Friday, 13 April 2018

Actually, What is Contemplation?


I was away at a retreat last week from Wednesday to Sunday.  I usually go once a year to Apple Farm Community in Three Rivers Michigan―or I try to.  I didn’t make it last year so it was good to be back an connect with the place and the community members. 
Now you may be asking why I go there for a retreat rather than some place in Canada―which is what the customs official at the U. S. border asked me (I still don’t know why I feel guilty when being questioned by a border guard even though I don’t have anything to hide).  The answer I gave him was that I have had a relationship with that community for about 10 years.  That is the short answer which he accepted.  The not quite so short answer is that the community was founded over fifty years ago by someone who is probably my favourite spiritual writer, Helen Luke.  She was a very wise woman who wrote inciteful, meaningful explorations of the human soul using the bible and many classics of literature such as the Divine Comedy by Dante.  I highly recommend her books and essays to anyone who wants to explore the soul and the human condition.
Apple Farm Community was founded as a contemplative community.  I had not previously considered   what a contemplative community is until is read an essay based on the thoughts of the founder during my most recent retreat.  It is described in the essay as first of all what it is not i.e. it is not an intentional community.   I take that to mean it does not set out to intentionally create a community of and for people.  It provides opportunity and space for people to be themselves in reflection and introspection.
More specifically, to quote from the article, “The ultimate way of contemplation lies not in increase in knowledge or even understanding, importance, or in refusal of life or love, and not in the quest for spiritual experience but just simply in an ever-deepening sense of wonder.” 
 I think it is that sense of wonder, which I find so hard to recognize in my day -to-day life, that is what is truly meaningful for me.  It is the sense of wonder at the wonders of God’s creation which I am able to recognize and experience there more than most other places.  I do find it in other places such as the wonderful architecture of an ancient cathedral or a natural cathedral such as a majestic sunset.  However, my time at Apple Farm enables me to see and experience it in the small things which I otherwise would miss. 
The key is to turn to wonder especially when you find you don’t have the answer to your questions or are not sure why life is happening to you the way it is; or just because. 
As Paul Simon said, “These are the days of miracles and wonders”. 


Blessings on you journey. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Nicodemus’ Journey to Easter


We are now in Holy week as we move with Jesus towards Jerusalem and the Day of Resurrection next Sunday. One of the most poignant parts of story for me is often overlooked.  I am always moved when I remember the part played by Nicodemus.  He is what could be described as a minor character only appearing in the Gospel of John and only making three appearances in that Gospel.

What always grabs me in this story is the journey which Nicodemus makes in his relationship with and to Jesus.  Initially we encounter him as a visitor who has come to see Jesus and talk with him.  We are told that he is a Pharisee and has come at night.  In effect, he is a leader of the Jewish people who perhaps does not want it to be known what he is associating with someone form Nazarethafter all we hear just before this that nothing good can come out of Nazareth.   In any case, Nicodemus is revealed to us as someone who is a seeker.  He has questions about God and his relationship with God and hopes that Jesus can supply the answers to his questions. He is also someone who seems to be obtuse.  He doesn’t get what Jesus is telling him.  He is a concrete thinker who has a hard time thinking symbolically:
 “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
We aren’t told if Nicodemus does get what Jesus is telling him.  However, the next time we encounter Nicodemus he is with the Temple authorities who are planning to have Jesus arrested.  Nicodemus is arguing that Jesus should receive a trial as their law requires.  He is summarily dismissed on the same basis i.e. nothing good can come out of Galilee,
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, 51“Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” 52They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” 53Then each of them went home,
As anyone who has been a lone voice in a group knows, it took great courage for Nicodemus to stand up to the other leaders and defend Jesus from the arbitrary decision of the other leaders.  Where before he had Jesus visit him in the night and was afraid of being associated with Jesus, now he is a lone voice against the injustice.  We can see from this that is initial encounter with Jesus did have a profound affect on him and he is well on his journey with Jesus.

