Of Leaves and Letters

Aside from some time spent at Open House at Wilfrid Laurier University, yesterday was spent marking papers and raking leaves. The word leaf, of course, can reference both that thing that falls from the tree and a sheet of paper once a part of essays. These days, as you may well imagine, marking students’ work doesn’t involve much by the way of leafing through paper, but is done on computer – at least that’s how I do it. This method has much to commend it: fewer trees fall, the essays run through turnitin and so I know if there are academic integrity issues from the get go, and finally students don’t have to try to read my horrendous penmanship. I am able to type comments on the essay in comment boxes, and the system nicely allows me to preload comments such as “Please use ‘quotation’ here since ‘quote’ is a verb.”

Most professors do not count marking as their favourite task. I’d agree with that but neither is it the worst. Marking is one of those things that runs a gamut of experiences. It can be frustrating and tedious; it can be really quite exciting; it can be heart-breaking and sometimes moving to the point of bringing me to tears. As you may guess, I am not marking math – although calculus instructors may arrive at tears from time to time as well! I teach theology at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary at WLU, and so sometimes mark reflection papers in which students integrate their life experience with theological themes. I count it an honour to see something of students’ faith lives from time to time. I find it quite humbling to have them relate their doubts, and express their joys, and narrate their varied and rich experiences with God. Of course, giving these kind of papers a grade is rather odd, but that is my job and so I do it as best as I am able.

I read some stellar papers today, and had some very moving experiences with some of them. But even so, it can be hard work and upon hearing that we were having leaf pickup on Monday I decided it was wise to take a break around noon and rake some leaves from the front yard – awash in colours – to the curb. The silver maple in our front yard is a world onto itself in size and more, and every year we harvest some of its joys and sorrows. I lay down a tarp and rake these tales onto the tarp and drag it to curb where I dump the leaves for the city. I then repeat this many times over. As I do so I think. And this thinking usually takes me deeper into me. I recall the past summer season; I recall past falls; today I thought about my parents. They have been gone some years now, but sometimes I think I feel them to be closer with each passing year. Perhaps that is because with every year I am one step nearer them.

I’m not certain why I thought of them today. We didn’t rake many leaves on the farm – or at least I didn’t. Maybe it was that movement from labouring in the soul to labouring near soil that opened up something. Maybe it was the fecund smell of dirt under the colourful quilt on the ground that took me to the farm. Maybe it was our proximity to All Saints Day. Maybe it was the realization that our days are not only as grass – as per the psalmist – but also as leaves. Not only do we fall not far from the tree, but we write, or paint, or sketch the life we are on the leaf we are. These are days with many such memory aids. These are the days when winter calls to fall, and I bow to both.

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The Canvas that is Everyday

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. We ate our turkey yesterday, and so today is given over to the happy task of left-overs, that ever important tradition of receiving yesterday’s gift, and so yesterday as gift. This seems a rather fitting motif of thanksgiving itself: revisiting in order to receive anew. As I think about this task, and turn my sights, not to the year behind me, but the week just past I am ever surprised by the convergences of joys and sorrows; of hope amid brokenness and pain.

Monday morning began with work, and the reminder that I do what I love for a living. This is no small gift. I go to work cheerfully, and although mine is not a perfect life or job, I find that my days go by with plenty of opportunity to count myself rich. I am especially grateful, this week, for my Monday afternoon class of GC 101: Christianity and Global Citizenship wherein a student spoke to the fact that the scandal surrounding football players kneeling during the American national anthem was originally a protest against racism, but has since been leveraged to different purposes for different reasons. This African Canadian student reminded me that it is easy to forget the roots of movements, and that social justice agendas, too, can be co-opted.

Tuesday is the day that Inshallah, the global choir to which I belong practiced. I have written of this choir before. This is simply a life giving moment in my week. To sing with joy and to pray for the gift of seeing love and justice meet (Psalm 85:10) is a delight. As I think back on the growth and increasing depth of this choir I am humbled to be a part of this effort to sing the circle wide.

