Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Writing by the Seat of My Pants

The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair,
wrote Mary Heaton Vorse. Dorothy Parker once quipped,
I hate writing, I love having written.
They are both writers, of course. Published writers who got their witticisms written down for people like me to quote in posts like this. I get the first statement. I don't do it often enough, but I get it. I can't totally relate to the second quote. I enjoy writing when there's something coming out of me. I enjoy organizing my thoughts and seeing where the ideas lead. It's like walking along a path I haven't walked before. I don't know what's around the next corner and I know I won't find out unless I start walking (the process, applying the seat and writing something down). I enjoy sermon and article writing. I'm enjoying writing this.

However, writing something more substantial is on my retirement bucket list. I have three or four such possible "projects" hanging over me at the moment. "Having written" only a very few thousand words in a couple of them, I am a long, long way from "having written" any of them. They all seem absolutely huge and complex and beyond me. I don't know what possessed me to think I was capable of writing anything beyond an email message, sermon, blog post or an essay. And the irritating thing is that it's all my own fault. Nobody forced me to take them on.

It doesn't help having friends like Fred Stenson who has actually written and had published several novels. I've read them all AND his short stores and posted about his two latest novels here. Wonderful, complex, multi-layered, engaging stories that have beginnings, middles and endings; not to mention actual pages, covers and flyleaf's. And then there's Glen Dueck here in Medicine Hat who has just published his first novel, Joanna. It's the story of the one of the women who provided for Jesus and was mentioned a couple of times in Luke's gospel (8.3 & 24.10). I am in awe of the kind of commitment and application required to get that work done while pastoring a church for a day job.

Now I am retired I have to face up to the fact that I can no longer use work as an excuse for the lack of pants seat application to the chair and the Macbook to the lap. In the meantime, those projects, which I never should have mentioned out loud, loom and taunt. Sigh. This post is probably nothing but a ploy by my endlessly devious and panicked inner aspiring writer to avoid writing something—anything—down for one of the projects in that bucket. Double sigh.

This Lent, perhaps, the time has come for me fast from unapplied pants seats.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Reflections on a Visit to Auschwitz and Islamic Extremism—my By the Way Column in the Medicine Hat News

Last Tuesday was the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death-camp. I visited it in 2006. I really didn’t want to, but I felt I couldn’t just slide on by. I needed to honour the victims by allowing myself to be a witness. I was stunned by the sense of methodical, orderly death-dealing on such an industrial scale. Just outside the fence was the comfortable home in which the camp commandant and his wife raised their children. What kind of switch has to be thrown in human minds and hearts to make that possible? I couldn’t get my mind around it. All I could do was shake my head and wonder at the enormity of the human capacity for evil. It was a quiet bus ride back to our lodgings.

Seventy years later and the news is now filled with accounts of brutal violence done by Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and by individuals in Sydney, here in Canada, and in Paris.

I didn’t want to write about this, really, but the atrocities above make me feel like I did when a difficult or disturbing passage came up in the Sunday readings. I had to resist the temptation to ignore it and slide on by to easier, less volatile matters. Instead I felt obliged to engage honestly with whatever it was and to try and figure out a faithful response for followers of Jesus.

The fact is that religion looms over all the above and I represent one of the religions involved. I feel sad and angry about what has happened and is happening. I worry about what my grandchildren may have to face. How shall I respond in faith?

I must begin with Jesus, the One I follow and serve, himself a victim of political and religious oppression. He made many challenging statements about how we Christians are to live with conflict and abuse. For example, he said he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Mt 10.34-39)—history has borne that out. Jesus also told his disciples they’d need a sword so they ought to go and buy one (Lk 22.36). Also, if I want to save my life, I must lose it (Lk 9.24)—not so comfortable with that. And then there’s “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6.27-28). That, I get, but I’m not sure how well I can do it.

What I know I can do is pray, and never lose heart, that peace will prevail, war will be averted, justice will be done and the innocent will be protected. So can you.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

On the Merits of Liturgy and the Church Calendar

I've written about liturgy before. Here's another lovely take on it:
Liturgy, at its best, is more like the tracks of the train than the whistle. It’s silent and sturdy and, though almost unnoticed, it leads us to where our hearts long to go. In perhaps the most quoted address on liturgy, C.S. Lewis states, that liturgy is most useful “when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
…from Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, in a piece on her discovery and appreciation for the church calendar in Christianity Today's excellent "Her.meneutics" here.

