Moving to A Bigger Circle

Friends, I have moved this blog to a new URL. Visit me at http://abiggercircle.wordpress.com/

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The pause that refreshes

Elizabeth and Christine both responded to last week’s reference to a new kind of Lenten fast. It’s the kind of fast where we don’t give up innocent pleasures. Instead, we give up the thing that separates us from God and each other.

Christine talked about a friend that gave up complaining. Elizabeth talked about giving up anger. On my first Lenten fast ten years ago I decided to give up fear, and turned my back on the panic attacks that had controlled the preceding year, saddled me with a grab-bag of diagnoses, and driven me into a year’s leave of absence from my job.

I learned from that Lenten fast something I had not known before: that resistance is not futile. Until I began the fast, I had seen fear as an inexorable force. There was simply nothing I could do but give in. Now I know that you can “resist the devil (whatever your own demons are) and he will flee from you.”

In my case, I was helped immeasurably by a book Joanne Sz gave me with the unpromising title, Hope and Help for Your Nerves. It was written by a bossy-boots doctor who nonetheless did give me hope and a path to follow. And when fear came swooshing towards my face, or welled up in my chest, or clamped me in the gut– I had all sorts of images of it  — I simply would not cave in.

The story of “The Lent I Gave Up Fear” is ten years old, and I’ve not had such a dramatic experience since. Even so, as I see Ash Wednesday come round again, I’ve begun to consider what I need to give up.

Lent every week

But really, I don’t need to wait until February 17th, when Lent begins this year, to give up the things that separate me from God. The opportunity arises every week. A few years ago, Julie gave me a beautiful book by Marva J. Dawn called Keeping the Sabbath Wholly. For Dawn, the Sabbath rest means ceasing not only working, but also productivity, accomplishment, achievement, acquisition, worrying about our future, preparing for our future, the humdrum, and trying to be God.

In place of these activities we rest, by sleeping, playing, praying, being enfolded by God, and being home.  We embrace our faith, our values, our family and friends, our world and our calling in it. And we feast, on beauty, music, friendship, affection . . . and food!

I am not a faithful Sabbath keeper, but I’m a fool not to be. Whenever I try to keep the Sabbath “wholly”, I feel as if time is suspended. On the Sabbath day itself, I enjoy that quality of “endless summer” when time has weight. It feels heavy and substantial and rich – not scarce, or thin or fragmented.  And paradoxically, I seem to have more time on the other six days of the week too.

I had a delightful Sabbath a few weeks ago. I decided to cease berating myself – that relentless yammering at myself for being such a dud person. It was so refreshing that I decided to give up berating myself the next day, and the next day after that. And although I still indulge in assorted self-scolding, I’ve cut back a lot, and (bizarrely) been the better for it.

The psalms say, “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.” God is the “who.” I believe practices such as Lent and the Sabbath are part of the “how.”

Friends, I would like to hear about your own Sabbath experiences – whether that Sabbath is one day, or a season.

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Comfort and Joy

Allan Reeve always gets me thinking.

My favourite memory of Allan is of him standing at the front of Danforth Baptist Church, ripping up a $20 bill as he urged us to “spit in the eye of the Tin God” and break the power money has over us.  Allan is also the man who inspired me to give up a real vice for Lent – like fear, or despair or lethargy — rather than waste the occasion with a mere chocolate abstention. (If you’ve never tried it, I can attest to the transformative power of such a Lenten fast.)

Many years ago Allan and his family moved to Fenelon Falls, where Allan serves as a United Church minister. Now it’s his weekly blog that keeps me on my toes.

Two weeks ago, Allan’s posting “Comfort or Joy” had me heading for my Bible. In this blog, Allan contends that “If it’s comfort we seek – then it’s joy we trade in exchange.” He observed that Jesus had to push past the comforts of home, security, even an established moral code, to achieve – not happiness – but joy, and we needed to do the same.

A different sort of comfort

Allan’s thinking made sense to me. But I wondered, then, how the idea of “comfort and joy” became so firmly rooted in Christian thought. The first mention of the phrase “comfort and joy” I discovered was in Jeremiah 31, when God promises to re-unite a scattered, oppressed and impoverished people, and redeem them from “the hand of those stronger than they.” And on that day, He says, “maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.”

