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?

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.

After the Manner

Someone called me a poet
the other day,
but I don’t know: all
I feel is my
poverty, my
reticence, my

Still, I wager a
word now and then;
some wheat to the wind.

I’m not sure what
to make of those
seeds I sow, but I
know that any
omens are not my own.

At times words accost me,
and I see fire above,
and cannot but report.

I am not so much a poet,
but after the
manner of Luther,
a beggar.

Site of Silence

With a solid footing of snow, I decided yesterday was an fitting occasion to head over to Bechtel Park for a Nordic ski. I am more inclined to go to a local golf course, largely because it is so very close. But time was a bit more spacious on January 1, and so I jumped in the car and headed about 8 km north on the express way so that I could ski the set trails at Bechtel.

It was actually a bit icier than I was anticipating, and so after a few swings around a couple of trails I crossed a little bridge over a small creek and inched my way on a path neither groomed nor friendly to cross country skis. I eventually always do this when at Bechtel. I usually take along a small thermos of hot chocolate and get far enough away along the creek’s side to know that I won’t likely be meeting dog walkers or other skiers. Yesterday, I took a few photos with my phone before finding a fallen tree to function as my chaise. It wasn’t long before I noted a pair of cardinals across the stream in one tree, and a pair of nuthatches in another. I was transfixed by them. I’m not a birder and really know next to nothing about our feathered friends, but every now and then I find myself drawn to them. After a time, I made my way along the path back to the parking lot, realizing that I had not taken any photos of the birds, but happy enough all the same.

Later in the day, I listened to a podcast on “On Being.” Krista Tippett was interviewing Gordon Hempton about his work to reclaim silence in our world. Noise pollution is his concern, and he makes the rather audacious claim that silence is about to become extinct. Silence, please note, is not for Hempton an absence of sound but a dearth of artificial sounds. He spoke at length, and eloquently, about learning to listen, and the curious fact that humans are not hard-wired to hear humans as much as certain other animals. Our auditory interest in humans is a later overlay. He spoke in particular of our ability to catch the song of birds, since their call often indicated a locale of some importance for the primordial homo sapiens. It seems there is a deep seated reason for my attraction to bird song.

Hempton spoke eloquently of our need for listening. He claimed that ours is a world pre-occupied with sight. Learning to shift our focus from eyes to ears, and then to hear what comes naturally is no small task. Luther, the famed Reformer whose 500th anniversary of the posting of 95 theses (which is said to have kicked off the Reformation) is being commemorated in 2017, spoke of the church as a Mundhaus, or place of hearing. He made mention some 500 years before Hempton of the curious fact that ears do not have lids like eyes. Hempton made the case that this makes sense from the side of evolution because hearing is how we best discern who or what is in the environs. Luther made the case that this makes theological sense because hearing is passive in a way that is not quite true for seeing and so an especially apt receptor of words of grace.

Yesterday I was delighted to both see and hear the cardinals and nuthatches, and I was also very happy to look up at the clear blue sky and see snow laden trees branches form a frame for that heavenly blue as if they were playing the part of stained glass. Hempton calls the great outdoors his cathedral, a point I can appreciate even while I am quite content to let cathedrals be cathedrals and nature be nature. Both have things to teach us. Both provide both moments of rapture and occasions of deep awe – in their own way. But I am happy to hear – and see – in both evidences of hope and healing. Both can be for me sites of silence.

Charmed Again

I send this missive from Copenhagen, where I am on route from a conference in southern Denmark. I arrived here yesterday and leave tomorrow, and so the day afforded me the opportunity to do a little looking about. This is not the first time I have been to Copenhagen, a city I find to be utterly charming. This morning I made my way to Marmorkirken, a dome marble church across from the Royal Palace. The music was beautiful, and the service meaningful even though my Danish is less than elemental. Today is All Saints Day, and taking communion at a half round altar rail (whose other half extends into eternity, where it is attended by those we remember today) is always a powerful experience. I then went to the Danish Jewish Museum, where I learned a bit more about the incredible (and successful) efforts of the Danish people to protect Jews during the Second World War. Late in the afternoon I took a train ride to the Swedish city of Malmö, not so very far from Denmark and had a lovely walk and meal before returning.

The conference that brought me to Denmark was entitled “Luther from the Subaltern –the Alternative Luther.” Scholars from around the world spoke to themes either neglected in Luther studies or to new challenges that emerge in studying Luther today. My modest contribution addressed the manner in which the earth and its well-being were especially important to Luther and provide us with a meeting place for him and our contemporaries as we consider ecological concerns. I thought of that as I returned from the railway station and passed an electric charging station for cars. Increasingly people are mindful of the need to tread the earth carefully, which is somewhat easier in a place like Copenhagen. Major parts of downtown are car free, and so you see a plethora of bicycles and many people on foot. The public transit is to die for and unsurprisingly people are generally more fit. Of course, to some degree, Copenhagen and like cities are beneficiaries of wise planning in the past and careful contemporary regulations. Rules about the height of new buildings in the city core, and a concerted effort to keep historic buildings beautiful and functional make for a very fetching city.

