Friday, December 19, 2008

Hope (n.)

The theological virtue defined as the desire and search for future good, difficult but not impossible to attain with God’s help.

“To hope” was borrowed from Low German: hoffen- to hop (v.) on the notion of “leaping in expectation”.

Advent is the church season that is pregnant with hope; like the adolescent Mary. Every pregnant woman knows the hope she carries within her body. The first recognizable movement, the leaping baby within, is a beautiful and unforgettable experience. For me, the word hope will relate to the experiential with each recalling of my own (now adult) child’s leaping within me. The unborn child is a mystery. What will this child look like? What will this child grow up to be? What will this child’s future bring? With the growing physical presence of the unborn, each mother desires and prays for the future good for her child, difficult but not impossible to attain with God’s help.

The future of the unborn generations to come, however, is being significantly compromised by those charged with the stewardship of the planet today: you and me. In her commencement address to the 2008 graduating class of Duke University, novelist Barbara Kingsolver challenges them to march forth with hope. She ends her address with a poem written for the class. I trust that Barbara will forgive the reproduction without permission here. For me, Kingsolver – a university-trained biologist and remarkable storyteller (The Poisonwood Bible) - captures the essence of hope. After reading the poem, I invite you to listen to the complete address.

Hope; An Owner’s Manual

Look, you might as well know, this thing
is going to take endless repair: rubber bands,
crazy glue, tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse.
Nineteenth century novels. Heatstrings, sunrise:
all of these are useful. Also, feathers.

To keep it humming, sometimes you have to stand
on an incline, where everything looks possible;
on the line you drew yourself. Or in
the grocery line, making faces at the toddler
secretly, over his mother’s shoulder.

You might have to pop the clutch and run
past all the evidence. Past everyone who is
laughing or praying for you. Definitely you don’t
want to go directly to jail, but still, here you go,
passing time, passing strange. Don’t pass this up.

In the worst of times, you will have to pass it off.
Park it and fly by the seat of your pants. With nothing
in the bank, you’ll still want to take the express.
Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse that are sleeping
in the shade of your future. Pay at the window.
Pass your hope like a bad cheque.
You still might have enough time. To make a deposit.
Nicola Adair

Friday, December 12, 2008


This week, I received an unusual email from an acquaintance. The gist of the it was that I was asked to send an email to 11 friends as part of a high school religion class project. I was advised that prayer was one of the best gifts that can be received. By simply copying and pasting the prescribed prayer into 11 separate emails, I would be sharing this gift.

My first reaction was: why not send a blind copy bulk email and save all the copying and pasting. That observation was quickly replaced with: why would I do this? I come from a generation that actually handwrote chain letters. I rued the day that I received my first chain letter: the threatening guilt-laden closing sentence still comes to mind. What horrible curse was I to bring on my family and myself by not continuing the chain? I didn’t know twenty people to continue the chain let alone have the wherewithal to bear the cost of postage on my weekly pre-adolescent 1960’s allowance (read: non-existent!). Just thinking about, I wonder if this was not the seed of my neurosis with guilt. Hmmm; I’ll worry about that later. Alright: back to the matter at hand.

After serious contemplation, I responded to the email sender:
Well, I do pray and I hope that my life is a prayer but I don’t use email this way. Almost daily, I receive chain mail style email (prayer and otherwise) that I resent (as in despise; delete). Before photocopiers, folks actually had to write this stuff out and that curtailed the masses. Photocopiers made chain mail easier; email has made it an epidemic. Email prayer: Sorry, no! No copying or pasting; I will pray the specified prayer for 11 souls and trust in the powerful mystery of faith.

The exercise made me stop and think about how I use the internet in my faith journey. I frequent a few sites daily. A Benedictine monk’s daily reflections, an Episcopalian cafe and a spirituality reader are favourites.

The Diocese of Montreal’s excellent weekly lectionary with commentary and links to an incredible Christian art online reference library is a shortcut on my desktop. Incorporated into my lectio divina practice, I have found this site to be very helpful as I leave the lectionary open (well, to be honest-it's on the desktop as an RSS feed) and throughout the day read and reflect on the words and art.

So, what then, do you ask, is my problem with email prayer? Well you may ask. It’s all about me. In the September blog entry “Ora and Labora”, I set out my evolving thoughts on that ‘most elusive Christian concept’, prayer, as Joan Chittester describes it. I won’t bore you with re-iteration; my prayer is about inward communication and personal relationship with Another.

Communication and community seem to originate from the same root word: communicatus; to make common. And for me, therein lies the most potential for this relatively new technology. The St. James’ website was a sleeping creature for a couple of years before David Howard decided to rattle its chains. Slowly and sometimes crumpily, the silent creature is awakening.

Since April 11 2008, we have been encouraging the parish to embrace the critter. Weekly, a bulk email is circulated within the parish roster. Most parishioners don’t reply to the email, but our sense is that they respond. By year’s end, we expect to be well over the 2500 hit mark on our tiny counter seated at the bottom of the homepage. This number is tiny by comparison to the some of the hits I’ve seen on YouTube (where dancing dog home videos may receive over a million hits, go figure). However, the really important part about our number is that it is us: our parish. For a parish with an active roster hovering near the two hundred mark, this is significant.

And a simple, little note each week has been doing the work of communicatio, making common, the life of the parish for the parish.

Another important part of the website has been to communicate the life of the community visually-through the embedded slideshow. I'm convinced that David's ministry is not only psychological but photographic (or maybe I am using this as a rationalization for him to significantly upgrade the current camera equipment), but if we want to really pull people together, electronically, post pictures! The posting of The Amazing Weekend slideshow created a noticeable change in traffic on the website.

This month, the parish website enters a new era. In welcoming the new church year, we have moved to have the homepage reflect the current church season: with the season's liturgical colour and in the weekly lectionary message-through word and image. Perhaps I am doing this just for myself as part of my lectio divina as I contemplate how to electronically present the week's message; if one other person benefits from the exercise that surpasses the expectation.

The internet is a powerful resource for exploration as part of one’s faith journey. The breadth of opinion, the depth of available scholarly reference vehicles and the ease of accessibility add to the lustre of this tool. But the fact remains: it is merely a robotic tool; much like the copy and paste of a prayer chain letter or a bulk email. The real work rests with the individual, within oneself and without, in the testy waters of community.

Nicola Adair

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes (and a couple of guys, too)

I can think of few less likely candidates to teach Sunday school than this writer. A ‘wanderer in the wilderness’ may be a bit extreme; but equally, ‘no particular affiliation’ seemed understated – casting mind back over the past forty years. Kind of the equivalent of hiring the fox to guard the hen house – but then that may have been just the job description that had surfaced for our assistant priest when she approached me last summer to do a four-week stint, at the time, eons away.

As you may have noticed, children are disappearing – not in the sinister, Golden Compass, ‘snatch ‘em for research purposes’ kind of way. Just a none too subtle fade away. So, if I may presume to climb inside the motivation of our crafty priest, I’d say she was looking for someone who might ‘connect’ with kids, particularly the senior crowd and hopefully provide a hook that would retain them in the parish for a bit longer. Someone with a sufficiently murky (or let’s just say, ambiguous) past, who, if we lined up the authority figures on one side of the room and the kids’ buddies on the other, might stand somewhere in between. Someone who, while not overtly ‘dangerous’, is not particularly bound by the conventions that populate our culture – and has been known to challenge same on occasion. And perhaps someone with a bit of a track record of being accessible and available to said kids. And so I agreed – with a condition. That I could ‘teach’ whatever I wanted.

November, being ‘the cruelest month’, rolled around too quickly and my commitment began to loom. Lynn began to lobby for some ‘catchy’ bulletin inserts with the attached realization that Sunday 1, as it were, was less than a week away. I thumbed through curriculum materials and reasoned that a cut paper collage was not likely the hook I needed to catch the interest of an increasingly sophisticated group of charges. Deep breath, settle the mind, and see what surfaces. Well that was easy – teach ‘em to meditate. A little juggling of some basic Eastern tenets, a little massaging of the suggested scripture of the week and presto – a four week prospectus that just might fly.

And so we began. ‘Don’t just do something, sit there!’; ‘The present moment: soap-on-a-rope’; ‘Pulling weeds with the Bare Naked Ladies’; and finally the habitual favourite, ‘Wherever you go, there you are: the benefits of going in circles’ – all certainly sufficiently enigmatic to rouse the curiosity of the adults in the parish. But would it snag the kids? As it turns out, I think the answer is a qualified yes. (The feedback was, albeit disinhibited by a glass of wine or two: “You’ve got a gift!”) Our little group ebbed and flowed from week to week – but it survived. What I was least prepared for however was that I would learn!

Mantras, breathing techniques, non-judging, letting go . . . all proceeded on course. We even managed to wedge the whole thing in between the processional hymn and the Eucharist. Right up to the: ‘establish a practice: regular time, regular place, daily if possible – just like brushing your teeth’. Full stop.

