Pastor’s Column

By Pastor Scott Brubaker-Zehr

Contemplative Practice

Posted on: December 12th, 2018 by Rockway Mennonite Church No Comments

This fall I began hosting a weekly opportunity for contemplative practice in our church foyer on Thursday mornings. It starts at 8:00 am with a short piece of recorded music and a brief reading. Then we spend 20 minutes in silence. People are free to spend the 20 minutes in any way they wish. One can sit, one can walk, one can read or write in a journal. It’s a time to practise silent contemplation with others. Just as it can be motivating to go to a gym class to do physical exercise, it can be helpful to do this silent exercise together. All exercise is a challenge! And all challenges need encouragement. And healthy challenges bring rewards.

The Christian life of the spirit needs exercise just as the life of the body does. The practice of the spirit has largely to do with our attention and intention. How are we being present and attentive to all the issues and people around us? How are we being present and attentive to God’s spirit and God’s direction in our lives? If we’re out of practice, our attention tends to be involuntary and our intention tends to be unclear. We can become like wobbling weathercocks on the top of a roof — pulled and turned by every passing breeze: the ping on our phone, the email that just came in, the comment from a colleague, the ad on the website, and all the other things that blow though our lives on any given day. There are so many things trying to grab our attention! Our phone, our work, the news, our phone, a sale, our spouse, our children…. To lead a fruitful life of peace, it’s important that we discipline our attention and clarify our intention.

The power of attention does not lie in the object, but rather in our will. The ability to give attention or pay attention is a great gift and power. It’s a distinctly human ability. When we truly pay attention to someone or something, we bring life to an encounter. We open ourselves to a revelation, a communion and an exchange. This year I’ve started singing in the Inshallah choir; the director regularly reminds us to pay attention to what we’re singing. As soon as the attention starts to wander, the notes tend to go flat. With attention and intention, the notes and the harmonies come to life.

Most types of meditation in most religious traditions seek to discipline our powers of attention. Some types suggest a focus on one particular thing — like a spoken mantra or the sensation of the breath. Other types, such as Christian centering prayer, aim for an “objectless awareness”. As soon as one becomes aware of thoughts, sensations and stimuli, one simply lets them go and returns to a “naked” awareness without object. Through centering prayer, one learns not to be “hooked” by every passing thought or sensation. The intention is to be open, receptive and totally available to God. With practice, one becomes more grounded and centred.

One of my teachers, Cynthia Bourgeault, says that as Christians we are really called to pay attention with the heart and not the mind. Christian spiritual practices help us to bring the “mind down into the heart”. When the mind is engaged on its own, it tends to want to control, divide and analyse. The heart perceives more holistically, and it is not just about emotions. The heart can live with paradox and perceive the movements of the Holy Spirit more subtly than thought or emotion alone. There will always be at least one person in our church foyer on Thursday mornings at 8:00 am if you’d like to come to practise. No experience is necessary. Everyone is a beginner.

Read More

Sabbatical reflections from the Yúcatan

Posted on: May 12th, 2018 by Rockway Mennonite Church No Comments

During the month of February, Mary and I were able to rent a small house in the city of Mérida, which is the capital city of the Yúcatan province of Mexico. With books along, a good internet connection for our laptops and a Mexican SIM card for my phone, we were able to work on our sabbatical projects, lest you be tempted to think that this was just a vacation! We were quite productive, and also had some time to explore the city and surrounding area. I’ve always found it stimulating to look at North American life and work from a different cultural perspective.

Picture1During our time here, it was a pleasure to spend time with H.M. and M.G. They have been coming to this area for many years and were very generous friends and guides. Here we are standing under the Mayan arch at the ruins of Ek Balam. One of the most fascinating aspects of this area is the wealth of ancient Mayan ruins and culture. The Mexican government has invested a great deal in uncovering and restoring many sites around the peninsula. The ancient cities, with their architecture, art and symbolism, are amazing to behold. And this culture is not just a thing of the past, even though the Catholic Church and Franciscan order did their best to eradicate the Mayan language and religion. Currently, approximately half of the population of the Yúcatan speaks Mayan. Due to the influx of tourism, particularly on the Caribbean side of the peninsula (Cancún and Playa del Carmen), the number of native speakers is decreasing. However, efforts are now being made to teach the language more widely in the public school system.

