Pastoral Ponderings . . .
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity Tabor gives me every July to be renewed and inspired for our partnership in the gospel of God's grace. Many thanks to Rev Gordon Young for substituting for me in worship, and for all our amazing lay leaders and volunteers at Tabor!
This year my sabbatical took me to the Vancouver School of Theology on the campus of the University of British Columbia, Canada. The course was titled "Listening to the Heart of Genesis" and presented by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, PhD, who makes her home in Maryland. She has been a rabbi in the Reformed Jewish tradition since the 1980's, and has been an important contributor of inclusive language and symbolism in the music of modern Shabat liturgy. I would also add that I perceived her as one deeply immersed in Jewish mysticism and its connection to the modern world.
At one time in her career she took the opportunity to learn the practice of Ignatian spirituality in the Roman Catholic tradition. She was moved by this method of connecting with God, and began to reflect on how it could be used in Judaism. In her contemplative life, she began to develop her own way of accessing the richness of Jewish heritage and spirituality by using one of St Ignatius' practices called "lectio divina" or "divine reading" in her study of the Torah (what we call the Old Testament). From this daily practice emerged the framework of what she now calls "kirat hakodesh" a way of engaging with Torah and one's daily experience of life. Kirat hakodesh centers one in relationship with God, self, and neighbor in order to practice being a blessing in this world.
Rabbi Gal Berner's book "Listening to the Heart of Genesis" is a handbook for practicing kirat hakodesh by anyone in their daily prayer life. It is a communal activity: it's meant to be practiced in small groups where each person commits themselves to being fully active participants. In somewhat like what we know as a "Bible Study" each group session of kirat hakodesh requires extensive preparation by the leader, as they take the group on a journey together through the stories of different people in Torah, or for us, the Bible.
Kirat hakodesh follows this pattern in each session:
Reading from scripture
Teaching based upon the leader's research preparation on the story
Prayer, or Rumination, entering into our personal relationship with God
Contemplation, or discovering how to be the blessing illuminated by God through the above steps. Contemplation is prompted by questions that are prepared by the leader for the group. The leader invites the group to share their insights as a result of the questions.
These steps are repeated four times in each session. Rabbi Leila has incorporated into kirat hakodesh the uniquely Jewish cultural tradition of "niggunim", wordless melodies chosen and sung by the leader during the Rumination and Prayer steps. Rabbi Leila's goal is always to help us connect with what's going on in our hearts throughout this process. Listening to the heart or feeling of the story, listening to our hearts, and listening for God's illumination.
Each day Rabbi Leila presented two complete sessions centered on different stories and characters from Torah. After three days, we were divided into small groups that prepared and presented kirat hakodesh for the large group. This was the first time that Rabbi Gal Berner had ever presented this practice to a Christian group, and we felt very honored and blessed by the whole experience.
Each afternoon I had the opportunity to explore the campus of the University of British Columbia. UBC has an impressive focus on botany, and marine bio-diversity in their graduate and undergraduate programs. UBC itself is hosted on the ancestral unceded lands of the indigenous first nation peoples of British Columbia. There are works of indigenous art and culture everywhere on the campus, that teach everyone about the tribes who are hosting their academic experience in that beautiful place. That learning is epitomized by a comprehensive Museum of Anthropology that immerses a visitor in the cultural and spiritual life of the many tribes of the Pacific Northwest.
Students from all over the Pacific Rim are represented in the student body, and the cultural influences of their ancestors are also an important part of the campus experience. In particular, I was blessed with the rare opportunity to participate in a Japanese tea ceremony on the grounds of the Nitobe Memorial Garden, part of the UBC Botanical Gardens. The Nitobe Memorial Garden was designed to be a place of deep reflection and contemplation. The lay-out of the garden, with waterfall, trees and plants, its great pond, its bridge and paths, all tell the story of the importance of inter-cultural understanding for the sake of peace in the world.
The garden is the setting of a traditional Japanese tea house with an 8-mat room that opens out onto the garden, and a smaller 4-mat room. Those hosting the tea were dressed in traditional kimonos and accompanied by a professor from the Asian Studies department who explained every move, gesture, vessel, and decoration in the ceremony and house. All of which is meant to lend itself to the guests' reflection on how this ceremony is central to a harmonious life with one's neighbors. Afterward, we were invited to visit the small 4-mat room (one mat for each guest in any given ceremony) with explanation of the origin and meaning associated with that particular room size. I was graciously invited to remain behind to reflect upon the beauty of that room. As I did, I was joined by one of the servers who told me the origin story of the ceremony itself, called "The Heart of Tea." Look for me to tell you that story in one of my sermons to come!