As a psychologist in private practice, no small part of my case load is comprised of adults presenting with variations on the theme of dealing with stress, type A personality issues, anxiety disorders, sleep disturbance, dissolving relationships, depressions. . . the list goes on. But sharing at least one common element: reactions to the complexities of an over-busy, demanding, relentless lifestyle – and generally one over which they feel they have largely lost control.

As our time together began to unfold, the ‘evidence’, so to speak, too commenced to build that this little group of mid-adolescents was every bit as vulnerable to these self same issues as were their elders. L, interested and participative as one could wish, would have eyes droop; K would shift uncomfortably in his chair; S would voice his ‘reactivity to just about everything’. No quiet place to sit. Pause for a moment – and be overtaken by sleep. These were very busy, committed (perhaps over-committed) kids – with no time! A simple body scan, intended as much as an exercise in controlled concentration, produced accounts of headaches, stiff necks, sore shoulders, upset stomachs – as the ‘places where you hold tension’ were discussed. A suggestion that we start with five or ten minutes of quiet time a day, evolved quickly into a problem solving session of ‘where I would find five extra minutes’.

What I began to consider was that this little group, so typical in many ways, had learned their lessons very well. Had learned what we teach – not by our ‘good words’; but by our not so good deeds. We had imbued them with our busy schedules; our value systems built on growth, expansion, achievement, productivity. And by extension, had taught them to be suspicious of ‘down time’, emptying one’s mind (instead of relentlessly filling it with even more information), letting go of worries (instead of clinging to anxieties about the future and guilt over past ‘failures to meet a mark’). A recent article in the New Yorker reviewing a trio of books on what is euphemistically now referred to as ‘helicopter parenting’, convincingly underscores that, in our urgency, our compulsion to have our children achieve to their ‘highest potential’, we schedule them to capacity, we coach and obsess over performance, we lobby to secure access to the ‘best schools’, and so on. The result it seems, in the short run are children who feel stretched to capacity; in the longer run, ones who will cultivate the same debilitating, perhaps counter-productive neuroses as their well-intentioned parents. Certainly not the blissful, reflective and contemplative, grounded individuals we would hope.

That some folks may have picked up on this generational hypocrisy and the need to start at an early age is evident in some very encouraging materials emerging, I think appropriately, in Australia (that would be the geographic, and evidently philosophic inverse of we Northern Hemispherites) and focusing on teaching meditative principles to children commencing as young as ages four or five. Now there’s a concept!

And as the bard would have it, all’s well that . . . Our final meeting was structured around an ‘active meditation’ – a little less of a stretch for such a busy crew. We were fortunate enough to borrow a full, eleven-ring labyrinth from a neighbouring community’s church – allowing us to ‘walk our way into awareness’. Seems like actually ‘doing’ is a bit less of a cultural leap than sitting cross-legged and chanting. And there’s hope for this old teacher as well. Actually signed up for some ‘labyrinth training’. Bit of an oxymoron, I suppose – but as close as I get to balancing bliss with productivity.

David Howard

Friday, November 21, 2008

And, Furthermore.

Very recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi travelled together to two of the notorious concentration camps of the Third Reich. Both call for a renewed recognition of the fundamental humanity of those with whom we disagree.

The website of the Archbishop of Canterbury is herewith linked so that you, please, read their individual reflections on their visit. It seems an appropriate addendum to the previous blog.

You can find the website


Nicola Adair

Friday, November 14, 2008

Adult's Dirty Laundry

In case you missed it, the letter to the editor of the November 2008 edition of the Huron Church News from reader Patti Patstone bears repeating:

Dear Editor:
I was sickened to see the article in the Huron Church News (Oct.’08) on “Children’s Festival 2008”. I participated as a musician at that event so I was aware of the program and the day’s events. I was horrified when I read the following: “...if you could preach in church, what would you talk about? Laura responded: I’d preach about the importance of same sex blessings”.

This article was about a CHILDREN’S FESTIVAL. It is unfortunate that Laura has not received better preaching from God’s Holy Scripture. But what is worse, is that you printed it!! It is very sad that this issue is being placed on the same page as a children’s event. The adult’s dirty laundry is polluting the minds of our children. It is no wonder that the world wide Anglican church looks at the Anglican Church of Canada with disdain. I am certain that an article about a Children’s event taking place in most parts of our world would not be paired with this issue.

I am concerned that this comment was included with this article and I pray for the “Lauras” in the Anglican Church of Canada. I join with the prayer from the world wide Anglican church that the Canadian church would repent of her waywardness and return to the truth of the Bible.
Patti Patstone

After reading Ms Patstone’s contribution to a benign journal, I, too, was sickened. I’ll explain.

Some weeks ago, I happened upon a TVO programme that studied the British Empire’s involvement with slavery. The researcher was in Ghana at a former British slavery depot. She was standing in a basement holding room with her Ghanaian guide; the room was about the size of St. James’ lower parish hall. The guide explained that, typically, the room would have been filled with about 3000 men. Their wives and children would have been separated from them and held in different rooms. All would be waiting for their deportation as slaves. Families separated forever; lives changed forever with horrid consequences.

What sickened me, aside from this factual representation of what occurred in that basement room, was the fact that a Christian chapel stood over the room. And, ‘the truths of the Bible’ were being preached while thousands of native Ghanaian suffered in inhumane conditions, not unlike the concentration camps of the Third Reich.

Just last week, we were called to remember the lives of those who suffered death while fighting for the freedom of humanity. Our rector told his parish how he will remember the name of a two year old Jewish child, Dora Rosenblum, who succumbed in a concentration camp.

I was reminded that the German Jewish community was one of the targeted groups for the Nazis as they sought to purge Germany of race enemies and “lives unworthy of living”. Six million Jews were slaughtered. Five million Russians, Poles and Roma died in this purging as did four million Catholics and thousands of mentally disabled, other religious minorities and approximately 55,000 German homosexuals.

The treatment of homosexuals detained in post-war concentration camps went unacknowledged by most countries or churches. Some that did escape were even re-arrested and imprisoned based on evidence found in the Nazi years. It was not until the 1980’s that the German government acknowledged this episode, and not until 2002 that the government apologized to the gay community. In 2005, the European parliament adopted a resolution regarding the Holocaust where the persecution of homosexuals was mentioned:

27 January 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany’s death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau where a combined total of up to 1.5 million Jews, Roma, Poles, Russians and prisoners of various other nationalities, and homosexuals, were murdered, is not only a major occasion for European citizens to remember and condemn the enormous horror and tragedy of the Holocaust, but also for addressing the disturbing rise in anti-semitism, and especially anti-semitic incidents, in Europe, and for learning anew the wider lessons about the dangers of victimizing people on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, social classification, politics or sexual orientation...

Slaves in the basement; gays in the post-war concentration camps: all while churches were filled with those “receiving better preaching from God’s Holy Scripture”.

Fast forward to the new millennium: not only are Afro-Americans allowed to marry but, and merely 150 later, a powerful Afro-American couple will soon reside in the White House. Homosexuals are no longer jailed (1969, Canada decriminalizes homosexual acts) but are serving as priests in the Anglican Church. Today, same-gendre parents are supported by the positions of a number of organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the Child Welfare League of America, the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

The American Psychological Association has stated that:

There is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation: Lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children...research has shown that the adjustment, development and psychological well-being of children is unrelated to parental sexual orientation and that the children of lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those of heterosexual parents to flourish...

As well, from the Children’s Development for Social Competence Across Family Types, a major report prepared by the Canadian Department of Justice, in July 2006, but not released by the government until forced to do so by a request under the Access to Information Act, in May 2007, reaches this conclusion:

The strongest conclusion that can be drawn from the empirical literature is that the vast majority of studies show that children living with two mothers and children living with a mother and a father have the same levels of social competence. A few studies suggest that children with two lesbian mothers have marginally better competence than children in traditional nuclear families, even fewer studies show the opposite, and most studies fail to find any difference. The very limited body of evidence with two gay fathers supports this same conclusion.

By failing to offer same-gendre marriage blessings, the church promotes a form of double-standard mongering: relationships in the heterosexual constellation are right; those in the homosexual constellation are wrong. And as social tolerance endorses the non-traditional nuclear family, the church continues to turn its eyes as it did, for too long, with slavery and homosexuality.

In the United States, the F.B.I. reported that 15.6% of hate crimes reported to police in 2004 were based on perceived sexual orientation. 61% of these attacks were against gay men. The important word here is ‘hate’. Open acts of violence against gays are socially unacceptable, we would all agree (I hope). But what about what ‘soft’ acts of a letter to the editor.

Hate: to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward; detest.

My sickened response to Patti Patstone’s reply to Laura’s answer came from the awareness of hate mongering. “The adult’s dirty laundry is polluting the minds of our children”. I would agree with you Patti: but it is the dirty laundry of political, social and religious intolerance and discrimination that pollutes minds.

My hope rests in the “Lauras” of her and future generations to come to power who will forgive the sins of their parents and will tear down the walls of this type of discrimination and intolerance.

For you, Patti, I recommend these words for prayerful contemplation: Matthew 25:40, "Truly, I tell you, just as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.". From St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel every day; if necessary, use words.” And from Martin Luther, “Love is the image of God.”
Nicola Adair

Friday, November 7, 2008

So, How Big is Your Amygdala?

