A Sermon for an Ordination on Corpus Christi: June 15, 2022

The following sermon was preached at St John's Cathedral at a service where four people were ordained as deacons and one as a priest.  You can also view a recording of the service here. Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Tonight we are celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi and the ordinations of five lovely people.

Corpus Christi is a feast that invites us to celebrate the gift we received from Jesus on the night of his arrest and betrayal: the eucharist, the bread and wine that are his body and blood.

In our reading from First Corinthians, Paul writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

These are some of the most repeated phrases in our liturgies. Since Jesus first spoke them to his followers, faithful people have been repeating these words and eating and remembering together.

Even in the pandemic when gathering together at tables was not possible, we found ways to remember. We learned, and are continuing to learn, just how important this eating and this remembering are.

It feels so good to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi with you all today – both those gathered in person and those participating online. We are all together the body of Christ.

One of the things that I love about being an Anglican is that we acknowledge that when we gather together at Christ’s table something happens to the bread and wine.

We acknowledge that something happens, but we don’t get too fussy about the details of what that something is. And if you think something different happens than what I think happens, that’s OK too. We are all still invited to eat together.

The bread and wine are changed.  It’s OK if the details remain a mystery.

Today five people will also be changed, and again, we don’t need to get too fussy about the details. Five people will stand up and say vows, be prayed over and blessed, and they will be changed.

And this is a good thing, worthy of a celebration.

Congratulations to all five of you.

Today is the culmination of years of hard work, of struggle, and, although I don’t know all of the details of all of your stories I suspect that it is also the culmination of years of having to learn, over and over and over again, the art of waiting patiently.

But in as much as today is a day about you and the change that today marks in your life, today is also not about you at all and you are not the only ones who are changed.

Just as I can’t celebrate the eucharist by myself, you cannot exercise the ministry God has called you to alone.  You are part of a family, a community, a body. The body of Christ.

And when you change, the body changes too.

The church, the body of Christ will change today.

And this is a good thing, worthy of celebration.

There are so many good things to celebrate today and we should celebrate them fully. But I also want to acknowledge that today five people are entering into ordained ministry at a particularly challenging time in the life of the church.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over and we have not even begun to fully grapple with the impact of the past few years.  And we probably won’t for quite some time, partly because we are still living in a pandemic, but also because many of us – all of us? – are exhausted.  It’s a lot.

When I see that the Anglican Church is in the news, I hold my breath- Dear God what now?

Because lately, the news hasn’t been about things I can be proud of.

It’s a lot.

When I look at my own yard, I can see the effects of climate change. When I talk to younger people about their futures they often ask, “What future?” or “If I even have a future then...”

It’s a lot.

And when I look at our churches, I see more of them emptying and closing than filling up and expanding.

It’s a lot.

But you know this. You’re not learning all of this for the first time and still you have chosen to commit to life of ordained ministry.

Which means you are weird, weird people indeed.

And I am so grateful for each one of you.

As you move into ordained ministry, if you aren’t already doing these things, I hope you will commit to a deep and rich practice of prayer. I hope you will seek out wise mentors, spiritual directors and therapists to help you walk this journey.

Because pretending you can do this on your own goes against everything Christ was trying to teach us about being his body.

You cannot do this alone, but the good news if you were never meant to do it alone.

It’s also not helpful to pretend you can do this on your own because the church needs to see its leadership modelling healthy behaviours. We need to see leaders who set boundaries, who do not send emails at all hours of the day and night, who take breaks, who have people and things outside of work that bring them joy.

We need our leaders to be human. Fully and completely and utterly human.

There is a deep, deep wisdom in our tradition. There are many wise people who have been walking the path a bit longer than you and it is wise for you to surround yourself with these kinds of people and listen to them.

But know that you are being called to serve a church that looks very different from the churches they have served and you are being called to take the church to places most of them could never have even imagined.

This path is filled with massive challenges, many of which seem insurmountable – aging buildings with far more seats than people, budgets with far more expenses than the offering plate is covering, the effects of the pandemic that is still not over and will continue to impact the church for years and years to come.   Racism, misogyny and homophobia that are still so deeply deeply rooted in the life of this body of Christ.

It's a lot.

And it doesn’t help anyone to pretend that it’s not a lot.  Your work will require you to have one hand firmly on tradition and one on a walking stick that helps you to blaze new trails.

I know it’s a lot and I never want to pretend that it’s not, but I also want to tell you that I believe you are entering into ordained life at one of the most exciting times in the life of the church.

We have been shaken, we have been shattered, and you can help determine if we solidify back into some version of ourselves that is less than who God calls us to be– mired in fear and scarcity and “we’ve never done it that way thinking” OR if we allow sunlight and nourishment to reach into those cracked places so that new things can grow.

