Monday, January 16, 2017

comedic timing

Comic by Joel Micah Harris at xkcd.com

One of my favourite jokes goes like this:
Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Interrupting cow
Interrupting cow w---
Moooooooo!!

Timing is important in both drama and comedy. A well-paced story draws the audience in and helps it invest in the characters, while a tale too hastily told or too long drawn out will fail to engage anyone. Surprise - something which interrupts the expected - is a creative use of timing and integral to any good story. If someone is reading a novel and everything unfolds in a predictable manner, they will probably wonder why they bothered reading the book. And so it is in life. Having life be predictable all of the time is not as calming as it sounds. We love surprises, especially good surprises like birthday parties, gifts, marriage proposals, and finding something that we thought was lost. Surprises are an important part of humour. A good joke is funny because it goes to a place you didn't expect it to go. Similarly, comedic timing allows something unexpected to develop right in front of your eyes or ears. The combination of unlikely circumstances and mismatched characters is the stuff of which comedies are made. In addition, comedy often relies on threes: something will be repeated, building suspense and/or expectation. Just when the audience thinks it knows what is coming, the writer inserts a twist or surprise (usually the third time) in order to serve up a comedic payoff.

God is a master of timing. We often associate divine timing with efficiency or completeness, and many of our prayers tend to reflect this "just in time" mentality. However, timing can sometimes be more about enjoyment than fulfillment or completion, and this is the case in comedic timing. A comedian will use rhythm, tempo, and pauses to enhance a story and make an experience more enjoyable for the audience. Most of us are not used to thinking about the Author of our faith as having some mad skills when it comes to comedic timing, but I think that is because we get so serious about our spirituality that we become somewhat blind to the playful nature of the Creator.

About a year ago, I took an unexpected mini-retreat when a conference I was to attend in New York City was cancelled while I was en route (you can read about it here). It ended up being a rich time of contemplation, rest, and discovery. Since it was such a great experience, helping me find stillness and contentment in my mind and soul, I decided another retreat might be in order.

I have been feeling somewhat blasé and uninspired for the past few weeks. No doubt, some of that has to do with it being winter (less sunshine, more cold and wind, less time outside) and some of it has to do with this period of waiting or limbo I find myself in. Anyway, Dean left this morning for a business trip. He will be away for a week, so I decided to make another mini-retreat while he is gone. By retreat I mean taking time to step out of the cold winds of job searches, paper proposals, teaching, pastoring, office work, and wondering about my future in order to sit in front of the fire and light of God's love, letting my soul find warmth, settling into contentment, and rediscovering joy and meaning and peace.

Now, this week won't be all sitting around and contemplating. I still have work to do. I am leading a book study on Mark Buchanan's  Spiritual Rhythm which begins this week, so I have to do some preparation for that. We were meant to start the study on Thursday, but a last minute change meant we had to switch it to Tuesday, two days earlier. Now that's not a huge problem, except when I ordered the books last week, I did so thinking they had a week to arrive. Not so. The email says they will arrive on Tuesday by 8 pm. The study begins at 7:30 pm so here's hoping they arrive a bit before then. Also, I have the auditor coming to go over the church finances later in the week, and I am leading worship this Sunday so I have planning and rehearsal that need to happen. But in and around all that work, I am going to take moments to retreat.

I am going to see the movie, Hidden Figures, this afternoon. It tells the story of three brilliant African American women who were the brains behind some of the biggest NASA projects (seems appropriate on MLK day). I am going to read books I have been meaning to read, books that feed my soul and bring me joy and are not part of any writing or teaching project. Perhaps most importantly, I have decided to start each day by lighting a candle and sitting in silent contemplation for 15 minutes. For me, this is an exercise in surrender because it makes me pause and be more attentive to the timing of the Timemaster.

So this morning, I got the Vanilla Chai candle (a gift from someone who knows me well) and set it in the centre of the table. I grabbed a book of matches from the shelf and when I opened it up, I got my first surprise of the day: a friend whom I have not seen for many years had written on the inside flap "G---- was here 03/12/05." I smiled and laughed, thinking about the many shenanigans of this friend. It was a good memory and my soul was warmed.

I lit the candle and set an alarm so I wouldn't have to worry about the time, then I sat and gazed at the flame. A melody floated through my mind which I could not quite place. I tried to remember the words, but they eluded me. The melody kept coming back, and finally I recognized the song as Lead Kindly Light, a poem written by John Henry Newman when he was recovering from a serious illness and stranded on a boat far from home. The first verse goes like this:

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me

The words were encouraging to me and addressed my soul's current mood (finding light in gloom, being content with seeing one step at a time), but the surprising thing was that it also happened to be my father's favourite hymn. As I sat looking at the light of the flame, hearing this tune in my head, I remembered that when I was away at school, my father wrote me many letters, always signing them, "Your Father here on earth." It was another good memory and my soul was warmed for a second time.

