Thursday, May 26, 2016

Book 7 of 2016 -- The Abundant Community

John McKnight and Peter Brock (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers) 170 pages

What does it take to build a strong community? What gets in the way of that happening?

It occurs to me that these are two key questions that we, as churches and as communities in general, need to take seriously as we try to imagine what sort of a society we want to live in. Because, to be brutally honest, I am feeling more and more that the idea of community is falling more and more by the wayside with each passing decade. Maybe it is because of the drive to be “productive”. Maybe it is because we have decided to over-schedule ourselves. Maybe it is because we don't trust the people around us anymore (although arguably that is also a result of not having strong community-mindedness – bit of a chicken/egg spiral there) and so often believe that we are to live in a level of fear all the time. Maybe it is because we are so much more of a mobile (or even transient) society – building strong community often takes time and rootedness. Maybe it is because, as McKnight and Brock claim, we have moved from being 'citizens' to being 'consumers'.

At any rate, it is harder and harder to find people who live in a truly encompassing and supportive community. 20 years ago when I was working in a crisis nursery I quickly learned some of the costs of that lack of community. When I was growing up there were a number of people (largely from the church congregation in our case) who could care for my sister and I in case of emergency (or in the case of a planned trip) or people who could share each others' struggles and offer wisdom and support. The people I was talking to on a crisis line had no-one. The lack of community put them into an even deeper crisis. And even then, in the 1970's and 80's I think we could see that community was different than it had been for my grandparents' generation.

In this volume McKnight and Brock begin by outlining the difference between living as 'citizens' where we take ownership for issues, where we live in a more community-building mindset and living as 'consumers' where we go out to buy goods and services to resolve our issues (or possibly to hide from them), where we rely on professionals rather than the community. They suggest that in following the path into consumers we have put much of the strength and wisdom of the community behind us, that maybe we have even lost much that used to come naturally to us as people. They then lay out an alternative way of life, and start to give the readers a map that would take us back to living in the “abundant [and competent] community” where we re-learn that we have the gifts and tools and skills within our communities and associations to live healthy productive lives.

Over and over as I was reading this book two thoughts occurred to me. One was that this is the sort of book that municipal politicians need to read. If we want our communities to be stronger than our leaders need to see a different way of building them. The other is that these are the sorts of things that communities of faith should be doing almost automatically. The church can be a force for modelling a different for of interaction. Much of it we still do just because that is how we are. I fear that we are, even in the church, starting to lose the full sense of what community can be and accomplish.

One of the challenges of following this approach in this century, I think, is going to lie in how we define community. Is it the neighborhood in which we live? Yes, and much of what McNight and Brock talk about works well in that milieu. Is it the groups of which we are a part? Yes (they talk of these as our associations). BUT community today is also something different and broader when we consider the on-line world. In many ways the whole on-line phenomenon is a product of the consumer mindset. But can it also be placed into the paradigm of the abundant, caring community? And how? It would be interesting to ask the authors that question....

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book 6 of 2016 -- Volume 4 of Les Miserables

Is this a love story with an uprising along side? OR is it a treatise on socio-economic-political realities? Or maybe the story of a doomed revolution with a love story as a sub-plot?  OR maybe a study of varying characters and how they deal with the vagaries of life?

Or maybe it is all four and more....

In this (long -- 15 books of varying lengths) volume both the revolution and the love story get to the boil, though the outcome of both is left hanging as we move into Volume 5 (the final volume).

And actually, while they are sometimes aggravating and seem less than germane to the furthering of the actual plot, I am quite enjoying some of the diversions. For example, the discussion about the roots of Parisian slang was intriguing. And there is a great deal of political comment hidden in the text. It has made me ponder doing some looking into a biography of Victor Hugo to see where he was coming from as he wrote.

By now the barricade has repulsed one attack but the defenders seem to expect that their cause is doomed. Marius is despondent, thinking his love is lost forever, and Jean Valjean is wrestling with his own demons and fears.  The one character I whose inner life I would like to learn more about is Cosette.  WE see some but not nearly as much as the others.

Book 5 of 2016 -- Already Missional

Note: I have also written a piece for the church newsletter based on my reading of this book, you can find it here.

Bradley T. Morison (Eugene: Resource Publication, 2016) Pp.123.

One of the key ideas in the world of the church these days is that we need to be missional. Rather than sit and wait for people to come and find out what wonderful people we are we need to be out there actively engaging the community around us, Then people will know who we are and have an incentive to find out more about us.

