Monday, June 29, 2015

word(s) of the day

Image result for fridge poetry
Image from thefw.com
I was reading a book a few weeks ago which said that according to a poll in the USA, the words people most want to hear are the following (in order of importance): 1. I love you. 2. I forgive you. 3. Supper's ready.

The first one is no surprise. We all want to know we are loved, and we all doubt it. We all feel unloved or unlovable at times, probably because we most intimately know our own internal ugliness and essential unworthiness. We are all too aware of our lack of love, our lack of kindness, our lack of faithfulness, and our selfishness. If we are honest, the words, "I love you," can be unlikely. In spite of all our shortcomings, and perhaps because of them, we long to be unconditionally loved, to have kindness gifted to us, to have someone be a faithful lover and friend, and to be the recipient of unselfish acts, especially if we find it difficult to reciprocate. These words not only feed our basic human desire to belong, but give us hope that we will be able to say these meaningful words to another.

I was a bit surprised by the second phrase, "I forgive you." I would have thought, "I'm sorry," would be right up there, perhaps because I am more prone to seeing another's wrong than I am to seeing my own wrongdoing. However, we are always on both sides of that equation: we wrong others and we are wronged by others. We need to ask for forgiveness as much as we need to forgive; they are two sides of the same equation. Someone's apology is rather useless if I am not willing to forgive them. And my attempt at reconciliation is of little consequence if the other party does not wish to make things right between us.

To me, the last phrase, "Supper's ready," is the most interesting, perhaps because it seems to be a culmination of so many basic human desires and needs. These two simple words invoke a sense of family and belonging, an image of a table set with steaming corn on the cob, fresh garden peas, and a golden brown turkey (you know what I'm craving right now...). These words invite one to a gathering together at the end of a work day to eat, drink, and converse; in them we have the idea of food lovingly prepared by skilled hands and the deep ache of hunger for sustenance as well as for good company. The words call me away from whatever I am doing and wherever I might be to join with others for a feast. The words imply that all the preparations have already been done and all that is left for me to do is show up and partake. The words make me want to say, "I'm coming," and, "Thank you."  They make me want to spring to my feet and make a dash for the dining room. They put a smile on my face.

If I were to ask myself what words I most want to hear, the answers would probably change day by day. Today I would want words of inspiration and revelation because I am at a difficult spot in my writing. I would want words of reassurance that I am on the right track. I would welcome words of encouragement that speak to the most vulnerable, insecure parts of my soul. I would delight in a clever, well-told joke and heave a sigh of pleasure if someone invited me for a long walk, telling me my work was done for the day. "Good job!" would be really great words to hear, as would, "You are beautiful!" I could get used to someone saying, "I like hanging out with you," and, "Let me buy you a Chai latte." And I always like to hear an enthusiastic, "Yes," when I ask someone for help. Perhaps the most humbling sentences are ones that begin with, "You have taught me..." and the disarming phrase, "I want to be your friend." So many ways in which words can feed me, unburden me, give me a second wind, direct me, show me my error, transform me, invite me deeper into relationship, make me more present to beauty, and carry me a bit further into wholeness.

And these words, these beautiful words that I want to hear, they are also gifts I can give to those around me. Let me offer them to someone today.

Monday, June 22, 2015

metanoia (re-think)

Eucharist celebration the last day of the meetings
This past week Dean and I and a few others from Montreal drove to Cambridge, Ontario for 4 days of leadership meetings. We gathered together with folks from all across Canada representing different Vineyard churches and national Vineyard initiatives. Let's get the complaints out of the way first. Well, there is really only one: the Cheetos only appeared on the snack table on day 3. Where were they on days 1 and 2, I ask? Despite this minor setback, I have to say that the gathering, which was a pilot for future get-togethers under the moniker, Metanoia (re-think), lived up to its name. I know others will have different perspectives, but here are some of the treasures I brought away with me.

