Notice What You Feel

When I was younger, I used to think it important to be strong. Now I know it is wiser to be flexible and balanced.

This applies to many levels – intellectual, spiritual, physical, etc. – but I am increasingly convinced that intellectual and spiritual insights have to be grounded in physical practices. I have always been physically active and have written in other posts about the ways in which running has been spiritually and intellectually enriching. But over the last few years I have been spending more and more time trying to keep limbs and such malleable and have mused often about trying yoga.

I decided that this recent lock-in was a good time to give it a go, and so I asked my daughters, who are my doctors in many ways, for advice and they suggested “Yoga with Adriene.” Adriene Mishler recently completed a 30-day program called “Home” and so I began watching her January 2020 series on YouTube some days ago. I just finished day 22 with the theme of “Stir.”

On day 22 Adriene made a comment that gave me pause. She said “You should not be in pain, but we do want to be in a place where we can observe sensation.” I am a beginner, but what is slowly coming to clarity for me is the goal of getting your body into a place where some new awareness of what you physically feel is evident. She often says “scan your body,” or “pay attention to what your body is saying to you,” or “notice what you feel” or like. When I was younger, I played football, where strength was king, and no-one invited us to “notice what you feel.” Numbness rather than awareness seemed to be the goal. I recall, for instance, a drill where we would jog on the spot and at the blow of a whistle fall jarringly to ground: no pain, no gain. Perhaps things have changed. I hope so.

In yoga we are invited over and over again to observe breath, body, and the beat of the heart. Balance and malleability are the collateral benefits of a practice that is about getting to know the body and so the self. There is a spiritual tradition associated with yoga, and the practice of yoga in North America has sometimes been criticized for underplaying this. I do not really know enough at this point to weigh in on the critique, but I know that the attention to the breath in my daily time with Adriene has caused me to think deeply on the breath of God: the Holy Spirit.

Next month I will be teaching an intensive course remotely called Spirit and Community. The theme of body should loom large when Christians think about community (often called the body of Christ) and the Breath that animates it. If the bible sees the body as a fit cypher for the spiritual community of Christ, then we need to take a careful look at how we apprehend the body. Although much still needs to be decided in how the course will proceed, one thing is clear to me. A healthy body is balanced and flexible. This is true for physical bodies and for communal bodies. How could it be any different for communal bodies that are Spirited?

Corona and Communion

[Dear stillvoicing reader: today’s post is a bit different in genre. Next week regular programming will be resumed.]

These Coronavirus days are strange indeed as we find ourselves moving through uncharted territories – or at least uncharted for many of us. In the church community in which I live, the Lutheran or more specifically the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, questions have been bouncing about concerning how will we worship when we cannot gather. Most churches are working at making resources available online.

But what sort of service will we have? My church community has chosen to do a service of the word while some communities have opted for a communion service, inviting folk at home to provide their own bread and fruit of the vine for consumption. This has raised questions among some wondering whether this is legitimate communion, or not. Some theologians, many whom I deeply admire have responded with the suggestion that this is a time to fast from communion. Some beg to differ. So, some thoughts from this theologian.

To start with, let me assert that in the Lutheran church communion is not necessary for salvation. It is, however, a means of grace and so one of the ways by which and through which Christ is embodied and proclaimed as God’s unconditional love for us. St. Augustine helpfully described the sacraments as visible words, and so this is a concrete and tangible word that we consume. But its absence is not to be considered detrimental for salvation. It is, however, a balm for souls in troubled times.

Also important for a Lutheran theology is the assertion that communion presumes community. Luther argued against the medieval catholic practice of priests communing by themselves. Many who have argued against online, or virtual, communion claim that this element of community is missing when people take bread and wine at home. In a way, I think, the language of “fasting from communion” is incorrect under this premise. There is, in this perspective, no real communion to fast from and so there would be no fast possible. Contra this my friend Deanna Thompson has argued, quite cogently, in The Virtual Body of Christ that community exists virtually. She points to her experience of battling stage four cancer, underscoring how an online community made Christ present to her. When two or three gather in Christ’s name online, Christ is there in the midst of them. I am thoroughly persuaded by Deanna’s argument. Christ mediates relationship between believers in many ways.

Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, famously identified Christ as the “between” that enables believer and believer to be in fellowship. Christ is the “between” that enables me and my colleague to be together when we chat across the space of the hall and is also the between for us when we meet online. And let me add that I am very glad for this latter between even while I wait for the former in hope. If you want proof of the reality of this virtual communion as truly communion, then simply step away from the internet until Covid 19 has finished its strange work among us. I suspect that you will notice something missing.

I think that online worship is truly a coming together, and so I think that Luther’s proviso regarding coming together is met. But what of the fact that the bread on my table at home is a different loaf than the bread at the table in the church? Can we say that we are eating from one loaf? Are we really having communion in Christ? Not if we understand that the physical coming together of brother and sister is required for the one loaf to be the body of Christ. But perhaps this can be reframed so that we see that it is the coming of Christ who enables the many loafs to be one and so the coming together of brother and sister. It is coming Christ who enables me to meet brother and sister in Christ in the loaf at my kitchen table. It is Christ who makes many loaves one.

Lastly, some argue against virtual communion claiming that online communion supports clericalism, that is, the practice of centering the life of the church around its clergy and their activity instead of around the living word, encountered in word and sacrament. The argument goes, I think, that online communion communicates that we have to have communion and it has to be celebrated by an ordained minister. The implicit message, then, is that legitimate worship involves communion and communion requires an ordained clergy and so clericalism is subtly promoted. This is not a simple argument to unpack, but I think we would do well to ask how Lutherans can commend weekly communion outside of these strange Corona days without falling into the same charge. I think there is a need to revisit our understanding of communion, whether it be in our normal experience, or virtual. Here I want to draw on an experience of my own.

Some years ago at the school where I work – Martin Luther University College (formerly Waterloo Lutheran Seminary), Bob Kelly, professor of Systematic Theology, presided at a communion service in which he invited the whole assembly to join him in proclaiming the words of institution. His rationale was that the pastor speaks in the stead of the whole community, a point made by Luther rather dramatically in his 1520 To the Nobility of the German Nation. Bob wanted us to remember that we are a common priesthood. The singular voice is the voice of the whole. Luther, in the same document, suggested that if a group of pious Christians were to find themselves on a desert island without a priest, they could in good conscience choose a person from their midst to be their priest. There was no need for an episcopal ordination on that desert island because we are a priesthhood.

It seems to me that we are on desert islands rather than on one desert island. But our islands are connected by the grace (and I use that word advisedly) of technology, by “the virtual Christ.” One way in which we could make clearer that connection would be by considering having the faithful in their homes join the pastor in saying the “In the night in which he was betrayed our Lord Jesus.. ” together and so echo the practice of saying together “Our Father…” This would help underscore that this really is a communal rather than clerical event.

Lastly, I want to underscore that the above are ideas for debate rather than a finished treatise. I have read many explain why we ought not to practice on-line communion, but I have encountered little from the other side, apart from Deanna’s post which inspired me to write this. I also note that I am firmly convinced that Lutherans will not come to agreement on this, and so I wonder whether it might be prudent to allow communities to follow their conscience on this matter. Thankfully, in the posts I have read there has not really been mud-slinging, bur rather measured and pastoral considerations. For this I am glad. Perhaps what is best is a willingness to agree to disagree lest the supper become a cause of division, yet again. We have been down that road far too many times.

These words we are…

This week brought my semester’s teaching to an end. Marking is still outstanding, and a host of post semester responsibilities: some around publishing, some around church work, some around the to and fro that comes with life in an institution.

It has been nice to have a little room to breath. My colleagues and I have had a bit more time to chat, and check in with each other. This really is one of the best bits of my work. My years in parish ministry sometimes came with a sense of being on my own even though I always had supportive people in my parishes. But this isn’t quite the same as having colleagues to interact with daily. That is now the case, and this piece in my position reminds me of how community really is at the core of finding fulfillment in life.

This last year I have been reading Indigenous authors who also speak of this – but they tend to expand the understanding of community in important and interesting ways. They invite us to consider all of the natural world as our relation. Trees and bumble-bees; fox and stalks of grass; clouds, rivers, springs and tides are all our relations. It is a helpful tonic to the way we relate to the world more often; seeing it as a resource for meeting our ever fleeting and demanding desires. This perception is fed by the idea that the world is a big cupboard for the wanton wants of the oh so important human species.

