Tuesday 2 June 2020

(Re) Introducing Laments

This is part of a little Lenten Reflection book I wrote/edited for the United Church of Canada. Trying to process recent days it occurred to me that others might find the reminder of a resource in our tradition helpful.

Introduction to Laments

            According to scholars the lament is the most common form of prayer in the Older Testament.  Its use is certainly not confined to the Book of Lamentations.  Given this reality it is odd that Protestant spirituality makes so little use of this pattern.  The purpose of this little book is to give readers – individual and group – the opportunity to experience the power of the lament.  The beauty of the lament is that it quite deliberately encourages the worshiper to pour out the anguish of current existence in very real and concrete ways all the while affirming a loving and trusting relationship with God.
            Without the laments several distortions of our spiritual life can occur.  We may succumb to the urge to keep our prayers polite and “nice.”  Most of us have at least one acquaintance who is terribly uncomfortable when anything dark or negative slips into the conversation.  They may be a wonderful person but they are not the one to whom we would take our soul’s deepest aching.  Without the lament form our prayers may, however unconsciously, turn God into that sort of friend, who cannot bear to hear the troubles of our lives.  And we are poorer for that.
            A second function of the lament is to restore balance in our emotional life.  The common contemporary Protestant reaction to issues is often detachment or guilt.  Both of those reflect an orientation towards personal involvement.  Thus, if we don’t feel personally involved, we may remain detached and disconnected with individuals or issues.  On the other hand, if a concern touches our emotional core the only response we feel is available is to experience guilt.  There is a place for guilt when we are at fault personally and directly.  It acts as one of the stages towards reconciliation and healing of relationship.  But what of situations where we are not at fault?  A socially conscious Protestant reaction of guilt may be counter-productive.  It may foster resentment: “I wasn’t there, I didn’t do it.  Why are they trying to drag me in?”  Such guilt may freeze our response and leave us unable to move forward.  Lament, properly understood, allows people of faith to express to God the full range of our grief that such horrors can occur.  Even amongst people of faith and good will, the unintended consequences of our actions can violate the Divine Will and mar the face of creation.  Lament then allows us to express the conviction that God was and is present in events, the victims, the survivors, the perpetrators and the wider society as we seek for ways of reconciliation, personal transformation, and just healing.
            Lament also functions as an encouragement to the full expression of our emotions to God.  Protestant believers are often caught in a difficult situation.  In our sermons and our hymns we affirm that God knows everything and that “even before a word is on our tongue, God knows it altogether.” (Psalm 139:4)  On the other hand, we are often schooled that complaining to God or even seeming to blame God is inappropriate.  A distorted relationship develops.  Some may even come to believe that there is something wrong with them or with their faith since no one around them appears to struggle with the same emotions. Where do we go, as people of faith, with sentiments labeled negative? The relationship fostered by the lament allows for the full expression of grief and pain, broken hearts and broken dreams – if those are the honest expressions of our faith at this time.
            Laments act as “songs of disorientation.” They allow the worshiper to declare to God that all is not right with the world.  When the church sings only “songs of orientation” (God’s in heaven and all’s right with the world) our faith seems more or less unreal and disconnected to those who are seeking resources for the living of painful days.
            It should not be imagined that the lament merely leaves us wallowing in our pain.  As you consider the psalms we look at during lent, you will probably notice a pattern emerging.  This is not a rigid template.  Sometimes the elements are ordered differently.  In some psalms the proportion of space or words given over to the different components rises and falls.  But in a lament, we generally find the following and often in this order.