When I returned from my train trip, I was going to read in the hotel, but the siren call of the city had me out again. It is rather like an affectionate cat wrapping itself around your leg; begging you to pet it (cat haters please insert an appropriate dynamic equivalent here). The city is inviting, well-run and simply fun to be in. It strikes me that the success of the Danes in design might not be unrelated to their living in well-designed cities. Our environment shapes us, and we shape it as well, which brings me back to Luther. In the mid-20th century there was a school of Luther research in Scandinavia that spoke of Luther’s interest in creation and created matter, asserting that it held as much importance for him as redemption. If we read Luther as if all he offers us are insights into the soul then that is all we will get. But if we anticipate that he has interest in caring for the earth too, we might well find some fodder for future reflections. Luther can’t do our theological work for us, but he can give us tools to attend to our relationships with God, one another and the world as well – a world that includes not only natural beauty, but charming urban space too.

There’s More Here Than Meets The Ear

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Meet Chip. I realize it is not the most inventive name for a chipmunk, but my wife called him that one spring day when he popped his little nose around a rock to sniff us out. The name has stuck and he has stuck around. A few years back we lost our cat, and in the ensuing summers our backyard has become a bit more diverse. Chip is out and about. We regularly see robins, cardinals, rabbits, squirrels – the list goes on and on. We all loved Noel dearly, but it is nice to see some bio-diversity.

I especially like Chip. One day I was reading a book on a Muskoka chair and when I looked up, on the chair beside me was Chip eating a raspberry. He calmly ate half and then scooted off, leaving the other half for me or some other hungry creature. My wife has had the same experience. We will often see him pause in his jog across our patio, cheeks full to the brim with seeds or such, panting while he catches his breath. And then again after a brief repose, he sprints to the end of his race, a barely noticeable hole in our lawn, which serves as a portal to his storehouses.

I thought of Chip the other day while reading some theology. Luther wrote a treatise in 1525 entitled “How Christians Should Regard Moses.” It was written in response to an emerging idea that Christians in the German lands should be freed of the pre-Christian laws, which formed the basis for current laws, and embrace instead the mosaic laws. Luther disagreed, claiming that the mosaic laws were written for mosaic times, and while we might employ some of them (he mentioned, in particular, the Jubilee Laws), he rejected their wholesale engagement. He wrote that some of what we hear God say in the bible is said by God to others, not to us and so we ought not to hear them as addressed to us. Of course, this invites a broad conversation concerning which bits are intended for us, a matter taken up in earnest throughout the document. At any rate, he used a most interesting example to illustrate his point concerning directed speech. He mentioned that God speaks to angels, trees, fish, birds, animals etc but we do not hear it because what God says to them was not meant for us. And then I thought of Chip.

I like the idea of Chip – and Noel for that matter – holding converse with God (I can’t imagine it being a monologue). Nature, like “civilization,” is both messy and beautiful, and I would anticipate praise and lament from Chip and his fellows. Of course, I do get to hear one side of the conversation from time to time. The local cardinals let me in on their side of the song, for instance, even though I do not know what they say. But I hear them “saying,” that’s for sure! Of course, there are other – biological – ways to interpret their song, and I will happily hear of other interpretations. I will probably agree with them, but rescind from thinking scientific and theological explanations as mutually exclusive. But in the meantime, I will listen hard for what God has to say to me in this verse and not that, and in the play of Chip and friends, gracing my lawn with their presence.

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Thoughts from Eisenach


I am a stone’s throw away from the Wartburg Castle, famed for hosting two giants in the Christian faith: Elizabeth of Thuringia and Martin Luther. The former is renowned for her love of the poor, and the later for his witness to the message of Justification by Grace. (I should note that Goethe, too, wrote a love letter or two from this same castle.) I am in Eisenach to participate in a conversation hosted by the Lutheran World Federation on the topic of the Psalms in the life of the church. In and of itself, this is an interesting topic, but it is made doubly so in this instance because this is a gathering of people from around the globe. Together we discuss what it means to read the Bible in our contexts. The context of Eisenach, where we are staying, is especially potent because it was in the Wartburg that Luther translated the New Testament into German and in one stroke made the Bible available to a broader audience and in so doing consolidated many German dialects into what would become standard Hochdeutsche. To be here with people from around the globe is an incredible gift.

Part of the gift of being here is hearing different languages spoken. Chapel every day includes praying the Lord’s Prayer; each in their own language. Although English is the language of papers etc., it is in prayer that we fully hear the diversity that we are. There is something profound in this experience: gone is the rhythmic cadence of all praying together, and we hear instead a kind of murmuring, or perhaps one could call it a bubbling, a kind of effervescence that reflects the beauty that happens when diversity dances with unity: many voices praying the same words in different languages. We are gathered together as one, but a “one” that celebrates multiplicity in Luther’s heartland.

It is important to note that Luther didn’t translate the Bible into the language of his heart with the intention that all should learn German in order to read his translation. He felt that the Bible should be available to people in their mother’s tongue. In so doing he invites us to consider that every tongue, every culture, every people have an inherent dignity. Unfortunately too many of us live in cultures that worship uniformity over unity – cultures obsessed with the cult of efficiency. It isn’t efficient to speak across cultures and so uniformity pummels the richness that is unity in diversity. At one level, it isn’t too surprising that we trade unity for uniformity. It is, after all, hard work to enter into the thought world of people who live a different reality than mine, but to refuse that challenge is to forfeit a moment of grace: a moment I am reveling in this week. And so I invite you, too, to take time this week to reach across a divide – whether it be financial, racial, or political – to encounter difference. As you do so, accept the otherness of the other even while you hold hands in whatever small way might be possible. You will be glad you did.