15 Jul 2017

Biblical Soap Opera

"My Life is a Soap Opera"
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Donna Pool on Flickr
            Last week in my sermon, addressing the passage from Genesis (24.35-38, 42-49, 58-67), I made reference to the fact that this was a biblical soap opera. It has all the drama, a lot of poetic license, some plot twists (and holes!), and the reader needs to overlook some fairly significant events that would raise eyebrows in any culture.
Here's my (slightly tongue-in-cheek) synopsis:
            We're just getting the highlights: Isaac needs a wife, sends a servant to find the best one, just go to the well where all the single girls hang out. Hmm. Awkward! Rebekeh’s brother conspires with the servant, and sends her to the well. There she sees the servant, offers to water him AND his camels. Sidenote: each of these 10 camels will drink some 20-30 gallons at a time. That's a lot of drawing and carrying water by herself.  Yet she does it, and the servant finds her beautiful, freakishly strong, and to sweeten the deal makes sure she's wearing some snazzy jewelry. She agrees to leave her family and homeland to go be with some dude she's never met. Then, - I did mention soap opera drama, yes? - she sees Isaac, and is so smitten by this biblical dreamboat that she falls off her camel.
            Needless to say, this approach certainly caught people's attention. I did bring it back to the main point of the sermon (the reality of God's grace is bigger than anything we can ever expect), but had some fun along the way.
"Camel E"
CC BY-NC 2.0 by Joni Kage on Flickr
            And there have been some fun conversations this week as a result. Why didn't Rebekeh just bring the camels into the well area to drink directly from the bucket? (She might have done, but nobody wants camel poop near the water source.) Why does she have to have a ring through her nose? (That culture's way of saying "spoken for!" - her dance card was full.) Did she really fall off her camel? (Well, she slid off quickly and started all manner of flirting, so...) Did God tell Laban to do this? (Not directly, in the scriptures - in fact in this passage we don't get any mention of God speaking or directly willing action.) Did you really call Isaac a dreamboat? (Yes, I did. Thanks for listening so intently.)
            I admit to having fun with it, and maybe going to the extreme. But I expect that at some point, as this history was being shared within the community of the faithful, people had a bit of a laugh or an eye roll at the drama in it. It's a very human passage, full of some almost unbelievable statements that make one believe there's been some editorialising going on.
            And, as with so many other passages of a similar nature, it conveys the message that God will be where God will be, and God will act how God will act, no matter how unlikely or unexpected we may think. And the pattern of human history is sometimes more dramatic: Isaac and Rebekah had great love, but they also had their problems (look at the twins!) Part of what makes the story so memorable is its very humanness, its drama, its soap opera qualities.

            So if God can work wonders through that drama, we can rest assured that God is equally present in our own lives - on the boring days, and on the days when we think we may have stepped onto a scripted set for TV. Drama happens: God happens through it.

8 Jul 2017

My Soul in Silence Waits

Silence is a powerful thing.
            Perhaps its power is connected to its rarity: we do not live in a world that is often silent. There seems to be always a background noise: a radio playing, the washer running, the hum of traffic. Silence is not just the absence of human-made noises, either: there's a rustling of leaves in the breeze, the morning birdsong, the lapping of water against a shore, &c.
            As humans, we tend to fill up the near-silence with our own noises. We hum and sing. We tap fingers against tables. We speak - to one another, to ourselves, to the dogs (maybe that's just me). And we tend to return, without fail, to words. "Words, words, words!" as Hamlet said.           
            Anyone who knows me knows that I like words. I enjoy linguistics. I take pleasure in finding (and using!) fun and at times obscure words.  (Quoting the verbose Joe in Sunset Boulevard: "Well, I'm a writer!")
            And recently, my spiritual director has been inviting me to simply be still in God's presence - to pray without words. He's encouraging not merely a silence from my lips, but also in my mind and heart. (Apparently thinking in prayerful words defeats the purpose of the exercise.)
            So we sit, at the open and close of our shared journey. And daily, now, I sit in silent prayer.  
            At first, it was awkward, to merely sit while someone else was present, and try to connect wordlessly to God. And, this has taken me some practice, and some days I'm still not very good at it. But I make the effort to be still, and silent, and immerse myself in the presence of God. Some days it's a longer journey, some days but a few moments (by the clock); the time spent is less important than the sojourn itself.
            The background noises are still there, but in that holy space they remain just background, secondary, unintrusive. I do not allow them to infringe on my immersion into the sacred space. Just as I would not let them interrupt a spoken prayer, nor do I give them heed in the silent prayer.
            To be fair, I still read the words aloud to the psalms, and offer my divine office with words - this new practice has merely extended my repertoire of means through which I intend to dance with the divine.
            It's a skill and a practice, and one I have found to be both enjoyable and spiritually edifying. Silence: who knew! A movement of the soul that transcends the barriers of language.