So what is a psychopath anyway? For most of us, say the word and the Charlie Manson’s, the Hannibal Lector’s, the Jack the Ripper’s spring to mind. Tough to argue that these characters definitely do qualify. Clinically, it’s a tad more complicated though than donning a goalie’s mask when you own a carving set and no skates; or firing up the latest version of your Stihl MS 460 and waiting for the next, na├»ve, car load of unsuspecting teenagers to roll into the front yard. There’s that penchant for telling porkies; for picking fights – just to pick a fight; for generally finding yourself on the questionable side of the bars – the steel ones, not the fun ones; for sporting an emotional ‘body temperature’ somewhere between cold and frozen – that would be conscienceless; for having the capacity to sustain relationship somewhere between a junk yard dog and a hooker (without the heart) . . . to mention a few of the more endearing features.

I recently attended a symposium conducted by one of the more renowned researchers in this field, Robert Hare, as I searched for interesting ways to spend my summer vacation – and do the regular upgrading that allows me to distinguish these folks from those of us in the general population. (Not everyone carries a loaded assault rifle and dresses in Goth or army fatigues.) Bob has not only identified the twenty, cardinal features that single out likely candidates; but has managed to demonstrate some rather interesting differences in the way these characters’ brains work when presented emotionally charged material. In a nutshell, it amounts for your average psychopath to reacting (at a cortical level) in about the same way whether you’re looking at Rembrandt or road kill. (Seen No Country For Old Men yet?)

But the truly telling feature is the absence of a little, very human feature called ‘empathy’. The everyman definition of empathy goes something like: ‘the capacity to understand and identify with another’s perspective; to experience the same feelings as another; putting oneself in another’s shoes’ . . . and so on. A slightly more discerning element is ‘the ability to accurately discriminate the emotional state / response of another (to one’s actions)’. And Bob has tossed us another curve in his most recent book, Snakes in Suits. These folks are not only walking around amongst us – but are so good at insinuating themselves into our good graces, are so superficially attractive to us that we actually welcome them, admire their 100 watt smiles, and are impressed by their firm hand shakes.

As is so often the case, Lynn’s eloquent homilies trigger lots of thought for me – just not always the bright and sunny ones. Her deconstruction of the metaphoric meanings of ‘salt’ – in particular, the “you may be the only gospel your neighbour reads” closing – really stuck with me; and sure enough, reflections on not only how we speak and conduct ourselves, whatever our best intentions might be – but also how these words and actions are perceived by those on the receiving end; how we are experienced by others, began to boil and bubble.

So what does all this have to do with the closet Ted Bundy’s lurking in the narthex? Well, in making this connection, partly it’s helpful to be inside the mind of a psychologist whose charge it is to spot and tag such specimens – although Nicola’s forever pointing out that “not everyone thinks like you!” (I can only assume that the unexpressed parenthetical is – “and a good thing, too”.) At the risk of being a bit too reductionist, a view commonly held (and seemingly supported by Hare’s research) is that ‘psychopaths are born, not made’. This is certainly not to say that this is strictly a nature (vs. nurture – you know, the genes we walk around with vs. the families that ‘brung us up’) issue. But essentially, the brain is subtly different in structure – and therein lies the root of many of those nasty little predispositions I’ve listed above. And that would include the capacity for empathy and it’s extension; namely our capacity to monitor the impact of what we say and do and to ‘read’ the impact these words and deeds have on those around us.

In short, if we accept the teachings of these extremes in behaviour, some of us can ‘see’ what we’re saying and the potential good (or ill) it might engender; and some of us can’t – all a function of the hard wiring we bring to the task. Some of us get stuck in the ‘rightness’ of our perspective and are really unable to get past the content of our ‘personal gospel’ (that our neighbours are reading). And some of us are better equipped to ‘take the temperature’ of the exchange, let go of the content to an extent, and adjust our ‘message’ – largely predicated on the reactions of that vulnerable and under-read neighbour. Some of us are pure teachers (in Lynn’s metaphor, the ‘book’ on this subject or that), secure in the knowledge that what we’re sharing and how it’s framed is, well, just what is. Some of us are endowed with a capacity to attend – in our empathic model, to listen to our words, our gospel and appreciate not just its message, but its impact, its reception. All a function of a little structure buried deep in our brain and one most of us would struggle to spell, much less pronounce: the Amygdala.

So as we venture ‘out there’, as Lynn homilized, as we carry our particular gospel to those next door, two blocks over, or beside us on the bus, let us be mindful of, let us be sensitive to – to the extent we are able – the ‘what’ we pass along and most particularly the ‘how’ we are heard. We forego, ignore, or are simply insensitive to the latter at our peril, alienating where we most wish to foster; disaffecting those we most wish to include. For we may indeed be the only gospel our neighbour reads.

David Howard

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Riddle

What has two legs, no head, can’t talk but speaks volumes?

Well, for St. James’, I would offer: The Sign.

For something relatively benign, excepting its digital chest, The Sign has been a flashpoint for controversy. Described as vulgar and ugly, objectively one cannot agree. For the most part, The Sign is not indecent, obscene, or lewd as vulgar is defined and perhaps intended by those using vulgar to describe The Sign.

However, given that vulgar does also mean current, popular or common, The Sign is that. Signage of this nature is very popular, current and commonplace. Just drive around this small city and count the number of signs that are now endowed with digital display. For that matter, just drive around any city and consciously absorb the signage. Signage and its advertising messages ‘now surround us everywhere on everything’. It is overwhelming. And perhaps, with respect to The Sign, that is the elephant in the room.

A market research firm called Yankelovich confirmed that people living in cities now see around 5000 advertisements everyday (Communications Revolutions 2007). Today’s consumers are reaching the marketing saturation point, as they grow a distinctive resistance and negativity towards advertisements (Greenspan 2004). Advertising is not working as well as it used to. We’ve entered the age of stimuli bombardment, visual saturation, sound bites and microscopic attention spans. The number of images and voices shouting for our attention has accelerated beyond critical mass, and the resulting explosion has fragmented the public mind. These mental filters are clearly the result of being bombarded with too many advertisements in such short periods of time. Perhaps it is also our lifestyles and pace that has brought these filters on as well; internet browsing can be thought to have trained users to quickly disregard uninteresting information and empty words. (Williams 2006).

Companies (read corporate bodies, of which the church is one) trying to market themselves and their products in today’s advertising saturated-environment are dealing with an absolute sensory overload. Companies are continually pushing their products harder in order to make them stand out; as each company continues to compete, the environment continues to swell with overload. This idea of information dumping or extreme repetition (which has resulted in this suffocating advertising environment) feels as if it is used by thousands of companies (Wettering 2004).

Consumer negativity towards advertising is growing at a rapid pace. Four years ago studies revealed that 65 % of people felt that they were suffocated by marketing messages and 61% felt that the volume of marketing messages in society was out of control. These results were significantly more negative a few years prior. So, today, another 4 years on, surely our disapproval towards the way we are constantly bombarded with advertisements is even more extreme. People even went so far as to say that they would be willing to lower their living standards or to pay for free media in order to escape all marketing and advertising. (Greenspan 2004).

And hence, I must surmise, the question by one of the more vocal objectors to The Sign: "If they’re allowed to have a digital sign, who’s next?” The local newspaper found this to be a curious question. However, within the context of the research stated above, the elephant moves in the room.

I wondered if the opponents to The Sign have truly searched their rooms for the elephant; their truth in this controversy. Having only identified a commonplace sign as the problem seems to indicate that their position is one of emotional reactivity.

The recent newspaper editorial states: “No doubt the committee that decided on the sign was looking for ways to ensure the church remains current and that parishioners and members of the public are aware of upcoming events that keep the church vital, spiritually and physically.” If there is truth in this statement, a troubling image of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ is conjured. Given the current research on this type of advertising, revealing the concern with the visual pollution created by the level of saturation intruding into daily life, one would wonder about the return on this type of investment. The U.S. Advertising Foundation has stated: “At the end of the day, the ability of the average consumer to even remember advertising 24 hours later is at the lowest level in the history of advertising.”

Unfortunately, The Sign passes the ‘duck test’ of advertising. It does not simply name the sacred place whereon it stands. Its proud chest apparently thrusts itself into the realm that, within our neighbours’ subconscious and in their truth, smacks of more visual pollution, clutter, intrusiveness, stimuli bombardment and the ‘commercialization’ of their surroundings.

I strongly disagree with the local newspaper editor. He states: "Much closer to home, the Anglican Church has its own fairly serious problems, which the editor seems to fixate on as the same-gender blessing motion. The challenge that the church, the body of Christ on the earth (not the bricks and mortar, not the denominations but you and me), faces today remains unchanged since ancient times. The challenge, we are reminded by the Book of Common Prayer, is:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love the neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

We are so focussed on the administration of the church, how to market it, how to get it out there and how to ‘get those numbers up and get those dollars in’ that I wonder if we have losing sight of the challenge. Through meeting the challenge of honouring these two great commandments, the ‘earned advertising’ is qualitatively superior.

