Silent Retreat

January 27 10:00 – 4:30 St Andrew’s By-the-Lake Anglican Church, Centre Island

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)

Looking for some calm, quiet space in the midst of your busy life? Interested in a time of being still with God in a beautiful place? Every year, our campus ministry hosts a silent retreat: a day in which we invite you to set aside some time and space to listen and reflect. This year we will be hosted by St. Andrews By the Lake Anglican Church on Centre Island (as the Anglican convent where we usually meet is undergoing renovations). We invite you to join us for our Silent Retreat on Saturday, January 27, from 10 am to 4:30 pm. The retreat is open to all those connected to the campus ministry community or at a university here in Toronto, so feel free to forward it to others who might be interested.

Schedule

The day will begin at 10 am with coffee/tea and scones followed by a time of prayer and entering into the silence together at 10:30am. The day will unfold in silence, including a silent lunch together and a quiet afternoon coffee break. We will gather at the close of the day to end our silence together and reflect on our experiences. Carol will be available for pastoral conversations during the day if things emerge you need to talk about. 

Getting there

As we are meeting on Centre Island, you will need to catch the Ward’s Island ferry (round-trip ticket $9). The church has a van that will pick people up from the 9:30 am ferry, or you can start your day of quiet with a 25-minute walk to the church (probably you would want to take the 9am ferry). We will ensure you can catch the 4:45 pm ferry back.

Resources

Some reading material and resources will be available for those who want them on the day. Please feel free to bring along any items that will deepen the experience and the silence for you. Suggestions include a journal to record any of your reflections, a Bible, devotional materials, poetry, art supplies and/or books on faith. Additionally, you can take time outside on the beach or walking around Centre Island, or do the labyrinth on the church grounds.

Contact/Registration

The cost for the retreat is $40.00 which includes lunch and two coffee breaks. If this amount causes any hardship, bursary options are available. Friends are welcome to join. Please contact Carol (carol.scovil@gmail.com) with any questions or to register. You can pay by e-transfer (to the same email address), or directly to Carol at GCF. Let me know if you have any food restrictions. We will need to know names and numbers by the week before to finalize food, so please confirm and pay by Fri. Jan. 19.

We hope you will join our community for this day of intentional quiet – to give space to reflect on what our hearts are telling us, and encounter the presence of God. 

Reflections from previous participants

“The 2023 silent retreat was the first time I had had the chance to practice a period of intentional silence with others. I found it really restful and a useful opportunity to take time to reflect and pray about a big change in my life, with no expectations or distractions and in the encouraging company of others also taking time apart.”

“The silent retreat was a change of pace. The sacred space and the time away from my usual flow of life allowed for a movement within myself to take place.”

“The retreat allowed me to let God in and quieted the worries of my heart. It gave me clarity and hope.”

Striving to be a safer space

As a ministry we desire to create spaces where young adults and others connected to the university feel welcome. We especially want to be a safer space to those who might feel less welcome in more traditional church or Christian spaces, such as those who ask uncomfortable questions or who have experienced trauma or other negative experiences related to church.

As part of that desire to be a safer space, we’re working on providing descriptions on our website for what people can expect if they attend gatherings, the opportunity to meet with a chaplain ahead of time, and through having and ensuring we follow our safe campus policy. In our conversations, we encourage and welcome a diverse range of opinions and we also are intentional about (graciously) challenging people to pay attention to how their language might comes across as racist or ableist, as being dismissive of the complexity of the Bible and Christianity, and/or as being exclusive of or causing distress to others.

