Gathering up what gifts of awareness remain and testifying to one another concerning their power is one of the primary responsibilities - and pleasures - of an aware people. And when it comes to the thinning out of consciousness that often seems to be occurring in the wake of our escalating distractedness, a profound commitment to courtesy of the heart in all things would appear to be our only hope. (p. 112 'Life's Too Short To Pretend You're Not Religious')
Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered by people to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like; once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf. – St. Isaac the Syrian
I had the privilege of attending the 10th Anniversary Mockingbird Conference in NYC last week. I highly recommend this organization and its calling to help us see where law and gospel are at play within popular culture. I quote to you from the conference booklet:
One word sums up what we've tried to convey these past ten years. It's the word that got us going and keeps us going. It's much more than a word, of course, and a decade isn't even a drop in the ocean of possible appreciation/contemplation/internalization. You know which one I'm talking about.
Given how Grace is so central to our project, we've made a point over the years of collecting some useful shorthand . . . for the sake of this conference, (however), our operating definition of grace will be as follows:
"Grace is the utterly surprising, uniformly comforting, scorecard vaporizing, label-demolishing, can't-stop-won't-stop, able to jump over a building in a single bound, come what may, incandescent, and absolving voice of God."
Books and My Friend Lance
Last week, I lost a dear friend to cancer. Lance was the manager of a splendid little bookstore in Streetsville, ON called Ontario Christian Books. I discovered this book store in the mid-nineties while pastoring in Campbellville ON, and it became a place that fed my soul through stimulating conversation, wonderful friendship, and many marvellous books! I’ve always loved to read, but, my relationship with Lance and his inner sanctum of wonderful tomes, took that love to a new level of learning about spiritual reading, and to some specific volumes that forever altered my way of seeing the world. Spiritual reading is one of the means by which we are spiritually formed. We discover wise companions whom the Holy Spirit uses to inspire us by their writing and reflecting. Sadly the sustained attention that spiritual reading requires is in short supply these days as we have become enslaved by our digital devices and betrayed by our miniscule attention spans. I am no less distracted than the rest of you, but, I have a sacred history with some extraordinary books that keep me seeking their presence. This also keeps me coming back to bookstores and their offerings of life. Alas, for many different reason, there will not be many Ontario Christian Books around before too long. However, churches are learning communities; and when those stores have disappeared we will be much the healthier by creating our own book stations, our own conversations stimulated by reading, and our own Lances – literary mentors who will lead us to the right books for the right time in our lives.
You're told the ingredients
have been assembled: for the sake of love,
wine and bread, fennel, honey and leeks;
laurel and bay to represent
your political importance and way with words;
a sampling of fabulous beasts and birds.
Fruits and meats to symbolize labor;
salt, the apple and lamb.
You're told the entertainment
will consist of your slow dismemberment
to the pulse of bass drums,
the plodding cadence of Gregorian chant,
screams of your parents and children.
You're told it will hurt
like nothing else, but after it's over
your very best friends will take you
home with them and place you
on altars in the midst of music and yearning,
place you near fire, teach their children
to sing your name.
Do you accept?
It is in this darkness, when there is nothing left in us that can please or comfort our own minds, when we seem to be useless and worthy of all contempt, when we seem to have failed, when we seem to be destroyed and devoured, it is then that the deep and secret selfishness that is too close to us for us to identify, is stripped away from our souls. It is in this darkness that we find liberty. It is in this abandonment that we are made strong. This is the night which empties us and makes us pure. Thomas Merton
This picture, a lone house by the sea dyke in the rain, speaks to me of peace. It was taken the day I biked to the North Sea to reflect on my life thus far- to be at peace with what has been and to surrender myself to what is to come. I could see the house in the distance nestled against the outstretched sea dyke that protected it from raging water and stormy waves. It stood alone amidst potato fields in bloom. If you bent low enough you could smell the blossoms, wet with rain, faint but sweet. The scene before me felt surreal, a distinct memory etched in stillness and peace.
