A Brief History of My Prayer Life (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Prayer Book)

Introverts like me take naturally to prayer. We’re comfortable spending long hours in our own heads, working out our problems using our inner selves as sparring partners. What disposition could possibly be more conducive to prayer— an act which is nothing more than a kind of inner-wrestling with a God who— as well as transcending all being— abides in the depths of our psyche as its very fountain and source?

 
It was during a moment of prayer, in the autumn following my graduation from high school, that the shallow faith of my childhood and teenage years finally began to blossom into something deep, mature and lasting. If I recall correctly, I went for a long walk one September evening doing what introverts like me do best: reflecting. And, in fact, I had a lot to reflect upon. For one thing, I was eighteen years old, just graduating high school, and unsure what direction my life might ultimately take. For another I had, just a month earlier, come within a hairs breadth of dying— an experience which, for the first time ever, forced me to seriously contemplate the reality of my own mortality.

 
At first, as I wandered the streets of my neighbourhood, I spoke only to myself of these things, carrying on a kind of internal dialogue. A few minutes later, gradually and quite imperceptibly, I found myself talking to God— speaking to him of my own uncertain future as well as of my own mortality. Although my memory is a bit hazy, there was some point when I intentionally and vocally decided that my life was not my own— that I did not summon myself into being, that I do no sustain that being and that, ultimately, I cannot possibly live that life for myself. Life (mine along with everyone else’s) is a shear gratuity: an unspeakably rich, graciously bestowed gift, flowing from the heart of an infinite benevolence. That night I felt that I was giving that life back to its source. And, upon the moment of this giving-back, I felt it returned to me— only fuller and more complete in the knowledge that it was never truly my own. That night, I realized how valuable prayer could be and (as best as a lazy kid like me could possibly manage) I tried to engage in that practice on a nightly basis.

 

At first, my prayers took the form described in the above paragraph. They were unscripted, un-liturgical rambling conversations with a God whom I— in my teenage hubris— casually and thoughtlessly presumed to call “friend.” There was no set format, no “order of service.” If I felt particularly good about something in my life, I’d give thanks for it. If I did something particularly mean or brainless, I’d ask for forgiveness. If there was something I was in need of I’d simply put in a request. Looking back on it all, there was a humble, unselfconscious and beautifully irreverent character to my prayer life. I think of Abraham, haggling with the Lord over the few righteous souls who just might be living in the doomed city of Sodom, presumptuously reminding God that he, above all, is required to act justly. I also think of Adam— still unaware of his nakedness before the Divine— walking in innocence with the Lord in the evening cool of the garden.

 
The problem with my prayer life back then was its erratic nature. Although I tried to pray each evening, I eventually fell into the habit of only praying whenever I felt like it. And, since I rarely felt like it, I rarely prayed. Eventually, I would go through long stretches— sometimes up to a month or more— where I would drop the discipline of prayer entirely. I never felt guilty about this, as if I were doing something sinful or wrong. However, I was aware of being somehow adrift. Back then, I described it as a feeling of having no solid ground to stand upon, nothing firm upon which to fix my life. Eventually, I’d somehow find the discipline to come back to prayer— doing it consistently for several weeks or even months— only to drop it again after a while. This pattern continued well into my third year of studies in seminary.

 
It was in seminary that I was first introduced to what we Anglicans call “the daily offices,” a set pattern of prayers and canticles from the Book of Common Prayer to be recited twice each day, first in the morning and then in the evening. Both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer were said daily in our college chapel and all seminarians were required to attend. At first I upheld the requirement simply because I was told I had to. However, by the time second semester rolled around, I gradually learned that people didn’t seem to notice or care whether or not I was present— that, in fact, I could jig chapel with impunity. So I did. The thought of reciting dull prayers in Elizabethan English for half-an-hour simply wasn’t the impetus I needed to get out of the sack at seven in the morning after having spent most of the night studying and writing term papers. So, instead, I continued to pray on my own (albeit erratically) using my own words to grapple with the Infinite.

 
It wasn’t until my internship, when I began to serve in full-time church ministry, that I discovered what a treasure the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer truly are. After being at the job for a few weeks, I quickly realized that I needed a set, daily discipline to lend structure to my day— a discipline to help me mark the time and pace my tasks and activities. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer served as the perfects bookends to these long, busy, first days of my ministry. At first, I simply adapted the daily offices to my liking— cutting out a canticle and reading here or there to simplify and streamline things. Eventually, however, having developed a true love for the practice, I began to pray the whole thing, from start to finish, twice a day.

