The Art of Holy Listening: A Lenten Discipline

THE ART OF HOLY LISTENING: A LENTEN DISCIPLINE If there’s one technological innovation of the past decade that has effected me the most it would have to be the ability to download audiobooks or podcasts onto my phone and to listen to them anytime of day. For me, this has made mindless tasks far less mindless. While washing the dishes, tidying-up the living room or driving to an appointment across town I can be, at the same time, taking in a lecture on the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas or the history of the anabaptists. The thing that I listen to the most, however, are podcasts on politics and culture. This, I must caution, isn’t always a good thing. While staying on top of current events is certainly a laudable goal, I worry that the nature of our political discourse has grown so caustic and partisan in recent years that a steady diet of social and cultural commentary can only have a negative a effect on one’s mental and emotional health.
After all, content creators are well aware of one important fact: rage sells. Provocative captions and headlines calculated to stoke people’s feelings of anger, resentment and alienation result in more clicks and higher ratings. In the short term, at least, all of this is good for news outlets both small and large. But what if vitriolic political tirades are constantly buzzing in our earbuds as we’re running on the treadmill at the gym or driving our kids to sports practice? What if we have the chatter of the major news networks playing round the clock in our living rooms, forming the background noise of our day-to-day lives? Would that not have a detrimental effect on our general state of mind? Would that not affect our relationship with God?

We are well aware of the New Testament’s injunction to practice right speech. The Lord himself chillingly warns us: “On the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter” (Matthew 12:36). We often forget, however, that we are also called to practice right listening. “Pay attention to how you listen,” Jesus says. “For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). Are we listening to things that build up our faith, draw us closer to Jesus and exhort us to good works? Or, are we listening to things that feed our prejudices and fill us with resentment towards those whom we deem our political opponents?

Saint Benedict (c. 480-547)— the Father of Western Monasticism— seems to have been well aware of the importance of holy listening. Centuries before shortwave radio and downloadable podcasts, Benedict encouraged the members of his monastic communities to listen to a brother monk/sister nun read from a piece of devotional literature— like The Lives of the Church Fathers— while sharing a meal in the refractory.
“Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers,” Benedict writes in his Rule, specifying that there ought to be a designated reader scheduled for each week. “Let there be complete silence,” he adds. “No whispering, no speaking— only the reader’s voice should be heard there.” Furthermore, the monks/nuns are not to ask questions regarding the readings much less engage in any criticism or debate. That said, “the superior may wish to say a few words of instruction” if he or she so chooses.

With Ash Wednesday coming up tomorrow, may I suggest the following discipline for the season of Lent:

  1. Take a pad and paper and calculate roughly how much time you spend each week reading editorials and opinion pieces, watching the news, listening to political tirades and debates, etc. Now, resolve to cut that total time down down by at least three-fourths. Ask yourself the question: What is the minimum amount of news media that I need to take-in in order to be reasonably informed of current events?
  2. For the season of Lent, resolve to spend at least 2 half-hour sessions each week engaging in what can be deemed “holy listening” or “holy reading.” Instead of filling your mind with angry, partisan political rhetoric, read a piece of devotional literature— a chapter from the Bible or a piece of writing from a great saint. These don’t have to be dense theological treatises.

In fact, the saints I admire the most wrote simply but profoundly about ordinary things. Along these lines, I would recommend the autobiography of Therese of Lisieux— The Story of a Soul— or Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. I’d also recommend a delightful book called The Way of a Pilgrim- a book which tells the story of a wandering peasant who, on his journeys throughout Russia, gradually learns how to pray with tremendous depth and intimacy.

I’m willing to bet that for most, if not all of these writings, full text versions can be easily found online. In fact, I’m also willing to bet that you can download them for free as audiobooks on Youtube or wherever it is you get your podcasts. Turn off the news and listen to them while you’re vacuuming the bedroom, walking the dog or driving to work.

I am NOT suggesting that we ought to bury our heads in the sand and utterly disengage from the controversies of our age. I AM saying that we ought to minimize our exposure to vitriolic rhetoric calculated to escalate our sense of outrage. I am also suggesting that we enrich our lives with the words of scripture and the wise teaching of noble men and women who have gone before us. If our minds are rooted in the rich soil of their teachings, then we can— with more thoughtfulness, nuance and love— engage with the controversial issues of our time.

Terence Chandra

At the Crossroads: A Self-Guided Spiritual Retreat for People Turning 40 (or Undergoing any Major Life Transition).

