The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying

One of the weaknesses of our human nature appears to be that we are attracted to easy answers. We want reality to be simple. We want a universe where good deeds are clearly and quickly rewarded, and bad deeds are promptly and obviously punished. We want a life in which the way forward is always clear, and where there’s always a simple solution to every difficulty. We want a world where morality is always reassuringly black and white. We want to be able to avoid the terrifying feeling that we are tiny, helpless beings set in the midst of a dangerous world that seems callously indifferent to our existence.

But the truth is that the world is not simple. The real world, the world we actually live in, is a place where good people die of cancer at a young age, leaving families who spend years processing the pain of their loss. It’s a world where children are kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves. It’s a world where people brought up by good parents in good homes find themselves saddled with mental illnesses that make their lives a constant struggle. It’s a world where a tiny little virus that very few people saw coming can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and disrupt the lives of millions more.

One of Eugene Peterson’s most brilliant books for pastors is called ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ (the ‘five smooth stones’ title is an allusion to the story of David and Goliath, where David takes his sling and selects ‘five smooth stones’ from the brook to kill the giant). In it, Peterson looks at five lesser-known Old Testament books and explores their relevance for the pastoral task. They are the books of ‘Song of Songs’, ‘Ruth’, ‘Lamentations’, ‘Ecclesiastes’. and ‘Esther’. Possibly my favourite chapter is the one on Ecclesiastes; he calls it ‘The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying’.

Yes, nay-saying can be a pastoral task. The quest for easy answers does real damage to people’s souls and people’s relationships, and it can be a legitimate pastoral task to point this out to people. Kate Bowler, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer while in her thirties, writes about this in her brilliant book ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved. ‘Everything happens for reason’ is a cliche people use to protect themselves from the feeling that their lives are spiralling out of control. Well-meaning people think they are bringing comfort to others when they use it, but in fact, they rarely are. When you’re on the receiving end of that particular pat answer, it feels as if your pain is being trivialized or dismissed. The person who tells me “Everything happens for a reason” is not taking my suffering seriously. They find it too hard to just listen to what I have to say, without trying to give me solutions to my problem.

If your prayer life is shaped by the psalms, you know that reality is far from simple. The writers of the psalms love the image of God as ‘a rock of refuge in times of trouble’. In other words, when it seems as if life is a deadly quicksand, they have discovered that the presence of God can be a solid rock, a secure place to stand. But at the same time, they are well aware that God often seems to be absent, or asleep. They complain about how long he’s taking to show up and change things. They ask what they’ve done to deserve what they’re getting. They agonize over the prosperity of the wicked and the sufferings of the innocent.

It seems to me that to live as an adult in this world is to acknowledge both these truths: ‘Life is hard and complex’ and ‘God is my rock’. This has certainly been my experience in the present pandemic. On the one hand, in the past few weeks I’ve experienced the physical symptoms of stress in ways more severe than ever before. On the other hand, I can’t remember a period in my life when I’ve been more aware of the presence of God, especially in our shared times of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook Live.

So yes, I believe in the ‘pastoral work of nay-saying’, and in the next few weeks I want to do a bit of nay-saying on this blog. I want to look at some of these easy answers, these ‘lies we’ve loved’, to use Kate Bowler’s phrase, and explore why, in the long run, they really aren’t very helpful. I haven’t yet decided which of these pat answers to consider first. Will it be ‘everything happens for a reason?’ Or ‘God is in control’? Or ‘God won’t send you more than you can cope with?’ Or ‘God is good, all the time’? Or ‘now I am happy all the day?’ I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned!

The secret of happiness has finally arrived

apple-iphone-xWhat do I mean when I say we live in an idolatrous culture?

I mean we live in a culture in which Apple can successfully convince hundreds of thousands of people that the thing that will finally make them happy is owning an iPhone X (for a cool $999 US).

Want to know how powerful this spell is? It still works, even though they believed exactly the same thing about owning an iPhone 4, 5, 6, and 7, and the promise wasn’t fulfilled. They still haven’t found what they’re looking for.

(Me, I’m holding off on replacing my iPhone 5 for as long as I possibly can. Why? I like having a headphone jack. Boo to you, Apple!)

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

A Resolution

I think from now on I’m going to restrict my political comments to quotes from my favourite songwriters.

Here’s a good start.

Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the streets shouts ‘Security comes first!’
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse –
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.

Um – no – this is not ‘Canada’s 150th birthday’

canada_daycdI love Canada and enjoy Canada Day, but I don’t like calling this ‘Canada’s 150th birthday’. Many great Canadians were part of our story before Confederation in 1867 (off the top of my head I think of Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Alexander Mackenzie, John Rowand, David Thompson…). And that isn’t even taking into account all the First Nations and Inuit who lived in this country for thousands of years before Europeans even set foot here. Aren’t they part of the Canadian story?

I’m not against celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation, but to call it ‘Canada’s 150th birthday’ really makes it all about politics, and I’m not comfortable with that.

Rant over. I will now go out and wear red, and listen to my favourite Canadian music all day long.

‘To Care for What We Know…’ (a poem by Wendell Berry)

To care for what we know requires
care for what we don’t, the world’s lives
dark in the soil, dark in the dark.

Forbearance is the first care we give
to what we do not know. We live
by lives we don’t intend, lives
that exceed our thoughts and needs, outlast
our designs, staying by passing through,
surviving again and again the risky passages
from ice to warmth, dark to light.

Rightness of scale is our second care:
the willingness to think and work
within the limits of our competence
to do no permanent wrong to anything
of permanent worth to the earth’s life,
known or unknown, now or ever, never
destroying by knowledge, unknowingly,
what we do not know, so that the world
in its mystery, the known unknown world
will live and thrive while we live.

. . .

And our competence to do no
permanent wrong to the land
is limited by the land’s competence
to suffer our ignorance, our errors,
and – provided the scale
is right – to recover, to be made whole.

(Wendell Berry: A Small Porch, Part I, VIII, 9, p.24)

I know that this is the sustainability creed that Wendell Berry lives by. I feel in my bones that it is the wisest way to live. I don’t live by it myself, but I know I need to work hard at coming closer to it.

The problem is, this way of life is not compatible with the modern economy of Canada, especially of Alberta. Whether the governments are right-wing or left-wing or centrist, they all seem to take for granted that doing violence to the earth is an inevitable part of modern life, and they all close their eyes and ears to the consequences.

It seems to me that if we think in the long term, our refusal to live by the philosophy Wendell Berry outlines in this poem leaves us with a limited number of choices:

Choice #1: As the planet becomes unliveable due to overpopulation and environmental destruction, the human species becomes extinct.

Choice #2: We hope like hell that before we arrive at Choice #1, we’ve found the means to leave the planet so we can go find another one to rape and destroy.

Some Christians would add Choice #3: Before we reach Choice #1, Jesus will come again and rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity. But since he has taken a lot longer to come again than most people thought he would, and, moreover, since he has had lots of opportunities to rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity before now, but hasn’t done so, I wouldn’t bet the farm on that one.

 

On not taking advantage of lawful liturgical flexibility

There’s an interesting post over at Anglican Down Under exploring what is required of people leading Anglican services in New Zealand, where, it appears, there is a rather confusing mishmash of practice going on (Bosco Peters has frequently weighed in on this situation).

I’m sure we have a certain amount of confusion in Canada too, although I don’t think we’re quite at the level of the Kiwis (but then again, I live a sheltered life, so i may be wrong!).

We Anglicans are kind of attached to our liturgies, because they are the way we express our deepest beliefs about the God we believe in and the Gospel we proclaim. We tend to operate on the principle of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; in other words, we don’t feel compelled to make up new stuff on the back of a cigarette packet, but rather, we assume that the Christians who went before us knew a thing or two, and the worship traditions they evolved probably have a lot of wisdom embodied in them. When we want to make changes to our liturgies, we discuss them for quite a lengthy period of time at meetings of our General Synod, and such changes usually take a number of years to come into effect.

Clergy make promises around this sort of stuff. In the Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land (to which my Diocese of Edmonton belongs) we make the following promise when we are ordained and/or inducted into a new parish:

I, A.B., do solemnly make the following declaration: I assent to the Solemn Declaration adopted by the first General Synod in 1893 (as printed in the Book of Common Prayer), and to the Book of Common Prayer, and of the ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons; I believe the Doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada as therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God; and in Public Prayer and the Administration of the Sacraments, I will use the form in the said book prescribed and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority. (italics mine)

‘Lawful authority’ is understood to mean (1) the General Synod, which has authorized other liturgical texts along with the Book of Common Prayer (principally the Book of Alternative Services 1985, and also some supplementary Eucharistic Prayers and Services of the Word, and a few other things), (2) the diocesan bishop, who has authority to authorize the use of additional liturgical material in his/her diocese (as our own bishop has recently done with respect to materials from the Church of England’s ‘Common Worship’ book).

