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.

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.

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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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

Preparing for more surprises

A shelf of textbooks

I’ve long believed “All truth is God’s truth.” The statement may have become a cliché but it accurately summarizes my thoughts. I believe truth resides in God and originates with God. Jesus claimed to be truth personified and said that truth would set people free.

Holding this conviction has been freeing. At times, when I’ve sensed others feeling defensive – particularly in situations where long-held beliefs, admired leaders or cherished institutions were challenged, I’ve felt emboldened by the certainty that we need not be afraid of questioning “sacred cows” because it’s better to know any truth, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult, than to believe, live with, or perpetuate a lie.

But as a seminary student, I’ve been in for a few surprises. I’ve learned that questioning my own entrenched beliefs can be difficult; even more so when those beliefs are so deeply rooted that they have simply become a subconscious part of who I am. Learning something that challenges heartfelt convictions can be shocking, uncomfortable, even painful. First, is the awareness that I may have put my faith in something as being true, which may not be, and then there is the realization that an alternative – which I might have once dismissed or even never considered – could be closer to the truth.

As a person who likes boundaries, rules and definite answers, it can be discomfiting to confront the reality that my search for definite answers seems often to yield only further questions.

What we believe matters, for the content of our beliefs shapes and determines how we live. The Christian way presents itself as being both the right way of being human and as being revealed truth. I’ve built my life on my understanding of that truth as it’s been revealed to me. Having my understandings challenged and corrected can feel like the very foundations of my life are being shaken.

For almost five years, I’ve been studying part-time at seminary. As I prepare to begin another academic year I am reminded that I must approach Scripture and my studies in a spirit of humility and open-mindedness, being careful to put my faith not in my interpretation, nor even in anyone else’s interpretation – but in God alone.

And I must prepare for more surprises.

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“All great spirituality is about letting go. I say this as an absolute statement. … Spiritual wisdom reveals that less is more. Jesus taught this, and the holy ones live it.”

– Richard Rohr

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