  1. Address to God.  This is usually in fairly intimate and direct terms, the expression of a faithful worshipper addressing one to whom they are used to praying.
  2. Complaint.  The worshipper tells God what is wrong in no uncertain terms.  Often the language is very powerful.  If the hyperbole offends us it may help to recall that the author is seeking expression that will fit their experience.  God is not considered too sensitive to hear the full range of human anguish.
  3. Petition.  On the basis of the complaint God is urged to act.  Often this comes in the form of a bold command as if the speaker were asserting rights that they have for assistance from the divine throne.            
  4. Motivation.  Most laments set out some reason for God to act.  These can range from the noble to the manipulative.  Perhaps the speaker is innocent, so God’s character demands action.  It may be that the author invokes God’s kindness to previous generations and insists on consistency.  In other places the psalmist might bluntly inform God that the dead do not offer praises so it’s in God’s interests to preserve this life!
  5. Imprecations.  Some of the laments display unguarded language that is often suppressed in polite conversation and prayer.  This is the voice of deep hurt and pain coupled with the discourse of resentment and vengeance.  The stunning fact is that Israel did not purge this communication directed towards God but considered in faithful.
  6. Praise.  A lament is not truly concluded until the author moves to praise.  This is the unique gift of this prayer form.  Having poured out the anguish of heart and the wounds of body, spirit or reputation, the psalmist concludes in the conviction that God has heard and will act.  There is sufficient confidence in the relationship for the author to praise God for what is anticipated but not yet received.  This section of the psalm may be an assertion that God is not remote or uncaring; it may be a vow to perform some act of worship or devotion; or it may be a form of doxology, where the God who has been complained about is now acknowledged as generous, faithful and saving.

The core of Israel’s worship – and the psalms were intended for use in worship – was the dynamic of speaking and being answered.  The laments remind us that true prayer is no one-way exercise.  Israel can give its pain-filled life to God in demanding speech confident that God will respond.  That response is also in speech and the liturgy declares the Divine intention to transform fear into hope and bring new life.  As a result, the one who prays the psalms is not left wallowing in despair because God’s life-affirming, fear-banishing, justice-enabling reality is unshakably affirmed.

c2020 I. Ross Bartlett


Wednesday 13 May 2020

Some thoughts around reopening churches

Here are some things I’ve gleaned from around the web that might help guide our planning. Of course, we will need to be aware of the situation in our immediate communities and congregations. There may be announcements and directives from the Region or the General Council as well as decisions in the local governing body. And, then too, there is the likely but still undefined possibility of subsequent waves. We have been patient with this unusual and trying time. We have been well-served by so many in the research and health fields. We see the burdens on political leaders at all levels. We need to continue to hold them in our prayers.

Step One:
·       Wait for the Public Health officials to permit worship services and other rituals; be attentive to numbers; even if your building is large enough to allow physical distancing (especially for singing), consider “choke points”: entrances, exits, aisles, washrooms, etc.
·       Consider moving recording of on-line services to the sanctuary if you aren’t doing it now to give people a sense of connection.
·       With weddings/funerals only publicize details to limited numbers to avoid hurt feelings. For a wedding you only “need” five people: the couple, witnesses, and presider.
·       Continue to gather small groups online.
·       Keep office activities to essential operations. Wearing masks should be the norm. Frequent sanitizing of surfaces.
·       Discuss with users/renters what a return to the building might look like. Can you control numbers and distancing? What are cleaning requirements going to be?
·       Meetings in person can be held, with masks and social distancing (but do you really want to talk to each other from six feet away to discuss important issues?). Consider the Manual rules for legal meetings.
·       Many of our volunteers are older and have underlying conditions.  They should be encouraged to continue to practice rigorous health protocols.
·       Remember that the gradual loosening of restrictions is going to take time and experimentation by the authorities.

Step Two
·       When the next size of gathering (say 50) is permitted, that will include a significant number of our Region 15 congregations.  Before you rush back into the building:
o   Consider the questions raised above around cleanliness and choke points;
o   Plan how you will clean surfaces;
o   Have a contingency in case you have an unexpected overflow;
o   Continue to share worship online (if you’ve been doing that) so that people aren’t forced to choose between their safety and their faith community;
o   If masks continue to be recommended in public spaces, continue to wear them in church.
o   Give serious consideration to the risks inherent in any communion celebration;
o   Pay attention to what we know about the spread of droplets from singing;
o   No touch options for passing the peace;
o   Try to limit use of hymnbooks and other resources; substitute single use bulletins or screens;
o   Avoid a coffee or fellowship hour or any form of mingling;

Thursday 7 May 2020

Looking to the Future -- First Thoughts

As we look towards the future there is much which is not in our control. Not only the way the COVID virus behaves but the way individuals, congregations, communities and different levels of government respond. It’s impossible to establish a timetable for various stages. It will require an ability to take in all manner of different data points and respond. The more we find comfort in order and structure, rules and standards, the more disoriented we will feel. We could do an interesting theological reflection on whether it is more faithful for Christ’s people to be settled or moving. However, here we are.

