Monday, March 30, 2009

The fifth page for March 29, 2009
"People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

I live in a house of avid readers. There are books in every room, and on most flat surfaces. There is a constant flow of books in and out of our house. We buy, and borrow new things to read all the time. I am grateful for the access we have to stories, and to insights and information.

Most weeks my wife takes our 7 year old son to the library. This usually happens while our daughter is next door, at the public pool for her synchronized swimming lesson. This past week our son came home with a book called “Ten Amazing People: And How They Changed the World”. Written by Maura Shaw, and published by Skylight Paths, it contains stories of people who, by acting out of their convictions, made a difference. I was familiar with the stories of all ten, except for a man named Janusz Korczak.

Janusz Korczak was actually the pen name of a man named Henryk Goldszmit who lived in Poland before the Second World War. He was an acclaimed author, a teacher, and a paediatrician. His passion in life was working with children. He was one of the first to call for a Declaration of Children’s Rights, more than 50 years before the Geneva Convention on the Rights of the Child was passed in 1989. He once wrote,

“Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. The unknown person inside each of them is our hope for the future.”

The brief article in the “Ten Amazing People” book inspired me to learn more about Dr. Korczak. His grandfather was a physician, and his father was a prolific author. His father also suffered with mental health issues, and according to some accounts, may have committed suicide while in a mental institution.

It seems that Korczak’s passion for the care and education of children was rooted at least partially in difficulties in his own childhood. One writer said, “Reaching into his childhood and formative years, he discovered that his upbringing and schooling were built on serious flaws, which surfaced in occassional pangs of distress and loneliness. He felt deprived of love and support, and in his mature years wrote a philosophical treatise entitled How to Love a Child.”

In “How to Love a Child”, Korczak offers insight into the connection between self-awareness, and our capacity to understand a child that has continued to inspire and challenge educators to this day:

"You yourself are the child whom you must learn to know, rear, and above all, enlighten."

Monday, March 23, 2009

What we need

This pyramid is a visual representation of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”. I remembered this scheme when I was thinking about the story of Jesus feeding of the crowd of thousands. You may remember the pyramid from first year psychology or sociology courses. Maslow’s interest was in factors that motivate and determine our choices, and which shape our personality.

Maslow theorized that people are only able to “rise” to addressing the needs expressed at the top of the pyramid when the needs on the lower tiers have been met. In Maslow’s thought, the physiological needs are the most basic, and must be met first.

I initially thought I would use the pyramid to illustrate the wisdom of Jesus concerning himself with the feeding of the crowd. I thought I would say that Jesus made sure that the most basic needs of the people were met, in order that they would be freed to pay attention to “higher” needs. But on reflection, I realized that there are problems with this interpretation.

The story indicates that Jesus actually taught and preached first, and only later asked about feeding the crowd. When I thought about that, I wondered if there is a “first world” or “developed world” bias built into Maslow’s hierarchy, that would hint that people are only capable of self-actualization and spiritual “progress” when they are well-fed and have big homes with 2 car garages, and all the attendant “stuff” that we tend to associate with well-being.

My recent experience of visiting a woman who is dying of cancer was a reminder that we do not live “by bread alone”.

I would not suggest that we concern ourselves only with the “higher” things, and tend to people’s souls and not worry about whether they have a place to lay their head at night. I think that Maslow has done well to identify some categories of the things that we need to live well, and which motivate us. I wonder if it might be more useful to depict the items listed in a kind of inter-connected “constellation” rather than in a tiered pyramid. I would also want to name spiritual needs: connection to God; sense of purpose; vocation, transcendence of self; compassion for others.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Healing and Forgiveness March 15, 2009

The gospel reading we heard this Sunday, about the healing of the paralytic who was carried to Jesus by four friends, is actually as much about forgiveness and sin as it is healing.

The question the “religious teachers” get caught on in the story is whether or not Jesus has the authority to forgive this man’s sins. The underlying assumption here is that the man’s affliction is a consequence, either of his sins, or his parents. There may be circumstances where we might agree that there is a cause and effect relationship between an action and a physical symptom. (If someone hits me with a hammer, the injuries caused could be said to be the result of their action!)