At the Crossroads: A Self-Guided Spiritual Retreat for People Turning 40 (or Undergoing any Major Life Transition).  For my fortieth birthday, Jasmine gave me a gift that any introverted, middle-aged priest would appreciate: a private, 48 hour spiritual retreat at a nearby Cistercian-Trappist Monastery— specifically, our Lady of Calvary Abbey in Rogersville, New Brunswick.  It’s a special place for both of us— a place whose very atmosphere itself has been worn thin by the perpetual prayer of generations of monks, thereby making the partition between this life and the eternal seem somehow delicate and ephemeral. It is a place where, for me at least, communing with God seems as effortless as breathing. While there, I wanted to make the most of my time. So, I put together a self-guided retreat program that would allow me to take serious stock of my life— past, present and future.  

It’s possible that this program may be of some use to others.  In fact, it’s with this hope that I offer it to anyone interested. Perhaps you too have a birthday with a zero in it and, for this reason, feel the need to seriously reflect on your life. Or, perhaps you’ve reached a major milestone— the birth of a child, the loss of a loved-one, a change in career, the beginning/end of a marriage— and you feel the need to put the whole of your life into perspective. If that’s the case, then what I offer you here may be of some use.  

Preliminary Comments

The entire program is based around 4 sessions. The first two sessions involve answering a series of questions regarding the past. The last two sessions, questions about the future. You can respond to the questions in several ways. For example, you can write them out in a journal or dictate them audibly on a recording devise. 

It took me roughly three to four hours to get through each session with breaks in-between to eat meals, go for walks, pray, read, etc. I could not have done this self-guided retreat at home with texts and e-mails coming in, my children running around and the constant temptation to watch TV or engage in social media. Therefore, I would highly recommend going to a retreat centre or monastery. Don’t bring a tablet or laptop unless you possess the self-discipline to shut off the wifi and keep it off.

 

Session 1: Learning from the Past and Experiencing Forgiveness

Spend twenty to thirty minutes in prayer and/or meditation. 

Prayerfully read Psalm 139

Ask yourself the following questions. 

  • What do I regret most in my life? What do I wish I had done instead? Have I forgiven myself for these past mistakes? If not, how can I forgive myself and move on?  
  • In what ways have I hurt others? Have I sought forgiveness from them? From God? 
  • In what ways have others hurt me? Am I being called to extend forgiveness? If so, what might that look like?  

Not surprisingly, this first session was (although extremely cathartic) also quite difficult. Here, I found it helpful to be gentle and go easy on myself. I should also offer the following piece of advice: If you have suffered major trauma in your life— especially during your childhood years— it might be wise to do at least this section of the retreat under the supervision of an experienced spiritual director or licensed counsellor. To put it simply, there are some things that can be extremely difficult to face alone.  

 

Session 2: Celebrating the Past and Experiencing Gratitude

Spend twenty to thirty minutes in prayer and/or meditation. 

Prayerfully read Psalm 116

Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • As I look back on the past, what are some of the best decisions that I made? (As you think of things, thank God for giving you the guidance and strength to make those decisions).  
  • As I look back only life, what sort of things have I done that I can be truly proud of? When have I been particularly noble, self-sacrificial or courageous? (Take time to celebrate what God has done in your life).  
  • Looking back on all the people I’ve ever known, who has blessed me the most? Have I told them how much they mean to me? (Thank God for them).

 

Session 3: Looking to the Future with Courage

Spend twenty to thirty minutes in prayer and/or meditation. 

Prayerfully read Luke 3:7-17

Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • As I think about my future, what am I most afraid of? What are my greatest fears regarding my professional life? What are my greatest fears for my marriage and/or family life? How can I learn to be at peace with these fears?  
  • What are some negative or destructive attitudes and habits that I presently hold? How will these things negatively impact the people I love? What might my life look like in 10 years if I refuse to change? What about 20 years? What about when I’m 80 years old?  What can I do to begin the process of change now? 

 

Session 4: Looking to the Future with Hope

Spend twenty to thirty minutes in prayer and/or meditation. 

Prayerfully read James 4:13-16

Ask yourself the following questions: 

Imagine you are 20 years older (or any other duration of time that you feel is most appropriate).  Imagine that, in this ideal future, you are fulfilled and happy. Now, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • In this ideal future, what does my family/personal life look like? What about my professional life? How is my health? Be vivid and specific. Now ask yourself: What can I do within the near future to begin making this vision a reality? 
  • What major things do I feel God calling me to do within the next 20 years? (again, specify another duration of time as you feel most  appropriate).  