New, exciting, Christ filled ways of being the body together.

A few years ago I could never have imagined holding worship services online and now I can’t imagine services without an online component. I have so many ideas and desires and dreams about what we could do with the things we have learned from those experiences that can help us to strengthen and grow this particular expression of the body of Christ we call the Anglican Church of Canada.

When I reflect on the creativity and vulnerability and sheer grit I have seen in my colleagues over the past few years it energizes me. I hope it energizes you too.

And this is good news for Christ’s body here on earth.

A few years ago, I thought being treated poorly because I am a woman was just something I would have to grin and bear forever if I wanted to serve Christ’s body. But now, I’m just not going to take it anymore. I hope you won’t either. And I hope we will all work to create an even bigger table where everyone knows they are not only welcome, they are wanted.

And this is good news for Christ’s body here on earth.

I am also learning to change and repent of the ways I have caused harm to people of colour, my indigenous siblings, my LGBTQ2SIA siblings. I have felt the freedom that comes from apologizing, and the energy and passion that comes from working to also say to them, “Never again. I will do better.”

And this is good news for Christ’s body here on earth.

We are here today because we all, collectively as Christ’s body, have come to discern that God is calling you into ordained ministry.  What a gift, what a thing for us to celebrate.

I cannot wait to get to know you better, to learn about your passions and unique gifts and the ways that you will be unleashed to serve and strengthen the body of Christ in Rupert’s Land.

Because we are all in this together – everyone of us, clergy and lay people together.  Not one of us can do this or should even want to do this work alone.

And that is good, good news, for Christ’s body here on earth.

In the strong name of the holy and undivided trinity.  Amen.


Bread

 

It was a privilege to journey with a group of companions this fall as we used the Awareness Examen to help us process our pandemic experiences. I’m grateful to Wood and Water Retreats for the opportunity and look forward to working with them in the future. You can check out a piece I wrote for their latest newsletter as well as their upcoming online retreat offerings here: https://woodandwaterretreats.com/reflections/bread


In the News

I was recently featured in the Free Press about an event I am planning this fall.  You can read the article here and learn more about the retreat here.  I hope you'll join me!


Taking Sides: A Sermon for Sunday January 31, 2021

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on January 31, 2021.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. You can also join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen

A few years ago I was teaching a class on Indigenous/settler relations and was reviewing vocabulary with the class. We were going over a list of words that can be used to describe Indigenous people and I was explaining why some words were good to use, some not so good, and some to be avoided entirely.

A student, who was born in India, raised his hand to interject and I paused to let him. “I understand what you are saying professor,” he said, “but also I really hate it when people use to the word ‘Indian’ instead of ‘Indigenous’ because I am Indian!”

And in that moment, I felt the difference between someone who taught as the scribes taught – me – and someone who could teach with authority.

In tonight’s gospel reading, Jesus and his followers go to Capernaum, and then on the sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue and begins to teach.  We are told that the people who were listening were “astounded” by his teaching because he taught as “one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (21-22)

Jesus may have looked like everyone else around him, but when he opened his mouth to speak, it became clear that he was not like everyone else. He spoke with authority.

What does it mean to speak with authority, to have authority?

In our reading from Deuteronomy we get a brief description of how to identify  a specific type of authority - prophetic authority.   A prophet will speak words given to them directly by God, they will speak in God’s name and will be accountable to God.

This lectionary reading ends very abruptly with the warning that anyone who speaks as if they were a prophet but has not actually been given authority by God to do so will die.

This is a rough place to end a reading, especially because the next few verses provide this helpful advice: “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.” (21-22)

I’m not sure why the lectionary omits these verses - “do not be frightened” seems like a much better place to end a thought than, “they will die.”

How do you know someone is really a prophet? They speak for God and what they say will happen actually happens. That’s the litmus test.

And Jesus passes this test.  Jesus does not simply speak with an air of authority, when he tells an unclean spirit to leave, it leaves.

Matt Skinner says that, “Mark depicts Jesus as the one uniquely authorized, commissioned, or empowered to declare and institute the reign of God. Through Jesus, then, we glimpse characteristics of this reign. It is intrusive, breaking old boundaries that benefited another kind of rule. It is about liberating people from the powers that afflict them and keep all creation — including human bodies and human societies — from flourishing. It is about articulating God’s intentions for the world, defying or reconfiguring some traditions to do so, if need be.” [1]

According to the traditions of that time and place, a man with an unclean spirit should not have been allowed into the synagogue.

But Jesus doesn’t tell the man to leave, or tell the people assembled that it’s just fine to have unclean spirits in their midst, he tells the unclean spirit to leave, and in doing so, makes it possible for the man to be restored to his community.