Which is great. And to be honest I am unsure when this was not the case. Certainly my lived experience of the church has been more of sitting and waiting and assuming that our mere presence is enough to draw folks in. I have not noticed that this approach has been all that effective in my life time – maybe we were always supposed to be missional.

There is a question of how we engage the community. Are we talking about being evangelists and proselytizers, knocking on doors asking folk if they have found the meaning of life? That is certainly one way of being missional and engaging the community. I suggest it is not a way that fits well with most United Church folk. I would also suggest that it is not, in the end, exceptionally effective.

There is another way to engage. This is for the church to become active in the community, to become an active part of trying to make the community around it a better place. This is an approach that is much more attuned to the ethos of the United Church as I understand it. But it raises a whole new set of questions.

Traditionally the missional discussion involves trying to decide what new programs the congregation will offer to the community. Or maybe what formal partnerships the congregation will make with existing organizations. And those are fine ideas. But all too often this approach to being missional leads to the congregational leadership saying to the (already busy) members of the congregation “if we want people to know about us we all have to commit X hours and Y dollars to making this new project work”. And there is the biggest hurdle. How many good ideas have fallen by the wayside because of a lack of resources? The other common problem with these discussions is that there is a tendency for them to involve the repeated use of phrases like “well in they ...” or “Years ago we used to...”. Great. Good for them. But is that something that meets the needs of community where and where you are now?

In this book Brad offers a third alternative. Put simply it starts with asking folk what they are already doing. Church folk in general and United Church folk in particular tend to be very active in the community already. Some of that activity is going to grow out of their faith, to grow out of their understanding of how God would have us live. Normally we fail to recognize that as ministry (both as those doing it and as the church). Having offered that understanding of what it means to be missional, Brad asks the reader to explore a series of questions about how we encourage people to live out the ministries in which they already participate, how the church can recognize those ministries as part of the larger ministry of the congregation, and how the church can support people in their ministry.

This is a book the cries to be read and discussed in a group setting. It is an interesting read for an individual but its power is when a group, say a congregational governing body (and/or the power-brokers—who may or may not be the same people), reads it together and talks about how that congregation might put these ideas into practice.

I have known many people in different places who are active participants in the missio Dei. Sometimes this work is through the church, often it is just because they have a passion for it. Maybe it is time we as the church started to embrace what is already happening rather than think ministry only counts when we can guide and measure and contain it?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


AS part of the Sabbatical process one is expected to do some form of reporting back at the end. It seems to me that this is actually easiest done if the report is built all along.  Some people start a blog specifically for their sabbatical, but I see no reason to do that when this blog already exists and we have the chance to use the label function.  SO for the period of my sabbatical anything I post that is sabbatical specific will be tagged #Sabbatical.  Most of it will be the annotated bibliography as I work my way through the collection of books I have set aside, but there may also be other reflections, either on the books as they are being read or on other aspects of the rest and recharge period.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Book 4 of 2016 -- How Human is God?

This is one I was asked to read and review for Touchstone.  I actually finished it a few months ago, but just got the review done now.

How Human is GOD? Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible
Mark S. Smith (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2014) Pp.192.

Mark Smith is professor of Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at New York University. Previously he taught at Yale University, Saint Joseph's University . . . and Saint Paul Seminary . . . he is past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America” (back cover). In this volume his deep grounding in Hebrew Scripture and knowledge of the world in which that Scripture was written is evident and is a great gift to the reader. 
In the beginning of our faith story we are told that humanity is created in God's image. Does this mean that God is also in our image? In this well-referenced—of the 192 pages 58 are endnotes and recommended readings—volume Mark Smith invites us to think about God as God is revealed in the words of the Hebrew Bible. To lead us in this thinking Smith offers seven chapters, each of which explores (and maybe even answers) one of the seven questions referenced in the subtitle of the book.

