A Sigh of Belief

You are ever
under siege, Your
mighty right hand
now wearied, and
Your left grasping
after a little rest –
but Sabbath seems
to escape You.

How will You renew
creation, Lord, when
You sit across from me
slumped in the chair
like a soldier about to
surrender?

And yet, Your eyes,
Your eyes still galvanize
in grace, and later when
I read Your latest missive
I am reminded that You
mind Yourself, and so us,
and I breathe a
sigh of
belief.

This Work We Do Together

This week was the beginning, again, of school. It is always such an exciting time, meeting new students, imagining how the first classes will unfold, and knowing all the while that anything is possible. But one thing is certain: I’ll blink my eyes and it will be Christmas.

Time continues to race on in life. I see our students and can’t help but remember my own foray into theology so many years ago. I never imagined that one day I would be a part of the team welcoming students into a new world. So much is the same: nervous excitement, wondering whether the right choice has been made, and trying to navigate the best ways through academic life. But much has changed. These days there are more women than men in our classes, which are increasingly diverse in terms of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. This diversity makes the classroom an exciting place!

It is odd, but when I consider the differences, the time seems long, and when I ponder the similarities the time shrinks. Theologians and philosophers have thought long and hard about the nature of time, but it seems that all of us have responsibility to make our peace with time.

Students of history know well that the capacity to mark time with watches and such was an important step in the journey to the modern world. Time drives our way of being in the world; being ever watchful of the clock, pondering how to make the most of each day. I am not one to look longingly to the past, but on this issue, I exercise this right. Our overcommitment to projects; our constant checking of time whether by wrist watches or devices demonstrates the kind of difficulty so many of us have in getting settled into a place. We are hounded by the keeping of time.

I know from personal experience that this sometimes dangerous. I do my best work when I work sabbatical into my week. When I am rested, and wrested from the busyness of life new ideas and possibilities pop into my mind. This allows me to be more productive when I get back to work.

I hope our students learn this lesson sooner rather than later. People who burn both ends of the candle do not typically excel. I, too, need to be reminded of this truth. Down time makes on time more productive, imaginative and effective.

Of course this is not only a lesson for students. Their professors owe them the same so that we are better able to be creative, helpful and engaged in this work we do together.

Slivers of Sabbath

I have just finished the first week of my sabbatical, which means that I have 51 more weeks left of this marvellous opportunity. This seems like a passage of time that will last forever, but I know from past experiences that this period flies by. So, I am working at being quite intentional about using it well.

I have had a number of people ask me about a sabbatical, and what it means for me in my work situation. I explain that for six years of work, one half year at full salary, or one full year at 80 % of salary is offered professors who make application. The concept of the sabbatical is biblically grounded in the notion of a day’s rest for seven days of work (Exodus 20:8-11). The word sabbatical itself comes from the Hebrew word for seven, or seventh and from there became associated with rest. But to reference the theme of rest alone is not quite adequate when it comes to describing the sabbath I am on.

The board of the institution where I work anticipates that my sabbath will be a time wherein I do some research to develop skills in service of teaching and to advance knowledge in my area of expertise. A sabbatical is not for laying on the beach for 52 weeks. I found some funding from an outside source that will support my research in considering how schools of theology might respond to the 60th call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which calls upon theological colleges – among other things – to prepare ministers of religion and practioners of spiritual care of the “need to respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right.” This is an important commendation that is more complicated than first appears, and so demands a careful accounting of what this might mean in the context of any given school, and the theology that shapes its mission. I will spend a good bit of my sabbatical looking at this, but that is not all I will do. Over the last six years, I have accrued a good bit of nearly completed papers etc. that warrant some editing time and such. Sabbatical will partly be a time for some catch-up.

But I also need to remind myself that the ancient practice of doing less for the sake of more is a spiritual discipline. Recharging the batteries is a necessary practice in becoming whom I need to be for students, my colleagues, our institution and my family. I need to practice rest. Of course, doing nothing is counter-cultural. We are all defined by our jobs, assessed for our productivity, and valued for our contributions. This, unfortunately, is too often parlayed into a way of being that is thoroughly dismissive of the need to take a break, to slow down, and to do nothing for the sake of those times that demand my all. This sabbatical needs to be a time for me to lean into the discipline of pausing so that I might encounter the holy anew.