All through the Bible, God promises his people comfort. But it is not the comfort of cozy evenings or money in the bank. It is urgent help to those who toil working cursed ground; to those alone in alien lands; to the afflicted, the lonely, the inconsolable; to those who are surrounded by enemies; to those whose homes are in ruins and whose land has been laid waste; to those who grieve the death of their parents or their children; to those who walk in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The comfort that can co-exist with joy.

It’s impossible to read these promises and not think of Haiti. I confess that, at this moment, I find the possibility for any sort of real comfort for the people of Haiti unimaginable. The pinpoints of hope I spot in the news photos – a woman setting up her food stall, a nun surrounding by singing women – seem so small amidst the enormity of the sorrows.

But I have also observed that imagined sorrows are not the same as real sorrows. I think of our friend Queenie, preparing to celebrate her 93rd birthday after overcoming many life-threatening illnesses, starting as a young woman. And I remember her answering my question, “Can there really be joy in suffering?” by saying, “Joy in suffering? Absolutely. AB-SO-LUTE-LY.

I find this a great mystery. I would love to hear of your own observations about “comfort and joy” amidst suffering, although I know these stories may be too tender to tell on-line. But if we see each other, let’s talk about this. And if you read something helpful elsewhere, add the link in the comments section.

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The Problem of Evil

When people talk about The Problem of Evil, they are usually asking this question: How can God be all-seeing, all powerful and wholly good when evil exists in the world?  Either he doesn’t care, or is powerless to combat evil, or doesn’t exist at all.

I have always been mystified by this line of reasoning. I think it fails to take into account that we live in a created world. After all, we rarely draw these conclusions when we talk about other created worlds – the ones we know in novels, plays or movies.

Take, for example, the world Shakespeare created in Hamlet. The story ends tragically. Almost everyone in the story dies, the just and unjust alike.

  • Question 1: Did Shakespeare know Hamlet, Ophelia and the rest were going to die? Yes.
  • Question 2: Could he have prevented their deaths? Yes again.
  • Question 3: Does Shakespeare care about them, does he love them? Yes again. We know that authors do not reward the characters they love most with long lives or happy endings. He rewards them by making them whole, rounded and true.
  • Question 4: Is Shakespeare good?

We don’t really know the answer to this last one, and can’t learn the answer by looking into the play. We can only observe that Shakespeare has created a world that has captured our imaginations for 400 years. His characters may have cursed Shakespeare, had they any inkling he existed. (Although I don’t think they would have blamed him. As with all really good stories, the outcome flows inexorably from the choices of the characters themselves. Shakespeare, like God, is no puppet-master.) But we know, intuitively, that if everyone in the Court of Denmark had lived happily ever after, the play would be somehow less important, and less true.

We know, because we are Shakespeare’s fellow humans, and see Hamlet’s world from the creator’s perspective. But when we are the characters in the story that God has created, the meaning is not obvious. We have glimpses of the meaning – and that is the great gift God gives us when, in the form of Jesus, he enters his creation as one of the characters. But in many ways we take it on faith that, as Yann Martel says in Life of Pi, “God is the better story.”

For me, the real Problem of Evil is this: Why are we such suckers for evil? Why do I cave into pride, or fear, or envy or numbness, when they sap my soul and give nothing in return?

St. Paul describes the phenomenon when he says, “What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” (Romans 19) But he doesn’t really explain it. Margaret Atwood has a witty explanation in her comic essay, “Unpopular Gals,” where the evil women in fairy tales make their case. As the Wicked Stepmother says, “I stir things up, I get things moving. . . . you can’t get me out of the story. I’m the plot, babe, and don’t ever forget it.” But I think fairy-tale evils are much more entertaining than the besetting evils of middle-class Canadians like me. My sins don’t get things moving. They sink them in timidity and torpor.

So friends, I’m turning to you. When evil comes knocking, why do we open the door? What makes us blind to evil, so that when we see it around us, we think it’s normal?

Take a risk, and add your comments below.

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