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.

Advent Won

This last week we lit a candle in church.  Most weeks we light candles, but for those in certain Christian traditions, this last week saw the lighting of the first candle in the Advent wreath of four.  Each candle lit marks one more week of our path to Christmas.  Advent has been variously described in the church, but I like those descriptions pointing to it as a time of deep yearning: for peace, for love, for hope, for joy, and above all for the arrival of God in our lives.  In the season of advent we note that our will for what is well points us to that deepest of desires – God’s desire to be with us in even our darkest moments.

I like it that Advent occurs before the winter solstice in northern climes.  As the sun makes its way further and further down the horizon, we begin to mark these days of yearning.  In my walk home these days, I start in the light, but by the time I make it to downtown Kitchener the streetlights are on.  What I find most intriguing, however, is the number of businesses that “arrive” for my observation.  In the summer, when I walk home, many of the windows of the businesses do nothing more than reflect my image.  When I look in the windows, I see me.  But in this season of Advent, in this time of darkness, the lights in the shops flick on and when I look in the window I no longer see me, but the inner workings of this storefront or that.  I suddenly discover that there are apartments above shops; there are people busy in businesses some 5 metres from my path.  A world is at work on the other side of that mirror come window.

I suppose, in a way, this pilgrimage is a parable for faith’s journey.  It starts in the light where I see me in the mirror, and ends in the dark where I see the other as my focus becomes outward-focused.  We meander towards home, and along the way the darkness comes – but not the kind of darkness that extinguishes the light, but rather the kind that makes it finally visible.  Or better yet, it isn’t so much the light that becomes visible as what the light enlightens.  The other person, the unknown place now before my eyes as I slide from self-reflection to contemplation of God at work in the world.

Of course, I do not mean to romanticize darkness.  There is a darkness that is dangerous.  But there is also a darkness that eases the eyes, that slows the pace and focusses the gaze.   This time of the sun’s slippage is a transition time.  As the sun crosses the border of the horizon we are allowed to look into another world, and so see our own world in a new way.  I imagine that the experience of Advent in the Southern Hemisphere is rather different: rich, I am sure, in its own way.  But for me, these days of darkening are precious indeed.  I feel a little like we experience the reversal of birth.  As we light the second candle next Sunday, I will hold my breath and listen for my soul being nudged further along into the shadows, into another corner where I will see yet another sight.

Eternal Springs Hope

Last Wednesday evening my GC 101 (Christianity and Global Citizenship) class went to hear two speakers dialogue on the topic of Truth and Reconciliation after TRC.  The TRC is a commission established by the government of Canada to address the horrid legacy of Indian Residential School system and began shortly after the formal apology by the Canadian government in 2008.  The commission’s mandate was extended but will soon be complete.  Many of us are asking “What next?”  The dialogue was a propos to the topic of the class that day: Where do we find hope?

I had helped organize the dialogue, and so had some hosting responsibilities after the dialogue proper.  Consequently I had one of my colleagues take over my class until the point came when I would be able to get back.  It took twenty minutes or so and she had, in the interim, written the word “Hope” on the blackboard, and then invited students to come to the board and write words to respond to the theme of hope.  You can see the results:


When I came into the class she told me it was now up to me to make some poetry with these words, so here it goes:

How can we sing hope?

Where will we find strength to suffice?

Whence reassurance and solace for our spirit?

How can faith forge a future?

Is it possible apart from forgiveness and its revelation of revolution:

a refusal to render eye for eye?  A freedom to

love the neighbor no matter what,

no matter where?

How can we love?

Love’s continuities, love’s capabilities, love reliabilities

escape me.  I fail to love even me.  I am undone

and so only won by the One whose

promise, whose

plan place me

in the divine palm.

And there, there in the nail scars

God’s trust in me thrusts even me

into love divine,

into faith fleet of foot

into holy hope.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

This has been Luther Hostel week at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary – a week with credit and continuing education events, as well as special worship and recreation events.  Last night we had opportunity to see the documentary film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”  This movie is about groups of women, both Christian and Muslim, who worked for peace in war torn Liberia.