 
This, above all things, solved the problem of my erratic commitment to prayer. Praying the daily offices, first in the morning and then in the evening, became second-nature to me— a habit that was steadily reinforced the more I did it. No longer could I use the old excuse: “I won’t pray today because I haven’t got the words.” Now, I had the words: They were provided for me by the Prayer Book itself— printed on the very pages I held in my hands each day.

 
For many, the notion of reading or reciting set, pre-written prayers sounds stifling— perhaps even phoney and inauthentic. Why rattle-off a prayer that somebody else wrote when I could, instead, allow the words to flow spontaneously from my own heart? For one thing, the words provided in the daily office are not merely “somebody else’s words.” They are the God-breathed words of scripture— drawn, as they are, from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Furthermore, they are the words of the church— prayers dating back to as early as the first century A.D.— first written by prophets and martyrs, patriarchs and matriarchs but prayed again-and-again by generations of Christians since then, some canonical saints, others humble servants of Jesus whose simple lives have been ignored by history. By using the words of the Prayerbook, I am not merely “reading prayers” but joining my voice with the vast and mighty chorus of our fellow Christians— some still in the flesh but most now in glory. No, the prayers of the prayer book are not MY words insofar as they have arisen spontaneously from my own head. However, they ARE my words insofar as I am a member of the church— a multi-generational, multi-lingual, transnational body of which I am a living member. These words are mine because they are my heritage.

 
Don’t get me wrong: I am well aware of the dangers inherent in using set prayers and liturgies in a rigid, lifeless and inflexible manner, without making any room at all for the spontaneous and refreshing movement of God’s Spirit. So, in addition to sticking to the words on the script, I leave ample room for expressions of my own— prayers and thanksgivings that well up from from within, prompted by the stirrings of my own heart. And, as I did when I first began praying, I still wrestle with God— leaving ample space in my prayer time for questioning and searching, begging and ranting, twisting and cajoling. The backbone of my prayer routine, however— the thing that provides my prayer life with its steady, punctuated rhythm— is the use of the daily office: the ancient prayers of scriptures and the timeless words of the church. This prayer routine keeps me fixed and grounded. Through it, I have weathered more than a few personal crises.

 
So goes the brief history of my prayer life. What about you? Do you pray or mediate daily or is it tough to find the time? What does your spiritual discipline look like? Please leave your comments bellow!

 

By Terence Chandra

A Few Good Men: Father absence in Inner City Saint John

With Jasmine well into the third and final trimester of her pregnancy, we decided that a lengthy and exotic vacation was out of the question for this summer (not that we could afford one, anyway). Instead, we opted for a destination a little closer to home: The seaside town of Saint Andrews, New Brunswick— a mere forty-five minutes drive from Saint John, west along Route 1. By the fourth day, having exhausted most the tourist attractions, my six-year old son, Sam, had grown restless and bored. Seeing that I was about to go for my 5 km jog, he insisted repeatedly that he tag along, swearing he’d be able to keep up. So I let him. What followed could very well have been among the most delightful hours I’ve ever spent with the little guy.

We jogged slowly along Water Street— the sun beginning to set over the ocean to the right of us. As we rounded the bend, now heading uphill towards the magnificent Algonquin Hotel, I told him we could walk for a while if he liked. He declined, insisting that we press on all the way up the hill. Our pace was slow and easy— so easy, that we were able to keep a decent conversation going. However, by the time the hill grew steep and the grand outline of the 19th century hotel was showing in the distance, I could tell that Sam was having a rough time of it, his breathing now laboured and his chattiness dialled down to the occasional brief comment. Still, he insisted on continuing, deciding that he would push himself until he reached the Algonquin— roughly a kilometre away. In the end, with his little heart pounding and legs aching, he made it. We crested the hill, walked towards a nearby picnic bench and sat down to face the sunset, Sam savouring his victory along with the delightful endorphin rush that comes after a hard and exhilarating run. I felt very close to him at that moment and dreamed of what it might be like in his teenage years, when we would go for much longer runs and share much deeper conversations.

I, myself, don’t remember going for long jogs with my dad. I do, however, remember him sitting at the kitchen table with me, night after night, walking me through long-division problems from my sixth grade math textbook or, in my high school years, trying to explain some abstruse concept in physics. On some days, he had infinite patience. On other days, my slowness resulted in— to put it tactfully— visible signs of aggravation. My father, like many immigrant parents, was, and still is, obsessed with education. In fact, I once remember him telling me, on a road trip that we took together to New York City, that the two most important things in life were “love and education.” When he told me that I smiled to myself, half expecting him to add, “And the greatest of these… is education.”