There are theologians, philosophers, scholars of various stripes who are querying the idea that the humans are at the pinnacle of creation – a point made by Indigenous people around the world. These voices point out that our sense of superiority is undone by the track record of homo sapiens vis-à-vis planet care. Further, they recognize that other animals and plants seem to have varying capacities to communicate and relate, and demonstrate compassionate faculties sometimes sorely lacking in us.

Interestingly Luther, in his Genesis lectures, invited us to think of all created things as words of God. I find that to be a liberating idea, allowing me to imagine that I am surrounded by God speaking to me and to all creation, and no one vocable, no single sigh from the divine mouth outstrips the other in importance. Each word from God has a right time, a right place and they really cannot be compared.

This last week, as we spent time chatting over coffee, and in the halls, in the little bit of a lull awaiting the arrival of papers, my colleagues were words from God to me in various ways. And for that I am grateful. Of course, a word came here and there came from the tree on our front lawn – that I adore – and from the light slipping between the pine trees in the backyard, singing a laud that held me spell-bound for a time.

God speaks in so many ways with and to all of the creation. There are no apexes in this taxonomy. We live together; we die together; and just as importantly, we pray together, also speaking the word we are to the ears that hear and echo God’s words right back.

“For some” or “Foursome”

I am now nicely ensconced in Shillong, Meghalaya, India. I’ll be here
for a month, doing some learning with the good folk at Martin Luther Christian University: teaching a course, learning a bit about tribal communities, and doing a workshop for PhD students, among other things. I have been hospitably received, this hospitality being a red thread tying together the mystery that is India.

This is my second time to India, and it seems oddly familiar and oddly strange at the same time. Let me illustrate. In order to gain some bearings as I move through the fog of jet lag, I decided to go for a walk after Saturday breakfast in the guest house where I am staying. My walk gave me an appreciation for the geography of the place. Part of the allure of Shillong, is that it is a city on hills, sharp hills, with lovely multi-story housing clinging to the steep like wild vines to a tree trunk. Winding weathered roads hold these homes together like a net strewn over rocks. I made my way along a bit of string on this walk, which took me to the local golf course right in the middle of town.

This being India, a tour through a golf course is, in itself, a revelation. There are clearly worn walking trails crossing the fairways, reminding me of cow paths back on the farm, meandering from a to b, with enough clarity to know where you are going but with enough drift to make the tour leisurely. They seemed a bit out of place on a fairway. In my experience in North America, the public does not generally swing through golf courses, but here the signs on the course make it clear that it is okay to do this, with a handful of provisos: no lunching on fairways, no meandering on the greens, no balls larger than the golfing sort for sport, watch out for golfers etc. In fact, on Sunday evening at sunset the fairways were full of families picnicking (in defiance of rule number one). It was a lovely sight.

On my Saturday walk after reading the sign, I chuckled and then came upon a most interesting scene. On one of the greens, I was surprised to see a part of eleven – yes eleven! – golfers at play. I have always wondered why four was the magic number on the courses I have played (perhaps an altogether too generous verb here). It seems another magic is at work in India. You play with the number of friends golfing. I later saw a party of seven, and so I can imagine there are permutations above and below and between four and seven, when considering a fitting “some.”

I’m not sure which hit me as more enticing, the idea that a golf course need not be dedicated to one pursuit alone, or whether the rules of the game might be bent to the needs of the community. I suppose, both speak to the reality that is Shillong. I trust that this month will give me yet more insights into not only the oddity of this place, but the oddity of my own, that place that prescribes a maximum of foursome and the dedication of expansive space to those with clubs in their hands.

20190203

Not Alone in This

This last week our school had an accreditation visit. Accreditation has long been a fact of life at many institutions. It involved, for us, a good dearl of tension, stress, anxiety, etc. The visit went reasonably well, I think, and we await a formal report in coming weeks. All of us, faculty and staff both, are breathing a little easier now that the visit is behind us, after months of report writing, copious editing, a good bit of pondering and a bit of hand wringing. The evaluation team came and queried and left, and now it is all done.