Nicola Adair,

Web Scribe

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Spirituality Is Where You Find It

Joan Chittester describes spirituality as "unlike theology and all its explanations, what shows when no one is asking academic questions. Spirituality is the very fabric and texture of the soul. It does not explain religion, it demonstrates the presence of the sacred in life. In spirituality, we see awareness, reverence for life, globalism in miniature and the shadow of the magnetized heart. Spirituality is a holy search and in the searching, the way to conscience, to commitment and to nothing but the pursuit of truth is travelled." David Howard writes about his bittersweet last pilgrimage to an unlikely location:

“Down the highway through the cradle of the civil war; I'm going to Graceland, Graceland in Memphis Tennessee.” Paul Simon croons his tune of pilgrimage to the iconic former digs of Elvis. Not a likely destination for this pilgrim – but I do find myself in Lawrence Kansas; and for me the spiritual equivalent of Graceland. A longtime annual visitor to this storied town in eastern Kansas, I find myself here for potentially the last time. Home to a man I can easily call my principal mentor, I attend a bimonthly group he has facilitated for over twenty years (although for reasons of distance, I’m rarely here more than once a year). Without fear of exaggeration, it is this man’s guidance and gentle suggestion, teachings and wisdom, provision of opportunity to explore the truly difficult, conflicted and challenging issues that plague us all, insights, encouragement to cultivate a contemplative and meditative practice, that has sculpted the spiritual framework that has occupied for me mid-life to ‘young’ old age. And this is his last group.

To make the connection with Paul’s tune a little clearer, having visited Lawrence for some thirteen years and happening upon Ride with the Devil, TVO’s Saturday night film a few weeks back, I was a little taken aback by Nicola’s question (in response to the mention of the Lawrence Massacre – an 1863 retaliatory attack by Confederate sympathizers on the pro-Union Lawrence population by Quantrill’s Raiders among many others): “Is that your Lawrence?” and my lame reply: “I don’t know!” Indeed it is my Lawrence! A little research revealed that, in many ways this town was a cradle of the civil war – underscored in my morning run, bloody butt of Quantrill’s assault. And this is my pilgrimage.

Like many spiritual opportunities, while they can be experienced and appreciated anywhere, they are facilitated by certain venues, ‘sacred spaces’ if you will, and a community of like-minded folk. It always takes me a day or two to enter into a sufficiently receptive frame of mind; to distance from the routine that preoccupies and consumes the day-to-day in less conducive environments – nothing at all wrong with these spots, just a little difficult to extricate for less material concerns. The metaphor that floated up through my runner’s consciousness this morning was that of a flower’s gradual opening. (Well, I suppose technically that’s a simile – but only Marcus B and a few English profs would quibble over that one.) I arrive a tightly closed little pod, insulated from but also largely unaware of my surround. With opportunity to reflect in the presence of others similarly engaged, the petals start to unfold, first to the external beauties around me, then to dreams (like many I tend to see myself as ‘not dreaming’; when it’s more likely that I simply don’t take the time to attend), and finally to deeper connections, awarenesses, understandings. I suppose I could do this at Yonge and Bloor – but I not likely would. And so you might begin to see why the annual trek to this pretty little university town (in case one forgets, there are ample reminders that the Jayhawks took the NCAA basketball championship this year) on the banks of the Kaw River to sit with a group of now quite old, but ever so vital cronies – who have never shied away from making themselves and their truths available for all to consider, as they patiently and supportively listen to your’s.

This year’s trip is tinged with the sadness and uncertainty that must always accompany a transition, indeed a closing – especially one that will be hard pressed to find equal; and certainly never be replaced. The ten of us in attendance for this final act are some of the old guard, drawn from all corners of the US, from Florida to Texas to Virginia; with Rick and I the ‘Canadian reps’ – although our numbers could easily have been tripled if all who’d wished to come could have been accommodated. We sit around the group circle, ‘old style’ – pillows on the floor (no mean trick for a group with an average age of somewhere in the low 60’s). All bound by a few simple rules: tell one’s truth (or as much of it as feels safe); remain present; and above all, ‘trust the process’. This last bit, cryptic and succinct as it may seem, to my mind is the essence of personal and ultimately spiritual growth. It presumes a community that may be relied upon to place each other’s respective interests in a non-judgmental, supportive, receptive, and respectful light. It presumes a set of expectations that does not include ‘getting answers’ – only being granted a full opportunity to ask one’s questions, a forum to be fully heard (not judged, corrected, or advised). And it presumes that speaking aloud one’s dilemmas and enthusiasms, regrets and successes, witnessed in such a community, will advance and clarify, will provide direction, and, most importantly, be listened to – a rare occurrence in today’s world where many speak and few hear. I have found these elements to be in such short supply and indeed are so poorly understood by most conventional ‘communities’ that a 1600 km. ‘field trip’ once a year has been a small price to pay.

Neither is talk the only medium. Equally important is the silence. If I may appropriate: ‘Be still and know . . ; be still; be’ is something of a maxim easily adopted by this group. Morning sessions open with ten minutes of meditation – an opportunity to ‘stretch time’, slow down, in many ways honoring the Sabbath. And reflection is not limited to the group floor; morning runs along a stunningly beautiful levy, constructed against a not always so placid Kaw, offer the opportunity to the individual to open, to raise awareness, to see things more clearly, to find some gem that sets up the day, enriched – and not always solemn, without a twinkle. Yesterday, two foxes running along the path ahead of me; today a sign proclaiming the annual fund-raiser for breast cancer: “Bras Across the Kaw” – and stretching out before me, linked ‘hand in hand’ as it were and spanning the significant width of the river bridge were 408 bras. (Now I wouldn’t want one to presume that I was ‘running’ so slowly as to allow for such a careful count. I merely tallied the cups – and divided by 2!) Consciousness may be raised in any number of ways – and I daresay this display does get peoples’ attention.

As expected, the sub-text, the ‘elephant in the room’ of this final group is a sense of loss, dislocation, anxiety around ‘where to from here’ – as we say our goodbyes to a group of friends, to a community that has, without exaggeration, been the touchstone, the anchor, the home that this incredibly diverse group of sometime strangers has come to rely upon for all of the above gifts. Equally evident, and somewhat less expectedly is a profound sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to live in community, separated by thousands of kilometers and time – but bound nonetheless.

Spirituality is indeed where you find it. But you have to look.
David Howard

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Of Bullwinkle, Borg and Bardolph

News flash: Marcus Borg’s mentor revealed! Left to muse idly, mid-adult study group last Tuesday evening, I was struck by the eerie parallels between Dr. Borg’s scholarly re-visitation of the Bible (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time) and a long-dusty favorite of mine, Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History. For those readers over fifty, this may twig flashbacks to those Saturday morning beauties, the precursors to ‘adult cartoons’, long scooping the Simpsons and South Park: Dudley Do-right, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and of course, Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Borg’s contention – and probably the most significant point of suasion fostering my return from the wilderness – is that the Bible is an ‘historical – metaphorical’ document. Loosely interpreted, he (and many others of us) would opt to have these manuscripts read as quasi-historical accounts (on one level) and carefully crafted messages with a meaning (on another). Most adamantly, the Book is not intended to be experienced in any literal way. Hence the fundamentalist’s reactivity to his writings.

Epiphany had (the aforesaid parallel), a bit of buffing up on Marcus’ cartoon doppelganger (thanks to Andy’s Anachronisms, if you’re interested) confirmed what I’d suspected: Mr. Peabody and Dr. Borg are one in the same. In both cartoon and academic versions, our commonly accepted accounts of history, while ‘objectively accurate’, are shown to have been in great peril of turning out otherwise – without the intervention of some Johnny-come-lately’s (in one case Peabody and Sherman; in the other, some script writers penning the various Gospels).

To prevent the myopic William Tell from splitting son’s head instead of apple, Peabody inserts a magnet in said fruit attracting the (lethal) arrow, and ta-da, history is preserved (along with son’s skull). Matthew trots out Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”, and presto, Mary’s a virgin. True – I wonder? With truth and meaning – probably. To quote Mr. Andy: “Peabody and Sherman would discover that the reality of the past was not what the history books had made it out to be . . . and take it upon themselves to . . . set things right (ed note: and here’s the kicker) to keep history on the right track”.

With Tuesday’s session focusing on both a metaphorical as well as an historical appraisal of text, a task became reading various passages ‘for their deeper meaning’. Again Peabody anticipates: no episode would be complete without the sage puppy’s (always ostensibly for the studious Sherman’s benefit) pronouncement of the importance behind the ‘historical’ event, inevitably framed as a pun. (In Tell’s episode, Peabody notes that history has honored the poorly sighted dad by christening an ophthalmological disorder after him: television.) How close is this to Borg’s plea for a more lyrical, less literal meaning behind and supplementing the historic!

OK, OK, it’s a stretch – but it got me through Tuesday.