I can’t tell you that this two-day retreat was easy. It forced me to revisit dark parts of my past that I had left buried and untouched for many years. It forced me to confront my greatest sins and fears and regrets. But it was truly worth it. There were moments when I felt enveloped in an immense and awesome love— a love that was so kind, benevolent and forgiving that it made me weep with joy. Indeed, not only did I feel the love of the Living God himself but the love of countless family members and friends that He, in his infinite goodness, has placed in my life. How incredibly fitting, then, that my return to Saint John would be marked by a surprise birthday party that Jasmine had planned— a birthday attended by an astonishing variety of people (friends, family and church members)  each of whom have come to mean so much to both of us over the years.   

If you choose to undergo this or a similar kind of spiritual retreat, my hope and prayer for you too would experience healing, refreshment and, most importantly of all, the divine love that envelopes us all.  

Welfare is…

What do you think when you hear that someone is on “Welfare”?

For most the word “Welfare” has become associated with shameful or unfavourable connotations. We may think of people in line ups for assistance, people who are poorly dressed or unkept. The more embittered may think of able bodied men and women who get to sit around watching T.V all day, while the rest of us are hard at work.

The fact that the word Welfare was changed to Social Assistance or Income Assistance is certainly a sign that it had some bad P.R. And the notion that many if not most of the people who are receiving monthly cheques are somehow abusing the system persists no matter what words are used. We’ve all heard of “so and so’s” friend or “so and so’s” relative who clearly is a drain on taxpayer’s hard earned dollars.

We put up with the system and still allow it to exist because we acknowledge that there are those who, due to life circumstances, are just not able to work. We know that there are heartbreaking stories that make Welfare or Social Assistance necessary. And so it lives on.

But we also want to makes sure that it is as unlikely as possible for someone to take advantage of the system. We want to make sure that those who are receiving this ‘free’ money are really the ones who cannot live without it. We want to make sure that checks and balances are in place and that rules are clearly laid out so that no abuses (of money) can take place.

As I’ve gotten to learn more about social assistance, I’ve been surprised at the number of rules that are in place. Some of them, quite limiting – especially the ones around income. You can find these regulations though the Government of New Brunswick’s policy manual http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/social_development/policy_manual.html,

I thought that a few things from this policy were worth highlighting:

1.Individuals can have a maximum of $1000 in the bank and families a maximum of $2000. If at any point there is more than this in the bank, they are no longer eligible for assistance. And upon death, any cash left over is to go to funeral expenses. You are allowed RESP’s for kids, but no other savings.

2. If you are self employed and have tools or equipment for work, you can keep them for the first 12 months you are off, but if you are still on assistance after 12 months, you have to sell your tools and the money you earn from them will be considered income. (Another reason why the Saint John Tool Library is a good idea).

3. You are not eligible for assistance if you have any type of employment, even if this employment is very sporadic and is not enough to live on. If you have been on assistance for 30 days or more you are allowed to keep a portion of your wages. A person living alone can keep up to $150 a month, while a person living with others is allowed to keep up to $200 a month. Any earnings above these amounts are directly taken off your assistance cheque.

5. If you are an individual on assistance you will receive about $576 a month. A family receives anywhere from $887 for one adult and a child to $1508 for a family of 13. Two adults without children receive $903, and a dual parent family with one child receives $938. Considering that room rentals average around $400 a month and 2 bedroom apartments are generally around $750, this does not leave much to live on. Housing assistance is available but there currently is a very long waiting list. I was recently speaking with someone who was wondering if she would have enough money to put seeds in a bird feeder.

We may think that once you get on income assistance (or welfare), that you are able to access the very basic necessities of life. But what about getting off of income assistance? What about saving for a rainy day? What about keeping your family unit together? What about getting back into the workforce? Please consider what it would be like for you and your family to live under the same rules? Would you be able to get by every month? And those who read this who are on assistance, what do you think needs to change?

By Jasmine Chandra – who is offering more questions than solutions today…

 

The Streets Age You: The Correlation Between Poverty and Ill Health

THE STREETS AGE YOU: The Correlation between Poverty and Ill Health  Gary* and I are roughly the same age and have a decent amount in common. We both have children in second grade; we both share the same perverse fascination with American politics; we both have asthma, suffer from an allergy to pet dander and are roughly middle aged (he’s 43 and, alas, I turn forty this coming January). There is, however, one factor in which we differ: our overall physical health. This truth was made particularly clear one day this past spring when I received a distressing phone call from Gary. Sounding beaten and exhausted, he explained how he had recently been rushed to the regional hospital by ambulance after having suffered from what sounded to me like a heart attack.

“So what exactly happened?” I queried, hoping he’d fill me in on the details.
“Could you just come by and see me?” He asked in an almost plaintive tone, ignoring my question. “I’ll explain it to you when you get here.”

