Reemergence and the Risk of Community

I stand corrected.

With my first foray into central Saskatchewan I witnessed a part of the Province at once unexpected and lush. I now retract all those youthfully snide comments I made as a boy every time I came to Saskatchewan and proclaimed it the flattest, most featureless place I’d ever seen.

Prince Albert in particular, where I had gone to preach at a sister church, was surprising. Understated and pastoral, she offered herself to me in all her “boreal transition forest” splendour. A landscape not terribly unlike the north of England quietly strut her stuff and I was impressed.

Saskatchewan, I apologize. I was a kid; ignorant, wrong. You are gorgeous. As were the good folks of Gateway Covenant Church with whom I shared and among whom I lived for a couple days. What follows is the edited version of my sermon with some music from our service on Sunday, August 8th, 2021.

Don’t make the mistake I made when I was growing up and decide something is the sum total of one’s limited experience. Wait. It just might surprise you!

I continue to be amazed at the generosity of friends and total strangers alike as they sign on as partners for our upcoming ministry to the UK with Serve Globally of the Evangelical Covenant Church. See below how you can do so, too.

For our American friends.

For our Canadian friends.

Grace and peace to you all!

Re-emergence – A Prayer

Found at iStock

Lord of all good things, through squinted eyes we peer into our great unknown and, with expectant hearts, step trustingly ahead.

One step, then two – three? How many?

We long for each other, for the smell of another’s presence, their touch on our sleeve. We timidly reach out to embrace those from whom we’ve distanced. Even strangers seem less intimidating somehow!

Oh, to feel the sacred solidity of body squeezing body, one heart next to another’s, in real time.

Are we safe yet, Lord?  

Regathering has seemed like a waking dream. Our computer screens show faces, beautiful and wrinkled, tawny and taut, smiling and praying, laughing and weeping.

But, for love of neighbour we’ve masked those faces…until now. We hid our faces for safety. We unhide now, in hope that we remain safe, but sharing what always lay beneath, stifled and waiting.

Like groundhogs reemerging into Spring from endless Winter, we do so a little wary, weary, eyes still heavy from pandemic sleep. Dare we to stretch? To yawn deeply and draw into our longing lungs the languid, lazy air?

Stories shared across tables are always better. Songs sung shoulder to shoulder always sound richer, more melodious. Prayers are always more real holding another’s hand, fingerprints and sweat intermingled with faith. Coffee tastes deeper when we smell it on another’s breath.

Lord, how long? Do we risk those very souls we love with our “return to normal”? What is appropriate? Best? Our loneliness battles our concerns, and we waffle. Then, in a burst of damn-the-torpedoes we gather, only to feel guilty a little. Afraid a little. Lord, how long?

Lord, we remember what each other feels like. Do you?

Take us, again, into the brightness of each other.

Quaranthings 2: Pandemia, Paragraphs, Potential, Prayers & Plans

Alliterations are overly cute. Easy, usable, memorable, but let’s face it, they are the wheelhouse of preachers, presenters, and Presidents everywhere.

Damn, I did it again!

Acronyms (Any Collection Randomly Ordering Numerous Yammering Multiple Syllables) are their crazy uncle. I cannot promise they won’t show up any more. But this should give you an idea of what can happen when writers have too much time on their hands and are still convinced they have interesting things to say.

With that as prelude, I give you: Quaranthings 2.

Pandemia

Strange and wonderful things happen when we step away, willingly or otherwise, from the standard practices of our overheated lives. At the beginning of this pandemic (yes, it is still stubbornly hanging around) we had as much curiosity as we did anxiety about how this thing would play out. We did what normal adults do. We hoarded all the Pringles and toilet paper we could carry. Ironic, as it seems to me the two are related. Governments did what governments do: absolutely nothing, or too much of everything, and we citizens rose to the challenge of challenging everything we could at every turn.

To some, the ‘rona’ is just one big, global sniffle and all the dead folks just complained too much. To others, it was a sign of the apocalypse brought on by Reagan or Trump or corporate America. To everyone, it was the forced resignation that business as usual would not be business as usual, whatever that would ultimately mean.

Well, I do not pretend to pontificate us into any semblance of meaning here. Nor can I offer much by way of socio-cultural answers. All I can do is repeatedly express my sadness at what many have lost, my humble gratitude that we have somehow missed those losses personally, and my intention to assist others where I can to overcome their own pain and discouragement in this chaotic time.

What I can say with confidence is that this pandemic has forced two things from me: self-examination and a more outward focus by way of the same. To do such an examination carefully and honestly reveals a late-middle aged, well-educated, white, Protestant male. I have all the “right” qualifications to weather most storms because those cultural credentials are writ large everywhere I go. I’m “in” and likely do not face the same baffling set of crises faced by many of my contemporaries unfortunate enough to possess “different” credentials.

Part of the way in which I seek to stay grateful but focused on those outside myself comprises the remainder of this post.

Paragraphs

I’ve been processing pandemic paranoia produced by piling on peril through the product of public pontification (I told ya it might show up again). Every writer says, more or less, the same thing about writing – we write to squeeze outside what’s percolating inside. The invisible made visible. The process of creating product from thought.

The opposite can also be true. We write, an outside-in directive, in order to mine whatever might be hiding down there. It’s a behavioural tonic perfectly suited to help get us out of our heads and onto our pages. I’d say this is especially so for me as I can live quite comfortably in my head. If you don’t believe me, even a quick look inside would reveal some greasy, overweight dude in slippers and bathrobe eating Cheetos on the couch.

I’m a prime candidate for the discipline of writing. This quarantine is providing plenty opportunity to unlock some mental chains and grease up the wheels of emerging thoughts-to-words. And, I pray that some of them find safe quarantine in you where they can make themselves at home and snuggle into places of needed hope or encouragement.