The story is stark, and difficult to hear: sons enslaved as soldiers, daughters raped by marauding gangs intoxicated with guns and the numbing power of drugs, mothers and fathers forced to see and hear the unspeakable, moments before their death.


I do not know so very much about this story.  The film served as a correction, even while alerting me to the fact that there is so much more to learn.  While a film such as this is disturbingly dark, it also came with moments of hope.  Seeing the women dance and sing – each turn, each stanza made into a prayer – was incredibly moving.  Hope shone through in strength of these women who refused to let the devil have the last word in their communities.  Together, in sit down strikes and stand out defiance, they turned faux peace talks into a test of accountability.


The film also chronicled the difficult task of facing former child soldiers, now young men, in this post-war situation.  We have the good fortune of having Esther and Lazarus, two church workers from Liberia, with us for a couple of months.  They were able to comment on the work being done in this area by the Lutheran Church in Liberia.  They reminded us that these former child soldiers have had their childhood robbed from them, even as they robbed life, and hope, and community from others.  In the film, some of the victims spoke of the difficult task of forgiving these.  Not all are able to do this.  I can certainly understand that.  But for those who are beginning to see their way into forgiveness, an important step was seeing them again as children rather than child soldiers.


I will never forget the strength of the women in this movie.  Their righteous anger echoed the beatitudes proclaimed by an itinerant preacher of a time long ago.  He talked of tables being turned, of the weak taking power, of the meek inheriting mantels, and the mighty being brought low.  Something of this was experienced in Liberia.  A new Reign fell upon this land.  Prayer and solidarity held hands as mercy and truth met in these strong women.  Much work remains to be done in Liberia, where our thoughts, prayers, and solidarity are coveted.  But hope is being enacted in the form of former child soldiers now learning talents and trades to contribute to a new Liberia, to a new kind of freedom.

Redeeming Winter

I thought of this title yesterday afternoon as I went for a ski. I am not a serious skier, but an eager one. Had I more time, I would strap these magical sticks to my feet more often. Given the amount of snow we have had this winter, readers might well imagine that I have spent a lot of time out skiing this year. Alas this has not been the case. It is either too cold to ski comfortably (below 20 degrees Celsius) or warm and snowing buckets of white. Alternately, it rains. Yesterday was the first day in the New Year when the stars aligned and I got out. It was glorious.

The snow has been sculpted by the wind, and as I made my way westward, cresting a hill of our local golf course, I looked down and imagined myself floating across windswept waves frozen in time. The crust of the snow looked exactly like an ocean’s break upon the shore. I suppose at some point, each molecule of water I skied across had one day crested across a shore somewhere, sometime. And the hard water that bore my skis today could vey well one day buoy my boat, and water my plants, and bathe my body. But today it struck a pose, frozen for a time.

I love to ski, but it always begins with an uphill battle. There are tasks: getting changed, prepping the skis, driving to the golf course where I ski, etc. But once I get going I feel good, very good about the decision. I imagined, yesterday, as I skied, that this experience redeems winter. There is something about getting out – especially for something fun – that reorients my attitude to winter. I appreciate its ponderous beauty in a new way, feeling included in it. Winter is no longer the enemy.

I like the ambiguity of the word “redeeming’ in my title. We can understand it verbally and imagine that winter is redeemed. But the word can also serve as an adjective describing winter: winter is a redeeming season. This too is true. Winter is the time of earth’s rest, and an invitation to all of us to slow down. The other day I was visiting with friends and we recalled rural stories of slower times in winters past. Not only the earth was rejuvenated, but the inhabitants she hosts, too, were renewed. This is lost on too many of us, and I suspect that many people’s distaste with winter has to do with unacknowledged loss of the gift of Sabbath.

Well, I always feel better after having gone skiing. This is true for so many things in life, things that are good: for us, for our beloved, for the earth. And with so many of these things we discover that curious grace, or promise, written into the logic of creation: listening to the cadence of creation is to encounter the wisdom of the Creator, calling us to be, to observe, to accept enough as enough.