My alarm sounded and I closed my time of contemplation by reading aloud the Suscipe (Latin for receive), a prayer written by Ignatius of Loyola.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory (such good memories this morning), my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me ----

Suddenly, my reading of the prayer was interrupted by a loud, long buzz. I hurried over to the intercom and picked up the phone. It was the mail carrier saying she had a package for me. I bounded down the stairs and received a large brown parcel from the carrier's gloved hands. I went back to the dining room and placed the package on the table next to the lit candle and the Suscipe prayer scribbled in the back of my journal. I opened the box and inside were the books I had ordered for the study. I laughed out loud. The third surprise in 15 minutes. The timing seemed so contrived that I imagined a scriptwriter chuckling to themselves as they wrote the comedic payoff: "Woman is praying prayer of surrender, trying not to worry about a much-needed package. Mail carrier rings buzzer and delivers parcel, interrupting woman's prayer. Instead of the unexpected event being a memory as it was the first two times, the third time it is an anticipation, a moving forward of time." I laughed again and shook my head. My soul was warmed with the good humour being played out in my life. And then I finished the prayer.

You have given all to me (even books arriving early)
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

Though this year's retreat is not even one day old, I have already experienced a comedic trifecta from the divine Timemaster. He's really good at this timing thing. And quite funny.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

building the church

Image result for popsicle sticks pile
Image from Instructables
Imagine two scenarios: 1) Give every person in the room a popsicle stick. Ask them to come together and put their sticks onto a table. Invariably, you end up with a random pile of sticks on a table. 2) Give every person in the room a popsicle stick. Show a picture of a popsicle stick bird feeder and ask people to come together and put their sticks on a table according to the picture. You will end up with the beginnings of a bird feeder on a table.

What is the difference between the two scenarios? In both, each person brought what they had and contributed it to the collective. However, in the first scenario, there were no guidelines, no plan, and no right or wrong way to pile the sticks. People came, placed their sticks on the table, and walked away. In the second scenario, people were given a plan to follow and as a result, something specific was built. Instead of walking away after they made their contribution, people huddled around the table to watch what was being built. Some were quick to point out if a stick went in the wrong place.

Image result for popsicle stick bird feeder
Image from Factory Direct Craft
In recent days, I have once again been pondering Jesus's words, "I will build my church." Several years ago, a friend urged me to consider each word of this phrase in turn and the emphasis it carries. "I" means that Jesus is the master-builder of the church. "Will" means that the project will be completed, there is no doubt about it. "Build" means that it is a work in progress, it is put together stone by stone and stick by stick. "My" once again emphasizes that the church belongs to Jesus, not us. "Church" indicates what Jesus is building: an ekklesia, an assembly, a people who congregate, who come out from the world (ek) and are called to (kaleo) God.

The Greek word for build is oikodomeo and it refers to what a house-builder does. In our day and age, a master house-builder is often referred to as a general contractor. The builder oversees the overall coordination of a building project. Though he or she does not hammer every nail or lay every brick, the master-builder is involved in every part of the building process. They assemble a team of skilled labourers and coordinate the different efforts in order to ensure that all are essentially building the same house, not doing their own thing. The master-builder handles the timing of things, deals with costs, makes sure deliveries happen, oversees work conditions, provides materials, ensures that proper equipment is available, and coordinates the delegation of tasks. As master builder, he or she is the only one who knows how it all comes together.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus names himself the master-builder of the church, the one who oversees the overall coordination of the project, but what exactly does this look like? How does it happen? Well, if we read on, we find some clues. In verse 20, right after Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus has responded that this revelation is foundational to the building of the church, he urges them not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. In other words, as the master builder, he is telling them something about timing. Just because we have a revelation from the Father does not mean that we automatically act on it. Jesus often said, "My time has not yet come" because he was mindful of God's purpose unfolding in the fullness of time (see my blog on patience for more on this). In verse 21, Jesus tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer terribly, be killed, and three days later rise to life. The master builder knows the cost involved. The building of the church cost Jesus his life. The early Christians also bore witness in their bodies to this high cost.

In verse 22, Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him this cannot happen, that suffering and death are not God's plan (It makes me laugh and gives me hope to hear Peter say, "You are God" and immediately follow that with "And you're doing it wrong!"). Jesus tells Peter to get out of his way. The master builder makes sure deliveries happen, and Jesus made sure that nothing stood in his way when it came time to deliver up his body to die for the salvation of the world. In verse 24, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to be his followers, they must forget about themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. The master builder sets out the conditions under which the work must be done. He does not ask anyone to work in conditions that he himself is not willing to embrace. In verse 25, Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to save their lives, they will destroy them, but if they give up their lives for him, they will find them. The master builder tells his disciples that their very lives are the materials out of which the church is being built.

In John 14:26, Jesus indicates that the Father will send a great Helper, the Holy Spirit who will teach his followers everything and remind them of all Jesus has said. The Holy Spirit will equip and empower them (give them the proper equipment) to carry on the work of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes a letter to one of the early churches, reminding them that the master builder is the one who delegates the work and they are to be attentive to the Spirit's leading. "There are different ways to serve the same Lord, and we can each do different things. Yet the same God works in all of us and helps us in everything we do. The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others" (1 Cor 12:5-7, CEV).

This is how Jesus builds the church. It appears that the way I (and the disciples, it seems) would build something is quite different from the way the master builder does it. My main concern in timing would be efficiency and expediency, not fullness of time. I would count the cost in terms of dollars, not suffering and death. I would insist that people deliver their goods in a timely fashion, but hesitate to deliver myself up for the sake of others. I would make sure that work conditions included benefits and payment for overtime, and forget about taking up my cross. My materials of choice would be strong steel and solid brick, not fragile lives. As to equipment, I would make sure that we had all the latest sound gear, comfy chairs, and a coffee machine instead of relying on the Spirit to breathe gifts into people. In regard to personnel, I would seek out the most qualified and creative people for the job, not the marginalized, the overlooked, the outcasts, the poor in spirit. I guess it is pretty obvious that I am not that good at building the church. And that's okay, because Jesus is the one who builds it. My job is to get on the same page as he is.