This is what many of us will be celebrating this weekend: the memories shared with our fathers, the imperfect men who have shaped our characters— for good, for ill or for both— over the course of our tender years and beyond. For some people however, Dad is not a presence to be celebrated or remembered but, rather, an absence to be mourned. Such is the case with so many I’ve met over the course of the past three years of living and working in Saint John’s inner city. I think of the seventeen-year-old girl who, all throughout her childhood and teenage years, has sent annual messages to her absent father, begging him to make a cameo appearances at her birthday parties. Not once did he show up. She has long since given up the letter-writing campaign but, instead, seems to chase after her father’s ghost, as it were, in all sorts of unconscious ways—not all of which may be healthy.

According to some statistics released by the Saint John  Human Development Council  among the families who live Ward 3 (a municipal designation that encompasses the South End Peninsula, Waterloo Village the Lower West and parts of the east side) 33.2 % of families are headed by what are referred to as “lone-parent families.” (To put that figure into perspective, consider that the national average is 16.3%). Given the fact that the other two family designations are “couple families without children” (41.4%) and couple families with children (25%) we can easily arrive at the following conclusion: the majority of kids growing up in Ward 3 live in families headed by a single parent— that parent, in most cases, being a mother. That’s a lot of kids who, in all likelihood, don’t have a safe, consistent, older male figure in their lives. The same holds true for most poor, intercity neighbourhoods across the western world. In fact, one UK reporter refers to inner-city neighbourhoods in places like London and Manchester as being “men deserts”.

As statisticians often say, however, “correlation isn’t causation.” Are people more likely to be economically impoverished because they have no father? Or, are they more likely to have no father because they are economically impoverished? I have yet to work out an articulate response to this question but, from what I’ve observed in my ministry, the one problem feeds into the other in a kind of vicious cycle. I’m also quite sure that growing up without a dad (and consistent, loving male presence to replace him) places a child in a situation of great vulnerability.

But, because Sunday is Father’s Day— a day of celebration— let me rephrase the preceding sentence positively: Dads are extremely important and, growing up with a consistent and loving male presence, affords a child countless advantages in life. Indeed, as more research on fatherhood and father absence is brought to light, this notion has been strongly affirmed. For example, according to psychologists E. Hill and Danielle J. DelPriore, researchers from Texas Christian University, when a father is present and active in his daughter’s life, she is significantly less likely to engage in sexual risk-taking behaviours and, hence, less likely to become pregnant in her teenage years. In fact, the presence of a father in his daughter’s life not only has affects on a girls behaviour but— astonishingly enough— even her biology. When a girls grows up in a household without a father she is, according to Hill and Delpriore, more likely to experience reproductive development at an accelerated rate, hitting puberty earlier that her female peers with fathers.

In addition to this, some research has demonstrated that a child’s verbal aptitude is greatly influenced by the presence of a father. Paul Raeburn, for example, author of Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked, points to data from the University of North Carolina suggesting that fathers (for reasons that the researches can only speculated upon) actually play a greater role in the language development of their children than mothers. When it comes to longterm educational outcomes, the consequences of this are quite obvious: the greater a child’s competence in language, the more likely he or she is to enjoy and, indeed, thrive in the early years of education. And, needless to say, how a child fares in the primary grades is a significant predictor of later academic success and, hence, employment, general quality of life and so on.

To say these things is, of course, to no way minimize the immensely important role that mothers play in a child’s development— a role that is at least equal to that of fathers in importance. Nor should these findings paint the plight of every single mother as hopeless. In fact, over the course of my work in inner-city Saint John, I have met a number of single moms who have been wise and resourceful enough to compensate for the absence of dad— enlisting all sorts of help from grandfathers and uncles, brothers and neighbours in the care and mentoring of their children. (With this in mind, happy father’s day to all father-figures who aren’t biological dads!) That said, my reflections on findings like those mentioned above— in addition to my own personal experience as a father— have led me to conclude that we, as a society, can do a great deal more to encourage the presence of Dads in inner city neighbourhoods like Saint John’s South End. As far as I can tell (let the reader correct me if I’m wrong) as of now there are no programs seeking to mitigate the social problem of father absence and encourage stable families— a fact which has lead me and a colleague of mine to, at the very least, meet and brainstorm about some ideas.

