Pictographs at Superior

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No, these images cannot be
described – neither
poetry nor prose can
circumscribe these etchings
on stone, cyphers of tenacity
sketched on rock, scars of strength
anchored across
grandfathers’
cheeks.  My cheeks
now moistened as I feel
this place dripping divine: mine
the gain as  I lay down any sense
of superiority,
of expertise,
of being high priest.

No, none of these
obtain because here I am
a drop of water crashing against rock;
a tear salting skin-on-fire;
a dropping of the guard into the
truth that being a drop is more
than enough.

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Fish Bowl Theology

Yesterday afternoon I returned from our annual orientation retreat for the school where I work. It is an especially rich affair, with the opportunity to put face to the names we have seen on application forms.  Everyone is appropriately nervous and a particular kind of energy hangs in the air.  And as people get to know people you can feel bridges being built.  It is a kind of engineering of the personal and communal, I think.

 

One of the things we did for the retreat last year on the Saturday night, and replicated this year, was an event called the fish bowl.  I first encountered it some years ago at a clergy retreat.  In sum, it involves a group of three or four – or more, I suppose but would not recommend it – folks sitting in a circle discussing a topic.  The larger group sits around the smaller group, and listens in on the chat, rather like many of us look in on a fishbowl – without intervening but observing carefully what transpires.  Last year it was suggested by one of our newer faculty members.  She brought it forward as a way to allow student to catch faculty in motion in response to some fairly common questions around the role of theology in the curriculum of students aiming to be psychotherapists.  It involved a group of four of us, two biblical scholars, a professor in the area of spiritual care and psychotherapy, and myself – a systematic and historical theologian.

 

My experience this year was a little nerve wracking, rather like last year’s.  I entered the circle feeling like I was, well, a fish in a bowl.  The moderator got the questions going.  As we talked in response, I found myself glancing at fish bowl observers, wondering how this comment landed or if that quotation flew.  I found myself distracted – in a fashion – by the context but soon enough the content took over.  One of my colleagues posed a point I disagreed with, and so I intervened in service of clarification.  Another raised an issue I was inspired to riff on for a bit.  I got drawn into the conversation, and soon I discovered that I was utterly unaware of those observing us.  I was in the moment, and if felt glorious.

 

Eventually, though, the timer called us out of the bubble-bowl that had established itself and we began to entertain queries from the curious cats looking at and listening in on us.  These included both requests for clarification about challenging ideas as well as expansions on ideas expressed.  It was all rather invigorating and one of the students mentioned to a faculty member that she came to the event weary but found herself energized.

 

In retrospect, we noted that the students had an opportunity to catch a snapshot of a film, a sliver of a long conversation that has been going on between faculty in manner that I would describe as healthy, good-natured and yet marvellously taxing.  We have been at this for a time, and all of us have changed in varying ways, as is wont for those who listen and speak with a measure of charity and a double measure of self-critique.  A kind of grace attended the event – a grace that left us strangely invigorated and yet exhausted at the same time.  I can only hope and pray that those looking on experienced something of this, taking from the fish bowl what they needed.

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.

This is Not Manna

I just came back yesterday from a church convention. It was all that a church convention can be – a mix of inspiration and tedium, passion and boredom, renewal and rehashing.

Ours was held near the airport in Toronto, and I recall another such convention in a like location some years ago. The convention chaplain at that meeting spoke about the experience of the children of Israel in the wilderness in a sermon. The weariness of eating manna day in and out brought to his mind his experience of receiving rhubarb as a parish pastor on the prairies years ago. For those not in the know, rhubarb is described as an herb. It grows as a stalk, which is eaten. It has a lovely flavour, but is very crisp, sour and utterly devoid of sugar. My memories of it as a child were of its marriage to strawberries at this time of year – in a sauce poured over ice cream, or eaten on its own by dipping in a bowl of sugar.

The convention chaplain derided it a bit, which made me rather unhappy. In those days, I had two huge rhubarb plants, from which I made both rhubarb juice and wine. The former was a refreshing alternate to fruit juice for breakfast with a raspberry like tartness, and especially lovely in the winter. The latter was a simple but satisfying fruit wine for a Friday movie night in the basement, in the days when a movie meant a trip to the local video rental location. I loved rhubarb and given its relatively short season in my world did not find it a fitting parallel to the tedium of manna in Moses story.

At our recent convention, I bumped into Kathryn S., who most recently gave me some pounds of fresh cut rhubarb, which I turned into canned rhubarb, seen below. I thanked her again, showing her the photo, and saying I would think on her when mixing a bit with my home-made granola in the middle of the winter. She wondered whether this said rhubarb might end up in a blog post, demonstrating both her prescience and my eagerness to find fit material for a rumination, now on rhubarb, which brings me back to my earlier observation about the rhubarb sermon.

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It could well be that the good pastor received more rhubarb than he knew what to do with. But times have changed and the comparison does not hold, in my estimation. Rhubarb is gold in the local grocery store, and I have tried growing it in our back yard but to nearly no avail. Our back yard is too shadowed. I do not at all associate rhubarb with tedium, but rather delight and so I thank Kathryn, doubly, for this fine food which also serves me as an aide de memoire of grace.

I should mention that I have never canned rhubarb before. I didn’t exactly have a recipe. I found a few on-line recipes, but they seemed to be more complicating than necessary. I simply did with rhubarb as I have done with canned peaches although upping the sugar to water ratio a bit. In due course I will find out whether I succeeded, or not, and now look about for other manna (or not) like miracles for use in canning, fruit juice, or perhaps even that most private of pleasures: fruit wine aged in the cellar.

Word in utero

Foot on bladder;
fist at rib;
each twist arrests
her breath that now attests
the movement of Word to womb to world.

What did her womb know
of the Love it cradled? Did the
placenta cheer to hear the first utterance of
the divine Word in water? Did her
spine divine the Spirit wafting hope
over primordial waters?

Word in utero;
God so loving world,
God so loving womb;
God so loving the mother of God – Theotokos – first
to know that to hear the word is to bear Love.

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.