Sabbath of Sabbaths

My wife and I don’t often miss church.  Most Sundays find us at St. Matthews, where we find nourishment in the familiar rhythms of word and sacrament, and the comradery of friends old and new engaging.  In the main, we like the hymns and songs, choir and bells, the sense of being in a historically grounded space, the grace and quirkiness of this person and that; but most especially Gary, whom some might call challenged but I see as especially gifted.  Perhaps gifting might be the better word.  He reminds me each Sunday that God is sharply located among the weak, wounded and dependent ones.

 

Like I said, we don’t often miss church and on holidays we like to visit other congregations if travel is serendipitous in that way.  Last weekend, we sailed to Port Credit, and hunkered down in the Credit Valley Marina for the night.  Our plan was to get away fairly early Sunday morning, so to be back in time to get ready for another week.  This meant no church and I knew I would miss my routine.

 

One of the spiritual disciplines of my Sunday is the walk to and from church.  There was to be none of that this Sunday last, but a short walk was in the offing all the same.  I walked along the Mississauga lake front trail, enjoying the view and the people enjoying the view.  I was especially struck by a man sitting on a bench with a coffee, cigar, and crossword puzzle who was utterly transfixed by his tasks.  He didn’t seem to notice his pristine view of the lake, which was emitting some of the diamonds it harbours in waves and wakes.  Others were chatting as they jogged, walked, and cycled about.  None looked like they were on their way to church, and it struck me that a change in their plans was not too likely.

 

Of course, many in the Greater Toronto Area would know nothing of church, coming to Canada with other faiths in their pasts, but I was reminded again how many in Canada would know nothing of church, being born with little or no knowledge of what the practice of church could mean.  I looked at the people biking in their little groups, and asked myself how many of them might give up their free Sunday morning at lake’s side for the weekly discipline of worship.  My forehead furrowed.

 

My father, of blessed memory, used to say that a revival was needed in our day and age.  He had in mind a revival of the heart of both the individual and the church, and I think he was right.  But as I made my way yesterday upon that pathway leading not to church but along the lake, I surmised that re-vivification will involve neither finger waving nor bland religious platitudes, but more time spent with folk like Gary.  He gleefully shouts “Time for church!” as one of us hold open the door for him who, in turn, opens a few doors for us unawares.  His faith is contagion as he revives the heart of the institution and the individuals who still find in it a home for their faith.

Of Sermons and Such

Last weekend I attended the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Atlanta.  While I had opportunity to hear some marvelous papers, and reveled in the occasion to meet with old friends and to greet new ones, by far the highlight of the weekend came on Sunday morning.  After a hearty breakfast at “The Diner,” I joined two friends in a cab that took us to (the new) Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church community of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  We arrived a bit early, and had opportunity to wander about a bit, looking at the Peace Garden and reading some touching reflections on peace written by children of various ages from many locales.  We took a very quick look at the museum before getting back to the church.  We arrived at 10:30 or so, for an 11:00 service.  At a quarter to the hour, one of the church leaders introduced three young people seeking baptism, and while the choir sang “Take Me to the Waters,” they were baptized by immersion on confession of faith in a baptismal font located some 20 or 30 feet above the sanctuary proper.  I was hereby reminded that this was not my home, which was the very thing I was hoping for.  The service proper began at 11:00 with a thanksgiving hymn, followed by prayers, the Pastor’s Brief, a stewardship presentation, special music, an offering, etc.  All of this moved the community artfully towards the sermon, which was altogether unlike anything I have heard.

 

The preacher was Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, a celebrated preacher in North America.  His oratory skills were moving, his treatment of the biblical passage insightful, his engagement of justice issues jolting, and his ability to connect the text to the trials and temptations of the folk in the pew profound.  The sermon began with a measured pace and a close reading of a written text.  As the sermon advanced, the pace picked up, the preacher left the written text, and by the end what transpired was as much song as speech as he spoke with ringing and rolling phrases that reached for justice, pressed for peace and sang mercy.  People stood and clapped when a phrase, or an idea, or an admonition hit their hearts.  Certain themes brought the majority of the congregation to their feet, but never all the people.  It was clear to me that standing, and/or clapping was a part of a personal engagement with the sermon rather than a required or expected response.  As the sermon reached its conclusion, folk were invited to come forward to shake the Pastor’s hand in a gesture of welcome for those wishing to join the Ebenezer Community.  It was really a most memorable and transformative event.