Liturgy's trustworthy tracks, along with the church calendar, keep our worship and personal devotions on course as, year after year, they carry us along through the story of Jesus from Advent through Easter and a focus on discipleship for the rest of the year. The accompanying lectionary ensures that we are all, including preachers, at least exposed to themes with which we might not otherwise be inclined to engage.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Meeting Together

Church. The best place In the world to consider how to stir one another up to
  • love 
  • good works
  • not neglect to meet together
  • encourage one another
…all the more. (Heb 10.24-25)

Sunday, 18 January 2015

One Side to the Other: New Beginnings and Thoughts on Worship

This morning the missal stand (which holds the big prayer book at a convenient angle from which to read on the altar) had been moved from one side of the altar to the other at StB. I noticed it as soon as I settled into my pew. 'Tis an outward and visible sign of the fact that we now have a new presider. This next stage of our journey to meet Jesus when he comes again has begun. Our new and very welcome priest, The Rev Dr Dustin Resch, now has the con. This morning he presided and preached (praught?) for the first time. It was grand. 

Keep Calm and Worship On

Here are some thoughts and discoveries about worshipping on the other side of the rood screen (supposing we had one) from that most peculiar and sometime irksome personage; the previous rector. These have been bubbling up and mouldering as Jude and I wandered at first without benefit of flock in the early months of retirement and more recently when it felt right to return to StB.

All Circumstances

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 ESV)
What we Anglicans (and Roman Catholics and most Lutherans, too) do most Sundays is celebrate Eucharist (more on that later). The word comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving. As as lover, follower and worshipper of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ I ought to be able to give worshipful thanks for what God has done, is doing and will do, in all circumstances—especially on Sunday mornings at church no matter where I am, who is presiding, how loud the children are, whether or not I like the music, or denominational peculiarities, or style, or the people up front, or around me. This was impressed upon me especially during our wanderings. I was reminded that I have a job to do among God's people at worship wherever I go. My job is to apply myself to the task, or the work, in liturgical terms (the word liturgy means work of the people) allowing nothing to distract me. In all circumstances. It is my responsibility. If I let some real or imagined failing of a leader or anyone else deflect me, the devil wins. If something bothers me, I just have to work harder. Sure, my mind wanders. Less often than it used to, perhaps. If it does, I just catch myself and refocus on what's being said, sung and prayed. Over and over again, as necessary.

Bible Delight

I love the Bible. I love the way we hear three passages read aloud every Sunday. I believe God's written Word read out loud gradually salts us through and through so it will not return to Him empty. It will succeed in the thing for which He sent it (Isa 55.11). 

When I led worship from the other side of the rood screen, I used to encourage people to bring their Bibles to church so they could follow the readings. I thought that doing that helps us learn where things are in there. I used to feel a little impatient with people because most didn't. On this side of the screen I find myself repenting of that. I find that I don't want to read along as the passages are read, I'm enjoying listening to them. I have to concentrate. My monkey-mind can head off on tangents very easily. But I find watching the face of the reader helpful in listening deeply. I've seen some folk close their eyes to listen, but I find the watching helpful for some reason. 

I still have my Bible handy in some form in case I need to look at a phrase or a verse more closely and I think daily Bible reading in the context of The Daily Office (Morning and Evening Prayer) is important to help keep my faith and spiritual self alive, but Sunday listening has been the thing for me—somewhat to my surprise.

Worship in Song

Sometimes when I don't know a song I'm tempted to zone out and wait until it's over. But if All Circumstances above is valid, there are several ways I can be a part of the worship at all times. For example: 
  1. I can silently pray the lyrics as those who know the song sing
  2. I can harmonize by quietly singing or reciting appropriate Bible verses, for example, "How glorious you are, more majestic than the everlasting mountains!" (Ps 76.4) or "Be exalted O Lord above the heavens, let your glory be over all the earth!" (Ps 57.11) or I can pray "Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end!" Watch for verses you can use in this way in your daily Bible reading. 
  3. I can harmonize by singing in the Spirit as I pray in tongues (1 Cor 12.10) if I have that gift.
There is no reason why I should allow myself to be left out of the worship whether I know the song or not or how well it is led.

Making Eucharist

I love the drama of the Lord's Table. The story of our salvation is told Sunday after Sunday. The bread and the wine are presented, prepared and prayed over. The Lord is remembered until he comes again. I enjoyed presiding, but I also now love being a part of the parade of humanity that goes up to receive what Jesus has provided; old and young, male and female, all shapes and sizes, Sunday by Sunday; we approach, receive and return; a graceful altar call and response. I miss it whenever we're away, but I can still worship when I put my mind to it. 

The most important thing is that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is worshipped and enjoyed in the power of the Holy Spirit no matter what and in all circumstances. 