Wednesday was a hard day, with the news that a former student – a beloved pastor of a community, as well as a husband, son, friend et cetera – was killed in a motor vehicle accident. I taught a class for our aspiring pastors immediately after hearing this news, and had to pinch myself from time to time, trying to live into this harsh reality of the death of 39 year old servant even while thinking through what it means to confess the faith onto death; and this with those who have a full life of ministry before them, a life that may be long or not as long as it ought to be.

Thursday gave occasion to take my middlest daughter out for a birthday supper in Ottawa, where I travelled for a conference. This was a special treat and also gave me occasion to meet her new kitty Willow and become reacquainted with her puppy Hazel. I was reminded that animals, in their own way I think, bear a different kind of image of God: being paw prints of divine creativity. This occasion also served as aide de memoire of the three births I attended and the happy truth that life can be ridiculously beautiful.

I was occupied with the conference Friday and Saturday, the former which gave me occasion to present a paper on “Faith, Freedom and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).” Good conversation ensued. I learned much from many very fine papers and had occasion to share a wee dram or two with Matthew, a dear friend who roomed with me for this event. On Saturday I drove home and caught the most spectacular sunset as I drove westerly. The sky modulated reddish orange over-coating a blue green canvas with gestures of clouds that floated about as leaves on water’s face. It was breath-taking and gave me opportunity to give thanks for breath.

Sunday involved church and then the happy meal that began my reflection. Two of my three daughters were home, one with a friend new to our acquaintance. The third is presently traipsing about Peru. The day involved an leisurely afternoon in our backyard with mid-summer weather in October, followed by a fine meal, a board-game and then to bed. This, with the knowledge the next day – now today – is a holiday, a holy day that may well remind me that every day is holy, hallowed by sacred sketches by the divine artist on the canvas that is the everyday.

This Lumen

These candles alit
outside on this fall
night usurp the sun for a time.
This trinity of soft
light plays well on my
eyes, weary of too
much clarity, too
much certainty, too
much of that kind
of faith that is
finally aloof.

These three wick a joy from
deep in heaven; a joy
hovering above the
window of my soul.

This, this lumen
settles me and I am
happy for this time
of grace, when the
aureole rays of these
three kings stay my
anxious heart
and illumine
You.

Happy Anniversary Canada?

This weekend marks 150 years since confederation in our fair country. Social media feeds, as well as newspaper editorials and such have variously greeted this auspicious occasion: some with celebration, some derision and some hand-wringing. Those who celebrate look at the many ways in which this country works or has worked well in promoting multi-culturalism, universal health-care, a measured presence on the world stage, etc. Those who mark this day with derision are mindful of broken treaties with and cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, sordid treatment of Japanese, Ukrainians, Chinese, Jews and others, as well as exclusion laws of the 20th century. Those who wring their hands are living hard into the truth of all of the above, presented here in a summary form that does little justice to it all.

It is interesting to sit back a bit and ponder this matter from the perspective of faith. In my Christianity and Global Citizenship classes I often point students to the seeming ambiguity of the category of citizenship for the early Christian community. On the one hand, Paul claims that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), while on the other hand in Acts 22:25 we have a picture of Paul making use of his Roman citizenship to his advantage. Christians might be forgiven for having a confused relationship with the state. A history of some expressions of the faith demonstrates a tortured attempt to live faithfully in both guises of citizenship, with varying degrees of success. At certain points in history the state and church have virtually collapsed, while there have also been instances of radical discipleship eschewing any identity with “kingdoms of this world.”

Luther distinguished without divorcing church and state with God being seen as the guarantor of order in both realms. This has sometimes resulted in a Lutheran quietism that has been tragic in epic proportions. We have learned that being a citizen of heaven demands of the faithful an accounting of their engagement as citizens of this world insofar as they accrue such a status! In short, people of faith are not to be so heavenly minded as to be either naïve or cynical. A solid accounting of the nation’s commitment to peace and justice is demanded of all.