So many things are happening all at once –  this man is no longer possessed, he has been freed, he has the chance to be restored to his community. Additionally, Jesus has given everyone present a glimpse of a hopeful new future.  The way things have always been, does not have to be the way they will always be.  A better way is possible.

We are in the season known as Epiphanytide. This is more than just the season that begins by remembering when wise travelers presented gifts to Jesus. Epiphanytide is the season where we begin to reflect on what is means that Jesus not only came and was born as a human baby, but what it means when people began to see him as a young adult moving through the world with purpose and authority. People began to listen to his words, observe his actions and develop a sense of who he was. Epiphanytide is a season where we are invited to reflect on implications of Jesus’ early ministry. What changed when people began to recognize Jesus’ authority?

Matt Skinner invites us to ask, “Where are we still amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and deeds’ potential to upend our assumptions about what’s possible? Where can we see souls set free from destructive tendencies and powers that we thought were beyond anyone’s control? … Epiphany is not just about longing for and acknowledging past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness and the gospel’s power; it’s also about discovering what deserves our amazement in our current and longed-for experiences.”[2]

Where are you still being amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and deeds’ potential to upend your assumptions about what’s possible? What additional expressions of Christ’s power do you long to see?

In our reading we are told, twice, that Jesus has authority. The people say it at the beginning and end of our reading.  Sandwiched in between those assertions is a story that illustrates the same point.

A man with an unclean spirit enters the temple and cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (23-24)

They know who Jesus is, but they are not sure what Jesus is up to.

The phrase translated here as “What have you to do with us” is a tricky one to translate.  Matt Skinner suggests two alternate translations, “Why are you picking this fight?” or “Couldn’t you have just left things as they were between us?” Jesus, by his sheer presence in this synagogue, has upset the order. He has crossed an established boundary.” [3]

Jesus has transgressed the status quo, he has stepped over an established boundary but he has done so as “one with authority” and so the unclean spirits are trying to level the playing field by naming Jesus.  “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (24)

Names have power. Naming is a form of power. Just ask anyone who has ever been called by the wrong name or referred to with the wrong pronouns.  Been called “Sir” when they are in fact a “Madam.”  Ask them how quickly the balance of power can shift in those moments.

When the spirits say “I know who you are,” and call Jesus by name, it’s a power move. Or more accurately, an attempted power move. An attempt to assert power. An attempt to gain the upper hand in this encounter.

But the attempt fails.

Jesus isn’t even willing to give this exchange the time it would take to answer the unclean spirits’ questions.

Instead Jesus simply says, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (26)

And the spirits obey.

No fancy incantations, no magic tricks. Jesus speaks and the spirits obey.

Jesus doesn’t answer the unclean spirits questions, but if he did, what do you suppose he might have said?

Ched Myers observes that the opinion expressed by the unclean spirit is shared by the scribes. “Have you come to destroy us?”[4]

And in some ways,  Jesus has indeed come to destroy them. Not the literal scribes.  Repentance and a chance at new life are always available, but Jesus did come to destroy any institution, any idea, any power that does not bring life.  The kingdom Jesus came to establish is one of liberation, not oppression.

Jesus is not neutral. He takes sides, and he calls us to take sides as well.

Although the people recognize that Jesus speaks with authority,  this does not mean that everyone automatically accepts or welcomes his authority. Here and throughout Mark’s gospel we will see that Jesus’ authority is a contested authority.  Matt Skinner points out that, “Jesus’ presence, words, and deeds threaten other forces that claim authority over people’s lives. These other authorities have something to lose.”[5]

If you are being oppressed, then it is good news to learn that Jesus has come to overturn oppressive systems.  If you are an oppressor, or even someone who benefits second hand from oppressive systems, then Jesus words will likely feel threatening and not like good news at all.

In Jesus’ time, enough people found his message threatening that they crucified him.  I don’t think we are all that different.

Although we are all gathered together as a Christian community in this time of Christian worship, we need to be careful not to become complacent or pat ourselves on the back. All too often our institutions, our churches, and our own individual lives reflect the very values Jesus came to overthrow.  All too often we are on the side of oppression, and not liberation.

Right now, I am aware that many of us are struggling because we want to believe that we are nice people, good people, and therefore we can’t possibly also be racist people.  But we can, and each one of us needs to decide what is more important to us – our image of ourselves as nice people, or doing the work it will take to create a society where people of all races are treated with equal dignity and respect.

My colleague Scott Sharman points out that stories like today’s gospel reading, where Jesus encounters an unclean spirit take seriously, “the very real fact that there are systemic evils which exercise influences on people and societies which are beyond their ability to control or break free from. These "principalities and powers" hold our spirits and hearts and minds and relationships locked in patterns of injustice and oppression and inhumanity.

