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Monday, May 31, 2010

ways we learn


In the sermon this past Sunday I spent some time talking about contemplative prayer as a way to spend time with God. This mode of prayer is about being with God, rather than asking God for things, or telling God things, or in any way expecting anything from God. I used the analogy of a human relationship, in which it is necessary, and a blessing to spend time with the other. Can we imagine growing in relationship with another person without spending time with them? Can we imagine growing in understanding of them if we do all the talking, and fail to take time to simply be present with the person, and open to what they offer? My sense is that for many of us, our relationship with the Divine can benefit from simply being quiet.

I made use in the sermon of the image of a Russian Orthodox icon, painted by Alexander (Andrei) Rubilev, painted around 1410. It depicts the Trinity, the Christian doctrine that God is “One God, Three Persons”. The image is taken from a story in the Book of Genesis in which Abraham, patriarch of the Jewish people, extends hospitality to three strangers that turn out to be angels, messengers from God.

Many people around the world pray with icons and other images. This is distinct from praying to an icon! The visual image provides a way to enter into an exercise of prayer.

Growing up in the United Church, I did not spend a lot of time praying with icons. Actually, I spent no time with icons! Most of my religious education, and experiences of worship have been either verbal (word based, as in readings, sermons and spoken prayer) or musical (singing or listening to church music or hymns). Some of the churches I have been part of make some effort to appeal to visual learning, with banners, stained glass windows, and other art, but these tend to be peripheral.

Recently, as I was researching curriculum choices for Sunday School, I came across a publisher that has drawn inspiration from the theories of a Harvard psychologist named Dr. Howard Gardner. In a book called “Frames of Mind”, Gardner proposed a theory of Multiple Intelligences. He posits that humans learn through a wide variety of “intelligences”.

The Sunday School curriculum, called “PowerXpress” sets out to appeal to different ways of learning. They suggest that Verbal learners work well with word-based material, and become frustrated without verbal stimulation. Logical learners enjoy abstract and scientific thinking, and do less well in arenas of confusion. Visual learners do well with pictures, and mental imagery, and artistic work, but are discouraged when there is too much text-based material. Physical learners like to be active, and move, and tune out if they have to sit still too long. Musical learners are bored by lectures, and thrive if the material is set to music. Social learners like group work, and thinking out loud with others, and are stifled by long periods of silent study. Independent learners are reflective, introspective, and self-aware, and group activities cause them to withdraw.

Recently, Gardner has proposed two other “intelligences”: Nature, and the Spiritual.

It seems to me that these insights can be very valuable to those of us who may be trying to plan worship. They can also be useful in our personal explorations of how to spend time with God in prayer.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

listening to each other

Last week I spoke at an inter-faith gathering hosted by the Oakville chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim movement. A few times of year, this group arranges events like this one. They ask representatives of various religions to offer perspectives on issues such as the topic for last Thursday evening, which was “Is God Relevant in today’s world?” This is the second time I have attended one of these evenings. Each time I have been aware of two things that seem important to share.

The first is the genuine warmth, and the heart-felt spirit of welcome in the room. The organizers, and the attenders bring an openness and willingness to be with people of different backgrounds that I do not think can be feigned.

The second is that those who speak, regardless of their faith background, tend to approach the questions in a positive, life-affirming, down-to-earth way. Very often, the essence of the views offered are very similar, regardless of whether they are rooted in the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Christian traditions.

How is this possible? It would be overly-simplistic, and would not do justice to the various faith traditions to suggest that at heart, all religions say the same thing. I don’t think that’s true. What I do see is that a spiritually based way of living can lead to surprisingly similar reflections, when members of the various traditions are asked to talk about a question that is relevant to them all.

The people I have met at these gatherings are not specialists in inter-faith dialogue, tasked with the onerous responsibility of rationalizing or justifying their theologies in light of the other traditions. They are just ordinary people of faith, who are interested in moving beyond the fear, suspicion, and narrow-mindedness that too often takes the place of religious discourse in our world.

It is important, I think, to recognize that too much broadcast air-time, and ink in the print media, is given over to the views of religious fundamentalism. As Karen Armstrong, that heroic and prolific scholar of religion says in her book “The Case for God”:

“In all its forms, fundamentalism is fiercely reductive faith. In their anxiety and fear, fundamentalists often distort the tradition they are trying to defend. They can, for example, be highly selective in their reading of scripture. Christian fundamentalists quote extensively from the book of Revelation and are inspired by its violent end-time vision but rarely refer to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and not to judge others. Jewish fundamentalists rely heavily on the Deuteronomist sections of the Bible and seem to pass over the rabbis’ injunction that exegesis should lead to charity. Muslim fundamentalists ignore the pluralism of the Qu’ran, and extremists quote its more aggressive verses to justify violence, pointedly disregarding its far more numerous calls for peace, tolerance, and forgiveness.”

Armstrong goes on to offer this comment on fundamentalism in all its forms:

“Fundamentalists are convinced that they are fighting for God, but in fact this type of religiosity represents a retreat from God. To make purely human, historical phenomena – such as “family values,” “the Holy Land” or “Islam”- sacred and absolute is idolatry, and, as always, their idol forces them to try to destroy its opponents.”

I will remember this the next time I read something in my e-mail inbox about the “evils” of Islam.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

prisons

My sermon last week was based on an "adventure story" about Paul and Silas, two missionary companions, as found in the Book of Acts. The story described Paul exorcizing a spirit from a young slave woman, which had given her the ability to tell fortunes. Her owners had exploited this girl, earning their living by charging people for conversations with her. When Paul cast out the spirit, he effectively ended the slave's usefulness to her owners. The story does not make it clear whether or not this led to her freedom.

