Belonging and Exclusion – A Conversation

The latest issue of the Christian Courier takes the question of belonging as its theme, with a particular focus on issues of race and culture. Here is my “column” for this issue.

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The theme of belonging is rich with challenge and possibility and it seemed to me that I would do better not to try and explore this theme merely on my own. As a result, I share with you the content of an interview/exchange I had with the Rev. Oliver Kondeh Ndula, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and a graduate student at McGill University/The Presbyterian College, here in Montreal.

RDV:  The idea of “belonging” is understood in variety of ways. How do you understand “belonging”?

OKN:  I understand “belonging” to mean the ease with which people get integrated into communities, especially communities other than those of their origin. From this perspective the concept is dualistic. On the one hand the other needs to take the initiative to get integrated into his/her new community. On the other hand, the new community can either facilitate or impair the process.

RDV:  Do you think it is possible to fully belong in some place or community?

OKN:  I would say not exactly! For one thing, people’s world views are different and that constitutes an impediment to total integration. There is always this tendency in humans to judge the ways of others and to disapprove of them because they are different from theirs. In some cases, the disapproval is articulated, but in most cases, it can be through non verbal communication.

RDV:  Have you perceived differences in how “belonging” is understood between your home context and the Canadian context?

OKN:  Of course. For one thing, Cameroonians value community over individualism and that has an effect in the way they perceive “belonging”. As such my reading of the Cameroonian perception is that they try as much as possible to make the other feel a sense of belonging, even when they have a negative impression of the one.  They may talk ill of the “stranger” behind his or her back, but they can go to great lengths to make the one comfortable even by sacrificing their own comforts. Many Canadians on the other hand, are too honest to the point that they just won’t do what inconveniences them, an attitude many Cameroonians may judge as impairing community.

RDV:  Thinking about the Canadian context, what is the most significant thing others have done to give you a sense of belonging?

OKN:  I would greatly commend the Canadian context for the commitment with which service providers render their services. For about one and a half years that I have been here, I can’t remember any office to which I went and was treated shabbily. Even when I found it hard to understand something either because of accent, or even because it was a concept with which I am not familiar, I always found a patient ear willing to serve me. At such times, I felt a strong sense of belonging in my new community.

RDV:  What are the most significant things others have said or done to make you feel like you don’t belong?

OKN:  I remember an incident, when I was serving as Interim Dean of Residence in Summer 2018. A homeless middle-aged man decided to spend the night in the courtyard of the College and a resident called my attention to it. When I politely but firmly insisted that the one should leave, he eventually succumbed but before he did, he made very racist statements. He wondered aloud how a “n- – -” like me would come to his country and tell him what to do! He blamed the situation on a government that has opened their country to all kinds of “n- – -s”.

RDV:  This difficult encounter makes me think both of the harsh way this man tried to diminish your belonging to a community and also the way in which he has perhaps lost his belonging to a wider community, based on his homelessness and other possible life experiences.

OKN:  In addition to your comment, it makes me think of how he might have felt as he left the courtyard. Could it be that since this space belonged to a Christian institution, he felt refused by the same people who are supposed to take in the homeless? I actually felt bad as he left, as I wondered what might have become of him, if he got turned away from everywhere he went.

RDV:  Are there ways that people resist belonging in your Cameroonian context?

OKN:  Sure! Heightened by the multiplicity of ethnic groups in Cameroon, there is much, even if often covert hostility between indigenes and settlers. The former would often give the impression that the others are welcome, but there is always some resentment. Sometimes this can even take the use of some derogatory slangs to describe the settlers such as “come-no-go” (a pidgin expression meaning one who came visiting and has refused to leave; “Les anglofous” (a derogatory term used on anglophone by Francophones); and “francofools” and “frogs” (two terms used by anglophones to ridicule Francophones).

RDV:  As you have already seen, this kind of hostility isn’t unknown or uncommon in the Canadian context. What is your sense of how our belonging is transformed by our faith in Christ?

