Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The old systems don’t work anymore

Our son was 14 when he came up for confirmation. For those not familiar with the policies of the United Church of Canada, confirmation was a ritual by which young people who were already members of the church by their baptism became “full” members by “confirming” the promises made on their behalf by their parents before they were capable of making any decisions for themselves, so that they could participate fully in church life.

            Back then, it was still believed that young people actually wantedto join the church.

            So they went through a three-step process. First, they had to learn what the church historically believed. And why. And why it mattered.

            Then they were allowed to belong to this community of faith. And then, once they been absorbed into the body politic, they were expected to act – to behave, in other words – like true Christians.

            Believe. Belong. Behave. That was the way it was done.


“I can’t go through with this”

            A week before the formal confirmation service, our son told us. “I can’t go through with this.”

            We asked why.

            “I’m supposed to say that I believe in the Bible,” he replied. “But what it says isn’t what I’m learning in school. The earth being formed in seven days -- that’s just not true. It took millions of years.”

            We had a long discussion. About ancient myths and legends. About whether the Bible dealt with science, or with wisdom. About how people’s understandings of truth can evolve.

            We must have made some sense, because he went through with the formalities. And he didn’t keep his fingers crossed. But he did tie the minister’s shoelaces together while no one was watching.

            Interestingly, that discussion affected my own beliefs. I realized that I was keeping my life in separate compartments. One compartment contained what I learned from science, from reading, from the evidence around me. A second compartment held what I had been told to believe.

            They never conflicted, because they never met.


Other ways of joining in

            I doubt if many people come to the church by the traditional route of belief, belonging, and behaviour any more. Maybe some do. But I suspect far more people start by working together on some worthwhile project. At my present congregation, probably volunteering in its Thrift Shop. In other congregations, helping with an Inn from the Cold program. Or sponsoring a refugee. Or joining a music program.

            And then they start to like these people. To identify with them. To feel that they belong.

            And over time, they absorb the ideals and aspirations of their new friends. They realize that they share something -- a common spirit, a set of values. And thus they come to believe -- not the abstract theology of Thomas Aquinas or Paul Tillich, but the vision, the standards, the underlying principles of a Christian community.

            They’ve reversed the traditional sequence. Now behaviour comes first, then belonging, then believing.

            Maybe religious life is a traffic circle. Wherever you start leads to the next step, which leads to another, which leads you back to where you started. But now with a different perspective.

            Perhaps, like me, you have to re-evaluate something you had taken for granted. And then you start around the circle all over again.


Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





After a couple of weeks with few responses, last week produced an overflowing inbox about touching other people.


Gloria Jorgenson was horrified: “I can't even imagine under what circumstances Holly would unexpectedly massage the neck and shoulders of some stranger in her audience. Many people recoil at physical contact by any but their closest associates.

            “However, few of us are silly enough to mistake a friendly or supportive hug for anything but what it is. If in doubt, a simple ‘May I hug you’ will clarify the situation. Don't make this harder than it should be.”


“Touch is a personal issue,” wrote Bob Rollwagen. “We all have our own acceptable level of intimacy. Touch means you are inside someone’s space. If you stand in front of someone nose to nose, you would be considered in that person’s space and they would likely back up or ask you to step back. I have friends, male and female and other, that like hugs and others who are private and seldom hug. Being sensitive about touch is a good thing. It shows respect.”


George Brigham endorsed my commendation of nurses who have learned to touch without letting it get out of control: “I’m just out of hospital after much longer than expected after a knee and femur replacement. I had surgery on a Monday and woke up on a Tuesday, but it was not the next day. It took a few days to convince me that it was actually a week later. I’m home and hobbling around on crutches now and have nothing but praise for the nurses and physiotherapists -- mostly female -- who cared for me in both ordinary and intimate ways.”


Isabel Gibson also had personal experience to share: “I've just started working with a personal trainer. When she needs to know if I'm using the right muscles (or not using the wrong ones) and she can't see under my clothes, she'll ask first, ‘May I touch you?’ I had a tai chi instructor who didn't ask for permission but who at least gave warning before the laying on of hands to correct a posture. That was 20 years ago. Today, he might well ask, or find another way to make the correction.

