Institutiones Reformatae semper Reformandae

Today we celebrate the Reformation, although some folk decline to honour this 16th century phenomenon since it resulted in the fracturing of the Western Catholic Church. Yet the term reformation did not begin with Martin Luther, nor did the propensity to right the direction of the church, that band of followers of Jesus that came to inhabit institutions of various guises. What might Reformation mean for today’s institutions within Christianity?

Some folks lament the institutional character of churches, noting that when movements become institutions the original vision of its founder is compromised. Interestingly, the atheist philosopher Alain de Botton, in Religion for Athiests addresses the institutionalization of religion alongside of a host of phenomena in a slightly different key. de Botton has a most interesting take on the kind of relationship that atheists can have with religion. He suggests that there are redeemable (my word!) aspects of religion that can hold truck with atheism: the marking of special time, the practice of ritual, etc. The establishment of institutions is one of these. He notes that religions do a good job of institutionalizing movements as a way to conserve ideas. He suggests that atheists could do the same. And in so doing, he invites us to revisit our understanding of institution.

An institution in this vision is a vehicle rather than an end in itself. I suppose theologians have always asserted this, but the daily life of the institution often betrays an aphorism that I repeat from time to time: institutions will always take care of institutions. I think this true, but this is not a reason not to harness an institution for a purpose that transcends it. The institution can pass along an idea, or in the case of Christianity, something bigger than an idea. It can pass along a vision of the Reign of God in ways that are allow us to critique the institution without the need to demolish it.

In a way, it feels a bit like COVID is demolishing the institutional church, although that really isn’t true. But it is, I think, utterly re-forming it as we turn on a dime to face new realities – or don’t and face institutional death. Of course, the institution will not want to die and will do what it can to live. The question is: can we use skillful means to manage these institutions in ways that reins them in for the purpose of the Reign in which these institutions finally find their end?

Roots in You

Trees cannot walk, unlike
homo erectus now sapiens.
But our silva relations
are stars at standing still,
the sine qua non for
paying attention.

Simone Weil once wrote:
“attention is the rarest and purest
form of generosity,” so making of trees
exemplars – always giving
shade and sap
breath and beauty
warmth and wood.

Posing like a tree
demands more of me
than I first imagine:
balance, humility, serenity
and finally, roots in You.

Columns of Clouds and Pillars of Fire

After seven months of being closed, my home church, St. Matthews Lutheran Kitchener, opened to the public for a Sunday service this Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.  It was, indeed, a fitting weekend to enter this house of worship again.  I had, in fact, been in church last Sunday, for a second trial run.  But there was a distinctively different feel this weekend, knowing that there has been a turn in direction.  Of course, another full-blown lock-down is not beyond the pale.  But still….

It was, of course, both an exhilarating and a stumbling experience.  The music was top-notch, with a quartet, the organ, and the hand-bell choir filling the stunning sanctuary with rich and memorable music.  The Gospel was proclaimed.  Prayers were offered.  Peace was shared at a distance. But when well-loved thanksgiving hymns were sung, we sat in silence.  When the refrain for the prayers was bidden, we stood in silence.  We sat or stood in silence for everything, aside from singing “Now Thank We All our God” in the parking lot with our masks on after the service. 

It felt good to be back in church, and strange: it was both familiar and utterly unusual.  The experience reminds me of a little observation I share with my students from time to time.  Religions generally, and Christianity in particular, exist to conserve what is valuable, and to liberate new possibilities.  Sometimes one purpose, and sometime the other, is the focus of a religious community.  Quite often some in a church will think the focus is to be on preserving what matters, and others will think the focus should be on finding out what matters.

Conservation and liberation: often these sit at cross-purposes.  But when the purpose of the cross is brought to bear on this relationship, new possibilities arrive. I think we might be at such a point in the collective lives of our churches and in the collective life of Christianity.  This novel Corona virus has been a cross: much death has resulted from this, and much life has arisen from some of its ashes.  Many people have walked out of the church never to return, with new patterns of spending their time now made habitual.  But others return to our faith communities – or discover our faith communities – with a new and deeper appreciation for faith.

We are at a turning point in our faith life.  What will we conserve, and what will we liberate?  Or perhaps, more accurately, what will the Spirit conserve, and what will she liberate in this life that we live together?  Now is a time for careful observation, for deep listening and for intentional suspension of our familiar expectations.  Now is the time to dream, together, and to receive these dreams – not as blueprints – but as columns of clouds and pillars of fire.