 

I am a little reticent to call what I experienced a sermon.  Or, perhaps I should be reticent to call what I hear in most churches I frequent a sermon.  The genre was so utterly other than what I know.  I am aware that, to a degree, the character of my experience was formed by my being outside of my zone of familiarity and comfort.  And so, I am neither romantic nor naive about what I experienced, recognizing that what transpired at Ebenezer is a product of events, and skills, and communal commitments that cannot be replicated in my context.  Nor is it the case that Dr. Warnock’s sermon was “better” than what I normally hear.  In fact, it seemed so utterly different that comparison seems like an evasion of the need to simply take in what occurred.  The experience was one of those which seems so rich as to require a long deep breath, and willingness to sit with it for a bit.  Something happened in that historic community for me, and I suspect it will take a while before I know what it was.  But in the interim, I am grateful for such an unusual experience, as well as the usual experiences which allow this one to stand out so.

These Nave Walls

Words evaporate, not
exactly disappearing but
dissipating, they’re
aired in near ubiquity.

Drawn to their limit, they
penetrate these nave walls, where
they wait
until we wait
upon them.

If you are still;
if you but listen,
you can hear echoes
of chorale and converse.

We might join in, or
perhaps not, but
we dare not forget that
there is more to be
heard than said.

Sheep Safely Graze…

Sheep safely graze

Witnesses to the word heard not

Always in the parson’s parsing parables

But in the parable – now

Enfleshed in the coos of the muse in babe in arms,

(Shaped like Seraphim) and

The soft curve of the letter ‘S’ in 

Isaiah and Psalms, ansd even in the

Verse left unsung and so now so very

Loud, this laud protesting its being

Precluded: it a

Reminder that 

Sheep are never safe, at least

No safer than the ruminated grass;

No safer than the parable

That is the Kirk.

An Experience of Communion

Hi All, I was invited to provide a guest blog for the Lutheran World Federation website.  It was to be a reflection on my experience at the recent consultation on the nature of the Lutheran World Federation – especially in light of its self-definition as a “Communion of Churches.”  The blog can be found here.

Viking Nave

Yesterday in Oslo we visited a museum with a stave church.  At the steeple of the church we saw the fore and aft of a Viking ship.  This is fitting  since the ancient church considered the church, or nave, to be a ship.  The following poem is reflection on this.

 

Stave churches

do not stray far

from home.  Yet, Viking steeples

recall

North Sea sagas and summon

adventurous pleas to please hoist anchor.

No, these Nordic arks are not to be restricted

to pairs of possibilities, rather a plethora

of potentials, as that itinerant

preacher sets root in this skiff.

He sprouts as mast, and from this stalk, he

stretches forth beams decked with

sails.

 

Sister wind wills this

stave ship

this way, that – madly off –

a discipleship

befitting a Viking nave.

This Too is Beautiful

I spent this last week in Helsinki, Finland for the 2012 Luther Congress.  The Congress meets once every five years.  It was an exceptional experience that allowed me to see old friends, meet new, and learn how much I have to learn.

My family and I were in Helsinki for about six hours on our way to St. Petersburg five or six years ago.  It was a delight to spend more time in this beautiful Nordic city.  One of the memories from our previous trip was a visit to the RockChurch.  Take a look at it at http://www.sacred-destinations.com/finland/helsinki-rock-church-temppeliaukio.  Fortunately, I had time on my last day to make a pilgrimage to this site.  It really is one of the most astounding churches I have ever visited.  The blend of rock, natural light, a copper roof, and well planned site lines make it a church that preaches that God has made the world good.  This is truly a beautiful church.

As you can imagine, such a church attracts tourists.  I arrived there shortly before the church opened.  Soon busses arrived.  The quiet tranquil atmosphere changed as smart phones, cameras and tablets began their busy work of capturing the moment.  As I sat there, I wondered how many pictures there are of this church in the digital universe.  My mind reeled at the thought, and then I wondered why people take pictures of such places.  I remember a professor once telling a class that tourists take pictures in a vain attempt to “capture” what cannot be captured.  I used to think he was right

But as I sat and watched the tourists from all around the world snapping away, I began to question this professorial wisdom.  I noticed how much people smiled while taking pictures, and while having their picture taken.  They really seemed to enjoy the experience of being together in this place.  Taking photographs is a way to be together.  Every now and then I ask tourists who are taking pictures of one another if they would like me to take one of them together with their camera.  They always say yes, and I always smile while I participate in their joy of being together.  This too is beautiful.  This too is to be celebrated.  Maybe you too have experiences of such unexpected beauty; such experiences of grace upon grace.