But what really happened?

The experience – for me – finally wasn’t about accrediting the institution and its programs, nor the never-ending obsession with outcomes, and goals, and measurement that has become the way of institutional life – although it was about these. The experience, rather, gave me the opportunity to understand anew how we work as a team, revealed in a rich way in our being together last week. The phenomenon of the visit set my colleagues in relief even while the quantifying means of evaluation could not measure the quality of our community.

How do you measure the hallway conversations that result in new ideas and new directions for scholarship? How do you quantify the kind of encouragement that comes from two colleagues who decide (voluntarily) to join me in an impromptu, and unscheduled, meeting with evaluators who want more information? How do you count the cohesion formed around cups of coffee enjoyed first thing each morning? What would a score card for worship look like?

Of course, you cannot measure these. To be fair to the evaluating visitors, they know this. They know this because they work in institutions like ours, institutions that have spirits not subject to the canons of outcome driven evaluations. Please do not misunderstand me, there is value for institutions in setting goals that are linked to outcomes that need concrete ways for determining success. But somehow, an assessment of an institution that does not look to the soul stories that sustain people fails. Assessment, I think needs to be assessed, and metrics need to be set against the canon of meaning.

I learned much this last week. I learned that I am remarkable blessed to work with people who care, and whose care is concrete in commitments to one another. I learned, anew, that learning is a mystery, and happens in ways that are not simply subject to the machination of planning, even while planning is a necessary part of learning and the institutions that support it. I learned, again, that grace comes despite our expectations of worst case scenarios and cynicism about processes that sometimes seem labourious and incursive.

I learned that I am not alone in this work. This is no small mercy, and I thank God for it.

Pilgrimage and Presence

“It’s sad to leave the people you travel with.
How much moreso those who remind you of God.
Hurry back to the ones protecting you.

On every trip, have only one objective,
to meet those who are friends
inside the presence.”

(excerpt from Rumi’s “A Pilgrimage to a Person,” The Essential Rumi)

I am just back now from a trip to Kingston, Ontario with Inshallah, the 100+ voice choir I have enjoyed for 8 years or so. There we joined Open Voices, a community choir in Kingston with similar numbers. Between the two choirs, we were 170 voices strong, and performed a concert in support of Kingston’s Interchurch Refugee Partnership.

The event was spectacular indeed. It was a rich experience to sing with another choir, with two different directors and two different cultures. It truly was an opportunity “to meet those who are friends.” I like the way Rumi puts it: to meet those who are friends rather than meet those who will become friends. This presence he speaks of seems to reference a place and way of being where we are drawn into relationships that almost seem to have been prepared in advance: a feast awaiting our taking place at table.

I had the happy opportunity to be fed by and billeted with Open Voice chorister Stewart and his lovely wife Aileen. They were consummate hosts, a description that befits Open Voices. As we gathered around a programme featuring music both familiar and not, each choir had the challenge of learning to sing together, a process expedited – I think – by the realization that we were there together for the sake of refugees coming to Canada from Syria. They framed “presence” for us in their permanent pilgrimage.

But it wasn’t only the concert and cause that made “presence” real. The trip to and from Kingston on the bus, too, was a gift with much laughing, a bit of napping, some rich conversation and that sort of small talk that builds bridges and opens doors. I have been learning a bit about pilgrimage these last few years, and have discovered that leaving allows you to return to a part of you that might well be buried below the busyness of the everyday. I think this truth obtains for communities as much as for individuals. As a group we experienced ourselves anew, and this was a gift. And so it was so very poignant to come home and pick up my volume of Rumi and read that “it is sad to leave people you travel with.” But sadness is tempered by the memory that together we entered the presence, and were therein gifted.

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.

The World Beneath my Feet

It has been a wet June, and somewhat cold too after a warm dry May. Yesterday I rushed out and mowed the lawn aware of an impending rainstorm. My timing – albeit prompted by my wife’s observation of the light’s shift– was exquisite. The heavens opened just as I put away the lawnmower. Our lawn these days is rich in colour and complicated in content. “Weed and Feed” and such were outlawed a few years back, and so folk have the option of hiring lawn professionals (who can still use such products), or going au naturel, or converting grass to something else: a rock garden, a perennial bed, etc. Ours is a rather large lawn and so the conversion option is not so very attractive. We are not inclined to go with lawn professionals, and so wild is our style.