If and how they are related to personal spirits I cannot say, but I believe [that] bigger-than-me-or-you-can-explain forces do very much exist and weigh things down: The spirit of white supremacy, the spirit of misogyny, the spirit of ableism, the spirit of bigotry, the spirit of sexual exploitation, the spirit of domination over the earth. The list could go on.

Whether we participate [] as direct perpetrators, as passive benefactors, or as the one's they prey upon, these things control our lives and our world, and we are not able to untie ourselves from them on our own.

Scott continues -The voice of Jesus commands such spirits to depart, and does so with authority. The way of Jesus is stronger -- strong enough to break the bonds that hold us down. And those who follow in that Way are empowered by grace to proclaim those liberating words to our communities and societies through speech and action which transforms and heals beyond what we could even imagine. We can't do it alone. We need God. We need each other. Together, let us rebuke the evil that traps us, and with a louder voice. Let us go out to set and to be set free.”

Amen. May it be so.

In the strong name of our Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3

[2] [2]

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3

[4] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5

[5] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3


Can't We All Just Stop? A reflection on rest in the season of Advent

An article I wrote for the Rupert's Land News was just published: You can find it here.

Here's how the editor of the publication describes the issue and my article: This December, as we celebrate a more solitary Advent season, we're making a case for rest. Rachel Twigg Boyce kicks off the issue with an expression of her love for Advent, in all its countercultural splendor, and ultimately makes a plea for peace and compassion over obsessive productivity.

Indeed, can't we all just stop? Can we learn to be kinder to ourselves and each other?  I hope you enjoy the article and a truly restful Advent.

 


The Body of Christ Has Always Been Virtual

Author’s notes: This is the third installment in an occasional series.  You can find the first one, where I reflect on what the movie Dirty Dancing taught me about returning to in person worship, by clicking here.

Four years ago, I met Deanna A. Thompson at a writing workshop.  Consider this reference to her excellent book The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World to be a footnote to this entire piece.

 

 

“Christ has no body but yours….”  Attributed to St Teresa of Avila

 

“The Body of Christ is happening virtually whether or not the church acknowledges it.”  From a conversation between Deanna and an unnamed seminary professor.

 

“The church has not been unwilling to make do with less than fully-embodied theological exchange in the past. Why should we be less brave now?”  Jason Byassee[1]

 

Deanna Thompson was skeptical of technology and proud of it. She didn’t have a cell phone, her kids didn’t have cell phones and she was proud of it.

But then she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

Her brother offered to create an online social network through CaringBridge so that even when they could not be physically present with her, her friends and family could continue to connect with and care for her.

Through that experience, Deanna experienced a conversation and shifted from being a digital skeptic to an evangelist.   She describes this shift in her book The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World.   In addition to being an evangelist for Christ’ Virtual Body, Deanna is also a theologian and so her book is both a memoir and a theological exploration.  It is well worth reading.

One of the ideas that struck me from Deanna’s book is her explanation that the church has always been virtual.  After Jesus’ ascension, his followers became his representatives here on earth.  We became Christ’s body. People are supposed to see Christ in us.

While face to face interactions and Agape meals were surely hallmarks of those early Christian communities, Jesus was not present in bodily form and in most cases, neither were the earliest church leaders.

People didn’t need to wait for Peter or Paul to appear on the scene in person in order to begin.  And they didn’t need to wait for Peter or Paul to be present with them in person in order to learn from those leaders and grow in their faith.   They received letters.  Paul’s primary ministry was a virtual one.

If you look at the Bible, the last section is filled with these letters. Not all of them written by Paul, but all of them written by people who were not physically present to the people they were writing to.  We also know that the letters we have retained in the Bible represent only a small percentage of the letters that were likely being written at the time. (We don’t, for example, have the letters that communities wrote to Paul, only his responses.)

The same is true of later church leaders. We don’t interact with them face to face, we don’t have records of their spoken interactions, we have their letters, we have their written prayers. We have their virtual communication with the body of Christ.

My role as a priest can trace its origins back to this virtual body.  As the church began to institutionalize and grow the Bishop couldn’t be everywhere at once so he (and it was always a he at that time) was present with communities virtually through representatives who came on his behalf bringing bread and wine the bishop had blessed previously.   When I preside at worship, I still do so as a representative of my bishop.

Throughout my life I have had strong connections to the universal church and Christ’s virtual body.  My faith is strengthened by people I will never meet in person, many of whom died long before I was born, but who wrote of their experiences with Christ in ways I find compelling.