The focus of the story remained on Paul and Silas. The owners of the slave girl were enraged, and beat up the missionaries, and hauled them before a local court on trumped up charges. Paul and Silas were beaten again, stripped, put in shackles, and locked in jail.

The story describes Paul and Silas sitting shackled in their cell, praising God and singing hymns. Their surprising joy attracted the attention of the other prisoners, and eventually, the jailer and his family. In the middle of the night there was an earthquake, which shook the jailhouse and threw open the cell doors. The jailer despaired that the prisoners would have fled, and was mystified to discover that they were all gathered around Paul and Silas, rapt in wonderment as the missionaries shared their faith.

The jailer and his family were baptized that very night. As a modern counter-point to this ancient adventure tale, I told the story of a friend who is a volunteer at the Don Jail. He works with violent offenders who are on the path towards sobriety.

I realized as I told these stories that all this talk of addictions and convictions and violence may have left the impression that the Good News of the Gospel is only for those who are actually in jail.

The truth is that there are many kinds of prisons. In February I spent a few days at Mepkin Abbey, which is a Cistercian monastery in South Carolina. There is a man named August Turak who regularly visits Mepkin for extended spiritual reteats. Mr.Turak is a very sucessful, incredibly wealthy business person, who works as a consultant to major corporations. He is quite open about how his life was transformed by faith.

On his website, Turak recently responded to a question from a participant in one of his conferences, who wondered about what kind of prisons he might have experienced in his former life:

No, I was not a drug addict nor was I ever arrested. But I don’t think transformation or brokenness depends on such radical ways of “going wrong.” While I had my share of pain (my mother’s early death in 1984), my path was based on MORAL, rather than physical suffering. I battled severe depression throughout most of my adult life. Again and again I rose to the “bait” of life, trying to find satisfaction through worldly success, only to be left with ashes in my mouth. I was looking for something in Mother Nature that she was incapable of providing. I was filled with profound spiritual longing yet tortured by doubts. I not only doubted my own spiritual potential but spirituality itself. I call this state being “trapped between heaven and earth.”...

...Transformation requires surrender and this is what I could not bring myself to do. The spiritual life is a process of disillusionment. The Christian mystics say we must lose all hope in the world before we will turn utterly to God. This is the painful process I endured for years.

Ironically, my putative “success” was crucial to my ultimate spiritual surrender. Many people imagine that if they just had money or fame or romantic love they would “have it all” and be at peace. Because I had experienced all these things and was STILL miserable I was finally forced to admit that what I sought could not be found in the world. This was a blessing.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Mystery

the fifth page for Tuesday, May 11, 2010

(My reflection is based on a recent real-life experience. Out of respect for the right to privacy of the people involved, no names are used. I also want the readers to know that I have sought, and received, the permission and blessing of the family involved, to tell this story.)

I was privileged to be part of an important moment this past weekend. I was on-call as chaplain for a local hospital, and received a request to visit with the family of a woman who had slipped into a coma, and was expected to die very soon. I have learned over the years that there are nurses, especially ones who work in palliative care, who are adept at identifying when a person is close to death. When that call comes from the hospital, it is good to move quickly.

The woman was at the end of a long and difficult fight with a number of ailments, including cancer of the liver. Her two adult children, themselves both grandparents, were with her. It was good to see how at ease they seemed in the room where their mother lay dying. They were taking turns holding her hand, and speaking to her. They spoke to me of being conscious that their mother was likely on some level, aware of their presence, and of their words.

From the moment I walked into the hospital room, I found myself remembering being in another palliative care room, a few years ago, at the moment that the person died. I had this feeling that the person had left the room. Not that they had ceased to be, but that they were just no longer there, in that particular place. They had, in the fashion of Elvis, “Left the building”.

I talked to the son and daughter about that previous time of leaving, because it seemed to me that there is hope in this- that our loved ones, when they leave us, go somewhere else. Where do they go? How does this transition happen? I do not have the kind of religious faith that includes definitive answers for those kind of questions. The kind of faith that is growing within me, and which I feel able to share, especially in times when it might be helpful, is in God who is in the midst of mystery.

One of my favourite poets on this subject is Bruce Cockburn, who wrote the following words on the occasion of the death of one of his fellow song-writers:

There you go
Swimming deeper into mystery
Here I remain
Only seeing where you used to be
Stared at the ceiling
'Til my ears filled up with tears
Never got to know you
Suddenly you're out of here
Gone from mystery into mystery
Gone from daylight into night
Another step deeper into darkness
Closer to the light

I read some other words that night in the hospital room, from the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, in the Hebrew Scriptures, that remind us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven, and that there is a time to live, and a time to die. I held the woman’s hand, and offered her a blessing. I prayed with her son and daughter, that she would know that she is loved, and that God is with her, and that she is safe, and that she would know that it was okay, when it was her time, to die.

While we were praying, we were watching this woman closely. Her breathing had been laboured, and her mouth had been open, slack-jawed, distorting her face, and giving the appearance of anxiety. During the spoken prayer, she seemed to relax. Her mouth closed, her chest movements changed from the heaving action to a more measured pace. Her head nuzzled a bit into her pillow. Something had changed for her, it seemed.

At the end of the prayer I released the woman’s hand, and suggested that her son take it. I said my goodbyes, and let the son and daughter know that they could call me if they wanted me to come back in the night.

The son told me the next morning that about 15 minutes after I left, his mother died. This week I will have the honour of helping with her funeral.