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.

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Happy Anniversary Canada?

This weekend marks 150 years since confederation in our fair country. Social media feeds, as well as newspaper editorials and such have variously greeted this auspicious occasion: some with celebration, some derision and some hand-wringing. Those who celebrate look at the many ways in which this country works or has worked well in promoting multi-culturalism, universal health-care, a measured presence on the world stage, etc. Those who mark this day with derision are mindful of broken treaties with and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, sordid treatment of Japanese, Ukrainians, Chinese, Jews and others, as well as exclusion laws of the 20th century. Those who wring their hands are living hard into the truth of all of the above, presented here in a summary form that does little justice to it all.

It is interesting to sit back a bit and ponder this matter from the perspective of faith. In my Christianity and Global Citizenship classes I often point students to the seeming ambiguity of the category of citizenship for the early Christian community. On the one hand, Paul claims that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), while on the other hand in Acts 22:25 we have a picture of Paul making use of his Roman citizenship to his advantage. Christians might be forgiven for having a confused relationship with the state. A history of some expressions of the faith demonstrates a tortured attempt to live faithfully in both guises of citizenship, with varying degrees of success. At certain points in history the state and church have virtually collapsed, while there have also been instances of radical discipleship eschewing any identity with “kingdoms of this world.”

Luther distinguished without divorcing church and state with God being seen as the guarantor of order in both realms. This has sometimes resulted in a Lutheran quietism that has been tragic in epic proportions. We have learned that being a citizen of heaven demands of the faithful an accounting of their engagement as citizens of this world insofar as they accrue such a status! In short, people of faith are not to be so heavenly minded as to be either naïve or cynical. A solid accounting of the nation’s commitment to peace and justice is demanded of all.

So, then, what of Canada on this 150th birthday? Is this to be celebrated, or not? But maybe the questions is misplaced. Is Canada really celebrating a birthday? Metaphors pack weight and that of birthday is mightier than first imagined. It proposes a kind of organic history of Canada that might well be deemed destiny. But Canada, as are all nations, is a construct. It is a political creation that resulted from conferences and consultations, backroom dealings and such. It is a legal entity and what was marked on July 1, 2017 was the 150th anniversary of this, not its birthday. Canada was not born on July 1, 1867 because nations are not born, they are made. This entity is both brilliant and broken. Marking 150 years of Canada is more like remembering the anniversary of an institution than the birthday of a child. The latter deserves unconditional love and the former a critical yet appreciative evaluation.

I am happy to live in Canada. I am embarrassed by its failures, many of which have made my life rich. And so I put up a flag on my porch, but when I look at it I remember that red is the colour of blood, and that my pleasure has been other people’s pain, and that the leaf calls me to reconciliation and solidarity, not gloating and entitlement.

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.