Picture2When the Franciscans came in the 16th century, they discovered a great deal of affinity between the Christian and Mayan symbols. The native peoples seemed to convert quite readily to the religion of Rome — not that they really had a choice! The basic cosmogram of the Maya was the cross, symbolizing the four directions. Mayan priests would draw their own blood in religious rituals in an attempt to please the gods. They also practised human sacrifice. Therefore the image of Jesus on the cross, a human sacrifice, shedding his blood for the sins of the world and to please the great god above, made a lot of sense to them. The Maya also had a complex understanding of the realms of the underworld, material plane and heaven. The Spaniards were frustrated that despite their best efforts, the people continued to practise their own rituals alongside those of their new Catholic faith. The farmers would still make offerings to Chaac, the rain god, toward the end of the dry season. They still called upon the local shaman when there was sickness or evidence of a curse. To this day, farmers’ cooperatives conduct rituals to Chaac in the cornfields and happily go to Mass on Saturday night. In the city museum, there is an ancient Mayan mask that seems to sum up the relationship with Catholicism quite well. They say to the local Catholic priest, “Por supuesto Padre, somos Católicos muy buenos!” (Of course Father, we’re good Catholics!)

Picture3One of the most enjoyable things about city life here is the activity and music in the local plazas. Every night of the week, there are concerts free of charge for the public. Every Sunday is like a special holiday, with folk dances, food vendors, live bands and activities for families. One also sees evidence of the less than healthy aspects of western culture. Just like us, many are addicted to their cell phones, starting at a very young age. And the shops and grocery stores are stocked full of refined sugars and carbs. Coca Cola does a booming business in the Yúcatan. Another enjoyable thing is the weather. Every day during February, the temperature was in the low 30s, with sunny skies. But all was not easy. We had to carry our own water!

I think of Rockway often and hope that church life is going well. I look forward to returning in May with new energy and vision for ministry. See you soon.

Read More

Future Directions

Posted on: November 25th, 2016 by Rockway Mennonite Church No Comments

Scott B-Z-heaadshotThis past summer I was able to attend the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly held in Saskatoon, July 6-10. The big items for discernment were the recommendations coming from two national taskforces: Future Directions and Being a Faithful Church (BFC). These discussions took place in an atmosphere of both joy and sadness. As at all larger church gatherings, I sensed the joy of being together as one people from across the country. The sadness was felt particularly on the first evening when the treasurer reported on a difficult financial situation that had necessitated the letting go of several national staff. Those in attendance were aware of being together at a precarious time of uncertainty and change.

The recommendation from BFC represented the culmination of a nine-year process of discussing principles and practices of Biblical and theological interpretation in hopes of reaching some sort of agreement on the issue of same-sex relationships within the church. The recommendation urged the church to continue to hold to the traditional understanding of marriage as outlined in our Mennonite Confession of Faith, but, at the same time, to “allow space” for congregations who had decided to support and bless same-sex marriages. It was an attempt to name our inability to come to consensus, and to encourage our commitment to remain together even in disagreement. The recommendation elicited a great deal of discussion and diversity of opinion but was ultimately approved by 85% of delegates. My sense is that the lengthy BFC process has helped us to maintain the tension on this issue and to avoid a major split as some other denominations have experienced. However, the story is not yet finished.

The Future Directions recommendation also generated a lot of discussion. I was inspired by the level of investment and commitment displayed across the generations. A good number of young adults spoke publicly from the floor. Essentially, the recommendation is to strengthen the five area churches (Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, Mennonite Church Manitoba, etc.) and to re-structure the national church so that it becomes more an extension of the regions and less an independent entity. Instead of having its own body of delegates drawn from congregations across the country, the national church would be accountable to a smaller group of delegates from the area churches. Area church staff and moderators would bring agenda to national church meetings so that the national church reflects more closely the regional issues rooted in congregations. Each area church would continue to be accountable to its own congregational delegates.

