Seeing and Seeing To In 2021

Finally, it comes to end, this 2020 called by many – though not all – an annus horribilis.  For many of us, of course, it has been a strange year with much disappointment and anxiety: lost opportunities, the lack of familiar social and religious comforts, alongside of the pounding presence of never really feeling confident in making plans. 

But I also know of people who have found their footing in this dystopian time – discovering new possibilities in the space opened up and discovering physical and spiritual practices that would have been untapped had this been an annus ordinarius.  I suspect that most of us have had a mixed experience but we are tipped in the direction of wanting to shake off this year because its character of unpredictability is so unsettling.  And we don’t like being unsettled – be it by unemployment, or uncertainty, or illness.  And that is utterly understandable.  But this year also afforded us the opportunity to learn from our experiences. The data of our year – whether it be tragedy, or triumph, or a mix – provides an occasion for taking stock of our place in the universe.  Of course, this is always true but something about this apocalyptic year has sharpened our capacity to look at our lives more acutely.

That feeling of being unsettled, of course, is always just behind the curtain upon which we project our cinematic sense of self.  Down deep, we know that our carefully crafted narratives are subject to another illness, or a shift in relationships, or a fractured spirituality.  But right now, the curtain has drawn open and the film of our life is projected onto a spherical ball with projectile-like spikes.  And the image that results is hard to discern, and so we hunker down, or we shake our fist, or we make an anxious plan.

These responses are neither right nor wrong.  How we respond is who we are, and we are accepted as such by Love.  But Love also invites us to consider if this is how we want to be.  Love invites us to look at whom we have become. It calls us to behold the gift we are and our invitation to growth – both of these now present in our being human.  Our being gift, of course, is radically recast in these COVID-19 days as we realize anew the profundity of presence.  And growth, too, is being drastically reframed for us in these strange days as we ponder that sometimes growing means letting go and being less, doing less, being content with less.  Powerful forces try to negate this message. Yet that little sphere with its spikes reminds us that less can sometimes do more than principalities and powers and doing with less can be more than we can ever imagine.  We have seen strange things in 2020.

Blessings to you, dear readers, as you see, and see to, yourselves into 2021.

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?

Adieu Iceland

This land is continually being born:
it ever brings forth new marvels, new
vistas, new possibilities. It sings of
change, and the power of play. I feel
this playful change seeping into me,
calling for

a molten mind,
a soul on fire, and
volcanic vision – even

while ice expands the fissures of my being open
and glaciers forge fjords of futures unbidden.

This land is etching itself onto
the geography of my body:
my skin now taut with
wonder, my lips now
quivering in hope,
and my heart
erupting now as
deep calls to depth,
and I feel myself shifting
while taking leave of this
tectonically trembling Ísland.

Traversing Thoughts

I’m back now
after some
days away and in
diverse ways this
wandering has
left me in
wonder:

Airports are organic
too and sometimes
chaotic markets are
coherent after
a fashion.

Airline tickets have
an aesthetic – a taste of
their own while
tongues, indeed, are
dry now and then.

And change, change
that matters may be
so subtle so
chameleon like
as to be
surreptitious.

Shape Shifting Conventions

This last weekend was spent in the Delta Hotel in Toronto for the last biennial Synod Assembly for the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, of which I am a member. This is the last because our church will be moving to triennial conventions after this. One member told me that these events used to be annual up to the 80s. Things change, and I have noted many changes in the nature of these events.

I remember going to my first church convention while I was on my internship, in Alberta, in the late 1980s. I recall sitting beside my mother-in-law’s cousin Ralph Jorgensen, since we sat alphabetically – in rows. I also recall being numbed by a barrage of changes to by-laws and such, and reports being read out loud, even while they had been distributed by mail in advance. Business filled out most of the events, and worship was clearly demarcated from the business sections, all taking place in ordered pews with worship rather like what one experienced at church most Sundays.

These days we sit at tables in circles and Julio Romero was by my side – so the naming was clearly random in character. I had been invited to lead some bible studies, along with my colleague Mary (Joy) Philip. Three sessions were allotted for this, as well as some learning events around inter-religious dialogue (involving a panel with a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Sikh), in addition to the learnings around racism and poverty. The racism event involved some truth telling by delegates, and an interactive experiential learning event – in a addition to one of the bible studies germane to the topic. The presentation on poverty involved a presentation by Raffi Aaron, a Jewish activist from Toronto. Worship was antiphonal in style and involved some global music, as well as some traditional hymns. We still did business, but it was peppered with prayers and song. Things are so very different from what they once were. Reports are distributed electronically well in advance, and there is a consent agenda to deal with issues that really do not demand much attention.

The other night, over a beer, a few of us were discussing these changes, and noted that the renewed focus on learning and worship reframed how business sessions were experienced. During the presentation of the budget, reference was made by speakers to themes presented in the bible study and worship. A kind of synergy, I think, shaped our time together. As I think over the 30 years, or so, of Synod assemblies I have attended I like the trajectory of the event. The arc of meeting is moving, I think, in a direction that allows a kind of attentiveness to tradition and experience, to text and context, to the past and future.

I recall seeing, some years ago, a photo from a Synod Convention held in South-western Ontario in the 1930s. Everyone was male, in suits and ties, and sitting in rows in a room without air conditioning. We have come a long way, but I think it important not to dismiss the experience of our ancestors. They did, in their time, what seemed right while we respond to our culture, context, and needs. But in either event, the commitment to spending time together in an effort to discern where God calls communities of faith remains a perdurable character, and one to be celebrated.

I sometimes grumble a little before these events – in that they are a big investment of time – and I usually come home a bit exhausted. But I always, always, look back on them and recall some profound Gospel moments. The opportunity to meet new friends and re-connect with distant colleagues and former students is so very important. As I imagine the next 10 years or so of my career, I know that such events will continue to be a part of my duty and delight, and I look forward to seeing how they shape shift in response to our ever-changing context.