Step by Stop

I’ve been walking to and from work these days, a practice that will likely continue through summer. That isn’t an especially intriguing boast. Many people walk to work and back. I suppose I could brag about the distance: just shy of 7 km each way. But people the world over walk this kind of distance out of necessity. I walk it by choice; enjoying the luxury of an hour or so of nothing to think about other than how to stay in the shade. I’m enjoying an increasing familiarity with the twin cities I call home Kitchener and Waterloo. I’m starting to recognize people on the street; the odd “Hi!” punctuating a passing by. In some ways this is an extension of the St. Olaf’s Way pilgrimage that I finished with my wife and four other fellow pilgrims a month or so ago. My walk replicates that sweet feeling of the brain emptying and the soul filling as foot follows foot repetitively; prayer in motion. But in other ways, this daily journey is altogether different. The pilgrimage was a “what’s around the corner” kind of venture; not knowing what our sleeping quarters would look like; not knowing what we would next eat, etc. My daily walk, by contrast, is rather repetitive, same streets, same businesses, same route. I am not charting new territory. I’m taking time to chart the familiar. The other day, for instance, I discovered Budds on my path.

Budds is a Kitchener institution. It is an old fashioned department store. The women’s wear is on one side, the men’s on the other, bargains are in the basement: everything in its place. The men who helped me wore dress shirts with ties and seemed to exude that measured ease of knowing how to make a sale: not too much help yet enough at just the right time. The store is 86 years old. For some reason related to parking I have never been in it. It has been in the same location since 1926, when it opened. I needed some new socks, and thought that this was a fine task to break up my walk home.

As I paid my bill, I noticed a pair of water-pipe-like tubes beside the till. “For water, perhaps?” I asked the sales clerk. He explained that they have been here for 86 years. When the store was built, the sales staff would write up the sale on a sheet of paper, add the cash rendered to the bill and put the two into a cylandrical container, which would then be deposited into what I discovered to be a “vacuum tube.” This bill and the accompanying bills would then be whisked away to the office in the back, where change would be made and returned in like manner. I asked how many years this system was used. “86” was the answer. I looked curiously at the gentleman. “It still works?” I asked. “Yes, it’s a back-up system we would not be without. It is a part of the heritage of the building and business” he said, as he gave me my change the new-fangled way. I was dumbstruck, and left the cool store to step out into the sun, reeling with the realization that there was a place in town that was not absolutely dependent on the good will of the world wide web.

I made my way home with my socks in tow and my thoughts on the past and future: what was the store like in its heyday? How often is the tubular till used? Will future owners respect this bit of the past? I was intrigued, but soon my feet found their rhythm and once again I entered that sweet trance, feeling rather like a tubular container being swept down a now vacuous King street; glad for the opportunity to have this one thing to do in this moment: to make my way home and to know it to be enough.

A Yarn to Believe

I like learning new words, new expressions.

This week, two words I knew well became altogether new to me in their pairing: yarn bombing. Yarn bombing was born some 9 years ago.

I learned of yarn bombing at the Canadian Theological Society’s meeting in Victoria.  Some younger scholars introduced me to it, and I am very glad for this.  Yarn bombing might be considered a riff on graffiti (literally, “writings”).  Most people have rather strong opinions on graffiti, and might find the comparison a bit odd at first blush.  Yarn bombers gently and generously quilt trees, plants, planters, posts, and a host of other things with beautiful wool creations.  Check out some fascinating photos here.