Forty minutes later, I was sitting by his bedside in a dimly lit hospital room somewhere in the cardiac care unit— the blinds drawn, the air humming with the ambient noise of monitoring equipment and the low level chatter of nearby nursing staff.

“Well,” he explained, sounding slightly more animated than he did over the phone, “I’ve had this damned flu for the last week or so. On Thursday afternoon, I was starting to hate being cramped up in my apartment so I decided to head out to the library. On the way there, I just felt awful— like I was going to pass out or something. Eventually, I decided to go back home but I realized that there was no way I could make it. So, I ducked into a convenience store and had the guy call an ambulance for me. As it turns out, my resting heart rate was something like 200 beats a minute! The doctor diagnosed me with pneumonia and they admitted me right away. Apparently, he wants me to lose some weight and start taking this heart medication.”

Naturally, I have a lot of male friends who are Gary’s age. However, none of them are coping with a major heart condition. What sets him apart? Well, among other factors, Gary has been living bellow the poverty line for most of his adult life. With just a GED certificate, he has barely managed to secure a series of short-term, minimum wage jobs— jobs that he inevitably loses after a few months, either being laid-off or fired. He’s forced to eat on a budget, opting for cheaper but, more often than not, less nutritious food. It also doesn’t help that he’s been struggling on and off with substance abuse issues since his earlier twenties. The result is a body that  likely feels a decade or more older than his actual chronological age. And Gary isn’t the only person I’ve met who is in this predicament.

In fact, just a few minutes after having visited Gary in his hospital room, I ran into Liz*— a sex worker whom I had first met several years ago through my volunteer work with AIDS Saint John. Like Gary, Liz is roughly my age. When I first met her, she appeared relatively healthy. Her stylish clothes complimenting her tall, healthy build, she would most certainly have not looked out of place sitting behind an office desk, working as a manager at a sales company. Today, she looks strikingly different— as if thirteen years had passed rather than merely three. She has lost a significant amount of weight— her now skinny frame standing in strange congruency next to the IV pole to which she remains tethered. And, although I can’t be sure, her face seems more pallid and wrinkled; her hair more grey. Needless to say, years of drugs abuse— not to mention the odd beating from a john— has not resulted in her aging well.

A truth that I have uncovered over the brief course of my inner-city ministry is also a truth that has been well known by researches for years now; namely, that a life lived in poverty ages you. According to some data from Statistics Canada, the average female living in one of the highest income Canadian neighbourhoods is expected to outlive her peers in the lowest income neighbourhoods by 2.7 years. For men, the contrast is more pronounced with a difference of 4.7 years between richest and poorest. Frankly, given what I’ve seen throughout the course of my inner city ministry, I’m surprised that this contrast isn’t greater. But life expectancy is only part of the picture. If we were to look at residents of the South End and Waterloo Village and compare them to, say, those living in an affluent part of the city like Rothesay or Quispamsis, we would probably see a number of differences related to quality of health— a supposition that the Statistics Canada report seems to support. “Life expectancy measures the length rather than the quality of life,” the report cautions, “So it does not necessarily represent the number of years spent in good health.”

I can only speculate upon the myriad factors that may give rise to the greater levels of ill health among impoverished-  among them, a poor diet. Let me put it this way: For most of my readers, it isn’t too difficult to fill the fridge with fresh vegetables. A quick, half-hour jaunt to Superstore is all that it takes. However, if you live in an inner-city neighbourhood like Saint John’s South End or Waterloo Village, getting to the Superstore to buy some carrots and celery would require taking one or more buses, costing you both a significant amount of time and a somewhat larger portion of your overall grocery budget. It would make far more sense, therefore, to buy food at the local convenience store- food that is more accessible but considerably less healthy. In addition to this, a lifetime of eating canned foods, for example, surely has an impact upon your taste. You begin to prefer these cheaper, fattier, saltier foods over their healthier, alternatives— a preference that, if you’re a parent, you then pass on to your children, thereby perpetuating the problem.

And then there are the stresses of living below the poverty line— stresses that, if experienced year-after-year, must surely take their toll on the body. Imagine this scenario: You just got evicted from the bachelor pad in the rooming house that you share with five other guys— some of whom have threatened you with physical violence in the past. You need a place to stay but it doesn’t look like you’ll be able to move into a new apartment until the beginning of the next month. In the meantime, you dread having to stay at the shelter where, in the past, you were assaulted and had your stuff stolen. This is a reality for some of the guys that I’ve journeyed with over the course of the last few years. And, with this kind of stress piling up year-after-year, it seems only natural to self-medicate: drinking to excess, smoking copious amounts of marijuana, consuming large amounts of fatty, sugary foods and, in short, adopting a lifestyle that further compromises health, lowering both quality of life and life-expectancy.

