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Monday Miscellany

Mondays are usually pretty quiet for me, and I’m especially appreciative of this one after a very busy weekend.  Lots of activity usually means lots to reflect upon when the pace slows down—at least for me.  A few mostly unrelated thoughts, then, for a Monday morning…


This weekend was our biannual church retreat which took us to a nice little retreat centre tucked away in the Rocky Mountains an hour and a half or so away.  We spent our time reflecting on themes of “re-creation” as well as, more importantly, enjoying time together in creation and in community.  I particularly enjoyed chasing my kids around a ski hill on Saturday afternoon.  It was a perfect day—not too cold, no wind, and a virtually empty hill.  The contrast between my son and daughter could not have been more stark—the former independently careening around the hill always on the verge of losing control, the latter a model of caution and restraint.  Ah, yes… risk and restraint.  Both are necessary in this life.  But which one and when and where and why?  These are the questions…

One of our sessions on Saturday focused on wonder and awe.  For me, it is difficult not to experience these things in the mountains.  Particularly beautiful was the Sunday sunrise, as you can see in the photo above taken by one of our church members.  Simply spectacular.  A visual confirmation of the words from Psalm 8 we had read earlier in the weekend:

3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
4 what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

9 LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!


On Sunday evening, it was off to an ecumenical service hosted by a Presbyterian church in our city.  The service was an invitation to reflect upon what unites us as Christians, rather than the many things we focus on/invent to divide ourselves.  Anglican, United, Baptist, Lutheran, Salvation Army, Roman Catholic, Mennonite—each was represented, and probably others too, albeit in rather meagre numbers.  It was my first experience participating in this kind of service and I felt a mixture of deep appreciation at what the service represented, and sadness that it was enjoyed by so few.  A big, beautiful sanctuary, filled with well-crafted and meaningful words, prayers, and hymns, with only a handful of souls there to participate.

I was particularly struck by the excellent sermon delivered by a local campus chaplain.  She reflected upon the changing realities for the church in a post-Christendom era through the lens of three texts from Scripture.  The reading from John’s gospel (John 12:23-26) talked about a kernel of wheat needing to die to produce new life.  The OT reading, Habakkuk 3:17-19, spoke of rejoicing even when the fig tree does not bud, when the crops fail, when there are no sheep or cattle in the stalls—when signs of life are, in other words, mostly absent.  The text from 1 Corinthians 15:51-58 proclaimed that life ultimately triumphs over death.  Each of these seemed very fitting and hopeful themes, as a few dozen saints celebrated oneness in Christ in a mostly empty sanctuary on a Sunday evening.


Finally, my latest post on morality pills and becoming the people we wish to be via chemical alterations of our brains is up over at Wondering Fair.  Drop by and have a look, if you’re interested.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sorry to miss the ecumenical service, especially the sermon from the sounds of it. Busyness has its blessings, I guess!

    February 13, 2012
  2. Ernie #

    “an invitation to reflect upon what unites us as Christians, rather than the many things we focus on/invent to divide ourselves”

    this should be on every fridge magnet and every morning bathroom mirror…and if that doesn’t suffice, on every bumper sticker

    Thank you

    February 13, 2012
  3. Jon #

    “Ah, yes… risk and restraint. Both are necessary in this life. But which one and when and where and why? These are the questions…”

    Indeed. Timely pondering in my life and work at the moment.

    February 13, 2012
  4. Larry S #

    what are some of the things we “/invent to divide ourselves”

    February 13, 2012
    • I didn’t have anything too specific in mind—just a general assumption that with God-only-knows how many thousands of denominations out there that have formed due to differences with others in biblical interpretation, theology, worship style, personality conflicts, etc, that they can’t all be legit…

      Of course, there are some things that I think are important enough to split over. I wouldn’t be a Mennonite if I didn’t think this was true. But even these can come to so dominate our attention and self-understanding, that we fail to appreciate the many things that we share with other Christians—even those with whom we have significant theological disagreement with. I appreciate nights like this past Sunday for this reason.

      February 14, 2012
      • Larry S #

        Ryan, agreed.

        The multiplicity of interpretations reminds me of Christian Smith’s book ‘bible made impossible’ or something. Dr. McKnight’s blog ran a chapter by chapter review of the book and based on those conversations I bought it.