A lot of the conversation focuses on whether the things we count will return to pre-COVID levels or whether we will need to adapt to a “new normal.” There are any number of congregations who have been financially surviving literally week-by-week. Any downturn in those numbers could crush what they understand as “church.” For all of us, however, whatever comes after gives an opportunity to shift our thinking from inward, to outward. Many congregations have worked very hard in recent years at being welcoming and hospitable. They’ve changed the physical appearance and the behaviour patterns. They’ve changed liturgies and times, music and apparel, to be more approachable. It may be time to ask whether or not that was working before life changed.  If it was, what do you need to double down on? If it wasn’t accomplishing what you dreamed of before, maybe now is the time to dream of different ways.

We can say that for at least the next twelve to eighteen months COVID-19 will continue to shape our lives. Governments and different levels of public health service will govern much of what can and cannot happen. There will continue to be the debate between reviving the economy and saving lives. Let’s not get sucked down that hole! Even as we watch with concern the dwindling finances of our churches, we need to continue to support the efforts to control the virus. There are clergy and congregants who feel that worship gatherings should be considered an “essential services.” This is by no means purely an American phenomenon. I think we need to ask, “what is the truly loving thing to do?” The clear answer, at least to me, is to not consciously provide a venue where my brother or sister has a likelihood of being infected. If we try to reopen too soon, we may place the more vulnerable members of the community in the place of making difficult choices.

I invite you to think about your community. What changes do you think will emerge from this period of physical isolation and often tragic news? How do you think your community will be different? What can your congregation’s role be in that new normal?
·       There has been a trend towards greater compassion and care for the marginalized. There has been new connection between groups that might have ignored one another. There is, perhaps, a greater sensitivity to what unites rather than what divides. Where can we nurture that?
·       How many images have we seen of people encouraging one another and assisting others, delivering groceries while honouring the two-metre distance? Have you noticed how much more connection there is when you’re out walking? From everywhere we hear: “We’re here for you!”  Sure, for some it’s just a marketing gimmick. But for some it has become the new reality. Can we keep this new sense of neighbourhood going? Can we forge new connections, make new friends, empower personal reconciliation and just public policy?
·       Almost every congregation is reporting numbers of people clicking in to streamed worship services that are higher – in some cases much higher – than their average attendance in recent years.  As I’ve mentioned before, you may want to look a little more closely at those numbers to see whether people are engaging or just clicking through. But, for whatever reason, there seems to be evidence that people are interested, compelled, curious about this thing called church. Maybe they’re on your mailing list but never attend. Maybe they came to a special occasion like a wedding or funeral. Perhaps they attend your annual suppers but never arrive on Sunday. The message seems clear. Make the investment of time, energy and money to increase those connections, making them more real and vital without necessarily expecting them to come to the church building.
·       Have you discovered anything about social tensions in your community?  Those who have jobs and whose jobs let them work from home may be inconvenienced by COVID-19. Those who cannot work from home may have been laid off or face the daily challenge of going to work knowing that they may bring the virus home with them. This includes not just health care professionals but many others, a significant proportion of whom are marginally employed and/or poorly paid at the best of times. Can your congregation – perhaps in cooperation with other non-profits – develop ways to address housing and food insecurity, other aspects of neighbourhood life. Is there a way to help sustain self-esteem by involving folk in contributing to the community?
·       This may be less significant in some parts of our Region, but is there animosity being expressed towards Asians in your community? Can you be on the watch for that and counteract it?
·       Economic recessions bring waves of relational and mental health crises. Couple that with being isolated in homes that do not always feel like safe and nurturing spaces. Throw into the mix a variety of unexpected and inexplicable tragedies. The result is a truly toxic situation which may find expression in abuse, violence, addiction, depression, and other crises of well-being. Physical and emotional exhaustion may follow from working a variety of part-time jobs or trying to keep a struggling business afloat. Add to that the sheer uncertainty of the times. Chances are that the various social and non-profit services in your community were already over-taxed before this crisis. There will need to be a greater response from congregations and ministry personnel to fill the gaps. That also includes attention to personal safety and an awareness of what situations may be beyond the capacity of our skills and knowledge.
·       What do you think the social-spiritual condition of your community is? Have you seen shoots of new life that the church can nurture?