The final scene of our play, which I could tentatively entitle Nicodemus’ Journey to Easter, comes on Good Friday.  Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimathea bringing 100 pounds of spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  This extravagant amount is reminiscent of the woman anointing Jesus feet with ointment which could have been sold for 300 denarii. 

As we continue our Journey to Easter Sunday let follow the example of Nicodemus and respond to the Good News of Easter by an extravagant response for what Jesus has done for us.
Blessings on your journey. 

Friday, 23 March 2018

Circumcision of the Heart part 2


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the idea of the circumcision of the heart, the sign of the new covenant which Paul addressed in his letter to the Romans:
Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:29)
In the Old Testament reading from last Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent, Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant which God promises for the Jewish people, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  Jeremiah goes on to identify the sign of the new covenant as one that will be written in the heart, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  
It is quite likely that Paul had this in mind when he spoke of the new covenant.  As a good Jew and a good Pharisee, he would have been very aware of Jeremiah’s prophetic declarations.  It is unfortunate that this has not become a more prevalent symbol in Christianity today.  It is spoken of in some parts of our religion but it is not as prevalent as many symbols.  The heart if a very powerful symbol which does resonate as a symbol of love even in our scientific materialistic world today. 

The heart traditionally represented the feeling world of human existence at the deepest level and going back to ancient times.  Indeed, as noted by theologian Marcus Borg:
the heart in biblical tradition is an image of the self at its deepest level.  For the ancient Hebrews, the heart was not simply associated with feelings or courage or courage or love, as in common usage.  Rather, the heart was associated with the totality of the human psyche: not only emotion but also intellect, volition, and even perception.
What does it mean then to have this new covenant written on the heart?  I propose that this means that Paul is calling Christians to have heart that are not written in stone, as the old covenant was written on those stone tablets.  Rather we are called to be open hearted to and with others.  That is easier said than done as I can attest from my experience.  When you are interacting with someone who has caused you pain or is even difficult and annoying the natural reaction seems to be to have a heart of stone which sets up protective barriers around the soft core of the heart we were born with.
The key to relating to someone who does not act in a loving way to you is not react in kind.  It is to turn the other cheek and to go the second mile as we are told elsewhere.  For me the only way that this has the possibility of working is to recognize that the other person is not “the other”.  They are someone who is a flawed, imperfect child of God just as you are a flawed, imperfect child of God.  Perhaps their flaws are more obvious to you but it may be that your inner vision is not 20/20.  What you have in common is that we are all sinful and in need of redemption. 

Unfortunately, it is very easy and seems to satisfy us on a deep level when we can feel righteous indignation or even good old-fashioned revenge and hope the other person will get what they deserve in this world rather than the next.  However, the new covenant we have as Christians calls us to be open hearted.  Jesus told us that his yoke is easy.  Hmm, why then does this seem so difficult?  Perhaps it gets easier with practice.  I guess all we sinful children of God can do is keep trying.

Blessing on you journey to Easter.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Holy Boredom


Last week I listened to the C.B.C. Ideas program, The Tedium is the Messagehttp://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-tedium-is-the-message-1.3862159.   

There were a number of “ideas” in the program which I found interesting.  Some were surprizing and some were not.   One of the not-surprizing ideas presented was that boredom is becoming all pervasive in society.  Ironically, this is happening when we have more and more ways of avoiding it with the availability of social media and media in general.  Our smart phones are always with us with ever more functions and apps to catch our attention and distract us.  However, boredom does seem to be inevitable and the more we try to avoid it the more we are subject to it.  The question that this poses for me is, “what we are being distracted from?”

As noted in the introduction to the program on the website, “Boredom is really about that connection between me and the world. But when we're bored we're disengaged. That connection between us and the world breaks down” (John Eastwood).  It almost seems as if there is some force at work which is attempting to get our attention. 