Strengths of the model include less administrative overlap and a greater collaboration among the area churches. Stronger area churches will also mean more resourcing and support for local congregations. The vision is to help local congregations be active in missional ministry in their own settings. Possible weaknesses could include a lower national profile for ecumenical work and an uncertain process for calling and supporting international mission workers. Many questions were raised: Will the area churches be able to work together on a truly national agenda, or will they default to their own regional issues? Will there be sufficient energy and vision for a national agenda? What will happen to international ministry programs? How will the area churches work together with such disparities in membership and financial resources?

Concerns were also expressed from delegates about wanting input into the details of the restructuring proposal. The delegates did not seem content to leave the future direction decisions to a small group of leaders. With such questions and concerns in the air, the recommendation was approved by 95% of votes, with an amendment promising ongoing consultation with area churches and the opportunity for area delegate bodies to vote on a final detailed proposal.

An Interim Council (Transition Team) has been formed to come up with a detailed draft proposal for a new church structure. This team is made up of Calvin Quan, the new moderator of Mennonite Church Canada, along with the five area church moderators. Mr. Quan is a member of the Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church. Our moderator in MCEC is Paul Wideman, a businessman from Community Mennonite Church in Drayton, Ontario. As of October 4, this team has hired Keith Regehr of Kitchener (member of First Mennonite) as the full-time Transition Team Coordinator. Keith will work with area and national church staff, along with area moderators, to draft a new structure and transition strategy for the church. This proposal will be brought to area churches for consultation and final vote within the next couple of years.

These are interesting times to be part of the church! What does all of this mean for us at Rockway? We may not always be aware of the ties we have to other Mennonite congregations across the country, but I think it’s important to remember that we’re part of a larger body. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, we are bound together in Christ. We are part of one mystical body. The hand can’t say to the foot, I don’t need you. While perhaps tedious at times, it’s part of our witness and ministry to find faithful and effective ways of functioning together. There’s a tendency in our society toward atomization and individualism. I believe we’re called to resist this in order to be true to our calling as a church.

Read More

On the road again

Posted on: April 20th, 2016 by Rockway Mennonite Church No Comments

Scott B-Z-heaadshot“On the road again!  Just can’t wait to get on the road again…” Do you know that song by Willie Nelson? It came to me for some reason as I was sitting down to write this column. It was only ten years ago that we packed our bags and travelled northwest along Weber from our home at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate to arrive here at Zion, just beyond Queen, across the street from the Downtown Community Centre. We’ve had a good decade of life and ministry here and now it’s time to move on. We’re on the road again, head-ing back southeast, but this time not quite as far as the collegiate. We’ll be making our home on Onward Avenue, just north of Ottawa Street in the King Street East neighourhood. You may have noticed some stories in The Record in early February that reported on the formation of the King East Neighbourhood Association known as KENA. The association has recently been revived with a new board of directors, a website and a Facebook page.  Their website banner features an artist’s view of the boulevard on Onward Avenue.  It looks like it could be right in front of our church. You can see it at www.kingeastneighbourhood.ca.

Christian theology is incarnational, which means that God’s Spirit makes her home on earth. Geography is therefore important when it comes to Christian life and ministry. The Bible is full of names of places. There is an incarnational concreteness to the stories of God’s people. God is revealed and experienced in specific locations like at the Jordan River or on Mount Horeb or in the streets of Rome. God calls us to love and serve real people who live in specific places, and not just “people” in the general sense. All this is to say that our location is significant and that it is part of our calling to become well acquainted with our neighbourhood.

King Street East mapThis move is a significant event in the history of our congregation because it is the first time we will own a building. Ownership is not significant in and of itself; however, it does mean that we will likely be settled in our new location for a good long time. It also means that we will be in a position to share our space with others. What sort of presence do we want to have there? If neighbours comment on the new group moving in, what would we want them to think or know or say? My hope is that they will experience us as hospitable, open and interesting. How will we make our presence known? These are some of the questions we hope to discuss in our next informal “visioning” session which is scheduled for Sunday, May 8. On Sunday, May 1, an urban geographer named Warren Stauch will be with us in first hour to speak about the history and character of the neighbourhood and will lead us in a neighbourhood walk following a potluck after church.

