Shaping communities

hands by Tim Marshall, unsplash.com

My intent today was to blog about the Christian practice of “shaping communities,” the subject of the ninth chapter, by Larry Rasmussen, in Practicing Our Faith.

I was going to write about “the perennial Christian strategy,” as Rasmussen calls it, “to gather the folks, break the bread, and tell the stories.”

I was going to say that my own particular expertise was not in how to shape such a community, but in how the Christian communities—of which I’ve been a part over the course of my lifetime—have shaped me.

I was going to write about the United church congregation in which my parents raised me, my memories of sitting on the floor at the feet of my Sunday School teacher, taking in the stories and lessons told with flannel graph Jesus.

I was going to write about coming to genuine faith there, about learning important Christian doctrines, about being confirmed, participating in the Lord’s Supper for the first time, and then learning to serve by teaching Sunday School classes, and writing skits to be performed by little ones during the Sunday service.

I was going to share my memories of the Pentecostal church I attended in university, where I heard apologetics and learned to study the Bible, and where I experienced the practice of Christian hospitality like I’d never seen it practiced before, when one particular family invited me to their home for a roast beef lunch on a Sunday after church (it was their habit to open their home in this way every week to university students who found themselves away from their own homes) and offered me a place to lay my head after the meal.

I was going to write about the little Christian and Missionary Alliance church my husband and I have called home for 30 years. I was going to tell you about the lifelong friendships I’ve made there, the mentoring, teaching, and counselling I’ve received, the support and help in raising my three children. I was going tell you about the hugs I get there every Sunday. I was going to reminisce about serving throughout all those years—in the nursery, or in Sunday School, or in Pioneer Girls, or Kidz Kamp or in the kitchen—even when I didn’t really want to, and how such service molded me and taught me things. And how I watched as my children also learned to serve and how proud of them I felt as I watched them learning sometimes hard but always character-forming lessons.

I was going to tell you about the fact that I study in a Baptist seminary, and work part-time in an evangelical Anglican one, and how both places offer community that is shaping me in other profoundly important ways.

But then I heard about the cold-blooded mass murder of so many families in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that happened yesterday. And my heart felt heavy. So I checked in, via Facebook, with a Muslim friend. And I saw comments on her profile there that made me realize that she feels about her mosque community the same way that I feel about the all of the Christian communities that have shaped and that continue to shape me.

And then I did the only thing I could think of to do: I dropped to my knees and I prayed for my friend, for her community, and for the victims. And I prayed for those who are growing up without the benefit of loving, shaping communities, for future perpetrators who are just waiting-in-the-wings, for those who struggle with mental illness, and for those whose anger and outrage and sense of injustice leads them to hate.

May God have mercy on us all.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 10 – This post is tenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

On discernment

forest paths by Jens Lelie, Unsplash

Our culture thinks it’s cool to be discerning, or at least, to be thought of that way.

Guidance on becoming discerning is everywhere. A recent article on Forbes.com counselled business leaders to seek discernment. News headlines pay homage to “discerning foodies” and “discerning shoppers” as well as “discerning investors” and “discerning audiences.” The lifestyle section of the newspaper offers horoscopes and advice columns for those who seek help in discerning how to live their lives.

Discernment for the Christian is different 

But for the Christian, discernment takes on another dimension, according to the essay by Frank Rogers Jr. titled “Discernment,” which is the eighth chapter of Practicing Our Faith. That’s because Christians believe that “God is present, hoping and urging, in the midst of all the situations of life.” In light of that, discernment becomes the practice “by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations.”

The Apostle Paul teaches us in his first letter to the Corinthians that there are some things that come from God that can only be spiritually discerned. But, as Rogers points out, “The history of the church is littered with the stories of people who have claimed guidance from the Spirit when the prejudices of self-deception reigned instead.”

So, it was out of a desire to deepen the practice of spiritual discernment in my own life that I signed up for a course by that name at McMaster Divinity College. I wanted help not just with making wise decisions and choices, but with rightly understanding the on-going call of God in my day-to-day life.

One of the required texts for the course immediately challenged me that the process of spiritual discernment must begin and end in prayer, for as Henri Nouwen writes in Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, “the discipline of prayer and being in God’s presence … is the starting and ending place out of which guidance emerges.”

Practicing the discipline of prayer

Prayer has come easier at some times in my life than at others. And I realized that unless I found a way to make prayer more of a discipline, then I would always struggle with it.

So one of the practices I’ve incorporated this semester is that of the Daily Examen. The Examen is an exercise developed by Ignatius of Loyola, who lived from 1491 to 1556. It’s essentially just a technique that helps to focus your prayers at the end of the day, such that you learn to better detect God’s presence in the day just over, and to anticipate God’s presence in the day to come.

It typically involves five steps, and need only take about five minutes. My course text book, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert, outlines the steps as follows:

  1. Give thanks for all God’s gifts and benefits: Jesus, you have been present today throughout our world … I rejoice in …”
  1. Ask for light: Be near now. Let us look together at my day. Let me see through your loving eyes …”
  1. Review the day: thoughts, words, deeds, desires, consolations, desolations*: When did I listen to your voice today? When did I resist listening to you today?”
  1. Express gratitude, sorrow, and purpose of amendment: Jesus, everything is gift from you. I give you thanks and praise for the gifts of today … I ask your healing in … I ask your forgiveness and mercy for …”
  1. Ask for the graces you desire for tomorrow: Jesus, continue to be present with me in my life each day …”

I don’t pray it perfectly.

Sometimes I forget one step or another, and sometimes I forget to pray the Examen altogether. But when I have taken the time to pray in this way, I’ve found it to be helpful.

I like to read in bed each night before sleep, and I try to remember to pray the Examen once I’ve put my book down for the evening, but before I turn out my light. (Praying with my light on helps to ensure I don’t fall asleep in the middle of my prayers.)

Just beginning my night time prayers with, “Jesus, you have been present everywhere in our world today and you have been present in my life …” focuses my thoughts and causes me to feel gratitude for his presence. That sentence has been a powerful reminder to me of God’s goodness and grace—daily to our world and to me.

And then when I reflect on my day, the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, I’m reminded again and again that He has been with me. I see Him more clearly when I pause to take the time to reflect in this way. Confessing my failings during the course of the day through this exercise also relieves my conscience, and helps me to fall asleep; it helps me to resolve to do better, to be more attentive to signs of Him “tomorrow.”

I’ve found that reliving my day in my mind—step by step—in a conscious effort to look for evidence of His presence and help has not only made me more aware of Jesus in my life, it has made me more alert to his image in others.