Another idea presented in the program is that boredom functions as a mechanism for creativity.  If we are bored we are more likely to be encouraged to be creative.  If creativity is one of the God-given gifts which is part of what it means to be created in the image of God―which I believe it is―then I would suggest that God is behind, or perhaps in front of, the force at work attempting to get our attention.  I like the idea of God standing in front of us and desperately waving His/Her/Its arms at us to get our attention. 

The program demonstrated the lengths that humans will go to, to avoid boredom.  It cited an experiment which placed the subjects in a state of boredom i.e. they were put by themselves with nothing to do for fifteen minutes.  They were given the facility to shock themselves with a painful but not harmful electric shock.  As reported a “large percentage” of subject chose to shock themselves to relieve the boredom.  One subject even shocked himself over one hundred times―but perhaps there was something else going on with that person than boredom. 

In the Boredom Lab at York University people were given repetitive tasks to induce boredom.  The key to these tasks was that they were meaningless.  The implication from this is that boredom will be lead to the impetus to find meaning in our lives.  Again, this seems to be the force at work behind boredom.  

If we go back to the quote above, boredom seems to be an impetus to connect us to the world.  I propose that the ultimate connection is with God; after all, connections with the world are a way of connecting with God’s creation.  Perhaps that is why we were created with the capacity for boredom―to find the ultimate meaning in life; connection with the divine.
A Lenten practice which you could consider (it not too late), would be to live with boredom when it occurs―even for a short period like fifteen minutes―and see where that takes you.  You may be surprized. 

Blessings on your Lenten journey.


Thursday, 8 March 2018

Manumission


Manumission; from Latin manumittere, literally ‘send forth from the hand’.

This past week, Lorna and I had one of our discussions that landed on the issue of the history of slavery in Upper Canada (Ontario).  We realized neither of us were really aware of the details of that history.  After some exploration by Lorna, what we found out was very interesting.  As significant as the issue is to our history, that is not primarily what I want to talk about this morningat least not directly.

To review briefly what we discovered The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire (with the exceptions "of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company").  This was the result of a movement lead by such worthies as William Wilberforce.  However, Canada, which was a colony of England, led the way in this area. In 1793 Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada John Graves Simcoe, signed the Act Against Slavery. Passed by the local Legislative Assembly, it was the first legislation to outlaw the slave trade in a part of the British Empire.

In the course of our investigation we came across the word “manumission” and, being unfamiliar with the word, I was interested in its meaning.  I was only aware of the concept of emancipation in relation to slavery i.e. the abolition of slavery by a country as in the case of the Act Against Slavery in Upper Canada.  However, manumission deals with the setting free of an individual slave by his or her owner.  The root of the word is Latin; manumittere, literally ‘send forth from the hand’.
It stuck me that this is a very apt term to consider in the season of Lent.  If we consider that in Lent our journey is to be more intentionally the people that God intends us to be, then what God does is to set us free from the bonds of sin i.e. those things which keep us separated from God.  If that is the case what are we to do with this new-found freedom?

Coincidentally (if you believe in coincidence), at my new parish we are using the video series, “Thy Kingdom Come” for our Lenten reflections.  This series is produced by the Church of England and features a discussion led by with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.  The topic of Sunday’s video was evangelism
. 
At St. John the Evangelist in Strathroy we had technical difficulties in trying to access the series.  The first week the video series could not be downloaded from the website as it crashed.  The second week was more successful but not entirely as the sound quality of the speakers on our parish hall did not provide a very clear sound (complicated by the English accents of the participants).  That was overcome (at least from the perspective of sound quality) this week with the addition of a blue-tooth speaker.  I mentioned to Rev. Karen Nelles, the Rector, that these days theological training should include training in electronics.  She noted that the evaluation form currently used for clergy in the diocese has a section on competence with electronics.  It makes me very happy I am retired and don’t have to worry about that being an honourary assistant. 