It is SO good to be home.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Anglican Communion's Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order Has Urged The Anglican Church of Canada Not to Amend Its Marriage Canon

Something of which we Anglicans need to be aware:
The Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) has urged the Anglican Church of Canada not to amend its marriage canon (church law) to allow the marriage of same-sex couples, saying such a move would “cause great distress for the Communion as a whole, and for its ecumenical relationships.” 
The IASCUFO’s statement came in response to a request from the Canadian church’s Commission on the Marriage Canon for an opinion about proposed changes to Canon 21 that would allow for same-sex marriages. Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, decided IASCUFO would be the “most appropriate” body within the Communion to deal with such a question. (See more here.)
Back in September I posted some information on The Anglican Church of Canada's Commission on the Marriage Canon to which IASCUFO refers. That post included a link to the more than two hundred submissions received by the Commission (including my own) here.

Please pray that the Holy Spirit's direction would be clearly heard and obeyed concerning this difficult and divisive matter and that The Anglican Church of Canada will respond humbly and wisely.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

"Who by Fire": a Novel by Fred Stenson—a Biased Review

I like the bon mot and the turn of phrase that's just so. There are always some tasty ones in Fred Stenson's books. Who By Fire is no exception. I've read them all. I still remember his grass baked to a "thirsty tan" in The Trade (I know exactly what that looks like, that's exactly what it's baked to in Medicine Hat by mid summer). Here are some of my Who by Fire favourites, with some biased-by-friendship thoughts and memories attached, in a bit of a stream of consciousness review.

A work dynamics expert dropped by weekly with a box of doughnuts, from which they fed like a peewee hockey team. (p30—page numbers from the Kindle version)
Fred and I began our friendship while feeding at Denny’s on 16th near Calgary's Foothills Hospital in the August of 1980. We’d just been hired by ACCESS Television—he as a writer, me as a Producer/Director—a bit of a peewee production team of two at the time. Our boss was on holiday for the month so we had nothing much to do except enjoy long lunches and conversations together over Pattie Melts. Those conversations included stories of his childhood on the Stenson family farm near Pincher Creek. I could hear the echoes in Who by Fire. 

Fred also fed on pancakes at Phil's for his writing at the time—longhand in black ink from fibre tipped pens in school exercise books. I don't know where and how he does it now but I'm pretty sure keys are involved.

To earn his daily bread, in addition to his television and fiction writing, Fred also did a fair amount of work for the oil patch. I remember being impressed that he would abandon his more casual, television writer attire to suit-up, tie and all, for his meetings with those clients. I can see the grist those days provided for the Who by Fire oil and gas industry story mill.

The engine kicked off easily but he sat for a while in sympathy for the engine parts, beating in their taffy. 33
Fred and I had a taffy moment or two in our collaborations. Times when clients weren't as impressed by our capabilities as we were. Times when making television programs felt like running through molasses.

I ached for Who by Fire characters Ella and Tom and their children as their relationships beat in the taffy of the circumstances Fred describes so well.

Behind the bar, a guy with a face like an open wrench was yelling. 36 
On the street outside, the air was so cold it breathed like metal. 38
Who by Fire is about what happens to ordinary people and their relationships when they are subjected to an open wrench faced industry producing air that breathed like metal.

I happened to read Who by Fire during Advent. The Daily Office readings of the season can be dark and full of the cries of prophets with the Biblical version of open-wrench faces and metal-breathed judgement. This verse caught my eye one morning:
For a burning place has long been prepared; indeed, for the king it is made ready, its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of sulfur, kindles it. (Is 30.33)
Sulphur features heavily Who by Fire. Not that I'm suggesting that sour gas plants are necessarily an expression of God's judgement, but when humans, including oil and gas people, break bad the breaking can be very bad indeed. The Bible calls that kind of breaking "sin." We moderns don't much like the word any more, but acknowledging sin and putting it right is what makes guilt that leads to reconciliation a good thing.
Speaking of guilt and reconciliation, I appreciate the way Fred portrayed the Catholic Church in this book. As an almost Catholic cleric (we Anglicans are Catholic but just not Roman) I am somewhat sensitive to how she is portrayed. Many writers, both print and media, succumb to the temptation to take the cheap shot. Fred's treatment is fair, realistic and respectful.

The stream sluiced along below him, brown with its burdens. 325
Any novel or work of art comes brown with the burdens of history and the life of the artist. Who by Fire is its own such tea. There was even a reference to Moby Dick in thereBill's sister, Donna, appears at his door unexpectedly and tells him he looks like Queequeg. That made me smile because way upstream and many years ago I can remember Fred announcing he'd read somewhere that a writer can learn deep things from reading a particular classic over and over again giving it a chance to get into his bones. At one time Moby Dick was the classic for Fred. I wondered if the reference is because of it.

The wind started up in the night and blew fiercely. Morning arrived with a bend in it. On days like this along the mountain flanks, things blew down and things blew up. School buses fell over sideways. Roofs de-shingled themselves like a card trick. Sometimes people went crazy and did things they would never have done otherwise. 330
Fred grew up in that wind. It blows him along still. Who by Fire is evidence of that and a good read.

UPDATE: my calendar has just reminded me that it's Fred's birthday today!!