The Dalai Lama and Change

13 08 2015

dalai lamaTenzin Gyatso is recognized as the “tulku” or reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, and is in a lineage going back to at least 1546. My interest in this man of wisdom was renewed after I spent time with someone who has met him, and written extensively about that life-changing encounter.( Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus.)

BBC 4 recently aired an interview with the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The interviewer, Emily Maitlis, asked why he may be the last Dalai Lama. His response:

“Now we are in the 21st century. So this Lama institution, frankly speaking it developed during the feudal system. So society changed, has to change, so some of the institutions, some of them they influence the existing societies, now they are out of date. So therefore as early as 1969, I publicly, officially, I announced that (whether) the very institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not (is) up to the Tibetan people. If majority of Tibetan people, at the time of my death, feel that this centuries old institution not much relevant, then it automatically cease.”

I appreciate the Dalai Lama’s awareness of the need for institutional change. Like many church people I know, he seems to prefer it happen after he dies!

The denomination I serve, the United Church of Canada, formed in 1925, when Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists joined together. Congregations of the Evangelical United Brethren Church joined in 1968. We are relatively young, especially when compared to the institution of the Dalai Lama.

gc 42 logoAs I write this, commissioners from across Canada, lay people and clergy, are meeting in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland, for the 42nd General Council. This is our highest “court” or decision making body. Those attending read thousands of pages of reports, work together in small groups to consider recommendations, and vote on matters of policy and governance. They also worship together, renew old acquaintances, and make new friends. I have never attended but hear it is a tiring, inspiring, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming experience. I have friends there right now, including a few who let their names stand for election for the office of moderator, the elected spokesperson for our denomination.

The commissioners have done important work. They decided our church will divest from investments in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies. They passed a motion calling for a government inquiry into missing, murdered indigenous women and girls. They engaged in discussion about changes to the qualifications required of those offering themselves for ordained ministry.  (Here is a link to a site that offers news updates from GC42 General Council 42 News )

The commissioners also have before them documents of the Comprehensive Review Task Force, containing  recommendations that if enacted, would result in sweeping changes to the structure of the United Church. This may be the hardest part of their work. For years people have pointed to shrinking membership, closure of congregations, difficulty filling leadership roles at all levels of the church, and reduced financial resources, as reasons why we must be bold, and wise in making significant changes.

My hope, and prayer is we won’t wait until our current leaders die.


13 08 2015

On a quiet, sermon writing afternoon, I am listening to music and making my lunch. I cut into a fresh tomato from our garden as this song played in the background, and realized I want to share the lyrics, and put a question out there- following the example of the singer, Carrie Newcomer, can you make a list of the things in which you believe? (Please know I don’t just mean all that good “churchy” stuff about God and Jesus.) Would you be willing to share your list with me?

I believe there are some debts that we can never repay
And I believe there are some words that we can never unsay
And I don’t know a single soul

Who didn’t get lost along the way

I believe in socks and gloves
Knit out of soft grey wool
And that there’s a place in heaven for those who teach in public schools

And I know I get some things right
But mostly I’m a fool

I believe in a good strong cup of ginger tea and that
All these shoots and roots will become a tree
All I know is I can’t help but see
All of this as so very… holy

I believe in jars of jelly put up by careful hands
And I believe most folks are doing just about the best they can
And I know there are some things that I will never understand

I believe there’s healing in the sound of your voice and that
A summer tomato is a cause to rejoice and that
Following a song was never really a choice, never really…

I believe in a good long letter written on real paper and with real pen
I believe in the ones I love and know I will never see again
I believe in the kindness of strangers and the comfort of old friends
And when I close my eyes to sleep at night that it’s good to say amen (amen)

I believe that life’s comprised of smiles and sniffles and tears
And in an old coat that still has another good year
And I know that I get scared sometimes but all I need is here

I believe in a good strong cup of ginger tea and that
All these shoots and roots will become a tree
All I know is I can’t help but see
All of this as so very… holy

I believe…
I believe…
I believe…
I believe…
I believe…

My Argument with a Lectionary Text: Darrow Woods (from a writing prompt from Rabbi Rachel Rosenblatt)

14 07 2015

tabernacle in tent“But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. “(1 Samuel 7:4-6)

Does the ground of being, the source of the love that fills us and flows through us as we allow, really need a house to live in?

Nathan’s message from God to David is about an upgrade in accommodation from a tabernacle in a tent, to a house made of cedar. This suggests a permanent, stationary structure.

The biblical scholarship that lives in my memory wants to remind me this story may represent the transition for Israel, under David’s rule, from a nomadic, wandering tribe to a kingdom like the kingdoms that surround it, centered in one place. This may point to the development of a city, or at least a larger village or town, that becomes the place to live, from which governing happens, where people gather for religious celebration, and to which people come for commerce.