We do this recognizing

  1. That creating safer spaces where people are held accountable is part of proclaiming the gospel, where all people and their experiences are valued. Melissa Kuipers, a Christian Reformed campus minister at Mohawk College in Hamilton, explains this well: Your Inconvenient Safe Church Policy Helps Spread the Gospel.
  2. That healing from trauma is a hard and often long journey. As Amanda Benckhuysen addresses why we can’t just get over trauma: “I think a large part of the answer is that we weren’t made for this. We weren’t made for a world in which we are violated and harmed. We weren’t made for a world of brokenness and sin. As such, we should never hope to get good at getting over oppression and violence and abuse and injustice. To simply “get over” the wrongs done to us is to acclimate to the brokenness and evil of the world and lull ourselves into believing this is OK. The hurt we feel when we are violated or mistreated, then, is not an indication of what’s wrong with us, but an indication of what’s wrong with the world. And this realization should inspire in all of us a deeper longing for Christ and Christ’s kingdom.” (The Journey to Healing After Abuse)

It is our hope that we might learn from the wisdom of people like Benckhuysen and Kuipers and so be safer spaces where people are able to lament injustice as well as imagine and long for God’s kingdom.

Glimpsing Hope

It’s that time of year again when we tell the stories of how God is working in and through the ministry. We share stories of hope, as a way of encouraging ourselves and others about how God uses our efforts and our presence on campus and in people’s lives. We also try to acknowledge what has been hard and where we are still waiting. At a recent gathering of regional Christian Reformed campus ministers, people’s sharing about the challenges of this season were especially encouraging. It is helpful to hear that we are not the only group that is discerning how best to reach out to a student population that is exhausted and overwhelmed, looking for community and struggling to connect and commit. It is good, in the middle of those struggles, to both hear and tell of glimpses of hope found in good conversations where there has been a sense of God’s presence: conversations that sometimes happen only once but sometimes continue over time, conversations where learn more of God’s grace and open themselves more fully to the Spirit.

The following story from Richard Mouw is one of those stories that resonated with me as a campus minister: it is a story of being God’s presence to those around us and a story of hope, even as the story feels unfinished, or at least without the clear ‘happy’ ending many of us long for.

Mouw describes a letter he once received from a recent graduate of Fuller:

[She had lost her faith] in her senior year at the evangelical college she attended. It wasn’t the fault of anyone at that school. She had received a good education there and had made many friends. And now also at Fuller—she had learned much, but with the same result—still no recovering of faith.

She had not shared her loss of faith with any family or friends, and she was now thinking about how best to do that. Writing to me was for her a first step. During her senior year of college, having realized that she no longer believed, she decided “to give Fuller a chance” at helping to restore her faith. Nor did she regret that decision. While her faith had not returned, she wrote, “Fuller gave it a good shot!” And then she said something that brought a gasp from me, followed by many tears. She wanted to thank me especially, she said, because, in a philosophy class that I taught, she came close to believing again. “It was in a lecture on Nietzsche. You laid out the issue of a living God versus a dead God, and for a moment—a moment!—I felt like I could believe again. But the feeling went away. But thank you for giving it a try!”

I still shed tears over her words to me. I often pray for her. I think much about what I, or the school that I served as president, should have done differently.”

Mouw continues by reflecting on what it might look like to make space for people asking questions and for people to be honest about how and what they believe. I pray that campus ministries and the wider church might provide that kind of space.

Companions on the Journey of Advent

Advent is upon us. In a few weeks, many of us will begin the long journey home to see family and friends, and maybe even get a bit of a break (from school, not from our families). Things may be getting busy or winding down, but it’s never too late to begin an advent practice unless it’s already January. That might be too late.

For those of you looking for some advent direction or devotionals, the GCF staff have compiled a list of our favourite advent resources.

Good Enough Advent + Christmastide

GCF staff favourite Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) has a new Advent companion for 2023 that meets us at our most okay. With blessings, readings and activities, this is a rounded devotional to work through on your own or to share with your family.

God please start it now:

The promised healing,

Restoration,

Redemption.

I can’t wait much longer

For When You Feel Forgotten by God, from The Lives We Actually Have, as quoted in Good Enough: Advent and Christmastide

Anchor in Advent

Anchor is written by A.C. Grace who also wrote Empty and Full: An Advent Lament | Women Scholars and Professionals. In Anchor, she acknowledges the complex feelings that arise when she realizes that so much of Advent seems to be focused on Mary’s pregnancy. 

