Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Holy Boredom

Last week I listened to the C.B.C. Ideas program, The Tedium is the Message   

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; 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.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Listening to God in Times of Transition

I find that I am in transition once again.  Perhaps I should have expected it but, on some level at least, I am surprized by this development.  I have accepted the offer to be Honourary Assistant in a neighbouring parish which has three congregations including St. James, Parkhill where I was rector until my retirement.  In the five years since I retired as a parish priest, Lorna and I have been worshiping at St. John’s-by-the-Lake in Grand Bend Ontario.  After this coming Sunday I will be beginning a new phase of parish ministry at St. John the Evangelist, Strathroy, St. James, Parkhill, and St. Paul’s Kerwood (amazing how many Anglican churches are named St. John’s).  It will be a new experience being an Honourary Assistant to the rector Rev. Karen Nelles, but one that I am looking forward to. 

One interesting development is that Lorna has decide to continue to worship at the St. John’s in Grand Bend.  She doesn’t want to embrace another change at this point in her life enjoying the congregation and the parishioners.  I am pleased she will be able to continue to worship at our current congregation and we will continue to schedule around the transportation issues of having only one car. 

It is an interesting coincidence (if you believe in them) that yesterday’s Gospel reading, Mark 1: 29-39, dealt with a transition for Jesus.  He was in Capernaum, his home territory.  He was given the honour of teaching in the Synagogue and was successfully healing people and casting out demons.  The demands on him were great to continue as the local hero and doing the wonderful, miraculous work of relieving the suffering of many.  However, after what I believe must have been a sleepless night, he rose early in the morning and spent some time in prayer.

His prayer was answered and he arose to a new realization about what his heavenly Father intended him to do.  His disciples had other ideas about what he should do, “When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’  He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  I don’t know how Jesus felt about the path his Heavenly Father had set for him, however, he had no doubt about what it was.

One of the lessons I take from this passage is the importance of prayer.  This is always true for us but particularly in times in transition when there is more than one path ahead.  I particularly lie the fact that Jesus withdrew to a quite place to get away from the demands of people around him.  As an introvert who needs to retreat regularly to my small corner and recharge my batteries, even when retired, I find it affirming that Jesus did just that at different times.
The lesson for me from this passage is, as I noted, the importance of prayer, particularly in times of transition.  I use the term “prayer” very broadly.  Prayer can take many different forms as God speaks to us in many different ways.  Our calling is to be intentional about listening to God speaking to us in different ways.  For me one important way is through my dreams, which for me and many others are, God’s Forgotten Language.  It is significant that last night after the decision to become Honourary Assistant was announced, I had a dream which seems, at least at first consideration, to affirm my decision. 

I hope that you
 will be blessed to hear what God is saying to you in times of transition in your life.


Thursday, 25 January 2018

Spiritual Formation or Spiritual Unformation?

Are you spirituality formed or unformed?  Perhaps I could also ask if you are spiritually uninformed.

I believe that the Anglican Church―at least the part I am familiar with―has been left behind in encouraging and assisting our members in spiritual formation.
An article in the current edition of the Anglican Journal by Bishop Mark MacDonald hit the nail of the head when addressing this situation; the article was entitled A Return to Spiritual Formation.

In the article, Bishop Mark notes that the Anglican Church has never completely given up on Spiritual Formation focusing on the preparation for baptism and confirmation.  There have been elements of it in the Proclamation of the Word in services especially in the preaching.  I would also add that it has always been a part of Christian Education; however, that has been to a great extent restricted to Sunday School for our children (where our congregations still have children). 
Bishop Mark notes that Anglicans have taken this rather laissez faire approach to Spiritual Formation because Christianity was to a great extent the foundation of our culture:
We leave much of the formation of attitude, spirituality and daily practice to our participation in the larger culture. It is not hard to understand why this is so. Our contemporary church is only a short time away from a period when the broader culture was much more influenced by Christian thought and practice. During those years, formation happened through regular and common participation in a number of different societal organizations and institutions. It was possible to approach spiritual formation in the church as a kind of finishing school, affirming much that was already there in the culture and adding a distinctive, often denominational, flavour to the whole.  Bishop Mark MacDonald February 5, 2018
As a result of our relationship to culture, in which we did not need to take a proactive approach to Spiritual Formation or evangelization, our church finds itself in in the position we are in today with dwindling, aging congregations which are closing in shocking numbers.  Our Diocesan announcement seem to have a notice about the deconsecrating of a church building most weeks. 

There are, of course, many reasons why this is happening beyond the lack of Spiritual Formation.  The forces of modernity and secularization are driving much of the change.  We Anglicans, as well as other mainline denominations, have not responded to these forces quickly and adequately enough.

As a Spiritual Director what I do is to offer companionship and guidance to my Directees in their spiritual journey in which their spiritual life will develop more fully and their relationship with God (however, they understand God) will become richer, deeper, and stronger. 

I believe that is the journey in which God invites each person to take regardless of their tradition or lack of tradition.  It is a journey which we are all intended to take.

Blessings on your journey.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

God knit me together in my mother’s womb.

13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (Psalm 139)

This verse is from the psalm appointed for yesterday which was the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany.  The theme for the day was “follow me”.  The Gospel tells of the call of Phillip by Jesus to follow him and Phillip’s response to that call.

For many years I have been engaged by the idea that God knew me before I was knit together in my mother’s womb.  In effect, God created me as a unique individual with my unique DNA.  The implication of this is that I was created to be a and live this life in a specific way.  I does not mean that I have only one specific calling in life. The possibilities for living out that calling are too diverse to restrict it to one specific path.  However, we are called to find the path that will best fit the purpose that God intends for us.  If you answer the call to follow Jesus you will have the opportunity to discover each day where Jesus is calling you and how you can best follow him.

The opening verses of the psalm states it so well:
1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

God does know all my ways; my going out and my coming in.  That is truly awful; awe-full in the sense that I am filled with awe when I realize it.  Of course, there are many days and many times in most days when I forget that awe-full reality. 

The challenge for me in following Jesus is to become a bit more the person that God created me to be when God knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Responding to Jesus’ call to follow him is only the first step.  It is to begin a journey that will have many rough places as well as some smooth places.  It will have its highs and its lows.  There will be dead ends or at least what seem like dead ends. However, Jesus will always be there as my guide and my comfort, my strength and my shield.

If I follow him goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life (to quote another psalm).

Blessings on your journey,