Re-think how we connect: We didn't spend a lot of time listening to professional talkers or the big cheese(s), but to each other. We heard each other's stories, dreams, failings, hurts, disappointments, and hopes. We laughed together, cried together, said thank to each other, prayed for each other, ate together, worshiped together, read the scriptures together, and listened to the Holy Spirit together. Building authentic relationships is not easy, not in an urban setting which skews one toward isolation, not in a church movement with a great deal of diversity in the mix, and not in a country as geographically vast as Canada. And yet, we find ourselves always pulled toward each other. As Thomas Cranmer said, "What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies." We have a desire to love deeply, to foster genuine friendships, and to do so despite all the obstacles which are present in our context. The focus at the gatherings was not on building a structure to develop connections, but to fan the flames of love and let that love forge pathways between us, to let that love find a way to express itself in creative and constructive ways.

Re-think how we move forward: For the most part, there were no grandiose strategies or visions of the future presented to us. Instead of "Here's the plan, folks," ideas still in the germinating stage were offered up as possible ways forward, and we were invited to wrestle with them, adjust them, add to them, and critique them from our different contexts. There was a sense that we are all building something together, that each unique voice is needed in the mix, and that how we get there is as important as where we are going. "We come together because we can't do it alone," someone said. The way forward is not a strategy but a call to become a people who prophetically advance the story of God. In order to do this, we need to draw on wisdom found in many sources: history, scriptures, communal discernment, and learned discourse, to name a few. Especially important for us in the church is the ability to see where we have gone off-course, where we have made idols out of such things as cultural relativism and numerical success. If we don't walk humbly, we won't be walking for long.

Re-think how we approach current issues: This was one of the most important takeaways for me. Scholar, historian, and human being extraordinaire, Caleb Maskell, urged us to re-think how we respond to the challenges of our day. If we try to take the issues head-on, we are bound to become hopelessly entangled in the controversies and find no way out. Caleb insisted that we spend our time and energy on long-term formation of God's story, and ultimately of the image of Christ, within us. In other words, let us get the story of God inside us and ourselves inside the story of God. Out of that amazing narrative which recalls the goodness of creation, which offers loving and merciful redemption to the unworthy, and which invites us to feast at the table of God, we can respond to crises or issues or conflicts or shifts in our culture, always looking for the kingdom of God in all its scandalous suffering and breathtaking beauty.

Speaking of beauty, I so appreciated the concerted efforts of the organizers to surround us with beauty in every aspect of our meetings, from the setting in a former Jesuit monastery to the local artwork present in the meeting spaces to the flowers, candles, couches, lighting, and general attention to aesthetics. A special treat was an art film viewing and a wine and cheese reception at the spectacular renovated barn loft of a local artist. We found ourselves rendered speechless in the face of beauty, and that's a good thing. It is easier for us to listen and be humble in the midst of beauty. It is harder to speak harsh, judgmental words when we are staring at loveliness. Beauty invites us to be overwhelmed by the abundant nature of our great, generous God. Let us become lovers of beauty in the world and in each other.

Thanks to David and Anita Ruis for their generous, spacious leadership and the folks at the Cambridge Vineyard for their hospitality and welcome this past week. We didn't solve all the problems in the world, but I believe the world became a slightly better place because we gathered in the name of Jesus and listened.

Monday, June 15, 2015

broken chair

The chair I broke
Yesterday I was sitting on a chair and it broke. This has never happened to me before. Without warning, there was a loud crack as the wood splintered and my body dropped an inch or two on the left. No warning. I leapt to my feet to avoid any further damage, either to the chair or to myself. It was in the middle of our Sunday church meeting and Dean was speaking. When he heard the sound and saw me suddenly stand up, he stopped short. In fact, everyone turned and looked in my direction. I said, somewhat stunned, "The chair broke." I could feel a slight tingling on my upper thigh where the jagged wood had scraped my skin, but that was the extent of my damage. The chair, however, would need to have a joint repaired. I assured everyone that I was fine and sat down on another chair. Dean continued his talk on how we read the Bible.