Year after year, I genuinely hope to slow down and engage deeply in the Advent season. And year after year, the weeks fly by faster than I can catch them. Before I know it, it’s the New Year, and then next thing I know, we’re nearing Christmas again. I know I’m not alone in my longing to slow down and savour this time of year, so I decided to put together these pages to help myself and others cultivate rhythms to anchor in the Advent season.

Anchor in Advent, A.C. Grace

Another Starry Black Night

This online womanist devotional from Unbound – Intersections of Faith and Justice a free online journal that looks at the intersection of faith and social justice.

Mary births baby Jesus into an economically and politically fraught world. Besieged by Roman colonial power and imperially backed governors, Israel ached for liberation, justice, agency, and getting above the throes of financial insecurity. Her radical song about the time and her sense of Jesus to overturn them is well documented (Luke 2). National and local governments not only ignored the needs of the people but exploited them—their labour, their health, their time, and their resources. The testimony and prophetic witness of Isaish was just as relevant to them as it was for their ancestors. This is made evident by the fact that the Gospel writers quote Isaiah more than any other scripture.

Advent’s Gope Fuels Possibilities, Bridgett A. Green

Through the Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas

A new compendium of reflections, art and poems, Richardson’s quiet approach particularly appeals to Carol, who has one of Richardson’s previous books. The ebook is available on Amazon for $9.99

Always I return. No matter where I have traveled in the past year, no matter how far the journey or the turns the path has taken, I keep finding myself here at its door: the season of Advent, this space in the Christian year that invites us to anticipate and prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Made of nothing more substantial than hours and days, Advent exists only in time. But each year, as I draw near to its beginning in the waning days of November, Advent seems as much a place as a season.

Through the Advent Door: Entering a Contemplative Christmas, Jan Richardson

How do people find us?

The following anecdote from early on in the semester, a variation of which was sent via email to some supporters, helps address the question of how people find the Graduate Christian Fellowship:

  • One person I had met the previous week when I was tabling at the Graduate Student Orientation for the campus chaplains association. They had asked about whether I knew of any Christian groups for graduate students, and so I invited them to come and check us out, to see if we’d be a good fit (and if not, I’d help them find something else). They came slightly nervous and discovered a community that enjoyed being with each other and thinking through things together.
  • Another came to us because they’d been connected to a CRC campus ministry at a different university as an undergrad. They reached out to us, met with a staff member, and then came last night. Hopefully the connection started will lead to their participating in the ministry, whether through attending GCF or knowing that we’re available to them for pastoral care and/or conversations as they continue to explore Christian ethics related to their field. 
  • Another came to us last night because they had heard of GCF from someone who attended a few years ago and had found this a meaningful community.
  • Another came to us (along with a friend who is attending a local seminary) because they’d googled us and was delighted to hear that there was a Christian grad group on campus. They didn’t say much, but appreciated that we had gluten-free options for dinner (we also make sure there’s vegetarian options!). 
  • Another came to us because they’d heard good things about us from the folks at Knox Presbyterian Church, where they’ve begun to feel at home. They had been looking for spiritual direction and encouragement, so that will hopefully lead to further conversation. 

The list helps show all the ways that God brings people to us. Our prayer is that we might help all those who are looking to find a community that cares about them and where they might come to know God more deeply.

Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink

Spring Update: God working in and through the ministry

As we wrap up our 54th year of encouraging students to engage with their faith on campus, we are thankful to once again share how God has been working in people’s lives and at the university. Through the pastoral work we do and the programs we offer, we challenge, mentor, and enable students to think, work, and live as Christian disciples in the academy and in their professions. Through wrestling with Scripture and difficult topics, we invite people into radical Christian discipleship, inviting them to rest in the hope of Christ and to participate in God’s work of bringing justice. 

