Never takes no…

Water never takes no
for an answer. It
penetrates or
persuades, as befits
the occasion. There is
a life lesson in this:

what once gave life now destroys
what once laid waste, now gently

coaxes the cow, the crow, the corn
growing now in my garden. Water
will not be gainsaid, it is the
persistence of the Syrophoenician woman, it is
the widow who demands justice of
the unjust judge, it is
the moment when
all hell breaks loose, and you
do not know how it will
end. Water
will not be tamed,
will not be domesticated
and this image of God
coursing through my body
now calms, now rages,
now evaporates,
but it never
really
stops.

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Formed in the Deep

Night,
you haunt me,
hunt me and
spear me. Through
my chattering heart
your lance pierces
my island of dreams.

In the geography of the dark
you try me, you play me
with a joy here,
with a fear there.
Now my passion is
pushed beyond
boundaries.

If only I could steer
these dreams…
what pleasures
might visit the night!
I would eat at a sacred grove;
I would consume a canyon;
would devour mountains; and
take in each valley, feeding
my heart with desire.

But no, this is not to be.
Now is not the time for daydreams.
The hard work of night beckons, calling
me to be its matter, formed in this deep.

Adieu Iceland

This land is continually being born:
it ever brings forth new marvels, new
vistas, new possibilities. It sings of
change, and the power of play. I feel
this playful change seeping into me,
calling for

a molten mind,
a soul on fire, and
volcanic vision – even

while ice expands the fissures of my being open
and glaciers forge fjords of futures unbidden.

This land is etching itself onto
the geography of my body:
my skin now taut with
wonder, my lips now
quivering in hope,
and my heart
erupting now as
deep calls to depth,
and I feel myself shifting
while taking leave of this
tectonically trembling Ísland.

Of Elves and Such

Last night was spent in Borgarfjarðarhreppur, which derives its name from Álfaborg, meaning “town of elves.” Ancient legend has it that this part of Iceland is ripe with elves, and there is a fairly substantive hill overlooking this quaint town and welcoming harbour that is purported to be the home of many elves, and in some reports, the home of the Elf Queen.

I have heard a variety of reports on how many Icelanders believe in elves, ranging from 60 to 80 percent. Tales are told of bad luck attending those who mess with elf habitations. There is a sign on the elf hill in Borgarfjarðarhreppur suggesting that those who walk in these environs do well to do so with respect.

Our city tour guide in Reykjavik reported that belief in elves is BS and thought these to be tales told to enforce morals in children, much as has been suggested for the Grimm fairy tales, for instance. On the other hand, our own tour TourMagination guide reported that the good folk in Borgarfjarðarhreppur regularly avoided the shortest route to the nearest village because of a menacing mythical creature on the fjord who pushed more than a few people over the cliff resulting in their demise. Eventually, a strong soul in the 16th century took on this force, and managed to land him, or her, in the drink in order to secure a short, and safe, route for the villagers. A cross was erected to mark the spot and remind folk of the victory won. Insofar as the story represented a hold on the imaginations of the adults, these tales seemed to be more than a tool used by parents to whip their children into shape. Adults, too, were shaped by these tales.

It is not altogether hard to understand why people in these locales held and hold (if the polled reports are to be believed) beliefs in mystical and mythical creatures. The landscape in Iceland, where the earth stretches high and the sky reaches low invites one to imagine, if not see, a meeting of the earthly and heavenly, a kind of world where it is very easy to believe in elves, dwarves, trolls, etc. What cannot be seen is believed because the unimaginable is happening before your very eyes: clouds are swallowing mountains, and the seas are fingering their way into the land. Borders are being pierced everywhere, and souls not piloted by hard, cold reason alone might imagine that things are more complicated than they first appear.

Perhaps, then, there is a place (or places) between “BS” and “literally true.” Perhaps this hankering after mythical creatures is a symbol, or sign, of human hungering for some permeability of boundaries between the earthly and the spiritual; or perhaps more accurately, these tales are symbolic representations of peoples’ experiences of the earthly/heavenly becoming porous. Within Christianity, for instance, the message of the birth of God as the infant Jesus is precisely this: earth being touched by heaven, and the fervent hope of believers in this religion – and some others too – is that there is more to life than meets the eye; for some this “more” is experienced. Perhaps behind these tales that we wink at, exists a deep human hope for and foretaste of a kind of homecoming that abides, eternally.

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This is the home of a good many elves, I’ve been told.

The Rocks Ringing

Lapping waves have their own sagas.
Deep in their memories drift tales of
mer creatures, and Behemoth, and Jonah, and
water learning to listen to the One whose
voice stilled the sea, stills me – more water
than not, sitting on the rocks ringing this harbour.

This is not my Island, but still it
claims something of me: my
eyes behold its beauty with wonder, my
ears hear ancestors sing the wind, my
nose knows that sulfur has its own
history, a mystery in its own right, and
my skins feels the rough and cool of
basalt rock with two tongues.

I step mindfully in this place, because
I know that You, Holy One, have inhabited
this land of ice and fire

far longer than our remembering
far stronger than our forgetting.