In My Eye

A tongue of fire
rises from this candle
taller than two
others; brothers
flanking her. Their
tongues, their talk
lumine her. These three
enter me times two, then
become one in my mind’s eye.

I see my reflection in them:
flaming away I deplete each day
until I will be but one with You,
alight in Your eye – finally and fully
a human seen, as surely as
You have been a human being
aright in my eye.

Sister Bean

I harvested Sister Bean Friday –

with the threat of frost Saturday.

She is mottled, purple on green.

Her seeds are shiny black with white eye.

Her smell is fecund.

~

Sister Bean speaks to as well as

feeds me saying

              Let each breath be death and life.

              Let each heartbeat unseat the thought that your blood is blue.

              Let tears dilute your sweat and soften your glare.

~

I hold Sister Bean in my hand and

find that she weighs more than she does

because this bean preaches.  I set her down

again, and then she calls to me at the last:

“You and I are not so very different. 

We both begin and end in dirt.”

Happy New Year

In Canada, we are closing in on the end of the Labour Day weekend.  Most people make use of this weekend to ready themselves for the real New Year, the start of school and the relaunching of program etc.  Of course, this year, everything is a mess and much muddling seems to be the order of this Labour Day.

My wife and I spent a good bit of the Labour Day weekend digging out the polymer cement between our flagstones on our patio.  When this cement is in good shape, the individual stones are bonded together and a safe, welcoming space is created.  As the cement breaks down, the flagstone shift and annoying (and dangerous) lips are create.  So every now and then we need to repair the space by replacing the cement.  It is not an especially enjoyable job, spent on our knees picking away at cracked and crumbling bits of adherent.  My efforts this year were rewarded by a wasp bite that leave my left index finger swollen with resentment.  But wasps, too, have a place in creation.

The new polymer will be applied when it looks like we will have at least 24 hours of dry weather, which is not necessarily going to be for a while.  So after yesterday’s time on my knees, today was a typical Labour Day for me, getting ready for the start of school.  Classes at Luther will all be remote this fall, as they were in the spring, so I am trying to learn from successes and failures as I get ready. 

Tuesday will be orientation, and it too will be online, with some asynchronous activity.  My colleagues have worked tirelessly to prepare what we hope to be a welcoming and revitalizing start to the new year.  One of my colleagues, Sherry Coman, as invited us to use the word “mediated” rather than virtual to describe our gathering online.  I like this very much.  Virtual implies that this coming together is not a real coming together.  Mediated helps us to imagine that it is different, but no less real.

I also like that the word mediated shares the etymology of the noun “means” with both pointing to what is in the middle, between this and that and enabling a relationship.  This use is informed by the Lutheran notion of the means of Grace – Word and Sacrament.  Here concrete earthly elements become the meeting ground between believers and between believers and the Divine, who makes space for our gracious reception into Love. 

Hopefully this mediated space will in some way approximate such a welcome.  From my experiences with Zoom, and Teams, and other technology, they can be likened to the polymer that links stone to stone.  Sometimes there are cracks, and crumbling, and the odd wasp that bites.  But in the end, with some loving care, it can do what needs to be done to bridge the distance between people who are eager to learn, and ready to grow.  I have seen it happen in ways that are different from face to face meeting, but significant all the same.  This New Year will be unlike any other, but then again, so is every New Year.

No Memorial

He lay splattered across my
wife’s emptied plate – now void
aside from this wasp’s corpse – flailed
by a fly-swatter repurposed:
wasp swapped for fly.

One wing conveniently
remains intact, shooting straight
up, like the arm of a child
anxious with an answer,
or a washroom request.

Of course, I grabbed the
dinnertime demon by the
sleeve and tossed him over
the guard rail into the
garden below.

No words were said over
his body; no proper burial;
no notice on some wasp website;
no memorial for him aside
from this poem.

Artfully Seeing

Yesterday morning my wife and I wound our way down to Hamilton to drop off Santa Maria’s halyard, which needs replacing. We then made our way over to LaSalle Marina, her home on the hard in this year of pandemic. We finished replacing a thru-hull, started a couple of weeks ago, after which we decided for a stroll on the shore. There we found a beautiful swan.