Here are some things I’ve gleaned to help guide our planning. Of course, we will need to be aware of the situation in our communities and congregations. There may be announcements and directives from the Region or the General Council as well as decisions in the local governing body. And, then too, there is the likely but still undefined possibility of subsequent waves. We have been patient with this unusual and trying time. We have been well-served by so many in the research and health fields. We see the burdens on political leaders at all levels. We need to continue to hold them in our prayers.
·       Outreach will be vital as we face social challenges, but we may need to become more disciplined and focused, making hard choices not to do some good things so we have the resources to do the most needful things. That may force some tough conversations about pet projects. Coalitions with other non-profits will rise in importance so we can learn from their experiences;
·       Each community of faith will need to wrestle with its ongoing relationship to the internet. Every technology has positive and negative aspects and we will need to weigh those carefully on a community-by-community basis. If we commit to an internet presence, we will need to put the resources into interactive and dialogical modes and a clear understanding that “hits” do not necessarily translate into engagement.
·       The congregations that continue with a meaningful online presence will have to wrestle with participation in sacraments and other life moments. How can we empower people to join and share in funerals and memorials, weddings and other events? What does our theology tell us? What meaningful technological change does such a commitment demand?
·       Can we make online faith formation and fellowship activities increasingly meaningful, interactive and also confidential? What might this mean for equipping teachers and group leaders?
·       If we continue to use online meetings and offer online financial contribution options in response to continued physical distancing, we will need to make sure that those are as highly efficient as possible. Waiting for people to get connected or un/muted is amusing the first couple of times but gets old very quickly!

As Yogi Berra is quoted as saying: “The future ain’t what it used to be!” A good word for our next period of faithful preparation to follow God’s call anew.

c2020 I. Ross Bartlett


Monday 27 April 2020

Who needs normal?

A phrase I often hear these days is some version of “when we get back to normal.” I think I know what it means – a time when we don’t need to keep 6 feet between us; when we can use the parks and the trails; when we can meet one another, shake hands and share hugs without fear; when children can play with friends, people return to work, worshipers gather together. That’s a normal I think many would recognize.

But there are some parts of normal I wish we could banish, leave behind on the other side of March 15 (or whenever lockdown started in your community). We hear the voices calling for a “restart” to the economy. They aren’t as loud as south of the border, but they’re there. In the daily briefing a couple of days ago, a reporter asked the Premier, “Since the majority of COVID cases are localized in seniors’ facilities and particular communities, why can’t the rest of us get back to normal?” The response was a quite powerful reminder that the province entered this together, will go through this together, and will emerge together. But the sentiment is out there. People have published the calculations suggesting that the death and sickness rates are acceptable if things can go back to “normal”—meaning buying and selling. A number of provinces have (or have promised to) roll out their plans for spinning up the economy.

