Succor in Solitude

Some months ago, after visiting my middlest daughter, I brought back from her Ottawa home two aloe vera plants. They were about the same size, and I planted them in two available pots, one about two thirds the size of the other. The plant in the larger pots has done well, looks healthy and grown a bit. The plant in the smaller pot is going gangbusters. It has swollen to twice the size of the other plant, and produced a whole host of babies, some of which are nearing the size of the other plant.

I don’t know if these plants are a metaphor for life, or not. But it is interesting that the plant with the most room to grow is the least productive. I read an article the other day about a writer who took a furlough/sabbatical for writing a book. He left the big city and made his way to a cottage, where there were little to no distractions. He set up a plan of how many pages he would write each day for a week, free from the burden of his job, obligations at home etc. for a one-month spacious period of time. But he produced nothing aside from some writing on the first day.

Maybe it isn’t space we need in order to be productive but intimacy, small places and times where we can feel our edges and experience our breath bouncing back at us. Intimacy comes from a Latin root that is the superlative of “inner.” To be intimate is to be utterly within. Our common parlance often understands this word in relationship to sexuality, or perhaps in reference to a special kind of comradery. But there is an intimacy of knowing the self, of being in the presence of our own interiority.

This is not always an easy place to be. Here we see our fears, our rages, our deaths. But these are rich materials for the project that is being ourselves. In this kind of intimacy we see beyond the self we project in the world and we begin the journey of truth. The philosopher Martin Heidegger writes that the word truth in Greek is related to the verb of disclosing or laying bare. In intimate relations the other is disclosed to me; in intimate spaces, I begin to see myself.

In the Christian church today is the Reign of Christ Sunday. The image of Jesus as King of Kings is celebrated. But the story of Jesus begins in a stable, and moves to cross, and ends in closed cave where the story begins again. This so-called king was really a master of intimate spaces, and places us in the same, where we discover the love that reigns in the heart. From the intimate heart comes healing balm, an aloe vera like salve, our succor in solitude.

The Chime of My Heart

Jogging, today, I overshot
the Victoria Park Island
footbridge.

The sight of the Boat House
Restaurant arrested me. After
a quick U-turn I was back on track
but wondered:

Was it the bald trees that muddled me?
Or
Was I hypnotized by the
tick-tock of my feet, or the
pendulum of my breath, or the
chime of my heart?


I was running in that place where the
need to let go of things that
need me to let go of them held sway.

I made my way over the bridge and
wound round the park. Now
back in myself, I saw a goose wink at me:
slipping through a park is not only
prayer, it is also life and breath.

Taking Leave

One of the realities, often lamented and much discussed, in this time of COVID 19 is the amount of time we spend on Zoom, Teams, etc. This is an especially pertinent concern for those of us who teach. And one of the things that I have found that is especially odd about it is the difficulty of taking leave from class. In a normal setting leave taking is protracted, with some people disappearing immediately, some heading out of the class after a bit, and other not leaving at all choosing to stay in the class for study time, or hoping to catch up with me, etc.

But Zoom just erases this. Taking leave is abrupt. One moment you are with someone and the next they have disappeared, sometime leaving you with a hollow feeling. I have been mulling over different ways to end mediated meetings, and decided this semester to try something a bit different with my class. We end each class with a body prayer/meditation. Basically, one of my outcomes for the class is to get the body back into theology, and so at the end of each class we focus on one body part. It might be the neck, the elbow, the skin, the spine etc. I invite my students to shut off their camera, and I walk them through a five minute meditation on a part of their body, thinking about what that body part says about who they are as people as they hold, or explore, or imagine it. I then invite them to give thanks to God, and/or their ancestors, and/or themselves for that body part. This exercise is not mandatory and people are welcome to leave for this last five minutes of class. But often everyone stays.

At the end, I shut off my camera and before my eyes are the names of my students – no faces. I imagine them still feeling the nape of their neck, or the curve of their palm, and then slowly at first and then rapidly, the names disappear and mine alone is left. It feels nice – a silent but significant leave taking. I haven’t asked them, yet, about this experience from the perspective of ending. A few have expressed deep gratitude for the meditative experience, and I am happy for that. But most recently, I have wondered about this experience in terms of bringing a class to close.