Yarn bombers share the vision with certain graffiti artists that public space is precisely that: public.  Both groups are convinced that space that is truly public should allow for free speech.  They just happen to think that free speech includes free expression that embraces visual forms.  Graffiti, of course, is not transient like sound and herein lays a host of problems.  Yarn, however, has the happy quality of being easily removed, and not quite as offensive as certain expressions of graffiti.  But the best of both artists – with yarn in one group of hands and spray bombs in another – challenge us to ask “Who has voice in public space?”  Is it really right that those with the most money win our time and attention?  Who decided that perversely rich companies get to bombard me with advertisements avowing wares that feed our greed for more in the very spaces set aside for free intercourse.  I realize that things are more complicated than they first appear, and that some graffiti is vandalism pure and simple, while not all commerce is corrupt.  Yet too many consider corporate North America to be virtuous at best and neutral at worst, while graffiti artists are so low as to be almost below reproach: they are to be loathed. Consequently, many folk readily identify every expression of graffiti with hooliganism even though it is sometimes publically countenanced.  When I was recently in Ottawa, my daughter Nadia, took me to a site set aside for graffiti artists.  You can see it here.

There truly is some beautiful graffiti, but it is hard for many to see beyond the preconceptions that all graffiti is illegal and so immoral.  This is why I was intrigued to learn of yarn bombing.  These young theologians, in treating the topic of yarn bombing, were asking important questions about public space, and the role of faith communities in ensuring that the public commons was not being sold to the highest bidder at the expense of our communal well being.  They claimed that everyone, none excepted, has a stake in the survival, and indeed flourishing, of places where all have voice.

Yarn bombing interestingly provokes us with comfortable matter.  It is a paradoxical prophetic word: this balm of yarn becomes a bomb – an explosion of colour inviting all to ponder whether there is a place in public space for those who otherwise have little opportunity to speak.

Cans, Mosques and Faiths

This is the annual Canstruction week in our community. For those unfamiliar with it, Canstruction is an international event in which local groups – mostly businesses but it can be other groups as well – gather together enough cans to build giant structures. In our community, these are on display in one of the local malls, and at the end of the week the food is donated to the local food bank. Their goal this year is to raise 34, 000 lbs of food for the Waterloo region. This is the 6th year of Canstruction in our community. My wife Gwenanne organizes this event. She began it during her first year of working for the Food Bank of the Waterloo Region. She works countless hours with an army of dedicated volunteers to make this happen. You can learn more about Canstruction here.

I met one of the groups supporting Canstruction last Friday. I took students from my class “Trends in Modern and Contemporary Theology” to a local mosque, the Kitchener Masjid. This week we were discussing the phenomenon of inter-religious dialogue and comparative theology. We observed Friday prayers, and afterwards chatted with the Imam, Muhammad Abulezz . This is their first year of involvement with Canstruction, but not the first year a religious group has been involved. A few years ago the youth from St. George’s Anglican youth group also built a structure. The involvement of the mosque is important because it comes from their desire to be involved in work to alleviate the ravages of poverty in our community: it represents a desire by the local Muslim community to engage their context, a theme their Imam advanced in his Friday sermon, wherein he made mention of the imperative for people of faith to work together for the good of their common community.

While we were at Friday prayers, the Imam also talked quite specifically about the importance of inter-faith dialogue. He spoke about its grounding in their religious tradition. He spoke about its possibilities and limits. He also argued quite passionately for the need for both inter-faith dialogue and intra-faith dialogue, noting that great differences exist within the Islamic community in Canada. And most importantly, he distinguished between dialogue and debate, reminding us that those who dialogue do not have the conversion of the dialogue partner as the intention of their conversation, but instead, enter the conversation with a simple openness to learn about our neighbour and discover where we can work together. It was a very interesting sermon that gave us much to think about. I think one of the most important points he underscored was that God alone knows who is right and who is wrong when it comes to things religious. I thought he made a very good case for this, even while he challenged his hearers to remember that being faithful does not preclude a religious modesty committed to embracing our neighbourhood, working with our neighbours and doing all that is in our power to make the world a more welcoming and hopeful place.

Many community groups come together in Canstruction to make this happen. I hope your week gives you opportunity to celebrate our common humanity even while we struggle to ensure that every human has food on their plate.