There are times in my life where I have felt peaceful but often these moments are interrupted by worry, anxiety or planning next steps. Peace can seem fleeting and elusive. Yet somehow I believe peace is a deep and profound knowing. Knowing that no matter what comes, you will be held by outstretched arms. That in our fragile and lonely existence we have some one who promises that "when you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you."
That day by the North Sea was a mix of emotions for me. A celebration of goodness, a surrendering of pain and a looking forward in hope. It was a day of both sunshine and rain. Storms will come and go, blossoms will wither and fade but amidst it all, may our lives be fertile soil on which others can find rest and may they be a fragrant offering to the one who says, "peace be still."
Saskatchewan in the 1960s and 70s was many things: tough, vibrant, socialist, conservative, churched, impatient with politicians, and bullish on hard work and innovative hands. And it was heading for industrialized farming.
There are a few stories I could tell about my Uncle Ray. He was not large, imposing or grandiose. Nor was he a scholar, priest or public personality. But he was what my childhood needed: grounded, thoughtful, wise, even gentle. And he was a master of the pregnant silence. In response to my ever-impatient ‘Why? How?’ he felt no need to rush. He was the only Brethren Zen master I ever met. And he was a small-scale farmer enamoured not with megafarms but with God’s creation.
Before we go further with Uncle Ray, allow a digression about “story.” I like these wise words from Bill Harley to wannabe teachers and mentors (and priests and community leaders): “If we want it to be memorable, it must be a story. Story is how we are reminded, and how we remember.” Perhaps we are here at Wycliffe to help each other develop our stories, join our stories, and tell our stories.
So how do we find our stories, corporate and personal? A good question, especially for me, since my stories always seem to be under development and evolving. If you’ve been following this series in Morning Star, faculty and staff have been telling stories, and my observation is that no one is claiming that their story is entire and complete. We all have story parts that don’t make sense, chapters that are missing, and pieces that are far too complex and interesting for a cliché. Story-making means always trying, sometimes struggling, to see our story’s new pattern in context. Story-telling is also how we, our clans and communities make local theology. It does not emerge from lecture notes or PowerPoint slides, but from hindsight sense-making, co-woven with the threads of presence and text.
When I retrace the decades back to my Uncle Ray, I’m struck along the way by how often my personal story is frequented by both unintended and formal mentors. Some tough, some old, some young, some surprising. There’s the story of Brother Bob, the mentor from hell, who… well, we’ll skip him. But there’s John, who schooled me in the Mennonite art of wood cabinetry. And there’s Fackelbararnas, the intentional 1970s community of peer mentors in Sweden who radicalized my passion for holistic biblical living. And there’s mentor and coach Linda, with her insatiable vision for gender equity. And there’s my Kenyan mentor who plunged me through the barriers of culture, race, unlearning and community transformation. And there’s the stories of profs Roger, Dale, Roberta and Colin, and their weavings of Matthew, Luther, Barth, Weber, Ellul and Guttierez.
It’s only later in life, years after Uncle Ray is gone, that I realize our relationship was also my first story of mentorship. As a child, I thought he was a genius: he could deliver a calf, operate a hundred types of machines and tools, read the moisture on the wind with his nose, sense the growth of seed beneath the spring soil, and wax extemporaneous on Nebuchadnezzar.
And Uncle Ray was cool. He had the greatest collection of frogs in his creek, the best old stone barn and farmhouse, and the most ancient farming equipment that clanked and flailed and chugged along. He could build watches and clocks from scratch. He was also the father of my good friend and cousin, Nelson. Best of all, Uncle Ray let Nelson and I do amazing stuff together all over the farm.
“Your Uncle Ray was a failure,” a community member quietly confided, a few years ago. “He never really made that farm work.” That statement startled and puzzled me. It fueled a season of recollection about those summers and years on the Saskatchewan prairie. Ok, perhaps through the narrowed eyes of the modern agribusiness world, he was the end of an era; but for me he was a doorway to land, life skills, faith and insight.