OKN:  Belonging is transformed by our faith in Christ in that any Christian community worth the name can never fail to be conscious that we are only Christians by being grafted into a community to which we originally did not belong (Romans 11:17, 24). Thus, faith in Christ facilitates belonging, for it reminds all that no one owns any particular community, just like none is a “stranger” in any part of God’s earth.

RDV:  In our personal lives we face opportunities and challenges in belonging. How does faith in Jesus shape your approach to the question of belonging?

OKN:  Personally, I try to make empathy my watchword, and I would recommend the same to all who have found faith in Jesus, the one who incarnates inclusivity. Just like we all resent it when our sense of belonging is hampered, so do others feel.

 

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Rocks, boulders, pebbles, alive?

Stones of all kinds were a feature of my family’s vacation this past month – a vacation that included two weeks on the West Coast. We spent time in and around Vancouver, and then up the coast into Alaska. Everywhere there were stones.

With the tide out, wandering on rocky beaches – more stones than could be counted.

On a Sea-to-Sky hike and climb near Squamish – scrambling across rock falls and around boulders.

Along the coast and inland, too, mountains and massive outcroppings of rock – Mount Baker, The Chief, Grouse Mountain.

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Near Juneau, Alaska.

Rocks define our world, the earth, so why would they not define a summer holiday, also?

Sometimes those rocks and stones even appeared to be, somehow, alive. Continue reading

Sola Scriptura: A Baptismal Defense

A talk presented to a conference hosted by the Presbyterian Committee on History and The Presbyterian College – as part of ongoing celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Still in somewhat rough form, but clear enough to follow.

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Some days you feel like you’ve drawn the short straw. And let me confess that I feel a bit that way about this line-up of five events over five years, with each year dedicated to one of the famous Solas of the Reformation tradition.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone

Sola Fide –Faith Alone

Solus Christus – Christ alone

Soli Deo Gloria – For God’s Glory Alone

And our sola for today, of course, is Sola Scriptura – by Scripture Alone.

I’ve got to say that when I thought of this line-up of topics, I said to myself: “Grace alone. That’s such a beautiful and compelling theme of the Reformation – that our lives are gift and grace – that new life in Christ is grace upon grace. Grace Alone is a beautiful and is such an uncontested theme of Christian life and faith. Who wouldn’t want to offer reflections on that topic?” Continue reading

saying goodbye – with grace in Christ

How do you sign off your emails? How do you say good-bye in the age of electronic communication?

It’s a surprisingly complicated question.

Traditionally, of course, when you write a letter by hand to someone, you might sign off by saying “sincerely,” or perhaps by saying “with love.” Ending a letter with those words was almost like ending a prayer with the word “Amen” – it was intended to show that we are invested in the words we have written or spoken.

But in the world of email – in the world of back-and-forth electronic communication – it’s complicated. Ending an email by saying “sincerely” feels too heavy and formal – saying “with love” would often be way too substantial.

Some people will sign off an email with the light sounding “cheers.” And in a way that word works because it’s quick and light – it matches the not-too-significant nature of most of our emails. But on the other hand, if you’re not the kind of person who would say “cheers” in everyday conversation, it may feel odd to sign off an email that way. Continue reading

division, baptism, unity — or, who we are

Let me begin this morning by reading again just a few words from 1 Corinthians chapter 1. For me these particular words are more than a little odd – they almost stick out like a sore thumb – and for that reason I want to start with them. Paul writes these words to the church in Corinth: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.” Aren’t these curious words? “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.”

These words become astonishing when we realize that Paul is the one who founded the church in Corinth. These words come from the apostle who went to that city and who debated in its marketplace and synagogue, with the result that women and men came to faith and were baptized. These words come from the pen of someone who lived with the Corinthian church for 18 months – leading them and caring for them and teaching about their new life in Christ.

