Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Marching Onward

I began writing this blog sometime near the end of March.
PEOPLE - it's now MID-MAY!!! I no longer have any idea how time works.
I've been serving in full time ministry for almost seven years and I still find myself surprised that the distance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is so very, very short. When I was a kid, six weeks was an eternity. Remember what it felt like when the first day of summer holidays or Christmas Day was six weeks away and EVERY single day was like a full week worth of time and so it took FOREVER for the celebrations to begin? Pure torture. But now it seems the six weeks of Lent fly by in the blink of an eye. Which is all to say, that I did, in fact, read my March books but the blinking of my eye did not allow for me to sit down long enough to write about them. I found a little time today, in the quiet of this Wednesday afternoon to reflect on the books I read last month. (And now it's a Tuesday in May. SIGH.)

I began March by reading A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. You will recognize Evans name from previous books I've written about in this blog. Evans is a former evangelical Christian. She is still a Christian but no longer identifies as evangelical. She spent her twenties exploring what aspects of Christianity remained important to her and what aspects of her Christian upbringing she needed to let go of in order to live faithfully as a loving and compassionate servant of God.

In her former evangelical world, there had been much emphasis on controlling what women could and could not do as a follower of Christ. Supporting her husband by staying home and raising children was on the "Do" list. Preaching or being in church leadership was on the "Do Not Do" list. Whenever a woman moved out of her lane, so to speak, she was likely to be reminded of her role in God's world. As part of her faith journey, Evans decided to earnestly explore what the Bible (and presumably God) had to say about what it is, exactly that is expected of women and live a year following what biblical rules she could find about womanhood.

After culling the Scriptures for all references to how a woman should behave, Evans selected 12 virtues and did her best to fulfill them, one at a time, each month - following some general guidelines on how to act or not to act such as she didn't cut her hair for a year and covered her head when instructed to do so. The virtues were: Gentleness, Domesticity, Obedience, Valor, Beauty, Modesty, Purity, Fertility, Submission, Justice, Silence and Grace. Many instructions of how the biblical woman is to behave can be found Proverbs 31.

And this is my confession...I got four months into her year of biblical womanhood and became so annoyed with the whole project that I put the book into a time out. There are so many reasons to be annoyed with a religion that attempts to restrict woman that it would be impossible list them here. So I won't. I will just say, the book sits somewhere between my complete pile and my desk and every once in a while I pick it up but progress is slow. Life is too short to read books that cause existential angst.

The next book I read, however, did not cause me any angst other than to be sad that there will be no other books coming from its author, Marina Keegan. Unfortunately this author of The Opposite of Loneliness was killed in a traffic accident within her days of graduation from university. She was a talented writer and had volumes of material which her parents and former instructor curated to create this tribute to this wonderful and talented young woman. The book has a variety of fiction and non-fiction selections.

I want to lift one idea from Keegan's book. She wrote an essay for the graduation issue of the Yale Daily News. She speaks of the variety of communities that she found herself at home in while studying at Yale. She mentions that there is not an opposite word for loneliness. If there was, that is what she felt while at Yale - the opposite of being lonely. As I was sharing this essay with someone who joined the Brene Brown book study earlier this year, he told me - "I know what the opposite of loneliness is - it is belonging. Brene Brown taught us that." Lovely.

This book is definitely worth the time. If you'd like to borrow it, please just ask. You can borrow the other one too. 😉

Next on my list (For April. Cause, remember, I don't know how time works.):
Reasons to Stay Alive  by Matt Haig and a biography of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Purse is Stalking Me!

Romans 12:2

For this month of April, we have been exploring a variety of spiritual practices. And because Stephen and I appreciate a certain amount of good and reasonable order to things, we chose spiritual practices that all start with the letter ‘s’. For a long time in our schedule, this Sunday’s topic was listed as “another s”. As it was my Sunday to preach, it was up to me to find a spiritual practice that I wanted to talk about which also happened to be an s-word. And I just could not find one. Until one day, as I was writing in my bullet journal (and if you want to know what a bullet journal is, come talk to me later) but as I was working in my journal, I thought, that’s it – I want to talk about journaling. But journaling does not start with an s. So, I did what I had to do when we were naming child number four. We both liked the name Abby if the baby was a girl but because our naming rules (and, yes, we had naming rules to help in the choosing of names for our kids—that’s one of the many joys of living with me—just ask my dear spouse). Anyway, the naming rules included the rule that no one would be named with a nickname. They had to have a full name. So, we agreed on ‘Abby’ but then had to work ourselves backwards to get to Abigail. This is what I had to do with the word journaling—which, if you think about it, is just another way to say writing. So is the word scribing. And so here we have it—another s to round out our month.