It has also given me a deeper sense of contentment, gratitude, and yes, joy, as I go about my days. That has been a surprising but welcome by-product of the exercise and of my quest to deepen my practice of spiritual discernment.

*

* Note: according to Rogers, “Feelings of consolation are those that give rise to life, love, peace, joy, creativity, and communion. … Feelings of desolation are those that give rise to despair, confusion, alienation, destructiveness, and discord.”

Practicing My Faith, Part 9 – This post is ninth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

The power of testimony

Hymn book photo by Kelly Sikkema

We’d teased that she was the Energizer bunny; she just kept going and going. An athlete in her younger years, she overcame a fall and broken ribs at 97, and two more falls—due to congestive heart failure resulting in a fractured hip and collar bone—at 101. Then, in November, just after her 102nd birthday, another fall, and another broken hip, which led to a long period of hospitalization and rehabilitation.

Two weeks ago, the hospital said they’d done all they could for her, and maybe she’d be more comfortable at home. So, we moved her back to her lovely retirement community. In spite of better food (she’d found the hospital’s pureed options insulting) and familiar surroundings, she has made it clear that no, thank you very much, she really isn’t very hungry or thirsty.

On Friday morning, her nurse called to say that she isn’t taking in enough food or fluid to sustain her. Later that day, the doctor signed the necessary forms to admit my mother-in-law to palliative care.

When my husband and I sat with her on Friday afternoon, we began our visit by communicating in the only way we’ve really been able to communicate over the past number of months—by writing on an erasable white board. We reminded her that she has much to look forward to: she is headed for eternity, where she will be reunited with loved ones. We listed them by name. She shrugged.

But then we thought we’d try her “Pocket Talker” (sound amplifier) again; she had been refusing even that while in hospital. This time, she allowed us to put on her head phones. I held the microphone close to my mouth and spoke into it directly, trying to engage her, asking her questions that might provoke happy memories. What was her favourite game as a girl? Who was her best friend in high school? Again and again she just mumbled, “I don’t remember.”

A light comes on

“Well, let’s see if you remember this,” I said, and I started to sing Jesus Loves Me. It took just those three words sung for the light to come on in her eyes, and soon she was singing along.

With that kind of success, I invited her to sing another song with me, In the Garden. And then, How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace, and The Old Rugged Cross. Next we recited The Lord’s Prayer, The Apostles’ Creed, and the Twenty-Third Psalm. She spoke them all in the loudest, clearest voice I’d heard from her in a while.

I reached for the hymn book on her night stand and began flipping pages, looking for anything even vaguely familiar, giving silent thanks for all those years of hymn singing in church where I’d learned to make my voice follow the direction of the notes on the page, and to hold some notes longer than others. O God, Our Help in Ages Past;  Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise;  Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee;  Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God, Almighty;  Come, Thou Almighty King; and Be Still My Soul.  We three sang them all, me holding the mic millimetres away from my lips so she could hear, Doug chiming in with whatever he remembered, both of us amazed by how much she recalled.

“Aren’t you getting tired of hearing my sorry voice?” I asked her.

“No, don’t stop,” she commanded. “I love it.” And so we sang some more.

After we’d been singing about an hour, it was clear she needed to rest. So we kissed her and said our good-byes. But I sensed a peace and contentment in her that hadn’t been there when we’d first arrived.

The dimensions of Christian testimony

At home that evening, I read Thomas Hoyt Jr.’s essay, “Testimony,” composing chapter 7 of Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People.  In it, Hoyt describes Christian testimony as “a deeply shared practice,” in which “people speak truthfully about what they have experienced and seen.” Hoyt further describes song as “one of the most precious forms of the practice of testimony.”

“Christian testimony has two dimensions,” Hoyt writes concluding his chapter. “One is testimony to the church and the world, where witnesses tell others about the action of God. The other is testimony to where witnesses tell God the truth about themselves and others.”

It was then that the penny dropped. Through our singing that afternoon, we had been reminding one another of the truths of God, even as we reinforced them in our own hearts and minds. We had simultaneously been singing the truth of our own sins, failures, and frailties to God, while expressing our trust in His inestimable mercy, saving grace, and love for us.

No wonder she seemed at peace. No wonder that we felt it too.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 8  – This post is eighth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Sabbath keeping

Candle by Zander Bederi

I remember the school children, running through the narrow avenues and alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem. Happy, but quietly so. Hurrying to get home for Shabbat, the weekly Jewish day of rest, which begins at sundown each Friday and ends at sundown the following day.

It was early on a Friday afternoon in the winter of 2005 when I saw them, when the streets began to exhale people. School children were the first to collect—like autumn leaves—along those narrow stones worn smooth. But soon, the labyrinthine paths were filled and flowing as restaurants and businesses closed up shop, blowing their owners and workers out of doors. They too scurried, but purposefully; all those people, generations, moving with purpose.

And then, just as suddenly, a hush, as the rushing bodies seemed to disappear, having been inhaled again into their hidden homes.

Later, as I sat in our hotel’s candle-lit dining room, surrounded by tables filled with families wearing their best, I listened as our host prayed, welcoming the Sabbath. I watched as he raised a cup of wine, sang a blessing, then blessed and broke sweet bread.

And I felt envy.

The gift of Sabbath

Ushering in the day of rest in an atmosphere of thanksgiving festive and reverent—with food and family, prayers and candles—struck me as a gift. And I couldn’t help but reflect on the contrast with how I carried out my own practice during a weekly day of rest and worship, which often began with the stress of trying to corral everyone to get to church on time and more often than not included catching up on one or more tasks that somehow just didn’t get accomplished during the week: groceries or laundry, budgeting or completing that not-quite-finished project for a client. The contrast deepened as I walked the silent streets of Jerusalem the next day and saw how the entire city had ground to a very visible halt. I realized: Shabbat is a gift the Jewish people have received from God, but also one that through their faithful practice of honouring the Sabbath—from generation to generation across thousands of years—they have embraced completely.

It is a gift, according to Dorothy C. Bass, writing in the sixth chapter of Practicing Our Faith, in an essay entitled, “Keeping Sabbath.” 

“For time-starved contemporary people, the practice of Sabbath keeping may be a gift just waiting to be unwrapped, a confirmation that we are not without help in shaping the renewing ways of life for which we long,” Bass writes.

The renewing ways of life. Whose life couldn’t do with a little more renewal?

Jesus, too, taught that the regular day of abstaining from work is a gift. The gospel of Mark records him as saying that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

A weekly day of rest set apart from the wearying labours of our lives was our Creator’s intention for humankind from the beginning. The Sabbath was made for us, and given to us.