In a blog post as short as this, I won’t even begin to suggest how this issue can be rectified (as if I knew!) I will, however, say this: any Christian community based in a high-poverty region, whether urban or rural, ought to have some kind of ministry that addresses the immediate medical needs of the poor. Just think of how often the gospels tell of Jesus offering what some might cynically refer to as “band-aid solutions.” On at least two separate occasions, he puts on a meal program that feeds first five-thousand and then four-thousand hungry peasants. He becomes a kind of one-man hospital, with mobs of people bringing their sick to him on stretchers. He and his disciples restore health to countless people whose bodies have suffered the tole of having lived for decades in straw poverty.

When I think of this kind of ministry, I think of the work of parish nurses throughout this diocese— women who are paid by or volunteer for local congregations and who use their medical training and years of experience to offer foot-care clinics, bandage wounds and assist with the proper use of prescription mediation. I know of one parish nurse who, at least on one occasion, has saved a man’s life as a result of her efforts. Such ministry— like Jesus’ own ministry to the sick and suffering— bears witness to the Kingdom of God. It opens peoples’ minds and imaginations to a deeper, more hopeful reality— a reality of wholeness and wellbeing rather than one of sickness and suffering.

* All the names mentioned in this post have been changed to protect their identity.

An Unholy Purge: Reflections on the Holocaust and Other Acts of Genocide

AN UNHOLY PURGE: REFLECTIONS ON THE HOLOCAUST AND OTHER ACTS OF GENOCIDE. This past Monday evening, Saint John’s Jewish community observed Yom Hoshoah — Holocaust Memorial Day— at the Shaarei Zedek Synagogue. The keynote speaker was Dr. Cheryl Fury, a professor of history at the University of New Brunswick, who in 2010 participated in an organized tour of Germany’s and Poland’s concentration camps known as The March of the Living. For Dr. Fury, the impact of the tour was made all the more indelible by the presence of holocaust survivor and educator, Vera Schiff, who accompanied the group, all while recalling her experiences at the Czechoslovakian concentration camp of Theresienstadt. I could well imagine how the overall tone of the pilgrimage — even despite Vera’s dynamic personality — would have been mournful and solemn. But, according to Dr. Fury, the darkest point came, not at Auschwitz or Birkenau, but Majdanek — the last stop on their tour.  Majdanek — a Polish concentration camp located southeast of Warsaw and close to the Ukrainian border — features an imposing memorial that, by its sheer immensity alone, bears dreadful witness to the scale of the holocaust: a gigantic circular mausoleum containing seven tons of human ash.

MajdanekAshes

“We had a memorial service there,” Dr. Fury recalled in her talk, “And it was the only time I saw Vera cry. She told us later that her cousins died there. And so, she imagined that they were somewhere in that giant heap of ash.”

As Dr. Fury later implied in her talk, one could spend a lifetime wrestling with the question of how cruelty on such an immense scale is even possible and still, at the end of it all, remain darkly mystified. And yet, despite the seeming impossibility of the endeavour, I believe that we are still compelled to delve into that terrible mystery. For the truth is, Hitler and the Nazis did what they did for a reason — an utterly deplorable reason — but a reason nonetheless. Their perverse ideology had lead them to the unfounded belief that the Jews were the source of Germany’s — indeed, Europe’s — greatest ills and that, if the German race wished truly thrive amidst the nations, they were duty bound to eliminate them.

As I reflect upon this reprehensible mission, I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat — a warning of the terrible dangers that arise when human beings, in their hubris, take it upon themselves to rid the world of evil. (Note: I do not want it to be construed, even for a moment, that the Jews are or were a source of evil in the world— at least no more than the rest of humanity. Only that the Nazis, in their deranged worldview, believed them to be so).

“The Kingdom of Heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field,” Jesus explains. “While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well” (Matthew 13:24-26).  The field, as Jesus later explains, represents the world. The wheat are the “children of the kingdom” (Mt. 13:38) and the weeds are all “all who cause others to sin and evil doers” (Mt. 13:41).

In the parable, the servants of the landowner — having noticed the weeds growing amidst the wheat — have a question for their master: “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” (Mt. 13:28). In other words, “Is it our mission to go out into the world and purge it of all evil?” The response of the landowner is one that, if it had been heeded by the revolutionaries of the modern age, could have spared the lives of countless millions. “No,” the landowner patiently explains, “If you pull up the weeds you might uproot wheat along with them.” (Mt. 13:29). In short, it is not the responsibility of frail and sinful human beings to mete out judgement on such a universal scale. Furthermore, should we seek to enact a kind of judgement whose province is uniquely God’s, the result would not be the creation of a utopia but, rather, the very opposite — the wholesale slaughter of the innocent and the multiplication of the very evil we sought to uproot. That, at least, is what we’ve learned from the history, not only of the holocaust, but of genocide in general.