With tongue slightly removed from cheek, a second awareness for me flowed from Borg’s commentary on the ways in which parables are received – even by our fundamentalist brethren. No one reads these so-oft cited stories as literal truth. They’re seen as allegorical references, teaching points, metaphors. We sit in our lovely theatres in Stratford, engrossed in Hamlet, watching ‘the Mousetrap’ – a play within a play, designed to ‘catch the conscience of the king’. No one argues for an instant that this contrivance, orchestrated and manipulated by Hamlet to ‘make his point’ to the guilty Claudius, is ‘true’. Neither, however, do we, as members of the audience, removed not only from Hamlet’s little drama, but also the larger play staged before us – and despite having read of the ‘historical origins’ of the tragedy – see the Shakespearean production, its ‘container’ as ‘true’. This is entertainment; this is someone’s fictional account (based loosely on historic events) designed to make a point, to comment on cultural truths, to foster our self-examination, and on and on. But it is not ‘true’; it is not history.

Why then is it so easy to look at Good Samaritans, Mustard Seeds, or Prodigal Sons and see them as fables with a moral, metaphors for our edification. And yet so difficult to look at the Biblical text that contains these stories (the gospel writers’ accounts / playwrights’ drama) as something other than historic, literal ‘fact’. How different is the task and the product of a man, some eighty years removed from an event and its players (as was Matthew), writing, recalling, researching and with an agenda from that talented Elizabethan attempting to prick our consciences, proscribing and pronouncing in his own time. Perhaps we need to consider the parallels here as well: parables to plays-within-plays; Biblical ‘casts’ to actors on a stage, speaking lines pregnant with meaning; and always we, the audience, observers of the play and seekers of the deeper truth these stories (at both levels) carry.

Postscript: The ever-vigilant webscribe, in search of picture to accompany this piece, provides a bit of support for the ‘stretch’ of linking Peabody and things ecclesiastic: cf. (
David Howard

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

For the past several years, the first ten days in August has found me in England; as a choir groupie. I’ve had the good fortune to explore Winchester, Salisbury, Gloucester and, this year, Truro with the Cathedral Singers of Ontario. The choir’s focus is to sing daily evensong at an English cathedral for a week. Being in situ for a week gives one a good sense of the ethos of a community.

The choir has an axiom: The first cathedral that you visit is the one with which you will be most smitten. So, with a small amount of coercion, I convinced my pair of travel companions that we should make a brief stopover in Winchester en route to Truro. The sun was brilliant, the air warm, the gardens still beautiful, the refectory welcoming and the cathedral, well...yep, still in love with Winchester.

Using our onboard GPS (with newly purchased European maps uploaded prior to departure), we hustle down to Truro. I am excited about the opportunity to explore Truro and the surrounding areas’ gardens in this glorious weather!

By midweek, it was becoming obvious that venturing out without one’s umbrella and a rain jacket was plumb silly. By week’s end, I was convinced that moss was starting to grow on me; not because I was slow-moving, I was just always damp.

I had decided prior to the tour that I would attempt to attend the daily 8 a.m. Eucharist at the cathedral, along with the daily evensong. And, when the tour moved onto Buckfast Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Devon, I had also decided to attend as many of the hours of the daily office as time would permit.

The morning services at the cathedral were held in a different chapel each day. They were sparsely attended. There were two officiants. The morning service was a most peaceful, intimate way to start the day. The evensong, with gowned choir, elegant music accompanied by organ, and the beauty of the quire, was an exuberant and compelling end for the day. Meaningful bookends for the day were created by these services.

At Buckfast Abbey, the daily office consists of Vigils at 5:45 a.m., Lauds at 6:45 a.m., Eucharist at 8 a.m., Midday prayer at 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Vespers and finally Compline at 8:40 p.m.

I have to admit that, at that very first Vigils service, I wondered what was I doing there. I couldn’t discern what the barely-awake monks were saying, I could barely see them in the shallowly-lit quire and I had no idea when I should kneel, stand or otherwise. Not very many people sing well at that time of day; so we weren’t there for beautiful music either.

Nevertheless, I carried on with my personal commitment to attendance. By Compline, I was physically tired but absolutely smitten with Buckfast. I entered the darkened sanctuary for the last time of the day. It was easy to surrender my body to the pew and my mind to the quietness, because of the fatigue. The service was performed in darkness except for two candles in the quire. Again, I had no idea about the liturgy; I knew however that it was a very mystical experience for me. At the end, out of our pews we filed towards the Lady Chapel, following the monks. In the brilliantly-lit chapel, the monks sang a Marian antiphon, Salve Regina. Leaving in silence, Day 1 of honouring the daily office was complete; the sights and sounds of the day were whirling in my head in a confused but satisfying dance.

The bells signalled the call to each service. The next day found me frequently galloping to chapel, caught up in the busyness of being a tourist. Catching my breath, I found myself being thankful for the break from the secular. It felt centering and calming to stop the day to reflect on my relationship with God.

Back in Canada, shortly after our return, we ventured into Toronto and attended a Vespers service at the Oratory of St Philip Neri . Located on King St. West, it stands on a corner in a rough-around-the-edges section. We carefully put things away in our car; even more carefully tried to decipher the parking signage and made our way to the church.

Unlike Truro Cathedral or Buckfast Abbey, the interior of the oratory is bathed in light, even in late-summer, late-afternoon. The sanctuary is quietly filling with worshippers. The most diverse collection of parishioners that I’ve seen gathered anywhere. Caucasians, Asians, Afro-Americans, well-heeled, down-on-the-heels...just being in such a gathering was inspiration enough.

The Oratory prides itself on its liturgy (Latin Catholic) and its music (paid singers and glorious repertoire). The choreography is precise, even before the service starts. Priests and seminarians carefully prepare the chancel with well-rehearsed movement, all appearing calculated but in a reverential way.

The service has no English, no carefully worded worship guide and no direction from the officiants. Yet, everyone in the pews seems to know exactly where to go in the pew books or what to do. For us, it wasn’t a problem-we simply peered over the pew in front of us, or sat and knelt with the regulars or sometimes we did nothing...simply absorbed by the liturgy. It didn’t matter: it wasn’t a test. As we re-entered the Toronto streetscape, somehow, everything seemed softer, softened.

And then, this Wednesday morning, in the St James’ chapel, the mid-week Eucharist; Malcolm Wilson is presiding. Malcolm treats every aspect of this service with a joy, a gentleness and an appreciation, that causes simple gestures to become graceful but not contrived; words are spoken as if they were wee, tiny babes-to be carefully and gently cradled. At several points, he is required to kneel at the altar. I always watch this gesture with deepest respect: when Malcolm’s knees hit the floor, their thud is a clear ‘Amen’. I’m not sure what I feel most blessed by with his closing benediction: his smile or his beautiful expression of the words. Needless to say, by the time I walk through the chapel doors and into the waiting world, I feel as though I have been in the mystery and mystic space that liturgy can create.

So what?

For me, I had my summer vacation confirm for me, once again, a few things. One: that regular worship is worth making space for. And by regular worship, I mean more than Sunday worship. The cathedral, abbey and oratory that I visited all have daily services. The liturgy is not re-invented for each service; it follows century-old order. There doesn’t have to be a Eucharist at every service; there doesn’t have to be singing. Truth be told, there doesn’t have to be anything, really, just access to the space and quiet contemplative time.

It also reminded me that we spend so much time following the worship guide, caught up in the page that we should be on, that perhaps, we lose sight of the fact that what matters more is not where the page is but where the heart and mind are in the liturgy. It’s not a test. For me, the lack of a worship guide, is maybe a good thing...I can’t be distracted by it.

What I did on my summer vacation was to spend a fair amount of time mindfully exploring how we worship. The more that I did, the more satisfied, calm and peaceful I felt. In my mind’s eye, I can see early morning Eucharist in the Jesus Chapel in Truro Cathedral, I can hear the monks chanting in Buckfast Abbey; I can see the young priest setting the altar in the Oratory and I can hear Malcolm’s knees thump the floor: Soli Deo Gloria.
The Web Scribe

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ora et Labora

Prayer has never been easy for me. My first recollection of how to pray comes from the print images of apple-cheeked cherubs in very crisp pajamas kneeling beside their beds, saying their bedtime prayers. Okay, so that’s what you do. Even as a small person, it never seemed natural or authentic. A rote recitation of someone else’s words to an authoritarian somebody with whom I would never shake hands. Despite many, many starts, it never lasted.

I don’t recall discussing prayer during confirmation classes. Time was spent on learning the Lutheran ‘codex’: the ten commandments, the apostles’ creed, the Lord’s prayer, the two sacraments and the office of the keys...all through the lens of Martin Luther. Prayer was what Pastor Gastmeier said and we answered, “amen”. And, after confirmation classes ended and adolescence beckoned, prayer was what was done at mealtimes and in church on Sunday. Amen.

Fast forward four decades. Prayer has become a question that is being wrestled with, willingly and happily. So, for now, whenever and wherever I pray, I choose to think about prayer, in that place and time, as it relates to my evolving understanding of prayer.