We’ve already had some contact with KENA by offering our building as a meeting space. Their next meeting is scheduled at our church on Saturday, March 19. On Sunday, February 28, from 4-7 pm they closed Duke Street between Pandora and Betzner to launch their first Winter Carnival. People enjoyed some music, hot chocolate and visiting around a fire pit. Good things are already happening in our new neighbourhood. New adventures await us.  – Scott Brubaker-Zehr

Read More

God and Science

Posted on: July 8th, 2015 by Rockway Mennonite Church No Comments

Earlier this spring we had a short series at church on the topic of God and Science.   The topic is sometimes framed as “Faith and Science” which I purposely avoided. The title “Faith and Science” implies that science does not involve faith. It carries the popular and false impression that science is just about facts and religion is just about faith — without concern for evidence.

John Brubacher reminded us that there is a lot of ambiguity in science. Observing reality is one thing and interpreting what we see is another. Owen Gingerich, acclaimed Harvard astrophysicist (and practising Mennonite), in his book, God’s Universe, states that “Scientists work with physics, but (perhaps unwittingly) they also have a broader system of beliefs, metaphysics, a term that literally means beyond physics.”[1] Scientists operate with their own implicit belief systems in positing hypotheses for how natural phenomena should be understood. As limited human beings, some sort of faith is always part of the equation.

One helpful model for integrating Science and God is outlined in a book by Ken Wilber entitled, The Marriage of Sense and Soul.[2] Wilber begins by describing the great chain of being, which was generally shared by all major wisdom traditions prior to the rise of empirical science in the West. The great chain is basically the idea that life consists of an enveloping hierarchy encompassed by spirit. Wilber pictures it as a nest of concentric circles radiating out from inanimate matter to body, mind, soul and spirit. It is an evolutionary understanding, where each new level transcends but also incorporates elements of previous levels. The movement is toward higher levels of complexity and spiritual awareness — a movement toward fullness in God.
JohnB-Figure1Wilber is proposing a model that will take seriously the realm of Spirit as well as the realm of things. He plots the individual and collective experiences of life together with the interior and exterior dimensions for a comprehensive map of reality (see Figure 1).

 

His point is that we need to strive for a deep integration of all four quadrants. With the rise of science in the modern period, the exterior realm of It (right side) has seriously undermined the interior dimensions of I and We (left side). The left-hand quadrants are much harder to measure and test in an empirical sense. He is proposing a model of epistemological pluralism. Wilber is just as interested in the spiritual experience of saints and mystics as he is in the latest discoveries of quantum physics. All data and experience must be taken seriously. In addition to the four quadrants, there are also lines of development that move outward from the centre in a diagonal direction.

Each quadrant has its own path of development. Just as evolutionary biology has demonstrated the deepening complexity of physical organisms over time, so too the interior quadrants show a deepening spiritual maturity and awareness. As we grow as individuals and communities, we move from a me-centred outlook, to an us-centred approach and ultimately to a world-centred approach. In the bottom left quadrant, for example, the line of development of religion (a cultural, collective, inter-subjective phenomenon) would move from magical animism, to mythical belief structures, to rationalism, pluralism and finally to an integral experience and understanding.

Wilber’s model would seem to fit in a certain way with the Christian vision of the kingdom of God. Jesus is leading us forward to a time where war, for example, will no longer be a viable option. Fear and domination are meant to eventually give way to interdependence and peace. Entering the “kingdom” would mean intentionally offering oneself to the evolutionary process of the spirit which is underway in all of life. Sin is resisting the Spirit’s will for greater integration and complexity. Repentance is turning from our own stubborn egotism and surrendering to the greater movement of God within all sectors of the universe.

There are certain conflicts to consider with this model and Christian theology, but it may provide a good foothold for exploring the place of Christian faith in relation to science.  Scott Brubaker-Zehr

[1] Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 6.

[2] Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (New York: Random House, 1998).