Setting that aside, I hear this passage as the pastor of small congregation in suburban Canada, in the first quarter of the 21st century. I serve a denomination that seems about 50 years past its stale, or stagnation date. The sociologists of religion have been telling us that we were at our peak, and best condition, at least in terms of numbers of people, and social influence, in 1965. I have some awareness that we have built many “houses for God to live in”.

trinity united oakvilleThe community where I serve as a pastor has a half dozen houses of our brand, and I don’t know how many of other brands, other “god-house” developers. My congregation struggles weekly, monthly, annually, to meet the costs of maintaining our little house, and to pay the staff.

Was it supposed to be that our mission to be people of God, with hearts open to love others in God’s name would be overtaken with the financial and practical demands of property management? Did I know, when I was ordained 25 years ago that so many of the conversations I take part in, would be about this little house?

I find myself thinking about the tabernacle in the tent, and asking myself, “What was the problem again?”

Welcome to Camp Happy Place

13 07 2015

summer camp 2The highlight of my kids’ summer is the Ontario Mennonite Music Camp. Forty teenaged musicians and a half dozen staff members live in residence at Conrad Grebel College for two weeks every August. Campers attend master classes for their instrument of choice, and work together to present a scaled down Broadway musical for family and friends on the final night.

Each camper is part of a small group that meets daily for devotions, and conversation. There is great food in generous quantities. There are games, and mysterious traditions, and late night escapades in an atmosphere of generous, good-hearted fun. For the other 50 weeks of the year, campers talk, and text with new friends who share their love of music.

This week I am at “Beyond Walls,” offered by Kenyon College. The campus is in the tree-lined village of Gambier, Ohio, where the bookstore rents bicycles, walking is encouraged, and the speed limit is 25 mph. There are 84 of us clergy-types: rabbis, pastors, and priests representing a mixed bag of denominations. We came from several countries, and many American states, attracted by a shared desire to write about spiritual life. Most of us produce weekly sermons, but would love to move creatively beyond the walls of the worship service.

We are living in apartment-style residences, and being fed well in a beautiful dining room. Our days begin and end with meditation and worship. Our teachers are bloggers, op-ed writers, poets and novelists. We compare notes in small groups as we take on writing challenges.

It is invigorating to meet people with similar passions. It is a blessing to leave behind everyday occupations of work and home, and put time and energy into writing.

This is my summer camp. What would yours look like?

Prayer with People (Sunday-Monday-Tuesday May 18-20, 2014)

20 05 2014

chapel sign

There is a rhythm to community life here at Westminster. For those living in the college, the day begins with breakfast at 8 am, followed by morning prayers at 8:30. Many of the students are busy preparing for exams, but still take turns leading worship. Most mornings there are faculty, students, and sabbatical guests like myself, gathered for prayer. (There is also a chapel service after lunch.)
chapel interior

The worship space reminds me of the chapel at Appleby College in Oakville, and also the chapel at Mepkin Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in South Carolina. The traditional “choir” design means that members of the community face each other for hymns and prayers. There is something very good about that. The faces and voices of other people praying are for me, as important a message as the content of the readings, and the words of reflection offered. In community we are witnesses to each other, of the reality of prayer in our lives, and of our faith in the “larger other” that is the focus and direction of our praying.
chapel pulpit
I knew as I was preparing for this part of my sabbatical adventure that I would need to apply a discipline to my days. It could be so easy to fritter the time away. It can be so easy to pass through the time we are given, without noticing, relishing, loving, learning, feeling gratitude. These times of prayer with people, in the chapel serve to frame the days, and draw my attention to what is within the frame.

The student who led prayers this morning is Nick, whose life before preparation for ministry in the United Reformed Church included achieving a Ph.D. in Welsh and English Literature. He read to us from Exodus 3, which is the story of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. That story reminds us of the potential that each place we sit or stand can be holy ground for us. Nick also shared a poem from one of his favourite writers, the Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas:

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)

From Peter to Paul (Friday-Saturday, May 15-16, 2014)

18 05 2014

My last post was about St. Peter’s, a tiny and ancient church a few steps away from Westminster College. On Friday I spent a few hours at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. There has been a church on that site for hundreds of years longer than the little Cambridge church, but the current cathedral is a relative new-comer, as it is “only” about 300 years old. Coming from Canada, where the age of most buildings can be measured in decades rather than centuries, it is mind-stretching to consider time, and continuity of presence, in this way. For someone who is accustomed to worship in a sanctuary that holds at most 140 people it is also a challenge to hear the still small voice of God, within a space where you could comfortably hold several tennis (or cricket) matches that would never interfere with each other.

st pauls exterior edit
This is a view of the approach to the cathedral. I wish I could have taken photos inside, but it is, after all, what they call “a working church”.