For now, I’m grateful for the role my own father played in my life and committed to playing and equal, if not greater role, in the lives of my own son and (as of now, unborn) daughter. I want Jasmine and I to be as fixed, enduring and unquestioned a presence in their world as the firm earth beneath their feet and the sheltering sky above their head. With their childhoods encompassed by such unshakeable love— the love of God poured out through our own, frail, human hands— my hope is that my children will thrive. Indeed, my hope and prayer is that all children— including the children that I meet in my own, beloved neighbourhood of Saint John’s South End— might thrive too, knowing what it feels like to be loved in this way.

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By Terence Chandra

A Day in My Life

If I want to enjoy a moment of quiet and solitude in the morning, I need to be out of bed well before my six-year old son— himself an early riser for whom a seven o’clock wakeup time constitutes a leisurely sleep-in. This means that my phone is set for 5:30 AM, wrenching me from my dreams with a piercing, staccato squeal that (for some reason unknown even to me) I’ve chosen for my wakeup call.
From bed, it’s off to our home office where I brew my coffee and settle into the black, faux-leather couch that doubles as our guest bed. As I sip my coffee, I go through my prayer routine: a process that begins with the groggy recitation of one or more of the Psalms followed by the reading of 2 scriptural passages— one from the Old Testament and another from the New. This discipline serves as a lodestone for the day, grounding me firmly in my first principles and orienting me in the direction I need to move in.
By this time, my son has woken up. The next hour (from roughly seven to eight o’clock) consists of the organized chaos typical of most families with small children: hurried breakfasts, jostling for space in front of the bathroom mirror, the hasty packing of lunches and the mad rush to the bus stop where my son is whisked off to school.
The next two hours of my day (from 8:00 to 10:00) are the golden hours: a time when I enjoy a high degree of mental clarity and energy— energy that, from noontime onwards, will begin to decline. For this reason, I schedule the heavy mental lifting for these mid-morning hours: whether that be preparing a sermon or a talk, strategically planning my ministry or, yes, working on a blog entry. After a couple hours of this mostly solitary, mental work, I venture out into the street-corners and coffeeshops, the church halls and community centres where I and my neighbours live out our glorious and messy little lives.
This morning my first stop is Romero House- a soup kitchen based in Waterloo Village that, for many years now, has daily served free breakfasts and lunches to an, unfortunately, growing clientele. I go to the kitchen counter, pick up a tray with my spaghetti dinner and settle down on one of the long, plastic tables that fill the room. Immediately, I’m accosted by a woman who appears to be in her mid-forties— a woman who, at the moment, is fuming. I, as it turns out, am the object of her present wrath. Apparently, she had just been banned from a drop-in put on by another local church and feels the need to vent upon me— a visible representative of the Christian community.
“I could fit the number of Christians that I trust on the tip of this spoon,” she snarls, waving the greasy piece of cutlery inches before my face. “All of you are hypocrites and if you think that I’m going to burn in hell for my so-called ‘sins,’ then it only shows the world how stupid you all are!” She then goes into elaborate detail on how the churches of our city have failed her along with a brief, historical survey of every atrocity ever committed in the name of Christ.
Here, I have two potential options: (1) I can either engage my irate friend in dialogue, acknowledging her objections and trying to articulate why I believe what I believe, contrary to the failings of the church. Or, I can (2) remain silent and simply absorb the abuse. Today, I choose option 2, largely because the woman is simply too worked-up at the moment to listen to anything that I, or anyone else, would have to say. Within a few minutes, after most of her venom is spent, she cleans the remaining spaghetti from off her plate, gets-up from the table and exits Romero House, back onto Brunswick Drive, back into a world and to a life that, I presume, is far from easy on her.
Within moments, I find myself chatting with another patron who tells me the sad story of her eldest son: a young man now living in Alberta and waging a life-or-death battle with a recently acquired narcotics addiction. She asks me to pray for him— right there in the noise and chaos of the lunch room— and I oblige, laying my hand on her shoulder and asking the King of the Universe to intervene for the sake of yet another desperate human soul. “That was beautiful,” the woman half-whispers, praising me for the prayer as if it were a piece of poetry that I had just recited, before gathering her bags and proceeding out the same door as the previous woman. After a conversation with one or two others, I too am off to my next destination: a nearby elementary school where I’m scheduled to do one-on-one tutoring through New Brunswick’s Elementary Literacy Program.
Upon arriving, I find myself in one of the second-grade classrooms waiting, along with the other volunteer tutors, for my student to arrive (a little girl whom I’ll call Brianna). When she gets there, we settle into our chairs and start the lesson. Beginning with some literacy games, we eventually progress into reading. Brianna selects a book that’s appropriate to her reading level, sits down next to me, and begins to work laboriously through the sentences. When I praise her for the proper pronunciation of a particularly challenging word, she looks up at me, rewarding me with an enormous grin.
In the neighbourhood where I live, there is a strikingly high child poverty rate of 47 percent— much higher than the national average. And, with child poverty, comes significant educational challenges— a difficulty picking up the fundamental principles of reading, writing and numeracy upon which success in the later years of learning depend. That’s why I, along with the other volunteers in the NB Literacy Program, find this work so rewarding.
After a trip to the gym, a quick shower and a hurried supper with my family, I’m off to my final destination: the Saint John Multicultural Association where I teach a weekly intermediate English class to half-a-dozen of our city’s newcomers. Some are from South American countries like Columbia and Brazil; others are from the Ukraine; a couple are from China. Some are full-time students whilst others are already in established careers. Some have families and others are single. They’ve each come to this obscure Canadian port city for reasons that are as diverse as they are: to escape the growing political and economic instability of their home countries; to find adventure and new opportunities. Some, even for love.
I tend to wear my clerical collar to English class. It’s not that there’s any conscious religious element to to my teaching. I simple want to show my students that my work with them is part of the mission of a broader Christian community (namely, Stone Church) whose calling is, in part, to provide welcome to people just like them. And, incidentally, if one or two of them ask questions about what I believe, so much the better.
So goes a typical day in my ministry. Sometimes, I come home celebrating— thanking God aloud for the things that I’ve seen and done. Other days, I come home exhausted, wondering if I did any good at all. At any rate, if you’ve stuck it through to the end of this post, I hope it gives you a better sense of what my day-to-day ministry looks like. I wish you all the best in yours!