After the meeting, I went back to the chair to investigate, because chairs never break when I sit on them. I checked the overall structure and the hinges and found nothing amiss. I pushed on the seat a bit; it was definitely leaning to the left. Then I got down on my hands and knees and looked underneath the chair. That's when I saw what had caused the problem. Due to either the unevenness of the floor or of the row of chairs, two of the chair's legs were not touching the floor. Let me explain. The chairs in the space we rent for our Sunday meetings are antiques, really. They are wooden folding chairs which come in sets of five, all joined together. This means that they function like one big chair with multiple legs and seats. I had been sitting on an end chair that morning, and since the legs at the end were not touching the floor, it was pretty much like sitting on a plank hanging over the edge of a roof. Or sitting on the end of a diving board. Except it was not a sturdy plank or a springy diving board; it was a thin piece of aged wood which needed support on every corner.

Now I could derive some profound spiritual lesson from this incident, perhaps one which emphasizes how we need to make sure we are on a solid foundation or maybe something about the dangers of going out on a limb. But I won't. The moment wasn't particularly fraught with danger or warning, so I hesitate to infuse that sense into it. It was a bit funny, a bit startling, and totally unexpected. When Dean told the custodian about the incident, he made sure to include the fact that the chair broke while Matte was sitting on it, the implication being that since I am a smallish person, the break was obviously not due to any misuse of the chair. Several others mentioned this to me as well; if a chair broke when Matte sat on it, it had to be an accident, the chair had to be faulty.

This is quite a special position to be in: something goes wrong while you are involved with it and no one questions your actions or motives, no one assumes your negligence, no one points out your lack of prudence, no one suggests you might have been clumsy or unaware. In fact, everyone assumes that you are blameless. It is total grace. I don't often sit in that seat of grace, where the minute something bad happens under my watch, I am exonerated. Quite the opposite. I am an expert at heaping guilt on myself for any small indiscretion or misspoken word. And I have others who point out my faults and my short-comings and where I could have done better (mostly with love, but nevertheless...). I am also much too quick to judge the unfortunate circumstances or failings of others as a result of some imperfection in their character or a lack of wisdom.

But Jesus does none of this. When the disciples ask him, "Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?", Jesus takes the blame game out of the discussion. He replies, "You're asking the wrong questions. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do" (The Message). The Amplified Bible puts it this way: "He was born blind in order that the workings of God should be manifested (displayed, and illustrated) in him."

I don't know about you, but that sounds really good: to have the workings of God be displayed and illustrated in ones life. I want to give myself that kind of grace, to be able to see setbacks in my life as opportunities for God's wondrous goodness to be illustrated. I would love to extend that kind of grace to others, to view their shortcomings and messes not as the natural outcome of some failing on their part, but the setting for some marvelous work of God to be displayed. No blame. No looking for where the fault lies. No searching for roots of sin which might explain the brokenness. Just grace. Grace that allows me to trust that God's merciful love and transformative healing power can overturn any setback. Grace that fuels hope and expectation that God's work is always on display, illustrating his love and beauty, if I will only see it.

Since God has extended such lavish grace toward me in all my shortcomings, let me freely give it to others (and myself). Let me sit in the seat of grace, trusting that it will hold me.

Monday, June 08, 2015

take the day off

Image from thesmartyattheparty.com
We all look forward to the weekend or taking a day off. Most of us think of this time as days off from work. But what if we change the preposition? What if it's not so much a day off FROM something but TO something?

Exodus says, "Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. For six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set is apart as holy." In Deuteronomy 5, we find the same first section, but instead of mentioning creation, it says the following, "Recall that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there by strength and power. That is why the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." (New English Translation).

In ancient times, the weekly day of rest was a novel concept. Leisure was for the wealthy and ruling classes, there was no rest for slaves and laborers. To have a holy-day for the common people every week was seen by those in charge as unnecessary, impractical, and a sign of laziness. But Hebrew literature shows a different attitude: Shabbat is referred to as a precious gift from God, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week. While we may think of a day off (or the weekend) as time to unwind, the Jewish Shabbat is more like a celebration: it begins with preparation on Friday afternoon, the official beginning is marked by the lighting of candles Friday at sunset, then there is an evening service, a festive meal, prayers and rituals, sleep, a service Saturday morning followed by another festive meal, leisure time, another light meal, and then prayers are said over candles, spice, and wine at sunset to mark the end of Shabbat.