So, then, what of Canada on this 150th birthday? Is this to be celebrated, or not? But maybe the questions is misplaced. Is Canada really celebrating a birthday? Metaphors pack weight and that of birthday is mightier than first imagined. It proposes a kind of organic history of Canada that might well be deemed destiny. But Canada, as are all nations, is a construct. It is a political creation that resulted from conferences and consultations, backroom dealings and such. It is a legal entity and what was marked on July 1, 2017 was the 150th anniversary of this, not its birthday. Canada was not born on July 1, 1867 because nations are not born, they are made. This entity is both brilliant and broken. Marking 150 years of Canada is more like remembering the anniversary of an institution than the birthday of a child. The latter deserves unconditional love and the former a critical yet appreciative evaluation.

I am happy to live in Canada. I am embarrassed by its failures, many of which have made my life rich. And so I put up a flag on my porch, but when I look at it I remember that red is the colour of blood, and that my pleasure has been other people’s pain, and that the leaf calls me to reconciliation and solidarity, not gloating and entitlement.

About Right

For those of us who live north of the Equator, in climes in which water freezes in winter months, now is the season of preparing boats on the hard. “On the hard” for those who may not know the language of sailors and such, is the antonym to “in the water.” It is, indeed, a sweet season.

Yesterday my wife and I were down doing a little work on Santa Maria. Last month I put in a new water tank since the last one was filling the bilge as fast as I could fill the tank. Water issues have shown up in other places as well, and so my wood-worker wife opted to rebuild a couple of walls that had been ruined. She works wonders, and her carpentry skills were put to task. Yesterday we put these walls in place. She also plans on varnishing the hatch boards, which we have been staining, and while she cut a temporary hatch (so we could take the regular boards home) I cleaned the hull.

I like cleaning the hull. It brings me a deep joy. When my mother (whose blessed memory I honour today!) had me clean anything as a child, I would never have described the experience with the word “joy.” But yesterday I found myself grinning as I wiped away a winter’s worth of grime. As I washed and polished, I wondered about this pleasure: why this joy? Perhaps it is because I do so much work that brings so few concrete results that I see. Perhaps it is because the action itself is a cypher signalling changes in the season. Perhaps it is because I simply enjoy being outside, or the gentle curve of the boat, or the back and forth with my wife. It is probably all of these and more. But as I worked I thought a little bit about the gift of physical labour: how it puts us in touch with our bodies, how it teaches the gift of patience and perseverance, and how it reminds us that those who preceded us knew nothing of the many luxuries we take for granted. There was no heat without wood being hewn, and no food without laboured fields and snare set trails and animal husbandry. Of course, food is still worked for but most of us are distant to the physicality of this truth.

But to return to the mystery of my smile, above all I think this task takes me back to my parents, who valued hard work and meant to teach their children that it is a gift. Of course, I do not want to sentimentalise labour – remembering that many ache from bodies broken by harsh conditions. But still, I am happy for the occasion to remember those who tried to teach me to find some pleasure in work, and so to know that sweat on the brow can be a blessing as well as a curse.

As I caressed Santa Maria with water I imagined the one, after whom the boat is named, caressing her own beloved child, and finding joy in her work. Then I thought on God too, who most certainly – from time to time – cleans this ship that we are, and so I imagined God with a gracious grin and wet hands and a deep joy, and that seems to me to be about right on Mother’s Day.

Hope is Where the Heart Is

Winter arrived while we were away last weekend. We left Kitchener while the grass was yet green, but came back to 10 cm or so of snow on the lawn. This was doubled yesterday, and weather reports advise more of the same over the next few days. It’s looking like this year will be rather unlike the last, which was devoid of snow. I am happy for this, a thought discussed by my wife and I the other night on our drive home after curling. We both like our winters here. We grew up in Alberta, where the cold can be quite a bit more severe. Here there is more snow, less cold and a shorter winter. This seems amiable to us. We like four season, but are happy to avoid extremes. It is likely that our distant ancestors, from Scandinavia and environs, knew weather more like ours than that of our childhood.

We wondered what those first winters must have been like for our families – more accustomed to Danish, Western European and coastal Norwegian winters – arriving on the prairies with its sharp winters. Still, they survived and even thrived. Humans are resilient creatures, and hope for a better life pulls us through situations of all sorts. Hope is a hardy virtue.