By Terence Chandra

A Peculiar Odor

I can smell him before I see him – the odour of cat urine and stale cigarettes reaches all the way down the stairs. He is always wearing the same leather jacket and black baseball cap. When he opens his mouth to speak his yellowing beard reveals a number of missing teeth. His words come out as bursts as if it’s an effort to push his thoughts out into the world.

This outward description probably wouldn’t put this gentleman on your list of dinner guests you’d like to have over, and yet, I am honoured to call him a friend.

I wasn’t always so sure about him. The first time he came to the Drop-In he announced to the group that he had found his housemate dead 2 days before. He didn’t seemed too affected by this experience. His appearance, gruff speech and nature of conversation were all off putting, but it was the smell that was especially noticeable. In our 2nd floor space where the windows don’t open, it was stifling.

I have to admit that I was not disappointed when he left after only a short stay. He did come back to have more coffee and eat more muffins. He also came back the week after that, and the week after that, always interspersing his time at Drop-In with panhandling to get a few bucks.

And slowly, week after week, I have come to notice all the details that got missed during my first encounter with him.

It turns out that he has a sweet, almost child-like nature that is rare to see in a 64 year old man. His eyes twinkle when he speaks as if in every word he says there is a valuable secret to be earned. The week of his birthday he could barely sit still, telling us about every encounter with friends or family members bringing their good wishes or gifts of cash.

He is always polite and courteous, noticing details others would walk past. When it’s windy out he uses his breaks to check on our sign and props it back up when it falls. When we’re closing things up and I ask someone to take in the sandwich board outside, he runs to complete the task before anyone else can say a word. He loves to take part in the trivia games that one of our volunteers creates and organizes. Energetically announcing answers no matter how wrong they might be and often showing a hidden brightness that takes everyone by surprise.

A few weeks ago when he promised my son that he would bring him some toy cars, I wasn’t sure that he would remember. On our way to Drop-In, my son kept saying “That guy has hot wheels for me today”. I had my doubts that bringing toys to my son would be a priority to someone who spends most waking hours walking the streets. But the moment he saw my son, he grinned and jumped up to go get a plastic bag of cars and other toys he had somehow collected over time.

There are days when we really wonder if running our small Drop-In is really worth it. We wonder if it is truly fulfilling its purpose and if it is really meeting a need in the community. There are days when we get caught in the trap of looking for success in numbers or in big transformations.

On other days, days like today, I see success as offering my friend a place to belong, to laugh, and to share. I see success in offering this gentleman a place to be himself and in a world that is too often built on first impressions – a place to be discovered. This kind of success does not belong to me or to any one person, it is rather something to keep aiming for as we walk our streets and interact with those around us. I’ve learned from my new friend that you can tell you’re close when you take a deep breath in and the smell makes you smile.