So often I have come to the church and tossed my popsicle stick on the table. There you go, that's what I have to offer, that's my part. I pay little attention to what Jesus is building, what he is putting in place, how I fit into the larger picture. Or perhaps I become part of a group that has a plan, and I see where I fit, and I dutifully plop myself into place. But without the glue of love ("Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together" Col. 3:14, CEV), the structure has no stability and falls apart as soon as some stress is put on it. We all have our church failure stories, but don't be discouraged. "I am confident that the Creator [builder], who has begun such a great work among you, will not stop in mid-design but will keep perfecting you until the day Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, returns to redeem the world." Philippians 1:6

I was listening to a recording of a message last night and the preacher said, "This church is for you and for your world." What? Did I hear right? I think I understand the point she was trying to make, but the church is not being built so that we have a place to belong and grow and flourish; the church is built to be the dwelling place of God.

"And so you are no longer called outcasts and wanderers but citizens with God’s people, members of God’s holy family, and residents of His household. You are being built on a solid foundation: the message of the prophets and the voices of God’s chosen emissaries with Jesus, the Anointed Himself, the precious cornerstone. The building is joined together stone by stone—all of us chosen and sealed in Him, rising up to become a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you are being built together, creating a sacred dwelling place among you where God can live in the Spirit." (Ephesians 2:17-22, The Voice)

Thursday, January 05, 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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

singing lessons

Related image
Image from coolcards.co.uk
When I was a young child, a visiting preacher came to our country church. He brought his two daughters with him, and before he gave his sermon, they sang beautiful duets about Jesus. They had lovely voices which blended well. The preacher, meaning to impress on us their God-given musical talent, mentioned that the girls had never had any singing lessons. The congregation nodded and ooohhed in appreciation. I was puzzled. I didn't understand how not learning was a point of grace or even pride. After all, people who have natural abilities in sports, math, writing, art, or science find it extremely helpful to study under teachers who can aid them in their development and introduce them to things outside their own experience. Being self-taught (though sometimes the only option available to those with limited resources) is not a cause for pride or celebration. Why? Because that's just not how the communal, relational Creator set things up.

I have been singing since I was a child. Over the years, you could find me warbling melodies and harmonies in church, in school choirs, in a group of friends around the campfire, and even in a small singing troupe which toured part of the USA in the 80s. I love to sing, but I have never felt I was all that good at it. Sure, I can hit the notes and read music, but the tone of my voice has always seemed muddled, muted, even mousy, never ringing out clearly. In my late 20s, I decided that after decades of singing in my falsetto (which allowed me to fit into the mezzo soprano range), it was time to start using my lower-range chest voice. Those vocal muscles had not been used a lot, so I had to build up my stamina and work on my precision. My voice still tired quickly and I had little power or range, but at least I felt more comfortable, more like I was singing with my real voice.

This past September, for the first time in my life, I took private singing lessons. It is something I have always wanted to do and now I finally had the time and the opportunity. I found a very capable, kind vocal coach who challenged and pushed me (sometimes literally) in all the right places, but who also offered gentle encouragement every step of the way. It has been a rich experience in many ways, and I was surprised how much it required of me personally and spiritually. Here are a few lessons I learned in the process.

1. Singing is a whole body, whole person activity. It is not just about vocal chords and getting them to do what you want. We began each lesson with stretches and breathing exercises and letting go of any stress or tension. We made odd noises, we lay on the floor, we flapped our arms like airplanes and helicopters, we adjusted our posture. Sometimes we talked our way through to a more peaceful state of mind. Only after we prepared the body and mind did we venture into singing. I had no idea how much this body preparation affected my singing until I changed things up one week. I usually walked to my singing lesson from the metro station, a good half-hour through some of the most beautiful parts of Montreal. When Dean was away on a business trip, I decided to take advantage of having a car at my disposal and sleep in a bit. I drove to my singing lesson and arrived a few minutes late due to snarly traffic. It soon became apparent that something was different; my voice was more strained and less free-flowing. The only difference was that I had driven instead of taken public transit. As a result, I had not had any time to read and contemplate on the subway, no time had been given to walking and remarking on beautiful things. And it made a world of difference. What comes out of me is directly related to what I take in and to how I live, how I move in the world, and how much time I give to contemplation, preparation, and beauty.

2. Singing is about release, not effort. This idea really changed how I approach singing. I was used to my voice fatiguing rather quickly, but surprisingly, it was never tired after an hour-long lesson. I always came away energized and feeling like I was a bird floating in the air, able to sing with joy and gusto. And most of that had to do with just letting sound come out of me instead of pushing myself to make good sounds. This meant that a lot of focus was spent on the inhale (breathing, preparation, focus) and on letting the exhale (release) have a clear channel, obstacle free. And it worked. I discovered that when I access my whole body and mind in a deep inhale, I have quite a powerful voice. I actually surprised myself in many lessons, making sounds which had never come out of my mouth before. I was able to do this not by trying harder, but by letting go, by giving something away.
    