When I left home for university I knew that my church family back home prayed for me regularly. Those prayers and the cards and letters I received meant a great deal to me.

When I was ordained, friends I know mainly from online interactions participated in the livestream of my ordination and gifted me with a beautiful green stole.  I think of them every time I put in on and feel their love and support.

And while I miss worshipping in person with people and want to be able to do so again, I am increasingly being convicted by just how much of my privilege is reflected in that longing. For most of my life attending in person worship has always been my choice. I have never experienced any real barriers to attendance. But now, on a regular basis, truths are being made visible that had previously been invisible to me. They were always true, I just didn't notice them. My experience is not everyone’s experience.  In person worship has never been accessible to everyone. For some people it’s geography, or the weather, or disability, or race, or age, or gender, or sexuality or a combination of factors.

Last week I received a note from someone who told me that they have never felt more connected to God and to the church than they have since worship shifted to being online.  It was not the first, and likely not the last note I will receive expressing that sentiment.

My hope for the future is for a church where we consistently seek to connect people to God and remove barriers that prevent people from doing so.  I hope for a church where worship will be offered both in person and online, and where both will be seen as good and valuable.  I hope for a church were our worship will strengthen our sense of connection with the person sitting next to us, the person commenting in the chat section, and the saints that have gone before us. I hope for a church where we will increasingly recognize that we are all part of Christ’s body.

This week I received a letter in the mail from a dear friend I haven’t seen in several years. My name and address were written on the envelope by a shaky hand.  This senior gentleman is both monk and a priest who has been a supporter of my ministry since we first met.  I ran my hand over the writing on the envelope and kissed it before I opened it. It contained a prayer and a blessing for me as I navigate priestly ministry during these difficult times.  And while I long to see him in person and hold his hand, I do not believe that his blessing is any less powerful because it arrived in the form of a letter.

He asked me if we were having “alive” services and when I write him back I will tell him, “We most certainly are! They’re all online and they are lively. Here’s the link, join us for worship anytime. And thanks for sharing the link to your services, it has been a gift to be able to participate in them.”

The body of Christ is a virtual body. Thanks be to God.

 

[1] https://faithandleadership.com/jason-byassee-virtual-theological-education


I have a confession to make...

Author's notes: This is the second in an occasional series.  You can find the first one, where I reflect on what the movie Dirty Dancing taught me about returning to in person worship, by clicking here.

Cathie Caimano, who I reference in this article, provides amazing resources for the church and I highly recommend you get to know her and her work. Click here to learn more about Cathie.

 

I have a confession to make: I get nervous when people say the word “obviously.”

Usually whatever they say next is not obvious. At least not to me.

I’ve been hearing that word a lot lately. Oftentimes it’s in a discussion about online church or virtual worship.
“Obviously,” they’ll say, “online worship is inferior to in person worship.” Or perhaps they’ll take it even further and say, “online anything is always inferior to being in person.”

Before we go any further, can we all admit that we’re currently engaged in a very privileged conversation.? My ability to write and distribute this and your ability to read and engage with it is a function of our privilege. Let’s have the conversation but let’s also try to check our privilege whenever we can.

There have always been people who have not been able to consistently access in person worship. Prior to COVID when online worship options increased exponentially, that meant they either never had a corporate experience of worship, or that experience was online. What are we saying about those people and their experiences when we say that online is inferior?

I’ve also had some horrible in person interactions in my life, and some amazing virtual ones. I don’t think one way of interacting is better than the other, they’re just different.

COVID is forcing me to think about these things in new ways. Now there is a team sharing the work, but for months I led online services seven days a week. I never imagined a world where that was possible. Where I would sing into my computer. I did not want to be a televangelist when I grew up.

But I’m also so grateful for the connections and the deepening commitment to a regular prayer practice that online worship is creating for me and the community who gather every day. I’m learning to see the beauty and the power of building community virtually.

I need better language to explain my experiences. To help me understand what God is up to and to help me explain it to others as well and I’m writing this series of occasional posts to help me do just that. (You can find the first one on what Dirty Dancing taught me about in person worship by clicking here.)

I’m not writing to convince anyone who doesn’t want to engage in online worship that they have to, but if you fit in this category I do hope you’ll at least be willing to drop the “obviously.”

For today, let’s think a bit about the language we use. I use the term “virtual” but I don’t like it because the notion of inferiority is baked into the term. Virtual already sounds less than which doesn’t accurately describe many people’s experiences in the virtual world, including my own. Virtual bread is not real bread. But virtual community is real community.

Cathie Caimano helped shape my thinking when she pointed out to me that “online” is also an incredibly broad term. Saying you like or don’t like being “online” is the same as saying you like or don’t like being outside. It encompasses a whole lot of things. If you don’t like being outside, or online, what exactly do you mean? Which parts are you talking about?