My life, like most – I suspect – is shaped by chunks of time divided up into fractures of “busy” bordered by ten minutes here, and five minutes there: waiting for the program to load, or the cars to move, or the meeting to start. I hope that this sabbatical will train me to embrace these fractures of time as a gift for the intentional practice of sabbath: to use the traffic jam to think of the blessing my life has accrued; to use unexpected down time from the computer to look out the window and monitor the cardinal; to use the waiting time before a meeting to notice my colleagues around the meeting table, to give thanks to God for them, and to find a way back into that space of attending to the divine. It seems, then, that a sabbatical isn’t only about re-grouping but more about re-shaping. I do not know, then, where this will lead, but this is part of the challenge and joy of the next 51 weeks, and hopefully beyond.

The Wood of Your Children

Far away, in the north – home
to winters cold and forests old –
You play and so
stay my constant queries,
my daily demands. You
refuse to be the mirror of
my desire, as You stretch
in the wood of Your children.
Yet my longing is not not sated
in Your absence. Echoes
of divine Sabbath are
borne on the North Wind, and
when I open my window, You
fill the room, along with the whiff of pine
as I pine for You. Awaiting Your
return from rest, I am arrested
by this awareness that even
You, God, take leave for
a time.

Divine Lips to Clay

What is this place that
calls me – arrests me – freezes me
in my frenzied,
in my harried
activity?

Something
inside of me knows
that this flurry of
importance:

starting this

building that

saving this

securing that

is simply not
enough; is simply
too much.

Deep
inside I want
this flesh to
know that it
lives in the sweep of

a pillar of fire

and under

a columned cloud.

I want my body to
sing or better yet to
whistle
as God
again puts divine lips
to clay and blows.

Well-tailored Time

I can hardly wait
for the next moment
and yet the present
demands its due;
to listen to the house sigh,
to see the floor’s peace,
to feel soap – warm on pots,
to smell wine’s fruit,
to taste labour.

Now beckons.

And when I
slip now on
like the well-tailored
time it is, You
settle my past, You
unsettle my future.

Now beckons.

Each breath in

I am

Each breath out

still here

Between each

now.

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.

Christus Insurrexit

“There is no rest that
can feign innocence – every
pause a cause
for alarm.”
 
And from the above,
Love looks upon
us crucifying ourselves
in this refusal to breathe; and
beckons us to recall that ours
is to ponder verbs
in the way of
peace.
 
Not so very far
from here rivers of
beauty flow, yet I often
pass them by – but yesterday
a child leapt into my arms and
we became a compass
oriented by joy and
laughter and play:
insurrection.

Pining for a Little Snow

I am hoping to change the background photograph on stillvoicing. I try to bring in a new image for each season, something I have shot recently. Often the photograph is from our neighbourhood, or an image from my walk home from work. I especially aim to reflect the season, which has been a bit vexing this year. Winter has been coming in fits and starts. There has been a bit of snow, but not enough has stuck around for long enough to get a decent photo. We have been slipping, too frequently, into that kind of weather one expects in March, my least favourite month. But during my walk to church this morning, the skies opened for a time, and down floated opulent feather like flakes. I was able to make out single snowflakes a few paces in front of me, and so in a strange sort of way, they drew attention to the space between them. For a time, I wasn’t walking down the street so much as through air punctuated with miniature clouds. It was nice to feel winter.

And even though the snow hasn’t consistently abetted my sense of the season, the sun has been of aid. We still have rather short days, although I am already able to note their gradual lengthening. All the same, it is dark enough after supper to light some candles around the house. I find this to be a ritual that reframes the evening, allowing it to proceed under that gentle illumination that speaks a particular kind of hope: soft, quiet, and calming. This, it seems to me, can be the gift of winter: an invitation to be away even while at home.