There are two main ideas included in the Hebrew Shabbat. The first is to remember (remember the Sabbath day...). What are we to remember? That God is the Creator of all things in heaven and earth, and that he is still upholding everything. We follow his example in enjoying the goodness of creation by taking a day of rest. The second thing to remember is that we are no longer slaves to task masters (the rat race, the daily grind, our debts, etc.), we are free because God has delivered us. The second element is to observe (keep the Sabbath, set it apart as holy). The Hebrew word for work is melachah which does not primarily mean physical labour or employment but work that exercises control or dominion over our environment. The word melachah is thought to be related to the word for king (melekh). So keeping the Sabbath means that we step back from trying to control our circumstances, from ruling, from managing. It is a day to let God be the boss instead of us. An excellent story which illustrates the principle of Sabbath-keeping (recorded in Exodus 16, placing it before the giving of the ten commandments) is when God provided manna (heavenly bread) for the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness. Every morning they would go out and gather it from the ground, but on the sixth day they were to gather twice as much because there would be none on the seventh day. It was to be a day of rest. Anyone who tried to stockpile manna found the excess rotten and full of worms. Anyone who neglected to prepare for the Sabbath by collecting more on day six went hungry. This story illustrates the beautiful harmony between divine provision and human labour.

I grew up on a farm in rural Manitoba. Harvest season meant that everyone worked long hours to get the crops off the fields. Sometimes, due to weather conditions, there was a very short window of time to get the job done before a thunderstorm passed through or an early frost hit. Most of the farmers in our area were devout Mennonites, so no matter how the harvest was going or what the weather was like, the machinery all stopped on Saturday night and preparations were made for Sunday, a day of worship and rest. That weekly pause during harvest time required a lot of trust; it said volumes about how much the farmers were willing to trust God when their families' livelihoods for the coming year were at stake. A Sunday might be the only sunny day in a string of rainy ones, but the farmers' commitment to observe a day of rest meant that ultimately, they trusted God instead of their own efforts. It was as much a day off TO God as a day off FROM work.

God's invitation to do what he did and rest from our labour one day a week is an invitation to remember our Creator still has the whole world in his hands and to remember that we are not slaves but children of God. It is an invitation to practice joy and not worry, to live in trust and not fear, to exercise restraint instead of self-indulgence, the celebrate instead of complain, and to change our internal posture from trying to get ahead or controlling outcomes to trusting that God is enough.

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The above post is a summary of a talk I gave at our faith community yesterday. We also sang this song together.It seemed particularly apropos.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

late night at the gym

Vertical Leg Raise
Image from bodybuilding-wizard.com
Dean and I go to a local gym several times a week, most often pretty late at night. The gym is not as full that time of day which means that everyone has a bit more breathing room and the equipment is readily available. As far as gyms go, it is pretty relaxed. There are some hardcore iron-pumpers there, but there are also a lot of people just trying to improve their health and stamina, people of all ages and sizes and fitness levels.

Last night at the gym I walked over to use the leg lift thingy (pretty sure that's the official name). There was a muscular guy standing a few feet away. Just standing there. I hesitated, wondering if he was using the equipment and just resting in-between reps. He took a few steps away from the apparatus, so I assumed he was not using it. It still felt a bit strange to have him not ten feet away, looking in my direction. Then I thought, so what if someone watches me. I will do just fine. So I got up on the foot steps, adjusted my arms on the arm rests, gripped the handles, pushed my back into the back rest, took a few preparatory deep breaths and got into the zone (pretty sure this warm-up routine was impressing the watching guy). I dropped my feet off the foot rests and let them dangle in mid-air. Then I lifted them up to waist height, legs straight out, pressed together. Perfect form. I exhaled with each lift, pretty pleased with how good I looked. Well, if the guy was going to watch, I might as well do my best. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, facing me, not moving, muscular arms just hanging at his sides right next to his muscular legs.

I got to 15 leg lifts and started to struggle. My form was now not quite as perfect, my legs not quite as straight, I was also swinging my legs just a bit to keep the momentum going (a definite no-no). I began to grunt with each lift. Well, the form might be slightly off at this stage, but surely the grunting was impressive. It meant I was pushing through the pain! I finished 20 leg lifts and let out a big exhale as I set my feet back on the foot rests. It might not have been all that impressive of a showing according to Mr. Muscle, but I think I did alright. Nothing to be ashamed of. I stepped away from the equipment and shook out my arms and legs (I had seen people do that, so I thought I would do it too).