However, I digress; to get back to my topic for today, if we are set free from the slavery of sin and sent forth from the hand of God, that is exactly what evangelism is about.  To evangelize is literally to follow the example of the disciples who were sent forth to spread the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This Good News is perhaps not great news for most Anglicans, at least in this part of the world, who are not raised in a tradition of evangelismat least in the traditional sense. Evangelism is not something that Anglicans are comfortable with.  The Church of England and the Anglican Church in Canada have been the established church and the church of the establishment.   Traditionally Anglicans didn’t need go out and convert the non-churched around us because most people were already churched. 

However, I take comfort in the words of one of the participants in the video discussion that we can never convert someone, whatever that may mean for the person; that is God’s work.  What then is left for us to do?  It is, I believe, sharing with people what it means for us to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ.  It also means living lives that reflect what that means for each of us and to show that to the world.  To do that we need to know it for ourselves and be clear about it; or at least to have questions which we are seeking answers for.  That is the challenge for Anglicans and all people of God. 

Blessings on your Lenten journey,

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Circumcision of the Heart


The subject of my sermon on Sunday was the sign of the covenant between God and the People of God.  The Old Testament reading pointed to the sign of the original covenant between Abraham and God as circumcision of every male, “Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you”.  The appointed reading actually skipped over that part of the passage.  Perhaps the men who developed the Revised Common Lectionary thought the congregations would not be comfortable hearing about the details of circumcision.  It does sometimes make men uncomfortable.

In any case, circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham and continues to be the sign of the covenant for the Jewish people.  It no longer represents that for Christians.  With Jesus as our saviour, we have a new covenant which does not have circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and us.  We have the Eucharist which is a re-membering of the sacrifice of Jesus as our sign of that new covenant.

However, Paul proposed, or I should say proclaimed, that with Jesus Christ with have a new circumcision. As a good Jew and a Pharisee, he knew that circumcision was vital to the Jewish people who he believed should recognized Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah.  He also knew that if Gentiles were to be welcomed as followers of Jesus Christ, they would need a new sign to replace circumcision. He addresses this in his letter to the Romans; circumcision as an initiation right would certainly have discouraged some prospective members:
Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:29)
Paul is speaking of circumcision of the heart.  In effect it is a spiritual sign rather than a literal sign of the new covenant between God and God’s people.  It is unfortunate that this has not become a more prevalent symbol in Christianity today.  It is spoke of in some parts of our religion but it is not as prevalent as many symbols.  The heart if a very powerful symbol which does resonate as a symbol of love even in our scientific materialistic world today. 

The heart traditionally represented the feeling world of human existence at the deepest level and going back to ancient times.  Indeed, as noted by theologian Marcus Borg:
the heart in biblical tradition is an image of the elf at its deepest level.  For the ancient Hebrews, the heart was not simply associated with feelings or courage or courage or love, as in common usage.  Rather, the heart was associated with the totality of the human psyche: not only emotion but also intellect, volition, and even perception”. (The God We Never Knew 113)
So, when Paul speaks of circumcision as a matter of the heart, he is bringing a depth of meaning to his call for people to begin a new relationship with God.  It is a relationship which is not focussed on being praised by other.  He is calling us to do those things which are pleasing to God.

We all know what it means to be hard-hearted.  We probably know someone or perhaps more than one person who we consider hard-hearted.  We know how that person behaves towards others. 

Indeed, the news is full of examples of how people behave when they are hard-hearted.  Hard-hearted people do not let their feeling and emotions get in the way of how they behave towards others.  They do not show others compassion and believe that people should not be given a second or even a third chance when they don’t live up to the expectations they have for others.  They certainly don’t believe in forgiveness despite what Jesus says about forgiving someone seventy times seven.  If they forgive someone that person must earn their forgiveness and meet their terms which are probably very strict.  They are people who believe that the consequences of offenses should be retributive and they don’t really believe in punishment that is redemptive.  They are in support of mandatory minimum sentences for crimes. 

