Thursday, October 27, 2016

Seeds of Joy

In the simplest terms, the Ignatian practice of reflecting on consolation and desolation, consolation is what brings joy and desolation is joy's absence. However, life is almost never just one at a time. The two may be - and often are - mingled. Consolation, really, is what draws me closer to the God who is my joy, whose present Spirit enlivens, which may happen even in the midst of misery and sorrow.

I'm in the soggy jacket up front.  We haven't even started yet. This is just the     
warm up.
Yesterday morning I was both cold and miserable but reflecting on it, I also recognize a joy which is my consolation. I spent almost 4 hours in the pouring down freezing rain on the soccer field of my child's school working on building four wooden benches. I know that I will experience the fullness of this joy in due time when the benches join the work of over a hundred other community volunteers in a new playground for our elementary school. All built in one miserable wet day.

It crossed my mind more than once to bail on this project when I looked at the forecast for the day and again when my windshield wipers were working at full speed on the way to daycare drop-off. I was not thinking about where I might find God's joy but of how maybe I was feeling a little sick and should go home to bed. But I showed up, I discovered friends, met community members and other school parents and together we build a playground. God's un-named Spirit at work.

This is not a church story. Most of our stories aren't. It's the story of where we spend most of our lives. In work, in schools, in volunteer roles, in family. It's not a church story but it is a God story. May you all find the seeds of consolation joy as you think on your stories today.

Two of my team-mates sitting on the bench we just made.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Deeper (and Broader) Than I Expected: Reflections on a Faith Formation Conference

Because of the subtitle of this conference, “Deep Faith: Faith Formation for All Ages” I went with a pretty narrow expectation.  It’s one I was looking forward to, but narrow nonetheless.  I hoped to engage the question of how to work at education and formation intergenerationally.  How does one shape a Sunday school class or worship service such that it appeals and genuinely connects with people from toddler to senior and allows folk of all ages to learn with and from each other?  I did come away with a few ideas.  Ideas I hope to work at and explore more in the future, including an understanding that building bridges of learning and connection intended to meet the particular challenges of, for example, a four-year-old in worship, may might also be wide enough to include others with different demographics but similar needs.  Wide enough to welcome many into an experience of God.

What I came to experience in this conference was not wholly what I expected but was still pretty exciting. Two workshops in particular had me excited to come home and think about how we implement elements in my context.  The first, led by Carrie Martens, was a workshop about marking faith and milestone moments across the life span.  Like most congregations we offer some ritual life-marking moments in worship, like infant dedication and baptism.  We also offer young adults hand-made comforters when they are ready to move on after high school.  But I was challenged to think about the many other ways to mark life-moments as sacred through adulthood and at points throughout childhood: the beginning of school for a child, consecration of singleness for adults who remain unmarried, blessing on retirement when adults complete work marking a ‘fruitful past and fruitful future.’* Since there is no beginning or ending to the formation of our identity in Christ, ritual markers along the journey give us a vocabulary to name that identity.  Being able to name our identity allows us to further deepen and claim it.

One of the areas we Mennonites have claimed as central to our identity is that of peace-makers.  Yet it seems to me that it’s rare for a congregation to actively engage in educating and forming members (young and old) in practices of engaging conflict in healthy and transformative ways.  I have certainly heard many stories of unhealthy and passive aggressive ways that churches have dealt (or not) with conflict. That’s why Rachel Miller Jacobs’ concept of ‘Ordinary Time Forgiveness’ seems both so simple and so radical. 

Rachel introduced those who participated in her workshop to some tools of non-violent communication and in particular we had fun with her deck of ‘Feelings and Needs’ cards.**  These cards, as the name suggests, each name either a feeling or a need.  When confronted with a conflict or situation in which discernment or transformation is necessary, one may use these cards, either alone or with another, to identify the two or three feelings that are primarily evoked.  This allows a listener to use empathetic responding when choosing cards for the story-teller to test if the feeling is right and for teller to respond.  Once primary emotions are identified, the needs cards come into play.  It is the met or unmet needs that evoke those feelings and when identified, we can so much more easily communicate – the first step in moving toward resolution and forgiveness. 

It's more complex than that, of course.  And conflicts, like people, may be much more multi-layered, but because this is about the every-day, ‘ordinary time’ conflict, each of us being formed with the useful tools of engagement is so important to confronting the really fraught and complicated stuff.  It makes so much sense to begin engaging the notion of conflict as normal and forgiveness as central in childhood, then to continue to deepen our understanding of self and other as we mature, growing in faith and experience.  I am looking forward to trying testing these and many of the ideas I encountered at Deep Faith and I’m very grateful to have been able to participate.
* Carrie Martens, “Faith Markers at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church (in worship),” table.
** Rachel received her cards from Malinda Berry, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  They were developed based on the Non-Violent Communication practices and principles of Marshall Rosenberg and much more can be found at Malinda’s website here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Trump, Consent and our Circles of Grace

Like many of you, I am sure, I have been disgusted and horrified (but not surprised) by the words and behavior of Donald Trump directed at women over the course of his campaign and in particular this past weekend. It seems that this is a tipping point for many white Christians, because his words suddenly could not be 'othered.' But this is not (as, of course you know) the first time he has spoken with derision and in a violent or dehumanizing way about people. However I do see it as an opportunity to talk about this particular brand of violence and abuse and about the necessity of empowering each of us and our children to expect that we will only be touched with our consent. That no part of our bodies is an object just to be grabbed.

I came across this graphic on my Facebook feed a week or two ago. At the time I didn't think much of it other than passing agreement. Then I traveled for 5 days with my adorable red-headed toddler and I realized how caught off guard I am by people who think it's okay to poke his tummy, stroke his head, chuck his chin or grab his hand. And I realize I do this to little ones too!

It may be a fine line to tread between teaching our children to show respect for friends, kin and strangers (and we on their behalf) and to allow and even encourage them not to accept tickles, pokes or hugs when they are not open to that affection. But it's an important line. The bodies of women and girls in particular have been seen as fair game and we can reinforce this with girls and with boys without even thinking about it unless we are intentional.

In our Circle of Grace curriculum our children and youth learn about the space around themselves as inhabited by the Spirit of God, intent on their value and filling them with an inherent worth.  Nothing should be allowed to violate that space.  The children have an opportunity to think about what is allowed inside their Circle of Grace and what isn't. We tend to think about the things that go outside the Circle as things which we, their caregivers, would evaluate as a threat, or as 'creepy'. But sometimes even hugs and kisses from mom or dad might be put outside the Circle because they aren't feeling it. What's important is asking: Do you need a hug? Can I get a kiss goodbye? Is it time for the tickle monster? They might say no! That's okay. If caregivers and those close to our children can respect and protect the Circles of Grace of our children as they define them, they will be further empowered to name those boundaries in other situations.

May the Spirit's Circle of Grace surround you!