I glanced at the muscular guy, still standing motionless a few feet away from me. He didn't smile, nod, or acknowledge my pretty good performance in any way. I walked around him to another machine, thinking maybe he had indeed been waiting to use the leg-lift thingy, and then I saw it. He was looking at a screen hung above the machines, watching the hockey game. I don't think he even noticed me at all. Silly me.

Sometimes I get caught up in the same type of head game when I write or teach or put anything out there in a somewhat public forum. I think about who is watching me, how many people will read it, what their reaction will be, what the comments might be, if it will get any traction. I am sure that people are watching me with a critical and comparative eye. Most concerning is that I think this matters somehow. It really doesn't. What matters is that I do the reps (to continue the gym analogy). That I write and write and get better at communicating. That I discuss and converse and teach because learners need to keep on learning and pass on what they learn. When we are transformed we need to let others see that transformation. We also need practice making our ideas clearer and more accessible. I am not at the gym to impress anyone; I am there to build stamina and strength and do my body good. In the same way, I am not writing or talking or teaching to impress anyone. I write and talk because my heart and head are full and I want to express myself. I don't always do it well. Some of my posts and talks garner a lot of attention. Some sit there alone and forgotten. Some of my thoughts and ideas remain private and are never shared. It doesn't matter. I do the reps. People might like or favourite or retweet or none of the above. None of it matters. Do the reps.

Jesus' call to discipleship involves practicing good habits over and over and over again. Eugene Peterson calls it a long obedience in the same direction. It takes commitment. It takes discipline. If we are only doing it because someone is watching, we are not likely to go the distance. I must choose to love again and again and again, even when it hurts, even when I am tired, even when no one will ever see. Do the love reps. I must choose to forgive even when I am wronged by the same person or in the same manner again and again. Seventy times seven. No one but me and Jesus will know if I have truly forgiven. Do the forgiveness reps. I am currently writing a doctoral dissertation. Only 5 or 6 people will read it, if I am lucky. It makes no difference. Do the writing reps. We worship and pray and try to be generous and kind and loving. Maybe nobody is watching or maybe the whole world is watching. It doesn't matter. Do the reps.

I don't want to be famous (look how well that turns out for most folks) or rich (just give me a bed and a cup of tea and a book). I want to be genuine and authentic like Jesus. That means people might follow me one day and un-follow me the next. So be it. I am not trying to amass likes and shares (by the way, this is me giving myself a reality check talk as much as anything). What is the way of Jesus? It is loving one person at a time, doing one act of kindness at a time, praying moment by moment, and not letting any of it go to my head, no matter if the outcome is public acclaim or negative feedback or relative obscurity. The people who know me and love me (Jesus, Dean, and a few others), my trusted friends, are the ones who will tell me if I am on track or making a misstep. They are the ones who will walk with me in tough times, cheer me on in good times, and laugh with me when I take things too seriously. And that really does matter to me. A lot.

Oh Eternal One who knows me better than I know myself, let my words and deeds always be internally motivated and never externally determined. Let me do the reps because it's the right thing to do, not because Mr. Muscle is watching. Amen.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

living in the awkward

Image from memecenter.com
Life is sometimes awkward. It just is. There is physical awkwardness when our body seems to lack balance, grace, harmony, or skill. We find ourselves in positions which feel uncomfortable and we'd rather not stay that way for too long. I have awkwardly tripped and had a large wooden speaker fall on top of me. I have tried to open a door with my arms full and done some awkward contortions just to keep that bulky box tucked under my arm. Then there is social awkwardness which adds the element of other people seeing our lack of grace. We feel awkward singing or dancing in front of people because for most of us, it is very much a work in progress (or so we hope). Or maybe we are at a wedding dressed in jeans and a t-shirt when everyone else is in their finest clothes (the airline lost my luggage) making us very aware of the lingering looks people are giving us and the assumptions they are making about our lack of propriety. We can be standing by ourselves at a party, not sure what to do because everyone else is gathered in small, chatty cliques. But perhaps the worst is leadership awkwardness. Those times when we are trying to help others, speak in front of others, lead an activity, or explain something to a group, and it all seems to be going nowhere or somewhere we don't want it to go. I have had plenty of those moments.