        I think i was responding to the notion that we ‘invent’ differences and I tried to imagine how to do church in a significant way by merging two disparate groups – say your presbyterian church doing infant baptism with anabaptists or say a hard-core patriarchal comp group and egalitarians.

        It seems the biblical texts without a magisterial body give themselves to multiple interpretations. So I suppose in a way we do ‘invent’ differences. I can’t remember the location of the text right now but a 1 corinthians text which deals with communion has a sentence that runs something like this: ‘I suppose there must be differences among you to prove who is correct’ I’ve heard that sentence used to justify all our differences. (the sentence is ripped out of its context – Paul is being sarcastic).

        Sorry for all the grammar/spelling errors. this post was done on the fly.

        February 14, 2012
      • I have seen (but not yet read) Christian Smith’s book. It looks very intriguing.

        Re: imagining how to “do” church in a meaningful way that honours and merges two distinct groups… Well, that’s a very difficult question. It’s hard to imagine how the groups you’ve identified (and others) could come together, especially on such divisive issues. There are signs of hope, of course—I know there are churches where people with wildly different views about gender can and do worship together—but at times it seems our divisions have so much time and weight behind them (leaving aside the issue of their actual merits), that it can seem hopeless to try to bridge them.

        Perhaps the best we can hope for is maintain our distinctives with grace and openness to one another, and occasionally come together in things like shared service projects, ecumenical services, etc. I don’t know. There are some convictions that Christians hold that cannot easily be dislodged or overlooked for the sake of “unity.”

        I guess my hope is that God is big and strong and gracious enough to work in and with and through divisive and profoundly limited human beings whose beliefs and convictions are shaped by a wide variety of factors (many of which probably go unrecognized and unacknowledged). I suppose God doesn’t have much choice—there are no other kind of humans around :).

        February 14, 2012
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Ecumenism and orthodoxy can be uneasy worship partners. In my tradition, a service apart from a Catholic Eucharistic celebration, is in of itself, an insufficient expression. While I am encouraged to partner with others and share in worship, I must always, first and foremost, remain faithful to the Mass. Mass and eccumenical celebration is affirmed. Ecumenical celebration as an alternative to Eucharistic celebration, is hetrodoxy. Not an easy pill to swallow for Protestant friends commited to ecumenical principals.

    Likewise a Catholic ecumenical service excludes non Catholics from Eucharistic celebration. A rational orthodox position but hardly compatible with the ecumenical spirit. Thus again, a potential for offense and division permeates what is intended to be a unifying experience.

    I think we need to get to know one another better, attempting to recognize our differences accurately and honestly and reserving judgement, before we undertake mutual worship. Further I think we might better serve the ecumenical process if our first joint undertakings revolve around mutually held social and political concerns, eradicating poverty comes to mind, before we commit to joint worship.

    My experience is that Christians with a malleable sense of the faith can find immediate value in ecumenical worship, while distinctively orthodox partners may do themselves more harm than good.

    February 14, 2012
    • Yes, ecumenism is a difficult thing to negotiate when there are so many different convictions about orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I think that whatever efforts we are able to make with integrity are, however, worth the effort.

      My experience is that Christians with a malleable sense of the faith can find immediate value in ecumenical worship, while distinctively orthodox partners may do themselves more harm than good.

      I’m not sure I agree with you here. I don’t think I have a particularly “malleable” sense of the faith, yet I find value in ecumenical worship. Am I doing myself more harm than good in participating in these sorts of things? Does my participation signify my departure from “orthodoxy?” I certainly don’t think so. I think I am able to retain my convictions about faith as a Mennonite while worshiping with Anglican, Catholics, United, Baptists, Lutherans, etc. I wouldn’t participate, if I didn’t think this was the case.

      February 14, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        I agree that a generic Christian prayer and worship service would always be valuable and encourage everyone to participate. That being said certain worship distinctives, rather than foster unity, may only further deepen divisions. This has unfortunately been my experience with regard to Roman Catholic Eucharistic celebrations.

        February 14, 2012
      • Fair enough. Your experience is your experience. I just wanted to push back a bit on the implication that to participate in ecumenical activities is to compromise on orthodoxy.

