and swooshy doors, and you can move from one car to the next while in motion. Very fancy. But it appears that my luck has run out. Even though there are more new trains on the tracks than ever, I always seem to be missing them. A few days ago one pulled into the station just as I was leaving. Yesterday one closed its doors just as I was running to catch it. It felt a bit personal. I waited and got on the next train, an old one, and plopped down on a well-worn seat, deflated. Some minutes later we squeaked and rattled into a station and while we were stopped, a new train pulled up right beside us, going the other way. I looked at the people on the shiny train, a bit envious. They seemed happier than the people on my old train. Why wasn't I on that shiny new train? Why did they get to be there while I was stuck here on a tired, dirty train? My bottom lip might actually have protruded a bit.

But then wisdom paid me a visit and gave me a little talk. It went something like this. Do you really want to be on that shiny new train right beside you? Sure, it's lovely to look at and rides smoothly and goes fast and has all the bells and whistles, but where is it going? It is going downtown and you want to go home. The train that you are on, old as it is, is going where you want to go. You don't get on a train because it is new and shiny. You get on a train because it is going where you want to go.

Yep. That's the truth. So I took a moment to think about my fascination with certain shiny new things. Go ahead, do it with me. That shiny new church building or congregation down the road from (y)our old, tired one. That shiny new theology book with a flashy picture of the up and coming author. That shiny new conference which has the internet abuzz. That fabulous new job in a shiny new city at a shiny new university. I soon realized that some of the shiny new things that I gaze at with longing, that leave me feeling left out and left behind, are not going where I want to go. If I did get on that shiny new bandwagon, I would soon find myself at odds with where things were heading.

Now, there is nothing wrong with updating old modes of transportation, or freshening up old church settings, or re-framing and rethinking our liturgies and theologies, or attending popular conferences, or taking new jobs and moving to new places, but the first question must always be, is this going where I want to go? Whether it is an old and sturdy vehicle or a shiny new one, it matters not as long as it is heading toward home.

"And so the end of our way of life is indeed the kingdom of God. But what is the (immediate) goal you must earnestly ask, for if it is not in the same way discovered by us, we shall exhaust ourselves, we shall strive to no purpose, because a man who is traveling in a wrong direction, has all the trouble and none of the good of his journey. ... The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end." - St. John Cassian