3. Singing is an exercise in vulnerability. I never realised how much fear was a part of my singing until my vocal coach started pointed out the tiny ways in which I was constricting my voice. I hesitated between inhaling and singing a note, I tightened up my throat when I came to a high note, I locked my hips and pushed out my chin to muscle out a note. I took shallow breaths and squeaked my way through my vocal break. All of it a result of fear, of thinking my voice would fail me and that it would produce ugly sounds. So we spent an entire lesson singing through and around my break, that awkward place between my chest voice and my head voice. And it was so much less ugly than I thought it would be. I found I had so much more strength and control than I thought I had. I also learned that tackling my weak spot head on and working to improve it in a safe place was a better approach than pulling away from it or avoiding it. Singing requires bravery and vulnerability. Fear masks and distorts my real, genuine voice, but when I am willing to be vulnerable, I can embrace and accept my unique voice and be willing to be heard for who I am.

4. You sing not only to others but to yourself. In one lesson, I was singing the late 19th century hymn, O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus. It was not that difficult a song, but required some precision and lots of breath. I was singing it okay, but my teacher and I both knew that something was not connecting. It is a song about vastness, so I tried to sing it big, arms extended, launching the words out to the world. I couldn't quite pull it off. We tried several exercises - phrasing, physical movement, voice placement - but it still wasn't right. Finally, my teacher told me to curl up in a ball and sing it to myself. I crouched on the floor, wrapped my arms around my knees, and sang: "O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free." And I was undone. Tears formed in my eyes when my soul heard the words it needed right then. Sometimes so much emphasis is put on projecting (or releasing) our voices that we forget to sing to our own hearts (see Psalm 42). We cannot project or give away what we do not first embrace and hold in our hearts.  

5. Singing is an exercise in integration. By design, singing is meant to be an integrative, holistic action. All of us have different aspects of our voice which are quite distinct: we can resonate in the chest, in the jaw, in the nasal cavity, and in the forehead. These all produce slightly different sounds. We also have a chest voice (the same timbre as our speaking voice) and a head voice (sometimes referred to as falsetto) which is more breathy and higher than our normal speaking voice. There is also the whistle register, the highest range, which is used to great effect by some sopranos (like Mariah Carey). It takes some training and practice to flow from one register to the next without strain or a significant shift in tone. I happen to have a very notable break between my chest voice and my head voice. That's just the way it has always been. But my vocal coach told me (and showed me) that it is possible to use these two registers together, to have the chest voice support the head voice so that I produce a much more solid, grounded sound. What? I had always assumed that the two were mutually exclusive, like jumping from one moving car to another, but I was wrong. They are actually meant to work together. Oh, segregation and compartmentalization, once again you rear your ugly heads.

The integration of my two voices or registers will take some time. It is such an unnatural sensation for me to access deep sounds when making high sounds, but it is possible. I know that part of the work is head work, getting my brain around a new, integrated way of thinking. Another part of the work is heart work, seeing my different voices as one. It is also spiritual work, having implications for how I perceive and practice my vocation(s). In other words, I must be careful not to compartmentalize my academic voice and my pastoral voice, not to separate my public voice from my private voice, not to divide my spiritual and my physical natures. For a culture steeped in specialization and individualization, integration is hard work. But it is worthy work because it results in more beautiful, grounded singing and a more beautiful, grounded life.

You don't have to take singing lessons to develop good spiritual practices concerning integrity, receiving and releasing, preparation, vulnerability, soul-care, and integration. But it could help. That has been the case for me.

Here is Selah singing O The Deep Deep Love of Jesus. Still undoes me.



Monday, December 05, 2016

tradition


Christmas is a time of year when we see traditions being enacted all around us. Traditions, at their best, tell a story. They are meant to be reminders of identity, history, and hard-won values. Unfortunately, traditions can easily become unmoored from their stories. When this happens, the tradition morphs into something else: it may become a hollow act practically devoid of meaning, or it may become associated with a different story, or the story may be revised to reflect a more convenient story. About a month ago, I heard aboriginal women telling the heart-wrenching story of the slaughter and conquest which accompanied the original celebrations of Thanksgiving in America. This inconvenient story has been removed from the tradition in favour of a more sentimental, Euro-centric tale. The tradition changes when the story changes, and we must resist whitewashing the stories associated with our traditions, for doing so causes us to lose our way.

Jesus encountered some very devout traditionalists in his time. The religious leaders dedicated to upholding the Jewish laws and traditions also turned out to be the most resistant to the good news Jesus embodied. For them, the traditions had become separated from the story of a merciful, redeeming, patient, generous God. Instead, the traditions became rigid rules and practices meant to protect and preserve Jewish identity and purity, and as a result, they were blinded to the story of God's loving compassion unfolding right before their eyes.

I did not grow up with a lot of Christmas traditions so I am discovering some of them for the first time, and the stories which they tell are rich and powerful. One example is the Advent wreath. It originated with the Lutherans sometime in the 16th century and was associated with fasting and mindfulness of the second coming of Christ. In the early 1900s it became associated with looking forward to the celebration of Christmas and, over time, symbols and meanings became attached to the tradition. The tradition varies somewhat in the church, but the Advent wreath tells a wonderful, accessible, memorable story of Jesus. Let me show you.