Do you dislike sitting by a lake or walking in the rain or waiting for the bus? Do you actually dislike every single thing about being outside?

Similarly, being online could include emailing someone, talking to your grandkids on Facetime, watching a movie using a streaming service. Do you actually hate every single thing about being online?

For most people, the pandemic has increased our online engagement whether we like it or not. Church, work, and even doctor’s appointments now occur online instead of in person. The latest news from medical experts tells us that we can expect this to be our normal for at least the next couple of years.

The next couple of years.

This is hard, it’s so very hard and I never want to pretend that it’s not. But I also believe that it’s going to be harder for people who refuse to engage online.

Can we explore this new normal with curiosity? Can we be honest about what we miss about being able to gather in person whenever we want to while simultaneously asking, what are the gifts of being online?

Here’s one. In the time before, I knew someone who would often call me in crisis asking if I could meet with them that day. Because we both assumed the only way we could meet effectively was in person, in order to say yes to his request, I needed to have 3-4 hours available. Meeting meant I needed to drive to the opposite side of town, pay for parking etc. So more often than not I said no. I rarely have an open block of 3-4 hours in a day.

Now, thanks to Zoom, I usually say yes because I usually can free up forty-five minutes to an hour in my day. So this person’s access to pastoral care has increased dramatically as has my overall sense that I am doing a good job and not letting him down. Oh, and my carbon footprint and work expenses have also decreased dramatically.

It’s likely that if you are reading this you have the privilege to ask the questions, “What do I like or dislike about being online?” Not everyone does. For some people this pandemic means sheltering in place, alone with no way of connecting with others. As we think critically about the virtual world, we should always remember that we are in a place of immense privilege. Now more than ever access to the internet should be a basic human right.

But you’re here, so it’s more than likely that this week will find you online. Will you join me in a contemplative experience? Throughout the week take some time to reflect on your experiences of being online, with email, with the telephone, with online worship. What was lifegiving? What wasn’t? Jot those noticings down. At the end of the week, look at what you’ve written and see what you notice. Are there any themes? Anything to express gratitude for? Anything you might want to change?

What might we learn if we drop the “obviously” and engage online with curiosity?

I’m not sure, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

 

This was the second post in an occasional series.  Click here to read the next post.


I Carried a Watermelon: What Dirty Dancing Taught Me About Returning to In Person Worship

The first time I saw Dirty Dancing I was 12 years old.  The details are fuzzy – how did we get a copy of a PG-13 movie? – but I remember arranging a sleepover with a friend that began by babysitting a neighbour’s child.  We popped the tape into the VCR after the child went to sleep and stayed poised ready to jump and turn off the TV if they woke up or their parents came home early. We wanted to watch the movie, but we didn’t want anyone to know we were watching it.  As I Mennonite knew I needed to hide the film and I also I knew the title was a bit over the top, all dancing is dirty. Obviously.

My favourite viewing of Dirty Dancing happened in 2017. It was a special screening for the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. The theater was packed with fans. We laughed and shouted all the classic lines at the top of our lungs:

“I carried a watermelon?”

“No one puts Baby in a corner!”

My most recent viewing of Dirty Dancing was a few days ago.  Even though going to the movies is one of my all-time favourite things to do, I haven’t been since early March.  Movie theaters have only recently re-opened here with reduced capacity, extra cleaning, and the mind boggling request that we please remove our own garbage after the film. (Because even though I know people rarely do, I think this is something we should all have been doing all along.)

I bought my ticket online a few days in advance but I didn’t actually decide I was going to go until a few minutes before I got in my car. The ticket was only $3 and I gave myself a lot of room to change my mind at the last minute. A final check that confirmed they hadn’t sold very many tickets sealed the deal.

I could tell you a bunch of high minded reasons why I wanted to go, and they’d all be true.  I wanted to practice being in a public space before I returned to work. I wanted to know how I’d feel being in a room with strangers.

But I also just wanted to see a movie in a theater. To feel normal.

I saw a movie; it didn’t feel normal.

This was not a normal night at the movies because normal is gone, and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.  I’m sure we will find ways to enjoy movies and live theater  and worship together in person again but we’re moving towards a new normal, we’re not going back to our old normal.

Although this was not the theater’s fault, I found the entire process stressful, navigating new procedures, trying to social distance, being frustrated with every single other person in the theater who all seemed to have forgotten how to be out in public. All eight of them!  (Why are you taking a phone call on speaker phone? Why are you ignoring the arrows? Why are you breathing SO loud?)