To this church, to this group of people with whom he has had such a significant and personal relationship, Paul writes: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.” Strong and strange words. Continue reading

“may I have a word” — confession and correction #sermon

Has anyone every pulled you aside and said: “You know, what you are doing is really not a great idea.”

Has anyone ever pulled you aside and said: “You know, you better stop and think about what you’re saying.”

When someone pulls you aside it’s generally because they care about you – they want to put the brakes on something you’re doing or saying before you get carried away. They care about you, and so instead of speaking to you publicly in a way that might make you look back or shame you – they gently pull you aside to have private word with you. Continue reading

change in the church – free to experiment

Presbyterian Record cover June 1964An article printed in this month’s Presbyterian Record, based on a blog post from a year ago. [The image to the right is of the cover of The Presbyterian Record from 50 years ago!!]

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Change has been in the air at Kensington, Montreal, over the past six years as the congregation has adopted global and contemporary songs in Sunday worship. While we still sing many traditional hymns, there are new melodies, harmonies and rhythms rising into the air from sounding board, vocal cords and even the djembe.

Change has also been in the walls and in the ground and in the pews and in the programs and in the financial outlook. So here’s just a sampling of changes made in our congregation’s life over these past years, beyond the embrace of new musical expressions. Changes made in a spirit, I would say, of faithful common sense.

We have moved our worship from a traditional worship space (a beautiful sanctuary that seated 700) to a bright and simple church hall that will easily and comfortably accommodate our 65 – 70 Sunday worshippers. That traditional sanctuary is up for sale.

We are incorporating audio/visual elements within Sunday worship—images and visual liturgy that are appropriate to the aesthetic sensibilities of the congregation (and wider community) and also true to our faith in the God who has created and reconciled the world in Christ. Continue reading

Congregational Aesthetics – beyONd our walls (3/3)

In this short blog series I’ve been exploring this question: What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation. Otherwise put: What do the artwork and architecture and liturgical accoutrements of your congregation reveal about its faith and identity? And how do they shape your faith and discipleship?

In my first post I explored how we might respond to the artistic heritage passed down to us from earlier generations. In the second post I considered the importance of contemporary, artistic expressions of faith in our IMG_2868worship and community spaces. Now in this final post I want to push us out of the church building, into the wider community.

Too often the church has thought of itself in terms of a fairly strict separation from the world. The church has failed to identify with the world – it has failed to live for the world, in the world.

While we have to think about these issues carefully (theologically speaking), I’m of the view that we can and must conceive a much more porous boundary between church and world. This doesn’t mean watering down faith convictions, but it will require transforming mindsets and structures and programs – and in ways we may not yet be able to imagine. Such transformations must be defined precisely by our life for the world and in the world, since this is the only life that we can possibly embody in faithfulness to the one who is our life – Jesus Christ.

Continue reading

congregational aesthetics: a LIVING faith (2/3)

In this short blog series I’m exploring this question: What is the aesthetic profile of your congregation?

Every congregation has an aesthetic profile, a profile that emerges out of the architecture, memorials, artwork, and liturgical accoutrements that make up the worship space or community space of a particular church. This aesthetic profile says something about who we are and about the nature of our faith.

In the first blog post of this series (here) I reflected on the weight of history – the question of how we might respond to the aesthetic tradition that has been handed down to us in our particular congregations. In this post I want to move beyond the historical, to the contemporary.

memorialOne realization I have made is that in many congregations – including the one I serve – most of the aesthetic elements are at least two or three generations old. Memorials or paintings or photographs give expression to the lives, faith, culture, and aesthetics of earlier generations. Which is to say that, very often, there are no contemporary aesthetic expressions of faith within our buildings or worship spaces. Which is also to say that in many congregations there are very few (or none at all!) ways in which we express our living and contemporary faith in Jesus Christ through paint or woodworking or weaving – through our creative capacities as women and men and kids. Continue reading