For example, intercessory prayer has become a vehicle for me to meditate on the needs of those on whose behalf intercessions are being made. I cannot reconcile my understanding of the Trinity with making specific requests on the behalf of others and expecting favourable outcomes from God . What I can understand is holding the needs of those for whom we pray in my head and heart, questioning what my role in the request could be and then giving the request over to the mystery of faith.

Centering prayer has become a twice-daily (in the best of times) pause that stills my mind (in the best of times) as I sit in the silent mystery of faith. It is yet another example of paradox: it is so simple in concept but extremely difficult to master; it is so beneficial but so easy to miss a session; it is as old as time but new to the modern church.

St Augustine said that when we sing, we are praying twice. (Well, I had always thought that Luther had said that first. I was told that by another Lutheran, a long time ago, as an explanation why Lutherans consider themselves “The Singing Church”. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the phrase had been coined at least a thousand years earlier than Luther!) Thus, when I am singing hymns, I try to concentrate on the words carefully and on the way that I am singing, that I sing with ardour (sorry, pew neighbours!). Surprisingly, Sunday’s hymns will echo at the oddest moments, later in the week.

And today; it was my turn to prepare a meal for Carol. Since receiving the call from Marie Jones, I have anticipated what I would prepare while reflecting on Carol and her sister Jane during this important time in both of their lives. My food preparation was a prayer for both of them; labora et ora intertwined.

The thoughts about prayer surfaced as I made my way through the familiar recipe. Blog material, I said knowing that a blog deadline was staring me in the face. When the stew had finally reached its simmer, I took a break and checked our mailbox. In with the bills and admail was my first edition of “The Monastic Way”, a monthly publication with daily reflections by Joan Chittester, a bestselling author, an international lecturer, a leading voice in contemporary spirituality and a Benedictine nun. The cover page had a beautiful photograph of a cathedral window; below it was the following saying: “Never pray in a room without windows”, The Talmud. Hmmm. I open the edition and read the month’s essay: “Pray into the Fullness of Life”. It was one of those moments of synchronicity that catches you and holds you for awhile.

I share her essay with you.

Pray into the Fullness of Life by Joan Chittester, OSB

When I was a young nun, I spent a lot of time watching the older sisters in chapel. When community prayer was over, and the chapel lights went dim, some of them simply settled back in their pew in a kind of comfortable presence. No prayer book in hand, no spiritual reading book in front of them.

Others of them began the round of the Stations of the Cross, their faces barely lit but clearly intense as they moved from one to another of the wall hangings depicting the journey of Jesus to the cross.

A few stayed kneeling, rosaries in hand, the beads flying.

A few of the very eldest climbed the stairs to the gallery, sat in the dark and simply whispered their prayers out loud.

At one period in my life, I thought those prayers were the elementary ones, that the community’s praying of the Divine Office was the “real prayer’. As the years went by and I got more seasoned spiritually, I began to realize that the intensity of those “simple” prayers could only come out of a life lived in God. These were the prayers that led each of them, day after day, however differently, both into the Mind of God and the soul of life. I learned, too, that there is no one right way to pray.

The fact is that prayer is one of the most elusive concepts in the Christian lexicon.

Prayer has styles and stages, formats and prayer forms, both official and unofficial. It has been a problem-and a solution for eons. Prayer is both natural- “Oh, dear God, please help me!” and formal –“First joyful mystery: The Annunciation.” People who pray all the time often say they don’t know how to pray. And people who never pray formally, often say that they feel like they are praying all the time. So what do we make of all of this?

Formal prayers-Church prayers-carry the theology of the church about who God is. They teach us what the sacraments are about and what we seek to be in life as a community in search of the Living God.

Personal prayer, on the other hand, is about our own struggles and questions and doubts and spiritual maturation as we go through life.

But underneath it all is the real concern and purpose of prayer: The question is not whether or not God is with us; the concern is whether or not we are really with God. Aware of God. Open to God’s action in our life. Alert to the presence of God in this moment, whatever its nature, however it feels.

A personal prayer life has many styles. Some people say one rosary after another. Others join prayer groups. Some go to monasteries and pray the hours with the monastics there. For some, daily Mass is the core of their spiritual life. Many others spend hours a day and years of their life sitting in deep, Centering Prayer, emptied of all forms whatsoever, simply alive to the voice of God within.

After years of studying prayer and prayer forms, official and unofficial, what I saw in the lives of elderly sisters, I began to see as the great secret of prayer: and at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter which of these styles we practice. None of them are “better” in the qualitative sense than any other. It all depends on which prayer style best fits our own personal style of life and thought and personality and sense of union with God on earth.

The only thing that really counts is a regular, unending, intense, centred relation with God, here and now, which shapes our lives and converts our hearts to good, to the world, to being the hands and hearts of the God who made us so that we would continue what creation began.


The Web Scribe

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Geology of Relationship

This past Sunday’s homily took me back to second year at Western – and my ensuing love affair with (to understate it) that most esoteric of topics, plate tectonics. Then, as now, students were in need of ancillary classes (aka ‘bird courses’) to flesh out their schedule and to complete requirements for graduation. The task, of course, was to find a class or two that required little (read, ‘no’) work, little (read, ‘as little as possible’) attendance, and certainly no additional reading – essentially padding one’s transcript and leaving room for ‘applying’ oneself to the more important issues (whatever they might be!). Little did I know that Geophysics 21 would provide me with perhaps the most interesting eight months of academics I would encounter in my rather protracted career in same – and the most enduring metaphor for relationship I have yet to unearth (as it were).

To expand slightly on Lorne’s imagery, the globe’s surface is not the static, predictable shell that we would hope. It’s a dynamic, shifting, decidedly mobile, and unpredictable collection of ‘plates’ rather more like a suit of armour than an immobile crust encasing our planet. These float over (and under) each other – and occasionally getting ‘stuck’ on each other, to the extent that they grind and grate, one against the other (starting to sound like relationship), eventually freeing themselves – often with catastrophic results – to carry on their journey. In the geophysical world, it’s called an earthquake; in the realm of relationship, it’s called a fight or a riot or . . . a war.

Nicola and I were fortunate enough to take in a performance of Palmer Park last weekend at the Studio Theatre. Our fourth play in eight nights, it had to be good to keep our attention. (Fortunately we’d seen Cabaret when we were better rested because, well . . . it didn’t!) As some of you may know, Park explores the failed efforts of four, racially mixed couples to cultivate ‘sustainable integration’ in a well-to-do, inner city neighbourhood in late 1960’s Detroit, immediately following the race riots in that city. As compelling as the acting and writing of this piece may have been, its lens was a little too close to the action, singling out race as the ‘active ingredient’. Rather like blaming San Franciscans for being the cause of their earthquakes.

The production frames itself as a ‘requiem’, lamenting the short-term failure of such attempts – and making its shop-worn pleas to deal with prejudice. In fact, what the play illustrates most clearly (evidently without intending it) is the result of juxtaposing two very powerful forces, in extremely close proximity, and moving in opposite directions: be these forces of race, or class (as was more centrally the case in this production), or religion. Again what is most eloquently (and I fear, accidentally) portrayed is the precariousness of living on a ‘fault line’; and the arrogance that we may, by force of will or good intention, ‘overcome’ these natural elements.

Back to those pesky plates! As with our global geology, an essential problem in a relationship that has begun to feel adversarial and/or oppositional is not that we are standing toe to toe, locked in an impasse – although it certainly feels that way when we are in strong disagreement with someone or -ones. But rather that our natural movement, our right to ‘flow’ in the direction we have chosen has been not so much blocked but ‘lodged’, stuck on someone else’s bias or belief system or need set. To the principles it all feels the same: stuck or nose to nose, what’s the difference?

As it turns out, a lot. As long as the confrontation is framed as a standoff or gridlock, nothing changes. The only ‘solution’ is what is commonly referred to as a win-lose – one having to give way, to capitulate so the other can have his, her, or their way. Lovely prescription for resentment. And that old saw, compromise, doesn’t really leave a much better taste. Turns out people are, in every sense of the words, creatures of habit; the only thing that feels OK is to be allowed to continue with their personal flow and anything short of same is, well, a compromise. The tendency in these situations then is to foster ‘black and white’, ‘all or none’, ‘my way or the highway’ solutions. In the case of one’s affiliation with a church that translates too often into an ‘in or out’ decision.

A central theme of Lorne’s homily was that of cultivating our relationship with God – and the impediments (‘mountains’) that may subvert or block this connection from growing or perhaps even forming at all. Framed slightly differently, I expect many of us (if I may presume) are ‘stuck’ on some aspects of formal expressions of faith, commitment; even relevance and credibility. Flipping through the BCP in a ‘reflective’ (read, distracted) moment, I stumbled on the XXXIX Articles of Religion nestled quietly between the Original Prefaces and the Creed of St. Athanasius (not a household name as far as I know); page 698, if interested. I began to scan these frankly rigid, arcane, and polarized ‘declarations of belief’ and realized, with something of a start, that I don’t really believe (nor can I even remotely come close to accepting) many, if any of these ‘position statements’.