When Baby arrives at Kellerman’s she’s on her home turf and the confidence shows. She knows this world, its rules and how to navigate that space. But when she enters the world of the Kellerman’s staff her discomfort is palpable. She has no idea what to expect or how to behave.

I resonate strongly with her sense of awkward uncertainty.  I don’t like situations I can’t control, situations where I don’t know the rules or what to expect.  That’s what this stage of the pandemic feels like to me. It’s more stressful than when we locked down.  Lock down had clear reasons and rules, this stage in the journey does not and it’s hard to know what to do.

I went to the movies. Did I have the time of my life? No.  I most certainly did not. But I was grinning from ear to ear underneath my mask when Baby finally nailed that lift so it wasn’t all bad.

Will I be back to the theater anytime soon?  I’m not sure. I can’t stay in my house forever but I also don’t think a movie, any movie, is worth putting myself or others at risk of catching COVID-19.

We need to find new ways to be together. We need to adjust to this new reality and we going to need to be gentle with each other in the process. A gentleness that includes reminding people when they are standing too close and graciously accepting correction when we’re the one at fault.

I haven’t worshipped with my congregation in person since early March. We haven’t set any timelines as of yet but I know we will worship in person again. In the meantime, the thought of it makes me anxious.  I don’t want to put anyone at risk. I don’t want to be that pastor on the news having to explain how we were ground zero for a new outbreak.  I don’t want to do any more funerals than I absolutely need to.

I also know that what we’re returning to isn’t what we’re hoping for.

Towards the end of the film, the owner of Kellerman’s gives a speech lamenting that things are changing and he doesn’t see a future for the resort. It’s not what the kid’s want anymore! I understand that feeling, and I do feel strong waves of grief when I think back on what it used to be like to worship in person with my beloved community.

But I also listened to Kellerman’s speech and thought, “The old ways only served rich white men like you. The system you are lamenting was racist, classist and sexist. Burn it down. Burn it all down.”

Burn Kellerman’s to the ground and build something better. As the church, let’s keep what has always been beautiful and true and let the other things fall away – let’s create worship that is not rooted in colonialism and white cis heteronormative patriarchy.  Let’s lament the past not only because we miss it, but because it contained so many lamentable things.

Anecdotally I’ve heard that when people return to in person worship for the first time they have all the feelings. They are scared, they are anxious, they are excited, they are thrilled to be together again, and then they often feel a lingering sadness that lasts for days.

A few people I know have articulated that – even though they knew that a return to in person worship was not simply turning back the clock to pre-COVID times, some part of them still hoped that it would be.  As long as they weren’t meeting, that hope remained, but the concrete experience of the new ways we gather in person squashed it entirely.  It is not the same.

I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom however. If we allow them to be, times of change can be great times of learning and growth.  My thoughts about the nature of online worship have changed dramatically over these last few months and I’m currently trying to put those thoughts into words which I will share will all of you as soon as they’re ready.

But here are just a few things I have noticed:

 

  • It’s a false binary to say in person worship is good and online worship is bad. We tend to know the pros and cons of in person worship from experience. We are only now learning the pros and cons of online worship.

 

  • Online worship has allowed people to be included who have typically been excluded. People with chronic illnesses that make it difficult to leave their homes, people in remote areas who can’t easily travel to church, folks whose legitimate fears of being poorly treated at church have caused them to choose to remain at home.  All of these people can now safely participate in services because they can participate from their home or their hospital bed and anything that is harmful to their person can end with the click of a button. They have the control now, and that’s a good thing.

 

  • Not everything about the way we used to worship was good. This is a great opportunity for us to rethink why we do what we do.

 

  • God has always wanted us to connect with them all day, every day. By placing too much focus on Sunday worship services we let some of our muscles develop and others grow flabby. We can use this time to exercise those other muscles in the hopes that we’ll emerge from this pandemic with a healthier, more well-rounded relationship with our Creator.

 

I went to a movie this week to dip my toe into the waters of public gatherings and then unexpectedly I find myself leading one of those gatherings tomorrow – a funeral. How will I feel about that experience? I have no idea.

But I’m going to mask up, carry a watermelon and try a new dance. I am going to step on someone’s toes, I won’t nail the lift.  It’s going to be hard and awkward and uncomfortable at first.

I hope we’ll learn these new dances together.  I hope you’ll teach me new things and forgive me when I stumble because even with all my Mennonite DNA, I believe that dancing is worth it.

 

This was the first in an occasional series. Click here to read the second installment.