I feel awkward pretty much every time I try to be generous, be it money, a gift, or a kind word I am attempting to give to another person. A lot of the time there are awkward moments when people come into my home for a meal, when I teach in front of a group, when I present a paper at an academic conference, when I am called upon to speak extemporaneously, when I need to explain something difficult or sensitive, when I pray in front of people or make a public announcement...well, you get the idea. Leading is just unnatural and clumsy at times. I see the eager faces, the sleepy faces, the cynical faces, the inattentive faces, the expectant faces, the doubting faces, the loving faces, the confused faces, and I know that what I have to offer will always be inadequate. I can never give people what they truly need and hardly ever what they want or expect. Everything I do as a leader will be a partial success at best. And I am okay with that. I try not to let it stop me from doing what is important.

I remember years ago witnessing a church leader going up to the front of the church during the worship time and kneeling prayerfully on the stairs (I think it was following a song about surrender). It was a touching moment, we all thought, but she later confided that most of the time she was at the front she was wondering if her skirt had caught on her shoes and was now exposing her backside. Despite the awkwardness, she did it anyway. A few months ago I gave a very short talk in front of 500 students. I had been asked to take a few minutes in the middle of an interdisciplinary conference to describe the graduate experience to a group of undergraduates. I spent a sleepless night trying to figure out what I could say, then a few hours the next morning with a quivering stomach, then I got onstage and spent 5 minutes stumbling and stuttering under the bright lights as I struggled to make a coherent point. Awkward, but I did it anyway. A few weeks ago I had to call someone who had a bad experience at our church and set up a meeting. Really awkward, but I did it anyway. Yesterday I had the urge to give a stranger a gift. It took me quite a long time to work up the courage, then I decided to do it anonymously. Of course, the man appeared in the doorway as I was handing over the gift to a third party. Awkward, but I did it anyway.

Awkwardness in leading is just part of the job. Leadership, teaching, and practicing love and compassion are skills I am always learning. I will never be perfect at them, but I can push through the awkward moments, the moments when I am trying out a new dance move, so to speak, and just commit myself to doing the best I can at that moment. Awkwardness is me being aware of my lack of skill and expertise. It is acknowledging that something is difficult and I will probably not get it right on the first try. It is knowing that process is a bit messy. But anyone who has ever been a teenager can bear witness to the fact that awkward is just another stage in growth, in maturity, and in developing life skills. Awkward is also what the distance between myself and another person looks like, but from experience, I know that awkward is an opportunity to grow in love, in patience, in compassion, in grace, and in listening to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.

We tend to hear mostly success stories from leaders. I have deliberately left out the ending of all the anecdotes above because for the most part, we are not privileged to know the final results of our awkward actions. I can only do what I believe God is asking me to do: to serve, to love, to learn to walk with others, to be generous, to be kind, to listen. And then I leave the results up to God. It will feel awkward. It might not look like anything. It might seem to be pointless. But I do it anyway. Ultimately, my success is not measured by the accolades of others nor by the number of followers I have. My success is based in how much I have loved and how much I have let my heart shine through my awkward actions. My confidence as a leader is never in my ability to lead, but in the sure-footed steps of the Holy Trinity to lead me (us) in the dance of love and joy and service.

Don`t mind the awkwardness, let`s dance!

Monday, May 18, 2015

counterfeit worship

Image result for pantocrator
Christ Pantocrator, one of the first images of Christ developed by the early church
Image from sophiainstitutenyc.org
I have started a series of talks in our faith community on the Decalogue (deka = 10, logous - words, commonly known as the Ten Commandments since the 16th century). You can find the gist of the first one dealing with worshiping God here, It must be remembered that these directives were given to a people whose only experience of government was being slaves to cruel masters. These ten words were meant to show them a new way of life, a life lived honouring God (the first four words) and treating their fellow human beings with respect and love (the last six words). Jesus summed it all up by saying that all the law and prophets were found in these two commands: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.