I step carefully in this place, because You are

under every stone,
around every corner
within every sound

and I pine for Your appearing.

Finely Tuned in Iceland

We are nicely ensconced in Reykjavik, “we” being Gwenanne, myself and six brave pilgrims from the Waterloo area on a “Fun in the Midnight Sun” tour organized by TourMagination. We managed to negotiate yesterday’s jet lag and were up bright and early, and in time to make it to worship at Hallgrímskirkja, pictured below.

The church is a powerfully intoxicating. Built over 41 years, it looms large in Reykjavik, with its tower designed to mimic the spray of a geyser and the church itself is said to call to mind mountains, glaciers and the rock formation of this island nation called Iceland (Island in Icelandic). Visitors line up to go up the tower, take a handful of photos, and then leave, but we decided to forego the tower experience and worship with the local congregation.

Today is Trinity Sunday and the resident priest Irma Sjöfn Óskardóttir both preached and presided. The service included special guests in the form of a choir from the Dómkirkjan (Cathedral Church) of Reykjavik. They crafted a service that was inspiring, although we really understood nothing, aside from our ability to make out the form of the Lutheran service, with its overarching structure of gathering, word, meal and sending.

As the priest presided in this architectural wonder, with a kind of simplicity that draws heavily on our hunger for transcendence, I wondered how the space felt for her. I recall some years ago – in Keffer Chapel at Luther, where I work – while presiding at communion, the sense that the building was a part of symbolic clothing I was wearing that day (alb, stole and chasuble), mindful that where we are becomes a part of who we are. And then back in Hallgrímskirkjam, I heard the choir sing. I closed my eyes for a time and as the piece came to the end, the music just kept on going, spiraling around the room until it settled into silence. I thought of my colleague, Gerard, playing flutes in various guises and how he flowed through the instrument, and it struck me that the sanctuary was a kind of instrument transforming the voice of the choir; sanctifying it, in a sense. The space itself became God’s handiwork. It was a holy moment for me.

Later in the day, we enjoyed a conversation by Arnfriður Guðmundsdóttir at the University of Iceland concerning how climate change is impacting Iceland, and the church’s response to this. It was quite a different moment in the day, but holy in its own way as Arnfriður spoke of the ways in which hope can found in the tenacity of faith and its passion for justice for people and the earth. Fittingly, we learned that Guðmundsdóttir means “daughter of Guðmund,” and “Guðmund” references the hand of God. She too, was God’s handiwork. For her and for the day, we are all grateful.

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But I digress…

For a good bit of last week I was in Vancouver, attending the Congress on the Social Sciences and Humanities, a yearly meeting of academics and folk interested in the things interesting academics. I look forward to this, and am able to attend most years. Although the event draws in thousands of professors, researchers, and activists, most people connect to a smaller organization. I belong to the Canadian Theological Society, and so am happy to meet old friends and new at CTS’s meeting. There are always great papers given by established and young scholars in a supportive and collaborative atmosphere. The networking opportunity is always appreciated, and the learning opportunities rich.

Most years I attend a few sessions by other groups. This year I heard a lecture on re-interpreting the book of Samuel at the Craigie Lecture, sponsored by the Canadian Society for Biblical Studies, a session on early church authors at the Canadian Society for Patristic Studies, wherein a colleague of mine gave a great paper, and a jointly hosted panel on Indigenous issues, featuring the formidable Lee Maracle.

Most years I spend quite a bit of time in the book store, but for some reason this didn’t happen so much this year. It might be, in part, because of the beautiful setting of the University of British Colombia. I spent a good bit of time wandering about, and made it down to the ocean a couple of times, and into the renown Museum of Anthropology, which had some stellar exhibits of totem poles, and also some work by Bill Reid (see below). It was breath-takingly beautiful.

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I spend a good bit of my life going to conferences. Years ago, when I first started attending conferences, I felt anxious to hear all the right papers, to meet the right people, and to get my money’s worth. Things have changed. I have come to rely on serendipity much more. Also, I plan this activity, but listen hard for that still small voice that says drop your plans and check out that event instead. I usually try to capture something of the culture of the location of the event, realizing that academic work that is done without attention to context just no longer much motivates me. And I work hard now to balance meeting new people and visiting old friends, with spending a bit of time on my own, which allows me to take stock of my work, my life, my passions, etc. I used to want conferences to advance my career. Now I want them to pique my curiosity. And they generally do.

Conferences all have a kind of a soul, in my experience. Each one is different, marked by a kind of “flavour” built upon the interaction, the experiences, the context and so much more. I think I have decided that, for me, this year’s Congress’s flavour was “digression.” Much that happened was tangential to plans, and some of it I am still processing. I was especially moved by my visits to the ocean at sunset, and to ponder how the sliding of the sun below the horizon speaks to the transitory, yet cyclical nature of life, my life. This horizon reminded me that life does not come with certainty, but it is rife with stark beauty. It called me to settle into a trust, and reminded me that faith, which grows out of a call from without, also grows into a call within that is ever reshaping, remaking me.