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.

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.

Sand Through My Hand

You’ve escaped me again,
like sand through my hand;
sweat from my pores;
sleep from my night.

I try to paint You,
but no portrayal will do. You
cannot be captured and every
image merely mirrors my wanting.

And yet yearning, too, is an attestation of your visitation…

I daydream of Your return, and
then you pinch me asleep. I dream
deeper into what is true: Your
slipping away is also Your drilling
deeper into me.

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.

Lawn Tall Bean

There is a bean to be seen
growing in the middle of our lawn,
there by grace of a chipmunk who squirreled
away a pod found in the ground of my garden;
my three sisters garden.

This bean would not be save for
the drought that stopped my lawn mowing,
without which it would have been a has bean.

I’m contemplating what kind of a bean pole
might serve as a lean-to for this lawn tall bean.
Maybe a stick that it can stick to while it rises
in our yard, or maybe a rod, stuck in the sod,
iron graced with the green of bean.

I’m watching this plant with bated breath
as Creator works wonders despite,
or rather because of,
Chip’s plunders.

In the Face of a Fireplace

Our fireplace is gas, a pane of glass
keeps me from reaching in and fiddling
with the fake flaming logs.

Piercing these logs are legs,
belonging to the coffee table,
between me and the fire.
The legs hold aloft another
sheet of glass, which slices me in half,
my reflection bifurcated
.
Each glass surface
reflects, refracts, and now
allows my eyes to see through –
if I sit just so.

God, too, is glass. Now I see
my face. Then I tilt my head and
I see grace, deeper than this surface,
which is, itself, sheer, evocative, apocalyptic.

Keeping Our Sisters Safe

Two years ago, I was at a learning event in Ohsweken, at the Six Nations of the Grand River Nation. For one of the workshops, I chose to learn a bit about the famous three sisters: corn, beans and squash. Haudenosaunee people have planted these three together for years, with a rather clever methodology. The bean uses the corn for climbing, and the squash, with its prickly leaves, serves as a deterrent for creatures looking for a bit to eat. At the workshop, I received sister seeds. Last year I attempted a three sisters garden. Alas, the creatures in our backyard were not dissuaded by the squash, and so I had to restart my experiment with some temporary garden fencing. The squash blossomed, but no fruit resulted. I did, however, manage to score one ear of blue corn, and one pod of three peas, which served for seed this year.

This year, I started my plants a bit earlier, with some large bowls giving them a bit of a greenhouse, but this week they outgrew their temporary homes. So, yesterday I made a trip to a department store only now opened after months of curbside pickup. I donned the mask my wife made me and ventured in, to search out some screening material and dowels. This was my first experience of wearing a mask. My only other public shopping adventures have been to stock up on food and drink, where strict limits on numbers made me feel safe. For some reason, I thought it wise to mask up. About three quarters of the shoppers were masked, and most of the employees were not. I looked up at a friendly looking employee who smiled and me, and I smiled in response, and stopped in my tracks mindful that my smile was not known to her. Hopefully my eyes communicated my appreciation.

I made my way home and spent the rest of the afternoon making a fence for my little three sisters garden. As I worked on the garden, I thought about another event I visited at Ohsweken: Walking with our Sisters. This was an event commemorating, remembering and mourning Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in service of justice. The installation involved “vamps,” the decorated tops of moccasins. Each pair of vamps represented a stolen sister. It was an incredibly powerful event, with many tears at the realization that many of these deaths were never investigated, or poorly investigated. Elders were present to help those in need of ceremony at the sight of these vamps. Each of these stolen sisters proclaims the reality of systemic racism in a land where some lives are deemed worth more than others.

My three sisters garden reminds me of this truth, and my little fence speaks to me of our need to protect our sisters, the land and all of life. If only protecting our sisters were only so simple as enduring the little discomfort of wearing a mask and acquiring some material to shield them from harm. But the changes that are needed in our world are systemic and seismic in nature, by a complete and utter turning around and away from the ways of evil, by what some call repentance – both individually and corporately.