All well and good, and in fact I’m not particularly infected with what C.S. Lewis called ‘The liturgical fidget’, and I’m not constantly looking around for improved liturgies and prayers, as I’m inclined to think that the atmosphere in which the service is conducted is perhaps more important than liturgical perfectionism.

However, I also think that there is a lot more freedom embedded in our current liturgies than people tend to think. Let me give some examples from the most frequently used service in the Anglican Church of Canada, the Holy Eucharist in (more or less) contemporary language beginning on page 185 in the Book of Alternative Services. Let’s give careful attention to the letters in red; we call them ‘rubrics’, and they give what you might call ‘stage directions’ for the use of the texts.

Firstly, on page 185 ‘the president’ greets the community using the form on the top of the page. Then follows a prayer traditionally called ‘The Collect for Purity’, which begins ‘Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…’ But note the rubric above it, which says ‘The following prayer may be said’. 99% of the time, in my experience, it is said. We are given flexibility, but we don’t use it.

Note what comes next. The rubric at the bottom of the page says, ‘Then may follow an act of praise: one of the following hymns, or a canticle or other hymn’. The rubric then goes on to suggest non-binding guidance as to what might be appropriate for certain seasons of the year. The ‘following hymns’ are not actually hymns in rhyme and metre as commonly used today, but translations of ancient hymns: ‘Glory to God’, ‘Kyrie Eleison’, and ‘Trisagion’. But it seems to me that the most logical way to read the direction of the rubric is that this is the place in the service where the opening hymn should be sung, whether it is one of the ones printed, or ‘a canticle or other hymn’. In our church, we simply sing the opening hymn in this spot. However, most other churches don’t; they have an opening hymn right at the beginning (perhaps a processional), then the opening greeting, then another opening hymn (usually one of the three printed on pages 186-7). So once again, we are given flexibility, but we don’t use it.

Throughout the service there is great flexibility with regard to words of introduction, a flexibility which is rarely if ever used. So, for instance, when we come to say one of the two authorized creeds, the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, we are told ‘the celebrant may invite the people, in these or similar words, to join in the recitation of the creed’. But in practice, the words used are almost invariably the ones set out on pages 188 and 189. And again, when the people are invited to confess their sins, we are told ‘the people are invited to confession in these or similar words‘ (p.191), but I rarely hear anything other than the printed invitation used. We’re also told that the form of confession and absolution on page 191 need not be used at all if penitential intercessions were included in the Prayers of the People (as they often are in the forms on pages 110-128).

Ah yes, the Prayers of the People. I love this part of the service – the part where the people of God fulfil their priestly responsibility of lifting up the needs of the whole world to God in prayer. Note the directions in the rubric on page 190:

A deacon or lay member of the community leads the Prayers of the People after the following model. Intercession or thanksgiving may be offered for

the Church
the Queen and all in authority
the world
the local community,
those in need
the departed

A short litany may be selected from pp.110-127. Other prayers are found on pp.675-684. These prayers may be modified in accordance with local need, or extempore forms of prayer may be used.

It seems clear to me that the closest we have to a required form in this rubric (and the language of permission, rather than prescription, is used throughout) is the outline of suggested subjects for prayer. Litanies are not meant to be the norm; they are one option among several. And yet, when we Canadian Anglicans gather together, those litanies on pages 110-127 are the form we tend to use, I would say, over 90% of the time.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t. I believe that every priest and lay reader should give careful reading to the rubrics in the BAS. We have been given a huge amount of freedom and flexibility in this wonderful liturgical resource-book. We should not allow our worship to get stale! The BAS gives us freedom to adapt for a wide variety of situations, without even examining the various supplementary texts authorized by General Synod or the local bishop. Let’s use our imagination and the freedom that has been given to us, in order to offer regular worship (using an authorized form) that will truly reflect the character of our own worshipping communities and help people to lift their hearts and minds to God and to hear and reflect on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.