But for a gift to be enjoyed it must be received. In the case of keeping the Sabbath, it’s not enough to receive it on some sort of intellectual level; to enjoy its sweetness and benefits it must also be practiced.

Deepening Sabbath practice

And yet, “Christians cannot keep Sabbath as Jews do,” Bass writes. “We know God most fully not through the perpetual covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai but through Jesus Christ. … In an authentically Christian form of Sabbath keeping, we may affirm the grateful relationship to the Creator that Jews celebrate each Sabbath, and we may share the joyful liberation from drudgery first experienced by the slaves who left Egypt. But we add to these celebrations our weekly festival for the source of our greatest joy: Christ’s victory over the powers of death. For Christians, this victory makes of each weekly day of rest and worship a celebration of Easter.”

My own practice of Sabbath-keeping pales in comparison to what I experienced in Jerusalem. I gather with fellow believers for an hour or two on Sunday mornings to worship, fellowship, learn, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Sunday afternoons my husband and I have long enjoyed the tradition of taking a “Sabbath nap.” But I’ve also frequently taken advantage of Sundays to get a little bit of work accomplished and justified doing so in my own mind thinking, “The Sabbath was made for me, not me for the Sabbath.”

This exercise I’ve embarked on, however—of exploring and deepening Christian practices in my life—is making me think that I’m cheating myself by not giving myself over more fully to honouring that one day as a day of rest each week. It’s not about uncovering new reasons to feel guilty or new goals to be conquered. It’s about more fully receiving the gifts that God has for those who embrace a life of seeking relationship with Him.

Recently, I’ve been making a concerted effort on Sundays to avoid my computer with its many technological temptations. It has felt freeing and I’ve liked it.

So tonight, when the sun sinks below the horizon, I think I just might light a candle and say my own prayer of thanksgiving to God for giving us this gift, and then I’ll welcome Sabbath.

*

How about you? Do you take a regular day of rest? What sort of boundaries do you observe around it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and invite you to leave a comment.

Practicing My Faith, Part 7 – This post is seventh in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

What’s saying “yes” and “no” got to do with it?

Neon yes sign

As I was getting ready for church on Sunday, I heard my husband singing through the bathroom door. He was singing loudly, which is unusual for my him; Doug rarely sings loudly unless he’s doing Elvis impersonations.

His song of choice on this particular morning wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” but an old, old Christian hymn, one I haven’t heard sung in years. I don’t know from where in his subconscious this song suddenly surfaced, but I couldn’t help singing along:

            I have decided to follow Jesus!

            I have decided to follow Jesus!

            I have decided to follow Jesus!

            No turning back. No turning back.

That song has been a brain worm in my mind ever since, perhaps because it dawned on me that its simple, repetitive words are an example of the next Christian practice I have been reflecting on from the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. And that practice is: saying yes and saying no.

Through the words of this song, my husband was affirming that at one point in his own history he said “yes” to Jesus. He has said “no” to walking away from Christ ever since.

Chapter 5: Saying yes and saying no by M. Shawn Copeland

It struck me as odd, though, the first time I heard of the premise of the fifth chapter in this book through which I am thinking and blogging my way. How could saying yes or saying no possibly be considered a Christian practice? Everybody says yes and no. But as Copeland makes clear in her essay, “Saying yes and saying no are companions in the process constituting a whole and holy life.”

She writes:

“If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intended for us, and we must follow through on our commitments to pray, to be conscientious, and to be in mutually supportive relations with other faithful persons. These acts take self-discipline. We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and yes to a way of life that makes space for God.”

Every yes means a related no or series of noes. They go together—like marshmallows and chocolate on graham crackers. Every turning away  from one thing is a turning toward another.

When a couple says yes to marriage, they are also saying no to intimate relationships with anyone other than each other. When a person says yes to church on Sunday morning, they must by default say no to sports or the gym or shopping or any number of other activities during that particular time each week. When a student says no to preparing for an upcoming exam they are likely saying yes to a poor result.

My first big yes

The first big yes of my Christian life was a yes to God Himself, when as an adolescent, I sensed He wanted me for His own. I couldn’t really comprehend why He would want me; I felt unworthy of His desire. And yet, I have a clear and vivid memory of saying yes to Him one night as I prayed alone in my bedroom.

That first big yes to God was followed by countless other, smaller yesses, to things that I thought would add up to a life that would please Him. But it also led to countless noes as I refused things I thought would take me in a direction that would lead me away from Him.

It’s easy to look back on my life and see where my various yesses and noes led me. But “learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our yes or our no is a lifelong project,” observes Copeland.

So, what might it mean to deepen my Christian practice of saying yes and saying no right now, at this point in my life? That’s been the question occupying my thoughts these past few days.

But I’d like to hear from you, reading friend. What have been your biggest yesses and noes? Are there any you would change if you had them to do all over again?

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Practicing My Faith, Part 6 – This post is sixth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

 

 

A new way to think about home economics

Globe photo by Kyle Glenn Unsplash

Just reading the words, “Household Economics,” which compose the title and focus of the fourth chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, conjured up memories of my grade 7/8 Home Economics teacher, Miss Precious. (Yes, that was really her name.) With her beehive hairdo (she had one) her pince-nez glasses (those too) and her stern face, she was, for many reasons, unforgettable. I was one of her favourites: my mother had taught me well; to cook simple things and to sew, and by my parents’ strong example and good teaching I had already absorbed a lesson or two about managing limited resources.

So when I picked up the “Household Economics” essay by Sharon Daloz Parks, I admit I felt just the teensiest bit smug; this is one area of Christian practice in which the lessons of my lifetime have come a little easier. My husband and I are at a stage of life where we can breathe a bit; our children are educated and launched, our home is paid for, we have no debt. We may not have accumulated as much as some people we know, we’re driving a 13-year-old car, and the kitchen needs a renovation that may never happen. However, we’ve always managed to prioritize charitable giving in the belief that our giving was really just giving back from out of the abundance that God had given to us. As we look behind us at a lifetime of managing our household in the ways that we have, we feel good about what that has all added up to. We also know we’ve made some mistakes. But we are content. We are in a good place, and we are grateful.

Thinking bigger

But the “household” that Parks writes about is much bigger than just what goes on within the four walls of our private abode. She does begin there, noting that “Our households are anchoring places where, over time, we craft the practices by which we prosper or fail to prosper.”