The following is an example of one way that we’ve been blessed to see God work: 

During the pandemic, one of the grad students now participating in our ministry experienced a time when she was deeply overwhelmed. One evening she called out to Jesus and felt God’s presence in response. After this encounter with God, a friend encouraged her to connect with the ministry as a means of growing in faith. She started attending Wine Before Breakfast and soon became part of Graduate Christian Fellowship. Through her participation in the ministry and pastoral conversations with the campus ministers, she grew in her understanding of how God was inviting her into radical Christian discipleship in all of her life.   

This spring she was baptized at a local church during their Easter Vigil. What makes her baptism even more special is that her baptism class was led by Andrew, who has himself been significantly shaped by Wine Before Breakfast. 


To read an update about the ministry and more stories of how God is working in and through the ministry, read our spring newsletter.

The retirement celebration for Brian was another reminder of how God works in and through the ministry to touch the lives of many people. In case you missed the service, you can watch it here. The service starts at 11:50, speeches in honour of Brian start at 2:09:28.

Less victim, less pressure, more grace, more hope.

Jonathan Haidt, made infamous for his article on trigger warnings and coddling of the American Mind, was recently in the news again concerning the well-being of teens and young adults (see article, and Haidt’s own words in article1 and article2). The argument once again points to social media as playing a significant role in the well-being of youth (see also Twenge’s now famous article on whether smartphones have destroyed a generation).

Another part of Haidt’s argument about the decreased well-being of young adults is his articulation that certain ways of thinking, “say identifying with, or privileging victims and a victim status, tends to disempower people because it puts someone else in charge of your life.” (Robinson) While we should acknowledge that many of us, and some more than others for various reasons, have been and continue to be victims of unjust behaviour and/or institutions, the problem comes not from recognizing that we are victims, but by allowing being a victim to become one’s sense of identity. Victims have limited agency and there is limited focus on resiliency. Without conversations about resilience and agency, people are more likely to become depressed.

While this is an interesting conversation to be had in terms of how such thinking is affecting young adults, especially at university, it’s also an interesting conversation in wondering, like Robinson, “if there is some cross-over to all this in churches.” Have we lost our sense of agency in the church? Or, more accurately, have we forgotten God’s agency?

Robinson notes that in the “more liberal and progressive church context, there’s a lot of emphasis on the problems of the world, and on what you should be doing about it. Which begins to sound a lot like law, not gospel. It’s all about what you should do or feel or think. If God is in the picture, it’s about what God needs us to do, demands that we do. There’s little emphasis on what God has done or is doing on our behalf or on God’s capacity to bring good out of or in the face of evil. So it’s kind of all on us.”

That sounds exhausting and debilitating.

In a world where so many are exhausted and overwhelmed, when we feel like we have too little agency and too much responsibility, church can’t be a place that tries to give us more of that. Church – and all Christian organizations – need to be places of grace and hope.

Please pray with us that we in the ministry might indeed be one of those places where we extend grace and help people hope.

Sin: A sermon (or why many Protestants need a better theology of sin)

The following sermon was preached by Michael Buttrey at Wine Before Breakfast on March 28, 2023, as part of our series on sin. He looks at James 1:12-15 and 1 John 5:14-17

Three years ago, I started to think there’s something weird with how Protestants talk about sin. I was at a pub west of here, and we were discussing what we do with theologians like John Howard Yoder, who abused his power to assault and harass dozens of women. The conversation was a struggle, in part because a professor insisted that “we’re all sinners.”

I’ve been thinking about that comment ever since. It’s true: all human beings are sinners. But in the context of that pub conversation, it was unhelpful. To see why, imagine a friend was telling you their child was sick and you replied that everyone dies eventually. True, yes, but in context you’re saying they shouldn’t care so much about their child. It’s cruelty disguised as insight.

Since then I’ve been looking for sources that understand sin differently. I don’t have a comprehensive theology of sin or anything like it; just a couple of ideas I’d like to share with you.

