Not Alone in This

This last week our school had an accreditation visit. Accreditation has long been a fact of life at many institutions. It involved, for us, a good dearl of tension, stress, anxiety, etc. The visit went reasonably well, I think, and we await a formal report in coming weeks. All of us, faculty and staff both, are breathing a little easier now that the visit is behind us, after months of report writing, copious editing, a good bit of pondering and a bit of hand wringing. The evaluation team came and queried and left, and now it is all done.

But what really happened?

The experience – for me – finally wasn’t about accrediting the institution and its programs, nor the never-ending obsession with outcomes, and goals, and measurement that has become the way of institutional life – although it was about these. The experience, rather, gave me the opportunity to understand anew how we work as a team, revealed in a rich way in our being together last week. The phenomenon of the visit set my colleagues in relief even while the quantifying means of evaluation could not measure the quality of our community.

How do you measure the hallway conversations that result in new ideas and new directions for scholarship? How do you quantify the kind of encouragement that comes from two colleagues who decide (voluntarily) to join me in an impromptu, and unscheduled, meeting with evaluators who want more information? How do you count the cohesion formed around cups of coffee enjoyed first thing each morning? What would a score card for worship look like?

Of course, you cannot measure these. To be fair to the evaluating visitors, they know this. They know this because they work in institutions like ours, institutions that have spirits not subject to the canons of outcome driven evaluations. Please do not misunderstand me, there is value for institutions in setting goals that are linked to outcomes that need concrete ways for determining success. But somehow, an assessment of an institution that does not look to the soul stories that sustain people fails. Assessment, I think needs to be assessed, and metrics need to be set against the canon of meaning.

I learned much this last week. I learned that I am remarkable blessed to work with people who care, and whose care is concrete in commitments to one another. I learned, anew, that learning is a mystery, and happens in ways that are not simply subject to the machination of planning, even while planning is a necessary part of learning and the institutions that support it. I learned, again, that grace comes despite our expectations of worst case scenarios and cynicism about processes that sometimes seem labourious and incursive.

I learned that I am not alone in this work. This is no small mercy, and I thank God for it.


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.

Missing Out?

This weekend I was re-acquainted with an acronym I met some years ago: FOMO, short for “fear of missing out.” I came across it in an article by Jim Balsillie and Norman Doidge, the former famous for his role in the development of the Blackberry, and the latter for his work as a psychologist. The article addressed the role of smart phones as addictive devices, pointing to the science behind the claim. It was a most illuminating and important contribution into a long, hard conversation that needs to continue on many fronts. I commend it to you.

But FOMO didn’t begin with smart phones, or the internet, or the computer, or the modern advances of technology in our society. FOMO is at the heart of human experience. The other day in class we were pondering Chagall’s painting of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob, who bought out Esau’s birthright for the price of some pottage. This may well be an example of FOMO times two: Esau that he would miss out on a meal, and Jacob (and his mother) that he would miss out on a blessing. I am sure we can all find our own examples of ways in which we have succumbed to FOMO in our personal, work, social lives, etc.

At the core of FOMO, I think is a failure to see what is within. We only worry about missing out because we miss what is within. Religion has sometimes contributed to this, certainly I can speak to this from the perspective of Christianity run amok. Some years ago it was a rather popular corrective to counter a traditional treatment of original sin with a focus on original blessing. This was intended to undermine what was seen to be an obsession with what is wrong with people. Original sin or original blessing? Which rings true for you? I think that most of us have had enough experience – both with ourselves and with others – to know that there is truth in both. We really are made in the image of God and we really do fail to be who we are. But the latter does not erase the beauty of the former, and so we all experience human beauty, courage, and curiousity in ourselves and in one another, aside from the brokenness we know so well. But it would be a mistake to think that we need God because of the latter erasing the former. The truth of the matter is that we don’t only need God because we are flawed: we need God because God made us to need God. This isn’t a flaw. This is a gift.

Of course, it isn’t only God we need. We need one another, and this also is a gift. When we look deep within ourselves and see an ache for relationships, we should be glad. We can rejoice because this ache is a trace of God in us. This is what we are created to be: in need of God and one another. I recently read an article pointing out that the greatest indicator of longevity in a longitudinal study was regular face to face personal interaction. This need not be deep abiding relationships, although these too were important. Rather, the person who meaningfully and regularly interacts with the cashier at the grocery store etc. is likely to live longer, and more richly too, I would guess. It is, of course, no small irony that we use our devices to combat FOMO when we really should set them down and take time to reach out to those God puts in our path: no matter their race, creed, social status etc. Perhaps then we will discover the grace-filled joy of reaching out that dissipates the feeling of missing out.