“Like the words ecumenical and ecology, economics is rooted in the Greek word oikos, meaning household, and signifies the management of the household—arranging what is necessary for well-being,” she explains. “Good economics practice—positive ways of exchanging goods and services—is about the well-being, the livelihood, of the whole household.”

That’s where she begins. But she doesn’t end there. Rather, Parks points out that every one of us is a member of a “planetary commons.” In other words, we all share a communal household—planet Earth—and we also have a duty to manage the resources of this much, much larger household to the benefit, the well-being, of all its inhabitants.

And suddenly, I realized, chagrined, that I had no reason to feel self-satisfied.

I’ve been to the developing world. I’ve travelled its deeply rutted roads, and seen its hungry children. I’ve visited its hospitals and schools and wrestled with the inequities I’ve been confronted with between the lives of people there and our living standards here in the developed world. I’ve learned about injustice, because I’ve seen it firsthand. I know it exists, and I know that unless I’m actively taking even small steps in my life to counteract it, then I am, by default, contributing to it. If my personal household is flourishing, but our planetary household is not, I still have work to do.

So if I want to deepen my Christian practice in this area—and as I’ve meditated on this subject I realize that I do—then I need to think more about where and how I allocate my spending dollars. I need to do the hard work of researching where the goods I buy come from, and how they are produced. I need to be willing to pay the higher costs of fair-trade products. And I need to do a better job here in my own private household of adopting practices that mean better care for the planet, not only because it’s the one household that we all share, but also because it’s the only home we’ve got.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 5 – This post is fifth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Practicing hospitality

Please come in sign

It’s been a harsh winter here in southern Ontario, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to practice our winter driving skills. In the midst of a snowstorm, drivers know it’s best to ease up on the accelerator. Slowing down and keeping both hands on the wheel has a way of making you hyper vigilant, more aware of what’s going on around you and your responses to it. It helps you stay in your lane, on the road, and out of trouble.

Similarly, I’m learning that there’s value in slowing my life down, taking time to intentionally reflect on my Christian practice. I can be so task-focused, that I neglect to really live in the moment. But I’m discovering that thinking deliberately about how  I’m practicing my faith each day is causing me to see things in life—important things—that I might be neglecting, areas where I can do better if only I’m willing to challenge myself.

What it’s about

It’s not about striving for some unrealistic ideal of perfection. And it’s not about trying to earn God’s favour; no matter how far short I may fall in my efforts to live a life that honors my Jesus, I know that He loves me, and that His grace is more than enough to make up for my failings and weaknesses. What it is about is wanting to live my best life, recognizing that the time we are given to do so is limited and short. It is about turning the practices of my day-to-day life into acts of worship.

Still, I admit that my heart sank a bit when I turned to the next chapter in Practicing Our Faith and realized that it focused on hospitality.

Don’t get me wrong; I love to bring people together in my home, to sit around a table for good conversation and nourishing food. But I realized in reading Ana Maria Pineda’s chapter—the third in the book edited by Dorothy C. Bass—that Christian hospitality focuses on welcoming the stranger. And that’s not only something I’m not very good at, it’s also something at which I’ve not tried very hard to improve.

I’m an introvert, and I’m naturally shy around strangers. It’s hard for me to reach out to people I don’t know. I have neighbours I’ve lived beside for years—I’m ashamed to say—with whom I regularly exchange pleasantries, gifts at Christmas, and to whom I’ve sent the occasional meal when I learned they were struggling. But we’ve never been in each other’s homes. I’ve defaulted to what’s easy and comfortable and been content with allowing things to remain as they are.

“Just as the human need for hospitality is a constant, so, it seems, is the human fear of the stranger,” writes Ana Maria Pineda. But, she also writes, “In the traditions shaped by the Bible, offering hospitality is a moral imperative.”

Welcoming strangers

Jesus himself emphasized the importance of welcoming strangers. The gospel of Matthew (chapter 25: 34-35) records him teaching in a parable that at the end of time, “The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” In other words, Jesus is saying, when we welcome strangers, we welcome him.

A journalist and writer friend of mine who passed away suddenly a couple of years ago was a master at welcoming strangers; that was clear at her funeral—one the largest I have ever attended. People came from near and far—literally from around the globe—to attend. Debra Fieguth lived in a university town, and she and her husband welcomed international students into their home for meals and conversation weekly for years. In her book, The Door Is Open: Glimpses of Hospitality in the Kingdom of God, Debra writes that North American Christianity lacks hospitality and then diagnoses the problem: “We cocoon ourselves in our own homes or families or churches, forgetting to share what we have—including our time—with others.”

As I’ve thought about hospitality, I’ve thought about Debra, and about what it means to welcome strangers. And it occurred to me that I am surrounded by strangers as I ride the train and subway three days each week during my commute into and out of the heart of Toronto. But in my desire to productively use that time, I’ve been cocooning—ear buds in as I listen to podcasts, or head down looking at my cell phone as I scroll through headlines, articles, and news feeds.

An open heart as an open door

“Could hospitality be as much a matter of welcoming strangers into my heart  as into my home?” I wondered. And could I start to be more welcoming, cultivating a willingness to share my time by simply keeping my head up, with eyes and ears open during those commutes?

Last week, I thought I’d try. My first encounter with a stranger on my first commuting day happened early; it was still dark when I stood on the platform of the train station waiting for the train to arrive. A petite young woman with long brown hair and a gold knit toque pulled down low over her forehead cupped her travel mug in both hands and sipped its contents. I told her it smelled good, her coffee, and it really did on that frigid morning. She smiled and told me her boyfriend had made it for her. That was all it took to open up a friendly conversation until we boarded the train and I lost sight of her.

But disembarking from the train, I saw her again, and wished her a good day. She returned my wishes. It was such a small exchange, but it occurred to me that my commute had felt a little warmer that day; I hoped hers had too.

For the next couple of days, I continued to leave my cell phone with its many enticements tucked out of sight, and had several other, brief, and seemingly inconsequential encounters with people unknown to me. There was the sniffling, middle-aged woman on the train who clearly needed a tissue, so I offered one; the tall, bearded young man struggling with a suitcase and several bags at the bottom of the subway stairs who obviously needed a helping hand, and the woman who slipped and took a tumble at the bottom of a staircase on the way in to the subway station. When I helped her up, she brushed herself off, embarrassed. In answer to my query, she assured me she was fine, but thanked me for asking nonetheless.