My uncle Ray taught me much. It was probably through his soft-spoken words, his careful observations of birds, seasons, and animals feral and farmed, that I first inhaled the beauty and intricacy of the land. God was not ‘heavenly’ for Uncle Ray, but abundantly immanent in every molecule of that small valley paradise. Jesus’ call to abundant life was just outside the door. I first learned camping in that valley, sheltered with cousin Nelson inside the rickety lean-to we erected for protection from the terrifying night beasts of the forest (a mere 100 metres from the house).
I first learned from Uncle Ray the wonders of crop cycles, seasons, weather and manure. I first learned about A.I. (artificial insemination, not appreciative inquiry) at the back end of one of his 1500-pound Simmental beauties. I learned to drive tractor, chase mice, cut hay, haul bales, wade creeks, light fires.
Often idyllic, but never perfect, life on the farm ran the normal gamut of livelihood, climate, family, community, inter-church and in-law challenges. There were many sparse winters when Uncle Ray worked two extra jobs. But I saw his pattern: his quiet, wise, dogged persistence was thoroughly rooted in everyday practices of faith and gratitude, around the kitchen table, on the land, and with the neighbours.
Perhaps intuitively, sola Scriptura (so central for my gigantic, extended family of ethnic Anabaptist immigrants) was only a starting point for Uncle Ray. I realize now that he was also reading the divine texts of nature, and his refractions of life were richer and deeper for that. Every breakfast with Uncle Ray combined cereal and toast with Scripture readings and prayer. But pauses in the labours of field and barn delivered moments of wise observation – about the moment, about the good produce of creation, about his regret for needing to dismantle the beaver’s efforts to dam the creek, about this year’s return of butterflies, about what possibilities lay just beyond the horizon.
Years later, it dawns on me. Uncle Ray was my personal Wendell Berry. His faithful practices integrated text, tractor, community and earth.
My story about Uncle Ray now includes a new ending, about mentors. It goes something list this: the people in front of us are no accident. Within the special algorithm of choice, chaos, complexity and ὁ Ἐμμανουήλ (Emmanuel) that carries us along this current stream, my life and faith – and perhaps yours, testifies to the purpose and value of mentoring and being mentored. Uncle Ray’s natural mentorship was an organic gift. We had no set of learning outcomes, no scheduled meetings, no agreement. (Although I do believe he promised my parents to steer me clear of dangerous farm machinery, and his irate bull.) Who is your Uncle Ray in this moment? And to whom might you be Uncle Ray?
© David Kupp
Perhaps you have had a chance to witness the wonders of repurposed materials. The human imagination is a marvel, as people have taken what appear to be useless, discarded materials, and made everything from liveable dwellings out of junk (http://www.criticalcactus.com/beautiful-recycled-homes/) to astounding art (http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/recycled-art-masterpiece-made-from-junks/). It was after reading a quote from T.F. Torrance that I made the connection between just this kind of activity and the gospel. Torrance writes,” Christ takes our sins upon himself in such a way as to make them serve our healing and salvation . . . It was (our) very sin, betrayal, shame, and unworthiness, which became, in the inexplicable love of God, the very material he laid hold of, and turned into the bond that bound (us) to the crucified Messiah, to the salvation and love of God forever. “ We are often guilty of believing that God can only abide and use our good qualities, accept us when we have our best face forward. But Torrance shows that it is the ugly and messy parts of ourselves that Jesus takes on (2 Cor. 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”), to bear witness to the divine imagination and the reality of grace. The import of this is not to run out and cultivate more ugliness and chaos so God can build more imaginative homes (Paul deals with that clearly in Romans 6), but rather, in this Lenten season, to fall onto our knees in humility and gratitude for what has become of us in Christ.
If being a follower of Jesus is about anything at all, it is about the good news of grace, not the bad news of religion. Although religion is at root a good word, it has become negatively associated with a system of rituals designed to appease an angry deity, who capriciously demands our obedience, and who then might reward us with heaven if we behave accordingly. While this might be a caricature, I have met many people who hold this view (Christians and non-believers alike). This is what happens when we make God out to be a larger version of ourselves, because this is certainly how humans run the world, running a rewards based system that benefits the industrious and powerful.