So, what’s on your list of “normal” that you want to work at and pray about and form community to resist?  Here are some of mine, in no particular order:
·       An unintended consequence of the economic slowdown seems to have been a degree of recovery for the rest of Creation. I imagine you’ve seen the photos of suddenly clear skylines or repopulated waterways and so on. I hope those aren’t all photo-shopped! While some level of revived economic and industrial activity is unavoidable, perhaps – having seen the dramatic effect lowering those levels can have – we can see that it is possible to make a difference and the Creation can be helped to heal;
·       We have seen the significant leadership being given by calm, thoughtful and courageous women, both a number of global national leaders and public health officials in Canada and abroad. I hope that demonstrated competence will affect a change in some knee-jerk reactions about who has the qualities to lead and a deeper degree of considered evaluation of all who are willing to offer leadership gifts;
·       I hope that what we have seen, both courageous and tragic, will help us continue to push back the privilege of the arrogant white male. Whether it has been reporters calling out politicians distorting facts in press briefings or our response to the shooting rampage in Nova Scotia, we’re seeing some “normal” or “excused” behaviours questioned. Why are we not calling it an act of terrorism, when it’s a white male at the centre of a historically awful swath of violence? Do we imagine, for a moment, that if the perpetrator were of another skin colour that the language of “domestic terrorism” would not be employed? Or, if we want to reserve the “terrorism” language for acts that are clearly ideologically motivated, why do so many insist on mental health language as opposed to acknowledging that this is one foreseeable consequence of society celebrating certain traits and ways of interacting?
·       I hope that, having seen it in action, we do not forget how possible it is for our country and provinces to move resources into caring for the most vulnerable.  The speed with which so many levels of government, business and not-for-profit made funds available is genuinely breath-taking. Programs that previously would have taken months if not years to see the light of day, came out the doors in hours. Certainly, they were imperfect and needed tweaking. But the attitude clearly was – there is a need, we need to act, we can fine tune later. When the need for greater fiscal probity reasserts itself how can we continue to remind governments and one another of what is possible, particularly for the marginalized, when the will exists?  The various forms of relief and support rolled out amount to a de facto guaranteed annual income. Having had the experiment, can we continue this as a means of fundamental economic justice?
·       We call them heroes now – I hope we remember those who we are feting in this moment who generally labour at impossibly low wages, cobbling together a variety of part-time underpaid positions, simply to eke out a living at or below a subsistence wage. Can we find the way to narrow the often-obscene gap between the pay to the CEO and the front-line employees? Can we continue to maintain the pressure on provincial regulatory bodies so that reasonable salaries and numbers of employees are available to care for the frailest of our brothers and sisters? Can we begin to shift our profit-fixation, that inevitably restrains or reduces the participation of front-line workers in the revenue generated by corporations? In a weird way I am grateful to those who have the courage to express the conviction that a few deaths are worth it to turn the economy back up. Not because I agree with them! But because they are declaring the operative prejudice of so much of our economy: the people exist to work and produce, rather than healthy, safe, meaningful and fulfilling work being one expression of human living. I hope we have learned that there truly is more to life than the jobs we do (when we have them) and we have a counter-narrative to those for whom the economic measures related to profit are the be all and end all.

So, what are some aspects of “normal” that you would like to change? I believe that an unanticipated benefit of COVID 19 is the opportunity to do a genuine reset on some of our behaviours and attitudes. Here are some questions to help you reflect.  Maybe you want to employ them with others to create coalitions for change where you live and work.
·       What do you not miss? Are there aspects of your previous pace of life that you want to change? For instance: travel, endless meetings; time away from family?
·       What have you noticed in yourself with the changed pace: more creativity, more peace, deeper connection or re-connection with people? 
·       Is your organization really conducive to the well-being of those who work in it? What needs to change to achieve that?
·       How do we alter the conversation? Here are some other change methods, based simply on altering the questions we pose:
o   What do I need to control?  What can I unleash?
o   Who can make this work?  What interactions will make this work?
o   How do I avoid resistance?  How do I welcome resistance?
o   How do I influence individual actions?  How do I influence the field (or culture)?
o   How can I create change?  How can I transform the energy that already exists in the system?*
We have the time to dream and pray about a new way of being.  What are you praying for?

*For more questions like these, see the TED talk by Kathleen Allen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAwHiM-1FnM&feature=youtu.be

c2020 I. Ross Bartlett

Thursday 23 April 2020

The natural resource of connection

No doubt the events of the past weekend have brought these feelings into sharper focus but sometimes it’s the absence of something that leads to greater awareness.  Take natural resources for instance. What comes to mind when you hear that term? Generally, I think of those gifts of the Creator that are too often needing protection from over-exploitation: water, forests, land and the things found under the land. Have you seen any of the before-after photos of different places in our world and how they look after just a month of reduced human industrial-commercial activity? I’m sure my more environmentally-aware friends will caution me that it’s merely cosmetic change – but at least it’s change for the better. Those are natural resources.