In the grand scheme of things perhaps none of those encounters will really count for much, but I’m certain that none of them would have happened had my eyes and ears been closed to the world. Emerging from the confines of a cocoon, I’m learning, takes both effort and time. And for me, it also takes some courage. I’m hoping that with practice, it might come more easily.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 4 – This post is fourth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Honoring bodies

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When it comes to deepening my spiritual practices, asking the right questions matters; that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve reflected on honoring the body—the first of the 12 overarching Christian practices detailed in the book Practicing Our Faith. And the question I’ve deliberately asked myself day after day, many times each day is: “What does it mean to me, right here, right now, to honor the body?”

Like the afternoon sun streaming through my window reveals dust particles dancing on air, my question has illuminated thoughts about how God made us and what that ought to mean for my life.

In all my years of seeking to follow Jesus, I’m sure that I’ve never deliberately thought as much about bodies as I have in recent weeks, except maybe when I was pregnant with—or nursing—each of my three children. Growing a new body within one’s own, nurturing a little body that is completely and entirely dependent on yours, has a way of heightening your awareness of all things physical. And when I was a young mother, I was highly motivated to honor my body as a way of honoring and respecting the little bodies that were relying on mine. It was a physical practice motivated by the intellectual and emotional desire to grow healthy children.

Spiritual practice

But honoring the body is, for Christians, also a spiritual practice writes Stephanie Paulsell in the book’s second chapter. It is a practice “born of the confidence that our bodies are made in the image of God’s own goodness.” And, she points out, even such simple, everyday actions as bathing and dressing are a part of how we honor our bodies.

I know I can do a better job of honoring mine; a recent bout of pneumonia, and a number on my bathroom scale that’s risen to dizzying new heights tells me as much. Still, I was heartened by Paulsell’s words because even I shower and dress most days. So that’s not a bad baseline. And if the practices are truly not a set of goals to be mastered but of gifts to be received, then my body could do with a boon.

It’s no secret that caring about the human body is deeply embedded in Christian theology. The body matters, Christians believe, because God made it. And, as Paulsell points out, He made it in His image and He called it “good.” In Jesus Christ, God honored the human body even further by taking on a body of His own. Jesus demonstrated His love for human bodies by feeding, touching, healing, and resurrecting them. And then, when Jesus’ own body was pulverized, crucified, and laid in a tomb, God raised it to life, thereafter giving all Christians hope that one day He will do the same for our bodies. Finally, God seals His love for our bodies by inhabiting them with His own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, whom, the Bible tells us, comes to take up residence within the bodies of those who welcome Him.

Yes, Christian belief has a lot to say about the beauty, worth, and goodness of the body. It can be heady stuff to think about. But what impact should all of that have on me, now, a Canadian woman living in 2019 who’s on the downward slope of middle-age? (Who am I kidding? Unless I live to 120, it would be more accurate to say that I’m on the slippery slope to old age.)

Taking action 

Coincidentally, I happened to read the chapter on “Honoring the Body” the night before my first “annual” physical exam in more than three years. (Sitting in a doctor’s office, talking about bodily concerns is one of my least favourite pastimes, and it’s been easy to find excuses to keep putting off my long overdue checkup.)

So, the next morning, as I sat in my doctor’s examination room, I asked myself, “What does it mean to me, right here, right now, to honor the body?” And when my doctor asked if I had any concerns, I decided the answer to my own question in that moment meant summoning the courage to answer hers—truthfully—mentioning every concern, no matter how embarrassing, or for how long they might have gone unspoken.

The desire to honor my body continued beyond my doctor’s office and resulted in renewed motivation for everything from packing healthy snacks for work, to flossing my teeth nightly before bed, even when I didn’t want to. Asking my “what does it mean” question provoked me to live more in the present moment. I tend to be a highly task-oriented person, always racing from one thing to the next. But reflecting on my question literally slowed me down at times; rather than racing across the icy parking lot at the train station, or up and down wet subway stairs, I found myself treading more carefully to avoid the potential for slips and falls.

Bodies, bodies everywhere 

It wasn’t just my body that I started to think about either, but other people’s bodies too. “Honoring the body is a shared practice,” explains Paulsell, “one that requires the participation of all. … When we honor the bodies of others, we are also drawn into God’s work.”

I’ve thought about that each time I’ve visited my 102-year-old mother-in-law in the hospital (recovering from a broken hip). I’ve tried to honor her enfeebled body with kisses, by brushing her hair, filing her nails, massaging lotion into her papery skin. I’ve thought about the fact that human bodies do not live forever.

“All bodies are reflections of God’s good creation, deserving of reverence and care,” Paulsell writes, and it struck me that my husband and I reverence and care for each other’s bodies when we prioritize intimate time. I thought about the fact that the brain is also a part of the body. And so, I realized, I can honor both my body and the bodies of others when I refuse to watch that Netflix show with gratuitous nudity—no matter how entertaining or well-written it might be.

My professor, Dr. Wendy Porter, says it is important to remain attentive to our lives, making small adjustments as we discern the necessity for them so that we’ll be equipped to discern and respond to the need for more sweeping changes when those needs arise.

In a column published in 2014, New York Times writer David Brooks observed that, “The human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells.”

My recent efforts towards thinking more intentionally about the human body, and the fact that it is indeed sacred, resulted in small but significant adjustments in my thinking and practice.

What about you? It’s time for me to ask you some questions: What are your thoughts on all of this? Do you agree that the human body is sacred? If not, why not? What does it mean to you—in your life and context—to honor the body? I look forward to hearing from you!

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Practicing My Faith, Part 3 – This post is third in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

 

 

 

 

And so I begin. Again. (Practicing my faith, part 2)

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I came across some words this week by the 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, that spoke truth to me:

“One can never  be a Christian; one can only become one again and again: in the evening of each day rather ashamed of one’s Christianity of that day and on the morning of each new day content that one may again dare to be a Christian.”

I first made a conscious choice to dare to be a Christian in early adolescence, and my life since then has been marked by a series of decisions—one after another—to either affirm or deny that choice. I’ve had moments, periods, even whole stretches of time, when God was unwanted, felt distant, doubted, or not to be trusted, and I’ve considered giving the whole thing up. Like a dieter who falls off the wagon by scarfing down an entire pan of brownies, but who knows she’ll be happier and healthier in the long run if she can just stick with it, when I tried to envision a future without Jesus, I didn’t like where I saw that future leading me.

And so, I would return, daring to “become” a Christian for another day.

We return because we yearn: for something better, to be better, to live more faithful lives. Thus, the title of the first chapter in Practicing Our Faith (edited by Dorothy Bass) jumped out at me: “Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith.”

As I embark on this little project of deepening the practices of my faith to see where it leads me, I wondered why these times of ours are times of such yearning? I spoke to Bass a few days ago and asked her the motivation for the original book (first published in 1997).