The problem is this: Instead of heeding the lesson that weeds grow amongst the wheat— that evil is sown in a desultory fashion, indiscriminately amidst the good — we lazily assume that it is localized to one, particular subgroup of the population. We naively think that it can be neatly cordoned off.  “These people — the members of this particular class or creed or race — are the source of all evil. These people are our historical oppressors — the root of all evil in the world. And, if we are to make the world a better place, we are morally bound to deal with them.”

This, alas, is the bloody story of the modern age. “If we can simply cleanse France of all monarchists and counter-revolutionaries,” Robespierre and the Jacobins believed, “then we can create a nation truly grounded upon the trifold foundation of liberty, fraternity and equality.” The result? Tens of thousands of innocent French citizens, betrayed by their neighbours-turned-spies, guillotined in gruesome public spectacles staged in every city square of the nation. “If we could only purge Russia of all the greedy kulaks,” Lenin and Stalin believed, “we can complete the revolution and usher in the communist utopia that Marx prophesied.” The result? The deportation and execution of millions of Russia’s semi-prosperous peasants and the resulting mass starvations that accompanied this disastrous agricultural policy. “If we can just deal with the Jews,” Hitler declared, “and rid them from the face of Europe, then Germany’s glory would be restored.” The result? 6 million men, women and children, packed into cattle cars with cold, industrial efficiency and shipped off to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau.

Unfortunately, I could go on and on for several more paragraphs, naming one historical example after another of genocidal atrocities committed in the name of ridding the world (or at least a certain nation) of  evil. Indeed, I’m certain that you too could supply examples of your own, completing whatever you find lacking in my already extensive list. The point, however, is this: Despite whatever prejudices we hold, evil is NOT neatly localized within one, easily definable subgroup — whether that be the kulaks, the Jews, the Tutsis, the monarchists, the capitalists, the communists and so on. Evil cannot be neatly partitioned off but is, rather, dispersed throughout humanity as a whole. Indeed, the point can be taken even further than this: As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (himself a survivor of the Soviet gulags) once wrote, “The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.”

So, this week, as we remember the horrors of the holocaust, we ought to also beware. Beware of any pundit or thought leader of any political stripe — right or left, reactionary or revolutionary — who claims to have found the presence of evil, localized entirely within one segment of the population. Beware of anyone or any movement arguing that, in order to create the ideal nation or the just society, this subgroup needs to be somehow dealt with. Rarely if ever will they use a word like “exterminate.” However, once they are emboldened, they may use words like “contain,” “sterilize,” “segregate,” or “breed out.” They will say that such actions are necessary to right historical wrongs or to ensure that, somehow, justice is done. And, should we raise concerns regarding the extreme measures they wish to take, they may remind us of the old dictum: “Revolutions are not made with rosewater.” The Jews who survived the holocaust, however, have a dictum of their own — “Never again.”

 

 

The Failure of Confirmation Class (And what we need to do to make it Work)

THE FAILURE OF CONFIRMATION CLASS (AND WHAT WE NEED TO DO TO MAKE IT WORK). If you’re a parish priest in the Catholic, Anglican or Lutheran tradition, you’re no doubt quite familiar with the following scenario. Carter and Mckayla— brother and sister— have, within the last few months, turned 13 and 11 years old respectively. Since then, you’ve gotten at least three phone calls from their mother— a stay-at-home-mom and part-time accountant who does women’s roller derby on Saturday nights and shows up sporadically to church. She’s putting gentle but, nonetheless, persistent pressure on you to run a catechism class so that so that her kids can get confirmed as soon as possible. She’s not doing so because she believes that getting confirmed is an indispensable next step to her children’s journey of faith. Rather, she’s doing so because her parents (the grandparents of young Carter and McKayla) are applying pressure on her in a manner that is far less subtle— hounding and nagging her at every weekend barbecue and, in general, making every family reunion miserable.

You know that your Bishop will be touring the region sometime within the next few weeks and is scheduled to hold a confirmation service at a neighbouring parish. So, with this looming deadline in mind, you hastily throw together a crash course in Christianity, stripping the curriculum down to its very bare bones, and— for the next few Thursday nights— inflict it upon a group of five or six, bleary eyed adolescents who would rather be anywhere than in a church basement, listening to you drone on about the definition of a sacrament. In the end, the Bishop shows up and performs some quaint, archaic ritual that most involved barely understand. The boys wear ugly ties and the girls wear dresses that their grandmas have picked out; photographs are taken; the obligatory ham and egg-salad sandwiches are served followed by cake. And, after that night, you never see Carter, McKayla or their parents again. (At least, not in church, anyway). Sadly, this is what confirmation has become.

