Thursday, January 26, 2017

make us one

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In 1908, a Franciscan Friar named Paul Wattson instituted the Octave of Christian Unity, 8 days focused on praying for church unity. Over the last century, this period of time morphed into what is now known as Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and at present, it is observed by many churches in the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. This past week, I was privileged to participate in an evening of prayer and worship commemorating this ecumenical call to prayer. There were ten churches represented as we gathered in downtown Montreal on a stormy January evening. That in itself seemed pretty significant.

One of the large Catholic churches in Montreal, Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, hosted the meeting in their parish hall. Their priest gave a very gracious opening welcome. Short meditations on reconciliation were given by a female Anglican pastor (in French) and by the pastor of a small congregation affiliated with the Mennonites (in English). A chorale from the Cathedral sang joyful gospel songs in French. We were invited to attend different prayer stations around the room to write our prayers on post-it notes or to say silent prayers and light a candle to represent our intercession. The themes of the different prayer stations were Germany (the featured country for this year's week of prayer), First Nations, the government and the city, students, reconciliation, and creation care. It was moving to see people standing in silent prayer, lighting candles, writing their deepest desires and requests on small rectangles of yellow paper, and seeing the walls fill with words of hope and compassion.

As part of the evening, several people were invited to say public prayers in French and English. I was asked to pray for reconciliation, and I chose to sing the first part of my prayer in the form of a classic Vineyard tune by Carl Tuttle. I sang it acapella, not as a performance, but as a call to prayer, wanting to match the vulnerability of the words to the vulnerability I felt in singing in front of strangers with no accompaniment.

Oh Lord have mercy on us and heal us
Oh Lord have mercy on us and free us
Place our feet upon a rock
Place a new song in our hearts, in our hearts
Oh Lord, have mercy on us

Oh Lord may your love and your grace, protect us
Oh Lord may your ways and your truth, direct us
Place our feet upon a rock
Place a new song in our hearts, in our hearts
Oh Lord, have mercy on us.

I followed this by reading a prayer I had written:

Oh God, Creator of all. Have mercy on us.

We divide the things you have knit together. We lift one person above another. We argue and disagree and push each other away. Forgive us. We are petty and prideful and think too highly of ourselves.

Spirit of Jesus, come and show us the way forward. Teach us to lay down our lives for each other. Teach us to build up instead of tear down. We ask that you do the work we cannot do: transform and enlarge our hearts so that we can love, truly love, with the love of Jesus. 

Make us one as you are one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

The meeting ended with the people in the hall enthusiastically singing 10,000 Reasons and Great are You Lord led by a small worship band which included musicians from two different churches. People were reluctant to leave the meeting, spending time introducing themselves to strangers, greeting old friends, munching cookies, and offering words of encouragement to all who had participated.

A group of us were hungry, so 11 of us from different churches capped off the evening by trekking through the snow and ice to Five Guys for burgers, fries, drinks, and convivial fellowship. It was a sweet time. Everyone I talked to said, we love this, praying and worshiping and hanging out with people from other churches. Yes, it is good and pleasant. It is like a sweet fragrant oil. It is like refreshing dew. It is an activity blessed by God.

See how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters live together in harmony!

It is like fine, scented oil on the head,
running down the beard—down Aaron’s beard—
running over the collar of his robes.
It is like dew on Mount Hermon,
dew which comes down on Zion’s mountains.
That is where the Lord promised the blessing of eternal life.
(Psalm 133, God's Word Translation)


Friday, January 20, 2017

morning at the museum

Image result for nicolaes maes adoration of shepherds
Adoration of the Shepherds by Nicolaes Maes. Image from pubhist.com
Last week I spent a morning at the Museum of Fine Arts. They have recently built a new pavilion and to celebrate its opening, they offered free admission for the first few months, encouraging visitors to check it out. So on a cold, windy January Friday, I did. The space itself is beautiful, all wood and glass in the lobbies with plenty of places to sit and look over the city. There are four floors or galleries, each covering a different era and style. and I took a few hours to wander through all of them. To be honest, it was overwhelming. Nearly 5,000 square metres and 750 artistic works. Every three to six feet, one is presented with a masterpiece which has taken months, if not years, to create. It is just too much to take in. I ended up scanning each wall and only spending time with those pieces which caught my attention.

My favourite section was the fourth level which housed a lot of religious art, from models of medieval churches to stained glass which was hundreds of years old to icons and portraits of biblical figures. As was to be expected, there were a lot of paintings and representations of Jesus. I looked at them all, searching for a Jesus I could relate to, a Jesus I recognized. Most of time, Jesus was clothed in rich robes, the shadows of the folds painted with great care. The scenes of Jesus's family life were serene, depicting a leisurely day in the life of nobility, it seemed. Everywhere, Jesus was clean and muscular and, for the most part, unmarred, even on the cross. The iconic paintings were simpler, Jesus and Mary together in many of them, but even there, the simplicity was swathed in richness. Plenty of gold and fine fabrics. fluttering angels, and everyone posing perfectly to catch the light just right and show their good side. Distractions were minimized, every fold of cloth in its proper place, no screaming, squalling babies, only peace and light. It reminded me of the perfect pictures we post on Instagram, showing ourselves and our world at its best and brightest.

I am no art historian, but I am aware that portraits and icons are not photographs meant to capture the reality of everyday life. In many cases, paintings in other eras represented, and were meant to appeal to, those who commissioned them (mostly nobility or the church). Religious paintings incorporate symbolism and create their own reality to a certain extent. Nevertheless, it was troubling to me how far removed the portrayals of Jesus were from the earthy, messy stories we find in the gospels. There were a few exceptions, of course. One was the humble nativity scene by Nicolaes Maes (a student of Rembrandt) in which the stable, while not exactly dirty, includes brown cows, hay, a wheelbarrow and a shovel, and the faces of the shepherds are far from handsome. The scene comes off as ordinary and wonderful and strange all at the same time. In another room, a tiny icon of Matthew (about 3 inches tall) looking haggard and unafraid, wreathed in gold, was also a gem, easily overshadowed by the larger works, but definitely worthy of attention. There was also one painting of Jesus and Mary which caught my eye. In it he is chubby with curly blonde hair, wearing a bright red robe and clutching a sparrow. The pious expression of the mother verges on sorrow and the child seems out of place, looking longingly to the side. It unsettled me in its odd portrayal, and I liked that.

As I left the museum, I thought about all the ways we portray Jesus in our world today. Like any era, we project our own values onto our religious stories and clothe our religious figures in them. Is our Jesus wrapped in rich fabrics? Is our Jesus surrounded by pious family and friends? Is our Jesus strong and muscular, always the conqueror? Is our Jesus judging or forgiving? Is our Jesus untouchable, glowing with an unearthly glow? Is our Jesus unmarked by the scars of life? Is our Jesus always visible, the centre of every scene? Is our Jesus in clean, tidy environments, every hair in place, every person around him beautiful and successful? Is our Jesus a noble or a peasant? Is our Jesus Italian or Spanish or Caucasian or Black or Jewish? Is our Jesus in an art gallery, in a church, or in the dullness and pain of every day life?

Perhaps the most important question is, "Would I recognize Jesus if I saw him today?"
The Christ is present here and now. Do we see him?

"When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me. Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, “When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?” The king [Son of Man] will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:35-40, Contemporary English Version)


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 thought of the time I was away at school and 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