Well what is the opposite of being hard-hearted?  Of course, it is being soft-hearted which doesn’t always get very good press.  Being soft-hearted has the connotation of being a push over, of being an easy mark, of being taken advantage of. 

I proposed that a better way of conceiving of the opposite of heard-hearted is being open-hearted.   This is Jesus’ message in the beatitudes.  He doesn’t speak specifically of being open-hearted but for me that is behind much of the what Jesus is speaking of when he talks of righteousness and mercy and the pure of heart. 
I try not to be hard-hearted.  I make an effort to be open-hearted; I try but God knows I do not always succeed. 

So, there is a great deal packed into that short statement by Paul―real circumcision is a matter of the heart.  This Lent I invite you to practice a heart that is open.


Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Kenosis part 2


On December 18th, I wrote about Kenosis or self-emptying as a way of observing Advent.  I want to continue my thoughts on the subject as a way of observing Lent.  The Gospel reading for yesterday, the First Sunday of Lent, was Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus immediately followed by Jesus spending forty day and nights in the wilderness (Mark 1. 9-15). 

I appreciate Mark’s account of Jesus going into the wilderness as the Gospel states that “the Spirit immediately drove (my emphasis) him out into the wilderness.”  The other two synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, have a different description of this action by the Holy Spirit, they both say that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  There is a significant difference between being led into the wilderness and being driven into it.  I have long preferred Mark’s version because it emphasizes Jesus’ humanity.  In my theology, if Jesus was fully human he had, to some extent, the human reluctance to fully embrace what he understood as the will of his Heavenly Father.   This is most dramatically demonstrated in the Garden of Gethsemane before Good Friday.  I’m sure that Jesus had a very good idea of the trials and challenges that he would face in the wilderness and did not embrace those with open arms.  However, he also knew that he would need to have the wilderness experience to prepare him for his earthly ministry.  Therefore, I appreciate the idea of the Spirit, shall we say, strongly encouraging Jesus to undertake that necessary journey.

In my scenario, Jesus was experiencing the dissonance between what we want and what we believe that God knows we need.  That is why Jesus had to be driven into the wilderness by the Holy SpiritGod in action.  This is an ongoing challenge for most, if not all of us; to do what we know we should be doing and do what we want to do.  St. Paul expressed this very well, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15). This is where the ego comes in.  The ego wants to be in control and wants what it wants.  It is an ongoing challenge to have the ego serve God and not the other way aroundbut that is a topic for another day. 

The challenge for my Lenten journey is to give up some of priorities set by my ego and to let it be in the service of God.  To do that I need to empty myself of some of the things that I want and allow space for God to enter.  Actually, it is more a case of recognizing God’s presence in myself and my life because God is always there.  However, I often am not aware of God’s presence as I am distracted by all the activities and wants and desires in my day to day life.

One way which I do that is through Centering Prayer.  This practice involves emptying you mind of all thoughtsor at least trying to because our western minds are not welcoming of having no thoughts.  In Centering Prayer, the minds tendency to fill up any empty spaces is referred to as “the monkey brain”.  I have practices Centering Prayer for some years now.  I was introduced to it in the Spiritual Direction training.  I have attempted to do it regularly but have not always been successful.  By regularly I mean one session daily for 20 minutes.  When thoughts come into your head during the prayer session, as they inevitably do, the idea is to not dwell on them, just let them float away. 

Hopefully, this respite from brain activity and thoughts will make me more aware for God’s presence in my life.  I have decided that my Lenten practice will be to engage in Centering Prayer every day in Lent.  I must admit I was not successful yesterday.  I did attend three worship services including a wonderful sung Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The others were at two congregations in my new parish where I preached at both services.  Fortunately, Lent does not officially include Sundays, so I guess I am off the hook.  However, I think that is my ego trying to justify the things I have not done that I should have done. 

I am eternally grateful that God is good and forgiving of all our shortcomings, both large and small.   

May you have a Holy Lent.
Greg