But imagine if this weren’t the case. Imagine if the rite of confirmation— along with the necessary preparatory classes that precede it— did not mark the end of a young person’s life with Jesus but, rather, a fresh new beginning to it? Imagine if confirmation resulted in— not more empty pews— but a lifelong, life-giving involvement in the ongoing mission of the church community? No doubt, this beautiful ideal is lightyears removed from the all-too typical scenario laid out above. The question is: How do we end up so tragically missing the mark? That’s what I’d like to explore further in this post.

Failure 1: Forced Confessions
In my opinion, our first tragic mistake is this: we make confirmation into something that we force upon our children, literally against their will. The absurdity of this is highlighted when we consider what confirmation actually is— a rite which involves a Christian’s personal confirmation of her baptismal vows. During the ceremony, the candidate is required to state publicly that she believes in the central tenets of the Christian faith as laid out in the Apostle’s Creed and that she will— having carefully counted the cost— follow Jesus as one of his disciples. Needless to say, to force such a confession out of a child borders on cruelty. In one confirmation class that I ran, the parents actually told their atheist daughter that unless she went ahead with the ceremony— publicly professing a faith that she did personally believe— the family would not be going to Disney Land that spring! Of course, that’s a far cry from the tactics employed by Spanish Inquisitors but just think of how much it belittles, not only the rite itself, but the integrity of the child.

Before I begin a series of confirmation classes, I make sure to meet with each of the candidates with their parents present to explain the following: “Yes, your mom and dad can make you do all sorts of things that you don’t like— including going to confirmation classes. However, they cannot make you get confirmed. Getting confirmed involves publicly stating that you (not your parents!) believe in the core teachings of the Christian faith and that you (not your parents!) intent to follow Jesus as his disciple. If this decision is forced upon you, then it is not a true decision.”

Failure 2: Cutting Corners on the Catechism
Secondly— out of a combination of both laziness and expediency— we fail to offer confirmation classes that are rich, thorough and engaging. After all, there are so many pressing demands, not only in the ministry of a parish priest, but in the lives of the average twenty-first-century teen. With all of these competing demands, the temptation is to cut corners on catechism— scaling down a program that ought to be at least six months long to just six weeks. The result is a presentation of the Christian faith that is superficial, patchy and incomplete. With such a shallow grasp of gospel, we then toss the kids out into the most secular civilization the world has ever produced, expecting them somehow to retain some semblance of a Christian identity. In my opinion, that’s comparable to teaching a kid how to do the doggy-paddle in a backyard swimming pool and then throwing him into the North Atlantic expecting him to swim.

Instead, our confirmation classes need to be biblically and theologically rich, emotionally and intellectually engaging and— above all else— relevant to the complex life of a twenty-first century adolescent. It should cover the broad and colourful scope of salvation history— from the creation of the cosmos out of nothing to the healing, redemption and restoration of all things. It should involve a passionate wrestling with the word of God. Don’t just read them the story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers. Give them scripts and costumes and have them act it out. Don’t just talk about the Jews as God’s chosen people. Attend sabbath prayers at the local synagogue and have the Rabbi offer a tour. Don’t just tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Take them to the local soup kitchen or homeless shelter and have them live it out. Make the word of God come alive for them. And, most of important of all, do all within your power to bring them into a meaningful, life changing encounter with Christ. Needless to say, all of this can’t be accomplished in just six weeks. The adult teachers of the confirmation class need to invest months into this process.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason why the priests themselves must design the curriculum and teach the class. If they aren’t gifted in teaching; if they’re not able to relate to adolescents; if their pastoral responsibilities prevent them from investing the necessary time and energy into the catechism, they need to delegate the ministry to a team of competent laypeople. There are all sorts of adults in our churches who, with a bit of training and permission, could thrive in a ministry such as this. They need to be trusted and given the chance.

Failure Three: Not Building Mentoring Relationships
Our third and, perhaps, greatest failure is this: We have not used confirmation class as a means for building trusting mentoring relationships with the young members of our churches.

Again, this involves a significant investment of time. It takes time out of each confirmation class to chat with the candidates, giving them the freedom and the space to talk about whatever it is that happens to be on their mind. How does Matt feel about getting cut from the hockey team? What does Adam think about the new Avengers movie? How has Kayla been coping since her father got that job out west? When kids feel free to talk to you about their lives— from their trivial interests to their deepest hopes and fears— then they also feel free to talk to you about their true beliefs regarding God and Jesus, heaven and hell. They learn to trust you and trust is what healthy relationships are all about.