Be of Good Courage

Yesterday, I met
a company of prophets
in Kitchener, drumming
hard truths under a
gazebo in
Victoria Park. Their
ceremonial ribbons raged
against justice denied and
their voices took shape as a
chariot of fire
witness to heaven. And
yet their circle was soft:
they spoke of hatred as
self-defeating, pleading
for our healing. For a
moment the snow receded
and from the winter ground
a lily shot forth like Christ
from the grave and an
odour of hope perfumed the air.
The wind from the south was raw,
but it whispered in my ear:
“Be of good courage.”

Waves of You

I don’t know what to do
with this love. You
invade me and I collapse.
Words fall from my mouth as if
I have become a child bereft.
I feel waves of You in
Your absence. And
then You return. A
frazzled God, You
dazzle me in
proximity and my
head, my
heart spins. You
win me over yet again. You
begin in my differently. But
still I hurt. Still I weep
You in tears.


You are never far from me
and yet too far away.
I divine Your shape in
moments surprising: around
this corner, across
that curve, amidst
the voices that whisper
in my ear and those
that shout across a
field. In all, in all
I hear Your call:
tender, sometimes
stubborn, sometimes even
timid, but the timbre
is unmistakeably
Yours. I weep with
joy at Your presence and with
pain at Your absence: Your
being here and not is
my heart leaping and aching

Oslo Insights and Haitian Slights

I am just now back from a very quick trip to Oslo. I was there for a small writing workshop, mostly composed of members of the Faculty of Theology from the University of Oslo, as well as a couple of North Americans. This working group is preparing a volume on the theme of “Protestantization,”a word used to describe how certain tenets of Protestant thought (freedom of the conscience, the importance of non-clerical vocations, the separation without division of church and state, etc) have become a lens by which certain nations view themselves, for both good and ill. Protestantization speaks, for instance, to the manner in which a state allows for people to refuse religious life and so creates a condition for the possibility of a secular public square where no one religion holds pride of place. Of course, it is not always so very successful in this regard.

It was also noted that under this paradigm, religion is construed primarily as adherence to a confession of faith. This is not always helpful. And so, to give an example, there were a couple of papers on the topic of the public discussion concerning the regulation of circumcision in some nations in Europe. Some voices propose that circumcision could be allowed if families have faith in a belief system that demands it. These same voices would not consider as a valid religious reason one in which adherents point to their cultural identity with a religion despite lack of belief in the metaphysical tenants of a religion. So, to give an example, an agnostic or even atheistic Jewish family may well seek circumcision for their son despite personal beliefs, or disbelief. Their Jewish identity is not about what they believe, but about who they are and so they are accepted as Jews in the Jewish community despite their beliefs or lack thereof. I have had Jewish students who do not believe in God yet practice many of the rituals of Judaism without any sense of hypocrisy. Judaism, for these folks, is about their community not their individual convictions. The Nazis, as we know from history, did not distinguish between those Jews who believed and those who did not, and so we might begin to understand something of a Jewish solidarity that is more interested in communal identity than individual confession.

Of course, some papers addressed the positive contribution of Protestantism to political life, a point of no small significance in Norway, a nation that regularly rates high in terms of happiness, health-care, safety from gun incidences, etc.

Shortly after I returned from Norway, the President of the USA made a horrendous comment about America’s need for more immigrants from places like Norway than “shithole” nations like Haiti and countries in Africa and Latin America. The blatant racism of this comment is reprehensible. It stimulates hate crimes. It misrepresents immigrants and advances white supremacy. Moreover, it has no grasp of history. Many articles have since been published noting that the bulk of immigrants to North America a century or so ago were rather like immigrants from places like Haiti today: economically distraught, willing to do any work that would keep food on the table, and very glad to become contributing citizens in their adopted home. Norwegians, as one may well imagine, have not been pleased with the kind of comparison employed by the President, pitting Norway against Haiti, for instance. Protestanization, in varying degrees, has contributed to a history of Nordic countries welcoming the other.

My contribution to the volume is tentatively called “Embodying Protestantism.” In it I critique modern Protestantism’s too often animus against the body and frequent disinterest in the body politic. I look to Luther and the Danish theologian/philosopher Knut Løgstrup for resources to envision again the body and the body politic as gifts from God. As I work on this chapter for publication, I most certainly will ponder President’s racism and the need for people of all faiths, and none, to “protest” both this white supremacy and any religion that neglects social justice in its concern for the soul alone. People suffer and die because of the peculiarities of their body, and any Protestantism or Protestanization that will not call racism sin deserves disinterest and demise.