By Jasmine Chandra

We are expecting, but…

Terence and I have the very wonderful joy of expecting a baby. She is due sometime in mid July. While we are over the halfway mark and things are looking good, we have been hesitant to share the news for a few reasons.

The first reason is fear. The truth is that I’ve been pregnant for most of the past 2 years. We’ve had 2 miscarriages in that time. These were under the form of missed miscarriages. That means that we only found out that the hearts had stopped when we went for ultra sounds – one at 13 weeks and the other at 12 weeks. It is very difficult to go through 12 weeks of hoping and imagining new life only to see death. So after 2 miscarriages we weren’t sure if this one would make it.

Another reason we’ve hesitated is because of our many friends who either have had miscarriages as well, who are having trouble conceiving, or who know that they won’t be able to have a child in a biological way. Before going through it ourselves we couldn’t imagine the full extent of the pain that these things bring. Even if our experience wasn’t lasting, we know of what it is to have hope turn to despair. So we’ve held off on Facebook postings of ultra sounds and baby bumps, just in case this is a vulnerable time for someone else.

And finally, I think we haven’t blasted the loudspeakers because we’ve had trouble really believing it ourselves. Even with the bounces and rumblings in my body, I find it hard to wrap my mind around the reality that there is living child in there – a miracle. Around the 15 week mark, when we knew things were going to be ok, I felt a need to speak out against our hesitancy and claim the hope that we have been given. The next week, we finally let our church congregation and friends know.

But all of our hesitancy and fears have left their mark. I think others picked up on this. As we’d announce our news, some understood our undercurrent of joy, but others saw our tentativeness and asked “This is a good thing, right?” or more to the point “was it planned?”. The fact that these questions were asked at all, indicated our own lack of confidence, our own story of disappointment and grief.

As we approach Easter, I am finding that the emotional roller coaster of the last 2 years, has somewhere to land. I find that Easter understands me and understands life. Holy week is filled with stories of disappointment, betrayal, and deep grief. The God-man takes on all the violence of the world and instead of confronting it, he lets it seep into himself. Death and all it claims remains in him for three long days.

Those of us who know the story, anticipate the bright light and pastel colours of Easter morning. The grey stone of the tomb is surrounded by lush green grass as yellow daffodils bloom. But perhaps we anticipate too soon. The reality of the resurrection is met with hesitancy, mistrust, and uncertainty. Even those first eyewitnesses aren’t quite sure what to make of the neatly folded linen wrappings – all the evidence left of a brutal and unjust death.

After grief and loss, the mind struggles to make sense that there could be an alternative to the darkness and powerlessness we are used to. The bright light blinds us and we seek proof and reassurance before we dare to hope. “Could it be He?”.

Indeed, He is standing there, before us, with his hands out. He rushes in to comfort us even before everything is in order, before returning to the Father. And he stands before us still, waiting to take on our griefs and disappointments, waiting to share our pain, hoping that we will believe so that we can share in his joy and in his glory.

As we hand over two children that have been lost to us, we are finding that we are finally able to enter into this joy and this hope. But I think that it’s normal to hesitate. There are many who are not hearing good news around this time. There are many still feeling death and all it claims. Many in our community are still in the grips of loss and distress and uncertainty. And there are many in between wondering if this is really good news. If this can be trusted. If this blinding light is really leading us to a new way of being.

All I can offer to those of you who may be in those places, to those who are not feeling hope and joy bloom afresh, is the true certainty that Jesus is indeed standing before us wanting to comfort us and be near to us. I know this, not because of the joys and hope of Easter, not because of the kicks of new life, but because it is He who got me through the long months of hopelessness and despair. I know this, because I knew then, as I know now, that I am not alone. The only way I can not be alone is if He lives.

As we go through the turmoil of holy week with its stories of betrayal, loss, and despair, may we see our own lives reflected there and may the deaths we face and the deaths we mourn be bathed in the hope of resurrection.

By Jasmine Chandra

Church: What’s the point?

Christendom has left us with an heritage of large buildings that rarely are full to capacity and that cost extraordinary amounts to heat and maintain. For the shrinking congregations who remain in these buildings the struggles are vast and ongoing. They need new members and yet are faced with a society that while still somewhat spiritual, no longer feels the need to walk through the door.

And while we may repeat (sometimes with guarded hearts) that the church is not the building but the people, we cannot ignore the existence of the building. Its size, its prominent location won’t allow us.

I’ve heard  Saint John being referred to as city with many steeples due to the number of huge architectural masterpieces that crowd together in or very near to the central peninsula of the city. The buildings speak of a time where the shipbuilding industry was in full force. When there was enough wealth and ready expertise to build these lavish sites and when there were enough people to fill them and enough division to justify needing so many churches.