First, consider First John. I wasn’t very familiar with this letter, and I don’t think people preach on it as much as Paul’s letters. Reading it, you can understand why: it’s kind of a mess, and there’s some harsh and apocalyptic imagery in it.

There’s also a lot about sin, or broken ways as our translation puts it. In chapter 1 the author affirms that everyone has broken ways, saying that we call our Creator a liar if we claim not to have sinned. But in chapter 2 he says that he is writing so that we will not walk a path of broken ways – in other words, that we “may not sin.” Interesting, that.

Later in chapter 5 sin comes up again. In the passage read for us, the author says “you might see a sacred family member walking in a broken way that does not end in death. You should pray and that person will be given life.” Ok, great. Pray for other people when they’ve gone astray, got it. But then: “There is a broken way that ends with death. If that is so, prayer will not help.” What? Prayer doesn’t always help? And finally: “All who do wrong walk in broken ways, but not all broken ways end in death.”

If you’re a Protestant, your alarm bells may be going off. If not, here’s another translation of the last verse: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.” Ding ding ding! Non-Protestant doctrine detected. This text seems to be suggesting that some sins are deadly, and some aren’t. Eugh!

Actually many Christians through the ages, even notable Protestant Martin Luther, made distinctions between what they called mortal or deadly and venial or non-deadly sins. However, the distinction has fallen out of fashion since 16th century theologian and influencer John Calvin attacked it, calling it “absurd” and “an insult to God.”

Now to be fair to Calvin, I think his purpose in attacking distinctions between sins was to emphasize how God’s mercy is great enough to pardon any sin. Thomas Aquinas makes a similar point about this passage: we can’t reliably tell how deadly people’s sins are, so we shouldn’t deny anyone the help of prayer. I agree!

We can also rightly worry that making distinctions can risk self-righteousness. Remember Jesus’ parable where a Pharisee thanks God that he’s not like that tax collector? Distinguishing between mortal and venial sins can easily turn into the classic game of “my sins are venial, your sins are mortal.”

At the same time, I think there are practical contexts where we need to make judgements. For example, I know of a couple churches that consider the offence of “publicly criticizing church leader” to be worse than “sexual harassment.” Personally, I think that’s completely backwards. But the solution, I’d suggest, isn’t to abolish all distinctions, but to make better ones.

Even in the most progressive community, there will come a time when someone may need to be excluded for everyone’s safety. If so, that decision had better be based on careful distinctions, not just what the leaders personally find annoying.

Another role for distinctions may be in our own spiritual development. For example, in my own life, should I be more concerned about laziness and sloth? Or wishing ill on people I don’t like? Are those exactly, equally bad for the health of my soul? This passage doesn’t answer this question, but it does suggest there are reasons for different levels of concern.

Turning now to our other passage. James is a famously rigorous letter, and the comments on sin are no exception. However, notice the progression here. In the passage read, James discusses temptation, and argues against the idea that the Great Spirit is responsible for tempting us. Rather, James says we tempt ourselves when we are lured and enticed by our desires. Then, when an evil desire takes root in our hearts, it gives birth to broken ways, or sin. Finally, when these broken ways have taken over, they drag us down a path that leads to… death.

Sounds dismal, doesn’t it? But notice how the word “when” is repeated 3 times. This happens in stages. Sin doesn’t arise out of nowhere, take over our hearts, and immediately doom us to death for breaking God’s law. It’s a process, which means it can be interrupted.

If you haven’t already removed the battery from it, I bet your Protestant alarm is going off again. Am I suggesting sin can just be avoided?

Well no – and yes. The problem is that discussions about sin happen on at least two different levels, or contexts. On one level, capital S sin can’t be avoided. Everyone sins. On another level, there’s evidence certain lowercase sins can be avoided. After all, the murder rate varies enormously between individuals: most people commit 0 murders, some commit 1, and a few, many.

The confusion between these levels arises in part because theologians are generally concerned with big picture questions, like why do human beings sin? Why does humanity need redemption? The answer is usually doctrines like the Fall, and maybe also free will, depending on the theologian.

