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!

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Word in utero

Foot on bladder;
fist at rib;
each twist arrests
her breath that now attests
the movement of Word to womb to world.

What did her womb know
of the Love it cradled? Did the
placenta cheer to hear the first utterance of
the divine Word in water? Did her
spine divine the Spirit wafting hope
over primordial waters?

Word in utero;
God so loving world,
God so loving womb;
God so loving the mother of God – Theotokos – first
to know that to hear the word is to bear Love.

Tomorrow, India

Tomorrow, India.  Today, the plane.

This destination is  farther in mind

than body as this

duty, and that

responsibility

hamper, but cannot finally recall, this fall

into happy circumstance.  And soon I will

be where I am in India – not lost between

duty and destiny

but instead in an

auspicious moment, a place along the

way which is my life.

Not all that I expected,

but more.

Dear Readers, a wedding beckons in Mother India.  Friends of ours who have made us their own have invited us and so we go.  It will be a very different Christmas the year and I may have tales to tell.  My pen will be close at hand, but my computer at home, and so I bid you now a blessed season, and look forward to our interaction in the Newest Year.

The Weather Outside is Frightful

Dear friends, this was written early Sunday morning just as the ice storm fell upon us. Shortly thereafter we lost our power and internet both. Power came back late Sunday, and we still await restoration of internet service. I managed to sneak this on via my daughter’s cell phone. So here it is, late but possibly made better by its accompanying wishes for a blessed holiday on this Christmas Eve.

_____________

The threat of having weather intrude inside is equally frightful. It seems, however, that something of this is occurring in southern Ontario. A severe ice storm warning is in effect for our region and beyond (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/major-ice-storm-hits-ontario-1.2472721). Power has already fallen in parts of the province as lines weighed down with ice collapsed under the strain of wind. People are advised to stock their shelves. Some years ago, a significant population of ours and Quebec were powerless for a significant chunk of time.
For someone who grew up in Alberta, I am always struck by the beauty and absurdity of ice storms. They were rare, very rare in my recollection. A quarter of an inch of ice so solid that it makes scraping the car window nigh impossible was not a part of my childhood experience, while it is of my children’s. This rugged beauty makes me imagine that there is something jarring about nature’s beauty.
There is a fundamental beauty in the power of nature. It reminds us that we are not in charge. It reminds us that we need to look to one another for support in facing the onslaught of forces beyond our control. It reminds us that God alone can promise a future, can redeem a past, can imbue my present with meaning and grace. Nature invites me to look up, but also to look around me.
I write this early, very early Sunday morning. The trees are bearing down under the ice and wind. I am safe in my little brick house. The Theilman family built this house so well 60 some years ago that we can hardly hear the wind gusts outside. My gas fireplace comforts me. All seems well inside, but the beauty outside is harsh in this longest night of the year. Earth may be deep in sleep but she is tossing and turning, thrashing in these sheets of white. I alone am awake in my house, which seems fitting since there is a kind of a solitude that comes with this weather, a solitude that is simultaneously a worry and a relief. It is a worry because the possibility of harm in ice storms is real. People die in these sorts of storms. One cannot under-estimate the power of nature, and its seemingly capricious nature. On the other hand, nature sometimes seems to force Sabbath on us. With its arrival comes a forced facing up to our humanity, to God’s majesty, and to the earth’s incomprehensibility.
Christians and Jews will recall that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” from Psalm 24:1. The weather , too, is the Lord’s and the beauty therein. If this weather has you hunkering down, use this time to recall the gift of community and the beauty of a world made strange by icicles that cross- etch creation, by sheets of silver refracting the subdued sun. Take some time, since this is time given you to recall that we are not God, individually nor collectively. And while an ice storm is not, in my humble opinion, an “act of God” as so many disclaimers in insurance policies purport, it surely Is used by God to awaken a chastened sense of self and a revive some sense of community. If you are someone under the assault of the storm on this Sunday, takes some time to soak in the beauty of it all and to witness the poetry of an earth that proposes that today a comma, a pause, a full stop might be in order.

Poignant, this Pause

In error’s midst
he comes.
In winter’s mist
he comes. He comes
bearing humility,
birthing service. Patient
waiting becomes him whom
the heavens hold forth for one
such as you, for one such as
I. We too wait. We await
this coming,
this tulip bulb,
this winter wheat,
this pregnant idea.
Poignant, this pause.

Behind and Beyond the Break

“What are you doing for the Christmas break?”

This question frequents coffee shops and bus stops these days. My holiday has already begun, and yesterday afforded me the opportunity to spend some time playing board games with family. My youngest, after a time, suggested we should do more of this – more board games. This equates to more family time, less tech time; more quality time, less on-the-fly time. At one level, it all comes down to time. What we do during a holiday break speaks to what we do in the time on each side of the fissure which is the Christmas break.

I like the word break. I like its ambiguity. On the one hand, a break is a stop, or a rest; a moment for repose. Lunch break, coffee break, a break from the daily grind: these all point to the manner in which we need a moment in the midst of the many mundane tasks that front as productivity in our world wearied by the need to appear important, productive and competent. The sad truth is too often busy-ness simply masks fear. We scramble to do more because we fret about being found incompetent; a vice that I am reticent to contribute to the work ethics of rascally Protestants. I think this anxiety affects the human condition. We need a break from this angst, which brings me to the other manner in which we talk about a break.

A break is also associated with rupture, trauma, and disconnection. Arms are broken. Friendships are broken. Promises are broken. The images that we connect with this kind of break are not so positive: what are you doing with this Christmas break? What are we doing about the disconnect between the Christmas message of love incarnate and the crass commercial fiction that love can be bought; a fiction that leaves people in emotional and financial disarray in January? Do we even think about this Christmas break?

It seems to me that these two breaks are connected. The realization that what we do and what we value are utterly disparate shatters our sense of self; as individuals and as communities. It leaves us wondering who we are, but it also invites us to take up this question earnestly. And that takes time. A break commands a break. A break poses life altering questions: why isn’t there enough time for a family game? Why isn’t there enough time for the creative juices to flow? Why isn’t there enough time to take a break? Why, indeed.