        February 14, 2012
  6. Paul Johnston #

    I guess a lot depends on what kinds of outcomes we hope to acheive through the ecumenical experience. If it is only to draw people from differant Christian faiths together in an act of joint worship then I am not sure I understand what ecumenism adds to the equation that non denominational worship doesn’t already provide.

    If however the goal is unity then I would agree with Blessed John Paul II, from encyclical, “Ut unem sint” (may they be one)…” I myself intend to promote every suitable initiative aimed at making the witness of the entire Catholic community understood in its full purity and consistency, especially considering the engagement which awaits the Church at the threshold of the new Millennium. That will be an exceptional occasion, in view of which she asks the Lord to increase the unity of all Christians until they reach full communion.”

    At some point then, differences in practice and belief need to be confronted. My suggestion is that we ought to do that at the beginning of the process rather than later. To that end I would suggest workshops and asociated prayers to sustain those envioronments before worship. Worshipping with people whose expression of worship is a form of heterodoxy to your understanding of orthodoxy, based on my experience, only undermines unity and entrenches mistrust.

    February 15, 2012
    • Re: outcomes… I guess I would say that for me, the outcomes hoped for are rather simple. In worshiping with those from other denominations, I hope for an acknowledgment that what unites us as Christians is stronger and more durable than what divides us…. that the God we worship and serve in our own ways is bigger than our limited efforts and understandings… that while we agree that truth matters and that we have significant disagreement on various matters of theology, polity, ecclesiology, praxis, etc, the acceptability of our worship is not contingent upon human efforts—moral, theological, or otherwise.

      I don’t think these things would be accomplished in a non-denominational worship service, because, as I understand it, in our service on Sunday we were saying that even though we have differences on important matters, we will still choose to celebrate what we have in common. We’re not saying that denominational distinctives don’t matter (as a non-denominational service would), just that they are not ultimate.

      February 15, 2012
  7. Paul Johnston #

    I cannot disagree with your sentiments regarding unity and would still participate in communal prayers in support of such an objective. I hope I do not sound patronizing when I suggest that I think ecumenism as a primary worship model would best suit disparate Protestant denominations, particularly variant evangelical ones. The distinctives, at least to me, don’t seem such that accomodation, one to other, is impossible.

    For a Catholic however, it is impossible to remain faithfully Catholic and worship in any manner that would impugn the integrity of the Eucharist as we understand it, the Sacraments, Marian devotion and or the Traditions and Magisterium of the Church. It is a lot to ask of Protestant partners and invariably I have found myself unable to continue to worship with them in their professed modes of expression.

    Seen in this light then, the only viable alternative would be to engage in some sort of generic expression of worship, that I would assume to be similar to a non denominational gathering. I do appreciate the distinction you make with regard to ecumenical intentions vis a vis non denominational ones, but I wonder if the actual worship experience would be much different?

    The crux of the dilemna, I suppose is in how we define your phrase, “contingent upon human efforts”. For orthodox Catholics, what we hold to be immutable, we do so because we are convicted that it is God’s mandate, not ours.

    We don’t change, sometimes even in spite of persuasive human argument, because we can’t change. We must follow God’s will, not ours. Somewhat ironically then, seen in this light, what others might argue is a right and enlightened re interpretation and expression of polity, we can see as a wrong expression of “human effort” that is more concerned with the ebb and flow of human cultural imparatives, then it is the consistent application of the traditions of Apostolic Succession.

    February 16, 2012
    • Yes, I think it is obviously more difficult for some expressions of Christianity to participate in these kinds of ecumenical services than others, given their convictions about the nature of God, the church, the sacraments, etc.

      Interestingly, there were a few Roman Catholics (including clergy) present at the service last week. What would you say to/about these people? Just curious…

      February 16, 2012
  8. Paul Johnston #

    The Catholic tent is a big one. Intentionally homogeneous in faith, intentionally heterogeneous in culture and politic. It is said that if you wish to study all the distinctive spiritual, cultural and political natures manifest within Christianity, you only need 6 Catholics to get the job done. 🙂

    To those Catholics who worship with you and to yourself and other non Catholics, may the Holy Spirit dwell among you. May the peace of our Lord be with you. May you all find a spiritual fraternity that deepens and intensfies your walk with Christ. To each as the Holy Spirit moves them. God be praised.

    February 17, 2012

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