In the ancient world it was fairly common to explain illness as a punishment for, or consequence of sin. This goes beyond a simple cause and effect relationship, to saying that God, as judge, jury, and executioner, would observe an action, weigh its morality, and then act to punish the wrong-doer (or their offspring) by making them sick, or disabled.

In our time we find this an unhelpful explanation for illness, and a deeply disturbing image of God. But it does help us to understand why the “religious teachers” in the story could not simply rejoice with the rest of the crowd at the healing of the paralytic. Their focus was not on his physical state, but on his status with God.

Many of us have met people who seem to feel, in the midst of illness or tragedy, as the ancients did, that God is punishing them. I believe that part of Jesus’ earthly mission, and ours, is to challenge that notion, and offer assurance that we are, each of us, deeply loved by God.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Different ways to pray

The fifth page for Lent 2, Sunday, March 8, 2009

John Ackerman is a Presbyterian minister who lives and works in Minneapolis. He is also an experienced spiritual director, and author. I have been reading his book “Spiritual Awakening: A guide to spiritual life in congregations”, which he wrote to help people who are “learning to recognize God’s hand and voice in every aspect of life.”

Ackerman’s phrase provides a good way to think about what it means to grow spiritually. He wrote a short paper entitled “Finding Your Way: Personalized Practices for Spiritual Growth “, for the Alban Institute. (Alban is a kind of “think tank” and resource centre for North American churches.) In this paper, he borrows from the wisdom of 12 step programs, which are essentially spiritual in nature, to discuss what most of us need to grow, and to sustain our truest selves:

“ three recommended practices or disciplines are prayer, meditation, and personal evaluation or inventory as outlined in Steps Ten and Eleven. Step Ten is “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” Step Eleven is “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.”

If we are going to grow in our capacity to see God at work in our lives, we need to deepen in our self-awareness, if only to better distinguish what is from “me” and what is of “God” Itis also good to have a regular practice of prayer.

Prayer is something we may think should come naturally, like breathing or eating, but is not easy for many people. Part of the “problem” may be that in order to pray, we have to be quiet, and present with ourselves, before God. We don’t all know ourselves, or accept ourselves well enough for that. Another part of the “problem” may be that we have tried to pray, but have not found a way to pray that seems to “work”.

Ackerman’s encourages people to take an MBTI (Myers-Briggs Temperament Inventory) test to get a read on four aspects of their personality. Are you introverted or extroverted? Are you intuitive, or do you work mostly from your senses? Are you primarily a “Thinker” or a “Feeler”? Are you likely to make definitive judgments on things, or do you perceive the big picture? He goes on to suggest ways of praying that might be fruitful for people of different personality types.

I find it liberating to be reminded that if the way I “ have always done” prayer is not working well, I can try another approach.

Monday, March 2, 2009

“Healing the Purpose of Your Life”

The fifth page for Sunday, March 1, 2009

“Healing the Purpose of Your Life”
I found this book while I was at Five Oaks, a retreat and study centre of the United Church of Canada, near Paris, Ontario. There is a great little shop on site called the Grand River Bookstore. I was drawn to it because the authors, and the illustrator have produced another book called “Sleeping with Bread”, which I love.

Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn are Roman Catholic authors, teachers, and retreat leaders who do their work from a foundation in the spirituality of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Ignatian spirituality, as I am coming to understand it, deals a great deal with a person discerning their own sealed orders from God, by a close “reading” of the text, and sub-text (what lies underneath) of their own lives.

While on retreat at Five Oaks, I took part in an evening called “Gospel Contemplation”. The workshop leader presented a way to meditate upon scripture stories that also comes from Ignatian Spirituality. In his introduction to this process, the leader made the intriguing comment that Ignatian Spirituality offers a “post-modern” alternative.

I think what he meant by that is that the Christianity most of us have grown up with offered a universal story, a one-size-fits-all depiction of the purpose and meaning and life. The leader called this the “over-arching mythic structure” or “big story”.

People living in the “post-modern” age are perhaps less inclined to try to connect to the “big story”, and more inclined to look for God at work in their own story. (What does all this God stuff have to do with me?)

As I am studying the ancient practice of spiritual direction, I am excited by the possibility of seeing how God is at work in individual lives, including my own.