Richter for Reel

This last week I watched the film “Gerhard Richter Painting,” (an apt and self-interpreting title). This isn’t a film for everyone, but I was spell-bound. Richter could well be Germany’s most famous cultural export. His paintings and photo-paintings are simply sublime. From time to time, I load one of his works of art onto my computer and just stare. Objectivity likely doesn’t inform what follows.

The film chronicles Richter working on a handful of paintings, alongside of his musings about the past, and film slices from his attendance at public events. Richter appears to eschew attention throughout the film, which makes one wonder why he agreed to the project. Nonetheless, the viewer is awarded interesting insights into the mind and work of this master. At one point in the film, he is working on a piece, and then begins to pace nervously about, looking at it from different angles. It is hard to describe the look on his face: pensive, impatient, ponderous, all of these and more. He stops, and says “I don’t know what to do next.” His face is blank, having become a canvas of its own as the viewer projects his or her own moments of anxiety and failure onto this visage. He walks over to his bench and loads some blue on his spreader, but pauses saying, “It’s not working.” There is an interchange between Richter and the interviewer, during which Richter mentions the movement towards the blue was “overblown.” The interviewer asks him if it was because he was “at a loss.” Richter replies “There’s always that. That’s not the problem. It won’t work. I don’t think I can do this.” If I was his mother, I would weep watching this anguish. But I’m not his mother, I’m his fan.

Fans expect both excellence and confidence from their heroes. Richter bursts that bubble. I can’t imagine how a man who has been producing seven figure paintings for decades could ever be at loss. I imagine him being full of the confidence reflected in his paintings. But that is my vision, not his reality. Richter produces astounding works of art, but by his confession, they come from the place of being “at a loss.”

Well, his loss is my, is art’s, is the world’s gain. He injects arresting beauty into creation. It comes from a place that I too am familiar with, yet a place I try hard to hide. I scurry to bury loss deep; Richter spreads it across his canvas. I imagine certainty and clarity to be the mark of the master, but this master gropes in the dark, even while chronicling his artistic wager with creativity for all to see. In so doing, he reminds us that often the path forward is behind us; the illumined way begins in the dark; life makes its appearance in death; and faith treads the way of doubt.

Cloudy Visions

I’ve been painting clouds, and they have gotten the better of me.

I have at least three problems. The first is that if I like what I paint when it is seen up close, I don’t like it when I stand at a distance. The second problem is that if I like what I paint when seen from a distance, I don’t like what I see up close. The third problem is that I’m not really that fond of my results either up close or at a distance. Plus, I am ever wiping my brow in exasperation or ponderously stroking my chin and so get paint on my face!

But I’m having fun all the same. In fact, yesterday evening I painted for close to three hours and it was as five minutes. It seems to me that in some ways painting is a parable of a life of faith.

On the one hand, we like to “see” God up close and personal: a face to face God who will speak to us of unconditional love, and remind us that this divine presence is ever beside us. This is a God near and dear to us. But sometimes we want a God who is powerful and transcendent: a God who can set the world right. But then I remember that setting the world right means setting me right too, and I’m not necessarily so thrilled with that vision.

It seems that it is as hard to speak “God” as it is to paint clouds. Yet I persist at both, and in speaking God I join a host of others across denominations, and lands, and tongues, and creeds. Why? Because God is a “mystery” in the best sense of the word and mysteries draw us in by ever evoking in us a posture of curiosity. God is not a riddle to be solved but an adventure to be lived. The more we know God, the more we know we don’t know God and that is a humbling, yet strangely fulfilling knowing. In fact, it gives us the freedom to admit our ignorance; it frees us to try and to fail; it encourages us to persist in faith rather than certainty. A life of faith means that ignorance is strangely now a virtue rather than a vice.

I suppose, in some ways, I experience the same when I venture in paints all the while allowing myself to fail. When I let go of the need to be perfect, I enjoy the journey as much as, if not more than, the destination, and along the way I have the joy of messy fun. In some ways, the life of creativity and the life of the Creator meet in mystery, curiosity, and sheer joy. May your New Year be full of such graces!