            “Like most things we do -- most corrections we make -- I think it's gone too far if it really means that teachers (or properly vetted classroom volunteers) can't give a kid a hug. And yet somehow, even with this hyper-vigilance, little kids are still sexually assaulted.

            “On a happier note, I'd add physiotherapists to your list of professionals who know how to use touch without it getting out of control.”


Jayne Whyte explored “good” touch: “Good touch is when it is requested and received, when there is permission asked and given. Protecting personal space means saying, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in any interaction, and having that decision respected. Medical practitioners, massage therapists and other body workers have a code of ethics that stipulates respectful and least invasive contact. Even so, my massage therapist often checks, ‘Is it okay for me to work here?’ in sensitive areas of my body.

            “Abusive touch does not have mutual consent. Sexualized groping, invasion, and all kinds of violence are the misuse of trust and power. We want to stop abuse without prohibiting human contact.

            “Some Facebook videos show a teacher or other greeter at the door with a chart that allows the child to choose the type of greeting for that day -- a hug, a fist bump, a handshake, a wave, or a smile -- a whole range of CHOICE. This is a lesson in asking and respecting permission.

            “A child, or adult who wants the comfort of holding a hand, asking for a hug, or other ways of being close, needs to know it is okay to ask. That does not obligate the other person to respond if it would be too uncomfortable or against their values. People need to reach out and receive compassionate care which may involve a hand on the shoulder, on the knee, on the arm, on the back. Safe touch. Reassurance that we are not alone.

            “When people came to see Jesus asking for healing, Jesus is reported to have asked, ‘Do you want this?’ Jesus asked permission. Jesus respected the answer.

            “Touch is powerful, and like any power must be used carefully. But as your story pointed out, from cuddling a new baby, to physical contact to reassure a dying loved one, physical touch is a lifelong gift to give and receive.”


Heather Sandilands had similar views: “What makes touch healing is when it is offered, not imposed. A few teachers I know, for example, offer at the end of a day [a choice of] ‘handshake, hug or High Five?’ The child gets to choose, thus the touch is a seal of connection, not something to be endured.

            “For someone who does not want touch -- regardless of the good intentions with which it is done -- touch can be physically painful, as with someone with sensitive or fragile skin. Similarly with prayer; when it is offeredthe person/patient whose physical or spiritual space is being entered gets to choose. It’s about recognizing and honouring who is vulnerable and who has power, and the powerful person holding back.

            “I wonder if we could teach each other how to reach out (pun intended) without shame or guilt, like the Syrophoenician woman, to ask for what we need. Then touch is an expression of wanted connection, not something to be endured, and the power that transfers from one to the other is the empowering, healing touch.”


Two of you wrote about the shortage of letters last week.

            Isabel Gibson said I should have received three letters, not two. Her letter had noted, “My background in procurement suggests another angle to the (apocryphal?) story about Rickenbacker. Of course he approved the requisition for a new fleet without question. It had already gone through endless rounds of requirements justification, specification, bidding, and negotiating. The decision was, in fact, made a good while earlier.

            “The pencils (or whatever) -- who knows how careful the buyer had been?”


And Jack Driedger nailed me on a fine point: “You say you onlyreceived two responses. So you just received them – that’s all. I think you meant to say that you received onlytwo responses -- no more and no fewer, just two.”






Given the length of the letters above, Psalm 126 is mercifully short.


1          When the gates of our prisons opened, we could not believe it.

2          Stone walls sank behind us; 
the sky opened above us; 
we did cartwheels for joy. 
Those who gathered to celebrate our release said to themselves, "God has been good to them."

3          Indeed, we could not have set ourselves free; 
God must have had a hand in it.

4          Now we must rebuild our broken lives, 
like piecing together shards of shattered pottery.

5          May we find as much joy in putting the pieces together 
as we had sorrow in their shattering.

6          These new lives were born in pain and suffering; 
with God's help, they can still blossom into a second spring.


For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have been blocking my posts because they’re suspicious of too many links.

                  Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                  Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                  Wayne Irwin's Churchweb Canada,an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                  Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet



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