“It was an awareness that we live in a time of such rapid social change,” she said. “Many of our basic, fundamental activities­—who we eat with, how we use our time—were really starting to change.

“There was a sense of fragmentation,” she added. “What does my religion have to do with my work? What does social justice have to do with my personal life? We were trying to find an approach that would address rampant individualism, and that would heal the fragmentation, help people find the connections between their lives and their faith.”

The “we” she refers to is herself—a former professor, practical theologian and church historian—and her colleague, collaborator, and co-author, Craig Dykstra.

“The community of people gathered around Jesus Christ has explored the contours of a faithful way of life over the centuries, and it continues to do so all around the world today,” the two write. “This community, like everyone in it, is flawed, and there has been much stumbling and sinning along the way. But wisdom and skill have also emerged as members of this community have tried to understand and live in response to the mysterious grace of God in creation, the redemptive presence of Christ, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.”

“The need to figure out how to walk aright in each new time and place is one that we all share.”

In the 22 years since the first edition of Practicing Our Faith came out, that need, it seems to me, has become more urgent. Why? It is a widely acknowledged fact among Christian scholars that we live in a post-Christian (or post-Christendom) society. In a talk delivered late last year, historical theologian Ephraim Radner defined a post-Christian society as one that offers no support for Christian life and witness, even though it once did so. “There are threads of Christianity running through post-Christian societies,” he explained, “but they now are visible only as an unravelling, not as a weaving together.”

I’m old enough to perceive this unravelling, and it only contributes to my longing to live my best life in Christ. I yearn that within my own tiny sphere of influence, the fragrance I bring might be the fragrance of Jesus. But even as I type those words, I’m tempted to despair, because I know how far short I fall from that goal.

And yet, I was heartened by Bass’s response, when I asked her what should be the goal of Christian practice. “We’re practicing life in the kingdom of God,” she said, and it seemed so simple when she described it that way.

Often, when people hear the word “practice,” she told me, they might think that our object is to master or control whatever it is we are practicing. “But in Christian practice, we add the spirit of Christ. These practices clear room to become channels of God’s grace.”

“So, we’re not trying to master time,” Bass went on, “we’re trying to receive it. It’s a matter of receptivity, of getting out of the way so God can do his work.”

The Christian life is meant to be lived in community. I believe this, and Bass counselled me to “find companions” as I set out to deepen and document my engagement with the 12 historic Christian practices outlined in Practicing Our Faith.

So that’s where you, dear reading friend, come in. I am buoyed and thankful that you are my companion just by the fact that you are reading this post, but I also want to learn from your thoughts, experiences, and feedback as we go along. Whether you’ve long considered yourself a Christian, or never done so, if you are a person who is intrigued by the idea of deepening your own spiritual practice, I hope that you will join me and the others who have committed to coming along on this journey, and then commenting from time to time so that we can learn from each other.

At the end of our call, Bass encouraged me. “I find it very helpful to get people to think about where they are already practicing,” she said. “Every Christian person is probably already doing these practices in one way or another. It just might be a little bit; it might be pathetic. So, look at where the practice already exists in your life, and ask, ‘what’s the next step?’”

The first of the 12 practices is: “Honouring the Body.” Over the coming week I invite you, reading friend, to think about how you are doing that. What does it mean to you to “honour the body” today, in your life, in your world? And what’s the next step for you to deepen your practice of that? It’s a question I’ve been reflecting on for some time now, and God willing, I will share my thoughts and discoveries with you next week.

I’ll end with another delicious word from Barth, to send us on our way:

“The Christian church is agreed on one thing: that it consists purely of beginners—and that this is truly a good thing: to become small again, to begin from the beginning, and thus at no point to stand still. … It is a question of faith, because all of that depends on Jesus, who alone is now able to make people into such simple, but happy beginners.”

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Part 2 – This post is second in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1.

Practicing my faith

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As part of my Master of Theological Studies program at McMaster Divinity College I’m doing an online course this semester on Spiritual Discernment. Of course, I am loving it; without exception, I’ve devoured every course that’s been part of my program. But a couple of weeks ago, our prof delivered a lecture on practicing the Christian faith that captured my imagination in a way that made me ravenous for more.

Using the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (edited by Dorothy C. Bass, published by Jossey-Bass) as one of her primary sources for the lecture, our professor mentioned that this book, which was first published in 1997, “spawned practically an entire discipline in itself of people—pastoral theologians, academics—who are contributing to this discussion of practices of faith.”

Practices are simply a means of connecting our faith with our living. I may be a late comer to the discussion, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I’ve learned through my studies that Christianity is always shaped by its surrounding culture, but there have been times when I’ve wondered if my culture shapes me more than it should. “How is it,” observes author David Dark in his book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, “that we’ve come to expect so little of people who call themselves Christian?” And twang goes my conscience.

As a person who like rules and boundaries—because they help to make life simple and clear—I’ve sometimes wondered if the way I live my faith, which seems to lack such rules with its emphasis on the grace of God, is “Christian enough.”

I know Muslims, who pray a prescribed number of times each day in a prescribed way. I know Jews who eat kosher and who faithfully honour the Sabbath and the high holidays. Such things are easily observed by someone outside of those faith groups like me. But what practices set apart the Christian life? My Christian life?

I’m not seeking a whole new “to do” or “to don’t” list. But sometimes, particularly as I ride the train en route to my part-time job, ear buds in, listening to the latest podcast, or scrolling news headlines on my phone surrounded by a sea of other commuters all doing precisely the same thing, I can’t help but wonder at the differences that exist in how I choose to lead my life from how my non-Christian friends and neighbours lead theirs. Outside of the hidden things—my prayer life, habits of Bible reading and study, personal moral choices, customs of church-going and charitable giving for example—would anyone who didn’t know me, be able to tell that I try to follow Jesus Christ just by observing the externals, that is, the practices of my life?

And again, Dark challenges me: “Will it turn out that you belonged mostly uncritically and unthinkingly to a particular cultural context? Did you wrestle with it or was your life one of automatic obedience, a series of unfortunate events in which you carefully ascertained what values you were expected to appear to have from one moment to the next and dutifully did so, aping along as it were along the path of least resistance?”

