Oslo Insights and Haitian Slights

I am just now back from a very quick trip to Oslo. I was there for a small writing workshop, mostly composed of members of the Faculty of Theology from the University of Oslo, as well as a couple of North Americans. This working group is preparing a volume on the theme of “Protestantization,”a word used to describe how certain tenants of Protestant thought (freedom of the conscience, the importance of non-clerical vocations, the separation without division of church and state, etc) have become a lens by which certain nations view themselves, for both good and ill. Protestantization speaks, for instance, to the manner in which a state allows for people to refuse religious life and so creates a condition for the possibility of a secular public square where no one religion holds pride of place. Of course, it is not always so very successful in this regard.

It was also noted that under this paradigm, religion is construed primarily as adherence to a confession of faith. This is not always helpful. And so, to give an example, there were a couple of papers on the topic of the public discussion concerning the regulation of circumcision in some nations in Europe. Some voices propose that circumcision could be allowed if families have faith in a belief system that demands it. These same voices would not consider as a valid religious reason one in which adherents point to their cultural identity with a religion despite lack of belief in the metaphysical tenants of a religion. So, to give an example, an agnostic or even atheistic Jewish family may well seek circumcision for their son despite personal beliefs, or disbelief. Their Jewish identity is not about what they believe, but about who they are and so they are accepted as Jews in the Jewish community despite their beliefs or lack thereof. I have had Jewish students who do not believe in God yet practice many of the rituals of Judaism without any sense of hypocrisy. Judaism, for these folks, is about their community not their individual convictions. The Nazis, as we know from history, did not distinguish between those Jews who believed and those who did not, and so we might begin to understand something of a Jewish solidarity that is more interested in communal identity than individual confession.

Of course, some papers addressed the positive contribution of Protestantism to political life, a point of no small significance in Norway, a nation that regularly rates high in terms of happiness, health-care, safety from gun incidences, etc.

Shortly after I returned from Norway, the President of the USA made a horrendous comment about America’s need for more immigrants from places like Norway than “shithole” nations like Haiti and countries in Africa and Latin America. The blatant racism of this comment is reprehensible. It stimulates hate crimes. It misrepresents immigrants and advances white supremacy. Moreover, it has no grasp of history. Many articles have since been published noting that the bulk of immigrants to North America a century or so ago were rather like immigrants from places like Haiti today: economically distraught, willing to do any work that would keep food on the table, and very glad to become contributing citizens in their adopted home. Norwegians, as one may well imagine, have not been pleased with the kind of comparison employed by the President, pitting Norway against Haiti, for instance. Protestanization, in varying degrees, has contributed to a history of Nordic countries welcoming the other.

My contribution to the volume is tentatively called “Embodying Protestantism.” In it I critique modern Protestantism’s too often animus against the body and frequent disinterest in the body politic. I look to Luther and the Danish theologian/philosopher Knut Løgstrup for resources to envision again the body and the body politic as gifts from God. As I work on this chapter for publication, I most certainly will ponder President’s racism and the need for people of all faiths, and none, to “protest” both this white supremacy and any religion that neglects social justice in its concern for the soul alone. People suffer and die because of the peculiarities of their body, and any Protestantism or Protestanization that will not call racism sin deserves disinterest and demise.

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Acutely Awake

Such a peculiar beauty – winter, a
crystal white world wedding
the dream of sleep and
soft light affording
luxurious insight.
Winter’s wisdom is
generous. It sees
beyond fault – sharp
edges softened by snow;
hard surfaces now
dancing under the
play of sun’s illumining rays –
now from this angle
now from that.
This season of sleep is a
time of grace; of being
acutely awake to
other worlds.

Animal Tracks at Christmas

Christmas is lovely for many reasons, but one of the finest is that our three daughters come and spend more time with us. Our middlest daughter doesn’t come alone but brings along her dog and cat, Hazel and Willow.

Yesterday I decided to take Hazel for a walk. It was one of those magical winter days, with a mixture of ice crystals and jumbo snowflakes plating trees and bushes with an ivory hue – the sun bringing the softest of light to illumine this day on just the other side of the season’s shortest. The weather wasn’t quite warm, but close enough to it that it was surprisingly comfortable.

Hazel travelled a little faster than I generally would on a late morning walk: not quite a brisk stroll, but certainly not a leisurely saunter. I am not accustomed to walking dogs, and so was constantly reminded of that when our pace was interrupted by this tree or that post marked by another dog’s journey. Hazel is not a huge dog, but my arm’s socket now knows well that dogs encounter the world nasally. At one point, I imagined that Hazel was acquiring data for future encounters. She had been particularly insistent on scoping out the tracks of some fellow of hers alongside the road. Each footprint had to be sniffed out as she made her way to the jackpot: a tree marked by a future friend, or foe, I suppose. And then it was time to move on.

She moved nose first, as we humans do although with a different kind of attention and intention. Humans lean heavily on our eyes, it seems. Theologians have noted that the Christianity of the Middle Ages was especially devoted to the eyes, until the time of the Reformation made the Protestant church, after Luther, into a Mundhaus – a kind of place of speech. Of course history, nor theology for that matter, is never so neat and Lutherans have never left the eyes behind even while their ears have been soothed by sermons and Bach; by with words of promise in “given for you, shed for you.” No, our eyes have not been left behind even while our noses, in the main, no longer know of the incense marking a Roman Mass or an Orthodox Eucharist.