These relationships are what ultimately bring young people back to church after the date of the confirmation itself has has come and gone— the sense of fellowship and camaraderie with their peers; the sense of being loved and accepted by their mentors; the sense (however vague and ill-defined) that the Holy Spirit is somehow present in this community, working in the hearts of everyone involved. This is what encourages somebody— youth or adult— to remain engaged in the ongoing life of a church community, following in the footsteps of the Master.

By Terence Chandra

Resurrecting Religion: A Book Review

Resurrecting Religion: A Book Review

When Terence and I first began attending Sanctuary’s Sunday evening service we were young seminary students. In our hoodies and ripped jeans, we were mostly attracted by the relaxed atmosphere and the fact that the band had a washtub bass. At first we didn’t even stay for the sermon. Having already been to our morning churches where we were doing our field placements, we felt justified in leaving Sanctuary during the mid service coffee break that followed communion. We didn’t know what we were missing. When we finally stayed and heard Greg Paul preach, we stopped cutting out early. With his bible in one hand, facing the small horseshoe of people gathered, Greg would make us feel like we could see and feel what was described thousands of years ago and that now reflected on those tightly printed pages.

Though we were a mixed bag of demographics (it would be hard to find a more diverse church group), we felt that Greg’s words spoke to our hearts. And you could tell in the way that the congregation interacted, in how people were welcomed, that the Spirit of God was doing something special. From the band member’s mom who brought cookies, to the middle aged man who sang Barnie songs, from the street involved to the bright eyed students, from the businessman to the self-confessed addict, all had a place of belonging. Now that we live hundred of kilometres from Toronto and we can’t go to Sanctuary anymore (though we try to pop in when we are in town), we feel a sense of connection though reading Greg Paul’s books. The most recent of these (it came out February 2nd) is called “Resurrecting Religion: Finding Our Way Back to the Good News”.

In this latest book, Greg addressed the shameful things that have given religion, and especially the Christian religion, a bad name. And not all of these sins are in the past. Working through the book of James, Greg describes how if our faith is just about ourselves and our own personal relationship with God then we’re probably missing out. Our connection to God is important, vital even, but so is our response to the poor and vulnerable among us. To me, this book is much more than another exposé on how we should live. It shifts our thinking on what it really means to be religious. Through his open bible, Greg shows us how we could live out our faith and be the Church in a way that bursts out with life and freedom – in other words, in the way that Jesus always intended it to be. It may be uncomfortable at times; it may stretch us; it may even hurt but it can also give life a fullness that is hard to find anywhere else.

Sanctuary influenced us in a lot of ways. It wasn’t just the Sunday services. It was the way they do things, the ethos of the place that helped form the way that we do our ministry. Greg’s books are well worth a read because of where these words come from, how they were shaped. I started off by talking about Sanctuary because it was an important place for Terence and I, but it is also an important part of this book (and all the books Greg has written), because it is a community that lives out what it really means to be the Church and what it really means to have faith, or be religious (in the best sense of the word). It isn’t perfect, far from that, but its imperfection is in fact its appeal. There is very little pretending or posturing during a Sanctuary service, none of the shinny, smiling faces described in Greg’s book. The guy who prays about his weight problem is still praying and struggling months down the road. The addict who blesses the communion bread admits that he will probably go out and use after the service. The sighs and groans that are let out during the course of the evening service, plainly describe that all is not OK. And yet there is joy, there is dancing, there is a deep sense that Jesus has come as a light to the world and that in some amazing and gracious way, we are invited to reflect that light.

There’s a lot to absorb here, after all. Resurrecting religion is no small task. What is helpful about Greg’s book is that it is not just about doing Sunday morning differently, or the latest leadership skills pastors should adopt, or starting a new program, or learning to be more welcoming. It is about changing our hearts, so that the way we live reflects the faith we experience. It’s about separating good religion from bad religion, and recognizing that there is such a thing as ‘good’ religion.

A small group of us has gathered to read together and discuss the book. In these times we’ve been able to open up about our own struggles in the church both in the present and in the past. We’ve also had the opportunity to talk about things we don’t often discuss in church groups: the residential schools and how we respond to our checkered past; the challenges we have in trying to belong in church communities, and how we bring dignity to those who come to us for help. We’ve been encouraged to ‘be bold’, to revisit the way we do community suppers and give out groceries, and we’ve been offered a picture of how to respond to the faith we have received. That’s quite a lot for one little book, so thank you Greg and thank you Sanctuary!

By Jasmine Chandra