Our lawn gets a little more interesting each year. It hosts many sorts of plants, including grass. From a distance it looks a lovely green of various hues. Up close the breadth of selection is staggering. I generally like this, and am very happy with what must be a small wild strawberry that grows below the generous height I have set my lawn-mower. It begins with a lovely, tiny butter yellow flower that turns into a rock hard red fruit that is utterly inedible. From my perspective, its value is all in the beauty it brings to the lay of the lawn. Last year, a pretty little purple flower came along as well. I cheered it on, of course. But in due course I realized that it was strangling everything. It didn’t play well with others, and so I pushed back. This year it pops up here and there and I round it up with my hand rather than “ “Round Up.” Clover spots the lawn, and feeds the rabbits, and there are the odd dandelions that I did not dig up manually in the spring. I leave them be until next spring.

As you can tell from the above, I know my lawn a bit better than I did, say five years ago, when we would fertilize and apply herbicides in the spring and cut like crazy through the summer. Now I wander around, with my eyes on the ground wondering what I might find in this microcosm of multiculturalism. Scientists tell us that diversity is the building block of a healthy eco-system. That seems sound, as long as that diversity is ready to push back when certain species have “monoculture” as their watch word. Social scientist tells us that diversity is also the mark of a healthy culture, where room is made for the many or few who are different from the rest. That Christian sage of old seemed to have this in mind when he compared the church to a body, a harmony of disparate parts needing a diversity ordered to the common good of all.

Dealing with diversity in human community, however, is frightening. We imagine that if others look like us they will think like us and then all will be well. This, of course, is one way we put our heads in the sand. The pathway of the common good does not demand everyone look the same, or say the same thing, or even believe the same way. Common good comes from good community where people take time to be with one another, to find out what it is that divides and unites us, and to respect the difference and the distance we all need. In this week of national celebrations north and south of the border, we do well to recall that we all need one another because we can only be individuals together.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

This has been Luther Hostel week at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary – a week with credit and continuing education events, as well as special worship and recreation events.  Last night we had opportunity to see the documentary film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”  This movie is about groups of women, both Christian and Muslim, who worked for peace in war torn Liberia.

 

The story is stark, and difficult to hear: sons enslaved as soldiers, daughters raped by marauding gangs intoxicated with guns and the numbing power of drugs, mothers and fathers forced to see and hear the unspeakable, moments before their death.

 

I do not know so very much about this story.  The film served as a correction, even while alerting me to the fact that there is so much more to learn.  While a film such as this is disturbingly dark, it also came with moments of hope.  Seeing the women dance and sing – each turn, each stanza made into a prayer – was incredibly moving.  Hope shone through in strength of these women who refused to let the devil have the last word in their communities.  Together, in sit down strikes and stand out defiance, they turned faux peace talks into a test of accountability.

 

The film also chronicled the difficult task of facing former child soldiers, now young men, in this post-war situation.  We have the good fortune of having Esther and Lazarus, two church workers from Liberia, with us for a couple of months.  They were able to comment on the work being done in this area by the Lutheran Church in Liberia.  They reminded us that these former child soldiers have had their childhood robbed from them, even as they robbed life, and hope, and community from others.  In the film, some of the victims spoke of the difficult task of forgiving these.  Not all are able to do this.  I can certainly understand that.  But for those who are beginning to see their way into forgiveness, an important step was seeing them again as children rather than child soldiers.

 

I will never forget the strength of the women in this movie.  Their righteous anger echoed the beatitudes proclaimed by an itinerant preacher of a time long ago.  He talked of tables being turned, of the weak taking power, of the meek inheriting mantels, and the mighty being brought low.  Something of this was experienced in Liberia.  A new Reign fell upon this land.  Prayer and solidarity held hands as mercy and truth met in these strong women.  Much work remains to be done in Liberia, where our thoughts, prayers, and solidarity are coveted.  But hope is being enacted in the form of former child soldiers now learning talents and trades to contribute to a new Liberia, to a new kind of freedom.

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.