According to Bass (and the 12 authors who contributed to Practicing Our Faith) there are 12 “time-honored practices of faith, shaped by the Christian community over the centuries, yet richly relevant to contemporary experience.” The 12 practices are:

  1. Honouring the body
  2. Hospitality
  3. Household economics
  4. Saying yes and saying no
  5. Keeping sabbath
  6. Discernment
  7. Testimony
  8. Shaping communities
  9. Forgiveness
  10. Healing
  11. Dying well
  12. Singing our lives to God

What does it mean to live the Christian life in 2019? And am I living it well, as well as I could be? After a few days of pondering such questions, I ordered Practicing Our Faith and have begun immersing myself in its pages. Like sinking into a delicious tub filled with warm water at the end of a tiring day, it feels like I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

In a recorded lecture delivered at Yale Divinity School, Bass observed that, “What people are searching for is a way of life that adds up to something in the midst of the fragmentation and the multiple pulls that we experience as contemporary people.”

A way of life that adds up to something; this is my yearning, my deep desire. I suspect if you’ve read this far, that the same is true for you.

I hope to write about my learnings here on this blog as I deepen my understanding of the 12 practices in the weeks and months ahead. “Discerning the contours of a way of life abundant proceeds best,” writes Dorothy Bass, “when we give analytical, imaginative, critical, constructive, theological, prayerful attention to one practice at a time.” So that is what I plan to do. And I’d love for you to journey with me by reading along.

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When a desk is more than a desk

It may sit in my office, but it will always be “Wendy’s desk.”

It is only a desk, a piece of furniture, an inanimate object. And yet, this desk—which came into my possession over the holidays, and which my husband, our son, and I set up in my office on New Year’s Day—feels like so much more.

It belonged to a friend who passed away in July. Wendy was 63 when the cancer she’d fought for four years finally claimed her.

When I visited Wendy’s mom, Lois, one afternoon just before Christmas, she offered the desk to me, saying it was one of the few furnishings remaining from those that had once filled her daughter’s artfully decorated condo in midtown Toronto. Lois expressed gratitude that family had been able to absorb most of Wendy’s possessions—many of which were, like this desk, antiques that had been in their family for generations. “But no one could use her desk,” she explained.

Wendy was a writer and editor who cared passionately about writing from a Christian perspective. Committed to excellence in all she did, she spent untold thousands of hours at this desk, carefully crafting written pieces for publication. She and I became colleagues and then friends over our mutual passions for words and family, and our shared Christian faith. 

As I looked at the lovely little desk, empty and gathering dust against a wall in the large garage on her family’s farm, I yearned for my friend. I thought about all the time she had spent working on its flat surface. I ran my fingers over its scratches and wondered to myself if somehow, the very grain of the wood of which it is composed might have absorbed some of the essence of who she was. 

Wendy was a woman of strong character and of equally strong opinions, and both of those things came through in her writer’s voice. Since her cancer diagnosis, we had emailed each other almost daily, sharing news of our lives, our hopes and fears, and our prayers. After four years of that kind of contact, her death left a significant hole in my life. I miss her vibrancy, her friendship, her voice. I miss her

More times than I can tell you I’ve thought since she died, “I should write to Wendy about this!” or, “I wonder what Wendy would say about that?” My thrice-weekly commutes in to Toronto for work have felt lonelier; I used to use my commuting time to compose lengthy emails to her or to read her replies. The city is emptier without her in it.

The last six weeks of Wendy’s life, she was in hospital, and I was privileged to be a part of a circle of her close friends who helped to provide care for her there. We took turns visiting—all coordinated through a spreadsheet in Google docs—in order to feed her tiny bits of home cooked food, comb her hair, fetch her ice chips and warm blankets, read to her, sing hymns, and pray. And in the process of caring for Wendy, that circle of her friends became friends with one another. 

It was as if in allowing us to care for her, she completed her life’s work by giving us all one final gift of friendship, through making it possible for us to connect with each another. 

My life is richer for having known and loved my friend, in her living and in her dying. 

So, on that December afternoon, I told Lois I would love to have her daughter’s desk as a remembrance of the friendship we had shared. 

I like to think that Wendy would be pleased to know that her little desk now graces my own office, and that I will be using it to continue the kind of work to which she devoted her own life: writing and editing for various markets from a Christian perspective.

Later, on the evening of our visit, I called Lois to tell her that we had arrived home safely, and to thank her again for Wendy’s desk. I told her that there was nothing of Wendy’s that could possibly mean more to me, to which she replied, “It’s almost as if it was passed over by everyone else because it was just meant to be yours.” 

A new day

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The poet Luci Shaw has observed that “There’s immense power in small things. An atom. A seed. A word.”

I would add, “A realization.”

You can live a lifetime with one understanding of a thing, and then in a moment, that understanding changes. And the power and potential for transformation is almost unlimited.

I have a person in my life I have found difficult to love. Years of offences both large and small, of hurts and wounds I felt as a result of that individual’s words or actions towards me, the necessity of having to forgive again and again; it all added up to a certain hardening of my heart, and to my expressions of love toward that person being done out of duty.

I have had to exercise deliberate—rather than spontaneous—acts of care for them, because I knew I was supposed to love. And I confess that I long ago concluded that my heart would never follow.

In church on Sunday, our pastor preached a sermon in which he spoke about the new commandment that Jesus gave to his friends as his life was nearing its end. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. (John 15:12)

But what does such love look like? In defining it, our pastor turned to the Bible’s famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, and its words appeared on the large screen at the front of our church. Although I have read and reflected on that chapter so many times I could almost recite it from memory, as our pastor read its verses aloud, one sentence jumped out at me. And it was as if I was seeing and hearing the words for the very first time.

“Love keeps no record of wrongs.”

In an instant, I realized that the record of wrongs I have been keeping against this person is years long. And I understood that love, real love, would let that record go, would tear it up into tiny pieces, burn it to ashes, and scatter those ashes to the wind, never to be thought of again.

I woke up this morning sensing a new beginning, and a new feeling of love (yes, a feeling!) in my heart for that person. And while the sun has not yet started to peek over the horizon as I write these words, I know that a new day has dawned.

 

 

Some truths. About truth.

Truth. We teach children to tell it. Courts depend on it. Relationships suffer for want of it. Science and religion both claim to provide us with access to it.

Truth is absolutely essential for freedom, according to author and social critic Os Guinness, who describes truth as a “precious” and “fundamental human gift, without which we cannot negotiate reality and handle life.”

And yet, ours is a culture that plays fast and loose with truth. Disturbing evidence for that reality came to light in the March 9, 2018 edition of the journal Science, when M.I.T. researchers published the results of an exhaustive study looking at how English language stories—verified as either true or false—spread on Twitter. The data comprised some 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. Their findings? “Falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth.”

