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?

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.

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.

Saturday on the Hard

Some twelve years ago or so I took sailing lessons. My dad, who was a sailor in WWII, spoke fondly of learning how to sail in his training, and after his death I took an interest in learning how to sail. I suppose it was a way to connect with him. It grabbed me, though, and the next year we bought a sailboat.

Sailing is a delight of my summers, but this year it is not to be. The marina where we keep out boat was in need of a new break wall, keeping the marina safe from strong east winds off Lake Ontario. Because of the stay-at-home orders and the fact that our marina is in a park closed by provincial orders. Work on the break wall was halted for a time. The project has only recently been completed. By the time the docks would be put in place, and boats put in the water, we would not have much sailing time left. Consequently, Santa Maria will stay in its cradle on the Marina parking lot, on the hard, along with another 100 or so from our marina.

This has been a strange year, and because of restrictions at the marina and my teaching an intensive course using Zoom meaning a steep learning curve, we have not had much opportunity to get to the boat. We went down a couple of weeks ago to see what was up with Santa Maria. She was doing fine, but we decided we would do a few projects on her this year. Yesterday we took a trip down to the marina and spent the afternoon scrubbing the hall, the deck and the cockpit. A mulberry tree branch hangs over the boat so we spent a good bit of time scrubbing away blue bits.

After an afternoon of cleaning Gwenanne and I both felt a kind of satisfaction. It was an afternoon far removed from a typical summer Saturday, spent on the water. But there was a kind of satisfaction and delight in being by the water, and getting away for a day. In way, it sort of reminds me of visiting someone by Zoom. It’s a far shot from a face to face visit, but far better than nothing at all.

We won’t be down at the marina every weekend, but we have enough projects that need to be done to keep us busy through the summer. It will be a summer on the hard, but in the big scheme of things this is a small loss. We are in a time of doing work differently, doing worship differently, doing everything differently. Even marinas that are open (and ours in not unique in staying closed), are having a unique and different experience. In due course this will all pass, but in the meantime we take joy in different experiences, and look hopefully for another kind of summer next year.