So, if you are too tired to speak, sit next to me, because I, too, am fluent in silence. 
~R. Arnold

1 Jul 2017

What Do You Recommend?

          In my experience, we live in a world full of variety, of choices, and - as a result - of recommendations. We ask wait staff for menu recommendations, we read reviews for film recommendations, we check out user review websites for activity and tourism recommendations.
            One of the conversations I have most often with friends is about books. What we like, what we don't like, what we would recommend to one another.
            In fairness, recommendations can come with hesitation... I once suggested a book I absolutely *love* to a friend, and while she was keen to read it, she was worried she might not like it (and thereby offend me). (Note - she liked it, didn't love it, we have had many conversations about the topic, and there was never any offence).
            In the courses I've been taking, there are often suggestions and recommendations being made. Some are for academic resources (I'm part-way through Wiggs-Stevenson's "Ethnographic Theology," recommended by a respected colleague after an engaging seminar discussion).  Some are based on context (I've just finished Martel's "Wolf Hall" after being told it helped someone better understand the Reformation in England, and as an Anglican he was sure I'd enjoy it [he as right]). Some are just for fun (my sister and I are regularly comparing notes on our latest reads, lately mysteries and psychological thrillers). 
            I receive and give recommendations for all sorts of prayer resources, theological commentaries, scholarly articles, &c.
            One thing that's missing there is the recommendation for the favourite book of the Bible.
            I wonder if perhaps that is because we presume that as Christians, we will have already read the sacred scriptures? And yet, with other sources, we recommend re-reads (Fran├žois Mauriac wrote ' «Dis-moi ce que tu lis, je te dirai qui tu es», il est vrai, mais je te conna├«trai mieux si tu me dis ce que tu relis.')
            The Bible, as we know is full of wonderful books, that tell of exciting and inspiring truths for all of God's people. It holds within it more than mere stories, but the Word of God. It's a better page-turner than anything any novelist could hope for. (I've often said that anyone who thinks the Bible is boring obviously hasn't read it!)

            So I invite us all to consider what our favourite Bible book is... what might we recommend to friends and family to read? And next time our opinion is sought, perhaps that will be what we suggest. Let's recommend that the book be brought off the shelf and enjoyed for the wonderful gift that it is.

24 Jun 2017


Pipe Organ at Knox College chapel
Toronto School of Theology
            I spent the past 2 weeks back in the classroom, taking an intensive summer course with my doctoral cohort. We started each day as one might expect at a seminary (though ought not take for granted): with prayer.
            Coming from a variety of locations and a variety of faith traditions, we enjoyed a variety of worship styles and formats. One of the commonalities, however, was music. While we knew this from our time together last year, a guest to our class commented "Wow, you folks like to sing!"
            We do like to sing. And sing we did.
            Some of us have exceptional musical skills and talent, some (like myself) less so. Some have training, some do not. Sometimes we all hit the right notes, sometimes we did not. 
            One of the great gifts was the harmony that was created; as we each sang in our range and to our ability, the words began to be so much more than they had been before; the song evolved into so much more than any one of us alone could have hoped to accomplish.
            We sang our worship, and God was present.
            St Augustine of Hippo wrote "cantare amantis est" or "singing belongs to one who loves." This is true; one who is singing hymns ought not worry about having perfect pitch or rhythm or any of the rest of it. One who is singing ought to be focused on the gift of song: the gift being offered to the world, but also on the reception of the gift of music.
            Augustine was indicating that when a song is of praise, the heart of the one who loves changes; the singer is no longer merely a conveyor of notes that can be captured on a page, but one who is expressing the perfect love from Love's divine source.