The reality now is quite different. Of these many steeples, one has become a Theatre Arts centre, one has become a transitional residence for homeless youth, and one sits empty year after year with the hope of one day being turned into upscale condos. Our own Stone Church underwent an extensive renovation, knocking down the mold infested hall and renovating the interior of the church proper to create a fresh multi-purpose space.

 

But hiding behind these closures, repurposes and renovations is a much greater question that, for those of us who represent traditional and historical denominations, is actually frightening to ask: Do we need churches?

For some of my friends the whole structure of the church is incomprehensible. The religious systems, the massive buildings, the written and unwritten rules, the musty language, and the formality seem to all complicate what is really a simple desire to connect to God. Why “do” church when we can just talk to God on our own and in our own time?

The early version of communities of Christians gathering together, that we see from the book of Acts and from various early writings, point to churches as places where people are encouraged and instructed in their faith and where personal and economic support is free-flowing. These were people who as well as being bold in their faith, were highly involved in each other’s lives. They valued sharing food and resources, they loved and fought like a close-knit family. The result of all this we are told is that “The Lord added to their number day by day” 1.  – meaning that people were drawn to these communities and their faith that involved the whole person.

David Bentley Hart writes: “we know from sources both pagan and Christian that many of the essentials of Christian belief were open to all who cared to learn of them, and that the distinctive behavior of Christians – including temperance, gentleness, lawfulness, and acts of supererogatory kindness – not only was visible to their neighbours outside the faith but constituted a large part of the new faith’s appeal.” 2.

There are signs of this kind of Christianity, even in our large stone and brick buildings. I saw it the other day as a the wife of a retired priest lovingly spoon fed a member of the congregation with parkinson’s.  I see it in the sudden provision of needed items, in members who take the time to get to know those on the margins of our community whether at a drop-in or at the church’s free laundry program, and in the general desire to be there for others and offer support.

But as we imagine what the church may look like, I dream of more. For it seems that no matter how much we care, the heating and maintaining of these monstrous buildings keep nagging at the back of our minds. Financial constraints keep determining how much we are truly willing to do. And the much harder truth is that in the name of boundaries our own fears cause us to withdraw from those we are most called to share our lives with. But if our faith communities are to be places of life that draw others, we may have to shed some of these things that are holding us down and remember our original purpose.

A few weeks ago we gathered as a group of friends around a woman who is facing some unstable circumstances in her life. Over the course of a few hours we set goals together, promised to help support her, ate together, and listened as she shared about her life and her dreams. Since then we have taken her to appointments, or to get groceries, but most importantly we’ve spent time just being with her, learning from her tenacity and hope. And I wonder what would happen if groups like this formed around a number of others in our community who need a bit more support, and a bit more human contact. Perhaps then people would see the point of the church, not because we have big pretty buildings, but because we have expansive souls. And perhaps we will come to recognize the churches that are already around us, but that don’t have walls or electricity bills, but that are formed around the faith and love of those who gather in the name of Christ, our Lord, who descended into greatness.

 

By Jasmine Chandra

 

  1. Acts 2:47 to name just one example.
  2. p153 “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its fashionable enemies”. Yale University Press. 2009.

 

The Peaceable Kingdom: One Man’s Vision of the Perfect World

The following blog post is based upon a sermon preached at Stone Church for the 2nd Sunday of Advent. To watch Terence’s sermon, click here: The Peaceable Kingdom

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

– Isaiah 11:6

 

The Peaceable Kingdom is the masterpiece of Quaker pastor and American folk artist, Edward Hicks (1780-1849). Based upon the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of an earthly paradise (Isaiah 11:6-9), the painting depicts a colourful menagerie of beasts- some domestic and others wild- sitting docilely together on a soft, grassy embankment, a tranquil gaze in their animal eyes. Numbered in their midst are three cherubic little children (symbolizing a redeemed humanity). One appears to float – in defiance of gravity – above the back of the lion, gripping the tiger in a playful and loving headlock. Two more rest along the base of the embankment, one gently petting the nose of a mighty leopard just as a toddler might fearlessly stroke a house cat curled up before her on the living room rug. Read on a strictly literal level, Isaiah’s vision of the perfect world (and Hick’s artistic depiction of it) points to an end of all violence even within the animal kingdom, with carnivores abandoning their penchant for flesh in favour of hay and oats, shoots and leaves. But, clearly, Isaiah’s words point to a truth beyond the mere literal. Indeed, they point to a day when the powerful and wealthy no longer take advantage of the poor and the meek. They point to a world where human beings live in delightful shalom with the rest of God’s creation. It is an image which beautifully articulates the deepest longings, the most passionate hopes, of the human heart.