Read More

Aging Together

Posted on: April 1st, 2015 by Rockway Mennonite Church No Comments

In recent months I partici-pated in two seminars on the topic of aging. One was led by Dr. Kenneth Pargament from Bowling Green University, and it focused on the spirituality of aging. The other, led by Gerald and Marlene Kaufman, therapists from Pennsylvania, was entitled, “Necessary Conversations: Aging Together in the Church”. Both of these workshops were time well spent. Aging is a relevant topic because it happens! You can be sure you’re preparing for something that will come. “Time and tide wait for no man,” wrote Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. A 20th century poet puts it this way:

 How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon? 

–Dr. Seuss

The passage of time is relentless. There is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. The most we can do is embrace it and prepare for it. Dr. Pargament, a clinical psychologist, recommends to therapists that they record a “future” as well as a “history” from their clients. The best predictors of a person’s future behaviour are their plans and intentions. If we can anticipate and prepare for some of the transitions of aging, chances are good that they will go more smoothly. The Kaufmans recommend that aging parents make a point of calling a formal family meeting to discuss the future with their children. The agenda should include topics of finance, housing, driving, healthcare, death and funeral planning. This is not an easy thing to do because most of us naturally resist the realities of old age. Who looks forward to getting old and frail? However, the Kaufmans insist that “far too many families wait until circumstances force them to talk, and then they have to make decisions under pressure, which often leads to conflict that can continue for years.” (From Necessary Conversations, Good Books, 2013, available in our church library.)

Aging is a natural part of life, and we live in a culture that tends to deny and fear it. We worship the picture of youth and dread the loss of our function and faculties. Part of the calling of the church community is to resist this trend of fearfulness. The church is one of the places in society where aging can be faced courageously and where the elderly can be meaningfully integrated. The church is also a place where older persons can be challenged to grow and change. Spiritual growth can continue until the very end.

The Mennonite writer, Katie Funk Wiebe, has described three spiritual invitations for the older years. First of all there is the invitation to identity. As we age, it is tempting to describe ourselves in terms of who we were or what we did. The new challenge is to discover who we are now that we are retired or less capable physically or mentally. There is also the invitation to find a vital role. Who am I now, when I no longer work or walk or remember as I used to? Who do I seek to be in my family? Who am I in my church? Older adults can become important bearers of wisdom, tradition and historical knowledge. They can also be prophets and graceful witnesses to the way of Christ, which is to lose oneself in order to be born anew. A third spiritual invitation is to “transcend the losses”. How to come to terms with some of the big disappointments and failures in life? How to work with the relational rifts that have occurred over the years? Forgiveness can become an important spiritual task in the later years. Spiritual maturity and the ability to forgive is not something that necessarily comes with age. It still requires effort and the later years are a good time to invest in spiritual growth. It’s never too late for God’s spirit to work in our lives.

Read More

Communion

Posted on: August 2nd, 2014 by Scott Brubaker-Zehr No Comments

Communion has been a topic for reflection and conversation among us over the last several months. During Advent 2013, we read and reflected on the book Take this Bread by Sara Miles. The book tells the story of how a secular young woman, skeptical about church, was drawn in, and transformed, through participation in the Eucharist. It was the physical act of eating and drinking together in memory of Jesus that helped her to experience the earthy reality of the gospel. Her participation in communion led her to begin a food pantry that inspired the creation of other food pantries throughout the city of San Francisco.

Then on January 22, 2014 a few of us from the congregation participated in a leaders’ workshop sponsored by MCEC on the topic of communion. Arnold Snyder was one of the presenters. We reflected on the distance between our current context and that of the early Anabaptists. For our early forebears, the Lord’s Supper was a solemn ritual of communal accountability and obedience. It was reserved for the baptized who had pledged their allegiance to Christ under threat of persecution. For many reasons we have moved away from the high level of accountability with respect to communion. We live in an increasingly secular culture and instead of wanting to stress boundaries and public pledges, we’re looking for ways of being hospitable and welcoming. Mennonites today are generally stressing the “grace” dimension of communion more than the “commitment” part.