            So I hope as we all sing our hymns this morning that we too are changed: embraced by the gift of one another as we join in harmony (both spiritual and musical!), delighting in joining with the transformed gift of love and Love that manifests in song.

17 Jun 2017

My Favourite Gospel

Genealogy of Jesus, Gospel of Matthew
from the Lindisfarne Gospels
Folio 27r PublicDomain
     Long ago and far away, as I was discerning a call to ministry, one of my candidate's committee interviewers asked me to identify my favourite Gospel. Being articulate and confident as ever, I responded with something like: "My... um... wait... sorry... what?" (Clearly, not my finest moment!)
     It's a question that has stayed with me (obviously); it's a question I regularly return to in my own reflections.
     I've had many answers over the years: Matthew for the Old Testament fulfillment; Mark for its emphasis on service and justice, Luke for the attention to the humanity through suffering and healing, John for its mysticism and "I AM" statements. 
     It could be just part of my personality type, but I'm not sure I have any one 'favourite' - that seems to suggest that one is more important than others. It's not that I'm easily swayed, but at different times in my life and ministry, different aspects of the different Gospels have spoken to me.
     Something I read a few years back helped me to better appreciate this. There is only one Gospel: The Gospel of Jesus the Christ. We just happen to have 4 canonical "According To"s to choose from.[1]
     So how the stories are shared, the order, the length, the details, &c. all makes an impact, on the teller and on the reader. The emphasis differed based on the intended audience and the writer, to convey a certain aspect that would have the most significance.
     These are all the Good News of God in Christ, proclaimed by word and example for thousands of years (so far!), written and compiled in a way that will touch the hearts of God's people and invite them into God's mission for the world.
     So which author is my favourite? It depends on the day; but which Gospel is my favourite? The Gospel of Christ - may it continue to speak clearly to us all.

[1] see John Dominic Crossan's The Power of Parable.

10 Jun 2017

Bloom Where You're Planted

            I live in a community with a climate where just about anything that is planted has the potential to thrive. "Bloom where you're planted" could have been first written here.

            My garden blooms tend to be pragmatic: vegetables, herbs, and in the corner nearest where I write, my old black lab daily 'plants' himself in the same corner of one of the flowerbeds, having first dug around to make sure the dirt is to his liking. I've noticed much about this habit:
       1. He rests in the garden, and comes out refreshed (and ready to play!)
       2. He is aware of his surroundings, careful to dig in only that one corner and not to disturb the daylilies in the opposite corner; he doesn't try to overtake the rest of the space.
       3. He has neither clue nor care if I may have wanted to plant something there.
       4. He prevents growth (weeds) growing in that space.
       5. He was confused to find my other dog in there one day this week, but took it in stride and went to another place to lay down.

            My dog-as-plant offers much for reflective prayer:
       1. May we all find a place of spiritual rest and repose, that will be simple and accessible.
       2. May we all know where we are, and where others are, complementing one another's ministrations.
       3. May we intentionally collaborate with our communities in our shared ministry.
       4. May our efforts prevent invasive negativity.
       5. May we not be so beholden to one pew or one building that we miss seeing new opportunities to build the kingdom of God.
Photo by Sarah F.
Used with permission

            Furthermore, I pray that we may be inspired by whatever soil we find ourselves planted in. 
       May we bloom where we are, when we have been comfortable there for many a season. 
       May we bloom when we feel transplanted, experiencing change as a potential for new growth. 
       May we accept that not every soil supports every plant. 
      And may we recognise that sometimes our unplanted flowers provide play space for inquisitive and discerning hearts and minds.

       May our spiritual gardens be full of exactly what God intends to grow.