These chapters are broken out into two sections. In the first section we have questions about God: “Why does God Have a Body?”, What Do God's Body Parts in the Bible Mean?”, Why Is God Angry in the Bible?”, and “Does God in the Bible Have Gender of Sexuality?”. The second section explores have questions about God in the world” “What Can Creation Tell Us About God?”, Who—or What—Is the Satan?”, and “Why Do People Suffer According to the Hebrew Bible?”. Obviously many, if not all, of those topics could be a lengthy book (or books) in and of itself, which is why Smith gives such good notes and recommended reading for those who want to go deeper.
The nature and understanding of God is an unending discussion for people of faith. The questions about God never seem to get fully answered, but Smith makes an interesting suggestion in the prologue: “. . . the emergence of the understanding of God within ancient Israel was a redefinition of divinity in its time. . . the change in ancient Israel's sense of God may anticipate changes taking place today.” (xiii). As we continue to re-vision how we understand God we need to remain grounded in the witness of Scripture and this book is very helpful in doing just that.
Of course the challenge in talking about God is that all we can use are metaphors, and when we turn metaphors into literal statements then things can get weird. Smith recognizes this. And so even as he starts to talk about God's body he also notes “what are we to make of anthropomorphism? Is it simply a projection . . .” (5). However, as he points out, we use the language we have. Since we understand God as being personal and in relationship we will end up describing God in some of the same ways we describe other persons. But later Smith points out that “human language applied to God not only falls short; it only makes sense for God when it is recognized as being partial and falling short” (64). Smith pushes us to recognize that the descriptions he is talking about are not all that God is, a helpful reminder for us as we wrestle with our own understandings of God.
While this book is ably addresses some of the easier aspects of God (God's body parts, knowing God in Creation) it also does not shy from taking on some really difficult subjects (God's gender/sexuality, God's anger, why do people suffer). Smith knows that some of what Scripture says about God is challenging and is able to name and explore that challenge. This exploration invites the reader to look deeper. As a person of faith it would be easy to accept simple answers to difficult questions but Smith pushes us to look at what the text really says, even when it may move us out of our comfort with the simple answer. As a whole the book calls us to see God “through the positive lens of creation and through the negative lens of evil and suffering” (128) and so pushes a more complete, more nuanced picture.
Early in the book we read “we may be drawn to images of God that move us or comfort us . . .Sometimes, though, we do not really use our brains very much in thinking about God” (ix). Near the end we read “Human images constitute a starting point for thinking about God. . . This is a beginning, not the end . . . we change—our discovery of who God is changes” (129). This sums up an approach to exploring who God is. An approach that includes our own experiences and feelings but also our logic and reason as well as the witness of those who have gone before us. Which seems like a really good thing to encourage people to do as we try to answer who God is and how God is a part of our lives.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Integrity and Community Responsibility...

I am the secretary of our local Ministerial Association (a position I am contemplating retiring from at the end of this year).  It is not an onerus task.  Mainly it consists of sending out agendas and meeting reminders, then taking minutes at the meeting and send those out (all sending done through a group e-mail). Other than that there is some times of being the recipient of requests to speak and taking those to the Executive for decision/invitation. The other piece is to be the central clearing house for items sent to the whole membership.

Normally the last piece is easy.  Something comes in with a request to distribute and I just hit "Forward" and send it on. Occasionally (or even often) the item is not something I would ever support personally but I am clear that it is not my role to screen items to match my social philosophy or theology. My role in this community is to be a conduit, not a gatekeeper or censor.

But recently that was a challenge for me.  I was asked to forward a link to this petition. And I had to stop and consult with the rest of the Executive (knowing that they would want it sent forward) before I could do what I knew it was my role in the community to do. Part of it is because I strenuously disagree with the petition's contents and consider the language ["Totalitarian"] unnecessarily inflammatory. Part of it is because I do not believe the background given accurately reflects the guidelines to which they are objecting. Part of it is that I question if a Ministerial Association should be seen as taking a position on the issue at all, given that by definition there is diversity in our ranks (arguably transmitting a link is not exactly taking a stand -- recipients are free to respond as they see fit). But the big one is that I think this petition asks the government to act in a way that goes against the principle of protecting minority rights and providing a safe school environment.

But let us take a step back.

Last year one of the largest School Boards in the province hit the news because of their difficulty in coming to a fair policy around transgender students. To the extent that some suggested the Education Minister needed to step in and run the district directly. AS a result of this the Education Minister issued a set of guidelines around that very issue, with the requirement that School Boards draft policy based on those guidelines and submit them to the ministry by the end of March for review to ensure the policies are in compliance. A news story about the guidelines is here. The full document (which I admit I have not read completely -- TL:DR) is here.  AND then the excrement hit the spinning blade.

Many places in Alberta are very socially conservative.  The province has already had to mandate that if students ask for a Gay-Straight Alliance then the school is required to provide assistance to have that GSA as a school-sponsored club meeting on campus because some districts refused to do so -- suggesting it could be an off-campus organization instead. SO to tell everyone that they had to abide by these guidelines was like waving a red flag. And to be fair, given that Alberta has a fully-funded Separate (mainly Roman Catholic) School System these guidelines do appear to conflict with many traditional religious teachings. Then again, the publicly-funded school system is not in business to support traditional religious teachings -- there is a question of how far it should go in challenging them.