Potential

There is no shortage of toxic positivity out there. Our culture is lost in a let’s-not-actually-change-anything-thoughts-and-prayers feedback loop. The Hallmark answer to real problems faced by real people in the real world is the engineered faux empathy of thoughts and prayers wed to Thomas Kinkade. It’s better than nothing (maybe) but no substitute for the tangibility of hope forged in the potential of change.

Because my wife and I have suffered relatively little compared to many during our pandemia, I try to avoid too many overly-sunny, Pollyanna-isms which do little more than show people that I’m a friendly old man, harmless, but useless.

There’s a tricky tightrope somewhere between the verbal encouragement we all need: “Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up” (Prov. 12:25), and the risk of genuine advocacy: “Speak out for those who cannot speak; for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). The former can offer momentary, short-term respite while the latter offers possibility: the potential for things to be different, better.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer…

Prayers

I’ve written a lot about prayer. What I think prayer to be, or at least ways I’ve sought to engage the mystery of prayer. It is the high art of Renaissance Humanists when I read or say the prayers of the masters. It is the profoundly approachable speech of the street and kitchen when I hear it in most churches. It is both when I hear Jesus do it.

All of it is good. Necessary. In my pursuit of prayer I make use of all of the above and more besides. Early in the pandemic I wasted a lot of time puttering around my life while waiting with the rest of us to see how this thing was gonna play out. Forced retreat feels more like a prison than a spare time playground and, I confess, I frittered away months of glorious time, a gift for which we’re forever pursuing more.

It’s not difficult to imagine that the Bible greats, many of whom found themselves in the forced quarantine of chains, likely did similarly. After a few weeks of yelling at Pharoah and negotiating with the prison guards to no avail, Joseph likely got down to the business of acquiescence to his fate, praying for personal peace and strength. Then, after enough time elapses he begins to pray for the well-being of those he could no longer see. His own cultural kin, the Israelites, had no end of prayer opportunities. 400 years of slavery oughta do it. Then, because the deepest lessons always need the most reiteration, another forty-year forced march through the desert afforded them options for practice (generally by way of complaint).

We learn prayer best like we learn everything else: through the desperation of suffering and need coupled with the growing heart of gratitude. Help and thanks, all of which lead to the inexorable awe of the humble follower. Many have expanded on this idea far better than I ever could, Anne Lamott for one. I’ll say nothing further here other than to add: me too. ‘Help’ is my prayer most days. Help me God for this or that thing, regardless of hidden machinations, motivations or outcomes. Generally speaking, ‘thanks’ follows shortly thereafter followed by the peace of contemplation, which is the spiritual equivalent of undoing the top button after a huge meal. The soul’s sigh of relief in the presence of her God.

Plans

All of that to say this: we’ve been especially busy this past year or two as we begin the launch sequence for our call to ministry in the UK. Pandemic-be-damned, it has slowed things down, but has not stifled our desire, lessened our energy, or muffled God’s voice. It remains for us the one thing to which we are daily committed.

I love everything about this plan. Except for the fundraising part. It never feels authentic to me and possesses a certain desperation of its own. That said, it’s a necessary function for global personnel. I’ll quietly and calmly, but confidently, affix our donor link here, walk away, whispering one of those prayers I’d mentioned above and conclude with this blessing to you, my dear readers:

Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets into you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green
and azure blue,
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O’Donohue, 2010

Easing Pandemic Pandemonium

I say lots of stuff in this blog.

Some of it reasonable I suppose. Some of it, well, shit. Not because I’m stupid or otherwise callous. Maybe because I’m oblivious to all the information required to make believable judgements on things. Perhaps I just like the sound of my own voice. Either way, I muster the faith available, mix whatever humility might be kickin’ around, and offer this hopeful scenario and prayer to help ease our collective pandemic pandemonium.

After weeks of isolation, riots, racism, growing suspicions, job losses, and a general fear of everything, it is hardly a surprise that the faith of many grows cold. Two things should, by now, be evident: humanity is more blind and broken than we’d even suspected. And, two, if God is sovereign, where the hell is (S)he?

In such a broken, sick, divided hour, can hope still be on the table as a viable option? When everywhere one looks the gloves are off, all manner of gauntlet thrown down, ideological lines drawn in neighbourhood sand, trigger fingers itching and ready, ideological (and, for some, real) guns cocked, barrels loaded and pointed, each of us in someone else’s crosshairs, can we still see another human being as worthy of concern? Equally broken? Equally beloved?

These days, our days have intrinsic meaning not because we can count on them for all the reasons we once did – a routine, a schedule to keep, pants awaiting your legs (not a given during lockdown!), coffee waiting to be made, a family awaiting their breakfast, a job awaiting our attention, responsibilities, decisions. Instead, these pandemic days must find their meaning in more faith-led ways; because of their place in the God-created, God-loved cosmos.

We could choose to do nothing at all from beginning to end of day and it would still be sacred. But how creative, how “productive”, how formative a day can be rests in our hands. Each day can move from intrinsically meaningful to prophetically responsible as we awaken to its possibilities.

Let today, this day, be instantly recognizable as a gift. Are we grateful to arise to its potential? Can we place ourselves at God’s disposal to hear and delight in whatever we hear? Can we trust enough in the Divine initiative to carry our lack of it into good places of prayer and friendship and encouragement? Can we lay aside the weight of our own pandemic pandemonium enough to hear that of another?

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“Let my love, demeanour, and trust carry the wonder of these days to others. Let my faith be the harbour into which lonely, fearful souls find safety and rest, a place to rebuild. May there be enough faith in me today that, after it spills out to those around me it may grow to encompass my own fears and insecurity. Today, I choose to sublimate all fear under the embrace of a much greater God whose arm remains strong against every storm.

Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.”