The wreath is a circle, reminding us that God's love has no beginning or end.
The use of evergreen branches is a sign of life in a lifeless winter, pointing to new life and hope of eternal life in Christ (hints of the original meaning behind the wreath).
The candles represent the light of God coming into the world through Jesus, his son. They contrast to the darkness in the world.
The red ribbon on the wreath represents Christ the Redeemer and the blood he shed for us on the cross.
The four candles (one lit each Sunday in Advent) represent a period of waiting. They symbolize four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi (Old Testament) and the birth of Christ (New Testament).
The colour of Advent in the liturgical church is purple, meaning that it is a time of waiting and preparation. The colour of Lent, a penitential season, is also purple, but Advent is considered a time of expectation, not repentance. Purple is also traditionally the colour of royalty, because the dye used to produce this colour was originally very rare and expensive and only the elite could afford to wear purple.

The First Candle is purple and is known as the Prophecy Candle, reminding us that God is faithful to keep his promises. The theme for the first Sunday of Advent is HOPE. In Isaiah 9 we read: "A child has been born for us. We have been given a son who will be our ruler. His names will be Wonderful Advisor and Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace. His power will never end; peace will last forever. He will rule David’s kingdom and make it grow strong. He will always rule with honesty and justice. The Lord All-Powerful will make certain that all of this is done” (Isaiah 9:6-7, Contemporary English Version). This was written roughly 800 years before Christ was born. The prophecy concerned Jerusalem and Judah who were suffering under an Assyrian attack at the time. This was a message of hope given to a nation who longed for peace and for a righteous ruler. Most likely the people at the time did not fully recognise the messianic overtones in Isaiah's words, but when the writer of Matthew applied it directly to Jesus some 800 years later, Isaiah's message of hope came to life in the person of Christ.

The Second Candle is also purple and is known as the Bethlehem Candle, again reminding us of God's faithfulness and inviting us to be prepared to welcome God into our midst. The theme of the Second Sunday is PEACE. "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the woman in labor gives birth... And he will stand to lead his flock with the LORD’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored around the world. And he will be the source of peace…” (Micah 2:2-5, New Living Translation). Here we find a prophecy about a small, humble village being the birthplace of a world-renowned ruler who will bring peace. Again, the original hearers might not have understood the messianic implications, but when we read them today, in hindsight, the many references to the details in the amazing story of Jesus are quite obvious.

The Third Candle is pink and known as the Shepherd Candle. The theme of the third Sunday is JOY and it refers to the joyous good news the shepherds received from the angels. We find the story in Luke 2: "Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, 'Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.' Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 'Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors'" (Luke 2:8-14, Common English Bible). Though the Jews were looking for a messiah who would make things right for them, the story of Jesus is filled with indications that God's mercy and favour extended beyond the nation of Israel. In the angel message here we find mention of "all people" which seems distinctly inclusive to us now, but might not have been taken that way by the original hearers.

The Fourth Candle is purple and is known as the Angel Candle because the angels brought news that God's love had come to the world through the person of Jesus. The theme of the fourth week is LOVE. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won't perish but will have everlasting life" (John 3:16, Common English Bible). These are words spoken by Jesus himself and once again we see expansive words such as "world" and "everyone." This is the very nature of love: to grow, to expand, to overflow, uncontainable and unmeasurable. And this kind of expansive love which reaches even to the lowest of the low is what we see present over and over again in the story of Jesus.

The Centre Candle is white and is called the Christ Candle. It is usually lit on Christmas Eve to indicate that Christ has come, the time of waiting is over. The shift from expectation to excitement is evident in the story of Simeon found in Luke 2: “A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law [dedicate their first child to God]. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said, 'Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.'” (Luke 2:25-32, Common English Bible). Simeon, led by the Spirit, recognised in Jesus the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love which Israel had been longing for. He also saw the expansiveness of God's love and compassion (a light for the Gentiles).

The story of Jesus teaches us that God's salvific work is so much more magnanimous than we had hoped and also so much more humbling than we had anticipated. And that is why it is important to keep telling the story of Jesus, not only in words, but in traditions. Traditions serve as reminders, metaphors, symbols, and spiritual practices which keep us connected to the story of God and reveal to us again and again the divine desire to live in communion with humanity. In telling and re-telling the story of Jesus, the story told in the Advent wreath, we remember that we, too, need a Saviour to restore us to God. We, too, long for someone to come and rescue us. We are reminded to prepare ourselves, because in order to welcome Christ into our lives (our families, our work, our play, our relationships) we need to make space and remove the clutter. This is the message which John the Baptist preached: "Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight" (Mark 1:3). In Advent, we are reminded to minimize the distractions, avoid the detours, remove the obstacles, and make a clear path of welcome for God.

One of the ways we can do this is by making our everyday waiting (in lines, in traffic, in meetings, etc.) a spiritual discipline, an act of worship and devotion. Waiting can be an Advent practice which transforms our self-centred impatience into an act which reminds us of the hundreds of years that Israel waited for someone to come and restore them, to rescue them from their suffering and sin. Another way to practice Advent is to be attentive to stories of waiting and preparation which point use in the direction of hope, peace, joy, and love.[1] Whatever the tradition(s) you participate in this season, may you take the time to remember the story which is connected to the tradition, and find your place in a re-telling and re-living of it.

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[1] One such story which has just been made into a movie (Lion) is that of Saloo Brierley. You can read an article of this amazing story of hope, remembering, and perseverance here.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Belong. Believe. Become.