And so a number of people in the province have found these guidelines (most of which are very common-sense-based when you read them--if you accept that gender is not a binary thing). to be an affront to religious sensitivities and an affront to family values, and an affront to parental rights [one interpretation of them suggested that schools should not tell parents if a child disclosed being transgender, mind you schools have had similar policies around orientation for years]. ANd of course there was the all too common fear mongering that implementing these guidelines around washroom and change-room use would create unsafe environments and male students would use this as a chance to invade the female spaces.

I fully support the guidelines. I watched the press conference when they were released and I did note that the Minister had a real hard time answering when asked what would happen if a board chose to ignore these guidelines. I suspect that the government (or at least some within it) actually wanted these to be regulations-which are much more enforceable- but felt it was more politically palatable to make them guidelines so boards could have some more flexibility. Personally I think at least some of them SHOULD be regulations. I think that actually helps boards who object--then they can say "well we don't want to do it but we have to" (similar to discussions that happened in other places when boards were told they could no longer have the Lord's Prayer led during the school day). Also if they were regulations then boards could go back to the government for cash to redo washroom spaces to make them more friendly to the modern reality.  My personal vision is that instead of a couple of multiple user washrooms based on gender you have a series of individual water closets (fully enclosed rooms with a toilet) along the hallway with a set of common sinks outside. Then the issue of washroom use and safety is automatically resolved. For the record this would be a safer environment for cisgendered students (some people feel very uncomfortable in a public washrooms in general, and school washrooms have a long history of being potential bullying sites) as well.

So I did send the e-mail along.  But I still don't feel good about it.

And to be honest I don't really understand the uproar. Do people seriously believe that these guidelines will make any difference in the life of most students? Do they think there will suddenly be a mass influx of people gaming the system by claiming to be trans-gendered? What is the threat we need to fight against?  I think the threat is to those who are "different" and so we protect them -- even [or especially?] if it means challenging those of us who have privilege because we are not different.

Book 3 of 2016 -- Faith Unraveled

This was a "oh that looks interesting, think I'll get it" purchase while looking for something else (though to be honest I forget what else I was looking for and if I even found it).

It was a nice light read, perfect for a week of vacation time (which I took last week).

As the author herself points out, it does seem a little precocious for someone to write a spiritual memoir before turning 30 but this one works.  The story of a journey from one way of understanding the faith to another comes through with honesty and integrity. I kept finding myself highlighting passages for future reference.

BUt I do have to wonder, given the comments she makes about the implausibility of there being one "Biblical" worldview how she ever wrote a book about Biblical womanhood....

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Book 2 of 2016 -- Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It

This one was a Christmas gift.  Not likely something I would have bought for myself, not likely something I ever would have happened upon when browsing through books. And that would have been a shame.

It is a collection of reflections on quotes from various philosophers, from the ancient Greek to a couple of Scripture passages, to 20th century folks.  And the author himself has studied philosophy and so has the ability to explain a bit about the school of thought surrounding the quote.

Some of the quotes are great, some of them leave me bleh. But there is something to think about in almost every quote and reflection.  And there were some I thought "I could use this in a sermon". I think this is a book I will use as a reference from time to time...assuming I remember which pithy quote I am looking for of course.

Book 1 of 2016 -- Volume 3 of Les Miserables

Whew, it will take forever to get this book finished (partly because I keep interrupting to read other things).

This volume was called "Marius".  As with other characters we have an in-depth introduction to him. We learn about his grandfather and his father. The father who served at Waterloo...who was  in that description many pages ago and met a scavenger named Thenardier.

WE learn how Marius meets the students led by Enjolras and are given a full introduction to each student.

We learn that Marius has a strong predilection for helping others, a charitable heart.  Then again it is obvious in this book that to be a heroic character one has a charitable caring heart

We learn how Marius first becomes besotted with this beautiful  girl whose name he does not know. And how he pretty much stalks her.

ANd then we learn that Marius lives next door to the Thenardier clan, and we watch with him as Thenardier once again meets an old friend.

IT is interesting reading.  But sooo long, and sooooooooooooo much detail that seems extraneous to moving the plot forward.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book 8 of 2015 Charles Dickens: Some Short Christmas Stories

I found this when looking for A Christmas Carol and since it was free I decided why not take a look.

IT is a set of 6 short stories (though some of them are decidedly short on narrative) and only some of them are Christmas-y.  I liked the last three stories best personally.  For a free book it was ok. But while A Christmas Carol iz certainly a classic, these stories are pretty much forgettable.