 
But how easy it is to scoff at such a vision. In fact, around the time Jasmine and I were still dating, we had a mutual friend who did just that. He had just recently heard the Isaiah 11 passage for the first time (I believe it was read to him at a lessons and carols service held in our college chapel). Later that week, as we shared a lunch together between classes, he told me just what he thought of it. To him, the very thought of a predatory animal lying tranquilly next to what would ordinarily be its supper was positively absurd. Even if understood on a symbolic level, as a picture of peace between the nations, it still sounded, to his ears, laughably naive. Such a world – a world without war, a world without exploitation and injustice – just isn’t possible, he explained to me. At the time, I just starred at him dumbly, not having a clue what the best response would be. After all, my friend had a point: It is extremely difficult to believe in such a vision as this. However, that is what it means to be a people of faith: It means to believe in a vision such as this.

 
Admittedly, such a belief is extremely difficult to sustain – a fact which the painter, Edward Hicks, knew all too well. After all, Hicks was just like the rest of us: far better aquatinted with the realities of conflict and discord, anguish and pain than with the ideals of righteousness and peace. Within his lifetime, United States saw the war of 1812 – a war which resulted in 20,000 casualties on the American side alone. And, if that weren’t enough, Hicks was embroiled in a far more personal battle within his own denomination (the Quaker Church) – a conflict that ultimately resulted in a painful and bitter schism, ripping apart what was known as “the Society of Friends.” Perhaps this is why he painted no less than 63 different versions of the Peaceable Kingdom. Indeed, while most artists explore a wide array of subjects and themes, Hicks fixated obsessively on the perfect world of Isaiah 11:1-9. Why? My theory is that Hicks knew from experience how easy it is to dismiss such a vision as childish and naive. And so, to keep the fires of this hope alight in his heart, he reworked Isaiah’s vision over and over again with oil on canvas.

 
This, I believe, is the duty of the church. That is, to keep Isaiah’s vision of the perfect world – a world without war and exploitation; cruelty and greed – alive in our collective imaginations. It is to stoke the flames of this incredible hope. We do so NOT in order to make this ideal world a reality by our own efforts, forcing others to conform to our vision of earthly paradise. (Indeed, just think about the horrible things done within the 20th century, all in the name of creating a utopia!). Rather our calling is to enact or live out the practices and customs of Isaiah’s perfect world here and now. Or, to phrase it differently, our calling is to live our lives AS IF the Kingdom were, in a sense, already here. In so doing, we offer the rest of the world a glimpse of what Jesus referred to as “The Kingdom of God” or “The Kingdom of Heaven.” Like Edward Hicks did with his art, we are to show the world a vivid picture of the Peaceable Kingdom.

 
That’s what the Saints did, from Saint Chrysostom in the fourth century to Saint Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth: they lived their lives by an ethic that mirrored God’s Kingdom. Or, to take a far more recent example, it’s what Martin Luther King and the civil rights activists did in the American South during the nineteen sixties. The real world was a world where a brown guy like me and a white guy couldn’t sit down at the same table together in a restaurant and enjoy a sandwich as friends. But the civil rights activists acted AS IF that Jim Crow world of segregated cafeterias was long gone and AS IF a new world had already dawned – a world where anyone can eat lunch with anyone else, no matter their race. And so, they did just that: They went to segregated lunch rooms and cafeterias and broke bread together as brothers. Did that draw attention? Yes, much of it negative. They were cursed at; they were refused service; they were humiliated; they were thrown out. But, in their willingness to live out the way of Christ, they showed the world what the Peaceable Kingdom looks like and, more importantly, by their very actions, invited people to join in that world.

 
That is and always will be the true calling of the church – to live out the Kingdom of God. It is to be a living work of art displaying for all to see that Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah’s vision. The world may behold such a vision and fall in love with it, even long to be a part of it. Or, the world may mock it and laugh at it. But our calling remains the same: to walk in the way our King and to live out the politics of the Kingdom of God. If the church in North America persists as a vital, life-giving force into the twenty-first century it will be because we have lived up to this calling. If it continues to whither and die, it will be because we have failed to live up to this calling. But let us not fail. Let us allow our imaginations to be inspired by Isaiah’s vision of a perfect world and live out our true calling as the people of God.

 

By Terence Chandra