Image result for tattoos on the heart
Image from Catholic Reporter
Gregory Boyle and some friends from Homeboy Industries
This past weekend, I went to a chalet for the weekend. Together with 17 other people. It was our semi-regular church retreat during which we cooked meals together, washed dishes together, sang songs together, participated in morning and evening prayer together, played outside together, went on a hike together, and just hung out. We also spent some time talking and thinking about what we are trying to build as a faith community and what that looks like.

Basically, it comes down to three ideas found at the heart of one of the models of church found in scripture. The model is the family, and the three ideas are belong, believe, and become. Children are born into a family and they immediately belong. Whether they are grumpy babies or happy babies or sick babies, they belong. Before they do anything to contribute to the family, they belong. As they grow up, they learn what it means to be part of a family, and through experience, example, and instruction, they develop trust and faith in people who are faithful and become faithful themselves. Eventually, the children become productive members of society who are able to contribute in a meaningful way to their own family and, in some way, to the world. Ideally, children are transformed from self-absorbed, crying babies into mature adults who are knowledgeable, skilled, responsible, generous people with a desire to help others. Put another way, we could say the pattern is this: family, faith, formation.

The order is important here. The first requirement cannot be maturity or good character or a certain level of faithfulness and skilled, good work. This is backwards. And it fosters an expectation that is sure to end in disappointment and failure. Insisting that a baby be a responsible member of the family makes no sense. Unfortunately, the church has often required a certain demonstration of faith or godly character before allowing people to belong to the church family. Jesus sets this unrealistic standard on its head. He was always hanging out with outsiders and those on the fringes of society, deliberately going against the notion that people had to exhibit some form of godliness before they were worthy of his attention. So let's take a brief look at each of the three words.

BELONG: Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, writes about his work with gang members in Los Angeles in his book Tattoos on the Heart. His is a slow labour of love and service, trying to convince outcasts that they belong, that they are worth something. He writes: "If you read Scripture scholar Marcus Borg and go to the index in search of 'sinner,' it'll say, 'see outcast.' This was a social grouping of people who felt wholly unacceptable. The world had deemed them disgraceful and shameful, and this toxic shame ... was brought inside and given a home in the outcast. Jesus' strategy is a simple one: He eats with them. Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, 'I will eat with you.' He goes where love has not yet arrived, and he 'gets his grub on.' Eating with outcasts rendered them acceptable. ... Recognizing that we are wholly acceptable is God's own truth for us - waiting to be discovered." [1]

We read about Jesus generously and recklessly associating with the outcasts of society, letting them know that they belonged, even before they believed, even before they gave up their bad behaviour. "Levi [the tax collector] gave a large dinner at his home for Jesus. Everybody was there, tax men and other disreputable characters as guests at the dinner. The Pharisees and their religion scholars came to his disciples greatly offended. 'What is he doing eating and drinking with crooks and sinners?' Jesus heard about it and spoke up, 'Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I'm here inviting outsiders, not insiders - an invitation to a changed life, changed inside and out." (Luke 5:29-32, The Message)

Gregory Boyle tells the story of his parish, Dolores Mission Church, declaring itself a sanctuary for undocumented people from Mexico and Central America. Soon, men were sleeping in the church and women and children in the convent. Some people in the neighbourhood did not appreciate the church's decision and the ramifications it had for the area. One morning, they discovered that someone had spray-painted WETBACK CHURCH across the steps. Father Boyle was about to ask someone to remove the words when a woman in the church spoke up: "You will not clean this up. If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mojados (wetbacks) ... then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church." [2] Boyle notes that Jesus was not a man for others, but one who was with others.

BELIEVE: We belong because God turns toward us and accepts us. Then and only then are we able to turn toward God and trust him, believe him, have faith in him. We often associate the concept of believing with giving assent to right doctrine, but the idea of belief in the New Testament means to cling to, to rely on, to depend on. In other words, to believe means to put our well-being and our life in the hands of another, no back-up plan. Believing in someone means that we know they are faithful and trustworthy because they have shown themselves to be so. At a time when people were abandoning Jesus because his teachings were difficult to accept, Simon Peter affirmed his belief in Jesus: "You [alone] have the words of eternal life [you are our only hope]. We have believed and confidently trusted, and [even more] we have come to know [by personal observation and experience] that You are the Holy One of God [the Christ, the Son of the living God]." (John 6:68-69, Amplified Bible)

We come to believe and trust someone by walking with them, by working side by side with them, by getting to know them. Father Boyle tells a story of two rival gang members, sworn enemies, grudgingly working together at one of the businesses run by Homeboy Industries. At first the two men would not even look at each other. Six months later, when one of them was shot and seriously wounded, the other, a former enemy, offered to give his blood for someone he now called his friend. What changed hatred into trust? Belonging to the same community of workers, working side by side in order to improve their lives and the lives of others in their neighbourhood, and learning that they belonged to each other.

BECOME: In the context of a family, we belong first. We are accepted just as we are before our parents even know what kind of people we will become. As we grow and develop, we learn to trust and believe and have faith in our family and in others. Experience teaches us the value of faithfulness. Over time, we are transformed, no longer crying, needy children, but strong, helpful, generous, compassionate, skilled adults who contribute significantly to our family and to the world. We are no longer needy, but needed as caregivers and builders and artists and companions. We have been transformed. Being born of the Spirit means that we become new creations. What is old is gone. All things are new. However, it takes time for the character of Jesus to be formed in us, for old habits and ways of thinking to be changed. We are created in the image of God, but having our minds and hearts and wills and actions transformed to look like Jesus is a life-long process.