A more careful reading of the scriptures reveals something vastly different. We discover in Jesus Christ, that God is a community of three persons whose core essence is loving relationship. And that God's fundamental posture towards the world is to include and bless human beings within that relationship. This is accomplished through one way love, the kind of love that looks directly at our brokenness and violence and doesn't turn away, but embraces it and heals it through suffering. This is grace. The truly astonishing thing is that this is given to every human being without qualification, and when embraced, is the entrance into aliveness. Words cannot really capture it, but, it is about becoming more profoundly human than what we might ever have imagined. This is something we continually explore here at Two Rivers Church - why don't you check it out?
Here at TRC we are attempting to practice friendship. While some might think it obvious that a church would do so, my observation is that while many people in churches have friendships, they are less skilled at practicing the art of friendship. Great companionship can form from an initial attraction, but, the hard work of building a mature friendship is what will move it beyond mere attraction and likeability. In dealing with our brokenness and nurturing healthy friendships we are weaving a fabric of care that will hold the community together.
The focused practice of spiritual friendship is an event of two or three people coming together with some regularity, intentionally paying attention to what God’s Spirit is up to in their lives. The gift of attraction to another, disciplined by listening and mutual edification, results in beautiful partnerships that can withstand the most discouraging of circumstances and generate trust, insight, and wisdom.
I’m often finding myself surprised and delighted by the unexpected friendships that form in our midst. I shouldn’t be; we need each other and the different gifts that we bring to the mix, complementing the other to form something unique and good.
Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run in the marathon without ever practicing. Discipline without discipleship is like always practicing for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realize that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God's guidance. Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart time and a place where God's gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.
Henri J. M. Nouwen
Everyone is looking for a story that makes sense of their lives. This is the ongoing human drama, the restless search for a place to belong, a place where we can lay our hats and openly explore the mystery of being human. This home does not come with easy or trite answers, it is not without suffering or doubt, but a place where faith seeks understanding in safety. But it is a place that is about something! For us, a Christian faith community, we know it's the story of God and the story of us. Over the next two months, we will be going over the story of God as revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and listening carefully for how our own stories are found within, and woven into that grand narrative. We welcome anyone who wants to find out more about that story to join in with us.
One of our Living Room practices is something that we call the Sacrament of the Ordinary. This is not something that we created, but which I picked up from Ben Katt’s Awake church in Seattle, WA. Here is how I have interpreted what I stumbled upon there:
I introduce the Sacrament of the Ordinary by trying to offer something along these lines; I invite anyone who cares to share, an event from the past week which opened you to a place of reflection on the presence of grace in the mundane or routine. It may have led you to quiet and peace, to wonder or delight, or towards brokenness and pain. Regardless, it alerted you to the glory of being fully human.
I think what we want to cultivate through this is a deeper attunement to the reality of God with us in every detail of our lives. By hearing each other’s reflections, we become opened to this possibility in all of our daily lives.
We share meals together at Two Rivers. It’s pretty rare that we don’t begin a meeting by gathering around a table where people get to eat something yummy with grateful hearts. We have been organizing a system whereby everyone is invited, if they are able, to provide meals at our Living Room events, and also on special occasions when people are bereaved , ill, or incapacitated for some reason. While duty is sometimes a helpful motivator, it occurs to me this morning, that preparing a meal for our community is an act of nourishing the Body. I have the privilege of sustaining someone’s life and health, and also enhancing their pleasure (if the thing I cooked worked out well that day!). That fits our valued practice of culture making; beholding, shaping, and offering that which has come to us first from our Creator God. This kind of mutual nourishing of one another strikes me as a pretty healthy way of living.
I am quoting these ten thoughts from a pastor in England by the name of Kim Fabricius, who in retiring from his pastoral ministry wanted to leave some words of wisdom. I like these very much indeed:
• Be kind to everyone, even the jerks. The woman who pushed ahead of you in the queue, the shop assistant who was rude to you at the till, the guy who cut you off on the Oystermouth Road – you never know what is going on in their world: they might be distracted by a personal crisis, or wrestling with some inner demon. They may need your patience, not your reproach.