But for me, my most urgent questions are more personal. Why are some people impatient with their spouses, and others are serial sexual predators? Can I avoid certain serious sins? Why am I tempted in this particular way? Is it even possible to become a better person?

The doctrine of the fall doesn’t answer these personal questions. Neither does the idea of free will, except to say “try harder.” Trusting in Jesus is certainly helpful, definitely a good idea, but also kind of mysterious.

Nowadays people are more likely to ask their therapist such personal questions than their priest. And that’s fine, I’m not sure I’d want to tell my priest all my problems, and they definitely don’t have enough time to listen to mine and everyone else’s. But even though the authors of the New Testament weren’t psychologists, they had insights into the human person, and they were interested in these questions. Thus, any good theology of sin should reflect these very scriptural nuances.

So let’s return to the text. One thing I really appreciate about the First Nations Version is how it uses the phrase “broken ways” for sin. In the context of our passages, that phrase suggests to me that sin is like a journey – “walking in broken ways.” But on a journey you can stop, change course, turn around. You don’t have to keep walking brokenly.

James makes the same point with the three stages of sin. Yes, desires can entice us, but they don’t have to take root in our hearts. Or even if they take root, broken ways don’t have to take us over. The progressive process can be interrupted at each point. And not just out of our own willpower – maybe, as 1 John suggests, it’ll be because someone is praying for us.

Now, you may find the idea of making distinctions between sins and examining your desires exhausting. If so, I get it. Life is already full of demands, and I don’t want to add any more burdens to your journey. The good news – and it is good news – is that you don’t need to understand sin in order to be redeemed from it.

But if you want to better understand the broken ways in our world, I think there’s some real resources out there – in psychology, ethics, theology and even the Bible. All we need to explore them is to turn off that Protestant alarm for a bit.

Amen.

Learning to live with limitations

This year we have spent some time thinking about disability justice at both Graduate Christian Fellowship and Wine Before Breakfast. In doing so, we have focused on learning from those with disabilities. One lesson we have learning is about how good and holy it is to live within our limitations as human beings.

One source of learning has come from Amy Kenny’s book, My Body is not a Prayer Request. We have joined a number of Christian Reformed churches in doing a book club on the book. You can also watch a video of her presentation at the Calvin University January Series.

We have also been listening to the voices of people who have a disability. One example of that is Hannah’s preaching at Wine Before Breakfast on God as disabled.

One final possible source of learning is a talk by Jane Grizzle, “The Grief and Gift of Bodily Limitations.” While the focus is more on injury and illness, it highlights our relationship with our bodies and the goodness of learning to acknowledge our limitations. The talk can be listened to here or read here. The following are a few quotes from the talk to give you a sense of the presentation:

Her friend who is a counselor told her that ” without fail, if her clients talk about their bodies, they cry every time. It is a place of great vulnerability.”

“Illness and injury require us to slow down, to take a different path, to rest. In some ways, these limitations are a spotlight on our priorities. And when we are forced to slow down and take a look at our lives, what we see may not be pretty. Limits are another word for interruptions or dead ends. When I think about times in my life when I have hit one of these limits, I dislike them for one of three reasons: they are humbling, they are isolating, and they are disorienting.”

“In his book, Being Human, Rowan Williams writes that if we believe we are in charge of our selves and our bodies:

[We] drift towards a steady expectation that the best relationship you can be in to the world is control. The best place to be is a place where you can never be surprised. We want to control what’s strange and we want to control what doesn’t fall under our immediate power. We’re uneasy with limits that we can’t get beyond because limits, of whatever kind, remind us that there are some things that are just going to be strange and difficult wherever we are and however hard we work at them.

[But acknowledging our limits exposes something very true about us]: “we depend on what is not ours, what is not us, our will, our hope, our achievements…Christians are adopted into a dependent relationship to that which Jesus calls, Abba, Father.”