Stephen explored the practices of stillness and simplicity. For the Sunday we looked at the practice of sabbath, Dave Robertson spoke about how he used cycling to deal with his cancer diagnosis, which has recently returned with no good outcome in sight. And today we are looking at how we can use writing, journaling, scribing to calm our minds, ease our souls and allow the Divine to enter into our here and now. As people of faith, we use spiritual practices for a variety of reasons however the fundamental purpose of a spiritual practice is to make space in our lives for the Divine. You will notice that we have not specifically mentioned prayer. Prayer is, of course, a spiritual practice but we wanted to lift up these other particular practices which cause us to declutter, so to speak. They allow us to clear out and make room for thoughts and ideas to flow unencumbered. They free up time in order to allow the processing, for different experiences to be uncovered, layer by layer. And then, sometimes in those times of making such space, prayer can be known to leak out of us. Maybe it happens by accident. Maybe it happens on purpose. But I think in times in which we open ourselves up to self-exploration and discovery, prayer happens. The Divine is sought. Or maybe it is that you realize the Divine is seeking you. You simply give thanks for what you have or what is before you. Or you cry out for help because it all seems impossible. Or, like so many of us, you begin the complicated process of negotiating for peace of mind and soul. Perhaps then, the Holy Spirit might move. Maybe it moves gently like a breeze brushing ever so gently past our cheek. Or maybe it moves with an insistence such as when the wind grabs at the front doors of our church on certain weather-filled days up here on this hill we sit upon. The moving of the Spirit sometimes reveals to us an answer we’ve been seeking or sometimes points us in a direction we had not previously considered. Spiritual practices make space for God to be made known in our everyday living. 

Our first scripture reading today was from Proverbs. The Book of Proverbs is regarded as a collection of wisdom—a significant set of teachings of how to live a happy and peaceful life by honouring and respecting God as all good and all powerful. Today, from chapter four, we heard that above all else we are to guard our heart as it is the wellspring of life. For anyone who has had their heart broken by a lover, a friend, by a family member, we know that it is instinctual to protect our hearts after a hurtful event by turtling in, wrapping ourselves so tightly around our hearts that it is hard, on most days, for another to find their way in. But, the way of God, the way of Christ, is not to wall off our hearts. Rather than close up hearts from the world, our God calls us again and again to keep our hearts open, as the hymn says, to the joy and pain of living. To keep ourselves open we must dare to be vulnerable and reach outward rather than retreat inward. But we can’t protect ourselves in a world that has little regard for our tender hearts until we know ourselves well and believe firmly in the path before us. And we can’t know these things unless we take the time and space to explore matters within us. Proverbs goes on to tell the reader to keep corrupt words from leaving the mouth, to keep their gaze straight and to not veer off their path. But how is one certain which words are not corrupt? Or that the direction in which one is looking is the correct one? Or, for that matter, that the path one is on is the path set by God? Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans. By renewing your mind and testing what it is that is God’s will. By taking time to allow God to enter in and speak. For giving space to seek out God and for God to find you. 

Paul knew that making and keeping a connection with God is a difficult thing in a world that is out to get us. Well, maybe it’s not the world, as in God’s creation that’s out to get us—unless, of course, you don’t count the poisonous spiders or the spiders that are so large that they are likely to induce heart spasms when you encounter them—if you can just set those aside, I don’t think it’s so much the world that’s out to get us so much as it is humanity’s need for conformity that’s out to get us. In order for humanity to first survive, in the beginning of time, humans had to band together to hunt and protect themselves from the elements of nature. Now our survival is directly tied to understanding the necessary social norms for one to advance and succeed in supporting oneself and families. In order to survive, humans have always had to conform to what the collective did or believed. Society through politics, religion and social groups pressure us to stay within certain boundaries of tradition and customs and, this way, we are marked as who we are supposed to be and what we are to believe. 

Advertising pushes us further to conform to whichever groups we belong. Everyone has what they are selling and shouldn’t you also have it? Or, better yet, you can belong to a more elite group if you just get this other, more expensive thing over here. And we know from recent revelations from Facebook that we are being manipulated and coerced in ways we never understood before. Although the news really wasn’t all that surprising. I am currently being harassed by a purse on Facebook. I made the mistake of expressing an interest in a certain very lovely bag that popped up in my Facebook feed and now the advertising for that bag is stalking my every moment I’m on Facebook. I have yet to come up with a logical rationale for Christopher as to why I should just buy the darn purse so it’s still lurking there in my newsfeed whenever I log on.

So far, I am holding strong. But that’s just a purse. What about those advertisements or postings that prey upon those who have been hurt? Who are broken? Who are lonely? Who feel inadequate or not worthy? And who amongst us has never found themselves in one or more of these categories? And so, when we see signs or notices that encourage ways of thinking that dehumanize others, that dismisses the goodness and the joy of others, that disregard the truth of other people’s experiences and lives, how do we advert our gaze? Because not being conformed to a world of fear and scarcity that certain leaders uphold is a tall order. To believe in a world of love and abundance, this world of possibility that God has been telling humanity about since the beginning of time, a world of peace and unity that Jesus taught about for his whole ministry, to believe in this type of world is to fight every moment to look the other way rather than to allow the glimpses of injustice, hatred, oppression, immorality, greed and violence to define our world.

‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ It takes transformation, a renewal of the mind, to detach ourselves from the world’s attempts to occupy us with things that do not matter. Paul implores us to shake off the negative effects of this world and attend to things that matter and to discern what is good. Transformation such as this happens only when we take the time to ask questions, to express our doubt, to search ourselves for what we know to be true, to notice how the Holy Spirit has and is moving in our world, to allow for the teachings and sayings of Jesus to be the wisdom and truth guiding our actions and to listen for the small, still voice of God, that continues to speak to us whether we can hear it or not. And how do we do that but through spiritual practices such as scribing otherwise known as journaling.

Now, I have a small confession to make. After all this working towards how journaling can be beneficial in making a connection with the Divine and discerning how best to live your life, I woudn’t blame you if you thought that I might be pretty great at journaling. I am not. My journaling totally follows how I approach completing tasks. I don’t. My personality type is very much about starting things. Not finishing things. So, I have journal after journal of all the trips I’ve been on. They all look the same. I start out strong with lots of details of the activities we’ve done and the people we’ve met and, inevitably, by day four or five, my writing begins to wane. And by the end of the trip I’m too exhausted to write anymore. Oh, I always, always tell myself I will go back and fill in the missing details. But I never do. Oh my goodness, I just picked up a lovely looking journal that I’ve had for awhile. It was like walking down memory lane as I looked at the variety of entries I had written. Apparently, I bought it for my last year of ministry training.

I don’t journal well but I like to draw. I’m not an artist like my mom was but I like using colour and making simple line drawings. I often find myself praying in a free-flow kind of way when I do that in my journal. I also like to make lists. When I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed and I’m fretting, Christopher says, why don’t you make a list? And he’s right. What the list is listing doesn’t even really matter. It’s the action that allows me a moment of feeling like the world is not completely out of control. And as often as not, the Holy Spirit will move as I’m making the list and I will notice what’s been missing and has been the cause of my underlying anxiety. Or She will make explicit that what I was worrying about really isn’t the bother of worry about it. There was a time, when our house was chaotic with four children between the ages of 1 and 7, with three very energetic boys who loved to cover their baby sister with stickers or stick her in a laundry basket and see what they could do with said-basket and I felt like I had NO space, time or energy to talk to God, much less hear God speaking to me. But I found if I sat down just before I went to bed and jotted down all the things swirling in my
brain—the to-do lists, the things I needed to remember, a funny thing the boys said or did—I would jot it down in a journal beside my bed. When I was done, I would close my eyes for a moment and think, “There you go Jesus—you take it. Thanks.” Christopher called it my, ‘giving it over to Jesus’. And I would sleep pretty well those nights, except for, you know, the nights where there was barfing, I had a nightmare, I can’t sleep, the night terrors—other than those events, I usually slept well because I didn’t have all those thoughts distracting me and bothering me—Jesus had them. And the next morning, I had a look at the list and notes and I took back only those that needed doing. Because, remarkably, somehow in the night my brain had the space to come up with solutions for some of the concerns that I had been worried about the night before. I think, maybe, this is some of what Paul was writing about, be transformed and discern what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Not all spiritual practices work for all people. It is a well-known fact that I can’t sit still or stay quiet for much longer than an hour so a silent, six-day yoga retreat like the one she did in Eat, Pray, Love is definitely not for me. My brain might explode. But I know plenty of others who would love that type of practice and would learn so much about themselves and how they want to be in the world. Simplicity would work for me if we could agree that my craft room is not included and no laundry baskets for sorting go near it. And Sabbath for me is Monday. Just as Dave cycles, I have my own routine for Mondays that give me the space and the freedom to work through thoughts and feelings from the past week, to make my lists for what’s coming and to do certain activities that allow my brain to shut off for a little while and make room for God to enter in. We have had some pretty good chats, God and I, on Mondays. Not that God isn’t in and around my life other days of the week, it’s just that I listen best on Mondays. And I journal. In my own way and with lots of different colours. In a variety of notebooks. Which I am definitely not hoarding. What practice works best for you? What gives you the freedom of space and time to connect with the Divine? What do you do to allow for transformation to take place, so that God can enter in, so that the teachings of Jesus can be considered, so that the Holy Spirit may move in your life? God is always with us but sometimes it can be hard to see or hear how God is working in your life. Finding a spiritual practice that works for you, will work for God and reveal more clearly that God is indeed working in your life and in this magnificent world of ours. Thanks be to God.