Paul writes that we have all been on the outs with God. We have all experienced what it means to be outside, but God personally opens the door and welcomes us back in. In light of this, he says: "So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life - your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life - and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out.... God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." (Romans 12:1-2, The Message)

The story of Thomas serves as an example of belonging, believing, and becoming. Thomas belonged to Jesus's close circle of friends for three years. It was there that he belonged and was intimately known by Jesus and the other disciples. Thomas was skeptical when he heard others say that Jesus had risen from the dead. He said he had to see and touch Jesus's scars before he would believe it. For this reason, he is often referred to as doubting Thomas. This is unfortunate, because once Thomas encountered the risen Christ, he declared, "My Lord and my God." Tradition has it that following this life-altering experience, Thomas sailed to India to bring the Gospel to the people there. He started churches in at least seven locations there and was eventually killed for his faith. The Thomas Christian Churches are still present and active in India today. First Thomas belonged, then Thomas learned to believe, and then Thomas became an evangelist and a church planter.

Sometimes we in the church can focus so much on the need for people to be transformed that we forget that they need to belong first, and that they need to be in a relationship with faithful people before they can believe and trust. Transformation is the fruit that results from being in a loving, committed family or community. It is not a prerequisite for inclusion. If that were the case, none of us would ever belong. But because of the overflowing, merciful love of our heavenly Father, we are invited to be part of the family of God, yes, even when we are wailing, puking, needy, selfish, fearful, confused babies. Thank God for that.

Here are some questions to ponder and pray about:
What does it mean to belong? (see my previous post on belong here)
How does God invite us to belong?
How do we invite others to belong?
How do we come to believe and trust someone?
How do we learn to trust God?
Where do we find it hard to trust God?
How are we transformed from selfish, proud, fearful people into loving, compassionate, generous followers of Jesus?

Let Jesus show us the way to belong, to believe, and to become more like him.

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[1] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York: Free Press, 2011), 70.
[2] Boyle, 72.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

consider....

Image result for flickr wild lily
Image from Flickr
I like to go for walks in my neighbourhood. Getting outside and engaging in some exercise is a nice change from my desk, but walking through the park and along the pond does more than get my blood and limbs moving; it also invigorates my spirit and my mind. When I am a bit depleted, tired, confused, discouraged, or fearful, going for a walk is really good medicine. Because looking at the birds, the grass, the flowers, the kids playing in the park, the trees, and the sky lifts me out of my self-absorption and places things in perspective. The feast of beauty available to my senses outside my front door invites my small and fearful heart to be still, to take it all in, to swell with gratitude and wonder and playfulness.

Beauty is something which attracts us, which causes us delight, and captures our attention. When one stands before a great work of art, the concern is not first about what sort of paint the artist used or the exact measurements of the canvas. One simply takes it in. One lets the beauty of the work saturate the senses and speak to the soul. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar suggests that doing theology is like gazing upon a masterful work of art; in other words, theology is not primarily an intellectual exercise. Like Moses who was mesmerized by the burning bush, our first task in theological encounter is not to question, but to stop and wonder.

Let's talk epistemology for a minute, okay? Epistemology is the theory of knowledge; basically, it addresses the question of how we come to know something. In our schools, we learn mostly through reading, listening to experts lecture, doing research, writing essays, and working on projects. In our modern world, knowledge is closely related to reason and empirical data. In other words, we link knowing things to verifiable facts and logic. These are valuable ways of knowing, but they are not the only ways. There is also revelation (we come to know people when they reveal themselves to us), experience (you can only know if a cup of coffee is good by tasting it), and participation (learning how to perform surgery or play the piano).

So what does epistemology have to do with beauty? The two come together in Luke 12 where Jesus is talking to his followers. One man complains that his brother is cheating him out of his due inheritance, and he asks Jesus to make things right. Jesus cautions the man against thinking that life is about possessions and as a further instruction, tells a story about a rich man who builds large barns to store all his surplus grain. Having secured his future with this storehouse of wealth, the man believes he can now eat, drink, and be merry. Jesus ends the story by saying that the man's life will end that very night and all his riches will do him no good. Jesus then tells his disciples not to worry about matters like food, drink, and clothing. Instead, he asks them to consider three things: the
crows, the lilies, and the grass. In other words, Jesus is asking them to rethink their epistemology, to reconsider where they turn to in order to learn about how to do well in life.