Last Friday, my wife and I went out for a movie, and upon returning our eldest and her friend popped by for coffee, wondering whether the power had been out earlier that evening in our part of town. We did not return to any flashing lights, so it seems that this was not the case. They reported that it went out where they were and it was dark long enough to break out the candles. They, too, noted something acutely beautiful about a time without power. A candled evening, rather like a snow day, unravels our overly calendared agendas; these forced sabbaticals settle our souls into the realization that we are not in charge.

In the midst of a course I co-taught with a Jewish scholar last semester, on the book of Exodus, we spoke about the Sabbath. While he referenced his regular observance of a day at rest, I relayed my utter failure. He noted that keeping Sabbath is difficult without communal support. It is hard work not to work without spiritual and cultural infrastructures. That struck me as true, and one of our students spoke of her commitment to 24 hours without home-work, etc. over the last few years, noting what I knew to be true: working less sometimes allows us to get more done. So Sabbath is something I have been working toward over the last little while. It is challenging – especially when deadlines loom and I am tempted to do just a little more – but every now and then the power’s failure shuts down computers, or the snow slows the commute, and I am reminded that I need to slow down, we all need to slow down: for the good of our bodies and souls, our planet, and simply to make some time for joy.

I am well aware that many people are quite happy with our relatively snow-free winter. Some would rather be rid of winter altogether, but I am reminded of how my parents and their generation used to speak of winter in terms that brought hibernation to mind. And while we cannot recreate their culture, which made possible something of a Sabbath season, perhaps there is another way into the best of that that mindset. It just might be that a weekly 24 hour break is a good start. Wish me luck.

Thoughts from the I 90

Dear readers, be assured I have not abandoned you. I have made plans and then my plans have remade me. This past month has entailed a trip to the United (as of now) Kingdom, a trip to Copenhagen followed up by a week’s long conference in Chicago. In the midst of all of this, classes have started, and I have endured meetings that have not always been endearing.

Increasingly I have come to know life as the undoing of my plans. I am working at being at peace with chaos, even while I pine for a pause in life. But I have also come to know that peace is more often imbibed in bits: a poem here, a vista there, the vision of a child wrapping herself around her mother’s leg that takes me outside of myself and to a place I covet for all. When I least expect it, repose sneaks up on me. For instance, last Wednesday a generous young woman named Sarah agreed to ferry me and a Malaysian friend from Hyde Park in Chicago to O’Hare Airport. The organizer of the conference had wisely arranged for transport for all well in advance of normal departure times. Winds in 40 knot range were expected along side of the precipitation befitting such gales. As was expected, the trip was about double the time. This plodding commute gave me occasion to ponder the last week since I was not in charge of driving, not needing to be anxious about when to get on or off ramps and like. I was able to sit back and revisit the conference; meeting new and old friends from Indonesia, Nigeria, Germany, Brazil etc. I was at a meeting of the Lutheran World Federation, where we asked the question: How do Lutherans the world wide read the bible?

As you can expect, no easy answer emerged. Some had suggestions while others queried the wisdom of travelling down this path at all. After all, some argued, the empire upon which the sun never set was obsessed with uniformity, and we all know how that ended. But then again, that empire, like so many others, has not really ended. It lives on even if only in wistful wishes for an empire of no setting sun. But the sun insists on setting, even in the shadow of busy airports.

Here and here, in the midst of traffic crawls, and renegotiated flight departures pause is thrust upon us. This is really the tale of life: while we may struggle with the rudder, the wind is beyond our purview. We bob along, and hope for the best; at least the wise do so. In those pauses, welcomed or not, comes our very own opportunity to be welcoming: will we breathe when the opportunity arises? Will we take leave of our importance? Will we embrace those moments that arrest our constant, if not consistent, rushing about? Will we will Sabbath? Will we ache to become a deep breath in harmony with all of creation? Will we be content with the moment given us, to be grateful and so generous? Life is so astounding in so many ways; here an unexpected gift of time; there an opportunity to practice peace; and in the midst of it all – God, ever offering fresh starts, even on a Illinois Inter-state.