Yesterday I talked about what it means to make an idol and worship it. Here is the text from Exodus 20: "You are not to make any idol or image of other gods. In fact, you are not to make an image of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the water beneath. You are not to bow down and serve any image, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God." (Exodus 20:4-5a, The Voice).

A graven image (how the King James version translates it) is an idol carved out of stone, wood, or metal. What is at the heart of this directive is a caution against creating the gods we want: gods who would give us control over the complexities and problems of life. An idol is a counterfeit, a dangerous substitute for relationship with the one True God (The Voice commentary). The second word given by God is a reminder that the Holy One is beyond our senses, the Father in heaven cannot be controlled or manipulated, and the Eternal is a living person, not an object.

Shortly after these directives were given to the nation of Israel, we read the story of Aaron making a golden calf for the people to worship (Exodus 32). Because Moses was nowhere to be seen (he was up on the mountain doing God knows what), the people came to Aaron and asked him to make them a god, something tangible they could worship, something which could lead them forward, give them direction. Aaron asked for their gold, the people willingly gave it, and out of this he fashioned an idol in the shape of a calf. The people were elated, Aaron built an altar in front of the golden calf and declared that they would have a feast to the Eternal One. And so the idol worship began.

Some sobering lessons to learn from this story.
1. True worship of God is not birthed in impatience.
2. True worship of God is not birthed out of a need for something tangible.
3. True worship of God is not birthed through demanding that leaders make something happen.
4. True worship of God is not found in expensive and impressive furnishings and equipment.
5. True worship of God is not a payment for something to happen. Worship is a reflection of God's loving generosity and faithfulness, not an exchange whereby we give God worship in order to secure God's generosity.
6. True worship of God not a product of our own imagination or labour.
7. True worship of God is not about pleasing or appeasing people.
8. We must be careful not to redefine idolatry and call it worship. God tells us how to worship him, we can't do it any way we want See Exodus 21-31 and John 4:23-24.

So does this mean that we should avoid all imagery, all paintings, pictures, statues, or visual representations of God? The overly cautious iconoclasts would probably say yes. I side more with the Orthodox who view icons as an important aid in worship. Icons, like hymns, prayers, scripture readings, and other rituals we regularly incorporate in our personal and corporate worship, are windows offering movement in two directions: we commune with God and he communes with us. Instead of using words to describe God, icons use colours, lines, and shapes. Some call it theology in colour. The second word is not about outlawing images, but about how we use images. We can gaze at a picture in a magazine and desire to possess and own the object or person. That's an idolatrous gaze. Or we can gaze at a picture of a loved one and grow in affection for them, desiring to be with them. That's an iconic gaze. The iconic picture is meant to lead us to an encounter.

Similarly, in Celtic spirituality we have this phrase, "thin place," which refers to a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is very thin, where one can catch a glimpse of the divine. In the Old Testament we find many such thin places: the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the covenant God made with Israel, the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, the tabernacle, the fiery furnace (Daniel). In the New Testament, the primary thin place is Jesus, where heaven and earth, divine and human, co-exist in a person. I believe that thin places are sometimes happened upon, like the burning bush, but we can also cultivate thin places in our lives. When I sit down at my table every morning and read the scriptures, I am cultivating a thin place. The more I do it, the more likely I am to encounter Jesus there. When we meet every week as a faith community, we are cultivating a thin place. Every time we gather together to worship, to pray, to speak about Jesus, to love and care for each other, we invite the presence of God into our midst.

Dean and I visited the Abbey at Iona a few years ago. This is a place where God has been worshiped daily for over a millennium, where prayers have been prayed by many saints over hundreds of years. And it is one of those thin places where the presence of God is tangible. St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal is another thin place, a place with a rich history of healing, a place where hundreds come to pray and worship. It is great to visit these special places, but I am equally devoted to creating thin places in my own life, cultivating worship and prayer in faithful ways which not only draw me close to God but make his presence available for others.

Let this be one of the gifts we, as worshipers of God, give this world: a thin place where others can encounter God.