• Never take yourself too seriously, and go easy on taking pride in your achievements. In the imagery of baseball, just because you find yourself on third base doesn’t mean you hit a triple. So much of life depends on circumstance (place of birth, social and economic position, etc.); that is, so much of life is just fortune or luck, good or bad. And remember: God is especially fond of losers, and boasting really gets on his nerves.
• If you ever think that Christianity is easy – that faith is uncomplicated, that truth is not odd, that the Sermon on the Mount is undemanding – then you can be sure you’re not doing it right. Christianity is not only not easy, it is quite impossible. That’s why God gives us the Holy Spirit: to do the impossible – beginning with prayer.
• Don’t be afraid of anyone or anything. Fear is not only self-crippling, fear is the infernal engine that drives our most distorted and destructive desires: anger, envy, greed, hatred, violence. They are all the smoke above the factory of fear. Ultimately, all fear is the fear of death. But Christ has conquered death. So what is there to be afraid of?
• Sorry, dear Methodists, but John Wesley was wrong: cleanliness is not next to godliness. Silliness, however, is. That’s why God created children: to keep people silly. And grandchildren to make them sillier still! Silliness is a serious matter. A wise intelligence is always laced with silliness.
• Never stop asking the Big Questions. Asking the Big Questions is a sacred obligation. And be worried, be very worried, if you never change your mind. God forbid that, looking back over your life, you can say that you have no regrets, that you wouldn’t have done anything differently. Frank Sinatra was an idiot: “I did it my way” means you did it the wrong way.
• Our biggest illusion is that we are free. In fact, we are the slaves of no end of possessions and obsessions, wants and worries. We are always on the way to freedom. Only those who are utterly unconcerned about themselves, blithely indifferent to what other people think about them, but totally committed to those who suffer and experience injustice, are free. Only the forgiving, merciful, and compassionate are free.
• Everyone is made in the image of God. Therefore everyone has an inherent and ineradicable dignity, a dignity that no sin can efface and that commands our respect and attention. Dividing people into “the deserving” and “the undeserving” – don’t go there! Go there and you are in danger of losing your soul.
• Gratitude: there is no characteristic more definitive of being a Christian. The entire Christian life flows from gratitude. God doesn’t owe you a thing. All is gift. The thankless bear bitter fruit; only the thankful harvest strawberries. The German mystic Meister Eckhart was right: If “Thank you” is the only prayer you ever say, that is enough.
• Finally: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. And Jesus again! Not the Jesus who is a projection of our and needs and wishes (Jesus “the Friendly Ghost”, as the stellar American theologian Robert Jenson put it). No, the Jesus who stalks the pages of the gospels. Only this Jesus can deliver us from a fantasy Jesus. Only this Jesus is Jesus, the crucified and risen One, the Stranger who meets us daily and says, “Follow me!”
“The church has, in many ways, been seduced by the anxiety-grounded ideology of our society. A return to the simple truth of the gospel and simple practice of neighbourliness will be profoundly subversive in our society and wildly generative of well-being and joy.”
Walter Brueggemann in ‘Letters to a Future Church’, Ed. Chris Lewis
People have told me that they have had trouble tracking us down here at Two Rivers, and my response has been that we have been somewhat deliberately flying under the radar. We have been tentatively feeling our way forward in this venture of missional church planting, and while the call to do something has been very clear, the way we are to go about it has been a bit elusive. We have been trying to quietly listen to what the Spirit is saying about how are to be church in this city of Guelph, and we sense that as we enter our second year, we can start to raise our heads and hands and begin to appear on the radar.
This site is our second foray into the world of the web (we had another blog going which we always deemed to be temporary) and I hope that it will serve the purpose of providing the information and vibe people are looking for when checking us out. We also hope that it will give some sort of picture of what we do, who we do it with, and how we are trying to make our way as a faith community in this world. That being said we don't want to be a virtual church lost in digital abstractions, rather, we are about being on the ground, inhabiting the neighbourhoods within which we have been planted. We are about friendships that matter and bind us together in this risky business of following Jesus into his kingdom reign.