"Think about [consider closely, take note of, discern, contemplate, understand fully]  those crows flying over there: do they plant and harvest crops? Do they own silos or barns? [like the rich farmer?] Look at them fly. It looks like God is taking pretty good care of them, doesn’t it? Remember that you are more precious to God than birds! Which one of you can add a single hour to your life or 18 inches to your height by worrying really hard? If worry can’t change anything, why do you do it so much?" (Luke 12:24-26, The Voice)

Image result for crow
Image from Live Science
So let us consider the crow, let us stop and wonder at the crow for just a bit. What can it teach us? In general, we don't think kindly of crows. They are seen as scavengers, nuisances to farmers, and, as evident in the plural designation, "a murder of crows," they have been traditionally linked to superstitious, morbid activities. But let's look a little closer. Crows are communal beings, gathering in large groups around food sources. [1] Crows are very intelligent birds, and this is exhibited by a variety of communicative calls (not every kaw-kaw is the same), their ability to engage in play, a capacity for episodic memory, and the uncanny know-how to make and adapt tools in order to procure food.  They even have the ability to count! The tale goes like this: a farmer was annoyed by the crows who were eating his grain, so he decided to hide in a hunting blind and scare them away with his gun. However, whenever he entered his hunting blind, the crows flew away and did not come back until after he left. He decided to trick the birds by entering the blind with a friend, then having him leave. The crows were not fooled. The farmer invited more friends to join him in the blind and then exit, leaving only the farmer behind. They crows were a smart bunch, and it was not until they reached 17 people that the birds lost count of how many were still in the hunting blind. I would probably have lost count earlier. Jesus asks his followers to consider the crow, one of the most intelligent, resourceful birds on the planet, and learn about the care and attention of the creator.

Jesus goes on: "Think about those beautiful wild lilies growing over there. They don’t work up a sweat toiling for needs or wants—they don’t worry about clothing. Yet the great King Solomon never had an outfit that was half as glorious as theirs!" (Luke 12:27) Take a minute right now to look at [consider closely, take note of, discern, contemplate, understand fully] the picture at the top, a wild lily. What does it tell you about the great creator and designer?

Finally, Jesus asks his followers to look at the grass: "Look at the grass growing over there. One day it’s thriving in the fields. The next day it’s being used as fuel. If God takes such good care of such transient things, how much more you can depend on God to care for you, weak in faith as you are. Don’t reduce your life to the pursuit of food and drink; don’t let your mind be filled with anxiety. People of the world who don’t know God pursue these things, but you have a Father caring for you, a Father who knows all your needs." (Luke 12:28-30)

Let us consider grass. Grasslands take up over 40% of the earth's land, and grass is absent only from Antarctica and parts of central Greenland. Grasses (poaceae) are the most economically important plant family on earth, providing staple foods from edible seeds (corn, wheat, rice, barley, millet), forage and building materials (bamboo, thatch, straw), and food for animals (cows, sheep, horses). Grasses grow from the base and not from the stem tips, which allows them to be cut or grazed without severe damage to the plant. Grass stems are hollow in order to allow water to be drawn up through the blade. A cross-section of a grass blade shows its intricate interior.
Image result for grass cross section
Image from Quora
Grass provides its own food through photosynthesis (converts light energy into chemical energy) and the waste product of this process is oxygen. So every time you see grass, thank it for the air you breathe. Stop and wonder at the grass. Learn about the integrative nature of creation, how one part is necessary for the nurture and life of other parts. This interconnectedness tells us something about the the creator and how we are meant to live on the earth.

Now that we have done all this considering, we are ready to hear what Jesus says next: "Since you don’t need to worry—about security and safety, about food and clothing—then pursue God’s kingdom first and foremost, and these other things will come to you as well. My little flock, don’t be afraid. God is your Father, and your Father’s great joy is to give you His kingdom." (Luke 12:31-32)

I have often heard this last verse (perhaps more familiarly, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you") used as an equation. Basically, if I earnestly exert effort to work for the good of the kingdom of God, to be more righteous in thought, word, and deed, then God will reward me with the good things in life. But that is pretty much the opposite of what Jesus is saying. He is asking his followers to consider the intricate beauty of birds, flowers, and grass, not giving them a formula for success. We are not to look to the wealthy farmer or businessman for keys to success; we are to open our eyes to the fullness and joy all around us in creation. Jesus is not telling people to try harder to be good, to get their priorities straight once and for all, he is asking them to look at the simple things, to see how they have been marvelously created to be resourceful, communal, creative, playful, beautiful, and generous. All of creation declares the glory of God. All of it speaks of God's extravagance, God's tender care, God's concern with detail and his attention to the universe in all its complexities. God reveals himself and his character in the beauty of the world around us. [2] This means that we, too, should learn to trust God and not worry about the future. Jesus is telling his worried, anxious, fearful followers that they, too, are in God's good care. They belong to God. Stop and wonder.

In Luke 12:32, Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of God is not something we have to strive for or a righteous standard we have to attain, but it is the Father's great joy to give to us. And what is this kingdom? Romans 14:17 says: "The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." Instead of being obsessed with material goods like the wealthy farmer in the story, Jesus invites his followers to seek, to turn their attention to, joy, peace, and righteousness. These are the true riches.

Jesus spoke words of comfort to a group of people worried about food and drink, clothing, safety, security, and societal norms. Are we any different? Like the birds, the flowers, and the grass, we are invited to graciously relax (not laziness but a restful abiding) into our unique vocations as part of the integrated glory of creation. How do we learn to do this? 

Do not worry.
Do not fear.
Consider the simple things around you, things not of your own making.
Stop and wonder.
Know that the Father cares for you. 

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[1] You can read an interesting study on the communal aspect of crows here.
[2] By beauty, I do not meant that which is merely pleasing to the eye or symmetrical. Theologically speaking, beauty is defined by Jesus which means that it encompasses glory, weakness. fullness, suffering, death, and resurrection. In Jesus, we come to see that beauty is that which is infused by love.