 


My Buddy Ben

On April 25, 2020 I was asked to lead an online workshop about spiritual direction and creating a Rule of Life for the Diocese of Rupertsland.   It felt both timely and odd, kind of like a lot of things I've been experiencing during the pandemic.  The workshop can be found on my Facebook page, but in it I referenced a series of talks that my colleague Jamie Howison and I gave about St Benedict, his rule, and how to create your own rule in 2017.  I've included links to all three of those talks here for your listening pleasure:


Making Ash: A peek behind the scenes

About a year ago I was having some painting done in my house and I had the following conversation with my painter:

"So, I'm just going to run out to the back yard for a little while, if you see smoke and fire, don't worry about it."

"Um, OK."

"You see, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and I need to burn these palms in order to make ashes so that tomorrow I can smear them on people's foreheads, look them in the eye, and remind them they are going to die."

Short pause.

"Your job is really weird.  Good. But weird."

 

My job is weird. Good. But weird.

There are all sorts of traditions and practices connected to Lent and Holy Week in the Anglican Church but today I thought I'd walk you through the life cycle of a palm.

First, there is an entire part of this story that I don't really know anything about. For those of us who live in parts of the world where we can't easily grow palms we rely on someone else to grow them and ship them to us.  We buy ours from a local church supply shop, but a friend of mine in North Carolina told me that her church just heads out into the brush behind the church and cuts down as many as they need.

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, members from the two church congregations that share the building gather together to fold palms. (saint benedict's table rents space in All Saints' Anglican Church. We are two separate congregations but we look to work together whenever it makes sense to do so.)

At this point the palms are green and wet and relatively easy to fold.  Every year I need to re-learn the process but gradually muscle memory kicks in and I can fold the palms without really thinking too much about it.

At our church we fold the palms into simple crosses, but a google search will show you palms transformed into amazing works of art.

 

 

But why do we fold palms in the first place?

One way to answer the question is to point out that when Jesus entered Jerusalem people waved palm branches and we remember this event in his life on Palm Sunday.   (Click here to read last year's Palm Sunday sermon for more details.)

But for me, folding palms goes deeper than a simple commemoration of an event.  You can easily have a Palm Sunday service without spending time and money folding palms.

I have spent my whole life in churches and, while I never heard anyone say this using these exact words, the churches I was raised in believed it was much more important to ensure I had Jesus in my head than my heart.

Being a Christian meant I needed to learn a series of ideas and agree that I believed they were true. It was all about my head.

And those ideas were reflective of a particular way of understanding who Jesus was - a Jesus who was seen through the lens of white, colonial, heteronormative patriarchy.

I'm only just now beginning to come to see just how damaging that was.

One of the ways that this  "inviting Jesus into my head" form of Christianity has been damaging is it ignores the diverse experiences of the people God created.  God created people who are nonverbal, people who will never be able to read or process complex Statements of Faith, people whose first language and ways of connection is through dance and their bodies or the visual arts and surely God wants to be in relationship with these people too.

Which means that there have to be more ways to connect with God than the methods that the churches I grew up in privileged.

So now I try to find as many ways as possible to help people connect. Touching, smelling, and folding palms connects us to God.  Holding them in our hands during the Palm Sunday service as we move our bodies, sing, speak, and listen amplifies that connection.

After the service people will take those crosses home and tuck them in a prayer book, or the corner of a picture frame or a window sill.  They will quickly shrivel and dry as we move through the early days of Holy Week but they'll remain in those spots through the year until we are all reminded a week or two before Ash Wednesday to return them to church to be burned.

The year I was shown how to turn palms into ashes I was overtaken by geeky joy, but this year I almost missed the beauty of the moment in my busyness. I was about to just try and quickly burn the palms before rushing off to the next thing on my to do list when I was overtaken with the difference a few short years could make on my attitude.

So I stopped, collected myself and entered prayerfully into the process. I collected all my supplies - dried palms, several metal bowls, a lighter, a spoon, and a sieve.  This year I also experimented with cutting the palms into smaller pieces before I began.   When the flame hits long curly palm branches the fire can become unruly and hard to control.

 

I went outside and placed the bowl with the palm pieces in the snow on top of my raised vegetable garden.  My garden is in its own Lenten season - dormant and dead, but in a few short months it too will be filled with new life.

As I watched the smoke billow out of the bowl I thought of all the people who had folded, saved, and returned those palms. I thought of the people who would come to our Ash Wednesday liturgies and a feeling of gratitude enveloped me that was thicker than the smoke.

 

Once burned, the palms need to be pressed through a sieve to break up any larger pieces and make them suitable for marking people's foreheads with a tangible sign of their mortality.

"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."

 

The first ashes, however, were dispersed earlier then they should be.  It happens every year but I always forget to watch for an unexpected gust of wind that will appear out of nowhere as I pass the ashes through the sieve, disbursing them throughout my neighborhood.

Which is as it should be.