Of course, endings are so very important. We spend our lives – if we spend them wisely – in preparation for our ultimate experience of taking leave and so, of being welcomed. Leave taking is a profoundly spiritual practice and in this mediated age we are wise to ask: “How do our small farewells fare in terms of ensuring that it is well with our souls?”

Stars and Stardust

They do not die. We do.
We slip further away
whenever we say adieu,
buried ever deeper:
humans becoming humus.

And so we rot.

Each weeping tear cracks our exterior.
Every grimace of grief shakes our core.
As our shoulders shudder, we do no
other than grind our very being
into dust.

And then a mystery:
green blade rising undoes
our dying. We sprout both
roots and shoots, striding
across heaven and earth.

Stars and stardust, with them.

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?

Roots in You

Trees cannot walk, unlike
homo erectus now sapiens.
But our silva relations
are stars at standing still,
the sine qua non for
paying attention.

Simone Weil once wrote:
“attention is the rarest and purest
form of generosity,” so making of trees
exemplars – always giving
shade and sap
breath and beauty
warmth and wood.

Posing like a tree
demands more of me
than I first imagine:
balance, humility, serenity
and finally, roots in You.

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.

In My Eye

A tongue of fire
rises from this candle
taller than two
others; brothers
flanking her. Their
tongues, their talk
lumine her. These three
enter me times two, then
become one in my mind’s eye.

I see my reflection in them:
flaming away I deplete each day
until I will be but one with You,
alight in Your eye – finally and fully
a human seen, as surely as
You have been a human being
aright in my eye.

Sister Bean

I harvested Sister Bean Friday –

with the threat of frost Saturday.

She is mottled, purple on green.

Her seeds are shiny black with white eye.

Her smell is fecund.

~

Sister Bean speaks to as well as

feeds me saying

              Let each breath be death and life.

              Let each heartbeat unseat the thought that your blood is blue.

              Let tears dilute your sweat and soften your glare.

~

I hold Sister Bean in my hand and

find that she weighs more than she does

because this bean preaches.  I set her down

again, and then she calls to me at the last:

“You and I are not so very different. 

We both begin and end in dirt.”

Happy New Year

In Canada, we are closing in on the end of the Labour Day weekend.  Most people make use of this weekend to ready themselves for the real New Year, the start of school and the relaunching of program etc.  Of course, this year, everything is a mess and much muddling seems to be the order of this Labour Day.

My wife and I spent a good bit of the Labour Day weekend digging out the polymer cement between our flagstones on our patio.  When this cement is in good shape, the individual stones are bonded together and a safe, welcoming space is created.  As the cement breaks down, the flagstone shift and annoying (and dangerous) lips are create.  So every now and then we need to repair the space by replacing the cement.  It is not an especially enjoyable job, spent on our knees picking away at cracked and crumbling bits of adherent.  My efforts this year were rewarded by a wasp bite that leave my left index finger swollen with resentment.  But wasps, too, have a place in creation.

The new polymer will be applied when it looks like we will have at least 24 hours of dry weather, which is not necessarily going to be for a while.  So after yesterday’s time on my knees, today was a typical Labour Day for me, getting ready for the start of school.  Classes at Luther will all be remote this fall, as they were in the spring, so I am trying to learn from successes and failures as I get ready. 

Tuesday will be orientation, and it too will be online, with some asynchronous activity.  My colleagues have worked tirelessly to prepare what we hope to be a welcoming and revitalizing start to the new year.  One of my colleagues, Sherry Coman, as invited us to use the word “mediated” rather than virtual to describe our gathering online.  I like this very much.  Virtual implies that this coming together is not a real coming together.  Mediated helps us to imagine that it is different, but no less real.

I also like that the word mediated shares the etymology of the noun “means” with both pointing to what is in the middle, between this and that and enabling a relationship.  This use is informed by the Lutheran notion of the means of Grace – Word and Sacrament.  Here concrete earthly elements become the meeting ground between believers and between believers and the Divine, who makes space for our gracious reception into Love. 

Hopefully this mediated space will in some way approximate such a welcome.  From my experiences with Zoom, and Teams, and other technology, they can be likened to the polymer that links stone to stone.  Sometimes there are cracks, and crumbling, and the odd wasp that bites.  But in the end, with some loving care, it can do what needs to be done to bridge the distance between people who are eager to learn, and ready to grow.  I have seen it happen in ways that are different from face to face meeting, but significant all the same.  This New Year will be unlike any other, but then again, so is every New Year.