She, or he – I guess – was busy cleaning herself. It was most amazing to watch her. She could bend her head in pretty much any direction, and reach places I didn’t know to exist on a swan. The swan paid no attention to my paying attention to her. I took a video, and then wondered why. I wanted to capture the moment, I guess. But why?

I recall a professor some years ago talking about walking along a via in Rome, at sunset, with a friend who commented on all the tourists snapping photos (in those days with cameras not phones). The friend noted that they were trying to freeze a moment rather than enjoying it. They wanted to “capture” it; to have it ready at hand. I have thought about that comment for some time.

I also remember reading an article more recently about a study concerning memory and photographs. People taking photos of an event, or a monument were later asked about it. Set against those who simply took in the event, the photographers had less-clear memories and far weaker impressions than those who simply observed. But there was an exemption. Photographers who were trying to get artful images had a stronger impression than both groups. So, what does this tell us?

It is hard to know. But it does seem to be the case that those who practice art are practiced in patience. And patience is the sine que non for seeing in the richest sense of the word. Some ancient Greeks believed that when a person saw something, they became one with it. This was the condition for the possibility of knowing something, also evidenced in the Hebrew word for “know.” Yada is used in the broader sense of knowledge, but also with reference to sexual intercourse. Truly knowing comes from truly seeing which means being one with what is known.

I didn’t become one with the swan. But I know that she certainly gave me pause, and as I watched her bend in so many ways, I thought of my recent foray into yoga. The swan needs no guru to guide it. Maybe that’s why I took the video, hoping that she might be my guru, inspiring or in-spiriting me with this vision of flexibility and balance. And maybe too it, I wanted to remind myself that there are no ugly ducklings.

Sand Through My Hand

You’ve escaped me again,
like sand through my hand;
sweat from my pores;
sleep from my night.

I try to paint You,
but no portrayal will do. You
cannot be captured and every
image merely mirrors my wanting.

And yet yearning, too, is an attestation of your visitation…

I daydream of Your return, and
then you pinch me asleep. I dream
deeper into what is true: Your
slipping away is also Your drilling
deeper into me.

No Sheets to the Wind

The university where I work decided to make this long weekend extra-long, giving us Tuesday and Friday off as well. Gwenanne also had Friday off, so we headed down to Lake Ontario to do some boat chores. Some of you know that our dear Santa Maria is on the hard this year, as are all boats in our marina due to some Covid related construction delays.

For Christmas this last year, we had decided to buy each other a new set of sail for our boat. We heard news this week that they were ready. Kevin at Bay Sails did a great job, and he was sympathetic at our plight of getting new sails without having opportunity to use them. But we remain philosophical about it. This is a summer for working on the boat.

It was really most amazing to see his workshop. The floor really was the table and here and there, there were work stations cut into the hardwood surface in which he would stand while doing industrial sewing. Hammock-like “shelves” hang from the ceiling filled with fabric, and sails were strewn everywhere. A big window to the north looked out on the bay and I felt like I was in a different world. The sails were crisp and so firm that they felt like they could stand up on their own.

After picking up the sails we went to a marine supply store to get a new thru-hull fitting for the boat. Our boat’s kitchen sink thru-hull sprang a leak last year that we fixed with McGyver finesse. But now is the time to fix it properly, and so we pulled out the old thru-hull and prepared to put in the new one, which will need a new piece of teak, sitting at home and waiting to be fitted for service. After supper at a local diner, where a pilsner and a burger were the reward for an afternoon of sweat, my wife and I returned to remove the halyard that lifts the fore-sail, this too in need of replacement. And then we headed home.

It is nice to be by the water even when we cannot be on the water. Water somehow gives me the sense of a bigger something, that I can be a part of. Karl Rahner famously compared God to a horizon, always before us and never in our grasp, but still grasping us. Big bodies of water nicely illumine the drama of a horizon, especially when the sun sets and the fact of the world’s spinning on its axis becomes dramatically apparent. I was able to see a bit of this spinning on Lake Ontario on Friday. Of course, the world is always spinning, but every now and then the light changes and we see what is right before our eyes and under our feet.

This present Corona crisis is such a revelatory moment, in a way. A variety of Covid predicaments are opening our eyes and we’re seeing whom we are for good and for ill. Our values become more starkly evident as our anger reveals our fear and as we find joy in things long forgotten but discovered again. These times tell us a bit about the state of our souls as we differently face life, pulsing through us and around us despite our waylaid plans.

The sails may be in the bags, but the wind still moves us as she will.