Bots are not to blame. “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” write the study’s authors, “because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

It all adds up to increasing cynicism and scepticism. Can anything be trusted as true? Indeed, scholars say that the notion of any kind of metaphysical truth is collapsing. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary says that when people no longer believe that there is a truth to be known, a crisis of meaning occurs. The emerging generation wonders, he says, whether there can be “a reliable revelation from God.”

Young people, it seems, are choosing to put their faith in the truths that can be known through science instead. Recent research by the Barna group into “Gen Z”—those born between 1999 and 2015—confirms it. Exploring some of the major barriers to faith for non-Christian teens, Barna reports 20% of nonbelievers polled cited their belief that “Science refutes too much of the Bible” as a barrier to faith. Barna further relates that “the perceived conflict between science and Christianity is also a factor for Christian teens. More than one third of engaged Christian teens (37%) and more than half of churchgoing teens (53%) say that the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.”

But it is a fallacy that science and faith conflict at the level of observable facts, says M.I.T. chemistry professor, Troy Van Voorhuis in a video lecture. “Science and faith are both in the business of interpreting evidence,” he explains.

In other words, when asked, “Why is the sky blue?” a scientist might expound on light waves and the Earth’s atmosphere. But a theologian might respond, “because God, the Creator, delights in beauty.” Two different interpretations, but both would be true.

That science and faith are both in the business of interpreting evidence is a truth that the Church can and ought to proclaim.

After all, Jesus described himself as “the truth,” said he came into the world to testify to the truth, and that truth would set us free. Those of us who try to follow him need to pursue, uphold and defend truth—wherever and however it may be found.

 

 

 

A small gesture, with great meaning

“No, no, no! I’m fine,” she insisted when he stood up to offer her his seat. But he had already vacated it, and was moving out into the aisle of the lurching commuter train to make way for the pretty young woman.

He gestured to it. But she hesitated. He was old; what was left of his hair was thin and grey. And he was stooped. He held his left hand aloft, his left elbow bent at a 90 degree angle as if it was hurt. Maybe it had been – in an accident or as the result of a stroke at some point in his past. She must have noticed.

But he was also dapper – if ever the word applied to a man it applied to him – dressed in a tidy, if mildly ill-fitting (ever so slightly over-sized) jacket, button down shirt and tie that looked like they might have fit him 20 years ago. When they would have been fashionable. When he wouldn’t have been stooped. When he wouldn’t have favoured that arm.

“I insist,” he said gently, but firmly. And even as he swayed with the rocking of the train, his voice was steady, solid, resolute.

And so, she weakened. “Are you sure?” she asked, probing, inviting, no – willing him to renege on the offer. But he merely nodded, and reached out for something to grasp, steadying himself.

So she sat.

It was the simplest of exchanges, the smallest of gestures, all over in the span of less than a minute of measured time. But I watched it happen.

And I marvelled. Was it my imagination, or was he standing just a little bit taller and straighter than he had been a moment earlier – before she had accepted his modest act of chivalry?

Or was it just that all of the other men on that train, the younger men than the one now standing solo in the aisle gripping the handle on the seat back for support, seemed to get a little bit smaller? To shrink down in their seats. To stare straight ahead, or out the windows, or at their phones. Anywhere but at the man who, through a kind gesture, had reminded us all of another time. A time when self-sacrifice was valued above self-interest, and when things like manners and gentility mattered.

***

“Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.” – Frederick Buechner

Counting the cost

Is there anything you would give your life for?

I’ve been mulling over my personal response to that question recently. With Remembrance Day fast approaching, it’s a timely one to ponder. Because, of course, I might not have the luxury of being here to ponder it in the freedom that I do, had others not given their lives to preserve that freedom.

Today, there are lots of people who give their lives to things—namely, other people, ideals, or causes—that they think worthy. There are far fewer who give their lives for things.

That is as it should be. Life is a priceless gift and we’re only given one. The relative scarcity of time we are each allotted should alone make us aware of the gift’s inestimable value. You don’t voluntarily give up something so precious.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about some people long ago who determined that they valued truth more than life itself. And when faced with a choice to renounce the truth and live, or testify to the truth and die, they chose the latter. They were martyrs.

While researching stories of Christianity’s earliest martyrs for a course I am taking, I learned that the Greek word for martyr originally meant “witness.”

Today, the word “martyr” connotes everything from a person who pretends to suffer as a strategy to gain sympathy, to a person who commits an act of terrorism—killing them self and others—as a strategy to gain paradise. (Although one expert I read said that to apply the word martyr to terrorists, “is to evacuate the meaning of the term in any Christian way of understanding.”)

But at the dawn of Christianity, a martyr was simply a person who professed that they acknowledged Christ as Lord of life, and therefore refused to offer sacrifices to Roman gods. Because of that refusal, they were seen as atheists and dangerous subversives. Untold numbers of Christians lost their lives when they openly confessed their faith, and were put to death as a result of that confession. It was those innumerable Christian witnesses (many of whom were subjected to the cruelest of tortures and humiliations as they died) who were responsible for giving the word martyr its traditional association with death. They were flayed, beheaded, devoured by wild beasts before stadiums filled with roaring spectators, crucified, and nailed to stakes before being burned alive.

Those same witnesses would also become the first people to be revered as saints, so much so that in the earliest days of the Church, the words martyr and saint were almost synonymous. Admired for their courage and boldness in proclaiming their faith (even when they knew that doing so would mean paying the ultimate price) the martyrs were mere human beings like us who lived, loved and who were loved. But they chose to sacrifice their lives rather than their convictions—even in the midst of grave suffering. As a result, they were held up as examples for others to emulate.

We have writers to thank for much of this state of affairs, because an entire literature developed—beginning in the second century—that was intended to keep the memory of the martyrs and their trials alive. Known as Acta, these written accounts recorded bits of the judicial process to which the martyrs were subjected, bits we can still read today.

Scholars say that these accounts have been edited, dramatized and embellished—although the extent to which they say so differs. Still, it is impossible to read the Acts of the Martyrs and not be moved. Through their stories, we see in these ancient men and women qualities that the early Church valued and wanted to teach, like: courage, integrity, truthfulness, trust in God, forgiveness for their tormentors, and a steadfast belief that death was not the end, nor was it to be feared as if it were. But the stories also reveal a fact that persecuted Christians around the world today know to be true: martyrdom is not something to be sought or wished for. It is an evil, wretched, bloody business.

And so when I read the following headline a couple of weeks ago, it made me pause: “Cairo bishop urges Church to be ready for martyrdom.” It reminded me that the founder of the Christian faith counselled people to “count the cost” before determining whether to follow him.

And it reminded me that for too many people, even today, that cost continues to be very high indeed.