Outside of scheduled worship times, if you wish to go to the cathedral to pray, there is a side-chapel which can be entered without paying for admission. To access everything else, you need a ticket.

st pauls ticket

I cannot imagine all that is involved in the management and maintenance of such a huge physical plant. I have no idea how much money flows through this place. I read that in 2011 when an Occupy London emcampment was set up in front of the cathedral it was claimed St. Paul’s was losing 20,000 pounds a day.

There were hundreds of visitors while I was there, and a huge staff to guide them and see to their needs. I saw two priests in long black cassocks (very high Anglican!) and wondered if they just hung around, ready to chat with people. I realized later they were waiting for a group to arrive for a wedding rehearsal. I watched them go through the particulars of the service in the Order of the British Empire Chapel in the crypt, below the main sanctuary. (While researching this entry I learned that someone in the wedding party must either be a member of the OBE, or related to someone who is, to be able to use the chapel.)

This is a place built to the glory of God. It is also, it seems to me, a concrete and visual representation of a stratified and privileged-based society. This is where Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married, and where they held the funeral for Margaret Thatcher.

Inset in the walls and the floor of the crypt, in the lower level of the cathedral, are memorials to bishops and viscounts, painters, poets, politicians, and other prominent people. I confess I do not know who most of them are. The only “person” I was interested in “visiting” was William Blake, the artist and mystic, and I was not able to find his spot. I was overwhelmed by the statuary and engravings, and could not really take it all in.

In the photo above, near the ticket to St. Paul’s, you can see a diagram of the galleries above and around the dome of the cathedral. I climbed the 257 steps up to the Whispering Gallery, which is like an interior balcony, that rings around the inside of the dome at a height of 30 metres above the main floor. Another 119 steps took me up the outdoor Stone Gallery, which offered a view of the streets below, from a height 53 metres above the main level. This was also a good place to take in some fresh air, and catch my breath before ascending another 152 steps, to the Golden Gallery, which is up 85 metres, and affords amazing views of the surrounding city.
golden gallery

As I ascended I was remembering the times I have climbed the steps of another iconic structure, the CN Tower. The journey up to the Golden Gallery was in some ways more challenging, even though it is not nearly as high. The staircase winds very tightly in some places, and there are some very narrow passages on the way up (and down). Later, as I was walking the Millenium Bridge across the Thames to the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, I stopped several times to gaze back at the dome, and marvel a bit that I had just been up there.
dome from millenium bridge

Standing on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London, St. Paul’s Cathedral was until 1962 the tallest building in the city. The dome is still prominent and distinctive, in a skyline that offers a lot of competition.

My journey from St. Peter’s to St. Paul’s has left me pondering. I am doing a lot of reading and thinking these days about the future of the Christian church as an institution. I tend to think of the church as a movement. An organization with a lot of history, and a lot of subsets and groupings- but basically a people. As my Sunday School training taught me:

“The church is not a building..
The church is not a steeple..
The church is not a resting place..
The church is a people…”

Does the Christian movement need cathedrals, blessed “CN towers” that draw the eye’s attention, and silently proclaim, “Here we are”?

A very “prayed in” place (Wednesday-Thursday, May 14-15, 2014)

15 05 2014

st peter's church cambridge

This is the spire of St. Peter’s. the smallest church in Cambridge. It dates from the 11th century. The building is no longer in regular service, but it is open daily for people to drop in. It is a quiet, peaceful, prayer-soaked place just a few steps away from a busy intersection.

St. Peter’s is just a short walk from Westminster College. I visited today after lunch, with three Westminster students- new friends. Henriette, originally from the Netherlands, is a church youth worker who is preparing for ordained ministry. Morna and her family moved from Pakistan. Her husband is a minister, and she has an M.Div, but was not able to live out her call to ministry in her home country. She is now updating her qualifications, in preparation to be ordained. Bruno is also preparing for ministry. He grew up in Italy, but has been in Great Britain for many years.

It was Bruno that first mentioned St. Peter’s.
He likes to walk over from the college to pray in this ancient sanctuary.
He led us through the door, and it felt like stepping back in time,
or at least into a timeless place.
door to st peter's

Here are Bruno, Henriette and Morna standing near the altar.
My photo does not do justice to the stained glass window behind them.
the st peter's altar

Here are Morna, Henriette and I at baptismal font that has stood in this place for 10 centuries. Behind the display of information about the church there is a pull-rope for the bell. We were there around 2 o’clock, so we took turns ringing out the hour. We assumed that historical trust that preserves the site would not leave the rope in place, if they did not want us to ring the bell!
st. peter's font
The four of us pilgrims, from Italy, the Netherlands, Pakistan, and Canada, sat in this ancient church, and prayed together in a silence weighty with the prayers of a millennia’s worth of fellow travellers. In their own ways, all those seekers were looking for what we look for- signs of God’s loving presence, and a sense of how to live in response to that love.
st peter's sign