What about human relationships? Are they a natural resource? Even we card-carrying members of the Happy Association of Introverts (motto: “Caring – at a Distance”) need that connection. I’m sure there are sociological and psychological as well as anthropological arguments for connection. Because most of us, most of the time, take those for granted, we don’t realize what they contribute. Or maybe we focus only on the annoying connections – but even those can widen our frame. 

We have heard about the epidemic of loneliness in western society. About how Britain has a government ministry created to combat the scourge which has very real and measurable results downstream in physical and psychological manifestations. It’s a media commonplace to talk about how we are so very connected and often very much alone. Different surveys offer different numbers, but the conclusion is pretty constant: growing numbers of us have fewer and fewer meaningful contacts. A congregation I know started a free meal program with the intention of assisting the economically marginalized. The surprise was how many of those who took part in the ministry were not from the named group but from those who were lonely. Even sitting in a church hall at a table with strangers over a meal was a welcome relief!

In contrast to some other social crises we might recall, Covid-19 is pushing us apart. Lots of folks are resisting that push: can you think of a time when as many artists were offering free concerts or free readings on-line?! A way for them to perform, when their normal avenues have dried up entirely, but just as importantly a way for us to share something that often draws us together: music, whether in a kitchen party or a concert hall. Physical distance requires people to be separate. What we’re seeing is a refusal to equate the physical with the social; if we must be physically distant, we will work extra hard at being socially present. Yet there is still a growth in stress, loneliness, anxiety and fear. In such a situation people look for hope.  They also look for parallels. The on-line vigils in response to the violent rampage in Nova Scotia last week are another expression. Keep us apart one way, we’ll find another way. And those ways are effective in a manner that is more than just a poor substitute. A vigil yesterday organized by some very astute and thoughtful colleagues in Region 15 had over 1,600 participants from every corner of the country. If we had been able to gather physically, would we have even thought to do it virtually? Those of us in Nova Scotia would have the comfort of being together – but we might have missed the outpouring of love and support that was so powerful in the virtual vigil. You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/user/unitedchurchofcanada
There’s another coming up on Friday organized by folks in Colchester County. I imagine that too will be hugely subscribed.

Rodney Stark, in his book The Triumph of Christianity (which, notwithstanding the title, is not triumphalistic) makes the strong argument that Christianity grew in the first four centuries of this era in large measure because of the mercy Christians showed to all, and particularly those who suffered through two great plagues that ravaged the Empire. According to contemporary records, while non-Christians often fled the plague-struck areas, Christians carried the obligation to care for those in need, saving many lives through simple provision of food and water that allowed an estimated two-thirds of victims to recover. There’s also an argument made that, precisely because of this ministering, Christians developed a “herd immunity” which gave the appearance a divine blessing as proportionately fewer sickened and died.

What conclusions might we draw from a social historian’s reflections about 2nd and 3rd century plagues? By all means, wash your hands, for your sake and for the rest of us. Cough into your arm, elbow-bump – or even better nod politely from two metres away. Honour the call to not congregate – even in worship, but certainly not at the beach. But, if one of one of your neighbours – church member or not – needs assistance, even if they are diagnosed positive and needs you to serve them, please do so. We pray that it may not come to this but if our health care resources become overwhelmed and volunteers are needed, consider that.  Simply because you belong to Christ. Follow all the directions given by Health Authorities and encourage others to do so but continue to show mercy and serve others as Christ calls us to do. Refuse to succumb to fear and Face Book terror. 
You may have already heard of Martin Rinkart, pastor to the people of Eilenburg when the plague struck. In 1637, 8,000 people died of disease, including Rinkhart’s spouse, most of the town council and clergy. At one point he was conducting 200 burials a week. When Covid-19 fear threaten to overwhelm us and those for whom we care, it’s helpful to remember our most precious resources and the God who makes it possible

“Now thank we all our God,
With heart and hands and voices; 
Who wondrous things has done, 
 In whom this world rejoices.” 

And later, speaking of the bounty of God

 “Keep us all in grace, 
And guide us when perplexed, 
And free us from all harm, 
In this world and the next.”

Martin Rinkhart, “Now Thank We All Our God”, Voices United #216

©2020 I Ross Bartlett