So what’s a body to do? Increasingly, I fear, the answer, simplistic, maybe impulsive, always without nuance or consideration, is to leave the building. Sounds a lot like moving out of the neighbourhood when that first black (or white or yellow) family moves in. Perhaps it’s time to take a lesson from something a wee bit older than organized religion: again, those persistent plates – here since the dawn of time (literally) and somehow continuing to coexist, reshaping the topography of our earth, relentless, patient, enduring. Reframing the concern – accept and recite, or be gone – as one of restoring ‘freedom of movement’ within a congregation then becomes a task of addressing the particular belief structures of (despite the fact that we’re all Anglicans) a quite heterogeneous population of parishioners; accommodating the diversity that spans the gamut from conservative literalist to metaphoric liberal. A tall order to be sure. But one that invites the restoration of ‘flow’ – in whatever direction that may take the individual, within the greater context of a church, a world.

David Howard

Friday, August 15, 2008

What is the Purpose of Life?

Elora Festival Sermon
Dr. Jay Baker
July 27, 2008

Where else in southern Ontario or in all Christendom for that matter would you have to arrive at church half an hour early in the middle of July to be assured of a seat. Such is part of the miracle that is Elora. I want to thank the rector for asking me back to preach a second sermon from this pulpit and I issue the same disclaimer I did on the first occasion. Being a family physician for 32 years, a coroner, and a chorister provide absolutely no credentials for preaching, and while being Chair of the Elora Festival and Singers has certainly increased the frequency and fervency of my prayers it adds not a jot or tittle to the rest. That said: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable to thee my strength and my redeemer.

I take as my text several verses of Psalm 8, the psalm appointed for today:

When I consider thy heavens, even the work of thy fingers; the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that thou visitest him. Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and dost crown him with glory and worship. Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; and thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet.

Abraham Lincoln once said: I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon earth and be an atheist but I cannot conceive how he could look upon into the heavens and say there is no God.

The first part of the psalm talks about God as creator of the universe. Here is the young David out under the stars watching his sheep. The air then would not have been darkened and polluted with smog and there would not have been streetlights to obscure the brilliance of the stars. He felt as we all have felt, perhaps standing in cottage country, under the stars overcome with a sense of mystery and awe. But the universe that the psalmist gazed up at was conceptually much smaller than that of which WE are aware. If the psalmist felt insignificant how should we feel. The Hubble telescope recently recorded the birth of a star. The photo shows a cloud of gas 170 000 light years away. In other words it would take 170 000 years traveling at the speed of light to reach it at a distance of 102 with 18 zeros miles or 102 quintillion miles. It is estimated that there are 10 billion galaxies in our universe with each galaxy containing 100 billion stars - David did not know the meaning of insignificance!

In the sight of a God who could make a universe like that, why should He care about us? In Genesis 1 vs 26 we read what God said: let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.

What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Contrary to what you may have heard God really is not some omnipotent clone of Noel Edison or even Robert Hulse. All thinking about God has to be tentative and open ended. We cannot fully understand his being and nature for that would tend to limit Him and surely we would not wish to be Children of a Lesser God. Most people in this country when asked still say they believe in God. And while they are less certain when it comes to the details of that belief, any God worthy of the name must remain beyond reason’s grasp. Martin Luther, when asked why he believed in God answered that he could do no other. He was compelled to believe and that compulsion came both from the heart and the head, the intuitive and the logical. Dr. William Osler arguably Canada’s greatest clinician said: Faith is the one greatest moving force which we can neither weigh in the balance nor test in the crucible.

Surely it takes more faith to believe that everything from the genius of Mozart and Shakespeare to the complexity of the human body to the glory of a fall day in Algonquin Park is the result of a random series of mindless purposeless events which mean nothing and go nowhere. Everyone’s favorite detective Sherlock Holmes is forever telling Watson that: When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth; or on another occasion improbable as it is, all other explanations are more improbable still.

Half a century ago the idea that God created the universe out of nothing was ridiculed by scientists but in modern quantum physics and astrophysics we learn that this is happening all the time. Modern science now postulates that the universe began as a cosmic singularity with all mass and energy compacted into a single point and then exploding in the Big Bang. Surely there are parallels between this and Gods utterance: Let there be light. The fact that it took millions of years for humans to evolve from the rest of the animals makes it no less marvelous or no less God driven than an instantaneous arising from the dust. And as we read in psalm 90: A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past. God’s time is not our time.

Is it just chance that the size of the earth, the distance from the sun, the makeup of our atmosphere, the thickness of the earth’s crust, the magnetic fields of the earth, the tilt of the earth, the speed of rotation of the earth and the length of its orbit are all optimum for life on earth? And if varied slightly would preclude such life from ever developing.

Is it just chance that provided that most plants require carbon dioxide to survive and give off oxygen while we require oxygen to survive and give off carbon dioxide. Just chance that narcotics derived from the poppy can control our pain, aspirin from the willow bark treats our inflammation , digitalis from the foxglove strengthens our heart and penicillin from bread mould cures infection? The complex and precarious symbiosis of our ecosystem is truly awe inspiring.

Albert Einstein once said: Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that behind all the discernible laws, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. He continues; The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly, this is my religion. Stephen Hawking the Einstein of our generation adds: It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.

What is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him?

Shakespeare almost paraphrases the psalm in one of Hamlet’s soliloquies. What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel; in apprehension how like a god.

I believe that being made in the image of God means sharing his creative power - to be able to create and understand the images and sonorities of art, to be able to engage in abstract thinking, to be able to distinguish between good and evil and to have the ability to make moral judgements. Right and wrong to a believer must have an objective reality beyond what is useful to the majority. In short being made in the image of God means to have the wherewithal to invent, discover, refine and perfect all of the endeavours of the species Homo Sapiens throughout the ages. The human spirit is that part of us that is able to love and experience God directly and is found in no other species. Man has a unique relationship with God. Scientists have even found what has been called a God gene. The idea is that spirituality has an innate genetic component to it. Humans inherit a predisposition to be spiritual, to reach out and look for a higher being. It strikes me that any God omnipotent and omniscient as we would have him be, neither needs nor covets our constant attention and worship. Perhaps Christ gave us the first and great commandment, to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength, to answer our need to give our ultimate allegiance to some higher power.

Today’s epistle came from Romans 8 where we read: The spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God; and if children, then heirs; heirs of God.

And in 1st Corinthians 3:16 we read: Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and the spirit of God dwelleth within you?

If the spirit of God is within us and we are children of God then we all possess a spark of the creative divine. Man was to be the instrument by which God would do his work in the world and the expression of the being and character of God

What is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him?

We cannot all be Einsteins or Shakespeares or Mozarts or Robert Evans or Michelangelos or John Kissicks or Kiri Te Kanewas or Noel Edisons or Martin Luthers or Martin Luther Kings. We do however all have gifts and talents and our response to accepting our position as a child of God created in the image of God must be to make the best use of gifts that we have been given.

The psalm concludes by saying that God has given us dominion over all the works of His hands and has put all creation under our feet but surely not for us to trample on. Instead of running creation we are ruining it. In the past we have caused the extinction of untold numbers of species, we have razed and burned great swaths of the earth, we have spilled oil that has killed countless creatures in the sea and we have belched sulphurous fumes causing birds to fall from the sky and people to develop cancer and that now threatens profound climate change around the globe and perhaps our very survival as a species. Far too late we are finally coming to grips with the downside of the industrial revolution and modern society’s demands for instant gratification.

What is the purpose of life? I bet you didn’t think you would get the answers to that question today! We have been put in charge of this cosmos to tend and keep and rule it on God’s behalf so that we can protect, appreciate and celebrate the glorious work of the creator. God intends us to work in synergy with the powers of the universe but allows us to know the joy of true freedom the freedom to stumble and the freedom to make mistakes in order to attain maturity as true children of God. Let us hope we are not too slow at learning.

What is man that thou art mindful of him and the son of man that thou visitest him?

That thou shouldst so delight in me and be the God thou art;
Is darkness to my intellect, but sunshine to my heart.


Friday, August 1, 2008

Who's Your Church?

I’ve always been a John – as it were. Despite my mother’s best efforts to have me haled by my given name, David, the world has consistently conspired to make me a John. I’ve managed to avoid the police lineups and the small town newspaper’s court columns (usually associated with those so ‘christened’) – but beyond that, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to being John. (A close second, of course, being the man with two – three if you count the middle one – first names, is Howard. In those take ‘em by surprise moments, acquaintances of some years revert to the ‘hi Howard’ – but I can live with that too.) My college roommate, John Macmillan, and I apparently exchange monikers early on in first year. Evidently not a one-off.

It certainly didn’t help that at my first real job at Stratford General, I was preceded by John Howard. How confusing was that for folks already predisposed to that salutive tic? Aside from ordering a few extra blood tests and fielding calls from time to time from salesman pushing lab supplies instead of psychological tests, no real fallout from that one either. Ever the leader in this informal dyad, John, however, jumped the name queue by some years in the second incarnation of our relationship, he a long time member of St. James. (Funny, nobody’s called Nicola Sheila yet – but that’s another story.) Lorne+’s first call to our household opened with, you guessed it, ‘hello John, this is. . .’ I can cut him a little slack, already having the neural pathways well-trodden with his long time parishioner’s name. I have to say though that, at sixty plus, Jim MacDougal’s greeting ‘in kind’ did give me pause. Hard on the heels of our neighbours inviting ‘John and Nicola’ to an evening of music with close friends from the street. Johnny Cash’s closing to one of his signature (poor choice of words, that) tunes – “Call me Bill or Bob or . . . anything but Sue!” started to carry new meaning. I’m sure folks were always mixing up John and Jesus as well. Beards, sandals, hanging out with a suspect crowd. Must have been no end of irritation!