I am not sure that this will change. “Scent-free” directives mark much of our public (and ecclesial) space, even while “scent free” is no real possibility in the literal sense of these words. Humans smell, in both the transitive and intransitive modes of the verb: we know the world by our smell and the world knows us by our smell. Hazel and Willow both sniff us out, and know us nasally. So, have we Protestants successfully left behind our sense of the significance of smell? I think not, in that the directives themselves remind us that smell matters. Moreover, God’s incarnation as Jesus was a sensual event in the fullest sense of the word made flesh in a stable.

I grew up on a farm, and so have no romantic notions about stables, or pets for that matter. Stables stink and dogs and cats were and are meant to keep coyotes and rodents, and mice at bay, in turn. That was their job, but they also entertained us and we them; and barns were more than holding pens for pigs and new borne calves. When we entered such places on a crisp winter morn, the steam of a stable relieved this once young boy of the sharp cold of an Alberta winter and reminded me that we are not only care-takers of God’s creatures, but we are one of God’s creatures. I can still remember the sting of winter being relieved in the barn just as surely as I recall Hazel’s insistent investigation of the ground beneath her paws, forcing a pause on me so that I might recall that God’s so loving the world did not and does not stop with homo sapiens; both Hazel and Willow preach that matter, too, matters – including the matter that I am. And that makes me glad, very glad indeed.

Merry Christmas all!

Veni Domine

A glimpse of You is
never enough. This
desire for Your Breath
flooding my lungs fills
me with more wanting You;
with more aching after You.

You, God, are
the Desire by which I
desire You.
You, God, are
the Hunger that is
sated with hunger
for You.
You, God, are
each kiss of life;
each touch of love;
each turn of the season
that turns me inside out
as Your reign surely comes.

Veni Domine.

Granite Hope

It is possible to hold this
poem in your palm, to handle
it even while you know that there is
no way you will ever
train it.

This poem will never
be domesticated, never
be tamed with our maimed
freedom. No this poem
has always been
fiercely free,
always soul,
always otherly
incarnate. It was
never mine.

This poem now palmed might
bite, or perhaps shape
shift into a stone:
in lithe liberty
it will then be
a silence that
demands my hearing,
that calls my ears to
attend to
granite hope.

Advent Between

This last Wednesday I led the weekly Eucharist at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. At this service, we look to the coming Sunday for texts etc. That meant that this last Wednesday was the celebration of Advent One. But during the year, we also are attentive to other significant temporal markers, and so noted that November 29 is the annual UN International Day of Solidarity with Palestinians. Our worship team decided to attend to both of these, which was no easy task.

I have never been to the Holy Land, and cannot pretend to know what is happening on the ground in that conflicted and troubled land, but I do know that there are two irreducibly painful truths that cannot be denied as we look east: the Shoah and the Nakba. The first references the attempted genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime, resulting in the deaths of some six million Jews. The second references the uprooting of 700, 000 Palestinians during the 1948 conflict following the UN partition of Palestine in 1947, resulting in some seven million Palestinian refugees today.

We choose to frame our service with the song “Between Darkness and Light,” which was composed by Palestinian Manal Hreib and Israeli Daphna Rosenberg, two musicians committed to the pathway to peace in the Holy Land. This song sings into the ambiguity of hard truths. It speaks to hope in light of the many forms of brokenness we endure. Our preacher, Preston Parsons, spoke to this brokenness in the land of promise, even while reminding us that the land in our own context cries out at the history of dispossession and abuse of its first peoples. And so, he invited us to pray for peace in our own context as well, and to be attentive to the Prince of Peace who transforms us so that we might abandon our warring ways.

We framed the service with the lighting of the first Advent candle at the start of the service while singing “Between Darkness and Light,” and extinguishing this candle while singing the song again at the end of the service. We wanted the service to flow between these two realities of a lit and unlit Advent wreath: worship between darkness and light. During the last singing of the song, after Sarah, one of our undergraduate students, extinguished the candle, I looked up at it and noticed that the candle’s flame was very luxurious in its dying. A slow persistent stream of silver slid up from the wick. This was marked in that it was set against a blue curtain at the end of our worship space in the basement of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church. This sliver of smoke swayed now to the left, and then to the right, and slowly accumulated in a little cloud above the candle. When the candle finally died, it was as if the last of the smoke was a rope being pulled up into the cloud, which then mystically dissipated. I am not sure what meaning to make of this image, or if a meaning is need. It was simply beauty, and set against the music it reminded me of the ambiguity and transience of life, even while persistent and enduring in its beauty. I don’t think that I will ever forget that image. So ordinary, but profound in the moment. Advent, for me, this year began four days early when Sarah put out a candle, but lit a flame.

The Present in Your Presence

Today You touched me
and I trembled – the world
slid a little to one side,
and adrift
I held to You in the
gap – Your eyes
holding and warming me,
Your heart encompassing
mine. You, God, You
meet me in so many
ways – now
with a glance – now with
hope: here a dream,
there a memory:
there, yes, there, when
the past kisses the future
and ushers the present in
Your presence.