In April we hosted a special weekend with professor Irma Fast Dueck from Canadian Mennonite University. We talked about the relationship between baptism and communion. Irma said that this is the first time in Christian history where people are identifying themselves as Christian apart from baptism. Many believers no longer understand baptism to be a prerequisite for communion. For a growing number of spiritually minded people, there seems to be an aversion to making promises through public rituals. Just as many younger believers are putting off baptism, they are also putting off marriage, not seeing the meaning or necessity of the ritual. Irma was encouraging the church to maintain the traditional link between baptism and communion, but to find new and more flexible ways of doing so.

The Rockway Church Ministry Council has a special interest in communion because of our role of overseeing the “spiritual ministry of the church”, as stated in our job description. The spiritual ministry means in part to attend to our central practices of baptism, communion and membership. As pastor I’ve been working with the Ministry Council to summarize what we’ve been learning about com-munion this year. We are wanting to maintain the central tension and interplay between the two dimensions that seem to be part of most encounters with Christ in the gospels. When people met Jesus, they experienced acceptance and also the invitation to repent. Jesus offered welcoming grace but also the call to follow him in his mission.

We are therefore wanting to maintain the theological relationship between baptism and communion, but are looking for ways of being more flexible, open and inclusive. We believe that in our culture, communion may also serve as an entry point into the experience of faith and not only as a re-commitment for those already baptized. On Sunday, June 22, we will be hosting a first-hour session to share our views in more detail and to summarize our approach as we move forward. We welcome your thoughts and questions. We hope to see you there.

Read More

Visioning

Posted on: March 14th, 2014 by Scott Brubaker-Zehr No Comments

“Not another visioning process! These things always create lots of smoke but no fire. Results get shelved somewhere and we just carry on as usual. Do we really need another visioning process?”

Can you relate to this sort of sentiment? Perhaps too many of us have sat through too many less-than-effective visioning processes in our lives. Nevertheless, visioning is important. Every congregation needs to take some time to step back and reflect on who they are and where they are going. At Rockway over the last number of years, we have done some of our visioning around tables in a conversation café format. Issues were raised that contributed to the work of our Church Council and committees. We have also done some visioning through pastor-congregation reviews which occur every four years. In the 2010 review, a number of desires and concerns were expressed.

In my own reflections for the review committee four years ago, I expressed the need to “pay particular attention to how we nurture and form our children and young people. Young families in the neighbourhood are attracted to a church that values children and provides opportunities for their growth.” This concern was shared by the congregation. Over these last number of years we have worked effectively toward this goal through the formation of the Congregational Life Committee in 2010 and the Christian Formation Team in 2011. Our Sunday school program is working well with hired student teachers, and our communal life has been enriched through regular intergenerational activities and a growing milestones ministry. Our recent retreat weekend on February 8-9, 2014, was a good example of a positive experience for families and children. These initiatives grew out of specific opportunities for “visioning.”

So what next? Do we really need another visioning process? I think we do. However, it doesn’t have to be cumbersome or overly serious. Sometimes we may mistakenly assume that visioning has to mean coming up with a brand new plan or strategy. That’s not necessarily the case. I look at visioning as an opportunity for intentional conversation about who we are and where we are going. We don’t necessarily have to solve a problem or come up with a new direction. Visioning can simply mean taking stock and seeking clarity.

Over the last few months I have been working with Church Council to form a visioning committee which would propose a process prior to our move to Olivet. We have decided not to call ourselves the “Visioning Committee” and not to call our process “Visioning”. Sometimes the word has too much baggage. Instead we are proposing a series of congregational conversations, which are intended to be lively and enjoyable. The planning is still in process, but we are thinking that these conversations will take place in the fall of 2014. We are hoping that together we can gain a little more clarity on who we are as a congregation and where God is calling us in these next four to five years. We’re not anticipating major changes, but we’d like to see if we can come to some sort of image or phrase that might serve as a touchstone for our ministry, going forward.

How would you describe the personality of Rockway Church? Why do people choose to come here to worship rather than go somewhere else? We share much in common with other churches, but what is it about us that is unique? What is the particular gift we can offer toward the realization of God’s dream for the world? What is our most important task in the near future? We are blessed with the opportunity to move into new facilities in a new neighbourhood. I believe it is important to enter into this move with a clear sense of who we are and some ideas for how we might live out our calling in our new setting. So let the visioning continue!

Read More