And so to the point – I suppose there is one. I was cruising through the Weekend Globe a while back and stumbled on a derivative piece around Richard Florida’s book, the darling of U of T’s new ‘Prosperity Institute’. In Who’s Your City?, he maintains that folks tend to collect in certain geographic areas congruent or consistent with their personality types. Extroverts evidently populate the Eastern Seaboard. Neurotics the Northeast; conscientious folk the Southeast; and (surprise, surprise) Open-to-Experience people the West Coast – I personally have never heard that California is the fountain head of all things fringe and flakey!

We’d gone through ‘round 1’ of Ed Leidel (VIP – Values, Identity, Purpose) and were poised for the second visit wherein the identity of St. James would be sussed out. So, having our values clarified (accepting, questing, safe, and service-driven), I was indeed curious, against Mr. Florida’s background commentary, just ‘who’ we would be deemed to be. Nicola’s blog (preceding) has taken a look at the point Ed had suggested first considering: who is the patron saint and what’s he embody? So far, so good.

I have to say that small group, meeting at the end of May, nailed it. The signature ambivalence of the Anglican community was named – well, maybe not actually named, but certainly drawn in sufficiently clear terms to be identified in a closet at midnight with the door closed and the light off. St. James is female (oh, wait for it – here comes the ambivalence) – but with strong male characteristics. The church is remarkably similar – but diverse. She / he is middle-aged, but still behaving as if she’s (he’s) thirty. She / he dresses up (and down); likes the current CBC (in passing, anyone who has listened to the ‘vibrant, new CBC’ radio 1 and 2 cannot possibly have missed that the brain trust behind this dog’s breakfast of identity crisis – talk about trying to be 30 when it’s 50! – does indeed share a great deal with our current, fence-sitting, navel-gazing, ambivalent community which seems enamoured of the idea of being all things to all people); and drinks Scotch (well thank the wee man for small mercies). And her name (I guess the male parts, as it were, got 86’d at some point) is Jamie! So we’ve got a trans-gendered, cross-dressing, mid-life crisis ridden drinker as the personality. Oh dear. Richard would have something to say about this I’m sure.

I thought my identity crisis was crippling – but maybe I’ll just go back to being a John.
Definitely the views of the Web Master (and not his Scribe)!

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Feast of Saint James

25 July is the feast day of the patron saint of our parish, Saint James the Greater. As such, I felt somewhat obliged to learn more about the man who inspired the founders of our church to name the parish in his honour.

James bar-Zebedee was a man of critical events. He was first to be called a disciple, along with his brother John. These two brothers, along with Peter, witnessed the Transfiguration of our Lord. He witnessed the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (I was unaware of Peter’s marriage) and the raising of the daughter of Jairus. Jesus summoned James to pray along with him in Gethsemane’s garden on the night of the great betrayal. Imagine witnessing one of these events?

I wonder if Jesus knew about the personality of James before he selected him as a disciple. Given that Jesus nicknamed James and John the “sons of thunder” my imagination is stirred with images of fiery, loud, impulsively passionate workers. James wanted a hostile Samaritan village ruined by heavenly fire invoked by Jesus.

The end of James was dramatically predicted by Jesus. When the bar-Zebedee boys asked Jesus for a special place of honour in the Kingdom, the response was that a place of suffering is that place of honour. James was beheaded in the 40’s of the Common Era by the grandson of the Herod who has been attributed with attempting to have Jesus the Infant killed. James was the first disciple to be martyred.

After the first Pentecost, James went to Spain and preached the gospel. And, apparently, this is the origin of the mythical elements of the veneration of St James. The body of James was carried back to Spain and interred at Santiago de Compostela. The story goes that a rider on horseback saw the ship carrying the saint and attempted to swim out to the ship. Rider and horse sunk in the attempt before miraculously rising covered in scallop shells.

Thus, the symbols attached to our patron saint are a scallop shell, a pilgrim hat, a sword, the sacred scripture. Artists often depict him on horseback. James is also the patron saint of Spain, equestrians, veterinarians, blacksmiths and tanners.

For myself, I prefer the literal James who is recorded in the New Testament; a man so passionate about his faith that Jesus includes him in the inner circle. The best thing that I can attribute to the mythical saint is a wonderful dish, Coquilles St. Jacques...shells of St. James. Here’s a thought: let’s honour our patron saint with a Coquilles St. Jacques feast...what a fundraiser! I can almost smell the garlic and gruyere now; baquette, white wine, a tantalizing green salad, some medieval pilgrimage songs, re-enacting the horse and rider story in the Avon River...sign me up!

The Web Scribe

Friday, July 18, 2008

Take Your Seats

When we take the seat, we become our own monastery. We create the compassionate space that allows for the arising of all things. So Jack Kornfield (A Path With Heart) begins his chapter on preparing to worship – or, in his lexicon, to meditate. Jon Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are) continues with his thoughts on the same topic: there is a strong sense of honouring place and placement of body and mind and moment (as we take our seat).

To the uninitiated, the un-mindful, perhaps even the disrespectful, the time (and space) before ritual is just that – room to chatter, to finish up last minute bits of business, to diffuse the nervous energy that sadly pervades our culture when its occupants are confronted with silence. I sit in theatre as the ‘show is about to begin’ and am amazed, make that appalled, by the residual ‘chitch’ (as a colleague is fond of naming idle prattle) that floats in the air once the lights are dimmed and Richard (or James or whoever chastens the noisy patrons to shut off the watch alarms and cell phones) has intoned his solemn prohibition. I (used to) stand at the start of a foot race and hear incidental accounts of last night’s pasta feed, the projected splits for two, five and eight K, the commentary on Mary’s new shoes – all intruding on the attempt to centre, focus, ground, to set fully for an important (in those days) ritual.

The capacity to listen unspeaking and indeed, to respect the individual’s need to prepare him/herself for ceremony has sadly been lost to the compulsive urgency to ‘communicate’. With the latest ‘innovation’ in communication technology –- whatever version of I-phone we’re now up to – the Globe & Mail reported text messaging to have increased ten fold in the past few years. I am passed by all manner of pedestrians (and cyclists!), oblivious to their surround, bent forward, sending or receiving what I can only assume to be mindless and largely unnecessary bits of dialogue, text. That Blackberries are now more aptly described as ‘crackberries’, that PDA-free zones are being established in resorts, and cell phones use banned or limited in a variety of venues bear testament to the near-addictive, ubiquitous, and frowned upon nature of these compulsions.

At a gathering of friends recently, a serendipitous set of circumstances thrust us all into five (seemed like fifty-five) minutes of unplanned silence. As an opening to the evening, several of us had been assigned ‘roles’ within a ‘modified liturgy’ – with the expectation that as one finished another would take up the baton. As luck would have it, not all shared the same ‘script’ – injecting a protracted ‘gap’ into the sequence. It was not long before fidgeting commenced, watches were covertly eyed, nervous glances cast at the next (presumed) presenter, himself sublimely oblivious to the ‘order of service’. Ultimately our host provided the requisite nudge to get things going again – but not before those present had opportunity to move through a surprisingly complex sequence of thought – given that ‘nothing’ was going on: an expected moment of reflection?; is it my turn?; is this a test of some sort? And with it the chance to share responses to the experience. We broke into two camps: those whose discomfort grew as the seconds ticked by, needing to scratch that compulsive itch (to speak); and those who settled into a resolve of sorts, bent on embracing the time and ‘emptiness’ for reverie – a preparation for the balance of the evening.

Like the sacred bow as one prepares for practice, settling, ‘taking one’s seat’ to begin service – be it a ‘full Sunday event’ or simple gathering in chapel, shared (what’s that expression) ‘where two or three are gathered together’ – is part and parcel of the sacred space, the reverential preparation for a special event. I suppose I can and should (no, I needn’t go that far) tolerate the public compulsion, the twitch to check that incoming text message, email, or phone call – wherever, whenever, and in whose ever presence.

What is becoming difficult to countenance is the incipient ‘chitch’ encroaching upon sacred events, space, and times, creeping in and squeezing these very core elements into a corner that diminishes the experience for the participants and the respect for the ritual. I expect a chapel to be a ‘no fly zone’ for those very, very brief periods through the week when a sacred event is not only in progress – but is being prepared for. I would hope that the silence that precedes a service is treated with like deference to that afforded silent prayer, interpolated into that service. A practice that I have long valued is the sounding of the tingsha, little brass cymbals whose resonant, lingering tone calls participants to collect themselves – and by implication, to fall silent. Perhaps that’s what those church bells mean?
David Howard