During our last week in class, we had occasion to talk of the nature of hope, and its relation to doubt. I spoke of Paul Tillich’s insistence that certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith. This seed feel solidly in a few souls in class, and so I began to see some fruit here and there in term papers. Some students spoke, quite eloquently I might add, of their liberation in hearing this concept – new to them. One, in particular, wrote of how it helped her feel at home in her skin and make sense of scripture that was once obtuse to her. Giving a little room for not-knowing was freeing for her. I spoke recently to another student, of Rahner’s “Faith in a Wintry Season,” that speaks to the surprising persistence of faith in times that one might imagine capable of extinguishing it. Winter, was for him, a metaphor for those occasions that test faith true. Maybe that is why I am so warm on winter.

On the other hand, I am not so fond of the certainty I see in some adherents of faith. I am all for confidence, but confidence is located in the Divine while certainty, it seems, lands on the doorstep of the self. Winter is a season that points us to the Other and others. The other day, to illustrate, while snow-blowing our drive way, and the sidewalk on our half of the block, I saw many of my neighbours out assisting theirs in this way or that. Winter presses us to the necessity of looking out for the other. It is a season that announces our need, and nothing is as friendly for faith as need.

Shakespeare’s “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” points us to summer’s reprieve, but while we travel still in this winter season, we do well to let our eyes follow the soft contours of snow on snow on snow, on branches ever green. Under this wintry blanket we find that hope that does not disappoint. Hatred may rage, but hope stills us; spite alienates but faith enfolds. And in our wintry faith we find time for being , for being still, and for still being hopeful.

One Brush Stroke, One Prayer

Last Friday I took my youngest to the Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto. She was on her way back to Halifax to begin another school year in the march toward her chosen career. We were able to get away a bit early, and so avoided the ubiquitous threat of being stuck in gridlock. A turn around trip home immediately after dropping her off would have meant a plunge into the madness in reverse, and so I opted for a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I got there a bit before it opened, and so snuck into a nearby coffee shop for a quick java. The shop hosted an exhibit call “Foot by Foot.” The shop was adorned by paintings 12 inches square with three spots allotted to each artist. It was a great accompaniment to the smell of fresh coffee. I followed my cup, carried by a kindly young woman, into a “terrace” interior to the café. The sky shone from above and four brick walls framed my space, where I read a brilliant article by Rowan Williams before stepping across the street and slipping into the gallery.

I wandered around, from one gallery to the next. I popped in on a few favourites, and met some new paintings along the way. There were many visiting from galleries across the Americas to take part in the exhibit entitled “Picturing the Americas.” Some of these will be remembered by me and others not, slipping over the edge into the black hole of forgetfulness: images enjoyed in the moment and then gone.

After a while I made my way into the AGO Store. There I pondered, for a bit, buying a book on Scandinavian Design, but decided against it. The time didn’t seem right, and so I moved along. I found a little something I had pondered buying years ago, but then lost sight of and now found again. I might describe it as an art device – it goes by name “Buddha Board.” It comes with a water container/stand, a brush and a special board that turns black wherever water touches it. After a short time – one to ten minutes depending on the amount of water used – the image disappears. Slowly lines soften, and a block becomes blob and a blob becomes a fog that fades into nothing. The purpose of the board, according to its makers, is to allow the artist to “master the art of letting go.” It might do that for me. Time will tell, but I think I bought it for another purpose.

I was intrigued by the idea of having an incentive to make art close to hand in my office, either at home or at work. It will serve, hopefully, to give me occasion to use those little bits of fractured time in my day to find some unity. Life, it seems, is often a collage of splintered experiences looking for a narrative. Art might be seen as up to the task, and so is a sister to faith, which also knows of what cannot be proven but surely is worthy of a gesture to, an attempt at wholeness. It pulls together what is disparate; it wagers a narrative. Indeed, memories fade, paintings are forgotten, children fly to their future, but still, still hope announces its presence: one brush stroke, one prayer at a time.